"There she is!" Chan surged up in the Jeep, heedless of its jerking roll over wet rocks and holes hidden beneath the tall grasses at the foot of the mountain. One arm pointed at their quarry while his other clung to the cross-bar to, both damp from the warm rain.
"Yeah, I know, Chan. I have eyes," Mihn snapped from her place hunched behind the wheel.
Chan glanced down, one side of his mouth hitching up at his partner's scowl. That, plus Mihn’s dark purple hair plastered flat to her head made her look like a disgruntled cat forced into bathtime. Her shoulders hugged her ears despite the balmy air.
The rain was warmer than usual, perhaps because of the pheonixs' mating flight this morning. Flames and sparks had whirled from their spinning bodies, talons locked as they plummeted towards earth, only to separate above the jungle canopy and wing back up to the clouds.
Chan lifted his head as Mihn drove them ever closer to their quarry. Chan knew the instant they crossed the border: a staticy shiver ran through his body, sending goosebumps across his skin and tickles to his throat.
When the Anjeon Magical Wildlife Reserve was founded 100 years ago, everyone and their dog had something to say about how its boundary should be enforced. Whether concerned for the magical creatures’ safety from witch-backed poachers or afraid that dire wolves and manticores would ravage unsuspecting townsfolk, those two groups agreed there should be a physical wall around the Reserve.
Ultimately, concerns about migrating species' and non-magical animals' freedom of movement won out against those. The Magical Wildlife Reserve was millions of acres wide, after all. So the boundary was merely a magical alert system to tell Rangers like Chan and Mihn when a vulnerable species had wandered out of the protected area.
The pink crystal amulet tied around Chan’s wrist had flashed for the first time less than an hour ago, and Chan had allowed it to project a map into his mind, tracking the young unicorn as she wove along the edge of the Reserve. This section was all open grassland under the raincloud sky. Further along sat a dark forest of old-growth maple and pine. A river ran through the forest, fed by the rains that always drenched this side of the mountain–the mountain that sat in the center of the Reserve.
Chan was just glad she was in sight of his physical eyes now. With a twist of his wrist and a muttered word, he pushed the map from his mind, no longer suffering through the overlay of vision and mental image.
You’d think he’d be better at that. He’d had four years of practice, after all, because Mihn refused point-blank to take a turn with the border crystal. Trying to get Mihn to change her mind about anything was harder than milking a basilisk with both hands tied behind your back. (Basilisks don’t even produce milk. So, think about that)
"Get your lasso ready," growled Mihn, tightening her grip on the steering wheel. The shower had started ten minutes ago, which meant ten minutes of a progressively more irritated Mihn. Which delighted Chan.
"On it." Chan knelt awkwardly on the seat to fish around in the back. Once his fingers brushed the heavy rope, he brought it to his lap and quickly tied a lasso.
Unicorns were one of the few magical creatures that were mostly impervious to other types of magic. There was a whole field dedicated to researching unicorns’ natural magic, but when it came to hands-on work with unicorns, Chan just went with mundane tools. He’d rather not risk a packet of fairy dust turning into lead grains that bounced off the unicorn’s flank and straight into his eyes. Again. (It had taken him a full day to regain his sight.) A rope was much safer.
Or, it would be if he wasn’t bare-handed. Chan rubbed his naked palm over the rope, phantom burns prickling his skin. "Mihn, have you seen my gloves?"
Mihn’s scowl morphed into a smirk. "Yeah. On the ground next to Phil."
Chan's jaw dropped. "And you didn't grab them for me?!"
"Am I your mother?"
"You still could have helped me out," Chan pouted. He’d removed his thick hide gloves to inspect Phil’s healing shoulder, gently pressing the pads of his fingers along the edges of the week-old gash. Chan had told Phil there was no sign of infection and the cut should be all better in a few days.
Phil had responded with a slow blink of his limpid brown eyes, because Phil was a unicorn. Not just any unicorn, either, but the sire of the young mare that Chan was going to have to wrangle bare-handed. As soon as Mihn got the Jeep close enough.
“Speed up a little,” he urged. The mare had been sauntering through the grassy brush, but now snapped her head towards the forest. The lines of her body spoke of intent. If she were a predator, Chan would say she had caught the scent of her prey.
“I don’t want to spook her,” retorted Mihn, who did not speed up. They were still half a mile away.
“If she makes it into the forest, we’re going to have one hell of a time catching her.” Chan gripped the rope loosely, still standing.
“You don’t think I know that?” groused Mihn, and he shifted his gaze to her again to appreciate the cute shape of her furrowed brow.
“I just think–”
“Do you trust me or not?”
Chan paused. He did trust Mihn. She had an otherworldly creature sense. Seemed to know exactly what an animal would do and how to influence it to get the desired behavior. So, yeah. If Mihn thought their slow roll forward would get him close enough before the mare bolted, he trusted her
But where was the fun in letting her know that?
Chan sighed dramatically. “How can I trust someone who didn’t pick up my gloves for me?”
Mihn’s face reddened in rage, her lip lifting in a snarl. Chan didn’t fight his grin, even though it made his cheeks hurt. She was just so gorgeous like this.
Without warning, his cheeks weren’t the only thing in pain. Mihn jabbed him in the thigh, knuckles hitting hard.
“I can’t believe you're the senior Ranger,” whispered Mihn furiously. Chan didn’t doubt she would have shouted if they weren't trying to sneak up on the unicorn.
It was a little ridiculous. Chan had been hired on a mere four months before the Director brought a scowling, testy woman to him, declaring that she was his new partner. Chan had looked up a few inches and into her eyes, and thought, she’s cute. Wonder if she’s any good with animals.
Which was a foolish question, both in hindsight–because the Director was way too protective of the Reserve to hire anyone less than excellent–and because Mihn had proven herself 100 times over.
The mare hadn’t moved from her alert position, tail swishing slightly. The crunching and squelching of the tires ceased as Mihn rolled them to a stop, nodding at Chan.
Chan slid quietly from the vehicle, its rumbling engine masking the squelch of his boots in the mud. He crept forward, blades of grass whispering against his khaki pants, leaving wet lines against the fabric and tickling his bare forearms. He got close enough to see the individual hairs on the unicorn’s wet hide, and loosened the rope between his two hands as he started swinging it slowly.
The mare’s ears twitched toward him, and he stopped his advance. He spoke soft and low. “Hey, girl. What you doing out here?”
Her ears twitched again, but she didn’t turn from her scrutiny of the forest. Chan kept up his soothing babble, raising the lasso over his head to swing it in a circle. His other hand held the tail of the rope, giving it plenty of slack.
“Let’s get you back where it’s safe. How’s that sound?” The lasso whistled above his head now, a blur. “That way no poachers can hurt you.”
Chan sent the lasso sailing. It slid neatly over her head, cinching around her neck, and Chan planted his feet in the mud and tensed his shoulders.
The mare’s reaction was immediate. Her ear-splitting shriek pierced the air as she surged away from Chan.
Even braced for the pull, Chan yelped embarrassingly loud as he was jerked off his feet and landed with a splat, belly down. Mud welled up under his neck and seeped into one ear as the unicorn dragged him. It was disgusting.
Lazy and smirking, Mihn leaned her elbows against the crossbar of the Jeep. “Having fun, Chan?” she called.
The mare bucked and twisted, trying to get her horn underneath the lasso. Chan spat gritty mud from his mouth and wrapped the rope more securely around his forearm. Veins stood out on his arms as he wriggled his feet under him to dig his heels into the mud. A strained grunt escaped him as the unicorn gave a particularly wild whip of her head, and he put every modicum of his considerable strength into bracing against her.
“A little help, Mihn?”
Mihn rested her chin on her folded arms. “I didn’t get your gloves, remember? I'm a terrible partner. I’m sure my help wouldn’t be worth anything, anyway."
Chan groaned. The only thing keeping 2,000 pounds of horseflesh from galloping away were his own rapidly tiring muscles. He had no one to blame but himself for Mihn’s cattiness right now. He shouldn’t have started this game in the Jeep.
“I do want your he-elp!” Chan squeaked as the mare jerked him off his feet and face-first into the mud. Great, now he was blind. “Please, Mihn!”
“That’s better.” Her smug voice carried over the squelching and snorts of Chan and the mare’s struggle.
Chan writhed in the mud, the taut rope surely leaving marks on his wrists and palms. He slid forward another foot, unable to get any traction. His shoulders burned and his tongue tasted dirt and mud was in his eyes and–
Suddenly, the rope went slack.