Chapter 21 Part 3

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Sam loved the feel of the greatsword in her hands, but not as much as she loved the way it cut through demons. With a sword, she could do anything, be anything. She felt lethal, empowered, as strong as any man. She could fight until her blade grew dull.

But despite her enthusiasm, Sam felt herself growing weary. By her estimations — though she had never been much good at math — a disproportionate number of demons had focused their attacks on her. Between her, Tristan, Braeden and the Uriel, there were ten humans—nine and a half humans, to be precise—in the mountain pass and fifty or sixty demons. Yet she’d already fought and killed at least a third of them herself. The sword wasn’t heavy in her hands—not yet—but her swings came slower and her sweaty palms chafed against the shark skin of her sword’s grip.

She paused to catch her breath, anchoring her weapon into the hard ground. A fierce wind shrieked around her, drowning out the sounds of battle. It was close to pitch black, too – the light of the Uriel’s torches didn’t carry to wherever it was she was fighting. Taking in her surroundings, she swore under her breath. She must have climbed to the very top of the pass as she fought -- drat Tristan for being right, she should have paid better attention. Now she was alone in the dark with her sword.

Alone apart from the demons, she amended. Ten of the creatures walled her off from the other humans. No more of the worm demons, thank the gods -- killing those things was as exhausting as riding a bucking horse -- but fearsome creatures just the same. They ranged in size from an inch or two shorter than Sam to a giant beast whose pointed ears stuck out above the mountain wall. Its needle-thin teeth were as long as her leg and its bulbous nose had not two nostrils but three, larger than the circumference of her head.

Before she could panic -- or even think about panicking -- a preternatural yet familiar howl interrupted her thoughts. Claw and steel whirled into the wall of demons that surrounded her, sending bits and pieces of demonic flesh in every direction. Sam wiped off a stray intestine that landed in the crook of her elbow. It shriveled into twine at her feet.  She stared at the desiccated tube, wondering if her own bowels were ripped from her stomach would they deteriorate so easily.

Five of the monsters were in varying stages of dying and dead, but it was the remaining demons that held her attention. They were calm, so still they seemed frozen, staring at her almost worshipfully. Sam shifted on her toes, bracing for an attack that never came.

The small clump of demons parted, two on one side and three on the other. Braeden stalked through the middle. His back was so hunched that he was practically on all fours. His head snapped up, eyes as red as she’d ever seen them. His robes were shredded to his waist, the muscles in his arms swollen like overripe melons. Blood dripped down his stomach from a gaping wound in his chest. He lurched towards her, closing the distance between them with inhuman speed.

Braeden rose to his full height, stretching slowly like a cat. His eyes followed her every movement, glowing crimson in the moonlight. Sam’s pulse sped up -- he wasn’t himself, that much was obvious. “Braeden?” she said, searching his face for some sign of emotion or recognition. He stood there under her scrutiny, silent and unblinking.

“Braeden,” she tried again. She tapped him gently with the hilt of her sword. “Anybody home in there?”

He growled, low and predatorily. Sam instinctively took a few steps back.

Braeden lunged for her. “Mine!” he snarled. He clamped her torso to his painfully and bent his head. His clawed fingernails drew tiny pinpricks of blood from her neck and his rough tongue scraped the base of her throat.

Sam gasped and pushed at his muscle-bound body. “Braeden!” She trusted him -- really, she did -- but he was looking at her like she was a tasty morsel. She reminded herself that they were friends, or something of the sort. Friends didn’t eat friends, even if they were a little deranged.

Braeden’s body swayed and his eyes shuttered closed. When he opened them again, their crimson glow had dimmed and a modicum of intelligence had returned.  “Sam.”

Relief flooded her, followed by annoyance. “Idiot.” She shoved him again. “What was that?”

“Had to find you. Worked.” Braeden rubbed at the inflamed skin around the hole in his chest. “Worked too well.”

Sam stared as blood leaked from the hole in a slow stream. “I can see through to your heart. Did you do that to yourself?”

Braeden nodded. “Direct to the heart is more effective. Sometimes too effective. I’m sorry if I scared you.”

Sam waved her hand dismissively. “I wasn’t scared,” she said, though she had been, just a little bit. She peered over at the demons, who remained stock-still. “Why aren’t they attacking us anymore?”

Braeden grimaced. “When I’m like this--" He gestured at his grotesquely muscular form, “I can feel what they’re feeling, and they can feel what I’m feeling. But my will is stronger.”

“So you’re controlling them?”

“Not exactly. My will is overpowering theirs, for now, but they want you very badly, Sam.”

Sam swallowed down bile. Braeden had confirmed what she’d already known. They’d singled her out and separated her like the weakest animal in the herd. “Why?” she asked.

Braeden shrugged his bulky shoulders. “I wish I knew. I worry that they want you like my father wanted my mother. I couldn’t live with myself if I let that happen to you.”

Sam squashed the cold fear his words had evoked like the nasty bug it was. “I won’t let that happen to me. I don’t need to be rescued, by you or anyone.”

Braeden’s tightly controlled mask slipped and he gripped her upper arms. “You don’t understand. I’m a monster, Sam. I hang on to my humanity by the barest thread. What happens if I let go? What happens if there are so many demons that their will subjugates mine? What if it’s my teeth that rip into your throat? I almost killed you just now.”

Sam returned his grip. “But you didn’t. And you won’t. I know you, Braeden.” With a forced smile, she pushed him away. “Besides, what makes you think I’d let you bite me?”

He gave her a look. “Funny.”

“I try,” she said. She adjusted her sword into position. “Come on, let’s end this.”

Braeden nodded curtly. Knives appeared in his hands as if by magic. “Together,” he said.

She returned his nod. “Together.”

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