To keep Orgoli's attention, I stepped off the bottom stair and tottered toward him. Caleb and Lazar got cautiously to their feet. “So you're a shadow walker like Morfael,” I said. “Why haven't you walked into our world before?”
“I have responsibilities in my own world,” he said. “But I have been here before. You remember.”
I did remember. This had to be the same creature that had inhabited Caleb's body, just as Ximon had claimed. That transformation hadn't been as complete as this one. And something still didn't quite make sense. “But Morfael travels between worlds without having to use other people. Why don't you do what he does?”
Caleb and Lazar were backing up with exquisite slowness. It was agonizing, but my keeping Orgoli occupied was helping. That helped me stand straighter, to keep my voice going, to keep from running away.
“Only half of me is shadow walker,” he said. “Unlike Morfael, I have a place I belong, a place of my own. That is where I live, and where I would have stayed if your world was not so bent on destroying mine.”
Okay, so that made no sense. I was pretty sure very few people from our world even knew about Othersphere. Except maybe Ximon, and he hadn't tried to destroy it, just to cut us off from it completely.
“How are we destroying you?” I asked.
The thing leaned in a little closer as a chill ran up my spine. “You, my child, are one of
“I grew up here.” The words rattled out in a defensive rush. “My parents were born here. This is my world.”
The creature shook his head. “You would think differently if you journeyed back to where you belong.”
Caleb and Ximon were very close to the stairs now. I couldn't let myself be distracted by the crazy mix of feelings Orgoli's words churned up in me. I did want to go to Othersphere, to learn about my family there, but this wasn't the time to talk about that. I babbled something, anything, at him. . . . “So if you're half shadow walker, then the banishment tone Morfael used to push my biological mother back to Otherâto your world, might not work on you.”
“Might.” Orgoli smiled. A hungry smile. “I like these words of uncertainty in your language. Probably. Possibly. Perhaps.” Orgoli turned and looked at the two half-brothers, not surprised to find they were climbing the broken stairs. “Which one should I eat first?”
“Leave them alone,” I said, squeezing my hands into weak fists. “Or perhaps I'll eat you.”
“Little cub,” Orgoli said. “You have grown.”
“Then help me understand.” I took another step toward the creature, getting between it and the stairs. Maybe he'd eat me first and give the others time to run. “You know Morfael. That means you might know my biological mother, the one who gave birth to me.”
“Know her?” Its smile widened. “That is one way to say it.”
My heart omitted a beat. Behind me I could hear Caleb and Lazar hoisting themselves up. The creature cast them an unhurried glance.
“Dez!” Caleb spoke from the basement doorway, silhouetted next to Lazar, his hand out toward me. “Dez, come.”
His voice spoke of power, of strength, of the knowledge that I was the predator here. I was the one who ruled, not this thing. . . .
Inside me, the dark void linked to Othersphere roiled at his voice's encouragement. As a caller of shadow, he was pushing me to shift into my tiger form, the form that was strongest, fastest, most confident, most able to leap from here to the doorway.
The most likely to survive.
But I still just wanted to curl up in a ball and hide. I clung to the idea that Caleb cared enough to try to get me to change. That was the only thing keeping me on my feet.
“How do you know my biological mother?” I forced the question from my mouth.
Orgoli said, “Still you don't understand.”
“Okay,” I heard Lazar say. “Together.” His voice joined with Caleb's:
“We call upon you, Desdemona. We call upon you. . . .”
Their voices joined, blended so perfectly that they sounded like one. The call to shift redoubled in power, pushing my weakness into a corner, becoming irresistible. The longing to unsheathe my claws, to hunt, pierced my lethargy. Shadow coursed through my veins, up my nerves, pushing back my human form. I leaned into the voices of my friends....
“Oh, little cub,” Orgoli said. “I permit you to come forth. For you are my daughter.”
I roared, and with a lash of my tail, I leapt for his throat.
My claws scraped against what felt like glass at his shoulders and chest. Desperate to damage him, I wrapped my legs around his tall, narrow body and bent my teeth for his neck. Orgoli had blood, somewhere in there. I could smell it. He had a heart, beating faintly, somewhere inside that strange body. I could hear it.
Then with a sweep of his arm, he flung me like a rag. I flew backwards.
I crashed into the staircase, destroying what was left of it. But the wood giving way beneath me cushioned me enough to keep my bones from breaking.
I struggled to my feet, refusing to think about what Orgoli had just said, knowing only that I had to delay him long enough for my friends to get away. Then I could collapse. Then he could eat me or whatever. It was hard to care.
From the corner of my eye, I saw Caleb take something from his coat pocket and move out of sight. Lazar pulled something shiny from his boot.
I snarled up at them, thinking
And launched myself at Orgoli again.
He caught me in mid-air. His bony arms grew longer as he did it, holding all eight hundred pounds of me up in the air, the way a human would a kitten, too far away for my flailing paws to reach him.
“I could have eaten you when you were newly born,” Orgoli said. I could find no emotion in the deep furrows of his flinty face. “As I did my other children. But I was occupied with a rebellion, and your mother used that to hide you from me. My own half-brother helped her take you through the veil. He blocked me from coming through with his tricks and traps. For years I sought a way to find you and to stop your world's destructive influence on mine. But my brother is clever. He hid you well. Your link to shadow had disappeared. So I sought a link in someone else. I kept my eye on many promising young ones, including your boy there. The one named Caleb. I almost had him, too, that night. I would have. But you were too cunning.” He shook me, the way a child shakes a doll. I tried to bite his hand, but my teeth slid off his skin. “Now I don't know whether to embrace you or to gulp you down.”
A gunshot snapped behind me, and a silver bullet struck Orgoli right between the eyes. It fractured the surface of his face the way a pebble cracks a windshield. The monster winced and bent molten eyes on Lazar.
A fine shower of dust tickled my ears and whiskers. The crack in the roof above Orgoli widened.
“Get ready, Dez!” Lazar shouted, and fired a series of shots past me, right into Orgoli, thwacking into his neck, chest, and jaw. More fissures snaked along the glassy skin, like the gap in the ceiling above us.
Orgoli shook himself. His grip on me weakened. I scrabbled to get some kind of purchase on his obsidian skin.
A chunk of ceiling split off and plummeted down behind Orgoli. Larger pieces of plaster rained upon his head, falling into his eyes. I was also getting hit, but because I was farther from the ceiling crack, the pieces were smaller, leaving only bruises.
A larger piece fell in front of him, sending up an explosion of plaster. Orgoli let go of me with one hand, using his black staff to shield his face.
That was all I needed. I used my rear paws to push off of the remaining hand that held me and wiggled free at the same time, bounding for the doorway. One of my hind feet slipped on Orgoli's slick surface, throwing off my aim, and I landed half in the door. My back legs and tail dangled over the empty space where the staircase had been.
Orgoli reached for me. I hoisted myself up, and he grabbed my tail in a terrible grip.
The entire basement ceiling caved in.
Orgoli lost his hold on me as he disappeared beneath an avalanche of cement and heavy wooden beams. I scrambled to my feet in the hallway as Caleb ran past, the floor behind him where the kitchen had been now nothing but a ruinous hole.
Lazar and I took off after him. Walls around us were creaking, tilting. Above us the weight of the second story swayed.
I bolted out the front door after Caleb, Lazar a few feet behind. The SUV was waiting at the curb, London in the driver's seat.
Brakes screeched a block away, and someone down the sidewalk shouted, “Tiger!?”
Arnaldo, hastily dressed in human form, opened the SUV's side door and we piled in, not pausing to get out of each other's way. Caleb ended up at the bottom of the pile on the floor, with me still in tiger form taking up half the car and Lazar half on top.
London peeled out, and I got out from under Lazar in time to see 1491 Cherry Drive crumble in on itself like a failed soufflÃ©.
I pushed my way to the very back of the SUV, staring out the window. As we rounded the corner, one edge of the roof of 1491 Cherry Drive was flung back, and something blacker than the darkness slithered out.
After I shifted back to human and changed into my spare set of clothes in the back of the car, I stayed there, arms wrapped around my folded too-long legs, head on my knees, staring out the back window at the receding streetlights.
He could be lying.
But he wasn't.
And if what I'd seen was any indication, he was still alive. Did that mean Ximon was also still alive? I could hear them discussing it in the front of the car. There was no way to be sure.
I'd encountered my biological mother three times now. I didn't know her name. She'd used my real mother's body to come through the veil at the base of the Lightning Tree, and then again at school. She was mostly human looking, but otherworldlyâtall, beautiful, all striped red-and-black hair and terrifying yellow-green eyes. I'd seen her once more after that, the same night Siku died.
That night I'd also seen the moon in Othersphere, huge and pulsing, just as it had looked through the window that Ximon, or rather Orgoli . . . had opened when he kidnapped Amaris. My biological mother had called me Sarangarel; she said she needed me to come back to Othersphere with her. She'd hinted that Morfael had betrayed her by keeping me here so long. It seemed that their deal had been for him to keep me safe on this side of the veil until she wanted me back. But Morfael had cut me off from shadow entirely and arranged for Mom to adopt me, without consulting my biological parents.
I was beginning to understand why.
I'd always known that my mother had chosen me. Her profound, abiding love was never in doubt. But it hadn't stopped me from wondering who was responsible for creating me. Mom was short, practical, Wiccan, and willing to believe her eyes, which had come in handy when I shifted in front of her the first time. But still I wanted to know where I got my towering height, my untamed red hair. I'd grown up feeling out of place, a lumbering brightly-colored freak. Later, I found a joy in my tiger form, and then in my human form, I hadn't imagined before. But it had only confirmed that I was an aberration. Everyone seemed to think there were no other tiger-shifters left on earth. I was the last.
And now it seemed I wasn't a tiger-shifter after all. Or at least not completely. If that thing, Orgoli, was half shadow walker, and he really was my biological father, then I was well, what, exactly? I'd assumed my biological mother was a tiger-shifter. She had the look of one. And since shifters in this world only ever mated with other shifters of the same tribe, I'd also assumed my biological father was a tiger-shifter.
You were wrong.
So wrong that November had been horribly injured. So wrong that Caleb and Lazar had been forced to risk their own lives to save mine. If it hadn't been for me, for my arrogance in assuming I knew that Ximon was lying, none of that would have happened.
It was the same arrogance the tiger felt when she hunted. The same certainty of the predator, to whom all others were either prey or threats to be eliminated.
A length of familiar brown rope flew over the back of the seat in front of me and dangled, as if I were a cat, and this a string for me to play with.
Caleb stuck his head over the edge of the seat to look down on me. He wiggled the twine.
“You remembered it,” I said, trying to sound appreciative, but it came out flat and dull.
“London nabbed the books on Othersphere that Lazar found on the second floor. He also grabbed a laptop from up there. Arnaldo's trying to crack the password now.”
“That's great.” My second attempt at enthusiasm was as dreadful as the first. “How's November?”
“Didn't you hear us?” Caleb tilted his dark head at me over the shiny tan Naugahyde. “Lazar and I were able to get her to shift, so she's fully healed. She's wrapped up in my coat, sleeping.”
“Oh, thank God.” I rested my forehead on my knees, saying
thank you, thank you
to whatever was out there over and over in my brain. “Sorry,” I muttered. “I didn't hear you.”
“Lots to think about.” Caleb pulled the rope back on his side of the seatback. “It's probably better if you don't touch this, for now,” he said. “I think that when you touched it back there, you keyed in some kind of power surge from Othersphere. The rope's like a conduit for vibrations from other worlds.”
“You think my touching it helped Orgoli to come through?” I'd thought my emotions couldn't sink any lower. “It did feel like it was alive in my hand. Did it feel that way to you?”
“Not really,” he said. “To me it felt like it was . . . I don't know, searching for a signal. Like when your phone's looking for bars. Morfael will know more.”
“Morfael.” I stared out the back window. Red taillights whooshed by on the right. Off in the distance white headlights followed, and then turned away. I felt like I was on a spaceship, out amongst the cold asteroids and stars, far away from home. “I guess I should talk to Morfael.”
“So you think that thing was telling the truth.” He rested his chin on the seatback, looking down at me. His eyes were completely black again. No trace of gold.
“No way to know, really,” I said. “He looked kind of like Morfael. He had a staff like Morfael's. Why would it . . . he lie?”
“To throw you off, to send you on a wild goose chase, to stop you from finding out who your real biological father is.”
I'd grown up without a father. My mother had gotten married to a nice man when I was eleven, but he'd wisely made himself more friend than dad. When I'd played games in my head about who my biological parents were, the father figure had been the hardest to see. I had no model. In my mind's eye he was a tall, red-headed man with bright green eyes and a big laugh. When he smiled, there had been no pointy black teeth, no claws, no desire to eat me.
“Male tigers will sometimes eat tiger cubs in the wild,” I said. It sounded like a non sequitur, but Caleb seemed to follow my line of thought. “But I think they're usually some other male tiger's cubs. Genetic rivals.”
“In Greek myth, Saturn ate his own children.” Caleb kept his voice light. “Because they were threats to his power. Suleiman the Magnificent of Turkey had a number of his sons killed out of fear they would overthrow him.”
“How did this become my life?” I asked. I didn't expect an answer.
“I thought the same thing when my mother died,” he said. “I bet November felt that way last month.”
I looked up at him again, into the eyes I'd loved so much, the eyes that had once shined with love for me. Now all I could see in his face was pity and a sense of obligation.
“Who am I?” It came out as a whisper.
A line appeared between his straight black eyebrows. “Whoever you decide to be,” he said. “Just like the rest of us.”
Then he turned back around. We didn't speak again.
We drove straight back to school, taking turns at the wheel so everyone could get a little rest. November slept straight through, breathing evenly. When it was my turn to drive, I kept listening for that breath. Every inhale and exhale was a reassurance.
We arrived back at Morfael's very early in the morning. Caleb went to help Lazar carry November out, but I got there first.
Caleb put a hand on mine, as if about to say that he'd do it. Then he removed his hand quickly, as if scalded. I opened my mouth, to apologize, to say something, but he was looking down, dark lashes brushing his cheeks, and I turned away to help London instead.
As London walked away with Caleb, I heard her ask, “What does this mean about finding Amaris?”
Caleb gestured toward Arnaldo, who was hurrying into the school, carrying the laptop and books we'd taken from Cherry Drive. “Maybe he'll find something to help us zero in on her in the files we got from Ximon's stash. We've got to do
Lazar and I followed more slowly behind and carried November in to the girls' dorm. We laid her down carefully on her bed. I helped him get her under the covers.
“Are you okay?” Lazar asked, keeping his voice low.
I finished tucking in November's blanket. “Not really,”
“I've never seen you look like that before,” he said. His expression, unlike Caleb's, was easy to read. He was concerned. He cared. It should have warmed me. Instead, it felt like a weight on my heart.
“I've been kidding myself up till now.” I moved away from November's bed so we wouldn't disturb her.
Lazar paced with me to the doorway. “You're the last person to live in a delusion.”
I stirred, suddenly restless. I didn't want to hear that, though I know he meant well. “I'm not perfect, Lazar,” I said.
His dimples showed in a private smile. “That's a matter of opinion.”
I rubbed my upper arms with my hands. It was snug here under the ground, but I still felt a chill. “If you think I am, you need to think again. I'll just disappoint you.”