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.
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.
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.”