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Tempted / (by P.C. Cast, Kristin Cast, 2009) -

Tempted /  (by P.C. Cast, Kristin Cast, 2009) -

Tempted / (by P.C. Cast, Kristin Cast, 2009) -

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Tempted / (by P.C. Cast, Kristin Cast, 2009) -
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2009
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P.C. Cast, Kristin Cast
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Jenna Lamia
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,
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upper-intermediate
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11:01:19
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128 kbps
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mp3, pdf, doc

Tempted / :

.doc (Word) cast_p_c_cast_kristin_-_tempted.doc [710 Kb] (c: 10) .
.pdf cast_p_c_cast_kristin_-_tempted.pdf [693.83 Kb] (c: 11) .
audiobook (MP3) .


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TEMPTED CHAPTER ONE Zoey The night sky over Tulsa was alight with a magical crescent moon. Its brilliance made the ice that coated the city, and the Benedictine Abbey where wed just had our showdown with a fallen immortal and a rogue High Priestess, shimmer so that everything around me seemed touched by our Goddess. I looked at the moonlight-bathed circle that stood in front of Marys Grotto, the place of power where not long ago Spirit, Blood, Earth, Humanity, and Night had been personified and then had joined to triumph over hatred and darkness. The carved image of Mary, surrounded by stone roses and nestled within a ledge high in the grotto, appeared to be a beacon for the silver light. I stared at the statue. Marys expression was serene; her ice-covered cheeks glistened as if she wept in quiet joy. My gaze lifted to the sky. Thank you. I sent a silent prayer up to the beautiful crescent that symbolized my Goddess, Nyx. Were alive. Kalona and Neferet are gone. Thank you, I whispered to the moon. Listen within . . . The words swept through me, subtle and sweet like leaves touched by a summer breeze, brushing my consciousness so lightly that my waking mind barely registered them, yet Nyxs whispered command imprinted itself into my soul. I was vaguely aware that there were a lot of people (well, nuns, fledglings, and a few vampyres) around me. I could hear the mixture of shouting, talking, crying, and even laughing that filled the night, but it all felt distant. At that moment the only things that were real to me were the moon above and the scar that sliced from one shoulder all the way across my chest to the other shoulder. It tingled in response to my silent prayer, but it wasnt a tingle of pain. Not really. It was a familiar warm, prickling sensation that assured me Nyx had, once again, Marked me as hers. I knew if I peeked under the neck of my shirt I would find a new tattoo decorating that long, angry-looking scar with an exotic filigree of sapphirea sign that proved I was following my Goddesss path. Erik and Heath, find Stevie Rae, Johnny B, and Dallasthen check the perimeter of the abbey to be certain all the Raven Mockers fled with Kalona and Neferet! Darius shouted the command, snapping me out of my warm, fuzzy prayer mode, and once Id been shocked out, it was like an iPod had been cranked too high as sound and confusion flooded my senses. But Heaths a human. A Raven Mocker could kill him in a second. The words burst from my mouth before I could clamp it shut, proving beyond all doubt that being moonstruck wasnt my only moronic skill. Predictably, Heath puffed up like a cat-smacked toad. Zo, Im not a damn pussy! Erik, looking very tall and full-grown, kick-your-butt vampyre-like, snorted sarcastically and then said, No, youre a damn human. Wait, that does make you a pussy! So, we defeat the big baddies and inside five minutes Erik and Heath are banging their chests at each other. How totally predictable, Aphrodite said with her patented sarcastic sneer as she joined Darius, but her expression completely changed when she turned her attention to the Son of Erebus Warrior. Hey there, Hotness. You doing okay? You need not worry about me, Darius said. His eyes met hers, and they practically telegraphed the chemistry between them, but instead of going to her like he usually would and doing some very gross kissing, he remained focused on Stark. Aphrodites gaze went from Darius to Stark. Okay, eew. Your chest is totally crispy crittered. James Stark was standing between Darius and Erik. Okay, well, standing wasnt exactly what he was doing. Stark was swaying and looking extremely unsteady. Ignoring Aphrodite, Erik spoke up. Darius, you should probably get Stark inside. Ill coordinate the reconnoitering with Stevie Rae and make sure everything runs smoothly out here. His words seemed okay, but his tone was all Im-the-big-guy-in-charge, and when he followed up with a condescending Ill even let Heath help out, he really sounded like a pompous butt. Youll let me help out? Heath snapped. Your mom will let me help out. Hey, which one of them is supposed to be your boyfriend? Stark asked me. Even in the terrible shape he was in, he caught my glance with his. His voice was scratchy, and he sounded scarily weak, but his eyes sparkled with humor. I am! Heath and Erik said together. Oh, for craps sake, Zoey, theyre both idiots! Aphrodite said. Stark started to chuckle, which turned to a cough, which changed again to a painful gasp. His eyes rolled back and, like a slinky, he collapsed. Moving with the quickness that came naturally to a Son of Erebus Warrior, Darius caught Stark before he hit the ground. I need to get him inside, Darius said. I felt like my head was going to explode. Sagging in Dariuss arms, Stark looked well on his way to being dead. I-I dont even know where the infirmary is, I stuttered. Not a problem. Ill get a penguin to show us, Aphrodite said. Hey, you, nun! she yelled at one of the nearby black-and-white clad sisters who had scurried out of the abbey after the night had gone from battle chaos to aftermath chaos. Darius hurried after the nun, with Aphrodite following him. The warrior glanced over his shoulder at me. Arent you coming with us, Zoey? As soon as I can. Before I could deal with Erik and Heath, from behind me a familiar twang saved the day. Go on with Darius and Aphrodite, Z. Ill take care of Dumb and Dumber and be sure theres no booger monsters left out here. Stevie Rae, you are the Best Friend of All Best Friends. I turned and hugged her quickly, loving how reassuringly solid and normal she felt. Actually, she seemed so normal that I got a weird twinge when she stepped back and grinned at me and I saw, as if for the first time, the scarlet tattoos that spread out from the filled-in crescent in the middle of her forehead and down either side of her face. A sliver of unease threaded through me. Misunderstanding my hesitation, she said, Dont worry about these two dorks. Im gettin used to jerking them apart. When I just stood there staring at her, the bright smile shed been wearing dimmed. Hey, you know your grandmas okay, right? Kramisha got her back inside right after Kalona was banished and Sister Mary Angela just told me she was goin inside to check on her. Yeah, I remember Kramisha helping her into the wheelchair. Im just . . . My voice trailed off. I was just what? How could I put into words that I was haunted by a feeling that everything wasnt right with my best friend and the group of kids shed allied herself with, and how do I say that to my best friend? Youre just tired and worried bout a bunch of stuff, Stevie Rae said softly. Was that understanding I saw flicker through her eyes? Or was it something else, something darker? I get it, Z, and Ill take care of things out here. You just be sure Starks okay. She hugged me again, and then gave me a little push in the direction of the abbey. Kay. Thanks, I said lamely, starting toward the abbey and totally ignoring the two dorks who were standing there staring at me. Stevie Rae called after me, Hey, remind Darius or someone to keep an eye on the time. Its only about an hour until sunrise, and you know me and all the red fledglings gotta be inside out of the sun by then. Yeah, no problem. Ill remember, I said. The problem was it was getting harder and harder for me to forget Stevie Rae wasnt what she used to be. CHAPTER TWO Stevie Rae All right, you two, listen up. Im only gonna say this onceact right. Standing between the two guys, Stevie Rae put her hands on her hips and glared at Erik and Heath. Without taking her eyes from them she yelled, Dallas! Almost instantly the kid jogged up to her. Whats up, Stevie Rae? Get Johnny B. Tell him to take Heath and search around the front part of the abbey over by Lewis Street and make sure the Raven Mockers are really gone. You and Erik take the south side of the building. Ill go down along the tree row by Twenty-first and check it out. All by yourself? Erik said. Yes, all by myself, Stevie Rae snapped. Are you forgettin I could stomp my foot right now and make the ground under you shake? I could also pick you up and toss you on your silly jealous butt. I think I can handle checkin out those trees by myself. Beside her, Dallas laughed. And Im thinking red vamp with an earth element affinity trumps blue drama vamp. That made Heath snort and laugh; and, predictably, Erik started to bow up again. No! Stevie Rae said before the stupid boys started throwing punches. If yall cant say anything nice, then just shut the heck up. Did you want me, Stevie Rae? Johnny B said, coming up to stand beside her. I saw Darius carrying that arrow kid into the abbey. He said I should find you. Yeah, she said with relief. I want you and Heath to check out the front part of the abbey over by Lewis. Make sure those Raven Mockers really are gone. Im on it! Johnny B said, giving Heath a pretend punch on the shoulder. Come on, quarterback, lets see what you got. Just pay attention to the dang trees and shadowy stuff, Stevie Rae said, shaking her head as Heath ducked and dodged and struck Johnny Bs shoulder with a few quick punches. No problem, Dallas said, starting to move off with a silent Erik. Make it quick, Stevie Rae called to both sets of guys. The sunll be up soon. Yall meet me in front of Marys Grotto in half an hour or so. Holler loud if you find anything and well all come runnin. She watched the four guys to be sure they were really going where shed sent them, and then Stevie Rae turned and, with a sigh, started on her own mission. Dang, talk about annoying! She loved Z more than white bread, but dealing with her BFFs boyfriends was making her feel like a toad in a tornado! She used to think Erik was the hottest guy in the world. After spending a couple of days with him, she now thought he was a big ol pain in the butt with a super-sized ego. Heath was sweet, but he was just a human, and Z had been right to worry about him. Humans definitely died easier than vamps or even fledglings. She glanced over her shoulder, trying to catch sight of Johnny B and Heath, but the icy darkness and the trees had swallowed her and she couldnt see anyone. Not that Stevie Rae minded being by herself for a change. Johnny B would keep an eye on Heath. The truth was that she was glad to be rid of him and jealous Erik for a little while. The two of them made her appreciate Dallas. He was simple and easy. He was her kinda-sorta boyfriend. The two of them had a thing, but it didnt get in the way of stuff. Dallas knew Stevie Rae had a lot to deal with, so he let her deal. And he was there for the off times. Easy-peasy, cute and breezy! That was Dallas. Z could learn a thing or two about handling guys from me, she thought as she trudged through the grove of old trees that ringed Marys Grotto and buffered the abbeys land from busy Twenty-first Street. Well, one thing was for sureit was definitely a crappy night. Stevie Rae hadnt gone a dozen paces before her short blond curls were soaked. Dang, water was even drippin off her nose! She backhanded her face, wiping off the cold, wet mixture of rain and ice. Everything was so weirdly dark and silent. It was freaky that there were absolutely no streetlights working on Twenty-first. Not one car was on the streetnot even a cruising TPD squad car. She slipped and slid down the incline. Her feet met road and only her super-good red vampyre night vision kept her oriented. It seemed like Kalona had run away and taken sound and light with him. Feeling skittish, she backhanded the sopping wet hair from her face again and pulled herself together. Youre actin like a chicken, and you know how stupid chickens are! She spoke aloud and then got double spooked when her words sounded bizarrely magnified by the ice and darkness. Why in the world was she so jumpy? It could be cause youre keepin stuff from your BFF, Stevie Rae muttered, and then clamped her lips shut. Her voice was just too loud in the dark, ice-filled night. But she was gonna tell Z about the other stuff. Really she was! There just hadnt been time. And Z had enough on her mind without more stress. And . . . and . . . it was hard to talk about it, even to Zoey. Stevie Rae kicked at a broken, ice-covered branch. She knew it didnt matter if it was hard. She was gonna talk to Zoey. She had to. But later. Maybe a lot later. Better to focus on the present, at least for right now. Squinting and cupping her hand over her eyes to try to shield them from the sting of the icy rain, Stevie Rae peered up into the branches of the trees. Even with the darkness and the storm her eyesight was good, and she was relieved not to see any big dark bodies lurking above her. Finding it easier to walk on the side of the road, she made her way down Twenty-first Street heading away from the abbey, all the while keeping her eyes up. It wasnt until she was almost at the fence line that divided the nuns property from the upscale condo beside it that Stevie Rae smelled it. Blood. A wrong kind of blood. She stopped. Looking almost feral, Stevie Rae sniffed the air. It was filled with the wet, musty scent of ice as it coated earth, the crisp, cinnamon smell of the winter trees, and the man-made tang of the asphalt beneath her feet. She ignored those scents and instead focused on the blood. It wasnt human blood, or even fledgling blood, so it didnt smell like sunlight and springhoney and chocolatelove and life and everything that shed ever dreamed of. No, this blood smelled too dark. Too thick. There was too much of something in it that wasnt human. But it was still blood, and it drew her, even though she knew the wrongness of it deep in her soul. It was the scent of something strange, something otherworldly, that led her to the first splashes of crimson. In the stormy darkness of the sunless predawn, even her enhanced vision saw it only as wet splotches against the ice that sheeted the road and covered the grass beside it. But Stevie Rae knew it was blood. A lot of blood. But there was no animal or human lying there bleeding. Instead there was a trail of liquid darkness thickening in the sheeting ice, moving away from the street and into the densest part of the grove behind the abbey. Her predators instincts kicked in instantly. Stevie Rae moved stealthily, hardly breathing, hardly making a sound, as she tracked the blood path. It was beneath one of the largest trees that she found it, hunkered down under a huge, newly broken branch as if it had dragged itself there to hide and die. Stevie Rae felt a shudder of fear pass through her. It was a Raven Mocker. The creature was huge. Bigger than shed thought theyd looked from a distance. It lay on its side, head tucked down against the ground, so she couldnt see its face very well. The giant wing she could see looked wrong, obviously broken, and the human arm that lay beneath it was weirdly angled and covered with blood. Its legs were human, too, and curled up like it had died in a fetal position. She remembered hearing Darius firing a gun as he and Z and the gang had ridden like bats outta hell down Twenty-first to the abbey. So, hed shot it from the sky. Dang, she said under her breath. That mustve been one heck of a fall. Stevie Rae cupped her hands around her mouth and was getting ready to holler for Dallas so he and the other guys could help her drag the body somewhere when the Raven Mocker twitched and opened its eyes. She froze. The two of them stared at each other. The creatures red eyes widened, looking surprised and impossibly human in the bird face. They flicked around her and behind her, checking to see if she was alone. Automatically, Stevie Rae crouched, putting her hands up defensively and centering herself to call earth to strengthen her. And then he spoke. Kill me. End this, he gasped, panting in pain. The sound of his voice was so human, so completely unexpected that Stevie Rae dropped her hands and staggered a step back. You can talk! she blurted. Then the Raven Mocker did something that utterly shocked Stevie Rae and irrevocably changed the course of her life. He laughed. It was a dry, sarcastic sound, and it ended in a moan of pain. But it was laughter, and it framed his words with humanity. Yes, he said between gasps for breath. I talk. I bleed. I die. Kill me and be done with it. He tried to sit up then, as if he were eager to meet his death, and the movement caused him to cry out in agony. His too-human eyes rolled back and he collapsed to the frozen ground, unconscious. Stevie Rae moved before she remembered even making the decision. When she reached him, she only hesitated for a second. Hed passed out facedown, so it was a simple thing for her to move his wings aside and grab him under his arms. He was big, really biglike, as big as a real guy, and shed braced herself for him to be heavy, but he wasnt. Actually, he was so light that it was super-easy to drag him, which was what she found herself doing while her mind screamed at her: What the hell? What the hell? What the hell? What the hell was she doing? Stevie Rae didnt know. All she knew was what she wasnt doing. She wasnt killing the Raven Mocker. CHAPTER THREE Zoey Is he going to be okay? I tried to whisper so I wouldnt wake Stark and was, apparently, unsuccessful, because his closed eyelids fluttered and his lips tilted up slightly in a painful ghost of his cocky half smile. Im not dead yet, he said. And Im not talking to you, I said in a much more irritated voice than Id intended. Temper, u-we-tsi-a-ge-ya, Grandma Redbird rebuked me gently as Sister Mary Angela, prioress of the Benedictine nuns, helped her into the little infirmary room. Grandma! There you are! I hurried to her and helped Sister Mary Angela ease her into a chair. Shes just worried about me. Starks eyes were closed again but his lips still hinted at a smile. I know that, tsi-ta-ga-a-s-ha-ya. But Zoey is a High Priestess in training and she must learn to control her emotions. Tsi-ta-ga-a-s-ha-ya! That would have made me laugh out loud if Grandma hadnt looked so pale and frail, and if I hadnt been so, well, worried in general. Sorry, Grandma. I should watch my temper, but its kinda hard when the people I love most keep almost dying! I finished in a rush and had to draw a deep breath to steady myself. And shouldnt you be in bed? Soon, u-we-tsi-a-ge-ya, soon. What does tsi-ta-ga-a-s- whatever mean? Starks voice was thick with pain as Darius spread a thick cream over his burns, but in spite of the wound he sounded amused and curious. Tsi-ta-ga-a-s-ha-ya, Grandma corrected his pronunciation, means rooster. His eyes glimmered with humor. Everyone says youre a wise woman. Which is less interesting than what everyone says about you, tsi-ta-ga-a-s-ha-ya, Grandma said. Stark barked a quick laugh and then sucked air painfully. Be still! Darius commanded. Sister, I thought you said you guys had a doctor here. I tried not to sound as panicky as I felt. A human doctor cannot help him, Darius said before Sister Mary Angela could respond. He needs rest and quiet and Rest and quiet are fine, Stark interrupted him. Like I said before: Im not dead yet. He met Dariuss eyes and I saw the Son of Erebus shrug and nod his head briefly, as if hed conceded some point to the younger vampyre. I should have just ignored the little interplay between them, but my patience had evaporated hours before. Okay, what arent you telling me? The nun whod been assisting Darius shot me a long, cold look and said, Perhaps the injured boy needs to know his sacrifice was not made in vain. The nuns harsh words gave me a jolt of guilty shock that closed my throat and didnt let me respond to the hard-eyed woman. The sacrifice Stark had been willing to make was his life for mine. I swallowed past the dryness in my throat. What was my life worth? I was just a kidbarely seventeen. Id messed up over and over again. I was the reincarnation of a girl created to trap a fallen angel, and that meant deep inside my soul I couldnt help loving him, even when I knew I shouldnt . . . couldnt . . . No. I wasnt worth the sacrifice of Starks life. I already know it. Starks voice didnt waver; suddenly he sounded strong and sure. I blinked my vision free of tears and met his eyes. What I did was just part of my job, he said. Im a Warrior. Ive sworn my life into the service of Zoey Redbird, High Priestess and Beloved of Nyx. That means Im working for our Goddess and being knocked to the ground and burned a little really doesnt mean shit if I helped Zoey beat the bad guys. Well said, tsi-ta-ga-a-s-ha-ya, Grandma told him. Sister Emily, I relieve you of your infirmary duties for the rest of the night. Please send Sister Bianca here in your stead. I believe you should, perhaps, spend some time in quiet contemplation of Luke 6:37, said Sister Mary Angela. As you wish, Sister, the nun said and hurried from the room. Luke 6:37? Whats that? I asked. Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven, my grandma said. She was sharing a smile with Sister Mary Angela when Damien knocked softly on the half-open door. Can we come in? Theres someone who really needs to see Stark. Damien glanced over his shoulder and made a stay-there motion behind him. The soft woof! that came in response told me the someone was really a somedog. Dont let her come in. Stark grimaced in pain as he abruptly turned his head away so that he couldnt see Damien or the doorway. Tell that Jack kid shes his now. No. I stopped Damien as he began to back away. Have Jack bring Duchess in. Zoey, no, I Stark began, but my raised hand stilled him. Just bring her in, I said. Then I met Starks eyes. Do you trust me? He looked at me for what seemed like a really long time. I saw his vulnerability and pain clearly, but finally he nodded once and said, I trust you. Go ahead, Damien, I said. Damien turned and murmured something over his shoulder and then he moved aside. Jack, Damiens boyfriend, came into the room first. His cheeks were pink and his eyes were suspiciously bright. He stopped after a couple of feet and turned back to the door. Come on. Its okay. Hes in here, Jack coaxed. The blond Lab padded into the room and I was surprised by how quietly she moved for such a big dog. She stopped briefly by Jacks side and looked up at him, wagging her tail. Its okay, Jack repeated. He smiled at Duchess and then wiped away the tears that had escaped his eyes and were slipping down his cheeks. Hes better now. Jack made a motion to the bed. Duchesss head turned in the direction hed pointed, and she looked directly at Stark. The injured boy and the dog just stared at each other while I swear we all held our breath. Hi, pretty girl. Stark spoke hesitantly, his voice choked with tears. Duchesss ears perked up and her head cocked. Stark held a hand out and made a beckoning motion. Come here, Duch. Like his command had broken a dam inside the dog, Duchess surged forward, whining and wriggling and woofingbasically sounding and acting way more like a puppy than her one hundred plus pounds said she could no way be. No! Darius commanded. Not up on the bed! Duchess obeyed the warrior and contented herself with stuffing her head against Starks side and sliding her big nose under his armpit while she wagged her entire body, and Stark, face glowing with happiness, petted her and told her over and over again how much hed missed her and what a good girl she was. I hadnt realized Id been bawling, too, until Damien handed me a tissue. Thanks, I muttered, and wiped my face. He smiled briefly at me, and then he moved to Jacks side, putting his arm around his boyfriend and patting his shoulder (and handing him a tissue, too). I heard Damien tell him, Come on, lets go find the room the sisters have ready for us. You need to rest. Jack made a sniffling, hiccupping sob sound, nodded, and let Damien begin to lead him from the room. Wait, Jack, Stark called after them. Jack looked at the bed where Duchess still had her head pressed against Stark, who had his arm wrapped around the Labs neck. You did good taking care of Duch when I couldnt. It wasnt any trouble. Ive never had a dog before, so I didnt know how really great they are. Jacks voice broke only a little. He cleared his throat and went on. ImIm glad youre not, uh, evil and awful and stuff like that anymore so she can be with you again. Yeah, about that. Stark paused, grimacing as the pain of his movements caught up with him. Im not exactly one hundred percent yet, and even when I am, Im not sure what my schedules going to be. So Im thinking that it would be a big favor to me if you and I could maybe share Duchess. Really? Jacks face lit up. Stark nodded wearily. Really. Could you and Damien take Duch back to your room, and maybe bring her to see me again later? Absolutely! Jack said, and then he cleared his throat and continued. Yeah, like I said before. She hasnt been any problem. Good, Stark said. He lifted Duchesss muzzle in his hand and looked into the Labs eyes. Im okay now, pretty girl. You go with Jack so I can get all better. I knew it must have caused him agony, but Stark sat up then and bent to kiss Duchess and let the dog lick his face. Good girl . . . thats my pretty girl . . . he whispered, and kissed her again and said, Go on with Jack now! Go on! and he motioned to Jack. After one last lick of Starks face, and a single reluctant whimper, she turned from the bed and trotted to Jacks side, wagging her tail at him and nuzzling him in greeting while he wiped his eyes with one hand and petted her with the other. Ill take really good care of her and bring her back to see you as soon as the sun sets today. Okay? Stark managed a smile. Okay, thanks, Jack. Then he collapsed onto the pillows. He needs rest and quiet, Darius told all of us, and he continued to work over Stark. Zoey, perhaps you can help me get your grandma to her room? She, too, needs rest and quiet. It has been a long night for all of us, said Sister Mary Angela. Shifting my worry from Stark to Grandma, I looked back and forth between the two people I cared so much about. Stark caught my gaze. Hey, take care of your grandma. I can feel that the sun will be rising soon. Im going to go out like a light about then. Well . . . okay. I went over to the side of his bed and stood there awkwardly. What was I supposed to do? Kiss him? Squeeze his hand? Give him a thumbs-up and a dorky smile? I mean, he wasnt my official boyfriend, but he and I had a bond that went beyond just friends. Feeling confused and worried and basically out of my comfort zone, I put my hand on his shoulder and whispered, Thank you for saving my life. His eyes met mine and the rest of the room faded away. Im always going to keep your heart safe, even if mine has to stop beating for that to happen, he told me softly. I bent and kissed his forehead, murmuring, Lets try not to let that happen, kay? Okay, he whispered. Ill see you when the sun sets again, I told Stark before finally hurrying over to Grandma. Sister Mary Angela and I eased her to her feet, almost carrying her out of Starks room and down a short hall to another hospital-like room. Grandma felt tiny and fragile under my supporting arm and my stomach twisted anew with worry for her. Stop fretting, u-we-tsi-a-ge-ya, she said as Sister Mary Angela propped pillows around her and helped make her comfortable. Im going to get your pain medication, Sister Mary Angela told Grandma. Im also going to be sure the blinds in Starks room are closed and the drapes drawn tight, so you have a few minutes to chat, but when I come back Ill insist you take your pain pill and sleep. Youre a hard taskmistress, Mary Angela, Grandma said. It takes one to know one, Sylvia, said the nun. And she hurried from the room. Grandma smiled at me and patted the bed next to her. Come sit close to me, u-we-tsi-a-ge-ya. I sat beside Grandma, tucking my legs up under me, trying to be careful not to jostle the bed too much. Her face was bruised and burned from the airbag that had saved her life. Part of her lip and her cheek had stitches darkening them. She had a bandage on her head and her right arm was swathed in a scary-looking cast. Ironic, isnt it, that my wounds look so terrible, but they are far less painful and far-reaching than the invisible wounds inside of you, she said. I started to tell Grandma I was really okay, but her next words sliced through what was left of my denial. How long have you known you were the reincarnation of the maiden A-ya? CHAPTER FOUR Zoey I felt drawn to Kalona from the first second I saw him, I said slowly. I wouldnt lie to Grandma, but that didnt mean telling her the truth would be easy. But almost all the fledglings and even the vampyres were drawn to himactually, it was like they were under some kind of spell he was able to cast. Grandma nodded. So I already heard from Stevie Rae. But it was different with you? More than just this magical allure he has? Yeah. With me it wasnt so much that I was under his spell. I swallowed past the dryness in my throat. I wasnt tricked into thinking he was Erebus come to earth, and I knew he planned evil with Neferet. I saw his darkness. But I also wanted to be with himnot just because I believed he might still be able to choose to be good, but because I wanted him, even though I knew it was wrong. But you fought against that desire, u-we-tsi-a-ge-ya. You chose your own path, that of love and goodness and your Goddess, and thus the creature was banished. You chose love, she repeated slowly. Let that be balm to the wound he has rent in your soul. The tight, panicky feeling in my chest began to loosen. I can follow my own path, I said with more conviction than Id felt since first realizing I was A-ya reincarnated. Then I frowned. There was no denying that she and I were connected. Call it essence or soul or spirit or whateverit tied me to an immortal being as surely as the earth had imprisoned him for centuries. Im not A-ya, I repeated more slowly, but Im not through with Kalona. What do I do, Grandma? Grandma took my hand in hers and squeezed. As you said, you follow your path. And right now that path is leading you to a soft, warm bed and a full days sleep. One crisis at a time? One thing at a time, she said. And its time you followed your own advice, Sylvia, Sister Mary Angela said as she bustled into the room with a Dixie cup of water in one hand and pills in another. Grandma smiled wearily up at the nun and took the medicine from her. I noticed that her hands were shaking as she placed the pills on her tongue and drank the water. Grandma, Im going to let you rest now. I love you, u-we-tsi-a-ge-ya. You did well today. I couldnt have done it without you. I love you, too, Grandma. I bent and kissed her forehead, and as she closed her eyes and settled back against her pillows with a contented smile, I followed Sister Mary Angela from the room and fired questions at her as soon as we were in the hall. Did you find rooms for everyone? Are the red fledglings doing okay? Do you have a clue if Stevie Rae got Erik and Heath and whoever else together to check out the area around the abbey? Is everything safe out there? Sister Mary Angela held her hand up to stop my word flood. Child, take a breath and let me speak. I suppressed a sigh but managed to stay quiet as I followed her down the hallway while she explained that she and the nuns had set up a cozy dormlike area for the red fledglings in the basement, after Stevie Rae had told her theyd be most comfortable down there. My gang was upstairs in the guest dorms, and yes, the kids had given an all clear on the Raven Mockers outside. You know, you really are incredible. I smiled at her as we paused outside a closed door at the end of a long hall. Thank you. I am my Ladys servant, and you are most welcome, she said simply and held the door open for me. This is the stairwell that leads down to the basement. Ive been told that most of the kids are down there already. Zoey! There you are. You have to come check this out. You will not believe what Stevie Rae did, Damien said as he hurried up the stairs toward us. I felt my stomach clench. What? I immediately started down to meet him. Whats wrong? He grinned at me. Nothings wrong. Its incredible. Damien took my hand and pulled me with him. Damiens right about that, said Sister Mary Angela, coming down the stairs after us. But I think incredible is the wrong word for it. Is the right word more like terrible or horrible? I asked. He squeezed my hand. Stop being such a worrier. You beat Kalona and Neferet tonight; everythings going to be okay. I squeezed his hand back and made myself smile and look less worried, even though I knew deep in my heart, deep in my soul, that what had happened tonight had not been an ending or even a victory. It had been a terrible, horrible beginning. Wow. I stared around in shocked disbelief. Wow squared is more like it, Damien said. Stevie Rae really did this? Thats what Jack told me, Damien said. He and I stood side by side and peered into the darkness of the newly hollowed earth. Okaycreepy. I spoke my thoughts aloud. Damien gave me an odd look. What do you mean? Well, I paused, not entirely sure what I did mean, even though the tunnel definitely made me feel uneasy. Um, its, uh . . . really dark. Damien laughed. Of course its dark. Its supposed to be dark. Its a hole in the ground. To me it feels more natural than a hole in the ground, said Sister Mary Angela as she joined us at the mouth of the tunnel, peering with us down its black length. For some reason it comforts me. Perhaps its the way it smells. The three of us sniffed. I smelled, well, dirt. But Damien said, It smells rich and healthy. Like a newly plowed field, the nun agreed. See, its not creepy, Z. Id definitely hide down here during a tornado, Damien said. Feeling overly sensitive and kinda silly, I blew out a long breath and peered into the tunnel, trying to see it with new eyes and feel it with a more accurate instinct. Could I use your flashlight for a second, Sister? Of course. Sister Mary Angela handed me the big, square, heavy-duty flashlight shed carried with us from the main basement into this little side section shed called their root cellar. The ice storm that had encased Tulsa for the past several days had knocked out the abbeys poweras it had most of the citys power. They did have gas generators, so in the main part of the abbey a few electric lights were on, along with the zillions of candles the nuns liked so much, but they hadnt wasted electricity in the root cellar, and the only illumination came from the nuns flashlight. This I shined into the hole in the ground. The tunnel wasnt very big. If I spread my arms, I could easily touch both sides of it. I looked up. It only cleared my head by about a foot. I sniffed again, trying to find the sense of comfort the nun and Damien obviously felt. My nose wrinkled. The place reeked of dark and dampness, roots and things that had been stirred up from under the surface. I suspected those things slithered and crawled, which automatically made my skin shiver and crawl. Then I mentally shook myself. Why should a tunnel in the earth seem so gross? I had an affinity for earth. I could conjure it. I shouldnt be afraid of it. Gritting my teeth, I took one step into the tunnel. Then another. And another. Hey, uh, Z, dont go too far. You have the only light, and I wouldnt want Sister Mary Angela to be left back here in the dark. She might get scared. I shook my head and, smiling, turned around, shining the flashlight toward the entrance and illuminating Damiens worried face and Sister Mary Angelas serene one. You wouldnt want the nun to be afraid of the dark? Damien shifted guiltily. Sister Mary Angela rested her hand on his shoulder for a moment. It is kind of you to think of me, Damien, but I have no fear of the dark. I was giving Damien a dont be such a sissy look when the feeling hit me. The air behind me changed. I knew I wasnt alone in that tunnel anymore. Fear fingered its way up my spine and I had a sudden urge to runto get out of there as fast as I could and to never, ever come back. And I did almost run. Then I surprised myself by getting mad. Id just faced a fallen immortala creature I was connected to on a soul-deep leveland I hadnt run then. I wasnt going to run now. Zoey? What is it? Damiens voice sounded far away as I whirled around to face the darkness. Suddenly a flickering light, like the glowing eye of an underground monster, materialized. The light wasnt big, but it was bright, temporarily causing spots in my field of vision and partially blinding me so that when I looked up the monster appeared to have three heads, with a wild, waving mane, and shoulders that looked mismatched and grotesque. Then I did what any sensible kid would do. I sucked air and let loose with my very best girl scream, which was instantly and creepily echoed by the three mouths of the single-eyed monster. I could hear Damien shrieking behind me, and I swear Sister Mary Angela even squeaked a startled gasp. I was starting to do exactly what Id just promised myself I wouldnt dorun like hell, when one of the heads stopped screaming and stepped forward into the beam of the flashlight. Shit, Zoey! What is wrong with you? Its just the Twins and me. You scared us crapless, said Aphrodite. Aphrodite? My hand clutched my chest over my heart, trying to keep it from pounding out of my body. Of course its me, she said, marching past me in disgust. Goddess! Get a grip. The Twins were still standing in the tunnel. Erin was holding a thick pillar candle so tightly her knuckles were white. Shaunee was standing next to her, so close their shoulders were smashed together. They looked frozen and big-eyed. Uh, hi, I said. I didnt know you guys were down here. Shaunee thawed first. Ya think? She wiped a shaking hand delicately across her forehead and turned to Erin. Twin, did she scare me white? Erin blinked at her BFF. I dont think thats possible. She squinted at Shaunee. But no, she didnt. Youre still a gorgeous cappuccino. Erins hand that wasnt holding the candle flew up to her thick, golden hair and patted through it frantically. Did she make my hair fall out or turn unattractively and prematurely gray? I frowned at the Twins. Erin, your hair is not falling out or turning gray, and Shaunee, you cannot be scared white. Jeesh, you guys scared me first, I said. Look, next time you need to chase off Neferet and Kalona, just scream like that, Erin said. Yeah, it makes you sound like you lost every bit of your damn mind, Shaunee said as they swept past me. I followed them out into the root cellar where Damien was fanning himself and looking gayer than usual, and Sister Mary Angela had just finished crossing herself. I set the flashlight butt end down on a table crowded with stuff in glass jars that looked eerily like floating fetuses in the murky light. So, really, what were you guys doing down here? I said. That Dallas kid told us this is how they got here from the depot, Shaunee said. He said it was cool down here and that Stevie Rae had made it, Erin said. So we thought wed come down here and see for ourselves, Shaunee said. And why are you down here with the Twins? I asked Aphrodite. The Dynamic Duo needed protecting. Naturally they turned to me. How did you guys suddenly appear like that, anyway? Damien asked before Twin bickering could start. Easy-peasy. Erin walked quickly back down the tunnel, still carrying her candle. She turned to face us after shed gotten just a few feet farther in than Id been. The tunnel makes a sharp left here. She stepped to the side and her light disappeared, then she stepped back and reappeared. Thats why we didnt see each other till the last second. It really is amazing that Stevie Rae somehow did this, Damien said. I noticed he didnt move any closer to the tunnel, but stayed by the flashlight. Sister Mary Angela approached the entrance. She touched the side of the newly hollowed out hole with reverence and said, Stevie Rae did this, but she did it with divine intervention. By divine intervention, are you talkin bout more of your the-Virgin-Mary-is-just-another-form-of-Nyx stuff? Stevie Raes twang coming from the other side of the root cellar made us all jump. Yes, child. That is exactly what I mean. I dont wanna off end you, but thats just about the weirdest thing Ive ever heard, Stevie Rae said. She walked over to us, and I thought she looked pale. As she got closer to me I smelled something strange, but her grin made her face change to her cute, familiar self. Z, did that big ol girl scream I heard come from you? Uh, yeah. I couldnt help grinning back at her. I was inside the tunnel and I didnt expect to run into the Twins and Aphrodite. Well, that makes sense. Aphrodite is kinda booger monstery, Stevie Rae said. I laughed, and then, grabbing the opportunity to change the subject, I said, Uh, speaking of monsters, did you find any Raven Mockers left up there? Stevie Raes eyes shifted from mine. Its all safe. Nothin for you to worry about, she said quickly. Im so glad, Sister Mary Angela was saying. Those creatures were such an abominationmixing man and beast. She shivered. Im relieved we are rid of them. But it wasnt their fault, Stevie Rae said abruptly. Pardon me? The nun looked more than a little confused at Stevie Raes defensive tone. They didnt ask to be born like they wereall mixed up because of rape and evil. They really were victims. I dont feel sorry for them, I said, wondering why Stevie Rae sounded like she was standing up for the nasty Raven Mockers. Damien shivered. Do we have to talk about them? Nope, we sure dont, Stevie Rae said quickly. Good, and anyway, the reason I brought Zoey down here was to show her the tunnel you made, Stevie Rae. I have to tell youI think its astonishing. Thanks, Damien! It was seriously cool when I figured out I could actually do it. Stevie Rae took a few steps past me and into the mouth of the tunnel, where she was instantly surrounded by the total darkness that stretched behind her like the insides of a huge ebony snake. She raised her arms so that her palms pressed against the dirt walls of the tunnel. Suddenly she reminded me of a scene from Samson and Delilah, an old movie Id watched with Damien a month or so ago. The image that flashed through my memory was when Delilah had led the blind Samson to stand between massive pillars that held up the stadium filled with awful people taunting him. Hed gotten his magical strength back and ended up pushing the pillars apart and destroying himself and . . . Isnt that right, Zoey? Huh? I blinked, disturbed by the sad, destructive scene Id been reliving in my mind. I said, Mary didnt move the earth for me when I made the tunnel; the power Nyx gave me did. Jeesh, youre not payin attention to me at all, Stevie Rae said. Shed taken her hands from the side of the tunnel and was giving me her whats going on inside your head now? look. Sorry, what were you saying about Nyx? Just that I really dont think Nyx and the dang Virgin Mary have anything to do with each other; Jesus mama definitely didnt help me move the earth to make this tunnel. She shrugged a shoulder. I dont want to hurt your feelings or nothin like that, Sister, but thats what I think. Youre entitled to your own opinion, Stevie Rae, said the nun, looking as calm as usual. But you should know that saying you dont believe in something doesnt make it any less possible that it exists. Well, Ive been giving this some thought, and personally I dont find it such an odd hypothesis, Damien said. You should remember that in your Fledgling Handbook 101, Mary is illustrated as one of the many faces of Nyx. Huh, I said. Really? Damien gave me a stern look that clearly said you really should be a better student before he nodded, and in his best schoolteacher voice continued, Yes. It is well documented that during the influx of Christianity into Europe, shrines to Gaea, as well as Nyx, were converted to shrines for Mary long before people converted to the new . . . Damiens droning on and on was a soothing background as I peered into the tunnel. The darkness was deep and thick. Just inches behind Stevie Rae I could see nothing. Absolutely nothing. I stared, imagining forms hiding there. Someone or something could be lurking mere feet from us and wed never know it, not if they didnt want to be seen. And that scared me. Okay, but thats ridiculous! I told myself. Its just a tunnel. Still, my irrational fear pushed at me. Which, sadly, pissed me off and made me want to push back. So, like every moronic blond extra in a horror movie, I took one step into the darkness. And then another. The dark swallowed me. My mind knew I was only a couple of feet from the root cellar and my friends. I could hear Damien blabbing about religion and the Goddess. But my mind wasnt what was beating in terror against my chest. My heart, my spirit, my soulwhatever you want to call itwas screaming soundlessly for me to run! Get away! Go! I felt the pressure of the earth as if it wasnt a hole in the ground, but instead it had filled in, covering me . . . suff ocating me . . . trapping me. My breath was coming faster and faster. I knew I must be hyperventilating, but I couldnt stop myself. I wanted to back away from the hole that snaked away from my feet into the darkness, but all I could manage was a stumbled half step back. I couldnt make my feet do what I was telling them to do! Dots of lights sparkled in my eyes, blinding me, while everything else started to go gray. Then I was falling . . . falling . . . CHAPTER FIVE Zoey The darkness was unrelieved. Blinding more than my sight, it wiped away all of my senses. I thought I was gasping for breath and flailing around, trying to find somethinganything I could touch, hear, or smellanything that would give me a handhold on reality. But I had no sensation at all. The cocoon of darkness and the fluttering of my frantic heartbeat were all I knew. Was I dead? No, I didnt think so. I remembered that Id been in the tunnel under the Benedictine Abbey, only a few feet away from my friends. Id been freaked out by the darkness, but that couldnt have made me drop dead. But Id been afraid. I remembered being very afraid. Then there had been nothing but this darkness. Whats happened to me? Nyx! My mind screamed. Help me, Goddess! Please show me some kind of light! Listen with your soul . . . I thought I cried aloud at the sweet, reassuring sound of the Goddesss voice in my mind, but when her words were gone, there was only the unrelenting silence and darkness. How in the hell was I supposed to listen with my soul? I tried to calm myself and hear something, but there was just silencea soul-sucking, black, empty, utter silence like nothing Id ever before experienced. I had no framework to guide me here, I only knew The realization struck me and my mind reeled with understanding. I did have a framework to guide me. Part of me had experienced this darkness before. I couldnt see. I couldnt feel. I couldnt do anything but turn within myself, questing for the part of me that might be able to make sense of this, that might be able to guide me out of here. Memory stirred again, this time taking me back long before the night in the tunnel under the abbey. The years fell away with my re sis tance until finally, finally I felt again. My senses returned slowly. I began to hear more than my own thoughts. There was a drumbeat that pulsed around me, and within it were woven the distant voices of women. The sense of smell returned to me, and I recognized the dank scent that reminded me of the abbey tunnel. Finally, I could feel the earth against my naked back. I only had an instant to sift through the flood of my returned senses before the rest of my awareness was jolted awake. I wasnt alone! My back was pressed against the earth, but I was being held tightly in someones arms. Then he spoke. Oh, Goddess, no! Do not let this be! It was Kalonas voice, and my immediate reaction was to cry out and struggle blindly away from him, but I wasnt in charge of my body and the words that came from my mouth were not my own. Sssh, do not despair. I am with you, my love. You trapped me! Even as he cried the accusation, his arms tightened around me, and I recognized the cold passion of his immortal embrace. I saved you, my strange voice responded as my body settled more intimately against his. You were not meant to walk this world. That is why you have been so unhappy, so insatiable. I had no choice! The mortals do not understand. My arms wrapped around his neck. My fingers twined through his soft, heavy hair. I understand. Be at peace here with me. Lay down your sad restlessness. I will comfort you. I felt his surrender before he spoke the words. Yes, Kalona murmured. I will bury my sadness within you and my desperate longing will finally be spent. Yes, my love, my consort, my Warrior . . . yes . . . It was that moment that I lost myself within A-ya. I couldnt tell where her desire ended and my soul began. If I still had a choice, I didnt want it. I only knew that I was where I was destined to bein Kalonas arms. His wings covered us, keeping the chill of his touch from burning me. His lips met mine. We explored each other slowly, thoroughly, with a sense of wonder and surrender. As our bodies began to move together I knew complete joy. And then, suddenly, I started to dissolve. No! The scream was wrenched from my throat and my soul. I didnt want to leave! I wanted to stay with him. My place was with him! But, again, I wasnt in control, and I felt myself fading away, rejoining the earth, as A-ya sobbed, her broken voice echoed one word in my head: REMEMBER . . . The slap burned against my cheek, and I sucked in a big breath that cleared the last of the darkness from my mind. I opened my eyes and the beam of the flashlight caused me to squint and blink. I remember. My voice sounded as rusty as my mind. You remember who you are, or should I smack you again? Aphrodite said. My mind was slow to function because it still screamed no at being wrenched from the darkness. I blinked again and shook my head, trying to clear it. No! I cried the word with so much emotion that Aphrodite automatically moved away from me. Fine, she said. You can thank me later. Sister Mary Angela took her place, bending over me and smoothing my hair back from my face, which was sweaty and cold. Zoey, are you with us? Yes, I said in a broken voice. Zoey, what is it? What caused you to hyperventilate? the nun asked. Youre not feeling sick, are you? Erins voice was a little tremble-y. Not getting the urge to cough up a lung or anything? Shaunee asked, looking as upset as her twin sounded. Stevie Rae shoved the Twins aside so she could get close to me. Talk to me, Z. Are you really okay? Im fine. Im not dying or anything like that. My thoughts had reordered themselves, though I couldnt seem to shake off the last traces of the despair Id known with A-ya. I understood my friends were scared that my body had begun rejecting the Change. Forcing myself to focus on the here and now I held my hand out to Stevie Rae. Here, help me up. Im better now. Stevie Rae pulled me up, careful to keep her hand under my elbow while I swayed slightly before finding my balance. What happened to you, Z? Damien asked as he studied me. What was I supposed to say? Was I supposed to admit to my friends that Id had an incredibly vivid memory of a past life where Id given myself to our enemy of today? I hadnt even had time to wade through the maze of new emotions the memory had caused within me. How was I going to explain them to my friends? Just tell us, child. The truth spoken is always less frightening than supposition, said Sister Mary Angela. I sighed and blurted, The tunnel scared me! Scared you? Like, theres something in there? Damien had finally quit staring at me and was peering nervously into the dark opening. The Twins took a couple steps farther into the root cellar and away from the tunnel. No, theres nothing in there. I hesitated. At least I dont think so. Anyway, thats not what scared me. You expect us to believe you fainted because you were scared of the dark? Aphrodite said. They all stared at me. I cleared my throat. Hey, yall. Maybe theres stuff Zoey just doesnt wanna talk about, said Stevie Rae. I looked at my best friend and realized if I didnt say something about what had just happened to me I wouldnt be able to face what I needed to do about her. Youre right, I told Stevie Rae. I dont want to talk about it, but you guys deserve to hear the truth. I let my gaze take in the rest of the group. That tunnel freaked me out so much because my soul recognized it. I cleared my throat and went on, I remembered being trapped in the earth with Kalona. You mean because there really is some of A-ya inside of you? Damien asked softly. I nodded. Im me, but Im also, somehow, still a part of her. Interesting . . . Damien breathed a long sigh. Well, what the hell does that mean for you and Kalona today? Aphrodite asked. I dont know! I dont know! I dont know! I burst out, the stress and honest-to-goddess confusion about what had just happened boiled over inside me. I dont have the damn answers. All I have is the memory and zero time to process it. How about you guys back off just a little and let me get the mess inside my head straight? Everyone shuffled around and mumbled okays, sending me shes lost her mind looks. Ignoring my gawking friends, and the unanswered Kalona questions that were almost visible in the air around me, I turned to Stevie Rae. Explain to me exactly how you made the tunnel. I could tell by the question mark in her blue eyes that she was worried about my tone. I hadnt sounded all Crap! I just fainted and need to change the subject cause Im embarrassed by being a reincarnated chick. Id sounded like a High Priestess. Well, it wasnt really that big of a thing. Stevie Rae looked nervous and uncomfortable, like she was trying too hard to be nonchalant because she was feeling the exact opposite. Hey, are you sure youre okay? Shouldnt we go up out of here and maybe get you a brown pop or somethin? I mean, if this place gives you flashbacks, talkin someplace else sounds like a good idea. Im okay. Right now I just want to hear about the tunnel. I met her gaze steadily. So tell me how you did this. I could sense the other kids, as well as Sister Mary Angela, watching us with curiosity mixed in with their confusion, but I kept focused on Stevie Rae. Kay, well, you know the Prohibition tunnels are practically everywhere under the downtown buildings, right? I nodded. Right. Also, remember that I told you Id been doin some reconnoitering to see where they all went? Yeah, I remember. Okay, so, I found that kinda half-covered tunnel entrance that Ant told yall about the other daythe one that branches off away from the others that go under the Philtower Building and stuff. I nodded again impatiently. Well, it was filled in with dirt, but when I felt around the little hole left in the middle of it, I knocked a bunch of dirt away, stuck my arm through, and felt a bunch of cool air. That made me think there was probably more tunnel on the other side of it. So I pushed, with my mind and my hands and my element. And earth responded. Responded? Like it shook or something? I asked. More like it moved. Like I wanted it to. In my head. She paused. Its kinda hard to explain. But what happened was the dirt that had sealed the tunnel ended up crumbling and I stepped through the new bigger opening into a really, really old tunnel. And this old tunnel was made of dirt, not lined with concrete, like the tunnels under the depot and downtown, right? Damien said. Stevie Rae smiled and nodded, her blond hair bouncing around her shoulders. Yeah! And instead of heading downtown it pointed to midtown. It came all the way here? I tried to guesstimate in my head how many miles that was and could no way do the math. Of course, I am math impaired, but still, it was a ways. Nope. What happened was that once I found the dirt tunnel and kinda opened it up, I went explorin in it. Okay, it starts as one of the off shoots of the Philtower Building. I thought it was weird and kinda cool that it headed away from downtown. How could you tell that? Damien interrupted her. How could you even guess where you were heading? Easy-peasy for me! I can always find north, you know, the direction of my earth element. Once I find itI can find anything. Hmm, he said. Go on, I said. Then what? Then it ran out. Just, well, stopped. Before you slipped me the note about meeting you here at the sisters place, thats where I stopped, too. I mean, sure, I was plannin to go back and check it out some more later, but it really wasnt a high priority to me. When you told me I might have to move the kids here, I couldnt quit thinkin about the dirt tunnel. I remembered that it had been headed in this direction before it ran out. So I went back there. I thought about where I wanted to go and how I wished the tunnel would go there. Then I pushed again, like Id done to get the opening bigger, only more so. Then, well, presto-chango, the earth did what I told it to do, and here we are! Ta-da! She finished with a big smile and a flourish. Into the silence that surrounded Stevie Raes explanation, Sister Mary Angelas voice sounded utterly normal and reasonable, which made me heart her even more than I already did. Remarkable, isnt it? Stevie Rae, you and I may disagree upon the source of your gift, but I am nonetheless in awe of its vastness. Thank you, Sister! I think youre pretty awesome, too, specially for a nun. How did you see down there? I asked. Well, I really dont have a problem seeing in the dark, but the other kids arent as good at it as I am, so I brought some lanterns from the depot tunnels. Stevie Rae pointed to a few oil lanterns that I hadnt noticed before in the dark corners of the root cellar. Still, it was a long way, Shaunee was saying. Seriously. It must have been dark and creepy, Erin said. Nah, the earth really isnt creepy to me, or to the red fledglings. She shrugged. Like I said, it was no big deal. Actually, it was super-easy. And you managed to get all the red fledglings here safely? Damien said. Yep! Which all? I asked. What do ya mean, which all? That doesnt make any sense, Z, she said. I brought all the red fledgings yall met before, plus Erik and Heath. Who else are ya talkin about? Her words sounded normal, but she ended with a weird, nervous laugh and wouldnt meet my eyes. My stomach clenched. Stevie Rae was still lying to me. And I didnt know what to do about it. I think maybe Zoey is feeling confused because shes exhausted, as she should be after the experience shes had tonight. Sister Mary Angelas warm hand on my shoulder felt as reassuring as her voice. Were all tired, she added. Her smile took in Stevie Rae, the Twins, Aphrodite, and Damien. Dawn is not long off. Lets get you settled with the rest of your friends. Sleep. Everything will seem clearer when youre well rested. I nodded wearily and let Sister Mary Angela shepherd us out of the depths of the root cellar and up the staircase wed come down not too long ago. But instead of continuing up and into the hallway of the abbey, the nun opened a door off the landing I hadnt noticed when Id been hurrying after Damien earlier. A shorter staircase led into the main basement area, a big but normal-looking cement basement, which had been transformed by the nuns from a giant laundry room to a temporary dorm. There were a bunch of cots spread out along two walls opposite each other, made up with blankets and pillows and looking cozy. There was a kid-sized mound in one of the beds, and the poof of red hair that was sticking out of the blanket hed pulled up over most of his head told me that Elliott had already crashed. The rest of the red fledglings were clustered around the washer-dryer area, sitting on those folding metal chairs that always make my butt cold, watching a large flat-screen TV that was perched on top of one of the washers. There was a lot of yawning going on with them, which meant it really must be almost dawn, but they seemed mesmerized by whatever was on TV. I glanced at the screen and felt my tired face break into a big grin. The Sound of Music? Theyre watching The Sound of Music? I laughed. Sister Mary Angela lifted one eyebrow at me. Its one of our favorite DVDs. I thought the fledglings might enjoy it, too. It is a classic, Damien said. I used to think that Nazi kid was cute, Shaunee said. Except he rats out the Von Trapps, Erin said. Which is when he turned not so cute, Shaunee continued as the Twins grabbed folding chairs and joined the other fledglings in front of the TV. But everybody likes Julie Andrews, Stevie Rae said. She shoulda smacked them damn spoiled kids, Kramisha said from her place in front of the TV. She glanced over her shoulder and gave Sister Mary Angela a tired smile. Sorry bout the damn, Sister, but they is brats. They just needed love and attention and understanding, like all children do, said the sister. Okay, barf. Seriously, Aphrodite said, before any of you break into a chorus of How Do You Solve a Problem like Maria? and I have to gnaw through my slender wrists, Im going to find Darius and my room. She waggled her brows and started to twitch out of the basement. Aphrodite, Sister Mary Angela called. When Aphrodite paused and looked back at her, the nun continued. I imagine Darius is still with Stark. Saying good night to him would be just fine, but youll find your room on the fourth flooryoull be sharing it with Zoey and not with the warrior. Ugh, I said under my breath. Aphrodite rolled her eyes. Why does that not surprise me? And, muttering to herself, she continued to twitch away. Sorry, Z, Stevie Rae said after she rolled her eyes at Aphrodites back. Id be your roomie again, but I think I should stay down here. Being underground really feels better to me after the sun rises, plus I need to stick close to the red fledglings. Thats okay, I said a little too quickly. So now I didnt even want to be alone with my BFF? Is everyone else still upstairs? Damien asked. I saw him glancing around, and I was pretty sure he was looking for Jack. I, on the other hand, hadnt been looking around for any of my boyfriends. Actually, after their stupid, testosterone display outside, I was thinking that being boyfriendless sounded better and better. And then there was Kalona and the memory I wish Id never had. Yeah, everyone else is upstairs in the cafeteria or already in bed. Hey, Earth to Zo! Check it out. The nuns have a massively big selection of Doritos, and I even found some brown pop for youfull of caffeine and sugar, said Heath as he jumped down the last three steps into the basement. CHAPTER SIX Zoey Thanks, Heath. I suppressed a sigh as Heath walked over to me and, grinning, offered me some nacho cheese Doritos and a can of brown pop. Z, if youre really okay Id like to find Jack and be sure Duchess is okay, then Im going to sleep for a little bit of forever, Damien said. No problem, I said quickly, not wanting Damien to say anything about my A-ya memory to Heath. Wheres Erik? Stevie Rae asked Heath as I chugged the can of brown pop. Hes still outside being all king of the castle. Did you find anything after I left? Stevie Raes voice suddenly got so sharp that several of the red fledglings glanced over from watching Maria and the Von Trapps sing My Favorite Things. Nah, hes just a butt and rechecking what Dallas and I already checked. Dallas looked up from his place in front of the TV at the sound of his name. Everythings cool out there, Stevie Rae. Stevie Rae made a come here motion at Dallas, and he hurried to join us. She lowered her voice and said, Fill me in. I already told you outside before you came down here, Dallas said, his eyes wandering back to the TV screen and creamcolored ponies . . . crisp apple strudel . . . Stevie Rae gave his arm a smack. Would you pay attention? Im not outside anymore. Now Im in here. So fill me in again. Dallas sighed, turned his full attention to her and gave her a cute, indulgent smile. Okay, okay. But only cause you asked so nice. Stevie Rae frowned at him and he continued. Erik, Johnny B, Heath here, he paused and nodded at Heath, and mewe searched like you told us to, which was no fun cause the ice is really slick and its super-cold out there. He paused. Stevie Rae stared silently at him until he continued. Anyway, like you already know, we were doing that while you were searching down by Twenty-first Street. After a while we all met back at the grotto. Thats when we told you we found those three bodies at the Lewis and Twenty-first Street corner. You told us to take care of them. Then you left. So we did what you said, and then me and Heath and Johnny B came inside to dry off, eat, and watch TV. I guess Eriks still out there looking around. Why? Stevie Raes voice was sharp. Dallas shrugged, Could be like Heath said. The guys a butt. Bodies? said Sister Mary Angela. Dallas nodded. Yeah, we found three dead Raven Mockers. Darius shot them out of the sky cause they had bullet holes in them. Sister Mary Angela lowered her voice. And what did you do with the dead creatures? Put them in the Dumpsters behind the abbey like Stevie Rae said. Its freezin out there. Theyll keep. And no garbage trucks are gonna be picking up anytime soon, what with the ice and everything. We thought they could stay there till yall decided what to do with em. Oh! Oh, my! The nuns face had gone pale. You put them in the Dumpsters? I didnt tell you to put them in the Dumpsters! Stevie Rae practically yelled. Sssh! Kramisha told her while the TV watchers gave us the stank eye. Sister Mary Angela motioned for us to follow her, and the five of us went quickly out of the basement, up the stairwell, and into the abbey hall. Dallas, I cannot believe you put em in the Dumpsters! Stevie Rae rounded on him as soon as we were out of earshot of the others. Whatd you expect us to do with them, dig a grave and say Mass? Dallas said, then he glanced at Sister Mary Angela. Sorry, I didnt mean to blaspheme, Sister. My folks are Catholic. You meant no offense, Im sure, son, said the nun, sounding a little shaky. Bodies . . . II hadnt thought about the bodies. Dont worry about it, Sister. Heath patted her arm awkwardly. You dont have to mess with them. I get what youre feeling. This whole thing: the winged guy, Neferet, the Raven Mockers, well, is all hard to They cant stay in the dang Dumpsters, Stevie Rae spoke over Heath as if she hadnt even heard him. Its not right. Why not? I asked calmly. Id been quiet until then because Id been studying Stevie Rae, watching closely as she became more and more upset. Stevie Rae suddenly didnt seem to have any problem meeting my gaze. Because its not right, thats why, she repeated. They were monsters that were part immortal who would have tried their best to kill us all in a split second if Kalona had given them the word, I said. Part immortal and part what? Stevie Rae asked me. I frowned at her, but Heath answered before I could. Part bird? No. Stevie Rae didnt even look at him. She kept staring at me. Not part bird, thats the immortal part. In their blood theyre part immortal and part human. Human, Zoey. I feel sorry for the human part, and think it deserves more than being stuck in the trash. There was something about the look in her eyeabout the sound of her voicethat really bothered me. I answered her with the first thing that came into my mind. It takes more than an accident of blood to make me feel sorry for someone. Stevie Raes eyes flashed and her body jerked, almost like Id slapped her. I guess thats one difference between you and me. All of a sudden I realized why Stevie Rae was able to feel bad for the Raven Mockers. In a weird way, she must be seeing herself in them. Shed died and then, due to what I supposed she could call an accident shed resurrected without most of her humanity. Then, due to another accident, shed gotten her humanity back. Looking at it that way, I guess she felt sorry for them because she knew what it was like to be part monster, part human. Hey, I said softly, wishing she and I were back at the House of Night and could talk as easily as we used to. Theres a big difference between an accident causing something to be born messed up, and something terrible that happens after someones born. On one hand youre made the way you areon the other, something tried to change you into someone youre not. Huh? Heath said. I believe what Zoey is trying to say is that she understands why Stevie Rae might empathize with the dead Raven Mockers, even when she really has nothing in common with them, said Sister Mary Angela. And Zoey would be right. Those creatures are dark beings, and even though I, too, am disconcerted by death, I understand that they needed to die. Stevie Raes gaze left mine. Youre both wrong. Thats not what Im thinkin, but Im not gonna talk about it anymore. She started down the hall, walking quickly away from us. Stevie Rae? I called after her. She didnt even look back at me. Im gonna find Erik, make sure everythings really okay out there, and then send him inside. Ill talk to you later. She turned and disappeared through a door I assumed led to the outside, slamming it behind her. Thats not usually how she acts, Dallas said. Ill pray for her, Sister Mary Angela whispered. Dont worry, Heath said. Shell be back inside pretty soon. The suns getting ready to come up. I swiped my hand across my face. What I shouldve done was follow Stevie Rae outside, corner her, and make her tell me exactly what was going on. But I couldnt deal with one more problem just then. I hadnt even dealt with my A-ya memory. I could feel it sitting there in the back of my mind like a guilty secret. Zo, are you okay? You look like you need some sleep. We all do, Heath said, yawning. I blinked and gave him a weary smile. Yeah, thats true. Ill go to bed. First I want to check on Stark real quick, though. Very quickly, Sister Mary Angela said. I nodded. Without looking at Heath, I said, Okay, well, um. Ill see you guys in about eight hours or so. Good night, child. Sister Mary Angela hugged me and whispered, And may our Lady bless and watch over you. Thanks, Sister, I whispered back, hugging her tightly. When I let her go, Heath surprised me by taking my hand. I gave him a question-mark look. Ill walk you to Starks room, he said. Feeling defeated, I shrugged, and he and I started down the hall, hand in hand. We didnt say anything; we just walked. Heaths hand was warm and familiar in mine and I fell into step easily beside him. I was just starting to let myself relax when Heath cleared his throat. Hey, uh, I want to say sorry about that crap outside earlier with Erik and me. It was stupid. I shouldnt let him get to me, Heath said. Youre rightyou shouldnt, but he can be annoying, I said. Heath grinned. Tell me about it. Youre gonna dump him pretty soon, arent you? Heath, I am so not going to talk about Erik with you. His grin just got bigger. I rolled my eyes. You cant fool me. I know you too well. You dont go for bossy guys. Just shut up and walk, I said, but I squeezed his hand, and he squeezed mine back. He was rightI didnt like bossy guys, and he did know me very, very well. Wed come to a turn in the hallway. There was a nice picture window with an alcove in front of it, complete with a cushy bench that looked perfect for reading. On the windowsill there was a beautiful porcelain statue of Mary with several votives burning on either side of her. Heath and I slowed down, pausing by the window. Thats really pretty, I said softly. Yeah, Ive never paid Mary much attention. But all these statues of her lit up by candles are cool looking. Do you think the nuns right? Could Mary be Nyx and Nyx be Mary? I have no idea. Doesnt Nyx talk to you? Yeah, sometimes, but the subject of Jesus mom hasnt come up, I said. Well, I think you should ask her next time. Maybe I will, I said. We just stood there, holding hands and watching the way the warm yellow flames danced off the gleaming statue. I was thinking about how nice it would be if my Goddess would visit me during a time that wasnt filled with life-and-death stress when Heath blurted, So I hear that Stark swore himself into your service as a Warrior. I studied him carefully, looking for signs that he was pissed or jealous, but all I saw in his blue eyes was curiosity. Yeah, he did. Word is thats a majorly special bond. Yeah, it is, I said. Hes the guy who cant miss with an arrow, right? Right. So having him on your side is kinda like being protected by the Terminator? That made me smile. Well, hes not as big as Arnold, but I guess its a pretty good comparison. Does he love you, too? His question caught me off guard, and I didnt know what to say. As hed been doing since we were in grade school, Heath seemed to know the exact right thing to say. Just tell me the truth, thats all. Yeah, I think he loves me. And you him? Maybe, I said reluctantly. But it doesnt change how I feel about you. But what does that mean for you and me today? It was weird that his words echoed Aphrodites question about where the A-ya memory left Kalona and me. I felt overwhelmed because I didnt have an answer for either of them; I rubbed at the headache that was starting to pound through my right temple. I guess it leaves us Imprinted and annoyed. Heath didnt say anything. He just watched me with that sweet, sad, familiar look that said more about how badly I was hurting him than a dozen screaming matches between us would have. He was breaking my heart. Heath, Im so sorry. I just . . . I just . . . My voice broke and I tried again. I just dont know what to do about a lot of things right now. I do. Heath sat down on the bench and held out his arms to me. Zo, come here. I shook my head. Heath, I cant Im not asking anything from you, he interrupted firmly. Im giving you something. Come here. When I just looked at him in confusion he sighed, reached up, took my hands, and gently drew my stiff but unresisting body to his lap and into his arms. He held me, resting his cheek on top of my head, like hed been doing since hed gotten bigger than me somewhere around the eighth grade. My face was pressed against the crook of his neck and I inhaled his scent. It was the fragrance of my childhoodof long summer nights sitting in the backyard by the mosquito zapper while we listened to music and talkedof after-game parties where I stayed snug within his arm as lots of girls (and guys for that matter) gushed about the great passes hed thrownof long good-night kisses and the passion that came with discovering love. And I realized suddenly that while Id been breathing in familiarity and security, Id also been relaxing. With a sigh, I curled into him. Better? Heath murmured. Better, I said. Heath, I really dont know Dont! His arms tightened around me and then gentled again. Right now dont worry about me or Erik or that new guy. Right now just remember us. Remember what its been like between us for years. Im here for you, Zo. Through all the crap that I cant really understand, Im here. And we belong to each other. My blood says so. Why? I asked, still cradled in his arms. Why are you still here, still willing to be with me even when you know about Erik and Stark? Because I love you, he said simply. Ive loved you for as long as I can remember, and Im going to love you for the rest of my life. Tears stung my eyes and I blinked hard, trying not to cry. But Heath, Starks not going to go away. And I dont really know what Im going to do about Erik. I know. I drew a deep breath and on the exhale said, And inside of me theres a connection with Kalona that I cant help. But you said no to him and chased him away. I did, but II have memories that are stuck in my soul, and they have to do with who I was in a different lifetime, and during that lifetime I was with Kalona. Instead of asking me a zillion questions, or pulling away from me, his arms tightened around me. Its going to be okay, he said, sounding like he really meant it. Youre going to figure all of this out. I dont see how. I dont even know what to do about you. There isnt anything to do about me. Im with you. Thats it. He paused and then added quickly, like he wanted to get the words out of his mouth, If I have to share you with the vampyres, I will. Still in his arms, I leaned back so I could meet his gaze. Heath, you are entirely too jealous for me to believe its okay with you if Im with another guy. I didnt say its okay with me. I definitely wont like it, but I dont want to be without you, Zoey. Thats just too weird, I said. He took my chin in his hand when I tried to look away from him. Yeah, its weird. But the truth is, as long as were Imprinted I know I have something with you no one else has. I can give you something none of those big, bad Dracula-wannabes can ever touch. I can give you something that even an immortal cant touch. I stared at him. Heaths eyes were bright with tears. He looked so much older than eighteen that it almost scared me. I dont want to make you sad, I said. I dont want to mess up your life. Then stop trying to send me away from you. We belong together. Okay, I realize it was wrong of me, but instead of answering him and arguing that us being together just couldnt work, I curled up in his arms and let him hold me. Yeah, it was selfish of me, but I lost myself in Heath and the touch of my past. The way he held me was perfect. He didnt try to make out with me. He didnt grope me, or grind against me. He didnt try to feel me up. He didnt even offer to cut himself and let me drink his blood, which would have automatically let loose a passion between us that would burn both of us out of control. Heath held me gently and murmured how much he loved me. He told me everything really would be okay. I could feel his heartbeat against me. I could sense the rich, enticing blood that was there, so warm and so close, but just then what I needed even more than his Imprinted blood was familiarity, our joined past, and the strength of his understanding. And thats the moment Heath Luck, my high school sweetheart, truly became my consort. CHAPTER SEVEN Stevie Rae Feeling like a total butthead, Stevie Rae slammed the abbey door and retreated into the icy night. She wasnt really pissed at Zoey, or at the super-nice, if slightly delusional, nun. Actually, she wasnt pissed at anyone but herself. Dang it! I hate that Im messin this up! she yelled at herself. She hadnt meant to screw things up royally, but it seemed like she was diggin through a pile of shit that just kept getting deeper and deeper no matter how fast she shoveled. Zoey wasnt a moron. She knew something was wrong. That was obvious, but how could Stevie Rae even start to tell her? There was just so much to explain. He was just so much to explain. And shed never meant for any of it to happen. Especially not the Raven Mocker part. Dang it! Before shed discovered him almost dead, she wouldnt have even thought it was possible. Had someone told her about him before, she would have laughed and said, Nope, that aint gonna happen! But it was possible because it had happened. He had happened. As Stevie Rae prowled around the silent abbey grounds looking for pain-in-the-butt Erik, who might very well discover this last, most terrible secret and really throw a wrench in the dang tractor motor, she tried to figure out just how the hell shed gotten herself into such a gawd-awful mess. Why had she saved him? Why hadnt she just hollered for Dallas and the rest of em, and had them finish it? That had even been what hed said he wanted before he passed out. But hed spoken. Hed sounded so human. And she hadnt been able to kill him. Erik! Where the heck was he? Erik, come here! She paused her internal battle and called into the night. Night? Stevie Rae squinted to the east and swore she could see the darkness there beginning to turn the ripe plum color of predawn. Erik! Time to report in! Stevie Rae yelled for the third time. She stopped and peered around the silent abbey grounds. Stevie Raes gaze slid over to the green house that had been turned into a temporary stable for the horses Z and the rest of the gang had ridden in their escape from the House of Night. But it wasnt so much the green house that drew her gaze. It was the innocentlooking equipment shed next to it that she couldnt quit staring at. The shed appeared totally normaljust an add-on building with no windows. The door hadnt even been locked. She should know. Shed been inside it not too long ago. Hey, whats wrong? Did you see something over there? Oh, shit! Stevie Rae jumped and spun around, heart hammering so hard in her chest she almost couldnt breathe. Erik! You scared the bejesus right outta me! Would you make some dang noise or somethin before you bust up on someone like that? Sorry, Stevie Rae, but you were calling me. Stevie Rae brushed a blond curl back behind her ear and tried to ignore the fact that her hand was shaking. She was just seriously no good at this sneaking-around-and-hiding-things-from-your-friends stuff. But she lifted her chin and forced her nerves to settle down, and the easiest way to do that was to take a chomp out of pain-in-the-butt Erik. Stevie Rae narrowed her eyes at him. Yeah, I was callin you because youre supposed to be inside with everyone else. What the heck are ya still doin out here, anyway? Youre worrying Zoeylike she needs any more stress from you right now? Zoey was looking for me? With an effort, Stevie Rae didnt roll her eyes at Erik. He was sooooo annoying. He acted like Mr. Perfect Boyfriend part of the time, and then would suddenly change up and be an arrogant jerk. She was gonna have to tell Z about himthat was if Z would still listen to her. The two of them hadnt exactly been very close lately. Too many secrets . . . too many issues sitting squarely between them . . . Stevie Rae! Pay attention. Did you say Zoey was looking for me? Stevie Rae did roll her eyes then. Youre supposed to be inside. Heath and Dallas and the rest of the kids are. Zoey knows that. She wanted to know where the heck you were and why youre not where youre supposed to be. If she was that worried she could have come out here herself. I didnt say she was worried! Stevie Rae snapped, exasperated with Eriks self-absorption. And Z has way too much on her plate to be out here babysittin you. I dont need a damn babysitter. Really? Then why did I have to come get you? I dont know, why did you? I was on my way inside. I just wanted to do one more sweep of the perimeter. I thought itd be smart to go over what Heath was supposed to check. You know humans cant see shit at night. Johnny B isnt a human and he was with Heath. Stevie Rae sighed. Just go on inside. Get something to eat and some dry clothes. One of the nuns will tell you where youre sleepin. Ill take one more check around the grounds before the sun comes up, Stevie Rae said. If the sun comes up, Erik said, squinting up at the sky. Stevie Rae followed his gaze, and with a sense of gawd-how-clueless-could-I-be, realized it was raining again, only the temperature was still on that line between freeze and non-freeze, so the sky was, once again, spitting ice. This crappy weather is not what we need, Stevie Rae muttered. Well, at least itll help cover the blood from those Raven Mockers, Erik said. Stevie Raes gaze went quickly to Eriks face. Shit! She hadnt even thought about the blood! Had they tracked blood into the shed? Talk about leaving a glaring path that screamed Here I am! She realized Erik was expecting her to say something. Yeah, um, youre right. Maybe Ill try to kick around some ice and broken branches and stuff to cover up the blood from those three birds, she said with forced nonchalance. Probably a good idea in case some humans actually go outside during the day. Want some help? No, she answered too quickly, and then made herself shrug. What with my super red vamp skills and all itll just take me a second. Not a big deal. Well, okay then. Erik started to walk away, but hesitated. Hey, you might want to give some extra attention to the blood marks at the edge of the tree line by the condos next door and the road. It was pretty nasty down there. Okay, yeah, I know the place. She sure did. Oh, and, where did you say Zoey was? Uh, Erik, I dont believe I said. Erik frowned, waited, and when Stevie Rae just continued to look at him, finally asked, Well? Where is she? Last time I saw her she was talkin to Heath and Sister Mary Angela in the hall outside the basement. But my guess is by now shes checked on Stark and is in bed. She looked tired as hell. Stark . . . Erik muttered something unintelligible after the kids name, and turned back toward the abbey. Erik! Stevie Rae called while she silently cussed herself out cause it was stupid for her to have mentioned Heath or Stark. She waited until he looked over his shoulder at her and then said, As Zs BFF, let me give ya a little piece of advice: shes been through too much today to want to deal with boyfriend issues. If shes with Heath its because shes making sure hes okaynot because shes all lovey-dovey with him. Same goes for Stark. And? Erik said, his face expressionless. And that means you should get something to eat, change your clothes, and take your butt to bed without trackin her down and buggin her. She and I are together, Stevie Rae. Were going out. So how could her boyfriend caring enough about her to want to be with her be considered buggin her? Stevie Rae suppressed a smile. Zoey was going to eat him for breakfast, spit him out, and go on about her day. She shrugged. Whatever. Im just givin ya a little advice, thats all. Yeah, well, later. Erik turned and stomped off to the abbey. For a smart guy, he sure makes some stupid choices, Stevie Rae said softly as she watched his broad back disappear. Course me sayin that about him is what my mama would say was a hog callin a skunk stinky. Sighing, Stevie Raes gaze moved reluctantly down to the row of big trash bins half camouflaged by their placement next to the nuns carport. She averted her eyes, not wanting to think about the terrible crumpled bodies that had been dumped there. With the trash. She said the words slowly, as if they each held their own weight. Stevie Rae admitted to herself that Zoey and Sister Mary Angela might have been partially right in their mini counseling session with her, but that didnt make what theyd said any less annoying. Okay, sure, shed overreacted, but the guys putting the bodies of the Raven Mockers in the trash had really jolted her, and not just because of him. Her eyes slid over to the shed that sat silently beside the green house. What they had done with the bodies of the Raven Mockers had bothered her because she didnt believe in life being devalued any kind of life. It was a dangerous thing to think you were godlike and could decide who was worthy of life and who wasnt. Stevie Rae knew that better than the nun or Zoey ever could. Not only had her life, well, actually, her death been messed with by a High Priestess who had begun believing she was actually a goddess, but Stevie Rae had once thought she had the right to snuff out lives according to her own needs or whims. Just remembering how it had been when shed been caught up in that anger and violence made her feel sick. Shed left those dark times behind hershed made a choice for good and light and the Goddess, and that was the path she was staying on. So when anyone decided a life meant nothing, any life, it upset her. Or at least that was what Stevie Rae told herself as she started walking across the abbey grounds, heading totally away from the garden shed. Keep it together, girl . . . keep it together . . . she kept repeating over and over as she detoured quickly down the ditch and into the tree line, heading directly for the bloodstains she remembered all too well. She found a thick, broken branch that still had a bunch of twigs attached to it, and lifted it easily, glad for the extra strength that came with her new status as fully Changed red vampyre. Using the branch like a broom, she brushed over the blood, pausing every so often to toss another broken branch, or once, a whole side of a collapsed holly bush, onto the telltale crimson pools. Following her earlier path, she turned to her left, away from the street and back onto the nuns lawn, staying inside the fence. She hadnt gone far when, just like before, Stevie Rae found a big splotch of blood. Only this time there wasnt a body lying on top of it. Distracting herself by humming Kenny Chesneys (Baby) You Save Me, she hurriedly brushed over the bloodstains and then followed the trail of drops she knew shed find, kicking ice and branches over the evidence, as the blood path led her directly to the little garden shed. She stared hard at the door, sighed, and then turned away, walking around the shed to the green house. The door was unlocked and the handle turned easily. She entered the building and paused, breathing deeply and allowing the scents of earth and growing things, mixed with the new spice of the three horses that were temporarily housed there, to soothe her senses, as the warmth of the place thawed the icy dampness that seemed to have penetrated into her soul. But she didnt allow herself to rest there long. She couldnt. She had business to take care of and not much time before dawn. Even if the sun was going to be shrouded by clouds and ice, it was still never a comfortable thing for a red vampyre to be caught outside, exposed and vulnerable, during the day. It didnt take Stevie Rae long to find what she needed. The nuns obviously liked the old-school way of doing things. Instead of a system of modern hoses, electric switches, and metallic thingies, the sisters had buckets and dippers, watering pails with long, perforated nozzles made for gently showering baby plants, and lots of tools that were obviously as well used as they were well cared for. Stevie Rae filled a bucket with fresh water from one of the many faucets, grabbed a dipper, a few towels from a clean pile she found on a shelf used to store garden gloves and spare pots, and then, on her way out, she paused near a tray of moss that reminded her of a thick, green carpet. She stood there chewing her lip indecisively as instinct warred with her conscious mind, until she finally gave in and pulled up a long row of the moss. Then, mumbling to herself about not knowing how she knew what she knew, Stevie Rae left the green house and returned to the shed. At the door she stopped and focused her attentionkeyed all of her keen, predator-like ability to sense, smell, see anyone, anything lurking around. Nothing. No one was outside. The sleet and the late hour were keeping everyone tucked safe and warm inside. Everyone with any dang sense, she mumbled to herself. She took one more look around, shifted her load so she had a free hand, and then touched the door latch. Okayokay. Just get it over with. Maybe hes dead and you wont have to deal with this great bigassed new mistake you made. Stevie Rae clicked the latch down and pushed open the door. Automatically, she wrinkled her nose. It was jolting after the earthy simplicity of the green house, this little building that smelled like gas and oil and musty crap, all mixed with the wrong scent of his blood. Shed left him at the other end of the shed, behind the riding mower and the shelves that held lawn care stuff like garden shears, fertilizer, and spare sprinkler parts. She peered back there and could vaguely make out a dark shape, but it wasnt moving. She listened hard and didnt hear anything except the ice spitting against the roof. Dreading the inevitable moment when she was going to have to face him, Stevie Rae forced herself to step into the shed and close the door firmly behind her. She made her way around the mower and shelves to the creature that lay at the far end of the shed. It didnt look like hed moved since shed half dragged, half carried him there a couple of hours ago and literally tossed him into that back corner. He lay crumpled in on himself, curled into an awkward fetal position on his left side. The bullet that had torn through the upper right side of his chest, had ripped through his wing as it exited his body, utterly decimating it. The huge black wing lay bloody, shattered, and useless along his side. Stevie Rae also thought one of his ankles might be broken, as it was horribly swollen and, even in the darkness of the shed, she could see it looked bruised. Actually, his whole body looked pretty badly battered, which was no big surprise. He had been shot out of the sky and the big old oaks at the edge of the abbeys property had broken his fall enough for him not to have been killed immediately, but she really had no way of knowing how badly he was wounded. For all she knew his insides were as broken as his outsides looked. For all she knew, he was dead. He sure looked dead. She watched his chest and couldnt be 100 percent certain, but she didnt think she saw it rising or falling with his breath. He was probably dead. She kept staring at him, unwilling to move closer, and unable to turn and walk away. Was she batshit crazy? Why hadnt she stopped to think before shed dragged him in here? She stared at him. He wasnt human. He wasnt even animal. It wasnt playing God to let him die; he should never have been born. Stevie Rae shuddered. She continued to stand there as if she was frozen by the horror of what shed done. What would her friends say if they found out shed hidden a Raven Mocker? Would Zoey turn away from her? And what repercussions would this creatures presence cause with the red fledglings, all of the red fledglings? As if they didnt have enough dark, evil things to deal with? The nun had been right. He shouldnt evoke pity in her. She was going to take the towels and stuff back to the green house, go inside the abbey, find Darius and tell him that there was a Raven Mocker in the shed. Then shed let the warrior do his job. If he wasnt dead already, Darius would take care of business. It would actually be putting the bird guy out of his misery. She let out a long breath she hadnt realized shed been holding in relief at her decision, and his red eyes opened and met hers. Finish it . . . the Raven Mockers voice was weak and filled with pain, but it was clearly, absolutely, undeniably human. And that was it. Stevie Rae realized the reason she hadnt called Dallas and the rest of them when shed discovered him. When hed spoken before and told her to kill him, hed sounded like a real guyone who had been hurt and abandoned and scared. She hadnt been able to kill him then, and she wasnt able to turn away from him now. His voice made all the difference, because even though he looked like a being that shouldnt be possible, he sounded like a regular guy who was so desperate and in such pain that he expected the very worst to happen to him. No, that was wrong. He didnt just expect the very worst to happen to him, he wanted it to. What he had gone through was so horrible he couldnt see any way out of it except through his own death. To Stevie Rae, even though what hed been through was largely of his own making, that made him very, very human. Shed been there. She understood such complete hopelessness. CHAPTER EIGHT Stevie Rae Stevie Rae controlled her automatic impulse to step back because guy voice or no guy voice, and the question of his humanity put temporarily aside, the honest truth was he was one big, bird guy whose blood smelled seriously wrong. And Stevie Rae was very much alone with him. Look, I know youre hurt and all, so youre not thinkin right, but if I was gonna kill you I definitely wouldnt have dragged you in here. She made her voice sound normal and instead of backing away from him like she wanted to, she stood her ground and she met those cold red eyes that looked so bizarrely human. Why wont you kill me? The words were little more than an agonized whisper, but the night was so silent that Stevie Rae had no trouble hearing him. She could have pretended she didnt hear what hed said, or at least didnt understand him, but she was sick of evasions and lies, so she continued to hold his gaze and told him the truth, Well, actually, that has a lot more to do with me than you, and that makes it a kinda long, confusing story. I guess mostly Im not real sure why I wont kill you, cept for the fact that I tend to do things my own way, and I can definitely say Im not a big fan of killing. He stared at her until she wanted to squirm under that strange red gaze. Finally he said, You should. Stevie Raes eyebrows went up. I should know, I should kill ya, or I should do things my own way? Youre gonna have to be more specific. Oh, and you should also consider being less bossy. Youre not exactly in a position to tell me what I should do. Obviously at the very end of his strength, his eyes had begun to close, but her words had him reopening them. She could see some kind of emotion changing his expression, but his face was so foreign, so unlike anything or anyone she was used to, that she couldnt read him. His black beak opened as if he was going to say something. At that moment a shudder rippled through his body. Instead of speaking, he closed his eyes tightly and moaned. The sound was filled with an agony that was completely human. Automatically she took a step toward him. His eyes reopened and, even though they were glazed with pain, she could see his scarlet gaze was focused on her. Stevie Rae stopped and spoke slowly and distinctly. Okay, heres the deal. I brought water and stuff to bandage you up with, but Im not really cool with coming over there by you unless you give me your word you wont try anything Im not gonna like. This time Stevie Rae was sure the emotion she saw within the red of those human eyes was surprise. I cannot move. His words were halting, and it was an obvious effort for him to speak at all. Does that mean I have your word you wont bite me or do anything else thats not very nice? Yesssss. His voice had gone all guttural and the word ended in a hiss, which Stevie Rae didnt find at all reassuring. Still, she straightened her spine and nodded like he hadnt just sounded like a snake. Well. Good. Okay, lets see what I can do to make ya feel better. Then, before she could talk some sense into her own dang head, she walked right up to the Raven Mocker. She plopped the towels and the moss on the ground beside him, and set the water bucket down more carefully. He really was big. Shed forgotten that. Well, maybe it was more like shed blocked it from her memory, because forgetting his size was pretty hard. It hadnt been exactly easy to drag/carry him into this shed before Erik or Dallas or Heath or anyone had seen her, even though hed been weirdly light for how heavy he looked. Water. The word was almost a croak. Oh, yeah, sure! Stevie Rae jumped and then fumbled with the handle of the dipper. It fell on the floor, and as embarrassed as she was frazzled, she dropped it againhad to pick it up, wipe it on a towel, and then finally dip it into the water. She moved closer to him. He stirred weakly, obviously trying to raise an arm, but the attempt caused him to moan again and his arm seemed to only be able to hang at his side, as useless as his broken wing. Not pausing to think about what she was doing, Stevie Rae bent, lifted his shoulders gently, tilted his head back, and held the dipper to his beak. He drank thirstily. When hed had his fill, she helped him lie back, but not until shed put one of the towels under his head. Okay, I dont have anything to clean you up with except water, but Ill do my best. Oh, and I brought some strips of moss. If I pack your wounds with them, theyll help. She didnt bother to explain that she really didnt know how she knew the moss was good for his woundsit was just one of the snatches of information shed get from time to timeout of nowhere. One second she wouldnt have a clue about something. The next shed be sure of how to, well, plug up a wound, for instance. She wanted to believe it was Nyx whispering to her, like the Goddess whispered to Zoey, but the truth was, Stevie Rae didnt know for sure. Just keep choosing good over evil . . . she muttered to herself as she started to tear one of the towels into strips. The Raven Mockers eyes opened and he looked questioningly at her. Oh, dont mind me. I talk to myself. Even when Im not alone. Its kinda like my own version of therapy. She paused and met his gaze. This is gonna hurt. I mean, Ill try to be careful and all, but youre pretty messed up. Go ahead, he said in that pain-filled whispery voice that sounded too human to be coming from such an inhuman-looking creature. Alright, well, here goes. Stevie Rae worked as quickly and as gently as possible. The hole in his chest was terrible. She flushed it with water and picked off as much of the twigs and crap from around it as possible. His feathers made what she was doing super weird. There was chest and skin under them, but it was just so dang odd! He had feathers, and under them she found downy little black puffs that felt soft as cotton candy from the state fair. She glanced at his face. Hed laid his head back down on the towel pillow. His eyes were squeezed shut, and he was breathing in short little pants. Sorry, I know this hurts, she said. His only response was a grunt which, ironically, made him seem more guy-like. Seriouslythe grunt was well known to be a major guy communication method. Okay, I think its ready for the moss. She spoke more to soothe her own nerves than his. Tearing off a section of the moss, she carefully packed it into the wound. It doesnt seem as bad now that its not bleeding so much. She kept chattering, even though he barely responded to her. Here, gotta move you a little. Stevie Rae rolled him further on his stomach so she could get to the rest of the wound. He pressed his face into the towel and stifled another moan. Stevie Rae spoke quickly, hating that agonized sound. The hole where it came out of your back is bigger, but its not as dirty, so I wont have as much cleaning to do back here. It took a larger chunk of moss to cover the exit wound, but she got it done quickly. Then she shifted her attention to his wings. The wing on his left side was tucked tightly against his back. It didnt look like it had been injured at all. But his right wing was another story. It was totally messed upshattered and bloody and hanging lifelessly down his side. Well, I guess its time to admit Im totally out of my comfort zone back here. I mean, the bullet wound was nasty, but at least I knew what to do about itkind of. Your wing is something else. I have no clue what to do to help it. Bind it to me. Use the cloth strips. His voice was gravelly. He didnt look at her and his eyes were still tightly closed. Are you sure? Maybe I should just leave it alone. Less painif its bound, he said haltingly. Well, shit. Okay. Stevie Rae got to work tearing another towel into long strips, and then knotting them together. All right. Im gonna arrange your wing on your back kinda in the same position your other wings in. Is that right? He nodded once. She held her breath and picked up his wing. He jerked and gasped. She dropped it and jumped back. Shit! Im sorry! Crap! His eyes slitted and he looked up at her. Between panting gasps he said, Just. Do. It. She gritted her teeth, leaned forward and, blocking out his muffled moans of pain, rearranged the shattered wing into a position that vaguely resembled the unwounded wing. Then, with barely a pause for breath, she said, Youre gonna have to hold yourself up a little so I can get this tied around you. Stevie Rae felt his body tense and then he heaved himself up, leaning mostly on his left arm, so that he was in a tilted-over, halfsitting-up positionand his torso was far enough off the floor of the shed for her to quickly wrap the towel strips around him and secure the wing. Okay, got it. He collapsed. His entire body was trembling. Im wrappin your ankle now. I think its broken, too. He nodded once. She tore more towel strips and then securely wrapped up his surprisingly human-looking ankle, just like she remembered her volleyball coach wrapping up one of her teammates weak ankles back when she was in high school at Henrietta High, home of the Fighting Hens. Fighting Hens? Okay, her hometowns mascot had always been silly, but at that moment it struck Stevie Rae as super-funny, and she had to bite her lip to keep a hysterical giggle from bubbling out of it. Thankfully she got herself under control in just a couple breaths, and managed to ask him, Are you hurt bad anywhere else? He shook his head in a short, jerky motion. Okay, then Im gonna stop messin with you, cause I think I got the worst of it tended. When he nodded once in agreement, she sat on the floor beside him, wiping her shaking hands on one of the leftover towels. Then she just sat there, looking at him and wondering what the heck she was going to do next. Ill tell you one thing, she said aloud, I hope I never have to tie up another broken wing in my whole dang life. His eyes opened, but he didnt speak. Well, it was totally horrible. That wing hurts worse than a regular broken arm or leg, doesnt it? She was talking because she was nervous, and Stevie Rae didnt expect him to answer, so she was surprised when he said, It does. Yeah, thats what I thought, she continued, as if they were two normal people having an ordinary conversation. His voice was still weak, but it seemed easier for him to speak and she guessed immobilizing his wing had really helped his pain level. I need more water, he said. Oh, sure. She grabbed the dipper, glad her hands had stopped shaking. This time he was able to hold himself up and tip back his own head. She only had to pour the water into his mouth, or beak, or whatever the correct word for it was. Since she was already up, Stevie Rae decided she might as well gather up the bloody pieces of towel, thinking that she should get them away from the shed. The red fledglings sense of smell wasnt as good as hers, but it also wasnt as undeveloped as regular fledglings. She didnt want to chance any of them having a reason to sniff around there. A quick search of the shed and she discovered extra-big lawn and garden trash bags, into which she stuffed the rags. There were three towels she hadnt used, and without really giving it much thought, she unfolded them and spread them out, covering as much of the Raven Mocker as was possible. Are you the Red One? His voice made her jump. His eyes had been closed and hed been so quiet while she was cleaning up that she had assumed he was asleep, or maybe passed out. Now those human eyes were open again and trained on her. I dont know how to answer that. I am a red vampyre, if thats what you mean. The first red vampyre. She thought briefly about Stark and his completed red tattoos, which made him the second red vampyre, and wondered where he was going to fit in their world, but no way was she going to mention him to the Raven Mocker. You are the Red One. Well, okay, I guess I am. My father said the Red One was powerful. I am powerful, Stevie Rae said with no hesitation. Then she held his gaze and continued, Your father? You mean Kalona? Yes. Hes gone, ya know. I know. He looked away from her then. I should be with him. No offense, but from what I know of your daddy, I think its best that youre here and hes not. He isnt exactly a nice guy. Not to mention Neferet has gone completely batshit crazy, and the two of them are like peas in a nasty pod. You talk a lot, he said and then grimaced painfully. Yeah, its a habit. A nervous habit, but she didnt add that. Look, you need to rest. Im gonna go. Plus, the sun started to come up five minutes ago, and that means I need to be inside. The only reason I can walk around at all out there is because the skys so full of clouds. She tied the trash bag closed and scooted the water bucket and dipper within his reachif he was able to do any reaching. So, bye. Ill, um, see ya later. She started to hurry away, but his voice stopped her. What will you do with me? I havent figured that part out yet. She sighed and fidgeted, picking nervously at her fingernails. Look, I think youre safe here for at least one day. The storm isnt letting up and the nuns arent going to be messin around out here. All of the fledglings will probably stay inside until sunset. By that time I should know what to do with you. I still do not understand why you dont tell the others about me. Yeah. Well, that makes two of us. Try to rest. Ill be back. Her hand was on the door latch when he spoke again. My name is Rephaim. Stevie Rae smiled over her shoulder at him. Hi. Im Stevie Rae. Nice to meet ya, Rephaim. Rephaim watched the Red One leave the building. He counted one hundred breaths after the door clicked closed, and then he began shifting his body until hed forced himself into a sitting position. Now that he was fully conscious he wanted to take inventory of his injuries. His ankle was not broken. It pained him, but he could move it. His ribs were bruised but, again, he didnt think any of them were broken. The bullet wound in his chest was serious, but the Red One had cleaned it and packed it with moss. If it didnt fester and putrefy, he would heal. He could move his right arm, though it was difficult, and it felt unnaturally stiff as well as weak. Finally, he shifted his attention to his wing. Rephaim closed his eyes and probed with his mind, following sinew and ligaments, muscle and bone, through his back and down the length of his shattered pinion. He gasped, almost unable to breathe, as he truly comprehended the full extent of the damage the bullet, and then the terrible, ripping fall had done. He would never fly again. The reality of the thought was so horrible that his mind skittered away from it. He would think of the Red One instead and try to remember everything Father had told him about her powers. Maybe he would find some clue in his memory that would explain her unusual behavior. Why had she not killed him? Perhaps she still wouldor at least perhaps she would betray his presence to her friends. If she did, so be it. Life as he had known it was over for him. He would welcome the chance to die battling anyone who tried to keep him prisoner. But it hadnt seemed shed been imprisoning him. He thought hard, forcing his mind to work through pain and exhaustion and despair. Stevie Rae. That had been the name shed given him. What was her motive in saving him if not to imprison and use him? Torture. It made sense that she had kept him alive so that she and her allies could force him to tell her all he knew about Father. What other reason could she have for not killing him? He would have done the same had he been lucky enough to have been in her place. They will discover that the son of an immortal will not be easily broken, he thought. Stressed beyond the reserves of even his great strength, Rephaim collapsed. He tried to position himself so that he could attain some relief from the agony that wracked his body with every beat of his heart, but it was impossible. Only time could relieve his physical pain. Nothing would relieve the soul-deep pain of never being able to fly againof never being whole. She should have killed me, he thought. Perhaps I can goad her into it if she returns alone. And if she comes back with her allies and attempts to torture my fathers secrets from me, I will not be the only one to shriek in pain. Father? Where are you? Why did you desert me? That was the thought foremost in his mind when unconsciousness finally claimed Rephaim again and, at last, he slept. CHAPTER NINE Zoey Hey, remember you promised the nun youd go to bed. And Im pretty sure that didnt mean going to his bed. Heath jerked his chin at the door to Starks room. I raised my brows at Heath. He sighed. I said Id share you with the stupid vamps if I had to, but I didnt say Id like it. I shook my head. Youre not sharing me with anyone tonight. Im just going to make sure Starks okay, then go to my own bed. Alone. By myself. Got it? Got it. He grinned and then kissed me softly. See you soon, Zo. See you soon, Heath. I watched him walk away down the hall. He was tall and muscular and looked every inch the star quarterback. He was all set to go to OU on a full-ride scholarship next year, and then, after college, he was going to be either a cop or a fireman. Whichever he chose there was one thing for certainHeath would be one of the good guys. But could he do all that, would he do all that, and also be a vampyre High Priestesss consort? Yes. Hell, yes. I am going to make sure Heath gets the future hes dreamed of and planned since we were kids. Sure, some parts of it will be different. Neither of us planned on the vamp stuff. Some parts of it will be hardlike, well, the vamp stuff. But the truth is, I care about Heath too much to force him out of my life and I care about him too much to mess up his life. So we are just going to have to make it work. Period. The end. You going to go in, or are you just going to stand out here and stress? Holy crap, Aphrodite! Could you not sneak up and scare me? No one was sneaking, and holy crap, is that a curse? Cause if it is, Im afraid Im going to have to wake up the Potty Mouth Police and have them make an arrest. Darius followed Aphrodite into the hall and gave her a be nice look, which made her sigh and say, So. Starks not dead yet. Gosh, thanks for that update. You just made me feel ever so much better, I said sarcastically. Dont be a pain in my ass while Im trying to be nice. I turned my attention to the only responsible adult in the area and asked Darius, Does he need anything? The warrior hesitated for only an instant, but it was an instant that I caught. Then he said, No. He is doing well. I believe he will recover completely. Well . . . I dragged out the word, wondering what the hell was really going on. Was Stark hurt worse than Darius was admitting? Ill check on him real quick, then Im going to bed. I raised a brow at Aphrodite. You and I are roomies. Darius is rooming with Damien and Jack. Uh, that means youre not sleeping with him cause that would freak the nuns. You got that, right? Oh. No. You so didnt need to give me that Anne of Green Gables lecture! Like I cant behave with some propriety? Are you remembering my parents purchased propriety for Tulsa? My. Dad. Is. The. Mayor. I cant believe I have to deal with this shit. Darius and I stared, speechless, as Aphrodite worked herself up into a seriously extraordinary hissy fit. I heard the damn nun. Plus, its not like this abbey is exactly romantic. Like I want to have hot monkey sex while the penguins cross themselves and pray? Ugh. Not hardly. Goddess! I may melt if I stay here too long. When she paused to take a breath, I inserted, I didnt mean I didnt think you knew how to act. I was just kinda reminding you, thats all. Yeah? Bullshit. Youre a really bad liar, Z. She walked over to Darius and kissed him hard on the mouth. Later, lover. Ill miss you in my bed. She gave me a disgusted glance. Just say night-night to boyfriend number three and get your butt to our room. I do not like to be awakened after Ive retired to my boudoir. Aphrodite tossed her long, gorgeous blond hair and twitched away. Shes really amazing, Darius said as he gazed lovingly after her. If by amazing you mean a total pain in the butt, then Ill agree with you. I held up my hand, stopping his shes-really-not-that-bad comment before he could make it. I dont want to talk about your girlfriend right now. I just want to know how Starks really doing. Stark is healing. I could almost see the big gap in the rest of his sentence. I raised both brows at the warrior. But . . . But nothing. Stark is healing. Why do I think theres more to it than that? Darius waited a beat and then he smiled a little sheepishly. Perhaps because you are intuitive enough to feel that there is more to it than that. All right, what is it? Its about energy and spirit and blood. Or rather Starks need of and lack of them. I blinked a couple times, trying to understand exactly what Darius was saying, and then I sucked in air as the lightbulb went on over my head and I felt like a total idiot for not understanding sooner. Hes been hurtlike I wasand he has to have blood to heal, just like I did. Well, why didnt you say something before? Crap! I kept babbling on as my mind raced, I dont especially want him to bite Aphrodite, but No! Darius interrupted, looking more than a little upset at the thought of Stark drinking from his girlfriend. Aphrodites Imprint with Stevie Rae makes her blood repellent to other vampyres. Well, hell! Lets get him a blood baggie or whatever, and I guess I could try to find a human he could bite . . . My voice trailed off. I hated, hated, hated thinking about Stark drinking from anyone else. I mean, I had already had to deal with his extracurricular biting before hed pledged himself as my Warrior and gone through the Change. I had hoped that the days of his biting other girls were behind him. I still hoped it! But I wouldnt be so selfish that my feelings kept him from getting what he needed to heal. Ive already given him some blood the sisters had on ice in the infirmary. Hes not in danger of dying. He will recover. But? I was exasperated that Dariuss sentences all seemed to have these big unfilled-in blanks at the end of them. But when a Warrior is pledged to the service of a High Priestess, there is a special bond between them. Yeah, I already know that. That bond is more than just an oath. Since ancient times Nyx has blessed her High Priestesses and the Warriors who serve them. The two of you are linked through the Goddesss blessing. It gives him intuitive knowledge about you that makes it easier for him to protect you. Intuitive knowledge? You mean like an Imprint? Goddess! Was this like I was Imprinted with two guys? An Imprint and a Warrior Bond have similarities. Both bind two people together. But an Imprint is a cruder form of a connection. Cruder? What do you mean? I mean that even though an Imprint often happens between a vampyre and a human for whom she cares deeply, it is a connection that originates in the blood and is ruled by the basest of our emotions: passion, lust, need, hunger, pain. He hesitated, obviously trying to choose his words carefully. You have experienced some of that with your consort, have you not? My nod was stiff and my cheeks felt hot. Contrast that bond with the Oath Bond you have with Stark. Well, I havent had it very long. I really dont know much about it. But as I said the words, I realized that I did already know that the connection I had with Stark went beyond wanting to drink from him. Actually, I hadnt even really thought about drinking from himor him drinking from me. As your Warrior serves you longer, you will understand more of your bond with him. Your link with your Warrior means he could develop the ability to sense many of your emotions. For instance, if a High Priestess is suddenly threatened, the Warrior pledged to her may feel her fear, and follow that emotional trail to his Priestess so that he may protect her from whatever is threatening. I-I didnt know that, I stuttered nervously. Dariuss smile was wry. I hate to sound like Damien, but you really should find time to read your Fledgling Handbook. Yeah, thats on the top of my to-do list as soon as my world stops exploding. Okay, so, Stark might be able to tell if Im afraid. What does that have to do with him being hurt? Your connection isnt as simple as just the possibility of him sensing your fear. Its also about energy and spirit. Your Warrior may eventually be able to feel many of your strong emotions, especially as he spends more and more time in your service. The memory of the very emotional experience Id shared with A-ya while shed trapped Kalona had my stomach tightening at Dariuss explanation. Go on, I said. A Warrior can absorb his Priestesss emotions. He can also absorb spirit from her, especially if his Priestess has a strong affinity. Often he can tap into that affinity. What in the hell does that mean, Darius? It means he can literally absorb energy through your blood. Are you saying its me Stark needs to bite? Okay, Ill admit that my heart started to speed up at the thought. SeriouslyI was already mega-attracted to Stark and I knew sharing blood with him would be a very hot experience. It would also break Heaths heart, and what if drinking from me let Stark into my mind and he saw what was going on with my memories of A-ya? Hell! Hell! Hell! Hell! Hell! Hell! Then a new thought hit me. Hey, wait. You said Stark couldnt bite Aphrodite because shes Imprinted with someone else and other vamps dont want her blood. Im Imprinted with Heath. Does that mess up my blood for Stark? Darius shook his head. No, the Imprint only changes a humans blood. So mine will work for Stark? Yes, your blood would definitely help him to heal, and he knows it, which is why Im taking the time to explain all of this to you. Darius continued as if I wasnt having a mini emotional breakdown right in front of him. And you should also know he is refusing to drink from you. What? Hes refusing to drink from me? Okay, sure, a second before Id been worried about what would happen if Stark bit me, but that didnt mean I wanted to be rejected by him! He knows youve recently healed from the Raven Mockers attack. The creature almost killed you, Zoey. Stark doesnt want to take anything from you that might weaken you. If he drank from you he wouldnt just be absorbing your blood; he would be taking energy and spirit from you. Factor in that none of us knows where Kalona and Neferet have gone, and that means we dont know when you might have to face them again. I agree with his decision to refuse to drink. You need to be at full strength. So does my Warrior, I countered. Darius sighed and nodded his head slowly. Agreed, but he can be replaced. You cannot. He cant be replaced! I blurted. I do not mean to sound unfeeling, but you must be wisein all of your decisions. Stark cant be replaced, I repeated stubbornly. As you will, Priestess. He bowed his head slightly, and then suddenly changed the subject. Now that you understand the ramifications of a Warriors Oath, I would like to ask your permission for me to pledge myself formally. I swallowed hard. Well, Darius, I really like you and youve taken seriously good care of me, but I think Id feel kinda awkward having two guys pledged to me. As if I didnt have enough guy issues? Dariuss smile was quick. He shook his head and I got the distinct impression he was trying not to laugh at me. You misunderstand. I will stay with you and lead those who guard you, but I would like to pledge my Warriors Oath to Aphrodite that is what Im asking your permission to do. You want to be bound to Aphrodite? I do. I know it is irregular for a vampyre Warrior to pledge to a human, but Aphrodite is not a normal human. Youre telling me, I mumbled. He went on as if I hadnt spoken. She is truly a prophetess, which puts her in the same category as a High Priestess of Nyx. It wont mess up your Warriors bond to have her Imprinted with Stevie Rae? Darius shrugged. We shall see. I am willing to take the chance. You love her, dont you? He met my gaze steadily and his smile warmed. I do. Shes seriously a pain in the butt. Shes unique, he countered. And she needs my protection, especially in the days to come. Well, you have a point there. I shrugged. Okay, you have my permission. Dont say I didnt warn you about the pain-in-the-butt part, though. I wouldnt think of it. Thank you, Priestess. Please, do not say anything to Aphrodite. I would like to make my offer privately to her. My lips are totally sealed. I made a little pantomime of zipping up my lips and throwing away the key. Then I bid you good night. He fisted his hand over his heart, bowed, and he was gone. CHAPTER TEN Zoey I stayed out in the hall, trying to sift through the mess of thoughts in my head. Wow! Darius was going to ask Aphrodite to accept his Warriors Oath. Jeesh. A vampyre warrior and a human prophet of the Goddess. Huh. Who knew? On an equally freaky note: Stark could feel my emotions if they were strong enough. Well, I had a strong feeling that was going to be inconvenient. And then I realized I was feeling strong about feeling strongly, and I tried to clamp down on everything, which just stressed me out, which he could probably sense. Undoubtedly, I was going to drive my own self crazy. Stifling a sigh, I opened the door quietly. The only light was coming from one of those tall prayer candlesthe kind you can find in the grocery store that have really weird religious pictures on them. This one wasnt so weird. It was pink, had a pretty picture of Mary on it, and it smelled like roses. I tiptoed over to Starks bedside. He didnt look good, but he also wasnt as pale and awful as he had been not long before. He seemed to be asleepor at least his eyes were closedhis breathing was regular, and he looked relaxed. He didnt have a shirt on, and the hospital sheet was pulled up under his arms so that I could just see the white top of what must have been a huge bandage covering his chest. I remembered how terrible the burn had been and wondered if, even considering the possible ramifications, I should make a cut in my arm like Heath had done for me, and then shove it against his mouth. Hed probably latch on to it automatically and, without thinking, drink what he needed to heal. But would he be pissed when hed realized what Id done? Probably. I knew Heath and Erik certainly would be. Crap. Erik. I hadnt even begun to deal with him yet. Stop stressing. I jumped and my gaze instantly went to Starks face. His eyes werent closed any longer. He was watching me with an expression that was somewhere between amused and sarcastic. Stop psychically eavesdropping. I wasnt. I could tell by watching you gnaw your lip that you were stressing yourself out. So, I guess Darius talked to you. Yeah, he has. Did you know about all that went along with giving me your Warriors Oath before you did it? Yeah, mostly. I mean Id read about it at school, and we talked about it in Vamp Soc Class this past year. Its different to actually experience it, though. Can you really feel what I feel? I asked hesitantly, almost as afraid to know the truth as to not know it. Im starting to, only its not like I can hear your thoughts or anything crazy like that. I just feel things sometimes, and I know theyre not coming from me. I mostly ignored it when it first happened, but then I realized what was going on and paid more attention to it. He started to smile. Stark, I have to tell you that kinda makes me feel spied on. His expression went totally serious. Im not spying on you. This isnt about me following you around with my mind. Im not going to invade your privacy; Im going to keep you safe. I thought you He broke off, looking away from me. Never mind. Its not important. You should just know Im not going to use this thing between us to be like a creeper and mentally stalk you. You thought I what? Finish what you started to say. He let out a long, exasperated breath and met my eyes again. What I started to say is that I thought you trusted me more than that. Thats one of the reasons I decided to give you my oath, because you trusted me when no one else did. I do trust you, I said quickly. But you think Id spy on you? Trust and spying dont go together. When he put it that way, I could see his point, and some of my initial freak-out started to fade. I dont think youd do it on purpose, but if my emotions are blabbing at you, or whatever they do, then it would be easy for you to, well . . . I trailed off and fidgeted, not comfortable with the whole conversation. Spy? he finished for me. No. I wont. Hows this: Ill pay attention to the psychic stuff I get from you if youre scared. Other than that Ill ignore how youre feeling. He met my eyes and I could see his hurt there. Crap! I hadnt meant to hurt him. Youll ignore everything Im feeling? I asked softly. He nodded and the movement made him grimace in pain, but his voice was steady when he answered. Everything except what I need to know to protect you. Without speaking, I reached out slowly and took his hand. He didnt pull away from me, but he also didnt say anything. Look, I started this whole conversation wrong. I do trust you. I was just surprised when Darius told me about the psychic thing. Surprised? Starks lips tilted up. Okay, maybe completely freaked is a better word. Its just that I have a bunch of stuff going on and I guess Im stressing. Youre stressing for sure, he said. And by bunch of stuff do you mean those two guys, Heath and Erik? I sighed. Sadly, I do. He laced his fingers through mine. Those other guys dont change anything. My Oath binds us. For a second he sounded too darn much like Heath, and I had to force myself not to fidget again. I really dont want to talk about them with you right now. Or ever I thought, but didnt say. I got ya, he said. I dont feel like talking about those punks right now either. He tugged on my hand. Why dont you sit by me for a little while? I sat gingerly on the edge of the bed, not wanting to jostle him too much or hurt him. Im not gonna break, he said, giving me his cocky grin. You almost broke, I said. Nah, you saved me. And Im going to be okay. So, does it hurt really bad? Ive felt better, he said. But the creamy stuff the nuns gave Darius to spread on the burn helps. Except for my chest being all tight, its mostly numb right now. But even as he spoke he shifted restlessly, as if he couldnt get comfortable. Hows it going out there? He abruptly changed the subject before I could ask him any more about how he was feeling. Did all the Raven Mockers take off with Kalona? I think so. Stevie Rae and the guys found three of them dead. I paused, remembering Stevie Raes weird reaction to Dallas telling her that theyd put the bodies in the trash. What is it? Stark asked. I dont know exactly, I answered him honestly. Therere things going on with Stevie Rae that are worrying me. Like? he prompted. I looked down at our joined hands. How much could I tell him? Could I really talk to him? Im your Warrior. You can trust me with your life. That means you can also trust me with your secrets. I met his eyes, and he continued, smiling sweetly at me. Were Oath-bound. Thats a stronger tie than what happens between an Imprint or even between mates. Ill never betray you, Zoey. Ever. You can count on me. For an instant I wanted to tell him about my memory of A-ya, but instead I blurted, I think Stevie Raes hiding red fledglings. Bad ones. His easy smile vanished and he started to sit up, then sucked in a sharp breath and went totally white. No! You cant get up! I pressed his shoulders gently back. You have to tell Darius, Stark said through clenched teeth. I have to talk to Stevie Rae first. I dont think thats Seriously! I have to talk to Stevie Rae first. I took his hand again, trying to will him through my touch to understand. Shes my best friend. You trust her? I want to trust her. I have trusted her. My shoulders slumped in defeat. But if she doesnt come clean with the truth when I talk to her, I will go to Darius. I need to get out of this damn bed so I can make sure youre not surrounded by enemies! Im not surrounded by enemies! Stevie Rae isnt my enemy. I sent up a silent prayer to Nyx that I was right about that. Look, Ive kept things from my friends beforebad things. I raised a brow and shot him a Look. I kept you from my friends. He grinned. Well, thats different. I didnt let him tease me out of being serious. No, its really not. Okay, I hear what youre saying, but Im still not okay with it. I dont suppose I can get you to bring Stevie Rae here when you talk to her? I squidged my forehead at him. No, not likely. Then promise me that youll be careful and you wont go off alone with her somewhere to talk. She wouldnt do anything to hurt me! Actually, Im assuming she cant hurt you, being as you have control of five elements to her one. But you dont know what kind of powers these rogue fledglings shes hiding have, or how many of them there are. And I know a little something about being a badass red fledgling. So promise youll be careful. Yeah, okay. I promise. Good. He relaxed a little bit back on the bed. Hey, I dont want you to worry about me right now. You just need to concentrate on getting better. I drew a deep, fortifying breath and continued, I think its a good idea for you to drink from me. No. Look, you want to be able to protect me, right? Right, he said, nodding tightly. Then that means you have to get well fast so you can. Right? Yeah. And youll get well quicker if you drink from me, so its only logical that you do. Have you looked in a mirror lately? he asked abruptly. Huh? Do you have any idea how tired you look? I could feel my cheeks getting warm. I really havent had time lately to worry about stuff like makeup and doing my hair, I said defensively. Im not talking about makeup or hair. Im talking about how pale you look. You have dark circles under your eyes. His gaze slid down to where my shirt covered the long scar that stretched from one of my shoulders to another. Hows your cut? Fine. With my free hand I tugged up my shirt, even though I knew none of the scar was exposed. Hey, he said gently. Ive already seen it, remember? I met his eyes. Yes, I remembered. Actually, hed not just seen my scarhed seen all of me. Naked. Okay, now my entire face felt hot. Im not mentioning it to embarrass you. Im just trying to remind you that youve almost died lately, too. We need you to be strong and well, Zoey. I need you to be strong and well. And thats why Im not going to take anything from you right now. But I need you to be strong and well, too. I will be. Hey, dont worry about me. Apparently, Im practically impossible to kill. He grinned his cute, cocky smile. Keep my stress level in mind. Practically impossible is not the same as impossible. Ill try to remember that. He pulled on my hand. Lay down next to me for a little while. I like it when youre close. Are you sure Im not going to hurt you? Im almost positive you will hurt me. He smiled, making his words teasing, but I still want you close. Come here to me. I let him tug me down so that I was lying next to him. Curled on my side I faced him, resting my head carefully against his shoulder. He reached across his body and draped an arm over me, pulling me more firmly against him. I said Im not going to break. Now relax. I sighed, and willed myself to relax. I wrapped my arm around his waist, being careful not to jostle him too much or touch his chest. Stark closed his eyes and I watched his face go from tight and pale to relaxed and pale as his breathing deepened. I swear within a minute he was sound asleep. That was exactly what I wanted him to be for what Id decided to do. I drew three deep, cleansing breaths, centered myself, and then whispered, Spirit, come to me. Instantly I felt the familiar stirring within me, like Id just understood something unbelievably magickal, as my soul responded to the infilling of the fifth element, spirit. Now, quietly, carefully, gently, go to Stark. Help him. Fill him. Strengthen him, but dont wake him up. I spoke softly, mentally crossing my fingers that hed stay asleep. As spirit left me I felt Starks body stiffen for an instant, then he trembled, and then he let out a long, sleepy sigh while spirit soothed and, hopefully, strengthened him. I watched for a little while more; then slowly, I untangled myself from Stark and, with a last whisper asking spirit to stay with him while he slept, tiptoed from the room, closing the door gently behind me. Id only taken a couple steps when I realized I didnt have a clue where I was going. I stopped and felt my shoulders slump. A nun, who had been walking with her eyes cast down, hurried past me and gave a little jolt as she looked up and our gazes met. Sister Bianca? I thought I recognized her. Oh, Zoey, yes its me. Its so dark in the hall I almost didnt see you. Sister, I guess Im lost. Can you point me in the right direction to my room? She smiled kindly, reminding me of Sister Mary Angela, even though she wasnt nearly as old. Keep going down this hall until you come to the stairwell. Take it up to the top floor, and I do believe the room youre sharing with Aphrodite is number thirteen. Lucky thirteen, I sighed. That figures. Dont you believe we make our own luck? I shrugged. Actually, Sister, Im too tired to know what I believe right now. She patted my arm. Well, go on to bed then. Ill say a prayer to Our Lady for you. Her intervention is better than luck any day. Thanks. I headed in the direction of the stairwell. By the time I got to the top floor I was sucking air like an old woman, and the scar that stretched across my chest was burning and throbbing in time with the fast beating of my heart. I opened the door, went out into the hallway, and leaned heavily against the wall, trying to catch my breath. Absently, I rubbed at my chest, wincing because it was still really sore. I pulled down the neck of my shirt, hoping the stupid wound hadnt broken open again. My breath caught as I saw the new tattooing that decorated either side of the raised red line. Id forgotten about that, I whispered to myself. Thats amazing! With a little squeal I let go of the front of my shirt and jumped back so suddenly that I bonked my head against the wall. Erik! CHAPTER ELEVEN Zoey I thought you knew I was here. It wasnt like I was trying to hide. Erik was slouching just a few feet away, next to a door that had a brass number thirteen emblazoned on it. He stood up and, with his signature handsome-movie-star smile, sauntered over to me. Damn, Z, Ive been waiting here for you for ages. He bent and, before I could say a word, planted a major kiss smack on my mouth. I pushed against his chest and stepped sideways out of the embrace hed started to pull me into. Erik, Im not much in the mood for kissing. One of his dark brows went up. Really? Is that what you told Heath, too? I am so not going into this right now. Then when are you? The next time I have to watch you drink from your human boyfriend? You know what? Youre right. Lets talk about it now. I could feel myself getting more and more pissed, and it wasnt just the fact that I was tired and stressed and Erik was being utterly insensitive that was making me so mad. Id had it with Eriks possessiveness. Period. Heath and I are Imprinted. Either deal with it or dont. And this is the only discussion were ever going to have about it. I watched his expression flare to totally pissed, but then, surprisingly, he clamped down on his temper. His shoulders slumped and he let out a long sigh that ended in a kind of half laugh. You sound just like a High Priestess. Well, I dont feel much like one. Hey, Im sorry. He reached out and brushed a strand of my dark hair back. Nyx gave you new tattoos, huh? Yeah. It was almost automatic for me to clutch the neck of my shirt and lean against the wall so that I was just out of his reach. It happened when Kalona was banished. Do you mind if I see them? His voice was deep and seductivehed hit the perfect boyfriend tone. But before he could move closer and think that he could help himself to looking down my shirt, I held up my hand like a stop sign. Not now. I just want to get some sleep, Erik. Hed stopped moving toward me and his eyes narrowed. So hows Stark? Hes hurt. Bad. But Darius says hell be okay. I kept my voice guarded. His attitude was making me feel seriously defensive. And you just came from his room, didnt you? Yes. Clearly frustrated, he ran his hand through his thick dark hair. Its just too much. Huh? He threw his arms out to the side in what looked to me like a well-practiced dramatic gesture. All of these other guys! I have to put up with Heath because hes your consort and just when Im trying to get used to that, this other guy shows upStark. Erik said the name with a sneer. Erik, I Acting like I hadnt tried to say anything, he spoke over me. Yeah, sworn to be your Warrior. I know what that means! Hes always going to be with you. Erik Again I tried to get a word in, but he kept blaring over me. So Im going to have to put up with him. And as if thats not bad enough, its obvious theres something going on between you and Kalona! Come on! Everyones seen the way the guy looks at you, He scoffed. Like that doesnt remind me of Blake? Stop. I spoke the word softly, but the anger and irritation that had been building inside me exploded at his sarcastic mention of Kalona, and spirit, that Id so recently conjured, filled the word with a power that had Erik, eyes wide, taking a step back. Lets get this over with, I continued. You do not have to put up with any other guy because as of this moment you and I are not together. Hey, I didnt No! Its my turn to talk. Were done, Erik. Youre too possessive, and even if I wasnt exhausted and stressed out of my brain two things that apparently dont matter at all to youI still wouldnt be up for tolerating your crap. After everything youve put me through, you think you can just walk out on me like this? No. Feeling the spirit swirl around me I channeled it into my next words as I stepped forward, backing him down the hall. I dont think anything. I know this is how its going to be. Were done. Now you need to go away before I do something I might, in like fifty years, be sorry for. I purposely pushed hard with the power of the element that was flowing through me, causing him to stumble. His face had gone utterly white. What the hells happened to you? You used to be so sweet. Now youre a freak! And Im sick of you cheating on me with everyone who has a dick. You should be with Stark and Heath and Kalona. Theyre what you deserve! He stomped angrily past me, slamming the door to the stairwell. Just as angry, I marched over to room number thirteen and flung open the door. And Aphrodite almost fell right out, face-first. Oopsie, she said, running her fingers through her always perfect hair. Guess I was, uh Listening to my big breakup scene with Erik? I finished for her. Yeah, that would be what I was doing. And may I just say I dont blame you. Talk about an asshat. Plus, you so dont cheat on him with everyone who has a dick. You and Darius are just friends. Plus theres Damien and Jack . . . well, not that they really count, being as they like dick themselves. Still, it was a ridiculous exaggeration. Youre not really making me feel better. I plopped down on the twin bed that wasnt all ruffled and obviously just laid on. Sorry. Im not very good at the making someone feel better part. So you heard all of that? Yep. Even the part about Kalona? Yes, and again I call him an asshat. Aphrodite, what the hell is an asshat? She gave me an exaggerated eye roll. Erik is an asshat, you dork. Anyway, as I was trying to say before you interrupted, it was seriously not cool that he brought up Kalona. Plus, he had enough evidence for his stupid jealous insecurity already with Heath and Stark. It was totally not necessary to mention the winged guy. I do not love him. Of course you dont. Youve outgrown Erik. Now, I suggest you get some sleep. Goddess knows I hate to mention it, but you look like crap. Thanks, Aphrodite. It really helps me right now to hear that I look as terrible as I feel, I said sarcastically, completely avoiding the fact that when I said I didnt love him Id meant Kalona and not Erik. Hey, anytime. Im just here to help. I was searching for a sarcastic comeback when I noticed what she had on and a little bubble of unexpected laughter escaped from me. Aphrodite, Queen of Fashion, was wearing a floor-length, cover-her-from-ankles-to-neck, white cotton nightgown. Like shed gone Amish. Uh, what is that lovely little thing youre wearing? Dont start with me. This is the penguins idea of nightwear. Well, I can almost understand it. I mean, they take those stupid chastity vows, and if this is what they wear to bed, the vow would be practically unnecessary. Seriously. The thing almost makes me look unattractive. Almost? I giggled. Yes, smart-ass, almost. And before youre too gleeful, cast your eyes over there. That thing folded up on the end of your bed isnt an extra sheet. Its your very own designer nun sleepwear. Oh, well, at least it looks comfortable. Comfort is for sissies and unattractive people. As Aphrodite snootily retucked herself into bed, I made my way over to the little sink in the corner of the room and washed my face and used one of the new, still-in-its-wrapper guest toothbrushes to brush my teeth. As nonchalantly as I could I said, Hey, uh, can I ask you something? Ask away, she said, plumping her pillows. Its a serious question. So? So, I need a serious answer. Yeah, fine, whatever. Ask, she said flippantly. You said before that you knew Erik got too possessive. Thats not really a question, she said. I raised my brows at her in the mirror. She sighed. Okay, yes, Erik was a stage-five clinger. Huh? She sighed. Clinger. Stage five. Totally not fucking cool. Aphrodite, what language are you speaking? Teenage American. Way upper-class. You could speak it too with a little imagination and a few real cuss words. Goddess help me, I muttered to my reflection before I continued. Okay, so. Erik was too possessive with you, too. Thats what I just said. And it made you mad? Yeah, definitely. Basically, it broke us up. I squished Crest on my toothbrush. So it made you mad. You and Erik broke up, but you were, still, uh, all, well . . . I chewed my lip for a second and then tried again. I saw you with him and you were all, um Oh, for craps sake! You can just say it without melting. You saw me go down on him. Uh, yeah, I said awkwardly. Thats not a question either. Fine! Heres the question: You were broken up with him because he was a possessive jerk, but you were still trying to be with him, so much so that you were even doing that. I dont get why, I blurted, and stuck my toothbrush in my mouth. Watching her reflection in the mirror, I saw her cheeks turn bright pink. Aphrodite flipped back her hair. She cleared her throat. Then she met my gaze in the mirror. It wasnt about wanting Erik. It was about wanting control. Huh? I said through the bubbles of Crest. Things had started to change with me at school even before you showed up. I spit and rinsed. What things? I knew something was up with Neferet. It bothered me, and that was weird. I wiped my mouth and went over to my bed, using kicking off my shoes, pulling off my clothes, putting on the soft, warm cotton nightgown, and climbing in bed as an excuse to stay quiet while I tried to figure out how to put into words the stuff babbling through my mind. But without me saying anything, Aphrodite continued, You know I used to keep my visions from Neferet, dont you? I nodded. And humans died because of it. Yeah, youre right. They did. And Neferet didnt care. I could tell. That was when I started to feel weird. Thats also when my life started to fall apart. I didnt want it to. I wanted to stay the bitch in charge, who would someday be High Priestess and, preferably, rule the world. Then I could tell my mother to go straight to helland maybe even be so powerful that I could scare her like she deserves to be scared. Aphrodite blew out a long breath. It didnt work out that way. Instead you listened to Nyx, I said softly. Well, first I tried like hell to stay queen of my bitchy kingdom, and being with the hottest guy at school, even if he was a possessive asshat, was part of that. It makes sense, I guess, I said. Aphrodite hesitated then added, It makes me sick to remember it. You mean doing it with Erik? Her lips curled up and she shook her head, laughing a little. Goddess, youre such a prude! No, doing it with Erik was actually not bad at all. It makes me sick to remember how I kept quiet about my visions and basically shit on Nyxs path. Well, recently youve pretty much cleaned up any poo you put on Nyxs path. And I am not a prude. Aphrodite snorted. Youre really unattractive when you do that, I said. Im never really unattractive, she said. Are you done with your serious nonquestion question? Yeah, I suppose. Good. My turn. Have you been able to talk to Stevie Rae? Alone? Uh-uh, not yet. But youre going to? Uh-huh. Soon? What do you know? Aphrodite said, Shes definitely hiding things from you. Things like red fledglings? Like you told me before? Aphrodite didnt answer, which completely made my stomach clench. Well? I prompted. What? It feels like theres more going on with Stevie Rae than just hiding some random red fledglings from you. I didnt want to believe Aphrodite, but my gut said she was telling the truth, as did my common sense. Aphrodites Imprint with Stevie Rae gave her a connection to my BFF no one else had. So Aphrodite knew things about her. Plus, no matter how much I wished otherwise, I realized things werent right with Stevie Rae. You cant tell me anything more specific? Aphrodite shook her head. No. Shes really shut down. Shut down? What does that mean? Well, you know how your bumpkin BFF usually is, like our own transparently perky version of a countrified goodwill ambassador for Hey there, yall! Check out how nice and sweet and white bread I am! Yuck! Yuck! Aphrodites exaggerated Okie accent mimicked Stevie Raes voice a little too well, and I frowned severely at her when I said, Yes, I know shes usually honest and open, if thats what you meant to say. Yeah, well, shes not being honest and open anymore. Take it from meand Goddess knows I wish you could take this damn Imprint from meshes hiding a very big something that feels way more important than a few fledglings. Crap, I said. Yep, she said. But, hey, theres not shit you can do about it right now, so get some sleep. Our world will still need saving tomorrow. Great, I said. Oh, speaking ofHows your boyfriend? Which one? I asked glumly. Mr. Pain in the Ass Arrows. I shrugged. Better, I think. You didnt let him chomp on you, did you? I sighed. No. Darius was right about that, you know? As annoying as it might be for some of us, and as unqualified as you appear, you are the High Priestess right now. Which makes me feel ever so much better. Hey, no problem. Look, what Im saying is you need to be one hundred percent, and not drained like an extra-dry martini during brunch at my moms country club. Your mom really drinks martinis at brunch? Of course she does. Aphrodite shook her head and looked utterly disgusted. Try not to be so na?ve. Anyway, just dont do something stupid because youre feeling all Lifetime Movie of the Week and in love with Stark. Give it a rest, would ya? I wont do anything stupid! I leaned over and blew out the fat pillar candle that was on the end table between our beds. The darkness of the room was comforting, and when neither of us had said anything for a little while I felt myself beginning to drift off, until Aphrodites voice snapped me back to ?ber-aware. Are we going back to the House of Night tomorrow? I think we have to, I said slowly. No matter what, the House of Night is our home, and the fledglings and vampyres there are our people. We have to go back to them. Well, you better get some sleep. Tomorrow youre going to land right in the middle of what one of my moms ex-military assistants would call a huge cluster fuck, Aphrodite said in her best happily sarcastic tone. As usual, Aphrodite was as right as she was annoying. CHAPTER TWELVE Zoey After Aphrodites gloomy, but probably accurate, prediction I didnt think Id be able to sleep, but exhaustion caught up with me. I closed my eyes and then, for a little while there was blissful nothingness. Sadly, bliss didnt ever seem to last very long in my life. In my dream the island was so blue and beautiful it dazzled me. I was standing on . . . I looked around . . . the roof of a castle! One of those real old-looking castles, made of big blocks of rough stone. The roof was massively cool. Framing it were those stonesticking-up-things that looked like a giants teeth. There were plants everywhere on the roof. I even noticed lemon and orange trees, branches all heavy and full of sweet-smelling fruit. In the center of everything was a fountain in the shape of a beautiful naked woman whose hands were lifted over her head, and from those cupped hands flowed crystal water. Something about the stone woman looked familiar, but my gaze kept getting pulled from the gorgeous rooft op garden to the even more awesome view that stretched around the castle. Holding my breath, I moved to the edge of the roof and looked down and down and down and out at the brilliant blue of the sea. The water was beyond beautiful. It was the color of dreams and laughter and perfect summer skies. The island itself was made of jagged mountains, covered in unusual-looking pine trees that reminded me of giant umbrellas. The castle was at the very top of the highest of the islands mountains, and as I peered down in the distance I could see graceful villas and a pretty little town. Everything was bathed in the blue of the sea, which gave the place a sense of magick. I inhaled the breeze, smelling salt and oranges. The day was sunnythe sky utterly clear of clouds, but in my dream the brightness of it didnt bother my eyes at all. I loved it! It was a little cool, and more than a little windy, but I didnt care. I liked the crispness of the breeze against my skin. At that moment the island was the color of aquamarines, but I could imagine how it would look as dusk approached and the sun no longer ruled the sky. The blue would deepen, darken, and change to sapphire. My dreaming self smiled. Sapphire . . . The island would turn the exact color of my tattoos. I tilted back my head and threw my arms wide, embracing the loveliness of this place Id created out of my sleeping imagination. So it seems I cannot escape you, even when I flee your presence, Kalona said. He was behind me. His voice crawled across the skin of my back, up over my shoulders, and wrapped around my body. Slowly, I let my arms drop to my sides. I did not turn around. Youre the one who sneaks around in peoples dreams, not me. I was glad my voice sounded calm and ?ber-under-control. So you are still unwilling to admit you are drawn to me? His voice was deep and seductive. Look, I didnt try to find you. All I meant when I closed my eyes was to sleep. I spoke almost automatically, avoiding his question and willing myself not to remember the last memory Id had of his voice and his arms around me. You are obviously sleeping alone. Were you with someone else, it would be much more difficult for you to be touched by me. I suppressed the confused longing his voice made me feel and filed away that little bit of infosleeping with someone did make it more difficult for him to reach me, just as Stark had told me the night before. Thats none of your business, I said. You are correct. All of those sons of man who swarm around you, eager to bask in your presence, are completely beneath my concern. I didnt bother to call him on his twisting of what Id said. I was too busy trying to stay calm and will myself to wake up. You chase me away from you, yet you find me in your dreams. What does that say about you, A-ya? That is not my name! Not in this lifetime! Not in this lifetime you say. That means you have accepted the truth. You know your soul is the reincarnation of the maiden fashioned by the Ani Yunwiya to love me. Perhaps that is why you keep coming to me in your dreams, because even though your waking mind resists, your soul, your spirit, your very essence yearns to be with me. He used the ancient word for the Cherokee peoplemy grand-mas people and mine. I knew the legend. A beautiful, winged immortal had come to live with the Cherokee, but instead of being a benevolent earthbound god, he was cruel. He abused the women and used the men. Finally, the Wise Women of the tribes, known as Ghigua Women, came together and created a maiden from the earth. They gave A-ya life, as well as special gifts. Her purpose was to use Kalonas lust to lure him underground so that he could be trapped within the earth. Their plan worked. Kalona couldnt resist A-ya and he was trapped within the earthor at least he had been until Neferet had freed him. And now that Id shared a memory with A-ya, I knew only too well the truth of that legend. Truth, my mind reminded me. Use the strength of the truth to fight him. Yes, I admitted. I know I am the reincarnation of A-ya. I drew a deep, centering breath, turned around, and faced Kalona. But I am todays reincarnation of her, which means I make my own choices, and I will not choose to be with you. And yet you continue to come to me in your dreams. I wanted to deny that Id come to himto say something smart and High Priestesslike, but all I could do was stare at him. He was so beautiful! As usual, he was underdressed. I guess the better description would be undressed. He had on jeans, and that was it. His skin was bronze and perfect. It covered his muscles with a smoothness that made me want to touch him. Kalonas amber eyes were luminous. They met my gaze with a warmth and kindness that made my breath catch. He appeared about eighteen, but when he smiled he seemed even younger, more boyish, more accessible. Everything about him screamed super hot guy I should be going crazy over! But that was a lie. Kalona was actually super-scary and super-dangerous, and I could never forget thatno matter what he appeared to beno matter what the memories planted deep within my soul yearned for him to be. Ah, so you finally deign to look at me. Well, you wouldnt go away and leave me alone, so I figured Id be polite, I said with forced nonchalance. Kalona threw back his head and laughed. The sound was infectious and warm and very seductive. It made me ache to move closer to him and join him in the freedom of his laughter. I wanted it so much that Id almost taken a step toward him when his wings chose that moment to stir. They quivered and then spread partially open so that the sunlight glistened against their black depths, illuminating the indigo and purple that usually hid within their darkness. The sight of them was like running into an invisible wall. I remembered again what he wasa dangerous fallen immortal who would like to steal my free will and, eventually, my soul. I dont see why youre laughing, I said quickly. Im telling you the truth. Im looking at you because Im polite, even though I really wish youd fly away and let me dream in peace. Oh, my A-ya. His expression sobered. I can never leave you in peace. You and I are bound. We will be each others salvation, or each others doom. He took a step closer to me and I mirrored his movement by taking a step backward. Which shall it be? Salvation or doom? I can only speak for myself. I made my voice stay calm, and was even able to add a touch of sarcasm to it, though I could feel the cool stone of the balcony balustrade pressing like the walls of a prison cell against my back. But both sound pretty bad. Salvation? Jeesh, youre reminding me of the People of Faith, and since theyd consider you a fallen angel, that doesnt make you much of an expert on salvation. Doom? Well, seriously, youre still reminding me of the People of Faith. Since when did you become so boringly religious? In two steps he closed the space between us. His arms became bars, caging me between the stone balustrade and him. His wings shivered, opening around him so that he eclipsed the sun with his own dark brilliance. I could feel the terrible, wonderful chill that always emanated from him. It should have repelled me, but it didnt. That awful coldness drew me at a soul-deep level. I wanted to press myself against him and be carried away by the sweet pain he could bring. Boring? Little A-ya, my lost love, for centuries mortals have been calling me many things, but boring is not one of them. Kalona towered over me. There was just so much of him! And there was all that naked skin . . . I wrenched my gaze from his chest and looked up into his eyes. He was smiling down at me, perfectly relaxed and completely in control. He was so darn hot I could hardly breathe. Sure, Stark and Heath and, yes, Erik, were cute guysexceptionally cute guys, actually. But they were nothing compared to Kalonas immortal beauty. He was a masterpiece, the statue of a god that personified physical perfection, only he was even more attractive because he was alivehe was herehe was here for me. I-I want you to step back. I tried unsuccessfully to keep my voice from shaking. Is that truly what you want, Zoey? His use of my name jolted through me, affecting me much more than when he called me A-ya. My fingers pressed hard into the stone of the castle as I tried to ground myself and not fall under his spell. I drew a deep breath and got ready to lie and tell him yes, I sure as hell did want him to step away from me. Use the power of truth. The words whispered through my mind. What was the truth? That I had to fight myself not to leap into his arms? That I couldnt stop thinking about A-yas surrender to him? Or that other truththat I wished I was just a normal kid whose most stressful problems were homework and mean girls? Tell the truth. I blinked. I could tell the truth. Right now what I really want is sleep. I want to be normal. I want to worry about school and paying my car insurance and how stupidly expensive gas is right now. And Id seriously appreciate it if you could do anything about those things. I held his gaze with my own, letting that one sliver of truth lend me strength. His smile was young and mischievous. Why dont you come to me, Zoey? Well, see, that wouldnt actually give me any of those things I just mentioned. I could give you so much more than those mundane things. Yeah, Im sure you could, but none of it would be normal, and right now what Id truly like more than anything is a very big dose of normal. He met my gaze, and I could tell that he was waiting for me to falter, for me to get all nervous and stuttery, or worse, to panic. But I had told him the truth, and that was a small, shining victory for me, one that lent me power. It was Kalona who finally looked away, Kalona whose voice was suddenly halting and unsure. I dont have to be like this. For you, I could be more. His eyes met mine again. I could choose a different path were you by my side. I tried not to show the flood of emotions his words had caused within me as he touched the part of me that A-ya had awakened. Find the truth, my mind insisted; and, again, I found it and spoke it. I wish I could believe you, but I dont. Youre gorgeous and magical, but youre also a liar. I dont trust you. But you could, he said. No, I said honestly. I dont think I could. Try. Give me a chance. Come to me and let me prove myself to you. Truly, my love, say one small word, yes. He bent and, in a movement that was graceful and strong and seductive, the fallen immortal whispered into my ear, allowing his lips to only brush my skin enough to send chills skittering through my body. Give yourself to me and I promise that I will fulfill your deepest dreams. My breath was coming fast and I pressed my palms harder against the stone at my back. At that instant, I only wanted to say one word, yes. I knew what would happen if I did. Id already experienced that kind of surrender through A-ya. He chuckled, a sound that was deep and confident. Go on, my lost love. One word, yes, and your life will forever be changed. His lips werent by my ear anymore. Instead his gaze had captured mine again. He was smiling into my eyes. He was young and perfect, powerful and kind. And I wanted to say yes so badly I was afraid to speak. Love me, he murmured. Love only me. Through my desire for him my mind processed what he was saying, and I finally found a word other than yes. Neferet, I said. He frowned. What of her? You say Im supposed to love only you, but youre not even free. Youre with Neferet. Some of his easy confidence disappeared. Neferet is not your concern. His words made my heart squeeze and I realized that a big part of me had wanted him to deny that he was with herto tell me that was over. Disappointment lent me strength, and I said, I think she is my concern. Last time I saw her she tried to kill me, and that was when I was rejecting you. I say yes to you and shes going to lose her mindwhats left of it. On me. Again. Why are we discussing Neferet? She is not here. Look at the beauty that surrounds us. Consider what it would be to rule this place at my sideto help me bring back the ancient ways to this world that has become far too modern. One of his hands slipped down to caress my arm. I ignored the sensations that were shivering across my skin and the alarm bells that were blaring in my head at his comment about bringing back the ancient ways, and put on my best whiny teenage tone. Seriously, Kalona, I really dont want any more drama with Neferet. I dont think I could handle it. He threw his hands up in frustration. Why are you still speaking of the Tsi Sgili? I command you to forget her! She is nothing to us. The instant his arms no longer imprisoned me against the stone, I scrambled sideways, determined to put some space between us. I needed to think, and I couldnt do that with his arms around me. Kalona followed, this time backing me against one of the low parts of the rooft op walla gap in the stone teeth. There was only support as high as the back of my knees. From there up I could feel the cool wind brushing against my back and moving my hair. I didnt need to look behind me. I knew the drop-off was dizzying and that the blue of the sea waited far, far below. You cannot escape me. Kalonas amber eyes narrowed. I saw anger beginning to simmer beneath his seductive exterior. And you must realize that I am going to rule this world very soon. I will bring the ancient ways back, and in doing so I will divide these modern people, separating the wheat from the chaff. The wheat shall stay by my side, growing and thriving as they feed me. The chaff shall be burnt into nothingness. I felt a terrible sinking inside me. He was using old, poetic words, but I had absolutely no doubt he was describing the end of the world as I knew it, and the destruction of countless peoplevampyres, fledglings, and humans. Feeling sick, I tilted back my head and gave him a totally clueless look. Wheat? Chaff? Sorry, you lost me. Youll have to translate that into something I get. He didnt say anything for a long moment. He only studied me silently. Then, with a slight smile curling his full lips, he reached out and caressed the side of my face with his hand. You play a dangerous game, my little lost love. My body froze. His hand slid slowly from my cheek down the side of my neck, searing a path of cold heat across my skin. You toy with me. You think you can act the schoolgirl who understands nothing more than the next dress she will wear or the next boy she will kiss. You have underestimated me. I know you, A-ya. I know you too well. Kalonas hand continued down and I sucked in a shocked gasp when he cupped my breast. He rubbed his thumb across the most sensitive spot there and a frigid stab of desire shook me. No matter how hard I tried I couldnt keep myself from trembling at his caress. There on the rooft op of my dream, with the sea behind me and Kalona before me, I was trapped by his hypnotizing touch and I knew then with a terrible certainty that it wasnt just A-yas memories that drew me to him. It was memy heartmy soulmy desires. No, please stop. I meant for the words to come out loud and strong, a command he couldnt ignore, but instead I sounded breathy and weak. Stop? He chuckled again. It seems you have lost your truth. You do not wish I would stop. Your body yearns for my touch. You cannot deny it. So shake off this foolish re sis tance. Accept me and your place by my side. Join me and together we will create a new world. I swayed toward him, but managed to whisper, I cant. If you do not join me you will be my enemy, and I will burn you with the rest of the chaff. As hed been speaking his gaze had moved from my face down to my breasts. Now he cupped both of them in his hands. His amber eyes had gone all soft and looked unfocused as he caressed me, sending icy waves of unwanted desire through my body, and sickness through my heart, my mind, and my soul. I was trembling so hard my words sounded shaky. This is a dream . . . only a dream. This is not real. I spoke as if to convince myself. His lust for me made him even more seductive. He smiled intimately at me while he continued to stroke my breasts. Yes, you dream. Though there is truth and reality here, as well as your deepest, most secret desires. Zoey, in this dream you are free to do anything you wishwe can do anything you wish. Its just a dream. I repeated the words to myself. Please, Nyx, let the power of this next truth wake me up. I do want to be with you, I said. Kalonas smile was fierce with victory, but before he could lock me within his immortal and alltoo-familiar embrace, I added, But the truth is no matter how bad I want you, Im still Zoey Redbird and not A-ya, and that means in this lifetime I have chosen to follow Nyx. Kalona, I will not betray my Goddess by giving in to you! As I shouted the last words I threw myself backward, so that I fell from the roof of the castle and plummeted toward the rocky seashore far, far below. Through my screams I could hear Kalona crying my name. CHAPTER THIRTEEN Zoey I sat straight up in bed, screaming like someone had just tossed me into a pit of spiders. My ears were ringing and my body was shaking so hard that I thought I would be sick, but somewhere through my panic I realized mine wasnt the only voice screaming. I peered around in the darkness, made myself shut up, sucked air, and tried to get my bearings. Where the hell was I? At the bottom of the sea? Smashed dead on the rocks of the island? No . . . no . . . I was at the Benedictine Abbey . . . in the dorm room theyd assigned me with Aphrodite . . . who was currently in the bed across from me screaming like a crazy woman. Aphrodite! I yelled over her shrieks. Stop! Its me. Everythings okay. Her scream broke off, but she was breathing in short little panicky gasps. Light! Light! she said, sounding like shed taken up residence in the Land of Panic Attacks. I need light! I need to see! Okayokay! Hang on. Remembering the pillar candle on the end table between our beds, I fumbled awkwardly around until I felt a lighter. I had to steady my right hand by grasping my wrist with my left so that I could get the candle lit, and still it took five tries before the wick caught and the warmth of candlelight illuminated Aphrodites ghostly white face and completely blood-filled eyes. Ohmygod! Your eyes! I know! I know! Shit! Shit! Shit! I still cant see, she sobbed. Dont worrydont worrythis happened last time. Ill get you a wet cloth and a drink of water, just like I did before and my words shut off as I realized the exact meaning of Aphrodites scarlet eyes, and I froze halfway between the bed and the sink. You had another vision, didnt you? She didnt say anything. She just put her face in her hands and nodded while she sobbed. Its okay. Its gonna be okay, I kept repeating over and over as I hurried to the sink, grabbed a hand towel, soaked it in cold water, and filled up one of two nearby glasses. Then I rushed back to Aphrodite. She was still sitting on the edge of the bed with her face in her hands. Her sobs had gone from hysterical snot-crying to pitiful little gasps. I reached around behind her and plumped her pillows. Here, drink this. Then I want you to lie back so I can put this wet towel across your eyes. She took her hands from her face and reached blindly for the glass. I guided her to it and then watched as she guzzled down the whole thing. Ill get you more in a second. Lie back first and put this over your eyes. Aphrodite leaned back against the propped-up pillow. She blinked blindly up at me. She looked scarily horrible. Her eyes were completely bloody and looked bizarre and ghostly framed by her too-white face. I can see the outline of you, just a little, she said faintly. But youre all red, like youre bleeding. Aphrodite finished on a hiccupy sob. Im not bleeding; Im fine. This happened before, remember? And you were okay after you closed your eyes and rested for a while. I remember. I just dont remember it being this bad. She closed her eyes. I folded the towel and placed it gently across them. Then I lied, It was this bad last time, too. Her hands fluttered by the towel for a second before they dropped to her sides. I went back to the sink and filled up the glass again. Watching her reflection in the mirror I said, Was the vision terrible? I saw her lips quiver. She drew a long, shaky breath. Yes. I came back to the bed. Do you want more water? She nodded. I feel like Ive just run a marathon through a blazing desertnot that I ever would. All that sweating is so unattractive. Glad she was sounding more like herself, I smiled and guided her hand to the glass of water again. Then I sat on my bed facing her and waited. I can feel you looking at me, she said. Sorry. I thought I was being patient by not saying anything. I paused. Do you want me to go get Darius? Or maybe Damien? Or both of them? No! Aphrodite said quickly. I saw her swallow a couple of times, and then, in a calmer voice, she continued. Dont go anywhere for a little while, okay? I dont want to be alone right nownot when I cant see. Okay. I wont go anywhere. You want to tell me about the vision? Not particularly, but I suppose I have to. I saw seven vampyres. They looked importantpowerful, all obviously High Priestesses. They were in a seriously gorgeous place. Definitely old money and none of that nouveau riche crap that tends to decorate with questionable taste. I rolled my eyes at her, which she, sadly, couldnt see. At first I didnt even know it was a vision. I thought it was a dream. I was watching these vamps sitting in chairs that looked like thrones and waiting for something freakily dreamish to happen, like they all turn into Justin Timberlake, jump up, and start stripping for me and singing about bringing sexy back. Huh, I said. Interesting dream. He is totally dorkishly hot, even though hes getting old. Oh, give it a rest. You already have way too many boys to even dream about another one. Leave Justin to me. So, anyway, they didnt turn into Justin, nor did they strip. I was just wondering what was going on when it became mega-obvious I was having a vision because Neferet walked in. Neferet! Yeah. Kalona was with her. She did all the talking, but the vamps werent watching her. They couldnt stop gawking at Kalona. I didnt say so, but I knew how they felt. Neferet was saying something about accepting the changes she and Erebus brought, moving everything, bringing old ways back . . . blah . . . blah . . . Erebus! I interrupted her blah-blahing. Shes still claiming Kalona is Erebus? Yeah, and she was also calling herself Nyx Incarnate, which she shortened to just Nyx, but I didnt catch everything she was saying because it was about then that I started to burn up. Burn up? Like you caught on fire? Well, it wasnt me exactly. It was some of the vamps. It was weirdone of the weirdest visions Ive ever had, actually. One part of me was watching Neferet talking to the seven vamps, and at the same time another part of me was leaving the room, one by one, with them. I could feel that not all of them believed what Neferet was saying, and it was those vamps I stayed with. Until they burned. Do you mean they just caught on fire? Yeah, but it was real strange. One second I could tell that they were thinking negative things about Neferet, and the next they were on fire, but when they burned they were in the middle of a field. And it wasnt just them burning. Aphrodite paused and drained the rest of the glass of water. Lots of other people burned with themhumans, vamps, and fledglings. All of them were burning in this same field, which seemed to expand to include the whole damn world. What? Yeah, it was seriously bad. Ive never had a vision about vamps dying. Well, except those two I had about you, and youre just a fledgling so I dont count them. I wasted energy frowning at her, which she couldnt see. Did you recognize anyone except the burning vamps? Were Neferet and Kalona there, too? Aphrodite didnt say anything for a moment. Then she reached up and took the damp towel from her eyes. She blinked. I could tell the red was already starting to fade. She squinted at me. Thats better. I can mostly see you now. So, heres the end of the vision: Kalona was there. Neferet wasnt there. Instead, you were there. With him. And I do mean you were with him. He was all over you and you liked it. Uh, may I just say eew about having to watch that make-out scene, especially since I was watching it from the perspective of the people who were roasting while you did the nasty. Basically it was more than clear that you being with Kalona caused the world as we know it to end. I rubbed a shaky hand across my face, like I could wipe away the memory of me as A-ya in Kalonas arms. Im never going to be with Kalona. Okay, what Im getting ready to say is not because Im being a bitchat least not this time. Go ahead, just say it. Youre A-ya reincarnated. Weve already established that, I said, my voice sounding sharper than I intended. Aphrodite put up her hand. Hang on. Im not accusing you of anything. Its just that this ancient Cherokee girl whose soul youre kinda sharing was created to love Kalona. Right? Yes, but you need to understand that I. Am. Not. Her. I enunciated each word slowly and distinctly. Look, Zoey, I know that. But I also know youre a lot more attracted to Kalona than you want to admit to anyone, and that probably includes yourself. Youve already had one memory of being A-ya that was so strong it made you pass out. What if youre not completely able to control what you feel for him because the attractions been hardwired into your soul? You think I havent already thought about that? Hell, Aphrodite, Ill stay away from Kalona! I yelled my frustration. Completely away from him. Then there will be no chance Ill ever be with him again, and your vision will not happen. Its not that simple. The vision where youre with him wasnt the only one I had. Actually, now that I think about it, it was a little like those stupid visions I had of your death where first I saw you get your throat slit and your head basically cut off, then in the same damn vision I got to drown with you. Talk about stress. Yes, I remember. It was my death you were seeing. Yeah, but so far Im the only one whos experienced your deaths. Again, I say not pleasant. Would you please finish telling me about your visions? She gave me a long-suffering look, but continued. So, the vision split, like what happened with the two different deaths I saw for you. One minute youre sucking face and doing nasty stuff with Kalona. Oh, and I felt agony, too. Well, yeah, that makes sense. You were burning, I said, frustrated that she couldnt just tell the darn vision. No, I mean I felt other agony. Im pretty sure it wasnt coming from the burning people. Someone else was there, and they were definitely under duress. Duress? That sounds really bad. My stomach was hurting again. Yep. Seriously uncomfortable. One minute people were burning, I felt lots of agony, blah, blah, and you were doing it with the evil angel. Then everything changed. It was obviously a different dayin a different place. People were still burning and I still felt the weird agony stuff, but instead of doing the dirty with Kalona you stepped out of his arms. Not very far, though. And you said something to him. Whatever you said changed everything. How? You killed him and all the fire and such stopped. I killed Kalona! Yep. At least thats what it looked like to me. Well, what did I say to him that had the power to do that? She shrugged. Dont know. I couldnt hear you. I was experiencing the vision from the burning peoples perspective and feeling stupid agony from wherever; I was just a tad bit busy being in unbearable pain to pay attention to every little syllable you uttered. Are you sure he died? Hes not supposed to be able to die; hes immortal. It looked like it to me. Whatever you said made him disinte-grate. He disappeared? Actually, it was more like he exploded. Kinda. Its hard to describe because, well, I was burning and also he got really, really bright, and it was hard to see exactly what happened to him. But I can tell you he more or less faded away, and when he did, all the fire stopped and I knew everything was going to be okay. Is that all that happened? No. You cried. Huh? Yeah, after you killed Kalona, you cried. Major snot and everything. Then the vision ended and I woke up with a horrendous headache and my eyes hurting like crazy. Oh, and you were screaming like youd lost your damn mind. She gave me a long, considering look. Speaking of, why were you screaming? I had a bad dream. Kalona? I really dont want to talk about it. Too damn bad. You have to talk about it. Zoey, I saw the world burning while you and Kalona partied. Thats not a good thing. Thats not going to happen, I said. Remember, you also saw me killing him. What happened in your dream? she asked insistently. He offered me the world. He said hes going to change things back to the ancient ways and he wants me to rule by his side, or some such bullpoopie. I said not no, but hell no. He said hed burn Oh my Goddess! Wait, you said the people were burning in a field? Could it have been a wheat field? Aphrodite shrugged. I suppose. Fields pretty much all look the same to me. My chest felt tight and my stomach hurt. He said he was going to separate the chaff from the wheat, and burn the chaff up. What the hell is chaff? I dont know exactly, but Im pretty sure it has something to do with wheat. Okay, try to remember. The field they were burning indid it have tall golden grassy stuff in it, or was it green, like hay or corn or something, well, not wheatlike? It was yellow. And tall. And grassy. I suppose it could have been wheat. So what Kalona threatened in my dream basically came true in your vision. Except in your dream you didnt give in and start a big make-out session with him. Or did you? No, I did not! I hurled myself off the top of a cliff, which is why I was screaming my brains out. Her red-tinged eyes widened. Seriously? You really jumped off a cliff? Well, I jumped off the top of a castle, and the castle was on the top of a cliff. That sounds really bad. It was the scariest thing Ive ever done, but it wasnt as bad as staying there with him. I shivered, remembering his touch and the terrible, soul-deep longing he made me feel. I had to get away from him. Yeah, well, youre going to need to rethink that in the future. Huh? Would you try to pay attention? I saw Kalona taking over the world. He was using fire to kill people, and by people I mean vamps and humans. And you stopped him. Honestly, I think my vision is telling us youre the only person alive who can stop him. So you cant run away from him. Zoey, youre going to have to figure out what you said that killed him and then youre going to have to go to him. No! Im not going to him. Aphrodite gave me a look that was full of pity. You have to fight against this reincarnation thing and destroy Kalona once and for all. Ah, hell, was what I was thinking when someones fist banged on the door. CHAPTER FOURTEEN Zoey Zoey! Are you in there? Let me in! In less than a breath I was off the bed and at the door. I wrenched it open to find Stark leaning heavily against the doorframe. Stark? What are you doing out of bed? He was wearing hospital scrub pants and no shirt. His chest was covered by a huge white gauze Band-Aid that wrapped all the way around his torso. His face was the color of bone, and a veil of sweat beaded his forehead. He was drawing short, ragged breaths and looked like he was going to fall over any second. But in his right hand he clutched his bow, and it was notched with an arrow. Shit! Get him in here before he passes out. If he falls down, well never get him up again, and hes too damn big to drag around. I tried to grab Stark, but surprising me with his strength, he shook me off. No, Im fine, he said, stalking into the room and looking around us like he expected someone to jump out of the closet. Im not going to pass out, he spat out as he got his breathing under control. I stepped in front of him, calling his attention back to me. Stark, theres no one here. What are you doing here? You shouldnt even be out of bed, let alone climbing stairs. I felt you. You were terrified. So I came to you. I had a bad dream, thats all. I wasnt in any danger. Kalona? Was he in your dream again? Again? How long have you been dreaming about him? Aphrodite asked. Unless youre sleeping with someone, and I dont mean just a roommate, Kalona can get into your dreams if he wants to, Stark said. That doesnt sound good. Theyre just dreams, I said. Do we know that for sure? Aphrodite asked. She directed the question to Stark, but I answered her. Well, Im not dead. So it was just a dream. Not dead? You need to explain that, Stark said. His breathing had leveled off, and even though he still looked pale, he sounded every bit like a dangerous Warrior who was ready to fulfill his oath and protect his High Priestess. In her dream Zoey hurled herself off the top of a cliff to get away from Kalona, Aphrodite said. What did he do to you? Starks voice was low and filled with anger. Nothing! I said way too quickly. Thats because you jumped off a cliff before he could do anything, Aphrodite said. What was he trying to do? Stark asked again. I sighed. The same old stuff. He wants to control me. Thats not how he puts it, but its what he wants, and Im never going to give him what he wants. Starks jaw tightened. I should have known hed try to get to you through your dreams. I know his tricks! I should have made sure you slept with Heath or Erik. Aphrodite snorted. Thats a new one. Boyfriend number three wants you to sleep with boyfriend one or two. Im not her boyfriend! Stark practically roared. I am her Warrior. Ive given my oath to protect her. That means more than some bullshit crush or stupid jealousy. Aphrodite just stared at him; for once she didnt seem to know what to say. Stark, it was just a dream, I said with a lot more conviction than I felt. It doesnt matter how many times Kalona butts into my dreams, the result is going to be the same. Im not going to give in to him. You better make sure of that because if you do, the rest of us are in for some serious shit, Aphrodite said. What does she mean? She had another vision, thats all. Thats all? Talk about being underappreciated. She gave Stark a long look. So, Arrow Boy, if you sleep with Zoey, will that keep Kalona out of her dreams? It should, Stark said. Then I think you should sleep with Zoey, and since three is definitely a crowd in situations like this, Im out of here. Where are you going? I asked. Wherever Darius is, and, no, I do not give a shit if it annoys the penguins. Seriously, I do have a massive headache. So Ill just be sleeping, but Im going to be with my vamp. And thats all there is to it. She grabbed her clothes and her purse. I figured she was going to duck into a bathroom and change out of her granny nightgown before finding Darius, which made me remember I was standing there in my very own granny nightgown. I sat down on my bed and sighed. Oh, yeah, hed already seen me blazingly naked, which was way more embarrassing than a white cotton granny nightgown. My shoulders slumped. Goddess, for a girl who had multiple boyfriends, I was seriously impaired in the ooh-look-how-cool-I-am department. Before Aphrodite made it out the door, I called, Dont say anything about your vision until I have a chance to think more. I mean, I hurried on, you can tell Darius, but thats it, okay? I get it. You want to avoid hysteria. Whatever. Im not much up for listening to the nerd herd and the rest of the masses shriek, either. Get some sleep, Z. Ill see you at sunset. She gave Stark a little wave and then shut the door firmly behind her. Stark came over to the bed, sitting heavily beside me. He flinched a little as the pain in his chest must have finally registered. He set his bow and arrow on the bedside table and gave me a rueful grin. So, I wont be needing these? Ya think? Which means my hands are now conveniently free. He opened his arms to me and shot me a cocky look. Why dont you come here, Z? Hang on. I hurried over to the window, buying time while I wondered how I could move from one mans arms to another. I definitely cant rest until I make sure youre not going to incinerate, I babbled. While I was pulling the blinds I couldnt resist peeking out, and was rewarded with the sight of a day that included very little light. It was a silent gray world filled with ice and gloom. Nothing was moving. It was like life outside the abbey, along with the trees and grass and fallen power lines, had been frozen. Well, I guess this explains how you made it up here without being fried to a crisp. There is no sun out there. I kept staring out the window, mesmerized by the world turned to ice. I knew I wasnt in any danger, Stark said from the bed. I could feel that the sun was up, but its not shining through all that icy stuff and the clouds. It was safe for me to come to you. Then he added, Z, would you come over here! My mind is telling me youre okay, but my guts still a little shaky. I turned around, surprised that the cocky tone in his voice was gone. I left the window and put my hand in his, sitting on the edge of the bed. I am okaya lot more okay than youd be right now if youd come rushing up here in the middle of a sunny morning. When I felt your fear I had to come. Even at the risk of my own life. Thats part of the oath I swore to you. Really? He nodded, smiled, and lifted my hand to his lips. Really. Youre my lady and my High Priestess. Ill always protect you. I cupped his face in my hand and couldnt stop staring at him, for some reason that suddenly made me cry. Hey, dont do thatdont cry. He brushed the tears from my cheek. Come here to me. Wordlessly, I slid in beside him, being careful not to bump his chest. He put his arm around me and I leaned against him, hoping that the warmth of his touch could wipe away the memory of Kalonas cold passion. He does it on purpose, you know? I didnt have to ask. I knew he was talking about Kalona. Stark kept talking. Its not realthe stuff he makes you feel. Thats what he does. He finds a persons weakness and he uses it. Stark paused, and I could tell there was more he wanted to say. I didnt want to hear it. I wanted to curl up, and in the safety of my Warriors arms, I wanted to sleep and forget. But I couldnt. Not after A-yas memory. Not after Aphrodites visions. Go on, I said. What else? His arm tightened around me. Kalona knows your weakness is the connection you have with that Cherokee girl who trapped him. A-ya, I said. Yeah, A-ya. Hell use her against you. I know. I could feel his hesitation, but finally Stark said, You want himKalona, I mean. He makes you want him. You fight against it, but he gets to you. My stomach squeezed and I wanted to be sick, but I answered Stark honestly. I know and it scares me. Zoey, I believe youll keep saying no to him, but if you ever give in, you can count on me to be there. Ill stand between you and Kalona, even if its the last thing I do. I laid my head on his shoulder, remembering all too well that Aphrodite hadnt said anything about Stark being in either of her visions. He turned his head and kissed me softly on the forehead. Oh, by the way, nice nightgown. A little bubble of unexpected laughter escaped me. If you werent hurt Id smack you. He gave me his cocky grin. Hey, I like it. Makes me think Im in bed with a bad little Catholic schoolgirl from one of those twisted all-girl prep schools. Want to tell me about the naked pillow fights you and your roommates used to have? I rolled my eyes at him. Uh, maybe later when you havent just almost died. Okay, cool. Im too tired to do any impressive proving anyway. Stark, why dont you drink from me? Just a little, I hurried on when he started to protest. Look, Kalona isnt here. Actually, from my dream its pretty clear that hes far away, since there arent any islands anywhere close to Oklahoma. You dont know where he is. He could have been making you see him as being anywhere in your dream. No, hes on an island. As I spoke I felt the truth of my guess. He needed to go to an island to recharge. Do you have a clue where that might be? Did you ever hear him talking about an island with Neferet? Stark shook his head. Nope. He never said anything about it around me, but the fact that its an island tells us you hurt him. Bad. Which means Im safe right now, which also means its okay for you to drink from me. No, he said firmly. You dont want to? Dont be insane! I want to, but I cant. We cant. Not right now. Look, you need my blood and my energy, or spirit, or whatever, to get better. I lifted my chin so he had a clear view of my jugular. So, go ahead. Bite me. I closed my eyes and held my breath. Stark laughed, which had my eyes popping open to see him chuckling while he clutched painfully at his chest, wheezed, and then laughed some more. I frowned at him. What is so funny? Stark managed to control himself enough to say, Its just that you look like something out of an old Dracula movie. You should be asking if I vant to suck yur blood. He made a creepy face and bared his teeth. I felt my cheeks burning and pulled away from him. Never mind. Forget I even mentioned it. Lets just go to sleep, kay? I started to roll over, but he caught my shoulder and turned me back to him. Hang on, hang onIm messing this up. He was suddenly serious. Zoey. Stark touched my cheek. Im not drinking from you, because I cant. Not because I dont want to. Yeah, I heard you before. I was still embarrassed and tried to turn my head, but he forced me to meet his gaze. Hey, Im sorry. His voice had gone deep and sexy. I shouldnt have laughed at you. I should have just told you the truth, but Im new to being a warrior. Its gonna take me a little while to get it right. His thumb caressed my cheekbone, following the line of my tattoos. I should have told you that the only thing I want more than a taste of your blood is to know that youre safe and strong. He kissed me. Plus, I dont need to drink from you, because I know that Im going to be okay. He brushed his lips against mine. Want to know how I know that? Uh-huh, I murmured. I know because your safety is my strength, Zoey. Go to sleep now. Im here. He lay back, settling me against his side. Just before my eyes fluttered shut I whispered, If someone tries to wake me up, would you please kill them? Stark chuckled. Anything for you, my lady. Good. I closed my eyes and fell asleep with my Warrior holding me tightly and keeping me safe from dreams and ghosts of the past. CHAPTER FIFTEEN Aphrodite Seriously, gay boys. Just go back to bedtogethereesh. I need my vamp for the rest of the night. Aphrodite was standing, arms crossed, just inside the door to the room Darius, Damien, Jack, and Duchess were sharing. She noted, with a vague sense of irritation, that Damien and Jack and Duchess were all curled up in one bed together. Sure, they reminded her of puppies, but it wasnt exactly fair that the penguins were cool with them sleeping together while at the same time theyd banished her to rooming with Zoey. Or at least theyd tried. What is it, Aphrodite? Whats wrong? Darius hurried toward her, pulling a T-shirt over his completely gorgeous chest with one hand and slipping on his shoes with the other. As usual, Darius had caught on before anyone else was fully functionalyet another reason why shed fallen for him. Everythings fine. Its just that Zoey is sleeping with Stark. In our room. And Im not cool with tagging along for that. So were going to do a little roommate trading of our own. All is well with Zoey? Damien asked. My guess is that about now all is more than well with her, Aphrodite said. I didnt think Stark was up to, well, stuff, Jack said delicately. He looked sleepy, with tousled hair and puffy eyes; Aphrodite thought he was even more puppyish than usual, and really cute. Of course shed gouge out her eyes before she admitted that out loud. He managed the steps up to our top-floor room, so Im thinking hes on the mend. Oooh, Eriks not gonna like that, Jack said happily. Theres gonna be some serious boyfriend drama tomorrow. The dramas over in that department. Z dumped Erik earlier tonight. She did! Damien said. Yeah, and its about time, too. His possessive crap had to go, Aphrodite said. And shes really okay? Damien asked. Aphrodite didnt like Damiens typically too-keen gaze. She absolutely was not going into the fact that Kalona had entered Zoeys dream, and that was why Stark was sleeping with her. She was also not going to talk about her visionsomething she was happy to blame on Zoey, and definitely would in the future when Damien got pissed that shed kept her mouth shut about it. So, to throw off Miss Nosy, she lifted one perfect brow and gave him her standard keep-them-guessing sneer. Who are you, her gay mom? As Aphrodite knew it would, Damiens fur instantly ruffled. No, Im her friend! Please. Yawn. Like we all dont know that. Zoey. Is. Fine. Goddess, try giving her some breathing room. Damien frowned. I let her breathe. I was just worried about her, thats all. Wheres Heath? Does he know about her breakup with Erik and that shes, well, sleeping with Stark? Jack finished the sentence in a stage whisper. Aphrodite rolled her eyes. I could care less where Heath is, and unless Z needs a snack Im thinking shes probably not too interested in where he is, either. Shes busy, she enunciated clearly. Aphrodite really didnt like hurting Damien and his girl/boyfriend Jacks feelings, but cutting them short was the only way to keep Damien out of her business, and that didnt even work 100 percent of the time. She turned to Darius, who was standing near her watching her closely with an expression that was a mixture of amusement and concern. Ready to go, handsome? Of course. He looked back at Damien and Jack before he closed the door. Ill see you two at sunset. Kay! Jack trilled while Damien just looked long and hard at her. Out in the hall Aphrodite had only taken a couple of steps when Darius took her wrist and pulled her to a stop. Before she could say anything, he put his hands on her shoulders and looked into her eyes. Youve had a vision, he said simply. Aphrodite felt her eyes fill with tears. She was totally, absolutely crazy about this big hulk of a guy who knew her so well, and who seemed to care so much about her. Yeah. Are you all right? You look pale and your eyes are still bloodshot. Im okay, she said, although even to her own ears she didnt sound convincing. He folded her into his arms and she let him hold her, comforted beyond words by his strength. Was it as bad as last time? he asked. It was worse. Face tucked down against his chest she spoke in a voice so soft and sweet that it would have shocked almost everyone who knew her. Another death vision of Zoey? No. This time it was an end-of-the-world thing, but Zoey did figure in it. Are we going back to her? No, she really is sleeping with Stark. Seems Kalonas been getting in her dreams and sleeping with a guy keeps him out. Good, Darius said. There was a sound at the end of the hall, and Darius pulled her around the corner and deeper into the shadows while a nun passed by, oblivious to their presence. Hey, speaking of sleepI know Zs the big High Priestess, but shes not the only one who needs her beauty rest, Aphrodite whispered when they were alone in the hallway again. Darius gave her a considering look. You are right. You must be exhausted, especially after having a vision. I wasnt just talking about me, Mr. Macho. I was thinking about where we could go on the way down here and I came up with an ideaa brilliant idea, if I do say so myself. Darius smiled. And Im sure you do. Of course. Anyway, I remembered you telling the penguin nurses that Stark shouldnt be interrupted for at least a solid eight hours. So, hes not in his very private, very dark, very cozy room. Instead it is tragically empty. Aphrodite nuzzled the side of his neck, lifted herself on her tiptoes and nipped at his earlobe. He laughed and tucked his arm around her. You are brilliant. On the walk to Starks vacated room, Aphrodite filled him in on her vision, and on Zoeys dream. He listened to her with the quiet attentiveness that had been the second thing about him that had drawn her to him. The first being his utter hotness, of course. Starks room was cozy and dark, lit only by a single candle. Darius pulled a chair over to the door and propped it against the handle, effectively barring anyone from busting in on them. Then he rummaged through the dresser in the corner of the room and pulled out fresh sheets and blankets, which he remade the bed with, saying something about not wanting her to sleep on a wounded vampyres sheets. Aphrodite watched him as she pulled off her boots and jeans, and then slid her bra off under her shirt. She thought about what a weird feeling it was to have someone take care of hersomeone who actually seemed to like her for herself, which was a total surprise. Guys liked her because she was hot, or because she was rich, popular, and a challenge, or, more often than not, simply because she was a bitch. It always amazed her how many guys just flat-out liked bitches. Guys didnt like her because she was Aphrodite. Actually, guys usually didnt take time to find out who she was underneath all the good hair, long legs, and attitude. But the biggest shock of all about her relationship with Darius, and it was definitely becoming a relationship, was the fact that they hadnt had sex. Yet. Sure, everyone believed they were doing it like bunnies, and shed let them believe they wereshed even encouraged them to believe it. They werent, though. And somehow, that didnt feel weird. They slept together, and had even had some seriously hot make-out sessions, but thats as far as theyd gone. With a jolt of shocked realization, Aphrodite understood what it was that was happening between her and Dariusthey were going slow and getting to know each other. Really, truly getting to know each other, and she was discovering that she liked going slow almost as much as she liked getting to know Darius. They were falling in love! That terrifying thought had Aphrodites knees going weak so suddenly that she backed up to the chair that was in the corner of the room and, feeling light-headed, sat down. Darius finished making the bed and looked bemusedly across the room at her. What are you doing all the way over there? Just sitting, she said quickly. He cocked his head to the side. Are you really okay? You did say you burned along with the vampyres in your vision. Are you still feeling the effects of that? You look pale. Im a little thirsty, and my eyes still sting, but Im fine. When she continued to sit across the room without making any move to come to bed, he gave her a confused smile and said, Arent you tired? Yeah, yeah, I am. Shall I get you some water? Oh, no! Ill get it myself. No problem. Aphrodite boinged up like one of those freaky puppets with strings and walked over to the sink in the opposite corner of the room. She was filling up a paper cone with water when Darius was suddenly behind her. His strong hands were on her shoulders again. This time his thumbs gently began to knead the ultratight muscles in her neck. You carry all your tension here, he said, working from her neck to her shoulders. Aphrodite downed the cup of water and then couldnt make herself move. Darius massaged her shoulders silently, letting his touch tell her how much he cared for her. Finally, she allowed the cup to slide from her fingers. Her head lolled forward and Aphrodite breathed a deep, contented sigh. Your hands are totally magic. Anything for you, my lady. Aphrodite smiled and leaned into his hands, allowing herself to relax more and more. She loved it that Darius treated her like she was his High Priestess, even though she had no Mark and would never be a vampyre. She loved that he had no doubt that she was special to Nyxthat she was Chosen by the Goddess. He so obviously didnt care whether a Mark went along with that or not. She loved that he Ohmygoddess! She actually loved him! Holy shit! Aphrodites head snapped up and she turned around so quickly that Darius took a short, startled step back, automatically giving her room. What is it? he asked. I love you! she blurted, and then pressed her hand against her mouth like she was trying, too late, to keep the words from exploding from it. The warriors smile was long and slow. I am glad to hear you say it. Im in love with you, too. Aphrodites eyes began to fill with tears and she blinked hard to stop them as she shoved past him. Goddess! This sucks! Instead of responding to her outburst, Darius simply watched her stalk over to the bed. Aphrodite could feel his steady gaze on her as she considered whether she should sit on the bed, or get in it. Finally, she did neither, deciding she didnt like the picture shed be creating in bed. She already felt vulnerable and exposed enough standing there in her T-shirt, panties, and nothing else. She turned to face Darius. What? she snapped. He tilted his head. A sad smile lifted just the corners of his lips. She thought his eyes looked decades older than the rest of his face. Your parents are not in love, Aphrodite. From what youve shared with me about them, they may not be capable of feeling that emotion for anyone, and that includes you. She lifted her chin and met his gaze. So tell me something I dont know. You arent your mother. Hed said the words gently, but she felt them as if hed flung knives at her that had buried themselves in her heart. I know that! She spoke through lips that were suddenly cold. Darius moved slowly toward her. Aphrodite thought how graceful he washow powerful he always looked. He loved her? How? Why? Didnt he realize what an awful bitch she was? Do you really know that? You are capable of love, even if your mother is not, he told her. But am I capable of being loved? She wanted to scream the question, but she couldnt. Pride, who spoke louder to her than the understanding in Dariuss eyes, stopped the words. Instead she did what made her feel safeshe went on the offensive. Of course I know that. But this whole thing between us still sucks. The truth is youre a vampyre. Im a human. The most I can ever be to you would be your consort, and I cant even be that because Im already fucking Imprinted with stupid-ass Stevie Bumpkin Raean Imprint I cant seem to get rid of even though youve bitten me, too. Aphrodite paused, trying not to remember the tenderness Darius had shown her when he drank from her, even though to him her Imprinted blood was tainted. She tried, unsuccessfully, not to think about the pleasure and peace shed found in his arms, all without having sex with him. I dont think youre right about all of that. Youre not just a human, and your Imprint with Stevie Rae doesnt affect us. I see it as further evidence of your importance to Nyx. She knows Stevie Rae has need of you. But you dont need me, Aphrodite said bitterly. I do need you, he corrected her firmly. For what? Were not even fucking! Aphrodite, why are you doing this? You know I desire you, but you and I are more than just bodies and lust. Were connected beyond that. I dont see how! Aphrodite was perilously close to tears again, which made her even more pissed off. I do. He closed the rest of the space between them and, taking one of her hands in his, Darius dropped to one knee before her. I need to ask you something. Oh, Goddess! What? Was he going to do something ridiculous like ask her to marry him? He fisted his right hand over his heart and stared into her eyes. Aphrodite, Beloved Prophetess of Nyx, I ask you to accept my Warriors Oath. Sworn to you this day I pledge to protect you with my heart, my mind, my body, and my soul. I pledge to belong to you before all others, and to be your Warrior until I draw my last breath on this world, and beyond, if our Goddess so wills it. Do you accept my oath? Aphrodite was filled with an overwhelming tide of joy. Darius wanted to be her Warrior! But that joy was short-lived as she thought about the repercussions of his oath. You cant be my Warrior. Zoey is your High Priestess. If youre going to pledge yourself to someone, it has to be her. Aphrodite hated saying the wordsand hated even more thinking about Darius being on his knee in front of Zoey. Zoey is my High Priestess, just as she is yours, but she already has a Warrior. I have witnessed young Starks enthusiasm for his oath-sworn position. She will need no other Warrior shadowing her. Also, Zoey already gave me her blessing to pledge to you. She did what? The warrior nodded solemnly. It was only right that I explained to Zoey what I intended. So this isnt just an impulse? Youve actually thought this out? Of course. He smiled up at her. I want to protect you forever. Aphrodite was shaking her head from side to side. You cant. Dariuss smile faded. My pledge is mine to give, so that is no hindrance. I am young, but my skills are vast. I assure you that I can protect you. I dont mean that! I know youre goodyoure too damn good! Thats the problem. Silently, Aphrodite began to cry. Aphrodite, I dont understand. Why would you want to be sworn to me? Im a total bitch! His smile returned. You are unique. Aphrodite shook her head. Ill hurt you. I always hurt anyone who gets close to me. Then it is a good thing I am a strong warrior. Nyx was wise in giving me to you, and I am more than content with our Goddesss choice for me. Why? Tears were running freely down Aphrodites cheeks now, dripping from her chin and soaking into the T-shirt. Because you deserve someone who values you beyond wealth and beauty and status. You deserve someone who values you for yourself. Now, I ask you again, do you accept my oath? Aphrodite stared down into his strong, gorgeous face, and something within her broke free as she saw her future in his honest, unflinching gaze. Yes, I do accept your oath, she said. With a joyous shout, Darius stood and took his Prophetess into his arms. Then he held her gently until sunset as she cried out the knot of sadness and loneliness and anger that had for so long bound her heart. CHAPTER SIXTEEN Stevie Rae Steve Rae usually didnt have problems sleeping. Okay, it was a terrible clich?, but during the daytime she slept like she was, well, dead. But not that day. That day she hadnt been able to shut off her mindor, maybe it was more truthful to say she hadnt been able to shut off her guilty mind. What was she going to do about Rephaim? She should tell Zoeythats what she should do. Absolutely no doubt about it. Sure, and then Z would freak out like a long-tailed cat in a room filled with rockin chairs, she muttered to herself, and continued to pace back and forth in front of the entrance to the root cellars tunnel. Stevie Rae was alone, but she kept throwing furtive glances around her like she expected to be snuck up on. And so what if someone came down here looking for her? She wasnt doing anything wrong! She just couldnt sleep, thats all. At least she wished that was all. Stevie Rae stopped pacing and stared into the calming darkness of the tunnel shed cut through the raw earth not long before. What the hell was she going to do about Rephaim? She couldnt tell Zoey about him. Zoey wouldnt understand. No one would. Heck, Stevie Rae didnt even really understand herself! She just knew that she couldnt turn him incouldnt betray him to everyone else. But when she wasnt around him, when Stevie Rae couldnt hear his voice and see the too-human pain in his eyes, she was mostly on the verge of panic and worried that hiding the Raven Mocker only proved that she was losing every bit of her good sense. Hes your enemy! The thought kept circling around in her mind, flapping and spiraling out of control like an injured bird. No, right now hes not my enemy. Right now hes just hurt. Stevie Rae spoke into the tunnel, to the earth that grounded her and strengthened her. Stevie Raes eyes widened as a thought struck her. It was the fact that he was hurt that had caused this mess! If hed been whole and attacking her, or any of the others, she wouldnt have hesitated to protect herself or anyone else. So, what if I just get him someplace he can heal? Yes! That was the answer! She didnt have to protect him. She just didnt want to hand him over to be slaughtered. If she got him to safety, someplace where he wouldnt be bothered, Rephaim could get well and then he could choose his own future. She had! Maybe he would choose to join the good guys against Kalona and Neferet. Maybe he wouldnt. Whichever, it wouldnt be her concern. But where could he go? And then, staring into the tunnel, she realized the perfect answer. It would mean that shed have to admit some of her secrets, and in doing so she wondered if Zoey could possibly understand why Stevie Rae had kept things from her. She has to understand. Shes had to make some pretty unpopular choices, too. And anyway, Stevie Rae had the sneaking suspicion Zoey wouldnt be all that surprised by what she had to tell her; shed probably been on to her for a while now. So shed tell Z about the stuff, which would, at the very least, ensure that where she sent Rephaim wouldnt turn into fledgling Grand Central anytime soon. He wouldnt exactly be all alone and totally safe, but he would be out of her hair and no longer her responsibilityor her liability. Feeling excited and more than a little giddy that shed figured out a solution to her massively terrible problem, Stevie Rae centered herself and checked her ever-accurate internal clock. She had just over an hour until sunset. On a normal day she could never get away with what she was planning, but today she could feel the weakness of the sun as it tried, but failed, to shine through the thick layer of gray clouds, heavy with the ice that seemed to have settled permanently over Tulsa. She was pretty sure she wouldnt burn up if she stepped outside. She was also pretty sure that there wouldnt be any nosy nuns poking around with ice still pelting down and everything outside the abbey being frozen and slick. Same went for the regular fledglings. The red fledglings were the least of her problems, at least from dawn till dusk. They were all still tucked in their cots in the basement. Of course everyone would be getting up in the next hour and, if she knew Z, and she did, theyd be having a big powwow about their next move, which meant Zoey would expect her to be present. Stevie Rae picked at her fingernails nervously. It was during the big what are we going to do now? meeting that shed have to clue Zoey, and everyone else, in to her secrets. Man, she was so not looking forward to that meeting. To add to the not-looking-forward-to-it part, there was also the fact that Aphrodite had had another vision. Stevie Rae didnt know what shed seen, but through their Imprint shed sensed the turmoil that the vision had caused Aphrodite, turmoil that had risen and then faded, which probably meant Aphrodite was currently sound asleep. That was a good thing cause she didnt want her psychically being aware enough to get any clue as to what Stevie Rae was up to. She could only hope Aphrodite didnt already know too much. So its now or never. Time to cowboy up, Stevie Rae whispered to herself. Not giving herself a chance to chicken out, she went quickly and quietly up the stairs from the root cellar and into the basement proper of the abbey. Sure enough, all the red fledglings were still crashed and totally out. Dallass distinct snoring drifted through the dark room, almost making her smile. She went to her empty cot and pulled the blanket off it. Then retraced her steps down to the cellar and moved with preternatural confidence in the unrelieved darkness to the mouth of the tunnel. With no hesitation she stepped into it, loving the scent and the feel of being surrounded by the earth. Even though she knew what she was about to do might become the biggest mistake in her life, the earth was still able to touch her and calm her, soothing her frazzled nerves like the familiar embrace of a parent. Stevie Rae followed the tunnel a short way to the first gentle curve. There she stopped and put the blanket down. She took three deep breaths, centering herself. When she spoke, her voice was little above a whisper, but it carried such power with it that the air around her literally shivered like heat waves off a blacktop road in the summer. Earth, you are mine, just like I am yours. I call you to me. The tunnel around Stevie Rae was instantly filled with the scents of a hayfield, and the sound of wind soughing through trees. She could feel grass that wasnt there beneath her feet. And that wasnt all Stevie Rae could feel. She felt the earth all around her, and it was that sense of her elementan acknowledgment of earth as an ensouled, sentient entity, that Stevie Rae tapped into. She raised her arms and pointed her fingers at the low, dirt ceiling of the tunnel. I need you to open for me. Please. The ceiling trembled and dirt showered down, slowly at first, and then, with a sound like an old woman sighing, the earth split open above Stevie Rae. Instinct had her jumping back into the protective shadows of the tunnel, but shed been right about the sun; it was definitely nowhere to be seen or felt. Was it raining? No, she decided as she peered up at the dismal sky and a few drops found her face, it wasnt raining; it was sleeting, and pretty hard at that, which was all the better for what she had to do. Stevie Rae wrapped the blanket around her shoulders and began the short climb up the collapsed side of the tunnel to the world above. She emerged not far from Marys Grotto, between it and the trees that lined the western edge of the abbey grounds. It was dark enough that it seemed that the sun had already set, but still Stevie Rae squinted uncomfortably, not liking how vulnerable daylight made her feel, even if that light was so well filtered it was practically nonexistent. She shook off the unease and got her bearings quickly, sighting the shed where shed left Rephaim a little way off to her left. Putting her head down against the stinging pellets of frozen rain, she jogged to the shed. Just like the night before, as she touched the latch she couldnt help but think Please let him be dead . . . Itd be easier if he was dead . . . The shed was warmer than shed imagined, and it smelled strange. Along with the scents of the lawn mower and other oiled and gassed yard equipment, as well as the various pesticides and fertilizers stored on the sheds shelves, there was something else. Something that made her skin crawl. Shed just made her way around the lawn-implement obstacle course and was moving slowly to the back of the shed when Stevie Rae realized what the scent reminded her of, and that realization made her steps falter and then stop completely. The shed, perfumed by Rephaim and his blood, smelled like the darkness that had surrounded her after she had un-died and her humanity had been almost totally destroyed. It reminded her of that black time and those days and nights that had been filled with nothing but anger and need, violence and fear. She stifled a little gasp of realization as she made the rest of the scent connection. The red fledglings, those other red fledglings the ones she was so reluctant to reveal to Zoeyhad this same scent about them. It wasnt a perfect match, and she doubted whether a nose less keen than hers could even draw the connection, but she could. She did. And the connection made her own blood cold with foreboding. Again you come to me alone, Rephaim said. CHAPTER SEVENTEEN Stevie Rae Rephaims words drifted to her out of the darkness. Without seeing the monster he was, his voice had a quality that made him sound hauntingly, heartbreakingly human. That was, after all, what had saved him the day before. His humanity had reached Stevie Rae, and she hadnt been able to kill him. But today he sounded different, stronger than he had before. That relieved and worried her at the same time. Then she shook off the worry. She wasnt some helpless kid who went running for the hills at the first sign of danger. She could definitely kick some bird butt. Stevie Rae straightened her spine. Shed made the decision to help him get away, and thats dang well what she was gonna do. And whod ya expect? John Wayne and the cavalry? Pretending to be her mom when one of her brothers was being sick and annoying, Stevie Rae marched forward. The shape that had been a dark blob hunkered in the back of the shed came into focus and she gave him her best no-nonsense look. Well, youre not dead and youre sittin up. So you must be feelin better. He cocked his head slightly to the side. Who is John Wayne and cavalry? The cavalry. It just means the good guys comin to the rescue. Dont get excited, though. There isnt an army comin. All you got is me. Dont you consider yourself one of the good guys? He surprised her with his ability to have an actual conversation with her, and she thought if she could close her eyes or look away from him, she might almost fool herself into thinking he was just a normal guy. Of course she knew better. She could never close her eyes around him or look away, and he definitely wasnt a normal anything. Well, yeah, Im good, but Im not exactly an army. Stevie Rae made an obvious show of looking him over. And he did still look like crapdefinitely battered and bloodied and brokenbut he wasnt lying on his side in a crumpled heap anymore. He was sitting up, leaning, mostly on his uninjured left side, against the back of the shed. Hed arranged the towels shed left with him over his body like pieces of a blanket. His eyes were bright and alert and never wavered from her face. So, you are feelin better? As you said, I am not dead. Where are the others? I told ya before, the rest of the Raven Mockers left with Kalona and Neferet. No, I mean the other sons and daughters of man. Oh, my friends. Theyre sleepin mostly. So we dont have much time. This isnt gonna be easy, but I think I figured out how to get you outta here in one piece. She paused, and stopped herself from picking at her fingernails. You can walk, cant you? I will do what I need to do. Now what the heck does that mean? Just give me a simple yes or no. Its kinda important. Yessss. Stevie Rae swallowed hard at the sound of his hissed word and decided shed been wrong about the whole if-she-didnt-look-athimhed-seem-normal thing. All right, well, lets get goin then. Where are you taking me? All I could think of was that I need to get you someplace where you can be safe and heal. You cant stay here. Theyll find you for sure. Hey, you dont have your daddys problem with bein underground, do ya? I prefer the ssssky to the earth. He sounded bitter, practically biting off the words and adding a special hissing emphasis to sky. Stevie Rae put her hands on her hips. So does that mean you cant go underground? I prefer not to. Well, do you prefer to stay alive and hidden underground, or up here and about a minute away from bein found and dead? Or worse, she thought but didnt say aloud. He didnt speak for quite a while and Stevie Rae began to wonder if maybe Rephaim didnt really want to live, which was a thought she hadnt considered. She guessed it might make sense, though. His own folks had left him for dead and the modern world was like a zillion times different than it had been when hed been alive and in the flesh beforeand terrorizing Cherokee villages. How badly had she messed up by not just letting him die? I prefer to live. By the look on his face, Stevie Rae thought that maybe his announcement was as much a surprise to him as it had been to her. Okay. Fine. Then I need to get you outta here. She took a step toward him, but stopped. Do I need to make you promise to be good again? I am too weak to be a danger to you, he said simply. All right, then Ill just consider your word that you gave me earlier still holding. Just dont try anything stupid and we might get through this. Stevie Rae walked over to him and squatted down. I better take a look at your bandages. They might need to be changed or tightened before we leave. She checked him over methodically, all the while keeping up a running verbal commentary of what she was doing. Well, the moss looks like its workin. I dont see much blood. Your ankles pretty swollen, but I dont think its broken. Cant feel any breaks, anyway. She rewrapped the ankle and tightened his other bandages, leaving the shattered wing for last. Stevie Rae reached behind him and started to straighten the bandages that had come loose and Rephaim, who had been silent and perfectly still during her examination, flinched and groaned in pain. Ah, shoot! Sorry. I know the wings bad. Wrap more of the cloth around me. Tie it more tightly against my body. I will not be able to walk if you do not completely immobilize it. Stevie Rae nodded. Ill do what I can. She ripped more lengths from one of the towels and then he leaned forward so that she had access to his back. She gritted her teeth and worked as quickly and gently as she could, hating the way he trembled and kept stifling moans of pain. When shed finished with the wing, she ladled out some water and helped him drink it. After he stopped trembling, she stood and held out her hands to him. Okay, lets cowboy up. He gazed at her and even in his strange face she could read confusion. She smiled. It just means stepping up and doin what you need to do, even when its hard as hell. He nodded, and then slowly reached up and clasped her hands. Bracing herself, she pulled, allowing him time to shift his weight and gather himself. With a painful gasp, he managed to stand, though he put little weight on his hurt ankle and he didnt seem very steady. Stevie Rae kept hold of his hands, giving him a chance to get used to being upright, and while she worried that he might pass out, she thought how weird it was that his hands felt so warm and so human. Shed always thought of birds as cold and flitty. Actually, she didnt like birds muchnever had. Her moms chickens tended to scare the bejesus outta her, what with their hysterical flapping and stupid squawking. She had a brief flashback of gathering eggs and having one fat, grumpy hen peck at her and just miss her eyes. Stevie Rae shivered, and Rephaim dropped her hands. Are you okay? she asked to cover up the awkward silence that gathered between them. With a grunt, he nodded. She nodded, too. Hang on. Before you try much walkin, lets see what I can find to help you. Stevie Rae looked through the garden stuff, finally settling on a good, sturdy wooden-handled shovel. She came back to Rephaim, measured it against him, and in one swift motion, snapped the handle from the spade end and handed it to him. Use this like a cane. You know, to take some of the weight off your bad ankle. You can lean on me for a little while, but once we get in the tunnel youre gonna have to go on by yourself, so youll need this. Rephaim took the wooden handle from her. Your strength is impressive. Stevie Rae shrugged. It comes in handy. Rephaim took a tentative step forward, using the handle to help carry his weight, and he was actually able to walk, though Stevie Rae could see that it caused him a lot of pain. Still, he hobbled by himself to the door of the shed. There he paused and looked expectantly at her. First, Im gonna wrap this around you. Im countin on no one seeing us, but on the outside chance that some nosy nun is gawkin out a window, shell just see me helpin someone wrapped in a blanket. Or at least thats what I hope. Rephaim nodded, and Stevie Rae wrapped the blanket around him, positioning it over his head and tucking it into the side of the bandage across his chest to hold it closed. So heres my plan: You know about the tunnels weve been stayin in under the depot downtown, right? Yes. Well, I kinda added to them. I dont understand. My affinity is for the element earth. I can control it, more or less. At least some aspects of it I can control. One of the things I recently found out I can do is to make it moveas in creating a tunnel through it. And I did that to link up the depot to the abbey. It is this type of power that my father spoke of when he talked of you. Stevie Rae definitely didnt want to discuss Rephaims horrible daddy with him, and she didnt even want to think about why he might have been talking about her and her powers. Yeah, well, anywayI opened up part of the tunnel I made so I could climb out of it and come here. Its not far from this shed. Im gonna help you get there. Once youre in the tunnel I want you to follow it back to the depot. Theres shelter there, and food. Actually, its pretty dang nice. You can get well there. And why are the rest of your allies not going to find me in those tunnels? First, Im gonna seal up the one that connects the depot to the abbey. Then Im gonna tell my friends somethin thats gonna make sure they stay outta the depot tunnels for a while. And Im hopin that a while translates into enough time for you to get well and get yourself away from here before they start pokin around. What will you tell them that will keep them from going into the tunnels? Stevie Rae sighed and wiped her hand across her face. Im gonna tell them the truth. That therere more red fledglingsthat theyre hiding in the depot tunnelsand that they are dangerous because they havent made the choice for good over evil. Rephaim was silent for several heartbeats. Finally he said, Neferet was right. Neferet! What do you mean? She kept telling my father that she had allies among the red fledglingsthat they could be soldiers in her cause. These red fledglings are the ones she was speaking of. They must be, Stevie Rae murmured miserably. I didnt want to believe it. I wanted to believe theyd eventually do the right thingchoose humanity over the darkness. They just needed some time to get things straight in their heads, thats all. I think I was wrong. It is these fledglings that will keep your friends from the tunnels? Kinda. Really, its more me thatll keep them out. Im gonna buy timefor you and for them. She met his eyes. Even if Im wrong. Without saying anything else, she opened the door, went to his side, lifted his arm, wrapped it around her shoulders, and the two of them stepped out into the icy dusk. Stevie Rae knew Rephaim had to be in terrible pain as they walked haltingly from the shed toward the opening in the ground shed created to the tunnel. But the only sound he made was his panting breath. He leaned heavily on her, and Stevie Rae was again surprised by his warmth and by the familiar feel of a guys arm around her shoulder, mixed with the feathered body she was helping to support. She kept glancing around them, almost holding her breath in fear that someone, like annoying gotta-prove-how-machoI-am Erik, had slipped outside. The veiled sun was setting. Stevie Rae could feel it leaving the ice-shrouded sky. It was just a matter of time before the fledglings, vamps, and nuns started to stir. Come on, youre doing good. You can make it. We gotta hurry. She kept murmuring to him, encouraging Rephaim and trying to calm her own guilty fears. But no one yelled after them. No one ran up to them, and in much less time than Stevie Rae had anticipated, the opening to the tunnel gaped at their feet. Climb down backward, with your hands and feet. Its not far. Ill hold on to you for most of the way to help steady you. Rephaim didnt waste time or energy on words. He nodded, turned, flung the blanket off of him, and then, as Stevie Rea held on to his good armglad that though he was big and appeared strong and solid, he actually weighed less than she didwith her help he slowly and painfully disappeared down into the earth. Stevie Rae followed him. In the tunnel, Rephaim leaned against the dirt wall, trying to catch his breath. Stevie Rae wished she could let him rest there, but the crawling sensation in the back of her neck was screaming that the others would be waking up and coming to look for her, and finding her and her Raven Mocker! You gotta keep going. Now. Get out of here. Go that way. She pointed into the darkness in front of them. Its gonna be really dark. Sorry bout that, but I dont have time to get a lamp for you. Are you okay in the dark? He nodded. I have long preferred the night. Good. Follow this tunnel until you come to the place where it changes from dirt to cement walls. Then turn to your right. Its gonna be confusing cause the closer you get to the depot, the more tunnels there are. But stay in the main one. Itll be litor at least I hope its still lit. Either way, if you keep goin, youll find lanterns and food and rooms with beds and everything. And there are dark fledglings. He didnt phrase it as a question, but Stevie Rae answered him. Yeah, there are. While the other red fledglings and I were livin there, they stayed away from the main tunnels and our rooms and such. I dont know what theyre doin now that were not there and I honestly dont know what theyll do with you. I dont think theyll want to eat youyou dont smell right. But I cant tell for sure. Theyre she paused, searching for the right words. Theyre different than I amthan the rest of us. They are of the darkness. As I said, I am well acquainted with that. All right. Well, Im just gonna believe youll be okay. Stevie Rae paused again, not knowing what to say and finally blurting out, So, I guess Ill see ya around sometime. He stared at her and said nothing. Stevie Rae fidgeted. Rephaim. You gotta go. Now. Its not safe here. As soon as youre down the tunnel a ways, Im gonna collapse this part so that no one can follow you from here, but you still gotta hurry. I do not understand why you would betray your people to save me, he said. Im not betraying anyone; Im just not killing you! she yelled, and then lowered her voice and continued. Why does letting you go have to mean I betrayed my friends? Cant it just mean that I choose life over death? Look, I chose good over evil. How is me lettin you live any different than that? Did you not consider that choosing to save me was making a choice for what you would call evil? Stevie Rae looked at him for a long time before she answered. Then let that be on your conscience. Your life is what you want it to be. Your daddys gone. The rest of the Raven Mockers are gone, too. My mamma used to sing a kinda silly song to me when I was a kid and Id messed up and gotten myself hurt. Shed sing that I needed to pick myself up, dust myself off, and start all over again. And thats what you need to do. Im just givin you a chance to do it. Stevie Rae stuck out her hand. So, heres hoping that next time we meet, were not enemies. Rephaim looked from her outstretched hand to her face, and back to her hand. Then slowly, almost reluctantly, he grasped it. Not in a modern handshake, but in the traditional vampyre greeting of clasping forearms. I owe you a life, Priestess. Stevie Raes cheeks felt hot. Just call me Stevie Rae. I dont feel much like a Priestess right now. He bowed his head. Then it is to Stevie Rae that I owe a life. Do the right thing with yours and Ill consider myself paid up, she said. Merry meet, marry part, and merry meet again, Rephaim. She tried to pull her arm from his grasp, but he didnt let her go. Are they all like you? All of your allies? he asked. She smiled. Nah, Im weirder than most of the others. Im the first red vamp, and sometimes I think that makes me kinda an experiment. Still gripping her arm he said, I was the first of my fathers children. Though he held her gaze steadily, she couldnt read his expression. All she saw in the dim light of the tunnel was the human shape of his eyes and their unearthly red glowthe same red glow that haunted her dreams and sometimes overwhelmed her own vision, tainting everything with scarlet and anger and darkness. She shook her head, and more to herself than to him said, Being the first can be hard. He nodded and finally released her arm. Without another word, he turned and hobbled away into the darkness. Stevie Rae counted slowly to one hundred, then she raised her arms. Earth, I need you again. Instantly her element responded, filling the tunnel with the scents of a springtime meadow. She breathed in deeply before continuing. Collapse the ceiling. Fill up this part of the tunnel. Close the hole you made for me; plug it up; make it solid again, so that nobody can pass here. She stepped back as the dirt in front and above her started to move, and then it rained down, shifting and solidifying until there was nothing but a solid wall of earth in front of her. Stevie Rae, what the hell are ya doing? Stevie Rae whirled around, pressing her hand over her heart. Dallas! You scared the livin daylights right outta me! Dang, I think you bout gave me a heart attack for real. Sorry. Youre so hard to sneak up on I thought you knew I was standing here. Heart pounding even harder, Stevie Rae searched Dallass face, trying to find a sign that he had even a hint that she hadnt been alone, but he didnt look suspicious or mad or betrayedhe just looked curious and kinda sad. His next words reinforced that he hadnt been there long enough to have caught even a glimpse of Rephaim. You sealed it off to keep the rest of them from getting to the abbey, didnt you? Stevie Rae nodded and tried not to let the wave of relief she felt show in her voice. Yeah. I didnt think it was smart to give em such easy access to the nuns. It would be kinda like an old-lady smorgasbord for them. Dallass eyes glinted mischievously. Dont be gross. But she couldnt help grinning at him. Dallas really was adorable. Not only was he her unofficial boyfriend, but he was also a genius with anything to do with electricity or plumbing or basically whatever youd find at Home Depot. Grinning back at her, he moved closer and tugged on one of her blond curls. Im not being gross. Im being real. And you cant tell me you havent at least thought about how easy it would be to chomp on these nuns. Dallas! She narrowed her eyes at him, truly shocked by what hed said. Heck no I havent thought about eatin a nun! It doesnt even sound right. And like I told ya before, its not smart to think a lot about eatin people. Its not good for you. Hey, relax, cutie. Im just messing with you. He glanced behind her at the wall of earth. So, how are you going to explain this to Zoey and the rest of them? Im gonna do what I probably shoulda done a while ago. Im gonna tell them the truth. I thought you wanted to stay quiet about the rest of the fledglings because you thought they might come around and be more like us. Yeah, well, Im startin to think Ive messed up with some of my choices. All right, its up to you. Youre our High Priestess. Tell Zoey and them whatever you want. Actually, you can do that right now. Zoey just called a meeting in the cafeteria. I came looking for you to tell you about it. Howd you know where to find me? He smiled at her again and slipped his arm around her shoulders. I know you, cutie. It wasnt very hard to figure out where youd be. They started walking out of the tunnel together. Stevie Rae wrapped her arm around Dallass waist. She let herself lean against him, glad that he felt normal and totally guy-like beside her. It was a relief to have her world shift back to what she knew was right. Shed put Rephaim out of her mind. Shed helped someone whod been hurt, thats all. And now she was done with him. Seriously, he was just one badly injured Raven Mocker. How much trouble could he cause? You know me, huh? She butted him with her hip. He pressed right back against her. Not as well as I wish I knew you, cutie. Stevie Rae giggled, ignoring the fact that she sounded kinda manic in her effort to be normal. She also ignored the fact that she could still smell Rephaims dark scent on her skin. CHAPTER EIGHTEEN Zoey I was in that magical, misty place between awake and asleep when he pulled me against his body. He was so big and strong and hard that the contrast between his physical presence and the soft, sweet breath that tickled the side of my neck along with the gentle kisses he placed there had me shivering. I was mostly asleep and didnt want to wake up all the way yet, but I sighed happily and stretched so that he could reach more of my neck. His arms felt so right around me. I loved being close to him and was thinking about how glad I was Stark was my Warrior when I murmured sleepily, You must really be feeling better. His touch became sexier and less gentle. I shivered again. Then my groggy mind registered two things simultaneously. First: I wasnt shivering just because I liked what he was doing, even though I definitely liked what he was doing. I was shivering because his touch was cold. Second: The body that pressed against me was too big to be Starks. At that instant he whispered, Do you see how your soul longs for me? You will come to me. You are fated to do so, and I am fated to wait for you. I sucked in a gasp, came wide awake, and sat up. I was completely alone. Calm down . . . calm down . . . calm down . . . Kalona is not here . . . everythings fine . . . it was just a dream . . . Without thinking about it, I automatically started to control my breathing and steady my emotions, which were definitely in overdrive. Stark wasnt in the room, and the last thing I wanted him to do was to come running back to me because he could feel how panicked I was, when I was not in any real danger. I might be uncertain about a bunch of things, but I was dead sure about one thing: I didnt want Stark to start thinking he couldnt leave my side. Yeah, I was crazy about him, and glad we shared a bond, but that didnt mean I wanted him to believe I couldnt function without him. He was my Warrior, not my babysitter or my stalker, and if he started to think he had to watch me constantly . . . gawking at me while I slept . . . I suppressed a groan of horror. The door that led to the little bathroom my room shared with the guest room next door opened and Stark strode in, his gaze going straight to me. He had on jeans and a black Street Cats Catholic Charities T-shirt, and he was towel-drying his still-wet hair. I guess I must have calmed myself down and fixed the panicked expression on my face enough that as soon as he saw me sitting up in bed, alone and in no danger, his worried look changed to a smile. Hey, you are awake. I thought so. You okay? Yep. Fine and dandy, I said quickly. I just woke myself up by almost rolling off the bed. It kinda freaked me out. His smile turned cocky. You were probably flailing around missing me and my hot body, and thats what had you rolling off the bed. I raised a brow at him. Im so sure that wasnt it. His mention of his body (yes, it is hot, but Im not gonna let him think Im drooling over him) had me studying him, and I realized he did look goodas in more than just cute and hot. He was a lot less pale than he had been when wed gone to sleep, and he was a lot steadier on his feet. You seem better. I am better. Darius was rightI heal quickly. A solid eight hours of sleep, plus the three baggies of blood I snagged while you were still snoring, have me feeling pretty good. He walked over to the bed, bent, and kissed me softly. Add to that me knowing I can keep you safe from Kalonas nightmares, and Id say Im ready to face just about anything. I dont snore, I told him firmly, then I sighed and wrapped my arms around his waist, leaning into him, letting the strength of his physical presence chase away what remained of Kalonas nightmare presence. Im glad youre feeling better. Should I have told Stark that Kalona had still snuck into my dreams, even with him so close and so focused on protecting me? Probably. Maybe telling him would have made a difference in what happened later. Then I was only thinking about not messing up the positive energy he had going, so I rested in his arms until I remembered I hadnt even brushed my hair or anything. Running my fingers through my wicked-ugly bed head, and averting my face from him to keep from blasting Stark with morning mouth, I pulled away from his embrace and hurried toward the bathroom. Over my shoulder I said, Hey, would you do me a favor while Im taking a shower? Sure. He shot me a cocky grin, which telegraphed how good he really was feeling. Want me to wash your back? Uh, no. But thanks. I think. Jeesh, guys had such one-track minds! I want you to round up the fledglings, red and blue, and find Aphrodite, Darius, Sister Mary Angela, my grandma, and anyone else you can think of who needs to be in on the discussion of when and how were getting back to the school. Id rather wash your back, but no problem. Your wish, my lady, is my command. He bowed his head and saluted me, his hand over his heart. Thank you. The words came out soft. His expression of respect and trust suddenly making me feel close to tears. Hey. His smile faded. You look kinda sad. Is everything okay? Im just glad youre my Warrior. What I said was the truth, if not all of it. His smile was back. You are one lucky High Priestess. I shook my head at his unending cockiness and blinked the ridiculous tears from my eyes. Just get everyone together for me, kay? Kay. Want to meet in the basement? I grimaced. Definitely not. How about you ask Sister Mary Angela if we can meet in their dining room? Then we can eat and talk. Will do. Thanks. Ill see you soon, my lady. Eyes shining, he saluted me formally again before hurrying from the room. More slowly, I entered the bathroom. Mechanically, I brushed my teeth and got in the shower. I stood for a long time just letting the hot water pour down over me. And then, when I knew I could keep my emotions calm, I thought about Kalona. Id relaxed in his arms. I hadnt been reliving one of A-yas memories, or even under her influence, but Id let myself go when he touched me, and the result had been as terrifying as it was revealing. It had felt right to be with himso right that Id mistaken him for my oath-bound Warrior! And it hadnt seemed like a dream. Id been too awake; too close to full consciousness. Kalonas last visit had shaken me to my core. No matter how hard I try to fight against it, my soul recognizes him, I whispered to myself. And then, as if my eyes were jealous of the water already running down my face, I began to cry. To find the dining room I followed my nose and my ears. All down the hallway leading to it, I could hear familiar voices laughing amid the clanking of plates and silverware and I wondered briefly if the nuns were really cool with what amounted to an invasion of teenage vampyres-to-be. I paused outside the wide, open-arched entry to the big room, checking out how the nuns were getting along with the kids. There were three rows of long tables. Id expected the nuns to be clustered together, naturally segregating themselves from us, but they werent. Sure, they tended to be sitting in twos and threes, but they were surrounded by fledglings red and blueand everyone was chattering, which totally killed the ste reo typical image I had in my head of the nuns dining room being a place of prayer and quiet (boring) reflection. So are you going to loiter or are you going to actually go in there? I turned to see Aphrodite and Darius standing behind me. They were holding hands and looking very glowy and, as the Twins would say, happy-smappy. Merry meet, Zoey. Darius saluted me formally, but his smile gave his respectful gesture a warm, casual feel. I threw Aphrodite a see-someone-has-manners look before smiling at the warrior. Merry meet, Darius. You two look pleased with yourselves. You must have found someplace to get some sleep last night. I paused, glanced at Aphrodite again, and added, Sleep or whatnot. They assured me they slept. Sister Mary Angela emphasized the word as she joined us in the doorway. Aphrodite rolled her eyes at the nun, but didnt say anything. Darius explained to me that the fallen angel has been visiting your dreams, and that Stark seemed to be able to stop him, said the nun in her usual manner of getting right to the point. Whatd Stark do? Heath skidded to a stop and gave me a giant hug, planting a kiss squarely on my lips. Do I need to kick his butt? Not likely you could, Stark said, joining us from inside the dining room. Unlike Heath, he didnt grab me, but his look was so warm and intimate that it seemed to touch me as thoroughly as Heaths hug. And suddenly I was feeling very guy-claustrophobic. I mean, a buffet of boys sounds like a good idea in theory, but I was quickly finding out that, much like straight-leg designer jeans, its only in theory that the idea is good. As if to reinforce my thoughts, Erik chose that instant to join us. Venus, the red fledgling who was Aphrodites old roommate, was practically Velcroed to his side. Ugh. Just ugh. Hi everyone. Man, Im starving! Erik said. He blazed the big, warm, movie star smile that I used to heart so much. Through my peripheral vision I could see Heath and Stark gawking at Erik and his Venus leech, who was definitely suckerfished to his side, which was when I remembered that neither of my other guys knew Id dumped Erik. I stifled a sigh of pure irritation and instead of ignoring him with the icy attitude Id have liked to throw his way, I planted my own fake smile on my face and beamed. Hi, Erik, Venus. Well, you guys have definitely come to the right place if youre hungry. Everything smells super-good. Eriks smile faltered for just an instant, but his acting skills were way up to the task of making it look as though hed moved on, like, fifteen seconds after wed broken up. Hi, Zoey. Didnt see you over there. As usual, youre surrounded by guys. Damn, it always was crowded around you. With a sarcastic chuckle he pushed past me, bumping Stark with his shoulder. If I shot an arrow and thought about an ass, would it surprise you that I hit Erik? Stark asked me in a pleasant, nonchalant voice. Wouldnt surprise me, Heath said. I can tell you boys, from personal experience, that Erik does have one nice ass, Venus said as she moved to follow Erik into the dining room. Hey, Venus, I have two words for you, Aphrodite said. Venus hesitated and glanced over her shoulder at her ex-roommate. Aphrodite smiled her best mean-bitch sneer and said, Re. Bound. She paused and gave a bitchy smirk and then said, Good luck with that. It was about then that I noticed every eye in the dining room was turned to us and all the conversations had skidded to a halt. Erik made a possessive little motion with his hand and Venus practically trotted up to him. Slipping her arm through his, she mashed her boob against his elbow. And then the whispers started like someone had lit them with a match. Erik and Zoey broke up! Eriks with Venus! Zoey and Erik arent together! Well, hell. CHAPTER NINETEEN Zoey I never did like him. Heath kissed me on the top of my head and then ruffled my hair like I was two years old. You know I hate it when you do that! I said, trying to smooth back my hair that was already too poofy because apparently nuns didnt believe in flatirons. I never liked him, either. Stark took my hand and kissed it. Then he looked Heath in the eye. I dont like it much that you and Zoey are Imprinted, but I dont have a problem with you. Im cool with you, too, dude, Heath said. But I dont like it much that you slept with Zo. Hey, just part of the job description of being her Warrior, keeping her safe and all. Okay, vomit, Aphrodite said. By the way, testosterone dorks, you should know Z dumped Erikno matter what kind of spin he tries to put on it. Keep in mind she could do that to either of you if you get too damn annoying. She unwrapped herself from around Darius, marched over to me, and looked me in the eye. Ready to go in there and face the pain-in-the-ass masses? In a sec. I turned to Sister Mary Angela. Hows Grandma this morning? Worn out. Im afraid she did entirely too much yesterday. Is she okay? She will be. Maybe I should go to her and I started to walk away from the dining room, but Aphrodite caught my wrist. Grandmas going to be fine. Right now I can promise you shed rather have you figure out what were doing next than stress about her. Stress? Did someone say they were stressin? Stevie Rae jogged around the corner of the hallway with Dallas at her side. Hey there, Z! She enveloped me in a big hug. Sorry that I snapped your head off before. I guess we both have been stressin too much lately. Forgive me? she whispered. Of course, I whispered back and tried not to wrinkle my nose as I hugged her. She smelled like basement and earth and something else stinky I couldnt identify. Hey, I said quickly under my breath to her. I dumped Erik and hes hooked up with Venusin front of everybody. Well, that sucks like your mama forgettin your birthday, she said out loud, not paying any attention to our audience. Yeah, I said. It definitely sucks. You gonna go in and face him, or turn tail and run? she asked with a wickedly cute smile. What do you think, Ado Annie? Aphrodite said. Z doesnt run from a fight. Whos Ado Annie? Heath asked. Dunno, Stark said. Thats a character from the musical Oklahoma! Sister Mary Angela said as she tried to stifle a giggle by clearing her throat. Shall we have breakfast? Smiling, the nun headed into the cafeteria. I sighed and had the urge to run shrieking down the hall in the opposite direction. Come on, Z. Lets go in there and get somethin to eat. Plus, I got stuff to tell yall thats gonna make your boyfriend issues seem like nothin. Stevie Rae grabbed my hand, and swinging it, pulled me into the dining room. Trailed by Stark, Heath, Darius, Aphrodite, and Dallas, we found seats beside Sister Mary Angela at the same table where Damien, Jack, and the Twins were already sitting. Hey, Z! Youre finally up! Check out the seriously yummy pancakes the nun cooks made us, Jack bubbled at me. Pancakes? My world instantly brightened. Yeah! Therere plates and plates of this stuff and bacon and hash browns. Its better than IHOP! He glanced down the table and yelled, Hey! Pass the pancakes! Platters started to clatter our way, and my mouth began to water. I seriously heart me some pancakes. We like French toast better, Shaunee said. Yeah, its not as mushy, Erin said. Pancakes arent mushy, Jack said. Merry meet, Z, Damien spoke up, obviously defusing a pancake debate. Merry meet, I smiled at him. Hey, except for your poofy hair you look lots better than you did before, Jack said. Thanks. I think. I said it through a big bite of pancake. I think she looks amazing, Stark said from where he was sitting a little way down the table. Me, too. I like Zoeys bed head, Heath grinned at me. I was rolling my eyes at both of them when Eriks voice drifted across the room to me. Really, really crowded over there. His back was turned to us, but that didnt stop his voice from projecting obnoxiously. Why couldnt breakups be easy? Why couldnt Erik just not be a butt? Because you really hurt his feelings flitted through my mind, but I was sick of being worried about Eriks feelings. Hed been a possessive jerk! And what a damn hypocrite. Hed called me a ho, but itd taken him less than a day to hook up with someone else. Jeesh. Wait, Eriks with Venus? Jacks voice caught my attention. We broke up last night, I said, nonchalantly forking pancakes onto my plate and waving at Erin to pass me the platter of bacon. Yeah, thats what Aphrodite told us. But now hes with Venus? Just like that? Jack repeated, staring at Erik and the aforementioned Venus, who was spider monkeying all over him so much that I was shocked that he could eat. I thought he was a nice guy. Jack sounded totally young and disillusioned, like Erik had just burst his perfect-guy bubble. I shrugged. Its okay, Jack. Eriks not really a bad guy. Were just bad together, I said, hating how upset Jack looked. Wanting to change the subject, I announced, Aphrodite had another vision. What did you see? Damien asked her. Aphrodite glanced at me, and I nodded almost imperceptibly. Kalona burning up vamps and people. Burning them? Shaunee spoke right up. Sounds like something I should be able to discourage. I am Miss Fire. Right you are, Twin, Erin said. Brain sharersyou werent in the vision. Aphrodite jabbed her syrupy fork at the Twins. Fire and blood and horror and whatnot were. You two were probably shopping. Shaunee and Erin narrowed their eyes at Aphrodite. Where was Zoey? Damien asked. Aphrodites gaze found mine as she answered. Zoey was there. In one of my visions that was a good thing. In the other, not so good. Whats that supposed to mean? Jack asked. The vision was confusing. Seemed like what I saw was a double-edged sword. To me it was obvious that she was stalling, and I was just opening my mouth to tell her to go ahead and tell them everything when Kramisha, who was sitting down the table to my right, raised her arm and waved around the piece of paper she was holding. I know what it means, she said. Or I know part a what it means. I wrote this before I went to bed last night. She smiled at Sister Mary Angela. After we finished watching that nun movie. Im glad you liked it, dear, Sister Mary Angela said. I did, but I still think them kids was bad. What are you flailing around? Aphrodite asked. You could be a little patient, Kramisha said. And show some manners. Its for Zoey anyway. Here, pass it down to her. The piece of paper was passed from person to person till it got to me. As everyone had probably suspected, it was one of Kramishas poems. I stifled a sigh. As if reading my mind, Aphrodite said, Please tell me its not another one of those prophetic poems. Goddess, they give me a headache. Better stock up on Tylenol, I said. I read the first line to myself, blinked, and then looked up at Aphrodite. What did you say just a second ago? Something about a sword? She said you bein there with Kalona was a double-edged sword. Thats what made me give you the poem now, stead of waitin for a more private time. Kramishas sharp gaze found Erik, then she added, I have more sense than some people bout puttin my business all out in public. Thats the first line of this poem, A double-edged sword, I said. Thats spooky, said Stevie Rae. Yep, I said, staring at the poem. Spooky is a good word for it. What do you want to do about it? Damien asked me. I want to take the poem and, with the help of my friends, figure it out. But I want to do it at home, I said simply. Damien smiled and nodded. Home. That sounds good. I looked at Aphrodite. What do you think? I think I miss the Vichy shower in my room, she said. Darius? I asked. We have to go back before we can focus on going forward. Shaunee and Erin? They glanced at each other, and then Erin said, Home. Definitely. Stevie Rae? Well, I have somethin to tell yall before you make any big decisions. Okay, go ahead, I said. I watched Stevie Rae suck in a big, long breath and then blow it out through her pursed lips, like she was taking an asthma test. Her words followed her breath and she spoke quickly and clearly, letting what she said carry throughout the room. Therere more red fledglings than just the kids here. They didnt change when I did like these guys. Theyre still bad. I thinkI think they might still be connected to Neferet. She turned to me and her eyes begged me to understand. I didnt say anything to you cause I wanted to give them a chance. I thought that theyd find their humanity again if they were just left alone and could think through things on their own, or if maybe I could help them. Im sorry, Z. I didnt mean to cause any problems and I never wanted to lie to you. I couldnt be pissed at Stevie Rae. All I could do was feel relieved that shed finally told me the truth. Sometimes you cant tell your friends everything youd like to tell them, I said. Stevie Rae let out her breath on a sob. Oh, Z! You dont hate me? Of course not, I said. Ive had to keep some pretty crappy secrets, so I get it. Where are they? Damiens question would have seemed harsh, but his voice was gentle, his warm brown eyes filled with understanding. Theyre in the depot tunnels. Thats why I just sealed off the dirt tunnel that I made to get everyone here. I didnt want any of the others following us and causing the nuns problems. You should have warned us last night, Darius said. We would have posted guards while everyone was sleeping. There were rogue red fledglings at the other end of your tunnel? Sister Mary Angelas hand found the rosary that hung around her neck. Oh, Sister, you werent in any danger. Darius, we didnt need to post guards, promise! she quickly explained. Those other kids are affected by daylight big-time. They never move around while the suns up, not even in the tunnels. Dariuss frown said he still would have posted a guard. Sister Mary Angela didnt say anything, but I saw her fingers worrying her rosary beads. It was then that I noticed none of the red fledglings were speaking. I glanced at the only other red vampyre in existence. Did you know about these other fledglings? Me? Hell no. I wouldve told you right away, Stark said. I should have told you right away. Im real sorry I didnt, Stevie Rae said. Sometimes the truth can get buried and its hard to figure out how to uncover it, I told her, and then I looked around the room at the other red fledglings. You guys all knew, didnt you? Kramisha spoke up. We knew. We dont like them other kids. Theys bad news. They smell bad, too, little Shannoncompton said from a ways down the table. They suck, Dallas said. And they remind us of how it used to be. Thats something we dont like to remember, said muscle-y Johnny B. I turned my attention back to Stevie Rae. Is there anything else you want to tell me? Well, I dont think its smart for us to go back to the depot tunnels right now, so going home to the House of Night sounds good to me, too. Then its settled. We go home, I said. CHAPTER TWENTY Zoey Im all for getting back where we belong, but your grandma should stay here, Aphrodite said suddenly. We dont know what all were going to have to deal with at the House of Night. Did your visions show you something else? I asked, noticing that she was looking at Stevie Rae instead of me. Aphrodite shook her head slowly. No, I told you everything I saw in my visions. I just have a feeling, thats all. Stevie Rae laughed nervously. Well, heck, Aphrodite, were all feelin jumpy and on edge, which makes total sense. We just chased away some major booger monsters, but thats no reason to freak Zoey out. Im not freaking her out, bumpkin, Aphrodite said. Im just being careful. It is wise to anticipate dangers, Darius said thoughtfully. Since there was nothing wrong with being careful, I opened my mouth to agree with both of them when Stevie Rae turned to Darius and in a cold, flat voice said, Just because youve sworn your Warriors Oath to her doesnt mean you have to agree with everything she says. What? Stark said. You gave Aphrodite your Oath? Really? Damien said. Wow, too cool, Jack said. Erik snorted from the table behind us. Im shocked Zoey let you and didnt just add you to her private collection. By that time Id had enough. I yelled over at him, Oh, go to hell, Erik! Zoey! Sister Mary Angela gasped. Sorry, I muttered. Dont be sorry, Aphrodite said, glaring at Stevie Rae. Hell isnt a bad word. Its a place. And some people do need to be sent there. What? Stevie Rae said innocently. You didnt want everyone to know about you and Darius? My business is my business, Aphrodite said. Just like I was sayin before, Kramisha nodded sagely. It just aint right to put your personal business all out in public. She turned her dark eyes on Stevie Rae. I know you our High Priestess and all, so I dont mean no disrespect, but I think you was raised better than that. Stevie Rae looked instantly contrite. Youre right, Kramisha. I guess I didnt think it was that big a deal. I mean, everyone would know sooner or later. She smiled at me and shrugged her shoulders. A Warriors Oath isnt exactly somethin you can hide. She turned to Aphrodite. Sorry, I wasnt tryin to be mean. Im not interested in your apology. Im not Zoey. Im not going to automatically believe everything you say. Okay, enough! I shouted. Anger and frustration added power to my words, and I saw several kids flinch. All of you need to listen up and get something straight. We cant fight big, world-ending evil if were bickering with each other! Stevie Rae and Aphroditeget over the fact that youre Imprinted and learn not to embarrass each other. I saw hurt in Aphrodites eyes and shock in Stevie Raes, but I kept going. Stevie Rae, dont keep important stuff from me, even if you think you have a good reason to. I looked squarely at Erik, who had turned around in his chair so he could stare at me. And Erik, we have lots bigger problems than you being pissed I dumped you. I heard Stark chuckle and I rounded on him. You dont get a free pass, either. Stark raised his hands like he was surrendering. Im just laughing because Erik the Great got put in his place. Which is real crappy of you since you can feel how much this whole thing with you and Erik and Heath has hurt my feelings. Starks cocky smile faded. Darius, its an icy mess out there, but do you think you can drive the Hummer back to the House of Night? I asked. I do, said the warrior. Whos good on a horse? Instantly several hands went up like I was a mean teacher and they were all scared of being in trouble. Shaunee, you and Erin can ride the horse you got here on. I looked around at the kids still holding up their hands. Johnny B, can you and Kramisha double on the other mare? Yep, we can, he said. Kramisha nodded briskly, and they both put down their hands. Stark, you can ride behind me on Persephone, I said without looking at him. Damien, Jack, Aphrodite, Shannoncompton, Venus, and . . . I stared at a brunette red fledgling whose name I absolutely could not remember. Sophie, Stevie Rae said hesitantly, like she was scared I might snap her head off. And Sophie. You guys go with Darius in the Hummer. I looked at Stevie Rae. Can you be sure the rest of the red fledglings and Erik get to the House of Night safely? If thats what you want me to do, then thats what Ill do, she said. Good. Finish breakfast and then lets go home. I stood up and took in all the nuns with one long look. I appreciate you helping us more than Ill ever be able to tell you. As long as Im alive, the Benedictine Sisters will have a High Priestess as a friend. Then I turned to leave. As I passed Stark, I saw him start to get up, but I caught his eyes and shook my head. Im going to say bye to Grandmaby myself. I could see that Id hurt him, but he only saluted me respectfully and said, As you wish, my lady. Ignoring the silence I left in my wake, I walked out of the room, alone. So, u-we-tsi-a-ge-ya, you made everyone angry? Grandma said after listening to me rant while I paced back and forth beside her bed. Well, not everyone. I hurt some peoples feelings instead of making them mad. Grandma studied me for a long time. When she finally spoke her words were typically simple but straight to the point. That is unlike you, so you must have had a good reason for acting so out of character. Well, Im scared and confused. Yesterday I felt like a High Priest-ess. Today Im just a kid again. I have boyfriend issues and a best friend whos been keeping stuff from me. All that means is neither you nor Stevie Rae is perfect, Grandma said. But how do I know thats all it means? What if Im a shallow ho and Stevie Raes gone evil? Only time will show whether your trust in Stevie Rae has been misplaced. And I think you should stop being so hard on yourself for being attracted to more than one boy. Youre making good judgments about the relationships in your life. From what youve said, Eriks behavior was controlling and boorish. There are many young women who would have ignored all of that because hes, how do you put it, so hot! Grandma did a bad teenage imitation. Youll learn to balance Heath and Stark, many High Priestesses do. Or you wont, and youll decide committing yourself to one man is the right path for you. But, darling, that is something you have many, many years to decide. I suppose youre right, I said. Of course Im right. Im old. Which means I can also tell theres more bothering you than boys or Stevie Rae. What is it, Zoeybird? I had a memory of A-ya, Grandma. Grandmas sharp intake of breath was the only outward sign of her inward shock. Did the memory involve Kalona? Yes. Was it pleasant or unpleasant? Both! It started out as terrifying, but as I got closer and closer to A-ya, it changed. She loved him, Grandma. And I could feel that. Grandma nodded and spoke slowly. Yes, u-we-tsi-a-ge-ya, that makes sense. A-ya was created to love him. It scares me and makes me feel out of control! I cried. Sssh, daughter, Grandma soothed. We are all affected by our pasts, but it is within our power not to let what we have done dictate what we will do. Even at a soul-deep level? Especially at a soul-deep level. Ask yourself where is it your great gifts originate. Well, from Nyx, I said. And did the goddess gift your body or your soul? My soul, of course. My bodys just a shell for my soul. I was surprised at the firmness of my voice. I blinked in surprise. I have to remember its my soul now, and treat A-ya like I would any memory from my past. Grandma smiled. Ah, there, I knew youd find your center again. When you make mistakes, whether they are from this life or another, learn from themthen they become opportunities. Not if my mistakes let Kalona burn up the world, I thought, and almost said aloud, but just then Grandma closed her eyes. She looked so tired and hurt and old that it made my stomach clench and feel more than a little sick. Im sorry I dumped all this on you, Grandma, I said. She opened her eyes and patted my hand. Dont ever be sorry for speaking your mind to me, u-we-tsi-a-ge-ya. I kissed Grandma lightly on her forehead, being careful not to hurt any of her cuts and bruises. I love you, Grandma. And I love you, u-we-tsi-a-ge-ya. Go with the Goddess, and the blessings of our ancestors. My hand had just touched the doorknob when her voice rang between us, sounding strong and sure and wise as ever. Hold to the truth, u-we-tsi-a-ge-ya. Do not ever forget, as our people have always known, there is a deep power in words that speak the truth. Ill try my best, Grandma. And that is all I will ever ask of you, my Zoeybird. CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE Zoey The ride back to the House of Night was slow and weird and awkward. It was slow because even with Shaunee and me directing fire to warm the hooves of the horses so that we could trot down Twenty-first Street and take a left at the Utica Street light (which was totally dark), it was still a slick, frigid, difficult trek. It was weird because everything was so darn dark. Heres what happens when your city loses light: it doesnt look right. It sounds simplistic, especially coming from a kid who is supposed to be one of the children of the night or whatnot, but the world doesnt look the same when the lights go out. And it was awkward because Shaunee and Erin kept throwing looks at me like they thought I was a bomb that might explode. Johnny B and Kramisha hardly talked to me at all, and Stark, who was sitting behind me on my amazing mare, Persephone, wouldnt so much as rest his hands on my waist. Me? I just wanted to go home. Darius drove the Hummer behind us at Im sure what must have felt like a crawl to him, even though the three horses were managing a steady trot. The red fledglings, led by Stevie Rae and Erik, followed the Hummer. Except for the car and the hooves of the horses, the night was as silent as it was dark, though once in a while, creepily, a branch would give up under its icy weight and, with a terrible crack! a tree would break. Wed turned left on Utica before I said anything. So are you just not going to ever talk to me again? I asked Stark. Ill talk to you, he said. Why does it seem like there should be a but at the end of that sentence? He hesitated and I could practically feel the tension that radiated off him. Finally he let out a long breath and said, I dont know whether to be pissed at you, or to say Im sorry for the messed-up shit that happened in the cafeteria. Well, the cafeteria wasnt your fault. Or at least most of it wasnt. Yeah, see, I know that, but I also know your feelings were hurt by the whole Erik thing. I didnt know what to say to that, so we rode on in silence for a while until Stark cleared his throat and said, You were pretty hard on everyone back there. I had to shut up the bickering, and that seemed like the quickest way. Next time you could try saying something like, Guys, shut up your bickering! I dunno, maybe its just me, but that makes more sense than freaking on your friends. I stifled the urge to snap back and say Id like to see him do any better. Instead I thought about what hed said. He might be right. I didnt feel comfortable with the fact that Id snapped at everyoneespecially since a bunch of the everyones were my friends. Ill try to do better next time, I finally said. Stark didnt gloat. He didnt turn all tough-guylike and patronize me, either. He just rested his hands on my shoulders, squeezed, and said, The fact that you actually listen to other people is one of the things I like best about you. I could feel my cheeks get warm at his unexpected compliment. Thanks, I said softly. I ran my fingers through Persephones cold, wet mane, liking how her ears twitched back in response. Youre a really good girl, I crooned to her. Thought you mighta noticed by now that Im not a girl, Stark said with a cocky smile in his voice. I noticed. I laughed and the tension between us evaporated. The Twins, Johnny B, and Kramisha looked our way with tentative smiles. So, uh, you and I are okay? I asked him. You and I will always be okay. Im your Warrior, your protector. No matter what else is going on, Ill have your back. When my throat cleared enough for me to speak, I said, Being my Warrior might not always be an easy job. He laughed, full and loud and long. He also slid his arms around my waist and said, Zoey, sometimes being your Warrior will suck royally. I was going to mention that, just perhaps, his mom sucked royally, but his arms were warm around me and his touch was soothing. So I grumbled something about him being full of bullpoopie, and let myself relax back against him. You know, he said. If you could forget all the craziness the storm is causing, and the whole Kalona-Neferet mess, the ice really does look cool. Its almost like its taken us out of the real world and transported us to a weird winter land. Like someplace the White Witch would really like. Oooh, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe! That was a great movie. He cleared his throat. I didnt see it. You didnt see it? My eyes widened and I glanced over my shoulder at him. You read the book? Books, he said, putting special emphasis on the plural. C. S. Lewis wrote way more than one Narnia book. You read? I read, he said. Huh, I said, feeling befuddled (as Grandma would have said). Whats wrong with that? Readings good, he said defensively. I know! Its cool you read. Actually its hot that you read. And it was. I loved it when cute guys showed they had brains. Really? Well, youd definitely be interested in the fact that I just read To Kill a Mockingbird. I smiled and elbowed him. Everyones read that. Ive read it five times. Nu-uh. Yep. I can quote parts of it. Thats bullpoopie. And then Stark, my big, bad, macho Warrior, raised his voice, put on a little girls Southern drawl, and said, Uncle Jack? Whats a whore-lady? I do not think thats the most important quote from that book, I said, but laughed anyway. Okay, how

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