The waiter wrote the message on the back of the bill. The words are messy, blue ink scrawled in a hasty rush, but I can still read them. At first glance I thought he had given me his number or some unusual thing like that. According to my best friend Zoey, it is common to get random guys’ numbers. But then again, she’s exceptionally beautiful. I’m not – I can’t afford to be noticed, not with my job. I’m the best, but obviously this time someone saw us. We must have been followed to the restaurant, or else I wouldn’t have been sent this warning.
I read the note one more time, just to make sure it hasn’t changed, because that has happened before. But no, nothing has. “I can’t believe it’s come to this already,” I mutter. We were planning to wait until Zoey turned eighteen, but I guess that will have to change. Hopefully she will be able to handle the truth of what she is at sixteen instead. But I can decide how to tell her later. For now, I have to focus on getting her to safety, which won’t be easy if our followers are experienced. I’ll just have to hope they’re not.
I look up abruptly to see her staring at me across the table.
“Aara, is something wrong?” she asks. “You’re acting really weird.” That isn’t good. If Zoey can tell I’m not acting normal, then they might too. I ignore her for a moment and glance casually around the restaurant. I spot them immediately. A couple sits in a booth across the room, with a little boy between them. They look like your average family, but I’ve been trained to spot my fellow Shifters anywhere. I need to keep calm. If they think I’ve noticed them, they will attack. And if they do that, I’ll just have to hope that they don’t know a Shifter is watching over Zoey. I turn back to her.
I lean forward, fixing a smile on my face. “You need to look like everything is normal, okay? You have to relax, or they’re going to notice,” I whisper.
“They? Who are you talking about? You’re not making any sense,” Zoey says. She frowns and jabs her finger at the note still clenched in my hand. “What’s so strange about the bill? You had this weird expression when you read it.”
“Don’t worry about the bill; there’s nothing strange about it,” I lie smoothly. “We just need to get out of here. I’ll explain it all later.”
“Yeah right, there’s nothing strange about it! Something about the bill bugged you!” Zoey exclaims, snatching it out of my hand. “’Find Trueheart immediately’?” she reads aloud. “What is that supposed to mean?” Zoey fixes me with her trademark steel-blue-eyed stare. “You had better tell me what’s going on here, or I’m not leaving.”
How is it that I can always hide my Shifter identity from those who would kill me for it, and then I can’t fool Zoey, who has no idea what I am?
The only good thing about this is that she’ll make a great Shifter herself.
“Come on Zoey, you’ve known me for years. Don’t you trust me?” I plead. I take a deep breath, trying to resist the growing urge to just run out the door. “I promise I’ll explain everything, but first we need to get out of here. There’s somewhere important we have to go.”
“Of course I trust you,” she replies with a roll of her eyes. “But don’t you think this is all a little dramatic? I mean, that sounds like a line straight from an action movie! What’s the rush?”
All my patience abruptly vanishes. “You’re wasting time!” I snap. “We need to go right now!” I roughly grab the note back and fumble with it, trying to stuff it into my pocket. Her eyes widen.
“Wow, you’re actually being serious,” Zoey says. She stands up and grabs her purse. “Alright, show me the way.” I breathe a sigh of relief and head quickly to the door. I usher Zoey out first, turning back to look at the Shifters. The little boy looks up at the same time and meets my gaze.
Abruptly, the family shifts forms. Screams ring out as people see them transform into three tall, strong men. Behind me, I hear Zoey gasp. My hand automatically flies to the necklace I always wear, but there is no point in shifting if they’re looking right at me.
The Shifters charge us. I spin around and shove Zoey forward. “Run, run!” I cry. We burst out onto the crowded sidewalk. I take the lead, heading deeper into the city, dodging people every step. Screams and shouts echo behind as the Shifters shoulder their way through after us. I risk a quick glance back. Zoey is still right behind me. “Around…the corner!” I gasp out and point ahead. “Second…building…on the…right!” Zoey nods and speeds up, determination hardening her features. I have to make sure she gets away. The moment she passes me, I glance back again. The Shifters are still elbowing their way through the crowd. They’re not looking, too focused on shoving people out of their way.
I slow my pace and look around wildly. I need someone with brown hair and a slim figure like me. A girl ahead is slim, but she’s blonde. My heart beats faster. The one beside her is a brunette, but her clothes are too bright. Mine are dark. Panic runs through my veins. I need to find someone, now! I’m running out of time. It takes all my willpower to keep walking calmly. I peek at the Shifters again. They are way too close. Wait – there’s a girl a few feet from them. She has brown hair, she’s slim, and her clothes are dark. Perfect. I take off again and run straight at her, praying the Shifters won’t see me.
The girl looks up too late. I collide roughly with her, sending us crashing to the ground. Pain scrapes across my hands and knees. “What the –” she starts angrily, and then she sees the knife. She screams. I grin at her, hoping I look crazy. I sure feel like it. I start to get up, but collapse back down with a cry of pain. I let go of the knife. It clatters to the sidewalk, now out of my reach. Like I hoped, the girl uses the opportunity to scramble up and run away. I reach up and grab my necklace. A familiar rush shoots through me as pins and needles crawl across my skin. Just in time.
People walking by move away as the Shifters surround me. I don’t blame them. The men look like they appeared straight out of a child’s nightmare where strangers steal them away in the dead of night. Their midnight black clothes and cruel faces don’t help. I let the terror consume me and start to sob. “What happened?” one of them demands.
“A-a girl,” I stammer, “s-she had a k-k-knife, I d-don’t know what s-she wanted, she t-tried to hurt m-me –”
The same one cuts off my rambling and steps forward. “I don’t care what she did,” he hisses, menace twisting his face. “Where did she go?”
“Th-that way…” I shrink back as I point after the still-fleeing girl. He follows my shaking hand and spots her, but still turns back. He searches my face for any hint that I might be lying. His eyes are steely and cold, like two chunks of marble. There’s nothing human in them. I shudder involuntarily and break his gaze. I can’t look at him, at that evil. I just have to hope he believes me. Then again, who wouldn’t believe a scared little kid?
“Are you alright?” That’s not the Shifter. I look up warily. They’re gone, running after the girl. I’m safe. And the girl will be fine too; they’ll leave her alone once they figure out she’s not me. By letting me go, they proved my hope: our enemies don’t know the person watching over Zoey is a Shifter. If they did, they never would have believed me.
“What’s your name?” Someone crouches down in front of me, looking concerned. It’s the slim blonde. Her friend, the bright-clothed brunette, is right beside her.
“Um, it’s A-Alison,” I say softly. “But everyone c-calls me Ally.” I might as well keep the charade going until the Shifters are out of sight.
“Well, Ally, my name is Olivia, and this is my friend Heather. Can you tell me if you’re hurt anywhere?” Olivia asks.
“N-no, um, I-I think I’m okay,” I say. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice that same Shifter glance back at me. Seeing that I haven’t moved apparently satisfies him, as they keep running. I stare after them until they turn a corner.
“Ally, are you lost? Do you know where your parents are?” Olivia asks. I smile reassuringly at her.
“I’m not lost, Olivia, but thanks. You’re really great with kids,” I tell her. “But don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.” I leap up, snatching the knife from the sidewalk as I do, and start running to the building I directed Zoey to.
“Ally! Come back! You need to go back to your parents!” Olivia shouts, following me. Being small, it’s easy to hide myself among all the taller people until I lose her. I hate to do it, after she was so kind to me, but there is no other option.
I push past the crowds of people until I find myself in front of the second building on the right. The place looks close to falling down, and even though the wooden door squeaks as I push it open, it’s not hard to slip in unnoticed. No one pays any attention to me, but that’s your typical city. Everyone is so wrapped up in their own business that it takes something spectacular to catch their attention.
If only they knew about the plan the corrupt Shifters have in store for them. It’s quite simple, really, but it could do so much damage. Targets are chosen, all of them influential members of society. They are watched until everything is known about them, and then their lives are taken over. No one notices the switch, because what is there to notice? The new person looks like them, acts like them, is them. No, to begin with, there is no difference. That comes later, ever so slowly, so no one will suspect. It takes years, but eventually the Shifters start changing things to suit themselves. If the switches weren’t so hard to pull off, the whole world would be under their control by now. Despite that, they’ve already swapped out far too many people. Somehow, Trueheart, Zoey, and I have to work our way into their organization and find out where they hide those who were switched. Trueheart managed to discover that they are alive, kept just in case something goes wrong. Their memories of being taken would be destroyed, and ones implanted of the time they missed. Then no one, not even the person it happened to, would know about the switch. All in all, the corrupt Shifters have a very well thought out plan. It’s going to be hard to infiltrate them.
But I shouldn’t get ahead of myself. None of that can happen unless Trueheart awakens Zoey’s ability to shift. And that can’t happen unless I can find her. I shift back to the form she knows as Aara, so when I find her she won’t freak out. I start checking the first floor, trying to step silently on the creaking wood and trying to fight the dread growing in the pit of my stomach. Either way, I’m not succeeding. All of the rooms are empty of furniture, so a quick glance through each doorway is all I need to see that she’s not there. She had better be on the second floor.
I take the steps two at a time, but before I reach the top I hear Trueheart’s voice. “Aara, you must be quieter on these stairs! I heard you on the very first step.” There is a small pause. “Zoey is with me, and I have already explained everything about the Shifters and their plan.” I let loose a breath I didn’t realize I was holding.
“Thank goodness,” I whisper, and then raise my voice. “I’ll be right there.”
Trueheart hasn’t changed since I saw him last, though that was years ago. He snapped at me to be quieter then too, but I know I’m much better at it now. Still, I work harder at being silent as I head back down the stairs.
I reach for my necklace again, this time taking it off. It’s a simple silver heart, a little bigger than my thumb nail. I slip it off the chain and kneel down, searching among the dust on the bottom step. It fits neatly into the small heart-shaped hole in the wood. The steps immediately begin to move, rearranging themselves from stairs going up to stairs going down.
Zoey’s standing at the bottom, with her own silver heart necklace now around her neck. She grins up at me. “You’re lucky,” she says. “You got out of explaining.”
“Hey, at least someone told you,” I joke as I re-clasp my necklace and go down to meet her. “So you’re a Shifter now too? You agreed to the plan?”
“Of course I did. I’m the most powerful Shifter in the world, remember,” she laughs.
“Well, according to the old legend someone is supposed to be the most powerful. We could have picked the wrong person, and you could be no better at Shifting than I am,” I offer helpfully.
Trueheart chooses that moment to leave the darkness of the hidden basement and stand beside her. Our laughter falls silent as his lean, muscled body towers over both of us. He’s in the same form as when I first met him. His narrow face is deeply lined and seems to be in a perpetual state of seriousness. I’ve never once seen him smile. His murky brown eyes bore into mine, as impossible to read now as they always are. He is the most experienced Shifter in the world, so it makes sense that he’s the best at hiding his thoughts, but it’s still unnerving.
“No one followed you?” he asks. The words are sharp and concerned. His gaze is like a laser, probing and scanning to determine whatever it is he wants to know. I hold his stare and try not to waver as I shake my head. He calls that weakness, and I can’t afford to show weakness if I’m to infiltrate the Shifters with him. He could easily change his mind and send someone else.
“Alright,” he says. The intensity in his gaze suddenly fades to be replaced by a deep well of determination. “You both know our intention. The other Shifters are beginning to suspect something, so we must act sooner than we planned. You will each spend one week training at our headquarters, starting tomorrow, and then we will attempt to join them. Understand?” We nod in agreement, but he searches our eyes until whatever he sees satisfies him.
“You have until daybreak tomorrow to rest up. Beds have been prepared,” he motions behind him, “and so I suggest you head there now. Whatever you do, do not leave the hidden section of this house.” With that said, he turns and vanishes into the barely-visible doorway of his office.
Zoey and I exchange a glance at his theatrics, but our smiles are a little weak. Trueheart’s scrutiny always leaves me feeling shaken, even if I haven’t done anything wrong. His gaze is also frighteningly close to being like the stare of that Shifter. I mean, I know he’s not one of them, but still…I have to consciously try and shrug off the sensation.
We head to the back of the basement, where two beds are placed against the far wall. A small fireplace crouches between them. Thin gleams of light escape the clutches of the dying embers, sending cryptic shadows dancing on the concrete floor. We slip off our shoes and simultaneously slide beneath the thick covers. I gladly wrap them around me to avoid the slight chill in the air and in my heart.
In this gloom, Zoey looks like a stranger. Silence stretches out between us. The jokes we shared suddenly don’t seem that funny.
“What do you think it will be like tomorrow?” Zoey whispers. Her voice is soft now, unsure. I know it could have been anyone chosen to befriend her and eventually introduce her to the dangerous world of shifting, but I still feel responsible. This whole thing started out as a job for me; a purpose I could focus on in my otherwise empty life. Not anymore. Zoey is my best – and only – friend. If I can make this easier for her, I will.
“It will be busy, that’s for sure,” I say with a smile. “But you’ll do great.”
“Do you really believe that?” She moves closer, enough that I can see her hopeful expression.
“Of course I do,” I say. “Look, my job as a Shifter is to spy on our enemies without them knowing I’m there. I have to pick a believable disguise and act according to it, so they just think I’m an everyday person.” A grin spreads across my face. “I’ve been called the best at my job, but you knew something was wrong back at the restaurant anyway. You saw through my acting, which means you’re talented.”
Zoey finally smiles. “Thanks for that,” she says. “Maybe I will do okay after all.”
We both fall silent as sleep gradually creeps over us. My final thought before I surrender to it is, “Of course she will.”