Chapter 22

 

TWENTY-TWO

HORROR AND SHOCK CONSUMED ME, so much so that I thought my soul would shrivel, that the world would end right then and there- because surely, surely it couldn't keep going on after this. No one could keep going on after this. I wanted to shriek my pain to the universe. I wanted to cry until I melted. I wanted to sink down beside Mason and die with him.

Elena released me, apparently deciding I posed no danger positioned as I was between her and Isaiah. She turned toward Mason's body.

And I stopped feeling. I simply acted.

"Don't. Touch. Him." I didn't recognize my own voice.

She rolled her eyes. "Good grief, you're annoying. I'm started to see Isaiah's point- you do need to suffer before dying." Turning away, she knelt down to the floor and flipped Mason over onto his back.

"Don't touch him!" I screamed. I shoved her with little effect. She shoved back, nearly knocking me over. It was all I could do to steady my feet and stay upright.

Isaiah looked on with amused interest; then his gaze fell to the floor. Lissa's chotki had fallen out of my coat pocket. He picked it up. Strigoi could touch holy objects- the stories about them fearing crosses weren't true. They just couldn't enter holy ground. He flipped the cross over and ran his fingers over the etched dragon.

"Ah, the Dragomirs," he mused. "I'd forgotten about them. Easy to. There's what, one? Two of them left? Barely worth remembering." Those horrible red eyes focused on me. "Do you know any of them? I'll have to see to them one of these days. It won't be very hard to- "

Suddenly, I heard an explosion. The aquarium burst apart as water shot out of it, shattering the glass. Pieces of it flew toward me, but I barely noticed. The water coalesced in the air, forming a lopsided sphere. It began to float. Toward Isaiah. I felt my jaw drop as I stared at it.

He watched it too, more puzzled than scared. At least until it wrapped around his face and started suffocating him.

Much like the bullets, suffocation wouldn't kill him. But it could cause him a hell of a lot of discomfort.

His hands flew to his face, desperately trying to "pry" the water away. It was no use. His fingers simply slipped through. Elena forgot about Mason and jumped to her feet.

"What is it?" she shrieked. She shook him in an equally useless effort to free him. "What's happening?"

Again, I didn't feel. I acted. My hand closed around a large piece of glass from the broken aquarium. It was jagged and sharp, cutting into my hand.

Sprinting forward, I plunged the shard into Isaiah's chest, aiming for the heart I'd worked so hard to find in practice. Isaiah emitted a strangled scream through the water and collapsed to the floor. His eyes rolled back in his head as he blacked out from the pain.

Elena stared, as shocked as I'd been when Isaiah had killed Mason. Isaiah wasn't dead, of course, but he was temporarily down for the count. Her face clearly showed she hadn't thought that was possible.

The smart thing at that point would have been to run toward the door and the sun's safety. Instead, I ran in the opposite direction, toward the fireplace. I grabbed one of the antique swords and turned back toward Elena. I didn't have far to go, because she'd recovered herself and was heading toward me.

Snarling with rage, she tried to grab me. I had never trained with a sword, but I had been taught to fight with any makeshift weapon I could find. I used the sword to keep distance between us, my motions clumsy but effective for the time being.

White fangs flashed in her mouth. "I am going to make you- "

"Suffer, pay, regret I was ever born?" I suggested.

I remembered fighting with my mom, how I'd been on the defensive the whole time. That wouldn't work this time. I had to attack. Jabbing forward, I tried to land a blow on Elena. No luck. She anticipated my every move.

Suddenly, from behind her, Isaiah groaned as he started to come around. She glanced back, the smallest of motions that let me swipe the sword across her chest. It cut the fabric of her shirt and grazed the skin, but nothing more. Still, she flinched and looked down in panic. I think the glass going through Isaiah's heart was still fresh in her mind.

And that was what I really needed.

I mustered all my strength, drew back, and swung.

The sword's blade hit the side of her neck, hard and deep. She gave a horrible, sickening cry, a shriek that made my skin crawl. She tried to move toward me. I pulled back and hit again. Her hands clutched at her throat, and her knees gave way. I struck and struck, the sword digging deeper into her neck each time. Cutting off someone's head was harder than I'd thought it would be. The old, dull sword probably wasn't helping.

But finally, I gained enough sense to realize she wasn't moving. Her head lay there, detached from her body, her dead eyes looking up at me as though she couldn't believe what had happened. That made two of us.

Someone was screaming, and for a surreal second, I thought it was still Elena. Then I lifted my eyes and looked across the room. Mia stood in the doorway, eyes bugging out and skin tinged green like she might throw up. Distantly, in the back of my mind, I realized she was the one who'd made the aquarium explode. Water magic apparently wasn't worthless after all.

Still a bit shaken, Isaiah tried to rise to his feet. But I was on him before he could fully manage it. The sword sang out, wreaking blood and pain with each blow. I felt like an old pro now. Isaiah fell back to the floor. In my mind, I kept seeing him break Mason's neck, and I hacked and hacked as hard as I could, as though striking fiercely enough might somehow banish the memory.

"Rose! Rose!"

Through my hate-filled haze, I just barely detected Mia's voice.

"Rose, he's dead!"

Slowly, shakily, I held back the next blow and looked down at his body- and the head no longer attached to it. She was right. He was dead. Very, very dead.

I looked at the rest of the room. There was blood everywhere, but the horror of it didn't really register with me. My world had slowed down, slowed down to two very simple tasks. Kill the Strigoi. Protect Mason. I couldn't process anything else.

"Rose," whispered Mia. She was trembling, her words filled with fear. She was afraid of me, not the Strigoi. "Rose, we have to go. Come on."

I dragged my eyes away from her and looked down at Isaiah's remains. After several moments, I crawled over to Mason's body, still clutching the sword.

"No," I croaked out. "I can't leave him. Other Strigoi might come...."

My eyes burned like I desperately wanted to cry. I couldn't say for sure. The bloodlust still pounded in me, violence and rage the only emotions I was capable of anymore.

"Rose, we'll come back for him. If other Strigoi are coming, we have to get out."

"No," I repeated, not even looking at her. "I'm not leaving him. I won't leave him alone." With my free hand, I stroked Mason's hair.

"Rose- "

I jerked my head up. "Get out!" I screamed at her. "Get out, and leave us alone."

She took a few steps forward, and I lifted the sword. She froze.

"Get out," I repeated. "Go find the others."

Slowly, Mia backed up toward the door. She gave me one last, desperate look before running outside.

Silence fell, and I relaxed my hold on the sword but refused to let it go. My body sagged forward, and I rested my head on Mason's chest. I became oblivious to everything: to the world around me, to time itself. Seconds could have passed. Hours could have passed. I didn't know. I didn't know anything except that I couldn't leave Mason alone. I existed in an altered state, a state that just barely kept the terror and grief at bay. I couldn't believe Mason was dead. I couldn't believe I'd just summoned death. So long as I refused to acknowledge either, I could pretend they hadn't happened.

Footsteps and voices eventually sounded, and I lifted my head up. People poured in through the door, lots of them. I couldn't really make out any of them. I didn't need to. They were threats, threats I had to keep Mason safe from. A couple of them approached me, and I leapt up, lifting the sword and holding it protectively over his body.

"Stay back," I warned. "Stay away from him."

They kept coming.

"Stay back!" I yelled. They stopped. Except for one.

"Rose," came a soft voice. "Drop the sword."

My hands shook. I swallowed. "Get away from us."

"Rose."

The voice spoke again, a voice that my soul would have known anywhere. Hesitantly, I let myself finally become aware of my surroundings, let the details sink in. I let my eyes focus on the features of the man standing there. Dimitri's brown eyes, gentle and firm, looked down on me.

"It's okay," he said. "Everything's going to be okay. You can let go of the sword."

My hands shook even harder as I fought to hold on to the hilt. "I can't." The words hurt coming out. "I can't leave him alone. I have to protect him."

"You have," said Dimitri.

The sword fell out of my hands, landing with a loud clatter on the wooden floor. I followed, collapsing on all fours, wanting to cry but still unable to.

Dimitri's arms wrapped around me as he helped me up. Voices swarmed around us, and one by one, I recognized people I knew and trusted. He started to tug me toward the door, but I refused to move just yet. I couldn't. My hands clutched his shirt, crumpling the fabric. Still keeping one arm around me, he smoothed my hair back away from my face. I leaned my head against him, and he continued stroking my hair, murmuring something in Russian. I didn't understand a word of it, but the gentle tone soothed me.

Guardians were spreading throughout the house, examining it inch by inch. A couple of them approached us and knelt by the bodies I refused to look at.

"She did that? Both of them?"

"That sword hasn't been sharpened in years!"

A funny sound caught in my throat. Dimitri squeezed my shoulder comfortingly.

"Get her out of here, Belikov," I heard a woman say behind him, her voice familiar.

Dimitri squeezed my shoulder again. "Come on, Roza. It's time to go."

This time, I went. He guided me out of the house, holding onto me as I managed each agonizing step. My mind still refused to really process what had happened. I couldn't do much more than follow simple directions from those around me.

I eventually ended up on one of the Academy's jets. Engines roared around us as the plane lifted off. Dimitri murmured something about coming back shortly and left me alone in my seat. I stared straight ahead, studying the details of the seat in front of me.

Someone sat beside me and draped a blanket over my shoulders. I noticed then just how badly I was shivering. I tugged at the edges of the blanket.

"I'm cold," I said. "How am I so cold?"

"You're in shock," Mia answered.

I turned and looked at her, studying her blond curls and big blue eyes. Something about seeing her unleashed my memories. It all tumbled back. I squeezed my eyes shut.

"Oh God," I breathed. I opened my eyes and focused on her again. "You saved me- saved me when you blew up the fish tank. You shouldn't have done it. You shouldn't have come back."

She shrugged. "You shouldn't have gone for the sword."

Fair point. "Thank you," I told her. "What you did ... I never would have thought of that. It was brilliant."

"I don't know about that," she mused, smiling ruefully. "Water isn't much of a weapon, remember?"

I choked on a laugh, even though I really didn't find my old words that funny. Not anymore.

"Water's a great weapon," I said finally. "When we get back, we'll have to practice ways to use it."

Her face lit up. Fierceness shone out from her eyes. "I'd like that. More than anything."

"I'm sorry ... sorry about your mom."

Mia simply nodded. "You're lucky to still have yours. You don't know how lucky."

I turned and stared at the seat again. The next words out of my mouth startled me: "I wish she was here."

"She is," said Mia, sounding surprised. "She was with the group that raided the house. Didn't you see her?"

I shook my head.

We lapsed into silence. Mia stood up and left. A minute later, someone else sat down beside me. I didn't have to see her to know who she was. I just knew.

"Rose," said my mother. For once in my life, she sounded unsure of herself. Scared, maybe. "Mia said you wanted to see me." I didn't answer. I didn't look at her. "What...what do you need?"

I didn't know what I needed. I didn't know what to do. The stinging in my eyes grew unbearable, and before I knew it, I was crying. Big, painful sobs seized my body. The tears I'd held back so long poured down my face. The fear and grief I'd refused to let myself feel finally burst free, burning in my chest. I could scarcely breathe.

My mother put her arms around me, and I buried my face in her chest, sobbing even harder.

"I know," she said softly, tightening her grip on me. "I understand."

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