Chapter Seven

 

"NOT WITH YOUR TEETH," I added hastily. "Throw yourself at me. Swing your shackles. Whatever you can do."

Victor Dashkov was not a stupid man. Others might have hesitated or asked more questions. He did not. He might not know exactly what was going on, but he sensed that this was a shot at freedom. Possibly the only one he'd ever get. He was someone who had spent a large part of his life masterminding complicated plots, so he was a pro at slipping right into them.

Holding his hands up as much as he could manage, he lunged at me, making a good show of trying to choke me with the chain between his cuffs. As he did, I gave a bloodcurdling shriek. In an instant, the guardians were there to stop this crazy prisoner who was senselessly attacking a poor girl. But as they reached to subdue him, I leapt up and attacked them. Even if they'd expected me to be dangerous--and they hadn't--I had so much surprise on them that they had no time to react. I almost felt bad at how unfair it was to them.

I punched the first hard enough that he lost his grip on Victor and flew backward, hitting the wall near Lissa as she frantically compelled Northwood to stay calm and not call anyone in the midst of this chaos. The other guardian had slightly more time to react, but he was still slow in letting go of Victor and turning on me. I used the opening and got a punch in, forcing the two of us into a grappling match. He was big and formidable, and once he deemed me a threat, he didn't hold back. A blow to my shoulder sent shooting pain through my arm, and I responded with a swift knee in his stomach. Meanwhile, his counterpart was on his feet heading toward us. I had to end this fast, not only for my own sake but also because they would undoubtedly call for backup if given a moment's chance.

I grabbed the one closest to me and pushed him as hard as I could into a wall--headfirst. He staggered, dazed, and I did it again, just as his partner reached me. That first guardian slumped to the ground, unconscious. I hated doing that, but part of my training had been learning to differentiate between incapacitating and killing. He should only have a headache. I hoped. The other guardian was very much on the offensive, however, and he and I circled each other, getting in some shots and dodging others.

"I can't knock him out!" I called to Lissa. "We need him. Compel him."

Her response came through the bond. She could compel two people at the same time, but it took a lot of strength. We weren't out of this yet, and she couldn't risk burning herself out so soon. Frustration replaced fear within her.

"Northwood, go to sleep," she barked. "Right there. On your desk. You're exhausted and will sleep for hours."

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Northwood slump, his head hitting the desk with a thump. Everyone who worked here would have a concussion by the time we were through. I threw myself at the guardian then, using my full weight to get him within Lissa's line of sight. She pushed her way into our fight. He glanced at her in surprise, and that was all she needed.

"Stop!"

He didn't respond as quickly as Northwood, but he did hesitate. This guy was more resistant.

"Stop fighting!" she repeated more forcefully, intensifying her will.

Strong or not, he couldn't stand against that much spirit. His arms fell to his sides, and he stopped wrestling me. I stepped back to catch my breath, straightening my wig back into place.

"Holding this one's going to be hard," Lissa told me.

"Hard as in five minutes or five hours?"

"Somewhere in the middle."

"Then let's move. Get Victor's key from him."

She demanded the guardian give her the key for the shackles. He told us the other guardian had it. Sure enough, I frisked the unconscious body--he was breathing steadily, thank God--and retrieved the key. Now I turned my full attention on Victor. Once the fight had started, he'd stepped out of the way and simply observed quietly while all sorts of new possibilities undoubtedly formed in his twisted mind.

I approached and put on my "scary face" as I held up the key. "I'm going to unlock your cuffs now," I told him, in a voice both sweet and menacing. "You're going to do exactly what we tell you to do. You're not going to run, start a fight, or in any way interfere with our plans."

"Oh? Are you using compulsion nowadays too, Rose?" he asked dryly.

"I don't need it." I unlocked the shackles. "I can render you unconscious as easily as that guy and drag you out. Makes no difference to me."

The heavy cuffs and chains fell to the floor. That sly, smug look stayed on his face, but his hands gently touched each wrist. I noticed then that there were welts and bruises on them. Those shackles weren't meant for comfort, but I refused to feel sorry for him. He glanced back up at us.

"How charming," he mused. "Out of all the people who would attempt to rescue me, I never would have expected you two... and yet, in retrospect, you're probably the most capable."

"We don't need your running commentary, Hannibal," I snapped. "And don't use the word rescue. It makes it sound like you're some wrongfully imprisoned hero."

He arched an eyebrow, like he believed that might indeed be the case. Instead of disputing me, he nodded toward Bradley, who had actually slept through the fight. In his drugged state, Lissa's compulsion had been more than enough to knock him out.

"Give him to me," said Victor.

"What?" I exclaimed. "We don't have time for this!"

"And I have no strength for whatever you have in mind," hissed Victor. That pleasant and all-knowing mask vanished, replaced by one vicious and desperate. "Imprisonment involves more than bars, Rose. They starve us of food and blood, trying to keep us weak. Walking here is the only exercise I get, and that's effort enough. Unless you really do plan on dragging me out of here, give me blood!"

Lissa interrupted any response I could make. "Be fast."

I stared at her in astonishment. I'd been about to deny Victor, but through the bond I felt an odd mix of feelings from her. Compassion and... understanding. Oh, she still hated him, absolutely. But she also knew what it was like to live on limited blood.

Mercifully, Victor was fast. His mouth was at the human's neck practically before Lissa finished speaking. Dazed or no, feeling teeth in his neck was enough to wake Bradley up. He woke with a start, his face soon moving into the delight feeders took from vampire endorphins. A short burst of blood was all Victor would need, but when Bradley's eyes started to go wide in surprise, I realized Victor was taking more than a quick drink. I leapt forward and jerked Victor away from the scattered feeder.

"What the hell are you doing?" I demanded, shaking Victor hard. It was something I'd wanted to do for a long time. "Did you think you could drain him and become Strigoi right in front of us?"

"Hardly," said Victor, wincing at the grip I had on him.

"That's not what he was doing," said Lissa. "He just lost control for a second."

His bloodlust satisfied, Victor's smooth demeanor had returned. "Ah, Vasilisa. Always so understanding."

"Don't make any assumptions," she growled.

I shot glares at both of them. "We have to go. Now." I turned to the compelled guardian. "Take us to the room where they monitor all security footage."

He didn't respond to me, and with a sigh, I looked expectantly at Lissa. She repeated my question, and he immediately began to leave the room. My adrenaline was running high from the fight, and I was anxious to finish all of this and get us out of here. Through the bond, I sensed her nervousness. She might have defended Victor's need for blood, but as we walked, she kept as far away from him as possible. The stark realization of who he was and what we were doing was creeping up on her. I wished I could comfort her, but there was no time.

We followed the guardian--Lissa asked his name; it was Giovanni--through more halls and security checkpoints. The route he led us on went around the prison's edge, not through the cells. I held my breath almost the entire time, terrified we'd run into someone. Too many other factors were working against us; we didn't need that too. Our luck held, though, and we ran into no one--again probably a result of doing this near the end of the night and not passing through a high-security zone.

Lissa and Mia had gotten the Court guardian to erase the security footage there too, but I hadn't witnessed it. Now, when Giovanni led us into the prison's surveillance room, I couldn't help a small gasp. Monitors covered the walls, and consoles with complex buttons and switches sat in front of them. Computer-covered desks were everywhere. I felt like this room had the power to blast off into space. Everything in the prison was in view: each cell, several halls, and even the warden's office, where Eddie sat making small talk with Theo. Two other guardians were in here, and I wondered if they'd seen us in the halls. But no--they were too fixated on something else: a camera that had been turned to face a blank wall. It was the one I'd adjusted in the feeding room.

They were leaning toward it, and one of them was saying how they should call someone to check down there. Then they both looked up and noticed us.

"Help her subdue them," Lissa ordered Giovanni.

Again, there was hesitation. We would have been better off with a "helper" with a weaker will, but Lissa had had no idea when she chose him. Like before, he eventually sprang into action. Also like before, surprise went a long way in subduing these two guardians. I was a stranger--immediately raising their guard--but still appeared as human. Giovanni was their coworker; they didn't expect an attack from him.

That didn't make them easy to take down, though. Having backup went a long way, and Giovanni was good at his job. We rendered one guardian unconscious pretty quickly, Giovanni using a choke hold to briefly cut off the guy's air until he collapsed. The other guard kept his distance from us, and I noticed his eyes continually shifting toward one of the walls. It had a fire extinguisher, a light switch, and a round silver button.

"That's an alarm!" exclaimed Victor, just as the guardian lunged for it.

Giovanni and I tackled him at the same time, stopping the guy just before his hand could brush the button and send a legion of guards down on us. A blow to the head knocked this guardian out too. With each person I took out in this prison break, a knot of guilt and nausea twisted tighter and tighter in my stomach. Guardians were the good guys, and I couldn't help but keep thinking I was fighting on the side of evil.

Now that we were left to ourselves, Lissa knew the next step. "Giovanni, disable all the cameras and erase the last hour's worth of footage."

There was a greater hesitation on his part this time. Getting him to fight his friends had required a lot of forceful compulsion on her part. She was keeping her control but growing weary, and it was only going to get harder making him obey our commands.

"Do it," growled Victor, coming to stand beside Lissa. She flinched at his proximity, but as his gaze joined hers, Giovanni complied with the order and began flipping switches on the consoles. Victor couldn't match Lissa's power by a long shot, but his small burst of compulsion had strengthened hers.

One by one, the monitors went black, and then Giovanni typed in a few commands on the computer that stored digital footage from the cameras. Red error lights were flashing on the consoles, but there was no one here now to fix them.

"Even if he erases it, there are those who might be able to recover it from the hard drive," noted Victor.

"It's a chance we'll have to take," I said irritably. "Reprogramming or whatever isn't really in my skill set."

Victor rolled his eyes. "Perhaps, but destruction certainly is."

It took me a moment to get what he meant, but then it clicked. With a sigh, I grabbed the fire extinguisher from the wall and beat the computer to a pulp until it was nothing more than a pile of plastic and metal fragments. Lissa winced at each blow and kept glancing at the door.

"I hope that's soundproof," she muttered.

"It looks sturdy," I said confidently. "And now it's time to go."

Lissa ordered Giovanni to return us to the warden's office at the front of the prison. He complied, leading us back through the maze we'd gone through earlier. His codes and security card got us through each checkpoint.

"I don't suppose you can compel Theo into letting us walk out?" I asked Lissa.

Her mouth was set in a grim line. She shook her head. "I don't even know how much longer I can hold Giovanni. I've never used someone as a puppet before."

"It's okay," I said, trying to reassure both of us. "We're almost done with this."

But we were going to have another fight on our hands. After beating up half the Strigoi in Russia, I still felt good about my own strength, but that guilty feeling wouldn't leave me. And if we ran into a dozen guardians, even my strength wasn't going to hold.

I'd lost my bearings from the blueprint, but it turned out that Giovanni's route back to the main office was taking us through a block of cells after all. Another sign read overhead WARNING--NOW ENTERING PRISONER AREA (PSYCHIATRIC).

"Psychiatric?" I asked in surprise.

"Of course," murmured Victor. "Where else do you think they send prisoners with mental problems?"

"To hospitals," I responded, holding back a joke about all criminals having mental problems.

"Well, that's not always--"

"Stop!"

Lissa interrupted him and came to an abrupt halt before the door. The rest of us nearly walked into her. She jerked away, taking several steps back.

"What's wrong?" I asked.

She turned to Giovanni. "Find another way to the office."

"This is the fastest way," he argued.

Lissa slowly shook her head. "I don't care. Find another, one where we won't run into others."

He frowned, but her compulsion held. He abruptly turned, and we scurried to keep up. "What's wrong?" I repeated. Lissa's mind was too tangled for me to pull out her reasoning. She grimaced.

"I felt spirit auras behind there."

"What? How many?"

"At least two. I don't know if they sensed me or not."

If not for Giovanni's clip and the urgency pressing on us, I would have come to a stop. "Spirit users..."

Lissa had looked so long and hard for others like her. Who'd have thought we'd find them here? Actually... maybe we should have expected this. We knew spirit users danced with insanity. Why wouldn't they end up in a place like this? And considering the trouble we'd gone through to learn about the prison, it was no wonder these spirit users had remained hidden. I doubted anyone working here even knew what they were.

Lissa and I exchanged brief glances. I knew how badly she wanted to investigate this, but now wasn't the time. Victor already looked too interested in what we'd said, so Lissa's next words were in my head: I'm pretty sure any spirit users would see through my charms. We can't risk our real descriptions being discovered--even if they came from people who are allegedly crazy.

I nodded my understanding, pushing aside curiosity and even regret. We'd have to check into this another time--say, like, the next time we decided to break into a maximum-security prison.

We finally reached Theo's office without further incident, though my heart pounded furiously the entire way as my brain kept telling me, Go! Go! Go! Theo and Eddie were chatting Court politics when our group entered. Eddie immediately leapt up and went for Theo, recognizing it was time to go. He had Theo in a choke hold as efficiently as Giovanni had managed earlier, and I was glad someone else was doing this dirty work besides me. Unfortunately, Theo managed a good yelp before passing out and falling to the ground.

Immediately, the two guardians who had escorted us in earlier charged the office. Eddie and I jumped into the fray, and Lissa and Victor got Giovanni in on it too. To make things more difficult, just after we subdued one of the guardians, Giovanni broke out of the compulsion and began fighting against us. Worse, he ran to the wall where I discovered--too late--there was another silver alarm button. He slammed his fist against it, and a piercing wail filled the air.

"Shit!" I yelled.

Lissa's skills weren't in physical fighting, and Victor wasn't much better. It was all on me and Eddie to finish these last two--and we had to do it fast. The second of the escort guardians went down, and then it was just us and Giovanni. He got a good hit in on me--one that knocked my head against the wall. It wasn't good enough to make me pass out, but the world spun and black and white spots danced before my eyes. It froze me up for a moment, but then Eddie was on him, and Giovanni was soon no longer a threat.

Eddie took my arm to steady me, and then the four of us immediately ran out of the room. I glanced back at the unconscious bodies, again hating myself for it. There was no time for guilt, though. We had to get out. Now. Every guardian in this prison would be here in less than a minute.

Our group ran to the front doors, only to discover them locked from the inside. Eddie swore and told us to wait. He ran back to Theo's office and returned with one of the security cards that Giovanni had often swiped at the doors. Sure enough, this one let us out, and we made a mad dash for the rental car. We piled in, and I was glad Victor kept up with all of us and made none of his annoying comments.

Eddie stepped on the gas and headed back toward the way we'd come in. I sat beside him in the front. "I guarantee the gate guy's going to know about the alarm," I warned. Our original hope had been to simply leave and tell him there'd been a paperwork mix-up after all.

"Yup," Eddie agreed, face hard. Sure enough, the guardian stepped out of his gatehouse, arms waving.

"Is that a gun?" I exclaimed.

"I'm not stopping to find out." Eddie pushed hard on the gas, and when the guardian realized we were coming through regardless, he jumped out of the way. We crashed through the wooden arm that blocked the road, leaving it a mess of splinters.

"Bud's gonna keep our deposit," I said.

Behind us, I heard the sounds of gunshots. Eddie swore again, but as we sped away, the shots grew fainter, and soon, we were out of range. He exhaled. "If those had hit our tires or windows, we'd have had a lot more to worry about than a deposit."

"They're going to send people after us," said Victor from the backseat. Once again, Lissa had moved as far from him as she could. "Trucks are probably leaving right now."

"You don't think we guessed that?" I snapped. I knew he was trying to be helpful, but he was the last person I wanted to hear from at the moment. Even as I spoke, I peered back and saw the dark shapes of two vehicles speeding down the road after us. They were gaining quickly, leaving no question that the SUVs would soon catch up to our little compact car.

I looked at our GPS. "We need to turn soon," I warned Eddie, not that he needed my advice.

We'd mapped out an escape route beforehand, one that took lots and lots of twisty turns on these remote back roads. Fortunately, there were a lot of them. Eddie made a hard left and then almost an immediate right. Still, the pursuing vehicles stayed with us in the rearview mirror. It wasn't until a few turns later that the road behind us stayed clear.

Tense silence filled the car as we waited for the guardians to catch up. They didn't. We'd made too many confusing turns, but it took nearly ten minutes for me to accept that we might have actually pulled this off.

"I think we lost them," said Eddie, the wonder in his voice matching my feelings. His face was still lined with worry, his hands gripping the wheel hard.

"We won't lose them until we clear Fairbanks," I said. "I'm sure they'll search it, and it's not that big."

"Where are we going?" asked Victor. "If I'm allowed to ask."

I squirmed around in my seat so that I could look him in the eye. "That's what you're going to tell us. As hard as it is to believe, we didn't do all that just because we missed your pleasant company."

"That is hard to believe."

I narrowed my eyes. "We want to find your brother. Robert Doru."

I had the satisfaction of momentarily catching Victor off guard. Then his sly look returned. "Of course. This is a follow-up to Abe Mazur's request, isn't it? I should have known he wouldn't take no for an answer. Of course, I never would have guessed you were in league with him."

Victor apparently didn't know I was actually in the familial league with Abe, and I wasn't about to enlighten him. "Irrelevant," I said coldly. "Now, you're going to take us to Robert. Where is he?"

"You forget, Rose," mused Victor. "You aren't the one with compulsion here."

"No, but I am the one who can tie you up by the side of the road and make an anonymous call back to the prison with your whereabouts."

"How do I know you won't get what you want from me and then turn me back in anyway?" he asked. "I have no reason to trust you."

"You're right. I sure as hell wouldn't trust me. But if things work out, there's a chance we might let you go afterward." No, there really wasn't. "Is this something you want to gamble on? You'll never get another opportunity like this, and you know it."

Victor had no witty quip for that. Score another one for me.

"So," I continued, "are you going to take us to him or not?"

Thoughts I couldn't read churned behind his eyes. No doubt he was scheming about how he could work this to his advantage, probably figuring out how to escape us before we even reached Robert. It was what I would have done.

"Las Vegas," Victor said at last. "We need to go to Las Vegas."

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