Soldier, p.21
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       Soldier, p.21

         Part #3 of Talon series by Julie Kagawa
 
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  “Ex-Agent Cobalt,” the old said abruptly, making my blood chill. “I would advise that you lower your weapon.” From the corner of my eye, I saw that Riley had his gun drawn, but his face was pale. “I’d rather not have to Shift,” the old man went on. “It’s very cramped, and I would spend days trying to reorganize everything again. My assistants would be quite unhappy. Right now you are in no danger. I only wish to have a conversation, like civilized people. So please, Ember Hill...” He smiled, and I trembled as those ancient eyes flickered back to me. He knew my name. He’d known who we all were, from the start. “Behave yourself in my Vault. You know you are no match for me.” He twisted Garret’s arm, and the soldier’s jaw tightened in pain, though he didn’t make a sound. My pulse spiked, and I bit down a gasp. “Don’t make me tear out this human’s throat and destroy you all.”

  I shared a desperate glance with Riley. He looked stunned and grim, but after a moment, lowered his weapon and raised both arms to signal compliance.

  “All right,” I told the old man as I turned back. “You’ve made your point. We won’t fight you, just let him go.”

  “A wise decision, hatchling.”

  He released Garret and shoved him at me. I caught the soldier as he staggered, supporting him as his shoulders heaved with raspy coughs, feeling his heart race. Mine picked up, too, desperate relief flooding me as his hands closed on my arms.

  “You okay?” I whispered.

  “Yes,” he rasped, and straightened slowly. For a moment, our eyes met, and I saw a glimmer of longing in them, making my heart skip. I didn’t want to let him go, but Garret drew back, and I dropped my arms as we turned to face our opponent.

  The old man calmly regarded the gun in his fingers, then placed it on the shelf beside him. “Now, then.” Dusting off his hands, he smiled at us. “Here you all are. I will say, your break in to my Vault was amusing, if ill-advised. And yes, I know about your human hacker friend lurking in my office. Did you really think you could sneak past me?”

  “Who are you?” Riley growled, easing closer to Garret and me. His tone was defiant, but I heard the faint tremor below the surface, and knew he was fighting a battle within, too.

  The other sighed. “You know who I am, ex-Basilisk Cobalt.”

  “I know what you are,” Riley answered. “But I don’t believe we’ve had the pleasure of meeting. And I think I’d remember if I was introduced to a Wyrm.”

  A Wyrm. I shivered. So it was true, then. The Wyrms were the oldest and most powerful entities in Talon, dragons who had lived for over a thousand years. Not counting the Elder Wyrm itself, there were only three of them living in the world today. To meet a Wyrm...that was like running into a celebrity. An extremely dangerous, powerful celebrity who could swallow you whole with scarcely a thought. Actually, it was more like meeting a fickle, unpredictable demigod and hoping you could sneak away without getting changed into a pile of ashes.

  “You don’t need to know my name,” the Wyrm stated calmly. “I’ve had several spoken names throughout the centuries, but for now, you may call me by my title—the Archivist. And this—” he gestured around him “—is my lair, my kingdom. Nothing escapes me here. I guard all of Talon’s greatest secrets, from the time the organization was founded to now. I know every nook and corner. I have memorized every shelf, and every piece of information sitting upon it. I can recite every document in this place by heart, and tell you the date it was written. And in the long, long years I have been doing this, not so much as a sticky note has been stolen from the Vault.” He glanced at Riley, the hint of a smile playing over his thin lips. “Didn’t count on me, did you, ex-Agent Cobalt? Frankly, I’m rather disappointed. The Chief Basilisk once said you were his brightest student. You should have known Talon would not leave one of their greatest treasure hoards unguarded.”

  My heart sank, but I took a deep breath and stepped forward, bringing the ancient dragon’s attention to me. “We need that evidence,” I said firmly, trying not to cower as those silvery eyes shifted, regarding me without emotion. My dragon shrank back, making me want to do the same, but I took a deep breath and stood firm. “We’re not leaving without it, no matter what you say. But you haven’t killed us yet, so I’m guessing you need something, too.”

  The Archivist actually chuckled. “I see you are as defiant and reckless as they say, hatchling,” he said, making me frown. “But it appears you do actually have a head on your shoulders, after all. The apple does not fall far from the tree, it seems.

  Another stab of shock. Did he know my parents? I wanted to ask, but the Wyrm’s next sentence froze the question in my throat.

  “I could kill the lot of you,” he went on, as both Garret and Riley tensed. “That is what Talon would expect, and none of you could stop me. I could destroy the soldier of St. George, crush the outlaw dragon and his rogue underground, and deliver Ms. Hill safely back to the organization. That would certainly please Talon, and the Elder Wyrm.”

  He paused, watching our reactions, probably enjoying himself as we held our breaths and waited. If he decided to Shift and kill us, there was zilch we could do to stop him. I wasn’t exactly sure how big a legendary Wyrm could get, but I did know our pistol rounds would be as effective as spitballs against a dragon that size. Our only prayer would be to scatter and hope we could lose him in the labyrinth of aisles through the Vault. Maybe he was so big, he’d have a hard time navigating the maze, like a human trying to catch a mouse hiding in a woodpile. Though that wasn’t a very comforting thought.

  “Yes,” the Archivist went on, nodding thoughtfully. “That would please the Elder Wyrm indeed.” He paused for one more heartbeat, then smiled. “Fortunately for you, I am not that interested in currying favor with our esteemed leader. Especially since it was the Elder Wyrm who trapped me here in the first place.”

  I blinked. “You’re a prisoner?” I asked. That was hard to accept. Unless I was missing something, I didn’t see how an iron door and a handful of guards could stop an ancient Wyrm from walking out if he didn’t want to be here. “Why don’t you just leave?”

  “There are two type of cages, hatchling,” the Archivist said, holding up a bony finger. “One is where you have no choice in the matter. The door is locked, and your freedom has been forcibly taken from you. But the other is where you become a willing captive, caging yourself, because the alternative is not acceptable.

  “I am the second oldest dragon in Talon,” he went on, and I heard an awed exhale of breath from Riley. “Second only to the Elder Wyrm, technically. There is...one...other older than me, but he fled the organization many years ago and never surfaced again. Within the organization, at least, I am the Elder Wyrm’s strongest rival. So, I was placed here—” he indicated the walls around us “—to guard Talon’s greatest secrets. To possess a wealth of knowledge, yet never be able to use it. If I leave now, I’d declare myself rogue and be cast from the organization, and then the Elder Wyrm would be free to come after me full force.” The Archivist gave a rueful, bitter smile. “So you see, it is safer for me here. The Vault is both my kingdom and my prison. It is an honor and a punishment at the same time.”

  I felt a small flicker of hope, and leaned forward, heart pounding. “Then...does that mean you’ll let us take the evidence against the Patriarch?”

  “Don’t jump to conclusions, hatchling.” He sniffed, and his eyes glittered as he speared me with a glare. “Make no mistake, if you had come here for any other reason, we would not be having this conversation. The human would be a pile of ashes on the floor, the rogue would be scattered in little bloody strips through the aisles and you, my dear, would be on your way back to the organization.”

  “But?” I prodded.

  He sighed. “But...the Elder Wyrm decided to pursue this disgraceful partnership with St. George, and I find myself vastly annoyed.” His lip curled in distaste. “Bad enough that we mu
st hide our true selves from the throngs of human vermin. Now the Elder Wyrm forges an alliance with the very ones who nearly hunted us to extinction? Pah.” He made a disgusted gesture. “We are dragons. We do not need the Order’s help, for anything. It is shameful that Talon has come to this.

  “I cannot strike at the Elder Wyrm directly,” the Archivist went on. “Such action would be treasonous to Talon, and I would never do anything to jeopardize the safety of the organization. However...” He eyed us intently, lowering his voice. “If a single small box, one among millions, vanished from the shelves, well...” He smiled without humor. “No one but I would ever know it was missing.”

  Riley drew in a slow breath. “You’ll let us go,” he confirmed, sounding like he could hardly believe it. “With the evidence that the Patriarch is working with Talon. You won’t try to stop us.”

  “St. George is a black stain upon our organization,” the Archivist responded. “A diseased limb that must be cut off, not strengthened. If we are to rule this world, if dragons are to subjugate the humans as we were always meant to do, we cannot have the Order attached to us in any way.”

  I shifted uncomfortably, but the Archivist didn’t seem to notice my unease. “Regardless, there are others within Talon who believe as I do,” the ancient dragon went on. “Who are not happy with this alliance and believe it is a disgrace to collaborate with the Order, but we dare not speak against the organization or the Elder Wyrm. So be it.” His voice took on an almost vindictive tone. “The Elder Wyrm is not the only one who makes deals under the table. If I must turn a blind eye to our transactions with St. George, I can turn a blind eye to other things, as well.

  “Now,” he continued, again clasping his hands before him. “I believe this conversation is over, and I have a lot of work to do...and several bodies to clean up. My assistants are not going to be pleased.” He pointed to a small, plain box stuck between two larger but equally indistinguishable boxes on the bottom shelf. “The information you seek is there. There should be more than enough evidence for you to horrify and outrage the Order of St. George. Oh, and one more thing, Ember Hill.”

  I’d started to reach for the box, but stopped and glanced back at him when I heard my name. He gave me a chilling, mirthless smile. “Try not to die,” he said, to my extreme confusion and shock. “If you manage to survive, it will be vastly amusing to see you take on the Elder Wyrm. If that ever happens, know that the entire dragon world will be watching you.”

  “What? What are you talking about?”

  But he only chuckled and walked away, not looking back. Turning a corner, the ancient Wyrm and the third oldest dragon in existence...disappeared.

  GARRET

  “Bloody hell,” Wes breathed, sifting through various documents. “Talon sure doesn’t do things half-assed, do they?”

  We had left the library a couple hours ago, fleeing the Vault and the ancient Wyrm dragon without incident. No one tried to stop us as we walked out, though I did see the desk clerk glaring at us, and me in particular, as we left the building. Now back in our hotel room, we were all crowded around the bed, watching as Riley began pulling the contents from the cardboard box and setting them on the mattress one by one.

  Bank statements. Store receipts. Printed transcripts of conversations. Pictures of the Patriarch with the man I’d seen in the park, in different locations throughout London. All incriminating. All revealing, beyond any doubt, that the Patriarch was meeting with people outside the Order and getting paid for it.

  I clenched my jaw, staring at a picture of him in a crowded restaurant, taking an envelope from the Talon agent across the table. Though I was no longer a soldier of the Order, the anger and feeling of betrayal still stung. He was the Patriarch, the supposedly incorruptible leader of St. George. And yet, here I was, staring at pages upon pages of evidence against him, proof that he was just a man, after all. It wasn’t even the fact that he’d taken money from Talon that bothered me. I’d already known the Patriarch was involved. I just wished I knew why.

  “Garret? You okay?”

  I glanced at Ember, who was sitting on the bed with a stack of pictures in hand. Wes and Riley had moved to the desk and were pouring over another sheaf of documents, muttering to each other and shaking their heads. I was the only one not looking at the evidence, the proof that not only had my Order betrayed me but the man I used to respect above all was just as bad as Talon.

  With a sigh, I stepped around the bedpost and sat next to Ember, resting my elbows on my knees. Her arm brushed against mine, and my heartbeat quickened. “I’ve been better,” I admitted softly.

  “At least we’re still all here.”

  “That is true.” I glanced at her and felt an ache bloom in my chest. Her eyes were somber, the shadow of something dark lurking behind them. She was no longer the bright, carefree girl I had met in Crescent Beach; death had changed her, hardened her, as I knew it had to. I could sense the lingering guilt and sorrow for what she had done, and I would guess she suffered from nightmares sometimes, if dragons were able to dream. I had seen that expression before, in soldiers who had been through their first battle and were starting to realize what war was really about.

  My throat felt dry, remembering her face when the Wyrm dragon finally let me go. The way she’d looked at me, fearful and relieved... Did she still care? Could she care, or was I fooling myself again?

  “What about you?” I asked. “I know this hasn’t been easy. How are you holding up?”

  Ember held my gaze, and for a moment, the world went still. I could see my reflection in her eyes, feel the brush of her arm against mine, making my skin prickle. Then she gave a faint smile and everything unfroze. “There’s a massive elder dragon underneath Chicago, Garret,” she said in a half teasing, half awed voice. “Kinda makes you wonder what else is lurking down there. I might never sleep again.”

  “It puts the ‘gators in the sewers’ legend to shame, doesn’t it?” Riley said, walking back to the bed. He shot us a glance, and there was the barest hint of a warning in his eyes, before he turned and began sifting through the box again. Ember, I noted, didn’t move from her place beside me, but I refused to hope that it could mean anything. I had dared to hope before, and had been crushed like an egg in the jaws of a dragon.

  “Well, well,” Riley muttered, pulling out an envelope. Recorded meetings was scrawled across the front, with a series of dates below. “What do we have here?” With a shake, he turned the envelope upside down, and a thumb drive slid out into his palm.

  “Ooh,” Wes exclaimed, perking immediately. “I’ll take that, thank you.”

  Plucking the drive from Riley’s palm, he hurried to his computer. The rest of us followed, encircling the desk as Wes sat down, opened the laptop and shoved the drive into the side slot.

  A black rectangle flickered to life on-screen, accompanied by the sound of static. Then the sound of footsteps echoed from the computer, and the rustle of fabric as someone sat down.

  “Thank you for meeting me like this,” said a voice, unfamiliar to me. “I assume you got my message? Was the tip I sent you about...certain targets, correct?”

  “Who are you?” replied a second voice, deep and instantly familiar. I straightened quickly, and felt everyone in the room hold their breath, as if they were really there, watching it happen.

  “A concerned citizen,” replied the first voice. “Who, unfortunately, knows a little too much. A human who wants to save our race from the tyranny of monsters.”

  “How do you know of us?” the Patriarch asked, his voice suddenly cold. “Do you work for them?” My skin prickled, knowing what would happen if the man said yes. The Order did not bargain with Talon employees, even human ones. Even ones that wanted out. St. George believed that to be in the dragon’s employ meant that the human’s soul was hopelessly corrupted, and Talon was devious enough to tr
y to send in spies to infiltrate the Order, something they could not afford, for any reason.

  “No,” the other said quickly, as if he knew this, too. “I’ve never worked for them. Talon doesn’t even know about me. Let’s just say I’m a...freelance investigator who had something precious stolen away by monsters. Surely you can understand that. After all, most of your own can relate, am I right?” He paused, as if gauging the other’s response, before continuing. “Look, I know you have no reason to trust me. I could be a spy for them or whatever. But I’ll prove to you I’m not. I happen to know where you can find one of the bastards. And if you can take it out, I’ll make a generous donation to your Order.”

  “I’m sorry,” said the Patriarch, “but our Order does not work with outsiders who are simply out for revenge. Nor are we common assassins. I sympathize with your loss, but if you contact me again, I will have to take sterner measures against you.”

  “It’s not assassination if they’re not human, Patriarch,” the man replied, his voice pitched very low. “And I thought your Order was bound to kill these things wherever and whenever they pop up. Well, I’m telling you where one has popped up.” There was a hiss of paper, as if he’d slid an envelope or a folded-up letter across the table. “I can make your war with these things a lot easier,” he went on. “Just think about it.”

  “This conversation is over,” said the Patriarch, and he stood. But there was a brief rustle as he picked something up from the tabletop. “Good day to you, sir.” We listened to his footsteps walk away, but the recording didn’t stop. After about a minute of silence, Wes moved to hit Forward, when the voice came again, low and furtive, as if speaking into a phone.

  “This is Walker. The Patriarch has taken the bait. Move on to phase two.”

  “Bloody hell,” Wes remarked as the recording came to an end. “So that’s how they did it. Sodding ingenious, that. Offer up the one thing St. George can’t ignore, the location of a dragon, and make sure the Patriarch is the only one to know about it.”

 
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