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This wasn’t the first time I’d been pulled out of bed for a crucial mission. It was, however, the first time I’d been subjected to such a personal line of questioning.
“Are you a virgin?”
“Huh?” I rubbed my sleepy eyes, just in case this was all some sort of bizarre dream that would disappear.
My history teacher, Ms. Terwilliger, leaned closer and repeated the question in a stage whisper: “I said, are you a virgin?”
I was fully awake now and glanced uneasily around my dorm’s lobby, making sure no one was around to witness this crazy exchange. I didn’t have to worry. Aside from a bored looking desk attendant on the far side of the room, the lobby was empty, probably because no sane person would be up at this time of night. Ms. Terwilliger had woken me with a phone call five minutes ago, demanding I meet her here for a “life or death” matter. Her interrogating me over my personal life wasn’t quite what I’d expected.
She stepped back and sighed in relief. “Yes, of course. Of course you’re a virgin.”
I narrowed my eyes, unsure if I should be offended or not. “Of course? What’s that supposed to mean? What’s going on?”
She immediately snapped back to attention and pushed her wire-rimmed glasses up the bridge of her nose. They were always slipping down. “No time to explain. We have to go.” She grabbed hold of my arm, but I resisted and stayed where I was.
“Ma’am, it’s three in the morning!” And then, just so she’d understand the severity of the situation: “On a school night.”
“Never mind that.” She turned in the direction of the desk attendant and called across the room, “I’m taking Sydney Melrose with me. Mrs. Weathers can argue with me about the curfew tomorrow.”
The attendant looked startled, but she was just some college student who’d been hired to sit there overnight. She was no match for the formidable Ms. Terwilliger, with her tall, gangly stature and birdlike face. The real authority keeping girls in my dorm was the security guard outside, but he simply nodded in a friendly way when Miss Terwilliger dragged me past. It made me wonder just how many girls she’d abducted in the middle of the night.
“I’m in my pajamas,” I told her. It was the last protest I could offer as we reached her car, which was parked in a fire lane. She drove a red Volkswagen Beetle with flowers painted on the sides. Somehow, this didn’t surprise me in the least.
“You’ll be fine,” she said, fishing car keys out of her massive velvet purse.
Around us, the desert night was cool and silent. Tall palm trees created dark, spiderlike shapes against the sky. Beyond them, a full moon and smattering of stars glittered. I wrapped my arms around myself, touching the soft fabric of my microfleece robe. Underneath it, I had on full-length striped pajamas paired with fluffy beige slippers. The ensemble worked well in my cozy dorm room but wasn’t exactly practical for a Palm Springs night. But then, going out in pajamas wasn’t really practical in any place.
She unlocked the car, and I stepped gingerly inside, having to dodge empty paper coffee cups and old issues of Utne Reader. My neat sensibilities cringed at that kind of mess, but it was the least of my worries right now.
“Ms. Terwilliger,” I said, once we were driving through the suburban streets. “What’s going on?” Now that we were out of the dorm, I hoped she’d start talking sense. I hadn’t forgotten her “life or death” comment and was beginning to grow nervous.
Her eyes were on the road ahead of us, and lines of worry marked her angular face. “I need you to cast a spell.”
I froze as I tried to process her words. Not long ago, this proclamation would’ve sent me into protests and fits of revulsion. Not that I was comfortable with it now. Magic still freaked me out. Ms. Terwilliger taught at my private high school, Amberwood Prep, by day and was a witch at night. She said I, too, possessed a natural affinity for magic and had managed to teach me some spells, despite my best efforts to resist. I actually had a few good reasons for wanting to avoid anything arcane. Aside from inborn beliefs about magic being wrong, I simply didn’t want to get caught up in any more supernatural affairs than I had to. I already spent my days as part of a secret society that kept vampires secret from the human world. That and my schoolwork were enough to keep anyone busy.
Nonetheless, her magical training had gotten me out of some dangerous situations recently, so I was no longer so quick to dismiss it. So, her suggesting I perform magic wasn’t the weirdest thing going on here.
“Why would you need me for that?” I asked. There were few cars out, but occasionally, passing headlights would cast a ghostly light into our car. “You’re a million times more powerful. I can’t cast a fraction of the things you can.”
“Power is one thing,” she admitted. “But there are other limitations and factors at work here. I can’t cast this particular spell.”
I crossed my arms and slouched back in the seat. If I kept focusing on the practical aspects, I could ignore how worried I was growing. “And it couldn’t have waited until morning?”
“No,” she said gravely. “It could not.”
Something about the tone of her voice sent chills down my spine, and I fell silent as we continued our drive. We were headed outside of the city and suburbs, into the wilds of the true desert. The farther we drove from civilization, the darker it became. Once we were off the freeway, there were no streetlights or houses in sight. Spiky desert shrubs created dark shapes along the side of the road that put me in mind of crouching animals, ready to pounce. There’s no one out here, I thought. And no one back at Amberwood knows you’re here either.
I shifted uneasily as I recalled her virgin question. Was I going to be a sacrifice in some unholy ritual? I wished that I’d thought to bring my cell phone--not that I could have told my organization, the Alchemists, that I was spending so much time with a magic user. And not just any magic user—one who was teaching me to become one too. Better to risk being sacrificed than face the Alchemists’ wrath.
Twenty minutes later, Ms. Terwilliger finally pulled to a stop along the side of a dusty one-lane road that seemed to be a direct route to nowhere. She got out of the car and motioned for me to do the same. It was colder here than it had been back at Amberwood. Looking up into the night sky, I caught my breath. Free of the city lights, the stars were now out in full force. I could see the Milky Way and a dozen constellations usually hidden to the naked eye.
“Stargaze later,” she said curtly. “We need to hurry, before the moon progresses much further.”
A moonlight ritual, a barren desert, virgin sacrifice…what had I just foolishly walked into? Ms. Terwilliger pushing me into magic had always annoyed me, but I’d never thought she posed a threat. Now I berated myself for being so naïve.
She tossed a duffle bag over one shoulder and headed off into a desolate stretch of land, dotted with rocks and scraggly vegetation. Even with the brilliant celestial display there wasn’t much light out here, yet she walked purposefully, as though she knew exactly where she was going. I dutifully followed, wincing as I crossed the rocky ground. My fuzzy slippers had never been intended for this sort of terrain.
“Here,” she said, when we reached a small clearing. She carefully set down the duffle bag and knelt to rifle through it. “This’ll do.”
The desert that was so merciless in the day became cold at night, but I was still sweating. Probably my own anxiety had more to do with that than the temperature or heavy pajamas. I retied my robe more tightly, making a perfect knot. I found that kind of detail and routine soothing.
Ms. Terwilliger produced a large oval mirror with a scalloped silver frame. She set it down in the middle of the clearing, glanced up at the sky, and then shifted the mirror over a little. “Come here, Miss Melbourne.” She pointed to a spot opposite her, on the other side of the mirror. “Sit there and make yourself comfortable.”
At Amberwood, I went by the name of Sydney Melrose, rather than my true one, Sydney Sage. Ms. Terwilliger had gotten my made-up name wrong on the first day of class, and it, unfortunately, stuck. I followed her directions, not that I could really get all that comfortable out here. I was pretty sure I could hear some large animal scuffling out in the brush, and added “coyotes” to my mental list of dangers I faced out here, right below “magic use” and “lack of coffee.”
“Now then. Let’s get started.” Ms. Terwilliger peered at me with eyes that were dark and frightening in the desert night. “Are you wearing anything metal? You need to take it off.”
“No, I—oh. Wait.”
I reached around my neck and unfastened a delicate gold chain that held a small cross. I’d had the necklace for years but had recently given it to someone else, for comfort. He’d given it back to me recently, by way of our mutual friend Jill Mastrano Dragomir. Even now, I could picture the angry look on her face as she’d stormed up to me at school and thrust the cross into my hand without a word.
I stared at the cross now as it gleamed in the moonlight. A queasy feeling welled up in the pit of my stomach as I thought about Adrian, the guy I’d given it to. I’d done so before he professed his love for me, something that had caught me totally off-guard a few weeks ago. But maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised. The more I looked back—and I did so all the time—the more I began to recall telltale signs that should have tipped me off to his feelings. I’d just been too blind to notice at the time.
Of course, it wouldn’t have mattered if I’d seen it coming or not. Adrian was totally unsuitable for me, and it had nothing to do with his many vices or potential descent into insanity. Adrian was a vampire. True, he was a Moroi—one of the good, living vampires—but it made no difference. Humans and vampires couldn’t be together. This was one point the Moroi and Alchemists stood firmly together on. It was still amazing to me that Adrian had voiced those feelings to me. It was amazing that he could even have them or that he’d had the nerve to kiss me, even if it was a kiss that had left me dizzy and breathless.
I’d had to reject him, of course. My training would allow nothing less. Our situation here in Palm Springs forced the two us to constantly be together in social situations, and it had been rough since his declaration. For me, it wasn’t just the awkwardness of our new relationship. I…well, I missed him. Before this debacle, he and I had been friends and spent a lot of time together. I’d gotten used to his smirky smile and the quick banter that always flowed between us. Until those things were gone, I hadn’t realized how much I relied on them. How much I needed them. I felt empty inside...which was ridiculous, of course. Why should I care so much about one vampire?
Sometimes it made me angry. Why had he ruined such a good thing between us? Why had he made me miss him so much? And what had he expected me to do? He had to have known it was impossible for us to be together. I couldn’t have feelings for him. I couldn’t. If we’d lived among the Keepers—a group of uncivilized vampires, humans, and dhampirs—maybe he and I could have…no. Even if I had feelings for him—and I firmly told myself I didn’t—it was wrong for us to even consider such a relationship.
Now, Adrian spoke to me as little as possible. And always, always, he watched me with a haunted look in his green eyes, one that made my heart ache and—
“Ah! What is that?”
I squirmed as Ms. Terwilliger dumped a bowl full of dried leaves and flowers over my head. I’d been so fixated on the cross and my memories that I hadn’t seen her coming.
“Rosemary,” she said matter-of-factly. “Hyssop. Anise. Don’t do that.” I’d reached up to pull some of the leaves out of my hair. “You need that for the spell.”
“Right,” I said, getting back to business. I set the cross carefully on the ground, trying to clear my mind of green, green eyes. “The spell that only I can do. Why is that again?”
“Because it has to be done by a virgin,” she explained. I tried not to grimace. Her words implied that she was not a virgin, and even if that made sense for a forty-year-old woman, it still wasn’t a thought I wanted to spend a lot of time on. “That, and the person we’re looking for has shielded herself from me. But you? You she won’t expect.”
I looked down at the shining mirror and understood. “This is a scrying spell. Why aren’t we doing the one I did before?”
Not that I was eager to repeat that spell. I’d used it to find someone, and it had involved me staring into a bowl of water for hours. Still, now that I knew how to do it, I knew I could perform it again. Besides, I didn’t like the idea of walking into a spell I knew nothing about. Words and herbs were one thing, but what else might she ask of me? Endanger my soul? Give up my blood?
“That spell only works for someone you know,” she explained. “This one will help you find someone you’ve never met before.”
I frowned. As much as I didn’t like magic, I did like problem solving—and the puzzles magic often presented intrigued me. “How will I know who to look for, then?”
Ms. Terwilliger handed me a photograph. My eyes had adjusted to the darkness, and I looked into the face of a pretty young woman. There was a striking resemblance between her and my teacher, though it wasn’t initially obvious. Rather than Ms. Terwilliger’s dull brown hair, this woman’s was dark, nearly black. She was also much more glamorous, dressed in a black satin evening gown that was a far cry from Ms. Terwilliger’s usual hippie attire. Despite those ostensible differences, the two women shared the same high cheekbones and aquiline eyes.
I glanced back up. “She’s related to you.”
“She’s my older sister,” Ms. Terwilliger confirmed, her voice remarkably flat. Older? I would’ve guessed this woman was at least ten years younger.
“Is she missing?” I asked. When I’d scried before, it had been to find a kidnapped friend.
Ms. Terwilliger’s lips twitched. “Not in the way you’re thinking.” From the never-ending duffle bag, she produced a small leather book and opened it to a marked page. Squinting at where she indicated, I could make out handwritten Latin words describing the mirror and herbal concoction she’d dumped on me. Following that were directions on how to use the spell. No bloodletting, thankfully.
“It sounds too simple,” I said suspiciously. I’d learned that spells that only had a few steps and components usually required a lot of mental energy. I’d passed out from the other scrying spell.
She nodded, guessing my thoughts. “It takes a lot of focus—more than the last one. But, as much as you don’t want to hear this, your strength has grown enough that you’ll probably have an easier time than before.”
I scowled. She was right. I didn’t want to hear that.
Or did I?
Part of me knew I should refuse to go along with this madness. Another part of me worried she’d abandon me in the desert if I didn’t help. And still another part was insanely curious to see how this would all work.
Taking a deep breath, I recited the book’s incantation and then set the picture in the middle of the mirror. I repeated the incantation and removed the picture. Leaning forward, I stared into the shining surface, trying to clear my mind and let myself become one with the darkness and moonlight. A hum of energy coursed through me, much more quickly than I expected. Nothing changed in the mirror right away, though. Only my reflection peered back at me, the poor lighting dulling my blond hair, which looked terrible both from sleeping on it and having a bunch of dried plants hanging in its strands.
The energy continued to build in me, growing surprisingly warm and exhilarating. I closed my eyes and sank into it. I felt like I was floating in the moonlight, like I was the moonlight. I could’ve stayed that way forever.
“Do you see anything?”
Ms. Terwilliger’s voice was an unwelcome interruption to my blissful state, but I obediently opened my eyes and looked into the mirror. My reflection was gone. A silvery gray mist hung in front of a building, but I knew the mist wasn’t physical. It was magically produced, a mental barrier to keep me from seeing the image that lay beyond it. Strengthening my will, I pushed my mind passed that barrier, and after a few moments, the mist shattered.
“I see a building.” My voice echoed oddly in the night. “An old Victorian house. Dark red, with a traditional covered porch. There are hydrangea bushes in front of it. There’s a sign too, but I can’t read it.”
“Can you tell where the house is?” My teacher’s voice seemed very far away. “Look around it.”
I tried to pull back, to extend my vision beyond the house. It took a few moments, but slowly, the image panned out as though I were watching a movie, revealing a neighborhood of similar houses, all Victorian with wide porches and creeping vines. They were a beautiful, perfect piece of history set in the modern world.
“Nothing exact,” I told her. “Just some quaint residential street.”
“Go back further. See the larger picture.”
I did, and it was like I drifted up into the sky, looking down upon the neighborhood the way some soaring bird would. The houses extended into more neighborhoods, which eventually gave way to industrial and commercial areas. I continued moving back. The businesses became more and more densely packed. More streets crisscrossed between them. The buildings grew taller and taller, eventually materializing into a familiar skyline.
“Los Angeles,” I said. “The house is on the outskirts of Los Angeles.”
I heard a sharp intake of breath, followed by: “Thank you, Miss Melbourne. That will be all.”
A hand suddenly waved across my field of vision, shattering the city image. Also shattered was that state of euphoria. I was no longer floating, no longer made of light. I came crashing down to reality, down to the rocky desert landscape and my stuffy pajamas. I felt exhausted and shaky, like I might faint. Ms. Terwilliger handed me a thermos full of orange juice. I drank it greedily, feeling better as the nutrients hit my system and strengthened me. Intense magic use depleted blood sugar.
“Does that help?” I asked, once I’d downed the thermos. A nagging voice inside me started to chastise about calories, but I ignored it. “Was that what you wanted to know?”
Ms. Terwilliger gave me a smile that didn’t extend to her eyes. “It helps, yes. Was it what I wanted?” She stared off into the distance. “No, not exactly. I was hoping you’d name some other city. Some city far, far away.”
I picked up my cross and refastened it around my neck. The familiar object brought on a sense of normality after what I’d just done. It also made me feel guilty, looking back on the euphoric high the magic had given me. Humans weren’t supposed to wield magic. They certainly weren’t supposed to enjoy it. Running my fingers over the cross’s surface, I found myself thinking of Adrian again. Had he ever worn it? Or had he just kept it around for luck? Had his fingers traced the cross’s shape like mine often did?
Ms. Terwilliger began gathering her things. When she stood up, I followed suit. “What does it mean exactly, ma’am?” I asked. “That I saw Los Angeles?”
I followed her back toward the car, and she didn’t answer right away. When she did, her voice was uncharacteristically grim. “It means that she’s much closer than I would like. It also means, whether you want to or not, you’re going to have to work on improving your magical skills very, very quickly.”
I came to a halt. Suddenly, I felt angry. Enough was enough. I was exhausted and ached all over. She’d dragged me out here in the middle of the night and now had the presumption to make a statement like that, when she knew how I felt about magic? Worse, her words frightened me. What did I have to do with this? This was her spell, her cause. Yet, she’d given the directive with such force, such certainty, that it almost seemed as though I was the reason we’d come out here to this wasteland.
“Ma’am—” I began.
Ms. Terwilliger spun around and leaned toward me, so that there were only a few inches between us. I gulped, swallowing whatever outraged words I’d been about to utter. I’d never seen her look like this. She wasn’t scary, not exactly, but there was an intensity I’d never seen before, far different from the usual scattered teacher I knew. She also looked…frightened. Life or death.
“Sydney,” she said, in a rare use of my first name. “Let me assure you that this is not some trick on my part. You will improve upon your skills, whether you like it or not. And it’s not because I’m cruel, not because I’m trying to fulfill some selfish desire. It’s not even because I hate seeing you waste your ability.”
“Then why?” I asked in a small voice. “Why do I need to learn more?”
The wind whispered around us, blowing some of the dried leaves and flowers from my hair. The shadows we cast took on an ominous feel, and the moonlight and starlight that had seemed so divine earlier now felt cold and harsh.
“Because,” Ms. Terwilliger said. “It’s for your own protection.”