Her eyes were the first things Byrun noticed about the newborn daughter he was about to abandon. Two violet jewels set against pale skin, even in the dim light of the windowless room, they were clear and round, the hue of a moonlit sky in summer. He wouldn’t meet her gaze. He couldn’t bear to disappoint her so soon. She was looking for the faces that would act as her guides in this new world, ones that would ensure her survival. She wouldn’t find them here. Those faces were down the hall in another room.
Her right hand was the second thing that caught his attention. Her third and fourth fingers were fused together by a thin web. “Nothing to worry about,” the doctor assured him. “It’s a common anomaly that can be corrected later with surgery.”
He grabbed the suitcase thick with cash. “It won’t affect the deal.” In exchange, he thrust an envelope into Byrun’s hand and scurried off into the night. Byrun watched a storm of indignation gather in his daughter’s eyes. She began to wail, the sound echoing off the steel walls of the morgue. He flinched at the sound. They were safe for the moment, deep in the bowels of the hospital, the walls thick, the halls dimly lit, but Byrun wouldn’t relax until it was done.They had to move quickly. It was already well past midnight and the staff would start to stir soon. If they were caught now, it would be a disaster.
Byrun’s wife Sarah, still exhausted from the birth and her brow etched with sadness, sobbed quietly in her makeshift bed. Byrun didn’t want to think about what else that bed had been used for. He squeezed her hand and gently whispered in her ear, “It’s time.” Tears spilled from her dark eyes. He held her close for a moment, his face cradled in her chestnut hair. Then he took a deep breath and stood.
“We have to hurry,” he said. “It’s not safe here.” He helped her stand, guiding her gently by the elbow. She moved obediently, clutching the baby in her arms. They picked their way down the dark corridor, Byrun scanning around nervously for any signs of intruders. The baby cried louder. Sarah rocked her gently, the light catching the gold necklace they had placed around her neck. Suddenly, Sarah gasped and took a deep breath. She clutched Byrun’s arm.
“What is it?” he asked.
Sarah waved him off. “Give me a second,” she said, then caught her breath again. “It’s passing.”
“You shouldn’t be walking,” Byrun said. “We’ve got to get you to the safe house and back to bed.” The baby’s eyes were now the color of angry bruises. He didn’t know what else to say except to keep repeating the plan, so he focused on the light coming from the waiting room at the end of the hall.
“I hear her crying!” a voice exclaimed from inside. The baby’s body shook with anger. Sarah squeezed her tighter, infuriating the infant. She blew hushes into the baby's ear as she marched forward. Byrun’s heart crumbled under the weight of his wife’s sorrow, but another howl from his newborn daughter strengthened his resolve.
He blocked her way and reached for the baby. “Stop,” he commanded. “Stay here and rest. I’ll take her to them. You don’t need to torture yourself this way.”
Sarah squeezed her daughter harder and stepped around him, her eyes fixed with purpose. “I have to deliver her. It’s the least I can do.”
He followed her into the doorway. A short, round woman inside gasped when she saw the furious little face peering out from the blanket. The woman was older and heavier than Sarah, but her expression was kind. The lamp behind her head highlighted a few unruly wisps of hair around her head, like a halo. Unfazed by the crying, she reached her dimpled hands out to Sarah and nodded encouragingly.
Sarah hesitated. She lowered her face to the baby’s head and took a deep breath, then closed her eyes, letting the dewy smell of newborn skin wash over her. Still looking away, Byrun’s gaze fell into the shadows where a man sat in a wheelchair. His expression was one of sympathy. When his focus shifted to the baby, it changed to joy.
A small flame of relief warmed Byrun’s chest. He watched as Sarah kissed the angry lines in their daughter’s forehead and nuzzled her cheek. Then she straightened and handed the baby over to her new mother.
A strangled sob escaped her throat. “Her name is Sophia Violet,” she said. “I know I don’t have any right to name her, but…”
Tears filled the other woman’s eyes. “It’s a lovely name,” she said, tucking the baby against the folds of her chest. “I can never thank you enough for trusting us to raise her.” Her eyes were full of anguish. “We plan on being honest about the adoption. Is there anything you want her to know? Maybe one day, you might be in a better position to—”
“No!” Byrun cried, his voice hard. There was no room for compromise.“We can’t have any contact. Ever.” He handed her the birth certificate the doctor had given him. “We want to remain unknown. Do you understand? You tell her whatever you like but keep us out of it.”
“We’ll honor your request,” the man in the wheelchair finally said. “You have our word. But if you ever change your mind—”
Sarah turned away from them. “Please take good care of her,” she said. She clutched Byrun’s arm and moved toward the door without a backward glance. Their baby’s rolling howls followed them down the dark hallway.
Byrun guided Sarah into the parking garage where their car was waiting. She stopped to catch her breath while he arranged the pillows in the passenger seat. His stomach churned to see she was sweating profusely and clutching her belly. He helped her climb inside the car and buckled her in. She started to sob again. Once she was home, she would be all right, he promised himself. The doctor had arranged for a nurse to care for her. He had assured Byrun that she could be trusted.
“Well, well,” a deep voice echoed across the empty garage. Byrun jumped at the sound. His hair stood on end.
“So, it’s true,” the voice said. “Imagine that. A baby.” The word was drawn out in mock delight.
Byrun spun around, closing the car door behind him. Sarah hadn't heard the voice. Her pain had subsided again and she was calm, though overcome with grief.
“What do you want, Rayson?” Byrun shouted into the air.
The hush of cushioned feet crossed the floor, but there was no answer.
“Is that the way you’re going to play it?” Byrun taunted. He positioned himself in front of the car window, shielding Sarah. “You’re many things, Rayson, but I’ve never known you to be a coward. At least show yourself.”
An enormous panther slunk out of the shadows, its yellow eyes fixed on Sarah, who was now frozen in terror. “We've been waiting nine months for this moment,” it said in Byrun’s head. It stretched and flicked its tail. “Did you really think we wouldn’t find out?”
“How did you find me?” Byrun asked.
A side door to the garage opened and two uniformed men appeared, their faces hard and expressionless. The panther yawned. “Byrun, how dull you are. You know what I want and yet you refuse to hand it over. As for how I found you, it was the Genetitracer, of course. It really is a marvel.” He raised his eyebrows. “Now, for old time's sake, I’m asking you one last time. Give me the Orb.”
“Never,” Byrun said, his eyes as cold as Rayson’s tone.
Rayson closed his eyes and sighed. “Foiled again. Good thing, it's not you that I’m after anymore.” He circled Byrun, narrowing his eyes to focus on Sarah. He peered inside the window. “Sarah, isn’t it?” he purred. Still clutching her stomach, Sarah's eye widened. She retreated deeper into the car.
The panther licked its lips. “Her pregnancy is a fortunate turn of events indeed. Mother will be pleased.”
“Esmeray is not my mother,” Byrun spat. “And you’re not my brother. Even stepbrotheris too good a word for you.”
“Tomato, Tomahto,” Rayson mocked him. He paced back and forth beside the car, his eyes on Sarah, who was again doubled over in pain. “But enough of this chatter,” he said. “It appears I’ve arrived just in time.”
“Leave her alone, Rayson,” Byrun said. “She needs to rest.” Sarah cried out again. Byrun reached in the car to comfort her.
“She’ll be fine once the baby comes,” the panther said.
Rayson doesn’t know the baby has already been born!
Byrun struggled to hide his relief at the sudden realization. “I told you, leave my family alone. Surely you know I’ll report this. You won’t get away with it.”
“Don’t be silly, Byrrrrun,” the panther purred. “As I said, we arefamily. It’s heartening to see you're good for something, after all. Mother has been so anxious for a successor to the Orb Master line.” His mouth hardened. “One that won’t betray the cause.” His whiskers twitched. “Of course, I don’t know why you had to bring a Human into it. It definitely complicates things.”
“Esmeray will never touch my child,” Byrun spat.
How did this happen? We were so careful. We’ve been planning this for months!
“Did you really think you’d get away with it?” Rayson said dryly. “The same goes for the Orb. We’ll find it. With or without you. As for reporting us to Council, you know Mother has no regard for that gang of fools.”
“Why are you doing this?” Byrun cried. “You know as well as I do that Esmeray doesn’t care about Chiralis. Her true intentions are evil and selfish.”
Rayson flicked his tail. “You know what they say. Blood is thicker than water. Besides, if you’re honest about it, you know she’s right.” He gazed around the garage. “This planet and the vermin that live here have no value other than their service to Chiralis. Your problem is that you sacrifice practicality for your pathetic principles. It clouds your reason.”
Byrun’s thoughts raced. Had his daughter and her new parents already left the hospital? Were they out of harm’s way?
I’ll have to stall Rayson as long as I can, to give them more time. But I’ve got to get Sarah to safety.
“I need to lie down,” Sarah groaned.
“Don’t worry, my dear. The pain is perfectly normal. It means it’s almost time,” Rayson laughed. “Let’s get on with it,” he said to Byrun. “Ladies,” he called. Three women in stiff nurses’ uniforms appeared out of nowhere and approached the car. Byrun blocked their way.
“Don't worry, we’ll make sure they have the best care possible,” Rayson promised Byrun. “Mother doesn’t want anything happening to either of them.” He pounced and landed face to face with Byrun. “You aren’t going to give me any trouble, are you?”
Byrun shapeshifted into a jaguar. His eyes blazed.
Rayson snorted. “There was a time you might have been a challenge for me. But now the new Orb Master is almost here, your power has already begun to fade.” He ran his tongue over his lip. “Your time is almost up. My strength, on the other hand, has grown.”
Rayson swiped at Byrun’s head, slicing the air with his deadly claws. Byrun ducked. Rayson sprang forward, poised to try again, but Byrun was faster. He lunged, seizing Rayson by the neck. They wrested, a roiling mass of claws and teeth.
Finally, Byrun flipped Rayson over and pinned him to the ground. His nail caught in Rayson’s fur and a simple gold chain snapped off the panther’s neck. A purple crystal rolled across the floor. Rayson’s eyes widened. Byrun pounced on it. He snatched the stone up in his mouth and flung it against the wall. Hard. It slammed off the cement and across the floor. As it came to rest at Rayson’s feet, a large crack spread across its surface.
Rayson yowled. “The Genetitracer,” he cried. “You fool! It can’t be repaired. It’s the only one in existence.” He charged Byrun again, knocking his feet out from under him.
“Good,” Byrun panted. “Now Esmeray can’t use it for her evil plans. This thing has no place in either world.”
The two wrestled again, Rayson now pinning Byrun against the wall. They slashed wildly at each other, both their coats streaked red. When Rayson paused to take a breath, Byrun slipped out from beneath him. He slashed Rayson in the throat. Rayson howled in pain and charged Byrun again. Byrun pitched backward and his head slammed against the cement wall. He lay there, crumpled on the floor, Rayson towering over him.
“Give me the Orb now,” Rayson demanded. “Or we'll take your child from you. Fourteen years is a mere blink of an eye in the ancient history of Chiralis. We can be patient.”
“Never,” Byrun spat. “You’ll never get your hands on that Orb, or my child,” he said, his head swimming. “I know what you and Esmeray have planned and it will never happen. Not as long as I'm Orb Master.”
Rayson chuckled and licked a paw. “Fine. It’s your funeral.”
The sound of squealing tires split the air. Byrun and Rayson turned to see Byrun’s car accelerating toward the garage exit. Sarah, having squeezed over into the driver’s seat, was attempting to flee. The car careened around the corner and crashed into a wall.
Byrun’s heart stopped. “Sarah!” he shouted. His head swam as he tried to stand.
The nurses rushed to Sarah’s side. She lay unconscious, her body draped over the steering wheel. Rayson watched, wide-eyed, as Byrun tried to revive her.
“You monster!” Byrun cried. “What have you done to her?” He rose and tried to launch himself at Rayson again. His legs collapsed beneath him. He shook his head, struggling to steady his thoughts. The world spun and went dark.
When he awoke, Byrun was stretched out on the cold cement floor. He rubbed the base of his neck and checked his hand for blood, relieved when he found none. His head ached. Both his car and the parking garage were empty and he was back in his human form. When he tried to stand, he found his ankles shackled together.
Oh, no! Shiftblockers. There’s no way out. I’m doomed!
“Sarah!” he cried, a wave of defeat washing over him. He had already lost so much. He couldn’t lose Sarah too. He had to get to her. “Rayson, let me go,” he cried, the sound echoing through the garage.
He struggled against his restraints. Nothing. He propelled his head forward in an attempt to change shift. He concentrated. His temples throbbed. Slowly, the shape of a snake began to emerge from the top of his head. Inch by inch, his body transformed. Black scales worked their way down his skin like falling dominoes, sleek and slick, like leather.
When they reached his ankles, they stopped, buckling into a pile. Just as if they’d hit an impenetrable wall, they reversed their direction and paved a trail of skin back up his spine. “No!” Byrun cried, his heart sinking as he felt the skin covering his tendons again. Shiftblockers. There was no use struggling. He knew from experience that escape was impossible. Rayson had won.
Suddenly, the sound of staccato footsteps echoed. Four black boots appeared at Byrun’s eye level; he looked up to find the armed guards standing over him.
“Let me go,” Byrun demanded, struggling to right himself. “You don’t understand. I have to stop Esmeray and Rayson from destroying everything.” Without a word, the two men pulled him to his feet. Each taking one of his legs, they flipped him into a tight somersault. A split second later, all three were gone.