Unsurprisingly, I woke up with a headache.
For a few addled seconds, I had no idea what had happened or where I was.As drowsiness wore off, the events on the street came slamming back to me.I sat upright, all of my defenses kicking into action, despite the slight wooziness in my head.
Time to figure out where I was now.
I sat up on an enormous bed in a darkened room. No-not just a room. More like a suite or a studio. I’d thought the hotel in Saint Petersburg was opulent, but this blew it away. The half of the studio I sat in contained the bed and usual bedroom accessories: a dresser, nightstands, etc. The other half looked like a living room area, with a couch and a television. Shelves were built into the walls, all of them filled with books. Off to my right was a short hall with a door at the end. Probably a bathroom. On my other side was a large picture window, tinted, as Moroi windows often were. This one had more tint than any I’d ever seen. It was almost solid black, nearly impossible to see through. Only the fact that I could differentiate the sky from the horizon-after a fair amount of squinting-let me know it was daytime out there.
I slid off the bed, my senses on high alert as I tried to assess my danger. My stomach felt fine; there were no Strigoi in the area. That didn’t necessarily rule out some other person, however. I couldn’t take anything for granted-doing so was what had gotten me in trouble on the street.
There was no time to ponder that, though. Not quite yet. If I did, my resolve here was going to falter.
Sliding off the bed, I reached into my coat pocket for the stake. Gone, of course. I saw nothing else nearby that would pass as a weapon, meaning I’d have to rely on my own body to do my fighting. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of a light switch on the wall. I flipped it on and froze, waiting to see what-or who-the overhead lights would unveil.
Nothing unusual. No one else. Immediately, I did the first obvious thing and checked the door. It was locked, as I’d expected, and the only way of opening it was a numeric keypad. Plus, it was heavy and made of what looked like steel. It reminded me of a fire door. There was no getting past it, so I turned back around to continue my exploration. It was actually kind of ironic. A lot of my classes had gone over detailed ways of checking out a place. I’d always hated those; I’d wanted to learn about fighting. Now it appeared those lessons that had seemed useless at the time had real purpose.
The light had brought the suite’s objects into sharper relief. The bed was covered in an ivory satin duvet, filled to maximum fluffiness with down.
Creeping over to the living room, I saw that the TV was nice-really nice. Large-screen plasma. It looked brand-new. The couches were nice too, covered in matte green leather. It was an unusual color choice for leather, but it worked. All of the furniture in the place-tables, desk, dresser was made of a smooth, polished black wood. In a corner of the living room, I saw a small refrigerator. Kneeling down, I opened it up to find bottled water and juice, assorted fruits, and bags of perfectly cut cheeses. On top of the refrigerator was more snack-type food: nuts, crackers, and some type of glazed pastry. My stomach growled at the sight of it, but no way was I going to eat anything in this place.
The bathroom was done in the same style as the rest of the studio. The shower and large Jacuzzi tub were made of black polished marble, and little soaps and shampoos lined the counter. A larger mirror hung over the sink, except… it wasn’t actually hanging. It was embedded so tightly into the wall that there was absolutely no way it could be removed. The material was strange too. It looked more like reflective metal than glass.
At first I thought that was strange, until I raced back out to the main room and looked around. There was absolutely nothing here that could be turned into a weapon. The TV was too big to move or break, short of cracking the screen, which looked like it was made of some high-tech plastic.
There was no glass in any of the tables. The shelves were embedded. The bottles in the refrigerator were all plastic. And the window…
I ran over to it, feeling along its edges. Like the mirror, it was fitted perfectly into the wall. There were no panes. It was one smooth piece.
Squinting again, I finally got a detailed view of my outer surroundings and saw… nothing. The land appeared to be rolling plains, with only a few scattered trees. It reminded me of the wilderness I’d traveled while going to Baia. I was no longer in Novosibirsk, apparently. And peering down, I saw that I was fairly high up. Fourth floor, maybe. Whatever it was, it was too high to jump without breaking a limb. Still, I had to take some sort of action. I couldn’t just sit here.
I picked up the desk’s chair and slammed it into the window-and achieved little effect on either the chair or the glass. “Jesus Christ,” I muttered. I tried three more times and still had no luck. It was like they were both made of steel. Maybe the glass was some kind of bulletproof industrial strength stuff. And the chair… well, hell if I knew. It was all one piece of wood and showed no signs of splintering, even after what I’d just put it through. But since I’d spent my whole life doing things that weren’t that reasonable, I kept trying to break the glass.
I was on my fifth try when my stomach warned me of a Strigoi’s approach. Spinning around, I kept a hold of the chair and charged the door. It opened, and I slammed into the intruder, with the chair’s legs pointing out.
It was Dimitri.
Those same conflicted feelings I’d felt on the street returned to me, love mingled with terror. This time, I pushed through the love, not flinching in my attack. Not that it did much good. Hitting him was like hitting the window. He shoved me back, and I staggered, still holding onto the chair. I kept my balance and charged once more. This time, when we collided, he grabbed a hold of the chair and ripped it from my hands. He then tossed it into the wall, like it weighed nothing.
Without that meager weapon, it was back to relying on my own body’s strength. I’d been doing it for the last couple of weeks with our Strigoi questioning; this should have been the same. Of course, I’d had four other people then as backup. And none of those Strigoi had been Dimitri.
Even as a dhampir, he’d been hard to beat. Now he was just as skilled-only faster and stronger. He also knew all my moves, seeing as he’d taught them to me. It was almost impossible to surprise him.
But just like with the window, I couldn’t stay inactive. I was trapped in a room-the fact that it was a big, luxurious room didn’t matter-with a Strigoi. A Strigoi. That’s what I had to keep telling myself. There was a Strigoi in here. Not Dimitri. Everything I’d told Denis and the others applied here. Be smart. Be vigilant. Defend yourself.
“Rose,” he said, deflecting one of my kicks effortlessly. “You’re wasting time. Stop.”
Oh, that voice. Dimitri’s voice. The voice I heard when I fell asleep at night, the voice that had once told me he loved me…
No! It’s not him. Dimitri is gone. This is a monster.
Desperately, I tried to think of how I could win here. I even thought of the ghosts I’d summoned on the road. Mark had said I could do that in moments of wild emotion and that they’d fight for me. This was as wild as emotion could get, yet I couldn’t seem to call them. I honestly had no clue how I’d done it before, and all the wishing in the world couldn’t make it happen now. Damn. What good were terrifying powers if I couldn’t use them to my advantage?
Instead, I pulled the DVD player off its shelf, cords ripping from the wall. It wasn’t much of a weapon, but I was desperate now. I heard a strange, primal battle scream, and some distant part of me realized I was making it. Again, I ran at Dimitri, swinging the DVD player as hard as I could. It probably would have hurt a little-if it had hit him. It didn’t. He intercepted it again, taking it from me, and throwing it down. It smashed to pieces on the floor. In the same motion, he grabbed a hold of my arms to stop me from hitting or reaching for something else. His grip was hard, like it could break my bones, but I kept struggling.
He tried reason again. “I’m not going to hurt you. Roza, please stop.”
Roza. The old nickname. The name he’d first called me when we’d fallen prey to Victor’s lust charm, both of us wrapped naked in each other’s arms …
This isn’t the Dimitri you knew.
My hands were incapacitated, so I struck out with my legs and feet as best I could. It didn’t do much. Without full use of the rest of my body for balance, I had no force to throw into my kicks. For his part, he looked more annoyed than truly concerned or angry. With a loud sigh, he grabbed me by the shoulders and flipped me around, pressing me against the wall and immobilizing me with the full force of his body. I struggled a little but was as pinned as the Strigoi had been when the others and I had gone hunting. The universe had a sick sense of humor.
“Stop fighting me.” His breath was warm against my neck, his body right up against mine. I knew his mouth was only a couple inches away. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
I gave another fruitless shove. My breath was coming in ragged gasps, and my head injury throbbed. “You’ll have to understand if I have a hard time believing that.”
“If I wanted you dead, you’d be dead. Now, if you’re going to keep fighting, I’ll have to tie you up. If you stop, I’ll let you stay unrestrained.”
“Aren’t you afraid I’ll escape?”
“No.” His voice was perfectly calm, and chills ran down my spine. “I am not.”
We stood like that for almost a minute, deadlocked. My mind raced. It was true that he probably would have killed me already if that were his intent, yet that gave me no reason to believe I was even remotely safe. Nonetheless, we were at a draw in this fight. Okay, draw wasn’t entirely accurate. I was at a draw. He was toying with me. My head was throbbing where his blow had landed, and this pointless fighting would only take a further toll. I had to regain my strength in order to find a way to escape-if I lived that long. I also needed to stop thinking about how close our bodies were. After our months of being so careful not to touch, this much contact was heady.
I relaxed in his hold. “Okay.”
He hesitated before letting me go, probably wondering if he could trust me. The whole moment reminded me of when we’d been together in the little cabin on the periphery of the Academy’s grounds. I’d been raging and upset, brimming with spirit’s darkness. Dimitri had held me down then, too, and talked me out of that horrible state. We had kissed, then his hands had lifted my shirt, and-no, no. Not here. I couldn’t think about that here.
Dimitri finally eased up, releasing me from the wall. I turned around, and all my instincts wanted to lash out and attack him again. Sternly, I reminded myself to bide my time so that I could gain more strength and information. Even though he’d let me go, he hadn’t moved away. We were only a foot apart. Against my better judgment, I found myself taking him in again, like I had on the street. How could he be the same and yet so different? I tried my best not to focus on the similarities-his hair, the difference in our heights, the shape of his face. Instead, I concentrated on the Strigoi features, the red in his eyes and pallor of his skin.
I was so fixated on my task that it took me a moment to realize he wasn’t saying anything either. He was studying me intently, like his eyes could look right through me. I shivered. It almost-almost!-seemed as though I captivated him the same way he captivated me. That was impossible, though. Strigoi didn’t possess those kinds of emotions, and besides, the thought of him still having any affection for me was probably just wishful thinking on my part. His face had always been hard to read, and now it was overlaid with a mask of cunning and coldness that made it truly impossible to know what was on his mind.
“Why did you come here?” he asked at last.
“Because you hit me on the head and dragged me here.” If I was going to die, I was going to go in true Rose style.
The old Dimitri would have cracked a smile or given an exasperated sigh. This one remained impassive. “That’s not what I meant, and you know it.
Why are you here?” His voice was low and dangerous. I’d thought Abe was scary, but there was no competition at all. Even Zmey would have backed off.
“In Siberia? I came to find you.”
“I came here to get away from you.”
I was so shocked that I said something utterly ridiculous.
“Why? Because I might kill you?”
The look he gave me showed that he thought that was indeed a ridiculous thing to say. “No. So we wouldn’t be in this situation. Now we are, and the choice is inevitable.”
I wasn’t entirely sure what this situation was. “Well, you can let me go if you want to avoid it.”
He stepped away and walked toward the living room without looking back at me. I was tempted to try to do a sneak attack on him, but something told me I’d probably only make it about four feet before getting backhanded. He sat down in one of the luxurious leather armchairs, folding his six-foot-seven frame up as gracefully as he’d always done. God, why did he have to be so contradictory? He had the old Dimitri’s habits mixed with those of a monster. I stayed where I was, huddled against the wall.
“Not possible anymore. Not after seeing you now…” Again, he studied me. It felt strange. Part of me responded with excitement to the intensity of his gaze, loving the way he surveyed my body from head to toe. The other part of me felt dirty, like slime or muck was oozing over my skin as he studied me. “You’re still as beautiful as I remember, Roza. Not that I should have expected anything different.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. I’d never really had a conversation with a Strigoi, short of trading a few insults and threats in the midst of a fight.
The nearest I’d come was when I’d been held captive by Isaiah. I actually had been tied up then, and most of the talking had been about him killing me. This… well, it wasn’t like that, but it was still definitely creepy. I crossed my arms over my chest and backed up against the wall. It was the closest I could come to some semblance of a defense.
He tilted his head, watching me carefully. A shadow fell across his face in such a way that it made the red in his eyes hard to see. Instead, they looked dark. Just like they used to, endless and wonderful, filled with love and bravery…
“You can sit down,” he said.
“I’m fine over here.”
“Is there anything else you want?”
“For you to let me go?”
For a moment, I thought I saw a bit of that old wryness in his face, the kind he’d get when I made jokes. Studying him, I decided I’d imagined it.
“No, Roza. I meant, do you need anything here? Different food? Books? Entertainment?”
I stared incredulously. “You make it sound like some sort of luxury hotel!”
“It is, to a certain extent. I can speak to Galina, and she’ll get you anything you wish.”
Dimitri’s lips turned up in a smile. Well, kind of. I think his thoughts were fond, but the smile conveyed none of that. It was chilling, dark, and full of secrets. Only my refusal to show weakness before him stopped me from cringing.
“Galina is my old instructor, back from when I was in school.”
“Yes. She was awakened several years ago, in a fight in Prague. She’s relatively young for a Strigoi, but she’s risen in power. All of this is hers.”
Dimitri gestured around us.
“And you live with her?” I asked, curious in spite of myself. I wondered exactly what kind of relationship they had, and to my surprise, I felt… jealous. Not that I had reason to. He was a Strigoi, beyond me now. And it wouldn’t be the first time a teacher and student had gotten together…
“I work for her. She was another reason I returned here when I was awakened. I knew she was Strigoi, and I wanted her guidance.”
“And you wanted to get away from me. That was the other reason, right?”
His only answer was a nod of his head. No elaboration.
“Where are we? We’re far from Novosibirsk, right?”
“Yes. Galina’s estate is outside the city.”
That smile twisted a little. “I know what you’re doing, and I’m not going to give you that sort of information.”
“Then what are you doing?” I demanded, all of my pent-up fear bursting out as anger. “Why are you holding me here? Kill me or let me go. And if you’re going to just lock me up and torture me with mind games or whatever, then I really would rather you kill me.”
“Brave words.” He stood up and began pacing once more. “I almost believe you.”
“They’re true,” I replied defiantly. “I came here to kill you. And if I can’t do that, then I’d rather die.”
“You failed, you know. On the street.”
“Yeah. I kind of figured that out when I woke up here.”
Dimitri made an abrupt turn and was suddenly standing in front of me, moving with that lightning-fast Strigoi speed. My Strigoi-nausea had never gone away, but the more time I spent with him, the more it faded to a low-level sort of background noise that I could more or less ignore.
“I’m a little disappointed. You’re so good, Rose. So very, very good. You and your friends going around and taking down Strigoi caused quite a stir, you know. Some Strigoi were even afraid.”
“But not you?”
“When I heard it was you… hmm.” He turned thoughtful, eyes narrowing. “No. I was curious. Wary. If anyone could have killed me, it would have been you. But like I said, you hesitated. It was your ultimate test of my lessons, and you failed.”
I kept my face blank. Inside, I was still beating myself up over that moment of weakness on the street. “I won’t hesitate next time.”
“There won’t be a next time. And anyway, as disappointed as I am in you, I’m still glad to be alive, of course.”
“You aren’t alive,” I said through gritted teeth. God, he was so, so close to me again. Even with the changes to his face, the lean and muscled body was the same. “You’re dead. Unnatural. You told me a long time ago you’d rather die than be like this. That’s why I’m going to kill you.”
“You’re only saying that because you don’t know any better. I didn’t either back then.”
“Look, I meant what I said. I’m not playing your game. If I can’t get out of here, then just kill me, okay?”
Without warning, he reached out and ran his fingers along the side of my face. I gasped. His hand was ice cold, but the way he touched me… again, it was the same. Exactly the same as I remembered. How was this possible? So similar… yet so different. All of a sudden, another of his lessons came to mind, about how Strigoi could seem so, so like those you’d once known. It was why it was so easy to hesitate.
“Killing you… well, it’s not that simple,” he said. His voice dropped to a low whisper again, like a snake slithering against my skin. “There’s a third option. I could awaken you.”
I froze and stopped breathing altogether.
“No.” It was the only thing I could say. My brain couldn’t come up with anything more complex, nothing witty or clever. His words were too terrifying to even begin to ponder. “No.”
“You don’t know what it’s like. It’s… amazing. Transcendent. All your senses are alive; the world is more alive-“
“Yeah, but you’re dead.”
He caught hold of my hand and placed it over his chest. In it, I could feel a steady beating. My eyes widened.
“My heart beats. I’m breathing.”
“Yeah, but…” I tried desperately to think of everything I’d ever been taught about Strigoi. “It’s not really being alive. It’s… it’s dark magic reanimating you. It’s an illusion of life.”
“It’s better than life.” Both of his hands moved up and cupped my face. His heartbeat might have been steady, but mine was racing. “It’s like being a god, Rose. Strength. Speed. Able to perceive the world in ways you could never imagine. And… immortality. We could be together forever.”
Once, that was all I’d ever wanted. And deep inside of me, some part still wished for that, wished desperately to be with him for all time. Yet… it wouldn’t be the way I wanted it. It wouldn’t be like it used to be. This would be something different. Something wrong. I swallowed.
“No…” I could barely hear my own voice, barely even form the words with him touching me like that. His fingertips were so light and gentle. “We can’t be.”
“We could.” One of his fingers trailed down the side of my chin and came to rest on the artery in my neck. “I could do it quickly. There’d be no pain. It’d be done before you even knew it.” He was probably right. If you were forced to become Strigoi, you had the blood drained from you.
Then a Strigoi would usually cut himself and bring that blood to your lips. Somehow, I imagined I’d pass out before I was even half-drained.
The world blurred a little. I don’t know if it was because of my head trauma or the terror coursing through my body. I had envisioned a hundred scenarios when I set out after Dimitri. Becoming a Strigoi hadn’t been one of them. Death-his or mine-had been the only thought consuming me, which had been stupid on my part.
My sluggish thoughts were interrupted when the door suddenly opened. Dimitri turned, shoving me away hard so that he stood protectively in front of me. Two people entered, shutting the door before I could even consider running for it. One of the newcomers was a Strigoi, a guy. The other was a human woman carrying a tray, her head bowed down.
I recognized the Strigoi immediately. It was hard not to; his face haunted my dreams. Blond hair, about the length of Dimitri’s, hung over the side of a face that looked like he’d been in his early twenties when he turned. He had apparently seen Lissa and me when we were younger, but I had only seen him twice before. Once had been when I fought him on the Academy’s grounds. The other time was when I’d encountered him in the cave that other Strigoi were using as a hangout.
He was the one who had bitten and turned Dimitri.
The guy barely spared me a glance and instead turned the full force of his anger on Dimitri. “What the hell is going on?” I had no trouble understanding him. He was American. “You’re keeping some pet up here?”
“It’s none of your concern, Nathan.” Dimitri’s voice was ice. Earlier, I’d thought he conveyed no emotion in his words. Now I realized it was just more difficult to detect. There was a clear challenge in his voice now, a warning for this other guy to back off. “Galina gave me permission.”
Nathan’s eyes drifted from Dimitri to me. His anger turned to shock. “Her?”
Dimitri shifted slightly, putting himself directly in front of me now. Some rebellious part wanted to snap that I didn’t need a Strigoi’s protection, except… well, I kind of did.
“She was at the school in Montana… We fought…” His lips curled back, showing his fangs. “I would have tasted her blood if that fire-using Moroi brat hadn’t been around.”
“This doesn’t have anything to do with you,” replied Dimitri.
Nathan’s red eyes were wide and eager. “Are you kidding? She can lead us to the Dragomir girl! If we finish that line off, our names will be legendary. How long are you going to keep her?”
“Get out,” growled Dimitri. “That’s not a request.”
Nathan pointed at me. “She’s valuable. If you’re going to keep her around as some blood whore plaything, at least share. Then, we’ll get the information and finish her.”
Dimitri took a step forward. “Get out of here. If you lay a hand on her, I will destroy you. I will rip your head off with my bare hands and watch it burn in the sun.”
Nathan’s fury grew. “Galina won’t allow you to play house with this girl. Even you don’t have that much favor.”
“Don’t make me tell you to leave again. I’m not in a patient mood today.”
Nathan said nothing, and the two Strigoi stood there in a staring match. I knew Strigoi strength and power were partially related to age. Nathan had obviously been turned first. I didn’t know by how much, but watching them, I got the feeling that Dimitri might be stronger or that it was at least a very, very even match. I could have sworn I saw a glimpse of fear in Nathan’s red eyes, but he turned away before I could get a good look.
“This isn’t over,” he snapped, moving toward the door. “I’m talking to Galina.”
He left, and for a moment, nobody moved or spoke. Then Dimitri looked at the human woman and said something in Russian. She’d been standing there, frozen.
Leaning over, she carefully placed her tray on the coffee table by the couch. She lifted a silver lid up, revealing a plate of pepperoni pizza loaded with cheese. Under any other circumstances, someone bringing me pizza in a Strigoi home would have been ludicrous and funny. Now, in the wake of Dimitri’s threat to turn me Strigoi and Nathan’s desire to use me to get to Lissa, nothing was funny. Even Rose Hathaway had limits when it came to making jokes. Next to the pizza was a huge brownie, thick with frosting. Food I loved, as Dimitri well knew.
“Lunch,” he said. “Not poisoned.”
Everything on the tray looked amazing, but I shook my head. “I’m not going to eat.”
He arched an eyebrow. “Do you want something else?”
“I don’t want anything else because I’m not going to eat anything at all. If you aren’t going to kill me, then I’ll do it myself.” It was occurring to me that the suite’s lack of weapons was probably for my own protection as much as theirs.
“By starving to death?” There was dark amusement in his eyes. “I’ll awaken you long before then.”
“Why aren’t you just doing it now?”
“Because I’d rather wait for you to be willing.” Man, he really did sound like Abe, except that breaking one’s kneecaps seemed kind of soft-core in comparison.
“You’re going to be waiting a long time,” I said.
Dimitri laughed out loud then. His laughter had been rare as a dhampir, and hearing it had always thrilled me. Now it no longer had that rich warmth that had wrapped all around me. It was cold and menacing. “We’ll see.”
And before I could form a reply, he moved in front of me again. His hand snaked behind my neck, shoving me against him, and he tilted my face up, pressing his lips against mine. They were as cold as the rest of his skin… and yet there was something warm in there, too. Some voice in me screamed that this was sick and horrible… but at the same time, I lost track of the world around me as we kissed and could almost pretend we were back together in the cabin.
He pulled away as quickly as he’d moved in, leaving me gasping and wide-eyed. Casually, like nothing had happened, he gestured to the woman.
“This is Inna.” She looked up at the sound of her name, and I saw she was no older than me. “She works for Galina too and will check in on you. If you need anything, let her know. She doesn’t speak much English, but she’ll figure it out.” He said something else to her, and she meekly followed him to the door.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“I have things to do. Besides, you need time to think.”
“There’s nothing to think about.” I forced as much defiance into my words as I could.
It must not have sounded very fierce, though, because all my speech earned me was one mocking smile before he left with Inna, leaving me alone in my luxurious prison.