Denis and his two unpromised friends, Artur and Lev, were ecstatic that I was going to be part of their posse.But if they expected me to share their crazy enthusiasm for reckless Strigoi hunting, they were about to be sorely disappointed.In fact, it didn’t take long after I joined them before they realized that I was approaching the hunt very differently than they were.
Denis’s friend Lev had a car, and we took turns driving to Novosibirsk. The drive was about fifteen hours, and even though we stopped at a hotel for the night, it was still a lot of continuous time to be cooped up in a small space with three guys who couldn’t stop talking about all the Strigoi they were going to kill.
In particular, they kept trying to draw me out. They wanted to know about how many Strigoi I’d slain. They wanted to know what the battle at the Academy had been like. They wanted to know my methods. Anytime my mind turned to those topics, though, all I could think of was blood and grief. It was nothing I wanted to brag about, and it took about six hours on the road for them to finally figure out that they weren’t going to get much information from me.
Instead, they regaled me with tales of their own adventures. To be fair, they’d slain several Strigoi-but they’d lost a number of their friends, all of whom had been in their teens, like these guys. My experiences weren’t that dissimilar; I’d lost friends too. My losses had been a result of being outnumbered, though. Denis’s group’s casualties seemed to have been more due to rushing in to without thinking. Indeed, their plan once we got to Novosibirsk wasn’t really that solid. They reiterated that Strigoi liked to hunt at places that were crowded at night, like dance clubs, or in remote places like alleys, that made for easy pickings. No one noticed as much when people disappeared from those kinds of places. So Denis’s plans mostly involved trolling those hot spots in the hopes that we’d run into Strigoi.
My initial thought was to immediately ditch this group and strike out on my own. After all, my main goal had been to simply get to Novosibirsk.
With everything I’d learned now, it seemed logical that Siberia’s largest city would be the next best place to look. Then, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that jumping into the Strigoi scene alone would be as stupid as one of the unpromised gang’s plans. I could use their backup.
Plus, since I didn’t actually know where Dimitri was yet, I had to come up with a method of getting some information. I’d need help for that.
We made it to Novosibirsk at the end of the second day of driving. Despite hearing about its size, I hadn’t imagined it would be anything like Moscow or Saint Petersburg. And true, it turned out to be not quite as large as they were, but it was still just as much a city, complete with skyscrapers, theaters, commuters, and the same beautiful architecture.
We crashed with a friend of theirs who had an apartment downtown, a dhampir named Tamara. Her English wasn’t very good, but from the sounds of it, she was another unpromised one and just as excited as everyone else to rid the world of Strigoi. She was a little older than the rest of us, which was why she had her own place, and was a cute brunette with freckles. It sounded as though she waited until whenever the guys came to town to hunt, which I took as a small blessing. At least she didn’t go out alone. She seemed particularly excited to have another girl around, but like the others, she quickly picked up that I didn’t share their enthusiasm.
When our first night of Strigoi hunting came around, I finally stepped up into a leadership position. The sudden change in behavior startled them at first, but they soon listened with rapt attention, still caught up in my superstar reputation.
“Okay,” I said, looking from face to face. We were in Tamara’s tiny living room, sitting in a circle. “Here’s how it’s going to work. We’re going to hit the nightclub scene as a group, patrolling it and the alleys behind it for-“
“Wait,” interrupted Denis. “We usually split up.”
“Which is why you get killed,” I snapped. “We’re going as a group.”
“Haven’t you killed Strigoi by yourself, though?” asked Lev. He was the tallest of the group, with a long and lanky figure that was almost Moroi-like.
“Yes, but I got lucky.” That, and I also just thought I was a better fighter than any of them. Call me arrogant, but I was a damned good guardian.
Or near-guardian. “We’ll do better with all five of us. When we find Strigoi, we’ve got to make sure we take care of them in an isolated place.” I hadn’t forgotten Sydney’s warnings. “But before we kill them, I need to talk to them. It’ll be your job to restrain them.”
“Why?” asked Denis. “What do you have to say to them?”
“Actually, it’s what they have to say to me. Look, it won’t take long. And you’ll get to make your kill in the end, so don’t worry about it. But…”
This next part went against my grand plans, but I knew I had to say it. I wouldn’t get them killed for the sake of my own quest. “If we get ourselves in a situation where you’re trapped or in immediate danger, forget the talking and restraining. Kill. Save yourself.”
Apparently, I seemed confident and badass enough that they decided to go along with whatever I said. Part of our plan involved going “undercover,” so to speak. Any Strigoi who was close or got a good enough look would immediately recognize us as dhampirs. It was important that we not attract any attention. We needed a Strigoi scanning for victims to pass right over us.
We needed to look like other human club-goers.
So we dressed the part, and I was a bit astonished at how well the guys cleaned up. Denis, crazy or not, was particularly good-looking, sharing the same dark gold hair and brown eyes that his brother Nikolai had. My few changes of clothes weren’t quite up to partying standards, so Tamara delved into her wardrobe for me. She seemed to take a lot of delight in finding things for me to wear. We were actually similar in size, which was kind of amazing. With her tall, super-slim build, Lissa and I had never been able to share clothes. Tamara was my height and had a similar body type.
She first offered me a short, tight dress that was so similar to the one Viktoria had worn that I just shook my head and handed it back. The memories of our argument still hurt, and I wasn’t going to relive that night or in any way play blood whore dress-up. Instead, Tamara settled for dressing me in black jeans and a black tank top. I consented to hair and makeup too, and studying myself in the mirror, I had to admit she did a good job. As vain as it was, I liked looking good. I especially liked that the guys looked at me in a way that was admiring and respectful-but not like I was some piece of meat. Tamara offered me jewelry too, but the only thing I’d wear was the nazar around my neck. My stake required a jacket, but she found a sexy leather one that didn’t take away from the rest of the outfit’s appeal.
Setting out around midnight, I couldn’t help shaking my head. “We’re the goddamned hottest vampire hunters ever,” I muttered.
Denis led us to a club where they’d found Strigoi before. It was also apparently where one of their unpromised friends had been killed. It was in a seedy part of town, which I guess added to its appeal for Strigoi. A lot of the people there were middle- and upper-class young people, apparently drawn in by the “dangerous” aspect. If only they’d known just how dangerous it was. I’d made a lot of jokes to Dimitri about Russia and Eastern Europe being ten years behind in music, but when we entered, I discovered the ground-thumping techno song playing was something I’d heard in the U.S. just before leaving.
The place was crowded and dark, with flashing lights that were actually a little annoying to dhampir eyes. Our night vision would adapt to the darkness and then be blasted when a strobe light kicked on. In this case, I didn’t need my sight. My shadow-kissed senses didn’t feel any Strigoi in the area.
“Come on,” I said to the others. “Let’s dance for a while and wait. There are no Strigoi nearby.”
“How do you know?” asked Denis, staring at me in wonder.
“I just do. Stay together.”
Our little circle moved to the dance floor. It had been so long since I’d danced, and I was a bit surprised at how quickly I found myself getting into the rhythm. Part of me said I should have stayed ever vigilant, but my Strigoi alarm system would immediately snap me awake if any danger came.
That nausea was kind of hard to ignore.
But after an hour of dancing, no Strigoi had appeared. We left the dance floor and started circling the club’s edges, then moved outside to sweep that area too. Nothing.
“Is there another club nearby?” I asked.
“Sure,” said Artur. He was stocky, with close-shaved hair and a ready smile. “A couple blocks over.”
We followed him and found a similar scene: another secret club hidden in a run-down building. More flashing lights. More crowds. More pounding music. Disturbingly, what started to bother me first was the smell. That many people generated a lot of sweat. I had no doubt even the humans could smell it. To us, it was cloying. Tamara and I exchanged looks and wrinkled our noses, needing no words to convey our disgust.
We moved to the dance floor again, and Lev started to leave to get a drink. I punched him in the arm.
He exclaimed something in Russian that I recognized as a swear word. “What was that for?” he asked.
“For being stupid! How do you expect to kill something that’s twice as fast as you while drunk?”
He shrugged, unconcerned, and I resisted the urge to hit him in the face this time. “One won’t hurt. Besides, there aren’t even any-“
It was creeping over me, that weird stirring in my stomach. Forgetting my cover, I stopped dancing, scanning the crowd for the source. While I was relying on my senses to feel Strigoi, spotting them in the crowd was a bit harder. I took a few steps toward the entrance, and my nausea lessened.
I moved toward the bar, and the feeling increased.
“This way,” I told them. “Act like you’re still into the music.”
My tension was contagious, and I saw the anticipation sweep them-as well as a little fear. Good. Maybe they’d take this seriously. As we headed in the bar’s direction, I tried to keep my body language oriented toward it, like I was seeking a drink. All the while, my eyes swept the crowd’s periphery.
There. I had him. A male Strigoi was standing off in a corner, his arm around a girl close to my age. In the dim lighting, he almost seemed attractive. I knew closer examination would reveal the deathly pale skin and red eyes that all Strigoi had. The girl might not have been able to see them in the darkened club, or the Strigoi might have been using compulsion on her. Probably both, judging from the smile on her face. Strigoi were able to compel others just as well as a spirit user like Lissa could. Better, even. Before our eyes, I saw the Strigoi lead the girl down a small, unnoticed hallway. At the end, I could just make out a glowing exit sign. At least, I presumed it was an exit sign. The letters were Cyrillic.
“Any idea where that door goes?” I asked the others.
The guys shrugged, and Denis repeated my question to Tamara. She answered back, and he translated. “There’s a small alley out back where they keep trash. It’s between this building and a factory. No one’s usually there.”
“Can we get to it by going around the club?”
Denis waited for Tamara’s response. “Yes. It’s open on both sides.”
We hurried out of the club by the front door, and I divided our group into two. The plan was to come at the Strigoi from both sides and trap him in the middle-provided he and his victim were still out back. It was possible he could have led her elsewhere, but I thought it more likely he’d want to subdue her and get his blood right there, particularly if it was as deserted as Tamara said it usually was.
I was right. Once my group had split off and peered around behind the club, I saw the Strigoi and the girl lurking in the shadow of a trash can. He was leaning over her, mouth near her neck, and I silently swore. They didn’t waste any time. Hoping she was still alive, I came charging down the alley, the others on my heels. From the alley’s other side, Denis and Lev also came running. As soon as he heard the first footfall, the Strigoi reacted instantly, his staggeringly fast reflexes kicking in. He immediately dropped the girl, and in the space of a heartbeat, he chose Denis and Lev over Artur, Tamara, and me. Not a bad strategy, really. There were only two of them. Because he was so fast, he probably hoped to incapacitate them quickly and then turn on us before we could flank him.
And it almost worked. A powerful hit sent Lev flying. To my relief, a couple of trash cans blocked him from the building’s wall. Hitting them wouldn’t feel good, but if I had the choice, I’d rather hit metal cans than solid bricks. The Strigoi pounced on Denis next, but Denis proved remarkably fast.
Unfairly, I’d assumed none of these unpromised had any real fighting skills. I should have known better. They’d had the same training as me; they just lacked discipline.
Denis dodged the blow and struck out low, aiming for the Strigoi’s legs. The hit landed, though it wasn’t strong enough to knock him over. A flash of silver showed in Denis’s hands, and he managed to partially swipe the Strigoi’s cheek just before a backhanded slap knocked the dhampir into me. A cut like that wouldn’t be lethal to the Strigoi, but the silver would hurt, and I heard him snarl. His fangs gleamed with saliva.
I sidestepped Denis quickly enough that he didn’t knock me over. Tamara grabbed his arm, holding him so that he wouldn’t fall either. She was fast too and had barely steadied him before leaping up at the Strigoi. He swatted her away but didn’t manage to hit her hard enough to push her far.
Artur and I were on him by that point, our combined force knocking him against the wall. Still, he was stronger and the pinning was brief before he broke free. A responsible voice in my head-that sounded suspiciously like Dimitri’s-warned me that that had been my window to kill him. It would have been the smart and safe thing to do. I’d had the opening, and my stake was in my hand. If my crazy interrogation plan failed, the others’ deaths would be on my head.
As one, Artur and I leapt out again. “Help us!” I yelled.
Tamara threw herself against the Strigoi, landing a swift kick to the stomach as well. I could feel him starting to shake us off, but then Denis joined in too. Between the four of us, we wrestled the Strigoi down so that he lay back-first on the pavement. But the worst wasn’t over. Keeping him down wasn’t easy. He thrashed around with incredible strength, limbs twisting everywhere. I heaved myself up, trying to throw my body’s weight across his torso while the others restrained his legs. Another set of hands joined us, and I looked up to see Lev lending his strength too. His lip was bleeding, but his face was determined.
The Strigoi hadn’t stopped moving, but I felt satisfied he wouldn’t break away anytime soon, not with all five of us holding him. Shifting forward, I placed the point of my stake at his neck. It gave him pause, but he soon resumed his struggle. I leaned over his face.
“Do you know Dimitri Belikov?” I demanded.
He shouted something incomprehensible at me that didn’t sound very friendly. I pressed the stake in harder and drew a long gash against his throat. He screamed in pain, pure evil and malice shining out from his eyes as he continued swearing in Russian.
“Translate,” I demanded, not caring who did it. “What I said.”
A moment later, Denis said something in Russian, presumably my question since I heard Dimitri’s name in there. The Strigoi growled back a response, and Denis shook his head. “He says he isn’t going to play games with us.”
I took the stake and slashed at the Strigoi’s face, widening the gash Denis had made earlier. Again, the Strigoi cried out, and I prayed club security wouldn’t hear any of this. I gave him a smile filled with enough malice to match his own.
“Tell him we’re going to keep playing games with him until he talks. One way or another, he dies tonight. It’s up to him whether it happens slowly or quickly.”
I honestly couldn’t believe those words had come out of my mouth. They were so harsh… so, well, cruel. I’d never in my entire life expected to be torturing anyone, even a Strigoi. The Strigoi gave Denis’s translation another defiant response, and so I kept on with the stake, making gashes and cuts that would have killed any human, Moroi, or dhampir.
Finally, he shot off a string of words that didn’t sound like his usual insults. Denis immediately translated. “He said he’s never heard of anyone named that and that if Dimitri’s a friend of yours, he’ll be sure to kill him slowly and painfully.”
I almost smiled at the Strigoi’s last effort at defiance. The problem with my strategy here was that the Strigoi could be lying. I’d have no way of knowing. Something in his response made me think he wasn’t. He’d sounded like he thought I was referring to a human or a dhampir, not a Strigoi.
“He’s useless then,” I said. I leaned back and glanced at Denis. “Go ahead and kill him.”
It was what Denis had been dying to do. He didn’t hesitate, his stake striking hard and swift through the Strigoi’s heart. The frantic struggling stilled a moment later. The evil light faded from the red eyes. We stood up, and I saw my companions’ faces watching me with apprehension and fear.
“Rose,” asked Denis at last. “What are you hoping to-“
“Never mind that,” I interrupted, moving over to the unconscious human girl’s side. Kneeling down, I examined her neck. He’d bitten her, but not much blood had been taken. The wound was relatively small and bled only a little. She stirred slightly and moaned when I touched her, which I took as a good sign. Carefully, I dragged her away from the trash can and out into the light where she’d be most noticeable. The Strigoi, however, I dragged into as dark a place as I could, almost completely obscuring him. After that, I asked to borrow Denis’s cell phone and dialed the number I’d kept crumpled in my pocket for the last week.
After a couple of rings, Sydney answered in Russian. She sounded sleepy.
“Sydney? This is Rose.”
There was a slight pause. “Rose? What’s going on?”
“Are you back in Saint Petersburg?”
“Yes… where are you?”
“Novosibirsk. Do you guys have agents here?”
“Of course,” she said warily. “Why?”
“Mmm… I’ve got something for you to clean up.”
“Hey, at least I’m calling. And it’s not like me ridding the world of another Strigoi is a bad thing. Besides, didn’t you want me to let you know?”
“Yes, yes. Where are you?”
I put Denis on the phone briefly so that he could explain our specific location. He handed the phone back to me when he finished, and I told Sydney about the girl.
“Is she seriously injured?”
“Doesn’t look like it,” I said. “What should we do?”
“Leave her. The guy who’s coming will make sure she’s okay and doesn’t go telling stories. He’ll explain it when he gets there.”
“Whoa, hey. I’m not going to be here when he arrives.”
“I’m out of here,” I told her. “And I’d really appreciate it if you didn’t tell anyone else that I called-say, like, Abe.”
“Please, Sydney. Just don’t tell. Or else…” I hesitated. “If you do, I’ll stop calling when this happens. We’re going to be taking down a few more.”
God, what next? First torture, now threats. Worse, I was threatening someone I liked. Of course, I was lying. I understood why Sydney’s group did what they did, and I wouldn’t risk the exposure. She didn’t know that, though, and I prayed she’d think I was just unstable enough to risk revealing us to the world.
“Rose-” she tried yet again. I didn’t give her the chance.
“Thanks, Sydney. We’ll be in touch.” I disconnected and handed Denis the phone. “Come on, guys. We’re not done tonight.”
It was clear they thought I was crazy to be interrogating Strigoi, but considering how reckless they were sometimes, my behavior wasn’t quite weird enough for them to lose their faith in me. Soon they grew enthusiastic again, high on the idea of our first kill on this trip. My uncanny ability to sense Strigoi made me even cooler in their eyes, and I grew confident they’d pretty much follow me anywhere.
We caught two more Strigoi that night and managed to repeat the procedure. The results were the same. Lots of insults in Russian. No new information. Once I was convinced a Strigoi had nothing to offer us, I’d let the unpromised go in for the kill. They loved it, but after that third one, I found myself growing weary both mentally and physically. I told the group we were going to go home-and then, while cutting around the back of a factory, I sensed a fourth Strigoi.
We jumped him. Another scuffle occurred, but we eventually managed to pin him as we had the others. “Go ahead,” I told Denis. “You know what to-“
“I’m going to rip your throat out!” the Strigoi snarled.
Whoa. This one spoke English. Denis opened his mouth to begin the interrogation, but I shook my head. “I’ll take over.” Like the other Strigoi, he swore and struggled, even with the stake against his neck, making it hard for me to talk.
“Look,” I said growing impatient and tired, “just tell us what we need to know. We’re looking for a dhampir named Dimitri Belikov.”
“I know him.” The Strigoi’s voice was smug. “And he’s no dhampir.”
Without realizing it, I’d called Dimitri a dhampir. I was tired and had slipped up. No wonder this Strigoi was so pleased to talk. He assumed we didn’t know about Dimitri turning. And like any arrogant Strigoi, he was happy to tell us more, clearly in the hopes of causing us pain.
“Your friend has been awakened. He stalks the night with us now, drinking the blood of foolish girls like you.”
In a split second, a thousand thoughts raced through my head. Holy crap. I’d come to Russia thinking it would be easy to find Dimitri. I’d had those hopes dashed in his hometown, nearly causing me to give up, and I’d swung the other way, resigning myself to the near impossibility of my task.
The thought that I might be close to something here was staggering.
“You’re lying,” I said. “You’ve never seen him.”
“I see him all the time. I’ve killed with him.”
My stomach twisted, and it had nothing to do with the Strigoi’s proximity. Don’t think about Dimitri killing people. Don’t think about Dimitri killing people. I said the words over and over in my head, forcing myself to stay calm.
“If that’s true,” I hissed back, “then I’ve got a message for you to deliver to him. Tell him Rose Hathaway is looking for him.”
“I’m not your errand boy,” he said, glowering.
My stake slashed out, drawing blood, and he grimaced in pain. “You’re anything I want you to be. Now go tell Dimitri what I told you. Rose Hathaway. Rose Hathaway is looking for him. Say it.” I pressed the point to his neck. “Say my name so I know you’ll remember.”
“I’ll remember it so I can kill you.”
The stake pressed harder, spilling blood.
“Rose Hathaway,” he said. He spit at me but missed.
Satisfied, I leaned back. Denis watched me expectantly, stake poised and ready.
“Now we kill him?”
I shook my head. “Now we let him go.”