Den of Thieves – Shannon Mayer

A teeny tiny speck in the air a mile or so ahead of us was the only indication of Lila scoping out the land. While she was a dragon, and a monstrous foe when she wanted to be, more often than not, she stayed in her smaller form where she had a wingspan of two and a half, maybe three feet, at best. Weighing in at six pounds and able to get in and out of tight spots, she only pulled out the big guns—her I’m so big I could carry a horse if I wanted to size—when necessary. I watched closely as she slowed over a spot in the desert I couldn’t see, spiraling to the ground with a flash of blue scales, then as quickly as a bolt from a crossbow, shot into the air. Hovering there, she didn’t move, didn’t shift into her larger form. Nor did she fly back our way. So not too scary but intriguing enough to stay where she was and watch . whatever it was she was observing. “What’s going on?” I muttered. Balder jigged under me, snorting and then tossing his head, his lightly dappled gray coat damp with nervous sweat. I stroked a hand down his neck, picking up on his rising energy. Or maybe he was picking up on mine. While he might have looked like just a horse, he was in fact, a unicorn minus the horn.

No. Really, my horse was a freaking unicorn. I’d only recently discovered that, and I had to admit all the signs had been there for years. I’d just ignored them. Speed like no other, quicker recovery time, intelligence that was on par with any person I knew. That and he had his own brand of magic, the ability to gift others with skillsets they otherwise wouldn’t have. Basically, he was a gem in all the ways possible. I patted his neck again and narrowed my eyes as Lila continued to circle around whatever it was she’d come across. “What do you think?” Maks’s rumble soothed any worries that bubbled under my skin, and my heart rate immediately eased. I glanced at him. Messy blond hair that brushed the back of his neck, blue eyes, solid body, soft lips, and a strong jaw. More than that, good heart, gentle hands, and so damn smart, it made me want to throw my clothes at him.

His hands rested lightly on his horse’s neck, scratching Batman gently as he kept his eyes on Lila ahead of us. Batman—yes, I know it’s a strange name, some would even say dumb for a horse, but I didn’t name him and he came when called, so there you have it—stretched his neck and nipped at Balder who just ignored him. “We knew the quiet wouldn’t last. I thought we’d have till we reached the Blackened Market.” I thought about the last two weeks, about the slow ride south as we headed to the last known location of the dragon eggs we were tracking. About the lazy mornings, and the lovemaking when Lila was off hunting, the laughter as the fire crackled late into the night and the joy in being free of fear for a little bit. Then again, there were things that made me jumpy, like the croak of a frog, or the rumble of distant thunder. Things that made me tense when they came upon us, because in the past, those things had been deadly. I shook my head, clearing it of the thoughts that rolled through me. “Let’s check it out.

She’s not too worried by the looks of it.” I gave Balder a cue to step out, and he went right into a quick trot. “Eager much?” I leaned back and gave him a scratch on the hip. Feisty and always ready to run at top speed, he was ready to gallop to Lila if I so much as leaned forward. I sat back farther, slowing him just a bit. There was no rush. If this was the end of our quiet, I wanted to enjoy the moment. Such as it was. As we drew closer to Lila, I could make out the object on the ground. Or more accurately, the creature.

Hunched over on itself, I could make out spotted hide, a short tail, limbs that were powerful but squat, and I found myself reaching for a weapon I no longer had to deal with a creature that every lion hated. Hyenas. Or, in this case, one hyena. But why had Lila flown away like she had, straight up as if she were afraid? A single hyena was no match for Lila. Before I could call out to my winged sister-friend, she swept our way on a down draft, fanned her wings and landed on the pommel of my saddle, gripping it with glittering sharp claws, balancing easily. “Her wit’s as thick as a Tewkesbury mustard. And she’s freaky as shit,” she said, then patiently waited with her eyes bright. “Zam?” I shook my head. “Let Maks try first. It’s not fair to show him up every time.

” Lila snickered and stretched her neck and head toward Maks. Maks tapped a hand on his thigh, drumming his fingers. “I should know that one. It sounds familiar. Have you used it before?” I gave him another ten seconds before I answered. It was our game. Drop an insult from Shakespeare and have one of the others guess the literary source. Lila and I were rarely stumped. Maks, on the other hand, was still trying to catch us. “Henry IV.

Lila, do you mean to say the hyena talked to you?” You see, there were shifter hyenas in the desert, but they tended to be larger than the average hyena, at least triple the size and weight. This hyena we were closing in on was smaller than the average hyena, not larger. “I mean, yes, sort of. But that isn’t what’s freaky. I’ll let you decide that for yourself.” Lila crawled onto my shoulder and wrapped her tail around my neck for balance. “I mean . really freaky.” Great. Just what we were not looking for.

A freaky assed hyena that talked. We closed the distance to twenty feet and then I pulled up short. The last thing I wanted was one of the horses getting bit. I slid off Balder’s back and reached for a couple of my smaller knives I kept strapped to my body. One on my left thigh and one pressed against my lower back in a sheath that Maks had made for me on this trip. “Hyena, do you speak?” I approached the creature slowly, knees bent, muscles tensed and ready to send me in any direction. I stopped ten feet away. The hyena shuddered and rolled to face me, showing off her belly in a move that was as submissive as could be. “Don’t kill me,” she said and then giggled hard and fast, maniacal. “Killing me would be bad for you, bad for your mate, bad for your sister.

” Her coat flickered as though she had something crawling around inside of her, the flesh bulging and then receding over and over again, all over her. “Freaky ass shit indeed.” I didn’t take a step closer. “Hyena, what ails you?” Her whole body shivered. “The beast is taking its dues, and all those who walk on four legs will be called home.” “Tewkesbury mustard,” Lila muttered in my ear. “Nutty.” “Is it nutty?” I’d never had mustard by that name; I had no idea. Lila leaned forward. “Hyena, do you mean us harm?” The hyena kept shivering.

“No, no, I am . a warning to all who pass through these lands into the east. Taken from you, the powers will be humbled to the ground, spells are cast, a new power rises, there is no escaping the touch of the beast. He comes for the west.” I found myself crouching so her eyes were level with mine. Sharp intelligence stared back at me, eyes far too human for any creature who was animal alone. “Are you a shaman?” “Was, I was. I ran, and ran, but the power caught me and trapped me as this, but not before it shoved me full of death. I am dying. I am, and so I warn you.

Bright ones, go wary into the desert of the east, go wary or don’t go at all.” Another shiver and her fur bulged, cracks appearing here and there. “Do you wish me to end it?” She shook her head. “You killed the son of the Emperor, the magician. I saw it in my dreams. I saw you right the balance of the western desert. But there is always a power waiting to take the reins. That power rises now. Bright ones, this power is dark, far darker than the magician’s magic. His was made of manipulation, of turning hearts against hearts, of trickery.

” She drew a shuddering breath. “This one . his is naught but death. And you . if you walk into the east, you will find more than you bargain for. Beware, the north will test you.” I glanced at Maks who’d crept closer. We both were eye level with the hyena who writhed at our feet, whimpering between her words. I opened my mouth to ask her a question, but she cut me off with a yipping cry. “My death will come, but I give you what words I can.

He gathers an army. He will take the east and the west if he is not stopped.” Pain-filled eyes locked on mine. “Do you understand, Zamira, guardian of the desert? Do you understand, Lila, guardian of the skies? Do you understand, Maks, guardian of the bright ones?” I nodded. Lila nodded. Maks nodded. A sigh slid from her. “Then I have warned you. Will you go on?” I didn’t need to look at my friends to know that answer. “This beast, he will come for the west? That’s what you’re saying?” “Yes,” she whispered and shuddered again.

“I escaped him. I knew I’d find you here before the Blackened Market. I saw it in my dreams. You have a chance now. Seek out an army of your own, and you will face him on the fields of poppies. The flowers will hide the blood that rains upon the ground.” Her skin popped in several places and a sigh slid out of her as if air from a balloon was being released. As we watched, her skin and bones seemed to melt, sinking into the dry desert ground, the sand soaking in everything she was until there was nothing, not even a mark to claim her passing. I stared at that spot and wrinkled my nose as I whispered a quiet prayer for her passing. “Time’s really up for us then.

” Lila snorted and tightened her hold on my shoulder. “Well, if that isn’t a start to a shitty day, I’m not sure what is.”

.

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