THE HIGH HEELS WERE STARTING to hurt me, so I took them off when I went back inside, walking barefoot through the lodge.I hadn’t been to Mason’s room, but I remembered him mentioning the number once and found it without difficulty.
Shane, Mason’s roommate, opened the door a few moments after I knocked.“Hey, Rose.”
He stepped aside for me, and I walked in, peering around.
Some infomercial was playing on the TV- one downside of a nocturnal life was a shortage of good programming- and empty soda cans covered nearly every flat surface. There was no sign of Mason anywhere.
“Where is he?” I asked.
Shane stifled a yawn. “I thought he was with you.”
“I haven’t seen him all day.”
He yawned again, then frowned in thought. “He was throwing some stuff in a bag earlier. I figured you guys were running off for some crazy romantic getaway. Picnic or something. Hey, nice dress.”
“Thanks,” I murmured, feeling a frown of my own coming on.
Packing a bag? That didn’t make any sense. There was nowhere to go. There was no way to go, either. This resort was as tightly guarded as the Academy. Lissa and I had only managed to break out of that place with compulsion, and it had still been a pain in the ass. Yet, why on earth would Mason pack a bag if he wasn’t leaving?
I asked Shane a few more questions and decided to follow up on the possibility, crazy as it seemed. I found the guardian in charge of security and scheduling. He gave me the names of those guardians who’d been on duty around the resort’s borders when Mason had last been seen. Most of the names I knew, and most were off duty now, making them easy to find.
Unfortunately, the first couple hadn’t seen Mason around today. When they asked why I wanted to know, I gave vague answers and hurried off. The third person on my list was a guy named Alan, a guardian who usually worked the Academy’s lower campus. He was just coming in after skiing, taking his equipment off near the door. Recognizing me, he smiled as I approached.
“Sure, I saw him,” he said, bending down to his boots.
Relief flooded over me. Until then, I hadn’t realized how worried I’d been.
“Do you know where he is?”
“Nope. Let him and Eddie Castile…and, what’s her name, the Rinaldi girl, out through the north gate and didn’t see them after that.”
I stared. Alan continued unhooking his skis as though we were discussing slope conditions.
“You let Mason and Eddie … and Mia out?”
“Um … why?”
He finished and looked back up at me, a kind of happy and bemused look on his face. “Because they asked me.”
An icy feeling started creeping through me. I found out which guardian had watched the north gate with Alan and immediately sought him out. That guardian gave me the same response. He’d let Mason, Eddie, and Mia out, no questions asked. And, like Alan, he didn’t seem to think there was anything wrong with that. He appeared almost dazed. It was a look I’d seen before … a look that came over people when Lissa used compulsion.
In particular, I’d seen it happen when Lissa didn’t want people to remember something very well. She could bury the memory in them, either erasing it all together or planting it for later. She was so good at compulsion, though, that she could just make people forget completely. For them to still have some memories meant someone who wasn’t as good at compulsion had worked on them.
Someone, say, like Mia.
I wasn’t the fainting type, but for just a moment, I felt like I could keel over. The world spun, and I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. When I could see again, my surroundings stayed stable. Okay. No problem. I would reason this out.
Mason, Eddie, and Mia had left the resort earlier today. Not only that, they had done it by using compulsion- which was utterly forbidden. They hadn’t told anyone. They’d left through the north gate. I’d seen a map of the resort. The north gate guarded a driveway that connected to the only semi-major road in the area, a small highway that led to a little town about twelve miles away. The town Mason had mentioned that had buses.
Spokane- where this traveling pack of Strigoi and their humans might be living.
Spokane- where Mason could fulfill all his crazy dreams of slaying Strigoi.
Spokane- which he only knew about because of me.
“No, no, no,” I murmured to myself, almost running toward my room.
There, I stripped off the dress and changed into heavy winter clothes: boots, jeans, and a sweater. Grabbing my coat and gloves, I hurried back toward the door and then paused. I was acting without thinking. What was I actually going to do? I needed to tell someone, obviously…but that would get the trio in a lot of trouble. It would also tip Dimitri off that I’d gone and gossiped about the Spokane Strigoi information he’d told me in confidence as a sign of respecting my maturity.
I studied the time. It would take a while for anyone around the resort to know we were missing. If I could actually get out of the resort.
A few minutes later, I found myself knocking on Christian’s door. He answered, looking sleepy and cynical as usual.
“If you’ve come to apologize for her,” he told me loftily, “you can just go ahead and- “
“Oh, shut up,” I snapped. “This isn’t about you.”
Hastily, I relayed the details of what was going on. Even Christian didn’t have a witty response for that one.
“So…Mason, Eddie, and Mia went to Spokane to hunt Strigoi?”
“Holy shit. Why didn’t you go with them? Seems like something you’d do.”
I resisted the urge to smack him. “Because I’m not insane! But I’m going to go get them before they do something even stupider.”
That was when Christian caught on. “And what do you need from me?”
“I need to get off the resort’s property.
They got Mia to use compulsion on the guards. I need you to do the same thing. I know you’ve practiced it.”
“I have,” he agreed. “But…well…” For the first time ever, he looked embarrassed. “I’m not very good at it. And doing it on dhampirs is nearly impossible. Liss is a hundred times better than me. Or probably any Moroi.”
“I know. But I don’t want her to get in trouble.”
He snorted. “But you don’t mind if I do?”
I shrugged. “Not really.”
“You’re a piece of work, you know that?”
“Yeah. I do, actually.”
So, five minutes later, he and I found ourselves trekking out to the north gate. The sun was coming up, so most everyone was inside. This was a good thing, and I hoped it’d make our escape that much easier.
Stupid, stupid, I kept thinking. This was going to blow up in our faces. Why had Mason done this? I knew he’d had this whole crazy vigilante attitude…and he’d certainly seemed upset that the guardians hadn’t done anything about the recent attack. But still. Was he really that unhinged? He had to know how dangerous this was. Was it possible…was it possible I’d upset him so much with the making-out disaster that he’d gone off the deep end? Enough to go do this and get Mia and Eddie to join him? Not that those two would be hard to convince. Eddie would follow Mason anywhere, and Mia was almost as gung ho as Mason to kill every Strigoi in the world.
Yet, out of all the questions I had about this, one thing was definitely clear. I’d told Mason about the Strigoi in Spokane. Hands down, this was my fault, and without me, none of this would have happened.
“Lissa always makes eye contact,” I coached Christian as we approached the exit. “And speaks in a really, like, calm voice. I don’t know what else. I mean, she concentrates a lot too, so try that. Focus on forcing your will on them.”
“I know,” he snapped. “I’ve seen her do it.”
“Fine,” I snapped back. “Just trying to help.”
Squinting, I saw that only one guardian stood at the gate, a total stroke of luck. They were in between shifts. With the sun out, the risk of Strigoi had disappeared. The guardians would still continue in their duties, but they could relax just a bit.
The guy on duty didn’t seem particularly alarmed by our appearance. “What are you kids doing out here?”
Christian swallowed. I could see the lines of tension on his face.
“You’re going to let us out of the gate,” he said. A note of nervousness made his voice tremble, but otherwise, he did a fair approximation of Lissa’s soothing tones. Unfortunately, it had no effect on the guardian. As Christian had pointed out, using compulsion on a guardian was nearly impossible. Mia had gotten lucky. The guardian grinned at us.
“What?” he asked, clearly amused.
Christian tried again. “You’re going to let us out.”
The guy’s smile faltered just a little, and I saw him blink in surprise. His eyes didn’t glaze over in the same way Lissa’s victims did, but Christian had done enough to briefly enthrall him. Unfortunately, I could tell right then and there that it wouldn’t be enough to make him let us out and forget. Fortunately, I’d been trained to compel people without the use of magic.
Sitting near his post was an enormous Maglite, two feet long and easily seven pounds. I grabbed the Maglite and clocked him on the back of the head. He grunted and crumpled to the ground. He’d barely seen me coming, and despite the horribleness of what I’d just done, I kind of wished one of my instructors had been there to grade me on such an awesome performance.
“Jesus Christ,” exclaimed Christian. “You just assaulted a guardian.”
“Yeah.” So much for getting the guys back without getting anyone in trouble. “I didn’t know just how much you sucked at compulsion. I’ll deal with the fallout later. Thanks for your help. You should head back before the next shift comes on.”
He shook his head and grimaced. “No, I’m going with you on this.”
“No,” I argued. “I only needed you to get through the gate. You don’t have to get in trouble over this.”
“I’m already in trouble!” He pointed at the guardian. “He saw my face. I’m screwed either way, so I might as well help you save the day. Stop being a bitch for a change.”
We hurried off, and I cast one last, guilty glance at the guardian. I was pretty sure I hadn’t hit him hard enough to cause real damage, and with the sun coming out, he wouldn’t freeze or anything.
After about five minutes of walking down the highway, I knew we had a problem. Despite being covered and wearing sunglasses, the sun was taking its toll on Christian. It was slowing us down, and it wouldn’t take that long for someone to find the guardian I’d taken out and come after us.
A car- not one of the Academy’s- appeared behind us, and I made a decision. I didn’t approve of hitchhiking in the least. Even someone like me knew how dangerous it was. But we needed to get to town fast, and I prayed Christian and I could take down any creepy stalker guy who tried to mess with us.
Fortunately, when the car pulled over, it was just a middle-aged couple who looked more concerned than anything else. “You kids okay?”
I jerked my thumb behind me. “Our car slid off the road. Can you take us to town so I can call my dad?”
It worked. Fifteen minutes later, they dropped us off at a gas station. I actually had trouble getting rid of them because they wanted to help us so much. Finally, we convinced them we’d be fine, and we walked the few blocks over to the bus station. As I’d suspected, this town wasn’t much of a hub for real travel. Three lines serviced the town: two that went to other ski resorts and one that went to Lowston, Idaho. From Lowston, you could go on to other places.
I’d half-hoped that we might beat Mason and the others before their bus came. Then we could have hauled them back without any trouble. Unfortunately, there was no sign of them. The cheery woman at the counter knew exactly who we were talking about, too. She confirmed that all three of them had bought tickets to Spokane by way of Lowston.
“Damn it,” I said. The woman raised her eyebrows at my language. I turned to Christian. “You got money for the bus?”
Christian and I didn’t talk much along the way, except for me to tell him he’d been an idiot about Lissa and Adrian. By the time we reached Lowston, I finally had him convinced, which was a minor miracle. He slept the rest of the way to Spokane, but I couldn’t. I just kept thinking over and over that this was my fault.
It was late afternoon by the time we reached Spokane. It took a few people, but we finally found someone who knew the shopping center Dimitri had mentioned. It was a long ways from the bus station, but it was walkable. My legs were stiff after almost five hours of riding a bus, and I wanted the movement. The sun was a while from setting, but it was lower and less detrimental to vampires, so Christian didn’t mind the walk either.
And, as often happened when I was in calm settings, I felt a tug into Lissa’s head. I let myself fall into her because I wanted to know what was happening back at the resort.
“I know you want to protect them, but we need to know where they are.”
Lissa sat on the bed in our room while Dimitri and my mom stared her down. It was Dimitri who had spoken. Seeing him through her eyes was interesting. She had a fond respect for him, very different from the intense roller coaster of emotions I always experienced.
“I told you,” said Lissa, “I don’t know. I don’t know what happened.”
Frustration and fear for us burned through her. It saddened me to see her so anxious, but at the same time, I was glad I hadn’t gotten her involved. She couldn’t report what she didn’t know.
“I can’t believe they wouldn’t have told you where they were going,” said my mother. Her words sounded flat, but there were lines of worry on her face. “Especially with your…bond.”
“It only works one way,” said Lissa sadly. “You know that.”
Dimitri knelt down so he could be at Lissa’s height and look her in the eye. He pretty much had to do that to look anyone in the eye. “Are you sure there’s nothing? Nothing at all you can tell us? They’re nowhere in town. The man at the bus station didn’t see them … though we’re pretty sure that’s where they must have gone. We need something, anything to go on.”
Man at the bus station? That was another stroke of luck. The woman who’d sold us the tickets must have gone home. Her replacement wouldn’t know us.
Lissa gritted her teeth and glared. “Don’t you think if I knew, I’d tell you? You don’t think I’m worried about them too? I have no idea where they are. None. And why’d they even leave… it doesn’t make any sense either. Especially why they’d go with Mia, of all people.” A twinge of hurt flickered through the bond, hurt at being left out of whatever we were doing, no matter how wrong.
Dimitri sighed and leaned back on his heels. From the look on his face, he obviously believed her. It was also obvious that he was worried- worried in more than a professional way. And seeing that concern- that concern for me- ate up my heart.
“Rose?” Christian’s voice brought me back to myself. “We’re here, I think.”
The plaza consisted of a wide, open area in front of a shopping center. A caf?¦ was carved into a corner of the main building, its tables spilling out into the open area. A crowd moved in and out of the complex, busy even at this time of the day.
“So, how do we find them?” asked Christian.
I shrugged. “Maybe if we act like Strigoi, they’ll try to stake us.”
A small, reluctant smile played over his face. He didn’t want to admit it, but he’d thought my joke was funny.
He and I went inside. Like any mall, it was filled with familiar chains, and a selfish part of me thought that maybe if we found the group soon enough, we could still get in shopping time.
Christian and I walked the length of it twice and saw no signs of our friends or anything resembling tunnels.
“Maybe we’re in the wrong place,” I finally said.
“Or maybe they are,” suggested Christian. “They could have gone to some other- wait.”
He pointed, and I followed the gesture. The three renegades sat at a table in the middle of the food court, looking dejected. They looked so miserable, I almost felt sorry for them.
“I’d kill for a camera right now,” said Christian, smirking.
“This isn’t funny,” I told him, striding toward the group. Inside, I breathed a sigh of relief. The group clearly hadn’t found any Strigoi, were all still alive, and could maybe be taken back before we got in even more trouble.
They didn’t notice me until I was almost right next to them. Eddie’s head jerked up. “Rose? What are you doing here?”
“Are you out of your mind?” I yelled. A few people nearby gave us surprised looks. “Do you know how much trouble you’re in? How much trouble you’ve gotten us in?”
“How the hell did you find us?” asked Mason in a low voice, glancing anxiously around.
“You guys aren’t exactly criminal masterminds,” I told them. “Your informant at the bus station gave you away. That, and I figured out that you’d want to go off on your pointless Strigoi-hunting quest.”
The look Mason gave me revealed he still wasn’t entirely happy with me. It was Mia who replied, however.
“It isn’t pointless.”
“Oh?” I demanded. “Did you kill any Strigoi? Did you even find any?”
“No,” admitted Eddie.
“Good,” I said. “You got lucky.”
“Why are you so against killing Strigoi?” asked Mia hotly. “Isn’t that what you train for?”
“I train for sane missions, not childish stunts like this.”
“It isn’t childish,” she cried. “They killed my mother. And the guardians weren’t doing anything. Even their information is bad. There weren’t any Strigoi in the tunnels. Probably none in the whole city.”
Christian looked impressed. “You found the tunnels?”
“Yeah,” said Eddie. “But like she said, they were useless.”
“We should see them before we go,” Christian told me. “It’d be kind of cool, and if the data was bad, there’s no danger.”
“No,” I snapped. “We’re going home. Now.”
Mason looked tired. “We’re going to search the city again. Even you can’t make us go back, Rose.”
“No, but the school’s guardians can when I call and tell them you’re here.”
Call it blackmailing or being a tattletale; the effect was the same. The three of them looked at me like I had just simultaneously gut-punched them all.
“You’d really do that?” asked Mason. “You’d sell us out like that?”
I rubbed my eyes, wondering desperately why I was trying to be the voice of reason here. Where was the girl who’d run away from school? Mason had been right. I had changed.
“This isn’t about selling anyone out. This is about keeping you guys alive.”
“You think we’re that defenseless?” asked Mia. “You think we’d get killed right away?”
“Yes,” I said. “Unless you’ve found some way to use water as a weapon?”
She flushed and didn’t say anything.
“We brought silver stakes,” said Eddie.
Fantastic. They must have stolen them. I looked at Mason pleadingly.
“Mason. Please. Call this off. Let’s go back.”
He looked at me for a long time. Finally, he sighed. “Okay.”
Eddie and Mia looked aghast, but Mason had assumed a leadership role with them, and they didn’t have the initiative to go on without him. Mia seemed to take it the hardest, and I felt bad for her. She’d barely had any real time to grieve for her mother; she’d just jumped right on board with this revenge thing as a way to cope with the pain. She’d have a lot to deal with when we got back.
Christian was still excited about the idea of the underground tunnels. Considering he spent all his time in an attic, I shouldn’t have been all that surprised.
“I saw the schedule,” he told me. “We’ve got a while before the next bus.”
“We can’t go walking into some Strigoi lair,” I argued, walking toward the mall’s entrance.
“There are no Strigoi there,” said Mason. “It’s seriously all janitorial stuff. There was no sign of anything weird. I really do think the guardians had bad information.”
“Rose,” said Christian, “let’s get something fun out of this.”
They all looked at me. I felt like a mom who wouldn’t buy her kids candy at the grocery store.
“Okay, fine. Just a peek, though.”
The others led Christian and me to the opposite end of the mall, through a door marked staff only. We dodged a couple of janitors, then slipped through another door that led us to a set of stairs going down. I had a brief moment of d?¦j?¤ vu, recalling the steps down to Adrian’s spa party. Only these stairs were dirtier and smelled pretty nasty.
We reached the bottom. It wasn’t so much a tunnel as a narrow corridor, lined in grime-caked cement. Ugly fluorescent lights were embedded sporadically along the walls. The passage went off to our left and right. Boxes of ordinary cleaning and electrical supplies sat around.
“See?” said Mason. “Boring.”
I pointed in each direction. “What’s down there?”
“Nothing,” sighed Mia. “We’ll show you.”
We walked down to the right and found more of the same. I was starting to agree with the boring assessment when we passed some black writing on one of the walls. I stopped and looked at it. It was a list of letters.
Some had lines and x marks next to them, but for the most part the message was incoherent. Mia noticed my scrutiny.
“It’s probably a janitor thing,” she said. “Or maybe some gang did it.”
“Probably,” I said, still studying it. The others shifted restlessly, not understanding my fascination with the jumble of letters. I didn’t understand my fascination either, but something in my head tugged at me to stay.
Then I got it.
B for Badica, Z for Zeklos, I for Ivashkov …
I stared. The first letter of every royal family’s name was there. There were three D names, but based on the order, you could actually read the list as a size ranking. It started with the smaller families- Dragomir, Badica, Conta- and went all the way up to the giant Ivashkov clan. I didn’t understand the dashes and lines beside the letters, but I quickly noticed which names had an x beside them: Badica and Drozdov.
I stepped back from the wall. “We have to get out of here,” I said. My own voice scared me a little. “Right now.”
The others looked at me in surprise. “Why?” asked Eddie. “What’s going on?”
“I’ll tell you later. We just need to go.”
Mason pointed in the direction we’d been heading. “This lets out a few blocks away. It’s closer to the station.”
I peered down into the dark unknown. “No,” I said. “We’re going back the way we came.”
They all looked at me like I was insane as we retraced our steps, but nobody questioned me yet. When we emerged from the mall’s front, I breathed a sigh of relief to see that the sun was still out, though it was steadily sinking into the horizon and casting orange and red light onto the buildings. The remaining light would still be enough for us to get back to the bus station before we were really in any danger of seeing Strigoi.
And I knew now that there really were Strigoi in Spokane. Dimitri’s information had been correct. I didn’t know what the list meant, but it clearly had something to do with the attacks. I needed to report it to the other guardians immediately, and I certainly couldn’t tell the others what I’d realized until we were safely at the lodge. Mason was likely to go back into the tunnels if he knew what I did.
Most of our walk back to the station proceeded in silence. I think my mood had cowed the others. Even Christian seemed to have run out of snide comments. Inside, my emotions swirled, oscillating between anger and guilt as I kept reexamining my role in everything.
Ahead of me, Eddie stopped walking, and I nearly ran into him. He looked around. “Where are we?”
Snapping out of my own thoughts, I surveyed the area too. I didn’t remember these buildings. “Damn it,” I exclaimed. “Are we lost? Didn’t anyone keep track of which way we went?”
It was an unfair question since I clearly hadn’t paid attention either, but my temper had pushed me past reason. Mason studied me for a few moments, then pointed. “This way.”
We turned and walked down a narrow street between two buildings. I didn’t think we were going the right way, but I didn’t really have a better idea. I also didn’t want to stand around debating.
We hadn’t gone very far when I heard the sound of an engine and squealing tires. Mia was walking in the middle of the road, and protective conditioning kicked in before I even saw what was coming. Grabbing her, I jerked her out of the street and up against one of the building walls. The boys had done the same.
A large, gray van with tinted windows had rounded the corner and was headed in our direction. We pressed flat against the wall, waiting for it to go past.
Only it didn’t.
Screeching to a halt, it stopped right in front of us, and the doors slid open. Three big guys spilled out, and again, my instincts kicked in. I had no clue who they were or what they wanted, but they clearly weren’t friendly. That was all I needed to know.
One of them moved toward Christian, and I struck out and punched him. The guy barely staggered but was clearly surprised to have felt it at all, I think. He probably hadn’t expected someone as small as me to be much of a threat. Ignoring Christian, he moved toward me. In my peripheral vision, I saw Mason and Eddie squaring off with the other two. Mason had actually pulled out his stolen silver stake. Mia and Christian stood there, frozen.
Our attackers were relying a lot on bulk. They didn’t have the sort of background we had in offensive and defensive techniques. Plus, they were human, and we had dhampir strength. Unfortunately, we also had the disadvantage of being cornered against the wall. We had nowhere to retreat to. Most importantly, we had something to lose.
The guy who’d been sparring with Mason seemed to realize this. He backed off from Mason and instead grabbed her. I barely saw the flash of his gun before its barrel was pressed against her neck. Backing off from my own adversary, I yelled at Eddie to stop. We’d all been trained to respond instantly to those kinds of orders, and he halted his attack, glancing at me questioningly When he saw Mia, his face went pale.
I wanted nothing more than to keep pummeling these men- whoever they were- but I couldn’t risk this guy hurting Mia. He knew it, too. He didn’t even have to make the threat. He was human, but he knew enough about us to know that we’d go out of our way to protect the Moroi. Novices had a saying grilled into us from an early age: Only they matter.
Everyone stopped and looked between him and me. Apparently we were the acknowledged leaders here. “What do you want?” I asked harshly.
The guy pressed his gun closer to Mia’s neck, and she whimpered. For all her talk about fighting, she was smaller than me and not nearly as strong. And she was too terrified to move.
The man inclined his head toward the van’s open door. “I want you to get inside. And don’t start anything. You do, and she’s gone.”
I looked at Mia, the van, my other friends, and then back to the guy. Shit.