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.
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.”
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…