‘MAN, THAT NEW GIRL Cynthia Rymes is seriously hot,’ Matt said. ‘That level of hotness in one girl should be banned or something.’
Banned or something. Yeah. Nathan squinted at the girls playing lacrosse in Uni Parks and thought that if anything was going to be banned, it was him and Matt hanging out and ogling the girls from Headington School in the park.
‘Which one’s she?’ he asked, nicking Matt’s bottle of coke because he’d finished his own.
‘Mate!’ Matt whined. ‘The blond one with the two plaits. Front and centre. Seriously!’
‘Yeah, hot,’ Nathan agreed. He peered at her again. Maybe it was because he was exhausted—he’d been up half the night trying to finish his bio homework—but she had a bird in her aura. Like, a swan or something, but black. Nah, couldn’t be.
‘Nice legs,’ he said, flopping back on the grass and staring at the trees.
‘What time did you go to bed last night?’ Matt sniggered. He lay back beside his friend and shoved a handful of crisps in his mouth. Matt always ate like a pig.
‘Dunno, maybe four AM?’ Nathan thought for a moment. ‘Late. I forgot about bio, and Mr Jackson’s homework literally killed me.’
‘Didn’t think it took that long,’ Matt said, spraying crisps everywhere.
Yes, but Matt didn’t have self-defence six days a week, nor all manner of supernatural drama. Monica had wailed on Skype for half an hour about how she was sure that the witch she was training with in Morocco was trying to kill her and make soup out of her entrails, or something. Then Dad had called to cancel Nathan’s trip to London this weekend because he was going on an urgent hunt in Liverpool, or maybe Newcastle. And between everything, he’d just forgotten that bio homework was still a thing.
‘Lucky,’ Nathan said. One of the girls scored, and he watched as Headington’s team did a group hug. Girls were nice to watch. Try and talk to them, and it was a whole different game. He seemed to be surrounded by them, but it never got any easier. Everything he said was wrong, somehow. Even when it was right, it was still wrong.
Monica was Nathan’s closest friend, and her definition of advice was ‘just sleep with her and get her out of your system’. That had not helped Nathan in the slightest when he’d had a terrible crush on Suzanne Ecclestone last year. What Monica failed to understand was that humans did not just sleep with people to get it out of their system. Monica didn’t see any differences between being a witch and being human.
It was completely different.
Maybe he should ask Adrian for help?
But Nathan could just picture how that would go. It wasn’t hard to imagine, actually. Adrian would laugh so hard they’d hear him in Mexico. And then Nathan’s cheeks would explode from blushing so hard, or something.
Not the way he planned on going.
‘Nate, are you even listening to me?’ Matt asked.
‘Sorry,’ Nathan said, not sorry in the slightest. ‘I think I fell asleep for a second. What were you saying?’
‘I was asking if you wanted to catch the new Maze Runner movie on the weekend, but I reckon the only thing you’re going to be catching is forty winks.’
‘I’ll be fine by Saturday,’ Nathan said. ‘We can do the movie. Will you check the screenings?’
‘And dinner at the Noodlebar,’ Matt demanded. ‘You owe me dinner.’
‘I do?’ Nathan asked.
‘I paid last time!’
‘Shit, I totally forgot.’ Nathan sighed. ‘Fine, dinner at the Noodlebar, but we have to do the late screening because I’m probably training Saturday.’
‘You and your karate shit, man, so boring,’ Matt said.
‘Shut up!’ Nathan reached over and hit his friend. Matt tried to roll away, but if there was one thing being a vampire-hunter-in-training was good for, it was hitting bratty mates who had exceeded their daily witty quip quota.
‘Oi!’ Matt sat up suddenly. ‘Hey, match’s over. Looks like Headington won.’
They supported the Headington team, mostly because Matt found Cynthia Rymes hot. Well, also because they were playing some Witney team, so Nathan supposed that he had some loyalty towards the local girls. With reluctance, he sat up.
‘What would Poppy say if she knew you were checking out the lacrosse team at the park?’ he asked, watching idly as the girls shook each other’s hands.
‘Poppy and I aren’t together,’ Matt replied. ‘We’re taking a break.’
‘For what, the fifth time?’
‘Maybe the sixth,’ Nathan said.
‘Nate, don’t be a dick.’
Nathan was considering pointing out that Matt should just break up with Poppy, but then Cynthia looked over at them and waved, and he forgot what he was planning on saying.
‘Mate, wave back!’ Matt hissed, elbowing him hard. Nathan obediently waved, trying not to wince. Matt had sharp elbows.
Cynthia beamed and jogged over to pick up the cones on the edge of the field near where they were sitting. Was she exaggerating the way she bent over a bit? Damn, she had nice legs. Wait, wasn’t it rude to stare? Shit.
Cynthia picked up the last cone, hesitated for a moment, then stepped towards them. ‘Hey, you guys are from MCS, right?’ she asked shyly.
‘H—hi,’ Nathan said. Was he blushing? His cheeks felt hot. Damn!
‘Aren’t you Poppy Wiggen’s boyfriend?’ Cynthia asked Matt.
‘Matt,’ he called back cheerfully. Matt was very suave when it came to girls. Nathan theorised that this had something to do with having a girlfriend or losing his virginity, probably the latter, because it was a recent development. Matt of his youth had not been suave. He added, ‘My friend Nate’s a big fan of lacrosse, actually.’
Nathan’s cheeks heated up even further. Hello, death-by-exploding-cheeks. ‘Um, uh,’ he stammered, searching for an excuse. ‘My sister plays lacrosse.’
‘Oh, cool.’ Cynthia smiled. She shifted the orange cones under her arm then came over and held her hand out to him. Nathan stared at it with extreme panic for a second, until he received another elbow to the gut from Matt and remembered that human beings shook hands when they met. He stood, awkwardly, and grasped her hand.
‘I’m Cynthia,’ she said.
‘I know,’ he blurted out. Fuck. He was too tired for this; his brain was on holiday or something. ‘I mean, uh… your name’s on your jersey.’ Nate, shut up!
Cynthia’s cheeks went pink. It was adorable. At least she was blushing too. Solidarity in blushing—or wait, did that mean he’d embarrassed her? Shit, he didn’t mean to embarrass her!
‘I guess it is,’ she said wryly. ‘And you are… Nate?’
‘Nathan,’ he said. ‘Um, Nathan Delacroix.’
‘Nice to meet you,’ she replied. ‘Our next match is next week. You could bring your sister, I guess?’
Nathan nodded like the idiotic nodding dog his sister had stuck on the rear dash of his aunt’s car when she was six. ‘Sure, why not?’ he asked, forcing himself to stop nodding. ‘I’ll, um, see you then?’
Cynthia beamed at him. ‘Cool!’ she said. ‘I’d better, um, get these back to our teacher.’ She pointed at the cones. ‘And, you know, go home and shower. Gosh, I probably smell.’ And then she blinked at him, went scarlet, and turned and fled. Nathan stared after her, completely bemused.
‘You’re a wanker,’ Matt said cheerfully from behind him.
‘Why?’ Nathan complained.
‘You embarrassed her.’ Matt looked way too happy. ‘I think she likes you.’
‘Sure, I’m likeable, right?’ Nathan asked.
‘No, you’re awful.’ Matt smirked. ‘Ask her out.’
‘Not in this lifetime,’ Nathan said. He looked over his shoulder at Cynthia, in time to see her bury her face against a friend’s arm. ‘Girls like her don’t date guys like me.’
‘What, hot sporty girls don’t date athletic guys with stuttering problems?’ Matt teased. ‘You don’t say!’
Nathan slugged him hard on the arm. ‘Come on, arsehole,’ he said. ‘I’m exhausted, I have training, and I still gotta write that economics essay for tomorrow. Let’s get home.’
Lily von Klichtzner was sitting on his doorstep when he got home from training that night.
Well, not literally. She was waiting two doors down, on the low wall in front of number seven’s garden. But Nathan had to walk past her to get to his aunt’s house, and there was no way she was waiting for the batty couple who lived at number seven.
He drew level with her. ‘No. Lily, I have homework.’
‘I need one ward, please,’ she begged. ‘Damien is being such a control freak since the whole thing with the Council.’
The Thing with the Council—name pending patent—had taken place in May, now around five months ago. Nathan was surprisingly sketchy on the details, despite having been present for most of it, because no one told seventeen-year-olds anything. He knew it had involved a kidnapping attempt.
‘Don’t you have any witch friends for this stuff?’
‘Monica’s in Morocco.’ Lily pouted.
‘I know.’ Nathan sighed and scuffed his toe against the ground.
Lily peered at him from her position on the wall and said the magic words. ‘I’ll pay.’
Nathan pretended he was thinking about it, he honestly did, but Lily’s father was a billionaire or something, and Nathan owed Matt dinner. ‘How much?’ he asked finally.
‘How much do you want?’
‘Depends on the ward, I guess,’ he replied.
‘It’s an anti-scrying ward,’ Lily said.
Nathan’s heart sank. Wards were protective talismans, sort of a hunter speciality, but Nathan wasn’t a proper hunter yet. Anti-scrying wards were hard because they weren’t rooted in one spot. Wards that went on a person were always trickier.
‘You know he’ll probably just call Adrian back to follow you around if you stop him from scrying you, right?’
‘Adrian’s a better deal,’ Lily said. ‘Adrian gets bored easily.’
‘Truer words,’ Nathan said miserably. When Adrian got bored in Oxford, he did one of three things. Savaged the locals, had sex with the locals, or annoyed Nathan. The latter had become his favourite activity, of late. ‘Travelling wards are tricky, Lily.’
‘Five hundred pounds,’ she said. ‘If you can do it before the weekend.’
Five hundred pounds for another sleepless night. Nathan sighed again.
‘I’ll be in town to watch a movie Saturday night; can I give it to you then?’
‘Oh, sure,’ Lily said. ‘But I don’t mind coming to you.’
She didn’t get it at all.
‘Lily, if you keep coming here, Aunt Anna’s going to notice,’ he told her patiently. ‘And I’m going to be a dead hunter, for doing deals with vampires.’
Lily pouted. It was the same look she used on Damien and Adrian, and they both gave her whatever she wanted. Nathan stared at the house behind her.
‘Okay, Saturday,’ she agreed in a sing-song voice. ‘I wouldn’t have to come here if you gave me your phone number, you know!’
It was the age-old debate. What was worse on the cavorting-with-the-enemy scale? Clandestine meetings or having their phone number? Nathan pulled out his phone and let her put her number in.
‘I’ll text you when I know what time I can meet,’ he said. ‘You have to pay into my bank account, kapeesh? I can’t carry that much cash.’
‘Text me the details!’ Lily bounced off towards her car. Nathan scuffed his shoes against the ground all the way back to his house. A travelling ward. Fuck.
Wards were tricky business, despite looking simple. It wasn’t about the runes and symbols you drew to make them work, though those were essential. What they were really made up of was belief and magical power. Nathan was human and tired. He had zero percent of either.
What went for static wards counted double for travelling wards. Wards liked being in one place, because they could feed off of ambient magic. There was plenty ambient magic in an old city like Oxford, particularly because there were quite a lot of witches around these parts. Witches liked old cities. Vampires also liked Oxford, although they didn’t usually love small cities because if there was an accident when they fed it was harder to cover up. Anyway, with all the witches who had lived in Oxford over the years, the city was filled to the brim with ambient magic.
Travelling wards could suck that up too, as long as you were in an area with lots of it, but it was harder because they were moving and not carved into walls—walls soaked up magic and transmitted it into wards very well. Also, as soon as you left an area with ambient magic, the ward would start getting unhappy, which either meant it would go on the fritz or it would die altogether.
It was fine for witches; they were a walking, talking power source.
Lily was a half-vampire, though. Vampires were created through magic, but they didn’t have magic.
Nathan pondered the problem whilst he did his maths homework. By the time he had, probably wrongly, calculated all of the equations on page seventy-eight, he had a mental checklist.
Wood that conducted magic, to carve the runes on
Carving tool—what were they called again?
Symbols that both of them believed in—though Lily would probably believe whatever Nathan told her to believe
A good night’s sleep
The last one was the most essential, seeing as he was going to have to infuse the thing with his own belief in order to power it enough to travel. Why had he agreed again?
On Friday, Matt ribbed him the whole day about Cynthia, and he got a D on his econ homework.
The day could not get any worse.
By the time he got home, he had fifteen text messages from Monica.
Monica: Fuck me
Monica: This woman
Monica: She’s killing me
Monica: Also, it’s fucking hot
Monica: I’m English. I don’t do hot
Monica: I’m sweating my makeup off
Monica: Can I retire from being a witch
Monica: Baby Delacroix, donde estas?
Monica: Ew, she wants me to chop mouse entrails
It went on like that. Clearly, someone else was spotting Monica’s phone bill for her. Nathan ignored all of her messages and sent one of his own.
Nathan: If I were to make a travelling anti-scrying ward, what would be the best wood to use? And what runes?
Monica must have been epically bored because the reply came about two seconds later.
Monica: You want blindaz. The fuck you need that for?
Nathan: Not for me. It’s for Lily
Monica: Don’t do it. Damien will
Monica: When he finds out
Nathan: Not my problem. Wood?
Monica: Depends what you can get. Hazel, if you can get it. It carries magic best. Also good for vision/clairvoyance spells. If not then cedar=protection, maple=wisdom
Nathan: Will have a look, thanks
Monica: If Damien kills you, can I have your PlayStation?
Nathan rolled his eyes and went to raid his aunt’s supply cupboard.
Aunt Anna was not a hunter, but Uncle Jeff was, although it was an ill-kept secret that Aunt Anna did all the technical stuff for Uncle Jeff because she was something of a ward specialist. If Nathan thought he could get away with it, he would have asked her to make the ward for him.
She’d want to know why he needed an anti-scrying ward though, seeing as only witches could scry, and then he’d have to explain everything.
Aunt Anna kept everything in a cupboard in the garage, which was locked with a very large padlock. This did not take into account that lockpicking was taught to young hunters at about the age of seven. Nathan helped himself to a chisel and a runic dictionary but got stuck on the wood. She had several, and none were labelled. He snapped a picture and sent it to Monica with a panicked ‘which one?’
Monica: The leftmost is hazel I think. I hope. If not, you’re screwed
Nathan: It better be or you’re never getting the PlayStation
Monica: It’s defo hazel, I googled it
Blindaz was a nice small rune in the runic dictionary, so he grabbed a vaguely round piece of wood and stole sandpaper from his uncle’s DIY supplies.
It took Nathan an hour of painstaking work to sand the hunk of wood into a passable amulet and carve the rune into the front and back. That was the easy part; he’d done that quite a few times in training. The bit that movies and books always managed to wuss-out of showing was the real hard work: imbuing the amulet with magic. Real magic wasn’t clean or quick or efficient. It was messy and imprecise and involved a lot of believing in yourself.
Believing in yourself was a surprisingly tricky skill to master.
Nathan’s believing involved lit candles, filched from the bathroom where his aunt kept a supply with strange scents. It also involved closed eyes and chanting. He did it at two AM so no one would walk in on him, and it took a clean two hours before the rune looked even slightly gold to his magically sensitive vision.
A witch would have dipped it in some kind of tincture and waved their hands and chanted in Latin, but none of that was an option for humans. Exhausted from two hours of intense self-belief, Nathan collapsed into bed and slept through his alarm.
‘WAKE UP! AUNT ANNA SAYS TO WAKE UP! YOU’RE LATE FOR TRAINING!’
‘Jess?’ Nathan rolled over and peered sleepily at his eleven-year-old sister. ‘What time is it?’
‘Crap!’ Nathan tumbled out of bed, taking half the bedding with him and landing in a tangle on the floor. Jessica laughed.
‘Don’t be rude, Nathan!’
Nathan trained at his mentor’s house, a fifteen-minute cycle from home. That Saturday, he arrived sweaty and out of breath. Grey was unimpressed.
‘If I had been late to training, my mentor would have sent me home again.’
‘Graham, please,’ Nathan said between pants. ‘It won’t happen again.’
‘I’m sure I’ve heard that before.’
Nathan groaned. ‘Fine, well, I could do with another, oh, six hours sleep, so—’
‘On second thoughts, maybe it’s more of a punishment to let you stay.’
Should have kept my damn mouth shut, Nathan thought sourly. Rumour had it that Grey was capable of being nice, once a year on Christmas day. Seeing as Nathan got Christmas day off, he had never had the privilege of experiencing it.
Saturdays, the Saturdays when Nathan didn’t go to London to see his parents, were dedicated fully to training: self-defence in the morning, followed by weapons training, finishing off with skills in the afternoon. The latter included the warding he had done the night before, as well as all manner of other tricks for tracking vampires.
‘Dad said he’s on a hunt in Liverpool,’ Nathan said when they sat down for lunch. Mrs Larson had made sandwiches. ‘Is it an important target?’
‘If it were, do you think I’d tell you?’ Grey replied.
‘Course not,’ Nathan said dejectedly. He didn’t even have to know who it was—he was just curious what his father got up to. But, of course, no one told him anything.
‘Eat your lunch,’ Grey said. ‘We’re working on languages this afternoon.’
Most other teenagers would probably think it was cool to be able to speak five languages fluently, but they didn’t have to do push-ups every time they made mistakes.
‘Can’t we do more knife work? Or start on guns? I’ll be eighteen in October. It’s not that far off.’
‘No guns until you’re eighteen,’ Grey replied sternly. ‘Your parents want you to start on Arabic.’
Another language? Seriously?
‘What do I even need Arabic for? No vampire worth their salt is gonna live in the Middle East—they’d fry!’
‘Don’t question orders, Nathan.’
Nathan wanted nothing more than to fall into bed by the end of it, but he had to shower and dress to head to the cinema. He cycled into town and locked his bike outside Pembroke College. Matt was waiting for him, wearing chinos and a shirt.
‘You’re looking smart,’ Nathan said dully.
‘Do you mind if Poppy joins us?’ Matt asked. ‘I promise if she starts making a fuss we’ll leave.’
Nathan thought longingly of his bed. ‘If you want to postpone…’
‘No! No! Don’t leave me alone with her! She might start crying again!’
Nathan had zero interest in Matt’s relationship drama. He sighed. ‘Fine.’
Lily texted as they were walking up Cornmarket.
Lily: Are you in town yet?
A really wicked idea occurred to Nathan.
‘Hey, Matt, you mind if I invite a friend as well?’
‘As in a female friend?’ Matt asked.
‘Yeah, but not a girlfriend, just one of Monica’s friends. I have to give her something, so I said she could meet me.’
‘Wait,’ Matt said. ‘You have female friends?’
‘Ooh, I want to meet her!’
Nathan: Do you want to join me and my friend for dinner and a movie? He invited his girlfriend and I need moral support
Lily: Yes, please :)
Okay, maybe it was a little cruel to take advantage of Lily’s desperation for friends, but she was the only person Nathan knew who was more socially awkward than he was.
Nathan: We’re going to the Noodlebar now.
Lily: See you there!
By the time they got to the restaurant Lily was waiting outside, looking cute as a button in a blue dress. She beamed at Nathan, and Matt gawked.
‘She’s your friend? Are you serious?’
‘Matt, meet Lily,’ Nathan said, feeling very cool. ‘Lily, this is Matt. He goes to school with me.’
‘Hi,’ Lily said sweetly and shook Matt’s hand. Matt was still staring. Nathan tried to see Lily through his friend’s eyes—untainted by the knowledge that her father was eight hundred years old and probably ate Lily’s suitors for breakfast. Yeah, she was cute. Lily was petite, with generous curves and very long blond hair. She had blue eyes and pouty lips and perfect skin.
Of course, she would look perfect. It hid the bloodsucking monster inside. Nathan wondered what Matt would think if he realised the girl he was drooling over drank human blood as the price for beauty and eternal youth.
That was when Poppy arrived, which basically set the tone for the entire evening.
Poppy was pretty too. Actually, Nathan used to have a bit of a crush on her, which had been killed stone-dead when Matt started dating her and she turned out to be a massive psychopath. She had black hair and very green eyes, and she liked to wear short skirts. She kissed Matt like she was trying to eat his face, then frowned at Lily.
‘Who are you?’
‘Nathan’s friend,’ Matt said, having apparently got over his tongue-tied-ness.
‘I’m Lily.’ Lily smiled.
‘Charmed,’ Poppy replied coolly. ‘I’m Poppy.’
‘Shall we get dinner now?’ Nathan asked.
‘What are we watching?’ Lily asked once they were sitting down.
‘The latest Maze Runner movie,’ Matt replied. Poppy latched herself onto his arm.
‘I checked, there’s a viewing of Sleeping with Other People at the same time…’
‘No way.’ Matt rolled his eyes.
‘Oh, come on, you never want to watch the movies I like!’
‘Because Maze Runner is great, and chick-flicks are lame!’
Leaving them to bicker, Nathan reached into his pocket and pulled out the ward. He’d wrapped it in tinfoil to stop it from absorbing any foreign magics before it got to Lily.
Lily’s smile grew as he handed it over. She unwrapped the foil immediately. ‘Oh, it works!’
‘You could not sound so surprised,’ Nathan said. ‘I stayed up to four AM making that.’
‘Monica said she didn’t think you could get it to work.’
‘Monica’s a bitch.’
‘What’s that, then?’ Matt asked. ‘You giving each other gifts already?’
‘It’s ugly,’ Poppy observed.
‘It’s a magical amulet to keep away the supernatural,’ Nathan said, which got him wide eyes from Lily but, predictably, sniggers from the other two. What would they do if they knew he wasn’t joking? But Matt loved laughing at Nathan’s vampire jokes.
‘I think it’s cute,’ Lily said. She strung the leather cord around her neck then stood up. ‘I’m just going to the bathroom. Nate, will you order a sweet and sour chicken for me?’
‘She’s cute,’ Matt said as soon as Lily was out of sight. Nathan covered his face with his hands.
‘Matt, shut up.’
‘Oh, come on. I think she’s into you.’
‘Lily is not ‘into me’,’ Nathan said. ‘And even if she was, I am not into her.’ He was quite attached to living, after all. ‘Anyway, you wanted me to ask Cynthia out just the other day.’
‘Cynthia Rymes?’ Poppy asked. ‘When did you see her?’
‘At her lacrosse game,’ Nathan said.
‘You were at the lacrosse game?’ Poppy demanded, her voice going shrill.
‘Nathan, you traitor,’ Matt said.
When Lily came back, the ward was pulsing a bright, vibrant red to Nathan’s magical sight. That meant it had successfully imprinted on her when she added her blood. Nathan pretended he wasn’t relieved that it had worked. Lily didn’t need to know he doubted his own skills.
After dinner, they headed to the cinema. Poppy kept up a litany of complaints, but Matt was a good friend and sat between her and Nathan so that he got the worst of the tirade. When the movie was over, they stood outside the cinema and contemplated what to do next.
‘Dang, if we were eighteen, we could get a drink,’ Matt said.
‘Babies.’ Lily grinned.
‘Don’t be mean, Lily,’ Nathan told her.
‘Oh, that’s Adrian’s fault, he says I’m too nice and he told me to practice on you.’
‘Adrian’s such a prat.’ Nathan groaned. He could imagine his uncle’s face if he realised Nathan had wrangled Lily into a double date, too. Considering that, he really ought to do the gentlemanly thing. ‘Should I, uh, walk you home or something?’
‘You can walk me to Oriel, Damien should be done with his fellows’ dinner by now.’
At the High Street, they separated from Matt and Poppy, who were taking the bus home.
‘It was nice to meet you, Lily,’ Matt said.
‘And you,’ Lily replied shyly. She looked like she was blushing, though that might have been because Poppy was trying to set her on fire with her eyes.
Once the two had boarded their respective buses, Nathan and Lily headed for Oriel College, which was tucked away behind Christ Church.
‘You really didn’t have to walk me,’ Lily said.
Yes, he did, because when Adrian found out he’d made the anti-scrying ward, he was going to murder Nathan. Nathan didn’t say that, though. Trying to be cool, he said, ‘I was walking in this direction anyway. Show me the inside of Oriel College and we’ll call it quits.’
‘Sure,’ Lily said. The porter was just closing up the front gate, and they ended up running for it.
‘Cutting it fine there,’ he told Lily, then frowned at Nathan. ‘No visitors after hours.’
‘Please, can’t I just show him the quad quickly?’ If cuteness were a superpower, Lily would have it. The porter caved.
‘Quickly,’ he said. ‘Or you’ll get me in trouble.’
Monica had shown Nathan enough of Oxford University to have worn down the mystique. Oriel College was quite pretty, though, and Lily explained its history to him as she let him peek into the two quads and the hall.
The hall was silent, so they headed up a staircase to Damien’s office instead. The door opened before Lily could knock.
‘Good evening, Lily, Mr Delacroix.’
‘Hello Damien,’ Nathan said breathlessly. His sixth sense, the one that picked up magic, was going wild, screaming ‘Vampire! Vampire! Vampire!’ at him. Damien always seemed to suck all of the air out of the room.
Damien was a good two inches taller than Nathan, about six foot one. He had buzzcut blond hair and a sort of old-fashioned militaristic air around him, like soldiers in the old portraits Nathan had seen of his ancestors. Damien would have fit right in. When he smiled, it didn’t reach his eyes.
He was dressed in one of the long gowns fellows sometimes wore, over a grey suit.
‘Are you ready to go?’ he asked Lily.
‘Yes,’ she said brightly. Damien locked the door before Nathan could glance into his office. He’d never seen inside—in his head there were coffins and gothic arches, and the décor tended towards skulls and bloodied knives. Adrian swore it was just filled with old books, though. Nathan had seen Damien’s house, which had turned out to be disappointingly normal, so Adrian was probably right.
‘Did you enjoy your film?’ Damien asked as they descended the stairs. It was a completely normal thing for a dad to ask his daughter, which made it utterly jarring coming out of Damien’s mouth.
‘Yes,’ Lily answered. ‘We watched the Maze Runner.’
‘I take it that is one of those dystopian futuristic films with a high ratio of explosions per minute,’ Damien said. ‘Did Mr Delacroix pick the film?’
‘I think his friend did,’ Lily said. ‘You don’t need to be so disdainful. You know, girls can like movies with a… high ratio of explosions, too.’
Nathan grinned to himself.
They crossed the quad and Damien held the door for them at the gatehouse. Outside the streets were mostly empty.
‘Do you need a lift somewhere, Mr Delacroix?’ Damien asked.
‘No, I came by bike,’ Nathan said. ‘It’s locked over on St. Aldates.’ He turned to Lily. ‘Thanks for keeping me company. Sorry Matt’s a bit of an idiot.’
‘It’s alright,’ Lily said. ‘He’s a charming idiot.’
‘Hah, that’s just because you don’t know him that well,’ Nathan replied. ‘When you get to know him, he becomes a dumb idiot.’
‘Goodnight,’ Nathan called, heading for St. Aldates. He’d barely rounded the corner when a little kid came flying out of a backstreet and barrelled straight into him.
Then the girl was off again, sprinting towards St. Aldates. Two men emerged from the same direction she had, and they were covered in ugly, stinky dark magic. It clung to them like tar, invisible to anyone who wasn’t magically sensitive, but clear as day to Nathan.
‘Did you see a kid?’ one demanded. ‘Where’d she go?’
‘There she is!’ the other yelled. They took off. Nathan made up his mind in a split second. He dived in front of them, swiping one’s legs out from under him and wrenching the other’s arm in a way which probably dislocated the shoulder.
The man screamed in pain. The other staggered to his feet and began chanting in some guttural language. Nathan grabbed him and drove his head against a wall, hard enough that when he dropped the man, he didn’t get up. The other one pulled out a knife, but he obviously had no formal training. Nathan disarmed him swiftly and knocked him out the same as his mate.
The knife was pulsating with black magic and covered in strange markings. He pocketed it to examine later and set off to look for the little girl.
She was smart. Nathan found her at a bus stop, huddling close to a group of lost-looking tourists. He might have missed her, if it wasn’t for her aura.
She had a bird in her aura.
It looked like a swan, only black. A black swan. That looks familiar.
He’d thought he’d imagined it, with Cynthia. Maybe he’d been bone tired last time, but with adrenaline coursing through his veins, Nathan couldn’t have been more awake now.
‘Hey, kid,’ he said. She spun around and gasped, throwing her hands up in defence. She couldn’t have been older than seven or eight. Her clothes were a mess, a school uniform for sure, but it looked like she’d slept in them. Nathan wasn’t sure which school, but then there were tonnes of primary schools in Oxford.
‘I’m not going to hurt you,’ he said softly. ‘Can I call someone to get you?’
Her eyes filled with tears. Uh oh.
‘Or I could take you somewhere.’
‘No, you have to go away,’ she whispered. ‘You’re going to lead them right to me.’
Nathan snorted. ‘Those guys aren’t going anywhere fast, ‘cept maybe a hospital. I knocked them out.’
‘Do you know, like, kung fu or something?’
‘Nah, I’m a vampire hunter,’ he joked. Her eyes widened.
‘Vampires don’t exist,’ she said seriously, which was honestly the most unexpected thing she could have said. She was managing to be a bird and a human at the same time, but she didn’t believe in vampires?
‘Okay,’ Nathan replied slowly. ‘Well, I know krav maga, and I knocked them out, I promise you that. I have a phone—do you want to call someone?’
She bobbed her head uncertainly. Nathan passed her his phone. If she tried to nick it, he was pretty sure he could catch her.
She plugged in a number and pressed the call button. The phone rang a few times, and then the tension drained out of her body when it was answered.
‘Mummy, Mummy, I need you to come and get me,’ she wailed. In about two seconds flat, she was full-on sobbing. ‘I don’t know, I just ran away! I don’t know, a nice man lent me his phone!’
‘Why don’t you let me speak to your mum?’ Nathan asked. ‘I can tell her where you are.’
The girl peered at him through teary eyes, looking distinctly distrustful. After several moments, she held out the phone.
‘Hello?’ Nathan said cautiously.
‘Hello? Hello? Emma?’ asked a frantic-sounding female voice.
‘This is Nathan Delacroix,’ Nathan replied. ‘I lent your daughter my phone. She seemed to be in some trouble.’
‘I—I—’ the woman gasped. She paused and Nathan heard her breathing loudly. Then she collected herself. ‘So sorry,’ she said. ‘We’ve been terribly worried. I don’t suppose you could tell me where you are?’
‘On St. Aldates. Oxford,’ Nathan replied, in case they weren’t locals. ‘Do you want me to bring your daughter anywhere?’
‘No, stay there,’ the woman said. ‘I’m on WhatsApp. Can you send me a pin with your location? I’ll be there in about fifteen minutes.’
Nathan had to end the call to do that, which made Emma cry harder.
‘Just let me send our location to your mum,’ he grumbled. ‘Then you can call her again.’
Around twenty minutes later, a grey Renault estate pulled up beside them and double parked. Before the engines had cut, a girl jumped out of the passenger side and ran to Emma. Nathan watched with interest as the two girls embraced. Two black swans. Colour him unsurprised.
The mother joined them a moment later and, dang, she was a different animal—a dog, maybe? She hugged both of her daughters in one go, and there was a whole lot of crying. Nathan was beginning to put a picture together in his head of what had gone on here, and it wasn’t pretty. Who was kidnapping bird girls in Oxford? How long had Emma been held in captivity? Did he need to report this to the Council?
The group hug separated, and the older girl turned to Nathan.
‘Thank you so—Nathan?’
It was Cynthia.
‘Hey,’ Nathan said tiredly. ‘So, long story short, I think I just saved your sister.’
Cynthia hurled herself at him, hugging him and kissing his cheek, and it was literally the most awkward thing ever. He was going to have dreams about this forever, because for someone who seemed so awesome at sports, her body was soft in all sorts of places that he hadn’t expected, and her lips were warm, and her hair sort of tickled against his cheeks where it brushed him, and—
Cynthia Rymes was kissing him.
She pulled away, still clinging to his arm, and flushing as red as a tomato.
‘Thank you so much!’
‘You know him?’ her mother asked. Now that she’d calmed down, she was eyeing Nathan suspiciously.
‘Oh yeah, Mum, Nathan goes to MCS. He’s one of Poppy’s friends—you know Poppy Wiggen, she’s in upper sixth—and I met him at our last lacrosse game.’
Okay, Nathan wished she had left that last one off, because it probably made him sound like a pervert.
‘Um, hi,’ he said, thoroughly embarrassed. ‘I’m Nathan Delacroix.’
‘Thank you,’ said Mrs Rymes. She pursed her lips. ‘Will you let me drive you home?’
‘Oh no, I have my bike—’
‘You should come with us, we can explain what happened,’ Cynthia said.
‘Cynthia, no,’ her mother said.
Mrs Rymes shook her head and Cynthia sighed. ‘Sorry,’ she said to Nathan.
‘It’s okay.’ Nathan was no stranger to keeping secrets. Anyway, he had the information to figure this one out tucked in his pocket. ‘You should take Emma home. I think she’s been through an ordeal.’
‘Are you sure we can’t drop you?’ Mrs Rymes insisted.
‘No, no, it’s fine,’ Nathan replied.
‘Mum,’ Emma said, ‘He said he knocked out the bad men.’
Nathan covered his face with his hands. Between his fingers, he saw that Cynthia looked vaguely impressed. Her mother looked horrified.
‘Excuse me?’ she demanded.
‘Your daughter was being followed by a bunch of guys,’ Nathan said, dropping his hands again.
‘How?’ Cynthia asked.
‘I do MMA,’ Nathan muttered.
‘Wow,’ Cynthia said.
‘And you just happened to be there at the right time?’ Mrs Rymes asked. ‘That’s lucky.’
‘I walked my friend back to Oriel College. We were at the cinema.’ Nathan’s phone buzzed in his hands. He shoved it in his pocket; whoever it was could wait.
Mrs Rymes studied him for a moment, frowning.
‘I really think we should drop you home,’ she said. ‘You’re not injured, are you?’
‘Nope, not a scratch,’ Nathan said. He sighed. ‘I really don’t want to leave my bike in town overnight. I’ve already had two stolen round here.’
‘We can put it in the back of the car.’
And so Mrs Rymes brought the car around whilst Cynthia and Nathan went to grab his bike.
‘MMA’s pretty rough, isn’t it?’ Cynthia asked as they walked.
‘I guess,’ Nathan said hesitantly. Was that cool or not? ‘I like martial arts.’
‘That’s kind of epic,’ Cynthia told him.
‘I suppose,’ Nathan said. ‘The bruises are certainly epic.’
‘Ever broken any bones?’ she asked.
‘My left arm and my right ankle,’ Nathan said.
‘Wow,’ said Cynthia. ‘Never would have thought it, seeing you hanging out with your friend in the park.’
‘Do I look that incapable?’ Nathan asked, wondering whether to be offended or not.
‘No! I meant, uh, oh.’ Cynthia hesitated. ‘I meant, you just looked, uh, like a normal guy. And I guess you have hidden depths, or whatever.’
‘Or whatever,’ Nathan repeated dubiously, but he was grinning. Cynthia thought he had hidden depths! Matt was going to die when Nathan told him about this. If Nathan told him about this. It might be better to keep quiet about it. The last thing Nathan wanted was to involve Matt in something dangerous.
‘Where are we going?’ Mrs Rymes asked once they’d loaded his bike into the car.
‘Straight down the Abingdon Road, I’ll show you where to turn off.’
By car, the trip was only five minutes. Soon they had found Aunt Anna’s four-bedroom redbrick. It was quite a plain house, but Nathan was kind of glad for that right now, because at least it didn’t scream vampire hunter. Mrs Rymes already seemed suspicious of him.
Aunt Anna came hurtling out the door the moment the car stopped. She stared at them, frowning. Nathan sighed and opened his door.
‘Hey, Aunt Anna. My friend gave me a lift home.’
‘Nathan, do you have any idea what time it is? You were supposed to be home by eleven-thirty!’
‘Damn, did we get you in trouble?’ Cynthia whispered behind him.
‘Nah,’ Nathan said. ‘I’ll be fine.’
‘Get in the house!’ Aunt Anna said.
‘Alright, but can I get my bike?’
Cynthia climbed out to help him, except that she didn’t do much helping. Once he had his bike on the ground, she touched his arm. Nathan looked at her in surprise.
‘Um, thanks,’ she whispered. ‘I don’t know what we would have done if you hadn’t been there.’
‘You’re welcome,’ Nathan said. ‘See you soon?’
‘We should meet up sometime,’ Cynthia replied.
‘I’d like that.’ Nathan smiled at her, though she probably couldn’t see because their streetlight was out. ‘Thanks for the lift, Mrs Rymes,’ he called into the car, then he gave Cynthia a little wave and headed to put his bike in the garden.
Aunt Anna met him in the kitchen.
‘You should have called. I texted you twice. I was worried.’
‘I’m sorry, Aunt Anna,’ Nathan said. ‘It honestly didn’t occur to me. I, uh, ran into Cynthia after Matt and I split, and we got chatting.’
‘Don’t let it happen again,’ she warned. ‘Or I’ll tell your parents.’
That threat carried weight. Dad valued discipline above all else. He’d be furious if he found out Nathan was violating curfew and hanging out with girls.
‘I’m really sorry,’ Nathan said, trying to look as contrite as possible.
‘Just go to bed.’ Aunt Anna sighed.
That night, Nathan fell asleep with a smile on his face.
Cynthia thought he was cool. Hell yeah!