Home > Elven Doom (Death Before Dragons #4)(10)

Elven Doom (Death Before Dragons #4)(10)
Author: Lindsay Buroker

There are more dead behind the counter. Sindari walked around it and stopped. These shifters had an opportunity to change fully. It did not matter.

Three lions, an ocelot, and two cougars lay in more of a stack than a heap. Someone had arranged them back there, just as the bodies above had all been tidily turned to face inward, hip to hip.

This happened more than a day ago, Sindari said.

How could nobody have discovered them? This isn’t the whole pride. You’d think others would have been by.

Maybe they were warned not to come. Maybe they were afraid to come.

I pulled the topmost cougar off the stack. The shifters were heavy. It would have taken the strength of an ogre or a troll to hoist the others up to the beam and arrange them tidily. Strength or magic.

Again, I thought of Dobsaurin, but his work had been more grisly. Messier.

The cougar’s eyeballs were missing, and the tongue was slit down the center. A single hole had been cut in the chest with surgical precision, and the heart was missing. The others on the floor had been killed in the same way. Or mutilated in the same way. Something else could have killed them first. Poison? Tranquilizers? Magic? It was hard to imagine even a powerful magic user forcing the powerful shifters to hold still while this went on.

I can’t tell from down here if the others suffered the same fate. Sindari gazed toward the batch dangling from the beam.

Me either. I don’t want to climb up there or try to get them down to check.

I am a little disappointed that our enemies are already dead and we will not get to do battle with them.

I’m disappointed that we won’t be able to question them.

Whoever took their hearts ensured they cannot be temporarily raised by a dead-waker for that purpose.

Does it? Interesting.

Whether that was the motivation, Sindari said, I do not know, but these shifters will not speak again.

Which meant we’d wasted our time coming up here. Another dead end.

I took a few photos, in case Willard or one of her researchers would recognize the significance of the mutilations.

A clatter came from the direction of the doorway. I whirled and drew Chopper.

Do you sense anyone, Sindari?

No.

Neither did I.

We will find out who has followed us in. Sindari strode in the direction of the noise.

If it was whoever had killed all those shifters, I wasn’t sure I wanted to find out.

7

Making sure my cloaking charm was active, I followed Sindari out of the kitchen area with Chopper at the ready. My ears and eyes were alert, but the noise hadn’t repeated itself.

The roll-up door came into view, still open. The smell of rain drifted in, making me think the entrance door to the building, the one I’d closed, was also open.

Split up, I thought to Sindari, then headed one way along an exterior wall as he went the other way.

The crates impeded our view of all the big room’s nooks and crannies, but I doubted whoever was here would be easy to spot anyway.

The faint smell of cat behind me was my only warning that someone had chanced close enough to see through my camouflage.

I whirled as an orange male tiger sprang toward my head. Reflexively, I slashed Chopper toward his belly and sprang to the side.

He twisted in the air to avoid my attack, the blade skimming his fur but not digging in. Claws slashed for my face, but I dodged too quickly for him. As he sailed past for his landing, I leaped in behind him, slicing into his flank.

Snarling, the tiger whirled and lunged for me, coming in low. I leaped straight up and thrust Chopper downward like a pole vaulter. The blade plunged into his neck, severing his spine.

A roar came from the other side of the room. Sindari had found another shifter, a man in human form with the tawny hair of a lion.

No sooner had I taken a step toward them to help than two shifters rushed close enough for me to see through whatever magic cloaked them. And they saw through my cloaking magic.

The big male in the lead was still in human form and carried a machine gun. The other shifter was a few steps behind, transforming into a black panther as he ran.

“You dare kill them and come back here to gloat!” the man roared, aiming the machine gun at me.

An instant before he opened fire, I dove under a nearby pool table. I rolled into a squat on the other side, keeping my head below the surface. His bullets rained down on the cement floor where I’d been and ricocheted in a dozen directions. Others pounded into the wood of the pool table.

Staying low, I switched from Chopper to Fezzik and fired under the table at his legs. One of my magical bullets left a crimson trail in the air as it cut through the dim lighting and slammed into his shin. He screeched and stopped firing, stumbling back.

His buddy, now fully formed into a panther, leaped over the table. He would have landed on me, but I scrambled under the table again and came up on the other side.

“I didn’t kill your friends!” I yelled, though I doubted they cared.

The injured man roared and jerked the machine gun toward me again. Aware of the panther springing over the table at me again, I leaped behind a stack of crates for cover. Another hailstorm of bullets pounded from the gun, splinters flying as they hit the crates.

His gun jammed, and I leaned out to return fire. The panther came at me like a locomotive. I poured rounds into his chest, enough to kill him. Or so I thought.

He landed in front of me, yellow eyes enraged, claws slashing for my gut. I sprang back to the wall but clipped one of the crates, and pain blasted from my shoulder as those claws sliced through my duster and the flesh underneath. Back to the wall, I fired straight into his face.

I’m coming, Val, Sindari called, and I glimpsed him leaping over the pool table and tackling the machine-gun wielder.

My bullets finished off the panther before he could strike me again. His legs gave out, and he sank to the floor as I scooted away from him.

As I turned Fezzik toward the man Sindari was grappling with, I glimpsed his first foe across the room, groaning and grabbing his bleeding chest. He appeared out of the fight, but when he saw me, he snarled and reached into his jacket for something.

A gun? No. A grenade.

I tried to fire at him before he could throw it, but Sindari’s fight shifted, putting him and the other shifter in the way. By the time I rushed into the clear, the grenade was hurtling toward us. I aimed, making myself take a half second to ensure my sights were tracking it precisely, and fired.

My bullet smashed into the grenade, knocking it from its trajectory. It exploded near a wall, tearing a hole to the outside. A gust of cool, damp air rushed in.

The machine-gun wielder screamed, then was cut off, Sindari’s jaw sinking down onto his throat. His gun fell from his hands and clanked to the floor.

Trusting Sindari to finish off the man, I rushed to the wounded one, both to ensure he wouldn’t throw more grenades, and because I wanted answers.

When I reached him, he was half transformed into his lion form, tawny hair rippling from human arms, claws extending from fingers. But blood puddled underneath him, his body torn in a dozen places by Sindari’s claws, and he struggled to fully change.

“Change back.” I switched Fezzik for Chopper and rested the sword against his throat.

He glared at me but slumped back to the ground, his human form returning fully. I doubted it had been my order so much as the extent of his injuries. Right now, he lacked the power to transform.

“I came to ask your people questions,” I said, “not attack anyone. I would have paid for information.”

“You… killed them all,” he panted, glancing toward the bodies strung from the beam.

“I didn’t kill anyone until you attacked us.”

“You’re in our headquarters! Again!” He spat the words in anger, and blood dribbled from the corner of his mouth.

“It’s my first time here. Your people pissed off someone else.”

“Lies.”

“The truth. You flatter me if you think I could take out so many shifters at once. And what weapon do you even see on me that would have cut out eyeballs?” I showed him Fezzik and Chopper and spread my arms, so he could see that ammo pouches were the only things on my utility belt. “You’d need a damn serrated melon baller to do that precise a job on all those people.”

He curled his bloody lip, but a hint of doubt crept into his eyes.

Sindari, his battle complete, padded over to join me.

“I bet the dark elves have such tools.” It was just a guess, but it was hard for me to imagine who else, besides dragons, could have annihilated so many shifters in their own headquarters. “You know about the dark elves?”

He clamped his mouth shut.

What was I supposed to offer him? The guy was dying.

“The Pardus brothers had a deal with the dark elves,” I said. “But I’m sure you know that. They’re the ones who gave the brothers that orb, right? Or was it a loan? Did things go badly for your people after it was destroyed?”

I decided not to mention that I had been the one to destroy it. Not many witnesses had survived that fight. It was possible the other shifters thought the dragons had destroyed it.

“They said only… they were done working with us… not that they would kill us.” His hand flexed to cover the gashes on his abdomen, as if he could stop the flow of blood.

I felt sorry for this guy—and those who’d already died—but they could have started with questions instead of trying to kill me. “Maybe you knew more than the dark elves wanted others to learn about. What are their plans? Why were they helping you and giving you tools?”

“Those who… worked with them… agreed to be… their test subjects.” He coughed and spat up more blood. “I did not. I was glad… when they left.”

“Any idea where they went?”

“No. I wouldn’t tell you… even if I knew.”

I doubt he knows, Sindari said. Not if they all thought you were responsible for this. These minions weren’t invited into the hunters’ thicket with the leaders.

I eyed the bodies again. I don’t think any of the shifters truly were.

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