"Underdog just look at the mess you've made; It's such a shame we had to find out this way."
You Me At Six
Janine Hathaway didn't do surprised. Unless her daughter sauntered up to a top-secret meeting covered in an assortment of injuries. Her eyes went wide as she took in my dishevelled appearance. I shrugged and tried to squeeze past through the crack in the doorway, but found my way barred by her body. She had recovered her senses faster than I'd anticipated. She critically surveyed me one last time.
"You just can't help it, can you?" she muttered. "You see trouble and head towards it like a moth to flame. You're lucky that you can still stand."
"Nice to see you too, Mom." I shuffled from one foot to the other, watching the sun in the sky behind me. Daylight was running out. I didn't have time for lectures. "Could you stop with the chit-chat and start with the opening of doors? We're losing sunlight here."
"I know," Janine replied curtly.
I cursed mentally. She didn't want me to get into the meeting, which meant one thing: I wouldn't agree with whatever was happening in there. I thought about Eddie and Adrian. I wouldn't let them become Strigoi fodder. I could only see two ways this confrontation ending and neither of them saw me sitting idle.
I didn't have to speak. My thoughts were written clearly all over my face. Janine frowned, but didn't move. Her role here was to act as an obstacle. She'd done a good job so far. I sent a plaintive look to Christian who shrugged. This task had already been delegated to me. I think the Fire-starter had forgotten I do better things with my fists.
"Mom – " I began.
With a shake of her head, she stopped my words. "I know what you're going to say. You want to go in there and demand a rescue operation. I understand. What you seem to be forgetting is that we live in a world where hiding is number one on the list of priorities. This society does not do confrontation," she cut herself off, sighing in frustration. "We need to focus our very limited resources on guarding those who survived the first wave. Who knows what is coming our way tomorrow?"
"My guess is nothing. I don't know if you noticed, but this was a very opportunistic moment for the Strigoi. Sure, whatever, they were in a large number. That's a puzzle for another day. Think about the circumstances surrounding the attack. Did they bring down the wards? No. Some crackpot idiot students did. That happened by chance. They won't attack tomorrow. The wards are stronger than ever. What we need to do is save those taken, because after tonight they will be dead or worse, Strigoi. If you just let me see Alberta then she could make the others come to their senses."
With a furtive glance behind, my mother stepped out of the room completely so the door shut us out. "You don't have friends in high places, Rose. You go in there guns blazing and they'll take you out like a light," Janine responded in a soft voice. "Your past tells those guardians just exactly how reckless you are. This mission of yours is the most reckless of all. You won't make it out alive. I'm just sparing you the humiliation the other guardians will bring down on you."
"Forget humiliation. I don't care what they think about me. What matters right now is that we don't leave the hostages to the Strigoi. I can find their hideout. I think I'm starting to understand my bond to Lissa a little better. We'll have daylight on our side. Can't you see this will work out," I finished, unable to hide my frustration from her.
"You have no voice. The sooner you learn that, the better."
Janine Hathaway sent a cold look at both Christian and me, before returning to the very important meetings going on behind closed doors. I heard a bolt get pulled home, cementing our place on the other side of the door. The message was clear. We were not to be a part of whatever happened throughout the rest of the night. I teetered on the balls of my feet, trying to come up with a quick fix.
"I don't think banging the door down is going to help," Christian said sardonically, interrupting my thoughts. "You know, I didn't like the guy, but Dimitri could have been a really good help right now. He would have made them see sense and fought our corner for us."
A sharp stab of pain broke through the drug haze that had settled over me. The last thing I wanted to do right now was think about Dimitri, but there was logic in what Christian had said. Dimitri had always trusted me, right up until he hitched up with Tasha Ozera. He never made me feel like I knew less than him or that I was inferior because I was a student. He listened with an open-mind, unlike the school guardians and whoever else they had hauled in from the local towns.
"Ow," I breathed out. I uncurled my hands when I realised how tightly I had fisted them up. Little tracks of blood dripped onto the floor. The stains made me put things into perspective. The guardians might have to abide by societal laws, but I didn't. As my mother had put it, I didn't have a voice. I would have to give myself one and make the rules up as I went. "You want to do a little recruiting around the school?" I asked Christian quietly.
He nodded once, a wary look in his eyes. "What were you thinking? I mean, it's not like we can ask the elementary campus to offer up kids to fight for us. You must have some sort of reasonable plan in mind."
"As reasonable as I can get," I offered. "We can't fight the Strigoi. We'll always be outnumbered. What we can do is out-strategise them. We need to use our small number to our advantage. I'm thinking we bring a little sun to the Strigoi. If there's one thing I won't do, it's let Eddie and Adrian die without hope."
"I can bring the offensive magic to the party. What do you have to offer?" Christian asked as we jogged off to the dormitories.
"I can probably get some senior dhampirs to tag along. If I pull this off as planned, then we won't need to go into the Strigoi hidey-hole. We'll be outside in the sunlight. If things turn sour we'll need some muscle to hold the fort while the Moroi flee. I wonder if we can get some guardians on side," I mused aloud. "There has to be a few of them who feel the same way we do."
We came to a halt as we reached the cafeteria. Most of the students had decided to stick with the rest of the school body. I didn't blame them. I couldn't imagine spending time alone for weeks to come. Images from yesterday kept trying to force their way to my consciousness. The drugs numbed the majority of my grief, but that didn't mean I could switch off my thoughts. They still plagued me with worry.
"My motley crew of Moroi should be in here," Christian interjected. "Knowing them, they're probably plotting in a corner somewhere. I'll do a quick sweep around the room to try and gather as many of them as possible. I don't think all of them will agree to the task, but a good few definitely will." Christian started off towards the crowds, but stopped to face me with a serious expression on his face. "You will take care of them, won't you? I don't want more people to die because we're inexperienced and foolhardy."
I looked at the grave expression on his face. The Christian I was more familiar with dealing with had disappeared. I mulled his words over for a moment. I didn't want to go racing towards danger without considering everything, but at the same time I knew that we could do this. It would be worth it. I couldn't promise him that everything would go off without a hitch, but fundamentally my idea would keep any volunteers out of harm's way. If the volunteers trusted in me, we would make it back in one piece. We could even make it back with survivors.
"I would lay down my life for those who would help us, Christian. As long as they listen to me, they'll make it back to the Academy. Even if you can't convince anyone else to tag along, I'll still be heading out. This is important to me," I answered in a measured voice. Christian nodded.
"That's what I thought."
He disappeared into the throng of students and I moved off to find some familiar faces. I hadn't moved more than two feet when a group of dhampirs swarmed in on me. They wore solemn expressions and something told me I wouldn't have difficulty finding people who wanted to rescue the hostages. The problem would be turning inexperienced dhampirs away from my almost-kamikaze mission.
"We want in on whatever you're planning, Hathaway. They took my sister," the nearest dhampir to me stated clearly. He left little room for misunderstanding. He had decided to come along and nothing I said would make him change his mind. It was all a matter of whether he came with my group or left on his own. "I won't leave her."
I inclined my head to the others, who all offered similar stories. A boyfriend who had been snatched in front of witnesses, a younger brother or sister who had gotten scared and wandered off, best friends, crushes, cousins. Those who had been taken meant a great deal to these dhampirs, but they were worthless in the grand scheme of Moroi-dhampir life. More frightening than that was the realisation that these teenagers saw me as a beacon of hope.
I didn't deserve their awe and I certainly didn't deserve their respect. It would likely lead to them getting killed.
Christian had returned with a rather sizeable group of Moroi. They ranged in ages, with a few of them looking no older than elementary campus kids. A peppy girl with eyes the same shade as Lissa's openly stared at my bruises like they were badges of honour. I squirmed under her intense gaze and beckoned Christian to my side. He came willingly, smirking at my discomfort.
"Where did you find these kids?" I hissed at him.
"Don't call them kids. They'll tear you to pieces in minutes," Christian hissed back, skirting around my question. I levelled a steely gaze at him until he relented. "I've been training them."
"In what? They look like members of a glee club." I closed my eyes and squeezed the bridge of my nose to try and relieve a headache that had come on. "You told me to watch out for the volunteers, but how am I supposed to do a good job when they all need protecting? I can't keep an eye on these – " I searched for an appropriate description. "Moroi," I settled on.
"I've been teaching them how to use offensive magic to protect themselves and aid their guardians, if they ever get assigned a guardian. Most of these Moroi are from non-Royal families and don't have a chance of getting assigned even one guardian. When they heard about Tasha's campaign a few of them came to see me. We started training in secret. These are the best offensive magic-users in the school. I know a few of them are young, but your promised there would be no hand-to-hand fighting, just subterfuge. If that's all you need them for, they'll be fine," Christian retorted.
I looked at the girl with jade green eyes. She reminded me so much of a younger Lissa that it hurt. I wanted to protect this girl, not throw her out to act as a Strigoi distraction. She returned my stare with an earnest smile, and I sighed.
"What's your name?" I asked her.
"Jill Mastrano," she stuttered in reply.
"Element?" I continued.
"Water. I can use water," she said more firmly. "Christian's been showing us how to use magic to protect ourselves and those around us. I know I'm young," she added with more confidence. "I won't pretend otherwise, but I want to fight. When the guardians refused to teach me how to punch, I asked Christian to teach me how to use my gift. I found friends through this group. Some of them were taken. Please, Miss Hathaway," she pleaded. "Let me come along."
Her eyes were watery and I couldn't shake the ghost of Lissa from my mind. She had been Jill's age once. She had been this innocent and trusting. Now look at her. She lied to her friends and practised dark spirit behind our backs. She had a madness in her mind that she couldn't shake. I didn't want to be the one to take Jill Mastrano's innocence away. I didn't want to show these Moroi what the real world looked like. It was ugly.
"You won't be the person to ruin their naivety," Christian whispered into my ear. "The Strigoi have already seen to it. The guardians will make matters worse when they show these students that they won't rescue hostages. In my opinion that makes them seem flawed and weak. This world is being shaken up whether its occupants what that to happen or not. You didn't cause this, but you can make things better by showing them they can make a difference. I trust these Moroi. I know what they can do."
With a shake of my head, I turned to Christian. "You sound too peppy and keen. If you keep making speeches like that they'll have you up on stage preaching to the masses. If you think they can handle this, I believe you."
Jill beamed at her friends. I couldn't shake the feeling of dread that had settled on my shoulders. I searched for a shred of resilience and turned to find a secluded part of the Academy so we could talk without being overheard. The first hurdle we had to overcome would be getting out of campus. I estimated that there were about fifty people in our group. It would be tricky getting them out of the Academy unnoticed.
Once they were all settled into an empty classroom, I began explaining. "You already know that the Strigoi have taken hostages with them on their way out of the Academy. There's only one reason why they would. A few captives have probably already died. Two of my friends were taken. Until I have found out their fate, I won't rest. I'm planning on going to find these Strigoi, but not for an all-out assault. We don't have the numbers for that. We need to go to this hideout with a sneakier plan."
The Moroi hung on to every last one of my words. The dhampirs weren't so easily worn over. Some of them wore looks of derision. I knew they wanted to rush over guns blazing, but that kind of thinking would get them killed. We were no army.
"I read in an old wartime book that small numbers can overwhelm forces much larger than itself if they can pick off their opponent without detection," I continued, hoping they would swallow the lie. "It's similar to David and Goliath. The Strigoi live in the confidence that no-one would ever take them on. We need to manipulate their faith and make sure it's wrongly placed."
"How do we do that if we won't face them head on?" a dhampir my own age interrupted. "Are you suggesting we should walk through the walls and lead the hostages out under the Strigoi noses?"
"No. I'm suggesting we use what we have and they don't," I responded, trying to keep the bitter edge from my voice.
"Which is?" Jill asked in a timid voice.
"Magic," I said as confidently as I could. "We have magic-users and sunlight. If we use magic to scare the Strigoi into acting rashly, we have a chance of saving people without incurring any costs. Strigoi are as terrified as fire as they are of sunlight. Wherever it is they are hiding, we can use fire to smoke them out. We'll need water, air and earth-users too in order to make sure we're safe. The dhampirs will be on hand to fight if the situation goes wrong."
Chatter started spreading out amongst the assembled dhampirs and Moroi. All I could do now was pray that they believed in my plan. If they didn't, things were about to get messy. I'd seen enough death to last a lifetime. I didn't think I could handle seeing more if the dhampirs decided to lead their own assault.
"A sensible plan from Rosemarie Hathaway. What is the world coming to?" Christian mocked from behind.
"I guess I'm growing up," I bit back.
"If that was true then you wouldn't even be thinking about rescuing those hostages. You'd be doing as you were told," Christian retorted.
Silence fell between us and I continued to watch Jill Mastrano as she talked excitedly with her friends. "She reminds me of Lissa," I stated bluntly.
"I see it too," Christian replied softly. "It's the eyes."
"Is this why you got so mad at Lissa earlier?" I asked in a quiet voice. "You see Jill and remember the person Lissa used to be, before spirit started taking over her mind and time."
"Something like that," Christian offered. "Mostly I got angry because she doesn't try to protect what's hers. All she cares about right now is getting better at using spirit. She spends all her time with Adrian at the library. I never see her and she never checks on you. When I look at Jill and all the younger Moroi, I see how life is supposed to be. At least, how life should be for normal teenagers."
"You're not normal, Ozera. You're a vampire," I shot back scornfully.
Christian sighed in response.