There was an explosion of sound and wind behind Artemis, and the gust that buffeted her back nearly knocked her flat on her face. With a deafening cry, Razorit's dragon form launched over her with wings flared wide, blocking her from the black dragon's view.
Artemis stumbled away from the approaching skirmish as quickly as her legs would carry her, ducking behind the nearby oak table that had been flipped onto its side and covering her head when shards of glass exploded over her.
"I'll earn my title now, demon! Thank you for falling into my clutches so easily!" Razorit roared, but she heard no response from the intruder. She hoped Razorit really could prevail again.
But the entanglement of shadows they cast on the wall she was facing only scared her more. Razorit, with all his confidence, was clearly the smaller of the two, and soon took to being on the underside of the fight. A terrified sinking feeling welled up in Artemis’ stomach as she watched the entangled shadows. The black dragon did not need words to assert his power. His silence said it all. His movements weren't sharp—totally untrained—but there was a punishing brutality to them, and any time the beasts came to a horn-lock, he merely overpowered Razorit with a sharp twist of his head that sent the green dragon sprawling onto his side, his softer underside exposed.
And then, as Artemis had predicted, the shadow of the black dragon struck like that of a cobra, latching his maw onto Razorit's throat. Razorit let out a pained shriek and Artemis knew that if she didn't move now, she would be left to deal with the demon alone.
Avoiding as much of the glass and wooden splinters as she could, she crawled along, wobbling, with only the fractures of their overturned oak table to conceal her. Razorit's cries nipped at her focus like a hound might nip at the heels of a sheep. When she scooted to the edge of her wooden barrier and peeked around the other side, the sight of her bloodied brother did nothing to sharpen her senses.
"Lane!" she hissed. His lack of movement was hardly surprising.
Blinking back fearful tears, she took one last look at the wrestling dragons. Razorit was in dire trouble. He was on his back now – one wing already pinned uselessly beneath the clawed foot of the black and his throat caught savagely in the demon's jaws. There was too much blood spurting from the wound for her to properly gauge the damage, but she knew that his earlier battle with the female black dragon was severely limiting his potential this time.
The only good news was that the two dragons were turned away from her, though the Black's flat tail was swinging dangerously close to Lane. She took one last breath in and made a crouched sprint over to her fallen brother.
"Lane!" she whispered, falling down beside him and shaking him gently. "Wake up, Great Ones, please wake up!"
But her brother didn't stir, and his slender face was growing paler by the minute. When she pulled her hand away, the blood was still thick and red. Even with the bond keeping him from dying, he wouldn't be able to move on his own any time soon.
A sickening crack alerted her again to the battle taking place at her back, and the following silence was too eerie to be good. Slowly Artemis turned, and when her eyes connected to that of pale green, her blood turned as cold as ice. Razorit's neck was clamped limply in the black dragon's powerful jaws, his body sagging uselessly. Now the demon had his eyes on her.
Mere hours ago, she had been worried sick about what Razorit might do to her, now her previous fear seemed almost laughable. Next to the absent Kendric, she had no strength beyond the green dragon and her brother. She was prey. Weak prey.
The Black gave one last growl before dropping his grasp on Razorit, letting the green dragon's head smash into the stone floor. Artemis scrambled at the action, blinking her eyes to the floor to find some sort of protection. Her concentration melted quickly beneath the green gaze.
She felt the black dragon step over Razorit's body and move lethally closer. Her hands landed on a carving knife that had been thrown from the table. "Stay back!" she warned, managing to point the sharp end at the enemy, although the tip trembled. "Stay. Back."
He let out a snort, no more than a simple, sharp exhale to demonstrate his amusement. "Step aside, mortal woman. I will have my revenge."
"No," she said sharply, teeth gritted, angry tears pouring from her eyes. She wished she could control it, but fear overwhelmed her. "You won't have him."
"You can't stop me with words, human."
Artemis pressed her lips together and attempted to stay steady. He was right. What good would this puny knife do to a dragon's hide? It wouldn't even pierce a single scale. The most she could hope for was an eye, but he towered over her by many, many meters. This was hopeless. She'd never be able to defeat him.
He moved again, his dangerous maw coming within striking distance, close enough that one mere sweep of his horned head would break all her bones.
"Stop!" she warned, her voice quavering. "Please don't!"
"You're much more foolish than the average human," he growled, “trying to impede me. I’ll be taking that man. Angering me further would be… unwise.”
The point of her knife lowered without her meaning it to. “T-Take him?” she whispered, confused. “You weren’t meaning to slay him?”
“Only if he proves too proud for servitude.”
Artemis tried to think that through rationally, but the black dragon moved too quickly for her to spare any time. He stretched his long neck right over her, aiming for Lane’s unconscious form.
“Wait!” she protested. “Where do you mean to go with him?”
The black dragon had moved on to ignoring her, his head sinking down towards her brother, and Artemis realized she had only precious seconds left to turn this living nightmare around somehow, though she had nothing to barter with. What could a frail, meek woman like herself offer such a creature? He was hell-bent on revenge…
No. It was justice this dark creature wanted.
She let the knife clatter to the floor, and he paused for a promising moment, seemingly confused by the action, though his face was so close now that she could feel his strong, warm breath. It sent shivers running up her body. His eyes pinned her to the spot, narrowing in suspicion.
Artemis blurted out horrible, desperate words. “Take me,” she said. “Take me instead.”
His stillness was prolonged, giving her a merciful moment to gather her nerve. With a quiet sniff, she reached up and quickly rubbed the tear tracks from her face, knowing that such obvious signs of weakness would not persuade any dragon, much less one as fearsome as him, to accept her offer. She still couldn’t really believe what she had said, like she was talking in a dream.
“If it’s a servant you want… I-I can take his place,” Artemis went on. “He won’t be able to…” She stopped, choking the words back down when she realized how dangerous the information was. Lane couldn’t be separated from Razorit. It was the penalty of the bond they shared, and she had almost revealed it. If this dragon carried Lane away while Razorit remained here... a distance of only a few miles would kill them. Did he not know that?
It became obvious that he didn’t, and she couldn’t blame him. He was a black dragon; the most hated and feared of all time and kind. He likely knew very little about bonding, as it was known that black dragons direly hated all humans. She had to be careful… if he knew his plan could kill Lane, well, that didn’t really seem to bother him. It would likely be an acceptable alternative.
“He won’t be able to what?” the black dragon pressed, hunching himself up a little in the way that made Artemis’s hair stand on end, like he was nearing the end of his patience.
“He… He won’t be able to serve you as well as I could,” she answered. “I’m much more…much more…”
She froze. More what? What did she have that Lane didn’t have? She wasn’t as brave, wasn’t as strong, hated to fight, not as smart or ambitious. Some of these things she lacked were due to her upbringing, being the less impressive and less important child, but some of it simply couldn’t be excused. It was just… her. Next to Lane… so much was lacking.
“I’m much more compliant,” she finished, swallowing down what felt like a stone in her throat at the words.
Artemis took a sharp breath in at his swift demand, grasping the front of her dress in surprise and distress. “What would you have me do?” she dared ask.
“Make the bond with me,” he growled. “Make the bond and demonstrate your loyalty.”
The numbness faded, replaced by the horrid realization that this wasn't going to go exactly as she planned. "W-What?" she choked. “B-But I thought black dragons hated humans!” she protested, squeezing her eyes shut.
“Then give me a reason not to.”
Artemis stilled on the spot in front of her brother, her heart hammering in her ears. What could she do? This terrible, powerful creature was willing to bond with a pitiful thing like her? She just couldn’t believe it. Some small, shameful part of her reared up, hopeful. Pleased. She squashed it down, alarmed at how easily she was swayed. Though she’d always wanted a dragon, this creature was evil. He didn’t even have a human form; the result of the Black Greatfather rejecting the pact with humanity one hundred years ago.
This isn’t what I imagined! Artemis screamed inwardly. But how can I refuse him?
“Tell me…” the dragon began, drawing her gaze up to his again. She did everything in her power to suppress her shivers – her weakness – before him. “Are you anything like that man you’re so desperate to protect?”
She hesitated, but felt the truth escape her through a weak shake of her head, her eyes glassy. Truly, they couldn’t be further apart, and once this dragon realized that, the disappointment was sure to change his mind about her. Perhaps it was in her interest to lie… though she couldn’t find even the bravery for that while standing before him.
The Black seemed intent on her suddenly, moving forward to coil his huge, muscled, serpent-like body around her and Lane, leaving no room for her to run. The proximity was startling, and her breathing hitched when his giant, deadly head came down next to her. If she’d kept the knife, she could have caught him in the eye in that very moment.
“I knew there was something different about you…” he rumbled. “I can feel it.”
Artemis braced herself for his imminent disappointment and rejection, and her mind raced to find some other aspect, just a kernel, to help convince him that she was better suited for—
“Now, you’ll make the pact with me.”