Soldier, p.22
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       Soldier, p.22

         Part #3 of Talon series by Julie Kagawa
 
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  “Probably one of ours,” Riley growled. “And it gives the contact full credibility because St. George doesn’t know there’s a difference between us and Talon. All dragons are the same to them. So the Order goes to kill a dragon, a rogue is slaughtered and Talon wins all around.”

  “And the Patriarch is now in league with the organization,” I finished softly. There were other recordings on the drive, but I didn’t need to listen to them to know how they would play out. Unable to resist, the Patriarch would continue to meet with the mysterious agent, who would continue to provide intelligence about the locations of other dragons. And the Patriarch would send St. George after them, killing off a rogue or another dragon Talon wanted out of the way. Not knowing that with every death, he was entrenching himself further into Talon’s machinations. Until one day, the agent would reveal who he really worked for, and the Patriarch would be trapped. St. George would not care that Talon was using the Patriarch to kill more dragons. They wouldn’t care that he had been duped by the organization, and he would never have taken the offer had he known. All they would see was the Patriarch’s corruption. He was working for Talon, accepting money from the Order’s greatest enemy. The highest of betrayals. If this evidence became known to St. George, they would kill him.

  And that was exactly what we had to make happen.

  “Well,” Riley said, and the undertone of satisfied glee in his voice made me wince. “I’d say we have a pretty damning case against the Patriarch, wouldn’t you agree, St. George? If the Order doesn’t flip their shit when they find out, we’re all screwed. Only question is, how are we going to get it to them? I doubt they’re going to let us stroll up and knock on their front door.”

  “I might be able to send it to them electronically,” Wes offered.

  “No.” I shook my head. “Within the Order, the Patriarch’s word is absolute. And anything that comes in from the outside is subject to immediate suspicion. The Order knows Talon and how they work. We can’t take the chance that they might destroy the evidence, or that someone might warn the Patriarch. We have to make sure this is known to all of St. George. And that means we’re going to need someone on the inside.” I paused, knowing Riley wouldn’t like this, then added, “We have to meet with the Order, face-to-face, and show them the evidence ourselves. It’s the only way to be sure they understand it.”

  “And how are we supposed to do that, exactly?” Riley demanded. “St. George isn’t going to listen to us, much less agree to a meeting where they’re not slaughtering everyone there. A group of dragons and the guy on their most-wanted hit list right now? We could be offering them the Ark of the Covenant, and they’d still pump us full of holes the second they see us. Unless you’ve got a completely insane trick up your sleeve, I don’t see how we’re going to get any of them to stop murdering us long enough to pay attention.”

  I sighed. I could think of one person in St. George who might be willing to listen. It would be a gamble; he hated me now, thinking I’d turned on him and the Order to side with the dragons. The fight outside the laboratory certainly hadn’t helped. He saw me as the enemy, and I was fairly certain that he would have killed me back there, sliced my throat open, if I’d let him. Even if he’d regretted it later, he was a soldier of St. George, and duty was everything to him. I wasn’t entirely certain I wouldn’t walk into an ambush and be shot dead before I even laid eyes on my former partner.

  But I had few options, and this had to be done. Andrew had said there were those in the Order who were sympathetic to me, but Andrew was oceans away, too far to do anything. And he’d said flat out that he wouldn’t touch anything to do with the Patriarch. Tristan was the only one close enough to help. If he decided to help. I only hoped our past friendship, brotherhood and the times we’d saved each other’s lives would be enough for him to give me the benefit of the doubt and not shoot me in the head the first chance he got.

  “I know someone,” I said, feeling a heavy weight settle on me for what I had to do. “It’ll be a risk, contacting him, but I don’t have a better choice. He’s the only one in St. George who might agree to a meeting.”

  “Might?” Riley echoed, crossing his arms. “What you’re really saying is, he might agree to a meeting, but he also might tell everyone in St. George so they can be lying in ambush when we show up.”

  “Not we,” I said. “Me. He’ll never agree to it otherwise. I have to meet Tristan alone.”

  SEBASTIAN

  Three years ago.

  “Garret Xavier Sebastian, I’d like you to meet your squad mate, Tristan St. Anthony. St. Anthony, say hello to your new partner.”

  I observed the soldier who stood at the foot of the bed, keeping the practiced blank expression on my face as he looked me up and down. I could see the skepticism in his eyes, in the single raised brow he arched in my direction, and stared coolly back, one hand on the strap of my bag. I was fourteen years old, fresh out of boot and had graduated basic training one week ago. At eighteen, Tristan St. Anthony was lean and tall, with short black hair and cynical blue eyes. He had been on several strikes and was making a name for himself in the ranks, but four months ago, tragedy struck when his last partner was caught in a line of dragonfire and killed. St. Anthony had had to wait until they found him a new partner to get back in the field. I imagined he’d been impatient to return to the war, but from his reaction, I was obviously not what he’d been expecting.

  “I expect you to show him the ropes, St. Anthony,” Lieutenant Martin said to Tristan, the hint of a smile on his weathered face. “Show him what we stand for. Can you do that?” St. Anthony gave a brisk “Yes, sir!” and Martin clapped me on the shoulder.

  “Welcome to the war, soldier,” he said and left the barracks, striding away without looking back. I watched him go, then stepped around the cot and swung my pack to the thin mattress.

  I could feel St. Anthony’s eyes on me as I unzipped the bag and started unpacking, moving everything to the footlocker at the foot of the bed. The container was small, but I didn’t have much to begin with.

  “So. You’re him.”

  St. Anthony’s voice was mocking. I glanced at him, seeing his dark stare as he leaned against the wall and watched me. His lips were now twisted into a faint smirk.

  “I’ve heard of you,” the other soldier went on. “The prodigy. Martin’s favorite little recruit.” I didn’t answer, continuing to unpack my things. “So they’ve decided to let you tag along with the real soldiers, huh? And I’m the lucky guy who gets to babysit.”

  “Do you have a problem with me?” I asked, looking him in the eye. I was the youngest recruit in recent history to graduate basic training, but only by a year or two. It wasn’t that uncommon for soldiers to join the ranks at fifteen. I didn’t know what St. Anthony’s issue was with me, but it couldn’t be just my age.

  “Not yet.” The other soldier continued to lean against the wall, arms crossed. “I will have one the first time you see a dragon, piss your pants and run in the opposite direction. Or freeze up and get your head bitten off.”

  “I’ve been trained for this,” I said firmly. “I’m not afraid of dragons.”

  “That’s what they all say, until they see one rip through a man’s guts like paper. Or blast a line of soldiers into charcoal. The real war out there?” His eyes narrowed, appraising me. “It’s nothing like training. It’s bloody and crazy and scary as shit. Underestimate a lizard, and you’ll be a pile of ashes on the ground. There won’t even be enough left to bury.” He pushed himself upright, glaring down at me. “So, I need to know that you will actually back me up when I need it, that you’ll do your job when it starts getting hot. My last partner died for this cause. If the Order calls for it, I damn well hope you’ll do the same.”

  “You’re not telling me anything new.” I straightened, meeting his glare. “I know what’s expected. And I know everyo
ne is watching me. They’re all waiting to see if I perform as Martin hopes, or if I fail and get myself torn to pieces by a lizard. So why don’t you save the lecture until after I’ve screwed up? If I’m still alive.” He blinked, and I threw back my own smirk. “Maybe I’ll surprise you.”

  My partner snorted. “We’ll see,” he replied.

  * * *

  One month later, we did.

  I stood with my back against the door frame, on point, watching the soldier across from me prepare to kick in the door. Around us, the woods were eerily silent, a damp mist hanging in the air and creeping along the ground. The cabin was tucked away in a remote section of forest, no roads, no civilization for miles. According to intel, there were two Talon agents living here. A middle-aged, human male servant...and a Sleeper. One of the evil lizards themselves.

  My heart beat faster, and I took a furtive breath to calm it. I’d be facing a real dragon soon. The moment I’d trained for my entire life was here. I was ready. I wasn’t afraid. Starting today, I would begin to avenge my parents, and anyone else whose life had been ruined by Talon. And I wouldn’t stop until every one of the fire-breathing demons was dead, or I was.

  The soldier across from me held up three fingers, and I gripped my M4, feeling my muscles tense. Behind me, I felt Tristan do the same. Three, he mouthed. Two...one!

  The door exploded inward, and we lunged inside, sweeping our rifles around the room. My finger tightened on the trigger, ready to shoot anything that moved, dragon or human. We couldn’t hesitate to wonder if the person in our sights was a Sleeper or a normal human. If they were found in the target’s nest, they were with the enemy. They’d been corrupted, working for Talon, which made them just as guilty as the lizards themselves. If you had to shoot a Talon servant to get to the dragon controlling him, then so be it.

  But the room we crashed into was silent and dark, devoid of life. I scanned the walls and the corners with the rest of the squad, ready to fire if anything leaped out at us or bolted for the door. Nothing did, though I saw a half-full beer bottle on the counter and the sink was full of dishes, so the cabin wasn’t abandoned. They wouldn’t have been able to sneak out, either. One of the Order’s snipers, a soldier named Jacobs, was watching the doors and windows a half mile back, so anyone fleeing the cabin would be shot down before they got a dozen feet.

  The squad leader, a square-jawed man by the name of Talbot, caught my eye and pointed two fingers down the hall. I nodded, moving up to guard his back. Silently, we checked the rest of the house, sweeping the bedrooms, bathroom and office, on high alert for something to lunge through the doorway at us. All the rooms were dark and still, but my nerves jangled with every door we came to, raising the hairs on the back of my neck. Something was here, and it was close. I didn’t know how I knew this; I just did.

  “Dammit,” Talbot breathed after we had checked all the rooms and had come up empty. “Where are they? They couldn’t have flown off, Jacobs would’ve seen them.”

  Flown off. I frowned, thinking. The dragon wasn’t here, and it couldn’t fly away. What if it had used another escape route? What if it had gone down instead of up?

  “Sir,” I ventured, and Talbot glanced at me. “Could there be a basement or a cellar? A place the targets could retreat to without being seen?”

  He nodded briskly. “Search the place again,” he barked at the rest of us. “Look for stairs or a trapdoor—anything that could lead underground.” He gave me an approving nod as I turned away. “Good thinking, Sebastian.”

  I caught Tristan’s gaze as we left the room; he rolled his eyes and headed into the master bedroom.

  “What?” I challenged after we’d made certain the room was still empty.

  “Nothing,” my partner replied. “It’s just...this whole storming the house and breaking down doors thing. It’s getting kinda old.” He paused at the entrance to the closet, one hand on the knob, and gestured me forward. I crept up and pointed my gun at the door. At my nod, Tristan flung the door back, and I tensed, ready to fire if anything came leaping out at us. But the closet, save for a few tattered jackets and shirts, was empty.

  Tristan sighed. “See, this isn’t my thing,” he muttered as we scanned the floor and walls of the closet, searching for latches or hidden doors. “I mean, I’m a decent shot up close, but I don’t really like things jumping out of closets and melting my face off.”

  “You’re scared of the lizards?” I asked scornfully.

  He sneered. “Damn straight I am. And any soldier who’s seen real action will tell you the same, or they’re lying through their teeth. So don’t get all high-and-mighty on me, rookie. Not when you’ve yet to fire a single bullet at a live target. Talk to me when you’ve actually killed something.” He glared at me and moved to the bed to lift the covers with the rifle barrel, while I knelt and peered beneath the frame. No dragons lurking under the mattress, and no signs of a trapdoor, either. I straightened and shook my head.

  “Besides,” Tristan went on, letting the covers drop. “I didn’t say I wanted to stop fighting. I hate the lizards as much as anyone, and any day I can put a bullet between their eyes is a good one in my book. I just feel my talents are being wasted on the front line. I’m a much better shot when I have the chance to breathe and actually aim at what I’m trying to hit.”

  “Apply for sniper training, then,” I muttered. “Seems like an easy solution to me, since you don’t like being down here with the rest of the grunts.”

  “Actually,” Tristan said smugly, “I already have.”

  Frowning, I looked back at him. He smirked. “I start at the end of the month,” he announced. “But don’t worry, rookie—as long as neither of us gets our head bitten off, we’ll still be partners. You can go charging in, guns blazing, with the rest of the grunts, and I’ll be watching your back. From about a thousand meters.”

  “Yeah?” I stepped away from the bed, not knowing how I felt about this announcement. “Well, don’t let me stop you,” I said, walking across the rug, back toward the bedroom door. “If you want to hide in the back and take potshots, that’s your—”

  I stopped. Part of the floor beneath my boots had shifted slightly, a faint creak rising from beneath the rug. I stomped down, and heard a hollow, rattling thump, like the boards underneath weren’t entirely solid.

  We pulled back the rug. Beneath it lay a square section of floor that had obviously been cut out and replaced. Grabbing the rope handle, I yanked it back, revealing a trapdoor with a steel ladder going down into the dark.

  “Bingo,” Tristan breathed.

  A minute later, the whole squad was assembled at the bottom of the ladder, our tactical lights scanning what looked to be a cave tunnel, natural stone walls and rocky floors snaking away into the black.

  “All right,” Talbot murmured, his voice echoing down the corridor. “Everyone, stay alert. We have them on the run, and the most dangerous lizard is a trapped, cornered lizard. We don’t want to be ambushed down here.”

  He took point, and we followed the escape tunnel, the only sounds the scuffle of our boots on the rock and the drip of water somewhere overhead. Except for our lights, it was pitch-black, and at times the passageway narrowed to spots where we had to proceed single file, our helmets brushing the ceiling as we passed.

  “Shit,” Talbot breathed from up front. I peered over Tristan’s shoulder and saw the tunnel had split, veering off in two different directions.

  “Dammit.” Talbot shone his light down one passage, then the other. “All right, looks like we have no choice. Sebastian, St. Anthony, take the left tunnel. Clement, you’re with me. We can’t let the targets escape. Just...be careful, you two,” he added as Tristan and I headed toward the leftmost tunnel. “Radio us if you find the target, but do what you have to do. Good hunting, and take care of the greenie, St. Anthony.”

  “Roger th
at,” Tristan muttered as we passed. “See you on the other side.”

  We followed the tunnel for several silent minutes, our flashlight beams sliding over rocks and limestone and the occasional puddle. Sometimes we had to duck to avoid the low ceiling, and at one point, the roof dropped so low, we had to proceed in a crouch. I tried not to imagine what would happen if a dragon ambushed us here, in a cramped stone hallway, with nowhere to turn or hide if it was suddenly filled with dragonfire.

  I was relieved when the tunnel opened up into a large cavern, stalagmites and rocky outcroppings jutting from the floor. Stalactites hung from the ceiling like stony fangs, dripping icy water into the puddles at our feet. At the far end of the room, a thread of sunlight slanted across the floor from between a large pile of rocks. Tristan nodded, and we approached cautiously, guns at the ready, until we came to the base of the pile. Looking up, I could see the glimmer of light between the stones, flickers of open air and the outside world.

  “Huh,” my partner murmured, sweeping his light over the rocks. “Looks like there was an opening here at one point, probably the cave entrance. Most likely, the targets were hoping to escape this way, but weren’t expecting the cave-in.” He shone his light on a pile of rocks that looked like it had been recently disturbed, perhaps frantically cast aside. His voice turned hard. “But, if that’s the case...”

  He spun, just as a dark shape popped from behind a shadowy crag and fired on us, gunshots flaring white in the near blackness. I felt something slam into my combat armor, rocking me back a step. In the two seconds it took for me to regroup, Tristan had raised his weapon and opened fire. The roar of his assault rifle filled the chamber, a deafening cacophony of light, sparks and chaos, before everything faded into silence once more.

  Tristan waited a moment, keeping his gun trained on the shadows, before nodding to me. Carefully, I approached the spot the shots had come from, finger curled around the trigger, ready to fire again if needed. I saw a shape on the ground between two boulders and shone my light between them, revealing a middle-aged human male in civilian clothes, blood streaming from his chest and forehead, his eyes staring out at nothing. A heavy pistol was clutched in one limp hand.

 
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