Darkness embrace her. She’d forgotten about the bait beast. The creature chained behind her, so close she could smell the carrion on his breath.
Titus’s stare was a command for the bait beast to stand down. To let him eat Manon.
Manon dared a glance over her shoulder, to the sword in the shadows, so close to the chained anchor of the bait beast. She might have risked it if the beast wasn’t there, if he wasn’t looking dead at her, looking at her like she was—
Titus growled a territorial warning at the bait beast again, so loud she could feel it in every bone. Instead, the bait beast, small as he was, was gazing at her with something like rage and determination. Emotion, she might have called it. Hunger, but not for her.
No, she realized as the beast lifted its black gaze to Titus, letting out a low snarl in response. Not submissive in the least, that sound. A threat—a promise. The bait beast wanted a shot at Titus.
Allies. If only for this moment.
Again, Manon felt that ebb and flow in the world, that invisible current that some called Fate and some called the loom of the Three-Faced Goddess. Titus roared his final threat.
Manon twisted to her feet and ran.
Every step made stars flash, and the ground shook as Titus barreled after her, willing to tear through the bait beast to kill her if necessary.
Manon scooped up her sword and whirled, bringing it down upon the thick, rusted chain with every bit of strength left in her.
Wind-Cleaver, they called her blade. Now they would call it Iron-Cleaver. The chain snapped free as Titus leapt for her.
Titus didn’t see it coming, and there was something like shock in his eyes as the bait beast tackled him and they rolled.
Titus was twice its size and uninjured, and Manon didn’t wait to see the outcome before she took off for the tunnel, where the men were frantically lifting the grate.
But then a boom and a shocked murmur sounded, and Manon dared one look in time to see the wyverns leap apart and the bait beast strike again.
The blow from that scarred, useless tail was so strong Titus’s head slammed into the dirt.
As Titus surged to his legs, the bait beast feinted with its tail and made a swipe with jagged claws that had Titus roaring in pain.
Manon froze, barely fifteen feet from the gate.
The wyverns circled each other, wings scraping against the ground. It should have been a joke. And yet the bait beast wouldn’t stand down, despite the limp, despite the scars and the blood.
Titus went right for the throat with no warning growl.
The bait beast’s tail connected with Titus’s head. Titus reeled back but then lunged, jaws and tail snapping. Once those barbs got into the flesh of the bait beast, it would be done. The bait beast dodged the tail by slamming its own down atop it, but couldn’t escape the jaws that latched on to its neck.
Over. It should be over.
The bait beast thrashed, but couldn’t get free. Manon knew she should run. Others were shouting. She had been born without sympathy or mercy or kindness. She didn’t care which one of them lived or died, so long as she escaped. But that current was still flowing, flowing toward the fight, not away from it. And she owed the bait beast a life debt.
So Manon did the most foolish thing she’d ever done in her long, wicked life.
She ran for Titus and brought Wind-Cleaver down upon his tail. She severed clean through flesh and bone, and Titus roared, releasing his prey. The stump of his tail lashed at her, and Manon took it right in the stomach, the air knocked out of her before she even hit the ground. When she raised herself, she saw the final lunge that ended it.
Throat exposed by his bellow of pain, Titus didn’t stand a chance as the bait beast pounced and closed its jaws around that mighty neck.
Titus had one last thrash, one final attempt to pry himself free. The bait beast held firm, as though he’d been waiting for weeks or months or years. He clamped down and wrenched his head away, taking Titus’s throat with him.
Silence fell. As if the world itself stopped when Titus’s body crashed to the ground, black blood spilling everywhere.
Manon stood absolutely still. Slowly, the bait beast lifted its head from the carcass, Titus’s blood dripping from his maw. Their eyes met.
People were shouting at her to run, and the gate groaned open, but Manon stared into those black eyes, one of them horribly scarred but intact. He took a step, then another toward her.
Manon held her ground. It was impossible. Impossible. Titus was twice his size, twice his weight, and had years of training.
The bait beast had trounced him—not because he was bigger or stronger, but because he wanted it more. Titus had been a brute and a killer, yet this wyvern before her . . . he was a warrior.
Men were rushing in with spears and swords and whips, and the bait beast growled.
Manon held up a hand. And again, the world stopped.
Manon, eyes still upon the beast, said, “He’s mine.”
He had saved her life. Not by coincidence, but by choice. He’d felt the current running between them, too. “What?” her grandmother barked from above.
Manon found herself walking toward the wyvern, and stopped with not five feet between them. “He’s mine,” Manon said, taking in the scars, the limp, the burning life in those eyes.
The witch and the wyvern looked at each other for a moment that lasted for a heartbeat, that lasted for eternity. “You’re mine,” Manon said to him.
The wyvern blinked at her, Titus’s blood still dripping from his cracked and broken teeth, and Manon had the feeling that he had come to the same decision. Perhaps he had known long before tonight, and his fight with Titus hadn’t been so much about survival as it had been a challenge to claim her.
As his rider. As his mistress. As his.
Manon named her wyvern Abraxos, after the ancient serpent who held the world between his coils at the behest of the Three-Faced Goddess. And that was about the only pleasant thing that happened that night.
When she’d returned to the others, Abraxos taken away for cleaning and mending and Titus’s carcass hauled off by thirty men, Manon had stared down each and every witch who dared meet her eyes.
The Yellowlegs heir was being held by Asterin in front of the Matrons. Manon gazed at Iskra for a long moment before she simply said, “Looks like I lost my footing.”
Iskra steamed at the ears, but Manon shrugged, wiping the dirt and blood from her face before limping back to the Omega. She wouldn’t give Iskra the satisfaction of claiming she’d almost killed her. And Manon was in no shape to settle this in a proper fight.