Chapter Twenty-eight

 

I STOPPED BREATHING. WE'D each had our own blankets, but even in the middle of summer, the temperature had dropped during the night. Dimitri, in his sleep, had rolled over against me, merging our blankets into one pile and resting his head on my chest. His body lay against mine, warm and familiar, and he even snuggled a little closer.

He was more exhausted than I'd realized if he was doing this in his sleep. After all, this was the guy who slept with one eye open. But his guard was down now, his body unconsciously seeking ... what? Simple warmth? Me? Damn it. Why had I asked Sonya my question? Why couldn't I keep going with my easy role as Adrian's girlfriend and Dimitri's friend? Because honestly, I wasn't doing a very good job at either one right now.

Tentatively, fearfully, I shifted slightly so that I could put one arm around Dimitri and draw him closer. I knew it was a risk, one that might wake him and break this spell. But it didn't. If anything, he seemed to relax more. Feeling him like that ... holding him ... it churned up a swarm of emotions within me. The ache I had felt since his loss burned within me. At the same time, holding him like this also seemed to fill that ache, as though a piece of me that had been missing was now restored. I hadn't even realized that piece was missing. I'd blocked it all out until Sonya's words had shaken my fragile new acceptance of life.

I don't know how long I stayed like that with Dimitri. It was long enough that the rising sun began to illuminate the tent's translucent fabric. That was all the light my eyes needed to now see Dimitri, to see the finely carved lines of his face and softness of his hair as he lay against me. I wanted so badly to touch that hair, to see if it felt like it used to. That was a silly sentiment, of course. His hair wouldn't have changed. Still ... the urge was there, and I finally gave in, gently running my fingers over some stray locks. They were smooth and silky, and that barest touch sent chills through me. It also woke him up.

His eyes opened, instantly alert. I expected him to jump away from me, but instead, he only assessed the situation--and didn't move. I left my hand where it was on the side of his face, still stroking his hair. Our gazes locked, so much passing between us. In those moments, I wasn't in a tent with him, on the run from those who regarded us as villains. There was no murderer to catch, no Strigoi trauma to overcome. There was just him and me and the feelings that had burned between us for so long.

When he did move, it wasn't to get away. Instead, he lifted his head so that he looked down at me. Only a few inches separated us, and his eyes betrayed him. He wanted to kiss me--and I wanted him to. He leaned over me, one hand resting against my cheek. I readied myself for his lips--I needed them--and then he froze. He pulled back and sat up, exhaling in frustration as he looked away from me. I sat up as well, my breathing rapid and shallow.

"Wh-what's wrong?' I asked.

He glanced back at me. "Pick. There are lots of choices.'

I ran a finger along my lips. So close. So, so close. "I know ... I know things have changed. I know you were wrong. I know you can feel love again.' His mask was back up as he formulated his answer. "This isn't about love.'

The last minute replayed in my head, that perfect connection, the way he'd looked at me and made my heart feel. Hell, Sonya claimed we even had some mystical connection. "If it's not about love, then what is it about?' I exclaimed.

"It's about doing the right thing,' he said quietly.

The right thing? Right and wrong had been perennial topics at St. Vladimir's. I wasn't eighteen. He was my teacher. We were slated to be Lissa's guardians and had to give her our full attention. All of those were arguments for why staying apart had been necessary back then. But those had long since fallen by the wayside.

I would have questioned him more--if someone hadn't scratched at our door.

Both of us sprang up and apart, reaching for the stakes we'd slept near. Grabbing my stake was instinct because I knew there was no Strigoi out there. But lately, Strigoi had been the least of our worries.

"Rose? Dimitri?'

The voice was barely audible--but familiar. Relaxing slightly, I unzipped the tent's entrance and revealed Sonya kneeling in front of it. Like us, she wore the same clothes from earlier, and her auburn hair was messy. Otherwise, she seemed to have escaped her pursuers unscathed. I scooted aside so that she could enter.

"Cozy,' she said, glancing around. "You've got the farthest spot out on the campground. Took me forever to find the car you described.'

"How'd you get here?' I asked.

She winked. "You're not the only ones who can steal cars. Or, in my case, get people to "willingly' lend them.'

"Were you followed?' asked Dimitri. He was all seriousness again, with no sign of what had passed moments ago.

"Not that I could tell,' she said, shifting into a cross-legged position. "A couple guardians followed me back in the neighborhood, but I lost them a while ago. Most of them seemed more interested in you two.'

"Imagine that,' I muttered. "Too bad Victor was long gone--he might have taken priority.'

"He didn't kill a queen,' she said ruefully. We'd had to eventually tell her why Victor was wanted and that he'd been the one Sonya had sensed was stalking Lissa back at St. Vladimir's. "But the good news is I know where they're at now.'

"Where?' asked Dimitri and I in unison.

A small, knowing smile came to her lips at that. "West Michigan,' she said. "They took off in the opposite direction from Court.'

"Damn,' I muttered. Dimitri and I had gone southeast from Ann Arbor, clipping the Detroit suburbs and just crossing into Ohio. We'd picked the wrong direction. "But you saw Jill? Is she okay?'

Sonya nodded. "Fine. Scared, but fine. She described enough landmarks that I think we can locate their motel. I found her in a dream a couple hours ago; they had to rest. Victor wasn't feeling well. They might still be there.'

"Then we need to leave now,' said Dimitri, instantly in action. "Once they're moving, Jill will be awake and out of contact.' We packed up our campsite with amazing speed. My ankle felt better but was still sore. Noticing my limp, Sonya called a halt just before we got in her car.

"Hang on.'

She knelt before me, examining the swelling ankle that was easily exposed by my torn dress. Taking a deep breath, she rested her hands on me, and a surge of electricity shot through my leg, followed by waves of heat and cold. When it was over and she stood up, the pain and swelling were gone, as were the scrapes on my legs. Probably the cuts on my head too. Spirit users had healed me so often that you'd think I'd be used to it, but it was still a little startling.

"Thank you,' I said. "But you shouldn't have done that ... shouldn't have used the magic ...'

"You need to be in peak condition,' she said. Her gaze drifted from me, staring off at the trees. "And the magic ... well, it's hard to stay away from.'

Indeed it was, and I felt guilty that she was using it on me--and moving closer to insanity. Robert's restoration had healed her mind a little, and she needed to take advantage of that. This was no time for a lecture, though, and Dimitri's expression told me he too thought it best I get back in shape.

We took off toward where Sonya told us Jill was, and this time, her directions were as specific as she could make them. No more vagueness or binding promises. We stopped once to "acquire' a new car and get a map. The info Sonya had gleaned from Jill led us to a town called Sturgis. While it was in the western half of Michigan, it was also south--meaning the distance wasn't quite as long as we'd expected. Nonetheless, Dimitri drove at least fifteen miles per hour over the speed limit the whole time.

"There,' said Sonya, as we rolled into downtown Sturgis--which wasn't much of a downtown. We were near a modest-looking motel on a side street. "That's what she described. The Sunshine Motel.'

Dimitri pulled into the lot behind the building, and we all sat there, staring at the motel, which didn't look as cheerful as its name. Like me, I presumed my companions were trying to figure out how to approach this. Jill's dream info had gotten us here, but Sonya had nothing else to help us find their room--if they were even still here. They certainly wouldn't have checked in under real names. I was going to suggest we just walk past the doors and hope Sonya would sense Robert when she suddenly pointed.

"That's their car,' she said. "They're here.'

Sure enough. There was the CR-V we'd taken to Jill's house. Talk about karma. I'd swiped Victor's keys, and he'd repaid the favor by taking ours. None of us had thought much about his escape vehicle in the ensuing chaos.

"Sloppy,' murmured Dimitri, eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "They should have switched cars.'

"That's Sydney's,' I pointed out. "It's not technically stolen, so it's not on any police lists. Besides, something tells me Victor and Robert aren't hot-wiring pros like some people are.' We'd left a string of stolen cars across the Midwest.

Dimitri nodded, like I'd actually just complimented him. "Whatever the reason, it helps us.'

"How do we find them?' asked Sonya. I was about to suggest the aura plan but dismissed it. Robert would sense Sonya at the same moment, giving him brief warning. Plus, when we found the brothers, there'd likely be a fight. Doing it in the motel would attract attention. This parking lot was in back, away from the main road.

"We wait,' I said. "It's amazing enough that they even stopped this long. If they have any sense, they'll leave soon.'

"Agreed,' said Dimitri, catching my eyes. Souls in sync. The memory of that near-kiss returned, and I looked away, fearing what my face would betray. "The lot's easy to defend too. Not much room for escape.' It was true. The motel flanked one side, a concrete wall the other. There weren't many other buildings nearby either.

He moved our car to the farthest spot he could in the lot, providing us with a full view of it and the motel's exit--but keeping us semi-concealed. We considered sitting in the car, but Dimitri and I decided we should wait outside, giving us more mobility. We left Sonya inside. This wasn't her fight.

Standing behind the car with Dimitri, in the shadow of a leafy maple, I became acutely aware of his proximity and fierce warrior stance. He might be missing his duster, but I had to admit I liked the view of him I got without the coat.

"I don't suppose,' I said softly, "that we're going to talk about this morning?'

Dimitri's eyes were fixed so hard on the CR-V that he might have been trying to make Jill and the brothers materialize inside it. I wasn't fooled. He was just avoiding looking at me. "There's nothing to talk about.'

"I knew you'd say that. Actually, it was a toss-up between that and "I don't know what you're talking about.''

Dimitri sighed.

"But,' I continued, "there is something to talk about. Like when you almost kissed me. And what did you mean about "the right thing'?'

Silence.

"You wanted to kiss me!' It was hard to keep my voice low. "I saw it.'

"Just because we want something doesn't mean it's right.'

"What I said ... it's true, isn't it? You can love, can't you? I realize now that right after the transformation, you really didn't think you could. And you probably couldn't. But things have changed. You're getting yourself back.'

Dimitri gave me a sidelong look. "Yes. Things have changed ... and some haven't.'

"Okay, Mr. Enigma. That doesn't help explain the "right thing' comment.'

Frustration filled his features. "Rose, I've done a lot of bad things, most of which I can never fix or find redemption for. My only choice now, if I want to reclaim my life, is to go forward, stopping evil and doing what's right. And what is not right is taking a woman from another man, a man I like and respect. I'll steal cars. I'll break into houses. But there are lines I will not cross, no matter what I--'

The motel's back door opening jolted us to attention. It was no wonder my love life was so messed up when the most profound and intimate moments were always being interrupted by dire situations. It was just as well because I had never, ever seen that line coming: What is not right is taking a woman from another man, a man I like and respect. New drama took precedence. Victor stepped outside, with Robert and Jill walking side by side behind him. I'd half expected to see her tied up and was surprised that she accompanied them so calmly. Too calmly, I soon realized. It wasn't natural. There was an almost robotic feel to her movements: she was being compelled into docility.

"Compulsion,' said Dimitri quietly, recognizing it as well. "Go for Victor. I'll get Robert.'

I nodded. "Jill will run as soon as the compulsion's broken. I hope.' I didn't put it past her to join our fight, which could cause more harm than good. We'd find out soon enough.

Mercifully, no one else was around. It was still fairly early in the morning. Dimitri and I sprang out from our hiding spots, crossing the distance of the parking lot in a matter of moments. Two healthy dhampirs could outrace two old Moroi any day. And as crafty as they might be, the brothers hadn't expected us.

In my periphery, I just barely saw Dimitri kicking into warrior god mode, fierce and unstoppable. Then, I focused entirely on Victor, throwing my full weight at him and knocking him to the ground. He hit hard against the asphalt, and I pinned him down, slamming my fist into his face and making his nose bleed.

"Well done,' he gasped out.

"I've been wanting to do that for a very long time,' I growled.

Victor smiled through the pain and the blood. "Of course you have. I used to think Belikov was the savage one, but it's really you, isn't it? You're the animal with no control, no higher reasoning except to fight and kill.'

I clenched his shirt and leaned him over him. "Me? I'm not the one who tortured Lissa for my own benefit. I'm not the one who turned my daughter Strigoi. And I'm sure as hell not the one who used compulsion to kidnap a fifteen-year-old girl!'

To my disgust, he kept that maddening smile on his face. "She's valuable, Rose. So, so valuable. You have no idea how much so.'

"She's not an object for you to manipulate!' I cried. "She's a--ahh!'

The ground suddenly rolled up beneath me, a mini-earthquake centered around us. The asphalt bucked up, giving Victor the leverage to push me off. It wasn't a strong push, and I could have easily recovered my balance if not for the ground rippling and surrounding me, rolling like ocean waves to knock me over. Victor was using his earth magic to control the area where I stood. Faint cries of surprise told me others were feeling a little of it, but the magic was clearly focused on me.

Not without cost, though. Victor was an old man--an old man I'd just shoved onto asphalt and punched. Pain and fatigue were all over him, and his labored breathing told me wielding magic this powerful--something I'd never seen an earth user do--was pushing every ounce of strength he had left.

One good punch. That was all I needed. One good punch would knock him down and take him out of this fight. Only, I was the one being taken down. Literally. Try as I might, my personal earthquake got the best of me, knocking me to my knees. I was still in that stupid dress too, meaning my newly healed legs got scraped again. And once I was down, the asphalt rose around me. I realized Victor was going to ensnare me by creating a stone prison. I couldn't let that happen.

"All that brawn for nothing,' gasped out Victor, sweat pouring off his face. "It does you no good in the end. Real power is in the mind. In cunning. In controlling Jillian, I control Vasilisa. With Vasilisa, I control the Dragomirs, and from there--the Moroi. That's power. That's strength.'

Most of his smug tirade went over me. But part of it stuck: In controlling Jillian, I control Vasilisa. Lissa. I couldn't let him hurt her. I couldn't let him use her. In fact, I couldn't let him use Jill either. Lissa had given me a chotki, which was kind of a cross between a bracelet and a rosary. It was a Dragomir heirloom, bestowed upon those who protected the family. That was my duty: to protect all the Dragomirs. The old guardian mantra rang in my mind: They come first.

With skill I didn't know I possessed, I sized up the shaking ground and attempted to stand again. I made it, practically dancing in that parking lot. And as I stared at Victor, I felt what Sonya had warned about: the catalyst. The spark that would ignite the darkness I'd gathered and gathered from Lissa. In looking at him, I saw all the evils of my life in one man. Was that entirely accurate? No, not exactly. But he had hurt my best friend--nearly killed her. He'd toyed with Dimitri and me, complicating what was already a mess of a relationship. He was now trying to control others. When would it end? When would his evil stop? Red and black tinged my vision. I heard a voice call my name--Sonya's, I think. But in that moment, there was nothing else in the world but Victor and my hate for him.

I sprang at him, fueled by rage and adrenaline, leaping out of the epicenter of shaking ground that threatened to seize me. Once more, I threw myself at him, but we didn't hit the ground. We'd shifted position slightly, and instead, we hit the concrete wall--with just as much force as I might have thrown a Strigoi. His head bent back at the impact. I heard an odd cracking sound, and Victor slumped to the ground. I immediate dropped down, grabbing his arms and shaking him.

"Get up!' I screamed. "Get up and fight me!' But no matter how much I shook him or yelled, Victor would not stand. He wouldn't move on his own.

Hands grabbed me, trying futilely to pull me away. "Rose--Rose! Stop. Stop this.'

I ignored the voice, ignored the hands. I was all anger and power, wanting-- no, needing--Victor to face me once and for all. Suddenly, a strange sensation crept along me, like fingertips across my skin. Let him go. I didn't want to, but for half a second, it seemed like a reasonable idea. I loosened my hold slightly, just enough for those hands to jerk me away. Like that, I snapped out of the haze and realized what had happened. The person who'd pulled me was Sonya, and she'd used a tiny bit of compulsion to get me away and let go of Victor. She was strong enough in her power that she didn't even need eye contact. She held onto me, even though she had to know it was wasted effort.

"I have to stop him,' I said, wriggling from her grasp. "He has to pay.' I reached for him again.

Sonya gave up on physical restraint, appealing to words instead. "Rose, he has! He's dead. Can't you see that? Dead. Victor's dead!'

No, I didn't see that--not at first. All I saw was my blind obsession, my need to get to Victor. But then, her words broke through to me. As I gripped Victor, I felt the limpness in his body. I saw the eyes that looked blankly at ... nothing. That crazy, churning emotion in me faded, transforming into shock. My grip slackened as I stared at him and truly understood what she had said. Understood what I had done.

Then, I heard a terrible sound. A low wailing broke through the frozen horror in my mind. I glanced back in alarm and saw Dimitri standing with Robert. Robert's arms were pinned behind his back as Dimitri effortlessly held him, but the Moroi was doing everything in his power--and failing--to break free. Jill stood nearby, looking uneasily at all of us, confused and afraid.

"Victor! Victor!'

Robert's pleas were muffled by sobs and as useless as my own efforts to get Victor up. I dragged my gaze back down to the body before me, barely believing what I had just done. I'd thought the guardians had been crazy in their reaction to Eddie killing a Moroi, but now, I was starting to understand. A monster like a Strigoi was one thing. But the life of a person, even a person who--

"Get him out of here!'

Sonya was so near me that the unexpected exclamation made me wince. She'd been kneeling too but now jumped to her feet, turning toward Dimitri.

"Get him out of here! As far as you can!'

Dimitri looked surprised, but the powerful command in her voice drove him to instant action. He began dragging Robert away. After a few moments, Dimitri simply opted to toss the man over his shoulder and cart him off. I would have expected cries of protest, but Robert had fallen silent. His eyes were on Victor's body--their gaze so sharp, so focused that they seemed like they could burn a hole through someone. Sonya, not having my fanciful impression, thrust herself between the brothers and dropped to the ground again, covering Victor's body with her own.

"Get him out of here!' she called again. "He's trying to bring Victor back! He'll be shadow-kissed!'

I was still confused and upset, still appalled at what I'd done, but the danger of what she said hit me hard. Robert couldn't be allowed to bring back Victor back. The brothers were dangerous enough without being bonded. Victor couldn't be allowed to summon ghosts the way I could. Victor had to stay dead.

"Doesn't he have to touch the body?' I asked.

"To finish the bond, yes. But he was wielding tons of spirit just now, calling Victor's soul back and keeping it around,' she explained.

When Dimitri and Robert were gone, Sonya told me to help her move the body. We'd made too much noise, and it was a wonder no one had come out yet. Jill joined us, and I moved without really being aware of what I was doing. Sonya found the keys to the CR-V on Victor and flattened the backseats to increase the rear cargo space. We crawled into it, the three of us having to hunch down to stay out of sight. We soon heard voices, people coming to see what had happened. I don't know long they were in the parking lot, only that they mercifully didn't search cars. Honestly? I had few coherent thoughts at all. That rage was gone, but my mind was a mess. I couldn't seem to get a hold of anything concrete. I felt sick and just followed Sonya's orders, staying low as I tried not to look at Victor's body.

Even after the voices were gone, she kept us in the car. At last, she exhaled a deep breath and focused on me. "Rose?' I didn't answer right away. "Rose?'

"Yeah?' I asked, voice cracking. Her voice was soothing and cajoling. I felt that crawling on my skin again and a need to please her. "I need you to look at the dead. Open your eyes to them.'

The dead? No. My mind felt out of control, and I had enough sense to know bringing ghosts here would be a bad idea. "I can't.'

"You can,' she said. "I'll help you. Please.'

I couldn't refuse her compulsion. Expanding my senses, I let down the walls I kept around me. They were the walls that blocked me from the world of the dead and the ghosts that followed me around. Within moments, translucent faces appeared before me, some like normal people and others terrible and ghastly. Their mouths opened, wanting to speak but unable to.

"What do you see?' asked Sonya.

"Spirits,' I whispered.

"Do you see Victor?'

I peered into the swarm of faces, seeking anyone familiar. "No.'

"Push them back,' she said. "Put your walls back up.'

I tried to do as she said, but it was hard. I didn't have the will. I felt outside encouragement and realized Sonya was still compelling me. She couldn't make the ghosts disappear, but feelings of support and determination strengthened me. I shut out the restless dead.

"He's gone then,' Sonya said. "He's either completely consumed by the world of the dead or is wandering as a restless spirit. Regardless, any lingering threads to life are gone. He can't come back to life.' She turned to Jill. "Go get Dimitri.'

"I don't know where he is,' said Jill, startled.

Sonya smiled, but it didn't reach her eyes. "Close, I'm sure. And watching. Go walk around the motel, the block, whatever. He'll find you.'

Jill left, needing no compulsion. When she was gone, I buried my face in my hands. "Oh God. Oh God. All this time, I denied it, but it's true: I am a murderer.'

"Don't think about that yet,' said Sonya. Her take-charge attitude was almost comforting. Almost. It was easier to take orders than fend for yourself. "Deal with your guilt later. For now, we have to get rid of the body.'

I uncovered my eyes and forced myself to look at Victor. Nausea welled up within me, and those crazy feelings spun even more out of control. I gave a harsh laugh. "Yes. The body. I wish Sydney was here. But we don't have any magic potions. The sun won't destroy him. Weird, isn't it? Strigoi are harder to kill ... harder to kill, easier to clean up.' I laughed again because there was something familiar about my rambling ... it was like Adrian in one of his weird moments. Or Lissa when spirit had pushed her to the edge. "This is it, isn't it?' I asked Sonya. "The flood ... the flood you warned me about. Lissa escaped spirit, but it finally defeated me ... just like Anna ... just like the dream ... oh God. This is the dream, isn't it? But I won't wake up ...'

Sonya was staring at me, her blue eyes wide with ... fear? Mockery? Alarm? She reached out and took my hand. "Stay with me, Rose. We'll push it back.'

A knock at the window startled us both, and Sonya let Jill and Dimitri in.

"Where's Robert?' asked Sonya.

Dimitri glanced down at Victor and then promptly looked away. "Unconscious, hidden in some bushes around the corner.' "Charming,' said Sonya. "Do you think that's smart? Leaving him?'

He shrugged. "I figured I shouldn't be seen carrying an unconscious guy in my arms. In fact ... yes, I think we should just leave him there. He'll wake up. He's not a fugitive. And without Victor, he's ... well, not harmless. But less harmful. We can't keep dragging him with us anyway.'

I laughed again, that laugh that seemed unhinged and hysterical even to me. "He's unconscious. Of course. Of course. You can do that. You can do the right thing. Not me.' I looked down at Victor. ""An animal,' he said. He was right. No higher reasoning ...' I wrapped my arms around myself, my fingernails digging into my skin so hard they drew blood. Physical pain to make the mental pain go away. Wasn't that what Lissa had always said?

Dimitri stared at me and then turned to Sonya. "What's wrong?' he demanded. I'd seen him risk his life over and over, but never, until now, had he truly looked afraid. "Spirit,' said Sonya. "She's pulled and pulled for so long ... and managed to hold it back. It's been waiting, though. Always waiting ...' She frowned slightly, maybe realizing she was starting to sound like me. She turned to Jill. "Is that silver?'

Jill looked down at the heart-shaped locket around her neck. "I think so.'

"Can I have it?'

Jill undid the clasp and passed it over. Sonya held it between her palms and closed her eyes a moment, pursing her lips. A few seconds later, her eyes opened, and she handed me the locket. "Put it on.'

Just touching it gave me a strange tingling in my skin. "The heart ...' I looked at Dimitri as I fastened the clasp. "Do you remember that? "Where's the heart?' you asked. And here it is. Here it ...'

I stopped. The world suddenly became crisper. My jumbled thoughts slowly began to move back together, forming some semblance of rationality. I stared at my companions--the living ones--truly seeing them now. I touched the locket.

"This is a healing charm.'

Sonya nodded. "I didn't know if it'd work on the mind. I don't think it's a permanent fix ... but between it and your own will, you'll be okay for a while.'

I tried not to focus on those last words. For a while. Instead, I tried to make sense of the world around me. Of the body in front of me.

"What have I done?' I whispered.

Jill put her arm around me, but it was Dimitri who spoke.

"What you had to.'

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