Chapter One

I couldn't breathe.

There was a hand covering my mouth and another shaking my shoulder, startling me out of a heavy sleep. A thousand frantic thoughts dashed through my mind in the space of a single heartbeat. It was happening. My worst nightmare was coming true.

They're here! They've come for me!

My eyes blinked, staring wildly around the dark room until my father's face came into focus. I stilled my thrashing, thoroughly confused. He let go and stepped back to regard me coldly. I sat up in the bed, my heart still pounding.


'Sydney. You wouldn't wake up.'

Naturally, that was his only apology for scaring me to death.

'You need to get dressed and make yourself presentable,' he continued. 'Quickly and quietly. Meet me downstairs in the study.'

I felt my eyes widen but didn't hesitate with a response. There was only one acceptable answer. 'Yes, sir. Of course.'

'I'll go wake your sister.' He turned for the door, and I leapt out of bed.

'Zoe?' I exclaimed. 'What do you need her for?'

'Shh,' he chastised. 'Hurry up and get ready. And remember - be quiet. Don't wake your mother.'

He shut the door without another word, leaving me staring. The panic that had only just subsided began to surge within me again. What did he need Zoe for? A late-night wake-up meant Alchemist business, and she had nothing to do with that. Technically, neither did I anymore, not since I'd been put on indefinite suspension for bad behavior this summer. What if that's what this was about? What if I was finally being taken to a re-education center and Zoe was replacing me?

For a moment, the world swam around me, and I caught hold of my bed to steady myself. Re-education centers. They were the stuff of nightmares for young Alchemists like me, mysterious places where those who grew too close to vampires were dragged off to learn the errors of their ways. What exactly went on there was a secret, one I never wanted to find out. I was pretty sure 're-education' was a nice way of saying 'brainwashing.' I'd only ever seen one person who had come back, and honestly, he'd seemed like half a person after that. There'd been an almost zombielike quality to him, and I didn't even want to think about what they might have done to make him that way.

My father's urging to hurry up echoed back through my mind, and I tried to shake off my fears. Remembering his other warning, I also made sure I moved silently. My mother was a light sleeper. Normally, it wouldn't matter if she caught us going off on Alchemist errands, but lately, she hadn't been feeling so kindly toward her husband's (and daughter's) employers. Ever since angry Alchemists had deposited me on my parents' doorstep last month, this household had held all the warmth of a prison camp. Terrible arguments had gone down between my parents, and my sister Zoe and I often found ourselves tiptoeing around.


Why does he need Zoe?

The question burned through me as I scurried to get ready. I knew what 'presentable' meant. Throwing on jeans and a T-shirt was out of the question. Instead, I tugged on gray slacks and a crisp, white button-down shirt. A darker, charcoal gray cardigan went over it, which I cinched neatly at my waist with a black belt. A small gold cross - the one I always wore around my neck - was the only ornamentation I ever bothered with.

My hair was a slightly bigger problem. Even after only two hours of sleep, it was already going in every direction. I smoothed it down as best I could and then coated it with a thick layer of hair spray in the hopes that it would get me through whatever was to come. A light dusting of powder was the only makeup I put on. I had no time for anything more.

The entire process took me all of six minutes, which might have been a new record for me. I sprinted down the stairs in perfect silence, careful, again, to avoid waking my mother. The living room was dark, but light spilled out past the not-quite-shut door of my father's study. Taking that as an invitation, I pushed the door open and slipped inside. A hushed conversation stopped at my entrance. My father eyed me from head to toe and showed his approval at my appearance in the way he knew best: by simply withholding criticism.

'Sydney,' he said brusquely. 'I believe you know