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       Emblaze, p.23

           Jessica Shirvington
 
I nodded.

  „They call to you?"

  „I … I don"t know." And yet I did feel a distinctive pull towards them. „What are they?"

  „If you are meant to know - you will."

  „Like I said, you suck."

  He raised a single eyebrow and then motioned to Steph"s bed. I collapsed back onto mine as he slid down onto the other, lying on his back and carefully positioning himself in the middle.

  Weirdo.

  „I have never been told that before," he said, preoccupied with testing the springs.

  „Well, you do. All of you, actually, angels in general - suck. We"d be better off without you."

  He laughed lightly and it was a clear warning. I felt his presence terrifyingly close to me, despite the fact that he hadn"t moved an inch.

  „Without us, you would be nothing more than lowly beasts. It is only though us that your dim minds have the faculty of higher intelligence. Without is, you would still live in trees until the larger, more territorial creatures wiped you out."

  I didn"t have a response for that and from the way he said, I was fairly certain one would not be welcome anyway.

  „Would you get off my best friend"s bed?" I settled for.

  „Did you like my gift?" he taunted, not moving.

  „I"m sorry?"

  „Oh, I know, it was a shame I could not be there . Uri insisted on taking the first visit this time and I missed my chance to talk to you in the dress, but I watched. I believe I made a significant improvement. Would you really have attacked that girl?" he asked, smiling.

  The dress. It was him.

  „How…? Josephine arranged the outfit."

  „Yes, but coincidence is my speciality. You didn"t really think it was only by chance that the dress you swooned over while in the presence of darkness would not come to show you its favour?"

  „I … „ I sat up. He raised his eyebrows, watching how easily I was now able to move in this twisted reality. „What does that mean?" I asked, starting to panic. „Why would darkness favour me?"

  He chuckled. „Fear not." He sat up, too. „Remarkably comfortable," he said, marvelling at the bed. I glared at him and he flicked a hand to one side, bored wit giving explanations.

  „You are so easy to influence, Violet. Really, it makes working with you so entertaining.

  Especially when I have the pleasure of wondering just where that will of yours might take you next. How was Phoenix by the way?"

  „You think I should go with him?" I whispered, afraid of the answer.

  This seemed to bring more joy to Nox than anything.

  „The better question is - if you thought it was what I wanted you to do, would you do the opposite simply to prove a point?"

  „Get out!" I hated the way he twisted everything, made me feel guilty when I hadn"t done anything wrong. Nonetheless, his words struck a chord. I didn"t wan the favour of darkness, nor did I want to walk right into its traps.

  „Certainly." He stood in a fluid graceful movement, though, as he did, one of the many small buttons on the front of his jacket popped off. Instinctively, I caught it before it hit me in the face. Nox watched, perplexed by this new imperfection in his outfit, but recovered quickly. „Before I go, I wonder … if you could have something you desire greatly, something that has been denied you … if that were available - would you consider opening the gates of Tartarus yourself?"

  „No."

  He smiled knowingly and left, the sand melting back into the walls and the indent from his weight on Steph"s bed disappearing completely.

  I opened my hand. Just like the grains of sand, the button had stayed behind.

  I can keep things.

  Nausea stopped any further thought. I rolled over and closed my eyes but then had to keep going, rolling off the bed. I made it to the bathroom just in time. The combination of fatigue and realm crossings was not kind to my stomach and I felt like there was nothing left of me after the third time I had thrown my head over the toilet.

  Eventually, I crawled back to bed, wondering if I should tell someone about these otherworldly visits. But then I remembered the way Lincoln had spoken to me, his orders to stay put, and my stomach lurched again, so I settled my head on the pillow, kicking my shoes off and decided, spitefully, to tell someone.

  Later.

  CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

  „ This place was filled with nameless and unfathomable activities, and it had terrible, fascinating menace."

  Simon Winchester

  I sat at the less crowded front end of the boat. I was grateful, for its size, even if it was just another display of excess by Josephine - it made it easy for me to escape from everyone. Well, everyone but Steph, of course. She hadn"t bought my story about just being exhausted, though it was true. Mostly.

  Kaitlin and Samuel had seen us off at the Marina and after their initial shock at discovering that Josephine had sent Lincoln and me to an incubus, explained what they knew.

  „Irin must have fed on your emotion and energy, which is very dangerous in the hands of an inexperienced incubus," Kaitlin cautioned.

  At least I knew that Irin was definitely not an amateur.

  „Direct contact with them is really dangerous, Violet!" Samuel snapped. „You two should have told us."

  I gulped and refrained from sharing the fact that he"d barely touched me. Lincoln had made sure of that.

  Had he known? Was that why he stepped in last night?

  Lincoln had looked fatigued this morning. Now, sitting on the boat. I tried to look over my shoulder, discreetly, as if taking in the views from the bow. He was talking to Max while leaning against the side railing, as if resting. But when I looked more carefully, I could see he had a white-knuckled grip on the railing and his brow glistened with sweat. He was working hard just to stand. When Josephine beckoned Max over to her and he and walked away. Lincoln"s relaxed face contorted briefly exposing his agony, and his body folded over before he could stop it.

  Irin had said Lincoln was the best source of emotion. I didn"t know why, but he"d fed off him severely.

  My shoulders sagged and I groaned. I wanted to be mad with Lincoln for all the things he hadn"t done last night, for the things he"d said last night and this morning, but seeing him this way, all I could do was worry for him.

  Lost in my thoughts I didn"t realise I was staring until he caught my eye and straightened.

  I could tell he was about to come over. I looked away and quickly jumped into conversation with Steph, who"d insisted on staying glued to my hip today. I didn"t look back again and he didn"t come over.

  It hurts too much to be close.

  And it did. Literally. The pain encompassed my entire body. Maybe I was losing my mind, but I was sure that the sharp spasms I was feeling intensified whenever I was near him.

  The boat was an old-style wooden vessel, highly polished so that it gleamed under te morning sunlight. With its three crisp white sails it was perfect and made me want to point it towards the horizon and let it take me wherever it so desired.

  I laid back and closed my eyes.

  „Are you going to tell me what"s going on?"

  I lolled my head to the side and squinted to see Steph, „What do you mean?"

  She pushed her sunglasses up onto her head. „Is this the brightest place you have ever been or what?" she asked, looking directly into the sun. she didn"t wait for my response. „I know you didn"t come back to our room until this morning. Max told Salvatore that you got back with Lincoln just after midnight. I get the whole Keeper thing, which is just wrong, by the way." She threw a severe look in Josephine"s direction. „You should"ve told me, you know, but either way you were still missing for a long time. What gives?"

  I closed my eyes again and felt the warmth from the sun.

  „Nothing gives. I was upset after having to see the Keeper and didn"t realise he had taken so much of my energy. I went up to the rooftop to clear my mind, but I fell asleep.

  When I woke up it was alre
ady morning and I came back to our room. I see you weren"t alone anyway," I added, raising an eyebrow. I"d noticed the extra pillows and blankets.

  „He was on the floor," Steph said false dignity.

  I smiled. „Yes. But was he always there?"

  Steph elbowed me but then I felt her slump beside me.

  „Actually, yes. He was paranoid all night that you"d walk in at any moment and accuse him of stealing your best friend"s honour."

  That made me laugh out loud. Steph too.

  „Where is your Italian stallion, anyway?" I asked, between snorts.

  „Josephine sent him to collect Academy arrivals. A plane is due about now."

  „I don"t trust her. There are too many things going on we don"t know about." I cast a worried glance in her direction and then towards Lincoln.

  As we neared the volcanic island of Nea Kameni, the boat dropped its sails and everyone moved to get a better view of what at first just looked like a large mound. When you think of a volcano, you expect something dramatic with gigantic peak, but this … this was desolate - ashen, black and rocky, the only signs of life coming from the fine carpet of red moss, bleeding from barren Earth. I shivered at the sight, knowing what secrets lay beneath, and fought the urge to scream at everyone to leave this place.

  When I walked past Lincoln, I stopped, pulling out a bottle of Coke from my bag to which I"d already added a few extra spoons of sugar at the hotel. Finding the ginseng had been more challenging, but an accommodating kitchen-hand had gone on a mission and returned with something that smelled about the same. The syrupy coffee in the morning had worked wonders and I"d already had one of my concoctions since then, so was feeling better again.

  „Here," I said, holding it out to him.

  „No thanks," he said, looking at me strangely. Lincoln didn"t usually drink fizzy drinks.

  I pushed it towards him again. „It helps."

  He took the bottle and studied the bottom where a clump of sugar hadn"t dissolved.

  „What"s in it?"

  „Sugar and ginseng." He gave me another odd look from beneath a furrowed brow.

  „It works."

  „Who told you that?" he asked, his eyes fixed curiously on me.

  I froze, trying not to give away my surprise at the question, „Kaitlin," I said, after barely a pause.

  He considered the bottle for a moment before taking it. „Thanks," he said.

  I nodded and moved on, avoiding his eyes. I hated lying to him.

  As we got off the boat, I saw him sipping the drink. He wasn"t enjoying it, but he took another gulp.

  „Can you ever forgive me?" Morgan asked, surprising me from behind. I"d been concentrating on Lincoln and righting myself on land. That and trying to comprehend the fact we were now not only on top of an active volcano, but also … the fiery gates to hell.

  How did they end up in paradise?

  I turned and cocked an eyebrow. "For the part where you dressed me to pimp me out?

  Or the part where you knew what you were sending me into and didn"t tell me?"

  She actually took a moment to consider the question. "The second part." She smiled guiltily. "You have to admit, you looked hot. So I won"t apologise for that but I am sorry I didn"t tell you."

  I pulled on my once-black, now sort-of-grey cap. „It"s okay. I figured you were under some kind of Josephine gag order or whatever. Just promise me she doesn"t have anything else like that in store for me."

  „Not that I know of …" Morgan le the sentence linger.

  Up ahead Josephine was walking with two of her Grigori flanking her and Lincoln not far behind. I"d half expected he to say something to me this morning but thus far she hadn"t even looked in my direction.

  „What"s their deal anyway?" I asked Morgan, gesturing towards the other ninjas. They hadn"t acknowledge any of us, nor left Josephine"s side.

  „That"s Hiro and Mia. They"ve been at the Academy for four years now. Josephine"s had them working with her for the past two. They"re the head Ghosters and take their position very seriously. Don"t be offended if they never speak to you. Unless Josephine orders them to, they"ll see it as a distraction."

  I watched them walking behind her. Josephine wouldn"t even need to see or hear them to know they were there, always reliable. The way they moved, positioning their bodies between her and any object or person of question, was indisputably accurate and silent but deadly.

  „So no after-work drinks then," I joked.

  „No after work, period." Morgan wasn"t joking.

  I guess there are people like that in all professions, the first-in, last-out types. I couldn"t help but think of Dad. I dug into my pocket and pulled out my mobile. I"d been trying not to think about home, but I had to know: Had Dad already cut me off?

  I turned my phone on and when it finally came to life I was frustrated to see that there was no reception.

  One more reason to get off this rock.

  Josephine had somehow convinced the Greek authorities to consider closing access to the volcanic island until further notice, citing seismic activity. Spence had moaned he was going to be stuck all day following up what she had started, having to talk to local government to persuade them it was necessary. I thought he was joking but apparently he was the best choice since he could he use his glamour skills to look the part. I also suspected Lincoln liked the idea of keeping Spence and me separated.

  The third pair of Josephine"s ninjas walked ahead of us and held notepads. They talked quietly and waved their hands around a lot. I didn"t know what they were pointing at. The whole lava-charred island seemed the same to me - dead. But they must have seen more.

  Steph noticed too and was not so subtly inching in their direction. Eaves dropping.

  „What about them?" I asked Morgan and Zoe, who was lagging behind us.

  „Oh, they"re the Conductors," Morgan answered.

  „Conductors?" Once again, I felt naïve that I didn"t know all the terms. It was hard to fit in history lessons around the fight-for-your-life practicals with exiles trying to kill me all the time. Luckily, Morgan didn"t seem to mind explaining.

  „You have to think of each Grigori as a type of instrument. No two of us are exactly the same, so when we need to come together in a battle against exiles, the Conductors are called in. they work out everyone"s strengths and how they can be put to best use in different scenarios."

  Zoe kicked a black rock towards a pile of other larger black rocks. „Just like baseball.

  Fielders, pitchers, basemen." She threw me a cocky grin. „I"m a batter."

  Of course.

  „What are you?" I asked Morgan.

  She shrugged. „it really depends on the fight, but I usually stay on the outer field with Max," she said, continuing with Zoe"s analogy. „We"re both forms of shields. My strength allows me to send out pulses of confusion. If people come across the field I"m working, they lose clarity and usually go back in the direction they came from. Max performs a type of glamour."

  „Like Spence?"

  „Same theory, different results. Spence glamours himself, people in close proximity and small objects to assist. Max can glamour large spaces. Say we end up in a fight with exiles in a populated area - as long as he"s familiar with the space, Max can keep us hidden so passerby just see the area as if we"re not there."

  I nodded, impressed. It now made sense that Max was being so attentive to every detail

  - he was making blueprints.

  „And together," Zoe said, sweeping an arm towards Morgan, "they make a wicked diversion. Morgan keeps them away and those who slip through see nothing out of the ordinary."

  „But can people pass through Max"s barrier and see what"s really happening then?"

  „It can happen - if it were just his shield, but no one gets through the both of us," Morgan answered in a way that left no room for doubt.

  I wondered where they"d want me.

  „On the bench, if it"s up to Josephine," Morgan said before
she slapped a hand to her mouth. I realised I must"ve spoken aloud.

  „What?" Zoe spat, saving me the effort. „Violet"s our best damn hope!"

  Morgan held her hands up in defence. „I don"t know anything, I swear."

  Zoe stepped closer to Morgan, formidably so. „Out with it."

  Morgan squired under the weight of her glare, and spoke quickly. „I overheard her talking to the Conductors on the boat. She said to make sure the plan wasn"t dependent on Violet in any way. When they tried to argue that her gifts were pivotal if we were outnumbered, she cut them off. I couldn"t hear what she said, but whatever it was it shut them up because they didn"t argue again."

  Why does she not want me involved? Does she think I"m just going to stand and let my friends fight for me?

  Maybe it was something else. Maybe she thought I"d already be dead by then Is that what they were discussing this morning?

  Does Lincoln know?

  I walked silently at the back of the group, taking a few moments to think. I still hadn"t told anyone about my run-in with Phoenix, or his request - he"d already proved when he took Steph that he was willing to hurt those around me to get what he wanted. If I told Josephine, who clearly had ulterior motives, that Phoenix wanted me to meet him tonight and she stopped me from going, someone I cared about would suffer. No. the risk was too great.

  The Conductors called Zoe over to them and I went with her - I needed to find out as much as I could. Although they regarded me with interest when I approached, somehow I knew it was a pretence. I had to hold back my cynical smile. It was all games with these people.

  Griffin still wasn"t altogether sure what the Academy knew about me. After Jordan, he had requested - with a side of „demand" - that no one speak of Phoenix"s revelation until we had more information. Of course, that didn"t stop the theories.

  It wasn"t comforting that Griffin was so worried about what the Assembly would do if they knew for sure. Obviously, it would not involve a red carpet.

  My orders were not to go against Josephine and I"d had every intention of following them, but hearing Phoenix"s politely threat changed things.

  Lincoln was walking with Josephine ahead of us on the gravel pathway that snaked around the island. He was looking better - nodding as they talked in hushed tones and pointed to different parts of the volcano. He had his hands full trying to deal with her. She had already accused him of being too caught up in his "connection" to me.

 
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