Page 29

I held the books out. "I had some questions about these."

She frowned a little, but closed her ledger and gestured for me to sit down.

"Is there a reason you're researching demons, Sophia?"

"Well, I read that they sometimes drink the blood of their victims, and I thought, you know, maybe that's

what happened to Chaston and Anna."

For a long moment Mrs. Casnoff studied me. I realized the music wasn't playing anymore.

"Sophie," she said. It was the first time she'd ever called me that. Her voice was tired. "I know how much you want to exonerate Jenna."

I knew what she was going to say: the same thing she'd said about The Eye. I rushed on. "I can't read any of these books because they're all in Latin, but there are pictures in them that show demons who pose as humans."

"That's true. But it's also true that we would know if such a thing was on school grounds."

I stood up, slapping one of the books on her desk. "You said yourself that magic isn't always the answer! Maybe your magic is broken. Maybe something has a power stronger than yours and got in."

Mrs. Casnoff rose from her desk, her shoulders drawn back. There was a sudden charge in the air, and I was suddenly--painfully--aware that Mrs. Casnoff was much more than just a principal. She was an extremely powerful witch. "Do not raise your voice with me, young lady. While it's true that magic is not always infallible, what you are suggesting is not possible. I'm very sorry for you, but you have to face the fact that in the three weeks Jenna has been gone, neither you nor Elodie nor any other student at this school has been attacked. You made a poor choice for a friend, but it cannot be helped."

I stared at her, my breath coming in and out in a harsh rasp, like I'd just run a race.

Mrs. Casnoff ran a hand over her hair, and I saw that her hand was trembling. "I apologize if I seem blunt, but you have to understand that vampires are not like us; they are monsters, and I was foolish to forget that."

Her expression softened. "This hurts me as well, Sophie. I backed your father's decision to let vampires attend this school. Now I have a dead student, two more who may never return, and a lot of very powerful people very angry at me. I would love to believe that Jenna had nothing to do with any of this, but the evidence strongly suggests otherwise."

She took a deep breath and pressed the books into my numb hands.

"You're a loyal friend for trying to find a way to clear her, but in this case, I'm afraid your efforts are wasted. I don't want you doing anymore research on demons, is that understood?"

I didn't nod, but she acted as if I had. "Now, I believe you're late for your cellar duty, so I suggest you hurry on to that before Ms. Vanderlyden comes looking for you."

Through a film of tears, I watched her sit back down at her desk and open her ledger. I was angry with her for refusing to admit there could be something at Hecate she didn't know about. I also felt a bone-deep sadness.

It didn't matter what I found, or what theories I tried to work on; the easiest explanation was that Jenna had killed Holly and tried to kill the other two, so that was all anyone was ever going to believe. Anything else might mean admitting they were wrong or, worse than that, not omnipotent.

The tears were gone when I reached the cellar. They'd been replaced by a dull steady ache just behind my eyes. The Vandy was waiting for me at the door. I expected her to bite my head off--maybe even literally--but she must've seen something in my face, because all she did was grunt, "You're late," and give me a light push toward the stairs.

As she locked the door behind me, Archer looked up from behind one of the shelves. "There you are. Did the Vandy send out the hellhounds after you?"

"No." I picked up the clipboard and headed to the farthest corner of the cellar.

"What, no witty retort? No standard-issue Sophie Mercer comeback?"

"I'm not feeling very witty right this second, Cross," I said as my eyes scanned the shelves without seeing.

"Huh," he said softly. "What's up with you?"

"Let's see, shall we? The only real friend I have here is gone and will probably never come back. Everyone is determined to think she's a monster, and no one will listen to any other ideas."

"What other ideas?" he asked. "Sophie, she's a vampire. It's what they do."

"So you believe that too?"

He tossed his papers down. "Yeah, I do. I know she was your friend, and that it sucks, but she wasn't the only friend you have here."

I was so angry, I felt like I was vibrating. I crossed the room to stand in front of him. "Are you saying you're my friend, Cross? Because I could swear you've barely talked to me since the night of the ball."

He looked away, and I could see the muscles working in his jaw.

"You've been completely weird ever since that night."

"Me?" He swung his gaze back to me. "You're the one who hasn't been able to look at me. And excuse me if I think it's a little suspicious that as soon as Elodie started spending time with you, she suddenly breaks it off with me."

I shook my head, confused, until what he was saying dawned on me.

"What, you think I told Elodie what you said about wanting to spend the ball with me so that she'd dump you and I could have you all to myself?"

When he didn't say anything, I gave him a light shove. "Get over yourself," I nearly snarled. I tried to walk past him, but he caught my arm, pulling me up short so that I nearly collided with him.

For a few charged seconds we froze, glaring at each other, breathing hard. I saw his eyes darken just a little, like Jenna's had the day she'd seen my blood. But this was a different kind of hunger; one I felt too.

I didn't let myself think. I just leaned forward and pressed my lips to his.

He took a split second to respond, but then he made a sound almost like a growl from low in his throat, and his arms were suddenly around me, holding me so tightly I could hardly breathe. Not like I cared. All I cared about was Archer, his mouth on mine, and his body pressed against me.

I'd been kissed a few times before, but nothing like this. I felt electrified from the top of my head to my toes, and somewhere in the back of my mind I heard Alice saying that love had a power all its own. She was right: this was magic.

We broke apart to catch our breath. I wondered if I looked as dazed as he did, but then he was kissing me again and we were stumbling against the shelves. I heard something fall and shatter against the floor, heard the soft crunch of glass underfoot as Archer pushed me against the wall.

There was a sensible part of me somewhere that clutched its pearls and hissed that I better not give up my V-card in a cellar, but when Archer's hands slid under my shirt and onto the skin of my back, I started thinking that a cellar was as good a place as any.

As if they didn't even belong to me, my hands reached up between us and unbuttoned the first few buttons of his shirt. I wanted to touch his skin the way he was touching mine. He must've felt the same way, because he backed up a little to give me better access. His lips trailed from mine to my throat, and I closed my eyes and let my head tip back against the wall as I slid my hands inside his shirt.

His mouth on my neck felt so good that it took me a while to realize that my left hand was burning.

My head felt heavy as I lifted it to look at my hand on his chest, just over his heart.

And then the haze of desire clouding my brain gave way to a numbing wave of shock as I watched a tattoo--a black eye with a golden iris--appear under my fingers.


At first I refused to believe what I was seeing. Then Archer, noticing how I'd frozen up, pulled back and looked down.

When he lifted his face back to mine, he was pale, and there was a panicked look in his eyes. That's when I knew that what I was seeing through my fingers was real: it was the mark of ll'Occhio di Dio. Archer was an Eye. I said the words in my mind, but it was like they wouldn't compute. I knew I should scream or run or something, but I couldn't move.

Archer spoke. "Sophie."

It was as if my name was the code word to break my paralysis--I pressed both of my hands hard against his chest and shoved. I caught him by surprise or I never would've been able to knock him down. But he fell back, crashing into a shelf, sending its contents to the floor. A viscous, yellow liquid spilled from one of the broken jars. I slid in it as I turned to run.

But Archer was already steadying himself, and he grabbed my arm. I thought he said my name again, but I wasn't sure. I whirled around, and my momentum knocked him off balance again. As he slipped in the yellow ooze, I shoved my elbow as hard as I could into his chest. He bent over as the air rushed out of his lungs, and I took that as my chance to slam the heel of my hand into his jaw.

Skill Number Three, I thought.

Just like in Defense.

Archer clutched his mouth as bright red blood seeped through his fingers. I felt the crazy urge to laugh bubble up inside of me. I had just kissed that mouth, and now it was bleeding because of me.

He reached for me, but he was moving slowly, and I was able to spin away from him.

How many times had we fought each other in Defense? Had we just been preparing for this moment? Had Archer watched me struggle to deflect his blows, and laughed at how easy it would be to kill me?

I dodged his last grasp and ran for the stairs. My mind felt like it was going down one of those spiral slides. All I could think was that Archer had kissed me, Archer had killed Holly, Archer had hurt Chaston, Archer had attacked Anna. I didn't look behind me, but I thought I felt his fingers brush my ankle. I ran for the door, only to remember that it was locked . . . Oh my God, it was locked.

I fell against the wood, screaming, "Vandy! Mrs. Casnoff!


Banging as hard as I could on the door with my fists, I finally looked behind me in time to see Archer pulling up his pant leg. It took me a minute to figure out that he was reaching for something strapped to his leg.

A knife. A silver knife, like the one that had cut out Alice's heart.

My scream turned breathy and weak with fear, like something out of a nightmare.

But Archer didn't come near me. He ran for the low window in the back of the room, sliding the knife along the ancient lock.

I could hear people on the other side of the door--footsteps and, I thought, the jangle of keys.

The lock on the door and the lock on the window gave way at the same time.

Archer looked at me one last time as I sagged against the door. I couldn't read the expression on his face, but I was shocked to see that there were tears in his eyes. Then he turned and shimmied out the window just as the door opened behind me, and I fell, shaking, into the Vandy's arms.

I sat on the couch in Mrs. Casnoff's office, a cup of hot tea in my hands. From the smell of it, there was more than just tea in the cup, but I hadn't taken a sip yet. I couldn't get my teeth to stop chattering long enough to drink, even though Mrs. Casnoff had wrapped a heavy afghan around me.

I wasn't sure I was ever going to stop shaking.

Mrs. Casnoff sat next to me, stroking my hair. It was a weirdly motherly gesture from her, and it was more unsettling than comforting. The Vandy was leaning against the door, rubbing the back of her neck. It had been a long time since anyone had spoken.