Chapter Sixteen

 

CONSIDERING SYDNEY DESTROYED dead bodies on a regular basis, it was kind of surprising that she was so shocked by our post-fight appearances. Maybe dead Strigoi were just objects to her. Dimitri and I were real live people, and we were a mess.

"I hope you guys don't stain the car,' she said, once the bodies were disposed of and we were on our way. I think it was her best attempt at a joke, in an effort to cover up her discomfort over our torn and bloody clothes.

"Are we going to Paris?' I asked, turning to look back at Dimitri.

"Paris?' asked Sydney, startled.

"Not yet,' said Dimitri, leaning his head back against the seat. He was back to looking like a controlled guardian. All signs of his earlier breakdown were gone, and I had no intention of giving away what had happened before we'd fetched Sydney. So small ... yet so monumental. And very private. For now, he mostly looked tired. "We should wait until daytime. We had to go for Donovan now, but if Sonya's got a house, she's probably there all the time. Safer for us in daylight.'

"How do you know he wasn't lying?' asked Sydney. She was driving with no real destination, merely getting us out of the neighborhood as fast as possible and before people reported screams and the sounds of fighting.

I thought back to the terror on Donovan's face and shivered. "I don't think he was lying.'

Sydney didn't ask any more questions, except about which direction she should drive. Dimitri suggested we find another hotel so that we could clean up and get some rest before tomorrow's task. Fortunately, Lexington had a much broader selection of hotels than our last town. We didn't go for luxury, but the large, modern-looking place we chose was part of a chain, clean and stylish. Sydney checked us in and then led us inside through a side door, so as not to startle any guests who might be up in the middle of the night.

We got one room with two double beds. No one commented on it, but I think we all shared a need to stay together after our earlier Strigoi encounter. Dimitri was much more of a mess than me, thanks to his mutilation of Donovan, so I sent him to shower first.

"You did great,' I told Sydney as we waited. I sat on the floor (which was much cleaner than the last room's) so that I wouldn't wreck the beds. "That was really brave of you.'

She crooked me a smile. "Typical. You get beat up and nearly killed, but I'm the one you're praising?'

"Hey, I do this all the time. Going in there alone like you did ... well, it was pretty hardcore. And I'm not that beat up.'

I was brushing off my injuries, just as Dimitri would. Sydney, eyeing me, knew it too. My legs were scraped more than I'd realized, the skin torn and bleeding from where I'd fallen on the cement. One of my ankles was complaining over the roof-jump, and I had a number of cuts and bruises scattered over the rest of me. I had no clue where most had come from.

Sydney shook her head. "How you guys don't catch gangrene more often is beyond me.' We both knew why, though. It was part of the natural resistance I'd been born with as a dhampir, getting the best of both races' traits. Moroi were actually pretty healthy too, though they sometimes caught diseases unique to their race. Victor was an example. He had a chronic disease and had once forced Lissa to heal him. Her magic had restored him to full health at the time, but the illness was slowly creeping back.

I showered after Dimitri finished, and then Sydney forced her first aid kit on both of us. When we were bandaged and disinfected to her satisfaction, she got out her laptop and pulled up a map of Paris, Kentucky. The three of us huddled around the screen.

"Lots of creeks and rivers,' she mused, scrolling around. "Not much in the way of lakes.'

I pointed. "Do you think that's it?' It was a tiny body of water, marked APPLEWOOD POND.

"Maybe. Ah, there's another pond. That could be a suspect too or--oh! Right here?' She tapped the screen on another body of water, a bit bigger than the ponds: MARTIN LAKE.

Dimitri sat back and ran a hand over his eyes as he yawned. "That looks like the most likely option. If not, I don't think it'll take long to drive around the other ones.'

"That's your plan?' asked Sydney. "Just drive around and look for a blue house?'

I exchanged glances with Dimitri and shrugged. Sydney might be showing her bravery on this trip, but I knew her idea of "a plan' was a little different from ours. Hers were structured, well-thought out, and had a clear purpose. Also, details.

"It's more solid than most of our plans,' I said at last.

The sun was going to be up in another hour or so. I was restless to go after Sonya, but Dimitri insisted sleep until midday. He took one bed, and Sydney and I shared the other. I didn't really think I needed the rest he claimed, but my body disagreed. I fell asleep almost instantly.

And like always lately, I eventually was pulled into a spirit dream. I hoped it was Adrian, coming to finish our last conversation. Instead, the conservatory materialized around me, complete with harp and cushioned furniture. I sighed and faced the Brothers Dashkov.

"Great,' I said. "Another conference call. I have really got to start blocking your number.'

Victor gave me a small bow. "Always a pleasure, Rose.' Robert merely stared off into space again. Nice to know some things never changed.

"What do you want?' I demanded.

"You know what we want. We're here to help you help Vasilisa.' I didn't believe that for an instant. Victor had some scheme in mind, but my hope was to capture him before he could do any further damage. He studied me expectantly. "Have you found the other Dragomir yet?'

I stared incredulously. "It's only been a day!' I almost had to redo my math on that one. It felt more like ten years. Nope. Only a day since I'd last spoken to Victor.

"And?' Victor asked. "And, how good do you think we are?'

He considered. "Pretty good.'

"Well, thanks for the vote of confidence, but it's not as easy as it seems. And actually ... considering what a cover-up this has all been, it really doesn't seem easy at all.'

"But you have found something?' Victor pressed.

I didn't answer.

An eager gleam lit his eyes, and he took a step forward. I promptly took one back. "You have found something.'

"Maybe.' Again, I had the same indecision as before. Did Victor, with all his scheming and manipulating, know something that could help us? Last time, he'd given me nothing, but now we had more information. What had he said? If we found a thread, he could unravel it?

"Rose.' Victor was speaking to me like I was a child, as he often did to Robert. It made me scowl. "I told you before: It doesn't matter if you trust me or my intentions. For now, we're both interested in the same short-term goal. Don't let future worries ruin your chance here.'

It was funny, but that was similar to the principle I'd operated on for most of my life. Live in the now. Jump right in and worry about the consequences later. Now, I hesitated and tried to think things over before making a decision. At last, I chose to take the risk, again hoping Victor might be able to help.

"We think the mother ... the mother of Lissa's brother or sister ... is related to Sonya Karp.' Victor's eyebrows rose. "You know who that is?'

"Of course. She turned Strigoi--allegedly because she went insane. But we both know it was a little more complicated than that.'

I nodded reluctantly. "She was a spirit user. No one knew.'

Robert's head whipped around so fast that I nearly jumped. "Whos a spirit user?'

"Former spirit user,' said Victor, instantly switching to soothing mode. "She became a Strigoi to get away from it.'

The sharp focus Robert had directed toward the two of us melted into soft dreaminess once more. "Yes ... always a lure to that ... kill to live, live to kill. Immortality and freedom from these chains, but oh, what a loss ...'

They were crazy ramblings, but they had an eerie similarity to some of the things Adrian said sometimes. I didn't like that at all. Trying to pretend Robert wasn't in the room, I turned back to Victor. "Do you know anything about her? Who she's related to?'

He shook his head. "She has a large family.'

I threw up my hands in exasperation. "Could you be any more useless? You keep acting like you know so much, but you're just telling us what we've already found out! You aren't helping!'

"Help comes in many forms, Rose. Have you found Sonya?'

"Yes.' I reconsidered. "Well, not quite. We know where she is. We're going to see her tomorrow and question her.'

The look on Victor's face spoke legions about how ridiculous he thought that was. "And I'm sure she'll be eager to help.'

I shrugged. "Dimitri's pretty persuasive.' "So I've heard,' said Victor. "But Sonya Karp isn't an impressionable teenager.' I sized up a punch but worried Robert might have his force field up again. Victor appeared oblivious to my anger. "Tell me where you are. We'll come to you.'

Once more, a dilemma. I didn't think there was much the brothers could do. But this might present an opportunity to recapture him. Besides, if we had him in person, maybe he'd stop interrupting my dreams.

"We're in Kentucky,' I said at last. "Paris, Kentucky.' I gave him what other info we had about the blue house.

"We'll be there tomorrow,' Victor said.

"Then where are you now--'

And just like last time, Robert ended the dream abruptly, leaving me hanging. What had I gotten myself into with them? Before I could consider it, I was immediately taken to another spirit dream. Good Lord. It really was deja vu. Everyone wanted to talk to me in my sleep. Fortunately, like last time, my second visit was from Adrian.

This one was in the ballroom where the Council had met. There were no chairs or people, and my steps echoed on the hard wood floor. The room that seemed so grand and powerful when in use now had a lonely, ominous feel.

Adrian stood near one of the tall, arched windows, giving me one of his roguish smiles when I hugged him. Compared to how dirty and bloody everything was in the real world, he seemed pristine and perfect.

"You did it.' I gave him a quick kiss on the lips. "You got them to nominate Lissa.' After our last dream visit, when I'd realized there might be some merit to Victor's suggestion, I'd had to work hard to convince Adrian that the nomination idea was a good one-- particularly since I hadn't been sure myself.

"Yeah, getting that group on board was easy.' He seemed to like my admiration, but his face grew grimmer as he pondered my words. "She's not happy about it, though. Boy, she let us have it afterward.'

"I saw it. You're right that she doesn't like it--but it was more than that. It was spirit- darkness. I took some of it away, but yeah ... it was bad.' I remembered how taking her anger had caused it to flare up briefly in me. Spirit didn't hit me as hard as it did her-- but that was only temporary. Eventually, if I pulled enough over the years, it would take over. I caught hold of Adrian's hand and gave him as pleading a look as I could manage. "You've got to look after her. I'll do what I can, but you know as well as I do how stress and worry can agitate spirit. I'm afraid it'll come back like it used to. I wish I could be there to take care of her. Please--help her.'

He tucked a loose piece of hair behind my ear, concern in his deep green eyes. At first, I thought his worry was just for Lissa. "I will,' he said. "I'll do what I can. But Rose ... will it happen to me? Is that what I'll become? Like her and the others?'

Adrian had never shown the extreme side effects Lissa had, largely because he didn't use as much spirit and because he did so much self-medicating with alcohol. I didn't know how long that would last, though. From what I'd seen, there were only a few things to delay the insanity: self-discipline, antidepressants, and bonding to someone shadow-kissed. Adrian didn't seem interested in any of those options.

It was weird, but in this moment of vulnerability, I was reminded of what had just happened with Dimitri. Both of these men, so strong and confident in their ways, yet each needing me for support. You're the strong one, Rose, a voice whispered inside my head.

Adrian gazed off. "Sometimes ... sometimes I can believe the insanity is all imagined, you know? I've never felt it like the others ... like Lissa or old Vlad. But once in a while ...' he paused. "I don't know. I feel so close, Rose. So close to the edge. Like if I allow myself one small misstep, I'll plunge away and never come back. It's like I'll lose myself.'

I'd heard him say stuff like this before, when he'd go off on some weird tangent that only half made sense. It was the closest he ever came to showing that spirit might be messing with his mind too. I'd never realized he was aware of these moments or what they could mean.

He looked back down at me. "When I drink ... I don't worry about it. I don't worry about going crazy. But then I think ... maybe I already I am. Maybe I am, but no one can tell the difference when I'm drunk.'

"You're not crazy,' I said fiercely, pulling him to me. I loved his warmth and the way he felt against my skin. "You'll be okay. You're strong.'

He pressed his cheek to my forehead. "I don't know,' he said. "I think you're my strength.'

It was a sweet and romantic statement, but something about it bothered me. "That's not quite right,' I said, wondering how I could put my feelings into words. I knew you could help someone else in a relationship. You could strengthen them and support them. But you couldn't actually do everything for them. You couldn't solve all their problems. "You have to find it within your--'

The hotel room's alarm clock blared and broke me from the dream, leaving me frustrated both because I missed Adrian and hadn't been able to say all I wanted to. Well, there was nothing I could do for him now. I could only hope he'd manage on his own.

Sydney and I were both sluggish and squinty-eyed. It made sense that she'd be exhausted, since her whole sleeping schedule--when she actually got sleep--had been thrown off. Me? My fatigue was mental. So many people, I thought. So many people needed me ... but it was so hard to help all of them.

Naturally, Dimitri was up and ready to go. He'd woken before us. Last night's breakdown might as well have never happened. It turned out he'd been dying for coffee and had patiently waited for us, not wanting to leave us sleeping and undefended. I shooed him off, and twenty minutes later, he returned with coffee and a box of donuts. He also had purchased an industrial-strength chain at a hardware store across the street "for when we find Sonya,' which made me uneasy. By then Sydney and I were ready to go, and I decided to hold off on my questions. I wasn't crazy about wearing shorts again, not with my legs in this condition, but I was too eager to get to Sonya to insist we stop at a mall.

I did, however, decide it was time to get my companions up to speed.

"So,' I began casually, "Victor Dashkov might be joining us soon.'

It was to Sydney's credit that she didn't drive off the road. "What? That guy who escaped?' I could see in Dimitri's eyes that he was just as shocked, but he kept cool and under control, like always. "Why,' he began slowly, "is Victor Dashkov joining us?'

"Well, it's kind of a funny story ...'

And with that intro, I gave them as brief yet thorough a recap as I could, starting with the background on Robert Doru and ending with the brothers' recent dream visits. I glossed over Victor's "mysterious' escape a few weeks ago, but something told me that Dimitri, in that uncanny way we had of guessing each other's thoughts, was probably putting the pieces together. Both Lissa and I had told Dimitri we'd gone through a lot to learn how to restore him, but we'd never explained the full story--especially the part about breaking out Victor so that he could help us find his brother.

"Look, whether he can help or not, this is our chance to catch him,' I added hastily. "That's a good thing, right?'

"Its an issue we'll deal with ... later.' I recognized the tone in Dimitri's voice. He'd used it a lot at St. Vladimir's. It usually meant there was a private talk in my future, where I'd be grilled for more details.

Kentucky turned out to be pretty beautiful as we drove out to Paris. The land was rolling and green as we got out of the city, and it was easy to imagine wanting to live in a little house out here. I wondered idly if that had been Sonya's motivation and then caught myself. I'd just told Dimitri that Strigoi saw no beauty. Was I wrong? Would gorgeous scenery matter to her?

I found my answer when our GPS led us to Martin Lake. There were only a few houses scattered around it, and among those, only one was blue. Stopping a fair distance away from the house, Sydney parked the car off to the side of the road as much as she could. It was narrow, the shoulders covered in trees and high grass. We all got out of the car and walked a little ways, still keeping our distance.

"Well. It's a blue house,' declared Sydney pragmatically. "But is it hers? I don't see a mailbox or anything.'

I looked closer at the yard. Rose bushes, full of pink and red blossoms, grew in front of the porch. Baskets thick with white flowers I didn't know the names of hung from the roof, and blue morning glories climbed up a trellis. Around the house, I could just barely make out a wood fence. A vine with orange, trumpet-shaped flowers crawled over it.

Then, an image flickered into my mind, gone as quickly as it had come. Ms. Karp watering pots of flowers in her classroom, flowers that seemed to grow impossibly fast and tall. As a teenager more interested in dodging homework, I hadn't thought much about them. It was only later, after watching Lissa make plants grow and bloom during spirit experiments, that I understood what had been happening in Ms. Karp's classroom. And now, even deprived of spirit and possessed by evil, Sonya Karp was still tending her flowers.

"Yeah,' I said. "This is her house.' Dimitri approached the front porch, studying every detail. I started to follow but held back. "What are you doing?' I kept my voice low. "She might see you.'

He returned to my side. "Those are black-out curtains. They aren't letting in any light, so she isn't going to see anything. It also means she likely spends her time on the house's main floor, rather than a basement.' I could easily follow his line of thinking. "That's good news for us.' When I'd been captured by Strigoi last year, my friends and I had been held in a basement. Not only was it convenient for Strigoi wanting to avoid the sun, it also meant fewer escape and entry options. It was easy for Strigoi to trap prey in a basement. The more doors and windows we had, the better.

"I'll scout the other side,' he said, starting for the backyard.

I hurried up to him and caught him by the arm. "Let me. I'll sense any Strigoi--not that she's going outside, but, well, just in case.'

He hesitated, and I grew irate, thinking he didn't believe me capable. Then, he said, "Okay. Be careful.' I realized he was just worried about me.

I moved as smoothly and quietly as I could around the house, soon discovering the wooden fence was going to create difficulty in seeing the backyard. I feared climbing over might alert Sonya to my presence and pondered what to do. My solution came in the form of a large rock lying near the fence's edge. I dragged the stone over and stood on top. It wasn't enough to let me look completely over, but I was able to easily put my hands on top of the fence and hoist myself up for a peek with minimal noise.

It was like looking into the Garden of Eden. The flowers in the front had merely been the warm-up act. More roses, magnolia and apple trees, irises, and a billion other flowers I didn't recognize. Sonya's backyard was a paradise of lush color. I scoped out what I needed to and hurried back to Dimitri. Sydney still stood by the car.

"A patio door and two windows,' I reported. "All curtained. There's also a wooden deck chair, a shovel, and a wheelbarrow.'

"Any pitchforks?'

"Unfortunately, no, but there's a big-ass rock sitting outside the fence. It'd be hard to get it into the yard, though. We're better off using it to help us climb over. No gate in the fence. She's made a fortress.'

He nodded in understanding, and without any conversation, I knew what to do. We got the chain from the car and entrusted it to Sydney. We told her to wait for us outside--with the strict instructions to leave if we weren't back in thirty minutes. I hated to say that kind of thing--and Sydney's face indicated she didn't like hearing it--but it was inevitable. If we hadn't subdued Sonya in that amount of time, we weren't going to subdue her at all--or leave alive. If we did manage to overtake her, we'd give some signal for Sydney to come in with the chain.

Sydney's amber-brown eyes were filled with anxiety as she watched us head back around the house. I nearly teased her for caring about evil creatures of the night but stopped myself just in time. She might loathe every other dhampir and Moroi in the world, but somewhere along the way, she'd come to like Dimitri and me. That wasn't something to mock.

Dimitri stood on the rock and surveyed the yard. He murmured a few last-minute instructions to me before taking my hands and boosting me up over the fence. His height went a long way to make the maneuver as easy and quiet--though not silent--as possible. He followed me shortly thereafter, landing beside me with a small thud.

After that, we sprang forward with no delay. If Sonya had heard us, then there was no point in wasting time. We needed every advantage we could get. Dimitri grabbed the shovel and swung it hard into the glass--once, twice. The first strike was about the height of my head, the second lower. The glass fractured more with each impact. Right on the heels of the second hit, I pushed forward and shoved the wheelbarrow into the door. Lifting it and throwing it against the glass would have been a lot cooler, but it was too unwieldy to raise very high. When the wheelbarrow struck the already weakened glass, the cracked areas broke and crumbled altogether, creating a hole big enough for both of us to get through. We both had to duck--especially Dimitri.

A simultaneous attack through both sides of the house would have been ideal, but it wasn't like Sonya could run out the front door. Nausea had started to creep over me as soon as we were near the patio, and the sensation hit full force as we entered a living room. I ignored my stomach in the way I'd perfected and braced myself for what was to come. We'd broken in pretty quickly but not quickly enough to truly get the jump on Strigoi reflexes.

Sonya Karp was right there, ready for us, doing all she could to avoid the sunlight spilling into the living room. When I'd first seen Dimitri as a Strigoi, I'd been so shocked that I'd frozen up. It had allowed him to capture me, so I'd mentally braced myself this time, knowing I'd feel the same shock when I saw my former teacher as a Strigoi. And it was shocking. Just like with him, so many of Sonya's features were the same as before: the auburn hair and high cheek bones ... but her beauty was twisted by all the other terrible conditions: chalky skin, red eyes, and the expression of cruelty that all Strigoi seemed to wear.

If she recognized us, she gave no sign and lunged toward Dimitri with a snarl. It was a common Strigoi tactic to take out the bigger threat first, and it annoyed me that they always believed that was Dimitri. He'd shoved his stake in his belt in order to carry the shovel inside with him. The shovel wouldn't kill a Strigoi, but with enough strength and momentum, it would definitely keep Sonya at arm's length. He struck her with it in the shoulder after her first attempt, and while she didn't fall over, she definitely waited before trying another attack. They circled each other, like wolves readying for a battle, as she sized up her odds. One charge, and her greater strength would push him down, shovel or not.

All of this took place in a matter of seconds, and Sonya's calculations had left me out of the equation. I made my own charge, slamming into her other side, but she saw me coming out of the corner of her eye and responded instantly, throwing me down while never taking her eyes off Dimitri. I wished I had the shovel and could hit her in the back from a safe distance. All I carried was my stake, and I had to be careful with it since it could kill her. I did a quick scan of her eerily normal living room and couldn't see any other potential weapons.

She feinted, and Dimitri went for it. He just barely corrected himself as she leapt forward to take advantage of the situation. She thrust him against the wall, pinning him there and knocking the shovel from his grasp. He struggled against her, trying to break free as her hands found his throat. If I tried to pull her off, my strength combined with Dimitri's would probably free him. I wanted this over as quickly as possible, however, and decided to make a power play.

I ran toward her, stake in hand, and plunged it through her right shoulder blade, hoping I was nowhere near her heart. The charmed silver, so agonizing to Strigoi skin, made her scream. Frantic, she shoved me away with force that was astonishing even for a Strigoi. I fell backward, stumbling, and whacked my head against a coffee table. My vision dimmed slightly, but instinct and adrenaline drove me back to my feet.

My attack gave Dimitri the split second he needed. He knocked Sonya to the ground and grabbed my stake, pushing it against her throat. She screamed and flailed, and I moved forward to help him, knowing how hard it was to pin a Strigoi.

"Get Sydney ...' he grunted. "The chain ...'

I moved as quickly as I could, stars and shadows dancing in front of me. I unlocked the front door and kicked it open as a signal, then ran back to Dimitri. Sonya was making good progress in fighting him off. I dropped to my knees, working with Dimitri to keep her restrained. He had that battle lust in his eyes again, a look that said he wanted to destroy her right here and now. But there was something else, too. Something that made me think he had more control, that my words in the alley had actually had an impact. Still, I uttered a warning.

"We need her ... remember we need her.'

He gave me a slight nod, just as Sydney showed up lugging the chain. She stared at the scene wide-eyed, pausing only a moment before hurrying over to us. We'll make a warrior of her yet, I thought.

Dimitri and I moved to our next task. We'd already spotted the best place to bind Sonya: a heavy, reclining armchair in the corner. Lifting her--which was dangerous since she was still thrashing wildly--we thrust her into the chair. Then, keeping the stake at her neck, Dimitri attempted to hold her down while I grabbed hold of the chain.

There was no time to think of a precise system. I just started wrapping it, first around her legs and then as best as I could around her torso, trying to lock her arms against her. Dimitri had bought a lot of chain, thankfully, and I hurriedly wrapped it around the chair in a crazy manner, doing everything I could to keep her down.

When I finally ran out of chain, Sonya was pretty well locked into place. Was it something she could break out of? Absolutely. But with a silver stake against her? Not so easy. With both in place ... well, we had her trapped for now. It was the best we could do.

Dimitri and I exchanged brief, weary looks. I felt dizzy but fought through it, knowing our task was far from over.

"Time for questioning,' I said grimly.

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