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I’M NOT A PHYSICAL PERSON. I’m decent in volleyball, and Eddie once taught me to throw a punch. But I make no claims to having the kind of training that guardians get. I certainly don’t have their reflexes. So, in this situation, unable to break free of restraint, I pretty much did the only thing I could.
“Help! Somebody help!”
My hope was that it would delay Sonya’s captors from decapitating her or whatever it was they planned to do. I also hoped it would, well, bring help. We’d departed from the main downtown roads but were still close enough that someone should hear me – especially since there had still been a decent number of people out earlier.
One of the attackers holding Sonya flinched, so I supposed I was partially successful. My own captor clamped a hand over my mouth and pushed me harder against the brick wall.
Then, a strange thing happened. He – because he had the right build to be male, even though I couldn’t make out his face – froze. He was still holding me, but his body had gone rigid. It was almost like he was shocked or surprised. I wasn’t sure why. Surely someone screaming for help when assaulted wasn’t that weird. I didn’t think I could overpower him but still hoped I might take advantage of his stunned state. I pushed forward again, trying to get out of his grip. I only managed to move a few inches before he locked me back into place.
“We need to go!” exclaimed one of Sonya’s captors. Another guy. From what I could tell, they all were. “Someone will come.”
“This’ll only take a second,” growled the one holding the sword. “We need to rid the world of this evil.”
I watched in terror, my heart seizing in my chest. I was afraid for myself, but I was especially afraid for Sonya. I’d never seen a decapitation. I didn’t want to start now.
Half a second later, I found myself suddenly free. Someone new had joined our fray, someone who ripped my captor away and tossed him easily to the pavement. It looked painful, and the guy landed with a grunt. Even in this poor lighting, the height and coat gave my savior away. It was Dimitri.
I’d seen him fight before, but it never got old. He was captivating. He never stopped moving.
Every action was graceful and lethal. He was a dancer of death. Ignoring the guy he’d just thrown, Dimitri surged toward the others. He immediately went for the guy with the sword.
A swift kick from Dimitri sent the assailant flying backward. He dropped the sword and barely managed to catch hold of one of the churchyard trees.
Meanwhile, one of the men holding Sonya simply turned tail and ran back toward downtown.
Dimitri didn’t pursue. His attention now was on the last guy, who was foolishly attempting to fight back. This freed Sonya, however, and she wasted no time getting to her feet and scurrying over to my side. I was rarely touchy-feely with anyone – certainly not Moroi – but I clung to her without even thinking twice. She did the same, and I could feel her trembling.
Once, as a Strigoi, she’d been a force to be reckoned with. As a Moroi, one who’d just had a sword at her throat, things were understandably different.
The guy facing down Dimitri actually managed a couple of good dodges. His mistake came when he attempted to hit Dimitri. It opened his guard, and like that, Dimitri punched him hard in the face. The tall guy who’d hit the tree earlier attempted an attack, but he was an idiot if he thought Dimitri was distracted. Dimitri dispatched him easily, and he landed near the guy Dimitri had just punched. The tall one struggled to his feet and looked like he wanted to attack again. His friend grabbed hold of him and tugged him away. After a moment’s struggle between them, the two finally ran off. Dimitri didn’t pursue. His attention was all on Sonya and me.
“Are you okay?” he asked, swiftly striding over to us.
I managed a weak nod, even though I was shaking uncontrollably.
“Let’s get out of here,” said Dimitri. He put a hand on each of our shoulders and began to steer us away.
“Wait,” I said, moving toward the churchyard. “We should take the sword.” I scanned in front of me, but it was even darker than before. Dimitri found the sword right away with his superior eyesight. He tucked it under his duster, and the three of us quickly got out of there. We walked to Adrian’s apartment, since it was much closer than Clarence’s property outside of town. Even so, the brief trip seemed to take forever. I kept feeling like we could be attacked again at any moment, but Dimitri continued giving us assurances, while still pushing us at a good pace.
Adrian was surprised to see us at his door. He also looked pretty drunk, but I didn’t care.
All I wanted was the security of his four walls.
“What… what’s going on?” he asked, as Dimitri urged Sonya and me inside. Adrian’s eyes looked at each of us, resting longest on me. “Are you okay? What happened?” Dimitri gave Sonya and me a once-over, double-checking for injuries despite our protests.
He reached out and gently held my chin, turning my non-tattooed cheek toward him. “A little scraped,” he said. “Not serious, but you should clean it.” I touched the spot he’d indicated and was astonished to see blood on my fingers. I didn’t even remember getting hurt but supposed it had come from the brick wall.
Sonya had no physical marks but admitted to having a pretty bad headache from where she’d hit the ground.
“What happened?” Adrian asked again.
Dimitri held up the sword he’d retrieved from the scene. “Something a little more serious than a mugging, I think.”
“I’d say so,” said Sonya, sitting on the couch. Her attitude was amazingly calm for what we’d just endured. She touched the back of her head and winced. “Particularly since they called me a creature of evil before you showed up.”
Dimitri arched an eyebrow. “They did?”
I hadn’t moved once I’d reached the living room. I simply stood there with my arms wrapped around myself, feeling numbed. Movement seemed too difficult. Thinking seemed too difficult. As Dimitri examined the sword, however, something caught my eye and made my sluggish brain slowly begin to function again.
Seeing my interest, he held the sword out to me. I took it, careful of the blade, and examined the hilt. It was covered with engravings.
“Do those mean something to you?” he asked.
My mind was still cloudy with fear and adrenaline, but I ignored it and tried to dredge up some facts. “These are old alchemy symbols,” I said. “From the Middle Ages, back when our group was just a bunch of medieval scientists trying to turn lead into gold.” That was all the history books knew about my society. That, and we’d eventually given up on gold. The organization had later found more sophisticated compounds, including vampire blood. Interacting with vampires had eventually evolved into our current cause, as ancient Alchemists realized the terrible and dark temptations vampires represented. Our cause became a holy one. The chemistry and formulas my society had once worked on for personal gain became the tools needed to hide the existence of vampires, tools we now supplemented with technology.
I tapped the largest symbol, a circle with a dot in the center. “This is actually the symbol for gold. This other one is silver. These four triangle things are the basic elements – earth, air, water, and fire. And these… Mars and Jupiter, which tie into iron and tin. Maybe the sword’s composition?” I frowned and studied the rest of the metal. “No gold or silver actually in it, though. Their symbols can also refer to the sun and moon. Maybe these aren’t physical at all.
I don’t know.”
I handed the sword back to Dimitri. Sonya took it from him, studying what I’d pointed out.
“So, are you saying this is an Alchemist weapon?”
I shook my head. “Alchemists would never use something like this. Guns are easier. And the symbols are archaic. We use the periodic table now. Easier to write ‘Au’ for gold instead of drawing that sun symbol.”
“Is there any reason these would be on a weapon? Some greater symbolism or meaning?” Dimitri asked.
“Well, again, if you go back, the sun and gold were the most important to the ancient Alchemists.
They revolved around this whole idea of light and clarity.” I touched my cheek.
“Those things are still important in some ways – it’s why we use this gold ink. Aside from the benefits, the gold marks us as… pure. Sanctified. Part of a holy cause. But on a sword… I don’t know. If whoever did this was going off the same symbolism, then maybe the sword is sanctified.” I thought back to the attackers’ words, about returning to Hell. I grimaced. “Or maybe its owners feel it’s serving some kind of holy duty.”
“Who were these guys anyway?” asked Adrian. “Do you think Jill’s at risk?”
“They knew about vampires. But they were human,” said Dimitri.
“Even I could tell that,” I agreed. “The one was pretty tall, but he was no Moroi.” Admitting our assailants had been human was difficult – and baffling – for me. I’d always believed the Strigoi were evil. That was easy. Even Moroi couldn’t always be trusted, which was why the thought of Moroi assassins coming after Jill didn’t seem that far-fetched. But humans… the people I was supposed to be protecting? That was tough. I’d been attacked by my own kind, the so-called good guys, not the fanged fiends I’d been taught to fear. It was a jolt to my worldview.
Dimitri’s face grew even grimmer. “I’ve never heard of anything like this – mainly because most humans don’t know about Moroi. Aside from the Alchemists.” I gave him a sharp look. “This had nothing to do with us. I told you, swords aren’t our style.
Neither are attacks.”
Sonya set the sword down on the coffee table. “No one’s making accusations about anyone.
I assume it’s an issue you’ll both want to bring up to your groups.” Dimitri and I nodded.
“Although, I think we’re overlooking a key point here. They were treating me like a Strigoi. A sword’s not the easiest way to kill someone. There’d have to be a reason.”
“It’s the only way a human could kill a Strigoi, too,” I murmured. “Humans can’t charm a silver stake. I suppose they could set you on fire, but that’s not practical in an alley.” Silence fell as we all mulled this over. At last, Sonya sighed. “I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere tonight, not without talking to others. Do you want me to heal that?” It took me a moment to realize she was talking to me. I touched my cheek. “No, it’ll heal fast on its own.” That was one of the side effects of the vampire blood in our lily tattoos. “I’ll go clean it before I go.”
I walked to the bathroom as confidently as I could. When I reached it and saw my reflection in the mirror, I lost it. The scrape wasn’t bad, not at all. Mostly, what upset me was what it represented. Sonya had had the blade to her throat, but my life had been in danger too. I had been attacked, and I’d been helpless. I wet a washcloth and tried to bring it to my face, but my hands were shaking too badly.
Adrian appeared in the doorway, and I quickly tried to blink away the tears that had started to fill my eyes. “Yeah?”
“Can’t you tell from my aura?”
He didn’t answer but instead took the washcloth from me before I dropped it. “Turn,” he commanded. I did, and he dabbed the scrape with it. With him standing so close to me, I could see that his eyes were bloodshot. I could also smell the alcohol on him. Nonetheless, his hand was steadier than mine. Again, he asked, “You okay?”
“I’m not the one who had a sword to my throat.”
“That’s not the question I asked. Are you hurt anywhere else?”
“No,” I said, looking down. “Just maybe… maybe my pride.”
“Your pride?” He paused to rinse the washcloth. “What does that have to do with anything?” I looked up but still didn’t meet his eyes. “I can do a lot of things, Adrian. And – at the risk of sounding egotistical – I mean, well, I can do a lot of pretty awesome things that most people can’t.”
There was amusement in his voice. “Don’t I know it. You can change a tire in ten minutes while speaking Greek.”
“Five minutes,” I said. “But when my life’s on the line – when others’ lives are on the line – what good am I? I can’t fight. I was completely helpless out there. Just like when the Strigoi attacked us and Lee. I can only stand and watch and wait for people like Rose and Dimitri to save me. I… I’m like a storybook damsel in distress.” He finished cleaning my cheek and set the washcloth down. He cupped my face in his hands. “The only thing true about what you just said was the storybook damsel part – and that’s only because you’re pretty enough to be one. Not the distress thing. Everything else you just said was ridiculous. You’re not helpless.”
I finally looked up. In our conversations, Adrian wasn’t usually the one accusing me of being ridiculous. “Oh? So I am like Rose and Dimitri?”
“No. No more than I am. And, if memory serves, someone told me recently it was useless trying to be like other people. That you should only try to be yourself.” I scowled at having my words thrown back at me. “This isn’t the same situation at all. I’m talking about taking care of myself, not impressing someone.”
“Well, there’s your other problem, Sage. ‘Taking care of yourself.’ These encounters you’ve had – Strigoi, crazy guys with swords. Those aren’t exactly normal. I don’t think you can really get down on yourself for not being able to fight back against those kinds of attacks.
Most people couldn’t.”
“I should be able to,” I muttered.
His eyes were sympathetic. “Then learn. That same person who likes giving me advice once told me not to be a victim. So don’t be. You’ve learned how to do a million other things.
Learn this. Take a self-defense class. Get a gun. You can’t be a guardian, but that’s not the only way to protect yourself.”
A cluster of emotions boiled within me. Anger. Embarrassment. Reassurance. “You’ve got a lot to say for a drunk guy.”
“Oh, Sage. I’ve got a lot to say, drunk or sober.” He released me and stepped away. I felt oddly vulnerable without him near. “What most people don’t get is that I’m more coherent like this. Less chance for spirit to make me crazy.” He tapped the side of his head and rolled his eyes.
“Speaking of which… I’m not going to give you any lectures about that,” I said, glad to shift the topic from me. “Lunch with your dad sucked. I get it. If you want to drown that out, it’s fine.
But please, just keep Jill in mind. You know what this does to her – not now, maybe, but later.” The ghost of a smile flickered across his lips. “You’re always the voice of reason. Just try listening to yourself once in a while.”
The words were familiar. Dimitri had said something similar, that I couldn’t take care of others without taking care of myself first. If two people as wildly different as Adrian and Dimitri had the same opinion, then maybe there was something to it. It gave me a lot to think about when I returned to Amberwood later.
One of the good things about Adrian’s intoxication was that Jill hadn’t been able to witness our talk. So the next day over lunch when I gave Jill, Eddie, and Angeline a recap of what had happened, I was able to edit the story and leave out my own breakdown. Jill and Angeline’s reactions were about what I expected. Jill was concerned and kept asking over and over if Sonya and I were okay. Angeline regaled us with tales of all the things she would’ve done to the attackers and how, unlike Dimitri, she would have chased them through the streets. Eddie was quiet and didn’t say much until the other two had left, Angeline back to her room and Jill to get ready for class.
“I thought something was wrong with you today,” he said. “Especially at breakfast, when Angeline called a tomato a vegetable and you didn’t correct her.” I managed a half smile at his joke. “Yeah. Well, it’s the kind of thing that sticks with you. I mean, maybe not for you guys. Random sword attacks in dark alleys are normal for you, right?”
He shook his head, face serious. “You can’t ever take any attack in stride. People who do get careless. You have nothing to feel bad about.”
I’d been stirring some sketchy looking mashed potatoes and finally gave up. “I don’t like being unprepared. For anything. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve been there when you and Rose fought Strigoi. I was helpless then too… but that’s different. They’re larger than life… beyond a human’s scope. I don’t really expect myself to be able to fight then. But what happened last night – even with the sword – was only one step away from a mugging. Mundane. And they were human, like me. I shouldn’t have been so ineffectual.”
“Do you want me to teach you some tricks?” he asked kindly.
That brought my smile back. “What you do is a little larger than life too. Maybe I’d be better doing something a little more suited to my level. Adrian said I should get a gun or take a self-defense class.”
“That’s good advice.”
“I know. Scary, huh? The Alchemists do gun-training, but I’m not a fan. I do pretty well at classes and theory, though.”
He chuckled. “Very true. Well, if you change your mind, let me know. After working with Angeline, I’m ready for anything. Although… to be fair, she’s backed off a little.” I thought back to my last real conversation with her. Her fight and suspension had only been yesterday but felt like years ago. “Oh. I sort of had a talk with her.”
“What kind of talk?” he asked, surprised. “I told you not to worry about my personal life. It’s my problem.”
“I know, I know. But it just kind of happened. I told her that her behavior was out of line and that she needed to stop. She was pretty mad at me, though, so I wasn’t sure if it had gotten through.”
“Huh. I guess it did.” The next words obviously were a big concession. “Maybe she’s not as bad as I thought.”
“Maybe,” I agreed. “And look at it this way. At least her suspension means you don’t have to worry about her at the dance.”
From the way his face lit up, it was clear he hadn’t realized that yet. A few moments later, he toughened up again. “If there are attacks going on like this, I’m going to have to be extra cautious with Jill – especially at the dance.” I hadn’t thought there was any way Eddie could be more cautious, but probably he’d prove me wrong. “I kind of wish Angeline was going.” Most of my classes were distracting enough to keep me from thinking too much about last night, but Ms. Terwilliger’s independent study was different. It was too quiet, too low-key. It gave me a lot of time in my own head, bringing back all the fear and self-doubt I’d been trying to ignore. For once, I copied and notated the spells without really memorizing them. Usually, I couldn’t help myself. Today, my mind wasn’t there.
We were almost halfway through the period when I finally tuned in enough to really process what I was working on. It was a spell from Late Antiquity that allegedly made the victim think scorpions were crawling on him or her. Like so many of Ms. Terwilliger’s spell books, the formula was convoluted and time consuming.
“Ms. Terwilliger?” I hated to ask anything of her, but recent events weighed too heavily on me.
She looked up in surprise from her paperwork. After the cold war we’d entered into, she’d grown used to me never speaking unless spoken to. “Yes?” I tapped the book. “What good are these so-called offensive spells? How would you ever use them in a fight when they require concoctions that take days to prepare? If you’re attacked, there’s no time for anything like that. There’s hardly any time to think.”
“Which one are you looking at?” she asked.
“The scorpion one.”
She nodded. “Ah, yes. Well, that’s more of a premeditated one. If you’ve got someone you don’t like, you work on this and cast it. Quite effective for ex-boyfriends, I might add.” Her face grew distracted, and then she focused back on me. “There are certainly ones that would be more useful in the kind of situation you’re describing. Your fire charm, if you recall, had a lot of prep work but could be used quite quickly. There are others that can be cast on extremely short notice with few components – but as I’ve said in the past, those types require considerable skill. The more advanced you are, the less you need ingredients. You need a lot more experience before you’re at a level to learn anything like that.”
“I never said I wanted to learn anything like that,” I snapped. “I’m just… making an inquiry.”
“Oh? My mistake. It almost sounded like you were, dare I say, interested.”
“No!” I was grateful that the healing magic in my tattoo had cleared up most of the bruising on my face from last night. I didn’t want her to suspect that I might have serious motivation for protection. “See, this is why I never say anything in here. You read too much into it and just use it to further your agenda to torment me.”
“Torment? You read books and drink coffee in here – exactly what you’d be doing if you weren’t here.”
“Except that I’m miserable,” I told her. “I hate every minute of this. I’m almost ready to stop coming and risk the academic fallout. This is all sick and twisted and – ” The last bell of the day cut me off before I said something I’d regret. Almost immediately, Trey appeared in the doorway. Ms. Terwilliger began packing up and looked over at him with a smile, as though everything in here was perfectly normal.
“Why, Mr. Juarez. How nice of you to show up now, seeing as you couldn’t make it to my class this morning.”
Looking back, I realized she was right. Trey hadn’t been in her history class or our chemistry class. “Sorry,” he said. “I had some family stuff to take care of.”
“Family stuff” was an excuse I used all the time, though I doubted Trey’s had involved taking vampires on a blood feeding run.
“Can you, uh, tell me what I missed?” he asked.
Ms. Terwilliger slung her bag over her shoulder. “I have an appointment. Ask Miss Melbourne –
she’ll probably explain it more thoroughly than I can. The door will lock behind you when you two leave.”
Trey sat down in a nearby desk and pulled it up to face mine while I produced our history and chemistry assignments, since I assumed he’d need the latter as well. I nodded toward the duffle bag he had on the floor beside him.
“Off to practice?”
He leaned over to copy the assignments, his dark hair falling around the sides of his face.
“Wouldn’t miss it,” he said, not looking up as he wrote.
“Right. You only miss classes.”
“Don’t judge,” he said. “I would’ve been there if I could.” I let it go. I’d certainly had my fair share of weird personal complications come up before.
While he wrote, I turned on my cell phone and found I had a text message from Brayden. It was one word, a record for him: Dinner?
I hesitated. I was still worked up over last night, and although Brayden was fun, he wasn’t the comfort I needed right now. I texted back: Not sure. I’ve got some work to do tonight. I wanted to look up some self-defense options. That was the reassurance I needed. Facts. Options.
Brayden’s quick response followed: Late dinner? Stone Grill at 8? I considered it and then texted back that I’d be there.
I had just set down my phone when another text message buzzed. Unexpectedly, it was from Adrian. How r u feeling after last night? Been worried about u. Adrian was articulate in email but often resorted to abbreviations in texts – something I could never bring myself to do.
Even reading it was like listening to nails on a chalkboard for me, yet something touched me about his concern, that he was worried about my well-being. It was soothing.
I wrote back: Better. I’m going to find a self-defense class. His response time was nearly as fast as Brayden’s: Let me know what u find. Maybe I’ll take one 2. I blinked in surprise. I certainly hadn’t seen that coming. There was only one thing I could send back: Why?
“Geez,” said Trey, closing up his notebook. “Miss Popularity.”
“Family stuff,” I said.
He scoffed and shoved the notebook into his backpack. “Thanks for these. And speaking of family stuff… your cousin. Is it true she was expelled?”
“Suspended for two weeks.”
“Really?” He stood up. “That’s it? I thought it’d be a lot worse.”
“Yeah. It nearly was. I persuaded them to go easy on her.” Trey laughed outright at that. “I can only imagine. Well, I guess I can wait two weeks then.”
I frowned. “For what?”
“To ask her out.”
I was speechless for a few seconds. “Angeline?” I asked, just in case he thought I had another cousin. “You want to ask out… Angeline?”
“Sure,” he said. “She’s cute. And taking out three guys and a speaker? Well… I’m not going to lie. That was pretty hot.”
“I can think of a lot of words to describe what she did. ‘Hot’ isn’t one of them.” He shrugged and moved toward the door. “Hey, you’ve got your turn-ons, I’ve got mine.
Windmills for you, brawling for me.”
“Unbelievable,” I said. Yet, I wondered if it really was. I supposed we did all have our own
“turn-ons.” Trey’s lifestyle was certainly different from mine. He was devoted to his sport and always had bruises on him from practice, even now. They were more severe than usual. I couldn’t understand his passions any more than he could understand my love of knowledge.
My phone buzzed again.
“Better get back to your fan club,” said Trey. He left, and a strange thought occurred to me. Were all of Trey’s recent bruises really from sports? He kept making a lot of references to his family, and I suddenly wondered if something far more insidious than I’d suspected was keeping him away. It was a troubling idea, one I didn’t have a lot of experience with. Another buzz from the phone pulled me out of my worries.
I checked the phone and found another text from Adrian – a long one that spanned two messages. It was a response to my question about him taking a self-defense class.
It’ll give me a reason to avoid S&D. Besides, u aren’t the only one who might need protection.
Those guys were human and knew S was a vampire. Maybe vampire hunters r real. Ever think Clarence might be telling the truth?
I stared at the phone in disbelief, processing Adrian’s words and the implications of last night’s attack.
Ever think Clarence might be telling the truth?
No. Until that moment, I hadn’t.
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