She used it to haul herself in, then crawled on hands and knees up the rocky shore.

I made it. With each ragged breath, she coughed, an agony on her ribs. I survived. I -

Her ear twitched. She dragged her gaze up. And met red eyes glowing with an unearthly hunger.

For her.

"If you don't release me, she's going to die!" he bellowed as Groot approached him. Cade had never wanted anything so much as he wanted over that ledge. With all his might, he writhed, slicing his skin on the swords, biting at his own flesh to get free.

"She probably wouldn't have survived the falls," Groot said, pinching his nose and snapping it back in place. "But if she did, would you really expect me to let you go with the female, the sword, and my secret location?"

"Fuck the sword!" At last, Cade was turning completely. "Keep it! And I'll vow to the Lore...not to tell of this place."

"Even if the Valkyrie lived, she'll be infected or eaten before anyone gets to her. Besides, there'll be another Vessel in a few centuries. And all I have is time."

Cade roared with fury, his horns straightening, sharpening, his fangs and claws lengthening.

"I'd really hoped you would kill my brother, but now I see you can't be controlled."

You have no idea.

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Groot sent another sword flying straight for his neck. In a rush of blood, Cade tore free, ducking under the sword with an inch to spare. Once more, he lumbered toward the railing, almost to the edge...Thoughts grew hazy in his rage state. Get to my female...Protect her...

Groot himself sacked Cade with the force of a freight train. He looped a thick arm around Cade's neck. "I can squeeze the life out of you, demon..."

I want over that goddamned edge! Cade's head shot back, his sharpened horns sinking into Groot's face like a viper's fangs.

The sorcerer collapsed, instantly paralyzed; at once, revenants descended upon Cade.

He mindlessly slashed at them with claws, horns, fangs. But they couldn't be slain as long as their master lived. Cade swung his gaze on Groot, then wrestled to get past more guards to him.

The sorcerer lay with his grotesque muscles clenched, his eyes wide, registering everything, but unable to move.

Snatching up his great body, Cade battled to get to the forge, taking sword thrusts, growling in fury with each strike. At the edge, he lifted Groot overhead.

The bastard had recovered enough to beg, "Please..."

With a roar, Cade heaved him into the fire.

Flames consumed Groot's body, then flared, too large to be contained in the smoke stack. The entire castle shuddered.

Mortar cracked, stones beginning to plummet. Cade faced off against the revenants standing between him and the water. The next one that he slew stayed down. But the fortress never settled, continuing to quake on its supports. He felt heat building all around him...

Cade fought ever closer to the ledge, to Holly, to protecting her.

So close -

The furnace erupted, exploding the forge, spewing boiling metal. The blast engulfed him, hurtling his seared body into a wall. He slumped down.

The ground began to disappear beneath him, the castle giving way.

45

The explosion in the distance distracted the Wendigo just long enough for Holly to bolt to her feet and sprint past them. The sky rained embers as blast after blast rocked the castle, towers collapsing.

Holding her ribs, she raced down the riverside, slipping on the rocks. The Wendigo gave chase, running with a lumbering, uneven gait, their long, knifelike claws bared.

More emerged from the shadows before her, forcing her to dart back toward the town. She realized they were maneuvering her, but there was nothing she could do about it -

Once on the main street, she scanned the area. Their eyes glowed out from around the corners of buildings, from roofs, from inside homes. Dozens of them.

Need a weapon...anything.

There! Behind a home. Her gaze fell on an ordinary wood ax, wedged into a stump. She limped to it, tearing the ax free. Getting a good grip, she swung it, growing accustomed as she sized up her foes.

Wendigo stalked closer.

Monstrous. Up close she saw they had dripping fangs and smelled like rotten meat.

There would be no hacking with the ax - she couldn't afford to have her weapon get stuck in one of their bodies. No, she would use full-forced swings, taking their heads cleanly off their necks.

Just when the larger ones tensed to leap at her, night turned to day. The last mighty tower erupted in a plume of fire, bathing the valley in light.

The nocturnal, north-dwelling Wendigo shielded their eyes. As they hunched with wet hisses, she raced past the line of them.

She chanced a look behind her. I'm outrunning them! They couldn't catch her.

By the time she neared the edge of the town, she'd left them in the dust. Free! Still running, she passed the sign.

And slowed...

Prosperity.

Three hundred and thirty-three villagers had sought to make a life here. There'd been no prosperity awaiting them - only terror, then gruesome, agonizing deaths.

They'd been lured here by a promise that was far different from the reality. Just like her.

Lured by the hope of a better life, or by the love of a demon - what did it matter?

She stopped, breaths fogging in the growing chill. The Wendigo thought another meal was here for them. A piercing fury bloomed within her. How would they like to be the prey for once?

Furies are predators. Valkyrie are warriors. I'm both.

Something inside her...clicked. Things became clear.

She turned back, surveying the town. Without the heat from the forge, flurries began to swirl.

The old Holly would be screaming that this wasn't rational. But she wasn't the old Holly.

Briefly setting down her ax, she wrung her clothes and hair out, then bashed the ice off an evergreen limb. She rubbed the needles all over her, disguising her scent.

She doubled back, creeping around buildings as she made her way to the chapel. At the entrance, she stole inside, her calculating gaze flickering over the boarded windows.

Ax in hand, she leapt up onto one of the exposed rafters. Crouching there, she slowed her breaths, calming her heart. Awaiting.

One by one, they entered, hunting, sensing her. She tilted her head, dispassionately eyeing her quarry as her foremothers had before her.

When the chapel was filled, a bolt of lightning flashed over the valley. The largest one finally craned its head up.

With a shriek, she dropped down between them and their only escape.

She lives.

Cade forced open his eyes once more. She'd screamed, not in fear but in fury.

The blast had catapulted him all the way down to the valley. The impact mangled his body, splintering bones out from his thighs and forearms.