Chapter Eighteen

 

I SPRANG UP FROM THE bed, relieved that I didn't fall over. My head still hurt, but I no longer felt dizzy, which hopefully meant I really had evaded a concussion. Glancing at an alarm clock as I left Sonya's bedroom, I saw that I'd been in Lissa's head for a few hours. Her test had been far more extensive than I'd realized.

In the living room, I found an almost comical sight. Victor and Robert stood there, in the flesh, taking in the surrounding details. Even Robert seemed to be with us mentally this time. Only, whereas Victor was studying everything in his calculating way, Robert's attention was fixed on Sonya. His eyes bugged out in astonishment. Dimitri, meanwhile, hadn't altered his position near Sonya or put away the stake at her throat. It was clear from his stance and watchful gaze, however, that he regarded the brothers as a new threat and was trying--impossibly--to stay on guard against everything. He seemed relieved to see me and have some backup.

Sonya had gone perfectly still within her chains, which I didn't like at all. It made me think she was planning something. Her red eyes narrowed.

The whole situation was tense and dangerous, but a tiny part of me felt smug satisfaction as I studied Victor more closely. The dream meetings had been deceptive. Just as I could shift my appearance in dreams, Victor had made himself look stronger and healthier in those visits than he actually was in real life. Age, disease, and life on the run were taking their toll. Dark shadows lined his eyes, and his graying hair seemed thinner than it had a month ago. He looked haggard and tired, but I knew he was still dangerous.

"So,' I said, hands on hips. "You managed to find us.'

"There's one lake in this town,' said Victor. "One blue house. Maybe you had trouble with those directions, but for the rest of us, it wasn't that difficult.'

"Well, if you're so smart, what's your plan now?' I asked. I was trying to stall as I frantically thought about what my plan was. I'd wanted to capture Victor and Robert but didn't know how. Since we had to split our attention between them and Sonya, Dimitri and I couldn't team up. I wished we had leftover chain. Aside from physically subduing the brothers, we would also specifically need to restrain their hands to reduce their ability to use magic.

"Since you're so smart,' countered Victor, "I assumed you'd have already obtained the needed information.'

I gestured toward Sonya. "She's not exactly forthcoming.'

Victor's eyes fell on her. "Sonya Karp. You've changed since I last saw you.'

"I'm going to kill you all,' Sonya snarled. "And consume you one by one. Normally, I'd start with the human and work up to the Moroi, but ...' She glanced at Dimitri and me, her face full of rage. "I think I'll save you two for last and drag out your suffering.' She paused and almost comically added, "You've annoyed me the most.'

"Do all Strigoi go through some boot camp and learn all the same threats? It's a wonder you don't cackle too.' I turned back to Victor. "See? Not that easy. We've tried everything. Beating it out, torturing it out. Sydney went through the names of all her relatives. No reaction.'

Victor studied Sydney in detail for the first time. "So. Your pet Alchemist.'

Sydney didn't move. I knew she had to be scared of facing someone who was both a vampire and a dangerous criminal. I had to give her points for meeting his stare unflinchingly.

"Young,' Victor mused. "But of course she would be. I imagine it's the only way you could manipulate her into this little escapade.'

"I'm here by choice,' replied Sydney. Her expression stayed calm and confident. "No one manipulated me.' Abe's blackmail wasn't really relevant at the moment.

"Look, if you wanted to keep torturing me with your not-funny comments, you could have just kept invading my dreams,' I snapped. "If you don't have anything useful to offer, then get out of here and let us wait until hunger weakens Sonya.' And by get out of here, I meant: foolishly think you're going to leave so that I can knock your heads together and drag you back to the guardians.

"We can help,' said Victor. He touched his brother lightly on the arm. Robert flinched, jerking his eyes from Sonya to Victor. "Your methods were destined to fail. If you want answers, there's only one way to--'

Sonya made her move. Dimitri was still right next to her, but he'd also been keeping an eye on the rest of us. And of course, I'd been completely focused on the Victor drama as well. It was probably the best opening Sonya could have hoped for.

With crazy Strigoi strength, she bucked up from the chair. The chain was wrapped around her over and over, but her quick movement and strength were enough to snap the chain in two places. The rest still encircled her, but I knew perfectly well even one opening was enough for her to eventually bust out. Distracted or not, Dimitri was on her in a flash, and a second later, so was I. She was flailing in the chair, using every bit of her strength and speed to shake off the chains. If she got loose, I knew she'd put up another fierce fight. Dimitri and I met eyes briefly, and I knew we were thinking the same things. First, how were we going to re-restrain her? The chain could probably be rebound, but we'd need to unwind it and start over, which would be next to impossible. We also both knew he and I might not be able to take her down a second time, and now we had innocents around. They couldn't fight, but Sonya might be able to use them to her advantage somehow. All we could do was try to keep her down. Holding her against a flat surface like the floor would have been much easier than the unwieldy recliner. It shook as she fought against us, and we struggled to get a good position on the chair. Dimitri had his stake-- I'd set mine down earlier--and he raked it against her skin, giving us some advantage in the struggle. She screamed in rage, and I clung to the hope we might tire her out. Probably not. We'd break first. My aching head was proof enough that I wasn't in peak condition.

I saw a flash of movement in my periphery, setting off new alarms. Robert Doru was heading toward us--and he had a silver stake in his hand. The sight was so bizarre and unexpected that I was slow to alert Dimitri. When my sluggish mind suddenly kicked back to life, it was too late.

"No!' I shrieked, seeing Robert raise the stake. "Don't kill her!'

Dimitri turned and saw Robert then, but there was nothing he could do. Dimitri and I had created the perfect opportunity. We were holding Sonya still, and with her chest vulnerable, Robert had a clean shot. Frantically, I wondered what to do. If I stopped him, I'd release Sonya. If I didn't stop him, he might kill our only chance at finding out who--

Too late. The stake plunged down with a force that astonished me. Lissa had had a very difficult time staking Dimitri, and I'd assumed the same would be true for someone like Robert, who was older and seemed so fragile. But, no. He still had to use two hands, but the stake went firmly into Sonya's chest, piercing her heart.

Sonya let out an intense scream. A brilliant, blinding white light suddenly filled the room, just as an unseen force blasted me away. I hit a wall, my brain barely registering the pain. The small house shook, and with one hand, I tried to grab something and brace myself. I squeezed my eyes shut but could still see starbursts. Time slowed. My heartbeat slowed.

Then--it all stopped. Everything. The light. The tremors. I breathed normally. All was quiet and still, as though I'd imagined what had just happened.

I blinked, trying to bring my eyes back into focus and assess the situation. I did my best to scramble clumsily to my feet and saw Dimitri was doing the same. He looked like he'd also been knocked over but had caught the wall for support, rather than smashing into it. Robert was lying flat out on the floor, and Victor rushed over to help him. Sydney just stood frozen.

And Sonya?

"Unbelievable,' I whispered.

Sonya was still in the armchair, and from the way she was sitting back, it was obvious that she'd been blasted by the same force that had hit the rest of us. The chains were still around her, but she'd stopped struggling. On her lap was the silver stake Robert had held only moments ago. Sonya managed to wiggle a hand out of the chain, just enough for her fingers to brush against the stake's surface. Her eyes widened with wonder--eyes that were a rich, azure blue.

Robert had brought Sonya Karp back to life. She was no longer Strigoi.

When Lissa had saved Dimitri, I'd felt the magic's power through the bond, giving me the full and overwhelming experience of it all. Witnessing it now, without the firsthand knowledge provided from Lissa, was still just as incredible. Victor was preoccupied with Robert, but the rest of us couldn't stop staring at Sonya in amazement. I kept looking for anything--anything--that might give the slightest hint of her previous existence.

There was none. Her skin bore the typical Moroi paleness, but it was still filled with the warmth of life, with the faintest tinge of color--not like the Strigoi, who were completely devoid of pigment. Her eyes were bloodshot, but that was from her rapidly forming tears. There was no red ring around her irises. And the look in those eyes ... there was no cruelty or malice. They were not the eyes of someone who had just threatened to kill us all. Her eyes were all shock and fear and confusion. I couldn't tear my gaze from her.

A miracle. Another miracle. Even after seeing Lissa restore Dimitri, some secret part of me had believed I would never witness anything like it again. That was how miracles worked. Once in a lifetime. There'd been a lot of talk about using spirit to save Strigoi everywhere, talk that had faded when other drama--such as the murder of a queen-- took precedence at Court. The shortage of spirit users had also made the idea unpopular, and besides, everyone knew the difficulties involved with a Moroi staking a Strigoi. If trained guardians died fighting Strigoi, how could a Moroi stake one? Well, here was the answer: a subdued Strigoi. A Moroi could manage staking one with two hands, especially with guardian backup. The possibilities made me reel. Robert's magic was strong, but he was old and frail. Yet, if he had still done this, could any spirit user? He'd almost made it look easy. Could Adrian do it? Could Lissa do it again?

A miracle. Sonya Karp was a living, breathing miracle.

And suddenly, she began screaming.

It started off as kind of a low wail and rapidly grew in volume. The noise snapped me to attention, but I didn't exactly know how to respond. Dimitri did. His stake fell from his hand, and he rushed to Sonya's side, where he began trying to free her from the chains. She floundered at his touch, but her efforts no longer packed the supernatural strength of an undead monster seeking revenge. These were the motions of someone desperately, terribly afraid.

I'd wrapped those chains pretty securely, but Dimitri had them off in seconds. Once Sonya was free, he sat in the chair and pulled her to him, letting her bury her face against his chest and sob. I swallowed. Dimitri had also wept when he had been changed back. An odd image of newborn babies flashed through my mind. Was crying the natural reaction for anyone being born--or, in this case, reborn--into the world?

A sudden movement grabbed my attention. Sydney's eyes were wide, and she was actually moving toward Dimitri--to stop him. "What are you doing?' she cried. "Don't release her!'

Dimitri ignored Sydney, and I caught hold of her, pulling her back. "It's okay, it's okay,' I said. Sydney was the most stable factor in this whole operation. I couldn't have her freaking out. "She's not Strigoi. Look. Look at her. She's Moroi.'

Sydney slowly shook her head. "She can't be. I just saw her.'

"It's what happened to Dimitri. Exactly the same. You don't think he's a Strigoi, do you? You trust him.' I released my hold on her, and she stayed put, her face wary.

Looking down at the brothers, I realized theirs might be a more serious situation than I had realized. Robert, while not a Strigoi, looked pale enough to be one. His eyes were vacant, drool escaping his partially open mouth. I reassessed my earlier observation about Robert making Strigoi restoration look easy. He'd staked her like a pro, but obviously, there were a few side effects. Victor was trying to support his brother and murmured soothing and encouraging words. And on Victor's face ... well, there was a look of compassion and fear that I'd never seen before. My brain didn't entirely know how to reconcile it with my well-defined and villainous image of him. He seemed like a real person.

Victor glanced up at me, his lips twisting into a bitter smile. "What, no witty quips now? You should be happy. We've given you what you wanted. You need answers from Sonya Karp?' He nodded toward her. "Go get them. They've certainly come at a high price.'

"No!' exclaimed Dimitri. He still held Sonya against him, but his gentle expression turned hard at Victor's words. "Are you crazy? Didn't you see what just happened?'

Victor arched an eyebrow. "Yes. I noticed.'

"She's in no condition to answer anything! She's in shock. Leave her alone.'

"Don't act like she's the one who's suffering here,' snapped Victor. Turning back to Robert, Victor helped his brother stand and go toward the couch. Robert barely managed it, his legs trembling and then giving way as he sat down. Victor put an arm around Robert. "You'll be all right. Everything's all right.'

"Will he be?' I asked uncertainly. Robert didn't look like he was in all that good of shape. My earlier thoughts about spirit users saving Strigoi continued growing unrealistic. "He ... he did it before and recovered, right? And Lissa's fine.'

"Robert was much younger--as is Vasilisa,' replied Victor, patting Robert's shoulder. "And this is hardly a simple spell. Doing it even once is monumental. Twice? Well, you and I both know how spirit works, and this feat takes a toll on both body and mind. Robert has made a great sacrifice for you.'

He had, I supposed. "Thank you, Robert,' I said. The words came hesitantly to my lips. Robert didn't seem to hear.

Dimitri stood up, lifting Sonya easily in his arms. She was still crying, but her sobs were quieter now.

"She needs to rest,' he said gruffly. "Believe me, you have no idea what's going on inside her right now.'

"Oh, I believe you,' I said.

"You're idiots,' snapped Victor. "Both of you.'

It was a wonder Dimitri's glare didn't pin Victor to the floor. "No interrogation yet.'

I nodded my agreement, not knowing what else to do. When Lissa had changed Dimitri, she'd taken on a fierce, similarly protective attitude. He might not have been the one to change Sonya, but he was the only one here who had any idea what she was going through. I knew he'd had a hard adjustment and that the initial effects of the restoration had been disorienting. That wasn't even taking into account the subsequent depression.

He swept past all of us, taking Sonya to her bedroom. Sydney watched them go and then glanced over to the sofa, where Victor still had his arm wrapped around his brother. The Alchemist met my eyes wonderingly.

"I heard ... but I didn't believe.'

"Sometimes,' I told her, "I still don't. It goes against every rule of the universe.' To my surprise, she touched the small gold cross around her neck. "Some rules are bigger than the universe.'

Victor rose from the couch, apparently satisfied Robert was resting. I tensed up. Miracles aside, he was still a criminal, one I intended to capture. He took a step toward me, pitching his voice low.

"Sorry to interrupt Metaphysics 101, but you need to listen to me,' he said. "Be careful, Rose. Very careful. A lot rests on you now. Don't let your pet wolf keep you from finding out what Sonya knows.'

"But he's right,' I exclaimed. "Its been five minutes! What she went through ... what they both went through ... well, it's kind of a big deal. Literally life-changing. He had to recover too and adjust to being saved. Once she does, she'll help us.'

"Are you sure?' he asked, narrowing his eyes. "Will she think she's been saved? You forget: Belikov was turned against his will. She wasn't.'

"W-what are you saying? That she's going to try to become Strigoi again?'

He shrugged. "I'm saying get your answers soon. And don't leave her alone.'

With that, Victor turned and headed toward the kitchen. He soon returned with a glass of water. Robert drank it greedily and then fell into a heavy sleep. I sighed and leaned against a wall near Sydney, totally worn out. I still hurt from the earlier fight.

"What now?' asked Sydney.

I shook my head. "I don't know. We wait, I guess.'

Dimitri returned a little while later and spared a small glance for Robert. "She's sleeping too,' he told me. "The transformation ... it's difficult.' I could see a haunted look in his eyes and wondered what memory was tormenting him now. The memory of being changed? The memory of being Strigoi?

"I don't think we should leave Sonya alone,' I said. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Victor smirk. "Someone should stay with her in case she wakes up. She won't know what's going on.'

Dimitri didn't answer for a few seconds as he scrutinized me. He knew me well enough to sense there might be something else on my mind. Fortunately, he couldn't find a fault in my logic.

"You're right. Do you mind sitting with her?' he asked Sydney.

I groped for something to say. No, no. Not Sydney. If Sonya did turn on us, we needed someone else on guard--someone who could fight back. Sydney, probably guessing my problem, saved me from lying to Dimitri--or from telling him the truth about my concerns.

"She doesn't know me. It might make things worse when she wakes up. Besides ...' Sydney put on that disgusted expression that Alchemists excelled at. "I don't really feel that comfortable with someone who was a monster five minutes ago.'

"She's not Strigoi,' he exclaimed. "She's absolutely, completely Moroi again!' Even I felt a little cowed by the harshness of his voice, but I wasn't entirely surprised at his vehement reaction. He'd had a hard time convincing others he'd changed. His face softened a little. "I know it's hard to believe, but she really has changed.'

"I'll stay with her then,' I said.

"No, no.' Dimitri shook his head. "Sydney's right about one thing: Sonya might be confused. It's better if someone's there who understands what's happened.' I started to argue that I was the only one Sonya really knew but then decided I'd rather stay with the brothers. They seemed harmless now, but I didn't trust them. Dimitri apparently didn't either. He took a few steps forward and leaned down, speaking only an inch from my ear.

"Keep an eye on them,' he murmured. "Robert's down right now but might recover sooner than we think.'

"I know.'

He started to turn, then glanced back at me. His commander face had softened into something thoughtful and awestruck. "Rose?'

"Yeah?'

"That ... was that what it was like when Lissa changed me?'

"More or less.'

"I didn't realize ... it was ...' He struggled for words. It was uncharacteristic. "The way that light filled the room, the way she changed. Seeing that life emerge from death ... it was ...'

"Beautiful?'

He nodded. "Life like that ... you don't--no, you can't waste it.'

"No,' I agreed. "You can't.'

I saw something shift in him then. It was small, just like in the alley, but I knew then another piece of the Strigoi-trauma had peeled away.

He said no more, and I watched as he walked back down the hall. With nothing else to do, Sydney sat down cross-legged on the floor, holding a book in her lap. It was closed, her thoughts clearly elsewhere. Meanwhile, Victor sat back in the armchair and reclined it. He didn't look as bad as Robert, but lines of fatigue showed on both brothers. Good. The longer they were out of commission, the better. I brought in a chair from the kitchen so I could sit and survey the room. Everything was peaceful.

I felt like a babysitter, which I suppose I kind of was. It had been a long day, and night soon turned the windows black. This made worried me. For all I knew, Sonya had some Strigoi pals who might stop by. The fact that Donovan knew her certainly indicated she wasn't a total outcast among them. It made me extra-vigilant, but at the same time, I was exhausted. The brothers were already asleep. Sydney, perhaps in an attempt to keep her human schedule, eventually found a spare blanket and pillow and curled up in a makeshift bed on the floor.

And me? I was halfway between human and vampiric schedules. I had a feeling Dimitri was the same. Really, we were on a do-what's-necessary schedule, in which extensive sleep was not an option.

A hum of excitement and astonishment suddenly sang through the bond. I sensed no danger or threat, but curiosity made me decide to check in with Lissa anyway. Even if I was in her mind, I knew my body would stay watchful, and I wanted to know how the rest of Lissa's test had gone.

Beautifully, of course. She rode back to Court, exhausted but proud of herself. She wasn't the only one. The rest of her companions all wore similar expressions ... all except for Ava Drozdov. She had been the only one to break and use the cell phone to call for help. Lissa was surprised that Ava had cracked. After his earlier bitching, Marcus Lazar had seemed the most likely to bail. But no, the old man had managed it somehow, meaning he'd continue on in the monarch trials. Ava refused to make eye contact with anyone, instead staring bleakly out the window as they traveled back to Court. She would still hold a Council spot, but her shot at being queen was gone.

Lissa felt bad for her but couldn't spare too much concern. It was the way of the trials, the way they determined the best candidates. Besides, Lissa had her own issues. Staying out in the daytime had run contrary to the normal vampiric schedule. Now, she simply wanted to get back to Court, find her room, and sleep for a few hours. She wanted some peace.

Instead, she found a mob waiting for her.

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