As I scooted a few more inches down the cliff, I came to the end of my rope. And swore. Vehemently and virulently, as appropriate for someone hanging from damp, gritty, vertical rock a hundred feet above crashing ocean waves.
Then I made the mistake of looking down and swore a little more. Heights don’t usually faze me. What gets me is the thought of falling from them, landing on sharp pointy rocks, being pulverized like flank steak in a meat grinder, and then being sucked out to sea, never to be seen again.
But the mouth of the cave was less than twenty feet below. I gritted my teeth in determination. I could do this.
“Besides,” I muttered to the rock, “you’re the idiot who chose not to drive an hour back to a town with a hardware store for more rope.”
After finding a suitable handhold, I scooted lower. Climbing back up would be easier, assuming I wasn’t injured then. I had to trust that my magical weapons, my magical charms, and the agility that my half-elven blood granted me would see me through this.
Halfway to the cave entrance, my phone vibrated in my pocket. I ignored it, like any sane person would, and continued carefully downward.
But then I paused. It was Friday and almost closing time for people who worked office jobs. If this was the call I was expecting and I ignored it, I’d have to wait until Monday to get the test results.
Making sure I had three points of contact, and one foot wedged so far into a crevice that falling would be impossible, I eased my phone out of my pocket. Yes, it was the doctor’s office. I had one bar of reception and the roar of the surf behind me.
“This is Val,” I answered, waiting to impress the receptionist with my connection.
“Hello, this is Mandy in Dr. Brightman’s office. Is this… Val… mey… jar?”
“Just Val.” I didn’t correct the pronunciation or explain that my Norwegian mother had thought it would be fun to name me after a Valkyrie.
“We got your test results back, and ev—”
“And what?” The tightness in my chest that had grown familiar these last few months intensified, and I rolled my eyes as I envisioned having to dig into my other pocket for the inhaler Dr. Brightman had given me. What kind of monster-slaying warrior woman developed asthma? “I’m sorry, uh, Mandy. Can you repeat that?”
I glanced at the phone, worried the call had dropped.
“Valmeyjar?” Mandy asked, clearly hearing me as well as I was hearing her. “I’m sorry. I think the connection isn’t very good.”
A seagull squawked as it flew by, either commenting on the stupidity of my position or wondering if I had French fries in my pocket.
“I noticed. The results?”
“I said everything is normal on your bloodwork. Are you at the coast?”
“Normal?” I used my eyes to burn a laser of skepticism into the face of the phone. “What?”
“Everything is normal.”
“Are you sure? I have… issues. New issues.” I barely slept, I had a ridiculous urge to take siestas, and now this new betrayal from my lungs.
“Well, your inflammatory markers are a little high, but it’s nothing to worry about at this point. Your hormone levels were all good, especially for a woman of your age.”
My eyes bored more lasers into the phone. “My age? I’m barely past forty.”
“Hormones can get a little persnickety in your forties.” Persnickety? Who in this century said persnickety? “Oh, here’s Dr. Brightman.” Mandy sounded relieved to pass me off.
“Everything is normal, Val,” he said. “It’s not uncommon to develop asthma and allergies later in life.”
“I am not later in life. My mom isn’t even later in life. She’s seventy-one and hikes the Pacific Crest Trail for kicks.”
“If you find yourself using the rescue inhaler more than a couple of times a month, we’ll want to get you on a daily corticosteroid.”
“I don’t take drugs.”
Dr. Brightman was diplomatic enough not to point out that my new dependence on the “rescue inhaler” counted as using a drug.
“If you change your mind or have further concerns, we can schedule another appointment, but from what you’ve told me of your life, you might want to relax a little.”
“I’ve told you next to nothing about my life.”
“I can read between the lines. You seem driven. How’s work? How’s your stress load? Are you able to take time off to relax?”
“Uh.” I glanced down at the cave to make sure my target hadn’t sauntered out on the ledge to contemplate my potential as a meal. “When I can.”
“And how are your relationships with family and friends?”
“I fail to see what that has anything to do with—”
“Do you have a good social support group?”
I thought of Colonel Willard, the military contact who gave me assignments, and Nin, the woman in Seattle who made my magical weapons. Did they count? My ex-husband and my daughter were… people I kept tabs on but never visited, too afraid my work would endanger them.
“It’s fine,” I said.
“Hm.” Why did Brightman sound like he didn’t believe me? The connection wasn’t good enough to detect lies. “I’ve got a friend who’s an excellent therapist. I can’t make appointments for you, but I can make a referral. We can set everything up so you get a text and can book online. Easy peasy. I highly recommend you work on your stress levels, your relationships, and your sleep—do you sleep well?”
No, I dreamed of all the mutilated victims that my targets had killed before I’d killed them.
“That silence speaks volumes, Val. I’ll get that referral in pronto. And have you tried yoga? Some relaxation and deep breathing exercises? Meditation? Why don’t you work on your lifestyle for six months, and then we’ll recheck your inflammation levels.”
Yoga? Meditation? Therapy?
“Shit.” I hung up and stuffed the phone in my pocket.
I crept down the cliff and landed soundlessly on the ledge at the mouth of the cave. Crouching, I peered into a tunnel far darker than the cloudy gloom of the Oregon coast.
“Yeshelya,” I whispered, touching one of the charms hanging from the leather thong around my neck.
My eyes tingled as magic took hold. After a few seconds, the walls of the uneven passage grew clear, as did the spot where it curved around a bend. A few fish bones scattered the rock floor, and the pungent smells of an animal’s den mingled with the salty fishiness of the ocean.
Before reaching for another charm, the feline figurine at the center of my necklace that I’d risked my life to acquire, I made myself take a hit from the loathed inhaler. I didn’t want a witness to this new weakness I’d developed.
“Sindari,” I whispered, a name this time, not a magical word I could barely pronounce. “Time to come out and play.”
Gray mist appeared at my side, and my other social connection formed inside of it, the great silver tiger quickly growing as solid as any Earth animal. Only the faint glow that emanated from his black-striped silver fur and the intelligence gleaming in his green eyes gave him away as magical.
It’s about time, Sindari said telepathically through our mental connection. The air stinks of wyverns.
There’s only one left. We got the other two already. Unless you can smell more? As far as I knew, I had the telepathic aptitude of a smooth, dull rock, but when I responded in my head, Sindari always heard me.
The tiger’s nostrils twitched. There is only one. This will be a disappointingly boring battle. His head cocked slightly. Ah, but it is a female. Good. Females are more challenging.
Before we headed in, I took my phone out once more, this time to play the video I’d saved. Shaky footage that someone had recorded in Thousand Acres Park outside of Portland rolled for me.
Three blue wyverns, their leathery wings flapping as they came out of the trees, dove down and attacked children playing on the Sandy River beach. Some of the kids got away. Others were pulled up into the treetops where the wyverns feasted. Four children and a mother had been killed that day.
“Let’s do this,” I said grimly, replacing the phone and pulling Fezzik out of my thigh holster.
The compact submachine pistol had similar features to a Heckler & Koch MP7, but Nin had made it from scratch, and the elven half of my blood recognized the magic emanating from it and from the individual cartridges in the magazine. The gun was almost as powerful as Chopper, the longsword I’d won in battle long ago and that I wore sheathed on my back. If this went to hell and the wyvern got close before I could take it down, I would switch to the blade.
Sindari led the way. Normally, I wouldn’t let someone else go first, but if he was grievously injured, he could instantly return to the safety of his realm to heal.
We crept down the passage, rounding bends, and the roar of the surf grew fainter, replaced by drips and trickles deeper within the cave. Soon, we were close enough to the lair that my own ability to sense magic, one of the few powers I’d inherited from the father I’d never met, let me feel the aura of the wyvern.
The tunnel widened into a chamber twenty feet high and twice that deep. We had gone back far enough that I guessed we were under the spot where I’d parked my Jeep. A hundred feet under it.
Stalactites leered down from above, and stalagmites interfered with the view ahead. I couldn’t yet see our target, but I could smell her. More bones littered the floor in here. Some were deer and some were human, with blood and gristle still clinging to them.
My grip tightened on Fezzik, anger simmering as I wondered how many people this intruder in our world had killed in addition to those caught on the video.
She is resting behind those stalagmites, Sindari said. Your mongrel aura is weak, but you should cloak yourself.
It’s subtle, not weak. Just like me.
You are as subtle as those massive steel orbs on chains that pummel the sides of your buildings.
Wrecking balls, yeah, yeah. I touched the powerful cloaking charm, another hard-won prize, and faded from the sight and smell of others. My aura, my signature to those who could sense magic, also disappeared.
Sufficient, Sindari said.
Knowing I would prefer to attack from a distance and the higher ground, he led me toward a natural ramp creeping up the side of the chamber to a ledge. Just as the blue scales and folded wings of the dozing wyvern came into view, Sindari halted. His tail went rigid, and he whirled back toward the entrance.
Certain he’d sensed a second wyvern, I also turned, pointing Fezzik at the tunnel. I didn’t see or hear anything.
We need to get out of here. Sindari took a step but halted. No, we can’t go that way. He’s coming that way.
My ferocious battle tiger, the same tiger who’d been worried the wyvern would be too easy an opponent, looked around, nostrils flaring in fear as he sought some back exit from the cave.
I started to ask why, but then I sensed it. Something with an aura so great that even I could feel it from far away. And tell that it was getting closer.
He’s coming, Sindari groaned into my mind.
What is it? I’d never sensed anything like this.