They tell me flying is safer than driving. Every day, millions of people take to the skies and fail to crash and die. Maybe that’s true when flying involves spending hours being delayed in an airport, eating bad airline food, and hoping the person who bought the seat next to yours has showered some time in the past week. Maybe it’s safer being surrounded by an experienced, professional pilot and crew, a bunch of lifesaving devices, and decades of engineering precision.
But when flying means riding piggyback on an airborne djinn who isn’t very good at it, and who might be cranky enough not to notice—or care—if you fall off and drop a thousand feet to your death, it’s safer to swim in a pool full of hungry sharks. When I fly, nobody offers me peanuts or a watered-down drink. I don’t even get a lousy seatbelt.
“Ian, we’ve been up here an hour,” I shouted. “Where’s this damned cave?”
“You said that the last three times I asked.”
“Then stop asking, thief.”
“You’re lost, aren’t you?”
I felt him tense beneath me. “I am not lost.”
“Bullshit.” We were definitely lost. And even if we weren’t both guys, we couldn’t exactly ask for directions. There wasn’t anyone else flying around the open skies above the Appalachians in Virginia right now. I didn’t bother opening my eyes to see if I could help. Every damned mountain looked the same to me. “You sure this is the right area?”
“Yes. Now be silent. I am attempting to scry.”
“Great,” I muttered. Scrying was basically remote viewing, a mental camera that could travel anywhere and focus on anything magical. A nice trick to know—and yet another type of magic Ian wasn’t good at, and I couldn’t do at all. Ian’s wife, Akila, usually did the scrying for us to find our targets, since it was one of her clan’s strengths. We were never going to find the thing on our own. “Maybe we should land before you try that.”
“Fine. Shutting up.” I’d give it a few more minutes before I complained again. My arms ached from the awkward grip across Ian’s chest, and my cramped body begged for a stretch. At least we hadn’t flown all the way here from upstate New York. We had a hotel room in some little village further down the mountain, and when we finished this, we’d use the mirror there to get home the same way we’d come down.
If we finished this at all.
My gut clenched, and not from airsickness this time. We’d dragged out here to kill another Morai. For the past year, I’d been helping Ian hunt down and destroy the snake clan, the djinn responsible for wiping out the Dehbei—his clan. Well, our clan, I guess, since technically he was my great-great-great-you-get-the-idea grandfather. But I was mostly human, and there were at least ten generations between Ian and me.
I didn’t like killing. I assumed the Morai didn’t like being killed. But they were vicious bastards, and Ian’s revenge became mine when their clan leader had tried to take out him, Akila, me, and my woman and son. We’d destroyed Lenka, and had been tracking the rest ever since.
Ian assured me that after this one, we only had 78 or so more left. At the rate we were going, I figured I’d probably be ancient and drooling in my oatmeal when we caught the last one. If I lived that long.
“There you are, snake.” Ian spoke softly, but I heard him just fine. The venom in his voice would’ve transcended a tornado. Louder, he said, “We are landing now. Hold tight.”
“Like I’m not doing that already.” Still, I shifted and locked my hands together. I felt him slowing, losing height, and finally we landed with a dull thud. I opened my eyes to make sure there was ground beneath us, then let go and stumbled back a few steps while my legs remembered how to stand. “There’s gotta be a better way to travel,” I said. “Any suggestions?”
He ignored me. I would’ve been insulted, but I was used to that from him.
I let out a sigh and scanned the area. This was just about the summit of the mountain. In front of us, a jagged opening in the rock face revealed a deep cavern, dappled with sunlight that streamed through what I assumed were holes in the ceiling, and fading to black beyond. Cool, dank air wafted from the mouth of the cave like an ancient breath. Anything could be hiding in that patchwork of light and shadow.
With my luck, it’d be something with teeth.
It actually took me a few seconds to find Ian again. Nature wasn’t my element, but he blended right in. As always, his clothing was earth-toned, dirt brown everything—boots, pants, vest, no shirt. He hated shirts. The leather duster he always wore, no matter the temperature, had rumpled a bit during the flight. Standing perfectly still, staring into the cave with coiled bloodlust in his eyes, he looked every inch the predator he was. A wolf ready to strike.
I cleared my throat. “Maybe we should wait a while before we go in there.”
Ian’s black-ringed eyes narrowed, and his lean features drew into a scowl. “Are you afraid, thief?”
“Ex-thief,” I said automatically. “I’m retired, remember? And no, I’m not scared. Unless there’s bears. But my point is, you’ve been flying forever, and you scryed too. You can’t have much juice left.” Djinn magic drained when they used it in the human realm, and it took time to recharge. “I won’t be able to save us if things go wrong.”
Ian snorted. “This one is still sealed inside his tether. Nothing will go wrong.”
“Those sound suspiciously like famous last words to me.”
“Never mind.” I shook my head. Once he decided on something, that was what’d better happen. We were going in. The great Ian had spoken. I said, “Look, when we’re through here, do you think you could show me a couple of useful spells? I can do the invisible thing, and turn knives into different knives. I’ve got mirror bridges and tether destruction down. But that’s it. I can’t defend myself against these guys, and I’m human. Unlike you, I’ll die.”
Something that resembled surprise eased over his face during my rant. “I have told you, he is sealed. And djinn cannot kill humans.”
“No, but they can cause death to happen. And they aren’t all going to be sealed.”
Ian frowned. “We will discuss this later.”
“Yeah. Sure we will.” I knew a dismissal when I heard it. With a scowl of my own, I crossed my arms and nodded toward the cave. “Confident assholes first.”
He looked like he’d say something else. Instead, he gave a careful shrug and walked inside.
I gave it a few seconds and followed. Wasn’t quite as pissed as I made out, but I was getting a little tired of feeling like a fourth-rate lackey. We’d gone into some nasty fights with the Morai over the past year, and my little handful of pathetic tricks never prevented me from coming out banged up and bloody. Ian or Akila always healed me afterward, but there had to be a way to avoid the pain in the first place.
A quick glance around revealed rocks and more rocks. “Remind me what we’re looking for again,” I said.
“It is a bracelet.” Ian stirred a pile of stones with a foot and avoided looking at me. “Thick, tapered. Likely gold.”
“Got it.” I moved toward the left-hand wall, where the most light came in. Ian had the senses of a wolf, and could see in the dark. I couldn’t. The thought strengthened my resolve to push the issue of learning more magic after we killed this guy.
Snake, I told myself. Not guy. I had to think of them as snakes pretending to be human-ish—it was the only way I could go through with destroying them. I didn’t believe in murder. At least if Ian was right, this time would be a little easier. I’d only see the tether.
Tethers were important to the djinn. They were personal objects, usually small and made of metal, that bound them to the human realm when they crossed over. And since the djinn were basically immortal, the only way to kill them was to destroy their tethers with a blood spell.
Ian never brought his tether along on our hunts. For obvious reasons.
I reached the wall without seeing anything shiny. From here, I could see about four feet in any direction before darkness bled into the light. Looked like a standard cave to me—not that I’d been in many caves.
Only there was something on the wall that wasn’t standard. Marks not made by weather and water and time. Curves, squiggles, dots and hash marks arranged in slanting rows, drawn with something dark and maroon-tinged that was probably blood. I couldn’t make sense of it, but Ian could.
It was djinn writing.
“Ian, get over here.” I spoke low, knowing he’d hear me and hoping there wasn’t anyone else around to listen. A tingling sensation prickled the back of my neck, and I backed away from the wall. The marks weren’t recent—but they shouldn’t have been there at all.
I blinked, and he was next to me. He noticed before I had to tell him. Cursing in djinn, he reached out and brushed fingertips across the nearest line. “Ward spells,” he said. “They are no longer active. And here…” His hand trailed down a few lines. “A warning.”
“It says, ‘Beware the deceiver’. I cannot make out the rest.”
“Terrific. Who wrote it?”
Ian gave me a dry look. “How should I know?”
“Make a guess, then.” The tingling on my neck crawled down my spine, and a breeze whispered over me. A warm breeze. From the back of the cave. I turned and squinted into the blackness, saw shadows painted on shadows.
One of them moved. Something flashed briefly, a yellow glint in the dark.
“Oh, shit,” I breathed. “Ian. I found it.”
A figure oozed silently from the shadows. The bracelet wasn’t lying around the cave—it was on the wrist of the Morai who owned it.
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