Soldier, p.11
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       Soldier, p.11

         Part #3 of Talon series by Julie Kagawa
 
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  I followed her, peeling back doors beneath the countertops as we crossed the room, shattering glass vials and knocking aside plastic bottles as we went. We fled the main floor through the door with the glass wall, and took cover behind the broken glass cylinder, breathing hard. Flashlights scuttled over the door frame, footsteps echoed down the hall and shadows appeared through the frame. I hunkered down, heart pounding, as St. George drew closer to our hiding place.

  Dammit. Still no way out.

  “We’re not going to make it this time, are we?” Ember’s voice was eerily calm. The red dragon crouched beside me, observing the soldiers’ approach with glittering green eyes. A few entered the room, M4s leading the way, while others formed a line in front of the door, blocking the way out. “There’s too many of them. No flying, no back door, nowhere to go but through St. George.”

  “Ember.” I unfurled a wing, draping it over her and pulling her close. She shivered, pressing into my ribs, and heat roared through my insides. “I’m sorry,” I whispered. “I never wanted this for you. This life... I knew it was going to kill me in the end. I wish you didn’t have to be here when it finally caught up.”

  Ember’s tail coiled with mine. “I wouldn’t have changed it.”

  The soldiers were almost to our hiding spot, flashlight beams crawling on the walls overhead, booted feet stomping against the tile. They were coming slower now, being cautious, knowing we were close. It was dangerous to continue speaking, though I had so much I wanted to say. A white beam sliced past, illuminating the shattered glass, and I ducked my head, heart racing, until it passed.

  Ember gave a throaty, defiant growl, and for a moment, I closed my eyes, just feeling her against me. This would be the last time I saw her like this, in her beautiful true form. Unless Wes came charging in with a bazooka—very unlikely—or all of St. George had a sudden, miraculous change of heart, luck wasn’t going to help us, not this time. So, that left me. To save my hatchlings and my underground, even if I couldn’t be there anymore. “Wait for them to start chasing me,” I told Ember, ignoring her frown of confusion. I heard shots outside the door, probably more St. George soldiers on the way, and I tensed for a final, desperate lunge. “I’ll take as many of them down as I can. You just go for the door. If you see Wes again, do me a favor and tell him thanks, for everything.”

  Before she could say anything, I jumped out with a roar, straight into the line of oncoming soldiers, and smoke erupted around me.

  EMBER

  I realized what the rogue was saying a second too late. With a defiant roar, Cobalt leaped out of cover, straight at the line of St. George soldiers and their guns. Heart seizing, I lunged after him, hoping to get to him in time, knowing it was too late. That I was a heartbeat away from seeing the brave, brash, infuriating rogue gunned down right in front of me.

  Time seemed to slow. Just as Cobalt sprang into the open, something tiny sailed through the air and landed between him and the soldiers with a clink. There was a deafening hiss, and white smoke erupted from the object, spraying everywhere and filling the room. Shots rang out from somewhere in the fog, and two of the soldiers I could still see jerked and went down.

  “We’re under attack! Take cover!”

  More shots cracked, the triple tap of burst fire, and another soldier cried out. Utterly bewildered, I looked around for Cobalt and found him crouched nearby, glaring around warily, clearly as shocked as I was.

  “Ember! Riley!”

  The breath left my lungs in a forceful explosion. That voice. No, it couldn’t be. He was gone. I’d sent him away myself.

  And then, a body emerged from the smoke, M4 in hand, firing into the corners of the room, face grim and determined. For a second, nothing seemed real, as a pair of familiar gunmetal eyes met mine.

  “Come on!” Garret Xavier Sebastian snapped, gesturing at us with the gun. “While they’re disoriented! Let’s go!”

  PART II

  UNDER ONE BANNER

  SEBASTIAN

  Six years ago

  “Garret, are you listening to me?”

  I tore my eyes from the window and the ancient Spanish-style monastery looming at the end of the drive. Surrounded by a high stone wall, red tiled roofs peeking over the top, it was an intriguing sight, especially since the number of times I had been outside the Order chapterhouse where I had lived until today could be counted on my fingers.

  “Yes, sir,” I said, turning to Benedict, who glared at me from behind the wheel of the Jeep. “I’m listening.”

  “Really? Repeat what I just said.”

  “Formal training has already started,” I recited. “I’ll be joining the classes late.”

  “And?”

  “The Headmaster’s name is Robert St. Julian. He fought the dragons until he lost his arm in battle, but he’ll still kick my ass in sparring any day of the week. So be respectful when speaking to him.”

  “And?”

  “Work hard, follow commands and don’t talk about the Order to outsiders. Sir.”

  “Hmph.” Benedict grunted, reluctantly appeased, and didn’t say anything else. Careful not to let any triumph show on my face, I went back to gazing out the window as we pulled to a stop at the huge wooden gate guarding the entrance to the monastery. It creaked open, and we rolled into a large courtyard with a single gnarled banyan tree in the center, outstretched branches mottling the ground with shade. It was a cold, wintry morning, and no one was around. We parked the Jeep, and I grabbed my duffel bag from the back before following Benedict across the grounds to the largest stone building at the end of the walk.

  Inside, the rooms were dim and cool, the white stucco walls bare of adornments, windows or decorations. We marched down a corridor in silence until we came to a heavy wooden door at the end of the passage. Benedict knocked twice, and a quiet “Enter” drifted through the wood. Pushing the door back, we stepped into a small, equally bare office, where two men waited for us in the dimly lit room.

  The first man who rose from behind a desk and came forward was dressed in flowing black robes, a simple rope belt tied around his waist and an iron cross hanging at his throat. He was tall, even taller than Benedict, with a long gray beard and a narrow, angular face, eyes peering down at me with the intensity of a hawk. The sleeve of his right arm had been folded and pinned to his shoulder, the fabric hanging limply at his side. A string of wooden beads were entwined in the fingers of his left hand, and they clicked softly as he approached and loomed over me like a grim specter of death.

  “Ah, Garret Xavier Sebastian.” His voice scraped in my ears like a pair of knives. “We meet at last. I am Headmaster St. Julian, and I have been anticipating your arrival for a very long time. Do you know why you are here?”

  “Yes, sir,” I replied, keeping my voice steady and my eyes glued to a point over his left shoulder. “I’m here to learn how to kill dragons.”

  St. Julian laughed, a raspy sound in the small room. “Right to the heart of the matter,” he said, looking at Benedict, standing behind me. “I see this one has no illusions. Have you told him everything?”

  “I told him everything about the war, and what the Order does, sir,” Benedict replied. “I’ve prepared him for this day as best I could. He knows our enemies, and he understands what is at stake. Now, I leave him in your capable hands, to turn into a true soldier for the cause.”

  A quiet chuckle came from the second man in the room. “If I know you, Lucas, the boy can already outshoot and outfight every recruit in his class,” he mused, gazing at me with piercing black eyes. “I hear he could reliably hit the center of a target at fifty paces when he was eight. How old is he now?”

  “Eleven,” Benedict replied.

  The man shook his head. “He’ll already be singled out, coming in late and being younger than everyone by at least a year. You’
re not doing him any favors.”

  “That can’t be helped,” Benedict replied. “I’ve been assigned to the South America mission and I leave the country in a week. They’re not certain how long we’ll be gone—better that he’s here, learning, and not sitting on his bunk, staring at walls. Sebastian is old enough to begin training, and he knows what he has to do. The Headmaster has agreed to take him a year early. He’s learned everything he can with me.

  “Besides,” he continued ruthlessly, “I’ve never done the boy any favors. I don’t want things to be easy for him—I want him to be the best. So make it hard for him. Push him beyond what everyone else can take.” I felt his gaze on the back of my head. “When his training is done, I expect him to be the perfect soldier.”

  The perfect soldier. I swallowed hard. I had to excel, to be the best. The better I was, the sooner I could go to war and start killing the monsters that slaughtered my family.

  “Very well,” the Headmaster said, nodding slowly. “If that is what you wish, Benedict. We will see what your recruit can do.” He turned to me, and there was a new interest in his expression now; a master sizing up his latest apprentice. “I’ll have someone show you to your room,” he said. “Dinner is at five thirty in the main hall, and classes begin promptly at eight a.m. I expect you to be early for both, Sebastian.”

  “Yes, sir.”

  The door opened, and a monk appeared as if summoned by magic. “Please show our newest recruit to his quarters,” the Headmaster told the monk. “I believe there is one room left. The chamber closest to the outer wall. Put him in there.” His hard gray eyes fixed on me once more. “You have until dinner to familiarize yourself with the grounds,” he told me. “Tomorrow morning, if I don’t see you in the correct room on time, your entire class will receive a punishment detail. Succeed or fail together. That is how we do things here, recruit.” He gave a humorless smile that was a clear challenge, an invitation to impress. “Welcome to the Academy of St. George.”

  The monk didn’t take my bag or make any gesture to follow. He simply stood just inside the door with his hands clasped before him, waiting. I turned to Benedict, who gave me a short nod.

  “Work hard,” he told me. “Remember what I taught you. This is what you trained for, what you were always meant to do.”

  “Yes, sir,” I replied simply, and turned away. No goodbyes, no sentimental farewells. I followed the monk into the hall, but paused when my mentor called my name. Lucas Benedict stood in the door frame with a peculiar expression on his face, one that seemed torn between defiance and an almost angry pride. My gut prickled. It wasn’t the first time he had looked at me like that. Every so often, when I did extraordinarily well, or when I recited the St. George teachings I knew by heart, he would smile faintly and nod. As if, despite everyone’s misgivings, I was coming along just fine.

  “Knock ’em dead, soldier,” he stated, and shut the door between us.

  That was the last thing he ever said to me.

  * * *

  “Hey, Sebastian!”

  I looked up warily. It had been three months since my arrival at the academy, and in that time, I’d made as many enemies as I had friends. The school itself was quite small; in my class there were only eight of us. The recruits, I’d learned, were drawn from temples and monasteries around the world. St. George was an ancient order, with ties to the Church and other religious organizations that stretched back for centuries. Every year, a few boys were chosen to serve the Order and were sent to the academy to be raised as soldiers in the holy war against demons. It gave St. George a constant supply of troops while allowing them to control their numbers, as they were still a secret organization and could not afford to draw attention from outsiders. With few exceptions, most of the recruits arrived with little to no training and only the barest knowledge of the war. They knew they had been chosen to battle evil and protect mankind, but didn’t truly understand what it meant to be a soldier of St. George, or the truth of what the Order really fought, until they came to the academy.

  Peter Matthews was an exception.

  He was the son of a lieutenant, part of a family who could trace their ancestry back to the Knights Templars themselves, and he had come to the academy knowing exactly what was expected of him. Much like myself, Matthews had been trained by his father in the ways of St. George. Not only that, he was big for his age, intimidating and a decent shot with a firearm. He had been at the top of his class in nearly every subject.

  Until me.

  Today at the shooting range, Brother Adam had corrected his form, saying he was pulling left because he was overcompensating for the recoil, and Matthews had argued that his form was fine; it was the sight on the gun that was faulty. Adam had then handed the same weapon to me, and I had proceeded to hit the target on every shot. The look on Peter Matthews’s face, as Brother Adam told the rest of the class to follow my example, promised retribution, but I hadn’t thought much of it. I was used to his insults by now, and his anger had never progressed to actual violence. Though that was more due to my never letting him catch me alone and unawares. Sometimes he would meet me in the hall with a hard shove and a warning to watch my step, but it never went further than that. Fighting among recruits was severely punished, and Matthews was careful to give the impression of a model recruit when the instructors were around.

  Today, however, it seemed the festering anger and resentment had finally reached a boiling point because Matthews didn’t look like he was going to be satisfied with a shove and a warning to back off. He stood in the doorway of the bathroom with his palms planted on either side of the frame, blocking the exit. His two friends, Levi Smith and Edwin James, flanked him like attack dogs, but Matthews was bigger than either and was the far greater threat.

  “Think you’re smart?” he demanded, stepping into the room, out of sight of any monks that might catch him loitering in the hall. “What was that today, Sebastian? You think you’re better than me?”

  “No,” I said calmly. “I don’t think I’m better than you. I know I am.”

  He lunged at me, swinging a fist at my face. I ducked my head and raised my arm, taking it on the shoulder rather than the chin, and lashed out with a punch of my own, striking him in the jaw. He staggered back with a yelp, and then his friends were on me, kicking and flailing. I covered my head and backed up, trying to disengage, but the bathroom was small, and I was soon pressed into a corner. Blows hammered down on me, six hard fists striking wherever they could land, but I kept my guard up and threw back punches when I could, trying to protect my face.

  “Enough!”

  My assailants were yanked away, and the rain of blows came to an end. Panting, I looked up to see Brother Eli glaring at us, his large frame a barrier between myself and the others. Levi and Edwin had instantly backed off and were huddled together, looking guilty, but Matthews stared at me with murder in his eyes.

  “What’s going on here?” the monk demanded, as though it wasn’t obvious. My head ached, my mouth tasted like copper and I could feel blood trickling from my nose. But my attackers hadn’t escaped unscathed, either. Matthews’s jaw was already swelling, and Edwin had a split lip that was dripping blood into the collar of his shirt. “Who started this?” Brother Eli asked, eyeing each of us, and our wounds, in turn. “Sebastian? Matthews? I’m waiting.” When we didn’t answer, his voice grew hard. “One of you had better start talking in the next three seconds, or your entire class will be punished for this transgression.”

  “I did, sir,” I said, and he turned on me with a frown. “Matthews and I were having an argument, and I pushed him to fight. I’m the one who started it.”

  “Sebastian.” The monk raised a bushy eyebrow, looking severely unconvinced. I was the quiet one, the boy who spoke only when spoken to. The student who never questioned orders and did exactly what he was told, every time. Fighting with your fellow
recruits was strictly forbidden on monastery grounds, and I hadn’t broken a rule since the day I arrived. It was no secret that Matthews hated me; between us, the guilty party should have been perfectly clear.

  But I knew Matthews would never own up to it, and if somebody didn’t take the fall, the whole squad would suffer. Succeed or fail together, that was part of the Code of St. George, something I took very seriously. I was not here for myself. I was part of something greater, a brotherhood, united under one banner with one purpose. Even at eleven years old, when I didn’t fully understand what was happening, I was starting to think like a soldier. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one. I was there to kill dragons, but I couldn’t do it alone.

  Brother Eli didn’t say anything for a moment, perhaps waiting for Matthews to step forward as well, accept some of the blame. When he didn’t, the monk sighed and gestured to the door.

  “You three, get out of here,” he ordered, scowling at the trio. “If this happens again, I don’t care who started it—you’ll be on kitchen duty for the rest of the year. Out!”

  They scrambled to leave, but not before Matthews shot a last, triumphant smirk in my direction. Then they were gone, and Brother Eli turned to me again. I braced myself for the lecture, for my punishment, but the monk sighed and shook his head, his expression becoming grim.

  “Here,” he said quietly, and pressed a handkerchief into my hand. “Clean yourself up, Sebastian, and follow me. The Headmaster wants to see you.”

  Puzzled, I did as he said, washing the blood from my face before pressing the cloth to my nose. Brother Eli met me in the hall and silently motioned for me to follow. As I trailed him down the corridor, passing students and other classes still in session, apprehension warred with confusion. Why did the Headmaster want to see me? Had I done something wrong, other than the fight? Did he already know about the incident in the bathroom and want to punish me himself?

 
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