White Stag (Permafrost #1)(4)

Lydian’s face was a blank slate, but I could see the storm beginning to stir beneath the surface, and I didn’t fail to notice him shifting his weight back onto his good leg. You don’t want to anger him, a tiny voice in my head reminded me; a fearful voice that knew exactly what he could and would do. The same voice that reminded me he was so much stronger than I’d ever be, that he could hurt me with his little finger if he wanted to, if I angered him enough. I’d paid the price of that lesson in blood, and it wasn’t something I’d soon forget. But another voice, strong with hatred, craved to hurt him and to see him bleed. Before the Permafrost, it never occurred to me that you could both hate and fear something at the same time, but when it came to Lydian, those were the only two emotions I was capable of. His nephew, however …

Finally, he spoke again, and the softness of his voice somehow made it even more threatening. “Well, we’re not where you come from, are we?”

“Go eat your young,” I spat.

Lydian’s head jerked, and he shook himself. The faraway look in his green eyes grew cloudy. “It seems you’ve become even more insolent and ignorant since our last encounter. Perhaps I should teach you a lesson.”

Oh no, I’ve had enough of those. It’d been many years since I’d learned backing down from a fight would get me more injured than starting one. In the Permafrost, it was better to hide your fear than let it show. I infused strength in my voice. “And perhaps you’ll end up with iron poisoning again, and the Permafrost will be relieved of your cancerous presence so it can continue turning like it should.”

“Oh, you have no idea what happens when the serpent stops eating his tail,” he hissed.

His motion was a blur barely able to be registered by the human eye. But I’d anticipated Lydian’s attack from the moment I heard his familiar voice, and so when he raised his hand toward me—fingernails lengthening into claws—I was ready.

Still, he managed to brush against my cheek, almost like a caress, until thin lines of blood trickled from the cuts.

Instinct took over, and I danced backward until I could jump on what must’ve been a sacrificial table. I went into a crouch, my hands touching something warm and wet. Bile rose in my throat as I looked at the dead boar beneath my fingers.

Lydian howled a shrill, screechlike howl. The sound sent pain down my spine, and my arms shook; any louder and I had a feeling my ears would be bleeding. It took everything I had not to freeze from fear.

With that piercing howl the rest of the party took interest. Even the Erlking looked from where he sat on his throne, staring at me, at the fight between the prey and the hunter who sneered up at her. Soren rose, midvow, and his eyes caught mine. Be careful, they said. I can’t help you. If he beats you, I will bring you back to life and murder you myself for the disgrace.

It was good to know I had someone on my side.

I swallowed, trying desperately to push down the fear rising in my throat. Fear dulled the mind and I couldn’t allow it, but try as I might, little trickles spread throughout my body, inciting panic.

Without the disadvantage that came with emotions, Lydian saw his opening and lunged at me. We toppled to the ground, pain searing through my shoulder as I crashed into the hard floor.

His talons tore at my face, perilously close to my eyes, and for a terrifying moment, the wind was knocked out of me so I could do nothing to defend myself. His teeth were now fangs, snapping at my throat.

“Why can’t you listen?” he growled. The feel of his body on mine and those too-familiar words brought back memories seeped in despair. Don’t remember. Stop remembering. He cannot take you. “I tried to tell you! I tried to! What happens when the serpent stops eating his tail?”

I pushed his face away. Years of training with Soren came back to me as I dug my nails into his eyes. Lydian shrieked again, and blood trickled from my ears. Sound faded away until all that was left was a dull ringing, the ranting of the mad goblin before me, now only a distant echo in my head. I slammed my knee into his stomach, satisfied when the air whooshed out of him. Seconds later, a fist knocked into the side of my face, and I saw stars as my head cracked against the floor. For a terrifying moment, I forgot how to move, but then I jabbed my finger into the iron-poisoned wound I’d created in his leg long ago. Forgetting my fear and replacing it with cold, hard rage, I let go. Blood dripped from his eyes where I’d dug my fingernails in, and he lashed at me again. Hot wetness spread across my chest.

It was now or never. With muscles burning and fueled by hate, I pulled my legs up until they bunched under his chest and I could reach my boots. With my hands free, I dug under the straps, right as he went for the opening in my chest.

I stabbed a bent iron nail into his shoulder.

The effect was instant. Smoke billowed from his clothes, getting thicker and blacker by the second, and from it came a stomach-churning, charred-meat smell. His leathers burned away, showing blackened skin underneath. He rolled off me, shrieking in pain as he grabbed at the nail embedded in his shoulder.

I stood shakily. Blood dripped from my face, soaked my tunic, creating a wave of red on the floor. The ringing in my ears and pounding in my skull were deafening, almost bringing me back to the ground. It wasn’t lost on me that we had been forced to leave our weapons at the entrance to the palace, yet nails and teeth could harm more than any weapon should have the right to. A hysterical giggle bubbled onto my lips, causing a few glances to come my way.

Kara Barbieri's Books