I still didn't know if I bought the idea of mind control in the tattoos, but I let him go on.
"When Moroi help make the blood ink, the earth users put in the compulsion that prevents you from discussing vampires. That earth magic is in harmony with the other three physical elements: air, water, and fire. That harmony gives the tattoo its power. Now, if you can get a hold of charmed ink and have a Moroi undo the earth magic in it, that'll shatter the bond with the other elements and kill any compulsion locked in. Inject that 'broken' ink into your tattoo, and it breaks the harmony of your elements as well - which in turn breaks any suggestions the Alchemists put in."
Eddie and I stared.
"That's 'all' I have to do?" I asked in disbelief.
"It's easier than you might think," said Amelia. "The hard part is . . . well, Marcus added another part to the process. Not technically necessary . . . but helpful."
We'd been here ten minutes, and I was already getting a headache. "You decided to do some improvisation?"
The laughter that elicited from Marcus was just as infectious as before . . . except, once again, the scene didn't really warrant laughing. He paused, like he was waiting for us to join in, and continued when we didn't. "That's one way of looking at it. But she's right - it's helpful. Before I'll let anyone do it, they have to perform a task. Some task that involves directly going against the Alchemists."
Eddie couldn't hold back anymore. "What, like an initiation ritual?"
"More than that," said Marcus. "I have a theory that doing something like that, something that challenges all the training you've had, will weaken the compulsion a little. Usually it's something that involves infiltration and helps our cause. That weakening makes it easier for the other ink to take effect. It's also a good test. Deactivating the tattoo doesn't mean you're ready to walk away. It doesn't undo years of mental conditioning. I try to find people who think they're ready to rebel, but sometimes, when they're faced with actually taking action, they crack. Better to know sooner rather than later, before we interfere with the tattoo."
I turned toward Amelia and Wade. "And you've both done this? You did some dare, and then your tattoos were deactivated?" They nodded in unison.
"We just have to seal it with indigo now." Seeing my confusion, Wade explained, "Even after breaking the elements in the tattoo, it can still be repaired. Someone could forcibly re-ink and compel you. Tattooing over it with indigo ink makes sure you can never be controlled again."
"And here I thought yours was just a style choice," I said to Marcus.
He absentmindedly traced the crescent pattern. "Oh, the design was. But the ink was mandatory. It's a special concoction that's hard to get a hold of, and I have to go down to a guy in Mexico to get it. I'm taking Amelia and Wade there in a couple weeks to seal theirs. You could come too."
I didn't even acknowledge that crazy idea. "Seems like that blue ink would kind of be a tip-off to the other Alchemists that something's up."
"Oh, we ran away from the Alchemists," said Amelia. "We're not part of them anymore."
Once again, Eddie jumped in. "But you were just talking about infiltration. Why not keep doing other covert tasks once you've broken the elements? Especially if it frees you? Your tattoos look the same as Sydney's right now. If you really think there's something suspicious going on, then work from the inside and hold off on sealing with the indigo ink."
"Too risky," said Marcus. "You could slip up and say something that the tattoo wouldn't have let you before. Or, if you're not cautious, they might catch you going off to meet with others. Then you've got a date with re-education - where they could repair the tattoo."
"Seems like it'd be worth the risk for more information," I said. "If you're careful enough."
Marcus shook his head, no longer flippant. "I've known others who tried that. They thought no one was on to them. They were wrong. We don't make that mistake anymore." He touched his tattoo again. "This is the way we do it now. Complete your mission, break the tattoo, leave the Alchemists, and get sealed. Then we work from the outside. Also saves us from getting caught up in all the Alchemist routine and menial tasks."
"So there are others?" I asked, picking up on what he'd said.
"Of course." That amusement returned. "You didn't think it was just the three of us, did you?"
I honestly hadn't known. "So this is what you're offering me. A fairy tale about my tattoo, if I just complete some traitorous mission for you."
"I'm offering you freedom," Marcus corrected. "And the ability to help Moroi and dhampirs in a way that's not part of some larger conspiracy. You can do it on your own terms."
Eddie and I exchanged glances. "And speaking of conspiracy," I said. "I'm guessing this is the part where you tell me about the alleged Alchemist and Warrior connection - the one you need me to prove."
My sarcasm was lost on the threesome because they all grew excited. "Exactly," said Marcus. "Tell her, Wade."
Wade finished off a chicken finger covered in ranch dressing and then leaned toward us. "Just before I joined Marcus, I was assigned to the St. Louis facility. I worked in operations, handling a lot of visitor access, giving tours . . . not the most interesting work."
I nodded. This, at least, was familiar territory. Being in the Alchemists meant taking on all sorts of roles. Sometimes you destroyed Strigoi bodies. Sometimes you made coffee for visiting officials. It was all part of the greater cause.
"I saw a lot of things. I mean, you can probably guess." He looked troubled. "The harsh attitudes. The rigid rules. Moroi visited, you know. I liked them. I was glad we were helping them, even though everyone around me acted as though helping such 'evil' creatures was a terrible fate that we'd been forced into. I accepted this because, you know, I figured what we're told is true. Anyway, there was one week . . . I swear, it was just nonstop Strigoi attacks all over the country. Just one of those things. The guardians took out most of them, and field Alchemists were pretty busy covering up. Even though most of it was taken care of, I just kept wondering about why we were always dealing with the aftermath when we have so many resources. I mean, I didn't think we should start going after Strigoi, but it just seemed like there should be a way to help the Moroi and guardians be more proactive. So . . . I mentioned it to my supervisor."
Marcus and Amelia wore deadly earnest expressions, and even I was hooked. "What happened?" I asked softly.