Monday, October 15, 2012

Chapter 2, Firebird

Hi everyone,

Here's chapter 2 from Firebird.  You can find chapter 1 under September.

Chapter 2.

William and I walked through the trees in silence.

            I was rattled, and I could tell he was worried.

            Cursed, damned, outcast.

            Those were words that William had used to describe himself on more than one occasion, and words that had floated through my mind back at the skating rink.

            In a way, those same words could be used to describe me.

            I let my mind stray to the words it had shied away from before.

            Vampire.  Sìdh.

            They were words that did not properly belong to this world.  And yet I knew they were part of this world all the same.

            William had been one of the Sìdh once—a race of bright, immortal creatures of great power.  And then he had been attacked by a vampire and turned—though how long ago this had occurred exactly, I did not know.  The Sìdh had cast him out, taken his memories, left him to wander.  He had found an unexpected home with the vampires of Krov, Russia—the village in which I had been born.

            And I myself was a descendent of the Sìdh.  My grandfather had been sent to Krov to found a line of humans with Sìdh blood—something the Sìdh did every so many generations in fulfillment of an ancient treaty.  The children of such unions were gifted with a unique ability, and an obligation, to combat evil spirits of great strength and age—particularly one known as the kost.

            A kost was an evil spirit inhabiting—and animating—a human corpse.

            My mother was the only child of this particular Sìdh union, and like all those before her, she was known as the Little Sun.  She was ordained by her birth to be the protector of Krov, and in this capacity she had fought and imprisoned a kost named Gleb Mstislav in his family's crypt.  And he had worked in secret to poison and kill her.

            My father had died shortly before her in an ordinary accident—he had died while hiking.  And I had been left an orphan in the care of my grandmother, GM, who knew nothing of my grandfather's true nature or my mother's purpose in life.

            And then this past October Gleb had escaped from his crypt, aided by his son Timofei and my own cousin Odette.  Gleb had come after me in Elspeth's Grove, hoping to kill me.  My struggle with him took me to Russia, where William and I had worked together to destroy him.

            On my mother's death, I had become the new Little Sun, though I didn't even know any such thing existed.  And shortly after my sixteenth birthday I had begun to have visions, which I had learned were meant to help me in my battle against creatures like Gleb.  But after Gleb had been defeated, and I had returned to Elspeth's Grove, the visions had stopped.

            I had thought that it was over—that the darkness in Krov was something I had left behind forever.  I had thought that I was free to live in Elspeth's Grove in peace with William.

            But there were vampires from Krov in Elspeth's Grove now, and if they were telling me the truth, there was a price on my head now.

            I shivered as I thought of Anton and Innokenti.  How long had they been following William and me?  How long had they been watching us?  Had they seen me at the house with GM?

            I didn't want her to be in danger because of me.

            "How did they find us?" I asked William.

            William blinked as if I had startled him out of his train of thought.  "What was that?"

            "Innokenti and Anton," I said.  "How did they find us?  I'm sure I never told Innokenti that I lived in Elspeth's Grove."

            William laughed—a strangely humorless sound.  "You need not have told Innokenti anything.  He has ways of finding things out."

            William lapsed back into silence.

            "You and Anton appear to know each other," I said after a moment.

            "Yes," William replied reluctantly.  "He lived in the vampire colony in Krov at the same time as I did."

            "The two of you don't get along?" I asked.


            "Why not?"

            "It doesn't matter now," he said quietly.  "And I'd rather not discuss it.  Please don't ask me to tell you."

            There was a note of finality in William's voice, and I knew he would say no more about Anton.

            "What do you think they really want from us?" I asked.  "Did you believe Innokenti when he said that someone is after us, and that he wants to protect us?"

            "No," William said.  "It's a scare tactic.  Innokenti's trying to trick us into doing what he wants.  There's no one after us."

            "Are you sure about that?" I asked.  "One hundred percent sure?"

            William paused for a moment before answering.


            I felt a sense of dread settle over me.  "So it's possible that Innokenti was telling the truth?"

            "It is possible—but it's a remote possibility.  You asked me if I was one hundred percent sure it's a trick.  I can't be one hundred percent sure.  But I know Innokenti and the rest of them.  They don't act in the interests of others—no matter what he says.  They only act to help themselves."

            "Why do you think they want us then?"

            William shook his head.  "I think it's best if we don't find out."

            We walked in silence again for a time before I asked the question that was weighing the heaviest on my mind.

            "Do you really think they'll just take no for an answer?"

            William looked at me, and a muscle worked in his jaw.

            He did not reply.

            Soon the trees we walked through began to thin, and we were in sight of my neighborhood.  The thought of vampires lurking near my house left me feeling deeply uneasy.

            I clutched at William's sleeve, and he stopped walking.

            "Do you think Innokenti and Anton will leave Elspeth's Grove?  Do you think they're watching us right now?"

            William took my face in his hands.  "They aren't nearby right now—I would hear them if they were.  And I don't know what they are planning to do, but you and your grandmother will be safe.  I'll see to that."

            "William, if there really is a price on my head—if there really are two groups after me—"

            William interrupted.  "Have I let you down yet?"

            "No, you've never let me down," I said.

            "Trust me—I'll take care of it."  William smiled.  "Now, let's go see your grandmother."

            He took my hand and started in the direction of my house.

            "William, wait."  I said.  "I don't think we can spring your presence on GM like this.  I don't have any idea how she's going to react."

            "Katie, don't be ridiculous," William said, exasperated.  "Our situation is serious—manageable—but serious.  And I need to be around more.  I need to have your grandmother accept and approve of my being here."

            "I know," I replied.  "That's why we can't just surprise her today.  It won't do us any good if she throws you out of the house as soon as she sees you.  Let me talk to her alone first.  Come see me tomorrow at school, and I'll let you know when you can see her."

            William started to protest, but I interrupted him.

            "It will be soon—I promise.  Who knows?  Maybe she'll even invite you to dinner."

            William gave me a tolerant look.  "All right, but make sure it is soon.  The sooner everything is out in the open, the better."

            "I'll bring GM around," I said.  "I promise."

            We started walking again, and we paused at the corner of my street, like we usually did.

            "At least I know now why you never let me walk you up to your door," William said.  "I realize that I should have been more suspicious."

            "What did you think before?" I asked.

            William shrugged.  "Humans are often uncomfortable around vampires—even incomplete ones like me.  I thought maybe she didn't like to look at me, and you were tactfully not telling me."

            "William," I said.  "I can't imagine anyone not wanting to look at you."

            William shook his head.  But I thought I could see the ghost of a smile on his lips.

            "I'll see you tomorrow at school then, Katie," he said, turning to leave.  "I'll be watching to see that you and your grandmother are safe tonight."

            "William—I have one more question."

            He turned back.

            "What about that last thing that Innokenti said?" I asked.  "What did he mean when he said that 'they' will not allow me to remain with you.  Who are 'they'?"

            William looked away from me.  "As I said, I think this is all a trick.  You don't have to worry about what Innokenti said."

            "But you do have some idea of what he was implying?"

            "I have an idea—but I can't be sure.  In any event, you don't need to know.  I'll see you tomorrow, Katie."

            William gave me a small smile and walked off.

            I stood looking after him with a familiar sense of disappointment.  I wished he had trusted me with his suspicions.

            Once William had disappeared from view, I walked up to my house and went inside.

            I paused in the hall just by the door and tried to figure out how I was going to tell GM that William was in Elspeth's Grove and that I had been seeing him.

            I knew it wasn't going to be easy.

            To be fair to GM, I didn't know for certain that she disliked William.  But the two times she had spoken to him had been difficult times, and William's entrance into our lives had coincided with the return of the past for GM.  My mother, in her short life, had become deeply involved in the supernatural—she'd really had no choice.  And the supernatural was something my grandmother had not believed in until it had burst into her house in October in a way that she couldn't deny.

            Having the reanimated corpse of a man she knew to be dead break into her house was something even GM couldn't ignore.

            But GM was stubborn, and her rational mind had reasserted itself after the initial shock had worn off.  She'd been able to convince herself that all of the bizarre things she'd seen had a perfectly normal explanation.

            GM feared that I would fall under the spell of the supernatural and be consumed by it as my mother had been, and I had a feeling that GM saw William as part of that supernatural threat.  She didn't know who and what he was, of course—to her he was just an ordinary young man.  But he'd been involved in events that she'd rather forget.

            And I was afraid that she would prefer that William were forgotten, too.

            I continued to stand by the door in an agony of indecision, trying to force my mind to work.  I tried to come up with just the right words to convince GM that she had nothing to worry about—that William was beneficial and not a danger.  After a few moments, I began to wonder if GM would come out to see me before I'd come up with a plan—I knew she must have heard me come in.

            But time passed, and GM did not appear.

            I took a tentative step forward.  It was a little unusual for GM not to come see what I was up to as soon as I came home.  But she had been distracted lately, and it was pretty obvious to me that something was on her mind.  When I had asked her about it, however, GM had brushed me off rather expertly—she was very good at side-stepping questions.

            GM had a way of talking around a topic and avoiding it without ever directly refusing to talk about it.

            In a way, it was a gift.

            After another few moments had passed, I decided to take GM on without a plan.  I would just go in determined not to lose.  After all, there was no good reason for me not to see William—he had already saved my life twice.  Surely, I could make her see that we were better off with him than without him.

            I walked through the house, but I didn't find GM in any of the usual places.  Eventually, I found GM in her office where I had left her earlier, which was odd—she didn't usually spend much time there on the weekends.  She said she wanted to keep her home life and her work life separate—even if they co-existed in the same place.

            As I entered the office, GM's head was bent, and I could see that she was pouring over a letter.  GM had been receiving a lot of letters lately—letters that she wouldn't talk about, but would hastily tuck away.  I could see an envelope on the desk beside her.  It had a number of colorful stamps on it—as if it had been mailed from overseas.  I wondered—could GM be receiving letters from Russia?

            "GM?" I said quietly.

            GM turned in her chair, clearly startled.  With admirable economy of movement, she swept her letter back into its envelope, and deposited the envelope into a drawer.

            "Oh, Katie!  I didn't hear you come in.  How was your first time ice skating?"

            "It was good," I said.  "I didn't break anything, and I actually made it all the way around the rink several times."  I paused.  "Did you receive a letter from Galina?"

            GM stood up.  "Letter?"

            "Yes," I said.  "You had a letter in your hand when I came in, and the stamps seemed to be foreign.  I was wondering if maybe you'd heard from Galina.  I know you've been in contact with her."

            Galina Golovnin had been a friend of my mother's.  Although she was the same age as my mother, she had been a teacher of sorts to her—helping my mother to develop and hone her powers as the Little Sun.  When I had encountered her in Russia, she had helped me too.  Galina's life was deeply steeped in the supernatural, something GM had resented bitterly.  But since our recent trip to Russia, GM's attitude toward Galina had relaxed a bit.  She was no longer determined to banish Galina to the past and pretend that she had never existed.

            "Galina?" GM said.  "Oh, no.  No.  I have not heard from her lately."

            I waited expectantly.

            GM, who was always so confident and self-possessed, suddenly seemed very unsure of herself.  She wrapped her fingers around the silver cross she always wore and began to move the charm up and down on its chain in an agitated fashion.  She looked around the room.  Then she looked back at me.

            "Enough about the letter.  Forget about the letter.  Solnyshko, I have something to tell you—to ask you, rather."

            'Solnyshko' was a Russian term of endearment that GM often used for me—one that lots of people used.  Oddly enough the word literally meant 'little sun.'  GM had been using it for me for as long as I could remember.  She had no idea how apt it really was.

            I took a deep breath.  "I have something to tell you, too."

            "Excellent.  Then we have news to share with one another.  Let's go in the kitchen, Solnyshko.  Are you hungry?"

            "No, I'm not hungry," I said, as GM shepherded me out of her office.

            "Some tea, then," GM said.  "It is always good to have tea when one talks."

            I wasn't really keen on the idea of having tea.  I'd lost my taste for tea and for hot drinks in general after I'd discovered that my mother had been poisoned by tea laced with vampire blood.  I had been tricked into drinking some of the stuff myself, and the memory of it was an unpleasant one.  But if drinking some tea would make GM happy, then I would go along with it.

            In the kitchen, GM waved me to a seat, and she put the kettle on.  Then she sat down across from me and gave me a level gaze.  We sat like that for several moments, and I began to shift uncomfortably under her steady stare.

            "GM, let's—"

            "Not just yet, Solnyshko.  Wait for the tea."

            "Would you mind looking in another direction for a few moments, then?" I asked.  "You're making me nervous."

            GM gave me a wry smile.  "My apologies, Solnyshko."  She rose.  "I need to get the tea things out anyway."

            GM got out her blue-and-white china teacups—the same ones she had used on the night that Galina Golovnin and her son, Aleksandr, had shown up on our doorstep to warn us that Gleb Mstislav would soon be after me.  GM had not believed them and had thrown them out.

            But they had been right.

            Soon the kettle was whistling, and GM poured out for us.  I gazed into the golden depths of the tea reluctantly.  I knew it was chamomile, and I knew it was untainted, but I couldn't help thinking again of the poisoned tea my cousin Odette had given me.

            I shivered.

            GM glanced up at me.  "Are you cold, Solnyshko?"

            I gave her a reassuring smile.  "No.  I was just thinking.  You know how sometimes a memory steals over you and catches you in a funny way?"

            "I do indeed," GM replied.

            She sipped at her tea and gave me a look over the rim of her cup.  Then she set it down with decision.

            "Katie, I know we both have things to say, and I hope you don't mind if I go first."

            "Go ahead," I said.

            "Thank you."  GM paused for a moment.  "Do you remember what I said to you in Tblisi?  I promised you that when that whole terrible business was over, that we would do some proper traveling?"

            "I remember," I said.

            GM took a deep breath, as if she were gathering courage.  "What do you think about spending Christmas in Russia?"

            I didn't know what I had been expecting, but that was not it.

            Several memories flashed through my mind—all of them terrifying.

            "Christmas in Russia?" I said.

            "Yes."  GM nodded her head in an encouraging fashion.

            "In Krov?" I asked.


            My head began to spin a little.  I loved Russia—I really did.  It was the country of my birth, and I thought it was beautiful.  But going back to Krov seemed dangerous at this point—especially since I had just met two vampires who wanted me to do exactly that.

            "Why do you want to go to Krov for Christmas?" I asked.  "Does it have something to do with all the letters?"

            "Letters?" GM asked innocently.

            "Yes, GM," I said.  "Letters like the one you were reading in your office just now.  I've seen you with them before—and the envelopes always have a lot of foreign stamps on them."

            "Ah, yes.  It appears you have sharp eyes, Solnyshko.  You don't have anything to be concerned about.  The letters are not from anyone you know."

            "Who are they from?"

            GM shook her head.  "Sometimes a grandmother needs to keep some things to herself.  Do not distress yourself over the letters, Katie."

            I decided to give up.  Once GM decided she wasn't going to talk about something, she very seldom changed her mind.  I stared back down at my tea.

            "Solnyshko, forgive me," GM said, "but you do not seem very excited about going to Krov.  I thought you would be happy.  I thought we might go to Moscow, too.  You would love all of the beautiful buildings in the great square.  St. Basil's Basilica is a wonder in person."

            I tried to think of how to put my thoughts into words, but what I wanted to say seemed to need more diplomacy than I was able to summon at the moment.  I wanted to tell GM that I wished she would tell me what was going on and who had written the letters.  I wanted to tell her that I had nearly died in Krov, and it was full of bad memories.  I wanted to tell her that we couldn't go back to Krov because the village was crawling with vampires—and some of those vampires were eager for my return.  But the right words just wouldn't come—especially for the last part.  How could I hint at a danger that I wasn't allowed to name?

            GM leaned forward.  "What is it that is troubling you, Solnyshko?  Are you worried about not having a visa?  If that is the case, then you need worry no longer.  I have already obtained visas for both of us.  We can fly directly into Russia."

            I was startled.  When we had gone to Russia in October, we had actually had to fly into Georgia and sneak across the border because Russia required a visa for U.S. visitors while Georgia did not.  If GM had visas for us already, then she had been planning the trip for some time now and had never mentioned it to me.

            "GM," I said, "why won't you tell me what's going on?"

            "It's Christmas, Katie.  I haven't spent a Christmas in Russia in many years.  I miss my homeland."

            I felt a twinge of frustration.  I knew GM was sincere when she said that, and to be fair, the reason she gave was a perfectly good one.  But I couldn't shrug off a suspicion that that wasn't all there was to it.  Then again, I wondered—what exactly was it that I suspected GM of?  I really didn't know.

            "Where are you thinking of staying in Krov?" I asked.  "Odette's house?"

            GM gave me a sharp look.  "So is that what is troubling you?  Your poor cousin?  I can understand that it must be hard for you.  It is hard for me, too, Solnyshko.  You loved Odette and so did I.  And hope is not lost entirely.  People have been restored to their families after going missing for years, and Odette has only been gone a few months.  We may yet see her again."

            Seeing Odette again was one of the things I was worried about—as William had told Innokenti, it was entirely possible that Odette would return.  She had gone missing.  But she was not lost in the way that GM thought she was—in the way that an ordinary human girl would be lost.  Odette had become a vampire, and in October she had tried to kill me.  She had disappeared after that, and her house in Krov had been left vacant.  If we settled ourselves into her house at Christmas, who was to say that she wouldn't return and resent our presence?  I had seen Odette when she was angry—it was a truly terrifying sight.

            So, Odette might come for me, and so might Innokenti and Anton—in fact, I had a pretty definite feeling that the last two would.  If I went to Krov for Christmas, would I ever be allowed to leave again?  Would I even survive whatever Innokenti and his fellow vampires had planned?

            "GM, do we have to go to Russia for Christmas?" I asked uncomfortably.

            GM's face fell.  "I am forgetting how hard that trip was for you, aren't I?  Not only did you lose your cousin, but you were kidnapped by that madman who used to be your teacher.  And then you were in the hospital.  I am sorry, Solnyshko.  We do not have to go to Russia for Christmas."

            I was sorry to see how disappointed GM looked.  I could tell that she'd really had her heart set on going to Russia—but such a trip would be dangerous, and there was no way I could explain that to her.

            "I'm sorry, GM," I said.  "I just don't think I can do it."

            GM reached across the table and patted my hand.  "It is all right, Solnyshko.  I hadn't quite realized how difficult this would be for you.  We will not go."

            "Now," GM said briskly, as if she'd completely banished the topic from her mind, "I believe you said you had something to tell me, too?"

            Suddenly, I felt even worse.  First, I'd ruined GM's Christmas plans.  Now I was about to give her more bad news.

            I had developed no clever plan of attack, so I decided just to plunge ahead.

            "GM, please get too worked up over what I'm going to say."

            GM raised one silver eyebrow.  "Your tone does not inspire confidence, Solnyshko."

            "Do you remember William Sursur?" I asked.  "He got us out of the house that night when we were forced to flee to the airport.  And he got me out of the Mstislav crypt in Krov.  He also came to see us at the house in Krov right before we left."

            GM's expression grew carefully blank.  I knew that look—it was one she wore whenever I brought up a topic she didn't want to discuss.  It was as I had feared—GM did not approve of William.

            "I remember that he was very handsome," GM said.

            "He meant a lot to me, GM."

            "I also remember that he said the two of you could not be together.  After all, he lives in Russia, and you live here."

            "That's just it," I said.  "William doesn't live in Russia anymore.  He lives here."

            GM was clearly startled.  "He lives here in the United States?"

            "He lives here in Elspeth's Grove."

            GM's eyebrows rose.  "What is this that you are telling me?"

            "GM, are you angry?"

            "That boy lives here now?  He has followed you?"

            "Why don't you like him?" I asked.

            GM's voice rose.  "You cannot see him.  I don't want him in this house!"

            "GM, please!" I cried.  "He saved both our lives!"

            GM fell silent.

            "Why don't you like him?" I asked again.  "What has he done?"

            GM looked away.  "I don't know anything about him.  And he appears to be mixed up in some pretty dangerous things."

            "Things he was trying to stop," I said.

            GM looked at me.  "What exactly is it that you want me to say?"

            "Please don't be like that, GM.  William is here in Elspeth's Grove.  I like him.  And he's really helped me.  I want to see him.  And if it's okay with you, I would like William to come over here, so you can talk to him and see that he's a good person."

            GM looked down at her teacup, and she didn't say anything for a long time.  I began to hope that she was wavering.

            "There is something in what you say," she said at last.  "You are a good girl.  I suppose I can trust your judgment."

            She looked up at me again.  "I confess that I don't entirely know my own mind in this case.  Perhaps the problem is that I just don't want you getting any older."

            As I looked at GM, I felt tears stinging my eyes.  "GM, you don't have to worry that you're going to lose me.  You have to know that I will always love you.  Nothing will ever change that."

            GM stood and walked around the table to me.

            "I know, Solnyshko.  I will always love you, too.  I have been both your grandmother and your mother.  And it is sometimes hard for a mother to see her child grow up."

            I hugged her back tightly.

            GM straightened up and brushed a hand over my hair.

            "When would you like your William to come over?"

            I didn't want to rush things, but I knew the appearance of Innokenti and Anton had made it necessary for me to get William on good terms with GM as soon as possible. 

            "Is tomorrow okay?"

            GM blinked.  "Tomorrow?"

            "I know it's sudden—"

            GM waved a hand.  "It is all right, Solnyshko.  Invite him over for dinner.  I will make pasta.  Everyone likes pasta."

            "Thank you, GM.  Thanks for William and thanks about Russia."

            GM pressed a kiss to my forehead.  "Anything for you, Solnyshko."

            GM cleared away her cup and left the room.

            I was left with my full cup of tea and a sense of relief.  I was very happy that William would be able to come over tomorrow—though I realized that I didn't know if he actually ever ate anything or not.  I supposed we would think of something if he didn't.  And now that GM would allow William to be in the house, it made me feel a bit better about the fact that Innokenti and Anton were lurking out there somewhere.  I wished William had told me how he knew Anton.  Anton seemed much more dangerous than Innokenti—and Innokenti didn't seem safe.

            I stood up and poured my tea into the sink.  I had homework to do, but I wandered into the living room where I knew I would find a picture of GM and my grandfather.

            The picture I was looking for stood on a table with other pictures of family and friends—a number of them featuring me.  Some of the people were unknown to me, but the pictures of my parents and my grandparents sat side by side next to one another right in the center.  The picture of my parents was from their wedding—my mother, pale and blond like me, my father just a little darker with light brown curly hair.  Both of them were beaming, and my mother was holding a single flower.  It was curious that no one else seemed to be in attendance.

            And then there was the picture of my grandparents.

            I picked their photo up.  My grandmother had been blond when she was younger, as had my grandfather.  They looked like a perfectly normal couple—it was hard to believe that my grandfather had truly been one of the Sìdh.

            As I looked at my grandfather, I wondered what he was like.  GM believed that he had died, but Galina told me that he still lived and that he had gone back to his people.  I wondered if he knew that GM lived in another country now, and if he ever saw her—even if she didn't see him.  GM didn't speak about him very much, but I knew that she had loved him.  And she'd told me that I would have loved him too.

            I set the picture down and walked up the stairs to my room.

            I did have homework to do—if I could keep my mind on it.  I told myself to firmly to forget about GM's letters.  And I told myself not to think too much about Anton and Innokenti.  They hadn't actually threatened me directly, and I knew William would watch over the house.  Maybe he was right—maybe the presence of the two vampires in town was just a scare tactic.

            I was still just a little too wound up to get to work, so I wandered around the room, straightening things up.  As I walked past my dresser and the large mirror over it, I thought I saw something moving in the mirror—something that wasn't my own image.

            I stopped, startled, and peered into the mirror.  I saw only my own face and the room behind me.

            I told myself I hadn't actually seen anything out of the ordinary.

            I shrugged off my nerves and went to my desk, determined to finally get to work.

            As I opened my books, however, I couldn't help thinking of the mirror, and an image flashed in my mind of what I had seen.

            There had been a second image in the mirror.

            I had seen a shadow walking behind me.

Friday, October 12, 2012


Thanks to everyone who participated in the giveaway!  I've decided to change the title, based on the feedback I've recieved, and I'll do a new giveaway once the redesign is up.  It should only be a day or two :)  Thanks again for all of your input!

Monday, September 24, 2012

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Chapter 1 of Firebird

Hi everyone.  Here is the first chapter of Firebird.  You can read chapters from Pure, too, by clicking on the posts from May 2011.  You can find those posts on the lower right-hand side of the page.

Chapter 1.


It was Sunday morning, and I was going to meet William.

            And I was nervous.

            A feeling of uneasiness had been growing on me steadily within the last month, and just as steadily I had pushed it aside.  But the feeling was stronger than ever this morning, and this time I couldn't block it out.

            And so I hesitated before the door.

            Things are normal now, I said to myself sternly.  You no longer have visions.  All of that is over.

            I wasn't having a vision, but there was a feeling—a barrier—something solid but invisible standing in my way.  The way this strange feeling overwhelmed me reminded me of how I had felt when I had had visions—it overpowered my senses, blotting out the reality in front of me.

            This particular feeling warned me not to leave the house.

            But I was determined to go—I wasn't going to let fear run my life—no matter what had happened in the recent past.

            All the same, I couldn't help stepping quietly back to my grandmother's office at the front of the house, where I peered in through the open door.  My grandmother, GM, was sitting with her back to me, her head bent as she perused a letter, her long silver braid flowing like liquid silk down her back.  I had already said goodbye to her, but I had a strong urge to say it again—as if it would be the last time I would ever see her.

            Don't be ridiculous, I said to myself.  What could happen in a sleepy small town like Elspeth's Grove?

            But my own memories of a little more than a month ago rose up like an uneasy spirit to answer me.

            I saw a livid face, burning eyes—I heard inhuman cries—

            I shut my mind against the memory and hurried out the front door before I lost my nerve.

            The morning was clear and cold—it was just past Thanksgiving—and a brisk wind kicked up, whipping my hair across my eyes.  I pulled the strands of hair away from my face carefully.

            As I did so, I stopped, arrested by the sight of my own pale hair in the sunlight.  Without warning, a fleeting image from my childhood in Russia popped into my mind.  On a windy day, shortly before my mother's death, I had gotten my little fingers tangled in her long hair.  We had both laughed.

            You are so like your mother, GM was fond of saying whenever she was in one of her rare contemplative moods.

            I could tell from pictures that our hair was similar—pale, blond, straight—but as far as anything else went it was hard for me to tell—I had not known my mother for very long.  As I pulled my unruly hair back and secured it, I wondered what advice my mother—had she lived—would have given me on a day like today—a day on which, if I admitted it to myself, I could feel death in the air.

            I tried to close my mind to it, but the strange feeling remained.

            I hurried on toward Hywel's Plaza, which was surrounded on all sides by trees, and as I entered the wooded area, I was struck by the eerie calm of the place.  There were no sounds of birds or other animals—it was as if the woods were watching, waiting for something.  There were no people or houses nearby, and I broke into a sudden, panicked run.

            What do you think is in these woods? I asked myself.  I found I couldn't answer my own question.  I just wanted to get away from the silence and the trees as quickly as possible.

            I ran for what felt like an eternity—but was in reality only a few minutes—before breaking out suddenly upon a clearing.

            Stretched before me was a vast sheet of ice, surrounded by a low wall.  A roof made of pipes and angles, supported by thick metal poles, extended protectively over the ice, and black matting had been laid down between the ice rink and the skate house.  The rink was brand-new and had only been open for about a week.

            Loud, cheerful music suddenly filled the plaza, and skaters were already out on the ice.  All of the sound and motion was a pleasant contrast to the watchful silence of the trees.  As I stood looking out over the big, white sheet of ice, the sun dipped behind a thick bank of solid gray clouds, and its harsh glare was blunted, suffusing the area with a muted, gentle glow.

            The rink was fairly crowded, and the atmosphere was cheerful, happy, relaxed.  And in the midst of the crowd I spotted a familiar, well-loved figure.

            I hurried forward.

            William turned and smiled his familiar crooked half-smile.

            A casual observer would describe William as tall, lean, dark-haired—maybe eighteen or nineteen years old.  The only thing that might be said to be unusual about him were his eyes—blue was not an unusual color, but the intensity of the color in his eyes was not quite human.  There were other words, too, that had been used to describe him—cursed, damned, outcast—words that had real, if melodramatic meaning.  There were still other words that described him—fantastical but real nonetheless.  On this particular morning my mind shied away from that last group of words—as if thinking them could somehow bring about disaster.

            "You had me worried, Katie," William said as I reached him.  His voice was colored as always by an accent that I could never quite place.  "I was beginning to think you weren't coming."

            His tone was light, but there was an undercurrent of alarm in it.

            I glanced at him sharply.  There were faint lines of stress around his eyes.  I was late, and that was unusual for me.  But it seemed to me that William's anxiety was over more than just lateness.  Or was it my imagination?  I decided to shrug the feeling off—I figured I was just projecting my own recent paranoia onto him.

            "Sorry," I said.  "I just got started a little later than I meant to."

            "Well, you're here now."  He held out his hand and we started toward the skate house.  "Were you worried about trying to skate today?"

            I took his hand, marveling anew at the tingle that ran through me whenever he touched me.  His skin was warm, and his hand was pleasantly calloused.  I didn't want to think about anything but how wonderful it was to be with him.  As I had done for the past month, I decided not to tell him about strange feeling of dread that was almost always with me.

            "No," I said, making an effort to be relaxed.  "I wasn't worried about skating."

            A strong gust of wind swirled around us then, causing me to stop and turn toward William.  William slipped his arms around me, and I leaned against him.

            There was laughter out on the ice, as skaters found themselves pushed around involuntarily by the wind.

            We stood together until the wind died down, and then I went closer to the rink to watch.

            I had never been ice-skating before.

            A little girl with braids and red mittens went flying by on miniature skates, her cheeks flushed with happiness.  An even smaller girl with equally pink cheeks gave a tiny shriek and chased after the bigger girl.  I wondered if the girls were sisters.

            The two of them seemed so happy and so normal that it was hard for me to credit my fears of only a few minutes ago.  Surely there was nothing dangerous in the woods that surrounded us.

            I couldn't help shivering then.  I had been told something similar once.

            That prediction had been wrong.

            "Do you think you can do that, too?"  William had come up to stand beside me, and he was smiling at me now.

            I glanced back at the two little girls who were now on the other side of the rink.

            "I think so," I said, smiling back at him.  I was determined to have a good time today and to forget about my worries.

            William took my hand again, and we turned toward the skate house.

            As we reached the door, William stopped and looked around suddenly, as if he'd heard something.  His eyes narrowed warily.

            "What is it?" I asked.  "What's wrong?"

            "It's nothing," he said.  He gave me a reassuring smile.

            "Are you sure?" I asked.

            "Yes," he said.  "I'm positive—it's nothing."

            I knew that William could hear things I couldn't, and I felt a flash of fear that I quickly pushed aside.  I told my self to relax—just because William had heard something that had distracted him, didn't mean it was something dangerous.  I would have to make an effort to get my imagination under control.

            William and I continued on into the skate house and emerged minutes later with skates on our feet.

            There was a gate in the rink that stood open, and I walked over to it.  The ice stretched out in front of me, white and unforgiving.

            Now that I was about to step onto it, the rink suddenly seemed much bigger than I had realized.  Though the sun had gone behind the clouds, the ice itself seemed to glow faintly, as if it were pulling all available light into its depths.  It almost didn't seem real.

            I was seized powerfully by nerves.

            At the same time, I felt something like relief.  The fear I was currently feeling was born of the moment—it had nothing to do with the fear that had very nearly prevented me from leaving the house that morning.  It was a perfectly normal fear.

            As I stared at the ice, however, figures seemed to swim under the surface—dark phantom shapes that twisted and turned, before solidifying into human form.

            I backed away from the ice.

            William was standing right behind me, and I bumped into him.

            "Are you all right?" he asked.  He took my arm, and we stepped away from the gate.

            "There's something out there—under the ice," I said.  "I can see—things."

            "Those are just shadows," William said reassuringly.  "It's nothing to worry about.  The ice can play tricks on your eyes if you're not used to it.  You'll adjust."

            I looked again.  The strange shapes I'd seen had disappeared.  Maybe William was right—maybe I had just seen shadows.  I decided once again to shrug off my fears.

            "Go on out, Katie," William said.  "Don't worry.  I'll be right here to catch you if you fall."

            "You're sure you're a good skater?" I asked.  I had asked William about that when I'd first suggested that we come to the rink.

            "Yes, I'm sure I'm a good skater," William replied.

            "How do you know?" I asked.

            "I came out here a few days ago—it turns out I'm good at it."

            "You didn't tell me you'd been out here already." I said.

            "I thought it looked like fun, and I wanted to bring you here," William said, smiling.  "So, of course, I had to test it out for myself.  I had no idea that you'd suggest it on your own before I got a chance to ask you."

            "Where did you learn how to skate?" I asked.

            Pain flashed in William's eyes, and his smile faded.

            I immediately wished I hadn't asked the question.  Silently, I berated myself for my thoughtlessness.

            "I'm sorry," I said.  "I shouldn't have asked."

            "It's not your fault," William replied ruefully.  "I just wish I could answer you."

            I felt a rush of feeling for him that was far more profound than sympathy—William had been through something I couldn't begin to fathom.  His memories of his past life had been taken from him.  He had little idea of who he truly was.

            He had been left with just enough to let him know what he had lost.

            William had his recent memories, of course—there was nothing wrong with his short-term memory—but his memories of his life before he had been changed were gone.  And it wasn't amnesia or any kind of human ailment that he suffered from.  William was not, in fact, human.

            I wrapped my arms around him and leaned against him.

            William rested his chin on the top of my head and pulled me closer.

            I wanted very much for William to be happy.  But I knew that peace of mind was something he struggled to find.  Such a thing was hard for him—he believed himself to be permanently and irreparably damaged.

            There was more laughter from the ice rink, and I looked around.  Out on the ice there were parents helping their young children, older children racing each other, smiling couples holding hands.  Everything seemed so normal and down-to-earth.  I wanted to join them.

            I wanted to be one of the normal ones.

            "I think I'm ready to go out on the ice now," I said, though I was reluctant to leave the circle of William's arms.

            "That's too bad," William replied, brushing his fingers over my cheek.  "I was just thinking that I wouldn't mind standing here like this all day."

            We walked back to the gate, and I stood staring out over the ice with my hands resting on the wall on either side of me.  People skated past me at what suddenly seemed like alarming speed.  I told myself I would be fine as long as I didn't see any more dark shapes in the ice.

            "Like I said, I'll be right here to catch you," William murmured.

            I waited till the way was clear, and then I put first one foot, and then the other out onto the ice.  Almost immediately I began to slip.  I grabbed frantically for the wall, catching it just in time to prevent myself from falling.

            I clung to the wall, my heart pounding.

            William glided around to my side and leaned against the wall, his lips twitching suspiciously.

            "You're laughing at me," I said.

            "No, no I'm not," William said, but his smile grew broader.  "I'm not laughing at you, really."

            I continued to cling to the wall, and William continued to smile at me.

            "So, what do I do?" I asked, after my panic had subsided a little.  "I don't actually know how to move now."

            William pushed away from the wall and stood easily on the ice, looking at me with amusement.  I noticed with some irritation that his shoulders were shaking with silent laughter.

            Over the next hour—with William's help, and with much stumbling on my part—I managed to make it all the way around the rink several times.  I even managed to let go of the wall.  We kept going, and eventually, I raised my head and looked around.  I realized I was moving along with everyone else on the ice and having a good time.

            William gave me his crooked smile.  "You're glad you did this now, aren't you?"

            I could feel the cold air nipping at my cheeks, but the rest of me was comfortably warm.  And William was beside me.

            "Yes," I said quietly.  "I'm happy I did this.  And I don't just mean the ice-skating."

            William bowed his head, so I wouldn't see his expression, but I could tell he knew what I meant.

            William and I were together now, but it had not been easy to get to this point—and we had not been together for very long.  But even though we were officially a couple, he kept limits on our time together.  I still didn't know very much about him, and that included the things he could tell me.

            I didn't even know where he lived.

            But he was here now—and that was all that mattered to me.

            When William and I were done out on the ice, we went into the skate house and sat down on the benches to unlace our skates.

            I could feel William's eyes on me, and I looked up at him.  There was something forlorn in his expression.

            "You don't want me to go, do you?" I said.

            "No."  His voice was quiet.

            "We can spend more time together, you know."

            "No, we can't."  William was suddenly stern.  "We have to limit our time together.  No matter how much I wish things were different."

            "Because you think you're cursed," I said.

            "I am cursed," he replied.  "All I can do is savor the time I have with you before you find someone of your own kind."

            "My own kind," I said, shaking my head.  What was my kind exactly?  William insisted on seeing me as a normal girl.

            But I was far from normal.

            To any outside observer I would simply be Katie Wickliff, a sixteen-year-old student at Elspeth's Grove High School—an ordinary, very average girl.

            But my family had a past—one that I hadn't even known about until recently—one that was both strange and incredible.

            And my heritage would forever mark me as different.

            The two of us put our shoes on and walked out into the cold.  I was warm from my recent exertions, but a gust of wind kicked up, and I shivered.  William put his arm around me.

            We left the rink and entered the woods nearby.  Another shudder ran through me as I thought once again of the fact that I didn't know where William lived.  What if he had no home?  What if he slept outside in the frozen night?  Of course, I didn't know if William ever actually had to sleep.  And I didn't know if he felt the cold—though somehow I doubted that he did.  But I still didn't like the idea of William's not having a proper home.

            "William, why won't you tell me where you live?" I asked.

            "Because you don't need to know."

            I felt frustration welling up within me—William always gave me that same answer whenever I asked him anything about himself.  I knew today would be no different, but I suddenly felt very stubborn.

            I persisted with my questions.  "Do you have a job?  Where do you go while I'm at school?"

            "Katie, it's not important for you to know these things.  You know we need distance.  You're too young to get deeply involved.  Leave the heartache to me."

            Though William did appear to be roughly my age, he was actually far older.  He'd once told me that—though the memory was very, very faint—when he'd first encountered human beings, their main form of transportation had been the horse.  So William was not just older—he was older by the span of more than a few lifetimes.  Our age difference was one of his main arguments against our love lasting.  He said that I didn't truly know what love was yet—that someday I would leave him and he was doomed to heartbreak.

            I knew he was wrong.

            "William, answer my questions," I said.  "Answer just one.  Tell me what neighborhood you live in."

            William dropped his arm from my shoulder.  "Katie, we've been over this territory before.  Why are you bringing all of this up again?"

            "I worry about you, William," I said.  "I want you to live somewhere safe and comfortable.  I want to know you're okay."

            William gave me a searching look.  "It's your grandmother, isn't it?  She's uncertain about me.  You must have told her by now that I don't go to school, and she wonders what I do with my life.  She must wonder if I'm good for you."

            I felt a brief stab of guilt when he mentioned GM.

            "It's not GM," I said.

            "But she must have questions by now," William protested.  "She must wonder what my intentions are."

            I couldn't help smiling.  "That a very old fashioned phrase, William."

            William did not seem to share my amusement.  "Are you telling me that your grandmother has never had any questions about me?"

            "I wouldn't say she's never had any questions about you," I replied.  I was feeling worse and worse about the turn the conversation had taken.  "But she hasn't had any questions about you since we returned from Russia."

            My mind slipped back briefly to a dark crypt—a crypt that William had rescued me from.  Back in October, William and I had both traveled to Krov, Russia.  We were very lucky to have survived the trip.

            "Why hasn't she had any questions?" William demanded.

            I took a deep breath—I had a feeling William wasn't going to like the answer.  "Because GM doesn't know you're in Elspeth's Grove.  She thinks you stayed in Russia."

            "What?"  William stopped walking and stared at me, his expression angry and incredulous.

            He continued to stare at me, and I began to feel distinctly uncomfortable.

            "Your grandmother doesn't know I'm in Elspeth's Grove," he said slowly.  "So she doesn't know that we've been meeting?"

            "No—I was afraid she would forbid me to see you."

            "Katie, I insist upon meeting your grandmother."  William's anger seemed to swell up and surround both of us.  It felt like a solid, tangible thing.  "We cannot go on like this."

            "You've already met her," I said.  "Twice."

            That was true, though my bringing it up was really more of an excuse than anything else.  GM had glimpsed William briefly in our dark kitchen back in October, and he had come to visit us at our house in Russia once all the trouble was over.  It was at that second meeting that William had told me that we would have to part forever.  I had told GM what he had said then—I'd just never told her that he had later changed his mind and come back to me.

            "Katie, you know what I mean," William said sternly.  "I want to see your grandmother.  I want her to know I'm here.  I don't want to see you without her knowledge."

            "William," I said, feeling panic rising within me, "what if she says I can't see you?"

            "We'll deal with that if it happens," William replied firmly.  "But it's best for her to know.  She loves you—she wants to protect you."

            I thought bringing GM into things was a mistake—I thought it was too risky.  But at the same time, I could see that I wasn't going to win the argument.

            I sighed.  "All right.  I'll see if I can set something up."

            Anger flashed in William's eyes.  "Set something up?  Katie, you're not taking this—"

            William stopped suddenly and glanced around sharply.

            I looked around, too, trying to see what had attracted his attention, but we appeared to be completely alone.  As we stood silently, I noticed that the woods around us were quiet and somehow watchful—just as they had been when I had walked through them earlier.

            I thought once again of the fact that there were no houses nearby.

            William continued to stare at a fixed point somewhere off in the trees.

            "William, what's—"

            "Katie, get out of here," William whispered.  He didn't turn to look at me.


            "Katie, go!  Run!"

            I turned to do as he asked, panicked by the tone in his voice.

            I had not gone very far when someone stepped out of the trees and blocked my way.

            I looked up and found myself staring into the calm, pale eyes of a vampire.

            His name was Innokenti, and I had last seen him in the Pure Woods in Krov, Russia.

            He was friendly.

            Sort of.

            "Hello, little one."  His voice, as I remembered only too well, was silky and just a little superior.  His brown hair fell in a straight line to his chin, and his clothes were as picturesquely antique as they had been the last time I had seen him—he appeared to have stepped out of the Middle Ages.

            Innokenti's presence here in these woods was deeply disturbing—I had believed that I would never see him again after I left Russia.  Somehow I had imagined that Elspeth's Grove was beyond his reach—even though he had actually come here once before.  Seeing him again was like being revisited by a nightmare.

            "Innokenti," I stammered, taking a step back.  "What are you doing here?"

            He bared his teeth in a smile that was far from reassuring—especially since it allowed me to see the unusually sharp outline of his teeth.

            "My friend and I," he said, "have traveled thousands of miles to pay you and William a visit.  How fortunate we are to find the two of you together."

            Innokenti sent a significant nod over my shoulder, and I turned quickly.

            Standing next to William now was a man I didn't recognize—young, tall, dark of hair and eye, dressed all in black.  William was staring at the newcomer with dislike, his body tense, his expression set into harsh lines.  For his part, the newcomer was smiling malevolently at William.

            Innokenti gestured to the strange young man.  "Shall we go over so I may make introductions?"

            As Innokenti and I walked over to them, I had to remind myself that Innokenti had never done me any harm—in fact, he had actually given me information that had proved to be very helpful.

            But no matter how hard I tried to calm myself, I remained uneasy.  Both Innokenti and his friend gave off a palpable air of danger.

            As we reached William and the stranger, both of them turned to look at me.  I could see a muscle working in William's jaw, and the stranger's smile deepened as he looked me over with unpleasant scrutiny.  His eyes met mine, and I was startled by just how dark they were.  They were eyes with the depth of night in them.

            "Innokenti, get out of here," William said angrily.  "And take him with you."

            "Now, now William," Innokenti replied mildly.  "This is a friendly visit."  He gestured to the stranger.  "The two of you know each other, of course.  But introductions are in order for the young lady."

            Innokenti gave me another one of his unnerving smiles.  "Katie Wickliff, may I present my associate, Anton.  You'll have to forgive us—we don't go in for surnames much in our community.  Many of us do not like to dwell on the past."

            I looked to Innokenti.  "Is Anton a—a—"

            "A vampire?" Innokenti asked.  "Yes."

            "Pleased to make your acquaintance, Katie," Anton said.  His voice was dark and smoky, and I had the feeling that he was laughing at me.  He actually lifted my hand with his ice cold fingers and kissed it.  He stared at me as he let my hand drop.

            He seemed to be waiting for a reply.

            I found that my throat was too dry to allow me to speak.

            Anton's amusement deepened.  "Too stunned to speak?  I have that effect on a lot of women."

            William grabbed Anton's coat and shook him.  "Leave her alone."

            Malice lit up Anton's dark eyes.  "I'm simply saying hello."

            "Gentlemen, please," Innokenti said.  "I believe you're upsetting the little one.  Our mission here is a benevolent one.  We should all be pleasant to one another."

            William pushed Anton away and rounded on Innokenti.  "Why did you bring him?  If you wanted things to be pleasant, you should have left him at home."

            "William, your attitude isn't very charming," Innokenti admonished gently.  "You should put your antagonism aside as Anton has done.  This mission we are on is one of the gravest importance.  Anton knows that, and that's why he very kindly volunteered to come with me."

            "Why did he have to come at all?" William said angrily.  "If you truly need to speak with me, you should have come alone."

            "William, you weren't listening," Innokenti replied patiently.  "We have come here to see you and the little one, and this is no routine visit we are on.  I am a messenger here.  Anton has accompanied me in order to look out for my welfare."

            William snorted derisively.  "He's your bodyguard?  What do you need protection from?  Me?"

            "Vampires are strong, but we are not completely invulnerable, William—you know that.  And our mission here is a dangerous one."

            William's face grew grim, and he moved swiftly to stand in front of me.

            "Tell me what you need to tell me.  But leave Katie out of this."

            I looked around William's shoulder.  Anton gave me an unpleasant smile, and Innokenti spread out his hands apologetically.

            "I'm afraid I can't leave Katie out of anything," Innokenti said.  "Katie is involved no matter how much we all might wish otherwise."

            William folded his arms across his chest.  "Say what you have to say, and then get out of here."

            "Very well."  Something steely came into Innokenti's light eyes.  "You both have your duties, and you are both avoiding them.  This is unacceptable."

            "Unacceptable to whom?" William asked.  "To you?"

            "William, you know I do not speak for myself," Innokenti replied.  "I speak on behalf of others.  You, William, belong in Krov.  You belong with us in the vampire colony there.  You are valuable to us.  You have special abilities—you alone amongst our number can fight the kost."

            "Are you being troubled by a kost at the moment?" William asked.

            Innokenti gave William a mirthless smile.  "No—not at the moment.  But our kind grows thirstier.  You know what that means."

            Innokenti's pale eyes shifted to me.  "And you, little one, you too, have a purpose.  You are the Little Sun, and you are also destined to fight the kost.  You owe us no particular allegiance, but your heritage confers certain obligations and responsibilities—ones that cannot lightly be ignored."

            "Little Sun?" Anton said with a mocking lilt in his tone.  "So you're the one.  How about I call you 'Sunshine'?"

            "You say we have duties," William said, ignoring Anton.  "What do you want from us?"

            "I propose that you and Katie return with me now," Innokenti replied.  "You can return to the colony, William, and Katie can live in the house that was vacated by her cousin, Odette.  You can live near one another, and possibly even work with one another whenever a kost rears its ugly head.  But I would recommend that you put an end to all romantic involvement.  Such a relationship will not meet with much approval."

            "And what if we refuse to go with you?" William asked.

            Anger flashed in Innokenti's eyes.  "I would advise against it.  But in the event that the two of you refuse, I would return to the colony and explain to them, with a heart full of regret, that I was unable to make you see reason."

            "You would not attempt to force us to return with you?" William asked.

            Innokenti's eyebrows rose.  "William, we are vampires.  We are not savages."

            William stared at Innokenti for a long moment, and then shook his head.  "I don't understand what's going on here.  You've admitted that the kost is not an immediate danger.  And I can return to Russia any time I wish—you know that.  There's no need for me to be in Russia on constant patrol.  And you've already admitted that Katie owes you no allegiance.  What does it matter to you where she lives?  This must be about something else.  There's something you're not telling me."

            Innokenti looked off into the trees, and then fixed William with a piercing stare. 

            "William, you may not believe this, but you mean something to us—to the whole colony—something that has nothing to do with your unique talents.  You are one of us—and we know that this human girl here matters to you.  Anton and I are here to ensure your safety and hers.  Forces we don't entirely understand yet are gathering.  And the two of you would make convenient pawns."

            William was unmoved.  "Then tell me what you do know.  Give me all the information you have, and maybe I'll consider coming with you.  Katie isn't to be involved in this—at all."

            Anger flashed once again in Innokenti's cool eyes.  "Katie will be involved in this no matter what you want.  There's a price on the girl's head, and there are two separate groups after her.  I am telling you that she is not safe."

            "Who's after her?"

            "I cannot tell you that William.  I am merely a humble servant of a greater power.  I have told you too much already.  I have only been authorized to tell you that it's in your best interests to return with us."

            "Then the answer is 'no,'" William said.  "I'm not going with you and neither is Katie."

            Innokenti's eyes flicked to me.  "Perhaps you should let the little one decide for herself.  After all, she is the one in the greatest danger."

            William took a step toward Innokenti.  "I won't allow Katie to be tricked into anything by you.  That cousin of hers that you mentioned so cavalierly a few moments ago tried to kill her.  If Katie goes back, her cousin may return, too, and try to finish what she started.  Krov is far too dangerous for Katie.  She's safer here with me."

            "What do you say, little one?"

            There was a strong hint of warning in Innokenti's voice, and I felt a wave of fear wash over me as I met his pale gaze.

            "I—I want to stay here with William."

            Innokenti displayed little outward reaction at my refusal, but he suddenly seemed to radiate rage.  He turned toward William.

            "I'll give you one last chance.  The girl doesn't really know enough of the world to make a reasonable decision, but you know something of the true darkness that exists out there.  If you don't care about your own safety, then you should at least consider hers."

            "We're not going with you," William said curtly.

            Innokenti spread out his hands in a gesture of surrender.  "As you wish, William.  But remember this:  I tried to help you."

            Innokenti backed up a few paces, and his eyes flicked to me once more.  "You cannot remain with him, little one.  They will not allow it."

            He melted into the woods.  Anton gave me a wink and a smile, and then he too, seemed to vanish into the trees.

            I looked at William.  He was staring at the spot where Anton and Innokenti had just stood.  His face seemed set in stone.

            After a moment, he looked around at me.

            "We need to go to your house now.  I need to be able to protect you."