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 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.