It wasn't the face behind the hood that frightened me most. Not even the fact that Dark Cloak Guy was actually a really powerful Nokki.
No, it was the voice coming out of my mouth.
It wasn't mine.
As I pressed my hand to my lips, shaking, Allon Crakyow chuckled.
"Which I'm sure would have pleased you, Sakaya," he sneered. "But no, your final attack didn't kill me. You know I had a teleporter."
"STOP CALLING ME THAT!" I shrieked in the voice that did not belong to me.
"It seems I was mistaken," Allon mused. "You, Layla Rackson, have less than a day to live. You have an hour."
I screamed so loudly that Allon actually flinched, uncertainty in those pitiless black eyes.
It was a simple matter for me to push past him and run out the door. He didn't even try to follow me.
I had one goal, and only one: to find my friends. If Crakyow was telling the truth, I would never see them again.
When I heard Grandma's voice coming from the kitchen, I screeched to a halt.
I needed to say goodbye to her, too.
"Grandma?" I said softly, tiptoeing into the kitchen.
She didn't even look up from the phone.
"Grandma!" I ran over to her. "It's me, Layla!"
Grandma continued to talk into the phone. As if I wasn't there.
"Grandma, look at me!" I reached for her shoulder.
And my hand went through it.
I blinked, staring down at my hand in shock.
It was no longer opaque. I could see right through it, as if I were a ghost.
It had already begun.
I raced out of the house, desperate to find my friends. To say goodbye before I faded away forever.
When I reached the ice cream parlor, the entire world morphed around me. The sun went out, turning the skies dim gray. The buildings surrounding me transformed into crumbling ruins.
And my friends, who had been munching on apples when I first laid eyes on the scene, were now biting into bloodfruit.
I froze, horrified.
So that's what Crakyow had meant about my whole lifebeing an illusion. All this time, I thought Sakaya and Zanatos' relationship had changed the world for the better.
In truth, it hadn't changed one bit.
"Guys!" I yelled as I slammed into my friends. "Guys, you have to listen to me –"
Sean raised his head a fraction of an inch, looking around the rotting wasteland. "Did you guys hear something?"
Cass, Otis, and Odette shook their heads.
My heart felt like it was made of ice as I tried to grab Cass' shoulders. But my hands just went through her.
"Cass! Sean! Otis! Odette! It's me, Layla! Please – please, look at me!"
My vision was blurred through a veil of tears as Cass looked right through me, staring at nothing.
Then she took the last bite of her bloodfruit. "Come on, guys. Let's see if there's anyone we can help."
The others nodded and got to their feet. Cass soon followed.
And then she walked right through me.
As if I wasn't even there.
"Wait! Please don't go!" I cried. "You guys mean the world to me! You're the best friends I ever could have asked for! Please –"
But it was too late. They were gone.
I stared after them, feeling as if someone had just punched a hole in my chest.
My friends had forgotten I existed. My friends, whom I loved more than anyone else in this world. Cheerful Cass, grumpy Sean, awkward Otis, shy Odette – they didn't know I was there, crying and screaming for them.
Their promise popped into my head, a promise they'd made five months after I'd met them in Norfolk.
"We'll never abandon you, Layla," Cass had said solemnly.
"Never!" Otis and Odette agreed.
"They're right. You're our friend. And we won't throw you out in the cold," Sean had chimed in.
Then they'd swallowed me in a group hug…
I buried my face in my hands, sobbing bitterly. They hadn't known when they made that promise that it was one they couldn't keep. I didn't blame them one bit for breaking it. Still, it hurt just as much as if they were purposefully ignoring me.
"Aw, isn't this touching? So touching I could puke."
For a second, I left my face buried in my hands. Then I lifted it to glare at Crakyow.
"Why do you keep following me?" I snapped. "Leave me the hell alone!"
Crakyow tsked. "No thanks. I'm gonna make sure all goes smoothly when you return to Sakaya."
Fury seized me like a vise.
"I hate you," I growled at Crakyow. "I hate you more than anyone else in this godforsaken world!"
He chuckled. "That's great. You should definitely carry some of that hatred over to Sakaya. She's much too kind."
"Shut the hell up!" I snarled.
Wait a minute. Why could he see me when no one else could –
"Because I helped," Crakyow sneered.
"Helped? With what?"
Crakyow loomed over me, smirking.
"Zanatos and Svese may have been the ones who created you," he said. "If they'd had their way, you would have spent your entire life in a coma. But then I thought, "Allon, you really should indulge yourself a little. So I gave you, your friends, and your grandmother false memories. It was a lot of work… but the pain in your pretty, Sakaya-esque eyes makes it all worth every hour of labor."
"You did this?!"
The voice came from neither of us.
Zanatos Naminu was standing behind Allon, horrified. "You're the one who brought her out of a coma and created a fake life for her?!"
"Ah, Zanatos," Crakyow said smugly. "It was brilliant, you gotta admit it."
"You sleaze!" Zanatos cried. "Leaving her in that coma would have been a thousand times kinder than destroying her like this!"
Crakyow whirled on him.
"You really are too nice, Zanatos. I can see why Sakaya's in love with you. But you and I both know that it really doesn't matter in the end. See for yourself."
Zanatos looked at me.
I glanced down at my hands. They were more translucent than they'd been once I'd first started fadiing. In fact, they were almost gone.
I couldn't take another minute of this. I had to get away from these two monsters.
So I got to my feet and started running again.
My surroundings shifted again. Now I was in some abandoned hospital.
Every breath I took was filled with agony. I was praying, praying for it to end soon. To just return to Sakaya. Maybe I would lose awareness once it happened. Maybe I wouldn't suffer anymore.
It was as I was thinking this that I saw it.
Right in front of me, at the end of the hallway, was a strange chamber. It looked like a giant test tube, turned upside down and encased completely in metal except for the front portion.
And, hovering above the bottom, suspended in thin air, was a girl.
She had mint green hair, with forelocks that went down to her waist. The rest of her hair barely touched her shoulders. Her eyes were closed, and her expression was peaceful.
I knew instantly who she was. She had my face.
I touched my hand to the glass front of the tube, though I was too far goneto feel it.
"Sakaya," I said softly.
She couldn't hear me, and I knew it. But I continued anyway.
"I'm sorry," I whispered. My vision was beginning to blur. "I shouldn't have judged you like that. You had nothing to do with what happened to me. I'm sorry."
And then my sight disappeared, fading with the rest of me.