Year of the Chameleon 2 – Shannon Mayer

I would have preferred it if he’d knocked me out. Instead, the Shadowkiller’s spell had frozen me, making it so I could see, and hear, and think but not act. So I couldn’t do a damn thing about him slinging me over his shoulder like I was a bag of feed. My friends were under attack as he hauled me away, and I could do nothing to help them. I couldn’t so much as twitch a muscle or blink my eyes. All I could do was watch what was unfolding in front of me. Yeah, it would have been kinder if he’d made me truly oblivious to what was happening. Kindness, though, did not appear to be in the Shadowkiller’s repertoire. “The SUV is waiting,” the gargoyle Ash said, his wings blocking my vision for a moment. He’d been my professor for about 3.2 seconds, and it turned out he was working with the Shadowkiller, my uncle (gah, that still galled), all along. Helping Uncle Nicholas get close to me through him, making me believe that he was my friend. In the distance, my real friends called out to me. One voice was missing, though. Colt.

My guts twisted and a groan slipped out of me. He’d been killed because I’d let him into my crew. Killed trying to protect me. A shudder rippled and I struggled to breathe, not because of the spell, but because of my damn emotions. I had to get myself under control. I had to lock all that up . I’m sorry, Colt. I have to put you aside. For now. I’d hurt later for my friend.

But not now, not in the middle of a fight for our lives. Wally’s voice rose over the others as she demanded that the Shadowkiller put me down. “DON’T YOU DARE TAKE HER!” she yelled, and my heart swelled a little. She was a good friend, more loyal than most. No, that wasn’t true. All my friends here were like her. Good. Loyal. Stronger than they realized. Despite that, they were no match for the Shadowkiller, any more than I was apparently.

Explosions rocketed around us, filling the air with dust and debris, rumbling against my chest, but I couldn’t move no matter how hard I tried, and I was trying. My breath came in ragged gulps as my adrenaline soared and my internal warning system went off the rails, screaming at me to run, to fight, to do something. “Stop struggling, Maribel,” Nicholas said, his voice calm and as smooth as butter on a hot Texas day. He adjusted his hold on me, and a wave of darkness threatened at the edge of my vision. “Not. My. Name.” It was all I could do to say those three words and stay conscious. Sweat broke out across my face and dripped down my cheeks to the floor below. Three words and I was exhausted, wrung out from the effort.

I blinked and behind us stood Tommy. My brother’s ghost was shaking his head, one hand in his hair as he stared at me. How could I see him? I wasn’t touching Wally. That was the connection I needed in order to see ghosts. There was movement off to my left, drawing my eyes as that was all I could move. The pebbled skin of Ash blocked my view as Nicholas strode toward the front doors of the House of Wonder. He almost had me out. “Fight!” Tommy yelled at me. I wanted to yell back that I was trying. A groan was all I managed.

“Ethan, stop him!” Wally screamed, and a spell slammed the doors shut. My uncle— God, I did not want to think of being related to this monster—just flicked his wand and the doors ripped open, snapping at the hinges as they spun away. As if Ethan’s magic was nothing to him. Another explosion ripped out behind us, and the ground shook as the building was rocked from the inside. They—Ash and the Shadowkiller—had set bombs off in the House of Wonder. Just like they’d done to the other houses. “That should slow them down,” Ash said with more than a little satisfaction. I wouldn’t have pegged him for bloodthirsty, but here it was—the truth. He’d fooled me. Damn it, where had my internal warning system been when I’d met the gargoyle? Maybe it had still been dampened by the spell the mages had set on all of us upon our arrival.

A spell to keep us slow and compliant while we were in the House of Wonder. The honk of vehicles blitzed through the booms behind us from the explosives that had gone off. There was a screech of tires, and then the world turned upside down and I was staring at the night sky for a split second as I was flipped into the back seat of what looked like a black SUV or maybe a truck. Hard to say from that angle. “Original.” I bit out the word, face down on the leather seats, my jaw cramping as if I’d been kicked in the face by a donkey. The spell the Shadowkiller had wrapped around me tightened, reminding me of the python that had attacked us the morning after Ruby’s assault on me. Even as I thought it, there was a shimmer of scales around me. “Snake.” I bit that word out too, putting the pieces together.

“Yes, that was me,” Nicholas said slowly. “I can see the questions in your mind, Maribel. That’s the power of a family connection in our world when we are close in proximity, if you know how to use it, of course. And, yes, I sent that snake to wrap you up and bring you back to me. Separating you from your friends was the key. That older student, the Shade, didn’t realize the python was out of the ordinary—mind you, it is something the House of Wonder uses for training.” He sighed. “Truly, this is not how I wanted things to go. But such is life, rarely bending to your will the way you’d like it to. We have to hurry, Ash.

I’ve only got so much time before . ” He rubbed his temple. Before what? He didn’t finish his sentence, leaving me to wonder. Before he drained my life? Before another bomb exploded? “The spell will cover us for another few hours at best,” Ash said. Nicholas settled into his seat next to me and put on a seat belt with a click. Like . a normal person. Not a damn crazy killer of so many of the people in our world. “Ash, let’s go,” he said. “There is nothing here.

Except for Maribel, this night is a complete bust.” “Could it be hidden better than we thought?” Ash asked. Nicholas sighed. “I don’t know. I was certain . and yet there was nothing.” My eyes couldn’t physically see him, but I saw him clearly in my mind’s eye. He was again rubbing at his face, looking out the window. What the freaking damn hell was this? That family connection he was talking about? “Five of them, all missing,” Ash said as he drove us through the city. “You’d think in all these years, there would be at least one found.

But only whispers.” “I believe one was,” Nicholas said. “And then lost again. Lexi was close . ” What the hell were they talking about? What were they searching for and why was my mother’s name involved? I had to get out of here, no matter that they were giving me information that sounded interesting, and possibly useful. I’d take freedom over knowledge at that point, a thousand times over. But every second I struggled against the spell, it strangled me until I could see the patterns of the snake wrapped around me, constricting me tighter and tighter until my vision spotted with stars and I gasped for breath. “You’re going to pass out soon if you keep that up,” Professor Ash said from the front of the SUV. I couldn’t see him, either, but I could hear him clearly. Another wave of self-recrimination washed over me.

I should have suspected something was up the moment he said Nicholas had been one of his favorite students, that he wasn’t what people believed him to be. Shoulda coulda woulda. But I’d been too busy dealing with Ruby’s attack on me, the sickness spreading through the House of Wonder, and trying to stay alive as the Sandman trained me with fists and feet to pay attention to what was going on around me. The Sandman. Shit, he had a connection to me through the pendant I wore to mark me as a Shade. A pendant that was no longer with me, but maybe . I closed my eyes and let out a slow breath, and the constriction eased around my chest. Another slow breath, and I focused all my mental energy on a shout. CAN YOU HEAR ME? Professor Ash gave a low grunt and his leathery wings rustled. “He cannot hear you, though I can.

I have replaced myself as the one who can track you.” My eyes flew open, and I twisted into a more upright sitting position before the spell clamped down on my arms and legs again, freezing me in place once more. My uncle calmly leaned over and buckled me in, as if he was bringing me to the park to pitch balls. Questions pinged through my head, not least among them where they were taking me, whether they planned to kill me, and who’d killed Tommy. Which meant I couldn’t slump into a pile of goo. I had to be aware. Professor Ash twisted around in the front passenger seat to face me, his eyes full of intelligence. He wasn’t the one driving, then. I considered checking, but I couldn’t look away from the gargoyle. “There are many questions rolling through you.

Focus on one, and I will do my best to answer. You need to understand that there are some things I cannot answer because of my loyalties and the ties that bind me to them,” Ash dipped his head toward my left, where the Shadowkiller sat. “But I will share with you what I can.” My uncle said nothing, his body still except for one hand tapping away rapidly on his leg, a staccato beat. I didn’t close my eyes, but went through the list of questions quickly, settling on the most obvious. Are you two going to kill me? The professor shook his head. “No, your death is not the plan, not in the least. There is much to discuss, and very little time in which to do so.” Not in the plan? That meant it could happen though. The SUV took a sharp left, which tipped me to the side and changed my field of vision as the vehicle picked up speed once more.

I couldn’t see who was driving, and even if I’d been able to turn my head more, I wouldn’t have been able to. There was a partial plexiglass partition between the front and back seats on that side, and it was shaded out between me and the driver. I tried another question, seeing as talking was not happening. Where are we going? Ash tipped his head. “Ah, that is not something I can tell you. Because despite cutting off your connection to Rufus, I cannot cut off your connection to your friends. And I am quite sure they will come looking for you. We need them, of course, but away from the House of Wonder. You are the bait.” Beside me, my uncle grunted in agreement.

“They are stronger than anyone realized, especially together.” You want my crew too? They nodded in tandem, and I managed to move my head a little to look from one to the other. Damn it, I could not let them use me as bait, but I didn’t have a lot of say at the moment. “We have company, boss!” the driver shouted, his voice high-pitched and squealy. And a hell of a lot of afraid. Goblin was my first thought. A bellow outside like the boom of a train horn echoed heavy through the air, reverberating in my chest. The start of a warning ran down my spine, but there was nothing I could do about it. No running away for me. I turned my head a little to the left and got a glimpse of dark gray hide and the brilliant white of a massively curved horn only a second before we were hit broadside with the force of some serious tonnage.

The metal around us screeched, and every window imploded, sending shards of glass shooting through the air. The SUV was sent airborne and tumbled sideways, spinning away from our attacker. I was suddenly glad for the fact that ol’ Uncle Shadowkiller had buckled my butt in, as we were far from done with the whole rolling over business. Three times the vehicle tumbled before it finally crashed to a halt against a building, the horn stuck and blaring, other vehicles honking around us, a woman outside screaming for someone to call 9-1-1. Upside down, hanging from my seat belt, I realized the spell Nicholas had put on me was gone. I turned quickly to see my uncle out cold, blood running from his head into his blond hair, breathing shallow. A bellow rippled through the air again and I twisted to see another glimmer of dark gray hide lit up by streetlights and billboards. Another hit was coming, and if I didn’t get out, I was going to have some serious bruises. I wasn’t getting another chance like this. Scrambling, I yanked the belt off, flopped unceremoniously onto the ceiling, turned and crawled out the window closest to me, the frame bent but still big enough for me to slide out.

“No!” Ash yelled, but I was not slowing down for him. Maybe he wasn’t yelling at me, though. Maybe he was yelling at whatever hit us. In my escape from the window, I sliced my left arm in a long gash that went from the top of my wrist almost to my elbow, but the pain barely registered. I didn’t have long before my uncle would be awake—I had to move fast. I stumbled a half step as I hit the sidewalk, taking in the people around the wreck, staring and pointing. Taking pictures. More screaming as the rolling thunder filled the air. Not from the night sky above, but from below. What felt like an earthquake rumbled from the soles of my feet up through my calves, and the world slowed enough that I turned to see a freaking rhino charging the SUV.

A damn rhino, loose in the middle of New York City. Only . it was bigger than any rhino I’d ever seen or heard of. Closer to the size of an elephant. The critter’s horn had to be at least seven feet long, and a foot around at the base where it connected to the forehead. That was what had slammed into us. And it was closing in for round two. There was no doubt I was seeing one of the shifters from the House of Claw trying to stop the Shadowkiller. “Cats on fire.” I whispered one of Pete’s sayings as time sped back up, and I dove out of the way.

The muscular beast lowered its head and slammed its horn deep into the SUV, lifting the vehicle on the point in order to ram it again into the building’s wall. Above us, people in the building cried out, and the sound of breaking glass had me covering my head and springing back to my feet. I ended up in the middle of the street, but traffic had stopped as the scene around us played out. What the hell did the humans here think of this madness? They probably assumed the impossibly proportioned rhino had escaped from a zoo. Did New York even have a zoo? More important than the zoo situation . did I stay to make sure the Shadowkiller was done? No, I wasn’t that stupid. I knew when I was outgunned. Did I go back to get my friends? Bait, they’d said I was bait to draw my friends away from the House of Wonder. The decision was made for me. As I turned on my heel to run, the gargoyle burst out the front windshield of the SUV, dragging someone with him.

He had the Shadowkiller gripped under the arms with his powerful foot claws—saving him from the shifter. I watched as Ash flew past me, body shimmering with some sort of soft glow. The humans didn’t see them, their eyes riveted on the accident scene. But I could feel my uncle’s magic curling toward me, wrapping its coils around me again as he woke up. I had to move. I had to get away, even if I didn’t know what direction was best. I bolted, running down the middle of the street, sliding between cars, feeling the threat at my back increasing with each second as Ash circled back toward me. “Crap, crap, crap!” What I wouldn’t have given for my dad’s rifle. Or a bow and arrow. Maybe a rocket launcher since I was making ridiculous wishes.

I could almost hear Wally’s voice whispering my odds of knocking the gargoyle out of the sky, based on which weapon I had. Ducking around a furniture-moving truck, I used it for cover as I slid down an alleyway to catch my breath. Back pinned against the brick wall, I stayed still, listening not only with my ears but with my body. The cut along my left arm throbbed a little, but it was already scabbing over a bit. I checked it out, but it wasn’t too deep and wouldn’t require stitches at least. I flexed my left hand, the pull of the muscles on the open wound a bit bothersome but not too bad. Slowing my breathing, I looked up at the buildings around me. They blocked out much of the light from the streets, covering me with shadow. As far as I could tell, I’d lost Ash and my uncle. I sucked in a breath and then took quick stock of myself.

Exhausted from the spell, yes. Not sure where I was? Also, yes. I could feel my friends in the distance, and that would lead me to them. But if I did that . did that mean Ash could find them through me? Worse, whatever bait I represented meant I’d play right into his hands if I let my group come to me. “Stay away,” I whispered, sending that sensation through to my friends. “I’ve got this.” Hell, I knew I didn’t ‘got this,’ but if I was bait, then I had to stop them. My guts twisted as I thought about what would happen to my friends if they came after me. I had ties to Ash, whether I wanted them or not; my friends; and on a lesser scale, my uncle.

Eyes closed, I searched for that connection between me and Ash. There, like a pale blue mist behind my eyelids. Next to it was another set of ties, golden, strong. That was my bond with my friends. And underneath both, a very thin red line. A tie of blood to my uncle. “Okay, okay, I can do this.” I loosened my shoulders and tried to shut off my connection to Ash first. I thought about stuffing the blue mist into a gunnysack. It worked .

only it took all the other connections with it. I grimaced and rubbed at my face, silently wishing that Ethan were there. Only because of his understanding of magic, of course. “Again,” I whispered. I pulled out the three different threads that were bound to me, took the blue misty one and stuffed it away. Once more, they all went. “Damn!” I snapped and whacked the flat of my hand against the building behind me. I couldn’t shut off just one connection. I had no idea how, nor did I have the luxury of time to try to figure it out. Which meant I had to cut them all off.

The one upside was that it would keep my crew from tracking me down. I closed my eyes and focused on that feeling of my friends, pushing them away one by one into the gunnysack I could see in my head. Wally, Orin, Pete, Gregory, and even Ethan though I’d tried to cut him out of our crew, each blinking out like a lightbulb switched off. With them, I pushed the blue mist connection to Ash and the thin red line to my uncle. Which was all well and good, only it was too late. I’d taken too long. A whoosh of leathery wings and the sound of feet thudding on the ground spun me to face the darker end of the alley. I couldn’t see the full details of the gargoyle, but his outline was clear enough. “I told you I could find you anywhere,” Ash said, “and you still ran? Why? We need you, Wild. Your uncle needs you.

” There was no spell on me, nothing holding me in place. “Is he dead?”


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