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…

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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.”

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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…