Soldier, p.30
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       Soldier, p.30

         Part #3 of Talon series by Julie Kagawa
 
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  “How does it feel, Sebastian?” The Patriarch’s voice was barely audible, meant only for my ears. “To be completely enslaved to the lizards? To know your soul is damned, but there is nothing you can do about it?”

  I narrowed my eyes, circling just outside his reach. “Who are we speaking about?” I answered in an equally low voice. “Me, or yourself?”

  The Patriarch gave a weary chuckle. “I know my soul is damned,” he said tiredly. “I am fully aware that I’ve made a deal with the devil, and the time will come when I must stand before God and answer for my crimes. But I am still the leader of this Order, and I can still eliminate our enemies. One day, I will break free of this contract, but for now, our enemies are dying and will continue to die as long as I am here to oversee it. Every death pushes the devils closer to extinction. That is worth the cost of my soul.”

  Abruptly, the Patriarch lunged, sweeping his sword at my head. I leaped back, smacking the blade away, the clang of steel on steel ringing out in the silence. The Patriarch swung again, and I brought my sword up to block, but abruptly he twisted it and came in from another direction. I dodged, but the tip scored my face, right below my eye. Scrambling away, I braced for more attacks, but the Patriarch stopped and lowered his blade, smiling at his handiwork.

  “First blood to me,” he said in satisfaction. “I hope you prayed before you came here, soldier.”

  I took a steadying breath, weighing my options. That he was playing with me was troubling; he obviously knew more about swordplay than I did and was content to stretch this duel out for as long as he could. Or until I made a fatal mistake. I could feel blood trickling down my face and resisted the urge to wipe it away, keeping my attention on my opponent. I couldn’t banter with him. The longer we sparred, the smaller my chances of victory became. If I was going to beat the Patriarch, I had to do it now.

  I lunged savagely, cutting at his face, making him blink and step back to avoid it. Quickly, I pressed that small advantage with an upward slice that made him retreat another step. I pursued him across the field with a series of slashes and cuts, intending to overwhelm him and give him no chance to recover.

  The Patriarch smiled. Parrying a slash, he sidestepped with the motion, appearing behind me in a blindingly quick move, and brought his weapon slicing across my back. I felt the bite of the sword edge rip through my shirt a second before the pain hit and I stifled a yell of agony. I whirled, barely managing to keep my feet, as the Patriarch stepped forward and casually pointed the tip of his sword at my face.

  “Yield, soldier,” he said. “The fight is lost. I promise to give you a quick death if you renounce your blasphemous crimes and beg forgiveness of the Order. Put down your sword, and I will end your pain and send you to God with a clean conscience. Your dragon friends would not do the same.”

  “No,” I panted, raising my sword as I backed up a few steps. My back and left shoulder burned like they were on fire, and every motion sent a fresh stab of pain up my spine. It was a long, shallow gash, parting muscle and skin, more painful than deadly. I could still stand, and if I could stand, I could fight. I would not yield. I would see this through to the end, for her.

  The Patriarch shook his head. “Why do you continue to protect them, Sebastian?” he asked. “They are not deserving of such loyalty. They are creatures. Monsters. They imitate us in order to infiltrate our world, our loved ones and our way of life. To corrupt it from within.”

  “You’re wrong.”

  “The world does not belong to them,” he continued, as if I hadn’t said anything. “The world belongs to man, as God intended it to be.” He stabbed the point of his blade at the edge of the circle, where Ember and Riley watched helplessly from the side. “They are not human, Sebastian. They don’t have souls, they don’t feel like we do. They are born of darkness and can never understand us. The only thing they know is how to manipulate and kill.”

  “That isn’t true,” I gritted out. “Different doesn’t mean evil. Some of those dragons want nothing to do with the war. Some of them just want to survive. If you would just talk to one of them, you would understand that.”

  “Spoken like a true dragonlover.” The Patriarch’s mild expression faded, growing hard. “I should have known you would turn on us. It was only a matter of time. It was in your blood, after all.” He shook his head, his features twisting with hate. “Like mother, like son.”

  It felt like he’d punched me. For a moment, I could only stare at him, reeling, while he stood there with a faint smile on his face, knowing he’d just destroyed my whole perception of reality with one casual statement.

  “What are you talking about?” I finally asked, and amazingly, my voice came out mostly steady. “My parents...they were killed by Talon.”

  “Yes, they were,” the Patriarch agreed, stalking forward. “Because they both worked for the dragons. Because, intentional or not, they chose to serve evil and turn their backs on their fellow man.” He gave me another look of pity and loathing. “Your parents were dragon servants, soldier. They were employees of Talon.”

  He came at me hard, lunging across the flats, his sword a streak of metal through the air. Still dazed from having my entire world shattered, I barely got my blade up in time to parry. The Patriarch’s sword screeched as it hammered into mine, sending vibrations up my arm. I staggered, and the sword clanged against mine again, knocking it away. And then there was a second fiery pain, as the Patriarch’s sword sliced into my leg, cutting through cloth and flesh and biting deep.

  Gasping, I reeled away, scrambling to put distance between myself and the Patriarch, but my leg buckled and I fell, rolling several feet before coming to an agonizing stop. Salt shards cut at my bare arms, burning into scrapes and open wounds, but it was nothing compared to what my leg was feeling at the moment. Blood blossomed over my jeans, warm and sluggish, staining the material black.

  Gripping my sword, I looked around for the Patriarch, but he hadn’t pursued. He watched me stagger upright with a triumphant look in his eyes. One way or another, he knew the fight was nearly done. Clenching my teeth as my torn muscles screamed in protest, I planted my feet and raised my sword, facing the Patriarch again.

  “It’s over, Sebastian,” he stated, walking forward. “Do you have any final words before I send you to hell?”

  Something clicked in my head, and for a second, the world seemed to stop. A memory, jarred loose from the shadows of my mind.

  The dragon loomed overhead, dark and terrifying, yellow eyes glowing in the smoke and the gloom. It was close enough for me to see every scale on its massive body, smell the sulfur and ash that clung to it, feel the hot breath curling from huge, fang-filled jaws. It gazed down with impassive gold eyes, a nightmare creature regarding the small boy and his mother at its feet. It blinked once, rumbled deep in its belly and stepped aside, dismissing us. And then, everything fragmented.

  A burst of gunfire.

  My mother jerking up with a gasp, then falling on top of me.

  The howls and screams of the dragon, mixed with more chattering gunfire, the shouting of men and the hiss of fire being extinguished by the rain.

  The memory flared and was gone in an instant, a split second between breaths, but it was enough. I gaped at the man before me, momentarily forgetting the pain of my wounds. “It was you,” I rasped, as the aftermath of that scene came back in a flood, finally breaking through the wall that held it at bay. “My parents weren’t killed by dragons. They were killed by the Order! And you knew! All this time, St. George has lied to me. My whole life, they let me believe my family was murdered by Talon, when it was the Order all along.”

  The Patriarch’s eyes glittered. “I should have ordered them to shoot you then and there,” he said. “The mission was to kill every living soul in that compound, regardless of age or gender. But the commander leading the raid begged me for permission
to bring you into the Order, to raise you as a soldier for the cause. He thought you could be saved, or perhaps he was simply reluctant to kill one so young.” Very briefly, his gaze flickered to Gabriel Martin and narrowed with contempt. “Only a few knew your true lineage. It was kept a secret in the hopes that you would fully embrace our Code and become a soldier of St. George. That you would rise above your heritage and shake whatever evil lay within your soul.” He shook his head. “But once a dragon slave, always a dragon slave, it seems. I should have realized your betrayal was only a matter of time.”

  Another memory jarred loose. Rain and mud and fire, me huddled beside the motionless body of my mother, hoping she would wake up soon so we could go home. A shadow falling over me, as I gazed into the stern, younger face of Lucas Benedict. And all the confusion, shock, pain and disbelief melted into a sudden blinding, fiery rage.

  “So, we come full circle,” the Patriarch was saying, raising his sword as he closed in. “Talon’s wayward son shows his true colors at last. And now, I will finish what I should have done all those years ago, and send you to your masters where you belong!”

  He lunged, bringing that sword down at my neck. I forgot my pain, forgot my mission, forgot everything but the image of my mother’s body, lying there in the mud. I reacted on instinct, dodging to the side and turning my body so that the blow missed me by millimeters. For just a moment, the Patriarch was off balance, and I slashed at him with everything I had left.

  He turned, managing to block the blade, but the force hammered through his guard, and his own sword struck him in the face. Without a sound, he tumbled backward, hitting the ground on his side, the sword coming free of his grip. Almost immediately, he pushed himself to his knees, but before he got any farther, I staggered forward and put the tip of my blade against his throat.

  “Yield.”

  He froze. The metal point hovered at his neck, resting against his skin. He stared at me almost in shock. Blood streamed down his face from the gash in his forehead, staining the collar of his white uniform. My leg shook, pain hammering through my muscles from the abuse, but I stood tall and kept the sword steady as I locked eyes with the Patriarch.

  “Yield,” I said again, and his face darkened, his expression twisting with hate.

  “I will not.”

  “Then I’m sorry.”

  I raised the sword to sweep it down through his neck. It would be quick, I told myself. One more death on my hands. One more unforgivable sin, but perhaps it would be enough to end the slaughter. Or at least, start things in the right direction.

  “Stop!” the Patriarch hissed, just as I was about to bring the blade down. I looked at his face and saw it was white with the sudden realization that I had been entirely serious about killing him. “Stop,” he said again, slumping in defeat. “I concede. The fight is yours.”

  Relief swept through me, taking with it the adrenaline that had been keeping me upright through most of the fight. I staggered back from the Patriarch, thankful it was over, feeling my wounds throb and my leg threaten to buckle with every step I took. I saw Tristan and Gabriel Martin walking toward us, neither of them looking particularly happy, though Tristan did manage a tiny nod as our gazes met. Shuddering, I let my sword fall, thumping to the salt. It was over. What happened to the Patriarch now was out of my hands. I would worry about the aftermath, and what it meant for the Order, when I was a little less bloody.

  “Garret!”

  That voice did bring a smile to my face. I turned, and saw Ember and Riley coming toward me from the opposite end of the arena. Ember was out front, grinning at me, Riley following a few steps behind with a look of reluctant relief.

  Still smiling, I took a few steps toward them, then paused as Ember’s eyes went wide, her expression shifting to alarm.

  “Garret, behind you—!”

  I turned as shots rang out in the stillness.

  EMBER

  He’d won.

  The breath rushed out of me, making me kind of giddy with relief. I’d kept telling myself he would win. I mean, it was Garret. The Perfect Soldier. He had saved us from an ambush, led a counterstrike against the Order of St. George and had marched into an entire assembly of those who wanted him dead, only to come out of it triumphant. Even after he’d been wounded, I knew he could still pull it off. He’d done it before. He had to win.

  But then the Patriarch started talking, telling him things that made my heart pound with shock and horror. I heard Riley swear in disbelief, saw the blood drain from Garret’s face as the Patriarch told him he was once part of Talon. That his parents had been servants of the organization. For just a moment, Garret had faltered. And the Patriarch instantly took advantage of it, lunging in and stabbing the soldier while he was off balance. This time, the wound wasn’t a glancing blow, but sank deep into his leg, making me cringe. Garret staggered and fell, crumpling to the unforgiving salt, and the heat flaring through my veins was immediate and intense.

  He’s going to die. For a moment, it took everything I had not to Shift. Not to burst into dragon form, fly to his side and char the Patriarch into an unrecognizable husk. No! Stop it, Ember, I told myself, biting my lip to keep the dragon in check. You can’t help him. You’ll forfeit everything we worked for if you interfere now. And you made him a promise.

  My throat felt tight as I watched him climb to his feet, keeping weight off his left leg. Blood had already soaked his jeans, and his bearing was rigid with pain. The Patriarch advanced on him slowly, his expression triumphant, his blade coming up for the final rush. I trembled and clenched my fists, feeling claws start to poke through my skin, the breath in my throat start to burn.

  “Ember.” Riley’s fingers closed on my arms from behind, his voice full of warning. “Steady, Firebrand,” he whispered. “Don’t do anything reckless. We can’t go in there, no matter what happens.”

  Rage flared, but before I could say anything stupid or accusatory, he added, “And no, I don’t want him dead, so don’t even think of throwing that that in my face. I am fully aware of what is at stake. But if we go in there, we’re not only forfeiting the battle, we’re showing St. George that dragons can’t be trusted. That we’re the soulless, evil monsters they believe us to be. And then the war will never be over.”

  “I know,” I choked out, watching the Patriarch taunt Garret one last time, wanting nothing more than to lunge between them and take whatever killing blow was coming. “Dammit. I know I can’t help him.”

  “Don’t look,” Riley murmured, squeezing my arms. “Turn away if you have to, Firebrand. I’ll tell you when it’s over.”

  I shook my head. Though my insides felt like they were being shredded, I wouldn’t turn from him now. If the Patriarch killed Garret right in front of me, I wanted to see it. I wanted to remember this moment, because when it was over and we’d all left this arena of slaughter, I was going to hunt the Patriarch down and turn him into a pile of ashes. And no guards, rogue dragons or army of dragonslayers were going to stand in my way.

  The Patriarch lunged, swinging his blade at the wounded soldier, and I flinched. But Garret moved with shocking speed, ducking under the blow and cutting at his opponent in return. The Patriarch blocked the sword but, amazingly, was knocked off his feet, sprawling to his side in the dirt and salt, the blade sliding from his grasp. Garret instantly followed his advantage, placing the blade against the man’s throat and demanding his surrender.

  The Patriarch snarled his refusal. Holding my breath, I watched Garret raise his sword to execute his opponent, but hesitated as the Patriarch’s desperate voice broke the silence, yielding the fight at last.

  Garret staggered back, lowering his blade, and my heart lurched into motion again. It was over. He was alive, and we had won.

  “Son of a bitch,” Riley muttered, and I heard the faint smile in his voice. “The bastard pulled it o
ff.”

  Pulling free, I started across the arena, calling out to Garret. He turned, a smile breaking over his face as he saw me. Behind him, the Patriarch stirred, and I saw the glimmer of raw hatred in his eyes as his arm reached to the small of his back and drew out a pistol. My heart lodged in my throat as he pointed it at the soldier.

  “Garret, behind you—!”

  A shot rang out as Garret turned, the report echoing over the empty flats. I tensed, ready to Shift and fly at the Patriarch with a roar, but even before the first shot died away, five more boomed into the silence...as Tristan drew his gun with blinding speed and fired, point-blank, into his former Patriarch.

  The Patriarch jerked as the bullets tore through him. He swayed and collapsed facedown in the salt, the gun flopping limply in his grip. Blood pooled from beneath his chest, staining his uniform and the ground crimson, as the leader of St. George twitched once, then was still.

  Ignoring them all, and what that would mean for everyone, I rushed to Garret. He was still on his feet, gazing at the fallen Patriarch with a slightly dazed look on his face. One leg was covered in blood, and the back of his shirt was completely red, soaked through. He looked a bloody mess, but he was still on his feet.

  “Garret.” Carefully, I slipped my arms around him, trying to be gentle and take some of his weight, when all I wanted to do was hug him in breathless relief. He gazed down at me, and his eyes were distant and glassy, making my insides clench with alarm. “Hey, you okay—?”

  I froze as my hands touched something warm and wet below his ribs. Pulling it back, I saw that my palm and fingers were covered in blood. Heart in my throat, I looked at his side, where a dark red stain was spreading rapidly over his shirt.

 
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