White Stag (Permafrost #1)(5)

With a racing heart, I looked around at the monsters in the room. They all gazed at me, some with confusion on their faces, some with mild interest, and some with apparent disappointment at the outcome of the fight. But their looks didn’t affect me. No, the only goblin whose eyes seemed to see through me was Soren. Something faint glowed within them, but it wasn’t something I could name.

Lydian’s subordinates huddled around him, making a joint effort to pull the nail out of his shoulder. With another ear-splitting howl, the nail was yanked out. The forest-colored material of his shirt flaked to the ground, exposing his now-blackened shoulder. Blood dripped from his eyes, but other than the nail, that was the only wound he took. My legs were going to collapse under my weight at any second.

He came forward. But then Soren stepped in front of me. “I think that is enough.” The ice in his voice stung.

“Let me at her!” Lydian’s perfect golden hair was in tangles around his face, his expression twisted in rage. “If you think I’ve hurt you before, it won’t compare to what I will do to you now.”

“You will not. She is mine.” Soren’s voice resonated across the hall. The weight of the power pouring from him did drop me to my knees. When Lydian began to pour out his own power, the weight of their combined strength pressed my body flat against the ground; my arms turned to sticks when I tried to hold myself up.

Lydian snarled. “I am not above killing you either, nephew. In fact, I’d rather prefer it. It would make the world right again, after all. You need to understand that, yes?”

“We don’t need to do anything. However, I want to tear your still-beating heart out of your chest, so I suggest you leave before my restraint runs out.” Soren cocked his head to the side. “I can count to three if it makes it easier.”

Lydian’s eyes burned like emerald fire, and he let out a low, guttural growl. Then he was screaming again, but the only sound my ears could register was ringing. Spittle formed at the corners of his mouth, and I scrambled backward. He looked like a madman, ranting and raving about nonsense he thought would make sense to everyone else. When I’d been his captive, he’d done the same every night; asking inane questions over and over again, and then destroying me piece by piece.

Both of them were throwing their power around so hard, black spots danced at the edges of my vision. I knew Soren and his uncle had unspeakable power—the ethereal force inside every goblin that marked their strength and could be turned into a weapon—but I’d never been in the same room when they both wielded it to its full extent. The breath was crushed from my lungs and my vision blurred, but before it faded completely I saw the two of them transforming, looking more and more like actual monsters without the inhuman, terrifying beauty that masked their true selves.

Not good. This is not good. They’ll destroy the building. The ground shook, and from behind me someone groaned in pain. How many things did they have to kill to obtain all that energy?

But no one would stop them. It was the way of goblin life. If you were challenged, you did not back down, not unless your challenger was defeated. Like wolves, the fight for dominance was ongoing, and like wolves, the younger challenged the elder in the pack. Soren might’ve been the youngest lord there’d been in the history of the Permafrost, but he was strong.

As the two goblins were about to attack, three things happened simultaneously. The marble floor split open with a deafening roar, the Erlking fell from his throne, and the stag stood, shook out his fur, and ran.



AS FAR AS bloodthirsty monsters went, the goblins at the gathering were surprisingly calm about their king collapsing onto the now-bloodied, broken floor. Or, well, ex-king, now. I didn’t see who’d slashed the then-Erlking’s throat, but the wickedly deep gashes gave me no doubt he was dead. The cuts in my own skin throbbed harder at the sight.

Lydian and Soren stared at each other for a minute more, their features morphing back into those of inhuman beauty, before slowly backing away from each other. Lydian snapped once, a gesture that was met by a rumbling growl from Soren, before he backed away, still clutching his smoldering shoulder. He sneered at me again and then vanished from sight.

The space where we’d fought was covered with my blood. Raw meat and other delicacies from the table I’d jumped on littered the floor, and I wrinkled my nose at the coppery smell. With one arm crossed against my chest to stop the gushing blood, I limped back to where the iron nail was on the floor and shoved it into my boot.

Soren gave the dead king a thoughtful stare. I stood, waiting to be recognized, hoping it’d be before I passed out from blood loss. He sometimes forgot that even though the Permafrost made it so I remained seventeen winters old despite years passing, I still was nothing but a mortal—a mortal currently bleeding out.

One hundred years. One hundred years and he can still do this to me. Despite my attempts to stay calm, I was overcome with tremors. The no-weapons rule had done nothing to save the Erlking’s life in the end, and it couldn’t save mine either.

Finally, Soren turned, his scorching gaze on me. His eyes, so very much like a predator’s, took in my bloody body. One eyebrow was raised slightly at my bubbling laughter. “You brought iron into the heart of the Permafrost.” His tone and expression implied what wasn’t said. You are clearly mad, and if not, you’re well on your way. He was right, but when had I ever been considered normal in any way?

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