Home > Tangled Truths (Death Before Dragons #3)

Tangled Truths (Death Before Dragons #3)
Author: Lindsay Buroker

1

The alien squeals, twangs, and buzzes that reverberated through the unmarked alley door sounded more like a wrecker flattening cars in a junkyard than music. Two dumpsters overflowing with bags of decomposing food, coffee filters, and used bathroom-cleaning supplies stood to either side of the entrance. A rat scurried out from behind one dumpster on its way to the other, dragging a rotting fish head in its mouth.

“Are you sure this is the right place?” I asked Nin, friend, food-truck owner, and the craftswoman who’d made the magical submachine pistol—Fezzik, I’d named it—that I carried in my thigh holster.

My finger wasn’t far from the trigger now. On the way in, we’d spotted a massive clawed footprint in a dusting of spilled flour sticking to brown goo on the cracked pavement. I checked to make sure my magical longsword, Chopper, was loose in my back scabbard, the hilt within reach behind my shoulder.

Nin nodded, her blue pigtails flopping. “This is where I’m meeting my client. Did you not say you had been here before?”

Her soft precise English was barely audible over the music and the cars honking on the nearby Capitol Hill street. It was almost ten, but it was a warm rain-free summer night, and Seattle wasn’t bedding down yet.

“Yeah,” I said. “That’s why I’m asking if you’re sure it’s the right place and really want to go in.”

“I must go in. I was offered a handsome delivery fee to bring the ogre hunter in person.” Nin patted a long package covered in the same brown paper she used to wrap the beef-and-rice dishes she sold from her truck. The shotgun inside, with explosive rounds designed to plow holes into the hardiest magical bad guy, oozed magic to my half-elven senses. “I need to earn every penny I can so I can help my family come to America. But you may wait outside if you’re worried that you will not be welcome.”

I snorted. I’d known I wouldn’t be welcome the second she’d proposed this, but Nin made my magical ammunition and gave me free meals. She’d looked a little worried about being asked to come here for the drop-off, so I’d volunteered to come along. If I ended up in a bar fight—or worse—so be it. Having people regularly try to kill you keeps you sharp.

“Nah, I’ll come in. This is the perfect place to test my new armor.” I opened my duster, pushed my shirt up, and slid a hand over the sleek metal mesh vest. “It’s like silk and almost as light. I love it already.”

It truly would be good to try it in a low-key situation before relying on it during a mission. I needed to know it would stop magical bullets, swords, and fangs and claws. We’d fired a few rounds at it, but I would feel better once it had been battle-tested.

“I believe you can be arrested if you are caught touching yourself like that in public.” Nin’s dark eyes crinkled.

As the crafter of the armor, she was pleased by my reaction. After four years working with her, I could tell.

“I can’t help it. If something feels nice under your fingers, it makes you want to rub it.” An image flashed into my mind of the dragon Zav, shape-shifted into his handsome human form, with his chest bared and my fingers rubbing it.

I grimaced. It had been three weeks since an enemy dragon had compelled me to kiss Zav to distract him during an impending battle, and my dreams had been ridiculously lurid since then. They were pissing me off. No arrogant asshole of a dragon should be allowed to occupy my mind, even my sleeping mind, for that many hours. Ridiculous.

“I’ll go first.” I shoved the bare chest out of my thoughts and patted Nin on the shoulder. “Way first. You better wait a minute to come in, so any shrapnel flying off me doesn’t hit you.”

“I can simply stand behind you. You are a giant wall.”

Nin was barely over five feet tall and would probably have to carry the “ogre hunter” on the scale with her to top a hundred pounds. Since I was six feet tall, that was possibly a fair thing to say, but…

“It’s not polite to call a woman giant or a wall in this country. I’m tall, lithe, dangerous, and the appropriate weight for my height.” No need to mention that I kept an inhaler in my pocket and bad air quality could take me down like a demolitions team imploding a skyscraper.

“Two of me could fit behind you.”

“Ha ha. Just stay back.” I braced myself to deal with the music—and a whole bunch of magical beings who wanted me dead—and walked through the door.

Armor-testing aside, I hoped there wouldn’t be a fight. I got paid to assassinate vile criminals, not beat up magical beings in bar fights. I wished these people would figure out that I only hunted down their kin who committed crimes, not random members of their community. But I knew better than to expect anything had changed.

As I descended the stairs to the basement establishment that had neither a name, a website, nor a phone number, the smell of booze mingling with dozens of sweaty non-human patrons hit me as hard as the music. Orcs with tusks writhed and wiggled on the cement dance floor in the middle, and green-skinned goblins sat at indestructible plastic tables along the walls. Four hulking trolls claimed stools at the bar in the back, and shifters of all sorts congregated at the axe-throwing cage, hurling hatchets at a picture of a fanged vampire that had been pinned up over the plywood target. At least it wasn’t a picture of me.

But everyone here could sense the auras of magical beings, including half-magical beings, and two dozen sets of eyes turned in my direction when I walked in.

The blue-skinned, white-haired troll owner squinted at me from the bar as he poured beer and sludge—a drink fermented from moss that orcs couldn’t get enough of. Since the music kept playing, I couldn’t hear the whispers of Ruin Bringer, Mythic Murderer, and Deathstalker, the nicknames the magical community had for me, but I could read them on their lips.

Coming here probably hadn’t been a good idea. Nin might have been safer without me. Though if everyone was focused on me, maybe she wouldn’t have to worry about being mugged while she waited for her buyer.

Two male shifters left the axe-throwing area, weaved through the orcs, and walked up to me with the predatory grace common for their kind. There was a lupine aspect to them, but that didn’t mean they hadn’t heard I’d recently taken out a bunch of lion and panther shifters from the Northern Pride.

One came to my right side and the other stopped in front of me, their proximity almost making me draw Fezzik. Dark-haired, yellow-eyed, and made of hard, sinewy muscle, the shifters were close enough that I could smell the mossy sludge on their breath.

The one in front reached for the flap of my duster, but I caught his wrist. Shifters were fast, but this guy’s reflexes weren’t up to par right now.

“It’s not for sale,” I said.

“What?” He looked at his buddy.

“The jacket.” I pushed his arm back and let go. “I’m just here for a drink.”

“This place doesn’t serve the Ruin Bringer.”

His buddy on the right was the one to lunge for me.

He was lightning fast, especially for a drunk guy, but I’d expected trouble. I sprang to the left, evading his grasp, and launched a side kick. The shifter was almost quick enough to dodge, but my heel clipped his hip and sent him spinning into two of the dancers.

An orc with saliva moistening his tusks whirled, grabbed him, and threw him onto one of the sturdy tables. The goblins around it leaped up, cursing at their spilled drinks.

The shifter in front of me started changing into a massive black wolf, his skin warping, blurring, and sprouting fur. Before he finished the transformation, I planted a front kick in his chest and sent him stumbling into the growing crowd of onlookers.

I grasped the cat-shaped figurine on my charm necklace. “Sindari,” I whispered, summoning my ally.

One of the orc dancers charged toward me as two already-transformed lion shifters sprang toward me, their roars thundering over the music.

Sindari, a great silver tiger from another realm, solidified out of a mist and intercepted the big lions. A burly half-troll the orc had been dancing with charged after him, eager to join in against me.

They reached me, fists leading. I whipped up blocks to deflect their powerful blows and threw punches whenever I had an opening. Resisting the urge to draw my weapons, I put my back to the wall by the door so nobody could get behind me. I hadn’t come to kill anybody, and I hoped the owner would break this up, if only to protect his establishment from damage.

As I traded blows with my two opponents, a part of me was exhilarated at the battle, but most of me stayed focused, gauging where the threats were in the room. Sindari was slashing and biting, keeping the lions busy, but the two wolf shifters had recovered from my kicks and were looking for an opening to lunge back in. I might have to draw Fezzik to get everyone to back off.

A click sounded, someone readying a switchblade. It was the half-troll. She rushed toward my side, knife jabbing.

Here was the opportunity to test my armor, but my instincts wouldn’t let me take the hit when I had the power to deflect it. I knocked the blade high with a block to her forearm, then sprang in, hammering a palm strike into her broad chin. As her head snapped back, I kicked the blade out of her grip. It slammed into the wood doorframe and stuck, handle quivering.

I’d turned enough to move my back from the wall, and, sensing someone reaching for me from behind, I threw another kick, this one to the rear. An inhuman yowl sounded as it connected with an orc’s nuts.

Are we killing these enemies? Sindari asked telepathically, his voice as calm as a tranquil lake as he slashed and bit, keeping the two lions from reaching me.

No, I replied in my mind. This is a bar fight, not a mission.

People are trying to kill you.

Someone across the room drew a pistol and aimed it in my direction. My opponents weren’t tall enough to block his view, so I ducked low and grabbed the switchblade out of the doorframe. The gunman fired. As the bullet slammed into the door, I sensed a blur of an enchantment to it. I almost wished I’d let that one hit me so I could test the armor, but he’d been aiming at my head, not my chest.

   
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