Every step Logantook on the path eased his tension. Up here he didn’t have to deal with his sisters; he didn’t have to guard himself against a city full of humans and the press of their energy against his mind’s protective barrier; and since his brother wasn’t here, he didn’t have to worry about Kel either.
There was still his job. Logan touched the cell phone at his waist. No troubleshooter could be out of touch without getting it cleared by the council, and because he wasn’t sure what kind of service he’d have as he hiked up this mountain trail, he’d warned them. If they couldn’t reach him normally, they’d use telepathy, but he was hoping for a quiet day.
Nature was cooperating. It was a perfect June afternoon. The sun was shining, the temperature hovered in the mid-seventies, and the most dangerous thing he’d run into was a grouse. Logan figured the bears and cougars should give him a wide berth, and if they didn’t, he’d use his magic to transport them somewhere else.
If only it were that easy to get rid of the people out here with him. He’d passed a few groups earlier and the fact that they were behind him kept him from completely relaxing.
Sometimes Logan wondered if wariness of humans was hardwired into the Gineal. It wasn’t as if he didn’t understand that there were good and bad people, and he’d never had any kind of run- in that would account for his distrust, but it was there anyway.
The narrow trail took him up the slope, past wildflowers and fallen trees bleached ash gray by the sun. Logan breathed deeply, soaking in the clean air, but he didn’t stop walking—not until he rounded the bend. Through a break in the pines, he could see mountains tumbling off into the distance beneath an electric blue sky.
Reaching for his water, he absorbed the beauty of the panorama laid out before him. This trail was rated as difficult, but coming here had been worth it. He uncapped the bottle and drank. Even after he stowed it away again, he didn’t move, not immediately.
Muscles that had been tight for months slackened and a soul- deep peace spread through him. With a last glance, Logan continued on. From everything he’d read, there were better views farther up the track and he wanted to reach the summit before the humans caught up with him.
The path was clogged with vegetation and trees again, but as he hit another switchback, the incline leveled out. He picked up his speed, eager to reach the top where he could look out and see forever—or at least into Canada.
An arm went around his neck from behind, taking him by surprise.
He’d relaxed too much, damn it.
Logan forced his fingers between his throat and his attacker’s arm, broke free from the hold, and turned, expecting to take on a human who thought he’d found an easy mark.
One glance had him scrambling to adjust his mindset.
Bouda. Not a demon, but nearly as dangerous. Adrenaline surged as Logan sized up the creature—well over seven feet tall, heavily muscled steel- blue skin covered with thick scales, and razor- sharp talons at the ends of long fingers. Its mouth was deep and large, filled with teeth that were designed not only to hold its prey, but also to tear chunks of flesh from the victim. The clothing it wore—brown leather trousers, knee-high boots, and a sleeveless leather jerkin—were intended to shield it from injury during an attack.
Logan blocked the first strike, and began to silently intone spells. The first was to protect himself, the second to keep humans away from the area, and the third to get rid of the pack he had on. He couldn’t afford to be weighed down.
His brain raced through the facts he had about the monster—fast, strong, and with incredible stamina. It also had a guard against magic that was as solid as the physical defense it had around its body. The usual strategies weren’t going to cut it.
He stopped the second blow with his forearm. Pain shot to his shoulder and he grunted.
Shifting out of the way of another swing, Logan ran through potential weapons and tactics. There weren’t a lot of options. The bouda’s scales were bulletproof, resistant to everything including armor- piercing ammunition. A memory from his training surfaced—it would take magic wielded simultaneously with a physical weapon to win.
But why the hell was it attacking him? They weren’t stupid creatures and going after a Gineal troubleshooter was a bad bet. Logan ducked to avoid a hammer fist to his head.
He backed away, buying a few seconds, and it dawned on him that the bouda probably didn’t know he was Gineal. It didn’t have the ability to scan energy like demons could. This type of dark- force being liked to eat attractive humans and it believed that it had found its next meal. His lips curved. Fat chance.
One strike. That’s all he’d get before the creature discovered he wasn’t human. Logan needed to make it count.
He jumped away from a swipe, stumbled over a rock, and lurched to regain his balance. Two- inch talons narrowly missed ripping open his left biceps.
Putting his hands behind his back, Logan called forward a pair of double- bladed katars. If the weapon could puncture the armor of medieval knights, it might pierce the bouda’s scales. The double- edged blades were positioned over his knuckles, allowing him to punch his strikes.
The monster snarled at him, its lips drawn back.
Logan tightened his fingers around the hand grips, gathered his magic, and charged.
At point- blank range, he hurled a lightning ball into the bouda’s belly. The katar blades followed a split second behind. The knives slid across the scales without penetrating.
He leaped out of range of the claws, but not quite fast enough. The talons ripped into his shirt and the creature clenched them into a fist, dragging Logan closer. Its eyes had no iris, no color, and as he stared, the black seemed endless, eternal.
It was the smell of fetid breath that freed Logan from his trance. Fighting the need to gag, he struggled against the hold, but it took magic to break loose.
The bouda roared in displeasure and a gale force wind burst from its maw. The turbulence slammed into Logan, almost knocking him over.
He leapt above the air stream and levitated until it died down. Drawing a deep breath, Logan girded himself for a protracted battle. Going in low, he shot another bolt of lightning and positioned the katars to strike. But before he could get within range, the bouda reached out with its long arms and grabbed him.
Instead of pulling him closer, it threw him, sending Logan sailing down the side of the mountain.
He hit the slope hard enough to drive the air from his lungs and he slid. Rocks, brush, branches, and plants tore at his clothes, at his flesh. Logan couldn’t stop, not until he intoned a short spell.
For an instant, he didn’t move, taking stock of his condition. He felt abraded, his cuts stinging, but his protection spell had prevented any real injury.
Looking up, he measured the distance to the trail. He’d fallen a long way. Slowly, Logan pushed to his feet and began the climb. He didn’t get far before the bouda appeared above him and tossed a boulder over the side.
Quick reflexes and a stand of evergreens protected Logan.
There was an endless supply of ammunition and he was a sitting duck down here. Opening a transit, he crossed from the mountainside to the path behind his adversary.
Without hesitation, Logan rushed forward, throwing a rope of fire as he tried to drive the katars into his enemy’s back.
He still couldn’t ram the knives home, damn it.
The monster whirled and hit Logan with a backhand that sent him flying up the mountain slope. This landing was harder and the shield around him gave, the impact driving the air from his lungs. His eyes watered, his chest hurt, but he staggered to his feet.
Logan knew he didn’t have time to catch his breath; the bouda would be coming for him. He raised the wind, making it strong enough to push the creature over, then he rasped in oxygen while he had the chance.
The minute he was able to breathe, he barreled back toward the trail. If he could get to the creature while it was down. . . .
His adversary stood before Logan made it halfway, and throwing back its head, the bouda roared. Great, all he’d done was piss it off. Grimacing, Logan reinforced his protection spell. He was running through his magic fast. Too fast.
A cracking noise made him whirl and he barely managed to spin out of the way of a falling pine. He had his back to the bouda, but before Logan could turn, he took a blow at the knee.
He landed in the dirt. Immediately, he sprang to his feet and found his enemy brandishing a tree trunk.
Clutching the katars tightly, he cast a spell to increase his velocity and dove toward the creature.
Logan crashed into the bouda, going in low to avoid the tree it held. Grabbing it around the calves, he brought it to the ground. They both grunted from the impact, but he didn’t hesitate. He pinned the monster with his weight as well as his magic, and slashed at the exposed scales, hoping to slice away a patch and drive the knife home.
Something that sounded like sizzling bacon made Logan stop and turn his head. Rock slide. It picked up intensity, swelling from sizzle to thunder in a heartbeat.
Small stones pelted him and the bouda took advantage of his distraction. Its teeth sank in deeply.
The protection spell saved him from having a chunk of flesh ripped out of his biceps, but it still hurt like hell. Logan stabbed the katars against the creature’s head over and over. It didn’t cause any damage, but it did get the bouda to release him.
Larger rocks were s...