“What should we do with the bodies, Captain?” Lock asked. He was a short man and older, his beard turning gray. His years at sea showed in his weathered skin and swollen knuckles.
Danny and Jost stared at the five bodies on the ground. It was tempting to give the order to leave them be. To let the elements and scavengers that wandered this rocky outpost have them.
That would be folly. Too many predators would be attracted to their deaths and could track Jost and his men back to their camp. Jost had no wish to fend off an attack from the type of creature up here that was likely to be drawn to the blood.
Danny’s face reflected the same conclusion.
“We’ll have to bury or burn them,” Danny said, looking at Jost. He didn’t sound thrilled at his own suggestion.
“We can’t burn them; the smoke would announce our position for miles. I’m not ready for our quarry to know that we killed their men.”
The men gave the ground a skeptical glance. Digging a grave in this place would take hours. The ground in this part of the world never fully defrosted. The permafrost would make the work nearly as difficult as digging through rock. They also lacked the required equipment, such as shovels, to dig with.
Rocks skated down one side of the ravine. Jost twisted in time to see a small face framed by wild hair the color of fire right before its owner disappeared.
“We’re not alone,” Jost said, his gaze locked to where the hair had shown so brightly moments before.
“Our watcher is a woman,” Danny murmured, sounding dumbstruck.
Lock spit on the ground. “Could be a trap. A Creator’s spawn attempting to lure us into its lair.”
Rick nodded. “There’ve been stories of creatures wearing the face of a beautiful woman with the body of a hideous monster that have enticed men to their deaths.”
Jost kept his thoughts on the watcher to himself. He didn’t think the woman was hiding a monster’s body under that tangle of hair, but he’d seen stranger things up here in the North.
A coughing roar built in the air, echoing off the boulders. It was a sound meant to remind man that once upon a time he had feared the dark and the things that waited out there.
Lock stood from where he’d been examining the bodies and looked up.
Danny looked at Jost. “Snow cat.”
“Get away from the bodies,” Jost shouted.
The men scattered, moving away in a hurry. Jost looked up as a snow cat landed on a rock outcropping above them.
A curse tore out of him. Its size alone was enough to strike fear into a man. That didn’t even take into account the teeth it bared or the roar it made. A scream sounded from behind them.
Jost spun. A smaller animal crept toward them. Its fur was gray and slightly longer around its neck. Its nose was long and its eyes black. Its lips were wrinkled and pulled back to expose a set of sharp fangs.
Jost didn’t know what it was, but its eyes moved between Jost’s men and the snow cat above them.
A throaty growl threatened the new comer. It hissed back, darting for the leg of a dead man. It ripped at it trying to drag the body with it.
The snow cat sailed over Jost and his men, landing in a crouch before the new creature. It swiped at it.
Jost didn’t wait around to see the outcome of the fight. “Let’s go.”
He and his men weren’t adequately armed to fight a snow cat. That creature was best trapped and then dealt with. In the open, with no preparation and few weapons, facing one would be suicide.
There was a low whistle from his left. A pair of bright eyes peered out from a hole in the rock and a hand beckoned.
Jost made a snap decision.
“In there.” He gestured the rest of his men forward. The snow cat finally took note of its escaping prey and bounded at him in great leaps. Its adversary took advantage, snatching the body it had grabbed before and taking off in the opposite direction. The body’s limbs bounced and flopped as the creature made its escape.
The last of Jost’s men made it into the opening. He followed, the snow cat’s breath practically on the back of his neck. He slid into the crevasse, the snow cat’s paw following and swiping at air. He edged back, trying to avoid the reaching paw and the claws attached to it.
The paw drew back and there was a chuff of frustration before the cat tried to reach back in. Jost easily dodged, moving further into the cave he’d slid into.
His men watched the entrance with hard expressions, trying to gauge whether the snow cat could squeeze inside. Jost didn’t feel the same fear. That hole had been too small for the snow cat to fit its body through and was lined with a hard rock on either side. The animal wouldn’t be able to dig its way inside.
There was a snarl and then the sound of the snow cat ambling away in pursuit of a meal less likely to run away.
“Captain,” Danny said in a soft voice.
Jost turned. Danny was staring at the middle of the cave wall. The woman sat several feet above the ground on the edge of a tunnel. To Jost, the tunnel looked similar to the craftsmanship of the tunnels under Aurelia, the capital city of the Aurelian Empire.
Jost couldn’t tell how tall the woman was from her seated position. Her hair was a mass of snarled copper and her eyes green. She was pale and the bones of her face gaunt like she had skipped more than a couple of meals. Her clothes seemed to be made of a snow cat’s fur and she smelled worse than one too.
Danny didn’t wait for Jost.
“Hey there, little one. What’s your name?” he asked in soft voice.
She cocked her head but didn’t respond.
“I’m Danny. This is my friend Jost. Thank you for helping us.”
Still no response other than an intense stare. She seemed curious about them but cautious.
Smart girl. Most of the men likely to visit this isolated edge of the world weren’t the type to be kind to a girl they found wandering around, even if she had very well saved their lives.
Jost took a small step forward.
Her gaze snapped to him. A low growl came from her. Tension coiled in her muscles as she prepared to spring away.
He halted where he was and held up his hands as if to say he was harmless.
“It’s alright,” Danny said in a soothing voice. “We’re not here to hurt you. We just want to talk.”
Her eyes narrowed. The green in them chips of ice as she frowned at them. It was clear she didn’t understand a word they were saying.
“Captain, let’s not make her feel threatened.” There was the slightest hint of steel in Danny’s voice.
Jost looked over at him with a raised eyebrow. The expression asking without words who did Danny think he was to be giving his captain orders?
Danny’s face was implacable as he shot Jost a glance that warned him away.
Jost had forgotten Danny’s biggest weakness. Women. Specifically women who reminded him of the sister he had lost when he was just beginning to be a man. Anytime he came across one in need of rescuing he tried to save them even if the cost to himself was incredibly steep.
Jost thought about pushing the issue. He might be able to move fast enough to grab the girl before she disappeared into that tunnel. It would be a stretch of his abilities. The girl had the look of a feral animal willing to do whatever necessary to ensure its survival. Her reflexes would send her fleeing as soon as she felt the slightest hint of a threat.
He relaxed and took a step back.
Then again, Danny coaxing her down would mean they could avoid the possibility of chasing her through tunnels that might be nearly as endless as the ones under Aurelia. That would suck time he didn’t have away from his other focuses. He’d do it Danny’s way for now.
“How long have you been here?” Danny asked, his voice having the soothing cadence of someone trying to put a wild animal at ease. It wasn’t so much about what he said rather than the tone he said it in.
It appeared to be working too. The girl lowered herself back to a seated position and some of the tension eased out of her.
Danny took a chance and stepped forward, his hands held up in front of him to make him seem less threatening. Given that Danny was the size of a mountain, Jost wasn’t sure how convincing that was.
The girl tensed but didn’t react otherwise.
“How did a girl survive up here?” one of the men asked in a whisper. The girl’s eyes flicked to him and then back to Danny. “Has to be a creator’s spawn.”
The girl’s head tilted and she leaned forward. One slim arm lifted, her sleeve falling back as she swiped a piece of hair back from her face. Jost jolted forward at the sight of the flash of color on her arm.
She was on her feet in a flash, a snarl escaping her and a piece of bone clasped in her hand.
“Captain,” Danny hissed.
“I know.” Jost forced himself to take a step backward despite every instinct in him fighting to tackle the girl so he could get a better look at what was on her arm. That would be a mistake. If what he suspected was on that arm, this girl could end up being the most dangerous thing in the Northern Reaches.
In a low voice, Jost asked, “Can you get a better look at her forearm?”
Jost couldn’t get a good look at it from where he stood. What he could see was the piece of bone clutched in her hand that was curved and sharpened to a razor edge. It tapered into a blunt knob that she could clutch in the palm of her hand. It looked like an oversize claw. If his suspicions were correct, a claw would probably appeal to her if the feral light in her eyes was any indication.
“I see it.” Danny sounded grim. “Shit.”
There was a loud bang at the cave’s entrance, distracting them for just a moment. The girl slipped away, sliding into the dark tunnel behind her before they could stop her.
Jost and Danny rushed forward at the same time. Jost reached the cave wall seconds before Danny. He leapt and grasped the ledge of the tunnel, hoisting himself up and peering down the long dark tunnel.
A shadowy passage greeted him; the girl long gone.
He stood and peered into the darkness. Danny joined him.
“Damn it,” Jost swore. He ran a hand through his hair, fighting the urge to punch something.
Just what he needed.
“So the girl got away,” Lock said. “What’s the big deal? We’ve got more important things to deal with right now. Starting with our guest heading to the ship.”
He was wrong. That girl had just changed the entire purpose of their mission up here.
“She had a dragon tattoo on her arm,” Danny said into the silence.
His men stared at one another, shock on their faces. None seemed to know what to do with that information.
“Are you sure?” Rick asked.
Danny didn’t bother answering. He wouldn’t have said anything if he wasn’t sure.
“It could just be a tattoo,” Lock said, his face serious. “There hasn’t been a dragon in over a hundred years and never one that bonded with a girl.”
“Only one way to be sure,” Jost said. “We’ll have to capture her and take her back with us.”
“Capture a dragon-ridden?” Lock’s question made it clear he questioned Jost’s sanity. The dragon-ridden were extremely dangerous, capable of becoming the dragon they were bound to and possessing all of the dragon’s strengths.
“What about our guest and the other mission?”
There was a long pause.
“This takes priority.” The words burned Jost’s throat. His vengeance would have to wait until he sorted out the mess with the girl. Her existence could light a wildfire that consumed the world.
Even though everything in him screamed for the vengeance that was rightfully his, Jost couldn’t ignore this. His parents hadn’t raised him to be that kind of man. Even though he had left the person they raised behind, there were just some things that he couldn’t justify doing. Breaking his commitments was one of them.
Sometimes being in service to the empire took all the pleasure out of life.