I’D NEVER HAD SO MUCH trouble staying out of Lissa’s head before, but then, we’d never been through anything like this together either.The strength of her thoughts and feelings kept trying to pull me in as I hurried through the forest.
Running through the brush and woods, Christian and I moved farther and farther from the cabin.Man, how I wished Lissa had stayed back there.
I would have loved to see the raid through her eyes. But that was behind us now, and as I ran, Dimitri’s push on laps and stamina paid off. She wasn’t moving very quickly, and I could feel the distance closing between us, giving me a more precise idea of her location. Likewise, Christian couldn’t keep up with me. I started to slow for him but soon realized the foolishness of that.
So did he. “Go,” he gasped out, waving me on.
When I reached a point close enough to her that I thought she could hear me, I called out her name, hoping to get her to turn around. Instead, what answered me was a set of howls – a soft canine baying.
Psi-hounds. Of course. Victor had said he hunted with them; he could control those beasts. I suddenly understood why no one at school recalled sending psi-hounds after Lissa and me in Chicago. The Academy hadn’t arranged that; Victor had.
A minute later, I reached a clearing where Lissa cringed, back against a tree. From her looks and bond feelings, she should have fainted long ago. Only the barest scraps of willpower kept her hanging on. Wide-eyed and pale, she stared in horror at the four psi-hounds cornering her. Noticing the full sunlight, it occurred to me that she and Christian had another obstacle to contend with out here.
“Hey,” I yelled at the hounds, trying to draw them toward me. Victor must have sent them to trap her, but I hoped they’d sense and respond to another threat – especially a dhampir. Psi-hounds didn’t like us any better than other animals did.
Sure enough, they turned on me, teeth bared and drool coming out of their mouths. They resembled wolves, only with brown fur and eyes that glowed like orange fire. He’d probably ordered them not to harm her, but they had no such instructions regarding me.
Wolves. Just like in science class. What had Ms. Meissner said? A lot of confrontations were all about willpower? Bearing this mind, I tried to project an alpha attitude, but I don’t think they fell for it. Any one of them outweighed me. Oh yeah – they also outnumbered me. No, they didn’t have anything to be scared of.
Trying to pretend this was just a free-for-all match with Dimitri, I picked up a branch from the ground that had about the same heft and weight as a baseball bat. I’d just positioned it in my hands when two of the hounds jumped me. Claws and teeth bit into me, but I held my own surprisingly well as I tried to remember everything I’d learned in the last two months about fighting bigger and stronger opponents.
I didn’t like hurting them. They reminded me too much of dogs. But it was me or them, and survival instincts won out. One of them I managed to beat to the ground, dead or unconscious I didn’t know. The other was still on me, still coming on fast and furious. His companions looked ready to join him, but then a new competitor burst on the scene – sort of. Christian.
“Get out of here,” I yelled at him, shaking off my hound as its claws ripped into the bare skin of my leg, nearly toppling me over. I was still wearing the dress, though I’d shed the heels a while ago.
But Christian, like any lovesick guy, didn’t listen. He picked up a branch as well and swung it at one of the hounds. Flames burst from the wood. The hound backed up, still compelled to follow Victor’s orders, though also clearly afraid of the fire.
Its companion, the fourth hound, circled away from the torch and came up behind Christian. Smart little bastard. It sprang at Christian, hitting him back first. The branch flew from his hands, the fire immediately going out. Both hounds then leapt onto his fallen form. I finished my hound – again feeling sick over what I had to do to subdue it – and moved toward the other two, wondering if I had the strength to take on these last ones.
But I didn’t have to. Rescue appeared in the form of Alberta, emerging through some trees.
With a gun in hand, she shot the hounds without hesitation. Boring as hell perhaps – and completely useless against Strigoi – but against other things? Guns were tried and true. The hounds stopped moving and slumped next to Christian’s body.
And Christian’s body…
All three of us made our way over to it – Lissa and I practically crawling. When I saw it, I had to look away. My stomach lurched, and it took a lot of effort not to throw up. He wasn’t dead yet, but I didn’t think he had much longer.
Lissa’s eyes, wide and distraught, drank him in. Tentatively, she reached out toward him and then dropped her hand.
“I can’t,” she managed in a small voice. “I don’t have the strength left.”
Alberta, leathery face both hard and compassionate, gently tugged her arm. “Come on, Princess. We need to get out of here. We’ll send help.”
Turning back to Christian, I forced myself to look at him and let myself feel how much Lissa cared about him.
“Liss,” I said hesitantly. She looked over at me, like she’d forgotten I was even there. Wordlessly, I brushed my hair away from my neck and tilted it toward her.
She stared for a moment, blank-faced; then understanding shone in her eyes.
Those fangs that lurked behind her pretty smile bit into my neck, and a small moan escaped my lips. I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed it, that sweet, wonderful pain followed by glorious wonder. Bliss settled over me. Dizzying. Joyful. Like being in a dream.
I don’t entirely remember how long Lissa drank from me. Probably not that long. She would never even consider drinking the quantities that would kill a person and make her a Strigoi. She finished, and Alberta caught me as I started to sway.
Dizzily, I watched as Lissa leaned over Christian and rested her hands on him. In the distance, I heard the other guardians crashing through the forest.
No glowing or fireworks surrounded the healing. It all took place invisibly, occurring between Lissa and Christian. Even though the bite’s endorphins had numbed my connection to her, I remembered Victor’s healing and the wonderful colors and music she must be bringing forth.
A miracle unfolded before my eyes, and Alberta gasped. Christian’s wounds closed. The blood dried up. Color – as much as a Moroi ever had, at least – returned to his cheeks. His eyelids fluttered, and his eyes regained their life again. Focusing on Lissa, he smiled. It was like watching a Disney movie.
I must have keeled over after that, because I don’t remember anything else.
Eventually, I woke up in the Academy’s clinic, where they forced fluids and sugar into me for two days. Lissa stayed by my side almost the entire time, and slowly, the events of the kidnapping unfolded.
We had to tell Kirova and a few choice others about Lissa’s powers, how she’d healed Victor and Christian and, well, me. The news was shocking, but the administrators agreed to keep it secret from the rest of the school. No one even considered taking Lissa away like they had Ms. Karp.
Mostly all the other students knew was that Victor Dashkov had kidnapped Lissa Dragomir. They didn’t know why. Some of his guardians had died when Dimitri’s band attacked – a damned shame, when guardian numbers were so low already. Victor was now being held under 24/7 guard at the school, waiting for a royal regiment of guardians to carry him away. The Moroi rulers might be a mostly symbolic government within another country’s larger government, but they had systems of justice, and I’d heard about Moroi prisons. Not any place I’d want to be.
As for Natalie…that was trickier. She was still a minor, but she’d conspired with her father. She’d brought in the dead animals and kept an eye on Lissa’s behavior – even before we left. Being an earth user like Victor, she’d also been the one to rot the bench that broke my ankle. After she’d seen me hold Lissa back from the dove, she and Victor realized that they needed to injure me to get to her – it was their only chance to get her to heal again. Natalie had simply waited for a good opportunity. She wasn’t locked up or anything yet, and the Academy didn’t know what to do with her until a royal command came.
I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her. She was so awkward and self-conscious. Anyone could have manipulated her, let alone her father, whom she loved and from whom she so desperately wanted attention. She would have done anything. Rumor said she’d stood screaming outside the detention center, begging them to let her see him. They’d refused and hauled her away.
Meanwhile, Lissa and I slipped back into our friendship like nothing had happened. In the rest of her world, a lot had happened. After all that excitement and drama, she seemed to gain a new sense of what mattered to her. She broke up with Aaron. I’m sure she did it very nicely, but it still had to be hard on him. She’d dropped him twice now. The fact that his last girlfriend had cheated on him probably wasn’t helping his confidence any.
And without any more hesitation, Lissa started dating Christian, not caring about the consequences to her reputation. Seeing them out in public, holding hands, made me do a double take. He didn’t seem able to believe it himself. The rest of our classmates were almost too stunned to even comprehend it yet. They could barely process acknowledging his existence, let alone him being with someone like her.
My own romantic state was less rosy than hers – if you could even call it a romantic state. Dimitri hadn’t visited me during my recovery, and our practices were indefinitely suspended. It wasn’t until the fourth day after Lissa’s kidnapping that I ran into him in the gym. We were alone.
I had come back for my gym bag and froze when I saw him, unable to speak. He started to walk past and then stopped.
“Rose…” he began after several uncomfortable moments. “You need to report what happened. With us.”
I’d been waiting a long time to talk to him, but this wasn’t the conversation I’d imagined.
“I can’t do that. They’ll fire you. Or worse.”
“They should fire me. What I did was wrong.”
“You couldn’t help it. It was the spell…”
“It doesn’t matter. It was wrong. And stupid.”
Wrong? Stupid? I bit my lip, and tears threatened to fill my eyes. I quickly tried to regain my composure. “Look, it’s not a big deal.”
“It is a big deal! I took advantage of you.”
“No,” I said evenly. “You didn’t.”
There must have been something telling in my voice because he met my eyes with a deep and serious intensity.
“Rose, I’m seven years older than you. In ten years, that won’t mean so much, but for now, it’s huge. I’m an adult. You’re a child.”
Ouch. I flinched. Easier if he’d just punched me.
“You didn’t seem to think I was a child when you were all over me.”
Now he flinched. “Just because your body…well, that doesn’t make you an adult. We’re in two very different places. I’ve been out in the world. I’ve been on my own. I’ve killed, Rose – people, not animals. And you…you’re just starting out. Your life is about homework and clothes and dances.”
“That’s all you think I care about?”
“No, of course not. Not entirely. But it’s all part of your world. You’re still growing up and figuring out who you are and what’s important. You need to keep doing that. You need to be with boys your own age.”
I didn’t want boys my own age. But I didn’t say that. I didn’t say anything.
“Even if you choose not to tell, you need to understand that it was a mistake. And it isn’t ever going to happen again,” he added.
“Because you’re too old for me? Because it isn’t responsible?”
His face was perfectly blank. “No. Because I’m just not interested in you in that way.”
I stared. The message – the rejection – came through loud and clear. Everything from that night, everything I’d believed so beautiful and full of meaning, turned to dust before my eyes.
“It only happened because of the spell. Do you understand?”
Humiliated and angry, I refused to make a fool of myself by arguing or begging. I just shrugged. “Yeah. Understood.”
I spent the rest of the day sulking, ignoring both Lissa and Mason’s attempts to draw me out of my room. It was ironic that I should want to stay inside. Kirova had been impressed enough by my performance with the rescue to end my house arrest.
Before school the next day, I made my way to where Victor was being held. The Academy had honest-to-goodness cells, complete with bars, and two guardians stood watch in the hallway nearby. It took a little bit of finagling on my part to get them to let me inside to talk to him. Even Natalie wasn’t allowed in. But one of the guardians had ridden with me in the SUV and watched me undergo Lissa’s torture. I told him I needed to ask Victor about what he’d done to Lissa. It was a lie, but the guardians bought it and felt sorry for me. They allowed me five minutes to speak, backing up a discrete distance down the hall where they could see but not hear.
Standing outside Victor’s cell, I couldn’t believe I’d once felt sorry for him. Seeing his new and healthy body enraged me. He sat cross-legged on a narrow bed, reading. When he heard me approach, he looked up.
“Why Rose, what a nice surprise. Your ingenuity never fails to impress me. I didn’t think they’d allow me any visitors.”
I crossed my arms, trying to put on a look of total guardian fierceness. “I want you to break the spell. Finish it off.”
“What do you mean?”
“The spell you did on me and Dimitri.”
“That spell is done. It burned itself out.”
I shook my head. “No. I keep thinking about him. I keep wanting to…”
He smiled knowingly when I didn’t finish. “My dear, that was already there, long before I set that up.”
“It wasn’t like this. Not this bad.”
“Maybe not consciously. But everything else…the attraction – physical and mental – was already in you. And in him. It wouldn’t have worked otherwise. The spell didn’t really add anything new – it just removed inhibitions and strengthened the feelings you already had for each other.”
“You’re lying. He said he didn’t feel that way about me.”
“He’s lying. I tell you, the spell wouldn’t have worked otherwise, and honestly, he should have known better. He had no right to let himself feel that way. You can be forgiven for a schoolgirl’s crush. But him? He should have demonstrated more control in hiding his feelings. Natalie saw it and told me. After just a few observations of my own, it was obvious to me too. It gave me the perfect chance to distract you both. I keyed the necklace’s charm for each of you, and you two did the rest.”
“You’re a sick bastard, doing that to me and him. And to Lissa.”
“I have no regrets about what I did with her,” he declared, leaning against the wall. “I’d do it again if I could. Believe what you want, I love my people. What I wanted to do was in their best interest. Now? Hard to say. They have no leader, no real leader. There’s no one worthy, really.” He cocked his head toward me, considering. “Vasilisa actually might have been such a one – if she could ever have found it within herself to believe in something and overcome the influence of spirit. It’s ironic, really. Spirit can shape someone into a leader and also crush her ability to remain one. The fear, depression, and uncertainty take over, and keep her true strength buried deep within her. Still, she has the blood of the Dragomirs, which is no small thing. And of course, she has you, her shadow-kissed guardian. Who knows? She may surprise us yet.”
” ?®Shadow-kissed’?” There it was again, the same thing Ms. Karp had called me.
“You’ve been kissed by shadows. You’ve crossed into Death, into the other side, and returned. Do you think something like that doesn’t leave a mark on the soul? You have a greater sense of life and the world – far greater than even I have – even if you don’t realize it. You should have stayed dead. Vasilisa brushed Death to bring you back and bound you to her forever. You were actually in its embrace, and some part of you will always remember that, always fight to cling to life and experience all it has. That’s why you’re so reckless in the things you do. You don’t hold back your feelings, your passion, your anger. It makes you remarkable. It makes you dangerous.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. I was speechless, which he seemed to like.
“It’s what created your bond, too. Her feelings always press out of her, onto others. Most people can’t pick up on them unless she’s actually directing her thoughts toward them with compulsion. You, however, have a mind sensitive to extrasensory forces – hers in particular.” He sighed, almost happily, and I remembered reading that Vladimir had saved Anna from death. That must have made their bond, too. “Yes, this ridiculous Academy has no idea what they have in either you or her. If not for the fact that I needed to kill you, I would have made you part of my royal guard when you were older.”
“You never would’ve had a royal guard. Don’t you think people would have been weirded out by you suddenly recovering like that? Even if no one found out about Lissa, Tatiana never would have made you king.”
“You may be right, but it doesn’t matter. There are other ways of taking power. Sometimes it’s necessary to go outside the established channels. Do you think Kenneth is the only Moroi who follows me? The greatest and most powerful revolutions often start very quietly, hidden in the shadows.” He eyed me. “Remember that.”
Odd sounds came from the detention center’s entrance, and I glanced toward where I’d come in. The guardians who had let me in were gone. From around the corner, I heard a few grunts and thumps. I frowned and craned my head to get a better look.
Victor stood up. “Finally.”
Fear spiked down my spine – at least until I saw Natalie round the corner.
Mixed sympathy and anger flitted through me, but I forced a kind smile. She probably wouldn’t see her father again once they took him. Villain or no, they should be allowed to say goodbye.
“Hey,” I said, watching her stride toward me. There was an unusual purpose in her movements that some part of me whispered wasn’t right. “I didn’t think they’d let you in.” Of course, they weren’t supposed to have let me in either.
She walked right up to me and – no exaggeration – launched me against the far wall. My body hit it hard, and black star-bursts danced across my vision.
“What?…” I put a hand to my forehead and tried to get up.
Unconcerned about me now, Natalie unlocked Victor’s cell with a set of keys I’d seen on one of the guardian’s belts. Staggering to my feet, I approached her.
“What are you doing?”
She glanced up at me, and that’s when I saw it. The faint ring of red around her pupils. Skin too pale, even for a Moroi. Blood smudged around her mouth. And most telling of all, the look in her eyes. A look so cold and so evil, my heart nearly came to a standstill. It was a look that said she no longer walked among the living – a look that said she was now one of the Strigoi.