Home > Battle Bond (Death Before Dragons #2)

Battle Bond (Death Before Dragons #2)
Author: Lindsay Buroker

1

“It’s a trap.”

The slender wire was barely visible under the mulch and fallen apple-blossom petals, but even if I hadn’t seen it, my half-elven blood would have allowed me to sense the faint hint of magic.

I’d taken three laps around the sprawling orchard, rows of trees stretching across dozens of acres, and it was my only proof that someone magical was in the area. Or had been in the area. Whoever it was hadn’t been considerate enough to leave footprints.

I stood up, flicked my long blonde braid over my shoulder, and contemplated my options. Then impulsively chose one that wasn’t that wise. I stepped into the trap.

Wire tightened around my ankle, then pulled at my leg hard enough to yank me off my feet. A second later, I dangled upside down, hands stretched toward the ground, like a cartoon hunter outsmarted by a clever rabbit.

My car keys, inhaler, and the stupid lavender-scented nose spray my doctor had recommended to calm my nerves tumbled out of my pocket. I hadn’t needed so many silly things along on missions before my previously excellent health had gone off the rails. I still wasn’t entirely sure what inflammatory markers did, but I was supposed to be de-stressing my life to improve them. Hard to do while dangling upside down from a tree.

Fortunately, Fezzik, my custom-made magical submachine pistol, stayed secure in its thigh holster, and Chopper, my even more magical longsword, remained in the scabbard strapped across my back. The hilt did clunk me in the back of the head as it shifted, but I deserved that. My leather thong strung with magical charms remained around my neck, but I had to tuck my chin to keep it there.

Val? Sindari’s voice spoke into my mind—Sindari’s amused voice.

I’d thought he was on the other side of the orchard, but when I twisted, I saw the great silver tiger padding toward me, his large paws barely stirring the grass between the rows of trees.

“Yes?” I answered aloud instead of in my mind.

With four of the neighborhood children missing, and dozens of local pigs devoured in the last week, the owners weren’t wandering the property right now, so I wasn’t worried about being overheard talking to a magical tiger.

Do you need me to rescue you?

“No. Actually, I need you to scoot off over the hill so whoever set this trap won’t sense you when they come to check on what they caught.”

Sindari sat on his haunches and looked up at me. You intentionally stepped into that situation?

“Yes. Now, scoot.” I made a shooing motion. “You can come back and rescue me if more than four enemies show up.”

You should be able to handle four kobolds by yourself. They’re only two or three feet tall.

“That’s why I said I’d only need rescuing if there were more than four.”

Sindari’s gaze shifted toward the next row of trees. One approaches now.

Good. I switched to thinking my responses, trusting the telepathic tiger would hear them. Shoo.

I am Sindari Dargoth Chaser the Third, Son of the Chieftain Raul, Feared Stalker and Hunter of the Tangled Tundra Nation on Del’noth. I do not shoo. He did, fortunately, engage his ability to fade from sight—and from the magical senses of anyone except the person holding his figurine.

Since that was me, I still felt him there. A few seconds later, I sensed more magical beings out there. Six of them, and they were spreading out around us. I resisted the urge to draw my weapons, instead letting my arms dangle over my head. I was just a helpless visitor foolishly caught in their trap.

Something pelted me in the butt, and I jerked, gasping at the pain.

“What was that?” I clasped a hand over the smarting spot. It felt like someone had cracked a whip.

A faint twang sounded, and something stung my opposite shoulder.

Are they shooting me? I twisted, trying to pinpoint the location of my assailants.

With slingshots. Do you wish me to rescue you now? Sindari sounded more amused than concerned for my welfare.

If these were the beings responsible for kidnapping—and possibly killing—children, this wasn’t a laughing matter.

Another projectile—a rock?—buzzed past my head, stirring my hair. The leaves rustled in a nearby tree.

Just capture one. We need to question someone.

As Sindari sprang away, I yanked Chopper from its scabbard, pulled myself up, and sliced through the wire above me. The blade cut through the enchanted wire without trouble, and I had just enough room to flip a somersault and land on my feet. I still had to cut away the binding around my ankles, and I grimaced at the lost time. The kobolds had scattered as soon as Sindari leaped after them.

But I heard the one that had been in the tree jumping down. As soon as I was free, I sprinted after him.

The white-haired, two-foot-tall, gray-skinned creature darted into the next row of trees, a slingshot clenched in his small fist. I ducked branches and darted around trunks to follow.

My father’s blood gave me better-than-human agility, but thanks to my mom, I also carried the blood of ancient Norse warriors in my veins, and they’d conspired to make me six feet tall. Branches clawed at my hair and smacked me in the face as I raced after the kobold. I lost sight of him, but my senses kept me on his trail.

As I surged out of the trees at the edge of the orchard, he came into sight again, sprinting for the native evergreens on the property’s border. And the non-native, invasive blackberry brambles growing between those trees.

My long legs let me gain ground, and I urged them to even faster speeds as I saw his destination. A rabbit-sized hole in the dense wall of thorny vines.

I unstrapped Fezzik from my holster but hesitated to shoot him in the back. I wasn’t yet sure these kobolds were responsible for the trouble, and my mother’s words rang in my mind, that maybe the magical community would hate me less—would stop sending representatives to try to kill me—if they didn’t fear me, if I helped them.

A split second before I would have caught up to him, the kobold dove through the hole. It looked too small even for him, but he slithered into it like a greased snake. It was all I could do to halt in time to keep from face-planting in the thorns.

Vines and leaves rattled, marking the kobold’s passage as he found a route deeper and deeper into the brambles. Even my height wasn’t enough to allow me to see over them and guess how far back into the trees the patch extended. Probably all the way to Puget Sound. There was a reason the Himalayan blackberry topped the lists of the most noxious invasive weeds in the Pacific Northwest.

As I was eyeing Chopper, debating how effective my treasured blade would be at clearing a path through the thorny tangle, I spotted the property owners heading my way.

I groaned. Had they seen me failing to capture a single toddler-sized kobold? They better have not seen me getting pelted in the butt by him.

Embarrassment heated my cheeks as I imagined snarky comments about how they thought they’d brought in the legendary Ruin Bringer, not some self-proclaimed bounty hunter hired off the internet.

Sindari? I asked silently as the middle-aged man and woman approached. Any chance you’ve captured the rest of them and tied them up with a bow for me?

Surprisingly, Sindari didn’t answer. The cat-shaped charm on my necklace that could call him into this world warmed through the fabric of my shirt. Then it went ice cold, sending a chill through me that had nothing to do with physical sensation.

Sindari? I touched the charm.

Nothing.

2

“It got away?” the man asked as he and his wife stopped, glancing at the blackberry brambles.

Worried about Sindari, I struggled to focus on him. “Yeah. Sorry.”

The middle-aged couple didn’t look much like my mental image of farmers—or orchard owners. He wore a Microsoft T-shirt and glasses, and she was in yoga pants and a hoodie displaying a stick figure doing the splits under instructions to Stay flexible.

Ayush and Laura were their names, I reminded myself. Colonel Willard had given me information on them and their lavender farm/apple orchard/cider house/winery when she’d given me the job.

“I told you we should have cleared all this.” The woman pointed to the brambles and frowned at her husband.

“And I told you we’d need a hundred goats and a skidsteer with a brush-saw attachment to make any headway. It’s been an epic battle just to keep them from encroaching on the orchard.”

“I didn’t object to the idea of goats,” she murmured.

“Just the forty-thousand-dollar machine?”

“Yes. That’s not in the budget.”

“But goats are?”

“Goats are cute.”

I was barely listening, my gaze scanning the orchard for signs of Sindari, even though I suspected he’d been dismissed from this world. Usually, that was something only the holder of the figurine could do. But I’d once seen a powerful dark-elf mage force him away.

“Is this how they’ve been getting in and out?” Ayush pointed at the hole. The brambles had stopped rattling, and the kobold was far away now. “What are they?”

“Kobolds. I was trying to capture one to question. It wouldn’t surprise me if they were the ones that stole and ate your pigs. I’m not sure about the children. They are known for playing pranks—” I resisted the urge to rub the incipient bruise on my left butt cheek, “—but they’re usually smart enough not to pick fights with humans.”

“Kobolds,” the woman mouthed, looking at her husband.

From her face, it was clear she hadn’t encountered magical beings before and wasn’t sure she believed in them. Lucky her.

Her husband’s expression was more grim and accepting. “You can find them, right? And find the children?”

I hesitated, aware that the missing children could be as eaten as the pigs, but I didn’t want to steal their hope. “I can find the kobolds, and I’ll question them about what’s been going on.”

I just had to figure out a way around the thorny brambles. I could sense more kobolds in that direction, but they were at least a half mile back. Unless Zav—the dragon who was determined to use me as bait to find the criminals he’d been sent to Earth to collect—showed up and breathed fire all over the place, I wasn’t going that way. Besides, I hadn’t seen Zav in two weeks. It was possible he’d completed his mission and left Earth forever. Dare I hope?

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