“The naga—faeries made of shadow and hate and rot. They heard my scream, and they smelled you. Free me, human. They will cage me if they catch me here. Free me and return to the High Lord’s side.”
Shit. Shit. I lunged for the snare, making to put away my bow and grab my knife.
But four shadowy figures slipped through the birch trees, so dark that they seemed made from a starless night.
The naga were sprung from a nightmare. Covered in dark scales and nothing more, they were a horrendous combination of serpentine features and male humanoid bodies whose powerful arms ended in polished black, flesh-shredding talons.
Here were the creatures of the blood-filled legends, the ones that slipped through the wall to torment and slaughter mortals. The ones I would have been glad to kill that day in the snowy woods. Their huge, almond-shaped eyes greedily took in the Suriel and me.
The four of them paused across the clearing, the Suriel between us, and I trained my arrow toward the one in the center.
The creature smiled, a row of razor-sharp teeth greeting me as a silvery forked tongue darted out.
“The Dark Mother has sent us a gift today, brothers,” he said, gazing at the Suriel, who was clawing at the snare now. The naga’s amber eyes shifted toward me again. “And a meal.”
“Not much to eat,” another one said, flexing its claws.
I began backing away—toward the stream, toward the manor below, keeping my arrow pointed at them. One scream from me would notify Lucien—but my breath was thin. And he might not come at all, if he’d sent me here. I kept every sense fixed on my retreating steps.
“Human,” the Suriel begged.
I had ten arrows—nine, once I fired the one nocked in my bow. None of them ash, but maybe they’d keep the naga down long enough for me to flee.
I backed away another step. The four naga crept closer, as if savoring the slowness of the hunt, as if they already knew how I tasted.
I had three heartbeats to make up my mind. Three heartbeats to execute my plan.
I drew my bowstring back farther, my arm trembling.
And then I screamed. Sharp and loud and with every bit of air in my too-tight lungs.
With the naga now focused entirely on me, I fired at the tether holding the Suriel in place.
The snare shattered. Like a shadow on the wind, the Suriel was off, a blast of dark that set the four naga staggering back.
The one closest to me surged toward the Suriel, the strong column of its scaly neck stretching out. No chance of my movements being considered an unprovoked attack anymore—not now that they’d seen my aim. They still wanted to kill me.
So I let my arrow fly.
The tip glittered like a shooting star through the gloom of the forest. I had all of a blink before it struck home and blood sprayed.
The naga toppled back just as the remaining three whirled to me. I didn’t know if it was a killing shot. I was already gone.
I raced for the stream using the path I’d calculated earlier, not daring to look back. Lucien had said he’d be nearby—but I was deep in the woods, too far from the manor and help.
Branches and twigs snapped behind me—too close—and snarls that sounded like nothing I’d heard from Tamlin or Lucien or the wolf or any animal filled the still woods.
My only hope of getting away alive lay in outrunning them long enough to reach Lucien, and then only if he was there as he’d promised to be. I didn’t let myself think of all the hills I would have to climb once I cleared the forest itself. Or what I would do if Lucien had changed his mind.
The crashing through the brush became louder, closer, and I veered to the right, leaping over the stream. Running water might have stopped the Suriel, but a hiss and a thud close behind told me it did nothing to hold the naga at bay.
I careened through a thicket, and thorns ripped at my cheeks. I barely felt their stinging kisses or the warm blood sliding down my face. I didn’t even have time to wince, not as two dark figures flanked me, closing in to cut me off.
My knees groaned as I pushed myself harder, focusing on the growing brightness of the woods’ end. But the naga to my right rushed at me, so fast that I could only leap aside to avoid the slashing talons.
I stumbled but stayed upright just as the naga on my left pounced.
I hurled myself into a stop, swinging my bow up in a wide arc. I nearly lost my grip as it connected with that serpentine face, and bone crunched with a horrific screech. I hurdled over his enormous fallen body, not pausing to look for the others.
I made it three feet before the third naga stepped in front of me.
I swung my bow at his head. He dodged it. The other two hissed as they came up behind me, and I gripped the bow harder.
I turned in a slow circle, bow ready to strike.
One of them sniffed at me, those slitted nostrils flaring. “Scrawny human thing,” he spat to the others, whose smiles grew sharper. “Do you know what you’ve cost us?”
I wouldn’t go down without a fight, without taking some of them with me. “Go to Hell,” I said, but it came out in a gasp.
They laughed, stepping nearer. I swung the bow at the closest. He dodged it, chuckling. “We’ll have our sport—though you might not find it as amusing.”
I gritted my teeth as I swung again. I would not be hunted down like a deer among wolves. I would find a way out of this; I would—
A black-clawed hand closed around the shaft of my bow, and a resounding snap echoed through the too-silent woods.
The air left my chest in a whoosh, and I only had time to half turn before one of them grabbed me by the throat and hurled me to the ground. He pounded my arm so hard against the earth that my bones groaned and my fingers splayed, dropping the remnants of my bow.
“When we’re done ripping off your skin, you’ll wish you hadn’t crossed into Prythian,” he breathed into my face, the reek of carrion shoving down my throat. I gagged. “We’ll cut you up so fine there won’t be much for the crows to pick at.”
A white-hot flame went through me. Rage or terror or wild instinct, I don’t know. I didn’t think. I grabbed the knife in my boot and slammed it into his leathery neck.
Blood rained down onto my face, into my mouth as I bellowed my fury, my terror.
The naga slumped back. I scrambled up before the remaining two could pin me, but something rock hard hit my face. I tasted blood and soil and grass as I hit the earth. Stars danced in my vision, and I stumbled to my feet again out of instinct, grabbing for Lucien’s hunting knife.
Not like this, not like this, not like this.