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.
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.
“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.
“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.
“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.”
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.
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.”