Those who had been certain he was about to be taken out roared in outrage.

That left Trey with a beautiful opening to get in on Chris. My tension returned. Was this really any better? Trey "winning" the right to take a life? The point was moot. Trey didn't take the shot. I frowned as I watched. He didn't exactly fumble, but there was something that didn't seem right. There's a rhythm to fighting, where instinct and automatic responses take over. It was almost as though Trey had purposely fought against his next instinctive move, the one that said strike now! And in doing so, Trey left himself open. He took a hit from Chris, which knocked him to the ground. I rested a hand on my own chest, as though I'd also felt the blow.

The crowd went crazy. Even the decorous masters jumped up from their seats, screaming approval and dismay. I had to forcibly stay seated. Every part of me wanted to run down there and make sure Trey was okay, but I had a feeling one of the armed members of my escort would shoot me or knock me out before I took two steps. My worry faded a tiny bit when I saw Trey stagger to his feet. Chris clapped Trey good naturedly on the back, grinning from ear to ear as those assembled shouted his name.

Trey soon retreated to the crowded stands, yielding the victor's spot. His father met him with a look of disapproval but said nothing. The man who'd given out the clubs approached Chris with the sword I'd returned. Chris held it over his head, earning more applause. Near me, Master Jameson stood up and bellowed, "Bring out the creature!" Creature was hardly how I'd describe Sonya Karp as four heavily armed Warriors dragged her out across the dusty arena. Her legs barely seemed to work, and even from this distance, I could tell she was drugged. That was why Adrian couldn't reach her in dreams. It also explained why she wouldn't have used any magic to attempt escape. Her hair was a mess, and she wore the same clothes I'd seen her in that last night at Adrian's. They were bedraggled, but otherwise, she didn't seem to have any signs of physical abuse on her.

This time, I couldn't stop myself from standing up. The blonde girl immediately put a hand on my shoulder, forcing me down. I stared at Sonya, wanting so desperately to help her, but knew I was powerless. Swallowing back fear and rage, I slowly sat back on the bleachers and turned toward the council.

"You told me I'd have a chance to talk." I remembered their sense of honor. "You gave your word. Doesn't that mean anything?"

"Our word means everything," said Master Ortega, looking offended. "You'll have your chance."

Behind Sonya's guard came two more men hauling a huge block of wood with arm constraints on it. It looked like it had come straight out of a medieval movie set, and my stomach twisted when I realized it was for: decapitation. The shadows had increased, forcing the men to bring out torches that cast sinister, flickering light around the arena. It was impossible to believe I was in twenty-first-century California. I felt like I'd been transported to some barbarian castle.

And really, these hunters were barbarians. One of Sonya's guards pushed her to her knees from behind, forcing her head against the block's surface while he bound her hands with the leather restraints. In her addled state, it didn't require nearly the level of force the guy put into it. I couldn't believe they could act so self-righteous when they were about to end the life of a woman who could offer no resistance, let alone even knew she was here. Everyone was screaming for her blood, and I felt like I was going to get sick.

Master Angeletti rose, and a hush fell over the arena. "We have gathered here from all parts of the country for a great thing. It is a rare and blessed day when we actually have a Strigoi in captivity." Because she's not a Strigoi, I thought angrily. They'd never be able to capture a live one. "They plague decent humans like ourselves, but today we shall dispatch one back to Hell - one who's particularly insidious because of her ability to hide her true nature and pretend to be one of the more benign fiends, the Moroi - whom we will deal with one day as well." Murmurs of approval ran through the crowd. "Before we commence, however, one of our Alchemist brethren would like to speak out on behalf of this creature." The approval vanished, replaced by angry mutterings and glaring. I wondered uneasily if the guards who kept their guns pointed at me would turn on one of their associates if I was attacked.

Master Angeletti held up his hands and silenced them.

"You will show our little sister respect," he said. "The Alchemists are kin, and once, we were one. It would be a momentous event if we could once again join forces." With that, he sat down and gestured to me. Nothing else was offered, and I assumed this meant the floor was mine. I wasn't entirely sure how I was supposed to make my case or where. The council made the decisions, but this seemed like something everyone should hear. I stood up and waited for the girl with the gun to stop me from moving. She didn't.

Slowly, carefully, I made my way down the bleachers and stood in the arena, mindful not to go near Sonya. I didn't think that would go over well.

I kept my body angled toward the council but turned my head in a way that would hopefully carry to others. I'd given reports and presentations before but always in a conference room. I'd never addressed an angry mob, let alone spoken to such a large group about vampire affairs. Most of the faces out there were swallowed by shadows, but I could picture all those mad, bloodthirsty eyes fixed on me. My mouth felt dry, and, in what was a very rare occurrence, my mind blanked. A moment later, I was able to push through my fear (though it certainly didn't go away), and remember what I'd wanted to say.

"You're making a mistake," I began. My voice was small, and I cleared my throat, forcing myself to project and sound stronger. "Sonya Karp is not a Strigoi."

"We have records of her in Kentucky," interrupted Master Jameson. "Eyewitnesses who saw her kill."

"That's because she was a Strigoi back then. But she isn't anymore." I kept thinking the tattoo would stop me from talking, but this group was already well aware of the vampiric world. "In the last year, the Alchemists have learned a lot about vampires. You must know that the Moroi - your so-called 'benign fiends' - practice elemental magic. We've recently found out there's a new, rare kind of magic out there, one that's tied to psychic powers and healing. That power has the ability to restore Strigoi back to their original form, be it human, dhampir, or Moroi."

A few angry denials quickly rose to a frenzy. Mob mentality in action. It took Master Jameson to quiet them again. "That," he said simply, "is impossible."

Tags: Richelle Mead Bloodlines Fantasy
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