Tip #8

Those three days leading up to the Masquerade seemed to blow by in an instant. In that time, I was put through training that could have rivalled an army boot camp. Clearly, they wanted me well-prepared for whatever was coming. In my down time though, I usually just lazed about, letting my body relax and get used to the pain that was constantly being put on it. Well, it was either that, or I was with Declan, Esme and Prosper as we tried to search—try being the key word—and find out who it was that was trying to kill me. Needless to say, we didn't have much luck. Which was why I'm pretty sure we were all anxious for this Ball. Actually, we were probably just anxious in general to get some answers.

Once more, I was pulled into Esme's clutches when she announced that there was no way we were going to a Masquerade and not dressing up. I groaned immediately when I heard this but quickly clamped my mouth shut after she shot me a venomous look. So that's where I was, slouching uncomfortably in Esme's room as she dug through her closest in search of Masquerade-appropriate attire. Finally, after several minutes of searching where she nearly disappeared into her closest, she reappeared and handed me a gorgeous dress made of a dark, shimmery, blue material. I held it delicately in my hands as I went to change in the bathroom. However, something about the way the dress did up had me completely and utterly confused, so I had to slip out and pout at Esme for help. I finally had it on though and I turned to look at myself in the full-body length mirror.

It had a corset-like bodice—but without all the squeezing of internal organs thing, thank Buddha—with thin straps to hold it up. When it reached my hips it flared out a bit and fell to my knees in slim ruffles underlined with taffeta. A sheet of black lace was stitched over top of the blue and the straps crossed several times at my back(which had been the confusing part). I had to admit though, it was a gorgeous dress and it made me look like I had some damn killer curves.

Once it was secure, Esme shoved me down on the stool in front of her vanity mirror and proceeded to wind half my hair into a french braid, using bobby pins with diamond studs on the ends to hold it in place. She then hurried on to my face, not doing too much since I'd be wearing a mask. And then she was handing it to me and I looked down at it where it rested against my palms.

It was black with blue stitching and small, white feathers edging the top corners, held in place by pale blue rhinestones. It was only a half-mask, but it was still gorgeous and it had black ribbon attached to it that would allow it to be tied around my head. As I fiddled with it, trying to put it on, Esme vanished into her bathroom to dress herself up. It only took her a few minutes and when she stepped out, I couldn't help but suddenly feel inadequate standing next to her.

Her dress was floor-length and ivory, with golden trimming, and had the same corset-like bodice mine had, but that was the only thing similar. When it reached her hips, it flared out in a waterfall of fabric that was gathered in places until it reached the floor. She'd dabbed gold glitter onto her bare shoulders and along her eyelids and her hair was wound up into an intricate knot at the back of her head, held in place by a gold and white barrette in the shape of the Knights' emblem. She'd already put on her mask and it was gold in colour with crystal beading along the edges and white stitching in the shape of dragons curling along the sides.

"Wow, Esme," I gaped, as I got to my feet. "You look amazing!"

"I know, right?" she beamed at me and twirled. "I love it! Now come on, the guys probably started complaining half an hour ago,"

Laughing, we linked arms and left her room, making our way down to the first floor where the boys were—once again—waiting for us. None of them were wearing their masks but rather, held them in their hands at their sides. Unlike when we went to the club, they were dressed up a little more, each of them wearing a dark suit. I wasn't surprised in the least to find that Gwen was no where in sight.

"Esme, how are you supposed to run wearing that?" Prosper drawled when he caught sight of us. "At least Bridgette's is short and allows her legs full movement,"

I glanced down at said legs, wrinkling my nose slightly because against the dark blue of the fabric, they looked really pale. Well, great, thanks Prosper. Now I felt even better about myself. Beside me, Esme rolled her eyes and crossed her arms over her chest, pinning Prosper with an unamused look.

"Why in the world would we have to do any running tonight?" she demanded.

"Because we have no idea what's going to happen," Declan answered. "That's why,"

I glanced over at him and noticed that his eyes weren't focused on the girl he was talking to; rather, they were focused on my unsightly pale legs. I shifted uncomfortably and tugged awkwardly at the bottom hem of my dress, suddenly wishing it was a whole lot longer. The movement drew his eyes up to my face and he flashed me a smirk. I glowered at him, body buzzing with awareness and crossed my arms over my chest.

"Now that Declan's done ogling Bridgette's legs," Shea commented dryly, making me flush. "Can we get going?"

Declan shot Shea an unimpressed look but didn't say anything as he turned and walked out the door. Prosper and Esme snickered as they followed him out while I fell silent. Outside, the sun had set and the sky was dark, the clouds covering the stars.

"Where is this thing, anyway?" I asked.

Declan shrugged. "We got a message from Nico this morning saying he would send someone to pick us up."

"Oh," my brow furrowed slightly.

A few minutes later, a dark carriage pulled up at the curb, two skeletal horses harnessed to it. The horses coats looked oil-slicked and hung off their bones, their eyes black pits in their heads. I shied away from them subtly, noticing the smoke that coiled from their nostrils. Now those were some damn creepy horses, gotta tell you.

"This is our ride?" I squeaked when Shea stepped forward and pulled open the carriage door.

"Yes," Declan nodded, glancing at me with a smirk. "Why? Scared?"

I scowled at him. "Not even."

I stalked past him determinedly, only slowing in my pace when I got closer to the, uh...horses. The one closest to me turned its head and seemed to look right at me, pawing at the pavement with its hoof. I shuddered and quickly climbed into the carriage, not caring if I flashed my underwear at the rest of them.

Inside, the carriage seemed a lot bigger than it had looked from outside. There was easily enough room to fit eight people. I flopped down on one of the leather-covered benches and slid into the corner, resting my head against the cool wall. Shea sat across from me, his mask resting in his lap, and gave me a reassuring smile.

The others got in quickly, obviously not as put off by the creeper-horses as I was, and once the door had closed behind Esme, the carriage lurched forward. I glanced out the door window and watched as we merged with the evening traffic. To my surprise, none of the drivers did double-takes at the horse-drawn carriage that passed them.

"Is this thing glamoured?" I asked, turning away from the window.

Declan nodded. "Heavily."

"Good to know," I sighed, leaning my head back against the wall behind me.

The ride to where the Masquerade Ball was taking place took us about twenty minutes and when the carriage started to slow, I perked up and looked out the window. It looked like we were in a less populated area of the city where trees were more prominent than houses. Hey, the city wasn't called the 'Forest City' for nothing.

I knew immediately where we were heading to, if the tall, cast iron gate was any clue. Beyond it was a long, winding gravel driveway that lead up to a dark brick mansion that's windows were blazing with light. Other carriages were stopped along the drive, some right up at the door, to allow whoever was inside to get out and begin their festivities. The mansion sat on a remarkably big piece of land with its own mini-forest surrounding it and I'm pretty sure I caught sight of a pond out back as we pulled through the gates. It was impressive, to say the least. And so completely and utterly cliché that I snorted and face-palmed. The others all glanced over at me, raising their eyebrows but I just waved them off, too concerned with holding back my laughter.

"Great," Prosper sighed dramatically, flinging his hands up in the air. "We haven't even started and Bridgette's already loosing it,"

I snickered. "It's just the...gah, never mind."

As the carriage finally pulled to a stop in front of the mansion, the boys lifted their masks and tied them quickly around their heads. Prosper winked at Esme and me, his mask a black silk material with red stitching, and was the first to bounce out of the carriage. Esme and I quickly followed, with Declan and Shea taking up the rear of our party. The moment the door closed, the carriage lurched away, the creeper-horses taking it wherever as they waited for us to need it again.

"How come I've never heard of this place before?" I asked as we made our way up to the large, mahogany front door.

"Because it's not a human settlement," Declan answered, mismatched eyes gleaming from behind his black and green mask.

"Then what is it?" I demanded as we climbed up the steps.


"Mine," a smooth voice spoke up from the doorway.

All of our heads jerked over in the direction of the voice and I found myself staring into the face of Rene Chauveau. He wore no mask but was dressed in a tux that looked like it had come from a different time. It probably had, actually, now that I think about it. His hair was slicked back and the top three buttons of the white shirt beneath the tux coat were undone, a gold chain gleaming around his neck.

"I did not think I would see you again," he continued, raising an eyebrow. "Especially since you brought that demon to my club,"

"We didn't bring it," Shea scoffed. "It found us,"

Rene gave him a cool, emotionless look before glancing at the rest of us. "Just promise not to destroy anything and I'll let you in."

"I'm afraid we can't do that, good sir," Prosper replied cheerfully. "But I think you should let us in anyway,"

Bemusement flickered across the vampire's face. "Very well. But if anything—even a vase—is broken because of you lot, there shall be no living with me after that."

"Oh, nice pun, Master Rene," Prosper chirped.

Rene rolled his steel-grey eyes but stepped aside and let us—and the line of people that had formed behind us—inside. The moment I stepped past the door, my mouth fell open. It was like we had stepped into a completely different time where electricity didn't exist and everything was determined by your status in society.

"Bridgette," Declan drawled, catching me by my upper arm. "You need to move,"

I blinked and realized that I while I had been standing there gaping in awe, an impatient crowd had formed behind me. With a sheepish smile at them, I let Declan pull me away and into the crowds. We manoeuvred our way around elegantly dressed creatures and supernatural beings. I caught sight of winged women and men flashing fangs talking with a group that had amber eyes with slitted pupils and hair streaked with grey.

"Do you know where we'll find Nico?" I asked, having to raise my voice over the music that was coming from the live band in the corner of the ballroom we had entered.

"Out there somewhere," Declan gestured.

I followed the wave of his hand and let my gaze fall on the dance floor of the room where pairs of people spun around in dizzying circles, the womens dresses flaring out around them. I remembered that Nico was a dancer and had to agree with Declan. If there was one sure place where we'd be able to find him, it was the dance floor. That's why we found ourselves wandering along the edges, searching the moving crowd for any sign of him.

"Looking for me, little knight?" a voice breathed in my ear.

I whirled around with a startled squeak of surprise and found myself staring up into the amused amber eyes of Nico Rael. At least, I think it was Nico, because a black bar had been painted across the area of his eyes and that was nearly as effective as a mask. Unlike the first time we'd met though, he actually had a shirt on. I mean, it wasn't a very good shirt—nearly see through and the neckline dipped low down his chest—but it was a shirt. I was actually kind of glad he was wearing one because if he hadn't been, I probably would have been a babbling mess of a girl. Sad but true.

"Um, yeah," I replied lamely. "I'll, uh...get the others and then we can talk, right?"

He inclined his head. "Very well. Fetch your friends."

I wasn't sure how I felt about his use of the word 'fetch' but I didn't say anything and slunk off to find the others. The first two that I found were Prosper and Esme and they were hovering around a table full of brightly coloured drinks, indecision on their faces. I crept up behind them and cleared my throat, raising an amused eyebrow at them when they spun around with guilty looks on their faces.

"We weren't gonna drink any, I swear," Prosper blurted.

"Of course," I drawled with a wide grin. "Whatever, guys. I found Nico,"

Esme perked up. "You did? Great!"

I rolled my eyes at her before continuing my search for Declan and Shea. I found them both stationed in opposite corners, their eyes scanning the dance floor. I grabbed them both, lead them back to Prosper and Esme, and then lead them all to where I hoped Nico was still waiting. And he was. An amused smile stole across his face when he saw the five of us pushing our way towards him and I heard Esme let out a dreamy sigh.

"Nico," Declan said the moment we were within talking distance. "We've been looking for you,"

Nico's amber eyes flashed with hilarity. "Really? I would never have guessed."

Declan scowled at him as the rest of us tried to hide our snickers. I brushed back a strand of hair that had come loose from my up-do and shifted forward a few feet, mouth curled up at the corners. I said, "So, can we talk?"

"This way," Nico inclined his head and lead us out of the ballroom.

After sparing a quick glance at each other, we followed after him. He lead us through the mansion and the crowds, up a gilded grand staircase and to a room on the second floor. I'd been in the lead but when Nico opened a random room's door, I fell back and let Declan and Shea take the lead. Declan rolled his eyes at me as he passed and I stuck my tongue out at his back as I followed him inside the room.

It was a lounge of some sort, with low-lying maroon couches positioned around a mahogany table. One wall was a bookshelf covered in books of all shapes, sizes and colours while the other three were painted a dark, redwood colour, a gilded desk sitting across from the one with the bookshelf. The floor beneath us was hardwood with a intricately woven rug over top. It was definitely a spiffy place to look at.

Nico closed the door when we were all inside and leaned back against it, crossing his arms over his chest. I wandered over and hopped up on the desk, letting my feet swing in the air as I surveyed the room. Silence reigned for a few moments as we all gathered our bearings, and then Nico smiled slightly.

"So, what can I help you with, Knights?" he drawled.

"We're looking for something, and we were hoping you could help," Declan told him.

Nico eyed him for a moment before unhitching himself from the door. "It all depends on what you need found."

"The Grail Sword," Declan said bluntly.

Nico's eyebrows flew upwards and he made a small, startled sound in the back of his throat. "Well, you're certainly aiming high, aren't you?"

Shea scowled at him. "Listen, can you help us find it or are we wasting our time?"

Nico's eyes went flat. "I'll see what I can do, little Knight. Give me a day or two to see what I can find."

"That's greatly appreciated, Nico," Declan nodded. "Thank you. Now we can all return to the festivities of the party below,"

"Party time!" Prosper hooted as he barrelled out of the room.

Laughing, Esme paced after him, her dress swishing behind her. I hopped off the desk, smoothing out my dress over my thighs and glanced at the remaining three boys standing in the room. They had this weird, three-way dominance stare thing going on and I rolled my eyes with a huff.

"Yes, yes, you're all very macho and manly," I sighed. "Now, let's go,"

They all dropped their eyes away from each other, Shea flashing me a sheepish smile and digging his hands into his pockets. I rolled my eyes and made for the door, reaching up to adjust my mask as I did.

"Care to accompany me?" Nico drawled as I passed, holding out his arm.

I paused and stared at him with surprise. "Er....yeah, sure."

I took his arm and glanced uncertainly over my shoulder at Declan and Shea as we swept from the room. But they were talking to each other and hadn't seemed to notice what had just happened. My mouth turned down in a frown and I reached out to slam the door as Nico and I left.

When we returned to the first floor, Nico lead me directly to the dance floor. Panicking, I dug in my heels and tried to pull him to a stop. No way was I going out there. I'd make a complete fool out of myself and, under normal circumstances, I wouldn't have minded. But these were not normal circumstances. Obviously.

"Is there a problem?" Nico glanced over his shoulder at me, his amber eyes gleaming brightly against the black paint on his face.

"I can't dance," I blurted out.

His mouth twitched up into a smile. "Do not worry. I shall lead."

"No, no," I shook my head quickly. "It's alright. I don't need to dance,"

Nico tugged on my arm again. "Give it a chance, hm? Just one dance and, if you don't like it, you may stop."

I gnawed on my bottom lip as I scrutinized the dance floor and the people spinning around dizzily on it. I mean, it looked fun and all but...I sighed and glanced back at Nico, nodding my consent. His face lit up with a smile that made me glad I'd said yes and he quickly pulled me onto the floor. He guided my one hand to his shoulder while he took my other one in his own, placing his empty one on my waist.

"Just relax," he instructed soothingly. "I shall do all the work,"

I frowned, highly aware of his hand on me. "That hardly seems fair."

He laughed. "I adore the dance. It's hardly unfair."

Well, I guess he had a point. Smiling nervously, I let him lead me in a dizzying whirl of moves, spins and dips. Eventually, I forgot that I had no idea what I was doing and actually had fun with it, smiling and laughing as Nico swung me around. He dipped me down, keeping a careful hold on my waist and I tilted my head back with a wide smile, feeling his hot breath ghost across my throat.

"Mind if I cut in?" a familiar voice said shortly.

Nico pulled me upright and I turned around to find Declan standing a few feet away, arms crossed over his chest, face unreadable because of his damn mask. Nico's hands slid away from me and I felt his presence at my back recede.

"Of course not," he replied coolly. "Go ahead,"

With my brow furrowed, I let Declan step forward and put his hands where Nico's had been. I glanced over my shoulder at the dancer and saw that he had already found a new partner and had disappeared into the crowd.

"Why did you interrupt?" I asked, looking back at Declan as he began to move us in a simple circle.

Declan's mouth twisted downwards. "I know he can help us but...don't trust him."

I jerked to a stop and Declan nearly went careening into a woman with monarch wings at her back. He apologized quickly as she scowled at him, cat eyes gleaming from behind her mask. He turned back to me and scowled.

"What was that for?" he demanded as he tried to get me to continue dancing.

I stayed rooted to the spot and ignored his question. "Why, exactly, can we not trust the person that's helping us?"

"Because he's—," he started, dropping his hands away from me.

"If you say it's because of what he is I will slap you," I said darkly, cutting him off.

Declan snapped his mouth closed and glared at me for a moment before finally speaking again. "He may look human, but he's a witch. You can't trust him."

The sound my hand made when it connected with Declan's face seemed to echo above the music. His head whipped to the side and he stayed like that for a few moments, staring at the far wall. I glared at him, hands clenched into fists at my sides. Stupid bigot! Now I could understand why all these supernaturals weren't big fans of the Knights.

Declan finally turned to look at me, his cheek bright red. Casting him one last, disbelieving look, I turned and stalked away from him, ignoring the looks I was receiving. I caught a glimpse of Prosper and Esme where they stood near a food table, their mouths open in shock but I didn't stop to say anything to them, just kept going.

"Bridgette," Shea was suddenly in front of me, holding his hands out.

"Back off," I snapped. "Or I'll hit you too,"

He blinked with surprise and I took that moment to storm past him. I didn't really know where I was going so I just marched up the stairs and down the hallway. I passed a room that's door was open a few inches and paused, moving towards it. I glanced around me to make sure no one was there and then pushed the door farther open, stepping into the room.

It was an office with a large chandelier hanging from the ceiling, plush carpeting along the floor and a huge, iron desk directly across from the door. Positioned behind the desk was a large painting of a man who looked like he'd come straight from a time where cars and guns and electricity didn't exist. I moved forward and around the desk to get a better look at the painting, tilting my head back to see all of it.

The man in the painting was stern-looking with slicked-back blonde hair, a narrow mouth set in a scowl and it looked like he had been glaring at the painter as the picture was done. His gloved hands were resting on the pommel of a large silver sword and he was standing with his feet spread apart. I wondered absently who he had been as I reached up and ran a hand along the picture's frame.

"Careful with that," a voice spoke from the doorway. "It is quite old and very priceless,"

I whirled around with a startled yelp, heart thundering in my chest. Leaning against the door frame was the vampire, Rene. I let out a sigh of relief and stepped away from the painting, moving back around the desk. Rene pushed away from the door and moved forward, hands clasped behind his back and his eyes on the painting.

"That is the Grail Sword, you know," he said conversationally. "About twenty years before it had the misfortune of being broken again,"

I glanced back at it with new eyes, taking in the gold leafing and gems on the hilt, the Celtic-knot like design of the hand guard, the way it looked very much like a cross because of the way the man in the painting was holding it.

"It's beautiful," I replied uncertainly. "Who's the man?"

"Dead," Rene answered casually. "So it matters not, who he is,"

I hesitated slightly. "Oh, um...alright?"

Rene's mouth quirked upwards slightly at the corners. "Since you are here, I am to guess that you have not had any success in finding it."

I sighed and leaned back against the desk. "No. And it's really starting to irritate me."

"Fear not," he chuckled. "When the time is right, I am sure you shall find it,"

I snorted before I could stop myself and flashed him a sheepish smile when he gave me a bemused look. We lapsed into silence, Rene staring at the painting, and me staring at the floor. I resisted the urge to whistle uncomfortably and instead, straightened up, pushing my dress back down to its proper length.

"Well, it was, uh...nice talking to you," I said awkwardly. "Um...later,"

If it hadn't been for the slightest nod of his head, I would have thought Rene hadn't heard me. I gave him a tight smile and then left the room, closing the door behind me. I paused in the hallway, not at all wanting to go back down and rejoin the 'festivities'. So instead I decided to be nosey and wandered slowly down each and every hall, poking my head into rooms that were unlocked. I knew I probably shouldn't have been doing it but at that point in time, I didn't really care all that much.

It was when I entered a room that seemed to be a reading room or something like that, that things started to go wrong. Well, worse. What appeared to be gas-lit lamps hung on the walls, casting an eery, orange glow out over the room. Seeing the small flames licking at the inside of the glass casings, my pyromania kicked in and I drifted over to the closest one. I'd left my lighter at home, that last time when Declan and Shea had taken me back, so I hadn't had a good fire-session in a few days.

Just as I was reaching out to touch it, my fingers ghosting along the glass, I heard a loud thump in the hallway. I spun around, my hand smacking the lamp and sending it careening to the floor. I watched, horrified, as it shattered on the ground, the oil inside spilling out. And then the small flame got bigger...and bigger. Swearing profusely, I glanced around in search of something that would help me put it out. I was unsuccessful. Grimacing, I tried to stamp it out, but that didn't work either. Deciding that the only way to actually get it to stop was to find someone to help—Nico or Rene maybe—I rushed from the room in search of them. That, it turned out, was one of the worst ideas I'd had yet.

I couldn't find them. I'd decided to not go find Rene because he'd probably have an apocalyptic fit when he saw part of his house on fire, so I tried to locate Nico. But that dude is hard to find, let me tell you. So I gave up. Instead, I grabbed a vase off a table as I passed it, emptied it of its flowers, and then located the nearest bathroom and filled it with water before running back to the room. Except a vase full of water wasn't going to do much good anymore. The fire was now licking up the walls with angry purpose and smoke was rapidly filling the room.

"Shit, shit, shit, shit," I muttered darkly after throwing the measly amount of water at it.

"Aw," a cold voice drawled from behind me. "Is the little Knight having a problem?"

I spun around and found myself facing a woman with slitted, amber eyes and pale, ashy hair spilling down around her face and to the bottom of her ribs. She was glaring at me, her well-manicured hand curled tightly around the doorknob.

"Uh...do I know you?" I blinked at her with surprise.

She chuckled slightly and sauntered a little farther into the flaming room, forcing me to take an automatic step back, bringing me closer to the raging fire. She said, "Hardly. But I know what you are. And I don't like your kind."

"My kind?" I squeaked.

"One of those self-righteous Knights," she snarled, baring animal-like fangs. "You think you're so much better than the rest of us but you're not. And I can't stand it,"

"Um," I started. "I'm not—,"

"So you know what," the woman cut me off. "You can stay in here and burn!"

"No!" I yelped, lunging towards her.

But I was too late. She swung the door shut and over the crackling of the flames behind me, I heard the unmistakable sound of the doorknob being broken. I reached out and grabbed it, trying to turn it, but the woman had as good as locked me in. I took a deep breath to try and calm myself, only to choke on the smoke that was filling the air in front of my face.

"Help!" I yelled, banging my fist against the door. "Fire! Help!"

I clasped one hand over my nose and mouth in hopes that would help and leaned against the door, turning to face the blazing flames that had gotten higher, larger and closer. I coughed, the sound hacking in my throat and turned back to the door. Setting my jaw, I slammed my shoulder against it repeatedly in hopes that it was enough to break it open. It wasn't.

Coughing enough that it sounded like I was hacking up a lung and enough to make even the longest-living smoker proud, I slid down the door until I was sitting in a sad, crumpled heap on the floor. Of all the ways to go out, burning was definitely not how I had hoped. In fact, if I had any say in the matter, I would go peacefully and in my sleep. Obviously not going to happen.

I coughed again, pretty sure that my lung was minutes from bursting out of my chest and suddenly the door at my back was gone and I slumped to the floor, training my eyes above me. My vision was blurry and and black spots danced in the air, but I could just make out a pair of amber eyes glowing brightly through the smoke before I slipped away into unconsciousness.

Tip #8: Fire. Is. Bad. 'Nuff said.