When it landed against the mountain, stone fractured. Its limp body collapsed.
Hounds dispatched, Thronos tensed to run for her; almost fell flat on his face. His feet were caught in mere inches of resin! He pulled with all his might.
More of the dragons launched themselves from the peak, heading toward the plateau. The mountain shook with an earthquake’s force, boulders falling.
Melanthe was about to run through a narrow ravine. From this distance, he could see a rockslide crashing toward her.
“The rocks, Lanthe!”
She spotted them herself, skidding to a stop. Whirling around, she headed back toward the field.
Toward him. “Hurry!”
The sky rained boulders. They pocked the clearing, shaking the ground with each impact. Thunk, thunk, thunk.
She sidestepped, dodging an arrow-shaped boulder of charred stone. If it’d hit her . . .
Her body would’ve been pulverized. He strained harder, working his wings to free his legs. She would have died.
A real death. He’d heard of Sorceri ended by illness and by stab wounds, for gods’ sakes.
She was almost back to this clearing. She ran under one of those gigantic trees for cover, nimbly skipping over its roots.
Then she—stopped. Her upper body jolted forward before she righted her balance.
Their eyes met. “Melanthe?”
She peered down, frowned.
She . . . no. She couldn’t be caught in a pit. “I’m coming for you!” Every muscle in his body strained. Though the quakes had stopped, the onrush of boulders continued. He could hear their deafening descent down the side of the mountain.
A monolith the size of a garbage truck was heading for Melanthe’s tree. She gazed up in horror, hunching down.
“No, no!” He thrashed, kicking, sweat pouring into his eyes, wings heaving. Damn it! The backdraft was cooling the resin, only solidifying its hold.
High in the tree, a giant limb caught the boulder. He and Melanthe shared a look of relief.
Until they heard the first crack of wood above her. The limb was about to give way. She started struggling in a frenzy.
He’d never get to her in time! He flared his claws to sever his legs, slashing at his skin. When the top tree limb snapped, the boulder landed on the next one down. It was already bowing . . .
He bit back yells as he cut, hacking through his calf muscle, baring the bone. Gripping his bloody leg in two fists, he wrenched his hands in different directions. The bone wouldn’t break!
She murmured, “Thronos?” Across this distance, he heard her distinctly, felt the timbre of pure fear in her voice. She had to know a boulder that big would kill her.
“I’m coming!” Even as his talon gouged chunks of flesh from his other leg, the process was taking too much time, too much! Three failed tries to break one leg!
Craaaack. His bone snapped just as a tree limb did. A leg free! But the boulder was plummeting like a juggernaut, crushing one limb after another until it caught on the one directly over Lanthe, not twenty feet above her head.
A final defense. Could he reach her in time, and have the strength to pull her from her own pit?
She’d gone still, as if she feared making too much movement.
“Start cutting!” he yelled as he set to his other leg, balancing even as he swung his razor-sharp claws.
She didn’t answer. Never slowing his gruesome task, he glanced at her. She was holding up her bare hands, with their tiny pink fingernails. No gauntlets. Tears began trailing down her cheeks.
The last tree limb was about to go; splinters fluttered over her, dusting her braids. “Tell my sister I love her”—she swiped at her eyes—“and f-for what it’s worth, those months in the meadow . . . I was happy. Happiest.”
“No, NO!” He was free of the pit! Using wings, hands, and what was left of his legs, he sped toward her.
Their eyes met again, tears pouring from hers. She raised her chin and gave him a pilot’s salute.
The wood broke. The boulder crashed down.
One second Melanthe was standing there. The next she’d disappeared, crushed.
He bellowed, “NOOOOOOO!” She couldn’t be gone!
When he reached the boulder, he thought he could scent blood and . . . ground bone. Because there was nothing left of her.
With a strangled yell, he dug his claws into the stone; using his wings for propulsion, he shoved with all the strength he had left.
Moved it not one inch. She’s dead.
Another desperate shove. Not a godsdamned inch.
She was dead. He felt it. Knew it.
He roared with agony. He had five centuries’ worth of hate to give that stone—his new enemy. Another shove. Another. And another. And another. He rammed his horns into it until blood poured down into his eyes.
In the midst of this frenzy, memories of her flashed through his mind.
Of him telling her they would be wed when they grew older . . .
“Would that make me a princess of heaven?” she asked with a chuckle. “Would we have much gold up there?”
“You’ll have me—and you like me far better than gold!” He tickled her, chasing her around the meadow while she squealed with laughter.
Of the first time he’d taken her flying . . .
She peeked up from his chest, her eyes wide, as blue as the sky they crossed. “Thronos, this . . . this . . . let’s never go back down!”
Of them as children caught in the rain, on the very day his father had later raided the abbey.
Thronos took her in his arms, and she leaned against him.
When the drops grew heavier, he spread his wings over his head, creating a shelter. “I’ve always room for you too.”
She nestled against him. As they watched the rain fall, she sighed, “I love you, Thronos.”
His heart felt too big for his chest, and he had to swallow past the lump in his throat to answer her.
He’d squandered the treasure he’d been given.
His claws and horns were gone, but he hadn’t budged the stone. Blood from his hands and head painted his enemy.
That stone . . . not a godsdamned inch.
Unmovable. So too would he be.
Tears blinded him when he realized the stone would be her grave marker. Thronos closed his eyes and took comfort in knowing that they would share it.
Melanthe whispered, “Something’s behind me, isn’t it?”
Thronos’s eyes shot wide open. She stood before him on the path, frozen, her black hair haloed by purple clouds.
With not a mark upon her. He was unwounded as well.
“What is this, sorceress?” he rasped. “Real?” Of course not; he must be delirious, still sitting in his own blood, his back against the gravestone, dreaming this. But what if . . . “Do you have no memory of what’s just occurred?”
“We were fighting, as usual,” Melanthe snapped under her breath. “Focus, Thronos—what’s behind me?!”
That same hound howled and charged; with a screech, she took off past Thronos.
“Melanthe, watch for resin!” What the hell is happening? I am in hell.
No, maybe a benevolent god was giving him a second chance to save her!
On that thought, he did a swift about-face, readying for the side attack. He knew what was coming.
The second hound leapt; Thronos evaded as his wings lashed out, blinding the beast.
He’d taken the hound out earlier this time. The events would be different; he could snag Melanthe before the other beast got too close. He took to the sky, planning to scoop her into his arms.
The hound pursuing Melanthe must have heard Thronos’s wings swooping; it veered from him—
Suddenly its body crumpled. Its front paw was stuck in resin!
See how you like it, beast!
The pair of sparring dragons launched from the peak then, sending the mountain quaking. As Thronos closed in on Melanthe, the two creatures spotted him in the air and plunged for him.
New threats. If hell conspired to keep him from saving his mate . . . I’ll defeat hell.
The dragons spewed fire, but he evaded the crisscrossing streams. He dove under them, heading for the camouflage of the ground.
Thronos landed, dropping to his hands and one knee, beginning to sprint as if from a starting line. He chanced a glance behind him. As he’d hoped, the pair had abandoned their hunt, continuing on to the plateau for a guaranteed meal. But more followed, so he stayed on the ground. With the hound taken care of, he had more time—
His third stride was his last.
His feet were caught again. Another godsdamned pit! He’d done exactly as the hound had! “Oh, come on!” he yelled, grappling to free himself. “Melanthe! Don’t run, if you move another inch, you will die!”
She couldn’t hear him, was about to enter that ravine. With the boulders falling! She skidded to a stop, then whirled around to sprint for the field.
“Don’t go under that tree!” He gritted his teeth, pulling with all his might.
She sidestepped, dodging that first arrow-shaped boulder, the charred one from before.
“Don’t head for the tree!” She was heading for the tree! “There’s a pit between the roots!”
Still not hearing him, she skipped over the roots. Then . . . too late. Her upper body jolted forward before she righted her balance.
She murmured, “Thronos?” Even from this distance, he could hear her distinctly, felt the timbre of pure fear in her voice.
Their eyes didn’t meet this time; he was too busy hacking at his legs. Break the bones in one go or she dies. “Just hold on! I’m coming for you!”
Every muscle in his body strained. He could already hear the gravestone’s descent.
Thrashing, kicking, sweat burning his eyes. The gravestone snapped the limb high atop the tree.
Thronos’s bone cracked—earlier than before! I can do this, I can reach her! With one leg freed, he dared a look. “I’m coming!” The next limb down was bowing.
She knew a boulder that big would kill her. She struggled wildly.
“Just hold on!” He bit back yells as he cut, hacking through the bloody calf muscle of his other leg. Taking too much time, too much!
The boulder plummeted like a juggernaut, crushing one limb after another until it caught on the one directly over Lanthe, not twenty feet above her head.
A final defense.
“Thronos?” She’d gone still, as if she feared making too much movement.
“I’m not letting you go! I’m coming for you! We’re not done, Melanthe.”
“I wish things had been different,” she said, voice thick with tears.
“They will be! Fight, Lanthe!”
Their eyes met again. “Tell my sister I love her.” Chin raised, Lanthe gave him a salute.
Second leg free! The tree limb was about to go. He took to the air, diving for her; she kept her gaze on him, as if for courage.
Craaaack. The boulder crashed down. He collided with it. An instant too late.
He dug his claws into the stone; using his wings for propulsion, he shoved with all the strength he had left. Ruined my second chance!
He directed his five hundred years of hate—at himself. I am the enemy. He’d had three fleeting nights with his mate, and he’d taken every opportunity to frighten her, to shame her, to hurt her. As if hundreds of years fleeing his kind hadn’t been enough pain.
I squandered what I was given, never comprehending the treasure.
Another shove. Another. And another. And another. He gave an agonized roar, clawing at the stone in a frenzy. As he rammed his horns into it, madness threatened, his thoughts taking flight in odd directions. He recalled the end of that encounter he’d had with her mother. . . .
“Melanthe will never be what you need her to be. You can’t break my daughter, and that’s the only way she’d love you.”
Thronos sputtered, “I-I don’t want to break her!” Melanthe was perfect as she was!
“Then you’ll have to break yourself, hawkling.”
Perfect, if only? Melanthe would be perfect.
If only she were alive.
As blood poured into his eyes, he closed them. Please, gods, give me just one more chance.
“Something’s behind me, isn’t it?”
Thronos’s eyes shot open. Melanthe was before him, heartbreakingly beautiful, not a mark upon her. The sun was starting to rise, purple clouds in the background like a halo over her black hair.
The hound’s howl marked the beginning.
Minutes later, the boulder was poised to fall above Lanthe.
Thronos was missing a wing and a leg. Slashes and puncture wounds covered him. The reptilian predators in the brush that had snatched the first hellhound had come for him this time.
Shouldn’t have ignored that direction. Won’t next time.
What if he didn’t get a next time? What if three was the limit?
He prayed to any gods listening: I will do this until I get it right. I will do this for eternity if I have to, but I will save her. . . .
Lanthe toed Thronos’s convulsing body, then hopped back. Her gaze darted from one marble marker to the other, looking for the threat.
One minute, she and Thronos had been arguing. The next, his eyes had rolled back in his head and he’d dropped like a rock. He was now unconscious, seizing on the ground as if afflicted by a supernatural malady.
What zone had he crossed into? The nightmare sector? The noxious-air belt? The markers were inscribed with those weird glyphs, and her translator was currently writhing, out cold on the path.
Lowering clouds closed in, darkening the morning. A soft rain began to fall; lightning streaking above. What to do? Despite his dickitry, she couldn’t just leave him like this.