Going for her instead of me was bad form on the Strigoi’s part.I was the threat; he should have neutralized me first.Our positioning had put Sydney in his way, however, so he had to dispatch her before he could get to me.
He grabbed her shoulder, jerking her to him. He was fast-they always were-but I was on my game tonight.
A swift kick knocked him into a neighboring building’s wall and freed Sydney from his grasp. He grunted on impact and slumped to the ground, stunned and surprised. It wasn’t easy to get the drop on a Strigoi, not with their lightning-fast reflexes. Abandoning Sydney, he focused his attention on me, red eyes angry and lips curled back to show his fangs. He sprang up from his fall with that preternatural speed and lunged for me.
I dodged him and attempted a punch that he dodged in return. His next blow caught me on the arm, and I stumbled, just barely keeping my balance. My stake was still clutched in my right hand, but I needed an opening to hit his chest. A smart Strigoi would have angled himself in a way that ruined the line of sight to his heart. This guy was only doing a so-so job, and if I could stay alive long enough, I’d likely get an opening.
Just then, Sydney came up and hit him on the back. It wasn’t a very strong blow, but it startled him. It was my opening. I sprinted as hard as I could, throwing my full weight at him. My stake pierced his heart as we slammed against the wall. It was as simple as that. The life-or undead life or whatever-faded away from him. He stopped moving. I jerked out my stake once I was certain he was dead and watched as his body crumpled to the ground.
Just like with every Strigoi I’d killed lately, I had a momentary surreal feeling. What if this had been Dimitri? I tried to imagine Dimitri’s face on this Strigoi, tried to imagine him lying before me. My heart twisted in my chest. For a split second, the image was there. Then-gone. This was just some random Strigoi.
I promptly shook the disorientation off and reminded myself that I had important things to worry about here. I had to check on Sydney. Even with a human, my protective nature couldn’t help but kick in. “Are you okay?”
She nodded, looking shaken but otherwise unharmed. “Nice work,” she said. She sounded as though she were forcibly trying to sound confident.
“I’ve never… I’ve never actually seen one of them killed…”
I couldn’t imagine how she would have, but then, I didn’t get how she knew about any of this stuff in the first place. She looked like she was in shock, so I took her arm and started to lead her away. “Come on, let’s get out to where there’s more people.” Strigoi lurking near the Nightingale wasn’t that crazy of an idea, the more I thought about it. What better place to stalk Moroi than at one of their hangouts? Though, hopefully, most guardians would have enough sense to keep their charges out of alleys like this.
The suggestion of departure snapped Sydney out of her daze. “What?” she exclaimed. “You’re just going to leave him too?”
I threw up my hands. “What do you expect me to do? I guess I can move him behind those trash cans and then let the sun incinerate him. That’s what I usually do.”
“Right. And what if someone shows up to take out the trash? Or comes out of one of these back doors?”
“Well, I can hardly drag him off. Or set him on fire. A vampire barbecue would kind of attract some attention, don’t you think?”
Sydney shook her head in exasperation and walked over to the body. She made a face as she looked down at the Strigoi and reached into her large leather purse. From it, she produced a small vial. With a deft motion, she sprinkled the vial’s contents over the body and then quickly stepped back.
Where the drops had hit his corpse, yellow smoke began to curl away. The smoke slowly moved outward, spreading horizontally rather than vertically until it cocooned the Strigoi entirely. Then it contracted and contracted until it was nothing but a fist-size ball. In a few seconds, the smoke drifted off entirely, leaving an innocuous pile of dust behind.
“You’re welcome,” said Sydney flatly, still giving me a disapproving look.
“What the hell was that?” I exclaimed.
“My job. Can you please call me the next time this happens?” She started to turn away.
“Wait! I can’t call you-I have no idea who you are.”
She glanced back at me and brushed blond hair out of her face. “Really? You’re serious, aren’t you? I thought you were all taught about us when you graduated.”
“Oh, well. Funny thing… I kind of, uh, didn’t graduate.”
Sydney’s eyes widened. “You took down one of those… things… but never graduated?”
I shrugged, and she remained silent for several seconds.
Finally, she sighed again and said, “I guess we need to talk.”
Did we ever. Meeting her had to be the strangest thing that had happened to me since coming to Russia. I wanted to know why she thought I should have been in contact with her and how she’d dissolved that Strigoi corpse. And, as we returned to the busy streets and walked toward a cafe she liked, it occurred to me that if she knew about the Moroi world, there might be a chance she also knew where Dimitri’s village was.
Dimitri. There he was again, popping back into my mind. I had no clue if he really would be lurking near his hometown, but I had nothing else to go on at this point. Again, that weird feeling came over me. My mind blurred Dimitri’s face with that of the Strigoi I’d just killed: pale skin, red ringed eyes…
No, I sternly told myself. Don’t focus on that yet. Don’t panic. Until I faced Dimitri the Strigoi, I would gain the most strength from remembering the Dimitri I loved, with his deep brown eyes, warm hands, fierce embrace…
“Are you okay… um, whatever your name is?”
Sydney was staring at me strangely, and I realized we’d come to a halt in front of a restaurant. I didn’t know what look I wore on my face, but it must have been enough to raise even her attention. Until now, my impression as we walked had been that she wanted to speak to me as little as possible.
“Yeah, yeah, fine,” I said brusquely, putting on my guardian face. “And I’m Rose. Is this the place?”
It was. The restaurant was bright and cheery, albeit a far cry from the Nightingale’s opulence. We slid into a black leather-by which I mean fake plastic leather-booth, and I was delighted to see the menu had both American and Russian food. The listings were translated into English, and I nearly drooled when I saw fried chicken. I was starving after not eating at the club, and the thought of deep-fried meat was luxurious after weeks of cabbage dishes and so-called McDonald’s.
A waitress arrived, and Sydney ordered in fluent Russian, whereas I just pointed at the menu. Huh. Sydney was just full of surprises. Considering her harsh attitude, I expected her to interrogate me right away, but when the waitress left, Sydney remained quiet, simply playing with her napkin and avoiding eye contact. It was so strange. She was definitely uncomfortable around me. Even with the table between us, it was like she couldn’t get far enough away. Yet her earlier outrage hadn’t been faked, and she’d been adamant about me following whatever these rules of hers were.
Well, she might have been playing coy, but I had no such hesitation about busting into uncomfortable topics. In fact, it was kind of my trademark.
“So, are you ready to tell me who you are and what’s going on?”
Sydney looked up. Now that we were in brighter light, I could see that her eyes were brown. I also noticed that she had an interesting tattoo on her lower left cheek. The ink looked like gold, something I’d never seen before. It was an elaborate design of flowers and leaves and was only really visible when she tilted her head certain ways so that the gold caught the light.
“I told you,” she said. “I’m an Alchemist.”
“And I told you, I don’t know what that is. Is it some Russian word?” It didn’t sound like one.
A half-smile played on her lips. “No. I take it you’ve never heard of alchemy either?”
I shook my head, and she propped her chin up with her hand, eyes staring down at the table again. She swallowed, like she was bracing herself, and then a rush of words came out. “Back in the Middle Ages, there were these people who were convinced that if they found the right formula or magic, they could turn lead into gold. Unsurprisingly, they couldn’t. This didn’t stop them from pursuing all sorts of other mystical and supernatural stuff, and eventually they did find something magical.” She frowned. “Vampires.”
I thought back to my Moroi history classes. The Middle Ages were when our kind really started pulling away from humans, hiding out and keeping to ourselves. That was the time when vampires truly became myth as far as the rest of the world was concerned, and even Moroi were regarded as monsters worth hunting.
Sydney verified my thoughts. “And that was when the Moroi began to stay away. They had their magic, but humans were starting to outnumber them. We still do.” That almost brought a smile to her face. Moroi sometimes had trouble conceiving, whereas humans seemed to have too easy a time. “And the Moroi made a deal with the Alchemists. If the Alchemists would help Moroi and dhampirs and their societies stay secret from humans, the Moroi would give us these.” She touched the golden tattoo.
“What is that?” I asked. “I mean, aside from the obvious.”
She gently stroked it with her fingertips and didn’t bother hiding the sarcasm when she spoke. “My guardian angel. It’s actually gold and”-she grimaced and dropped her hand-“Moroi blood, charmed with water and earth.”
“What?” My voice came out too loud, and some people in the restaurant turned to look at me. Sydney continued speaking, her tone much lower and very bitter.
“I’m not thrilled about it, but it’s our ?®reward’ for helping you guys. The water and earth bind it to our skin and give us the same traits Moroi have well, a couple of them. I almost never get sick. I’ll live a long life.”
“I guess that sounds good,” I said uncertainly.
“Maybe for some. We don’t have a choice. This ?®career’ is a family thing-it gets passed down. We all have to learn about Moroi and dhampirs. We work connections among humans that let us cover up for you since we can move around more freely. We’ve got tricks and techniques to get rid of Strigoi bodies-like that potion you saw. In return, though, we want to stay apart from you as much as we can-which is why most dhampirs aren’t told about us until they graduate. And Moroi hardly ever.” She abruptly stopped. I guessed the lesson was over.
My head was reeling. I had never, never considered anything like this-wait. Had I? Most of my education had emphasized the physical aspects of being a guardian: watchfulness, combat, etc. Yet every so often I’d heard vague references to those out in the human world who would help hide Moroi or get them out of weird and dangerous situations. I’d never thought much about it or heard the term Alchemist. If I had stayed in school, maybe I would have.
This probably wasn’t an idea I should have suggested, but my nature couldn’t help it. “Why keep the charm to yourselves? Why not share it with the human world?”
“Because there’s an extra part to its power. It stops us from speaking about your kind in a way that would endanger or expose them.”
A charm that bound them from speaking… that sounded suspiciously like compulsion. All Moroi could use compulsion a little, and most could put some of their magic into objects to give them certain properties. Moroi magic had changed over the years, and compulsion was regarded as an immoral thing now. I was guessing this tattoo was an old, old spell that had come down through the centuries.
I replayed the rest of what Sydney had said, more questions spinning in my head. “Why… why do you want to stay away from us? I mean, not that I’m looking to become BFFs or anything…”
“Because it’s our duty to God to protect the rest of humanity from evil creatures of the night.” Absentmindedly, her hand went to something at her neck. It was mostly covered by her jacket, but a parting of her collar briefly revealed a golden cross.
My initial reaction to that was unease, seeing as I wasn’t very religious. In fact, I was never entirely comfortable around those who were hard-core believers. Thirty seconds later, the full impact of the rest of her words sank in.
“Wait a minute,” I exclaimed indignantly. “Are you talking about all of us-dhampirs and Moroi? We’re all evil creatures of the night?”
Her hands dropped from the cross, and she didn’t respond.
“We’re not like Strigoi!” I snapped.
Her face stayed bland. “Moroi drink blood. Dhampirs are the unnatural offspring of them and humans.”
No one had ever called me unnatural before, except for the time I put ketchup on a taco. But seriously, we’d been out of salsa, so what else was I supposed to do? “Moroi and dhampirs are not evil,” I told Sydney. “Not like Strigoi.”
“That’s true,” she conceded. “Strigoi are more evil.”
“Hey, that’s not what I-“
The food arrived just then, and the fried chicken was almost enough to distract me from the outrage of being compared to a Strigoi. Mostly all it did was delay me from responding immediately to her claims, and I bit into the golden crust and nearly melted then and there. Sydney had ordered a cheeseburger and fries and nibbled her food delicately.
After taking down an entire chicken leg, I was finally able to resume the argument. “We’re not like Strigoi at all. Moroi don’t kill. You have no reason to be afraid of us.” Again, I wasn’t keen on cozying up to humans. None of my kind were, not with the way humans tended to be trigger-happy and ready to experiment on anything they didn’t understand.
“Any human who learns about you will inevitably learn about Strigoi,” she said. She was playing with her fries but not actually eating them.
“Knowing about Strigoi might enable humans to protect themselves, though.” Why the hell was I playing devil’s advocate here?
She finished toying with a fry and dropped it back on her plate. “Perhaps. But there are a lot of people who would be tempted by the thought of immortality-even at the cost of serving Strigoi in exchange for being turned into a creature from hell. You’d be surprised at how a lot of humans respond when they learn about vampires. Immortality’s a big draw-despite the evil that goes with it. A lot of humans who learn about Strigoi will try to serve them, in the hopes of eventually being turned.”
“That’s insane-” I stopped. Last year, we’d discovered evidence of humans helping Strigoi. Strigoi couldn’t touch silver stakes, but humans could, and some had used those stakes to shatter Moroi wards. Had those humans been promised immortality? “And so,” said Sydney, “that’s why it’s best if we just make sure no one knows about any of you. You’re out there-all of you-and there’s nothing to be done about it. You do your thing to get rid of Strigoi, and we’ll do ours and save the rest of my kind.”
I chewed on a chicken wing and restrained myself from the implied meaning that she was saving her kind from people like me, too. In some ways, what she was saying made sense. It wasn’t possible that we could always move through the world invisibly, and yes, I could admit, it was necessary for someone to dispose of Strigoi bodies. Humans working with Moroi were an ideal choice. Such humans would be able to move around the world freely, particularly if they had the kinds of contacts and connections she kept implying.
I froze mid-chew, remembering my earlier thoughts when I’d first come along with Sydney. I forced myself to swallow and then took a long drink of water. “Here’s a question. Do you have contacts all over Russia?”
“Unfortunately,” she said. “When Alchemists turn eighteen, we’re sent on an internship to get firsthand experience in the trade and make all sorts of connections. I would have rather stayed in Utah.”
That was almost crazier than everything else she’d told me, but I didn’t push it. “What kind of connections exactly?”
She shrugged. “We track the movements of a lot of Moroi and dhampirs. We also know a lot of high-ranking government officials-among humans and Moroi. If there’s been a vampire sighting among humans, we can usually find someone important who can pay someone off or whatever… It all gets swept under the rug.”
Track the movements of a lot of Moroi and dhampirs. Jackpot. I leaned in close and lowered my voice. Everything seemed to hinge on this moment.
“I’m looking for a village… a village of dhampirs out in Siberia. I don’t know its name.” Dimitri had only ever mentioned its name once, and I’d forgotten. “It’s kind of near… Om?”
“Omsk,” she corrected.
I straightened up. “Do you know it?”
She didn’t answer right away, but her eyes betrayed her. “Maybe.”
“You do!” I exclaimed. “You have to tell me where it is. I have to get there.”
She made a face. “Are you going to be… one of those?”
So Alchemists knew about blood whores. No surprise. If Sydney and her associates knew everything else about the vampire world, they’d know this too.
“No,” I said haughtily. “I just have to find someone.”
That almost made her smile. Her brown eyes were thoughtful as she munched on another fry. She’d only taken two bites out of her cheeseburger, and it was rapidly growing cold. I kind of wanted to eat it myself on principle.
“I’ll be right back,” she said abruptly. She stood up and strode across to a quiet corner of the cafe. Producing a cell phone from that magic purse of hers, she turned her back to the room and made a call.
I’d polished off my chicken by then and helped myself to some of her fries since it was looking less and less like she was going to do anything with them. As I ate, I pondered the possibilities before me, wondering if finding Dimitri’s town would really be this simple. And once I was there… would it be simple then? Would he be there, living in the shadows and hunting prey? And when faced with him, could I really drive my stake into his heart? That unwanted image came to me again, Dimitri with red eyes and “Rose?”
I blinked. I’d totally spaced out, and Sydney was back. She slid back into her spot across from me. “So, it looks like-” She paused and looked down. “Did you eat some of my fries?”
I had no clue how she knew, seeing as it was such a huge stack. I’d barely made a dent. Figuring me stealing fries would count as further evidence of being an evil creature of the night, I said glibly, “No.”
She frowned a moment, considering, and then said, “I do know where this town is. I’ve been there before.”
I straightened up. Holy crap. This was actually going to happen, after all these weeks of searching. Sydney would tell me where this place was, and I could go and try to close this horrible chapter in my life.
“Thank you, thank you so much-“
She held up a hand to silence me, and I noticed then how miserable she looked.
“But I’m not going to tell you where it is.”
My mouth gaped. “What?”
“I’m going to take you there myself.”