Chapter no 21

A Dawn of Onyx

I raced through the leafy corridor that Kane and I had traipsed through weeks ago. Through dew-covered spiderwebs and spindling twigs, I threw myself forward at a pace that had my pulse screaming in my head, hearing

the lumbering thumps of the chimera’s footfalls behind me all the while.

I just had to get them in the water, and then I could double back for the burrowroot.

Finally, I made it to the pond.

I turned on a heel and waited for the creature to lunge for me.

It didn’t take long—the chimera snarled, moonlight glinting off its bone-white fangs. All the breath puffed out of my lungs, and when it charged, I grabbed its fur and threw us both into the pond.

The freezing water paralyzed me, and for a moment I couldn’t move any of my limbs. All I knew was ice so cold it felt like fire, and my mind and body froze into utter stillness, too shocked to breathe or move or think. But I had to—

I forced my head out of the suffocating blanket of cold and gasped for breath. A wave sent me back under, filling my mouth and lungs and nose, as the chimera thrashed and displaced half the pond’s water. The frigid rush sent me flying toward the rocky outcrop. I slammed into it, the breath knocked from me, and surfaced again, like a moth in rain, fighting against the dark waves and searching for anything to grab onto.

Why was the water so cold? I had been here mere months ago, in the spring, too, and it had been lovely. I knew the forest was enchanted, but it was clear Mari and Kane had been right—the Shadow Wood was no place to be at night.

I reached for a branch and swung myself up and out of the water, sending my wrist into torturous spasms. Freezing water gurgled out of my mouth. I panted for air.

A horrific wail of agony shook me from my reprieve.

I looked to the pond, but the chimera was unconscious, possibly dead already. One down, one to go—and quickly, if I was to avoid whatever was making those noises. Or inflicting them.

Water and algae sluiced from my leathers. I ran for the clearing and prayed the action would pump heat into my chattering bones. In the moonlight, I could scarcely make out the large, sleek form hurtling toward me.

The noise pierced through the night again, ripping from its jaws in a strangled roar. The other chimera. Crying in agony for its mate.

I ran in the other direction, doubling back to the pond.

But he was too close. I wasn’t going to make it to the water before he reached me. I braced myself for impact.

Which never came.

The second creature tore directly past me and landed in the water with a splash. He whined in distress and tried to nudge his unconscious mate awake, but the frigid water overwhelmed him and sent him thrashing.

I could go right now. Back to the oak. Against every single odd, my plan had worked, and I could get to the burrowroot before the eclipse. I looked up at the moon. I still had time. Maybe a few minutes.

One last haunting wail ripped from the surfaced creature, still trying miserably to stay afloat and save his mate. He let out a strangled cry that reverberated through the trees, then gurgled as the water pulled him under.

Bleeding Stones.

I could not believe I was going to do this. I dove back into the water.

Agony clawed at my skin once more. This dive was a thousand times worse, knowing how cold it would be. I swam toward the first chimera, who was still unconscious. Thankfully, the water buoyed the creature, allowing me to move her to shore. I pushed her massive body toward the

edge of the pond and rolled her onto the grass.

The second was going to be harder. I swam toward the sputtering chimera, and tried to get under his huge front paws, but took a flailing claw to the face instead, a flash of burning pain ripping across my cheekbone. I braced myself and dove underneath the icy depths.

Silence enveloped me.

Pushing him forward, I tried to maneuver the beast to shallower ground. Pushing and grunting, feet scraping along the pond’s algae-covered floor. The creature finally clawed himself out of the pond and choked out water and half-digested deer. The stench was nauseating, but there was no time to retch.

The first chimera wasn’t breathing.

I reached her quickly and began chest compressions. As soon as my hands touched her fur though, I knew.

No, no, no.

It was too late.

Swallowing a sob, I placed my hands over the fur of the creature’s chest and hummed. Dagan’s words had been clear: focus on how I felt, not what I thought. Or what I feared.

I felt remorse. Deep, painful, specific, like a needle piercing my gut.

Remorse that I had almost killed two innocent creatures out of terror.

Through my palms, golden light blazed, and I pushed the cold water through the chimera’s lungs like a maze. Encouraged, I moved my hands up along its esophagus. The light that emanated from my hands grew brighter over the chimera’s throat as I worked. Pushing and plying, I drove the water out with careful focus.

The second creature had stalked over. He menaced toward me with a roar that shook the trees above us.

But I didn’t have time to feel afraid.

“She’s going to live,” I said, my teeth chattering around the words. I knew he couldn’t understand me. “I can save her, if you don’t maul me.” I pushed power from my fingertips into her torso as the water lodged in her lungs worked its way out.

The other chimera considered me, then looked down. Slowly he lay next to his mate, tucking his snout between her back and the forest floor, whining softly.

After one final push, a spray of putrid wet flew out the chimera’s mouth and I ducked. She rolled over and choked in air, and I exhaled my own in turn. The relief was like a solid weight in my palms. Tangible and grounding.

Thank the Bleeding Stones.

The chimera I had saved sluggishly climbed onto all fours and shook out her wet fur. Her mate nuzzled and licked at her, before turning back toward the woods. I took that as my cue to leave and gave one last glance at the two creatures, but they were already retreating in the other direction. The larger chimera turned back at me once, and his melancholy, white eyes held mine for a single moment.

But I was most definitely out of time. The eclipse was high in the sky, painting the entire forest an unnerving blue. My limbs were heavy with the exertion of my power, but I raced for the clearing and turned right at the glistening silver of Dagan’s sword. I pushed aside the deer carcass and saw each burrowroot leaf below me had blossomed into a stunning lotus underneath my fingertips. I plucked as many as I could, jamming them into my pack. Within an instant, the eclipse was over, and the blossoms were gone. The twisted wood was cloaked once again in pale, shadowy moonlight.

I could have cried with relief. I had done it.

I was freezing, and likely going to need six or seven warm tubs to thaw out. I was soaking wet, covered in dirt, dripping blood from my face, and had sprained the shit out of my wrist. I was still nauseous and achy from last night’s terrible wine-related choices, but I was alive.

And I had the burrowroot.

The thought of giving my mother some kind of hope for the first time in years overwhelmed me. A sob wracked through me, and I bent over, bracing my hands on my knees. It was time to head back.

I reached for Dagan’s sword and stood up, and then I saw it. A more horrific creature than I thought possible.

Yellow, slitted eyes. A rabid, snarling mouth, lined with pointed teeth. A wet, slick snout. And worse yet—the broad stature and build of a violent, possessed man. I went rigid, my skin prickling and my insides turning cold. Despite my trembling hands and heart, I turned and ran back toward the castle as fast as my legs could carry me.

The wolfbeast chased after me on all fours, all knees and elbows and odd angles. An uncanny sight I’d likely never erase from my mind. I knew it was faster than me. I choked on a sob as tears sprang to my eyes. I ran and ran and ran—terror pulsing in my joints, my legs, my lungs. This could not be how I died.

I took a hard right in hopes of losing the wolfbeast, but his snarls followed me around the bend, and on through the maze of oaks and pines. I cut another right, but he gained on me with ease. Stumbling and slipping on the twisted branches below me, I whipped back and swore I saw primal pleasure in his eyes. A predator that enjoyed the hunt.

I was never going to outrun him.

There was only one way I was making it out of these woods with my life.

I stopped in my tracks, slung out Dagan’s blade, and leveled it at the beast.

My lungs burned.

The creature skidded to a halt and I swung, missing his neck by a mile and slashing his bicep instead. The creature whined at the incision, then roared at me. I didn’t have the breath to weep or sob or beg.

“You insipid child!” His voice was like a razor against metal—inhuman and repulsive. A scream ripped out of me at the shock that he could speak, and I paced backward, still holding my sword out.

Every time I thought I understood the depths of the dangers of this world, something new and even more horrific than the last came for me.

The beast lunged, and this time he slammed me to the ground, knocking the breath out of me and grinding my spine into the rocks below. A sob split from my throat—furious and wild and dripping with agony.

But I shoved him away with every single ounce of strength I had, and scrambled back up before he could sink his claws into my body. I lifted the sword once more—Dagan would not have been pleased with my form. Between my exhaustion and my sprained wrist, I was holding it less like a sword and more like a bat.

The wolfbeast’s face twisted and I understood, then, the term wolfish grin

with complete clarity. He was amused. “Didn’t expect the wolf to speak?”

I tried to respond but couldn’t find my voice as he closed in on me. I wanted to scream, but only a whimper slipped out. My trembling palms sweat against the leather pommel of the sword.

“You’re tougher than they said you’d be, but nothing I can’t handle. I can already taste you from here.” The wolf licked at the air with his long, canine tongue.

I was going to be sick for the third time in less than an hour.

The wolfbeast lunged at me again and this time made contact, his claws ripping out a chunk of my hair. I yelped in pain, which only seemed to excite the monster. He dove for me again, knocking my body into the mossy ground below. Pain bloomed in my shoulder and elbow, my wrist already pulsing in agony. The wolf’s breath washed over me and smelled of something more powerful than magic—metallic and astringent.

I realized with utter clarity I was not going to survive this.

As if the beast had heard my thoughts, he reared back with a violent howl and lunged forward to dig his razor teeth into my abdomen. I screwed my eyes shut.

I just hoped it would be swift. Please, please, please, please— But the pain never came.

Instead, I heard the deafening wail of a creature howling in agony.

I could hardly understand the sight before me. Gray and golden fur rolled in a heap on the forest floor, a tumbling mess of snarling, blood, and whimpers—the chimera. He had lunged at the wolfbeast, effectively saving my life. And now, he was ensnared in the monster’s claws. Like a dogfight, they were moving so quickly I couldn’t intercept. I waited for the right

moment and lunged forward, driving my blade into gray fur, and knocking the wolf into a tree.

The chimera fell to the ground, one goatlike horn severed, and a piercing wound spurting blood from his neck.

No! A cry caught in my throat.

The wolfbeast cackled, exposing rows of pointed teeth, and stood before me. I looked down at the wheezing animal at my feet, who had given his life for mine.

For the chimera, I was going to pretend to be someone brave until I was one. I angled my hips toward the beast, swung the sword to shoulder level and brought it down on the wolf. He dodged, then charged me, but my body took over. Weeks of training—of sweat and blisters and aching arms and sheer determination—all came together in an instant like a key sliding into a lock. I swung repeatedly, nipping him on the shoulder, the neck, the arm. His howls became my fuel, and each time my blade found its mark, I was emboldened. Stronger. The sword felt lighter in my hands. More than that— it was an extension of me.

Of my rage.

I moved like Dagan, step after careful step, circling the creature. When he charged me, I brought my sword down on him and sliced one of his claws clean off. He howled and I felt it in my bones.

I was not capable of stopping.

The clearing glowed. I could see him better in the soft, yellow light that surrounded us. Sweat poured down my brow but a breeze I couldn’t place warmed and cooled me at once.

I felt taller. Fiercer. More whole.

I could have sworn I saw fear enter the wolfbeast’s eyes. He lunged at me once more, and with everything I had left I stabbed forward, burying my sword to the hilt in his chest.

He gurgled out a screech that felt ancient in its power, and with a dying breath reached his remaining clawed hand out toward me. If he made contact, I didn’t know. I turned and ran for the chimera, bloodied sword still dangling from my hands. The golden creature was whimpering, bleeding

out onto the damp leaves of the forest.

“No, no, no,” I pleaded. “You’re all right.”

It was the larger chimera. He had come back to help me. A kindness shown for saving his mate’s life, when I had been the one to cause her near-death in the first place. I could not let him die for me. Tears rolled down my cheeks and landed in his fur.

His eyes were dimming—there wasn’t enough time.

I pushed my hand into the chimera’s neck wound and closed my eyes, focusing on his pain. But I was so tired, so weak—I had used my powers up on his mate, and then some. Nothing came out, or even pricked at my fingers.

“Please, please, please.” I wasn’t sure who or what I was praying to.

I thought of that day with Dagan. The way I had pulled warmth and light from the atmosphere. I pictured taking what little moonlight still shone, sucking it into my fingertips and redirecting it through me into the softly crying creature beneath me.

Something beneath me shone bright like a sunrise. Emboldened, I strained against the weakness and focused further on the ether around me— the sky itself. I could harness it. Make it work for me. The glowing intensified. I could almost hear the chimera’s lungs filling up with air once again.

But the forest was starting to feel very hot. Which made no sense.

It was summertime, but the Shadow Woods had been icy all night. My hands were shaking, and the ground felt uneven. Was the earth moving? No, the trees were moving. The chimera was now up and looking at me curiously. His neck…

It was better. Healed. How?

Physical relief surged through my bones. I tried to get a better look, but the creature’s coarse, honeyed fur was blurring into the moonlit night.

A wave of nausea rolled through me. Something sticky was dripping down my body. The chimera tried to nudge me with his furry snout, but I tipped backward and landed on the dirt with a thud.

Something was very wrong.

A voice thundered my name a million miles away.

The chimera took off into the woods at the sound echoing off the trees. I tried to tell him goodbye.

A man’s blurry figure, with a familiar cedar and leather scent, rushed to me, hands pressing into my chest like a heavy weight.

“No, not goodbye,” the figure assured me, but the voice was panicked. “You are going to be fine.”

Slowly, pained quicksilver eyes and a clenched jaw came into focus. It was Kane.

He loosened the sword from my rigid fingers, uncurling each one carefully until the metal hit the dirt with a resonant clang. I looked up at him, bewildered. Where had he come from?

Behind the king were at least seven men on horseback, all with swords drawn. Kane’s eyes were wide with terror, his jaw locked tight. He wrapped his arms around my chest tightly, holding me from behind.

“Stay with me, Arwen. Can you hear me?”

When I laughed, something wet and phlegmy rattled in my chest, which made me hack up a cough. I wiped at my mouth. “So dramatic, my k—” The bright smear of red on my hand turned my words into a single choke.

I peered downward. My chest was sputtering blood between Kane’s fingers. I lifted his hand ever so slightly and could see my own collarbone beneath my ripped and frayed flesh.

Everything blurred and I felt darkness overtake me, sudden and unyielding.

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