“No!” Arron hissed.
He spread his wings and flew toward the door, pulling it open. I raced after him. Just as I had reached the door, he tried to slam it in my face, but I forced it open with all my strength. We’d entered a tunnel which was far too small to hold his outstretched wings, so he rushed ahead on foot like me. I was mere inches behind him. Sofia staggered up ahead, but she disappeared from sight.
She had reached the end of the passageway. Arron and I emerged a few moments after her. We’d entered a circular chamber with high ceilings and a shiny black floor. I charged forward, desperate to reach Sofia before Arron could.
She was now kneeling in the corner of the room leaning over what appeared to be a dark hole in the floor. She inhaled deeply. Panic overtook me. I believed she was taking in her last breath.
Everything that happened next was a blur.
Arron elbowed me in the stomach and reached her before me. He caught hold of her waist and dragged her back, away from the hole. He pinned her down against the marble floor, both legs either side of her, and began to strike her with his fists. One more blow and I was sure that would have been the end of my already dying Sofia.
I grabbed the Hawk from behind and hauled him off of her. We both crashed to the floor.
“Burn off his wings!” Sofia panted. “Kill him, Derek! Save me!”
I couldn’t afford to let Arron take flight again. I crawled onto his back, forcing his face against the floor. Grabbing hold of both wings, I let the heat rage up in my palms again. On feeling the rising heat, Arron began writhing beneath me more violently than ever.
“Wait!” he gasped out. I glanced up to see that Sofia had crawled her way back over to the hole in the floor. Her chest heaved in another strange inhalation.
“That is the last open gate to Aviary. Know that if the Elder destroys it, you will never be reunited with your son.”
That split second of distraction became my downfall. Arron took advantage of my shock to squirm away from me. This time, the Hawk lost no time in grabbing Sofia and lifting her up into the air. He moved so quickly that I couldn’t latch onto him before he flew out of my reach.
“No!” I bellowed.
Arron grinned down at me from the lofty ceiling and laughed. “Watch as I rip her apart. You might even be able to catch some of her falling limbs. If you’d only cooperated, I would have made it quick. A stab through the heart was all I had intended, but you just had to go and make it so much worse for her…”
Sofia flailed in his grasp, her claws extended and trying to lash out at him. But she had no chance. He was a bird of prey and Sofia a snake in his talons.
I considered directing more fire toward him, but he deliberately held Sofia in such a position that the flames would completely engulf her before they even reached him.
“Derek! Help me!” Sofia screamed again. Arron had started running his sharp beak along the length of her shoulder blades, making his first mark on her. Etching out his first cut. Terror filled me as a few drops of her blood splashed onto the floor just a couple of feet away from where I stood.
Is this where our journey ends, Sofia?
After all that we survived together, all that we fought for?
“Return the girl to the ground.”
A silky voice boomed through the room and echoed off the walls. Even Arron looked bewildered.
The witch with long silvery hair stood at the entrance of the chamber. The witch I had already sworn would never be welcome in my life.
Arron’s expression was of shock, but it turned to fury. “You dare give me orders, witch?”
“You heard me, Hawk. Bring her to me.”
“Has a fit of madness overcome you? Since when did a Hawk obey a witch’s command?”
The witch kept her steely glare on Arron.
“Since today. Return her to the ground. Or I will wipe out the final gate to Aviary myself.”
A deathly silence fell over the chamber. Both Arron and Sofia’s faces exuded the same astonishment. It was as though neither Arron or the Elder had ever seen a witch take a stand in this way.
The witches are giving up their neutral ground. There will be no going back for them now. This means outright war between all the realms.
The Ageless moved closer to the hole as if to signal that this was no bluff. Arron’s face contorted with rage, but he did as the witch asked. He soared back down and dropped Sofia to the floor.
The moment Sofia landed with a thud, she scrambled up on all fours and started crawling feverishly toward the gate. This time it was me who grabbed her before she could reach her destination. She howled, trying to maim me with her claws and dig her teeth into my skin, but I held on tight. I gazed up at the witch with desperate eyes.
The witch nodded, as if she’d read my mind. She held out her palms. A strong gust of wind rushed past my body and settled over Sofia beneath me.
“No! No, Derek! Don’t let her do this to me! Take me away from this place!’’ Sofia’s eyes were lit with anguish and I knew then that the Elder realized what was coming. She turned her face toward the Ageless. Her eyeballs turned black as night and her voice transformed into a hiss. “Exorcise this vessel, witch, and Cruor will not spare you. We will never stop until we have infected your entire realm and inhabited each and every one of your bodies like carnivorous worms—”
“You can loosen your grip on her,” the witch said, maintaining eye contact with me and ignoring the Elder’s horrifying threats. “I now have control over her limbs.”