Deserter. Traitor. ROGUE.
Ember Hill left the dragon organization Talon to take her chances with rebel dragon Riley and his crew of rogues. But she can’t forget Garret, the soldier of the dragonslaying Order of St. George who saved her from a Talon assassinand by doing so, signed his own death warrant.
Determined to save Garret from execution, Ember must convince Riley to help her break into the Order’s headquarters. With assassins after them and Ember’s own twin brother helping Talon hunt her down, the rogues find an unexpected ally in Garret and a new perspective on the underground battle between Talon and St. George. Soon Ember must decide: should she retreat to fight another day…or start an all-out war?
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I stood before a silent, watchful table, six pairs of eyes on me, keen gazes ranging from suspicious to appraising as we waited for the charges to be declared. Men in uniforms of black and gray, with the emblem of the Ordera red cross on a white shielddisplayed proudly on their jackets. Their harsh, lined faces reflected a lifetime of war and struggle. Some I knew only by reputation. Others I had trained under, fought for, followed commands from without a second thought. Lieutenant Gabriel Martin sat at one end of the table, his black eyes and blank expression giving nothing away. I'd known him nearly my whole life; he had molded me into what I was today. The Perfect Soldier, as my squad mates had taken to calling me. A nickname I'd picked up during the relatively short time I'd been fighting. Prodigy was another word that had been tossed around over the years, and lucky son of a bitch, if they were feeling less generous. I owed most of my success to Lieutenant Martin, for recognizing something in a quiet, somber orphan and pushing him to try harder, to do more. To rise above everyone else. So I had. I'd killed more enemies of the Order than anyone else my age, and the number would've been much higher had the unexpected not occurred this summer. Regardless of my situation, I had been one of the best, and I had Martin to thank for that.
But the man sitting across the table was a stranger, an impassive judge. He, along with the rest of the men seated there in a row, would decide my fate tonight.
The room in which I stood was small but Spartan, with tile floors, harsh overhead lights, low ceilings and walls with no windows. Normally it was used for debriefings or the occasional meeting, and the long table usually sat in the center surrounded by chairs. Except for the main headquarters in London, Order chapterhouses did not have designated courtrooms. While disorderly conduct among soldiers was expected from time to time, and desertion sometimes reared its ugly head, full-blown treason was unheard of. Loyalty to the cause was something every soldier of St. George understood. To betray the Order was to betray everything.
The man in the very center of the row straightened, eyeing me over the polished wood. His name was John Fischer, and he was a respected captain of the Order and a hero in the field. The left side of his face was a mass of burn scars and puckered flesh, and he wore them like a medal of honor. His steely expression didn't change as he folded his equally scarred hands in front of him and raised his voice.
"Garret Xavier Sebastian." He barked my full name, and the room instantly fell silent. The trial was officially under way. "For disobeying a direct order," Fischer continued, "attacking a squad mate, fraternizing with the enemy and allowing three known hostiles to escape, you are accused of high treason against the Order of St. George." His sharp blue eyes fixed on me, hard and unyielding. "Do you understand the charges brought against you?"
"Very well." He looked at the men sitting in chairs along the far wall behind me, and nodded. "Then we will commence. Tristan St. Anthony, step forward."
There was a squeak as a body rose from a chair, then quiet footsteps clicked across the floor as my former partner came to stand a few feet from my side.
I didn't look at him. I stared straight ahead, hands behind my back, as he did the same. But I could see him in my peripheral vision, a tall, lean soldier several years older than me, his dark hair cropped close. His perpetual smirk had been replaced with a grim line, and his blue eyes were solemn as he faced the table.
"Please inform the court, to the best of your ability, of the events that led up to the night of the raid, and what conspired after."
Tristan hesitated. I wondered what was going through his head in the split second before he would give his testimony. If he had any regrets that it had come to this.
"This summer," Tristan began, his voice matter-of-fact, "Sebastian and I were sent undercover to Crescent Beach, a small town on the California coast. Our orders were specificwe were to infiltrate the town, find a sleeper planted among the population and terminate it."
The man in the center raised a hand. "So, to be clear, Talon had planted one of their operatives in Crescent Beach, and you were sent to find it."
"Yes, sir." Tristan gave a short nod. "We were there to kill a dragon."
A murmur went through the room. From the very first day the Order had been founded, soldiers of St. George had known what we fought for, what we protected, what was at stake. Our war, our holy mission, hadn't changed in hundreds of years. The Order had evolved with the timesfirearms and technology had replaced swords and lancesbut our purpose was still the same. We had one goal, and every soldier dedicated his entire life to that cause.
The complete annihilation of our eternal enemies, the dragons.
The general public knew nothing of our ancient war. The existence of dragons was a jealously guarded secret, on both sides. There were no real dragons in the world today, unless you counted a couple mundane lizard species that were pale shadows of their infamous namesakes. True dragonsthe massive, winged, fire-breathing creatures that haunted the mythology of every culture around the world, from the treasure-loving monsters of Europe to the benevolent rainbringers of the Orientexisted only in legend and story.
And that was exactly what they wanted you to believe.
Just as the Order of St. George had evolved through the years, so had our enemies. According to St. George doctrine, when dragons were on the verge of extinction, they'd made a pact with the devil to preserve their race, gaining the ability to Shift into human form. Whether or not the story was true, the part where they could change their form to appear human was no myth. Dragons were flawless mimics; they looked human, acted human, sounded human, to the point where it was nearly impossible to tell a dragon from a regular, everyday mortal, even if you knew what to search for. How many dragons existed in the world today was anyone's guess; they had woven seamlessly into human society, masquerading as us, hiding in plain sight. Hidden and cloaked, they strove to enslave humanity, to make humans the lesser species. It was our job to find and kill as many of the monsters as we could, in the hopes that one day, we could push their numbers over the brink and firmly into extinction where they belonged.
That was what I'd once believed. Until I met her.
"I've read your report, St. Anthony," Fischer continued. "It says you and Sebastian made contact with the suspect and began your investigation."
"Yes, sir," Tristan agreed. "We made contact with Ember Hill, and Garret began establishing a relationship, per orders, to determine if she was the sleeper."
Ember. Her name sent a little pulse through my stomach. Before the events of Crescent Beach, I'd known who I wasa soldier of St. George. My mission was to make contact with the target, determine if it was a dragon and kill it. Clear-cut. Black-and-white. Simple.
Only it wasn't so simple. The target we'd been sent to destroy turned out to be a girl. A cheerful, daring, funny, beautiful girl. A girl who loved to surf, who taught me how to surf, who challenged me, made me laugh and surprised me every time I was with her. I'd been expecting a ruthless, duplicitous creature that could only imitate human emotion. But Ember was none of those things.
Fischer continued to address Tristan. "And what did you determine?" he asked, speaking more for the benefit of the court, I suspected. "Was this girl the sleeper?"
Tristan stared straight ahead, his expression grave. "Yes, sir," he replied, and a shiver ran through me. "Ember Hill was the dragon we were sent to eliminate."
"I see." Fischer nodded. The entire room was silent; you could hear a fly buzzing around the window. "Please inform the court," Fischer said quietly, "what happened the night of the raid. When you and Sebastian tracked the sleeper to the beach after the failed strike on the hideout."
I swallowed, bracing to hear my betrayal lined out for everyone, play-by-play. The night that had brought me here, the decision that had changed everything.
"We'd found the target's hideout," Tristan began, his voice coolly professional. "A nest of at least two dragons, possibly more. It was a standard raidgo in, kill the targets, get out. But they must've had surveillance set up around the house. They were in the process of fleeing when we went in. We wounded one, but they still managed to escape."
My stomach churned. I had led that strike. The targets had "escaped" because I'd seen Ember in that house, and I'd hesitated. My orders had been to shoot on sightanything that moved, human or dragon, I was supposed to gun down, no questions asked.
But I hadn't. I'd stared at the girl, unable to make myself pull the trigger. And that moment of indecision had cost us the raid, as Ember had Shifted to her true form and turned the room into a blazing inferno. During the fiery confusion, she and the other dragons had fled out the back and off a cliff, and the mansion had burned to the ground.
No one suspected what had happened in the room, that I'd seen Ember over the muzzle of my gun and had frozen. No one knew that the Perfect Soldier had faltered for the very first time. That in that moment, my world and everything I'd ever known had cracked.
But that was nothing compared to what had happened next.
"So the strike was a failure," Fischer said, and I winced inside at the word. "What happened after that?"
For the briefest of moments, Tristan's gaze flicked to me. Almost too fast to be seen, but it still made my heart pound. He knew. Maybe not the whole affair, but he knew something had happened to me after the failed strike. For a short time after the raid, while headquarters was deciding what to do about the escaped dragons, I'd disappeared. Tristan had found me a while later, and we'd gone after the targets together, but by that time, the damage was done.
What had happened after the raid, I'd never told anyone. Later that night, I'd called Ember, asked her to meet me on an isolated bluff, alone. I'd been wearing my helmet and mask during the raid; she hadn't known I was part of St. George. From the hurried tone of her voice, I had guessed she was planning to leave town, possibly with her brother, now that she knew St. George was in the area. But she'd agreed to meet with me one last time. Probably to say goodbye.
I'd been planning to kill her. It was my fault the mission had failed; it was my responsibility to fix it. She was a dragon, and I was St. George. Nothing else mattered. But, once again, staring at the green-eyed girl down the barrel of my gun, the girl who'd taught me to surf and dance and sometimes smiled just for me I couldn't do it. It was more than a moment's hesitation. More than a heartbeat of surprise. I'd stood face-to-face with the target I had been sent to Crescent Beach to destroythe girl I knew was my enemyand I could not make myself pull the trigger.
And that was when she'd attacked. One moment I was drawing down a wide-eyed human girl, the next I was on my back, pinned by a snarling red dragon, its fangs inches from my throat. In that moment, I'd known I was going to die, torn apart by claws or incinerated with dragonfire. I had dropped my guard, left myself open, and the dragon had responded as any of its kind would when faced with St. George. Strangely enough, I'd felt no regret.
And then, as I'd lain helpless beneath a dragon and braced myself for death, the unthinkable had happened.
She'd let me go.
Nothing had driven her off. No one from St. George had arrived in the nick of time to save me. We'd been alone, miles from anything. The bluff had been dark, deserted and isolated; even if I'd screamed, there'd been nothing, no one, to hear it.
Except the dragon. The ruthless, calculating monster that was supposed to despise mankind and possess no empathy, no humanity, whatsoever. The creature that hated St. George above all else and showed us no pity, gave no quarter or forgiveness. The target I'd lied to, the girl I'd pursued with the sole intent of destroying her, who could have ended my life right then with one quick slash or breath. The dragon who had a soldier of St. George beneath its claws, completely at its mercy had deliberately backed off and let me go.
And I had realized the Order was wrong. St. George taught us that dragons were monsters. We killed them without question, because there was nothing to question. They were alien, Other. Not like us.
Only they were. Ember had already shaken every belief the Order had instilled in me about dragons; that she'd spared my life was the final blow, the proof I couldn't ignore. Which meant that some of the dragons I'd killed in the past, gunned down without thought because the Order had told me to, might've been like her.
And if that was the case, I had a lot of innocent blood on my hands.
"After the raid," Tristan said, continuing to address the table, "Garret and I were ordered to follow Ember Hill in the hopes that she would lead us to the other targets. We tracked her to a beach on the edge of town, where she did indeed meet with two other dragons. A juvenile and an adult."
Another murmur ran through the courtroom. "An adult," Fischer confirmed, while the rest of the table looked grim. Full-grown adult dragons were rarely seen; the oldest dragons were also the most secretive, keeping to the shadows, hiding deep within their organization. The Order knew Talon's leader was an extremely old, extremely powerful dragon called the Elder Wyrm, but no one had ever laid eyes on it.
"Yes, sir," Tristan went on. "We were to observe and report if the target revealed itself as a dragon, and all three were in their true forms when we got there. I informed Commander St. Francis at once and received the order to shoot on sight." He paused, and Fischer's eyes narrowed.
"What happened then, soldier?"
"Garret stopped me, sir. He prevented me from taking the shot."
"Did he give any reason for his actions?"
"Yes, sir." Tristan took a deep breath, as if the next words were difficult to say. "He told me that the Order was wrong."
Silence fell. A stunned, brittle silence that raised the hair on the back of my neck. To imply that the Order was mistaken was to spit on the code that the first knights had implemented centuries ago. The code that denounced dragons as soulless wyrms of the devil and their human sympathizers as corrupted, beyond hope.
"Is there anything else?" Fischer's expression was cold, mirroring the looks of everyone at the table. Tristan paused again, then nodded.
"Yes, sir. He said that he wouldn't let me kill the targets, that some dragons weren't evil and that we didn't have to slaughter them. When I tried to reason with him, he attacked me. We fought, briefly, and he knocked me out."