Chapter 19

 

Nineteen

I HATE BEING POWERLESS. AND I hate going down without a fight. What had taken place outside in the alley hadn't been a real fight. If it had- if I'd been beaten into submission ... well, yeah. Maybe I could accept that. Maybe. But I hadn't been beaten. I'd barely gotten my hands dirty. Instead, I'd gone quietly.

Once they had us sitting on the floor of the van, they'd bound each of our hands behind our back with flex-cuffs-  strips of plastic that cinched together and held just as well as anything made of metal.

After that, we rode in near silence. The men occasionally murmured something to each other, speaking too softly for any of us to hear. Christian or Mia might have been able to understand the words, but they were in no position to communicate anything to the rest of us. Mia looked as terrified as she had out on the street, and while Christian's fear had rapidly given way to his typical haughty anger, even he didn't dare act out with guards nearby.

I was glad for Christian's self-control. I didn't doubt any of these men would smack him if he got out of line, and neither I nor the other novices were in a position to stop them. That was what really drove me crazy. The instinct to protect Moroi was so deeply ingrained in me that I couldn't even pause to worry about myself. Christian and Mia were the focus. They were the ones I had to get out of this mess.

And how had this mess started? Who were these guys? That was a mystery. They were human, but I didn't believe for an instant that a group of dhampirs and Moroi had been random kidnapping victims. We'd been targeted for a reason.

Our captors made no attempts to blindfold us or conceal our route, which I didn't take as a good sign. Did they think we didn't know the city well enough to retrace our steps? Or did they figure it didn't matter since we wouldn't be leaving wherever they were taking us? All I sensed was that we were driving away from downtown, off toward a more suburban area. Spokane was as dull as I'd imagined. Unlike where pristine white snow lay in drifts, slushy gray puddles lined the streets and dirty patches dotted the lawns. There were also a lot fewer evergreen trees than I was used to. The scraggly, leafless deciduous trees here seemed skeletal by comparison. They only added to the mood of impending doom.

After what felt like less than an hour, the van turned down a quiet cul-de-sac, and we drove up to a very ordinary- yet large- house. Other houses- identical in the way suburban homes often are- stood nearby, which gave me hope. Maybe we could get some help from the neighbors.

We pulled inside the garage, and once the door was back down, the men ushered us into the house. It looked a lot more interesting on the inside. Antique, claw-footed sofas and chairs. A large, saltwater fish tank. Swords crossed over the fireplace. One of those stupid modern art paintings that consisted of a few lines splayed across the canvas.

The part of me that enjoyed destroying things would have liked to study the swords in detail, but the main floor wasn't our destination. Instead, we were led down a narrow flight of stairs, down to a basement as large as the floor above. Only, unlike the main floor's open space, the basement was sectioned off into a series of halls and closed doors. It was like a rat's maze. Our captors led us through it without hesitation, into a small room with a concrete floor and unpainted drywall.

The furniture inside consisted of several very uncomfortable-looking wooden chairs with slatted backs- backs that proved to be a convenient place for rebinding our hands. The men seated us in such a way that Mia and Christian sat on one side of the room, and the rest of us dhampirs sat on the other. One guy- the leader, apparently- watched carefully as one of his henchmen bound Eddie's hands with new flex-cuffs.

"These are the ones you especially have to watch," he warned, nodding toward us. "They'll fight back." His eyes traveled first to Eddie's face, then Mason's, and then mine. The guy and I held each other's gaze for several moments, and I scowled. He looked back over at his associate. "Watch her in particular."

When we'd been restrained to his satisfaction, he barked out a few more orders to the others and then left the room, shutting the door loudly behind him. His steps echoed through the house as he walked upstairs. Moments later, silence fell.

We sat there, staring at each other. After several minutes, Mia whimpered and started to speak. "What are you going to- "

"Shut up," growled one of the men. He took a warning step toward her. Blanching, she cringed but still looked as though she might say something else. I caught her eye and shook my head. She stayed silent, eyes wide and a slight tremble to her lip.

There's nothing worse than waiting and not knowing what'll happen to you. Your own imagination can be crueler than any captor. Since our guards wouldn't talk to us or tell us what was in store, I imagined all sorts of horrible scenarios. The guns were the obvious threat, and I found myself pondering what a bullet would feel like. Painful, presumably. And where would they shoot? Through the heart or the head? Quick death. But somewhere else? Like the stomach? That would be slow and painful. I shuddered at the thought of my life bleeding out of me. Thinking of all that blood put me in mind of the Badica house and maybe having our throats slit. These men could have knives as well as guns.

Of course, I had to wonder why we were still alive at all. Clearly they wanted something from us, but what? They weren't asking for information. And they were human. What would humans want with us? Usually the most we feared from humans was either running into crazy slayer types or those who wanted to experiment on us. These seemed like neither.

So what did they want? Why were we here? Over and over, I imagined more awful, gruesome fates. The looks on my friends' faces showed I wasn't the only one who could envision creative torments. The smell of sweat and fear filled the room.

I lost track of time and was suddenly jolted out of my imaginings when footsteps sounded on the stairs. The lead captor stepped into the hall. The rest of the men straightened up, tension crackling around them. Oh God. This was it, I realized. This was what we'd been waiting for.

"Yes, sir," I heard the leader say. "They're in here, just like you wanted."

Finally, I realized. The person behind our kidnapping. Panic shot through me. I had to escape.

"Let us out of here!" I yelled, straining at my bindings. "Let us out of here, you son of a- "

I stopped. Something inside of me shriveled up. My throat went dry. My heart wanted to stop. The guard had returned with a man and a woman I didn't recognize. I did, however, recognize that they were ...

... Strigoi.

Real, live- well, figuratively speaking- Strigoi. It all suddenly clicked together. It wasn't just the Spokane reports that had been true. What we'd feared- Strigoi working with humans- had come true. This changes everything. Daylight wasn't safe anymore. None of us were safe anymore. Worse, I realized these must be the rogue Strigoi- the ones who had attacked the two Moroi families with human help. Again, those horrible memories came to me: bodies and blood everywhere. Bile rose in my throat, and I tried to shift my thoughts from the past to the present situation. Not that that was any more reassuring.

Moroi had pale skin, the kind of skin that blushed and burned easily. But these vampires...their skin was white, chalky in a way that made it look like the result of a bad makeup job. The pupils of their eyes had a red ring around them, driving home what monsters they were.

The woman, actually, reminded me of Natalie- my poor friend whose father had convinced her to turn Strigoi. It took me a few moments to figure out what the resemblance was because they looked nothing alike. This woman was short-  probably human before becoming Strigoi- and had brown hair with a bad highlighting job.

Then it hit me. This Strigoi was a new one, much as Natalie had been. It didn't become obvious until I compared her with the Strigoi man. The Strigoi woman's face had a little life in it. But his ... his was the face of death.

His face was completely devoid of any sort of warmth or gentler emotion. His expression was cold and calculating, laced with malicious amusement. He was tall, as tall as Dimitri, and had a slender frame that indicated he'd been Moroi before changing over. Shoulder-length black hair framed his face and stood out against the bright scarlet of his dress shirt. His eyes were so dark and brown that without the red ring, it would have been almost impossible to tell where pupil ended and iris began.

One of the guards shoved me hard, even though I'd been silent. He glanced up at the Strigoi man. "You want me to gag her?"

I suddenly realized I'd been hunching into the back of my chair, unconsciously trying to get as far away from him as possible. He realized this too, and a thin, toothless smile crossed his lips.

"No," he said. His voice was silky and low. "I'd like to hear what she has to say." He raised an eyebrow at me. "Please. Continue."

I swallowed.

"No? Nothing to add? Well. Do feel free to pipe up if something else comes to mind."

"Isaiah," exclaimed the woman. "Why are you keeping them here? Why haven't you just contacted the others?"

"Elena, Elena," Isaiah murmured to her. "Behave yourself. I'm not going to pass up the chance to enjoy myself with two Moroi and ..." He walked behind my chair and lifted my hair, making me shudder. A moment later, he peered at Mason and Eddie's necks as well. "...three unblooded dhampirs." He spoke those words with an almost happy sigh, and I realized he'd been looking for guardian tattoos.

Strolling over to Mia and Christian, Isaiah rested a hand on his hip as he studied them. Mia could only meet his eyes for an instant before looking away. Christian's fear was palpable, but he managed to return the Strigoi's scrutiny. It made me proud.

"Look at these eyes, Elena." Elena walked over and stood beside Isaiah as he spoke. "That pale blue. Like ice. Like aquamarines. You almost never get that outside of the royal houses. Badicas. Ozeras. The occasional Zeklos."

"Ozera," said Christian, trying very hard to sound fearless.

Isaiah tilted his head. "Really? Surely not..." He leaned closer to Christian. "But the age is right...and that hair..." He smiled. "Lucas and Moira's son?"

Christian said nothing, but the confirmation on his face was obvious.

"I knew your parents. Great people. Unparalleled. Their deaths were a shame... but, well... I daresay they brought that on themselves. I told them they shouldn't have gone back for you. Would have been wasteful to awaken you so young. They claimed they were going to just keep you around and waken you when you were older. I warned them that that would be a disaster, but, well..." He gave a delicate shrug. "Awaken" was the term Strigoi used among themselves when they changed over. It sounded like a religious experience. "They wouldn't listen, and disaster met them in a different way."

Hatred, deep and dark, boiled behind Christian's eyes. Isaiah smiled again.

"It's quite touching that you should find your way to me after all this time. Perhaps I can realize their dream after all."

"Isaiah," said the woman- Elena- again. Every word out of her mouth seemed like a whine. "Call the others- "

"Stop giving me orders!" Isaiah grabbed her shoulder and shoved her away- except that the push knocked her across the room and almost through the wall. She just barely threw her hand out in time to stop the impact. Strigoi had better reflexes than dhampirs or even Moroi; her lack of grace meant he'd completely caught her off guard. And really, he'd barely touched her. The push had been light- yet it had packed the force of a small car.

This further enforced my belief that he was in another class altogether. His strength beat hers by magnitudes. She was like a fly he could swat away. Strigoi power increased with age-  as well as through the consumption of Moroi blood and, to a lesser extent, dhampir blood. This guy wasn't just old, I realized. He was ancient. And he'd drunk a lot of blood over the years. Terror filled Elena's features, and I could understand her fear. Strigoi turned against each other all the time. He could have ripped her head off if he wanted.

She cowered, averting her eyes. "I... I'm sorry, Isaiah."

Isaiah smoothed his shirt- not that it had been wrinkled. His voice took on the cold pleasantness he'd affected earlier. "You clearly have opinions here, Elena, and I welcome you voicing them in a civilized manner. What do you think we should do with these cubs?"

"You should- that is, I think we should just take them now. Especially the Moroi." She was clearly working hard not to whine again and annoy him. "Unless...you aren't going to throw another dinner party, are you? It's a complete waste. We'll have to share, and you know the others won't be grateful. They never are."

"I'm not making a dinner party out of them," he declared loftily. Dinner party? "But I'm not killing them yet either. You're young, Elena. You only think about immediate gratification. When you're as old as me, you won't be so ... impatient."

She rolled her eyes when he wasn't looking.

Turning, he swept his gaze over me, Mason, and Eddie. "You three, I'm afraid, are going to die. There's no avoiding it. I'd like to say I'm sorry, but, well, I'm not. Such is the way of the world. You do have a choice in how you die, however, and that will be dictated by your behavior." His eyes lingered on me. I didn't really get why everyone seemed to be singling me out as the troublemaker here. Well, maybe I did. "Some of you will die more painfully than others."

I didn't need to see Mason and Eddie to know their fear mirrored mine. I was pretty sure I even heard Eddie whimper.

Isaiah abruptly turned on his heels, military-style, and faced Mia and Christian. "You two, fortunately, have options. Only one of you will die. The other will live on in glorious immortality. I'll even be kind enough to take you under my wing until you're a little older. Such is my charity."

I couldn't help it. I choked on a laugh.

Isaiah spun around and stared at me. I fell silent and waited for him to throw me across the room like he had Elena, but he did nothing else but stare. It was enough. My heart raced, and I felt tears brim in my eyes. My fear shamed me. I wanted to be like Dimitri. Maybe even like my mother. After several long, agonizing moments, Isaiah turned back to the Moroi.

"Now. As I was saying, one of you will be awakened and live forever. But it will not be me who wakens you. You will choose to be awakened willingly."

"Not likely," said Christian. He packed as much snarky defiance as he could manage into those two words, but it was still obvious to everyone else in the room that he was scared out of his mind.

"Ah, how I love the Ozera spirit," mused Isaiah. He glanced at Mia, his red eyes gleaming. She shrank back in fear. "But don't let him upstage you, my dear. There's strength in common blood, too. And here's how it will be decided." He pointed at us dhampirs. His gazed chilled me all over, and I imagined I could smell the stink of decay. "If you want to live, all you have to do is kill one of these three." He turned back to the Moroi. "That's it. Not unpleasant at all. Just tell one of these gentlemen here you want to do it. They'll release you. Then you drink from them and are awakened as one of us. Whoever does this first walks free. The other will be dinner for Elena and me."

Silence hung in the room.

"No," said Christian. "No way am I killing one of my friends. I don't care what you do. I'll die first."

Isaiah waved a dismissive hand. "Easy to be brave when you aren't hungry. Go a few days without any other sustenance ... and yes, these three will start to look very good. And they are. Dhampirs are delicious. Some prefer them to Moroi, and while I myself have never shared such beliefs, I can certainly appreciate the variety."

Christian scowled.

"Don't believe me?" asked Isaiah. "Then let me prove it." He walked back over to my side of the room. I realized what he was going to do and spoke without fully thinking things through.

"Use me," I blurted out. "Drink from me."

Isaiah's smug look faltered for a moment, and his eyebrows rose. "You're volunteering?"

"I've done it before. Let Moroi feed off me, I mean. I don't mind. I like it. Leave the rest of them alone."

"Rose!" exclaimed Mason.

I ignored him and looked beseechingly at Isaiah. I didn't want him to feed off me. The thought made me sick. But I had given blood before, and I'd rather him take pints from me before he touched Eddie or Mason.

I couldn't read his expression as he sized me up. For half a second, I thought he might go for it, but instead he shook his head.

"No. Not you. Not yet."

He walked over and stood before Eddie. I pulled against my flex-cuffs so hard that they dug painfully into my skin. They didn't give. "No! Leave him alone!"

"Quiet," snapped Isaiah, without looking at me. He rested one hand on the side of Eddie's face. Eddie trembled and had gone so pale, I thought he would faint. "I can make this easy, or I can make it hurt. Your silence will encourage the former."

I wanted to scream, wanted to call Isaiah all sorts of names and make all sorts of threats. But I couldn't. My eyes flicked around the room, searching for exits, as I had so many times before. But there were none. Just blank, bare white walls. No windows. The one precious door, always guarded. I was helpless, just as helpless as I'd been from the moment they'd pulled us into the van. I felt like crying, more from frustration than fear. What kind of guardian would I be if I couldn't protect my friends?

But I stayed quiet, and a look of satisfaction crossed Isaiah's face. The fluorescent lighting gave his skin a sickly, grayish hue, emphasizing the dark circles under his eyes. I wanted to punch him.

"Good." He smiled at Eddie and held his face so that the two made direct eye contact. "Now, you won't fight me, will you?"

As I've mentioned, Lissa was good at compulsion. But she couldn't have done this. In seconds, Eddie was smiling.

"No. I won't fight you."

"Good," repeated Isaiah. "And you'll give me your neck freely, won't you?"

"Of course," replied Eddie, tilting his head back.

Isaiah brought his mouth down, and I looked away, trying to focus on the threadbare carpet instead. I didn't want to see this. I heard Eddie emit a soft, happy moan. The feeding itself was relatively quiet- no slurping or anything like that.

"There."

I glanced back when I heard Isaiah speak again. Blood dripped from his lips, and he ran his tongue across them. I couldn't see the wound on Eddie's neck, but I suspected it was bloody and horrible too. Mia and Christian stared wide-eyed, both with fear and fascination. Eddie gazed off in a happy, drugged haze, high from both the endorphins and the compulsion.

Isaiah straightened up and smiled at the Moroi, licking the last of the blood off his lips. "You see?" he told them, moving toward the door. "It's just that easy."

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