The Scythian Trials
Nya knelt, her fingertips grazing the embedded paw print in the dark soil. Deep grooves on one side revealed the mountain lion had been favoring its right flank. The impressions were fresh, which meant they were closing ground.
Her prey had led her deep into the heart of the dense forest.
She slowly rose from her crouched position. The bright moon’s light broke through the thick clouds, casting a soft glow on the path ahead. The cat’s lopsided tracks wove between the trees, skirting dangerously close to the mountain’s ledge.
She glanced over her shoulder, watching Jax weave through the trees. He chose to stay a few hundred yards back. She had mixed feelings about the gesture. Tomorrow was her last challenge before graduating from the academy, and Jax was giving her the rare gift of space, which she appreciated. But he also insisted she lead, which made her leery.
In her culture, being treated as an equal was a dangerous thing.
Nya picked up the pace, following the path until it ended at the edge of a bluff. She stopped for a moment to watch the brooding mist that crept along the valley’s floor. From this vantage point, the streetlights looked like fireflies trapped under frosted glass.
The average human, or Allos as her people called them, knew little of her kind. They stayed on the forest’s fringe, consumed with the newest technology, choosing instead to take in the mountain’s beauty through windows and distant porches. Most Allos lacked the physical stamina to reach her compound, and those foolish enough to venture too close never came back.
Her stomach flipped as the hair on the back of her neck prickled. Even though Jax hadn’t made a sound, she knew he was behind her.
“Do you think the cat fell to his death?” His deep voice, always so calm, muttered in her ear.
She shivered. Jax officially was the academy’s weapons expert, but he also carried a Ph.D. in psychology and had been her counselor since her first year. He knew she hated people getting in her space. Until a few weeks ago he’d always respected the boundary. Now, he seemed to go out of his way to cross it.
Her brow lowered. “What do you think?”
“You’re the tracker. You tell me.”
The tension eased as she stepped closer to the ridge, putting some distance between them. She looked at the steep angle leading to the small town below. “I don’t think it’s down there.”
“And why not, Vtachi?”
Nya scowled, hating the nickname only he used. He’d given it to her the first time she snuck out of the compound. It meant ‘little bird’ in her native language, Dacian, and it made her feel small and weak. “Stop calling me that. I have more in common with that mountain lion than I do a helpless vtachi.”
Jax’s perceptive eyes held her gaze. He sighed. “Sadly, that may be true. But it’s become my priority to help you change that. Now, how do you know the cat has not fallen to his death? Answer the question, please.”
The stubborn part of her wanted to stay silent, but knowing Jax, he’d keep her there all night discussing the finer points of tracking. Or worse, he’d delve into the significance of her having more in common with a wounded predator than an animal gifted with flight.