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."
"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.