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ADRIAN SLEPT for a lot of the way back to Palm Springs. Apparently, his late-night partying with Carla and Krissy had resulted in very little rest. Thinking about it made me uncomfortable. Thinking about Jill experiencing it through him made me ill.
There’d been little we could do for Carla and Krissy except offer our sympathies. Strigoi attacks happened. It was tragic and terrible, but the only way most Moroi could protect themselves was to exercise caution, keep their whereabouts secure, and stay with guardians if possible. For non-royal Moroi living and going to school in the world like Carla and Krissy were, guardians weren’t an option. Plenty of Moroi got by like that; they just had to be careful. The two of them thought the circumstances surrounding their friend’s death were awful. That was true. They were. But neither girl thought much past that or felt there was anything odd about the throat-slitting. I wouldn’t have either if I hadn’t heard Clarence’s account of his niece’s death.
I brought Adrian back to Amberwood with me and signed him in briefly as a guest, figuring Jill would feel better about seeing him in the flesh. Sure enough, she was already waiting for us in the dorm when we arrived. She hugged him and flashed me a grateful look. Eddie was with her, and though he said nothing, there was a look of exasperation on his face that said I wasn’t the only one who thought Adrian had behaved ridiculously.
“I was so worried,” Jill said.
Adrian ruffled her hair, which made her duck away. “Nothing to worry about, Jailbait. So long as the wrinkles come out of this shirt, there’s no harm done.”
No harm done, I thought, feeling anger kindle within me. No harm except Jill has to watch Adrian hook up with other girls and endure his drinking binges. It didn’t matter if Lee had supplanted her old crush on Adrian. She was just too young to witness anything like that. Adrian had been selfish. “Now,” Adrian continued, “if Sage would be kind enough to keep playing chauffeur, I’ll take us all out to lunch.”
“I thought you didn’t have any money,” I pointed out.
“I said I don’t have very much money.”
Jill and Eddie exchanged looks. “We, um, were going to meet Micah for lunch,” Jill said.
“Bring him along,” said Adrian. “He can meet the family.”
Micah showed up shortly thereafter and was happy to meet our other “brother.” He shook Adrian’s hand and smiled. “Now I see some family resemblance. I was starting to wonder if Jill was adopted, but you two kind of look like each other.”
“So does our mailman back in North Dakota,” said Adrian.
“South,” I corrected. Fortunately, Micah didn’t seem to think there was anything weird about the slip.
“Right,” said Adrian. He studied Micah thoughtfully. “There’s something familiar about you. Have we met?”
Micah shook his head. “I’ve never been to South Dakota.”
I was pretty sure I heard Adrian murmur, “That makes two of us.”
“We should go,” said Eddie hastily, moving toward our dorm’s door. “I’ve got some homework to catch up on later.”
I frowned, puzzled by the attitude change. Eddie wasn’t a bad student by any means, but it had been obvious to me since coming to Amberwood that he didn’t take the same interest in the school that I did. This was a repeated year for him, and he was content to just play along and only do what was necessary to stay in good standing.
If anyone else thought his behavior was odd, they didn’t show it. Micah was already talking to Jill about something, and Adrian still looked like he was trying to place Micah. Adrian’s generous offer to buy lunch only extended to fast food, so our meal was quick. After a week of dorm food, though, I appreciated the change, and Adrian had long since made his views clear on Dorothy’s “healthy” cooking.
“You should’ve just gotten a kids’ meal,” Adrian told me, pointing to my half-eaten burger and fries. “You could have saved me a lot of money. And gotten a toy.”
‘”A lot’ is kind of an exaggeration,” I said. “Besides, now you have leftovers to help get you by.”
He rolled his eyes and stole a fry off my plate. “You’re the one who should take the leftovers home. How do you even function on so little food?” he demanded. “One of these days, you’re just going to blow away.”
“Stop it,” I said.
“Just telling it like it is,” he said with a shrug. “You could stand to gain about ten pounds.”
I stared at him incredulously, too shocked to even come up with a response. What did a Moroi know about weight gain? They had perfect figures. They didn’t know what it was like to look in the mirror and see inadequacy, to never feel good enough. It was effortless for them, whereas no matter how hard I worked, I never seemed to match their inhuman perfection.
Adrian’s eyes drifted over to where Jill, Eddie, and Micah were animatedly talking about practicing more self-defense together.
“They’re kind of cute,” said Adrian in a voice pitched just for my ears. He played with his straw as he studied the group. “Maybe Castile was on to something about letting her date at the school.”
“Adrian,” I groaned.
“Kidding,” he said. “Lee would probably challenge him to a duel. He couldn’t stop talking about her, you know. When we got back from mini-golfing, Lee just kept going on with, ‘When can we all go out again?’ And yet, he dropped off the face of the earth when he was in LA and I needed him.”
“Had you made plans to meet up?” I asked. “Had he agreed to take you home?”
“No,” Adrian admitted. “But what else was he really doing?”
Just then, a gray-haired man passed by, bumping into Jill’s chair as he balanced a tray of burgers and sodas. Nothing spilled, but Eddie jumped to his feet with lightning speed, ready to fly across the table and defend her. The man backed up and mumbled an apology.
Adrian shook his head in amazement. “Just send him as a chaperone with whoever she goes out with, and we’ll never have to worry.”
Knowing what I knew now about Adrian and Jill’s bond, I was able to regard Eddie’s protectiveness in a different light. Oh, sure, I knew his guardian training had instilled that nature into him, but there always seemed to be something a little stronger there. Something almost… personal. At first, I’d wondered if maybe it was because Jill was just part of his larger circle of friends, like Rose. Now, I kept thinking it might go further than that. Jill had said Eddie had been the only one to try to protect her the night of the attack. He’d failed, most likely through timing and not because of a lack of skill.
But what kind of mark must that have left on him? He was someone whose sole purpose in life was to defend others – and he’d had to watch someone die on his watch. Now that Adrian had brought her back to life, was it almost like a second chance for Eddie? An opportunity to redeem himself? Maybe that’s why he was so vigilant.
“You look confused,” said Adrian.
I shook my head and sighed. “I think I’m just overthinking things.”
He nodded solemnly. “That’s why I try to never do it.”
An earlier question popped into my head. “Hey, how come you told those girls your name was Jet?”
“Standard practice if you don’t want chicks to find you later, Sage. Besides, I figured I was protecting our operation here.”
“Yeah, but why Jet? Why not… I don’t know… Travis or John?”
Adrian gave me a look that said I was wasting his time. “Because Jet sounds badass.”
After lunch, we returned Adrian to Clarence’s, and the rest of us went back to Amberwood. Jill and Micah went off to do their own thing, and I convinced Eddie to go to the library with me. There, we staked out a table, and I brought out my laptop.
“So, we found out something interesting when I picked up Adrian today,” I told Eddie, keeping my voice library soft.
Eddie gave me a wry look. “I’m guessing the whole experience of picking up Adrian was interesting – at least from what Jill told me.”
“It could’ve been worse,” I speculated. “At least he was dressed when I got there. And there were only two other Moroi there. I didn’t stumble into a sorority house full of them or anything.”
That made him laugh. “You might have had a harder time getting Adrian out of there if that was the case.”
My laptop screen flared to life, and I began the complicated process of logging into the Alchemists’ mega-secure database.
“Well, as we were leaving, the girls he was with found out that a friend of theirs was killed by Strigoi the other night.”
All humor vanished from Eddie’s face. His eyes went hard. “Where?”
“In LA, not here,” I added. I should’ve known better than to open up the conversation like that without clearly stating beforehand that he didn’t need to be on the lookout for Strigoi on campus. “As far as we know, everyone’s right – Strigoi don’t want to hang out in Palm Springs.”
Eddie became about one percent less tense.
“Here’s the thing,” I continued. “This Moroi girl – this friend of theirs – was allegedly killed like Clarence’s niece.”
Eddie’s eyebrows rose. “With the slit throat?”
“That’s weird. Are you sure that’s what happened – to either of them? I mean, we’re just going off of Clarence’s report, right?” Eddie drummed a pencil against the table as he pondered this. “Clarence is nice enough, but come on. We all know he’s not quite there.”
“That’s why I brought you here. And why I wanted to check this database. We keep track of most Strigoi-related deaths.”
Eddie peered over my shoulder as I brought up an entry on Tamara Donahue from five years ago. Sure enough, she’d been found with a cut throat. Another search on Melody Croft – Krissy and Carla’s friend – also turned up a report from last night. My people had been on the scene and quick to log the information. Melody too had had her throat slit. There had been other reported Strigoi murders in LA – it was a big city, after all – but only two matched this profile.
“Are you still thinking about what Clarence said – about vampire hunters?” Eddie asked me.
“I don’t know. I just thought it was worth checking these out.”
“Guardians weighed in on both of these cases,” said Eddie, pointing at the screen. “They also declared them Strigoi attacks – there was blood taken from both girls. That’s what a Strigoi does. I don’t know what a vampire hunter does, but I just don’t see drinking blood as part of their goal.”
“I wouldn’t think so either. But neither of these girls was drained.”
“Strigoi don’t always finish drinking from their victims. Especially if they’re interrupted. This girl Melody was killed near a club, right? I mean, if her killer heard someone coming, they’d just take off.”
“I suppose. But what about the throat-slitting?”
Eddie shrugged. “We have tons of accounts of Strigoi doing crazy things. Just look at Keith and his eye. They’re evil. You can’t apply logic to them.”
“Um, let’s leave his eye out of this.” Keith wasn’t a case I wanted brought up. I sat back in my chair and sighed. “There’s just something bugging me about all the killings. The half-drinking. The throat-slitting. They’re both strange things happening together. And I don’t like strange things.”
“Then you’re in the wrong profession,” said Eddie, his smile returning.
I smiled back, my mind still turning everything over. “I suppose so.”
When I didn’t say anything else, he gave me a surprised look. “You’re not actually… you don’t think there are vampire hunters, do you?”
“No, not really. We have no evidence to think they exist.”
“But…” Eddie prompted.
“But,” I said. “Doesn’t the idea freak you out a little? I mean, right now, you know who to look out for. Other Moroi. Strigoi. They stand out. But a human vampire hunter?” I gestured to the students gathered and working in the library. “You wouldn’t know who’s a threat.”
Eddie shook his head. “It’s pretty easy, actually. I just treat everyone as a threat.”
I couldn’t decide if that made me feel better or not.
When I returned to my dorm later, Mrs. Weathers flagged me down. “Ms. Terwilliger dropped something off for you.”
“She brought me something?” I asked in surprise. “It’s not money, is it?” So far, none of my coffee purchases had been reimbursed.
By way of answer, Mrs. Weathers handed over a leather-covered book. At first, I thought it was the one I’d just finished. Then I looked more closely at the cover and read Volume 2. A yellow sticky note attached to the book had Ms. Terwilliger’s spidery writing on it: Next. I sighed and thanked Mrs.
Weathers. I’d do any task my teacher asked of me, but I was kind of hoping she’d assign me a book that was more of a historical account than recipes for spells.
As I was walking down my hall, I heard a few exclamations of alarm from the far end. I could see an open door and a few people huddled around it. Hurrying past my own room, I went to see what the problem was. It was Julia and Kristin’s room. Although I wasn’t sure I really had the right, I pushed my way past some of the frightened onlookers. No one stopped me.
I found Kristin lying on her bed, twitching violently. She was sweating profusely, and her pupils were so large, there was hardly any discernible iris. Julia sat near her on the bed, as did a couple girls I didn’t know so well. She looked up at my approach, her face filled with fear.
“Kristin?” I cried. “Kristin, are you okay?” When no response came, I turned to the others. “What’s the matter with her?”
Julia anxiously refolded a wet cloth and placed it on Kristin’s forehead. “We don’t know. She’s been like this since this morning.”
I stared incredulously. “Then she needs to see a doctor! We need to call someone now. I’ll get Mrs. Weathers – “
“No!” Julia jumped up and caught hold of my arm. “You can’t. The reason she’s like this… well, we think it’s because of the tattoo.”
One of the other girls caught hold of Kristin’s wrist and turned it so that I could see the inside. There, tattooed in glittering coppery ink on her dusky skin, was a daisy. I remembered Kristin pining for a celestial tattoo, but last I knew, she couldn’t afford it. “When did she get this?”
“Earlier today,” said Julia. She looked abashed. “I lent her the money.”
I stared at that sparkling flower, so pretty and seemingly harmless. I had no doubt it was what was causing this fit. Whatever was mixed with the ink to provide the high wasn’t reacting correctly with her system.
“She needs a doctor,” I said firmly.
“You can’t. We’ll have to tell them about the tattoos,” said the girl who had been holding Kristin’s hand. “No one believed Trey, but if they saw something like this… well, everything at Nevermore could be shut down.”
Good! I thought. But to my astonishment, her words were met with nods from the other gathered girls. Were they crazy? How many of them had those ridiculous tattoos? And was protecting them really more important than Kristin’s life?
Julia swallowed and sat back down on the edge of the bed. “We were hoping this might pass. Maybe she needs a little time to adjust.”
Kristin moaned. One of her legs trembled like it was having a muscle spasm and then stilled. Her eyes and their large pupils stared off blankly, and her breathing was shallow.
“She’s had all day!” I pointed out. “You guys, she could die.”
“How do you know?” asked Julia in astonishment.
I didn’t, not for sure. But every once in a while, Alchemist tattoos didn’t take either. In ninety-nine percent of the cases, human bodies accepted the vampire blood used in an Alchemist tattoo, allowing its properties to infuse with our own, kind of like a low-grade dhampir. We gained good stamina and long life, though hardly got the amazing physical abilities dhampirs received. The blood was too diluted for that. Even so, there was always the occasional person who got sick from an Alchemist tattoo. The blood poisoned them. It was made worse because the gold and other chemicals worked to keep the blood infused in the skin, so it never had a chance to leave. Those left untreated died.
Vampire blood wouldn’t cause a euphoric high, so I didn’t believe there was any in this tattoo. But the treatment we used for Alchemist tattoos relied on breaking down the metallic components of the tattoo in order to release the blood, allowing the body then to clear it naturally. I had to assume the same principle would work here. Only, I didn’t know the exact formula for the Alchemist compound and wasn’t even sure it would break down copper like it did gold.
I bit my lip, thinking, and finally made a decision. “I’ll be right back,” I told them, racing to my room. All the while, an inner voice chastised me for foolishness. I had no business attempting what I was about to. I should go straight to Mrs. Weathers.
Instead, I opened my room door and found Jill with her laptop. “Hey, Sydney,” she said, smiling. “I’m IM-ing with Lee and – ” She did a double take.
I turned on my own laptop and set it on the bed. While it booted up, I reached for a small metal suitcase I’d carefully packed but never expected to use. “Can you go get me some water? Quickly?”
Jill hesitated only a moment before nodding. “Be right back,” she said, jumping off her bed.
While she was gone, I unlocked the case with a key I always kept on me. Inside it were small amounts of dozens of Alchemist compounds, the kinds of substances we mixed together and used as part of our jobs. Some ingredients – like the ones I used to dissolve Strigoi bodies – I had lots of. Others, I had only a sampling of. My laptop finished booting up, and I logged onto the Alchemist database. A few searches and I soon had the formula for antitattoo treatment pulled up.
Jill returned then, carrying a cup brimming with water. “Is this enough? If we were in any other climate, I could’ve pulled it straight from the air.” “It’s fine,” I said, glad the climate had kept her from magic.
I scanned the formula, analyzing which ingredients did what. I mentally deleted the ones I was certain were specific to gold. A couple I didn’t even have, but I was pretty sure they were simply for skin comfort and weren’t requisite. I began pulling out ingredients from my kit, carefully measuring them – though still moving as quickly as possible – into another cup. I made substitutions where necessary and added an ingredient I was certain would break down copper, though the amount required was only a guess on my part. When I finished, I took the water from Jill and added the same amount that was in the original instructions. The final result was a liquid that reminded me of iodine.
I lifted it up and felt a little like a mad scientist. Jill had watched me without comment the entire time, sensing the urgency. Her face was filled with concern, but she was biting back all the questions I knew she had. She followed me when I left the room and headed back to Kristin’s. More girls were there than before, and it was honestly a wonder Mrs. Weathers didn’t just hear the racket. For a group so intent on protecting their precious tattoos, they weren’t being particularly covert.
I returned to Kristin’s bedside, finding her unchanged. “Expose her wrist again, and hold her arm as still as possible for me.” I didn’t direct the command to anyone but put enough force into it that I felt certain someone would obey. I was right. “If this doesn’t work, we get a doctor.” My voice left no room for argument.
Julia looked paler than Jill but gave a weak a nod of acceptance. I took the washcloth she’d been using and dipped it into my cup. I’d never actually seen this done and had to guess about how to apply it. I made a silent prayer and then pressed the washcloth against the tattoo on Kristin’s wrist.
She let out a strangled cry, and her whole body bucked up. A couple nearby girls instinctively helped hold her down. Tendrils of smoke curled up from where I was holding the washcloth against her, and I smelled a sharp, acrid odor. Waiting what I hoped was an acceptable amount of time, I finally removed the washcloth.
The pretty little daisy was mutating before our eyes. Its clean lines began to run and blur. The coppery color began to shift, darkening into a bluish green. Before long, the design was unrecognizable. It was an amorphous blob. Around it, red welts appeared on her skin, though they seemed to be more of a superficial irritation than anything dire.
Still, the whole thing looked terrible, and I stared in horror. What had I done?
Everyone else was silent, no one knowing what to do. A couple minutes passed, but they felt like hours. Abruptly, Kristin stopped twitching. Her breathing still seemed labored, but she blinked, her eyes focusing as though suddenly seeing the world for the first time. Her pupils were still huge, but she managed to look around and at last focus on me.
“Sydney,” gasped out Kristin. “Thank you.”
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