Chapter 33 Part 2

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Braeden shoved his master out of the way and caught Sam’s limp body in his arms. She was frighteningly pale, the pallor of her skin marred by splotches and streams of crimson. The wound in her chest vomited blood like a fountain, pooling in the valley between the slopes of her breasts. Her body seized as it went into shock. Oh gods. Sam.

“She’s dying,” said his master. “There’s nothing you can do.”

Ignoring him, Braeden ripped the left sleeve off his robes and applied pressure to the wound. Her blood, hot and thick, soaked through the cloth and coated his hands. “You will not die,” he told her. Glaring at his master, he said, “She won’t die. I won’t allow it.”

“She can’t survive a wound to the heart,” said his master. “She’s not you, Braeden.”

His master was wrong. Braeden’s heart, too, was dying. “I will never forgive you for this,” he said, a hot pressure building behind his eyes.

“You’ve grown arrogant,” said his master. He bent over and touched Braeden’s jaw. The tip of his finger glistened with a single, pearly drop. “And weak. You’ll come to learn that I’ve done you a favor.”

Braeden stared long and hard at the man who had raised him. “Never,” he said. “I will never think that. Sam was—is—all that is good and right with this world. You tried to destroy that. And for what?” He felt a rush of wetness on his cheeks, and he knew the tear his master had stolen from him was replaced by twenty. “You and I are done.”

“Done?” said his master. “I own you.” He made a dismissive wave of his hand. “Now leave her.”

Braeden waited for the familiar tug of compulsion to take over, but it never came. “No,” he said. The word tasted strange in his mouth.

His master’s face was a dark cloud. He tore off Braeden’s other sleeve. “What did you do?” His gaze was fixated on the broken lines of Braeden’s tattoo.

Braeden glanced at the still-healing scar that bisected his shoulder. “It met with a demon’s tooth and a surgeon’s scalpel,” he said. His eyebrows drew together. “You told me its purpose was to seal off my demonic nature.” Now he wondered what really was in that ink.

“I sealed you with my blood,” his master snarled. “To bind your demon, I had to bind it to me. How is it that you haven’t slaughtered half the kingdom?”

Braeden lifted his chin. “I don’t need it anymore,” he said. “Just like I don’t need you.”

They both turned at the sound of clanging and heavy breathing. Tristan pushed his way into the room, blood-spattered and disheveled. “They’re unending,” he said between lungfuls of air. “I’ve never seen the like.” His eyes widened as he registered first Braeden’s master and then Sam.

“High Commander,” said Tristan grimly. Braeden's master nodded in acknowledgment.

Braeden’s mouth went dry—no wonder his master had pushed him towards joining the Paladins. Braeden had thought that by becoming a Paladin trainee, he would be out from under his master’s thumb, but instead Braeden had been caught in the web of his master’s machinations. Had his master always been the High Commander, or had he stolen his form in pursuit of some unknown agenda? Braeden wanted to believe that the Paladins had been founded to restore the natural balance to the world that the innovation of demons had upended, but the legendary deeds of the High Commander were too great for any ordinary human to achieve. And his master was anything but ordinary.

“Who is that woman?” Tristan asked, cutting into Braeden’s ruminations.

His master—the High Commander—guffawed, slapping his knee. “Too funny,” he gasped, wiping away tears. “You always had more brawn than brains, Lyons. It’s why I liked you.” He shook his head. “It would have been better for all of us if you never started thinking.”

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