Assassin: Fall of the Golden Valefar
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Try as he might, Eric reacted without meaning to. It was hard to control himself around her. She brought out his worst. His hands flew up, shackling her wrists like vices, squeezing tightly. He leaned close to her face, never taking his gaze from her icy blue eyes, “I can talk to you however I want. And keep your fucking hands to yourself,” he growled before shoving her back slightly, tossing her aside.
Natalia’s jaw locked. She burned holes in the side of Eric’s face, but he didn’t turn to look at her. “You’re a jerk, you know that? There’s only one person around here who gives a rat’s ass about you, and you...” exasperated she paused, trying to find the right word. Maybe she pushed him too hard this time. Touching him was off limits, but she did it anyway.
Eric cut her off, finishing her sentence, “I’ve been telling you to stay the fuck away, but you don’t listen.” Their eyes locked for a moment.
Natalia’s gaze was defiant, her pink lips pulled into a thin line, her arms folded across her chest. This was the Eric who hid from her, the one she wanted to destroy. Patience. It won’t be much longer, she thought to herself.
She leaned in, eyes narrowing, her words taunting him further, “You’re all bark and no bite.” Her nose was nearly touching his. Every curve of her body was corded tight. She wanted to fight, but she felt something else at times, and she wanted to crush it. She cared about him, and she shouldn’t. It didn’t matter what his current actions were, they didn’t make up for his past. Her lips were nearly touching his, and curled into a smirk, “You’re all smoke. No fire. No flames.” A single, perfectly dark brow arched as she said the last word.
Something inside of Eric snapped. Reaching up behind her, he grabbed the hair at the nape of her neck. Yanking her closer, he pressed his face to hers and spoke the soft threat into her ear, “Yes, my dear Natalia, and smoke kills faster than fire. Never forget that.” He released her, and turned back to his drink. The girl looked shaken, but no one intervened.
Natalia knew something was wrong with Eric, but she wouldn’t leave him alone. Hell, everyone knew something was wrong with Eric. It washed off of him in waves that screamed, Stay the fuck away, but she didn’t. She had her reasons, reasons she made sure Eric didn’t know.
Ignoring his vile tongue and actions, she said, “Have you heard? That’s why I was looking for you.” When Eric’s eyes glanced back at hers, she could see he didn’t know what she was talking about. “There’s an assassin. Someone is killing off the world’s leaders, one by one. Over the past three nights, three have died, maybe more. The only remains were golden marks, burned into the ground.”
Eric steeled his gaze as he listened. The girl explained what she heard, leaving out nothing. The old men at their little table were silent, straining to hear Natalia as she spoke, retelling the latest news.
Natalia continued, “They aren’t saying much. I just happened to hear because of my dad’s old connections. One of them checked on me the other night,” her cold gaze glared at him, biting the words off, “while you were who-knows-where. He told me to get ready. Something’s coming. He said it was too much like what happened a few years ago. Ya know, things happening without explanation.” She shook her head, her long dark hair swaying side to side.
Natalia tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, her thin fingers smoothing it in place. When she spoke, her voice was strained, pitched higher, and much softer than usual, “Eric, everything is already decimated. There’s barely enough food now. The city is still in ruins. People can’t take this. I can’t take this...” her voice broke off. It was odd for the girl to show vulnerability. After everything she’d been through, he hadn’t heard that hitch in her voice since he met her.
Eric’s gaze narrowed. He was naturally suspicious, life made him that way, but something in her eyes told him that she wasn’t toying with him. She was afraid. Shit. He watched her sweep away a stray strand of hair, and when those icy blue eyes met his, he wanted to comfort her. She never asked for help. If she felt like this, something spooked her. How bad would it really be to take her in his arms and hold her? What was the worst thing that could happen if he grew attached to the scent of her hair, and the feel of her skin against his?
His line between cruelty and compassion was blurred. Ivy had told him to start over and make a new life for himself. But he couldn’t. The curse that condemned everyone he cared about to death kept him isolated. There was no one to confide in, no one to trust, and Eric felt himself slipping away, becoming someone more savage—more desperate every day. As the curse increased his pain, so did Eric’s thirst for malice. It wasn’t enough to wound anymore. It wasn’t enough to sate his pain for more than a moment. As each new sun rose, Eric lost another piece of himself. He could barely remember the man he’d been, the one that Lydia had fallen in love with. The one that would have done anything to save her. Now he was more like the Valefar that murdered her.
Eric knew he had to stop, and there was only one way to make sure he never tortured another soul again. Natalia trailing around after him would only get her hurt. Eric wished things were different, but they weren’t. This was his life, and she had no part in it. He’d have to increase things with her a few notches to get her to stay away.
Natalia watched Eric’s amber eyes. He seemed so cold, and intentionally cruel to her. While she tried to provoke him, bringing this nasty side of him out, she also knew there was more to him, and she tried to ignore it. Nothing he could say or do would repair the damage he’d caused. And all this time, she sat in front of him and he didn’t recognize how much she looked like her mother.
Natalia was always on edge, waiting for things to explode between them. To her, it seemed like Eric hated everyone and everything, but there was one action that didn’t jive with that persona. She couldn’t comprehend why he saved her. Natalia kept telling herself it was due to ignorance, that if he knew who she was, he’d kill her without blinking, but somewhere in the back of her mind, she knew that wasn’t it. Eric was more complicated than he let on.
Before he had time to say anything, Eric looked over his shoulder, sensing something—a stirring in the air. It was strange, but since Ivy shoved his soul back into his body, he could sense things. He didn’t know if it was Ivy, manipulating him, or that he could feel another Valefar effonate. Either way, trouble was coming and he wanted her gone.
“It’s nothing you have to worry about, Natalia.” Her pale blue eyes met his, lost and haunted. He saw her as a frightened girl because that was what she wanted him to see. Eric had no idea.
“Go home,” he snapped. He didn’t like the weakness that crept into her voice, so he bit off the last words, hoping she’d take them like a slap in the face.
Natalia’s gaze turned to steel, eyes narrowed. She leaned closer to him, her hair falling over her shoulders. She breathed through gritted teeth, “Go home? Seriously? The world’s going to Hell and that’s all you have to say?” Before she could ask anything else, Eric turned away, slid a few golden coins onto the bar—enough for his drink and Natalia’s—and stood up.
Where were they? His skin itched like he was covered in ants. Last time that happened there were Valefar nearby, but he didn’t hear voices outside and no one came in. Eric glanced around the girl as her irritation turned to anger.
He turned to walk away, but Natalia was on his heels. She said, “What’s wrong with you? I’m talking to you and you zone out and walk away. Eric, what the fuck is wrong with you?” She reached for his arm, jerking him back. Every muscle in his body tensed as he looked at her. She was tall enough to look him in the eye, and her icy eyes were pissed. Good.
He shook her off, “Listen. The only reason you’re following me is because I kept that thing from killing you.” That thing was a demon, and it had the girl in its clutches years ago, ready to strip the flesh from her bones. Eric reacted without thinking. He saw more horrors that night than he’d seen in his lifetime, but seeing this girls’ flesh stripped from her bones wasn’t something he wanted to add to the collection. He acted fast, decimating the demons that were on her. His words now were cruel, intentionally cold, “That was an accident. I should have let them have you. I’m no hero, so stop following me around.”
She stared at him while he spoke, anger burning in her eyes. Eric wondered if she was even listening.
He was so deranged. Why’d he have to bring that up? It was the only action she couldn’t account for. It made no sense. Natalia’s head cocked to the side, “Whatever, Eric. You lost everything, and so did I. How...”
Eric interrupted, leaning into her face, his voice low, “Lost everything? You think I’m like you?” Not glancing away, she swallowed hard. Part of her wanted to say yes, we are the same, but she bit her tongue. Anger flashed in Eric’s eyes, “What the fuck is wrong with you? Since then, you’ve seen who I am—what I am, but you keep acting like there’s more. There is no more! This is it. I’m a deranged fuck who revels in pain, and given the same opportunity to save your ass, I’d stand by and watch them slowly skin you!” His voice echoed through the bar. No one spoke. No one dared a glance at him. It was so quiet that the only sound he could hear was Natalia’s angry breaths.
Her eyes narrowed as he spoke, her lips opening slightly, ready to verbally accost him, her slender fingers balled into fists. All eyes in the bar were on them, but no one would interfere. Natalia understood that she was on her own from the moment her family was slaughtered. There was no one to help, no one to protect her. When Eric came along she saw something in him. That night he saved her, and kept her safe. She didn’t know why and never pressed him. Even after the smoke cleared, after they saw what was left of her city, Eric didn’t leave her. He taught her to fight, so she could protect herself. He found a place for her to stay, safely hidden within the rubble. During that time, she saw flashes of someone else, not the hard-ass, nasty prick who was standing in front of her. It was like he was living a double life.
The words he now spoke so callously fell from his mouth and pricked her skin like barbs. He wanted her to believe him, but she didn’t. There was something about him that made her think that he was more than he appeared. Eric wasn’t just some lost jackass who happened to have a moment of glory. He was glory, concealed by sharp words and disturbing actions. Why couldn’t she let that go? He said it was a mistake. Why couldn’t she just believe him?
Before she had time to think, Natalia’s fist flew directly at Eric’s jaw. She wanted to make him stop talking. She wanted the Eric who helped her back, because if that’s who he really was, she knew she had the wrong guy. But that part of Eric remained hidden, tightly concealed beneath layers of scorn. Before her knuckles connected with his jaw, Eric’s hand shot up. He caught her fist like a baseball, and held on tight.