Soldier, p.12
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       Soldier, p.12

         Part #3 of Talon series by Julie Kagawa
 
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  When we reached the Headmaster’s office, Brother Eli simply nodded for me to go in. Stuffing the bloody handkerchief in my pocket, I walked to the door and knocked twice, hearing the familiar “Enter” a moment later. I pushed back the door and saw Headmaster St. Julian standing before his desk with a man I’d seen once before, when I first arrived with Benedict. Like Brother Eli, both looked grave as they stared at me, and my heart started an irregular thud in my chest.

  “Recruit Sebastian.” The Headmaster motioned me forward with a withered hand. “Please come inside.” I did as I was told and stood at attention before the desk, while the door creaked on its hinges and clicked shut behind me.

  “At ease,” the Headmaster said, and I relaxed my posture, though everything inside me was still tense. The Headmaster nodded to the man beside him. “Sebastian, this is Lieutenant Gabriel Martin, of the Order’s Western Chapterhouse. I don’t believe you have formally met.”

  “No, sir,” I replied, glancing at the lieutenant. St. George was a small organization and didn’t follow the structure of modern armies with tens of thousands of troops, but it was, in fact, an army. The lieutenants commanded the soldiers of the various chapterhouses throughout the country and were responsible for a unit’s training and general preparedness. Above them were the captains, and above them, the Patriarch himself.

  The lieutenant smiled, but it was a tight, painful smile, as if he would rather be anywhere else. “If you’ll excuse us, Headmaster,” he murmured, and the other man nodded. Rising from the desk, he gave me a brief, unreadable look and left me alone with Lieutenant Martin.

  I waited until the Headmaster had gone and the door had closed behind him, before turning to the lieutenant. “Am I in trouble, sir?” I asked quietly.

  “No.” Gabriel Martin shook his head. “No, Garret, you’re not in trouble. Lucas Benedict was a good friend of mine. He’s the reason I’m here. He made me promise that if anything happened to him...” He paused, and in that moment, I knew what had happened. Why he’d come.

  “Garret.” I heard Martin sigh. “Lucas Benedict...was killed last week in battle. He was in South America on a mission for the Order, and his squad was ambushed by the enemy. There were no survivors.”

  My stomach dropped, and for a moment, everything inside me went numb. Benedict had never been a father to me, he’d made that clear himself. My whole life, all of our interactions had been strictly student to teacher, and he’d kept me at arm’s length with professional detachment, never getting too close. But he had always been there. And there were times when that mask would slip and he would look at me with pride. Almost with affection. It hadn’t been much, but it had been enough.

  Now he was gone. For the second time in my life, I was an orphan.

  It took several breaths before I could ask, “Was...was it the dragons?”

  “Not directly,” Martin replied in a solemn voice. “The target they were looking for was not at the location, but it had left servants behind. Lucas was leading the squad when the ambush happened. He was shot and killed instantly.”

  “So, it was Talon.”

  “Garret.” Martin stepped forward, pulled up a chair and sat in it so that we were the same height. “Listen to me. I’ve known Lucas a long time. He was a good soldier and an excellent leader. When you first came to us and he took you in, I thought he was crazy. But I’ve watched you through the years, and now, I understand what he saw. You have the potential to become something incredible. Not just a soldier.” His dark gaze sharpened. “A leader. A champion for St. George. I know this news comes as a shock and, believe me, I wish I didn’t have to deliver it. But Lucas wanted you to continue. Not only that, he wanted you to excel. To be the best there is.” Those piercing eyes softened, though his voice remained stern. “Do you understand?”

  “Yes, sir,” I replied, and my voice was calm. Steady. The soldier Benedict would have wanted. “I understand. Am I dismissed?”

  He nodded. “The Headmaster has freed you from the rest of your classes today. I’ll be back tomorrow morning to pick you up. I assume you want to attend the funeral.” He rose heavily and placed a hand on my shoulder. “The Order has lost a great man,” he murmured, regarding me with somber black eyes. “But the war isn’t over. And the dragons haven’t destroyed him completely. At least, not yet.”

  And he was gone.

  Numb, I returned to my quarters. Monks and teachers saw me in the halls, clearly heading away from my scheduled classes, but no one asked where I was going. Peter Matthews passed me in the courtyard and threw out a jeer, smug and challenging. I ignored him. He was not important, not anymore. I kept walking, head high and expression neutral, until I reached my quarters at the very end of the hall and slipped inside.

  Only when I was alone in my tiny chambers and the door had shut firmly behind me did I sink onto the cot, pull my knees to my chest and let the tears come. No one would see me cry, and I knew he wouldn’t want me to cry, but I couldn’t help myself. Even though the shame of my tears burned nearly as bright as the sorrow. Another life the dragons had taken from me, one more they had stolen without a thought. I wouldn’t let them get away with it. I’d pay my last respects to my mentor, thank him for everything he’d taught me, and then I would return to my training with renewed purpose. Our enemies—my enemies—wouldn’t win. The demon lizards had hurt me for the last time. Now, they had a new foe, and I would make sure they remembered my name when I destroyed them on the battlefield.

  I would work hard.

  I would excel.

  I would become the perfect soldier.

  GARRET

  “Gunfire,” Jade murmured beside me.

  I clenched my jaw, feeling the tension in my shoulders spread to all parts of my body. We’d been driving all day, setting a frantic, exhausting pace toward our destination, and those were the first words Jade had spoken for several hours. Since departing England, the Asian dragon had been a quiet but efficient travel companion, content to hang back and follow my lead in an unfamiliar country. She had ordered her two monks to stay in London, to keep an eye on the Order and the Patriarch, and inform her if there were any changes. Jade herself was so still and quiet, I’d almost forgotten she was there. Of course, I wasn’t in the clearest state of mind, either. Since landing, I had only one thing on my mind: getting to Ember before the Order did. I didn’t know how much time I had to warn them, if they were being shot down even as I sped down the highway, helpless to do anything else. I couldn’t even call them. Not for the first time, I wished I had Ember’s number, or even Riley’s. Cutting myself off from my dragon comrades had been a terrible mistake; I would happily call Riley and endure his mockery and disdain if it meant I could warn Ember.

  Ember, I thought, staring at the highway through the windshield. Please be all right. Let me get to you in time.

  A distant report echoed over the buildings, slicing through me like a knife and making my heart skip. Immediately, I slowed and pulled the car to the side of the narrow private road, as several weaker but undeniable pops joined the first, coming from the buildings beyond the chain-link fence that surrounded the abandoned industrial park.

  “We’re too late,” Jade murmured, her voice unnaturally calm. “The Order is already here.”

  No. I jumped from my seat and hurried to the trunk to wrench it open, revealing the duffel bag of personal items I’d hidden away before leaving for England. As Jade stepped up beside me, I reached into the bag and pulled out a Kevlar vest, then slipped it on over my shirt. From behind the duffel I drew out an M4, checked the chamber for rounds and slung the strap over my shoulder.

  The Asian dragon’s dark eyes burned into the side of my head. “You realize this is very risky,” she commented, watching as I slid a Glock into the holster at my side. “We are only two bodies. Even if St. George doesn’t expect us, the odds of everyone ma
king it out alive are slim.”

  “I know,” I muttered. “But I’m getting them out. I have to try. Ember would do the same for me.” As a matter of fact, she already did. “I won’t ask you to help me if you’re afraid,” I told the dragon, who regarded me solemnly, “but I’m going ahead, with or without you. So decide. Are you with me, or not?”

  She sighed. “I gave my word that I would help, and a shen-lung is nothing if she does not keep her promises. Even if it means wading into a war zone full of armed human maniacs.” Shaking her head, she gave a wry smile. “So, lead on. I am right behind you.”

  I nodded and held up a second handgun. “You’ll need one of these, then.”

  Her nose wrinkled. “Ah, thank you, but no. Even were I not violently opposed to using a gun, I would not know what to do if I had it. No, mortal.” She shook her head, and her eyes glinted. “I am more than capable of killing humans, without mechanical help.”

  “All right.” I didn’t like it, but I wasn’t going to argue. “Then let’s go.”

  We sprinted for the fence and scrambled over, landing warily on the other side. Hugging the many low, darkened buildings, we headed in the direction from which the gunshots had originated. Though the lot was eerily silent now, and the structures deserted. I wondered if Ember and Riley had come this way, down this very path, thinking nothing was wrong. Not knowing that the Order was watching them, lying in wait to spring their trap. If they had come through here, they wouldn’t have suspected anything. There were too many places to hide; an army would be able to stay concealed until it was too late.

  Peering around a corner, I caught a flash of movement and ducked back, pressing into the wall while Jade flattened herself beside me. I did a quick scan of the area. Rows of long gray warehouse buildings surrounded us and the large white building across the empty lot. NewTech Industries, the sign out front read. Two large delivery trucks sat near the main entrance, and a pair of black SUVs blocked the road to the front.

  “Two assault teams,” I breathed, ducking back. “And another out front, holding the exits. They’re not taking any chances this time.”

  Jade watched me, dark eyes somber. “What does that mean?”

  I jerked my head in the direction of the building. “St. George would have waited until the targets entered the building before getting the order to move,” I said. “If they’d sprung the trap too early, they’d risk the targets flying away. Once inside, they would try to herd them farther in, to lower floors if possible, away from any windows or doors where they could escape. Meanwhile, a third team would be dispatched to block all exits out of the building, and there will be a sniper perched somewhere close by, just in case a target makes it through.”

  Jade listened to this in silence, deliberating. “So, the first thing we need to do is clear the doors,” she said, calm and practical, as if she’d done this many times before. “Perhaps a distraction of some sort, to sow a little chaos in their ranks?” She smiled. “The appearance of another dragon across the lot would certainly cause them to sit up and take notice.”

  “That might work,” I agreed slowly, “but it’ll be dangerous for you. Are you sure you want to risk it?”

  “I believe, to put it in American terms, that ship has already sailed,” Jade said wryly. “I am here. I said I would help. If you need a distraction to reach your friends, I can provide one.”

  “All right.” I nodded. “But I’ll need to take out the sniper before I can even think about getting to the front.” I peered around the corner again, searching the nearby buildings. A two-story warehouse directly across the road from the target building caught my attention, and I nodded grimly. If Tristan is here, that will be his spot. “Wait for my signal,” I told Jade, turning back. “Then see if you can draw the soldiers away from the entrance. They’ll probably call for backup, so be careful.” I shot a quick glance around the corner again, marking the soldier’s location, before ducking back again. “Once the soldiers are engaged,” I went on, “don’t worry about me or the rest of us, just get away from here. If you can make it to the car, drive back to the city and find a crowd. They won’t pursue you there.”

  Jade blinked slowly. “And how will I know you’re not dead?” she asked, narrowing her eyes. “I am putting a lot of faith in you, mortal. I trust you are not going to rush in there, guns blazing, as you cowboys put it, and get yourself shot to pieces. And, if you do make it out, how will I know where to find you again? I don’t know this country at all. I would not know the first place to search.”

  “Once we’re out and it’s safe, I’ll call you with our location.” She gave me a wary look and I held her gaze. “I promise.”

  The dragon sighed. “I suppose I have no choice but to trust you,” she said. “You have proven yourself to be an honorable human so far, even for one who was part of the Order. I do hope this trend continues.” She gave a small nod and drew back a step, preparing to slip away. “I’ll wait for your signal, then. Good luck.”

  I left the corner and circled around the buildings, moving as silently as I could, keeping the walls between myself and the Order. When I reached the back of the warehouse, I slid in through an open window and picked my way across the concrete until I found a flight of metal stairs leading to the second floor. Silently, I ascended the steps, muzzle of the M4 leading the way. The staircase took me to a hall and a row of ancient doors sitting across from each other. All closed tight...except for one.

  I crept down the hall, praying the floorboards wouldn’t creak and give me away, and peered into the room. There was a soldier kneeling at a boarded-up window, the barrel of a sniper rifle poking through the cracks, his attention riveted on the building across from us.

  My stomach knotted, but I took a steady breath and raised my gun, aiming for the back of his head. But as my finger tightened on the trigger, I shifted my weight and the boards under me let out a traitorous squeak. The sniper whirled from the window, hard gaze settling on me, and I was staring into a pair of familiar blue eyes.

  Tristan.

  DANTE

  I stood on the mezzanine, gazing at the floor below, watching a pair of identical humans kick, punch and pummel each other relentlessly.

  “They’re getting much better,” Dr. Olsen murmured beside me, sounding impressed. I didn’t answer, continuing to watch the fight. Or, “sparring,” as Mace called it. I wasn’t so sure. I’d seen sparring matches before, in boxing or the organized cage fights on television. Yes, they were fairly savage, with both opponents doing their best to beat or choke the other guy into unconsciousness. But there were rules and referees, and though I’d seen some pretty gruesome injuries, no one was in danger of actually dying. If one person conceded, tapped out or was knocked senseless, the other backed off and the fight was over. Everyone understood that.

  The vessels, though, didn’t get that concept. They stopped only when Mace ordered them to stop. Usually this happened at a clear victory point, when one opponent took a vicious blow that left him reeling, or when the other had him in some kind of hold or lock he couldn’t get out of. But I’d never seen a vessel voluntarily back off, and that worried me. How far would they go to follow orders? I felt I had to know, but at the same time, I was afraid of the answer.

  Fear is counterproductive, Dante. It’s your responsibility to know exactly what your projects are capable of, in every aspect.

  Ms. Sutton, the lead programmer for the vessels’ behavioral conditioning, suddenly winced. One of the fighters had lashed out with a high roundhouse kick, catching the other in the temple. It staggered back, nearly insensible, and Mace stepped forward to stop the match.

  “No!” I called. He looked at me sharply, and I held up a hand. “Let them continue,” I ordered. “We need to know how far they’ll go before they stop on their own.”

  Mace’s jaw tightened, but he nodded and backed off. Wit
hout an order to desist, the first vessel pursued his opponent across the ring and, though the other was clearly injured, slammed a right hook into his jaw, sending him crashing to the cement.

  I gritted my teeth, clamping down on the order to stop the fight, forcing myself to keep watching. The injured vessel tried to get to his feet, but his opponent kicked him viciously in the ribs, knocking him onto his back. As I watched, the first vessel pounced on his downed victim, straddled his chest and started raining blows onto his face.

  Mace looked at me, clearly asking if he should put an end to this. I shook my head. The injured vessel tried to shield his face at first, but several blows got through, knocking him unconscious. His head fell back, his arms flopping to the side. And still, the savage beating continued unhindered, the other vessel’s face blank and emotionless as he smashed his fists into his opponent’s unprotected face again and again. Blood appeared on his knuckles, spattered across his face and chest, and my stomach started to heave.

  “All right,” I finally called, when it was clear the vessel wasn’t going to stop on his own. “That’s enough!”

  Mace strode forward. “Halt!” he barked, his voice booming in the vastness of the room. “Cease-fire, soldier.”

  The vessel froze instantly. Lowering his arms, he rose and stepped away from the body, his eyes still as blank as ever. Blood covered his face in vivid streaks, and his knuckles were stained red, but it was nothing compared to the mess that was the other dragon. I felt sick and couldn’t look directly at its face as Mace walked up and knelt beside the body.

  “Is it...all right?” Dr. Olsen called, sounding ill, as well. Mace grunted and stood up.

  “It’s dead.”

  “Okay, that is a problem,” I said, turning on the scientist. My stomach roiled, and I felt more than slightly nauseous, but I stood tall and glared at the human, who looked pale and horrified himself. “I understand the vessels were programmed for obedience, Dr. Olsen, but having no initiative at all makes them a liability. We need soldiers who can think and act on their own, not robots. Not...whatever that is.” I gestured to the blood-soaked vessel, standing motionless and impassive over the mangled mess of his brother. “Can we fix it?” I asked, looking at Ms. Sutton, as well. “Can the process be improved upon?”

 
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