Page 24

Thanks for coming!"

Once we were out of earshot, I turned to Nick. "What was that al about?"

He took another swig of his drink. "That was me giving them what they want. They want us to be these scary, powerful things that can kil The Eye for them. That's why they made us, right?"

I briefly pressed the heels of my hands against my eyes, which only had the effect of smudging the glittery gunk on my lashes.

Daisy patted Nick's arm, her laurel crown listing heavily to the right. "Sweetie, can we ease off on the kil ing talk? It's a birthday party."She punctuated that sentence with a little hiccup, and suddenly I was very tired of both of them. I wanted to talk to Jenna. Or Cal. Someone normal-wel , as normal as my friends got-and preferably sober.

"Maybe I wil go get a present after al ,"I told them. I had taken maybe four steps when that waiter made another beeline for me. "Drink, miss?"he asked, holding out the tray.

"Look, dude,"I said, stumbling a little as I stepped on one of my draping sleeves, "I don't know if you're trying to suck up or what, but-"

I glanced up into his masked face, and our eyes met.

"You have got to be kidding me."

Even though I couldn't see it, I had a feeling Archer was raising an eyebrow at me. "Who are you supposed to be?"he asked in a low voice.

I took deep breaths and tried to keep my face as impassive as possible. If anyone glanced over here, they had to think I was just talking to a waiter, not facing down an Eye in their midst. "Hecate,"I said, plucking one of the glasses off his tray. "What are you doing here?"

He shrugged, managing somehow to look elegant even in his waiter's uniform. "Who doesn't love a party? Plus, I thought there might be a chance you'd wear that blue dress again."

My fingers tightened so hard on the crystal goblet that I'm surprised I didn't snap the stem. "You are a crazy person,"I said, struggling to keep my voice calm. "Or an idiot. Or a crazy idiot person. Why aren't you at least glamoured or something?"

"No one here has ever seen me in person,"he replied, making a show of rearranging the glasses on his tray, "so the mask is good enough. If I'd used a glamour, I just would've drawn attention to myself. Of course, I wouldn't have had to go to al this trouble if you'd just met me three weeks ago."

It could have been the dim lights or the mask, but I thought I saw real anger flash in his eyes for just a second.

"I couldn't,"I said, smiling like he'd just said something funny. My heart was leaping around in my chest, and it was al I could do to keep my powers under control. "You should leave. Now."

Now there was no mistaking it: he was definitely pissed. "Do you have any idea what I risked to come here tonight?"he hissed. "Not only from your people, but mine?"

I glanced around, but no one seemed to be watching me. That would probably change once I started yel ing at a waiter. I gave Archer what I hoped was a significant look, but thanks to al the sparkle, I wasn't sure he got it.

I walked away to the corner of the room and ducked behind a truly insane amount of potted plants. The light back there was dim and green, and everything smel ed rich and loamy.

Archer parted the palm frond a few seconds later and leaned against the glass wal , his arms folded over his chest. "Why didn't you meet me?"he asked without preamble.

"I don't know, maybe because you're a demon hunter and I'm a demon, so us hanging out seems like a bad idea?"When he didn't reply, I sighed and said, "Look, basical y, everyone in my life has told me to stay away from you. So that's what I'm doing."

It was weird talking to him while he was wearing that mask. I could see his eyes, but I couldn't read him at al . "Trust me,"he said. "If there weren't something major going down right now, I'd never see you again. Happily."

Pain sliced through my heart, as bright and sharp as the dagger Archer undoubtedly had hidden somewhere on his body. I hoped I didn't let it show.

"What do you mean, 'something major'?"

But he shook his head. "I don't have time to get into it, but it's about your little demon buddies back there. Can you meet me tomorrow night at the mil ?"

My brain raced. If Archer real y knew something about Nick and Daisy, maybe Dad and I could get a better grip on what was going on here. Or was I just tel ing myself that so I could spend time with Archer and not feel guilty about it?

"I can't tomorrow."Dad and I hadn't had any time to research stuff about the grimoire, thanks to al the birthday madness, but we'd set aside al next week to work on it. That should have been al I said. That could have ended it, and I could've walked away. Instead, I heard myself say, "But my dad leaves for a business trip in nine days. It would be easier for me to get away then."

He nodded. "Good. Nine days, then. Three a.m."

"Fine. But if you pul a knife on me again-"

To my surprise, he laughed. "You keep bringing that up. First of al , I didn't pul the knife on you, I pul ed it out so I could jimmy the lock on that window. Secondly, I was trapped in a cel ar with a pissed-off demon. Of the two of us, who do you think was the most freaked out?"

I rol ed my eyes, no easy feat, seeing as how my eyelids were weighed down with a thousand pounds of glitter. Archer moved past me, out of the plants. When I fol owed a few seconds later, he was nowhere to be seen.

As I walked over to the gift table, I kept looking around for him, but it was obvious he'd already left. I sighed and reached up to take off my crown. I was probably making a huge mistake, but Dad wanted to know where Nick and Daisy came from, and if Archer-or The Eye-had that information, why shouldn't we use it?

"There you are."

Cal appeared at my elbow, and it was al I could do not to jump guiltily. Then I saw what he was wearing. "Where did you get that?"

Cal was dressed in a Hex Hal uniform. The blazer was a little tight on his broad shoulders, more so when he shrugged. "It was mine. Mrs. Casnoff brought it with her. I don't real y, uh, do costumes. Figured this was a good compromise."

I'd thought no one but Archer could make that uniform look good, but Cal proved me wrong. The bright blue was nice against his tan skin and golden hair, and he looked younger. There was a dimple in his cheek as he smiled at me-something I'd never noticed before. "You make a good Hecate,"he said.

I would have snorted and made a sarcastic comment, but there was something in his eyes that made me just say, "Thanks."

Al of the sudden, something else he'd said clicked. "Wait, Mrs. Casnoff brought it? Is she here?"

"Yeah,"Cal said, nodding over toward the ice sculpture, where, sure enough, Mrs. Casnoff stood. She was wearing a draping gown in the same bright blue as Cal's uniform.

When Mrs. Casnoff saw us, she walked over to us. "Sophie,"she said, her voice warmer than I'd ever heard it. "Happy birthday. It's good to see you."

I actual y believed she meant it, which was weird.

Weirder stil was the smile she gave me as she said, "I was just talking with several of the guests about your decision not to go through with the Removal. We're al so pleased."

Great. Nothing better than my superpersonal decision being party chitchat.

"Wel , that's probably a first for you,"I tried to joke. When she just looked confused, I clarified. "Being pleased with me."

And then she completely freaked me out by laughing. Granted, it was a low, short laugh, but stil . Before Mrs. Casnoff could blow my mind any more, Dad walked over, wearing a long black robe and carrying a staff topped with a dark red jewel carved to look like a pomegranate. Once again, I had no clue who he was supposed to be. He and Mrs. Casnoff just nodded at each other, so I guess they'd said their hel os earlier.

"Are you having a nice time?"Dad asked, and there was such a hopeful look on his face that I forced a bright grin.

"Yeah, best birthday party ever!"

I think I oversold it a little bit, but Dad seemed relieved. "Good. I know it's a bit much, but...wel , it's the first time I've celebrated one of your birthdays. I wanted it to be special."

Guilt and other general yucky feelings bounced inside me. To keep Dad from noticing, I turned my attention to the gift table. That one present was stil floating above the rest, spinning in lazy circles. As I looked at it, it drifted toward me, landing softly in my hands.

"I think that one wants you to open it,"Cal observed.

The wrapping paper was a deep purple, and the silver ribbon curled and undulated around my fingers like it was underwater. It was a beautiful gift, but the magic coming off it felt awful y strong. Probably from the floating spel , I thought as I tugged at the bow.

It was the smel I noticed first, that weird metal ic scent you sometimes get in a lightning storm. There was a sudden flash of red light, and a sound like a sonic boom. I heard Dad or Cal shout, and the next thing I knew, I was on my back, a painful stinging sensation in my shoulder.

My ears felt stuffed with cotton, but I had the sense that people were yel ing, and I watched pairs of feet run by my head. It reminded me of prom, when I'd sat in that pool of punch, watching chaos erupt al around me. Then my shoulder stopped stinging and started burning, badly enough that I moaned. There was a crush of people around me, and I saw a tal figure wearing a mask push his way to the front of the crowd. His mouth was tight, and I thought I saw fear in his familiar brown eyes. I almost opened my mouth to tel Archer to get out of here before I realized how stupid that would be. Then the people shifted, and he was gone.

Cal's face swam into view. I couldn't hear him over the ringing in my ears. I'm pretty sure he mouthed for me to lie stil , which seemed easy enough.

He held my hand, and while the pain didn't go away, a woozy sense of calm spread over me. So I was pretty dispassionate as I rol ed my head to the side and watched Cal pul a six-inch shard of demonglass out of my shoulder. As soon as it was out, the burning faded, but I knew I'd have yet another scar. "That present sucked,"I muttered.

Dad slipped an arm around my shoulder and helped me sit up. As he did, his sleeve fel back to reveal several slivers of demonglass embedded in his forearm.

"I'm fine,"he said before I could ask. "Cal can get them out later. Are you al right?"

My shoulder was stil on fire, but there was no pain anywhere else, and other than the shock of being blown backward and stabbed, I was peachy. "I think so. What was that, like a magic pipe bomb?"

The present lay in tatters on the floor, its ribbon coiling and snapping like a snake. Cal stomped on the ribbon, and it went stil . "Seems like it,"he said grimly.

"And it was ensorcel ed to seek you out,"Dad added. He looked so worried and angry that I decided not to give him a hard time for using a word like ensorcelled.

"Thank God they couldn't get their hands on very much demonglass,"Lara said, and I glanced up, surprised to see her. She was wearing some sort of eighteenth-century gown, with wide hips and a square neckline. Her hair was hidden underneath a towering powdered wig. "It seems like that was the biggest piece,"she continued, kicking the shard that had pierced my shoulder. Roderick was behind her, his black wings beating slowly, stirring the air. Lara turned to him and said, "Search the grounds. If Cross is stil here, we'l find him."