Before long, Amaris turned the SUV downhill onto Kyle Canyon Road, and we swooped out of the mountains into the spare beauty of the desert at night. The landscape flattened out in a hurry, and the trees vanished in favor of low scrub and a lot of dirt and sand. It was very dark before moonrise, but my acute night vision made it easy to keep tabs on the lights from the SUV without using the motorcycle's headlight.
A glow up ahead resolved itself into lights around a building, and Amaris stepped on the brakes to slow down, about to turn into the complex. I remembered the place from the many times we'd driven pastâa modest but attractive resort catering to hikers and snowboarders spending a weekend in the Spring Mountains, away from the hustle of Las Vegas, but still equipped with slots in the lobby and the bar.
The SUV pulled into the far end of a half-empty parking lot, away from the cluster of trucks and family vans closer to the main entrance to the resort. Warm light spilled from wide glass windows there, and music with a driving beat announced a party. Figures were bouncing around, dancing, and a woman in a long white dress twirled into view, held by a man in a black suit
. A wedding reception.
It must be Saturday night. Weeknights and weekends blended into one when you studied at Morfael's school for otherkin.
I drove onto the groomed dirt alongside the parking lot and came to a stop. The SUV's lights went dark, but Amaris did not emerge. She had to be waiting for Caleb, which meant I would wait, too. I killed the bike's engine and climbed off to walk it farther away from the arc of the resort's light so I could sit in deeper darkness.
My eyes went to the bright windows and the celebration ongoing behind them. The bride was petite, with a curly cap of dark hair, and the groom towered over her. They were laughing and stepping on each other's feet, until he leaned down and swept her up in his arms, to dance with her that way.
I heard calls of “Good-bye!” and an older woman emerged from the double doors at the front of the resort, buttoning up her coat. An early departer heading home.
A long black car rumbled into the parking lot, and Amaris's SUV flashed its lights twice. Alertness pulled me up straighter. The vehicle looked vintage, an old-time muscle car from the 70s, and exactly like something Caleb would steal for himself if he had to. Before we'd met, Caleb had made his way by taking whatever he needed whenever he needed it. He'd probably gone back to those old habits in order to stay alive now.
I crouched and inched closer to Amaris's SUV as the muscle car approached it. The car's windows were darkened, but I zeroed in on the driver and peered closer.
Thank you, cat-shifter night vision.
I discerned a familiar brooding silhouette, the strong nose, the square jaw, the unruly black hair, and my heart rumbled with a guilty ache along with the car's engine. It was Caleb.
He stopped a space away from Amaris's SUV. Her door opened, and she stepped out, arms hugging herself against the bite of the wind.
I should go.
I'd seen Caleb. That's why I was here. That and nothing else. I didn't need to overhear their conversation, to eavesdrop and possibly catch up on what Caleb had been doing. It wasn't my business anymore. The longer I stayed, the more likely it was that they'd spot me.
But with your hearing, you won't need to get much closer.
It was so easy to justify not leaving. I crawled closer, down nearly on all fours now, moving right up to the edge of the parking lot asphalt. Caleb was a mere fifty feet away.
Just one real look at him. Then I'll go.
Caleb was too much of a gentleman to let Amaris open her own car door. As I knew he would, he turned off his car engine and got out, his long black coat fluttering behind him like a cape as he swept around the back of his car and wrapped his arms around his sister.
For a crazy moment it was like his arms were around me. I remembered how he smelled, like the woods after a rain; how warm he was, how the beat of his heart sounded beneath my ear, how our bodies melted into each other and became one....
Is it him or Lazar you're thinking of?
Something was beating very loudly, but it wasn't Caleb's heart. I shook myself from reverie and turned up toward the sound, at the star-pocked sky. Part of it was blacker than the other, and the black patch was moving, the thumping quickly getting louder.
My blood raced, every muscle tensed for attack. I stood up to my full height to see it better, but it was painted black with no identifying marks.
It can't be the Tribunal.
They'd attacked us with a helicopter before, one larger than this, and Arnaldo had single-handedly, well, single-talonedly, brought it down. In our most recent attack on their facility, we'd seen no signs that they had another. Copters were expensive, and Ximon had poured all his money into the particle accelerator, the huge underground device engineered to turn the otherkin into ordinary human beings.
But I had destroyed the accelerator, and Ximon was on the run with only a few followers left to shelter him. This machine had to belong to some humdrum rich person, arriving at the resort in style.
Caleb turned toward the sound, too. In the indirect light from the resort I saw Amaris's eyes widen in fear. Caleb said something to her, pushing her toward her SUV. She looked startled, and then turned to obey.
The air around me stirred crazily, whipped by the machine's rotors. The black insect form of the copter was lowering itself to the center of the parking lot, exactly where a wealthy person would get dropped off. Dust and snow lifted and swirled, obscuring my sight. I focused instead on my hearing, trying to discern any other noises that might beâ
Wheels screeched. Metal hit metal with a horrible crunch. Amaris screamed. Caleb shouted. I lurched forward, pulled by their cries. Closer now, I picked shapes out of the whirling snowâa large pickup truck had slammed into Amaris's SUV, shoving it like a toy thirty feet away. Amaris had been knocked flat on her back, but was rolling over to get to her feet. Three or four figures in gray emerged from the truck.
Their followers favored gray when they ventured out on a night mission. It had to be them. But how?
Another truck skidded to a halt behind Caleb's car. Two figures standing up in the bed threw a large net, enveloping Caleb. They yanked hard, bringing him down hard on his side, thrashing like a black shark pulled from the sea.
Fury surged through me, expanding my connection to Othersphere. I welcomed the darkness inside me as power surged outward from my heart, and I shifted. My jacket ripped like sheer cotton as my chest deepened, my shoulders rippled with muscle and striped fur. I shook my tufted ears and sent my hat flying, hind claws cutting the paving beneath them like cloth, haunches gathering.
I roared. The men hauling on the net around Caleb whirled. Their heads were covered with gray ski masks, but I saw the whites of their eyes and smelled their sudden nervous sweat. Beneath that I could hear the very blood pumping through their veins. I couldn't wait to taste it.
One of them, with good presence of mind, reached for a gun at his feet. I sprang, faster than his eye could follow, and landed on top of him, swiping at the other man beside him at the same time.
The man with the gun was slammed into the bed of the truck beneath my weight, his scream cut off as the skin of his neck gave way to my fangs. At the same time, my right paw caught the second man in the shoulder, claws slicing through tendon and bone as he twisted away, yelling.
I pulled my mouth from the limp first man, tongue hot with his blood, and bit the first place I could reach on the second man, which turned out to be his waist. His scream hit a new fevered pitch as I lifted him bodily that way, put my front paws up on the side of the truck's cab, and shook him like a terrier shakes a rat. He stopped squirming and when the truck's driver poked his head and the barrel of a rifle out his window at me, I tossed the body at him. The driver ducked, giving me time to leap from the truck, turn, and place my front paws on its side.
“Dez . . .” Behind me, Caleb's voice said my name in a tone that conveyed surprise and anger. I had never thought to hear him speak my name again. I wanted to turn to him, but I had to deal with the closest threat first.
I gave the truck a shove. It rocked, and I heard the man inside yell, saw his hands scrabbling for a hold. Getting a better angle, I pushed up and over again. The weight was almost too much. I called upon the power of the earth beneath my feet, upon the black hole to Othersphere inside me, and strength flooded through me like a river. With a sudden, startling ease, I pushed the huge pickup truck over onto its side, then continued to roll it until it was upside down.
Amaris screamed, “Help me!”
The sound shredded all my sense of power. Even though figures were emerging from the helicopter, I turned away from them to see Amaris being tossed into the back of the other truck like a sack of laundry by two men in gray. They'd bound her up like a mummy with some kind of thick brown twine.
“Amaris!” Caleb yelled.
Caleb was still ensnared by the net, a typical Tribunal weapon infused with silver, which weakened his ability to call upon shadow. He was painstakingly trying to pick his way out of it, even as the truck bearing his sister peeled out, taking her away.
Ximon wants his daughter back.
The head of the Tribunal in this area, Ximon was the father of Amaris, Caleb, and their brother, Lazar. Lazar and Caleb were both callers of shadow, powerful conjurers able to change the shapes and abilities of objects and of otherkin. But Amaris was even more valuable. Amaris was a Healer.
“Dez, stop them!” Caleb shouted at me.
I wanted to spring after the truck. I was bigger and stronger than an ordinary Siberian tiger, so I could probably catch the truck while it was this close.
But . . . I glanced over my shoulder, past the upside-down pickup. A silver-haired figure in white strode toward us through the spiraling snow. Ximon looked taller than I remembered, his handsome face so like his sons', but craggier, harsher.
Four men, two on either side, flanked him, and another truck was pulling up beside them. They would be here in seconds.
“Amaris! You must save Amaris!” Caleb was half out of the net, but he wouldn't be free by the time Ximon and his men got here.
I growled, shook my head, and jumped over to him. His black eyes were shot with gold, hot points of rage, focused on me. “Goddammit, Dez! Save Amaris! Please!”
The “please” cut into my heart. But I unsheathed my claws and sliced through the remaining metal strands on the net around him. The silver burned my paws. I ignored the pain, taking care not to cut Caleb instead of the net.
Weirdly, the truck with Amaris wasn't racing away. With one cupped ear I followed the sound as it circled away from us and up to where Ximon and the other truck stood, in front of the helicopter.
Caleb pushed free of the net. “I can take care of myself. Amaris can'tâ”
He broke off as I swiveled my ears forward and ran a few steps, using the up-turned truck for cover to see what Ximon was doing. I could hear the man inside the truck thrashing, trying to get free of his seatbelt and open his door to escape.
But he was of no consequence. Caleb moved up next to me, face bleeding from tiny cuts caused by the net, breath coming fast. There was a tear in the sleeve of his coat.
“Five of them, including Ximon, plus the four in the truck with Amaris and another truck.” He shook his head. “How did they find us? And what the hell are you doing here?”
I turned one ear to him, but didn't move my gaze from the two men lifting Amaris out of the back of the truck. I growled, just low enough for Caleb to hear.
He squinted at them. “We've got to stop them from getting her on that helicopter.”
I shook my head, a gesture which felt wrong in tiger form, but which was one of the few ways to communicate when I was in this shape. If they wanted to get her away from us fast, they would've driven away.
Caleb eyed me, thinking hard. “No, you're right. Why not drive away and have the helicopter pick her up down the road, far away from us?”
It hurt having him read my intentions so well. We'd always been in sync, finishing each other's thoughts, feeding upon each other's ideas. Why then, were we apart? It was partly Caleb's fault, for being a stubborn idiot with antique ideas about the Tribunal and the otherkin. But it was mostly my responsibility, for keeping him in the dark, for not trusting him when he needed me to trust him the most. For turning to his brother, Lazar, when I should have turned to Caleb.
“What if we circle around from opposite sides?” Caleb asked. “They'll never see you if you don't want them to. I could provide a distraction. . . .” He pulled a postcard out of his pocket, but shoved it aside to display some chewing gum. “These have some interesting shadows.”
It was as good a plan as any. Caleb's ability to call forth strange and dangerous things from seemingly innocuous items was a game-changer. I chirped and nodded.
“Thank you for coming, Desdemona,” Ximon said, his deep voice easily coming to us over the chop-chop of the helicopter's blades. Ximon's voice was his greatest weapon. “Or should I call you Sarangarel?”
I became very still.
. That was what my biological mother had called me on two separate occasions. But Ximon hadn't been there. How could he know?
Ximon was still speaking. “And thank you, Caleb, for leading me to Amaris.”
Caleb's sun-browned face went gray. “But how could he follow me? How did he know you'd be here, and how could he know that name for you?”