I had no idea how Ximon had tracked Caleb, but Ximon was an expert in predicting my decisions. He'd mistreated his son Lazar, knowing Lazar would turn to me for help, and counting on the fact that I would not be able to refuse him. Because of that I'd taken my friends into a terrible trap in the bowels of Ximon's particle accelerator. Only my unpredictable connection to Othersphere had saved us, barely. And it hadn't saved Siku. I still couldn't quite believe my friend was dead. His killer stood before me.
Without even realizing it, I was snarling.
“Put her there,” Ximon said to his men, gesturing at a nondescript spot on the pavement. Two men in gray dragged Amaris there, still bound in thick brown rope, her mouth now stuffed with cloth.
Caleb was frowning at them over the wheels of the upside-down truck. “What is that they've got her tied with? It has a vibration I've never sensed before. Something's wrong.”
My growl deepened. Something was indeed horribly awry. Ximon had Amaris and was about to do something to her. I couldn't believe he'd kill her. Her healing ability was too valuable, and in his own twisted way, he cared for her. But I gathered all my strength, ready to spring. Caleb noted this and got ready to throw the chewing gum.
Ximon said. “Now.”
That one word pulled me, as if someone had lassoed my gut. Ximon dragged out the word, singing it, howling it.
I reeled, claws scrabbling at the metal side of the pickup truck. My vision blurred. I could barely see Caleb staring at me. His mouth was moving, but I couldn't hear him. A deep chord of what might have been music filled my head, something so harmonious, so beautiful, I could focus on nothing else.
Beside me stood a huge picture window, cut vertically out of the air between me and Ximon. It was as if someone had laid the world's biggest, thinnest flat screen between us, connected to us at the outer edges. It cut right through the body of the pickup truck. A breeze warmer than the winter Nevada air wafted out of it, bringing with it the scent of dew, soil, and leaf.
The view through that window was of an expanse of uncut white stone decorated with gnarled trees grown in the shapes of winged beasts, overlooking a limitless dark forest cut by a winding river. In the distance lay sharp sheer peaks, taller than any mountains should be. I breathed deep the sweet night air, and everything else receded into the distance. I was home.
A colossal moon rose, its light sending silver sparks down the river, glinting off waterfalls, polishing the white stone I stood on with a strange and potent glow that penetrated my every pore and filled me with its power. Fear, pain, uncertaintyâall fled before the radiance of that moon.
It was not a moon from this world, but another. Its milky surface was shot through with dark veins, which seemed to pulse, as if inside it lay a vast heart filled with the blackest blood.
I knew that moon. The memory jolted me from my reverie. It was the moon I'd seen about a month ago, when my biological mother had briefly crossed over from Othersphere, the world that lay closest to our own, to beg me to return with her.
Something tugged at my arm and called my name. A voice that I loved, a voice that could not be denied, reached out to me. As if through deep water I saw Caleb, his black-clad form wavy and indistinct. All my troubles poured back, filling me up, drowning out the hypnotic energy of Othersphere.
I snapped back to the resort at the foot of the Spring Mountains in Nevada to see Ximon, his face strangely feral, shove Amaris through the window to Othersphere.
Amaris fell through it with a strange, buzzing snap, the rope wrapped around her body tugging at her oddly, as if guiding her through. She landed on the moonlit ground in the other world, eyes wide with terror, pale under the strange light, but alive.
“No!” Caleb leapt over the upturned pickup truck, shooting like an arrow for the doorway to Othersphere.
He slammed into it, as if into an invisible force field. He exploded backwards and skidded twenty feet, head bouncing against the parking lot with an audible thump, and he did not move. I tried to lunge toward him, but was held fast where I stood at the edge of the window. It tethered me somehow, and as long as it stood there, Ximon and I were both stuck.
How could a connection between Ximon and me create a portal to Othersphere? It made no sense, and the buzzy nearness of the otherworld was crowding out other thoughts, muddying my thinking. Maybe I could somehow get through the window to Amaris, even though it felt as if the window was an extension of me.
Ximon said again, “Now.”
The window to Othersphere vanished, and Amaris with it.
The only evidence it had ever existed was that the pickup truck that had stood between me and Ximon now lay in two clean pieces, as if a giant knife had sliced down from heaven and slashed it in half.
Ximon slumped. Something wrenched inside me, like a knot coming undone. Weariness washed over me. I teetered back and sat down, still in my tiger form. Through the space between the two halves of the pickup truck, I saw Ximon begin to topple. Two of his men rushed up to catch him.
Two others moved toward Caleb's immobile body at a run.
That was all it took. I shook my head, whiskers bristling, mustered the last shreds of my strength, and leapt over the truck to land on one of them. He folded under me like a doll. I didn't bother biting or slashing him, but instead used his body as a springboard to dive at the second man just as he lifted Caleb by the feet.
The two of us rolled, his cry cut off as the breath was knocked from him. I gripped his shoulders with front paws bigger than baseball mitts and brought my back legs up to rake him with those claws, tearing him open from the belly down.
He made a terrible gurgling sound, which pleased me. In tiger form I was the ultimate apex predator, ruthless to the bone, appeased only once a threat was annihilated.
I spun toward Ximon to put an end to him.
Two more men had emerged from the third truck, and were helping the others carry Ximon toward the helicopter. With a yowl that resounded off the pavement, I bore down upon them, ears back, teeth bared.
A fifth man in gray shuffled in front of me, holding something that struggled. A split second before I slammed him, I realized he had one arm wrapped around the elderly wedding guest's neck, his other hand holding a gun to her head.
There wasn't time to stop. I veered to the right, front paws braced as I skidded. My back end, still going faster than my front, circled around, and I came to a stop, facing the helicopter again.
Over the thudding of the rotor blades, I could hear the woman crying. Her white hair was whipping around her, a bruise forming on her cheek.
“Shut up!” barked the man holding her.
rumbled out of me. My tail lashed. I wanted to wade in, regardless of the consequences to the old woman, and destroy them all. But enough of my human side remained to keep me from doing that. Instead, I paced over to Caleb's prone form, standing over him as they loaded Ximon into the helicopter.
At the last moment, the man holding the woman released her and leapt into the copter. She collapsed as the helicopter's landing skids lifted from the ground.
Wrath narrowed my world down to the space between me and the helicopter. I tore through it in two enormous leaps, and with my last ounce of strength, I vaulted upward. My outstretched front paws caught hold of the machine's left skid, and I held on to it with all my might.
My extra weight tilted the copter drastically. Beneath my dangling back paws, the snowy parking lot swayed. For a dizzying moment I thought we would all crash. It might kill me, but it would be worth it to take Ximon down.
The pilot fought the controls, compensating. We dipped hard, and my back feet hit the ground. But we bounced upward again.
Through the open side of the aircraft I saw the Tribunal men staring down at me, their ski masks pulled up, faces drawn in surprise and terror. I hauled myself upward, biting down on the skid so that I could reach one paw up to grip the fuselage. The man closest to me drew back.
Ximon, awake but clumsy with fatigue, was the only one not frozen with dread. He gave me a crooked smile and shook his head. “Not tonight, my dear.” He pointed his finger at me and hummed a dissonant note. “We send you back, back into shadow. . . .”
Stronger than the wind from the rotor blades, I felt the force of his objuration, pushing my tiger form back into shadow, pulling my human form forth. In a second, I would once again be a teenage girl, naked, hanging from the side of a helicopter. I tried to roar, to cut off the vibrations from his voice, but my strength was nearly gone. I snarled one last time at him, then let go of the skid. Still safely in tiger form, I dropped to land on all fours, about thirty feet below.
The old woman was sitting up, confused, but not drastically hurt. Over by the resort I heard someone shout, “Call 911!” And in a lower, astonished tone: “Is that a
They didn't matter. I'd already generated several reports of escaped tigers in Vegas and Burbank. I dashed over to Caleb, sniffing his neck. Relief rushed over me as I caught the scent of his living blood and heard the air move in and out of his lungs. He would recover.
But Amaris was gone, sent to Othersphere for reasons only Ximon knew. As the helicopter shot up and out to vanish into the desert night, I sent one last despairing roar upward toward the uncaring stars.
Getting out of there took awhile. I had to work quickly, sniffing out Caleb's satchel in his car so I could put on his clothes and become human again. By then the wedding guests had called an ambulance and the EMTs were working on Caleb and patching up the old woman who kept insisting that the “puma” they'd all seen was actually a tiger. And it hadn't come out of the helicopter, but actually had run out of the desert, swerved to avoid her, and then tried to bring the helicopter down.
“You just need a bit of a rest,” the EMT told her in soothing tones.
I felt bad. No one would ever believe her, and I couldn't tell them she was right. I said I hadn't seen any kind of big cat, but that my boyfriend and I had been meeting up here just when what looked like some kind of drug drop was happening between the black helicopter and the men in the trucks.
Caleb came to while they were testing his vitals and refused to go to the hospital, even though they said he had a concussion. They dressed his scrapes and made him sign some kind of waiver, which he did illegibly. He then allowed me to help him into the SUV, one arm flung impersonally over my shoulders. But as soon as he was safely in the passenger seat, he drew away from me and did not touch or look at me again. The already cold winter air got positively frigid.
Amaris had left the keys in the ignition, so I loaded the motorcycle in the back as best I could, moved what belongings of Caleb's I could find from his car to the SUV, and drove back to Kyle Canyon Road, heading for Morfael's school.
A heavy silence lay over us in the car. I didn't say anything. I couldn't, although more than anything I wanted to talk about what had just happened. It made no sense to me, and we had to figure it out fast to get Amaris back. I had no idea how that was possible, but if she could be shoved across the veil to Othersphere, then she could be shoved back. I just hope she survived until we got to her.
“I guess it's a good thing you're a stalker with terrible boundaries,” Caleb said at last. He was half sitting, half lying in his seat, the frosty window supporting his bruised head. “Or they would have gotten me, too.”
“I'm sorry.” The steering wheel creaked under my clenched hands, and I realized I was gripping it too tightly. “I wanted to make sure Amaris was safe, that's all. I wasn't going to stay.”
“You weren't going to eavesdrop?” His flexible voice dripped skepticism. “You weren't going to use that ridiculous hearing of yours to listen in on our private conversation, maybe find out where I've been, where I'm staying. . . .”
“Not everything is about you, Caleb,” I said, skirting the issue. “It's not safe for any of us to go out alone.” I let a moment of silence linger. “Obviously. But that's not what matters. Amaris isâ”
“I know.” He lifted one bandaged hand to run his fingers through his unruly black hair. “I don't understand it.”
He still hadn't looked at me. Not that it mattered. I was dating someone else now, right? I kept my own eyes on the road, and my thoughts on the problem at hand. “Ximon hates Othersphere. Why would he send his daughter there? And how? How did he do it? He connected himself to me and used my power to open upâwhatâa portal?”
“Pretty much,” Caleb said. “There was a weird vibration around him and that rope they put around Amaris.”
“It looked like the rope almost pulled her into Othersphere,” I said.
“Somehow it helped,” Caleb said. “It had a vibration that was friendly to both this world and Othersphere.”
“That must be why you bounced off. I tried to go through the portal, but whatever Ximon did kept me here till the window closed.”
“You were born in Othersphere.” For the first time Caleb turned his head slightly to look at me. His dark eyes were cold, assessing. “And he seemed to have planned on you being there. Maybe he needed someone or something from Othersphere to get that window open.”
“I'm sick of him predicting my every move,” I said, putting my hand on the hilt of the Shadow Blade. Cool calm spread through me, as it always did when I touched the Blade. It didn't keep me from feeling emotion, but it helped me see through my feelings more clearly. “It keeps getting people . . . hurt.” I almost said, “killed,” thinking of Siku. The ache of missing him, which never left, grew even stronger.
Caleb was looking out the windshield again, his face remote. “You can't take credit for everything,” he said. “It's not all about you, Dez.”
My throat tightened and tears nearly spilled out of my eyes in spite of the Blade. His voice was so detached. Did I make everything about me? Or was Caleb maybe saying, in his new, unfriendly way, that I wasn't to blame for Siku's death?
I swallowed down my tears. No way was I going to let Caleb see me cry. It was bad enough he knew I'd followed his sister just to find him, no matter how much I denied it. I couldn't break down in front of him. Not anymore.
“Morfael's a traveler between worlds,” I said, referring to our teacher at the shifter school. “Let's hope he can shed some light on this.”
As we pulled into the garage, London pelted up to us, her half-blond, half-black hair flying. “Amaris?” she asked, peering through the SUV's windows as Caleb got slowly and painfully out, and I unpacked the motorcycle. “We all just figured you and Amaris were gone, Dez. You're back, but where is she?”
I looked over at Caleb, to catch his eye because we both knew that London and Amaris were crazy about each other, even if they themselves hadn't quite figured it out. But Caleb was looking at the ground, his face a mask, stepping carefully so as not to shake his injured head.
“Caleb?” London frowned. The two piercings in her nose glinted in the dim garage light. “Are you back now? Where's Amaris?”
“Ximon took her,” Caleb said through gritted teeth. He was in more pain that he'd let on in the car.
London sucked in a gasp of horror. “What? Is she okay?”
“She was the last time we saw her,” I said. “It's complicated. We need to get inside and tell everyone. Can you help Caleb? He's got a concussion.”
“What? Sure.” London, lean as she was, could lift more weight than most boys her age. Some of her wolf-shifter strength remained with her even when she was in human form. She grabbed Caleb's arm, steadying him. “What the hell happened?”
“Inside,” Caleb said, his breath short. “I need to sit down.”
I went ahead, carrying Caleb's satchel, walking sloppily in his too-long black pants, too-broad black T-shirt, with his giant black sneakers flopping around my ankles.
Would it kill the guy to wear a color every now and then?
Some part of me knew I was making up reasons to be annoyed with him. But it gave me a perverse comfort.
What kind of pretentious jerk wears only black?
London helped settle Caleb on the couch while I ran around the school, yelling for folks to meet us in the living room. I found Lazar putting away the wallpaper and paste in the boys' dorm room. He took one look at my face and strode up to me, taking my shoulders. “What's wrong?”
I shook my head and pulled away. He was about to find out where I'd been. He wasn't going to like it. “Amaris. Ximon took her. I'm getting everyone together to tell them what happened. Come to the living room.”
How different it was from the first day I'd set foot in Morfael's school. It was hard to believe that just a few months ago I had no idea there were thousands of shifters living secretly in the world with a school that took in a troubled teen from each of the five tribes to help them make it safely to adulthood.
One of those teens was now deadâthe laconic, kind, handsome bear-shifter Siku had been killed by the Tribunal six weeks ago, just a day after he and our friend November had declared their love for each other.
When Lazar and I walked into the room together, November cast London an expression of mock-alarm, raising her eyebrows, and shooting her eyes over to Caleb.
London gave her back a slight headshake.
So our weird, tense little triangle hadn't gone unnoticed. At least in a regular high school, my dating life would've been less obvious. When Lazar sat down, I deliberately chose a different couch. Best to stay focused on Amaris's disappearance and let my stupid love life not even be an issue.
November was on the couch holding a giant bag of potato chips. She looked like the same petite, pointy-faced girl with pixie hair, except for the black circles under her eyes. But Siku's death had changed the rat-shifter at an atomic level. She remained a casual smart-ass on the outside, but inwardly she was consumed with a bottomless rage, most often aimed at me.
“So Dez secretly followed Amaris.” November popped a chip in her mouth and crunched down on it loudly. “Keeping secrets and trying to control everyone as usual, I see.”
“It's a good thing she did,” said Arnaldo, “or Caleb would be gone, too,”
I shot Arnaldo a grateful look. He was the eagle-shifter of the group, and he'd matured a lot in the last month. I'd turned his alcoholic father in to Child and Family Services for abusing his sons, and Arnaldo had stepped in to take care of his two younger brothers while his father finished an outpatient treatment program. The situation was promising so far. Mr. Perez was staying sober, sticking to his regimen, and determined to find a job so he could take care of his boys again. Meanwhile, Arnaldo had brought Cordero and Luis to stay at the school until he graduated in a couple of months. They were both asleep down in the boys' dorm room at the moment, but during the day they added a lot of crazy energy to classes.
“I saw her leaving and followed because I didn't think it was safe for her to go anywhere alone,” I said.
I cast a glance over at Lazar. He hadn't said a word since he walked in the room and saw Caleb there. He sat in a chair, elbows on his knees, eyes on his clasped hands, face unreadable.
“My father thinks Othersphere is where evil originates,” he said, his normally deep, expressive voice flat. “Sending Amaris there makes no sense, unless he's developed some crazy new dogma.”
Caleb shot a black glare at his brother. “As if his belief that the otherkin are demons in human form is sane?”
Lazar met Caleb's look stoically. “I'm otherkin, too,” he said. “I'm a caller of shadow now, not an objurer. Morfael's been training me himself these last few weeks. I don't have to prove anything to you.”
“You have everything to prove.” Caleb's voice was a growl.
“I've been here, every day,” Lazar said in a hard tone. “I didn't run away.”
“You ran the day that mattered,” Caleb said with venom. “The day you killed my mother. You shot her and ran away.”
“That's enough,” Morfael said in a voice that brooked no argument. Our spindly teacher was clad in black that made him look like a statue made of bone and onyx.
The brothers shut their mouths in twin grim lines. It was confusing having them both in the same room. So similar, so familiar. Unlike Caleb, though, Lazar had grown up under Ximon's twisted care, which had effectively brainwashed him into killing a number of people. One of those people had been Caleb's mother. I understood why Caleb hadn't forgiven Lazar, but then he didn't know Lazar's deepest secret.
I did, and it had forged a bond between us, one I couldn't explain to Caleb without betraying Lazar. That, among other things, had pushed Caleb to break up with me and leave the school. Lazar hadn't even tried to hide how happy the breakup made him. He'd made sure to find me alone and talk to me, hugging me tight when I cried about losing Siku, listening whenever I needed to talk. Although I'd never talked about the other reason I was crying. I never talked about Caleb.
“How did Ximon do it?” I asked into the quiet. “He didn't use any kind of device to open up that window to Othersphere, not one that I could see. He just sang out, âNow,' and it popped open.”
“We can wonder how and why Ximon did it all we want,” London said. “The real question isâhow do we get Amaris back?”
Morfael was staring at me, motionless, with his glittering, colorless eyes.
“We have to go to Othersphere and get her,” Caleb said.
“How you gonna do that?” November was licking salt off her fingers. “I know Dez was born there, but it's not like she can just go back any time she wants.”
“Morfael can,” I said.
The others stirred, turning to stare at our teacher. They didn't know what I did. Morfael didn't stop me as I said, “Morfael's a shadow walker.”
“What the hell?” November was surprised enough to stop eating for a moment.
Lazar leaned forward. “What does that mean, exactly?” And I remembered that growing up inside the Tribunal meant he didn't have the same background knowledge the shifter kids had.
“Shadow walkers are legendary beings,” Arnaldo said, his eyes on Morfael. “Well, I guess they actually exist. But the legend says they belong to none of the many worlds, but can move easily between them.”
“The legends are basically correct,” Morfael said. “There are an infinite number of worlds which exist alongside each other, and the shadow walkers are the only beings who move unhindered between them.”
“So you've been to Othersphere,” London said. “You can guide us to find Amaris there.”
As was his habit, Morfael took his time answering. “I have been there,” he said at last. “It is the world that lies closest to your own, which is why when you shift, your shadow forms come from there, and why callers of shadow like Caleb and Lazar can draw objects forth from that world. Because it is so close, it is possible for creatures other than shadow walkers to move between that world and this. But only with great effort.”