One more time, fighting through the fire's searing pain, she threw everything she had into shoving the stake all the way into Dimitri's heart. Her strike was still awkward, still requiring a little more wiggling and pushing than the clean hit a trained guardian would make. Clumsy or not, the stake finally made it. It pierced his heart. And as it did, I felt magic flood our bond, the familiar magic I'd felt so many times when she performed a healing.

Except... this was a hundred times more powerful than anything I'd ever felt before. It froze me up as neatly as her compulsion had. I felt as though all of my nerves were exploding, like I'd just been struck by lightning.

White light suddenly burst out around her, a light that dwarfed the fire's brightness. It was like someone had dropped the sun into the middle of that room. I cried out, my hand rising instinctively to shield my eyes as I stepped backward. From the sounds in the room, everyone else was having a similar reaction.

For a moment, it was as if there was no bond anymore. I felt nothing from Lissa--no pain, no magic. The bond was as colorless and empty as the white light filling the room. The power she'd used had over-flooded and overwhelmed our bond, numbing it.

Then the light simply disappeared. No fade-out. Just... gone in an eye blink. Like a switch had been flipped. There was silence in the room, save for a few murmurings of discomfort and confusion. That light must have been toxic to sensitive Strigoi eyes. It was hard enough for me. Starbursts danced in my sight. I couldn't focus on anything as the afterimage of that brilliance burned across my vision.

At last--with a little squinting--I could vaguely see again. The fire was gone, though black smudges on the wall and ceiling marked its presence, as did some lingering smoke. By my estimation, there should have been a lot more damage. I could spare no time for that miracle, though, because there was another one taking place in front of me.

Not just a miracle. A fairy tale.

Lissa and Dimitri were both on the floor. Their clothes were burned and singed. Angry red and pink patches marked her beautiful skin from where the fire had hit hardest. Her hands and wrists were particularly bad. I could see spots of blood where the flames had actually burned some of her skin away. Third-degree burns, if I was recalling my physiology classes correctly. Yet she seemed to feel no pain, nor did the burns affect her hands' movement.

She was stroking Dimitri's hair.

While she sat in some semblance of an upright position, he was in an ungainly sprawl. His head rested in her lap, and she was running her fingers through his hair in a gentle, repetitive motion--like one does to comfort a child or even an animal. Her face, even marred with the fire's terrible damage, was radiant and filled with compassion. Dimitri had called me an avenging angel, but she was an angel of mercy as she gazed down at him and crooned soothing, nonsense words.

With the state of his clothes and what I'd seen in the fire, I'd expected him to be burned to a crisp--some sort of blackened, skeletal nightmare. Yet when he shifted his head, giving me my first full view of his face, I saw that he was completely unharmed. No burns marked his skin--skin that was as warm and tanned as it had been the first day I'd met him. I caught only a glimpse of his eyes before he buried his face against Lissa's knee. I saw endless depths of brown, the depths I'd fallen into so many times. No red rings.

Dimitri... was not a Strigoi.

And he was weeping.

Chapter Seventeen

THE ENTIRE ROOM SEEMED to hold its breath.

Yet even in the face of miracles, guardians--or Strigoi, for that matter--were hard to distract. Fights that had paused now resumed with just as much fury. The guardians had the upper hand, and those of them who weren't engaged with the last surviving Strigoi suddenly leapt toward Lissa, trying to pull her away from Dimitri. To everyone's surprise, she held on to him tightly and made a few feeble attempts to fight off those crowding around her. She was fierce and protective, again putting me in mind of a mother defending her child.

Dimitri was holding on to her just as intently, but both he and Lissa were outmatched. The guardians finally pried them apart. There were confused shouts as guardians tried to determine whether they should kill Dimitri. It wouldn't have been hard. He was helpless now. He could barely stand when they jerked him to his feet.

That woke me up. I'd simply been staring, frozen and dumbstruck. Shaking off my daze, I sprang forward, though I wasn't sure who I was going for: Lissa or Dimitri.

"No! Don't!" I yelled, seeing some of the guardians move in with stakes. "He's not what you think! He's not Strigoi! Look at him!"

Lissa and Christian were shouting similar things. Someone grabbed me and pulled me back, telling me to let the others handle this. Without even thinking, I turned and punched my captor in the face, discovering too late it was Hans. He fell back a little, seeming more surprised than offended. Attacking him was enough to attract the attention of others, however, and soon I had my own group of guardians to fight off. My efforts didn't do any good, partially because I was outnumbered and partially because I couldn't take them on the same way I'd attacked Strigoi.

As the guardians hauled me out, I noticed then that Lissa and Dimitri had already been removed from the room. I demanded to know where they were, yelling that I had to see them. No one listened to me. They dragged me away, out of the warehouse, passing a disturbing amount of bodies. Most were Strigoi, but I recognized a few faces from the guardian regiment at the Court. I grimaced, even though I hadn't known them well. The battle was over, and our side had won--but at a great cost. The surviving guardians would be doing cleanup now. I wouldn't have been surprised if Alchemists showed up, but at the moment, none of that was my concern.

"Where's Lissa?" I kept demanding as I was shoved inside one of the SUVs. Two guardians slid in with me, one sitting on each side. I didn't know either of them. "Where's Dimitri?"

"The princess has been taken to safety," one of the guardians said crisply. He and the other guy stared straight ahead, and I realized neither was going to acknowledge the question about Dimitri. He might as well not exist for any of them.

"Where's Dimitri?" I repeated, speaking more loudly in the hopes that might get an answer. "Is he with Lissa?"

That got a reaction. "Of course not," said the guardian who'd spoken before.

"Is he... is he alive?" It was one of the hardest questions I'd ever asked, but I had to know. I hated to admit it, but if I were in Hans's place, I wouldn't have been looking for miracles. I would have been exterminating anything I perceived as a threat.

"Yes," said the driver at last. "He... it... is alive."

Tags: Richelle Mead Vampire Academy Fantasy
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