A Number's Game

Shapeshifters

I never imagined it would end like this. Falling to my death, I mean. I wasn't sure exactly how and when I would go, but I always imagined leaving this life not because of all of this fighting, but because I let my clumsiness get the better of me. Maybe I would forget to turn off the stove and die of carbon monoxide poisoning or I would accidentally shoot myself in the thigh with a blaster. Either of those aren't the best examples, but you get the idea.

I just never pictured myself as a fall-to-my-death kind of girl. I mean, maybe if I accidentally tripped in the canyon, but I have no doubt in my mind that I was pushed. And I'm hoping with all of my heart that it was the Mog.

Either way, I guess it didn't matter so much. I was about to become a disgusting human stain on the bottom of The Beyond.

I pass by the platform of rocks in seconds and I tumble beyond that. I try and reach out to grab something but I'm not close enough. My hands clutch at empty air. I'm finished. Done. My only chance for life sailed past my head.

Still, my telekinesis continues to fail me.

I quickly remembered what Ella had told me about dying. Yea, this was the end. I was almost concerned about how not-panicked I was. I mean, after the initial shock, I was kind of okay. So what if it all ended here? I mean, after all of this, after getting myself comfortable around Eight all over again, there didn't seem to be a really great way to get back to the real world and still be useful.

For a few seconds it's just darkness, and I can't see a thing. The only reason I know I'm still falling is because of the feeling of my stomach trying to fit its way up my throat.

And then—contrary to what I believed would happen—I see something in the dark. Churning grey clouds sit in an even layer a couple thousand feet below me. But how was that possible? Yet, it was too thick to be fog. I don't have time to consider it further as I make impact with the clouds.

It's literally like hitting a mountain of pillows. I continue to fall, but my descent begins to slow as I pass through the thick grey clouds, as if I had jumped out of a plane into a tree. The breath is knocked from my lungs as I fall, more shocked than anything. What was happening?

Hell. How am I still saying that after everything that's happened until now?

It's like I'm bouncing off of clouds, and after about a minute more of falling I reach a near stop, and half a second later I feel my bottom hit the ground. I crack my eyes open. I feel my face and neck. Holy crap. I was still alive.

But why?

I can't see a thing in any direction, my vision obscured by the thick grey clouds. I rotate my head in all directions, but there's no indication of where I might be. I could be sitting on a platform in the middle of another huge drop for as much as I knew.

"AHHHHH!" I hear yelling and look up, but of course I can't see anything more than a foot in front of me. But I recognize John's voice as he gets increasingly closer, and the sound of a soft landing. Still, I can't see him anywhere.

"John?" I yell out.

"Marina! Where are we?"

"I don't know!" I pause for a second. "What happened up there? Who pushed me?"

"Ah, Nine tried to pull a move. Someone started shooting and I think that pale guy got shot, or maybe one of the other guys. And by the time we could group together, you were already gone."

I sigh. "How are we going to find each other?"

"And then someone pushed me and—oh, does my part of the story not matter?"

"John."

"Yea, yea, just wait a second, we'll figure it out when Eight and—OW!" I hear the sound of heavy impact, followed by Nine's snickering.

"Sorry, didn't see you there, Johnny boy."

"Get off me!"

One more thud, somewhere off to my right.

"Eight, is that you?" I call over the sound of John and Nine bickering, turning my head in the direction of the new sound.

"Six, lift these clouds!" It's not Eight, rather, Sam. But my heart lifts instantly when he mentions Six. Where was she? "Six!" He yells again. "Adam got shot; this is not the time for dramatic effect!"

Another thump.

"Eight?" I call out, much more tentatively.

"Marina!" He yells back. "What is this place?"

"Stop pulling my hair!" Nine shouts.

"Then get off of me!" John shouts back.

"Six, he's bleeding out!"

All the voices from every direction are giving me a bit of a headache. What was this place, and where was Six? And is Six on the good side or the bad side now?

I was getting a bigger headache.

Very abruptly the foggy cloud cover lifts from about ten feet from the ground, revealing green grass and my friends (plus Sam and his droopy-looking Mogadorian friend) dispersed not far away from me.

But before I could do anything else I saw her: Six. She was dressed so elegantly in a flowing midnight blue dress, but somehow, with the fingerless black gloves, dark makeup and her wild, teased black hair she still looked as lethal as ever. She unfolds her arms and holds them aside; revealing the shapely waist of the dress and the swooping low cuffs that touched the ground. The fabric was linen-like and wrinkled, but it had the old grace that Six always seemed to possess. She looked like a goddess.

Behind her, I could see the clouds parting to reveal a massive castle of dark spires and intimidating black rock. It almost seemed to blend in with the darkness of the pit, until one sole light appeared by what I would imagine was the massive drawbridge-like door.

She smiles at me. "It's about time you guys showed up."


Everything was… rather hard to digest to first. I hadn't known if we could trust her or not, but as Sam's trusty army began to fall from the sky and almost crushed my head a couple times she convinced us to come into the castle with her.

The boys were especially hesitant, but when I took the lead they soon followed after. I still wasn't used to all this leader stuff.

"I'm Number Six, but most will know me as the Witch of the Wind." She'd said, nodding her head at us. "I'm sure you've noticed my cloud cover landing. It's one of my Legacies."

"I'm Marina," introducing myself to them still feels weird. "And this is John, Eight and—"

"Gorgeous," Nine springs forward, holding out a hand to Six.

Six rolls her eyes. "Don't make my punch you, Nine."

"Feisty. I like it."

It was a long-winded explanation after that. Six had gone for covering up her status as a Number in different ways. She'd feigned being a witch, hiding her castle and keeping her contact with the rest of Oz minima (Which, combined with the followers made her look just a tad evil to the residents). Not soon after she started her campaign to get rid of the wizard and free all of the numbers, and Sam, Adam (The Mogadorian who, as it turned out was working for Six all along and had been following them in an attempt to bring them to Six's castle… yea, I felt a little guilty about that part) and the rest of their shady entourage (who turned out to be some pretty normal looking guys who had once lived in the Emerald City) had joined her to help free Oz.

Everything seemed so messed up and backward now.

As soon as the massive drawbridge had been lowered a couple of Sam's followers rushed Adam inside.

"Wait!" I call after them. "I can heal him!" I really did owe this guy something when god-knows how many times I'd ran away from him when he'd only been trying to help us.

"You probably can't." Sam says, shaking his head. "He's got a different anatomy than the rest of us, who knows if your Legacy will be able to heal his body properly."

"Don't worry about it, he'll be fine." Six reassures me. I still feel bad, though. "Welcome to what we like to call the penthouse." She says, walking in ahead of us. Sam trails behind her.

The inside of the castle is pleasantly surprising. It's almost like an exact replica of the penthouse back in Chicago… minus the everyday electronics. Our entrance was where the elevator would be, and as we walked down the hallway to the main area the most noticeable difference was the crystal ball replacement of the TV and the complete lacking of the kitchen, rather, an elongated table that probably sat forty. But other than that, really, it was just like the penthouse.

"This place is sick," Nine says, wandering farther in like he owned the place. Well, technically…

"One more question, though." John says, turning to Sam. "Why were you working for the Wizard if you work against him?"

Sam folds his arms, sighing.

"I'm getting the feeling you were unsuccessful?" Six asks.

"I'm sorry I had to be so rude to you guys, but… it literally took us months to infiltrate the Emerald City, and last night was supposed to be the day we made our move and killed the Wizard. And now it took all of us blowing our covers just to get you four out of there. So," He glances over at Six. "we were unsuccessful, yea."

Thinking back on it… yea, I do remember Sam just disappearing. He had let me go. And the guy who had been holding Eight at gunpoint had kind of vanished, too. And the guys who had given Nine his weapon back…

"By the way, my guys know to check for weapons." Sam huffed.

Six holds out her hands. "It doesn't matter now. We have the most powerful force in Oz now." She motions towards the four of us standing in her foyer. "Together, the Wizard will fall soon enough."

I smile. She's right. Just like at home, we'll be more powerful together.

"And don't worry, Marina. When the Wizard disappears I should have enough power to send you home."

I don't say anything but… that's kind of what I'm afraid of.


We slept for pretty much the rest of the day, having not gotten any the night before. I even got to sleep in the room that I had in Chicago, and it's oddly comforting. The only big difference is that this time, I didn't have to worry about checking on Ella.

I had to wonder how she was doing. Not just in Oz as some kind of twisted Mogadorian queen but back at home. John, too; I kept forgetting that John had been trapped just like Ella had before we left. I hoped they were okay. I'm no expert in interdimensional travel or whatever this was, but how much time had passed back home? What would I have to come back to?

And could I possibly leave all of this? I mean, I didn't know if I could leave Eight again. Going back to a world where he didn't exist absolutely terrified me.

Just thinking about this kind of stuff made it really hard to fall asleep… but eventually I couldn't fight it anymore, and I drifted off. At least there was nothing to worry about for a few hours.


Here's something cool that we didn't have at the penthouse in Chicago: Six had a small army of cooks. I guess that made sense, she did have to feed her small army.

There was a small room in the dining area that led off to a giant kitchen. At least, I assumed it was a giant kitchen. They wouldn't let us in for 'health and safety reasons'. Huh. I guess there were two big differences between here and the penthouse.

Anyway, Six's cooks prepared a big welcoming feast for the four of us. It was really elaborate, probably one of the biggest meals I've ever seen in my life. Not to mention the thirty plus extra people that worked as Sam's 'guys' sitting at the other end of the table.

Adam didn't come, and despite the number of times I insisted on trying, Sam said it was best he heal on his own terms. He also told me that Adam sends his apologies for being so rough with us, especially near the end, but he always had our safety in mind.

That made me feel even worse.

It felt like the first time in a long time we'd done something like this. John and Nine looked like they were starting to get along, the table was alive with high spirits, and me and Eight talked the entire time. Sam was already starting to bond with the boys. It was really nice.

But then I noticed something. As the plates were being cleared and the leftover dishes were whisked away by the kitchen staff, I started to see a startling pattern in the food: It was all vegetarian dishes. I could remember Nine complaining about the lack of meat, but it never really sank in into now.

Maybe it shouldn't bother me that much, but I was struck with a blinding sense of déjà vu. I remembered the time at the penthouse in Chicago where I'd made all vegetarian foods because Eight had told me that he didn't eat meat and… it was almost like everything was playing itself over again.

But no, Five wasn't here. And we weren't completely alone this time. But I couldn't shake the feeling of inevitability, and I push my chair back, getting to my feet. I needed to just… back out of this situation.

"Marina, where are you going?" Eight asks as I begin to walk away.

I glance over my shoulder at him and try and force a smile. "I—I'll be right back."

I needed to talk to Six. Not the witch of the wind, but this one would have to do. I just… I had to tell someone about all of this, and it definitely couldn't be one of the boys. But there's no way I can just keep reliving what's already happened…

As luck would have it, she was inside in the surveillance room, my first guess. But the surveillance room wasn't really a surveillance room; it was more like a library. The walls were lined with dusty bookshelves, a few old looking chairs and couches sat in the middle of the room, stacks of books covered every open surface. It was really old… and ancient looking. And sitting in the middle of it all was the oldest soul I knew.

"Uhm," I hold my hands behind my back, not sure what to say. Six wasn't exactly the most open person; especially to someone she's never met. But she was the only one I felt I could talk to.

"Just call me Six," She quirks a smile at me.

I take a step forward and she doesn't move so I go the rest of the way and take a seat in an empty armchair to her right.

"I'm just reviewing strategies," She says, looking back down at the maps on the coffee table before her.

"Huh." I smile shyly. "sounds like Nine."

He raises an eyebrow at me. "Are you comparing me to Nine?"

"Uh, depends on how you feel about Nine."

"I think he's an idiot."

"Then, uh, no?" I've forgotten just how intimidating Six could be. She looks back down at her maps and doesn't say another word. I press my hands together, and after another moment of silence I finally speak my mind. "Six, can I talk to you about something… personal?"

She doesn't even look up at me as she says: "You're concerned about having to go back to Earth."

My breath catches in my throat. "What?"

She looks up at me, smiling smugly. "I have a crystal ball, I see everything. I know where you came from, Marina."

I let out a deep breath. "So… you know about Eight?"

"I said I have a crystal ball, I can't read you mind."

"Uh," I smile at her sheepishly. She puts the maps aside, signaling that she was ready to listen. So I told her. About my life from my start at the convent to finding Eight in India and meeting the rest of the Garde in Dulce. Of our history as a race or Lorien, of our time at the penthouse and… of Eight's untimely death. I told her everything.

After I finally finish she looks at me, tapping her chin. "That's quite a story."

"It's the truth."

"I don't doubt the legitimacy of your story, Marina. I just want to know why you told me."

I sigh, leaning my head on my palm on the armrest. "I don't really know. I just wanted to get that out. Ever since we met Eight in the Forest of Nightmares I thought it could only be a bad omen, but—"

"You met Eight in the Forest of Nightmares?" Six interrupts me, straightening in her seat.

"Yea, Why?"

"So, you're basically telling me that Oz is a detailed parody of your home back on Earth." I nod. "And in your world, your friend Eight was killed." I cringe a little, but nod.

"So then this Eight is dead as well." She concludes proudly, folding her hands on her lap.

I blink. "He can't be, he's as solid as a person! He's alive here!"

Six shakes her head. "The Forest of Nightmares, as you know, is also a forest of dreams. But what people always overlook is that dreams are all memories compacted into different forms. Your friend Eight wouldn't leave the forest with you not because he wasn't willing, but because he was a ghost condemned to the forest."

"He was hiding in there from the China Dolls!"

"Nothing can survive in the forest. It's too much for one brain to handle. Even if he was alive when he went it, he did not stay alive for very long."

"But then how…?"

Six reaches over and grasps my free hand. Looking into my eyes she says: "You brought his ghost back to life. Maybe you never realized it, but at some moment when you were in the forest with him you reanimated him." She leans back, glancing up and her bookshelves. "You have more magic in you than you even realize, Marina. We can't lose with you on our side."


Another day came and went… and I was still having trouble processing what Six had said to me in the surveillance room/library the night before. I brought Eight back to life just by spending time with his ghost? How was that even possible?

Damn it. I have got to stop saying that.

It wasn't something I could worry about. I had to remember what this was all about: defeating the Wizard and going home. Even will all of my building reservations, I needed to go back to Earth.

It was sometime during that afternoon that Nine had stumbled upon the gauntlet. Sam's dad (who also seemed to be fighting for good with Six and her crew) had fixed it up almost like it ran in modern day Chicago, but with a lot more steam-power.

The boys had insisted we train together, learn to fight better. Of course Nine bragged his superior skills, but John and Eight were more eager than anything to shape up again.

"Come on, Marina, you can do it!" Nine was launching these brick-like things across the room at me with some kind of device from the gauntlet. I remember an exercise kind of like this one back home. The only thing was that it was more meant for people like John, who could shoot fire at the projectiles to stop himself from getting a brick to the face. I, on the other hand, did not.

It was Nine's idea to try and figure out how to get my Ice powers to work again. You know, make me mad enough that I would be able to summon them, or better yet, figure out how to do it at will. But no matter how much I tried, all I was able to do was bruise myself or use my telekinesis to block the bricks. This wasn't working.

"It's not… happening." I pant, leaning against the wall and breathing heavily. "It just won't come to me." I can't help but let the frustration leech into my voice. I was tired of constantly needing my Legacy and having them fail on me.

Eight leans in on the wall beside me. "So you said that your Legacy reappeared when you got really mad?"

I sigh. "And I'm pretty angry now."

"Well maybe it's not just triggered by anger; maybe it's just intense emotion in general. It's a possibility, you're not exactly an angry person."

I turn to look at him. "But what can we do, watch a sad movie?"

He scratches his head. "What's a movie?"

"Nevermind. Just… do you have an honest suggestion?"

He looks over at the opposite wall, a thoughtful smile on his face. "I may have an idea or two."

"Alright, fine, what should I—" But before I can finish the sentence he lunges at me, grabbing me around the waist and in an instant we've both teleported out of the room.

We're suddenly standing in the library, now empty of other people. I feel a little dizzy and disoriented, but nothing that wasn't completely manageable. I place a hand on the side of my head. "What was that fo…"

I turn and notice he's staring right at me. His arms around my waist pull tighter, and I'm abruptly pulled flat against him. His tongue flicks out and quickly touches his lips as he stares at me. I feel my knees going weak.

"Oh…" I let my hand fall away, my mind completely stunned.

He cranes his neck, looking down on me; the tip of his nose touching my forehead. One of his hands feels up my back. "Marina," He breathes into my skin.

I don't know what to do, nor do I think I can move it I wanted to. I just look up at him, frozen in place. I know what he's trying to do, and not that I really want to fight it but my head is spinning and he's really, really close and I don't think I've blinked in a while because my eyes are feeling really dry…

His mouth is at the bridge of my nose, and slowly, I'm sure deliberately, he starts to lower his head, tracing his lips across my face. At the last second he leans back ever so slightly, so that our foreheads were touching but our lips weren't.

"Marina." He whispers again, teasing me. Holy crap I really need to blink…

And then he puts one hand on the back of my head, almost too gently, and touches his lips to mine just as my eyes slip shut.

Suddenly there's a fire burning in my stomach… and it wasn't ready for just this. I bring my arms up, knotting them in his hair and bringing him closer to me, forcing him as close as he would come. He moaned against my mouth, bringing his hand around to cup my face.

He pulls away from me for a second and I groan in contempt. I wasn't done with him yet… But before I have the chance to protest further I feel that stomach-churning sensation of teleporting again, and we're back in the gauntlet.

"Ew." Nine grunts, probably noting my pink face. "Tell me you guys didn't do anything disgusting."

Eight just smiles at me, our faces still but inches apart. "How do you feel now?"

"Cheated," I grumble, but I can't help but smile back.

"Well," he takes a step back from me, holding out an arm to proceed. "Let's see if I did anything."

I try and recall the dizzying feeling of Eight's lips against mine, the one that made me feel like a live wire. Despite the heat in my cheeks and my gut I start to feel that not-so familiar cold bloom in my hands, and looking down, I see the frosty patterns dancing across my palms.

I reach out and ice shoots from my hands, with no particular place to go it covers the floor. I hear the sound of another oncoming brick, but this time I know what to do and the brick shatters upon impact with my blast. The next one comes and the next one and I'm jumping, ducking, spinning and shooting like the grace that I never had before. Suddenly the ice is feeling more natural than my healing.

I laugh once, almost crying of happiness… when I slip on the ice. I land on the floor, a little bit shocked, but then I fall onto my back and laugh. I got my legacy to work. I shoot another blast of ice into the air and disintegrate a brick as it flies over my head. I was in control. This… may be the beginning of my new start.

Eight teleports next to me, lying on his back with his hands folded behind his head. "How'd it go?" He says in a sing-song voice.

"I think you might be onto something." I laugh.


"Nine, Nine, I don't see her!" Six had powered off the motor of the boat and was frantically searching the water from the deck. She leans over the railing to get her head closer to the murkiness. "I have to jump in and get her!"

Nine was still immobilized, flipped over onto his stomach but not much else. He didn't seem half as concerned about himself as he did about the situation. "But what if whatever got her gets you?"

It's all a dream. I know it's a dream. I can feel it, I just know that what I was seeing—however real or unreal it was—wasn't actually happening. Mostly because Nine and Six were searching for me in the water, despite me standing right behind them.

Six's head whips around to the sky, her eyes going wide. "They're coming, I can see them!"

"We can't leave her!" Nine growls, banging a fist against the floor because he doesn't know what to do.

I want to scream. This couldn't be real life, can it? Am I dooming Nine and Six as we speak? No, no, no.

I needed to get back. They needed me.

"I need to go home." I mumble as I see the Mogadorian ship begin to descend in a slip in the overhead growth. Six looks around, panic written all over her face. She places a hand on the railing of the boat and her and the entire boat (as well as their passenger) disappears.

"What do we do?"

"We stay quiet," Six whispers.

The Mog ships lands and soldiers begin to pour out.

No. "I need to go home." I say again, this time louder. I squeeze my eyes shut and hug my shoulders, but when I open my eyes all I'm able to do is find myself back in my bed in Six's castle.

Then I notice someone has a hand on my shoulder. I jump back in my bed, struggling in the sheets as my eyes adjust to the darkness. Eight.

"I'm sorry I startled you." He says quietly.

"Oh, uh," I run a hand through my messy hair. "It's no big deal, I—"

He suddenly leans forward, planting a knee on my bed and grabbing my face with one hand as he touches his mouth to mine and kisses me hard. I'm a bit shocked for a second before I let him pull me in and I wrap my arms around his neck.

But within seconds he pulls away from me. He takes a deep breath, trying to calm himself. "Sorry," He whispers, pressing his hand to my cheek. "This… isn't why I came here, if that's what you were thinking. I just... wasn't completely finished from before."

I smile at him, putting my hand over his. "Then what's the matter?"


The outside of the castle is completely surrounded from all sides. We were trapped in now, not just by the thickets of clouds or the intimidating walls of the Beyond, but by a barrier so dense that you can't even see the ground.

Thousands of them. Pikens and krauls. And they didn't stop coming, building up behind each other.

"But where do they keep coming from?" Sam is leaning over the balcony, being the first to notice the phenomenon going on outside. "I thought these things were near extinction!"

"They're not coming from the clouds." Six says, standing next to Sam. "I don't sense them. It's almost as if… they're already inside the Beyond."

I swallow, watching as more and more of the beasts pile up surrounding the castle. They growl in our direction, but none are high enough to reach our position. At least, none like that have arrived yet. This castle was great, but… there was only so much that it could withstand. And an army of Mogadorian beasts probably won't wait forever with a kill.

But really, there is only one logical explanation to all of this. "They—they must somehow know we're here."

Six turns to me. "If that's true, Marina, we need to get out of here as soon as we can. If those things can get in, so can other, bigger threats."

It's just as she says that that a middle-sized kraul, probably no bigger than me, jumps up at astounding heights and clamps its jaw around the railing of the balcony. I scream and jump back.

Nine runs up and kicks the thing in the muzzle until it drops back down to the ground.

"We need to evacuate, now!" Six yells at Sam, who immediately doubles back and into the castle. "I'll hold them off while the rest of you go somewhere safe!" Six raises her arms in the air just like she always does when summoning her atmokinesis. The thicker grey clouds that topped the tower began to swirl around our position as the wind picked up, ripping at our hair and clothes. I can see loose rocks and dirt at the bottom of the canyon being picked up as the winds grow in ferocity, the beasts below fighting to stay in place. This is beyond what I've ever seen Six do before. It's not just a storm; it's a hurricane.



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