Soldier Page 1




The world was on fire.

Flames surrounded him, crackling in his ears, filling the air with heat and smoke. Coughing, the boy huddled in a corner the fire hadn’t reached yet, tears streaming painfully down his cheeks, burning his eyes. He couldn’t breathe. Everything was so hot; sweat poured off his small body and drenched his clothes. Gasping, he crawled toward an open closet on the far wall, wanting only to escape, to hide in the beckoning darkness and hope it all went away.


A blurry form moved across his field of vision, and someone swept him off the floor. Instantly, he relaxed, burying his face in her neck as she clutched him tight. He was safe now. As long as she was here, he was safe.

“Hold on, baby,” she whispered above him, and he squeezed his eyes shut as she began to run. Heat pressed against his back and arms and scalded his bare legs, but he wasn’t afraid anymore. Somewhere close, he heard shouting and gunfire, but he didn’t care about that. Now that she had found him, everything would be okay.

A cool breeze hit his skin, and he peeked up from her shoulder. They had left the building; he could see it burning behind him, orange-and-red tongues of fire snapping overhead. The shooting and screaming got closer, and a couple people went rushing past them, toward the noise and the chaos. A deafening boom rocked the earth behind them, and he flinched.

“It’s okay,” she murmured, stroking his hair. He could feel her heartbeat, thudding rapidly against his chest as she staggered down the road. “It’s okay, Garret, we’re okay. We just have to find Daddy and—”

There was a roar above them. He looked up just as something huge and terrifying swooped down on black leathery wings, and the world cut out like a light.

* * *

“Ladies and gentlemen, at this time we’re beginning our descent into Heathrow Airport. Please return to your seats and make sure your seat belts are securely fastened.”

As the captain’s voice drifted over the intercom, I opened my eyes and blinked as the plane came into focus. The aisle was dim, with only a few reading lights shining here and there. Outside the window, a faint pink glow had crept over the distant horizon, staining the clouds below it red. Most everyone was asleep, including the elderly woman in the seat beside mine. The engines droned in my ears as I yawned and shook my head. Had I dozed off? That wasn’t like me, even on a ten-hour flight over the Atlantic Ocean.

The remnants of a dream lingered in my mind, familiar and disturbing at the same time. Heat and smoke, fire and gunshots, a woman carrying me to safety, the roar of a dragon in my ears. I’d had this nightmare before; for years my sleep had been plagued with death and flames and, above all, dragons. The frequency of the nightmares had faded with time, but every so often, I’d be right back in that burning room as a four-year-old, a woman I no longer remembered carrying me to safety, the screams of dying men echoing all around us.

And my first glimpse of the monster I’d soon dedicate my whole life to fighting, descending on us with a roar. That was where the dream, and the memory, ended. How I’d escaped certain fiery death, no one really knew. The Order had told me I’d repressed that memory; that it wasn’t uncommon in children who’d experienced something traumatic. They’d said I didn’t speak for three days after they’d rescued me.

I supposed there were few things more traumatic than watching your mother die in the jaws of a dragon.

I leaned back in my seat and gazed out the window. Far, far below, I could see glimmers of light where a few hours ago there had been nothing but darkness. I’d be happy to get on the ground again, to be able to move around instead of sitting in a tiny cramped space surrounded by strangers. The woman beside me had talked nonstop at the beginning of the flight, saying I reminded her of her grandson, showing me pictures of her various family members, lamenting that they never visited anymore. When the pictures had run out, she’d started asking questions about me, how old was I, where were my parents, was I traveling overseas all by myself, until I put in earbuds and feigned sleep in self-defense. I’d heard her mutter “poor dear” before she’d dug a crossword book out of her purse and scribbled in silence until she dozed off. I’d been careful not to wake her while she slept and to appear engaged in other things when she was awake, on the long, long flight across the Atlantic.

The plane shuddered as it hit a patch of rough air, and the woman beside me muttered but didn’t open her eyes. Leaning my head against the window, I watched the lights scroll past hundreds of feet below. Do dragons ever fly this high? my tired mind wondered.