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Authors: Richelle Mead

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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—

“Ahh!”

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.”

CHAPTER 7

I MIGHT HAVE BEEN DETERMINED
to find Marcus, but I certainly wasn’t going to argue against a gun.

I raised my hands in the air and slowly stood up, keeping my back to the newcomer.
Just as carefully, I stepped away from Marcus and set the vial on the floor. Fumes
still wafted out of it, but the reaction would burn itself out soon. Then I dared
a peek behind me. When I saw the girl who stood there, I could barely believe my eyes.

“Are you okay?” she asked Marcus. He was unsteadily getting to his feet. “I left as
soon as you called.”

“You!” I couldn’t quite manage anything more articulate.

The girl standing before me was close to my age, with long, tangled blond hair. She
still had the gun on me, but a small smile appeared on her face.

“Nice to see you again.”

The feeling wasn’t mutual. I’d last seen this girl when I faced down the Warriors
in their arena. She’d been toting a gun there as well and had had a perpetual snarl
on her face. She’d pushed me around and threatened me, making no secret of how heretical
she thought my defense of Sonya was. Although she seemed much calmer now than she
had with those fanatics, I still couldn’t dismiss what she was—or what the implications
were. I turned to Marcus in disbelief. He was cradling the wrist I’d nailed with my
elbow.

“You . . . you’re one of them! One of the Warriors of Light!”

I don’t think I’d ever been so let down in my life. I’d had so many hopes pinned on
Marcus. He’d become larger than life in my mind, some rebel savior who was going to
tell me all the secrets of the world and free me from being another cog in the machine
of the Alchemists. But it was all a lie. Clarence had mentioned Marcus had convinced
the Warriors to leave him alone. I’d assumed it was because Marcus had some incredible
leverage he could use against the Warriors, but apparently, the key to his influence
was that he was one of them.

He looked up from his wrist. “What? Those nuts? Hell, no.”

I almost pointed at the girl but decided it would be best not to make any sudden moves.
I settled for a nod in her direction and noticed all the locks on the door had been
undone. I’d been so caught up in the struggle with Marcus that I hadn’t heard them.
“Really? Then how come one of them just saved you?”

“I’m not really one of them.” She spoke almost casually, but the gun contradicted
her tone. “I mean, I guess I kind of am. . . .”

“Sabrina’s a spy,” explained Marcus. He looked much more at ease too, now that I wasn’t
assaulting him. “A lovely one. She’s been undercover with them for over a year. She’s
also the one who told me about you.”

Once again, it was hard knowing how to respond to that. I also wasn’t sure if I bought
this spy story. “What exactly did you tell him?”

He shot me a movie star smile. His teeth were so white that I wondered if he had veneers.
It seemed out of character for a rogue who lived on the run, but nothing about this
day was really turning out like I’d expected. “She told me about this Alchemist girl
who defended a Moroi and then helped lead a dhampir raiding party.”

Lead? Hardly. No one—notably Stanton—had felt the need to enlighten me about that
raid until I was in the middle of it. I didn’t want to tip my hand too early, though.
“The Alchemists sanctioned that raid,” I said.

“I saw the way you spoke,” said Sabrina. Her eyes flicked between Marcus and me, fierce
for me and admiring for him. “It was inspiring. And we watched you for a while, you
know. You spent an awful lot of time with the Moroi and dhampirs in Palm Springs.”

“It’s my job,” I said. She hadn’t really seemed inspired at the time. Mostly she’d
looked disappointed at not having a chance to use the gun on me.

Marcus’s smile turned knowing. “From what I heard, you and those Moroi almost looked
like friends. And then, here you are, looking for me. You’re definitely the dissident
we’d hoped for.”

No, this was not turning out at all like I’d planned. In fact, it was pretty much
the opposite of what I’d planned. I’d been so proud of my ability to track down Marcus,
little knowing that he’d been watching me already. I didn’t like that. It made me
feel vulnerable, even if they were saying some of things I’d hoped to hear. Needing
to feel like I was in control, I tried to play it cool and tough.

“Maybe there are other Alchemists about to show up,” I said.

“They would’ve been here already,” he said, calling my bluff. “They wouldn’t have
sent you alone . . . though I did panic when I first saw you. I didn’t realize who
you were and thought there were others right behind you.” He paused, and that cocky
attitude turned sheepish. “Sorry about, um, punching you. If it makes you feel better,
you did something pretty serious to my wrist.”

Sabrina’s face filled with concern. “Oh, Marcus. Do you need to see a doctor?”

He tested the movement of his wrist and then shook his head. “You know we can’t. Never
know who might be watching at a hospital. Those places are too easy to monitor.”

“You really are hiding from the Alchemists,” I said in amazement.

His nodded, almost looking proud. “You doubted? I figured you’d know that.”

“I suspected, but I didn’t hear it from them. They deny you exist.”

He seemed to find that funny. In fact, he seemed to find everything funny, which I
found slightly irritating. “Yup. That’s what I’ve heard from the others.”

“What others?”

“Others like you.” Those blue eyes held me for a moment, like they could see all my
secrets. “Other Alchemists wanting to break free of the fold.”

I knew my own eyes were wide. “There . . . there are others?”

Marcus settled on the floor, leaning against the wall and still cradling his wrist.
“Let’s get comfortable. Sabrina, put the gun away. I don’t think Sydney’s going to
give us any trouble.”

Sabrina didn’t look so sure of that, but after several moments, she complied. She
joined him on the floor, positioning herself protectively next to him. “I’d rather
stand,” I told them. No way would I willingly sit on that filth. After rolling around
with Marcus, I wanted to go bathe myself in hand sanitizer.

He shrugged. “Suit yourself. You want some answers? You give me some first. Why’d
you come looking for me off the Alchemist clock?”

I didn’t like being interrogated, but what was the point of being here if I wasn’t
going to engage in a dialogue?

“Clarence told me about you,” I said at last. “He showed me your picture, and I saw
how you’d tattooed over the lily. I didn’t even know that was possible.” The tattoo
never faded.

“Clarence Donahue?” Marcus looked genuinely pleased. “He’s a good guy. I suppose you’d
be friends with him if you’re in Palm Springs, huh?”

I started to say we weren’t friends but then reconsidered. What else were we?

“Getting this isn’t easy,” added Marcus, tapping the blue tattoo. “You’ll have to
do a lot of work if you want to do it.”

I stepped backward. “Whoa, I never said that’s what I wanted. And why in the world
would I do it anyway?”

“Because it’ll free you,” he said simply. “It prevents you from discussing vampire
affairs, right? You don’t think that’s all it does, do you? Think. What stops it from
exerting other control?”

I pretty much had to just give up on any expectations for this conversation because
every topic was crazier than the last. “I’ve never heard of anything like that. I’ve
never felt anything like that. Aside from it protecting vampire information, I’m in
control.”

He nodded. “Probably. The initial tattoo usually only has the talking compulsion in
it. They only start adding other components with re-inks if they’ve got a reason to
worry about you. People can sometimes fight through those and if they do . . . well,
then it’s off to re-education.”

His words sent a chill through me, and I rested a hand on my cheek as I flashbacked
to the meeting I’d had when I was given the Palm Springs assignment. “I was re-inked
recently . . . but it was routine.” Routine. Normal. Nothing like what he was suggesting.

“Maybe.” He tilted his head and gave me another piercing look. “You do anything bad
before that, love?”

Like helping a dhampir fugitive? “Depends on your definition of bad.”

Both of them laughed. Marcus’s laugh was loud and rollicking and actually pretty infectious—but
the situation was far too dire for me to join in.

“They may have reinforced your group loyalty then,” he said, still chuckling. “But
it either wasn’t very strong or else you fought through it—otherwise you wouldn’t
be here.” He glanced over at Sabrina. “What do you think?”

Sabrina studied me with a critical eye. I still had a hard time believing her role
in all of this. “I think she’d be a good addition. And since she’s still in, she could
help us with that . . . other matter.”

“I think so too,” he said.

I crossed my arms over my chest. I didn’t like being discussed as though I weren’t
there. “A good addition to what?”

“Our group.” To Sabrina, he said, “We really need a name for it, you know.” She snorted,
and he returned his attention to me. “We’re a mix. Some are former Warriors or double
agents like Sabrina. Some are ex-Alchemists.”

“And what do you do?” I gestured around us. “This doesn’t exactly look like a high-tech
base of operation for some covert team.”

“Look at you. Pretty and funny,” he said, looking delighted. “We do what you do—or
what you want to do. We like the Moroi. We want to help them—on our own terms. The
Alchemists theoretically want to help them too, but we all know that’s based on a
core of fear and dislike—not to mention a strict control of its members. So, we work
in secret, seeing as the Alchemists aren’t fans of those who break from the fold.
They
really
aren’t fans of me, which is why I end up in places like this.”

“We keep an eye on the Warriors too,” said Sabrina. She scowled. “I hate being around
those nuts, having to play along with them. They claim they only want to destroy the
Strigoi—but, well, the things I’ve heard them say against the Moroi too . . .”

I thought back to one of my more disturbing memories of the Warrior arena. I’d heard
one of them make a mysterious comment about how someday, they’d deal with the Moroi
too.

“But what do you guys actually
do
?” Talking about rebellions and covert operations was one thing, but actually effecting
change was another. I’d visited my sister Carly at her college and seen a number of
student groups who wanted to change the world. Most of them sat around drinking coffee,
talking a lot and doing little.

Marcus and Sabrina exchanged glances. “I can’t quite get into our operations,” he
said. “Not until I know you’re on board with breaking your tattoo.”

Breaking your tattoo.
There was something sinister—not to mention permanent—about those words, and I suddenly
wondered what I was doing here. Who were these people, really? Why was I even humoring
them? Then another, almost terrifying thought hit me:
Am I doubting them because of the tattoo’s control? Is it making me skeptical around
anyone who questions the Alchemists? Is Marcus telling the truth?

“I don’t really understand that either,” I told them. “What it means to ‘break’ the
tattoo. Do you just mean putting ink over it?”

Marcus stood up. “All in good time. Right now, we’ve got to get out of here. Even
if you were discreet, I assume you used Alchemist resources to find me?”

I hesitated. Even if these guys were legitimate and had good intentions toward the
Moroi, I certainly wasn’t going to reveal my involvement with magic. “Something like
that.”

“I’m sure you’re good, but we can’t take the chance. This place has been compromised.”
He cast a wistful glance around the studio. Honestly, I thought he should be grateful
I’d given him a reason to leave.

Sabrina rose as well, her face hardening. “I’ll make sure the secondary location is
ready.”

“You’re an angel, as always,” he told her.

“Hey, how did you know I was coming?” I asked. “You had time to hide and call her.”
What I really wanted to know was how he’d seen me through the invisibility spell.
I’d felt the magic fill me. I was certain I’d cast the spell correctly, but he’d discovered
me. The spell wouldn’t work if someone knew to look for you, so maybe he’d happened
to glance out the window when I was scaling the fire escape? Worst timing ever.

“Tony warned me.” Marcus flashed me another of those dazzling grins. I think he was
trying to make me smile back. “Good kid.”

Tony? Then I knew. The boy in the parking lot. He’d pretended to help me and then
sold me out. He must have spoken to Marcus while I climbed the fire escape. Maybe
Marcus only answered to some secret knock. At least I had the comfort of knowing I’d
cast the spell correctly. It simply hadn’t worked because Marcus had advance warning
that some girl was coming after him.

He began packing up his meager belongings into a backpack. “
The Catcher in the Rye
is a great book, by the way.” He winked. “Maybe someday we’ll have a literary discussion.”

I wasn’t interested in that. Watching him, I saw that he kept favoring his uninjured
wrist. I couldn’t believe I’d caused damage like that and felt a little guilty, despite
everything that had happened. “You should get that taken care of,” I said. Sabrina
nodded in agreement.

He sighed. “I can’t. At least, not through conventional means. The Alchemists have
eyes everywhere.”

Conventional means.

“I, uh, might be able to help you get it healed through unconventional means,” I said.

“You know some off-the-grid doctor?” asked Sabrina hopefully.

“No. But I know a Moroi spirit user.”

Marcus froze, and I kind of liked that I’d thrown him off guard. “Seriously? We’ve
heard of them but never met one. That woman they had—Sonya? She was one, right? She
was gone before we could find out more.”

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