I WON’T LIE. Walking into a room and seeing your girlfriend reading a baby-name book can kind of make your heart stop.
“I’m no expert,” I began, choosing my words carefully. “Well—actually, I am. And I’m pretty sure there are certain things we have to do before you need to be reading that.”
Sydney Sage, the aforementioned girlfriend and light of my life, didn’t even look up, though a hint of a smile played at her lips. “It’s for the initiation,” she said matter-of-factly, as though she were talking about getting her nails done or picking up groceries instead of joining a coven of witches. “I have to have a ‘magical’ name they use during their gatherings.”
“Right. Magical name, initiation. Just another day in the life, huh?” Not that I was one to talk, seeing as I was a vampire with the fantastic yet complicated abilities to heal and compel people.
This time, I got a full smile, and she lifted her gaze. Afternoon sunlight filtering through my bedroom window caught her eyes and brought out the amber glints within them. They widened in surprise when she noticed the three stacked boxes I was carrying. “What are those?”
“A revolution in music,” I declared, reverently setting them on the floor. I opened the top one and unveiled a record player. “I saw a sign that some guy was selling them on campus.” I opened a box full of records and lifted out Rumours by Fleetwood Mac. “Now I can listen to music in its purest form.”
She didn’t look impressed; surprising for someone who thought my 1967 Mustang—which she’d named the Ivashkinator—was some sort of holy shrine. “I’m pretty sure digital music is as pure as it gets. That was a waste of money, Adrian. I can fit all the songs in those boxes on my phone.”
“Can you fit the other six boxes that are in my car on your phone?”
She blinked in astonishment and then turned wary. “Adrian, how much did you pay for all that?”
I waved off the question. “Hey, I can still make the car payment. Barely.” I at least didn’t have to pay rent, since the place was prepaid, but I had plenty of other bills. “Besides, I’ve got a bigger budget for this kind of stuff now that someone made me quit smoking and cut back on happy hour.”
“More like happy day,” she said archly. “I’m looking out for your health.”
I sat down beside her on the bed. “Just like I’m looking out for you and your caffeine addiction.” It was a deal we’d made, forming our own sort of support group. I’d quit smoking and cut back to one drink a day. She’d ousted her obsessive dieting for a healthy number of calories and was down to only one cup of coffee a day. Surprisingly, she’d had a harder time with that than I’d had with alcohol. In those first few days, I thought I’d have to check her into caffeine rehab.
“It wasn’t an addiction,” she grumbled, still bitter. “More of a . . . lifestyle choice.”
I laughed and drew her face to mine in a kiss, and just like that, the rest of the world vanished. There were no name books, no records, no habits. There was just her and the feel of her lips, the exquisite way they managed to be soft and fierce at the same time. The rest of the world thought she was stiff and cold. Only I knew the truth about the passion and hunger that was locked up within her—well, me and Jill, the girl who could see inside my mind because of a psychic bond we shared.
As I laid Sydney back on the bed, I had that faint, fleeting thought I always had, of how taboo what we were doing was. Humans and Moroi vampires had stopped intermingling when my race hid from the world in the Dark Ages. We’d done it for safety, deciding it was best if humans didn’t know of our existence. Now, my people and hers (the ones who knew about Moroi) considered relationships like this wrong and, among some circles, dark and twisted. But I didn’t care. I didn’t care about anything except her and the way touching her drove me wild, even as her calm and steady presence soothed the storms that raged within me.
That didn’t mean we flaunted this, though. In fact, our romance was a tightly guarded secret, one that required a lot of sneaking around and carefully calculated planning. Even now, the clock was ticking. This was our weekday pattern. She had an independent study for her last period of the day at school, one managed by a lenient teacher who let her take off early and race over here. We’d get one precious hour of making out or talking—usually making out, made more frantic by the pressure bearing down on us—and then she was back to her private school, just as her clingy and vampire-hating sister Zoe got out of class.
Somehow, Sydney had an internal clock that told her when time was up. I think it was part of her inherent ability to keep track of a hundred things at once. Not me. In these moments, my thoughts were usually focused on getting her shirt off and whether I’d get past the bra this time. So far, I hadn’t.
She sat up, cheeks flushed and golden hair tousled. She was so beautiful that it made my soul ache. I always wished desperately that I could paint her in these moments and immortalize that look in her eyes. There was a softness in them that I rarely saw at other times, a total and complete vulnerability in someone who was normally so guarded and analytical in the rest of her life. But although I was a decent painter, capturing her on canvas was beyond my skill.
She collected her brown blouse and buttoned it up, hiding the brightness of turquoise lace with the conservative attire she liked to armor herself in. She’d done an overhaul of her bras in the last month, and though I was always sad to see them disappear, it made me happy to know they were there, those secret spots of color in her life.
As she walked over to the mirror at my dresser, I summoned some of the spirit magic within me to get a glimpse of her aura, the energy that surrounded all living things. The magic brought a brief surge of pleasure inside me, and then I saw it, that shining light around her. It was its typical self, a scholar’s yellow balanced with the richer purple of passion and spirituality. A blink of the eye, and her aura faded away, as did the deadly exhilaration of spirit.
She finished smoothing her hair and looked down. “What’s this?”
“Hmm?” I came to stand behind her and wrapped my arms around her waist. Then, I saw what she’d picked up and stiffened: sparkling cuff links set with rubies and diamonds. And just like that, the warmth and joy I’d just felt were replaced by a cold but familiar darkness. “They were a birthday present from Aunt Tatiana a few years ago.”
Sydney held one up and studied it with an expert eye. She grinned. “You’ve got a fortune here. This is platinum. Sell these and you’d have allowance for life. And all the records you want.”
“I’d sleep in a cardboard box before I sold those.”
She noticed the change in me and turned around, her expression filled with concern. “Hey, I was just joking.” Her hand gently touched my face. “It’s okay. Everything’s okay.”
But it wasn’t okay. The world was suddenly a cruel, hopeless place, empty with the loss of my aunt, queen of the Moroi and the only relative who hadn’t judged me. I felt a lump in my throat, and the walls seemed to close in on me as I remembered the way she’d been stabbed to death and how they’d paraded those bloody pictures around when trying to find her killer. It didn’t matter that the killer was locked away and slated for execution. It wouldn’t bring Aunt Tatiana back. She was gone, off to places I couldn’t follow—at least not yet—and I was here, alone and insignificant and floundering. . . .
Sydney’s voice was calm but firm, and slowly, I dredged myself out of the despair that could come on so quickly and heavily, a darkness that had increased over the years the more I used spirit. It was the price for that kind of power, and these sudden shifts had become more and more frequent recently. I focused on her eyes, and the light returned to the world. I still ached for my aunt, but Sydney was here, my hope and my anchor. I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t misunderstood. Swallowing, I nodded and gave her a weak smile as spirit’s dark hand released its hold on me. For now.
“I’m okay.” Seeing the doubt in her face, I pressed a kiss to her forehead. “Really. You need to go, Sage. You’ll make Zoe wonder, and you’ll be late for your witch meeting.”
She stared at me with concern a few moments longer and then relaxed a little. “Okay. But if you need anything—”
“I know, I know. Call on the Love Phone.”
That brought her smile back. We’d recently acquired secret prepaid cell phones that the Alchemists, the organization she worked for, wouldn’t be able to track. Not that they regularly tracked her main phone—but they certainly could if they thought something suspicious was happening, and we didn’t want a trail of texts and calls.
“And I’ll come by tonight,” I added.
At that, her features hardened again. “Adrian, no. It’s too risky.”
Another of spirit’s benefits was the ability to visit people in their dreams. It was a handy way to talk since we didn’t have a lot of time together in the waking world—and because we didn’t spend much time talking in the waking world these days—but like any use of spirit, it was a continual risk to my sanity. It worried her a lot, but I considered it a small thing in order to be with her.
“No arguments,” I warned. “I want to know how things go. And I know you’ll want to know how things go for me.”
“I’ll keep it short,” I promised.
She reluctantly agreed—not looking happy at all—and I walked her out to the door. As we cut through the living room, she paused at a small terrarium sitting near the window. Smiling, she knelt down and tapped the glass. Inside was a dragon.
No, really. Technically, it was called a callistana, but we rarely used that term. We usually called him Hopper. Sydney had summoned him from some demonic realm as a sort of helper. Mostly he seemed to want to help us out by eating all the junk food in my apartment. She and I were tied to him, and to maintain his health, we had to take turns hanging out with him. Since Zoe had moved in, however, my place had become his primary residence. Sydney lifted the lid of the tank and let the small golden-scaled creature scurry into her hand. He gazed up at her adoringly, and I couldn’t blame him for that.
“He’s been out for a while,” she said. “You ready to take a break?” Hopper could exist in this living form or be transformed into a small statue, which helped avoid uncomfortable questions when people came by. Only she could transform him, though.
“Yeah. He keeps trying to eat my paints. And I don’t want him to watch me kiss you goodbye.”
She gave him a light tickle on the chin and spoke the words that turned him into a statue. Life was certainly easier that way, but again, his health required he come out now and then. That, and the little guy had grown on me.
“I’ll take him for a while,” she said, slipping him into her purse. Even if he was inert, he still benefited from being near her.
Free of his beady little gaze, I gave her a long kiss goodbye, one I was reluctant to let end. I cupped her face in my hands.
“Escape plan number seventeen,” I told her. “Run away and open a juice stand in Fresno.”
“Sounds like the kind of place people drink a lot of juice.”
She grinned and kissed me again. The “escape plans” were a running joke with us, always far-fetched and numbered in no particular order. I usually made them up on the spot. What was sad, though, was that they were actually more thought out than any real plans we had. Both of us were painfully aware that we were very much living in the now, with a future that was anything but clear.
Breaking that second kiss was difficult too, but she finally managed it, and I watched her walk away. My apartment seemed dimmer in her absence.
I brought in the rest of the boxes from my car and sifted through the treasures within. Most of the albums were from the sixties and seventies, with a little eighties here and there. They weren’t organized, but I didn’t make any attempts at that. Once Sydney got over her stance that they were a wasteful splurge, she wouldn’t be able to help herself and would end up sorting them all by artist or genre or color. For now, I set up the record player in my living room and pulled out an album at random: Machine Head by Deep Purple.
I had a few more hours until dinner, so I crouched down in front of an easel, staring up at the blank canvas as I tried to decide how to deal with my current assignment in advanced oil painting: a self-portrait. It didn’t have to be an exact likeness. It could be abstract. It could be anything, so long as it was representative of me. And I was stumped. I could’ve painted anyone else I knew. Maybe I couldn’t capture that exact look of rapture Sydney had in my arms, but I could paint her aura or the color of her eyes. I could have painted the wistful, fragile face of my friend Jill Mastrano Dragomir, a young princess of the Moroi. I could have painted flaming roses in tribute to my ex-girlfriend, who’d torn my heart apart yet still managed to make me admire her.
But myself? I didn’t know what to do for me. Maybe it was just an artistic block. Maybe I didn’t know myself. As I stared at the canvas, my frustration growing, I had to fight off the need to go to my neglected liquor cupboard and pour a drink. Alcohol didn’t necessarily make for the best art, but it usually inspired something. I could practically taste the vodka already. I could mix it with orange juice and pretend I was being healthy. My fingers twitched, and my feet nearly carried me to the kitchen—but I resisted. The earnestness in Sydney’s eyes burned through my mind, and I focused back on the canvas. I could do this—sober. I’d promised her I’d have only one drink a day, and I’d hold true to that. And for the time being, that one drink was needed for the end of the day, when I was ready for bed. I didn’t sleep well. I never had in my entire life, so I had to use whatever help I could get.
My sober resolve didn’t result in inspiration, though, and when five o’clock came around, the canvas remained bare. I stood up and stretched out the kinks in my body, feeling a return of that earlier darkness. It was more angry than sad, laced with the frustration of not being able to do this. My art teachers claimed I had talent, but in moments like this, I felt like the slacker most people had always said I was, destined for a lifetime of failure. It was especially depressing when I thought about Sydney, who knew everything about everything and could excel at any career she wanted. Putting aside the vampire-human problem, I had to wonder what I could possibly offer her. I couldn’t even pronounce half the things that interested her, let alone discuss them. If we ever managed some normal life together, she’d be out paying the bills while I stayed home and cleaned. And I really wasn’t good at that either. If she just wanted to come home at night to eye candy with good hair, I could probably be that reasonably well.
I knew these fears eating at me were being amped up by spirit. Not all of them were real, but they were hard to shake. I left the art behind and stepped outside my door, hoping to find distraction in the night to come. The sun was going down outside, and the Palm Springs winter evening barely required a light jacket. It was a favorite time of the evening for Moroi, when there was still light but not enough to be uncomfortable. We could handle some sunlight, not like Strigoi—the undead vampires who killed for their blood. Sunlight destroyed them, which was a perk for us. We needed all the help we could get in the fight against them.
I drove out to Vista Azul, a suburb only ten minutes away from downtown that housed Amberwood Prep, the private boarding school that Sydney and the rest of our motley crew attended. Sydney was normally the group’s designated chauffeur, but that dubious honor had fallen on me tonight while she scurried off to her clandestine meeting with the coven. The gang was all waiting at the curb outside the girls’ dorm as I pulled up. Leaning across the passenger seat, I opened up the door. “All aboard,” I said.
They piled in. There were five of them now, plus me, bringing us up to a lucky seven, had Sydney been there. When we’d first come to Palm Springs, there’d just been four. Jill, the reason we were all here, scooted in beside me and flashed me a grin.
If Sydney was the main calming force in my life, Jill was the second. She was only fifteen, seven years younger than me, but there was a grace and wisdom that radiated from her already. Sydney might be the love of my life, but Jill understood me in a way no one else could. It was kind of hard not to, with that psychic bond. It had been forged when I used spirit to save her life last year—and when I say “save,” I mean it. Jill had technically been dead, only for less than a minute, but dead nonetheless. I’d used spirit’s power to perform a miraculous feat of healing and bringing her back before the next world could claim her. That miracle had bonded us with a connection that allowed her to feel and see my thoughts—though not the other way around.
People brought back that way were called “shadow-kissed,” and that alone would have been enough to mess up any kid. Jill had the added misfortune of being one of two people left in a dying line of Moroi royalty. This was recent news to her, and her sister, Lissa—the Moroi queen and a good friend of mine—needed Jill alive in order to hold on to her throne. Those who opposed Lissa’s liberal rule consequently wanted Jill dead, in order to invoke an ancient family law requiring a monarch to have one other living family member. And so, someone had come up with the questionably brilliant idea to send Jill into hiding in the middle of a human city in the desert. Because seriously, what vampire would want to live here? It was certainly a question I asked myself a lot.
Jill’s three bodyguards climbed into the backseat. They were all dhampirs, a race born of mixed vampire and human heritage from the time our races had shared in free love. They were stronger and faster than the rest of us, making ideal warriors in the battle against Strigoi and royal assassins. Eddie Castile was the de facto leader of the group, a dependable rock who’d been with Jill from the beginning. Angeline Dawes, the red-haired spitfire, was slightly less dependable. And by “less dependable,” I mean “not at all.” She was a scrapper in a fight, though. The newest addition to the group was Neil Raymond, aka Tall, Proper, and Boring. For reasons I didn’t understand, Jill and Angeline seemed to think his non-smiling demeanor was a sign of some kind of noble character. The fact that he’d gone to school in England and had picked up a faint British accent especially seemed to fire up their estrogen.
The last member of the party stood outside the car, refusing to get in. Zoe Sage, Sydney’s sister.
She leaned forward and met my eyes with brown ones almost like Sydney’s, but with less gold. “There’s no room,” she said. “Your car doesn’t have enough seats.”
“Not true,” I told her. On cue, Jill moved closer to me. “This seat’s meant to hold three. Last owner even fitted it with an extra seat belt.” While that was safer for modern times, Sydney had nearly had a heart attack over altering the Mustang from its original state. “Besides, we’re all family, right?” To give us easy access to one another, we’d made Amberwood believe we were all siblings or cousins. When Neil arrived, however, the Alchemists had finally given up on making him a relative since things were getting kind of ridiculous.
Zoe stared at the empty spot for several seconds. Even though the seat really was long, she’d still be getting cozy with Jill. Zoe had been at Amberwood for a month but was in full possession of all the hang-ups and prejudices her people had around vampires and dhampirs. I knew them well because Sydney used to have all of them too. It was ironic because the Alchemists’ mission was to keep the world of vampires and the supernatural hidden from their fellow humans, who they feared wouldn’t be able to handle it. The Alchemists were driven by the belief that members of my kind were twisted parts of nature best ignored and kept separate from humans, lest we taint them with our evil. They helped us grudgingly and were useful in a situation like Jill’s, when arrangements with human authorities and school officials needed to occur behind the scenes. Alchemists excelled at making things happen. That was how Sydney had originally been drafted, to smooth the way for Jill and her exile, since the Alchemists didn’t want a Moroi civil war. Zoe had been sent recently as an apprentice and had become a huge pain in the ass for hiding our relationship.
“You don’t have to go if you’re afraid,” I said. There was probably nothing else I could’ve said that would’ve motivated her more. She was driven to become a super Alchemist, largely to impress the Sage father, who, I’d concluded after many stories, was a major asshole.
Zoe took a deep breath and steeled herself. Without another word, she climbed in beside Jill and slammed the door, huddling as close to it as possible. “Sydney should’ve left the SUV,” she muttered a little while later.
“Where is Sage, anyway? Er, Sage Senior,” I amended, pulling out of the school’s driveway. “Not that I don’t like chauffeuring you guys around. You should’ve brought me a little black cap, Jailbait.” I nudged Jill, who nudged me back. “You could whip up something like that in your sewing club.”
“She’s off doing some project for Ms. Terwilliger,” said Zoe disapprovingly. “She’s always doing something for her. I don’t get why history research takes up so much time.”
Little did Zoe know that said project involved Sydney being initiated into her teacher’s coven. Human magic was still a strange and mysterious thing to me—and completely anathema to the Alchemists—but Sydney was apparently a natural. No surprise, seeing as she was a natural at everything. She’d overcome her fears of it, just as she had of me, and was now fully immersed in learning the trade from her zany yet loveable mentor, Jackie Terwilliger. To say the Alchemists wouldn’t like that was an understatement. In fact, it was really a toss-up which would piss them off more: learning the arcane arts or making out with a vampire. It would almost be comical, if not for the fact that I worried the hard-core zealots among the Alchemists would do something terrible to Sydney if she was ever caught. It was why Zoe shadowing her had made everything so dangerous lately.
“Because it’s Sydney,” said Eddie from the backseat. In the rearview mirror, I could see an easy smile on his face, though there was a perpetual sharpness in his eyes as he scanned the world for danger. He and Neil had been trained by the guardians, the dhampir organization of badasses that protected the Moroi. “Giving one hundred percent to a task is slacking for her.”
Zoe shook her head, not as amused as the rest of us. “It’s just a stupid class. She only needs to pass.”
No, I thought. She needs to learn. Sydney didn’t just eat up knowledge for the sake of her vocation. She did it because she loved it. And what she would’ve loved more than anything was to lose herself in the academic throes of college, where she could learn anything she wanted. Instead, she’d been born into her family job, jumping when the Alchemists ordered her to new assignments. She’d already graduated from high school but treated this second senior year as seriously as the first, eager to learn whatever she could.
Someday, when this is all over, and Jill is safe, we’ll run away from everything. I didn’t know where, and I didn’t know how, but Sydney would figure out those logistics. She’d escape the Alchemists’ hold and become Dr. Sydney Sage, PhD, while I . . . well, did something.
I felt a small hand on my arm and glanced briefly down to see Jill looking sympathetically up at me, her jade-colored eyes shining. She knew what I was thinking, knew about the fantasies I often spun. I gave her a wan smile back.
We drove across town, then to the outskirts of Palm Springs to the home of Clarence Donahue, the only Moroi foolish enough to live in this desert until my friends and I had shown up last fall. Old Clarence was kind of a crackpot, but he was a nice enough one who’d welcomed a ragtag group of Moroi and dhampirs and allowed us to use his feeder/housekeeper. Moroi don’t have to kill for blood like Strigoi do, but we do need it at least a couple times a week. Fortunately, there are plenty of humans in the world happy to provide it in exchange for a life spent on the endorphin high brought on by a vampire bite.
We found Clarence in the living room, sitting in his massive leather chair and using a magnifying glass to read some ancient book. He looked up at our entrance, startled. “Here on a Thursday! What a nice surprise.”
“It’s Friday, Mr. Donahue,” said Jill gently, leaning down to kiss his cheek.
He regarded her fondly. “Is it? Weren’t you just here yesterday? Well, no matter. Dorothy, I’m sure, will be happy to accommodate you.”
Dorothy, his aging housekeeper, looked very accommodating. She’d hit the jackpot when Jill and I arrived in Palm Springs. Older Moroi don’t drink as much blood as young ones, and while Clarence could still provide an occasional high, frequent visits from Jill and me provided a near-constant one for her.
Jill hurried over to Dorothy. “Can I go now?” The older woman nodded eagerly, and the two of them left the room for more private accommodations. A look of distaste crossed Zoe’s face, though she said nothing. Seeing her expression and the way she sat far away from everyone else was so like Sydney in the old days, I almost smiled.
Angeline was practically bouncing up and down on the couch. “What’s for dinner?” She had an unusual southern accent from growing up in a rural mountain community of Moroi, dhampirs, and humans who were the only ones I knew of that freely lived together and intermarried. Everyone else in their respective races regarded them with a kind of mingled horror and fascination. As appealing as that openness was, living with them had never crossed my mind in my fantasies with Sydney. I hated camping.
No one answered. Angeline looked from face to face. “Well? Why isn’t there food here?” Dhampirs don’t drink blood and can eat the regular kinds of food humans do. Moroi also need that sort of food, though we don’t need it in nearly the same quantities. It takes a lot of energy to keep that active dhampir metabolism fired up.
These regular gatherings had become kind of a family dinner affair, not just for blood but also for regular food. It was a nice way to pretend we led normal lives. “There’s always food,” she pointed out, in case we’d never noticed. “I liked that Indian food we had the other day. That masala or whatever stuff. But I don’t know if we should go there any more until they start calling it Native American food. It’s not very polite.”
“Sydney usually takes care of food,” said Eddie, ignoring Angeline’s familiar and endearing tendency to stray into tangents.
“Not usually,” I corrected. “Always.”
Angeline’s gaze swiveled to Zoe. “Why didn’t you have us pick up something?”
“Because that’s not my job!” Zoe lifted her head up high. “We’re here to keep Jill’s cover and make sure she stays off the radar. It’s not my job to feed you guys.”
“In which sense?” I asked. I knew perfectly well that was a mean thing to say to her but couldn’t resist. It took her a moment to pick up the double meaning. First she paled; then she turned an angry red.
“Neither! I’m not your concierge. Neither is Sydney. I don’t know why she always takes care of that stuff for you. She should only be dealing with things that are essential for your survival. Ordering pizza isn’t one of them.”
I faked a yawn and leaned back into the couch. “Maybe she figures if we’re well fed, you two won’t look that appetizing.”
Zoe was too horrified to respond, and Eddie shot me a withering look. “Enough. It’s not that hard to order pizza. I’ll do it.”
Jill was back by the time he finished the call, an amused smile on her face. She’d apparently witnessed the exchange. The bond wasn’t on all the time, but it appeared to be going strong today. With the food dilemma settled, we actually managed to fall into a surprising camaraderie—well, everyone except Zoe, who just watched and waited. Things were unexpectedly cordial between Angeline and Eddie, despite a recent and disastrous bout of dating. She’d moved on and now pretended to be obsessed with Neil. If Eddie was still hurt, he didn’t show it, but that was typical of him. Sydney said he was secretly in love with Jill, something else he was good at hiding.
I could’ve approved of that, but Jill, like Angeline, kept pretending she was in love with Neil. It was all an act for both girls, but no one—not even Sydney—believed me.
“Are you okay with what we ordered?” Angeline asked him. “You didn’t pipe up with any requests.”
Neil shook his head, face stoic. He kept his dark hair in a painfully short and efficient haircut. It was the kind of no-nonsense thing the Alchemists would’ve loved. “I can’t waste time quibbling over trivial things like pepperoni and mushrooms. If you’d gone to my school in Devonshire, you’d understand. For one of my sophomore classes, they left us alone on the moors to fend for ourselves and learn survival skills. Spend three days eating twigs and heather, and you’ll learn not to argue about any food coming your way.”
Angeline and Jill cooed as though that was the most rugged, manly thing they’d ever heard. Eddie wore an expression that reflected what I felt, puzzling over whether this guy was as serious as he seemed or just some genius with swoon-worthy lines.
Zoe’s cell phone rang. She looked at the display and jumped up in alarm. “It’s Dad.” Without a backward glance, she answered and scurried out of the room.
I wasn’t one for premonition, but a chill ran down my spine. The Sage dad wasn’t the kind of warm and friendly guy who’d call to say hello during business hours, when he knew Zoe was doing her Alchemist thing. If something was up with her, something was up with Sydney. And that worried me.
I barely paid any attention to the rest of the conversation as I counted the moments until Zoe’s return. When she did finally come back, her ashen face told me I was right. Something bad had happened.
“What is it?” I demanded. “Is Sydney okay?” Too late I realized I shouldn’t have showed any special concern for Sydney. Not even our friends knew about me and her. Fortunately, all attention was on Zoe.
She slowly shook her head, eyes wide and disbelieving. “I . . . I don’t know. It’s my parents. They’re getting divorced.”
I DIDN’T REALLY EXPECT A SECRET INITIATION into a witches’ coven to start off with a tea party.
“Would you pass the ladyfingers, dear?”
I quickly grabbed the china plate from the coffee table and handed it over to Maude, one of the senior witches in the group and our hostess for the night. We sat in a circle of folding chairs in her immaculate living room, and my history teacher, Ms. Terwilliger, was beside me munching on a cucumber sandwich. I was too nervous to say anything and simply drank my tea as the others chatted about light topics. Maude was serving herbal tea, so I didn’t have to worry about breaking my caffeine deal with Adrian. Not that I would’ve minded having an excuse if she had been serving black.
There were seven of us gathered, and although they would allow any number of worthy candidates into their group, they all seemed especially pleased to have a prime number. It was lucky, Maude insisted. Occasionally, Hopper would stick his head up and then go scurrying under furniture. Since witches didn’t blink an eye at callistanas, I’d let him come out tonight.
Someone brought up the pros and cons of winter versus summer initiations, and I found my mind wandering. I wondered how things were going over at Clarence’s. I’d been responsible for transporting Jill to her feedings since September, and it made me feel strange (and a little wistful) to be here while all of them were gathered and having a good time. With a pang, I suddenly realized I hadn’t made any arrangements for dinner. Adrian had simply been the driver, so I hadn’t thought to say anything. Would Zoe have taken charge? Probably not. I pushed down the motherly instincts within me that worried they’d all starve to death. Surely someone was capable of getting food.
Thinking of Adrian brought back the golden memories of our time together this afternoon. Even hours later, I could still feel where he’d kissed me. I took a deep breath to help me get a grip, fearful that my soon-to-be sisters would realize magic was the last thing on my mind right now. Actually, these days, it seemed like everything except getting half-naked with Adrian was the last thing on my mind. After a lifetime of praising myself for stoically adhering to mind over matter, I was kind of astonished that someone as cerebral as me would take to physical activity as quickly as I had. Sometimes I tried to rationalize it as a natural animal response. But really, I just had to face the truth: My boyfriend was insanely sexy, vampire or not, and I couldn’t keep my hands off him.
I realized then that someone had asked me a question. Reluctantly, I blinked away thoughts of Adrian unbuttoning my shirt and tuned in to the speaker. It took me a moment to recall her name. Trina, that was it. She was in her mid-twenties, the youngest person here, aside from me.
“I’m sorry?” I asked.
She smiled. “I said, you do something with vampires, right?”
Oh, I did a lot of things with one vampire in particular, but obviously, that wasn’t what she meant.
“More or less,” I said evasively.
Ms. Terwilliger chuckled. “The Alchemists are very protective of their secrets.”
A couple other witches nodded. Others simply looked on curiously. The magical world of witches didn’t cross with the vampiric one. Most of them, on both sides, didn’t even know about each other. Learning about Moroi and Strigoi had been a surprise to some here—meaning the Alchemists were doing their job. From what I’d gathered, these witches had encountered enough mystical and supernatural things to accept that blood-drinking magical creatures walked the earth and that there were groups like the Alchemists keeping that knowledge under wraps.
Witches freely accepted the paranormal. The Alchemists were less open. The group that had raised me thought humans needed to stay free of magic for the sanctity of their souls. I had once believed that too, and that creatures like vampires had no business being friendly with us. That was back when I’d also believed the Alchemists were telling me the truth. Now I knew that there were people in the organization who lied to both humans and Moroi and who would go to great extremes to protect their own selfish interests, no matter who it hurt. With my eyes open to the truth, I could no longer answer blindly to the Alchemists, even though I still technically worked for them. That wasn’t to say I was in open rebellion against them either (like my friend Marcus), since some of their original tenets still held merit.
Really, what it all came down to was that I was working for myself now.
“You know who you should talk to—if she’d talk to you? Inez. She’s had all sorts of encounters with those beasts—not the living ones. The undead ones.” That was Maude again. She’d recognized the golden lily on my cheek right away that identified me (to those who knew what to look for) as an Alchemist. It was made of vampire blood and other components that gave us some of their healing abilities and hardiness, while also being charmed to stop us from discussing supernatural affairs with those not privy to the magical world. Or, well, my tattoo used to do that.
“Who’s Inez?” I asked.
That brought some chuckles from the others. “Probably the greatest of our order—at least on this side of the country,” said Maude.
“This side of the world,” insisted Ms. Terwilliger. “She’s almost ninety and has seen and done things most of us can’t imagine.”
“Why isn’t she here?” I asked.
“She’s not part of any formal coven,” explained another witch, named Alison. “I’m sure she used to be, but she’s practiced on her own for . . . well, as long as I’ve known about her. It’s hard for her to get around now, and she mostly just keeps to herself. Lives in this ancient house outside of Escondido and hardly ever leaves.”
Clarence popped into my head. “I think I know a guy she’d get along great with.”
“She fought a number of Strigoi back in the day,” mused Maude. “She’s probably got some spells that you’d find useful. And, oh, the stories she can tell about them. She was quite the warrior. I remember her talking about how one tried to drink her blood.” She shivered. “But apparently, he couldn’t do it, and she was able to take him out.”
My hand froze as I lifted my teacup. “What do you mean he couldn’t do it?”
Maude shrugged. “I don’t remember the details. Maybe she had some sort of protective spell.”
I felt my heart speed up as an old, dark memory sucked me in. Last year, I’d been trapped by a Strigoi who’d wanted to drink my blood too. She hadn’t been able to do it, allegedly because I “tasted bad.” The reason for that was still kind of a mystery, one the Alchemists and Moroi had let fade away when other pressing matters came up. But it hadn’t faded for me. It was something that constantly nagged at the back of my mind, the never-ending question of what it was about me that had repelled her.
Ms. Terwilliger, accustomed to my expressions, studied me and guessed some of what I was thinking. “If you’d like to talk to her, I could arrange for you to meet her.” Her lips quirked into a smile. “Although, I can’t guarantee you’ll get anything useful out of her. She’s very . . . particular about what she reveals.”
Maude scoffed. “That’s not the word I’m thinking of, but yours is more polite.” She glanced at an ornate grandfather clock and set down her cup. “Well, then. Shall we get started?”
I forgot about Inez and even Adrian as fear settled over me. In less than a year, I’d traveled leagues away from the Alchemist doctrine that had governed my life. I didn’t give being close to vampires a second thought anymore, but every once in a while, warnings of the arcane would flit back to me. I had to steel myself and remember that magic was a path I’d firmly committed myself to and that it was only evil if you used it for evil. Members of the Stelle, as this group called itself, were sworn to do no harm with their powers—unless it was in defense of themselves or others.
We held the ritual in Maude’s backyard, a sprawling piece of property filled with palm trees and winter flowers. It was about fifty degrees out, balmy compared with late January in other parts of the country, but jacket weather in Palm Springs—or, rather, cloak weather. Ms. Terwilliger had told me it didn’t matter what I wore tonight, that I’d be supplied with what I needed. And what I needed turned out to be a cloak composed of six pieces of velvet in different colors. I felt like a peddler in a fairy tale as I flung it over my shoulders.
“This is our gift to you,” Ms. Terwilliger explained. “Each of us has sewn and contributed a piece. You’ll wear it whenever we have a formal ceremony.” The others donned similar cloaks composed of varying numbers of patches, depending on whatever the coven’s number had been during their respective initiations.
The sky was stark and clear with stars, the full moon shining like a brilliant pearl against the blackness. It was the best time to work good magic.
I noticed then that the trees in the yard were oriented in a circle. The witches formed another ring within it, in front of a stone altar bedecked with incense and candles. Maude took up a position by the altar and indicated that I should kneel in the center, in front of her. A breeze stirred around us, and although I tended to think of overgrown, misty, deciduous forests when it came to arcane rituals, something felt right about the towering palms and crisp air.
It had taken me a while to come around to joining, and Ms. Terwilliger had had to assure me a hundred times that I wouldn’t be swearing allegiance to some primeval god. “You’re swearing yourself to the magic,” she had explained. “To the pursuit of its knowledge and using it for good in the world. It’s a scholar’s vow, really. Seems like something you should be on board with.”
It was. And so, I knelt before Maude as she conducted the ritual. She consecrated me to the elements, first walking around me with a candle for fire. Then she sprinkled water on my forehead. Crumbled violet petals spoke for the earth, and a wreath of incense smoke summoned the air. Some traditions used a blade for that element, and I was kind of glad theirs didn’t.
The elements were the heart of human magic, just as they were in vampire magic. But like with the Moroi, there was no nod to spirit. It was an only recently rediscovered magic among them, and only a handful of Moroi wielded it. When I’d asked Ms. Terwilliger about it, she hadn’t had a good answer. Her best explanation had been that human magic was drawn from the external world, where the physical elements resided. Spirit, tied to the essence of life, burned within us all, so it was already present. At least that had been her best guess. Spirit was a mystery to human and vampire magic users alike, its effects feared and unknown—which was why I often lay sleepless at night, worrying about Adrian’s inability to stay away from it.
When Maude finished with the elements, she said, “Swear your vows.”
The vows were in Italian, since this particular coven had its origins in the medieval Roman world. Most of what I swore to was in line with what Ms. Terwilliger had said, a promise to use magic wisely and support my coven sisters. I’d memorized them a while ago and spoke flawlessly. As I did, I felt an energy burn through me, a pleasant hum of magic and the life that radiated around us. It was sweet and exhilarating, and I wondered if it was what spirit felt like. When I finished, I looked up, and the world seemed brighter and clear, full of so much more wonder and beauty than ordinary people could understand. I believed then more than ever that there was no evil in magic, unless you brought it upon yourself.
“What is your name among us?” asked Maude.
“Iolanthe,” I said promptly. It meant “purple flower” in Greek and had come to me after all the times Adrian talked to me about the sparks of purple in my aura.
She held out her hands to me and helped me up. “Welcome, Iolanthe.” Then, to my surprise, she gave me a warm hug. The rest, breaking the circle now that the ritual was over, each gave me one as well, with Ms. Terwilliger being last. She held me longer than the others, and more astonishing than anything else I’d seen tonight were the tears in her eyes.
“You’re going to do great things,” she told me fiercely. “I’m so proud of you, prouder than I could be of any daughter.”
“Even after I burned your house down?” I asked.
Her typical amused expression returned. “Maybe because of that.”
I laughed, and the serious mood transformed to one of celebration. We returned to the living room, where Maude traded tea for spiced wine, now that we were done with the magic. I didn’t indulge, but my nervousness had long since disappeared. I felt happy and light . . . and more importantly, as I sat and listened to their stories, I felt like I belonged there—more so than I ever had with the Alchemists.
My phone buzzed in my purse, just as Ms. Terwilliger and I were finally preparing to leave. It was my mom. “I’m sorry,” I told them. “I need to take this.”
Ms. Terwilliger, who’d drank more wine than anyone else, waved me off and poured another glass. I was her ride, so it wasn’t like she had anywhere to go. I answered the phone as I retreated to the kitchen, only a little surprised that my mom would call. We kept in touch, and she knew evenings were a good time to get a hold of me to chat. But when she spoke, there was an urgency in her voice that told me this wasn’t a casual call.
“Sydney? Have you talked to Zoe?”
My mental alarms went off. “Not since this afternoon. Is something wrong?”
My mom took a deep breath. “Sydney . . . your father and I are splitting up. We’re getting a divorce.”
For a moment, the world spun, and I leaned against the kitchen counter for support. I swallowed. “I see.”
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I know how hard this will be on you.”
I thought about it. “No . . . not exactly. I mean, I guess . . . well, I can’t say that I’m surprised.”
She’d once told me that my dad had been more easygoing in his youth. It was hard for me to imagine, but obviously, she’d married him for some reason. Over the years, my dad had grown cold and intractable, throwing himself into the Alchemist cause with a devotion that took precedence over all other things in his life, including his daughters. He’d become harsh and single-minded, and I’d long since realized I was more of a tool for the greater good in his eyes than his daughter.
My mom, on the other hand, was warm and funny, always willing to show affection and listen to us when we needed her. She was quick with a smile . . . though she didn’t seem to smile so much these days.
“I know it’ll be emotionally difficult for you and Carly,” she said. “But it won’t affect your daily lives that much.”
I pondered her word choice. Me and Carly. “But Zoe . . .”
“Zoe’s a minor, and even if she’s off doing your Alchemist work, she’s still legally under the care of her parents. Or parent. Your father intends to file for sole custody so that he can keep her where she is.” There was a long pause. “I plan to fight him. And if I win, I’ll bring her back to live with me and see if she can live a normal life.”
I was stunned, unable to imagine the sort of battle she was proposing. “Does it have to be all or nothing? Can you guys share custody?”
“Sharing might as well be giving it to him. He’ll wield the control, and I can’t let him have her—mentally, that is. You’re an adult. You can make your choices, and even if you’re established on your path, you’re different from her in the way you go about it. You’re you, but she’s more like . . .”
She didn’t finish, but I already knew. She’s more like him.
“If I can get custody and bring her home, I’ll send her to a regular school and maybe salvage some sort of ordinary teenage existence for her. If it’s not too late. You probably hate me for that—for pulling her from your cause.”
“No,” I said swiftly. “I think . . . I think it’s a great idea.” If it’s not too late.
I could hear her choke up a little and wondered if she was fighting tears. “We’ll have to go to court. No one’s going to bring up the Alchemists, not even me, but there’s going to be a lot of discussion of suitability and character analysis. Zoe will testify . . . and so will you and Carly.”
And that’s when I knew why she said this would be so difficult. “You guys will want us to choose one of you.”
“I’ll want you to tell the truth,” she had said firmly. “I don’t know what your father will want.”
I did. He would want me to slander my mom, to say she was unfit, just some homemaker who fixed cars on the side and couldn’t possibly compare with a serious academic like him, who provided Zoe with all sorts of education and cultural experiences. He’d want me to do it for the good of the Alchemists. He’d want me to do it because he always got his way.
“I love and support whatever you feel is right.” The bravery in my mom’s voice broke my heart. She was going to have more than family complications to deal with. Alchemist connections extended far and wide. Into the legal system? Very possibly. “I just wanted you to be prepared. I’m sure your father will want to speak to you too.”
“Yes,” I said grimly. “I’m sure he will. But what about right now? Are you okay?” Stepping away from Zoe, I had to acknowledge how life-altering this was for my mom. Maybe their marriage had become painful, but they’d been together for almost twenty-five years. Leaving something like that was a big adjustment, no matter the circumstances.
I could sense her smiling. “I’m fine. I’m staying with a friend of mine. And I took Cicero with me.”
Thinking of her spiriting our cat away made me laugh, in spite of the solemnity of the conversation. “At least you have company.”
She laughed as well, but there was a fragile quality to it. “And my friend needs some work done on her car, so we’re all happy.”
“Well, I’m glad, but if there’s anything you need, anything at all, money or—”
“Don’t worry about me. Just take care of yourself—and Zoe. That’s the most important thing right now.” She hesitated. “I haven’t spoken to her lately . . . is she okay?”
Was she? I supposed it depended on how you defined “okay.” Zoe was thrilled that she was out learning the Alchemist trade at so young an age but arrogant and cold toward my friends—just like anyone else in our organization. That, and she was a constant, looming shadow over my love life.
“She’s great,” I assured my mom.
“Good,” she said, her relief nearly palpable. “I’m glad you’re with her. I don’t know how she’ll take this.”
“I’m sure she’ll understand where you’re coming from.”
It was a lie, of course, but there was no way I could tell my mom the truth: Zoe was going to fight her, kicking and screaming, every step of the way.
WHETHER SHE GOT A PARENTAL PHONE CALL of her own or simply had to deal with Zoe’s shock, I knew Sydney would’ve found out about the divorce by the time I visited her in her sleep.
The few spirit users I knew could all heal pretty well, but none of them could walk dreams as adeptly as I could. It was nice to know I excelled at something, and surprisingly it involved a pretty low level of spirit—just a steady hum, rather than the burst that healing required. The downside was that unlike the person I visited, I wasn’t actually asleep—more in a meditative state—so I could end up pretty exhausted if the dream took a while. Seeing as I wasn’t that great a sleeper to begin with, I supposed it didn’t make much difference.
I pulled Sydney into a dream around midnight, making the two of us materialize in one of her favorite places: the courtyard of the Getty Villa, a museum of ancient history out in Malibu. Immediately, she ran up to me, a frantic look in her eyes.
“I know,” I said, catching hold of her hands. “I was there when Zoe got the call.”
“Did she tell you the ugly details?”
I raised an eyebrow. “There’s something uglier than a divorce?”
Sydney then proceeded to tell me about the bloodbath of a custody battle to come. While I could appreciate their mom wanting Zoe to have a semi-normal life, I had to admit to myself that my reasons for hoping their mom would win were pretty selfish. Zoe disappearing from Palm Springs would make things a hell of a lot easier for Sydney and me. But I knew Sydney’s immediate concern was her family being torn apart, and my immediate concern was her happiness. One part of her story in particular caught my attention.
“You really think your dad might be able to work some Alchemist coercion with a judge?” I asked. I’d never thought of that, but it wasn’t that far-fetched. The Alchemists could create new identities, get a group of dhampirs and Moroi into a private school on no notice, and cover up dead Strigoi in the press.
She shook her head and sat down on the fountain’s edge. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s not needed if Zoe’s adamant about wanting to be with Dad. I don’t really know how these kinds of hearings work.”
“And what are you going to do?” I asked. “What will you say?”
She met my gaze levelly. “I’m not going to slander either of them, that’s for sure. But as for what I’ll advocate? It’s hard to say. I’ll have to think about it. I get my mom’s view, and I even believe in it. But if I lean that way, Zoe’ll hate me forever—not to mention the fallout with my dad and the Alchemists.” A small, bitter smile crossed her lips. “When I got back to our room tonight, Zoe didn’t even ask me about my thoughts. She just assumed it was a done deal—that I’d take Dad’s side.”
“When will it all go down?”
“Not right away. They haven’t set a date yet.”
She fell silent, and I picked up on the vibe that maybe it was time to switch topics. “How’d the initiation go? Was there any naked dancing or animal sacrifice?”
Her smile warmed up. “Tea and hugs.”
She gave me a brief recap, and I couldn’t help but laugh at the thought of Jackie loading up on wine. Sydney wouldn’t tell me her secret name, though, no matter how much I tried to wheedle it out of her.
“I don’t suppose it was Jetta?” I asked hopefully. Whenever I had to take on a fake name, I used Jet Steele because let’s face it, that was pretty much as badass as you could get.
“No,” she laughed. “Definitely not.”
She then wanted to hear about my night, naturally worrying that no one got fed in her absence. We talked for a long time, and although it was hard not to be distracted by her perfect lips and the edge of her shirt’s neckline, I found I liked having these dream conversations. I certainly didn’t mind our afternoon make-out sessions, but I actually had originally fallen for Sydney because of her mind.
As usual, she was the responsible one who noticed the time. “Oh, Adrian. It’s time for bed.”
I leaned toward her. “Is that an invitation?”
She lightly pushed me away. “You know what I mean. You’re never in good shape when you’re exhausted.” It was a polite way of saying that being worn out made me susceptible to spirit’s attacks on my sanity, which I couldn’t argue with. I could also tell from the uneasy look in her eyes that she wasn’t thrilled about the use of spirit this dream involved either.
“Think you can get away tomorrow?” Weekends were always difficult because Zoe trailed her like a shadow.
“I don’t know. I’ll see what I can—oh, God.”
She put a hand to her forehead and groaned. “Hopper. I left him at that witch’s house. He was running around during the party, and I was so out of it after Mom called that I just walked right out the door with Ms. Terwilliger.”
I took hold of her hand and squeezed it. “Don’t worry. He’ll be fine. Wild night on the town, staying out with an older woman. Warms my heart.”
“So glad you’re a proud dad. The problem is getting him home. I might be able to sneak out and see you later tomorrow, but I don’t think I’ve got enough time to get out there. And I think Ms. Terwilliger’s busy too.”
“Hey,” I said, feeling mildly indignant. “You just assume if you and Jackie can’t do it, it’s a lost cause? I’ll go rescue him. If he wants to leave.”
She brightened. “That’d be great. But I thought you had your art project.”
It was such a small thing I was offering, no effort at all, really, and it warmed my heart to see how much it meant to her. Sydney was so often forced to be the responsible one who had to handle every single detail that I think it was an almost shocking surprise that someone might run an errand for her. “I’ll have time afterward. She won’t be freaked out about a vampire coming by, will she?”
“No. Just don’t elaborate on your parental role.” She gave me a light kiss, but I craftily pulled her closer and made it a much, much longer one. When we finally broke away, we were both breathless.
“Good night, Adrian,” she said pointedly.
I took the hint, and the dream faded around us.
Back at my apartment, I indulged in my one daily drink, hoping it would send me to a quick slumber. No such luck. In the old days, it usually took at least three before I’d pass out in drunken oblivion. Now, my fingers lingered on the vodka bottle as I teetered on the edge of getting a refill. I missed it. Badly. Aside from the bliss of the buzz, alcohol could numb out spirit for a little while, and although the magic was a pleasant addiction, a reprieve from it was nice. Self-medicating had fended off a lot of spirit’s negative effects for years, but this new deal was letting it start to gain ground.
A few more moments passed, and I pulled my hand back, clenching it into a fist. I retired to my bed, throwing myself onto it and burying my face in the pillow. It smelled faintly of jasmine and carnation from a perfume oil I’d recently gotten Sydney. She wasn’t a perfume fan in general, claiming the chemicals and alcohol weren’t healthy. But she couldn’t argue against the pure, all-natural blend I’d found, especially when she’d heard the price. She was too pragmatic to let something like that go to waste.
I closed my eyes and wished she was with me—not even for sex, but just for the comfort of her presence. Considering the danger in our brief afternoons, a night together probably wasn’t going to happen anytime soon, which was a damned shame. Surely I’d sleep better if I had her with me. It was frustrating because I really was exhausted in body, but my spinning mind refused to settle down.
I finally fell asleep an hour and a half later, only to be awakened by my alarm four hours after that. I stayed in bed, staring bleary-eyed at the ceiling, wondering if I could possibly cancel the meeting I’d set up with a classmate to work on a project. Seriously, what had I been thinking? Eight on a Saturday? Maybe I was closer to madness than I feared.
At least we were meeting in a coffee shop. Unlike my lovely soul mate, I had no restrictions on caffeine and ordered the biggest cup of drip they could manage. The barista assured me there was more where that came from. Across the room, my partner watched with amusement as I approached her table.
“Well, hey there, sunshine. Nice to see you all bright eyed and ready to start the day.”
I held up a warning hand as I sat down. “Stop right there. It’s going to take at least another cup of this before you become charming and witty.”
She grinned. “Nah, I always am, day or night.”
Rowena Clark and I had met on the first day of our mixed media class. I’d sat down at her table and said, “Mind if I join you? Figure the best way to learn about art is to sit with a masterpiece.” Maybe I was in love, but I was still Adrian Ivashkov.
Rowena had fixed me with a flat look. “Let’s get one thing straight. I can see through bullshit a mile away, and I like girls, not guys, so if you can’t handle me telling you what’s what, then you’d better take your one-liners and hair gel somewhere else. I don’t go to this school to put up with pretty boys like you. I’m here to face dubious employment options with a painting degree and then go get a Guinness after class.”
I’d scooted my chair closer to the table. “You and I are going to get along just fine.”
And we had, enough so that we’d partnered up for a project on outdoor sculpture. We’d have to head over to campus to work on it soon but first needed to finalize the sketch we’d started in a pub after class earlier this week. I’d given up my bedtime drink to have a beer with her, and while it hadn’t had much effect on me, Rowena had proven to be a total lightweight. Our sketch hadn’t gotten very far.
“Up late partying?” she asked me now.
I took a long drink of the coffee, feeling only slightly guilty that Sydney would be salivating if she could see me. “Just up late.” I yawned. “Where are we at?”
She pulled out our sketch, which was on a bar napkin and read, Insert sketch here.
“Hmm,” I said. “Promising start.”
After an hour of hashing out ideas, we decided to do a model of the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey and then cover it with advertising slogans and internet lingo. I’d actually gotten bored during that movie, but Rowena was going off about how it was a symbol of advanced evolution and how our designs would be an ironic statement of where our society had ended up. Mostly I was on board because I thought it wouldn’t involve too much effort. I was serious about my painting, but this was just a general required class.
A good chunk of our day was spent just getting the supplies. Rowena had borrowed a friend’s pickup truck, and we went to a building-supply store in hopes of finding a large concrete rectangle for our monolith. We lucked out and even found some smaller blocks to put at the base of it.
“We can make a ring,” Rowena explained. She’d recently dyed her hair lavender and absentmindedly tucked wayward locks behind her ears as she spoke. “And then paint the various stages of evolution. Monkey, caveman, all the way up to some hipster texting on his cell phone.”
“We didn’t evolve from monkeys,” I told her as we wrestled the rectangle onto a pallet. “The earliest human ancestor is called Australopithecus.” I wasn’t entirely sure where vampire evolution fit in, but I certainly wasn’t bringing that up.
Rowena released the block and stared in amazement. “How the hell do you know that?”
“Because I mentioned the monkey thing the other day, and my girlfriend had a, uh, few things to say about that.” A “few” things had actually turned into a one-hour lesson on anthropology.
Rowena laughed and lifted one of the smaller blocks. They were still pretty heavy but didn’t require both of us. “I’d really like to meet this mythical girlfriend of yours, if only to see who in the world could put up with you. I could get Cassie, and we could all go out for a drink together.”
“She doesn’t drink,” I said quickly. “And she’s eighteen anyway. Well, almost nineteen.” With a start, I realized Sydney’s birthday was fast approaching at the beginning of next month, February, and I didn’t have anything for her. In fact, after my investment in vinyl, I didn’t have much money at all until my dad’s next deposit came in mid-month.
Rowena smirked. “Younger woman, huh?”
“Hey, it’s legal.”
“I don’t want to know about your sordid sex life.” She hoisted another block. “We’ll go to Denny’s or something. If you don’t bring her around soon, I’ll think you made her up.”
“I couldn’t make her up if I tried,” I declared grandly. But inside, I couldn’t help but feel a little wistful. I would’ve loved to go out on a double date with Rowena and her girlfriend. I was pretty sure Sydney would hit it off with her, if only to gang up and tease me mercilessly. But public appearances weren’t an option, not unless we went for a night on the town with the Keepers.
We took our concrete haul back to Carlton College’s campus and began the arduous task of transporting the blocks to a large quadrangle that our class had gotten permission to use. A few of our classmates were working as well, and they helped us carry the centerpiece, which made things a lot easier. Even if it wasn’t up to scale with the movie’s monolith, it was still a bitch to lift. That left us to bring in the small blocks, and our conversation quieted as we worked. We were both tired and glad to be nearly done for the afternoon. The actual painting would happen tomorrow. It was Rowena’s specialty too, and we wanted to be ready and fresh to make the most of our strengths in this project. It was cool out, but the sky was clear, leaving nothing between the sun and me. That was why I’d consented to the early time, sparing me from the worst of the light. I’d be able to rescue Hopper from that witch soon and then go home in the hopes that Sydney could get away.
Once all the blocks were on the quad, Rowena grew obsessed with arranging them perfectly. I didn’t care at this point and busied myself texting a message to Sydney on the Love Phone, letting her know that my art was a paltry thing compared to the brilliance of her beauty. She texted back: This is me rolling my eyes. To which I replied: I love you too.
“We could do this,” said Rowena, setting three of the smaller blocks on top of one another. “Mini-monoliths.”
“Whatever you want.”
She decided against it and started to lift the top one. I’m not entirely sure what happened after that. I think it was just a subtle shift in her hand gone wrong. Whatever it was, the block slipped from her grasp and fell hard—slamming her hand between it and the brick-covered ground below.
Her scream rang through the diag, and I moved with a speed that would’ve impressed Eddie. I grabbed the block and lifted it, but as I did, I knew it was a little too late. A few tendrils of spirit told me she’d broken some bones in her hand. And in those split seconds of chaos, I acted. It was her right hand, and breaking it was going to put her out of commission with painting for the rest of the semester. She could do intricate, delicate things with watercolors that I could only dream of. No way could I endanger that. I sent a burst of spirit into her hand, drawing from my own life energy to mend the bones. Healing usually felt like a tingle to the recipient, and I could tell from the shock on her face that she had noticed.
“What did you do?” she gasped.
I fixed my eyes and sent out a burst of compulsion. “Nothing,” I said. “Except move the block. This is a pretty traumatic and confusing experience for you.”
Her eyes glazed over for a brief moment, and then she nodded. I let go of the magic, the sudden emptiness within me the only indication of just how much I’d pulled out for the healing and compulsion. With the tingling gone from her mind, Rowena cradled the afflicted hand as our classmates came running over.
“Holy shit,” said one of them. “Are you okay?”
Rowena winced. “I don’t know. It doesn’t feel . . . I mean, it aches . . . but nothing like when it first hit.”
“You need to see a doctor,” the same guy insisted. “It might be broken.”
Rowena flinched, and I could guess that the same fears I’d felt were running through her head. I knew there was no permanent damage but had to play along because it was the reasonable thing to do.
“Give me your keys,” I told her. “The campus clinic’s open.”
Triage got us in quickly, since having a thirty-pound concrete block fall on you was pretty serious. But after an examination and X-rays, the doctor simply shrugged. “Everything’s fine. Maybe it wasn’t as heavy as you thought.”
“It was pretty heavy,” Rowena said, but relief filled her face. I even thought I caught a glimmer of tears in her eyes as she looked at me. “I guess you just got the block off fast enough.” There was no sign that she remembered that burst of healing.
“Because I’m manly and brave,” I said solemnly.
They discharged her, and as we were leaving, her girlfriend, Cassie, showed up. Rowena was pretty, but Cassie was a knockout. She flung her arms around Rowena, and I shook my head ruefully.
“How in the world did you pull that off?” I asked.
Rowena grinned at me over Cassie’s shoulder. “I told you: My wit and charm are always on.”
We made arrangements to finish the project tomorrow, and I headed back to my apartment. I hadn’t used such an intense amount of spirit in a long time, and the rush was heady. The world was full of life and light, and I practically floated on air when I walked inside. How could spirit be a bad thing when it made me feel like this? I felt glorious. I felt more alive than I had in days.
I picked a random record from one of the boxes. Pink Floyd. Nope, not in my current mood. I swapped it out for the Beatles and then threw myself into my self-portrait with a renewed vigor. Or rather, portraits. Because I couldn’t stop. My mind was abuzz with ideas, and it was impossible to pick just one. Color flew fast and furious onto the canvas as I experimented with different concepts. One was an abstract of my aura, the way Sonya and Lissa always said it looked. Another was more accurate, as realistic as I could manage from a picture on my cell phone, save that I painted myself in reds and blues. On it went.
And bit by bit, the energy began to fade. My brush slowed down, and at last, I sank onto the couch, feeling drained and exhausted. I stared around at my handiwork, five different paintings, all drying. My stomach rumbled, and I tried to remember when I’d last eaten. A muffin with Rowena? I was getting as bad as Sydney. I put a pizza in the microwave, and as I watched it cook, my mind began to spin with thoughts of a different nature.