“Clever.” I kept forgetting how Lazar had broken into my own house very successfully, more than once. He knew more about this sort of operation than I did.
“Caleb's got the lock,” London said into my ear.
I nodded to Lazar. He swung the screen door open noiselessly and pointed his silenced gun at the sky.
I slid the Shadow Blade between the wooden door and the lintel, and cut down. As soon as it hit the metal bolt, the blade sharpened, biting through it with what almost felt like relish.
I put my hand on the doorknob. “London, count down. On three.”
“One . . .” London said. “Two. Three.”
I shoved the door open and rolled in. Judging by the sounds coming from the opposite side of the house, London was doing the same. I was in an open dining area, empty of furniture. The kitchen looked like an army of teenage boys had been there. Dishes half-filled with unidentifiable food lay piled in the sink, chairs were knocked over or pushed away from the small table there. Bottles, cans, and plastic bags lay strewn on the dirty floor.
Lazar pegged the screen door open while I sheathed the blade and stood still, listening. Lazar paused at the sight of the filthy kitchen, brows coming together in puzzlement. It certainly wasn't typical of the very anal-retentive Ximon and his Tribunal.
Footsteps moved cautiously near the front of the house. Caleb and London. “Nobody in the kitchen,” I said to London.
The ceiling creaked. I pointed up at it for Lazar.
“Nobody in the living room,” London whispered through my earpiece, although I also heard her voice through the walls. My hearing was ridiculously sharp.
Lazar opened the door out of the dining area and found the stairs up and another door. London and Caleb stood silhouetted at the other end of the hall.
Lazar started up the stairs, gun ready, and then turned and mouthed, “Check the basement,” at me, pointing at the door in the hallway.
I nodded, but I was worried. London stalked over, icy blue eyes anxious. Caleb moved up behind her, keeping an eye over his shoulder.
Or is he trying not to look at me?
Me, me, me. He'd said not everything was about me. I needed to focus on what was important.
“This is weird,” London said in a voice only we could hear. “No guards in the kitchen or the living room?”
“I know,” I said in a similar tone. “One set of footsteps upstairs? No traps?”
“Then get ready for something big in the basement,” Caleb said, using his whisper that wasn't really a whisper.
I nodded, but it still made no sense. Just last night we'd seen Ximon attacking in full force, with multiple trucks, men, and a helicopter. Where were they all now? Was this some new trap?
A swish of wind and the heavy flapping of wings, and Arnaldo swooped into the dining room through the open door, carrying something large, wiggling, and brown in one claw. He curved to land on the filthy kitchen table, and set his burden down there.
November shook herself and chittered at him furiously, lifting one dainty paw out of what looked like a bowl of congealed oatmeal to wipe it on the bird's brown chest feathers. Arnaldo pecked at her paw, and she jerked it back.
“Arnaldo.” The eagle's piercing gaze turned to me as I said his name. “If you could help Lazar upstairs . . . I heard one person up there at least.”
He nodded and pushed off the table. With one sweep of his wings, he was across the room, curving through the doorway, turning sideways to get through and up the stairs.
I walked over and laid my hand out like a platform to November. She hesitated, looking down at my fingers. “I know it's not like it was,” I said. “But I'd be honored if you'd catch a ride on my shoulder for now. We're heading into the basement to see what's down there.”
She wiggled her whiskers at me, considering. Her favorite place to be when she was in rat form had been on Siku's broad grizzly bear back, or sometimes on top of his narrow head. She hadn't hopped on anyone for a ride since he'd died.
She cheeped softly once and clambered onto my hand. Her little claws tickled through my sleeve as she scrambled from there up my arm to sit on my shoulder.
“Ready?” Caleb said in his non-whisper. “It's not locked.”
“This is so bizarre,” said London. “But let's go.”
Caleb swung the door open. Wooden stairs led down to a cement floor lit by a faint glow coming from the left. Not waiting for me, Caleb started down as quietly as he could, though the stairs creaked under his weight. London was about to follow when his head swiveled to the left and he stopped dead.
Ximon's voice echoed through the basement.
Caleb didn't reply. His dark eyes were darting all over the portion of the room I couldn't see. London stood frozen in front of me.
“What are you doing?” Caleb sounded a little unnerved.
“I could ask you the same question,” Ximon said. “I don't recall inviting you for a visit.”
“Why are you in there?” Caleb's voice held an edge.
Ximon sighed. It sounded weary. “Trying to keep you, and myself, and the world safe until our meeting tonight.”
I sidled past London a few steps, ducking my head to look. November's claws cut through the stuff of my coat to dig tensely into my skin.
The basement opened up to the left, bare cement floor and walls illuminated by a single bare bulb dangling from a cord in the ceiling. There were shelves on the back wall covered with rope and boxes, but none of that mattered. Ximon was standing in the middle of a large silver cage, shiny as a new quarter, and big enough for a man to pace three steps in any direction.
That he was in a cage was shocking enough. But Ximon also looked like a different man from the one who had kidnapped Amaris. He'd always been tall, vigorous, and handsome. Even after the lightning strike that sickened him, he'd radiated power and will. But the man before me looked like a shrunken Ximon in old age makeup. The hints of encroaching age and weariness I'd taken for acting on the Skype call yesterday were obvious in the light of the bare bulb hanging from the center of the ceiling. His once-tan skin hung pale and loose, his collarbone protruding under his white turtleneck, which was smeared with dust. His white pants were belted tight to keep them up. His powerful hands were skeletal, patterned with large purple veins.
His head of thick hair, usually combed back in a perfect white wave, was patchy and mussed. His formerly rosy face looked gray, haggard, and his large eyes held a strange, desperate gleam.
“Where's Amaris, and how do we get her back?” Caleb demanded.
Ximon's lips, thinned with age and exhaustion, pressed together into a white line. “I wish I knew.”
“You might as well tell us,” I said. “We'll get it out of you, one way or another.”
“Ah, Desdemona. Of course.” Ximon gave me a bitter smile. “I'm sorry I didn't anticipate this visit and plan something for you. But I am not myself lately.”
The door to the cage was shut. “Is it locked?” I descended the stairs to the cold floor and took in the whole room again. Ximon was really down here alone, in a cage.
“Yes,” he said. “The objurer you probably found upstairs has the key.”
Thumps from the second story shook the walls. An eagle shrieked, and I heard Lazar grunt once in my earpiece. Something fell, hard, to the floor. “Got him,” Lazar said.
“Search him,” London said, jumping in before I could speak. “Look for a key, and anything else that might be tied to where Amaris is.”
“Copy,” he said.
Ximon was looking at me with what might almost have been fondness, if that was possible. “I see my son Lazar has introduced you to the use of certain technologies. You've learned how to keep them from shorting out at your touch.”
“What's he doing in there?” London asked.
“Ximon?” I turned the question over to him. Inside the enclosure I saw a sleeping pallet, a bucket, some tins of food, utensils, and a large jug of water. I wanted to check the cage out more closely, but the silver exuded a painful hum that kept me back. I was far more sensitive to that metal than other shifters, because I was from Othersphere.
“I'm hoping that the silver will help to keep me from becoming . . . not myself,” he said. “And if the demon does return, maybe the silver will keep him confined.”
November hissed, ran down the length of my body, and put her paws on the mesh between the bars in the door of the silver cage, wincing as the metal burned her flesh. She tugged, but the door didn't open. With a chirp that sounded like, “Yep,” she jerked her little hands away and scampered over to the shelves, climbing up to examine their contents.
Ximon barely seemed to notice her, switching his feverish gaze from me to Caleb. “I told all but one of my men to leave, so that they wouldn't be used anymore by the demon. When the time came to go meet you at the reservoir, he was to release me, and I would have driven there, hoping I made it without further transformation.”
“So you really believe you're possessed by something from Othersphere.” Caleb walked to within ten feet of the cage.
“I would rather not believe it,” Ximon said. “But the evidence is overwhelming.”
“Not yet, it isn't,” I said. “London, would you mind keeping an eye out on the ground floor? If you hear anything even slightly like hordes of objurers about to swarm us, yell.”
“Okay, but let me know if he says anything about Amaris.” London trotted back up the stairs.
“Found a key,” Lazar said in my earpiece. “Some books on Othersphere, too. Bringing them down.”
Caleb turned to me, thinking that I was talking to him. His eyes darted to my earpiece as he realized I was responding to someone else. Then he asked, “What should we do with him?”
“He's coming with us,” I said.
“Ah.” His black eyes were scathing. “So you're just deciding that, without consulting anyone else? He's my father.”
“We have to find out what he knows about Amaris,” London's voice cut in. She must have heard Caleb speak over my headset.
I looked at Caleb square on. “You lost your vote when you abandoned us, remember?”
November trilled what sounded like a short laugh.
Ximon said, “Having second thoughts on the Amba's methods, my son?”
Caleb's face was glacier cold as he gazed at Ximon. “If it were up to me, you'd be dead. Then it wouldn't matter whether or not you're lying.”
Ximon didn't appear fazed. “Your father is weaker than he thought, Caleb. Be careful you don't also dreadfully misjudge yourself.”
Lazar came running down the steps, leaving wet footprints from his fall in the pool. He slowed down as he took in the scene. “I've got the key; left the books upstairs with London. Arnaldo's gone back outside to keep watch,” he said mechanically, his eyes on his father. He paced closer to the cage. “He looks ill.”
“God failed to cure me,” Ximon said.
Lazar nodded, his brown eyes accusatory. “And why do you think that is, Father?”
Ximon's eyes reddened, his lips twitched. “I'm sorry about your sister, my sons. I'm so sorry.” As he said it, his face caved in with sorrow. Tears erupted from his eyes.
Lazar and Caleb's faces each bore the same astounded expression. Simultaneously, they pulled their eyes away from their father's distress. Caleb's hands were shoved deep into his coat pockets. Lazar's grip on his gun tightened, the knuckles going white. Staring at the once-arrogant man, now stifling sobs at his own failure, I had my first moment of doubt.
Maybe he's not faking it.
November squealed at an ear-piercing frequency. Over on the top shelf she was hopping up and down on top of a pile of thick brown rope. It looked familiar.
Caleb straightened. “Is that what I think it is?”
“What?” Lazar moved closer, as if relieved to have something to do other than deal with his father. Ximon was hunched over now, head buried in his hands.
“It's just like the rope they put around Amaris before they pushed her through the veil,” I said, moving toward November. The rope looked exactly like the thick twine the Tribunal had wrapped around Amaris.
Caleb hummed, eyes narrowed at the rope, checking to see if it had a shadow.
“It is strange,” Caleb said, ignoring his father. “There's something about it. . . .”
“Tell us, Father.” Lazar stayed where he was to keep the stairs covered, but craned his neck to look at the rope. “Is that what you used to force your daughter into Othersphere?”
Ximon lifted his head, hurriedly wiping his eyes. “Yes.” He squinted at the rope as if it pained him. “But it belongs to the demon. It might be better not to touch it.”
“So you didn't order your men to use it on Amaris?” Caleb asked sharply.
Ximon shook his head. “The memory is like something from a bad dream. He . . . the creature ordered my men to wrap it around her once we got hold of her. He orchestrated the whole thing, using what I knew about you.”
November poked experimentally at the rope with one pink claw, and when she didn't disappear or get an electrical shock, she took a coil and tossed it down to Caleb.
He caught it, pulling more down, humming under his breath. His black eyes sparked with gold. “It has a shadow, yes, but there's more than that. . . .”
“It casts a shadow into all the many worlds.” Ximon was standing a little straighter, and his voice was more resonant. He was looking stronger suddenly.