DIMITRI MADE ONE PHONE CALL, and a veritable SWAT team showed up.
It took a couple of hours, though, and every minute spent waiting felt like a year. I finally couldn't take it anymore and returned to the car. Dimitri examined the house further and then came to sit with me. Neither of us said a word while we waited. A slide show of the grisly sights inside the house kept playing in my mind. I felt scared and alone and wished he would hold me or comfort me in some way.
Immediately, I scolded myself for wanting that. I reminded myself for the thousandth time that he was my instructor and had no business holding me, no matter what the situation was. Besides, I wanted to be strong. I didn't need to go running to some guy every time things got tough.
When the first group of guardians showed up, Dimitri opened the car door and glanced over at me. "You should see how this is done."
I didn't want to see any more of that house, honestly, but I followed anyway. These guardians were strangers to me, but Dimitri knew them. He always seemed to know everybody. This group was surprised to find a novice on the scene, but none of them protested my presence.
I walked behind them as they examined the house. None of them touched anything, but they knelt by the bodies and studied the bloodstains and broken windows. Apparently, the Strigoi had entered the house through more than just the front door and back patio.
The guardians spoke in brusque tones, displaying none of the disgust and fear I felt. They were like machines. One of them, the only woman in the group, crouched beside Arthur Schoenberg. I was intrigued since female guardians were so rare. I'd heard Dimitri call her Tamara, and she looked about twenty-five. Her black hair just barely touched her shoulders, which was common for guardian women.
Sadness flickered in her gray eyes as she studied the dead guardian's face. "Oh, Arthur," she sighed. Like Dimitri, she managed to convey a hundred things in just a couple words. "Never thought I'd see this day. He was my mentor." With another sigh, Tamara rose.
Her face had become all businesslike once more, as though the guy who'd trained her wasn't lying there in front of her. I couldn't believe it. He was her mentor. How could she keep that kind of control? For half a heartbeat, I imagined seeing Dimitri dead on the floor instead. No. No way could I have stayed calm in her place. I would have gone on a rampage. I would have screamed and kicked things. I would have hit anyone who tried to tell me things would be okay.
Fortunately, I didn't believe anyone could actually take down Dimitri. I'd seen him kill a Strigoi without breaking a sweat. He was invincible. A badass. A god.
Of course, Arthur Schoenberg had been too.
"How could they do that?" I blurted out. Six sets of eyes turned to me. I expected a chastising look from Dimitri for my outburst, but he merely appeared curious. "How could they kill him?"
Tamara gave a small shrug, her face still composed. "The same way they kill everyone else. He's mortal, just like the rest of us."
"Yeah, but he's ... you know, Arthur Schoenberg."
"You tell us, Rose," said Dimitri. "You've seen the house. Tell us how they did it."
As they all watched me, I suddenly realized I might be undergoing a test after all today. I thought about what I'd observed and heard. I swallowed, trying to figure out how the impossible could be possible.
"There were four points of entry, which means at least four Strigoi. There were seven Moroi..." The family who lived here had been entertaining some other people, making the massacre that much larger. Three of the victims had been children. "... and three guardians. Too many kills. Four Strigoi couldn't have taken down that many. Six probably could if they went for the guardians first and caught them by surprise. The family would have been too panicked to fight back."
"And how did they catch the guardians by surprise?" Dimitri prompted.
I hesitated. Guardians, as a general rule, didn't get caught by surprise. "Because the wards were broken. In a household without wards, there'd probably be a guardian walking the yard at night. But they wouldn't have done that here."
I waited for the next obvious question about how the wards had been broken. But Dimitri didn't ask it. There was no need. We all knew. We'd all seen the stake. Again, a chill ran down my spine. Humans working with Strigoi¡ªa large group of Strigoi.
Dimitri simply nodded as a sign of approval, and the group continued their survey. When we reached a bathroom, I started to avert my gaze. I'd already seen this room with Dimitri earlier and had no wish to repeat the experience. There was a dead man in there, and his dried blood stood out in stark contrast against the white tile. Also, since this room was more interior, it wasn't as cold as the area by the open patio. No preservation. The body didn't smell bad yet, exactly, but it didn't smell right, either.
But as I started to turn away, I caught a glimpse of something dark red¡ªmore brown, really¡ªon the mirror. I hadn't noticed it before because the rest of the scene had held all of my attention. There was writing on the mirror, done in blood.
Poor, poor Badicas. So few left. One royal family nearly gone. Others to follow.
Tamara snorted in disgust and turned away from the mirror, studying other details of the bathroom. As we walked out, though, those words repeated in my head. One royal family nearly gone. Others to follow.
The Badicas were one of the smaller royal clans, it was true. But it was hardly like those who had been killed here were the last of them. There were probably almost two hundred Badicas left. That wasn't as many as a family like, say, the Ivashkovs. That particular royal family was huge and widespread. There were, however, a lot more Badicas than there were some other royals.
Like the Dragomirs.
Lissa was the only one left.
If the Strigoi wanted to snuff out royal lines, there was no better chance than to go after her. Moroi blood empowered Strigoi, so I understood their desire for that. I supposed specifically targeting royals was simply part of their cruel and sadistic nature. It was ironic that Strigoi would want to tear apart Moroi society, since many of them had once been a part of it.
The mirror and its warning consumed me for the rest of our stay at the house, and I found my fear and shock transforming into anger. How could they do this? How could any creature be so twisted and evil that they'd do this to a family¡ªthat they'd want to wipe out an entire bloodline? How could any creature do this when they'd once been like me and Lissa?
And thinking of Lissa¡ªthinking of Strigoi wanting to wipe out her family too¡ªstirred up a dark rage within me. The intensity of that emotion nearly knocked me over. It was something black and miasmic, swelling and roiling. A storm cloud ready to burst. I suddenly wanted to tear up every Strigoi I could get my hands on.
When I finally got into the car to ride back to St. Vladimir's with Dimitri, I slammed the door so hard that it was a wonder it didn't fall off.
He glanced at me in surprise. "What's wrong?"
"Are you serious?" I exclaimed, incredulous. "How can you ask that? You were there. You saw that."
"I did," he agreed. "But I'm not taking it out on the car."
I fastened my seat belt and glowered. "I hate them. I hate them all! I wish I'd been there. I would have ripped their throats out!"
I was nearly shouting. Dimitri stared at me, face calm, but he was clearly astonished at my outburst.
"You really think that's true?" he asked me. "You think you could have done better than Art Schoenberg after seeing what the Strigoi did in there? After seeing what Natalie did to you?"
I faltered. I'd tangled briefly with Lissa's cousin, Natalie, when she became a Strigoi, just before Dimitri had shown up to save the day. Even as a new Strigoi¡ªweak and uncoordinated¡ªshe'd literally thrown me around the room.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Suddenly, I felt stupid. I'd seen what Strigoi could do. Me running in impetuously and trying to save the day would have only resulted in a quick death. I was developing into a tough guardian, but I still had a lot to learn¡ªand one seventeen-year-old girl couldn't have stood against six Strigoi.
I opened my eyes. "I'm sorry," I said, gaining control of myself. The rage that had exploded inside me diffused. I didn't know where it had come from. I had a short temper and often acted impulsively, but this had been intense and ugly even for me. Weird.
"It's okay," said Dimitri. He reached over and placed his hand on mine for a few moments. Then he removed it and started the car. "It's been a long day. For all of us."
When we got back to St. Vladimir's Academy around midnight, everyone knew about the massacre. The vampiric school day had just ended, and I hadn't slept in more than twenty-four hours. I was bleary-eyed and sluggish, and Dimitri ordered me to immediately go back to my dorm room and get some sleep. He, of course, looked alert and ready to take on anything. Sometimes I really wasn't sure if he slept at all. He headed off to consult with other guardians about the attack, and I promised him I'd go straight to bed. Instead, I turned toward the library once he was out of sight. I needed to see Lissa, and the bond told me that was where she was.
It was pitch-black as I walked along the stone walkway that crossed the quad from my dorm to the secondary school's main building. Snow completely covered the grass, but the sidewalk had been meticulously cleared of all ice and snow. It reminded me of the poor Badicas' neglected home.
The commons building was large and gothic-looking, more suited to a medieval movie set than a school. Inside, that air of mystery and ancient history continued to permeate the building: elaborate stone walls and antique paintings warring with computers and fluorescent lights. Modern technology had a foothold here, but it would never dominate.
Slipping through the library's electronic gate, I immediately headed for one of the back corners where geography and travel books were kept. Sure enough, I found Lissa sitting there on the floor, leaning against a bookcase.
"Hey," she said, looking up from an open book propped up on one knee. She brushed a few strands of pale hair out of her face. Her boyfriend, Christian, lay on the floor near her, his head propped up on her other knee. He greeted me by way of a nod. Considering the antagonism that sometimes flared up between us, that was almost on par with him giving me a bear hug. Despite her small smile, I could feel the tension and fear in her; it sang through the bond.
"You heard," I said, sitting down cross-legged.
Her smile slipped, and the feelings of fear and unease within her intensified. I liked that our psychic connection let me protect her better, but I didn't really need my own troubled feelings amplified.
"It's awful," she said with a shudder. Christian shifted and linked his fingers through hers. He squeezed her hand. She squeezed back. Those two were so in love and sugary sweet with each other that I felt like brushing my teeth after being around them. They were subdued just now, however, no doubt thanks to the massacre news. "They're saying...they're saying there were six or seven Strigoi. And that humans helped them break the wards."
I leaned my head back against a shelf. News really did travel fast. Suddenly, I felt dizzy. "It's true."
"Really?" asked Christian. "I figured that was just a bunch of hyped-up paranoia."
"No ..." I realized then that nobody knew where I'd been today. "I... I was there."
Lissa's eyes widened, shock coursing into me from her. Even Christian¡ªthe poster child for "smartass"¡ªlooked grim. If not for the horribleness of it all, I would have taken satisfaction in catching him off guard.
"You're joking," he said, voice uncertain.
"I thought you were taking your Qualifier..." Lissa's words trailed off.
"I was supposed to," I said. "It was just a wrong-place-and-wrong-time kind of thing. The guardian who was going to give me the test lived there. Dimitri and I walked in, and..."
I couldn't finish. Images of the blood and death that had filled the Badica house flashed through my mind again. Concern crossed both Lissa's face and the bond.
"Rose, are you okay?" she asked softly.
Lissa was my best friend, but I didn't want her to know how scared and upset the whole thing had made me. I wanted to be fierce.
"Fine," I said, teeth clenched.
"What was it like?" asked Christian. Curiosity filled his voice, but there was guilt there too¡ªlike he knew it was wrong to want to know about such a horrible thing. He couldn't stop himself from asking, though. Lack of impulse control was one thing we had in common.
"It was ..." I shook my head. "I don't want to talk about it."
Christian started to protest, and then Lissa ran a hand through his sleek black hair. The gentle admonishment silenced him. A moment of awkwardness hung between us all. Reading Lissa's mind, I felt her desperately grope for a new topic.
"They say this is going to mess up all of the holiday visits," she told me after several more moments. "Christian's aunt is going to visit, but most people don't want to travel, and they want their kids to stay here where it's safe. They're terrified this group of Strigoi is on the move."
I hadn't thought about the ramifications of an attack like this. We were only a week or so away from Christmas. Usually, there was a huge wave of travel in the Moroi world this time of year. Students went home to visit their parents; parents came to stay on campus and visit their children.
"This is going to keep a lot of families separated," I murmured.
"And mess up a lot of royal get-togethers," said Christian. His brief seriousness had vanished; his snide air was back. "You know how they are this time of year¡ªalways competing with each other to throw the biggest parties. They won't know what to do with themselves."
I could believe it. My life was about fighting, but the Moroi certainly had their share of internal strife¡ªparticularly with nobles and royals. They waged their own battles with words and political alliances, and honestly, I preferred the more direct method of hitting and kicking. Lissa and Christian in particular had to navigate some troubled waters. They were both from royal families, which meant they got a lot of attention both inside and outside of the Academy.
Things were worse for them than for most Moroi royals. Christian's family lived under the shadow cast by his parents. They had purposely become Strigoi, trading their magic and morality to become immortal and subsist on killing others. His parents were dead now, but that didn't stop people from not trusting him. They seemed to think he'd go Strigoi at any moment and take everyone else with him. His abrasiveness and dark sense of humor didn't really help things, either.
Lissa's attention came from being the last one left in her family. No other Moroi had enough Dragomir blood in them to earn the name. Her future husband would probably have enough somewhere in his family tree to make sure her children were Dragomirs, but for now, being the only one made her kind of a celebrity.
Thinking about this suddenly reminded me of the warning scrawled on the mirror. Nausea welled up in me. That dark anger and despair stirred, but I pushed it aside with a joke.
"You guys should try solving your problems like we do. A fistfight here and there might do you royals some good."
Both Lissa and Christian laughed at this. He glanced up at her with a sly smile, showing his fangs as he did. "What do you think? I bet I could take you if we went one on one."
"You wish," she teased. Her troubled feelings lightened.
"I do, actually," he said, holding her gaze.
There was an intensely sensual note to his voice that made her heart race. Jealousy shot through me. She and I had been best friends our entire life. I could read her mind. But the fact remained: Christian was a huge part of her world now, and he played a role I never could¡ªjust as he could never have a part of the connection that existed between me and her. We both sort of accepted but didn't like the fact that we had to split her attention, and at times, it seemed the truce we held for her sake was paper thin.
Lissa brushed her hand against his cheek. "Behave."
"I am," he told her, his voice still a little husky. "Sometimes. But sometimes you don't want me to...."
Groaning, I stood up. "God. I'm going to leave you guys alone now."
Lissa blinked and dragged her eyes away from Christian, suddenly looking embarrassed.
"Sorry," she murmured. A delicate pink flush spread over her cheeks. Since she was pale like all Moroi, it actually sort of made her look prettier. Not that she needed much help in that department. "You don't have to go...."
"No, it's fine. I'm exhausted," I assured her. Christian didn't look too broken up about seeing me leave. "I'll catch you tomorrow."
I started to turn away, but Lissa called to me. "Rose? Are you...are you sure you're okay? After everything that happened?"
I met her jade green eyes. Her concern was so strong and deep that it made my chest ache. I might be closer to her than anyone else in the world, but I didn't want her worrying about me. It was my job to keep her safe. She shouldn't be troubled about protecting me¡ªparticularly if Strigoi had suddenly decided to make a hit list of royals.
I flashed her a saucy grin. "I'm fine. Nothing to worry about except you guys tearing each other's clothes before I get a chance to leave."
"Then you better go now," said Christian dryly.
She elbowed him, and I rolled my eyes. "Good night," I told them.
As soon as my back was to them, my smile vanished. I walked back to my dorm with a heavy heart, hoping I wouldn't dream about the Badicas tonight.
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