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.
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?”
“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.