Soldier, p.23
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       Soldier, p.23

         Part #3 of Talon series by Julie Kagawa
 
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  “Dead?” Tristan called from where he stood behind me.

  I lowered my gun. “Yeah,” I muttered, turning away so that I wouldn’t have to see those blank, accusing eyes. Not out of sorrow or guilt; he was a dragon servant and would have killed us if he could. But I hadn’t been ready, and that made me furious with myself. I’d been taken off guard, surprised in this dark hole, and that could not ever happen again.

  “Good.” Tristan lowered his gun, as well. “Search the place,” he ordered. “There might still be servants lurking around, or the dragon could be nearby. Though if it hasn’t shown itself by now—”

  There was a ripple above him, a slither of movement in the dark, making my blood chill. I pointed my light toward the ceiling and, for a split second, saw something big and scaly wrapped around a stalactite, leathery wings spread to either side.

  “Tristan, above you!” I shouted, just as a gout of flame descended from the ceiling, lighting up the whole cavern. Tristan threw himself aside, barely avoiding being incinerated, and the thing dropped onto him with a scream. It wasn’t a large dragon—the size of a cougar—but even hatchlings were deadly if they closed on you. Tristan flipped to his back, managing to get his gun between himself and the dragon as the monstrous lizard snapped and tore at him, beating its wings furiously. I raised my weapon, trying to find a clear shot, but Tristan and the dragon were too entwined. I didn’t want to risk hitting my partner, but if I didn’t do something, I would watch him get ripped to pieces in front of me.

  Dropping the rifle, I snatched the combat knife from my belt and charged the huge lizard. I didn’t really know what I was planning to do, but as I drew close to the shrieking, flapping, clawing mass of human and dragon, I raised the blade and slammed it into the monster’s side, sinking it between the ribs.

  It spun on me with a shriek. I caught a split-second glimpse of its yellow eyes, wide with pain and rage, before it bared its fangs and lunged at me, jaws gaping. I staggered back, instinctively throwing up an arm, and felt a blaze of pain as rows of razor-sharp teeth clamped shut on my forearm. The dragon snarled and savaged the limb, biting and chewing, digging its fangs in deeper. As we tumbled to the ground, I snatched my sidearm from my belt, rammed the muzzle into the dragon’s side and emptied the magazine into the scaly body.

  The dragon jerked, shuddering. For a second we lay there, me on my back beneath a dragon, its fangs sunk deep into my arm. Then, those jaws slowly loosened, and the dragon made a strangled sound as it collapsed, its head hitting the ground just a few inches from mine. I glanced over and saw its eyes staring at me, bright and glassy, the spark of life slowing fading. For a moment, it didn’t look angry or enraged; it looked terrified, confused. It made a faint whimpering sound in the back of its throat, as blood streamed from its nose and jaws. Then the slitted pupil rolled up, staring at the ceiling, and didn’t move again.

  “Garret!”

  Tristan strode up and shoved the scaly green body off me with his boot. It rolled limply into a puddle, jaws open, still gazing at nothing. My partner loomed overhead, peering down with piercing, anxious eyes. His face was bloody, and the front of his combat vest was torn to strips, but he didn’t appear seriously hurt.

  “Dammit, Sebastian,” he snapped as I struggled into a sitting position, which might’ve been a mistake. My arm blazed with agony, and I gritted my teeth, cradling the injured limb to my chest. A quick glance down made my stomach turn: my wrist and forearm had been shredded, blood soaked my mangled glove and dripped to the ground. Tristan swore again and knelt beside me. Pulling his own knife, he began cutting the sleeve from my arm, peeling back the fabric to reveal the length of ravaged skin. Rows of puncture wounds and several deep gashes oozed blood everywhere, and a patch of skin near my wrist was red and shiny, indicating it had been burned as well, as the gases emanating from a dragon’s throat were scalding hot. Tristan swore again and shook his head.

  “Jeezus, Garret,” he growled, pulling several bandages from a compartment on his belt. “What the hell were you thinking? Didn’t anyone tell you that hand-to-hand combat with a dragon is generally a bad idea?”

  “You’re welcome,” I gritted out, clenching my jaw as he began swabbing my arm with a cloth, wiping away the blood. He snorted at that, but didn’t comment.

  Footsteps announced the arrival of the others, and a moment later Talbot swept up, shining his light at my feet. “What the hell happened?” he demanded, eyeing Tristan and me. “We heard shots fired, and now Sebastian is sitting here in his own blood. I assume to you have a damn good explanation for both. Did you find the targets?”

  “Yes, sir,” Tristan said coolly, not looking up from his task. “If you’ll look behind you, you should see them both. One human servant and one dragon.” Talbot’s flashlight found the lifeless body of the dragon behind me, drawing a muttered curse from the other soldier. “The lizard was waiting for us when we came in,” Tristan added, as the squad leader turned back. “It surprised me, but Sebastian managed to kill it, with a combat knife and a pistol.” As Talbot’s eyes widened, Tristan’s mouth twitched in a rueful smile. “Kid saved my life.”

  “That so.” Talbot’s voice was expressionless, but the other soldier stared down at me with grudging appreciation. Normally, if a dragon got close enough to bite you, your chances of surviving that encounter were slim. I was lucky that the dragon was small and too enraged to breathe fire in my face. “Well, regardless,” Talbot went on, “the thing’s dead. I’ll radio headquarters and let them know the raid was a success and to send in the cleanup crew.” He glanced at me, frowning. “Can you walk, greenie?”

  I nodded as Tristan finished wrapping gauze around my forearm, tying it off with a jerk. My arm was pretty messed up, and the meat of my thumb was in ribbons, but I wouldn’t know the real damage until a medic looked at it. Hopefully I hadn’t sustained any nerve damage. I needed my fingers to kill dragons and had no intention of stopping now. Tristan held out an arm; I grabbed his wrist with my good hand and let him pull me upright.

  “All right, let’s move. And Sebastian...” Talbot nodded at me, but it was a gesture of silent approval. “Don’t think you’re off the hook if your arm falls off,” he said. “We can’t have our youngest dragonslayer hanging up the gun after his very first kill.”

  I breathed out slowly. “No, sir.”

  The squad began to move out. I looked at Tristan, and he held out an arm, indicating the path forward. “After you,” he said, the hint of a smirk on his face. “Partner.”

  EMBER

  I found Garret in the hotel’s business center a couple hours later.

  I’d left Riley and Wes checking the status of their safe houses, slipping out of the room when their attention was diverted. I felt a little guilty, knowing Riley still wanted to talk, but I couldn’t face him right now. I could still see the Archivist, the ancient, unstoppable Wyrm, wrapping his fingers around Garret’s throat, and there had been nothing I could do to stop it. I could feel the utter terror, thinking I was going to lose him. He was more than a friend, I realized, more than the steady, unshakable soldier I could always count on. I was a dragon, and Cobalt was my Sallith’tahn, but I couldn’t ignore what I felt toward Garret any longer. Even if I had no idea what it was.

  Peering through the door of the business center, my heart pounded as I saw him, sitting in the computer chair with his back to me. I didn’t know what I wanted to say, if I should say anything. But I slipped through the frame, walked across the room and slid into the seat beside his. His gray eyes shifted to me, wary and puzzled, and I swallowed hard.

  “Hey,” I greeted, glancing at the screen in front of him. It was blank, all the windows closed out, leaving no clue of what had been on it. “Did you get in touch with Tristan?” I asked. He nodded shortly.

  “I sent him a private message,” the soldier answered. “Using an old secure channel
. He should see it and know who it’s from.”

  “Do you think he’ll agree to meet with you?”

  “I don’t know.” He gestured to a small black phone sitting on the desk beside the computer. “I gave him the number of the burner phone. As soon as he contacts me, for whatever reason, I’ll destroy it and we can leave the premises. I’m sure Riley is eager to move out.”

  “Yeah.” I nodded. “We’re just waiting for Tristan’s answer.”

  He fell silent, staring at the phone, as if willing his former partner to call him. His eyes were bloodshot, and his normally close-cropped hair was getting kind of shaggy. He looked...tired. More than tired. World-weary. The kind of deep, bone-crushing exhaustion that descends on you when you’re out of options and all your choices suck.

  I understood. The last few days I’d caught only snatches of sleep here and there. Between crappy hotel beds, taking watch every few hours and being paranoid that the Order would kick down the door at any moment, I’d spent more nights awake than not.

  Of course, that assumed I could even sleep anymore without the nightmares. I had killed again; it seemed I would never escape that now. Those men in the Vault, those strangers I’d never met, they had died so easily. One moment they were standing there, shouting at me, the next they were gone. Alive, and then dead. Just like that.

  Life was so fragile, I mused, shivering. Anyone could be taken away; gone in the blink of an eye. I was terrified that, very soon, I would watch it happen to someone I cared about. Add to that the continuous stress of being hunted, sharing a room with two people who made my insides dance in different ways and the whole future conversation with Riley hanging over my head, and I wasn’t in the most cheerful of moods. I was weary of running and weary of being shot at. I missed Crescent Beach, where I’d had friends, a brother, a real home. I wondered if Garret felt the same.

  “Do you miss it sometimes?” I asked softly. His metallic eyes flicked to me, and I nodded at the phone. “That life? Being part of St. George. Do you ever wonder what would’ve happened...if you never came to Crescent Beach?”

  “If we’d never met?” Garret’s voice was emotionless. “I’ve always thought about it.”

  I looked away from him, stunned. That hurt a lot more than I thought it would. Though I didn’t know what I was expecting. Garret was an outcast, on the run from the Order he once called family, hunted and hated by Talon and St. George alike. Because he’d met a dragon in a tiny town called Crescent Beach, and his world started to fall apart.

  “But I don’t have to wonder,” Garret continued before I could say anything. “I know exactly what would’ve happened. I’d still be with St. George, hunting and killing dragons because the Order told me it was right. I’d be out there gunning down rogues, maybe hunting Riley himself, because I wouldn’t know there’s a difference. I’d still be killing indiscriminately. And I...would have never met you.”

  Warily, I peeked up. The soldier met my gaze and offered a tired smile. “I wouldn’t go back,” he said softly, clearly. “Not with what I know now. Don’t wonder if this is worth it, Ember. It is. Even after all that’s happened, I still wouldn’t change it for anything.”

  My heart turned over. He was giving me that look. That steady, soulful, faintly sad look that could melt me into a puddle at his feet. The one that said he didn’t care if I was a dragon and he was a soldier of St. George. I’d hurt him so badly, crushed his feelings, driven him away, and he still found it in him to return and help the girl who wasn’t sure she could ever love him back.

  But he was being cautious now, not moving any closer, giving me the choice of staying put or walking away. A part of me knew I should walk away. Leave now, and make absolutely certain that he knew a dragon couldn’t feel the same.

  Even though it was a complete, horrible lie.

  For a moment, a heavy silence hung between us. Then the soldier let out a breath, like he’d finally come to a decision.

  “I wanted to forget you,” he murmured, as my heart started thudding in my ears, reacting to his presence. I found myself easing forward, closing the distance between us, as Garret’s voice dropped even lower. “I wanted to convince myself that I had been wrong, that there was no way I could feel anything for something that wasn’t human.” He paused, and I bit the corner of my lip, knowing I had driven him there. To decide that I had been a monster, after all.

  “I couldn’t,” he finally whispered. “You were the one who taught me to live, to take chances. For a while, I convinced myself that we were too different, and that it was better to let you go. But now, I’ve come to the realization that my life is probably going to be very short. And I want to spend it doing something that matters. With someone that matters. I don’t want to regret that I gave up without a fight.”

  My heart seemed to stop. Garret paused, as if gathering his thoughts, or his courage, then took a deep breath. “I know I’ve made mistakes,” he continued, shaking his head. “But there’s still the chance for me to fix them. I shouldn’t have walked out that night.” His brow creased, a flicker of pain and regret going through his eyes. “Ember, I know you can’t feel what I do,” he said. “I get that. But...I want to be with you. And if that’s not possible, I’ll be content just to be close. Fighting Talon with you and Riley, helping people, saving other dragons from the Order—there is nothing I want more. And nowhere else I want to be.” His fingertips came to rest against the back of my hand, sending a zip of current through my whole body. “I’m done hiding,” he whispered. “Nothing has changed. I know we might not have a lot of time, but what we do have, I want to spend right here.”

  “Garret...” My stomach was turning cartwheels, and the light touch across my hand was making it hard to think. There was so much I wanted to tell him. So much he needed to know. My dragon side would never accept him, she had already claimed someone else. And that someone else was supposedly my life-mate, only he didn’t know it yet.

  Nothing has changed, he told me. But that wasn’t true. I wasn’t the same girl he’d met in Crescent Beach. I had killed. Not just in self-defense; I’d attacked with the full knowledge that I was going to murder people. Riley called it a war, and would say that it was either them or us, but that didn’t change the fact that I had entered battle with the intent to burn and savage and slaughter humans. Just like Talon wanted.

  No, I realized suddenly. Not like Talon wanted. Talon wanted me to be a ruthless, coldhearted killer, a Viper like Lilith. They’d expected me to feel no remorse when it came to murdering humans, deceiving humans, manipulating humans. Even Dante, the twin I’d thought knew better than anyone, expected this. Emotions were a human thing; they had no place in the life of a dragon—that’s what Talon had taught us. The same organization that said humans were lesser beings, tools to be used and discarded. The same organization that suppressed any hints of independence and killed—quite literally—any thoughts of disloyalty. I had been struggling so hard with the knowledge that dragons weren’t supposed to feel, to love, like humans, but who had taught me that? Who had pounded that notion into my head until it became truth, something I didn’t question anymore?

  Talon.

  “Ember.” Garret’s voice was low and calm as I sat reeling with the sudden insight. “It’s all right. You don’t have to say anything. I just...wanted to let you know.” He rose smoothly, making no sound as he stood. I glanced up at him and saw his eyes were still kind, though a shadow hovered over his face. “Just think about it,” he said softly, drawing back. “I’ll still be here, whatever you decide.”

  “Wait.” I caught his hand before he could leave, and he went perfectly still. Choose, Ember. Right now. Dragon or human? Which side are you? What do you want to be the most?

  “I’m sorry,” I told him, and felt every muscle beneath my fingers go rigid. “I’ve made mistakes, too, and people have been hurt because of it. I need to st
op running away, and face them head-on, no matter how painful. In the long run, it’ll be better for everyone. It shouldn’t have taken me this long to realize that.”

  “Ember...”

  “Back at the hotel in Vegas,” I continued, hurrying on before I lost my nerve. “Right before you left for England. When you told me...” I trailed off, not wanting to say it out loud. Garret was barely breathing, as if he feared any movement would cause this moment to shatter. I could no longer look at him and dropped my gaze to the desk. Even then, I’d known what I wanted. I’d just let Talon and my own doubts convince me otherwise.

  I’m sorry, Riley. But we do have a choice and, at least in this, I choose to be more human.

  “I was wrong,” I admitted softly. “Letting you walk out...was the stupidest thing I’ve ever done. I should have said yes.” Garret’s hand trembled in mine, and I closed my eyes. “I should have asked you to stay.”

  For just a heartbeat, we were both frozen. The clock on the wall ticked, a faint sound in the absolute silence.

  Then Garret grabbed the hand that still held his own, yanked me to my feet and kissed me. I wrapped my arms around his neck as he pressed forward, backing me against the wall of the tiny room. His kisses were hungry and intense, shocking me with their passion. Like this had been pent up for a long time and was finally free. My dragon howled in protest, shrieking that this was wrong, but the flames within only made me desperate to get closer. I gasped and arched my head back, digging my fingers into his shoulders, shivering as his lips traced my jaw and neck. I didn’t care that we were in a semipublic place, that people could walk by and see us, and Garret didn’t seem to mind, either. My hands roamed over his back and shoulders, tracing his skin, feeling the hard muscles beneath. He leaned forward, kissing my shoulder, and I nipped the side of his neck, hearing his ragged intake of breath as he nearly fell into me. His mouth found mine again, and I growled as I locked our bodies together, startled by how much I wanted this, too.

 
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