My wings wouldn’t work. I couldn’t slow myself, stop myself, before the ground rose up to hit me.
Pain. I tried to move. Something cracked.
I couldn’t make my eyes open. When I tried, a face I hadn’t seen in a very, very long time leaned over me.
My brow furrowed.
She looked just as she had two hundred years ago, curly dark hair falling around her face as she leaned down next to me. Her eyes, chestnut-dark and a million miles deep, stared hard into me, wet with tears.
Who wins? she asked, voice cracking. Who wins, if you fight him?
She’d said it to me so many times, back then. Countless times, dragging me back from the line every time I thought I would cross it.
I’d always thought that Nessanyn was so much stronger than I was.
But now, in this version of her, it seemed so obvious that she was just terrified. She was a lonely and abused woman who was a prisoner in her own marriage.
She didn’t fight because she was too afraid. Because it took a stupid kind of courage to keep fighting even when you knew every odd was stacked against you.
I reached out and touched her chin. She grabbed my hand and held it there, a tear rolling down her cheek.
Who wins? she said again.
Maybe not me, I replied. But worth a try, right?
She tried to hold onto my hand, but I pulled it away.
I opened my eyes.
Above me, carnage unfolded in the skies. Spatters of blood from warriors locked in battle hundreds of feet above dripped onto the rocks like black rain. A drop of it struck my cheek.
It was a nightmare. The kind of sight that, I knew in this moment, would wake me in a cold sweat ten years from now. If I was lucky enough to make it that far.
I tried to push myself up. A spasm of agony took my breath away.
Ix’s fucking tits. My body was broken. Absolutely broken. I’d pushed it too far these last few weeks. Whatever Simon had just done to me had nudged it over the edge.
I’d died before. I knew what it felt like to stand on the precipice of the end.
I lifted my head. Another drop of blood from above struck my forehead, rolling down into my right eye, tinting the world black-red. Through it, I took in the ruins around me. I’d landed on a rock, smashing up my right side. My wings were still out, though I could tell right away that the right one was now useless. That arm, too, refused to cooperate when I reached for my sword. I grabbed the hilt with the left one instead, every muscle protesting the weight.
I lifted my head.
There, through the ruins, Simon staggered to his feet. The front of his leathers was smeared with blood. One of his wings was askew in all the wrong places, sticky black blood matting the feathers. The—thing on his chest pulsed brighter now, bright enough that it surged through the night and illuminated the harsh panes of his face from below.
He swayed back and forth, clutching his head, letting out a chilling roar that sounded like it belonged to an animal.
Then he straightened, and his eyes fell on me.
I dug my sword into the ground and used it to force myself upright. Sun fucking take me.
My knees almost buckled. Almost.
I didn’t show it. I just smiled. Didn’t realize how much blood was in my mouth until the expression made it dribble down my chin.
I was eternally conscious of the door behind me—the door that Simon’s gaze fixed on, before returning to me.
No, he wasn’t getting past me.
I’d spent long enough letting him into my thoughts, my fears. I’d given him too damned much already.
This was where it ended. Whatever it cost.
I lifted my sword, forced my violently trembling right arm to join my left.
Come on, I told my body, when it nearly wept in protest. One last fight.
You’ve got it in you, old man.
Amazing what a mindset could do.
Because when Simon lunged at me, lips twisted into a snarl, unnatural magic flaring around him like fire around a match, I was ready.