I FELT HER FEAR BEFORE I heard her screams.
Her nightmare pulsed into me, shaking me out of my own dream, which had had something to do with a beach and some hot guy rubbing suntan oil on me. Images—hers, not mine—tumbled through my mind: fire and blood, the smell of smoke, the twisted metal of a car. The pictures wrapped around me, suffocating me, until some rational part of my brain reminded me that this wasn’t my dream.
I woke up, strands of long, dark hair sticking to my forehead.
Lissa lay in her bed, thrashing and screaming. I bolted out of mine, quickly crossing the few feet that separated us.
“Liss,” I said, shaking her. “Liss, wake up.”
Her screams dropped off, replaced by soft whimpers. “Andre,” she moaned. “Oh God.”
I helped her sit up. “Liss, you aren’t there anymore. Wake up.”
After a few moments, her eyes fluttered open, and in the dim lighting, I could see a flicker of consciousness start to take over. Her frantic breathing slowed, and she leaned into me, resting her head against my shoulder. I put an arm around her and ran a hand over her hair.
“It’s okay,” I told her gently. “Everything’s okay.”
“I had that dream.”
“Yeah. I know.”
We sat like that for several minutes, not saying anything else. When I felt her emotions calm down, I leaned over to the nightstand between our beds and turned on the lamp. It glowed dimly, but neither of us really needed much to see by. Attracted by the light, our housemate’s cat, Oscar, leapt up onto the sill of the open window.
He gave me a wide berth—animals don’t like dhampirs, for whatever reason—but jumped onto the bed and rubbed his head against Lissa, purring softly. Animals didn’t have a problem with Moroi, and they all loved Lissa in particular. Smiling, she scratched his chin, and I felt her calm further.
“When did we last do a feeding?” I asked, studying her face. Her fair skin was paler than usual. Dark circles hung under her eyes, and there was an air of frailty about her. School had been hectic this week, and I couldn’t remember the last time I’d given her blood. “It’s been like . . . more than two days, hasn’t it? Three? Why didn’t you say anything?”
She shrugged and wouldn’t meet my eyes. “You were busy. I didn’t want to—”
“Screw that,” I said, shifting into a better position. No wonder she seemed so weak. Oscar, not wanting me any closer, leapt down and returned to the window, where he could watch at a safe distance. “Come on. Let’s do this.”
“Come on. It’ll make you feel better.”
I tilted my head and tossed my hair back, baring my neck. I saw her hesitate, but the sight of my neck and what it offered proved too powerful. A hungry expression crossed her face, and her lips parted slightly, exposing the fangs she normally kept hidden while living among humans. Those fangs contrasted oddly with the rest of her features. With her pretty face and pale blond hair, she looked more like an angel than a vampire.
As her teeth neared my bare skin, I felt my heart race with a mix of fear and anticipation. I always hated feeling the latter, but it was nothing I could help, a weakness I couldn’t shake.
Her fangs bit into me, hard, and I cried out at the brief flare of pain. Then it faded, replaced by a wonderful, golden joy that spread through my body. It was better than any of the times I’d been drunk or high. Better than sex—or so I imagined, since I’d never done it. It was a blanket of pure, refined pleasure, wrapping me up and promising everything would be right in the world. On and on it went. The chemicals in her saliva triggered an endorphin rush, and I lost track of the world, lost track of who I was.
Then, regretfully, it was over. It had taken less than a minute.
She pulled back, wiping her hand across her lips as she studied me. “You okay?”
“I . . . yeah.” I lay back on the bed, dizzy from the blood loss. “I just need to sleep it off. I’m fine.”
Her pale, jade-green eyes watched me with concern. She stood up. “I’m going to get you something to eat.”
My protests came awkwardly to my lips, and she left before I could get out a sentence. The buzz from her bite had lessened as soon as she broke the connection, but some of it still lingered in my veins, and I felt a goofy smile cross my lips. Turning my head, I glanced up at Oscar, still sitting in the window.
“You don’t know what you’re missing,” I told him.
His attention was on something outside. Hunkering down into a crouch, he puffed out his jet-black fur. His tail started twitching.
My smile faded, and I forced myself to sit up. The world spun, and I waited for it to right itself before trying to stand. When I managed it, the dizziness set in again and this time refused to leave. Still, I felt okay enough to stumble to the window and peer out with Oscar. He eyed me warily, scooted over a little, and then returned to whatever had held his attention.
A warm breeze—unseasonably warm for a Portland fall—played with my hair as I leaned out. The street was dark and relatively quiet. It was three in the morning, just about the only time a college campus settled down, at least somewhat. The house in which we’d rented a room for the past eight months sat on a residential street with old, mismatched houses. Across the road, a streetlight flickered, nearly ready to burn out. It still cast enough light for me to make out the shapes of cars and buildings. In our own yard, I could see the silhouettes of trees and bushes.
And a man watching me.
I jerked back in surprise. A figure stood by a tree in the yard, about thirty feet away, where he could easily see through the window. He was close enough that I probably could have thrown something and hit him. He was certainly close enough that he could have seen what Lissa and I had just done.
The shadows covered him so well that even with my heightened sight, I couldn’t make out any of his features, save for his height. He was tall. Really tall. He stood there for just a moment, barely discernible, and then stepped back, disappearing into the shadows cast by the trees on the far side of the yard. I was pretty sure I saw someone else move nearby and join him before the blackness swallowed them both.
Whoever these figures were, Oscar didn’t like them. Not counting me, he usually got along with most people, growing upset only when someone posed an immediate danger. The guy outside hadn’t done anything threatening to Oscar, but the cat had sensed something, something that put him on edge.
Something similar to what he always sensed in me.
Icy fear raced through me, almost—but not quite—eradicating the lovely bliss of Lissa’s bite. Backing up from the window, I jerked on a pair of jeans that I found on the floor, nearly falling over in the process. Once they were on, I grabbed my coat and Lissa’s, along with our wallets. Shoving my feet into the first shoes I saw, I headed out the door.
Downstairs, I found her in the cramped kitchen, rummaging through the refrigerator. One of our housemates, Jeremy, sat at the table, hand on his forehead as he stared sadly at a calculus book. Lissa regarded me with surprise.
“You shouldn’t be up.”
“We have to go. Now.”
Her eyes widened, and then a moment later, understanding clicked in. “Are you . . . really? Are you sure?”
I nodded. I couldn’t explain how I knew for sure. I just did.
Jeremy watched us curiously. “What’s wrong?”
An idea came to mind. “Liss, get his car keys.”
He looked back and forth between us. “What are you—”
Lissa unhesitatingly walked over to him. Her fear poured into me through our psychic bond, but there was something else too: her complete faith that I would take care of everything, that we would be safe. Like always, I hoped I was worthy of that kind of trust.
She smiled broadly and gazed directly into his eyes. For a moment, Jeremy just stared, still confused, and then I saw the thrall seize him. His eyes glazed over, and he regarded her adoringly.
“We need to borrow your car,” she said in a gentle voice. “Where are your keys?”
He smiled, and I shivered. I had a high resistance to compulsion, but I could still feel its effects when it was directed at another person. That, and I’d been taught my entire life that using it was wrong. Reaching into his pocket, Jeremy handed over a set of keys hanging on a large red key chain.
“Thank you,” said Lissa. “And where is it parked?”
“Down the street,” he said dreamily. “At the corner. By Brown.” Four blocks away.
“Thank you,” she repeated, backing up. “As soon as we leave, I want you to go back to studying. Forget you ever saw us tonight.”
He nodded obligingly. I got the impression he would have walked off a cliff for her right then if she’d asked. All humans were susceptible to compulsion, but Jeremy appeared weaker than most. That came in handy right now.
“Come on,” I told her. “We’ve got to move.”
We stepped outside, heading toward the corner he’d named. I was still dizzy from the bite and kept stumbling, unable to move as quickly as I wanted. Lissa had to catch hold of me a few times to stop me from falling. All the time, that anxiety rushed into me from her mind. I tried my best to ignore it; I had my own fears to deal with.
“Rose . . . what are we going to do if they catch us?” she whispered.
“They won’t,” I said fiercely. “I won’t let them.”
“But if they’ve found us—”
“They found us before. They didn’t catch us then. We’ll just drive over to the train station and go to L.A. They’ll lose the trail.”
I made it sound simple. I always did, even though there was nothing simple about being on the run from the people we’d grown up with. We’d been doing it for two years, hiding wherever we could and just trying to finish high school. Our senior year had just started, and living on a college campus had seemed safe. We were so close to freedom.
She said nothing more, and I felt her faith in me surge up once more. This was the way it had always been between us. I was the one who took action, who made sure things happened—sometimes recklessly so. She was the more reasonable one, the one who thought things out and researched them extensively before acting. Both styles had their uses, but at the moment, recklessness was called for. We didn’t have time to hesitate.
Lissa and I had been best friends ever since kindergarten, when our teacher had paired us together for writing lessons. Forcing five-year-olds to spell Vasilisa Dragomir and Rosemarie Hathaway was beyond cruel, and we’d—or rather, I’d—responded appropriately. I’d chucked my book at our teacher and called her a fascist bastard. I hadn’t known what those words meant, but I’d known how to hit a moving target.
Lissa and I had been inseparable ever since.
“Do you hear that?” she asked suddenly.
It took me a few seconds to pick up what her sharper senses already had. Footsteps, moving fast. I grimaced. We had two more blocks to go.
“We’ve got to run for it,” I said, catching hold of her arm.
“But you can’t—”
It took every ounce of my willpower not to pass out on the sidewalk. My body didn’t want to run after losing blood or while still metabolizing the effects of her saliva. But I ordered my muscles to stop their bitching and clung to Lissa as our feet pounded against the concrete. Normally I could have outrun her without any extra effort—particularly since she was barefoot—but tonight, she was all that held me upright.
The pursuing footsteps grew louder, closer. Black stars danced before my eyes. Ahead of us, I could make out Jeremy’s green Honda. Oh God, if we could just make it—
Ten feet from the car, a man stepped directly into our path. We came to a screeching halt, and I jerked Lissa back by her arm. It was him, the guy I’d seen across the street watching me. He was older than us, maybe mid-twenties, and as tall as I’d figured, probably six-six or six-seven. And under different circumstances—say, when he wasn’t holding up our desperate escape—I would have thought he was hot. Shoulder-length brown hair, tied back in a short ponytail. Dark brown eyes. A long brown coat—a duster, I thought it was called.
But his hotness was irrelevant now. He was only an obstacle keeping Lissa and me away from the car and our freedom. The footsteps behind us slowed, and I knew our pursuers had caught up. Off to the sides, I detected more movement, more people closing in. God. They’d sent almost a dozen guardians to retrieve us. I couldn’t believe it. The queen herself didn’t travel with that many.
Panicked and not entirely in control of my higher reasoning, I acted out of instinct. I pressed up to Lissa, keeping her behind me and away from the man who appeared to be the leader.
“Leave her alone,” I growled. “Don’t touch her.”
His face was unreadable, but he held out his hands in what was apparently supposed to be some sort of calming gesture, like I was a rabid animal he was planning to sedate.
“I’m not going to—”
He took a step forward. Too close.
I attacked him, leaping out in an offensive maneuver I hadn’t used in two years, not since Lissa and I had run away. The move was stupid, another reaction born of instinct and fear. And it was hopeless. He was a skilled guardian, not a novice who hadn’t finished his training. He also wasn’t weak and on the verge of passing out.
And man, was he fast. I’d forgotten how fast guardians could be, how they could move and strike like cobras. He knocked me off as though brushing away a fly, and his hands slammed into me and sent me backwards. I don’t think he meant to strike that hard—probably just intended to keep me away—but my lack of coordination interfered with my ability to respond. Unable to catch my footing, I started to fall, heading straight toward the sidewalk at a twisted angle, hip-first. It was going to hurt. A lot.
Only it didn’t.
Just as quickly as he’d blocked me, the man reached out and caught my arm, keeping me upright. When I’d steadied myself, I noticed he was staring at me—or, more precisely, at my neck. Still disoriented, I didn’t get it right away. Then, slowly, my free hand reached up to the side of my throat and lightly touched the wound Lissa had made earlier. When I pulled my fingers back, I saw slick, dark blood on my skin. Embarrassed, I shook my hair so that it fell forward around my face. My hair was thick and long and completely covered my neck. I’d grown it out for precisely this reason.
The guy’s dark eyes lingered on the now-covered bite a moment longer and then met mine. I returned his look defiantly and quickly jerked out of his hold. He let me go, though I knew he could have restrained me all night if he’d wanted. Fighting the nauseating dizziness, I backed toward Lissa again, bracing myself for another attack. Suddenly, her hand caught hold of mine. “Rose,” she said quietly. “Don’t.”
Her words had no effect on me at first, but calming thoughts gradually began to settle in my mind, coming across through the bond. It wasn’t exactly compulsion—she wouldn’t use that on me—but it was effectual, as was the fact that we were hopelessly outnumbered and outclassed. Even I knew struggling would be pointless. The tension left my body, and I sagged in defeat.
Sensing my resignation, the man stepped forward, turning his attention to Lissa. His face was calm. He swept her a bow and managed to look graceful doing it, which surprised me considering his height. “My name is Dimitri Belikov,” he said. I could hear a faint Russian accent. “I’ve come to take you back to St. Vladimir’s Academy, Princess.”