CHAPTER FOUR

My Friends Don't See Me

With keen, night-seeing eyes, Sean watched the creatures emerge from the thick brush. They were massive, beautiful beasts. Large predator cats of all kinds. Sean saw several mountain lions, two large, sleek spotted jaguars, a snow leopard, and a tiger. The tiger, larger than the rest, approached Sean and stared him down.

It wasn't Callie, of that Sean was certain. Sean turned and searched among the cats until he saw her – or rather, sensed her. One of the spotted jaguars, although this one's fur was tinged a slightly reddish hue, like her hair, Sean thought. Her eyes regarded him in utter surprise.

Sean smiled at her, winked, and then turned back to the large tiger, who must have been the leader.

"Hello," Sean said, simply. He wasn't afraid. These cats didn't know it, but he was stronger, faster… and bigger than they were. Far from being frightened, he actually felt like laughing. This – this – was why he had felt drawn to Callie. This was why her foreign and exotic essence had also seemed very strangely familiar…

The tiger shifted suddenly into a tall, raven-haired man with sharp brown eyes in a narrow, sculpted face and dark, cinnamon-brown skin.

"Who are you?" he asked. His voice was accented, but not like Callie's. He sounded South American, perhaps Brazilian, although Sean wasn't entirely sure.

"A friend of Callie's," he replied, still at his ease. He felt a growing excitement, eagerness… hopefulness.

Callie was suddenly standing there beside him. The Changelings had a strange sort of magic. It allowed them to essentially send their human form elsewhere, almost as if it was on hold until they needed it again. The convenience of this was in the fact that when they returned to their human form, their clothes came with it. Callie was still wearing her cheerleader uniform. It looked hilariously out of place in these dark woods surrounded by the large hunting cats.

"I think 'friend' is pushing it, Sean," she said. "We've only talked to each other a couple of times."

"Four times," Sean corrected calmly. "And I'm the first person you met at school, which makes me special. We're definitely friends."

Callie's eyes sparkled, as if she wanted to laugh again, but she looked nervous as well. She glanced at the large Changeling who was the clan's leader.

"I didn't tell him I would be here," she said softly. "I didn't know he was following me."

"Careless, Callie," said the large man in his deep, dangerous voice.

"Renald, I didn't – "

Sean interrupted. "She didn't know I tracked her because I was following from far behind. It wasn't her fault. I knew she was a Changeling. I just wasn't sure…" He swallowed, finally feeling a little nervous for what he was about to ask. "I've been alone for a long time. I just wanted to know."

"Know what?" demanded another member of the clan who had shifted to join in the conversation. "Who is this guy, Callie?"

"Someone from my school. I told you already!" Callie snapped at the guy, who was probably about the same age as Sean and Callie. His expression was very unwelcoming. The others were closing in, many of them looking extremely unfriendly in whatever form they chose to take.

"Why did you follow Callie?" asked Renald softly. "If you don't explain yourself now, you won't leave here alive."

Callie looked genuinely upset, although it was hard to tell if she was upset at Renald for threatening Sean or upset at Sean for following her in the first place. Possibly both.

"My name is Sean Gallagher," he said, looking directly at Renald and then at the rest of the cat clan, letting his eyes finally find Callie's. "And I'm a Changeling, too."

Callie caught her breath and the others shuffled, looking alternately surprised, interested, and suspicious. Nearly all the Changeling clans have another clan that they simply cannot get along with. For some, it is the creatures that are most opposed to them in nature, like the wolves and the serpents. They cannot understand each other and so they choose to hate each other. For other clans, it is those most like them who are the threat. The bears very often do not get along with others of their kind. These cats had banded together despite their slight differences, probably because there were so few cat Changelings. However, Sean wasn't sure what would happen when he showed them what he changed into. It didn't help that, once again, he couldn't reveal his true self, only a part of it. But it was more than he had revealed to anyone before. And it might still appear threatening.

Without a word, he shifted into his other form.

Sean had first changed when he was only five. It had been an accident. One minute, he was a small, curious child scrambling underneath the kitchen table after a lost ball. The next, he was a young, clumsy version of the creature he could now turn into.

Sean's Changeling form was a cat. Only, he wasn't a leopard, lion, or tiger. In fact, he wasn't any large cat that could be found in this world since the Changeling blood used to create him had been found in the Otherworld. The closest that Moira and Aria had been able to determine was that Sean was the Otherworld's equivalent of a jaguar, although much, much larger and lacking the spots. His fur gleamed with that deep, deep blue light that connected all of his forms. His fur was thick and long, almost shaggy. His eyes were iridescent blue.

The cats backed away instinctively when Sean shifted forms. A few of them growled when they recovered from their surprise. Callie walked up to him, inspecting him all around with growing wonder.

"I've never seen a cat like you. Renald, what is he?"

Renald was staring at Sean with narrow eyes. He said, "I do not know. But he can't stay here. He isn't in our clan."

Sean stared back at him and, instinctively, spoke mind to mind with both him and Callie, I don't have a clan, Renald. I am the only one of my kind that I know of, and I have been alone my whole life. If you would let me, I would like to run with you and your clan.

Callie put a hand on her head and stared. At another time, he would have taken great pleasure in how shocked she was. It was so hard to get any reaction from her except calm amusement. But right now, he wanted to know what Renald would say.

"Neat trick," was what Renald said. He was silent for a long moment. "And how do I know you aren't from a rival clan? Someone who wants to do us harm?"

Have you ever seen another like me? Sean challenged. If there were others of my kind, wouldn't you have noticed? I mean you no harm. I am tired of being alone. I haven't been able to run in a very long time.

Aria hated when Sean took his Changeling form because she was sure he'd be seen, photographed, chased, caught… It was just too risky, she always told him. Plus, when he fully changed, he looked even more striking than he did now. But Sean wasn't going to show them that part of himself.

"I trust him," Callie said suddenly. "Please, Renald. Let him join us, at least this once."

Renald looked at the rest of his clan. The others were still watching suspiciously, even more so as they realized that Sean was speaking to Renald even though they could not hear.

Renald's inscrutable gaze gave way to an even more inscrutable smile. "Very well. On Callie's word, the kid comes with us. But if he does anything that I do not like, he dies and you are responsible," he finished, looking coldly at Callie. She simply nodded.

"Then, let's continue our run," said Renald. He resumed his large striped shape, but Sean noted that the tiger was not nearly the size and bulk that Sean was.

The great cats melted away into the trees. Callie shifted into her feline form, looking small next to Sean. She darted away, melting into darkness. Sean quickly followed.

Running through the forest in the middle of the night was exhilarating in a way that Sean had nearly forgotten. Running with a group was even more so. The feline clan was small compared to, say, the wolves, but since most cats are solitary by nature, they tended to form very small groups and rarely added new families. They were close. Sean could see that just from watching their movements, so fluid and almost rehearsed as they moved in and out of the thick greenery, joining another to run in tandem and then breaking away to run apart. Sean stayed with Callie. She didn't seem to mind.

Aria and Maddy reached her house close to eleven. Aria vaguely noticed that Sean's car wasn't back, but it wasn't so late that she was worried. He might not be back for an hour or so yet. And that gave her time to talk to Maddy without him present.

She put a kettle on the burner and pulled two mugs out of cabinet. Maddy loved tea. As soon as the drinks were made and they were both sitting down, her friend looked steadily at her with those all too perceptive eyes and said,

"Now, tell me."

So Aria told her about the FBI agents and the photos of the ritual killings. She told the story haltingly, stumbling as she tried to explain what she had recognized without giving away too much about herself. She ended with the fact that she had not heard from either agent in two weeks, and that she had overheard someone at the bar saying a fifth killing had occurred.

"And you think the agents might have gotten mixed up in it? Maybe killed?" Maddy asked.

"I don't know. I just know that whatever is happening, it's not good. It's very dark magic, something from… from over there."

There was some knowledge of Otherworld magic in the human world, but very little. Aria knew far more than almost any creature in this world because she had come from the other, but Maddy didn't know that.

Maddy tapped her fingers on the handle of her mug.

"This is serious, Aria. Do the Síoraí Daoine know what's going on? Surely, you could contact the shadow walker and tell her… or the light walker. Or both. They are the ones who should be dealing with this. Not you. Why haven't you contacted them?"

A very good question that Aria couldn't answer forthrightly. She shook her head. "I just… I can't. I can't speak to them. They can't know… me."

It was barely a reply, but Maddy understood. "There's something you don't want them to find out about you, isn't there? You're keeping something a secret from the Síoraí Daoine? Is it something bad, Aria?"

"No! No, it's not. It's just not something that they… that they would accept. They have rules – laws – and they don't like anything to be different, nothing new. I have to stay away from them or they might find out."

"Find out what, Aria? You can tell me. I'm your friend!" Maddy reached over and touched the back of Aria's hand.

It was tempting. So very tempting to unburden her well of secrets to her friend. Maddy was trustworthy, Aria was sure. She would understand. She would want to help. But her knowing would increase the chances of someone else finding out. Saying the wrong thing to the wrong person, without even realizing what she'd done, could be catastrophic. Moira had drilled it into her head for all the years before she'd disappeared.

Don't tell. Not anyone. Ever.

"I'm sorry, Maddy. It's too dangerous for you to know."

"If it's dangerous, I don't like you having to keep it by yourself! And what about Sean? What if he gets mixed up in all this?"

Her quick look made Maddy's eyes widen. "He's already part of it. I don't like this, Aria."

"I know, but that's how it needs to be. And that's not the immediate problem. The problem right now is a ritual that cannot be explained that has happened five times already. Half human, half magic creatures being sacrificed. But I don't know why."

"I wonder…" Maddy's eyes reflected inward.

"What?"

"Four years ago, something happened up north. Do you remember hearing about that? No one seems to know exactly what happened, only that the Síoraí Daoine were involved. And a demon."

Aria felt cold. Of all the creatures that roamed this world, the demons were the most terrifying. Their magic was old and strong and when she had lived in the Otherworld, it was well known that diabhals knew how to cross freely from one world into the other. One of them had once come to the MagiTech lab where she worked. He claimed that he wanted to "inspect their work with bloodties". She would never forget his orange-red eyes and his horrible smile.

"The demon performed some sort of ritual," Maddy said. "Trying to do something to one of the light walkers, or so they say. And he killed dozens of weredaoinae and Changelings. I wonder if this is in any way similar."

"You think it's the demon?" Her fingertips felt numb.

"They say he was killed. The Síoraí Daoine have some new sort of power and they used it to destroy him. But maybe someone else… Aria, it would be best if they were told. I can go to them. I can tell them what I've heard. I'll leave you out of it!"

"I don't know enough about the ritual to help them. They'll start investigating it further. They could find their way back to me," Aria said. Maybe she was paranoid, but paranoia was the best way to stay safe.

Maddy shook her head. "You talk about the light walker and shadow walker as if they are enemies. They protect us. They keep order amongst us. They always have. I'm sure if you talked to them…"

"No."

They sat in silence. It was nearly midnight. Where was Sean?

"What if we searched for your missing FBI agents? At least we could find out if they are safe," Maddy suggested quietly. "Perhaps they have found something and decided they did not need you after all."

"They would have told me that I wasn't needed," Aria said. "I'm sure he would have. I mean, they would have. But yes, if we could at least find out if they're safe, I'd feel better. Less… trapped."

"Then you're lucky that your friend is a seer," said Maddy. "Do you have something that one of the agents gave you?"

Aria shook her head. "The file is at the office. Could you come over tomorrow morning and look at it?"

Maddy hesitated, then nodded. "Yes, that's fine."

"Alright, then I'll see you tomorrow. I'll come in at 8."

"Eight o'clock on a Saturday," Maddy said, stretching as she rose to her feet. "That's how you know I'm a true friend."

Aria smiled wanly. Maddy gave her a hug.

"Try to rest, Aria. We'll figure this out."

She left.

Aria sat in silence, her hands wrapped around the cooling mug of tea. She was lost in her own thoughts for nearly an hour before she realized how late it was and that her charge was still missing.

"Sean," she muttered. He would pick tonight to be late, wouldn't he? The night when her mind was filled with images of dead, carved up bodies in hideous poses. Black magic… people missing and dead. And Sean was late.

Two hours and several unanswered phone calls later, Aria began to panic.

Sean was never this late. Ever.

She paced, running her fingers through her hair, trying to breathe evenly. Her wings formed an arc of shadow over her. Killers taking humans and magic creatures. He couldn't have been… She wouldn't let herself think that.

Two more hours. Aria finally collapsed onto the couch, too exhausted and terrified to even think. She couldn't call anyone. She was alone. Utterly alone. And Sean was gone.

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Word Guide:

Bean sidhe – banshee

Céadsearc - sweetheart

Cruinniú – literally "gathering" , the Council

Cwn Annwfn – Hounds of Annwfn or "Hellhounds"

Damnú air – Damn it

Deartháireacha – Brethren

Diabhal - demon

Eolaí – guide/trainer

Faolchú - wolf

Laghairt – lizard (reptile changelings other than serpent)

Marbh Daoine – dead ones (vampires)

Nathair - snake

Scáth Siúlóir – shadow walker

Sibhialtach - civilians

Solas Siúlóir – light walker

Síoraí Daoine – endless ones

Slán go fóill/ Slán leat – Goodbye for now / Goodbye (reply)

Taibhse - phantom

Tuatha Dé Danann – people of the goddess Danu

Ulchabhán – owl