Vampire Academy Chapter 24

TWENTY-FOUR

IN SPITE OF ALL THE training I’d received, all the lessons on Strigoi habits and how to defend against them, I’d never ever actually seen one.It was scarier than I’d expected.

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This time, when she swung at me again, I was ready.Sort of.

I dodged back, slipping out of reach, wondering what chance I had. I remembered Dimitri’s joke about the mall. No silver stake. Nothing to cut her head off with. No way to set her on fire. Running seemed like the best option after all, but she was blocking my way.

Feeling useless, I simply backed down the hall as she advanced on me, her movements far more graceful than they’d ever been in life.

Then, also faster than she’d ever moved in life, she leapt out, grabbed me, and slammed my head against the wall. Pain exploded in my skull, and I felt pretty sure that was blood I tasted in the back of my mouth. Frantically, I fought against her, trying to mount some kind of defense, but it was like fighting Dimitri on crack.

“My dear,” murmured Victor, “try not to kill her if you don’t have to. We might be able to use her later.”

Natalie paused in her attack, giving me a moment to back up, but she never took her cold eyes off me. “I’ll try not to.”

There was a skeptical tone in her voice. “Get out of here now. I’ll meet you there when I’m done.”

“I can’t believe you!” I yelled after him. “You got your own daughter to turn Strigoi?”

“A last resort. A necessary sacrifice made for the greater good. Natalie understands.” He left.

“Do you?” I hoped I could stall her with talking, just like in the movies. I also hoped my questions would hide how utterly and completely terrified I was. “Do you understand? God, Natalie. You…you turned. Just because he told you to?”

“My father’s a great man,” she replied. “He’s going to save the Moroi from the Strigoi.”

“Are you insane?” I cried. I was backing up again and suddenly hit the wall. My nails dug into it, as though I could dig my way through. “You are a Strigoi.”

She shrugged, almost seeming like the old Natalie. “I had to do it to get him out of here before the others came. One Strigoi to save all of the Moroi. It’s worth it, worth giving up the sun and the magic.”

“But you’ll want to kill Moroi! You won’t be able to help it.”

“He’ll help me stay in control. If not, then they’ll have to kill me.” She reached out and grabbed my shoulders, and I shuddered at how casually she talked about her own death. It was almost as casual as the way she was no doubt contemplating my death.

“You are insane. You can’t love him that much. You can’t really – “

She threw me into a wall again, and as my body collapsed in a heap on the floor, I had a feeling I wouldn’t be getting up this time. Victor had told her not to kill me…but there was a look in her eyes, a look that said she wanted to. She wanted to feed off me; the hunger was there. It was the Strigoi way. I shouldn’t have talked to her, I realized. I’d hesitated, just as Dimitri had warned.

And then, suddenly, he was there, charging down the hallway like Death in a cowboy duster.

Natalie spun around. She was fast, so fast. But Dimitri was fast too and avoided her attack, a look of pure power and strength on his face. With an eerie fascination, I watched them move, circling each other like partners in a deadly dance. She was stronger than him, clearly, but she was also a fresh Strigoi. Gaining superpowers doesn’t mean you know how to use them.

Dimitri, however, knew how to use the ones he had. After both giving and receiving some vicious hits, he made his move. The silver stake flashed in his hand like a streak of lightning, then it snaked forward – into her heart. He yanked it out and stepped back, his face impassive as she screamed and fell to the floor. After a few horrible moments, she stopped moving.

Just as quickly, he was leaning over me, slipping his arms under my body. He stood up, carrying me like he had when I hurt my ankle.

“Hey, Comrade,” I murmured, my own voice sounding sleepy. “You were right about Strigoi.” The world started to darken, and my eyelids drooped.

“Rose. Roza. Open your eyes.” I’d never heard his voice so strained, so frantic. “Don’t go to sleep on me. Not yet.”

I squinted up at him as he carried me out of the building, practically running toward the clinic. “Was he right?”

“Who?”

“Victor…he said it couldn’t have worked. The necklace.”

I started to drift off, lost in the blackness of my mind, but Dimitri prompted me back to consciousness.

“What do you mean?”

“The spell. Victor said you had to want me…to care about me…for it to work.” When he didn’t say anything, I tried to grip his shirt, but my fingers were too weak. “Did you? Did you want me?”

His words came out thickly. “Yes, Roza. I did want you. I still do. I wish…we could be together.”

“Then why did you lie to me?”

We reached the clinic, and he managed to open the door while still holding me. As soon as he stepped inside, he began yelling for help.

“Why did you lie?” I murmured again.

Still holding me in his arms, he looked down at me. I could hear voices and footsteps getting closer.

“Because we can’t be together.”

“Because of the age thing, right?” I asked. “Because you’re my mentor?”

His fingertip gently wiped away a tear that had escaped down my cheek. “That’s part of it,” he said. “But also…well, you and I will both be Lissa’s guardians someday. I need to protect her at all costs. If a pack of Strigoi come, I need to throw my body between them and her.”

“I know that. Of course that’s what you have to do.

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” The black sparkles were dancing in front of my eyes again. I was fading out.

“No. If I let myself love you, I won’t throw myself in front of her. I’ll throw myself in front of you.”

The medical team arrived and took me out of his arms.

And that was how, two days after being discharged, I ended up back in the clinic. My third time in the two months we’d been back at the Academy. It had to be some kind of record. I definitely had a concussion and probably internal bleeding, but we never really found out. When your best friend is a kick-ass healer, you sort of don’t have to worry about those things.

I still had to stay there for a couple of days, but Lissa – and Christian, her new sidekick – almost never left my side when they weren’t in class. Through them, I learned bits and pieces about the outside world. Dimitri had realized there was a Strigoi on campus when they’d found Natalie’s victim dead and drained of blood: Mr. Nagy of all people. A surprising choice, but since he was older, he’d been able to put up less of a fight. No more Slavic art for us. The guardians in the detention center had been injured but not killed. She’d simply slammed them around as she had me.

Victor had been found and recaptured while trying to escape campus. I was glad, even though it meant Natalie’s sacrifice had been for nothing. Rumors said that Victor hadn’t seemed afraid at all when the royal guards came and carried him away. He’d simply smiled the whole time, like he had some secret they didn’t know about.

Inasmuch as it could, life returned to normal after that. Lissa did no more cutting. The doctor prescribed her something – an anti-depressant or anti-anxiety drug, I couldn’t remember which – that made her feel better. I’d never really known anything about those kinds of pills. I thought they made people silly and happy. But it was a pill like any other, meant to fix something, and mostly it just kept her normal and feeling stable.

Which was a good thing – because she had some other issues to deal with. Like Andre. She’d finally believed Christian’s story, and allowed herself to acknowledge that Andre might not have been the hero she’d always believed him to be. It was hard on her, but she finally reached a peaceful decision, accepting that he could have had both good and bad sides, like we all do. What he’d done to Mia saddened her, but it didn’t change the fact that he’d been a good brother who loved her. Most importantly, it finally freed her from feeling like she needed to be him to make her family proud. She could be herself – which she proved daily in her relationship with Christian.

The school still couldn’t get over that. She didn’t care. She laughed it off, ignoring the shocked looks and disdain from the royals who couldn’t believe she’d date someone from a humiliated family. Not all of them felt that way though. Some who had gotten to know her during her brief social whirlwind actually liked her for her, no compulsion necessary. They liked her honesty and openness, preferring it to the games most royals played.

A lot of royals ignored her, of course, and talked viciously about her behind her back. Most surprising of all, Mia – despite being utterly humiliated – managed to wiggle back into the good graces of a couple of these royals. It proved my point. She wouldn’t stay down for long. And, in fact, I saw the first signs of her revenge lurking again when I walked past her one day on the way to class. She stood with a few other people and spoke loudly, clearly wanting me to hear.

” – perfect match. Both of them are from completely disgraced and rejected families.”

I clenched my teeth and kept walking, following her gaze to where Lissa and Christian stood. They were lost in their own world and formed a gorgeous picture, she blond and fair and he blue-eyed and black-haired. I couldn’t help but stare too. Mia was right. Both of their families were disgraced. Tatiana had publicly denounced Lissa, and while no one “blamed” the Ozeras for what had happened to Christian’s parents, the rest of the royal Moroi families continued to keep their distance.

But Mia had been right about the other part too. In some ways, Lissa and Christian were perfect for each other. Maybe they were outcasts, but the Dragomirs and Ozeras had once been among the most powerful Moroi leaders. And in only a very short time, Lissa and Christian had started shaping one another in ways that could put them right up there with their ancestors. He was picking up some of her polish and social poise; she was learning to stand up for her passions. The more I watched them, the more I could see an energy and confidence radiating around them.

They weren’t going to stay down either.

And I think that, along with Lissa’s kindness, may have been what attracted people to her. Our social circle began to steadily grow. Mason joined, of course, and made no secret of his interest in me. Lissa teased me a lot about that, and I didn’t yet know what to do about him. Part of me thought maybe it was time to give him a shot as a serious boyfriend, even though the rest of me yearned for Dimitri.

For the most part, Dimitri treated me just like anyone would expect of a mentor. He was efficient. Fond. Strict. Understanding. There was nothing out of the ordinary, nothing that would make anyone suspect what had passed between us – save for an occasional meeting of our eyes. And once I overcame my initial emotional reaction, I knew he was – technically – right about us. Age was a problem, yes, particularly while I was still a student at the Academy. But the other thing he’d mentioned…it had never entered my mind. It should have. Two guardians in a relationship could distract each other from the Moroi they were supposed to protect. We couldn’t allow that to happen, couldn’t risk her life for our own wants. Otherwise, we’d be no better than the Badica guardian who’d run off. I’d told Dimitri once that my own feelings didn’t matter. She came first.

I just hoped I could prove it.

“It’s too bad about the healing,” Lissa told me.

“Hmm?” We sat in her room, pretending to study, but my mind was off thinking about Dimitri. I’d lectured her about keeping secrets, but I hadn’t told her about him or about how close I’d come to losing my virginity. For some reason, I couldn’t bring myself to tell.

She dropped the history book she’d been holding. “That I had to give up the healing. And the compulsion.” A frown crossed her face at that last part. The healing had been regarded as a wondrous gift in need of further study; the compulsion had met with serious reprimands from Kirova and Ms. Carmack. “I mean, I’m happy now. I should have gotten help a long time ago – you were right about that. I’m glad I’m on the medication. But Victor was right too. I can’t use spirit anymore. I can still sense it, though…I miss being able to touch it.”

I didn’t entirely know what to say. I liked her better like this. Losing that threat of madness had made her whole again, confident and outgoing, just like the Lissa I’d always known and loved. Seeing her now, it was easy to believe what Victor had said about her becoming a leader. She reminded me of her parents and of Andre – how they used to inspire devotion in those who knew them.

“And that’s another thing,” she continued. “He said I couldn’t give it up. He was right. It hurts, not having the magic. I want it so badly sometimes.”

“I know,” I said. I could feel that ache within her. The pills had dulled her magic, but not our bond.

“And I keep thinking about all the things I could do, all the people I could help.” She looked regretful.

“You have to help yourself first,” I told her fiercely. “I don’t want you getting hurt again. I won’t let you.”

“I know. Christian says the same thing.” She got that dopey smile she always did when she thought about him. If I’d known what idiots being in love would make them, I might not have been so keen to get them back together. “And I guess you guys are right. Better to want the magic and be sane than to have it and be a lunatic. There’s no middle ground.”

“No,” I agreed. “Not with this.”

Then, out of nowhere, a thought smacked me in the head. There was a middle ground. Natalie’s words reminded me of it. It’s worth it, worth giving up the sun and the magic.

The magic.

Ms. Karp hadn’t become Strigoi simply because she’d gone crazy. She’d become Strigoi to stay sane. Becoming Strigoi cut a person completely off from magic. In doing that, she couldn’t use it. She couldn’t feel it. She wouldn’t want it anymore. Staring at Lissa, I felt a knot of worry coil within me.

What if she figured that out? Would she want to do it too? No, I quickly decided. Lissa would never do that. She was too strong a person, too moral. And so long as she stayed on the pills, her higher reasoning would keep her from doing something so drastic.

Still, the whole concept prodded me to find out one last thing. The following morning, I went to the chapel and waited in one of the pews until the priest showed up.

“Hello, Rosemarie,” he said, clearly surprised. “Can I help you with something?”

I stood up. “I need to know more about St. Vladimir. I read that book you gave me and a couple others.” Best not to tell him about stealing the ones in the attic. “But nobody told how he died. What happened? How did his life end? Was he, like, martyred?”

The priest’s bushy eyebrows rose. “No. He died of old age. Peacefully.”

“You’re sure? He didn’t become Strigoi or kill himself?”

“No, of course not. Why would you think that?”

“Well…he was holy and everything, but he was also kind of crazy, right? I read about it. I thought he might have, I don’t know, given into that.”

His face was serious. “It’s true he fought demons – insanity – his whole life. It was a struggle, and he did want to die sometimes. But he overcame it. He didn’t let it defeat him.”

I stared in wonder. Vladimir wouldn’t have had pills, and he’d clearly continued to use magic.

“How? How did he do that?”

“Willpower, I guess. Well…” He paused. “That and Anna.”

“Shadow-kissed Anna,” I murmured. “His guardian.”

The priest nodded. “She stayed with him. When he grew weak, she was the one who held him up. She urged him to stay strong and to never give in to his madness.”

I left the chapel in a daze. Anna had done it. Anna had let Vladimir walk that middle ground, helping him to work miracles in the world without meeting a horrible end. Ms. Karp hadn’t been as lucky. She hadn’t had a bound guardian. She hadn’t had anyone to hold her up.

Lissa did.

Smiling, I cut across the quadrangle toward the commons. I felt better about life than I had in a very long time. We could do this, Lissa and me. We could do it together.

Just then, I saw a dark figure out of the corner of my eye. It swooped past me and landed on a nearby tree. I stopped walking. It was a raven, large and fierce-looking, with shining black feathers.

A moment later, I realized it wasn’t just a raven; it was the raven. The one Lissa had healed. No other bird would land so close to a dhampir. And no other bird would be looking at me in such an intelligent, familiar way. I couldn’t believe he was still around. A chill ran down my spine, and I started to back up. Then the truth hit me.

“You’re bound to her too, aren’t you?” I asked, fully aware that anyone who saw me would think I was crazy. “She brought you back. You’re shadow-kissed.”

That was actually pretty cool. I held out my arm to it, half hoping it’d come land on me in some sort of dramatic, movie-worthy gesture. All it did was look at me like I was an idiot, spread its wings, and fly off.

I glared as it flew off into the twilight. Then I turned around and headed off to find Lissa. From far away, I heard the sound of cawing, almost like laughter.

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