Greta and the Goblin King ONLY
a Mylena Chronicles novel by Chloe Jacobs
While trying to save her brother from a witch’s fire four years ago, Greta was thrown in herself, falling through a portal to Mylena, a dangerous world where humans are the enemy and every ogre, ghoul, and goblin has a dark side that comes out with the eclipse.
To survive, Greta has hidden her humanity and taken the job of bounty hunter—and she’s good at what she does. So good, she’s caught the attention of Mylena’s young goblin king, the darkly enticing Isaac, who invades her dreams and undermines her will to escape.
But Greta’s not the only one looking to get out of Mylena. An ancient evil knows she’s the key to opening the portal, and with the next eclipse mere days away, every bloodthirsty creature in the realm is after her—including Isaac. If Greta fails, she and the lost boys of Mylena will die. If she succeeds, no world will be safe from what follows her back…
Title: Greta and the Goblin King (Mylena Chronicles, #1)
Author: Chloe Jacobs
Genre: Young Adult
Length: 304 pages
Release Date: November 2012
ePub ISBN: 978-1-62061-003-9
Print ISBN: 978-1-62061-002-2
Imprint: Entangled Teen
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Praise for Greta and the Goblin King:
“High adventure and hot romance. GRETA AND THE GOBLIN KING is a winner!”
– Kelley Armstrong, #1 New York Times bestselling author
“Don’t miss this rollicking adventure through a fascinating world. You’ll gobble up GRETA AND THE GOBLIN KING and be left hungry for more!”
– Deborah Cooke, bestselling author of The Dragonfire Novels and The Dragonfire Diaries
“Chloe Jacobs’s YA debut is unputdownable with a kick-butt heroine and a super sexy hero. The goblin king is a keeper!”
– Michelle Rowen, national bestselling author
Greta and the Goblin King
by Chloe Jacobs
Copyright © 2012 by Chloe Jacobs. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
When she’d set out to track the foul beast hunkered down in the cavern ahead, Greta hadn’t counted on gale force winds and an ice storm engulfing three goblin territories descending like a bitter, frozen plague to torture her.
She should have. A blinding blizzard was nothing less than typical Mylean weather, and after spending four years stranded here, she definitely should have expected it. The cold had long ago penetrated her thick coat and the layers of wool and soft cotton, until it seemed more like days than hours since she’d felt the welcome of a roaring fire in the hearth, but her comfort would have to wait a while longer. A young goblin boy had gone missing from his home in the village. She refused to believe he was dead already.
With a weary sigh, she squinted through a break in the canopy of gloomy evergreens, gauging the amount of fury left in the turbulent sky. The shadows falling across the blanket of craptastic white stuff were still long, but at least she could see her hands in front of her face again. She had to have been on the ghoul’s trail for at least three hours by now.
Three hours of non-stop fun.
She approached the cave entrance carefully. After scoping it out from a safe distance, she circled back and came at it from the side.
Her stomach twisted as she thought of the kid suffering inside, but the image that came to mind wasn’t of a frightened goblin child. Instead, she saw a human boy from another time and place. Drew.
Shaking her head, she squared her shoulders and kept moving. Blizzard or not, she needed to bring the goblin home alive if she wanted to get paid, and the creature who took the boy had ensconced itself and its prize deep inside the cave.
A noise. Distinctive from the natural groaning of tree limbs weighed down by snow. A crunch behind her as someone took a step closer.
Damn. She’d miscalculated, assuming no one would have followed her while she was following the ghoul.
She spun as a familiar flash of amethyst rushed her in the not-quite dark. Before she could duck and roll, a thick, muscled arm slammed across her chest and shoved her against the cave wall so hard the back of her head scraped rock.
With a speed and strength that had been drilled into her daily for four years, Greta brought her knee up. Her attacker evaded but wasn’t quick enough to avoid her headbutt to his lying face.
“Danem Greta, stop.” Isaac grunted and frowned down at her. She sneered at his use of the conventional form of Mylean address. Not that she wasn’t used to it, but coming from Mylena’s shiny new goblin king—who was only a little older than her seventeen years—it felt like a veiled insult instead of an expression of respect.
With a hard swallow, she took in his appearance. His fur-lined cloak gaped open at the throat, and black hair streaked with deep purple curled at his neck. He had a square face and sharp features, although his cheeks were pale and smooth in the dark of the forest.
Like most goblins, he was tall and wide, built like someone had simply chipped away at a hunk of granite. It wasn’t hard to imagine him in a fight to the death for the goblin throne, no matter how young he was.
He rubbed his abdomen with a pinched expression. “What did you do that for?”
Because I knew it was you? “Oddly enough, I don’t enjoy being attacked from behind by strangers.”
His startling violet eyes locked on her. Lying eyes. Manipulative eyes. Eyes she’d been seeing in her sleep for too many nights. He chuckled low under his breath. “Ah, but I’m not a stranger to you, am I?”
She fought against the deep cadence of his accented voice and the mischievous grin that curled his lips, reminding herself it was all an act. Their entire relationship was based on tricks and lies, and Greta wasn’t going to fall for them again.
“But since you mention it,” he continued, “which one of us is out lurking in the Goblin Forest in the middle of the worst storm all year?”
She rolled her eyes. Sure, if he wanted to press the issue, this was technically the Goblin Forest and he was technically the goblin king. She was trespassing.
Not that she cared about such minor things as legal boundaries. Not when it came to doing her job. Especially in a territory run by an arrogant goblin whose biggest claim to fame was that he happened to be the youngest monarch Mylena had ever seen. “This can’t be the worst storm all year,” she said. “I’m sure the one that slammed us a fortnight ago was just as bad. Are there ever any conditions in Mylena other than crappy?”
He grinned and his face was transformed. Suddenly, he was the boy she’d met that evening at Maidra’s who smiled at her and made her feel accepted for the first time since…well, since she found herself trapped here. As the only human in a world where her kind was reviled and any suggestion of their presence created a furious outcry for blood, acceptance and the possibility of friendship were things she’d never expected to experience.
But she didn’t want him to be that boy again. He should go back to being the goblin king. At least then she knew where she stood—as far away as possible.
“I wasn’t aware you felt so strongly about the weather, Danem,” he teased. “Perhaps it irks you because it is one thing that remains irritatingly beyond your influence.”
If the weather really were the only thing out of her control, she wouldn’t have much to worry about. But after being torn from her family and everything she knew at the age of thirteen, thrust into a hostile environment where food and warmth were luxuries someone like her could not afford, and forced to hide her true identity, Greta had ended up with a whole host of issues. If she ever made it back home, some lucky shrink was going to have a field day trying to figure her out.
“I have legitimate cause to be here. I’m on a job. Why don’t you let me do it?”
With a shove, she tried to get around him but he pushed her back against the rock. Not hard enough to hurt, but enough to make a point. “Unless you want to alert the ghoul in there to our presence, quit fighting me so we can handle the situation together.”
“Aren’t you too important to be talking to me? Go home. You have a responsibility to stay safe and provide for your people now.”
His teeth ground together. “Why don’t you let me worry about my people and what they need.”
Her shallow breaths exhaled in a fine puff of vapor that twirled around his, becoming one before dissipating into the frigid air. Greta finally nodded and his grip on her arms relaxed. She twisted and knocked her elbow up into his abdomen. A petty move, sure, but she wasn’t above immature displays of annoyance when the situation called for it—or maybe even when it didn’t.
He grunted as she darted around him and clasped his wrist in a quick twist behind his back. She used the momentum to push him face-first into the rock. In the shadows, his oversized incisors peeked from the corners of his mouth. He twisted his head to the side to look at her.
Her knife was at his throat before he could blink, going a little way towards salvaging the pride that had been damaged when he managed to sneak up on her. “Maybe you’ve forgotten, but I don’t play nicely with others.”
His arm tensed under her grip, and his gaze flickered to her mouth almost hesitantly. “On the contrary, I think the two of us would play very well together.”
The warm rush of mortification flooded her cheeks. “You may think because you can spy on my dreams you have some kind of claim on me, but it’s never going to happen,” she spat. “Not in any way that counts out here in the real world. Let’s just get that straight right now.”
The light in his eyes flared. “You have such a peculiar way of speaking,” he said. “I rarely have any notion what you’re talking about, but I could listen to your voice all day long.”
She’d adamantly held onto her human expressions and mannerisms over the years. It was a little like hanging off the edge of a cliff, desperately scrabbling for every crumbling handhold. She did it despite knowing it further isolated her in this world, because the longer she stayed here, the more afraid she was of losing herself completely.
It was already happening. She remembered less and less about her life before Luke, one of Mylena’s more reclusive wood sprites, had found her in the snow that long-ago night and took her in. The people and places from that former life, even the person she’d been…it had become a foggy blur that slipped away a little more every time she closed her eyes.
Greta lowered her blade and sheathed her dagger in the custom leather sleeve fitted to her forearm. She barely noticed the sleeve anymore. It was simply a part of her, like her freakishly tall body, big nose, and long blond hair—hair she kept plaited to hide her human ears from prying goblin eyes.
Locals in every county liked to gather around their tavern hearths on stormy nights and tell tales about how humans were responsible for the endless winter, and turned the daughters of the Great Mother—Mylena’s two moons—against them.
All of it was crazy mythology, of course. But it had forced a young girl who’d found herself stranded in a strange land to hide her true self from everyone.
He straightened with a shrug, reminding her that the goblin king topped her in both height and breadth by several inches. She wasn’t small, but next to him, an Amazon would look like a dwarf.
“Have you finished ogling me?”
His audacity made her grumble. “Don’t you ever get tired of being so full of yourself?”
“Don’t you ever tire of being so contrary?”
“Interesting sentiment, sprite.”
Greta barely stopped herself from adjusting her braids over her ears. No, there was no way he could know. She’d be dead by now if he had somehow discovered her secret.
He watched her closely. “As much fun as this has been, you don’t want to waste any more valuable time, do you?”
Resigning herself to the fact that he wasn’t going to go away, not with one of his own being held inside that cave, she crossed her arms. “Come along, then. As long as you realize the bounty is mine,” she added.
His smile disappeared and he looked about as serious as she’d ever seen him. “I don’t care about the coin, Danem. I’m only here to make sure the boy gets out alive.”
“Let me do my job and he might.” She didn’t bother telling him that the thought of the helpless goblin child being held by that monster was almost more than she could bear. That it hit too close to home, made her stomach lurch and her head pound, and even if there’d been no reward, she would have still come for him.
His tone hardened with the turn of their discussion and she watched as all the responsibilities of his position fell back onto his shoulders. The night they met, he’d seemed so animated as he shared his passion for inventing gadgets and his dreams of traveling to exciting places. She’d been mesmerized by him, and not only because he was the only boy who’d spoken to her—besides Luke—for what felt like, well…ever.
It was hard to reconcile that spirited boy with this dour person who seemed consumed by obligation and duty. Then again, everything that night had been for show. He’d probably just been laying his trap, setting her up.
She’d fallen for it in a big way.
“Fine. Good,” she said, annoyed by the jolt of pain the memory of that night always brought on. “Make sure you don’t get in my way.”
His lips pressed together in a thin line as he looked her up and down. “Agreed. You are the professional. I will yield to your judgment.”
Satisfied the high and mighty lord of the goblin realms would at least try to play by her rules, she braced one hand on the cold stone and stepped forward, narrowing her attention on the opening in the cavern wall. She strained to detect the faintest sound, but from their position at the mouth of the cave, she could hear nothing but the intermittent groan and crackle of tree branches bending against the will of the wind, and Isaac’s softly measured breaths as he fell into place close behind her.
She gripped the hilt of the sword strapped to her hip, but dared not draw it. Even that slow glide of steel against leather would echo. Any advantage they had would melt away like the snowflakes landing softly on the tip of her chapped nose.
Greta wished for a flashlight as they passed into the full dark of the cave. It wasn’t the first time she’d have given her last meal for one of the modern conveniences she’d once taken for granted, and doubted it would be the last either. Oddly enough, the things she found herself wishing for most often included a decent pair of warm gloves and—
Thud. From deep inside the cavern.
A big hand clasped her elbow and squeezed. She nodded and picked up some speed but refused to rush headlong into the dark. Winning the day rarely came down to being stronger or faster or braver than the other guy. Mostly, it came down to being colder, smarter, and more ruthless than the other guy. Luke had taught her that.
The farther she traveled into the dark, airless cave, the easier it was to imagine what torture the poor kid was suffering. It tugged at her control and she had to hold herself back.
When she stopped to look over her shoulder, Greta could no longer see the entrance. The last of the weak light was gone. The goblin king himself was but a hulking shadow, although she felt him poised and ready behind her.
Violence hung in the air like the sticky haze of a muggy day, filled with the thick scent of fresh blood. The sudden unmistakable sound of a pained cry being silenced mid-shout completed the disturbing effect.
He surged past her then, arm brushing her shoulder as he took the lead. She shot forward and tugged him back before he went barreling down the narrow passage like a raging bull. He turned, his chest heaving against hers. She could barely see the pulse in his cheek ticking away.
After a tense moment, he gave in. He let out a silent breath and stood back to let her take the lead again, but Greta wasn’t immune to that plaintive cry for help either. She finally drew her sword.
“We go in,” she whispered. “You get the boy. I’ll handle the ghoul.” He clasped her fingers and squeezed his assent, but she wasn’t finished. “Then I want you to get out of there. Don’t go all heroic, thinking you have to stick around and help—you’ll just be in my way. That kid is going to need medical attention. That’s your first priority. Got it?”
“Hasn’t anyone ever told you it isn’t wise to give a king orders?”
She ignored him and turned back around, trailing a hand along the wall of the cave to keep track of her position as she started forward. It annoyed her that the goblin followed with ease, like he had the benefit of night-vision goggles—but something so cool had never existed in Mylena.
After a few hundred feet, a soft glow became visible ahead of her.
A sliver of anticipation bloomed, the same pathetic combination of expectancy and defeat that crept past her defenses whenever she came across such a place. With it was the insane hope that, maybe this time, she would find the evil witch who sent her here and could manipulate the fire to open a portal back home.
She was always disappointed. In four years, luck had never been on her side.
She shoved away the foolish feelings. “Follow my lead.”
With adrenaline pushing through her system, Greta adjusted her grip on the hilt of her sword and turned the corner. She wasn’t disappointed. What lay in wait was one of Mylena’s most monstrous creatures.
Ghoul. A disgusting distortion of life that fed on innocence and purity with a ferocious brutality—and that was its natural phase.
Everything here had a natural phase and a raw—or moon—phase. Most of the reasoned beings like sprites, faeries, and goblins, had evolved to the point of being able to control their shift, but there were situations that could force a transformation, including strong emotions like hunger, fear, and rage. Additionally, all creatures of Mylena felt the pull of their raw phase most strongly during the rare occurrence when the moons came directly in line with either or both of the planet’s suns. An eclipse.
And then the whole world went crazy.
Greta had experienced only two eclipses, and both times, she’d spent the couple of days before and after locked behind a reinforced, bolted door hidden in a damp and dark place under the floor of her pater’s home. Closed-in, dark places had always been her biggest weakness, and Luke had known it, but he’d still shut her in. All because the strong, protective wood sprite—who had the strength of a steel spike and had never turned in front of her, not even once—had been afraid he would tear her apart during the eclipse.
Through the thick smoke from the bonfire crackling in the middle of the cavern, Greta eyed the gray-skinned, skeletal figure. The fact that it stood approximately eight feet tall, was even uglier than usual, and sported a mouth full of teeth the length of her best dagger proved they were in big trouble.
It had turned.
This was one of the Lost, a being that had given in to its raw form completely and would never revert back to a more civilized one, “civilized” being a term applied loosely when it came to ghouls in any case.
Her entrance had gotten the thing’s attention. It crouched on the other side of the flames and faced her with a growl, bulging eyes glowing a sickly yellow in the low light. It pushed forward on all four lanky limbs, readying itself to spring. The horrific sound of its enraged roar bounced off every inch of rock surrounding her until Greta wished her eardrums would explode and end her misery.
The goblin boy huddled in a tight little ball against the cavern wall. He held his right arm close to himself and cringed as far from the nasty creature as he could. Greta paid no heed to his injuries. He was still breathing, which was more than she could have hoped for at this point.
Knowing she had to get the ghoul to come for her, she edged along the wall in the opposite direction of the cave entrance. She kept her gaze on the creature, trusting that the goblin king would do what she’d said and get the boy to safety.
“Come on, you ugly mother,” she muttered.
The ghoul’s eyes widened as he charged, leaping over the blazing fire and across the small space in three long strides. Chancing a glance out of the corner of her eye, she watched his highness run for the young goblin and sighed with relief even as she lifted her sword to defend against the ripping talons aimed right at her face.
If they connected, she’d be done for. They would tear her in half. Greta swung her blade and ducked. The claws weren’t even her most imperative concern. Ghouls were rabid creatures, desperate to sate their hunger for flesh, blood, and bone. Very strong and super fast, and yet their most dangerous weapon was a poisonous toxin expelled with their saliva that rendered its victim immobile for hours—which was just long enough to be consumed by your worst nightmare, inch by agonizing inch.
A ghoul could shoot a stream of that nastiness with paralyzing accuracy, and her back was up against the wall. Literally. She had nowhere to go, which made her a decent target.
Remaining far enough away to avoid the deadly slice of her blade, the ghoul roared again, opening wide to launch a thick jet of its poison.
She swore between clenched teeth and ducked to the side so it didn’t get her full in the face. The fluid struck the rock behind her. It splashed, bounced off, and splattered onto her neck, cheek, and the hand she lifted to protect herself. “Damn it.”
She righted herself and quickly jerked out of the way of another swipe of those wicked claws. “Damn. Damn. Da—”
The effect of the poison was practically instantaneous, numbing her hand, cheek, and the exposed skin at the base of her neck. It traveled quickly across her face, down her neck and left shoulder.
Okay, now she was worried.
She told herself the exposure was minimal and probably wouldn’t hit her heart, move any farther than her elbow, or inhibit her brain function. Yeah, right. The arm was already practically useless, and “damn” was likely to be the last coherent word she would pronounce with her thickened tongue for a while.
It would suck if her last word ever was a mumbled “damn.” When the time came—hopefully not today—she had hoped to be in a position to impart some profound and meaningful advice—
Another swipe of claws. She barely shifted out of the way in time to prevent her innards from tumbling out onto the dirt floor of the cavern.
Maybe she should think of that meaningful advice real quick.
Glancing up, she realized the goblin king was watching her dodge and parry. His indecision was clear as he paused and hitched the boy up in his arms.
Just what did he think he was going to do?
Worried his royal goblinness was about to attempt something royally stupid, she shook her head and glared at him before twisting her hip and leveling the ghoul in the chest with the heel of her boot. It stumbled back a few steps.
“Go! Get out of here,” she shouted. It came out sounding more like Het ooh a hee because she couldn’t make her lips form the words, but he would get the picture.
He had better get the picture.
Either way, she couldn’t afford to wait and see. Ignoring the tingling in her forearm—hell, that stuff was potent—she returned her attention to the ghoul, countering its next attack with a hard, straight jab.
Her blade sank into its shoulder. She pulled back and quickly backed it up with a solid roundhouse to the gut, trying to throw the thing off balance. Knowing she couldn’t afford to let up, she struck again with her blade, slicing its chest open from end to end. The creature howled. The sound grated in her ears like metal scraping over metal.
With a relentless lack of mercy or compassion, she advanced again. And again. Looking for the opening, she needed to end this once and for all.
Despite Greta having gained some ground, the ghoul wasn’t slowing down, and it wasn’t backing down. Its growing rage had only made it more determined. She got the distinct feeling since she had deprived the thing of its dinner, it had decided she should take the boy’s place.
She was toast.
Her next strike was deflected and her hand whipped back in a wide arc, her wrist striking rock. She hissed, barely managing to hold onto her weapon. Stumbling, she tried bracing herself against the wall but her arm wouldn’t respond and she just leaned against it instead.
The ghoul lunged. Its claws tore into her shoulder, wrenching a scream from her throat. She was thrown back and bit her lip hard. Her head bounced off the wall and she groaned. Second time today.
She was going to have a bump—not that a headache would matter much to a dead person.
Swallowing the blood in her mouth and fighting off the wave of nausea that threatened to take her consciousness, she put her back to the wall. How was she still on her feet? Ah, hell. She was weakening with every heartbeat, her system shutting down fast in reaction to the always-great combo of rapid blood loss and ghoul poison.
Blinking back the globby dots swimming in her field of vision, she pushed off the wall and skirted to the side in time to avoid another wicked swipe—a close one. Would have taken her head clean off.
The fact that she’d started musing about her imminent death knocked some sense back into her. With a deep breath, she ducked beneath the creature’s long arm, the point of her blade puncturing its side again.
Once more, a flash of movement drew her attention from the fight. The goblin king had re-entered the cavern alone, without his heavy outer cloak. He must have left the boy covered up somewhere outside.
Is he completely out of his mind?
Gritting her teeth, she turned her back on him, pissed that he obviously hadn’t believed she could handle this creature on her own. Granted, she’d already gotten herself fatally spit on and clawed to ribbons in the space of what couldn’t be more than two minutes. Probably closer to one and a half. Still, this was her job. No way was anyone going to interfere.
Duck and roll. When she came back up, it was with a renewed determination and her sword held high. A shout rumbled from deep within her churning belly as she forced her arm down in a sweeping diagonal arc and waited for the ghoul’s head to slide off its neck to the ground. Which it did with a satisfying thunk.
The rest of its body tumbled over into the dirt a long second later, and Greta herself slumped against the cavern wall. Taking deep breaths, she waited for her body to catch up with her brain and realize the fight was over.
Good thing Luke wasn’t here to see how badly she’d butchered this job. It was bad enough that it was his voice she heard in her mind, ripe with disappointment, telling her that after the embarrassing way she’d fought, she should be the one lying bloody in the dirt without a head.
No argument there. She hadn’t been focused. She’d ignored her pater’s teachings, especially the most important of them all: Always stay in control.
As much as she hated to admit it, she’d broken that rule today.
And look what had happened.
“Danem Greta.” Isaac came forward, reaching for her. She jerked away and pulled a cloth from her pocket, ignoring him as she wiped the ghoul’s black blood off her blade and slid it into the sheath at her waist.
Wincing, she unstrapped a leather bag from her belt. It had a thick drawstring and the inside had been oiled to make it resistant to leakage. Whether that would work with corrosive ghoul poison…
Her shoulder screamed with pain until she wanted to scream right along with it, but she’d already let the goblin see more weakness from her than she’d ever shown anyone except for Luke, so she forced herself to bend and grab her prize.
She clutched the ghoul’s head by the coarse strands of its dirty, matted hair. Immediately, the disgusting bite of hundreds of tiny crawling parasites stung her hand and arm as they rushed to flee their food source. She stifled an involuntary shudder of disgust.
“Leave that thing be.”
The creature’s perma-snarl threatened soundlessly up at her as she started to shove it into her bag. As per the terms of the county writ, it wasn’t enough to have rescued the boy. She needed proof of the creature’s death in order to collect the reward.
“Proof,” she said with big, numb lips. Pooth.
“You don’t need that,” he insisted, his mouth curling in revulsion. “I’ll make certain you get paid.”
She hesitated, contemplating whether she should ignore him out of spite. But she wasn’t quite that stubborn. There was a whole mountain of things Greta wouldn’t have trusted him with if her life depended on it, but he had no reason to screw her out of this bounty. If she didn’t have to carry a dead ghoul’s disgusting head on her back all the way to town, so much the better.
“Fine.” Faaa. With a shrug, she dropped the thing back into the dirt and wiped her hand on her pants. She was going to have to burn these clothes.
Adrenaline and poison pumped hard through her bloodstream. Deep breaths. Pull yourself together. With a small shake of her head, she looked at the mess surrounding her. Her job was not over. As much as the entire operation turned her stomach, it wouldn’t do to leave without cleaning this up.
“Go. I’ll burn the body then put out the fire,” she said, carefully forcing the slurred words past her thick tongue. “Get kid…out. Cold. Medical attention. Parents will…want to know.”
He just watched her. He didn’t answer, didn’t mock her pathetic excuse for a rescue attempt, or her garbled words.
And he didn’t leave.
She frowned. If that turned out to be pity on his face, she was going to punch—
“Why do you do this?”
His sudden, pointed demand startled her. She forced a snort. Why indeed? “What do you think I should do instead?” She pursed her lips, willing the feeling back into them. “Settle down in some pasture with a beefy troll, raising ornery cattle and little munchkins?” Liddoo mushins?
He frowned. “I wouldn’t have said that. But why this?”
Because one of these days it could lead the way out of here. She gazed into the bonfire still blazing in the middle of the cavern. “Why not this? It hasn’t gotten me killed yet. The pay is decent. It’s as good a career choice as anything else in this ridiculous world.”
He tilted his head, studying her.
She bit her tongue. Served her right for letting bitterness seep into her voice. “Now go before that kid freezes to death and costs me my bounty.” Boondee.
She came back outside much later. Aching, filthy, exhausted.
Propping her head against the rock wall, she took several deep, cleansing drags of winter air into her lungs. For once, she was grateful for the cold.
Looking up into the late afternoon sky, Greta half-expected to see the goblin king waiting for her. There was nothing but the trees, and a lingering scent of smoke—probably coming off her clothing—but from the looks of it, he hadn’t been gone very long. His tracks remained in the snow, illuminated by the soft pink glow of Mylena’s two large moons.
She spared a glance down at the massive boot print in front of her before stepping over it back through the woods the way she’d come hours ago.
She trudged along slowly, the wind whipping across her face. “Sand and sp-p-lashing surf.” Blinking away the crystals forming on her eyelashes, she glanced up at the evergreens, so wide and tall all around her, they seemed to be closing in. “T-t-tender barbecue chicken.” Her teeth chattered together. “T-t-tall, leafy palms. A w-w-warm yellow sun.”
After tripping for the third time, she paused. Unfortunately, the cold hadn’t yet made her delusional enough to believe the wet stuff filling her boots and trickling down the back of her neck was anything but miserable, icy snow, or that she was anywhere but miserable, far-from-home Mylena.
She breathed heavily from the exertion of pushing herself through the deep drifts, and tried convincing herself—without much luck—that it was good for her.
By the time she made her way to the edge of the woods, she was dead on her feet. She shuddered uncontrollably, but not entirely from cold. The whole left side of her upper body was still numb. Probably a blessing given how the rest of her felt.
Her right shoulder had been sending shooting pain up and down her arm ever since the ghoul clawed it all to hell, and now it also throbbed with a sweeping heat that said a nice infection was setting in. It emanated through the heavy layers of her outerwear, strong enough to convince her foggy brain she just might be close to that tropical paradise she’d been imagining.
Blinking, she forced her leaden legs to carry her onward, muttering aloud to nobody in particular. Luke would have told her to quit complaining. He would have reminded her that tonight’s outcome could have been much worse. She could have been killed.
Death might actually be an improvement right about now.
Just a few feet from the road, she tripped over a branch hidden beneath a layer of snow and went down hard. Unable to move quickly enough to brace herself, she caught a face full of the cold stuff and tore her pant leg.
Frigid wetness trickled down her calf into her boot. At least it numbed the sting from whatever rocky outcropping had cut open her shin.
She flopped onto her side.
Nope. Still not getting up.
Greta’s eyelids drooped and she had to force them open again. Losing consciousness here, now—not a good idea. Chances were she wouldn’t ever wake up.
She groaned. “Come on, you great big wimp. On your feet.”
Moving slowly, she planted her hand in the deep snow for balance and tried to push herself up. A pathetic little shove. There was nothing left in her body to back up her will—and her will wasn’t exactly cooperating anymore, either. Maybe it was the cold, the poison in her system. Perhaps blood loss and exhaustion.
Or, hey, why not all of the above?
Whatever. She was done.
Expelling a slow breath, her eyes fell closed. So tired and weak, she tasted salty tears at the corner of her mouth and realized they tracked down both her cheeks. Her heart ached as badly as her body.
Mama. I want my mama.