THIS WAS SO NOT WHAT I needed right now. I could have handled anything else Adrian did: hitting on her, getting her to smoke his ridiculous cigarettes, whatever. But not this. Lissa quitting those pills was exactly what I'd wanted to avoid.
Reluctantly I pulled out of her head and returned to my own grim situation. I would have liked to see what further developed with Adrian and Lissa, but watching them would do no good. Okay. I really needed a plan now. I needed action. I needed to get us out of here. But, glancing around me, I found myself no closer to escape than I had been earlier, and I spent the next few hours brooding and speculating.
We had three guards today. They looked a little bored but not enough to slack off. Nearby, Eddie appeared unconscious, and Mason stared blankly at the floor. Across the room, Christian glared at nothing in particular, and I think Mia was sleeping. Painfully aware of how dry my throat was, I almost laughed in recalling how I'd told her water magic was useless. It might not do much in a fight, but I would have given anything for her to summon up some-
Why hadn't I thought of this before? We weren't helpless. Not entirely.
A plan slowly coalesced in my mind- a plan that was probably insane but was also the best we had. My heart thudded with anticipation, and I immediately schooled my features to calmness before the guards noticed my sudden insight. On the opposite side of the room, Christian was watching me. He'd seen the brief flare of excitement and realized I'd thought of something. He watched me curiously, as ready for action as I was.
God. How could we pull this off? I needed his help, but I had no real way of letting him know what I had in mind. In fact, I wasn't even sure if he could help me at all- he was pretty weak.
I held his gaze, willing him to understand that something was going to happen. There was confusion on his face, but it was paired with determination. After making sure none of the guards were looking directly at me, I shifted slightly, giving a small tug at my wrists. I glanced behind me as much as I could, then met Christian's eyes again. He frowned, and I repeated the gesture.
"Hey," I said loudly. Mia and Mason both jerked in surprise. "Are you guys really going to keep starving us? Can't we at least have some water or something?"
"Shut up," said one of the guards. It was a pretty standard answer whenever any of us spoke.
"Come on." I used my best bitchy voice. "Not even like a sip of something? My throat's burning. Practically on fire." My gaze flicked to Christian as I said those last few words, then returned to the guard who'd spoken.
As expected, he rose from his seat and lurched toward me. "Do not make me repeat myself," he growled. I didn't know if he'd really do anything violent, but I had no interest in pushing it just yet. Besides, I'd accomplished my goal. If Christian couldn't take the hint, there was nothing else to be done for it. Hoping I looked afraid, I shut up.
The guard returned to his seat, and after a while, he stopped watching me. I looked at Christian again and gave the wrist tug. Come on, come on, I thought. Put it together, Christian.
His eyebrows suddenly shot up, and he stared at me in amazement. Well. He'd apparently figured out something. I just hoped it was what I'd wanted. His look turned questioning, as though asking if I was really serious. I nodded emphatically. He frowned in thought for a few moments and then took a deep, steadying breath.
"All right," he said. Everyone jumped again.
"Shut up," said one of the guards automatically. He sounded weary.
"No," said Christian. "I'm ready. Ready to drink."
Everyone in the room froze for the space of a few heartbeats, including me. This wasn't exactly what I'd had in mind.
The guards' leader stood up. "Do not screw around with us."
"I'm not," said Christian. He had a feverish, desperate look on his face that I didn't think was entirely faked. "I'm tired of this. I want to get out of here, and I don't want to die. I'll drink- and I want her." He nodded toward me. Mia squeaked in alarm. Mason called Christian something that would have earned him a detention back at school.
This definitely wasn't what I'd had in mind.
The other two guards looked to their leader questioningly. "Should we get Isaiah?" asked one of them.
"I don't think he's here," said the leader. He studied Christian for a few seconds and then made a decision. "And I don't want to bother him anyway if this is a joke. Let him go, and we'll see."
One of the men produced a pair of sharp pliers. He moved behind Christian and leaned down. I heard the sound of plastic popping as the flex-cuffs gave way. Grabbing a hold of Christian's arm, the guard jerked him upright and led him over to me.
"Christian," exclaimed Mason, fury filling his voice. He struggled against his constraints, shaking his chair a little. "Are you out of your mind? Don't let them do this!"
"You guys have to die, but I don't," snapped Christian, tossing his black hair out of his eyes. "There's no other way out of this."
I didn't really know what was going on now, but I was pretty sure I should be showing a lot more emotion if I was about to die. Two guards flanked Christian on either side, watching warily as he leaned toward me.
"Christian," I whispered, surprised at how easy it was to sound afraid. "Don't do this."
His lips twisted into one of the bitter smiles he produced so well. "You and I have never liked each other, Rose. If I've got to kill someone, it might as well be you." His words were icy, precise. Believable. "Besides, I thought you wanted this."
"Not this. Please, don't- "
One of the guards shoved Christian. "Get it over with, or get back to your chair."
Still wearing that dark smile, Christian shrugged. "Sorry, Rose. You're going to die anyway. Why not do it for a good cause?" He brought his face down to my neck. "This is probably going to hurt," he added.
I actually doubted it would ... if he was really going to do it. Because he wasn't...right? I shifted uneasily. By all accounts, if you got all your blood sucked out of you, you also got enough endorphins pumped in during the process to dull most of the pain. It was like going to sleep. Of course, that was all speculation. People who died from vampire bites didn't really come back to report on the experience.
Christian nuzzled my neck, moving his face under my hair so that it partially obscured him. His lips brushed my skin, every bit as soft as I recalled from when he and Lissa kissed. A moment later, the points of his fangs touched my skin.
And then I felt pain. Real pain.
But it wasn't coming from the bite. His teeth only pressed against my skin; they didn't break it. His tongue moved against my neck in a lapping motion, but there was no blood to suck. If anything, it was more like some kind of weird, twisted kiss.
No, the pain came from my wrists. A burning pain. Christian was using his magic to channel heat into my flex-cuffs, just as I had wanted him to. He'd understood my message. The plastic grew hotter and hotter as he continued his barely there drinking. Anyone who'd been looking closely would have been able to tell he was half-faking it, but too much of my hair was blocking the guards' view.
I knew plastic was hard to melt, but only now did I really, really understand what that meant. The temperatures required to do any damage were off the charts. It was like plunging my hands into lava. The flex-cuffs seared my skin, hot and terrible. I squirmed, hoping I could relieve the pain. I couldn't. What I did notice, however, was that the cuffs gave a little when I moved. They were getting softer. Okay. That was something. I just had to hold out a little longer. Desperately, I tried to focus on Christian's bite and distract myself. It worked for about five seconds. He wasn't giving me much in the way of endorphins, certainly not enough to combat that increasingly horrible pain. I whimpered, probably making myself more convincing.
"I can't believe it," muttered one of the guards. "He's actually doing it." Beyond them, I thought I heard the sound of Mia crying.
The cuffs' burning increased. I'd never felt anything so painful in my life, and I'd been through a lot. Passing out was rapidly becoming a very real possibility.
"Hey," the guard suddenly said. "What's that smell?"
That smell was melting plastic. Or maybe my melting flesh. Honestly, it didn't matter because the next time I moved my wrists, they broke through the gooey, scalding cuffs.
I had ten seconds of surprise, and I used them. I leapt out of my chair, pushing Christian backward in the process. He'd had a guard on either side of him, and one still held the pliers. In a single motion, I grabbed the pliers from the guy and plunged them into his cheek. He gave some kind of gurgled scream, but I didn't wait to see what happened. My window of surprise was closing, and I couldn't waste time. As soon as I let go of the pliers, I punched the second guy. My kicks were stronger than my punches as a general rule, but I still hit him hard enough to startle him and make him stagger.
By then, the guards' leader was in action. As I'd feared, he still had a gun, and he went for it. "Don't move!" he yelled, aiming at me.
I froze. The guard I'd punched came forward and grabbed my arm. Nearby, the guy I'd stabbed was moaning on the floor. Still training the gun on me, the leader started to say something and then yelped in alarm. The gun glowed faintly orange and fell from his hands. Where he'd held it, the skin burned red and angry. Christian had heated the metal, I realized. Yeah. We definitely should have been using this magic thing from the start. If we got out of this, I was going to take up Tasha's cause. The Moroi anti-magic custom was so instilled in our brains that we hadn't even thought to try this sooner. It was stupid.
I turned on the guy holding me. I don't think he expected a girl my size to put up so much of a fight, plus he was still kind of stunned over what had happened to the other guy and the gun. I managed enough room to get in a kick to his stomach, a kick that would have earned me an A in my combat class. He grunted at the impact, and the motion propelled him back into the wall. In a flash, I was on him. Grabbing a fistful of his hair, I slammed his head against the ground hard enough to knock him out but not kill him.
Immediately, I sprang up, surprised the leader hadn't come after me yet. It shouldn't have taken him that long to recover from the shock of the heated gun. But when I turned around, the room was quiet. The leader lay unconscious on the ground- with a newly freed Mason hovering over him. Nearby, Christian held the pliers in one hand and the gun in the other. It had to still be hot, but Christian's power must have made him immune. He was aiming at that man I'd stabbed. The guy wasn't unconscious, merely bleeding, but, like I had, he froze beneath that barrel.
"Holy shit," I muttered, taking in the scene. Staggering over to Christian, I held out my hand. "Give me that before you hurt somebody."
I expected a biting remark, but he simply handed the gun over with shaking hands. I shoved it into my belt. Studying him further, I saw how pale he was. He looked like he could collapse at any moment. He'd done some pretty major magic for someone who'd been starved for two days.
"Mase, get the cuffs," I said. Without turning his back on the rest of us, Mason took a few steps back toward the box where our captors had kept their stash of flex-cuffs. He pulled out three strips of plastic and then something else. With a questioning glance at me, he held up a roll of duct tape.
"Perfect," I said.
We bound our captors to the chairs. One had remained conscious, but we knocked him out too and then put duct tape over all their mouths. They'd eventually come to, and I didn't want them making any noise.
After releasing Mia and Eddie, the five of us huddled together and planned our next move. Christian and Eddie could barely stand, but at least Christian was aware of his surroundings. Mia's face was streaked with tears, but I suspected she'd be able to take orders. That left Mason and me as the most functional in the group.
"That guy's watch says it's morning," he said. "All we've got to do is get outside, and they can't touch us. As long as there are no more humans, at least."
"They said Isaiah was gone," said Mia in a small voice. "We should just be able to leave, right?"
"Those men haven't left in hours," I said. "They could be wrong. We can't do anything stupid."
Carefully, Mason opened the door to our room and peered out into the empty hallway. "Think there's a way outside down here?"
"That'd make our lives easier," I muttered. I glanced back at the others. "Stay here. We're going to check out the rest of the basement."
"What if somebody comes?" exclaimed Mia.
"They won't," I assured her. I was actually pretty sure there was no one else in the basement; they would have come running with all that racket. And if anyone tried to come down the stairs, we would hear them first.
Still, Mason and I moved cautiously as we scouted around the basement, watching each other's backs and checking around corners. It was every bit the rat's maze I remembered from our initial capture. Twisted hallways and lots of rooms. One by one, we opened each door. Every room was empty, save for the occasional chair or two. I shuddered, thinking that all of these were probably used as prisons, just as ours had been.
"Not a goddamned window in this whole place," I muttered when we'd finished our sweep. "We've got to go upstairs."
We headed back toward our room, but before we got there, Mason caught hold of my hand. "Rose ..."
I stopped and looked up at him. "Yeah?"
His blues eyes- more serious than I'd ever seen them- looked down at me regretfully. "I really screwed things up."
I thought about all the events that had led to this. "We screwed things up, Mason."
He sighed. "I hope ... I hope when this is all done, we can sit down and talk and figure things out. I shouldn't have gotten mad at you."
I wanted to tell him that that wasn't going to happen, that when he'd disappeared, I'd actually been on my way to tell him things wouldn't be better between us. Since this didn't seem like the right time or place to bring up a breakup, I lied.
I squeezed his hand. "I hope so too."
He smiled, and we returned to the others.
"All right," I told them. "Here's how it's going to be."
We quickly hashed out a plan and then crept up the stairs. I led, followed by Mia as she tried to support a reluctant Christian. Mason brought up the rear, practically dragging Eddie.
"I should be first," Mason murmured as we stood at the top of the stairs.
"You aren't," I snapped back, resting my hand on the doorknob.
"Yeah, but if something happens- "
"Mason," I interrupted. I stared at him hard, and suddenly, I had a brief flash of my mother that day when the Drozdov attack had broken. Calm and controlled, even in the wake of something so horrible. They'd needed a leader, just like this group did now, and I tried as hard as I could to channel her. "If something happens, you get them out of here. Run fast and run far. Do not come back without a herd of guardians."
"You'll be the one who gets attacked first! What am I supposed to do?" he hissed. "Leave you?"
"Yes. You forget about me if you can get them out."
"Rose, I'm not going to- "
"Mason." I again envisioned my mother, fighting for that strength and power to lead others. "Can you do this or not?"
We stared at each other for several heavy moments while the others held their breaths.
"I can do this," he said stiffly. I nodded and turned back around.
The basement door squeaked when I opened it, and I grimaced at the sound. Scarcely daring to breathe, I stood perfectly still at the top of the stairs, waiting and listening. The house and its eccentric decorating looked the same as when we'd been brought in. Dark blinds covered all of the windows, but along the edges, I could see bright light peeping in. Sunshine had never tasted so sweet as it did at that moment. Getting to it meant freedom.
There were no sounds, no movements. Looking around, I tried to remember where the front door was. It was on the other side of the house- really not far in the grand scheme of things but a gaping chasm at the moment.
"Scout with me," I whispered to Mason, hoping to make him feel better about bringing up the rear.
He let Eddie lean on Mia for a moment and stepped forward with me to do a quick sweep of the main living area. Nothing. The path was clear from here to the front door. I exhaled in relief. Mason took hold of Eddie again, and we moved forward, all of us tense and nervous. God. We were going to do this, I realized. We were really going to do this. I couldn't believe how lucky we'd gotten. We'd been so close to disaster- and had just barely made it through. It was one of those moments that made you appreciate your life and want to turn things around. A second chance you swear you won't let go to waste. A realization that-
I heard them move almost at the same time I saw them step in front of us. It was like a magician conjured Isaiah and Elena out of thin air. Only, I knew there was no magic involved this time. Strigoi just moved that quickly. They must have been in one of the other main floor rooms that we'd assumed were empty- we hadn't wanted to waste the extra time looking. I raged at myself internally for not having checked out every inch of the whole floor. Somewhere, in the back of my memory, I heard myself taunting my mother in Stan's class: "It seems to me like you guys messed up. Why didn't you scope out the place and make sure it was clear of Strigoi in the first place? Seems like you could have saved yourself a lot of trouble."
Karma's a real bitch.
"Children, children," crooned Isaiah. "This isn't how the game works. You're breaking the rules." A cruel smile played over his lips. He found us amusing, no real threat at all. Honestly? He was right.
"Fast and far, Mason," I said in low voice, never taking my eyes off the Strigoi.
"My, my ... if looks could kill ..." Isaiah arched his eyebrows as something occurred to him. "Are you thinking you can take us both on by yourself?" He chuckled. Elena chuckled. I gritted my teeth.
No, I didn't think I could take them both on. In fact, I was pretty sure I was going to die. But I was also pretty sure I could provide one hell of a distraction first.
I lunged toward Isaiah but pulled the gun on Elena. You could get a jump on human guards- but not on Strigoi. They saw me coming practically before I even moved. They didn't expect me to have a gun, though. And while Isaiah blocked my attacking body with almost no effort whatsoever, I still managed to get a shot off at Elena before he seized my arms and restrained me. The gun's report rang loud in my ears, and she screamed in pain and surprise. I'd aimed for her stomach but had been jostled into hitting her thigh. Not that it mattered. Neither spot would kill her, but the stomach would have hurt a lot more.
Isaiah held my wrists so hard, I thought he'd break the bones. I dropped the gun. It hit the floor, bounced, and slid toward the door. Elena shrieked in rage and clawed at me. Isaiah told her to control herself and pushed me out of reach. All the while, I flailed as much as possible, not so much to escape as to make a nuisance of myself.
And then: the sweetest of sounds.
The front door opening.
Mason had taken advantage of my distraction. He'd left Eddie with Mia and sprinted around me and the grappling Strigoi to open the door. Isaiah turned with that lightning-fast speed of his- and screamed as sunlight poured over him. But even though he was suffering, his reflexes were still fast. He jerked himself out of the patch of light into the living room, dragging Elena and me with him- her by the arm and me by my neck.
"Get them out!" I yelled.
"Isaiah- " began Elena, breaking out of his grip.
He shoved me to the floor and spun around, staring at his escaping victims. I gasped for breath now that his grip on my throat was gone and peered back at the door through the tangle of my hair. I was just in time to see Mason drag Eddie over the threshold, out into the safety of the light. Mia and Christian were already gone. I nearly wept in relief.
Isaiah turned back on me with all the fury of a storm, his eyes black and terrible as he loomed over me from his great height. His face, which had always been scary, became something almost beyond comprehension. "Monstrous" didn't even begin to cover it.
He jerked me up by my hair. I cried out at the pain, and he brought his head down so that our faces were pressed up to one another's.
"You want a bite, girl?" he demanded. "You want to be a blood whore? Well, we can arrange that. In every sense of the word. And it will not be sweet. And it will not be numbing. It will be painful- compulsion works both ways, you know, and I will make sure you believe you are suffering the worst pain of your life. And I will also make sure your death takes a very, very long time. You will scream. You will cry. You will beg me to end it all and let you die- "
"Isaiah," cried Elena in exasperation. "Just kill her already. If you'd done it sooner like I said, none of this would have happened."
He kept his grip on me but flicked his eyes toward her. "Do not interrupt me."
"You're being melodramatic," she continued. Yeah, she really was whiny. I never would have thought a Strigoi could do that. It was almost comical. "And wasteful."
"Do not talk back to me, either," he said.
"I'm hungry. I'm just saying you should- "
"Let her go, or I'll kill you."
We all turned at the new voice, a voice dark and angry. Mason stood in the doorway, framed in light, holding my dropped gun. Isaiah studied him for a few moments.
"Sure," Isaiah finally said. He sounded bored. "Try it."
Mason didn't hesitate. He fired and kept firing until he'd emptied the entire clip into Isaiah's chest. Each bullet made the Strigoi flinch a little, but otherwise, he kept standing and holding on to me. This was what it meant to be an old and powerful Strigoi, I realized. A bullet in the thigh hurt a young vampire like Elena. But for Isaiah? Getting shot in the chest multiple times was simply a nuisance.
Mason realized this too, and his features hardened as he threw down the gun.
"Get out!" I screamed. He was still in the sun, still safe.
But he didn't listen to me. He ran toward us, out of his protective light. I redoubled my struggles, hoping I'd pull Isaiah's attention away from Mason. I didn't. Isaiah shoved me into Elena before Mason was halfway to us. Swiftly, Isaiah blocked and seized hold of Mason, exactly as he'd done to me earlier.
Only, unlike with me, Isaiah didn't restrain Mason's arms. He didn't jerk Mason upright by the hair or make long, rambling threats about an agonizing death. Isaiah simply stopped the attack, grabbed Mason's head with both hands, and gave a quick twist. There was a sickening crack. Mason's eyes went wide. Then they went blank.
With an impatient sigh, Isaiah released his hold and tossed Mason's limp body over toward where Elena held me. It landed before us. My vision swam as nausea and dizziness wrapped around me.
"There," Isaiah said to Elena. "See if that'll tide you over. And save some for me."
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