On the morning of my birthday, I woke early without any need for an alarm. Dawn was just a little way off, and I’d slept with the window open. The early morning was pleasantly cool, and I breathed in the fresh air contentedly. It was early October, but we’d been experiencing warmer-than-average temperatures, and I knew the high today was going to be about seventy-five.
It was going to be a beautiful day, and I was having a party.
And things had been very, very quiet.
I knew my grandmother would still be asleep, so I went downstairs to have a little quiet time by myself in the kitchen.
I made myself some hot chocolate, the old-fashioned way with a saucepan and milk, and then sat down at the kitchen table.
As I sat drinking my chocolate, the ground began to shake, and I could hear the dishes in the cupboards rattling.
I looked around, startled, and the shaking stopped as abruptly as it had started. I sat for several moments, gripping the edge of the table and waiting to see if it was all over.
But the shaking didn’t return, and I began to relax. Earthquakes were rare in our part of the world, and I couldn’t remember ever having experienced one before. This one didn’t seem to have been too bad. The entire house had been shaken, but my hot chocolate had remained safely in the confines of my mug, and the salt and pepper shakers on the table hadn’t fallen over.
I took a quick look around the house, and nothing seemed to be out of place—not a single book had fallen off a shelf, and none of the knickknacks in the living room had fallen over.
I went back to the kitchen to put my mug in the dishwasher, and then I went upstairs to take a shower.
As I walked into my room, I heard my phone buzz, and I hurried over to pick it up.
There was a text waiting for me, and it was an exact duplicate of the one before it.
Are you okay?
It was from William, and his earlier text had come just a few minutes before.
I answered quickly.
Yes. I couldn’t help smiling.
Ok. I’ll see you in a few hours.
There was a brief pause, and then William texted again.
Happy birthday, Katie.
I smiled again and went to take a shower.
By the time my grandmother got up, I’d already come back downstairs and had eaten breakfast. I was just putting my dishes away in the dishwasher when she walked into the kitchen wearing a white silk robe. Her long, silver hair was tied back in a braid that flowed halfway down her back.
“Good morning, my dear girl,” GM said, pressing a kiss to my forehead. “Happy birthday.”
“Thanks, GM,” I said.
“You look more like your mother every day,” she said, touching a lock of my long, blond hair. She held it up for just a moment, and then she tucked it behind my ear. “Have you had breakfast yet?”
“Yes. Sit down and I’ll make you something.”
GM waved a hand. “No, no—it is your birthday. I should make you something. But since I am too late to do that, I will simply have a cup of tea. Then I will get ready, and we can go. We have a lot to do today.”
“You really don’t have to,” I said. “It’s just my friends. We don’t have to make a big fuss for them. We can just do something simple for dinner, and that will be a lot easier for you.”
“Nonsense!” GM said as she put the kettle on to boil. “I only have one granddaughter, and this is the only time you’ll ever turn seventeen. I shall make all the fuss I like.”
I had to smile at this speech. “Yes, ma’am.”
“It is no laughing matter,” GM said.
“I’m not laughing,” I replied. “It’s just that I love you.”
I kissed her on the cheek, and she shooed me away.
“Hurry up and finish getting ready,” she said. “Be ready to leave in half an hour.”
I still had to get dressed and run a comb through my hair, and by the time I came back downstairs, GM was waiting by the front door with her keys in her hand and her purse on her shoulder.
We went out to her red sports car, and GM took off as soon as I had my door shut and my seat belt buckled.
GM had a thing for speed, and she had a drawer full of speeding tickets to attest to that fact.
We spent the morning getting our hair and nails done, and then we picked up our dresses and went to the party store to pick out decorations. After that, we went to the grocery store to buy ingredients for dinner, and finally we went to the bakery to pick up my cake. I’d hoped to bake a cake myself, but I had to admit that the cake from the bakery was really beautiful—a light, airy spice cake with cream cheese frosting. I’d never have been able to create something that fancy myself.
Somehow we managed to fit everything into GM’s tiny trunk, and as we turned toward home, I received another text from William.
This time, he was counting down the hours till dinner.
GM saw me smile, and she glanced down at my phone.
“Is that from the boy?”
“Yes,” I said. “And you know his name is William.”
GM made no reply. She simply pursed her lips and stepped on the accelerator a little harder.
GM was not fond of William, but she tolerated him, and as William himself had pointed out, it wasn’t really her fault. Many people felt uneasy around William—it was a purely instinctive reaction.
We reached home and began to carry our purchases into the house. Once we’d put everything away, GM and I sat down to lunch. After that, GM waved me out of the kitchen, and she got to work cooking and decorating. I wanted to help, but she insisted on doing everything herself.
I went upstairs to do some homework, and I tried not to mess up my hair.
Before I knew it, GM was calling up the stairs to me that it was time for me to start getting ready, and I took my dress out of the hanging bag it had come in.
The dress was long and silver, and it was GM’s present to me for my birthday. She’d actually bought it about a week ago, but she’d also had the shop alter the dress so it fit me exactly. I slipped it on carefully, trying not to disturb my hair, and then I turned to look at myself in the mirror.
The dress fit well, and I’d never owned anything so elegant before.
There was a soft knock on the door, and then GM entered wearing a light gold gown.
“You look lovely, solnyshko,” GM said.
“Solnyshko” was GM’s pet name for me, and it meant “little sun” in Russian. It was a common endearment in Russia, where we’d both been born, but it just so happened that the term had another, more particular meaning for me.
“Thanks,” I said as GM came to stand beside me. “I have to admit, I still feel a little bad about all of this. You’re doing a sit-down dinner and decorations, and then there’s this dress. We didn’t do anything like this last year.”
“My dear girl,” GM said. She ran a hand over my hair, and I could see that she was wearing the necklace I’d given her at Christmas last year along with her usual cross.
GM looked at me for a moment and then sighed—but it was not an unhappy sound.
“Things were different last year,” she said. “I wanted to keep you safe. And then you’ve had so much trouble lately—so many strange things have happened to you. And there was nothing I could’ve done. I realize now that it’s better to celebrate what we have rather than fearing what could happen.”
GM took a step back.
“And in the spirit of celebration,” she said, producing a little white box that she’d been hiding behind her back, “I have this for you.”
“GM—” I began.
She waved away my protest. “Do not say it is too much. It is exactly what I wanted to do.”
Inside the box was a silver chain with a little silver sunburst pendant.
“Besides, it wasn’t expensive,” GM said. “A woman at the farmers’ market was selling them, and she only had the one. This piece is unique.”
“It’s beautiful,” I said. I took the necklace out of the box and put it on.
“As soon as I saw it, I thought of you,” GM said.
“You thought of me?” I said.
“Yes,” GM replied. “You were always such a quiet child. And now you seem bolder, brighter. Sometimes I swear you seem to be giving off sparks. I thought the sunburst suited you now.”
I looked down at the pendant and pressed my hand to it. “Thanks, I love it.”
GM’s tone became brisk. “And I’m glad you’re not wearing that ugly necklace he gave you. A handsome boy, I will admit, but he has no eye for jewelry.”
The necklace in question—a roughly hewn iron cross on a plain leather cord—had indeed been given to me by William. But the necklace was not for adornment—its purpose had been purely practical. Iron was useful in warding off evil, and there was one evil in particular that the iron charm guarded against—a creature known as a kost. But I hadn’t been troubled by a kost in a long time, and I hadn’t worn the necklace lately.
But since this was my birthday, and William was coming to my party, I had been planning on wearing it.
Now, seeing how happy GM looked, I decided to keep her necklace on and figure out another way to wear William’s charm.
Pleased with herself, GM went on.
“Dinner is nearly ready if you would like to come downstairs and wait for your guests.”
“Sure,” I said. “I’ll be right down. I just have to finish getting ready.”
GM touched my hair one last time and moved toward the door.
“GM,” I said.
She stopped and looked back at me.
“Thanks,” I said. “For everything.”
“There is no need to thank me,” GM replied. “Tonight we celebrate what we have now.”
After she was gone, I went to my jewelry box and got out William’s necklace. The iron charm was cool to the touch, and somehow looking at it always made me feel calmer and more peaceful. I held up the leather cord for a moment, and then I began to wrap it around my wrist—I would wear the necklace as a bracelet. Once I was satisfied with the results, I went downstairs.
The aroma from the kitchen was wonderful, and I found GM turning off the oven and peeking inside.
“The trick,” she said as I came into the room, “is in the timing. You want to get everything ready at the same time. It is no job for an amateur—it requires great skill. Luckily, I have that in abundance.”
As GM straightened up, her eyes fell on the necklace I had tied around my wrist.
“That’s not too bad, actually,” she said. “It’s even a little rock and roll, if I don’t sound too antiquated saying that.”
“Do you need any help?” I asked.
The doorbell rang, and GM waved me away.
“No, no. I don’t need any help. Go and greet your guests.”
I walked to the front door and opened it to reveal my friend Simon Krstic. He was blond, a little under average height, and of stocky build.
“Hey, Simon,” I said.
He stepped inside and gave me a hug. “Hey yourself, birthday girl.”
Then he stepped back and gave me a wrapped package with a little green bow on top.
“Oh, thank you, Simon,” I said, accepting the gift. “You really didn’t have to. I was serious when I sent out those emails saying nobody had to get me anything. Your presence here is gift enough.”
“Of course I had to get you something,” Simon said. “You’re my favorite person in the whole world.”
Simon moved as if he was going to hug me again but then seemed to think better of it.
Instead, he glanced around. “So is what’s-his-name here?”
“No,” I said.
Simon brightened. “Does that mean he’s not coming?”
“No—William’s coming. You just happened to be the first one to arrive.”
“Oh,” Simon said. “Since no one else is around, can I ask you a question?”
“Yes, of course,” I said. But I had a feeling that Simon was warming up to a familiar topic.
“Are you happy with this guy? I mean really, honestly happy? Because it just seems to me that you’ve run into a lot of trouble since you met him. I have to wonder who his friends are.”
“Simon—” I began.
“Yeah, you’re right,” he said. “You don’t even have to say it. This really isn’t the time or place for this discussion. But we really do need to have a conversation about this sometime soon.”
“Oh, Simon,” I said.
He glanced at me as if noticing me for the first time.
“You look wonderful, by the way.”
“Thanks,” I said. “You know, I really don’t think any amount of discussion is going to help—”
GM walked out into the hall at that moment.
“Why, Simon!” she said. “So good to see you!”
“Good to see you, too, Mrs. Rost,” he replied. “You look lovely as ever.”
“You are too kind,” GM said. “And you are looking quite well yourself.”
Simon looked down at his dress clothes and smiled sheepishly.
“Come on back with me,” GM said to Simon. “I want you to help me with something.”
“Of course, Mrs. Rost,” Simon said readily. “I’d be happy to help.”
I looked at GM in surprise as she waved Simon forward. As the two of them turned toward the kitchen, I turned to follow them.
“No, no,” GM said. “You stay here. Attend to your guests as they arrive.”
I watched GM and Simon disappear down the hall, and moments later, there was a knock on the door.
I opened the door and found my best friend, Charisse, and her boyfriend, Branden, waiting on the other side.
Charisse stepped in and gave me a hug, and a swirl of cinnamon came with her.
“Happy birthday, Katie,” Charisse said. “I know you said we didn’t have to bring any gifts, but I made you some cinnamon rolls.”
“Thanks,” I said, stepping back and accepting her tin-foil wrapped package. “You look gorgeous, by the way.”
Charisse was wearing a soft peach-colored dress that perfectly complemented her brown skin, and her black curls were piled in artful array at the nape of her neck.
Branden, by contrast, was wearing jeans and a T-shirt. He was very pale, and his long, brown hair flopped over his eyes. He was tall too—so much so that when he stepped in for a hug, the top of my head didn’t even reach his shoulder.
“Happy birthday, Katie,” Branden said.
“Thanks,” I said. As I stepped back, I felt the ground give a brief rumble.
“Whoa,” Branden said. “Was that an earthquake, or are you just glad to see me?”
“I think it was an earthquake,” I said.
I glanced down the hall to the kitchen, half-expecting GM to rush out and declare that it wasn’t safe to have a party, but luckily, she didn’t make an appearance.
“Is there some place we can put these?” Charisse asked. “I don’t want you to have to carry them around.”
I turned back to see her tapping on the cinnamon rolls.
“Yes,” I said. “Let’s go into the living room.”
The two of them followed me in, and then Branden stopped to right a knickknack that had fallen on its side. Then we all sat down, and I placed the cinnamon rolls on the coffee table.
“Ordinarily, I’d take these to the kitchen. But GM is up to something and doesn’t want me in there.”
The doorbell rang then, and my other guests began to arrive in quick succession. My friend Bryony was first, shyly offering a wrapped gift as she tucked a lock of her light brown hair behind her ear. Next was Irina, beautiful and imperious, with olive skin and glossy, jet-black hair, and her boyfriend, Terrance—handsome, tall, and athletic, with a shorn head and brown skin that glowed with health.
Irina offered me a beautifully wrapped gift, and I thanked her, but I sighed internally as she made no reply and went to sit down in the living room with the others. Irina and I had been friends when we were children, but we barely got along now. She’d once had a crush on Simon, and his lifelong crush on me had turned her against me. Though she’d clearly moved on to someone else, she still harbored a grudge against me. Our relationship had seemed to thaw a little a few months ago before refreezing again, but GM noticed none of that. She still saw us as the good friends we had been in childhood and invited Irina to everything.
Terrance, for his part, greeted me warmly and followed Irina into the living room.
The doorbell rang once again, and this time I opened the door on William.
William was tall and lean, with dark hair and unnaturally bright blue eyes. His eyes were the only really obvious sign that he wasn’t quite like other people, but there were smaller, subtler things. He said people got a “feeling” around him that made them wary. I hadn’t noticed anything of the kind, of course. To me, he was the most beautiful person in the world.
“Happy birthday,” William said, walking in and handing me yet another wrapped gift.
“Thank you,” I said. “I love it.”
William gave me the little, crooked half smile that I loved so much.
“You don’t even know what it is yet,” he said.
“Whatever it is, I love it,” I replied. “Any gift from you is special.”
There was a noise that sounded suspiciously like a snort, and I turned to see that GM and Simon had joined us.
Simon was staring at William with ill-disguised dislike.
“Well,” I said quickly, “now that we’re all here—”
“I beg your pardon,” GM said. “Everyone is not here.”
I glanced around. “But—”
“No, solnyshko. Everyone is not here,” GM said. “I’ve invited one more person.”
The doorbell rang once more, and I hurried to open the door.
On the other side was a boy about my age. He had gray eyes, light brown hair, and a powerful, heavily muscled physique that was in stark contrast to his mild, friendly expression.
The boy gave me an uncertain smile. “You are Ekaterina Wickliff?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Happy birthday, Ekaterina,” the boy said. His Russian accent was noticeable, but he spoke English very well. “My name is Vadim Stepanov. Your grandmother was kind enough to invite me to your party this evening.”
GM came up to stand beside me. “Vadim! I am so glad you could make it.”
“Of course,” Vadim said. “I am happy to make new friends. Thank you very much for inviting me.”
“Vadim, this is my granddaughter, Katie,” GM said. “Her full name is Ekaterina, but we call her ‘Katie’ for short.”
“Yes, I understand,” Vadim said. “Just like we say ‘Katya’ for Ekaterina.”
He gave me a disarming smile. “It is a very pretty name.”
“Thank you, Vadim,” I said. “Won’t you come in?”
“Yes, yes, do come in,” GM said, waving him forward.
The two of us stood back so that Vadim could enter.
Vadim had very kindly brought a gift, just as everyone else had, and after his present was safely settled on the table with the others, GM ushered us all into the dining room.
She had actually hung up a curtain, and as we drew it back and walked inside, I could see that the room had been transformed.
The dining room was filled with gold and silver balloons with delicate, hanging streamers, and it was lit only by candles, also in gold and silver. The dishes on the table were gold, and champagne flutes filled with a pale, bubbling liquid—probably sparkling apple juice—sat next to every plate. On the far wall was a hanging banner that read “Happy Birthday, Katie” in silver letters on a gold background.
“Wow,” I said.
“Sparkles for my sparkling girl,” GM said, putting an arm around me. “Come, come, everyone. There are place cards. Find your name.”
GM steered me toward the head of the table. She herself was seated in that spot as the hostess, and I was seated to her right. To her left she had placed Simon. And William was placed at the opposite end—as far from me as GM could place him.
Dinner was already on the table, resting under covered dishes, and GM walked around to uncover them. She had made salmon, risotto, and sautéed kale.
“I hope you don’t mind serving yourselves,” GM said, sitting down. “I’d considered hiring servers, and then I thought that that would be a little extravagant.”
Everyone murmured polite approval of the arrangements, and then the food was passed around the table.
Once everyone was served, GM raised her champagne flute in a toast. The windows in the dining room were wide open, and the curtains fluttered softly in a light breeze.
“To Katie,” GM said. “Happy seventeenth birthday.”
Everyone raised their glasses and repeated the toast. I smiled and raised my glass also.
Then I sipped at the bubbly, amber liquid. It was definitely sparkling apple juice.
“So, Katie,” GM said with an approving glance toward Vadim, who was seated next to me, “Vadim just moved here with his family, and he’ll be attending school with you soon.”
“Welcome to Elspeth’s Grove,” I said to Vadim. “I hope you’ll be very happy here.”
“Thank you,” Vadim said. “I like very much your charming town.”
“Vadim’s uncle is my dad’s boss,” Irina said suddenly. She was seated down at the end of the table to William’s right, and her dark eyes rested on Vadim with something that looked like dislike.
Vadim did not seem to hear her and instead seemed to have noticed Bryony for the first time.
“Yes, Irina is correct,” GM said. “Vadim’s uncle moved here to take charge of the operation of the North American office.”
“The North American office of what?” Branden said.
“Pyrotechnics International,” Irina replied.
“Pyrotechnics?” Branden said. He grinned. “You mean like fireworks?”
Irina gave him a faint smile. “Fireworks are one type of application. But my dad’s company really works in research. They look for new ways to do things like mining and construction.”
“Cool,” Branden said.
William looked up suddenly, and his eyes darted to the window.
I followed his gaze but didn’t see anything outside except the lawn and the soft mist that floated just above it.
William stood up abruptly.
“I’ve got to go.”
GM looked up at him in surprise. “I beg your pardon?”
“I’m sorry,” William said. “I have to leave right away.”
He hurried from the room.
GM looked over at me. “Katie, what was that?”
“He probably got an emergency text,” I said quickly.
“But he didn’t look at his phone.”
“He has one of those watches,” I said. “You know, the ones that do everything? He probably got a text on that.”
“Hmmm,” GM said, but she didn’t look convinced.
I gave her a reassuring smile and took a nonchalant sip of water, but I was far from feeling reassured myself. William had senses that were much keener than those of ordinary people, and if he’d seen or heard something unusual, that was definitely cause for concern.
“I’m sure he’ll be back very soon,” I said.
“Hmmm,” GM said again.
Dinner resumed, but I didn’t hear much of the conversation. I kept casting furtive glances out the window to see if I could spot what had caught William’s attention.
And then I saw it.
I caught a flash of white cloth and golden curls—someone was outside the house and was lingering near the window.
I stood up quickly.
“I’ll be right back,” I said.
GM looked up at me. “Where are you going?”
“I—just have to leave for a moment,” I said. I began to hurry around the table, and then I headed toward the curtain GM had hung up.
GM looked after me in concern. “Are you ill, Katie?”
“No!” I said quickly. “Yes! I—I’m not sure. I just have to leave for a moment. Please don’t follow.”
“All right,” GM said doubtfully.
I plunged through the curtain and ran for the front door. I wrenched the door open, and standing on the other side was a girl who looked to be no more than nineteen years old. She had long, blond ringlets and pale white skin, and she was wearing a white summer dress and silver sandals on her dainty feet. The entire effect was one of fragile, angelic beauty, but the girl in front of me was far from angelic—and she was much older than nineteen.
Her lips curled into a smile when she saw me. “Hello, kitten.”
I stepped out of the house and closed the door behind me firmly.
“Hello, Veronika,” I said.
I grabbed her by the arm and pulled her away from the house. Her bare skin was ice cold, and I very nearly let go reflexively. But I forced myself to hang on, and I guided Veronika down the driveway to the sidewalk—I needed to get her away from my friends and family.
“What are you doing here?” I said.
Veronika gave me a long look. “I came to see you, my dear.”
I glanced around quickly. “Is William out here too? Is that why he hurried out so quickly?”
Veronika smiled. “Oh no. I got him out of the way. He thinks he’s out tracking a vampire. That should give us just enough time.”
I glanced down the street to my house. A heavy mist was settling over everything, but no one seemed to be following us.
“What do you want?” I asked.
Veronika stopped walking and gave me one of her unnerving stares.
“The time has come for you to pay your bill.”
I froze. “What do you mean?”
Veronika smiled. “Surely you’ve not forgotten? I saved William’s life, and in return you are to give me whatever I want whenever I want it.”
“I remember,” I said.
“Well, now is the time that I want it.”
“And what is ‘it,’ exactly?” I asked.
“I want you to find the ghost girl,” Veronika replied.
I blinked. “I don’t understand.”
“There is someone out there making vampires disappear,” Veronika said patiently. “They are calling her the ghost girl. I want you to find her.”
I stared at her in disbelief. “Veronika, that’s all over—you must know that. The ghost girl was rumored to be me—but I never did anything. And some others thought that the ghost girl was my friend Sachiko, but she never did anything either. She was just observing the incidents, and people happened to see her nearby.”
“I do know this,” Veronika murmured.
“And the ghost girl was just a myth anyway,” I said. “There was never a person going around doing away with vampires. It was the healing waters from the Tears of the Firebird. The water was getting into the environment and making vampires sick—it made them crumble into dust instantly. It was environmental—no one was doing it.”
Veronika made no reply and simply continued to stare at me. I began to wonder if she was okay.
“Veronika,” I said. “Can you hear me?”
“Yes,” she replied.
“The ghost girl thing is over,” I said again. “The Order of the Hawthorne stopped using their cures. The Tears of the Firebird aren’t getting into the air anymore. The disappearances have stopped.”
“Slowed but not stopped,” Veronika said.
“Oh,” I said. “I didn’t realize it was still going on. I’m sorry.”
Veronika made no reply.
“Unfortunately, those are probably residual effects,” I said. “There’s nothing any of us can do. We just have to wait until the environment is clean again.”
“They aren’t residual effects,” Veronika said.
“They aren’t,” she said firmly. “And your theory about the Tears of the Firebird was wrong.”
“Sachiko saw the effects herself,” I said.
Veronika waved a dismissive hand. “It happened to a small degree. A few have been affected that way. But your friend has taken that simple explanation too far. Something much bigger is at work here.”
“So you’re saying the Tears of the Firebird and the Order of the Hawthorne did not cause all those vampire deaths?”
“No, they didn’t,” Veronika replied. “In fact, they aren’t deaths at all. They’re disappearances. Vampires are not crumbling—they’re being taken. Vampires are being spirited away.”
“Then why have the incidents slowed down since the Order stopped using the tears?” I asked. “That would seem to indicate that the two are related.”
“A coincidence. Like I said, a few deaths did happen that way. But most are not dead—they’ve been kidnapped.”
Veronika suddenly grabbed my wrist, and her cold fingers felt like iron bands.
“I’ve explained this.” Her eyes blazed into mine. “You’re wrong. And vampires are disappearing. I want you to find the one responsible.”
Veronika’s icy fingers tightened even more. “You owe me. And if you don’t do this, I’ll take back what I gave to you.”
Panic surged through me. “You’d take William’s life?”
“But we both know the ‘ghost girl’ isn’t real.”
“That’s just a name,” Veronika said. “It doesn’t have to be a girl. I don’t know if it’s a man or a woman or a whole crowd that’s causing the disappearances. I just want you to find the person responsible.”
“Why?” I said.
Veronika released my wrist. “My Promised One is missing. He was taken in this latest round of disappearances.”
“Your Promised One?” I hesitated. “Is that like your boyfriend?”
Veronika’s lips curved into a mocking smile. “A Promised One is much more than a lover—much more than your human concept of a marriage partner. I suppose you could call it a soulmate—although it is really much more than that, and we are not supposed to have souls. We are connected on a level that you cannot comprehend.”
“So you want me to rescue him?” I said. “What makes you think I can do that?”
“You can go places I cannot,” Veronika replied. “Go to your friends. They surely know more than they are telling.”
I glanced down the street toward my house. “My friends?”
“Not your school friends,” Veronika said. “Your friends in the Order of the Hawthorne.”
“The Order will just say the same things I’ve already said,” I replied. “They’ve stopped using the tears—the disappearances should stop eventually too.”
“The disappearances are going down,” Veronika said, “because the ghost girl—whoever he or she is—is getting close to her goal. This is a fact. We will have no further discussion on this point.”
Her eyes flashed fire. “Do this, or I will do what I said I’d do.”
“Do this or I take back his life!”
“Yes!” I said. “I’ll do it.”
Veronika seemed to relax, and she gave me a long look. “You will find the ghost girl?”
“Yes, I will.”
“You’ll do whatever it takes? Because I mean what I say. If you fail, I will take back William’s life. I don’t care how much you tried.”
“What choice do I have?” I said.
Veronika smiled. “Exactly.”
“So would you like to tell me where I should start?” I said. “Do you know anything about who the ghost girl actually is?”
“All I can tell you is that vampire magic is involved,” Veronika said. “So that leads me to believe that the ghost girl is actually a vampire herself. And while the practitioners of that art have always been rare, they are even rarer in these modern times than they were. Vampires—like ordinary mortals—no longer believe in magic.”
She tilted her head and gave me an appraising look. “By the way, are the rumors true? Have you lost your ability to use the clear fire?”
“Yes,” I said.
“I suggest you get your powers back—you’re going to need them.”
“Why? The clear fire doesn’t work on vampires. It only works on the kost.”
“How do you know that’s all it does?” Veronika asked. “How do you know it doesn’t work on vampires? Or on other creatures? It may do more than you think.”
“I—” I stopped. I couldn’t remember how I knew that. I certainly had never tested it.
“Besides, even if it doesn’t work on vampires,” Veronika said, “it’s still a part of who you are. You shouldn’t hide from it. You shouldn’t hide from what you can do.”
“I’m not hiding,” I said.
“Oh, but you are,” Veronika said. “You’re both hiding—you and that boy of yours.”
She stopped, and her voice grew softer. “But maybe I judge you too harshly. Maybe you were too young.”
“You don’t know anything about it,” I said.
“Perhaps not.” Veronika turned her head suddenly and looked away over the houses. “I should be going now.”
“Wait,” I said. “How long do I have?”
“However long it takes,” Veronika said. “Goodbye, Little Sun.”
With that she vanished.
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