Still, Mason and I moved cautiously as we scouted around the basement, watching each other's backs and checking around corners. It was every bit the rat's maze I remembered from our initial capture. Twisted hallways and lots of rooms. One by one, we opened each door. Every room was empty, save for the occasional chair or two. I shuddered, thinking that all of these were probably used as prisons, just as ours had been.

"Not a goddamned window in this whole place," I muttered when we'd finished our sweep. "We've got to go upstairs."

We headed back toward our room, but before we got there, Mason caught hold of my hand. "Rose ..."

I stopped and looked up at him. "Yeah?"

His blues eyes- more serious than I'd ever seen them-  looked down at me regretfully. "I really screwed things up."

I thought about all the events that had led to this. "We screwed things up, Mason."

He sighed. "I hope ... I hope when this is all done, we can sit down and talk and figure things out. I shouldn't have gotten mad at you."

I wanted to tell him that that wasn't going to happen, that when he'd disappeared, I'd actually been on my way to tell him things wouldn't be better between us. Since this didn't seem like the right time or place to bring up a breakup, I lied.

I squeezed his hand. "I hope so too."

He smiled, and we returned to the others.

"All right," I told them. "Here's how it's going to be."

We quickly hashed out a plan and then crept up the stairs. I led, followed by Mia as she tried to support a reluctant Christian. Mason brought up the rear, practically dragging Eddie.

"I should be first," Mason murmured as we stood at the top of the stairs.

"You aren't," I snapped back, resting my hand on the doorknob.

"Yeah, but if something happens- "

"Mason," I interrupted. I stared at him hard, and suddenly, I had a brief flash of my mother that day when the Drozdov attack had broken. Calm and controlled, even in the wake of something so horrible. They'd needed a leader, just like this group did now, and I tried as hard as I could to channel her. "If something happens, you get them out of here. Run fast and run far. Do not come back without a herd of guardians."

"You'll be the one who gets attacked first! What am I supposed to do?" he hissed. "Leave you?"

"Yes. You forget about me if you can get them out."

"Rose, I'm not going to- "

"Mason." I again envisioned my mother, fighting for that strength and power to lead others. "Can you do this or not?"

We stared at each other for several heavy moments while the others held their breaths.

"I can do this," he said stiffly. I nodded and turned back around.

The basement door squeaked when I opened it, and I grimaced at the sound. Scarcely daring to breathe, I stood perfectly still at the top of the stairs, waiting and listening. The house and its eccentric decorating looked the same as when we'd been brought in. Dark blinds covered all of the windows, but along the edges, I could see bright light peeping in. Sunshine had never tasted so sweet as it did at that moment. Getting to it meant freedom.

There were no sounds, no movements. Looking around, I tried to remember where the front door was. It was on the other side of the house- really not far in the grand scheme of things but a gaping chasm at the moment.

"Scout with me," I whispered to Mason, hoping to make him feel better about bringing up the rear.

He let Eddie lean on Mia for a moment and stepped forward with me to do a quick sweep of the main living area. Nothing. The path was clear from here to the front door. I exhaled in relief. Mason took hold of Eddie again, and we moved forward, all of us tense and nervous. God. We were going to do this, I realized. We were really going to do this. I couldn't believe how lucky we'd gotten. We'd been so close to disaster- and had just barely made it through. It was one of those moments that made you appreciate your life and want to turn things around. A second chance you swear you won't let go to waste. A realization that-

I heard them move almost at the same time I saw them step in front of us. It was like a magician conjured Isaiah and Elena out of thin air. Only, I knew there was no magic involved this time. Strigoi just moved that quickly. They must have been in one of the other main floor rooms that we'd assumed were empty- we hadn't wanted to waste the extra time looking. I raged at myself internally for not having checked out every inch of the whole floor. Somewhere, in the back of my memory, I heard myself taunting my mother in Stan's class: "It seems to me like you guys messed up. Why didn't you scope out the place and make sure it was clear of Strigoi in the first place? Seems like you could have saved yourself a lot of trouble."

Karma's a real bitch.

"Children, children," crooned Isaiah. "This isn't how the game works. You're breaking the rules." A cruel smile played over his lips. He found us amusing, no real threat at all. Honestly? He was right.

"Fast and far, Mason," I said in low voice, never taking my eyes off the Strigoi.

"My, my ... if looks could kill ..." Isaiah arched his eyebrows as something occurred to him. "Are you thinking you can take us both on by yourself?" He chuckled. Elena chuckled. I gritted my teeth.

No, I didn't think I could take them both on. In fact, I was pretty sure I was going to die. But I was also pretty sure I could provide one hell of a distraction first.

I lunged toward Isaiah but pulled the gun on Elena. You could get a jump on human guards- but not on Strigoi. They saw me coming practically before I even moved. They didn't expect me to have a gun, though. And while Isaiah blocked my attacking body with almost no effort whatsoever, I still managed to get a shot off at Elena before he seized my arms and restrained me. The gun's report rang loud in my ears, and she screamed in pain and surprise. I'd aimed for her stomach but had been jostled into hitting her thigh. Not that it mattered. Neither spot would kill her, but the stomach would have hurt a lot more.

Isaiah held my wrists so hard, I thought he'd break the bones. I dropped the gun. It hit the floor, bounced, and slid toward the door. Elena shrieked in rage and clawed at me. Isaiah told her to control herself and pushed me out of reach. All the while, I flailed as much as possible, not so much to escape as to make a nuisance of myself.

And then: the sweetest of sounds.

The front door opening.

Mason had taken advantage of my distraction. He'd left Eddie with Mia and sprinted around me and the grappling Strigoi to open the door. Isaiah turned with that lightning-fast speed of his- and screamed as sunlight poured over him. But even though he was suffering, his reflexes were still fast. He jerked himself out of the patch of light into the living room, dragging Elena and me with him- her by the arm and me by my neck.

Tags: Richelle Mead Vampire Academy Fantasy
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