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THE FIRST THING I learned as a hunter was how to hide. There was a skill in disappearing in the trees like the wind and merging into the river like stones; masquerading yourself as something you weren’t was what kept you alive in the end. Most humans didn’t think the masquerade was as important as the kill, and most humans ended up paying for it with their lifeblood.
Here, as the only mortal in a hall of monsters, I was very glad that I was not most humans.
I kept my steps silent and my back straight as I passed beneath the white marble pillars. My eyes flickered around me every so often, counting hallways, retracing my steps, so I could escape at a moment’s notice. The Erlking’s palace was treacherous, full of twists and turns, stairways that led into nowhere, and places where the hallways dropped to gaping chasms. According to Soren, there were also hollow spaces in the walls where you could slink around unnoticed to the mundane and the monstrous eye, but you could hear and see all that went on in the open world. The lair of a king, I thought bitterly. I dared not say it out loud in case someone was near. But beside me, Soren sensed my disgust and made a sound deep in his throat. It could’ve been agreement.
Soren examined his king’s palace with the usual contempt; his cold, calculating eyes took in everything and betrayed nothing. His lips turned down in a frown that was almost etched permanently into his face. Sometimes I forgot he was capable of other expressions. He didn’t even smile when he was killing things; as far as goblins went, that was a symptom of chronic depression. He lifted his bored gaze at the gurgling, choking sound coming from his right, and it took all my willpower not to follow his line of sight. When I felt the subtle whoosh of power transfer from one body to the next, my fingers twitched to where I’d slung my bow, only to remember too late that it had been left at the entrance of the keep in accordance with ancient tradition.
A scream echoed off the cavernous passageways as we made our way to the great hall where everyone gathered. It sent chills down my spine with its shrillness before it was abruptly cut off. Somehow, that made me shiver even more. Ancient tradition and custom aside, nothing could stop a goblin from killing you if that was what they desired. My hand reached for my nonexistent bow again, only to be captured by cold, pale fingers.
Soren’s upper lip curled, but his voice was low and steady. “The next time you reach for a weapon that isn’t there might be the last time you have hands to reach with,” he warned. “A move like that will invite conflict.”
I yanked myself away from his grip and suppressed the urge to wipe my hand on my tunic like a child wiping away cooties. “Force of habit.”
Soren shook his head slightly before continuing on, his frown deepening with each step he took.
“Don’t look so excited. Someone might get the wrong idea.”
He raised a fine white eyebrow at me. “I don’t look excited. I’m scowling.”
I bit back a sigh. “It’s sarcasm.”
“I’ve told you before, I don’t understand it,” he said.
“None of goblinkind understands sarcasm,” I said. “In another hundred years I’m going to lose my understanding completely.”
Another hundred years. It hadn’t hit me yet, not until I said it out loud. Another hundred years. It had been a hundred years since my village was slaughtered, a hundred years as a thrall in Soren’s service. Well, ninety-nine years and eight months, anyway, but who’s counting? Despite the century passing by, I still looked the same as I had when I was forcefully brought into this cursed land. Or, at least, mostly; the scars on my chest hadn’t been there a hundred years ago, and the now-hollow spot where my right breast should have been burned. The four months when I’d belonged to another were not something I liked to think about. I still woke up screaming from nightmares about it. My throat went dry and I swallowed. Soren isn’t Lydian.
“You look tense,” Soren said, breaking me out of my thoughts. I’d crossed my arms over my chest. Not good. A movement like that was a sign of weakness. It was obvious to everyone that I was the weakest being here, but showing it would do me no good.
“I’m fine,” I said. “I just don’t like this place.”
“Hmm,” Soren said, eyes flickering around the hall. “It does lack a certain touch.”
“What does that even mean?” I asked.
“The entire design of the palace is trite and overdone.”
I blinked. “Okay, then.”
By now we’d entered the great hall where the reception was held. Every hundred years, the goblins were required to visit the Erlking and swear their fealty. Of course, their loyalty only extended to him as long as he was the most powerful—goblins weren’t the type of creature to follow someone weaker than themselves.
The palace, for what it was worth, was much grander than most other parts of the goblin domain. Soren’s manor was all wood, stone, and ice, permanently freezing. Nothing grew—I knew because I had tried multiple times to start a garden—but the roots never took to the Permafrost. Here, it was warm, though not warm enough that I couldn’t feel the aching chill deep in my bones. The walls were made of pure white marble with intricate designs far above what a goblin was capable of creating, and streaked with yellow and red gold like open veins. It was obviously made by humans. Goblinkind were incredible predators and hunters, gifted by the Permafrost itself, but like all creatures, they had their flaws. The inability to create anything that wasn’t used for destruction was one of the main reasons humankind were often stolen from their lands on raids and put to work in the Permafrost.
Soren’s scowl deepened as we passed under a canopy of ice wrought to look like vines and flowers. “I feel like I need to vomit,” he said.
I stopped in my tracks. “Really?” I swore, if I ended up having to clean up Soren’s vomit …
He glanced at me, a playful light in his lilac eyes. “Sarcasm? Did I do it right?”
“No.” I forced myself not to roll my eyes. “Sarcasm would be when you use irony to show your contempt.”
“Irony?” He shook his head, his long white hair falling into his face.
“Saying one thing when you mean the other, dramatically.”
“This is beneath me,” he muttered. Then, even quieter, he said, “This place is in dire need of a redecoration.”
“I’m not even entirely sure what to say to that.” With those words, he flashed me a wicked grin that said little and suggested much. I turned away, actually rolling my eyes this time. For a powerful goblin lord, Soren definitely had the ability to act utterly childish. It could be almost endearing at times. This, however, was not one of those times.
In the hall, the gazes on the back of my neck were sharp as knives. I kept my head straight, trying my hardest not to pay attention to the wolfish faces of the other attendees.
From a distance they could almost be mistaken for human. They varied in size and shape and the color of their skin, hair, and eyes much like humans did. But even so, there was a sharpness to their features, a wildness, that could never be mistaken for human. The figures dressed in hunting leathers, long and lean, would only seek to torment me if I paid them any attention. As the only human in the hall, I was a curiosity. After all, what self-respecting goblin would bring a thrall to an event as important as this? That could very easily get me killed, and I wasn’t planning on dying anytime soon. My hand almost twitched again, but I stopped it just in time, heeding Soren’s warning.
We finally crossed the floor to where the Erlking sat. Like Soren’s, the Goblin King’s hair was long. But unlike Soren, whose hair was whiter than the snow, the Erlking’s hair was brown. Not my brown, the color of fallen leaves, underbrush, and dark cherry wood, but murky, muddy brown. It was the color of bog mud that sucks down both humans and animals alike and it somehow managed to make his yellow-toned skin even sallower. He was the strongest of all goblins, and I hated him for it. I also feared him—I was smart enough for that—but the fear was drowned out by the blood rushing in my ears as I locked eyes with Soren’s king.
Soren turned to me. “Stay here.” His eyes turned hard, the glimmer of light leaving them. Whatever softness he had before drained away until what was left was the hard, cold killer he was known to be, and with it went the last shreds of warmth in his voice. “Until I tell you otherwise.” Subtly, he jerked his pointer finger at the ground in a wordless warning.
I bowed my head. “Don’t take too long.”
“I don’t plan to,” he said, more to himself than to me, before approaching the Erlking’s throne. He went to one knee. “My king.”
I eyed Soren from underneath the curtain of my hair. His hands were clenched in fists at his sides. He must’ve sensed something from the Erlking, from the other goblins, something. Whatever it was, it wasn’t good. Cautiously, I directed my gaze to the Goblin King himself, aware that if I looked at him the wrong way, I might be inviting my own death. While the behavior and treatment of thralls varied widely among goblins, I had a feeling submissiveness was required for any human in the Erlking’s path.
This close, the Erlking’s eyes were dark in his shriveled husk of skin and there was a tinge of sickness in the air as he breathed his raspy breaths. His eyes flickered up to meet mine and I bowed my head again. Don’t attract attention.
Soren spat out the vows required of him in the old tongue of his kind, the words gravelly and thick. He paused every so often, like he was waiting for when he would be free to drive his hand through his king’s chest, continuing on with disappointment every time.
The tension around the room grew heavier, pressing down on those gathered. Somehow, like dogs sniffing out blood, they all knew the king was weak. Beautiful she-goblins and terrifying goblin brutes were all standing there waiting until it was legal to kill him.
Beside the weakened king’s throne, a white stag rested on a pile of rushes. Its eyes were closed, its breath slow. Its skin and antlers shone with youth, but the ancient power it leaked pressed heavy against my shoulders. That power was older than anything else in the world—maybe older than the world itself.
Goblins were, before all things, hunters. Born to reap and not to sow. Cursed with pain upon doing any action that did not in some way fit into the power the Permafrost gave them, the goblins fittingly had the submission of the stag as the symbol of their king’s ultimate power. Until it runs.
I didn’t want to think about what happened after that.
Soren continued to say his vows. The guttural language was like ice shards to my ears, and I shuddered. Catching myself about to fidget, I dug my fingers into my thigh. Control yourself, Janneke, I thought. If they can do it, you can.
A soft voice whispered in my ear, “Is that you, Janneka?” His breath tickled the back of my neck, and every muscle in my body immediately locked. Icy dread trickled down my spine, rooting me in place.
Don’t pay attention to him. He’ll go away.
“I know you can hear me, sweetling.”
Yes, I could hear him, and the sound of his voice made me want to vomit. My mouth went dry.
Slowly, I turned toward Lydian. He looked the same as he had a hundred years ago. Long golden hair, slender muscles, a lazy, catlike gleam to his dark-green eyes, and skin the color of milk, unblemished and unmarred. High cheekbones, an aquiline nose, and the haughty look I’d so often seen on his nephew graced his features. Every so often those eyes would flicker, as if they had a mind of their own, almost as if he were seeing past me, past the Erlking, past everyone. Twitching eyes aside, goblin males might’ve been called “brutes,” but Lydian’s looks were anything but. That made me even sicker.
“How is your calf?” I asked, letting hostility seep into my voice, surprised I was able to keep the waver out of it.
He shifted his weight so it was equal on both legs. “It seems that civil conversation is still not your strong suit.”
I ached to hurt the man before me. “And I suppose you know all about civil conversation? Where I come from, leaving someone for dead doesn’t count as ‘civil.’”
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.
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.
Copyright © 2018 by Kara Barbieri