I didn't think my day could get any worse until my best friend told me she might be going crazy. Again.
"I...what did you say?"
I stood in the lobby of her dorm, leaning over one of my boots and adjusting it. Jerking my head up, I peered at her through the tangle of dark hair covering half my face. I'd fallen asleep after school and had skipped using a hairbrush in order to make it out the door on time. Lissa's platinum blond hair was smooth and perfect, of course, hanging over her shoulders like a bridal veil as she watched me with amusement.
"I said that I think my pills might not be working as well anymore."
I straightened up and shook the hair out of my face. "What does that mean?" I exclaimed. Around us, Moroi hurried past, on their way to meet friends or go to dinner. "Have you started..." I lowered my voice. "Have you started getting your powers back?"
She shook her head, and I saw a small flash of regret in her eyes. "No...I feel closer to the magic, but I still can't use it. Mostly what I'm noticing lately is a little of the other stuff, you know...I'm getting more depressed now and then. Nothing even close to what it used to be," she added hastily, seeing my face. Before she'd gone on her pills, Lissa's moods could get so low that she cut herself. "It's just there a little more than it was."
"What about the other things you used to get? Anxiety? Delusional thinking?"
Lissa laughed, not taking any of this as seriously as I was. "You sound like you've been reading psychiatry textbooks."
I actually had been reading them. "I'm just worried about you. If you think the pills aren't working anymore, we need to tell someone."
"No, no," she said hastily. "I'm fine, really. They're still working...just not quite as much. I don't think we should panic yet. Especially younot today, at least."
Her change in subject worked. I'd found out an hour ago that I would be taking my Qualifier today. It was an examor rather, an interviewall novice guardians had administered to them during junior year at St. Vladimir's Academy. Since I'd been off hiding Lissa last year, I'd missed mine. Today I was being taken to a guardian somewhere off-campus who would administer the test to me. Thanks for the notice, guys.
"Don't worry about me," Lissa repeated, smiling. "I'll let you know if it gets worse."
"Okay," I said reluctantly.
Just to be safe, though, I opened my senses and allowed myself to truly feel her through our psychic bond. She had been telling the truth. She was calm and happy this morning, nothing to worry about. But, far back in her mind, I sensed a knot of uneasy, dark feelings. It wasn't consuming her or anything, but it had the same feel as the bouts of depression and anger she used to get. It was only a trickle, but I didn't like it. I didn't want it there at all. I tried pushing farther inside her to get a better feel for the emotions and suddenly had the weird experience of touching something dark. A sickening sort of feeling seized me, and I jerked out of her head. A small shudder ran through my body.
"You okay?" Lissa asked, frowning. "You look nauseous all of a sudden."
"Just...nervous for the test," I lied. Hesitantly, I reached out through the bond again. The darkness had completely disappeared. No trace. Maybe there was nothing wrong with her pills after all. "I'm fine."
She pointed at a clock. "You won't be if you don't get moving soon."
"Damn it," I swore. She was right. I gave her a quick hug. "See you later!"
"Good luck!" she called.
I hurried off across campus and found my mentor, Dimitri Belikov, waiting beside a Honda Pilot. How boring. I supposed I couldn't have expected us to navigate Montana mountain roads in a Porsche, but it would have been nice to have something cooler.
"I know, I know," I said, seeing his face. "Sorry."
I remembered then that I had one of the most important tests of my life coming up, and suddenly, I forgot all about Lissa and her pills possibly not working. I wanted to protect her, but that wouldn't mean much if I couldn't pass high school and actually become her guardian.
Dimitri stood there, looking as gorgeous as ever. The massive brick building cast long shadows over us, looming like some great beast in the dusky pre-dawn light. Around us, snow was just beginning to fall. I watched the light, crystalline flakes drift gently down. Several landed and promptly melted in his dark hair.
"Who all's going?" I asked.
He shrugged. "Just you and me."
My mood promptly shot up past ?cheerful' and went straight to ?ecstasy.' Me and Dimitri. Alone. In a car. This might very well be worth a surprise test.
"How far away is it?" Silently, I begged for it to be a really long drive. Like, one that would take a week. And would involve us staying overnight in luxury hotels. Maybe we'd get stranded in a snow bank, and only body heat would keep us alive.
A bit less than I'd hoped for. Still, five hours was better than nothing. It didn't rule out the snow bank possibility either.
The dim, snowy roads would have been difficult for humans to see, but they proved no problem for our dhampir eyes. I stared ahead, trying not to think about how Dimitri had on some amazing aftershave that was filling the car with a clean, sharp scent that made me want to melt. Instead, I tried to think about the Qualifier again.
It wasn't the kind of thing you could study for. You either knew it or you didn't. High-up guardians visited novices during their junior year and met individually to discuss students' commitment to being a guardian. I didn't know exactly what was asked, but rumors had trickled down over the years. The older guardians assessed character and dedication, and some novices had been deemed unfit to continue down the guardian path.
"Don't they usually come to the Academy?" I asked Dimitri. "I mean, I don't mind the field trip, but why are we going to them?"
"Actually, you're just going to a him, not a them." A light Russian accent laced Dimitri's words, the only indication of where he'd grown up. Otherwise, I was pretty sure he spoke English better than I did. "Since this is a special case and he's doing us the favor, we're the ones making the trip."
"Who is he?"
I jerked my gaze from the road to Dimitri.
"What?" I squeaked.
Arthur Schoenberg was a legend. He was one of the greatest Strigoi slayers in living guardian history and used to be the head of the Guardians Councilthe group of people who assigned guardians to Moroi and made decisions for all of us. He'd eventually retired and gone back to protecting one of the royal families, the Badicas. Even retired, I knew he was still lethal. His exploits were part of my curriculum.
"Wasn't...wasn't there anyone else available?" I asked in a small voice.
I could see Dimitri hiding a smile. "You'll be fine. Besides, if Art approves of you, that's a great recommendation to have on your record."
Art. Dimitri was on a first name basis with one of the most badass guardians around. Of course, Dimitri was pretty badass himself, so I shouldn't have been surprised.
Silence fell in the car. I bit my lip, suddenly wondering if I'd be able to meet Arthur Schoenberg's standards. My grades were good, but things like running away and getting into fights at school might cast a shadow on how serious I was about my future career.
"You'll be fine," Dimitri repeated. "The good in your record outweighs the bad."
It was like he could read my mind sometimes. I smiled a little and dared a peek at him. It was a mistake. A long, lean body, obvious even while sitting. Bottomless dark eyes. Shoulder-length brown hair tied back at his neck. That hair felt like silk. I knew because I'd run my fingers through it when Victor Dashkov had ensnared us with the lust charm. With great restraint, I forced myself to start breathing again and look away.
"Thanks, coach," I teased, snuggling back into the seat.
"I'm here to help," he replied. His voice was light and relaxedrare for him. He was usually wound up tightly, ready for any attack. Probably he figured he was safe inside a Hondaor at least as safe as he could be around me. I wasn't the only one who had trouble ignoring the romantic tension between us.
"You know what would really help?" I asked, not meeting his eyes.
"If you turned off this crap music and put on something that came out after the Berlin Wall went down."
Dimitri laughed. "Your worst class is History, yet somehow, you know everything about Eastern Europe."
"Hey, gotta have material for my jokes, comrade."
Still smiling, he turned the radio dial. To a country station.
"Hey! This isn't what I had in mind," I exclaimed.
I could tell he was on the verge of laughing again. "Pick. It's one or the other."
I sighed. "Go back to the 1980s stuff."
He flipped the dial, and I crossed my arms over my chest as some vaguely European sounding band sang about how video had killed the radio star. I wished someone would kill this radio.
Suddenly, five hours didn't seem as short as I'd thought.
Arthur and the family he protected lived in a small town along I-90, not far from Billings. The general Moroi opinion was split on places to live. Some argued big cities were the best since they allowed vampires to be lost in the crowds; nocturnal activities didn't raise so much attention. Other Moroi, like this family apparently, opted for less populated towns, believing that if there were fewer people to notice you, then you were less likely to be noticed.
I'd convinced Dimitri to stop for food at a 24-hour diner along the way, and between that and stopping to buy gas, it was around noon when we arrived. The house was built in a rambler style, all one level with gray-stained wood siding and big bay windowstinted to block sunlight, of course. The house looked new and expensive, and even out in the middle of nowhere, it was about what I'd expect for members of a royal family.
I jumped down from the Pilot, my boots sinking through an inch of smooth snow and crunching on the gravel of the driveway. The day was still and silent, save for the occasional breath of wind. Dimitri and I walked up to the house, following a river rock sidewalk that cut through the front yard. I could see him sliding into his business mode, but his overall attitude was as cheery as mine. We'd both taken a kind of guilty satisfaction in the pleasant car ride.
My foot slipped on the ice covered sidewalk, and Dimitri instantly reached out to steady me. I had a weird moment of déjà vu to the first night we'd met, back when he'd also saved me from a similar fall. Freezing temperatures or not, his hand felt warm on my arm, even through the layers of down in my puffer coat.
"You okay?" He released his hold, to my dismay.
"Yeah," I said, casting accusing eyes to the icy sidewalk. "Haven't these people ever heard of salt?"
I meant it jokingly, but Dimitri suddenly stopped walking. I instantly came to a halt too. Tension so palpable it nearly slapped me snapped into place around him. He turned his head, eyes searching the broad, white plains surrounding us before settling back on the house. I wanted to ask questions, but something in his posture told me to stay silent. He studied the building for almost a full minute, looked down at the icy sidewalk, then glanced back at the driveway, covered in a sheet of snow broken only by our footprints.
Cautiously, he approached the front door, and I followed. He stopped again, this time to study the door. It wasn't open, but it wasn't entirely shut either. It looked like it had been closed in haste, not sealing. Further examination showed scuffs along the door's edge, as though it had been forced at some point. The slightest nudge would open it. Dimitri lightly ran his fingers along where the door met its frame, his breath making small clouds in the air. When he touched the door's handle it jiggled a little, like it had been broken.
Finally, he said quietly, "Rose, go wait in the car."
One wordbut one filled with power. In that single syllable I was reminded of the man I'd seen throw people around and stake a Strigoi. I backed up, walking on the snow covered lawn rather than risk the sidewalk. Dimitri stood where he was, not moving until I'd slipped back into the car, closing the door as softly as possible. Then with the gentlest of movements, he pushed on the barely held door and disappeared inside.
Burning with curiosity, I counted to ten and then climbed out of the car.
I knew better than to go in after him, but I had to know what was going on with this house. The neglected sidewalk and driveway indicated no one had been home for a couple days, although it could also mean the Badicas simply never left the house. It was possible, I supposed, that they'd been the victims of an ordinary break-in by humans. It was also possible that something had scared them offsay, like Strigoi. I knew that possibility was what had made Dimitri's face turn so grim, but it seemed an unlikely scenario with Arthur Schoenberg on duty.
Standing on the driveway, I glanced up at the sky. The light was bleak and watery, but it was there. Noon. The sun's highest point today. Strigoi couldn't be out in sunlight. I didn't need to fear them, only Dimitri's anger.
I circled around the right side of the house, walking in much deeper snowalmost a foot of it. Nothing else weird about the house struck me. Icicles hung from the eaves, and the tinted windows revealed no secrets. My foot suddenly hit something, and I looked down. There, half-buried in the snow, was a silver stake. It had been driven into the ground. I picked it up and brushed off the snow, frowning. What was a stake doing out here? Silver stakes were valuable. They were a guardian's most deadly weapon, capable of killing a Strigoi with a single strike through the heart. When they were forged, four Moroi charmed them with magic from each of the four elements. I hadn't learned to use one yet, but gripping it in my hand, I suddenly felt safer as I continued my survey.
A large patio door led from the back of the house to a wooden deck that probably would have been a lot of fun to hang out on in the summer. But the patio's glass had been broken, so much so that a person could easily get through the jagged hole. I crept up the deck steps, careful of the ice, knowing I was going to get in major trouble when Dimitri found out what I was doing. In spite of the cold, sweat poured down my neck.
Daylight, daylight, I reminded myself. Nothing to worry about.
I reached the patio and studied the dark glass. I couldn't tell what had broken it. Just inside, snow had blown in and made a small drift on pale blue carpet. I tugged on the door's handle, but it was locked. Not that that mattered with a hole that big. Careful of the sharp edges, I reached through the opening and unlocked the handle's latch from the inside. I removed my hand just as carefully and pulled open the sliding door. It hissed slightly along its tracks, a quiet sound that nonetheless seemed too loud in the eerie silence.
I stepped through the doorway, standing in the patch of sunlight that had been cast inside by opening the door. My eyes adjusted from the sun to the dimness within. Wind swirled through the open patio, dancing with the curtains around me. I was in a living room. It had all the ordinary items one might expect. Couches. TV. A rocking chair.
And a body.
It was a woman. She lay on her back in front of the TV, her dark hair spilling on the floor around her. Her wide eyes stared upward blankly, her face paletoo pale even for a Moroi. For a moment I thought her long hair was covering her neck too until I realized the darkness across her skin was blooddried blood. Her throat had been ripped out.
The horrible scene was so surreal that I didn't even realize what I was seeing at first. With her posture, the woman might very well have been sleeping. Then, I took in the other body: a man on his side only a couple feet away, dark blood staining the carpet around him. Another body slumped beside the couch: small, child-sized. Across the room was another. And another. There were bodies everywhere, bodies and blood.
The scale of the death around me suddenly registered, and my heart began pounding. No, no. It wasn't possible. It was day. Bad things couldn't happen in daylight. A scream started to rise in my throat, suddenly halted when a gloved hand came from behind me and closed over my mouth. I started to struggle, then I smelled Dimitri's aftershave.
"Why," he asked, "don't you ever listen? You'd be dead if they were still here."
I couldn't answer, both because of the hand and my own shock. I'd seen someone die once, but I'd never seen death of this magnitude. After almost a minute, Dimitri finally removed his hand, but he stayed close behind me. I didn't want to look anymore, but I seemed unable to drag my eyes away from the scene before me. Bodies everywhere. Bodies and blood.
Finally, I turned toward him. "It's daytime," I whispered. "Bad things don't happen in the day." I heard the desperation in my voice, a little girl's plea that someone would say this was all a bad dream.
"Bad things can happen anytime," he told me. "And this didn't happen during the day. This probably happened a couple nights ago."
I dared a peek back at the bodies and felt my stomach twist. Two days. Two days to be dead, to have your existence snuffed outwithout anyone in the world even knowing you were gone. My eyes fell on a man's body near the room's entrance to a hallway. He was tall, too well-built to be a Moroi. Dimitri must have noticed where I looked.
"Arthur Schoenberg," he said.
I stared at Arthur's bloody throat. "He's dead," I said, as though it wasn't perfectly obvious. "How can he be dead? How could a Strigoi kill Arthur Schoenberg?" It didn't seem possible. You couldn't kill a legend.
Dimitri didn't answer. Instead his hand moved down and closed around where my own hand held the stake. I flinched.
"Where did you get this?" he asked. I loosened my grip and let him take the stake.
"Outside. In the ground."
He held up the stake, studying its surface as it shone in the sunlight. "It broke the ward."
My mind, still stunned, took a moment to process what he said. Then, I got it. Wards were magic rings cast by Moroi. Like the stakes, they were made using magic from all four of the elements. They required strong Moroi magic-users, often a couple for each element. The wards could block Strigoi because magic was charged with life, and the Strigoi had none. But wards faded quickly and took a lot of maintenance. Most Moroi didn't use them, but certain places kept them up. St. Vladimir's Academy was ringed with several.
There had been a ward here, but it had been shattered when someone drove the stake through it. Their magic conflicted with each other; the stake had won.
"Strigoi can't touch stakes," I told him. I realized I was using a lot of can't and don't statements today. It wasn't easy having your core beliefs challenged. "And no Moroi or dhampir would do it."
"A human might."
I met his eyes. "Humans don't help Strigoi" I stopped. There it was again. Don't. But I couldn't help it. The one thing we could count on in the fight against Strigoi was their limitationssunlight, ward and stake magic, etc. We used their weaknesses against them. If they had othershumanswho would help them and weren't affected by those limitations...
Dimitri's face was stern, still ready for anything, but the tiniest spark of sympathy flashed in his dark eyes as he watched me wage my mental battle.
"This changes everything, doesn't it?" I asked.
"Yeah," he said. "It does."