The whole world was still. At this time of night, there were no birds or anything, but it seemed quieter than usual. Even the wind had fallen silent. Mason looked at me pleadingly. The nausea and prickling increased.
Then, I knew.
"Dimitri," I said urgently, "there are Strig—"
Too late. Dimitri and I saw him at the same time, but Dimitri was closer. Pale face. Red eyes. The Strigoi swooped toward us, and I could almost imagine he was flying, just like vampire legends used to say. But Dimitri was just as fast and nearly as strong. He had his stake—a real one, not a practice one—in his hand and met the Strigoi's attack. I think the Strigoi had hoped for the element of surprise. They grappled, and for a moment they seemed suspended in time, neither gaining ground on the other. Then Dimitri's hand snaked out, plunging the stake into the Strigoi's heart. The red eyes widened in surprise, and the Strigoi's body crumpled to the ground.
Dimitri turned to me to make sure I was all right, and a thousand silent messages passed between us. He turned away and scanned the woods, peering into the darkness. My nausea had increased. I didn't understand why, but somehow I could sense the Strigoi around us. That was what was making me feel sick. Dimitri turned back to me, and there was a look I'd never seen in his eyes.
"Rose. Listen to me. Run. Run as fast and as hard as you can back to your dorm. Tell the guardians."
I nodded. There was no questioning here.
Reaching out, he gripped my upper arm, gaze locked on me to make sure I understood his next words. "Do not stop," he said. "No matter what you hear, no matter what you see, do not stop. Not until you've warned the others. Don't stop unless you're directly confronted. Do you understand?"
I nodded again. He released his hold.
"Tell them buria."
I nodded again.
I ran. I didn't look back. I didn't ask what he was going to do because I already knew. He was going to stop as many Strigoi as he could so that I could get help. And a moment later, I heard grunts and hits that told me he'd found another. For only a heartbeat, I let myself worry about him. If he died, I was certain I would too. But then I let it go. I couldn't just think about one person, not when hundreds of lives were depending on me. There were Strigoi at our school. It was impossible. It couldn't happen.
My feet hit the ground hard, splashing through the slush and mud. Around me, I thought I could hear voices and shapes—not the ghosts from the airport, but the monsters I'd been dreading for so long. But nothing stopped me. When Dimitri and I had first begun training together, he'd made me run laps every day. I'd complained, but he'd stated over and over again that it was essential. It would make me stronger, he had said. And, he'd added, a day could come when I couldn't fight and would have to flee. This was it.
The dhampir dorm appeared before me, about half its windows lit. It was near curfew; people were going to bed. I burst in through the doors, feeling like my heart was going to explode from the exertion. The first person I saw was Stan, and I nearly knocked him over. He caught my wrists to steady me.
"Strigoi," I gasped out. "There are Strigoi on campus."
He stared at me, and for the first time I'd ever seen, his mouth seriously dropped open. Then, he recovered himself, and I could immediately see what he was thinking. More ghost stories. "Rose, I don't know what you're—"
"I'm not crazy!" I screamed. Everyone in the dorm's lobby was staring at us. "They're out there! They're out there, and Dimitri is fighting them alone. You have to help him." What had Dimitri told me? What was that word? "Buria. He said to tell you buria."
And like that, Stan was gone.
I had never seen any drills for Strigoi attacks, yet the guardians must have conducted them. Things moved too fast for them not to have. Every guardian in the dorm, whether they'd been awake or not, was in the lobby in a matter of minutes. Calls were made. I stood in a semicircle with other novices, who watched our elders organize themselves with amazing efficiency. Glancing around, I realized something. There were no other seniors with me. Since it was Sunday night, all of them had returned to the field experience to protect their Moroi. It was oddly relieving. The Moroi dorms had an extra line of defense.
At least, the teenage Moroi did. The elementary campus did not. It had its normal guardian protection, as well as a lot of the same defenses our dorm did, like gratings on all the first-floor windows. Things like that wouldn't keep Strigoi out, but they would slow them down. No one had ever done too much more than that. There'd been no need, not with the wards.
Alberta had joined the group and was sending out parties throughout campus. Some were sent to secure buildings. Some were hunting parties, specifically seeking out Strigoi and trying to figure out how many were around. As the guardians thinned out, I stepped forward.
"What should we do?" I asked.
Alberta turned to me. Her eyes swept over me and the others standing behind me, ages ranging from fourteen to just a little younger than me. Something flashed across her face. Sadness, I thought.
"You stay here in the dorm," she said. "No one can leave— the whole campus is under lockdown. Go up to the floors you live on. There are guardians there organizing you into groups.The Strigoi are less likely to get up there from the outside. If they get in on this floor…" She scanned around us, at the door and windows being monitored. She shook her head. "Well, we'll deal with that."
"I can help," I told her. "You know I can."
I could tell she was about to disagree, but then she changed her mind. To my surprise, she nodded. "Take them upstairs. Watch them."
I started to protest being a babysitter, but then she did something really astonishing. She reached inside her coat and handed me a silver stake. A real one.
"Go on," she said. "We need them out of the way here."
I started to turn away but then paused. "What does buria mean?"
"Storm," she said softly. "It's Russian for 'storm. "
I led the other novices up the stairs, directing them to their floors. Most were terrified, which was perfectly understandable. A few of them—the older ones in particular—looked like I felt. They wanted to do something, anything to help. And I knew that even though they were a year from graduation, they were still deadly in their way. I pulled a couple of them aside.
"Keep them from panicking," I said in a low voice. "And stay on watch. If something happens to the older guardians, it'll be up to you."
Their faces were sober, and they nodded at my directions. They understood perfectly. There were some novices, like Dean, who didn't always grasp the seriousness of our lives. But most did. We grew up fast.
I went to the second floor because I figured that was where I'd be most useful. If any Strigoi got past the first floor, this was the next logical target. I showed my stake to the guardians on duty and told them what Alberta had said. They respected her wishes, but I could tell they didn't want me to be too involved. They directed me down a wing with one small window. Only someone my size or smaller could probably fit through, and I knew that particular section of the building was nearly impossible to climb up, due to its outside shape.
But, I patrolled it anyway, desperate to know what was going on. How many Strigoi were there? Where were they? I realized then that I had a good way of finding out. Still keeping an eye on my window as best I could, I cleared my mind and slipped into Lissa's head.
Lissa was with a group of other Moroi on an upper floor of her dorm too. The lockdown procedures were undoubtedly the same across campus. There was a bit more tension in this group than with mine, probably due to the fact that even while inexperienced, the novices with me right now had some idea how to fight Strigoi. The Moroi had none, despite those adamant Moroi political groups wanting to instigate some sort of training sessions. The logistics of that were still being figured out.
Eddie was near Lissa. He looked so fierce and so strong— like he could single-handedly take on every Strigoi on campus. I was so glad that he among my classmates was assigned to her.
Since I was completely inside her mind now, I got the full force of her feelings. Jesse's torture session seemed meaningless now compared to a Strigoi attack. Unsurprisingly, she was terrified. But most of her fear wasn't for herself. It was for me and Christian.
"Rose is fine," a voice nearby said. Lissa glanced over at Adrian. He'd apparently been in the dorm rather than guest housing. He had on his usual lazy face, but I could see fear masked behind his green eyes. "She can take on any Strigoi. Besides, Christian told you she was with Belikov. She's probably safer than we are."
Lissa nodded, wanting desperately to believe that. "But Christian…"
Adrian, for all his bravado, suddenly looked away. He wouldn't meet her eyes or offer any conciliatory words. I didn't need to hear the explanation because I read it from Lissa's mind. She and Christian had wanted to meet alone and talk about what had happened to her in the woods. They'd been supposed to sneak out and meet at his «lair» in the chapel's attic. She hadn't been fast enough and had been caught by curfew just before the attack, meaning she remained in the dorm while Christian was still out there.
It was Eddie who offered the words of comfort. "If he's in the chapel, he's fine. He really is the safest of all of us." Strigoi couldn't enter holy ground.
"Unless they burn it down," said Lissa. "They used to do that."
"Four hundred years ago," said Adrian. "I think they've got easier pickings around here without needing to go all medieval."
Lissa flinched at the words easier pickings. She knew Eddie was right about the chapel, but she couldn't shake the thought that Christian might have been on his way back to the dorm and been caught in the middle. The worry was eating her up, and she felt helpless with no way to do or find out anything.
I returned to my own body, standing in the second floor hallway. Finally, I really and truly grasped what Dimitri had said about the importance of guarding someone who wasn't psychically linked to me. Don't get me wrong; I was still worried about Lissa. I worried more about her than any other Moroi on campus. The only way I wouldn't have been worried would have been if she were miles away, ringed in wards and guardians. But at least I knew she was as safe as she could be right now. That was something.
But Christian … I had no idea. I had no link to tell me his whereabouts or to even let me know if he was alive. This was what Dimitri had meant. It was an entirely different game when you didn't have a bond—and it was a scary one.
I stared at the window without seeing it. Christian was out there. He was my charge. And even if the field experience was hypothetical… well, it didn't change things. He was a Moroi. He might be in danger. I was the one who was supposed to guard him. They came first.
I took a deep breath and wrestled with the decision before me. I'd been given orders, and guardians followed orders. With the dangers around us, following orders was what kept us organized and efficient. Playing rebel could sometimes get people killed. Mason had proven that in going after the Strigoi in Spokane.
But it wasn't like I was the only one who faced danger here. Everyone was at risk. There was no safety, not until all the Strigoi were gone from campus, and I had no clue how many there were. Guarding this window was busy work, meant to keep me out of the way. True, someone could invade the second floor, and I'd be useful then. And true, a Strigoi could try to get in through this window, but that was unlikely. It was too difficult, and, as Adrian had pointed out, they had easier ways to get prey.
But I could go through the window.
I knew it was wrong, even as I opened the window up. I was exposing myself here, but I had conflicting instincts. Obey orders. Protect Moroi.
I had to go make sure Christian was okay.
Chilly night air blew in. No sounds from outside revealed what was happening. I'd climbed out of my room's window a number of times and had some experience with it. The problem here was that the stone beneath the window was perfectly smooth. There was no handhold. There was a small ledge down by the first floor, but the distance to it was longer than my height, so I couldn't simply slide down. If I could get to that ledge, however, I could walk off to the corner of the building where some scalloped edging would let me climb down easily.
I stared at the ledge below. I was going to have to drop down to it. If I fell, I'd probably break my neck. Easy pickings for Strigoi, as Adrian would say. With a quick prayer to whoever was listening, I climbed out of the window, holding onto its sill with both hands and letting my body dangle as close to the lower ledge as I could. I still had two more feet between it and me. I counted to three and released my hold, dragging my hands along the wall as I dropped. My feet hit the ledge and I started to wobble, but my dhampir reflexes kicked in. I regained my balance and stood there, holding the wall. I'd made it. From this point, I easily moved to the corner and climbed down.
I hit the ground, barely noticing I'd skinned my hands. The quad around me was silent, though I thought I heard some screams in the distance. If I were a Strigoi, I wouldn't mess with this dorm. They'd get a fight here, and while most Strigoi could probably take out a group of novices at once, there were easier ways. Moroi were less likely to put up a real fight, and anyway, Strigoi preferred their blood to ours.
Still, I moved cautiously as I set out toward the chapel. I had the cover of darkness, but Strigoi could see in it even better than I could. I used trees as covers, looking every way I could, wishing I had eyes in the back of my head. Nothing, save more screams in the distance. I realized then that I didn't have that nauseous feeling from earlier. Somehow, that feeling was an indicator of nearby Strigoi. I didn't entirely trust it enough to walk off blindly, but it was reassuring to know I had some kind of early alarm system.
Halfway to the chapel, I saw someone move out from behind a tree. I spun around, stake in hand, and nearly struck Christian in the heart.
"God, what are you doing?" I hissed.
"Trying to get back to the dorm," he said. "What's going on? I heard screaming."
"There are Strigoi on campus," I said.
"I don't know. You have to go back to the chapel. It's safe there." I could see it; we could get there easily.
Christian was as reckless as me sometimes, and I almost expected a fight. He didn't give me one. "Okay. Are you going with me?"
I started to say I would, and then I felt that nauseous feeling creep over me. "Get down!" I yelled. He dropped to the ground without hesitation.
Two Strigoi were on us. They both moved in on me, knowing I'd be an easy target for their combined strength, and then they could go after Christian. One of them slammed me into a tree. My vision blurred for half a second, but I soon recovered. I shoved back and had the satisfaction of seeing her stagger a little. The other one—a man—reached for me, and I dodged him, slipping out of his grasp.
The pair of them reminded me of Isaiah and Elena from Spokane, but I refused to get caught up in memories. Both were taller than me, but the woman was closer to my height. I feinted toward him, and then struck out as fast as I could toward her. My stake bit into her heart. It surprised both of us. My first Strigoi staking.
I'd barely pulled the stake out when the other Strigoi backhanded me, snarling. I staggered but kept my balance as I sized him up. Taller. Stronger. Just like when I'd fought Dimitri. Probably faster too. We circled and then I leapt out and kicked him. He barely budged. He reached for me, and I again managed to dodge as I scanned for some opening to stake him. My narrow escape didn't slow him down, though, and he immediately attacked again. He knocked me to the ground, pinning my arms. I tried to push him off, but he didn't move. Saliva dripped from his fangs as he leaned his face down toward mine. This Strigoi wasn't like Isaiah, wasting time with stupid speeches. This one was going to go in for the kill, draining my blood and then Christian's. I felt the fangs against my neck and knew I was going to die. It was horrible. I wanted to live so, so badly…but this was how it would end. With my last moments, I started to yell at Christian to run, but then the Strigoi above me suddenly lit up like a torch. He jerked back, and I rolled out from underneath him.
Thick flames covered his body, completely obscuring any of his features. He was just a man-shaped bonfire. I heard a few strangled screams before he grew silent. He fell to the ground, twitching and rolling before finally going still. Steam rose from where fire hit the snow, and the flames soon burned out, revealing nothing but ashes underneath.
I stared at the charred remains. Only moments ago, I'd expected to die. Now my attacker was dead. I nearly reeled from how close I'd been to dying. Life and death were so unpredictable. So close to each other. We existed moment to moment, never knowing who would be the next to leave this world. I was still in it, barely, and as I looked up from the ashes, everything around me seemed so sweet and so beautiful. The trees. The stars. The moon. I was alive—and I was glad I was.
I turned to Christian, who was crouched on the ground.
"Wow," I said, helping him up. Obviously, he was the one who had saved me.
"No shit," he said. "Didn't know I had that much power." He peered around, body rigid and tense. "Are there more?"
"No," I said.
"You seem pretty certain."
"Well…this is going to sound weird, but I can kind of sense them. Don't ask how," I said, seeing his mouth open. "Just roll with it. I think it's like the ghost thing, a shadow-kissed side effect. Whatever. Let's get back to the chapel."
He didn't move. A strange, speculative look was on his face. "Rose … do you really want to hole up in the chapel?"
"What do you mean?"
"We just took out two Strigoi," he said, pointing to the staked and charred bodies.
I met his eyes, the full impact of what he was saying hitting me. I could sense Strigoi. He could use his fire on them. I could stake them. Provided we didn't hit a group of ten or something, we could do some serious damage. Then reality hit.
"I can't," I told him slowly. "I can't risk your life…."
"Rose. You know what we could do. I can see it in your face. It's worth risking one Moroi life—and, well, yours—to take out a bunch of Strigoi."
Putting a Moroi in danger. Taking him out to fight Strigoi. It pretty much went against everything I'd been taught. All of a sudden, I remembered that brief moment of clarity I'd just had, the wonderful joy of being alive. I could save so many others. I had to save them. I would fight as hard as I could.
"Don't use your full power on them," I finally said. "You don't need to incinerate them in ten seconds like that. Just light them up enough to distract them, and then I'll finish them. You can save your power."
A grin lit his face. "We're going hunting?"
Oh man. I was going to get in so much trouble. But the idea was too appealing, too exciting. I wanted to fight back. I wanted to protect the people I loved. What I really wanted was to go to Lissa's dorm and protect her. That wasn't the most efficient idea, though. Lissa had my classmates on hand. Others weren't so lucky. I thought about those students, students like Jill.
"Let's go to the elementary campus," I said.
We set off at a light run, taking a route we hoped would keep us away from other Strigoi. I still had no idea how many we were dealing with here, and that was driving me crazy. When we were almost to the other campus, I felt the weird nausea hit me. I called a warning to Christian, just as a Strigoi grabbed him. But Christian was fast. Flames wreathed the Strigoi's head. He screamed and released Christian, trying frantically to put the flames out. The Strigoi never saw me coming with the stake. The whole thing took under a minute. Christian and I exchanged looks.
Yeah. We were badasses.
The elementary campus proved to be a center of activity. Strigoi and guardians were actively fighting around the entrances to one of the dorms. For a moment, I froze. There were almost twenty Strigoi and half as many guardians. So many Strigoi together…Until recently, we'd never heard of them banding together in such large numbers. We'd thought we'd disbanded a large group of them by killing Isaiah, but apparently that wasn't true. I allowed myself only a moment more of shock, and then we jumped into the fray.
Emil was near a side entrance, fending off three Strigoi. He was battered and bruised, and the body of a fourth Strigoi lay at his feet. I lunged for one of the three. She didn't see me coming, and I managed to stake her with almost no resistance. I was lucky. Christian meanwhile set flames to the others. Emil's face reflected surprise, but that didn't stop him from staking another of the Strigoi. I got the other.
"You shouldn't have brought him here," Emil said as we moved to help another guardian. "Moroi aren't supposed to get involved with this."
"Moroi should have been involved with this a long time ago," said Christian through gritted teeth.
We spoke little after that. The rest was a blur. Christian and I moved from fight to fight, combining his magic and my stake. Not all of our kills were as fast and easy as our early ones had been. Some fights were long and drawn out. Emil stuck with us, and I honestly lost count of how many Strigoi we took down.
"I know you."
The words startled me. In all this bloodshed, none of us, friend or foe, did much talking. The speaker was a Strigoi who looked to be my own age but was probably at least ten times older. He had shoulder-length blond hair and eyes whose color I couldn't make out. They were ringed in red, which was all that mattered.
My only answer was to swing out with my stake, but he dodged that. Christian was setting a couple of other Strigoi on fire, so I was handling this one on my own.
"There's something strange about you now, but I still remember. I saw you years ago, before I was awakened." Okay, not ten times my age, not if he'd seen me when he was a Moroi. I hoped his talking would distract him. He was actually pretty fast for a young Strigoi. "You were always with that Dragomir girl, the blonde." My foot hit him, and I jerked my kick back before he could grab me. He barely budged. "Her parents wanted you to be her guardian, right? Before they were all killed?"
"I am her guardian," I grunted. My stake swiped dangerously close to him.
"She's still alive, then…There were rumors that she'd died last year…" There was a sense of wonder in his voice, which mixed weirdly with the malice. "You have no idea what kind of reward I'd get to take down the last living Drag— Ahh!"
He'd dodged my stake from hitting his chest again, but this time I managed an upward strike that dragged the stake's tip across his face. It wouldn't kill him there, but the touch of a stake—so filled with life—would feel like acid to the undead. He screamed, but it didn't slow his defenses.
"I'll come back for you after I finish her," he snarled.
"You'll never get near her," I growled back.
Something shoved into me from the side, a Strigoi that Yuri was fighting. I stumbled but managed to drive my stake through Yuri's Strigoi's heart before he could regain his balance. Yuri gasped his thanks, and then we both turned to other parts of the battle. Only the blond Strigoi was gone. I couldn't find him anywhere. Another took his place, and as I moved toward that one, flames lit up around him, making him an easy mark for my stake. Christian had returned.
"Christian, this Strigoi—"
"I heard," he panted.
"We have to go to her!"
"He was messing with you. She's across campus, surrounded by novices and guardians. She'll be okay."
"They need us here."
I knew he was right—and I knew how hard it was for him to say that. Like me, he wanted to run off to Lissa. Despite all the good work he was doing here, I suspected he would rather have sunk all his magic into protecting her, keeping her ringed in a wall of fire no Strigoi could cross. I had no time to deeply investigate the bond, but I could sense the important things: She was alive, and she wasn't in pain.
So I stayed on, fighting with Christian and Yuri. Lissa hovered at the back of my mind, the bond telling me she was okay. Aside from that, I let battle lust consume me. I had one goal and one alone: Kill Strigoi. I couldn't let them get into this dorm, nor could I let them leave this area and possibly go to Lissa's dorm. I lost track of time. Only the Strigoi I was currently fighting at any given moment mattered. And as soon as that one was gone, it was on to the next.
Until there wasn't a next one.
I was sore and exhausted, adrenaline burning through my body. Christian stood beside me, panting. He hadn't engaged in physical combat like me, but he'd used a lot of magic tonight, and that had taken its own physical toll. I looked around.
"We gotta find another one," I said.
"There are no others," a familiar voice said.
I turned and looked into Dimitri's face. He was alive. All the fear for him I'd held back burst through me. I wanted to throw myself at him and hold him as close to me as possible. He was alive—battered and bloody, yes—but alive.
His gaze held mine for just a moment, reminding me of what had happened in the cabin. It felt like a hundred years ago, but in that brief glance, I saw love and concern—and relief. He'd been worried about me too. Then Dimitri turned and gestured to the eastern sky. I followed the motion. The horizon was pink and purple. It was nearly sunrise.
"They're either dead or have run away," he told me. He glanced between Christian and me. "What you two did—"
"Was stupid?" I suggested.
He shook his head. "One of the most amazing things I've ever seen. Half of those are yours."
I looked back at the dorm, shocked at the number of bodies lying around it. We had killed Strigoi. We had killed a lot of them. Death and killing were horrible things…but I had liked doing what I just did. I had defeated the monsters who had come after me and those in my care.
Then I noticed something. My stomach twisted, but it was nothing like my earlier Strigoi-sensing feeling. This was caused by something entirely different. I turned back to Dimitri.
"There are more than just Strigoi bodies there," I said in a small voice.
"I know," he said. "We've lost a lot of people, in all senses of the word."
Christian frowned. "What do you mean?"
Dimitri's face was both hard and sad. "The Strigoi killed some Moroi and dhampirs. And some…some they carried away."