OTHERS IN THE HALL stopped and stared.I felt like I had just been hit in the face.Only it hadn’t been my face.
It had been Lissa’s. I shifted into her mind and became instantly aware of her surroundings and everything happening to her – like the next time rocks flew up from the ground and slammed into her cheeks. They were guided by a freshman I didn’t know anything about, save that he was a Drozdov. The rocks hurt both of us, but I withheld my screaming this time and gritted my teeth as I shifted back to the hallway with my friends.
“Northwest side of campus, between that weird-shaped pond and the fence,” I told them.
With that, I broke away from them and headed out the door, running as hard as I could toward the part of campus where they were holding Lissa. I couldn’t see all of the people gathered there through her eyes, but I recognized a few. Jesse and Ralf were there. Brandon. Brett. The Drozdov guy. Some others. The rocks were still hitting her, still cutting into her face. She didn’t scream or cry, though – she just kept telling them over and over to stop while two other guys held her between them.
Jesse, meanwhile, kept telling her to make them stop. I only half-listened to him through her mind. The reasons didn’t matter, and I’d already figured it out. They were going to torture her until she agreed to join their group. They must have forced Brandon and the others in the same way.
A suffocating feeling suddenly overwhelmed me, and I stumbled, unable to breathe as water smothered my face. Fighting hard, I separated myself from Lissa. That was happening to her, not me. Someone was torturing her with water now, using it to cut off her air. Whoever it was took their time, alternately filling her face with water, then pulling it back, then repeating. She gasped and sputtered, still asking them to stop when she could.
Jesse continued watching with calculating eyes. “Don’t ask them. Make them.”
I tried running harder, but I could only go so much faster. They were at one of the farthest points of campus’s boundaries. It was a lot of distance to cover, and with every agonizing step, I felt more of Lissa’s pain and grew angrier and angrier. What kind of a guardian could I ever be to her if I couldn’t even keep her safe here on campus?
An air user went next, and suddenly, it was like she was being tortured by Victor’s henchman all over again. Air was alternately taken from her, leaving her gasping, and then slammed back into her, crushing her face. It was agony, and it brought back all the memories of her capture, all the terror and horror she’d been trying to forget. The air user stopped, but it was too late. Something snapped inside of her.
When Ralf stepped up next to use fire, I was so close that I actually saw it flare up in his hand. But he didn’t see me.
None of them had been paying attention to their surroundings, and there’d been too much noise from their own spectacle to hear me. I slammed into Ralf before the fire could leave his hand, pulling him to the ground and punching his face in one skilled maneuver. A few of the others – including Jesse – ran to help him and tried to pry me away. At least, they tried until they realized who it was.
Those who saw my face immediately backed off. Those who didn’t quickly learned the hard way when I went after them. I’d taken out three fully trained guardians earlier today. A group of spoiled royal Moroi took hardly any effort. It was ironic, too – and a sign of how unwilling some Moroi were to lift a hand in their defense – that while this group had been so eager to use magic to torture Lissa, none of them had actually thought to use it against me.
Most of them scattered before I could even lay a hand on them, and I didn’t care enough to go after them. I just wanted them away from Lissa. Admittedly, I gave Ralf a few extra punches even after he’d gone down, since I held him responsible for this whole mess. I finally left him alone, lying on the ground and groaning, as I straightened up and looked for Jesse – the other culprit here. I quickly found him. He was the only one left.
I ran over to him and then skidded to a halt, confused. He was just standing there, staring into space, mouth hanging open. I looked at him, looked at where he was staring, and then looked back at him.
“Spiders,” Lissa said. Her voice made me jump. She stood off to the side with wet hair, bruised and cut, but otherwise okay. In the moonlight, her pale features made her look almost as ghostly as Mason. Her eyes never left Jesse as he spoke. “He thinks he’s seeing spiders. And that they’re crawling on him. What do you think? Should I have gone with snakes?”
I looked back at Jesse. The expression on his face sent chills down my spine. It was like he was locked in his own private nightmare. Scarier still was what I felt through the bond. Usually when Lissa used magic, it felt golden and warm and wonderful. This time, it was different. It was black and slimy and thick.
“I think you should stop,” I said. In the distance, I heard people running toward us. “It’s all over.”
“It was an initiation ritual,” she said. “Well, kind of. They asked me to join a couple of days ago, and I refused. But they bugged me again today and kept saying they knew something important about Christian and Adrian. It started to get to me, so … I finally told them I’d come to one of their sessions but that I didn’t know anything about compulsion.
It was an act. I just wanted to know what they knew.” She tilted her head barely at all, but something must have happened to Jesse. His eyes widened further as he continued to silently scream. “Even though I hadn’t technically agreed yet, they put me through their initiation ritual. They wanted to know how much I could really do. It’s a way to test how strong people are in compulsion. Torture them until they can’t stand it, and then, in the heat of it all, people lash out and try to compel the attackers to stop. If the victim manages any sort of compulsion at all, that person’s in the group.” She regarded Jesse carefully. He seemed to be in his own world, and it was a very, very bad one. “I guess this makes me their president, huh?”
“Stop it,” I said. The feel of this twisted magic was making me nauseous. She and Adrian had mentioned something like this before, this idea of making people see things that weren’t there. They’d jokingly called it super compulsion – and it was horrible. “This isn’t how spirit is supposed to be used. This isn’t you. It’s wrong.”
She was breathing heavily, sweat breaking out along her brow. “I can’t let go of it,” she said.
“You can,” I said. I touched her arm. “Give it to me.”
She briefly turned from Jesse and looked at me, astonished, before fixing her gaze back on him.
“What? You can’t use magic.”
I focused hard on the bond, on her mind. I couldn’t take the magic exactly, but I could take the darkness it brought on. It was what I’d been doing for a while now, I realized. Every time I’d worried and wished she’d calm down and fight dark feelings, she had – because I was taking it all from her. I was absorbing it, just as Anna had done for St. Vladimir. It was what Adrian had seen when the darkness jumped from her aura to mine. And this – this abuse of spirit, using it to maliciously harm another and not for self-defense, was bringing the worst side effects of all in her. It was corrupting and wrong, and I couldn’t let her have it. All thoughts of my own madness or rage were completely irrelevant at this moment.
“No,” I agreed. “I can’t. But you can use me to let it go. Focus on me. Release it all. It’s wrong. You don’t want it.”
She stared at me again, eyes wide and desperate. Even without direct eye contact, she was still able to torture Jesse. I both saw and felt the fight she waged. He’d hurt her so much – she wanted him to pay. He had to. And yet, at the same time, she knew I was right. But it was hard. So hard for her to let go …
Suddenly, the burn of that black magic vanished from the bond, along with that sickening sensation. Something hit me like a blast of wind in the face, and I staggered backward. I shuddered as a weird sensation twisted my stomach. It was like sparks, like a coil of electricity burning within me. Then it too was gone. Jesse fell to his knees, free of the nightmare.
Lissa sank with visible relief. She was still scared and hurt over what had happened, but she was no longer consumed with that terrible, destructive rage that had driven her to punish Jesse. That urge within her had disappeared.
The only problem was, it was in me now.
I turned on Jesse, and it was like nothing else existed in the universe except him. He had tried to ruin me in the past. He’d tortured Lissa and hurt so many others. It was unacceptable. I lunged for him. His eyes had only a moment to widen with terror before my fist connected with his face. His head jerked back, and blood spurted from his nose. I heard Lissa scream for me to stop, but I couldn’t. He had to pay for what he’d done to her. I grabbed him by the shoulders and threw him hard against the ground. He was yelling now too – begging – for me to stop. He shut up when I hit him again.
I felt Lissa’s hands clawing at me, trying to pull me off, but she wasn’t strong enough. I kept hitting him. There was no sign of the strategic, precise fighting I’d used earlier with him and his friends, or even against Dimitri. This was unfocused and primal. This was me being controlled by the madness I’d taken from Lissa.
Then another set of hands ripped me away. These hands were stronger, dhampir hands, backed by muscles earned through years of training. It was Eddie. I struggled against his hold. We were closely matched, but he outweighed me.
“Let me go!” I yelled.
To my complete and utter horror, Lissa was now kneeling at Jesse’s side, studying him with concern. It made no sense. How could she do that? After what he’d done? I saw compassion on her face, and a moment later, the burn of her healing magic lit our bond as she took away some of the worst of his injuries.
“No!” I screamed, straining against Eddie’s hold. “You can’t!”
That was when the other guardians showed up, Dimitri and Celeste in the lead. Christian and Adrian were nowhere in sight; they probably couldn’t have kept pace with the others.
Organized chaos followed. Those from the society who remained were gathered up and herded off for questioning. Lissa likewise was taken away, led off to get her injuries treated. A part of me that was buried in all that bloodthirsty emotion wanted to go after her, but something else had caught my attention: They were also removing Jesse for medical help. Eddie was still holding onto me, his grip never faltering despite my struggles and pleas. Most of the adults were too busy with the others to notice me, but they noticed when I started shouting again.
“You can’t let him go! You can’t let him go!”
“Rose, calm down,” said Alberta, her voice mild. How could she not get what was going on? “It’s over.”
“It is not over! Not until I get my hands around his throat and choke the life out of him!”
Alberta and some of the others seemed to realize that something serious was happening now – but they didn’t appear to think it had anything to do with Jesse. They were all giving me the Rose-is-crazy look I’d come to know so well in recent days.
“Get her out of here,” said Alberta. “Get her cleaned up and calmed down.” She didn’t give any more instructions than that, but somehow, it was understood that Dimitri would be the one to deal with me.
He came over and took me from Eddie. In the brief change of captors, I tried to break away, but Dimitri was too fast and too strong. He grabbed my arm and started pulling me away from the scene.
“We can make this easy or difficult,” said Dimitri as we walked through the woods. “There’s no way I’m letting you go to Jesse. Besides, he’s at the med clinic, so you’d never get near him. If you can accept that, I’ll release you. If you bolt, you know I’ll just restrain you again.”
I weighed my options. The need to make Jesse suffer was still pounding in my blood, but Dimitri was right. For now.
“Okay,” I said. He hesitated a moment, perhaps wondering if I was telling the truth, and then let go of my arm. When I didn’t run off, I felt him relax very, very slightly.
“Alberta told you to clean me up,” I said evenly. “So we’re going to the med clinic?”
Dimitri scoffed. “Nice try. I’m not letting you near him. We’ll get first aid somewhere else.”
He led me off at an angle from the attack location, toward an area still at the edge of campus. I quickly realized where he was going. It was a cabin. Back when there had been more guardians on campus, some had actually stayed at these little outposts, providing regular protection for the school’s boundaries. They’d long since been abandoned, but this one had been cleaned up when Christian’s aunt had visited. She’d preferred hanging out here than in the school’s guest housing where other Moroi regarded her as a potential Strigoi.
He opened the door. It was dark inside, but I could see well enough to watch him find matches and light a kerosene lantern. It didn’t provide a huge amount of light, but it was fine for our eyes. Glancing around, I saw that Tasha really had done a good job with the place. It was clean and almost cozy, the bed made up with a soft quilt and a couple of chairs pulled up to the fireplace. There was even some food – canned and packaged – in the kitchen off to the side of the room.
“Sit down,” said Dimitri, gesturing to the bed. I did, and in about a minute, he had a fire going to warm the place up. Once it was in full blaze, he grabbed a first aid kit and a bottle of water from the counter and walked back over to the bed, dragging a chair so he could sit opposite me.
“You have to let me go,” I begged. “Don’t you see? Don’t you see how Jesse has to pay? He tortured her! He did horrible things to her.”
Dimitri wet some gauze and dabbed it to the side of my forehead. It stung, so I apparently had a cut there. “He’ll be punished, believe me. And the others.”
“With what?” I asked bitterly. “Detention? This is as bad as Victor Dashkov. Nobody does anything around here! People commit crimes and get away with it. He needs to hurt. They all need to.”
Dimitri paused his cleaning, giving me a concerned look. “Rose, I know you’re upset, but you know we don’t punish people like that. It’s … savage.”
“Yeah? What’s wrong with that? I’d bet it’d stop them from doing it again.” I could barely sit there. Every part of my body trembled with fury. “They need to suffer for what they did! And I want to be the one to do it! I want to hurt them all. I want to kill them all.” I started to get up, suddenly feeling like I’d explode. His hands were on my shoulders in a flash, shoving me back down. The first aid was long forgotten. His expression was a mixture of both worry and fierceness as he held me down. I fought against him, and his fingers bit in tighter.
“Rose! Snap out of this!” He was yelling now too. “You don’t mean any of it. You’ve been stressed and under a lot of pressure – it’s making a terrible event that much worse.”
“Stop it!” I shouted back at him. “You’re doing it – just like you always do. You’re always so reasonable, no matter how awful things are. What happened to you wanting to kill Victor in prison, huh? Why was that okay, but not this?”
“Because that was an exaggeration. You know it was. But this…this is something different. There’s something wrong with you right now.”
“No, there’s something right with me.” I was sizing him up, hoping my words distracted him. If I was fast enough, maybe – just maybe – I could get past him. “I’m the only one who wants to do anything around here, and if that’s wrong, I’m sorry. You keep wanting me to be some impossible, good person, but I’m not! I’m not a saint like you.”
“Neither of us is a saint,” he said dryly. “Believe me, I don’t – “
I made my move, leaping out and shoving him away. It got him off me, but I didn’t get far. I’d barely gotten two feet from the bed when he seized me again and pinned me down, this time using the full weight of his body to keep me immobilized. Somehow, I knew I should have realized it was an impossible escape plan, but I couldn’t think straight.
“Let me go!” I yelled for the hundredth time tonight, trying to free my hands.
“No,” he said, voice hard and almost desperate. “Not until you break out of this. This isn’t you!”
There were hot tears in my eyes. “It is! Let me go!”
“It’s not. It isn’t you! It isn’t you.” There was agony in his voice.
“You’re wrong! It is – “
My words suddenly dropped off. It isn’t you. It was the same thing I’d said to Lissa when I watched, terrified, as she used her magic to torture Jesse. I’d stood there, unable to believe what she was doing. She hadn’t realized she’d lost control and was on the verge of becoming a monster. And now, looking into Dimtiri’s eyes, seeing his panic and love, I realized it was happening to me. I was the same as she’d been, so caught up, so blinded by irrational emotions that I didn’t even recognize my own actions. It was like I was being controlled by something else.
I tried to fight it off, to shake off the feelings burning through me. They were too strong. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t let them go. They would take me over completely, just as they’d done to Anna and Ms. Karp.
“Rose,” said Dimitri. It was only my name, but it was so powerful, filled with so much. Dimitri had such absolute faith me, faith in my own strength and goodness. And he had strength too, a strength I could see he wasn’t afraid to lend me if I needed it. Deirdre might have been onto something about me resenting Lissa, but she was completely off about Dimitri. What we had was love. We were like two halves of a whole, always ready to support the other. Neither of us was perfect, but that didn’t matter. With him, I could defeat this rage that filled me. He believed I was stronger than it. And I was.
Slowly, slowly, I felt that darkness fade away. I stopped fighting him. My body trembled, but it was no longer with fury. It was fear. Dimitri immediately recognized the change and released his hold.
“Oh my God,” I said, voice shaking.
His hand touched the side of my face, fingers light on my cheek. “Rose,” he breathed. “Are you okay?”
I swallowed back more tears. “I… I think so. For now.”
“It’s over,” he said. He was still touching me, this time brushing the hair from my face. “It’s over. Everything’s all right.”
I shook my head. “No. It’s not. You…you don’t understand. It’s true – everything I was worried about. About Anna? About me taking away spirit’s craziness? It’s happening, Dimitri. Lissa lost it out there with Jesse. She was out of control, but I stopped her because I sucked away her anger and put it into myself. And it’s – it’s horrible. It’s like I’m, I don’t know, a puppet. I can’t control myself.”
“You’re strong,” he said. “It won’t happen again.”
“No,” I said. I could hear my voice cracking as I struggled to sit up. “It will happen again. I’m going to be like Anna. I’m going to get worse and worse. This time it was bloodlust and hate. I wanted to destroy them. I needed to destroy them. Next time? I don’t know. Maybe it’ll just be craziness, like Ms. Karp. Maybe I’m already crazy, and that’s why I’m seeing Mason. Maybe it’ll be depression like Lissa used to get. I’ll keep falling and falling into that pit, and then I’ll be like Anna and kill – “
“No,” Dimitri interrupted gently. He moved his face toward mine, our foreheads nearly touching. “It won’t happen to you. You’re too strong. You’ll fight it, just like you did this time.”
“I only did because you were here.” He wrapped his arms around me, and I buried my face in his chest. “I can’t do it by myself,” I whispered.
“You can,” he said. There was a tremulous note in his voice. “You’re strong – you’re so, so strong. It’s why I love you.”
I squeezed my eyes shut. “You shouldn’t. I’m going to become something terrible. I might already be something terrible.” I thought back to past behaviors, the way I’d been snapping at everyone. The way I’d tried to scare Ryan and Camille.
Dimitri pulled away so that he could look me in the eyes. He cupped my face in his hands. “You aren’t. You won’t,” he said. “I won’t let you. No matter what, I won’t let you.”
Emotion filled my body again, but now it wasn’t hate or rage or anything like that. It was warm and wonderful and made my heart ache – in a good way. I wrapped my arms around his neck, and our lips met. The kiss was pure love, sweet and blissful, with no despair or darkness. Steadily, though, the intensity of our kissing increased. It was still filled with love but became much more – something hungry and powerful. The electricity that had crackled between us when I’d fought and held him down earlier returned, wrapping around us now.
It reminded me of the night we’d been under Victor’s lust spell, both of us driven by inner forces we couldn’t control. It was like we were starving or drowning, and only the other person could save us. I clung to him, one arm around his neck while my other hand gripped his back so hard that my nails practically dug in. He laid me back down on the bed. His hands wrapped around my waist, and then one of them slid down the back of my thigh and pulled it up so that it nearly wrapped around him.
At the same time, we both pulled back briefly, still oh so close. Everything in the world rested on that moment.
“We can’t…” he told me.
“I know,” I agreed.
Then his mouth was on mine again, and this time, I knew there would be no turning back. There were no walls this time. Our bodies wrapped together as he tried to get my coat off, then his shirt, then my shirt. … It really was a lot like when we’d fought out on the quad earlier – that same passion and heat. I think at the end of the day, the instincts that power fighting and sex aren’t so different. They all come from an animal side of us.
Yet, as more and more clothes came off, it went beyond just animal passion. It was sweet and wonderful at the same time. When I looked into his eyes, I could see without a doubt that he loved me more than anyone else in the world, that I was his salvation, the same way that he was mine. I’d never expected my first time to be in a cabin in the woods, but I realized the place didn’t matter. The person did. With someone you loved, you could be anywhere, and it would be incredible. Being in the most luxurious bed in the world wouldn’t matter if you were with someone you didn’t love.
And oh, I loved him. I loved him so much that it hurt. All of our clothes finally ended up in a pile on the floor, but the feel of his skin on mine was more than enough to keep me warm. I couldn’t tell where my body ended and his began, and I decided then that was how I always wanted it to be. I didn’t want us to ever be apart.
I wish I had the words to describe sex, but nothing I can say would really capture how amazing it was. I felt nervous, excited, and about a gazillion other things. Dimitri seemed so wise and skilled and infinitely patient – just like with our combat trainings. Following his lead seemed like a natural thing, but he was also more than willing to let me take control too. We were equals at last, and every touch held power, even the slightest brushing of his fingertips.
When it was over, I lay back against him. My body hurt…yet at the same time, it felt amazing, blissful and content. I wished I’d been doing this a long time ago, but I also knew it wouldn’t have been right until exactly this moment.
I rested my head on Dimitri’s chest, taking comfort in his warmth. He kissed my forehead and ran his fingers through my hair.
“I love you, Roza.” He kissed me again. “I’ll always be here for you. I’m not going to let anything happen to you.”
The words were wonderful and dangerous. He shouldn’t have said anything like that to me. He shouldn’t have been promising he’d protect me, not when he was supposed to dedicate his life to protecting Moroi like Lissa. I couldn’t be first in his heart, just like he couldn’t be first in mine. That was why I shouldn’t have said what I said next – but I did anyway.
“And I won’t let anything happen to you,” I promised. “I love you.” He kissed me again, swallowing off any other words I might have added.
We lay together for a while after that, wrapped in each other’s arms, not saying much. I could have stayed that way forever, but finally, we knew we had to go. The others would eventually come looking for us to get my report, and if they found us like that, things would almost certainly get ugly.
So we got dressed, which wasn’t easy since we kept stopping to kiss. Finally, reluctantly, we left the cabin. We held hands, knowing we could only do so for a few brief moments. Once we were closer to the heart of campus, we’d have to go back to business as usual. But for now, everything in the world was golden and wonderful. Every step I took was filled with joy, and the air around us seemed to hum.
Questions still spun in my mind, of course. What had just happened? Where had our so-called control gone? For now, I couldn’t care. My body was still warm and wanting him and – I suddenly stopped. Another feeling – a very unwelcome one – was steadily creeping over me. It was strange, like faint and fleeting waves of nausea mingled with a prickling against my skin. Dimitri stopped immediately and gave me a puzzled look.
A pale, slightly luminescent form materialized in front of us. Mason. He looked the same as ever – or did he? The usual sadness was there, but I could see something else, something else I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Panic? Frustration? I could have almost sworn it was fear, but honestly, what would a ghost have to be afraid of?
“What’s wrong?” asked Dimitri.
“Do you see him?” I whispered.
Dimitri followed my gaze. “See who?”
Mason’s troubled expression grew darker. I might not have been able to adequately identify it, but I knew it wasn’t anything good. The nauseous feeling within me intensified, but somehow, I knew it had nothing to do with him.
“Rose… we should go back…” said Dimitri carefully. He still wasn’t on board with me seeing ghosts.
But I didn’t move. Mason’s face was saying something else to me – or trying to. There was something here, something important that I needed to know. But he couldn’t communicate it.
“What?” I asked. “What is it?
A look of frustration crossed his face. He pointed off behind me, then dropped his hand.
“Tell me,” I said, my frustration mirroring his. Dimitri was looking back and forth between me and Mason, though Mason was probably only an empty space to him.
I was too fixated on Mason to worry what Dimitri might think. There was something here. Something big. Mason opened his mouth, wanting to speak as in previous times but still unable to get the words out. Except, this time, after several agonizing seconds, he managed it. The words were nearly inaudible.
“They’re … coming….”