The boy jacked a jaguar, slipping into its sleek body and sending its simple feline mind to sleep. He owned the beast now. Its flesh was his. Muscular magic in a compact four-legged frame, perfectly designed for running, stalking, and killing.
He had taken on the name “Jix”—one of the many Mayan words for “jaguar”—due to his inclination toward great cats, and he furjacked one every chance he got. He preferred wild jaguars, living in the jungles of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula—creatures that hadn’t lost their will to hunt.
Reconnaissance was Jix’s specialty: tracking and spying on Afterlights who His Excellency the King believed to be a threat. Afterlights such as the Eastern Witch—the one they called Mary Hightower.
His Excellency had created a barrier of wind upon the Mississippi River to keep her and other intruders out, but the Eastern Witch was shrewd and relentless. With the help of her own skinjackers, she had destroyed a living-world bridge, causing it to cross into Everlost. Then with a train full of followers and slaves, she rode a powerful locomotive across the river.
At least that was the story.
Others said that she never made the journey herself—that something strange and mysterious happened to her, but no one could agree as to what it was. She flew off into the sky. She melted. She turned to stone. She turned to flesh. Each rumor was more outlandish than the last, and no one knew for sure if any of them were true.
Jix was called in for closer surveillance. Discover their numbers, discover their intent, then report back to the king. If these trespassing Afterlights were truly a threat, they would be dealt with quickly, and would never see the light of day again. It all depended on Jix’s report.
“You should skinjack the pilot of a flying machine,” His Excellency had suggested to Jix, “for speed in this matter would greatly please us.”
Jix, however, had resisted. “But sir, my skill to stalk comes from the jaguar gods. If I make my journey impure, they will be angered, and take the skill away.”
His Excellency had then waved his hand dismissively. “Do as you will—as long as you bring us the results We require.” The king always said “us” and “we,” even when there was no one else but him in the room.
So, on a bright autumn day, Jix set out in the borrowed body of a jaguar, and within that speedy beast, he forged over mountains and rivers, resting when he had to, but never for long. When he came near human villages he heard many languages. Remnants of ancient tongues, Spanish, and finally English. Once he heard English, and saw signs written in that language, he knew he was getting close, yet never once was he spotted, for he had the best of both species now: the keen senses of the jaguar, and the full faculties of a human mind.
The ghost train had crossed the bridge in Memphis, so this was his destination. He was certain to pick up a scent of the supernatural there, and track them down. As he drew nearer, he could feel the thrill of the hunt filling him. The intruders wouldn’t stand a chance.
© 1994 Neal Shusterman