Heal him? My thoughts echoed hers.
“You’re the only way,” he said patiently.“The only way to cure this disease.I’ve been watching you for years, waiting until I was certain.”
Lissa shook her head.
“I can’t…no. I can’t do anything like that.”
“Your healing powers are incredible. No one has any idea just how powerful.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Come now, Vasilisa. I know about the raven – Natalie saw you do it. She’d been following you. And I know how you healed Rose.”
She realized the pointlessness of denying it. “That…was different. Rose wasn’t that hurt. But you…I can’t do anything about Sandovsky’s Syndrome.”
“Not that hurt?” he laughed. “I’m not talking about her ankle – which was still impressive. I’m talking about the car accident. Because you’re right, you know. Rose didn’t get ?®that hurt.’ She died.”
He let the words sink in.
“That’s…no. She lived,” Lissa finally managed.
“No. Well, yes, she did. But I read all the reports. There was no way she should have survived – especially with so many injuries. You healed her. You brought her back.” He sighed, half wistful and half weary. “I’d suspected you could do this for so long, and I tried so hard to repeat it…to see how much you could control…”
Lissa caught on and gasped. “The animals. It was you.”
“With Natalie’s help.”
“Why would you do that? How could you?”
“Because I had to know. I have only a few more weeks to live, Vasilisa. If you can truly bring back the dead, then you can cure Sandovsky’s. I had to know before I took you away that you could heal at will and not just in moments of panic.”
“Why take me at all?” A spark of anger flared up in her. “You’re my near-uncle. If you wanted me to do this – if you really think I can…” Her voice and feelings showed me she didn’t really entirely believe she could heal him. “Then why kidnap me? Why didn’t you just ask?”
“Because it’s not a onetime affair. It took a long time to figure out what you are, but I managed to acquire some of the old histories…scrolls kept out of Moroi museums. When I read about how wielding spirit works – “
“Spirit. It’s what you’ve specialized in.”
“I haven’t specialized in anything! You’re crazy.”
“Where else do you think these powers of yours have come from? Spirit is another element, one few people have any more.”
Lissa’s mind was still reeling from the kidnapping and the possible truth that she’d brought me back from the dead. “That doesn’t make any sense. Even if it wasn’t common, I still would have heard of another element! Or of someone having it.”
“No one knows about spirit anymore. It’s been forgotten. When people do specialize in it, nobody realizes it. They think the person simply hasn’t specialized at all.”
“Look, if you’re just trying to make me feel – ” She abruptly cut herself off. She was angry and afraid, but behind those emotions, her higher reasoning had been processing what he’d said about spirit users and specializing. It now caught up with her. “Oh my God. Vladimir and Ms. Karp.”
He gave her a knowing look. “You’ve known about this all along.”
“No! I swear. It’s just something Rose was looking into…She said they were like me…” Lissa was starting to change from a little scared to all scared. The news was too shocking.
“They are like you. The books even say Vladimir was ?®full of spirit.’ ” Victor seemed to find that funny. Seeing that smile made me want to slap him.
“I thought…” Lissa still wanted him to be wrong. The idea of not specializing was safer than specializing in some freakish element. “I thought that meant, like, the Holy Spirit.”
“So does everyone else, but no. It’s something else entirely. An element that’s within all of us. A master element that can give you indirect control over the others.” Apparently my theory about her specializing in all the elements wasn’t so far off.
She worked hard to get a grip on this news and her own self-control. “That doesn’t answer my question. It doesn’t matter if I have this spirit thing or whatever. You didn’t have to kidnap me.”
“Spirit, as you’ve seen, can heal physical injuries. Unfortunately, it’s only good on acute injuries. Onetime things. Rose’s ankle. The accident wounds. For something chronic – say, a genetic disease like Sandovsky’s – continual healings are required. Otherwise it will keep coming back. That’s what would happen to me. I need you, Vasilisa. I need you to help me fight this and keep it away. So I can live.”
“That still doesn’t explain why you took me,” she argued. “I would have helped you if you’d asked.”
“They never would have let you do it. The school. The council. Once they got over the shock of finding a spirit user, they’d get hung up on ethics. After all, how does one choose who gets to be healed? They’d say it wasn’t fair. That it was like playing God. Or else they’d worry about the toll it’d take on you.”
She flinched, knowing exactly what toll he referred to.
Seeing her expression, he nodded. “Yes. I won’t lie to you. It will be hard. It will exhaust you – mentally and physically. But I must do it. I am sorry. You’ll be provided with feeders and other entertainments for your services.”
She leapt from the chair. Ben immediately stepped forward and pushed her back into it. “And then what? Are you going to just make me a prisoner here? Your own private nurse?”
He made that annoying open-palmed gesture again. “I’m sorry. I have no choice.”
White-hot anger blasted away the fear inside of her. She spoke in a low voice. “Yes. You don’t have the choice, because this is me we’re talking about.”
“It’s better for you this way. You know how the others turned out. How Vladimir spent the last of his days stark, raving mad. How Sonya Karp had to be taken away. The trauma you’ve experienced since the accident comes from more than just your family’s loss. It’s from using spirit. The accident woke the spirit in you; your fear over seeing Rose dead made it burst out, allowing you to heal her. It forged your bond. And once it’s out, you can’t put it back. It’s a powerful element – but it’s also dangerous. Earth users get their power from the earth, air users from the air. But spirit? Where do you think that comes from?”
“It comes from you, from your own essence. To heal another, you must give part of yourself. The more you do that, the more it will destroy you over time. You must be noticing that already. I’ve seen how much certain things upset you, how fragile you are.”
“I’m not fragile,” snapped Lissa. “And I’m not going to go crazy. I’m going to stop using spirit before things get worse.”
He smiled. “Stop using it? You might as well stop breathing. Spirit has its own agenda…You’ll always have the urge to help and heal. It’s part of you. You resisted the animals, but you didn’t think twice about helping Rose. You can’t even help compulsion – which spirit also gives you special strength in. And that’s how it will always be. You can’t avoid spirit. Better to stay here, in isolation, away from further sources of stress. You’d either have become increasingly unstable at the Academy, or they would have put you on some pill that would have made you feel better but stunted your power.”
A calm core of confidence settled inside her, one very different from what I’d observed over the last couple of years. “I love you, Uncle Victor, but I’m the one who has to deal with that and decide what to do. Not you. You’re making me give up my life for yours. That’s not fair.”
“It’s a matter of which life means more. I love you too. Very much. But the Moroi are falling apart. Our numbers are dropping as we let the Strigoi prey upon us. We used to actively seek them out. Now Tatiana and the other leaders hide away. They keep you and your peers isolated. In the old days, you were trained to fight alongside your guardians! You were taught to use magic as a weapon. Not any longer. We wait. We are victims.” As he stared off, both Lissa and I could see how caught up in his passion he was. “I would have changed that if I were king. I would have brought about a revolution the likes of which neither Moroi nor Strigoi have ever seen. I should have been Tatiana’s heir. She was ready to name me before they discovered the disease, and then she would not. If I were cured…if I were cured, I could take my rightful place…”
His words triggered something inside of Lissa, a sudden consideration for the state of the Moroi. She’d never contemplated what he’d said, about how different it might be if Moroi and their guardians fought side by side to rid the world of the Strigoi and their evil. It reminded her of Christian and what he’d said about using magic as a weapon too. But even if she did appreciate Victor’s convictions, neither of us thought it was worth what he wanted her to do.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m sorry for you. But please don’t make me do this.”
“I have to.”
She looked him straight in the eye. “I won’t do it.”
He inclined his head, and someone stepped forward from the corner. Another Moroi. No one I knew. Walking around behind Lissa, he untied her hands.
“This is Kenneth.” Victor held his hands out toward her free ones. “Please, Vasilisa. Take my hands. Send the magic through me just as you did with Rose.”
She shook her head. “No.”
His voice was less kindly when he spoke again. “Please. One way or another, you will heal me. I’d rather it be on your terms, not ours.”
She shook her head again. He made a slight gesture toward Kenneth.
And that’s when the pain started.
Lissa screamed. I screamed.
In the SUV, Dimitri’s grip on the wheel jerked in surprise, making us veer. Casting me an alarmed look, he started to pull over.
“No, no! Keep going!” I pressed my palms to my temples. “We have to get there!”
From behind my seat, Alberta reached forward and rested a hand on my shoulder. “Rose, what’s happening?”
I blinked back tears. “They’re torturing her…with air. This guy…Kenneth…he’s making it press against her…into her head. The pressure’s insane. It feels like my – her – skull’s gonna explode.” I started sobbing.
Dimitri looked at me out of the corner of his eye and pressed the gas pedal down harder.
Kenneth didn’t stop with just the physical force of air. He also used it to affect her breathing. Sometimes he’d smother her with it; other times he’d take it all away and leave her gasping. After enduring all that firsthand – and it was bad enough secondhand – I felt pretty confident I would have done anything they wanted.
And finally, she did.
Hurting and bleary-eyed, Lissa took Victor’s hands. I’d never been in her head when she worked magic and didn’t know what to expect. At first, I felt nothing. Just a sense of concentration. Then…it was like…I don’t even know how to describe it. Color and light and music and life and joy and love…so many wonderful things, all the lovely things that make up the world and make it worth living in.
Lissa summoned up all of those things, as many as she could, and sent them into Victor. The magic flowed through both of us, brilliant and sweet. It was alive. It was her life. And as wonderful as it all felt, she was growing weaker and weaker. But as all of those elements – bound by the mysterious spirit element – flowed into Victor, he grew stronger and stronger.
The change was startling. His skin smoothed, no longer wrinkled and pocked. The gray thinning hair filled out, turning dark and lustrous once more. The green eyes – still jadelike – sparkled again, turning alert and lively.
He’d become the Victor she remembered from her childhood.
Exhausted, Lissa passed out.
In the SUV, I tried to relate what was happening. Dimitri’s face grew darker and darker, and he spat out a string of Russian swear words he still hadn’t taught me the meanings of.
When we were a quarter mile from the cabin, Alberta made a call on her cell phone, and our whole convoy pulled over. All of the guardians – more than a dozen-got out and stood huddled, planning strategy. Someone went ahead to scout and returned with a report on the number of people inside and outside of the cabin. When the group seemed ready to disperse, I started to get out of the car. Dimitri stopped me.
“No, Roza. You stay here.”
“The hell with that. I have to go help her.”
He cupped my chin with his hands, fixing me with his eyes. “You have helped her. Your job is done. You did it well. But this isn’t any place for you. She and I both need you to stay safe.”
Only the realization that arguing would delay the rescue kept me quiet. Swallowing back any protests, I nodded. He nodded back and joined the others. All of them slipped off into the woods, blending with the trees.
Sighing, I kicked the passenger seat back and lay down. I was so tired. Even though the sun poured through the windshield, it was night for me. I’d been up for most of it, and a lot had happened in that time. Between the adrenaline of my own role and sharing Lissa’s pain, I could have passed out just like she had.
Except that she was awake now.
Slowly, her perceptions dominated mine once more. She lay on a couch in the cabin. One of Victor’s henchmen must have carried her there after she’d fainted. Victor himself – alive and well now, thanks to his abuse of her – stood in the kitchen with the others as they all spoke in low voices about their plans. Only one stood near Lissa, keeping watch. He’d be easy to take down when Dimitri and the Badass Team burst inside.
Lissa studied the lone guardian and then glanced at a window beside the couch. Still dizzy from the healing, she managed to sit up. The guardian turned around, watching her warily. She met his eyes and smiled.
“You’re going to stay quiet no matter what I do,” she told him. “You aren’t going to call for help or tell anyone when I leave. Okay?”
The thrall of compulsion slid over him. He nodded in agreement.
Moving toward the window, she unlocked it and slid the glass up. As she did, a tumble of considerations played through her mind. She was weak. She didn’t know how far from the Academy – from anything, really – she was. She had no clue how far she could get before someone noticed.
But she also knew she might not get another chance at escape. She had no intention of spending the rest of her life in this cabin in the woods.
At any other time, I would have cheered on her boldness, but not this time. Not when all those guardians were about to save her. She needed to stay put. Unfortunately, she couldn’t hear my advice.
Lissa climbed out the window, and I swore out loud.
“What? What’d you see?” asked a voice behind me.
I jerked up from my reclining position in the car, banging my head on the ceiling. Glancing behind me, I found Christian peering up from the cargo space behind the farthest backseats.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“What’s it look like? I’m a stowaway.”
“Don’t you have a concussion or something?”
He shrugged like it didn’t matter. What a great pair he and Lissa were. Neither afraid to take on crazy feats while seriously injured. Still, if Kirova had made me stay behind, I would have been right beside him in the back.
“What’s happening?” he asked. “Did you see something new?
Hastily, I told him. I also got out of the car as I spoke. He followed.
“She doesn’t know our guys are already coming for her. I’m going to go get her before she kills herself with exhaustion.”
“What about the guardians? The school’s, I mean. Are you going to tell them she’s gone?”
I shook my head. “They’re probably already busting down the cabin’s door. I’m going after her.” She was somewhere off to the right side of the cabin. I could head in that direction but wouldn’t be able to get very precise until I was much closer to her. Still, it didn’t matter. I had to find her. Seeing Christian’s face, I couldn’t resist giving him a dry smile. “And yeah, I know. You’re going with me.”