Home > Mist and Magic (Death Before Dragons #0.5)

Mist and Magic (Death Before Dragons #0.5)
Author: Lindsay Buroker

1

The autumn fog was so thick that I almost stepped on the body sprawled across the dock before I saw it. The extremely large body.

Leathery skin, yarn-like yellow hair, a club still gripped in his sausage fingers. Ogre.

Worry for the friend I’d come to check on churned in my gut, but I tamped down the emotions and groped for professional detachment. I was an assassin and killed bad guys for a living. This wasn’t the first corpse I’d seen. It wasn’t even the first corpse I’d seen this week.

“No big deal,” I reassured myself.

Except it was the first corpse I’d seen located twenty feet from the boat my best friend lived aboard.

“Michael,” I murmured, drawing Fezzik—my magically-enhanced compact submachine pistol—from my thigh holster, “what have you gotten yourself into?”

I listened for voices or anything out of the ordinary as I scanned the area, searching for whoever had killed the ogre. But the dense fog muted the lights along the docks, leaving hundreds of shadows—hundreds of hiding spots.

Beyond the breakwater, Puget Sound lay quiet, and waves barely lapped against the boats in the marina. If anyone had been stirring nearby, I would have heard them.

My sixth sense told me more than my eyes or ears. Thanks to my half-elven blood, I could detect magical artifacts as well as the auras of magical beings. The ogre didn’t register, so I knew he was dead without checking for a pulse, but something at the end of the dock where Michael’s boat was moored tickled my senses. The various enchanted trinkets he’d found during his years as a treasure hunter were familiar, but there was something else. Something alive inside.

It wasn’t Michael. He was a full-blooded mundane human and didn’t have a detectable aura. This was something else, something I’d never encountered before.

I wanted to investigate, but I opened my phone’s flashlight app to check the body first. As much as I worried about my friend—corpses at one’s front door were rarely a good omen—I didn’t want to barge into what was likely trouble without knowing as much as I could.

The ogre had died on his back, and I didn’t see any knife wounds or bullet holes on his torso or neck, but blood had seeped out from under his back and darkened the dock. I crouched and touched it. The blood had chilled but not yet dried. This hadn’t happened long ago.

I holstered Fezzik and set my phone aside as I wondered if I could roll the nine-foot-tall ogre over to look at his back. My elven heritage gave me more strength than the average woman, and my six feet in height gave me long arms to use as levers, but ogres were typically three hundred pounds or more. And this guy didn’t look like he’d been on a diet.

Careful not to grunt or make noise, I gripped the ogre’s shaggy yellow hair and lifted his head, then crouched to use my legs and heave at the shoulder. My muscles strained, but his torso lifted off the ground.

A clunk and scrape came from underneath the ogre. Bracing him with my body so he didn’t thump back down, I grabbed my phone and shined the light under him. The dock was drenched in blood, but I didn’t see what had made the clunk until I lifted the light to the ogre’s back. The long wooden handle of a kama knife stuck out of it, the curving sickle-like blade sunken deep.

It was one of Michael’s weapons. I bit my lip, debating if I should remove it, lest it be used to identify him as the killer. It wasn’t like the Seattle PD—or any police department in the world—acknowledged that magical beings took refuge on Earth or worried about justice for them, but there were clans of ogres around the city who might come to avenge their fallen brother.

I wiggled the weapon out. I had little doubt that Michael had been defending himself, but if there hadn’t been any witnesses—and even if there had been—it would be hard to reason with irate ogres.

Stepping back, I let the body thump back down. An urge to protect my friend came over me, even though I didn’t yet know what this was about, and I was tempted to roll it into the water so nobody would find it.

“Better talk to Michael first,” I whispered, pulling out the rag I used to clean my other weapon—a magical longsword I’d dubbed Chopper—to wipe down his kama before tucking it in my belt.

I jumped past the ogre and continued to the boat. As I was about to hop onto the gangplank, footsteps thudded on the other end of the dock. Running footsteps coming from the parking lot.

Grimacing, I hoped an enemy approached instead of the person who’d called earlier and asked me to meet her down here. There hadn’t been time yet to figure out what had happened.

A figure came into view, gray and indistinct in the fog. A flashlight beam punctured the mist, moving around like a lightsaber as the person ran.

“Julie?” I crouched and gripped Fezzik in case it wasn’t.

The figure halted. “Val?”

“Yeah.” I lowered my firearm. “Be careful. There’s a dead ogre on the dock.”

“A what? Is Michael okay?”

“An ogre. And I’m not sure yet. I don’t think he’s here.” If he was here, he might be unconscious or dead. It was hard to imagine him leaving his weapon in the back of a fallen enemy and going to bed.

Julie Kwon came closer, gingerly maneuvering around the ogre. Her dyed blonde hair stood out now that she was a few steps away.

“Where else could he be?” Julie stared at me, her dark eyes wide. “He hasn’t come to visit the family for more than a week. When we asked him to come to dinner yesterday, he said he’d found the clue of a lifetime and couldn’t make it. Now today, he’s not answering his phone at all. I’m afraid he’s gotten himself in trouble.” Her tone turned anguished when she added, “Again.”

Her lips pressed together tightly as she looked from my combat boots to the pistol in my hand to my belt filled with ammo pouches to my black leather duster jacket. The blonde braid dangling over my shoulder was my only nod to femininity, at least when I was working.

I braced myself for Julie to add that Michael had never gotten into trouble or known about the magical world until he’d met me. I never knew what to say to that. It was because of me—because of a mission Michael had followed me on where we’d chanced across an ancient dwarven text about relics—that he’d learned of priceless artifacts brought to Earth over the centuries by magical visitors and refugees. But it wasn’t as if I’d told him to turn away from his finance job to become a treasure hunter. I’d specifically told him not to do that. Numerous times. When mundane humans got involved with magical beings, it rarely went well.

“You never should have given him that book,” Julie said, as if she were reading my mind. But she was as human as Michael and had no telepathic powers. Blaming me was just what she did.

“I didn’t give it to him. He found it when he was with me.”

“You could have taken it from him. You’re a damn ex-military thug. I know you could have.”

I didn’t point out that Michael was ex-military too—that was how I’d met him—since I knew what she meant. Michael had been a financial-management technician, and I’d been dragged away from my pilot MOS as soon as the army found out I healed five times faster than a regular human. The special training and missions that had ensued meant Julie was right. I was a professional thug.

“I’m checking on him,” Julie said, waving away whatever further criticisms she wanted to fling.

It wasn’t as if I hadn’t heard them all before. But this time, with Michael in trouble, they stung more than usual. The truth always hurt.

I caught Julie before she could step on the gangplank. “There’s someone or something magical inside. I’ll check on him.”

“Fine.” She waved for me to go first.

I walked the short gangplank to the narrow deck of the boat. The yacht, Michael always insisted on calling it, but the one-room cabin with the bed in a glorified cabinet in the back did not inspire such lofty labels from me.

In the dark, I almost missed the blood splotches on the railing and deck. The ogre’s blood, I hoped. Not Michael’s.

I drew Fezzik and inched toward the door. Out at West Point, the foghorn blew, and I barely kept from jumping.

The cabin door was closed but not locked. I paused with my hand on the latch. The magical being I’d sensed inside was still there, and it had moved. Before, it had been near the front of the cabin, but now, it was in the back. Hiding in the cubby that held the bed?

The gangplank creaked behind me. Julie.

“Wait out here.” I held up a hand. “Behind that post in case there’s a firefight.”

Julie hesitated, expression mulish for a moment, but she decided to obey. She climbed off the gangplank and crouched down behind the post.

I reached for a charm-filled leather thong around my neck and tapped a magical trinket that would camouflage me from sight, smell, and magical senses. I tugged the latch open, staying behind the door in case someone fired—or cast magic—out.

Nothing happened. The magical being didn’t move.

After waiting a few seconds, I was about to head in, but I sensed something else. Out in the water, more magical beings came within range of my senses. Unlike the one in Michael’s boat, these had familiar auras. There were several trolls and… I frowned with abrupt suspicion. An ogre.

They seemed to be on a boat out past the breakwater, but I couldn’t make out its outline. If it had running lights, the fog was too dense for me to see them—or they had them turned off because they were hiding.

Was that where the ogre had come from? A boat that had come in close enough to deposit him, and perhaps others, to kidnap Michael? Or kill him?

“Are you inside?” Julie whispered loudly, unable to see me now that I’d activated my charm.

I rolled my eyes, wishing I’d warned her to stay quiet. This was why I never worked with a partner.

I resisted the urge to ignore her, since she might come to check if I did. “Checking now. Stay there and don’t move or talk. There are trolls and another ogre out on a boat.”

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