Inferno – Julie Kagawa

Tramping through the jungle for hours on end was not my idea of a good time. It was hot, insanely so. Normally, heat didn’t bother me, but the humidity level beneath the canopy had been cranked up to like two hundred percent. It felt as if I was walking, and breathing, through a wet, heavy blanket. My clothes—the olive drab shirt, cargo pants, even the socks in my combat boots —were damp with sweat, and tying my hair back did not prevent it from hanging in my eyes and sticking to my forehead. Insects droned in my ears, in the trees, everywhere around us—a constant, high-pitched buzz that faded into background noise unless you concentrated on it. Behind me, Garret moved like a shadow, making virtually no sound as he glided through the undergrowth. I couldn’t see him without turning, but I knew he was there. I could sense him—the steady rise and fall of his breath, the heartbeat thumping quietly beneath his jacket. Lately, I didn’t even have to look at him to know where he was; his presence, both in my thoughts and in the world around me, became more prominent with every passing day. I knew he was worried. Not for us and our situation, though as always he remained hypervigilant and alert to our surroundings. But I knew his thoughts were back home, with the Order and the people we’d left behind. I couldn’t blame him. Across a continent, a war was brewing.

Back in the States, Talon was on the move, and though we didn’t know their plans, we did know they had a massive clone army, a huge force of dragons bred for war, programmed to follow orders without fail. They had already used that army to wipe out the Order of St. George, striking a devastating blow against their greatest enemies, nearly destroying them completely. The Order, what was left of it, was in shambles. Talon stood unopposed to do whatever horrible thing they were planning. And where were we? Tromping through the deepest, darkest parts of the Amazon jungle, fighting bugs and vines and heat exhaustion, searching for something that should not exist. Ahead of us, Riley followed our guide down a narrow, winding trail that could barely be called a path, cutting through vines and undergrowth with machete in hand. Though the rogue was putting up a good front, he was worried, too. Garret wasn’t the only one to leave people behind. Riley’s underground—his network of rogues and the hatchlings who’d escaped Talon—was in danger, too, as the organization was systematically eliminating every dragon who didn’t conform to Talon.

This trip almost hadn’t happened. Riley had been extremely reluctant to leave his underground, consenting only when Wes and Jade both told him to go, that they would take care of the hatchlings and the rogues. In the end, Riley had agreed, but I could tell he wanted to get this over with as soon as possible and return to the network he’d left behind. I knew Garret felt the same about the Order. But this was important. Whether we liked it or not, the war with Talon had come, and the organization was poised to unleash destruction upon everything we cared about. We needed all the allies we could get, and if this lead turned out to be real, then it just might give us a chance. Not a great one, but it would level the playing field a bit. The guide, tall and rawboned and carrying a machete much like Riley’s, suddenly paused. The trail ahead had been blocked by a tangle of vines and branches, so with a quick “One moment, please,” he went to work hacking through the undergrowth.

Riley, rather than standing back, joined him, and together they started slicing through the tangle in short order. After stripping off my rucksack, I rummaged in the pocket and pulled out a canteen, feeling the heat and humidity pulsing from my skin. I took a few sips, then handed the container to Garret, who accepted it with a nod of thanks. “Well…” I sighed, leaning back against a thick, gnarled tree. Above me, the trunk soared into the air until it joined the canopy far overhead. Insects flitted through the branches, and only a few patches of sunlight made their way down from the blanket of leaves above us. “This isn’t the way I thought I would spend my weekend.” I took a breath, and it was like breathing the air in a steam room. “Airconditioning is a wonderful, wonderful invention, Garret,” I told him. “How did we ever get by without it?” Garret offered a faint smile as he handed the canteen back.

He looked natural out here, in his boots and camo jacket, pale blond hair cut short. He looked like a soldier. “I thought dragons liked the heat,” he said with a glance at the guide, still whacking vegetation with Riley. I sniffed, crouching down to stuff the canteen back in the rucksack. “Yes, well, most people think we like sitting on piles of gold in dark, dreary caves. You don’t see us doing that anymore, do you? Especially since we can track our funds from a computer, in the comfort of an air-conditioned office.” A mosquito the size of my thumb landed on my arm, looking hungry, and I slapped it away. “And maybe it’s made us soft, but I for one am glad that we’ve caught on to the conveniences of modern life. Air-conditioning and indoor plumbing beats sitting in a cave full of treasure any day.” Garret’s voice turned serious.

“Not all dragons think that apparently.” “No.” I shivered a little as I rose and pulled the rucksack over my shoulders once more. The jungle seemed to close around us, reminding me why we were here. “I guess not.” Riley walked back to us, breathing hard. He had tied a bandanna around his head to keep his hair back, but a few dark strands had poked out and stuck to his forehead. The white tank beneath his open, long-sleeved shirt was streaked with moisture. For the briefest of moments, in the shadows of the canopy, his eyes glimmered gold. Warmth fluttered somewhere deep inside me, like a candle dancing in the breeze.

The Sallith’tahn, the life-mate bond, telling me that Riley—or rather Cobalt—was my Draconic other half. But it was weaker now. Barely a flicker, when before it had been a rushing, surging inferno of heat and desire. I had broken the Sallith’tahn. I, as a dragon, had decided to be with someone else. To choose love over instinct. I suspected the Sallith’tahn thing would never truly go away, and I doubted Riley would ever forgive me for rejecting him but, for now at least, the war and the threat of Talon took precedence over our petty squabbles and jealousy. We had to work together to survive. Alone, we didn’t stand a chance. “Our guide says we’re almost there,” Riley informed us, unscrewing the cap of his own canteen.

“Another forty-five minutes to an hour, according to him.” He took a few quick swallows from the container, then raked a sleeve across his face. “Man, I forgot how sucky the jungle is. Good thing Wes isn’t here. He’d never stop complaining. Still have that compass, St. George?” “Yes.” Garret frowned slightly. “Why? We have a guide.” “Not anymore.

” Riley turned to glare at the guide, who was still hacking through vegetation and deliberately not looking at us. “There’s some kind of statue marking the trail about a mile from here, and from then on, we’re on our own. He says the path keeps going, but he flat-out refuses to venture beyond that point.” “He’s leaving?” I scowled. “That wasn’t the deal.” “Apparently it was.” Riley replaced the cap and slung the canteen over his shoulder, his own expression disgusted. “He said he would take us as far as he could. Well, that’s as far as he’s willing to take us.” “Why?” “Because, in his own words, beyond the statue is the territory of a god.

” A chill crept up my back, even in the suffocating heat, and I swallowed. “Then I guess we’re on the right trail.” “Yep.” Riley rubbed the back of his skull, looking both nervous and annoyed about being nervous. “Never did like the idea of meeting a god. Somehow, I get the feeling gods just don’t like me very much.” “You?” Garret asked, the hint of a smile crossing his face. “With your complete disdain for authority figures? I don’t see why that would be.” “Ha, ha, laugh now, St. George.

We’ll see how funny it is when we’re all piles of dust being scattered by the wind.” We started off again, walking single file down the narrow path, following our guide toward the territory of a god. If possible, the jungle got even thicker, more tangled, with branches and vines clawing at us from either side of the trail. Our guide came to a sudden stop and murmured something I couldn’t understand. Ahead, sitting to one side of the tiny path, a stone statue rose out of a cluster of vines and roots, the snarling visage of some scaly, horned creature peering out at us. Riley cocked his head at the statue. “Huh,” he remarked. “Is that supposed to be a dragon? It looks like a wild pig had a baby with an alligator.” I shook my head at him. “Can you be any more irreverent? I haven’t been struck by lightning on this trip yet.

” The guide turned, his dark face solemn in the shadows of the undergrowth. “This is as far as I go,” he said. “From this point on, you only have to follow the path. I will wait here until your business is complete.” Riley frowned. “I thought you said you served this master or god or whatever you call him.” “I do. But I am simply his voice outside of the jungle. Only those who have been invited can step into his territory unharmed. Therefore, I will wait for you here.

If you do not return by sunset, I will know you are not coming back. Now, go.” He nodded down the trail. “My master is not a patient god. It would be unwise to incur his wrath.” We went, slipping deeper into the jungle, venturing into the unknown. Into the territory of a god. Almost immediately, I knew something was wrong. My dragon instincts stirred, edgy and restless, though I couldn’t see anything unusual. But I could feel eyes on me.

I could sense something watching us, stalking us down the trail, keeping just out of sight. Garret moved closer, walking by my side, even down the narrow path. His eyes were hard as he murmured, “Something is following us.” “Yeah,” I whispered back. My hand twitched, wanting to reach for the Glock hidden beneath my shirt, but I didn’t want to give away that we knew we were being stalked. “Should we tell Riley?” “He knows,” Garret replied, keeping his gaze straight ahead. His posture was calm, but I could sense the tension in him, ready to explode into action. “Stay alert. Be ready to move when it happens.” As he said this, we entered a clearing, and figures melted out of the undergrowth.

Tall, slender, with only a strip of cloth tied around their waists, they moved like ghosts, making virtually no noise as they stepped forward. Before we could say anything, they had surrounded us, and a dozen bonetipped spears were leveled at our hearts. GARRET Two weeks earlier I stood in Gabriel Martin’s office, watching as the lieutenant walked into the room with a slight limp. He shuffled around the desk, then sat down with a grimace and eyed me across the wood. I stood calmly at attention, mostly out of habit, until he waved me into a seat. “Sebastian,” he greeted as I settled into the chair. “You’ve come from the infirmary, yes? How is St. Anthony?” “The same, sir,” I replied. Tristan St. Anthony still lay in a coma, unmoving and unresponsive, much as he had the past two days.

The fact that he was still alive at all was either a testament to his hardheadedness or his extremely good luck, for many of his severely wounded brothers had not survived that first night. “Stubborn bastard. He would have to make things difficult. The medic is going to give me an earful about moving him, I’m sure.” Martin half smiled, then shook his head with a sigh. “We’re leaving, Sebastian,” he went on, sobering as he looked at me. “We’re too exposed here. Our numbers have been depleted, our defenses broken, and Talon still knows where we are. If they attack again, there is no way any of us will survive another round.” “Yes, sir,” I replied.

I’d suspected as much. Martin was right to leave, to gather the remaining soldiers and retreat to fight another day. We couldn’t stand against Talon, not like this. I didn’t like the idea of abandoning the base to the enemy, but I knew we had little choice. “Where will you go?” “Somewhere Talon won’t find us.” Martin sighed. “The Order has several locations throughout the country, emergency safe houses that are meant to be used as a last resort. We’ve never had need of them, until now. I plan to fall back to one of them, regroup and see about contacting the rest of the Order. If anyone in St.

George survived, they’ll be doing the same.” “Do you think there could be other survivors?” “God, I hope so,” Martin said. “We can’t be the only ones left. There have to be others—even a handful is better than none. Talon couldn’t have destroyed every single soul in St. George. What about your dragons?” he asked. “What will they be doing?” “Riley is planning to leave, as well, sir.” For the past two days, the rogue leader and the other dragons had been staying in the empty officers’ quarters at the far end of the compound. There were too few St.

George soldiers left alive to even think about harassing them, but the dragons stayed deliberately isolated from the rest of the base. Dragons being allowed on St. George soil was still an alien concept to most of the soldiers, and neither Martin nor Riley wanted to take any chances. Soldiers were not allowed to venture to the “dragon’s side” of the compound, and the rogue leader had forbidden any contact with the rest of the base. Riley himself stayed as far away from the soldiers as possible, his inherent distrust of St. George and the desire to protect his underground making him reluctant to interact with humans, even Martin. Only Ember went between the two sides without fear, acting as a liaison between dragons and St. George, relaying messages and updates to them both. There had been hard eyes and wary glances whenever she walked across the yard or into a room, but so far there had been no real problems with having a dragon stroll freely through Order territory. Of course, the remaining soldiers having seen the red dragon lead a counterattack against the horde that would have otherwise destroyed the base didn’t hurt.

Perceptions were changing. Slowly. Many of the soldiers’ attitudes had downgraded from openly hostile to merely suspicious. No one but Martin had spoken to Ember or the rest of the dragons since they’d arrived, but no one had openly threatened or mocked them, either. It was the best I could hope for.

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