Brave, p.4
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       Brave, p.4

         Part #3 of A Wicked Trilogy series by Jennifer L. Armentrout
 

  was beautiful—peaceful. That was why I often found myself out here. I could just sit and be alone.

  I could think—think about all the things I didn’t want to think about around other people.

  As I walked under the paper lanterns and twinkling string lights, I wondered if this was what parts of the Otherworld looked like.

  That was something I’d never thought about before.

  I followed the path toward what I now considered my swing. There was an unseasonable chill to the air, and locals probably thought it was too cold. I would’ve been loving it except I knew it was because the Winter Court was spilling into New Orleans.

  That kind of took the fun right out of the cold snap.

  Stopping at the pathway, I folded my arms over my waist and listened. It was strange. There was the distant sound of laughter and conversation coming from the inside of Hotel Good Fae. But there were no sirens. No blaring horns. New Orleans never slept and it was never quiet. Not like this. It had to be the fae. They had magical sound-blocking talents or something.

  Damn, if they could bottle and sell that?

  I found my way to the swing and sat, using my toes to push myself. Unfolding my arms, I placed my hands on my thighs and closed my eyes. My stomach churned, causing me to suck in a sharp breath.

  I was so damn hun—

  Nope.

  Opening my eyes, I exhaled long and slow. I looked around, taking in the fully bloomed irises while I ignored the tremor rolling up and down my arms. Then I did what I did every night.

  Drake.

  Every muscle in my body locked up, squeezing my chest and throat until I thought I might vomit.

  Drake. Drake. Drake.

  I repeated the Prince’s name over and over in my head. I kept saying it until some of the tension eased up and the pressure receded from my chest. I said his name until I didn’t want to hurl any longer.

  These mental gymnastics were harder than running on a treadmill. Desensitization. Because how would I face Drake if the mere thought of his name made me want to puke?

  Shivering as sharp wind picked up, I looked around the courtyard. The flowers stirred and the lights swayed. The place was as empty as I felt, and dammit, I hated that—hated this.

  Because this wasn’t me.

  It wasn’t who I was.

  So what in the hell was I doing out here? I should be inside—I should be talking to Ren. We were a team. Partners. Lovers. Friends. I needed to talk to him. Tell him what I was feeling, because if I just got those words out, I knew he’d help me make sense of them. I needed to tell him about the incessant hunger.

  I could talk to him about it. I could talk to someone, tell them—tell Ren—that I didn’t feel like myself. That somehow I’d lost who Ivy Morgan was.

  Because I couldn’t keep doing what I’d been doing, roaming aimlessly and hiding. That wasn’t brave at all, but most importantly, it wasn’t smart.

  I knew enough from the Psych 101 class I’d taken at Loyola that sometimes talking to someone was the best medicine out there. It might not fix all the messiness in my head, but it had to help. It was the first step in the whole healing and dealing with trauma thing. Putting what I was feeling into words was like cutting out that darkness inside me.

  I would find Ren and I would talk. I would definitely say something of freaking value.

  Standing up from the swing, I hurried inside and back down the hall, walking by several closed doors while I kept my gaze off the fae that passed me. None of them ever approached me when we crossed paths. Most didn’t even look in my direction. I wondered if they treated Ren the same—if it was because we were Order members or if it was because I was the Halfling.

  That was a question probably best left unanswered.

  As I neared one of the large common areas, I heard something that brought me to a complete stop.

  I heard Ren’s laughter.

  Drawn to it in a way that was almost uncontrollable, I inched along the wall like a total creeper. Stopping just before the wide archway that led into the room, I leveled up on the whole creeper thing and peered inside.

  Tink was the first person I saw, and I was kind of shocked that he was in the room with a laughing and non-murderous Ren.

  Tink was sitting on the arm of the couch, near a very uncomfortable Brighton. Her blonde hair was pulled back in a ponytail, like always. Brighton was in her mid-thirties, but she looked like she was a decade younger, having this ageless quality about her, much like her mother.

  Sitting beside Brighton was a fae I’d met on the night I’d escaped the Prince. He had fair hair, so I knew it was Kalen. Tink claimed he couldn’t tell Kalen apart from Dane, the other fae that had been part of Rescue Ivy Operation, but Dane had dark hair, so I had no idea why he had so much difficulty.

  Ren was sitting in a chair, his profile to the doorway. He was leaning back, an ankle resting on his knee, a cheek planted on a fist. He was smiling and his shoulders were loose. His entire body appeared that way. Ren looked . . . relaxed.

  I hadn’t seen him look like that since . . . since I told him I was the Halfling. Of course, the next time I’d seen him it hadn’t been him but the Prince pretending to be him. Ren had been captured the same night I broke the news to him. I didn’t see the ‘real’ Ren again until the Prince took me to the cell where they’d been holding him.

  Biting on my lip, my gaze slipped from him to Faye. She was in her human form. Dark hair. Rich brown skin. Beautiful. She was perched on the arm of Ren’s chair.

  I started to taste blood in my mouth.

  Letting go of my lip, I crossed my arms as Faye smiled down at Ren like they were all buddy-buddy.

  I mean, not that I was jealous, but I guessed scouting together was a great way to bond. That was how Ren and I grew close—okay, I stopped that line of thought before I ran into the common room, grabbed Faye by her hair, and ripped her off the arm of the chair.

  Tink would totally approve since he loved drama of all kinds.

  There were other fae in the room with them, ones I didn’t recognize, but my gaze crawled its way back to Tink and Ren.

  They looked so . . . well-adjusted, like this was a normal night, any day of the week. Happy even, and most importantly, they were at ease. Neither of them were that way around me. Not even Tink. Sure, he was Tink, but even he sometimes seemed like he was walking on eggshells around me.

  Talking to Ren about everything took a back seat. The last thing he needed at the moment was to deal with my emo bullshit, because he’d been through some nasty stuff too and he needed moments like this. Moments where he could just relax and be normal and not dwell on what happened to him—to us.

  I didn’t want to take that from him.

  I stepped back and turned around, starting toward the elevators when I stopped. Where was I going? Sighing, I pivoted and made my way back to the courtyard. After being held in that damn room at the Prince’s mansion for weeks, I didn’t want to be cooped up in yet another room. It was chilly outside, but I preferred goosebumps over four walls and a door.

  Following the pathway once more, I let my fingers trail across the leafy vines that all but covered the archway. Outside of this place, the vines and flowers were starting to die because of the cold spell, but everything was alive here. Enchanted. Maybe that was why I found it so peaceful? I moved further into the garden, further away from Hotel Good Fae.

  “Hey.”

  Startled by the voice, I turned with a slight frown. A male fae stood several feet from me. I hadn’t seen him before, but he appeared to be around my age. I glanced over my shoulder. Of course, no one stood there. I faced the fae, surprised since none of them ever spoke to me. “Me?”

  The fae’s hands opened and closed at his sides. “You’re the only person standing here, right?”

  Wow. Okay, that was some unnecessary attitude. “Yeah, but I have a name and it’s not ‘hey.’”

  His jaw tightened and those pale blue eyes were practically on
fire as he stepped forward. “I know what your name is, but it doesn’t matter. Your name is irrelevant.”

  “Whoa.” I barked out a short laugh. “Aren’t you warm and fuzzy?”

  He ignored the comment. “Why are you here?”

  That seemed like a stupid question. “Well, it’s kind of a long story, but I can give you the version for dummies if you’d like?”

  The fae sneered. “We all know what you are and what that means. That’s all we need to know.”

  Inwardly, my entire body cringed, but I kept my expression blank as I moved toward him. No way was I going to let him know that bothered me. “I knew I shouldn’t have updated my Facebook status to halfling.”

  His lips peeled back. “You stand there as if this is all a joke, in a place sacred to us, while putting all of our lives in danger? I’m glad you can find the humor in this.”

  All the snappy responses died on the tip of my tongue. “How am I putting your lives in danger? Look, just because I belonged to the Order doesn’t mean I’m seconds away from killing you all.”

  “It has nothing to do with you belonging to the Order or your indiscriminate killing of our kind.”

  Sounded an awful lot like it had to do with the Order.

  The fae’s eyes narrowed. “It has everything to do with you being the Halfling. The Prince will eventually find you here. We all know it. It’s just a matter of time, and when he does, he won’t just take you and leave. He’ll slaughter all of us,” the fae shot back, chilling my blood. “Is it so funny now, Halfling?”

  My body went cold. “I was told that this place was protected—”

  “It is, but not for long. The glamour will fail.” The sneer slipped from his face. “And that is why we have no other option. As long as you’re here, we are all in danger. My family. My friends. They’ll all die because Tanner gave you shelter.”

  I didn’t get the chance to ask him to explain the whole option thing. A footstep snapped a twig behind me. In the very back of my mind, I cursed myself for not being observant—for not scoping out the location, no matter how serene it seemed.

  I was trained in the Order since birth. I should have known better.

  But it was too late.

  Before I could even fully register what was happening, red-hot pain erupted along my back, radiating through my side and down my legs, dropping me to my knees.

  Chapter 5

  Time slowed down to an infinite crawl as sticky, wet warmth cascaded down my back. Shocking pain robbed my lungs of breath as I planted a steadying hand on the pavement. In a stunned state of disbelief, I placed my palm to my back.

  Gasping out a sharp cry, I immediately regretted the decision. Jerking my hand back, I could see it was covered in inky darkness. Blood. Lots of blood. It made the air smell metallic.

  I’d been . . . stabbed.

  Holy shit, I’d been stabbed!

  Snapping out of the shock, I lurched to my feet and spun just in time to see the moonlight reflect off a gnarly looking blade arcing high above me.

  Instinct took over.

  I caught the attacker by the arm and twisted. The crack of bone didn’t fill me with glee like it normally would, because the movement tore at my side, sending another wave of blistering pain through my body. I stumbled in its wake just as the fae fell forward, dropping the blade as it cradled its broken arm to a chest—a large chest.

  The fae was female.

  “You stabbed me!” I gasped out.

  She lifted her head just as I slammed my knee into her chin, snapping her head back. She toppled backward, either knocked out or dead by the time she landed on her back.

  I reached to my waist for a dagger, only remembering quickly that I had no weapons. We’d promised not to carry them. Dammit all to—

  A body slammed into my back, taking me down into the nearby bush. Landing on my back, a scream punched out of me, ripping through the night air. My entire body went stiff with pain, and for a second, only a damn second, I was immobile.

  And it was a second too long.

  I was flipped onto my stomach. Weight landed on me. Knees dug into my back as I crashed through thick leaves and flowers. Dirt and branches dug into my face as hands forced my head down. Mouth open, I dragged in dirt and God knows what else as I screamed in rage.

  I knew better. I knew better. The words kept recycling. There were two fae, maybe more, and I turned my damn back on at least one of them. Twice. So stupid—deadly stupid. I knew better.

  I struggled to lift my head out of the dirt, managing to take in a gulp of clean air a moment before my face was slammed down once more with excessive force. Wet warmth exploded across my face, filling my mouth as I reached around, trying to grab one of the hands that were bound and determined to smother me in a damn butterfly bush.

  “Just let go,” the voice said into my ear. “Just let go and make this easier on yourself.”

  Letting go meant being suffocated in a bush and that was just not how I wanted to leave this world, so that was going to be a big fat nope.

  “I can’t let you live,” he continued. “I have my family to think about. We have this community to protect.”

  Lifting my legs up, I slammed my hands into the bush—through the bush—and pushed myself up with every ounce of strength I had in me. Space between the ground and me grew. Digging in, I grunted as I flipped my body.

  The fae went along for the ride until he slid off my back, taking me with him. I landed on his chest. Both of us were stunned for a moment. Then I sprang into action. Lifting my right arm, I brought my elbow down, jabbing the bastard in the side. A rib gave way. Maybe two.

  He grunted, arms falling to his sides. Rolling off him, I scrambled sideways, leaping to my feet as I lifted my hands.

  Oh shit.

  My eyes widened as I stared at my left hand. There was a branch—a mother-loving branch—imbedded clean through the center of my hand!

  “Oh my God!” I shouted as I reached with my good hand, gripping one bloody end. “Holy shit, there’s a branch in my hand!”

  “Should’ve been in your head,” the fae muttered.

  “Rude,” I gasped.

  The fae whirled to his feet, moving insanely fast. I didn’t get a chance to pull the branch out, so I stepped to the side and swung my hand out without thinking. My branch-hand slammed into the fae’s face. He fell to the side, taking me with him. I landed on my knees. The fae howled as blood poured out of his gaping mouth.

  “Sweet Jesus,” I groaned. My branch-hand had missed his eye, but my hand was now attached to his cheek. The branch had gone through his cheek.

  So freaking gross.

  Tearing my branch-hand free, I climbed to my feet and grabbed one end of the branch. Dizziness rolled through me as I stepped back. I yanked the branch free, screaming as the burn spread all the way up my arm. Nausea twisted up my stomach.

  Once I had the branch out, I tossed it aside. A moment later, the damn fae was on his feet, his face bloody. “Good God,” I exclaimed, lowering my ruined hand. “Your face is disgusting.”

  The fae let out a roar and charged me. I darted to the side. Or thought I did, but my reflexes were dull. He caught my left hand and squeezed. Rage and pain powered through me. I drew him forward, bringing my knee up at the same time. I caught him in the midsection, but it barely winded him. With his free arm, he backhanded me straight into next week.

  I fell, cracking down on one knee. “Shit.”

  When was the last time a normal fae had knocked me around like that? I couldn’t remember. It had to be years.

  The next blow almost put me flat on my back, but I pushed through it, regaining my footing. The fae and I went toe to toe, and with no true weapon like an iron dagger, it was going to require creativity and strength to outlast the fae.

  But my steps were too slow. The kicks I delivered lacked any real power. Even my punches were weak and off. The time out of training and combat had taken its toll. I wasn’t prepared. My head was
n’t in the right place.

  That was why I was getting my ass kicked by a normal fae.

  Each hit I took either broke skin or my will. Each new burst of
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