LISSA HAD BEEN MY best friend ever since elementary school, which was why keeping so many secrets from her lately had hurt so much.She was always open with me, always willing to share what was on her mind – but then, maybe that was because she had no choice.I used to be that way with her, yet at some point, I’d started locking my secrets in, unable to tell her about Dimitri or the real reason I’d messed up with Stan.
I hated it being that way. It ate me up inside and made me feel guilty around her.
Today, however, there was absolutely no way I could wiggle out of explaining what had happened at the airport. Even if I made up something, the fact that I was on half-time with Christian would be a huge tip-off that something was going on. No excuses this time.
So, as much as it hurt, I gave her and Christian – as well as Eddie and Adrian, who were hanging around – the short version of what had happened.
“You think you saw ghosts?” Christian exclaimed. “Seriously?” The look on his face showed me that he was already building a list of snide comments to make.
“Look,” I snapped, “I told you what was going on, but I don’t want to elaborate on it. It’s getting worked out, so just let it drop.”
”Rose …” began Lissa uneasily. A hurricane of emotions was beating through to me from her. Fear. Concern. Shock. Her compassion made me feel that much worse.
I shook my head. “No, Liss. Please. You guys can think whatever you want about me or make up your own theories, but we’re not going to talk about it. Not now. Just leave me alone about it.”
I expected Lissa to badger me because of her normal persistence. I expected Adrian and Christian to because of their irritating natures. But even though my words had been simple, I realized I’d delivered them with a harshness both in voice and manner. It was Lissa’s surprised mental reaction that alerted me to that, and then I needed only to look at the guys’ faces to realize I must have sounded incredibly bitchy.
“Sorry,” I mumbled. “I appreciate the concern, but I’m just not in the mood.”
Lissa eyed me. Later, she said in my mind. I gave her a brief nod, secretly wondering how I could avoid that conversation.
She and Adrian had met to practice magic again. I still liked being able to be close to her, but I was only able to do so because Christian was hanging around too. And honestly, I couldn’t figure out why he stayed. I guess he was still a little jealous, despite everything that had happened. Of course, if he’d known about the queen’s matchmaking schemes, he might have had good reason. Nonetheless, it was clear these magic lessons were starting to bore him. We were in Ms. Meissner’s classroom today, and he pulled two desks together and stretched out across them, tossing an arm over his eyes.
“Wake me when it gets interesting,” he said.
Eddie and I stood in a central position that let us watch the door and windows while also staying near the Moroi.
“You really saw Mason?” Eddie whispered to me. He turned sheepish. “Sorry…you said you didn’t want to talk about it…”
I started to say yes, that was exactly what I’d said…but then I saw the look on Eddie’s face. He wasn’t asking me about this out of perverse curiosity. He asked because of Mason, because of their closeness, and because Eddie wasn’t over his best friend’s death any more than I was. I think he found the idea of Mason communicating from beyond the grave reassuring, but then, he hadn’t been the one to actually see Mason’s ghost.
“I think it was him,” I murmured back. “I don’t know. Everyone thinks I imagined it.”
“How did he look? Was he upset?”
“He looked … sad. Really sad.”
“If it was really him … I mean, I don’t know.” Eddie looked at the ground, momentarily forgetting to watch the room. “I’ve always wondered if he was upset that we didn’t save him.”
“There was nothing we could have done,” I told him, reiterating exactly what everyone had told me. “But I wondered that too, because Father Andrew had mentioned that ghosts sometimes come back for revenge. But Mason didn’t look that way. He just seemed like he wanted to tell me something.”
Eddie looked back up suddenly, realizing he was still on guard duty. He didn’t say anything else after that, but I knew where his thoughts were.
Meanwhile, Adrian and Lissa were making progress. Or rather, Adrian was. The two of them had dug up a bunch of scraggly plants that had died or gone dormant for the winter and put them in little pots. The pots were now lined up in a row on a long table. Lissa touched one, and I felt the euphoria of magic burn within her. A moment later, the scrappy little plant turned green and sprouted leaves.
Adrian stared hard at it, as though it held all the secrets of the universe, and then exhaled deeply. “Okay. Here goes nothing.”
He lightly placed his fingers on a different plant. Here goes nothing might have been an accurate statement, because nothing actually happened. Then, a few moments later, the plant shuddered a little. A hint of green started to grow in it and then it stopped.
“You did it,” said Lissa, impressed. I could also feel that she was a little jealous. Adrian had learned one of her tricks, but she still hadn’t learned any of his.
“Hardly,” he said, glaring at the plant. He was completely sober, with none of his vices to mellow him. Spirit had nothing to stop it from making him feel irritable. With our moods, we actually had something in common tonight. “Damn it.”
“Are you kidding?” she asked. “It was great. You made a plant grow – with your mind. That’s amazing.”
“Not as good as you, though,” he said, still sounding like he was ten years old.
I couldn’t help but pipe in. “Then stop bitching and try again.”
He glanced over at me, a smile twisting his lips. “Hey, no advice, Ghost Girl. Guardians should be seen and not heard.” I flipped him off for the “Ghost Girl” comment, but he didn’t notice because Lissa was talking to him again.
“She’s right. Try it again.”
“You do it one more time,” he said. “I want to watch you…. I can kind of feel what you do to it.”
She performed her trick on another plant. I again felt the magic flare up, as well as the joy that came with it – and then she faltered. A flash of fear and instability tinged the magic, smacking a little of when her mental state had deteriorated so badly. No, no, I begged silently. It’s happening. I knew it would if she kept using the magic. Please don’t let it happen again.
And like that, the dark spot within her magic went away. All of her thoughts and feelings returned to normal. I noticed then that she’d also made the plant grow. I’d missed it because I’d been distracted by her lapse. Adrian had missed the magic too because his eyes were on me. His expression was troubled and very, very confused.
“Okay,” said Lissa happily. She didn’t realize he hadn’t paid attention. “Try again.”
Adrian focused his attention back on their work. Sighing, he moved to a new plant, but she gestured him back. “No, keep working on the one you started. Maybe you can only do it in small bursts.”
Nodding, he turned his attention to his original plant. For a few minutes, he just did nothing but stare. Silence reigned in the room. I’d never seen him so focused on anything, and sweat was actually forming on his forehead. Finally, at long last, the plant twitched again. It grew even greener, and tiny buds appeared on it. Glancing up at him, I saw him narrow his eyes and grit his teeth, no doubt concentrating for all he was worth. The buds burst. Leaves and tiny white flowers appeared.
Lissa made what could only be called a whoop of joy. “You did it!” She hugged him, and feelings of delight washed over me from her. She was sincerely happy that he’d been able to do it. And while she was still disappointed at her lack of progress, it inspired hope in her that he’d replicated her abilities. That meant they truly could learn from each other.
“I can’t wait until I’m able to do something new,” she said, still a tiny bit jealous.
Adrian tapped a notebook. “Well, there are plenty of other tricks in the world of spirit. You’ve got to be able to learn at least one of them.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Remember that research I did on people who’d shown weird behaviors?” she asked. “We made a list of all the different things that showed up.” I did remember. In her search to find others with spirit, she’d uncovered claims about Moroi demonstrating abilities no one had ever seen. Few people believed the reports were true, but Lissa was convinced they were spirit users.
“Along with healing, auras, and dream walking, we seem to also have some super compulsion going on.”
“You already knew that,” I said.
“No, this is even more hard-core. It’s not just telling people what to do. It’s also making them see and feel things that aren’t even there.”
“What, like hallucinations?” I asked.
“Kind of,” he said. “There are stories of people using compulsion to make others live through their worst nightmares, thinking they’re being attacked or whatever.”
I shivered. “That’s actually kind of scary.”
“And awesome,” said Adrian.
Lissa agreed with me. “I don’t know. Regular compulsion is one thing, but that just seems wrong.”
Christian yawned. “Now that victory has been achieved, can we call it a night with the magic?”
Glancing behind me, I saw that Christian was sitting up and alert. His eyes were on Lissa and Adrian, and he did not look happy about the victory hug. Lissa and Christian had broken apart, though not because they’d noticed his reaction. They were both too distracted by their own excitement to notice his glare.
“Can you do it again?” asked Lissa eagerly. “Make it grow?”
Adrian shook his head. “Not right away. That took a lot out of me. I think I need a cigarette.” He gestured in Christian’s direction. “Go do something with your guy. He’s been terribly patient through all of this.”
Lissa walked over to Christian, her face alight with joy. She looked beautiful and radiant, and I could tell it was hard for him to stay too mad at her. The harsh expression on his face softened, and I saw the rare gentleness that only she could bring out in him. “Let’s go back to the dorm,” she said, grabbing his hand.
We set off. Eddie walked near guard with Lissa and Christian, which left me with far guard. It also left me with Adrian, who had chosen to lag behind and talk to me. He was smoking, so I got to be the one to deal with the toxic cloud that generated. Honestly, I couldn’t figure out why no one in charge had busted him for this. I wrinkled my nose at the smell.
“You know, you can always be our far-far guard and stay behind with that thing,” I told him.
“Mm, I’ve had enough.” He dropped the cigarette and stamped it out, leaving it behind. I hated that almost as much as him smoking in the first place.
“What do you think, little dhampir?” he asked. “I was pretty badass with that plant, wasn’t I? Of course, it would have been more badass if I’d, I dunno, helped an amputee grow a limb back. Or maybe separated Siamese twins. But that’ll come with more practice.”
“If you want some advice – which I’m sure you don’t – you guys should lay off on the magic. Christian still thinks you’re moving in on Lissa.”
“What?” he asked in mock astonishment. “Doesn’t he know my heart belongs to you?”
“It does not. And no, he’s still worried about it, despite what I’ve told him.”
“You know, I bet if we started making out right now, it would make him feel better.”
“If you touch me,” I said pleasantly, “I’ll provide you with the opportunity to see if you can heal yourself. Then we’d see how badass you really are.”
“I’d get Lissa to heal me,” he said smugly. “It’d be easy for her. Although…” The sardonic smirk faded. “Something weird happened when she used her magic.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I know. Could you sense it too?”
“No. But I saw it.” He frowned. “Rose … remember when you asked about being crazy and I said you weren’t?”
“I think I might have been wrong. I think you are crazy.”
I nearly stopped walking. “What the hell does that mean?”
“Well…you see, the thing is, when Lissa did the second plant… her aura dimmed a little.”
“That would go along with what I felt,” I said. “It was kind of like she … I don’t know, grew mentally fragile for a moment, kind of like she used to. But it went away.”
He nodded. “Yeah, that’s the thing…the darkness in her aura went away and into yours. Like, I’ve noticed before that you guys have a big difference in auras, but this time, I saw it happening. It was like that spot of darkness jumped out of hers and into yours.”
Something about that made me shiver. “What does it mean?”
“Well, this is why I think you’re crazy. Lissa isn’t having any side effects from the magic anymore, right? And you, well… you’ve been feeling kind of short-tempered lately and you’re, like, seeing ghosts.” He said the words casually, like seeing ghosts was just something that happened from time to time. “I think whatever harmful thing there is in spirit that screws with the mind is leaking out of her and into you. It’s making her stay stable, and you, well… as I said, you’re seeing ghosts.”
It was like being smacked in the face. A new theory. Not trauma. Not real ghosts. Me “catching” Lissa’s madness. I remembered how she’d been at her worst, depressed and self-destructive. I remembered our former teacher, Ms. Karp, who’d also been a spirit user – and completely out of her mind enough to become Strigoi.
“No,” I said in a strained voice. “That’s not happening to me.”
“What about your bond? You have that connection. Her thoughts and feelings creep into you … why not the madness too?” Adrian’s manner was typically light and curious. He didn’t realize just how much this was starting to freak me out.
“Because it doesn’t make any – “
And then, it hit me. The answer we’d been searching for this whole time.
St. Vladimir had struggled his whole life with spirit’s side effects. He’d had dreams and delusions, experiences he wrote off to “demons.” But he hadn’t gone completely crazy or tried to kill himself. Lissa and I had felt certain that it was because he had a shadow-kissed guardian, Anna, and that sharing that bond with her had helped him. We’d assumed it was simply the act of having such a close friend around, someone who could support him and talk him through the bad times since they hadn’t had antidepressants or anti-anxiety drugs back then.
But what if… what if…
I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t go another single moment without knowing the answer. What time was it anyway? An hour or so before curfew? I had to find out. I came to an abrupt halt, nearly slipping on the slick ground.
The group in front of us stopped and looked back at me and Adrian. “Yeah?” Christian asked.
“I need to take a detour – or rather, we do since I can’t go anywhere without you. We need to go to the church.”
His eyebrows rose in surprise. “What, you need to confess something?”
“Don’t ask questions. Please. It’ll only take a few minutes.”
Concern crossed Lissa’s face. “Well, we can all go – “
“No, we’ll be fast.” I didn’t want her there. I didn’t want her to hear the answer I was certain I’d get. “Go to the dorm. We’ll catch up. Please, Christian?”
He studied me, expression oscillating between wanting to mock me and wanting to help. He wasn’t a complete jerk, after all. The latter emotion won out. “Okay, but if you try to get me to pray with you, I walk.”
He and I split off toward the chapel. I moved so fast that he had to scurry to keep up.
“I don’t suppose you want to tell me what this is about?” he asked.
“Nope. I appreciate your cooperation, though.”
“Always glad to help,” he said. I was certain he was rolling his eyes, but I was more focused on the path ahead.
We reached the chapel, and the door was locked, unsurprisingly. I knocked on it, staring anxiously around to see if any lights shone through the windows. It didn’t look like it.
“You know, I’ve broken in here before,” said Christian. “If you need inside – “
“No, more than that. I need to see the priest. Damn it, he’s not here.”
“He’s probably in bed.”
“Damn it,” I repeated, feeling only a little bad about swearing on a church’s doorstep. If the priest was in bed, he’d be off in Moroi staff housing and inaccessible. “I need to – “
The door opened, and Father Andrew peered out at us. He looked surprised but not upset. “Rose? Christian? Is something wrong?”
“I have to ask you a question,” I told him. “It won’t take long.”
His surprise grew, but he stepped aside so we could enter. We all stopped and stood in the chapel’s lobby, just outside the main sanctuary.
“I was just about to go home for the night,” Father Andrew told us. “I was shutting everything down.”
“You told me that St. Vladimir lived a long life and died of old age. Is that true?”
“Yes,” he said slowly. “To the best of my knowledge. All the books I’ve read – including these latest ones – say as much.”
“But what about Anna?” I demanded. I sounded like I was on the verge of hysteria. Which I kind of was.
“What about her?”
“What happened to her? How did she die?”
All this time. All this time, Lissa and I had worried about Vlad’s outcome. We’d never considered Anna’s.
“Ah, well.” Father Andrew sighed. “Her end wasn’t as good, I’m afraid. She spent her whole life protecting him, though there are hints that in her old age, she started growing a little unstable too. And then…”
“And then?” I asked. Christian was looking between the priest and me, completely lost.
“And then, well, a couple months after St. Vladimir passed on, she committed suicide.”
I squeezed my eyes shut for half a second and then opened them. This was what I’d been afraid of.
“I’m sorry,” Father Andrew said. “I know how closely you’ve followed their story. I didn’t even learn this about her until reading it recently. Taking one’s life is a sin, of course…but, well, considering how close they were, it’s not hard to imagine how she may have felt when he was gone.”
“And you also said that she was starting to go a little crazy.”
He nodded and spread his hands out. “It’s hard to say what that poor woman was thinking. Many factors were probably involved. Why was this so pressing?”
I shook my head. “It’s a long story. Thanks for helping me.”
Christian and I were halfway to the dorm before he finally asked, “What was that all about? I remember when you guys were looking into this. Vladimir and Anna were like Lissa and you, right?”
“Yeah,” I said glumly. “Look, I don’t want to get between you guys, but please don’t tell Lissa about this. Not until I find out more. Just tell her … I don’t know. I’ll tell her that I suddenly panicked because I thought I had more community service scheduled.”
“Both of us lying to her, huh?”
“I hate it, believe me. But it’s also best for her at the moment.”
Because if Lissa knew that she might potentially make me insane … yeah, she’d take that hard. She’d want to stop working her magic. Of course, that was what I’d always wanted … and yet, I’d felt that joy in her when she used it. Could I take that away from her? Could I sacrifice myself?
There was no easy answer, and I couldn’t start jumping to conclusions. Not until I knew more. Christian agreed to keep it secret, and by the time we joined the others, it was almost time for curfew anyway. We had only about a half hour together, and then we all split off for bed – including me, since the part-time field experience agreement said I couldn’t do nighttime duty. The Strigoi risk was low in general anyway, and my instructors were more concerned about me getting a full night’s sleep.
So when curfew came, I walked back to the dhampir dorm alone. And then, when I was almost there, he appeared again.
I came to an abrupt halt and glanced around me, wishing someone else was there to witness this and settle the crazy-or-not thing once and for all. His pearly form stood there, hands in the pockets of his coat in an almost casual way that somehow made the experience that much weirder.
“Well,” I said, feeling surprisingly calm, despite the sorrow that washed over me whenever I saw him. “Glad to see you’re alone again. I didn’t really like the extras on the plane.”
He stared, expression blank and eyes sad. It made me feel worse, guilt twisting my stomach into knots. I broke.
“What are you?” I cried. “Are you real? Am I going crazy?”
To my surprise, he nodded.
“Which?” I squeaked. “Yes, you’re real?”
“Yes, I’m crazy?”
He shook his head.
“Well,” I said, forcing a joke through my hurricane of emotions. “That’s a relief, but honestly, what else would you say if you’re a hallucination?”
Mason just stared. I glanced around again, wishing someone would come by.
“Why are you here? Are you mad at us and looking for revenge?”
He shook his head, and something in me relaxed. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized how worried I’d been about that. The guilt and grief had been wound up so tightly in me. Him blaming me – just as Ryan had – had seemed inevitable.
“Are you … are you having trouble finding peace?”
Mason nodded and seemed to grow sadder. I thought back to his final moments and swallowed back tears. I’d probably have a hard time finding peace too, taken from my life before it began.
“Is there more than that, though? Another reason you keep coming to me?”
“What?” I asked. There were too many questions lately. I needed answers. “What is it? What do I need to do?”
But anything other than a yes or no question was beyond us, apparently. He opened up his mouth as though he would say something. He looked like he was trying hard, like Adrian had with the plant. But no sound came out.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “I’m sorry I don’t understand … and…I’m sorry for everything else.”
Mason gave me one last wistful look and then vanished.