Under Her Skin Page 33

’’He sacrificed himself?’’ she whispered.

’’Yes. I remember there was a rush of red, like I was swimming through a sea of blood and drowning, and then I saw this shape floating in the depths. I thought it was my body and I knew if I wanted to survive, I had to get to it. I grabbed it, saw it was John... The pull to live was too strong. I awoke in my brother's body.’’

She put her arms around his neck and kissed his cheek.

’’I killed my brother so I can live,’’ he said. ’’It doesn't get any worse than that.’’

She simply held him.

A low growl froze both of them. Grace flipped onto her stomach and glanced over the lip of the basin. In the night, the insects had stopped moving. They lay still now, entranced by the spell, their chitin mirroring the grass and weeds around them so closely that if she didn't know they were there, she would've mistook them for heaps of vegetation.

A lean muscled creature trotted along the edge of the pond. It gripped the ground with four oversized paws armed with sickle claws. Its serpentine tail lashed its dark pelt spotted with flecks of red and yellow. The beast padded down the shore, dragon-like jaws hanging open showing off fangs the size of her fingers. Foamy spit leaked from between its teeth, staining the long tuft of red and yellow fur hanging from its chin. It halted, sniffed the air, and turned to the basin. Four glowing amber eyes glared at her.

’’Sylvester Roar,’’ Nassar murmured.

Sylvester sniffed the water. His narrow muzzle wrinkled. He looked like he was grinning at them with his monstrous mouth.

Nassar growled. ’’No, you young idiot! Can't you see the spell on the water?’’

Sylvester snapped his teeth and snarled in a feral glee. An eerie raspy growl came from between his teeth. ’’I see you, Nassar. You can't hide from me.’’

’’Inexperienced fool.’’ Nassar reached for his axe.

’’I'm coming, Nassar. I'm coming for you.’’ Sylvester gave a short ragged howl and splashed into the water. Little waves ran over the surface of the pond. Behind Sylvester the akora swarm swelled. Buzzing filled the air. Sylvester turned

Nassar grabbed her and forced her to the floor of the basin, next to him.

A hoarse scream sliced through the morning, a terrible howl of a creature in impossible agony being torn to pieces. Grace squeezed her eyes shut. Sylvester screamed and screamed, the buzzing of the akora a morbid choir to his shrieks, until finally he fell silent.

Grace lay still, afraid to breathe. Slowly she opened her eyes.

An akora perched on the lip of the basin. It sighted her with dead black eyes. Its back split, releasing a pale gauze of wings.

Sun broke above horizon. Its rays struck the insect. Tiny cracks split its shiny thorax. The insect shrieked and fled, breaking apart over the water of the pond. Grace rose. All around the pond the insect horde fractured and crumbled under the rays of the sun. The air smelled faintly of smoke. She looked beyond the heaps of melting insects and drew a sharp breath. Past the park, to the right, rose a tall heap of rubble that had been a multi-storied building in its former life. Atop the rubble a small white flag fluttered in the wind.

’’The flag!'

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.’’

She nodded.

They climbed the pile of debris, making their way higher and higher. Soon they were level with the first floor of the neighboring 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 - a 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 forward. 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 choked 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.

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