DEAD OR TAKEN AWAY.
It wasn’t enough that the Strigoi had come and attacked us, that they’d killed Moroi and dhampirs alike.They’d also carried some off.It was something Strigoi were known to do.
Even they had limits on how much blood they could drink at once. So they’d often take prisoners to keep as snacks for later. Or sometimes a powerful Strigoi who didn’t want to do the dirty work would send his or her minions off to bring back the prey. Every once in a while, they’d even purposely take back captives to turn into more Strigoi. Whatever the reason, it meant that some of our people might still be alive.
Students, Moroi and dhampir, were gathered up once certain buildings had been declared Strigoi-free. Adult Moroi were herded inside with us, leaving the guardians to assess the damage. I wanted desperately to be with them, to help and do my part, but they made it clear my part was over. There was nothing I could do at that point except wait and worry with the others. It still seemed unreal. Strigoi attacking our school. How could it have happened? The Academy was safe. We’d always been taught that. It had to be safe. It was why our school years were so long and why Moroi families endured being separated for most of the year. It was worth it for children to have a safe place to go.
That was no longer true.
It took only a couple hours for them to get a casualty count, but waiting while those reports trickled in felt like days. And the numbers…the numbers were harsh. Fifteen Moroi had been killed. Twelve guardians had been killed. A group of thirteen, both Moroi and dhampirs, had been taken away. The guardians estimated that there had been close to fifty Strigoi, which was beyond mind-boggling. They’d found twenty-eight Strigoi bodies. The rest appeared to have escaped, many taking victims with them.
For that size of a Strigoi party, our casualty count was still lower than one might have expected. A few things were credited for saving us. One was the early warning. The Strigoi had barely penetrated the school’s inner grounds when I’d warned Stan. The school had gone into lockdown quickly, and the fact that most everyone was already inside for curfew had helped. Most of the Moroi victims – dead or taken – were those who had been out in the open when the Strigoi came.
The Strigoi had never made it into the elementary dorms, which Dimitri said was largely thanks to me and Christian. They had managed to breach one of the Moroi dorms, however – the one that Lissa lived in. My stomach had dropped when I heard that. And even though I could feel that she was fine through the bond, all I could see was that smirking blond Strigoi, telling me he was going to finish the Dragomirs off. I didn’t know what had happened to him; the attacking Strigoi group hadn’t gotten far into her dorm, thankfully, but there had been casualties.
One of them was Eddie.
“What?” I exclaimed when Adrian told me.
We were eating in the cafeteria. I wasn’t sure which meal it was since the campus had reverted to a daylight schedule that threw my sense of timing off. The cafeteria was nearly silent, all conversations in low whispers. Meals were the only reason students could leave their dorms. There was going to be a guardian meeting later on that I was actually invited to, but for now, I was confined with the rest of my friends.
“He was with you guys,” I said. I focused on Lissa, almost accusingly. “I saw him with you. Through your eyes.”
She looked up at me over the tray of food she had no interest in eating, her face pale and full of grief. “When the Strigoi got in downstairs, he and some other novices went down to help.”
“They didn’t find his body,” said Adrian. There was no smirk on his face, no humor anywhere. “He was one of the ones they took.”
Christian sighed and leaned back in his chair. “He’s as good as dead, then.”
The cafeteria disappeared. I stopped seeing any of them. All I could see in that moment was that room back in Spokane, that room where we’d been held. They’d tortured Eddie and nearly killed him. That experience had changed him forever, affecting the way he now conducted himself as a guardian. He’d grown extremely dedicated as a result, but it had cost him some of the light and laughter he used to have.
And now it was happening again. Eddie captured. He’d worked so hard to protect Lissa and others, risking his own life in the attack. I’d been nowhere near the Moroi dorm when it had happened, but I felt responsible – like I should have watched over him. Surely I owed it to Mason. Mason. Mason who had died on my watch and whose ghost I hadn’t seen since he’d warned me earlier. I hadn’t been able to save him, and now I’d lost his best friend too.
I shot up from my chair and shoved my tray away. That dark fury I’d been fighting blazed through me. If Strigoi had been around, I could have burned them up with it, without any need of Christian’s magic.
“What’s wrong?” asked Lissa.
I stared at her in disbelief. “What’s wrong? What’s wrong? Do you seriously have to ask that?” In the silent cafeteria, my voice rang out. People stared.
“Rose, you know what she means,” said Adrian, voice unusually calm. “We’re all upset. Sit back down. It’s going to be okay.”
For a moment, I almost listened to him. Then, I shook it off. He was trying to use compulsion to chill me out. I glared at him.
“It is not going to be okay – not unless we do something about this.”
“There’s nothing to be done,” said Christian. Beside him, Lissa was silent, still hurt from when I’d snapped at her.
“We’ll see about that,” I said.
“Rose, wait,” she called. She was worried about me – and scared, too. It was tiny and selfish, but she didn’t want me to leave her. She was used to me being there for her. I made her feel safe. But I couldn’t stay, not right now.
I stormed out of the commons and into the bright light outside. The guardians’ meeting wasn’t for another couple hours, but that didn’t matter. I needed to talk to someone now. I sprinted to the guardians’ building. Someone else was walking into it as I was, and I bumped her in my haste.
My fury turned to surprise. “Mom?”
My famous guardian mother, Janine Hathaway, stood there by the door. She looked the same as she had when I’d seen her at New Year’s, her curly red hair still worn short and her face weathered from the sun. Her brown eyes seemed grimmer than last time, however, which was saying something.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
As I’d told Deirdre, my mother and I had had a troubled relationship for most of my life, largely because of the distance that inevitably came with having a parent who was a guardian. I’d resented her for years and we still weren’t super close, but she’d been there for me after Mason’s death, and I think we both tentatively hoped things might improve in coming years. She’d left after New Year’s, and last I’d heard, she’d gone back to Europe with the Szelsky she guarded.
She opened the door, and I followed her through. Her manner was brusque and businesslike, as always. “Replenishing the numbers. They’ve called in extras to reinforce campus.”
Replenishing the numbers. Replacing the guardians who had been killed. All the bodies had been cleared away – Strigoi, Moroi, and dhampir alike – but the hole left behind by those who were gone was apparent to all. I could still see them when I closed my eyes. But with her here, I realized I had an opportunity. I grabbed hold of her arm, which startled her.
“We have to go after them,” I said. “Rescue the ones who were taken.”
She regarded me carefully, a small frown the only sign of her feelings. “We don’t do that kind of thing. You know that. We have to protect those who are here.”
“What about those thirteen? Shouldn’t we protect them? And you went on a rescue mission once.”
She shook her head. “That was different. We had a trail. We wouldn’t know where to find this group if we wanted to.”
I knew she was right. The Strigoi wouldn’t have left an easy path to follow. And yet… suddenly, I had an idea.
“They put the wards back up, right?” I asked.
“Yes, almost immediately. We’re still not sure how they were broken. There were no stakes used to pierce them.”
I started to tell her my theory about that, but she wasn’t up to speed with my ghostly shenanigans. “Do you know where Dimitri is?”
She gestured toward groups of guardians hurrying all around. “I’m sure he’s busy here somewhere. Everyone is. And now I need to go check in. I know you were invited to the meeting, but that’s not for a while yet – you should stay out of the way.”
“I will… but I need to see Dimitri first. It’s important – it might play a role in what happens at the meeting.”
“What is it?” she asked suspiciously.
“I can’t explain yet…It’s complicated. It’d take too much time. Help me find him, and we’ll tell you later.”
My mother didn’t seem happy about this. After all, Janine Hathaway wasn’t someone people usually said no to. But she nonetheless helped me find Dimitri. After the events over winter break, I think she’d come to regard me as more than a hapless teenager. We found Dimitri with some other guardians, studying a map of campus and planning how to distribute the newly arrived guardians. There were enough people gathered around the map that he was able to slip away.
“What’s going on?” he asked as he and I stood off to the side of the room. Even in the midst of this crisis, in the midst of worrying so much about others, I could tell that there was part of him that worried just about me. “Are you okay?”
“I think we should launch a rescue mission,” I said.
“You know we – “
” – don’t usually do that. Yeah, yeah. And I know we don’t know where they are … except, I might.”
He frowned. “How?”
I told him how it had been Mason who’d warned us last night. Dimitri and I had had no time to talk alone since then, so we’d never really debriefed on the events of the attack. We also hadn’t really had a chance to talk about what had happened in the cabin. It made me feel weird because really, that was all I wanted to think about, but I couldn’t. Not with so much else going on. So I kept trying to shove those memories of sex away, only to have them keep popping up and entangle my emotions further.
Hoping I seemed cool and competent, I continued explaining my ideas. “Mason’s locked out now because the wards are back up, but somehow … I think he knows where the Strigoi are. I think he could show us where they are.” Dimitri’s face told me he had his doubts about this. “Come on! You have to believe me after what happened.”
“I’m still having a hard time with that,” he admitted. “But okay. Suppose this is true. You think he can just lead us? You can ask him and he’ll do it?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I think I can. I’ve been fighting him all this time, but I think if I actually try to work with him, he’ll help. I think that’s what he’s always wanted. He knew the wards were weak and that the Strigoi had been lying in wait. The Strigoi can’t be too far away from us … they had to have stopped for daylight and hidden out somewhere. We might be able to get to them before the captives die. And once we get close enough, I can actually find them.” I then explained the nauseous feeling I’d gotten when Strigoi were around. Dimitri didn’t challenge this. I think too many weird things were going on for him to even question it.
“But Mason isn’t here. You said he can’t get through the wards. How will you get him to help us?” he asked.
I’d been thinking about this. “Take me to the front gates.”
After a quick word to Alberta about “investigating something,” Dimitri led me outside, and we walked the long way to the entrance to the school. Neither of us said anything as we walked. Even in the midst of all this, I still kept thinking of the cabin, of being in his arms. In some ways, it was part of what helped me cope with all the rest of this horror. I had a feeling it was on his mind too.
The entrance to the school consisted of a long stretch of iron fence that lay right on top of the wards. A road that wound from the main highway twenty miles away came up to the gate, which was almost always kept closed. Guardians had a small booth here, and the area was monitored at all times of the day.
They were surprised by our request, but Dimitri insisted it would just be for a moment. They slid the heavy gate open, revealing a space only big enough for one person to get through at a time. Dimitri and I stepped outside. A headache almost immediately built up behind my eyes, and I started to see faces and shapes. It was just like at the airport. When I was outside of wards, I could see all sorts of spirits. But I understood it now and no longer feared it. I needed to control it.
“Go away,” I said to the gray, looming forms around me. “I don’t have time for you. Go.” I put as much force as I could into my will and my voice, and to my astonishment, the ghosts faded. A faint hum remained with me, reminding me they were still out there, and I knew if I let down my guard even a moment, it would all hit me again. Dimitri was eyeing me with concern.
I nodded and peered around. There was one ghost I wanted to see.
“Mason,” I said. “I need you.” Nothing. I summoned back up the command I’d used on the other ghosts just a moment ago. “Mason. Please. Come here.”
I saw nothing except the road in front of us winding off into the winter-dead hills. Dimitri was giving me that look from last night, the one that said he was deeply concerned for my mental health. And actually, I was worried at that moment too. Last night’s warning had been the final proof for me that Mason was real. But now …
A minute later, his shape materialized before me, looking a little paler than before. For the first time since all this had begun, I was happy to see him. He, of course, looked sad. Same old same old.
“Finally. You were making me look bad.” He simply stared, and I immediately felt bad for joking. “I’m sorry. I need your help again. We have to find them. We have to save Eddie.”
“Can you show me where they are?”
He nodded again and turned, pointing off in a direction that was almost directly behind me.
“They came in through the back of campus?”
He nodded yet again, and like that, I knew what had happened. I knew how the Strigoi had gotten in, but there was no time to dwell on that just now. I turned to Dimitri. “We need a map,” I said.
He walked back through the gate and spoke a few words to one of the guardians on duty. A moment later, he returned with a map and unfolded it. It showed the layout of campus, as well as the surrounding roads and terrain. I took it from him and held it out to Mason, trying to keep it flat in the whipping wind.
The only true road out from the school was right in front of us. The rest of the campus was surrounded by forests and steep cliffs. I pointed to a spot at the back of the school’s grounds. “This is where they came in, isn’t it? Where the wards first broke?”
Mason nodded. He held out his finger and without touching the map, traced a route through the woods that flanked the edge of a small mountain. Following it long enough eventually led to a small dirt road that joined an interstate many miles away. I followed where he pointed and suddenly had my doubts about using him as a guide.
“No, that’s not right,” I said. “It can’t be. This stretch of woods by the mountain has no roads. They’d have to go on foot, and it’d take too long to walk from the school to this other road. They wouldn’t have had enough time. They’d be caught in daylight.”
Mason shook his head – to disagree with me, apparently – and again traced the route back and forth. In particular, he kept pointing to a spot not far beyond the Academy’s grounds. At least, it wasn’t far away on the map. The map wasn’t particularly detailed, and I guessed the spot was probably a few miles away. He held his finger there, looked at me, and then looked back down.
“They can’t be there now,” I argued. “It’s outside. They might have come in through the back, but they had to have left through the front – gotten in some kind of vehicle and took off.”
Mason shook his head.
I looked up at Dimitri, frustrated. I felt like the clock was ticking on us, and Mason’s weird assertion that the Strigoi were a few miles away, outdoors in the daytime, was stirring up my irritable nature. I sincerely doubted they’d gotten out tents and were camping.
“Is there any building or anything out there?” I demanded, pointing at the spot Mason had indicated. “He says they were going out to that road. But they couldn’t have walked there before the sun came up, and he claims they’re there.”
Dimitri’s eyes narrowed thoughtfully. “Not that I know of.” He took the map from me and brought it to the other guardians to check with them. While they talked, I glanced back at Mason.
“You better be right about this,” I warned him.
“Have you…have you seen them? The Strigoi and their captives?”
“Is Eddie still alive?”
He nodded, and Dimitri walked over.
“Rose…” There was a strange sound to Dimitri’s voice as he brought the map back, like he couldn’t entirely believe what he was saying. “Stephen says there are caves right at the base of the mountain here.”
I met Dimitri’s eyes, no doubt looking just as astonished as he did. “Are they big enough – “
“Big enough for the Strigoi to hide out in until nighttime?” Dimitri nodded. “They are. And they’re only five miles away.”