Wednesday, July 31, 2019
The Indigo Spell Chapter Thirteen
WADE TOLD ME EVERYTHING he knew. It was all useful, but I didn't know if it would be enough. First, I had to get to St. Louis . . . and that was going to be tricky. I braced myself for the phone calls I'd have to make, hoping I had enough Alchemist wiles to pull them off. Before I took on that task, I just wanted the normality and comfort of my own room. Eddie and I drove back to Amberwood, analyzing every detail of our meeting. He was chomping at the bit to make progress, and I promised I'd keep him in the loop. I had just reached my door when my phone rang. It was Ms. Terwilliger. I swear, sometimes I thought she had a sensor outside my room so that she'd know the instant I returned. Ã¢â¬Å"Miss Melbourne,Ã¢â¬ she said. Ã¢â¬Å"We need to meet.Ã¢â¬ My heart stopped. Ã¢â¬Å"There hasn't been another victim, has there? You said we have time.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"We do,Ã¢â¬ she replied. Ã¢â¬Å"Which is why we need to meet sooner rather than later. Reading up on spells is one thing, but you require some hands-on practice. I refuse to let Veronica get to you.Ã¢â¬ Her words triggered a mix of emotions. Naturally, I had my knee-jerk reaction against practicing magic. It was quickly squashed by the realization that Ms. Terwilliger cared about me and was so concerned about keeping me safe. My own personal desire to not be in a coma was also a strong motivator. Ã¢â¬Å"When do you want to meet, ma'am?Ã¢â¬ I asked. Ã¢â¬Å"Tomorrow morning.Ã¢â¬ I realized tomorrow was Saturday. Already? Where had the week gone? I was driving Adrian to pick up his car in the morning, which hopefully wouldn't take a long time. Ã¢â¬Å"Could we meet at noon? I've got an errand to run.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"I suppose so,Ã¢â¬ said Ms. Terwilliger, with some reluctance. Ã¢â¬Å"Meet me at my place, and then we'll go out to Lone Rock Park.Ã¢â¬ I was about to lie back on my bed and froze. Ã¢â¬Å"Why do we have to go out to the middle of the desert?Ã¢â¬ Lone Rock Park was remote and rarely saw many tourists. I hadn't forgotten how terrifying it was the last time she'd brought me out into the wilderness. At least this time we'd be in daylight. Ã¢â¬Å"Well, we can hardly practice on school grounds,Ã¢â¬ she pointed out Ã¢â¬Å"True. . . .Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Bring your book, and the components you've been working on.Ã¢â¬ We disconnected, and I jotted out a quick text to Adrian: Need to be fast tomorrow. Meeting Ms. T at 12. His response wasn't entirely unexpected: Why? Adrian naturally needed to know everything that was going on in my life. I texted back that Ms. Terwilliger wanted to work on magical protection. This time, he did surprise me: Can I watch? Wanna know how she's protecting you. Wow, Adrian actually asked? He had a history of simply inviting himself along on outings. I hesitated, still confused after our heated moment at the sorority. He'd never mentioned it again, though, and his concern now touched me. I texted back that he could come along and was rewarded with a smiley face. I didn't entirely know what to wear to Ã¢â¬Å"magical training,Ã¢â¬ so I opted for comfortable layers the next morning. Adrian gave me a once-over when he got into Latte. Ã¢â¬Å"Casual mode, huh? Haven't seen that since the Wolfe days.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"I don't know what she has in mind,Ã¢â¬ I explained, doing a U-turn on his street. Ã¢â¬Å"Figured this was best.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"You could have worn your AYE shirt.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Wouldn't want to get it dirty,Ã¢â¬ I said, grinning. That was partially true. I still thought the fiery heart he'd painted was exquisite. But each time I looked at the shirt, too many memories seized me. What had I been thinking? That was a question I'd asked myself a hundred times, and every answer I came up with sounded fake. My preferred theory was that I'd simply been caught up in how serious Adrian had been about his art, how the emotion and passion had seized hold of him. Girls liked artists just as much as bad boys, right? Even now, something stirred in my chest when I thought about the enraptured look on his face. I loved that he possessed something so powerful in him. But, as I told myself constantly, that was no excuse for climbing all over him and letting him kiss me Ã¢â¬â on my neck. I'd bought and downloaded the Ã¢â¬Å"bad boyÃ¢â¬ book online, but it had been completely useless in advising me. I finally decided the best way Ã¢â¬â if not the healthiest one Ã¢â¬â was to act like the moment had never happened. That didn't mean I forgot it. In fact, as I sat beside him in the car, I had a difficult time not thinking about how it had felt to be pressed up against him. Or how his fingers had felt entangled in my hair. Or how his lips had Ã¢â¬â Sydney! Stop. Think of something else. Conjugate Latin verbs. Recite the periodic table. None of those did any good. To Adrian's credit, he continued to withhold any commentary about that night. Finally, I found distraction in telling him about my trip to San Bernardino. Rehashing the conspiracy, rebel groups, and break-ins pretty much killed any passionate feelings I still had. Adrian didn't like the idea of Alchemists working with Warriors or of the tattoo controlling me. But he also didn't like me walking into danger. I tried to downplay the near impossibility of breaking into the St. Louis facility, but he clearly didn't believe me. Ms. Terwilliger texted me twice not to be late to our meeting. I kept an eye on my watch, but the care of a Mustang was not something I took lightly, and I had to take my time at the mechanic's shop to make sure the Mustang was in pristine condition. Adrian had wanted to go with basic tires, but I'd urged him to upgrade, convincing him the extra cost would be worth it. And once I inspected them, I congratulated myself on the choice. Only after I was satisfied the car hadn't been unnecessarily scratched did I finally allow him to pay. We drove both cars back to Vista Azul, and I was pleased to see my timing was perfect. We weren't late, but Ms. Terwilliger was waiting on her porch for us. We designated Adrian as our carpool driver. Ã¢â¬Å"Jeez,Ã¢â¬ I said when she hurriedly got in the car. Ã¢â¬Å"Do you have somewhere to be after this?Ã¢â¬ The smile she gave me was strained, and I couldn't help but notice how pale she looked. Ã¢â¬Å"No, but we do have a schedule to follow. I cast a large spell this morning that won't last forever. The countdown is on.Ã¢â¬ She wouldn't say any more until we reached the park, and that silence unnerved me. It gave me the opportunity to imagine all sorts of frightening outcomes. And although I trusted her, I suddenly felt relieved that Adrian was along as a chaperone. Although it wasn't the busiest place, Lone Rock Park still had the occasional hiker. Ms. Terwilliger Ã¢â¬â who was actually in hiking boots Ã¢â¬â set off across the rocky terrain, searching for a suitably remote space to do whatever it was she had in mind. A few stratified rock formations dotted the landscape, but I couldn't really appreciate their beauty. Mostly I was aware that we were out here when the sun was at its fiercest. Even if it was almost winter, we'd still be feeling the heat. I glanced over at Adrian as we walked and found him already looking at me. From his jacket pocket, he produced a bottle of sunscreen. Ã¢â¬Å"I knew you'd ask. I'm nearly as prepared as you are.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Nearly,Ã¢â¬ I said. He'd done it again, anticipating my thoughts. For half a heartbeat, I pretended it was just the two of us out on a pleasant afternoon hike. It seemed like most of the time we spent together was on some urgent mission. How nice would it be to just hang out without the weight of the world on us? Ms. Terwilliger soon brought us back to our grim reality. Ã¢â¬Å"This should do,Ã¢â¬ she said, surveying the land around her. She had managed to find one of the most desolate areas in the park. I wouldn't have been surprised to see vultures circling overhead. Ã¢â¬Å"Did you bring what I asked for?Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Yes, ma'am.Ã¢â¬ I knelt on the ground and rifled through my bag. In it was the spell book, along with some herbal and liquid compounds I'd mixed up at her request. Ã¢â¬Å"Take out the fireball kindling,Ã¢â¬ she instructed. Adrian's eyes went wide. Ã¢â¬Å"Did you just say Ã¢â¬Ëfireball'? That's badass.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"You see fire all the time,Ã¢â¬ I reminded him. Ã¢â¬Å"From Moroi who can wield it.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Yeah, but I've never seen a human do anything like that. I've never seen you do anything like that.Ã¢â¬ I wished he didn't look so awestruck because it kind of drove home the severity of what we were about to attempt. I would've felt better if he'd treated it like it was no big deal. But this spell? Yeah, it was kind of a big deal. I'd once performed another spell that involved throwing a painstakingly made amulet and reciting words that made it burst into flames. That one had a huge physical component, however. This spell was another of those mental ones and essentially involved summoning fire out of thin air. The kindling Ms. Terwilliger had referred to was a small drawstring bag filled with ashes made from burnt yew bark. She took the bag from me and examined its contents, murmuring in approval. Ã¢â¬Å"Yes, yes. Very nice. Excellent consistency. You burned it for exactly the right amount of time.Ã¢â¬ She handed the bag back. Ã¢â¬Å"Now, eventually you won't need this. That's what makes this spell so powerful. It can be performed very quickly, with very little preparation. But you have to practice first before you can reach that point.Ã¢â¬ I nodded along and tried to stay in student mode. So far, what she was saying was similar to what the book had described. If I thought of all this as a classroom exercise, it was much less daunting. Not really scary at all. Ms. Terwilliger tilted her head and looked past me. Ã¢â¬Å"Adrian? You might want to keep your distance. A considerable distance.Ã¢â¬ Okay. Maybe a little scary. He obeyed and backed up. Ms. Terwilliger apparently had no such fear for herself because she stayed only a few feet away from me. Ã¢â¬Å"Now then,Ã¢â¬ she said. Ã¢â¬Å"Apply the ashes, and hold out your hand.Ã¢â¬ I reached into the bag, touching the ashes with my thumb and forefinger. Then I lightly rubbed all my fingers together until my whole palm had a fine gray coating on it. I set the bag down and then held out my hand in front of me, palm up. I knew what came next but waited for her instruction. Ã¢â¬Å"Summon your magic to call the flame back from the ashes. No incantation, just your will.Ã¢â¬ Magic surged within me. Calling an element from the world reminded me a little of what the Moroi did, which felt strange. My attempt started off as a red glimmer, hovering in the air above my palm. Slowly, it grew and grew until it was about the size of a tennis ball. The high of magic filled me. I held my breath, scarcely able to believe what I had just done. The red flames writhed and swirled, and although I could feel their heat, they didn't burn me. Ms. Terwilliger gave a grunt that seemed to be equal parts amusement and surprise. Ã¢â¬Å"Remarkable. I forget sometimes what a natural you really are. It's only red, but something tells me, it won't take long before you can produce blue ones without the ashes. Calling elements out of the air is easier than trying to transform one substance into another.Ã¢â¬ I stared at the fireball, entranced, but soon found myself getting tired. The flames flickered, shrank, and then faded away altogether. Ã¢â¬Å"The sooner you get rid of it, the better,Ã¢â¬ she told me. Ã¢â¬Å"You'll just use up your own energy trying to sustain it. Best to throw it at your adversary and quickly summon another. Try again, and this time, throw it.Ã¢â¬ I called the fire once more and felt a small bit of satisfaction at seeing it take on more of an orange hue. I'd learned in my very first childhood chemistry lessons that the lighter a flame was, the hotter it burned. Getting to blue anytime soon still seemed like a long shot. And speaking of long shots . . . I threw the fireball. Or, well, I tried. My control of it faltered when I attempted to send it off toward a bare patch of ground. The fireball splintered apart, the flames disappearing into smoke that was carried off by the wind. Ã¢â¬Å"It's hard,Ã¢â¬ I said, knowing how lame that sounded. Ã¢â¬Å"Trying to hold it and throw it is just like an ordinary physical thing. I have to do that while still controlling the magic.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Exactly.Ã¢â¬ Ms. Terwilliger seemed very pleased. Ã¢â¬Å"And that's where the practice comes in.Ã¢â¬ Fortunately, it didn't take too many attempts before I figured out how to make it all work together. Adrian cheered me on when I successfully managed to throw my first fireball, resulting in a beautiful shot that perfectly hit the rock I'd been aiming for. I flashed Ms. Terwilliger a triumphant look and waited for the next spell we'd be moving on to. To my surprise, she didn't seem nearly as impressed as I expected her to be. Ã¢â¬Å"Do it again,Ã¢â¬ she said. Ã¢â¬Å"But I've got it down,Ã¢â¬ I protested. Ã¢â¬Å"We should try something else. I was reading the other part of the book Ã¢â¬â Ã¢â¬Å" Ã¢â¬Å"You have no business doing that yet,Ã¢â¬ she scolded. Ã¢â¬Å"You think this is exhausting? You'd pass out attempting one of the more advanced spells. Now.Ã¢â¬ She pointed at the hard desert floor. Ã¢â¬Å"Again.Ã¢â¬ I wanted to tell her that it was impossible for me not to read ahead in a book. It was just how I operated with all my classes. Something told me now was not the best time to bring that up. She made me practice the throw over and over. Once she was convinced I had it down, she had me work on increasing the fire's heat. I finally managed to get up to yellow but could go no farther. Then I had to work on casting the spell without the ashes. Once I reached that milestone, it was back to practicing the throws. She picked various targets for me, and I hit them all effortlessly. Ã¢â¬Å"Just like Skee-Ball,Ã¢â¬ I muttered. Ã¢â¬Å"Easy and boring.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Yes,Ã¢â¬ Ms. Terwilliger agreed. Ã¢â¬Å"It's easy hitting inanimate objects. But moving targets? Living targets? Not quite so easy. So, let's move on to that, shall we?Ã¢â¬ The fireball I'd been holding above my hand vanished as shock shattered my control. Ã¢â¬Å"What do you mean?Ã¢â¬ If she expected me to start aiming at birds or rodents, she was in for a rude awakening. There was no way I was going to incinerate something alive. Ã¢â¬Å"What am I supposed to hit?Ã¢â¬ Ms. Terwilliger pushed her glasses up her nose and backed up several feet. Ã¢â¬Å"Me.Ã¢â¬ I waited for the punch line or at least some further explanation, but none came. I glanced behind me at Adrian, hoping perhaps he might shed some light on this, but he looked as astounded as I felt. I turned back to the singed ground where my earlier fireballs had struck. Ã¢â¬Å"Ms. Terwilliger, you can't ask me to hit you.Ã¢â¬ Her lips twitched into a small half smile. Ã¢â¬Å"I assure you, I can. Go ahead, you can't hurt me.Ã¢â¬ I had to think a few moments for how to phrase my next response. Ã¢â¬Å"I'm a pretty good shot, ma'am. I can hit you.Ã¢â¬ This earned an outright laugh. Ã¢â¬Å"Hit, yes. Hurt, no. Go ahead and throw. Our time is running out.Ã¢â¬ I didn't know how much time had passed exactly, but the sun was definitely lower in the sky. I looked back at Adrian, silently asking for help in dealing with this insanity. His only response was a shrug. Ã¢â¬Å"You're a witness to this,Ã¢â¬ I told him. Ã¢â¬Å"You heard her tell me to do it.Ã¢â¬ He nodded. Ã¢â¬Å"You're totally blameless.Ã¢â¬ I took a deep breath and summoned my next fireball. I was so frazzled that it started off red, and I had to work to heat it up. Then I looked up at Ms. Terwilliger and braced myself for the shot. It was more difficult than I expected Ã¢â¬â and not just because I was worried about hurting her. Throwing something at the ground required almost no thought. The focus there was on aim and little else. But facing a person, seeing her eyes and the way her chest rose and fell while breathing . . . well, she was right. It was entirely different from hitting an inanimate object. I began to tremble, unsure if I could do it. Ã¢â¬Å"You're wasting time,Ã¢â¬ she warned. Ã¢â¬Å"You're sapping energy again. Throw.Ã¢â¬ The command in her voice jolted me to action. I threw. The fireball flew from my hand, straight at her Ã¢â¬â but it never made contact. I couldn't believe my eyes. About a foot in front of her, it hit some kind of invisible barrier, smashing apart into small flames, which quickly dissipated into smoke. My jaw dropped. Ã¢â¬Å"What is that?Ã¢â¬ I exclaimed. Ã¢â¬Å"A very, very powerful shielding spell,Ã¢â¬ she said, clearly enjoying my reaction. She lifted up a pendant that had been hanging under her shirt. It didn't look like anything special, just a piece of unpolished carnelian wrapped in silver wire. Ã¢â¬Å"It took incredible effort to make this . . . and requires more effort still in order to maintain it. The result is an invisible shield Ã¢â¬â as you can see Ã¢â¬â that's impervious to most physical and magical attacks.Ã¢â¬ Adrian was by my side in a flash. Ã¢â¬Å"Hang on. There's a spell that makes you invulnerable to everything, and you only now just thought to mention it? You've been going on this whole time about how Sydney's in danger! Why don't you just teach her this one? Then your sister can't touch her.Ã¢â¬ Although it didn't seem like Adrian was about to attack her as he had Marcus, he was almost just as upset. His face was flushed, his eyes hard. He had clenched his fists at his side, but I didn't even think he noticed. It was more of that primal instinct. Ms. Terwilliger remained strong in the face of his outrage. Ã¢â¬Å"If it were that simple, then believe me, I would. Unfortunately, there are a number of problems. One is that Sydney, prodigy that she is, is nowhere near strong enough to cast this. I'm hardly strong enough. The other problem is that it has an extremely short time frame, which is why I've been so adamant about a schedule. It only lasts six hours and requires so much effort that you can't just cast it and permanently keep it on you at all times. I'm already worn out and will be even more so once it fades. I won't be able to cast it Ã¢â¬â or hardly any other magic Ã¢â¬â for at least another day. That's why I need Sydney to be prepared at all times.Ã¢â¬ Neither Adrian nor I said anything right away. I'd taken note of her weary state when she got in the car but hadn't thought much more about it. As we'd continued to practice out here, I'd observed her sweating and looking more fatigued, but I'd written it off to the heat. Only now could I fully appreciate the extent of what she had done. Ã¢â¬Å"Why would you go to so much effort?Ã¢â¬ I asked. Ã¢â¬Å"To keep you alive,Ã¢â¬ she snapped. Ã¢â¬Å"Now, don't make this a waste. We've only got one more hour before it wears off, and you need to be able to aim at someone without thinking twice. You hesitate too much.Ã¢â¬ She was right. Even knowing that she was invulnerable, I still had a difficult time attacking her. Violence just wasn't something I embraced. I had to push down all my inner worries and treat it exactly like Skee-Ball. Aim, throw. Aim, throw. Don't think. Soon, I was able to fight past my anxieties and throw without hesitation. She even tried moving around a little, just to give me a better feel for what it'd be like with a real foe, but I didn't find it to be much of a challenge. She was simply too tired and unable to run around or dodge me. I actually started to feel bad for her. She looked like she was about ready to pass out, and I felt guilty sizing up my next shot and Ã¢â¬â Ã¢â¬Å"Ahh!Ã¢â¬ Fire arced from Ms. Terwilliger's fingertips just as I released my fireball. My shot went wide, the ball disintegrating before it got anywhere near her. The fire she'd released passed me, about a foot away. With a weary grin, she sank to her knees and exhaled. Ã¢â¬Å"Class dismissed,Ã¢â¬ she said. Ã¢â¬Å"What was that?Ã¢â¬ I asked. Ã¢â¬Å"I don't have a magic shield on me!Ã¢â¬ She didn't display my same concern. Ã¢â¬Å"It was nowhere near you. I made sure of that. It was simply to prove that no matter how Ã¢â¬Ëboring and easy' this seems, all bets are off when someone is actually attacking you. Now then. Adrian, would you be kind enough to bring me my bag? I have some dried dates in there that I think both Sydney and I would appreciate right about now.Ã¢â¬ She was right. I'd been so caught up in the lesson that I hadn't noticed how exhausted I had become. She was in worse shape, but the magic had definitely taken its toll on me. I'd never worked with amounts this big for so long, and my body felt weak and drained as the usual blood sugar drop occurred. I began to understand why she kept warning me away from the really difficult stuff. I practically inhaled the dried dates she'd brought for us, and although the sugar helped, I was desperate for more. Adrian gallantly helped us both walk back to the parking lot at the park's entrance, keeping one of us on each arm. Ã¢â¬Å"Too bad we're out in the middle of nowhere,Ã¢â¬ I grumbled, once we were all in Adrian's car. Ã¢â¬Å"I think you'd be amazed at how much I could eat right now. I'll probably faint before we're back to some civilization and restaurants.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Actually,Ã¢â¬ said Adrian. Ã¢â¬Å"You might be in luck. I think I saw a place not far from here when we were driving in.Ã¢â¬ I hadn't noticed anything, but I'd been too preoccupied worrying about Ms. Terwilliger's upcoming lesson. Five minutes after we were back on the highway, I saw that Adrian was right about a restaurant. He exited onto a drab little road, pulling into the gravel parking lot of a small but freshly painted white building. I stared at the sign out front in disbelief. Ã¢â¬Å"Pies and Stuff?Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"You wanted sugar,Ã¢â¬ Adrian reminded me. The Mustang kicked up dust and gravel, and I winced on behalf of the car. Ã¢â¬Å"And at least it's not Pies and Bait or anything like that.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Yeah, but the Ã¢â¬ËStuff' part isn't exactly reassuring.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"I thought it was more the Ã¢â¬ËPie' part that had you upset.Ã¢â¬ Despite my misgivings, Pies and Stuff was actually a cute and clean little establishment. Polka-dot curtains hung in the windows, and the display case was filled with every pie imaginable as well as Ã¢â¬Å"stuffÃ¢â¬ like carrot cake and brownies. We were the only people under sixty in the whole place. We ordered our pie and sat down with it in a corner booth. I ordered peach, Adrian had French silk, and Ms. Terwilliger went with pecan. And of course, she and I had the waitress bring us coffee as soon as humanly possible since we'd had to abstain, painfully, for the magic. I took a sip and immediately felt better. Adrian ate his slice at a reasonable rate, like a normal person, but Ms. Terwilliger and I dug in as though we hadn't eaten in a month. Conversation was irrelevant. Only pie mattered. Adrian regarded us both with delight and didn't try to interrupt until we'd practically licked the plates clean. He nodded toward mine. Ã¢â¬Å"Another piece?Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"I'll take more coffee.Ã¢â¬ I eyed the sparkling plate and couldn't help but notice that inner voice that used to nag me about calories was quiet these days. In fact, it didn't seem to be around anymore at all. I'd been so angry about Adrian's food Ã¢â¬Å"intervention,Ã¢â¬ but his words had ended up having a bigger impact than I'd expected. Not that it had anything to do with him personally, of course. Lightening up my dieting restrictions was just a reasonable idea. That was it. Ã¢â¬Å"I feel pretty good now.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"I'll get you another cup,Ã¢â¬ he told me. When he returned, he even had a mug for Ms. Terwilliger. Ã¢â¬Å"Figured you'd want one too.Ã¢â¬ She smiled in appreciation. Ã¢â¬Å"Thank you. You're very astute.Ã¢â¬ As she drank, I couldn't help but notice she still looked tired, despite the fact that we'd just replenished with sugar. She no longer seemed in danger of passing out, but it was obvious she hadn't recovered as quickly as I had. Ã¢â¬Å"Are you sure you're okay?Ã¢â¬ I asked her. Ã¢â¬Å"Don't worry, I'll be fine.Ã¢â¬ She sipped more coffee, her face lost in thought. Ã¢â¬Å"It's been years since I performed the shield spell. I forgot how much it takes out of me.Ã¢â¬ I was again struck by all the trouble she'd gone through for me. Ever since she'd identified me as a potential magic user, I'd done nothing but resist her and even be antagonistic. Ã¢â¬Å"Thanks,Ã¢â¬ I told her. Ã¢â¬Å"For everything . . . I wish there was a way I could make it up to you.Ã¢â¬ She set her cup down and stirred in more sugar. Ã¢â¬Å"I'm happy to do it. There's no need to reciprocate. Although . . . once this is all over, I'd like very much if you'd meet my coven. I'm not asking you to join,Ã¢â¬ she added quickly. Ã¢â¬Å"Just to talk. I think you'd find the Stelle very interesting.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Stelle,Ã¢â¬ I repeated. She'd never called them by name before. Ã¢â¬Å"The stars.Ã¢â¬ Ms. Terwilliger nodded. Ã¢â¬Å"Yes. Our origins are Italian, though as you've seen already the magic we use comes from a number of cultures.Ã¢â¬ I was at a loss for words. She'd gone to so much trouble for me . . . surely it wasn't a big deal just to talk to the other witches, right? But if it was such a small thing, then why was I terrified? The answer came to me a few moments later. Talking to others, seeing the larger organization, would kick my involvement with magic up to the next level. It had taken me a long time to come around to the magic I already used. I'd overcome many of my fears, but some part of me treated it as just some sideline activity. Like a hobby. Meeting other witches would change everything. I would have to accept that I was part of something so much bigger than just the occasional dabbling. Meeting a coven seemed official. And I didn't know if I was ready to be considered a witch. Ã¢â¬Å"I'll think about it,Ã¢â¬ I said at last. I wished I could give her more, but my protective instincts had seized me Ã¢â¬Å"I'll take what I can get,Ã¢â¬ she said with a small smile. Her phone chimed, and she glanced down. Ã¢â¬Å"Speaking of the Stelle, I need to talk to one of my sisters. I'll meet you at the car.Ã¢â¬ She finished her coffee and headed outside. Adrian and I followed a few minutes later. I was still troubled about the coven and caught hold of his sleeve to keep him back. I spoke softly. Ã¢â¬Å"Adrian, when did I reach this point? Trying to crack open the Alchemists and practicing magic in the desert?Ã¢â¬ Last summer, when I'd been with Rose in Russia, I couldn't even tolerate the idea of sleeping in the same room with her. I'd had too many Alchemist mantras running through my mind, warning me of vampire evils. And now, here I was, in league with vampires and questioning the Alchemists. That girl in Russia had nothing in common with the one in Palm Springs. No, I'm still the same person at heart. I had to be . . . because if I wasn't, then who was I? Adrian smiled at me sympathetically. Ã¢â¬Å"I think it's been a culmination of things. Your curious nature. Your need to do the right thing. It's all led you to this point. I know the Alchemists have taught you to think a certain way, but what you're doing now Ã¢â¬â it's not wrong.Ã¢â¬ I raked my hand through my hair. Ã¢â¬Å"And yet, despite all of that, I can't bring myself to have one tiny conversation with Ms. Terwilliger's coven.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"You have boundaries.Ã¢â¬ He gently smoothed one of my wayward locks. Ã¢â¬Å"Nothing wrong with that.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Marcus would say it's the tattoo holding me back.Ã¢â¬ Adrian dropped his hand. Ã¢â¬Å"Marcus says a lot of things.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"I don't think Marcus is trying to deceive me. He believes in his cause, and I'm still worried about mind control . . . but honestly, it's hard to believe I'm being held back when I'm out here doing stuff like this.Ã¢â¬ I gestured outside, to where Ms. Terwilliger was. Ã¢â¬Å"Alchemist dogma says this magic is unnatural and wrong.Ã¢â¬ Adrian's smile returned. Ã¢â¬Å"If it makes you feel better, you actually looked natural out there Ã¢â¬â back in the park.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Doing . . . what? Throwing fireballs?Ã¢â¬ I shook my head. Ã¢â¬Å"There's nothing natural about that.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"You wouldn't think so, but . . . well. You were . . . amazing, throwing that fire like some kind of ancient warrior goddess.Ã¢â¬ Annoyed, I turned away. Ã¢â¬Å"Stop making fun of me.Ã¢â¬ He caught my arm and pulled me back toward him. Ã¢â¬Å"I am absolutely serious.Ã¢â¬ I swallowed, speechless for a moment. All I was aware of was how close we were, that he was holding me to him with only a few inches between us. Almost as close as at the sorority. Ã¢â¬Å"I'm not a warrior or a goddess,Ã¢â¬ I managed at last. Adrian leaned closer. Ã¢â¬Å"As far as I'm concerned, you're both.Ã¢â¬ I knew that look in his eyes. I knew because I'd seen it before. I expected him to kiss me, but instead, he ran his finger along the side of my neck. Ã¢â¬Å"There it is, huh? Badge of honor.Ã¢â¬ It took me a moment to realize he was talking about the hickey It had faded but wasn't entirely gone. I pulled away. Ã¢â¬Å"It is not! It was a mistake. You were out of line doing that to me.Ã¢â¬ His eyebrows rose. Ã¢â¬Å"Sage, I distinctly remember every part of that night. You didn't seem that unwilling. You were practically on top of me.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"I don't really remember the details,Ã¢â¬ I lied. He moved his hand from my neck and rested a fingertip on my lips. Ã¢â¬Å"But I'll stick to just kissing these if it makes you feel better. No mark.Ã¢â¬ He started to lean toward me, and I jerked away. Ã¢â¬Å"You will not! It's wrong.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"What, kissing you, or kissing you in Pies and Stuff?Ã¢â¬ I glanced around, suddenly aware that we were creating a dinner show for the senior citizens, even if they couldn't hear us. I backed up. Ã¢â¬Å"Both,Ã¢â¬ I said, feeling my cheeks burn. Ã¢â¬Å"If you're going to attempt something inappropriate Ã¢â¬â something you said you wouldn't do anymore Ã¢â¬â then you could at least pick a better place.Ã¢â¬ He laughed softly, and the look in his eyes confused me further. Ã¢â¬Å"OkayÃ¢â¬ he said. Ã¢â¬Å"The next time I kiss you, I promise it'll be in a more romantic place.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"I Ã¢â¬â what? No! You shouldn't try at all!Ã¢â¬ I began moving toward the door, and he fell in step with me. Ã¢â¬Å"What happened to loving me from a distance? What happened to not, um, bringing up any of this stuff?Ã¢â¬ For someone who was allegedly just going to watch from afar, he wasn't doing a very good job. And I was doing an even worse job of being indifferent. He moved in front of the door and blocked my way. Ã¢â¬Å"I said I wouldn't Ã¢â¬â if you don't want me to. But you're kind of giving me mixed signals, Sage.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"I am not,Ã¢â¬ I said, amazed that I could even say that with a straight face. Even I didn't believe it. Ã¢â¬Å"You're presumptuous and arrogant and a whole lot of other things if you think I've changed my mind.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"You see, that's just it.Ã¢â¬ There he was again, moving into my space. Ã¢â¬Å"I think you like the Ã¢â¬Ëother things.'Ã¢â¬ I shook off my daze and pulled away. Ã¢â¬Å"I like humans.Ã¢â¬ Another Alchemist lesson came to mind. They look like us, but don't be deceived. The Moroi don't display the malice of the Strigoi, but creatures who drink blood and manipulate nature have no place in our world. Work with them only as you must. We are not the same. Keep your distance as much as possible. It's for the good of your soul. Adrian didn't look like he believed this either, but he stepped away and headed outside. I followed a few moments later, thinking I'd played with fire more than once today.