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I FOLLOWED MS. TERWILLIGER’S instructions diligently. I never took the garnet off, not even when I slept or showered. When school started the next morning, I wore it under my shirt to avoid any questions. It didn’t exactly scream “magical amulet,” but it was certainly conspicuous. To my surprise, Ms. Terwilliger wasn’t in her first-period history class, making me wonder if she was doing some investigating of her own.
“Ms. T on some secret mission?”
I flinched and realized I’d been lost in my own thoughts. I turned and found Trey Juarez kneeling by my desk. Class hadn’t started yet, and a confused-looking substitute teacher was trying to make sense of the chaos of Ms. Terwilliger’s desk. Trey grinned at my surprise.
“Wh-what?” I asked. Had he somehow found out about Veronica? I tried to keep cool. “What makes you say that?”
“I was just joking,” he said. “This is the second year I’ve had her, and she’s never missed a day.” He gave me a puzzled look. “Unless you really do know something I don’t?”
“No,” I said quickly. “I’m just as surprised as you are.”
Trey scrutinized me a few moments. We were good friends here at Amberwood, with only one teeny-tiny problem hanging between us.
His family was tied to the Warriors of Light.
Last month, the Warriors had tried to kill Sonya in a barbaric execution ritual. Trey had been one of the contenders for the “honor” of killing her, though he’d thrown the match at the last minute. I’d tried to appeal to the Warriors to release Sonya, but they hadn’t listened. She and I were both saved when a raiding party of dhampirs showed up and defeated the Warriors. Stanton had helped orchestrate that raid – but hadn’t bothered to fill me in that I was being used as a distraction. It was part of what had fueled my distrust of her and the Alchemists.
Trey had been blamed for getting me involved with the ritual, and the Warriors had ostracized his father and him. Just as I had been pressured by the Alchemists, Trey had had Warrior doctrine drilled into him his whole life. His father was so ashamed of the fallout that he would barely speak to Trey now. I knew how much Trey wanted his father’s approval, so this silence was more painful to him than the Warriors’ treatment.
Our allegiances made things difficult. When I’d once tentatively hinted to Trey that we still had unresolved issues between us, he’d responded with a bitter laugh. “You have nothing to worry about anymore,” he’d told me. “I’m not hiding any secret plans from you – because I don’t know any. They won’t tell us anything. I’m not one of them, as far as they’re concerned. I’ve been cut off forever, and it’d take a miracle for them to ever take us back.” There’d been something in his dark eyes that told me if he ever could find that miracle, he’d jump on it. I’d tried asking about that, but he wouldn’t discuss it any further. “I want to be your friend, Melbourne,” he had said. “I like you. We’re never going to resolve our differences. Might as well ignore them since we have to be together every day.”
Amazingly, our friendship had managed to survive all that drama. The tension was always there, lurking between us, but we tried to ignore it. Although he knew about my involvement in the vampiric world, he had no idea I was taking behind-the-scenes magic lessons with our history teacher, of course.
If he thought I was lying about Ms. Terwilliger’s absence today, he didn’t push the matter. He nodded toward the sub. “This is going to be a blow-off day.”
I dragged my mind away from magical intrigue. After being homeschooled for most of my life, some parts of the “normal” school world were a mystery. “What’s that mean, exactly?”
“Usually teachers leave subs a lesson plan, telling them what to do. I saw the one Ms. Terwilliger left. It said, ‘Distract them.’” Trey shook his head in mock sympathy. “I hope you can handle the wasted academic time. I mean, she’ll probably say something like, ‘Work on homework.’ But no one will.”
He was right. I wasn’t sure if I could handle this. “Why wouldn’t they?”
This seemed to amuse him immensely. “Melbourne, sometimes you’re the only reason I come to class. I saw her sub plan for your independent study, by the way. It said you didn’t even have to stick around. You’re free to run wild.”
Eddie, sitting nearby, overheard and scoffed. “To the library?”
This made both of them laugh, but my mind was already spinning with possibilities. If I really didn’t have to stay for my last class, I’d be free to leave campus early. I could go into Los Angeles to look for Veronica and – no. Adrian wasn’t back. For a moment, I toyed with the idea of investigation without his spirit magic, but Ms. Terwilliger’s warnings echoed through my mind. The hunt would have to wait.
But I could still look for Marcus Finch.
Santa Barbara was two hours away. That meant I had enough time to drive up there, do some investigating of Marcus, and still comfortably make it back by the school’s curfew. I hadn’t intended to go look for him until this weekend but realized now that I shouldn’t waste this opportunity. Ms. Terwilliger’s task weighed heavily on me as well, but I couldn’t do anything about it until Adrian returned tonight.
Marcus Finch had been a mystery to me since the moment I’d discovered he was an ex-Alchemist. Realizing that I might actually get some answers today made my heart pound in overtime. It was one thing to suspect the Alchemists had been holding out on me. It was an entirely different matter to accept that I might be on the verge of having those suspicions confirmed. It was actually kind of terrifying.
As the day progressed, I became more and more resolved to make the drive. I had to face this sooner or later, and I might as well get it over with. For all I knew, Marcus had simply been sightseeing in Santa Barbara and could be gone already. I didn’t want to repeat the scrying spell if I could help it.
Sure enough, when I showed up for what would normally be my independent study at the end of the day, the sub (looking extremely worn out after a day of following in Ms. Terwilliger’s footsteps) told me I was free to go. I thanked her and hurried off to my dorm room, conscious of the clock that was now ticking. I didn’t know exactly what I’d be facing in Santa Barbara, but I planned to be prepared for anything.
I changed out of my Amberwood uniform, opting for jeans and a plain black blouse. Kneeling by my bed, I pulled out a large metal box from underneath it. At first glance, the box looked like a makeup kit. However, it had an intricate lock that required both a key and combination. Inside was my Alchemist chemistry set, a collection of chemicals that would probably get me kicked out of school if found since it looked like it was capable of manufacturing illegal drugs. And really, some of the compounds probably were pretty questionable.
I selected some basics. One was a formula that was usually used to dissolve Strigoi bodies. I didn’t expect to encounter any Strigoi in Santa Barbara, but the compound could also be used to disintegrate metal pretty handily. I chose a couple other mixtures – like one that could create a spy-worthy smoke screen – and carefully wrapped them all up before slipping them into my messenger bag. Then I locked the box again and slid it back under the bed.
After a little consideration, I took a deep breath and produced another hidden box. This was a new one in my collection. It contained various charms and potions I’d made under Ms. Terwilliger’s instruction. Staring at its contents, I felt my stomach twist. Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined I’d have such a kit. When we’d first met, I’d only created charms under duress. Now I had several that I’d willingly made, and if what she’d said about her sister was true, I’d need to start making more. With great reluctance, I picked a variety of these as well and packed them up with the Alchemist chemicals. After a moment’s consideration, I put a couple in my pocket for quick access.
The drive to Santa Barbara was easy this time of day December had cooled off some of southern California’s weather, but the sun was still out, making it seem warmer than it really was. And, as I drove up the coast, the desert gave way to more temperate conditions. Rain increased in the middle and northern parts of the state this time of year, making the landscape lush and green. I really did love Palm Springs and Amberwood, but there were times I wouldn’t have minded if Jill’s assignment had taken us up here.
Finding the Old Mission Santa Barbara wasn’t difficult. It was a well-known tourist attraction and pretty easy to spot once you were nearby. The sprawling church looked exactly as it had in my vision save that it was lit by mid-afternoon sunshine rather than twilight. I pulled off to the side of the road in a residential neighborhood and gazed up at the beautiful stucco and terra-cotta masterpiece. I wished I had the time to go on a tour, but, as they so often did, my personal desires had to take a backseat to a larger goal.
Now came the more difficult part – having to figure out where the studio I’d seen might be. The neighborhood I parked in provided a view that was similar to the one I’d observed in the spell. The angles weren’t exact, however, and this street only contained houses. I was almost certain the studio I’d seen had been in an apartment building. Keeping the mission in view, I drove a few more streets over and found what I’d hoped for: several blocks containing apartment complexes.
One looked too nice to have what I’d seen. The studio had seemed pretty bare bones and run down. The other two buildings on the street looked like more likely candidates. I drove to each one and walked around their grounds, trying to imagine what the angle might be when viewed from a higher window. I wished I’d had a chance to actually look down to the parking lot in the vision. It would have given me a better idea of the floor. After much thought, I finally deduced the studio had been on the third or fourth floor. Since one of the buildings only had two floors, that gave me a pretty positive hit on the correct place.
Stepping inside the building made me glad I’d packed hand sanitizer in my bag. The halls looked like they hadn’t been swept in over a year. The walls were dirty, their paint chipped. Bits of trash sat on the floor. Cobwebs hung in some of the corners, and I prayed spiders were the only creepy-crawly inhabitants. If I saw a roach, I was probably going to bolt. The building had no front desk I could make inquiries at, so I flagged down a middle-aged woman as she was leaving. She paused, regarding me warily.
“Hi,” I said, hoping I looked non-threatening. “I’m trying to find a friend of mine, but I don’t know which apartment he lives in. Maybe you know him? His name is Marcus. He has a blue tattoo on his face.” Seeing her blank look, I repeated the question in Spanish. Comprehension showed in her expression, but once she’d heard my entire question, her only response was a brief headshake. I didn’t even have time to show her Marcus’s picture.
I spent the next half hour doing the same thing whenever I saw residents going in or out. I stayed outside this time, preferring a brightly lit public area to the dingy interior. Some of the people I talked to were a little sketchy, and a couple of guys looked me over in a way I definitely didn’t like. I was about to give up when a younger boy approached me. He appeared to be about ten and had been playing in the parking lot.
“I know the guy you’re looking for,” he told me in English. “But his name’s not Marcus. It’s Dave.”
Considering how difficult Marcus had been to find, I wasn’t entirely surprised he’d been using another name. “You’re sure?” I asked the boy. I showed him the picture. “This is the guy?”
He nodded eagerly. “That’s the one. He’s real quiet. My mom says he’s probably doing bad things.”
Great. Just what I needed. “Do you know where he lives?”
The boy pointed upward. “At the top. 407.”
I thanked him and went back inside, heading up to the fourth floor on stairs that creaked the entire way. The apartment was near the end of the hall, next to one that was blasting obnoxious music. I knocked on 407 and didn’t get a response. Not sure if the occupant had heard me, I knocked more loudly and received the same result.
I eyed the doorknob, considering melting it with my Alchemist chemicals. Immediately, I dismissed the thought. Even in a disreputable building like this, a neighbor might be concerned to see me breaking into an apartment. I didn’t want to attract any attention. This situation was getting increasingly frustrating, and I couldn’t spend all day here.
I ran through my choices. Everyone said I was so smart. Surely there was some solution here that would work? Waiting around in the hall wasn’t an option. There was no telling how long it could take for Marcus or “Dave” to show up. And honestly, the less time spent in the dirty hall, the better. If only there was some way to get inside that didn’t involve actually destroying –
That’s when the solution came to me. I groaned. It wasn’t one I liked, but it would get the job done.
I went back outside and waved hello to the boy as he practiced jumping off the steps. “Was Dave home?” he asked.
The boy nodded. “He usually isn’t.”
That, at least, would be helpful for this next crazy plan. I left the boy and walked around the side of the building, which was mercifully deserted. There, clinging to the outer wall, was the most rickety fire escape I’d ever seen. Considering how rigid California safety standards were, I was astonished that this hadn’t been reported. Of course, if it had, it didn’t seem likely this building’s owner would’ve been quick to act, judging from the rest of the conditions I’d seen.
Double checking that no one was around, I stood in the fire escape’s shadow, hoping it more or less concealed me. From the messenger bag, I produced one of my charms: a necklace made of agate and crow feathers. I slipped it over my head and recited a Greek incantation. I felt the warmth of magic run through me but saw no ostensible changes. Theoretically, I should be invisible for those who didn’t know to look for me. Whether that had actually happened, I couldn’t say. I supposed I’d find out if someone came by and demanded to know why I was climbing into an apartment via the fire escape.
Once I stepped onto it, I nearly terminated the plan. The entire fire escape squeaked and swayed. The scaffolding was so rusty, I wouldn’t have been surprised if it disintegrated beneath my feet. I stood frozen where I was, trying to work up the courage to go on. I reminded myself that this could be my one chance to find Marcus. The boy in the parking lot had confirmed he lived here. I couldn’t waste this opportunity.
I gulped and kept going, gingerly moving from floor to floor. When I reached the fourth, I stared down in amazement, unable to believe the fire escape was still intact. Now I had a new problem. I’d figured out where Marcus’s studio was, and it was one window over from the fire escape’s landing. The distance wasn’t that great, but on the narrow ledge between them would feel like miles. Equally daunting was the fact that I’d have to get through the window. It was shut, which made sense if he was in hiding. I had a couple magical amulets capable of melting glass, but I didn’t trust myself to be able to use them on the narrow ledge – which meant I had to see just how good my aim had become in PE.
Still conscious of the precarious fire escape, I took out a small pouch of powder from my messenger bag. Sizing up the distance, I threw the pouch hard toward the window, reciting a spell – and missed. The pouch hit the side of the building, throwing up a dusty cloud, and began eating away at the stucco. I winced as the wall dissolved. The spell eventually burned itself out but left a noticeable hole behind. It hadn’t gone all the way through, and I supposed given the state of the building, no one would probably even notice.
I had one pouch left and had to make it count. The pane was fairly big, and there was no way I could miss this time. I threw hard – and made contact. The powder smashed against the window. Immediately, a reaction spread out and began melting the glass. It dripped down like ice out in the sun. Now, watching anxiously, I wanted the reaction to go on for as long as possible. I needed a big enough hole to get through. Fortunately, when it stopped, I felt confident I could make it inside – if I could get over there.
I wasn’t afraid of heights, but as I crept along the ledge, I felt like I was on top of a skyscraper. My heart was in my throat, and I pondered the logistics of surviving a four-floor drop. My palms began to sweat, and I ordered them to stop. I wasn’t going to come all this way just to have my hands slip at the last minute.
As it turned out, it was my foot that slipped. The world spun, and I frantically flung my arms out, just barely grabbing the inside of the window. I pulled myself toward it, and with a surge of adrenaline-fueled effort managed to hook my other leg inside. I took a deep breath and tried to quiet my pounding heart. I was secure. I was going to make it. A moment later, I was able to pull myself up and swing my other leg around the ledge, tumbling into the room.
I landed on the floor, my legs weak and shaky as I worked to steady my frantic breathing. That was close. If my reflexes had been a little slower, I would’ve found out exactly what four floors could do to the human body. While I loved science, I wasn’t sure that was an experiment I needed to try. Maybe being around dhampirs so much had helped improve my physical skills.
Once I’d recovered, I was able to assess my surroundings. Here I was, in the exact same studio I’d seen in my vision. Glancing behind me, I sized up the mission, verifying I had the same vantage. Yup. Exactly the same. Inside, I recognized the mattress on the floor and the same meager belongings. Across the room, the door leading out had a number of very new, very state-of-the-art locks. Dissolving the outer doorknob wouldn’t have done any good.
“Now what?” I muttered. I’d made it inside. I didn’t have Marcus, but I theoretically had his apartment. I was unsure what I was looking for but might as well start somewhere.
First, I examined the mattress, not that I expected much. It couldn’t hide belongings like mine could. It could, however, hide rats and God only knew what else underneath it. I gingerly lifted a corner, knowing I must be grimacing, but there was nothing underneath – alive or otherwise. My next target was a small, disorderly pile of clothes. Going through someone’s dirty laundry (because I assumed it was dirty, if it was sitting on the floor) wasn’t much better than looking at the mattress. A whiff of fabric softener told me that these clothes were, in fact, recently washed. They were ordinary guy clothes, probably a young guy’s clothes, which fit with Marcus’s profile. Jeans. T-shirts. Boxers. As I sifted through the pile, I nearly started folding them and had to remind myself that I didn’t want to leave any sign of my passing. Of course, the melted window was kind of a dead giveaway.
A couple of personal items sat nearby, a toothbrush and deodorant with a scent inexplicably called as “Ocean Fiesta.” Aside from a rickety wooden chair and the ancient TV, there was only one other form of comfort and entertainment in the barren room: a battered copy of The Catcher in the Rye. “Great,” I muttered, wondering what it said about a person who owned no other personal possessions. “Marcus Finch is pretentious and self-entitled.”
The studio’s bathroom was claustrophobic and barely had enough space for a single shower stall, toilet, and dripping sink. Judging from the mildew on the floor, a good deal of water sprayed out when the shower was used. A large black spider scurried down the drain, and I hastily backed out.
Defeated, I went to investigate a narrow closet door. After all my work, I’d found Marcus Finch but hadn’t actually found him. My search had revealed nothing. I had limited time to wait for him, and honestly, if I were him and returned home to a melted window, I would promptly walk out the door and never return. If he ran, I’d have no choice but to keep scrying and –
Something jumped out at me as I opened the closet door – and it wasn’t a rat or a roach.
It was a man.
The closet was tiny, so it was a miracle he had even fit inside. I had no time to process the spatial logistics, however, because his fist shot out and clipped me on the side of the face.
In my life, I’d been slammed up against brick walls and bitten by a Strigoi. I’d never been punched, however, and it wasn’t an experience I wanted to repeat. I stumbled backward, so surprised that I couldn’t even react right away. The guy lunged after me, grabbing my upper arms and shaking me as he leaned close.
“How did you guys find me?” he exclaimed. “How many more are coming?”
Pain radiated through the side of my face, but somehow, I managed to gather my senses. Last month, I’d taken a self-defense class with a slightly unstable Chihuahua breeder who looked like a pirate. Despite Malachi Wolfe’s unorthodox behavior, he’d actually taught us some legitimate skills, and they came back to me now. I kneed my attacker in the stomach. His blue eyes went wide with shock as he released me and fell to the ground. It didn’t keep him down for long, though. He scrambled back to his feet and came after me, but by then, I’d grabbed the chair and was using it to keep him at bay the way a lion tamer would.
“Back off,” I said. “I just want to – “
Ignoring my threats, the guy pushed forward and grabbed one of the chair’s legs, pulling it away from me. He had me backed into a corner, and despite some tricks Eddie had taught me, I wasn’t confident in my own ability to throw a punch. Nonetheless, I put up a good fight when my attacker tried to grab me again. We struggled and fell to the floor. I kicked and clawed like crazy, making things as difficult as possible. It was only when he managed to pin me with his entire body that my flailing got stifled. I had enough freedom to reach a hand into my pocket, however.
“Who sent you?” he demanded. “Where are the others?”
I didn’t answer. Instead, I pulled out a small vial and flipped the cap off with one hand. Immediately, noxious yellow vapor with the consistency of dry ice spilled out of it. I thrust it toward the guy’s face. He recoiled in disgust, and tears sprang into his eyes. The substance itself was relatively harmless, but its fumes acted as a kind of pepper spray. He let go of me, and with strength I didn’t even know I had, I managed to roll him over and hold him down. I drove my elbow into his wrist, and he made a small grunt of pain. With my other arm, I waved the vial with as much menace as I would a machete. This wouldn’t fool him for long, but hopefully it’d buy me some time to reassess my situation. Now that he was still, I was finally able to get a good look at him and was relieved to see I’d at least achieved my goal. He had a young, handsome face with an indigo tattoo on his cheek. It was an abstract design that looked like a latticework of crescent moons. A faint silver gleam edged some of the blue lines.
“Nice to meet you, Marcus.”
Then, the most astonishing thing happened. Through his watering eyes, he’d been trying to get a good look at me too. Recognition appeared on his face as he blinked me into focus.
“Sydney Sage,” he gasped. “I’ve been looking for you.”
I didn’t have any time to be surprised because I suddenly heard the click of a gun, and a barrel touched the back of my head.
“Get off him,” a voice demanded. “And drop the smoke bomb.”
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