My initial thought was to immediately ditch this group and strike out on my own. After all, my main goal had been to simply get to Novosibirsk.

With everything I'd learned now, it seemed logical that Siberia's largest city would be the next best place to look. Then, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that jumping into the Strigoi scene alone would be as stupid as one of the unpromised gang's plans. I could use their backup.

Plus, since I didn't actually know where Dimitri was yet, I had to come up with a method of getting some information. I'd need help for that.

We made it to Novosibirsk at the end of the second day of driving. Despite hearing about its size, I hadn't imagined it would be anything like Moscow or Saint Petersburg. And true, it turned out to be not quite as large as they were, but it was still just as much a city, complete with skyscrapers, theaters, commuters, and the same beautiful architecture.

We crashed with a friend of theirs who had an apartment downtown, a dhampir named Tamara. Her English wasn't very good, but from the sounds of it, she was another unpromised one and just as excited as everyone else to rid the world of Strigoi. She was a little older than the rest of us, which was why she had her own place, and was a cute brunette with freckles. It sounded as though she waited until whenever the guys came to town to hunt, which I took as a small blessing. At least she didn't go out alone. She seemed particularly excited to have another girl around, but like the others, she quickly picked up that I didn't share their enthusiasm.

When our first night of Strigoi hunting came around, I finally stepped up into a leadership position. The sudden change in behavior startled them at first, but they soon listened with rapt attention, still caught up in my superstar reputation.

"Okay," I said, looking from face to face. We were in Tamara's tiny living room, sitting in a circle. "Here's how it's going to work. We're going to hit the nightclub scene as a group, patrolling it and the alleys behind it for-"

"Wait," interrupted Denis. "We usually split up."

"Which is why you get killed," I snapped. "We're going as a group."

"Haven't you killed Strigoi by yourself, though?" asked Lev. He was the tallest of the group, with a long and lanky figure that was almost Moroi-like.

"Yes, but I got lucky." That, and I also just thought I was a better fighter than any of them. Call me arrogant, but I was a damned good guardian.

Or near-guardian. "We'll do better with all five of us. When we find Strigoi, we've got to make sure we take care of them in an isolated place." I hadn't forgotten Sydney's warnings. "But before we kill them, I need to talk to them. It'll be your job to restrain them."

"Why?" asked Denis. "What do you have to say to them?"

"Actually, it's what they have to say to me. Look, it won't take long. And you'll get to make your kill in the end, so don't worry about it. But..."

This next part went against my grand plans, but I knew I had to say it. I wouldn't get them killed for the sake of my own quest. "If we get ourselves in a situation where you're trapped or in immediate danger, forget the talking and restraining. Kill. Save yourself."

Apparently, I seemed confident and badass enough that they decided to go along with whatever I said. Part of our plan involved going "undercover," so to speak. Any Strigoi who was close or got a good enough look would immediately recognize us as dhampirs. It was important that we not attract any attention. We needed a Strigoi scanning for victims to pass right over us. We needed to look like other human club-goers.

So we dressed the part, and I was a bit astonished at how well the guys cleaned up. Denis, crazy or not, was particularly good-looking, sharing the same dark gold hair and brown eyes that his brother Nikolai had. My few changes of clothes weren't quite up to partying standards, so Tamara delved into her wardrobe for me. She seemed to take a lot of delight in finding things for me to wear. We were actually similar in size, which was kind of amazing. With her tall, super-slim build, Lissa and I had never been able to share clothes. Tamara was my height and had a similar body type.

She first offered me a short, tight dress that was so similar to the one Viktoria had worn that I just shook my head and handed it back. The memories of our argument still hurt, and I wasn't going to relive that night or in any way play blood whore dress-up. Instead, Tamara settled for dressing me in black jeans and a black tank top. I consented to hair and makeup too, and studying myself in the mirror, I had to admit she did a good job. As vain as it was, I liked looking good. I especially liked that the guys looked at me in a way that was admiring and respectful-but not like I was some piece of meat. Tamara offered me jewelry too, but the only thing I'd wear was the nazar around my neck. My stake required a jacket, but she found a sexy leather one that didn't take away from the rest of the outfit's appeal.

Setting out around midnight, I couldn't help shaking my head. "We're the goddamned hottest vampire hunters ever," I muttered.

Denis led us to a club where they'd found Strigoi before. It was also apparently where one of their unpromised friends had been killed. It was in a seedy part of town, which I guess added to its appeal for Strigoi. A lot of the people there were middle- and upper-class young people, apparently drawn in by the "dangerous" aspect. If only they'd known just how dangerous it was. I'd made a lot of jokes to Dimitri about Russia and Eastern Europe being ten years behind in music, but when we entered, I discovered the ground-thumping techno song playing was something I'd heard in the U.S. just before leaving.

The place was crowded and dark, with flashing lights that were actually a little annoying to dhampir eyes. Our night vision would adapt to the darkness and then be blasted when a strobe light kicked on. In this case, I didn't need my sight. My shadow-kissed senses didn't feel any Strigoi in the area.

"Come on," I said to the others. "Let's dance for a while and wait. There are no Strigoi nearby."

"How do you know?" asked Denis, staring at me in wonder.

"I just do. Stay together."

Our little circle moved to the dance floor. It had been so long since I'd danced, and I was a bit surprised at how quickly I found myself getting into the rhythm. Part of me said I should have stayed ever vigilant, but my Strigoi alarm system would immediately snap me awake if any danger came.

That nausea was kind of hard to ignore.

But after an hour of dancing, no Strigoi had appeared. We left the dance floor and started circling the club's edges, then moved outside to sweep that area too. Nothing.

"Is there another club nearby?" I asked.

"Sure," said Artur. He was stocky, with close-shaved hair and a ready smile. "A couple blocks over."

We followed him and found a similar scene: another secret club hidden in a run-down building. More flashing lights. More crowds. More pounding music. Disturbingly, what started to bother me first was the smell. That many people generated a lot of sweat. I had no doubt even the humans could smell it. To us, it was cloying. Tamara and I exchanged looks and wrinkled our noses, needing no words to convey our disgust.

We moved to the dance floor again, and Lev started to leave to get a drink. I punched him in the arm.

He exclaimed something in Russian that I recognized as a swear word. "What was that for?" he asked.

"For being stupid! How do you expect to kill something that's twice as fast as you while drunk?"

He shrugged, unconcerned, and I resisted the urge to hit him in the face this time. "One won't hurt. Besides, there aren't even any-"

"Be quiet!"

It was creeping over me, that weird stirring in my stomach. Forgetting my cover, I stopped dancing, scanning the crowd for the source. While I was relying on my senses to feel Strigoi, spotting them in the crowd was a bit harder. I took a few steps toward the entrance, and my nausea lessened.

I moved toward the bar, and the feeling increased.

"This way," I told them. "Act like you're still into the music."

My tension was contagious, and I saw the anticipation sweep them-as well as a little fear. Good. Maybe they'd take this seriously. As we headed in the bar's direction, I tried to keep my body language oriented toward it, like I was seeking a drink. All the while, my eyes swept the crowd's periphery.

There. I had him. A male Strigoi was standing off in a corner, his arm around a girl close to my age. In the dim lighting, he almost seemed attractive. I knew closer examination would reveal the deathly pale skin and red eyes that all Strigoi had. The girl might not have been able to see them in the darkened club, or the Strigoi might have been using compulsion on her. Probably both, judging from the smile on her face. Strigoi were able to compel others just as well as a spirit user like Lissa could. Better, even. Before our eyes, I saw the Strigoi lead the girl down a small, unnoticed hallway. At the end, I could just make out a glowing exit sign. At least, I presumed it was an exit sign. The letters were Cyrillic.

Tags: Richelle Mead Vampire Academy Fantasy
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