Soldier, p.6
Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font       Night Mode Off   Night Mode

       Soldier, p.6

         Part #3 of Talon series by Julie Kagawa
 
I jerked up, hitting the back of my head against the tree trunk. My heart pounded as I realized he was talking about us, about Ember and Riley and myself, and the night they’d freed me from St. George. I knew the Order wanted us dead. I’d had no idea that it was Talon itself sending them after us.

  “Sebastian will be taken care of,” the Patriarch replied, making my blood chill at the sound of my name. “As will the dragons who aided him. We were unaware of how deeply involved he was until they came for him that night. Every chapterhouse in the States is on alert for this traitor and the dragons you described. We will find and eliminate them.”

  “Well. Now’s your chance. We’ve uncovered one of Cobalt’s hideouts, an abandoned industrial park about ten miles north of a small town in West Virginia. I’ve marked its location on your map. Our intelligence indicates he is heading there now, possibly with several dragons and the soldier in tow, but I would act quickly. Cobalt is intelligent, paranoid and he’s slipped through your fingers before. Let’s try to avoid that this time.” The stranger’s voice turned faintly mocking. “We don’t want a repeat of Vegas.”

  “We know what we’re up against now.” The Patriarch’s voice was brittle. “This time, we’ll be ready for them.” There was a rustle, as if the Patriarch closed the file and rose. “We’re done here,” he announced. “I will contact you once it’s finished.”

  “Of course.” The stranger rose, as well. “Always a pleasure, my friend. We’ll be in touch.”

  I zipped up the backpack and stood, still slightly dazed but knowing I couldn’t be spotted now. Shrugging the pack over my shoulders, I put my head down and walked away, keeping my back to the bench where the meeting had taken place. I didn’t see the Patriarch, or his mysterious dragon informant, but I wasn’t looking for them. My mind was spinning. The Patriarch, the exalted leader of the Order of St. George, the man who condemned dragons and anyone associated with them, was working with Talon. For the second time in my life, my world had been tipped on its head. I didn’t know what to think anymore.

  I did know one thing. Ember was in danger. She and Riley had no idea that Talon had set St. George on them. Right now, they were walking right into a trap. And though I knew the two dragons were more than capable of handling themselves, I also knew that, this time, the Order would go after them full force. Because they were also looking for me, a traitor who had turned his back on his brothers to side with the enemy. Who knew far too much about the Order of St. George.

  Once free of the park, I stood on the sidewalk for a moment, fighting with myself. I knew I should keep digging, discover just how far the Patriarch’s involvement with Talon went. This was possibly the largest conspiracy in the history of Talon and St. George, one that would throw everything into chaos. I needed proof; without some kind of hard-core evidence, neither St. George nor Talon would ever listen to me.

  But I knew what I was going to do now, and it wasn’t follow up on the Patriarch. Not when my mind was consumed with worry for Ember. I had no way of contacting her, Riley, or Wes; the number she’d given me was no longer in service. If I’d been thinking clearly that night, I would have talked with Wes, arranged some way of contacting them if I needed to. But I’d thought I was done with that group. My walking away was supposed to be a clean break; I hadn’t thought I would ever see them again. I hadn’t thought I would ever see her again.

  That was foolish of me. This was war. Talon and St. George were still trying to destroy each other, and Ember was in the center of it all. As long as those two organizations existed, her life would be in jeopardy. Taking myself out of the picture wouldn’t change that.

  And now, St. George was closing in. Across the ocean, Riley, Ember and Wes were walking into a trap, because Talon itself had set them up.

  Unless I could get to them first.

  I called the airlines on the drive back to the hotel and booked the first available flight back to the States, then returned to my room to grab my belongings. As I slid the key through the slot, my nerves prickled. Warily, I glanced around the hallway, then opened the door and stepped through.

  A woman rose from a chair in one corner of the room, a grim smile on her face. She was small and thin, dressed in dark jeans and a jacket, with straight black hair and solemn eyes. “Here you are,” she greeted as I stopped short. “You certainly are a hard man to track down.”

  Before I could back out, the door swung shut, and a shadow moved from behind the wood. I started to turn, to block whatever was coming, but the last thing I felt was a blow beneath my ear, and the world went black.

  EMBER

  “All right,” Riley sighed, flipping on the hotel light. “We made it.” Glancing back at the parking lot, he narrowed his eyes, golden and intense. “The Viper could still be out there, so everyone stay alert. Ember, I need you to pack up. We’ll be leaving soon.”

  “Where are we going?” I asked, and my voice shook at the end despite myself. Thankfully, Riley didn’t seem to notice.

  “I don’t know yet. I’ll tell you as soon as Wes deciphers the coordinates Griffin gave us. It shouldn’t take long, right, Wes?”

  “Trust me, mate,” Wes replied, stalking past him to the table. “We just survived watching a man’s head get exploded—we can’t leave soon enough.” He glanced up at Riley, eyes shadowed. “What I want to know is why the bloody Viper didn’t take either of your heads off. It had the shot, you were all sitting there like ducks, nice and lined up in a row. Why didn’t it kill you, too?”

  Riley scrubbed a hand through his hair. “It’s pretty hard to cap three heads at the exact same time with a rifle. Maybe it had to decide between us, and Griffin was its official target. Maybe there was too much commotion, and it had to leave the area before the police arrived. I have no idea why it didn’t shoot us.” He blew out a shaky breath. “But, it didn’t. That’s all I care about right now. Looks like we got lucky.”

  “Unlike Griffin,” Wes muttered.

  Riley sighed. “Dammit, Griffin,” he growled, dropping onto the bed. “He was a traitorous greedy bastard, but I knew him. I’ve known him for years. Or I thought I did.” He rubbed his eyes. “Fucking Talon. No one deserves to go like that.”

  My stomach curled, and I dug my nails into my palms. “I’m...gonna go pack,” I said, backing toward the exit. Riley looked up at me in concern.

  “You okay, Firebrand?”

  “Yeah.” I nodded and forced a grin. “I’m fine. Be right back—it won’t take long.”

  I slipped through the door, feeling Riley’s worried gaze on my back, and crossed the hall to my own room.

  As the door clicked shut behind me, I began to shake. Not bothering with the lamps, I walked to the bathroom and flipped the switch, meeting my gaze in the mirror.

  My insides heaved. My cheeks and forehead were covered in dried red spatters—Griffin’s blood. I remembered the human, smug and confident, talking to me across the table. Alive and perfectly fine one second, lying facedown in a pool of his own blood the next.

  With shaking hands, I wrenched the faucet to hot, then began scrubbing the sticky dark mist from my face and hands. The water in the basin ran red for a while, then became clear. But no matter how hard I scraped, I could still feel his blood on me, and my movements became harder and faster as my anger grew. Faces filtered through my mind; Griffin, Faith, Dante, Garret. All gone. All taken away, either by Talon, St. George, or the war itself.

  No, I thought, as my thoughts settled on one face in particular. The one that had been plaguing me ever since he left. That’s not entirely true. You drove him away. Don’t blame Talon or St. George. He’s not here now, because of you.

  With an inner roar, I raised my fist and drove it into the face of the girl in the mirror. She fractured, shattering into pieces, dozens of accusing green eyes glaring at me over the sink. Gone, I thought in despair. They’re all gon
e. Garret, Dante, almost everyone I care about. How many more will I lose? How many more will I watch die right in front of me?

  “Hey! Ember, stop.”

  Strong hands closed around my wrists, pulling me away from the sink and out of the bathroom. My dragon snarled and surged up, ready to turn her rage and grief on something else, but Riley’s piercing gold eyes halted her.

  “Stop,” he said again, his voice softer. “Firebrand, breathe. It’s just me.” I sucked in a deep breath, feeling the dragon subside, and Riley relaxed. “What happened?”

  “I...don’t know. I just...” Biting my lip, I looked down at my hands and saw blood starting to well from my knuckles. Riley looked down, too, and grimaced.

  “Come here,” he sighed, gently pulling me to the bed. “Sit.” I sat, and he retrieved the small first-aid kit I always carried in my bag now. I watched him drag up a stool and take my hand, then dab away the blood. I waited for the exasperation, for the questions as to why I had punched the mirror into oblivion, but he didn’t say anything.

  “There,” he said, tying the last of the gauze around my hand. “That’s done. Try not to punch any more mirrors, Firebrand. You’ll jinx my luck.” His voice was light, but his eyes were still dark with concern. I slipped off the bed, flexing my fingers to test the range of motion.

  “Thanks,” I said, forcing a smile. “I...uh...guess you wouldn’t believe me if I said there was this really big roach on the mirror, and I didn’t have a shoe handy—”

  “Ember.” His voice was quiet, making my stomach dance. I looked back to find him gazing at me, all amusement gone from his face. “Why didn’t you tell me you haven’t been sleeping? You didn’t think I would want to know about that?”

  I swallowed. “They’re just stupid nightmares,” I said, making him frown. “It’s not important. I’m fine, Riley. I can handle it.”

  Swiftly, Riley rose, grabbed my wrist and held it up, watching me over the bandages. “This is not handling it, Firebrand,” he said firmly. “This is the opposite of fine.” Scowling, I pulled my arm back, and he narrowed his eyes. “Something is bothering you, and it’s been affecting you for a while. I want to know what. You’re exhausted and on edge, and if you keep going like this you’re going to explode. You nearly lost it with Griffin today, don’t think I didn’t notice.” When I didn’t answer, his brow furrowed. “Talk to me, Ember,” he urged. “What’s going on in that head of yours?”

  “Nothing.”

  I turned away, and he growled. “Dammit, Firebrand. Wait.” Fingers took my arm, strong and cool against my skin, and something inside me finally snapped.

  I didn’t remember Shifting. Didn’t remember making that decision. But suddenly, I was in dragon form, my wings brushing the sides of the wall, and Riley was pressed against the bed, eyes wide as he stared at me. The hotel room abruptly felt tiny and cramped; my tail uncoiled, thumping the desk, and my talons dug into the cheap carpet as I leaned forward, crowding Riley and making him sit down on the mattress. Lowering my head, I gave a low, throaty growl that was both an invitation and a challenge, and Riley squeezed his eyes shut.

  “Ember.” His voice was a rasp, and I saw a tremor go through him as he tried to keep the dragon down. His jaw was clenched, making it difficult to get out the words. “This...is not the time, or the place. Change back.”

  I lashed my tail and snorted a curl of smoke in his face. I didn’t want to Shift back; I wanted Cobalt to come out. I knew he wanted to. I could feel it in the human’s ragged breathing, the way his hands clenched in the blankets. The past few weeks had been a mire of chaos and nightmare and emotion, but for once, my thoughts were clear. “Why?” I demanded, hoping the defiance would be enough to force Cobalt into the open. It wasn’t, and I bared my fangs at him.

  I was tired of the confusion. Tired of the fear and the nightmares, the guilt eating me from within. I didn’t want to think, or feel. Being a dragon was so much simpler. I knew exactly what I wanted; I just had to get the human below me to go away. “You once told me you weren’t holding back anymore,” I reminded him, half opening my wings to drape him in my shadow. “What’s stopping you? Or was that just a lie?”

  “I know...what I said. And no, it wasn’t a lie. But...” Opening his eyes, Riley gave me a look that was both hungry and pleading at the same time. “Not here, Firebrand,” he choked out. “Get ahold of yourself. We’re in the middle of a city. We can’t be seen like this.” He took a deep breath, as if strengthening his resolve. “Ember, I... You know I want to. But, this is not the time. You have to Shift back.” I curled a lip, and another shiver went through him as his voice became strangled. “Now.”

  Anger flared. Baring my teeth, I snarled in his face, whirled and willed myself back into human form. The black Viper suit became visible, covering me from neck to ankles as I shrank down, but the remains of my jeans and shirt lay shredded at the foot of the bed. For a second, I was sorry I was wearing the suit; if I hadn’t been, being naked would’ve been a good excuse not to Shift back.

  I rubbed my eyes, not looking at Riley, as hurt and anger still simmered in my chest. I didn’t know if it was the dragon’s frustration or my own tangle of feelings, but I suddenly felt very alone.

  I heard him shift off the mattress and take a hesitant step toward me, his voice low. “Ember...”

  I stiffened. “Sorry about that,” I said in a flat voice, and headed toward the bathroom. Where I could close the door on rogue dragons and not have to face him for a few minutes. Where he wouldn’t see me fall apart. “I’m tired,” I muttered, swiping a hand across my eyes. “It won’t happen again.”

  “Wait.” Riley hurried forward, coming around to face me. “Hold on a second, will you?” I stopped as he barred the way to the bathroom, the look on his face frustrated, as well. “Look, I know things have been crazy. I know with all the running around, we’ve barely had a chance to breathe. But I haven’t forgotten about...us, all right?”

  Hope flickered inside, though the dragon snarled, unappeased. “You’ve been busy,” I said, shrugging. “I get it.”

  “That’s not it, Firebrand. Dammit, how do I say this?” He sighed, raking a hand through his hair. “It’s not that I don’t see you, it’s just... I’m not good at...human stuff, Ember. I’ve been on my own a long time, dealing with dragons and hatchlings and Vipers—and Wes isn’t what you’d call warm and cuddly. I don’t mean to ignore you, but whenever we’re close all I can think of is Shifting into my real form, and we can’t do that in a car, or a hotel room, or anywhere people could see us. And all those human things—hugging, touching, kissing, whatever...it doesn’t come natural to me. I’m not the soldier, Firebrand. I’m a dragon.” He gave a short, frustrated laugh and made a hopeless gesture. “It’s just not in my makeup.”

  “Yeah,” I muttered, looking down. “I know.” It didn’t make me feel much better, knowing we would have to be completely alone and isolated for Cobalt to appear. Being around humans had spoiled me, I supposed. Dragons weren’t supposed to love. I couldn’t expect Riley to act like Garret.

  “But...” A soft brush against my cheek made me glance up. Cobalt was staring down at me, golden eyes solemn and intense as he lowered his head. “That doesn’t mean I can’t learn,” he whispered, making my insides swirl. “I’ve been around awhile—I’ve picked up a few things over the years.” I blinked at him, and one corner of his mouth twitched in a wry smirk. “I can be more human, Ember,” he murmured. “I can’t say I’ll remember all the time, but if that’s what you want... I’ll try.”

  I licked dry lips. “No,” I said, making his brows arch. “I don’t want you to change for me. It wouldn’t be you—”

  “No?” Riley’s eyes gleamed, and he grabbed my wrist. “You don’t think so?”

  Pulling me close, he slipped one arm around my waist, pressed the other to the back of my neck and kissed me.
/>
  I froze, stunned. My hands went to his chest, flattening over his shirt, not knowing whether to push him off or yank him closer. His lips were warm, firm and confident. I could smell his leather jacket, feel the heat thrumming through us both as he held me against him, his arms like steel bands pressing me close. Through the elation and shock, one thought filtered through my astonished brain.

  Riley was...a really good kisser.

  Pulling back, Riley gazed down at me, smiling at my stunned expression. “There,” he said quietly, brushing a strand of hair from my face. “Is that enough to convince you that I’m still thinking about us? That you are constantly on my mind, even when I’m distracted?”

  I swallowed, trying to find my voice. “For a dragon, I’d say you’ve got this human thing down pretty well,” I whispered, and he smirked.

  “I haven’t lived this long by not being observant.” Releasing me, he stepped back, shoving his fingers through his hair and looking faintly embarrassed. “Wes should be done in a few minutes,” he said, glancing at the door. “Will you be ready to leave by then?”

  “Yeah.” I nodded, feeling a lightness in my chest that drove away the fear and anger and frustration, at least for now. “I’ll be right out. I just wish I knew where we were going.”

  As if on cue, Riley’s phone chimed. Pulling it out of his jacket, he stared at the screen a moment, then shook his head.

  “Well, it looks like you’ll get your wish, Firebrand. Wes found the coordinates.” He scanned the message, brow furrowing slightly. “Makes sense, I guess. Away from people, out in the middle of nowhere.”

  “Where?”

  He sighed and stuck his phone in his pocket again. “According to Wes, we’re going to West Virginia.”

  DANTE

  “How many vessels have you awakened so far, Dr. Olsen?”

  The thin, bearded man in a stained lab coat gave Mr. Roth a proud, weary smile as we left the elevator and followed the scientist down the twisting corridors that led deeper underground. “Twenty-two,” he announced.