Nassar had already seen it and jumped into the water. Together they swam across the pond. As she waded onto the solid ground, Grace passed a human skeleton, stripped bare of all flesh - all that remained of Sylvester.
Nassar moved cautiously along the sidewalk, jogging lightly on his feet, axe at the ready. She followed him, gripping her knife.
He wanted her and she wanted him. He’d forged a connection between them she couldn’t ignore. The way he had held her, the way he’d touched her made her want to hold on to him. She had no idea what would come of their connection, but her instinct warned her she wouldn’t get an opportunity to find out. Thinking of losing him now, before she had a chance to sort it out, terrified her.
They reached the rock pile. Nassar paused, measuring the height of the rubble with his gaze. It was almost three floors tall. He glanced at her. She saw the confirmation in his green eyes: it was too easy. He expected a trap.
“We go slowly,” he said. “We must touch it together.”
They climbed the pile of debris, making their way higher and higher. Soon they were level with the first floor of the neighbouring buildings, then the second. The flag was so close now, she could see the thread weave of its fabric.
The cold magic slammed her. Grace screamed. A lean shape burst over the top of the pile - half-man, half-demon, surrounded by marrow worms, the summoning stone on his chest glowing with white. The beast hit Nassar in the chest. Nassar reeled, the refuse slipped under him, and he plunged down, rolling as he fell, the dark worms swirling over him.
Grace ran after them. Below, the beast that was Conn Roar tore at Nassar, all but buried under the black ribbons of worm bodies.
She wouldn’t get to him in time. Grace jumped.
For a moment she was airborne and falling and then her feet hit hard concrete midway down the slope. It gave under the impact, pitching her forwards. She fell and rolled down, trying to shield her head with her arms, banging against chunks of stone and wood. Pain kicked her stomach; she’d smashed into a section of a wall. Her head swam. Her eyes watered. Grace gasped and jerked upright.
Ten feet away the marrow worms were choking Nassar.
Magic surged from her in a sharp wave. The blast ripped the worms clear. They fled.
Nassar lay on his back, his eyes staring unseeing into the sky. Oh no.
She killed the panicked urge to run to him, crouched, and picked up his axe from where it had fallen. Her own knife was gone in her fall.
A dark shape launched itself at her from the pile. She whipped about, reacting on instinct. Nightmarish jaws snapped, her power pulsed, and Conn Roar bounced from the shield of her magic, knocked back. His paws barely touched the rubble before he sprung again. This time she was ready and knocked him down once more, deliberately.
She backed away towards Nassar’s body.
“He killed my brother,” the demonic beast said. His voice raised the small hairs on her neck. “Let me have Nassar and I’ll let you live.”
“You can’t kill me.” Conn circled her. He limped, favouring his left front paw, and a long gash split his side, bleeding. Nassar had got a piece of him before he went down.
“Of course, I can kill you,” she told him, building up her magic. “I’m a Mailliard.”
She only had one shot at this. If she failed, he’d rip her to pieces.
Conn tensed. The muscles in his powerful legs contracted. He leaped at her. She watched his furry body sail through the air, watched his jaws gape in joy when he realized her Barrier wasn’t there, and then she sank everything she had into a single devastating pulse. Instead of a wide shield, she squeezed all her power into a narrow blade.
It sliced him in two. His body fell, spraying blood. His head flew by her, its four eyes dimming as it spun.
She didn’t give it a second glance.
“Nassar?” She dropped the axe and pulled him up by his giant shoulders, sheltering a weak flutter of magic emanating from him with her own power. He was covered in blood. Her chest hurt as if she’d been stabbed. “Come back to me!”
He didn’t answer.
No! Grace dropped and put her ear to his chest. A heartbeat, very weak, faltering, but a heartbeat.
She wiped a streak of blood from her eyes with her grimy hand so she could see. She couldn’t help him. She didn’t know how. But his family would.
Grace looked up at the pile of concrete and rubble, to the very top, where a white flag flailed in the breeze.
Nassar leaned against a tree across the street from a brick office building. Grace was inside. He couldn’t sense her, not yet, but he knew she was inside.
He vividly remembered waking up to the familiar vaulted ceiling. He’d whispered her name and Liza’s voice answered, “She’s alive. She dragged you out, and I released her and her family, like you wanted.”
He didn’t believe her at first. He knew how much he weighed. No woman could have dragged his dead weight up that heap, but somehow Grace had done it.
She had left no note. No letter, no message, nothing to indicate that she didn’t hate him for dragging her into the horror of the game. He thought of her every day while he lay in his bed waiting for his body to heal.
It took a month for him to recover. Three days ago he was finally able to walk. Yesterday he was able to make it down the stairs unassisted. Now, as he leaned against an old oak for support, his left arm still in a sling, he wondered what he would say if she told him to leave.
He would say nothing, he decided. He would turn around and go back to the airport and fly back to his life as the cursed revenant of Dreoch Tower. Nobody would ever know what it would cost him.
He wanted to hold her, to take her back with him, to have her in his bed, to taste her lips again, and to see the sly smile hidden in her eyes for him alone.
The door opened. Three women stepped out, but he saw only one.
Grace halted. Nassar held his breath.
She took a small step towards him, and then another, and another, and then she was crossing the street, and coming near. He saw nothing except her face.
Her magic brushed him. She dropped her bag. Her hands went up to his shoulders. Her brown eyes smiled at him.
She kissed him.