Soldier, p.8
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       Soldier, p.8

         Part #3 of Talon series by Julie Kagawa
 

  “And then,” she continued, narrowing her eyes, “one day, we had a visitor. A dragon, from the Western lands, all fancy and civilized in his expensive suit, always looking at his smartphone. He spoke of his grand organization, Talon, and tried to get me to join. All dragons should be united under one banner, he said. Think of what we could accomplish if all our kind joined together against the mortals. I refused. I didn’t want to be part of his massive corporation—I was content living my simple life with no interruptions or demands. I craved peace, isolation. Not power. I’d heard rumors of our Western cousin’s sprawling organization, and the Elder Wyrm’s constant quest for supremacy. I wanted nothing to do with Talon, and told him so.

  “Before he left, he told me this—be careful you are not making a terrible mistake. Without Talon, you are vulnerable. Without Talon, St. George will eventually come for you, and all your desires for peace and simplicity will mean nothing when they are burning your temple to the ground.”

  My skin prickled, and cold spread through my insides. I knew where was this was going. I remembered the conversation between the Patriarch and the Talon agent, about a temple in China, and suddenly everything became perfectly, sickeningly clear.

  “One month later,” the dragon continued softly, “that is exactly what happened. The Order of St. George came in the night and began slaughtering everyone in the temple. Unarmed monks, who had never killed so much as a grasshopper in their entire lives, were cut down in a hail of bullets as the soldiers marched through, searching for me. I know the monks tried to talk to the soldiers, reason with them. I know they strove for a peaceful solution and were gunned down without mercy or thought. I wanted to fight—my friends, men I’d known since they were children, infants, were being systematically executed. But the abbot convinced me to flee.

  “We are the only ones to survive the massacre at the temple,” the dragon finished, glancing at the two men standing like rocks beside me. “Three survivors, out of a dozen souls who wished only to live their lives in peace and isolation. And then, St. George came through, slaughtered them all, and burned the ancient temple to the ground. Nothing remains of my home but cinders and ash. So, tell me, St. George...” She stepped forward, raising her arm, and the cold edge of a knife was pressed against my throat. The dragon’s gaze was glassy as she leaned in. “Why should I trust you? Why shouldn’t I show you the same amount of mercy your kind showed the monks at my temple?”

  I closed my eyes. “You have no reason to trust me,” I said. “I’ve done all the things you’ve seen St. George do and more. Had circumstances been different, I might have been on that raid.” Opening my eyes, I met her furious stare. “I know it means little now, and nothing I say can make up for what you’ve lost, but...I am sorry for what happened.”

  The dragon paused, confusion and astonishment battling the anger in her expression. “You are either a very gifted manipulator, or the strangest soldier of St. George I have ever seen,” she murmured at last. The blade’s edge dropped from my throat, and she stepped back, regarding me intently. “All right, mortal. Let us say, against all my better judgment, I decide to believe you for the moment. You went from butchering every dragon you came across to apologizing to one of them today. What changed?”

  “I met someone,” I said quietly. “A dragon. A hatchling out of Talon, being sent to live with humans for the first time. The Order knew the organization had sent one of their agents to a small town in California. My mission was to track her down, expose what she really was and kill her.”

  “Her,” the Asian woman said. “A female.” I nodded.

  “I found who I thought could be the target,” I went on, as memories of Crescent Beach rose up again, never far from my mind. “A girl, living with her brother and her guardians on the edge of the beach. If she was a dragon, I was supposed to kill her, but...the more time I spent with her, the more things didn’t add up. She made me see things in a different light. She made me realize...that the Order might be wrong about dragons.”

  All three of my captors were staring at me now. I could feel their disbelief, but all I could think of at that moment was Ember. The ache I had suppressed returned as memories crowded in; everything from surfing to slow dancing to fighting for my life with the red dragon beside me. A kiss, stolen on the rooftop of a Vegas casino, the city glittering beneath us. And the final, devastating blow when she backed out of my arms, and I realized the dragon I would give my life for could never love me back.

  “This girl,” the Asian woman said at last. “What happened to her?”

  “She left,” I answered softly. “When she discovered what Talon wanted of her, she went rogue with another dragon and joined his underground. I don’t know where she is now. But...” I swallowed, remembering the meeting with the Patriarch, and the shocking truth I’d uncovered. Even that paled in comparison to Ember’s life on the line. “I do know she’s in danger,” I went on, beseeching the dragon with my gaze. “I know she and some others are walking into a trap, and I have to get to them before St. George finds her. Please...” I leaned forward, letting a little desperation slip into my voice. “She saved my life, and I can’t let her die. We can help each other—I’m willing to give you whatever information you need on Talon and the Order, but I have to take care of this first.”

  A very long silence followed. The female dragon was motionless, staring down with hard black eyes, as if trying to decide what to do with me. The men on either side didn’t move or say a word, but I could feel the suspicion pulsing between them.

  “Why should I believe you?” the dragon said at last. “Even if you are telling the truth, why should I offer to help a stranger when I watched my temple burn to the ground, and not one of my Western cousins was there to help? Why should I trust a human, a soldier of St. George, and a few rogue dragons I know nothing about?” She paused, glancing at the men behind me, and raised her chin. “We’ve survived this long on our own, with no others to help us,” she said, her voice resolved. “We can find what we need without you.”

  “You can’t,” I said firmly, “because Talon and St. George are working together.”

  For the very first time, the woman seemed shaken. The color drained from her face, and she took a step back, staring at me in horror.

  “We’re on the same side,” I told her, taking advantage of the silence. “We’re facing the same enemies. Talon is sending St. George after rogues and dragons they want out of the way. That’s why your temple was attacked—because you wouldn’t conform to Talon. And they’ll do it again, send the Order after others, unless we stop them.”

  The dragon didn’t say anything, just continued to watch me in silence. I took that as a hopeful sign and hurried on. “I have a contact in the States,” I told her. “A rogue dragon who has defied Talon and St. George for decades. He knows more about fighting both organizations than any dragon out there. But he’s with the girl, and Talon has sent the Order after them both. If I don’t get back in time, we’re going to lose him and any knowledge he has. I know it goes against everything you believe, but we have a chance of surviving both Talon and St. George if we help each other.”

  “Talon and the Order of St. George are working together,” the dragon repeated, as if making sure she had heard correctly. “Are you very certain of this?”

  “Yes. I witnessed a meeting between the Patriarch and Talon. I heard the agent tell him where Ember and Cobalt will be going next. St. George will be waiting for them when they show up.”

  She sighed. “Then, as you Americans say, the shit is about to hit the fan.” Still wearing that grave expression, the woman walked around the back of my chair, and a moment later, my hands were free. Shaking off the ropes, I stood, turning to face her. She gave me a tight smile.

  “I never thought I would stand here holding a civil conversation with a soldier of St. George,” she mused. “What is your name, human?”<
br />
  “Garret.”

  “You may call me Jade,” the dragon returned with a slight nod. “And it seems we have a lot of work to do.”

  RILEY

  “This is it,” Wes muttered.

  I slowed the car and pulled off the road, easing to a stop at the edge of an empty, barren stretch of concrete several miles from anywhere. A rusty chain-link fence surrounded the perimeter, and in the distance, I could see the bulky shapes of buildings, run-down and seemingly abandoned. Danger and trespassers-will-be-prosecuted signs hung on the fence every hundred or so feet, and there were no guards, vehicles or anything to indicate that a top secret facility used for housing breeder dragons lay just beyond the barrier.

  “Looks abandoned,” Wes remarked. “But, if the facility is here, I’m sure that’s what they want you to think.”

  “Yeah,” I agreed, gazing out over the long stretch of pavement and concrete. One of Talon’s ploys, especially if they wanted to keep something hidden, was to buy all the property surrounding the thing as a buffer zone, then leave it empty and deserted. A common tactic to hide in plain sight, and one that worked well. “The facility itself will probably be underground somewhere,” I mused, scanning the cluster of buildings near the center. “We won’t know until we get closer.”

  “Be careful of guards,” Wes muttered. “If this is the facility, security is going to be tight, even if it is hidden. Though I still don’t know what you intend to do once you find it, mate. Waltz in and free all the breeders with no opposition whatsoever? Just you and the bloody hatchling?”

  “I told you,” I growled at him. “This is just recon. I’m not going to storm the damned gates. But I want to see what we’re up against.” We’d argued over timing and strategy during the entire fifteen-hour drive from Louisiana to West Virginia, and I still hadn’t been able to convince him that I wasn’t going to die in a blaze of dragonfire trying to lead the breeders to safety. “I know what I’m doing,” I said impatiently. “This isn’t any different than when we rescued the soldier, or the countless other times we’ve gone up against Talon. I’m not going in half-assed and, after all this time, you should know me better.”

  “I do know you, Riley,” Wes returned in a low voice. “Don’t you dare throw that in my face.” We’d been speaking in near whispers for a couple hours, mostly because of the sleeping Ember in the backseat. She had finally drifted off, and I’d kept a close eye on her in the mirror, watching for any signs of nightmares. But for maybe the first time in weeks, she seemed to be sleeping peacefully, and the last thing I wanted was to wake her up.

  “Yes, I am aware we’ve done this before,” Wes went on, still glaring at me. “I will readily admit that, either through skill or bloody dumb luck, you have gotten yourself out of situations most men would die in. But I also know what’s at stake here, Riley. I know how long you’ve been searching for the facilities. If this place had an impenetrable security system and a few hundred guards, that wouldn’t deter you at all, would it?” The human continued to stare me down, defiant. “You’re not going to abandon this, no matter what happens. Are you?”

  He paused, waiting for an answer, and I sighed. “No.”

  “That’s what I thought,” Wes muttered, shaking his head. “This is your personal white whale, mate. I just want you to be careful. To not become so obsessed, you get yourself and everyone around you killed.”

  A shuffle from the backseat made us pause. Ember stirred and sat up, blinking sleepily as she gazed around. Her hair stuck out at odd angles, almost like horns, as she rubbed her eyes. “Where are we?” she said, yawning. “Are we there yet?”

  At the sound of her voice, Cobalt stirred, and I took a deep breath to calm him down. Ever since that night, when it had taken everything in me not to Shift, not to respond like Ember wanted and join her in my real form, consequences be damned, my instincts were on a hair-trigger reaction. That moment we’d shared afterward, that kiss, hadn’t made it any easier.

  What the hell are you doing, Riley? I’d thought when I had retreated to my room that night. Did you really just kiss the girl, like a human? What is wrong with you? You’re not the damned soldier of St. George. She doesn’t want that from us.

  Truthfully, I had no idea what I was doing. This whole situation had turned my life upside down, and I was doing things I never would have considered before. Things I had scoffed at a few months ago. Kissing a girl? Promising to be more human? What was wrong with me? I had no idea, just that Ember called to me, but due to circumstance, there were very few times we could both be ourselves. So, for now, anyway, I guess I would give this human thing a try.

  Even though I knew full well our dragon sides would never be satisfied with that.

  “Hey, Firebrand,” I greeted softly as her gaze met mine. “Yeah, we’re here. Or, as close as we’re going to get in the car.” I gestured at the fence and the deserted lot beyond. “The facility is somewhere on this property, according to Wes. You ready for this?”

  She nodded eagerly and slid out of the car. I did the same, then turned to Wes, watching grimly from the passenger seat. “You know the drill,” I said, as Ember unzipped the duffel lying on the floor and took out a small black pistol. “Keep the engine running. We stay in contact the whole time, and if I say get out, just go.”

  Wes sighed and adjusted the headset he was wearing. “I have a bad feeling about this, Riley.”

  “You have a bad feeling about everything.” I smirked as he slid into the driver’s seat. “Back in a few minutes. Like I said, we’re just scouting the area. It shouldn’t take long.”

  “Famous last words,” Wes muttered as I closed the door and turned to Ember. She solemnly handed me a gun, and I felt a prickle of both pride and unease at how quickly she was picking this up. A few weeks ago, she’d been reluctant to touch a firearm, much less use it. Now it had become routine, though I knew she still hated actually pulling the trigger.

  Not for the first time, I wondered why Talon had her pegged to become a Viper, an assassin for the organization. And why they had chosen Lilith, Talon’s best, to train her in the art of killing. Had they seen something in Ember that I didn’t? Or were they just hoping she would become as ruthless and practical as her trainer, a killing machine who showed no remorse when ordered to destroy Talon’s enemies?

  Ember frowned at me, and I realized I’d been staring at her, lost in my own thoughts. “What?” she asked, and I quickly shook myself. “What’s that look for?”

  “Nothing,” I said, looking toward the fence “You know what we’re doing, Firebrand?”

  She bobbed her head. “Recon.”

  “Yeah, so be on the lookout for guards, cameras, security, hidden entrances, anything like that. We want to avoid a fight, and we don’t want anyone to know we’re here.”

  She frowned. “If there are cameras and alarms all over the place, how will we get through unnoticed?”

  “Leave that to me, Firebrand. I’ve done this before. I know what to look for, enough to keep us from tripping an alarm, anyway. But still, we have to be careful.” I gazed through the fence at the distant buildings, narrowing my eyes. “We only get one shot at this. If this is the facility, if there are breeder dragons here, the last thing I want to do is go in blind.”

  Ember gave a grave nod. “I’m ready.”

  We hopped the fence and started walking across the barren lot.

  * * *

  “It’s too quiet,” Ember remarked several minutes later, after we’d passed the first set of buildings, all dark and abandoned. Weeds poked through the cracks in the cement, but the buildings themselves were eerily intact. No broken windows, no streaks of graffiti, no signs of break-in or vandalism. Nothing moved in the stillness except us and a couple startled birds. “How can they hide a bunch of dragons in the middle of nothing? This place seems completely deserted.”


  “One of the things they do best, Firebrand,” I replied, still scanning the grounds for security measures. So far, there had been nothing, which made me even more wary. I guessed it would be more heavily guarded the closer we got to the actual facility, but the complete lack of security was disconcerting. “Talon excels at hiding in plain sight,” I went on. “This is just a front, to make sure no one comes poking around. They certainly can’t keep their breeders in a hospital, or anywhere close to people for that matter.”

  “Why not?”

  “Because of...you know.” I looked at her; she seemed truly baffled, and I winced. “You’re kidding. Your tutors didn’t teach you Dragon Hatching 101?”

  “Not really.”

  Wes snickered in my ear. “Oh, this should be good,” he muttered. “The infamous breeding conversation. Hanging on every word here, mate.”

  “You know, you should really ask Wes,” I told Ember. “It would make his day, I’m sure.”

  “What?” yelped the voice in my ear. “Don’t you dare point her at me.”

  Ember frowned. “Just tell me, Riley.”

  I groaned. “All right, fine. So, breeding. Not an awkward conversation at all.” Wes gave another snicker, enjoying my discomfort far too much. I tried to ignore him. “You know that dragons in Talon don’t...uh...mate with whomever they want, right? It’s yet another thing that the organization controls. Talon maintains a strict schedule of who gets mated to whom, and once the female has been...impregnated...she can’t remain in human form after the first couple months.”