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Zoya hadn’t defeated the demon all by herself. It had too many henchmen for that.
But it was a hollow victory. Said artifact was sealed inside a lead-lined box, which she’d wrapped in a magic-eating cloth before shoving it into the shielded leather bag strapped behind her saddle. Zoya smiled. There was one less magical object floating around out there. Chalk one more up for the good side. And it was all thanks to her and Yan as usual.
Birds twittered from their perches high above them, announcing that at last, spring was coming. Zoya frowned at that. She and Yan had set off in late summer from the order after that stupid ceremony. What had happened to autumn and winter? The last four or five months were more than a little hazy.
Oh well, that last relic must have had a time-warping component. Zoya shrugged off the lost time. Their loss was a worthy sacrifice to get such a dangerous artifact out of the wrong hands. Besides, she’d lost time during a relic hunt before, and she would again. Such was the life of a Knight-Quester, and Zoya wouldn’t have it any other way.
Leaves crunched as their bored mounts searched for something to nibble. They picked their way over and around the massive roots that, here and there, broke through the leaf mold as the rest of the forest shook off its winter slumber.
Look bub, if you don’t bother me, I won’t bother you. Zoya thought at the bark-covered behemoths twitching their roots nearby. But she had no mind magic, so her thoughts stayed inside her head and didn’t convey themselves to the nearby trees.
The enchanted forest was always densely carpeted in leaves in varying degrees of decay. They were as dry as tinder since the spring rains hadn’t dropped by for a visit yet, and they made a too loud crackling sound every time their mounts shifted their hooves. It announced their passage to the whole forest in case it hadn’t noticed them.
The sound grated on Zoya’s nerves until her mount stepped onto a patch of still-melting snow and nibbled at it. Silence fell, but Zoya still wasn’t ready to make a decision. If spring really was springing up all around them, then they had to return to the order for that damned quarterly check-in.
“I guess you’re onto third and fourth thoughts by now, huh?” Yan said, breaking the sudden quiet that had fallen when their mounts had stopped.
“What makes you think that?” Zoya transferred her gaze from the restive tree to her left to her cousin’s face.
“Because everything’s different now.” He gave her a rueful smile.
“Is it? We’re still us. We didn’t end up possessed or insane.” At least Zoya didn’t think she had, but would she know if she were? Not a question she wanted to ponder out here in the enchanted forest where anything was possible.
“Ahem, speak for yourself.” Yan dropped his gaze to his truncated leg.
“Quiet you. I’m pontificating here. It’s been a while since I gave a rousing speech.”
In fact, Zoya wasn’t sure when she’d given the last one, but she brushed that thought aside. Time only mattered to the bureaucratic side of her order, not to a knight on a quest to rid the country of dangerous artifacts.
“By all means then, do continue.” Yan gestured for her to go on, and Zoya caught a glimpse of his old self.
“Anyway, what was I saying? We’re still good at our jobs, and we still make a great team.”
Take that, you limb-munching demon. You didn’t win. We did. But his teeth had been quite sharp, and she could live without becoming a snack for a hungry horde of demons again. Just the thought sent a shudder through Zoya even though shock blurred that whole bloody episode.
“But you can’t be a Knight-Quester anymore,” Yan was saying as she plugged back into the conversation at hand. “They’ll put you out to pasture with the old, broken-down nags.”
Would they? Zoya was one of the few women in the militant branch of their order and the only one who held any kind of rank. They can’t take this away from me. I won’t let them.
Zoya focused on Ricter’s caramel locks. It was Ricter she was riding, wasn’t it? Everything had gotten more than a bit muddled during their last job. She thought her horse had gotten a little chewed up, but he must have escaped being eaten since she was riding him, and he looked undamaged.
Zoya wound the reins around the saddlebow and ran a gloved hand over the pouch containing the relic-finder. It was still there right where it should be, and it chose that moment to vibrate against her palm ending the conversation. Thank the Holy Balance, because this wasn’t a discussion she ever wanted to have.
Zoya whipped out the knobby, arrow-shaped stone and wasn’t surprised when it showered them in a strobing, rainbow glow. It ran through the whole gamut of colors, tasting them. Each time it pulsed, it narrowed in on the magical vibration it had sensed. Every color-shift brought it closer to a positive identification until finally, the stone turned black with red streaks. It spun on her palm until it pointed left, and Zoya felt like cheering. Here, at last, was something constructive to do.
“I guess we go left then.” Yan shook his head. “Saved by a stone. I can’t believe the timing.” He nudged his steed with his knee, but his mare stayed put, waiting for her treat. “Oh, for the love of trees, I just fed you.”
“Here, I still have one.” Zoya nodded to one of her saddlebags, and Yan reached across her to search for a carrot. “Are you sure she’s not part donkey?”
“I’m convinced she is.”
The instant Yan pulled a carrot from Zoya’s saddlebag, his mount craned her neck until she could grab it, but he held it out of reach and urged her on through the melting snow and the wet leaf mold.
“Oh no, you don’t get anything until you move. Don’t make me put this carrot on a string. Lead on, cuz, before she mutinies again.”
Zoya squeezed a tad too hard through her legs to stay upright and accidentally sent her mount into a canter instead of a walk. Since no one was screaming for help, there was no reason to hurry. Most people who had magically-imbued thingamabobs wanted to keep them right where they were. Finding such items took cunning and skull-cracking.
“Any idea what we’ll find?”
Yan didn’t say it, but his eyes did—please, no more demons.
Zoya shook her head. “No clue. I’ve never seen the relic-finder turn that color before.”
Your first look at Relic Hunter will continue next week.
If you’re looking for:
√ badass heroines (and villains) with brains, blades, and humor
√ a fantasy adventure filled with side switching, double-crossing and magical mayhem
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