Magic Strikes Chapter 18

WE DELIVERED THE GIANT TO DURAND'S ROOMS under the pretext of Durand wanting to meet him. Inside Saiman sank onto the opulent bed. His body shuddered and assumed the shape of Thomas Durand. He closed his eyes and fell asleep. I covered him with a blanket and we were off.

We left the Arena without any incidents, mounted, and headed back to Downtown.

Jim rode as if he were wrapped in barbed wire: stiff, shoulders rigid, keeping as straight and immobile as he could.

"That horse deserves a medal for not throwing you."

A torrent of obscenities washed over me. Having spent a considerable amount of time in Jim's company before, I was able to distill the gist of his displeasure from his filthy tirade: if he had known the tech was going to hit, he would've brought a gas-guzzling vehicle instead of two pieces of meat with skinny legs and a hysterical disposition.

We veered south and circled Downtown, aiming for the south end of Unicorn. The Reapers always headed north in a straight line. Chances were, they might have caught a whiff of our scent, but would suspect nothing when it turned right, away from their route.

We made it there a few minutes after four. The sunrise was still a long way off. Ahead Unicorn lay, a blighted scar on the urban surface. Crumbling office towers, twisted and gutted, sprawled on their sides among the rubble, like sterns of damaged ships about to sink into the stormy sea of mangled asphalt. Moonlight glittered on the piles of shattered glass, the remnants of a thousand broken windows. Yellow hairs of toxic Lane moss dripped from abandoned power lines, feeding on metal.

Several blocks from Unicorn the terrain grew too rugged for horses. Unlike the northern end, where streets sometimes ran almost right up to Unicorn, here debris choked the passageways, making islands of gravel in the rivers of sewage. The stench brought tears to my eyes. I'd never had a burning desire to wear a used diaper on my face, but I'd imagine the effect on my nose would have been very similar.

At our approach a man stepped from the shadows. I recognized the weredingo. He passed Jim a set of car keys. "They beat you here," he said in a raspy voice. " 'Bout half an hour ago.

Came in from the north, rode for a mile or so, and stopped."

Jim nodded and the dingo took the horses and melted into the night. Jim ducked into a ruined building and I followed. Inside, a Pack Jeep waited. Jim got in and tapped a small digital display affixed to the dashboard. A green grid ignited on the screen, and I recognized the faint outline of Unicorn. A small green dot blinked near the center.

Jim frowned. "Fast fuckers."

The Reapers had beaten us here despite an hour's lead. True, we took a long way around, but still, that was inhumanly fast.

Jim shed his cape and passed me a small rectangular box. I popped it open. Camo paint, three different colors, each in its own little section. Even a small mirror. Most camo came in a stick that was hard as a rock. You had to rub the damn thing between your palms to warm it up or your face ended up feeling scraped with steel wool.

"Fancy. You went all out."

"I've got connections." Jim grinned without showing his teeth.

I smeared a thin layer of brown on my face and blobbed a few irregular blotches of green and gray here and there, trying to break up my features. Jim applied his with easy quickness. He hadn't glanced in the mirror at all.

The dot hadn't moved.

I checked my belt: bandages, tape, herbs. No R-kit. The regeneration kits misfired about ten percent of the time. There was no telling what Unicorn Lane would do to it. It might sprout teeth and take a chunk out of my hide. I'd have to tend to my wounds the old-fashioned way.

We left the vehicle and took off parallel to the Lane.

Half an hour later we went to ground under the twisted plastic carcass of an enormous sign advertising long-forgotten cosmetics. We were about a half mile south of the dot's location.

Any closer and we were likely to run into the Reaper sentries. Nothing said the Reapers stationed sentries, but nothing said they didn't either. We had to brave Unicorn Lane. At least the magic was still down.

"Want to go first?" I offered.

Jim shook his head. "You lead; I follow."

In Unicorn, my sense of magic was better than his. "I never thought I'd live to see the day."

"You may not see the end of it."

He just had to rain on my parade.

Ahead a barricade of boulders blocked our way, wet and shiny with otherworldly perspiration.

I slipped between them.

Touch nothing.

Don't think.

Trust your senses.

I knew behind me Jim would step where I stepped. He'd freeze when I halted.

We slunk into the narrow street, skirting the rubble. Above us Lane moss shivered on the tangle of power lines, dripping corrosive slime.

A pair of eyes ignited in the second floor of the ruin to our right. Long, narrow, and flooded with scarlet unmarred by an iris, they tracked our progress but made no move to follow.

We skirted a filthy heap and I saw a metal cage lying to the left. Large enough to enclose a human, it looked brand new. No rust. No scratches. I kept moving, watching it out of the corner of my eye. The narrow path would take us close to it.

Ten feet.



It didn't feel right. I halted.

The cage snapped upright, unfolding like a flower. The bars flexed. Metal flowed like water, turning into insectoid legs armed with razor-sharp claws. A dark body sheathed in black bristle burst from the refuse and leapt at us, bar-legs outstretched, claws poised for the kill.

I ducked into its leap and thrust my sword into its dark gut.

I CROUCHED IN THE SHADOWY ENTRANCE TO THE underbelly of a ruined building.

Behind me Jim stood wrapped in the gloom like a cloak. He fished a small vial from his pocket. I reached behind me, grabbed my shirt, and pulled it up to expose my back. Wetness brushed the aching cut on my spine and singed me with the sharp burn of disinfectant. I heard the faint hiss of medical tape being torn. Jim slapped the gauze on my cut and taped it up. The last thing I needed was to bleed all over Unicorn Lane. Considering my screwed-up heritage, my blood would probably blow up.

In the half hour since we'd entered Unicorn, we'd been attacked four times, all by things for which I had no names. Jim's shirt hung in shreds. His body had repaired the damage, but the blood on the tatters of his shirt testified that the integrity of his mighty form had been sorely compromised.

I dropped my shirt and looked up. Directly ahead of us stood a wide building. Not a hotel or an office - those tended to stretch up, and when they fell, they either toppled like logs or crumbled from the top down, story by story chewed to dust by magic. No, this structure was long and relatively squat. A mall maybe? One of those giant department stores, which no longer survived, like Sears or Belks?

The building, still showing tan stucco, sat right in the middle of the block. Its roof and upper story were missing, eaten away by magic. Twisted steel beams jutted from the drywall like the bones of some half-rotten carcass. Green shimmered through the gaps in the building's framework. I looked to Jim. He nodded. The Reaper base. Had to be.

We squatted down.

Five minutes.

Another five. The night had brightened to a muted gray glow that usually signified the sun rising. In the predawn light the green shroud behind the building gained crystal clarity: trees.

To my knowledge, there were no parks in the middle of Unicorn Lane. Where did the trees come from?

Going into the trees with the Reapers waiting on the other side would be reaching for new heights of stupidity. I wasn't that ambitious. The wall was a far better bet. Climb, gain high ground, survey the playing field.

We sat. Listening. Watching. Waiting.

No movement. No noise. I touched my nose. Jim shook his head. No useful scents either.

The magic hit us in a choking tide. Violent power roiled through Unicorn. It spiked, stealing my breath, and settled into deceptive placidity. Not so good.

A low thunder boomed through the silence.

Jim hissed.

Another blast erupted from the building, as if an enormous trumpet attempted to play a fanfare but succeeded in belching only a single powerful note, so charged with magic, it slid along my skin like a physical touch. The sound of a muted tornado rolled through the stillness of predawn. I had heard this sound a dozen times in my life - all from a movie screen. It was the sound of a plane engine.

I dashed across the street. Jim sprinted past me, leapt up on the wall, and scrambled up like a gecko. It's good to be a werejaguar. I hit the wall and began climbing, finding holds on the crumbling stucco and exposed steel framework.

Jim reached the top of the building, where the wall had crumbled, and cried out in a short, pain-charged snarl. His arms jerked back, his spine arched, and his feet left the ground. He hung in midair, convulsing.

I scrambled up. My fingers hooked the top of the wall. Stucco fell apart under the pressure of my hands. I slid, caught an iron rod, and pulled myself back up and onto the building.

An eerie nipping sensation rolled across my skin, as if a rough, sandpaper tongue had scraped a layer of cells from every single inch of my body. It peeled a little from my face, from my body hidden under my clothes, from between my toes, from the inside of my ears, from my nostrils, from my eyes.

A ward. The Reapers had booby-trapped the top of the building. Cleverly done. I hadn't sensed its presence, and we had blundered straight into it.

Pain lanced through me, setting every millimeter of my skin on fire and lifting me off the ground. I cried out, then clamped my mouth shut as the fire scorched the inside of my mouth.

The thudding of my heart filled my ears with a freakishly loud, rapid beat. I felt myself unraveling, consumed cell by cell. Unable to do anything but jerk and thrash, I rotated on an invisible spit. Beside me, Jim's clothes tore and a werejaguar spilled forth.

Desperate times called for desperate measures. I spat a power word. "Dair." Release.

The magic tore from me in a blinding burst of agony as if I'd thrust my hand into my stomach and ripped a clump of entrails out. I saw black and tasted blood.

The ward split and vanished. My feet hit the solid reality of the wall and I froze, blind and afraid to move. The after-shocks rocked through me. During the flare, using power words had been easy. Now, with the magic so low, if I used one more without resting, I risked passing out.

Something landed next to me. Hard hands grasped me, steadying me, the tips of claws scratching my skin. Jim.

The darkness blocking my vision dissolved and I saw two green eyes peering into mine. Jim turned and pointed away to the trees. I looked in the direction of his claw and gasped.

A wide, wooded valley gently sloped down before rolling to the blue peaks of mountains beyond. Moss-tinted rocks punctured the greenery with their gray spines. Between them, towering spires of trees rose to dizzying heights, their branches tinseled with vines that dripped cream and yellow blossoms. Birds perched among the foliage like glittering jewels.

The wind smelled of flowers and water.

I looked back over my shoulder. Urban graveyard. Looked to the front: fairy-tale jungle. You could pack three Atlantas into that valley.

I crouched on the wall. Was this some sort of alternate dimension, a pocket of magic-infused reality? Was this a portal to someplace far away? If the Reapers felt the need to protect it with a magical trap that would snare and kill any intruders, it must be valuable to them. Perhaps it was their home.

Next to me, Jim stretched his neck and inhaled the breeze, the way shapeshifters did when they wanted to sample the scents. An imperceptible change came over him. The lines of his body shifted, flowing, subtly reshaped by the breath of the jungle. Usually awkward in warrior form, he became sleek and elegant, like a finely wrought dagger, his human and beast sides in perfect balance. His coat gained a vivid golden tint, against which coils of rosettes stood out like black velvet. He opened his mouth and a soft, coughing roar spilled forth, almost like a purr - if great cats could have made such a sound.

It was silenced by a peal of thunder.

A gleaming golden structure punctured the jungle in the east, rising slowly through the trees.

Square in shape, its corners punctuated by stocky towers tipped with silver cupolas, it resembled a palace. The first floor was solid wall, a wealth of sculpture and textures shiny with metallic luster. Atop the wall sat a pillared hall: huge, airy arches, defined by slender columns and guarded by a low latticed rail. Above it, on the roof of the building, a garden bloomed, an exotic riot that made even the verdant jungle barren in comparison. Bizarre trees spread their branches, tinseled with blood-red garlands of vines. Thousands of flowers bloomed, interrupted by ornate ponds.

The hum swelled. The metal palace rumbled and crept up, higher and higher above the treetops, above us, into the sky. A cloud of steam billowed from its fundament and coalesced into a dense curtain of fog. In a moment the palace disappeared from view and the sky gained a small cloud.

I blinked a couple of times and held my arm to Jim. "Pinch me."

Claws sliced my flesh. Ow.

I stared at a couple of red dots on my forearm and licked them, tasting the sharp bite of magic on my tongue. Yep. Real. I did just see a golden palace fly off.

A small clearing marked the spot where the palace had rested. Sand-colored structures interrupted the greenery: terraced roofs, an overgrown gateway, and in the distance a tall stone spire.

"Home, sweet home?" I murmured.

"We should visit. I feel hungry."

I nearly fell off the roof. Jim couldn't speak in a half-form. Until now, that was. His grotesque jaws had shredded the words into rags, but I still recognized the meaning. "The jungle has been good to you," I said.

"My kind of place."

"If we go down there, there's no guarantee we'll make it out."

Jim shrugged.

"As long as you're game." I looked around for a foot-hold.

A muscled arm swiped me by my waist. Jim pushed off and suddenly we were airborne, flying above the ground very far below. My heart tried to jump into my throat. We punched through the canopy and landed on a thick branch. I remembered to breathe. "A little warning next time."

Jim made a raspy sound that suspiciously resembled a laugh. "Welcome to the jungle."

THE BRUSH WAS DENSE. SLENDER TREES WITH oval leaves and vast crowns mixed with teak choked by ficus. Here and there unfamiliar shrubs dripped pink and purple flowers reminiscent of orchids. Acacias, their bark dark on crooked stems, sifted mimosa-scented pollen from long yellow blossoms. Tall, twisted trees offered clusters of orange-red flowers, so vivid their branches looked on fire. Vines bound it all, perfuming the air with a faint scent reminiscent of jasmine.

I did my best to move quietly, but Jim flashed his teeth at me twice. He glided through the brush on soft paws like a phantom, sleek and deadly.

We climbed atop a low hill and went to ground at its apex. An ancient city lay below us.

Crumbling structures sat strewn across a wide clearing amid sand-colored granite boulders.

Ruined houses and square pavilions jutted like islands of granite from the sea of green grass.

An overgrown street, paved with smooth square slabs, ran diagonally to the left of us, terminating in an ancient marketplace. At the far end of the clearing, a husk of a tower stabbed the sky: a tall, square base, upon which smaller and smaller square stories were stacked. It looked like a Dravidian temple to me, but I was far from an expert on India.

I looked to Jim. He slipped away, leapt up on the roof of the nearest structure, and slunk into the depths of the old city. I sank deeper into the brush and settled for a wait.

Around me birds sang a dozen melodies. I studied the jungle. No sign of animals. No snakes slithering along tree limbs, no paw prints, no scratches on the trunks. You'd think there would be monkeys, foxes, maybe wolves. Nothing. Aside from distant bird songs, the jungle might as well have been dead.

Jim leapt into the grass next to me. "One building in the back, several Reapers: three, maybe more."


"Could be. A lot of animal smells and blood."

It made sense - flying away in a magical palace was all good and well, but the Reapers still had to eat. In their place I'd leave small hunting parties in the jungle and park by them once in a while to pick up the meat.

"Human blood, too," Jim said.

Human blood was never good.

We headed into the ruin, Jim along the rooftops and on the ground, hugging the ancient walls.

Unfamiliar flowers, orange, lemon-yellow, and scarlet, bloomed among the husks of the buildings. Heady fragrances floated in the air, spicing the breeze. I smelled sandalwood, vanilla, cinnamon, jasmine, some sort of citrus . . . Maybe the Reapers made perfume on the side.

We reached a wide square punctuated by a statue of a large stone chariot. Four winged elephants drew the chariot, all carved with precise detail, from the wrinkled tusks to the tassels on their gear. Each elephant was about the size of a Saint Bernard. The chariot itself, resting on ornate stone wheels that looked like they could actually turn, resembled a smaller, more opulent version of the flying palace.

An unreasonably large stone man sat on the roof of the chariot; he was at least as big as the elephants. Numerous arms fanned from his shoulders like feathers of a male peacock's tail.

His shoulders supported several heads. I couldn't see the other side, but if the statue was symmetrical, there were at least ten. The front face was that of a beautiful man; the others were monstrous.

Jim's lean form paused on the roof of a structure directly opposite the chariot. He crouched and looked at me.

I knelt by the chariot's wheels. The building on which he perched was long, with solid walls and narrow windows. And in good repair. Dark, unfamiliar, and full of Reapers. How nice.

Jim pointed his thumb back over his shoulder. Go to the back.

I dashed to the side and jogged through the ruins, doubling back to the rear of the building. I pulled Slayer out and snuck along the wall until I could see the square and the chariot.

Jim dropped from the roof, glanced at me, and planted his feet. His maw opened. A long, rolling roar tumbled out, ending in a pissed-off feline snarl.

A challenge.

A dull thud resonated through the square. Two shapes walked out into the open, their backs to me. Both male, broad-shouldered, heavily built, and wearing identical T-shirts and pants. Jim spat and growled, making a ruckus. Neither heard me moving in behind them.

The forefront man tore off his T-shirt. The skin of his back split down the middle. Shaggy black fur spilled through the gap. The creature ripped the human flesh off its left shoulder, revealing a deformed clavicle.

His hands clutched at the remainder of the human skin and jerked it off his body like a paper hospital gown. He kicked the shreds aside, swelling in size, until he stood seven feet tall.

Dense black fur striped with orange sheathed his frame in a reversal of a tiger pelt. He raised his arms to the side and I realized what was wrong with his clavicle: a second set of shoulders branched from his spine, set parallel, side by side with the first. Four muscular arms flexed, clawing the air.

His buddy gave out a long, hoarse sigh and shed his own skin suit. He was shaped like a human, with the appropriate set of limbs - thank God for small favors - but his skin was blood-red and layered with a pattern of tiny scales.

I had expected a welcoming committee, but nobody had mentioned a free striptease.

Jim snarled. The four-armed freak took a deep breath and leaned forward. A deafening roar washed over me, the deep, primeval sound of a huge predator hunting for its prey in darkness.

It drowned Jim's snarls and he took a small step back.

The creature roared louder, taking Jim's retreat as his due and promising no mercy. He was larger than Jim and at least a hundred pounds heavier. Jim hissed. The four arms motioned to him: come.

Jim leapt onto the four-armed creature. The moment they clashed in a whirlwind of teeth and claws, I sank Slayer into the back of its red-scaled friend. The blade bit deep, severed the spinal column, and came out in a small spray of crimson. The Reaper whipped around, but his legs failed him. As he went down, I saw his face: human and impossibly beautiful.

Wood groaned. A lean shape sailed over me and landed in a crouch on the stones. A female creature. Her mint-green body was furry on the stomach and chest and studded with foot-long needles like a porcupine's on her back. Black claws the length of my hand tipped her fingers.

She glared at me with yellow eyes and charged.

Her clawed hand swiped at me, too fast. I dodged left, but she caught me. Pain sliced down my side. She dashed, trying to get behind me. I let her, reversed my blade, and stabbed backward into the soft green gut just under her rib cage. Slayer sliced into flesh, meeting elastic resistance, and I withdrew.

The creature raked at me with its left hand, oblivious to the blood gushing from its stomach. I spun and threw myself back, dancing away. Claws whistled past my face. I kept dodging.

Strike, strike, strike. No finesse, no special training. Like a cat fighting: clawing straight ahead. Just like the fellow in the parking lot.

I dropped under the claws and sliced across her inner thigh. It cost me another singe of pain along my back, and I rolled clear.

Strike, strike, strike. Keep dancing with me, baby.

Red stained the creature's fur with her every step. Her strikes lost their lethal speed. Her chest heaved. She stumbled, swayed forward, and I caught her and pulled her onto my sword.

Slayer sliced into her chest and emerged from her back, bright with arterial blood.

Across the clearing, the four-armed freak tore away from Jim, sprinted to the trees, leaping to an inhuman height, and fled into the branches. With a snarl, Jim chased him and vanished into the jungle. Going after them would be a waste of time. I couldn't match Jim's speed, and a jaguar needed no help hunting through the trees.

I slid the inert body off my saber.

The red-scaled man lay prone on the ground, swallowing air in rapid, shallow gulps. Beyond him, the door to the building gaped, a rectangle of solid black. I flicked my blade, flinging the blood from it, and walked into the house.

It took me less than a minute to clear the three vast, gloomy rooms. Empty.

I went back outside and crouched by the scaled man. The wound in his back was deep. I had removed a section of his spine with my strike, and even with accelerated regeneration, he wouldn't be walking anytime soon.

"A week ago a young werewolf tried to take a girl from you," I said. "You beat him, tortured him, and dumped him by the shapeshifters' house, but you let him live. Why?" Here's hoping he understood English.

The scaled lips stretched in a grimace that could've been a smile, revealing snake fangs. "To send . . . a message."

"What's the message?"

"We are stronger. We shall triumph over half-breeds."

Alrighty, then. "Who are the half-breeds? Are they shapeshifters?"

"Half-man, half-animal . . . Two base races become one. Scum of the world . . . We shall overtake. Overcome. We shall . . ." He coughed.

"Any hope for peace?"

The creature strained to raise its head off the ground. Diamond pupils gazed at me. "We . . .

don't do peace," he said in a hoarse voice. "We don't make . . . treaties. We kill. Kill and burn. Eat the meat. Celebrate. Rule in half-breeds' stand . . ."

"So you want the Pack's territory?"

He strained to say something else. I leaned toward him. He focused on me. "Rape," he promised. "Many, many times. Until you bleed . . ."

"I'm so flattered."

He raised his hand and traced a short line over my chest. "Carve out your heart . . . won't cook it in the fire . . . eat it raw when all half-breeds are dead."

We weren't getting anywhere. "What are you?"

"Warriors . . . supreme."

Hard to be supreme with your spine cut. "What are you called? Do you have a name?"

He rolled his eyes to the sky. "Glorious . . . army . . . blood like a red flower blooming . . .

Soon. Very soon. We shall have the jewel. We shall honor the promise to the Sultan of Death and destroy the half-breeds . . . We shall take their place, grow stronger, and when our time comes . . . we shall . . . teach the Sultan of Death humility."

"Who is the Sultan of Death?"

The Reaper's eyes glinted with stubborn denial.

I reached into my belt and pulled out a canteen of lighter fluid and matches. "This liquid likes fire. It burns very hot for a long time. Tell me how to reverse the magic you put on the shapeshifter, and I won't pour it on your chest and set you on fire."

"Human . . . I'm beyond . . . you."

"You're not beyond pain." I twisted the cap off the canteen.

He smiled at me and gulped. No words came out. His eyes rolled into his skull. Short, abrupt moans erupted from him as if he suddenly went dumb. He shuddered, clawed at his throat . . .

He was choking.

I thrust Slayer between his teeth.

Prev Next
Romance | Vampires | Fantasy | Billionaire | Werewolves | Zombies