THE LOBBY OF MY DORM was abuzz when I sprinted downstairs to my before-school practice. The commotion didn't surprise me. A good night's sleep had gone far to chase away the images from last night, but I knew neither I nor my classmates would easily forget what had taken place outside Billings.
And yet, as I studied the faces and clusters of other novices, I noticed something weird. The fear and tension from yesterday were still around, certainly, but something new was there too: excitement. A couple of freshmen novices were practically squealing with joy as they spoke in hushed whispers. Nearby, a group of guys my own age were gesturing wildly, enthusiastic grins on their faces.
I had to be missing something here¡ªunless all of yesterday had been a dream. It took every ounce of self-control I had not to go over and ask somebody what was happening. If I delayed, I'd be late for practice. The curiosity was killing me, though. Had the Strigoi and their humans been found and killed? That would certainly be good news, but something told me that wasn't the case. Pushing open the front doors, I lamented that I'd just have to wait until breakfast to find out.
"Hath-away, don't run-away," a singsong voice called.
I glanced behind me and grinned. Mason Ashford, another novice and a good friend of mine, jogged up and fell in step with me.
"What are you, twelve?" I asked, continuing on toward the gym.
"Nearly," he said. "I missed your smiling face yesterday. Where were you?"
Apparently my presence at the Badica house still wasn't widely known. It wasn't a secret or anything, but I didn't want to discuss any gory details. "Had a training thing with Dimitri."
"God," muttered Mason. "That guy is always working you. Doesn't he realize he's depriving us of your beauty and charm?"
"Smiling face? Beauty and charm? You're laying it on a little thick this morning, aren't you?" I laughed.
"Hey, I'm just telling it like it is. Really, you're lucky to have someone as suave and brilliant as me paying this much attention to you."
I kept grinning. Mason was a huge flirt, and he liked to flirt with me in particular. Part of it was just because I was good at it and liked to flirt back. But I knew his feelings toward me were more than just friendly, and I was still deciding how I felt about that. He and I had the same goofy sense of humor and frequently drew attention to ourselves in class and among friends. He had gorgeous blue eyes and messy red hair that never seemed to lie flat. It was cute.
But dating someone new was going to be kind of difficult when I still kept thinking about the time I was half-naked in bed with Dimitri.
"Suave and brilliant, huh?" I shook my head. "I don't think you pay nearly as much attention to me as you do your ego. Someone needs to knock it down a little."
"Oh yeah?" he asked. "Well, you can try your best on the slopes."
I stopped walking. "The what?"
"The slopes." He tilted his head. "You know, the ski trip."
"What ski trip?" I was apparently missing something serious here.
"Where have you been this morning?" he asked, looking at me like I was a crazy woman.
"In bed! I only got up, like, five minutes ago. Now, start from the beginning and tell me what you're talking about." I shivered from the lack of movement. "And let's keep walking." We did.
"So, you know how everyone's afraid to have their kids come home for Christmas? Well, there's this huge ski lodge in Idaho that's exclusively used by royals and rich Moroi. The people who own it are opening it up for Academy students and their families¡ªand actually any other Moroi who want to go. With everyone in one spot, they're going to have a ton of guardians to protect the place, so it'll be totally safe."
"You can't be serious," I said. We reached the gym and stepped inside out of the cold.
Mason nodded eagerly. "It's true. The place is supposed to be amazing." He gave me the grin that always made me smile in return. "We're going to live like royalty, Rose. At least for a week or so. We take off the day after Christmas."
I stood there, both excited and stunned. I hadn't seen this coming. It really was a brilliant idea, one that let families reunite safely. And what a reunion spot! A royal ski lodge. I'd expected to spend most of my holiday break hanging out here and watching TV with Lissa and Christian. Now I'd be living it up in five-star accommodations. Lobster dinners. Massages. Cute ski instructors ...
Mason's enthusiasm was contagious. I could feel it welling up in me, and then, suddenly, it slammed to a halt.
Studying my face, he saw the change right away. "What's wrong? This is cool."
"It is," I admitted. "And I get why everyone's excited, but the reason we're getting to go to this fancy place is because, well, because people are dead. I mean, doesn't this all seem weird?"
Mason's cheery expression sobered a little. "Yeah, but we're alive, Rose. We can't stop living because other people are dead. And we have to make sure more people don't die. That's why this place is such a great idea. It's safe." His eyes turned stormy. "God, I can't wait until we're out of here in the field. After hearing about what happened, I just want to go tear apart some Strigoi. I wish we could go now, you know? There's no reason. They could use the extra help, and we pretty much know everything we need to."
The fierceness in his voice reminded me of my outburst yesterday, though he wasn't quite as worked up as I'd been. His eagerness to act was impetuous and na?ve, whereas mine had been born out of some weird, dark irrationality I still didn't entirely understand.
When I didn't respond, Mason gave me a puzzled look. "Don't you want to?"
"I don't know, Mase." I stared down at the floor, avoiding his eyes as I studied the toe of my shoe. "I mean, I don't want Strigoi out there, attacking people either. And I want to stop them in theory... but, well, we aren't even close to being ready. I've seen what they can do I don't know. Rushing in isn't the answer." I shook my head and looked back up. Good grief. I sounded so logical and cautious. I sounded like Dimitri. "It's not important since it's not going to happen anyway. I suppose we should just be excited about the trip, huh?"
Mason's moods were quick to change, and he turned easygoing once more. "Yup. And you'd better try to remember how to ski, because I'm calling you out on knocking down my ego out there. Not that it's going to happen."
I smiled again. "Boy, it sure is going to be sad when I make you cry. I kind of feel guilty already."
He opened his mouth, no doubt to deliver some smartass reply, and then caught sight of something¡ªor rather, someone¡ªbehind me. I glanced over and saw Dimitri's tall form approaching from the other side of the gym.
Mason swept me a gallant bow. "Your lord and master. Catch you later, Hathaway. Start planning your ski strategies." He opened the door and disappeared into the frigid darkness. I turned around and joined Dimitri.
Like other dhampir novices, I spent half of my school day on one form or another of guardian training, be it actual physical combat or learning about Strigoi and how to defend against them. Novices also sometimes had practices after school. I, however, was in a unique situation.
I still stood by my decision to run away from St. Vladimir's. Victor Dashkov had posed too much of a threat to Lissa. But our extended vacation had come with consequences. Being away for two years had put me behind in my guardian classes, so the school had declared that I had to make up for it by going to extra practices before and after school.
Little did they know that they were also giving me lessons in avoiding temptation. But my attraction to him aside, I was a fast learner, and with his help, I had almost caught up to the other seniors.
Since he wasn't wearing a coat, I knew we'd be working inside today, which was good news. It was freezing out. Yet even the happiness I felt over that was nothing compared to what I felt when I saw what exactly he had set up in one of the training rooms.
There were practice dummies arranged on the far wall, dummies that looked amazingly lifelike. No straw-stuffed burlap bags here. There were men and women, wearing ordinary clothes, with rubbery skin and different hair and eye colors. Their expressions ranged from happy to scared to angry. I'd worked with these dummies before in other trainings, using them to practice kicks and punches. But I'd never worked with them while holding what Dimitri held: a silver stake.
"Sweet," I breathed.
It was identical to the one I'd found at the Badica house. It had a hand grip at the bottom, almost like a hilt without the little side flourishes. That was where its resemblance to a dagger ended. Rather than a flat blade, the stake had a thick, rounded body that narrowed to a point, kind of like an ice pick. The entire thing was a little shorter than my forearm.
Dimitri leaned casually against the wall, in an easy stance he always pulled off remarkably well, despite being almost six-seven. With one hand, he tossed the stake into the air. It spun around in a cartwheel a couple of times and then came down. He caught it hilt first.
"Please tell me I get to learn how to do that today," I said.
Amusement flashed in the dark depths of his eyes. I think he had a hard time keeping a straight face around me sometimes.
"You'll be lucky if I let you hold it today," he said. He flipped the stake into the air again. My eyes followed it longingly. I started to point out that I had already held one, but I knew that line of logic would get me nowhere.
Instead, I tossed my backpack on the floor, threw off my coat, and crossed my arms expectantly. I had on loose pants tied at the waist and a tank top with a hoodie over it. My dark hair was pulled brutally back into a ponytail. I was ready for anything.
"You want me to tell you how they work and why I should always be cautious around them," I announced.
Dimitri stopped flipping the stake and stared at me in astonishment.
"Come on," I laughed. "You don't think I know how you work by now? We've been doing this for almost three months. You always make me talk safety and responsibility before I can do anything fun."
"I see," he said. "Well, I guess you've got it all figured out. By all means, go on with the lesson. I'll just wait over here until you need me again."
He tucked the stake into a leather sheath hanging from his belt and then made himself comfortable against the wall, hands stuffed in pockets. I waited, figuring he was joking, but when he said nothing else, I realized he'd meant his words. With a shrug, I launched into what I knew.
"Silver always has powerful effects on any magical creature¡ªit can help or hurt them if you put enough power into it. These stakes are really hard-core because it takes four different Moroi to make them, and they use each of the elements during the forging." I frowned, suddenly considering something. "Well, except spirit. So these things are supercharged and are about the only non-decapitating weapon that can do damage to a Strigoi¡ªbut to kill them, it has to be through the heart."
"Will they hurt you?"
I shook my head. "No. I mean, well, yeah, if you drive one through my heart it will, but it won't hurt me like it would a Moroi. Scratch one of them with this, and it'll hit them pretty hard¡ªbut not as hard as it'd hit a Strigoi. And they won't hurt humans, either."
I stopped for a moment and stared absentmindedly at the window behind Dimitri. Frost covered the glass in sparkling, crystalline patterns, but I hardly noticed. Mentioning humans and stakes had transported me back to the Badica house. Blood and death flashed through my thoughts.
Seeing Dimitri watching me, I shook off the memories and kept going with the lesson. Dimitri would occasionally give a nod or ask a clarifying question. As the time ticked down, I kept expecting him to tell me I was finished and could start hacking up the dummies. Instead, he waited until almost ten minutes before the end of our session before leading me over to one of them¡ªit was a man with blond hair and a goatee. Dimitri took the stake out from its sheath but didn't hand it to me.
"Where are you going to put this?" he asked.
"In the heart," I replied irritably. "I already told you that like a hundred times. Can I have it now?"
He allowed himself a smile. "Where's the heart?"
I gave him an are-you-serious look. He merely shrugged.
With overdramatic emphasis, I pointed to the left side of the dummy's chest. Dimitri shook his head.
"That's not where the heart is," he told me.
"Sure it is. People put their hands over their hearts when they say the Pledge of Allegiance or sing the national anthem."
He continued to stare at me expectantly.
I turned back to the dummy and studied it. In the back of my brain, I remembered learning CPR and where we had to place our hands. I tapped the center of the dummy's chest.
"Is it here?"
He arched an eyebrow. Normally I thought that was cool. Today it was just annoying. "I don't know," he said. "Is it?"
"That's what I'm asking you!"
"You shouldn't have to ask me. Don't you all have to take physiology?"
"Yeah. Junior year. I was on 'vacation,' remember?" I pointed to the gleaming stake. "Can I please touch it now?"
He flipped the stake again, letting it flash in the light, and then it disappeared in the sheath. "I want you to tell me where the heart is the next time we meet. Exactly where. And I want to know what's in the way of it too."
I gave him my fiercest glare, which¡ªjudging from his expression¡ªmust not have been that fierce. Nine out of ten times, I thought Dimitri was the sexiest thing walking the earth. Then, there were times like this ...
I headed off to first period, a combat class, in a bad mood. I didn't like looking incompetent in front of Dimitri, and I'd really, really wanted to use one of those stakes. So in class I took out my annoyance on anyone I could punch or kick. By the end of class, no one wanted to spar with me. I'd accidentally hit Meredith¡ªone of the few other girls in my class¡ªso hard that she'd felt it through her shin padding. She was going to have an ugly bruise and kept looking at me as though I'd done it on purpose. I apologized to no avail.
Afterward, Mason found me once again. "Oh, man," he said, studying my face. "Who pissed you off?"
I immediately launched into my tale of silver stake and heart woes.
To my annoyance, he laughed. "How do you not know where the heart is? Especially considering how many of them you've broken?"
I gave him the same ferocious look I'd given Dimitri. This time, it worked. Mason's face paled.
"Belikov is a sick, evil man who should be thrown into a pit of rabid vipers for the great offense he committed against you this morning."
"Thank you." I said primly. Then, I considered. "Can vipers be rabid?"
"I don't see why not. Everything can be. I think." He held the hallway door open for me. "Canadian geese might be worse than vipers, though."
I gave him a sidelong look. "Canadian geese are deadlier than vipers?"
"You ever tried to feed those little bastards?" he asked, attempting seriousness and failing. "They're vicious. You get thrown to vipers, you die quickly. But the geese? That'll go on for days. More suffering."
"Wow. I don't know whether I should be impressed or frightened that you've thought about all this," I remarked.
"Just trying to find creative ways to avenge your honor, that's all."
"You just never struck me as the creative type, Mase."
We stood just outside our second-period classroom. Mason's expression was still light and joking, but there was a suggestive note in his voice when he spoke again. "Rose, when I'm around you, I think of all sorts of creative things to do."
I was still giggling about the vipers and abruptly stopped, staring at him in surprise. I'd always thought Mason was cute, but with that serious, smoky look in his eyes, it suddenly occurred to me for the first time that he was actually kind of sexy.
"Oh, look at that," he laughed, noticing how much he'd caught me off guard. "Rose gets rendered speechless. Ashford 1, Hathaway 0."
"Hey, I don't want to make you cry before the trip. It won't be any fun if I've already broken you before we even hit the slopes."
He laughed, and we stepped into the room. This was a class on bodyguard theory, one that took place in an actual classroom instead of the practice field. It was a nice break from all the physical exertion. Today, there were three guardians standing at the front who weren't from the school's regiment. Holiday visitors, I realized. Parents and their guardians had already started coming to campus to accompany their children to the ski resort. My interest was piqued immediately.
One of the guests was a tall guy who looked like he was about a hundred years old but could still kick major ass. The other guy was about Dimitri's age. He had deeply tanned skin and was built well enough that a few of the girls in class looked ready to swoon.
The last guardian was a woman. Her auburn hair was cropped and curly, and her brown eyes were currently narrowed in thought. As I've said, a lot of dhampir women choose to have children rather than follow the guardian path. Since I too was one of the few women in this profession, I was always excited to meet others¡ªlike Tamara.
Only, this wasn't Tamara. This was someone I'd known for years, someone who triggered anything but pride and excitement. Instead, I felt resentment. Resentment, anger, and burning outrage.
The woman standing in front of the class was my mother.
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