Sage must pass one final test before she can earn her certification.
“Ready?” Alix paused.
Was it even possible to be ready for something like this?
“Absolutely,” Sage was glad her voice didn’t waver.
She’d never been less ready for anything in her life. The plain metal door didn’t have a window. There was no way to know what she was walking into. If she could at least get a glimpse beforehand, maybe that would make her palms less sweaty.
Alix didn’t open the door, he just arched his dark eyebrows. It made his bald head crinkle up. His discerning eyes danced over her face as he calculated just how serious she was.
Pretty damned serious.
She let him know it with an unwavering gaze and determined lift of her chin. After years of training, this was her last task to complete. The Paranormal Science Administration might be relatively new, but it was important. Ever since the Supernatural Rights Act had been passed, the terms monster and creature had become slurs, and Beings had the right to be treated as equals with Ordinaries.
Sure, there were still plenty of blurry lines. Could a zombie have rights if it didn’t technically have brain waves? That idea was still up for debate, but if the zombie got out of control and bit anyone at least now the Necromancer who called it forth could be arrested for endangerment, and be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
Sage wasn’t worried about zombies right now, though. She’d already witnessed a raising as the first part of the certification test. Last week, she’d stood her ground against vampire mind-control. It was tougher than it looked, but she’d come out the other side undamaged. She sure as hell wasn’t going to back down now. No matter what the thing on the other side of this door might be.
Sage didn’t want to seem anxious, but the suspense made her want to move away from the door and head straight to the nearest bar. The sooner this was over with, the better.
“Not so fast,” Alix held out his empty palm. Sage removed her weapon from the holster at the small of her back and gave it to him.
“Boot,” he added.
She held back a sigh and reached down to give him her backup blade. It was forged with pure iron and could stop a pretty long list of Beings right in their tracks.
The door buzzed and opened automatically. A jolt of adrenaline shot through her veins like an electric current. Sage stared into a blank white room.
“You got this, Agent.”
It wasn’t lost on her that he’d used that term. As soon as this was over, she’d be be a full Agent for real. Alix believed in her.
Survive, that's all you have to do.
Sage pulled in a long breath and let it out as she stepped into the room. The door shut behind her with a metallic click when the magnetic lock engaged. At the end of the room to her left, a one-way mirror reflected her image. She shut her mouth as she took in her reflection, trying not to look as frightened as she felt. Alix and the rest of the observers would be judging every move she made.
A second door directly in front of her buzzed and opened exactly like hers had. Sage’s heart thudded so hard she thought it might jump right out onto the floor. She clenched her fists, bracing herself for whatever was about to appear.
It was a woman.
Sage released a shaking breath. The door slid shut with a clang. The woman was about the same height as Sage, and looked to be in her mid-thirties. Her hair was shoulder length, blonde. She wore a plain white gown that tied in the back. The kind patients used in the hospital.
Sage fought the urge to glance over at the window, not sure if she should say anything. The woman lifted her face and sniffed the air. Her throat worked hard as she swallowed and licked her dry lips.
“I can smell your fear,” The woman’s voice was deep, husky. “Don’t get too close.”
Sage stepped back.
The woman untied her gown and let it drop, then kicked it aside. Her body was fit. Ropes of muscles shifted under her skin as she moved. She rolled her neck on her shoulders and shut her eyes.
It only took a few seconds for the energy in the room to charge. The air swirled, gathering like static electricity and Sage’s skin tingled when the fine hairs along her neck and arms drew up. The woman inhaled through her nose and let her head fall back, loose on her shoulders, then breathed out.
But, this was no Yoga class.
When the woman opened her eyes, her pupils had fully dilated to nothing but black. She leveled her gaze and Sage locked eyes with the abyss. Whatever was in there was no longer human.
No longer Ordinary, Sage reminded herself. This woman was still human. According to the law.
A low moan sent the woman pacing back and forth along the far wall. She was like one of those tigers at the zoo that just kept walking the fence. The pent up energy flowed off of her and swirled around Sage, making her want to move too.
She didn’t dare.
It felt like hours went by before the woman’s movements slowed, but there was no way of telling the actual time. The occasional moans gradually increased into louder, more regular groaning until the woman hunched over and grabbed her hair with both fists. She made a guttural sound that Sage imagined a woman in labor might make. Breaths came in short, loud gasps. She fell forward, crouched on her hands and knees. Knuckles white, toes curled tight with strain.
Sage dug her fingernails into her own palms. Rapid breaths came in rhythm with the woman’s. Her stomach roiled with tension, then hollowed out, bottomless with fear.
Lips pulled back from the woman’s teeth in a grimace. Elongated canines appeared. She arched her back. Sucked in a deep, rattling gasp. A scream, long and ragged, filled the room, reverberating off the walls, amplifying the sound.
Sage flinched, but didn’t cover her ears. She was rigid with terror.
A deep red tear appeared first on the woman’s arm, like a seam being ripped apart. Another similar mark appeared down her thigh. The woman gritted her sharp teeth and the long scream deepened into an entirely different sound.
Her nose and mouth elongated.
Sage pressed her lips together hard to keep from screaming along with her. She swallowed back a gag when the raw scent of blood tinged the air.
For a second, Sage could see the white pearls of the spine, before the bones quickly covered with a thicker skin. Hair sprouted out, thick and fluffy. A long tail grew. The human groans became a low, canine growl.
The wolf shook itself hard, like any other dog might. The fur shone with a hundred different shades of blonde, like a golden field of wheat waving in the sun. She yawned wide and Sage got a good look at the teeth. The tale of Little Red Riding Hood came to mind. At the end of the yawn, powerful jaws snapped together. The sound echoed like a clap of thunder.
Sage squeezed her thighs together, willing her bladder under control.
She couldn’t find the human inside the Being. The wolf lifted her nose and sniffed the air. Sage remembered what the woman had said about fear. She didn’t dare move, not even to breathe, as the wolf approached on soft, silent paws. She sniffed a circle around Sage’s boots, making low, gruff sounds.
A long, high-pitched howl came from somewhere down the hall. The blonde wolf sat down, threw her head back and joined in.
The door buzzed.
The wolf jumped to her feet in a blink. Shoulders hunched. Ears pressed flat. Vicious growl leaked out from behind those long teeth. A scream gathered in Sage’s throat, strangling her.
Strong hands wrapped around her arm and yanked her through the door. It boomed shut. The lock clicked at the same moment something heavy pounded into the thick metal from the other side.
Alix held Sage by the shoulders, keeping her upright. A wide grin spread across his deep brown face.
“Congratulations,” He gave her a solid whack on the arm, “I’m proud to welcome you to the team. We'll head down the hall for your debriefing and analysis report. You okay?”
Sage leaned forward and lost her dinner all over his gleaming wingtips.