The next day was Easter.Everyone was up and around, getting ready to go to church.The whole house smelled delicious, filled with the scents of Olena’s baking.
My stomach rumbled, and I wondered if I could wait until this afternoon for the huge dinner she’d prepared. Even though I wasn’t always sure about God, I’d gone to church a lot in my life. Mostly, it was a courtesy to others, a way of being polite and social. Dimitri had gone because he found peace there, and I wondered if going today might offer me some insight on what I should do.
I felt a little shabby accompanying the others. They’d dressed up, but I didn’t have anything other than jeans and casual shirts. Viktoria, noticing my dismay, lent me a lacy white blouse that was a little tight but still looked good. Once I was settled with the family into a pew, I looked around, wondering how Dimitri could have taken solace in the Academy’s tiny chapel when he’d grown up with this place.
It was huge. It could have held four chapels. The ceilings were higher and more elaborate, and gold decorations and icons of saints seemed to cover every surface. It was overwhelming, dazzling to the eye. Sweet incense hung heavy in the air, so much so that I could actually see the smoke.
There were a lot of people there, human and dhampir, and I was surprised to even spot some Moroi. Apparently, the Moroi visiting town were pious enough to come to church, despite whatever sordid activities they might be engaging in. And speaking of Moroi…
“Abe isn’t here,” I said to Viktoria, glancing around. She was on my left; Olena sat on my right. While he hadn’t struck me as the religious type, I’d kind of expected him to follow me here. I hoped that maybe his absence meant he’d left Baia. I was still unnerved by our last encounter. “Did he leave town?”
“I think he’s Muslim,” Viktoria explained. “But last I knew, he’s still around. Karolina saw him this morning.”
Damn Zmey. He hadn’t left. What was it he’d said? A good friend or a bad enemy.
When I said nothing, Viktoria gave me a concerned look. “He’s never really done anything bad when he’s around. He usually has meetings and then disappears. I meant it before when I said I didn’t think he’d hurt you, but now you’re worrying me. Are you in some kind of trouble?”
Excellent question. “I don’t know. He just seems interested in me, that’s all. I can’t figure out why.”
Her frown deepened. “We won’t let anything happen to you,” she said fiercely.
I smiled, both at her concern and because of her resemblance to Dimitri in that moment. “Thanks. There are some people back home who might be looking for me, and I think that Abe is just… checking up on me.” That was a nice way of describing someone who was either going to drag me back to the U.S. kicking and screaming-or just make me vanish for good.
Viktoria seemed to sense I was softening the truth. “Well, I mean it. I won’t let him hurt you.”
The service started, cutting off our conversation. While the priest’s chanting was beautiful, it meant even less to me than church services usually did. It was all in Russian, like at the funeral, and no one was going to bother translating it for me today. It didn’t matter. Still taking in the beauty of my surroundings, I found my mind wandering. To the left of the altar, a golden-haired angel looked at me from a four-foot-tall icon.
An unexpected memory came to me. Dimitri had once gotten permission for me to accompany him on a quick weekend trip to Idaho to meet with some other guardians. Idaho wasn’t any place I was keen on going, but I welcomed the time with him, and he’d convinced school officials that it was a “learning experience.” That had been shortly after Mason’s death, and after the shock wave that tragedy had sent through the school, I think they would have allowed me anything, to be honest.
Unfortunately, there was little that was leisurely or romantic about the trip. Dimitri had a job to do, and he had to do it quickly. So we made the best time we could, stopping only when absolutely necessary. Considering our last road trip had involved us stumbling onto a Moroi massacre, this one being uneventful was probably for the best. As usual, he wouldn’t let me drive, despite my claims that I could get us there in half the time. Or maybe that was why he wouldn’t let me drive.
We stopped at one point to get gas and scrounge some food from the station’s store. We were up in the mountains somewhere, in a tiny town that rivaled St. Vladimir’s for remote location. I could see mountains on clear days at school, but it was a totally different experience being in them.
They surrounded us and were so close it seemed like you could just jump over and land on one. Dimitri was finishing up with the car. Holding my sub sandwich, I walked around to the back of the gas station to get a better view.
Whatever civilization the gas station offered disappeared as soon as I cleared it. Endless snowy pines stretched out before me, and all was still and quiet, save for the distant sound of the highway behind me. My heart ached over what had happened to Mason, and I was still having nightmares about the Strigoi who’d held us captive. That pain was a long way from disappearing, but something about this peaceful setting soothed me for a moment.
Looking down at the unbroken, foot-high snow, a crazy thought suddenly came to me. I let myself go, falling back-first to the ground. The thick snow embraced me, and I rested there a moment, taking comfort in lying down. Then I moved my legs and arms back and forth, carving out new hollows in the snow.
When I finished, I didn’t get up right away. I simply continued lounging, staring up at the blue, blue sky.
“What,” asked Dimitri, “are you doing? Aside from getting your sandwich cold.”
His shadow fell over me, and I looked up at his tall form. In spite of the cold, the sun was out, and its rays backlit his hair. He could have been an angel himself, I thought.
“I’m making a snow angel,” I replied. “Don’t you know what that is?”
“Yes, I know. But why? You must be freezing.”
I had on a heavy winter coat, hat, gloves, and all the other requisite cold-weather accessories. He was right about the sandwich. “Not so much, actually. My face is a little, I guess.”
He shook his head and gave me a wry smile. “You’ll be cold when you’re in the car and all that snow starts melting.”
“I think you’re more worried about the car than about me.”
He laughed. “I’m more worried about you getting hypothermia.”
“In this? This is nothing.” I patted the ground beside me. “Come on. You make one too, and then we can go.”
He continued looking down at me. “So I can freeze too?”
“So you can have fun. So you can leave your mark on Idaho. Besides, it shouldn’t bother you at all, right? Don’t you have some sort of super cold resistance from Siberia?”
He sighed, a smile still on his lips. It was enough to warm me even in this weather. “There you go again, convinced Siberia is like Antarctica. I’m from the southern part. The weather’s almost the same as here.”
“You’re making excuses,” I told him. “Unless you want to drag me back to the car, you’re going to have to make an angel too.”
Dimitri studied me for several heavy moments, and I thought he might actually haul me away. His face was still light and open, though, and his expression was filled with a fondness that made my heart race. Then, without warning, he flopped into the snow beside me, lying there quietly.
“Okay,” I said when he did nothing more. “Now you have to move your arms and legs.”
“I know how to make a snow angel.”
“Then do it! Otherwise, you’re more like a chalk outline at a police crime scene.”
He laughed again, and the sound was rich and warm in the still air. Finally, after a little more coaxing on my part, he moved his arms and legs too, making an angel of his own. When he finished, I expected him to jump up and demand we get back on the road, but instead, he stayed there too, watching the sky and the mountains.
“Pretty, huh?” I asked. My breath made frosty clouds in the air. “I guess in some ways, it’s not that different from the ski resort’s view… but I don’t know. I feel different about it all today.”
“Life’s like that,” he said. “As we grow and change, sometimes things we’ve experienced before take on new meaning. It’ll happen for the rest of your life.”
I started to tease him about his tendency to always deliver these profound life lessons, but it occurred to me then that he was right. When I’d first begun falling for Dimitri, the feelings had been all-consuming. I’d never felt anything like it before. I’d been convinced there was no possible way I could love him more. But now, after what I’d witnessed with Mason and the Strigoi, things were different. I did love Dimitri more intensely. I loved him in a different way, in a deeper way. Something about seeing how fragile life was made me appreciate him more. It had made me realize how much he meant to me and how sad I’d be if I ever lost him.
“You think it’d be nice to have a cabin up there?” I asked, pointing to a nearby peak. “Out in the woods where no one could find you?”
“I would think it was nice. I think you’d be bored.”
I tried to imagine being stuck in the wilderness with him. Small room, fireplace, bed… I didn’t think it’d be that boring. “It wouldn’t be so bad if we had cable. And Internet.” And body heat.
“Oh, Rose.” He didn’t laugh, but I could tell he was smiling again. “I don’t think you’d ever be happy someplace quiet. You always need something to do.”
“Are you saying I have a short attention span?”
“Not at all. I’m saying there’s a fire in you that drives everything you do, that makes you need to better the world and those you love. To stand up for those you can’t. It’s one of the wonderful things about you.”
“Only one, huh?” I spoke lightly, but his words had thrilled me. He’d meant what he said about thinking those were wonderful traits, and feeling his pride in me meant more than anything just then.
“One of many,” he said. He sat up and looked down at me. “So, no peaceful cabin for you. Not until you’re an old, old woman.”
“What, like forty?”
He shook his head in exasperation and stood up, not gracing my joke with a response. Still, he regarded me with the same affection I’d heard in his voice. There was admiration too, and I thought I could never be unhappy as long as Dimitri thought I was wonderful and beautiful. Leaning down, he extended his hand. “Time to go.”
I took it, letting him help pull me up. Once standing, we held hands for a heartbeat longer than necessary. Then we let go and surveyed our work.
Two perfect snow angels-one much, much taller than the other. Careful to step inside each outline, I leaned down and hacked out a horizontal line above each head.
“What’s that?” he asked, when I stood beside him again.
“Halos,” I said with a grin. “For heavenly creatures like us.”
“That might be a stretch.”
We studied our angels for a few moments more, looking at where we had lain side by side in that sweet, quiet moment. I wished what I’d said was true, that we had truly left our mark on the mountain. But I knew that after the next snowfall, our angels would disappear into the whiteness and be nothing more than a memory.
Dimitri touched my arm gently, and without another word, we turned around and headed back to the car.
Compared to that memory of him and the way he’d looked at me out there on the mountain, I thought the angel looking back at me in church seemed pale and boring in comparison. No offense to her.
The congregation was filing back to their seats after taking bread and wine. I’d stayed seated for that, but I did understand a few of the priest’s words. Life. Death. Destroy. Eternal. I knew enough about all this to string together the meaning. I would have bet good money “resurrection” was in there too. I sighed, wishing it were truly that easy to vanquish death and bring back those we loved.
Church ended, and I left with the Belikovs, feeling melancholy. As people passed each other near the entrance, I saw some eggs being exchanged.
Viktoria had explained that it was a big tradition around here. A few people I didn’t know gave some to me, and I felt a little bad that I had nothing to give in return. I also wondered how I was going to eat them all. They were decorated in various ways. Some were simply colored; others were elaborately designed.
Everyone seemed chatty after church, and we all stood around outside it. Friends and family hugged and caught up on gossip. I stood near Viktoria, smiling and trying to follow the conversation that often took place in both English and Russian.
We turned and saw Nikolai striding toward us. He gave us-by which I mean, he gave her-a brilliant smile. He’d dressed up for the holiday and looked amazing in a sage shirt and dark green tie. I eyed Viktoria, wondering if it had any effect on her. Nope. Her smile was polite, genuinely happy to see him, but there was nothing romantic there. Again, I wondered about her mystery “friend.”
He had a couple of guys with him whom I’d met before. They greeted me too. Like the Belikovs, they seemed to think I was a permanent fixture around here.
“Are you still going to Marina’s party?” asked Nikolai.
I’d nearly forgotten. That was the party he’d invited us to the first day I’d met him. Viktoria had accepted then, but to my surprise, she now shook her head. “We can’t. We have family plans.”
That was news to me. There was a possibility something had come up that I didn’t know about yet, but I doubted it. I had a feeling she was lying, and being a loyal friend, I said nothing to contradict her. It was hard watching Nikolai’s face fall, though.
“Really? We’re going to miss you.”
She shrugged. “We’ll all see each other at school.”
He didn’t seem pacified by that. “Yeah, but-“
Nikolai’s eyes suddenly lifted from her face and focused on something behind us. He frowned. Viktoria and I both glanced back, and I felt her mood shift too.
Three guys were strolling toward my group. They were dhampirs as well. I didn’t notice anything unusual about them-smirks aside-but other dhampirs and Moroi gathered outside the church took on expressions similar to those of my companions. Troubled. Worried. Uncomfortable. The three guys came to a stop by us, pushing their way into our circle.
“I thought you might be here, Kolya,” said one. He spoke in perfect English, and it took me a moment to realize he was talking to Nikolai. I would never understand Russian nicknames.
“I didn’t know you were back,” replied Nikolai stiffly. Studying the two of them, I could see a distinct resemblance. They had the same bronze hair and lean build. Brothers, apparently.
Nikolai’s brother’s gaze fell on me. He brightened. “And you must be the unpromised American girl.” It didn’t surprise me that he knew who I was.
After the memorial, most of the local dhampirs had left telling tales about the American girl who had fought battles against Strigoi but carried neither a promise mark nor a graduation mark.
“I’m Rose,” I said. I didn’t know what was up with these guys, but I certainly wasn’t going to show any fear in front of them. The guy seemed to appreciate my confidence and shook my hand.
“I’m Denis.” He gestured to his friends. “Artur and Lev.”
“When did you come to town?” asked Nikolai, still not looking happy about this reunion.
“Just this morning.” Denis turned to Viktoria. “I heard about your brother. I’m sorry.”
Viktoria’s expression was hard, but she nodded politely. “Thank you.”
“Is it true he fell defending Moroi?”
I didn’t like the sneer in Denis’s voice, but it was Karolina who voiced my angry thoughts. I hadn’t noticed her approaching our group. She didn’t look happy to see Denis at all.
“He fell fighting Strigoi. He died a hero.”
Denis shrugged, unaffected by the angry tone of her voice. “Still makes him dead. I’m sure the Moroi will sing his name for years to come.”
“They will,” I replied. “He saved a whole group of them. And dhampirs too.”
Denis’s gaze fell back on me, his eyes thoughtful as he studied my face for a few seconds. “I heard you were there too. That both of you were sent into an impossible battle.”
“It wasn’t impossible. We won.”
“Would Dimitri say that if he were alive?”
Karolina crossed her arms over her chest. “If you’re only here to start something, then you should leave. This is a church.” It was funny. Upon meeting her, I’d thought she seemed so gentle and kind, just an ordinary young mother working to support her family. But in this moment, she seemed more like Dimitri than ever. I could see that same strength within her, that fierceness that drove her to protect loved ones and stand up to her enemies. Not that these guys were her enemies, exactly. I honestly didn’t yet understand who they were.
“We’re just talking,” said Denis. “I just want to understand what happened to your brother. Believe me, I think his death was a tragedy.”
“He wouldn’t have regretted it,” I told them. “He died fighting for what he believed in.”
“Defending others who took him for granted.”
“That’s not true.”
“Oh?” Denis gave me a lopsided smile. “Then why don’t you work for the guardians? You’ve killed Strigoi but have no promise mark. Not even a graduation mark, I heard. Why aren’t you out there throwing yourself in front of Moroi?”
“Denis,” said Nikolai uneasily, “please just leave.”
“I’m not talking to you, Kolya.” Denis’s eyes were still on me. “I’m just trying to figure Rose out. She kills Strigoi but doesn’t work for the guardians.
She’s clearly not like the rest of you soft people in this town. Maybe she’s more like us.”
“She’s nothing like you,” Viktoria snapped back.
I got it then, and a chill ran down my spine. These were the kind of dhampirs that Mark had been talking about. The true unpromised ones. The vigilantes who sought out Strigoi on their own, the ones who neither settled down nor answered to any guardians. They shouldn’t have unnerved me, not really. In some ways, Denis was right. In the simplest terms, I really was like them. And yet… there was an air about these guys that just rubbed me the wrong way.
“Then why are you in Russia?” asked one of Denis’s friends. I already couldn’t remember his name. “This is a long trip for you. You wouldn’t have come here without a good reason.”
Viktoria was picking up her sister’s anger. “She came to tell us about Dimka.”
Denis eyed me. “I think she’s here to hunt Strigoi. There are more in Russia to choose from than there are in the States.”
“She wouldn’t be in Baia if she was hunting Strigoi, you idiot,” returned Viktoria evenly. “She’d be in Vladivostok or Novosibirsk or somewhere like that.”
Novosibirsk. The name was familiar. But where had I heard it? A moment later, the answer came to me. Sydney had mentioned it. Novosibirsk was the largest city in Siberia.
Denis continued. “Maybe she’s just passing through. Maybe she’ll want to join us when we go to Novosibirsk tomorrow.”
“For God’s sake,” I exclaimed. “I’m right here. Stop talking about me like I’m not. And why would I want to go with you?”
Denis’s eyes gleamed with an intense, feverish light. “Good hunting there. Lots of Strigoi. Come with us, and you can help us go after them.”
“And how many of you will come back from this?” Karolina asked in a hard voice. “Where’s Timosha? Where’s Vasiliy? Your hunting party keeps getting smaller each time you return here. Which one of you will be next? Whose family will be the next to mourn?”
“Easy for you to talk,” retorted the friend. Lev, I think his name was. “You stay here and do nothing while we go out and keep you safe.”
Karolina gave him a disgusted look, and I recalled how she was dating a guardian. “You go out and rush into situations without thinking. If you want to keep us safe, then stay here and defend your families when they need it. If you want to go after Strigoi, go join the guardians and work with those who have some sense.”
“The guardians don’t hunt Strigoi!” cried Denis. “They sit and wait and cower before the Moroi.”
The unfortunate part was, he had a point. But not entirely.
“That’s changing,” I said. “There’s a movement to start taking the offensive against the Strigoi. There’s also talk of the Moroi learning to fight with us. You could help be a part of that.”
“Like you are?” he laughed. “You still haven’t told us why you’re here and not with them. You can say what you want to the rest of this group, but I know why you’re here. I can see it in you.” The crazy, eerie look he gave me almost made me think that he could. “You know the only way to rid the world of evil is to do it on our own. To seek out the Strigoi ourselves and kill them, one by one.”
“Without a plan,” finished Karolina. “Without any thought of the consequences.”
“We’re strong and we know how to fight. That’s all we need to know when it comes to killing Strigoi.”
And that was when I understood. I finally got what Mark had been trying to tell me. Denis was saying exactly what I had been thinking since I left St. Vladimir’s. I’d run off without a plan, wanting to throw myself into danger because I felt I had a mission that only I could carry out. Only I could kill Dimitri. Only I could destroy the evil within him. I’d been giving no thought to how I’d pull it off-seeing as Dimitri had beat me more often than not in fights when he was still a dhampir. With a Strigoi’s strength and speed now? The odds were definitely against me. Still, I hadn’t cared. I’d been obsessed, convinced I had to do this.
In my own head, what I had to do made sense, but now… hearing those sentiments from Denis, it sounded crazy. Just as reckless as Mark had warned. Their motives might be good-just as mine were-but they were also suicidal. Without Dimitri, I honestly hadn’t cared much about my own life. I’d never been afraid to risk it before, but now I realized there was a big difference between dying uselessly and dying for a reason. If I died trying to kill Dimitri because I had no strategy, then my life would have meant nothing.
Just then, the priest walked over and said something to us in Russian. From his tone and expression, I think he was asking if everything was okay.
He’d mingled with the rest of the congregation after the service. Being human, he probably didn’t know all the dhampir politics afoot, but he could undoubtedly sense trouble.
Denis offered him a simpering smile and gave what sounded like a polite explanation. The priest smiled in return, nodded, and wandered off when someone else called to him.
“Enough,” said Karolina harshly, once the priest was out of earshot. “You need to go. Now.”
Denis’s body tensed, and mine responded, ready for a fight. I thought he might start something then and there. A few seconds later, he relaxed and turned to me.
“Show them to me first.”
“Show you what?” I asked.
“The marks. Show me how many Strigoi you’ve killed.”
I didn’t respond right away, wondering if this was a trick. Everyone’s eyes were on me. Turning slightly, I lifted the hair off the back of my neck and showed my tattoos. Little lightning-shaped molnija marks were there, along with the mark I’d gotten for the battle. From the sound of Denis’s gasp, I was guessing he’d never seen that many kills before. I let my hair go and met his gaze levelly.
“Anything else?” I asked.
“You’re wasting your time,” he said at last, gesturing to the people behind me. “With them. With this place. You should come with us to Novosibirsk. We’ll help make your life worthwhile.”
“I’m the only one who can make anything of my life.” I pointed down the street. “You were asked to leave. Now go.”
I held my breath, still bracing for a fight. After several tense moments, the group retreated. Before turning around, Denis gave me one last piercing look.
“This isn’t what you want and you know it. When you change your mind, come find us at 83 Kasakova. We leave at sunrise tomorrow.”
“You’ll be leaving without me,” I said.
Denis’ smile sent another chill down my spine. “We’ll see.”