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“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 wasn’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 pain seemed shockingly too real. Each time I got knocked down, it was harder to get back up.

But I did.

I kept getting back up.

Dragging myself to my feet, I wiped the blood out of my eyes. Well, one eye. The other was swelling and blurring. Only a handful of minutes had passed since I literally got stabbed in the back, but my muscles felt like lead and my bones felt brittle.

And I was still bleeding.

Whatever noise we were making was lost in whatever damn enchantment the fae had on the courtyard. My feet were heavy as I shuffled off the pathway, closer to the entrance.

Ren and Tink were just mere yards away, but they could be in another city for all it mattered.

Breathing heavy, I whirled around, searching for some weapon. The knife was lost in the darkness, beside the still prone female fae.

“You grow tired.” Blood and spittle dripped from the fae’s mouth. “You grow weaker with every passing second. How you’ve fought our kind and survived all these years is beyond me.”

“Screw you,” I bit out, swaying. Or maybe it was the courtyard that was moving. I had no idea. That statement just pissed me off, but he was right. Focus, Ivy. I had to be smart. I was weak and tired, and backup was currently chilling, having a lovely evening. I wasn’t going to win this. No way.