Chapter Sixteen

 

I DIDN'T HAVE A PRECISE count of how many Strigoi were with Dimitri's group. So much of what I'd seen through Lissa had been blurred with confusion and terror. The guardians, knowing we were expected, had simply had to make a best guess about how many to send. Hans had hoped overwhelming force would make up for us losing the element of surprise. He'd dispatched as many guardians as he could reasonably clear from the Court. Admittedly, the Court was protected by wards, but it still couldn't be left entirely undefended.

Having the new grads there had helped. Most of them had been left behind, allowing the seasoned guardians to go on our hunting party. That left us with forty or so. It was as unusual as large groups of Strigoi banding together. Guardians were usually sent out in pairs, maybe groups of three at most, with Moroi families. This large of a force had the potential to bring about a battle rivaling that of the Academy attack.

Knowing that sneaking through the dark wouldn't work, Hans stopped our convoy a little ways from the warehouse the Strigoi were holed up at. The building was situated on a service road cutting off from the highway. It was an industrial area, hardly a deserted path in the woods, but all the businesses and factories were shut down this late at night. I stepped out of the SUV, letting the warm evening wrap around me. It was humid, and the moisture in the air felt especially oppressive when I was already smothered with fear.

Standing beside the road, I felt no nausea. Dimitri hadn't posted Strigoi this far, which meant our arrival was still--kind of--a surprise. Hans walked over to me, and I gave him the best estimate I could on the situation, based on my limited information.

"But you can find Vasilisa?" he asked.

I nodded. "As soon as I'm in the building, the bond will lead me straight to her."

He turned, staring off into the night as cars sped by on the nearby highway. "If they're already waiting outside, they'll smell and hear us long before we see them." Passing headlights briefly illuminated his face, which was lined in thought. "You said there are three layers of Strigoi?"

"As far as I could tell. There are some on Lissa and Christian, then some outside." I paused, trying to think what Dimitri would do in this situation. Surely I knew him well enough, even as a Strigoi, to calculate his strategy. "Then another layer inside the building--before you get to the storage room." I didn't know this for certain, but I didn't tell Hans. The assumption was made on my own instincts, drawn from what I would do and what I thought Dimitri would do. I figured it would be best if Hans planned for three waves of Strigoi.

And that's exactly what he did. "Then we go in with three groups. You'll lead the group going in for the extraction. Another team will accompany yours and eventually split off. They'll fight whoever's right inside, letting your group head for the captives."

It sounded so... militaristic. Extraction. Captives. And me... a team leader. It made sense with the bond, but always in the past, they'd simply used my knowledge and left me on the sidelines. Welcome to being a guardian, Rose. At school, we'd conducted all sorts of exercises, running as many different Strigoi scenarios as our instructors could dream up. Yet, as I stared up at the warehouse, all of those drills seemed like playacting, a game that could in no way measure up to what I was about to face. For half a second, the responsibility of it all seemed daunting, but I quickly shoved aside such concerns. This was what I had been trained to do, what I had been born to do. My own fears didn't matter. They come first. Time to prove it.

"What are we going to do since we can't sneak up on them?" I asked. Hans had a point about the Strigoi detecting us in advance.

An almost mischievous smile flickered on his face, and he explained his plan to the group while also dividing us into our teams. His approach tactic was bold and reckless. My kind of plan.

And like that, we were off. An outsider analyzing us might have said we were on a suicide mission. Maybe we were. It honestly didn't matter. The guardians wouldn't abandon the last Dragomir. And I wouldn't have abandoned Lissa even if there were a million Dragomirs.

So, with sneaking having been ruled out, Hans opted for a full-on attack. Our group loaded back into the eight SUVs and tore off down the street at illegal speeds. We took up the entire width of the road, gambling on no oncoming traffic. Two SUVs led the charge side by side, then two rows of three. We shot to the end of the road, came to a halt with screeching tires at the front of the warehouse, and spilled out of our cars. If slow stealth wasn't an option, we'd gain surprise by going fast and furious.

Some of the Strigoi were indeed surprised. Clearly, they'd seen our approach, but it had happened so fast that they'd had only a little time to react. Of course, when you were as fast and deadly as Strigoi, a little time was all you needed. A group of them surged at us, and Hans's "outside team" charged back, those guardians putting themselves between my group and the other going inside. The Moroi fire users had been assigned to the outside group, for fear of setting the building on fire if they went inside.

My team moved around the battle, inevitably running into a few Strigoi who hadn't fallen to the first team's distraction. With well-practiced determination, I ignored the nausea sweeping through me from being this close to Strigoi. Hans had strictly ordered me not to stop unless any Strigoi were directly in my path, and he and another guardian were beside me to cover any threats that might come at me. He wanted nothing to delay me from leading them to Lissa and Christian.

We fought our way into the warehouse, entering a dingy hall blocked by Strigoi. I'd been right in my guess that Dimitri would have layers of security. A bottleneck formed in the small space, and for a few moments things were chaotic. Lissa was so close. It was like she was calling to me, and I burned with impatience as I waited for the hall to clear. My team was in the back, letting the other group do the fighting. I saw Strigoi and guardians alike fall and tried not to let it distract me. Fight now, grieve later. Lissa and Christian. I had to focus on them.

"There," said Hans, tugging my arm. A gap had formed ahead of us. There were still plenty of Strigoi, but they were distracted enough that my companions and I slipped through. We took off down the hall, which opened into a large empty space that made up the warehouse's heart. A few pieces of trash and debris were all that was left of the goods once stored here.

Doors led off of the room, but now I didn't need the bond to tell me where Lissa was. Three Strigoi stood guard outside a doorway. So. Four layers of security. Dimitri had one-upped me. It didn't matter. My group had ten people. The Strigoi snarled, bracing in anticipation as we charged them. Through an unspoken signal, half of my group engaged them. The rest of us busted down the door.

Despite my intense focus on reaching Lissa and Christian, one tiny thought had always been dancing in the back of my brain. Dimitri. I hadn't seen Dimitri in any of the Strigoi we'd encountered. With my full attention on our attackers, I hadn't slipped into Lissa's head to verify the situation, but I felt totally confident that he was still inside the room. He would have stayed with her, knowing I would come. He would be waiting to face me.

One of them dies tonight. Lissa or Dimitri.

Having reached our goal, I no longer needed extra protection. Hans pulled out his stake on the first Strigoi he encountered, pushing past me and jumping into the fray. The rest of my group did likewise. We poured into the room, and if I thought there'd been chaos earlier, it was nothing compared to what we faced. All of us--guardians and Strigoi--just barely fit inside the room, which meant we were fighting in very, very close quarters. A female Strigoi--the one Dimitri had slapped earlier--came at me. I fought on autopilot, barely aware of my stake piercing her heart. In this room, full of shouting and death and colliding, there were only three people in the world that mattered to me now: Lissa, Christian, and Dimitri.

I'd found him at last. Dimitri was with my two friends against the far wall. No one was fighting him. He stood with arms crossed, a king surveying his kingdom as his soldiers battled the enemy. His eyes fell on me, his expression amused and expectant. This was where it would end. We both knew it. I shoved my way through the crowd, dodging Strigoi. My colleagues pushed into the fray beside me, dispatching whom-ever stood in my way. I left them to their fight, moving toward my objective. All of this, everything happening, had led to this moment: the final showdown between Dimitri and me.

"You're beautiful in battle," said Dimitri. His cold voice carried to me clearly, even above the roar of combat. "Like an avenging angel come to deliver the justice of heaven."

"Funny," I said, shifting my hold on the stake. "That is kind of why I'm here."

"Angels fall, Rose."

I'd almost reached him. Through the bond, I felt a brief surge of pain from Lissa. A burning. No one was harming her yet, but when I saw her arms move out of the corner of my eye, I realized what had happened. Christian had done what she'd asked: He'd burned her ropes. I saw her move to untie him in return, and then my attention shifted back to Dimitri. If Lissa and Christian were free, then so much the better. It would make their escape easier, once we cleared out the Strigoi. If we cleared out the Strigoi.

"You've gone to a lot of trouble to get me here," I told Dimitri. "A lot of people are going to die--yours and mine."

He shrugged, unconcerned. I was almost there. In front of me, a guardian battled a bald Strigoi. That lack of hair was not attractive with his chalk white skin. I moved around them.

"It doesn't matter," said Dimitri. He tensed as I approached. "None of them matter. If they die, then they obviously aren't worthy."

"Prey and predator," I murmured, recalling what he'd said to me while holding me prisoner.

I'd reached him. No one stood between us now. This was different from our past fights, where we'd had lots of room to size each other up and plan our attacks. We were still crammed into the room, and in keeping our distance from the others, we'd closed the gap between us. That was a disadvantage for me. Strigoi outmatched guardians physically; extra room helped us compensate with more maneuverability.

I didn't need to maneuver quite yet, though. Dimitri was trying to wait me out, wanting me to make the first move. He kept a good position, though, one that blocked me from getting a clear shot on his heart. I could do some damage if I cut him elsewhere with the stake, but he would likely get a hit in on me that would be packed with power in this proximity. So I tried to wait him out as well.

"All this death is because of you, you know," he said. "If you'd let me awaken you... let us be together... well, none of this would have happened. We'd still be in Russia, in each other's arms, and all of your friends here would be safe. None of them would have died. It's your fault."

"And what about the people I'd have to kill in Russia?" I demanded. He'd shifted his weight a little. Was that an opening? "They wouldn't be safe if I--"

A crashing sound off to my left startled me. Christian, now freed, had just slammed his chair into a Strigoi engaged with a guardian. The Strigoi shrugged Christian off like a fly. Christian flew backward, slamming into a wall and landing on the floor with a slightly stunned look. In spite of myself, I spared him a glance and saw Lissa running to his side. And so help me, she had a stake in her hand. How she'd managed that, I had no idea. Maybe she'd picked it up from a fallen guardian. Maybe none of the Strigoi had thought to search her when she came in. After all, why on earth would a Moroi be carrying a stake?

"Stop it! Stay out of the way!" I yelled at them, turning back to Dimitri. Letting those two distract me had cost me. Realizing Dimitri was about to attack, I managed to dodge without even seeing what he was doing. It turned out he'd been reaching for my neck, and my imprecise evasion had spared me the full damage. Still, his hand caught me on the shoulder, knocking me back almost as far as Christian had gone. Unlike my friend, though, I had years of training that had taught me to recover from something like that. I'd honed a lot of balance and recovery skills. I staggered only a little, then quickly regained my footing.

I could only pray Christian and Lissa would listen to me and not do anything stupid. My attention had to stay on Dimitri, or I'd get myself killed. And if I died, Lissa and Christian died for sure. My impression while fighting our way inside had been that the guardians outnumbered the Strigoi, though that meant little sometimes. Still, I had to hope my colleagues would finish our foes off, leaving me to do what I had to do.

Dimitri laughed at my dodge. "I'd be impressed if that wasn't something a ten-year-old could do. Now your friends... well, they're also fighting at a ten-year-old level. And for Moroi? That's actually pretty good."

"Yeah, well, we'll see what your assessment is when I kill you," I told him. I made a small feint to test how much he was paying attention. He sidestepped with hardly any notice at all, as graceful as a dancer.

"You can't, Rose. Haven't you figured that out by now? Haven't you seen it? You can't defeat me. You can't kill me. Even if you could, you can't bring yourself to do it. You'll hesitate. Again."

No, I wouldn't. That's what he didn't realize. He'd made a mistake bringing Lissa here. She increased the stakes--no pun intended--on everything. She was here. She was real. Her life was on the line, and for that... for that, I wouldn't hesitate.

Dimitri must have grown tired of waiting for me. He leapt out, hand again going for my neck. And again I evaded, letting my shoulder take the brunt of the hit. This time he held on to my shoulder. He jerked me toward him, triumph flaring in those red eyes. In the sort of space we were in, this was probably all he needed to kill me. He had what he wanted.

Apparently, though, he wasn't the only one who wanted me. Another Strigoi, maybe thinking he'd help Dimitri, pushed toward us and reached for me. Dimitri bared his fangs, giving the other Strigoi a look of pure hatred and fury.

"Mine!" Dimitri hissed, hitting the other Strigoi in a way that he had clearly not expected.

And that was my opening. Dimitri's brief distraction had caused him to loosen his grip on me. That same close proximity which made him so lethal to me now made me just as dangerous. I was by his chest, by his heart, and I had my stake in hand.

I'll never be able to say for sure just how long the next series of events took. In some ways, it felt like only one heartbeat passed. At the same moment, it was as though we were frozen in time. Like the entire world had stopped.

My stake was moving toward him, and as Dimitri's eyes fell on me once more, I think he finally believed I would kill him. I was not hesitating. This was happening. My stake was there--

And then it wasn't.

Something hit me hard on my right side, pushing me away from Dimitri and ruining my shot. I stumbled, barely avoiding hitting anyone. While I always tried to be vigilant regarding all things around me in a fight, I'd let my guard down in that direction. The Strigoi and guardians were on my left. The wall--and Lissa and Christian--were on my right.

And it was Lissa and Christian who had shoved me out of the way.

I think Dimitri was as astonished as I was. He was also equally astonished when Lissa came toward him with that stake in her hand. And like lightning through the bond, I read what she had very, very carefully kept from me the last day: She had managed to charm the stake with spirit. It was the reason she'd been so keyed up during her last stake-practice session with Grant and Serena. Knowing she had the tool she needed had fueled her desire to use it. Her hiding all of that information from me was a feat on par with charming the stake.

Not that it mattered right now. Charmed stake or no, she couldn't get near Dimitri. He knew it too, and his surprise immediately changed to delighted amusement--almost indulgent, like the way one watches a child do something adorable. Lissa's attack was awkward. She wasn't fast enough. She wasn't strong enough.

"No!" I screamed, leaping toward them, though pretty certain I wasn't going to be fast enough either.

Suddenly, a blazing wall of heat and flame appeared before me, and I barely had the presence of mind to back up. That fire had shot up from the floor, forming a ring around Dimitri that kept me from him. It was disorienting, but only for a moment. I knew Christian's handiwork.

"Stop it!" I didn't know what to do, if I should attack Christian or leap into the fire. "You'll burn us all alive!" The fire was fairly controlled--Christian had that much skill--but in a room this size, even a controlled fire was deadly. Even the other Strigoi backed away.

The flames were closing in on Dimitri, growing tighter and tighter. I heard him scream, could see the look of agony, even through the fire. It began to consume his coat, and smoke poured out from the blaze. Some instinct told me I needed to stop this... and yet, what did it matter? I'd come to kill him. Did it matter if someone else did it for me?

And that's when I noticed Lissa was still on the offensive. Dimitri was distracted, screaming as the flames wrapped around him. I was screaming too... for him, for her... it's hard to say. Lissa's arm shot through the flames, and again, pain surged through the bond--pain that dwarfed the earlier singe from Christian burning her ropes. Yet she kept going, ignoring the fiery agony. Her alignment was right. She had the stake aimed at the heart.

The stake went in, piercing him.

Well, kind of.

Just like when she'd practiced with the pillow, she didn't quite have the strength to get the stake where it needed to go. I felt her steel herself, felt her summon up every ounce of strength she had. Throwing her full weight into it, she shoved again, using both hands. The stake went in further. Still not enough. This delay would have cost her her life in a normal situation. This was not a normal situation. Dimitri had no means to block her, not with the fire slowly eating him. He did manage a small struggle that loosened the stake, undoing what little progress she'd made. Grimacing, she tried again, pushing the stake back to its former position.

Still, it wasn't enough.

I came to my senses then, knowing I needed to stop this. Lissa was going to burn herself up if she kept trying to stake him. She lacked the skill. Either I needed to stake him or we just needed to let the fire finish him off. I moved forward. Lissa caught sight of me in her periphery and sent out a blast of compulsion at me.

No! Let me do this!

The command hit me hard, an invisible wall that made me come to a halt. I stood there dazed, both from the compulsion itself and the realization that she'd used it on me. It only took a moment for me to shake it off. She was too distracted to put her full power into the order, and I was pretty compulsion-resistant anyway.

Yet, that slight delay had stopped me from reaching her. Lissa seized her last chance, knowing she'd get no other.

One more time, fighting through the fire's searing pain, she threw everything she had into shoving the stake all the way into Dimitri's heart. Her strike was still awkward, still requiring a little more wiggling and pushing than the clean hit a trained guardian would make. Clumsy or not, the stake finally made it. It pierced his heart. And as it did, I felt magic flood our bond, the familiar magic I'd felt so many times when she performed a healing.

Except... this was a hundred times more powerful than anything I'd ever felt before. It froze me up as neatly as her compulsion had. I felt as though all of my nerves were exploding, like I'd just been struck by lightning.

White light suddenly burst out around her, a light that dwarfed the fire's brightness. It was like someone had dropped the sun into the middle of that room. I cried out, my hand rising instinctively to shield my eyes as I stepped backward. From the sounds in the room, everyone else was having a similar reaction.

For a moment, it was as if there was no bond anymore. I felt nothing from Lissa--no pain, no magic. The bond was as colorless and empty as the white light filling the room. The power she'd used had over-flooded and overwhelmed our bond, numbing it.

Then the light simply disappeared. No fade-out. Just... gone in an eye blink. Like a switch had been flipped. There was silence in the room, save for a few murmurings of discomfort and confusion. That light must have been toxic to sensitive Strigoi eyes. It was hard enough for me. Starbursts danced in my sight. I couldn't focus on anything as the afterimage of that brilliance burned across my vision.

At last--with a little squinting--I could vaguely see again. The fire was gone, though black smudges on the wall and ceiling marked its presence, as did some lingering smoke. By my estimation, there should have been a lot more damage. I could spare no time for that miracle, though, because there was another one taking place in front of me.

Not just a miracle. A fairy tale.

Lissa and Dimitri were both on the floor. Their clothes were burned and singed. Angry red and pink patches marked her beautiful skin from where the fire had hit hardest. Her hands and wrists were particularly bad. I could see spots of blood where the flames had actually burned some of her skin away. Third-degree burns, if I was recalling my physiology classes correctly. Yet she seemed to feel no pain, nor did the burns affect her hands' movement.

She was stroking Dimitri's hair.

While she sat in some semblance of an upright position, he was in an ungainly sprawl. His head rested in her lap, and she was running her fingers through his hair in a gentle, repetitive motion--like one does to comfort a child or even an animal. Her face, even marred with the fire's terrible damage, was radiant and filled with compassion. Dimitri had called me an avenging angel, but she was an angel of mercy as she gazed down at him and crooned soothing, nonsense words.

With the state of his clothes and what I'd seen in the fire, I'd expected him to be burned to a crisp--some sort of blackened, skeletal nightmare. Yet when he shifted his head, giving me my first full view of his face, I saw that he was completely unharmed. No burns marked his skin--skin that was as warm and tanned as it had been the first day I'd met him. I caught only a glimpse of his eyes before he buried his face against Lissa's knee. I saw endless depths of brown, the depths I'd fallen into so many times. No red rings.

Dimitri... was not a Strigoi.

And he was weeping.

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