The word was a shooting star through Nesta as she and Bellius launched at each other, punching, kicking, dodging. As if voicing the word had given her this final surge of strength—
Bellius slammed his fist into Nesta’s jaw, so hard she rocked back a few steps.
She ducked his next move, landing a blow on his ribs. But he kept herding her toward the archway, the line.
Wearing her down. Outlasting her.
She’d keep going. Until the end, she’d fight him.
Bellius’s fist connected with her left cheek. Pain cracked through her. Nesta’s feet went out from under her. She flew backward, and time slowed.
She landed on the other side of the line in the earth, and could have sworn the mountain shuddered.
Nesta crawled. She didn’t care how pathetic it made her appear. She crawled away from Bellius, through the arch, destroying the line she’d drawn.
He advanced, bloodied and sneering. “I’m going to enjoy this.”
She’d claimed it would be fine to die for her friends, that it was fine because they had made it, they had won, but to be killed by this nobody—
Nesta snarled. She had nothing left. Her body had given up on her. Like so many others had.
Bellius drew a knife from his boot. “I think I’d rather slit your throat.” She was alone.
She had been born alone, and would die alone, and this awful male would be the one to kill her—
Thunder cracked, and the entire mountain shook with its impact. Bellius took one step toward her, knife lifting.
At first, she thought it was lightning that flashed across his throat, opening it so wide that his blood showered the snowy air.
But then she saw the wings. The other set of wings.
And when Bellius slumped to the earth, choking on his lifeblood, revealing Cassian standing there, teeth bared, blade in hand, she wondered if the thunder rocking the mountain had been his rage.
Cassian stepped over Bellius’s dying body and offered her a hand. Not to sweep her into his arms, but to help her rise. As he had always done.
Nesta gripped his hand and stood, her body bleating in protest.
But she forgot her pain, the death around them, as he folded her into his chest and held her tightly, whispering tenderly into her bloody hair, “And now I’m going to slit your pretty little throat.”
Cassian’s words were not his own. His hands were not his own as Nesta— as his mate—tried to pull away and he clamped his arms around her. Hard enough that her bones shifted against his hands.
He was screaming. Silently, endlessly. Screaming at her to fight him, to run. Screaming at himself to stop it.
But he couldn’t. No matter what he did, he could not stop it. “Cassian,” Nesta said, struggling.
Kill me, he silently begged her. Kill me before I have to do this.
“Cassian.” Nesta shoved against his chest. But his arms held firm.
Squeezed her tighter.
“He can’t obey you, Nesta Archeron,” rasped an old, withered voice from behind Nesta. “He’s mine now.”
Cassian could not even widen his eyes in warning. His arms loosened on the queen’s silent command, allowing Nesta to turn in his embrace.
Presenting her to Briallyn, who wore the Crown atop her thin, white hair.