Simon didn’t let up. And I matched him.
The two of us locked ourselves in nonstop combat, swords and magic clashing in a blurred cacophonous melody. The blood from the
battle in the skies above now rained down over us in a steady rhythm, drenching us in black—covering us in so much blood it was impossible to tell how much of it was our own. I no longer felt the blows. The pain was so constant that I just let it fall into the background, another distraction to be ignored.
I wasn’t sure how I wasn’t dead yet. Felt like I should be. My body threatened to give out with every movement.
I just kept telling myself, One more swing. One more.
I didn’t expect to come out of this alive. But I sure as fuck wasn’t about to let Simon live, either.
Whenever I could steal precious seconds, I glanced over my shoulder, to the distant doorway in the ruins—an abyss of black, with no sign of Oraya.
With every passing minute, my heart crawled up my throat.
Come on, princess. Where are you?
I was grateful that holding off Simon took all my focus. Otherwise, I’d linger too long on the millions of horrifying scenarios that danced in the back of my head—Oraya’s body broken by traps or crushed by stone or burned up by magic she couldn’t control.
An especially devastating strike from Simon slammed me against a sheet of rock. I felt the impact in my bones. My head lolled. My vision
dipped into fuzzy white.
When I forced myself back to consciousness, mere seconds later, the first thing I saw was Simon’s snarling face rushing toward me.
I barely managed to roll out of the way. Countered, clumsily.
Warmth dotted my face in a fresh spray of blood. I hit something.
Wasn’t sure what. Couldn’t count how many blows I’d gotten in by now.
He roared and returned my strike.
Another spatter of red-black over his cheek, now. Another distant throb of pain. Another wound.
Couldn’t count those, either.
I tried to swing my sword and realized my left arm had now completely given up on working. Fuck. I switched hands quickly, drawing back—
I slammed against another column, the broken edge jamming into my spine at just the right angle to knock the breath from my lungs. My body slumped against it and wanted desperately to stay that way.
Don’t you dare, I told it. Get the fuck up.
Simon stalked toward me. He was a pathetic sight, too, limping, blood smearing down his face. One eye was now missing, or at least seemed like it was, beneath the mess of tattered flesh.
Still, that damned magic pulsed at his chest, stubbornly clinging on despite every blow I levied to it. Keeping him going long after any mortal body would give out. Making him stronger than I ever could be.
“You,” he growled, “should not be so much trouble.” Movement out of the corner of my eye.
I made the mistake of looking. Oraya.
For a moment, I thought maybe I was hallucinating. She staggered from the darkness. Blood drenched her hands and smeared her face. She was running, though half-stumbling, looking around wildly.
And she was surrounded by magic.
I’d seen her wielding her Nightfire before, but this—it was fucking magnificent. It embraced her now, licks of stunning white-blue cutting through the night, fanning out around her like the wings of the gods themselves.
Yet the magic that pulsed around her left hand, which was closed tight, was different than the Nightfire. I could sense it even from here—feel it, in the air. The clusters of smoke around that clenched fist were red and dark, and otherworldly in a way that made my skin crawl, even from all the way over here. It clung to her like it was made for her, wisps lingering at her skin and the blades at her hips.
I had no doubts of what I was seeing. She had it. She fucking did it.
For a few endless seconds, my relief and pride battled each other for dominance, neither winning.
But then I saw Simon’s head turn. His bloodthirsty fury melted away, replaced by something even more terrifying: lustful desire.
He knew. He felt it too.
He dropped me and started to turn.
Oraya’s gaze met mine across the ruins. A second of eye contact that seemed to last an eternity, holding a million unspoken words, teetering on the edge of the end.
I wished I could use this moment to say all that I wanted to. So many things I wished I’d said.
I hoped she knew it all, anyway.
Because I didn’t even have to think before I charged.
It was like my body knew what was happening, and deemed it a worthy cause for one last push beyond the edges of my capability. Every shred of my remaining strength—physical and magical—united in this single lunge. Asteris roared to the surface of my skin, clinging to my blade, my hands. My arms managed to lift the weight of my sword one last time.
I leapt at Simon, wings spreading to propel me through this final strike, and I buried my sword into his back, pouring every scrap of magic I had into that blow, ripping him apart from the inside out.
Black light overtook my vision.
Simon let out an animalistic bellow and whirled around. The only piece of the world I managed to cling to was the hilt of my sword. Everything else withered.
I’d just unleashed something in Simon, his strikes now nothing but feral rage. Gone were the final vestiges of the calculated warrior. He was practically coming at me with teeth and fingernails.
He hurled me against the wall. His hand slammed against my throat, pinning it to stone.
I couldn’t see. Couldn’t feel anything but my grip around that hilt. That was all I needed, anyway.
Because as his fingers tightened around my throat, as his blade drove into my flesh over and over again, I clutched that hilt with everything I had and pushed.
And pushed. And pushed.
The blade parted leather, muscle, organs.
He was so far gone that it took what felt like an eternity for the wound to catch up to him. Slowly, his eyes, bloodshot and frenzied, went distant.
At least, I thought to myself, I got to see what that looked like.
His arm faltered mid-swing. My strength gave out. My hand, blood-slicked, slipped from my sword, which was now lodged firmly into his torso.
I couldn’t reach for it again.
A sudden release of pressure, as someone grabbed Simon and yanked him off me.
The blurry image of Simon’s slackening face was replaced with Oraya’s.
Now that was a welcome trade. I tried to tell her so, but I couldn’t speak.
Her eyes were so wide and bright, like two silver coins. She said something I couldn’t hear over the rush of blood in my ears. She was shaking.
You don’t have to look so scared, princess, I tried to tell her. But when I attempted to straighten, I only fell to my knees.
And everything was dark.