Chapter Six

 

"YOU KNOW WHAT WE NEED?"

I was sitting between Eddie and Lissa, on our flight from Seattle to Fairbanks. As the shortest--marginally--and the mastermind, I'd gotten stuck with the middle seat.

"A new plan?" asked Lissa.

"A miracle?" asked Eddie.

I paused and glared at them both before responding. Since when had they become the comedians here? "No. Stuff. We need cool gadgets if we're going to pull this off." I tapped the prison blueprint that had been on my lap for almost every part of our trip so far. Mikhail had dropped us off at a small airport an hour away from the Court. We'd caught a commuter flight from there to Philadelphia, and from there to Seattle and now Fairbanks. It reminded me a little of the crazy flights I'd had to take from Siberia back to the U.S. That journey had also gone via Seattle. I was starting to believe that city was a gateway to obscure places.

"I thought the only tools we needed were our wits," mused Eddie. He might be serious about his guardian work most of the time, but he could also turn on his dry humor when relaxed. Not that he was totally at ease with our mission here, now that he knew more of (but not all) the details. I knew he'd snap back into readiness once we landed. He'd been understandably shocked when I'd revealed we were freeing Victor Dashkov. I hadn't told Eddie anything about Dimitri or spirit, only that getting Victor out played a larger role in the greater good. Eddie's trust in me was so implicit that he'd taken me at my word and pursued the issue no further. I wondered how he'd react when he learned the truth.

"At the very least, we're going to need a GPS," I said. "There's only latitude and longitude on this thing. No real directions."

"Shouldn't be hard," said Lissa, turning a bracelet over and over in her hands. She'd opened her tray and spread out Tasha's jewelry across it. "I'm sure even Alaska has modern technology." She'd also turned on a droll attitude, even with anxiety radiating through the bond.

Eddie's good mood faded a little. "I hope you aren't thinking of guns or anything like that."

"No. Absolutely not. If this works how we want, no one will even know we're there." A physical confrontation was likely, but I hoped to minimize serious injury.

Lissa sighed and handed me the bracelet. She was worried because a lot of my plan depended on her charms--literally and figuratively. "I don't know if this'll work, but maybe it'll give you more resistance."

I took the bracelet and slipped it on my wrist. I felt nothing, but I only rarely did with charmed objects. I'd left Adrian a note saying that Lissa and I had wanted to escape for a "girls' getaway" before my assignment and her college visit. I knew he'd be hurt. The girl angle would carry a lot of weight, but he'd feel injured at not being invited along on a daring vacation--if he even believed we were on one. He probably knew me well enough by now to guess most of my actions had ulterior motives. My hope was that he'd spread the story to Court officials when our disappearance was noticed. We'd still get in trouble, but a wild weekend was better than a prison break. And honestly, how could things get worse for me? The one flaw here was that Adrian could visit my dreams and grill me on what was really going on. It was one of the more interesting--and occasionally annoying--spirit abilities. Lissa hadn't learned to walk dreams, but she had a crude understanding of the principle. Between that and compulsion, she'd tried to charm the bracelet in a way that would block Adrian when I slept later.

The plane began its descent into Fairbanks, and I gazed out the window at tall pines and stretches of green land. In Lissa's thoughts, I read how she'd been half-expecting glaciers and snowbanks, despite knowing it was full summer here. After Siberia, I'd learned to keep an open mind about regional stereotypes. My biggest concern was the sun. It had been full daylight when we'd left the Court, and as our travels took us west, the time zone change meant that the sun stayed with us. Now, though it was almost nine in the evening, we had a full, sunny blue sky, thanks to our northern latitude.

It was like a giant safety blanket. I hadn't mentioned this to Lissa or Eddie, but it seemed likely Dimitri would have spies everywhere. I was untouchable at St. Vladimir's and the Court, but his letters had clearly stated he'd be waiting for me to leave those boundaries. I didn't know the extent of his logistics, but humans watching the Court in daylight wouldn't have surprised me. And even though I'd left hidden in a trunk, there was a strong possibility that Dimitri was already in pursuit. But the same light that guarded the prisoners would keep us safe too. We'd barely have a few hours of night to guard against, and if we pulled this off quickly, we'd be out of Alaska in hardly any time at all. Of course, that might not be such a good thing. We'd lose the sun.

Our first complication came after we landed and tried to rent a car. Eddie and I were eighteen, but none of the car companies would rent to anyone so young. After the third refusal, my anger began to grow. Who would have thought we'd be delayed by something so idiotic? Finally, at a fourth counter, the woman hesitantly told us that there was a guy about a mile from the airport who would likely rent us a car if we had a credit card and a big enough deposit.

We made the walk in pleasant weather, but I could tell the sun was starting to bother Lissa by the time we reached our destination. Bud--of Bud's Rental Cars--didn't seem quite as sleazy as expected and did indeed rent us a car when we produced enough money. From there, we got a room at a modest motel and went over our plans again.

All our information indicated that the prison ran on a vampire schedule, which meant this was their active time of the day. Our plan was to stay in the hotel until the following day, when the Moroi "night" came, and catch some sleep beforehand. It gave Lissa more time to work on her charms. Our room was easily defendable.

My sleep was Adrian-free, for which I was grateful, meaning he'd either accepted the girl trip or couldn't break through Lissa's bracelet. In the morning, we rustled up some doughnuts for breakfast and ate a little bleary-eyed. Running against our vampire schedule was throwing us all off a little.

The sugar helped kick-start us, though, and Eddie and I left Lissa around ten to go do some scouting. We bought my coveted GPS and a few other things at a sporting goods store along the way and used it to navigate remote country roads that seemed to lead nowhere. When the GPS claimed we were a mile from the prison, we pulled off to the side of a small dirt road and set off on foot across a field of tall grass that stretched endlessly before us.

"I thought Alaska was tundra," said Eddie, crunching through the tall stalks. The sky was blue and clear again, with only a few clouds that did nothing to keep the sun away. I'd started out in a light jacket but now had it tied around my waist as I sweated. Occasionally a welcome gust of wind would roll through, flattening the grass and whipping my hair around.

"I guess not all parts. Or maybe we have to go further north. Oh, hey. This looks promising."

We came to a stop before a high, barbwire fence with an enormous PRIVATE PROPERTY--NO UNAUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ALLOWED sign on it. The lettering was red, apparently to emphasize how serious they were. Personally, I would have added a skull and crossbones to really drive the message home.

Eddie and I studied the fence for a few moments, then gave each other resigned glances. "Lissa will heal up anything we get," I said hopefully.

Climbing barbed wire isn't impossible, but it's not fun. Tossing my jacket on the wires I had to grip went a long way to protect me, but I still ended up with some scratches and snagged clothing. Once I was at the top, I jumped down, preferring the jolting landing to another climb down. Eddie did the same, grimacing at the hard impact.

We walked a little farther, and then the dark line of a building came into sight. We both came to a halt as one and knelt down, seeking what coverage we could in the grass. The prison file had indicated that they had cameras on the outside, which meant we risked detection if we got too close. I'd bought high-power binoculars along with the GPS and took them out now, studying the building's exterior.

The binoculars were good--really good--as well they should have been for the price. The level of detail was amazing. Like so many Moroi creations, the building was a mixture of the old and the new. The walls were made of sinister gray stone blocks and almost entirely obscured the actual prison, whose roof just barely peeped above. A couple of figures paced along the top of the walls, living eyes to go with the cameras. The place looked like a fortress, impenetrable and inescapable. It deserved to be on a rocky cliff, with a sinister black sky behind it. The field and sun seemed out of place.

I handed the binoculars to Eddie. He made his own assessment and then gestured to the left. "There."

Squinting, I just barely made out a truck or SUV driving up toward the prison. It went around the back and vanished from sight. "Our only way in," I murmured, recalling the blueprint. We knew we had no shot of scaling the walls or even getting close enough on foot without being spotted. We needed to literally walk through the front door, and that's where the plan got a little sketchy.

Eddie lowered the binoculars and glanced over at me, brow furrowed. "I meant what I said before, you know. I trust you. Whatever reason you're doing this, I know it's a good one. But before things start moving, are you sure this is what you want?"

I gave a harsh laugh. "Want? No. But it's what we need to do."

He nodded. "Good enough."

We watched the prison a while longer, moving around to get different angles while still keeping a wide perimeter. The scenario was about what we'd expected, but having a 3-D visual was still helpful.

After about a half hour, we returned to the hotel. Lissa sat cross-legged on one of the beds, still working on the charms. The feelings coming through her were warm and content. Spirit always made her feel good--even if it had side effects later--and she thought she was making progress.

"Adrian called my cell phone twice," she told me when we entered.

"But you didn't answer?"

"Nope. Poor guy."

I shrugged. "It's better this way."

We gave her a rundown of what we'd seen, and her happy mood began to plummet. Our visit made what we were going to do later today more and more real, and working with so much spirit had already put her on edge. A few moments later, I sensed her swallowing her fear. She became resolved. She'd told me she would do this and she intended to stand by her word, even though she dreaded each second that brought her closer to Victor Dashkov.

Lunch followed, and then a few hours later, it was time to put the plan into motion. It was early evening for humans, which meant the vampiric night would be drawing to an end soon. It was now or never. Lissa nervously distributed the charms she'd made for us, worried they wouldn't work. Eddie dressed up in his newly bestowed black-and-white guardian formalwear while Lissa and I stayed in our street clothes--with a couple alterations. Lissa's hair was a mousy brown, the result of some wash-in temporary hair color. My hair was tightly bound up underneath a curly red wig that reminded me uncomfortably of my mother. We sat in the backseat of the car while Eddie drove us chauffeur style back along the remote road we'd followed earlier. Unlike before, we didn't pull over. We stayed on the road, driving right up to the prison--or, well, to its gatehouse. No one spoke as we drove, but the tension and anxiety within us all grew and grew.

Before we could even get near the outer wall, there was a checkpoint manned by a guardian. Eddie brought the car to a stop, and I tried to look calm. He lowered the window, and the guardian on duty walked over and knelt so that they were at eye level.

"What's your business here?"

Eddie handed over a piece of paper, his attitude confident and unconcerned, as though this were perfectly normal. "Dropping off new feeders."

The file had contained all sorts of forms and papers for prison business, including status reports and order forms for supplies--like feeders. We'd made a copy of one of the feeder requisition forms and filled it out.

"I wasn't notified of a delivery," the guardian said, not suspicious so much as puzzled. He peered at the paperwork. "This is an old form."

Eddie shrugged. "It's just what they gave me. I'm kind of new at this."

The man grinned. "Yeah, you barely look old enough to be out of school."

He glanced toward Lissa and me, and despite my practiced control, I tensed. The guardian frowned as he studied us. Lissa had given me a necklace, and she'd taken a ring, both charmed with a slight compulsion spell to make others think we were human. It would have been much easier to make her victim wear a charm and force them to think they were seeing humans, but that wasn't possible. The magic was harder this way. He squinted, almost like he was looking at us through a haze. If the charms had worked perfectly, he wouldn't have given us a second glance. The charms were a little flawed. They were changing our appearances but not quite as clearly as we'd hoped. That was why we'd gone to the trouble of altering our hair: if the human-illusion failed, we'd still have some identity protection. Lissa readied herself to work direct compulsion, though we'd hoped it wouldn't come to that with every person we met.

A few moments later, the guardian turned from us, apparently deciding we were human after all. I exhaled and unclenched my fists. I hadn't even realized I'd been holding them. "Hang on a minute, and I'll call this in," he told Eddie.

The guardian stepped away and picked up a phone inside his booth. Eddie glanced back at us. "So far so good?"

"Aside from the old form," I grumbled.

"No way to know if my charm's working?" asked Eddie.

Lissa had given him one of Tasha's rings, charmed to make him appear tan-skinned and black-haired. Since she wasn't altering his race, the magic only needed to blur his features. Like our human charms, I suspected it wasn't projecting the exact image she'd hoped for, but it should have altered his appearance enough that no one would identify Eddie later. With our resistance to compulsion--and knowing there was a charm in place, which negated its effects on us--Lissa and I couldn't say for certain what he looked like to others.

"I'm sure it's fine," said Lissa reassuringly.

The guardian returned. "They say go on in, and they'll sort it out there."

"Thanks," said Eddie, taking the form back.

The guard's attitude implied that he assumed this was a clerical error. He was still diligent, but the idea of someone sneaking feeders into a prison was hardly the kind of thing one would expect--or view as a security risk. Poor guy.

Two guardians greeted us when we arrived at the door in the prison's wall. The three of us got out and were led into the grounds between the wall and the prison itself. Whereas St. Vladimir's and the Court's grounds had been lush and filled with plants and trees, the land here was stark and lonely. Not even grass, just hard-packed earth. Was this what served as the prisoners' "exercise area"? Were they even allowed outside at all? I was surprised there wasn't a moat of some sort out here.

The inside of the building was as grim as its exterior. The holding cells at Court were sterile and cold, all metal and blank walls. I'd expected something similar. But whoever had designed Tarasov had foregone the modern look and instead emulated the kind of prison one might have found back in Romania in medieval days. The harsh stone walls continued down the hall, gray and foreboding, and the air was chill and damp. It had to make for unpleasant working conditions for the guardians assigned here. Presumably they wanted to ensure the intimidating facade extended everywhere, even for prisoners first entering the gates. According to our blueprint, there was a little section of dorms where employees lived. Hopefully those were nicer.

Dark Ages decor or not, we passed the occasional camera as we walked down the hallway. This place's security was in no way primitive. Occasionally we heard the heavy slamming of a door, but overall, there was a perfect, eerie silence that was almost creepier than shouts and screams.

We were taken to the warden's office, a room that still had the same gloomy architecture yet was filled with the usual administrative accessories: desk, computer, etc. It looked efficient, nothing more. Our escorts explained that we were going to see the assistant warden, since the senior one was still in bed. It figured. The subordinate would have gotten stuck with the night shift. I hoped that meant he was tired and unobservant. Probably not. That rarely happened to guardians, no matter their assignments.

"Theo Marx," said the assistant warden, shaking Eddie's hand. He was a dhampir not much older than us, and I wondered if he'd only been freshly assigned here.

"Larry Brown," replied Eddie. We'd come up with a boring name for him, one that wouldn't stand out, and had used it in the paperwork.

Theo didn't speak to Lissa and me, but he did give us that same puzzled glance the first guy had as the charm's glamour attempted its illusion. Another delay followed, but once more, we slipped through. Theo returned his attention to Eddie and took the requisition form.

"This is different from the usual one," he said.

"I have no clue," said Eddie apologetically. "This is my first time."

Theo sighed and glanced at the clock. "The warden'll be on duty in another couple hours. I think we're just going to have to wait until he's here to figure out what's going on. Sommerfield's usually got their act together."

There were a few Moroi facilities in the country that gathered feeders--those on the fringes of human society who were content to spend their lives high on vampire endorphins--and then distributed them. Sommerfield was the name of one such facility, located in Kansas City.

"I'm not the only new person they just received," Eddie said. "Maybe someone got confused."

"Typical," snorted Theo. "Well, you might as well have a seat and wait. I can get coffee if you want."

"When are we getting a feeding?" I suddenly asked, using the whiniest, dreamiest voice I could. "It's been so long."

Lissa followed my lead. "They said we could when we got here."

Eddie rolled his eyes at what was typical feeder behavior. "They've been like this the whole time."

"I can imagine," said Theo. "Humph. Feeders." The door to his office was partially ajar and he called out of it. "Hey, Wes? Can you come here?"

One of the escort guardians stuck his head inside. "Yeah?"

Theo gave us a dismissive wave. "Take these two down to the feeding area so they don't drive us crazy. If someone's up, they can use them."

Wes nodded and beckoned us out. Eddie and I made the briefest of eye contact. His face betrayed nothing, but I knew he was nervous. Getting Victor out was our job now, and Eddie didn't like sending us to the dragon's lair.

Wes led us through more doors and security checkpoints as we went deeper into the prison. I realized that for every layer of security I crossed to get in, I was going to have to cross it again to escape. According to the blueprint, the feeding area was situated on the opposite side of the prison. I'd assumed we'd take some route along the periphery, but instead we cut right through the building's center--where the prisoners were kept. Studying had given me a sense of the layout, but Lissa didn't realize where we were headed until a sign alerted us: WARNING--NOW ENTERING PRISONER AREA (CRIMINAL). I thought that was an odd wording. Wasn't everyone in here a criminal?

Heavy double doors blocked this section off, and Wes used both an electronic code and a physical key to cross through. Lissa's pace didn't change, but I felt her anxiety increase as we entered a long corridor lined with bar-covered cells. I didn't feel any better about it myself, but Wes--while still alert--didn't display any sign of fear. He entered this area all the time, I realized. He knew its security. The prisoners might be dangerous, but passing by them was a routine activity for him.

Still, peeking inside the cells nearly made my heart stop. The little compartments were as dark and gloomy as anything, containing only bare-bones furnishings. Most of the prisoners were asleep, thankfully. A few, however, watched as we walked by. None of them said anything, but the silence was almost scarier. Some of the Moroi held there looked like ordinary people you'd pass on the street, and I wondered what they could have possibly done to end up here. Their faces were sad, devoid of all hope. I did a double take and realized that some of the prisoners weren't Moroi; they were dhampirs. It made sense but still caught me off guard. My own kind would have criminals that needed to be dealt with, too.

But not all of the prisoners appeared benign. Others looked like they definitely belonged in Tarasov. There was a malevolence about them, a sinister feel as their eyes locked onto us and didn't let go. They scrutinized our every detail, though for what reason, I couldn't say. Were they seeking out anything that might offer escape? Could they see through our facades? Were they simply hungry? I didn't know but felt grateful for the silent guardians posted throughout the hall. I was also grateful that I didn't see Victor and assumed he lived in a different hall. We couldn't risk being recognized yet.

We finally exited the prisoners' corridor through another set of double doors and at last reached the feeding area. It too felt like a medieval dungeon, but images had to be kept up for the sake of the prisoners. Decor aside, the feeding room's layout was similar to what St. Vladimir's had, except it was smaller. A few cubicles offered moderate privacy, and a bored-looking Moroi guy was reading a book at a desk but looked ready to fall asleep. There was only one feeder in the room, a scraggly-looking, middle-aged human who sat in a chair with a dopey smile on his face, staring at nothing.

The Moroi flinched when we entered, his eyes going wide. Clearly, we were the most exciting thing to happen to him all night. He didn't have that moment of disorientation when he glanced at us; he apparently had low compulsion resistance, which was good to know.

"What's this?"

"Two new ones just came in," said Wes.

"But we're not due," said the Moroi. "And we never get ones this young. They always give us the old, used-up ones."

"Don't ask me," said Wes, moving toward the door once he'd indicated seats for Lissa and me. It was clear he found escorting feeders beneath him. "Marx wants them here until Sullivan gets up. My guess is it's going to turn out to be a mistake, but they were complaining about needing a fix."

"Wonderful," groaned the Moroi. "Well, our next meal's due in fifteen minutes, so I can give Bradley over there a break. He's so gone, I doubt he'd notice if someone else gave blood instead of him."

Wes nodded. "We'll call down when we've got this straight."

The guardian left, and the Moroi picked up a clipboard with a sigh. I had the feeling everyone here was kind of tired of their jobs. I could understand why. This had to be a miserable place to work. Give me the wider world anytime.

"Who's due to feed in fifteen minutes?" I asked.

The Moroi's head jerked up in astonishment. It wasn't the kind of question a feeder asked. "What did you say?"

Lissa stood up and got him in her gaze. "Answer her question."

The man's face went slack. He was easy to compel. "Rudolf Kaiser."

No one either of us recognized. He could have been in here for mass murder or embezzlement for all I knew. "When's Victor Dashkov due?" asked Lissa.

"Two hours."

"Alter the schedule. Tell his guards there's been a readjustment and he has to come now instead of Rudolf."

The Moroi's blank eyes--now as dazed looking as Bradley the feeder's, really--seemed to take a moment to process this. "Yes," he said.

"This is something that might happen normally. It won't raise suspicion."

"It won't raise suspicion," he repeated in a monotone.

"Do it," she ordered, voice hard. "Call them, set it up, and do not take your eyes off of me."

The Moroi complied. While speaking on the phone, he identified himself as Northwood. When he disconnected, the arrangements had been made. We had nothing to do but wait now. My entire body was tightly wound with tension. Theo had said we had over an hour until the warden was on duty. No one would ask questions until then. Eddie simply had to kill time with Theo and not raise suspicions behind a paperwork error. Calm down, Rose. You can do this.

While we waited, Lissa compelled Bradley the feeder into a heavy sleep. I didn't want any witnesses, even not drugged ones. Likewise, I turned the room's camera ever so slightly, so it no longer could see the bulk of the room. Naturally, we'd have to deal with the prison's entire surveillance system before we left, but for now, we needed no watching security personnel to catch sight of what was about to happen.

I had just settled into one of the cubicles when the door opened. Lissa had stayed in her chair near Northwood's desk, so that she could keep her compulsion on him. We'd instructed him that I would be the feeder. I was enclosed, but through Lissa's sight, I saw the group enter: two guardians... and Victor Dashkov.

The same distress she'd felt when seeing him at her trial shot up within her. Her heart rate increased. Her hands shook. The only thing that had finally calmed her back at the trial was the resolution of it all, knowing Victor would be locked away forever and unable to hurt her again.

And now we were about to change all that.

Forcibly, Lissa shoved her fear out of her mind so that she could keep her hold on Northwood. The guardians beside Victor were stern and ready for action, though they didn't really need to be. The sickness that had plagued him for years--the one Lissa had temporarily healed him of--was starting to rear its head again. Lack of exercise and fresh air appeared to have taken a toll too, as had the limited blood prisoners were supposedly given. The guards had him clad in shackles as an extra precaution, and the heavy weight dragged him down, almost making him shuffle.

"Over there," said Northwood, pointing at me. "That one."

The guardians led Victor past Lissa, and he barely gave her a second glance. She was working double compulsion: keeping Northwood under her control and using a quick burst to make herself insignificant to Victor when he walked by. The guardians settled him into a chair beside me and then stepped back, still keeping him in sight. One of them struck up conversation with Northwood, noting our newness and youth. If I ever did this again, I'd have Lissa charm us into looking older.

Sitting beside me, Victor leaned toward me and opened his mouth. Feedings were so second nature, the motions always the same, that he hardly had to think about what he did. It was like he didn't even see me.

Except, then... he did.

He froze, his eyes going wide. Certain characteristics marked the royal Moroi families, and light, jade-green eyes ran amongst both the Dashkovs and the Dragomirs. The weary, resigned look in his disappeared, and the cunning sharpness that so characterized him--the shrewd intellect I knew well--snapped into place. It reminded me eerily of some of the prisoners we'd passed earlier.

But he was confused. Like the other people we'd encountered, my charm was muddling his thoughts. His senses told him I was a human... yet the illusion wasn't perfect. There was also the fact that Victor, as a strong non-spirit compulsion wielder, was relatively resistant to it. And just as Eddie, Lissa, and I had been immune to one another's charms because we knew our true identities, Victor experienced the same effect. His mind might insist that I was human, but his eyes told him I was Rose Hathaway, even with my wig. And once that knowledge was solidified, the human illusion disappeared for him.

A slow, intrigued smile spread over his face, blatantly displaying his fangs. "Oh my. This might be the best meal I've ever had." His voice was barely audible, covered by the conversation of the others.

"Put your teeth anywhere near me and it'll be your last meal," I murmured, voice just as quiet. "But if you want any chance of getting out of here and seeing the world again, you'll do exactly what I say."

He gave me a questioning look. I took a deep breath, dreading what I had to say next.

"Attack me."

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