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.
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.
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.
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.
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.