My guide was already an hour late. The minute hand dragged ever closer to the hour and a half mark and I was convinced that if he didn’t show up soon, I was going to toss the scrawny man off the side of the mountain and let him make the acquaintance of the winding river far below. It wouldn’t kill him, but maybe the icy bath would make him think twice before standing the next person up.
The face of my wristwatch flashed red in response to my rising blood pressure levels and the runes I’d carved into its face glowed sullenly. A vibration ran the length of my arm and rattled around the corresponding piece of silver hooked into my ear. To the untrained eye, it would look like a piece of trendy jewelry. In actuality, it was something like a tuning fork. It translated the vibration into what my mind perceived as a gravelly bass voice, snarling a reprimand into my ear.
“Calm yourself, fraulein. Melt me again and I will not be pleased.”
I pursed my lips and glared down at the watch, pulling a piece of snow out of my dark hair. “You didn’t have to tag along, Horst. I’m perfectly capable of making this journey on my own.”
Still, I drew in a shaky breath through my nose and waited until my heart rate slowed to expel it. Horst was right. This interface was about as sound as using two rusted-out tin cans to talk to each other. If I melted another wristwatch with Horst inside, I was going to be short the only creature that could translate for me. He’d be trapped in the ether until I could call up someone to fish him out. And my allies were few and far between, especially in Europe, where the arm of the Trust’s influence stretched far.
I was awaiting the arrival of a Barbegazi, one of the many species of demi-humans that made their home in the Swiss Alps. The Barbegazi were an odd bunch, and rarely seen by the human eye. I worked for the Trust, the world’s solution to a magical international body, for nearly a decade and even I’d only clapped eyes on a couple of them. This one was named Volkar and was considered the oldest and wisest among this clan. An associate of mine, Anton Gray, had pointed me in this direction, and my stubborn house spirit insisted on tagging along when he’d spied me booking a flight to Europe. The creature we were meeting spoke only French, which was unfortunately not a language I knew. Set me in front of any demi-human south of the border and I could communicate just fine. But not here. So I’d brought the only creature I knew that had the gift of tongues and would actually use it to my benefit.
I gripped the bottle of pear cider in one hand. I was dying to crack it open and guzzle the whole thing, just to take the edge off the anxiety that was trying to claw its way out of my chest. It had a much lower alcohol content than I generally preferred, but I’d take anything at this point. But this was a gift meant for the leader of the clan, and I was pretty sure it would offend him to find I’d downed the offering.
My wristwatch flashed in warning again, this time displaying a sickly puce color to reflect my anxiety. I was beginning to regret the choice to allow Horst to monitor my emotional state during our trip. The watch was turning into a glorified mood ring, and all it was doing was drawing my mind back to the reason that I was camped out in this frigid cave, awaiting a glorified snow dwarf.
“Yeah, yeah,” I muttered. “I know. Keep it together.”
I was spared further reprimands from my companion by the sound of my guide’s approach. Snow crunched outside the entrance to the cave and I craned my neck to get a good look at the thing as it waddled into sight.
The Barbegazi resembled something close to a frostbitten dwarf. Small in stature but very hairy. Its snowy beard reached its knees, even braided and festooned with glittering beads of ice. Shaggy eyebrows obscured most of a heavy brow and shadowed its eyes, so it was impossible to make out the color. What little skin was visible beneath its long-sleeved gray tunic was white with just a tinge of blue. The thing that set this creature apart from its British cousins was the size of its feet. They were easily the size of trash can lids and built flat and long to allow the Barbegazi to ski across the alps on moonlit nights.
It paused in the entryway. I didn’t have to see its eyes to read the subtle shift in its body language. It stiffened and took an automatic step back from me, its hand coming to rest lightly on a stone dagger strapped to its waist. I wished I could say that it was an uncommon reaction when people caught sight of me. But alas, I hadn’t made myself many friends in the demi-human populace in recent years. I hadn’t made many friends in my life, period.
“Bow,” Horst hissed, his instruction tickling my ear insistently. I wanted to slap the silver ring out of my ear and into the snow. I was going to be itching that side of my face for days. It would be worth it if this trip panned out, but annoying in the extreme if it didn’t.
It chafed against every ounce of pride I had as a mage to do it, but I sank to my knees in the snow in front of Volkar.
“Hail, Volkar of the Barbegazi. I am honored by your presence.”
A sound split the crisp afternoon air and for a bewildered second I was sure that the ice had cracked on a nearby peak and snow was about to come thundering down on my head. Then it dawned on me that the thing was laughing. At me.
A hot, prickling flush crept up my neck and I curled my fingers into fists at my side to keep myself from reaching into my bag. I could end this little thing with either my gun or the makeshift wand I kept stowed in the pack.
The thing’s lips started to move and Horst began to translate a few seconds later. The seconds-long lag reminded me comically of some badly dubbed films I’d watched in college with Cat.
As always, thoughts of my sister doubled me over more effectively than a punch to the gut. It was a struggle to focus on what Volkar was saying, rather than the pain that radiated through my insides.
“Sweet words are often poison on a mage’s tongue,” Volkar said in a voice as shrill as the wind whipping outside of the cave.
“Then it’s a good thing I’m not a mage,” I reasoned, forcing a smile onto my face. I was out of practice and I hoped it didn’t look like I was baring my teeth in challenge. “I’ve been out of the Trust’s employ for nearly two and a half years now. I do not mean you or your people any harm. Why don’t you come and sit by my fire and share my libations?”
Volkar considered me for a long moment before he inclined his head respectfully and shuffled into the cave. I didn’t straighten out of my bow until he sat down by the small fire I spelled a few hours before.
“If not destruction, then what do you come here for, Natalia Valdez?”
I paused, midway through popping the cork on the slender green bottle and stared at him. Volkar grinned, exposing crooked yellow teeth. “Your reputation precedes you, Iron Heart. We know who you were. Do not think that I came unprepared for Trust treachery.”
I sank back onto my haunches and glared into the fire. Maybe it had been too much to hope for that I’d remain completely incognito on this trip. I spent the better part of ten years trying to make myself unforgettable, and I succeeded. Just not in the way that I’d anticipated. But this place was as remote as one could find, without traveling to either of the poles. I was hoping there was a creature out there somewhere who hadn’t heard of me.
“I really hate that nickname,” I muttered, flicking a small twig into the fire.
It was coined by my ex-boyfriend shortly after he turned me over to the Trust for moonlighting as a supernatural assassin. It referred much less to my ability to enchant ferrous metals and far more toward what he thought of me as a person. Having this thing spout it so casually was like having lemon juice squeezed into barely healed wounds.
Volkar shrugged and held his hand out for the bottle. I handed it to him wordlessly and watched as he downed the thing in one long pull. My throat was parched, my fingers were stiff, and even the triple layer of sweaters I’d donned couldn’t ward off the chill entirely. Horst had insisted pleasantries were necessary to win over the leader of the Barbegazi, but I’d never really seen a use for them. A gun jammed into the back of someone’s skull got me where I wanted to be faster and without the humiliation of groveling to a demi-human with feet that a clown would envy.
And that sort of thinking is what got you into this mess, I chided myself. Be patient for a few goddamned minutes, Valdez.
Volkar smacked his lips and then tossed the bottle into the fire, watching with interest as it cracked in the flames.
“Are you scrying something?” I leaned closer, as though the answers I sought could be found in the flames.
Volkar’s lips twitched. “No. I just like the sound. What you seek is hidden beneath Monte Rosa.”
Great. That was at least another day’s journey away on foot. It would take mere moments if I called up an associate of mine who owed me a favor. Teleportation spells took a lot of juice, but I’d make sure that the guy was well-compensated if he could get me to my end goal.
But some tingling sixth sense kept me from reaching for the burner phone in my bag. It was not a good idea to flout my probation in Europe, the Trust’s home turf.
“How could you know? You don’t even know what I’m after.”
“As I said, your reputation precedes you. There is not a creature beneath the sun that has not heard the tale of Iron Heart’s slain sister.”
“She isn’t dead,” I snapped, more out of habit than actual anger. Everyone had written Catalina off, assuming the worst. I wasn’t about to let anyone do it on my watch. She wasn’t dead until her heart ceased beating. I was going to make sure that day was a long way off.
Volkar pushed to his enormous feet and offered me a mottled hand. I cringed away like he might haul off and slap me with it.
“Come,” he said impatiently, gesturing for me to stand with his free hand. “If you want to get there before nightfall we must begin now.”
I slid my hand into Volkar’s and he pulled me to my feet with strength that belied his small stature. Then, without giving me time to do more than wrap a hand around the strap of my backpack, he slung me onto his shoulder and ran toward the ledge at the end of the cave.
“What the hell–” Was as far as I got before Volkar launched himself into the air. For a spinning second, we entered freefall. I clutched at his neck like a lifeline which, of course, it was. The wind reached up clawing fingers, raking my eyes, stinging my skin, and tugging my long, dark hair free from the ushanka I’d shoved on to protect myself from the worst of the cold. It went flying and even my quick reflexes couldn’t snag it out of midair in time. Irritation prickled along my scalp. I bought it during a mission in Saint Petersburg and it held more than a little sentimental value.
But I didn’t have long to mourn the loss of my headgear. Volkar angled his body and a second later we hit the side of the mountain. Volkar’s heels skimmed the top layer of snow, miraculously not sinking beneath the feet of powdery stuff even with the additional hundred and twenty pounds of weight on his back.
We hurtled down the side of the mountain, grazing only the top layers of snow. A startled laugh wrenched itself from my chest. For the last two years, my world had been an endless slog of misery, pain, and the desperate search for answers. It might not have been much to someone else, but sliding down the side of a mountain on the back of a creature that had more skill than any Olympic skier was probably the most fun I’d had since before Cat’s incident. The sound cut off after a few seconds as we rapidly approached a boulder and, beyond that, the end of the mountain.
“Volkar–” I warned.
But the Barbegazi didn’t slow. In fact, he crouched lower to the ground, shifting his center of gravity so that we picked up still more speed. We hit the boulder at an angle and went spinning into midair. Volkar twirled through it in concentric circles, completely jumping the river between the two peaks. We landed a few seconds later on the adjoining peak.
“Peace, fraulein,” Horst hummed into my ear. “He knows what he is doing. And he is spry for a man of a thousand, is he not?”
I nearly choked on my own tongue. This scrawny little man was over a thousand? I’d known vampires who hadn’t lived that long. To make it to that age Volkar had to be tough, as well as wise. I was suddenly grateful I hadn’t given into the childish impulse to hex him.
Our journey might have taken an hour or just a few minutes. It was impossible to tell. The splendor of the Swiss Alps rushed by at such speed that it was impossible to keep track. I only registered when my guide began to slow, digging his bin-lid-sized feet into the snow to slow us to a crawl.
To my astonishment, I craned my neck and the hulking shape of Monte Rosa came into view.
“Follow this footpath around the side of the mountain and…” He trailed off and it didn’t take me long to figure out why. A billowing black cloud of smoke was rising from the side of the mountain, obscuring the otherwise clear sky. The Barbegazi hissed a word in French and I didn’t need Horst’s translation a few seconds later to know it was colorful.
“They’ve burned it!” Volkar growled. “Who would even dare?”
I had a sinking feeling I knew. And just a few minutes later my suspicions were confirmed, when a familiar shape stepped from the haze of smoke.
“Findlay,” I muttered, glaring at the man sauntering down the footpath toward us.
Louis Findlay, undersecretary to Sienna Vogel, head of the Trust’s disciplinary committee. I was more afraid of Vogel than Findlay. She was known colloquially as the Queen of Hell, and it wasn’t just for her notoriously bitchy demeanor. Vogel had a singular talent for opening doors into other dimensions and her favorite trick was to drop someone into a hell plane for a few weeks to sort them out.
Findlay, by comparison, was less threatening, even though he was being trailed closely by a pack of alpine wolves. He was a summoner and could bind just about anything with less than human intelligence to his will.
Putting his sudden appearance together with the destruction of the Barbegazzi’s trove of forbidden magicks, I knew who had to be responsible and why he was doing it. My nails bit into my palms so hard I drew blood. I was shaking with the need to go for my weapons and end this little cretin once and for all.
Findlay came to a stop a few yards away from us, keeping the higher ground in case I attacked. Probably wise. He might have been formidable, but he wasn’t near strong enough to go toe to toe with me and walk away from it.
If I killed him, however, I’d draw the full wrath of the Trust down upon myself. And Cat needed me to survive. So I shoved my hands in my pockets to obscure my watch and gave him a very affected smile.
“Hey, Lou, what brings you out to this neck of the woods?”
A muscle in Findlay’s cheek twitched at the nickname. His eyes were small, dark, and watery behind his spectacles. His nose was pinched and narrow, and his graying beard was perpetually patchy. He’d always reminded me of a rat. Lord only knew why my sister agreed to marry him.
He didn’t answer me right away, instead fixing the Barbegazi with a steely glare. He spoke in rapid-fire French, and Horst’s translation only told me what I’d already suspected. He was telling Volkar to get lost.
To his credit, the demi-human stood his ground for a few minutes, spewing impotent threats about what his clan would do to the council. Findlay and I both knew they were bullshit. The Barbegazi were not a large clan, and even if they managed to band together every demi-human in the Alps it wouldn’t be much against the forces of the Trust.
Finally, with a baleful glance in my direction, Volkar jumped onto the nearest drift and slid away from us. The fact that he probably thought I was in cahoots with Findlay just irritated me further. I rounded on the little man.
“What the hell, Findlay? You just burned a library that’s over two millennia old!”
Findlay brushed a light dusting of snow off his tweed jacket and adjusted his spectacles, unconcerned by my outburst. “It was slated to be disposed of in any case. There are spells in those books that should never see the light of day, as you know. And it wasn’t as if we could allow something like that to fall into your hands, could we?”
Anger boiled in my stomach and I tasted blood in my mouth. “You don’t know a goddamned thing, Findlay. What the hell are you even doing here anyway?”
“An associate of mine informed me you were leaving the country. So I’ve been following you.”
I wished I could say that came as a surprise. Findlay had been following me for two and a half years, ever since the incident that put Cat in the hospital. He still blamed me for it. Hell, I blamed myself for it. I should have been there to protect her.
“You know this whole Fatal Attraction thing is getting old,” I drawled. “Find someone else to fixate on, Findlay. I haven’t broken my probation once in the last two years.”
That he knew of. Technically I’d broken it a dozen times over, incurring minor infractions here and there to keep my lights on and my sister’s bills paid. But I hadn’t used magic offensively, which was what their major stipulation had been.
His beady eyes narrowed and his anger spilled over onto the pack of beasts that he was controlling. The nearest wolf’s hackles raised, its ears flattened to its skull, and it bared sharp teeth in my direction. I hoped Findlay didn’t sic the thing on me. I’d hate to shoot an endangered species.
“Just turn custody of Cat over to me and I’ll leave you to your business, Valdez.”
“This again? The will you have is a fake, Findlay. My sister would never have given you power of attorney, not without consulting me. I was her sister for twenty-four years. You were her fiancé for what, two?”
“Three,” he hissed.
“And the lawyers came down on my side. So hell no, I’m not giving you control of what happens to her. Get lost. I’m not breaking any laws by being here.”
“You were associating with a demi-human—”
“It’s frowned upon, not illegal. So try again.”
“You are not allowed to travel—”
“To the homes of any of my old associates,” I finished for him. “And the closest person to the Alps is probably Finch, and there’s no way in hell I’m going to be meeting up with him. So you’re O for two now, Findlay. Care to make it three?”
His gaze flicked down to the backpack I clutched in white-knuckled fingers. “Empty the bag.”
I wanted to tell him to go fuck himself. Instead, I yanked the zipper so hard it nearly broke and dumped the contents out for his perusal. He knelt and sifted through it.
He held up a pair of eyeglasses. “What are these for?”
They were enchanted to act in place of a scope, in case I needed them.
“Reading,” I said. “I am getting older, Findlay.”
He picked up a flask and unscrewed the cap. His nose scrunched up. “Is that ginger?”
“Yep. Patented hangover cure. But potions aren’t magic. So next.”
He screwed the cap back on and then reached for my Sig – a reliable and highly accurate handgun. Every part of me yearned to snatch my weapon out of his hands, but I held myself in check. Findlay studied it from every conceivable angle, searching for my signature spellwork on either the magazine or the slide. When he found none he pursed his lips.
“Carrying weapons across borders is illegal, you know.”
“So what, you’re upholding mortal law now too? I thought such petty distinctions were beneath the Trust.”
Findlay set the gun back in the pack and I breathed a sigh of relief. It wasn’t the only piece I had on me, but it was one of the larger caliber guns I owned. I was reasonably confident that he’d miss me if he shot, but best not to take the chance if I didn’t have to.
He gathered up a slew of faux gold-wrapped chocolate candies and studied them.
“What are these for?”
“The baby dragon that lives in my laundry room,” I quipped. “What do you think they’re for, Findlay?”
He picked up the last item left and it was a struggle not to tense. This was the real test. I’d done my damndest to make my makeshift wand unobtrusive. My official wand had been purloined by the council. So I’d carved my great-grandfather’s wand down into something that wasn’t likely to attract attention from mortal or magical security. All the runes were hidden by the bristles and the mahogany handle looked as smooth and innocent as I’d intended it to be.
Findlay inspected the toothbrush skeptically. “Where’s the toothpaste?”
“Stolen by TSA, those bastards.”
Findlay snorted and shoved the wand back into my bag before tossing the thing to me. I breathed a barely audible sigh of relief and slung it onto my back where it belonged.
There was a tense couple of seconds where I was sure he was going to attack me without provocation. I could spot the gears turning behind his black eyes. We were in an isolated mountain range and there probably wasn’t anyone willing to step in on my behalf if he decided to start something.
He finally slumped, body sinking into a defeated slouch. Good call. I didn’t need guns or magic to end Findlay. I could pop his head off like a cork with the strength of my thighs alone. He spun on one heel, drawing a green river stone from his pocket. He tossed it lightly in the air and a portal blossomed in midair, forming what looked like a stone archway through Monte Rosa. On the other side was a rain-slicked London street. A double-decker bus trundled past as Findlay dithered between the two points in reality.
Findlay reached into his pocket once more and pulled out a scrap of paper. He flicked it at me. The cold air caught it before it could flutter to the ground, but it was a simple matter to snatch it before the breeze blew it further down the mountain.
It was a flight from Lyon-Saint Exupéry to JFK International. I squinted at him, even as he turned his back on me.
“What trick is this, Findlay? I’m in no mood today.”
“Miss Vogel sent me with a warning,” he called over his shoulder. “Don’t come to Europe again, Valdez. You won’t like where she sends you if you do.”
And with that last parting shot he stepped through the archway. It popped out of existence, as though it had never been. Which was pretty much how transportation spells worked. You bent space like it was a flat plane and folded two places together so that they touched.
The little bastard could have shoved me through right back to Queens if he’d had the mind. But he hadn’t. He’d left me in the middle of the Swiss Alps, watching one of the last hopes I had for restoring my sister crumble into ash. And after the perceived betrayal, I doubted Volkar would assist me again.
Oh, and I only had about ten hours to make it out of the Alps and reach Lyon before my connecting flight took off without me.
Just freaking peachy.
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