This sample contains spoilers from Phantom's Mask. Don't read if you haven't finished Book II yet.
That was how this nightmare began.
Voices whispering all around me.
Hundreds of eyes.
It’s happening all over again.
I stood in a sea of blood and bones and bodies, surrounded by twisted, mangled faces staring up at me, their mouths still open in silent screams. Some died by the teeth of a werewolf, others by a quick, clean slice of blades from a silver disk, and some by my own hand with shards of glistening ice.
But most were slaughtered by Axel.
He didn’t mean to do it. He couldn’t help himself. All the dead were Shadow Guards, but honestly, that was lucky happenstance. Axel couldn’t differentiate between allies and enemies when the bonds on his self-control snapped. He could have killed Ash while she lay unconscious at his feet—could have killed any of us. And it could happen again, except it might be humans in his path instead of ghosts. Axel was created to be a weapon of mass destruction, and he was, except he was a weapon that couldn’t be controlled, couldn’t even be pointed in the right direction. Anything with warm blood and a heartbeat became a target.
If the people of Phantom Heights knew that, they’d call for his immediate banishment or execution. Mine, too. Maybe I deserved to be executed. Downtown was in ruins because of me. If there was ever any question as to whether mixing bloodlines was a good idea, Axel and I were living proof that it wasn’t.
But what happened minutes ago didn’t matter, and neither did the pending consequences. All I cared about was right now. This moment frozen in time while I stood as still as my statue in the suspended snow, listening to the final echoes of a woman’s voice calling my name.
A few seconds ago, if anyone had asked me my name, I would have chosen from what seemed to be a growing list. Seph, A7, 5292, maybe even Phantom. Or Cato.
I stared at my mother cowering on the ground before me. Her face was bloody and bruised, but it was familiar. Beyond the constraints of the photograph’s edge, I could see it in my memories—the first face in my vision after the Flash. And when my eyes locked with hers, a memory that had been lost resurfaced with startling clarity.
I was standing at the bottom of a dark stairwell. In front of me, a strange green light leaked around the edges of a door. It was surreal, mesmerizing—frightening, even—but curiosity overruled my caution. I reached out and set my open hand on the wood, which creaked under the weight of my palm.
The door swung open. The light grew brighter and brighter, like a green sun. I gasped and threw my arm over my eyes, stumbling back, blind. The light was all around me. It enveloped me until the staircase and door were gone, replaced by green light. The world didn’t exist anymore. Just light. It penetrated my skin, my cells, until I was light, too.
And then it was gone. The blackness in its absence felt so abysmally empty, both hot and cold, and somehow neither. My entire body tingled and burned as if I were being electrocuted with a low voltage. I couldn’t see, couldn’t move.
“Cato? Cato! Can you hear me?”
A girl’s breathless voice: “Mom, what’s going on? The whole house just shook and . . . Oh my gosh! What happened? Is Cato okay?”
“I don’t know! I thought you were both in the kitchen. My sample was unstable, and it just . . . I turned around, and . . . he was lying on the floor . . .”
“Shouldn’t we take him to the hospital?”
I tried to shift my body. Although the prickling sensation still had me in its throes, I was able to stir and moan. I wasn’t paralyzed, but my muscles weren’t working right.
“He’s coming to,” the softer of the two female voices whispered.
My eyes opened, but I couldn’t focus. A hand turned my face up so my eyes could find a woman kneeling over me in concern. A teenage girl peered over her shoulder. They blurred out of focus and then sharpened to such crisp lines that my eyes hurt, as if I were looking through optometry lenses spinning to extremes.
“He’s freezing,” the woman said. “Cato? Can you speak?”
Vertigo. I opened my mouth and gagged as my abdominal muscles contracted. The woman hauled me into a sitting position and propped me up so when I retched, I was facing the floor and didn’t choke. “He was exposed to a high level of unstable ectoplasm,” she said. “He’s having a negative reaction. I don’t think taking him to the hospital will do much good. It’s best to keep him here, where I have all of my equipment. Unless he gets worse . . .”
“Worse? Mom, he looks awful.”
“I’ll see if Doc will make a house call under the circumstances.”
I was chilled and burning at the same time, shivering so violently that my teeth chattered. The woman dragged me across the concrete floor so I was out of the doorway and away from the vomit. “Get some blankets,” she ordered. “And a pillow and bucket. We’ll set him up on the cot down here for now.”
My body still tingled, as if I were being stabbed with a million tiny needles over every inch of my skin. The girl was gone, and the woman left me all alone on the cold floor. I tried to call out for her, but the sound that croaked out of my throat was an incomprehensible sob.
“Shhh, I’m here,” she said, reappearing in my vision. “You’re okay. I’ve got you.” She worked her arms underneath my deadweight body to reposition me, then clutched me tightly and rose with a strained groan, lifting me up and transferring me onto the cot.
I stared straight up, sick and terrified. Although I wasn’t blind, I still couldn’t see. The world was a blur of light and shadow and shapes I couldn’t bring into focus.
The woman looked down on me, talking to me in a gentle voice, stroking my face, telling me I was going to be all right, that she was going to take care of me and not to be scared. I gazed up at her. Set in her kind face was a pair of intense emerald eyes—the only objects in focus.
Everything before that was a blur, everything after broken into fragments. I’d been hiding and lying and running ever since, and I was so tired.
But I did it.
I cracked the ghost hunter’s armor wide open to reveal my mother inside. She was a surprisingly weak thing—a trembling, sniveling creature at my feet. Once again, her eyes were what I zeroed in on. Intense emerald, bright, the same hue as Before . . . but wearier. Older. There were wrinkles around the edges I didn’t remember from Before. They were the same, and yet different. When she had looked at me then, it had been with love. She’d thought I was still human when she lifted me up off the cold concrete floor.
Now, she looked upon the mutated half-breed she’d created in horror.
I couldn’t let go, and I couldn’t run anymore. The names I took and forsook, the clothes I wore, the company I kept, the masks I hid behind . . . none of that could change who I was.
Because whether she would claim me or not, I was and would always be the half-ghost son of a ghost hunter.
Chapter One: Gathering Darkness
Rayven stirred on his perch, the dry rustle of his feathers the only sound in the otherwise silent room. Neither Cisco nor Hassing dared to make a noise without Azar’s permission, and Lieutenant Inalli was a silent figure beside her captain.
Azar surveyed his subordinates. Hassing’s jet-black hair, usually tied neatly into a short ponytail, was windswept and unkempt, a twig still tangled in his locks. Cisco was in worse condition with his cloak torn and his uniform wrinkled, ripped, and stained with the blood of his comrades.
Inalli’s fresh appearance was a stark contrast to the bedraggled captain and bloody Shadow Guard lieutenant. She was the only Guard who didn’t wear a traditional uniform, instead garbed in her usual knee-length charcoal dress with a deep slit up each thigh to reveal skintight violet shorts underneath. Although all the other Guards wore boots, Inalli had always favored a pair of sandals strapped around her bare feet and ankles. A belt of interlocking metal links hung low over her hips. The hood was up on her full cloak, which was such a deep purple it looked almost black. A long brown braid snaked over her shoulder like a serpent emerging from a cave, and her violet eyes gleamed in the shadows.
Azar had never seen her without the hood on. He wasn’t even sure what her face looked like. On the chest of her dress, she wore a small round mirror that could be detached with a quick twist. The shield on her back was also a perfect mirror, always shined without a single smudge. Not exactly common accessories, but then again, Inalli was no commoner. That was why Azar had chosen her to be the lieutenant of the Prison Guard with a rank equal to Cisco beneath Captain Hassing.
The Warden wouldn’t make eye contact with any of them. He stood at one of the windows overlooking Szion, so grand once with its tall arches and elegant spires stabbing the ever-present cloud cover. Worn with age and war, the City seemed to be fading before his eyes, but perhaps that was just the haze drifting in. Despite it being midafternoon, Szion was almost as dark as night. The veins of lumenite crystals embedded in the stone walls of Azar’s office, normally capable of fully lighting the room, gave off a weak, eerie glow, unable to compete with the wrath driving his Divinity.
“How many?” he asked.
The captain’s reflection shifted in the window. When Hassing didn’t respond, Cisco reluctantly answered, “Thirty-two dead. Nineteen being treated by Leah.”
“Before Leah heals them all, I want you there to assess their injuries. Every scratch, Cisco. I want to know exactly how five kids took down half of the First Branch.”
Cisco, who had already turned toward the door to escape, completed a full circle to face the Warden again. “Yes, sir?”
“What can you tell me about them?”
The lieutenant swallowed. He took his time to review the details before reporting, “There was a girl. Pyrokinetic, but only Level 2. Unusually weak for an Elemental.”
Azar finally turned, but he still wouldn’t look at his subordinates. Instead, he leaned over the Census open on his desk, sending the shadows away from the yellowed pages so he could read the text. “The only two Pyrokinetics listed are both male,” he muttered as his finger trailed to the last name. “She must not be registered.”
“A boy,” Cisco said quickly. “Telekinetic, Level 4.”
Again, Azar skimmed the list. “Hmm. Well, now. Three listed here. One female, two male, and one of these boys was reported as a runaway who was never recovered. What else?”
“A Blinker. Level 2.”
Azar didn’t bat an eye at the knowledge that one of the extinct Triad Divinities had resurfaced in the gene pool. He muttered, “Jay, no doubt.”
“There was another boy, Level 4. He . . . well, I don’t understand it, but he had two Divinities.”
Azar lowered himself into the chair. “There’s only one kálos in history who’s ever had two Divinities. I believe you’ve had an encounter with the Demikan.”
Cisco inclined his head. “And then there’s the last boy who slaughtered so many . . .”
“Yes, he’s the one I’m most interested in. What is his Divinity?”
Cisco scratched the back of his head. “He didn’t have one. Sir,” he added after briefly meeting Azar’s gaze and no doubt seeing a dangerous flicker.
“Really,” said the Warden. He flipped through the pages of the Census. “How curious.”
Hassing shifted his weight again. “Do you think the humans have figured out how to strip us of our Divinities? Is that the Agents’ secret weapon?”
“I don’t like guesses, Hassing. Incorrect assumptions just get in the way when you’re trying to uncover the truth. I believe, after counting the twins, there’s one more from Project Alpha, am I right?”
“Absent from the battle, so I can’t personally confirm, but other Shadow Guards have reported a feline Amínyte.”
Azar rubbed his chin, his gaze wandering to his Amínyte slave watching from the perch in the corner. “So, Rayven was correct after all. What an odd assortment of Divinities for our enemies to group together in Project Alpha. Well. I hope you’re both as humiliated by this defeat as I am.”
Inalli remained an impassive statue. Cisco’s shoulders slumped. Hassing bowed his head and glared at his boots.
Azar drummed his fingers on the desk. “Let’s play a little game called ‘analyze your failure.’ Go.”
Cisco and Hassing both hesitated. The lieutenant was the first to speak up. “Well . . . Ero the Telepath was there.”
“Ero.” Azar all but spat the name. He stood again, too restless to remain sitting. “I shouldn’t be surprised that he’s involved. I knew the twins were Mind-Readers; of course he got to them already.” Azar gripped the bridge of his nose. “That complicates the situation.”
Cisco said, “I’m confident our extraction would have been successful if Ero hadn’t interfered. My Shadow Guards all had the delusion that they couldn’t use their Divinities. When I questioned them afterward, they weren’t able to explain why.”
“Which forced you into close combat conditions, where a group of children bested you.”
Cisco’s mouth hung open for a few seconds before he recovered enough to mutter, “W-we train our Guards to utilize the strengths of their Divinities in combat, not—”
“Then I think we just exposed a paralyzing weakness in our training methods, didn’t we, Lieutenant?”
“Yes, sir. I suppose you’re right.”
“Hmm. Then tell me, do you solely blame Ero for your failure?”
Cisco glanced helplessly at Hassing as if hoping for guidance, but the captain maintained a steady glower and simply inclined his head, signaling the lieutenant to answer.
Cisco admitted, “We were wearing our targets down. The Pyrokinetic and Telekinetic had been incapacitated with shock rods. Given time, we would have overpowered the others, if only with sheer numbers. But . . . we weren’t prepared for A6.”
Azar glanced at the Census once more. “You weren’t able to identify his bloodlines?”
“No, sir. All I know is that he was well above Level 5, more than double anyone I’ve ever sensed. I . . . Frankly, I’ve never felt a power level like his before.”
“And yet, no Divinity. He just gets more and more interesting.” Azar turned to gaze out the window again. “Inalli?”
She replied, “The Prison Guard is prepared to receive the new Prisoners.” Although she remained motionless, her violet eyes shifted to deliver a frigid sidelong glare to Cisco. “If the Shadow Guard could get its act together and contain them.”
“Enough,” Hassing scolded before an argument could erupt between his two lieutenants.
Azar ignored the remark. “What do we know about the Demikan?”
“The abomination?” Hassing blurted.
Azar turned and raised an eyebrow. “I was hoping for an unbiased report.”
Lieutenant Cisco answered, “He’s the son of that ghost hunter in Phantom Heights. We know he’s a Cryokinetic who was born human in Cröendor. Rumor had it he also possessed a second Divinity, but that was just speculation.”
“Until now,” said Azar.
Cisco inclined his head. “Until now,” he agreed. “I verified the boy is also a Sonic. Some say his transformation was an accident; others think his mother experimented on him and intentionally crossed bloodlines.”
Hassing grumbled, “However he came to be, he was a small-scale nuisance about three years ago. He never stepped foot on our side of the Rip, so there was no need for the Shadow Guard to engage him. He was mostly just a thorn in the sides of Traders.”
Cisco added, “From all accounts, he wasn’t very powerful then. Level 2 at most. But I sensed him today, and he was definitely mid-Level 4, no question about it.”
“Level 4?” Azar frowned. “That can’t be right. Not if he was a Level 2 just a few years ago. Nobody’s power grows that much in such a short amount of time.”
Hassing asked, “Do you think the Agents—?” Azar silenced him with a stern glare. “Sorry.”
Cisco shrugged. “At any rate, even if he was a Level 4 back then, witnesses testified that his ectoplasm usage consistently reflected Level 2, and his cryokinesis was crude at best.”
Azar asked, “Any idea how a lowly Level 2 half-human managed to earn such a reputation?”
Hassing scoffed. “Yeah. His success had nothing to do with his physical prowess. Kálos were calling him Phantom before the humans were. The kid was a master at stealth since he can assume a human form and bypass our sensing ability. By the time he called upon his Divinity, he was right on top of his target and already attacking. There was no time to react.”
Cisco added, “If memory serves, Phantom’s strength was in his defense. He developed a talent for utilizing conservative ice armor to take direct hits instead of avoiding them with intangibility like most kálos would, which saved his power reserves. He’d wait for an opportunity, then go on the offensive using his cryokinesis. Obviously, the best way to avoid an ice weapon is to counter with intangibility, so Phantom used a small amount of power himself while letting his opponent deplete his or her reserves with a much more taxing strategy.”
“It’s a ghost hunter’s tactic,” Hassing said, his nose wrinkled in disgust, “baiting your opponent to a near burnout. And speaking of ghost hunters, if Phantom knew he was outmatched in a fight, he had an annoying habit of luring his opponent toward his mommy. Once they were close enough, he’d vanish, leaving her to finish his fight after he’d already weakened his opponent. No doubt he watched from his hiding place to offer a helpful shot in the back or jump back in if she was in trouble. As far as fighting skills, Phantom was reportedly rather clumsy.”
“Obviously, he isn’t so clumsy anymore,” said Azar. “I thought I’d heard that he died in the Agents’ custody.”
“I’d heard that rumor, too,” said Hassing.
“As did I,” added Cisco. Inalli inclined her head.
Azar rubbed the back of his neck. “Well, the Demikan might not have had my attention before, but he certainly has it now. I’m rather fascinated by the idea of power reserves increasing two levels in just a couple of years. I think I’d like to interrogate anyone who claims to have faced Phantom, see what they remember about him. I want to unravel the myths from the facts.”
He glanced down at the open book on his desk again. “According to the Census, the runaway Telekinetic’s family was last reported to live in Erumyn. Cisco, why don’t you send someone to visit them? I’d like to know why our young friend RC decided to run away from home and get himself captured. Inalli, you’re dismissed.”
“Yes, sir,” their voices rang in harmony. Azar listened to their footsteps and waited until the door opened and closed. He rounded on Hassing. “And where in King’s name were you during that embarrassing defeat?” he thundered.
Hassing tried to stand up straighter, but he couldn’t stop his foot from moving back as if to flee. He cast a bitter glare at Rayven, who peered back at him with beady black eyes. Hassing and Rayven were always vying for Azar’s attention, although Hassing’s cost of failure was a demotion from the position he’d spent most of his life clawing to reach, whereas Rayven’s punishment was a sound beating and weeks locked away in the dark. Still, Azar could acknowledge how humiliating it must be to have a lowly Amínyte slave as a rival. But it was good incentive to tell the truth since Rayven had returned first from the battlefield and delivered his report.
“Titon bolted on me, sir.” Quailing under Azar’s wrath that caused the room to darken even more, he gulped and rambled, “That’s never happened, sir, not ever. Titon has flown straight at a dragon without flinching. I don’t understand—one minute he was fine, and then the Alphas showed up, and the next thing I knew—”
Hassing closed his mouth so quickly his teeth clicked together. Azar rubbed his eyes. “That was a grave miscalculation,” he said, glaring at the chessboard on his desk.
The black king and a knight stood erect in the back row. Clustered in a nearby corner were the corresponding queen, bishops, rooks, and knight. The white pawns weren’t even on the board anymore; they lay scattered across the floor.
The remaining white pieces were upright in the center of the board, surrounded by a circle of black pawns all lying on their sides. The white king was isolated in the farthest corner.
“It would seem,” said the Warden, nudging the horsehead carving beside the black king, “that I’ve been going about this the wrong way.” Hassing’s gaze was fixed on the figurine at Azar’s fingertip; he knew that was his piece and was likely praying it wasn’t about to join the white ones on the floor.
To Hassing’s visible relief, Azar’s finger left the knight to rest on one of the black bishops in the corner. “I’ve offered my help, and they turned me down. I’ve tried deals and blackmail and force. I think it’s time for something a little more subtle.” He slid the bishop a few spaces over to join the black king and knight. “Rayven,” he called. The bird glided from his perch and alighted on his master’s shoulder. “You remember that discussion we had earlier, don’t you? I’d like you to track down that Trader for me.”
Rayven spread his wings and launched himself through the open window. Hassing frowned as he watched the bird soar beneath a sky bridge and out of sight. “If I may ask, sir, where did you send Rayven?”
“That’s between him and me, at least for now.”
“I see,” said Hassing, unable to mask the injured note in his tone. “Then, about the Telekinetic . . . Do you plan to use his family as leverage?”
Azar, much calmer now that he was studying his game board, nudged the pieces marginally to adjust their placement. “Oh, we’ll see,” he murmured absently. “It’s too soon to tell. They’ll be either pawns or players, and I won’t know which until I have a little more information.”
Azar seated himself again and leaned back casually in the chair. “RC and Axel are the only names I’ve found in the Census. The others, there’s nothing. No names, no history, no records anywhere. I barely know a thing about them. Well . . . except the Demikan.” He pondered for a moment, then asked, “Tell me, what do you think about the idea of a half-breed?”
“It’s not natural,” said the captain without a second’s hesitation. “Crossing lower bloodlines with our noble race . . . It makes me sick just thinking about it.”
Azar nodded. “And yet,” he murmured, “I’m intrigued. Is that so wrong of me?”
Hassing knew better than to answer a rhetorical question; silence was always safer than the wrong answer.
Azar whispered, “Seven to bring the Seventh, but Eight are the key . . .”
Hassing cleared his throat and nervously inquired, “Sir?”
Azar raised his head. “The Sixth Dynasty is about to end, which means my empire is going to change. I have to ensure the shift goes in the direction I want. Can I count on you?”
Hassing adjusted his posture to militant perfection. “I will always stand beside you, sir. You’ve sent Rayven and Cisco on missions. What would you like me to do now?”
“N-nothing?” Hassing echoed.
The Warden spun his chair to face the window. In the reflection, he saw the captain’s whole body slump with defeat, only to stiffen again when Azar lifted his hand with one finger extended. “On second thought, I do have a task for you. In light of today, I have an old friend I’d like you to contact on my behalf.” He let his hand fall. “I think I’d like to call in a favor he owes me. You’ll be briefed by the end of the day. Now you’re dismissed.”
Azar waited until the captain had closed the door before he rose and circled the chair to lean over the desk once more. He gazed down at the game board and all the pieces so carefully arranged. This game wasn’t over yet.
Not even close.