A very Mage Chronicles Christmas

Dashan tugged at the constricting collar around his neck for the hundredth time. If his father had been close enough to see it, it would have earned him a clip behind the ears, but Tirian Caverlock was in the centre of the evening’s celebrations, surrounded by a circle of important guests. His laughter boomed out occasionally, too-loud and too-false. It made Dashan want to plug his ears with wax.

The room was decked out beautifully, flickering lanterns perched on every available surface and decorations artfully draped from walls and arched windows. The frosted-in windows added to the almost-magical atmosphere. It was too perfect though, a show put on for the benefit of others. There was no true warmth in this house, no sense of belonging. Not for Dashan at least. His brother Regan, two-years older and legitimate, stood proudly at their father’s side, shoulders straight and bright smile on his face.

Tomorrow was mid-winter, a traditional day of celebration and feasting to mark the shortest day of the year. Dashan’s father held this reception on mid-winter’s eve every year, never one to pass up the chance to host the most important nobles of Alistriem’s court. Lord Egalion wasn’t here though. A thrill of satisfaction curled through Dashan’s chest at that—his father would hate that the king’s most senior advisor and closest friend had chosen to ignore this gathering. But Lord Egalion spent every mid-winter’s eve sharing dinner with his only daughter, something Dashan knew that few others did. The sharp satisfaction he felt faded, replaced by a hollow longing. It would be nice if there was someone in the world who loved him like that.

Abruptly he turned and left the room, unable to stand there and watch any longer. He’d be punished for leaving, but that would be tomorrow, and despite the late hour, tomorrow was still a long way off. He managed to avoid being spotted by any of the household staff on the way back to his room, and as soon as the door shut behind him, he tore off his overly-confining formal jacket and too-shiny boots. The boots he tossed across the room. The jacket he dropped on the floor on his way to the closet.


After slipping out his bedroom window and through a little-used side gate in the high walls surrounding his father’s Alistriem home, Dashan moved quickly through the streets of the rich quarter towards the docks. Nobody took any notice of him. It was late for the wealthy folk to be out and about, even for mid-winter’s eve, and the simple clothing he’d changed into marked him as a servant boy at best.

At the docks, he crossed the main road and headed up the forested hillside leading to the palace. The snow carpeting the ground was crisp and hard-packed, his boots sinking in a few inches with every stride. As he ran, a fresh snowfall began drifting down, lodging in his hair and cloak. When the lights on the palace walls appeared through the dark trees ahead, all thoughts of his father’s awful dinner and inevitable punishment left him. In its place an anticipatory excitement kindled, warming him from inside out.

It was late enough that Cayr was expected to be long in bed. But the twelve-year-old prince and heir was clearly still wide awake, lamplight spilling from his bedroom window. The sound of voices floated to Dashan as he slid the window open and climbed inside, and he rolled his eyes. Of course she was here. Lord Egalion would have tucked his girl in bed long ago, but that wouldn’t have stopped her escaping out the window the same way he had. She and Cayr were joined at the hip most of the time.

“Dash!” Cayr leaped up from his bed at Dashan’s appearance. “I was hoping you’d come tonight. I’ve spent all day with my father speaking with the nobles and passing on our traditional mid-winter gifts. I thought it would never end.”

Dashan opened his mouth to reply, but before he could say anything, a sharp voice accosted him. “You’ve got snow all through your hair. It’s melting on the carpet.”

A beaming grin spread over his face as he turned to Alyx Egalion, absolutely the snottiest eleven-year-old he’d ever encountered. He matched the grin with an exaggerated bow. “I’m so very sorry, your lady-ship. It is snowing outside.”

She scowled at him, green eyes narrowing in suspicion. “Why are you here?”

“To take us all out to have some proper fun.” He clapped his hands. “Come on, grab your cloaks and let’s go.”

Cayr needed no further urging. He was heading to his closet before Dashan had even stopped speaking. Alyx opened her mouth—no doubt to complain—so Dashan cut her off before she could. “If you’re too scared to go out in the dark and snow, kitten, feel free to stay here on your own while we actually enjoy ourselves.”

Her eyes flashed at the dare, and Cayr gave a little snort of amusement. Alyx was never one to back from either spending time with Cayr or a challenge from Dashan. His words mixed both nicely, and exactly as he’d planned, she conceded with a sigh.

“All right, fine. But only if you promise to stop calling me kitten.”

“Absolutely.” Dashan backed towards the window. “Kitten.”


He took them back down the hill, their three sets of footprints intertwining through the pristine snow. At the bottom they stopped to catch their breath, and the moon chose that moment to come out from beneath the clouds. Alyx turned to Dashan, cheeks flushed from the cold, eyes bright from their run and the always joy of the three of them together, and Dashan’s breath caught in his chest. Beautiful. The thought was as unexpected as it was powerful, and he dismissed it as quickly as it had come, putting it away in the box of things that made him sad. He refused to be sad tonight.

“Where are we going?” Cayr asked, as bright and happy as Alyx, snowflakes tangled in his tousled blonde curls.

Dashan tapped a finger to his nose mysteriously. “Just follow me, Your Highness.”

The prince huffed at the title and reached out to shove Dashan hard. He laughed and shoved back, and for a few moments they wrestled together, slipping and sliding in the snow.


Cayr and Alyx followed him through the outskirts of the city to where the waterfall flowing down the hill from the palace cascaded into a wide lake. It all stood frozen, the waterfall a glistening series of ice sheets under the glowing moonlight, the lake covered in drifts of snow.

Many townsfolk were skating on the lake, taking advantage of the fine evening. Nobody in Rionn worked on mid-winter’s day, and so even the hardest workers could afford a late night out.

“If Cayr breaks his leg skating, the king will not be happy,” Alyx said dubiously as Dashan led them closer to the shore.

“What makes you think I’m going to break my leg!” Cayr was indignant. “I can skate.”

“I know you can. I’m just saying.”

“Father will be fine.” Cayr dismissed her concerns, and Alyx shifted her gaze to Dashan, giving a little shake of her head. Somehow, some way, the prince of Rionn was his best friend, and Dashan loved him. But in addition to his many good qualities, Cayr Llancarvan was stubborn and rarely willing to consider the consequences of his actions.

“Don’t worry, we’re not skating,” Dashan said, giving Alyx a reassuring smile. Her nagging normally irritated him no end, but he was in a good mood, brought about by their momentary freedom and the beautifully clear night.

As he finished speaking, several children came running out of the trees nearby, shrieking in delight. A handful of other children appeared moments later, chasing them with snowballs in their hands. Most missed, and those being chased turned to stand their ground, throwing snowballs back.

Grinning, Dashan bent down to scoop up a handful of snow. Alyx was watching the children, fascinated, and his snowball caught her unawares right in the face, spraying her with cold ice. She turned to him, staring in shock, and he started laughing, unable to help himself. With a shout she was launching herself at him and sending them both crashing to the snow.

Mere months away from being fifteen, Dashan was bigger and stronger, but he allowed her to win, letting her hold him down while a laughing Cayr pelted him with smaller snowballs until he was begging for mercy. When she finally let him go, clambering to her feet, she held out a hand to help him stand. He took it, and her gaze went straight to the sleeve of his shirt, clearly far too short for his gangly, quickly-growing body. Her jaw hardened, eyes flicking to his. Even at eleven years old, she understood far more than he ever wanted her to about his life. Clearing his throat, he tugged down the sleeve and turned away to find the nearby group of children had paused in their game to watch.

Dashan offered them a friendly grin. “They got me good, huh?”

One of the boys stepped forward, flashing a quick smile. He was small for his age, with a mop of untidy hair and intelligent green eyes. “Seems like you were ganged up on. Maybe we could help you even the numbers?”

A girl at his side nodded, bright blue eyes glowing with exertion. “We could use a couple extra for our team if you want to join us?”

Dashan shot a quick glance in Alyx’s direction—joining a group of city kids in a snowball war wasn’t likely to go down well with miss prim and proper Lady Egalion, but to his surprise she was nodding eagerly. Cayr was already moving forward to join them.

Delight and warmth trickled through him again, and he gave them a wide, laughing grin. “Bring it on.”


Soaked, cold and weary, yet happy as they’d ever been, the three of them trudged back up the hill from the city. Dashan never wanted to let go of how he felt. The practical part of him knew it would be gone, like it had never been, as soon as he returned home. So he prolonged the inevitable, insisting on walking Alyx home. Cayr of course then insisted on doing the same.

“I’m starved,” Alyx said as they walked through the palace gardens and crossed into the Egalion estate. “I wish mid-winter feast was now, but it’s still hours away.”

Cayr smiled at her. “I’m sure your cook will feed you a good breakfast before then.”

Dashan looked away. For Alyx and Cayr, mid-winter feast meant sitting together at the king’s table, joined by her father, Astor and Sparky, the king’s closest friends. It meant companionship and good food. For Dashan it would mean his father’s displeasure and Regan’s snide comments.

Alyx glanced at him, something on her face telling him she understood his sudden silence. There was no pity in the look though. For that he would always consider her friend.

Lord Garan Egalion appeared at the top of the stairs to their right as Alyx pushed the door to her home open, and Dashan winced in expectation of a pointed telling off. Instead Alyx’s father had a little smile on his serious face as he came down the stairs.

“Don’t tell me there was a leak in your roof last night, Prince Cayr. You’re all soaked.”

“Not at all, sir.” Cayr was all politeness.

“We had a snowball fight, Papa.” Alyx went straight to her father, wrapping her arms around him and letting him swing her around. He held her tightly, uncaring of her wet clothing or damp hair. Dashan felt that hollow longing again and tried his best to ignore it. It didn’t matter. He would be grown up soon. He wouldn’t need anyone to care about him then.

“I should get home, sir.” Dashan cleared his throat, bowed slightly for propriety’s sake, then turned for the door.

“Prince Cayr, I assume you’ll be breakfasting with us this morning?” Garan’s voice sounded behind him.

“I’d like that, Lord Egalion. If I could share a carriage with you back over to the palace for lunch, I’d appreciate it.”

There was a smile in Garan’s voice as he replied, “I’ll get Safia to send a message over to the palace to let your father know you’ll be spending the morning with us.”

“Papa, can Dashan join us for lunch today?” Alyx’s question had Dashan stopping in his tracks at the door, stunned. Garan must have been equally surprised, because there was a long pause before he answered.

“Aly-girl, I’m sure Dashan’s father expects him at home for mid-winter feast.”

“He doesn’t want him there, though,” Alyx said, sounding irritated with her father. Dashan suddenly wished the ground would swallow him whole. “Dashan should be with people who want him. When he isn’t being annoying of course.”

“Lord Egalion, I’m sure my father wouldn’t mind an extra seat at lunch.” Cayr jumped in before Alyx’s father could say no. Cayr’s father would actually mind very much, and Cayr, Garan and Dashan knew it. Lord Egalion turned to meet Dashan’s eyes, considering. Dashan tried not to squirm under that sharp look. “I don’t want to be a bother, sir. It’s nice of Alyx and Cayr to invite me, but I understand that it’s not appropriate.”

“Whatever other’s views might be, I don’t find it a bother having you at lunch, lad,” Garan said kindly. “Why don’t you and Cayr track down Safia and get him to dig out some dry clothes for the both of you? Alyx, you go upstairs and change, please. I’ll let cook know to prepare extra for breakfast.”

Cayr beamed from ear to ear as he grabbed Dashan’s arm, dragging him away before Garan could change his mind. He glanced back to see Alyx hugging her father, whispering something in his ear. Garan chuckled and nodded before shooing her upstairs.

“Happy mid-winter, Dash!” Cayr said as they reached the parlour, where Safia was working. The delicious smell of baking pastries swept over them. His mouth began watering.

Dashan smiled, a genuine one, not the one he used to hide from the world. “Happy mid-winter, Cayr.”

Cayr shoved him, eyes still light. “Better be on your best behaviour for lunch though, or Alyx might decide you’re too annoying.”

Dashan assumed a solemn expression. “I promise not to pull her hair more than once.”

Their joined laughter rang through the house.

Chapter 5: The shadows descend

She was already shaking her head, backing up towards the door. “We have to go, now. Rose, you need to leave too. You won’t be safe here much longer.”

“Why? What is it?” Ami demanded. “We’ve come with you this far. Tell us what’s wrong.”

Steph nodded, looking Ami in the eyes. “A shifter has risen.”

 

“Steph, no, that’s impossible,” Levs said immediately.

Suspicion flooded the unicorn. She hadn’t even heard of them until her friend had suggested it… and to think how she’d doubted. It hurt. She ignored the pain, fixing the amazon with a look. “You know what a shifter is?”

“I’m an amazon. We’re kinda born to kill monsters, Steph. But I’ve never heard of a shifter outside of stories.”

Suspicion fading a little, Steph sighed. “That’s what I thought too, when… well, I was wrong. A shifter has risen, and it killed my friend.”

Ami frowned. “It killed your friend? I thought you were looking for your two friends. I thought that was the whole point of all of this?”

“It was.” Steph looked away, trying desperately not to let her grief swamp her. She wasn’t even sure she could get the words out. “I found out yesterday that one of them was killed, just over a year ago.”

“And your other friend?” Ami asked gently.

“I don’t know.”

An uncomfortable silence fell. Rose’s hand drifted towards the plate of sandwiches until Levs’ glare stopped her mid-movement.

“I’m sorry about your friend,” Levs eventually said. “But if a shifter has truly risen then why hasn’t anyone heard about it? It would have left a wide trail of death and destruction in its wake by now.”

“I don’t know. I… ” Steph fell silent as a deep rumbling sounded from somewhere above them. All four of them looked up, frowning, as the noise echoed through the air and then faded to silence.

“What was that?” Ami’s voice shot up an octave.

Rose waved a hand. “Oh, it’s nothing. It happens all the time when—”

“What about that?” Levs cut over her.

They turned to see where the amazon was pointing. One of the hacker’s screens had gone black. As they watched, the one beside it turned fuzzy before also fading to black. One by one, each screen started to die. A chill crept down the unicorn’s neck, and she shivered, her grief turning quickly to fear.

Rose frowned, her attention turning to her keyboard as she started typing furiously.  Nothing she did seemed to halt the steady switching off of her screens, though. Within minutes, the final screen had clicked off. Darkness swamped them for a moment until their eyes adjusted to the flickering red glow from the lights on the servers nearby. All that could be heard was the sound of their own breathing.

“Right, we’re—

The sound of a door slamming in the distance echoed through the room, cutting off the amazon. Ami jumped violently. In the same moment, Steph began to feel the familiar feeling of dread seep through her.

Demons.

“That’s our cue.” Levs drew her broadsword. “Let’s go.”

Rose jumped up and grabbed a backpack lying on a nearby table. Into it, she shoved a laptop and her wireless keyboard, along with two of the cucumber sandwiches.

“We can’t go back the way we came,” Steph said, closing her eyes so that she could concentrate. Dread warred with fear, curling her stomach into knots—there were so many!

“There’s another way out. Follow me.” Rose slung her backpack over her shoulders and led them at a run across the room and through a door. Beyond was a narrow corridor that ended in a single doorway at the end. She typed a code in the keypad by the door and opened it, ushering them all inside.

“Go, quickly!”

“Why are you bringing us into a storage closet?” Levs snapped as the entrance of everybody else forced her up against a stack of boxes. Steph winced, catching an inadvertent elbow in the ribs. It was cramped and hot in the room, and she tried to ignore the sensation of the walls closing in around her.

“Because this is the way out,” Rose knelt and felt around on the concrete floor. “I already told you that.”

“All right, no need to get testy.”

“Will this help?” Ami asked. “Lux!”

            Immediately they were all bathed in an eerie blue glow.

“How long can you keep that up?” Steph asked. Talking helped keep the fear at bay, distracted her from the sensation of so many demons inching closer.

Ami shrugged. “Something easy like this? Hours. Fire like I summoned against the demons the other day? Not long at all. I’m also not great with control.”

“Ah ha!” Rose shouted in triumph.

The three others shifted backwards, pressing Levs further into the boxes, as Rose pressed a lever and a portion of the floor slid open. A ladder led down into darkness.

Further down? Steph hoped they weren’t being led into a trap. Levs seemed to have the same thought, because she suddenly leapt across the room and shoved Rose up against the wall. Hard.

“If this is a trap, so help me I will chop you up into pieces. With a spoon.” The amazon delivered this with a genuinely terrifying expression. Terror had Rose’s voice coming out in a squeak.

“It’s my alternative exit. I swear.”

Levs held her there for another moment before nodding and stepping back. “Go on then, lead the way.”

Visibly shaking, Rose clambered down onto the ladder and quickly vanished into the darkness. Steph followed, with Ami next and Levs coming last. After a few moments, the floor slid shut above them, sealing them underground.

“What is that smell?” Ami asked.

A distant thump echoed up as Rose landed on firm ground. “We’re in the sewers.”

Steph reached the bottom of the ladder and dropped to the ground. Rose was already moving, footsteps echoing as she headed into a narrow tunnel. More light illuminated the way as Ami also reached the ground, and soon all four of them were moving swiftly along the tunnel. Water of unknown origin flowed alongside the path. Steph tried not to look at it.

Or smell it.

“How could the demons have followed us here?” Ami asked, panting.

“They couldn’t have,” Levs said flatly. “They came for Rose.”

“Excuse me?” Rose stopped suddenly, causing Steph to smack into her, almost sending them both toppling into the dubious water.

“No time to talk, keep moving,” Steph said sharply, giving Rose an encouraging shove. “We’ll discuss who’s after what later.”

Silence fell as they continued along the tunnel, urgency gripping each of them and keeping them moving at a swift jog despite their laboured breathing.

“Can’t you use your unicorn power to get us away?” Rose asked.

“Not underground.” Steph said tersely. “But even if I could, moving takes the most energy of all unicorn magic. The further I move and the more people I bring with me, the greater the drain. In short, I’ve moved a lot in the past couple of days, and I need time before I can do it again.”

That’s why we drove here!” Levs said in realisation.

“That, and I wanted to drive the Corvette.” Steph managed a little smile. Levs answered it with a wide grin. For a moment the fear was gone.

A loud bang sounded somewhere behind them. The echoes reverberated down the tunnel before slowly fading away. Before the silence could settle completely, however, it was shattered by the high-pitched scream of a demon. Unanimously, their pace increased. Soon after, the narrow tunnel they were following widened out into a large, dark space.

Ami drew her wand and spoke the word ‘lux’ once again. Her ball of blue wizard light flew towards the ceiling, glowing brighter to illuminate their surroundings. They’d come upon a large underground catchment area. The path they were on curved to their left and right around the edge of the water. Another walkway led out to a small utility building in the middle of the water before crossing over to the other side.

Levs set out for the middle path. “This one looks to be the quickest way across.”

In single file they ran along, each of them glancing down in distaste at the dark water surrounding them. They had just reached the small building in the centre when Steph slid to a sudden halt. The sickening dread in her stomach was increasingly rapidly.

“Wait, stop!”

“What?” Levs demanded.

“Demons ahead of us.” Steph raised a hand to her temple as she tried to concentrate. There were so many, making it hard to pinpoint their location. “A lot of them.”

Levs rounded on Rose. “They knew about your way out?”

“How was I supposed to know?” Rose looked pale in the light cast by the wizard’s magic.

“They know far too much. There’s something else going on here,” Levs said. “I don’t like it.”

“A topic for another time,” Ami said. “Right now we’ve got demons coming at us from both directions. What do we do?”

Steph reached into her pocket for the ninja knife she’d slipped in before leaving her cave that morning. Drawing it out, she flicked it back and forth, watching the light glint off the silver metal. “We fight.”

“That’s the best plan I’ve heard yet,” Levs declared.  She drew her broadsword, and the loud ringing sound it made echoed through the underground cavern. “Ami, you take the south end, I’ll take the north. Steph, you and Rose stay in the middle and we’ll cover you.”

They moved into ready position, staring into the darkness, waiting for what was coming at them.


Outside, Fred hung up the phone from the second call he’d made that morning. Sliding it back into his dark jacket, he considered the warehouse below him for a long moment as his mind picked over the conversation he’d just had. Then, in a graceful movement, he rose and began climbing the ladder up the fire escape.

He reached the roof and moved into a quick run, the tails of his jacket swirling around his legs as he ran. As he approached the other side of the roof, he adjusted his pace slightly, then, shifting his weight at just the right moment, he leaped out over the intervening space to the next roof.

He landed, rolled and came smoothly to his feet. After pausing a moment to look around and ensure nobody had seen him, he set off again. Movement on the road below had him ducking instantly to the ground and crawling on his stomach to the edge of the roof. Painfully slowly, he edged his head over so that he could peer below. Several large vehicles were pulling up in the street, and out of them poured demons. One of them turned, looking up, and Fred scrambled away from the edge, lying flat on his back and trying to calm his racing heart.

By the time he’d worked up the courage to look again, the street was empty, the doors to the cars sitting open.

“Damn,” he swore under his breath.

There was a perfectly good chance that the arrival of demons at the hacker’s warehouse was completely unrelated to the phone call he’d just made, but Fred’s instincts were prickling, and deep down he knew the two things were connected.

What had he gotten himself into?

            The sound of a door opening broke him from his thoughts, and he looked up to see the door to the roof swinging shut behind a demon.

Swearing again, Fred took to his feet and ran.


The demons didn’t hesitate, pouring at them from both sides of the underground lake, screaming and snarling. They hit Levs first, and her broadsword took the head clean off the first demon as she bellowed in rage. The second met a similar fate before the rest hung back, snarling.

Ignis!” Amy pointed her wand at the closest approaching demon. A fireball exploded in front of him, incinerating him and blowing apart those closest behind him. She waved her wand again, sending two more fireballs at the onrushing demons.

“Stay down!” Steph told the hacker before running over to the small building. With some effort, she managed to clamber up to its roof. From there, she could survey the entire cavern. Below, Levs was laying about with her broadsword, killing demon after demon and somehow managing to hold them at bay. Ami was doing the same, her wand a blur of movement as she shouted the words for fire spells.

But there were more demons coming from the south, and the demons on both sides were too numerous for them to survive. They would have to break through in one direction if they wanted any hope of getting out alive.

She took a deep breath, trying to think. There had to be something she could do… she didn’t have a big enough reserve of magic to get them all out, but that didn’t mean she didn’t have any magic. Her gaze caught on the wizard—she didn’t know Ami well at all, but maybe…

Steph dropped to the ground and ran to Levs. “I have an idea. Do you think you could keep them off all three of us for a short time?”

Levs roared as she ran her sword through a demon’s chest before yanking it out and kicking the body into the water. “Maybe. Depends on how short you’re talking about.”

“A minute at most.”

She glanced around before ducking and countering the blow of a demon. “Get all three of you backed up against the side of the building. I’ll hold them off as long as I can.”

“Done!”

Steph ran to Ami, using a break in the fighting to quickly explain her plan.

Ami shook her head. “I don’t think I have enough power left for that.”

“I can help, I think.”

“You think?” Ami made a slashing movement with her wand and two more fireballs flew towards the demons coming at her.

“We need to do something!” Steph shouted. “Can you think of anything better?”

Ami hesitated only a moment longer before nodding and turning to follow Steph. She grabbed Rose, and all three of them pressed up against the wall of the building.

“Levs, now!” Steph screamed.

Before she’d even finished speaking, the Amazon was backing up, moving to stand protectively in front of them. She swung her sword in a circle, roaring a challenge at the nearest demon.

“Ami, go,” Steph instructed.

Ami’s eyes slid shut as she drew upon her magic. With her wand held vertically in front of her, she took a deep breath and shouted. “Procella!” 

            A blue light glowed around the wand, but then faded. She opened her eyes, gasping. “I don’t have enough magic to do it.”

Steph hesitated, but a glance at the besieged amazon decided her. She reached out and gripped Ami’s shoulder. Summoning everything she could of her unicorn magic, she held it ready. “Try again.”

This time when the Wizard closed her eyes and summoned her magic, Steph let all her gathered unicorn magic flow through and join with Ami’s.

PROCELLA!”

The wand glowed bright blue, and a sonic boom sounded, roaring through their ears. To the north, the water of the lake swirled violently before birthing a massive wave that almost reached the roof of the cavern. Steph watched as the wave surged up over the walkway before coming crashing down over all the demons strung out along it.

Her magic cut off abruptly and she sagged back against the wall, dizzy and gasping. Ami slumped into her, deathly pale.

“Let’s go!” Lev’s words echoed faintly through Steph’s mind. “Come on!”

She felt herself being lifted, and that was enough to snap her from her daze. Levs was dragging her along the walkway, Rose just behind and helping Ami. Water sloshed around their feet as the turbulent waters began to settle.

“Can you walk on your own?” Levs shouted. “I need to cover our retreat.”

“Yes, go,” Steph gasped.

Levs slogged through the water, sword raised, to face the demons chasing after them. Steph turned to urge the others on behind her, just in time to see a demon that had survived the wave climb out of the water and onto the path in between her and the others. She cried a warning, but it was too late. With one brutal movement, the demon shoved Rose into the water and wrapped his arm around Ami’s neck.

“Give yourself up,” he snarled at Steph. “Or I snap her neck right here.”

Chapter 4: An old enemy rises…

Haven’t read earlier chapters yet? Start with Chapter 1 of The Unicorn’s Journey HERE

The Corvette gave a throaty growl as it pulled up to the curb and came to a smooth halt, causing a nearby flock of pigeons to flap, squawking, into the air. A moment later the engine was cut and the birds settled back down, allowing silence to settle over the street.

Steph pushed open the door and stepped out, adjusting the sunglasses on her face as she looked around. The area was industrial, the street lined with warehouses and the odd car repair shop. It was the middle of the day, but the street was completely empty.

“Nice place,” she remarked.

“It was pretty creepy when we were here last night,” Levs said, slamming her door shut and sending the birds off again.

“I’m pretty sure there was a drug deal going down over there,” Ami offered, pointing.

“Awesome,” Steph muttered. “All right, where do we go?”

Levs reached up to check her broadsword was firmly in place down her back before striding off. “Follow me.”

The amazon led them down a narrow alley between two hulking warehouses. The sharp odour of pigeon droppings and damp was prevalent, and Steph wrinkled her nose in distaste. The alley was a dead end, bringing them to a metal door set into the wall of a non-descript concrete building. Levs rapped sharply before stepping back and waiting. Several minutes passed and nothing happened.

“Are you sure the hacker—” Steph’s impatient question was cut off when click sounded from the door and it swung open. Whatever was beyond was swathed in shadows.

Apparently unconcerned, Levs walked inside. Ami followed without hesitation and Steph took a final glance behind them into the alley—an odd sense tickled the back of her neck, but the place was still deserted—before joining them.

***

As the door swung closed behind the three women, the hooded figure watching from the fire escape above rose slowly to his feet. His eyes were narrowed in thought—he hadn’t expected what he’d just seen. It was a surprise, and he didn’t like surprises.

Distracted, he didn’t catch the flicker of movement above him, and by the time he heard the faint rustle of movement, the ninja had already landed behind him.

“Fred,” she greeted him. The polite interest in her voice not at all masking the danger that draped around her like a cloak. “What are you doing here?”

He smiled, hiding his uneasiness behind a lazy smile. “I could ask you the same thing.”

“I’m not playing that game with you,” she shifted closer. “Now, if you’d like to leave here alive, I suggest you answer my question. Quickly.

Fred swallowed, dropping the smile and summoning false swagger. “You’re looking out for her, aren’t you—the unicorn? I didn’t think ninjas cared about anything but themselves.”

“We don’t.” She moved closer, and Fred could almost taste the menace reaching out to surround him. It was suffocating, and a bead of sweat curled on his forehead before sliding slowly down his cheek. “And we don’t do idle chit-chat either. Why are you here?”

“I’m a bounty hunter. Why do you think I’m here?”

“Which one is the bounty on?”

He hesitated, but the look on the ninja’s face was merciless. If he stalled much longer she would follow through on her threat to kill him without a second’s thought. Her fingers were already moving, sliding lovingly over the hilt of a knife sheathed at her waist.

“The hacker,” he said finally.

“Why?”

Fred spread his hands. “They never tell us why. You know that.”

Her mouth curled in contempt. “I know that bounty hunters are second-rate assassins who think they’re better than they are. I’ll see you around, Fred.”

In a blur of movement performed in complete silence, she swung back up the fire escape towards the roof. Seconds later she had vanished from sight.

“Damn!” Fred swore as he turned back to look at the warehouse door. Now the ninjas knew that someone was after the hacker. That complicated things significantly. After a moment’s contemplation, he reached into his pocket for his phone, quickly dialling a number.

“It’s Fred,” he spoke when the line picked up. “I think we need to reconsider our approach.”

***

After the door closed behind them, they were enveloped by blackness for a several moments. Just as Steph began getting antsy, there was a snap-hiss and several lights flashed on, lighting the corridor in a bright glow.

It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the dimness, and when she did, it was to find Levs and Ami well ahead of her, walking down a set of metal steps. Their footsteps echoed eerily, ratcheting up Steph’s unease. Had someone been watching them back there? It certainly felt like it, but the alley had been deserted. And now they were trapped inside an apparently deserted building. Doubts about the sense of what they were doing began niggling at her, but she shrugged them off with a sigh. Too late now.

At the bottom of the steps was an elevator. Its doors swung smoothly open right as Steph reached the final step.

“I assume we’re being watched?” she asked, glancing around for cameras.

“No doubt.” Levs entered the elevator.

There was an abrupt swooping sensation in her stomach as the elevator began to drop sharply, but almost as quickly as it had begun it came to a gentle halt. The doors slid open to reveal a large room filled with monitors of all shapes and sizes. All of them were on, and from what Steph could tell at a quick glance, each displayed different content. When she narrowed her eyes beyond the screens, she could just make out the blinking lights of a series of server racks. No other exits were immediately obvious. Her hands twitched at her sides, ready to summon magic—but she wouldn’t be able to reach it so far underground.

A young woman sat on a chair by the largest bank of screens, wireless keyboard resting in her lap, typing furiously.

“Hello, Rose!” Ami called out.

“Oh, hello!” The hacker hopped up from her chair, a startled expression on her face. Steph wondered if she’d forgotten their arrival in the space of ten seconds since they’d gotten on the elevator, or if someone else was monitoring the front door and entrance lights. “How nice of you to drop by. I made cucumber sandwiches. Would you like one?”

Levs shot her a look that would have had anyone less oblivious scrambling backwards in terror. “No. Do you have coffee?”

“I’d love a sandwich, Rose, thank you,” Ami beamed.

“Is someone else here?” Steph cut over their chatter.

The hacker seemed taken aback. “Who else would be here?”

Steph shot Ami an incredulous look. “I don’t know. You tell me.”

“You’re very suspicious, aren’t you?” Rose proffered the plate again. “Sure you wouldn’t like a sandwich?”

“I have good reason to be suspicious.” Steph fought to keep her voice polite despite the frustration sweeping through her. “And you should be too. We were both kidnapped by demons two days ago.”

“I know. What an exciting time!”

Levs gave a huff of irritation and stepped forward to take the plate of sandwiches out of Rose’s hands and place it on a nearby table. Then, firmly but kindly, she took hold of her shoulders and sat her down in the chair. “Why did the demons kidnap you, Rose?”

“I have no idea.”

“Rubbish!” Levs crouched down in front of her. “You need to be honest with us. Why did they take you?”

Sensing the undercurrent of steel in Lev’s voice, Rose glanced helplessly at Ami and Steph before looking back at the Amazon. “I really have no idea.”

“This is useless!” Steph turned and slammed her fist down on the bench just behind her. Mingled fury and guilt surged through her. Her friend was dead, murdered by whatever was trying to destroy her homeland, and instead of being there to help protect here, she’d been hiding in Unicorn-land. And now the only lead she had to try and track down her friend’s killer was either a useless computer nerd or far better at acting than she seemed. Pain flared in her hand, but she ignored it. “We’re getting nowhere.”

“Steph, I know that something is upsetting you, but punching furniture won’t help,” Ami said soothingly.

“You don’t get it.” Steph spun away from her, facing all three of them. “My world is in danger, and so is this one. I came back here to try and stop what is happening, but the only two people that could help me are gone. I don’t know what else to do!”

Silence fell for a long, shocked moment as everyone stared at her. Clearly her outburst was unexpected and none of them seemed to know how to respond.

“Do you want me to bring another table over for you to hit?” Levs asked eventually.

“Levs!” Ami waved a hand in exasperation.

“What? I’m trying to be supportive. She’s clearly upset.”

“Do you want to talk about it?” Rose offered. “I’m really good at listening. People also tell me I give great advice.”

“We’ll all listen, if you want to talk,” Ami added, levelling a quelling glare at Levs as she opened her mouth. Talking probably wasn’t high on the amazon’s list of strengths.

Steph took a deep breath. “No, talking won’t help. I’m sorry for yelling. Rose, are you sure there isn’t anything you can think of that might have led to the demons kidnapping you?”

“No, I’m sorry. I have no idea why they did it.”

“Did you do anything different at all in the days leading up?” Ami asked. “Meet anyone new? Go somewhere different?”

“I don’t really go places. I usually run into crowds of humans when I go out, and well… ugh… who wants to do that willingly. So no, I didn’t…” Rose chattered happily, then froze. “Wait!”

“What?” Levs asked eagerly.

“Just before I was kidnapped I’d been doing some pretty intensive investigation into a new avatar that I’d come across online. The snippets of activity that pinged my radar were just mysterious enough to intrigue me, and so I went hunting to try and track them down.” She gave them all a knowing look. “I like to know who’s out there.”

Steph nodded along as if the hacker’s paranoia made perfect sense. “Did you find them?”

Rose shrugged. “No. Their security was too good. And believe me, hiding from me is no mean feat. Whoever it is has some serious skills.”

Levs sat back on her heels, considering. “Is your security good enough to hide the fact you were looking for this person?”

“No question,” Rose said primly. “I am the best. You should have known that already.”

“What was the avatar name?” Ami asked idly.

“Shifter.”

Steph’s head shot up and she took an involuntary step back, fear and dread clutching her chest and making it momentarily hard to breath. And then it all made sense—the suspicions she’d held for a long time hardened into utter certainty.

“Steph, what is it? What’s wrong?” Ami moved towards her.

“You look very pale all of a sudden,” Levs remarked.

Rose glanced over at the plate. “Perhaps a sandwich would help?”

She was already shaking her head, backing up towards the door. “We have to go, now. Rose, you need to leave too. You won’t be safe here much longer.”

“Why? What is it?” Ami demanded. “We’ve come with you this far. Tell us what’s wrong.”

Steph nodded, looking Ami in the eyes. “A shifter has risen.”

Chapter 3: A dramatic exit

The words died on her tongue as the familiar sensation of dread mixed with fear swept through her. It was something she hadn’t felt for a long time, not since she’d last fought demons with…

“Demons are here!” she snapped. “Run!”


“You don’t have to tell me twice.” Ami spun and headed for the stairs, Levs only a step behind.

Steph waited until they were clear before following at a run. Her foot had just hit the first step when the thumping of booted feet echoed eerily down the hall behind them.

“Faster!” she snapped, urgency filling her voice. Glancing back, her heart thudded at the sight of at least four demons emerging out of the shadows, each pair of intensely bright eyes focussed entirely on her.

They wanted her, and only her. But why?

Supressing a shiver, she redoubled her efforts up the stairs. A snarl came from below, reverberating through her chest. Catching sudden movement in her peripheral vision, she glanced up to see Levs spinning towards her.

“Steph, down!” she shouted.

The note of command was unmistakable and Steph dropped instantly to her knees. As she spun, Levs drew two knives and sent them flying from her hands in a single graceful movement. The first demon fell back with a shriek as a knife embedded itself in his heart, and the second could only gargle as the second knife took him in the throat. He fell backwards, clutching at his neck, blood spraying over the demons coming up behind him.

By then Ami had reached the top of the stairs, Levs and Steph only seconds after her. Steph opened her mouth to speak but was forestalled by the sound of shattering glass. All three of them shrank backwards as every window in the warehouse exploded inwards and demons came scrambling inside. A second later, the door they’d entered through swung open to admit more armed demons.

Levs swung her sword loosely, glancing at Steph. “Can you get us out of here?”

Doing her best to remain as calm as the amazon, Steph shook her head. “Not unless we get outside. I can’t transport from inside walls in this world.”

“Then we’re going to have to fight.”

Right. Mingled fear and anticipation surged through her. The last time she’d fought demons it had been with her friends, and they’d… No. They weren’t here now, and there were demons closing in on them from all directions. There was no way they’d be able to fight through all of them to get out. Even though she knew it would be useless, Steph tried to draw on her power… but there was nothing, only a blankness that made her head hurt.

“IGNIS!”

Ami’s voice was louder and deeper than Steph had imagined possible, filled with power. A bright flash flared, too bright. Steph blinked—she thought the light might be flame, orange-blue and burning fiercely, but it was too much, her eyes watered, blurring her vision. Then there was a loud bang that set her ears ringing.

When her vision finally cleared, the demons closest to the door had vanished, in their place a thick cloud of pungent smoke filled the air. Ami sagged, her wand dropping to the floor. Steph ran to her, slinging an arm around her shoulders to prop her up.

“Levs, grab the wand. Quick!”

Steph dragged Ami through the wide gap where demons had once been and Levs scooped up the wand before moving in front of them, her broadsword slashing and hacking at any demon who tried to close the gap.

Fresh air spilled over her skin and hair as they stumbled out the door and into bright afternoon sunlight. Desperately, she summoned her magic, transforming into her unicorn shape. Levs lifted the exhausted Ami onto the her back before jumping up herself. Steph summoned more magic, and demons spilling out the door after them were enveloped in a bright rainbow glow as she let it go in a burst, transporting them all to safety.


The unicorn walked along the narrow path behind the waterfall, steps unerringly knowing the way despite the darkness of nightfall. She’d left the wizard and the amazon outside the wizard’s store, taking advantage of their exhaustion and lingering disorientation to back away and leave before either of them realised it was happening.

It would be safer for them both to be far away from her, particularly if there were still those watching the shop. They’d know now that the unicorn had left. A flicker of guilt went through her—she hadn’t even thanked them properly for helping her at the warehouse. If she’d been there alone… well, in all likelihood she’d be dead now. Steph shook her head. No, the best way to thank them was to stay far away.

Pushing all thoughts of amazons and wizards out of her mind, she reached the end of the path and stepped into what had once been her home, her shoulders sagging a little in relief. Her hand reached out to flick the light switch, bathing the room in a warm glow.

For a moment she simply stood and stared. The cosy cavern was exactly how she had left it that day, months ago, when she’d walked out for the last time. The bright rug hanging haphazardly over the sofa and the three empty mugs ringed with dried tea stains sitting on the coffee table. Several pieces of paper and an empty plate covered with cookie crumbs lay scattered around the mugs. Her heart ached at the sight, and she bit her lip to force away the tears.

Forcing herself to move, she shrugged off her warm cloak and draped it across the sofa before crossing to the s side table where a small ninja knife lay discarded; she remembered that knife well, remembered the almost unbelievable quickness with which her friend had wielded it.

Letting out a heavy sigh, Steph sat on the couch, a hand reaching up to rub tiredly at her face. Her laptop sat half-buried under the cushions beside her, still plugged into power, its little light blinking at her. She contemplated it for a moment before leaning over and dragging it towards her. Opening the cover, she brought up Google and typed in ‘The Hacker’. Several gaming and coding websites appeared, but nothing that looked to be linked to an individual. Knowing it was probably useless, she tried more advanced searching, even navigating her way to a few hacking forums. Still, nothing. The term was too general.

A headache was beginning to throb at her temples, so she snapped the lid closed and tossed the laptop aside before sinking back into the couch. Maybe she would feel better, or be able to think of what to do next, after some sleep.

She had just begun to drift off when her magic sent a warning shiver through her. Alarm flashed in the brief instant before she recognised the sensation. Sighing in irritation, she opened one eye.

“What do you want this time?”

“I came to talk to you.”

Surprised, Steph sat up straight, eyes landing on the ninja emerging from the shadows at the back of the cavern. Her surprise deepened—she was actually going to show herself this time. “You haven’t seemed too eager to talk so far.”

“Your magic makes this place safe enough to talk.”

“All right. What did you want to talk about?”

The ninja hesitated. “I knew your friend. We worked together on ninja assignments sometimes. I knew about all three of you.”

Steph shot to her feet, hope flooding her. “Do you know where she is, where they both are? I have to find them.”

“I’m sorry. The ninja was killed.”

Steph froze, her hand grasping at the arm of the sofa for support. The words had been delivered in such a matter-of-fact tone it almost didn’t seem real. “Wha… what?”

“It happened about a year ago. We don’t know who did it. Her body was delivered to us, to one of our secret bases.” More of the matter-of-fact tone. Either the stories were true and ninjas truly didn’t care for anything, or this one was a master at hiding emotion.

Steph lowered herself onto the couch, gaze unseeing as she fought desperately not to cry. Her friend… dead. No. She hadn’t truly thought… even though she’d been worried, she hadn’t really thought she could be dead. “I see. And my other friend?”

“Gone, vanished after it happened. She hasn’t been on this planet since and we haven’t heard anything more about her.”

Grief surged—her other friend might be dead too. It was too much. She buried her face in her hands, trying to keep herself together amidst the stunned emotion clawing at her chest.

The ninja continued, her gaze darting all over the cavern as if keeping a watch for threats jmping out from anywhere. “I’m a ninja, so I don’t have friends and I don’t care about saving the world. But I know… she was different and you were her friend, so I wanted to come here and tell you.”

“Thank you,” Steph whispered.

“If I were you, I’d go back home. Whatever the three of you were doing, it probably got the ninja killed. You’ll be safe back in Unicorn-land.”

Steph swallowed, knowing the tears in her eyes must be obvious as she looked up at the ninja. “If that’s what you really think, why did you give me the wizard’s address?”

The ninja shrugged. “I found that piece of paper sitting on your friend’s coffee machine when I helped clean out her beach house after she died. Instinct told me to give it to you.”

“And why did you rescue me from the demons?” Steph pushed—this ninja wasn’t telling her the full truth.

“I thought you might come back sometime,” the ninja admitted, her gaze for once stilling as she met Steph’s eyes. “I was keeping a watch out for you, and so I knew you’d been kidnapped.”

“Did she tell you about the Shifter?”

“There’s no such thing.” The eyes were back to moving, and the cool tone was still in place, but Steph hadn’t missed the fractional stiffening of the ninja’s shoulders. That was one thing she’d learned from her ninja friend—reading the tiniest cues in body language to understand how they felt. Ninjas gave nothing away, it was part of their training. This one was lying or really uncomfortable.

“She believed there was.”

“What she believed doesn’t matter anymore. And I’ve done what I came to do. Good luck, unicorn. I hope you take my advice.”

Steph opened her mouth—she had so many questions to ask—but the ninja was already gone. Silence settled over her, and without the distraction of the ninja a heavy weight of grief settled over her. There was guilt too—if she hadn’t left to go back to Unicorn-land, maybe her friend would still be alive. Maybe all three of them would still be together, would still be safe. Her eyes fell on the ninja knife sitting on the side table, and her vision blurred with tears. Rising from the couch, she walked over to the table, fingers reaching out to gently run over the smooth metal.

Another warning tug on her unicorn magic saved her from giving in to the grief and guilt that felt like it was trying to rip her apart. Hand closing around the knife’s hilt, Steph concentrated on her magic. This wasn’t the ninja again, this was someone, or something, breaching the magic perimeter she’d created around the waterfall.

In no mood to be attacked by demons for the third time in two days, Steph slipped the knife into her belt and summoned her magic before disappearing from the cavern.


She reappeared on the forested hillside just above the narrow trail leading down to the waterfall and her cavern. It had started raining while she was inside, a light shower that pattered on the leaves around her and gave the night a damp, earthy smell.  She focussed her attention on the path, and it wasn’t long before the sound of voices drifted to her on the slight breeze.

“Are you sure this is the right place, Levs?”

“Yep!”

“Really? Because I have no wi-phone or phone reception out here.”

“What does that have to do with anything?” Irritation curled in the speaker’s voice.

“Well, I can’t check my GPS, and we’re in the middle of nowhere traipsing through a dark forest. This trail could lead nowhere.” A flash of genuine fear in this voice, quickly hidden.

“It wouldn’t be a dark forest if you used some of that wizard magic of yours to give us some light.”

“Oh right! Yes, of course. Lux!

A small flare of otherworldly blue light appeared through the trees higher up on the trail and Steph’s gaze followed the ball of light as it came bobbing down towards where she stood. When it was almost upon her, she stepped out of the trees and onto the path.

“Look, I really think this might be the wrong….” Ami stopped abruptly and let out a loud shriek as she caught sight of Steph standing on the path before them.

“What? Is it a demon? Let me at it!” Levs pushed past Ami, her broadsword already drawn and waving about threateningly.

“It’s just me!” Steph glowed bright rainbow for a moment, putting the wizard light to shame. “What are you two doing here?”

“We brought pizza!” Ami held up two square boxes.

Steph stared between them, utterly taken aback. “Seriously?”

“Well, no, we also came to help you save the world. But pizza is a good start, right?” Levs said hopefully.

“Both of you should leave.” Her voice was sharper than she’d intended. “You don’t need to help me.”

Levs stepped forward, peering closer at her in the dimness. “Something’s wrong. What happened?”

“Nothing, I’m fine. Please, just go back to your homes.” When neither of them moved, annoyance flared—she was too tired and wrung out with grief to deal with them. “Look, I don’t know either of you, and I can’t trust you. Levs, you don’t even know who slipped that note under your door telling you to protect me, and Ami, for all I know the note that led me to you was planted. Besides, you’re both much safer staying out of this.”

“Safe is boring,” Levs said contemptuously.

“Well, I wouldn’t call it boring exactly, but…” Ami swallowed at a glare from Levs. “Yes, mind-numbingly boring, I’d say. Absolutely awful. Much rather be running for my life.”

“This isn’t a joke,” Steph said quietly. Her anger had faded, and now she was just sad. “People have died.”

Silence filled the night for a long moment, and all that could be heard was the rain dripping through the trees.

“Will you trust us if I told you we found the hacker for you?” Levs asked eventually.

“What?” Steph’s head came up sharply. “How did you do that?”

“We’re resourceful,” Ami said smugly.

“It’s how we found you,” Levs explained. “The hacker noticed someone had been doing some Google searching looking for her, and so she tracked the IP address here. Ami and I figured it must be you, or at least someone closely connected to you.”

Steph glanced between them, torn.

“Look, my address was obviously written down for a reason, and someone wanted Levs to help you,” Ami said. “No matter the motives of those people, Levs and I are genuinely here to help. Plus, I’m getting really soaked, so if you could just let us indoors a while to dry off and eat some pizza, that would be great.”

“And after that we can take you to the hacker,” Levs added.

Steph rubbed at her forehead, letting out a long breath. Despite all her doubts and reluctance, she sensed no danger from either of them. In fact, her magic was telling her they were genuine, that they truly wanted to help. So after another long moment, she turned and began walking down the path. “You’d better hurry up. I don’t like cold pizza.”

“Geez, who doesn’t like cold pizza?” Ami muttered as she scrambled down the path after her.

“I know, right,” Levs agreed, her voice implying that Steph had to be at least a little bit insane. “It’s like the best breakfast food ever.”

“It’s all right though. I know a spell that can re-heat food. Last time I used it, it burned my dinner to a crisp, but I’ve been practicing since.”

“Please stay away from my pizza.”

Ahead of them, Steph smiled.

Chapter 2: Who needs enemies when you’ve got an amazon and a wizard?

A car door slammed somewhere in the distance and the unicorn woke with a start, her heart racing and sweat clammy on her skin. She’d been dreaming of demons, she was sure of it, but the details were already fading from her mind. Taking a deep breath, she tried to re-orient herself. She was back in the human world. But nothing was as she’d expected it to be.

“Bad dream?”

She looked up to see Ami, the wizard, sitting in a chair nearby. Right. She’d come to Ami’s shop on the advice of a mysterious ninja. A ninja who’d helped her escape from demons without any apparent motive. As if to emphasise that confusion, her neck began throbbing, expressing its displeasure at her falling asleep in a chair.

“Yeah, something like that.” Steph rubbed her neck. It didn’t help. “How long was I out?”

“You fell asleep waiting for Levs to come back with coffee, but it’s only been ten minutes or so.” Ami regarded her sympathetically. “From what you told me before you started snoring, it sounds like you’ve had a rough couple of days. You were muttering something in your sleep, too. The same word over and over—shifter.”

Steph stiffened and sat up in the chair. “Do you know what that is?”

“Not a clue.” Ami shrugged. “I’m guessing you do, though.”

The unicorn hesitated, not sure what to say. She had no idea who Ami was, or if she could be trusted. She certainly had no reason to trust the ninja who’d sent her here, even though part of her was clinging to the slim hope that maybe the ninja had been sent by her friend. .. but surely if her friend was alive and well, she would have come herself? Worry tugged at her. Where were they?

“Steph?” Ami prompted when she fell silent.

She cleared her throat. “I…”

She was saved from having to make a response by the energetic arrival of Levs. The amazon burst through the door with a loud greeting, precariously juggling three paper cups of coffee and a large paper bag.

“Here you go,” she told them, handing out the coffees before dumping the paper bag on the floor and looking around the shop. Ami and Steph watched, bemused, until Levs found what she was looking for—a small stool in the comer. With a happy sigh, she dragged the stool over to join the other two. Once she’d settled on the stool, coffee in hand, she looked at them expectantly.

“Did you know your store is being watched?”

Ami glanced at Steph, then back to Levs. “Uh… I hadn’t noticed that, no.”

“There are at least two of them, both hooded. One left a little while ago after buying something at the convenience store across the street.” Levs reached for the bag and dug around in its contents, emerging with a frosted scroll. Instantly, the sweet scent of cinnamon filled the air. Steph’s stomach grumbled. “You guys want one?”

“No, thank you.” Ami looked non-plussed, her uncertain gaze flickering between Levs and the front door.

“Who were they?” Steph asked, shaking her head at the proffered bag. Anxiety was creeping in to smother the momentary hunger she’d felt. Surely the demons who’d kidnapped her hadn’t tracked her—nobody in the human world could do that, not even a demon. By why else would anyone be watching Ami’s store?

“No idea,” Levs mumbled around a mouthful of scroll.

“I’m sorry. Just to clarify… there are people outside watching my store?” Ami asked.

“Yes.” Levs nodded, enunciating carefully as if maybe she hadn’t been clear the first time. “Two people. Across the street. We probably shouldn’t linger here too long.”

Steph frowned. “We? Before I do anything, I want to know why you’re here. You could be making up the watchers for all I know.”

“Why would I do that?” Levs sounded genuinely confused.

“To get me to go somewhere else.”

“Where?”

Ami’s gaze ricocheted between them, fascinated. When Steph said nothing, merely giving a shrug, Levs sat back, lifting her hands in a helpless gesture. “I’m an amazon. Protection is my thing. I’m here because I was instructed to protect you.”

“Instructed by who?”

“I told you, a note slipped under my door. What does it matter, anyway?” She shrugged, took another bite of the scroll. “You do need help, right?”

“Looking for your friends,” Ami supplied helpfully. “So they can help you save your homeland.”

“What exactly is threatening Unicorn-land?” Levs frowned. “And why did you have to come here to save it?”

“I spent some time here before, fighting demons with two friends,” Steph admitted. The throbbing in her neck had reached to her temples, presaging a nasty headache. “We learned some things… but I had to go back home before we could work out what they meant. They were going to keep working on it after I left, so I figured if I came back they could help.”

Levs fixed her with a look. “You learned some things?”

“Yes. I don’t have authorisation to tell you any more than that.”

“The unicorn council is worse than the bloody ninja council,” Levs muttered. “No talking to outsiders. No sharing. All right, fine.” She looked over at Ami. “Aren’t you supposed to be good at finding things? That’s why we’re here, right? So do a spell or whatever and find Steph’s friends.”

“I tried a locator spell while Steph was sleeping,” Ami admitted sheepishly. “It didn’t work.”

Levs gave a disgusted sigh. Steph’s heart lurched and tears came unbidden to her eyes. “Does that mean.. . ?”

“Not necessarily,” Ami said gently. “I am particularly good at locator spells, though. If my spell didn’t work, it could mean they’re not in this world.”

“Or they’re dead,” Levs said bluntly, then frowned as Ami glared at her. “What?”

“It’s fine,” Steph cleared her throat. “But without them, I don’t know what to do next. I’ve been away from this world for over a year.”

“If I were you, I would go back to the place I was held prisoner. There might be something there that will tell you more about why you were kidnapped. I’m betting it has something to do with these things and your missing friends. Maybe they were kidnapped too? How much you want to bet the demons were keeping a lookout for your return to this world?” Levs suggested. “You said they grabbed you almost immediately after your arrival.”

A shiver trickled down her neck at Lev’s blunt assessment. It all made a certain awful sense. And the amazon was right. She need to start somewhere, and the warehouse where she’d been held might hold clues on what to do next. Nodding with more confidence than she felt, she rose to her feet. “It’s a good idea. Ami, is there a back door to this place? I’d prefer to leave without whoever is out front watching us knowing about it.”

“Hold on a second.” Levs shot to her feet, the effect of her dramatic movement partially ruined by the fact she barely reached Steph’s shoulder. “I thought I’d made it clear I was coming with you.”

“I also volunteered to save the world,” Ami added. “We can help until you find your friends.”

“I don’t need more friends to lose,” Steph snapped in frustration. She was tired, anxious and afraid, and the last thing she needed was a wizard and amazon dogging her steps.

“Just think of me as the hired muscle then,” Levs said. “What if there are demons still at the warehouse? I promise not to get in your way.”

She opened her mouth to protest further, but was cut off by the tinkle of the chimes over the front door. Before she could even look to see who it was, the amazon was shoving her hard away from the entrance. “Go! Back door!” she shouted.

Steph stumbled over her stool, dragged herself back to her feet, and took off after Ami, who was already disappearing towards the back of the store. A glance back showed her Levs bringing up the rear. Dodging boxes in a back room almost completely filled with supplies, they made it out into a narrow alley.

“What’s going on? Who was it?” Ami demanded.

“No idea, but they were carrying a gun.” Levs slammed the door behind them before fixing a challenging look on Steph. “Are you going to leave us both here to deal with whatever is about to burst through that door?”

No. She was the one who’d brought danger to Ami’s store, and she couldn’t leave them both behind to face it alone. Sighing, Steph gestured for them both to gather close. “When I change, jump on my back.”

She concentrated, summoning her power in a rainbow glow that filled the alley. The outline of her form blurred and shifted until the human transformed into a shimmering white unicorn. Ami’s mouth fell open.

“After you,” Levs appeared unmoved by the transformation.

“No please, I insist,” Ami shook her head.

A thump sounded from the back door, galvanising Levs into movement. She leaped onto the unicorn’s back before leaning down and dragging Ami up behind her. The rainbow light intensified, forcing Ami and Levs to shield their eyes against it. Another—louder—thump sounded and the back door swung open, slamming back into the alley wall. Steph caught a glimpse of a hooded man raising a gun before her unicorn magic surged and their surroundings vanished.

***

Steph opened her eyes to bright afternoon sunshine, the smell of dust and the sight of a familiar ramshackle warehouse a short distance away. Ami and Levs dismounted and Steph transformed back into her human shape.

“That fool was firing a gun at us!” The amazon bristled with fury as she began pacing. “I have half a mind to go back there and give him a taste of what happens to losers who fire guns at me!”

“Probably not the best idea,” Ami soothed. “There might have been more of them.”

“More of them?” Levs roared at her. “You think I couldn’t take more of them?”

Ami took a full step backwards. “Of course not. I wouldn’t dream of it.”

“Unless you both want to continue to have guns pointed at you, now’s the time to leave,” Steph pointed out. “There’s no reason either of you should be involved in this.”

“Leave and go where?” Ami asked. “I don’t even know where we are.”

“Why don’t you wait out here?” Levs said. “Steph and I will go and poke around inside, see if there are any clues. Once we’re done, I’m sure she wouldn’t mind taking you wherever you want to go.”

“Like where? It’s not like I can go back to my store full of people with guns.”

“I don’t know, take a vacation. Go to the beach and drink some cocktails.”

Steph rubbed her forehead, the bickering doing nothing to help her throbbing temples. “Stay, go, I don’t care. But I’m going inside.”

“So am I,” they both said at the same time, then glared at each other.

Fighting not to roll her eyes, Steph headed towards a small door set in the warehouse wall. Only hours earlier she’d been running out the same door, demons lying dead behind her, killed by a ninja. The ground was dry under their feet and clouds of dust eddied around them as they walked. Above, the sun was burning hot, and Steph began sweating inside her thick cloak.

“What do you think they were doing out here?” Ami asked a question that was hovering in Steph’s mind.

“It’s isolated and deserted,” Levs answered. “Perfect for holding prisoners.”

“But why were they holding prisoners? What could they possibly have wanted from Steph?”

Levs huffed. “Isn’t that what we’re here to find out?”

The door open with a rusty screech, the high-pitched sound cutting through the quiet and causing all three of them to freeze. When no demons came running, Steph slipped inside and then halted a moment to allow her eyes to adjust to the dimness.

The warehouse floor was a large space roughly the size of three football fields placed together, and it was utterly empty. Rays of sunlight shone through windows set up in the walls, illuminating thousands of tiny dust particles floating in the air.

“Which way, Steph?” Levs’ voice echoed loudly in the cavernous space and the other two started violently.

“Will you hush!” Ami hissed. “There were demons in here not too long ago.”

“Steph said the ninja killed the demons.”

“She killed some of them. Who knows if there were more?”

“Ami is right,” Steph interrupted. “We should be careful.”

“Yeah, yeah.” The Amazon drew her sword. “Do you remember where you were being held?”

“It was a bit of a blur with all the running and escaping and being chased,” Steph pointed out. “But it was underground, I think—I remember coming up a set of steps in the corner of the room before running for the door.”

Levs lead them in a search across the warehouse floor and not long after they reached a set of rickety metal steps leading down. Steph nodded in response to her questioning glance. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s where we came up.”

The amazon immediately started down the steps, Steph and Ami following. The silence of the place descended around them, heavy and oppressive. The unicorn’s palms were sweaty, and it had nothing to do with the heat outside.

“I have a question,” Ami whispered.

“Shoot,” Steph murmured, keeping her eyes ahead.

“What does a demon look like?”

Levs stopped suddenly, turning around to look up at them. “Is she serious?”

“In this world they look human,” Steph explained. “But obviously they’re stronger and faster than humans.”

“Oh. How do you tell the difference?”

Levs snorted and shook her head before continuing on down the stairs.

“Trust me, you can just tell,” Steph said dryly.

“You know what else I’m curious about?” Ami whispered. “Who is this hacker girl? I mean, why was she kidnapped too?”

“I thought you wanted us to be quiet!” Levs hissed.

“Fine,” Ami muttered. Steph smothered a smile of amusement.

Eventually they reached the bottom of the stairs, Levs holding up a hand to stop them walking forward. “Look at that.”

They were in a long narrow corridor lit by a single light bulb hanging above the stairwell. All three of them stared at the pattern of footprints in the dusty floor that led away from the stairs and down a long corridor that disappeared into shadows.

“Those look recent.” Levs spun around, sword raised and ready. “Very recent.”

“I have another question,” Ami’s voice was full of dread. “Where are the dead bodies? The ones the ninja killed?”

A flashback of memory—two dead demons lying at the foot of the stairs; she’d had to jump over one while following the ninja out. Now the floor was empty. Supressing another shiver, Steph  murmured, “They’ve been back to clean up after themselves.”

“Or someone else has,” Levs said.

They crept cautiously along the corridor, placing each footstep with exaggerated care. If there were demons still here, none of them wanted to run into one. When they rounded a comer to see a broken door on the left side of the corridor, Steph reached out to tap Levs on the shoulder and point to it. She was pretty sure that was the room she’d escaped from. The patch of clean floor amidst the dust showed where the demon bodies had fallen after the ninja killed them.

A faint noise from inside the room had them all halting in their tracks, freezing into stillness. Silence draped around them. When no further sounds were made, Steph slipped past Levs, gesturing for her and Ami to stay where they were.

The room appeared unchanged from how she remembered it. A single lamp casting everything in a dim glow, pieces of severed rope lying fallen on the floor beside each of the room’s two chairs. The faint tang of musk on the air. And shadows in every comer of the room.

“I know you’re here,” Steph said softly. “I’d like to know why.”

“And I’d like to know why you’d be stupid enough to come back here,” came the caustic voice of the ninja who’d rescued her.

Steph’s eyes focused on the shadows to her right—she was relatively sure that’s where the voice had come from. “I need answers.”

There was silence for a long moment, and then, “find the hacker.”

“Why? Who is she?”

Silence. There was a whisper of air past her skin, and she spun around, but saw nothing. The room suddenly felt empty though. The ninja had gone, vanishing away through the shadows.

“Dammit!” Steph swore under her breath.

“Your friendly neighborhood ninja?” Levs asked, appearing in the doorway.

“You saw her?”

“Nah, but spend enough time protecting people against assassins and you get a feel for when a ninja is around.”

“I felt nothing,” Ami stepped into the room, looking around. “Love the decor.”

Steph sighed. “I don’t think we’re going to learn anything else here, and we should probably get out before… “

The words died on her tongue as the familiar sensation of dread mixed with fear swept through her. It was something she hadn’t felt for a long time, not since she’d last fought demons with…

“Demons are here!” she snapped. “Run!”

To be continued…

Chapter 1: There’s no place like home

A thin tendril of mist seeped through a crack in the sewer grate, giving off an oddly colourful hue. The tendril grew slowly thicker, and brighter, its rainbow glow driving away the dark shadows of the deserted alley. Then, suddenly, a rasping sound came from the grate as it shifted, slowly moving aside. A nearby rat gave a startled squeak and scurried away.

For a long moment all was silence. Then, a figure climbed slowly out of the sewer, its aura lit up with the same rainbow glow. Almost immediately the glow began to fade until the alley was dark again and the figure indiscernible amongst the shadows.

The unicorn looked around, taking a moment to adjust to her new surroundings. The air was cold, causing goosebumps to break out on the skin of her human form. A faintly putrid scent rode the bitter night air, and the distinct sound of scrabbling feet had her forcing back a shudder. She hated rats.

Still, apart from its furry residents and awful smell, the alley appeared empty – exactly what she’d been hoping for. It wouldn’t do for the human residents of this world to see the arrival of a visitor from…well…another world. Not many of them knew other worlds even existed. Steadying herself, the unicorn reached out for her two friends, but nothing was there. Frowning, she tried again, using more of her unicorn power. Although it was limited in this world, it should have no difficulty finding two people she knew so well…

But there was nothing. She couldn’t feel them at all.

The unicorn let out a sigh. She’d been away so long, and there had always been the possibility they might be long gone. Still, some part of her had hoped…

A chill breeze swept through the alley, and she shivered, glancing down at the thick, hooded cloak hanging from her right hand – the only thing she’d brought with her from home. She felt warmer the instant the cloak settled over her shoulders, and for a moment she rested her cheek against the green cloth, memories of its owner making her smile.

A sound, sharp and shrill, ripped through the alley, tearing her from her thoughts and making her jump. By the time she realised it was just a car horn, her heart was pounding and she was reminded of the reason she’d come back. The best way for her to accomplish what she needed and save her homeland was to find her two friends. They would know more than she did about the demons. They could help.

Closing her eyes, the unicorn drew upon her power and allowed her surroundings to dissolve from her mind’s eye. Instead, she pictured the place she wanted to travel to, populating the image with as much detail as she could remember and focusing on it with fierce concentration. Then, she let out a deep breath.

Opening her eyes, she found the image from her mind right across the street from her. Just like she remembered, the warm glow from inside the bar spilled out onto the pavement while inside its patrons smiled and laughed as they clustered in groups both small and large. The unicorn crossed the square in quick strides and opened the door, the warm heat inside soothing her chilled body. Almost as soon as she stepped inside, however, she knew that her friends weren’t there.

Disappointment flooded her so strongly she froze, her hand gripping the handle as she leaned against the door for support. The distraction had been momentary, but long enough for her to miss the approach of two men coming up swiftly behind her.  The first she knew of the attack was a strong arm wrapping around her neck, and a thick, sweet-smelling cloth being pressed over her nose.

Then all she knew was blackness…

♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦

When the unicorn woke, it was to feel an odd lethargy and nausea knotting her stomach. Pain throbbed in her shoulders from where her wrists had been pulled back and bound tightly behind the chair she was sitting on. There was no way of knowing how long she’d been unconscious. Great, she thought to herself. Barely an hour back in this world and already kidnapped. After that whole diatribe she’d unloaded on the unicorn council about how capable she was in surviving the human world.

“Who are you?”

The unicorn looked up, blinking the blurriness from her vision as she searched for the source of the voice. The faint light from a small lamp in the corner didn’t help. After a few moments, her gaze fell on another young woman across the room, similarly tied to a chair. “My name is Steph.”

“You’re a unicorn, aren’t you?”

“On my better days.” She winced as she tried to move her wrists and succeeded only in rubbing already raw skin. “How could you tell?”

“You were glowing there for a while.” The girl paused. “They call me the Hacker.”

The hacker? What kind of name was that? Wait…this girl knew about unicorns? Her groggy thoughts were slowly clearing, and she shook her head, trying to dispel the remaining cloudiness. “Why are you here? Do you know who kidnapped us?”

“I haven’t a clue,” the girl said cheerfully. Far too cheerfully for someone tied to a chair.

The unicorn peered at the girl, wondering if she was entirely sane.

“Can’t unicorns travel wherever they want?” the girl asked, brown ponytail bobbing as she looked around the room.

“You know a lot about unicorns,” she noted. More oddities. “There’s something in the walls of this room blocking my power. It’s a trick demons have.”

“Demons?” the hacker asked blankly. “Did they give you some type of drug? Are you feeling all right?”

“You know about unicorns, but not demons?” the unicorn asked. “Who are you?”

“I’m very sheltered,” she announced proudly.

A heavy thump sounded just outside the room’s only door, stopping further conversation in its tracks. The unicorn froze, staring intently at the door. There were no further sounds, but the unicorn kept watching, heart beating faster, anticipation rising…

Bam!

The door was kicked open with enough force to rip it from its hinges and send it clattering to the ground. The unconscious – or dead – body of a demon lay slumped on the floor outside. Hope flared in the unicorn’s chest as she instantly recognised the dark clothing and mask of a ninja, but no…. this one was too tall. This ninja paused at the threshold and glanced coolly between the two women in the room, her gaze lingering just a second longer on the unicorn.

“If you two would like to escape, I’d suggest you get moving before they come back.”

“That’s such a lovely offer, but…” the hacker began, but the unicorn cut her off.

“Our hands are tied.”

“Oh, right.” The ninja pulled a knife from somewhere on her body – she was too quick for the unicorn to see where – and crossed the room in long strides to swiftly and efficiently cut the ropes binding both women’s’ hands. The unicorn stood instantly, flexing her aching wrists and determinedly ignoring the dizziness that swept through her.

“Follow me.” The ninja was already heading out the door.

The unicorn and the hacker followed as the ninja led them down a narrow hallway and up a dim flight of stairs. They passed three more demon bodies along the way.  The door at the top of the stairs was unguarded, and led through into another corridor. From here they exited out into bright afternoon sunlight.

“Why did you help us?” The unicorn asked, blinking rapidly against the glare. A warehouse stood behind them, and the entire area looked deserted.

The ninja shrugged slightly and passed her a folded scrap of paper. “I have my reasons. Good luck to the both of you.”

By the time the unicorn had glanced down at the paper in her hands, and then back up, the ninja had vanished.

“I think I’m going to leave too,” the hacker said. “It was nice meeting you, Steph.”

“Oh.” The unicorn gestured vaguely towards where the ninja had stood only moments ago. “I take it you’re good with ninjas too. Just not demons.”

“Right.” The hacker beamed. “No such thing. Ninjas are pretty cool though – especially the way they can literally fade into a shadow.”

“Okay,” the unicorn said faintly, beginning to wonder if maybe she’d sustained a head injury in the kidnapping. Her human form was more fragile than her normal one.

“Look me up if you’re ever in Boston.” The hacker smiled and began walking away. After a few moments, she paused and turned back. “Oh, and my name is Rose.”

Once Rose had vanished from sight, the unicorn unfolded the paper in her hands, taking a few moments to decipher the scrawled handwriting. It was an address. After committing it to memory, she crumpled the paper and let it drop to the ground, frustration sweeping through her. She hadn’t been back more than a day, and already she’d been kidnapped and then rescued by a stranger. There was no trace of her friends, and her homeland was still in terrible danger.

With another sigh, she leaned down and picked up the paper, tucking it into her pocket. Her memory wasn’t that great, in all honesty. Closing her eyes, she summoned her power and focused hard on the address in the note.  A cacophony of beeping horns and car engines surrounded her as she opened her eyes to find herself standing on a busy road in the middle of a city.

Turning around, she saw the doorway to a small shop. The number on the door matched the one written on the scrap of paper. Straightening her cloak, the unicorn pushed open the door and walked inside. Chimes over the door tinkled merrily at her entrance, and it took a few moments for her eyes to adjust to the dimness inside.  When they did, it was to see a young woman with tied-back blonde hair coming towards her.

“Welcome, welcome,” she said pleasantly. “I take it you’re looking for someone?”

“Excuse me?” the unicorn asked.

“Oh, you’re a unicorn,” she said delightedly. “I haven’t seen one if your kind in many years. So who are you looking for?”

“I’m not…I mean, how do you…?”

“I’m a wizard whose specialty is looking for things,” the woman said as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. “Why else would you be here?”

“I don’t know why I’m here, to be honest. My homeland is in danger, and I came here to try and save them, and I need the help of my two friends, but they’re gone, so…” The unicorn rubbed at her temples where a headache was beginning to throb.

“Oh, I see. Well…” The wizard patted her pockets until finding what she was looking for inside her jacket. It was a long, slim wand. She focused carefully on it, and a spark of blue light shot out of the wand and hit a nearby stack of books. The stack toppled to the ground and a faint burning smell filled the air. “I can help you save the world.”

The unicorn stared at her, trying to work out how to respond, when the chimes over the door sounded again and someone else came rushing in, breathless. At the sight of the unicorn standing with the wizard, her shoulders sagged in apparent relief.

“I finally caught up with you! Phew.”

The unicorn eyed the newcomer, who couldn’t have stood taller than her shoulders, in astonishment. “Who are you?”

“I’m Levs, the amazon.”

“I’m Ami!” the wizard pushed past the unicorn to offer Levs her hand.

“Hi, nice to meet you!” They shook hands enthusiastically, and then the amazon turned to the unicorn. “I was told your world is in danger and I’m to help you.”

This day was officially insane. There most definitely had to be a serious head injury of some sort. Rolling with it, the unicorn lifted an eyebrow. “Told by who?”

“No clue. The orders were in a letter pushed under my door this morning.”

“I’m helping too!” the wizard said excitedly.

“Great. Should we get started?” the amazon head for the door.

The unicorn sat on the nearest chair and took a deep breath. “I need a coffee first.”

♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦

Across the street, a hooded watcher saw as first the unicorn, and then the amazon, walked into the wizard’s shop.

This was an interesting development indeed.

“Fred, are they inside?” His partner appeared to relieve his shift.

“They are. Should we take action now?”

“No, our orders are to keep watch for the moment.”

“All right. Enjoy your shift, I’ll see you in a few hours.”

Fred drew the hood of his cloak further down over his face, and then turned and walked into the convenience store…

 

To be continued…

…an excerpt from DarkSkull Hall

Night had fallen by the time they approached DarkSkull Hall. Alyx was almost asleep against the chest of the warrior at her back, hanging on to the saddle with exhausted fingers. Her entire focus was on the horse beneath her, step after step, the steady rhythm rocking her into a doze.

The trees lining the road seemed to press in on them, shadowy and sinister. Alyx would have been uneasy if she’d been able to summon enough energy to think about it, but in her current state of exhaustion, she wondered if she’d ever feel energized again. The sucking sounds of the horses’ hooves on the muddy road were unnaturally loud in the silence since the rain had stopped.

Then, just like that, they rounded a corner and were confronted with a stunning sight.

The road ahead of them led onto a bridge stretching across a deep gorge. Wooden support struts crisscrossed down from the bridge to the valley floor, disappearing into darkness. Moonlight shone down on the deserted bridge, which had to be wide enough for at least six carriages travelling abreast. At the other end of the bridge stood a pair of gates and beyond them was darkness.

The gorge stretched away to the left and right, encircling a row of hills. Looking more closely, Alyx caught the glimmer of moonlight reflecting off water far below.

“Where to from here?” Finn wondered.

Ladan kicked his horse ahead, going to investigate the bridge more closely. Tijer joined him, and they had a whispered conversation that Alyx couldn’t quite catch.

“This is your stop, I believe,” Dashan said, reining his horse to a halt beside her. “And here is where we leave you.”

Alyx swung her head towards him. “You’re going to leave us here?”

“I’m sorry, Alyx.” Concern softened his voice. It had been days since their fight, and Alyx was far too tired to be angry with him anymore. It seemed he felt the same way. “We got you safely to DarkSkull, but we can’t stay. Those are the rules.”

“I know,” she managed around the sudden lump in her throat. The despair she’d been feeling for days deepened at the thought that the one remaining familiar person in her life was also about to leave. With a helping hand from the warrior behind her, she slid down from the saddle. He rode away without a word but Dashan kicked his horse closer.

“If it’s any consolation, it means I won’t be around to infuriate you anymore.”

“Sure, I’m feeling better already.” She fiercely fought back tears.

Uncharacteristic compassion flashed in Dashan’s brown eyes, almost undoing her. She looked away, trying to prevent the tears welling in her eyes from falling.

Abruptly, he reached down, pulling her roughly into his arms. “You be strong, Alyx. I know you can do this. Remember who you are, and have faith in yourself.”

Her fingers gripped the rough weave of his shirt and she nodded against his chest. He smelled of damp and soil, yet he felt warm and strong.

He pulled away then, looking almost embarrassed. “That was for Cayr. He would have wanted me to.”

“Thanks, Dash.”

Not far off, Finn and Dawn dismounted too, both looking lost and alone on the dark road. Dashan waved a goodbye to both of them, which they returned dispiritedly. He then leaned down, touched Alyx’s shoulder and dropped a warm kiss on her forehead.

“That one is from me.”

And with that he was gone, kicking his horse into a gallop and heading back the way they’d come.

“Goodbye, Lady Egalion,” Tijer pulled up his horse beside her. “Lord-Mage Casovar gave us firm instructions not to proceed any further than the bridge, but Lord Ladan has assured me he’ll see you safely through to DarkSkull.”

“Thank you for everything, Lieutenant,” she said sincerely. “I hope to see you all again back in Alistriem.”

He tipped his hat. “We hope the same thing, Lady Egalion. Good luck.”

Tijer urged his horse after Dashan and the other Bluecoats fell in after him, each with a wave or a smile for Alyx and the twins as they passed. The Madman’s men, insubstantial as shadows, raced down the road after them.

*******************

Silently, Alyx and the twins turned and followed Ladan, who had already stepped out onto the bridge. The rough stone rasped under her boots and a strong wind whipped around her, ruffling her skirts and hair. They walked down the middle, steering clear of the edges and the enormous drop below.

Eventually they reached the gates on the other side. Lichen crawled over the iron surface, and some of the bars were a deep red with rust. Two enormous trees stood on either side of the gates, their branches hanging almost to the ground, whispering to each other in the breeze.

Alyx couldn’t make out anything beyond the gates except the shadowy outline of the hills. A shiver wracked her, as much because of her damp clothes as the eerie atmosphere.

Something in her felt drawn to this place. It held an air of mystery and quiet power, like nothing she’d ever felt before. Deep down, she tensed at the feeling, unsure whether the instinct was something to be feared or welcomed.

Finn rubbed his hands together and blew on his fingers. “I hope they have warm beds in there.”

“How do we get in?” Dawn walked over to peer through the bars of the gates.

Alyx did the same, grimacing as she touched slimy moss on the iron. Recoiling, she glanced up at a bell hidden amongst the leaves of the left tree. Looking back down, she met Dawn and Finn’s fearful looks.

Ladan looked at the three of them contemptuously and reached up to pull the bell hard. Alyx and the twins startled as the bell pealed much louder than expected, sending a nearby flock of ravens flapping into the air in alarm. For a few seconds, the echoes of the bell through the hills competed with the thudding of her heart in her chest.

Then, a loud screeching broke the silence.

Alyx and the twins scrambled backwards as the gates slowly swung open, the horrifying screeching only growing louder. In under a minute, they stood open, the shadows beyond beckoning.

Ladan strode inside without another word, leaving them standing there looking at each other. Tired, hungry, and cold, Alyx simply straightened her shoulders and walked after him. The twins followed behind. They continued along the road, which took them straight ahead and through a canyon that had been etched out of the hillside.

They kept walking, the summit of the valley wall towering over them on each side. At one point, Alyx glanced up and swore she could see two shadowy figures standing at the top of the eastern valley wall, staring down at them. When she rubbed at her tired eyes and looked back though, they’d gone.

It felt like they walked forever, but eventually they reached the other end of the gorge, where the road began winding steadily downwards into a wide valley.

DarkSkull Hall became visible down below them, a massive, hulking shape in the blackness. Tiny flickers of light indicated torch-lit rooms, but there weren’t many of those at this late hour. The main hall sat in the centre of the valley, at the top of a wide lake which glimmered in the moonlight. The school’s grounds fell away on all sides, and Alyx could just make out the shadows of other smaller buildings in the distance.

“It doesn’t look very welcoming, does it?” Dawn said.

Another shiver skittered down Alyx’s spine. “No, it doesn’t.”

A bobbing lantern light appeared on the road below, making its way towards them. Alyx tried to quell her nerves and look calm as the light resolved into a person holding a lantern. It wasn’t long before a woman stood before them. Short and slightly stooped, her grey hair was tied back sharply in a bun.

“What do you want?”

To be continued…

Buy your copy now!

Tick, Tock…

 

 

 

Tick. Tick. Tick.

A bead of sweat trickled down my forehead. I swiped at it with the sleeve of my jacket, trying to ignore the anxiousness pressing down on me like an iron weight.

Getting in had been easy enough.

A short drive. Down two floors in the elevator and then a brief mingle with the afternoon crowds. Innocuous, just one of the flow as I crossed the street. The rest of the team had arrived as planned, in singles or pairs, just like me. No issues, they reported.

That had been my job. Getting us all here. Getting us all in.

But getting in had been the easy part.

We all knew that once inside there was limited time. An hour, to be exact. Sixty precious minutes.

My gaze flicked from my watch to where Kayzee hunched over the safe, Spartacus at his side holding our only torch. The two of them were talking quickly, raising and then discarding ideas for getting inside. Spartacus said something about algorithms. I nodded along with the others, even though it was dark. Even though I had no idea what he was talking about.

I felt my foot begin to tap and ruthlessly stopped it. Glanced sideways at Iris, who looked calm as always. We took that calm from her. It’s what made us so effective. That, and the individual skills we brought to the table.

Forty-two minutes.

“I think I’ve got it.”

A soft click followed by a tiny flash of green light proved Kayzee’s words. My shoulders relaxed slightly. We were past the first stage.

“Great work guys,” JC murmured. He was good like that. Always with the genuine words of encouragement.

Spartacus and Kayzee worked quickly to pull several documents and a key from inside the safe. A brief glance showed the documents were a mix of numbers and letters, no images. As expected. Anticipation curled in me as Iris took the papers and the torch.

“Forty minutes left,” said Spencer. He liked to point out the obvious. I glanced at him, raised an eyebrow. He gave a rueful shrug.

I tried not to hover as Iris frowned over the documents, the light from our small torch casting her shadow across the wall behind. My glance switched nervously between her and the room’s single door, hoping the light couldn’t be seen beyond it.

Tick. Tick. Tick.

The walkie-talkie lying on the room’s only table suddenly crackled to life. Our heads came up sharply. Kayzee jumped almost a foot into the air. Spartacus raised a finger to his lips for quiet. The man’s words were indistinct, mostly unclear. I thought I caught the word ‘exit’ and maybe ‘shift’.

“Doesn’t sound like they’re raising the alarm,” Kayzee said. “How you doing, Iris?”

“It’s as we hoped,” she replied. “They’re ledgers. Offshore account details, transactions, that sort of thing.”

“The ones we needed?”

“I think so. Just give me a few seconds to make sure.” Paper rustled as she finished scanning one and started on the next.

I couldn’t help glancing at the door again. In thirty minutes we either walked out of here or we were never leaving. It felt like the room was getting hotter, even though I knew rationally it couldn’t be. This was an air-conditioned facility—the temperature would be at a steady 22 degrees.

“This is what we were after,” Iris spoke firmly, her hands quickly folding the papers up and shoving them into her jacket.

“Right, time to roll.” The words had just left Kayzee’s mouth when the walky-talky crackled again. This time, the voice on the other end was agitated. Alarmed even. Instinct prickled and I ran for the door, my hand closing over the cool metal of the handle just as a loud buzzing noise echoed through the room. It was immediately followed by a click. I tugged down hard on the handle, part of me already knowing what had happened.

“It’s locked.” I tried to keep my voice calm but it came out edged with tension.

“They’ve put the facility in lockdown,” Iris observed.

JC went straight to one of the walls. “Time to switch to plan B.”

“We’ve got plenty of time,” Spencer added. He could be good with the encouragement too.

We had planned for this, and now we split up, separating around the room to look for the other exit. We were about eighty percent sure there was one. There had to be. A room this important—with what it held? Of course there was another way in! Well, probably there was another way…

My palms slid over smooth paneling, testing, probing, searching for a weakness, or a hollow area. My heart beat in time with the seconds ticking down on my glowing watch.

Twenty-three minutes.

Tick. Tick. The damn thing was inexorable.

“Here,” JC called out softly.

In seconds we were clustered around him. He’d removed a panel from the wall, beyond which was an electronic interface with a key code.

“How much you want to bet we put in the wrong code and it locks down, sets off an alarm, or both?” Spencer muttered.

“Both, most likely,” Spartacus said decidedly. I couldn’t help a brief smile. Never one for sugar-coating was our Spartacus.

“There will be a clue here somewhere,” I said, more hopeful than confident. “Iris, see if there is anything in the documents. The rest of us can search the room.”

We’d just lurched into movement when pounding feet sounded outside, rapidly approaching. We froze in position, collectively holding our breaths, then expelling them in a simultaneous whoosh as the footsteps continued past the door and onwards.

“They know we’re in the facility,” Kayzee said unnecessarily.

“Either that or they’re doing a fire drill,” JC joked.

I smiled, appreciating the attempt at humour. “They’ll work out where we are eventually.”

“Either way we’re screwed if we’re not out in seventeen minutes,” Spartacus murmured absently. He was hunkered down before the electronic keypad. “I recognise this type of keypad. It will be a four digit code.”

“How confident of that are you?” Iris asked.

He cocked his head, serious. “About ninety percent.”

A thought abruptly occurred to me. “What was the key for? The one that was with the papers in the safe.”

Kayzee held it up. “It looks like a key fob to a car. It’s not badged though, so impossible to tell what the make is.”

“But why was it in the….”

My words trailed off as more boots sounded in the corridor outside, this time slowing as they got closer.

“Got it!” Spencer clambered out from under the table, clutching a yellow post-it. “5436.”

“They wrote the password on a post it and stuck it under the table?” Kayzee’s voice was thick with disbelief.

“You have a better idea, Kayzee?” JC wanted to know.

Spartacus hesitated. “He’s right though. I mean, what if—”

I wasn’t sure where I came down on this argument, but those running feet outside certainly seemed to be slowing down as they got closer to our…oh, they were definitely slowing down. Stopping even. Right outside the door.

“Put the code in, Spartacus!” JC’s voice went up an octave.

I heard the distant beeps of Spartacus entering the code as I backed up towards him, gaze fixated on the doorway. There was a fifth beep, then a whooshing sound. Then more beeps, this time from a code panel outside the main door.

‘They’re coming in.” Spencer. Again with the obvious.

There was no time for hesitation. One by one we ran through into the dark rectangle that had opened up in the back of the room. I promptly ran into the back of JC, apologized, then rolled my eyes hard as Spartacus came through last and barrelled into me. He swung shut the door just as the front door opened.

Complete and utter blackness descended around us.

“Anyone think to bring the torch with them?” Iris’s voice floated, disembodied, in the blackness.

I imagined a whole lot of staring at each other. Heard shuffling feet. Fortunately, nobody decided to assign blame. That was us, though. Mistakes and victories belonged to us all.

“Hands on shoulders and we move in single file,” JC suggested.

“In which direction?” Kayzee asked.

This time it was me who couldn’t resist. At least the brief illumination of my watch gave us a flash of light. “Twelve minutes, guys.”

“Pick a direction and start walking.” A slight thread of irritation in Iris’s voice.

JC ahead of me. Iris behind. Both super tall. After a while my arms began to ache. The darkness didn’t dissipate and so we moved slowly. I didn’t envy Kayzee in the lead. When my watch told me we were down to eight minutes, there was a muffled curse from ahead, and then the forward movement suddenly stopped.

“We’ve hit a door, I think,” Kayzee’s voice floated down. “I can’t feel a handle, though.”

“What about another keypad?” This from Spartacus.

“There must be. Hang on…”

Silence descended as Kayzee searched. I fought the urge to begin tapping my foot again. Failed to fight the urge to check my watch.

“I think I found something…”

Light flashed into the corridor as a circular keypad the size of a tennis ball lit up; it looked more like a combination lock than a keypad. Numbers and letters surrounded the edges, with an arrow for each direction of the compass highlighted. After three seconds the light clicked off and they were plunged into darkness once again.

A booming sound echoed through the space. I swallowed, pretty sure the sound had come from where we’d just been. Were they after us already?

“Check the key,” I suggested. “There has to be a reason it was in the safe.”

A small click as JC dug it out of his pocket and pressed the button to release the key. He pressed it up against the glowing digits of his own watch. “I can just make out some letters and numbers.”

“Start typing, guys,” Brett, glancing behind us. Hearing what I had. Footsteps.

“I’m on it,” Kayzee shifted back to the door while JC began reading out the numbers imprinted on the key.

The sound of footsteps grew closer and closer. Unconsciously we all began pressing forward, pushing Kayzee harder up against the door.

“Guys!” he said sharply. “Give me some room.”

Tick. Tick. Tick.

Six minutes.

I took a deliberate step away. Looked back the way we’d come, even though it was pitch black. What would they be sending after us? Would it be worse than what happened if we weren’t out of the facility in seven minutes?

I didn’t really want to find out.

I jumped when Kayzee gave a triumphant shout, then eagerly pulled open on the lock and tugged it off the door. He gave it a shove and it swung open noiselessly.

Excited, relieved, full of adrenalin, we poured through into the room beyond. A young man sat behind a desk, feet up on the surface, finishing off the remains of his lunch. At our appearance, he put down his good and beamed at us.

“Well done guys, you did it. Only 36% of groups successfully make it out of that escape room in sixty minutes. You managed it with four minutes to spare!”

There were fist bumps and high fives. Maybe some back-slapping too.

“Beers?” Kayzee suggested as they collected phones and wallets from the locker.

“Damn straight,” Spencer nodded.

I grinned as I followed them out the door. “We should do that again sometime.”

 

The Christmas House

 


The Christmas House…

The fading glow of dusk settled over the house as Christmas eve began drawing to a close. A breeze whispered through the trees of the forest surrounding it. Drifting snowflakes carpeted the world in white.

Another breeze whispered through the forest, dislodging a clump of snow from one heavily-laden tree branch. A squirrel nibbling happily on his dinner below squeaked in affront as he was showered with ice-cold flakes. Shaking his ears, he  scampered back up into the tree to re-join his family. He’d just made it into the shelter of the branches when something caught his eye—a light had flickered on in one of the windows of the old house nearby.

Tomas slogged through the deepening snow. He was tired and hungry and the jacket he wore was too threadbare to stop icy tendrils of air from penetrating through to his skin. Shivering, he came to a stop, hefting his backpack on one shoulder. At first glance it looked like he was in the middle of nowhere. Aching disappointment filled him—he’d been walking for hours through the forest, hoping to find shelter before nightfall. Now the sun was setting over the horizon and the biting air was growing colder.

Blowing on numb fingers, he looked around again, and this time his gaze snagged on a single flickering light amid the falling darkness. A moment later, the faint sound of bells drifted to him on the night air. When he frowned and stared harder into the gloom, he saw that the light was coming from a single window in an otherwise dark house. It was old and rambling, looking in dire need of repair. Still, it had a roof, and would be somewhere to shelter for the night. A wary relief trickled through him and he changed direction, making for the front gates. They stood open, one half-hanging off its hinges. Snatches of ringing bells sounded again and two more upper floor windows lit up as Tomas walked through the gates and began heading up the long driveway to the house. At one point he swore he could hear the sound of children’s laughter coming from inside, even though his prints were the only ones in the pristine snow around the house.

Reaching the imposing front dors, he hesitated only a moment before pushing them open. They swung inwards with a groaning creak, and blessedly warm air rushed out, enveloping him almost like a caress. Stepping inside, Tomas stared in surprise at the fire burning merrily in the entrance foyer. An unbroken layer of dust covered the wooden floor and the mantle above the fireplace.

“Hello?”

The word echoed back at him over and over, seeming to reverberate through the entire house. No response came. Shrugging, Tomas closed the doors to keep out the cold and stepped closer to the fireplace. As he stood there, debating what to do next, an arched door to his right swung open soundlessly. Golden-orange firelight from beyond shone through, illuminating the motes of dust floating through the air.

“This is creepy,” he muttered. But oddly enough he didn’t feel any fear. His instincts were sharp, and usually warned him if there was something wrong nearby. This old house was certainly odd, but not dangerous.

The bells sounded again, louder this time, almost immediately followed by a snatch of bright music. He was still debating whether to walk through when a rustling sound from above had him turning and edging back towards the front door. Moments later, a small figure appeared through one of the windows set high up in the wall, carefully lowering herself down. Tomas stared in astonishment as the girl dropped lightly to the floor, brushing clouds of dust and snow from her clothes, before turning to scowl at him. Though she only reached his shoulder in height, she looked about his own age, her clothing as ragged as his.

“Who are you?” she demanded.

“Who are you?”

She looked around, her glance taking in the dusty floor and the melting snow from his boots. Wariness surrounded her like a cloak, and if Tomas hadn’t recognised that feeling so easily, he might have been more intimidated by her scowl and challenging words. “You don’t live here either.”

He shrugged, keeping his shoulders relaxed. He sensed no danger from this girl either, and something inside him, something lonely, thought it might be nice to have some company. “I came looking for shelter for the night. The house seems empty, though.”

Her scowl deepened. “Lit that fire all by yourself, did you?”

“No, it was lit when I walked in.” After hesitating a moment, Tomas reached out a hand. “I’m Tomas.”

She stared disdainfully at his hand until he dropped it. “Amerla.”

“So, what are you here to steal?” he asked, unable to help the smirk that crossed his face.

“Like you, I’m just looking for shelter,” she said casually. He didn’t buy it for a second—the way her eyes were roving the room indicated someone familiar with casing a place. He’d done it often enough himself to know. “The snow is getting heavier out there.”

The sound of bells echoed through the house again. Tomas offered a smile. “It’s not a good night for being outside. This house seems pretty big. I’m happy to share if you are.”

“Try anything and I’ll stab you in the eyeballs,” she muttered, striding past him towards the open door.

Grinning, Tomas turned and followed. His mouth fell open in surprise as he stepped though. This room was lit by another crackling fire that filled the cozy space with the sweet scent of cedar. A Christmas tree stood in the corner, decorated with lights and baubles and a bright golden star. A long, plush-looking couch sat across from the hearth, a neatly folded quilt sitting at each end.

They both jumped as a scratching sound came from the old record player in the corner. Moments later, the tune to ‘jingle bells’ hummed softly from the speakers.

“This is weird.” Amerla’s eyebrows were narrowed in suspicion. “I don’t believe in ghosts.”

“Neither do I.” Tomas looked around the room one more time before dropping his backpack to the floor. “But it’s cold and dark outside. I’m staying.”

She stared at him for a long moment before finally conceding with a sigh. “You’re right.”

As Tomas and Amerla cautiously approached the couch, the door behind them silently swung shut, keeping the warmth in the room. Outside, red and green fairy lights strung along the eaves of the roof suddenly turned on. The chiming of bells swelled.


“So, what are you running from?”

Surprised she’d been the one to open conversation, Tomas shrugged. “The usual.”

Amerla acknowledged that with a small, sad smile. “You headed anywhere in particular?”

“Just away. As far as I can get.” He might be lonely, but he wasn’t in the mood to share his story. Not thinking about why he was running was the only way to stay sane sometimes.

Silence fell around them again, broken occasionally by popping from the fireplace. Tomas leaned down to pull off his boots and stretch his frozen toes out towards the warmth of the fire. “How long have you been on your own?”

“Long enough,” she said softly.

His stomach rumbled then, breaking the tenseness. Her swift grin, as brief as it was, warmed Tomas. She has a face made for smiling.

“I’m bored.” She rose to her feet. “I’m going to see what’s through there.”

Made sleepy by the warmth despite his hunger, Tomas stayed on the couch while Amerla crossed to the only other door in the room. This time it was the sound of chimes that echoed through the house as the door opened. Unbeknownst to Tomas or Amelda, lights now flickered in all the windows of the Christmas House.

“Tomas! You’re going to want to see this.”

At the stunned note in her voice, Tomas leaped off the couch and followed her through the door, stopping dead at the sight laid out before him. He’d entered a kitchen, the table running down its centre groaning under the amount of food lying on it. There were steaming mince pies, a whole roasted turkey, platters of roasted potatoes and a dish of green beans. Off to the side sat frosted Christmas cupcakes, a bowl full of candy canes and at least ten crunchy bread rolls. On the stove, bubbling away happily, was a large pot of what smelled like spiced apple cider.

His mouth watered, his hunger—long ignored—surging with a vengeance.

“I think this is for us.” Amerla’s voice was light with disbelief.

Tomas reached out to rest his hand against gently against the wall in thanks. “Yeah, I think it is.”


Tomas sat back against the deliciously soft cushions and let out a contented sigh. He thought his stomach might burst if he tried to fit any more in… he couldn’t remember the last time he’d been able to eat until he was full. Amerla sat on the opposite end of the couch, one hand toying with a loose thread on the quilt that had been left there.

“Tomorrow… ” she began speaking, then fell silent.

“Yeah?” he gently encouraged.

“I was thinking of heading north.”

She was staring down at her hands, so he felt safe in letting out the smile that spread across his face. “Seems like a good direction to go in.”

“Okay, then.”

“Tomorrow is Christmas, though. I think we should stay here one more night.”

Around them, the bells chimed.

That quicksilver smile lit up Amelda’s face again. “I’m okay with that.”


The squirrel scampered across the roof of the Christmas House before swinging down one of the drainpipes towards the ground. It was just after midnight, and the Christmas lights adorning the house glowed brightly against the white snow. The squirrel paused above one of the arched windows, looking through the frosted glass in curiosity.

Inside were two young people. A crackling fire flickered in the grate, casting a warm pool of light around the sofa sitting before the hearth. Empty mince tart wrappers littered the surface, along with two empty mugs and the remnants of a cherry pie.

A young man was in the middle of the sofa, legs sprawled out and resting on the coffee table, head leaning to the side and resting on the cushions, fast asleep. The girl was curled in the far corner, one hand resting almost close enough to touch the boy’s shoulder.

Outside, the squirrel turned and headed back towards his tree, the memory of warmth and burgeoning friendship following him all the way back home…

The end.

 

Merry Christmas!

Lisa


Image source: Joannie Dennis: Thomas Kinkade, “Painter of Light” (1958–2012): (CC BY 2.0)

A night at the basketball

LCass’ right food tapped a steady staccato against the polished hardwood, the movement betraying her otherwise relaxed posture as she sat on the bleacher. Her gaze was distant, her focus ostensibly on her teammates warming up nearby.

“LCass”

She looked up at the greeting, a quick smile crossing her face. “Kayzee.”

“Big night tonight, LCass.” He dropped his bag to the floor and stretched out beside her.

“You’re telling me.”

People were filing into the stadium now; other players, referees, spectators. The low hum of conversation masked the uneasy mix of anticipation and anxiousness that had been building in the players all day.

“We’ll be fine, LCass,” Kayzee said now, as he rose to join those warming up. “We just gotta play our game.”

===

“I’ve got a good feeling about this,” Spencer told them as the siren sounded to start the game.

He saw some quick smiles at his usual joke, but the varying degrees of anxiousness on their faces precluded genuine amusement. A small smile flickered over his face as he watched them file onto the court. They’d be fine.

==

They were coming out strong, Becky H thought to herself, already feeling the burn in her muscles and the rasp of air in her lungs. She faced down the opposition point guard, her entire focus on the movement of his hands and the ball he was dribbling. In a move quicker than lightning, she shifted, left hand reaching out to pick his pocket. He fought for the ball but she caught it cleanly, passing quickly off to Spencer.  Spencer cleared the ball from the key and moved it down-court, looking instantly for JC. The moment he’d freed himself from his defender, Spencer lobbed the ball in, and JC’s quick catch and release put two more points on the board for the Slamburgers

===

The sound of the whistle was sharp in JC’s ears as the referee called a foul, signalling two free throws for the opposition. Sweat beaded on his forehead, trickling down his face as he took the opportunity for a breather. As the second shot went up, he readied himself, feeling the muscles in his legs bunch, his breath catch as he waited for the right…now! He launched himself upwards, leaping high to corral the rebound. The ball was rough against the skin of his palms as he caught it firmly, before landing and immediately turning to run. His head came up, eyes scanning the court ahead. When he spotted Dirk running the break, he picked up his dribble and threw a bullet pass down-court. Catching it on the run, Dirk took two long strides and banked in the layup.

Cheers broke out from the bleachers where the Slamburgers’ fans sat, but JC barely heard them. His focus was on the ball, already being brought up the court. He turned briefly, calling out for the D to tighten up, warning his teammates the ball had been inbounded. The score was close–too close–and they needed to play better defence.

===

Iris felt the breath whoosh from her lungs as she caught an elbow to the chest. Ignoring the momentary breathlessness, she firmed her defensive stance and hunkered down. Her opponent backed up hard, again, trying to force Iris further back. When she turned and tried to shoot, Iris slammed her palm into the ball, sending it flying away. Cheers broke out from the crowed, and Kayzee’s cry of “Yeah, IRIS!” cut clear through the noise. She cast around, looking for the ball, but Spartacus was already there, diving on the floor to grab it before the opposition could. Somehow, he managed to get the ball out to Kayzee, and the Slamburgers had another possession. Iris and Spartacus took a deep breath, forcing away the weariness burning in their legs, and together broke into a run down-court.

===

Darko stood before his team in the timeout. The game was tight, and there was less than five minutes to go. Dirk, LCass and JC were hanging their heads, beating themselves up for missing shots, while Iris looked exhausted from the beating she was taking under the rim. Spencer, Spartacus and Kayzee were working hard to cheer the team up, and Darko gave them an encouraging nod–this was their game to win, he knew it.

“We make the right decisions, and we win this,” Darko told his team, steady and confident. “It’s a single possession game. We just relax and do what we do.”

“Back yourselves,” Kayzee added. “We got this.”

Darko could see the words steadying them, bringing back some confidence. The referee’s whistle sounded, and together they filed back onto the court.

===

Kayzee drove hard into the key, drawing two defenders after him before kicking the ball back out. LCass caught the ball on the three-point-line, wide open, and rose up to take the shot. It looked good coming out of her hands, but the ball circled the rim before falling out. Bitter frustration filled her, burning in its intensity, and she ran back on defence as the opposition caught the rebound and pushed the ball quickly down-court.

==

Becky H sat on the bench, hands curled tight in anxiousness, watching the final minutes unfold. Her team was doing everything they needed to, getting the right shots for themselves, but nothing was falling. The three-pointer from the opposition was a dagger, pushing the lead to five with less than two minutes on the clock. Even so, the Slamburgers kept fighting. With patience, they won themselves an open three for Dirk, but the shot went wide. A drive and pull-up from JC rolled off the rim and out.

Inexorably, the seconds ticked down. The Slamburgers were going to lose. The cheers from the other end of the bench rose in intensity as a win for their team became a certainty.

===

The spectators watched the Slamburgers gather by the bench after they’d congratulated the winning team. The heavy air of disappointment that hung over them was palpable, but they were clustered close together, already giving each other words of encouragement.

The Slamburgers were a team; the spectators could see that clear as day. And they’d have another chance at the finals. It was inevitable.