"We have documented cases of three - no, four - people this has happened to. Three Moroi and a dhampir who once were Strigoi and are now in possession of their original selves and souls." Speaking about Lee in the present tense wasn't entirely accurate, but there was no need to clarify. Besides, describing a former Strigoi who wanted to become Strigoi again probably wouldn't help my case. "Look at her. Does she seem Strigoi? She's out in the sun." There wasn't much of it left, but even these fleeting rays of sunset would kill a Strigoi. With the way I was sweating from fear, I might as well have been out under a blazing midafternoon sun. "You keep saying this is the work of some twisted magic, but have you ever, even once, seen her in Strigoi form here in Palm Springs?" No one acknowledged that right away. Finally, Master Angeletti said, "She defeated our forces in the street. Obviously, she turned back into her true form." I scoffed. "She didn't do that. Dimitri Belikov did - one of the greatest dhampir warriors out there. No offense, but despite all the training, your soldiers were hopelessly outclassed." I was met with more aggressive gazes. I realized that probably wasn't the best thing I could've said.

"You've been deceived," said Master Angeletti. "No surprise since your people have long since become enmeshed behind the scenes with the Moroi. You aren't like us, down in the trenches. You don't come face-to-face with the Strigoi. They're evil, bloodthirsty creatures who must be destroyed."

"I agree with that. But Sonya's not one of them. Look at her." I was gaining courage, my voice growing stronger and clearer in the desert night. "You keep bragging about capturing some terrible monster, but all I see is a drugged, restrained woman. Nice work. Truly a worthy enemy."

None of the council looked nearly as tolerant of me as they had before. "We simply subdued her," said Master Ortega. "It's a sign of our prowess that we were able to do so."

"You've subdued an innocent and defenseless woman." I didn't know if driving home that point would help, but I figured it couldn't hurt if they had twisted, chivalrous views of women.

"And I know you've made mistakes before. I know about Santa Cruz." I had no idea if this had been the same group whose men had gone after Clarence, but I was gambling the council at least knew about it. "Some of your more zealous members went after an innocent Moroi. You saw the errors of your way then when Marcus Finch told you the truth. It's not too late to correct this mistake either."

To my astonishment, Master Ortega actually smiled. "Marcus Finch? You're holding him up as some kind of hero?"

Not exactly, no. I didn't even know the guy. But if he was a human that talked these crazy people down, then he must have some kind of integrity.

"Why wouldn't I?" I asked. "He was able to see right from wrong." Even Master Angeletti chuckled now. "I would never have expected an Alchemist to praise his sense of 'right and wrong.' I thought your own views of that were immovable."

"What are you talking about?" I didn't mean to get derailed, but these comments were too puzzling.

"Marcus Finch betrayed the Alchemists," explained Master Angeletti. "You didn't know? I assumed a rogue Alchemist is the last person you'd use to make your case." I was momentarily speechless. Was he saying... was he saying that Marcus Finch used to be an Alchemist? No. He couldn't be. If he had been, then Stanton would have known who he was. Unless she lied about not having any record of him, a voice in my head warned.

Master Jameson had apparently heard enough from me. "We appreciate you coming out here and respect your attempt to stand up for what you believe is true. We're also glad you were able to see just how strong we've become. I hope you'll take this news back to your order.

If anything, your attempts here have demonstrated what we've long known: our groups need each other. Clearly, the Alchemists have gleaned a lot of knowledge over the years that could be very useful to us - just as our strength could be useful to you. Nonetheless," he glanced over toward Sonya and scowled, "the point remains now that whatever your intentions, you truly have been deceived. Even if there's some tiny impossible chance that you're right, that she truly is a Moroi... we can't take the chance that she's still been corrupted. Even if she believes she's been restored, she may still have been subconsciously influenced." Again, I was speechless - but not because I appeared to have lost my case. Master Jameson's words were nearly identical to what Keith's father had said, when he'd told me Keith would be taken back to Re-education. Mr. Darnell had echoed the sentiment, that they couldn't take the risk of even a subtle bit of influence affecting Keith. Extreme actions had been required. We're the same, I thought. The Alchemists and the Warriors. Years have divided us, but we came from the same place - in both our goals and blind attitudes.

And then Master Jameson said the most shocking thing of all. "Even if she is just a Moroi, it's no great loss. We'll come for them eventually anyway, once we've defeated the Strigoi." I froze at those words. The blonde girl came forward and again forced me to sit down on the first row of the bleachers. I offered no resistance, too shocked at what I'd just heard. What did they mean they'd come for the Moroi? Sonya could just be the beginning, then the rest of my friends, and then Adrian...

Master Angeletti snapped me back to the present. He made a grand gesture toward Chris as he spoke. "By the divine power we have been granted to bring light and purity into this world, you are authorized to destroy this creature. Commence." Chris raised the sword, a fanatical gleam in his eyes. A happy gleam, even. He wanted to do this. He wanted to kill. Dimitri and Rose had killed many, many times, but both had told me there was no joy in it. They were glad to do what was right and defend others, but they didn't take pleasure in bringing death. I'd been taught the existence of vampires was wrong and twisted, but what I was about to witness was the true atrocity. These were the monsters.

I wanted to scream or cry or throw myself in front of Sonya. We were a heartbeat away from the death of a bright, caring person. Then, without warning, the silence of the arena was pierced with gunfire. Chris paused and lifted his head in surprise. I flinched and looked immediately toward the armed escort, wondering if they'd take it upon themselves to become a firing squad. They looked just as surprised as me - well, most of them. Two of them didn't show much emotion at all - because they were crumpled on the ground.

And that was when Dimitri and Eddie burst into the arena.

Chapter 22

Tags: Richelle Mead Bloodlines Fantasy
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