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Burned / Îáîććĺííŕ˙ (by P.C. Cast, Kristin Cast, 2010) - ŕóäčîęíčăŕ íŕ ŕíăëčéńęîě

×ňîáű óáđŕňü đĺęëŕěó ńäĺëŕéňĺ đĺăčńňđŕöčţ čëč ŕâňîđčçóéňĺńü íŕ ńŕéňĺ

Burned / Îáîććĺííŕ˙ (by P.C. Cast, Kristin Cast, 2010) - ŕóäčîęíčăŕ íŕ ŕíăëčéńęîě

Burned / Îáîććĺííŕ˙ (by P.C. Cast, Kristin Cast, 2010) - ŕóäčîęíčăŕ íŕ ŕíăëčéńęîě

Ńňŕđęó ďđĺäńňîčň îňďđŕâčňüń˙ â ďîňóńňîđîííčé ěčđ, ÷ňîáű â ęŕ÷ĺńňâĺ řŕěŕíŕ č ďđîâîäíčęŕ âĺđíóňü äóő Çîč â đĺŕëüíîńňüţ. Ĺěó ďđčőîäčňń˙ âĺńňč áîđüáó ń ńŕěčě ńîáîé, ňî÷íĺĺ ńî ńâîĺé çëîé ńňîđîíîé, ÷ňîáű â â ńîńňî˙íčč ňđŕíńŕ âńňđĺňčňü ÷ĺđíîăî Áűęŕ, ęîňîđűé áóäĺň ĺăî ďîěîůíčęîě â ďóňč. Ŕ ďîęŕ Çîč íŕőîäčňń˙ â číîě ěčđĺ, ăäĺ âńňđĺ÷ŕĺň äóő Őčňŕ. Îíŕ íĺ őî÷ĺň îňďóńęŕňü ĺăî. Çîč ěĺí˙ĺňń˙ äóőîâíî č íĺ â ëó÷řóţ ńňîđîíó, îíŕ áîčňń˙ ńîáčđŕňü âńĺ ÷ŕńňč ńâîĺé äóřč âîĺäčíî, ÷ňî íŕńňîđŕćčâŕĺň Őčňŕ. Ńňŕđęó ďđčőîäčňń˙ ńíŕ÷ŕëŕ âőîäčňü â ęîíňŕęň ń Őčňîě, ÷ňîáű ňîň ďîěîă âĺđíóňü Çîč. Âĺäü â đĺŕëüíîě ěčđĺ â áîđüáĺ ń Íĺôĺđĺň áĺç íĺĺ íĺ îáîéňčńü. Ńňŕđę äîęŕçűâŕĺň Őčňó, ÷ňî íĺ ńňîčň đóęîâîäńňâîâŕňüń˙ đĺâíîńňüţ, ŕ çäđŕâî îöĺíčâŕňü ńëîćíîńňü ńčňóŕöčč. Őčň óáĺćäŕĺň Çîč óéňč č ńŕě čń÷ĺçŕĺň. Çîč ďëŕ÷ĺň, Ńňŕđę ńíîâŕ č ńíîâŕ ňâĺđäčň, ÷ňî ĺé íóćíî âĺđíóňüń˙. Îí čäĺň íŕ őčňđűé ěŕíĺâđ, âńňóďŕ˙ â áîé Ęŕëîíîé. Çîč îďŕńŕĺňń˙ çŕ ĺăî ćčçíü č âîçâđŕůŕĺňń˙ â đĺŕëüíîńňü. Ńňŕđę îňâëĺęŕĺňń˙, Ęŕëîíŕ óáčâŕĺň ĺăî. Ňĺě âđĺěĺíĺě Ńňčâč Đĺé âĺäĺň ńâîţ áîđüáó çŕ ďđĺîáëŕäŕíčĺ ńčë ńâĺňŕ, íî ńâ˙çűâŕĺňń˙ ń ňüěîé. Ęŕę îáńňî˙ň äĺëŕ â áîđüáĺ ěĺćäó Çîč č Ęŕëîíîé?

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Íŕçâŕíčĺ:
Burned / Îáîććĺííŕ˙ (by P.C. Cast, Kristin Cast, 2010) - ŕóäčîęíčăŕ íŕ ŕíăëčéńęîě
Ăîä âűďóńęŕ ŕóäčîęíčăč:
2010
Ŕâňîđ:
P.C. Cast, Kristin Cast
Čńďîëíčňĺëü:
Caitlin Davies
ßçűę:
ŕíăëčéńęčé
Ćŕíđ:
ôŕíňŕńňčęŕ, đîěŕíňčęŕ
Óđîâĺíü ńëîćíîńňč:
upper-intermediate
Äëčňĺëüíîńňü ŕóäčî:
12:38:34
Áčňđĺéň ŕóäčî:
128 kbps
Ôîđěŕň:
mp3, pdf, doc

Ńëóřŕňü îíëŕéí Burned / Îáîććĺííŕ˙ ŕóäčîęíčăó íŕ ŕíăëčéńęîě ˙çűęĺ:

Ńęŕ÷ŕňü ňĺęńň ęíčăč â ôîđěŕňĺ .doc (Word) ďî ďđ˙ěîé ńńűëęĺ cast_p_c_cast_kristin_-_burned.doc [1.71 Mb] (cęŕ÷čâŕíčé: 6) .
Ńęŕ÷ŕňü ňĺęńň ęíčăč â ôîđěŕňĺ .pdf ďî ďđ˙ěîé ńńűëęĺ  cast_p_c_cast_kristin_-_burned.pdf [19.04 Mb] (cęŕ÷čâŕíčé: 17) .
Ńęŕ÷ŕňü audiobook (MP3) áĺńďëŕňíî ń ôŕéëîîáěĺííčęŕ.


×čňŕňü ęíčăó íŕ ŕíăëčéńęîě îíëŕéí:

(×ňîáű ďĺđĺâîäčňü ńëîâŕ íŕ đóńńęčé ˙çűę č äîáŕâë˙ňü â ńëîâŕđü äë˙ čçó÷ĺíč˙, ůĺëęŕĺě ěűřęîé íŕ íóćíîĺ ńëîâî).


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BURNED ALSO BY P. C. CAST and KRISTIN CAST CHAPTER ONE Kalona Kalona lifted his hands. He didn’t hesitate. There was no doubt whatsoever in his mind about what he had to do. He would not allow anything or anyone to get in his way, and this human boy was standing between him and what he desired. He didn’t particularly want to kill the boy; he didn’t particularly want the boy alive, either. It was a simple necessity. He didn’t feel remorse or regret. As had been the norm during the centuries since he’d fallen, Kalona felt very little. So, indifferently, the winged immortal twisted the boy’s neck and put an end to his life. “No!” The anguish of that one word froze Kalona’s heart. He dropped the boy’s lifeless body and whirled around in time to see Zoey racing toward him. Their eyes met. In hers were despair and hatred. In his was an impossible denial. He tried to formulate the words that might make her understand—might make her forgive him. But there was nothing he could say to change what she had seen, and even if he could work the impossible, there was no time. Zoey threw the full power of the element spirit at him. It hit the immortal, striking him with force that was beyond physical. Spirit was his essence—his core—the element that had sustained him for centuries and with which he had always been most comfortable, as well as most powerful. Zoey’s attack seared him. It lifted him with such force that he was hurled over the huge stone wall that separated the vampyres’ island and the Gulf of Venice. The icy water engulfed him, smothering him. For an instant the pain within Kalona was so deadening that he didn’t fight it. Perhaps he should let this terrible struggle for life and its trappings end. Perhaps, once again, he should allow himself to be vanquished by her. But less than a heartbeat after he had the thought, he felt it. Zoey’s soul shattered and, as truly as his fall had carried him from one realm to another, her spirit departed this world. The knowledge wounded him worse than had her blow against him. Not Zoey! He’d never meant to cause her harm. Even through all of Neferet’s machinations, through all of the Tsi Sgili’s manipulations and plans, he’d held tight to the knowledge that, in spite of everything, he would use his vast immortal powers to keep Zoey safe because ultimately she was the closest he could come to Nyx in this realm—and this was the only realm left to him. Fighting to recover from Zoey’s attack, Kalona lifted his massive body from the clutching waves and realized the truth. Because of him, Zoey’s spirit was gone, which meant she would die. With his first breath of air, he released a wrenching cry of despair, echoing her last word, “No!” Had he really believed since his fall that he didn’t truly have feelings? He’d been a fool and wrong, so very wrong. Emotions battered him as he flew raggedly just above the waterline, chipping away at his already wounded spirit, raging against him, weakening him, bleeding his soul. With blurred, blackened vision, he stared across the lagoon, squinting to see the lights that heralded land. He’d never make it there. It would have to be the palace. He had no choice. Using the last reserves of his strength, Kalona’s wings beat against the frigid air, lifting him over the wall, where he crumpled to the frozen earth. He didn’t know how long he lay there in the cold darkness of the shattered night as emotions overwhelmed his shaken soul. Somewhere in the far reaches of his mind, he understood the familiarity of what had happened to him. He’d fallen again, only this time it was more in spirit than in body—though his body didn’t seem his to command any longer either. He felt her presence before she spoke. It had been like that between them from the first, whether he truly wished it or not—they simply sensed one another. “You allowed Stark to bear witness to your killing of the boy!” Neferet’s voice was more frigid than the winter sea. Kalona turned his head so that he could see more than the toe of her stiletto shoe. He looked up at her, blinking to try to clear his vision. “Accident.” Finding his voice again he managed a rasping whisper. “Zoey should not have been there.” “Accidents are unacceptable, and I care not one bit that she was there. Actually, the result of what she saw is rather convenient.” “You know that her soul shattered?” Kalona hated the unnatural weakness in his voice and the strange lethargy in his body almost as much as he hated the effect Neferet’s icy beauty had on him. “I imagine most of the vampyres on the island know it. Typically for her, Zoey’s spirit wasn’t exactly quiet in its leave-taking. I wonder, though, how many of the vampyres also felt the blow the chit dealt you just before she departed.” Neferet tapped her chin contemplatively with one long, sharp fingernail. Kalona remained silent, struggling to center himself and draw together the ragged edges of his torn spirit, but the earth his body pressed against was too real, and he had not the strength to reach above and feed his soul from the wispy vestiges of the Otherworld that floated there. “No, I don’t imagine any of them felt it,” Neferet continued, in her coldest, most calculating voice. “None of them are connected to Darkness, to you, as I am. Is that not so, my love?” “We are uniquely connected,” Kalona managed, though he suddenly wished the words were not true. “Indeed . . .” she said, still distracted by her thoughts. Then Neferet’s eyes widened as a new realization came to her. “I have long wondered how it was that A-ya managed to wound you, such a physically powerful immortal, badly enough that those ridiculous Cherokee hags could entrap you. I believe little Zoey has just provided the answer you’ve so carefully withheld from me. Your body can be damaged but only through your spirit. Isn’t that fascinating?” “I will heal.” He put as much strength as possible in his voice. “Return me to Capri and the castle there. Take me to the rooft op, as close to the sky as I can be, and I will regain my strength.” “I imagine you would—were I so inclined to do that. But I have other plans for you, my love.” Neferet lifted her arms, extending them over him. As she continued to speak she began weaving her long fingers through the air, creating intricate patterns, like a spider spinning her web. “I will not allow Zoey to interfere with us ever again.” “A shattered soul is a death sentence. Zoey is no longer any threat to us,” he said. With knowing eyes, Kalona watched Neferet. She drew to her a sticky blackness he recognized all too well. He’d spent lifetimes battling that Darkness before he embraced its cold power. It pulsed and fluttered familiarly, restlessly under her fingers. She shouldn’t be able to command Darkness so tangibly. The thought drifted like the echo of a death knell through his weary mind. A High Priestess shouldn’t have such power. But Neferet was no longer merely a High Priestess. She had grown beyond the boundaries of that role some time ago, and she had no trouble controlling the writhing blackness she conjured. She is becoming immortal, Kalona realized, and with the realization, fear joined regret and despair and anger where they already simmered within the fallen Warrior of Nyx. “One would think it would be a death sentence,” Neferet spoke calmly as she drew more and more of the inky threads to her, “but Zoey has a terribly inconvenient habit of surviving. This time I am going to ensure she dies.” “Zoey’s soul also has a habit of reincarnating,” he said, purposefully baiting Neferet to try to throw off her focus. “Then I will destroy her over and over again!” Neferet’s concentration only increased with the anger his words evoked. The blackness she spun intensified, writhing with swollen power in the air around her. “Neferet.” He tried to reach her by using her name. “Do you truly understand what it is you are attempting to command?” Her gaze met his, and, for the first time, Kalona saw the scarlet stain that nested in the darkness of her eyes. “Of course I do. It’s what lesser beings call evil.” “I am not a lesser being, and I, too, have called it evil.” “Ah, not for centuries you haven’t.” Her laughter was vicious. “But it seems lately you’ve been living too much with shadows from your past instead of reveling in the lovely dark power of the present. I know who is to blame for that.” With a tremendous effort, Kalona pushed himself to a sitting position. “No. I don’t want you to move.” Neferet flicked one finger at him, and a thread of darkness snaked around his neck, tightened, and jerked him down, pinning him to the ground again. “What is it you want of me?” he rasped. “I want you to follow Zoey’s spirit to the Otherworld and be sure none of her friends”—she sneered the word—“manage to find a way to coax her to rejoin her body.” Shock jolted through the immortal. “I have been banished by Nyx from the Otherworld. I cannot follow Zoey there.” “Oh, but you are wrong, my love. You see, you always think too literally. Nyx ousted you—you fell—you cannot return. So you have believed for centuries that is that. Well, you literally cannot.” She sighed dramatically as he stared at her blankly. “Your gorgeous body was banished, that’s all. Did Nyx say anything about your immortal soul?” “She need not say it. If a soul is separated from a body for too long, the body will die.” “But your body isn’t mortal, which means it can be separated indefinitely from its soul without dying,” she said. Kalona struggled to keep the terror her words filled him with from his expression. “It is true that I cannot die, but that does not mean I will remain undamaged if my spirit leaves my body for too long.” I could age . . . go mad . . . become a never dying shell of myself . . . The possibilities swirled through his mind. Neferet shrugged. “Then you will have to be sure you finish your task soon, so that you may return to your lovely immortal body before it is irreparably damaged.” She smiled seductively at him. “I would very much dislike it if anything happened to your body, my love.” “Neferet, don’t do this. You are putting into motion things that will require payment, the consequences of which even you will not want to face.” “Do not threaten me! I released you from your imprisonment. I loved you. And then I watched you fawn over that simpering teenager. I want her gone from my life! Consequences? I embrace them! I am not the weak, ineffective High Priestess of a rule-following goddess any longer. Don’t you understand that? Had you not been so distracted by that child, you would know it without me telling you. I am an immortal, the same as you, Kalona!” Her voice was eerie, amplified with power. “We are perfectly matched. You used to believe that as well, and that is something you will believe again, when Zoey Redbird is no more.” Kalona stared at her, understanding that Neferet was utterly, truly mad, and wondering why that madness only served to feed her power and intensify her beauty. “So this is what I have decided to do,” she continued, speaking methodically. “I am going to keep your sexy, immortal body safely tucked away underground somewhere while your soul travels to the Otherworld and makes sure Zoey does not return here.” “Nyx will never allow it!” The words burst from him before he could stop them. “Nyx always allows free will. As her former High Priestess, I know without any doubt that she will allow you to choose to travel in spirit to the Otherworld,” Neferet said slyly. “Remember, Kalona, my true love, if you ensure Zoey’s death, you will be removing the last impediment to us reigning side by side. You and I will be powerful beyond imagining in this world of modern marvels. Think of it—we will subjugate humans and bring back the reign of vampyres with all the beauty and passion and limitless power that means. The earth will be ours. We will, indeed, give new life to the glorious past!” Kalona knew she was playing on his weaknesses. Silently, he cursed himself for allowing her to have learned too much about his deepest desires. He’d trusted her, so Neferet knew that because he wasn’t Erebus he could never truly rule beside Nyx in the Otherworld, and he was driven to re-create as much of what he’d lost here in this modern world. “You see, my love, when you consider it logically, it is only right that you follow Zoey and sever the link between her soul and her body. Doing so simply serves your ultimate desires.” Neferet spoke nonchalantly, as if the two of them were discussing the choice of material for her latest gown. “How am I even to find Zoey’s soul?” He tried to match her matter-of-fact tone. “The Otherworld is a realm so vast, only the gods and goddesses can traverse it.” Neferet’s bland expression tightened, making her cruel beauty terrible to behold. “Do not pretend you don’t have a connection to her soul!” The Tsi Sgili immortal drew a deep breath. In a more reasonable tone, she continued, “Admit it, my love; you could find Zoey even if no one else could. What is your choice, Kalona? To rule on earth at my side, or to remain a slave to the past?” “I choose to rule. I will always choose to rule,” he said without hesitation. As soon as he spoke, Neferet’s eyes changed. The green within them became totally engulfed in scarlet. She turned the glowing orbs on him—holding, entrapping, entrancing. “Then hear me, Kalona, Fallen Warrior of Nyx, by my oath I shall keep your body safe. When Zoey Redbird, fledging High Priestess of Nyx, is no more, I swear to you I will remove these dark chains and allow your spirit to return. Then I will take you to the rooftop of our castle on Capri and let the sky breathe life and strength into you so that you will rule this realm as my consort, my protector, my Erebus.” As Kalona watched, helpless to stop her, Neferet drew one long, pointed fingernail across the palm of her right hand. Cupping the blood that pooled there, she held her hand up, offering. “By blood I claim this power; by blood I bind this oath.” All around her, Darkness stirred and descended on her palm, writhing, shivering, drinking. Kalona could feel the draw of that Darkness. It spoke to his soul with seductive, powerful whispers. “Yes!” The word was a moan torn deep from his throat as Kalona yielded himself to the greedy Darkness. When Neferet continued, her voice was magnified, swollen with power. “It is your own choice that I have sealed this oath by blood with Darkness, but should you fail me and break it—” “I will not fail.” Her smile was unworldly in its beauty; her eyes roiled with blood. “If you, Kalona, Fallen Warrior of Nyx, break this oath and fail in my sworn quest to destroy Zoey Redbird, fledgling High Priestess of Nyx, I shall hold dominion over your spirit for as long as you are an immortal.” The answering words came unbidden by him, evoked by the seductive Darkness, which for centuries he’d chosen over Light. “If I fail, you shall hold dominion over my spirit for as long as I am an immortal.” “Thus I have sworn.” Again Neferet slashed her palm, creating a bloody X in her flesh. The copper scent wafted to Kalona like smoke rising from fire as she again raised her hand to Darkness. “Thus it shall be!” Neferet’s face twisted in pain as Darkness drank from her again, but she didn’t flinch—didn’t move until the air around her pulsed, bloated with her blood and her oath. Only then did she lower her hand. Her tongue snaked out, licking the scarlet line and ending the bleeding. Neferet walked to him, bent, and gently placed her hands on either side of his face, much as he had held the human boy before delivering his deathblow. He could feel Darkness thrumming around and within her, a raging bull waiting eagerly for his mistress’s command. Her blood-reddened lips paused just short of touching his. “With the power that rushes through my blood, and by the strength of the lives I have taken, I command you, my delicious threads of Darkness, to pull this Oath Bound immortal’s soul from his body and speed him to the Otherworld. Go and do as I order, and I swear I will sacrifice to you the life of an innocent you have been unable to taint. So thee for me, I mote it be!” Neferet drew in a deep breath, and Kalona saw the dark threads she’d summoned slither between her full, red lips. She inhaled Darkness until she was swollen with it, and then she covered his mouth with hers and, with that blackened, blood-tainted kiss, blew Darkness within him with such force that it ripped his already wounded soul from his body. As his soul shrieked in soundless agony, Kalona was forced up, up, and into the realm from which his Goddess had banished him, leaving his body lifeless, chained, Oath Bound by evil, and at the mercy of Neferet. CHAPTER TWO Rephaim The sonorous drum was like the heartbeat of an immortal: never-ending, engulfing, overwhelming. It echoed through Rephaim’s soul in time with the pounding of his blood. Then, to the beat of the drum, the ancient words took form. They wrapped around his body so that even as he slept, his pulse allied itself in harmony with the ageless melody. In his dream, the women’s voices sang: Ancient one sleeping, waiting to arise When earth’s power bleeds sacred red The mark strikes true; Queen Tsi Sgili will devise He shall be washed from his entombing bed The song was seductive, and like a labyrinth, it circled on and on. Through the hand of the dead he is free Terrible beauty, monstrous sight Ruled again they shall be Women shall kneel to his dark might The music was a whispered enticement. A promise. A blessing. A curse. The memory of what it foretold made Rephaim’s sleeping body restless. He twitched and, like an abandoned child, murmured a one-word question: “Father?” The melody concluded with the rhyme Rephaim had memorized centuries ago: Kalona’s song sounds sweet As we slaughter with cold heat “. . . slaughter with cold heat.” Even sleeping, Rephaim responded to the words. He didn’t awaken, but his heartbeat increased—his hands curled into fists —his body tensed. On the cusp between awake and asleep, the drumbeat stuttered to a halt, and the soft voices of women were replaced by one that was deep and all too familiar. “Traitor . . . coward . . . betrayer . . . liar!” The male voice was a condemnation. With its litany of anger, it invaded Rephaim’s dream and jolted him fully into the waking world. “Father!” Rephaim surged upright, throwing off the old papers and scraps of cardboard he’d used to create a nest around him. “Father, are you here?” A shimmer of movement caught at the corner of his vision, and he jerked forward, jarring his broken wing as he peered from the depths of the dark, cedarpaneled closet. “Father?” His heart knew Kalona wasn’t there even before the vapor of light and motion took form to reveal the child. “What are you?” Rephaim focused his burning gaze on the girl. “Begone, apparition.” Instead of fading as she should have, the child narrowed her eyes to study him, appearing intrigued. “You’re not a bird, but you have wings. And you’re not a boy, but you have arms and legs. And your eyes are like a boy’s, too, only they’re red. So, what are you?” Rephaim felt a surge of anger. With a flash of movement that caused white-hot shards of pain to radiate through his body, he leaped from the closet, landing just a few feet before the ghost—predatory, dangerous, defensive. “I am a nightmare given life, spirit! Go away and leave me in peace before you learn that there are things far worse than death to fear.” At his abrupt movement, the child ghost had taken one small step backward, so that now her shoulder brushed against the low windowpane. But there she halted, still watching him with a curious, intelligent gaze. “You cried out for your father in your sleep. I heard you. You can’t fool me. I’m smart like that, and I remember things. Plus, you don’t scare me because you’re really just hurt and alone.” Then the ghost of the girl child crossed her arms petulantly over her thin chest, tossed back her long blond hair, and disappeared, leaving Rephaim just as she had named him, hurt and alone. His fisted hands loosened. His heartbeat quieted. Rephaim stumbled heavily back to his makeshift nest and rested his head against the closet wall behind him. “Pathetic,” he murmured aloud. “The favorite son of an ancient immortal reduced to hiding in refuse and talking to the ghost of a human child.” He tried to laugh but failed. The echo of the music from his dream, from his past, was still too loud in the air around him. As was the other voice—the one he could have sworn was that of his father. He couldn’t sit anymore. Ignoring the pain in his arm and the sick agony that was his wing, Rephaim stood. He hated the weakness that pervaded his body. How long had he been here, wounded, exhausted from the flight from the depot, and curled into this box in a wall? He couldn’t remember. Had one day passed? Two? Where was she? She’d said she would come to him in the night. And yet here he was, where Stevie Rae had sent him. It was night, and she hadn’t come. With a sound of self-loathing, he left the closet and his nest, stalking past the windowsill in front of which the girl child had materialized to a door that led to a rooftop balcony. Instinct had driven him up to the second floor of the abandoned mansion, just after dawn, when he’d arrived. At the end of even his great reservoir of strength, he’d thought only of safety and sleep. But now he was all too awake. He stared out at the empty museum grounds. The ice that had been falling for days from the sky had stopped, leaving the huge trees that surrounded the rolling hills on which sat the Gilcrease Museum and its abandoned mansion with bent and ruined branches. Rephaim’s night vision was good, but he could detect no movement at all outside. The homes that filled the area between the museum and downtown Tulsa were almost as dark as they had been in his postdawn journey. Small lights dotted the landscape—not the great, blazing electricity that Rephaim had come to expect from a modern city. They were only weak, flickering candles—nothing compared to the majesty of the power this world could evoke. There was, of course, no mystery to what had happened. The lines that carried power to the homes of modern humans had been snapped just as surely as had the ice-burdened boughs of the trees. Rephaim knew that was good for him. Except for the fallen branches and other debris left on the roadways, the streets appeared mostly passable. Had the great electric machine not been broken, people would have flooded these grounds as daily human life resumed. “The lack of power keeps humans away,” he muttered to himself. “But what is keeping her away?” With a sound of pure frustration, Rephaim wrenched open the dilapidated door, automatically seeking open sky as balm to his nerves. The air was cool, and thick with dampness. Low around the winter grass, fog hung in wavy sheets, as if the earth was trying to shroud herself from his eyes. His gaze lifted, and Rephaim drew a long, shuddering breath. He inhaled the sky. It seemed unnaturally bright in comparison to the darkened city. Stars beckoned him, as did the sharp crescent of a waning moon. Everything within Rephaim craved the sky. He wanted it under his wings, passing through his dark, feathered body, caressing him with the touch of the mother he’d never known. His uninjured wing extended itself, stretching more than a grown man’s body length beside him. His other wing quivered, and the night air Rephaim had breathed in burst from him in an agonized moan. Broken! The word seared through his mind. “No. That is not a certainty.” Rephaim spoke aloud. He shook his head, trying to clear away the unusual weariness that was making him feel increasingly helpless—increasingly damaged. “Concentrate!” Rephaim admonished himself. “It’s time I found Father.” He still wasn’t well, but Rephaim’s mind, though weary, was clearer than it had been since his fall. He should be able to detect some trace of his father. No matter how much distance or time separated them, they were tied by blood and spirit and especially by the gift of immortality that had been Rephaim’s birthright. Rephaim looked up into the sky, thinking of the currents of air on which he was so used to gliding. He drew a deep breath, lifted his uninjured arm, and stretched forth his hand, trying to touch those elusive currents and the vestiges of dark Otherworld magick that languished there. “Bring me some sense of him!” He made his plea urgently to the night. For a moment he believed he felt a flicker of response, far, far off to the east. And then weariness was all he could feel. “Why can I not sense you, Father?” Frustrated and unusually exhausted, he let his hand drop limply to his side. Unusual weariness . . . “By all the gods!” Rephaim suddenly realized what had drained his strength and left him a broken shell of himself. He knew what was keeping him from sensing the path his father had taken. “She did this.” His voice was hard. His eyes blazed crimson. Yes, he’d been terribly wounded; but as the son of an immortal, his body should have already begun its repair process. He’d slept—twice since the Warrior had shot him from the sky. His mind had cleared. Sleep should have continued to revive him. Even if, as he suspected, his wing was permanently damaged, the rest of his body should be noticeably better. His powers should have returned to him. But the Red One had drunk of his blood, Imprinted with him. And in doing so, she had disturbed the balance of immortal power within him. Anger rose to meet the frustration already there. She’d used him and then abandoned him. Just like Father had. “No!” he corrected himself immediately. His father had been driven away by the fledgling High Priestess. He would return when he was able, and then Rephaim would be at his father’s side once more. It was the Red One who had used him, then cast him aside. Why did the very thought of it cause such a curious ache within him? Ignoring the feeling, he raised his face to the familiar sky. He hadn’t wanted this Imprint. He’d only saved her because he owed her a life, and he knew all too well that one of the true dangers of this world, as well as the next, was the power of an unpaid life debt. Well, she had saved him—found him, hidden him, and then released him, but on the depot rooftop, he had returned the debt by helping her escape from certain death. His life debt to her was now paid. Rephaim was the son of an immortal, not a weak human man. He had little doubt he could break this Imprint—this ridiculous byproduct of saving her life. He would use what was left of his strength to wish it away, and then he would truly begin to heal. He breathed in the night again. Ignoring the weakness in his body, Rephaim focused the strength of his will. “I call upon the power of the spirit of ancient immortals, which is mine by birthright to command, to break—” The wave of despair crashed over him, and Rephaim staggered against the balcony’s railing. The sadness radiated throughout his body with such force that it drove him to his knees. There he remained, gasping with pain and shock. What is happening to me? Next, an odd, alien fear filled him, and Rephaim began to understand. “These are not my feelings,” he told himself, trying to find his own center within the maelstrom of distress. “These are her feelings.” Rephaim gasped as hopelessness followed fear. Steeling himself against the continued onslaught, he struggled to stand, fighting the waves of Stevie Rae’s emotions. Resolutely, he forced himself to refocus through the onslaught and the weariness that tugged relentlessly at him—to touch the place of power that lay locked and dormant for most of humanity—the place to which his blood held the key. Rephaim began the invocation anew. This time with an altogether different intent. Later, he would tell himself that his response had been automatic—that he’d been acting under the influence of their Imprint; it had simply been more powerful than he had expected. It was the damnable Imprint that had caused him to believe that the surest, quickest way to end the horrible wash of emotions from the Red One was to draw her to him and thus remove her from whatever was causing her pain. It couldn’t be that he cared that she was in pain. It could never be that. “I call upon the power of the spirit of ancient immortals, which is mine by birthright to command.” Rephaim spoke quickly. Ignoring the pain in his battered body, he pulled energy to him from the deepest shadows of the night, and then channeled that power through him, charging it with immortality. The air around him glistened as it became stained with a dark scarlet radiance. “Through the immortal might of my father, Kalona, who seeded my blood and spirit with power, I send you to my—” There his words broke off. His? She wasn’t his anything. She was . . . she was . . . “She is the Red One! Vampyre High Priestess to those who are lost,” he finally blurted. “She is attached to me through blood Imprint and through life debt. Go to her. Strengthen her. Draw her to me. By the immortal part of my being, I command it so!” The red mist scattered off instantly, flying to the south. Back the way he’d come. Back to find her. Rephaim turned his gaze to look after it. And then he waited. CHAPTER THREE Stevie Rae Stevie Rae woke up feeling like a big ol’ pile of poo. Well, actually, she felt like a big ol’ pile of stressed-out poo. She’d Imprinted with Rephaim. She’d almost burned up on that rooftop. For a second she remembered the excellent season two True Blood episode where Goderick had burned his own self up on a fictional roof. Stevie Rae snorted a laugh. “It looked way easier on TV.” “What did?” “Sweet weeping puppies, Dallas! You nearly scared me spitless.” Stevie Rae clutched at the white, hospital-like sheet that covered her. “What in the Sam Hill are you doin’ here?” Dallas frowned. “Jeez, settle down. I came up here a little after dusk to check on you, and Lenobia told me it’d be okay to sit here for a while in case you woke up. You’re awful jumpy.” “I almost died. I think I have the right to be a little jumpy.” Dallas looked instantly contrite. He scooted the little side chair closer and took her hand. “Sorry. You’re right. Sorry. I was real scared when Erik told everyone what had happened.” “What did Erik say?” His warm brown eyes hardened. “That you almost burned up on that roof.” “Yeah, it was really stupid. I tripped and fell and hit my head.” Stevie Rae had to look away from his gaze while she spoke. “When I woke up, I was almost toast.” “Yeah, bullshit.” “What?” “Save that load of crap for Erik and Lenobia and the rest of ’em. Those assholes tried to kill you, didn’t they?” “Dallas, I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about.” She tried to take her hand from his, but he held tight. “Hey.” His voice softened and he touched her face, pulling her gaze back to his. “It’s just me. You know you can tell me the truth, and I’ll keep my mouth shut.” Stevie Rae blew out a long breath. “I don’t want Lenobia or any of them to know, especially not any of the blue fledglings.” Dallas stared at her a long time before he spoke. “I won’t say anything to anyone, but you gotta know I think you’re makin’ a big mistake. You can’t keep protecting them.” “I’m not protectin’ ’em!” she protested. This time she held tight to Dallas’s safe, warm hand, trying through touch to get him to understand something she could never tell him. “I just want to deal with this—all of this—my own way. If everyone knows they tried to trap me up there, then it’ll all be out of my hands.” And what if Lenobia grabs Nicole and her group, and they tell her about Rephaim? The sickening thought was a guilty whisper through Stevie Rae’s mind. “What are you gonna do about them? You can’t just let them get away with this.” “I won’t. But they’re my responsibility, and I’m gonna take care of them myself.” Dallas grinned. “You’re gonna kick their butts, huh?” “Somethin’ like that,” Stevie Rae said, clueless about what she was going to do. Then she hastily changed the subject. “Hey, what time is it? I think I’m starving.” Dallas’s grin changed to laughter as he stood up. “Now that sounds like my girl!” He kissed her forehead and then turned to the mini-fridge that was tucked within the metallic shelving across the room. “Lenobia told me there’s baggies of blood in here. She said as fast as you’ve been healing and as deep as you’ve been sleeping, you’d probably wake up hungry.” While he went for the blood baggies, Stevie Rae sat up and gingerly peeked down the back of her generic hospital gown, wincing a little at how stiff the movement made her feel. She expected the worst. Seriously, her back had been like nasty burned hamburger when Lenobia and Erik had pulled her from the hole she’d made in the earth. Pulled her from Rephaim. Don’t think about him now. Just focus on— “Ohmygoodness,” Stevie Rae whispered in awe as she stared at what she could see of her back. It wasn’t hamburgered anymore. It was smooth. Bright pink, as if she’d gotten sunburned, but smooth and new-looking, like baby skin. “That’s amazing.” Dallas’s voice was hushed. “A real miracle.” Stevie Rae looked up at him. Their eyes met and held. “You scared me good, girl,” he said. “Don’t do that again, ’kay?” “I’ll try my best not to,” she said softly. Dallas leaned forward and carefully, with just the tips of his fingers, touched the fresh pink skin at the back of her shoulder. “Does it still hurt?” “Not really. I’m just kinda stiff.” “Amazing,” he repeated. “I mean, I know Lenobia said you’d been healing while you were sleepin’, but you were hurt real bad, and I just didn’t expect anything like—” “How long have I been asleep?” She cut him off, trying to imagine the consequences of Dallas’s telling her she’d been out for days and days. What would Rephaim think if she didn’t show up? Worse—what would he do? “It’s just been one day.” Relief flooded her. “One day? Really?” “Yeah, well, dusk was a couple hours ago, so you’ve technically been sleepin’ longer than one day. They brought you back here yesterday after sunrise. It was pretty dramatic. Erik drove the Hummer right across the grounds, knocked down a fence, and floored it straight into Lenobia’s barn. Then we all scrambled like crazy to carry you through the school up here to the infirmary.” “Yeah, I talked to Z in the Hummer on the way back here, and I was feelin’ almost okay, but then it was like someone turned out the lights on me. I think I passed out.” “I know ya did.” “Well, that’s a dang shame.” Stevie Rae let herself smile. “I woulda liked seeing all that drama.” “Yeah”—he grinned back at her—“that’s exactly what I thought once I got over thinkin’ you were gonna die.” “I’m not gonna die,” she said firmly. “Well, I’m glad to hear it.” Dallas bent, cupped her chin in his hand, and kissed her tenderly on the lips. With a strange, automatic reaction, Stevie Rae jerked away from him. “Uh, how about that blood baggie?” she said quickly. “Oh, yeah.” Dallas shrugged off her rejection, but his cheeks were unnaturally pink when he handed her the bag. “Sorry, I wasn’t thinkin’. I know you’re hurt, and ya don’t feel like, er, well, you know . . .” His voice trailed off, and he looked super uncomfortable. Stevie Rae knew she should say something. After all, she and Dallas did have a thing together. He was sweet and smart, and he proved he understood her by standing there, looking all sorry, and kinda lowering his head in an adorable way that made him look like a little boy. And he was cute—tall and lean, with just the right amount of muscles and thick hair the color of sand. She actually liked kissing him. Or she used to. Didn’t she still? An unfamiliar sense of unease kept her from finding the words that would make him feel better, so instead of speaking, Stevie Rae took the baggie from him, tore open the corner, and upended it, letting the blood drain down the back of her throat and expand like a mega shot of Red Bull from her stomach to energize the rest of her body. She didn’t want to, but somewhere deep inside her, Stevie Rae weighed the difference between how this normal, mortal, ordinary blood made her feel—and how Rephaim’s blood had been like a lightning strike of energy and heat. Her hand shook only a little when she wiped her mouth and finally looked up at Dallas. “That better?” he asked, looking unfazed by their strange exchange and like his familiar, sweet self again. “Could I have one more?” He smiled and held another baggie out to her. “Already ahead of you, girl.” “Thanks, Dallas.” She paused before slurping down the second one. “I don’t feel totally one hundred percent right now. Ya know?” Dallas nodded. “I know.” “We okay?” “Yep,” he said. “If you’re okay—we’re okay.” “Well, this’ll help.” Stevie Rae was upending the baggie when Lenobia came in the room. “Hey, Lenobia—check out Sleeping Beauty finally waking up,” Dallas said. Stevie Rae guzzled the last bloody drop and turned to the door, but the hello smile she’d already put on her face froze at her first glimpse of Lenobia. The Mistress of Horses had been crying. A lot. “Ohmygoodness, what is it?” Stevie Rae was so shaken by seeing the usually strong professor in tears that her first reaction was to pat the bed next to her, inviting Lenobia to sit with her, just like her mama used to do when she’d hurt herself and come crying to be fixed. Lenobia took several wooden steps into the room. She didn’t sit on Stevie Rae’s bed. She stood at the foot of it and drew a deep breath as if readying herself to do something really terrible. “Do you want me to go?” Dallas asked hesitantly. “No. Stay. She might need you.” Lenobia’s voice was rough and thick with tears. She met Stevie Rae’s eyes. “It’s Zoey. Something’s happened.” A jolt of fear zapped Stevie Rae in the gut, and the words burst from her before she could stop them. “She’s fine! I talked to her, remember? When we were leavin’ the depot, before all that daylight and pain and stuff caught up to me, and I passed out. That was just yesterday.” “Erce, my friend who serves as assistant to the High Council, has been trying to contact me for hours. I’d foolishly left my phone in the Hummer, so I didn’t speak to her until just now. Kalona killed Heath.” “Shit!” Dallas gasped. Stevie Rae ignored him and stared at Lenobia. Rephaim’s dad had killed Heath! The sick fear in her gut was getting worse and worse by the second. “Zoey’s not dead. I’d know it if she was dead.” “Zoey’s not dead, but she saw Kalona kill Heath. She tried to stop him and couldn’t. It shattered her, Stevie Rae.” Tears had started to leak down Lenobia’s porcelain cheeks. “Shattered her? What does that mean?” “It means her body still breathes, but her soul is gone. When a High Priestess’s soul is shattered, it is only a matter of time before her body fades from this world, too.” “Fades? I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about. Are you tryin’ to tell me she’s going to disappear?” “No,” Lenobia said raggedly. “She’s going to die.” Stevie Rae’s head started to shake back and forth, back and forth. “No. No. No! We just gotta get her here. She’ll be fine then.” “Even if her body returns here, Zoey isn’t coming back, Stevie Rae. You have to prepare yourself for that.” “I won’t!” Stevie Rae yelled. “I can’t! Dallas, get me my jeans and stuff. I gotta get outta here. I gotta figure out a way to help Z. She didn’t give up on me, and I’m not givin’ up on her.” “This isn’t about you.” Dragon Lankford spoke from the open doorway to the infirmary room. His strong face was drawn and haggard with the newness of the loss of his mate, but his voice was calm and sure. “It’s about the fact that Zoey faced a grief she could not bear. And I do understand something about grief. When it shatters a soul, the path to return to the body is broken, and without the infilling of spirit, our bodies die.” “No, please. This can’t be right. This can’t be happening,” Stevie Rae told him. “You are the first red vampyre High Priestess. You have to find the strength to accept this loss. Your people will need you,” Dragon said. “We don’t know where Kalona has fled, nor do we know Neferet’s role in all of this,” Lenobia said. “What we do know is that Zoey’s death would be an excellent time for them to strike against us,” Dragon added. Zoey’s death . . . The words echoed through Stevie Rae’s mind, leaving behind shock and fear and despair. “Your powers are vast. The swiftness of your recovery proves that,” Lenobia said. “And we will need every power we can harness to meet the darkness I feel certain is going to descend upon us.” “Control your grief,” Dragon said. “And take up Zoey’s mantle.” “No one can be Zoey!” Stevie Rae cried. “We’re not asking you to be her. We’re only asking you to help the rest of us fill the void she leaves,” Lenobia said. “I have—I have to think,” Stevie Rae said. “Would y’all leave me alone for a while? I want to get dressed and think.” “Of course,” Lenobia said. “We will be in the Council Chamber. Meet us there when you are ready.” She and Dragon left the room silently, grief-stricken but resolute. “Hey, are you okay?” Dallas moved to her, reaching out to take her hand. She only let him touch her for a moment before she squeezed his hand and withdrew. “I need my clothes.” “I found ’em there in that closet.” Dallas jerked his head toward the cabinets on the opposite side of the room. “Good, thanks,” Stevie Rae said quickly. “You gotta leave so I can get dressed.” “You didn’t answer my question,” he said, watching her closely. “No. I’m not okay, and I’m not gonna be as long as they keep sayin’ Z’s gonna die.” “But, Stevie Rae, even I’ve heard about what happens when a soul leaves a body—the person dies,” he said, obviously trying to say the harsh words gently. “Not this time,” Stevie Rae said. “Now go on outta here so I can get dressed. Dallas sighed. “I’ll be waiting outside.” “Fine. I won’t take too long.” “Take your time, girl,” Dallas said softly. “I don’t mind waiting.” But as soon as the door shut, Stevie Rae didn’t jump up and throw on her clothes like she’d meant to. Instead her memory was too busy flipping through her Fledgling Handbook 101 and stopping at a super-sad story about an ancient soul-shattered High Priestess. Stevie Rae couldn’t remember what had caused the priestess’s soul to shatter—she didn’t remember much about the story, actually—except that the High Priestess had died. No matter what anyone had tried to do to save her—the High Priestess had died. “The High Priestess died,” Stevie Rae whispered. And Zoey wasn’t even a real, grown High Priestess. She was technically still a fledgling. How could she be expected to find her way back from something that had killed a grown High Priestess? The truth was, she couldn’t. It wasn’t fair! They’d all been through so much hard stuff, and now Zoey was just gonna die? Stevie Rae didn’t want to believe it. She wanted to fight and scream and find a way to fix her BFF, but how could she? Z was in Italy and she was in Tulsa. And, hell! Stevie Rae couldn’t figure out how to fix a bunch of pain-in-the-ass red fledglings. Who was she to think she could do anything about something as terrible as Z’s soul shattering from her body? She couldn’t even tell the truth about being Imprinted with the son of the creature who had caused this awful thing to happen. Sadness swept over Stevie Rae. She crumpled in on herself, hugged the pillow to her chest, and, twirling a blond curl around and around her finger like she used to do when she was little, began to weep. The sobs wracked her, and she buried her face in the pillow so Dallas wouldn’t hear her crying, losing herself to shock and fear and complete, overwhelming despair. Just as she was giving in to the worst of it, the air around her stirred. Almost as if someone had cracked the window in the small room. At first she ignored it, too lost in her tears to care about a stupid cold breeze. But it was insistent. It touched the fresh, pink skin of her exposed back in a cool caress that was surprisingly pleasant. For a moment she relaxed, allowing herself to absorb comfort from the touch. Touch? She’d told him to wait outside! Stevie Rae’s head shot up. Her lips were pulled back from her teeth in a snarl she meant to aim at Dallas. No one was in the room. She was alone. Absolutely alone. Stevie Rae dropped her face in her hands. Was shock making her go totally batshit crazy? She didn’t have time for crazy. She had to get up and get dressed. She had to put one foot in front of the other and go out there and deal with the truth about what had happened to Zoey, and her red fledglings, and Kalona, and, eventually, Rephaim. Rephaim . . . His name echoed in the air, another cold caress against her skin, wrapping around her. Not just touching her back but skimming down the length of her arms and swirling around her waist and over her legs. And everywhere the coolness touched, it was like a little bit of her grief had been washed away. This time when she looked up she was more controlled in her reaction. She wiped her eyes clear and stared down at her body. The mist that surrounded her was made of tiny sparkling drops that were the exact color she’d come to recognize in his eyes. “Rephaim.” Against her will, she whispered his name. He calls you . . . “What the hell is going on?” Stevie Rae muttered, anger stirring through despair. Go to him . . . “Go to him?” she said, feeling increasingly pissed off. “His dad caused this.” Go to him . . . Letting the tide of cool caress and red anger make her decision, Stevie Rae yanked on her clothes. She would go to Rephaim, but only because he might know something that she could use to help Zoey. He was the son of a dangerous and powerful immortal. Obviously, he had abilities she didn’t know about. The red stuff that was floating around her was definitely from him, and it must be made of some kind of spirit. “Fine,” she said aloud to the mist. “I’ll go to him.” The instant she spoke the words aloud, the red haze evaporated, leaving only a lingering coolness on her skin and a strange, otherworldly sense of calm. I’ll go to him, and if he can’t help me, then I think—Imprint or no Imprint—I’m going to have to kill him. CHAPTER FOUR Aphrodite “Seriously, Erce, I’m only going to say this one more time. I don’t care about your stupid rules. Zoey is in there.” Aphrodite paused and pointed one wellmanicured fingernail at the closed stone door. “And that means I’m going in there.” “Aphrodite, you are a human—one who isn’t even the consort of a vampyre. You cannot simply burst into the High Council Chamber with all of your youthful, mortal hysteria, especially during a time of crisis such as this.” The vampyre’s cool look took in Aphrodite’s messed-up hair, tear-stained face, and reddened eyes. “The Council will invite you to join them. Probably. Until then, you must wait.” “I am not hysterical.” Aphrodite spoke the words slowly, distinctly, and with forced calm, attempting to totally make up for the fact that the reason she’d been left outside the High Council Chamber when Stark, followed by Darius, Damien, the Twins, and even Jack, had carried Zoey’s lifeless body inside was entirely because she had been exactly what Erce had called her—a hysterical human. She hadn’t been able to keep up with the rest of them, especially since she’d been crying so hard the snot and tears had kept her from doing much breathing or seeing. By the time she’d pulled herself together, the door had been closed in her face, with Erce acting as fucking gatekeeper. But Erce was super wrong if she thought Aphrodite didn’t know how to handle a stick-up-her-ass bossy adult. She’d been raised by a woman who made Erce look like Mary Fucking Poppins. “So you think I’m just a human kid, do you?” Aphrodite got all into the vamp’s personal space, which made Erce take an automatic step back. “Think again. I’m a prophetess of Nyx. Remember her? Nyx—as in your Goddess who is the boss of you. I do not need to be some guy’s refrigerator to have the right to go before the High Council. Nyx herself gave me the right. Now move the hell out of my way!” “Though she could have phrased it more politely, the child makes a valid point, Erce. Let her pass. I’ll take responsibility for her presence if the Council disapproves.” Aphrodite felt the small hairs along her forearms lift as Neferet’s smooth voice came from behind her. “It is not customary,” Erce said, but her capitulation was already obvious. “Neither is it customary for the soul of a fledgling to be shattered,” said Neferet. “I must agree with you, Priestess.” Erce stepped aside and opened the thick stone door. “And you are now responsible for this human’s presence in the Chamber.” “Thank you, Erce. That is gracious of you. Oh, and I am having a few of the Council Warriors deliver something here. Be quite sure to allow them to pass, too, would you please?” Aphrodite didn’t so much as glance back as Erce murmured a predictable, “Of course, Priestess.” Instead, she strode into the ancient building. “Isn’t it odd that once again we are allies, child?” Neferet’s voice followed close behind her. “We’ll never be allies, and I’m not a child,” Aphrodite said without looking at her or slowing down. The entry foyer opened to a huge stone amphitheater that spread around her in circular row after row. Aphrodite’s eyes were drawn up immediately to the stained-glass window directly before her that depicted Nyx, framed by a brilliant pentagram, graceful arms upraised and cupping a crescent moon. “It’s really lovely, isn’t it?” Neferet’s voice was easy and conversational. “Vampyres have always been responsible for creating the greatest works of art in the world.” Aphrodite still refused to look at the ex–High Priestess. Instead, she shrugged. “Vamps have money. Money buys pretty things, whether they’re made by humans or nonhumans. And you don’t know for sure that vamps made that window. I mean, you’re old, but not that old.” As Aphrodite tried to ignore Neferet’s soft, condescending laughter, her gaze moved down to the center of the chamber. At first she didn’t really comprehend what she was seeing, and then when she got it, it was as if someone had punched her in the gut. There were seven carved marble thrones on the huge raised platform that made up the inner floor of the chamber. Vampyres were seated in the thrones, but they weren’t what caught Aphrodite’s gaze. What she couldn’t stop staring at was Zoey, lying on the dais in front of the thrones like a dead body stretched out on a funeral slab. And then there was Stark. He was on his knees beside Zoey. He was turned just enough so that Aphrodite could see his face. He didn’t make one sound, but tears were falling freely down his cheeks and pooling on his shirt. Darius was standing next to him, and he was saying something she couldn’t quite hear to the brunette sitting in the first throne whose thick hair was streaked with gray. Damien, Jack, and the Twins were huddled together, typically sheeplike, in a nearby row of stone benches. They were bawling, too, but their loud, messy tears were as different from Stark’s silent misery as was the ocean from a babbling brook. Aphrodite automatically started forward, but Neferet grabbed her wrist. And that finally made her turn to look at her old mentor. “You really should let go of me,” Aphrodite said softly. Neferet raised one brow. “Have you finally learned to stand up to a mother figure?” Aphrodite let the anger burn quietly within her. “You are no one’s mother figure. I learned to stand up to bitches a long time ago.” Neferet frowned and let loose her wrist. “I’ve never liked your coarse language.” “I’m not coarse; I’m real. Two different things. And you think I fucking care what you like or dislike?” Neferet took a breath to respond, but Aphrodite cut her off. “Just what the hell are you doing here?” Neferet blinked in surprise. “I am here because there is a wounded fledgling here.” “Oh, that’s such shit! You’re only here because somehow it’s gonna get you something you want. That’s how you work, Neferet, whether they know it or not.” Aphrodite jerked her chin at the High Council members. “Be careful, Aphrodite. You may need me in the very near future.” Aphrodite held Neferet’s gaze and felt a sense of shock as she realized the eyes that met hers had changed. They were no longer brilliant emerald green. They had darkened. Was that red that glowed from deep in the middle of them? As quickly as the thought came to Aphrodite, Neferet blinked. Her eyes cleared and were once again the color of expensive gemstones. Aphrodite drew a shaky breath, and the small hairs on her arms lifted again, but her voice was flat and sarcastic when she said, “That’s okay. I’ll take my chances without your ‘help.’ ” She air quoted around the last word. “Neferet, the Council recognizes you!” Neferet turned to face the Council, but before she descended the stairs to them, she paused and made a graceful gesture, which included Aphrodite. “I ask that the Council allow the presence of this human. She is Aphrodite, the child who makes claims of being Nyx’s Prophetess.” Aphrodite stepped around Neferet and looked squarely from one Council member to another. “I don’t claim to be a prophetess. I am Nyx’s Prophetess because the Goddess wants me to be. The truth is, if I had a choice about it, I wouldn’t want the job.” She kept speaking even though several of the Council members had gasped in shock. “Oh, and just FYI: I’m not telling you anything Nyx doesn’t already know.” “The Goddess believes in Aphrodite even though she is not quite as sure about herself,” Darius said. Aphrodite smiled at him. He was more than her big, hot, mountainlike Warrior. She could count on Darius; he always saw the best in her. “Darius, why do you speak for this human?” asked the brunette. “Duantia, I speak for this Prophetess,” he enunciated her title carefully, “because I have pledged myself to her as her Warrior.” “Her Warrior?” Neferet couldn’t keep the shock from her voice. “But that means . . .” “That means that I can’t be completely human because it’s impossible for a vampyre Warrior to swear an Oath Bond with a human,” Aphrodite finished for her. “You may enter the Chamber, Aphrodite, Prophetess of Nyx. The Council recognizes you,” proclaimed Duantia. Aphrodite hurried down the stairway, leaving Neferet to follow behind her. She wanted to go straight to Zoey, but instinct made her stop in front of the brunette named Duantia first. She formally fisted her hand, pressed it over her heart, and bowed respectfully. “Thank you for letting me come in here.” “These extraordinary times call for us to accept unusual practices.” This came from a tall, thin vampyre who had eyes the color of night. Aphrodite wasn’t sure what to say to the vamp, so she just nodded and moved to Zoey. She slid her hand in Darius’s and squeezed hard, trying to borrow some of her Warrior’s amazing strength. Then she looked down at her friend. She hadn’t imagined it. Zoey’s tattoos really were gone! The only Mark left on her was an ordinary-looking crescent-moon outline in sapphire in the middle of her forehead. And she was so damn pale! Zoey looks dead. Aphrodite stopped the thought immediately. Zoey wasn’t dead. She was still breathing. Her heart was still beating. Zoey. Was. Not. Dead. “Does the Goddess reveal anything to you when you look at her, Prophetess?” asked the tall, thin woman who had spoken to her before. Aphrodite dropped Darius’s hand and slowly knelt next to Zoey. She glanced at Stark then, as he was kneeling directly across Z from her, but he didn’t move. He hardly blinked. All he did was weep silently and stare at Zoey. Is this what Darius would be like if something happened to me? Aphrodite shook away the morbid thought and re-focused on Zoey. Slowly, she reached out and rested her hand on her friend’s shoulder. Her skin was cool to the touch, as if she were already dead. Aphrodite waited for something to happen. But she got not even the slightest twinge of a vision or a feeling or anything. With a sigh of frustration, Aphrodite shook her head. “No. I can’t tell anything. I can’t control my visions. They just hit me, whether I want them to or not, and the truth is, it’s usually a case of not.” “You aren’t using all of the gifts Nyx has given you, Prophetess.” Surprised, Aphrodite looked up from Zoey to see the dark-eyed vampyre had risen, and was gracefully approaching her. “You are a true Prophetess of Nyx, are you not?” she asked. “Yeah, I am,” Aphrodite said with no hesitation, but with equal parts confusion and conviction. In a flutter of silk robes the color of the night sky, the woman knelt beside Aphrodite. “I am Thanatos. Do you know what my name means?” Aphrodite shook her head, wishing Damien was sitting closer so she could peek at him for the answer. “It means death. I am not Leader of the Council. Duantia has that honor, but I have the unique privilege of being unusually close to our Goddess, as the gift she gave me long ago was the ability to aid souls as they pass from this world to the next.” “You can talk to ghosts?” Thanatos’s smile transformed her stern face and made her almost pretty. “In a fashion, yes, I can. And because of that gift, I know something of visions.” “Seriously? Visions aren’t anything like talking to ghosts.” “Are they not? From what realm do your visions come? No, perhaps more accurately, in what realm do you exist when you receive your visions?” Aphrodite thought about how she’d had too many damn death visions and how she’d started actually seeing the shit that was happening from the dead people’s points of view. She drew in a fast breath, and in a rush of understanding admitted, “I’m getting visions from the Otherworld!” Thanatos nodded. “You traffic with the Otherworld and the realm of spirits much more than I, Prophetess. All I do is guide the dead as they transition, and through them I glimpse Beyond.” Aphrodite looked hastily down at Zoey. “She is not dead.” “Not yet, no. But her body will not last more than seven days in this soulless state, so she is close to death. Close enough that the Other-world has a strong hold on her, stronger even than it has on the newly dead. Touch her again, Prophetess. This time focus and use more of the gifts you’ve been given.” “But I—” Annoyingly enough, Thanatos cut her off. “Prophetess, do what Nyx would want you to do.” “I don’t know what that is!” Thanatos’s stern expression relaxed, and she smiled again. “Oh, child, simply ask for her help.” Aphrodite blinked. “Just like that?” “Yes, Prophetess, exactly like that.” Slowly, Aphrodite placed her hand back on Zoey’s cold shoulder. This time she closed her eyes and drew three long, deep breaths, just like she’d watched Zoey do before casting a circle. Then she sent a silent but fervent prayer up to Nyx: I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important, but you know that already because you know I don’t like to ask for favors. Not from anyone. Plus, I’m not really good at this supplication bullshit, but you already know that also. Aphrodite sighed internally. Nyx, I need your help. Thanatos seems to think I have some kind of link to the Otherworld. If that’s true, could you please let me know what’s happening to Zoey? She paused in her silent prayer, sighed, and bared herself to Nyx. Goddess, please. And not just because Zoey’s like the sister my mom was too selfish to have. I need your help with this because so many people depend on Zoey, and, sadly, that is more important than me. Aphrodite felt a warmth begin to build under her palm, and then it was like she’d slipped from her own body and slid into Zoey’s. She was only within her friend for a moment—no longer than one heartbeat—but what she felt and saw and knew shocked her so badly that, in the next instant, she found herself back in her own body. She cradled the hand she’d been pressing against Zoey to her chest, gasping with fear. Then, with a moan, she doubled up with vertigo, dry heaving while tears and spit spewed from her face. “What is it, Prophetess? What did you see?” Thanatos asked calmly as she wiped Aphrodite’s cheeks and steadied her with a strong hand around her waist. “She’s gone!” Aphrodite bit back the sob and began pulling herself together. “I felt what happened to her. Just for a second. Zoey threw the full power of spirit at Kalona. She tried to stop him with everything inside her, and it didn’t work. Heath died in front of her. That ripped her spirit to pieces.” Feeling weirdly light-headed, she looked hopelessly through her tears at Thanatos. “You know where she is, too, don’t you?” “I believe I do. You must confirm it, though.” “The pieces of her spirit are with the dead in the Otherworld,” Aphrodite said, blinking hard against the stinging of her red-tinged eyes. “Zoey is completely gone. What happened out there, she just couldn’t handle it—she still can’t.” “You saw nothing more? Nothing that might help Zoey?” Aphrodite swallowed back rising bile, and lifted her trembling hand. “No, but I’ll try again and—” Darius’s touch on her shoulder held her back from touching Zoey. “No. You’re still too weak from the breaking of your Imprint with Stevie Rae.” “That doesn’t matter. Zoey’s dying!” “It matters. Do you want your soul to become as Zoey’s?” Thanatos said quietly. Aphrodite felt a stab of new terror. “No,” she whispered, and covered Darius’s hand with her own. “And this is exactly why it is often unfortunate that the young are given great gifts by our loving Goddess. They rarely have the maturity to know how to use them wisely,” Neferet said. At the sound of Neferet’s cool, patronizing voice, Aphrodite saw a jolt go through Stark’s body, and his gaze finally lifted from Zoey. “This creature shouldn’t be allowed in here! She did this! She killed Heath and shattered Zoey!” Stark sounded like he had to grind the words around gravel to speak them. Neferet shot him a cool look. “I realize you are under duress, but you cannot be allowed to speak to a High Priestess in that fashion, Warrior.” Stark surged to his feet. Darius, lightning fast as always, held him back. Aphrodite heard him whisper urgently, “Think before you act, Stark!” “Warrior,” Duantia addressed Stark, “you were present when the human boy was killed, and Zoey’s soul shattered. You have borne witness to us that it was the winged immortal who did the deed. You said nothing of Neferet.” “Ask any of Zoey’s friends. Call Lenobia and Dragon Lankford at the Tulsa House of Night. All of them will tell you Neferet doesn’t have to be physically present to cause someone’s death,” Stark said. He shook off Darius’s restraining hand and swiped angrily at his face as if he just noticed he’d been crying. “Sh-she can make really horrendous things happen even when she’s not there,” Damien spoke up hesitantly from across the room. The Twins and Jack tearfully but forcefully nodded their support. “There is no proof that Neferet had a hand in this deed,” Duantia said gently to all of them. “Can’t you tell what happened to Heath? Couldn’t you talk to his ghost or whatever and find out?” Aphrodite asked Thanatos, who had returned to her throne when Neferet had begun to speak. “The human’s spirit did not tarry in this realm, and before it departed, it certainly didn’t seek me out,” Thanatos said. “Where’s Kalona!” Stark ignored everyone else and shouted at Neferet. “Where are you hiding your lover, who caused this?” “If you mean my immortal consort, Erebus, that is exactly why I have come to the Council.” Neferet turned her back to Stark and spoke only to the seven Council members. “I, too, felt Zoey’s soul shatter. I had been walking the labyrinth and mentally preparing myself to depart San Clemente Island for what might be a very long time.” Neferet had to pause because Stark snorted sarcastically, and said, “You and Kalona plan to take over the world from Capri. So, no, you probably won’t be returning here in the near future unless you mean to drop bombs on the place.” Darius touched his shoulder again in a silent warning to be careful, but Stark shook him off. “I do not deny that Erebus and I wish to bring back the ancient days, when vampyres ruled from Capri, and the world revered and respected us, as is our due,” Neferet began by addressing him. “But I would not destroy this island or this Council. In truth, I wish for its support.” “You mean its power, and now that Zoey’s out of the way, you have a better chance of getting that,” Stark said. “Really? Did I misunderstand what passed between your Zoey and my Erebus earlier today in this very Council Chamber? She admitted he was an immortal seeking a goddess to serve.” “She never named him as Erebus!” Stark shouted. “And my immortal Erebus kindly named her as fallible instead of a liar,” Neferet said. “So what did you do, Neferet? Force him to kill Heath and shatter Zoey’s soul because you were jealous of the bond between them?” Stark said, though it was obvious to Aphrodite that it was tough for him to admit there had been so much between Zoey and Kalona. “Of course not! Use your mind and not your pathetic broken heart, Warrior! Could Zoey have forced you to kill an innocent for her? Of course she couldn’t. You’re her Warrior, but you still have free will, and you’re still bound to Nyx, so you must ultimately do the Goddess’s will.” Without allowing Stark to speak, she turned back to the Council. “As I was explaining, I felt Zoey’s soul shatter and was returning to the palace when I came upon Erebus. He was badly wounded and barely conscious. There was only time for him to say these words: ‘I was protecting my Goddess,’ and then he was gone.” “Kalona’s dead?” Aphrodite couldn’t stop herself from blurting. Instead of answering her, Neferet turned to look up at the entrance to the Chamber. Standing there were four Council Warriors carrying between them a litter that sagged with the weight of its occupant. One black wing spilled over the side of the litter and dragged on the floor. “Bring him forward!” Neferet commanded. Slowly, they descended the steps until they laid the litter on the floor in front of the dais. Stark and Darius automatically moved together to stand between Zoey’s body and Kalona. “Of course he isn’t dead. He is Erebus, an immortal,” Neferet began in her familiar, haughty voice, but then she broke, and on a sob said, “He isn’t dead, but as you can all see, he’s gone!” Almost as if she couldn’t control herself, Aphrodite stood and approached Kalona. Darius was beside her in an instant. “No. Do not touch him,” he warned. “Whether we call him Erebus or not, it is obvious that this being is an ancient immortal. Because of the power in his blood, the Prophetess will not be able to enter his body, even if his spirit is not present. He doesn’t hold the same danger for her Zoey does, Warrior,” Thanatos said. “I’m okay. Let me try and see what I can find out,” Aphrodite told Darius. “I’m right here with you. I’m not going to let go of you,” he said, taking her hand and walking with her to Kalona. Aphrodite could feel the tension radiating through her Warrior’s body, but she drew three more long, deep breaths and concentrated on Kalona. Hesitating for only an instant, Aphrodite reached out and placed her hand on his shoulder, just as she’d done for Zoey. His skin was so cold to the touch that she had to force herself not to pull away. Instead, Aphrodite closed her eyes. Nyx? One more time, please. Just let me know something . . . anything to help all of us. Then Aphrodite’s silent prayer finished with the thought that solidified her bond with the Goddess and finally made her truly a Prophetess in her own right. Please use me as a tool to help fight the darkness and to follow your path. Her palm warmed, but Aphrodite didn’t need to sink into him to tell Kalona was gone. Darkness told her—and with a jolt she realized she should think of it as a capital D. This was a thing in its own right—an entity vast and powerful and living. It was everywhere. It encompassed the immortal’s entire body. Aphrodite got a very clear image of an inky web, like that spun by a swollen, invisible spider. Its sticky black threads were woven all around his body—holding it— caressing it—binding it tightly, as if in a twisted version of safekeeping because it was obvious the immortal’s body was imprisoned—just as obvious as the fact that what was inside of his body was complete emptiness. Aphrodite gasped and took her hand quickly from his skin, rubbing it against her thigh as if the black web had tainted her, too. She fell against Darius as her knees gave way. “It’s just like the inside of Zoey,” she said, as her Warrior lifted her in his arms, purposefully not disclosing that Kalona’s body was basically being held hostage. “He’s not here anymore, either.” CHAPTER FIVE Zoey “Zo, you have to wake up. Please! Wake up and talk to me.” The guy’s voice was nice. I knew he was cute before I opened my eyes. Then I did open my eyes and smiled up at him ’cause I had definitely been right. He was, as my BFF Kayla would say, “a hottie covered with awesome sauce.” Okay, yum! Even though my head was kinda fuzzy, I felt warm and happy. My smile turned into a grin. “I’m awake. Who are you?” “Zoey, stop playing around. It’s not funny.” The kid frowned down at me, and I realized all of a sudden that I was lying across his lap in his arms. I sat up fast and scooted a little away from him. I mean, yeah, he was super cute and all, but being in some stranger’s lap was pretty much outside my comfort zone. “Uh, I’m not trying to be funny.” His cute face went all still and shocked. “Zo, are you telling me you really don’t know who I am?” “Okay, look. You know I don’t know who you are. Even though I know it sounds like you know me.” I paused, confused by all the “knows.” “Zoey, do you know who you are?” I blinked. “That’s a silly question. Of course I know who I am. I’m Zoey.” It’s a good thing the kid was cute because obviously he wasn’t the brightest Crayola in the pack. “Do you know where you are?” His voice was gentle, almost hesitant. I looked around. We were sitting on some really nice soft grass beside a dock that led out to a lake that looked like glass in the gorgeous morning sunlight. Sunlight? That was wrong. Something was wrong. I swallowed hard and met the guy’s gentle brown eyes. “Tell me your name.” “Heath. I’m Heath. You know me, Zo. You’ll always know me.” I did know him. Flashes of him blinked through my memory like fast-forwarded DVDs: Heath telling me my hacked-off hair looked cute in third grade—Heath saving me from that giant spider that fell on me in front of the entire sixth grade—Heath kissing me for the first time after the football game in eighth grade—Heath drinking too much and pissing me off—me Imprinting with Heath . . . and then Imprinting again, and finally me watching as Heath— “Oh, Goddess!” My memories coalesced and I remembered. I remembered. “Zo”—he pulled me back into his arms—“it’s okay. It’s going to be okay.” “How is it going to be okay?” I sobbed. “You’re dead!” “Zo, babe, it’s just what happens. I wasn’t really scared, and it didn’t even hurt too much.” He rocked me slowly and patted my back as he spoke to me in his calm, familiar voice. “But I remember! I remember!” I couldn’t stop myself from unattractively snot crying. “Kalona killed you. I saw it. Oh, Heath, I tried to stop him. I really, really did.” “Shhh, babe, shhh. I know you did. There was nothing you could have done. I called you to me, and you came. You did good, Zo. You did good. Now you have to go back and stand up to him and Neferet. Neferet killed those two vamps from your school, that drama teacher you had and that other guy.” “Loren Blake?” Shock was drying my tears, and I wiped my face. Heath, as usual, pulled a wad of Kleenex out of his jeans pocket. I stared at them for a second and then surprised both of us by cracking up. “You brought nasty used Kleenex to heaven? Seriously?” I giggled. He looked offended. “Zo. They so aren’t used. Well, at least not much.” I shook my head at him and gingerly took the wad, wiping my face. “Blow your nose, too. You have snot. You always have snot when you cry. That’s why I always have Kleenex.” “Oh, be quiet! I don’t cry that much,” I said, momentarily forgetting he was dead and all. “Yeah, but when you do, you snot a lot, so I need to be prepared.” I stared at him as reality smacked me again. “Then what happens when you’re not there to give me snot rags?” A sob escaped from my throat. “And—and not there to remind me what home is like, what love is like? What being human is like?” I was bawling again, big-time. “Oh, Zo. You’ll figure that all out on your own. You have lots of time. You’re a big-deal vamp High Priestess. Remember?” “I don’t want to be,” I told him with complete honesty. “I want to be Zoey and be here with you.” “That’s just part of you. Hey, maybe it’s part of you that needs to grow up.” He spoke gently in a voice that sounded suddenly too old and wise for my Heath. “No.” As I said the word, I saw a skittering, inky darkness slide past the edge of my vision. My stomach tightened, and I thought I caught the sharp shape of horns. “Zo, you can’t change the past.” “No,” I repeated, and looked away from Heath, peering into what had just moments before been a beautiful, bright meadow framing a perfect lake. This time I definitely saw shadows and figures where there had been nothing but sunlight and butterflies before. The darkness within the shadows scared me, but the figures that were also within them drew me like bright things draw babies. Eyes flashed within the intensifying gloom, and I caught a good look at one pair of them. I felt a jolt of recognition. They reminded me of someone . . . “I know someone out there.” Heath took my chin in his hand and forced me to look from the shadows to him. “Zo, I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to gawk around here. You just need to make up your mind to go home and then click your heels together, or do some kind of High Priestess extra-special-zapping-magick-stuff and get back to the real world where you belong.” “Without you?” “Without me. I’m dead,” he said softly, stroking the side of my cheek with fingers that felt all too alive. “I’m supposed to be here; actually, I kinda think this is just the first step of where I’m supposed to be. But you’re still alive, Zo. You don’t belong here.” I pulled my face from his hand and lurched away from him, standing up and shaking my head, making my hair fly around me like a crazy woman. “No! I won’t go back without you!” Another shadow caught my eye from what was now a dark, writhing mist that surrounded us, and I was sure I saw the sharp glint of pointed horns. Then the mist boiled again, and a shadow took on a more human form, peering at me from out of the darkness. “I know you,” I whispered to the eyes that were so much like mine, only they looked older and sadder—a lot sadder. Then another shape took her place. These eyes met mine, too, only they weren’t sad. They were taunting and blue, but that didn’t erase their familiarity. “You . . .” I whispered, trying to pull myself from Heath’s arms, which were holding me tightly against his body. “Don’t look. Just pull yourself together and go home, Zo.” But I couldn’t stop looking. Something inside compelled me. I saw another face framed by eyes I knew—and this time I knew them well enough that the knowledge lent me strength, and I pulled away from Heath, turning him so he could see where I pointed into the gloom. “Holy crap, Heath! Look at that. It’s me!” And it was. The “me” froze as we stared at each other. She was probably about nine years old, and she blinked up at me in terrified silence. “Zoey Look at me.” Heath wrenched me around, holding my shoulders in a grip that I knew would cause bruises later. “You have to get out of here.” “But that’s me as a kid.” “I think all of them are you—pieces of you. Something’s happened to your soul, Zoey, and you gotta get out of here so that it can get fixed.” Suddenly I felt dizzy and sagged in his arms. I don’t know how I knew, but I did. The words I spoke were as true and as final as his death. “I can’t leave, Heath. Not unless all those pieces of me are me again. And I don’t know how to make that happen—I just don’t know!” Heath pressed his forehead against mine. “Well, Zo, maybe you should try using that annoying mom voice you used on me when I drank too much and tell them to, I dunno, to stop all this bullpoopie and get back inside you where they belong.” He sounded so much like me that he almost made me smile. Almost. “But if I’m back together, I’ll have to leave here. I can feel it, Heath,” I whispered to him. “If you don’t put yourself back together, you won’t ever leave here because you’re gonna die, Zo. I can feel that.” I looked into his warm, familiar eyes. “Would that be so bad? I mean, this place seems a lot better than the mess that’s waiting for me back in the real world.” “No, Zoey.” Heath sounded pissed. “It’s not okay here. Not for you.” “Well, maybe that’s ’cause I’m not dead. Yet.” I swallowed and admitted, only to myself, that saying it out loud did sound kinda scary. “I think there’s more to it than that.” Heath wasn’t looking at me anymore. He was staring over my shoulder, and his eyes had gone all big and round. I turned around. The writhing figures that looked uncomfortably like bizarre, unfinished versions of me were hovering in and out of the black mist, milling and chattering and basically acting weirdly super nervous. Then there was a flash of light that turned into a huge set of dangerous, pointed horns, and with a terrible flapping noise, something descended on that end of the meadow, causing those spirits, those ghosts, those incomplete pieces of me to begin to scream and scream and scream while they scattered and disappeared before it. “What happens now?” I asked Heath, trying—unsuccessfully—to keep the terror from my voice as we started backing across the meadow. Heath took my hand and squeezed. “I don’t know, but I’ll be here with you through all of it. And right now,” he whispered in a voice filled with tension, “don’t look behind you, just come with me and run!” For one of the few times in my life, I didn’t argue with him. I didn’t question him. I did exactly what he said. I held on to Heath and ran. CHAPTER SIX Stevie Rae “Stevie Rae, this isn’t a good idea,” Dallas said as he hurried to keep up with her. “I’m not gonna be gone long, promise,” she said, stopping as she got to the parking lot and looked around for Zoey’s little blue car. “Ha! There it is, and she always leaves the keys in it, ’cause the doors don’t lock anyway.” Stevie Rae jogged up to the Bug, opened the creaky door, and gave a victory shout when she saw the keys dangling from the ignition. “Seriously, I wish you’d come to the Council Chamber with me and tell the vamps what you’re up to, even if you won’t tell me. Get their opinion about what’s goin’ on inside that head of yours, girl.” Stevie Rae turned to Dallas. “Well, that’s the problem. I’m not sure what I’m doin’. And, Dallas, I wouldn’t tell a bunch of vamps stuff I wouldn’t tell you first, you gotta know that.” Dallas rubbed a hand down his face. “I used to know that, but a lot’s happened fast, and you’re actin’ weird.” She put her hand on his shoulder. “I just have a feelin’ that there might be somethin’ I can do to help Zoey, but I’m not gonna figure that out sittin’ up there in that room with a bunch of uptight vamps. I need to be out here.” Stevie Rae spread her arms, taking in the earth around them. “I need to use my element to think. It seems there’s somethin’ that I’m missing, but the understanding of it is just outside my reach. I’m gonna use earth to help me make that reach.” “Can’t you do that from here? There’s lots of nice earth all over the school.” Stevie Rae made herself smile at him. She hated lying to Dallas, but then again, she wasn’t really lying. She was really going to see if she could figure out a way to help Z, and she couldn’t do that at the House of Night. “There’re too many distractions here.” “Okay, look, I know I can’t stop you from going, but I need you to promise me something, or I’m gonna make an ass outta myself by actually tryin’ to stop you.” Stevie Rae’s eyes widened, and this time she didn’t have to force her smile. “You’re gonna try to kick my butt, Dallas?” “Well, you and I both know it’d just be me tryin’, but not succeeding, which is where the ‘make an ass outta myself’ part comes in.” Still grinning at him, she said, “What do you want me to promise?” “That you won’t go back to the depot right now. They almost killed you, and you look all recovered and stuff, but they almost killed you. Yesterday. So I need you to promise you’re not going back down there to face them tonight.” “I promise,” she said earnestly. “I’m not goin’ down there. I told you—I want to try to figure out how to help Z, and fightin’ with those kids definitely won’t help her.” “Swear?” “Swear.” He let loose a relieved sigh. “Good. Now what am I supposed to tell those vamps about where you’ve gone?” “Just what I told you—that I gotta get surrounded by the earth and left alone. That I’m tryin’ to figure out something, and I can’t do it here.” “All right. I’ll tell ’em. They’re gonna be pissed.” “Yeah, well, I’ll be back soon,” she said, getting in Zoey’s car. “And don’t worry. I’ll be careful.” The engine had just turned over when Dallas rapped on the window. Suppressing an annoyed sigh, she cracked it. “Almost forgot to tell ya—I overheard some of the kids talking while I was waitin’ for you. It’s all over the Internet that Z isn’t the only shattered soul in Venice.” “What the heck does that mean, Dallas?” “Word is that Neferet dumped Kalona on the High Council—literally. His body is there, but his soul is gone.” “Thanks, Dallas. I gotta go!” Without waiting for him to reply, Stevie Rae shoved the Bug into gear and drove out of the parking lot and off the school grounds. Taking a quick right on Utica Street, she headed downtown and to the northeast, toward the rolling land on the outskirts of Tulsa that held the Gilcrease Museum. Kalona’s soul was missing, too. Stevie Rae didn’t for an instant believe that he’d been so wracked with grief that the immortal’s soul had ripped apart. “Not likely,” she muttered to herself as she navigated the dark, silent streets of Tulsa. “He’s after her.” As soon as Stevie Rae said the words aloud, she knew she was right. So what could she do about it? She didn’t have a clue. She didn’t know anything about immortals or shattered souls or the spirit world. Sure, she’d died, but she’d also un-died. And she didn’t remember her soul going anywhere. Trapped . . . It’d been black and cold and soundless, and I’d wanted to scream and scream and . . . Stevie Rae shuddered, clamping down on her thoughts. She didn’t remember much of that terrible, dead time—she didn’t want to. But she did know someone who understood a lot about immortals, especially Kalona, and the spirit world. According to Z’s grandma, Rephaim hadn’t been anything but a spirit until Neferet had set loose his gross daddy. “Rephaim will know somethin’. And what he knows, I’m gonna know,” she said resolutely, her fingers tightening on the steering wheel. If she had to, Stevie Rae would use the power of their Imprint, the power of her element, and every bit of power inside her body to get information from him. Ignoring the sick, terrible, guilty way it made her feel to think of fighting Rephaim, she gave the Bug more gas and turned down Gilcrease Road. Stevie Rae She didn’t have to wonder where she’d find him. Stevie Rae just knew. The front door to the old mansion had already been forced open, and she slipped inside the dark, cold house, following his invisible trail up and up. She didn’t need to see the balcony door ajar to know he was outside. She knew he was there. I’ll always know where he is, she thought gloomily. He didn’t turn to face her right away, and she was glad. Stevie Rae needed the time to try to get used to the sight of him again. “So, you came,” he said, still without facing her. That voice—that human voice. It struck her again, as it had the first night she’d heard it. “You called me,” she said, trying to keep her voice cool—trying to hold on to the anger she felt at what his horrible daddy had caused. He turned to face her, and their eyes met. He looks exhausted, was her first thought. His arm’s bleeding again. She is still in pain, was his first thought. And she is filled with anger. They stared at each other silently, neither willing to speak their thoughts aloud. “What has happened?” he finally asked. “How do you know something’s happened?” she snapped back at him. He hesitated before speaking, obviously choosing his words carefully. “I know from you.” “You’re not makin’ any sense, Rephaim.” The sound of her voice speaking his name seemed to echo in the air around them, and the night was suddenly tinted with the memory of the glistening red mist that had been sent by the son of an immortal to caress Stevie Rae’s skin and call her to him. “That is because it does not make sense to me,” he said, his voice deep and soft and hesitant. “I know nothing about how an Imprint works; you will have to teach me.” Stevie Rae felt her cheeks get warm. He’s telling the truth, she realized. Our Imprint lets him know things about me! And how could he understand it? I barely do. She cleared her throat. “So, are you sayin’ you know something’s happened because you can sense it from me?” “Feel, not sense,” he corrected her. “I felt your pain. Not like before, right after you drank from me. Then your body was in pain. Your pain tonight was emotional, not physical.” She couldn’t stop staring at him, her shock clear on her face. “Yes, it was. It still is.” “Tell me what has happened.” Instead of answering him, she asked, “Why did you call me here?” “You were feeling pain. I could feel it, too.” He paused, obviously disconcerted by what he was saying, and then continued, “I wanted to stop feeling it. So I sent you strength and called you to me.” “How did you do it? What was that red misty stuff?” “Answer my question, and I will answer yours.” “Fine. What has happened is your daddy killed Heath, the human guy who was Zoey’s consort. Zoey saw him do it and couldn’t stop him, and that shattered her soul.” Rephaim continued to stare at her until it felt to Stevie Rae as if he was looking through her body and directly into her soul. She couldn’t look away, though, and the longer their gazes met, the harder it was for her to hold on to her anger. His eyes were just so human. Only their color was off, and to Stevie Rae, the scarlet within them wasn’t as alien as it should be. Truthfully, it was frighteningly familiar; it had once tinted her own eyes. “Don’t you have anything to say about that?” she blurted, pulling her gaze from his so that she was staring out at the empty night. “There is more. What is it you aren’t telling me?” Gathering her anger back to her, Stevie Rae met his gaze again. “Word has it your daddy’s soul is shattered, too.” Rephaim blinked, shock clear in his blood-colored eyes. “I don’t believe that,” he said. “Neither do I, but Neferet’s dumped his spiritless body on the High Council, and apparently they’re buying the story. You know what I think?” She didn’t wait for him to respond, but went on, her voice rising with her frustration and anger and fear. “I think Kalona’s followed Zoey into the Otherworld because he’s totally obsessed with her.” Stevie Rae wiped at her cheeks, brushing off the tears she thought she’d finished shedding. “That is impossible.” Rephaim sounded almost as upset as she felt. “My father cannot return to the Otherworld. The realm has been eternally forbidden to him.” “Well, obviously he figured out a way to get around being forbidden.” “A way to get around having been eternally banished by the Goddess of Night herself? How could that be accomplished?” “Nyx kicked him out of the Otherworld?” Stevie Rae said. “It was my father’s choice. He was once Nyx’s Warrior. Their Oath Bond was broken when he fell.” “Ohmygoodness, Kalona used to be on Nyx’s side?” Without consciously knowing she was doing so, Stevie Rae moved closer to Rephaim. “Yes. He guarded her against Darkness.” Rephaim stared out at the night. “What happened? Why did he fall?” “Father never speaks of it. I know whatever it was filled him with an anger that burned for centuries.” “And that’s how you were created. From that anger.” His gaze found her again. “Yes.” “Does it fill you, too? That anger and darkness?” she couldn’t stop herself from asking. “Wouldn’t you know if it did? Just as I know your pain? Is that not how this Imprint between us works?” “Well, it’s complicated. See, you’ve been kinda forced into the role of my consort since I’m the vampyre here and all. And it’s easier for a consort to sense things about their vampyre than the other way around. What I get from you is—” “My power,” he broke in. She didn’t think he sounded mad, just tired and almost hopeless. “You get my immortal strength.” “Holy crap! That’s why I healed so dang fast.” “Yes, and why I don’t.” Stevie Rae blinked in surprise. “Well, shoot. You must feel awful—you look pretty bad.” He made a noise that was somewhere between a laugh and a snort. “And you look healthy and whole again.” “I am healthy, but I won’t be really whole until I figure out how to help Zoey. She’s my best friend, Rephaim. She can’t die.” “He is my father. He can’t die, either.” They stared at one another, both struggling to make sense of this thing between them that drew them together even as hurt and pain and anger swirled around them, defining and separating their worlds. “How about this: we get you something to eat. I fix that wing again, which won’t be fun for either of us, and then we try to figure out what’s going on with Zoey and your daddy. You should know some-thin’, though. I can’t feel your emotions like you can feel mine, but I can tell if you’re lyin’ to me. I am also pretty sure I could find you, no matter where you are. So if you lie to me and set up Zoey, I give you my word that I will come against you with all the power of my element and your blood.” “I will not lie to you,” he said. “Good. Let’s go inside the museum and find the kitchen.” Stevie Rae left the rooftop balcony, and the Raven Mocker followed her as if tethered to the High Priestess by an invisible but unbreakable chain. Stevie Rae “You could have anything in this world you desired with that power,” Rephaim said between bites of the huge sandwich she’d fixed him from the stuff that hadn’t already gone bad in the industrial refrigerators of the museum’s restaurant. “Nah, not really. I mean, sure, I can make one tired, overworked, and kinda dorky night security guard let us into the museum and then forget we ever existed; but I can’t, like, rule the world or anything crazy like that.” “It is an excellent power to wield.” “No, it’s a responsibility I didn’t ask for and really don’t want. See, I don’t want to be able to make humans do whatever the heck I want them to do. It’s just not right—not if I’m on Nyx’s side.” “Because your Goddess does not believe in giving her subjects the objects of their desire?” Stevie Rae stared at him for a while, twirling a curl around and around her finger before answering, thinking that he might be messin’ with her, but the red gaze that met hers was completely serious. So she took a deep breath, and explained, “Not because of that, but because Nyx believes in giving everyone free choice, and when I mess with a human’s mind and implant stuff that he has no control over, I’m takin’ away his free choice. That’s just not right.” “Do you really believe everyone in the world should have free choice?” “I do. That’s why I’m here today, talkin’ to you. Zoey gave that back to me. Then in a kinda pay-it-forward thing, I gave that same gift to you.” “You let me live hoping that I would choose my own path and not that of my father.” Stevie Rae was surprised that he had said it so freely; but she didn’t question what had prompted his honesty, she just went with it. “Yeah. I told you that when I closed the tunnel behind you and let you go instead of turning you in to my friends. You’re in charge of your life now. You’re not beholden to your daddy or anyone else.” She paused for a second and then said the rest in a big rush. “And you’ve already started down a different path by saving me on that rooftop.” “An unpaid life debt is a dangerous thing to carry. It was only logical that I repaid the debt that was between us.” “Yeah, I get that, but what about tonight?” “Tonight?” “You sent me your strength and called me to you. If you have that kind of power, why didn’t you just break our Imprint instead? That would have ended your pain, too.” He stopped eating, and his scarlet gaze locked with hers. “Don’t make me into something I’m not. I have spent centuries in darkness. I lived with evil as my bedfellow. I am tied to my father. He is filled with an anger that might very well burn up this world, and if he returns, I am destined to be at his side. See me as I am, Stevie Rae. I am a nightmare creature given life through anger and rape. I walk among the living, but I’m ever separate, ever different. Not immortal, not man, and not beast.” Stevie Rae let his words sink into her veins. She knew he was being completely, nakedly honest with her. But there was more to him than this machine of anger and evil he’d been created to be. She knew it because she’d been witness to it. “Well, Rephaim, how ’bout you just consider that you might be right.” She saw the understanding register in his blood-colored eyes. “Which means I might also be wrong?” She shrugged. “I’m just sayin’.” Without speaking, he shook his head and went back to eating. She smiled and continued to make herself a turkey sandwich. “So,” she said, slapping mustard on white bread. “What’s your theory about why your daddy’s soul’s turned up missing?” His gaze locked with hers, and the one word he uttered made her blood run cold. “Neferet.” CHAPTER SEVEN Stevie Rae “Dallas told me Neferet dumped Kalona’s spiritless body on the High Council.” “Who is Dallas?” Rephaim asked. “Just a guy I know. So it looks like Neferet turned in Kalona even though they’re supposed to be together and all.” “Neferet seduces my father and pretends to be his mate, but the only thing she really cares for is herself. Where he is filled with anger, she is filled with hatred. Hatred is a more dangerous ally.” “So you’re sure Neferet would betray Kalona to save herself?” Stevie Rae asked. “I am certain Neferet would betray anyone to save herself.” “What does she gain by turning in Kalona, especially if he’s all soulless and stuff?” “By giving him over to the High Council, she takes suspicion from herself,” he said. “Yeah, that makes sense. I know she wants Zoey dead. And she doesn’t care about Heath at all. Actually, Neferet would be cool with the fact that seeing Kalona about to kill Heath made Zoey throw the power of spirit at him and that not being able to stop Kalona caused her soul to shatter. Apparently, that’s just a half step away from death.” Rephaim’s eyes were suddenly sharp on hers. “Zoey attacked my father with the element spirit?” “Yeah, that’s what Lenobia and Dragon told me.” “Then he has been gravely wounded.” Rephaim looked away and didn’t say anything else. “Hey, you need to tell me what you know,” Stevie Rae said earnestly. When he didn’t speak, she sighed, and continued, “Okay, here’s my truth. I came here tonight ready to force you to talk to me about your daddy and the Otherworld and all that; but now that I’m here and actually talkin’ to you, I don’t want to force you.” Hesitantly, she touched his arm. His body jerked when her fingers met his skin, but he didn’t pull away. “Can’t we work together on this? Do you really want Zoey dead?” His eyes found hers again. “I have no reason to wish your friend’s death, but you do wish my father harm.” Stevie Rae blew out a breath of frustration. “How about this—how about I compromise in what I want. What if I told you I just want Kalona to leave all of us alone?” “I don’t know if that could ever be possible,” Rephaim said. “But it is possible for me to wish it. Right now, Zoey and Kalona are soulless. Now, I know your daddy’s an immortal, but it can’t be a good thing that his body’s just a shell.” “No, it is not a good thing.” “So let’s work together to see if we can get both of them back, and deal with what happens next when next actually happens.” “I can agree to that,” he said. “Good!” She squeezed his arm before taking her hand from him. “You said Kalona’s wounded. What did you mean?” “His body can’t be killed, but if his spirit is damaged, he is physically weakened. That is how A-ya was used to entrap him. His spirit was clouded with emotions for her. It confused and weakened him, and his body became vulnerable.” “And that’s how Neferet was able to dump him in front of the High Council,” Stevie Rae said. “Zoey hurt his spirit, so his body is vulnerable.” “There has to be more to it than that. Unless he’s held captive, as A-ya had him within the earth, Father would begin to recover almost instantly. As long as he’s free, he can heal his spirit.” “Well, obviously Neferet grabbed him before he was healed. She’s so dang evil, she probably zapped the crap outta him with that scary darkness she carries around with her and then—” “That’s it!” He stood in excitement, then grimaced from the pain in his wing. Rubbing his wounded arm, he sat back down, holding it close to him. “She continued the attack on his spirit. Neferet is Tsi Sgili. It is through using the dark forces in the spirit realm that she gains power.” “She killed Shekinah without even touching her,” Stevie Rae remembered. “Neferet touched the High Priestess but not with her hands. She manipulated the threads from deaths she is responsible for, sacrifices she’s made, and dark promises she means to keep. That power is what killed Shekinah, and that is the power she wielded against my father’s already weakened spirit.” “But what’s she doing with him?” “Holding his body captive and using his spirit for her own means.” “Which makes her look like one of the good guys to the High Council. I’ll just bet she’s bein’ all ‘Oh, poor Zoey’ and ‘I don’t know what Kalona was thinking’ to their faces.” “The Tsi Sgili is very powerful. Why would she put on that pretense to your Council?” “Neferet doesn’t want to let them know how evil she is ’cause she wants to rule the dang world. She might not be ready to take on the Vampyre High Council and the human world. Yet. So she can’t let the Council know she’s cool with Zoey being almost dead, even though she’s glad.” “Father doesn’t want Zoey dead. He simply wants to possess her.” Stevie Rae gave him a hard look. “Some of us think being possessed against our will is worse than death.” He snorted. “You mean like being Imprinted by accident?” Stevie Rae frowned at him. “No, that’s not what I mean at all.” He snorted again and kept rubbing his arm. Still frowning, she continued, “But what you’re sayin’ is that Kalona didn’t mean for what he did to Heath to cause Zoey’s soul to shatter?” “No, because that would most likely lead to her death.” “Most likely?” Stevie Rae pounced on the words. “Does that mean it’s not one hundred percent certain Z’s gonna die. ’Cause that’s what the vamps are sayin’.” “Vampyres aren’t thinking with the mind of an immortal. No death is ever as certain as mortals believe. Zoey will die if her spirit doesn’t return to her body, but it is not impossible for her spirit to become whole again. It would be difficult, yes, and she would need a guide and a protector in the Otherworld, but —” His words broke off, and Stevie Rae saw shock in his eyes. “What?” “Neferet is using my father to ensure Zoey’s spirit doesn’t return. She trapped his body while he was wounded and commanded his soul to do her bidding in the Otherworld.” “But you said Kalona was kicked out of there by Nyx. How could he go back?” Rephaim’s eyes widened. “His body was banished.” “And his body’s still in this realm! It’s his spirit that’s returned,” Stevie Rae finished for him. “Yes! Neferet has forced him to return. I know my father well. He would never skulk back to Nyx’s Otherworld. He has too much pride. He would only return if the Goddess herself asked it of him.” “How do you know that for sure? Maybe he’s going after Zoey because he finally gets it that she’ll never be with him, and, like a scary, psycho stalker, he’d rather see her dead than with someone else. That could’ve pissed him off bad enough that his pride could handle a little skulkin’.” Rephaim shook his head. “Father will never believe Zoey won’t eventually choose him. A-ya did, and part of the maiden still lives within Zoey’s soul.” He paused, and before Stevie Rae could ask her next question, added, “But I know how you can be certain. If Neferet is using him, she will have Father’s body bound by Darkness.” “Darkness? You mean like the opposite of light?” “In a way that is what it is. It’s hard to define because that type of pure evil is ever-changing, ever-evolving. The Darkness of which I speak is sentient. Find someone who can perceive beings from the spirit realm, and that person should be able to see the chains the Tsi Sgili formed to bind Father, if they are there at all.” “Can you sense the spirit world?” “I can,” he said, meeting her gaze without faltering. “Would you have me give myself up to your Vampyre High Council?” Stevie Rae chewed her bottom lip. Would she? It would be giving Rephaim’s life for Zoey’s, and maybe even her own because she’d have to go with him, and there was no way the mega-powerful vamps on the High Council wouldn’t be able to tell they were Imprinted. She would die for Zoey—of course she would. But it’d be nice if she didn’t have to. Plus, it’s not like Zoey would want her to die. Well, it also wasn’t like Zoey would want her to have saved and then Imprinted with a Raven Mocker. Heck, no one would want that. Goddess knows she didn’t even want it. Well, not most of the time anyway. “Stevie Rae?” She jolted out of her inner argument to see Rephaim studying her. “Would you have me give myself to your Vampyre High Council?” he repeated solemnly. “Only as our last option, and if you go, that means I go, too. And, heck, the High Council probably wouldn’t even believe anything you tell them. But you said all we need is someone who is good with the spirit realm, like good enough that they can sense the Darkness and spirit stuff, right?” “Yes.” “Well, there’s a whole gaggle of powerful vamps on the High Council. One of them has to be able to do that.” He cocked his head to the side. “It would be unusual for a vampyre to have the ability to sense the dark forces the Tsi Sgili is wielding. That is one reason Neferet has been able to keep up her charade for so long. Truly being able to identify hidden Darkness is a singular skill. Sensing such evil is difficult unless you are familiar with it.” “Yeah, well, the High Council vamps are supposed to be all that. One of them has to be able to do it.” She spoke with much more confidence than she felt. Everyone knew the High Council vamps were chosen because of their honor and integrity and basically their all-around goodness, which didn’t so much go with being familiar with Darkness. She cleared her throat. “Okay, well, I gotta go back to the House of Night and make a call to Venice,” she said firmly. Then her gaze went to his arm and the wing held limp in stained bandages behind it. “You’re hurting pretty bad, huh?” He gave a short nod. “Okay, well, are ya done eatin’?” He nodded again. She swallowed hard, remembering the shared pain of bandaging that broken wing before. “I need to go find the medical supplies. Sadly, they’ll probably be in that security office I sent the dorky guard to, which means I’m gonna have to zap his little pea brain again.” “You could sense his brain was small?” “Did ya see how high-waisted his pants were? No one under the age of eighty with a big brain wears grandpa pants pulled all the way to their underarms. Pea brain, I’m just sayin’.” Then, surprising both of them, Rephaim laughed. I like the sound of his laughter. And before her own brain could clue her mouth in to being quiet, she smiled, and said, “You should laugh more. It’s nice.” Rephaim didn’t say anything, but Stevie Rae couldn’t decipher the odd look he gave her. Feeling kinda uncomfortable, she hopped down from her kitchen stool, and said, “Well, I’m gonna go get the first-aid stuff, fix up your wing as best I can, get food and things together for you, and then go back and start making some super long-distance calls. Hang here. I’ll be right back.” “I’d prefer to come with you,” he said, standing carefully while he held his arm against his side. “It’d probably be easier on you if you just stayed here,” she said. “Yes, but I’d prefer to be with you,” he said quietly. Stevie Rae felt a weird little jolt deep inside her at his words, but she shrugged her shoulders nonchalantly, and said, “ ’Kay, suit yourself. But don’t whine if it hurts you to walk around.” “I do not whine!” The look he gave her was so filled with guy pride that it was her turn to laugh as they left the kitchen, side by side. Stevie Rae Driving home, Stevie Rae should have been thinking about Zoey and devising her next plan of attack. But that was easy. She’d call Aphrodite. No matter what tragedies were going on in the world, Aphrodite would have her pointy little nose in the middle of everything, especially since it had to do with Zoey. So Stevie Rae’s next step in her Save Z Plan was already figured out, leaving her mind wide open to think about Rephaim. Resetting that dang wing had been awful. She still felt the phantom ache of it all through her right shoulder and her back. Even after she’d found the jar of numbing lidocaine and spread that all down his wing and his messed-up arm, she could still feel the deep, sick pain of its brokenness. Rephaim hadn’t said one word during the entire ordeal. He’d turned his head away from her, and right before she touched his wing, he’d said, “Would you do that talking thing you do while you bandage it?” “Just exactly what talkin’ thing do you mean?” she’d asked. He’d glanced over his shoulder, and she could have sworn there was a smile in his eyes. “You talk. A lot. So go ahead and do it. It’ll give me something more annoying to think about than the pain.” She’d harrumphed at him, but he’d made her smile. And she did talk to him the entire time she’d cleaned, bandaged, and reset his badly broken wing. Actually, she’d babbled in big bursts of verbal diarrhea, saying nothing and everything as she rode the tide of pain with him. When she was finally done, he’d followed her, slowly, silently, back to the abandoned mansion, and she’d tried to make the closet more comfortable by stuffing in blankets she’d grabbed from the museum’s staff lounge. “You need to go. Don’t worry about this.” He’d taken the last blanket from her and then practically collapsed into the closet. “Look, I put the sack of food right here. It’s stuff that won’t go bad. And remember to drink lots of the water and juice. Hydrating’s good,” she’d said, feeling suddenly worried about leaving him looking so weak and tired. “I will. Go.” “Fine. Yeah. I’m going. I’ll try to get back here tomorrow, though.” He’d nodded wearily. “All right. ’Kay. I’m outta here.” She’d turned to go when he said, “You should talk to your mother.” She’d stopped like she’d run into a John Deere. “Why in the world would you say somethin’ ’bout my mama?” He’d blinked at her a couple times like she’d confused him, paused, and finally answered with: “You talked about her while you bandaged my wing. You don’t remember?” “No. Yes. I guess I wasn’t really paying attention to the stuff I was sayin’.” She’d automatically rubbed her own right arm. “I mostly just moved my mouth while I hurried to get the job done.” “I listened to you instead of the pain.” “Oh.” Stevie Rae hadn’t known what to say. “You said she believes you are dead. I just . . .” He trailed off, seeming as confused as if he were trying to decipher an unfamiliar language. “I just thought you should tell her you live. She would want to know, wouldn’t she?” “Yes.” They’d stared at each other until she’d finally made her mouth say, “Bye, and don’t forget to eat.” Then she’d practically run out of the museum. “Why in the heck did it freak me out so bad that he mentioned my mama?” Stevie Rae asked herself aloud. She knew the answer, and—no—she didn’t want to say it aloud. He cared about what she’d said to him; he cared that she missed her mama. As she parked at the House of Night and got out of Zoey’s car, she admitted to herself that it wasn’t really his caring that had freaked her out. It was how his concern made her feel. She’d been glad he cared, and Stevie Rae knew it was dangerous to be glad that a monster cared about her. “There you are! It’s about time you got back.” Dallas practically popped out of the bushes at her. “Dallas! I swear to the Goddess herself that I’m gonna knock the living crap right outta you if you don’t stop scaring me.” “Hit me later. Right now you need to get up to the Council Chamber ’cause Lenobia is not happy that you took off.” Stevie Rae sighed and followed Dallas upstairs to the room across from the library that the school used as their Council Chamber. She hurried in, and then hesitated at the doorway. The tension in the air was so thick it was almost visible. The table was big and round, so it should have brought people together. Not that day. That day the table seemed more like a middle-school cafeteria with its separate and very hateful cliques. On one curved side sat Lenobia, Dragon, Erik, and Kramisha. On the other side were Professors Penthasilea, Garmy, and Vento. They were in the middle of what looked like a serious glare war when Dallas cleared his throat, and Lenobia looked up at them. “Stevie Rae! Finally. I realize these are unusual times, and that we are all under incredible stress, but I would appreciate it if you would restrain your next urge to take off to a park or wherever you went if a school Council meeting has been called. You are acting in the position of a High Priestess; you should remember to behave as such.” Lenobia’s voice was so harsh that Stevie Rae automatically bristled. She opened her mouth to snap back at her and tell the Horse Mistress that she wasn’t the boss of her, and then leave the dang room and make her call to Venice. But she wasn’t just some fledgling kid anymore, and stomping away from a group of vamps who cared about Zoey—well, at least a few of them did—wasn’t going to help their situation. Begin as you would end, she could almost hear her mama’s voice in her mind. So instead of throwing a fit and taking off, Stevie Rae stepped into the room and sat in one of the chairs that was smack between the two groups. When she spoke, she didn’t let herself sound pissed. Actually, she tried her best to mimic the way her mama sounded when she used to get real disappointed with her. “Lenobia, my affinity is for earth. That means sometimes I’m gonna need to get away from everyone and just be by myself with the earth. It’s how I think, and right now we all need to think. So, I will be takin’ off sometimes, with or without anyone’s permission, and whether or not y’all have called a meeting. And I’m not acting in the position of a High Priestess. I am the first and only red vampyre High Priestess in the entire world. That’s a new thing, so I’m thinkin’ there’s gonna be some new job descriptions that go along with it and, ya know, I may just have to make it up as I figure this Red High Priestess stuff out.” She turned to the other side of the room, and added a quick, “Hi, Professor P, and Garmy and Vento. I haven’t seen y’all in a long time.” The three professors mumbled hellos, and she ignored the fact that they were staring at her red tattoos like she was a science project gone wrong at the 4-H fair. “So, Dallas said Neferet dumped Kalona’s body on the High Council, and it looks like his soul is shattered, too,” Stevie Rae said. “Yes, though some don’t want to believe it,” Prof P said, sending a dark look to Lenobia. “Kalona is not Erebus!” Lenobia practically exploded. “Just as we all know Neferet is not the earthly incarnation of Nyx! This whole subject is ridiculous.” “The Council reports that the Prophetess Aphrodite announced the winged immortal’s spirit had shattered, just as has Zoey’s,” said Proffy Garmy. “Hang on.” Stevie Rae held up her hand to stop the tirade that was obviously getting ready to come at Kramisha. “Did you say Aphrodite and Prophetess together?” “That is what the High Council has named her,” Erik said dryly. “Even though most of us wouldn’t call her that.” Stevie Rae lifted her brows at him. “Really? I would. Zoey would. And you have. Maybe not out loud, but you’ve followed her visions, more than once. I’ve been Imprinted with her, not that I liked it or anything, but I can tell you that she’s definitely touched by Nyx and knows stuff. Lots of stuff actually.” She looked at Proffy Garmy. “Aphrodite can sense things about Kalona’s spirit?” “So the High Council believes.” Stevie Rae breathed a long sigh of relief. “That’s the best news I’ve heard in days.” She glanced at the clock, and started counting ahead seven hours for Venice time. It was about 10:30 P.M. in Tulsa, which meant it was probably still before dawn over there. “I need a phone. I gotta call Aphrodite. Dang it! I left my cell in my room.” She started to get up. “Stevie Rae, what are you doing?” Dragon asked, as they all stared at her. She hesitated long enough to look back at the room and the tense, glaring vamps. “How about I tell you what I’m not doin’? I’m not gonna sit around and argue about who Kalona is or who Neferet is when Zoey needs help. I’m not gonna give up on Z, and I’m not gonna let y’all drag me into some weird teacher bicker war.” She met Kramisha’s startled gaze. “Do you believe I’m your High Priestess?” “Yep,” she said without hesitation. “Good. Then come with me. You’re wastin’ your time here. Dallas?” “Like always, I’m with you, girl,” he said. Stevie Rae looked from vampyre to vampyre. “Y’all need to get your shit together. Here’s a newsflash from the only High Priestess you have left at this dang school: Zoey isn’t dead. And believe me, I know dead. I’ve been there, done that, and got the frickin’ T-shirt.” Stevie Rae turned her back on the room and, with her fledglings, got the heck outta there. CHAPTER EIGHT Aphrodite Aphrodite didn’t let Darius carry her from the Council Chamber like he wanted to. She couldn’t leave Zoey alone in the middle of the shit pot Neferet was stirring with no one but a totally messed-up Warrior and a semi-hysterical nerd herd standing between her and some serious crazy. “Yes, I believe it is important to keep Erebus’s body under close watch while his spirit is absent. Perhaps this is only a temporary state he has fallen into as a response to Zoey’s attack on him,” Neferet was saying to the High Council. “Zoey’s attack on him? Did you really just say that?” Stark, puffy-eyed and hollow-cheeked, looked like he was on the verge of exploding. “Go to Stark and try to help him get a handle on his temper,” Aphrodite whispered to her Warrior. When he hesitated, she added, “I’m fine. I’m just going to sit here and listen and learn—kinda like I’m at one of my mom’s cocktail parties gone bad.” Darius nodded. He moved quickly to Stark’s side and put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. Aphrodite thought it was a good sign that Stark didn’t shrug him off, but then again, the arrow kid looked like total crap. She wondered about what happened to a Warrior if his Priestess died, and then shivered with a terrible premonition of what could come. “Zoey did attack Erebus. His spiritless body is undeniable proof of that,” Neferet said, smugness coloring her voice. “Zoey was attempting to stop the immortal from killing her consort,” Darius said before Stark could shout his retort. “Ah, and that is the issue, isn’t it?” Neferet smiled silkily at Darius, making Aphrodite want to claw out her eyes. “Why did my consort feel the need to cause harm to Zoey’s Heath? The only real knowledge we have about it is from Erebus himself before his spirit was wrenched from his body. His last words were ‘I was protecting my Goddess.’ So what transpired between Zoey and Heath and Erebus is much more complicated than it might appear to a young, distraught witness.” “This wasn’t some fight for Nyx! Kalona killed Heath! Probably because he was jealous of how much Zoey loved him,” Stark said, looking like he wanted nothing more than to wrap his hands around Neferet’s white throat and squeeze. “And how did you feel about Zoey’s love for Heath? A Warrior bond is an intimate one, is it not? You were there with them when the soul shattering happened. Where is your culpability, Warrior?” Neferet said. Darius held Stark back from launching himself at Neferet, and Duantia spoke quickly into the rising tension. “Neferet, I think we can all agree that there are many unanswered questions about the tragedy that occurred on our island today. Stark, we also understand the passion and rage you feel at the loss of your Priestess. It is a hard blow for a Warrior to—” Duantia’s wisdom was cut off by the sound of Aretha Franklin belting out the chorus from “Respect,” which was coming from the little Coach purse Aphrodite had slung over her shoulder. “Oopsie, um, sorry ’bout that.” Aphrodite frantically unzipped her purse and dug for her iPhone. “Thought I had the ringer turned off. I don’t know who would be . . .” Her voice trailed off when she saw the caller ID was Stevie Rae. She almost pressed the IGNORE button, but a feeling hit her—strong and clear. She needed to talk to Stevie Rae. “Uh, sorry again, but I really have to take this.” Aphrodite hurried up the stairs and out of the Chamber, feeling way too exposed as everyone glared after her like she’d just slapped a baby or drowned a damn puppy. “Stevie Rae,” she whispered hastily, “I know you probably just found out about Z, and you’re freaked, but this really isn’t a good time.” “Can you sense spirits and stuff from the Otherworld?” Stevie Rae asked without so much as a “Hey there, how ya doin’.” Something about the tone of her voice brought Aphrodite up short and kept her from replying with her usual sarcasm. “Yeah, I’m starting to be able to. Apparently, I’ve been tuned in to the Otherworld since I started having visions— I just didn’t realize it until today.” “Where’s Kalona’s body?” Aphrodite ducked around the corner of the foyer. No one was around her, but she still kept her voice low. “Down there in front of the High Council in their Chamber.” “Is Neferet there, too?” “Of course.” “Zoey?” “She’s there, too. Well, her body is. Z herself has totally checked out. Stark’s absolutely freaked by what’s happened, plus Neferet is pissing him off so bad he can hardly think. Darius is saving his ass by not letting him tear her apart with his bare hands. The nerd herd is hysterical.” “But you kept your sense.” Stevie Rae didn’t say it like a question, but Aphrodite answered her anyway. “Someone had to.” “Good. Okay, I think I have somethin’ figured out about Kalona. If I’m right, Neferet is up to her elbows in evil, so much so that she’s got his body trapped, and his spirit has to obey her to get it back.” “Like that would surprise any of us?” “I’ll bet it would surprise most of the High Council. Neferet has a way of gettin’ people on her side.” Aphrodite snorted. “As far as I can tell, most of them are clueless about her.” “That’s what I thought. So moving against her out in the open there is going to be even harder than moving against her when she was here.” “That about sums it up. So, what’s the deal with Kalona?” “You need to check out his body using your super Spidey Other-world senses.” “You’re such a dork. There is no such thing as Spider-Man. He is a made-up comic-book-bullshit character,” Aphrodite said. “They’re called graphic novels, not comic books—don’t be so dang judgmental. I do not have time to argue with you about the benefits of graphic novels on people’s imaginations,” Stevie Rae said. “Oh, please, if its ass is feathered and waterproof, it’s a duck. Hello, pictures with little word balloons makes it a comic book. They’re dorky comic books for nerdy antisocial, nonbathing people. End of discussion.” “Aphrodite! Focus! Just go back in the Chamber and check out Kalona’s body with your Otherworld-spirit-sensing stuff. Look for any kind of weirdness that no one else can see. Like, I dunno—” “A disgusting, sticky spiderweb of darkness wrapped all around him like freaky chains?” Aphrodite offered. “Don’t mess with me about this. It’s too important.” Stevie Rae’s voice had gone completely serious. “I’m not messing with you. I’m telling you what I’ve already seen. His body is completely covered by dark threads of yucky stuff that, apparently, no one else but moi can see.” “It’s Neferet!” Stevie Rae’s voice was tense with emotion. “She’s tapped into something called Darkness—that’s evil with a capital D. It’s how she’s using the power of the Tsi Sgili. She managed to trap Kalona with it right after Zoey wounded his soul—it’s the only time his body is weak enough to be vulnerable.” “How do you know that?” “It’s how the Cherokee imprisoned him last time.” Stevie Rae avoided the question by using the only part of the truth she could ever tell anyone. “A-ya messed up his spirit with emotions he wasn’t used to feeling, and the old women used his weakness to trap him.” “That does make sense. So now Neferet’s got him all tied up and soulless. Why? She’s his super nasty lover. Why wouldn’t she want him here with her? The two of them could have taken off together and not been caught for killing Heath.” “Yeah, except for two things: she would have looked guilty, so the High Council would have been forced to act against her, and she wouldn’t have been one hundred percent sure Zoey is going to die.” “What the hell? The Council says she has a week, but then Z will be dead.” “Not true. If her soul returns to her body, Z won’t die. Neferet knows that, so she—” “She trapped Kalona’s body and told him to follow Z to the Other-world and make sure she doesn’t get back to her body,” Aphrodite finished for her. “That fucking figures! But it doesn’t feel right. Kalona’s totally obsessed with Z. I don’t think he wants her to die.” “Yeah, but what if the only way to get his body back is to kill Zoey?” Aphrodite’s voice hardened. “Then he’ll kill her. Stevie Rae, what the hell are we going to do?” “We have to figure out a way to protect Z and help her get back to her body, and no, I don’t know how we’re gonna do that.” She hesitated and, crossing her fingers behind her back against the semi-lie, added, “Today the earth helped me find out some pretty weird stuff about Kalona. Seems he used to be Nyx’s Warrior. So, he used to be one of the good guys. Then something happened in the Otherworld, and the Goddess banished him, and that’s when he fell to earth.” “Which means he knows the Otherworld a hell of a lot better than any of us,” Aphrodite said glumly. “Yeah. Dang it! What we need is a Warrior for Zoey in the Other-world who can stand up against Kalona and get Z back to her body.” Aphrodite felt a little zap of understanding at Stevie Rae’s words. “But she already has a Warrior.” “Stark’s in this world. Not the Otherworld.” “But a Warrior and his Priestess are connected by a bond that is all about spirit and oaths and dedication. I know! I have it with Darius.” Aphrodite’s voice was getting more and more excited as she reasoned it through. “And you can’t tell me that my Warrior wouldn’t follow me straight into the mouth of hell to protect me. All we need to do is to get Stark’s soul to the Otherworld so he can protect Z there, just like he does here.” And it might save him, too, she added silently to herself. “I don’t know, Aphrodite. Stark has to be pretty messed-up after losing Zoey and all.” “That’s the point. He has to save himself by saving her.” “But that doesn’t work. I’ve been remembering somethin’ from The Fledgling Handbook 101. There was that whole big story in there about a High Priestess and her Warrior who died when her soul was shattered and he went after her into the Otherworld.” “Please, dork. It’s in the 101 handbook because it’s meant to scare the crap out of retarded third formers, like you, so that hot young fledglings stay away from sexy Sons of Erebus Warriors. The stupid thing was probably written by some dried-up old hag of a High Priestess who hadn’t had sex in, like, a hundred years. Literally. Stark needs to follow Zoey to the Otherworld, kick Kalona’s spirit’s ass, and then bring her back here.” “It has to be more complicated than that.” “Probably, but whatever. We’ll figure it out.” “How?” Aphrodite paused, thinking of Thanatos and her wise, dark eyes. “I might know someone who can at least point us in the right direction.” “Don’t let Neferet know you’re onto her,” Stevie Rae cautioned. “I’m not stupid, stupid,” Aphrodite said. “Leave this whole thing in my extremely capable and well-manicured hands. I’ll call you later with an update. Bye!” She hit the red END CALL button before Stevie Rae could nag her anymore. And, smiling slyly, headed back into the Council Chamber. CHAPTER NINE Stark The longer he stayed in the same room as Neferet, the hotter Stark’s anger burned. And that was good. He could think through anger. He couldn’t think through the grief. Goddess! The unbearable grief of losing his Priestess . . . his Zoey . . . “So we are in agreement then,” Neferet said. “I will take my consort’s body to Capri. There I can watch over him until the time when—” It finally registered with Stark what the bitch was saying, and he rounded on her, only stopped short from launching himself at the evil hag by Darius’s ironlike grip on his arm. “You can’t let her escape with him!” Stark yelled at Duantia, the Leader of the High Council. “Kalona killed Heath; I saw it. Zoey saw it. That’s what made this happen to her.” He gestured at Zoey’s soulless body without looking down at her. He couldn’t look at her. “Escape?” Neferet scoffed. “I’ve already agreed to be escorted by a group of Sons of Erebus Warriors, and to make regular reports to the Council regarding Erebus’s state of consciousness. After all, my consort isn’t a criminal. It isn’t against our laws for a Warrior to kill a human if he’s in the service of the Goddess.” Stark ignored Neferet and concentrated on Duantia. “Don’t let her go. Don’t let her take him. He did more than kill a human guy, and they aren’t in the service of Nyx.” “Lies propagated by a jealous teenager, who had so little control over herself that her eternal soul has been shattered!” Neferet snapped. “You fucking bitch!” Stark lunged for Neferet, who didn’t so much as flinch. Instead, she lifted one elegant hand and pointed it, palm outward, at Stark. As he struggled to free himself from Darius’s hold, Stark thought he saw black smoke begin materializing around Neferet’s fingers. “Stop it, Stark, you total moron!” Suddenly, Aphrodite was there right in front of him. Stark knew she was Zoey’s friend, but if Darius hadn’t had a vise-like hold on him, he wouldn’t have hesitated to knock her aside to get to Neferet. “Stark!” Aphrodite yelled at him. “You’re not helping Zoey!” Then the blonde did something that totally shocked him, and by Darius’s sharp intake of breath, she shocked her Warrior, too. She took his face between her smooth palms and forced him to stare into her eyes, whispering words that changed his life. “I know how to help Zoey.” “You see how uncontrollable he is! If my consort’s body remains here, who knows what this undisciplined child could do to it?” Neferet spewed her poison as Stark kept his eyes locked with Aphrodite’s. “Do you swear?” Stark whispered urgently back to her. “You’re not just talking crap?” Aphrodite lifted one blond brow. “If you knew me better, you’d know I never just talk crap, but yes. I swear on my new and annoyingly responsible title of Prophetess that I know how to help Zoey, but we need her away from Neferet. Get it?” Stark nodded once and quit straining against Darius. Aphrodite took her hands from his face. Looking and sounding every bit a Prophetess of Nyx, she whirled around to face Neferet and the High Council. “Why are you all so willing to believe Zoey is going to die?” Duantia was first to respond. “Her soul has left her body, and not just on a Spirit Journey to the Otherworld, or in temporary communion with the Goddess. Zoey has been shattered.” One of the Council members who had stayed mostly silent until then spoke up. “You must understand what that means, Prophetess. Zoey’s spirit is in the Otherworld in pieces. Past lives have been stripped from her, as have memories and different aspects of her personality. She is becoming one of the Caoinic Shi’, a thing not dead and not alive—a being trapped in the realm of spirits, yet without the comfort of her own spirit.” “No. Seriously. Speak American and not this ancient and very fucked-up, confusing olden-day Euro crap.” Aphrodite planted one hand on the curve of her waist, and the other pointed a finger at the Vampyre High Council in general. “Without the confusing woo-woo references, explain why the hell you’re writing Zoey off.” Stark heard a few of the Council members draw in breath at Aphrodite’s brash words and registered the smug, “I told you they were out of control” look Neferet shared with several of the vamps, but Thanatos responded smoothly. “What Aether is saying is that the layers of spirit that make Zoey who she is today—her past lives, her past experiences, her personality—have been stripped from her, and without those layers intact, it is impossible for her to rest in the Otherworld, or for her spirit to return to her body here in this world. Think of it as if you had been in a terrible accident and the layers of skin and muscle and bone that protect your heart have been peeled away from your body, leaving that vital organ bare and defenseless. What would happen to you then?” Aphrodite paused, and Stark thought she hesitated because she didn’t want to say the obvious answer, but she glanced at him, and when their eyes met, he was surprised to see triumph and excitement in hers. “If my heart didn’t have any protection, it wouldn’t keep beating. So why not get Zoey some protection?” Protection! I’m Zoey’s protection! A small quiver of hope moved through his body. “I’m her protection!” he said quickly. “I don’t care if it’s in this world or the next. Just show me how to get to where she is, and I’ll be there for her.” “That does, indeed, sound logical, Stark,” Thanatos said. “But your gifts are that of a Warrior, which means your skills are corporeal and not of the spirit realm.” “Protection is protection,” Stark insisted. “Just show me how to get where she is, and I’ll figure the rest of it out.” “Zoey must make her spirit whole again, and that is a battle you cannot fight for her,” Aether said. “But I can be there for her while she gets herself together. I can protect her,” Stark insisted. “A living Warrior cannot enter the Otherworld. Not even to follow his High Priestess,” Aether said. “Should you attempt it, you would be lost, too,” Duantia said. “You don’t know that for sure,” Stark said. “In our recorded history, there is no Warrior who has recovered from attempting to follow his Priestess’s shattered spirit into the Other-world. All of them perished—every Warrior and every High Priestess,” Thanatos said. Stark felt a jolt of surprise. He hadn’t even thought of that—that he’d die, too. With a detached sense of curiosity, he realized he didn’t really mind the idea of dying, not if he could fulfill his Oath to Zoey; but before he could respond, Neferet’s cold voice intruded again. “And all of those Warriors and High Priestesses were older and more experienced than you.” “Maybe that was their problem.” Aphrodite pitched her voice low enough that only Stark heard her murmur. “They were too old and had too much experience.” Hope shivered through Stark again. He turned to Duantia. “I was wrong before. Neferet should be able to take Kalona to wherever she wants to take him, but I want the same right to take Zoey with me.” He paused and made a gesture that included Aphrodite, Darius, and the other kids who were huddled together not far from them. “We want to take Zoey with us.” “Stark, I cannot agree to what would amount to a death sentence for you, too.” Duantia’s voice was compassionate but firm. “Within this next week, Zoey is going to die. The best place for her is here, in our infirmary, being kept comfortable during the time she has left. The best thing for you to do would be to prepare yourself for that outcome and not sacrifice yourself in a futile attempt to save her.” “You are very young,” Thanatos said. “You have a long and productive life before you. Don’t cut Fate’s thread for you.” “Zoey will remain here until the end.” Duantia nodded in agreement. “You may, of course, stay by her side.” “Um, excuse me. I don’t mean to be disrespectful or anything.” Everyone’s attention turned to Zoey’s group of friends, who had, until then, been mostly silent with grief and shock. Damien’s hand was raised like he was in a classroom waiting for the teacher to call on him. “Who are you, fledgling?” asked Duantia. “My name is Damien, and I’m one of Zoey’s friends.” “He also has an affinity for air,” Jack added, wiping a hand across his tearstreaked face. “Ah, I have been told of you,” Duantia said. “Do you wish to address the Council?” “He is a fledgling. He should be seen and not heard in Council meetings,” Neferet snapped. “I didn’t know you spoke for the Vampyre High Council, Neferet,” Aphrodite said. “She does not,” said Thanatos, giving Neferet a hard look before turning to Damien. “Fledgling, do you wish to address the Council?” Damien sat up straighter, swallowed hard, and said, “Affirmative.” Thanatos’s lips twitched with the beginnings of a smile. “Then you may speak. You may also put down your hand, Damien.” “Oh, thank you.” Damien’s hand hastily retreated. “Well, all I wanted to say, very respectfully, is vampyre law states that, as Zoey’s Oath Bound Warrior, it is Stark’s right to decide where and how she should be protected. At least that’s what I remember from my notes last semester in Vampyre Sociology Class.” “Zoey is dying.” Duantia’s words were harsh, but her tone was gentle. “You must understand that her Warrior will soon be released from his Oath.” “I do understand. But she’s not dead yet, and all I’m saying is that her Warrior has the right to be her protector, in anyway he believes is best for her, as long as she is alive.” “I have to agree with the fledgling,” Thanatos said, nodding respectfully to Damien. “He is absolutely correct in principle. It is law, as well as a Warrior’s Oath Bound responsibility, to decide what is best for his High Priestess’s safety. Zoey Redbird is living; therefore, she is still under her Warrior’s protection.” “And the rest of my Council? Do you agree with Thanatos?” Duantia asked. Stark held his breath while the other five High Priestesses either spoke solemn yeses or gave small nods. “Well done, fledgling Damien,” Thanatos said. Damien’s cheeks turned pink. “Thank you, Priestess.” Duantia shook her head. “For my part, I am not as pleased as Thanatos at the prospect of the death of a promising young Warrior.” Then the vampyre shrugged with acquiescence. “But the Council is in agreement. Though it saddens me, I bow to the will of my Council and to our laws. Stark, where is it you would like to take your High Priestess for her last days?” Before he could respond, Neferet’s cold voice cut in. “Am I to assume this little quorum of agreement means I am also free to leave and to take my consort with me?” “We already decided upon that, Neferet.” Thanatos’s tone matched her chill for chill. “Under the conditions set, you may return to Capri with your consort’s body.” “Thank you,” Neferet said shortly. She made a brusque gesture at the Sons of Erebus who had carried Kalona into the Council Chamber on the litter. “Bring Erebus. We are leaving this place.” With the barest of bows to the Council, Neferet strode imperiously from the room. Everyone was watching her exit when Aphrodite grabbed Stark’s arm, and said urgently, “Stall. Don’t give them an answer about where you want to take Zoey.” “Now that that interruption is gone, you are free to tell the Council where it is you’d like to take your High Priestess, Stark,” Thanatos said. “Right now I want to take her to our room in the palace. That is, if you say it’s okay. I really need some time to think about what’s best for Zoey, and I haven’t had a chance to do that.” “Young but wise.” Thanatos smiled in approval. “I am pleased it seems you’ve been able to rein in your anger, Warrior,” Duantia said. “May you continue to think clearly and wisely.” Stark clenched his teeth together and bowed his head respectfully, careful not to meet any of the Council members’ gazes, afraid that they would see the reality of his un-reined anger. “The Council gives its permission for you to retire to the palace with your wounded High Priestess and your friends. We will ask for your decision about where you wish to take her on the morrow. Please know you may still decide to remain here. If you ask it of us, we will provide sanctuary for all of you, for as long as is necessary.” “Thank you,” Stark said. He bowed formally to the group of powerful High Priestesses. “Council is adjourned. We shall reconvene on the morrow. Until then, I truly wish you to blessed be.” Before even Darius could help him, Stark went to Zoey, lifted her body in his arms, and, holding her close to him, carried her from the Council Chamber. Stark “Tell me everything you know.” He’d only just laid Zoey’s body on the bed in the suite assigned to them when Stark confronted Aphrodite. “Well, it’s not much, but it’s enough to make me think the vamps are wrong,” Aphrodite said, snuggling into a big velvet chair beside Darius. “You mean you know of a case where a Warrior actually brought back his High Priestess from the Otherworld?” Damien asked, as he and Jack pulled chairs from the suite’s living room into the bedroom. “No. Not exactly.” “What do you mean, Aphrodite?” Stark paced back and forth in front of Zoey’s bed. “I mean I don’t give a shit about ancient history. Zoey isn’t some stick-up-herass High Priestess from back in the day.” “People who ignore history end up repeating it,” Damien said softly. “I didn’t say I was ignoring it, Gay Boy. I said I didn’t give a shit about it.” Aphrodite’s sharp gaze went from Damien to the Twins, who were still standing in the entryway to the bedroom. “Dorkamese Twins, why are you lurking?” “We aren’t lurking, Hateful,” Shaunee’s voice was little more than a whisper. “Yeah, we’re respectful-ing,” Erin added in a twin whisper. “Oh, for shit’s sake. What are you two talking about?” Aphrodite said. “It’s disrespecting Zoey’s, um, body to be all talking and stuff around her while she’s—” Shaunee broke off, looking at her twin for help. Before Erin could, as usual, finish her sentence, Stark said, “No. We aren’t treating her like she’s dead. She’s just not here, that’s all.” “So it’s more like a waiting room than a hospital room,” Jack said, reaching from his chair to touch Zoey’s hand. “Yeah,” Stark said. “Only it’s a waiting room for something really good.” “Like at the DMV when you’ve passed your driver’s test and had a really bad picture taken and you’re just waiting for them to bring you your license?” Jack said. “Exactly, only without the filth and the peasants,” Aphrodite said. “So pull up some chairs, brain-sharers, and stop acting like Zoey’s a corpse.” The Twins hesitated, shared a glance, shrugged, and then pulled chairs into the bedroom and joined the group’s little circle. “All right, now that we’re all together on this, you need to tell us what you found out from Stevie Rae,” Darius said. Aphrodite smiled at her Warrior. “How’d you know I got the info from Stevie Rae?” Darius touched her face gently. “I know you.” Stark clenched his fists and looked away from the bond that was so obvious between Aphrodite and Darius. He wanted to hit something. He needed to hit something. He was going to explode if he didn’t get rid of some of the feelings that were choking him from the inside out. Then Aphrodite’s words penetrated the mess that was his mind, and he whirled around to face her. “Say that again!” “I said, Kalona really is in the Otherworld. Neferet’s sent him there to be sure Zoey doesn’t pull herself together and make it back here.” “Wait, no, I remember overhearing Kalona talking to Rephaim once. He was real pissed because the Raven Mocker had said something about returning to the Otherworld. I’m sure Kalona said he couldn’t go back because Nyx kicked him out,” Stark said. “She kicked out his body. His body isn’t there,” Aphrodite said. “It’s his soul that’s slithered its way back in.” “OhmyGoddess!” Damien said. “Zoey’s in bigger trouble than we thought,” Erin said sadly. “And that was already some really big trouble,” Shaunee agreed. “It gets worse,” Aphrodite said. “Neferet’s behind all of this.” She sighed and met Stark’s eyes. “Okay, this is gonna be not so nice for you to hear, but you need to listen up and deal with it. Kalona used to be Nyx’s Warrior.” The color drained from Stark’s face. “That’s what Zoey told me right before . . .” He rubbed a hand through his hair. “I didn’t believe her. I got pissed and jealous and stupid. That’s why I wasn’t with her when she saw Kalona kill Heath.” “You’re going to have to find a way to forgive yourself for that mistake,” Darius told Stark. “If you do not, you will not be able to focus on the here and now.” “And it’s going to take a shitload of focus to save Zoey,” Aphrodite said. “Because Stark’s gonna have to go to the Otherworld and fight Kalona for Zoey.” Jack’s voice was hushed, almost like he was talking during church. “And figure out a way to help her get the pieces of her soul together,” Damien said. “Then that’s what I’ll do.” Stark was glad he sounded confident because his gut felt like someone had punched him in it. “If you try to do that without the right preparation, you will have no chance at all of succeeding, young Warrior.” Stark’s eyes followed the voice to the doorway, where Thanatos stood, looking tall and grim and way too much like death personified. “Then tell me how to prepare!” Stark wanted to shout his frustration from the rooftops of the world. “To do battle in the Otherworld, the Warrior in you must die to give birth to the Shaman.” Stark didn’t hesitate. “All I have to do is kill myself? You mean then my soul can go to the Otherworld and help Zoey?” “It cannot be a literal death, Warrior. Think what it would do to Zoey’s already wounded spirit were she to have to bear your death as well as that of her consort.” “There’s no way she’d ever leave the Otherworld then,” Damien said solemnly. “Even if she could get the pieces of her soul together.” “Exactly, and that is what I believe happened to the other High Priestesses whose Warriors followed them into the Otherworld,” Thanatos said, entering the room and walking to Zoey’s bedside. “So the other Warriors really did kill themselves to protect their Priestesses?” Aphrodite moved even closer to Darius and threaded her fingers through his. “Most of them did, and the Warriors who didn’t die before their souls left their bodies did so shortly thereafter. You must understand that Warriors aren’t High Priestesses. They don’t have the gifts it takes to move freely in the spirit realm.” “Kalona is there, and he’s definitely not a High Priestess,” Stark said. “Even those of us who do not believe he is Erebus come to earth know that this being you call Kalona is an immortal who has somehow arrived here from the Otherworld. The rules that bind a Warrior, or even a male vampyre who is not a Warrior, do not apply to him.” “He is bound, though,” Aphrodite said, leaning forward with urgency. “I can see his chains. His body is covered by them.” “Tell me what you’ve seen, Prophetess,” Thanatos said. Aphrodite hesitated. “Tell her everything,” Damien said. Aphrodite met his eyes. “We have to trust someone, or it won’t end up any different for Stark and Zoey than it has for those other Warriors and High Priestesses.” “We might as well trust Death,” Stark said. “Because, one way or another, that’s what I’m going to have to face to get to Zoey.” Aphrodite looked from Stark’s pale face to Darius. “I agree.” “Me, too,” said Jack. “Yeah,” said Shaunee. “Tell her everything,” added Erin. “All right,” Aphrodite said. She gave Thanatos a wry smile. “So, I better start with Neferet, and you better sit down.” CHAPTER TEN Stark Stark thought it was pretty impressive that Thanatos kept her shock to a minimum as Aphrodite, with some help from Damien, explained everything to the High Priestess, beginning with Zoey’s entrance to the House of Night, going through the discovery of the red fledglings, Kalona’s rising, their slow realization of the depth of Neferet’s evil, and finally finishing up with the conversation she’d had with Stevie Rae on the phone. At the story’s conclusion, Thanatos stood and walked over to stare down at Zoey’s body. When the High Priestess finally spoke, it seemed she was talking to Z more than to them. “So from the beginning this has been a battle between Light and Darkness, only until now it has been fought mostly in the physical realm.” “Light and Darkness? It sounds like you’re using those two words as titles,” said Damien. “Very astute of you, young fledgling,” Thanatos said. “That’s what Stevie Rae was doing, too. Using Darkness like a title,” Aphrodite said. “Titles? Like they’re two people?” Jack asked. “Not people—that’s too limiting. Think of them more as immortals who are so powerful that they can manipulate energy to such an extent that spirit can be made tangible,” Thanatos said. “You mean like Nyx is Light and Kalona, or at least what he represents, is Darkness?” Damien said. “It is more accurate to say that Nyx is allied with Light. The same can be said for Kalona and Darkness.” “Okay, I’m not Miss Perfect Schoolgirl, but I’m smart, and I actually did pay attention in class. Most of the time. I haven’t heard of any of this stuff,” Aphrodite said. “Neither have I,” Damien said. “And that’s saying something, ’cause Damien is definitely Miss Perfect Schoolgirl,” said Erin. “Totally,” said Shaunee. Thanatos sighed and turned from Zoey to face the rest of the room. “Yes, well, it is an ancient belief that I don’t think was ever fully accepted by our society, or at least the Priestesses of our society.” “Why? What’s wrong with it?” Aphrodite asked. “It was based on struggle and violence and the clash of the raw powers of good and evil.” Aphrodite snorted, “You mean guy stuff.” Thanatos’s brows lifted. “I do.” “Hang on. What’s so guy-stuff-like about believing in good fighting evil?” Stark said. “It’s more than a simple belief that there is good and that it should fight the evil in the world. It’s a personification of Light and Darkness at their most elemental level, as forces that are so absorbed with themselves that one cannot exist without the other though they constantly try to consume one another.” Thanatos sighed again at the blank looks the kids were giving her. “One of the earliest representations of Light and Darkness was of Light being a massive black bull and Darkness being an enormous white bull.” “Huh? Shouldn’t the white be Light and the black be Darkness?” Jack asked. “One would think so, but it is thus that they were represented in our ancient scrolls. It was written that each creature, Light and Darkness, carried something for which the other would always long. Think of the bulls, swollen with the power they wield, meeting in eternal combat, each struggling to get something from the other it could never attain without destroying itself. I saw a depiction of their battle once when I was a young High Priestess, and I’ve never forgotten how raw and violent it was—disturbingly so. The bulls’ horns were locked. Their powerful bodies strained to reach the other, blood spewed, nostrils flared. It was a deadlock that was frightening in its intensity—the painting itself seemed to vibrate with power.” “Masculine power,” Darius said. “I’ve seen that depiction, too, when I was in training to become a Warrior. It decorated the cover of some of the ancient journals written by great Warriors from our past.” “Masculine power. I can see why the vamp leaders let that bull stuff fade away,” Erin said. “Seriously, Twin.” Shaunee nodded. “Too much guy power when vamps are mostly about girl power.” “But our belief system isn’t about female power suppressing male power. It’s about a healthy balance between the two,” Darius said. “No, Warrior, the truth is our belief system is not supposed to be about female power suppressing male power; but as with Light and Darkness, it is an eternal struggle to find a balance between the two without one destroying the other. Think of the images of Nyx that we see about us every day, with their feminine beauty and appeal. Contrast that to an imagining of the raw power unleashed in the form of two great, battling, male creatures. Do you see how a world trying to contain both would be in conflict, and thus one must be suppressed in order to allow the other to thrive?” Aphrodite snorted, “That’s not so hard to imagine. I can’t imagine the uptight High Council wanting anything to do with something as messy as two giant guy bulls and any beliefs they represent.” “She means except for you,” Stark said, frowning at Aphrodite and sending her a “you’re not helping” look. Thanatos smiled. “No, Aphrodite is correct. The Council has changed over the centuries, especially over the past four I have existed. It used to be a vital force, in its own way very elemental and rather barbaric in its power. But in modern times it has become . . .” The High Priestess hesitated, searching for the correct word. “Civilized,” Aphrodite said. “It’s super civilized.” “It is,” Thanatos said. Aphrodite’s blue eyes widened. “And being too civilized isn’t necessarily a good thing, especially when you’re dealing with two bulls ramming against each other and taking out anything that stands between them.” “Zoey’s awfully close to Light,” Damien said softly. “Close enough to get gored by Darkness,” Stark said. “Especially if Darkness has been sent to be sure she doesn’t ever reach the Light again.” The room went silent while everyone’s eyes went to Zoey, lying silent and pale against the very civilized cream-colored satin linens. It was within the silence that the realization came to Stark, and with the instincts of a Warrior guarding his High Priestess, he knew he had found the right path. “Then finding out how to protect Zoey isn’t about ignoring the past. It’s about looking deeper into the past than anyone today would think to do,” Stark said, excitement raising his voice. “And it’s about embracing and understanding the raw power that is unleashed by the struggle between Light and Darkness,” Thanatos said. “But where the hell do we find out about that?” Aphrodite said, brushing her hair back from her face in frustration. “The beliefs we need have died out—you said that yourself, Thanatos.” “Perhaps not everywhere,” Darius said, sitting up straighter, his eyes sharp and intelligent as his gaze met Stark’s. “If you want to find ancient and barbaric beliefs you have to go to a place formed by an ancient and barbaric past. A place that is essentially cut off from today’s civilization.” The answer jolted through Stark. “I have to go to the Isle.” “Exactly,” Darius said. “What the hell are you two talking about?” Aphrodite said. “They speak of the place where Warriors were first trained by Sgiach.” “Sgiach? Who is that?” Damien asked. “It is the ancient title for the Warrior who was called The Great Taker of Heads,” Darius said. “Sgiach was as raw and barbaric as it gets as a Warrior,” Stark said. “Okay, this is all well and good, but we need him to be alive today and not just an old story Warriors know, ’cause I’m pretty sure if Stark can’t travel to the Otherworld, he also can’t travel to the past,” Aphrodite said. “She,” Darius corrected. “She?” Aphrodite’s face was a question mark. “Sgiach was a female Warrior, a vampyre of amazing powers,” Stark said. “And those ‘old stories,’ my beauty, also say that there will always be a Sgiach.” Darius gave Aphrodite an indulgent smile. “She lives on the Isle of Women at the House of Night there.” “There’s an Isle of Women House of Night?” Erin said. “Why don’t we know about that?” Shaunee said. “Do you know about that?” she asked Damien. He shook his head. “Never heard of it.” “That’s because you’re not Warriors,” Darius said. “The Isle of Women is also known as the Isle of Skye.” “Skye, like in Scotland?” Damien said. “Yes. It is there that the very first vampyre Warriors were trained,” Darius said. “But not anymore, right?” Damien said, looking from Darius to Stark. “I mean, Warrior training goes on at all the Houses of Night. Like Dragon Lankford trains a bunch of Warriors who come from all over, and he’s definitely not in Scotland.” “You are correct, Damien. In the modern world the training of Warriors takes place at the House of Night schools throughout the world,” Thanatos said. “Around the turn of the nineteenth century, the High Council decided that would a more convenient way of doing things.” “More convenient and more civilized, I bet,” Aphrodite said. “You, too, are correct, Prophetess,” Thanatos said. “That’s it, then. I take Zoey to the Isle of Women and Sgiach,” Stark said. “And then what?” Aphrodite asked. “Then I get uncivilized so that I can figure out how to fight my way into the Otherworld without dying, and, once I’m there, I do whatever I have to do to bring Zoey back to us.” “Huh,” said Aphrodite. “That actually doesn’t sound like a bad idea.” “If Stark is allowed to enter the Isle,” Darius said. “It’s a House of Night. Why wouldn’t they let Stark come in?” Damien said. “It’s a House of Night like none other,” Thanatos said. “The High Council’s decision to move the training of the Sons of Erebus from Skye and spread them out among the Houses of Night worldwide was a decision that was the culmination of many, many years of tension and unease between the reigning Sgiach and the High Council.” “You make her sound like a queen,” Jack said. “In a way she is—a queen whose subjects were Warriors,” Thanatos said. “A queen in charge of the Sons of Erebus? I know the vamp High Council wouldn’t like that, not unless Queen Sgiach was part of the High Council, too,” Aphrodite said. “Sgiach is a Warrior,” Thanatos said. “And Warriors are not allowed on the High Council.” “But Sgiach is a woman. She should be able to be voted onto the Council,” Damien said. “No,” Darius said. “No Warrior can sit on the Council. That is vampyre law.” “And that probably pissed off Sgiach,” Aphrodite said. “I know it’d piss me off. She should be able to sit on the High Council.” Thanatos bowed her head in acknowledgment. “I agree with you, Prophetess, but many did not. When the training of the Sons of Erebus Warriors was taken from her, Sgiach withdrew to the Isle of Skye. She spoke to no one about her intention, but she didn’t need to. We all felt her anger. We also felt the protective circle she cast around her Isle.” Thanatos’s eyes were filled with the shadows of memories of the past. “No one had experienced its like since the mighty vampyre Cleopatra cast a protective circle around her beloved Alexandria.” “No one enters the Isle of Women without the permission of Sgiach,” Darius said. “If they attempt to do so—they die,” Thanatos said. “Well, how do I get permission to enter the Isle?” Stark asked. There was a long, awkward silence, and then Thanatos said, “Therein lies the first of your problems. Since Sgiach cast her protective circle, no outsider has been given permission to enter her Isle.” “I’ll get permission,” Stark said firmly. “How are you going to do that, Warrior?” Thanatos asked. Stark blew out a long breath, and said, “I know how I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to be civilized. And right now that’s about all I know.” “Hang on,” Damien said. “Thanatos, Darius, you both know things about Sgiach and this ancient barbaric religion. So, where did you learn it?” “I’ve always liked to read.” Darius shrugged. “So I was drawn to the old scrolls at the House of Night where I studied the blade. In my off time, I read.” “Dangerous and sexy. That’s an excellent combination,” Aphrodite purred, snuggling into him. “Okay, we’ll all barf later,” Erin said. “Yeah, right now, stop interrupting,” Shaunee said. “What about your knowledge of the bulls and Sgiach?” Damien asked Thanatos, giving the Twins and Aphrodite “be quiet” looks. “From ancient texts here in the palace archives. When I first became a High Priestess, I spent many hours studying here by myself. I had to; I had no mentor,” Thanatos said. “No mentor? That’d be hard,” Stark said. “Apparently our world only needs one High Priestess at a time who has been gifted with an affinity for death,” Thanatos said with a wry smile. “That’s a sucky job description,” Jack said, and then clamped his hand over his mouth, and squeaked, “Sorry!” Thanatos’s smile widened. “I take no offense at your words, child. To be allied with Death is not an easy career path.” “But because of that, and because Darius is a reading Warrior, we have something to go by,” Damien said. “What are you thinking?” Aphrodite said. “I’m thinking that I’m really good at one thing—and that’s studying.” Aphrodite’s blue eyes widened. “So we just need to point you to something to study.” “The archives. You need access to the palace archives,” Thanatos said, already heading toward the door. “I’ll speak with Duantia.” “Excellent. I’ll get ready to study,” Damien said. “I’ll help,” Jack said. “Nerd herd, as much as I hate it, it looks like we’re all gonna get ready to study.” Stark watched Thanatos go. He vaguely registered that the rest of the kids were excited that they had somewhere to focus their energy, but his gaze went back to Zoey’s pale face. And I’ll get ready to ally myself with death. Zoey Nothing seemed right. It wasn’t like I didn’t know where I was. I mean, I knew I was in the Otherworld but not dead, and that I was with Heath, who definitely was dead. Goddess! It was so weird that it was becoming more and more normal to think of Heath as DEAD. Anyway, besides that, stuff just wasn’t right. At this moment I was curled up with Heath. We were spooning like an old married couple at the base of a tree on a mossy mattress made by the joining of ancient roots in a roughly bedlike oval. I should have been majorly comfortable. The moss was definitely soft, and it really did seem like Heath was alive. I could see him, hear him, touch him—he even smelled like Heath. I should be able to relax and just be with him. So why, I wondered as I stared at a gaggle of dancing blue-winged butterflies, am I so restless and generally “out of sorts” as Grandma would say? Grandma . . . I did miss her. Her absence was like a mild toothache. Sometimes the feeling went away, but I knew it was there, and it would come back—probably worse. She must really be worried about me. And sad. Thinking of how sad Grandma would be was hard, and my mind skirted away from it quickly. I couldn’t keep lying there. I moved away from Heath, careful not to wake him up. Then I started to pace. That helped. Well, it seemed to for a little while. I walked back and forth, back and forth, making sure I could see Heath. He did look cute while he slept. I wished I could sleep. I couldn’t, though. If I rested—if I closed my eyes—it was like I lost pieces of myself. But how could that be? How could I be losing myself? It reminded me a little of the time I had strep throat and such a high fever that I had a super weird dream where I kept spinning around and around until pieces of my body started to fly off me. I shivered. Why was that so easy to remember when a bunch of other stuff in my head was so foggy? Goddess, I was really tired. Distracted, I kinda tripped over one of the pretty white rocks that jutted up out of the grass and moss, and caught myself from falling by throwing up a hand and grabbing the side of the closest tree. That’s why I saw it. My hand. My arm. It didn’t look right. I stopped and stared, and I swear my skin rippled, like in one of those gross horror movies where nasty stuff gets under an almost naked girl’s flesh and crawls around, making her— “No!” I wiped frantically at my arm. “No! Stop!” “Zo, babe, what’s wrong?” “Heath, Heath—look.” I held my arm out for him to see. “It’s like a horror movie.” Heath’s gaze went from my arm to my face. “Uh, Zo, what’s like a horror movie?” “My arm! My skin! It’s moving.” I flailed at him. His smile didn’t hide the worry on his face. He reached out and slowly ran his hand down my arm. When he got to my hand, he threaded his fingers with mine. “There’s nothing wrong with your arm, babe,” he said. “You really don’t think so?” “Really, seriously, I don’t think so. Hey, what’s going on with you?” I opened up my mouth to tell him that I thought I was losing myself—that bits of myself were floating away—when something caught my eye at the edge of the tree line. Something dark. “Heath, I don’t like that,” I told him, pointing a shaking hand at the spot of shadows. The breeze stirred the wide green leaves of the trees that seemed suddenly not as thick and sheltering as they had moments ago, and the scent came to me, sickening and ripe, like three-day-old roadkill. I felt Heath’s body jerk, and knew I wasn’t imagining it. Then the shadows out there stirred, and I was sure I heard wings. “Oh, no,” I whispered. Heath’s hand tightened on mine. “Come on. We need to get farther inside here.” I felt frozen and numb all at the same time. “Why? How can trees save us from whatever that is?” Heath took my chin in his hand and made me look at him. “Zo, can’t you feel it? This place, this grove, is good, purely good. Babe, can’t you feel your Goddess in here?” The tears that filled my eyes made him all blurry. “No,” I said softly, as if I could barely form the words. “I can’t feel my Goddess at all.” He pulled me into his arms and hugged me tight. “Don’t worry, Zo. I can feel her, so it’ll be okay. I promise.” Then, while I was still cradled by one of his arms, Heath guided me deeper into Nyx’s grove as my tears overflowed and fell wet and hot down my cold cheeks. CHAPTER ELEVEN Stevie Rae “Skye? Really? Where is that? Ireland?” Stevie Rae said. “It’s Scotland, not Ireland, retard,” Aphrodite said. “Aren’t they kinda the same thing? And don’t say ‘retard.’ It’s not nice.” “How about if I say bite me? Is that nice enough? Just listen and try not to be so asstarded, bumpkin. I need you to go back and do more of your weird commune with the earth or whatthefuckever it is you do, and see if you can come up with some info about Light and Darkness—you know, with a capital L and D. Also pay attention if a tree or whatnot says something about two bulls.” “Bulls? You mean like cows?” “Are you not from the country? How is it that you don’t know what a bull is?” “Look, Aphrodite, that’s an ignorant stereotype. Just ’cause I’m not from a big city does not mean I automatically know about cows and stuff. Heck, I don’t even like horses.” “I swear you’re a mutant,” Aphrodite said. “A bull is a male cow. Even my mom’s schizophrenic Bichon Frise knows that. Focus, would you, this is important. You need to go ask the fucking grass about an ancient and entirely too barbaric and therefore unattractive mythology or religion or some such that includes two fighting bulls, a white one and a black one, and a very guylike, violent, unending struggle between good and evil.” “What does this have to do with gettin’ Zoey back?” “I think it might somehow open a door for Stark to the Otherworld, without him actually dying because, apparently, that doesn’t so much work for Warriors protecting their High Priestesses there.” “The cows can do that? How? Cows can’t even talk.” “Bulls, double retard. Stay with me. I’m not just talking about animals, but the rawness of the power that surrounds them. The bulls represent that power.” “So they’re not gonna talk?” “Oh, for shit’s sake! They might and they might not—they’re super old magick, stupid! Who the hell knows what they can do? Just get this: to make it to the Otherworld, Stark can’t be civilized and modern and all nicey-nice. He’s got to figure out how to be more than that to reach Zoey and to protect her without getting both of them killed, and this olden-time religion might be a key to that.” “I guess that makes sense. I mean, when I think about Kalona, I don’t exactly think of a modern guy.” Stevie Rae paused, acknowledging only to herself that she was truly thinking of Rephaim and not his father. “And he’s definitely got some raw power.” “And definitely in the Otherworld without being dead.” “Which is where Stark needs to be.” “So, go talk to flowers about bulls and such,” Aphrodite said. “I’ll go talk to flowers,” Stevie Rae said. “Call me when they tell you something.” “Yeah, okay. I’ll do my best.” “Hey, be careful,” Aphrodite said. “See, you can be nice,” Stevie Rae said. “Before you go all strawberries and cream on me, answer this question: who’d you Imprint with after ours broke?” Stevie Rae’s body went ice-cold. “No one!” “Which means someone totally inappropriate. Who is it, one of those red fledgling losers?” “Aphrodite—I said no one.” “Yeah, that’s what I figured. See, one of the things I’m learning about because of this new Prophetess stuff, which is mostly a pain in the ass, by-the-by, is that if I listen without my ears, I know things.” “Here’s what I know—you’ve lost your dang mind.” “So, again, be careful. I’m getting weird vibes from you, and they’re telling me you might be in trouble.” “I think you’ve just made up a big ol’ story to cover up that whole lot of crazy you got going on inside your head.” “And I think you’re hiding something. So let’s just agree to disagree.” “I’m goin’ to talk to flowers about cows. Goodbye, Aphrodite.” “Bulls. Goodbye, bumpkin.” Stevie Rae opened the door to leave her dorm room, still frowning about Aphrodite’s comments, and almost ran smack into Kramisha’s hand, raised to knock on her door. They both jumped and then Kramisha shook her head. “Don’t do weird shit like that. Makes me think you ain’t normal no more.” “Kramisha, if I’d known you were out here, I wouldn’t have jumped when I opened the door. And none of us are normal—at least not anymore.” “Speak for yourself. I’m still me. Meaning they’s nothin’ wrong with me. You, on the other hand, look like one hot messatude.” “I almost burned up on a roof two days ago. I think that gives me the right to look like crap.” “I don’t mean you look bad.” Kramisha cocked her head to the side. Today she was wearing her bright yellow bob wig, which she’d coordinated with sparkly fluorescent yellow eye shadow. “Actually, you lookin’ good—all pink like white folks get when they real healthy. It kinda reminds me of cute little baby pigs with they pinkness.” “Kramisha, I swear you’re makin’ my head hurt. What are you talkin’ about?” “I’m just sayin’ that you look good, but you ain’t doing good. In there, and there.” Kramisha pointed from Stevie Rae’s heart to her head. “I’ve got a lot on my mind,” Stevie Rae said evasively. “Yeah, I know that, what with Zoey totally jacked up and all, but you gotta keep your shit together just the same.” “I’m tryin’.” “Try harder. Zoey needs you. I know you ain’t there with her, but I got this feelin’ that you can help her. So you gotta be using your good sense.” Kramisha was staring at her with an intensity that made Stevie Rae want to fidget. “Like I said, I’m tryin’.” “You up to somethin’ crazy?” “No!” “You sure? ’Cause this is for you.” Kramisha held up a piece of purple notebook paper that had something written on it in her distinctive mixture of cursive and printing. “And it feels like a whole bunch of crazy to me.” Stevie Rae snatched the paper from her hand. “Dang it, why didn’t you just say you were bringin’ me one of your poems?” “I was gettin’ ’round to it.” Kramisha crossed her arms and leaned against the doorway, obviously waiting for Stevie Rae to read the poem. “Isn’t there somethin’ you need to go do?” “Nope. The rest of the kids is eatin’. Oh, ’cept for Dallas. He’s working with Dragon on some sword stuff, even though school ain’t starting again officially, and I do not see no need to rush things, so I do not get why he in such a hurry to go to class. Anyway, just read the poem, High Priestess. I ain’t goin’ nowhere.” Stevie Rae stifled a sigh. Kramisha’s poems tended to be confusing and abstract, but they were also often prophetic, and just thinking about one of them being obviously for her had Stevie Rae’s stomach feeling like she’d eaten raw eggs. Reluctantly, her eyes went to the paper and she started to read: The Red One steps into the Light girded loins for her part in the apocalyptic fight. Darkness hides in different forms see beyond shape, color, lies and the emotional storms. Ally with him; pay with your heart though trust cannot be given unless the Darkness you part. See with the soul and not your eyes because to dance with beasts you must penetrate their disguise. Stevie Rae shook her head, glanced up at Kramisha, and then read the poem again, slowly, willing her heart to please stop beating so loud that it would betray the guilty terror the thing instantly made her feel. ’Cause Kramisha was right; it was obviously about her. Of course it was also obviously about her and Rephaim. Stevie Rae supposed she should be grateful the dang poem didn’t say anything about wings and human eyes in a dang bird head. Shoot! “See what I mean ’bout it bein’ ’bout you?” Stevie Rae shifted her gaze from the poem to Kramisha’s intelligent eyes. “Well, hell, Kramisha. ’Course it’s about me. The first line says that.” “Yeah, see, I was sure ’bout that, too, even though I never heard nobody call you that.” “It makes sense,” Stevie Rae said quickly, trying to drown out the memory of Rephaim’s voice calling her The Red One. “I’m the only girl red vamp, so it’s gotta be talkin’ about me.” “That’s what I thought, even though there is that whole bunch of freaky ’bout the beasts and stuff. I had to look up the gird-your-loins part ’cause it sounded nasty and sexual, but it ended up just bein’ a way to say you need to get real ready for a fight.” “Yeah, well, there’s been a bunch of fighting goin’ on lately,” Stevie Rae said, looking back at the poem. “Looks like you in for some more—and it’s some bad shit, too, you got to be real ready for.” Then she cleared her throat meaningfully, and Stevie Rae reluctantly met her eyes again. “Who is he?” “He?” Kramisha crossed her arms. “Do not talk to me like I’m stupid. Him. The guy my poem says you’re gonna give your heart to.” “I am not!” “Oh, then you do know who he is.” Kramisha tapped the toe of her leopardprint boots. “And he definitely ain’t Dallas, ’cause you wouldn’t be freaked about givin’ him your heart. Everyone knows you two got a thing. So, who is he?” “I don’t have a clue. I’m not seein’ anyone but Dallas. Plus, I’m way more worried about the parts that talk about Darkness and disguises and such,” Stevie Rae lied. “Huh,” Kramisha snorted through her nose. “Look, I’m gonna keep this and think about it,” Stevie Rae said, stuffing the poem into her jeans pocket. “Let me guess—you want me to keep my mouth shut ’bout it,” Kramisha said, tapping her foot again. “Yeah, ’cause I want to try to . . .” The excuse died under Kramisha’s knowing stare. Stevie Rae blew out a long breath, decided to tell as much of the truth as she could, and started again. “I don’t want you to say anything ’bout the poem ’cause I got a guy issue goin’ on, and havin’ it come out right now would suck for Dallas and for me, especially when I’m not real sure what’s goin’ on between me and this other guy.” “That’s more like it. Guy shit can be one hot mess, and like my mama always says, it just ain’t right to put your personal business all out there for everbody to see.” “Thanks, Kramisha. I ’preciate that.” Kramisha held up her hand. “Hang on. Didn’t nobody say I was done with this subject. My poems is important. This one is about more than your jacked-up love life. So like I said before, get the crazy cleared from your head and remember to use your good sense. And also, every time I wrote the word Darkness, it made my insides feel wrong.” Stevie Rae gave Kramisha a long look, then made her decision. “Walk with me to the parking lot, ’kay? I got somethin’ to do off campus, but I wanna talk to you on the way.” “No problem,” Kramisha said. “Plus, it’s ’bout time you said something ’bout what’s going on inside your head to someone. You been actin’ wacked lately, and I mean even before Zoey got herself shattered.” “Yeah, I know,” Stevie Rae mumbled. Neither one of them said anything more while they walked down the stairs and through the busy dorm. Stevie Rae thought it was like the thawing ice had also unfrozen the fledglings. Over the past couple of days, the kids had started coming out and acting more and more normal. Sure, she and Kramisha still got plenty of looks, but they’d gone from hostile and fearful to mostly curious. “You thinkin’ we might actually be able to come back here and go to school again, like this is still our home?” Kramisha blurted once they’d reached the sidewalk outside the dorm, Stevie Rae gave her a surprised look. “Actually, I kinda have started to think that. Would it be so bad to be back here?” Kramisha shrugged. “I ain’t sure. All I’m sure of is I feel right when I’m sleepin’ underground during the day.” “Yeah, that’s a problem here.” “The Darkness in my poem that makes me feel wrong—you don’t think that’s ’bout us, do you?” “No!” Stevie Rae shook her head emphatically. “There’s nothin’ wrong with us. You and me and Dallas and the rest of the red fledglings who came here decided. Nyx gave us a choice, and we chose good over evil—Light over Darkness. The poem isn’t talkin’ about us. I’m sure of that.” “It’s the others, huh?” Even though they were alone, Kramisha lowered her voice. Stevie Rae thought about it and realized Kramisha could be right. She’d just been so preoccupied with guilt about Rephaim that it hadn’t occurred to her. Dang! She did need to get her head on straight. “Well, yeah, I guess it could be talkin’ ’bout them, but if it is, it’s really bad.” “Please. We all know they real bad.” “Yeah, well, I just found out some stuff from Aphrodite that gives Darkness with a capital D a whole new level of messed-up. And if they’re involved with that, then they’ve reached a different kind of bad. Like Neferet bad.” “Shit.” “Yeah. So your poem might be talkin’ ’bout a fight with them. But also, and this is the part I wanted you to know, Aphrodite and I have started to learn about some ancient stuff. You know, really old. So old the vamps have even forgotten about it.” “That’s some old shit.” “Well, we’re—meaning me and Aphrodite and Stark and the rest of the kids with Zoey—are gonna try to see if we can use this old info to help Stark get to the Otherworld so he can protect Z while she puts her soul back together.” “You mean get Stark to the Otherworld without him being all dead and stuff?” “Yeah, apparently him showin’ up in the Otherworld dead wouldn’t be good for Zoey.” “So you gonna use that old shit to figure out how to do it right?” Stevie Rae smiled at her. “We’re gonna try. And you can help.” “Say the word—I’m there.” “Okay, here goes: Aphrodite’s found some new Prophetess powers since she’s been focused on them.” Stevie Rae added a wry smile to her words. “Even though she’s ’bout as happy as a cat in a thunderstorm about it.” Kramisha laughed, and Stevie Rae continued, “Anyway, I was thinkin’ that even though I don’t have a circle here like Z does around her there, I do have a Prophetess.” Kramisha blinked, looked confused, and when Stevie Rae kept staring at her, her eyes finally widened in understanding. “Me?” “You. Well, you and your poetry. You did it before and helped Z figure out how to chase Kalona outta here.” “But—” “But look at it this way,” Stevie Rae broke in. “Aphrodite figured it out. So are you sayin’ she’s smarter than you?” Kramisha’s eyes narrowed. “I got a whole world of smart that rich white girl don’t know nothin’ about.” “Well, then, cowboy up.” “You know you kinda scare me when you talk country.” “I know.” Stevie Rae dimpled at her. “Okay, I’m gonna go conjure up some earth and see if I can figure anything more out from my end. Hey, find Dallas and fill him in on everything but the poem.” “I already told you I ain’t rattin’ you out.” “Thanks, Kramisha. You’re a really good Poet Laureate.” “You ain’t so bad yourself for a country girl.” “See ya.” Stevie Rae waved and started to jog for Z’s car. “I got your back, High Priestess!” Kramisha’s parting words made Stevie Rae’s stomach feel all squishy, but also had her grinning as she started Z’s car. She was just getting ready to put the car into gear when she realized (a) she didn’t know where she was going, and (b) the whole “conjure the earth” thing would be loads easier if she’d bothered to grab a green candle and maybe even some sweetgrass to draw some positive energy. Totally annoyed at herself, she put the car into neutral. Where in the Sam Hill was she going? Back to Rephaim. The thought was like breathing—instant and natural. Stevie Rae reached for the gearshift, but her hand paused. Would going back to Rephaim right now really be the smartest thing for her to do? Sure, on one hand she’d gotten a bunch of info from him about Kalona and Darkness and such. On the other, she didn’t really trust him. She couldn’t really trust him. Plus, he messed with her head. When she’d read Kramisha’s poem, she’d been too dang busy obsessing about him to consider anything else—like the fact the poem could be a warning about the bad red fledglings and not just stuff about her and the Raven Mocker. So what the heck should she do? She’d told Rephaim she’d come back to check on him, but she wanted to return because of more than just telling him she would. Stevie Rae needed to see him. Needed to? Yes, she admitted reluctantly to herself. She needed to see the Raven Mocker. The admission jarred Stevie Rae. “I’m Imprinted with him. That means we got a connection, and there’s not much I can do about it,” she muttered to herself while she squeezed the Bug’s steering wheel. “I’m just gonna have to get used to it and deal with it.” And I have to remember that he is his father’s son. Fine. Okay. She’d check on him. She’d also ask him questions about Light as well as Darkness, and about two cows. She scowled. Well, bulls. But she should do some digging for herself without Rephaim. She really should evoke her element and see what info she could get on the cow/bulls. That would be using her good sense. Then Stevie Rae grinned and slapped the steering wheel. “I got it! I’ll stop at that cute old park that’s on the way to Gilcrease. Do a little earth magick, and then check on Rephaim. Easy-peasy!” Of course first she’d duck back into Nyx’s Temple and grab a green candle, some matches, and some sweetgrass. Feeling better now that she had a plan, she was just getting ready to take the Bug outta neutral when she heard the sound of cowboy boots tapping against the asphalt of the parking lot and then Dallas speaking with exaggerated nonchalance. “I’m just walkin’ out here to Zoey’s car. I’m not sneakin’ up on Stevie Rae and makin’ her jump.” Stevie Rae rolled down her window and grinned at him. “Hey there, Dallas. I thought Kramisha said you were working out with Dragon.” “I was. Check it out—Dragon gave me this cool knife. Said it’s a dirk. He also said I might be good with it.” Stevie Rae watched dubiously as Dallas pulled a pointy, double-edged knife from a leather holder he was wearing strapped around his waist and held it kinda awkwardly, like he wasn’t sure whether it would cut someone else, or cut him. “It’s real sharp-looking,” Stevie Rae said, trying to sound positive. “Yeah, that’s why I’m not using it to practice with yet, but Dragon did say I could wear it. For a while. If I was careful.” “Oh, okay. Cool.” If she lived a million years Stevie Rae was sure she’d never understand guy stuff. “Yeah, so, I got done with my dirk lessons and ran into Kramisha on my way out of the Field House,” Dallas said while he sheathed the knife. “She said she’d left you here ’cause you were gettin’ ready to take off to go do some earth thing. I thought I’d try to catch you before you left and come along.” “Oh, well. That’s nice, Dallas, but I’m fine by myself. Actually, it would really help if you grabbed a green candle and some matches for me from Nyx’s Temple and ran them back out here to me. Oh, and if you see some sweetgrass in the temple, bring it here, too, would ya? Don’t know where my mind’s been, but conjuring earth is definitely easier with an earth candle, and I totally forgot one, not to mention the sweetgrass for drawin’ positive energy.” She was surprised when Dallas didn’t say ’kay and jog away for the stuff. Instead, he just stood there, watching her, with his hands shoved down in his jeans pockets and looked kinda annoyed. “What?” she asked. “I’m sorry I’m not a Warrior!” he blurted. “I’m tryin’ the best I can to learn somethin’ from Dragon, but it’s gonna take me a while to get decent at it. I’ve never really cared about all that fightin’ stuff, and I’m sorry!” Dallas repeated, looking more and more upset. “Dallas, what the heck are you talkin’ about?” He threw his hands up in frustration. “I’m talkin’ about me not being good enough for you. I know you need more—that you need a Warrior. Hell, Stevie Rae, if I’d been your Warrior, I could’ve been there for you when those kids attacked you and almost killed you. If I were your Warrior, you wouldn’t be sendin’ me off on stupid errands. You’d keep me close to you, so I could protect you during all this stuff you’re goin’ through.” “I’m doin’ fine protecting myself, and gettin’ me an earth candle and stuff is not a stupid errand.” “Yeah, okay, but you deserve better than a guy who doesn’t know shit about protecting his woman.” Stevie Rae’s brows went up to meet her curly blond hair. “Did you just call me your woman?” “Well, yeah.” He fidgeted, and then added, “But in a good way.” “Dallas, you couldn’t have stopped what happened on the roof,” she said truthfully. “You know how those kids are.” “I should have been with you; I should be your Warrior.” “I don’t need a Warrior!” she yelled, exasperated at his stubbornness and hating the fact that he was so upset. “Well, you sure as hell don’t need me anymore.” He turned his back on the Bug and shoved his hands into his jeans pockets. Stevie Rae looked at his hunched shoulders and felt terrible. She’d done this. She’d hurt him because she’d been pushing him and everyone away to keep Rephaim a secret. Guilty as a rabbit in a carrot patch, she got out of the car and touched his shoulder gently. He didn’t look at her. “Hey, that’s not true. I do need you.” “Sure. That’s why you’ve been busy shoving me away.” “No, I’ve just been busy. Sorry if I’ve come across as mean,” she said. He turned to her. “Not mean. Just not caring anymore.” “I care!” she said quickly, and stepped into his arms, hugging him back as tightly as he was hugging her. Dallas spoke softly into her ear. “Then let me come with you.” Stevie Rae pulled back so she could look at him, and the “no, you can’t” she’d been ready to say died on her lips. It was like she could see his heart through his eyes, and it was clear that she was breaking it—breaking him. What the hell was she doing hurting this kid because of Rephaim? She’d saved the Raven Mocker. She wasn’t sorry about that. She was sorry that it was affecting the people around her. Well, that’s it, then. I’m not hurtin’ the folks I care about most. “Okay, yeah, you can come with me,” she told him. His eyes instantly brightened. “You mean it?” “ ’Course I mean it. I do need that earth candle, though. Well, and the sweetgrass, too. And it’s still not a stupid errand.” “Hell, I’ll get you a whole bag of candles and all the grass you want!” Dallas laughed, kissed her, and then, yelling that he’d be right back, sprinted away. Slowly, Stevie Rae got back into the Bug. She gripped the steering wheel and stared straight ahead, reciting her mental to-do list aloud like a mantra. “Conjure earth with Dallas. Find out what I can about the cows. Bring Dallas back to the school. Make an excuse. A good excuse to leave again, only this time alone. Go to the Gilcrease and check on Rephaim. See if he knows anything else that might help Stark and Z. Come back here. Don’t hurt your friends by shoving them away. Check on the red fledglings. Clue in Lenobia and the rest of ’em ’bout what’s going on with Z. Call Aphrodite back. Figure out what the heck to do ’bout the bad fledglings at the depot. And then try, real hard, not to hurl yourself off the top of the nearest tall building . . .” Feeling like she was drowning in a big ol’ stinkin’, stagnant, Okie pond of stress, Stevie Rae lowered her head until her forehead pressed against the steering wheel. How in the world did Z deal with all of this bullshit and stress? She didn’t, the thought came unbidden to her mind, it shattered her. CHAPTER TWELVE Stevie Rae “Wow! It looks like one of those super tornados cut its way through Tulsa,” Dallas said. He was gawking as Stevie Rae maneuvered the Bug carefully around yet another pile of fallen tree limbs. The entry road to the park was blocked by a Bradford pear tree that had been split almost perfectly in half, so Stevie Rae ended up stopping beside it. “At least some of the power is comin’ back on.” She gestured at the streetlights that ringed the park, illuminating what was a total mess of ice-damaged trees and flattened azalea bushes. “Not for those folks, though.” Dallas jerked his chin at the neat little houses near the park. Here and there a light shone bravely through a window, proving that some people had had the foresight to buy propane generators before the storm hit, but mostly the surrounding area remained dark and cold and silent. “It sucks for them, but makes my life easier tonight,” Stevie Rae said, getting out of the car. Carrying a tall green ritual candle, a braided length of dried sweetgrass, and a box of long matches, Dallas joined her. “Everyone’s all hunkered down and won’t be paying any attention to what I’m doin’.” “You’re definitely right about that, girl.” Dallas draped his arm familiarly over Stevie Rae’s shoulders. “Aw, you know I like it when you tell me I’m right.” She threaded her arm around his waist, sticking her hand in the back pocket of his jeans like she used to do. He squeezed her shoulder and kissed the top of her head. “Then I’ll tell ya you’re right more often,” he said. Stevie Rae grinned up at him. “You tryin’ to soften me up for somethin’?” “I dunno. Is it workin’?” “Maybe.” “Good.” They both laughed. She bumped him with her hip. “Let’s go over there to the big oak. That looks like a good place.” “Whatever you say, girl.” They made their way slowly to the center of the park, walking around shattered tree limbs and sloughing through the cold, wet muck that was left from the storm, trying not to slip on the patches of ice that had begun to refreeze in the chill of the night. She’d been right to let Dallas come with her. Maybe part of her confusion about Rephaim had happened because she’d gotten kinda isolated from her friends and was focusing too hard on the weirdness of their Imprint. Heck, the Imprint with Aphrodite had seemed totally bizarre at first, too. Maybe she just needed some time—and space—to deal with the newness of it. “Hey, check it out.” Dallas pulled her attention back to him. He was pointing at the ground around the old oak. “It’s like the tree made a circle for you.” “That’s cool!” she said. And it was! The solid tree had weathered the storm well. The only branches it had lost were a smattering of limb tips. They’d fallen onto the grass, forming a perfect circle completely around the tree. Dallas hesitated at the edge of the circumference. “I’m gonna stay out here, okay? So it really can be like this is a circle cast especially for you, and I haven’t broken it,” he said. Stevie Rae looked up at him. Dallas was a good guy. He was always saying sweet things like that and letting her know he understood her better than most folks did. “Thank you. That’s really nice, Dallas.” She went up on her tiptoes and kissed him softly. His arms tightened around her, and he held her closer to him. “Anything for my High Priestess.” His breath was warm and sweet against her mouth and, on impulse, Stevie Rae kissed him again, liking that he was making her feel all tingly inside. And liking that his touch was blocking thoughts of Rephaim from her mind. She was more than a little breathless when he reluctantly let her go. He cleared his throat and gave a little laugh. “Be careful, girl. It’s been a long time since you and me been alone.” Feeling kinda giggly and light-headed, she dimpled at him. “Too long.” His smile was sexy and cute. “We’ll have to fix that soon, but first you better get to work.” “Oh, yeah,” she said. “Work, work, work . . .” Smiling, she took the sweetgrass braid, the green candle, and the matches he’d brought her. “Hey,” Dallas said, handing her the stuff, “I just remembered something about sweetgrass. Aren’t you supposed to use somethin’ else before you burn it? I was kinda good in Spells and Rituals Class, and I swear there was more to it than just lighting the braid and waving it around.” Stevie Rae screwed up her forehead, thinking. “I dunno. Zoey talked about it ’cause it’s a Native American thing. I swear she said it draws positive energy.” “Okay, well, I guess Z would know,” Dallas said. Shrugging, Stevie Rae said, “Yeah, plus it is just grass that smells good. I mean, how bad could it be?” “Yeah, seriously. Besides, you’re Earth Girl. You should be able to control some burnin’ grass.” “Yep,” she said. “Okay, well, here goes.” Whispering a simple, “Thank you, earth,” to her element, she turned her back to Dallas, stepped over the boundary and entered the earth-made circle. Stevie Rae strode confidently to the northernmost point inside the circumference, which was directly in front of the old tree. She stopped there and closed her eyes. Stevie Rae had learned early that the best way to connect with her element was through her senses. So she breathed in deeply, clearing her mind of all the cluttered thoughts she usually carried around with her and allowing only one thing to leak through: the sense of hearing. She listened to the earth. Stevie Rae could hear the wind murmuring through the winter leaves, the night birds singing to each other, the sounds and sighings of the park settling down for a long, cold night. When her sense of sound was full of earth, Stevie Rae drew in another breath and focused on smell. She breathed in the earth, scenting the damp heaviness of ice-encapsulated grass, the crisp cinnamon of the browned leaves, the uniquely mossy fragrance of the ancient oak. Her sense of smell filled by earth, Stevie Rae drew another deep breath and imagined the rich, full taste of a garlic bulb and the ripeness of summer tomatoes. She thought about the simple earth magick of pulling at green, tufty tops and discovering below them thick, crisp carrots that had been nurtured within the earth. Taste overflowing with earth’s bounty, she thought about the touch of the softness of summer grass against her feet—of dandelions tickling her chin as she held one there to see if it’d leave the telltale yellow blush of secret love—of the way the earth lifted to fill all of her senses after a spring rain. And then, drawing an even deeper breath, Stevie Rae let her spirit embrace the wonderful, amazing, magickal way the gift of her element made her feel. Earth was mother, counselor, sister, and friend. Earth grounded her, and even when everything else in her world was totally screwed up, she could count on her element to calm and protect her. Smiling, Stevie Rae opened her eyes. She turned to her right. “Air, I ask you to please come to my circle.” Even though she didn’t have a yellow candle, or anyone to represent air, Stevie Rae knew it was important to acknowledge and pay respect to each of the other four elements. And, if she was really lucky, they might actually show up and strengthen her circle. Facing south, she continued, “Fire, I ask that you please come to my circle.” Turning deosil, or clockwise, she called, “Water, I’d like you to please come to my circle. Then, deviating from a traditional casting, Stevie Rae stepped back a few feet to the middle of the grassy area, and said, “Spirit, this is out of order, but I’d really like it if you joined my circle, too.” Walking forward to the north, Stevie Rae was almost one hundred percent sure she caught sight of a thin silver thread of light spiraling around her. She grinned over her shoulder at Dallas. “Hey, I think it’s workin’.” “Of course it’s workin’, girl. You got some serious High Priestess mojo.” It sounded really good that Dallas kept calling her High Priestess, and Stevie Rae was still smiling when she turned back to the north. Feeling proud and strong, she finally lit the green candle, saying, “Earth, I know I’m doin’ things outta order here, but I had to save the best for last. So now I’m askin’ you to come to me like you always do, because you and me, we got a connection that’s somethin’ even more special than fireflies filling Haikey Creek Park during a summer night. Come to me, earth. Please come to me.” Earth burst around her like an exuberant puppy. Moments before the night had been cold and wet and dominated by the crippling ice storm, but now Stevie Rae felt the welcomed warmth and humidity of an Oklahoma summer night as the presence of her element dominated the fully cast circle. “Thank you!” she said joyfully. “I can’t tell you how much it means to me that I can always count on you.” Heat radiated up from under her feet, and the ice that encased the grass within the circle cracked and shattered as the blades sprang free, temporarily released from their winter prison. “Okay.” She kept her mind filled with her element and spoke to earth as if it was personified in front of her. “I gotta ask you somethin’ important. But first I’m gonna light this, ’cause I think you’ll like it a lot.” Stevie Rae held the dried sweetgrass in the flame and then set the candle at her feet when the braid took light. She blew softly on it, so that the grass began to smoke. Stevie Rae turned and, grinning at Dallas, walked around the inside of the circumference of her circle, wafting the grass until the entire area was hazy with gray smoke and heady with the scent of summertime on the prairie. When she returned to the top of the circle, Stevie Rae faced north again, the direction most closely allied with her element, and began to speak. “My friend, Zoey Redbird, said that sweetgrass draws positive energy, and I definitely need some energy tonight, ’specially since it’s for Zoey that I’m asking your help. I know you remember her—she has an affinity for you, just like she does for all the elements. She’s special, and not just ’cause she’s my BFF. Z’s special ’cause,” Stevie Rae paused, and then the words came to her, “she’s special ’cause Zoey has a little bit of everything inside her. I guess it’s kinda like she represents all of us. So we need her back. Plus, she’s hurtin’ where she is, and I think she needs help to find her way out. So her Warrior, a guy named Stark, is gonna go after her. He definitely needs your help. I’m asking that you show me the way for Stark to help Zoey. Please.” Stevie Rae wafted the still-smoking braid around her one more time, and then she waited. The smoke was sweet and thick. The night was unusually warm because of the presence of her element. But nothing else was going on. Sure, she could feel earth there, surrounding her, willing to do her bidding. But nothing was happening. At all. Not sure what else to do, Stevie Rae wafted the sweetgrass braid around her some more and tried again. “Well, maybe I wasn’t specific enough.” She thought for a second, trying to remember everything Aphrodite had told her, and added, “With the power of earth, and through the energy of this sacred grass, I call the white bull from the old days to my circle because I need to know how Stark can get to Zoey so that he can protect her while she finds a way back together and back to this world.” The sweetgrass that had been gently smoking until then turned red-hot. With a cry, Stevie Rae dropped it. Thick, black smoke billowed from the sizzling braid, like it was a snake belching darkness. Pressing her burned hand against her body, Stevie Rae stumbled back. “Stevie Rae? What’s happening?” She could hear Dallas, but when she looked behind her she couldn’t see him anymore. The smoke was just too thick. Stevie Rae turned around, trying to peer through the darkness at him, but she couldn’t see one dang thing. She looked where her burning earth candle should be, and it, too, had been covered by the smoke. Disoriented, she yelled, “I don’t know what’s goin’ on. The sweetgrass got weird all of a sudden and—” The earth beneath her feet, that tangible part of her element that Stevie Rae felt so connected to—so comfortable with—began to shake. “Stevie Rae, you need to come outta there now. I don’t like all this smoke.” “Can you feel that?” she called to Dallas. “Is the ground shakin’ out there, too?” “No, but I can’t see you, and I got a bad feeling ’bout this.” Before Stevie Rae saw it, she felt its presence. The feeling it gave her was terrifyingly familiar and in the heartbeat of an instant, Stevie Rae understood why. It reminded her of the moment she’d realized she was dying. The moment she’d begun to cough, grabbed Zoey’s hand, and said, I’m scared, Z. The echo of that terror paralyzed Stevie Rae, so that when the tip of the first horn took form and glinted at her, white and sharp and dangerous, all she could do was stare and shake her head back and forth, back and forth. “Stevie Rae! Can you hear me?” Dallas’s voice seemed to be miles away. The second horn materialized, and, along with it, the bull’s head began to form, white and massive, with eyes so black they glistened like a bottomless lake at midnight. Help me! Stevie Rae tried to say, but fear trapped the words in her throat. “That’s it. I’m comin’ in there and getting’ you, even if you don’t want me to break the circle and—” Stevie Rae felt the ripple when Dallas reached the boundary of her circle. So did the bull. The creature turned its great head and snorted a gust of fetid air into the inky smoke. The night shivered in response. “Shit! Stevie Rae, I can’t get inside the circle. Close it and get out of there!” “I-I c-c-can’t,” she stammered, her voice a broken whisper. Fully formed, the bull was a nightmare come alive. Its breath gagged Stevie Rae. Its eyes trapped her. His white coat was luminous in the all-encompassing darkness, but it wasn’t beautiful. Its brilliance was slimy, its glistening surface cold and dead. One of the beast’s enormous cloven hoofs lifted and then fell, tearing the earth with such malice that Stevie Rae felt an echo of the pain of the wound within her soul. She ripped her gaze from the bull’s eyes to stare down at his hooves. She gasped in horror. The grass around the beast was broken and blackened. Where he had pawed the earth—Stevie Rae’s earth—the ground was torn and bleeding. “No!” The dam of terror broke enough for her words to finally escape. “Stop! You’re hurting us!” The bull’s black eyes bored into hers. The voice that filled her head was deep and powerful and unimaginably malicious. “You had the power to evoke me, vampyre, and that has amused me enough that I choose to answer your question. The Warrior must look to his blood to discover the bridge to enter the Isle of Women, and then he must defeat himself to enter the arena. Only by acknowledging one before the other will he join his Priestess. After he joins her, it is her choice and not his whether she returns.” Stevie Rae swallowed her fear and blurted, “That doesn’t make sense.” “Your inability to comprehend has no bearing on me. You summoned. I answered. Now I shall claim my blood price. It has, indeed, been eons since I tasted the sweetness of vampyre blood—especially one filled with so much innocent Light.” Before Stevie Rae could begin to form any kind of response, the beast started to circle her. Tendrils of darkness slithered from the smoke surrounding him and began to snake their way toward her. When they touched her, they were like frozen razor blades slicing, tearing, ripping her flesh. Without conscious thought, she screamed one word: “Rephaim!” CHAPTER THIRTEEN Rephaim Rephaim knew the instant Darkness materialized. He’d been sitting on the rooftop balcony, eating an apple, staring up at the clear night sky and trying to ignore the annoying presence of the human ghost that had developed an unfortunate fascination with him. “Come on, tell me! Is it really fun to fly?” the young spirit asked for what Rephaim thought was probably the hundredth time. “It looks like it’d be fun. I never got to, but I’ll bet flying with your own wings is way more fun than flying in an airplane any day.” Rephaim had sighed. The child talked more than Stevie Rae, which was pretty impressive. Irritating, but impressive. He was trying to decide if he should continue to ignore her and hope she’d finally go away, or come up with an alternative plan, as ignoring the girl didn’t appear to be working. He’d thought perhaps he should ask Stevie Rae what to do about the ghost, which had turned his mind to the Red One. Though, truth be told, his thoughts were never far from her. “Is it dangerous to fly? I mean with your wings? I guess it must be because you got hurt, and I’ll bet that was from flying around . . .” The child had been babbling when the texture of the world changed. In that first, shocking moment, he felt the familiarity and believed, for the space of a heartbeat, that his father had returned. “Silence!” he roared at the ghost. He stood and whirled around, glowing red eyes glaring into the dark land surrounding him, hoping beyond words that he could glimpse the raven blackness of his father’s wings. The ghost child made a shocked squeak, cringed away from him, and disappeared. Rephaim gave her absolutely no thought. He was too busy being barraged with knowledge and emotions. First came knowledge. He knew almost immediately that it wasn’t his father he’d sensed. Yes, Kalona was powerful, and he had long allied himself with Darkness, but the disturbance this immortal was making in the world was different; it was far more powerful. Rephaim could sense it in the excited response of the dark hidden things of the earth, sprites that this modern world of man-made light and electronic magick had forgotten. But Rephaim had not forgotten them, and from the deepest of the night’s shadows, he saw ripples and quivers, and was baffled by their reaction. What could be powerful enough to arouse the hidden sprites? Then Stevie Rae’s fear hit him. It was the rawness of her complete terror coupled with the excitement of the sprites, and that instant of initial familiarity, that provided Rephaim with his answer. “By all the gods, Darkness itself has entered this realm!” Rephaim was moving before he’d made a conscious decision to do so. He burst out of the front doors of the dilapidated mansion, knocking them aside with his uninjured arm as if they were made of cardboard, only to come to a halt on the wide front porch. He had no idea of where he should go. Another wave of terror engulfed him. Experiencing it with her, Rephaim knew Stevie Rae was paralyzed by her fear. A horrible thought filled his mind: Had Stevie Rae conjured Darkness? How could she? Why would she? The answer to the most important of the three questions came as quickly as he thought it. Stevie Rae would do almost anything if she believed it would bring Zoey back. Rephaim’s heart thundered, and his blood pumped hard and fast through his body. Where was she? The House of Night? No, surely not. Were she to set about conjuring Darkness, it wouldn’t be at a school devoted to Light. “Why didn’t you come to me?” he shouted his frustration into the night. “I know Darkness; you do not!” But even as he spoke, he admitted to himself that he was wrong. Stevie Rae had been touched by Darkness when she had died. He hadn’t known her then, but he’d known Stark and had witnessed for himself the Darkness that surrounded the death and resurrection of a fledgling. “She chose Light, though.” He spoke softly this time. “And Light always underestimates the viciousness of Darkness.” The fact that I live is an example of that. Stevie Rae needed him tonight, badly. That was also a fact. “Stevie Rae, where are you?” Rephaim muttered. Only the restless stirrings of the sprites answered him. Could he coax a sprite into leading him to Darkness? No—he discarded the idea quickly. Sprites would go to Darkness if it called them. Other than that, they much preferred to feed off vestiges of power from afar. And he couldn’t afford to wait around hoping Darkness would call them. He needed to figure out— “REPHAIM!” Stevie Rae’s scream echoed eerily around him. Her voice was filled with pain and despair. The sound of it sliced through his heart. He knew his eyes blazed red. He wanted to rip and tear and destroy. The haze of scarlet rage that began to overwhelm him was a seductive escape. If he gave into anger completely, he would, indeed, become more beast than man, and this unusual, uncomfortable fear he had begun to feel for her would be drowned out by instinct and mindless violence, which he could appease by attacking the helpless humans in any of the dark houses surrounding the lifeless museum. For a while he would be sated. For a while he would not feel. And why not give in to the rage that had so often consumed his life? It would be easier—it was familiar—it was safe. If I give in to rage, it will be the end of this connection I have with her. The thought sent ripples of shock through his body. The ripples turned to bright specks of light that seared the red haze that shrouded his sight. “No!” he cried, letting the humanity of his voice beat back the beast within him. “If I abandon her to Darkness, she dies.” Rephaim drew long, slow breaths. He had to calm down. He had to think. The red haze continued to dissipate, and his mind began to reason again. I have to use our connection and our blood! Rephaim forced himself to be still and breathe in the night. He knew what he must do. He drank in one more deep breath, and then began: “I call upon the power of the spirit of ancient immortals, which is mine by birthright to command.” Rephaim steeled himself for the drain that the invocation would cause on his unhealed body, but as he drew power from the shadows of the night, he was surprised to feel a surge of energy. The night around him seemed swollen, throbbing with raw and ancient power. It gave him a sick sense of foreboding, but he used it all the same, channeling the power through him, preparing to charge it with the immortality carried in his blood, the blood that Stevie Rae now shared. But as it filled him, his body was consumed in an energy so fierce, so raw, that it knocked Rephaim to his knees. His first hint that something miraculous was happening was when he realized that he’d automatically thrown both of his hands forward to catch himself—and both arms responded, even the one that had been broken and bound to his chest with a sling. Rephaim stayed there on his knees, trembling and holding both arms out before him. His breath was coming fast as he flexed his hands. “More!” he hissed the word. “Come to me!” Dark energy surged into him again, a live current of cold violence he struggled to contain. Rephaim knew this indwelling was different than any he’d felt before when calling on the powers his father’s blood allowed him to access, but he was no callow youth. He had long trafficked with shadows and the base things that filled the night. Reaching deep within him, the Raven Mocker inhaled the energy, like the air of a midwinter’s night, and then he threw his arms wide at the same instant he unfurled his wings. Both wings responded to him. “Yes!” His joyous shout caused the shadows to writhe and quiver in ecstasy. He was whole again! The wing was completely healed! Rephaim leaped to his feet. Dark pinions completely extended, he looked like a magnificent sculpture of a godling, suddenly come to life. His body vibrating with power, the Raven Mocker continued the invocation. The air blazed scarlet as if a phosphorous mist of blood surrounded him. Swollen with borrowed Darkness, Rephaim’s voice rang in the night. “Through the immortal might of my father, Kalona, who seeded my blood and spirit with his legacy, I command this power that I wield in his name to lead me to the Red One—she who has tasted my blood, and with whom I have Imprinted and exchanged life debts. Take me to Stevie Rae! I command it so!” The mist hovered for a moment, then shifted, and like a ribbon of scarlet silk, a thin, glistening path unfurled into the air before him. Swift and sure, Rephaim took to the sky and streaked after the beckoning Darkness. He found her not far from the museum in a park shrouded by smoke and death. As he dropped silently from the sky, Rephaim wondered how the humans in the houses framing the area could be so oblivious to what had been loosed just outside the deceptive safety of their front doors. The pool of black smoke was most concentrated in the heart of the park. Rephaim could just make out the top branches of a sturdy old oak under which chaos reigned. He slowed as he drew near it, though his wings were still spread around him, tasting the air and allowing him to move soundlessly and swiftly, even on the ground. The fledgling didn’t notice him. But Rephaim realized that the boy probably wouldn’t have noticed the arrival of an army. All of his attention was focused on attempting to stab a long, lethal-looking knife through what appeared to be a circle of darkness that had coalesced into a solid wall—or at least that was how it manifested to the fledgling. Rephaim was not a fledgling; he understood Darkness much better. He skirted around the boy and, unseen, faced the circle at its northernmost point. He wasn’t sure if instinct or Stevie Rae’s influence drew him there, and acknowledged—though briefly—that the two might be becoming one. He paused, and with a single, reluctant motion, closed his wings, folding them neatly against his back. Then he held up his hand and spoke softly to the scarlet mist that was still his to command. “Cloak me. Allow me to cross the barrier.” Rephaim curled his fist around the pulsing energy that gathered there, and then, with a flick of his fingers, scattered the mist over his body. He expected the pain of it. Though there were aspects of immortal power that obeyed him, the obedience never came without a price. Very often that price was paid in pain. This time the pain burned through his newly healed body like lava, but he welcomed it because it meant his bidding had been done. There was no way to make ready for what he might find within the circle. Rephaim simply gathered himself and, covered by the inherited strength of his father’s blood, he stepped forward. The wall of darkness opened to him. Inside the circle Rephaim was engulfed in the scent of Stevie Rae’s blood and the overwhelming odor of death and decay. “Please stop! I can’t stand any more! Kill me if that’s what you want, just don’t touch me again!” He couldn’t see her, but Stevie Rae sounded utterly defeated. Acting quickly, Rephaim scooped some of the clinging scarlet mist from his body. “Go to her— strengthen her,” he whispered the command. He heard Stevie Rae gasp and was almost sure she cried his name. Then the darkness parted to reveal a sight Rephaim would never forget, even should he live to be as ancient as his father. Stevie Rae stood in the middle of the circle. Tendrils of sticky black threads wrapped around her legs. Wherever they touched her, they sliced her skin. Her jeans were ripped and hung on her body only in shreds. Blood seeped from her torn flesh. As he watched, another tendril snaked out of the soupy darkness surrounding them and lashed, whiplike, around her waist, instantly drawing a weeping line of blood. She moaned in pain, and her head lolled. Rephaim saw that her eyes had gone blank. It was then that the beast made itself known. The instant he saw it, Rephaim knew beyond all doubt that he was staring at Darkness given form. It snorted, a terrible, deafening sound. Spewing blood and mucus and smoke, the bull tore the earth with his hooves. The creature stalked to Stevie Rae from out of the densest of the black smoke. Like moonlight in a crypt, the white bull’s coat looked like death as he towered over the girl. The creature was so massive that he had to dip his huge head to allow his tongue to lick at her bleeding waist. Stevie Rae’s scream was echoed by Rephaim’s cry: “No!” The great bull paused. His head turned to the Raven Mocker; his bottomless gaze held Rephaim’s. “This night gets more and more interesting.” The voice rumbled through his mind. Rephaim forced down his fear as the bull took two steps toward him, shaking the ground as he scented the air. “I smell Darkness on you.” “Yes,” Rephaim spoke over the sound of the terrified beating of his heart. “I have long lived with Darkness.” “Odd, then, that I do not know you.” The bull scented the air around him again. “Though I have known your father.” “It is through the power of my father’s blood that I parted the dark curtain and stand before you.” He kept his eyes on the bull, but he was utterly aware that Stevie Rae was just feet away from him, bleeding and helpless. “Is it? I think you lie, birdman.” Though the voice in his mind didn’t change, Rephaim could feel the bull’s anger. Staying calm, Rephaim scooped a finger down his chest, drawing a line of red mist from his body. He held his hand up, like an offering to the bull. “This allowed me to part the dark curtain of the circle, and this power is mine to command by right of my father’s immortal blood.” “That immortal blood flows through your veins is truth. But the power that swells your body and commanded my barrier to part is borrowed from me.” Fear skittered down Rephaim’s spine. Very carefully, he bowed his head in respect and acknowledgment. “Then I thank you, though I did not call upon your power. I invoked only my father’s, as it is only his that is rightfully mine to command.” “I hear the truth in your words, son of Kalona, but why command the power of immortals to draw you here and to allow you within my circle? What business do you or your father have with Darkness tonight?” Rephaim’s body went very still, but his mind raced. Until that moment in his life, he had always drawn strength from the legacy of immortality within his blood and the cunning of the raven that had been joined with it to create him. But this night, facing Darkness, swollen with a strength that was not his own, he suddenly knew that even though it was through this creature’s power that he had been granted access to Stevie Rae, he would not save her by using Darkness, whether it came from the bull or from his father; nor could the instincts of a raven battle the beast he faced. Forces allied with it could not defeat this bull— this embodiment of Darkness. So Rephaim drew on the only thing left to him—the remnants of humanity passed to him through his dead mother’s body. He answered the bull like a human, with an honesty so raw that he thought it might cleave his heart. “I’m here because she’s here, and she belongs to me.” Rephaim’s eyes never left the bull, but he jerked his head in Stevie Rae’s direction. “I scent her on you.” The bull took another step toward Rephaim, causing the ground under them to shake. “She may belong to you, but she had the impudence to invoke me. This vampyre requested my aid, which I granted her. As you know, she must pay the price. Leave now, birdman, and I will allow you to live.” “Go on, Rephaim.” Stevie Rae’s voice was weak, but when Rephaim finally looked at her, he saw that her gaze was unwavering and lucid. “It isn’t like the rooftop. You can’t save me from this. Just go.” Rephaim should go. He knew he should. Only a few days before he couldn’t even have imagined a world where he would be facing down Darkness to attempt to save a vampyre—to attempt to save anyone except himself or his father. Yet as he stared into Stevie Rae’s soft blue eyes, what he saw was a whole new world—a world in which this strange little red vampyre meant heart and soul and truth. “Please. Don’t let him hurt you, too,” she told him. It was those words—those selfless, heartfelt, truthful words that made Rephaim’s decision for him. “I said she belongs to me. You scent her on me; you know it’s true. So I can pay her debt for her,” Rephaim said. “No!” Stevie Rae cried. “Think carefully before you make such an offer, son of Kalona. I will not kill her. It is a blood debt, not a life debt, she owes me. I will return your vampyre to you, eventually, when I am done tasting of her.” The bull’s words sickened Rephaim. Like a bloated leech, Darkness was going to feed from Stevie Rae. He was going to lick her slashed skin and taste the copper saltiness of her lifeblood—of their lifeblood, joined forever because of their Imprint. “Take my blood instead. I’ll pay her debt,” Rephaim said. “You are your father’s son. Like him, you have chosen to champion a being who can never give you what it is you seek most. So be it. I accept payment of the vampyre’s debt from you. Release her!” the bull commanded. The razorlike threads of darkness withdrew from Stevie Rae’s body and, as if they had been the only things keeping her on her feet, she crumbled to the bloodsoaked grass. Before he could move to help her, a dark tendril, cobralike, lifted from the smoke and shadows surrounding the bull. With a swiftness that was otherworldly, it lashed out, wrapping around Rephaim’s ankle. The Raven Mocker didn’t scream, though he wanted to. Instead, focusing through the blinding pain, he shouted at Stevie Rae, “Get back to the House of Night!” He saw Stevie Rae try to stand, but she slipped on her own blood and lay on the ground, crying softly. Their eyes met, and Rephaim lurched toward her, spreading his wings, determined to break from the clinging thread and at least carry her clear of the circle. Another tendril snaked out and whipped around the thick bicep of Rephaim’s newly healed arm, slicing more than an inch into the muscle. Yet another came from the shadows behind him, and Rephaim couldn’t help screaming in agony as the thing curled around his wings where they met his back, ripping and tearing and pinning him against the ground. “Rephaim!” Stevie Rae sobbed. He couldn’t see the bull, but he felt the earth tremble as the creature approached him. He turned his head, and, through a blur of pain, he saw Stevie Rae trying to crawl toward him. He wanted to tell her to stop—to say something to her that would make her run away. Then, as the searing pain of the bull’s tongue touched the wound at his ankle, Rephaim realized Stevie Rae wasn’t really trying to crawl to him. She was on her hands and knees, crablike, pressing down against the earth. Her arms were trembling, and her body was still bleeding, but her face was getting its color back. She’s pulling power from the earth, Rephaim realized with an incredible sense of relief. That would make her strong enough to get out of the circle and find her way to safety. “I’d forgotten the sweetness of immortal blood.” The bull’s decayed breath washed over Rephaim. “The vampyre’s blood held only a hint of this. I believe I will drink and drink from you, son of Kalona. You did, indeed, borrow power from Darkness tonight, so you have a greater debt to pay than just hers.” Rephaim refused to look at the creature. Held captive by the cutting threads, his body was lifted and turned so that his cheek pressed against the earth. He kept his gaze focused on Stevie Rae as the bull stood over him and began to drink from the wound at the base of his bleeding wings. Agony like he’d never before felt assaulted his body. He didn’t want to scream. He didn’t want to writhe in pain. But he couldn’t help it. Stevie Rae’s eyes were all that kept him tethered to consciousness as Darkness fed from him, violating him over and over again. When Stevie Rae stood, lifting her arms, Rephaim thought he was hallucinating because she looked so strong and powerful and so very, very angry. She clutched something in her hand—a long braid that was smoking. “I did it before. I’ll do it again.” Stevie Rae’s voice came to him as if from a long way off, but it sounded strong, too. Rephaim wondered why the bull didn’t hear her and stop her, but the creature’s moans of pleasure and the piercing pain that radiated from his back gave Rephaim the answer. The bull didn’t consider Stevie Rae a threat, and he was fixated on consuming the intoxicating blood of immortality. Let him keep taking from me; let her escape, Rephaim prayed silently to whichever of the gods might deign to hear him. “My circle’s unbroken,” Stevie Rae was speaking quickly and clearly. “Rephaim and this disgusting bull came at my command. So I command again, through the power of the earth, I call the other bull. The one who fights this one, and I’ll pay whatever I have to, just get this thing off my Raven Mocker!” Rephaim felt the creature above him pause in his feeding as a bolt of light speared through the smoky blackness in front of Stevie Rae. He saw Stevie Rae’s eyes go wide and, miraculously, she smiled and then laughed. “Yes!” she spoke joyously. “I’ll pay your price. And, dang! You’re so black and beautiful!” Still standing over him, the white bull growled. Tendrils began snaking from the darkness around Rephaim and slithering toward Stevie Rae. Rephaim opened his mouth to shout a warning, but Stevie Rae stepped directly into the shaft of light. There was a sound like a thunderclap, and then another blinding flash. From the middle of the bright explosion stepped an enormous bull, as black as the first was white. But this creature’s darkness wasn’t like that of the inky shadows that cringed away from it. This bull’s coat was the black of a midnight sky filled with the radiance of diamond stars—deep and mysterious and beautiful to behold. For an instant, the black bull’s gaze met Rephaim’s, and the Raven Mocker gasped. He’d never seen such kindness in his life; he’d never even known such kindness could exist. “Do not let her have made the wrong choice.” The new voice in his mind was as deep as the first bull’s had been, but filled with a wealth of compassion. “Because whether you are worthy or not, she has paid the price.” The black bull lowered his head and charged the white bull, hurling it off Rephaim’s body. There was a deafening crash as the two met, and then a silence so deep it, too, was deafening. The tendrils dissipated like dew from the summer sun. Stevie Rae was on her knees, reaching for him, when the smoke vanished, and the fledgling ran into the circle, knife raised and ready. “Get back, Stevie Rae! I’m gonna fucking kill it!” Stevie Rae touched the ground, and murmured, “Earth, trip him. Hard.” Over Stevie Rae’s shoulder, Rephaim saw the ground rise up right in front of the boy’s feet, and the wiry fledgling fell down face-first—hard. “Can you fly?” she whispered. “I think so,” he murmured back. “Then get back to the Gilcrease,” she said urgently. “I’ll come to you later.” Rephaim hesitated. He didn’t want to leave her so soon after they’d been through so much together. Was she really well, or had Darkness taken too much from her? “I’m okay. Promise,” Stevie Rae told him softly as if reading his mind. “Go on.” Rephaim stood. With one last look at Stevie Rae, he unfurled his wings and forced his battered body to carry him into the sky. CHAPTER FOURTEEN Stevie Rae Dallas was half carrying, half dragging Stevie Rae around the corner of the school, arguing with her about going to the infirmary instead of just back to her room, when Kramisha and Lenobia, who were walking toward Nyx’s Temple, caught sight of them. “Sweet weeping baby Jesus, you is messed up!” Kramisha yelled, stumbling to a halt. “Dallas, let’s get her to the infirmary!” Lenobia said. Unlike Kramisha, she didn’t freeze at the bloody sight of Stevie Rae; instead, she hurried to her other side and helped Dallas support her weight, automatically angling them toward the infirmary entrance. “Look, no, y’all. Just take me to my room. I need a phone, not a doctor. And I can’t find my dang cell phone.” “You can’t find it because that bird thing ripped almost all your clothes off of you, along with your skin. Your cell’s probably back at the park smooshed in the ground that’s still soaked with your blood. You’re goin’ to the damn infirmary.” “I have a phone. You can use mine,” Kramisha said, catching up to them. “You can use Kramisha’s phone, but Dallas is right. You can’t even stand by yourself. You’re going to the infirmary,” Lenobia said firmly. “Fine. Whatever. Get me to a chair or somethin’ so I can make a call. You have Aphrodite’s number, don’t you?” she asked Kramisha “Yeah. But don’t think that makes us friends or anything,” Kramisha muttered. As they headed into the infirmary, Lenobia’s sharp gaze kept returning to Stevie Rae’s battered body. “You’re in bad shape. Again,” she said. Then Dallas’s words seemed to catch up with her, and the Horse Mistress’s gray eyes widened in shock. “Did you say a bird did this?” “Bird thing,” Dallas said at the same time Stevie Rae said, “No!” “Dallas, I do not have the time or the energy to argue with you ’bout this right now.” “You mean you didn’t see what happened to her?” Lenobia asked. “No. There was too much smoke and darkness; I couldn’t see her, and I couldn’t get into the circle to help her. And when it all cleared she was like this and a bird thing was crouching over her.” “Dallas, stop talkin’ ’bout me like I’m not here! And he wasn’t crouched over me. He was lyin’ on the ground next to me.” Lenobia started to speak, but they’d reached the infirmary, and Sapphire, the tall, blond nurse who had been promoted to head of the hospital in the absence of a Healer, greeted them with her usual sour expression, which quickly changed to shock. “Put her in there!” she ordered briskly, pointing into a newly emptied hospital-style room. They laid Stevie Rae on the bed, and Sapphire started to yank stuff out of one of the metal cabinets. One of the things she grabbed was a baggie of blood she tossed to Lenobia. “Make her drink this immediately.” No one said anything for the few seconds it took for Lenobia to rip open the blood bag and help support Stevie Rae’s shaking hands as she held it to her mouth and drank greedily. “I’m gonna need some more of that,” Stevie Rae said. “And, like I said before, a dang phone. Right away.” “I need to see what’s sliced up your body like that, made you lose entirely too much blood, which you need to replace right away, and figure out why the blood that’s still dripping out of your body smells completely wrong,” said Sapphire. “Raven Mocker! That’s the name of that thing,” Dallas said. “A Raven Mocker attacked you?” Lenobia said. “No. And that’s what I’ve been tryin’ to get through Dallas’s thick skull. Darkness attacked me and a Raven Mocker.” “And like I said, you’re not making no damn sense. I saw that bird thing. I saw your blood. These definitely look like slash wounds from that beak of his. I didn’t see anything else!” Dallas practically shouted. “You didn’t see anything because Darkness was covering everything inside the circle, including me and the Raven Mocker while it attacked both of us!” Stevie Rae yelled her frustration at him. “Why does it sound like you keep standing up for that thing?” Dallas said, throwing up his hands. “You know what, Dallas, you can just kiss my butt! I’m not standing up for anyone except myself. It’s not like you could manage to get inside the circle to help me out—I had to do it myself!” There was a long silence while Dallas stared at her with hurt clearly visible in his eyes, and then Sapphire spoke in her sharp, shitty bedside voice, “Dallas, you need to leave. I’m going to cut what’s left of these clothes off her, and it’s not appropriate for you to be in here.” “But I—” “You’ve brought your High Priestess home. You did well,” Lenobia told him, touching his arm gently. “Now let us care for her.” “Dallas, uh, why don’t you go get somethin’ to eat? I’ll be fine,” Stevie Rae said, already sorry she’d taken out on him the frustration fear and guilt were making her feel. “Yeah, all right. I’m goin’.” “Hey, Lenobia’s right,” Stevie Rae called after him as he slouched from the room. “You did good bringin’ me home.” He glanced over his shoulder at her just before he closed the door, and she thought she’d never seen his eyes look so sad. “Anything for you, girl.” The door had barely closed behind him when Lenobia’s voice shot out. “Explain about the Raven Mocker.” “Yeah, I thought they was all gone,” Kramisha said. “The two of you may stay. Margareta has gone to replenish our supplies from St. John’s Hospital, so I can use the extra hands, but you’ll have to talk while you help me,” Sapphire told them, handing Lenobia another baggie o’ blood. “Open this for her. Kramisha, go over there, wash your hands, and then start handing me those alcohol-soaked cotton balls.” Kramisha shot Sapphire a raised-brow look, but she went to the sink. Lenobia ripped open the bag and gave it to Stevie Rae, who drank slowly, buying herself some time. With a ripping sound that seemed too loud for the room, Sapphire cut away what remained of Stevie Rae’s pants and her Don’t hate the 918 T-shirt. Stevie Rae felt everyone’s eyes staring at her mostly bare body. She wished she’d worn a better bra, shifted nervously, and said, “Dang, I loved those Cowgirl U jeans. I hate to think about havin’ to go back to Thirty-first and Memorial to Drysdales to get me another pair. The traffic always sucks in that part of town.” “Maybe you should expand your fashion sense. Little Black Dress on Cherry Street is closer, and they got them some cute jeans that ain’t from the nineties,” Kramisha said. Three pairs of eyes shifted momentarily to her. “What?” she shrugged. “Everbody knows Stevie Rae needs a make-over.” “Thanks, Kramisha. That makes me feel lots better, seein’ as how I just almost died and all.” Stevie Rae rolled her eyes at Kramisha as she stifled a smile. But the truth was that Kramisha had made her feel better—normal better. And then Stevie Rae realized that she was, truly, feeling better. The blood had warmed her, and she didn’t feel nearly as weak as she had just minutes before. Actually, she was kinda buzzing inside, like her blood was pumping super strong and surging all throughout her body. It’s Rephaim’s blood—the part of it that’s mixed with mine is feeding off the human blood and giving me power. “Stevie Rae, you seem to be awake and aware,” Lenobia said. Stevie Rae refocused on her external world to find the Horse Mistress studying her carefully. “Yeah, I’m definitely feelin’ better, and I need a phone. Kramisha, let me borrow—” “I’m cleaning these wounds first, and I promise you that you’re not going to be able to chat on the phone while I do that,” Sapphire said with what Stevie Rae thought was too much smug satisfaction. “So wait until after I call Aphrodite to mess with me,” Stevie Rae said. “Kramisha, dig in that giant bag of yours and get me your dang phone.” “It cannot wait,” Sapphire snapped. “Your wounds are severe. You have lacerations from your ankles to your waist. They need to be cleansed. Many of them need stitches. You need to drink more blood. Actually, it would be preferable if we brought in one of the human volunteers for you to feed from directly—that would help in the healing process.” “Human? Volunteers?” Stevie Rae gulped. Stuff like that went on at the House of Night? “Don’t be na?ve,” was all Sapphire said. “I’m not drinking from some stranger!” Stevie Rae said with more vehemence than she’d meant to show, drawing raised-eyebrow looks from Lenobia and Kramisha. “What I mean is—I’ll be fine with blood baggies. It’s too weird to think about drinking from someone I don’t know, ’specially so soon after, well, you know . . .” She trailed off. The three women would think she was talking about the recent breaking of her Imprint with Aphrodite. But she wasn’t thinking of Aphrodite—that was ridiculous. Stevie Rae was thinking that the only one she wanted to drink from, needed to drink from, was Rephaim. “Your blood smells wrong,” Lenobia said. Stevie Rae’s thoughts cleared, and her gaze went immediately to the Horse Mistress. “Wrong? What do you mean?” “There is something strange about it,” Sapphire agreed as she began cleaning the deep slashes with the alcohol-drenched cotton balls Kramisha handed her. Stevie Rae sucked in a breath at the pain. Through gritted teeth, she said, “I’m a red vampyre. My blood’s different than yours.” “Nope, they’s right. Your blood smells weird,” Kramisha said, averting her eyes from Stevie Rae’s wounds and wrinkling her nose. Stevie Rae thought quickly, and said, “It’s because he drank from me.” “Who? The Raven Mocker!” Lenobia said. “No!” Stevie Rae denied, then hurried on. “Like I kept tryin’ to tell Dallas, the Raven Mocker didn’t do anything to me. He was a victim, too.” “Stevie Rae, what happened to you?” Lenobia asked. Stevie Rae drew a deep breath and launched into a mostly true story. “I went to the park ’cause I was tryin’ to get info from the earth that would help Zoey because Aphrodite asked me to. There’re these really old vamp beliefs, somethin’ Warrior-based and not cool anymore, that she thinks can help Stark get himself to Zoey in the Otherworld.” “But Stark can’t enter the Otherworld without dying,” Lenobia said. “Yeah, that’s what everyone says, but recently Aphrodite and I found out about this really old stuff that might help him get there alive. The religion, or whatever you want to call it, was supposed to be represented by cows—I mean bulls. A white one and a black one.” Remembering, Stevie Rae shuddered. “Aphrodite, bein’ a total pain in the butt, failed to tell me the dang white bull was bad and the dang black bull was good, so I called up the bad bull accidentally.” Lenobia’s face had gone so pale it almost looked transparent. “Oh, Goddess! You evoked Darkness?” “You know about this stuff?” Stevie Rae asked. In what seemed like an unconscious movement, one of Lenobia’s hands lifted to touch the back of her neck. “I know a little of Darkness, and as Mistress of Horses, I know more than a little about beasts.” Sapphire swabbed at the cut that snaked around Stevie Rae’s waist, making her wince. “Ah, crap, that hurts!” She closed her eyes momentarily, trying to focus through the pain. When she opened them, she saw that Lenobia was studying her with an expression she couldn’t read, but before she could form the right question, the Horse Mistress asked one of her own. “What was the Raven Mocker doing there? You said it didn’t attack you, but it certainly wouldn’t have any reason to attack Darkness.” “ ’Cause they on the same side,” Kramisha added, nodding thoughtfully. “I don’t know about sides and all, but the bad bull attacked the Raven Mocker.” Stevie Rae drew a deep breath, and continued, “Actually, the Raven Mocker showin’ up was what saved me. He just kinda fell from the sky and distracted the bull long enough for me to draw power from the earth so I could call up the good bull.” Stevie Rae couldn’t help smiling as she talked about that amazing beast. “I’d never seen anything like him before. He was so beautiful and kind and so, so wise. He went after the white bull, and both of them disappeared. Then Dallas was able to get inside the circle to me, and the Raven Mocker flew away.” “But what you’re saying is that before the Raven Mocker got there, the white bull drank your blood?” Lenobia said. Stevie Rae had to suppress another shudder of remembered revulsion. “Yeah. He said I owed him payment because he answered my question. That’s probably why my blood smells weird, ’cause you can still smell him on me, and let me tell you, he reeked. And that’s also why I need to make that phone call. The bull did answer my question, and I gotta talk to Aphrodite.” “You might as well let her call. She don’t need them stitches anyway. Her cuts are closing up already,” Kramisha said, pointing to the first slashes Darkness had made around her ankles. Stevie Rae glanced down, but she knew what she’d see before she looked. She’d already felt it—Rephaim’s blood was spreading its warmth and strength throughout her body, causing her torn flesh to begin drawing together and repair itself. “That’s incredibly unusual. And much like the rapid rate at which you healed from your burn wounds,” Sapphire said. Stevie Rae made herself meet the vampyre nurse’s gaze. “I’m a red vampyre High Priestess. There’s never been anyone like me before, so I guess we can say I’m setting the learning curve for all of us. We must heal fast.” She flipped the edge of the sheet over her body and then held her hand out to Kramisha. “I need your phone now.” Without another word, Kramisha walked over to where she’d dropped her purse, dug out her cell phone, and gave it to Stevie Rae. “Aphrodite’s listed under the B’s.” Stevie Rae punched in the number. Aphrodite picked up on the third ring. “Yes, it is too damn early to call, and no, I do not care about whatever stupid poem you just wrote, Kramisha.” “It’s me.” Aphrodite’s sarcastic tone instantly changed. “What happened?” “Did you know the white bull’s bad and the black bull’s good?” “Yeah. Didn’t I tell you that part?” Aphrodite said. “No, which really sucked ’cause I called the white bull to my circle.” “Uh-oh. That’s seriously not good. What happened?” “Not good? Try understatement of the dang decade, Aphrodite. It was bad. Really, really bad.” Stevie Rae wanted to tell Lenobia and Sapphire and even Kramisha to go away so she could talk to Aphrodite in private, and then maybe have a really good breakdown and bawl her eyes out; but she knew they needed to hear what she had to say. Sadly, bad stuff didn’t go away just because it was ignored. “Aphrodite, it’s evil like nothing I’ve seen before. It makes Neferet look like a trick-or-treat kid.” She ignored Sapphire’s indignant snort and kept talking quickly. “And it’s powerful beyond belief. I couldn’t fight it. I don’t think anything can fight it except the other bull.” “So how did you get away from it?” Aphrodite paused for half a heartbeat, and then added, “You are away from it, aren’t you? You’re not all under its spell so that you’re being used like a sock puppet for evil with a bumpkin accent, right?” “That’s just silly, Aphrodite.” “Still, say something to prove you’re really you.” “You called me a retard last time we talked. More than once. And said I was asstarded, which is not even a word. I’m still tellin’ you that’s not nice.” “Fine. It’s you. So how did you get away from the bull?” “I managed to call up the good bull, and he is as really, really good as the other one is bad. He fought it, and they both disappeared.” “So you didn’t learn anything?” “Yeah, I did.” Stevie Rae squinted while she concentrated hard, wanting to be sure she remembered word for word what the white bull had said. “I asked how Stark could get to Zoey so that he can protect her while she gets herself together and comes back here. This is what the bull said: ‘The Warrior must look to his blood to discover the bridge to enter the Isle of Women, and then he must defeat himself to enter the arena. Only by acknowledging one before the other will he join his Priestess. After he joins her, it is her choice and not his whether she returns.’ ” “He said Isle of Women? Are you sure about that?” “Yeah, I’m positive. That’s exactly what he said.” “Good. Okay. Uh, hang on, I’m writing this all down so I don’t forget any of it.” Stevie Rae could hear Aphrodite scribbling on a piece of paper. When she was done, her voice was filled with excitement. “This means we are on the right track! But how the hell does Stark find a bridge by looking at blood? And what does that stuff about him having to defeat himself mean?” Stevie Rae sighed. A massive headache had started to throb between her temples. “I don’t have a clue, but getting that answer almost killed me, so it has to mean somethin’ important.” “Then Stark better figure it out.” Aphrodite hesitated before saying, “If the black bull is so super good, why don’t you just call it back again and—” “No!” Stevie Rae spoke with such force she caused everyone in the room to jump. “Never again. And you shouldn’t let anyone else conjure either of those bulls. The price is too much.” “What do you mean, the price is too much?” Aphrodite said. “I mean they’re too powerful. They can’t be controlled, whether they’re good or bad. Aphrodite, there’re some things that weren’t meant to be messed with, and those bulls are part of those things. Plus, I’m not so sure one can be called up without the other eventually showing up, and believe me, you don’t want to ever, ever meet that white bull.” “Okay, okay—relax. I get what you’re saying, and I can tell you I have a kinda creepy feeling just talking about those bulls. I think you’re right. Don’t stress. No one’s gonna do anything except try to help Stark find a blood bridge to the Isle of Skye.” “Aphrodite, I don’t think it’s a blood bridge. That doesn’t even sound right.” Stevie Rae rubbed her face and was surprised to see that her hand was shaking. “Enough for now,” Lenobia whispered. “You’re strong, but you’re not immortal.” Stevie Rae’s gaze shot to hers, but she saw nothing in the Horse Mistress’s gray eyes except concern. “Hey, uh, I gotta go for now. I’m not feelin’ so good.” “Oh, for crap’s sake. You’re not almost dying again, are you? It’s seriously inconvenient when you do that.” “No, I am not almost dyin’. Not anymore. And you are not even almost nice. At all. I’ll call you later. Tell everyone I said hi.” “Yeah, I’ll spread the love. Goodbye, bumpkin.” “Bye.” Stevie Rae punched the CALL END button, gave Kramisha her phone, and then leaned heavily back on her pillow. “Uh, do y’all mind if maybe I sleep for a while?” “Drink one more of these.” Sapphire gave Stevie Rae another bag of blood. “Then sleep. Both of you need to leave and let her rest.” The vampyre nurse swept the bloody alcohol cotton balls into a trash bag, snapped off her latex gloves, went to the doorway, and stood, tapping her foot and giving Lenobia and Kramisha the stank eye. “I’ll come back and check on you after you’ve rested,” Lenobia said. “Sounds good.” Stevie Rae smiled at her. Lenobia squeezed her hand before leaving. When Kramisha leaned close to her, Stevie Rae thought for one awkward, shocked second the kid was going to hug her—or worse, maybe even kiss her. Instead, Kramisha met her eyes and whispered: “See with the soul and not your eyes because to dance with beasts you must penetrate their disguise.” Stevie Rae suddenly felt cold. “I guess I should have listened to you better. Maybe I would’ve known I was callin’ the wrong cow,” she whispered back. Kramisha’s gaze was sharp and knowing. “Maybe you still should. Somethin’ inside me says you ain’t done dancing with beasts.” Then she straightened up, and in a normal voice, said, “Get some sleep. You gonna need all your good sense tomorrow.” When the door closed, leaving her alone, Stevie Rae breathed an exhausted sigh of relief. Methodically, she drank the last baggie of blood and then pulled the hospital blanket up around her neck and curled on her side and, with a sigh, slowly twirled a blond curl around and around one finger. She was utterly exhausted. Apparently all of the power in Rephaim’s blood had worn her the heck out while it fixed her. Rephaim . . . Stevie Rae would never, ever forget what he looked like when he’d confronted Darkness for her. He’d been so strong and brave and good. It didn’t matter that Dallas and Lenobia and the whole dang world believed he was on the side of Darkness. It didn’t matter that his daddy was a fallen Warrior of Nyx who had chosen evil centuries ago. None of that mattered. She’d seen the truth. He’d willingly sacrificed himself for her. He might not have chosen Light, but he had definitely rejected Darkness. She’d been right to save him that day outside the abbey, and she’d also been right to call the white bull and save him today—no matter the cost to her. Rephaim was worth saving. Wasn’t he? He had to be. After what had happened today, he had to be. Her finger stilled, and her eyes started to flutter shut even though she didn’t want to think anymore or to dream—didn’t want to remember that terrifying Darkness and the pain that had been so unimaginable. But her eyes did close, and the memory of Darkness and what he’d done to her did come. As she struggled against the unyielding pull of utter exhaustion, from the middle of that circle of terror Stevie Rae heard his voice again: “I’m here because she’s here, and she belongs to me.” And that simple statement chased her fear away, allowing the memory of Darkness to give way to the rescue of Light. Just before Stevie Rae fell into a deep, dreamless sleep, she thought of the beautiful black bull and the payment he had exacted from her, and, again, Rephaim’s words played through her mind: “I’m here because she’s here, and she belongs to me.” With her last waking thought, she wondered if Rephaim would ever know how ironically true his words had suddenly become for them . . . CHAPTER FIFTEEN Stark As Stark awoke, just for a second he didn’t remember. All he knew was that Zoey was there, in bed, beside him. He smiled sleepily and turned, reaching an arm out to pull her close to him. The chilled, lifeless feel of her unresponsive flesh brought him fully awake, and reality crashed and burned the last of his dreams. “Finally. You know, you red vampyres might be all strong and whatever at night, but during the day you sleep creepily like the dead. Hello, I have one word for you: stereotypical.” Stark sat up, scowling at Aphrodite, who was sitting in one of the creamcolored velvet chairs, long legs crossed gracefully, sipping a cup of steaming tea. “Aphrodite, why are you in here?” Instead of answering him, her gaze went to Zoey. “She hasn’t moved at all since it happened, has she?” Stark got out of bed and gently tucked the blanket back around Zoey. He touched her cheek with his fingertips and kissed the only Mark left on her body, an ordinary fledgling’s crescent tattoo in the middle of her forehead. It’s okay if you come back as a regular fledgling. Just come back, he thought as his lips brushed her Mark. Then he straightened and faced Aphrodite. “No. She hasn’t moved. She can’t. She’s not here. And we have seven days to figure out how to get her back.” “Six,” Aphrodite corrected. Stark swallowed hard. “Yeah, you’re right. It’s six now.” “Okay, come on then. Clearly we don’t have time to waste.” Aphrodite got up and started out of the room. “Where’re we going?” Stark started following her but kept glancing back over his shoulder at Zoey. “Hey, you gotta snap out of it. You said it yourself: Zoey’s not here. So stop gawking at her like you’re a little lost puppy.” “I love her! Do you even know what the hell that means?” Aphrodite stopped and turned to face him. “Love doesn’t have shit to do with it. You’re her Warrior. That means more than ‘I heart Zoey,’ ” she said sarcastically, using air quotes. “I have my own Warrior, so I do know what that means, and here’s the truth: if my soul was shattered, and I was stuck in the Otherworld, I wouldn’t want Darius to boo-hoo about it and be all heartbroken. I’d want him to get the hell to work and figure out how to do his job, which is to stay alive and protect me so that I can figure out a way to get home! Now are you coming or not?” She flipped her hair, turned her back to him, and started twitching down the hall. Stark closed his mouth and went after her. They walked silently for a while as Aphrodite led him down some stairs, around increasingly narrow corridors, and down more stairs. “Where are we going?” Stark asked again. “Well, it feels like a dungeon. Smells like mold and kinda weird b.o., the institutional decor is suitable for either a prison or a hospital psych ward, and it makes Damien think he’s died and gone to dork heaven. So take a guess.” “We’re going back to human high school?” “Close,” she said, her lips lifting in a hint of a smile. “We’re going to a really old library filled with the frantically studying nerd herd.” Stark let out a long breath in a loud sigh to keep himself from laughing. Sometimes he almost liked Aphrodite—not that he’d ever admit it. Stark Aphrodite had been right—the basement of the palace did remind him of a tacky public school media center, minus the foldout windows and cheap, ratty miniblinds, which was weird as hell because the rest of San Clemente Island was over-the-top rich. Down in the basement, though, there were just a bunch of worn wooden tables, hard benches, bare white stone walls, and tons and tons of shelves filled with a zillion different sizes, shapes, and styles of books. Zoey’s friends were clustered around one big table that was overflowing with books, pop cans, crumpled bags of chips, and one humongous tub full of red licorice whips. Stark thought they look tired but totally wired on sugar and caffeine. As he and Aphrodite walked up, Jack was holding up a large leather book and pointing to an illustration. “Check it out—this is a copy of a painting of a Greek High Priestess named Calliope. It says she was also the Poet Laureate after Sappho. Doesn’t she look exactly like Cher?” “Wow, that’s insane. She does look just like young Cher,” Erin said. “Yeah, before she started wearing those white wigs. What the hell’s up with that?” Shaunee said. Damien gave the Twins a look. “There is nothing wrong with Cher. Absolutely. Nothing.” “Uh-oh,” Shaunee said. “Stepped on a gay nerve,” Erin agreed. “I had a Cher Barbie doll. I loved that doll,” Jack said. “Barbies, herd of nerd? Seriously? You’re supposed to be saving Z, remember?” Aphrodite said, shaking her head in disgust and curling up her lip at the licorice whips. “We’ve been at it all day. We’re just taking a little break. Thanatos and Darius went out for more food,” Damien said. “We have made some headway, but I’ll wait until they get back to report everything.” He waved at Stark, and his “hi” was echoed by the other kids. “Yeah, don’t be so judgmental, Aphrodite. We’ve been working hard, you’ll see.” “You’re talking about dolls,” Aphrodite said. “Barbies,” Jack corrected her. “And just for a second. Plus, Barbies are cool and an important part of American culture.” He nodded in emphasis and clutched the “Cher” portrait to his chest. “Especially celebrity Barbies.” “Celebrity Barbies would only be important if they had interesting accoutrements you could buy with them,” Aphrodite said. “Accoutre-whats?” Shaunee said. “You sound like you swallowed a French guy and are trying to spit him out,” Erin said, and the Twins giggled. “Left and right brain—listen up. Interesting accoutrements equals cool stuff, like unusual accessories,” Aphrodite said, picking delicately at a chip. “Okay, if you don’t know anything about Barbies, your mother seriously hated you,” Erin said. “Not that we don’t understand that,” Shaunee added. “ ’Cause everyone who even had one Barbie knows you can buy stuff for them,” Erin finished. “Yeah, cool stuff,” Jack agreed. “Not cool by my definition,” Aphrodite said with a superior smirk. “What’s cool by your definition?” Jack asked, making Shaunee and Erin groan. “Well, since you asked—I’d say it would be cool if Barbie made a Barbra Streisand doll, but you’d have to buy her fingernails and nose separately. And her fake nails would come in lots of different color choices.” There was a shocked silence, and then Jack, sounding awed, whispered, “That would be cool.” Aphrodite looked smug. “And how about a bald Britney Spears doll that had extras like an umbrella, a fat suit, weird wigs, and, of course, optional panties.” “Eww,” Jack said, and then giggled. “Yeah, and a Paris Hilton doll that had an optional brain.” Aphrodite raised her brow at him. “Don’t go all crazy. There are some things even Paris Hilton can’t buy.” Stark stood there, dumbfounded, and when they all burst into giggles, he thought his brain was going to explode. “What the hell is wrong with all of you?” he yelled at them. “How can you laugh and joke like this? You’re focusing on toys when Zoey is days away from dying!” Into the shocked silence, Thanatos’s voice sounded abnormally loud. “No, Warrior. They’re not focusing on toys. They’re focusing on life and being among the living.” The vampyre stepped from the doorway, where she and Darius had been silently observing the kids. Darius followed her, placing a tray filled with sandwiches and fruit in the middle of the table. He then joined Aphrodite’s side of the wooden bench. “And take it from someone who knows more than a little about death—focusing on life is what you should do if you want to keep drawing breath in this world.” Damien cleared his voice, calling Stark’s glare to him. Unruffled, the fledgling met his eyes, and said, “Yeah, that’s just one of the things we learned from all the studying we’ve been doing.” “While you were sleeping,” Shaunee murmured. “And we weren’t,” Erin added. “So, what we found out from our research,” Damien broke in before Stark could say anything to the Twins, “is that whenever a High Priestess suffered such a shock that her soul shattered, her Warrior didn’t seem to be able to stay alive.” Barbies and bickering Twins forgotten, Stark’s face was a question mark as he stared at Damien and tried to make sense of what he was hearing. “Do you mean the Warriors all dropped dead?” “In a way,” Damien said. “Some of them killed themselves so that they knew they could follow their High Priestesses to the Otherworld and continue to protect them there,” Thanatos took up the explanation. “But it didn’t work because none of the High Priestesses returned, right?” Stark said. “Correct. What we know from Priestesses who, through their affinity for spirit, have journeyed to the Otherworld is that those lost High Priestesses couldn’t bear the death of their Warriors. Some of them were able to heal their souls in the Otherworld, but they chose to remain there with their Warriors.” “Some of them healed,” Stark said slowly. “What happened to the High Priestesses who didn’t?” Zoey’s friends shifted uncomfortably, but Thanatos’s voice remained steady. “As you learned yesterday, if a soul remains shattered, the person becomes Caoinic Shi’, a being that will never rest.” “It’s like a zombie, without the eating people part,” Jack said softly and then shuddered. “That can’t happen to Zoey,” Stark said. He’d sworn to protect Zoey, and if he had to, he would follow that Oath into the Otherworld to be sure she didn’t become some kind of horrible zombie thing. “But even though the end result was the same, not all of the Warriors killed themselves to follow their High Priestesses,” Damien said. “Tell me about the others,” Stark said. Unable to sit, he paced back and forth in front of the table. “Well, it was pretty obvious that no Warrior or High Priestess returned when the Warrior killed himself, so we found records of Warriors who had done lots of different things to try to get themselves into the Otherworld,” Damien said. “Some of them were crazy—like one who starved himself until he was delirious, then he kinda left his body,” Jack said. “He died,” Shaunee said. “Yeah, the story was gross. He did lots of screaming and was hallucinating and stuff about his High Priestess and what she was going through before he actually croaked,” Erin said. “You. Are. Not. Helping,” Aphrodite told them. “Some of the Warriors did drugs to put themselves in a trancelike state, and they actually managed to get their spirits to leave this world,” Damien continued, while the Twins rolled their eyes at Aphrodite. “But they couldn’t enter the Otherworld. We know because they came back to their bodies long enough to tell witnesses that they’d failed.” Damien stopped there, glancing at Thanatos. She took up the story. “Then the Warriors died. Each of them.” “Failing to protect their High Priestesses killed them,” Stark said, his voice completely expressionless. “No, turning their back on life killed them,” Darius corrected. Stark turned to him. “Wouldn’t you? If Aphrodite died because you couldn’t protect her, wouldn’t you choose death rather than live life without her?” Aphrodite didn’t give Darius a chance to answer. “I would be super pissed if he died! That’s what I was trying to tell you upstairs. You can’t keep looking behind you—not at Zoey, not at the past, not even back to your Oath. You have to go forward and find a new way of living, a new way of protecting her.” “Then tell me something, anything that you found in all these damn books that can help me instead of just showing me how other Warriors failed.” “I’ll tell you something I didn’t read in a book. Stevie Rae accidentally evoked the white bull last night.” “Darkness! A fledgling called Darkness into this world?” Thanatos looked like Aphrodite had just exploded a bomb in the middle of the room. “She’s not a fledgling. She’s like Stark, a red vampyre, but yes. She did. In Tulsa. It was an accident.” Ignoring Thanatos’s shocked stare, Aphrodite pulled a slip of paper from her pocket, and read: “The bull said: ‘The Warrior must look to his blood to discover the bridge to enter the Isle of Women, and then he must defeat himself to enter the arena. Only by acknowledging one before the other will he join his Priestess. After he joins her, it is her choice and not his whether she returns.’” Aphrodite looked up. “Anyone have a clue what that might mean?” She waved the paper around, and Damien took it, already rereading as Jack peeked over his shoulder. “What price did Darkness exact for such knowledge?” Thanatos asked. Her face had gone absolutely white. “And how did she survive the payment of it without losing her mind or her soul?” “That’s what I wondered myself, especially after Stevie Rae told me how bad the white bull was. She said she didn’t think anything could defeat it except for the black bull, which was how she got away from it.” “She evoked the black bull, too?” Thanatos said. “That is almost unbelievable.” “Stevie Rae has some mad earth skillz,” Jack said. “Yeah, that’s how she said she got the good bull to Tulsa. She drew power from the earth to call it,” Aphrodite said. “And you trust this Stevie Rae vampyre?” Aphrodite hesitated. “Most of the time.” Stark expected at least one of the kids to jump in and correct Aphrodite, but they all stayed quiet until Damien said, “Why do you ask about trusting Stevie Rae?” “Because of the few things I know about the ancient beliefs of Light and Darkness symbolized in the bulls, one is that they always exact a price for their favors. Always. Answering Stevie Rae’s question was a favor from Darkness.” “But she called up the good bull and it kicked the bad bull’s butt. That kept Stevie Rae from paying a price to him,” Jack said. “So she then owed payment to the black bull,” Thanatos said. Aphrodite’s eyes narrowed. “That’s what she was talking about when she said she wouldn’t ever evoke either of the bulls again because the price was too high.” “I think you should look to your friend and discover what payment she rendered the black bull,” Thanatos said. “And why she wouldn’t tell me about it,” Aphrodite added. Thanatos’s eyes looked old and sad as she said, “Just remember, there are consequences for everything, whether good or bad.” “Can we stop looking back at what has happened with Stevie Rae?” Stark said. “I need to move forward. To Skye and a bridge of blood. So let’s get going.” “Whoa, big boy,” Aphrodite told him. “Settle for a second. You can’t just show up on the Isle of Women and bumble around looking for a bloody bridge. Sgiach’s protective spell will kick your butt—as in kill you dead.” “I don’t think Stark’s supposed to be looking for something literal,” said Damien, studying Aphrodite’s note again. “It says to look to your blood to discover the bridge, not look for a blood bridge.” “Ugh, metaphor. Just one more reason I seriously hate poetry,” Aphrodite said. “I’m good at metaphors,” Jack said. “Let me see.” Damien handed him the paper. Jack chewed his lip while he read the line again. “Hmm, if you were Imprinted with someone, I’d say it meant that we should talk to whoever that is, and maybe they’d know something.” “I’m not Imprinted with anyone,” Stark said, starting to pace again. “So that might mean that we need to look at who you are—that there’s something about you that’s a key to getting onto Sgiach’s island,” Damien said. “I don’t know anything! That’s the problem!” “Okay—okay, how about we look at the notes we made about Sgiach to see if there’s something there that rings a bell with you,” Jack said, making consolatory motions at Stark. “Yeah, chill out,” Shaunee said. “Take a seat and have a sandwich.” Erin gestured to the end of their bench with the sandwich she’d begun munching on. “Eat,” Thanatos said, taking a sandwich and sitting beside Jack. “Focus on life.” Stark suppressed a frustrated growl, grabbed a sandwich, and sat. “Oh, pull out that chart we made,” Jack said, peeking over Damien’s shoulder as he flipped through the notes he’d made. “Some of this stuff gets confusing, and visual aids always help.” “Good idea—here it is.” Damien ripped out a piece of paper from the yellow legal pad he’d almost filled with notes. At the top of it he’d drawn a big, open umbrella. On one side of the umbrella he’d written LIGHT and on the opposite side, DARKNESS. “The umbrella of Light and Darkness is a good image,” Thanatos said. “It shows that the two forces are all-encompassing.” “That was my idea,” Jack said, turning a little pink. Damien smiled at him. “Well done, you.” Then he pointed at the column beneath Light. “So under the force of Light I’ve listed: good, the black bull, Nyx, Zoey, and us.” He paused, and everyone nodded. “And under Darkness I have: evil, the white bull, Neferet/Tsi Sgili, Kalona, and Raven Mockers.” “I see you have Sgiach placed in the middle,” Thanatos said. “Yeah, along with onion rings, Hostess Ding Dongs, and my name,” Aphrodite said. “Just what the hell does that mean?” “Well, I don’t think we’ve decided if Sgiach is a force for Light or Darkness,” Damien said. “I added the onion rings and Ding Dongs,” Jack said. When everyone just stared at him, he shrugged and explained, “Onion rings are deep-fried and fattening, but an onion is a vegetable. So aren’t they good for you? Maybe? And, well, Ding Dongs are chocolate, but they have cream in the middle. Isn’t that dairy and healthy?” “I think you’re brain-damaged,” Aphrodite said. “We added your name,” Erin said. “Yeah, ’cause we think you’re like Rachel on Glee,” Shaunee said. “Super annoying, but she has to be in the show ’cause sometimes she comes up with good stuff and kinda sorta saves the day.” “But we think she’s still a hag from hell. Like you,” Erin finished, giving Aphrodite a sugary smile.” “Anyway”—Damien quickly erased onion rings, Ding Dongs, and Aphrodite’s name, put the chart in the middle of the table, and then went back to the yellow pad—“here’s some info we found about Sgiach,” Damien said, scanning through the notes he’d made. “She is considered a queen of Warriors. Lots of Warriors used to train on her island, so a bunch of Sons of Erebus came and went, but the Warriors who stayed with her, the ones sworn to her service—” “Hang on, Sgiach had more than one Oath Sworn Warrior?” Stark interrupted. Damien nodded. “Apparently she had a whole Clan of them. Only they didn’t call themselves Sons of Erebus. Their title was . . .” Damien paused, flipping pages. “Here it is. They were called Guardians of the Ace.” “Why Ace?” Stark asked. “It’s a metaphor,” Aphrodite said, rolling her eyes. “Another one. It’s what they called Sgiach. It symbolizes queen to their Clan.” “I think the Scottish clan stuff is cool,” Jack said. “Of course you do,” Aphrodite said. “Guys in skirts is your wet dream.” “Kilt, not skirt,” Stark said. “Or plaid. If you’re talking about the really old, big one you call it a philamore.” Aphrodite raised a blond brow at him. “And you know this because you like to wear them?” He shrugged. “Not me, but my grandpa used to.” “You’re Scottish?” Damien’s voice was incredulous. “And you’re just now telling us?” Stark shrugged again. “What does my human family have to do with anything? I haven’t even talked to them in almost four years.” “It’s not just a family,” Damien’s voice rose with excitement as he started ruffling through the pages of his notes again. “Oh, for crap’s sake. Your family is your blood, you moron,” Aphrodite said. “What was your grandfather’s last name?” Stark frowned at Aphrodite. “MacUallis,” Stark and Damien said together. “How did you know that?” Stark asked. “It was the Clan MacUallis who were the Guardians of the Ace.” Damien grinned victoriously, holding up the page of his notes that held the words: CLAN MACUALLIS = GUARDIANS OF THE ACE for everyone to see. “Looks like we found our blood bridge,” Jack said, hugging Damien. CHAPTER SIXTEEN Zoey Heath stirred and muttered something about skipping football practice and sleeping in. I watched him and held my breath as I paced my circle around where he slept. I mean, would you want to wake him up and tell him he was dead as dirt and wouldn’t ever be playing football again? Hell no. I tried to be as quiet as I could, but I couldn’t hold still. This time I hadn’t even pretended to lie down next to him. I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t stop myself. I had to keep moving. We were in the middle of the same dense grove we’d run inside of before. When before? I couldn’t really remember, but the short, gnarled trees and lots of old rocks looked cool. And the moss. Especially the moss. It was everywhere— thick and soft and cushy. Suddenly my feet were bare, and I was distracted by sinking my feet into the moss and letting my toes play in the living carpet of green. Living? I sighed. Nope. I suspected nothing here was really alive, but I kept forgetting that. The trees made a canopy of leaves and branches, so the sun only got through enough to be warm without being too hot, but a cloud passing overhead had me looking up and shivering. Darkness . . . I blinked in surprise, remembering. That was why Heath and I were tucked away in this grove. That thing had been after us, but it hadn’t entered the grove after us. I shivered again. I had no clue what that thing had been. I only had a sense of utter darkness, a vague whiff of something that had been dead for a while, horns, and wings. Heath and I hadn’t waited to see any more. We had both been breathless with fear, and we’d run and run . . . which was why Heath was sound asleep. Again. Like I should be. But I wasn’t able to rest. So instead I paced. It really bothered me that my memory was messing up. And, what’s worse, even though you’d think if my memory was jacked, I wouldn’t know it because I, well, wouldn’t remember it—I was wrong. I knew I was missing hunks of stuff in my mind—some of it new stuff, like that I just now remembered the scary thing that had chased Heath and me into the grove. Some of it was old stuff, though. I couldn’t remember what my mom looked like. I couldn’t remember the color of my eyes. I couldn’t remember why I didn’t trust Stevie Rae anymore. What I could remember was even more upsetting. I remembered every instant of Stevie Rae dying. I remembered that my dad had left us when I was two and basically never come back. I remembered that I’d trusted Kalona, and that I’d been so, so wrong about him. My stomach felt sick, and, like that sickness was driving me, I kept pacing around and around the inside circumference of the grove. How could I have let Kalona fool me so totally? I’d been such an idiot. And I’d caused Heath’s death. My mind skittered away from that guilt. The thought was too raw, too horrible. A shadow caught at my vision. I started, turned quickly, and came face-to-face with her. I’d seen her before—in my dreams and in a shared vision. “Hello, A-ya,” I said softly. “Zoey,” she said, dipping her head in hello. Her voice sounded a lot like mine, except there was a sense of sadness about her that colored everything she said. “I trusted Kalona because of you,” I told her. “You had compassion for him because of me,” she corrected. “When you lost me, you also lost compassion.” “That’s not true,” I said. “I’m still compassionate. I care about Heath.” “Do you? Is that why you are keeping him here with you instead of allowing him to move on?” “Heath doesn’t want to leave,” I shot back, and then closed my mouth, surprised at how angry I sounded. A-ya shook her head, causing her long, dark hair to flutter around her waist. “You haven’t stopped to think of what Heath might want—what anyone besides you might want. And you won’t, not really, not until you call me back to you.” “I don’t want you back. It’s because of you that this has happened.” “No, Zoey, it’s not. All of this happened because of a series of choices made by a number of people. This isn’t all about you.” Shaking her head sadly, A-ya disappeared. “Good riddance,” I muttered, and started to pace again, even more restless than before. When another shadow flickered at the corner of my vision, I whirled around, ready to tell off A-ya once and for all, but instead my mouth flopped open. I was staring at me. Well, actually, the nine-year-old version of me I’d seen with the other figures before they were scattered by whatever was chasing Heath and me. “Hi,” I said. “We got boobies!” the kid me said, gawking at my chest. “I’m really glad we got boobies. Finally.” “Yeah, that’s what I thought, too. Finally.” “I kinda wish they were bigger.” The kid me kept staring at my boobies until I felt like crossing my arms over my chest, which was ridiculous because she was me—which was just weird. “But, oh, well, it could be worse! We could have been like Becky Apple, heehees!” Her voice was so filled with joy that she made me smile in response, but only for a second. It was like it was too hard for me to hold onto the joy she seemed to glow with. “Becky Renee Apple—can you believe her mom named her that and then had all of her sweaters monogrammed with ‘BRA’?” the kid me said, and then broke into giggles. I tried, unsuccessfully, to hold onto my smile while I said, “Yeah, that poor girl was doomed from the first day of cold weather.” I sighed and rubbed a hand over my face, wondering why I felt so inexplicably sad. “It’s ’cause I’m not with you anymore,” the kid me said. “I’m your joy. Without me, you can’t ever really be happy again.” I stared at her, knowing that, like A-ya, she was telling me the truth. Heath murmured in his sleep again, drawing my gaze to him. He looked so strong and normal and young, but he’d never step on another football field again. He’d never gun his truck around another slick corner and whoop like an Okie. He’d never be a husband. He’d never be a dad. I looked from him to the nineyear-old me. “I don’t think I deserve to be happy again.” “I’m sorry for you, Zoey,” she said, and disappeared. Feeling kinda dizzy and light-headed, I paced. The next version of me didn’t flicker or flutter at the edge of my vision. This version met me head-on, blocking my pacing path. She didn’t look like me. She was super tall. Her hair was long and wild and a bright copper red. It wasn’t until I met her gaze that I saw our similarity—we had the same eyes. She was another piece of me; I knew her. “So who are you?” I said wearily. “And what part of me am I going to be missing if I don’t get you back?” “You may call me Brighid. Without me, you lack strength.” I sighed. “I’m too tired to be strong right now. How about we talk again after I take a nap?” “You don’t get it, do you?” Brighid shook her head disdainfully. “Without us, you won’t take a nap—you won’t get better—you won’t rest. without us, you just get more and more incomplete, and you drift.” I tried to focus through the headache that was building in my temples. “But I’d be drifting with Heath.” “Yes, you might be.” “And if I get all of you back together inside me, I’ll leave Heath.” “Yes, you might.” “I can’t do that. I can’t return to a world without him,” I said. “Then you truly are broken.” Without another word, Brighid disappeared. My legs gave out, and I sat down hard on the moss. I only knew I was crying when my tears started making wet marks on my jeans. I don’t know how long I sat there, bent with grief and confusion and weariness, but eventually a sound slipped inside my mental fog: wings, rustling, beating against the wind, hovering, dipping, searching. “Come on, Zo. We need to get farther into the grove.” I looked up to see that Heath was crouching beside me. “This is my fault,” I said. “No, it’s not, but why does it matter so much whose fault it is? This is done, babe. It can’t be undone.” “I can’t leave you, Heath,” I sobbed. He brushed the hair back from my face and handed me another ball of Kleenexes. “I know you can’t.” The sound of enormous wings got louder; tree boughs behind us swayed in response. “Zo, let’s talk about this later, ’kay? Right now we need to move again.” He grabbed me under one of my elbows, lifted me to my feet, and started to guide me deeper into the grove, where the shadows were darker and the trees even more ancient-looking. I let him move me. It felt better to move. Not good. I didn’t feel good. But it was better when I wasn’t holding still. “It’s him, isn’t it?” I said listlessly. “Him?” Heath asked, helping me step over a rough gray stone. “Kalona.” The word seemed to change the density of the air around us. “He’s come for me.” Heath gave me a sharp look, and shouted, “No, I’m not going to let him get you!” Stevie Rae “No, I’m not going to let him get you!” Dragon shouted. Along with everyone else in the Council Chamber, Stevie Rae stared at the Sword Master, who looked like he might be getting ready to pop a major blood vessel. “Uh, him who, Dragon?” Stevie Rae said. “That Raven Mocker who killed my mate! That’s why you can’t go out alone until we track that creature down and destroy it.” Stevie Rae tried to ignore the hollow feeling Dragon’s words gave her and the horrible sense of guilt she experienced as she faced him, seeing his heartbreak and knowing that even though Rephaim had saved her life, twice, it was also a fact that he had killed Anastasia Lankford. He’s changed. He’s different now, she thought, wishing she could say the words aloud and not bring her world crashing down around them. But she couldn’t tell Dragon about Rephaim. She couldn’t tell anyone about the Raven Mocker, so instead she began, again, to weave lies with the truth, forming a terrible tapestry of evasion and deceit. “Dragon, I don’t know which Raven Mocker was there in the park. I mean, it’s not like he told me his name.” “I think he was the head one—the Ref-whatever,” Dallas spoke up, even though Stevie Rae shot him a look. “Rephaim,” Dragon said, with a voice like death. “Yeah, that’s it. He was huge, just like you guys described, and his eyes really were human-looking. Plus, he had a thing about him. It was obvious he thought he was the shit.” Stevie Rae stifled the urge to press her hand firmly over Dallas’s mouth—and maybe nose, too. Smothering him would definitely make him stop talking. “Oh, Dallas, whatever. We don’t know who that Raven Mocker was. And, Dragon, I can understand why you’re worried and all, but we’re just talkin’ ’bout me goin’ to the Benedictine Abbey so that Grandma Redbird hears about Zoey from me. I’m not goin’ off into the wilderness alone.” “But Dragon does have a good point,” Lenobia said. Erik and Professor Penthasilea nodded, their disagreements about Neferet and Kalona temporarily put aside. “This Raven Mocker did appear where you were, while you were communing with earth.” “It’s too simplistic to say she was communing with the earth,” Dragon spoke quickly into Lenobia’s pause. “As Stevie Rae explained to us, she was dialoguing with ancient powers of good and evil. That creature appearing during the manifestation of evil cannot be a coincidence.” “But the Raven Mocker wasn’t attackin’ me. It was—” Dragon lifted a hand to silence her. “Undoubtedly it was drawn to the Darkness, which then turned on one of its own as evil often does. You cannot know with certainty that the creature isn’t after you.” “We also cannot know with certainty that there is only one Raven Mocker in Tulsa,” Lenobia said. Panic fluttered in Stevie Rae’s stomach. What if everyone was so freaked-out about the possibility of a bunch of Raven Mockers stalking around Tulsa that they made it impossible for her to get away to see Rephaim? “I’m goin’ to the abbey to see Grandma Redbird,” Stevie Rae said firmly. “And I don’t think there’s a flock of those dang Raven Mockers out there. What I do think is that one bird guy somehow got left behind, and he was at the park because he was drawn to Darkness. Well, I’m sure as heck not gonna call Darkness to me again, so there’s no reason for the bird to have anything to do with me.” “Do not underestimate the danger of that creature,” Dragon said, his voice sad and somber. “I won’t. But I also won’t let it keep me locked up on campus. I don’t think any of us should let it do that,” she added hastily. “I mean, we can be careful, but we can’t let fear and evil rule our lives.” “Stevie Rae makes a valid point,” Lenobia said. “Actually, I believe we should get the school back on a regular schedule and include the red fledglings in classes.” Kramisha, who had until then been sitting silently to the left of Stevie Rae, snorted softly. She heard Dallas, who was sitting to her right, sigh heavily. She stifled a smile, and said, “I think that’s a real good idea.” “I don’t think we should say much about Zoey’s condition,” Erik said. “At least not until something more, well, permanent happens.” “She’s not gonna die,” Stevie Rae said. “I don’t want her to die!” Erik said quickly, looking obviously upset at the thought. “But what with the stuff that’s gone on around here lately, including a Raven Mocker showing up, the last thing we need is a bunch of talk.” “I don’t think we should hush it up,” Stevie Rae said. “How about we agree on a compromise,” Lenobia said. “Answer questions about Zoey when they’re asked, focusing on the truth—that we’re all working to get her back from the Otherworld.” “And we issue a general warning through all homeroom classes for fledglings to be watchful and vigilant in reporting anything they see or hear that might be unusual,” Dragon added. “That sounds reasonable,” Penthasilea said. “All right, that seems good to me, too,” Stevie Rae said. Then she paused before adding, “Uh, I’m just wonderin’, but am I supposed to go back to the classes I was in before?” “Yeah, I’s wondering that, too,” Kramisha said. “Me, too,” Dallas said. “Fledglings should attend classes, taking up where they left off,” Lenobia said smoothly, smiling at Kramisha and Dallas as if the “left off” part had been unscheduled vacations rather than unwelcome deaths, which somehow made the whole thing sound weirdly normal. Then she turned to Stevie Rae. “Vampyres choose their career paths and the areas they’d like to study—not in class with fledglings but with other vampyres who are experts in their field. Do you know what it is you’d like to study?” Even with everyone gawking at her, Stevie Rae had no hesitation in her answer. “Nyx. I want to study to be a High Priestess. I want to be one because I’ve earned it, and not just ’cause I’m the only dang red vamp female in the known universe.” “But we have no High Priestess under which you may study—not since Neferet was driven away,” Penthasilea said, giving Lenobia a pointed look. “Then I guess I’ll study on my own until we get our High Priestess back.” She met Penthasilea’s eyes, and added, “And I can promise you that High Priestess will not be Neferet.” Stevie Rae stood. “Okay, well, I’m gonna go to the abbey like I said before. When I come back, I’ll go see the rest of the red fledglings and clue them in that classes start tomorrow.” Everyone had started to shuffle out of the room when Dragon pulled her aside. “I want you to promise me that you will be cautious,” he said. “You have powers of recovery that border on miraculous, but you are not immortal, Stevie Rae. You must remember that.” “I’ll be careful. I promise.” “I’m goin’ with her,” Kramisha said. “I’ll keep an eye to the sky for them nasty bird things. And I got me a girl scream that is deadly. If one shows up, I can make sure the whole world knows he there.” Dragon nodded but didn’t look convinced, and Stevie Rae was relieved when Lenobia called him over to her and started a conversation with him about making his martial arts classes mandatory for all fledglings. She slipped out of the room and was trying to figure out how she could get rid of Kramisha, who was being way too sticky-boogerish, when Dallas caught up with them. “Can I talk to you for a sec before you leave?” “I’ll be in Zoey’s Bug,” Kramisha said. “And no, you can’t get outta takin’ me.” Stevie Rae watched her march down the hall before she reluctantly turned to Dallas. “Can we go in there?” he asked, pointing to the deserted media center. “Sure, but I do gotta get goin’.” Without saying anything, Dallas opened the door for her, and they stepped into the cool, dim room that smelled like books and lemon furniture polish. “You and me, we don’t have to be together anymore,” Dallas said, all in a rush. “Huh? Don’t have to be together? What do you mean?” Dallas crossed his arms over his chest and looked super uncomfortable. “I mean we were goin’ out. You were my girlfriend. You don’t want to be anymore, and I get it. You were right, I couldn’t do shit to protect you from that bird thing. And I just want you to know I’m not gonna turn into an asshole about you and me. I’ll still be here for you when you need me, girl, ’cause you’re gonna always be my High Priestess.” “I don’t want to break up!” she blurted. “You don’t?” “No,” and she didn’t. At that instant, Dallas was all she could see, and his heart and his goodness were so obvious that Stevie Rae felt like losing him would be like getting punched in her gut. “Dallas, I’m so sorry for what I said before. I was hurt and mad, and I didn’t mean it. I couldn’t even get out of the circle, and I cast the dang thing. There’s no way you, or anyone else, not even a Warrior, could’ve gotten in there to me.” Dallas met her gaze. “That Raven Mocker got in there.” “Well, like you said yourself, he’s on the side of Darkness,” she said, even though his bringing up Rephaim was like throwing cold water in her face. “There’s a lot on the side of Darkness out there,” Dallas said. “And a bunch of it seems to be runnin’ into you. So, be careful, will ya, girl?” He reached out and brushed a springy blond curl from her face. “I couldn’t stand it if anything happened to you.” He let his hand rest on her shoulder. His thumb gently caressed the line of her neck. “I’ll be careful,” she said softly. “You really don’t want to break up?” She shook her head. “I’m glad, ’cause I don’t want to either.” Dallas leaned down as he pulled her into his arms. His lips met Stevie Rae’s in a hesitant kiss. She told herself to relax and melted into him. He was a good kisser—he always had been. And she liked that he was taller than her, but not crazy tall. He tasted good, too. He knew that she liked her back rubbed, so as he slipped his arms around her his hands went under her shirt—not to try to maul her boobs, like most guys would have. Instead, Dallas started to rub soft, warm circles over her lower back, pressing her closer to him and deepening their kiss. Stevie Rae kissed him back. It felt good to be with him . . . to block out everything . . . to forget for even a little while about Rephaim and all that stuff . . . especially about the debt she’d willingly paid that made her— Stevie Rae pulled away from Dallas. They were both more than a little breathless. “I, uh, I do have to go. Remember?” Stevie Rae smiled at him, trying not to sound as awkward as she felt. “Actually, I’d kinda forgotten,” Dallas said, smiling sweetly at her and brushing that stubborn curl out of her eyes again. “But I know you hafta go. Come on. I’ll walkya to the Bug.” Feeling part traitor, part liar, and part doomed prisoner, Stevie Rae let him take her hand and lead her to Zoey’s car, just like they really, truly could be boyfriend and girlfriend again. CHAPTER SEVENTEEN Stevie Rae “That boy’s gone on you,” Kramisha said, as Stevie Rae pulled out of the school’s parking lot, leaving behind Dallas, who was looking more than kinda pitiful. “You know what you gonna do ’bout that other kid?” Stevie Rae braked the car in the middle of the blacktop that led to Utica Street. “I’m too stressed-out to deal with guy stuff right now. So if all you wanna do is talk about that, you can stay here.” “Not dealing with guy stuff just causes more stress.” “Bye, Kramisha.” “If you gonna act all crazy, then I won’t say nothin’ about it. Right now. Anyway, I got other more important stuff that you need to deal with.” Stevie Rae put the Bug into gear and kept driving off campus though she wished Kramisha would press her about the guy stuff so she’d have an excuse to leave her behind, too. “Remember when you told me to think harder ’bout my poems and such to try to get somethin’ that might help Zoey?” “Of course I remember.” “Well, I did. And I got somethin’.” She dug around in her huge bag until she brought out a well-worn notebook with pages that were her signature purple color. “I think everbody, including me until I focused myself, is forgetting ’bout this.” She opened the notebook and waved a page with her cursive print at Stevie Rae. “Kramisha, you know I can’t read that while I’m drivin’. Just tell me what you remembered.” “The poem I wrote right before Zoey and the rest of the kids took off for Venice. The one that sounds like it’s from Kalona to Zoey. Here, I’ll read it to ya: A double-edged sword One side destroys One releases I am your Gordian knot Will you release or destroy me? Follow truth and you shall: Find me on water Purify me through fire Trapped by earth nevermore Air will whisper to you What spirit already knows: That even shattered anything is possible If you believe Then we shall both be free. “Ohmygoodness! I had totally forgotten ’bout that! Okay, okay, read it again, only slower.” Stevie Rae listened closely while Kramisha read the poem again. “It has to be from Kalona, doesn’t it? That part about being trapped by the earth makes it definitely from him.” “I’m practically sure it’s from him to her.” “It must be, even though that’s kinda scary, what with the whole double-edged sword beginning, but the end seems like a real good thing.” “It says, ‘then we shall both be free,’ ” Kramisha quoted. “Sounds to me like Z’s gonna get free from the Otherworld.” “And so will Kalona,” Kramisha added. “We’ll deal with that when it happens. Gettin’ Z free is what’s most important. Hang on! I think some of it’s already come true! What was the part about water?” “It says: ‘Find me on water.’ ” “And she did. San Clemente Island is definitely on water.” “It also says that Zoey has to ‘follow truth.’ What do you think that means?” “I’m not one hundred percent sure, but I might have an idea. The last time I talked to Z, I told her to follow her heart, no matter that it might seem to everyone else in the world that she was messin’ up royally, just follow what everything inside her said was the right thing to do.” Stevie Rae paused, blinking hard against the sudden urge to bawl. “I-I’ve felt real guilty about sayin’ that, though, ’cause of what happened to her right afterward.” “But maybe you was right. Maybe what’s happenin’ to Z is supposed to happen, ’cause I’m thinkin’ to follow your heart and to hold on to what you believe is right, even when everbody else says you’re dead-assed wrong, is a powerful kind of truth.” Stevie Rae felt a flutter of excitement. “And if she keeps doin’ that, keeps holdin’ to the truth she has in her heart, the end of the poem will happen, and she’ll be free.” “It feels right to me, Stevie Rae. Real right, like down deep in my bones.” “Me, too,” Stevie Rae said, grinning at Kramisha. “Okay, but Z needs to know all this. The poem is like a map to the end. The first step, findin’ him on water, already happened. Next she has to—” “Purify him through fire,” Stevie Rae broke in, remembering the line. “And then doesn’t it say something ’bout earth and air?” “Yeah, and spirit. It’s all five of the elements.” “All of Z’s affinities, ending in spirit, which is her most powerful affinity.” “And the one in charge of the realm she’s in right now,” Kramisha said. “Okay, I ain’t gonna say this just ’cause I wrote me a kick-ass poem, so you gotta seriously listen up: Zoey has to know this stuff. It’s gonna make the difference between her comin’ back and her being killed dead by whatever’s goin’ on over there.” “Oh, I believe you.” “Then how you gonna do it?” “Me? I’m not. I can’t. I’m into earth. No way can my spirit take off and get to the Otherworld.” Stevie Rae shivered. Just the thought gave her the heebiejeebies. “But Stark’s gonna get his butt there. He has to—that disgusting cow said so.” “Bull,” Kramisha said. “Whatever.” “You want me to call Stark and read the poem to him? You got his number?” Stevie Rae thought about it. “No. Aphrodite says Stark’s head is seriously messed up right now. He might ignore your poem, thinkin’ he has other, more important stuff to deal with.” “Well, he’d be wrong.” “Yeah, I agree. So, what we need to do is get the poem to Aphrodite. She’s hateful and all, but she’ll understand how important it is.” “And ’cause she’s so hateful, there’s no way she’ll let Stark ignore her or the poem.” “Exactly. Text it to her right now and tell her I said to make Stark memorize it for Zoey. And to remember it’s a prophecy, not just a poem.” “You know, I seriously question her amount of good sense ’cause she don’t like poetry.” “Girl, you are preaching to the dang full-gospel Pentecostal choir,” said Stevie Rae. “Um-hum, that’s all I have to say.” And while Stevie Rae pulled into the newly plowed parking lot of the Benedictine Abbey, Kramisha bent her head over her phone and got busy texting. Stevie Rae Right away, Stevie Rae could tell that Grandma Redbird was getting better. The terrible bruises on her face had faded, and instead of being in bed, she was sitting in a rocking chair by the fireplace in the abbey’s main lounge, so into the book she was reading that she didn’t even notice Stevie Rae at first. “Blue-Eyed Devil?” Even though she was there to tell Z’s grandma awful news, Stevie Rae couldn’t help smiling as she read the title. “Grandma, that sounds like a romance book to me.” Grandma Redbird’s hand went to her throat. “Stevie Rae! Child, you startled me. And it is a romance—an excellent one at that. Hardy Cates is a magnificent hero.” “Magnificent?” Grandma lifted her sliver brows at Stevie Rae. “I’m old, child. Not dead. I can still appreciate a magnificent man.” She motioned to one of the padded wooden chairs not far away. “Pull that up, honey, and let’s have a chat. I’m assuming you have news of Zoey all the way from Venice. Just think of it—Venice, Italy! I would love to visit . . .” The old woman’s voice trailed off as she looked more closely at Stevie Rae. “I knew it. I knew something was wrong, but my mind has been so muddled since the accident.” Sylvia Redbird went very, very still. Then, in a voice that that was rough with fear, she said, “Tell me quickly.” With a sad sigh, Stevie Rae sat in the chair she’d pulled beside the rocker and took Grandma’s hand. “She’s not dead, but it’s not good.” “All of it. I want all of it. Don’t stop, and don’t leave anything out.” Grandma Redbird held on to Stevie Rae’s hand as if it were a life-line as Zoey’s best friend told her everything—from Heath’s death to the bu