Chapter Fifteen

 

IN MY PANICKED MIND RIGHT then, getting up and running on foot to Lehigh--despite it being miles and miles away--seemed like a totally solid plan. A heartbeat later, I knew this was out of my league. Way, way out of my league.

As I shot up from my table and tore out of the room, I felt a sudden longing for Alberta. I'd seen her jump into action at St. Vladimir's and knew she could take charge of any situation. At this point in our relationship, she would respond to any threat I brought to her. The guardians at Court were still strangers to me. Who could I go to? Hans? The guy who hated me? He wouldn't believe me, not like Alberta or my mother would. Running down the quiet hallways, I dismissed all such worries. It didn't matter. I would make him believe. I would find anyone I could. Anyone who could get Lissa and Christian out of this.

Only you can, a voice hissed in my head. You're the one Dimitri wants.

I ignored that thought too, largely because in my distraction, I collided into someone rounding a corner.

I gave a muffled cry that sounded like "Oomph" as my face slammed into someone's chest. I looked up. Mikhail. I would have been relieved, except I was too pumped full of adrenaline and worry. I grabbed his sleeve and began tugging him toward the stairs.

"Come on! We have to get help!"

Mikhail remained were he was, not budging against my pull. He frowned, face calm. "What are you talking about?"

"Lissa! Lissa and Christian. They've been taken by Strigoi--by Dimitri. We can find them. I can find them. But we have to hurry."

Mikhail's confusion grew. "Rose... how long have you been down here?"

I didn't have time for this. Leaving him, I fled up the stairs to the main levels of the complex. A moment later I heard his footsteps behind me. When I reached the main office, I expected someone to chastise me for leaving my punishment, except... no one seemed to even notice me.

The office was in chaos. Guardians were running around, calls were being made, and voices rose to frantic levels. They knew, I realized. They already knew.

"Hans!" I called, pushing my way through the crowd. He was on the other side of the room and had just hung up on a cell call. "Hans, I know where they are. Where the Strigoi took Lissa and Christian."

"Hathaway, I don't have time for your--" His scowl faltered. "You have that bond."

I stared in astonishment. I'd been ready for him to dismiss me as a nuisance. I'd been ready for a long fight to convince him. I gave him a hasty nod.

"I saw it. I saw everything that happened." Now I frowned. "How do you know already?"

"Serena," he said grimly.

"Serena's dead..."

He shook his head. "No, not yet. Though she certainly sounded like it on the phone. Whatever happened, it took everything she had to make that call. We have Alchemists coming to get her, and... clean up."

I replayed the events, remembering how Serena had been slammed against the asphalt. It had been a hard blow, and when she didn't move, I'd assumed the worst. Yet if she'd survived--and apparently she must have--I could just barely form a mental image of her dragging her cell phone out of her pocket with bloody hands....

Please, please let her be alive, I thought, not sure who I was praying to.

"Come on," said Hans. "We need you. There are teams already forming."

There was another surprise. I hadn't expected him to bring me on so quickly. A new respect for Hans settled over me. He might act like an asshole, but he was a leader. When he saw an asset, he used it. In one swift motion, he was hurrying out the door, several guardians following him. I struggled to keep up with their longer strides and saw Mikhail coming as well.

"You're doing a rescue," I told Hans. "That's... rare." I hesitated to even speak the words. I certainly didn't want to discourage this. But Moroi rescues weren't normal. When Strigoi took them, they were often regarded as dead. The rescue we'd done after the Academy attack had been an oddity, one that had taken a lot of persuasion.

Hans gave me a wry look. "So is the Dragomir princess."

Lissa was precious to me, worth more than anything else in the world. And for the Moroi, I realized, she was precious too. Most Moroi captured by Strigoi might be regarded as dead, but she wasn't most Moroi. She was the last in her line, the last of one of twelve ancient families. Losing her wouldn't just be a hit to Moroi culture. It would be a sign, an omen that the Strigoi were truly defeating us. For her, the guardians would risk a rescue mission.

In fact, it appeared they would risk a lot of things. As we arrived at the garages where the Court's vehicles were stored, I saw masses of other guardians arriving--along with Moroi. I recognized a few. Tasha Ozera was among them, and like her, the others were fire users. If we'd learned anything, it was how valuable they were in a fight. It appeared the controversy of Moroi going to battle was being ignored right now, and I was amazed at how quickly this group had been summoned. Tasha's eyes met mine, her face grave and drawn. She said nothing to me. She didn't need to.

Hans was barking orders, splitting people into groups and vehicles. With every bit of self-control I could muster, I waited patiently near him. My restless nature made me want to jump in and start demanding to know what I could do. He would get to me, I assured myself. He had a role for me; I just had to wait.

My self-control was also being tested with Lissa. After Dimitri had taken her and Christian away, I'd left her mind. I couldn't go back, not yet. I couldn't stand to see them--to see Dimitri. I knew I'd have to once I began directing the guardians, but for now, I held off. I knew Lissa was alive. That was all that mattered for the time being.

Still, I was so wound up and filled with tension that when someone touched my arm, I nearly turned on them with my stake.

"Adrian..." I breathed. "What are you doing here?"

He stood there looking down at me, and his hand gently brushed my cheek. I had only ever seen such a serious, grim look on his face a couple of times. As usual, I didn't like it. Adrian was one of those people who should always be smiling.

"As soon as I heard the news, I knew where you'd be."

I shook my head. "It happened like... I don't know, ten minutes ago?" Time had blurred for me. "How could everyone know so soon?"

"It was radioed across the Court as soon as they found out. They've got an instant alert system. In fact, the queen's kind of in lockdown."

"What? Why?" Somehow that annoyed me. Tatiana wasn't the one in danger. "Why waste resources on her?" A nearby guardian gave me a critical look over that.

Adrian shrugged. "Strigoi attack relatively close by? They take it as a pretty serious security threat for us."

Relatively was the key word. Lehigh was about an hour and a half from Court. Guardians were always on alert, though with each passing second, I wished they'd move faster and be on alert. If Adrian hadn't shown up, I was pretty sure I would have lost my patience and told Hans to hurry.

"It's Dimitri," I said in a low voice. I hadn't been sure if I should tell anyone else that. "He's the one who took them. He's using them to lure me there."

Adrian's face grew darker. "Rose, you can't..." He trailed off, but I knew his meaning.

"What choice do I have?" I exclaimed. "I have to go. She's my best friend, and I'm the only one who can lead them to her."

"It's a trap."

"I know. And he knows I know."

"What will you do?" Again, I knew exactly what Adrian meant.

I glanced down at the stake I'd unconsciously pulled out earlier. "What I have to. I have to... I have to kill him."

"Good," said Adrian, relief flooding his features. "I'm glad."

For some reason, that irritated me. "God," I snapped. "Are you that eager to get rid of any competition?"

Adrian's face stayed serious. "No. I just know that as long as he's still alive--or, well, kind of alive--then you're in danger. And I can't stand that. I can't stand knowing that your life is in the balance. And it is, Rose. You'll never be safe until he's gone. I want you safe. I need you to be safe. I can't... I can't have anything happen to you."

My flare of anger vanished as quickly as it had come. "Oh, Adrian, I'm sorry...."

I let him draw me into his arms. Resting my head against his chest, I felt his heartbeat and the softness of his shirt, I allowed myself a brief and fleeting moment of comfort. I just wanted to sink into him then and there. I didn't want to be consumed by these feelings of fear: fear for Lissa and fear of Dimitri. I went cold all over as a sudden realization slipped over me. No matter what happened, I would lose one of them tonight. If we rescued Lissa, Dimitri would die. If he survived, she would die. There was no happy ending for this story, nothing that could save my heart from being crushed into pieces.

Adrian brushed my forehead with his lips and then leaned down toward my mouth. "Be careful, Rose. No matter what happens, please, please be careful. I can't lose you."

I didn't know what to say to that, how to respond to all that emotion pouring from him. My own mind and heart were flooded with so many mixed feelings that I could barely form a coherent thought. Instead, I drew my lips to his and kissed him. In the midst of all the death tonight--the death that already had happened and that which was still to come--that kiss seemed more powerful than any he and I had ever shared. It was alive. I was alive, and I wanted to stay that way. I wanted to bring Lissa back, and I wanted to return to Adrian's arms again, return to his lips and all this life....

"Hathaway! Good God, do I need to hose you down?"

I broke abruptly from Adrian and saw Hans glaring at me. Most of the SUVs were loaded up. Now it was my turn to act. I gave Adrian a look of farewell, and he forced a small smile that I think was supposed to be brave.

"Be careful," he repeated. "Bring them back--and bring yourself back too."

I gave him a quick nod and then followed an impatient Hans into one of the SUVs. The most bizarre sense of deja vu settled over me as I slid into the backseat. This was so like the time Victor had kidnapped Lissa that I nearly froze up. Then, too, I had ridden in a similar black SUV, directing guardians toward Lissa's location. Only it had been Dimitri sitting beside me--the wonderful, brave Dimitri I'd known so long ago. Yet those memories were so etched into my mind and heart that I could picture every detail: the way he'd tucked his hair behind his ears, the fierce look in his brown eyes as he'd stepped on the gas to get us to Lissa faster. He'd been so determined, so ready to do what was right.

This Dimitri--Dimitri the Strigoi--was also determined. But in a very different way.

"You gonna be able to do this?" asked Hans from the front seat. A hand gently squeezed my arm, and I was startled to see Tasha beside me. I hadn't even noticed she was riding with us. "We're counting on you."

I nodded, wanting to be worthy of his respect. In best guardian fashion, I kept my emotions off my face, trying not to feel that conflict between the two Dimitris. Trying not to remember that the night we'd gone after Lissa and Victor had been the same night Dimitri and I had fallen prey to the lust charm....

"Head toward Lehigh," I said in a cool voice. I was a guardian now. "I'll direct you when we get closer."

We'd only been on the road for about twenty minutes when I sensed Lissa's group coming to a halt. Dimitri had apparently chosen a hideout not too far from the university, which would make it easier for us to find than if they'd kept moving. Of course, I had to remind myself that Dimitri wanted to be found. Knowing that the guardians with me wouldn't need my directions until we were closer to Lehigh, I steeled myself and jumped into Lissa's head to see what was going on.

Lissa and Christian hadn't been harmed or attacked, aside from being pushed and dragged around. They sat in what looked like a storage room--a storage room that hadn't been used in a very long time. Dust coated everything in a heavy layer, so much that it was hard to make out some of the objects piled on the rickety shelves. Some tools, maybe. Paper here and there, as well as the occasional box. A bare lightbulb was the only light in the room, giving everything a harsh and dingy feel.

Lissa and Christian sat in straight-backed wooden chairs, their hands bound behind their backs with rope. For a moment, deja vu hit again. I remembered last winter when I too, along with my friends, had been bound to chairs and held captive by Strigoi. They'd drunk from Eddie, and Mason had died....

No. Don't think like that, Rose. Lissa and Christian are alive. Nothing's happened to them yet. Nothing will happen to them.

Lissa's mind was on the here and now, but a little probing let me see what the overall building had looked like when she'd been brought in. It had seemed to be a warehouse--an old, abandoned one--which made it a nice place for the Strigoi to hole up with their prisoners.

There were four Strigoi in the room, but as far as Lissa was concerned, only one really mattered. Dimitri. I understood her reaction. Seeing him as a Strigoi had been hard for me. Surreal, even. I'd adapted somewhat, simply because of all the time I'd spent with him. Still, even I was caught by surprise sometimes at seeing him like that. Lissa hadn't been prepared at all and was in total shock.

Dimitri's dark brown hair was worn loose around his chin today, a look I'd always loved on him, and he was pacing rapidly, causing his duster to swirl around him. A lot of the time, his back was to Lissa and Christian, which made it that much more troubling for her. Without seeing his face, she could almost believe it was the Dimitri she'd always known. He was arguing with the other three as he walked back and forth across the small space, agitation radiating off him in an almost palpable wave.

"If the guardians really are coming," snarled one Strigoi, "then we should be posted outside." She was a tall, gangly redhead who appeared to have been Moroi when turned. Her tone implied that she did not think guardians were actually coming, though.

"They're coming," said Dimitri in a low voice, that lovely accent making my heart ache. "I know they are."

"Then let me get out there and be useful!" she snapped. "You don't need us to babysit these two." Her tone was dismissive. Scornful, even. It was understandable. Everyone in the vampire world knew Moroi didn't fight back, and Lissa and Christian were firmly bound.

"You don't know them," said Dimitri. "They're dangerous. I'm not even sure this is enough protection."

"That's ridiculous!"

In one smooth motion, Dimitri turned and backhanded her. The hit knocked her back a few feet, her eyes widening in fury and shock. He resumed his pacing as though nothing had happened.

"You will stay here, and you will guard them as long as I tell you to, do you understand?" She glared back and gingerly touched her face but said nothing. Dimitri glanced at the others. "And you'll stay too. If the guardians actually make it this far inside, you'll be needed for more than just guard duty."

"How do you know?" demanded another Strigoi, a black-haired one who might have been human once. A rarity among Strigoi. "How do you know they'll come?"

Strigoi had amazing hearing, but with their bickering, Lissa had a brief opportunity to speak undetected to Christian. "Can you burn my ropes?" she murmured in a nearly inaudible voice. "Like with Rose?"

Christian frowned. When he and I had been captured, it was what he'd done to free me. It had hurt like hell and left blisters on my hands and wrists. "They'll notice," he breathed back. The conversation went no further because Dimitri came to an abrupt halt and turned toward Lissa.

She gasped at the sudden and unexpected movement. Swiftly approaching her, he knelt down before her and peered into her eyes. She trembled in spite of her best efforts. She had never been this close to a Strigoi, and the fact that it was Dimitri was that much worse. The red rings around his pupils seemed to burn into her. His fangs looked poised to attack.

His hand snaked out and gripped her neck, tilting her face up so he could get an even better look into her eyes. His fingers dug into her skin, not enough to cut off her air but enough that she would have bruises later. If there was a later.

"I know the guardians will come because Rose is watching," said Dimitri. "Aren't you, Rose?" Loosening his hold a little, he ran his fingertips over the skin of Lissa's throat, so gently... yet there was no question he had the power to snap her neck.

It was like he was looking into my eyes at the moment. My soul. I even felt like he was stroking my neck. I knew it was impossible. The bond existed between Lissa and me. No one else could see it. Yet, just then, it was like no one else existed but him and me. It was like there was no Lissa between us.

"You're in there, Rose." A pitiless half smile played over his mouth. "And you won't abandon either of them. You also aren't foolish enough to come alone, are you? Maybe once you would have--but not anymore."

I jerked out of her head, unable to stare into those eyes--and see them staring back at me. Whether it was my own fear or a mirroring of Lissa's, I discovered my body was also trembling. I forced it to stop and tried to slow my racing heart. Swallowing, I glanced around to see if anyone had noticed, but they were all preoccupied with discussing strategy--except for Tasha.

Her cool blue gaze studied me, her face drawn with concern. "What did you see?"

I shook my head, unable to look at her either. "A nightmare," I murmured. "My worst nightmare coming true."

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