Victor's already pale face went paler, and he seemed to age before our eyes. His smug look disappeared, and he looked away. "Natalie is dead and long gone," he said stiffly. "There's no point in discussing her."

Some of us made an attempt to eat after that, but my egg roll seemed tasteless now. Lissa and I were thinking the same thing. Among all of Victor's sins, I'd always considered him convincing his own daughter to turn Strigoi to be the most awful. It was what had really sealed the deal for me about him being a monster. Suddenly, I was forced to reevaluate things--forced to reevaluate him. If he'd known he could bring her back, it made what he had done terrible--but not as terrible. He was still evil in my mind, no question. But if he had believed he could bring Natalie back, then that meant he believed in Robert's power. There was still no way I was letting Lissa near a Strigoi, but this incredible tale had become slightly more credible. I couldn't let it go without further investigation.

"We can go up to the room after this," I said at last. "But not for long." My words were to Victor and Robert. Robert seemed to have faded into his own world again, but Victor nodded.

I gave Eddie a quick glance and got a curt nod of a different sort from him. He understood the risk in taking the brothers to a private place. Eddie was telling me he would be extravigilant--not that he wasn't already.

By the time we finished dinner, Eddie and I were both rigid and tense. He walked near Robert, and I stayed by Victor. We kept Lissa and Adrian between the brothers. Yet, even keeping close, it was hard as we cut through the crowded casino. People stopped in our path, walked around us, through us... it was chaos. Twice, our group got split by oblivious tourists. We weren't too far from the elevators, but I was getting uneasy about the possibility of Victor or Robert running off through the mob of people

"We need to get out of this crowd," I shouted over to Eddie.

He gave me another of his quick nods and took an abrupt left that caught me by surprise. I steered Victor in that same direction, and Lissa and Adrian sidestepped to keep up with us. I was puzzled until I saw that we were approaching a hall with an EMERGENCY EXIT sign on it. Away from the busy casino, the noise level dimmed.

"Figure there are probably stairs here," Eddie explained.

"Crafty guardian." I flashed him a smile.

Another turn showed us a janitorial closet on our right and ahead of us: a door with a symbol for stairs. The door appeared to lead both outside and to upper floors.

"Brilliant," I said.

"You're, like, on the tenth floor," pointed out Adrian. It was the first time he'd spoken in a while.

"Nothing like a little exercise to--damn." I came to an abrupt halt in front of the door. It had a small warning sign saying that an alarm would go off if the door was opened. "Figures."

"Sorry," said Eddie, like he was personally responsible.

"Not your fault," I said, turning. "Back we go." We'd have to take our chances in the crowd. Maybe the roundabout detour had tired Victor and Robert out enough to make escape unappealing. Neither of them was that young anymore, and Victor was still in bad shape.

Lissa was too tense to think much about being led around, but Adrian gave me a look that clearly said he thought this traipsing was a waste of his time. Of course, he thought this whole Robert thing was a waste of time. I was honestly surprised he was coming with us at all back to the room. I would have expected him to stay in the casino with his cigarettes and another drink.

Eddie, leading our group, took a few steps back toward the casino down the hallway. And then it hit me.

"Stop!" I screamed.

He responded instantly, coming to a halt in the narrow space. A bit of confusion followed. Victor stumbled into Eddie in surprise, and then Lissa stumbled into Victor. Instinct made Eddie reach for his stake, but mine was already out. I'd grabbed it as soon as the nausea had swept me.

There were Strigoi between us and the casino.

Chapter Ten


"No," I breathed, even as I sprang toward the one closest to me--a woman. There appeared to be three Strigoi around us.

Eddie was in motion too, and both of us were trying to shove the Moroi behind us. They didn't need much urging. At the sight of Strigoi, the Moroi had begun to back up--creating sort of a bottleneck. Between Eddie's instant reflexes and the Moroi panic, I was pretty sure no one had noticed what I already had spotted.

Dimitri was among them.

No, no, no, I said, this time to myself. He'd warned me. Over and over, he'd said in his letters that as soon as I was out of the safety of the wards, he would be coming for me. I'd believed him and yet... seeing the reality of it was a totally different thing. It had been three months, but in that instant, a million memories ran through my mind in crystal clear sharpness. My captivity with Dimitri. The way his mouth--so, so warm, despite his cold skin--had kissed mine. The feel of his fangs pressing into my neck and the sweet bliss that followed...

He looked exactly the same too, with that chalky white pallor and red-ringed eyes that so conflicted with the soft, chin-length brown hair and otherwise gorgeous lines of his face. He even had a leather duster on. It had to be a new one, seeing as his previous coat had gotten pretty torn up in our last fight on the bridge. Where did he keep getting them?

"Get out!" I yelled. My words were to the Moroi, even as my stake bit into the female Strigoi's heart. The momentary confusion with all of us in the hall had been more of a detriment to her than me. I got a good line of sight on her, and it was clear that she hadn't expected me to be so fast. I'd killed a lot of Strigoi because they'd underestimated me.

Eddie didn't have my luck. He stumbled when Victor shoved past him, allowing the other Strigoi--a guy--near the front to backhand Eddie against the wall. Still, that was the kind of thing we faced all the time, and Eddie responded beautifully. He immediately came back from the hit, and with the Moroi out of the way now, Eddie was able to lunge toward the Strigoi and engage him fully.

And me? My attention was on Dimitri.

I stepped over the fallen Strigoi without even looking at her. Dimitri had hovered near the back, sending his minions into the front lines of battle. Maybe it was because I knew Dimitri so well, but I suspected he wasn't surprised that I'd take out the one so quickly and that Eddie was giving the other a tough time. I doubted Dimitri cared whether they lived or died. They were just distractions for him to get to me.

"I told you," said Dimitri, eyes both amused and sharp. He was watching my every move, each of us subconsciously mirroring the other as we waited for an opening to attack. "I told you I'd find you."

Tags: Richelle Mead Vampire Academy Fantasy
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