My mind, still stunned, took a moment to process what he'd said. Then I got it. Wards were magic rings cast by Moroi. Like the stakes, they were made using magic from all four of the elements. They required strong Moroi magic-users, often a couple for each element. The wards could block Strigoi because magic was charged with life, and the Strigoi had none. But wards faded quickly and took a lot of maintenance. Most Moroi didn't use them, but certain places kept them up. St. Vladimir's Academy was ringed with several.

There had been a ward here, but it had been shattered when someone drove the stake through it. Their magic conflicted with each other; the stake had won.

"Strigoi can't touch stakes," I told him. I realized I was using a lot of can't and don't statements. It wasn't easy having your core beliefs challenged. "And no Moroi or dhampir would do it."

"A human might."

I met his eyes. "Humans don't help Strigoi - " I stopped. There it was again. Don't. But I couldn't help it. The one thing we could count on in the fight against Strigoi was their limitations - sunlight, ward, stake magic, etc. We used their weaknesses   against them.  If they had  others - humans - who would help them and weren't affected by those limitations ...

Dimitri's face was stern, still ready for anything, but the tiniest spark of sympathy flashed in his dark eyes as he watched me wage my mental battle.

"This changes everything, doesn't it?" I asked.

"Yeah," he said. "It does."


DIMITRI MADE ONE PHONE CALL, and a veritable SWAT team showed up.

It took a couple of hours, though, and every minute spent waiting felt like a year. I finally couldn't take it anymore and returned to the car. Dimitri examined the house further and then came to sit with me. Neither of us said a word while we waited. A slide show of the grisly sights inside the house kept playing in my mind. I felt scared and alone and wished he would hold me or comfort me in some way.

Immediately, I scolded myself for wanting that. I reminded myself for the thousandth time that he was my instructor and had no business holding me, no matter what the situation was. Besides, I wanted to be strong. I didn't need to go running to some guy every time things got tough.

When the first group of guardians showed up, Dimitri opened the car door and glanced over at me. "You should see how this is done."

I didn't want to see any more of that house, honestly, but I followed anyway. These guardians were strangers to me, but Dimitri knew them. He always seemed to know everybody. This group was surprised to find a novice on the scene, but none of them protested my presence.

I walked behind them as they examined the house. None of them touched anything, but they knelt by the bodies and studied the bloodstains and broken windows. Apparently, the Strigoi had entered the house through more than just the front door and back patio.

The guardians spoke in brusque tones, displaying none of the disgust and fear I felt. They were like machines. One of them, the only woman in the group, crouched beside Arthur Schoenberg. I was intrigued since female guardians were so rare. I'd heard Dimitri call her Tamara, and she looked about twenty-five. Her black hair just barely touched her shoulders, which was common for guardian women.

Sadness flickered in her gray eyes as she studied the dead guardian's face. "Oh, Arthur," she sighed. Like Dimitri, she managed to convey a hundred things in just a couple words. "Never thought I'd see this day. He was my mentor." With another sigh, Tamara rose.

Her face had become all businesslike once more, as though the guy who'd trained her wasn't lying there in front of her. I couldn't believe it. He was her mentor. How could she keep that kind of control? For half a heartbeat, I imagined seeing Dimitri dead on the floor instead. No. No way could I have stayed calm in her place. I would have gone on a rampage. I would have screamed and kicked things. I would have hit anyone who tried to tell me things would be okay.

Fortunately, I didn't believe anyone could actually take down Dimitri. I'd seen him kill a Strigoi without breaking a sweat. He was invincible. A badass. A god.

Of course, Arthur Schoenberg had been too.

"How could they do that?" I blurted out. Six sets of eyes turned to me. I expected a chastising look from Dimitri for my outburst, but he merely appeared curious. "How could they kill him?"

Tamara gave a small shrug, her face still composed. "The same way they kill everyone else. He's mortal, just like the rest of us."

"Yeah, but he's ... you know, Arthur Schoenberg."

"You tell us, Rose," said Dimitri. "You've seen the house. Tell us how they did it."

As they all watched me, I suddenly realized I might be undergoing a test after all today. I thought about what I'd observed and heard. I swallowed, trying to figure out how the impossible could be possible.

"There were four points of entry, which means at least four Strigoi. There were seven Moroi..." The family who lived here had been entertaining some other people, making the massacre that much larger. Three of the victims had been children. "... and three guardians. Too many kills. Four Strigoi couldn't have taken down that many. Six probably could if they went for the guardians first and caught them by surprise. The family would have been too panicked to fight back."

"And how did they catch the guardians by surprise?" Dimitri prompted.

I hesitated. Guardians, as a general rule, didn't get caught by surprise. "Because the wards were broken. In a household without wards, there'd probably be a guardian walking the yard at night. But they wouldn't have done that here."

I waited for the next obvious question about how the wards had been broken. But Dimitri didn't ask it. There was no need. We all knew. We'd all seen the stake. Again, a chill ran down my spine. Humans working with Strigoi - a large group of Strigoi.

Dimitri simply nodded as a sign of approval, and the group continued their survey. When we reached a bathroom, I started to avert my gaze. I'd already seen this room with Dimitri earlier and had no wish to repeat the experience. There was a dead man in there, and his dried blood stood out in stark contrast against the white tile. Also, since this room was more interior, it wasn't as cold as the area by the open patio. No preservation. The body didn't smell bad yet, exactly, but it didn't smell right, either.

But as I started to turn away, I caught a glimpse of something dark red - more brown, really - on the mirror. I hadn't noticed it before because the rest of the scene had held all of my attention. There was writing on the mirror, done in blood.

Poor, poor Badicas. So few left. One royal family nearly gone. Others to follow.

Tags: Richelle Mead Vampire Academy Fantasy
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