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I WASTED NO TIME in getting the group together. This was big. I still didn’t know the level of danger we were facing, but I refused to take any chances. I chose Clarence’s house as a meeting spot, seeing as the hunters didn’t know about it yet. It still made me nervous. I would’ve been nervous even if we’d been meeting in an Alchemist bunker.
And apparently, “hunters” wasn’t even the right term. According to their low-quality pamphlet, they called themselves “The Warriors of Light.” I wasn’t sure they deserved that fancy title, especially since in their mission statement, they spelled “abyss” as “abiss.” The pamphlet was really very sparse, simply stating that there was an evil walking among humanity and that the Warriors were the force there to destroy it. They urged their fellow humans to be ready and stay pure. None of the vampires were mentioned by name, for which I was glad.
The pamphlet also didn’t mention much about any of the shared history they claimed to have with the Alchemists.
Before we went to Clarence’s, Eddie scoured Latte for any sort of tracking device. The very idea creeped me out, the same way being watched at Adrian’s did. There was a feeling of violation to it all. It was only my lack of faith in their technology that made me feel somewhat better.
“It seems unlikely they’d be that advanced,” I told Eddie, as he wiggled under the car. “I mean, that pamphlet looked like it had been made on a 1980s copy machine. I don’t know if that’s because they’ve had the pamphlets sitting around that long or if that’s the actual machine they still use… but regardless, they don’t scream high tech to me.”
“Maybe,” he agreed, voice slightly muffled. “But we can’t take any chances. We don’t know what they’re capable of. And for all we know, they’re trying to hook up with the Alchemists to score technology.”
Chills ran through me. It was an outrageous thought: that the Alchemists and this violent fringe group could be related. It had been crazy when Adrian and I had speculated about it and was hard to accept even in the face of mounting evidence. At least now I had enough information to take to my superiors without being ridiculed. Even though I’d never heard of hunters like this, it seemed plausible that somewhere, at some point, they’d tried to connect with my organization. Hopefully someone in the Alchemists could help.
Eddie scooted out from under Latte. “You’re clean. Let’s head out.” Jill and Angeline were waiting nearby, both tense and anxious. Jill gave Eddie an admiring smile. “I didn’t know you knew how to do any of this. I never would have even thought about it.”
He wiped sweat off his forehead. “You thought guardian training was all about hitting and kicking?”
She flushed. “Pretty much, yeah.”
“Can you tell me about some of this stuff sometime?” asked Angeline. “Seems like I should know it.”
“Sure,” said Eddie, sounding like he meant it. She beamed.
He’d been much easier around her ever since her attitude had become more serious and restrained. I think some of that good behavior had played a role in me getting permission for her to join us tonight. She was still technically on suspension, but I’d managed to get a special exemption on the grounds of our family’s so-called religion. I’d used a similar excuse when Jill had been suspended last month, in order to take her to feedings. Even still, we were on very strict orders with Angeline tonight. She couldn’t be out for more than two hours, and the price was adding an extra day of suspension to her sentence.
We took an abnormal route to Clarence’s, and Eddie watched behind us carefully, looking for any signs of pursuit. He tried to explain some of the things I needed to watch for when I was on my own. I was so nervous, I hardly heard. After a tense ride, we made it safely to Clarence’s. There, we found Adrian already waiting for us. Dimitri had apparently been downtown earlier and picked Adrian up – no doubt taking all the same precautions Eddie had for travel.
I’d given Eddie and Dimitri some of the info on the hunters, but everyone else required a more thorough explanation. We gathered in our usual spot, the formal living room, and Dimitri paced around the room, bracing for an attack at any moment. Clarence looked on from his chair with that typical distracted gaze. When I held up the pamphlet, however, he came to life.
“That’s them!” he cried. I thought he might actually spring up from the chair and rip the pamphlet from my hands. “Those are their symbols!” Most of the same alchemical symbols that had been on the sword were strewn across the pamphlet’s front. “That circle. I remember that circle.”
“The gold symbol,” I confirmed. “Or, I guess in their case, the sun symbol since they’re so obsessed with light and dark.”
Clarence looked around frantically. “They’re back! We have to get out of here. I came to this city to escape them, but they’ve found me. We have no time. Where’s Dorothy? Where’s Lee? I must pack!”
“Mr. Donahue,” I said, in as a gentle a tone as I could manage, “they don’t know you’re here. You’re safe.” I didn’t know if I believed that and hoped I was convincing.
“She’s right,” said Dimitri. “And even if they did, you know I wouldn’t let them hurt you.” There was such confidence and strength in the way Dimitri spoke that I had a feeling that we’d believe him even if a group of Strigoi were invading, and he said, “It’s fine, you’re safe.”
“If what you’re saying is true,” said Sonya, “I’m the one that’s in danger.” She seemed much calmer than I would be in that situation.
“They’re not going to hurt you either,” said Dimitri sharply. “Especially if you don’t leave this house.”
“The research – ” she began.
” – is nothing compared to your safety,” he finished. There was a look in his eyes that said he would tolerate no arguments. “You need to get back to Court. You were planning on it anyway.
Just make the trip early.”
Sonya didn’t look happy about that. “So I leave the rest of you in danger?”
“Maybe we aren’t,” said Eddie, though the tension in his body said otherwise. “From what Sydney said – and their mini-manifesto – their focus seems to be Strigoi, not Moroi.” He glanced over at Jill. “Not that we can let our guard down. If they’ve mistaken Sonya for a Strigoi, who knows what other craziness they might do? Don’t worry. I won’t let them near you.” Jill looked ready to swoon.
“That’s a good idea,” I said. “They still think the Moroi are a threat but not as much as the Strigoi.”
“Kind of like the Alchemists,” said Adrian. He was sitting in a corner armchair and had been quiet this whole time. I hadn’t seen him since the night of the dance or had any communication with him, which was odd. Even when he wasn’t sending me pathetic e-mails about the experiments, he almost always had some witty quip to pass along.
“True,” I admitted, with a smile. “But we’re not trying to kill any of you. Not even Strigoi.”
“And there’s the problem,” said Dimitri. “These warriors are convinced Sonya used to be a Strigoi and is using some trick to disguise herself.”
“Maybe they have some tracking or inventory system,” Sonya mused. “They keep tabs on various Strigoi in the country and then try to hunt them down.”
“And yet they didn’t know about you,” I pointed out to Dimitri. His face stayed neutral, but I knew it was hard for him to be reminded of his Strigoi days. “And from what I know… you were much more of a, um, notable figure than Sonya.” He’d essentially been a Strigoi mobster.
“So, if you’re off their radar, they probably don’t have an international presence – or at least not a Russian one.”
Angeline leaned forward, hands clasped, and regarded Clarence with a smile sweet enough to justify her name. “How do you know about them? How did you first run into them?” At first, he looked too terrified to answer, but I think her kindly attitude soothed him. “Well, they killed my niece, of course.”
We all knew Lee had killed Clarence’s niece, but the old man didn’t believe this any more than he believed Lee was dead. “Did you see them when they did it?” asked Angeline. “Did you ever see them at all?”
“Not when Tamara died, no,” he admitted. His eyes got a faraway look, as though he were staring straight into the past. “But I knew what signs to look for. I’d run into them before that, you see. Back when I was living in Santa Cruz. They like California, you know. And the Southwest.
Goes back to their sun fixation.”
“What happened in Santa Cruz?” asked Dimitri.
“A group of their young ones began stalking me. Trying to kill me.” The rest of us exchanged glances. “So they do go after Moroi,” said Eddie. He actually moved closer to Jill.
Clarence shook his head. “Not usually. From what Marcus told me, they prefer Strigoi.
These were young, undisciplined members of their order going off on their own, without the knowledge of their superiors. I assume it was the same type who killed Tamara.”
“Who’s Marcus?” I asked.
“Marcus Finch. He saved me from them a few years ago. Fended them off during an attack and later got in touch with their order to keep those ruffians away from me.” Clarence shivered at the memory. “Not that I stayed around after that. I took Lee and left. That was when we moved to Los Angeles for a while.”
“This Marcus,” I said. “Was he a guardian?”
“A human. He was about your age then. He knew all about the hunters.”
“I suppose he would if he got in touch with them,” Dimitri speculated. “But he must be friendly to Moroi if he helped you?”
“Oh, yes,” said Clarence. “Very much so.”
Dimitri looked over at me. “Do you think – “
“Yes,” I said, guessing his question. “I’ll see if we can find this Marcus guy. It’d be nice to get a source of info that’s not one of these crazy warriors. I’m also going to report on all of this, actually.”
“Me too,” said Dimitri.
Although Clarence wasn’t the expert on the hunters that this mysterious Marcus was, the old Moroi still had a surprising amount of info to share – info none of us had wanted to hear before. He verified what we’d already deduced, about the hunters’ “devotion to the light.” The group’s focus was Strigoi (for now), and all of their hunts were carefully planned and organized.
They had a ritualized set of behaviors, particularly in regard to their younger members –
which was why the rogue group harassing Clarence had been stopped. From what Clarence had gathered, the group was quite tough on their new recruits, emphasizing discipline and excellence.
With the clock ticking down on Angeline’s reprieve, we needed to wrap things up shortly thereafter. I was also in charge of taking Adrian home, since we figured it’d be best to eliminate any chance of Dimitri being followed back to Clarence’s. Besides, I could tell Dimitri was anxious to begin putting certain things in motion. He wanted to finalize Sonya’s departure and also confer with the guardians – in case Jill needed to be removed. Her face reflected what I felt about that possible outcome. We’d both become attached to Amberwood.
While he was giving some last-minute instructions to Eddie, I pulled Sonya aside for a quiet word. “I… I’ve been thinking about something,” I told her.
She studied me carefully, probably reading my aura and other body language. “What is it?” she asked.
“If you want… if you really want it, you can have some of my blood.” It was a huge, huge admission. Was it something I wanted to do? No. Absolutely not. I still had the same instinctive fears about giving my blood to Moroi, even for scientific purposes.
And yet, yesterday’s events – and even the alley attack – had begun making me re-analyze my worldview. Vampires weren’t the only monsters out there. They were hardly monsters at all, especially next to these vampire hunters. How could I judge the enemy on race? I was being reminded more and more that humans were just as capable as vampires of evil – and that vampires were capable of good. It was actions that mattered, and Sonya and Dimitri’s were noble ones. They were fighting to destroy the ultimate evil of all, and as squeamish as I felt about giving my blood, I knew the right thing was to help them.
Sonya knew what a sacrifice this was for me. Her face stayed calm – no whoops of joy – and she nodded solemnly. “I have my collection kit here. I can take a sample before you leave, if you’re sure.”
So soon? Well, why not. It was best to get it over with – especially if Sonya would be leaving town soon anyway. We did it in the kitchen, which seemed slightly more sanitary than the living room. Sonya was no doctor, but whatever training she’d had, it was right in line with what I’d observed when getting physicals. Antiseptic, gloves, a new syringe. All the right procedures were followed, and after a quick poke of the needle, she had my blood sample.
“Thank you, Sydney,” she said, handing me a plastic bandage. “I know how difficult this must have been for you. Believe me, this could really help us.”
“I want to help,” I told her. “I really do.”
She smiled. “I know. And we need all the help we can get. After being one of them…” Her smile faded. “Well, I believe more than ever that their evil needs to be stopped. You might be the key.”
For one second, her words inspired me – that I might somehow play a greater role in the fight against evil and possibly even stop it. Immediately, that thought was replaced by my old panic. No. No. I wasn’t special. I didn’t want to be. I would make a good faith effort to help, but surely nothing would come of it.
I returned to fetch the others. Adrian and Jill were having some earnest conversation in the corner. Eddie and Angeline were also talking, and I overheard her say, “I’ll stay with Jill more at school, just to be safe. We can’t have her be part of some accident or mistaken identity.” Eddie nodded and looked impressed that she’d suggested it. “Agreed.” Amazing, I thought.
I left soon with my carpool and swung by downtown to drop Adrian off. As I pulled up in front of his building, I saw something that made my jaw drop. Awe and disbelief rolled through me. In what was probably the most ungraceful parking job I’d ever done in my life, I brought Latte to an abrupt stop and was out of the car the second I pulled my keys from the ignition.
The others followed moments later.
“What,” I breathed. “Is that?”
“Oh,” said Adrian casually. “That’s my new car.”
I took a few steps forward and then stopped, afraid to approach it in the same way someone hesitated before royalty. “It’s a 1967 Ford Mustang convertible,” I said, knowing my eyes were probably bugging out of my face. I began walking around it. “The year they did a major overhaul and increased the size to keep up with other high-powered competition. See?
It’s the first model with the concave tail lights but the last to have the Ford block lettering up front until 1974.”
“What in the world is that color?” asked Eddie, not sounding impressed at all.
“Springtime Yellow,” Adrian and I said in unison.
“I would’ve guessed Lemon Chiffon,” said Eddie. “Maybe you can get it repainted.”
“No!” I exclaimed. I tossed my purse over onto the grass and carefully touched the car’s side. Brayden’s beautiful new Mustang suddenly seemed so ordinary. “It’s been touched up, obviously, but this is a classic color. Which engine code is this? C, right?”
“Um… not sure,” said Adrian. “I know it’s got a V-8 engine.”
“Of course it does,” I said. It was hard not to roll my eyes. “A 289. I want to know what the horsepower is.”
“It’s probably in the paperwork,” Adrian said lamely.
It was at that moment that I really processed Adrian’s earlier words. I looked up at him, knowing my face must be filled with disbelief. “This is really your car?”
“Yup,” he said. “I told you. The old man spotted me the money for one.”
“And you got this one?” I peered in through the window. “Nice. Black interior, manual transmission.”
“Yeah,” said Adrian, a note of unease in his voice. “That’s the problem.” I glanced back. “What is? The black is great. And the leather’s condition is fantastic. So is the rest of the car.”
“No, not the interior. The transmission. I can’t drive a stick.” I froze. “You can’t drive a stick?”
“Neither can I,” said Jill.
“You don’t have a license,” I reminded her. Although, my mother had taught me to drive before I had a license – both automatic and manual transmission. I knew I shouldn’t be surprised the stick was a lost art, as savage as such a lack seemed to me. That paled, of course, in comparison to the other obvious problem. “Why on earth would you buy a car like this if you can’t drive a stick? There are dozens of cars – new cars – that have automatic transmission.
It’d be a million times easier.”
Adrian shrugged. “I like the color. It matches my living room.” Eddie snorted.
“But you can’t drive it,” I pointed out.
“I figure it can’t be that hard.” Adrian sounded remarkably unconcerned about what I found blasphemous. “I’ll just practice taking it around the block a few times and figure it out.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “What? Are you out of your mind? You’ll ruin it if you don’t know what you’re doing!”
“What else am I supposed to do?” he asked. “Are you going to teach me?” I turned back to the beautiful Mustang. “Yes,” I said adamantly. “If that’s what it takes to save it from you.”
“I can show you too,” said Eddie.
Adrian ignored him and focused on me. “When we can start?” I ran through my school schedule, knowing I’d have to make talking to the Alchemists about the Warriors of Light my top priority. Then, the obvious hit me. “Oh. When we see Wolfe this week. We’ll take this out there.”
“Is that really to help me?” asked Adrian. “Or do you just want to drive the car?”
“Both,” I said, not embarrassed to admit it.
Angeline’s clock at school was ticking, so the rest of us had to leave. I’d driven three blocks away when I realized I’d left my purse on the grass. With a groan, I looped around and returned to his building. My purse was there, but the Mustang was gone.
“Where’s the car?” I asked, panicked. “No one could have stolen it that fast.”
“Oh,” said Jill from the backseat, sounding slightly nervous. “I saw through the bond. He, um, moved it.”
It was handy having the bond as a source of information, but her words made me panic more than if the car actually had been stolen. “He what?”
“Not far,” she said quickly. “Just behind the building. This street’s got weird overnight parking rules.”
I grimaced. “Well, I’m glad it won’t get towed, but he should’ve had me move it! Even if it’s not far, he could ruin the transmission.”
“I’m sure it’s fine,” said Jill. There was a strange note to her voice.
I didn’t respond. Jill was no car expert. None of them were. “It’s like letting a toddler loose in a room full of china,” I muttered. “What was he thinking? About any of this?” No one had an answer for that. I got us back to Amberwood in time for Angeline’s curfew and retreated to the sanity and calm of my room. As soon as I was satisfied my friends were safe and secure for the night, I e-mailed Donna Stanton – a high-up Alchemist whom I’d inexplicably developed a good relationship with – about the hunters and what we’d learned. I even took pictures of the pamphlet and e-mailed those as well. Once that was done, I sat back and tried to think if there was anything else at all I could provide her with that might help.
It was only when I’d exhausted all options (and refreshed my inbox a few times to see if she’d responded already) that I finally moved on to homework. As usual, I was pretty much caught up on every assignment – save one.
That stupid book was on my desk, staring back at me, daring me to open it. I still had a number of days before her spell was due, time during which I could continue to procrastinate.
I was beginning to accept, however, that this assignment wasn’t going to go away. Considering how long some of the prep on these took, maybe it’d be best to bite the bullet and get it out of the way.
Resolved, I brought the book over to my bed and opened it to the table of contents, scanning some of the spells she’d gone over with me. My stomach twisted at most of them, every instinct telling me how wrong it was to even be attempting these. Magic is for vampires, not humans.
I still believed that to be true, but the analytical part of my mind couldn’t help but apply some of the defensive spells to various situations. Much like my decision to give blood, recent events had made me look at the world differently. Was magic wrong? Yes. But that blindness spell would have certainly been useful in the alley. Another spell, one that temporarily immobilized people, could’ve been used if I’d wanted to flee from the hunters at the cafe. Sure, it only lasted thirty seconds, but that was more than enough time for me to have escaped.
On and on, I went down the list. They were all so wrong and yet… so useful. If I hadn’t seen the fire charm I’d made ignite a Strigoi, I wouldn’t have believed any of these were possible.
But by all accounts, they were.
So much power… the ability to protect myself…
Immediately, I rebuked myself for such a thought. I had no need for power. That kind of thinking was what led freaks like Liam to want to be Strigoi. Although… was it really the same? I didn’t want immortality. I didn’t want to hurt others. I just wanted to protect myself and those I cared about. Wolfe had a lot to teach me, but his preventative techniques wouldn’t help if determined vampire hunters cornered Sonya and me again. As time went on, it was becoming clear that the hunters were very determined.
I returned to the table of contents, finding several that would be useful and well within my capabilities to make. According to Ms. Terwilliger, someone like me had excellent potential for magic because of inborn talent (which I didn’t entirely believe) and the rigorous Alchemist training in measurement and attention to detail. It wasn’t difficult to figure out how long it would take me to produce any of these likely candidates.
The question was which spell did I make? Which did I have time to make?
The answer was eerily simple.
I had time to make all of them.
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