AND ONE OF THEM… ONE OF THEM…
“No,” I breathed, even as I sprang toward the one closest to me–a woman.There appeared to be three Strigoi around us.
Eddie was in motion too, and both of us were trying to shove the Moroi behind us.They didn’t need much urging.
At the sight of Strigoi, the Moroi had begun to back up–creating sort of a bottleneck. Between Eddie’s instant reflexes and the Moroi panic, I was pretty sure no one had noticed what I already had spotted.
Dimitri was among them.
No, no, no, I said, this time to myself. He’d warned me. Over and over, he’d said in his letters that as soon as I was out of the safety of the wards, he would be coming for me. I’d believed him and yet… seeing the reality of it was a totally different thing. It had been three months, but in that instant, a million memories ran through my mind in crystal clear sharpness. My captivity with Dimitri. The way his mouth–so, so warm, despite his cold skin–had kissed mine. The feel of his fangs pressing into my neck and the sweet bliss that followed…
He looked exactly the same too, with that chalky white pallor and red-ringed eyes that so conflicted with the soft, chin-length brown hair and otherwise gorgeous lines of his face. He even had a leather duster on. It had to be a new one, seeing as his previous coat had gotten pretty torn up in our last fight on the bridge. Where did he keep getting them?
“Get out!” I yelled. My words were to the Moroi, even as my stake bit into the female Strigoi’s heart. The momentary confusion with all of us in the hall had been more of a detriment to her than me. I got a good line of sight on her, and it was clear that she hadn’t expected me to be so fast. I’d killed a lot of Strigoi because they’d underestimated me.
Eddie didn’t have my luck. He stumbled when Victor shoved past him, allowing the other Strigoi–a guy–near the front to backhand Eddie against the wall. Still, that was the kind of thing we faced all the time, and Eddie responded beautifully. He immediately came back from the hit, and with the Moroi out of the way now, Eddie was able to lunge toward the Strigoi and engage him fully.
And me? My attention was on Dimitri.
I stepped over the fallen Strigoi without even looking at her. Dimitri had hovered near the back, sending his minions into the front lines of battle. Maybe it was because I knew Dimitri so well, but I suspected he wasn’t surprised that I’d take out the one so quickly and that Eddie was giving the other a tough time. I doubted Dimitri cared whether they lived or died. They were just distractions for him to get to me.
“I told you,” said Dimitri, eyes both amused and sharp. He was watching my every move, each of us subconsciously mirroring the other as we waited for an opening to attack. “I told you I’d find you.”
“Yeah,” I said, trying to ignore the grunts of Eddie and the other Strigoi. Eddie could take him. I knew he could. “I got the memos.”
A ghost of a smile curled up Dimitri’s lips, showing the fangs that somehow triggered a mix of both longing and loathing in me. Instantly, I shoved those feelings aside. I’d hesitated before with Dimitri and nearly died because of it. I’d refused to let it happen again, and the adrenaline pumping through my body served as a good reminder that this was a do-or-die situation.
He made the first move, but I dodged it–almost having sensed it coming. That was the problem with us. We knew each other too well–knew each other’s moves too well. Of course, that hardly meant we were an even match. Even in life, he’d had more experience than me, and his Strigoi abilities tipped the scale.
“Yet here you are,” he said, still smiling. “Foolishly stepping outside when you should have stayed in the safety of Court. I couldn’t believe it when my spies told me.”
I said nothing, instead attempting a swipe with my stake. He saw that coming too and sidestepped it. His having spies didn’t surprise me–even in the daytime. He controlled a network of Strigoi and humans alike, and I’d known he had eyes and ears observing Court. The question was: How the hell had he gotten into this hotel in the middle of the day? Even with human watchers at the airport or monitoring credit cards as Adrian had done, Dimitri and his Strigoi friends should have had to wait until nightfall to get here.
No, not necessarily, I realized a moment later. Strigoi occasionally had work-arounds. Trucks and vans with dark, completely sealed cabins. Underground entrances. Moroi wanting to casino-jump from the Witching Hour knew about secret tunnels connecting certain buildings. Dimitri would have known about all this too. If he’d been waiting for me to come outside of wards, he would have done whatever it took to get to me. I knew better than anyone else how resourceful he was.
I also knew he was trying to distract me with talking.
“And strangest of all,” he continued, “you didn’t come alone. You brought Moroi. You’ve always taken risks with your own life, but I didn’t expect you to be so hasty with theirs.”
Something occurred to me then. Aside from the faint hum of the casino on the other end of the hallway and the sounds of our fight, everything else was silent. We were missing an important noise. Say, like, the alarm from a fire door.
“Lissa!” I yelled. “Get the hell out of here! Get them all out of here.”
She should have known better. They all should have known better. That door led to the upper floors–and outdoors. The sun was still out. It didn’t matter if the alarm brought hotel security down on us.
Hell, that might scare the Strigoi off. What mattered was that the Moroi fled to safety.
But a quick check of my bond told me the problem. Lissa was frozen. Stunned. She’d suddenly seen who I was fighting, and the shock of it was too much. Knowing Dimitri was a Strigoi was one thing. Seeing it–really, really seeing it–well, that was different. I knew from personal experience. Even after being prepared, his appearance still unnerved me. She was blindsided, unable to think or move.
It only took me a heartbeat to assess her feelings, but in a fight with a Strigoi, a single second could be the difference between life and death. Dimitri’s chatter had worked, and although I watched him and thought I had my guard up, he got through and shoved me against the wall, hands pinning my arms so painfully that I lost my grip on the stake.
He put his face right up to mine, so close that our foreheads touched. “Roza…” he murmured. His breath was warm and sweet against my skin. It seemed like it should have smelled like death or decay, but it didn’t. “Why? Why did you have to be so difficult? We could have spent eternity together…”
My heart thundered in my chest. I was afraid, terrified of the death that I knew had to be seconds away. And at the same time, I was filled with sorrow over having lost him. Seeing the features of his face, hearing that same accented voice that even now wrapped around me like velvet… I felt my heart breaking all over again. Why? Why had this happened to us? Why was the universe so cruel?
I managed to flip the switch again, once more shutting out the fact that this was Dimitri. We were predator and prey–and I was in danger of being eaten.
“Sorry,” I said through gritted teeth, shoving hard–and failing–to break his grip. “My eternity doesn’t involve being part of the undead mafia.”
“I know,” he said. I could have sworn there was sadness in his face but later convinced myself I must have imagined it. “Eternity will be lonely without you.”
A piercing shriek suddenly rang in my ears. Both of us winced. Noises intended to startle humans were hell on sensitive hearing like we had. Yet I couldn’t help but feel relief. The fire door. Finally, those idiots–and yes, I had no qualms about calling my friends idiots when they were acting that way–had left the building. I felt sunlight through the bond and took comfort in that as Dimitri’s fangs neared the artery that would spill the life’s blood from my neck.
I hoped the alarm would distract him, but he was too good. I struggled once more, hoping I could use surprise on him, but it was to no avail. What did surprise him was Eddie’s stake plunging into the side of his stomach.
Dimitri snarled in pain and let go of me, turning on Eddie. Eddie’s face was hard, unblinking. If seeing Dimitri fazed him, my friend didn’t show it. For all I knew, Eddie wasn’t even registering this as Dimitri. Probably all he saw was a Strigoi. It was the way we were trained. See monsters, not people.
Dimitri’s attention was off me for the moment. He wanted to draw out my death. Eddie was simply an annoyance he needed to rid us of so that he could continue the game.
Eddie and Dimitri engaged in a dance similar to the one I’d been in with Dimitri earlier, except that Eddie didn’t know Dimitri’s moves like I did. So Eddie wasn’t able to completely avoid Dimitri grabbing him by the shoulder and shoving him to the wall. The maneuver had been intended to crush Eddie’s skull, but Eddie managed to shift enough so that it was his body that took the brunt of the impact. It still hurt, but he was alive.
All of this took place in milliseconds. And in those fleeting moments, my perspective shifted. When Dimitri had been looming over me, about to bite me, I had managed to overcome that impulse to think of him as Dimitri, the person I’d once known and loved. Continually forced into a victim position, with my life about to end, I had kept kicking myself into fight-fight-fight mode.
Now, watching someone else battle Dimitri… seeing Eddie’s stake snake out at him… well, suddenly, I lost that cool objectivity. I remembered why I’d come here. I remembered what we’d just learned from Robert.
Fragile. It was still all so fragile. I’d sworn to myself that if we reached a moment where Dimitri was about to kill me and I hadn’t learned more about saving Strigoi, I would do it. I would kill him. And this was my chance. Between Eddie and me, we could take Dimitri down. We could end this evil state, just as he’d once wanted.
Yet… less than a half hour ago, I’d been given a small piece of hope that a Strigoi could be saved. True, that part about a spirit user doing it was absurd, but Victor had believed. And if someone like him had believed…
I couldn’t do it. Dimitri couldn’t die. Not yet.
I shot out with my stake, a hard strike that raked the silver point against the back of Dimitri’s head. He let out a roar of rage and managed to turn and push me off while still fending Eddie away. Dimitri was that good. But Eddie’s stake was getting closer to Dimitri’s heart, and my friend’s gaze was unwavering, intent on his kill.
Dimitri’s attention flitted between the two of us, and in one small lapse–only half a breath long–I saw Eddie get his stake in the zone, ready to take a shot at Dimitri’s heart. A shot that looked like it might succeed where mine had failed.
And that was why, in one smooth motion, I struck out with my stake, swiping it across Dimitri’s face and knocking Eddie’s arm aside as I did. It was a beautiful face. I hated to mar it but knew Dimitri would heal. As I made that attack, I pushed past him, shoving into Eddie so that he and I stumbled toward the fire door that was still shrieking its warning. Eddie’s stony face registered surprise, and for a moment we were deadlocked: me pushing him to the door and him pushing back toward Dimitri. I saw the hesitation, though. The positioning was off, and Eddie was on the verge of shoving me into a Strigoi, which his training wouldn’t allow.
Dimitri was already seizing the opportunity, though. His hand reached out and grabbed my shoulder, trying to jerk me back. Eddie caught hold of my arm and pulled me forward. I cried out in surprise and pain. It felt like they were going to rip me in two. Dimitri was by far the strongest, but even stuck in the middle, my weight played a role, and I lent my force to Eddie’s, which helped us gain some ground. Still, it was slow going. Like walking in honey. For each step I managed forward, Dimitri dragged me back.
But Eddie and I were making slow–and very, very painful–progress toward the wailing door. A few moments later, I heard the clatter of feet and voices. “Security,” grunted Eddie, giving me a tug.
“Shit,” I said.
“You can’t win,” Dimitri hissed. He’d managed to get both hands on my shoulders now and was overpowering us.
“Oh yeah? We’re about to have the entire Luxor Attack Squad here.”
“We’re about to have a pile of bodies here. Humans,” he said dismissively.
Those humans reached us. I’m not sure what their impressions were. Some guy attacking teenagers? They shouted about us all letting go and facing them, directions the three of us ignored in our epic tug-of-war match. Then they must have laid hands on Dimitri. He was still gripping me, but his hold slackened enough that one huge pull from Eddie and a near-leap on my part broke me free. Eddie and I didn’t even look back, though the security guards were now shouting at us too.
They weren’t the only ones shouting. Just before I pushed open the door, I heard Dimitri calling to me. There was laughter in his voice. “It’s not over, Roza. Do you really think there’s anywhere you can go in this world where I can’t find you?” The same warning, always the same warning.
I did my best to ignore the fear those words inspired. Eddie and I burst into smoggy desert air, as well as sunshine that was still hanging in there, despite being early evening. We were in the Luxor’s parking lot–which wasn’t crowded enough for us to hide in. With no spoken communication, he and I tore off toward the busy Strip, knowing our physical abilities would surpass those of any human pursuers and let us get lost in the mobs of people.
It worked. I never saw how many followed us. My guess was the security staff were devoting their attention to the tall guy killing people in their hotel. The voices shouting after us faded, and Eddie and I finally slowed to a stop in front of New York-New York, and again, without even talking, we immediately turned inside the hotel. It had a twisted layout and was more crowded than the Luxor, and we easily blended in until we could find an empty spot of wall on the far side of the hotel’s casino.
The run had been hard even for us, and it took us a moment to catch our breath as we stood there. I knew things were serious when Eddie finally turned on me, and anger lit his features. Eddie was always the picture of calm and control, ever since his first abduction by Strigoi last year. It had toughened him, made him more determined to face any challenge. But oh, was he mad at me now.
“What the hell was that?” exclaimed Eddie. “You let him go!”
I put on my best tough face, but he seemed to be outdoing me today. “What, did you miss the part where I was slashing him with my stake?”
“I had his heart! I had a shot, and you stopped me!”
“Security was coming. We didn’t have time. We had to get out of there, and we couldn’t let them see us do the killing.”
“I don’t think any of them are left to report seeing anything,” Eddie replied evenly. He seemed to be trying to regain his composure. “Dimitri left a pile of corpses there. You know it. People died because you wouldn’t let me stake him.”
I flinched, realizing Eddie was right. It should have ended there. I hadn’t gotten a good look at the number of security guards. How many had died? It wasn’t relevant. Only the fact that innocent people had died mattered. Even one was too many. And it was my fault.
My silence caused Eddie to press his advantage. “How could you of all people forget that lesson? I know he used to be your instructor–used to be. But he’s not the same. They drilled that into us over and over. Don’t hesitate. Don’t think of him as a real person.”
“I love him,” I blurted out, without meaning to. Eddie hadn’t known. Only a handful of people knew about my romantic relationship with Dimitri and what had happened in Siberia.
“What?” Eddie exclaimed with a gasp. His outrage had transformed to shock.
“Dimitri… he’s more than my instructor…”
Eddie continued staring at me for several heavy seconds. “Was,” he said at last.
“He was more than your instructor. You loved him.” Eddie’s momentary confusion was gone. He was back to hard guardian now, no sympathy. “I’m sorry, but it’s in the past, whatever was between you. You have to know that. The person you loved is gone. The guy we just saw? Not the same.”
I slowly shook my head. “I… I know. I know it’s not him. I know he’s a monster, but we can save him… if we can do what Robert was telling us about….”
Eddie’s eyes widened, and for a moment, he was dumbstruck. “That’s what this is about? Rose, that’s ridiculous! You can’t believe that. Strigoi are dead. They’re gone to us. Robert and Victor were feeding you a bunch of crap.”
Now I grew surprised. “Then why are you even here? Why have you stuck with us?”
He threw his hands up in exasperation. “Because you’re my friend. I stayed with you through all of this… breaking out Victor, listening to his crazy brother… because I knew you needed me. You all did, to help keep you safe. I thought you had a real reason for getting Victor out–and that you were going to return him. Does it sound crazy? Yeah, but that’s normal for you. You’ve always had good reasons for what you do.” He sighed. “But this… this is crossing a line. Letting Strigoi go in order to chase some idea–some idea that couldn’t possibly work–is ten times worse than what we did with Victor. A hundred times worse. Every day Dimitri walks the world is another day that people are going to die.”
I collapsed against the wall and closed my eyes, feeling sick to my stomach. Eddie was right. I had screwed up. I’d promised myself that I would kill Dimitri if I faced him before we could pursue Robert’s solution. It all should have ended today… but I had choked up. Again.
I opened my eyes and straightened up, needing to find a new purpose before I burst into tears in the middle of this casino. “We have to find the others. They’re out there unprotected.”
It was probably the only thing that could have stopped Eddie’s scolding just then. Instinctual duty kicked in. Protect Moroi.
“Can you tell where Lissa’s at?”
My bond had kept me connected to her during our escape, but I hadn’t allowed myself any deeper probing than confirming she was alive and okay. I expanded the link a little further now. “Across the street. At MGM.” I’d seen the ginormous hotel when we ran into this one but hadn’t realized Lissa was there. Now I could feel her, hiding out in a crowd like us, scared but not injured. I would have rather she and the others opted to hang out in the sun, but instinct had driven her to the shelter of walls.
Eddie and I spoke no more about Dimitri as we headed out and crossed the busy road. The sky was turning peach, but I still felt secure out there. Far more secure than in the Luxor’s hallway. With the bond, I could always find Lissa, and without any hesitation, I led Eddie through MGM’s twists and turns–honestly, the layout of these places just got more and more confusing–until we saw Lissa and Adrian standing near a row of slot machines. He was smoking. She spotted me, sprinted over, and threw her arms around me.
“Oh my God. I was so scared. I didn’t know what had happened to you guys. I hate that one-way bond.”
I forced a smile for her. “We’re fine.”
“In a bruised kind of way,” mused Adrian, strolling over. I didn’t doubt it. In the adrenaline of a fight, it was easy to not notice injuries and pain. Later, when the battle lust faded, you started to realize just what you’d put your body through.
I was so grateful to see Lissa okay that I missed what Eddie had already noticed. “You guys, where are Victor and Robert?”
Lissa’s happy face crumpled, and even Adrian looked grim. “Damn it,” I said, needing no explanation.
Lissa nodded, eyes wide and distraught. “We lost them.”