We didn't drive all the way back to Jacksonville. Instead, Dad found an RV park in Mineola to camp out at. Then we said our goodbyes.
Mom was openly sobbing as I hugged her. It was awful, and I thought I'd have to use a little of my vamp strength just to pry her arms loose.
"Joan, you are distracting her," Dad muttered. "Right." Mom sniffed loudly and let me go. "You just be careful and get back here in one piece, okay? With or without the darn phone, I don't care. Just get back safely."
"I will."
I hesitated before Dad then went ahead and hugged him, too. He wasn't always big on physical displays of affection. But I could have lost him earlier today. And in case anything did go wrong tonight, I just couldn't leave without saying a proper goodbye. The gesture surprised him, making him freeze up. Then he relaxed and returned the hug, even reaching up to pat my back twice before I stepped away.
"Drama, drama, drama," Emily muttered. But then she reached out and grabbed her brother and only remaining family for a sideways, one-armed hug. "You heard her. Get your butts back here safely, even if you can't find the phone."
"Yes, ma'am," Tristan said, f lashing a grin at her. He used his height advantage to reach down and mess up her hair, then grabbed my hand and we stepped out of the trailer.
As soon as we had our bearings, we took off at a run. Both of us tried not to think, focusing on staying in the right general direction but within the cover of the woods as much as possible. The air was still muggy with the heat and moisture of the day, making it feel like we were running through a jungle instead of our home state. But the heat felt good on my perpetually cold skin and helped my muscles loosen up. So did the rare opportunity to stretch my legs and run free.
If not for the destination and needing to check the surroundings f lashing past us for warnings of nearby Keepers or Clann, I almost could have enjoyed the journey.
Then we hit Jacksonville, and I saw in person all the wreckage of its downtown buildings, including my last home near the Tomato Bowl, which itself still bore the black-soot scars and scorch marks of the recent battles waged on its grounds. There were signs everywhere that Jacksonville was trying to rebuild...large rectangular metal bins heaped full of burned wood and other debris, orange-and-white-striped barricades to keep people from parking close to the burnedout shells of the buildings hardest hit by the fires, even several small trailers bearing various construction company logos on their sides parked along the main street's curb to provide headquarters for the construction crews.
We stopped there for a few seconds, both of us struggling to absorb the impact of what the war had done to our hometown.
It was Tristan who shook himself free of the paralysis first. "Come on. Let's go find a way to make sure this never happens again."
I swallowed the lump in my throat, nodded, and we began running through the shadows again, fugitives in our own hometown.
Heat stirred to life again in my stomach. I had spent months pressing it down. But this time, I let the burn build and spread, fueling me as we ran through block after block of homes and more pine trees, leaping chain-link fences, only to come out two minutes later at the most familiar landmark of all...Jacksonville High School. Again my feet stumbled as instinct demanded I stop and stare at the place where I'd spent so much of the past three years of my life. At least the campus buildings seemed to have come through the war untouched so far. Maybe because of the magic crawling all over the place, which was making my skin feel like it was under attack from an entire mound of fire ants. I couldn't stop myself from rubbing my forearms to try to get rid of the sensation.
A part of me yearned to take a look around and see if any of the outer buildings, like the sports and arts building containing the Charmers' dance room and the theater where we practiced so much for Spring Show, had been affected by the war. But there was no time to look around or feel nostalgic. We had to keep moving fast.
I pushed aside my personal feelings and picked up speed again, Tristan having slowed so I could catch up. We circled around the south side of the campus and turned straight west, the trees patchy and offering far less cover as we crossed the last seven hundred meters until we came to a stumbling halt in the woods at the edge of the Coleman property.
As soon as we stopped, I could feel it...magic in use, and a heck of a lot of it, judging by how my entire body was covered with a million tiny stabbing pinpricks. Just the sensation of that much power in use in one place was a major distraction and might become a problem all its own if we had to stay here for long.
Sense anyone? Tristan thought, sniffing the air with his head cocked at a slight angle as if listening, as well.
But we were both using many more senses than just our ears and noses. The entire night seemed filled with things trying to distract us...insects in the grass, a breeze that kept shifting directions and making it hard to figure out how to stay downwind of anything that might be sharing the night with us. Even the clouds racing through the sky were another movement I had to mentally ignore as I searched the area.
There, beyond the house about three hundred yards away, I thought. Keepers?
He looked that way, drawing in a long breath through his nose. Yeah, I've got them now. They're upwind of us.
For now. With this shifting wind...
Yeah. Probably a spell to help the Keepers.
I frowned. The Clann sure weren't messing around with their protection of their sacred Circle now. Think we can get to the house without their smelling us?
If we move fast.
But what about when we reach it? Won't the doors and windows all be locked? How will we get in without making any noise?
A silencing spell?
I frowned. Won't they feel that?
With all this power in use? Nah. Any spells we use will blend right in. He reached out and covered my hand with his, stopping me from scratching at my arms.
I glanced down at myself. Wow. I hadn't even realized I was clawing at my own skin. I looked at him. How can you stand it?
He shrugged one shoulder, still scanning the grounds with all of his senses and his mind. Used to it, I guess. Comes with the territory of living beside the Circle all your life. That and growing up with the Clann leader.
So which way in?
He looked at his house. See that second-floor window above the back patio doors? That's my room. It might have the least amount of spells and locks on it, since it's on the second floor. And there shouldn't be any furniture in front of it. Think you can climb those timbers?
I studied the sprawling mansion's English Tudor exterior. I think so.
He drew in a deep breath and took my hand again. Okay. Ready?
More power seeped over my skin, and I realized this time it was coming from him. I raised my eyebrows.
Invisibility spell, he thought, one corner of his mouth lifting.
I nodded.
And then we ran as fast as we could across the open ground of the backyard, reaching the house in less than a second. The timbers extended from the stucco by about an inch, giving my fingertips and the toes of my shoes just enough of an edge to grip so we could climb up the back wall.
Watch the shingles, he thought. They might be noisy.
We angled sideways as we climbed over the wall above the patio roof.
Tristan tried the window, cursed silently, and a little more power arced over my skin. The window latch popped free, making my muscles twitch with panic. He raised the window and crawled inside, then reached out a hand to pull me in after him.
Welcome to my room, he thought as he crept on silent feet between a king-size bed and a desk.
But I didn't need to look around. I'd already seen it.
At the door now, Tristan picked up my thought and glanced back at me in surprise. You did? When?
The night you were turned. Emily and I came up here to pack a few things for you. I could feel my face burning. Um, sorry for the invasion of privacy.
He opened the door. I don't have any secrets from you anyways. Though I've gotta admit, I always had a much better idea of how you'd see this room for the first time....
Tristan! I almost whapped his shoulder then stopped myself, remembering that even a small noise would risk alerting the nearby Keepers to our presence. Okay, refocus. The phone. Emily said it would probably be in the office?
Tristan nodded. This way. Down the stairs and to the left. He led the way across the second-f loor landing's thick carpet to the quarter-spiral staircase. Watch the second step. It creaks in the middle.
I concentrated on placing my feet exactly where he had on each step, and we made it down the staircase in silence.
As we moved past the kitchen and down a short hall, f lashes of memory from the last time I'd been in Tristan's family home came back to me. I couldn't tell whose memories they were, though. I could almost swear I still smelled smoke. Another memory from that horrible night, or an actual lingering smell?
Tristan hesitated halfway down the hall, staring straight ahead of us, his shoulders tight as a muscle worked in his jaw.
Up ahead, moonlight f looded the hall from the den...the room where we'd found his mother's body.
My chest ached with renewed pain for his loss. Needing to comfort him or maybe myself, I reached out and rested a palm against his shoulder blade, wishing I could take away the pain of that night from him.
Tristan f linched as if startled by my touch then drew in a slow breath and let it out.
The office is this way. He turned to the left, easing open a heavy, paneled door stained a light shade that gleamed in the moonlight. Where was all the light coming from? Oh, yeah. Must be from the French patio doors.
A drawer slid open, thumped shut, then another rolled open as Tristan searched the desk that took up the center of the room. There wasn't enough room for both of us to try to search it at the same time, so I hung back closer to the door to stay out of his way and simply looked around.
I could imagine his dad sitting in the bigger leather chair behind the desk, an indoor throne from which to rule the Clann. Had Tristan ever come in here to talk to his father, maybe while sitting in one of these chairs? I ran a hand over the top of one of the two leather wing-backs closest to me.
Silence made me look up before Tristan silently replied,
Yeah, I did. More than a few times. They liked to make me sit there while Mom yelled at me for screwing up yet again or told me for the thousandth time why I should be more focused on preparing to become the next great Clann leader instead of playing football. His jaw hardened as he returned to searching the drawers.
I wanted to say something that would help make this moment less painful. But no words came to me. Maybe getting out of here as quickly as possible was better.
I walked around the room, checking the many shelves filled with leather books that lined every wall in case the phone could have been left on one of them for some reason.
It's not here, Tristan thought.
I turned to face him with a frown. Where else could it be? Maybe their bedroom? Or the kitchen? She could have set it down
anywhere before... He didn't finish that thought.
If it was her main phone, wouldn't she have had it on her instead? We stared at each other as a horrible feeling crept over
me. If the phone had been in her pocket when the Clann took her body away, we might have risked coming here tonight for nothing.
Wait, I thought. What about the den?
I stepped out of the office, turned left down the hall and entered the room where it had all come to a horrible end. If the phone had been in Mrs. Coleman's pocket that night, it could have fallen out. I searched the leather couch, checking under the throw pillows and beneath the cushions, then under the couch itself.
A small creak in the den's doorway made me look up fast. Tristan stood there, his fists opening and closing, his breathing fast. I hadn't expected him to follow me in here.
Then I glanced down and saw it...something small, black and rectangular under the coffee table. I grabbed it. Is this it?
No response.
Tristan? I tried again.
His eyes darted side to side. I peeked at his thoughts. They were filled with images of that night...his mother's body lying where I was now crouched on the f loor, the stone fireplace where he'd thrown Dylan in a mindless rage. A long black crack ran at an angle between its stones now, probably from the impact of Dylan's body against it.
We needed to get out of here. Just being in this room had to be torture for him.
Come on, let's go, I thought, standing up. We've got what we need.
I crossed the room to him, but he didn't move. Only when I reached out and cupped his cheek did he f linch and make eye contact with me, his eyes dark and tortured and desperate with pain.
He reached up to grab my hand.
This time I was the one who took the lead, tugging him after me through the den, around the couch toward the patio doors. I unlocked the doors, eased the handle down and opened one.
An animal's roar erupted in the distance to our left from the direction of the woods that concealed the Circle. The Keepers on guard...we must have triggered a spell or made a noise that alerted them.
Go! Tristan thought, and we ran to the right across the yard, trying to reach the cover of the trees in the same direction as we'd arrived.
As we ran, I glanced over my shoulder. Four sleek black panthers, each one at least six feet long from head to butt, were closing in on us. I'd never seen just how fast they were. They're catching up!
We'd never be able to outrun them. Not like this.