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Bloodlines Chapter Twenty-Six

IT TOOK DAYS for me to finally get the whole story, both about Lee and about how Eddie and Jill had come to the rescue that night.

Once I had Lee as the missing piece, it was easy to connect the murders of Tamara, Kelly, Melody, and Dina, the human girl he’d mentioned.All of them had been killed within the last five years, in either Los Angeles or Palm Springs, and many had documented evidence of knowing him.They weren’t random victims.

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What little we could find out about Lee’s history came from Clarence, though even that was muddled. By our best guesses, Lee had been turned forcibly into a Strigoi about fifteen years ago. He’d spent ten years that way until a spirit user restored him, much to Lee’s dismay. Clarence hadn’t had all his wits about him even then and hadn’t questioned how his son had returned home after ten years without aging. He evaded answering our questions about Lee being a Strigoi, and we didn’t know if Clarence simply hadn’t known or was in denial. Likewise, it was unclear if Clarence knew his own son was behind Tamara’s death. The far-fetched vampire hunter theory was probably easier for him to stomach than the murderous truth about his son.

Investigations into Lee’s college in Los Angeles showed he hadn’t actually been enrolled there since before he became Strigoi. When he’d become Moroi again, he’d used college as an excuse to stay in Los Angeles, where he could more easily pursue victims – and we suspected there were more of them than we had records for. From what we’d observed, he’d apparently tried to drink from a few of each race, in the hopes that one of them would be “the one” to make him a Strigoi again.

Further research into Kelly Hayes had uncovered something I should have thought of right away. She was a dhampir. She’d looked human, but that stellar sports record was the tip-off. Lee had stumbled onto her when visiting his father five years ago. Getting the drop on a dhampir wasn’t easy, which was why Lee seemed to have gone to the effort of dating her and luring her in.

None of us knew anything about the “bastard spirit user” who’d converted him, though that was of interest to both the Alchemists and the Moroi. There were very few spirit users on record, and with there still being so much unknown about their powers, everyone wanted to learn more. Clarence was adamant that he knew nothing about this mystery spirit user, and I believed him.

Alchemists were in and out of Palm Springs all week, cleaning up the mess and interviewing everyone who’d been involved. I met with a number of them, telling my story over and over, and finally had my last debriefing with Stanton over lunch one Saturday. I’d kind of had a perverse interest in knowing what had happened to Keith but decided not to bring it up in light of everything else going on. He wasn’t here, which was all I cared about.

“Lee’s autopsy revealed nothing that wasn’t ordinary Moroi, according to their doctors,” Stanton told me between bites of linguine carbonara. Eating and discussing dead bodies weren’t mutually exclusive, apparently. “But then, something… magical likely wouldn’t show up anyway.”

“But there must be something special about him,” I said. I was simply moving my own food around the plate. “The fact that his aging slowed was proof enough – but the rest? I mean, he drank from so many victims. And then I saw what Jacqueline did to him. That should have worked. All the correct procedures were followed.”

It amazed me that I could speak so clinically about this, that I could sound so detached. Really, though, it was just that second-nature Alchemist mode taking over. Inside me, the events of that night had left a permanent mark. When I closed my eyes at bedtime, I kept seeing Lee’s death and Jacqueline feeding him the blood. Lee, who’d brought Jill flowers and taken us all mini-golfing.

Stanton nodded thoughtfully. “Which suggests that those who are restored from being Strigoi are immune to ever being turned again.”

We sat in silence for a moment, letting the weight of those words settle over us.

“That’s huge,” I said at last. Talk about an understatement. Lee presented a number of mysteries. He had begun aging once he became a Moroi again, but at a much slower rate. Why? We weren’t sure, but that alone was a monumental discovery, as was my suspicion that he could no longer use Moroi magic. I’d been too freaked out to notice anything strange about Lee’s behavior when Jill had asked him to create fog while we were golfing, but looking back, it occurred to me he’d actually looked nervous about her requests. And the rest… the fact that something had changed in him, protected him, however unwillingly, from becoming Strigoi? Yeah. “Huge” was an understatement.

“Very,” Stanton agreed. “Half our mission is to stop humans from choosing to sacrifice their souls for immortality. If there was a way to harness this magic, figure out what protected Lee… well. The effects would be far-reaching.”

“To the Moroi as well,” I pointed out. I knew that among them and the dhampirs, being forcefully turned Strigoi was often considered a fate worse than death. If there was some magical way to protect themselves, it would mean a lot since they encountered Strigoi far more than we did. We could be talking about some kind of magical vaccine.

“Of course,” said Stanton, though her tone implied she wasn’t nearly as concerned about that race’s benefits. “It might even be possible to prevent the future creation of all Strigoi. There’s also the mystery of your blood. You said the Strigoi didn’t like it. That could be a type of protection too.”

I shivered at the memory. “Maybe. It all happened so fast… it’s hard to say. And it was certainly no protection from the Strigoi wanting to snap my neck.

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Stanton nodded. “It’s certainly something to look into eventually. But first we have to figure out what exactly happened to Lee.”

“Well,” I said, “spirit has to be a key player, right? Lee was restored by a spirit user.”

A waiter came by, and Stanton waved her plate away. “Exactly. Unfortunately, we have a very limited quantity of spirit users to work with. Vasilisa Dragomir hardly has the time to experiment with her powers. Sonya Karp has volunteered to help, which is excellent news, especially since she’s a former Strigoi herself. At the very least, we can observe the slowed aging firsthand. She’s only available for a short while, and the Moroi haven’t answered my request yet for some other useful individuals. But if we had another spirit user on hand, one with no other obligations to distract him from helping us fulltime…”

She looked at me meaningfully.

“Adrian?” I asked.

“Do you think he’d help research this? Some magical way to protect against Strigoi conversion? Like I said, between Sonya and the others, he’d have help,” she added quickly. “I’ve spoken to the Moroi, and they’re putting together a small group with expertise on Strigoi. They plan on sending them out soon. We just need Adrian to help.”

“Wow. You guys move fast,” I murmured.

At the words “Adrian” and “research,” my mind had put together images of him in a lab, wearing a white coat, bent over test tubes and beakers. I knew that the actual research wouldn’t look anything like that, but it was a hard picture to shake. It was also hard to imagine Adrian seriously focused on anything. Except, I kept having that nagging thought that Adrian would focus if he only had something worth caring about. Was this important enough? I really wasn’t sure. It was too hard to guess what purpose might be noble enough to get Adrian’s attention. But I was pretty sure I knew some less-thannoble perks that might get him on board.

“If you can get him his own place, I bet he’d do it,” I said finally. “He wants out of Clarence Donahue’s pretty badly.”

Stanton’s eyebrows rose. She hadn’t expected this. “Well. That’s not a huge request, I suppose. And actually, we’re already paying the bill for Keith’s old apartment since he took out a year-long lease. Mr. Ivashkov could simply move into there, except…”

“Except what?”

Stanton gave a small shrug. “I was going to offer it to you. After much discussion, we’ve decided to simply make you the Alchemist on point here, in light of Keith’s… unfortunate departure. You could leave Amberwood, move into his apartment, and simply oversee activities from there.”

I frowned. “But I thought you wanted someone with Jill all the time.”

“We do. And we’ve actually found a better choice – no offense. The Moroi were able to locate a dhampir girl Jill’s age, who could not only serve as Jill’s roommate but also as a bodyguard. She’ll be joining the researchers who are coming out. You don’t have to pose as a student anymore.”

The world reeled. Alchemist schemes and plans, always in motion. A lot had been decided in this week, it seemed. I considered what this meant. No more homework, no more high school politics. Freedom to come and go when I wanted. But it also meant removing myself from the friends I’d made – Trey, Kristin, Julia. I’d still see Eddie and Jill, but not to the same extent. And if I was on my own, would the Alchemists – or my father – help fund college classes? Unlikely.

“Do I have to leave?” I asked Stanton. “Can I give the apartment to Adrian and stay on at Amberwood for a while? At least until we figure out if we can get another place for me?”

Stanton didn’t bother hiding her surprise. “I didn’t expect you’d want to stay on. I figured you’d especially be happy to no longer room with a vampire.”

And like that, all the fears and pressure I’d faced before coming to Palm Springs descended on me. Vamp lover. I was an idiot. I should’ve been jumping at the chance to get away from Jill. Any other Alchemist would. In offering to stay, I was likely putting myself under suspicion again. How could I explain that there was so much more to my choice than just a change of roommate?

“Oh,” I said, keeping a neutral face. “When you said you were getting Jill a dhampir her own age, I figured she’d be the roommate and I wouldn’t have to room with Jill anymore. I thought I’d have my own in the dorm.”

“That can probably be arranged…”

“And honestly, after some of the things that have happened, I’d feel better still keeping an eye on Jill. It’ll be easier if I’m at the school. Besides, if it takes an apartment to make Adrian happy and work on this Strigoi mystery, then that’s what we need to do. I can wait.”

Stanton studied me for several long seconds, breaking the silence only when the waiter dropped the bill off. “That’s very professional of you. I’ll look into the arrangements.”

“Thank you,” I said. A happy feeling welled up in me, and I almost smiled, picturing Adrian’s face when he heard about his new place.

“There’s just one more thing I don’t understand,” remarked Stanton. “When we investigated the apartment, we saw some fire damage. But none of you who were there reported any.”

I put on a contrived frown. “Honestly… so much of it’s a blur with the blood loss and the biting… I’m not really sure. Keith had some candles. I don’t know if one got lit… or I don’t know. All I keep thinking about is those teeth and how terrible it was when I was bit – “

“Yes, yes,” said Stanton. My excuse was flimsy, but even she wasn’t entirely impervious to the thought of being fed on by a vampire. It was pretty much an Alchemist’s worse nightmare, and I was entitled to my trauma. “Well, don’t worry about it. That fire is the least of our worries.”

It wasn’t the least of my worries. And when I got back to campus later that day, I finally dealt with it and hunted Ms. Terwilliger down where she was working in one of the library offices.

“You knew,” I said, shutting the door. All thoughts of student-teacher protocol vanished from my head. I’d been sitting on my anger for a week and could now finally let it out. I’d spent my life being taught to respect sources of authority, but now one of those had just betrayed me. “Everything you made me do… copying those spell books, making that amulet ‘just to see what it was like’!” I shook my head. “It was all a lie. You knew… you knew it was… real.”

Ms. Terwilliger took off her glasses and peered at me carefully. “Ah, so I take it you tried it?”

“How could you do that to me?” I exclaimed. “You have no idea how I feel about magic and the supernatural!”

“Oh,” she said dryly. “I do actually. I know all about your organization.” She tapped her cheek, mirroring the one my tattoo was on. “I know why your ‘sister’ is excused from outdoor activities and why your ‘brother’ excels in sports. I’m very informed about the various forces at work in our world, those hidden from most human eyes. Don’t worry, my dear. I’m certainly not going to tell anyone. Vampires aren’t my concern.”

“Why?” I asked, deciding not to acknowledge her outing everything I strove to keep secret. “Why me? Why did you make me do that – especially if you claim you know how I feel?”

“Mmm… a couple of reasons. Vampires, as you know, wield a sort of internal magic. They connect with the elements on a very basic, almost effortless level. Humans, however, have no such connection.”

“Humans aren’t supposed to use magic,” I said coldly. “You made me do something that violated my beliefs.”

“For humans to do magic,” she continued, as though I hadn’t spoken, “we must wrest it from the world. It doesn’t come so easily. Sure, vampires use spells and ingredients occasionally, but nothing like what we must do. Their magic goes from the inside out. Ours comes from the outside in. It takes so much effort, so much concentration and exact calculation… well, most humans don’t have the patience or skill. But someone like you? You’ve been grilled in those painstaking techniques since the time you could talk.”

“So that’s all it takes to use magic? An ability to organize and measure?” I didn’t bother hiding my scorn.

“Of course not.” She laughed. “There is a certain natural talent needed as well. An instinct that combines with discipline. I sensed it in you. You see, I have some proficiency myself. It gives me coven status but is still relatively small. You? I can feel a wellspring of power in you, and my little experiment proved as much.”

I felt cold all over. “That’s a lie,” I said. “Vampires use magic. Not humans. Not me.”

“That amulet didn’t light itself on fire,” she said. “Don’t deny what you are. And now that we’ve determined as much, we can move on. Your innate power might be greater than mine, but I can get you started in basic magical training.”

I couldn’t believe I was hearing this. It wasn’t real. It was like something from a movie because no way was this my life. “No,” I exclaimed. “You’re… you’re crazy! Magic’s not real, and I don’t have any! It’s unnatural and wrong. I won’t endanger my soul.”

“So much denial for such a good scientist,” she mused.

“I’m serious,” I said, barely recognizing my own voice. “I want nothing to do with your occult studies. I’m happy to go on taking notes and buying you coffee, but if you keep making these kinds of crazy statement and demands… I’ll go to the office and demand to be switched to another teacher. Believe me, when it comes to working bureaucracy and administrative staff, that is something I have innate power in.”

She almost smiled, but then it faded. “You mean that. You’d really reject this amazing potential – this discovery – that you have?”

I didn’t answer.

“So be it.” She sighed. “It’s a loss. And a waste. But you have my word that I won’t bring it up again unless you do.”

“That,” I said vehemently, “is not going to happen.”

Ms. Terwilliger merely shrugged by way of answer. “Well, then. Since you’re here, you might as well go get me some coffee.”

I moved toward the door and then thought of something. “Were you the one calling Nevermore and asking about vampires?”

“Why in the world would I do that?” she asked. “I already know where to find them.” Great, I thought. Another mystery.

I made it to the cafeteria later that day just as Eddie, Jill, and Micah were finishing dinner. Jill was understandably having a difficult time adjusting to Lee’s death and all the revelations we’d uncovered – including his desire to make her his undead queen. Both Eddie and I had talked to her as much as we could, but Micah seemed to have the greatest soothing effect on her. I think it was because he never openly addressed the topic. He knew Lee had died but thought it was an accident and naturally knew none of the vampiric connections. While Eddie and I constantly tried our hand at being amateur psychologists, Micah simply tried to distract her and make her happy.

“We have to go,” he said apologetically when I sat down. “Rachel Walker is going to give us a lesson on one of the sewing machines.”

Eddie shook his head at him. “I still don’t know why you signed up for sewing club.” That wasn’t true, of course. We both knew exactly why Micah had joined.

Jill’s face wore the grave look it had had since Lee’s death – a look she would carry for a while, I suspected – but the ghost of a smile flickered over her lips. “I think Micah has the makings of a real fashion designer. Maybe I’ll walk in his show one day.”

I shook my head, hiding my own smile. “No modeling of any kind, not for a while.” After the show, Lia and other designers had gotten in touch, all wanting to work with Jill again. We’d had to refuse in order to protect her identity here, but it had made Jill sad to have to do it.

Jill nodded. “I know, I know.” She stood up with Micah. “I’ll see you back in our room later, Sydney. I’d like to talk some more.”

I nodded. “Absolutely.”

Eddie and I watched them hurry off. I sighed.

“That’s going to be a problem,” I told him.

“Maybe,” he agreed. “But she knows what she can and can’t do with him. She’s smart. She’ll be responsible.”

“But he doesn’t know,” I said. “I feel like Micah’s fallen for her too much already.” I eyed Eddie carefully. “Among other people.”

Eddie was still watching Micah and Jill, so it took him a moment to pick up on my meaning. He jerked his gaze back to me. “Huh?”

“Eddie, I’m not going to claim to be any expert in romance, but even I can tell that you’re crazy about Jill.”

He promptly looked away, though his flush betrayed him. “That’s not true.”

“I’ve seen it all along, but it wasn’t until that night at Keith’s that I really understood what I was seeing. I saw how you looked at her. I know how you feel about her. So, what I want to know is: how come we have to keep worrying about Micah at all? Why aren’t you just asking her out and saving us all a lot of trouble?”

“Because she’s my sister,” he said wryly.

“Eddie! I’m serious.”

He made a face, took a deep breath, and then turned back toward me. “Because she can do better than me. You want to talk about social rules? Well, where we come from, Moroi and dhampirs don’t have serious relationships.”

“Yeah, but that’s like a class thing,” I said. “It’s not quite the same as humans and vampires.”

“Maybe not, but with her, it might as well be. She’s not just any Moroi. She’s royal. A princess. And you’ve seen how she is! Smart and strong and beautiful. She’s destined for great things, and one of them isn’t being involved with a controversial guardian like me. Her bloodline’s regal. Hell, I don’t even know who my dad is. Dating her is not even possible. My job is to protect her. To keep her safe. That’s where all my attention needs to be.”

“And so you think she deserves being with a human instead?” I asked incredulously. “Dancing the line of a taboo upheld by both our races?”

“It’s not ideal,” he admitted. “But she can still have a fun social life and – “

“What if it was another guy?” I interrupted. “What if some other human asked her out, and they simply went on a casual date? Would you be okay with that?”

He didn’t answer, and I knew my hunch was correct.

“This is about more than you not feeling worthy of Jill,” I said. “This is about Micah too, isn’t it? About how he reminds you of Mason.”

Eddie blanched. “How do you know about that?”

“Adrian told me.”

“Damn him,” said Eddie. “Why can’t he be as oblivious as he pretends?”

I smiled at that. “You don’t owe Micah anything. You certainly don’t owe him Jill. He’s not Mason, no matter how much they look alike.”

“It’s more than looks,” said Eddie, growing pensive. “It’s the way they act too. Micah’s the same – outgoing, optimistic, excited. That’s how Mason was. There are too few people like that in the world: people who are genuinely good. Mason was taken away from the world too soon. I won’t let that happen to Micah.”

“Micah’s not in danger,” I said gently.

“But he deserves good things. And even if he’s human, he’s still one of the best matches I know of for Jill. They deserve each other. They both deserve good things.”

“And so, you’re going to let yourself suffer as a result? Because you’re so in love with Jill and convinced that she deserves some prince that you aren’t? And because you feel it’s your duty to support all the Masons in the world?” I shook my head. “Eddie, that’s crazy. Even you have to see that.”

“Maybe,” he admitted. “But I feel like it’s the right thing to do.”

“Right? It’s the masochistic thing to do! You’re encouraging the girl you want to be with one of your best friends.”

“I want her to be happy. It’s worth sacrificing myself.”

“It makes no sense.”

Eddie gave me a small smile and a gentle pat on the arm before turning toward an approaching shuttle bus. “Remember when you said you were no expert in romance? Well, you were right.”

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