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Authors: Nina Berry

Othersphere (21 page)

BOOK: Othersphere
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“It's hard to escape an upbringing like yours,” I said. “You should be proud of how far you've come.”
“I have far to go.” The muscles in his jaw clenched. “Amaris and London are another reminder of that.”
I kissed him on his cheek, feeling the recently shaved smooth skin under my lips. He smelled like warm, freshly dried laundry. I remembered another time, when the two of us had stood facing each other in the laundry room of a Vegas casino, and he had told me his darkest secret. “You give me hope,” I said. “For all of us.”
He was staring at me with wide, almost childlike eyes, and the longing in them nearly made my breath stop. “How did I live before you?” he asked, his voice as soft as down. Then he leaned close and pressed his lips gently, almost reverently, to mine.
“It's okay,” I said against his mouth. “We'll be okay.”
He shook his head, tracing my lower lip with his fingers. “Whatever happens, you must know I will always love you.”
I slid my arms around his neck, and he kissed me again, deeper now, more urgent. He wrapped both strong arms around my waist and crushed me against his chest, kissing me with an edge of desperation I'd never felt in him before.
A door opened nearby, and a buzzer sounded, startling us out of the kiss.
I looked up to find Caleb standing there with fresh snow on his black hair and the shoulders of his coat, looking right at us with a face that seemed to be carved from marble.
Next to me, Lazar's shoulder muscles tensed as he saw his brother. I flushed, my cheeks ablaze. I wanted to pull away from Lazar, to deny what Caleb had just seen, but I forced my body to stay still. This was the reality, and withdrawing wouldn't change that. It would only hurt Lazar, and he deserved better.
For a long, horrible moment, nobody moved.
The buzzer went off again. Someone was calling via Skype. Caleb's dark eyes moved from me curled up against Lazar to the computer. His expression hadn't changed, but I could tell he was being careful not to give anything away.
Arnaldo clomped down the hall from the kitchen and tapped the keyboard to see who was calling. “Holy crap,” he said, sharp eyes looking over his formidable nose at the three of us. “It's Ximon. Again.”
“He's alive,” I said, trying to reason through the emotional tumult going on inside me at several different levels. I disentangled myself from Lazar. “Unless . . .”
“Unless it's Orgoli,” Caleb said at the same moment, taking off his gloves and crossing the floor to the computer.
“I'm putting him on the big monitor,” Arnaldo said, typing. “Amaris, London!” he yelled down the hallway. “It's Ximon calling if you want to come see. Or not.”
“Again?” That was London.
“Coming,” Amaris called down the hall, and then lower, to London: “I have to see his face.”
Amaris and London clattered into the living room as Ximon's face appeared big as life on the huge monitor on the wall.
Amaris gasped. Her father's cheeks were hollow, his skin a yellowy-gray. His once large, glittering eyes had sunk deep into their sockets, and his lips were cracked and peeling. For the first time since I'd known him, he wasn't wearing a white turtleneck, but a dark blue T-shirt and a gray jacket, which hung loosely on his thin shoulders. He looked like he was dying.
But his dull eyes lit up as they caught sight of Amaris on his own monitor. He leaned in, squinting.
“Is that you, Amaris?” His once sonorous voice cracked with effort and emotion. “Are you safe?”
Amaris grabbed London's hand as if for strength, looking up at her father resolutely. “Yes, Father. I'm fine. My friends brought me home.”
“Thanks be to God,” Ximon breathed, shutting his eyes with seeming heartfelt prayer.
“And to the rope we found in your basement,” London said.
“I was wrong about you,” I said to Ximon. “Where are you now?”
Ximon opened his eyes. Behind him were the wood grained cabinets and mock-marble counters of a generic suburban kitchen. “In one of the Tribunal safe houses in Pleasanton, not far from where you saw me last,” he said. “I came to myself here sometime last night and found these clothes, but I'm afraid to leave, in case the creature possesses me again while I'm walking or driving.”
“That would correspond to about the time Orgoli showed up in Othersphere,” I said in a low tone to the others.
“Did you say you saw him in the other world?” Ximon asked. “Did you defeat him?”
Lazar and I exchanged a look. “No, Father,” Lazar said. “We helped Amaris escape, but the creature, Orgoli, was too powerful to fight.”
Ximon groaned. “Which means he'll be back in here soon.” He tapped his own chest and swallowed, his jaw trembling. I saw for a moment a deep, terrible courage in his lusterless eyes, a look I'd seen on Caleb and Lazar's faces at times. “I must tell you what I've learned.”
“Do you know what his plans are?” Caleb asked.
Ximon nodded. I moved to the edge of the couch, stifling my instinct to scoff. Given what he'd been through, it made total sense that Ximon was helping us. It was like we now had a spy inside Orgoli's camp, albeit one who could only report in during the brief intervals when Orgoli was back in his own world.
Ximon's hands moved underneath the monitor, as if gathering something, and then he lifted up a stack of papers and tapped them on the table before him to get them straight. His every movement seemed to take concentration. “The creature continues to inhabit my body because the objurers still loyal to the Tribunal think he is me, and will do all that he asks. He has received a report back from our connections inside the National Ignition Facility, which is . . .”
“. . . where the world's most powerful laser is kept.” Arnaldo said, finishing the sentence.
Ximon nodded. “Exactly. He had hoped to steal the laser somehow, or to duplicate it, but the latest report indicates that would be nearly impossible to do by stealth, given the extreme level of security at the facility.”
“What does he want with the laser?” Caleb asked.
“Always so impatient, so reckless.” Ximon's cracked lips twisted in a strangely fond smile. “I'm getting to that. Since he cannot steal it or duplicate the machine quickly, Orgoli plans to storm the facility with his remaining Tribunal troops and use the laser to open a permanent window between our world and Othersphere. This will allow him to bring through demon troops, which he plans to use to subjugate this world and destroy its technology.”
“Dear God,” Amaris whispered.
I stood up. “When?”
“Tomorrow,” Ximon said. “Tomorrow night, after midnight.”
“That gives us time to . . .” I stopped myself, looking at Arnaldo. We could go to the shifter council meeting tonight, but I couldn't tell Ximon anything I didn't want Orgoli to know.
“Why tomorrow?” Caleb asked.
Lazar shot him a look of understanding. “Yes, why is he waiting till then?”
“I . . . I can't be sure.” Ximon's brow wrinkled as he shuffled through the papers in front of him. “I have only seen his e-mails, sent out to the remaining objurers in the Western half of the United States and Canada, calling them to arrive here tomorrow morning for a . . .” He focused on a paper in front of him, reading out loud, “ ‘the definitive infiltration and appropriation of the NIF's laser technology by midnight of the date in question.' ” He looked up at us. “The date is tomorrow, midnight.”
“Maybe he needs time for his troops to get there?” Caleb asked, looking at his brother for his thoughts.
“Possible,” Lazar said. “Did he send out e-mails or make calls to his associate Bishops in Asia, Europe, or South America?”
“I didn't see any e-mails going out to them. He might've made calls.... I don't remember. But then I don't remember a lot.” Ximon brought a glass of water from off camera and took a noisy sip. “He did get an e-mail from the Bishop of Northeast Asia, which he hasn't answered, telling him his recent actions haven't been authorized by the Assembly of Bishops, and that he could be subject to demotion if he disobeys. But, of course, this creature cares nothing for the Assembly, and so far it's a first warning and sent only to him. By the time the Assembly sends a second warning out wider, the deed will be done.” He uttered a frantic little laugh. “Normally, I'd be worried about his actions leading to my demotion. But that's the least of my problems now.”
“Do we have time to go get him?” Amaris asked, her voice almost too soft to hear.
“To get Father?” Lazar asked, voice incredulous. “Why?”
“He needs help,” Amaris said, shrinking back from him a little. “Look at him.”
“Help?” Lazar's face had drained of all color, his brown eyes dark as he stared at his sister. “Where was he when Mother needed help? Where was he when she was screaming in pain, dying before our eyes?”
“I know, I know!” Amaris put up her hands, as if to ward Lazar off, even though he hadn't moved toward her. “But shouldn't we try to be better than he? Shouldn't we do for him what he would never do for her?”
“You don't know, sister,” Lazar said, half choking. “You don't know the half of what he did. Or you would never ask me that question.”
Amaris frowned and took a tentative half step toward Lazar. “Lazar—what . . . ?”
“We can't risk going to get him,” Caleb said. “I'm sorry, Amaris.”
“But . . .” she started to say.
“He's right,” I said.
London squeezed Amaris's hand, and Arnaldo was nodding, his face very serious. “We can't risk your father turning into that creature anywhere near us right now,” Arnaldo said. “He'd kill us all.”
“They're right,” Ximon said. His broken voice was unexpectedly tender. “You must stay far away from me. All of you. But thank you, Amaris, my daughter. For allowing me to see your compassionate heart remains, in spite of all I've done.” He carefully, meticulously arranged the papers in front of him with shaking hands, blinking back what might have been tears in his suddenly too bright eyes. “I wish I knew more about their exact plans for the attack on the NIF, but at least now you know the basics. Lazar will tell you the capacity and breadth of our weaponry. There are fewer than fifteen objurers working with him as I speak.” He looked over his shoulder. “The e-mails indicate perhaps twenty more will arrive for the infiltration tomorrow.”
“Those numbers are low,” Lazar said. “Have there been a lot of defections?”
“Ever since the debacle at the particle accelerator, the number of recruits and objurers has diminished considerably,” Ximon said. “I am scheduled to go before the Assembly next month to explain the low numbers, the recent failures.” He smiled, tired lines creasing around his eyes, but with a flash of his old ultra-white-toothed arrogance. “I don't need to worry about that any longer.”
“Father . . .” Amaris started to say.
Ximon coughed, a deep-chested, body-wracking cough. It was the sound of weakness, of exhaustion, of the human body near the end of its strength.
He controlled the cough and jerked his eyes up to the camera. Sparks of gold and green shot through the brown irises. His nails looked like they had grown thicker, longer.
“He's coming. Must go,” he said, his voice thick. “I'll try not to let him find out that I've told you anything for as long as I can. He mostly ignores my thoughts now anyway.” He put a hand out and touched the monitor, as if reaching for the faces of his children. “Good-bye. Pray for me.”
The screen went black.
CHAPTER 13
There was a long moment of quiet after Ximon ended the Skype call. I looked over at Amaris. Tears were running down her face. London had both arms around her shoulders, holding her tight. “Why am I crying?” Amaris asked. “I hate him.”
“Because he's your father,” London said.
“He loves us,” Caleb said. “Or as close to love as a man like that can get.”
“Why is he so awful?” Amaris asked, but not as if she expected an answer.
Lazar was looking off into the distance, brows drawn together. “I wonder,” he said, “what his father did to him.”
Caleb's dark eyes flashed over to his brother's face, startled. Amaris put a hand over her mouth, pushing down her distress. The three siblings, for a moment at least, exchanged long questioning glances.
“Did you see anything like troops while you were in Othersphere?” Arnaldo asked, pulling everyone's attention back to the present. “Ximon said Orgoli was planning to bring troops over from Othersphere once he used the laser to open the permanent window. But who could he be talking about?”
“He has the tiger-shifters locked up for a few months now because they didn't want to be his troops,” I said. “But other than that . . .”
“There were the dire wolves,” London said.
“But you took care of that,” Amaris said, wiping at her wet face and trying to smile.
“There could be more of them,” London replied.
“There are still Amba loyal to him, according to my . . . to Khutulun, anyway,” I said.
“I'm guessing troops that Orgoli would have aren't the traditional type to be housed in barracks or on army bases,” Caleb said. “Othersphere is too different. They would be other animals, or . . .”
“The bat-shifters?” I asked, remembering the human figures in the trees that had shifted before our eyes. “If they were brought over by the Amba hundreds of years ago, they might still be loyal.”
“Exactly.” Caleb shot me a look that said I'd just completed his thought. “And they might not be the only ones.”
“If the Amba have been bringing shifters over before they went extinct in our world for that long, he could have hundreds of different types loyal to him now,” Arnaldo said. “What if there were dinosaur shifters?”
London blinked. “Wow. T-Rexes storming down the suburban streets of Livermore, California,” she said.
“Pterodactyls over the Golden Gate Bridge,” Caleb said, nodding. “People in San Francisco only think they've seen it all.”
I said nothing, thinking about the tiger-shifters. It was almost too bad they'd rebelled against Orgoli. If they'd remained loyal, they'd have a chance to come home.
I looked up to find Caleb's thoughtful eyes on me. The look there made me blush unexpectedly. I dipped my head down so no one would see. He said, “You want to go back, don't you?”
Lazar turned to me, taken aback. “To Othersphere?”
I didn't say anything. I didn't want Lazar to feel bad, but Caleb hadn't even had to ask. He knew me so well. His black boots took a few steps toward me. “We could send you through again,” he said.
That brought my head up, eyes blazing up at him. “Do you think . . . ?”
He was nodding, a little smile on his lips. “There's time before the attack.”
“What?” Arnaldo was also puzzled. “Why? We have that shifter meeting tonight.”
“Oh, right.” I slumped a little, my stomach sinking with disappointment. “I need to go to that meeting tonight and warn them. Maybe they'll help us against Orgoli.”
“That's right!” Arnaldo said. “I know where the meeting's being held.”
“It's going to be tough to convince them there's a threat out there bigger than the Tribunal,” I said. “But we have to try.”
My skin prickled. I looked up to find Caleb staring at me again with an intensity I didn't understand.
I tilted my head at him inquiringly. He frowned, his dark eyes darting over to Lazar, still standing next to him. Was that a guilty look? Or an angry one? He turned away, saying nothing, and I didn't know what to think.
“November will be there,” London said. “She's seen Orgoli in action. She'll back us up.”
“So at least maybe the rat-shifters and bears will help,” Amaris said.
“We'll need to get going in the next hour or so,” Arnaldo said. “It's a four-hour drive.”
“Okay.” London tugged on Amaris's hand. “Let's go get ready.”
“There's got to be more we can do,” Arnaldo said, as the three of them headed down the hall. “What if I called in an anonymous bomb threat to the NIF? That'd get them to beef up security at least. Luis! Cordero! I need you downstairs right now please.”
The boys' feet pounded down the stairs after them. Caleb and Lazar were still standing in front of me, side by side.
“I'll talk to Morfael,” I said, standing up and trying to sound as if my heart was in it, as if my very bones weren't dragging with weariness and a desire to be elsewhere.
Caleb made a tiny move toward me, beginning to lift his hand, before he stopped himself and stuffed that hand in his coat pocket. “Maybe you can go after all this is done,” he said.
I nodded, staring at the floor between his feet. “Maybe.”
“Why would you want to go back there?” Lazar came closer to hunker down in front of me, his eyebrows drawn together in concern. “I know it's where you're from originally, but Orgoli and his people tried to kill you.”
I was too tired to explain. How could he not understand, after seeing all those tigers trying to free themselves, seeing them fight alongside me?
“It's the tiger-shifters,” Caleb said, his voice flat, as if he too were suppressing some kind of emotion. “She wants to bring them home.”
I gave him a brief, grateful smile.
Understanding dawned over Lazar's face, quickly overtaken by something closer to dismay. “Of course.” His voice sounded odd, distant. His glance went from me to Caleb, and then back to me. “I should have realized.”
“It's okay,” I said, and suddenly wished to be anywhere else. The tension between the brothers, the strange glances between me and Caleb just moments after he'd seen me kissing his brother—it was all too much. I needed to go outside to clear my head.
“Was Morfael outside?” I got up, pretending not to notice Lazar as he reached a hand toward me, and moved toward the front door, grabbing my coat from the rack.
“Yeah.” Caleb watched me go, not moving. “Over by the stream last I saw him.”
I reached the door before Lazar caught up and touched my shoulder. “Hey. Are you okay? I'm sorry if . . .”
“Don't be sorry.” I turned back to him as he automatically reached for my coat, helping me into it. Back in the living room Caleb cast a glance at us and then walked away.
Lazar saw my eyes looking past him and turned in time to see Caleb's black coat disappearing down the hall. He shook his head.
“What?” I asked.
Lazar gave me a melancholy smile. “I still don't know you as well as he does.”
“What?” I didn't quite know what to say to that. So I shook my head dismissively. “Don't be silly.”
But it's true
.
“You should go back to Othersphere, if you want,” Lazar said.
“I do want,” I said. “But right now we have to get the shifter council to listen to us. They may hate me, but I think I need to be there because I . . .” I swallowed. “I know the most about Othersphere.”
“And about Orgoli.” He nodded. “Do you want me to come with you to talk to Morfael?”
“I need a minute,” I said. “I'm sorry. It's just... a lot right now.”
“Yeah.” He nodded and tried to smile. For a moment he looked as he must have as a little boy, putting on a brave face. “I'll go pack.”
I leaned in and kissed him. I meant it to be a quick kiss, but he took my shoulders in his hands, pulled me close, and kissed me hard and hot. One of his hands slipped down to my lower back, pressing my whole body against his.
For the first time, I was a little hesitant to kiss him back. I needed space, not touching right now. But I allowed myself to melt into him. Supporting my upper back with his other hand, he bent me over backwards, like a sailor giving his sweetheart one last kiss before he boards his ship.
“Good-bye,” he said, and released me slowly as I came back to my senses.
“I'll be right back,” I said, not sure what I was reassuring him of. I needed to be alone, to have time to think, to understand.
“Sure.” He backed away, not smiling, his brown eyes big and bright on my face.
I opened the door and the cold winter air rushed over me like a sigh of relief. I stepped out and pulled the door shut, pausing as the flurry of flakes whispering down from the sky skittered over my cheeks and stuck to my eyelashes.
It must snow in Othersphere
, I thought as I made my way toward the creek. Caleb had called forth a snowy scene once for me when we were in Vegas. It had looked a lot like the woods here in the Spring Mountains, only with taller, older trees and white hares as big as poodles.
It felt so good to be outside, to breathe fresh air and hear my boots crunching through the snow. I tilted my head back and stuck out my tongue. Darts of cold hit it as snowflakes melted. Then I stopped moving and listened.
It wasn't Othersphere, but for a moment I thought I could hear the snowflakes tumbling gently through the air, hear their waltzing dance as a breeze swirled them around. The tree branches creaked softly, the pine needles murmuring from branch to branch.
Maybe this world had a music to it, too. It was just buried deeper, tougher to find.
As I walked, a stocky little bird with a bright blue back and rusty vest landed on a branch near my head, a round, reddish-black berry in its beak. I recognized it from my lessons with Morfael as a male Western Bluebird, native to this part of the world.
“Hello,” I said softly.
It fixed its bright black eye on me, and then took off toward the creek. I followed, and kept spotting its deep-blue wings fluttering ahead of me. It turned right before hitting the water, and I went with it. Sure enough, thirty yards later, I saw a lean, black-clad figure crouching by a tree. It was Morfael, his bony white hands gently moving aside some snow. He stood up as the bird flew right toward him and landed on top of his carved wooden staff.
The bird chortled quietly, not moving as I walked up to my teacher.
My uncle.
At his feet I saw some green stems tipped with yellow.
“The primroses are about to bloom,” he said. “I know I shouldn't help them, but I couldn't resist clearing away some of the snow.”
“Do you miss Othersphere?” I asked. “Since you can never go back?”
“At times,” he said. “Each world has its own beauty.”
“I wish I was there right now.” I looked up at the bluebird, still perched on his staff. “But it scares me, too.”
Morfael considered me, still as a statue except for his eyes. “You can go back. You are part shadow walker.”
“I could go back?” I asked, my heartbeat picking up speed. “Now?”
He shrugged. “It was the others who needed me to open a window for them, and the rope, to ease their transition. You may part the veil and walk through whenever you wish, but with a cost.”
I didn't respond at first, thinking. “It'll be more difficult each time, won't it?”
His lips crooked upward. “Yes. Because most of you is genetically tied to Othersphere, leaving there will require more effort each time.”
“And it wasn't easy the first time,” I said.
“Precisely.”
“Is that where I belong?” I asked. “Am I meant to go back there and just . . . stay?”
Morfael reached up and gently stroked the bluebird's back with one long finger. “I have never been one to believe that anything is meant to be.' ” he said. “But I have no evidence of this, only a feeling. So I tell you not as a teacher, but as your uncle, that I was born between the worlds, that my heritage speaks of constant travel and exploration, of never staying in one world for very long. I did this for most of my life until I came here, with you. I have remained in this world for nearly fifteen years, longer than I've ever stayed anywhere, and I have never been so happy.”
I found that I was smiling. Morfael had never spoken before about his own feelings. It warmed me through and through. “How does someone know where they'll be happiest?” I asked.
“I'm not sure you do,” he said, “until you try it.”
Trust Morfael, and life, not to have any easy answers. “I do know I want the tiger-shifters to be free, to come back here, if that's what they want. At least they should have the choice.”
“But?” He arched one colorless eyebrow upward.
“But we have to warn the shifter council meeting tonight because Ximon called.” And I told him everything we'd learned. “Will you come with us to the meeting? I think you carry a lot of weight with them, even if they are kind of afraid of you.”
He nodded. “And after that, I will go with you to this facility Orgoli is planning to take over. Opening a permanent door in the veil is a drastic violation of the fabric of both worlds.”
Relief washed over me knowing he would be there, even as his words filled me with new anxiety. “If he succeeds in making this door, is there any way to close it again?”
“I won't know,” he said with a ghost of a smile, “until he tries it.”
BOOK: Othersphere
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