Fight For You
By the time they arrived on the outskirts of Phoenix, the clock in the sedan read quarter past eight. They disembarked from the car at a shabby, disreputable little motel with one of those tacky neon signs outside that read 'vacancies', except the light behind the e had died. Summer kept a watchful hand on Jill's arm, as if daring her to run away – which she had done, when the engine had been brought to a stop and Summer was busily rifling through something in the boot. She didn't get more than five metres before she was tackled to the ground with the utmost ease, as if she weighed nothing, and a harsh warning was whispered into her ear. She didn't try it again. If she was going to get out, she needed to surprise Summer by doing something far more adventurous than anything she'd ever attempt. The only problem? She didn't know what was.
They had rooms on the third floor, which Jill discovered after trampling up three flights of rickety and steep wooden stairs, so splintered that they stuck in her shoe. There was no lift, and there were only two rooms that joined onto each other; thankfully, the doors locked. Judging by the looks of this place, they didn't get very much business from those in the legal professions.
"This is your room," Summer told her.
It was hardly a room. There was just enough space for a single bed and a tacky plastic desk and matching chair. Off to one side, a door led into the ensuite bathroom; a toilet, a sink, and a shower that didn't work. Jill swore up and down that she saw a rat scuttle across the floor when they stepped into the room, but the light was uncertain and it was hard to make out anything.
"My room is right next door," Summer continued. "If you want to try and escape, don't bother – you won't be able to get out. If you want anything else, don't ask me, because you sure as hell don't need it."
Jill nodded dully, trying to prepare herself for the thought of so much as touching the sheets on the bed; she was sure they hadn't been changed in a couple of months, and as to whether they'd ever been washed…who knows? She was silent right up until Summer made her way over to the door that connected the rooms.
"Why are you doing this?" Jill asked, her eyes still trained on the bed. "This isn't how you kidnap people, you know – there's supposed to be handcuffs or duct tape and high speed car chases and continuous drugging. If you wanted to hurt me, you would have, could have, done it already."
Summer froze, her hand clutching the doorknob.
"I don't want you," she replied slowly. "You're the bait."
"The bait for what?"
Wasn't this the point when she started refusing to answer questions, by saying that she asked the questions here? Apparently, it wasn't. But it wasn't as if she wasn't being careful; she only told Jill exactly what she wanted the Moroi to know.
"There was a person, Princess, who once hurt me very much – and what they did, can never be repaid. What I went through because of them is something so unimaginable that it would not be in your worst nightmares; so you are here and you will remain with me until the Moroi court orders the death of this criminal," she picked her words carefully. "When that is done, you can return, and once that is done I will be gone from your life forever – I might be a bad dream to you, but I have treated you fairly and well. Don't underestimate the safety you are in under my protection. Remember that, Princess. I am a better guardian than any of your trained entourage."
"My guardians don't drug me and then drag me off from my school, where I am perfectly happy, mind you, and take me to Phoenix," Jill shot back.
"No," Summer smirked. "No, I suppose they don't."
When Jill woke up – well, woke up in her dream – she was at Adrian's apartment, trying not to wince at the distasteful colour of the wall. The minute she saw him walk through the door was the minute she realised she was in a spirit dream.
"There you are, Jailbait!" Adrian exclaimed. "I was afraid I wasn't going to be able to reach you. I thought they would have drugged you!"
She shook her head.
"I was drugged, for a little bit…now I'm fine. I'm sleeping – well, obviously," she corrected herself.
He sat himself down on one of his ugly second-hand chairs, spreading himself across it in an 'I-couldn't-care-less' kind of way. There was still a faint look of concern pasted over his face, as he searched her for any sign of torture or maltreatment.
"Where are you?" he asked. "It's crazy over here. I'm hosting the Moroi court in my living room and trust me, there's not enough space. All of the guardians aren't going to sleep until they've delivered you safely back home to Amberwood Prep."
Adrian made a face that illustrated his disgust much more than words ever could. If you were going to travel around a desert, why not go to some place exciting like Las Vegas or Los Angeles?
"I'm at this little motel on the outskirts – it's called Queenly Accommodations. And take it from me, I'm the one putting the 'queen' in Queenly," she added as an afterthought.
He allowed himself a little chuckle; Jill was not the kind that generally made wisecracks like that. That was more his territory.
"So you escaped? From the Strigoi?" he pressed. "Jailbait, when you get home you're going to tell me –"
"I'm still being held captive," she interrupted. "Just in a...much nicer way than I imagine Strigoi could manage. This girl – a dhampir – she was hiding in our school, and I don't know why I didn't spot it earlier; she had all the pointers. Her name's –"
And just like that, the connection was shattered, the whole dream disappearing into darkness and his words lost in static. The interruption must have come from his end, because her world was completely fine, and she was still in a sort of dreamless sleep.
That's when she heard the scream.
It came from downstairs, and it sounded like the shady-looking desk clerk who'd greeted them on the arrival and handed them a key, no questions asked, had run into some trouble. Jill was still blinking sleep out of her eyes and yawning when Summer dashed into the room, fully dressed and breathing heavily, as if she'd rolled out of bed only seconds ago and had already been prepared.
The next thing she did was check the windows, pushing back the curtains slightly. Jill was surprised to see the black sky stretched out gloomily for eternity, a few brave stars scattered across it haphazardly and a sliver of moon hanging hauntingly in the corner. Really, how long had she been asleep for? Apparently, a very long time, according to the glaring green lights of the digital clock that she'd been pretty sure was broken when they'd walked in this morning. Now, it read close to midnight.
"How could they know?" Summer's words were whispered, but Jill's acute hearing picked up on them.
She blinked at the dhampir curiously, wondering what Summer was going on about, until the brunette rounded on her suddenly, fiercely, her eyes narrowed in anger. Jill hated to say it, but...Summer looked almost Strigoi.
"You idiot!" she snapped. "You tried to communicate with your spirit-using friends? Idiot!"
Jill's expression must have said it all, because Summer rolled her eyes impatiently. Honestly, how had this girl managed at Amberwood Prep so long and stayed alive?
"Strigoi are the undead, Princess," she went about the room, switching on all the lights she could – even artificial, it still dazzled those creatures for a moment, a moment that could buy precious time. "They need the essence of the living to get by – blood – so they need to be able to sense when there is life about. They feel everything about them that is living, so they can already sense the fact that you and me are living, but spirit...that cursed element is life. Spirit is like a massive force of life, a ball of brilliance that attracts Strigoi from far and wide. Whenever you use spirit it's like saying, "hey! Over here! There are some nice tasty Moroi in Phoenix." Some things don't use much spirit at all – healing, for instance – but long distance things like a dream between cities...we've just invited a couple of the toughest Strigoi alive to Queenly Accomodations, because they're the ones that survive in the freaking desert, a place that's sun, sun and more sun. I hope you're happy."
"I didn't know that," Jill said quietly.
"Dammit, of course you didn't."
Summer didn't say anything else, instead preparing herself for the fight that was about to come bursting through the locked door. It didn't stand a chance against the might of the Strigoi, but anything that could slow them down was good.
She had a silver stake gripped firmly in one hand, something that Jill only just noticed – and it was much more ornate than any of the ones she'd ever seen. Swirling patterns had been carved into the shining silver, and on the flat side something that resembled an enormous sun had been drawn. The inscription was hard to make out, but it read:
Power. Resilience. Endurance. Light.
Absentmindedly, Summer's fingers traced those words, words that she'd long ago memorised. Words that, long ago, she'd carved relentlessly into this silver in an attempt to hide from reality. She was still calm and expressionless when the door broke into a million little pieces and two Strigoi stood there, faces drawn and pallid, the red in their eyes gleaming scarlet.
There was a man and a woman – probably a hunting pair. Strigoi felt no emotions, nor did they believe in any concept that resembled love. Most love did not last all of eternity.
The woman was tall and had a hooked nose that dominated her face. Cropped red hair hugged close to her scalp and she had the sort of chinless face that fell away into neck without much distinction at all. The vermillion of her eyes clashed violently with the sandy red of her hair.
Where the woman was ugly, the man was solid. In his past life, he must have been a dhampir – because he was much more heavily built than his companion and much more heavily built than any Moroi ever was. He also looked like he'd been trying to fulfill someone's storybook idea of an evil scientist, right down to the lab coat (it was tan and not actually a lab coat, but it was only a step away) and the miserable attempt at a scruffy goatee on his chin.
"Kristina," the man leered, "is that...?"
"...Princess Dragomir? Yes, Richard, I believe it is," Kristina finished his sentence for him.
Summer moved so fast that it took all of their Strigoi reflexes to avoid the onslaught of offensive moves that came their way. It took only a matter of seconds before she outsmarted Kristina with a feint to the right and drove the stake straight through her chest, wincing as she let out a ghastly shriek, then collapsed to the floor.
Whilst she was distracted, though, the man grabbed her leg and twisted her down onto the floor. She grunted in pain, winded; and Jill watched in horror as the Strigoi's fangs approached Summer's neck, coming closer and closer –
Right at the last moment, she twisted to the side, swinging her leg round to knee him in the stomach. Rolling out of the way, she searched for the silver stake only to see it embedded in the body of the red-haired Strigoi. How had she missed that? If she'd moved to the other side, she could have grabbed the stake on her way up, and she wouldn't be standing here now empty-handed and weaponless. Then a thought crossed her mind.
Not entirely weaponless. The Strigoi was lumbering over, moving with the least grace she'd ever seen one move, and she reached down into her boot and searched for the knife, pulling the hilt out so that it wasn't visible and the only person who knew she had it was her. Her hand secured around the handle, she remained crouching until he was just the right distance away. Then, she squinted, pulled the knife out, and fired.
She didn't have time to aim properly, but the knife hit its mark pretty well. She heard the crunch of a bone breaking as the blade buried itself in the guy's chest, and judging by Jill's obvious shock, the Moroi heard it too.
There was enough time for her to launch herself straight at the Strigoi in one of the most ill-thought out moves ever, and make a wild grab for the stake as she crashed to her floor. Thank God that her hand closed securely around the handle, and thank God he was so surprised that he didn't react in the breath-stealing seconds that she yanked the smooth metal out of the other body. His eyes widened in horror as the stake plunged into his chest and he let out one last, shuddering gasp.
Summer quickly detached herself from the strangling arms of the Strigoi and dusted herself off, as if that had been something incredibly trivial for her. She grasped her stake, took Jill's hand and led her into the adjoining room, where she carelessly tossed the stake on top of the other things in her blue bag.
"Let's go," her tone showed that there was going to be no argument. "They know you're here."
Whoever they were – the Strigoi, or the Moroi and the dhampirs – was open for interpretation. Jill reckoned it might have been the latter.
Summer was careful to conceal the whereabouts of their next location. When they arrived, it was dark, and it was some nondescript little inn far beyond the outskirts of Phoenix that was certainly not one to advertise its name. It was a pleasant surprise to Jill when she discovered that it was a little more upscale than Queenly Accommodations, and it actually had a functioning shower as well as a bath, but Summer somehow managed to make it seem just as gloomy and prison-like by attaching locks to the doors so that Jill couldn't get out whilst she took a shower.
"The woods around here are crawling with Strigoi," she casually dropped that statement before she closed the door – just so she knew that there was no way Jill would even try to escape.
At least the sheets were clean and the bed was decent – after a couple of hours of travelling, her body ached everywhere, even in places that she didn't know she had muscles. The car might have been new, but it wasn't new and comfortable. She didn't get the luxury of both.
A team of guardians arrived at Queenly Accommodations on the outskirts of Phoenix, to discover the motel eerily quiet. Rose Hathaway led the team, gesturing for silence upon their approach. Something wasn't right, she could feel it; maybe it was a scent, or the whispering breeze that didn't belong in the desert, or perhaps a shadow that fell in the wrong place. But whatever it was, something was wrong.
Eddie Castile joined her at the front of the group, giving her a nod to serve as a greeting. With one simple action of the hand, half of the group split off and went around the back whilst the two of them and several other dhampirs headed quietly in the front door, their sense of unease increasing as the door opened without the need to turn the knob, swaying and creaking in that odd desert wind.
The third sign that something was definitely wrong came in the form of a dead human body with one very definite vampire bite mark on its neck. Blood had pooled out and was now clotted and dry, but it hadn't been stopped before it covered practically everything on the desk and dripped hesitantly onto the floor. Her stomach tightened as she saw how little respect the Strigoi had shown for their victim, and it was the first time in a long while that she'd actually been affected by a body. Her post as Lissa's guardian required her to stay within the boundaries of the court – most days, she missed the fieldwork.
"Search each floor," she instructed, barely raising her voice above a whisper. "There are three, two rooms on each, six rooms in total. Eddie and I'll take the top."
The first door they came to was nonexistent – or, rather, it lay shattered on the floor in the form of hundreds of tiny splinters. Two bodies, neither of them Jill, and, on closer examination both of them Strigoi, had been discarded near the entrance. The woman had been cleanly staked without much of a fight, but the man was very much worse for wear, with an enormous purple bruise emblazoned on the side of his face. He, too, had been staked.
Clearly, killed by a pro.
Killed by a pro with resources; stakes didn't come cheap.
Rose went on to examine the room – the covers on the bed were rumpled up, as if it had been slept in, but on that half of the room towards the window there was next to no damage. Everything was, she assumed, as it had come.
Except tucked neatly under the bed was a phone, a phone that looked very similar to the one that Jill had possessed; and that was because it was Jill's.
Jill, smart Jill, had been clever enough to leave them a message. She knew they'd come here looking for her, but she also knew that by that time, she and whoever was holding her captive would be long gone. So with the utmost caution, she'd chanced a photo of the person who'd been stupid enough to let her have her phone back, and then typed one coherent word beneath it – the other word she'd tried to write was a muddle of letters that were impossible to decipher, obviously typed in haste. That word was Summer.
"Rose?" Eddie's voice was uncertain. "Come and have a look at this."
She was quick to respond, dropping Jill's phone into her pocket and crouching down beside where Eddie knelt. In his hand he held a simple knife that had been left in the body of one of the Strigoi.
"Careless," she remarked.
"Or maybe the actions of someone in a hurry to leave," he suggested. "There could have been more Strigoi coming. When it comes to them, you don't have time – you just have to act on your instinct."
She nodded in agreement, biting back the comment that almost came flying out of her mouth unchecked; I've been doing this longer than you have. That would have been unfair. He'd proved himself a worthy guardian time and time again, but still, he'd been kept at the sidelines of everything.
"Still," he continued, carefully turning the knife around so he was holding the blade. "Whoever it is could have left prints all over it – we might be able to identify them."
She surveyed the knife grimly.
"No need," she said. "I have a picture."
The guardians received the call almost immediately after the rescue party had left Queenly Accommodations, bearing bad news. Jill and her kidnapper had taken off at the first sign of trouble – the appearance of the Strigoi – but not before the kidnapper managed to take down two of them. It turned out the retrieval party had been left a gift by the Moroi Princess; a photo of her abductor.
"I know her," Sydney told them. "That's Abigail."
"Abigail who?" Janine Hathaway was not one who skimped on details.
She made it her business to know everything that she needed to know, and failing to notice something, in her eyes, was sloppy.
"…uh…Kremley? Kremlen? Krezlin? Something like that," Sydney frowned; she couldn't actually remember that much about Abigail. "She was in Jill's ballet class. Yesterday, we – I mean Jill – noticed something strange on her neck. A vampire bite, ma'am, or at least the scars of one. We tried to talk to her about it, but…she didn't want to say anything."
There were a few disapproving murmurs on behalf of the gathered guardians; according to most of them, talking never solved anything. It was the action that really made the difference.
"And why wasn't this reported?" Laurel arched her eyebrow severely.
"We were going to, ma'am," Sydney insisted. "We thought we could look into it first, so as not to cause you the trouble."
"The trouble, Miss Sage, is that you have lost a Moroi Princess who is right now the only thing that is keeping their government from collapse. There's a delicate balance between being annoying and being responsible, and failing to report an incident which possibly involves another vampire being at the school…that's downright irresponsible," the older Alchemist made a condemning noise. "I've heard great things about you, Sydney Sage, and I have to say that this is not your finest hour."
Because, being the good little Alchemist she was, Sydney had to agree with everything – at least verbally – that her superiors said. It was not her place to question their ideas, something that Adrian would do very well to realise, judging by the head shake he gave her as he caught her eye, lounging on one of his chairs. Tempting as it was, she didn't pull a face. In the presence of so many other Alchemists and guardians, it certainly wouldn't have been a great way to demonstrate how well she distanced her personal life from her work.
"How many dhampirs called Abigail do we have in our records?" Laurel asked another Alchemist, who was busily tapping away at a keyboard.
Just in case of an emergency, the Alchemists had a database of every dhampir, Moroi and Strigoi that they knew of. From what Sydney gathered, it was very comprehensive, although she herself had never had the privilege of using it.
"Late teens," she offered.
The Alchemist at the computer scanned through the list.
"In the area, we're showing for six Abigails," he reported, "…and none of them look anything like the Abigail in the photo."
"A fake name," Laurel concluded. "Run the picture through the database; see if we've ever photographed her. In the meantime, let's respond to our mystery dhampir's ransom message."
The Moroi was asleep by the time she'd showered and changed, and she now stood guard by the door, the only thing keeping her awake a cup of tepid black coffee. That, and the fact that she was angry.
When she was younger, she'd learnt how to sense when the Strigoi were coming – there was always a slight chill in the air, an odd silence and something that made her feel almost nauseous. Tonight, she'd felt nothing. She already knew they were coming, but it was bad news for the future. What would she do without that sixth sense of hers? She needed it; she relied on it to survive. It was the only reason that she sat here today, as the sunlight poured through the window. She would have been dead – or worse, Strigoi – a long time ago.
Sighing, she focused her mind back on the present. For now, her only aim was to keep Jill alive until the guardians and whoever the hell made decisions about ransom for kidnapped Royals got back to her. She didn't know what she'd do and where she'd go after this; her sense of purpose in life would be gone, and she had nothing that resembled a home. Her life would be better, though, and she'd get by. She always did.
As if someone somewhere had read her thoughts, her phone buzzed, signifying she had an email. Please, let it be them. I just want to get this over with.
After much deliberation, the Queen and her council have come to the conclusion that we will accommodate your request – the death of a criminal in return for our Princess.
However, it is against the ethics of the Moroi government to put anyone, unless they are or aspiring to be a Strigoi, to death. Thus, the guardians will personally escort said prisoner to your presence and let you do as you wish. Name the person that you wish to have in return and we will try and fulfil your request.
Smiling, she set down her coffee on her lap, carefully balancing it so as not to spill anything, and replied to the email that had probably taken hours to get word perfect. She didn't care for the formalities that they had used in their response. What concerned her was getting what she wanted.
Her name is Tasha Ozera.
I think you've heard of her.
Author's Note: Next chapter we'll learn a bit about Summer's back story, because trust me, it's very interesting. Anyway, please review with your thoughts.