End Game – Hailey Edwards

Warm blood stuck my fingers together, but there was no point in cleaning my hands. I twisted the blade, a quick snap of my wrist growing smoother with practice, and the bone popped out of its joint. An unmistakable trill of interest rose over my shoulder, and I wasted no time flinging the chicken thigh in the air, feathers and all. A slender bolt of white scales shot past my ear, crimson eyes fixed on her target, and I clapped when Phoebe caught the snack between her needlelike teeth. Dragon young, I was learning, didn’t waste time with pointless activities like chewing their food. They gulped it down whole and came back for more. “You’re spoiling her,” Cole rumbled from behind me. “She can hunt for herself.” An incredulous squawk rang out overhead as Phoebe flattened her round ears against her skull and dove at her father. She pulled up at the last second, kicking out to scratch his shoulder through the fabric of his White Horse polo before landing on my lap, as light as a feather. She cuddled me, already sucking up to get out of the trouble she was in. “You hurt him,” I scolded, hardening my heart against the pitiful expression widening her liquid eyes. “Look.” I brought her attention to the dark stain spreading beneath the ruined fabric. “He’s bleeding.

” A whining noise made for the weakest apology in the history of children apologizing to their parents. Phoebe was lucky she was so stinking cute. And we were doomed because she knew she was too. The scratch itself was hardly life-threatening. Cole probably viewed it as being on par with a mosquito bite. That wasn’t the issue. The problem was behaviors we found cute and mostly harmless coming from a baby would turn lethal as she matured into a full-fledged dragon. We had to correct her behavior now or suffer the consequences later. First things first, though. Phoebe had to learn she couldn’t play her parents against each other, and that she couldn’t lash out in a fit of pique when her dad schooled me on how best to raise her.

I had no memories of his world, his culture, our past. I had to lean on him for guidance. I didn’t want to raise her like a spoiled pet. I wanted her to grow up to be a strong and independent woman. Starting right after we finished playing catch. The chicken was already dead. It might as well be put to good use. “Thom caught a few Silkies on the neighbor’s farm. This was our cut of the spoils.” I made a mental note to put a check in the mail to cover the cost of purchasing more chicks.

“It would be wasteful not to eat it.” Usually, the most feline member of the coterie brought me a mouse or the occasional snake. Pretty sure the mice were food, and the snakes were meant as a look what I killed to protect you gesture. Either way, I had always buried the bodies so he wouldn’t know his thoughtful gifts went uneaten. These days, I didn’t have that problem. “You mean you decided to feed the evidence to Phoebe and save yourself from digging.” Busted. “I helped Dad clean deer, so I ought to be able to figure out how to pluck and clean a chicken too, but … ” Cole strode over and sat on the grass next to me, the bond between us a live wire that tingled, electric without him laying a finger on me. “You couldn’t resist.” The fact we had moved back to the battered farmhouse where I grew up in order to accommodate her was further proof none of us were great at telling her no.

“She’s adorable.” Unable to resist touching him when he sat so close, I rested my head on his shoulder. Rocks made more comfortable pillows, but he was worth the discomfort. He was mine. All mine. In all ways. And there was an unspeakable joy in that which I intended to savor for as long as I had left. “Just look at that face.” Phoebe hammed it up, fluttering her gossamer wings, twitching her slender tail. She licked my fingers clean while staring pointedly at what remained of the chicken.

“And to think I worried you two might not bond.” He scratched under her chin, and she purred the littlest purr, melting my heart into a puddle of goo. “You two are as thick as thieves.” Had Phoebe emerged from stasis as a child, human in shape if not in genetics, I might have struggled more. That she was a dragon didn’t change the fact she was Cole’s child with another woman. Even if that other woman was, well, me. Sheesh. This amnesiac harbinger of doom gig was tough. “It’s go time,” Santiago announced as he burst through the front door we had to replace to make the place inhabitable again after the Malakhim skirmish that sent Death into mourning over the children she lost. “We’ve got another Malakhim sighting near Canton.

” The cold place tickled the edges of my senses, eager to rise up and swallow me whole. I clamped my left hand over the rose gold bangle encircling my right wrist and tightened my grip like I might prevent Conquest from rising if I squeezed hard enough. The bangles had done their job well, and they still kept me me, but these episodes kept coming, with shorter breaks between them. Only the worried trill of the dragon in my lap and the solidness of my mate cushioning my head yanked me back into my skin. With Cole beside me, it was too much to hope he hadn’t noticed my struggle. At least he hadn’t called me out on it. I was doing my best to throttle Conquest, and he was helpless to do more than watch. “You have to stay with Uncle Thom.” I tasted frost, and my voice crackled. “And you have to behave.

” Snapping her tail against my thigh, Phoebe flattened her ears and growled at me this time. “Uncle Thom can’t come with us,” I reminded her. “He can’t fight. He’s still healing, remember?” Thom could and would fight if I let him, but I couldn’t bear putting him in the path of danger when I had other options. The time would come when I couldn’t spare him, but it wasn’t here yet. Until then, I was grateful to have a trusted babysitter, one who could keep up with this little monster when she went on a tear. Phoebe grunted, clearly unhappy, but her annoyance dimmed a few watts. She had a wide protective streak that had stretched to encompass the coterie within days of meeting them. It gave me hope she would turn out more like her father than her mother. Me? Whoever.

“I need you to protect him for me,” I murmured softly enough only she and Cole would hear, and I kept my tone as earnest as possible. Kids picked up on deceit far quicker than adults. “You have to keep him safe until I get back. Can you do that?” Puffing out her chest, she fluffed her wings and stood her mane on end. Classic posturing behavior. So why did I have to fight the urge to whip out my phone and snap a dozen photos? “Good girl.” I bent down and kissed the top of her head. “Make sure you keep him in the house.” As I stood, she climbed up my side to perch on my shoulder. “If anyone comes to the door, make him run.

Make him hide. Bite him if you have to. We’ll find you when we get back.” Phoebe bobbed her head once, following along or faking it, I still wasn’t sure most of the time. She slitted her eyes when she spotted Thom sunning on the porch in a peeling rocking chair and growled. Quick as a shot, she leapt down. I was still grasping for thin air when she hit the ground. She raced to him, nipped at his ankles until he jumped up, then cracked her tail until she herded him indoors. “She doesn’t grasp the concept of me space,” he hissed from the doorway. “And she bites.

” “She’s a baby.” I wiggled my fingers at them as I backed away. “She’s just teething.” Fine, so she came with a full set of chompers. I wasn’t about to tell him she was the one on babysitting detail in her book. It would embarrass him, and I couldn’t bear to injure him, or his feelings. “Why are we stuck with Junior again?” Santiago huffed with annoyance. “This is no place for a kid.” No surprise, Santiago was not a fan of having a baby dragon underfoot. I wasn’t dancing in the streets about it either, but I didn’t have much choice but to make it work.

The least he could do was pitch in, but that was about as likely as a pig sprouting wings and flying into a barbecue pit. Which reminded me, I hadn’t eaten lunch yet. “Believe me, this is the last place I want her to be, but she keeps escaping from Haven.” Dad had tried his best, but she was a prodigy when it came to invisibility. She would hide near the door to whatever room he attempted to keep her in, wait on him to open it, then skitter her way to freedom. While Dad was the first to admit it was a neat trick, after she almost gave him a heart attack the first time, it also made keeping tabs on his granddaughter next to impossible. “We can’t allow someone to follow her there, and I won’t risk her being captured or killed.” Cole wasn’t much help on the escape artist front. According to him, Convallarian youth learned to camouflage themselves early in order to escape predation. He was thrilled she was adept, and he had different views than I did on what constituted a safe environment for raising children.

“Can’t we put her back to sleep?” Santiago tore his gaze from the screen of a tablet, one of many he kept on or around him. “I’m sure Death wouldn’t mind.” “Why don’t we put you to sleep?” I countered sweetly. “I wouldn’t mind that.” Pretty sure if we put it to a vote the motion would pass unanimously. “You’d miss me,” he said absently, certain I would actually care if I never saw him again which, to be fair, I would. If for no other reason than he was the keeper of the Wi-Fi code. “Besides, you need me. You don’t need her. She’s a distraction.

Distractions get people killed.” So did being a smartass, but so far he had beaten the statistics. “The Malakhim?” Cole hauled us back on track. “Where are they?” “About two miles east of town.” He checked a map app with glowing dots. “They’ve made no move to enter the city limits. They’re waiting for something.” “Or someone,” I said, dread coating the back of my throat. Ezra, the real one, had yet to put in an appearance. It was only a matter of time before he kicked off this war in earnest, and he was too bloodthirsty not to lead the charge.

He wasn’t the sit back and watch type. More the kind who threw Malakhim at us until exhaustion made lifting weapons against him impossible. Then he could strut onto the battlefield, probably sporting gilded armor buffed to a high shine, and run us through while a crowd chanted his name. Lately, I had been putting a lot of thought into envisioning my final moments. The scenarios just kept getting more intricate and ridiculous. Who knows? Maybe my brain was trying to convince me the worst was in my head so that when I faced the reality I would be relieved. Or maybe I had watched films like Gladiator and 300 one too many times when it was Santiago’s turn to pick the flick on movie night. Tracing a line from his elbow to his wrist, I asked Cole, “Can I bum a lift?” Between one breath and the next, a preview of Phoebe in another few years shimmered into being where Cole had been standing. The dragon wrapped his whiplike tail around my ankle three times then gave a gentle tug. I laughed and let him topple me against his side.

Still smiling, I scratched behind his ears when he ducked his head, careful to avoid his antlers, and he blew warm air in my face. “Coming with?” I checked with Santiago after climbing on Cole’s back. “Or are you driving?” “You need me to play GPS.” He secured the tablet to his hand with an elastic strap. “I’ll come with.” As usual, I occupied the first-class seat on Air Cole, the most secure position for dragon riding. Anyone else would have cozied up to me, but Santiago would rather fall to his death than admit he needed a handhold. His thigh muscles must be ridiculous if he held on with those alone. That, or he was devout and one of his god’s personal favorites. Face glued to the screen, Santiago guided us to the outskirts of town, to a field littered with white dots that resembled tents if I squinted hard enough against the sharp wind making my eyes water.

“Are you sure this is right?” I called back to him. “This doesn’t look like a Malakhim host to me.” Malakhim hated being on the ground. It put them at a disadvantage. They must sleep sometime, somewhere, but I doubted it would be in an area exposed to flyovers. None of this added up, and I didn’t like when the numbers didn’t work in our favor. A lone figure strolled out of the largest tent as if he sensed our arrival through Cole’s invisibility, and when I saw the three sets of golden-brown wings unfurl from either side of his spine, I knew what he had sensed wasn’t Cole but me. Adam Wu, Ezra’s son and heir, my partner with the NSB charun taskforce, mate, and all-around ginormous pain in our asses, made his presence known. “This ought to be good.” Santiago passed a fluttering dollar bill over my shoulder.

“I would like to purchase a front row seat for the ass kicking he’s about to receive. I’ll take popcorn if you have it, with extra butter.” I took his money because — hey, free money — but I would have preferred to turn tail and run home rather than engage him. Wu reminded me I came with an expiration date I hadn’t shared with the coterie, Cole, or my dad. He made it impossible to pretend this war could end any other way than with my death. The rest was trickle down fear. Would Cole, as my chosen mate, die with me? Or only Wu, the mate who selected me without my permission? Thom? Miller? Portia and Maggie with her? As much as he annoyed me, I didn’t want Santiago paying for Wu’s machinations with his life either. I wanted my coterie spared. I wanted them to have a life beyond what Conquest had shown them. I wanted them free, safe, and happy.

I was willing to trade my life for theirs, but the reverse … I couldn’t let them pay for Conquest’s nature or Wu’s hubris or his father’s ego. The last man I wanted to see, missing Ezra by a narrow margin, rocketed into the sky, narrowly avoiding Cole biting him in half. The dragon was joking around. Probably. But Wu shot higher, almost out of hearing range, just in case the mate I had claimed for myself hadn’t forgiven him for leaving his mark on me. “What is all this?” I yelled as he struggled to keep pace with Cole while also staying clear of his teeth and tail, a conundrum I had limited pity for, given all he had done to me. “Who are these people?” “Malakhim who have defected. They wish to meet with you and join your cause.” Suspicion honed my voice to a razor when I cut Santiago a glare over my shoulder. “You knew about this.

” He found joy in the most annoying places, such as arranging for me to meet with various charun factions who may or may not want to join us without me unleashing my inner dragon on them. He knew it bothered me, the adoration, the worship, the mouth-breathing, so he kept the nature of those meetings under wraps until it was too late. “I suspected they were up to something when they didn’t attack Canton,” he said dryly. “They could have wiped your hometown off the map before we arrived if they wanted, but they didn’t, so I figured they had an agenda that wasn’t the usual doom and gloom.” He shrugged. “Plus, lover boy here was with them. I figured that meant they wouldn’t kill us on sight.” Meaning Santiago was still tracking Wu. No surprise there, except that meant Wu hadn’t removed the tracker Santiago planted in him. Granted, he would have to cut himself open and dig around in his thigh to find it, but still.

I figured he would grit his teeth and put in the effort. That he was allowing us to monitor him made me suspicious, probably the exact opposite of what he hoped to accomplish. Any olive branch Wu attempted to extend at this point ought to be snapped in half and then used to beat him. “I didn’t wash my hands before we left.” The skin pulled tight when I made a fist. “They’re coated in chicken blood.” “They don’t need to know it’s chicken blood,” Santiago added helpfully. Worst campaign manager ever. “These are seasoned soldiers,” Wu reasoned. “They could make or break your campaign.

” Plus, they were identical to the enemy. That might come in handy down the line too. “You’re the one who started this war,” I reminded him. “How come you’re giving me the credit all of a sudden?” “They need a figurehead, and yours is the one on the chopping block.” “Great motivational speech.” I tightened my fingers in the dragon’s mane. “You really know how to get the juices pumping.” A smile threated to overbalance his mouth, his full upper lip curving, but he suppressed the urge to walk through the door I had left open. As much as I wanted to believe he was smart enough not to rile up Cole, I worried I was giving him too much credit. Likely, he was aware his current odds for getting eaten were at an all-time high if he pissed Cole off one more time.

The encampment drew my eye, and I had to admit my curiosity. “When and why did these guys defect?” “After The Hole,” he said, and that was answer enough on both parts. His father had activated emergency protocols and imploded the charun prison facility where Famine was being held. All the guards and inmates, including my sister, had been killed. The news of his father’s ruthless disregard for life had rocked Wu, and it was clear ripples of doubt had spread from that point throughout the ranks. How Ezra’s brutality had shocked them, I couldn’t begin to imagine, but I was cadre. The charun on this terrene accepted my sisters and I would be hunted down like dogs and/or experimented on like lab rats. They also expected the punishment to stop there. With us. The death toll at The Hole alone was staggering, the act one of pointless violence.

Perhaps that was what this terrene needed to be shocked out of their complacency. And what breed of monster was I to even think that? “How do you know we can trust them?” Heartache flooded his expression before he smoothed it into an indifferent mask, but I saw and guessed at the cause. Kimora, the latest casualty on our side, had been dead only a matter of days. By the time we killed her, she had already been taken over by a Drosera and was following Sariah’s orders to infiltrate the enclave. That didn’t change the fact the last time Wu and Knox saw her alive, she was being gutted by Cole. Intellectually, they might understand she had ceased to exist before that point, but emotionally, I feared they might never be able to look at him without hostility, without seeing her final moments replay in their heads, but he wasn’t the only one to blame. Taking her down had been a group effort. “They were all born in the enclave. Knox and I handpicked them to join Father’s cause because they could pass for full-blooded Malakhim. Some have been embedded in Ezra’s ranks for a century or more.

” The news they were Wu’s kin didn’t comfort as much as it might have once, but it explained why they were flexible enough in their beliefs to join with us, and why The Hole’s destruction hit them so hard. “Why pull them out now?” Wu was big on reminding me the world would keep on spinning long after we were gone. He never let small things, like mass murder, derail his vision. The man possessed more contingency plans than I owned long-sleeved shirts. “This is the best chance we’re ever going to get to end this. I’m pooling my resources.” Never had I wished more for Deland Bruster and his particular skillset, but he was one of a kind on this terrene, and he was dead. Sariah killed him. There would be no soul-deep probes to determine motives or authenticity. We had to rely on our guts and hope for the best.

“Can we trust them?” Double agent was a dangerous game to play, and quitting wasn’t always an option. “Yes.” Wu kept the emotion out of his voice, which only served to emphasize the lack. “I vetted them myself.” The endorsement wasn’t as much of a gold standard as he must have thought, not as far as we were concerned. We didn’t know his agenda beyond deposing his father, and that was troubling. His life was forfeit if his plan to seal this world from the ones above and below it succeeded, and his death, on the heels of Ezra’s, would leave a gaping hole in the charun hierarchy of this world. Wu had his own end game in mind, but he hadn’t shared his vision with me. Done with the conversation, or his inability to participate in it, Cole dove for the widest clear space available, leaving Wu to hover alone while he carved a downward path toward the waiting Malakhim. “Trained Malakhim might come in handy,” Santiago mused.

“They could protect Canton from another attack until we need them for active duty.”

.

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