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The Golden Lily Chapter 21

Essay Topic:
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I’D SEEN MOVIES where blindfolded people were able to tell where they were going, based on some innate talent to sense motion and direction. Not me. After a few turns, I couldn’t have told you where in Palm Spring we were – especially since I suspected Trey was taking a slightly roundabout way in order to make sure there wasn’t a tail.

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The only thing I was certain of was when we got on I-10, simply because of the feel of the freeway. I didn’t know what direction we were headed and had no way to accurately time how long we traveled either.

Trey didn’t offer much in the way of conversation, though he did give short answers whenever I asked questions. “When did you join the vampire hunters?”

“Warriors of Light,” he corrected. “And I was born into it.”

“That’s why you’re always talking about family pressure and why so much is expected of you, isn’t it? It’s why your dad is so concerned about your athletic performance.” I took Trey’s silence as an affirmative and pushed on, needing to get as much information as possible. “How often do you guys have your, um, meetings? Are you always having those brutal tests?” Until very recently, there had been nothing to suggest Trey’s life was much different from any other high school athlete who kept up with his grades, a job, and an active social life. In fact, thinking of all the things Trey usually did, it was hard to imagine him having any time at all for the Warriors.

“We don’t have regular meetings,” he said. “Well, not someone at my level. We wait until we’re called, usually because a hunt’s under way. Or sometimes we conduct competitions, in order to test our strength. Our leaders travel around, and then Warriors gather from all different places in order to be ready.”

“Ready for what?”

“The day when we can end the vampire scourge altogether.”

“And you really believe this hunt is the way to do it? That it’s the right thing to do?”

“Have you ever seen them?” he asked. “The evil, undead vampires?”

“I’ve seen quite a few of them.”

“And you don’t think they should be destroyed?”

“That’s not what I’ve been trying to tell you. I don’t have any love for Strigoi, believe me.

My point is that Sonya’s not one of them.”

More silence.

Eventually, I felt us exit the freeway. We drove for a while longer until the car slowed again and turned, onto a gravel road. We soon came to a stop, and Trey rolled down the window.

“This is her?” asked an unknown man.

“Yes,” said Trey.

“You turned off her cell phone?”

“Yes.”

“Take her in then. They’ll do the rest of the search.” I heard a squeaking gate open, and then we continued on the gravel road until turning onto what felt like packed dirt. Trey stopped the car and turned it off. He opened his door at the same time someone on the outside opened mine. A hand on my shoulder nudged me forward.

“Come on. Get out.”

“Be careful with her,” warned Trey.

I was led from the car into a building. It wasn’t until I heard a door shut and latch that my blindfold was finally taken off. I was in a stark room with unfinished drywall and bare bulb lights in the ceiling. Four other people stood around Trey and me, three men and one woman.

All of them looked to be in their twenties, and two were the guys who had stopped me at the cafe. Also, all of them were armed.

“Empty out your purse.” It was Jeff, the guy with buzzed dark hair, wearing a gold earring of the antique sun symbol.

I complied, dumping my purse’s contents onto a makeshift table composed of plywood set on top of some cinderblocks. While they sifted through it, the woman patted me down for wires. She had hair with a bad bleach job and a perennial snarl on her face, but at least her frisk was professional and efficient.

“What’s this?” Blond Hair from the cafe held up a small plastic bag filled with dried herbs and flowers. “You don’t look like the drug type.”

“It’s potpourri,” I said promptly.

“You keep potpourri in your purse?” he asked disbelievingly.

I shrugged. “We keep all sorts of things around. I took out all the acids and chemicals before I came here, though.”

He dismissed the potpourri as harmless and tossed it into a pile with other cleared items, like my wallet, hand sanitizer, and a plain wooden bracelet. I noticed then that the pile also included a pair of earrings. They were round gold discs, covered in intricate swirls and tiny gems. They were beautiful – but I’d never seen them before.

I certainly wasn’t going to call attention to anything, however, particularly when the woman snatched up my cell phone. “We should destroy this.”

“I turned it off,” said Trey.

“She might turn it back on. It can be tracked.”

“She wouldn’t,” argued Trey. “Besides, that’s a little paranoid, isn’t it? No one has that kind of technology in real life.”

“You’d be surprised,” she said.

He held out his hand. “Give it to me. I’ll keep it safe. She’s here on good faith.” The woman hesitated until Jeff nodded. Trey slipped the phone into his pocket, and I was grateful. There were a lot of saved numbers that would be a pain to replace. Once my purse was deemed safe, I was allowed to put it back together and take it with me.

“Okay,” said Blond Hair. “Let’s go to the arena.”

Arena? I had a hard time picturing what that would entail in a place like this. My vision in the silver plate hadn’t shown me much of the building, save that it was single-story and had a ratty, worn look to it. This room seemed to be keeping right along with that theme. If the antiquated brochures were further proof of the Warriors’ sense of style, I expected this “arena” to be in someone’s garage.

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I was wrong.

Whatever the Warriors of Light had lacked in other areas of their operation, they’d sunk it into the arena – or, as I was told its official name was, The Arena of Divine Radiance of Holy Gold. The arena had been built upon a clearing surrounded by several buildings. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a courtyard. It was bigger, and the ground was more of that sandy packed dirt we’d driven in on. This setup was far from polished or high tech, yet as I took it all in, I couldn’t help but think of Trey saying the Warriors had come to town this week.

Because for them to have put this together so quickly… well, it was kind of impressive.

And frightening. Two sets of rickety wooden bleachers had been erected on opposite sides of the space. One set held about fifty spectators, mostly men, of varying ages. Their eyes, suspicious and even hostile, were on me as I was led in. I could practically feel their gazes boring into my tattoo. Did they all know about the Alchemists and our history? They were all dressed in ordinary clothing, but here and there, I caught glimmers of gold. Many of them wore some kind of ornament – a pin, an earring, etc. – with either an ancient or modern sun symbol.

The other bleachers were nearly empty. Three men – older, closer to my dad’s age – sat side by side. They were dressed in yellow robes covered in golden embroidery that glittered in the orange light of the setting sun. Golden helmets covered their heads and were engraved with the old sun symbol, the circle with the dot. They watched me as well, and I kept my head high, hoping I could hide the shaking of my hands. I couldn’t present a convincing case for Sonya if I seemed intimidated.

Around the arena, draped on poles, were banners of all shapes and sizes. They were made of rich, heavy fabric that reminded me of medieval tapestries. Obviously, these weren’t that old, but they nonetheless gave the place a luxurious and ceremonial feel. The banners’

designs varied considerably. Some really did look straight out of history, showing stylized knights fighting against vampires. Looking at those gave me chills. I really had stepped back in time, into the fold of a group with a history as old as the Alchemists’. Other banners were more abstract, portraying the ancient alchemical symbols. Still others looked modern, depicting the sun on Trey’s back. I wondered if that newer sun interpretation was meant to appeal to today’s youth.

All the while, I kept thinking, less than a week. They put all this together in less than a week. They travel around with all of this, ready to put it up at a moment’s notice in order to conduct these competitions or executions. Maybe they are primitive, but that doesn’t make them any less dangerous.

Although the large crowd of spectators had a rough-and-tumble look to them, like some sort of backwoods militia, it was a relief that they didn’t appear to be armed. Only my escort was. A dozen guns were still too many for my tastes, but I’d take what I could get – and hope that they mostly kept the guns for show. We reached the bottom of the empty stands, and Trey came to stand beside me.

“This is the high council of the Warriors of Light,” said Trey. He pointed to each of them in turn. “Master Jameson, Master Angeletti, and Master Ortega. This is Sydney Sage.”

“You are very welcome here, little sister,” said Master Angeletti in a grave voice. He had a long and messy beard. “The time for the healing of our two groups is long overdue. We will be much stronger once we put aside our differences and unite as one.” I gave him the politest smile I could and decided not to point out the Alchemists were unlikely to welcome gun-toting zealots into our ranks. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, sirs. Thank you for allowing me to come. I’d like to talk to you about – ” Master Jameson held up a hand to stop me. His eyes looked too small for his face. “All in good time. First, we’d like to show you just how diligently we train our youth to fight in the great crusade. Just as you encourage excellence and discipline in the mind, so too do we encourage it in the body.”

Through some unspoken cue, the door we’d just come through opened. A familiar face walked out to the center of the arena: Chris, Trey’s cousin. He was wearing workout pants and no shirt, giving a clear view of the radiating sun tattooed on his back. He had a ferocious look on his face and came to stand in the clearing’s center.

“I believe you’ve met Chris Juarez,” said Master Jameson. “He’s one of the finalists in this last round of combat. The other, of course, you also know. Quite the irony that cousins should be facing off, but also fitting since both failed in the initial attack on the fiend.” I turned to Trey, my jaw dropping. “You? You’re one of the… contenders to kill Sonya?” I could barely get the words out. I turned back to the council in alarm. “I was told I’d have a chance to plead Sonya’s case.”

“You will,” said Master Ortega, in a tone that implied it would be a wasted effort. “But first, we must determine our champion. Contenders, take your places.” I noticed now that Trey was also in sweatpants, looking as though he could be going off to football practice. He stripped off his shirt as well and, for lack of anything else to do with it, handed it to me. I took it and kept staring at him, still unable to believe what was happening.

He met my gaze briefly but couldn’t hold it. He walked off to join his cousin, and Master Jameson invited me to sit down.

Trey and Chris faced each other. I felt a little embarrassed to be studying two shirtless guys, but it wasn’t like there was anything too sordid happening. My impressions of Chris since the first time I’d met him hadn’t changed. Both he and Trey were in excellent physical shape, muscled and strong with the kinds of bodies that constantly worked and trained. The only advantage Chris had, if it was one, was his height – which I’d also noticed before. His height. With a jolt, memories of the alley attack came back to me. There’d been little of our attackers to see, but the one wielding the sword had been tall. Chris must have been the one originally assigned to kill Sonya.

Another robed man appeared from the door. His robes were cut slightly differently from the council’s and somehow sported even more gold embroidery. Rather than a helmet, he wore a headdress more in line with what a priest might have. Indeed, that’s what he seemed to be as Chris and Trey knelt before him. The priest marked their foreheads with oill and said some kind of blessing I couldn’t hear. Then, to my shock, he made the sign against evil on his shoulder – the Alchemist sign against evil.

I think that, more so than any of the spiels about evil vampires or shared usage of ancient symbols, was what really drove home the fact that our two groups had once been related. The sign against evil was a small cross drawn on the shoulder with the right hand. It had survived among the Alchemists since ancient days. A chill ran through me. We really had been one and the same.

When the priest was finished, another man came forward and handed each of the cousins a short, blunt wooden club – kind of like what police sometimes used in crowd control. Trey and Chris turned toward each other, locked in aggressive poses, holding the clubs in striking positions. A buzz of excitement ran through the crowd, as it grew eager for violence. Evening breezes stirred up dust devils around the cousins, but neither of them flinched. I turned to the council incredulously.

“They’re going to attack each other with those clubs?” I asked. “They could be killed!”

“Oh no,” said Master Ortega, far too calmly. “We haven’t had a death in these trials in years. They’ll take injury, sure, but that just toughens our warriors. All of our young men are taught to endure pain and keep on fighting.”

“Young men,” I repeated. My gaze moved down to the bleach blonde girl who’d brought me in. She was standing near our bleachers, holding her gun at her side. “What about your women?”

“Our women are tough, too,” said Master Ortega. “And certainly valued. But we’d never dream of letting them fight in the arenas or actively hunt vampires. Part of the reason we do what we do is to keep them safe. We’re fighting this evil for their good and our future children.” The man who’d handed out the clubs also announced the rules in a loud, ringing voice that filled the arena. To my relief, the Juarez cousins wouldn’t be beating each other senseless.

There was a system to the combat they were about to enter into. They could only hit each other in certain places. Hitting elsewhere would result in penalties. A successful hit would yield a point. The first person to five points was the winner.

As soon as it started, however, it was clear this wasn’t going to be as civilized as I’d hoped. Chris actually landed the first hit right away, nailing Trey so hard on the shoulder that I winced. Animalistic cheers and whoops rang out from the bloodthirsty crowd, echoed by hisses of dismay from Trey’s supporters. Trey didn’t even react and kept trying to hit Chris, but I could tell there’d be a nasty bruise there later. Both of them were pretty fast and alert, able to dodge a majority of the attempted blows. They danced around, trying to get through each other’s guards. More dirt was kicked up, clinging to their sweaty skin. I found myself leaning forward, fists clenched in nervousness. My mouth felt dry, and I couldn’t utter a sound.

In a remote way, I was reminded a little of the way Eddie and Angeline trained. Certainly, they walked away with injury too. In their situation, however, they were playing guardian and Strigoi. There was a difference between that and two guys striving to inflict the most damage on other. Watching Chris and Trey, I felt my stomach twist. I disliked violence, particularly this barbaric display. It was like I’d been transported back to the days of the gladiators.

The crowd’s fervor continued to increase. It was on its feet cheering wildly and urging the cousins on. Their voices rang out in the desert night. Despite being struck first, Trey could clearly hold his own. I watched as he made hit after hit on Chris and wasn’t sure which sickened me more: seeing my friend hurt or seeing him hurt someone else.

“This is terrible,” I said, when I could finally find my voice.

“This is excellence in action,” said Master Angeletti. “No surprise since their fathers are outstanding warriors as well. They sparred quite a bit in their youths, too. That’s them, down in the front row.”

I looked at where he indicated and saw two middle-aged men, side by side, with gleeful looks on their faces as they shouted encouragement at the cousins. I didn’t even need Master Angeletti’s guidance to guess that they were related. The Juarez family stamp was strong on these men and their sons. The fathers cheered just as avidly as the crowd, not even flinching when Trey or Chris got injured. It was just like my father and Keith’s. Nothing mattered except family pride and playing by the group rules.

I’d lost track of the points until Master Jameson said, “Ah, this will be good. Next point determines the winner. It always makes me proud when the contenders are so evenly matched.

Lets me know we’ve done the right thing.”

There was nothing right about this. Tears stung my eyes, but whether it was from the dry, dusty air or simply my anxiety, I couldn’t say. Sweat was pouring off Trey and Chris now, their chests rising and falling with the exertion of battle. Both were covered in scrapes and bruises, adding onto old ones from days past. The tension in the arena was palpable as everyone waited to see who would land the final hit. The cousins paused slightly, sizing up each other as they realized this was the moment of truth. This was the blow that had to count. Chris, face excited and alight, acted first, lunging forward to land a hit on the side of Trey’s torso. I gasped, jumping to my feet in alarm with most of the crowd. The sound was deafening. It was clear from Chris’s expression that he could taste victory, and I wondered if he was already imagining the strike that would kill Sonya. Sunset bathed his face in bloody light.

Maybe it was because I’d seen enough of Eddie to learn some of the basics, but I suddenly realized something. Chris’s movement was too rash and sloppy. Sure enough, Trey was able to evade the strike, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I sank back down to my seat.

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.”

“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.

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