“Do you really think the kids are back here?” Rowan asked.
I turned my head to look at my sister who trudged along beside me, knee-deep in cold river water. On either side of us, red rock walls towered hundreds of feet toward the sky, blocking out the late afternoon sun.
“I hope so.” I picked my way around a submerged boulder and kept going. “If I were going to abduct some kids and wanted to hide them in a hard-to-reach place, The Narrows would be it.”
Rowan craned her neck to get a better view of the deep gorge in Utah through which we walked. She and I pulled up the rear of our little rescue party. Lavender and Angus, my fellow classmates at the Undercover Protectorate’s Academy, led the expedition, while Caro, our supervisor, took the middle position.
Our goal was to rescue a group of four children who’d been abducted by demons. We’d been given word just hours ago that they were supposed to be way out here in the middle of nowhere. So we’d set out immediately on the rescue mission.
“I can’t believe everyone else was out on a job when this came in,” Rowan said. “Talk about bad timing.”
“No kidding.” The Protectorate had been slammed with a lot of requests for help—more than we’d seen in years. All of the other agents had been out handling some other catastrophe when we’d learned about the kids.
That left us—the B-Team.
Sure, we had some talent. Me especially, now that I was getting the hang of my Dragon God powers.
But rescuing kids?
That was freaking important. I didn’t want to fumble this one.
None of us did.
At my side, the Cats of Catastrophe swam determinedly through the water. Muffin used his new wings like weird flippers, while Bojangles cat-paddled like a pro. Princess Snowflake III had the meanest scowl on her face that I’d ever seen, her white fur slicked back.
“At least your sidekicks showed up to help,” Rowan said.
Muffin hissed at my side. We want a piece of those bastards.
“What did he say?” Rowan asked.
Rowan nodded. “Agreed.”
A low rumbling sound filled the air, and I stiffened. The hair on my arms stood up as danger prickled through the air. I glanced around, searching for the source of the feeling, but it wasn’t until I looked up that I saw it.
“Rockfall!” I screamed.
Boulders tumbled off the cliff above, headed right for us.
Rowan sloshed forward, but the water slowed her progress.
I had only a split second; I called on my new magic as fear opened a hole in my chest. I could feel the water around me. It was one with me. So I moved it, commanding it to surge out of our way.
The liquid rushed toward the sides of the river, leaving a clear path. I lunged forward, Rowan at my side. The cats raced ahead, wet and ragged.
It all happened in less than two seconds. By the time the rocks crashed to the ground behind us, adrenaline had me panting. Tiny pebbles flew up and stung the backs of my legs and arms as the huge boulders smashed to the ground. I turned, staring at the dust that billowed into the air around the fallen rocks.
The river water rushed back into place, no longer bound by my control. It soaked me to my chest, and I sat, dumbfounded in the cold, clear water.
I’d almost become a pancake.
“Holy fates,” Caro said. “Good job, Ana.”
“Thanks.” I panted, my heart threatening to beat out of my chest. “That was close.”
“Let’s keep moving,” Lavender said.
I nodded and stood, Rowan at my side.
“Good one,” Rowan muttered.
“Yeah.” I tore my gaze from the boulders and turned, following my colleague through the river. I could use my gift to keep it permanently out of our way, but that would drain me too fast. We didn’t know what we were walking into, and I might need all the magic I had to save the kids.
But I’d definitely be keeping an eye out for rockfalls, now.
Unable to help myself, I turned for one last look at the rockfall that had nearly killed us. Boulders blocked the river, piled higher on one side. The water was backing up and flowing over the lower end of the new rock wall.
I frowned and turned back, glancing at Rowan. “This place doesn’t seem like it sees a lot of rockfalls.” I looked up at the red cliffs that towered on either side of us. “And these cliffs are just solid rock. No boulders or anything.”
“You’re right,” Rowan said. “Unless there are folks back here cleaning up the fallen boulders to keep the river flowing, I haven’t seen anything else that looks like a rockfall on this whole hike.”
“Booby traps, maybe.”
“Whoever stole these kids wants to keep them,” Rowan said.
Muffin grumbled at my side, pushing his way through the water. We walked for another mile, occasionally finding spots of dry riverbank to walk upon.
A while later, we were knee-deep in water again. Up ahead, a bend in the river valley seemed to glimmer with foreboding. Something in the air was darker. Imbued with magic, maybe.
I muttered, “I don’t like the look of it up ahead.”
I’ll investigate. Muffin gave his wings a little more gas and plowed through the water, paddling up toward Lavender and Angus, who charged full steam ahead toward the weird bend in the valley.
“Don’t they see that?” I asked. “Or feel it?”
“Feel what?” Rowan asked.
I looked at her. “You can’t sense that?”
“It’s a bit iffy maybe, but nothing except nerves. I don’t think.”
I frowned. “I feel something. There’s something off here.”
“Do you have new magic that’s picking it up?”
I shrugged. “Maybe. But I know something is off here.”
“Then let’s go tell them.” Rowan picked up the pace, plowing through the water.
I followed. By the time I caught up to them, the narrow valley had opened up into a split. Two rivers diverged, each heading a slightly different direction through two nearly identical canyons.
Muffin’s little nose twitched as he sniffed the air, his head barely above water. Lavender, Angus, and Caro had stopped, hands propped on their hips as they stared at the path ahead.
Lavender adjusted the pack at her back and tugged on her sporty hiking shirt. She was dressed for the occasion, looking like she summited massive mountains every day of her life.
“Which way?” she asked.
I ignored the question. “This feels weird.”
She turned a glare at me, her blue eyes glinting with dislike. “Of course it feels weird. We’re on a dangerous job.”
I frowned. “That’s not what I mean. There’s something extra in the air here. Something more dangerous than usual.”
It prickled against my skin, distinctly uncomfortable. It lent credence to the theory that the rockfall hadn’t been natural. I’d spent my life in dangerous situations. I knew how to tell the difference between various levels of danger.
Lavender clearly didn’t. She also probably hadn’t grown up like Rowan and I had.
I turned to Caro, whose short platinum hair was clipped back with sparkly pins. Even her hiking wear sparkled.
“What’s up?” she asked.
“We need to take a moment and figure out what’s so weird about this valley.”
A howling wind swept through the gorge, cutting off Caro’s voice. The wind brought with it a stronger sense of prickling magic, and I squinted into the air, unable to see anything out of the ordinary.
What the heck was going on?
Up ahead, the breeze began to kick up the surface of the river, forming little whitecaps. The wind swirled like a tornado, glinting shimmery white in the sunlight, until it coalesced to form the shape of a man.
He was average height, but that was the only thing normal about him. Otherwise, he was nearly transparent, a figment of the breeze, with indistinct features and no magical signature that I could tell. At least, not from here.
“A wind spirit,” Rowan said.
“Hello,” Caro said.
“Greetings. You’re here for the children.” His voice sounded like it was coated in river slime.
I didn’t like this guy. Not one little bit. “What do you know about it?”
“Only that they were dragged through here by some demons yesterday. I don’t approve.”
Somehow, I didn’t believe him.
“Which way did they go?” Lavender demanded.
“Right fork.” The spirit pointed. “I can lead you.”
Alarm bells went off. I looked at Rowan, then frowned.
She didn’t look skeeved out at all.
What the heck?
“Are you believing this guy?” I whispered.
She looked at me, confused. “Yeah. Why not?”
“He feels shady.”
“I can’t feel anything. And if he has a lead on these kids, we should follow it.”
“Well, I know that he’s dangerous.” It was either my druid sense telling me there was something fishy about this guy or something else. Maybe a power related to the elements? I’d already proven I had control of earth, air, fire, and water—a greater ability to understand them made sense as well.
Rowan looked torn, but finally, she nodded. “Fine. I don’t feel it, but I believe you.”
“Thank you.” I turned to my friends, but they were already following the wind spirit toward the right fork in the river.
I picked up the pace, trudging ahead to join Caro. I leaned in and whispered, “I think something is up with this guy.”
She shot me a sidelong glance. “Really? Like what?”
“Don’t know, but my alarm bells are going off. I don’t trust him.”
“He’s the only lead we’ve got so far.”
“What if it’s a bad lead?” I looked ahead and shouted, “Hey, new guy! Why are you helping us?”
The spirt turned around. So did Lavender and Angus, both of whom shot me identical mean-assed glares.
“I don’t like the abduction of children,” the spirit said.
I could find nothing false in his words, but something still rubbed me the wrong way.
“I live here and am appalled at what this place is being used for,” he continued.
Okay, there was something kind of off in that statement, but I couldn’t figure out what. I definitely had some kind of connection with him. I could feel it like a physical thing.
“Come now. We must find them.” The spirit turned and continued to drift along.
Lavender and Angus immediately followed, cutting quickly through the water. Caro joined them, clearly satisfied.
I frowned, then followed, Rowan at my side.
“You didn’t like his answer,” she whispered.
Muffin meowed. Neither did I. Shady bastard.
Princess Snowflake III just hissed, but that didn’t mean much. She hissed at me all the time. And Bojangles clearly had no idea what was going on. He was just swimming in circles, clearly delighted with our expedition through the water.
As we trudged along behind them, I kept every sense alert. The valley was narrow here, only fifteen feet across, but it looked like it widened up ahead.
When I heard the first cry of a child, something in me rebelled.
Rowan lunged forward, instinct clearly propelling her toward the one in need. I grabbed her arm. “No.”
She spun on me, shock on her face. “What?”
“Something is wrong.”
That didn’t stop my colleagues from charging forward. Lavender, Angus, and Caro sprinted through the water, sending up splashes that glittered in the light.
The wind spirit had disappeared. Did they not notice that?
The cats all hissed.
Something was wrong, but my colleagues were sprinting into it.
“Stop!” I shouted, but everyone ignored me.
Fates. “We have to follow these idiots.”
“I’ve got no idea what’s going on, but I trust you.”
I had no idea, either, but this wouldn’t be the first time I charged into danger without any idea of what was coming at me.
My muscles burned as I sprinted through the water. I burst out into the wider section of the river valley just in time to see a crazy-looking little demon shut its mouth.
The sound of the crying child stopped abruptly, too.
The ugly demon who’d been making the noise was about four feet tall and looked to be a hundred years old. Even his horns seemed to have wrinkles. He was hidden in the crevice of a rock, and my friends hadn’t seen him.
He grinned evilly.
The thought echoed in my mind right before three more demons leapt down from a ledge high on the wall. They were huge—each at least eight feet tall and holding a long sword made of wicked black metal. Their burnished red skin was striped with black, the color of their huge horns. Long black claws tipped their fingers.
They went right for Lavender, Angus, and Caro, who were fifty yards ahead of us.
“Behind you!” I screamed.
My friends turned, shock flashing across their faces.
I raised my hands, calling upon my new magic. Water and earth surrounded me, feeling like they were one with my soul.
The rock cliffs were too hard to manipulate. There was too much of it, and it was solid. So I focused on the water and the river pebbles beneath.
I commanded them both to rise up in front of the demons, surging toward them as a mini tidal wave. It would bowl them over and maybe even drown them.
“Heck yeah!” Rowan shouted from beside me.
The wave was almost to my target when the wind spirit appeared, rushing toward my wave. His body disappeared a second before he hit the water, but my wave exploded, dissipating into nothing.
The wind had destroyed it!
The demons roared and charged toward my friends. Caro and Lavender raised their hands, no doubt to throw their magic at the demons. But their attackers were too fast. The demons lunged for them, wrapping their arms around their waists.
What the hell?
They didn’t even use the big swords.
A moment later, the demons disappeared, my friends along with them.
“Holy fates!” Rowan cried.
Incoming! Muffin shrieked. Look above!
I looked up, catching sight of two demons leaping for us.
This time, I went for fire. Druid magic surged within me as I envisioned the flames that would destroy them. The power welled in my chest, rushing through my arms and out my hands.
A blast of flame exploded toward the two demons, burning fire filling the air with heat. It plowed into the beasts, who laughed.
As they fell through the air, the flame enveloped their forms, so I couldn’t see what was going on, but it had to be bad—for us—if they were laughing. I drew a dagger from the ether, and Rowan followed suit, drawing her sword.
We lunged to the side, and a second later, the demons landed in the shallow river. They were at least eight feet tall, so massive that the water only came to their ankles.
Water splashed high as their feet connected with the ground, concealing their faces for a flash of time. Long enough for my heart to jump into my throat as I raised my blade.
The water fell, and I threw.
The steel flipped through the air and pierced the demon in the chest.
And he laughed again.
Rowan lunged for the demon closest to her, her sword swiping for his middle.
“Don’t let them catch you!” I cried. They were here to abduct us.
The one nearest me lunged, and I darted out of the way, so clumsy in the shin-high water that I fell. Icy cold splashed around me. Panic swelled.
I rolled over, flat on my back on the river rocks with a foot of water over my head. I opened my eyes, able to see straight through the clear water.
My view was a bit hazy, but I caught sight of the demon bending over me, reaching out with a huge, clawed hand.
I kicked up, knocking his arm away, just as a little black blur hurtled toward the demon’s head. The blur attached itself to the demon’s skull, and the beast roared, a sound so loud that I could hear it underwater. The demon tumbled to the left.
I surged out of the water, sputtering, and called upon my magic.
Fire was out since they seemed to thrive on it.
Five feet away, Muffin clung to the demon’s skull, little wings flapping as the cat tore at the monster’s face. Blood flowed as the demon reached up to swat at Muffin.
The cat launched himself away, just in time to avoid a hit that could have killed him.
Princess Snowflake III took his place, hurling herself at the demon’s belly. She was too smart to use her new gift of fire, but her claws worked just as well. I couldn’t see Bojangles—he was really fond of his new invisibility gift—but the demon shrieked so loudly that I knew Bojangles was getting up to some kind of deadly mischief.
“Bail out, cats!” I shouted. “Look for children!” Even as I shouted it, I knew there were no kids here. It had been an ambush, pure and simple. But I didn’t want the cats to end up crushed by these maniacs. “Scout for more demons!”
They’d abducted our friends, and if we let them get the drop on us, we’d be in just as much trouble.