The shape of his cheekbones. In my imagination, I overlaid the things I remembered. Dark eyes. Tanned skin. Sweet smile. "I... I think I'm ready, but it's... I don't know. It's such a big thing."

"It'll be the best decision of your life, Roza."

My breathing was growing rapid, and I prayed he'd think it was because of my fear of being turned. "Tell me again. One more time. Why do you want to awaken me so badly?"

A slightly weary look crossed his face. "Because I want you. I've always wanted you."

And that's when I knew. I finally realized the problem. He'd given that same answer over and over, and each time, something about it had bothered me. I'd never been able to pinpoint it, though. Now I could. He wanted me. Wanted me in the way people wanted possessions or collectibles. The Dimitri I'd known... the one I'd fallen for and slept with... that Dimitri would have said he wanted us to be together because he loved me.

There was no love here.

I smiled at him. Leaning down, I kissed him gently. He probably thought I was doing it for the reasons I always did, out of attraction and desire. In truth, it was a goodbye kiss. His mouth answered mine, his lips warm and eager. I held out the kiss a little longer, both to fight back the tears leaking out of my eyes and to lull him into an unsuspecting state. My hand closed around the chair leg, which I'd hidden in my hoodie pocket.

I would never forget Dimitri, not for the rest of my life. And this time, I wouldn't forget his lessons.

With a speed he wasn't ready for, I struck out and plunged the stake through his chest. My strength was there-sliding the stake past the ribs and straight into his heart.

And as I did it, it was like piercing my own heart at the same time.

Chapter Twenty-Five

His eyes widened in shock, lips parting. Even though I knew this wasn't a silver stake, it might as well have been. To run it through his heart, I had had to act as decisively as I would have if delivering a killing blow. I'd had to finally accept my Dimitri's death. This one was a Strigoi. There was no future with him. I would not join him.

That still didn't make some part of me want to stop and lie down beside him, though, or at the very least see what happened next. After that initial surprise, his features and breathing had gone still, giving the illusion of death. That's all it was, however-an illusion. I'd seen it before. I probably had five minutes at most before he healed up and shook this off. I had no time to mourn for what was and what might have been. I had to act now. No hesitation.

I ran my hands over him, searching his clothes for anything that might be of use. I found a set of keys and some cash. I pocketed the keys and started to leave the cash but realized I might actually need it on the off chance I escaped this place. My own money had been taken when I arrived. I also swept up some of the jewelry on the table. Finding buyers for that kind of thing in big Russian cities wasn't too difficult.

If I made it to said city. I stood up off the bed and gave Dimitri one last pained look. A few of the tears I'd hidden from him earlier now ran down my face. That was all I could allow myself. If I had a later, I'd mourn then. Before leaving, my gaze lingered on the stake. I wanted to take it with me; it was my only weapon. Pulling it out would mean he'd wake up in about a minute. I needed the extra time. With a sigh, I turned my back on him, hoping I'd find a weapon elsewhere.

I sprinted over to the suite's door and punched in the code again. It unlocked, and I stepped into the corridor. Before going to the next door, I examined the one I'd just stepped through. To get into the suite, there was another keypad. Entry also required a code. Backing up a little, I struck and kicked the keypad as hard as I could. I did it twice more, until the tiny red light on it went out. I didn't know if that would affect the lock on the inside of the suite, but in the movies, damaging electronic locks always seemed to work.

Turning my attention to the next lock, I tried to remember the numbers Inna had told me. They weren't etched as strongly in my head as the first.

I punched in seven numbers. The little light stayed red.

"Damn." It was possible she'd lied about this set, but somehow, I suspected my memory was the culprit here. I tried again, knowing the clock was ticking on how long I had until Dimitri came after me. The red light flashed again. What were those numbers? I tried to visualize them in my head and finally decided I wasn't entirely sure about the last two. I reversed their order the next time I put in the code. The light flashed green, and the door unlocked.

Of course, there was a security system of a different sort outside. A Strigoi. And not just any Strigoi: It was Marlen. The one I'd tortured in the alley. The one who hated me because I'd disgraced him in front of Galina. He was clearly on guard duty and looked as though he'd expected a boring night. Me coming out the door was a shock.

That gave me, oh, about a millisecond of surprise. My first thought was to just run at him with as much brute strength as I could. I knew he would do the same to me. In fact... that was exactly what he'd do.

I stayed where I was, standing so that I could keep the door propped open. He came at me to stop my escape, and I stepped aside, pulling the door open wider. Now, I was neither skilled enough nor was he inept enough to simply get lured in. He stopped in the doorway, trying to get hold of me. This gave me the difficult task of trying to both fend him off and drag him into the corridor behind the door. I stepped back into the doorway, hoping he'd follow. All the while, I had to keep the door open. It was all complicated, and I would have no time to punch in the code again.

We fought in the confined space. The biggest thing I had going for me was that Marlen appeared to be a young Strigoi, which made sense. Galina would want to keep around henchmen she could control. Of course, Strigoi strength and speed compensated for a lack of experience. The fact that he had been a Moroi once also meant he probably had very little training. That also was a bonus for me. Dimitri was a badass Strigoi because he'd trained as a fighter before being turned. This guy had not.

So, Marlen got a couple punches in on me, one coming dangerously close to my eye. The other caught me in the stomach, knocking the air out of me for half a second. But most of the time, I was able to dodge him pretty well. This seemed to infuriate him. Getting beat up by a teenage girl didn't really score you cool points when you were a Strigoi. At one point, I even faked him out in one direction and came at him with a surprise kick -easier to do than I'd expected in that damned dress-that knocked him back a few steps. I just barely managed to keep my hand in the door when I did it, but that was all I needed. His stumble gave me a few seconds to slip out the door and into the main hall. Unfortunately, when I tried to close it, he was already trying to come through. With my hands, I tried to pull the door shut while kicking him back inside. We struggled this way for a while, and thanks to whatever luck I had left, I got the door closed enough so that only his arm was sticking through. Bracing myself, I pulled the door toward me in one huge, forceful movement. It slammed into Marlen's wrist. I half expected to see his hand detach and pop into the hall, but he'd jerked it back. Even Strigoi had certain instincts to avoid pain.

Gasping-my physical strength still wasn't all it could be-I backed up. If he knew the code, this had been for nothing. A moment later, the door's handle shook but didn't open. I heard a scream of rage, and then his fists beat on the door.

Score one for me. No, score one for luck. If he'd known the code, I would have been Thud. Marlen was still beating on the door, and I saw the tiniest dent appear on the metallic surface.

"Oh, crap," I said.

I didn't stick around to see how many hits it'd take him to break it down. I also realized that even if I'd disabled the first lock, Dimitri would just be able to break that one down too. Dimitri...

No. I absolutely couldn't think of him now.

As I ran down the hall, heading toward the stairs Dimitri and I traveled before, an unexpected memory suddenly popped into my head. When Dimitri had last threatened Nathan, he'd mentioned getting my stake out of a vault. What vault was that exactly? Was it here on the premises? If so, I certainly didn't have time to look. When weighing the option to search a four-story house full of vampires or run off into the countryside before they found you... well, the choice was clear.

And it was in the midst of that thought process that I ran into a human at the top of the stairs. He was older than Inna and carrying a stack of linens that he dropped when we collided. With almost no pause, I grabbed hold of him and swung him against the wall. I had no weapon to threaten him with and wondered how I'd assert my will now. Yet as soon as I had him pinned, he threw up his hands in a defensive gesture and began whimpering in Russian. There'd be no attacks on me here.

Tags: Richelle Mead Vampire Academy Fantasy
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