When we reached Ms. Terwilliger's house, we found all the lights on, which was a surprise. I'd assumed she was in bed, though this certainly wouldn't be the first time she'd missed a phone call. Only, when we reached the house and knocked on the door, there was no answer. Adrian and I exchanged looks.

"Maybe she had to leave abruptly," he said. The tone of his voice conveyed what his words didn't. What if Ms. Terwilliger had already found out what we had and had taken off to fight Alicia and Veronica? I had no idea how powerful Alicia was, but the odds didn't seem promising.

When no answer came from my second knock, I nearly kicked the door in frustration. "Now what?"

Adrian turned the doorknob, and the door opened right up. "How about we wait for her?" he suggested.

I grimaced. "I don't know if I'm comfortable breaking into her place."

"She left the door unlocked. She's practically inviting us in." He pushed the door open farther and looked at me expectantly.

I didn't want to go back to Amberwood without speaking to her tonight, nor did I want to sit on her doorstep. Hoping she wouldn't mind us making ourselves at home, I gave a nod of resignation and followed Adrian inside. Her house was the same as ever, cluttered and redolent with the scent of incense. Suddenly, I came to a standstill.

"Wait. Something's different." It took me a moment to figure it out, and when I did, I couldn't believe I hadn't realized it immediately. "The cats are gone."

"Holy shit," said Adrian. "You're right."

At least one of them always came to greet visitors, and others were usually visible on furniture, under tables, or simply occupying the middle of the floor. But now, there were no cats in sight.

I stared around in disbelief. "What in the world could - "

An earsplitting shriek made me jump. I looked down toward my hip and found the dragon sticking his head out of my satchel and trying to claw his way up my side. Belatedly, I realized I'd forgotten to cover the aquarium. He'd apparently slipped inside the bag back in my room. The sound he was making now was similar to his hunger cry - except even more annoying. Then, impossibly, he nipped my leg. I bent over and tried to pull him off me.

"I don't have any pie! What are you trying to - ahh!"

Something zoomed over my head and smashed into the wall behind me with a loud splat. A couple wet drops of something landed on my cheek and began to burn. It was a wonder I didn't hear a sizzling sound.

"Sydney!" Adrian cried.

I turned toward where he was looking and saw Alicia standing in the doorway between the living room and the kitchen. Her palm was raised toward us, a shimmery and gooey substance cupped in it. Presumably it was the same substance that currently seared my skin. I almost wiped it away but feared I'd simply be spreading it to my fingers. I winced and tried to ignore it.

"Sydney" said Alicia pleasantly. "Or should I say Taylor? I figured I'd be seeing you two again. Just not so soon. I guess your car trouble didn't delay you tonight."

"We know everything," I told her, keeping on an eye on that goo. "We know you're working for Veronica."

The smug look on her face momentarily shifted, overcome by surprise. "Working for her? I got rid of her ages ago."

"Got rid of. . . ." For a few seconds, I was at a loss. Then the rest of the puzzle pieces fell together. "You're the one who's been absorbing those girls. And that witch in San Diego. And . . . Veronica Terwilliger."

I'd been able to track Veronica back to the inn with the scrying spell. When Ms. Terwilliger had attempted a different locating spell, she'd come up blank. She'd assumed it was because Veronica had some sort of shielding. But the truth, I was suddenly certain, was that Veronica was already comatose. There was no active mind for Ms. Terwilliger to reach because Alicia had consumed Veronica.

Ms. Terwilliger . . .

"You're here for her," I said. "Ms. Terwilliger. Not me."

"The untrained do make easy targets," conceded Alicia. "But they don't have the same power as full-fledged witches, who can be just as easy to absorb if you break them down first. I don't need the youth like Veronica did, just the power. Once she showed me how the spell works, I was able to catch her in a weak moment. That other college girl tided me over until I wore down Alana Kale." Where had I heard that name? Alana . . . she was Ms. Terwilliger's comatose coven sister. "And finally I can take out the big hit: Jaclyn Terwilliger. I actually wasn't sure if I'd be able to break her, but it turns out she's done an awesome job of wearing herself out these last few weeks, all in the service of protecting her sweet little apprentice."

"I'm not her . . ." I couldn't finish. I'd been about to say I wasn't her apprentice, and yet . . . wasn't I? I wasn't just dabbling in magic anymore. I had joined the ranks. And now, I had to protect my mentor, just as she'd protected me. If it wasn't too late.

"Where is she?" I demanded.

"She's around," said Alicia, clearly delighting in having the upper hand here. "I wish you hadn't found out about all this. You would've made a good hit, once you'd learned a little bit more. You're just a small spark to Jaclyn's flame right now. She's the big score tonight."

"Tell us where she is," ordered Adrian, a powerful note in his voice that I recognized.

Alicia's gaze flicked from me to him. "Oh, please," she scoffed. "Stop wasting my time with your vampire compulsion. I realized what was going on after that first visit, when I kept having trouble remembering your faces." From her jumble of necklaces, she showed us a jade circle. "I acquired this afterward. Makes me impervious to your 'charms.'"

Something that resisted vampire magic? That would be a useful item to have in my bag of tricks. I'd have to look into it . . . provided I survived tonight.

I saw Alicia tense to throw again, and I managed to jump out of the way, pulling Adrian with me toward the living room. More of that goo splattered behind us with a hiss. I produced a dried thistle blossom and crumpled it toward Alicia, shouting a Greek incantation that would blind her. She made a small wave with her left hand and sneered at me.

"Really?" she asked. "That remedial blindness spell? Maybe you aren't a prodigy after all."

Adrian suddenly flipped open a small panel in the wall beside us. I hadn't even noticed it, largely because I'd been too distracted about having my face melted off. I saw a flurry of motion from his hand, and suddenly, we were plunged into darkness.

"Now this is remedial blindness," he muttered.

Tags: Richelle Mead Bloodlines Fantasy
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