Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Shadow Kiss Chapter 26

Twenty-six IT WAS ALMOST IMPOSSIBLE to believe. The Strigoi were practically right next door to us, waiting for nightfall so that they could finish their escape. Apparently, in the chaos of the attack, some of the Strigoi had obscured their tracks while others had made it look as though they might have exited through any number of points on campus. Caught up in our own aftermath, no one had given it much thought. The wards had been restored. As far as we were concerned, the Strigoi were gone, and that was what mattered. Now we had an odd situation before us. Under normal circumstances – not that a massive Strigoi attack was normal – we would have never pursued them. Those kidnapped by Strigoi were usually written off as dead, and, as my mother had pointed out, guardians rarely knew where to look for Strigoi. This time, however, we knew. The Strigoi were essentially trapped. It presented an interesting dilemma. Well, it wasn't a dilemma to me. I honestly couldn't figure out why we weren't in those caves right now, flushing out the Strigoi and looking for survivors. Dimitri and I hurried back, anxious to act on our news, but we had to wait until all the guardians gathered. â€Å"Do not interrupt them,† Dimitri told me as we were about to walk into the meeting that would decide our next course of action. We stood near the doorway, speaking in low voices. â€Å"I know how you feel. I know what you want to do. But ranting at them isn't going to help you get your way.† â€Å"Ranting?† I exclaimed, forgetting to speak softly. â€Å"I see it,† he said. â€Å"That fire's in you again – you want to tear somebody apart. It's what made you so deadly in the fight. But we're not fighting right now. The guardians have all the information. They'll make the right choice. You just have to be patient.† Part of what he said was true. In preparation for the meeting, we had relayed all our information and then done some more searching. Investigation had revealed that several years ago, one of the Moroi teachers had taught a geology class and mapped the caves out, providing us with everything we needed to know about them. The entrance was five miles from the Academy's back borders. The caves' longest chamber was about half a mile long, the far side letting out about twenty miles from the dirt road on the map. It had been believed that landslides had blocked both entrances. Now, we realized, clearing those out wouldn't be too difficult with Strigoi strength. But I wasn't sure I trusted what Dimitri said about the guardians making the right choice. Minutes before the meeting began, I appealed to my mother. â€Å"Please,† I told her. â€Å"We have to do this.† She looked me over. â€Å"If there's a rescue, it's not going to be a ‘we' thing. You aren't going.† â€Å"Why? Because our numbers were so badass the first time that no guardians died?† She flinched. â€Å"You know I can help. You know what I did. I'm a week away from my birthday and only a few months away from graduation. You think something magical's going to happen before then? I've got a few more things to learn, yeah, but I don't think that's big enough to stop me from helping. You guys need as much help as you can get, and there are plenty of other novices who are ready too. Bring Christian, and we'll be unstoppable.† â€Å"No,† she said quickly. â€Å"Not him. You should have never gotten a Moroi involved, let alone one as young as him.† â€Å"But you saw what he could do.† She didn't argue that. I saw the indecision on her face. She glanced at the time and sighed. â€Å"Let me check something.† I didn't know where she went, but she was fifteen minutes late for the meeting. By then, Alberta had already debriefed the guardians on what we'd learned. Mercifully, she skipped the details about how we'd gotten our data, so we didn't have to waste time explaining the ghost part. The caves' layout was examined in detail. People asked questions. Then decision time came. I braced myself. Fighting Strigoi had always meant relying on a defense strategy. We attacked only when attacked. Previous arguments for an offensive had always failed. I expected the same now. Only it didn't come. One by one, the guardians stood up and expressed their commitment to going on the rescue mission. As they did, I saw that fire Dimitri had spoken of. Everyone was ready for a fight. They wanted it. The Strigoi had gone too far. In our world, there were only a handful of places that were safe: the Royal Court and our academies. Children were sent to places like St. Vladimir's with the certainty they would be protected. That certainty had been shattered, and we wouldn't stand for that, especially if we could still save lives. An eager, victorious feeling burned in my chest. â€Å"Well, then,† said Alberta, glancing around. I think she was as surprised as I was, though she too had been in favor of a rescue. â€Å"We'll plan the logistics and head out. We've still got about nine hours of daylight to go after them before they leave.† â€Å"Wait,† said my mother, standing up. All eyes turned to her, but she didn't bat an eyelash under the scrutiny. She looked fierce and capable, and I was immensely proud of her. â€Å"I think there's one other thing we should consider. I think we should allow some of the senior novices to go.† This started a small outcry, but it only came from a minority. My mother gave an argument similar to what I had given her. She also maintained that novices would not be in the front lines but that we would serve more as backup should any Strigoi get through. The guardians had almost approved of this idea when she dropped another bomb on them. â€Å"I think we should bring some Moroi with us.† Celeste shot up. She had a huge gash on the side of her face. It made the bruise I'd seen on her the other day seem like a mosquito bite. â€Å"What? Are you insane?† My mother fixed her with a calm look. â€Å"No. We all know what Rose and Christian Ozera did. One of our biggest problems with Strigoi is getting past their strength and speed to go in for the kill. If we bring fire-using Moroi, we have a distraction that will give us an edge. We can cut them down.† A debate broke out. It took every ounce of self-control I had not to join in. I remembered Dimitri's words about not interrupting. Yet as I listened, I couldn't help my frustration. Every minute that passed was another minute we weren't going after Eddie and the others. It was another minute in which someone might die. I turned to where Dimitri sat beside me. â€Å"They're being idiots,† I hissed. His eyes were on Alberta, as she debated a guardian who usually worked the elementary campus. â€Å"No,† murmured Dimitri. â€Å"Watch. Change is happening before your eyes. People are going to remember this day as a turning point.† And he was right. Once again, the guardians slowly signed on with the idea. I think it was part of that same initiative that made them want to fight in the first place. We had to get back at the Strigoi. This was more than our fight – it was the Moroi's too. When my mother said she'd gotten a number of teachers to volunteer – they absolutely wouldn't allow students for this – the decision was made. The guardians were going after the Strigoi, and novices and Moroi would go with them. I felt triumphant and exultant. Dimitri was right. This was the moment our world would change. But not for four hours. â€Å"More guardians are coming,† Dimitri told me when I once again expressed my outrage. â€Å"In four hours, the Strigoi could have decided to have a snack!† â€Å"We need an overwhelming show of force,† he said. â€Å"We need every edge we can get. Yes, the Strigoi could kill a couple more before we get there. I don't want that, believe me. But if we go in unprepared, we could lose more lives than that.† My blood boiled. I knew he was right, and there was nothing I could do about it. I hated that. I hated being helpless. â€Å"Come on,† he said, gesturing toward the exit. â€Å"Let's take a walk.† â€Å"Where?† â€Å"It doesn't matter. We just need to get you calmed down, or you'll be in no shape to fight.† â€Å"Yeah? Are you afraid of my possibly insane dark side coming out?† â€Å"No, I'm afraid of your normal Rose Hathaway side coming out, the one that isn't afraid to jump in without thinking when she believes something is right.† I gave him a dry look. â€Å"Is there a difference?† â€Å"Yes. The second one scares me.† I resisted the urge to elbow him. For half a heartbeat, I wished I could close my eyes and forget about all the hurt and bloodshed around us. I wanted to lounge in bed with him, laughing and teasing, with neither of us worried about anything else except each other. That wasn't real, though. This was. â€Å"Won't they need you here?† I asked. â€Å"No. Most of what they're doing now is waiting for the others, and they have more than enough people right now to help plan the attack. Your mother's leading that.† I followed his gaze to where my mom stood, in the center of a group of guardians, pointing with sharp, forceful motions toward what looked like maps. I still never quite knew what to think about her, but watching her now, I couldn't help but admire her dedication. There was none of the dysfunctional annoyance I usually experienced around her. â€Å"Okay,† I said. â€Å"Let's go.† He took me on a loop around campus, and we surveyed some of the aftermath. Most of the damage wasn't to the campus itself, of course. It was to our people. Still, we could see some signs of the attack: damage to buildings, bloodstains in unexpected places, etc. Most noticeable of all was the mood. Even in full daylight, there was a darkness around us, a heavy sorrow that you could almost reach out and feel. I saw it on the faces of everyone we passed. I half-expected Dimitri to take me through where some of the injured were. He steered clear of that, however, and I could guess why. Lissa was helping out there, using her powers in small doses to heal the wounded. Adrian was as well, though he couldn't do nearly as much as her. They'd finally decided that it was worth risking everyone knowing about spirit. The tragedy here was too great. Besides, so much about spirit had gotten out at the trial that it had probably only been a matter of time anyway. Dimitri didn't want me near Lissa while she was using her magic, which I found interesting. He still didn't know if I really was â€Å"catching† her madness, but he apparently didn't want to take any chances. â€Å"You told me you had a theory about why the wards broke,† he said. We'd extended our circuit of campus, not far from where Jesse's society had met last night. I'd nearly forgotten. Once I'd pieced it together, the reason had been perfectly obvious. No one had really asked many questions about it, not yet. The immediate concerns had been to get new wards up and tend to our own people. The investigation would occur later. â€Å"Jesse's group was doing their initiation right here by the wards. You know how stakes can negate wards because the elements go against each other? I think it's the same thing. Their initiation rights used all the elements, and I think they negated the wards in the same way.† â€Å"Magic is used all the time on campus, though,† pointed out Dimitri. â€Å"In all the elements. Why has this never happened before?† â€Å"Because the magic isn't usually happening right on top of the wards. The wards are on the edges, so the two don't usually conflict. Also, I think it makes a difference in how the elements are being used. Magic is life, which is why it destroys Strigoi and why they can't cross it. The magic in stakes is used as a weapon. So was the magic in the torture session. When it's used in that sort of negative way, I think it cancels out good magic.† I shivered, recalling that sickening feeling I'd felt when Lissa had used spirit to torment Jesse. It hadn't been natural. Dimitri stared at a broken fence that marked one of the Academy's boundaries. â€Å"Incredible. I never would have thought that was possible, but it makes sense. The principle really is the same as for the stakes.† He smiled at me. â€Å"You've thought about this a lot.† â€Å"I don't know. It just sort of fell together in my head.† I glowered, thinking of Jesse's idiotic group. Bad enough they'd done what they did to Lissa. That was enough to make me want to go kick their asses (though not kill them anymore – I'd learned some restraint since last night). But this? Letting Strigoi into the school? How could something so stupid and petty on their part have led to this sort of disaster? It almost would have been better if they'd tried to make this happen, but no. It had come about through their glory-seeking game. â€Å"Idiots,† I muttered. The wind picked up. I shivered, and this time it was from the chilly temperature, not my own unease. Spring might be coming, but it certainly wasn't here yet. â€Å"Let's get back inside,† Dimitri said. We turned around, and as we walked toward the heart of the secondary campus, I saw it. The cabin. Neither of us slowed down or obviously looked at it, but I knew he was just as acutely aware of it as I was. He proved it when he spoke a moment later. â€Å"Rose, about what happened – â€Å" I groaned. â€Å"I knew it. I knew this was going to happen.† He glanced over at me, startled. â€Å"That what was going to happen?† â€Å"This. The part where you give me the huge lecture about how what we did was wrong and how we shouldn't have done it and how it's never going to happen again.† Until the words left my mouth, I didn't realize how much I'd feared he would say that. He still looked shocked. â€Å"Why would you think that?† â€Å"Because that's how you are,† I told him. I think I sounded a little hysterical. â€Å"You always want to do the right thing. And when you do the wrong thing, you then have to fix it and do the right thing. And I know you're going to say that what we did shouldn't have happened and that you wish – â€Å" The rest of what I might have said was smothered as Dimitri wrapped his arm around my waist and pulled me to him in the shadow of a tree. Our lips met, and as we kissed, I forgot all about my worries and fears that he'd say what we'd done was a mistake. I even – as impossible as it seems – forgot about the death and destruction of the Strigoi. Just for a moment. When we finally broke apart, he still kept me close to him. â€Å"I don't think what we did was wrong,† he said softly. â€Å"I'm glad we did it. If we could go back in time, I'd do it again.† A swirling feeling burned within my chest. â€Å"Really? What made you change your mind?† â€Å"Because you're hard to resist,† he said, clearly amused at my surprise. â€Å"And †¦ do you remember what Rhonda said?† There was another shock, hearing her brought up. But then I recalled his face when he'd listened to her and what he'd said about his grandmother. I tried to remember Rhonda's exact words. â€Å"Something about how you're going to lose something†¦Ã¢â‚¬  I apparently didn't remember it so well. â€Å"‘You will lose what you value most, so treasure it while you can.'† Naturally, he knew it word for word. I'd scoffed at the words at the time, but now I tried to decipher them. At first, I felt a surge of joy: I was what he valued most. Then I gave him a startled look. â€Å"Wait. You think I'm going to die? That's why you slept with me?† â€Å"No, no, of course not. I did what I did because †¦ believe me, it wasn't because of that. Regardless of the specifics – or if it's even true – she was right about how easily things can change. We try to do what's right, or rather, what others say is right. But sometimes, when that goes against who we are†¦you have to choose. Even before the Strigoi attack, as I watched all the problems you were struggling with, I realized how much you meant to me. It changed everything. I was worried about you – so, so worried. You have no idea. And it became useless to try to act like I could ever put any Moroi life above yours. It's not going to happen, no matter how wrong others say it is. And so I decided that's something I have to deal with. Once I made that decision †¦ there was nothing to hold us back.† He hesitated, seeming to replay his words as he brushed my hair from my face. â€Å"Well, to hold me back. I'm speaking for myself. I don't mea n to act like I know exactly why you did it.† â€Å"I did it because I love you,† I said, like it was the most obvious thing in the world. And really, it was. He laughed. â€Å"You can sum up in one sentence what it takes me a whole speech to get out.† â€Å"Because it's that simple. I love you, and I don't want to keep pretending like I don't.† â€Å"I don't either.† His hand dropped from my face and found my hand. Fingers entwined, we began walking again. â€Å"I don't want any more lies.† â€Å"Then what'll happen now? With us, I mean. Once all of this is done †¦ with the Strigoi†¦Ã¢â‚¬  â€Å"Well, as much as I hate to reinforce your fears, you were right about one thing. We can't be together again – for the rest of the school year, that is. We're going to have to keep our distance.† I felt a little disappointed by this, but I knew with certainty he was right. We might finally have reached the point where we weren't going to deny our relationship anymore, but we could hardly flaunt it while I was still his student. Our feet splashed through slush. A few scattered birds sang in the trees, undoubtedly surprised to see so much activity in daylight around here. Dimitri stared off into the sky ahead, face thoughtful. â€Å"After you graduate and are out with Lissa †¦Ã¢â‚¬  He didn't finish. It took me a moment, but I realized what he was about to say. My heart nearly stopped. â€Å"You're going to ask to be reassigned, aren't you? You won't be her guardian.† â€Å"It's the only way we can be together.† â€Å"But we won't actually be together,† I pointed out. â€Å"Us staying with her gives us the same problem – me worrying more about you than her. She needs two guardians perfectly dedicated to her. If I can get assigned somewhere at Court, we'll be near each other all the time. And in a secure place like that, there's more flexibility with a guardian's schedule.† A whiny, selfish part of me wanted to immediately jump in with how much that sucked, but really, it didn't. There was no option we had that was ideal. Each one came with hard choices. I knew it was hard for him to give up Lissa. He cared about her and wanted to keep her safe with a passion that almost rivaled my own. But he cared about me more, and he had to make that sacrifice if he still wanted to honor his sense of duty. â€Å"Well,† I said, realizing something, â€Å"we might actually see more of each other if we're guarding different people. We can get time off together. If we were both with Lissa, we'd be swapping shifts and always be apart.† The trees were thinning up ahead, which was a shame, because I didn't want to let go of his hand. Still, a surge of hope and joy began to blossom in my chest. It felt wrong in the wake of such tragedy, but I couldn't help it. After all this time, after all the heartache, Dimitri and I were going to make this work. There was always the possibility he could get assigned away from the Court, but even so, we'd still manage to get some time off together every once in a while. The time apart would be agony, but we would make it work. And it would be better than continuing to live a lie. Yes, it was really going to happen. All of Deirdre's worries about me coping with conflicting pieces of my life would be for nothing. I was going to have it all. Lissa and Dimitri. The thought that I could be with both of them was going to make me strong. It would carry me through this Strigoi attack. I'd tuck it away in the back of my mind, like a good luck charm. Dimitri and I didn't say anything else for a while. Like always, we didn't have to. I knew he was feeling the same happy buzz I was, despite that stoic exterior. We were almost out of the forest, back in sight of the others, when he spoke again. â€Å"You'll be eighteen soon, but even so†¦Ã¢â‚¬  He sighed. â€Å"When this comes out, a lot of people aren't going to be happy.† â€Å"Yeah, well, they can deal.† Rumors and gossip I could handle. â€Å"I also have a feeling your mother's going to have a very ugly conversation with me.† â€Å"You're about to face down Strigoi, and my mother's the one you're scared of?† I could see a smile playing at his lips. â€Å"She's a force to be reckoned with. Where do you think you got it from?† I laughed. â€Å"It's a wonder you bother with me then.† â€Å"You're worth it, believe me.† He kissed me again, using the last of the forest's shadows for cover. In a normal world, this would have been a happy, romantic walk the morning after sex. We wouldn't be preparing for battle and worrying about our loved ones. We'd be laughing and teasing each other while secretly planning our next romantic getaway. We didn't live in a normal world, of course, but in this kiss, it was easy to imagine we did. He and I reluctantly broke apart and left the woods, heading back toward the guardians' building. Dark times were ahead of us, but with his kiss still burning on my lips, I felt like I could do anything. Even face down a pack of Strigoi.

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