It doesn’t hurt—the stone keeps me from feeling too much—but the lack of pain doesn’t change the fact that I’m on the ground with a wolf standing directly above me, snarling like I’m about to be his next meal.
He wants the ball—I know he wants the ball—but I’m not planning on giving it to him. At least not if I can help it. Instead, I grab on to the comet with one hand, then pull back my other hand and punch him in the nose as hard as I can with my stone fist.
He screams and rears back, blood spurting out of his nose, and I take the opportunity to roll over and start army crawling away, but the ball is vibrating so badly that it’s almost impossible to hold on to it like this.
I manage it, though, and stumble to my feet at as close to a run as I can manage. I shift on the fly, going back to my human form so I can run faster. I’m so close, the goal line is only twenty feet in front of me, and I’m almost there, almost there. Back in human form, the burn from the comet is moving quickly from painful to agonizing, but if I can just hold on another few seconds—
Out of what feels like nowhere, Cam (Macy’s right, he is a fucking traitor) hits me with some kind of earth spell, and vines shoot up from the field and wrap themselves around my ankles and legs. I go down hard and take the ball with me.
It’s burning hot now, and when I fall on top of it, I can feel it branding me through my shirt. Can feel painful blisters starting to form. The pain is too much, and I gasp, roll off the ball, and just that easily, Macy’s soon-to-be-ex-friend Simone swoops in.
She picks up the ball and takes off running full tilt for the goal.
Fake It Till You
I jump to my feet, shifting into my gargoyle form as I do, so that the vines are ripped apart by my larger stone size. But I’m way behind Simone, and I’m terrified I won’t be able to catch her before she tosses the comet to a teammate and I never catch up.
I launch myself into the air, and briefly I think about tapping into Hudson’s powers. But he said I can do it only once, and to make sure that when I do, it’s to win, because it will totally wipe me out.
I’m not there yet—I’m currently about as far from winning as I was at the beginning of the game, maybe even further—but if I don’t catch Simone right now, it won’t matter if I save Hudson’s power for later because I will have already lost.
Desperate not to let that happen, I fly faster, determined to use the power if I really, really have to. One of the dragons—Joaquin, I’m pretty sure—passes Simone going in the opposite direction and heads straight for me, fire blazing and talons out.
I don’t have time for him or his shit right now. Too bad he doesn’t feel the same way about me.
He’s heading straight for me like I’m personally responsible for whatever pain and humiliation he suffered coming out of the portal earlier, and he’s looking for payback.
Also something I don’t have time for at the moment.
But this is the path Simone is running, so this is the one I have to stay on—which means I can’t afford to duck or change course or do anything at all but what I’m doing.
So I do exactly that, even though it means flying straight at Joaquin.
You know, if anyone had told me six months ago that I’d be playing a supernatural game of chicken with a dragon, I would have suggested they stop smoking whatever it was they were smoking. But six months makes a huge difference in this world—hell, at Katmere Academy, six minutes makes a huge difference—and I can’t afford to blink. Not now. Not this time.
So I stay the course, no matter how scared I am.
No matter how fast my heart is pounding.
No matter how loudly my brain is screaming for me to stop, to go back, to turn around because there’s no way I can win in a collision with a two-thousand-pound dragon.
But I have to win—this collision and this game. Which means there’s no way I’m backing down now.
A quick glance at the field shows me that Simone has passed the ball off to Cam, who is now running for the goal even faster, with the wolves quickly approaching to flank him on either side. I have no idea where the other dragon is—and I try not to let that fear distract me—because I’ve almost caught up with Cam, and I need to get this giant freaking other dragon the hell out of my way.
So I’m just going to have to count on beating the warlock to the goal line and keeping the ball in play.
How I’m going to do that is another matter altogether, though. Especially since there’s only one way I can think of to do that while we’re both thirty feet off the ground—and it’s pretty goddamn awful.
I know everyone on the ground thinks I’m out of my mind. I know they’re convinced I’m about to die right here in midair, and maybe they’re right. But times don’t get much more desperate than this, so I aim for the dragon and brace myself for impact.
I let myself wonder briefly about not surviving the upcoming crush. And if I’m really willing to take that chance.
But the truth is, if I don’t take that chance—if I don’t fight this fight and win—I won’t survive anyway. Besides, I’d rather die fighting for what I believe in than live as the victim of somebody else’s whims—especially if that person is as evil as Cyrus.
There’s no way I want to spend the rest of my very long life being Cyrus’s prisoner or personal gargoyle-for-hire.
That being said, I don’t actually want to die. And so I lay on the speed, using every ounce of strength and energy I have to go faster, faster, faster. Joaquin is still coming at me, but I can tell from the way he’s flying that he’s convinced I’m going to chicken out at the last minute. Convinced that there’s no way I’m going to actually let myself get into a giant collision with a dragon.
But he’s wrong, way wrong. And his mistaken conviction means I have an advantage. Right now, it’s a small advantage, but I’m willing to take anything I can get. Which is why, as the dragon bears down on me, wings spread wide and flames shooting out of his mouth, I do the only thing I can do.
I veer just a couple of inches to the right and clench both my hands into fists as I straighten my arms out directly in front of me and tuck in my own wings…and then I punch a giant hole in the center of his wing and fly right through it.
Joaquin screams in agony and starts spinning out as he plummets to the ground, unable to do anything but fall with his broken, torn-up wing. I feel bad—of course I do—but an injured wing is totally fixable, especially with Marise in charge of the infirmary.
A gargoyle’s lifetime chained up in a dungeon? Not so much.
Leaving half the Circle to run wild, power hungry and unchecked, throughout the paranormal world? Double not so much.
I vaguely notice Joaquin magically disappears from the sky just before he hits the ground, likely teleported to the infirmary. Either way, they’re down a player, and that can only be good news for me.
The crowd is shouting now—at me or for me, I don’t know or particularly care—but I don’t take so much as a second to glance over at them.
Instead, I do a backward corkscrew and deep dive toward the ground as Cam closes in on the goal. No way is Macy’s scummy ex getting that ball over the line. No freaking way.
Except Cole is there, too, waiting to take me out if I get too close to Cam—or if he can think of another reason to do it. But I haven’t come this far to lose to some mangy dog with a God complex, even if he is in human form, so instead of moving in front of Cam to stop him, I take him from behind—with a well-placed kick to the back of his knee.
He cries out and starts to fall, bobbling the ball in the process—which is exactly what I’ve been waiting for. I snatch the ball out of midair and somersault backward, planning to take to the air a second time. With one of the dragons down, my odds just got a whole lot better in the sky.
But before I can get more than a couple of feet off the ground, Cole leaps at me. I’m not fast enough to get away, and he manages to twist his arms around my waist as he tries to wrestle me to the ground.
I fight him the whole way—the gargoyle’s stone way more effective than my human body would be in this situation—but before I can land one really good punch, we’re falling straight into another goddamn portal.
This portal is narrow and fast—so narrow that my wings are scraping hard against the sides of it and so fast that it’s actually crumbling the edges of them. Terrified I won’t be able to fly if I lose too much of my wings right now—the info from the library said gargoyles can regenerate certain things but it doesn’t happen instantly—I do the only thing I can think of to do. I shift back to my human form.
But that’s no better, because I’m still in this portal with Cole and the ball, and while I’m trying desperately to get my hands on the comet, Cole is trying desperately to get his hands on me. I start crawling away from him, using his own body as my ground, arms stretched in front of me as I try to grasp the ball that’s spinning along in front of us. But Cole has a different idea, and he grabs on to the back of my pants and pulls me straight back toward him, even as I claw at the icy portal in front of me.
He finally manages to get me turned over and then wraps his hands around my neck and starts to squeeze.
Panic fills me—wild, overwhelming, desperate—as I realize this isn’t about the ball. It isn’t about the game or even about the Circle itself. This is about Cole and how much he despises me. More proof—if there was any doubt—that Cole has never given a damn about the Trial. He only cares about hurting me.
Which makes him a million times more dangerous.
Get up! the voice deep inside me says. Get him off. He’ll kill you.
I want to shoot back, Thanks, Captain Obvious, but the beast doesn’t deserve my snark. He’s just trying to help.
My hands are on top of Cole’s now, my nails scoring his skin as I try to pry his fingers from around my throat. But he’s a werewolf, with werewolf strength, and I can’t get him off me no matter what I do.