I followed them under an eerie green sky.
The owners of the voices didn’t suspect I was tailing them. Ghosts were usually able to sense each other when they came into range, but I was special; I could shut off my power to become undetectable. Although I despised the vulnerability of being powerless, I had to admit it was a useful trick, especially when ghosts were the dominant population. Easier to hide. And when you’re the prey, being able to hide is critical.
What a terrifying feeling, being hunted. What was even more chilling was knowing that safety was an illusion. There was no safe place—not anywhere in this world or the other. I supposed Azar’s fugitives fleeing the Ghost Realm must be able to relate to this experience, knowing that ghost hunters would be after them the moment they stepped foot through a Tear. But for me, who spent so much of my life as a free human who never knew what it truly meant to be in danger, it was still a relatively new experience.
The three ghosts I was following were dressed in red-trimmed black from their boots to their cloaks, pristine uniforms I’d come to recognize as the Shadow Guard. I’d been creeping closer and closer, and now their words were finally in range to hear.
“. . . decided yet what you’ll do with the reward?” a man was asking.
“What reward?” a woman replied. “The captain didn’t say anything about a reward.”
“Are you kidding? When is the last time Azar put Captain Hassing in charge of a mission instead of Lieutenant Cisco? He jumped chain of command. I’m telling you, whoever brings him an Alpha is sure to get an immediate promotion. Probably a big raise, too.”
Suddenly conscious of the blatant white Alpha symbol imprinted on the chest of my black shirt, I pulled the edge of my cloak in front of me to conceal it, just in case they happened to turn around and spot me.
The hefty guy on the end heaved his shoulders up and down in a shrug. “I don’t see what’s so valuable about these lab rats. Seems like a lot of fuss over some wretches.”
“Hey,” the first guy said. “Rule Number One: don’t question orders. Rule Number Two: if Azar wants something, you know damn well it’s valuable. And Rule Number Three: if there’s anything of value to Azar, it’s in your best interest to be the one to find it for him.”
I was so engrossed in their conversation that I wasn’t careful enough with the placement of my foot, which found an empty can. I cursed to myself and pressed my body into the corner of an alcove, doing my best to blend into the deep shadows. The Shadow Guards froze. “You hear that?” The woman’s voice was hushed.
“Yeah,” said the guy on her left. His glowing red eyes scanned the shadows. “But I didn’t sense anybody. Did you?”
“No,” she replied. The third shook his head.
I held my breath. If I contorted my body any more into the corner, I was convinced I’d mold into the space as if I were made of rubber. I could have reawakened my power to become invisible, but I knew I was in their sensing range. The second I let my power flow, the Shadow Guards would have known.
I didn’t move. There was no electricity here—no streetlights to cast pools of light, no vehicles with headlights. In the dark, I was in Azar’s domain.
Finally, the Guards turned away and resumed their patrol. I emptied my lungs in one slow release of breath. Note to self: avoid being a klutz when you’re trying to not get yourself captured. Jay wouldn’t have done something stupid like that.
The Shadow Guards took a left turn at the next intersection, and I slumped against the brick wall in relief.
A small, furry creature landed on my shoulder from the window above.
Claws pricked my skin through my cloak, and I just barely managed to avoid screaming and flinging the black-and-white kitten across the street. I pressed my hand over my racing heart and whispered, “Bloody Scout, Kit, you just scared me half to death.”
She flicked her rough tongue across my cheek and nuzzled me, her whiskers tickling my skin, then hopped down and scampered after the Shadow Guards. Instead of turning left in pursuit, she went right. I followed, hesitating at the intersection to look for the Guards. They must have turned another corner because the road was deserted.
Kit and I both paused and turned our faces skyward when lightning flickered in the green clouds. A low rumble splintered the air in its wake. Kit’s ears fell, tail drooping. I walked past her, jolting her attention; she trotted after me. I knelt beneath a broken window, and Kit sat down on her haunches facing me. “All clear?” I whispered.
Her ears swiveled to listen in all directions. She crouched and jumped up onto the windowsill, then leapt into the dim interior and out of sight. That was a good enough answer for me, and I followed her into the building.
The office appeared to be deserted, but the trail of footprints in the dust told me otherwise. I closed my eyes and concentrated on finding my center. To turn my power “off,” I had to push the warm spark deep inside myself and seal it away, unfortunately a similar sensation to what the neutralizer did. The difference was that I could reactivate it whenever I wished now that I was free from my shackle.
Once I broke the floodgates, the tingle awakened my blood. I didn’t need a mirror to know that when I opened my eyes again, the right one would be glowing blue, the left green. The hot and cold currents of my dual Divinities circulated throughout my core.
Immediately, I shivered. It was a distinct feeling—a cold, sliding sensation along my spine. It happened only when another ghost entered my range. Or, in this case, when I entered the ranges of five other ghosts.
I strode past the dented filing cabinet, the bare desk, and the chair with a broken wheel. In the doorway, I hesitated. Shapes were moving in the dark. I could identify the silhouettes of my lab-siblings by the color of their glowing eyes. RC was nearest to me; only one of his violet eyes was aglow. Ash—her smoldering ruby eyes so different from Axel’s chilling ones—was kneeling, and I caught the briefest glimpse of light reflected off a cat’s eye below her. Two pairs of cobalt eyes observed from the corner. Seeing Finn and Reese alert and sitting up by their own strength was always a relief. One of the twins coughed, the sound echoing in the cavernous room we called Home.
Jay’s silver eyes locked onto me. “Cato,” he greeted. “Where’s Axel?”
“I thought he was with you.” My spine tingled again, making me shiver.
“Here.” A new pair of crimson eyes had appeared out of nowhere.
Jay nodded in acknowledgment of Axel’s appearance. “Is everybody ready?” he asked.
I looked at Ash and RC, waiting for them to answer. Yes or no. I’d like to know somebody else’s opinion, because I was still hopelessly conflicted about our decision. When they didn’t respond, all I could think to blurt was: “Question.” Their heads all turned to stare at me in the dark. “Are . . . we sure about this?”
“We already decided,” said Jay. “No going back now.”
Ash’s form reached over her shoulder and pulled a long metal staff from her harness. RC drew his hand out of his pocket, and from the gaping holes in the ceiling, the green glow of the clouds reflected off the metal in his hand. I wasn’t ready to summon my weapons quite yet.
The room was suddenly bathed in bright light. I saw, just for an instant, my lab-family. Finn and Reese sitting on a nest of blankets, the backwards hat over Finn’s mess of chestnut hair the only way to tell the identical twins apart. Axel leaning against the wall, his clairvoyant eyes peering through locks of his untamed coal-black hair. Kit, still in her fur, sitting next to Ash’s boot with her tail curled over her white paws. Ash clutching her staff, a silver band glinting on her upper arm, her ports visible in a line across her forehead. RC’s milky blind eye marred by a pink scar, the right sleeve missing from his shirt to expose the gauze winding around his arm. Jay’s ashen gray hair swept to one side, the silver whistle around his neck.
I had less than a second to imprint these images. Then, just as quickly as the light had come, we were lost in darkness again, only silhouettes with glowing eyes in the reverberations of a clap of thunder that made the depths of my bones vibrate.