Please enjoy chapter 1.
Chapter 1 (A quick break in)
Despite the late hour, the cicadas screamed into the night, and Rio swallowed. Does this mean we’ll have bad luck tonight? And why are those noisy monsters even out in June?
A heavy summer wind rustled the bush she hid in on the edge of the park, several branches picking at her dark-green tank top and exposed skin. They prodded more and more until they tangled in her shoulder-length hair. The constant poking tickled and sent icy chills down the back of her thighs.
She should have tied her hair back. Focus! As she glared at the top floor of the fifty-eighth prime minister’s six-story house, her heart pounded in her chest. Was robbing the most-powerful, Untalented person in Japan really a good idea?
Across the street, the large stone wall surrounding the prime minister’s house stretched to the sidewalk. According to the reports from their pack and how off-center the six-story house was, each side other than the main entrance held a garden between the wall and the house. Guards, too. There would have to be guards outside the walls, as well. Where were they? Could they see her or her brother?
Her breath caught.
Run. Run! Hide!
She dug her foot into the dirt and glanced over her shoulder, muscles tense.
Did the guards patrol the park? A flash of light stung the corner of her eye, drawing her attention.
Her head jerked to the left.
The convenience store on the other side of the park glowed in the night, neon lights reflecting off the wind chime that hung above the doors. The lamp-posts spastically positioned throughout the park cast shadows in every direction. Guards could be anywhere. But nothing moved.
A sigh deflated her chest, and she inhaled, filling her lungs with the thick, humid air. Maybe her gut was right. Maybe she should run. But their debt … . Sweat beaded across her skin, and a lump caught in her throat.
In front of her, Leo — her twin brother — peeked around a park bench and tapped his foot. His short, black hair bristled with perspiration, and his navy t-shirt clung to his muscled back. Unlike hers, his shorts reached his knees. He lifted his left hand, plated-gauntlet catching the light, and he waved for her to come forward.
On trembling legs, she edged from the bush and made her way to the park bench. “Are you sure he’s not home?”
Leo nodded, dark brown eyes — a shade lighter than hers — never leaving the target. “The other members of our pack said he took most of his guards — the Talented ones — to meet with this New Emperor.”
Her lips quivered. The Foreign Emperor.
After pulling his left hand out of the plated-gauntlet, he turned and placed a soft finger against her lips. “Calm down.”
A jolt of pleasure raced through her body, and her toes curled. Icky. But, if a touch felt like this, what would kissing a boy be like? Leo? No. Double no. He shouldn’t have touched her. Not like that. Though, he was cute. In another’s eyes, at least. No. The one she wanted to kiss was Zack, her teacher from a few years back. Strong. Handsome. Kind. He —
Leo coughed before replacing his gauntlet. “Focus, Rio.”
“Soon, the guards patrolling should pass by. Outside and inside the wall.”
Her hands brushed past a small Hello Kitty bag tied to the back of her stolen leather belt then caressed the power-forged daggers strapped in sheaths at her sides. “Will we —”
“No. When the ones on the outside are out of sight, swallow a cat into socket five.” He brushed his armored fingers across the orbed necklace around his neck. A deep breath later, he touched his pelvis where the fifth slot rested inside his body. “It should give us enough speed and lift to clear that wall with ease.”
“But wouldn’t it be better to use a crow?”
“No. The crow’s flight wouldn’t get us over the wall fast enough, and we should save it for our escape.”
Leo-Nii is so smart. With him around, the fear stabbing into her gut vanished.
A group of Untalented guards wearing suits in spite of the heat marched along the sidewalk outside of the wall. One of the guards outside the wall kicked a small stone like a soccer ball. Clang! The rock hit one of the lamp posts. The second guard elbowed the first and shook his head as they turned the corner with the kindergarten across the street.
Rio glanced to her right towards the corner with another convenience store — probably a seven-eleven, but she couldn’t be sure since she wasn’t wearing her glasses or socketing an animal in her first slot.
Shuffling footsteps behind the wall grew louder before diminishing. A fancy-looking red car drove past the road then all fell quiet save for the noisy cicadas trying to find a mate.
Leo held his hand up and made a fist. Time to dance. He sucked the spirit of a cat from his orbed necklace and swallowed it into his fifth socket. His hair gave off a faint blue light — his power residue. A translucent alley cat, the size of a large hamster, appeared around his waist, walking on the air as if it were solid ground. It phased through the park bench without concern and continued its stroll around his body.
She reached out with her mind and embraced the orb holding the spirit of a cat. As long as the orb touched her skin, she could suck the spirit from it. She inhaled, swallowing the cat spirit. The aftertaste of stringy, unsalted meat stuck to her tongue and carried a hint of rotting garbage. Why did they always have to take the spirits of alley cats? They tasted so disgusting.
“Meow,” the cat’s spirit said as it fell into her fifth socket.
Euphoric power surged through her entire body, and the muscles in both her legs bulged, expanding slightly as they facilitated the cat’s borrowed strength. A heartbeat later, her muscles relaxed and returned to their normal size.
Her usually black hair glowed a bright purple and illuminated the darkness around her. A light only the Talented could see or use to see. She ran her fingers through the shining strands.
Her translucent alley cat, as large as a fat toy poodle, pranced around her body and made mental noises at her brother’s cat.
“I’m ready.” Rio breathed through her nose, trying to ignore the lingering taste of cat.
Leo pointed at the wall. “Go.”
Ahead of him, she sprinted across the street and leaped over the three-meter wall with a meter to spare. Wind whipped at her hair as she descended, turning in mid-air to land on her tip toes like a ballerina. Or at least how they looked on posters. She had never had the money to see them in person or attend a ballet lesson. A shame, really.
Her brother’s body crested the wall, and he placed his gauntleted hands atop it, flipping over to land beside her. He panted. “Why is your power output so much greater than mine?”
She shrugged. “Not sure.”
After taking the lead, Leo led her through the prime minister’s flower garden and to the backdoor. Silver, English letters along the top of the door and a golden door knocker made her sick.
How could rich people be so wasteful?
Clatter! Something metal hit the floor on the other side of the door, and Leo’s hand froze a few centimeters away from the door handle.
Rio’s heart rate autotuned, and the hair on the back of her neck stood on end.
This wasn’t good. If the guards stationed at this door weren’t just patrolling, getting inside without making a large racket would be impossible.
Her feet began shuffling across the stone patio behind Leo while she chewed on her lower-lip.
Damn cicadas. This was their fault. They brought the bad luck with their early awakening and screaming into the night when they should only be making noise during daylight hours. What was wrong with them?
Rio opened her mouth.
“What do you mean you saw something?” a husky, female voice asked from the other side of a flower bush.
I swear I saw something above the wall just a few minutes ago,” a squeaky male voice said. “I think someone was climbing —”
“Don’t be stupid,” the female said.
“Hey! Who are you calling stupid, you little bitch?”
“You, you lack-witted fool!”
Smack! The sound echoed through the garden and drew bile into the back of Rio’s throat. They were going to get caught. Guards approaching on the outside. Guards on the inside. This wasn’t good. This was terrible. This was —
Leo grabbed Rio by the wrist and pushed the door open.
A large metal vase lay sprawled across the fancy-looking blue and green carpet. It looked like it was some kind of picture, but the design didn’t make any sense. Pictures and wall-hangings lined both walls, most of old men and old men doing boring things. One had a man writing. Another had a man sitting on what had to be a toilet.
Rio covered her mouth as she began chuckling. Okay. That one was funny.
The others near the entryway resembled the first though, so nothing else interesting.
Click. The door shut behind them, and Leo motioned down the hallway. “We need to hurry.”
Nodding, Rio fell into step behind him, dancing between steps on the balls of her feet and using the cat’s grace to avoid making any sound.
Left around a corner. Right at the next intersection. Cut through a massive kitchen area. Mumbling voices on the other side of the door leading out of the kitchen. The door handle turned and began to swing open.
Leo skidded to a stop.
The voices grew louder, six men. Further and further the door opened.
Her hands trembled, and she pranced across the room and slid under a counter. She contorted her body into a ball and edged into the small space behind a pair of hanging pots. I hope Leo-Nii made it out of sight. She swallowed and bent her wrist backwards, reaching for the hilt of one of her daggers.
“What do you mean?” one of the six men asked. His icy voice turned the skin on her arms into the rough side of a sponge.
“I mean what if this Foreign Emperor gets tired of getting put off by Prime Minister Bea and decides to come here directly?” A slightly boyish voice said.
The prime minister was putting the Foreign Emperor off? He could come there? How soon would he be there?
“Then we shoot him,” the first voice said.
A heavy pressure closed in on her chest, and she began panting. This couldn’t be happening. If the Foreign Emperor were coming here, they would all die. He was a monster. He killed everything in his wake and left nothing behind. Each inhalation wheezed through her contracting throat, and the pots in front of her spun.
Was she still breathing? Nothing seemed to reach her lungs. She was suffocating. But. But maybe it was for the best. To suffocate to death rather than fall prey to the horrors of the Foreign emperor.
Whimpering cries climbed from her quivering lips, and one of the pots in front of her made a clicking sound.
“Stop,” the first voice said. “Did you hear that?”
“No?” all five other men asked.
The first voice screamed before a thwaping sound slammed against the counter above her. “This whole business is driving me insane! Come. Let’s finish our rounds so we can grab a drink.”
“Yes, sir,” the five other men said.
The muscles in Rio’s legs twitched. She needed to run. To escape. With her cat-enhanced muscles, she should be able to outrun everyone here and get to freedom before that monster the Foreign Emperor arrives. She had to go. She couldn’t sit like this anymore. She. She. She. She couldn’t force her legs to move. No. She needed to hurry. This was no time —
Feet appeared in front of her.
Too late! He was already here. Doomed. Her life was over. Torture and death for a future. Pain for the present. Never even kissed a boy. Why hadn’t she kissed Zack when she had the chance? Because he was her teacher? Because he was too cute? Or his abusive girlfriend? It didn’t matter now.
Leo bent down and placed his hand over her mouth, muffling her voice. “Quiet. The Foreign Emperor isn’t here. They were just talking about what ifs.”
She lunged from her hiding spot and wrapped her hands around his neck as tears rolled down her cheeks. “Leo-Nii. Leo-Nii, I —”
“Shhhhh. It’s alright now.” He wrapped his arms around her and patted her on the back. “I’m here for you now. No need to worry.”
She sniffled. “But —”
“No buts. Just calm down and relax. We have a job to do.”
After wiping her tears away, she pulled away from the comforting hug. “You’re right.”
He offered her his hand.
Shaking her head, she pointed to the door. I’m too old to hold hands like that with you, Leo-Nii. “We need to be agile.”
“Okay?” He shrugged then walked from the kitchen. He scratched his chin.
Was he lost already?
“There are two staircases to the sixth-floor, and neither are the main staircase in the house.” He turned right and hurried through a series of small rooms.
Footsteps down the hallway.
Taking the right split the corner and opening the first door on his left, Leo gestured inside the closet as the footsteps grew louder. “Stop wasting time,” he said in hushed tones.
Rio blinked the rushed into the closet beside him. “Sorry.”
The door slid shut.
“I know they must,” a familiar female voice — the one from the garden — said from the hallway, “I mean what are you eating, Funa?”
“I’m not —” Funa grunted. The man who was also outside in the garden. “What did you do that for, Juri?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said.
“Oh, you mean this.” He made a smacking sound. “It’s just gum.”
“How many times! Have I told you! Not to chew gum at work?” She sounded angry, but something was a bit off about it.
Why would anyone care if someone were chewing gum?
Several other footsteps followed Funa and Juri then divided, moving off in different directions.
After counting to one-hundred, Leo opened the door and peeked outside. “Clear.”
“Let’s get this research data and get out of here.” Rio shivered. “This place is starting to tap-dance across my skin.”
“Me, too.” He hesitated when he stepped into the hallway, sucking on his upper-lip.
Something was wrong.
“Leo-Nii?” she asked.
“Got it.” He turned to the left and fell into a run down the hallway, passing the corridor they had just come through. Four turns later, he led her into a dark stairwell and up six flights of stairs. He made the right choice.
Though, didn’t he say there were two staircases that led to the sixth floor? No matter. He knew the directions. This had to be the right one.
Just outside the staircase was an expansive room with two massive couches in and several drink shelves along the side walls. The three doors on the other side of the room called her name, but which one would lead to the research data? Or at least the flash-drive that held the research data. The plush carpet underfoot made her feel guilty for wearing her sneakers inside.
“Which door should we take?” Rio moved around Leo and approached the door in the center.
She spun on her heels and put her hands on her hips. “What is wrong with you? Didn’t Yuuki-sensei teach us not to use such language?”
Face turning red, he rubbed the back of his head as if he were the younger twin rather than the older. “Sorry. It’s just. Just. In the layout plans I was told about, there should only be one door leaving from this room. Plus it looks a bit too big.”
“So, we took the wrong staircase?”
“It seems so.”
“I guess we have to retrace our steps.”
“It might not be so easy. Especially if —”
Clack-clack-clack. Footsteps echoed up the staircase. Crack-crack-crack. All three doors on the other side of the room slammed open. By the taste of their auras, Untalented guards poured into the room, surrounding Rio and Leo. Luckily, every guard held clubs and knifes. No guns. But still … .