She opened the door, and I followed her through. Her manner was brusque and businesslike, as always. "Replenishing the numbers. They've called in extras to reinforce campus."

Replenishing the numbers. Replacing the guardians who had been killed. All the bodies had been cleared away - Strigoi, Moroi, and dhampir alike - but the hole left behind by those who were gone was apparent to all. I could still see them when I closed my eyes. But with her here, I realized I had an opportunity. I grabbed hold of her arm, which startled her.

"We have to go after them," I said. "Rescue the ones who were taken."

She regarded me carefully, a small frown the only sign of her feelings. "We don't do that kind of thing. You know that. We have to protect those who are here."

"What about those thirteen? Shouldn't we protect them? And you went on a rescue mission once."

She shook her head. "That was different. We had a trail. We wouldn't know where to find this group if we wanted to."

I knew she was right. The Strigoi wouldn't have left an easy path to follow. And yet... suddenly, I had an idea.

"They put the wards back up, right?" I asked.

"Yes, almost immediately. We're still not sure how they were broken. There were no stakes used to pierce them."

I started to tell her my theory about that, but she wasn't up to speed with my ghostly shenanigans. "Do you know where Dimitri is?"

She gestured toward groups of guardians hurrying all around. "I'm sure he's busy here somewhere. Everyone is. And now I need to go check in. I know you were invited to the meeting, but that's not for a while yet - you should stay out of the way."

"I will... but I need to see Dimitri first. It's important - it might play a role in what happens at the meeting."

"What is it?" she asked suspiciously.

"I can't explain yet...It's complicated. It'd take too much time. Help me find him, and we'll tell you later."

My mother didn't seem happy about this. After all, Janine Hathaway wasn't someone people usually said no to. But she nonetheless helped me find Dimitri. After the events over winter break, I think she'd come to regard me as more than a hapless teenager. We found Dimitri with some other guardians, studying a map of campus and planning how to distribute the newly arrived guardians. There were enough people gathered around the map that he was able to slip away.

"What's going on?" he asked as he and I stood off to the side of the room. Even in the midst of this crisis, in the midst of worrying so much about others, I could tell that there was part of him that worried just about me. "Are you okay?"

"I think we should launch a rescue mission," I said.

"You know we - "

" - don't usually do that. Yeah, yeah. And I know we don't know where they are ... except, I might."

He frowned. "How?"

I told him how it had been Mason who'd warned us last night. Dimitri and I had had no time to talk alone since then, so we'd never really debriefed on the events of the attack. We also hadn't really had a chance to talk about what had happened in the cabin. It made me feel weird because really, that was all I wanted to think about, but I couldn't. Not with so much else going on. So I kept trying to shove those memories of sex away, only to have them keep popping up and entangle my emotions further.

Hoping I seemed cool and competent, I continued explaining my ideas. "Mason's locked out now because the wards are back up, but somehow ... I think he knows where the Strigoi are. I think he could show us where they are." Dimitri's face told me he had his doubts about this. "Come on! You have to believe me after what happened."

"I'm still having a hard time with that," he admitted. "But okay. Suppose this is true. You think he can just lead us? You can ask him and he'll do it?"

"Yeah," I said. "I think I can. I've been fighting him all this time, but I think if I actually try to work with him, he'll help. I think that's what he's always wanted. He knew the wards were weak and that the Strigoi had been lying in wait. The Strigoi can't be too far away from us ... they had to have stopped for daylight and hidden out somewhere. We might be able to get to them before the captives die. And once we get close enough, I can actually find them." I then explained the nauseous feeling I'd gotten when Strigoi were around. Dimitri didn't challenge this. I think too many weird things were going on for him to even question it.

"But Mason isn't here. You said he can't get through the wards. How will you get him to help us?" he asked.

I'd been thinking about this. "Take me to the front gates."

After a quick word to Alberta about "investigating something," Dimitri led me outside, and we walked the long way to the entrance to the school. Neither of us said anything as we walked. Even in the midst of all this, I still kept thinking of the cabin, of being in his arms. In some ways, it was part of what helped me cope with all the rest of this horror. I had a feeling it was on his mind too.

The entrance to the school consisted of a long stretch of iron fence that lay right on top of the wards. A road that wound from the main highway twenty miles away came up to the gate, which was almost always kept closed. Guardians had a small booth here, and the area was monitored at all times of the day.

They were surprised by our request, but Dimitri insisted it would just be for a moment. They slid the heavy gate open, revealing a space only big enough for one person to get through at a time. Dimitri and I stepped outside. A headache almost immediately built up behind my eyes, and I started to see faces and shapes. It was just like at the airport. When I was outside of wards, I could see all sorts of spirits. But I understood it now and no longer feared it. I needed to control it.

"Go away," I said to the gray, looming forms around me. "I don't have time for you. Go." I put as much force as I could into my will and my voice, and to my astonishment, the ghosts faded. A faint hum remained with me, reminding me they were still out there, and I knew if I let down my guard even a moment, it would all hit me again. Dimitri was eyeing me with concern.

"You're okay?"

I nodded and peered around. There was one ghost I wanted to see.

"Mason," I said. "I need you." Nothing. I summoned back up the command I'd used on the other ghosts just a moment ago. "Mason. Please. Come here."

I saw nothing except the road in front of us winding off into the winter-dead hills. Dimitri was giving me that look from last night, the one that said he was deeply concerned for my mental health. And actually, I was worried at that moment too. Last night's warning had been the final proof for me that Mason was real. But now ...

Tags: Richelle Mead Vampire Academy Fantasy
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