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Destined / Ďđĺäíŕçíŕ÷ĺííŕ˙ (by P.C. Cast, Kristin Cast, 2011) - ŕóäčîęíčăŕ íŕ ŕíăëčéńęîě

Destined / Ďđĺäíŕçíŕ÷ĺííŕ˙ (by P.C. Cast, Kristin Cast, 2011) - ŕóäčîęíčăŕ íŕ ŕíăëčéńęîě

Destined / Ďđĺäíŕçíŕ÷ĺííŕ˙ (by P.C. Cast, Kristin Cast, 2011) - ŕóäčîęíčăŕ íŕ ŕíăëčéńęîě

Çîč îęóňűâŕĺň ÷óâńňâî íĺâűíîńčěîăî ăîđ˙, ęîăäŕ ĺé ńňŕíîâčňń˙ čçâĺńňíî î ńěĺđňč ĺĺ ěŕňĺđč. Íî â ăëóáčíĺ ńîçíŕíč˙ çŕęđŕäűâŕĺňń˙ ńîěíĺíčĺ â äîńňîâĺđíîńňč ýňîé číôîđěŕöčč. Âńĺ ńęëŕäűâŕĺňń˙ óć áîëüíî ďĺ÷ŕëüíî. Âĺäü ĺĺ âîçëţáëĺííűé Ńňŕđę îőâŕ÷ĺí ńčëîţ ňĺěíîăî äóőŕ, ęîňîđîăî äĺâóřęŕ ďűňŕĺňń˙ ďđîăíŕňü. Íĺôĺđĺň íĺ îńňŕíŕâëčâŕĺňń˙ â ńâîĺé çŕňĺĺ ďîńĺ˙ňü ńěóňó č őŕîń â îňíîřĺíč˙ő Çîč č ĺĺ äđóçĺé, ÷ňîáű äîáčňüń˙ íĺďîęîëĺáčěîé âëŕńňč, ńňŕâ áîăčíĺé âńĺő âŕěďčđîâ. Íî Çîč ďđĺäńňŕâë˙ĺň äĺéńňâč˙ Íĺôĺđĺň â íĺâűăîäíîě ńâĺňĺ ďđč âńňđĺ÷ĺ ń ďđĺäńňŕâčňĺëĺě âűńřĺăî ńîâĺňŕ. Đĺôŕčě ďđčíčěŕĺň ÷ĺëîâĺ÷ĺńęčé îáëčę, îň ÷ĺăî Ęŕëîíŕ ďđčőîäčň â íĺäîóěĺíčĺ, ňĺđ˙˙ íŕäĺćäó âĺđíóňü ĺăî íŕ ńňîđîíó çëŕ. Ę Çîč ďđčĺçćŕĺň áŕáóřęŕ č îďîâĺůŕĺň, ÷ňî ěŕňü ăĺđîčíč äĺéńňâčňĺëüíî ěĺđňâŕ. Çîč ńáĺăŕĺň ńî řęîëű, ÷ňîáű îďëŕęŕňü ńâîĺ ăîđĺ. Íî ĺé íóćíî âĺđíóňüń˙, ďîňîěó ęŕę Ęŕëîíŕ ďđčçűâŕĺň Đĺôŕčěŕ äë˙ âńňđĺ÷č. Çîč čäĺň ń íčě. Ęŕëîíŕ íĺîćčäŕííî ďđĺäëŕăŕĺň âîńńîĺäčíčňü ńčëű, ÷ňîáű âîńńňŕňü ďđîňčâ Íĺôĺđĺň. Çîč íĺîőîňíî ńîăëŕřŕĺňń˙. Âî âđĺě˙ đčňóŕëŕ ďî îďđĺäĺëĺíčţ ďđč÷čí ńěĺđňč ěŕňĺđč Çîč âű˙ńí˙ĺňń˙, ÷ňî ćĺíůčíŕ áűëŕ óáčňŕ.

Đĺéňčíă:
Ďđîńěîňđîâ: 2 486
Íŕçâŕíčĺ:
Destined / Ďđĺäíŕçíŕ÷ĺííŕ˙ (by P.C. Cast, Kristin Cast, 2011) - ŕóäčîęíčăŕ íŕ ŕíăëčéńęîě
Ăîä âűďóńęŕ ŕóäčîęíčăč:
2011
Ŕâňîđ:
P.C. Cast, Kristin Cast
Čńďîëíčňĺëü:
Caitlin Davies
ßçűę:
ŕíăëčéńęčé
Ćŕíđ:
ôŕíňŕńňčęŕ, đîěŕíňčęŕ
Óđîâĺíü ńëîćíîńňč:
upper-intermediate
Äëčňĺëüíîńňü ŕóäčî:
12:44:52
Áčňđĺéň ŕóäčî:
128 kbps
Ôîđěŕň:
mp3, pdf, doc

Ńëóřŕňü îíëŕéí Destined / Ďđĺäíŕçíŕ÷ĺííŕ˙ ŕóäčîęíčăó íŕ ŕíăëčéńęîě ˙çűęĺ:

Ńęŕ÷ŕňü ňĺęńň ęíčăč â ôîđěŕňĺ .doc (Word) ďî ďđ˙ěîé ńńűëęĺ cast_p_c_cast_kristin_-_destined.doc [724.5 Kb] (cęŕ÷čâŕíčé: 7) .
Ńęŕ÷ŕňü ňĺęńň ęíčăč â ôîđěŕňĺ .pdf ďî ďđ˙ěîé ńńűëęĺ  cast_p_c_cast_kristin_-_destined.pdf [851.98 Kb] (cęŕ÷čâŕíčé: 15) .
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).


PROLOGUE Zoey I think my mom is dead. I tested the words silently. They felt wrong, unnatural, as if I was trying to comprehend the world turning upside down or the sun rising in the west. I drew a deep, sobbing breath and rolled onto my side, reaching for another tissue in the box that was on the floor next to the bed. Stark muttered and frowned and moved restlessly. Slowly and carefully, I got out of bed, grabbed Stark’s giant sweatshirt from where he’d tossed it, pulled it on, and curled up on the beanbag chair that sat near the wall of our little tunnel room. The beanbag made that smushy noise that always reminds me of the balls in those inflatable kid party houses, and Stark frowned and mumbled something again. I blew my nose. Quietly. Stop crying stop crying stop crying! It won’t help. It won’t bring Mom back. I blinked a bunch of times, and wiped my nose again. Maybe it had just been a dream. But even as I thought the words my heart knew the truth. Nyx had pulled me from my dreams to show me a vision of Mom entering the Otherworld. That meant Mom had died. Mom told Nyx that she was sorry for letting me down, I reminded myself as tears leaked down my cheeks again. “She’d said she loved me,” I whispered. I had hardly made any noise, but Stark tossed and turned restlessly, and muttered, “Stop!” I clamped my lips together, even though I knew my whisper wasn’t what was messing with his sleep. Stark was my Warrior, my Guardian, and my boyfriend. No, boyfriend is too simple a word. There’s a bond between Stark and me that goes deeper than dating and sex and all the stuff that comes and goes with normal relationships. That’s why he was so restless. He could feel my sadness—even in his dreams he knew I was crying and hurt and scared and— Stark pushed the blanket off his chest and I could see that his hand was clenched into a fist. My gaze went to his face. He was still asleep, but his forehead was furrowed and he was frowning. I closed my eyes and drew a deep, centering breath. “Spirit,” I whispered. “Please come to me.” Instantly I felt the element brush against my skin. “Help me. No, actually, help Stark by shielding my sadness from him.” And maybe, I added silently, you could help shield some of my sadness from me, too. Even if it’s just for a little while. I drew another deep breath as spirit moved within and around me, swirling over to the bed. Opening my eyes I could actually see a ripple in the air surrounding Stark. His skin appeared to glow as the element settled against him like a diaphanous blanket. I felt warm and glanced down at my arms and saw that the same soft glow was resting against my skin. Stark exhaled a long sigh with me as spirit worked a little soothing magick, and for the first time in hours I felt a little, tiny bit of my sadness lift. “Thank you, spirit,” I whispered and crossed my arms, hugging myself tight. Wrapped in the comforting touch of the element I felt closest to, I was actually a little sleepy. It was then that a different kind of warmth penetrated my consciousness. Slowly, not wanting to disturb the comforting spell the element was working, I unwrapped my arms from around myself and touched my chest. Why is my seer stone warm? The small, round stone was dangling from its silver chain, resting between my breasts. I hadn’t taken it off since Sgiach had gifted it to me before I’d left the beautiful, magickal Isle of Skye. Wonderingly, I pulled the stone out from under the sweatshirt, running my fingers over its smooth, marble surface. It still reminded me of a coconutflavored Life Saver, but the Skye marble glittered with an unearthly light, as if the element I had invoked had made it alive—as if the warmth I felt was because it pulsed with life. Queen Sgiach’s voice echoed through my memory: “A seer stone is in tune with only the most ancient of magicks: the kind I protect on my isle. I am gifting you with it so that you might, indeed, recognize the Old Ones if any still exist in the outside world…” As her words replayed in my mind the stone turned slowly, almost lazily. The hole in its center was like a mini-telescope. As it shifted around I could see Stark illuminated through it, and my world shifted, too, narrowed, then everything changed. Maybe it was because spirit was so close to me at that moment, but what I saw didn’t feel anything like the mind-blowing first time I’d looked through the stone on Skye and had ended up passing out. But that didn’t mean it was any less unsettling. Stark was there, lying on his back, most of his chest bare. The glow of spirit was gone. In its place I saw another image. It was indistinct, though, and I couldn’t make out his features. It was like someone’s shadow. Stark’s arm twitched and his hand opened. The shadow’s hand opened. As I watched the Guardian sword—the massive long sword that had come to Stark in the Otherworld—took form in Stark’s hand. I gasped in surprise and the phantom-like Warrior turned his head in my direction and closed his hand around the sword. Instantly the Guardian sword shifted, changed, and became a long black spear—dangerous, lethal, tipped in blood that looked way too familiar to me. Fear spiked through me. “No!” I cried. “Spirit, strengthen Stark! Make that thing go away!” With a noise like the beating wings of a giant bird, the apparition disappeared, the seer stone went cold, and Stark sat straight up, frowning at me. “What are you doing over there?” He rubbed his eyes. “Why are you making so much noise?” I opened my mouth to try to explain the bizarre thing I’d just seen when he sighed heavily and lay back down, flipping open the covers and motioning sleepily for me. “Come here. I can’t sleep unless you’re cuddled up with me. And I really need to get some sleep.” “Okay, yeah, me, too,” I said, and on shaky legs I hurried to him and curled against his side, my head resting on his shoulder. “Hey, uh, something weird just happened,” I began, but when I tilted my head so that I could see into his eyes, Stark’s lips met mine. The surprise didn’t last long, and I slid into the kiss. It felt good—so good to be close to him. His arms went around me. I pressed myself against him while his lips followed the curve of my neck. “I thought you said you needed some sleep.” My voice sounded breathless. “I need you more,” he said. “Yeah,” I said. “Me, too.” We lost ourselves in each other then. Stark’s touch chased away death and despair and fear. Together we reminded each other of life and love and happiness. Afterward we finally slept and the seer stone lay cold and forgotten on my breast between us. CHAPTER ONE Aurox The human male’s flesh had been soft, pulpy. It had been a surprise how easy it had been to destroy him—to end the beating of his feeble heart. “Take me to North Tulsa. I want to go out into the night,” she’d said. That was the command that began their evening. “Yes, Goddess,” he’d responded instantly, coming alive from the corner of the rooftop balcony that he’d made his own. “Do not call me Goddess. Call me…” She’d looked contemplative. “… Priestess.” Her full lips, slick and reddened, turned up. “I believe it is best if everyone should simply call me Priestess—at least for a short while.” Aurox had fisted his hand over his heart in a gesture he instinctively knew was ancient, though it somehow felt awkward and forced. “Yes, Priestess.” Priestess had brushed by him, gesturing imperiously for him to follow her. He had followed. He’d been created to follow. To take her orders. To obey her commands. They’d entered something Priestess had called car, and the world had flown. Priestess had commanded him to understand the workings of it. He’d watched and learned, just as she’d commanded. Then they’d stopped and exited the car. The street had smelled of death and rot, corruption and filth. “Priestess this place is not—” “Protect me!” she’d snapped. “But do not be protective of me. I will always go where I wish, when I wish, and do exactly what I wish. It is your job, no, your purpose to defeat my enemies. It is my destiny to create enemies. Watch. React when I command you to protect. That is all I require of you.” “Yes, Priestess,” he’d said. The modern world was a confusing place. So many shifting sounds. So much he did not know. He would do as Priestess commanded. He would fulfill his reason for creation and— A male had stepped out, blocking Priestess’s way. “You way too pretty to be in this here alley so late with nothin’ but one boy keepin’ ya company.” His eyes widened, as he took in Priestess’s tattoos. “So, vampyre, you stoppin’ here to get you a little snack from this boy? How ’bout you give me that purse then you and me, we’ll talk ’bout what it’s like to be with a real man?” Priestess sighed and sounded bored. “You’re wrong on both counts: I am not simply a vampyre, and this is no boy.” “Hey, what you mean by that?” Priestess ignored the man and looked over her shoulder at Aurox. “Now you should protect me. Show me what kind of weapon I command.” He obeyed her without conscious thought. Aurox closed on the man with no hesitation. In one swift movement, Aurox plunged his thumbs into the man’s staring eyeballs, which made the screaming begin. The man’s terror washed over him, feeding him. As simply as drawing a breath, Aurox inhaled the pain he was causing. The power of the man’s terror swelled through him, pumping hot and cold. Aurox felt his hands hardening, changing, becoming more. What had been normal fingers became claws. He pulled them from the man’s eyes when the blood began to seep from his ears. With the borrowed power of pain and fear, Aurox lifted the man, slamming him against the wall of the nearest building. The man screamed again. What a wonderful, terrible thrill! Aurox felt more of the change ripple through his body. Mere human feet became cloven hooves. The muscles of his legs thickened. His chest heaved and split the shirt he had been wearing. And most wonderful of all, Aurox felt the thick deadly horns that swelled from his head. By the time the man’s three friends ran into the alley to help him, he had stopped screaming. Aurox dropped the man to the filth and turned to place himself between Priestess and those who might believe they could cause her harm. “What the fuck?” The first man skidded to a halt. “I ain’t never seen nothin’ like that,” said the second man. Aurox was already absorbing the fear that was beginning to radiate from them. His skin pulsed with the cold fire of it. “Is they horns? Ah, hell no! I’m outta here.” The third man turned and scurried back the way he had come. The other two began to back slowly away, eyes wide, shocked and staring. Aurox looked to Priestess. “What is your command?” In some distant part of his mind, he wondered at the sound of his voice—how it had become so guttural, so bestial. “Their pain makes you stronger.” Priestess looked pleased. “And different, more fierce.” She looked at the two retreating men and her full upper lip lifted in a sneer. “Isn’t that interesting … Kill them.” Aurox moved so quickly the nearest man had no chance to escape. He gored him through his chest, lifting him so that he writhed and shrieked and soiled himself. This made Aurox even more powerful. With a mighty toss of his head, the skewered man flew into the building to land, crumpled and silent, beside the first man. The other man didn’t run away. Instead he pulled out a long, dangerous looking knife and charged at Aurox. Aurox feinted to the side and then, when the man overcompensated, he stomped a cloven hoof through his foot, ripping off his face as the man fell forward. Breathing hard, Aurox stood over the bodies of his vanquished enemies. He turned to Priestess. “Very good,” she said in her emotionless voice. “Let us leave this place before the authorities descend.” Aurox followed her. He walked heavily, his hoofs gouging furrows in the dirty alley. He fisted his claws at his side as he tried to make sense of the emotional storm that flowed through his body, taking with it the power that had fueled his battle frenzy. Weak. He felt weak. And more. There was something else. “What is it?” she snapped at him when he hesitated before entering the car again. He shook his head. “I do not know. I feel—” She laughed. “You don’t feel at all. You’re obviously overthinking this. My knife doesn’t feel. My gun doesn’t feel. You’re my weapon; you kill. Deal with it.” “Yes, Priestess.” Aurox got in the car and let the world speed past him. I do not think. I do not feel. I am a weapon. Aurox “Why are you standing here looking at me?” Priestess asked him, staring at him with eyes of green ice. “I await your command, Priestess,” he said automatically, wondering how it was possible to have displeased her. They had just returned to her lair at the top of the magnificent building called Mayo. Aurox had walked to the balcony and simply stood there, quietly, gazing at Priestess. She blew out a long breath. “I have no command for you at this moment. And must you always stare at me?” Aurox looked away, focusing on the lights of the city and how they glittered alluringly against the night sky. “I await your command, Priestess,” he repeated. “Oh, by all the gods! Who would have known the Vessel created for me would be as mindless as he is beautiful?” Aurox felt the change in the atmosphere before Darkness materialized from smoke and shadow and night. “Mindless, beautiful, and deadly…” The voice rang in his head. The enormous white bull formed fully before him. His breath was fetid, yet sweet. His gaze was horrible and wonderful at the same time. He was mystery and magick and mayhem together. Aurox dropped to his knees before the creature. “Get off your knees. Get up and go back there…” She waved her hand in a dismissive gesture toward the shadows that edged the far recesses of the rooftop. “No, I’d rather he stayed. I enjoy gazing on my creations.” Aurox didn’t know what to say. This creature commanded his attention, but Priestess commanded his body. “Creations?” Priestess put a special emphasis on the last part of the word as she moved languidly toward the massive bull. “Do you often make gifts like this to your followers?” The bull’s laughter was terrible, but Aurox noticed Priestess didn’t flinch at all—that instead she seemed to be drawn closer and closer to the creature as he spoke. “How interesting! You are actually questioning me. Are you jealous, my heartless one?” Priestess stroked the bull’s horn. “Do I need to be?” The bull nuzzled her. Where his muzzle touched Priestess the silk of her gown shriveled, exposing smooth, naked flesh underneath. “Tell me, what do you believe is the purpose of my gift to you?” The bull answered Priestess’s question with one of his own. Priestess blinked and shook her head, as if she was confused. Then her gaze found Aurox, still on his knees. “My lord, his purpose is protection, and I am ready to do as you bid to thank you for him.” “I will accept your lush offerings, but I must explain to you that Aurox is not simply a weapon of protection. Aurox has one purpose, and that is to create chaos.” Priestess inhaled a deep, shocked breath. She blinked rapidly, and her gaze went from the bull to him, and then returned to the bull. “Truly?” she asked in a soft, reverent voice. “Through this one creature I can command chaos?” The bull’s white eyes were like a sick, setting moon. “Truly. He is, indeed, one creature, but his power is vast. He has the ability to leave disaster in his wake. He is the Vessel that is the manifestation of your deepest dreams, and are they not for utter and complete chaos?” “Yes, oh yes,” Priestess breathed the words. She leaned against the bull’s neck, stroking his side. “Ah, and what is it you will do with chaos now that it is at your command? Will you take down the cities of humans and rule as vampyre queen?” Priestess’s smile was beautiful and horrible. “Not queen. Goddess.” “Goddess? But there is a Goddess of Vampyres. You know that all too well. You used to be in her service.” “You mean Nyx? The Goddess who allows her minions free choice and a will of their own? The Goddess who will not intercede because she believes so strongly in the myth of freewill?” Aurox thought he could hear a smile in the beast’s voice, and wondered how that was possible. “I do mean Nyx, Goddess of Vampyres and Night. Would you use chaos to challenge her?” “No. I would use chaos to defeat her. What if chaos threatens the very fabric of the world? Would Nyx not step in and defy her own rules to save her children? And by doing so wouldn’t the Goddess rescind her edict that grants humans freewill and betray herself? What would happen then to her divine reign if Nyx changes what is destined to be?” “I cannot say, as that has never before happened.” The bull snorted as if in amusement. “But it is a surprisingly interesting question—and you know how much I enjoy being surprised.” “I only hope that I can continue to surprise you over and over again, my lord.” “Only is such a small word…” the bull said. Aurox continued to kneel on the rooftop long after Priestess and the bull had departed, leaving him discarded and forgotten. He stayed where he had been left, staring up at the sky. CHAPTER TWO Zoey “A short bus? Really?” All I could do was shake my head and stare at the squatty yellow thing that said HOUSE OF NIGHT in fresh black letters across its side. “I mean, it’s nice that my call to Thanatos worked so fast and we’re being allowed to go back to school, but a short bus?” “Twin! They sent the retard bus for us!” Erin said, giggling. “Twin, that’s really mean,” Shaunee said. “I know, Twin. I can’t believe Neferet’s so f-ing evil she sent the retard bus for us,” Erin continued. “No, I don’t mean Neferet’s being mean. I mean it’s mean to say retard,” Shaunee explained, rolling her eyes at her Twin. “I think Shaunee’s correct, and you should consider expanding your vocabulary. You’re using mean too many times; it’s redundant,” Damien said. Shaunee, Erin, Stevie Rae, Rephaim, and I stared wide-eyed at Damien. I knew we were all thinking it was great to hear him obsessing about vocabulary again, but we didn’t want to say anything because we were all scared he might burst into tears and retreat back into the soggy depression that had been haunting him since Jack’s death. Aphrodite and Darius chose that moment to emerge from the depot’s basement and as per usual, Aphrodite bridged the gap between decorum and disaster by invoking her one tried and true rule: Care About How It Looks. “Oh, for shit’s sake. I’m not getting in that. The short bus is for ’tards,” Aphrodite said with a snort and a hair toss. “Y’all, it’s not that bad. I mean, obviously it’s a new bus. Check out the fresh black House of Night lettering,” Stevie Rae said. “It might as well say Social Suicide,” Aphrodite said, frowning at Stevie Rae. “I’m not lettin’ you rain on my parade. I like school,” Stevie Rae said. She stepped up into the bus, grinning at the Son of Erebus Warrior who had, unsmilingly, opened the door for her. “Priestess.” He greeted her somberly with a nod, and then, totally ignoring our own Son of Erebus Warrior, Darius, he looked at me and, with even a more clipped nod said, “Zoey, I am to notify you and Stevie Rae that there will be a school Council Meeting, which will convene in a thirty minutes. You are both to attend.” “Okay, well, Stark’s letting everyone else know you’re here, so we’ll be ready to leave in just a sec,” I said, smiling at him like his face didn’t look like a storm cloud. “Hey, y’all, it still smells new!” Stevie Rae yelled. I could see her short blond curls bobbing as she gawked around inside. Then she popped back out and skipped down the stairs to take Rephaim’s hand and grin up at him. “Wanna sit in the backseat with me? It’s real bouncy!” “Seriously,” Aphrodite said. “That bus is perfect for you; you’re a retard. And I hate to be the one to break it to you—oh wait, that’s a lie; I don’t really hate it—but even though the Vamp High Council has clearly put the pressure on Neferet and forced her to bus us back to the House of Night, birdboy is still not welcome there. Did you forget in the afterglow of whatever you two could have been doing in the one-point-two seconds between sunset and now that he wasn’t a bird?” I saw Stevie Rae tighten her hand clamp on Rephaim. “I’ll have you know it’s been more than one-point-two seconds since sunset, none of your business what we’ve been doin’, and Rephaim’s goin’ to school. Just like the rest of us.” Aphrodite’s blond brows went up to her hairline. “You’re not kidding, are you?” “No,” Stevie Rae said firmly. “And you should understand that better than anyone else.” “Me? Understand? What in the hell are you talking about?” “You’re not a fledgling, red or regular. You’re not a vampyre. You’re maybe not even a human.” “’Cause she’s a hag,” I heard Shaunee whisper. “From Hell,” Erin whispered back. Aphrodite narrowed her eyes at the Twins, but Stevie Rae wasn’t done. “Just like Rephaim, you’re something that’s not quite normal, but Nyx has given her blessing to you—even if none of the rest of us understands why the heck she’d do that. Anyway, you’re goin’ to school. I’m goin’ to school. So’s Rephaim. The end.” “Stevie Rae has a point,” Stark said as he joined us in the parking lot outside the depot, the rest of the red fledgling kids trailing along behind him. “Neferet’s not gonna like it, but Nyx forgave and blessed Rephaim.” “In front of the entire school,” Stevie Rae added quickly. “They know that,” Rephaim murmured to her. He looked from her to the rest of us, his gaze finally settling on me. “What do you think?” he surprised me by asking. “Should I try to go to the House of Night, or would that just be causing trouble for no reason?” Everyone gawked at me. With a quick glance at the stony-faced Son of Erebus Warrior in the bus, I said, “Uh, would you guys go ahead and get on the bus? I need to talk to my … uh…” I trailed off with a gesture that took in Aphrodite, Stevie Rae, and the rest of my closest friends. “Your circle,” Stevie Rae said, smiling at me. “You’re goin’ to talk to your circle.” “And their accoutrements,” Damien added, nodding at Aphrodite, Darius, and Kramisha. I grinned. “I like that! Okay, would you guys get on the bus while I talk to my circle and their accoutrements, please?” “I ain’t sure I like being called accoutrements,” Kramisha said, narrowing her eyes at me. “It means—” Stevie Rae began, but Kramisha interrupted her with a shake of her head. “I know what it mean. I’m sayin’ I ain’t sure I like it.” “Could you journal about it later and right now shut up and follow Zoey so we can get this over with?” Aphrodite said while Kramisha sucked air and glared. “And for the record,” she pointed at everyone except Darius. “You are a Nerd Herd. I am your token Popular and Perfect.” The Twins looked like they were taking verbal aim at Aphrodite so I said, “Guys, focus. Rephaim’s question is important.” Thankfully, that shut everyone up and I motioned for my circle, accoutrements, and Aphrodite to follow me down the sidewalk and out of hearing range as the red fledglings clambered into the bus and I frantically tried to think about Rephaim’s very important question. My mind felt mushy. Last night had been awful. I glanced at Stark and felt my cheeks getting warm. Okay, well, not all of it had been awful, but still, hard questions filled my head. I mentally shook myself. I wasn’t just a kid anymore. I was the first Fledgling High Priestess and all these guys looked up to me and expected me to Know the Right Answers (well, to everything except geometry, Spanish translations, and parallel-parking issues). Please, Nyx, let me say the right thing. I sent up a quick, silent prayer, then met Rephaim’s gaze and realized suddenly it wasn’t my answer we needed. “What do you want?” I asked him. “Well, he wants—” Stevie Rae began, but my raised hand silenced my BFF. “No,” I said. “This can’t be what you say Rephaim wants, or even what you want for him. I need Rephaim’s answer. So, what it is? What do you want?” I repeated. Rephaim met my gaze steadily. “I want to be normal,” he said. Aphrodite snorted. “Sadly, normal plus teenager equals going to stupid school.” “School isn’t stupid,” Damian said, and then he turned to Rephaim. “But she’s right about the normal part. Going to school is what normal kids do.” “Yep,” Shaunee said. “Sucks, but yep,” Erin said. “Although it is an excellent fashion parade.” “Right you are, Twin,” Shaunee said. “What does that mean?” Rephaim asked Stevie Rae. She smiled at him. “Basically that you should be goin’ to school with us.” He smiled back at her, love and warmth filling his face. When he looked from Stevie Rae to me, that wonderful expression was still there, and I couldn’t help smiling back at him. “If normal means going to school, then that’s what I would really like to do. If it doesn’t cause too much of a problem.” “It’ll cause problems, make no mistake about that,” Darius said. “You don’t think he should go?” I asked. “I did not say that. I agree with you that it is his choice, his decision, but Rephaim, you should understand that it would be easier if you chose to stay here—out of the way—at least until we see what Neferet and Kalona’s next moves will be.” I thought I saw Rephaim cringe at the mention of his dad, but he nodded and said, “I do understand, but I’m tired of hiding alone in the darkness.” He looked down at Stevie Rae again and then back at us. “And Stevie Rae may need me.” “Okay, you know this whole ‘let’s let the birdboy decide’ and ‘Stevie Rae may need me’ stuff is all real happy-schmappy in theory, but in reality we’re gonna be walking onto a campus where the batshit crazy High Priestess hates us, and will use anything she can to bring us, and by that I mean you specifically, Z, down. Not to mention Dragon, the Leader of the Sons of Erebus Warriors, is definitely not acting right since his mate was killed by the guy we’re bringing back onto campus. Neferet’s going use Rephaim against us. Dragon is going to back her. Shit is going to hit the fan.” “Well,” I said. “It won’t be the first time.” “Uh, may I say something?” Damien’s hand was raised like he was in class and wanted to be called on. “Yes, honey, and you don’t have to raise your hand,” I said. “Oh, okay, thanks. What I wanted to say is we need to remember that when Nyx appeared at the House of Night, forgave and blessed Rephaim, she basically gave us permission to include Rephaim in our world. Neferet can’t go against that—at least not openly. And neither can Dragon. How much they don’t like it is beside the point.” “But they did go against it,” Stark said. “Neferet asked Dragon if he’d accept Rephaim, and he said no, so she kicked him off campus. Stevie Rae called bullshit on that, and that’s why we all ended up leaving.” “Yeah, and just because the High Council managed to pressure Neferet into letting us come back to class, it doesn’t mean we’re really going to be accepted. I can promise you that she and Dragon, and probably a lot of other people aren’t going to be cool with this.” Aphrodite fluttered her fingers at Rephaim. Damien spoke before I could say anything. “Well, the truth is neither Neferet nor Dragon can supersede the Goddess’s wishes.” “Super what?” Shaunee asked. “Seed who?” Erin added. “It means to replace,” Stevie Rae explained for Damien. “And that’s a real interestin’ point, Damien. No one can supersede the Goddess, not even a High Priestess.” “Can you imagine what the tight-assed High Council would say about that?” Aphrodite rolled her eyes. “Litter of kittens—they’d have several litters of flying kittens. Each.” I blinked and had the sudden urge to hug Aphrodite. Well, the urge passed quickly, but still. “Aphrodite,” I said. “You are a genius! And so is Damien.” “Of course I am,” Aphrodite said smugly. “You’re going to tell on Neferet and Dragon to the High Council, aren’t you?” Damien said. “I think ‘telling on’ them is not the right way to put it. Uh, you have your laptop with you, don’t ya?” I asked. Damien patted the man purse slung over his shoulder. “Of course. It’s in my satchel.” “Man purse,” Shaunee said. “Just sayin’,” Erin added. “It’s a European satchel,” Damien said firmly. “If it has feathers…” Erin said. “And quacks…” Shaunee said. “Whatever it is, I’m glad it means you have your computer with you.” I jumped in before Damien could big word them. “You do have Skype downloaded on it, don’t you?” “Yes,” he said. “Good. I need to borrow it for the Council Meeting, if that’s okay with you?” “No problem,” Damien said, raising his brows questioningly at me. “What are you thinkin’?” Stevie Rae asked his question for him. “Well, when I talked to Thanatos about helping us get back to school, I didn’t mention that little thing about the fact that we’re kinda, sorta branching off with our own House of Night here, but that we’ll still be going to class and such at our original House of Night.” “We’re gonna have to think of a great new name for our place,” Shaunee said. “Ooooh! Right you are, Twin,” Erin said. “Hey, it’s the depot, so how about the Pot Lot House of Night,” Shaunee said. I looked at them. Shook my head and said a firm, “No to the Pot Lot.” Then I went back to my original point. “But I do need to do a whole Skype conference with the Vamp High Council to get permission for what we want to do. A school Council Meeting seems a good time to do that, especially since I’m sure Neferet will love it if I ask that she bear witness to my call.” “Z, that sounds like a crap plan. Neferet will love talking to the High Council and figuring out a way to twist everything you say to make you look like Insane Teenager,” Aprodite said. “That’s kinda my point,” I said. “I’m not gonna be Insane Teenager. I’m gonna be the Fledgling High Priestess who gives the High Council all the details about the amazing, miraculous gift Nyx has given our Red High Priestess’s Consort, Rephaim, and that he’s super excited to be starting school at the Tulsa House of Night. I’m sure they’ll even want to congratulate Neferet on being such an awesome High Priestess who can handle all the changes going on here.” “That’s devious. I like it,” Aphrodite said. “You put Neferet and even Dragon in a position where if they say ‘hell no we’re not accepting the birdboy,’ or even bitch and complain a little about it, they look massively bad—what with Nyx showing up and miracling.” “This still isn’t going to be an easy road,” Stark said. Rephaim met his gaze steadily. “No matter how rough it is, it’s a better road than the one that leads to darkness and hatred and death. And I think you know exactly what I mean.” “I do,” Stark said, returning his gaze unflinchingly. “So do I,” Stevie Rae said. “Me, too,” I added. “We’re in agreement then. Rephaim returns to the House of Night with us,” Darius said. “Okay, wait. Does this mean we have to get in the damn short bus?” Aphrodite asked. “Yes!” we all said together. Laughing and feeling lighter than I had in days, I clambered on the short bus with my friends, and bumped my shoulder against Stark as we took our seats. He barely glanced at me. It was about then that I realized he really hadn’t had much to say to me (or anyone) since we’d woken up. Remembering how close we’d been—how he’d touched me and made the world seem all right again—had me chewing my lip and feeling super confused. I snuck another glance at him. He was staring out the window. He looked tired. Really tired. “Hey, what’s up with you?” I asked as the bus bounced its way along Cincinnati Street heading toward midtown “Me? Nothin’.” “Seriously, you look really tired. Are you feeling okay?” “Zoey, you woke me up and kept me up through most of the day yesterday. Then you made that call to Thanatos to get the whole ‘return to school’ thing in motion, which was not exactly a calm, quiet conversation. I’d just got to sleep when you yelled whatever and woke me up again. Making love was great.” He paused and for a second smiled and looked almost normal. Then he opened his mouth and ruined it by saying, “Afterward you did some serious tossing and turning before you passed out. I couldn’t get back to sleep. So I’m tired. That’s all.” I blinked at him. Twice. And tried not to feel like he’d just slapped me in my face. Keeping my voice down because I didn’t want to deal with all my friends knowing, I said, “Okay, putting aside the whole I-had-to-call-Thanatos-to-get-us-back-to-school thing, which is what I shoulda done ’cause I’m the High Priestess in charge, and the fact that you came on to me when all I meant to do was cuddle and sleep, my mom is dead, Stark. Nyx let me see her enter the Otherworld. As of right now I don’t know how or why that happened. I’m trying like hell to act semi-normal. I haven’t even talked to my grandma yet.” “That’s right, you haven’t. I told you that you should have called her right away—or at least called your mom. What if it was all just a dream?” I looked at Stark in utter disbelief, struggling to keep my voice and my emotions under control. “You are the one person in this world who should understand better than anyone else that I can tell the difference between really seeing the Otherworld and dreaming it.” “Yeah, I know, but—” “But are you saying I should have gone through all of that and not disturbed your precious sleep? Well, except to have sex with you!” I clamped my mouth shut and tried to look normal when I saw Aphrodite turn around and glance back at me with a question mark on her face. Stark blew out a long breath. “No, that’s not what I mean. I’m sorry, Z.” Then he took my hand in his. “Seriously. I’m sounding like a jerk.” “Yeah, you are,” I said. “Sorry, again,” he said, and then he butted my shoulder with his. “Can we rewind this conversation?” “Yeah,” I said. “Here goes—I’m tired and it’s making me stupid. And about your mom, we don’t know what really happened and I think it’s freaking both of us out. But no matter what I love you, even if I’m a jerk. Okay? Better?” “Okay. Yeah. Better,” I said. Still letting him hold my hand I looked out of the window as we took the left on Fifteenth Street, passed Gumpy’s Garden, which always made the air smell like pi?on wood, and traveled down Cherry Street. By the time we were on Utica, and passing Twenty-first, I was completely distracted by worry about my mom and my grandma—and wondering if maybe Stark could be right to question what I thought had been my vision. I mean—I hadn’t heard from Grandma. What if it had all been a bad dream … “It’s always so pretty.” Damien’s voice drifted back from the front seat he’d automatically chosen as his own. “When you look at it from here, it’s so hard to believe that such horrible, heartbreaking things could happen there.” I heard the sob in his voice, squeezed Stark’s hand once before letting it go, and then lurched up the aisle to sit beside Damien. “Hey,” I said, sliding my arm through his. “You have to remember that wonderful, heartmaking things happen there, too. Don’t ever forget that’s where you met Jack and fell in love with him.” Damien stared at me and I thought he looked sad but really, really wise. “How are you doing without Heath?” “I miss him,” I said honestly. Then something made me add, “But I don’t want to be like Dragon, eaten up by sadness.” “Me, either,” Damien said softly. “Even though sometimes it’s hard not to be.” “It hasn’t been very long.” Clamping his lips tightly together, as if to keep himself from crying, he nodded his head. “You’ll get through this,” I said. “And so will I. We will. Together,” I said firmly. Then we were going through the iron gate that had the crescent moon crest on the middle of it, and driving around to the side entrance of the school. “School Council Meeting begins at seven thirty,” said the Son of Erebus Warrior as the bus came to a halt. “Classes begin at eight o’clock sharp, just like they should.” “Thank you,” I said to him like he’d actually been friendly (or at least respectful). Then I glanced at my phone: 7:20 P.M. Ten minutes until the meeting and forty before school started. I stood up and looked back at the group of obviously nervous kids. “Okay,” I said. “Just go to your old homerooms and wait there for what to do next. Stevie Rae, Stark and I are going to the Council Meeting and, as they’d say on the Isle of Skye, get Rephaim’s and your permanent schedules sorted.” “How ’bout me? Ain’t I comin’ to the Meeting?” Kramisha asked. “It’s usually borin’, but I bet today it’ll be better than usual.” “You’re right,” I said. “It’s about time they started to automatically include you, along with Stevie Rae and me.” “Where do I go?” Rephaim asked from the back of the bus. I was thinking, trying to figure out where the heck he should go when Damien stood up beside me. “You can come with me—at least for today. If that’s okay with Zoey and Stevie Rae.” I smiled at Damien. I don’t think I’d ever been so proud of him. Everyone would be worried about him and handling him like he could break down into hysteria at any second, so if he latched onto Rephaim, no way would anyone question him—they’d be too scared of upsetting Damien. “Thank you,” I said. “That’s a real good idea, Damien,” Stevie Rae said. “All right. Try to act normal,” I said. “And I’ll see you guys back here after school.” “My first hour was Spells and Rituals,” I heard Aphrodite mutter to Darius. “And there’s that new vamp teaching it who looks like she’s twelve. This should be fun.” “Remember,” Stevie Rae said, giving Aphrodite a hard look she totally ignored, “be nice.” We filed off the bus. I could see how difficult it was for Stevie Rae to let Rephaim go with Damien. We didn’t really know what he could be walking into, but we did understand that the chances of him being accepted and treated like the normal kid he longed to be were slim to none. When Stevie Rae, Stark, and Kramisha and I were alone I said, “Ready to enter the lion’s den?” “I’m thinkin’ it’s more like headin’ into a nasty wasp nest,” Kramisha said. “But I’m ready.” “Me, too. Let’s cowboy up and get this done.” “Deal,” I said. “Deal,” they repeated. And we walked into a future that was already making my stomach clench and feel like a raging IBS episode was going to hit me at any moment. Ah, hell. CHAPTER THREE Kalona He didn’t have to fly long to find his sons. Kalona followed the thread that connected him to his offspring. My loyal children, he thought as he circled the tree-covered rolling hills of the less populated and heavily wooded land that was just a short distance southwest of Tulsa. At the very topmost part of the highest of the ridges Kalona dropped from the sky, easily navigating between the thick, winter nude branches to stand in the middle of a small clearing. Around him, built into the trees themselves, were three wooden structures, crude but sturdily made. Kalona’s sharp gaze saw into the windows of the structures where scarlet orbs glowed in his direction. He opened his arms. “Yes, my sons, I have returned!” The sound of wings was balm to his soul. They burst from the raised shacks and knelt around him, bowing low and respectfully. Kalona counted them—seven. “Where are the others?” All of the Raven Mockers stirred restlessly, but only one face tilted up to meet his gaze and only one hissing voice responded. “Wessst hiding. Lossst in the land.” Kalona studied his son, Nisroc, cataloguing the differences between this Raven Mocker and the one who used to be his favorite child. Nisroc was nearly as evolved as Rephaim. His speech was almost human. His mind was almost sharp. But it had been that almost, that fine line between them, that had made Rephaim the son upon which Kalona had depended and not Nisroc. Kalona clenched and unclenched his jaw. He had been foolish to lavish such attention on Rephaim alone. He had many sons from which to choose and to show favor. It was Rephaim who had lost when he’d chosen to leave. Rephaim had but one father, and he would find poor substitute in an absent goddess and a vampyre who could never truly love him. “It is good that you are here,” Kalona said, cutting off thoughts of his absent son. “But I would have preferred that all of you stayed together and awaited my return.” “Hold them, I could not,” Nisroc said. “Rephaim dead—” “Rephaim is not dead!” Kalona snapped, causing Nisroc to shudder and bow his head. The winged immortal paused and regained control of his temper before he continued. “Though it would be better for him if he were dead.” “Father?” “He has chosen to serve the red vampyre Priestess and her Goddess.” The group of Raven Mockers hissed and cringed as if he had struck them. “Posssible? How?” Nisroc said. “It is possible because of females, and their manipulations,” Kalona said darkly. He knew all too well how one could fall prey to them. He’d even been brought low by … In sudden realization, the immortal blinked and spoke, more to himself than his son, “But their manipulations do not last!” He shook his head and almost smiled. “Why did I not consider it sooner? Rephaim will tire of being the Red One’s pet, and when he does he will realize what a mistake he has made—a mistake that is not entirely his and his alone. The Red One manipulated him, poisoned him, turned him against me. But it is only temporary! When she rejects him, because ultimately she will, he will leave the House of Night to return to my—” Kalona broke off his words, deciding quickly. “Nisroc, take two of your brothers with you. Return to the House of Night. Watch. Be vigilant. Observe Rephaim and the Red One. When opportunity arises speak to him. Tell him that even though he has made this terrible mistake and turned from me…” Kalona paused, clenching and unclenching his jaw, utterly uncomfortable with the sadness and loneliness that washed over him whenever he thought too long about Rephaim’s choice. The winged immortal ordered his thoughts, commanded his feelings, and continued giving Nisroc direction. “Tell Rephaim that even though his misguided choice was to leave me, there is still a place awaiting him at my side, but that place would be better served if he remained at the House of Night, even after he wants to depart.” “He spiesss!” Nisroc said, and the other Raven Mockers mirrored his excitement with their distinctive croaks. “He does, but at the moment he may not know he spies,” Kalona said. Then he added, “You understand, Nisroc? You are to watch him. To remain unseen by all except Rephaim.” “Not to kill vampyresss?” “Not unless you are threatened—then do as you will, without being taken or killing any High Priestess,” Kalona said slowly and distinctly. “It is never wise to needlessly provoke a goddess, so Nyx’s High Priestesses are not to be killed.” He frowned at his son, remembering his other child who had almost killed Zoey Redbird not long ago—and who had died for it. “Do you understand my command, Nisroc?” “Yesss. Tell him I will. Rephaim to watch. Rephaim to ssspy.” “Do so, and return before dawn lightens the sky. Fly high. Fly fast. Fly quietly. Make yourselves like the night wind.” “Yesss, Father.” Kalona glanced around, nodding at the thickness of the surrounding woodland, and appreciating the fact that his children had found a high, isolated spot in which to nest. “Humans, they do not come here?” he asked. “Only huntersss, and they no more,” Nisroc said. Kalona raised his brows. “You killed humans?” “Yesss. Two.” Nisroc moved, agitated and excited. “Against rock we threw them.” He pointed a little way ahead of them and, curious, Kalona strode forward to look down on the steep side of the ridge where the massive power lines that carried electric magick for the modern world stretched before him. The humans had cleared the area surrounding the tall pylons so that the land fell away from him in a wide ribbon that stretched to the horizon. The clearing had left exposed jagged outcroppings of huge chunks of Oklahoma sandstone, clean and lethal and jutting toward the sky. “Excellent,” Kalona said, nodding in appreciation. “You made it look like an accident. That was well done.” Then he turned back to the clearing and the Raven Mockers who clustered there with all of their attention focused solely on him. “This place is well chosen. I want all of my sons around me here. Nisroc, go to the Tulsa House of Night. Do my bidding. The rest of you fly to the west. Call to your brothers—call them here to me. Here we will wait. Here we will watch. Here we will make ready.” “Make ready? For what, Father?” Nisroc asked, cocking his head. Kalona thought about how his body had been entrapped and his soul ripped from him and sent to the Otherworld. He thought about how after he’d returned she’d lashed him, enslaved him, and treated him as if he’d been her property to command “We make ready for Neferet’s destruction,” he said. Rephaim Everyone looked at him with suspicion. Rephaim hated it, but he understood it. He’d been an enemy. He’d killed one of their own. He’d been a monster. The truth was he could still be a monster. As third hour began and a professor who called herself Penthasilea read from and then spoke about a book written by an ancient vampyre named Ray Bradbury entitled Fahrenheit 451, and the importance of the freedoms of thought and expression, Rephaim tried to school his new human features into a semblance of attention and interest, but his mind kept slipping away. He wanted to listen to the professor and have nothing more to worry about than what she called “deciphering symbolism,” but the change from boy to raven obsessed him. It had been as painful and terrifying as it had been thrilling. And he remembered almost nothing of what had happened to him after it. Image and sensation were all that remained with him from the day and his transformation into a raven. Stevie Rae had gone with him up from the deep, earthen tunnels to the tree nearest the depot—the one that, not so long ago, had served as an escape route for them from the blistering sun. “Go back inside now. Dawn is breaking,” he’d said to her, touching her cheek gently. “I don’t wanna leave you,” she said, throwing her arms around him and hugging him close. He’d only allowed himself to return the embrace for a moment, then he’d gently unwound her from around him, and guided her firmly back to the shadowed, grated entrance to the basement. “Go below. You’re exhausted. You need to sleep.” “I’m gonna watch until you’re, uh, you know. A bird.” She’d whispered the last part as if not saying it aloud would change whether it was so. It was probably foolish, but it made him smile. “It does not matter whether you say it or not. It’s going to happen.” She’d sighed. “I know. But I still don’t wanna leave you.” Stevie Rae had reached forward, out into the lightening morning, and taken his hand. “I want you to know I’m here for you.” “I do not believe a bird knows very much of the human world,” he’d said because he hadn’t known what else to say. “You’re not gonna be just any bird. You’re gonna turn into a raven. And I’m not a human. I’m a vampyre. A red one. Plus, if I don’t stay here how are you gonna know what to come back to?” He’d heard a sob in her voice that had made his heart ache. Rephaim kissed her hand. “I’ll know. I give you my oath. I’ll always find my way home to you.” He’d been about to give her a little shove through the entry to the basement when a sickening pain had torn through his body. Looking back on it he realized he should have expected it. How could it not be painful to change form from a human boy to a raven? But his world had been filled with Stevie Rae and the simple but complete joy of taking her in his arms, kissing her, holding her close … He’d not spent time considering the beast. At least he’d be prepared next time. The pain had ripped him. He’d heard Stevie Rae’s scream echo his own. His last human thought had been worry for her. His last human sight had been of her crying and shaking her head back and forth. She’d reached for him as animal had completely replaced human. He remembered spreading his wings as if he was stretching after being imprisoned in a tiny cell. Or a cage. And flying. He remembered flying. At sunset he’d found himself cold and naked beneath the same tree beside the depot. He’d just pulled on his clothes that had been left neatly folded for him on a little stool when Stevie Rae burst from the basement. With no hesitation she’d hurled herself into his arms. “Are you okay? Really? Are you okay?” she kept repeating as she’d studied him and felt his arms as if searching for broken bones. “I am well,” he’d assured her. It was then he’d realized she was crying. He cupped her face in his hands and said, “What is it? Why do you weep?” “It hurt you so bad. You screamed like it was killing you.” “No,” he’d lied. “It wasn’t so bad. It was just surprising.” “Really?” He’d smiled—how he loved to smile—and pulled her into his arms, kissing her blond curls and reassuring her. “Really.” “Rephaim?” Rephaim was wrenched back to the present by the sound of his name being called by the professor. “Yes?” he responded with his own questioning tone. She didn’t smile at him, but she also didn’t taunt or admonish him. She simply said, “I asked what you believe the quote on page seven means. The one where Montag says Clarisse’s face has a light that is like a ‘fragile milk crystal’ and the ‘strangely comfortable and rare and gently flattering light of the candle.’ What do you think Bradbury is trying to say about Clarisse with these descriptions?” Rephaim was absolutely astounded. A professor was asking him a question. As if he was just another daydreaming fledgling—normal—the same— accepted. Feeling nervous and completely exposed he opened his mouth and blurted the first thing that came to his mind. “I think he’s trying to say this girl is unique. He recognizes how special she is, and he values her.” Professor Penthasilea’s brows lifted and for an awful heartbeat Rephaim thought she might ridicule him. “That is an interesting answer, Rephaim. Perhaps if you kept your mind more on the book and less on other things, your answers would go from interesting to incredible,” she remarked in a dry, matter-of-fact voice. “Th-thank you,” Rephaim stuttered, his face feeling warm. Penthasilea nodded her head slightly in acknowledgment before turning to a student sitting more toward the front of the class and asking, “What about her final question to him in this scene: ‘Are you happy?’ What significance does that have?” “Good job,” Damien whispered from his desk beside Rephaim. Rephaim couldn’t speak. He only nodded and tried to understand the sudden lightness of spirit he felt. “You know what happens to her? This special girl?” The whisper came from the fledgling sitting directly in front of Rephaim. He was a short, muscular male with a strong profile. Rephaim could easily see the disdain in his face as he glanced at him over his shoulder. Rephaim shook his head. No, he did not know. “She’s killed because of him.” Rephaim felt as if he’d been kicked in his gut. “Drew, did you have a comment about Clarisse?” the professor asked, raising her brows again. Drew slumped nonchalantly forward and lifted one shoulder. “No, ma’am. I was just givin’ the birdboy some insight to the future.” He paused and glanced over his shoulder before saying, “The future of the book, that is.” “Rephaim.” The professor spoke his name in a voice that had gone hard. Rephaim was surprised to feel the power of it against his skin. “In my classroom all fledglings are equal. All are called by their correct names. His is Rephaim.” “Professor P, he’s no fledgling,” Drew said. The professor’s hand came down on the top of her podium and the entire room vibrated with sound and energy. “He is here. As long as he’s here, in my classroom, he will be treated as any other fledgling.” “Yes, ma’am,” Drew said, bowing his head respectfully. “Good. Now that that is straight let’s discuss the creative project you’ll be doing for me. I want you to bring alive your choice of one of the many symbolic elements Bradbury uses in this wonderful book…” Rephaim held very still as the class’s attention was pulled from him and the Drew fledgling back to the book. She’s killed because of him was playing round and round inside his mind. Drew’s meaning was clear. He hadn’t been speaking of a character in a book. He’d meant Stevie Rae—that she was going to be killed because of him. Never. Not as long as he drew breath would he allow anything or anyone to harm his Stevie Rae. When the bell rang to release them from class, Drew met Rephaim’s gaze with unflinching hatred. Rephaim had to hold himself back from attacking him. Enemy! his old nature shrieked. Destroy him! But Rephaim ground his jaw and returned Drew’s gaze without blinking as the fledgling brushed roughly past him. And it wasn’t just Drew’s eyes that stared at him with hatred. All of them were sending him glances that ranged from hostile to horrified to frightened. “Hey,” Damien said, walking out of the classroom with him. “Don’t let Drew bother you. He used to have a thing for Stevie Rae. He’s just jealous.” Rephaim nodded and waited until they were outside and had drawn beyond hearing distance of the rest of the students. Then, quietly, he said, “It isn’t just Drew. It’s all of them. They hate me.” Damien motioned for him to follow him a little way off the path, then he stopped and said, “You knew it wouldn’t be easy.” “That is true. I just—” Rephaim stopped himself and shook his head. “No. It is simply true. I knew it would be a difficult thing for others to accept me.” He met Damien’s gaze. The fledgling looked haggard. Grief had aged him. His eyes were red and puffy. He’d lost the love of his life, yet here he was showing Rephaim kindness. “Thank you, Damien,” he said. Damien almost smiled. “For telling you this wouldn’t be easy?” “No, for showing me kindness.” “Stevie Rae is my friend. The kindness I show is for her.” “Then you are a remarkable friend,” Rephaim said. “If you really are the boy Stevie Rae thinks you are, you’ll find that when you’re on the side of the Goddess, you’ll make a lot of remarkable friends.” “I am on the side of the Goddess,” Rephaim said. “Rephaim, if I didn’t believe that I wouldn’t be helping you, no matter how much I care about Stevie Rae,” Damien said. Rephaim nodded. “That’s fair.” “Hey, Damien!” One of the red fledglings, an unusually small boy, hurried up to them, giving Rephaim a look, then adding a quick, “Hey, Rephaim.” “Hi, Ant,” Damien said. Rephaim nodded, uncomfortable with the whole greeting process. “I heard you had fencing this hour. Me, too!” “I do,” Damien said. “Rephaim and I were just—” He paused and Rephaim watched several emotions pass his face, ending with embarrassed. He sighed heavily before saying, “Um, Rephaim, Dragon Lankford is the fencing professor.” Then Rephaim understood. “That’s, uh, not good,” Ant said. “He may still be at the school Council Meeting,” Damien said hopefully. “I think it best that I stay here, whether Dragon is absent or not. If I come with you it will only cause…” Rephaim’s voice ran out because all he could think of were words like: chaos, trouble, and disaster. “Unpleasantness.” Damien filled in the silence for him. “It would probably cause unpleasantness. Maybe you should skip fencing for today.” “Sounds smart,” Ant said. “I’ll wait for you.” Rephaim motioned vaguely to the tree-filled area around them. They weren’t far from one of the school walls where, just inside the stone fa?ade there was a particularly large oak under which sat a wrought iron bench. “I’ll be sitting there.” “Okay, I’ll come by and get you after class. The next hour is Spanish. Professor Garmy is nice. You’ll like her,” Damien said as he and Ant started toward the field house. Rephaim nodded and waved and made himself smile because Damien kept glancing worriedly over his shoulder at him. When the two fledglings were finally out of sight, Rephaim walked to the bench and sat heavily down. He was glad for the time alone, when he could be unguarded—could let his shoulders slump and not worry about having others stare at him. He felt like such an outlander! What had he been thinking when he’d said he wanted to be normal, to go to school like everyone else? He wasn’t like everyone else. But she loves me. Me. Just as I am, Rephaim reminded himself, and thinking it made him feel a little better—a little lighter of spirit. Then, because he was alone, he said it aloud. “I am Rephaim, and Stevie Rae loves me just the way I am.” “Rephaim! No!” The whispery, semi-human voice came from the branches of the oak. With a terrible sense of dread Rephaim looked up to see three Raven Mockers, three of his brothers, perched there staring down at him in shock and disbelief. CHAPTER FOUR Zoey Okay, I know I’m a teenager and all, but I suck at using Skype. Actually, I’m kinda moronic about technology in general. Casting a circle—yep. Communing with any of the five elements—definitely. Figuring out how to synch my iPhone with a new computer—uh, probably not. Just thinking about tweeting gave me a headache and made me really miss Jack. “Here, it ain’t that hard. You just gotta click that.” Kramisha reached over my shoulder and snagged the magic mouse. “And then that, and that’s it. We’s all on Skype and the camera’s workin’ now.” I looked up to see Stevie Rae and everyone else, including Dragon, Lenobia, and Erik all gawking at me. Stevie Rae, at least, grinned and mouthed a quick, “Easy-peasy.” “What exactly is the point behind—” Dragon began, but Neferet’s entrance to the Council Room cut him off. And, thankfully, it was at that moment that the commanding voice of the Leader of the Vampyre High Council carried clear and strong through Damien’s computer. “Merry meet, Zoey Redbird,” Duantia said. “I am pleased to speak with you again.” I fisted my hand over my heart and bowed respectfully. “Merry meet, Duantia. Thank you for making time for this call.” “Merry meet, Duantia,” Neferet said, stepping up beside me and bowing formally. I saw her shoot a quick, questioning look at Dragon before she smiled silkily and continued. “I must apologize. I knew nothing about this call. I was only expecting a simple school Council Meeting.” Then she skewered me with her emerald eyes. “Are you responsible for this, Zoey?” “Yeah, definitely. I would have told you earlier, but you just now got here,” I said, smiling and sounding super cheerful. Before Neferet could respond I turned my attention to Duantia. “I wanted to make sure the High Council heard all the details about Nyx’s amazing appearance at the school yesterday and,” I paused, nodding to Neferet as if I was including her, “I knew Neferet would be eager to share with you as well.” “Actually, we know very little, which is one of the reasons I was looking forward to this call.” Duantia looked from me to Neferet. “I tried to contact you during the day, after I instructed Dragon to allow the red fledglings and Zoey’s group to begin attending classes today, but I could not reach you, High Priestess.” I could feel Neferet bristle, but she only said, “I was secluded in deep prayer.” “All the more reason for this call,” Duantia said. “What Nyx did was a miracle.” I gestured for Stevie Rae to come into camera range. “This is Stevie Rae, the first Red High Priestess.” Stevie Rae fisted her hand over her heart and bowed deeply. “I’m real pleased to meet you, ma’am.” “Merry meet, Stevie Rae. I have heard much of you and the red fledglings. And, of course, I have already met the Red Warrior, Stark. Nyx is, indeed, generous with her miracles.” “Um, thank you, but, well, us bein’ red and all isn’t the miracle.” Stevie Rae glanced at me and added, “Well, at least it’s not the miracle Zoey’s talkin’ ’bout.” She cleared her throat and then said, “Nyx’s miracle has to do with my Consort, Rephaim.” Duantia’s eyes widened. “Is that not the name of one of the creatures called Raven Mocker?” “Yes.” Dragon’s voice was as hard as his face. “It is the name of the creature who killed my Anastasia.” “I do not understand,” Duantia said. “How could that abomination be called Consort?” Quickly, before Neferet could chime in something awful I started babbling, “Rephaim used to be a Raven Mocker, and Dragon is right, back then he did kill Anastasia.” I glanced up at Dragon, but it was real hard to meet his eyes. “Rephaim asked Nyx’s forgiveness for that.” “And for everything bad he’d done when he was Kalona’s son,” Stevie Rae added. “Blanket forgiveness is—” Neferet began, but I cut her off saying, “Blanket forgiveness is a gift that can be given by our Goddess, which is exactly what she did last night,” I said. Then I looked at Stevie Rae. “Tell the High Council Leader what you did.” Stevie Rae nodded and swallowed hard, then she said, “A few weeks ago I found Rephaim almost dead. He’d been shot from the sky. I didn’t turn him in.” She looked from the computer screen and Duantia up to Dragon and said pleadingly, “I didn’t mean to hurt anyone or do anythin’ wrong.” “That abomination killed my mate,” Dragon said. “The same night he was shot from the sky and should have died.” “Professor Lankford, please allow the Red High Priestess to continue her confession,” Duantia said. I saw Dragon’s jaw clench and his lip lift slightly in a sneer, but Stevie Rae’s words drew my attention back to her. “Dragon’s right. Rephaim would have died that night if I hadn’t saved him. I didn’t tell anyone about him. Well, except my momma, and that was later. Anyway, I took care of him instead. I saved his life. And then he saved my life in return—twice. Once from the white bull of Darkness.” “He faced Darkness for you?” Duantia sounded shocked. “Yes.” “Actually, he turned away from Darkness for her.” I took up the story. “And last night he asked forgiveness from Nyx and pledged himself to her path.” “Then the Goddess made him a boy!” Stevie Rae said with such enthusiasm that even Duantia’s lips twitched up in a smile. “Only from sunset to sunrise,” Neferet added, in a throw-cold-water-on-the-moment voice. “During the day he is condemned to be a raven—a beast— with no memory of his humanity.” “That was his consequence for the bad stuff in his past,” Stevie Rae explained. “And now, during the time he’s a boy, Rephaim wants to come to school like any other fledgling,” I said. “Remarkable,” Duantia said. “The creature does not belong at this school,” Dragon said. “The creature isn’t at this school,” I said. “The boy is. The same boy Nyx forgave. The same boy Stevie Rae has chosen as her Consort. The same boy who tried to swear himself into your service.” “Dragon, you rejected him?” Duantia asked. “I did,” Dragon said tightly. “And that is why I expelled them all,” Neferet said in a calm, reasonable, adult voice. “My Sword Master cannot tolerate his presence, and rightly so. When Zoey’s group decided to turn their allegiance from us to Stevie Rae and the Raven Mocker I saw no choice except that they all had to go.” “He isn’t a Raven Mocker anymore.” Stevie Rae sounded totally pissed-off. “And yet he is still the being who murdered my mate.” Dragon’s voice was a lash. “Hold!” Duantia’s command shot from the computer. Even from thousands of miles away and through Skype, the power in her voice was a tangible presence in the room. “Neferet, let me be certain that I am absolutely clear about last night’s events. Our Goddess, Nyx, appeared at your House of Night and forgave the Raven Mocker, Rephaim, and then gifted him with the form of a human boy during the night, and as penance cursed him with a bestial form of a raven during the day?” “Yes,” Neferet said. Duantia shook her head slowly. “Neferet, there is a part of me—the remnants of a very young me, mind you—that understands your response to such unusual events, though you were mistaken. Simply put, you cannot expel a group of fledglings who have done nothing more than stand by their friends. Especially not this group of fledglings,” Duantia said. “This group has been far too goddess-touched to be cast away.” “That kinda brings up the second thing I need to talk to you about,” I said. “Because of the differences between red fledglings and regular fledglings, it’s really better that they were expelled.” I frowned. “Wait, that didn’t come out right.” “What she means is we can’t rest right unless we’re underground,” Stevie Rae explained for me. “And there isn’t much underground here.” “So during daylight they’d like to stay in the tunnels under the Tulsa depot, and at night during the week they’d like to be bussed here for classes. There aren’t very many red fledglings in Stevie Rae’s group, and except for me no blue fledglings left the school at all, so I’m thinking between me, a Red High Priestess, and two Changed Warriors, we should be able to handle ourselves okay over there.” I fixed my face into a giant smile and beamed up at Neferet. “And I know Neferet is such an awesome High Priestess that she’ll be able to handle all the changes going on over here.” There was a long silence during which Neferet and I locked gazes. Finally Duantia said, “Neferet, what say you?” I caught a glimpse of smugness in her expression before Neferet turned to the camera. “After listening to your wisdom, Duantia, I do see that I made my decision too hastily last night. As someone who is, myself, newly forgiven by Nyx, I can only strive to emulate the Goddess’s benevolence. She clearly has special plans for Zoey and her group. Perhaps a resting place separate from us would be best. Of course they must still abide by the rules of this House of Night, and acknowledge me as their rightful High Priestess.” “Uh, not necessarily,” I said, ignoring Neferet’s piercing look and concentrating on Duantia. “The time I spent on Skye with Queen Sgiach really meant a lot to me. She and I got close. Sgiach even said she’d like me to mentor under her, that she would start opening up Skye to the modern world. Right now I can’t be on Skye with her, but I’d still like to follow in her footsteps.” I drew a deep breath and finished in a rush, “So, I want to officially declare the Tulsa Depot outside of the jurisdiction of the House of Night, like Sgiach has declared Skye.” I looked directly at Neferet. “And just like Sgiach, I won’t get in your business if you don’t get in mine.” “You dare declare yourself a queen?” Neferet sounded stunned. “Well, I didn’t. But Sgiach did and so did her Guardian. Plus, Stark has been accepted as a Guardian. In the Otherworld he had the sword and everything. He’s my Warrior, so kinda by default that means I’m being declared a queen. A little one, though,” I added. “This does not feel right to me,” Neferet said. “I agree with Neferet,” Dragon said. I stared at him, trying to telegraph: Really? Are you really saying you agree with Neferet after all you know about her? But Dragon looked past me as if he couldn’t see me. “I must consult the High Council on this matter, Zoey Redbird. We do not support the idea of vampyre queens. Vampyres are Priestesses and Warriors and Professors, and the various life paths that spring from those callings. That has long been our tradition.” “But Sgiach is a queen,” I insisted. “She has been for centuries. That has to be long enough to be a tradition, too.” “Not a vampyre tradition!” Duantia’s raised voice made the little hairs on my arms lift. The Leader of the High Council drew a deep breath, obviously steadying herself, before she continued in a calmer tone. “Sgiach is barely considered vampyre. She has maintained her existence separate from us for many centuries. We have an uneasy truce with her by default. We cannot enter her isle. She will not leave it.” Duantia paused and lifted a brow. “Has that changed, Zoey? Is Sgiach planning on leaving Skye?” “No,” I said. “But she did tell me she was going to consider taking in students again.” “Allowing outsiders to come and go from Skye would be extraordinary.” The way Duantia said it made me think she didn’t believe “extraordinary” was synonymous with “a good thing.” “I believe opening up to outsiders is something we all must do in these changing times,” Neferet said. Everyone stared at her. Even Duantia was speechless. “Because I feel so strongly about it I have decided to open the doors of my House of Night in the form of some of the more menial jobs, to local humans. I think it wise and responsible, especially in these hard economic times. I hope Sgiach follows suit.” “That is an excellent idea, Neferet,” Duantia said. “As you are aware, humans have had a steady presence here on San Clemente Island for the past several centuries.” The Vampyre High Priestess smiled. “Since we have become civilized and modern.” “As the Tulsa House of Night would like to become, as well,” Neferet said. “Well, then. That is decided. The Tulsa House of Night will employ local humans. Rephaim, the red fledglings, and Zoey’s group of students will attend school at the Tulsa House of Night while resting in the tunnels under the depot during the day. I will make a note to speak to the Tulsa City Council about the purchase of the depot.” “And what of Zoey’s status as queen and the depot’s allegiance to me and this House of Night?” Neferet asked. I held my breath. “As I already ruled, I will consult the full High Council on a matter as serious as a young and gifted fledgling being considered a queen, even if just a queen in training. Until a decision can be made, Zoey Redbird and the Tulsa Depot are to be an extension of the Tulsa House of Night.” “And thus I remain their High Priestess,” Neferet said. Stevie Rae cleared her throat. Our eyes turned to her. “Uh, not to be mean or anything, but if Z’s not gonna be called queen, and we have to have a High Priestess, I’m next in line. My red fledglings need someone like them to understand them. And that’s me. So, call us a branch of the House of Night if ya want, but if there’s a High Priestess over us, then she’s gonna be me.” “You make a valid point, young Priestess,” Duantia said with no hesitation, which made me wonder if she’d just been waiting for Stevie Rae to object. “Stevie Rae, until the matter of Zoey Redbird’s standing is settled, you are acting High Priestess of the depot extension of the Tulsa House of Night.” “Thank you, ma’am,” Stevie Rae said. “And I didn’t mean to sound disrespectful.” Duantia’s sharp features softened as she smiled. “You did not sound disrespectful. You sounded like a High Priestess. Now, if there are no further items of business, I will adjourn to update the other Council Members on these events and decisions.” “I’m done,” I said. “Yep, me, too,” Stevie Rae said. “I believe what we have already accomplished is quite enough for one day,” Neferet said. “Excellent. Then I bid you farewell, and wish you all to blessed be.” The computer made the weird Skype cutoff noise and the screen went blank. “Well, that was quite interesting,” Lenobia said. I realized after she’d spoken that she hadn’t said anything for the entire Skype call. It made me wonder about her. I mean, she’d clearly been on my side before against Neferet, but then again, so had Dragon. “Yes, interesting is one word to describe what that was,” Neferet said. “Congratulations, High Priestess,” I said to Stevie Rae. “Yeah, congrats,” Erik said. “You was already our High Priestess, but it’s nice they made it official,” Kramisha said. “I don’t want him in my class.” Dragon spoke abruptly, totally cutting through the well-wishing. I started to open my mouth to defend Rephaim’s right to go to fencing class or whatever, even though it still felt really weird to be defending Rephaim at all, but Stevie Rae’s response surprised and silenced me. “I think you’re right. I know this is hard for you, Dragon. How ’bout I ask Darius and Stark to teach some extra classes on knife stuff and whatnot? Rephaim can take those classes.” “That is actually a good idea,” Lenobia said. “As every fledgling must take some sort of self-defense class, with the unexpected addition of the red fledglings your classes will be overfilled.” “Yeah, we was supposed to be dead. Bein’ undead will screw up class size for sure,” Kramisha said. Neferet sighed heavily and then said, “Every fledgling must take a self-defense class because of the attack of the Raven Mockers. Am I the only one who sees the terrible irony in what all of you are saying?” “I see it—and more,” Dragon said. “And I see that you keep stirrin’ the shit pot,” Stevie Rae said. She’d turned and was standing toe-to-toe with Neferet. She didn’t blink. She didn’t back down. My BFF looked tough and strong and way older than her years. Stevie Rae looked like a High Priestess. A High Priestess who was making dangerous enemies. “Duantia decided Rephaim and the rest of us can stay,” I said as I stood up, stepping between Stevie Rae and Neferet. “I think what we need to do is to figure out a way we can do that without causing a bunch of stress and trouble.” I looked at Dragon, trying to find within his anger-filled eyes the wise, kind Sword Master I’d known. “We’ve all had enough of that to last us a long time, don’t you think?” “I’ll be in the field house with the normal fledglings,” Dragon said and then he pushed through the room. “Stevie Rae, you can tell Stark and Darius that they may hold class in the stables,” Lenobia said. “I’m glad to hear you’re in such an accommodating mood, Professor Lenobia,” Neferet said. “The first of the humans I am hiring will be a stable hand to aid you with all of the—” she paused and her gaze cut to Stevie Rae, Kramisha, and me. “Sewage in the stables.” “Manure.” Lenobia’s reply was swift. “I don’t have sewage in my stables. I have manure. And I don’t need any help with it.” “Ah, but you will accept the help, because it is the right thing to do, and because the High Council just endorsed it. Won’t you?” “I will do what I believe is right.” “Then you will do as I expected.” Neferet turned a dismissive back to Lenobia. “Zoey and Stevie Rae, the red fledglings should resume the class schedule they were following before they died,” she said matter-of-factly. “And you two should join them. Whether you’re abnormally Changed,” she flicked her fingers at Stevie Rae, “or just abnormal fledglings,” she shifted her attention to Kramisha and me, “it matters little. You need to be in class. You’re all much too young to be truly interesting without being better educated. Second hour should be underway by now. Get to class. This Council Meeting is now adjourned.” Without so much as a “blessed be” she swept from the room. “She is one hot mess,” Kramisha said. “Crazy times ten,” Stevie Rae said. “But Neferet is a known entity. We understand that when we’re dealing with her, we’re dealing with a High Priestess who has gone wrong and who is utterly mad,” Lenobia said slowly. “It’s Dragon that I’m most worried about.” “Then you are with us?” I asked the Horse Mistress. Lenobia’s gray eyes met mine. “I told you once that I’ve battled evil. I bear the scars of that encounter, both physically and emotionally, and I will never allow evil and Darkness to decimate my life again. I’m with you,” she nodded in turn to Stevie Rae and Kramisha, “and you and you because you’re on the side of the Goddess.” Then she turned to Erik, who was standing, but who hadn’t made a move to leave the room. “And where are you in all of this?” “I’m the Tulsa House of Night’s Tracker.” “We know that, but what side does that put you on?” Stevie Rae asked. “I’m on the side that Marks kids and changes their destinies.” Erik evaded. “Erik, someday you’re gonna have to take a stand,” I told him. “Hey, just because I’m not battling toe-to-toe with Neferet doesn’t mean I haven’t taken a stand.” “No, it just means it’s a weak one,” Stevie Rae said. “Whatever! You don’t know everything, Stevie Rae.” Erik stormed from the room. Kramisha snorted. “That is a waste of one pretty boy.” It made me sad, but I couldn’t disagree with her. “I’ll begin sectioning off space in the arena for Warrior classes,” Lenobia said. “If you round up the two Warriors and let them know they’re going to be professors, or at least temporary professors.” “Shouldn’t be hard to find them,” I said. “Stark and Darius are probably in the field house playing with their swords.” “I’ll come with you,” Stevie Rae said. “I guess I’ll go to second hour,” Kramisha said with a heavy sigh. As Stevie Rae and I left the room, she snagged my arm and slowed me down so that we were walking by ourselves. “Hey, you know that just ’cause the High Council and them are callin’ me the High Priestess at the depot, it doesn’t mean that I want to be the boss of you or anythin’ like that.” I blinked in surprise at her. “Yeah, of course I know that. And anyway, you’re a great High Priestess, and that means you won’t be a bossy pain in the butt.” She didn’t laugh like I thought she would. Instead she tugged on one of her curls, a definite sign she was stressing. “Okay, that’s nice to say and all, but I’ve only been a High Priestess for, like, two seconds. I need to be sure you’ll help me.” I hooked her arm with mine and bumped shoulders with her. “You can always be sure of me. You know that.” “Even after Rephaim?” “Even after Loren and Kalona and Stark?” I countered with. She started to grin. “You always gotta one-up me, don’t ya?” “Sadly, I think I three-uped you,” I said, which did make her laugh, but made me sigh. We left the part of the House of Night that held the tower-like media center and took a left on the sidewalk that wound around to the field house and stables. It was a cold night, but it was super clear. The sky was filled with stars, which were really easy to see through the winter branches of the big oaks that dotted the campus grounds. “So, he’s cute, huh?” I pretended clueless. “Who? Stark? Definitely.” She knocked her shoulder into mine. “I’m talkin’ ’bout Rephaim.” “Oh, him. Yeah, I guess he’s okay.” I hesitated, and almost didn’t ask, but then I decided to go ahead. I mean, we were BFFs. And BFFs could ask each other anything. “So, did you see him turn into a bird?” I could feel the tension that entered her body, but she sounded almost normal when she said, “Yeah, I did.” “What was it like?” “Awful.” “Did he, uh, stay around? Or did he fly right off?” I couldn’t help it. I was totally, morbidly, car-wreck curious. “Flew right off. But as soon as the sun set he came back. He says he’ll always find his way back to me.” “Then he will,” I said, hating to hear the worry in her voice. “I love him, Z. He really is good. I promise.” I was opening my mouth to tell her I believed her when a shout interrupted me. For a second I didn’t understand what the voice was saying, all I reacted to was the danger in it. Stevie Rae understood, though. “Oh, no! It’s Dragon! He’s calling Warriors to him!” She dropped my arm and began to run toward Dragon’s voice. With a terrible sense of foreboding, I sprinted after her. CHAPTER FIVE Rephaim “Why are you here?!” Rephaim shouted at the three Raven Mockers perched above him. He looked hastily around. If he’d had time he would have breathed a sigh of relief that this part of the campus remained empty; all the fledglings had found their way to second-hour classes. “You must go before anyone sees you,” he said in a much quieter voice. “Rephaim? How?” Though there were three Raven Mockers in the tree, only one of them was actually speaking. Of course Rephaim recognized him instantly as Nisroc, one of the more human-like of his brothers. “I chose the path of Nyx. The Goddess forgave and accepted me, and when she did she changed my form to completely human.” Rephaim wasn’t sure why he didn’t add “at night.” What he was sure of was that anything he told Nisroc would be reported directly back to his father. “Forgivenessss? Why?” Rephaim stared at his brother, almost overwhelmed by pity. He doesn’t realize there is any other way than that which our father leads him, and he doesn’t understand that what he does in Kalona’s name is wrong. “Nisroc, when we—” Rephaim paused. No, he thought, I can only speak for myself. “When I harmed others, when I killed and raped and took whatever I wished simply because I could—that was wrong.” Nisroc cocked his head back and forth. His other brothers, two of the nameless, bestial horde that did their father’s bidding, hissed softly, disturbed but not high enough evolved to comprehend why. Finally his brother said, “Father’sss command. Not wrong.” Rephaim shook his head. “Even Father can be wrong.” He drew a deep breath and added, “And even you can choose a different path.” The two nameless ones stopped hissing and stared at him in shock. Nisroc narrowed his scarlet colored, human eyes. “She did thisss. The female. As Father sssaid!” “No one did anything to me. I decided for myself.” Then with a start of fear, realization hit him. “Nisroc, the Red One, Stevie Rae, she didn’t make me do anything. I chose her and her Goddess. You can never harm the Red One. Ever. She belongs to me. Do you understand?” “Yours. High Priestessss to kill we cannot.” Nisroc repeated as if by rote, but Rephaim saw the hard, mean glint in his glowing eyes. “You need to leave. Now,” Rephaim said. “You can’t let anyone see you, and you can’t return.” “First, Father’s messssage.” Nisroc dropped from the thick middle branches of the oak, landing in front of Rephaim, followed by the other two Raven Mockers, who flanked him. “By Father’s ssside you will be. But here. Watching. Waiting. Ssspying.” Rephaim shook his head again. “No. I will not spy for Father.” “Yesss! As Father willsss!” Nisroc spread his wings, an action mimicked by the other two Raven Mockers. Highly agitated, he bobbed his head and fisted his hands. Rephaim didn’t feel threatened. The physical danger he was in didn’t register in his mind. He was too used to his brothers—too used to being one of them. No, it was more than that. Rephaim was too used to being their leader to fear them. “No,” he repeated. “It’s not as Father wills for me anymore. I’ve changed. Inside and outside. Go back to him. Tell him that.” Rephaim hesitated and then continued, “Tell him my choice stands.” “Hate you, he will,” Nisroc said. “I know that.” Rephaim felt the hurt of it deep inside him. “Hate you, I will,” Nisroc said. Rephaim frowned. “You don’t have to.” “I mussst.” Slowly, Rephaim reached out, offering his forearm to Nisroc in the traditionally respectful greeting and parting gesture between Warriors. “You don’t have to. We can part as friends, as brothers.” Nisroc paused, cocking his head side to side. His narrowed eyes relaxed. His aggressive stance shifted. He began to move, to speak, but Rephaim would never know his brother’s true intent because at that moment Dragon Lankford’s cry of “Sons of Erebus! To me!” shattered the night and the Sword Master descended upon them. Rephaim experienced an instant of body-numbing panic. He stood frozen in the middle of chaos as his brothers, hissing and snarling, met Dragon’s attack. He watched with the terrible, fatalistic knowledge that very soon Warriors would begin spilling from the field house, swords drawn and arrows notched. They would join Dragon and utterly overwhelm his three brothers. “Dragon, no!” he cried. “They weren’t attacking!” From the midst of battle, Dragon Lankford’s voice carried to him. “You are either for or against us! There is no middle ground.” “There is middle ground!” Rephaim yelled back, holding his arms wide as if in surrender. “It is where I stand!” He took a step toward Dragon. “They weren’t attacking!” he repeated. “Nisroc, brothers, stop fighting!” Rephaim believed Nisroc actually hesitated. He was quite certain his brother was listening to him, understanding, wanting to retreat. Then Neferet’s voice sliced through the night. “Aurox! Protect! Destroy!” Neferet’s creature exploded into the scene. He came from the wall side of the grounds, facing Rephaim. At first he appeared to be human. He had a human male’s form, youthful and unmarked as a fledgling or a vampyre. But his movements were too fast to be human. In a blur he struck. Attacking from behind he grasped the closest Raven Mocker by his upraised wings and in a single, horrible motion ripped them from his body. Over his centuries of existence Rephaim had seen terrible things—he’d committed vile, dark deeds. But somehow seeing from his new, human point of view made the violence he was witnessing more awful. His scream echoed his brother’s as the Raven Mocker’s body fell to the ground, writhing in agony and spurting blood. It was then that Aurox began to change. Even though Rephaim watched it happening he could hardly comprehend it. Its body became bigger, thicker. It grew horns. Its fists solidified. Its skin rippled, shifted, pulsed as if something beneath was trying to come forth. It bent and, almost gracefully, twisted off his brother’s head. Even Dragon Lankford paused in his attack to stare. Forcing his mind to think through the shock and horror, Rephaim shouted at Nisroc. “Go! Fly away!” With a cry of despair, Nisroc, followed by one brother, lifted from the blood-soaked ground. The transformed creature bellowed and leaped, trying, futilely, to knock them from the sky. When he crashed back to earth, his massive cloven hooves biting into the winter grass, he turned blazing moon-colored eyes on Rephaim. Wishing he had wings or a weapon, Rephaim crouched defensively and readied himself for the creature’s onslaught. “Rephaim! Watch out!” He heard her voice and his fear spiked hot and thick as Stevie Rae, followed closely by Zoey, ran toward him. The creature lowered its head and charged. Zoey I was close behind Stevie Rae as we ran up on the fighting. Jeesh, all I can say is that it was disgusting and horrifying and totally confusing. I could hardly tell what was happening. Two Raven Mockers were screaming and flying away overhead. I could see the headless (eesh!) body of another Raven Mocker twitching and oozing seriously odd-smelling blood at Dragon’s feet. Rephaim stood a little away from them, as if he’d been watching but not involved in the fight. Somehow Neferet was there, too, looking super crazy and smiling in a very weird way. In the middle of the whole thing was a creature that was kinda human and kinda not. The instant I saw him the middle of my chest started to feel hot. I reached up and felt the hard, hot marble circle that hung from a silver chain around my neck. “My seer tone,” I muttered to myself. “Why again? Why now?” As if in answer, my gaze was drawn to the bizarre creature. He had horns and hoofs, but his face was guy-like. His eyes were glowing. He’d been trying to grab a Raven Mocker out of the sky, but when he failed, he turned his attention to Rephaim, lowered his head, and charged. “Rephaim! Watch out!” Stevie Rae yelled and sprinted toward him. She flung out her arms and I could hear her asking earth to come to her. “Spirit!” I called, trying to keep up with her. “Strengthen Stevie Rae!” I felt the element respond as it swirled past me into Stevie Rae, along with her own element, earth. Like she was throwing a big ball, she heaved, and a glowing green wall cascaded like reverse waterfall from the earth upward, blocking Rephaim from the charging creature. The creature hit the green wall and bounced, falling onto his back. Stevie Rae, strong and straight and proud, stood next to Rephaim. She took his hand. She raised her other hand, and when the creature tried to get up she made a smacking motion and said, “No! Stay down.” A wave of glowing green washed against him, pinning him to the ground. “Enough!” Neferet said, marching over to the creature. “Aurox is not the enemy here. Free him immediately.” “Not if he’s gonna charge Rephaim,” Stevie Rae said. She turned to Dragon and asked, “Was Rephaim in league with the Raven Mockers?” Without even a glance at Rephaim, Dragon said, “He was talking with them, but he did not attack with them.” “They did not attack!” Rephaim said. “They were here to see me—nothing more. You attacked them!” Dragon finally looked at Rephaim. “Raven Mockers are our enemies.” “They’re my brothers.” Rephaim’s voice sounded incredibly sad. “You’re going to have to decide whose side you’re on,” Dragon said solemnly. “I have already done that.” “And that is something the Goddess seems to believe as well,” Neferet said. “Aurox,” she spoke to the creature who was still lying on his back, encased in the power of the earth, “the battle is over. There is no need to protect or attack.” She turned her emerald gaze to Stevie Rae. “Now, release him.” “Thank you, earth,” Stevie Rae said. “You can go now.” With a wave of her hand the green glow evaporated allowing the creature to stand. Except a creature wasn’t what was left standing. A boy stood there—a beautiful, blond boy who had eyes like moonstones and a face like an angel. “Who’s that? And what the hell’s going on with all that blood?” Stark’s voice, suddenly beside me, made me jump. “Oh, for shit’s sake. It’s a dead Raven Mocker,” Aphrodite said as she and Darius and what seemed like most of the school crowded around us. “And it’s a very pretty human kid,” Kramisha said, giving him a look. “He’s not human,” I said, holding onto my seer stone. “What is he?” Stark asked. “Old magick,” I said as the puzzle pieces in my mind fitted together. “This time you are correct, Zoey.” Neferet stepped up beside the guy and with a flourish announced, “House of Night, this is Aurox—the gift Nyx gave me proving her forgiveness!” Aurox stepped forward. His strange-colored eyes met mine. Facing the crowd, but looking only at me, he fisted his hand over his heart and bowed. “No damn way is he a gift from Nyx,” Stevie Rae muttered. For once agreeing with Stevie Rae, Aphrodite snorted. All I could do was stare. All I could feel was the heat from the seer stone. “Zoey, what is it?” Stark said softly. I didn’t answer Stark. Instead I forced my gaze from Aurox and faced Neferet. “Where did he really come from?” My voice was hard and strong, but I felt like my stomach was trying to turn inside out. Somewhere in the back of my mind I could hear the buzz and whispers of the kids around me, and I knew forcing a confrontation with Neferet here and now wasn’t smart. But I couldn’t stop myself. Neferet was lying about this Aurox thing, and for some reason that was all that mattered to me. “I already told you where he came from. And, Zoey, I must say this is exactly why you need to be back in school, attending class and refocusing on studying. I do believe you have lost the ability to listen.” “You said he’s old magick.” I ignored her passive-aggressive crap. “The only old magick I know of is on the Isle of Skye.” And that, I told myself, was what I’d seen the night before when I’d looked through the stone at Stark—the old magick of the Guardian Warriors that still clung to him from the Isle of Skye. Mind whirring, but still confronting Neferet I continued, “Are you telling me he came from the Isle of Skye?” “Silly child, old magick isn’t restricted to an island. You know, you might think twice about believing everything you hear, especially when it’s coming from a vampyre who calls herself Queen and hasn’t left an island in centuries.” “And you still haven’t answered my question. Where did he come from?!” “What magick could be older than that which comes from the Goddess herself? Aurox is my gift from Nyx!” Neferet looked knowingly at the crowd and laughed off my questioning as if I was nothing more than an irritating child and they were all in on the adult joke with her. “What was he changing into?” I couldn’t stop myself, even though I knew I was coming off as totally snotty and bitchy, like I was one of those girls who always has one more thing to say—and that one more thing was always negative. Neferet’s smile was magnanimous. “Aurox was changing into the Guardian of the House of Night. You didn’t think you were the only one who was worthy of a Guardian, did you?” She spread her arms wide. “We all are! Come, greet him, and then let us get back to class and to that on which the House of Night was founded, the business of learning.” I wanted to scream that he was no Guardian! I wanted to scream that I was sick of Neferet twisting my words. I couldn’t stop staring at Aurox as the fledglings (mostly girls) began approaching him, careful to step around the disgusting blood and Raven Mocker remains. Actually, I didn’t know why, but I just wanted to scream. “You won’t win this one,” Aphrodite said. “She’s got the crowd and the pretty boy on her side.” “That’s not what he is.” Still clutching my burning seer stone I turned away from the ridiculous scene and started walking back to school. I could feel Stark looking at me, but I kept my eyes straight ahead. “Z, what is your problem? So he’s not just a pretty guy. That’s so awful?” Aphrodite said. I stopped and turned to face them. They were all there, trailing along after me like baby ducks: Stark, Aphrodite, Darius, the Twins, Damien, Stevie Rae, and even Rephaim. It was to Rephaim I addressed my question, “You saw it, too, didn’t you?” He nodded soberly. “If you mean his change, yes.” “Saw what?” Stark asked, sounding exasperated. “He was turning into a bull,” Stevie Rae said. “I saw it, too.” “That pretty white boy was turnin’ hisself into a bull? That ain’t right,” Kramisha said, peeking back at the crowd we’d left behind. “White boy—white bull,” Stevie Rae said. Then, sounding a lot like me she added, “Ah, hell. CHAPTER SIX Erik He’d been walking slowly back to the drama room, wishing hard that instead of entering a class he was going to be making a grand entrance to a movie set in L.A., New Zealand, Canada … Hell! Anywhere but Tulsa, Oklahoma! He’d also been wondering how he’d gone from the hottest fledgling on campus and the next Brad Pitt according to the top vampyre casting agent in L.A., to a Drama Professor and a vampyre Tracker. “Zoey,” Erik mumbled to himself. “My shit started to go downhill the day I met her.” Then he felt crappy about saying that, even if there was no one around to hear him. He really was okay with Z. They were kinda even friends. What he wasn’t okay with was all the crazy stuff that went on around her. She’s a damn freak magnet, he thought to himself. No wondered they’d broken up. Erik was no freak. He rubbed the palm of his right hand. Several fledglings rushed past him and he reached out and snagged one kid by the scruff of his plaid school jacket. “Hey, what’s the rush and why aren’t you in class?” Erik scowled fiercely at the kid, more because he was pissed that he sounded like one of those teachers, the get-back-to-classyoung-man kind, than that he actually cared where the fledgling was going. Annoying Erik even more, the kid cringed and looked like he was going to piss his pants. “Somethin’s going on. Some fight or somethin’.” “Go on.” Erik let go of him with a little push and the kid scampered off. Erik didn’t even consider following him. He knew what he’d find. Zoey in the middle of a mess. She had plenty of people to help get her out of her mess. She wasn’t his damn responsibility, just like ridding the whole damn world of Darkness wasn’t his damn responsibility. It was as he reached for the doorknob of his classroom that his right palm began to burn. Erik shook it. Then he stopped and stared. The spiral labyrinth-like mark had become raised, like a fresh brand. Then the compulsion hit him. Hard. Erik gasped, turned, and started jogging toward the student parking lot and his red Mustang. As the urge increased to a level that was feverish, he couldn’t stay quiet and thoughts burst from him in jagged pieces of sentences. “Broken Arrow. Twenty-eight-oh-one South Juniper Avenue. Walking. In thirty-five minutes. Gotta get there. Gotta be there. Shaylin Ruede. Shaylin Ruede. Shaylin Ruede. Go go go go go…” Erik knew what was happening to him. He’d been prepared. The House of Night’s last Tracker, who called himself Charon, had told him exactly what to expect. When it was time for him to Mark a fledgling his palm would burn; he would know a place, a time, and a name; he would have an uncontrollable compulsion to go there. Erik had thought he’d been ready, but he hadn’t realized the depth of the yearning that would come over him—the singular power of the focus that pounded through him in time with the pulse beat he felt hot and urgent in his palm. Shaylin Ruede would be the first fledgling he would ever Mark. It took him thirty minutes to get from midtown Tulsa to the little condo complex tucked within the quiet suburb of Broken Arrow. Erik pulled into a visitor’s spot in the parking lot. His hands were shaking as he got out of his Mustang. The compulsion pulled him to the sidewalk that ran in front of the complex, parallel to the street. The condo complex had soft white lights that looked like giant opaque fishbowls resting on wrought iron poles, so pools of cream illumination were thrown on the sidewalk. Mature cedars and oaks lined the street side of the walkway. Erik glanced at his watch. It was 3:45 A.M. A weird time and place to Mark a kid. But Charon had told him the Tracker compulsion would never be wrong—that all he had to do was to follow it, to let his instincts lead him, and he’d be fine. Still, there was absolutely no one around and Erik was starting to panic when he heard a small tap-tap-tap-tap. In front of him a girl turned the corner from inside the complex and came into view. She moved slowly down the sidewalk, coming toward him. Each time she walked through the bubbles of light, Erik studied her. She was small—a petite girl with lots of dark brown hair. So much hair, in fact, that he was actually distracted for a moment by how thick and shiny it was and he didn’t notice anything else about her—until the tapping sound broke into his consciousness. She was holding a long white cane that she kept continually sweeping in front of her, tap-tap-tapping, so that it was by sound and touch that she navigated her way. Every few feet she stopped and gave a terrible, wet cough. Erik knew two things at once. First, this was Shaylin Ruede, the teenager he was meant to Mark. Second, she was blind. He would have stopped himself if he could have, but no mortal power and, according to Charon, no magickal power, either, could take Erik from this kid until after he’d Marked her. When the girl was just a few feet in front of him he raised his hand, palm out, and pointed at her. He opened his mouth to speak, but she beat him to it. “Hi? Who is it? Who is there?” “Erik Night,” he blurted. Then he shook his head and cleared his throat. “No, that’s not right.” “You’re not Erik Night?” “Yes. I mean no. Wait, that’s not right, either. This isn’t what I’m supposed to be saying.” His hands were shaking and he felt like he was going to be sick. “Are you okay? You don’t sound so good.” She coughed. “Do you have the same flu I have? I’ve felt awful all day.” “No, I’m fine. It’s just that I have to say something else to you, and it’s not supposed to be my name or anything like that. Oh, man. I’m really messing this up. I never screw up lines. This is all wrong.” “Are you practicing for a play?” “No. And you don’t even know how ironic that question is,” he said, rubbing his sweaty face and feeling confused. She cocked her head to the side and frowned. “You aren’t going to mug me, are you? I know it’s late and all, and I’m blind and not supposed to be out here by myself. But it’s the easiest time of day for me to go on a walk alone. I don’t get much alone time.” “I’m not going to mug you,” he said miserably. “I wouldn’t do that.” “Then what are you doing out here, and what have you messed up?” “This is so not going the way it’s supposed to!” “And kidnapping me won’t do you any good. I’m living here with my foster mom. She doesn’t have any money at all. Actually, since I’ve been working after school at the South BA Library down the street, I have more money than her. Uh, not that I have any of it with me at this second.” “Kidnap you? No!” Then Erik doubled over, holding on to his gut. “Crap! Charon didn’t tell me it’d hurt if I didn’t do it.” “Charon? Are you in a gang? Am I supposed to be an initiation sacrifice?” “No!” “Good, ’cause that would really suck.” She smiled in his general direction, and then started to turn back the way she’d come. “Okay, well, then. If that’s all. It was nice to meet you, Erik Night. Or at least I think that’s your name.” With a huge effort, Erik straightened up enough to lift his hand again, palm out. “This is what I’m supposed to be doing.” In a voice that was suddenly filled with magick and mystery and purpose, Erik Night intoned the ancient Tracker words, “Shaylin Ruede! Night has Chosen thee! Thy death will be thy birth! Night calls to thee; harken to Her sweet voice. Your destiny awaits you at the House of Night!” All of the heat that had been building in his gut, making him feel sick and confused and too hot shot out of his palm. He could actually see it! It smacked right into Shaylin’s forehead. She made a small, surprised, “Oh!” sound and dropped gracefully to the ground. Okay, he knew he was supposed to be very vampyre-like and melt into the shadows and return to the House of Night, letting the fledgling find her own way there. Charon told him that’s how it was done. Or at least that’s how it was done in the modern world. Erik thought about melting into the shadows. He even started to back away, and then Shaylin lifted her head. She’d fallen in the middle of a splotch of light, so her face was illuminated. She looked absolutely perfect! Her full pink lips tilted up in a surprised smile and she was blinking as if to clear her vision. If she hadn’t been blind he would have sworn she was staring at him with those huge black eyes. Her pale skin was flawless, and in the middle of her forehead her new Mark seemed to glow a bright, beautiful scarlet. Scarlet? The color jolted through him and he started to move to her saying, “Wait, no. That’s not right.” At the same time Shaylin said, “Ohmygod! I can see!” Erik hurried over to her and then stood helplessly, not sure what to do, as she collected herself and got to her feet. She was a little wobbly, but she was blinking and staring all around them, a huge smile filling her pretty face. “I can really see! Ohmygod! This is incredible!” “This isn’t right. I’ve so messed this up.” “I don’t care if you messed up or not—thank you so much! I can see!” she shouted and threw her arms around him, laughing and crying at the same time. Erik kinda patted her back. She smelled sweet, like strawberries or maybe peaches—or some kind of fruit. And she felt really soft. “Oh, god! Sorry.” She suddenly released him and took a step back. Her cheeks were pink and she wiped her eyes. Then those wet, dark eyes widened at something over his shoulder and he spun around, hands up and ready to knock the crap out of someone. “Oh, no. Sorry again.” Her fingers rested on his arm for just a second as she took a slow step past him. He looked down at her to see that she was gawking at a big, old oak. “It’s so beautiful!” With steps that were becoming surer with each stride, she walked to the tree and pressed her hand against it. Staring up into the branches, she said, “I had images in my mind. Things I remember from before I lost my sight, but this is so, so much better.” She wiped her eyes again and then her bright eyes came back to him, and they widened even more. “Oh, wow!” In spite of the weirdness of everything, Erik couldn’t help smiling back at her with his hundred-watt movie star grin. “Yeah, before I was zapped into being a Tracker I was on the road to Hollywood.” “No, I’m not wowing about how hot you are, even though you are hot. I suppose,” she said quickly, still staring at him. “I am,” he assured her, reminding himself that she was probably in some kind of shock. “Yeah, well, what I mean is that I can really see you.” “Yeah, and?” Goddess, Shaylin Ruede, Marked or unMarked, was one strange girl. “I lost my sight when I was a just a kid, right before my fifth birthday, but I seriously don’t remember being able to see the insides of people. And I think if that was common I’d at least have heard about it on the Internet.” “How can you use the Internet if you’re blind?” “Really? Are you really asking that? Like you don’t know about stuff for disabled people?” “How could I? I’m not disabled,” Erik said. “Again, really? That’s not what the inside of you says.” “Shaylin, what the hell are you talking about?” Was she a crazy kid? Had his messing up the Tracker stuff made her not just a red fledgling, but a crazy red fledgling? Crap! He was in so much trouble! “How do you know my name?” “All Trackers know the name of the fledglings they’re sent to Mark.” Shaylin touched her forehead. “Oh, wow! That’s right! I’m going to be a vampyre!” “Well, if you live. Actually, I’m not sure what’s going on. You have a red Mark.” “Red? I thought fledglings have blue Marks and, eventually, blue tattoos. You do.” She pointed at his tattoo, which framed his Clark Kent blue eyes like a mask. “Yeah, well, you should have a blue tattoo. But you don’t. It’s red. And could we go back to the stuff you were saying about seeing inside me?” “Oh, that. Yeah, it’s amazing. I can see you, and then I can also see all kinds of colors surrounding you. It’s like what’s inside you is glowing around you.” She shook her head, as if in wonder, staring even harder at him. Then she blinked, frowned, and blinked again. “Huh. That’s interesting.” “Colors? That doesn’t make any sense.” He realized she was clamping her lips together, as if she didn’t want to say any more, which for some reason really annoyed him, so he asked, “What colors are around me?” “Lots of pea green all mixed with something watery. It reminds me of the mushy peas some places try to give you when you order fish and chips, not that that makes any sense whatsoever.” Erik shook his head. “None of this makes any sense. Why the hell do I have mushy pea color around me?” “Oh, that’s the easy part. When I focus on it I can see what it means about you.” She closed her mouth then and shrugged. “Plus you have some little bright specks that show up once in a while, but I can’t tell what color they are and only a little of what they mean. Sounds crazy, right?” “What does the pea green and the watery stuff say about me?” “What do you think it says?” “Why are you answering my question with a question?” “Hey, you just answered my question with a question,” Shaylin said. “I asked you first.” “Does that really matter?” Shaylin asked. “Yes,” he said, trying to keep a handle on his temper, even though she was annoying the living crap out of him. “What does the pea color mean?” “Fine. It means you’ve never had to work very hard at getting what you want.” He scowled at her. She shrugged. “You’re the one who asked.” “You don’t know shit about me.” Shaylin suddenly looked pissed. “Oh, please! I don’t know why, but I do know I know what I’m seeing.” “Hey, it’s not like I have to be dripping in mushy peas for you to figure out this smile has taken me places,” Erik said sarcastically. “Yeah, well, explain to me why I also know the gray, foggy-looking stuff means something has made you sad.” She put her hands on her hips, squinted her eyes, stared at him. Hard. Then she nodded, like she was agreeing with herself. Looking smug she added, “I think someone close to you just died.” Erik felt like she’d smacked him in the face. He couldn’t say anything. He just looked away from her and tried to think through a wave of sadness. “Hey, I’m sorry.” He looked down to see that she’d hurried up to him and put her hand back on his arm. She didn’t look smug anymore. “That was really wrong of me,” she said. “No,” he said. “You weren’t wrong. A friend of mine did just die.” She shook her head. “That’s not what I meant. I was wrong to have said it like that—all mean-girl. That’s not who I am. That’s not how I am. So, I’m sorry.” Erik sighed. “I’m sorry, too. None of this happened like it was supposed to.” Shaylin touched her forehead gingerly. “You’ve never Marked someone with red?” “I’ve never Marked anyone beside you,” he admitted. “Oh, wow. I’m your first?” “Yeah, and I messed it up.” She smiled. “If me being able to see is a mess-up, I’m all for it.” “Well, I’m glad you can see, but I still need to figure out how that happened.” He gestured at her red Mark. “And this.” Erik waved his hand around him. “The pea stuff.” “The pea stuff came from you, but there’s other colors there, too. Like when you said sorry I could see—” “No!” he held up a hand, cutting her off. “I don’t think I want to know what else you can see.” “Sorry,” she said softly, looking down and scuffing the toe of one shoe through the winter-brown grass. “I guess it is really weird. So, what happens next?” Erik sighed again. “Don’t be sorry, and there’s nothing wrong with weird. I’m sure Nyx has a reason for giving you this gift, and this red Mark.” “Nyx?” “Nyx is our Goddess. The Goddess of Night. She’s awesome, and sometimes she gives her fledglings cool gifts.” As he spoke Erik felt like a total ass. He had to be the crappiest Tracker in House of Night history. He’d turned a blind kid into a red fledgling who could see inside stuff, and he was just now telling her about their Goddess. “Come on.” He didn’t care if Charon would approve or not—he wasn’t following the damn script anyway. He might as well go for broke and screw everything up. “Show me where you used to live. Pack a bag or whatever. You’re going to come with me.” “Oh, yeah. To the House of Night in Tulsa, right?” “Actually, no. First I’m going to take you to a red fledgling High Priestess. Maybe she can figure out what I did wrong.” “Hey, she’s not gonna try to ‘fix’ me by making me blind again, is she?” “Shaylin, as much as I hate to admit it, I don’t think it’s you who needs to be fixed. It’s me.” CHAPTER SEVEN Zoey “Zoey, did you hear me?” I realized that while I’d been maniacally brushing Persephone, Lenobia had come into the stall and had been talking at me. Well, I mean I realized she’d been saying words. Out loud. To me. But I hadn’t really heard them. I sighed and turned to face the Horse Mistress, leaning against the mare’s warm, sturdy side and trying to draw calmness and energy from her familiar presence. “Sorry, no. I wasn’t paying attention. I’m super distracted. What were you saying?” “I was asking what you know about this Aurox boy.” “Nothing except that I can promise you he’s not just a boy,” I said. “Yes, word’s already spread around campus that he’s a shape-shifter.” I felt my eyes get really big. “Seriously? There are such things? Like Sam and his crazy white trash mom and brother?” “Sam?” “True Blood,” I explained. “They’re shape-shifters. They can change into anything they’ve seen. I think. Although I don’t think they can change into inanimate stuff. Jeesh, I need to read those books to get the real deal. Anyway, again, there are such things?” “A, I don’t watch TV. I never got into the habit. I’ll have to read the True Blood books, too.” “Actually, they’re the Sookie Stackhouse books by a cool human author named Charlaine Harris.” I registered Lenobia’s look and hastily added, “Sorry, sorry, that’s really not your point. What’s your B?” “My B is back to your original question, there are a lot of things out there—in this world as well as the Otherworld.” I swallowed hard. “I know that. Especially the Otherworld part.” “That said, many cultures have evidence of shape-shifters in their legends and mythology. It only stands to reason that at least some of those stories are based on truth.” “I can’t figure out whether that’s good or bad,” I said. “I think the best we can hope for is that it’s like the rest of us—good or bad based on the individual. Which leads me to my next question. Along with campus gossip about Aurox and his ability to at least appear to be able to change form, word has it that you had a pretty strong reaction to him. Is that true?” I felt my cheeks getting hot. “Sadly, yes. I made a fool out of myself in front of most of the school. Again.” “Why? When you know better then anyone how dangerously manipulative Neferet can be, why would you confront her publicly like that?” “Because I’m a moron,” I said miserably. “No.” She smiled kindly. “You’re definitely not a moron, which is why I wanted to talk with you about this—alone. I think you should play down your reaction to Aurox, maybe even to your closest friends. Keep what you’re feeling to yourself. Put on your poker face.” “Poker face? Sorry, I only know how to play Candyland.” “It means to keep your reaction to what you’re seeing and how you feel about it secret from everyone watching you.” “Why?” She really had my attention now. It wasn’t like Lenobia (or any sane vampyre) to ask a fledgling to keep secrets. Her eyes met mine and I was struck anew by their unusual gray color. It was almost like she’d harnessed storm clouds within them. “I learned young that evil sometimes likes to be bragged about, even when it would be best if it kept a low profile. It has been my experience that Darkness’s true struggle isn’t against Light and the strength of love and truth and loyalty. I think evil’s greatest threat comes from its own pride and arrogance and greed. I’ve yet to see a bully who doesn’t gloat, or a thief who doesn’t brag. That’s why they get caught. Darkness could get a lot more of its destructive work accomplished if it was more, shall we say, circumspect.” “But it’s in Darkness’s nature to brag and gloat, so Darkness understands it when someone calls attention to its actions and stuff,” I said, finally getting her point. “Which means when someone who is trying to fight for good stays quiet, and watches and waits for the right time to act, evil is thrown a curve ball.” “And caught unaware by the strength that comes from honesty and serenity and quiet determination,” Lenobia said. I drew a deep breath, looked around to make sure no one was lurking outside Persephone’s stall, and then spoke softly to Lenobia. “From the second I saw Aurox my seer stone got hot. The only two other times that’s happened has been when old magick has been present.” I hesitated, then admitted, “Last night I looked through the seer stone and saw something weird around Stark. It kinda freaked me out.” “What did Stark say about it?” “I, uh, haven’t told him.” “You haven’t? Why not?” “Well, first because I got distracted by him.” I hurried on, knowing that I was probably blushing. “And since then I don’t know why I haven’t said anything.” I thought about the almost-fight we’d had on the way to school. “No, wait, I do know why. Ever since the whole Otherworld thing things haven’t been the same between Stark and me. Some of that’s good—we’re really close most of the time. But some of it’s weird, too.” Lenobia nodded. “That’s understandable. An experience the magnitude of what the two of you went through should change the dynamics of a relationship. And glimpsing some old magick attached to Stark could simply be a remnant of his time in the Otherworld.” She smiled. “I imagine if you could look through the seer stone at yourself you might see—” “Oh, hell no! I don’t want to see anything hanging around me!” Lenobia’s smile faded. “You sound frightened.” “I’m freaked, that’s for sure. I think I’ve had enough of old magick and the Otherworld and all that goes with that stuff for a good long while.” “Ah, I understand. If Aurox carries traces of old magick, that’s why his presence affected you so much.” “He definitely made me feel funny, even before I saw him change into a bull.” “Funny? Like you were frightened then, too?” “Yeah, but I also had a weird surprised feeling, like my intuition was seeing something that my mind couldn’t handle. And then I got super anxious. There’s something wrong about that guy, Lenobia, and that something is real, real old.” “But do you see that he looks like a handsome teenager to the rest of the world?” “Yeah, I guess.” Then I snorted. “I’d like to take him to Skye and find out what that part of the ‘rest of the world’ sees when they look at him.” “Your seer stone came from Skye?” “Yeah, the Queen gave it to me. She said if old magick is around when I look through it, I can see it.” I thought about Stark and shadows and creepiness. “Dealing with what I can see with my own eyes is way more than enough for me. I don’t want to look through the seer stone again.” I shook my head, ashamed of my weakness. “I’m sorry. I’m such a big baby. I shouldn’t be so darn scared. I should have looked through the stupid stone at Aurox.” “And what would have happened had you seen something terrible? Can everyone who looks through the stone see old magick?” “No.” I wiped tears from my cheeks. “It’s a gift only certain High Priestesses have.” “So, if you’d seen something of Darkness through the stone, told everyone, and relied on the stone to show them what you were seeing, you would have had no real proof?” “Yeah, that’s about it. I was and am screwed.” “No, you were and are wise to listen to your instincts. Something is very wrong with this pawn of Neferet’s. You knew that from the first instant you saw him, and because you knew it you couldn’t just stand there and shut your mouth and pretend to be a vapid child.” I made an internal note to look up vapid or ask Damien for a quick definition. Lenobia wasn’t finished. She continued earnestly, “I want you to spend some time thinking about Aurox. Note how you feel and exactly what you observe the next time you see him—but note those things silently. Keep your poker face on. Don’t let anyone know what’s going on underneath that pretty little teenage fa?ade.” “You don’t think I should look at him through my seer stone?” “Not until you’re no longer so frightened of what you might see. When your instincts tell you the time is right, then and only then is when you should look.” “What about Stark?” I held my breath. “Stark is pledged to you and our Goddess. I think it’s a good thing that old magick clings to him. Stop worrying about your Warrior—he can sense it and that won’t help him.” “Yeah, okay, that makes sense. So, being super relieved that I don’t have to look through the seer stone doesn’t make me a big ol’ baby or a coward?” She smiled. “No, nor a moron, either. You’re a young fledgling High Priestess, the first one in history, and you’re simply trying to find your path in a very confusing world.” “You’re really smart,” I said. Lenobia laughed. “No, I’m really old.” Then I laughed, too, because even though I was pretty sure she was like a hundred or so, Lenobia looked about thirty years old. “Well, you look twentysomething,” I lied, “which only makes you kinda old, not really old.” “Twenty-something! With an ability to dissemble like that, you’ll do just fine keeping your thoughts about Aurox to yourself,” Lenobia said. Then I swear she giggled, which actually did make her look super young. “Twenty-something! I haven’t been that for more than two hundred years!” “What’s your secret? Botox and lip injections?” I asked, giggling with her. “B negative and sunscreen,” she replied. “Hey you two, sorry to interrupt.” Stevie Rae’s curly blond head popped into view as she peeked into the stall. “You aren’t interrupting, Stevie Rae,” Lenobia said, still smiling. “Come, join us. We were just talking about aging gracefully.” “My mama always said eight hours of sleep, drinking lots of water, and not havin’ any kids was a better anti-aging recipe than anything a doctor or L’Or?al could ever cook up.” She grinned at Lenobia and then gave Persephone a worried glance. “And thanks for askin’ me to come in, but I’ll stay out here. I don’t like horses much. No offense; they’re real big.” “No offense taken,” Lenobia said. “Do the Warriors need something?” “Uh-uh. The arena is great for classes. They’re havin’ a bunch of guy fun, which means they’re hittin’ each other with wooden swords and shootin’ arrows at things while they yell a lot.” The three of us rolled our eyes. “But your cowboy is here, so I came to get ya.” “My cowboy?” Lenobia looked totally confused. “I don’t have a cowboy.” “Well, he has to be yours ’cause he just showed up outside the corral entrance with a giant horse trailer sayin’ he’s reportin’ for work and askin’ where he can unload his stuff,” Stevie Rae said. Lenobia blew out a long sigh. Obviously annoyed she said, “Neferet. This is her doing. He’s the first of the local humans she’s hired.” “I do not get what Neferet’s up to,” Stevie Rae said. “I know dang well she hates humans and doesn’t give a rat’s ass about whether the local folks like us bein’ here or not.” “Neferet’s up to causing problems,” I said. “And she started with me because she knows I’ve sided with you,” Lenobia said. “Chaos.” As I said the word I felt the truth of it. “Neferet wants to cause chaos in our lives.” “Then let’s give this cowboy a warm welcome, make him feel at home, and show him how unchaotic and downright boring working at my stables can be. If we do that, maybe, just maybe, he’ll decide to move on to more exciting pastures and Neferet will turn her attention elsewhere.” Like she was on a mission, Lenobia marched out of Persephone’s stall. Stevie Rae and I shared a look. “No way am I gonna miss this.” I gave Persephone’s warm flank a parting pat and tossed the curry brush into the tack bin. Stevie Rae linked her arm through mine as we followed Lenobia. “What I didn’t tell Lenobia is how dang cute her cowboy is,” she whispered to me. “Seriously?” “Just you wait and see.” Now I was super curious, and I picked up the pace, hurrying through the arena sand and barely waving at Stark, who was handing a bow to Rephaim. Stevie Rae tried to blow him a kiss, but I kept her moving so basically all she did was giggle and wave. I tried to ignore Stark’s scowl and focused on not leaking any of the curious, excited, and downright confused feelings I was having. I didn’t exactly know why, but I absolutely did not want Stark asking me questions about Aurox. “There, that’s him. The tall, non-vampyre in a cowboy hat over there by the door.” Stevie Rae pointed to the wide side doors to the arena. They’d been rolled open. Just outside was a big horse trailer and one of those massive trucks Oklahoma guys liked to buy and drive and practically live in so much. Standing in front of the trailer was a super tall man. And Stevie Rae had definitely been right. He was seriously cute, even for an older guy. “He looks like someone who should be on the Western Channel,” I said. “Playing one of those olden-day cowboy heroes.” “Sam Elliott, that’s who he looks like.” “Huh?” I gave her a question mark look. She sighed. “He was in a bunch of cowboy movies. You know, like Tombstone.” “You watch cowboy movies?” “I used to, with my momma and daddy, especially on Saturday night before bedtime. So?” “So nothing.” “Do not tell Aphrodite,” she said. “Do not tell Aphrodite what?” Aphrodite asked. Stevie Rae and I jumped as she seemed to materialize out of the air behind us. “Don’t be creepy and lurky,” I said. “I’m not. I’m just naturally graceful. It’s because I’m delicate boned,” she said. Then she turned her icy blue gaze on Stevie Rae. “Again—do not tell Aphrodite what?” “That Lenobia’s cowboy is super hot,” Stevie Rae said. Aphrodite gave her a look that said she was a crappy liar, which she was, but her gaze was already snagged by the man’s broad-shouldered silhouette. “Ooooh! That’s Lenobia’s…” “Employee.” I provided the word, even though Aphrodite was paying no attention to me. “He’s supposed to be working for Lenobia.” “He’s hot,” Aphrodite said. “Not like Darius hot, but still. H.O.T.” “I told y’all. And he’s so tall he makes Lenobia look even teenier than she is.” As Stevie Rae, Aphrodite, and I wandered into hearing distance and tried (unsuccessfully) not to be too obvious in our group gawk, the cowboy tipped his hat to Lenobia and in a perfect Oklahoma twang said, “Howdy, ma’am. I’m the new stable manager. I’d ’preciate it if you could point me to the man in charge.” I couldn’t see Lenobia’s face but I watched her back straighten. “Uh-oh,” Stevie Rae whispered. “So much for the whole warm welcome thing,” I said low enough that only Aphrodite and Stevie Rae could hear me. “John Wayne just totally fucked up,” Aphrodite said. “I am Lenobia.” Her voice carried easily to us. I didn’t think she sounded pissed. I thought she sounded like an ice storm. “I am the woman in charge of these stables and your new boss.” There was a kind of uncomfortable silence when Lenobia didn’t offer a hand for him to shake. “Brrr,” Aphrodite whispered. “She just reminded me of my mom, and for John Wayne that’s not a good thing.” “Sam Elliott,” Stevie Rae whispered. Aphrodite furrowed her brow at my BFF. I suppressed a sigh of hopelessness. “He doesn’t look anything like John Wayne.” She continued her stage whisper. “But he looks just like Sam Elliott.” “You watched too much regular TV when you were a kid, probably after you had dinner as a family on Saturday nights. Pathetic.” Aphrodite gave Stevie Rae a dismissive shake of her head. I was thinking about how bizarre it was that Aphrodite knew about Stevie Rae’s family stuff when the three of us turned our attention back to The Cowboy Show. The man tipped his hat to Lenobia again, this time he smiled and even standing as far away as we were I could see that his eyes were sparkling. “Well, ma’am, seems I got me some misinformation. Glad that was cleared up quick. My name is Travis Foster, and I’m pleased to meet ya, boss lady.” “And you don’t mind finding out your boss is a lady?” “No, ma’am. My momma was a lady and I never worked harder or happier than when I worked for her.” “Mr. Foster, do I remind you of your mother?” I thought Lenobia’s voice could have frozen water, but Travis didn’t seem to notice. Actually, he looked like he was enjoying himself. He cocked his hat back on his head and looked down at Lenobia, like the question had been serious instead of sarcastic. “No, ma’am, not yet you don’t.” Lenobia didn’t say anything else and I was just getting that squirmy, embarrassed feeling that awkward conversations with adults can bring about when Travis kinda shrugged, hooked a finger in the belt tab of his Wranglers, and said, “So, Lenobia, could you show me where my mare and I are gonna bunk?” “Mare? Bunk?” Lenobia said. “This is some great shit. I wish I had popcorn,” Aphrodite said. “She’s gonna burn him with her laser vision,” I said. “Lenobia has laser vision?” Stevie Rae asked. Aphrodite and I looked at Stevie Rae like she’d just asked if we thought Lindsay Lohan was really rehabbed. “How ’bout I watch and not talk,” Stevie Rae said. “Thank you,” Aphrodite and I said together, which made her glare at me before the three of us returned to gawking and eavesdropping. “Well, ma’am,” Travis drawled. “I told y’all’s High Priestess when she hired me that my mare and I come as a package deal, and I’d need to stable her here. Since I just wrapped up a season managing the stables at Durant Springs, I’d need a place to lodge, too.” He paused, and when Lenobia didn’t speak he added, “Durant Springs is in Colorado, ma’am.” “I know where it is,” Lenobia snapped. “What makes you think you can stay here on campus? We have no accommodations for humans.” “Yes, ma’am, that’s what the High Priestess said. Since the job needed to be filled right away, I told her I’d get along just fine bunking with Bonnie until I could find a place nearby.” “Bonnie?” Travis rearranged his hat, the first sign he might possibly be uncomfortable. “Yes, ma’am. My mare’s name is Bonnie.” As if on cue, there came a giant thud! from inside the horse trailer. He moved to the rear doors while he continued to explain to Lenobia. “I’d ’preciate it if ya let me unload her. It’s a long way from Colorado for a big girl.” “Do you think his horse is fat?” Stevie Rae asked quietly. “Bumpkin, I thought you weren’t going to talk,” Aphrodite said. “I think he just got his foot in the door,” I said. No way was Lenobia gonna let a tired horse be hauled away to goddess only knew where. “Unload your mare. You and I will discuss your accommodations after she’s comfortable,” Lenobia said. I noticed that Travis had already been undoing the series of levers and chains that held the horse trailer’s door shut, so we only had to wait a few seconds for the ramp to open. “Come on, big girl. Baaack,” Travis said in a voice that had gone from polite and at times slightly amused, to warm and gentle and sweet. Then his horse backed out of the trailer and gasps of shock and awe came from all around us. I took my eyes from the horse long enough to see that Stevie Rae and I weren’t the only gawkers. Darius, Stark, Rephaim, and most of the fledglings had somehow meandered their way over to us. “That can’t be a horse,” Stevie Rae said, and even though we were several yards away from the animal, she actually took a step back. “Holy shit. It’s a dinosaur,” Aphrodite said. “I’m pretty sure it’s a horse,” I said, studying her. “But it’s a really, really big one.” “Oh, a Percheron! She’s exquisite!” Lenobia said. Everyone stared as petite Lenobia walked up to the huge mare with no hesitation whatsoever. Totally dwarfed by the hulking equine, the Horse Mistress lifted her hand, just slightly. The mare watched her for an instant and then dropped her nose, blowing against Lenobia’s palm. Lenobia, grinning like a girl, caressed the mare’s gigantic muzzle and crooned to her, “Oh, you are indeed a bonnie, bonnie girl.” She looked from the horse to the cowboy. The ice in her voice had totally thawed and I thought she was practically gushing. “I have not seen a Percheron since my voyage from France when I was a girl, and that’s more years ago than I care to admit. There was a matched pair of the big beauties on the ship with me. I’ve remembered them fondly and since have been intrigued by draft horses. She’s a lovely dappled gray. I imagine she’ll continue to lighten as she gets older. I can tell that she’s just turned five a month…” Lenobia paused, cocked her head, and stared into the horse’s eye before continuing. “No, she turned five two months ago. She’s belonged to you for her entire life, hasn’t she?” I saw Travis blink in surprise. His mouth opened, then closed, then opened again. He cleared his throat. “Well, yes, ma’am.” He paused and reached up to pat Bonnie’s ginormically thick neck like he needed to anchor himself to something to get his sense back. I knew why he was suddenly so messed up. Everyone who had ever watched Lenobia around horses knew why. When she communed with horses Lenobia changed from really pretty to utterly, totally gorgeous, and she was doing some serious communing with the big mare, so she’d turned the full wattage of her horse adoration onto the cowboy. It wasn’t that he was the intended recipient of her super attractiveness, he was just getting the fallout. But it was some serious fallout. Travis cleared his throat again, moved his hat around, and then said, “Her momma died right after Bonnie was born—freak lightning strike in the middle of a pasture. I bottle-raised her.” Lenobia turned her gray eyes on the cowboy. She looked surprised, like she’d forgotten he was there. Her horsey adoration blinked off like she’d thrown a switch. “You did a good job. She’s big, easily over eighteen hands. Well muscled. In excellent condition.” Even though what she said was complimentary, her tone sounded more annoyed than nice. It was only when she glanced up and smiled at the mare that her voice and expression shifted back to adoration and true pleasure. “You are a clever girl, aren’t you?” Lenobia said to Bonnie, who was standing without fidgeting, ears flicking all around, gawking at all of us about as much as we were gawking at her. “And you’re confident enough to be well behaved, even in a curious, new environment.” Lenobia looked from the mare to the cowboy and her expression froze over to cool cordiality. She gave one short, decisive nod. “Well then, that is that. You and Bonnie may follow me. I’ll show you where you’ll be stabling—the both of you.” Lenobia turned and began striding back across the arena. When she reached the halfway point she stopped and addressed all of us. “Fledglings and vampyres, this is Travis Foster. He’ll be working for me. His mare’s name is Bonnie. Show her the respect she deserves as a fine example of the majestic Percheron breed. Warriors, please note her size and the way she carries herself. Her ancestors were warhorses of old.” I looked at the cowboy and saw him smile and nod at Lenobia’s comment and pat the big mare affectionately before he threw an equally affectionate look the Horse Mistress’s way. Lenobia didn’t look at him at all. Instead she narrowed her eyes and included the entire group of us in her glare. “And now you can all stop staring and get back to work.” Then Lenobia marched from the arena and into the stables without so much as a glance back at Bonnie and Travis, who followed her like they were moths and she was a super shiny light. “That has interesting possibilities,” Aphrodite said. “No kidding, that mare is totally cool looking. I mean, big, but still totally cool,” I said. Aphrodite rolled her eyes. “I’m not talking about the horse, Z.” I was frowning at Aphrodite when Damien hurried up to us. “Zoey, good, there you are. You need to come back to the main building.” “You mean after sixth hour? It’s almost over,” I said. “No, honey. I mean now. Your grandma’s here, and I’m pretty sure she’s been crying.” CHAPTER EIGHT Zoey My stomach clenched and I felt like I was gonna puke. “Okay, I’m coming,” I told Damien. “But I’d appreciate it if you would come with me.” When he nodded somberly I looked at Stevie Rae and Aphrodite. “You guys, too. ’Kay?” “’Course we’ll come with you,” Stevie Rae said. For once Aphrodite didn’t gripe about Stevie Rae answering for her. She just nodded and said, “I’m in.” I was turning to look for Stark when he was suddenly there beside me. His hand trailed down my arm until our fingers met and threaded together. “Is it about your mom?” I didn’t trust my voice, so I just nodded. “Your momma? I thought Damien said your grandma’s here,” Stevie Rae said. “He did.” Aphrodite spoke before Damien could. She was studying me with a look that made her appear older (and nicer) than she was. “Is it about your mom?” she asked. Stark glanced at me and I gave another little nod. Then he said, “Zoey’s mom’s dead.” “Oh, no!” Damien said, tears instantly coming to his eyes. “Don’t, okay?” I said quickly. “Let’s not do this here. I don’t want everyone watching me.” Damien pressed his lips together, blinked hard, and nodded. “Come on, Z. Let’s all go see your grandmomma.” Stevie Rae went to my other side and put her arm through mine. Aphrodite grabbed Damien’s hand, and they followed us from the arena. All the way there I tried to get myself ready for what Grandma would tell me. I suppose I’d been trying to get myself ready to hear what Grandma would tell me ever since I woke up from my dream visit to the Otherworld where I witnessed Nyx welcoming my mom’s spirit there. The truth that I realized as I entered the main school building and approached the front lounge was that I’d never be ready to hear this news. Just before we walked through the final set of doors Stark squeezed my hand. “I’m right here, and I love you.” “I love you, too, Z,” Stevie Rae said. “Me, too,” Damien said and then he sobbed just a little. “You can borrow my two-carat diamond stud earrings,” Aphrodite said. I stopped and looked back at her. “Huh?” She shrugged. “That’s as close to a declaration of love as you’re gonna get from me.” I heard Stevie Rae expel a huge sigh and Damien’s forehead squidged as he looked disbelievingly at her. But I simply said, “Thanks. I’ll take you up on it,” which made Aphrodite frown and mumble, “Goddess, I hate being nice.” I untangled myself from Stevie Rae and Stark and pushed open the double doors. Grandma was alone in the room and sitting in a wide leather chair. Damien had been right; Grandma had been crying. She looked old and very, very sad. As soon as she saw me she stood up. We met in the middle of the room and clung to each other. When she finally stopped hugging me, Grandma stepped back just far enough to look into my face. She kept her hands on my shoulders. They felt warm and solid and familiar, and somehow that touch made the knot in my stomach bearable. “Mom’s dead.” I had to say it before she did. Grandma didn’t look surprised that I’d known. She just nodded and said, “Yes, u-we-tsi-a-ge-ya. Your mother is dead. Did her spirit come to you?” “In a way. Last night, while I was asleep, Nyx showed me Mom entering the Otherworld.” I felt the shudder that passed through Grandma’s body in her hands. She closed her eyes and swayed. For a second I was afraid she was going to faint, and I covered her hands with mine. “Spirit, come to me! Help Grandma!” The element I have the strongest connection with responded immediately. I felt it swirl through me and into Grandma, who gasped and stopped swaying, but she didn’t open her eyes. “Air, come to me. Please surround Grandma Redbird and let her breathe in strength.” Damien stepped up to my side and touched Grandma’s arm once, softly, as a sweet, impossible breeze stirred around us. “Fire, come to me. Please warm Zoey’s grandma so that even though she’s sad, she’ll not be cold.” I blinked in surprise as Shaunee joined Damien. She, too, touched Grandma for a second, then she smiled through wet eyes and said to me, “Kramisha told us you needed us.” “Water, come to me. Wash through Z’s grandma and please take some of her sadness with you.” Erin took her place beside Shaunee, touching Grandma’s back. Then, just like her Twin, she smiled through tears at me. “Yeah, we didn’t even have to read her poem. She just told us to get here.” Grandma’s eyes were still closed, but I saw her lips tilt up ever so slightly. “My poem was good, though.” Kramisha’s voice came from somewhere behind me. Through Aphrodite’s snort, Stevie Rae said, “Earth, please come to me.” She went to my other side, and slid her arm around Grandma. “Let Z’s g-ma borrow some of your power so that she can be okay again real soon.” Grandma drew three long deep breaths. As she let the last one out, she opened her eyes and, even though there was still sadness in them, her face had lost the scary, gaunt old person look it had when I’d first seen her. “Tell them what I do, u-we-tsi-a-ge-ya.” I wasn’t sure what Grandma was up to, but I nodded. I knew she’d make me understand, and I was right. She went to each of my four friends. Starting with Damien, she touched his face and said, “Wa-do, Inole. You have strengthened me.” As she moved to Shaunee I explained to my friends, “Grandma is thanking you by naming you the Cherokee word for each of your elements.” “Wa-do, Egela. You have strengthened me.” Grandma touched Shaunee’s cheek and went to Erin. “Wa-do, Ama. You have strengthened me.” Last, she touched Stevie Rae’s cheek, still wet from tears. “Wa-do, Elohine. You have strengthened me.” “Thank you, Grandma Redbird,” each of the four of them murmured. “Gv-li-e-li-ga,” Grandma said, repeating in English. “Thank you.” She looked at me. “I can bear to tell it now.” She stood in front of me and took both of my hands in hers. “Your mother was killed at my lavender farm.” “What?” I felt the shock of it move through me. “I don’t understand. How? Why?” “The sheriff is saying it was a robbery, and that she just got in the way. He says from what they took, my computer and television and my cameras, and the random violence of the crime, that they were probably addicts stealing so they would have money for drugs.” Grandma squeezed my hands. “She’d left him, Zoeybird, and come to me. I was at a powwow. I was not there for her.” Grandma’s voice stayed steady, but tears welled and then spilled from her eyes. “No, Grandma, don’t blame yourself. It wasn’t your fault, and if you’d been there I would have lost both of you—and I couldn’t stand that!” “I know, u-we-tsi-a-ge-ya, but the death of a child, even one that has been lost to her parent, is a heavy burden.” “Was it—did she—did Mom suffer?” My voice was barely above a whisper. “No. She died quickly.” Grandma spoke without hesitation, but I thought I saw something pass through her eyes. “You found her?” Grandma nodded, tears spilling more and more quickly down her cheeks. “I did. She was in the field just outside the house. She was laying there and she looked so peaceful that at first I believed she was sleeping.” Grandma’s voice caught on a sob. “She was not sleeping.” I held tight to Grandma’s hands and spoke the words I knew she needed to hear. “She’s happy, Grandma. I saw her. Nyx took the sadness from her. She’s waiting for us in the Otherworld, and she has the Goddess’s blessing.” “Wa-do, u-we-tsi-a-ge-ya. You give me strength,” Grandma whispered to me as she hugged me again. “Grandma,” I said against her cheek. “Please stay with me, at least for a little while.” “I cannot, u-we-tsi-a-ge-ya.” She stepped back, but kept hold of my hand. “You know I will follow our people’s tradition and mourn for seven full days, and this is not the right place for me to mourn.” “We’re not stayin’ here, Grandma,” Stevie Rae said, wiping her face with her sleeve. “Zoey and our whole group have moved to the tunnels under the Tulsa Depot. I’m their official High Priestess, and I’d really like it if you’d come stay with us—for seven days or seven months—for as long as you want.” Grandma smiled at Stevie Rae. “That is a generous offer, Elohine, but your depot is not the right place for me to mourn, either.” Grandma met my eyes and I knew what she was going to say before she spoke. “I must be on my land, at the farm. I must spend the next week eating and sleeping very little. I must focus on cleansing my home and my land of this horrible deed.” “All by yourself, Grandma?” Stark was there beside me, a warm, strong presence. “Is that safe after what happened?” “Tsi-ta-ga-a-sh-ya, do not let my looks deceive you.” She called Stark rooster, her pet name for him. “I am many things, and not one of them is a helpless old woman.” “I’d never think you were helpless,” Stark amended. “But maybe it’s not a good idea for you to be alone.” “Yeah, Grandma. Stark has a point,” I said. “U-we-tsi-a-ge-ya, I must cleanse my home, my land, and myself as I mourn. I cannot do that unless I am at peace with the land, and I will not stay inside the house until it is thoroughly cleansed and the seven days have past. I will be camping in my backyard, in the meadow by the stream,” Grandma smiled at Stark, Stevie Rae, and the rest of my friends. “I do not believe you would fare so well exposed to the sunlight for that time.” “Well, Grandma, I—” I began, but she stopped me. “This I must do myself, u-we-tsi-a-ge-ya. I do have something to ask of you, though.” “Anything,” I said. “In seven days will you come to the farm with your friends? Will you cast a circle and perform a cleansing ritual of your own?” “I will.” I nodded, and my gaze took in the friends who surrounded me. “We will,” Stevie Rae said. Her words were echoed by the kids who stood beside and around me. “Then that is how it shall be,” Grandma said firmly. “The Cherokee tradition of mourning and cleansing will be coupled with vampyre ritual. It is good that it is so, as my family has expanded to include so many vampyres and fledglings.” Her eyes shifted around my group. “I ask one more thing. That each of you think bright thoughts of me, and of Zoey’s mother, for the next seven days. It does not matter that Linda faltered in life. What matters is that she is remembered with love and kind thoughts.” “We will,” and “Okay, Grandma,” sounded around me. “I will go now, u-we-tsi-a-ge-ya. Sunrise is not far away, and I would greet the dawn on my land.” Keeping my hand in hers, Grandma and I walked to the door. As she passed my friends, each of them touched her and said “Good-bye, Grandma,” which had her smiling through her tears. At the doorway, we had a little bubble of privacy and I hugged her again, saying, “I understand why you have to, but I really wish you wouldn’t go.” “I know, but in seven days—” The door was pulled open and Neferet was suddenly there, looking somber and deceptively beautiful. “Sylvia, I have heard of your loss. Please accept my sincere sorrow that it was your daughter who was killed.” Grandma had tensed at the sound of Neferet’s voice and stepped out of my embrace. She drew a deep breath and met the vampyre’s gaze. “I accept your sorrow, Neferet. I do feel the sincerity in it.” “Is there anything the House of Night can do for you? Is there anything you need?” “The elements have already strengthened me, and the Goddess has welcomed my daughter to the Otherworld.” Neferet nodded. “Zoey and her friends are kind, and the Goddess is generous.” “I don’t believe it was kindness or generosity that was behind the actions of Zoey and her friends or the Goddess. I believe it was love. Do you not think so, High Priestess?” Neferet paused as if she was actually considering Grandma’s question, then she said, “What I think is that you could be right.” “Yes, I could be. And there is one thing I need from the House of Night.” “We would be honored to aid a Wise Woman in a time of need,” Neferet said. “Thank you. I would ask that Zoey and her circle be allowed to come to my land in seven days to perform a cleansing ritual. That would complete my mourning and wash my home free of any lingering evil.” I saw something pass within Neferet’s gaze—something that, for just a moment, might have been fear. But when she spoke her expression and her voice mirrored only polite concern. “Of course. I freely give permission for this ritual.” “Thank you, Neferet,” Grandma said, and then she hugged me one more time and kissed me softly. “In seven days, u-we-tsi-a-ge-ya. I will see you again then.” I blinked fast, holding back my tears. I didn’t want Grandma’s last view of me to be about snot and bawling. “Seven days. I love you, Grandma. Don’t ever forget that.” “I could no more forget that than I could forget to breathe. I love you, too, daughter.” Then Grandma turned and walked away. I stood in the doorway, watching her straight, strong back until the night blanketed her from me. “Come on, Z.” Stark slid his arm around my shoulders. “I think we’ve all had enough school for one day. Let’s go home.” “Yeah, Z. Let’s go home,” Stevie Rae said. I was nodding, getting ready to tell them okay when I felt a sudden warmth building in my chest. At first it confused me. I lifted my hand to rub the spot and touched the hard circle that had begun radiating heat. And then Aurox stepped into view. He was with Dragon Lankford. “Zoey, I heard the news about your mother. I am sorry,” Dragon said. “Th-thank you,” I muttered. I didn’t look at Aurox. I remembered Lenobia’s words, that I needed to keep a poker face around him, but I felt too raw, too wounded to do anything except blurt at Stark, “I want to go home, but first I need a minute to myself.” Before he could even say okay, I moved out of his encircling arm and pushed past Dragon and Aurox. “Zoey?” Stark called after me. “Where are you—” “I’ll just be by the fountain that’s in the courtyard next to the parking lot,” I said over my shoulder to him. I could see he was frowning worriedly at me, but I couldn’t help it. I needed to Get Out Of There. “Come get me when the bus is loaded and ready to go. Okay?” I didn’t wait for his reply. I put my head down and hurried along the sidewalk that ran beside the main school building. Almost jogging I turned right and went straight to the iron bench that was beneath one of the circle of trees that framed the fountain and the little garden-like area the fledglings called the professors’ courtyard because it sat next to the part of the school that housed them. I knew if someone was looking out of the large, ornate windows I’d be seen, but I also knew all of the professors should be finishing up sixth hour in their classrooms, which meant it was the one place on campus at this particular time that I could pretty much count on being alone. So I sat there, in the shadow of a big elm, trying to control my thoughts. Aurox’s presence messed with my mind, and I didn’t know why. Right now, right at this second, I don’t even care. Mom is dead. Whatever Neferet and Evil have planned for me, they can just back the hell off. Everyone can just back the hell off. My thoughts felt mean and tough, but the tear that was sliding down my face told a different story. Mom isn’t in the world anymore. She’s not at home waiting on the step-loser and puttering around the kitchen. I can’t call and have her get mad at me and then lecture me for being a crappy daughter. It was a weird feeling, being momless. I mean, she and I hadn’t been close for more than three years, but still it’d always been in the back of my mind that someday she’d come to her senses, leave that idiot she’d screwed up and married, and go back to being Mama. “She had left him,” I said. “I need to remember that.” My voice hitched, but I cleared my throat and spoke out loud again to the night. “Mama, I’m sorry we didn’t get to say good-bye. I love you. I always have. I always will.” Then I put my face in my hands, gave in to the terrible storm of sadness that had been building inside me, and I began to sob. Aurox The fledgling called Zoey—the one with the odd tattoos that covered not just her face, but her shoulders, hands, and as Neferet had told him, some parts of the rest of her body, too—made him feel strange. Neferet had said Zoey was her enemy. That made Zoey his enemy as well. She who was his mistress’s enemy was a danger—that danger must be why he felt an oddness when she was near. Aurox noted the direction Zoey went as she hurried away. He should note everything about her. Zoey was dangerous. “Neferet, I need to speak with you regarding the new classes that are being taught in Lenobia’s arena,” Dragon Lankford was saying. Neferet’s cold green eyes turned to Dragon. “It was decided by the High Council that these fledglings stay, at least for the time being.” “I understand that, but—” “But would you rather have the Raven Mocker in your class?” Neferet snapped. “Rephaim isn’t a Raven Mocker anymore.” The Red High Priestess spoke up quickly in her mate’s defense. “And yet he calls those creatures, those Raven Mockers, brother,” Aurox said. “Indeed, Aurox, that is a relevant observation,” Neferet said without looking at him. “As you are Nyx’s gift to me I think it is important that we listen to your observations.” “What in the Sam Hill is the point? They are his brothers. He’s not tryin’ to hide that.” Shaking her head, the Red High Priestess met his eyes. Aurox saw sadness and anger there, though the emotions weren’t strong enough for him to feel them—for him to draw power from them. “You shouldn’t have killed that Raven Mocker. He wasn’t attacking anyone.” “You think we should wait for the creatures to slaughter another one of us before we move against them?” Dragon Lankford said. The Sword Master’s anger was more tangible and Aurox absorbed some of the strength of it. He felt it boil through his blood—pulsing—feeding— changing. “Aurox, you are not needed here. You may go on about your duties. Begin here at the main school building and move around inside the perimeter of the campus. Patrol the grounds. Be quite certain none of the Raven Mockers return.” His mistress glanced at the Red High Priestess and added, “My command is to attack only those who threaten you or the school.” “Yes, Priestess.” He bowed to her and then backed from the doorway and walked out into the night as he heard the Red High Priestess still defending her mate. She, too, is an enemy, though my mistress says of a different kind—a kind that may be used. Aurox contemplated the intricacies of those who opposed Neferet. She’d explained to him that someday soon all of these fledglings and vampyres would either submit to her will, or be destroyed. His mistress looked forward to that day. Aurox looked forward to that day, too. He stepped off the sidewalk, moving to his right toward the edge of the main school building. Aurox kept away from the flickering gaslights. Instinctively he preferred the deeper shadows and darker corners. His senses were always alert, always searching. So it was strange that the tissue startled him. It was a simple rectangle of white. It floated on the wind, fluttering before him almost like a bird. He stopped and reached out, plucking it from the night. So strange, he thought, a floating paper tissue. Without conscious thought, he tucked it into the pocket of his jeans. Shrugging off the odd, foreboding feeling, he kept walking. Her emotions hit him after he’d taken two more steps. Sadness—deep, pressing grief. And guilt. There was guilt there in her feelings, too. Aurox knew it was the young fledgling High Priestess—the Zoey Redbird. He told himself he approached her only because it was wise to observe one’s enemy. But as he got closer—as her feelings flooded him—something unexpected happened within him. Instead of absorbing her emotions and feeding off them, Aurox absorbed them and felt. He didn’t change. He didn’t begin to morph into the creature of great power. Instead, Aurox felt. Zoey’s grief drew him forward, and as he stood in the shadows that surrounded her and watched her sob, her emotion flowed into him, gathered and pooled in a small, quiet, hidden place deep inside his spirit. As Aurox absorbed Zoey’s sadness and guilt, loneliness and despair, something stirred within him in response. It was utterly unexpected and completely unacceptable, but Aurox wanted to comfort Zoey Redbird. The impulse was so foreign to him that it shocked him into moving instinctively, as if his subconscious directed his body. He stepped out of the darkness at the same moment she moved, pressing the palm of her hand to a place in the middle of her breast. She blinked, obviously trying to see through her tears, and her eyes found him. Her body straightened and she looked on the verge of bolting. “No, you need not leave,” he heard himself saying. “What do you want?” she said, and then she hiccuped another small sob. “Nothing. I was passing. You were weeping. I heard.” “I want to be alone,” she said, wiping at her face with the back of her hand and sniffling. Aurox did not realize what he did next until he, along with the girl, were both looking at his hand and the tissue he’d pulled from his pocket to offer to her. “Then I will leave you, but you need this,” he said, sounding stiff and foreign to his own ears. “Your face is very wet.” She stared at the tissue for a moment more before taking it, then she looked up at him. “I snot when I cry.” He felt his head nod. “Yes, you do.” She blew her nose and wiped her face. “Thanks. I never have a Kleenex when I need one.” “I know,” he said. Then he felt his face flush hot and his body go cold because there was absolutely no reason why he should say such a thing. He had no reason to talk to this fledgling enemy at all. She was staring at him again, with an odd expression on her face. “What did you say?” “That I must go.” Aurox turned and moved quickly away into the night. He expected the emotions she had made him feel to fade, to flow from him, just as the emotions of others had after he’d absorbed them, used them, cast them aside. But some of Zoey’s sadness stayed with him, as did her guilt and, most peculiarly of all, her loneliness stayed with him pooled in a deep, hidden abyss in his soul. CHAPTER NINE Zoey I stared after Aurox for a long time. What the hell? I blew my nose again, shook my head, and looked at the wet, wadded mess of Kleenex in my hand. What game had Neferet’s creature been playing? Had she purposefully sent him out here after me to offer me a Kleenex and mess with my already totally messed-up head? No, that couldn’t be right. Neferet didn’t know that Aurox giving me a Kleenex would remind me of Heath. No one would know that except Heath. Well, and Stark. So it had to just be a weird coincidence. Sure, Aurox was some kind of creature of Neferet’s, but that didn’t mean he was immune to the effects of girl tears. He was a guy—at least I was pretty sure he was a guy. And anyway, he might not be one hundred percent one of Neferet’s mindless minions. He might be an okay guy—or at least he might be kinda okay when he wasn’t changing into a killing machine that looked like a bull. Hell, Stevie Rae had found a good Raven Mocker. Who knows what— And then I realized what I was doing. I was Kalona-ing him. I was seeing goodness where there was none. “Oh, hell no! I am soooo not going there,” I chastised myself aloud. “Not going where, Z?” Stark walked into the courtyard, a box of Kleenex in his hand. “Hey, looks like you were snot prepared for a change,” he said, gesturing to my wadded mess of a tissue. “Uh, I’ll take another one. Thanks,” I said, plucking a couple of tissues from the box and wiping my face again. “So, where are you not going?” He sat down beside me on the bench. His shoulder brushed mine and I leaned into him. “I’m just reminding myself not to let the crazy stuff that goes on around here make me crazy—or at least crazier.” “You’re not crazy, Z. You’re going through some hard things, but you’re gonna be fine,” he said. “I hope you’re right,” I muttered and then another, even more depressing thought struck me. “Um, did you tell the rest of the guys not to treat me all weird because of my mom?” “I didn’t have to tell them. They’re your friends, Z. They’re gonna treat you like they care about you, not weirdly,” Stark said. “I know, I know I just…” My voice trailed off. I didn’t know how to sift through and put into words the pain and guilt and terrible alone feeling not having a mom had left with me. “Hey.” Stark stopped and looked down at me. “You’re not alone.” “Are you listening to my thoughts? You know I don’t like it when—” He took my shoulders in his hands and gave me a little shake. “It doesn’t take an Oath Bound Warrior’s link to know you’re feeling all by yourself. I don’t know any other kid whose mom is dead, do you?” “No. Just me.” I bit my lip to keep from bawling. Again. “See, it’s not tough to figure you out.” He kissed me then. Not with a hot, open mouth, I-want-in-your-panties kiss. Stark’s kiss was soft and sweet and reassuring. When his lips left mine he smiled into my eyes. “But, like I said before, you’re gonna come through all of this just fine and not crazy because you’re smart and strong and beautiful and basically covered with awesomesauce.” I giggled unexpectedly. “Awesomesauce? Did you seriously just say that?” “Hell yes I just said it! You are awesome, Z.” “But awesomesauce?” I giggled again, and felt my stomach begin to unclench. “That’s the dorkiest thing I think I’ve ever heard you say.” He clutched his chest like I’d just stabbed him. “Z, that hurts. I was trying to be romantic.” “Well, at least you tried,” I said. “Please tell me you didn’t make that word up all by yourself.” “Nah.” He gave me his cute, cocky grin. “I heard a bunch of third former girls say I was covered with it when they were watching me shoot my arrows in the arena last hour.” “Reallly?” I raised a brow and gave him the stank eye. “Third former girls?” The cocky part of his grin faded. “I meant to say unattractive third former girls.” “I’m sure that’s exactly what you meant to say.” His eyes sparkled. “Jealous?” I snorted and lied. “No!” “You don’t have to be jealous. Ever. Because you’re not just covered with awesomesauce. You’re what awesomesauce is made of.” “Are you sure?” “Yep.” “Promise?” “Yep.” I leaned against him. “Okay, I believe you, dork.” I rested my head on his shoulder and he put his arm around me. “Can we go home now?” “Absolutely. Your short yellow limo is loaded and waiting for you.” He stood up and pulled me to my feet. Hand in hand we walked toward the parking lot. I snuck a sideways glance at him. He looked pleased with himself (and totally hot). Obviously his dorky word game had been part of his plot to pull me out of the pit of depression I’d felt myself falling into. Stark would have felt it, too, and not because he was “listening” inappropriately to my thoughts—because he was my Guardian and my Warrior and much, much more. I squeezed his hand. “Thanks.” He glanced at me, smiled, then lifted my hand to his lips. “No problem. Just wait ’til you hear the word I’m thinking up to describe your boobs. This time it’ll be totally made up. I don’t need the help of any unattractive third formers for this.” “No. Just no.” “But you might need more cheering up.” “Nope. I’m a-okay. Boob talk is so not necessary.” “Well, remember that I’m here if you need me,” he said, grinning again. “Ready, willing, and able.” “That’s a comfort. Thanks.” “All part of my Guardian job description,” he said. I lifted both of my brows this time. “Did you actually get a job description?” “Kinda. Seoras said, ‘Take care o’ yur queen or I’ll be finishin’ the wee scratchin’ I started on yu,’” he said, sounding freakishly like the ancient Scottish Guardian. “Wee?” I shuddered, remembering the bloody knife wounds that had been slashed all across his chest. How could I ever forget? Even if they weren’t still fresh pink scars, despite the healing power of my elements and my blood. “Wee is definitely not how I’d describe them.” “Ach, well, lassie. It wasna much more than pussy scratches.” I felt my eyes go wide, and then I punched him on his arm. “Pussy!” He rubbed his arm, and in his regular voice said, “Z, it means cat in Scotland. Really.” “You.” I scowled at him. “Are a guy.” For some goofy reason that made him laugh, and he put his arms around me, enfolding me in a giant hug. “Yeah, I’m a guy. Your guy. And I want you to remember that beyond all this stuff,” he paused, pulled back far enough so he could gesture at the House of Night and the short bus that waited a little way from where we were now standing, “and my Warrior stuff, and even my Guardian stuff, I love you, Zoey Redbird. And I’ll always be there for you when you need me.” I stepped back into his arms and breathed a long sigh of relief. “Thank you.” “There she is!” I heard Kramisha’s voice shouting and I sighed, pretty sure I was the “she” she was talking about. I looked up and, sure enough, Kramisha was standing in front of the loaded short bus with Stevie Rae, Aphrodite, Damien, the Twins, Erik, and a red fledgling I didn’t recognize. Keeping Stark’s hand in mine I walked the rest of the way to the bus. “I’m sorry ’bout your momma. That’s bad,” Kramisha said in greeting. “Um, th-thanks,” I stuttered, and had just started thinking that I was going to have to come up with a non-awkward way to respond to people who were telling me they were sorry my mom was dead when Kramisha continued with, “Z, I know it ain’t good timin’, but we got us a problem.” I stifled another sigh. “We, as in me, or we as in you?” “We think this problem might spill over onto all of us,” Stevie Rae said. “Great,” I said. “Zoey, this is Shaylin.” Erik introduced me to the unfamiliar girl, who was studying me like she wished she had me under a microscope. Jeesh, it was a pain to meet new kids. “Hi, Shaylin,” I said, trying to sound normal while I ignored her stare. “Purple,” she said. “I thought Erik said your name was Shaylin,” I said, even though I wanted to shriek Yes! It’s me! The one with the weird tattoos! “My name is Shaylin.” She gave me a really warm, really nice smile. “You’re purple.” “She’s not Purple, she’s Zoey,” Stark said, sounding as confused as I felt. “You’re also flecks of silver.” Shaylin finished staring at me and then turned her gaze to him. “You’re red and gold and a little black. Huh. That’s weird.” “Okay, I’m not—” “Oh, for shit’s sake,” Aphrodite interrupted, pointing at Shaylin. “This new kid’s name is Shaylin, and she’s not calling you colors, she’s seeing your colors.” “My colors? I don’t have a clue what that means,” I said, frowning at Aphrodite and then giving Shaylin a big question mark look. “I don’t really know what it means, either,” Shaylin said. “It just happened to me, right after I was Marked.” “I think Shaylin has been gifted with something called True Sight,” Damien said. “It’s rare. I think there’s something about it in the Advanced Fledgling Handbook, but I only peeked at one of those.” He looked embarrassed and apologetic. “I didn’t really study it.” “Damien, you’re only a forth former. It wasn’t part of your classwork,” Stevie Rae said. “Hello, talk about homework obsessed,” Erin muttered. “Seriously,” Shaunee added. “Look.” I raised my voice so everyone would gawk at me instead of launching into the bickering I was pretty sure was getting ready to start. “I don’t know what True Sight is, but if it’s a gift, and I’m assuming you mean from Nyx, then why is that a problem?” I said. “She’s a red fledgling,” Aphrodite said. “So? There’s a whole short bus full of them,” I said, gesturing behind them. “Yeah, and each of us had to die and then un-die before we got us these.” Kramisha pointed at the red outline of a crescent moon on her forehead. I stared at her, then at the new kid, and then my mind caught up with my eyes. I looked at Erik. “You just Marked her in red?” “No. Yes.” Erik shook his head and looked worried as hell. “I didn’t mean to. I Marked her. Okay, yes, it didn’t go exactly according to plan, but that was because she was blind, and that surprised me.” We all stared at him and he ran his hand through his thick, dark hair. His shoulders slumped. Then he added, “I messed up, and that’s why she’s a red fledgling and can see our colors.” “You didn’t mess up, Erik.” It looked like Shaylin started to reach out to pat Erik’s arm, but halfway through the motion changed her mind. Her gaze moved to me and she continued, “Before he Marked me I was blind. I’ve been blind since I was a kid. The second he Marked me I could see again, and that’s not a mess up. That’s amazing.” “Ah! I knew I felt a new fledgling!” At the sound of Neferet’s voice we all jumped like she’d Tasered us. She was hurrying toward us, her long green velvet gown sweeping the ground and making it appear as if she was gliding instead of walking (which was super creepy). “Merry meet, I am Neferet, your High Priestess.” She turned her attention briefly to Erik, and I could see displeasure flash in her eyes. “Professor Night, you should not have brought the child here.” Neferet reached Shaylin and made a graceful, apologetic gesture to her. “Young fledgling, the Tracker should have instructed you to come to the female dormitory where you will join the rest of the—” She broke off when she finally saw Shaylin’s Mark. “Yeah,” I said, unable to keep my mouth shut any longer. “She’s red. Which means she is in the right place.” “And I’m her High Priestess. Not you,” Stevie Rae finished for me. “Oh! You’re … oh, I don’t feel well!” Shaylin was staring at Neferet when she suddenly collapsed. Erik caught her before she conked her head on the ground, managing to look scared and hero-like at the same time. (Seriously, he’s an excellent actor.) “She’s been through a lot,” Aphrodite said, stepping up to stand toe to toe with Neferet. “She needs to go home. To the depot. With us. Now.” I held my breath as Neferet’s eyes narrowed and her gaze flicked around at each kid in our group. All vampyres are intuitive, but Neferet is more than that. She can read minds. Well, most fledglings’ minds—or at least the surface of their thoughts. I sent a quick, silent prayer up to the Goddess: Please let each of them think about everything and anything except the fact that this new kid may have True Sight—whatever that is. Suddenly Neferet’s suspicious expression changed. She laughed. She actually laughed. I had no idea how it was possible, but her laugh sounded horrible and mean and sarcastic. How could laughter be so awful? “She was blind. That’s why she’s been Marked red. She’s broken. She just didn’t have to die to get that way. Well, at least not yet she hasn’t died.” Kramisha was standing beside me, so I saw her little jerk of fear. So did Neferet. The pretend High Priestess smiled at our Poet Laureate. “What is it? Did you actually believe that red outline guaranteed you the Change?” She cocked her head to the side, reminding me of a reptile. “Yes, I can sense your shock and fear. You hadn’t thought of that. Your body can still reject the Change.” “You don’t know that for sure.” Stevie Rae stepped closer to Kramisha. “Don’t I?” Again, Neferet’s laugh was mean and awful. She jerked her chin at Shaylin, who was still passed out in Erik’s arms. “That one feels odd to me.” She shifted her gaze to Aphrodite. I saw Aphrodite put her fists on her waist, as if bracing herself for a physical blow. “A little like you feel, and you’re not even a fledgling anymore.” “No, I’m not. But I am happy with what I am. How about you, Neferet?” Instead of an answer, Neferet said, “Take the new fledgling with you. You’re right about one thing, Aphrodite. Her home is with you and the rest of the misfits, not here. What in the name of all the gods will Nyx come up with next?” And then, laughing, she turned her back dismissively on us and slithered away. When she was out of hearing range I let out a long breath. “Good job, all of you, in not thinking about the True Sight thing.” “She scares me,” Kramisha said in a voice that sounded very, very young. Stevie Rae put her arm around Kramisha. “It’s okay to be scared of her. That’ll just make us fight harder against her.” “Or run faster,” Erik said grimly. “Some of us aren’t running away,” Stevie Rae said. “Are you sure?” Shaylin said. “Hey, are you back with us?” Erik asked. “Actually, I never went anywhere. Um. You can put me down now. Please.” “Oh, right. Yeah.” Erik gently put her down. He kept a hand on her arm, as if to be sure she wasn’t going to wobble and fall, but she stood there looking pretty darn steady. “So, you faked a faint. Why?” Aphrodite asked the question before I could. “Well, it wasn’t hard.” Shaylin looked at Kramisha. “I agree with you. She scares me.” Then she continued. “I acted like I passed out because it was either that or run screaming away from her.” She shared a look with Erik. “Yeah, I agree with you, too.” Then she shrugged a shoulder. “But she said she’s a High Priestess. I don’t know much about vampyres, but everyone knows High Priestesses are in charge. Running screaming away from one my first day as a fledgling didn’t seem like a good option.” “So you figured you’d play opossum,” Stevie Rae said. “Play what?” “That’s a bumpkin way of saying that you pretended to be out of it so Neferet would leave you alone,” Aphrodite said. “Yeah, that’s exactly what I did,” Shaylin said. “Not a bad plan,” Stark said. “Meeting Neferet and being Marked all in one day sucks for you.” “What did you see?” My question seemed to take everyone except Shaylin by surprise. She met my gaze and held it steadily as she answered me. “Right before I went blind I was at Nam Hi, that big Vietnamese grocery store on Twenty-first and Garnett, with my mom. They had whole fish for sale in a giant bin of ice. They scared me so bad I remember all I could do was stand there and stare at their milky, dead eyes and their horrible slit open bellies.” “Neferet’s dead fish belly color?” Stevie Rae asked. “No. Neferet’s color is the same color as dead fish eyes. That’s her only color.” “That can’t be good,” Kramisha said. “What can’t be good?” Darius asked as he joined our group, taking Aphrodite’s hand. She leaned into him and said, “Darius, stud Warrior, meet Shaylin, newly Marked red fledgling who didn’t die to be red and who has True Sight. She just ‘saw’”—Aphrodite air quoted—“Neferet and apparently her true color is like dead fish eyes.” Darius didn’t miss a beat. He just gave the new kid a little bow and said, “Merry meet, Shaylin,” which either showed the Warrior had impressive control or was just more proof that our lives had become totally bat-poop crazy. “We need to learn more about True Sight,” Damien said. “It’s sixth former and beyond level information. Do you know anything about it?” he asked Darius. “Not a lot. I focused mostly on knives, not vampyre sociology,” Darius said. “Well, I have the stupid advanced handbook,” Aphrodite said. When we gave her a group gawk she frowned. “What? I was a sixth former before this happened.” She pointed at her unMarked forehead. “Sadly, I had to rejoin my old schedule today.” When we all kept staring without speaking she rolled her eyes. “Oh, for shit’s sake, I have homework, that’s all. The book’s in my extremely attractive Anahata Joy Katkin bag in the retard bus.” “Aphrodite, stop sayin’ retard!” Stevie Rae shouted at her. “I swear you need to check out www.r-word.com. Maybe you’d learn that some people get their feelin’s hurt by the r-word.” Aphrodite blinked several times and then scrunched her forehead. “A Web site? Seriously.” “Yes, Aphrodite. Like I have tried to tell you a bazillion times, using the r-word is demeaning and just plain mean.” Aphrodite sucked in a deep breath and let it out in a rant: “What about having a site for the c-word—as in cunt, which demeans half of the world? Or, wait, no. Let’s keep it the r-word site only make the r-word rape, which does more than just hurt upper middle class mommies’ feelings. Or—” “Seriously.” I stepped between them. “We get it. Can we go back to Shaylin and the True Sight issue?” “Yeah, whatever,” Aphrodite said, flipping back her hair. “Aphrodite’s mean, Z, but she makes a good point,” Erin said. I glared at Shaunee who only nodded enthusiastically, but didn’t chime in. My head felt like it was going to explode. “Ah, hell,” I said, throwing up my hands in frustration. “I can’t remember what we were saying before the retard part.” “Information about True Sight is on the bus,” Rephaim said, surprising all of us. He smiled shyly. “I didn’t really understand much of the rest of the conversation. I also got that Aphrodite is mean, but I already knew that.” Beside me Stark turned a bark of laughter into a cough. I sighed. “Okay, let’s get on the bus and get back to the depot. Aphrodite and Damien, meet me in the kitchen with the advanced handbook.” I paused and glanced at Stevie Rae, who was still holding Rephaim’s hand. “You wanna join us after, um, you know, the sun rises and such?” “Z, you don’t have to tippie-toe around it. Yes, Rephaim’s gonna change into a bird when the sun comes up, and I’d like to be with him ’til then.” She glanced up at Rephaim who was smiling down at her like it was his birthday and she was some super amazing present he’d just opened. “Seriously?” I heard Shaylin ask Erik. “Yeah. It’s a long story,” Erik said. “No wonder his color’s so weird,” she said. I was curious about Rephaim’s color, but I knew now was not the time to ask her a bunch of questions, so instead I just said, “Kramisha, would you please figure out where Shaylin will be staying?” “I ain’t sharin’ my room,” Kramisha said. Then she gave Shaylin an apologetic look. “Sorry. I don’t mean no offense.” “That’s fine. I’ve had to have people around me ever since I went blind. I’d rather have my own room, too.” Kramisha smiled. “That’s right. I like me an independent woman, and I’ll help you find a room of your own.” “Deal,” Shaylin said. “Er.” Erik cleared his throat to get our attention. I thought he looked nervous and unusually unsure of himself. “How about I follow the bus in my car, and Shaylin comes with me? I can fill her in on some of the stuff like Rephaim and the whole red fledgling thing in general on the way.” “Trackers are just supposed to track and Mark,” Aphrodite said. “Yeah, and fledglings are supposed to be Marked with a blue crescent, and then Change or die,” he countered. “I think it’s okay that Erik follows us,” Stevie Rae said, which surprised me because I knew she wasn’t exactly an Erik fan. “What do you think, Z?” I shrugged. “Okay with me.” Erik gave a little nod and then he and Shaylin headed for his car in the parking lot. “Are we ready to go?” Darius asked. “I guess, or at least we will be as soon as our ever-so-friendly driver gets here,” I said. Darius smiled. “That would be me. “I told Christophe I’d handle the drive back and forth to the depot from here on.” I couldn’t resist a look at Aphrodite. Her face was frozen and her eyes looked huge. “Hey, Aphrodiky is going out with a bus driver!” Shaunee said. It looked like Erin had some smart-ass comment she was going to add, but Aphrodite closed the space between her and the Twins. “Darius isn’t a bus driver. He’s a Son of Erebus Warrior. He can kill you, but he’s honorable and good so he won’t. I, on the other hand, am not honorable or a Warrior. I will kill you, or at the very least mess you up so bad you won’t make the next Miss Jackson’s trunk sale.” The Twins sucked air and I quickly said, “All righty then, let’s all go back to the depot. Looks like we have some studying to do.” I grabbed Aphrodite’s wrist and practically dragged her to the bus. She jerked away from me, but was still following when I started to climb the stairs. Then an orange ball of fur hurled herself into my arms. “Nala!” I yelped, almost dropping her in surprise. “Oh, baby girl! I’ve missed you so much.” I petted her and kissed her and laughed when she sneezed on me and then started to grumble in her old lady voice, “mee-uf-owing” even while she was purring like crazy. While I was cuddling Nala there was a terrible screeching sound from the bowels of the bus, and suddenly Aphrodite was pushing past me yelling, “Maleficent! Mommy’s here!” It seemed to rain white fur. The kids on the bus jerked legs and arms out of the way as the ugliest, most smoosh-faced, huge, hateful cat in the universe padded down the aisle hissing and yowling. Aphrodite stooped, picked her up, and began telling her how beautiful and wonderful and smart she was. “That cat ain’t right,” Kramisha said, peeking over my shoulder. “But Aphrodite ain’t right, either, so I guess it works out just fine.” Her gaze went from Maleficent to Nala, who was still grumbling at me. “Actually, a whole bunch of these cats ain’t normal.” “Whole bunch?” I looked up over Nala’s furry orange head and, as I suspected, the yellow mini-limo was full of red fledglings and cats. “When did this happen?” “They was here when we got here,” Kramisha said. “Like I said—they ain’t normal.” “Huh, well. I suppose this means the depot really is our new home,” I said, feeling for the first time that it could be true. “Z, home is where you are,” Stark said, reaching over me and scratching Nala on her head. I smiled at him and felt warm inside—almost warm enough to make me forget about moonstone-colored eyes and the fact that people around me kept dying … CHAPTER TEN Kalona “What did you just say to me?” Kalona bellowed at the Raven Mocker, who cringed away from him. “Rephaim issss a human boy,” Nisroc repeated. His less-evolved brother, the one who had escaped the changeling creature’s wrath, moved restlessly, backing up behind him. Kalona paced around the clearing between the hunting blinds. It wasn’t yet dawn, but the other Raven Mockers, the ones who had returned from searching out their brothers from the Oklahoma countryside, were already huddled inside the tree houses, hiding, escaping, cringing away from the possibility of prying eyes. He’d stood out there, watching each of them return, looking for something that he was loath to admit to himself. He’d been looking for humanity—for a son to talk with, to share with, to plan with. But all he’d been met by were sniveling, cringing beasts. Rephaim was the most human of all of them, Kalona had been thinking, for what seemed like the thousandth time, when Nisroc had landed in the clearing minus one son and with unbelievable news of another. Kalona rounded on Nisroc. “Rephaim cannot have a human form. It is impossible! He is a Raven Mocker, as are you, as are your brothers.” “The Goddessss,” Nisroc hissed. “Ssshe changed him.” An odd, bittersweet feeling came over Kalona. Nyx had changed his son from beast to human—gifted him with the form of a boy. She’d forgiven Rephaim? How could that be? Almost at a loss for words, the immortal blurted, “You spoke to Rephaim?” Nisroc bobbed his enormous raven’s head up and down. “Yessss.” “He actually said he is in Nyx’s service?” “Yessss.” Nisroc bowed to him, but his eyes were bright and sly. “For you he refused to sssspy.” Kalona gave him a sharp look and then glanced at the battered Raven Mocker who stood innocuously behind him, suddenly realizing there was only one brother when there should have been two. “Where is—” Kalona had to pause to remember which of his sons was missing. “Maion? Why did he not return with you?” “Dead.” Nisroc pronounced the world flatly, with no emotion. “Rephaim killed him?” Kalona’s voice was as cold as his heart. “No. The creature. Killed him it did.” “What creature? Speak clearly!” “The Tsi Sgili’s creature.” “A vampyre?” “No. First human, then bull.” Kalona’s body jerked in surprise. “Are you quite sure? The creature took on the form of a bull?” “Yesss.” “Did Rephaim join with it to attack you?” “No.” “He fought beside you against it?” “No. Nothinng he did,” Nisroc said. Kalona’s jaw clenched and unclenched. “Then what stopped the beast? “The Red One.” “Then did she and Neferet battle?” Kalona snapped the questions, silently cursing himself for sending lesser beings to witness what he should have seen. “No. No battle happened. We flew.” “Yet you say the bull was Neferet’s creature.” “Yesss.” “Then it is true. Neferet has given herself over to the white bull.” Kalona paced again. “She has no idea of the forces she is awakening. The white bull is Darkness in its purest, most powerful form.” Somewhere deep within Kalona something stirred, something that had not surfaced since he’d fallen. For a brief moment, just the length of a heartbeat, the ancient Warrior of the Goddess of Night, the winged immortal who had defended his Goddess against the onslaught of Darkness for uncounted centuries, had an automatic desire to go to Nyx—to warn her—to protect her. Kalona shook off the ridiculous impulse almost as quickly as he’d felt it. He began pacing again. Thinking aloud he mused, “So Neferet has an ally that ties her to the white bull, but she must be disguising him as something else to the House of Night, or you would have seen at least the beginnings of a major battle.” “Yessss, her creature.” Kalona ignored Nisroc’s repetitive comments and kept reasoning aloud. “Rephaim has entered the service of Nyx. She has gifted him with a human form.” His jaw clenched and unclenched. He felt doubly betrayed—by his son and by the Goddess. He’d asked, practically begged Nyx to forgive him. And what had her answer been? “If you are ever worthy of forgiving, you may ask it of me. Not until then.” The memory of his sojourn in the Otherworld and his glimpse of the Goddess caused a terrible ache in his heart. Instead of feeling it—thinking of it— acting on it—Kalona opened the gates to the anger that always boiled just below the levees in his soul. As anger flooded through him it washed away any other gentler, more honest, feelings. “My son needs to learn a lesson about loyalty,” Kalona said. “Loyal I am!” Nisroc cried. Kalona’s lip curled up contemptuously. “I don’t speak of you. I speak of Rephaim.” “Sssspy Rephaim will not,” Nisroc repeated. Kalona cuffed him and the Raven Mocker stumbled back against his brother. “Rephaim has done much more than spy for me in the past. He has been a second pair of fists, a second pair of eyes, almost an extension of me. It is habit that has me searching the sky for him. I am finding habit is a hard thing to break. Perhaps Rephaim is finding it difficult as well.” The winged immortal turned his back on his sons and stared off to the east, over the wooded ridges, toward sleeping Tulsa. “I should visit Rephaim. We do, after all, have a common enemy.” “The Tsi Sgili?” Nisroc asked, subservient and docile. “That’s right. The Tsi Sgili. Rephaim would not call it spying if we were serving a common goal—to depose Neferet.” “Rule in her stead you would?” Kalona turned amber eyes to his son. “Yes. I would always rule. We rest now. At sunset I depart for Tulsa.” “With ussss?” the Raven Mocker asked. “No. You remain here. Continue to gather my sons. Stay hidden and wait.” “Wait?” “For my call. When I rule those who remain loyal to me will be by my side. And those who have not will be destroyed, no matter who they are. Do you understand, Nisroc?” “Yessss.” Rephaim “Your skin is so soft.” Rephaim ran his fingertips down the curved slope of Stevie Rae’s naked back, marveling at the joy it gave him to be able to hold her in his arms and press his body—his fully human body—against hers. “I like it that you think I’m so special,” Stevie Rae said, smiling up at him a little shyly. “You are special,” he said. Then he sighed and began to gently untangle himself from her. “It’s close to dawn. I have to go above ground.” Stevie Rae sat up and hugged the thick comforter that covered the bed in her surprisingly pretty little tunnel room to cover her bare breasts. She blinked big blue eyes at him. Her hair was tousled and curly and framed her face making her look like a young, innocent maiden. Rephaim pulled on his jeans, thinking she was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. And her next words pierced his heart. “I don’t want you to go, Rephaim.” “You know I don’t want to, either, but I must.” “C-can’t you just stay here? With me?” she asked hesitantly. He sighed and sat on the edge of the bed they’d so recently shared. He took her hand in his and threaded their fingers together. “Would you cage me?” He felt her body jerk as if in shock—or was it revulsion? “No! I didn’t mean it like that. I just thought, well, that you could maybe try bein’ here for a day. I mean, what if we just kept holdin’ hands, like this, until you were done changin’?” He smiled sadly at her. “Stevie Rae, a raven doesn’t have any hands. These,” he pressed his palms against hers, “will very shortly be claws. I will, very shortly, be a beast. I will not know you.” “Okay, so, what if I kept my arms around you? Maybe you wouldn’t be scared then. Maybe you’d just curl up beside me and stay here and sleep, too. I mean, ya have to sleep sometime, don’t ya?” Rephaim thought about it before he answered her, and then began to slowly try to explain the unexplainable. “I must sleep, but Stevie Rae, I do not remember anything from the time I’m a raven.” Anything except the agony of the physical change and the almost unbearable joy of the wind against my wings—but he could not tell Stevie Rae either of those things. One would hurt her. One could frighten her. So instead of the raw truth, he told her a version of it that seemed more civilized, more understandable. “A raven is not a pet. It is a wild bird. What if I panicked and in trying to escape I somehow wounded you?” “Or yourself,” Stevie Rae said solemnly. “I get it. I really do. I just don’t like it much.” “I don’t, either, but I think that’s the point Nyx was making. I’m paying the consequences for my past actions.” He cupped her sweet, soft cheek in his palm and pressed his lips to hers murmuring, “It is a price I willingly pay because the other side of it, the good side of it, gives me the hours we steal together when I am human.” “We don’t steal them!” Stevie Rae said earnestly. “Nyx gifted you with them for the good choices you’ve made. Consequences go both ways, Rephaim. They can be good and bad.” Somehow that made his heart feel lighter and he smiled, kissing her again. “I’ll remember that.” “I want you to remember somethin’ else, too. You did a good thing today when you didn’t turn your back on your brothers.” Her fingers plucked at a blond curl, and he knew whatever she was saying was hard for her, so even though he needed to get free of the tunnels, to get above to the waiting sky, he remained sitting there beside her with her hand in his while she continued. “I’m sorry your brother got killed.” “Thank you,” he said quietly, hardly trusting his voice. “They came to the House of Night to get you to leave with them, didn’t they?” she asked. “Not really. Father did send them to find me, but not to take me away.” Rephaim paused, not sure how to explain the rest to Stevie Rae. The two of them hadn’t talked about his brothers when they’d finally been alone—they’d been too eager to touch, to be close, to love. Stevie Rae squeezed his hand. “You can tell me. I trust you, Rephaim. Please trust me, too.” “I do!” he exclaimed, hating the hurt he saw in her eyes. “But you have to understand that even though Father has disowned me, that changes nothing here.” He touched his chest over his heart. “I will forever be his son. I’ll walk the path of the Goddess. I’ll fight for Light and what is right. I’ll love you. Always. But you must understand that somewhere inside me I’ll always love him, too. Becoming human has taught me that.” “Rephaim, I have to tell you somethin’ that might sound mean, but I think you need to hear it.” He nodded. “Go ahead. Tell me.” “Before I was Marked I went to school with this girl name Sallie. Her momma took off and left her and her daddy when she was about ten ’cause she was basically just a downright nasty ho slut and she didn’t want the responsibility of raisin’ a kid. It hurt Sallie real bad when her momma left, even though her daddy tried to do his best for her. But the worst part of the whole thing was that her momma wouldn’t stay gone. She’d come back and, as my momma used to say, stir the shit pot.” He gave her a questioning look, and Stevie Rae said, “Sorry, that means her momma came back around just to mess with her—to keep Sallie’s life all filled with stupid drama and such because she was selfish and mean and uber screwed up.” “What happened to this Sallie girl?” Rephaim asked. “When I got Marked and left school she was on her way to bein’ as uber screwed up as her momma ’cause she didn’t have the strength to tell her momma to stay away. Sallie still wanted her momma to be a good person, to love her and care about her, even though that just wasn’t possible.” Stevie Rae drew a deep breath and let it out in a long sigh. “What I’m tryin’ to say, and probably not doin’ it very well, is that you’re gonna have to decide whether you want to be as messed up as your daddy, or if you want to really start a new life.” “I’ve already chosen a new life,” he said. Stevie Rae met his eyes and shook her head sadly. “Not all of you has.” “I can’t betray him, Stevie Rae.” “I’m not askin’ you to. All I’m askin’ you to do is to not let him stir your shit pot.” “He wanted me to spy for him. That’s what he sent my brothers to tell me. I told Nisroc no.” Rephaim said the words quickly, as if by doing so he could get rid of their bitter taste. Stevie Rae nodded. “Yeah, see, shit pot stirring.” “I do see it, even though it isn’t an easy thing to look at. Can we not talk about him for a while? All this is new for me. I need to figure out how to find my place in this world.” Rephaim stared into Stevie Rae’s kind eyes, willing her to understand. “I’ve been with Father for hundreds of years. It’s going to take some time for me to get used to not being by his side.” “That makes sense. How ’bout this: I’ll tell Zoey and the rest of the gang that your brothers were there to let you know Kalona would take you back if you said you’d made a mistake. You said no, so they were just leavin’ when Dragon and that Aurox guy saw you. That’s the truth, right?” “Yes. What about the rest of it, the part about Father asking me to spy for him?” “Well, I can tell you that I’ll bet everyone pretty much figures Kalona would try to use you against us if you let him. You’re not letting him, so I don’t think spelling it out for them is a big deal.” “Thank you, Stevie Rae.” She smiled. “No problem. Like I said, I trust you.” He kissed her again, but about then he began to feel an already all-too-familiar prickling over his skin, as if his feathers were forming, growing, pressing to be free. “I must go.” And this time he began to move quickly from the room. He could hear her start to get off the bed behind him and when he looked back she was pulling on her T-shirt and looking around for her jeans. “No,” he said more firmly than he’d intended, but the pain had already begun through his body and he knew he hadn’t much time. “Don’t come with me. You have to meet with Zoey.” “But I can after—” “I don’t want you to see me become a beast!” “I don’t care about that,” she said, looking like she was on the verge of tears. “But I do. Please. Do not follow me.” Without another word he ducked under the blanket that served as a door covering to Stevie Rae’s room. By the time he’d reached the metal ladder-like stairs that led up from the tunnels and into the basement, Rephaim was running. Sweat poured from his body and he had to grit his teeth not to cry out with the burning agony of the change that was gripping him. He sprinted through the basement and flung open the grate just as the sun slipped free of the horizon and with a scream that turned into the cry of a raven his body shifted form and the dark raven who had no memory of the boy launched himself into the seductive, waiting arms of the morning sky. Stevie Rae Stevie Rae didn’t go after him, but she did finish getting dressed. She wiped her eyes, too, before she left her room and turned in the opposite direction Rephaim had taken and headed for the hub of the depot tunnels—the little cul-de-sac-like area they’d turned into a kitchen and computer hub. Mountain Dew, she thought as she stifled a yawn. I need me some caffeine and sugar. She rounded the corner and smiled sleepily at Damien, Zoey, Aphrodite, and Darius. The four of them were sitting around a table loaded with books in the center of the kitchen. “There’s lots of pop in that fridge,” Zoey said, waving at one of the two big side-by-side refrigerators. “More than just brown?” “There’s brown and green and clear. Oh, and some Orange Crush because Kramisha said she thinks it’s healthy,” Z said. “Which is bullshit,” Aphrodite said before upending a bottle of Fuji water. “Choose water. Anything else will make you fat. Well, except for blood.” She paused and her beautiful face squeezed into an ick look. “I don’t know about the calorie count in it, and since I un-fledgling-ed I don’t even want to think about it.” Stevie Rae pulled open the fridge and gawked at the loaded insides. “Where did all this stuff come from?” Zoey gave a little sigh. “Kramisha. She said instead of going to third hour she ‘field-tripped’”—Z air quoted—“to Utica Square and just happened to run into some night shift guys stocking the shelves at Petty’s grocery store.” Stevie Rae peeked around the arm of the fridge at Z. “Uh-oh. She red vamp zapped them?” “She definitely zapped them,” Damien said. “Which is how all this food got delivered down here. She even talked them into bringing this table from one of their food sample setups.” “She didn’t eat them, did she?” Stevie Rae asked, crossing her fingers behind her back. “No, but she didn’t pay them, either,” Aphrodite said. “She just made them do her bidding and then leave and forget all of it. I think I’m taking her with me to New York City next time Yoana Baraschi has a trunk show.” “No,” Zoey said. “Just no.” Then she looked at Stevie Rae. “Are you really awake? Stark and all the red fledglings, including Miss Kramisha Make- Them-Do-My-Bidding are sound asleep.” Stevie Rae grabbed a Mountain Dew and joined them at the table, sitting heavily and yawning. “Yeah, barely. It’s easier to stay awake during the day down here, but I gotta tell ya, I’m pretty dang tired. Stark’s asleep already?” “Yeah.” Stevie Rae thought Z looked worried. “He’s been having problems sleeping since, well, you know—he came back from the Otherworld. So when he passes out I just let him alone.” “It’ll take a while, but he’ll be back to normal soon,” Stevie Rae said. “I hope so,” Zoey said and chewed at her lip. “Speaking of boyfriends, is yours a bird?” Aphrodite asked her. “Yes.” Stevie Rae gave her a narrowed-eye look. “And I don’t wanna talk about it.” “But we do need to know exactly why the Raven Mockers were at the school today,” Darius said, not unkindly, “And since Rephaim is unable to answer our questions we’re hoping you can.” “I thought this meeting was about the True Sight stuff,” Stevie Rae said, feeling immediately defensive of Rephaim. “It is, but it’s also a catch-up meeting,” Damien said. “I think we need one, don’t you?” There was just no way to argue with Damien, especially when he had that sweet, concerned look on his face. Stevie Rae met his eyes. “Yeah, I think we do. So, to start with, how are you holdin’ up?” Damien blinked several times, like he was surprised by the question, which made Stevie Rae feel like crap. Had everydangbody forgotten Damien had lost his boyfriend just days ago? “It was better being at school today. It felt like a step toward normal.” Damien spoke slowly and carefully, as if he had to think about each word. “But I missed Jack a lot. Actually, and I know this might sound crazy, but I kept expecting to see him around every corner in the hallway.” “That’s not crazy,” Zoey said. “I keep expecting to see Heath, too. It’s hard and just plain wrong when someone dies too soon.” Everyone watched the different expressions play across Z’s face, and then she added, “My mom, too. I know I’ve been at the House of Night since last year, and even before that she and I hadn’t been close for a while, but it’s hard to really get that she’s dead. So I understand what you mean about Jack.” “That makes it better, too,” Damien said. “The fact that you guys understand what it’s like to lose someone close to you.” He smiled at Stevie Rae. “So, my answer to your question is that I’m holding up as well as can be expected.” “Good. Next question, or actually back to the original question,” Aphrodite said. “What were the birdboys doing at the House of Night?” “Kalona sent ’em. They were supposed to tell Rephaim that his daddy will take him back as soon as he admits he made a mistake choosing me and the Goddess.” Stevie Rae shook her head. “Sometimes I think Kalona’s just plain dumb.” “What do you mean?” Z asked. “Heck, Rephaim hasn’t even been my official boyfriend for a month. You’d think his daddy’d at least give us a chance to have our first fight before he was all ‘oooh, you’ve made a mistake.’” “What exactly was Rephaim’s response?” Darius asked. “Well, what do you think it was? Jeeze Louise, he’s still here.” Stevie Rae felt her anger build. “He told them to tell Kalona that he hadn’t made a mistake and he wasn’t comin’ back. Period. The end.” “Yeah, but is it?” Aphrodite said. “Is it what?” she asked. “Is it the end? Isn’t Kalona going to keep hanging around, trying to get Rephaim to see the light or whatever?” “So what if he does? Rephaim isn’t on his team anymore. He hasn’t been for a long time.” “So you say.” “So he says!” Stevie Rae felt like she was going to explode. “So his dad says. So his brothers say. So even Nyx says! The dang Goddess herself showed up and forgave him. What the hell does Rephaim have to do to prove to you guys he’s changed?” “Hey, no one’s saying Rephaim has to prove anything,” Zoey said, sending Aphrodite a you’re not helping look. “But we do need to know if something is up with Kalona and the Raven Mockers.” “Z, nothin’s up with them. Well, except that it really hurt Rephaim that that dang bull kid killed one of ’em. Seriously, guys, his brothers weren’t doin’ anything except talkin’ to him. Dragon showed up, pissed of course, but we all get that because of Anastasia. Still, the Raven Mockers were just defendin’ themselves. Aurox is the one we should be askin’ questions about.” “Yeah, except that we don’t have Aurox answers here—and we should have Rephaim answers,” Aphrodite said. “I gave you his answers.” Even as weak and tired as she felt because it was past sunrise, Stevie Rae automatically began pulling power from the earth. Not that she’d really hurt Aphrodite, but the girl definitely needed a good smack. “Hey, you’re glowing green,” Z said. “Well, I’m pissed!” Stevie Rae saw Darius move closer to Aphrodite, which really annoyed her. “You know what, Darius, you need to check yourself. We’re all on the same side here, but that doesn’t mean we can’t get pissed at each other once in a while.” “I think we can all understand that. Isn’t that right, Darius?” Damien said in his calmest, most soothing voice. “Yes, of course,” Darius said. Aphrodite snorted. “So, basically, Rephaim said no to Kalona and the Raven Mockers were just the messengers,” Z said. “Right?” “Totally right,” Stevie Rae said. “Okay, let’s move on to True Sight.” Zoey looked at Damien. “Want to summarize what you’ve found out?” “Yeah, but it’s not much. There’s only a short reference to it in the advanced handbook. Basically, it’s rare and it hasn’t happened for a long time. Like as in more than a couple hundred years. It’s frustrating because there isn’t a lot of documentation about it, but from what I could find it seems that a fledgling or vampyre gifted with True Sight—and they’re usually vampyres, by the way—has the ability to see the truth about people.” “That’s a handy little gift,” Aphrodite said. “You’d think so, but the problem is that the ‘seeing’ is only as accurate as the person with the gift,” Damien said. “Huh?” Zoey said. “Okay, it’s like this: Shaylin has to be good at using her gift. She has to understand what she’s seeing and interpret it accurately,” Damien said. “And if she doesn’t, it’s just a bunch of colors?” Zoey said. “Worse,” Damien said. “Because with True Sight it’s never just a bunch of colors. We all know she’s seeing inside someone’s soul.” He shook his head. “In the handbook there were excerpts of stories about how True Sight has been misunderstood and misused. It can be bad, really bad.” “How about guidelines or rules or whatnot?” Z asked. “None. It’s different for everyone who has the Sight,” Damien said. “So we’re just shootin’ in the dark,” Stevie Rae said, feeling totally overwhelmed. “Again.” “I think that depends entirely on what kind of person Shaylin is,” Damien said. “She’s buddied up to Erik, which isn’t a great sign,” Aphrodite said. “Hey, some of us who used to be buddied up with Erik have turned out okay,” Zoey said. “And plus, a girl who can see his true colors could be really good for him.” Aphrodite snorted. “If she can actually translate them correctly—or whatever you want to call it.” “I want to believe that she can,” Damien said. “Yeah, me too,” Stevie Rae said, but who she was really thinking about was Rephaim and Kalona. Please, Nyx, let Rephaim be able to see the truth. As she sent up the fervent but silent prayer, her eyes lifted and she met her BFF’s gaze. “I want to believe, too,” Zoey said softly as if she could read Stevie Rae’s mind. “Well, I want to believe that when I step out of this room and down the hall I’m going to be instantly transported to a suite at the Ritz-Carlton on Grand Cayman Island. I understand the rest of you are sun challenged, but I could use a little shake and bake.” Aphrodite paused and gave Darius a sexy grin. “I’ll take care of the baking part if you can handle the shaking.” Stevie Rae stood up and yawned. “Okay, before y’all get totally gross I’m gonna go pass out. I’ll see everybody at dusk.” “Ugh, school and no Ritz. Double ugh, reality,” Aphrodite said. “Goddess, I’m glad tomorrow is Friday.” She raised a blond brow at Zoey. “I can promise you I’m doing some serious shop and redecorate this weekend. Battling evil, Darkness, or whatever is just gonna have to wait.” “Hey, speaking of rooms, does anyone know where Erik put Shaylin?” Stevie Rae asked around another huge yawn. “Elizabeth No Last Name’s room,” Damien said. “Kinda creepy,” Stevie Rae said. “It’s not like she’s using it,” Aphrodite said. “I’m going to bed,” Z said. “’Night guys.” Everyone called “night” to her, but Stevie Rae watched her walk slowly away down toward Dallas’s old room that she and Stark were making their own. Her steps were slow and her shoulders were slumped, as if she was trying way too hard to carry way too much weight on them. Stevie Rae sighed. She knew exactly how Z felt. CHAPTER ELEVEN Lenobia Lenobia sniffed the air. Mixed with sawdust, leather, sweet feed, and horse was something else—something smoky and vaguely familiar. She gave Mujaji —her favorite mare, a solid black quarter horse—a final stroke of the soft curry brush and, following her nose, left the stall. She turned down the long, wide hallway that was lined on either side with roomy stalls. Her nose led her exactly where she’d expected it to—the big foaling stall that was near the tack room. Moving quietly Lenobia told herself she wasn’t really sneaking up on him. She was just being sure she didn’t spook his mare. Travis’s back was to her. The cowboy was standing in the middle of the stall. In one hand he was holding a thick, smoking stick of dried herbs. His other hand was passing through the light-colored smoke, wafting it around and over him. Bonnie, his big Percheron mare, was standing in front of him, dozing with one leg cocked. She only twitched an ear slightly when he moved to her and passed the smoking herb all along the outline of her very large body. He went from Bonnie to the cot he’d set up for himself in the far corner of the stall, giving it the same smoke-out treatment he’d given the mare and himself. It was only as he began to turn from the cot that Lenobia stepped back out of his view. Pondering what she’d seen, Lenobia went out the side door of the stable and walked a few feet to a bench where she sat, breathed in the stillness of the cool night, and tried to sift through her thoughts. The cowboy had been burning sage. Actually, Lenobia was pretty sure from the scent that it had been white sage. Excellent for cleansing a space. But why would an Oklahoma cowboy have been doing that? Human behavior? What did she know of it? She’d had only the most perfunctory contact with them for … Lenobia considered twisting the slim gold band that held the heart-shaped emerald around and around the ring finger of her left hand. She knew exactly how long it had been since she’d been close to a human, specifically a human man—two hundred and twenty-three years. Lenobia looked down at her ring finger. There wasn’t much light. Dawn was just beginning to turn the sky from black to blue-gray, and she could almost see the pure green of the emerald. In this light its beauty was illusive, shadowy—like memories of faces from her past. Lenobia didn’t like to think of those faces. She’d learned long ago to live in the here and now. Today was struggle enough. She looked to the east and squinted against the growing light. “Today is also happiness enough. Horses and happiness. Horses and happiness.” Lenobia repeated the three words that had been her mantra for more than two hundred years. “Horses and happiness…” “The two have always gone together for me.” Even as Lenobia’s brain processed that it was the human cowboy who had spoken, and not some dire threat, her body was whirling around and crouching defensively—and there came the shrill scream of a mare’s battle cry from within the stable. “Whoa, easy there,” Travis said as he held his hands up, showing they were empty and took a step back from her. “I didn’t mean to—” Lenobia ignored him, bowed her head, drew a deep breath, and said, “There is no danger. I am well. Sleep, my beauty.” Then she lifted her head and her gray eyes skewered the man. “Remember this: do not sneak up on me. Ever.” “Yes, ma’am. Lesson learned, though I didn’t mean to sneak up on you. Didn’t think that there’d be a vampyre out here at this time a day.” “We don’t burn up in the sunlight. That’s a myth.” Lenobia was thinking about whether he needed to know that red vampyres and fledglings did, but his response made her lose her train of thought. “Yes, ma’am. I know that. I also know that sunlight is uncomfortable for you, which is why I thought I’d be alone if I came out here and, well, smoked this,” Travis paused and took the slim cigar from the front pocket of his fringed leather coat, “by myself and watched the sunrise. I didn’t even see you sittin’ there ’til you spoke.” His smile was charming and it warmed his eyes, gave them a sparkle which changed their ordinary brown to a lighter hazel color— something Lenobia hadn’t noticed happening before. Seeing it now made her stomach tighten. She looked away from his eyes quickly, and had to mentally shake herself to focus on his words. “You sayin’ horses and happiness made me speak without thinkin’. Next time I’ll clear my throat or cough or somethin’ before.” Feeling strangely disconcerted by him, Lenobia asked the first question that came to mind. “Why do you know things about vampyres? Have you been the mate of a vampyre?” His smile grew. “No, nothin’ like that. I know a little ’bout you because my momma liked you.” “Me? Your mother knows me?” He shook his head. “No, ma’am. I didn’t mean you. I meant vampyres in general. See, my momma had a friend who’d been Marked when they were kids. They stayed in touch—used to write letters—lots of letters. They kept writing up until the day my momma died.” “I’m sorry about your mother,” Lenobia said, feeling awkward. Humans lived such short lives. They could be killed so easily. Strange that she’d almost forgotten that about them. Almost. “Thank you. It was the cancer. Took her fast. She’s been gone five years now.” Travis looked away toward the rising sun. “Her favorite time of day was sunrise. I like to remember her then.” “That’s my favorite time of day, too,” Lenobia surprised herself by saying. “That’s a nice coincidence,” Travis said, turning his gaze to her and smiling. “Ma’am, can I ask you a question?” “Yes, I suppose so,” Lenobia said, taken off guard more by the smile than the question request. “Your mare called to you when I scared you.” “You didn’t scare me. You startled me. There’s a large difference between the two.” “You could be right, there. But as I was sayin’, your mare called to you. Then you spoke and she quieted, though there’s no way she could hear you from out here.” “That’s not a question,” Lenobia said dryly. He raised his brows. “You’re a smart lady. You know what it is I’m wonderin’.” “You want to know if Mujaji can hear my thoughts.” “I do,” Travis said, studying her and nodding his head slowly. “I’m not accustomed to talking with humans about the gifts of our Goddess.” “Nyx,” Travis said. When she just stared at him he shrugged and continued, “That’s your Goddess’s name, isn’t it?” “It is.” “Does Nyx care if you talk to humans about her?” Lenobia studied him closely. He didn’t appear to be anything except authentically curious. “What would your mother’s answer to that question be?” “She’d say that Willow wrote to her about Nyx a lot and the Goddess didn’t seem to mind at all. ’Course Willow and I don’t write, and I haven’t heard from her since she came to my momma’s funeral, but then she seemed pretty healthy and definitely hadn’t been smote by a goddess.” “Willow?” “They were children of the 1960s. My momma’s given name was Rain. Are you gonna answer me or not?” “I’ll answer you if you answer me a question in turn.” “Done,” he said. “My gift from Nyx is an affinity for horses. I can’t literally read their minds, just like they cannot literally read mine, but I do get images and emotions from them, especially horses I’m closely connected to like my mare Mujaji.” “And you got stuff, images and such, from Bonnie about me?” Lenobia had to force herself not to smile at his eagerness. “I did. She loves you quite a lot. You’ve cared for her well. She has an interesting mind, your Percheron mare.” “She does—hardheaded sometimes, though.” Lenobia did smile then. “But never mean spirited, even when she forgets she weighs two thousand pounds and almost steps over the top of mere humans.” “Well, ma’am, I do believe Bonnie will step over the top of mere vampyres, too, if given half a chance.” “I’ll remember that,” she said. “And now my question. Why were you smudging?” “Oh, you saw that? Well, ma’am, my daddy’s part Muscogee, that’s probably Creek Indian to you. I have a few of his habits—smudging a new place is one of them.” He paused and gave a little half laugh. “And here I was thinkin’ you’d ask me why I took this job.” “Bonnie already gave me that answer.” She was pleased to see his eyes widen in surprise. “You said you couldn’t get thoughts from horses.” “What I got from Bonnie is that you’ve been traveling restlessly for some time. That tells me we’re just the next stop on your life journey.” “Is she fine with it? I mean, it’s not hurtin’ her, right?” A little warmth for the cowboy seeped into her veins and pulsed through her body. “Your mare is fine. She’s happy as long as she’s with you.” He tilted his hat back and scratched his forehead. “Well, that’s a relief. It has been hard for me to settle since my ma’s death. The ranch just ain’t the same without—” Not far away from them the peaceful morning was shattered by engines and shouting. “Well, what in the hell?” “I have no idea, but I’m going to find out.” Lenobia stood and began striding toward the sounds of chaos. She noticed Travis stayed right beside her. She glanced at him. “When Neferet interviewed you did she happen to mention some pretty rough things have happened recently at this House of Night?” “No, ma’am,” he said. “Well, you might want to rethink accepting this job. If you’re looking for peace, this is definitely the wrong place for you.” “No, ma’am,” he repeated. “I’ve never run from a fight. Don’t seek them out, neither, but when they find me I don’t run.” “Too bad you cowboys don’t carry six-shooters anymore,” she muttered. Travis patted the side of his coat and smiled grimly. “Some of us still do, ma’am. Oklahoma has the good sense to be a conceal/carry state.” Her eyes widened slightly. “I’m glad to hear it. Just a quick tip: if it has wings like a bird, but red eyes that look human, get ready to shoot it.” “You ain’t kidding, are you?” “No.” Together they followed the noise around the lightening campus and approached the central grounds of the school. As they reached the beautiful front lawn, both of them slowed and then stopped. Lenobia shook her head. “I don’t believe it.” “You don’t want me to shoot them, do ya?” She scowled. “Not yet I don’t.” Then she marched into the middle of the caravan of trucks and flatbeds and lawn equipment and men—decidedly human men—and joined the blurry-eyed, bed-headed, but really angry female vampyre who was facing all of them down. “Are you deaf or stupid? I said you’re not touching my grounds, and you’re especially not touching my grounds at this ridiculous time of the day when professors and students are trying to sleep.” “Gaea, what’s going on here?” Lenobia put a restraining hand on the vampyre’s arm because she looked like she was going to hurl herself at the poor, confused, clipboard-holding man who had unwisely stepped up as leader of the group. He was staring at Gaea with a mixture of horror and awe, which Lenobia understood. Gaea was tall and slender and unusually attractive, even for a vampyre. She could have been a fabulous successful model, had she not been perfectly content tending to the earth instead. “These men,” Gaea made the word sound as if it tasted bad, “just showed up and started to attack my grounds!” “Look, missus, like I said before, we were hired yesterday to be the new lawn service for the House of Night. We weren’t attacking anything—we were mowing the grass.” Lenobia bit back a cry of utter frustration. Instead she asked the man, “And who hired you?” He looked down at his clipboard. “Name the boss gave me was Neferet. Is that you?” Lenobia shook her head. “No, but it is the name of our High Priestess.” She turned to the grounds manager. “Gaea, did you not receive the information that Neferet was going to be hiring humans to work at the House of Night?” “I got that information. I just didn’t get the information that the humans would be usurping my position!” Of course you didn’t, Lenobia thought grimly, Neferet didn’t want either of us to be prepared for what she was doing, and you’re as protective of your grass and shrubs and flowers as I am of my horses, which is something our manipulative High Priestess is very aware of. Lenobia shook her head, annoyed at Neferet’s checkmate. “No, Gaea,” she explained in her most reasonable voice. “You aren’t being usurped. You’re being helped.” Lenobia saw the struggle in Gaea’s eyes. Obviously she, like Lenobia herself, hadn’t wanted human help at all, but going against an edict created by their High Priestess and sanctioned by the Vampyre High Council would create dissension in the school. And the ancient vampyre truth was that they shouldn’t be showing any dissension in front of humans. “Yes, well, I can see that.” Lenobia let some of the tension drain from her body as Gaea chose to follow the ancient vampyre truth over pride and power. “I was just caught unaware. Thank you, Lenobia, for helping me see this situation more clearly.” Then she turned to the man and the workers who were milling nervously behind him. Gaea smiled and Lenobia watched the men’s faces go slack and round-eyed as the full force of her beauty hit them. “I do apologize for the initial confusion. It seems there has been a mistake in communication. Shall we discuss exactly what your job is going to entail, and how it would be best if…” Lenobia unobtrusively retreated as Gaea launched into a lengthy explanation about timing and grass cutting and the phases of the moon. Travis, once again, fell into step beside her. He cleared his throat. Without looking at him, Lenobia said, “Go ahead. Say whatever it is you want to say.” “Well, ma’am, seems to me there’s an awful lot of job confusion going on at this school.” “Seems the same to me,” Lenobia said. “Your boss doesn’t appear to be—” “Neferet is not my boss,” Lenobia interrupted. “All right, I’ll rephrase that. It appears my boss has been doin’ a lot of hiring without tellin’ the people those hirings most affect anything about it. So, I’m wonderin’, does this have anything to do with the rough times you mentioned before?” “It might,” Lenobia said. By this time they’d made their way back to the main door that led to the stables. She stopped and faced Travis. “You should get used to not being surprised by confusion and chaos. There can be a lot of both around here.” “But you’re not going to give me specifics. Am I right about that?” “You are,” Lenobia said. Travis cocked his hat back. “How ’bout elaboratin’ on those birds with the red eyes?” “Raven Mockers,” Lenobia said. “That’s what they’re called. Horses don’t like them; they don’t like horses. They’ve caused problems here lately.” “What are they?” Travis said. Lenobia sighed. “Not human. Not bird. Not vampyre.” “Well, ma’am, sounds like they’re not good in general. Do I shoot if they come around the horses?” “Shoot if they attack the horses.” Lenobia met his gaze steadily. “My general rule is: protect the horses first, ask questions later.” “Good rule,” Travis said. “I think so.” Lenobia nodded her head in the direction of the stables. “Do you have everything you need in there?” “Yes, ma’am. Bonnie and me don’t need much.” He paused and then added, “Will you want me to change my sleeping hours around to match yours?” “Well, I’ll want you to change your sleep pattern, but you’ll be matching the entire school, not just me,” Lenobia said quickly, wondering why what he said had embarrassed her. “And you’ll be surprised how quickly Bonnie will adapt to the night and day switch.” “Bonnie and I have done our fair share of night riding.” “Good, then you’re already a little prepared for the change.” There was an awkward moment when they both just stood there, and then Lenobia said, “Oh, my quarters are up there.” She pointed to the tall second story over the stables. “The rest of the professors are back there.” Lenobia jerked her chin toward the main campus building. “I prefer to be closer to the horses.” “Seems you and I see eye to eye on at least one thing.” She raised her brows in a silent question. Travis smiled. “Preferring horses.” He opened the door for her. Lenobia went into the stables and they walked together for a little way until they reached the stairwell that led to the upper level. “I suppose I’ll see you at dusk,” she said. Travis tipped his hat to her. “Yes, ma’am, you will. Good night to you.” “Good night,” Lenobia said, and then hurried up the stairway feeling his eyes on her back long after she was out of his sight. CHAPTER TWELVE Aurox Aurox followed his Priestess from the professors’ building out into the waning sunlight of evening. Though it was winter, and the light held no warmth, and, truth be told, little light, she cringed as if it caused her pain. He watched her pull the cowl of her green robe more fully over her head so that it fully swathed her face. “Sunlight!” Neferet made the word sound as if it tasted bitter. “I shall make them pay for causing me to take this trip in the sunlight.” She glanced at him before donning dark, mirrored glasses. “Actually, you shall make them pay for me.” “Yes, Priestess,” he said automatically. Imperiously, she walked out to the large black vehicle she’d commanded he learn how to drive and stood before the door, waiting for him to open it, which he did quickly. Aurox noted that even in the daylight hours Neferet cast a shadow that was preternaturally dark. Darkness always travels with her, he thought. After he’d turned on the vehicle she punched a button in the rearview mirror and a voice asked, “Yes, Neferet, where may OnStar take you today?” “Will Rogers High School, Tulsa, Oklahoma,” she said in response to the voice, then to him she commanded, “Follow their directions exactly.” “Yes, Priestess,” was all he was required to say. * * * From the moment he’d parked in front of it, Aurox had found the light-colored brick and stonework building pleasing to his eye. He followed Neferet inside, entering the first of its gleaming, wide hallways and he was taken aback by the feel of the place. It was almost as if the building was sentient. It had a wise, listening quality that Aurox found surprisingly calming. But how could that be? How could a building make him feel anything? There had been only one elderly security guard. He’d approached Aurox and Neferet, walking slowly and with a limp, more curious and polite than cautious. “May I help y’all?” “Yes, does the school have an underground area? A large basement or tunnel system?” Neferet had asked, pulling back her hood and taking off her dark glasses. The guard’s eyes had widened first at her beauty and then fixated on her sapphire-colored tattoo. “We have some old tunnels in the basement that haven’t really been used since bomb shelter days. That is, other than as a hidey-hole from a tornado now and then. Why do you—” “How do you reach the tunnels?” Neferet cut him off. “I’m sorry, I’d need to get administrative permission for any—” “That won’t be necessary.” This time she added a seductive smile to her words. “I’m simply compiling historical information about the school building. The tunnels are still accessible, aren’t they?” The man looked equally as confused by her question as he was dazzled by her smile. “Oh, yes. They’re easy to get to. Just follow this here main hall ’til you pass the library.” He gestured to their right. “There’re stairs in the corner of the intersecting hallway. Take them down a flight. The access is through an old music room about midway through the next hall on the right. I got the master key right here. I don’t suppose it’d hurt anything if I gave you a quick look. It’s not like classes are going on right now or—” “Incapacitate him, but do not kill him,” Neferet had ordered. “Oh, and give me that key.” Aurox hit him hard enough to make him unconscious. He didn’t believe the old man was dead, but he wasn’t certain. There was no time to check. He handed Neferet the jangling keys and she began hurrying in the direction the man had unwisely indicated. She paused when she came to the large room on their left, glancing in the windows of the closed doors. Aurox looked with her. It was an elegent room. Large, decorative lights hung over tables and bookshelves. Strange that Aurox perceived a waiting quality from within. “Library,” she said. “All this Art Deco architecture is utterly wasted on human teenagers.” Neferet dismissed the building’s beauty and majesty. She nodded at the intersecting hallway ahead of them. “This is the correct way.” Almost reluctantly, Aurox followed her. “This a school, just as the House of Night is a school?” Aurox had to give voice to some of the questions that were circling around his mind. Neferet didn’t even glance at him. “It is a human school—a public school. Not like the House of Night.” She shuddered delicately. “I can practically see the hormones and testosterone. Why do you ask?” “I am simply curious,” he said. She did look at him then, briefly. “Do not be.” “Yes, Priestess,” he said softly. They wove their way farther within the quiet building, and the hall became less and less touched by sunlight. The shadows around Neferet stirred as she stopped in front of a door with musical notes painted on it. “This is it,” she said, as she unlocked the door, and stepped into a dingy area that smelled of dust and neglect. To their left was a room filled with metal stands and chairs. Before them was a cluttered area that led into more darkness. Neferet hesitated and made a low sound of frustration. “I grow weary of searching.” Neferet lifted her right hand, pressed the sharp nail of her left middle finger against her palm, slicing open a wound that wept red. “To the red ones I command you lead me; my blood your payment will be.” With a sense of fascination Aurox watched Darkness release from within the shadows beneath and around Neferet as well as the corners of the room. Questing tendrils slithered to her. Twining around her body they crawled up her skin to the blood that pooled in her palm. Darkness fed there, causing Neferet to shiver and moan as if in pain, though the Priestess did not close her hand. Did not pull away. It made Aurox feel. Part of him felt excited as he anticipated a battle to come and welcomed the rage and power that battle would evoke. But another part of him felt revulsion. Darkness pulsed around Neferet, malevolent and sticky and dangerous. Aurox was pondering the different feelings when Neferet shook off the tendrils and licked her wound closed. “You have fed. I will be led.” The singsong rhyme of Neferet’s spell brushed power against Aurox and he shivered as Darkness writhed and then skittered off leaving a thin ribbonlike trail that was blacker than a new moon night as its signpost. “Come,” Neferet said. Aurox did as he was commanded. They followed the ribbon into the seemingly abandoned hallway, which began to slope down and down, tunnel-like. Eventually they came to a space that widened and dead-ended. There Neferet paused. Aurox scented them before he saw them. Their odor was vile, rotten, filthy. Death, he thought. They smell of death. “Unacceptable,” Neferet said angrily under her breath. “Utterly unacceptable.” She strode into the underground room, went to the wall, and flipped a switch. A single bare bulb cast a sickly yellow light. Aurox thought it looked like a nest. Mattresses were piled against one another. Bodies were curled around each other under blankets. Some were naked. Some were clothed. It was difficult to see where one ended and another began. One head lifted. The vampyre’s tattoos were red and they looked remarkably like the tendrils of Darkness that had led them to him. His gaze was hard. His voice angry. “Kurtis, take care of whoever is bothering us.” A large mound moved sluggishly and a thick broad forehead appeared from the other end of the nest. This one had a red crescent outlined on his forehead—a fledgling. “It’s barely even day. Just zap ’em with electricity or somethin’ and—” “And what?” Neferet’s voice was ice. “Kurtis, you were stupid and bumbling before you died. Now you’re stupid and bumbling and you stink.” Neferet glanced at Aurox. “Throw him against the wall.” Aurox moved to do her bidding, but slowly, giving the fledgling time to feel fear. Aurox fed from that fear, and as his body shifted, changed, grew into something else, something more powerful, the fledgling’s fear shifted, changed, grew into delicious terror. With a roar Aurox lifted the boy from his nest and hurled him into the wall. There was a sick cracking sound and the boy lay still. “Whoa! Whoa! Wait a second. Neferet! I didn’t know it was you.” The red vampyre stood, shirtless, hands out, facing the Priestess. Aurox felt his fear. It felt good. He took a step toward the vampyre. His hooves rang against the cold cement floor. “Halt for now, Aurox,” Neferet commanded. She turned her back to him and concentrated on the vampyre and his nest. “Did you really believe you could hide from me, Dallas?” “I wasn’t hiding from you! I didn’t know what to do—where to find you.” “Don’t lie to me.” Neferet’s voice had gone soft and in that softness Aurox heard a black, endless danger. “Don’t ever lie to me.” “Okay, okay. Sorry,” the vampyre said hastily. “I guess I just didn’t think.” The nest of fledglings had been stirring, awakening as their vampyre and Neferet had been speaking, and now Aurox could see faces, wide-eyed with fear, staring from Neferet to him. He longed to crush those staring faces under his hooves. A rattling cough came from the nest. Neferet sneered. “How many of you are there?” “After the depot when Zoey and her assholes fought us, ten are left besides me.” He glanced at Kurtis. “And him.” “He isn’t dead. Yet,” Neferet said. “So there are eleven fledglings and one vampyre. How many of your fledglings have begun coughing?” Dallas shrugged. “Two, maybe three.” “There are too many of them. They need to be around vampyres or they will die. Again,” she added with a cruel smile. From the fledgling nest more fear washed over Aurox. He ground his teeth together, fighting the urge to feed from it. “Will you come around us then? Like you used to?” “No. I’ve had a change in plans. It’s time you joined me. All of you joined me.” “You mean at the House of Night? That’s impossible. We’re not what we used to be and we don’t want to—” “What you want is of no consequence to me unless you obey me. And if you do not obey me you will die.” The vampyre seemed to stand straighter. His anger burned brighter, as did the single electric bulb. “I won’t die. I’ve already Changed. Some of them might,” he gestured to the fledglings that crouched all around his feet, “but I say that’s survival of the fittest.” “You’re not as smart as I remembered, Dallas. Let me speak plainly and simply then so even you can understand: if you and your fledglings do not obey me you will be the first to die. My creature will kill you. Now. Or whenever I command him to. Make your choice.” The bulb’s light dimmed. “I choose to obey you,” Dallas said. “Wise choice. I want you cleaned up and back at the House of Night in time for classes tonight.” “But how—” “Use the school’s showers to wash the stench off yourselves. Steal clothing. Clean clothing. Or buy it. At seven thirty, just before classes begin, a House of Night bus will be waiting down the street at the east entrance to the University of Tulsa. You’ll board it. You’ll resume classes. You’ll sleep at the House of Night.” Neferet paused, waving a hand dismissively. “I’ll have windows covered or open a basement or something. But you will live at the House of Night.” “How will we satisfy our hunger?” “Carefully. And what you cannot satisfy carefully you will control, at least until the world has turned and changed to embrace your needs.” “I don’t get it! Why do you even want us there?” “Rephaim, the Raven Mocker you failed to kill more than once, has been gifted with a human form during the night and has mated with Stevie Rae. He is allowed to attend the House of Night, along with Aphrodite, and the other red fledglings—Stevie Rae’s red fledglings.” “I’m supposed to go to school with him? And her? Together?” The bulb glowed brightly again. “You hate them, don’t you?” “Yes.” “Good. That is the reason I want you there—want you all there.” “Because we hate them?” “No, because of what your hatred, controlled by me, will cause,” she said. “And what’s that?” he asked. Neferet smiled. “Chaos.” * * * They left shortly after Neferet finished instructing the vampyre called Dallas in the ways he could and could not cause chaos. Apparently, his purpose was much like Aurox’s purpose—Neferet commanded and controlled his violence and held his allegiance. He was not to kill—yet. And always, always, there was the underlying thread of seeding dissent and discontent and hatred. Aurox understood. Aurox obeyed. When Neferet commanded that he control the beast within him, he obeyed and followed her from the rotting nest up through the cool, clean corridors of the school. At the front door the old guard lay where Aurox had left him. “Is he alive?” Neferet asked. Aurox touched him. “Yes.” Neferet sighed. “I suppose that is for the best, even though it’s slightly inconvenient. You’ll need to go back downstairs and tell Dallas I want the old man’s memory wiped clean. Tell him to implant the suggestion that he was wounded when the school was robbed.” She tapped her chin, considering, and looked down the hallway at the glass cases that held memorabilia and the library beyond with its neat rows of books and gleaming, ornate light fixtures. “No, I have a more amusing idea. Tell Dallas to make the human believe he was wounded when the school was vandalized. Then on the way out, I want you to smash the cases and destroy the library. Do it quickly. I’ll be waiting outside. And I do not like to be kept waiting.” “Yes, Priestess,” he said. “As I said, this architecture is wasted on human teenagers…” She laughed as she left the building Hastily he retraced his path back to the underground lair. As soon as Dallas caught sight of him, the vampyre stood and faced him, putting himself between Aurox and the fledgling pack. The red vampyre’s grimy arm lifted to rest on a metal box that was bolted to the cement wall. Aurox felt the power that thrummed there, coiling, waiting to do his bidding. “What do you want?” Dallas asked. “Neferet sent me with a new command for you.” Dallas took his hand from the metal box. “What does she want me to do?” “There is a guard who is unconscious near the entry to the school. Priestess does not want him to remember our presence. Instead he is to believe vandals attacked him.” “Yeah, fine. Whatever,” Dallas said, then before Aurox could turn away he asked, “Hey, what the hell are you?” The question surprised Aurox. His answer came automatically. “I am Neferet’s to command.” “Yeah, but what are you?” asked a dark-haired fledgling girl who was peering at him from behind Dallas. “I saw you. You were changing into something with horns and hooves. Are you some kind of demon?” “No. Not a demon. I am Neferet’s to command.” Aurox turned away then, leaving them behind, but he could not leave their words behind. They followed him down the hallway. He’s a freak, they whispered. Something not right. He used a desk made of wood and steel to smash and destroy the treasures in the clean, wide hallway. He shattered the ornate fixtures that hung from the room filled with books. While he did that Aurox fed from the fear and anger that lingered in his body. When those emotions were used up he channeled the fear the red vampyre and his fledglings were evoking from the old man as the fledgling he’d wounded drank his blood and the others looked on laughing. When they finished with the guard and wiped his mind clean, Aurox used the vestiges of the disgust the fledglings felt for him to fuel the power he needed until that emotion, too, was gone. Then he unearthed the only emotions he had left. The emotions he’d not fed from, but instead had somehow kept, and claimed as his own. So it was washed in Zoey’s loneliness and sadness and guilt that he finished vandalizing the school and then, changing back to the shell of a boy, Aurox walked heavily from the destruction he had caused and made sure Neferet waited no longer. CHAPTER THIRTEEN Stark Stark’s dream started okay. He’d been on an awesome beach with white sand around him and clear blue water before him. The sun hadn’t burned him at all. Actually, it was just like before he’d been Marked and the sun had felt great on his face and shoulders. He was shooting arrows at a big round bull’seye target that magickally absorbed them and then made them reappear in the sand beside him so that he could continue to shoot and shoot and shoot. He was just thinking how really great the dream would be if Zoey showed up on the beach in a bikini. Or maybe it would be a European beach and Zoey would show up in a topless bikini. Now that would be even better. And then, like what happens a lot in dreams, the scene shifted and all of a sudden Zoey was there, only they weren’t on the beach. She was there, curled up in his arms, warm and soft and smelling really good. “Hey,” she said, smiling up at him. “You’re awake and the sun hasn’t set yet.” “Yeah.” He grinned at her. “Let me show ya how awake I am.” He kissed her and she tasted sweet. Her body fit with his perfectly. She made that little sighing moan she made when she was really feeling good. But just as he was really getting into the dream Zoey pulled back from him. He looked questioningly at her, thinking maybe it was going to be an awesome-beyond-awesome dream and she’d do a sexy little strip for him. Then he saw the look on her face. It was wide-eyed terror. “Stop them!” she yelled. “Stark! Guardian! Help me!” She was reaching for him as dark, snake-like tendrils dragged her away. Stark leaped up and the Guardian Sword appeared in his hand. He ran to her, vaulted over her fallen body, and landed smack in the middle of the tendrils of Darkness. Swinging the Guardian Sword he slashed through them over and over again, but where he cut one, two grew to take its place, and both reattached like Velcro to Zoey’s body. “Stark! Oh, Goddess! Help me!” “I’m trying! Zoey, I’m doing my best!” But he was making no difference against Darkness. By now, Z was wrapped completely, cocooned like something a giant spider would snack on, and she was conscious and screaming for him to save her. Stark fought and fought, but there was nothing he could do, and as Darkness pulled her from him, he saw Neferet, the puppet master commanding the black, sticky strings. She stood just out of his sword reach and laughed as she tightened the threads around Zoey until his love, his queen, was strangled, killed, and then absorbed by her enemy. In the dream Stark stood there, sobbing and lost without his Zoey. In his mind he heard a voice strong and clear: This will happen unless Zoey Redbird publicly breaks from Neferet. She must stand up to the Tsi Sgili and stop these pretenses of a truce between them. Stark, still shocked and broken from the dream loss of his queen, only heard the words and not the voice. He didn’t think of where the message came from—only the warning itself. He took a deep breath and woke with Zoey safe, warm, and willing in his arms, and she smiled up at him saying, “Hey, you’re awake and the sun hasn’t set yet.” A terrible, portentous chill shivered through his body. It had been more than a dream—he knew it. Which meant the warning was more than just words—it was prophecy. Stark filled his arms with Zoey, pressing her hard against his body. “Tell me you’re okay. Tell me you feel fine.” “I will if you stop smothering me,” she choked out. He loosened his grip with one of his arms, with the other he ran up and down her back as he looked over her shoulder, being sure there were no tendrils there—no sticky memories from his dream. “Stark, hey stop.” She grabbed his hand and stared into his eyes. “What the heck is wrong?” “Massively bad dream. Like of apocalyptic proportions. And then I woke up and you were saying the exact same words you said to me in the dream right before Darkness got you.” “First, eew, Darkness getting me is disgusting. How’d it happen?” “You don’t want to know,” he said. “Yes, I most certainly do. It could be a prophetic dream, and if it is I need to know what to avoid.” “Yeah, that’s what I was thinking, too. Actually, I was trying not to think that, but you’re right.” He leaned back and ran his hand through his hair, trying to shake off sleep and foreboding. “It might be prophetic and you could need to know; Darkness got you like Shelob got Frodo, only worse,” he said. Stark watched Zoey’s face drain of color. “As a girl who is deathly afraid of spiders, I don’t know how that dream could be much worse.” “Make the spider Neferet and its web Darkness.” “Okay, well, you’re right. That is worse.” She gave him what he knew was a brave smile. “But you saved me, right?” He didn’t say anything. He couldn’t. “Hello, big strong Guardian! You. Saved. Me. Right?” “No,” he admitted. “I tried, but the Darkness Neferet controlled was too much for me.” “Well, hell,” Zoey said. “I hate when that happens.” Then she shook her head and added firmly, “Hey, it didn’t really happen. For now at least it’s just a dream.” “Too damn many things that seem like they could only happen in dreams have turned out to be real,” he said grimly. “And there was something else. Someone was telling me that what I dreamed would really happen unless you start standing up to Neferet.” Zoey frowned. “Hey, I do stand up to Neferet! All the darn time. And what do you mean ‘someone’ was telling you that? Was it Nyx? Did the Goddess speak to you?” Stark thought back, trying to recall the dream voice, but even though the horror of it was fresh, the specifics were already fading back into his subconscious. “I can’t really remember, but I don’t think it was Nyx’s voice, or at least not a voice of hers I recognized.” “I think you’d know for sure if it’d been the Goddess. Plus, like I said, I do stand up to Neferet, so I don’t know what your dream voice was talking about.” “Actually, right now you are kinda in a truce with her,” Stark said slowly. “I supposed that depends on your definition of truce. If it means I-can’t-kick-Neferet-out-of-the-House-of-Night-’cause-the-High-Council-forgave-her, then yeah, we’re in a truce.” “Hey.” He touched her cheek. “I didn’t mean to piss you off. That dream scared me, that’s all.” She snuggled into his arms and he felt the tension in her body begin to relax. “You didn’t really piss me off. You just surprised me. I mean, I thought you and I were on the same page about Neferet.” “We are.” He held her tight. “We know Neferet’s evil and crazy, and we know all of us on Nyx’s side have to watch out for what-thehell-ever she’s gonna do next.” Zoey shuddered and buried her face in his shoulder. “Makes me want to run back to Skye.” “Makes me want to take you back to Skye.” He hesitated and almost didn’t say anything else, but something in the back of his mind wouldn’t allow him to let it go. “The dream, Z. Darkness got you and I couldn’t save you. I think it was a warning; I really do. And the most sense I can make of it is that you’ve got to keep standing up to Neferet.” “I will,” she said, tilting her head back to look at him. “You look tired and you’re up early.” He gave her his cocky smile. “I’m up early so that you and I can spend some quality time alone before we have to catch the short bus, and I may look tired, but I’m not that tired.” He slid his hand up under the big, baggy T-shirt she was wearing and tickled her ribs with a light caress. Zoey giggled. He caught the sweet, happy laugh with his lips and turned it into a long, hot kiss. And then his hand quit tickling and almost all of the worry his dream had caused disappeared as he loved her … almost … Zoey “Ah, hell,” I muttered as Darius pulled the bus into the long driveway that wound through the rear of the House of Night and led to the parking lot. We’d just turned onto campus and I saw Neferet, Dragon, and five Sons of Erebus Warriors standing there as if they were a weird vampyre welcome wagon. “Slow down,” I told Darius. “We need to get ready for this.” “Yeah, it don’t look good,” Kramisha said. “Wow, you would not believe all the colors.” Shaylin was gawking open-mouthed out the window at the group of professors. “Eek, and there’s the Dead Fish Eye Lady, so gross!” “Dead Fish Eye Lady—I like that,” Aphrodite said. “It suits her.” “Dead Fish Eye Lady is super intuitive,” I was reminding everyone, even though I was speaking specifically to Shaylin. “And we all decided it’s best if she doesn’t know much about Shaylin’s gift,” Stevie Rae said, walking up from her seat with Rephaim in the back of the bus. “Z, you want to call spirit and ask it to help shield Shaylin’s thoughts, at least until we get past Neferet right now?” “Yeah,” I said. “Sounds like a good idea.” I drew a deep breath and whispered, “Spirit, come to me.” I felt the air over my skin stir with the power of the element. “Shield Shaylin. Keep her thoughts private.” “Oooh!” Shaylin giggled as the element washed over her. “That’s so cool, and you’re super purple when you do that.” “Thanks, I guess,” I said. The new kid was definitely weird, but she seemed nice enough. I glanced back at the rest of the bus, picking out the Twins and Damien. “You guys keep your elements close, too.” “I think whenever Neferet is around it’s an excellent opportunity for all of us to focus our thoughts on academics,” Damien said. We stared at him. “Academics?” Shaunee asked. “Like homework and whatnot?” Erin added. “Or are you talking about the fashion show that really is school to us?” Shaunee said. “We’re confused,” Erin concluded. Damien sighed dramatically. “Academics—as in schoolwork. For instance, when Neferet is near you should practice memorizing the definitions for your vocabulary words.” He looked down his long nose at the Twins. “You two should start with the word miscreants.” “I have sort of no idea what that means, Twin. What about you?” Erin asked. “Don’t have a clue, Twin,” Shaunee said. “Be still, brain-sharers. Queen Damien has a point. We haven’t been around Neferet like this in a while. Everyone needs to focus and keep their thoughts busy—and not busy on our business. Busy on stupid school business.” Aphrodite glanced at Rephaim. “Can Neferet read your mind?” Rephaim looked surprised by the question, but hardly hesitated before saying, “She cannot.” “You know that for sure?” I asked. “Yes,” he said. “How?” Aphrodite asked. “He doesn’t have to explain that to you,” Stevie Rae said. “Yeah, he does.” Stark spoke before I could say anything. “Stevie Rae, you’re going to have to stop being so defensive about Rephaim. He used to be on Neferet’s side. He might have info we could use.” “I was never on Neferet’s side.” Rephaim’s voice was as hard as the gaze he leveled on Stark. “I was on Kalona’s side. As were you.” That totally shut Stark up, and I took the opportunity to step between them and say, “Whatever the specifics, what we mean is that you were on an opposite side, and that might help us now.” He looked at me and his gaze softened, though his expression was still guarded. “I know Neferet can’t read my mind because she didn’t know about Stevie Rae and me.” He took Stevie Rae’s hand. “I tried not to think about you when she was near, but I couldn’t help myself. I thought of you. Often.” Stevie Rae grinned and went up on her tiptoes to kiss him. “Ugh,” Aphrodite said. “So, moving on quickly before I puke, it’s for sure that Neferet can’t read my mind, Zoey’s mind, or birdboy’s mind. The rest of you need to watch yourselves.” “There is another bus that has just turned into the lane behind us,” Darius said, looking in the rearview mirror. “It says House of Night on the side of it, too.” From one of the rear seats Johnny B called, “And it’s not short. Why can’t we get the normal-sized bus?” “You ain’t normal,” Kramisha said. “Your mom ain’t—” “Okay, let’s get ready for school.” I cut him off. “Which means get ready for battle,” Stark said. “Park us,” I told Darius. He parked and then he and Stark and Rephaim exited the bus first, followed by the rest of us. I figured I might as well face whatever was going on, so flanked by Stevie Rae and Stark, I marched straight up to Neferet, bowed semi-respectfully to her and more respectfully to Dragon, and the Warriors. Then I said formally, “Merry meet.” “Oh, Zoey, Stevie Rae, I’m glad you and your students arrived with the other bus. It will save explanation time,” Neferet said cryptically. Before I could brilliantly say “huh?” or anything, the other bus parked next to ours and with the weird Star Trek noise they all had, its doors opened. And my seer stone began to heat up. Aurox exited first. Behind him Dallas stepped off the bus. I heard Stevie Rae’s shocked intake of breath. It was about then that my mouth flopped open because after Dallas a whole group of red fledglings, the bad red fledglings, including the totally awful Nichole and a very bruised up but still fat Kurtis kid exited the bus. The red fledglings and Aurox lined up opposite us. I had a bizarre West Side Story dance scene flashback. Everything was weirdly quiet until Stevie Rae, in an unnaturally high-pitched voice, said, “Dallas, what in the Sam Hill are you doin’ here?” Dallas lifted a lip. “I don’t answer to you.” He looked at Neferet and slowly, distinctly, fisted his right hand over his heart, bowed deeply, and said, “Merry meet, my High Priestess.” All the red fledglings behind him mimicked his greeting. Neferet smiled graciously. Her voice was warm and deceptively kind. “What a lovely greeting. Thank you, Dallas.” When her emerald gaze turned from the new kids to Stevie Rae, her voice and eyes hardened. “I will answer your question, Stevie Rae. What they are doing here is the same thing you are doing here—attending classes. Oh, wait. There is a slight difference between them and your little group. Dallas and his red fledglings will be living here at the school, and I will be their High Priestess.” “Is that him?” Dallas was staring at Rephaim, who was standing beside Stevie Rae. I could practically see the anger roll off him. “Let me introduce you. Dallas, this is Rephaim. Oh, but, you two have already met, haven’t you?” Neferet sounded like she was making introductions at prom. I swear it was so darn freaky that I had to stifle the urge to ask Stark to smack me so I’d know I wasn’t dreaming. Then my gaze went to Dallas, and the fear he made me feel told me no way was I sleeping. His eyes glowed faintly red. He looked feral and very, very dangerous. I remembered when I used to think he was so cute and nice. Well, that cute, nice kid must have died when this new red vampyre with his whiplooking tattoos Changed. At my side, Stark moved restlessly closer to me. At Dallas’s side, Aurox, who I’d been trying not to look at, moved restlessly closer to me. “Yeah, like you said. We’ve met,” Dallas said. “We have.” Rephaim’s voice was as hard and cold as Dallas’s, and it reminded me that I shouldn’t underestimate him just because he smiled so sweetly at Stevie Rae. “While I have you all together, let me be very clear about something,” Neferet said, and our eyes turned to her. She looked so darn normal! Beautiful and regal and she sounded so darn reasonable that for a moment I felt a great sadness at the loss of who she could have been. “There has been unpleasantness between us in the recent past. That is over now. I will have no strife here, be you fledgling or vampyre, red or blue.” “Unpleasantness?” Stevie Rae’s voice was incredulous. “They tried to kill me and Zoey!” “Zoey did kill some of us!” Dallas shouted, and I was sure I heard the hum of electricity in the lines above our heads that fed the school. “Wait, I didn’t want to. Nichole and Kurtis and those guys attacked me and—” “Enough!” Neferet’s command held a frightening power that pulsed around us seeming to leach even the silver light of the risen moon. “I said the past is over. Stevie Rae and Zoey, if you cannot control yourselves then you will be expelled from this school. Dallas, the same goes for you. Aurox and the Sons of Erebus Warriors will be patrolling the halls and classrooms. If any violence breaks out they will end it. Immediately. Do I make myself clear?” No one spoke a word. Neferet’s smile was cold. “Good. Now, get to class.” She whirled around and, with that strange, gliding walk Neferet headed back to the main campus building and the classroom waiting there. “There’s Darkness all around her,” Stark said in a voice that was low, but not low enough. “She’s totally engulfed by it,” Rephaim said. “Absolutely,” Stevie Rae said. Then she looked at Dragon and the other Warriors. “Don’t y’all not see it? It’s like sticky spiderwebs.” She jerked her thumb at Dallas and the other red fledglings. “I’ll bet they can see it.” “Don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” Dallas said. “Do you still have imaginary tea parties in the basement with your dollies?” Nichole asked sarcastically. Dallas and his red fledglings laughed. “Dallas, Neferet wants you to report to the media center. They’ve been having computer problems and she needs your help to straighten things out,” Dragon said, stepping up to stand between our two groups. The Sons of Erebus Warriors joined him, as did Aurox. “Shaylin, this is your class schedule. Stevie Rae can guide you around today.” He handed the new fledgling a piece of paper. “Stark, Darius,” Dragon continued. “Get to the stable and begin setting up for your classes. The rest of you do as the High Priestess ordered. First hour begins shortly.” “Whatever the High Priestess wants sounds good to me,” Dallas said, and brushed past Rephaim with a sneer. I watched Rephaim hold his ground. He didn’t look pissed off and all Crazy Boy, like he wanted to punch a locker or anything like that, but he did look solid and strong, and he stayed protectively close to Stevie Rae. “Let’s go to class and try to ignore those idiots,” I said, taking Stark’s hand. “They do not want to be ignored,” Rephaim said as we walked slowly to the main campus. “They’re here to cause problems.” “Stirring the shit pot,” Stevie Rae said, and for some reason that made her and Rephaim smile. Rephaim looked so totally teenage-human-boy-grinning-at-his-girlfriend that I had to remind myself he wasn’t exactly what he appeared to be. I needed to remember that I’d seen Raven Mockers fight, and I knew that they were mean and dangerous, so I was wondering about him, whether him actually fighting Dallas, if it came to that, would call alive an edge of Darkness within him, when I saw the change come over his expression. One second he was smiling at Stevie Rae, and the next his face had gone still, as if he could hear a sound no one else could. Then I blinked and he seemed normal again. “Hey, do I really get to ride horses sixth hour?” Shaylin asked, reading her schedule while she tried to keep up with us. “If it says Equestrian Studies you do,” Stevie Rae said. “See ya at lunch.” She grinned once more at Rephaim, waved at the rest of us, and then went over to Shaylin. “Lemme see.” She read the fledgling’s schedule. “Oh, good, you have Spells and Rituals first hour. You’ll like that class. I hear the new professor is cool.” “Hey, what’s up with you?” Stark asked me. “Not sure,” I said quietly. “Actually, probably nothing more than the fact that I’m going to sociology class, which is taught by Neferet. Talk about stress.” “You’ll be fine. She’s pretending to be a professor and a High Priestess right now,” he said. “Yeah, which means she’ll only humiliate me a little, versus ripping my head off with her claws,” I muttered. “If she tries, be sure to run around a lot and be scared so I can get to you in time to save you.” He smiled his cocky grin at me, and I knew he was trying (unsuccessfully) to make me feel better. “I’ll keep that in mind. See you at lunch.” He kissed me, and then after one more worried look, headed toward the stables with Darius. Everyone scattered, leaving Damien, Rephaim, and me walking to class. “You okay?” I asked Rephaim. “Yes. Fine,” he said. I seriously didn’t believe him, and I guess my sneaked peeks were super obvious because he finally stopped, sighed, and then he truly surprised me by saying, “Hey, Damien, I need to talk to Zoey. Can I meet you in class?” Damien looked more than a little curious, but he was too polite to protest. “Sure, no problem. Don’t be late, though. The professors here really get annoyed about tardiness.” “I’ll make sure he hurries,” I assured Damien, and then I slowed down so that Rephaim and I stayed outside the building when everyone else went in. “What’s up?” “My father is here. I can feel his presence.” “Kalona? Where?” I knew my eyes were all big and googly as I looked around us like I expected the immortal to pop out of the shadows. “I don’t know where, but I want you to know that I haven’t contacted him, haven’t seen him, haven’t talked to him since he freed me.” Rephaim shook his head. “I-I don’t want you and the rest of your friends to think I’m keeping things from you.” “Okay. Well, at least that’s a good thing. Do you have any idea what he wants?” “No!” “Okay, okay, I’m not accusing you of anything. You came to me with this, remember?” “Yes, but I—” His face went still again. Then his eyes met mine and the sadness in them was so intense that it made my stomach ache. “He’s calling me.” CHAPTER FOURTEEN Zoey “Calling you? What the hell do you mean? I don’t hear anything.” I kept gawking around expecting the boogerman to jump at me. “No.” He shook his head. “You wouldn’t hear it. I don’t even really hear it. Father can call me through the immortal blood we share. I didn’t think he’d still be able to after Nyx changed me.” He stared off into the distance, looking totally miserable. “But I’m not truly human. I’m still a mixture of beast and man and immortal. I still share his blood.” “Hey, it’s okay. You’re doing your best. I see the way you look at Stevie Rae. I know you love her. And Nyx herself forgave you.” He nodded and swept a hand across his face, which made me notice he had started to sweat. A lot. Obviously, he noticed me noticing, and said, “It’s difficult not to respond to his call. I’ve never resisted him before.” “Look, you stay right here. I’m gonna go get Stark and Darius and Stevie Rae. Then you can follow Kalona’s call. We’ll all go with you and show him that you’re really one of us—that he needs to leave you alone.” “No! I don’t want everyone to know he’s here. Especially not Stevie Rae. She thinks I have to completely turn my back on him, but it’s so hard!” He put his hands together like he was begging me to understand. “He’s still my father.” Even though I wished I didn’t, I was beginning to understand what he was saying. “My mom was messed up. She chose a guy over me, but deep inside I still loved her and I wanted her to love me. Really love me. I think the hardest part about her being dead is that there isn’t any chance left that she’ll be my mom again.” “Then you understand,” he said. “Yeah, in a way I think I do, but I also agree with Stevie Rae. See, Rephaim, you might feel like every other kid who’s had a messed-up parent, but the problem with your situation is that your dad isn’t just Joe Schmoe down the block. He’s a dangerous immortal who’s on the wrong side in a very real battle of good versus evil.” Rephaim closed his eyes like what I’d said had physically hurt him, but he nodded and when he opened his eyes and met my gaze I could see the strength of his decision. “You’re right. I have to stand up to him and make him understand that we really have gone separate ways. Come with me while I do that. Please, Zoey.” “Well, okay. Let me go get Stark and I’ll—” “Just you. I know it’s stupid, but I don’t want to humiliate Father, and me doing this in front of Stark would be a great insult.” “Rephaim, I can’t come alone with you. Are you forgetting your dad tried to kill me?” “Neferet held his body prisoner and forced him to follow you to the Otherworld. He didn’t want to. He’s never wanted to harm you. Zoey, my father has told me he will not kill you, or any High Priestess of the Goddess.” “Seriously, get a clue.” I shook my head disbelievingly. “Kalona wouldn’t hesitate to kill anyone if they stood in the way of what he wanted.” “You’ve been close to him since he escaped from the earth. Can you truly tell me that you have never seen a glimmer of Nyx’s Warrior still within him?” I hesitated, not wanting to remember what a fool I’d been before Heath was killed. I lifted my chin. “Kalona killed Heath because I was stupid enough to let my guard down around him.” “Heath was not a High Priestess in the service of Nyx. And you did not answer me. Speak truly. You’ve glimpsed what he used to be, have you not?” For about the zillionth time I wished I was a better liar. I sighed. “Yeah, yes, okay. I thought I saw what he could have been. I thought I saw the Warrior of Nyx,” I said honestly, then added, “but I was wrong.” “I don’t think you were, at least not completely. I think the Warrior is still within him. He did, after all, allow me the freedom to choose my own path.” “But he’s not letting you stay free of him. He’s here, calling you.” “What if he’s here calling me because he misses me!” Rephaim shouted, and then wiped a hand across his tense, sweaty face. In a more controlled voice he continued, “Please, Zoey. I give you my oath that I will not allow my father to hurt you, just like I will not allow him to hurt Stevie Rae. Please come with me and bear witness that I have broken with him so that no one at the House of Night can question my loyalties.” And then he said the thing that tipped me over into being Queen of Stupidville. “He hasn’t seen me since I’ve become a boy. Maybe when he sees evidence of Nyx’s forgiveness, the Warrior in him will awaken. Wouldn’t Nyx want you to give her Warrior one more chance?” I looked at him and saw what Stevie Rae must have seen that made her fall for him—basically he was a real cute boy who wanted his dad to love him. “Ah, hell,” I said. “Fine. I’ll go with you as long as we don’t leave campus. And you should know if I get freaked or upset or scared or whatnot, Stark is gonna feel it and come running with his bow that cannot miss whatever he shoots at. And I promise you he will shoot. Nothing I can do about that.” Rephaim took my arm and started practically dragging me toward the east wall. “I won’t put you in danger. You won’t feel any of those things.” I was gonna say something about pigs flying, but instead I saved my breath and jogged to keep up with him. Of course I knew where we were headed. It made sense. “The stupid tree by the stupid wall,” I panted. “I don’t like this at all.” “It’s easy to get to and no one goes over there,” Rephaim said. “That’s why he’s there.” “That doesn’t make it any better,” I said. We sprinted across the lawn. I looked over my shoulder. I could see the gaslights of the stable that stretched toward this area of campus, and I was thinking that I probably should abdicate my Queenship in Stupidville and send out a big, scary, mental SOS to Stark when Rephaim suddenly slowed and then stopped. I turned my attention and my gaze back to what was going on in front of me, and saw Kalona standing beside the shattered tree. His back was to us. Later I had time to think about the fact that he should have been at least facing the direction from which he knew Rephaim would be coming, but then his presence overshadowed everything, just as he knew it would. He was tall and strong and, as per usual, naked from the waist up. His incredible black wings were folded and at rest, and they looked like a god had fashioned them from pieces of the night sky. I’d forgotten how beautiful and powerful and majestic he was. I clenched my jaw and mentally shook myself. I hadn’t forgotten how dangerous he was. “Father, I am here,” Rephaim said in a voice that sounded so small and childlike that I put my hand over his where it still held on to my arm. Kalona turned around. His amber eyes went wide. For a moment his face lost all expression and then he looked utterly stunned. “Rephaim? Is it truly you, my son?” I felt the quake that went through Rephaim’s body and I tightened my hand over his. “Yes, Father.” His voice got stronger as he spoke. “It is me, Rephaim, your son.” I know the immortal has faked a lot of things. I know he’s trafficked with Darkness and been a murderer, a liar, and a betrayer. But I think for my entire life I will remember the look on Kalona’s face when he saw Rephaim that day. For an instant Kalona smiled and such pure joy suffused his entire being that I lost my grip on Rephaim. I stood there, slack jawed, and gaped at the wonder of Kalona’s happiness, and realized that I saw within his expression the same love I’d seen when he’d gazed at Nyx in the Otherworld. “Nyx forgave me,” Rephaim said. Those three words snuffed out Kalona’s joy. “And then she gifted you with the form of a human boy?” the immoral said in an emotionless voice. I could feel Rephaim’s hesitation, and I knew he was going to do what I did way too often—tell the whole truth when he should keep his mouth shut—so I blurted the semi-correct short version answer for him. “Yeah, he’s a boy now and he’s with us.” Kalona’s amber gaze shifted to me. “Zoey, you are looking well. I thought my son was the Red One’s mate. Is she sharing him with you?” “Eew, no. It’s not that kind of school. I’m his friend, that’s all,” I said, totally shoving aside the memory of how moved Kalona had been when he’d first seen Rephaim. This is the real Kalona, I reminded myself. “And you don’t have to be such a butt. You called Rephaim, not the other way around.” “Yes, I called my son. Not a fledgling High Priestess.” “I asked her to come with me to speak with you,” Rephaim said. “You asked Zoey and not the Red One. Is that because she’s tiring of you already?” “No, and her name is Stevie Rae, not the Red One. I’m her mate, and I’m going to stay her mate.” I liked it that all the daddy-hero-worship crap had gone out of Rephaim’s voice. “That’s why I answered your call, because I needed to tell you this, just like I told Nisroc, I’m walking the path of the Goddess with Stevie Rae. It’s what I want. It’s what I’ll always want.” “Always is a very long time,” Kalona said. “Yes, I know. I spent a good portion of it doing your bidding.” “You spent it being my son!” “No, Father. Not really. I’m beginning to understand that there is only one real difference between Darkness and Light, and that is the capacity to love. When I was doing your bidding there was obligation and fear and intimidation between us, but very little love.” I expected Kalona to blow up, but instead his shoulders slumped and he looked away as if he couldn’t continue to meet Rephaim’s steady gaze. “Perhaps circumstance made me ill equipped to be a father,” he said slowly. “You were the product of rage and despair and lust. I think I let that shape our relationship.” I could feel the hope in Rephaim. It was like he telegraphed it through his skin and his voice. “It doesn’t have to continue to shape our relationship,” he said just as slowly. With a start of surprise, I realized that the two of them sounded incredibly similar. I snuck a peek at Rephaim and recognized the shape of his eyes, his mouth, his jaw, and after I saw the family resemblance I wondered how the heck I could have ever missed it. No wonder Rephaim was so gorgeous—he looked like his dad! “You wish a new beginning between us, as well as with your new life,” Kalona said. He hadn’t framed it as a question, but Rephaim answered him anyway. “Yes, Father.” Kalona looked at me. “And what of your new friends? I do not believe they would ever accept the fact that you and I are not enemies.” “Well, I can’t speak for all of his new friends, but personally I don’t care what kind of relationship he has with you as long as you leave the rest of us alone,” I said. “Neferet is who you need to worry about. If you’re really not still with her, then I can promise you she’s not gonna accept the fact that you and Rephaim aren’t enemies.” “Neferet does not control me!” Kalona’s powerful voice brushed against my skin and I shivered with the familiarity of its icy touch. “Yeah, whatever.” I spoke with forced nonchalance. “I’m not talking about control. I’m talking about the fact that you and her are on the same side, and she’s getting way into Darkness. She’s not gonna let someone with your power stand on the sidelines.” “Neferet forfeited any possible allegiance with me when she imprisoned my body and used my spirit. You should know, Zoey Redbird, that Neferet has a new Consort.” I rolled my eyes. “Aurox isn’t her Consort. He’s just one of her minions.” “I wasn’t speaking of her new creature. I was speaking of the white bull.” I stared at Kalona. “You’re being serious.” “He is,” Rephaim said. “And why would you tell me that? We’re not friends. We’re not allies,” I said firmly. “We could be. We have a common enemy,” Kalona said. “I don’t think we do. You’re pissed off at Neferet—or at least for this split second you are. I’m fighting against Darkness in general. And that’s the side you’re usually on.” “He asked about new beginnings,” Rephaim said. I looked up at the really cute, really hopeful, really na?ve boy who stood beside me. “Rephaim, Kalona isn’t suddenly turning good.” All I could think was: Stevie Rae is gonna kill me if I bring him back to her with an “everything is wonderful and beautiful and perfect” attitude about his dad. “We can’t make other people what we want them to be just because we want it a bunch.” “I have no intention of being good,” Kalona said. “Just as I have no express interest in being evil. I simply wish for the Tsi Sgili’s downfall. She has wounded me, and I would exact my revenge.” “Okay, so just exactly what does that mean?” I asked. “It means we have a common enemy. I will help you rid the House of Night of the Tsi Sgili who masquerades as Nyx’s High Priestess and her creature, the Aurox.” “Father, will you come forward and speak to the High Council, to tell them what you know of Neferet?” “What good would that do?” Kalona asked sharply. “I have no proof to support my words. I would accuse her of taking the white bull as Consort. She would deny it. I’m assuming she has introduced her creature as a divine gift, has she not?” “Yeah, she has,” I said. “Aurox is supposed to be a gift from Nyx.” “Let me guess—the Goddess has not appeared and denounced the creature or Neferet.” “You know that hasn’t happened,” I said. “Of course it hasn’t.” Kalona shook his head in obvious disgust. “And because your Goddess remains silent, there is no proof from Nyx. It would be my word against Neferet’s, and the Council already believes she banished me from her side. They would believe I was lying to get revenge.” “Aren’t you?” I asked. “I mean, isn’t that what you’re saying you want, revenge?” “I do not want her to be admonished by a ruling Council, her wrist slapped and sent to solitude in pretend service of the Goddess. I want her destroyed.” The cold hatred in his voice had me shivering again, but I couldn’t argue with his logic. I didn’t want to kill Neferet. Hell, I didn’t want to kill anyone. But I knew in my heart of hearts that unless she was destroyed she would end up causing unimaginable pain and suffering for all of us. “Okay, look. You need to spell it out for me. Are you talking about killing Neferet?” “I cannot kill her, she’s become immortal.” His gaze held mine. “Only Neferet can cause her destruction.” My brain felt like it was going to explode. “I have no clue how to get her to do that.” “I may,” Kalona said. “She consorts with the white bull. Neferet believes she can control his power. She is very wrong.” “He’s the key to her destruction?” said Rephaim. “Perhaps. We should watch and wait for a time. See what she is about, what her next move will be,” Kalona said. “That will be easy with you living here at the House of Night with her. Watch her well, my son.” “We’re not living here,” he said before I could stop him. “I’m with Stevie Rae and Zoey and the rest of them at the depot.” “Are you? How interesting. Are all the red fledglings at the depot with you?” “No, Neferet brought the other red fledglings, the ones who aren’t part of Stevie Rae’s group, to the House of Night. They’re staying here now,” Rephaim said. I scowled at Rephaim and gave him a would you please be quiet look. “That could be important. They tip the balance of Light and Darkness at this school.” “Yes,” Rephaim said. “There is also a fledgling who can—” “Who can keep her mouth shut and not tell everybody our business,” I finished for him, giving Rephaim the stank eye. Kalona smiled knowingly. “You do not trust me, little A-ya?” I felt my heart freeze over. “No. I don’t trust you. And don’t call me that name again. I’m not A-ya.” “She’s within you,” he said. “I can sense her.” “She’s only a piece of what makes me who I am today, so back off. Your time with her is over.” “There may come a day when you learn that past lives circle around to the present,” he said. “Why don’t you hold your breath until that happens?” I asked with pretend sweetness. Kalona laughed. “You do still amuse me.” “And you do still gross me out,” I said. “Can we not have a form of peace between us?” Rephaim said. “We can have a truce,” I said, looking at Rephaim and forcing him to meet my gaze. “But that’s not peace. It’s also not trusting him and telling him our business. You gotta get that straight in your head, Rephaim, or you need to leave with him right now.” “I stay with Stevie Rae,” he said. “Then remember whose side you’re on,” I said. “You may rest assured that I will not let him forget that,” Kalona said. “Yeah, and you should know that Rephaim has a whole bunch of people who care about him, and we won’t let him be used by you.” Kalona ignored me and spoke to his son instead. “If you need me, look to the west and follow our blood.” He started to spread his wings. “Remember that you are my son, because I can assure you those around you will never forget it.” He leaped into the sky and with a few powerful strokes of his wings Kalona disappeared into the night. CHAPTER FIFTEEN Zoey So, I ended up cutting first hour. I mean, seriously. No way was I up to sitting there and letting Neferet take passive-aggressive shots at me after the whole Kalona/Rephaim thing. Instead I sent Rephaim to class (and told him to tell the professor he’d been in the bathroom) and then found a shadowy seat not far from the stables. I needed time to sit and think. By myself. Kalona said he wanted a truce with us, which I figured was pretty much bullpoopie. The truth probably was that he wanted to use Rephaim to infiltrate our ranks and mess us up—and that sounded like I thought the nerd herd and I were turning into a redneck Okie paramilitary group. I sighed. Why couldn’t those groups be more attractive? Which made me think about the inbred panther people on True Blood and how stupid Jason was. Jeesh, I needed to rewatch season three. I was totally behind on season four … “Hello, Zoey. Focus,” I told myself. So, Kalona is pretending like he wants a truce. Rephaim believes him because that kid has a bad case of I-want-my-dad-to-love-me. Stevie Rae is gonna be pissed when she finds out he’s been talking to Rephaim, which I totally understood. She wanted to protect Rephaim’s feelings, and Kalona a new and improved Rephaim = train wreck. And then there was the whole bad red fledglings returning to school and pretending not to be raving lunatics and killers. Ugh, just ugh. Thinking about the fights in the halls that was going to cause gave me a headache. Throw into the mix the fact that Stark still wasn’t sleeping well, Neferet’s new Consort was a bull (Eew, that couldn’t mean what it sounded like it meant, could it?), and the Aurox kid/whatever who made me feel uber weird—scared and anxious and just downright freaked—and the whole school seemed to be a bomb waiting to explode. I stared up at the moon. “Plus,” I said quietly, as if speaking directly to the shining crescent, “in six days I have to go perform a cleansing ritual on my grandma’s land because my mom was killed there.” I blinked hard. I was not going to cry. Again. I was just going to sit out here in the moonlight until it was time for me to go to drama class second hour. As if I didn’t have enough drama in my life already. “Well,” I told the moon. “At least my soul isn’t shattered anymore and I’m not a sleepless Otherworld almost-ghost.” Right on the heels of that cheery thought I spoke aloud the very next thing that came into my mind: “I miss Heath so much.” The words were still in the air around me when the small place in the middle of my chest began to warm. With a terrible sense of rubbernecking at an accident my gaze was pulled from the serene moon to the wall that framed the House of Night. Aurox was jogging along the school side of the wall. Even from this distance I could see that he was alert and searching for possible trouble, his gaze scanning around and up. He even looked like he was sniffing the air. He was coming toward me, though not directly so. My bench was several yards closer to the school from the wall and hidden in the shadows under the big trees, and he hadn’t seen me. But he wasn’t sticking to the shadows. He jogged in the open and even though the moon was not full, the night was clear and the fat crescent gave off enough silver-blue light that, as he approached, I could see his face. Aurox was definitely what any girl would call hot. Well, any girl who didn’t know he was some kind of killer creature in a boy skin suit. Then I remembered how a bunch of the fledglings had made over him after he’d killed the Raven Mocker. Guess they didn’t care whether his skin was a suit or for real. It felt like something was crawling up my spine and I gave a little shudder. I cared. I cared a lot about what was beneath the skin. His eyes were super strange. I’d noticed them before. Ironically enough, in this light they reminded me of the moon, or at least of those rocks called moonstones—only his eyes glistened, almost glowed. My hand went slowly to my seer stone. I could feel my heartbeat speed up. What was it about Aurox that scared me so badly? I didn’t know, but I did believe that I needed to defeat this fear. I needed to look through the seer stone and see whatever the rock revealed to me—Dark or Light, evil or good. I began to lift the stone and it was then that I noticed it. His shadow, cast against the rocky wall of the school, did not mirror the tall, muscular body of a human guy. Aurox’s shadow was that of a bull. I must have gasped—must have made some little noise because his glowy eyes found me immediately. He changed the direction he was jogging and headed straight for me. I slid the seer stone under my shirt and tried to keep my breathing normal and stop my heart from beating out of my chest. When he was just a few yards away I couldn’t help myself. I stood and moved around behind the wrought iron bench. I know it was silly, but somehow it felt better to have something, anything between us. He stopped and looked at me for a few seconds without speaking. His expression was bizarrely curious, like he’d never seen a girl before and was trying to figure out what the heck I was—even though that analogy was ridiculous. “You do not weep this night,” he finally said. “No.” “You should be in class,” he said. “Neferet has ordered all fledglings to class.” “Why do you cast the shadow of a bull?” I blurted the question like a moron and then I wanted to smack my hand over my mouth. What the hell was wrong with me? His brow furrowed and he looked to the spot on the ground beside him where his shadow—his very human and very normal looking shadow—turned its head in time with him. “My shadow is not a bull,” he said. “It was a bull, before, while you were jogging beside the wall. I saw it,” I said, wondering how I could sound so calm and certain when even to my own ears I seemed totally crazy. “The bull is part of me,” he said, and then he looked as surprised by his answer as I’d been by my question. “The white bull or the black bull?” I asked. “What color was my shadow?” he countered with. I frowned and glanced at his dark, human shadow. “Black, of course.” “Then my bull is black,” he said. “You should return to class. Neferet has commanded it.” “Zoey, is everything okay out here?” Stark’s voice made me jump. I turned my head to see him walking quickly toward me, a bow with a notched arrow held with deceptive nonchalance in his hand. “Yeah, fine,” I said. “Aurox was telling me I needed to get to class.” Stark gave Aurox a hard look. “I didn’t know you were a professor at this school.” “I am following Neferet’s command,” Aurox said. He sounded the same as he had before Stark had shown up, but his body language had totally changed. He looked bigger, more aggressive, more dangerous. Thankfully, the bell that signaled the end of first hour chimed. “Oh, oopsie, looks like I won’t be making it to first hour. Better get to second hour on time, though.” I turned my back on Aurox and went to Stark, linked my arm through his, and said, “Walk me to drama class?” “Absolutely,” he said. Neither of us said anything to Aurox. “He scares you,” Stark said when we were out of Aurox’s hearing range. “Yeah.” Stark opened the door to the main school building and the long hallway that held most of our classrooms. It was busy, filled with fledglings changing class, but he kept his voice low and me close so that only I could hear him. “Why? Did he do something?” “He casts the—” My words broke off as a tall, dark-haired vampyre stepped from Neferet’s classroom and into the hall before us. Stark and I stopped. At first it was hard to really believe who I was seeing, and I wanted to rub my eyes as if to clear them. Then Stark fisted his hand over his heart and bowed deeply, breaking me out of my waking dream and I followed his example while he said, “Merry meet, Thanatos.” “Ah, Stark, Zoey, merry meet. I’m pleased to see you both looking so well.” “What are you doing here?” I asked way more bluntly than I should have. Her dark brows went up, but she looked more amused than offended. “I am here because the High Council has decided the very special fledglings,” she paused and glanced at Stark, “and vampyres here deserve some additional attention.” “What does that mean?” I asked. The kids walking by us in the hall were gawking and whispering. I saw Damien’s head stick out of the door to his second-hour class and his mouth formed a round, surprised “Ooooh!” when he saw Thanatos. “It means that Monday if you cut your first-hour class, you’ll be cutting one taught by Thanatos.” Neferet came out of the open doorway to her classroom. She spoke with no more sternness than any normal teacher would have used with a kid who cut her class, but her eyes told a different story. I felt Stark’s body tense and my guess was Darkness was all around her. “I’d like to believe Zoey is mature enough that she has an excellent reason for not coming to class today.” Thanatos smiled at Neferet, and her tone was obviously patronizing. Neferet’s face seemed to freeze. Her answering smile looked brittle. “I’d like to believe so, too. Be that as it may, Monday you will have charge of Zoey and any of those other special students you would like to include. There is a spare classroom down this hall and to the right. Now, if you’ll excuse me I need to be sure a room is readied for your indefinite stay.” “Of course I’ll excuse you, and I do apologize again for arriving with no notice, and not truly knowing how long I will be with you here at the lovely Tulsa House of Night. These are simply unusual times. Merry meet, merry part, and merry meet again, Neferet,” Thanatos said. Neferet fisted her hand over her heart and bowed her head slightly, muttering the parting words as she hurried away. “She is not pleased that I am here,” Thanatos said. “You knew she wouldn’t be,” I said quietly. During our time on Skye, Stark had told me that he’d had an ally in Thanatos, so much so that he and the rest of my friends had taken the vampyre who had an affinity for death into their confidence and told her everything they’d known then about Neferet. Thanatos nodded. “I did, though I was happy to volunteer for this mission. The very balance of good and evil in this world is in question, and I believe the answers can be found here, at this House of Night.” The bell started to chime. “Ah, hell!” I said and then added a quick, “Sorry. Uh, I’m gonna be late for class.” “Complete your classes today, Zoey. I will look forward to seeing you first hour Monday.” Thanatos smiled at Stark. “Young Warrior, I have just a few bags in my car. Could you please assist me?” “Yeah, of course,” he said. He smiled and waved at me as I fisted my hand over my heart and bowed to Thanatos, and then I scampered down the hall and ducked in the drama classroom, sending Erik an I’m really sorry look. He narrowed his eyes at me, but thankfully didn’t say anything. Actually, he pretty much ignored me and let me sit and stare out into space and wonder if I wished the hours would hurry until the end of school, or if I should be dreading what might come next. I was kinda leaning toward the dreading side … * * * I stared at the food on my lunch plate and, in spite of the stupid stress I was feeling, smiled. “Spaghetti.” I sighed with true happiness. “And brown pop and cheesy garlic bread. Seriously, yum.” “I know. I missed the food lots.” Stevie Rae grinned and moved over so that Stark and I could slide in next to her and Rephaim. I noticed Rephaim had his mouth stuffed full and was chewing rapidly. He met my eyes, smiled and, showing way too much spaghetti mumbled, “It’s good.” “So, do birds eat spaghetti?” Aphrodite asked as she settled into the bench across from the four of us. “He isn’t a bird,” Stevie Rae said firmly. “Not this second he isn’t,” Aphrodite said. Damien rushed up and nudged Aphrodite, who frowned at him, but scooted over. “Okay, ohmygod. I’ve been dying to talk to you guys. What is Thanatos doing here?” “Hello, checked your mailbox lately?” Aphrodite said, waving around a piece of paper that looked very official and school-news-like. “My guess is you’ll get the same schedule change I did. The brain-sharers got one.” The Twins joined us. “Quit calling us that,” Shaunee said. “Yeah, we don’t share a brain. We share a soul. The two are way different,” Erin said. “Please, like soul-sharing is fine?” Aphrodite shook her head and rolled her eyes. “Starting Monday Thanatos is teaching a special class first hour,” I butted in before a world war could start. “We’ll probably all have schedule changes.” “I do,” Rephaim said with his mouth still full. “I checked it before I went into first hour.” “Oh, that’s what made you so tardy,” Damien said. “I didn’t want to ask.” “Tardy?” Stevie Rae said. “You know the professors get annoyed at you if you’re tardy.” Rephaim looked at me. I looked at him. He swallowed his mouthful of spaghetti. “Father was here.” “What? Kalona? Here?” Stevie Rae’s voice almost squeaked the words. Kids at the nearest tables sent us curious glances. “That’s right,” Aphrodite said, raising her voice and looking typically annoyed. “Barcelona is where all the best shoe shopping is—not here. Get a clue, bumpkin.” Then she tilted her head down and whispered, “Not a good idea to say much about this in public—which means as in anywhere but the tunnels.” “Rephaim, are you okay?” Stevie Rae asked in a much quieter voice. “Yes. I wasn’t alone. Zoey was with me,” he answered softly. Stevie Rae blinked in surprise. “Z?” “He’s right. I was with him the whole time. It’s okay. Well, as okay as it can be when He Who Cannot Be Named is involved,” I whispered. “Oh for shit’s sake. This isn’t Hogwarts,” Aphrodite said. “Wish it was,” Erin said. Then Shaunee did something that shocked me worse than Kalona’s visit. She didn’t echo her Twin. Instead, in a very small, very un-Twin-like voice she said, “You still care about him. Don’t ya?” Rephaim nodded once, just a little. “Twin? Hogwarts?” Erin said, looking a little lost. “Twin, this is more important.” Shaunee’s eyes found Rephaim again. “Dads are important.” “I didn’t know you were close to your daddy,” Stevie Rae said. “I’m not,” Shaunee said. “That’s why I understand how important they are. Not having one who pays any attention to you doesn’t mean you don’t wish they were different.” “Huh,” Erin said, still looking befuddled. “I didn’t know that bothered you, Twin.” Shaunee shrugged and looked uncomfortable. “I don’t like to talk about it much.” “Was he mean?” Erin asked Rephaim. Rephaim glanced at me. “No, not very.” “I think Aphrodite is right. We need to talk about this when we don’t have to worry about being overheard. Right now let’s finish lunch and then everyone needs to go to their mailboxes and check for schedule changes, that includes the red fledglings,” I said. “Dallas’s group already got theirs,” Aphrodite said. “I heard them talking about it in art class.” I looked at Stevie Rae. Her face had gone real white. “We’ll all be with you,” I said. “And Thanatos is a powerful vampyre, a member of the High Council. She’s not gonna let anything happen.” “Shekinah was Leader of the High Council, and she got killed her first day here, remember?” Stevie Rae said. “That was by Neferet and not some douche-bag red fledgling guy,” I said. “The girls are on my nerves, too,” Aphrodite said. “That Nichole bitch needs to have her hair pulled out by the roots, which are probably a different color than the rest of that mess on her head.” “I hate it when I agree with you,” Stevie Rae said. “Well, bumpkin, even you can be right sometimes.” “Can we stop now and eat the rest of our spaghetti?” I said. “There’re only two more hours to get through, then we can go back to the depot and we’ll have all weekend to figure this stuff out.” “That’s a good idea,” Damien said. “Next hour I’m checking out books and files on some of the questions we’ve been trying to answer. I got permission from Professor Garmy to go to the media center during Spanish class. I’m really good at conjugating verbs, and that’s what she’s focusing on today.” “Ugh,” I said. Everyone (besides Damien) at the table nodded in agreement to my conjugating ugh, even though the Twins seemed out of synch and Erin kept giving Shaunee looks that went from annoyance to confusion and back again. And that pretty much summed up the rest of the day: confusing, annoying, and just plain ugh. CHAPTER SIXTEEN Zoey “I like his horse,” I said to Lenobia. “I like his horse, too,” Lenobia said, even though she sounded like she hated to admit it. We were standing in the corral, a little ways from the group that was clustered around Travis and his giant Percheron, Bonnie. The cowboy had been demonstrating to a very attentive audience of fledgling guys (and Darius and Rephaim and Stark) how to use a lance and a sword from horseback. “So,” Johnny B said, “Is that all she can do? Just, like, lope or whatever back and forth in a straight line?” From on top of Bonnie the cowboy looked about a zillion feet tall. Currently, he had a long lance in his hand and I wondered for a second if he was going to skewer smart aleck, muscle-brained Johnny B. But Travis just tilted his hat back, rested the lance on his hip, and said, “My girl can do everything a smaller horse can do. She has all the gaits: walk, trot, lope, gallop.” He glanced over at Lenobia and his easygoing smile turned wry. “Well, Bonnie can’t turn as quick as a quarter horse. She can’t run as fast and as long as a Thoroughbred. But she can tear up a trail with the best of ’em. Don’t forget that she can carry me, a pile of armor and weapons, and pull down a house. All at the same time. Underestimating her would be a mistake.” He shot another look at Lenobia and added, “But then underestimating females in general isn’t a good idea, boy.” I covered my laugh with a cough. Lenobia looked at me. “Don’t encourage him. He’s been holding fledgling court all day. The girls want to date him. The boys want to be him. He’s making my head hurt.” “So you like him a little?” I was wincing from Lenobia’s frosty stare when Travis raised his voice and called, “Well, you’d have to ask the professor over there about that, but I’d be all for a little field trip.” Huh? Field trip? My ears perked up. “We go on field trips?” “Not since we’ve been battling evil we haven’t,” Lenobia said under her breath. Then she raised her voice and started toward Bonnie and her cowboy saying, “I’m sorry, Travis, I wasn’t listening. What is it you’re asking?” “One of the kids wanted to see Bonnie in action on a trail ride. I’d be happy to take some of ’em out with me and a few horses on a clear night. I grew up outside Sapulpa and know the old oil paths on the ridges there like the back o’ my hand.” I saw Lenobia sucking in a breath and was sure she was getting ready to blast the cowboy into the stratosphere, when Ant, the littlest of the red fledgling kids, reached way up and, looking starstruck, patted Bonnie on her nose saying, “Wow! A trail ride? Like cowboys used to do? That’d be awesome.” With obvious adoration in his eyes, he gazed at Lenobia. “Professor Lenobia, could we really?” I think it hit me at about the same time it hit Lenobia—Ant was just asking to do some normal school stuff—to take a field trip and be a kid—versus being dead and undead and fighting immortals and the booger monsters they brought with them and worrying about saving the world. “Perhaps. I’ll have to see if I can work it into my lesson plan. There have already been several changes lately,” Lenobia said in her teacher voice. Johnny B sighed. “Changes. That’d be us undying and coming back here and messing up the schedule.” “Actually, the professor probably means me more than you,” Rephaim said. “I’m the reason Stark and Darius had to start a new class here in the stables.” “Neither and both of you are right,” Lenobia said crisply. “You’ve changed things at this House of Night, but that’s not necessarily negative. I like to see change as a positive thing. It prevents stagnation. And I’m enjoying having the Warrior classes in my stables. As Travis has so aptly demonstrated today, Warriors and horses have a long, rich history together.” I saw Rephaim’s surprised look and his tentative smile. Then the bell chimed and before everyone could sprint for the door Travis called out, “Whoa there, guys! No one leaves the stable until everythin’s in its right place. You boys there help Stark and Darius put the weapons and targets up.” Then he pointed at Rephaim and Ant. “You and you—help me get this tack off Bonnie and wipe her down. She’s worked hard today.” Everyone snapped to. Lenobia hesitated, and then kinda nodded to herself, changed direction, and disappeared into her office. Huh. So now with the approval of a tougher-than-tough vampyre professor a human cowboy was telling an ex-Raven Mocker, some undead guys, and a bunch of fledglings what to do. Huh. * * * By the time we rounded up all the kids, got on the short bus, and drove back to the depot it was just a little before six A.M. Even I was tired and unbelievably glad it was the weekend. I swear I didn’t want to do anything but sleep, watch trash TV, and maybe do a little decorating of the tunnels. I was just thinking about my thick blue blanket (that I’d grabbed when I’d crammed my clothes and stuff from my dorm room into a cardboard box), and how nice it would feel to be curled up under it with Stark and Nala when Stevie Rae rained on my parade. “Okay, we gotta hurry.” She motioned to me, Rephaim, Stark, Darius, Aphrodite, the Twins, and Damien. “It’s gonna be dawn in about an hour and a half. Rephaim and Zoey have Kalona stuff they need to tell us.” I sighed. “Okay. In the kitchen.” It took even longer for us to get the kitchen cleared of hungry fledglings and sent off to their rooms. “This ain’t gonna work good for long. We need us a place where we can have our own Council Meetings without morons all up in our business,” Kramisha said, as she frowned at Johnny B who was trying to see how many Cheetos he could cram in his mouth at one time. “Muh uh mu,” Johnny B said around the Cheetos. “Just take your silly ass outta here. We got things to discuss.” She shook her head and finished shooing him and the last of the red fledglings from the kitchen. Then Kramisha faced the rest of us. “No. I ain’t leavin’.” “Oh, for shit’s sake, you have another poem?” Aphrodite said. “I read in People magazine that negativity gives you wrinkles,” Kramisha said to Aphrodite. “You may wanna consider your attitude when you look in the mirror. ’Cause I do know you love you some mirror time.” She made a little “huh” noise and then her gaze went to Stevie Rae and then to me. “It come to me in Latin class.” “Latin? Seriously?” Aphrodite said. “Your English isn’t even that great.” “Non scholae sed vitae discimus,” Kramisha said smoothly. There was a giant silence, then Stevie Rae said, “Dang, Latin always sounds so smart. Good job, Kramisha.” “Thank you. It nice to be ’preciated by my High Priestess. Anyway…” She dug around in her gihugic bag until she found her purple notepad, then she pulled it out, came over to the table, and slapped it down in front of me. “This one’s for you.” “Why?” I said before I could make my mouth stop. Kramisha shrugged. “Don’t know, but you’re supposed to read it.” “It would really be more helpful if you could get a little more info when these poems ‘come to you,’” Aphrodite air quoted sarcastically. “Wrinkles,” Kramisha said without looking at her. “Fine, I’ll read it.” I took the paper and then glanced at my gawking group. “Yes, out loud.” And I read: “The dividing line forms—fashioned from: Dragon’s tears Missed years Overcome fears The fire and ice paradox Seen with True Sight Darkness does not always equate to evil Light does not always bring good.” As I read the last two lines my stomach squeezed. I glanced up at Kramisha. “You were right. I was supposed to read this.” “How do you know?” Stark asked. “The last lines—the part that starts with Darkness—it’s what Nyx said to me right before she kissed my forehead and filled in my crescent the day I was Marked.” “Does the rest of it mean anything to you?” Damien said. “Well, I dunno. We all know why Dragon would be crying.” Rephaim hunched his shoulders and I gave him a quick apologetic look. “The years and fears part could have to do with Dragon, too. Clearly we’re gonna have to get Shaylin involved ’cause of the True Sight part, and I’m not even sure what a paradox is.” I sighed. “So, in other words, no, I’m clueless about the rest of it.” “A paradox is a statement or a situation that is contradictory, but true,” Damien said. “Huh?” I said. “Okay, an example: the paradox of war is that you have to kill people in order for people to stop being killed.” “God, I hate figurative language,” Aphrodite said. “But you are smart, my beauty. When you put your mind to something you figure it out,” Darius said. “The paradox could have something to do with Kalona and Rephaim,” Shaunee suddenly spoke up. “What do you mean?” Stevie Rae asked. “Twin?” Erin said. “Are you okay?” “I’m fine,” Shaunee told her and then continued. “What I mean is that it’s a paradoxical situation, isn’t it? In order for Rephaim to prove he’s changed sides and is being good now, he has to turn his back on his dad, and that’s something that would usually be considered bad.” “You may have something,” Damien said. “She is fire,” Aphrodite said. I blinked. “And Kalona is ice.” “But my Twin doesn’t have anything to do with Kalona,” Erin said. “Yes, sh