Zanzi tilted back her head to examine the guard tower before her. It protruded from an adjacent length of the castle's wall to form a corner. Saleem leapt from her shoulder and soared upward. He landed atop the turreted wall and folded his wings against his body before peering back down at her expectantly.
“That isn’t fair, you know,” Zanzi muttered. “If you don’t stop showing off I just might get a real dragon that can carry me up there.”
She stepped back and then sprinted toward the wall. She sprang into the corner, alternating between bounding off the castle and tower walls, using her momentum to drive herself upward. When she reached the top, Zanzi grasped the edge of the turret and swung herself up and over to land lightly on the castle’s tiled roof.
That had been the easy part. The remainder of the tower rose bare above her with nothing around it to aid her ascent. Saleem pushed off from the turret, and within a couple lazy thrusts of his wings, he had reached the top of the tower. He clung to the stone with his claws and splayed himself flat against the tower’s side where he lurked just beneath the ledge.
Zanzi flipped open a leather pouch at her belt and scooped out a handful of powdered chalk. She rubbed it over her palms, leaving a fine white cloud lingering on the air, and began to scale the tower. Her hands and feet found purchase in the slightest crack or groove the rough stones offered. Above her, Saleem flicked his tail impatiently. When Zanzi reached the dragon, her arms strained from the effort. He crawled up onto the the turrets and left her clinging to the wall.
“Where in the blazes did you come from?” Zanzi peeked over the turret to see a guard scowling at Saleem. “Go on, clear off!” He drew his sword and stabbed at the dragon.
Saleem leapt aside with a hiss and bared his fangs. He scurried along the turrets away from Zanzi and the guard gave chase.
Zanzi pulled herself up and over the wall and drew her dagger. She stalked behind the guard, and just as he was preparing to take another swing at Saleem, she struck. She seized him from behind and plunged the dagger into his throat.
“No one hurts my dragon,” she whispered in his ear.
The guard took a final, gurgling breath and she let his body drop to the ground in a muffled clatter of armor. She watched a pool of blood form beneath him with as much indifference as she had once watched a bucket of spilled milk seep into the straw. Sometimes it unsettled her how easy she found it to kill, how numb she had had become. Sometimes, Zanzi wondered if her soul was as dark as her skin.
Saleem alighted to her shoulder and she started down the tower’s stairwell. The narrow, curving stairs dizzied her but she refused to allow herself to slow. She had less than an hour before the guards changed shifts and her handiwork was discovered.
Zanzi tugged up the hood of her cloak—the snarling head of a lioness. It was the result of another one of Balthazar’s charming little lessons she had survived. And it was also how she had earned the name men whispered with dread: the Lioness of Endelon.
Zanzi stole through the castle corridors, her soft leather boots silent on the flagstones. She had bribed a servant for a description of the castle’s layout, and it did not take her long to locate Prince Hadrian’s chambers. Two guards stood rigid but sleepy in the corridor. She dispatched them easily. A smug smile slipped onto her lips as she stepped over their bodies and approached the double oak doors.
That was when the shadows attacked.
A hiss from Saleem was all the warning Zanzi had before the Specter materialized from the darkness. A shiver tingled over her as she faced the snarling, massive hound formed from shifting shadows. It barred her path to the prince’s chambers.
Zanzi held her double-bladed dagger before her. “Hell.”
This was what she had been afraid of. And the night had been going so well. Damned Specters…she hated them for making her fear the darkness she had once reveled in. They had been created from magic and sold at an exorbitant price as protection against people like her.
Saleem swooped toward the Specter and shot a stream of flame at its face. The creature leapt aside and then lunged at Zanzi, claws splayed. Zanzi slashed the Specter’s shoulder as she whirled aside and landed in a crouch. The hound snarled in pain and stared at the light bursting through the tear in its shadowy hide—the source of the magic that gave it life.
“That’s right, beastie, you’re not the only one here with magic.”
Zanzi twirled the blade in her hand. Normal weapons were no use against Specters, so she’d had a spell cast on her dagger that allowed her to harm them.
The Specter prowled towards her. Saleem crashed into the side of the creature’s head and spat flame into its eyes. It snapped its jaws and tossed its head but the dragon’s claws dug deep. Zanzi darted forward and drove her dagger into the Specter’s throat. White light poured through the wound, and in moments the creature was sucked into it. The corridor went dark.
Zanzi sat on her knees, panting, and glanced at Saleem. “Well that wasn’t so bad. I would have thought—”
Something heavy slammed into her from behind and she skidded across the flagstones. She managed to flip onto her back and found herself gazing into the snarling face of a second Specter. It raised a paw to slash her throat. It was then that she realized that her dagger had been knocked from her hand.
Zanzi raised her arm to shield herself and the beast’s claws tore through her flesh. She cried out as pain blazed through her forearm. The Specter was rearing back for another blow, but it hadn’t noticed her other hand slip into the pouch at her side. She tossed a fistful of chalk dust into the hound’s face. It recoiled in surprise, shaking its head as the dust filled its eyes and snarling mouth.
Zanzi scrambled out from beneath the hound and snatched up her dagger. She spun and flung it at the Specter, and in sank between its eyes. A white flash consumed it and her weapon clattered to the floor. Blood trickled down her wounded arm as she retrieved it.
Saleem flew to her shoulder and nosed her cheek.
“I’ll be fine,” she muttered. “I still have a prince to kill.”
Gritting her teeth against the pain, Zanzi eased open the doors to Prince Hadrian’s chambers and slipped inside.