At the sight of them I heave again. This must be a bad dream.
Claws and scales and wings. I’m now more beast than woman.
“How do you like them?” Karnon asks, his words taunting.
I roll my forehead against the bloody, marble floor.
Can’t bear the sight.
Far behind me, someone pounds on the doors that lead in, the wood shuddering against the force of the strikes. If I had any more energy, I would’ve jumped at the noise.
Instead I just lay here.
The doors continue to bang. And bang.
Karnon drops my wings, and with a wet smack they flop to my sides. His footfalls retreat.
The metal doors blow open, wood splintering every which way. The massive double doors hit the throne room’s floor, their impact shaking the walls of the room.
I sense him before I hear his agonized bellow.
He found me. A weak thread of happiness pushes through my exhaustion.
Shadows curl around me like smoke. I stare tiredly at them.
“So your mate found you after all,” Karnon says. “Took him long enough.”
The air shifts, and a moment later Des is crouched at my side.
I feel his hand glide over the sensitive flesh of my wings.
“I’m so sorry, cherub,” he whispers, his voice breaking. “For everything. He will pay.”
I begin to shake.
“Tell me, how do you like your mate now?” Karnon says mockingly. “She’s improved, no?”
I catch another glimpse of myself—my golden dusting of scales, my sharpened fingernails … my wings.
Suddenly, I can’t look at Des.
I’m monstrous. Not a woman, not anymore.
Des’s hands leave me. He stands, and the atmosphere of the room feels suddenly ominous. I turn my head just in time to see the Bargainer approaching Karnon.
“You know it’s breaking the most sacred law of hospitality to attack a king within his own castle,” Karnon says, backing up.
The Bargainer doesn’t bother responding. He is the embodiment of wrath. I can see it building beneath his skin, burning in his eyes. A bottomless abyss of it.
It reminds me of Karnon’s cold gaze …
But my mate is so calm. All of that fury is contained within him as he moves, and it only serves to make him appear all the more menacing.
“I never imagined you’d go for a slave. But weak attracts weak …” Karnon taunts, trying to get a rise out of Des even as he begins to back away.
The reaction never comes. The Bargainer continues stalking after Karnon with the same steady, coiled rage as before, his face set in uncompromising lines.
“Though I did enjoy her moans …”
And still, Des doesn’t react.
Karnon growls, clearly growing impatient. Suddenly, and without warning, he swipes his hand through the air. I feel the magic brush by me, and too late I let out a thin cry, remembering those guards Karnon disemboweled days ago.
Des doesn’t even try to block the attack. I see cloth and skin split in four jagged claw marks across his stomach, and his blood begins to spill.
“No,” I croak out weakly, beginning to drag myself across the floor.
The Bargainer’s face is still a mask of anger. And as I watch, I see his wounds begin to stitch themselves up. I feel his magic building and building; it thickens the air as it fills the room.
Des is all darkness. It gathers around him, dimming the room. Bit by bit, the shadows snuff out the lights. His face is as sinister as I’ve ever seen it. Even Karnon looks a little unsure at this point, taking a stumbling step backwards.
The shadows sweep over the room, blanketing me and everything else until the room is black as pitch.
“You think I cannot see in the dark?” the Fauna King says.
“I am the dark.”
Des’s power detonates, blasting through the room, whipping my hair back.
Had I thought that Karnon’s was staggering? It’s nothing—nothing—next to the fury and sheer strength of the magic that moves through me. Warm liquid sprays against me, splattering against my hair, my face. I taste the coppery tang of it on my lips.
With a deafening shriek, the walls and ceiling explode outwards, bits of marble and plaster scattering to the four winds, the building essentially vaporized.
And then it’s over.
The darkness recedes, and when it does, the first thing I see under the dim twilight sky is … meat. Meat—and bits of bone smeared across the room.
That’s all that’s left of Karnon.
Kneeling behind him is Des, who doesn’t have a fleck of blood on his clothes, nor a strand of white blond hair out of place. Other than the torn, bloodied edges of his clothes, he looks utterly untouched.
I glance around us. This must’ve once been a grand castle, but now all I can see of it is its foundation and bits of furniture that weren’t completely obliterated in the explosion.
Beyond the castle walls, the dark evergreen trees that surround it are utterly untouched.
Des did all this. I shiver at the sight of all of it.
The Bargainer raises his head, his eyes locking with mine. “The King of Fauna is no more.”
Des comes up to me, his hands sliding under my body as he lifts me up.
I let out a small, pained noise. Everything aches, my scalp, my teeth, my bones, my toes—my heart.
Especially that last one.
“It’s alright, cherub, it’s alright.”
I make a choked sound and turn my head towards his chest.
It’s not alright at all. I can feel the tips of my wings dragging along the ground. A faint dusting of scales cover my arms, and I have claws.
Monstrous. Just as monstrous as my captors. And now I’ll always carry the reminder.
The only thing that tempers my revulsion is my will. I’m struggling to stay conscious.
Des keeps casting worried glances down at me. “Stay with me, love.”
I force my eyes to remain open.
“Good girl,” he says, stroking my hair back. “We’re going home.” His expression is filled with such agony.
It’s painful for him to even look at me.
Perhaps it was better when he was simply out of my life. Then it was a single blow I managed to live with. Seeing him look at me this way over and over again—each moment is a dagger to the gut. In response to my anxiety, my wings tense, ready to lift.
“Be calm, love,” Des says.
Slowly, I force myself to relax my back, my wings going limp again.
He bends his knees, tensing. A moment later, we shoot into the sky.
I stare at the stars, the beautiful, desolate stars, my body at the end of its rope. My eyelids close.
But not even Des’s voice brings me back from the darkness.
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