Home > Storm Forged (Death Before Dragons #6)(16)

Storm Forged (Death Before Dragons #6)(16)
Author: Lindsay Buroker

Faint snuffling came from the brush ahead and to the right, and Freysha paused. I pulled out Fezzik. It sounded like it was twenty or thirty feet back from the path, but a large feline could cover that ground quickly.

We stood still, listening and waiting. Freysha didn’t have any weapons, other than whatever she could do with her magic.

It is backing away, she spoke telepathically, the first time I could remember her doing so. I do not know if it has decided we are permitted to come here or if it’s waiting for a more opportune moment to attack.

Maybe it sensed my weapons and got scared.

It is possible.

The mist thickened more as we followed the path deeper into the sanctuary, and I almost missed the first of the elven dwellings. If not for the faint magic emanating from them, I never would have seen them.

Wooden platforms had been built high off the ground and around the tree trunks in a style similar to what I’d seen on their home world. The dwellings, however, were external structures here, mounted atop those platforms. Maybe on Earth, the trees didn’t grow wide enough to live inside of them.

Freysha walked to the base of one of the trees. I could make out the seams of a trapdoor in the platform above, but there wasn’t a ladder or any obvious way to go up. She rested her hand on the trunk, and I sensed a tingle of magic as she did something.

The rough bark re-formed in spots, bulging outward to create bumps. Or handholds? It wasn’t exactly a ladder, but I could climb up them easily enough.

“Val?” Gondo’s voice drifted down the path from the direction we’d come. “Are you back here? Where’d you go?”

Freysha paused with her hand still on the tree. “I didn’t think to tell him what we were doing. I thought he was too busy socializing with his kin to notice us leave.”

“We’re checking out old elf houses,” I called. “You better go back. There’s a—”

Foliage rattled and thrashed off to the side of the path. The creature.

At first, I thought it would attack me while I was distracted, but in the dense undergrowth, the noise of its passage marked its path. It was rushing toward Gondo.

Cursing, I yanked out Chopper and sprinted back down the path. If I could see the creature, I would have opted for Fezzik, but all I would be doing was shooting blindly into the bushes.

“Run back!” I yelled, afraid I wouldn’t reach Gondo in time.

Even having to bound through the dense growth, the creature was fast. I spotted Gondo on the path ahead, his hands raised as he stared in horror toward the thrashing bushes. He gripped a wrench in one hand—as if that would do anything against some giant feline predator.

I was less than ten feet from Gondo when I first saw it, a huge gray lion-like creature with shaggy fur. It bounded over the bushes, long fangs revealed by its open maw. Its yellow eyes were focused on Gondo instead of me.

I reached Gondo in time to dive into him, bowling him to the pebble path as the pouncing creature flew through the air where his head had been. Claws raked as it went by, and I felt the wind of a near miss on the back of my neck.

Before it landed in the brush on the far side of the path, I leaped up, standing over Gondo and brandishing my sword. The creature whirled and snarled at me. I bared my teeth back at it.

Freysha ran down the path toward us, but I didn’t take my focus from the shaggy feline. Its gaze shifted from my face to my bared sword—the mist didn’t quite mute Chopper’s blue glow—and back to my face. Its large nostrils twitched—they were on the sides of its snout, more like a horse than a lion.

The creature started toward us, but rustling sounded under its feet. It tried to jerk its foreleg up. But it couldn’t. Something had grabbed its foot.

I stared in puzzlement, imagining bear traps. Would an elven sanctuary have such things?

The creature’s shoulders flexed as it tried to back up. Then it snarled and lowered its head to bite at its feet—or whatever had its feet trapped.

“I made vines,” Freysha explained, stopping beside me.

Gondo was on his back where I’d knocked him, but he scrambled to his feet and glowered at the creature, waving his wrench menacingly.

Freysha spoke sternly in elven to our trapped foe. I reached up to activate my translation charm. The creature lifted its head and glared at her. Defiantly? It was hard to tell.

“Attack no goblins,” she said, my charm translating this time. “We are the descendants of the elves you served. We will do no harm to this place.” She waved her hand.

The vines disappeared back into the ground, leaving the creature free. I crouched, not trusting that it understood her or agreed with her even if it did.

It snuffled again, looking back and forth between us. It ignored Gondo completely, which emboldened him to wave his wrench again and curse at it in his native tongue.

“Don’t goad it,” I muttered. “You don’t want it to go after your people when we’re gone.”

“They have set traps around their village and can defend themselves. Though it would have been nice if they’d told me why they’d set the traps—and to be careful leaving the area.” Gondo shook his head. “They were distracted by the show they thought they were going to get.”

“What show?” I asked as the creature backed slowly away.

“You having sex with the dragon in the water box.”

If an enemy hadn’t been less than ten feet from us, I might have dropped my sword. “That was what they thought would happen?”

“Yes.”

“Why would they want to watch that?”

“Who wouldn’t?” Gondo flashed a grin, said, “Klukklik,” and copied the hip-thrusting motion he’d made earlier.

“You guys need to get cable out here.”

The creature kept slinking away, finally disappearing into the brush. Its departure was a lot quieter than its approach had been.

“I think it may recognize you as well as me,” Freysha said, “as descendants of the elves who lived here. And it’s decided it’s all right for us to visit.”

“And Gondo?” I eyed him.

“He had better stick close to us. In addition to being set by our people to guard this area, trogwarths in the wild like to eat goblins.”

“That’s disgusting,” Gondo said.

“Let’s hurry up and find out what it’s been guarding.” I waved for Freysha to lead the way back to the tree and for Gondo to follow. “I need to get back and make sure my gnomish houseguest is going to live.”

11

Freysha climbed up the tree to the trapdoor in the platform first, and as I started after her, Gondo announced, “I shall stand guard from down here.”

He was eyeing the small handholds Freysha had magically coaxed out of the trunk. For goblin arms, they were far apart.

“The creature might come back for you,” I pointed out.

“I shall stand guard from two feet behind you,” he corrected.

“Wise.”

Despite his eyeing of the handholds, Gondo scrambled up behind us easily enough. As Freysha headed for the first of two dwellings built on the platform, which extended around four trees, I sensed an aura I’d been hoping wouldn’t return.

Freysha must have sensed it too, because she looked back at me with a frown. “There is a female dragon nearby. I am not familiar with her.”

“I wish I weren’t.”

Freysha arched her eyebrows. “I sensed her earlier, but she flew in the other direction, so I focused on finding the plant.”

“She flew toward Zav and me,” I said dryly. “She wants to date him.”

“Date him?”

Gondo had reached the platform, and he stuck his head through the trapdoor, looking below for the creature rather than a dragon, and kicked it shut. Then he set his wrench down on it. But only for a moment. He must have considered that too lightweight an object, for he pulled over a broken branch and centered it on the trapdoor. “Can those creatures jump this high?”

“I don’t believe so,” Freysha said, “but they can climb.”

Gondo groaned and went to retrieve more broken limbs that had fallen onto the platform over the years.

“Maybe dragons don’t date,” I continued my conversation with Freysha. “I gather they get to claiming each other as mates quickly.”

I watched the sky, though we weren’t high enough that much of it was visible through the branches, and briefed Freysha on the female-dragon situation. What advice she could give me, I didn’t know, but elves knew a lot more about dragons than I did.

“Do you think she plans to kill you?” Gondo asked, dragging over another branch. He was building something to barricade the trapdoor. It looked like the wilderness version of The Club.

“She didn’t mention it,” I said.

“She’s circling the area,” Freysha said.

My very own dragon stalker. “I sent Zav back to help Nin’s grandfather. I was hoping she would leave Earth—or at least stalk him instead of me.”

“She may struggle to figure out exactly where you are, but I am not certain of that. Dragons can more easily see through the magic of the elven sanctuaries than other species, and this barrier has not been renewed for a long time.”

“Let’s look inside for whatever and get out of here.” I still didn’t know what Freysha thought was back here that would interest us after all this time.

“Of course. You look in that dwelling, and I’ll check this one.” Freysha glanced toward Gondo, but he was busy with his project.

I had a feeling we wouldn’t be able to leave that way when he was done.

When I walked into the two-room structure, a twinge of déjà vu or some other weird feeling I couldn’t pin down came over me. I hadn’t been there before and hadn’t ever been inside an elven house, but something felt familiar among the alienness of the elf-designed furnishings.

After all these years, dust cloaked the chairs and table, but they were similar to the granite bench we’d passed, all made from single logs and appearing worn by wind or water—or magic—instead of carved by tools. A bookcase on the far wall had a similar construction. The lack of books on the shelves disappointed me, though I wouldn’t have been able to read them even if they’d been there. My mother had studied the language enough to read it; she would have loved a new elven book. Maybe I could find something here that I could give her.

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