The Darkest Promise

By: Gena Showalter


Argh! The branches hadn’t penetrated a single scale. In fact, the branches hadn’t scratched a single scale.

Enraged now, the dragon-snake roared.

All right. Their scales were impenetrable. Got it. Only two other options remained. Go for the eyes or go for the mouth. Easy, not a problem, if she could hop aboard the dragon-snake express and hitch a ride.

“Ssss.”

“Ssss.”

Two new streams of fire spewed in her direction, the heat level jacked to instant BBQ with a side of ash. Again she scrambled out of the way, but really, she had nowhere to go. The beasts circled her, working in tandem to trap her inside a ringed inferno. Smoke thickened the air.

A tickle irritated the back of her throat, making her cough—at the same time, a wing arced in her direction. She managed to jump backward, barely avoiding being sliced in two.

“Want my help now?” Rathbone remained secure on his perch, his smile as innocuous as a fistful of daisies. “I’ll give you a discounted rate.”

Ignoring him, she sprinted across the white-hot path of soot and char. As another wing swung at her, she used the branches she still held to bat it out of the way. Momentum spun her around, and she dodged another stream of fire. Next, a barbed tail lashed at her, but she jumped over it and motored on, increasing her pace. Almost within range...

There’s no way you’ll succeed, the demon told her, his sadness seeping into her. You’re going to die.

No! She would win, and she would live. She would!

The moment of truth arrived.

Her heartbeat a wild thing her ribs might not be able to cage, she vaulted up, up. One dragon-snake vaulted with her—or rather, at her—clearly intending to snag her midair. The closer he came, the more he snapped his teeth at her. His mistake. She shoved a branch into his mouth.

The limb—as thick as her biceps, the length of her forearm and harder than stone—remained vertical, one end digging into the roof of his mouth, the other pinning his tongue to the bottom. Meanwhile, Cameo tightened her grip on the branch’s center, swung around and straddled his neck.

He thrashed, the jerky movements impeding the glide of his wings, sending him plummeting back to earth.

Yee-haw!

Just before her second crash landing of the day, she jabbed the second branch into his eye. He screeched as thick black blood splattered over her hand and blistered her skin.

Boom!

The dragon-snake absorbed the worst of the impact, Cameo bouncing off him. As he screeched and thrashed, she lumbered to her feet, intending to run. Sharp agony seared her ankle when a hard yank dropped her flat on her face and wrenched her backward.

Her nails left grooves in the dirt. Trying not to panic, she glanced over her shoulder. Nooo! The other dragon-snake had snagged her foot between his teeth.

He began to chew, saliva penetrating her wound. A scream split her lips, her entire leg burning and blistering. She curled into a ball to swing at him.

Damn it! Her hands were empty of branches.

He dragged her over rocks and gargantuan roots, ripping her shirt. Her flesh, too. Her head swam again, oblivion beckoning. She reached for another branch, any branch. There!

He straightened, lifting her off the ground foot-first. Dangling upside down only magnified her pain.

Remember, pain is weakness leaving the body.

She could do this. No, she would do this.

Cameo contorted and strained her body in order to swing forward...back...forward again, faster and faster, coming closer and closer to her enemy’s torso.

He flapped his wings as he soared higher into the sky—and provided a new lesson about pain.

Not sure how much more I can take.

Sweat drenched her and nausea boiled in her stomach, but still she continued swinging. Finally, blessedly, she was able to thrust the branch through the underside of his jaw, where no scales protected him, the end slamming into the back of his throat.

He jerked and roared, releasing her. Down, down she fell. She braced—her lungs emptied once again, the chambers in her bursting like a balloon.

Her pain was so strong, so shrill she could almost understand a man’s suffering when he had a cold.

She remained sprawled across the ground, praying for a quick recovery. Or death. Yeah, probably death. Her mutilated ankle throbbed in time to her distorted heartbeat as the organ regenerated. From her kneecap to her toes, she felt as if her skin had been baked like cheese on a pizza.

Though the dragon-snake tried, he failed to remove the branch; his wings refused to bend as needed. In the end, he could only return to his companion, drill his fangs into the beast’s chest and fly them both away.

She’d...done it? She’d won?

You’ll probably never walk again, Misery told her.

Wah, wah, wah.

“I’ll walk again,” she grated. Over the centuries, she’d had limbs severed and her tongue cut out. Her ankle would heal...eventually. The demon only sought to depress her.

Rathbone prowled from the tree and sashayed toward her. “Ask nicely, and I’ll let you ride me free of charge.”

“No, thanks.” Too fatigued to care if he hoped to lure her into a false state of calm simply to attack her, she said, “Where are we?”

His flinch was more pronounced this time. “We’re in the Realm of Grimm and Fantica, ruled by King Lazarus the Cruel and Unusual, the only son of the Monster.”