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CHAPTER ELEVEN

 

 I didn't think I'd sleep. I figured I'd lay there and miss home and think about the bizarre twist my life had taken. Disturbing flashes of the guy in the hall's eyes drifted through my mind, but I was so tired I couldn't focus. Even Aphrodite's psycho hatefulness was something else that seemed sleepily far away. Actually, my last worries before I could remember nothing else were about my forehead. Was it feeling sore again because of the Mark and the cut over my temple?or was it because I was getting a ginormic zit? And would my hair look okay for my first day of vamp school tomorrow? But as I curled up with my comforter and inhaled the familiar smell of down feathers and home, I felt unexpectedly safe and warm…and was totally out.

 I didn't have a nightmare, either. Instead I dreamed about cats. Go figure. Hot boys? No. Cool new vampire powers? Of course not. Just cats. There was one in particular?a small orange tabby who had little tiny paws and a pot belly with a pouch that looked kinda marsupial. She kept yelling at me in an old lady's voice and asking what had taken me so long to get here. Then her cat voice changed to an annoying buzzing beeping sound and I…

 "Zoey, come on! Turn that stupid alarm clock off!”

 "Who?, huh?" Oh, hell. I hate mornings. My hand flailed about trying to find the off switch of my annoying alarm clock.

 Have I mentioned that I am totally, completely blind without my contacts? I grabbed my nerdy glasses and peeked at the time. Six thirtyP.M., and I was just waking up. Talk about bizarre.

 "Do you want to take a shower first, or do you want me to?" Stevie Rae asked sleepily.

 "I will, if you don't care.”

 "I don't…," She yawned.

 " 'Kay.”

 "We should hurry, though, 'cause, I don't know about you, but I have to eat breakfast or I feel like I'm going to starve to death before lunch.”

 "Cereal?" I suddenly perked up. I seriously adore cereal, and have an I [heart]CEREALshirt somewhere to prove it. I especially love Count Chocula?yet another vampyre irony.

 "Yeah, there're always lots of those tiny boxes of cereal and bagels and fruit and hard-boiled eggs and stuff.”

 "I'll hurry." Suddenly I was starving. "Hey, Stevie Rae, does it matter what I wear?”

 "Nope," she yawned again. "Just pick one of the sweaters or jackets that show our third former symbol and you'll be fine’

 I did hurry, even though I was really nervous about not looking right and I wished I could take hours doing and redoing my hair and makeup. I used Stevie Rae's makeup mirror while she was in the shower, and decided that under-doing was probably a better choice than over-doing. It was weird how my Mark seemed to change the whole focus of my face. I've always had nice eyes?big and round and dark, with lots of lashes. So much that Kayla used to whine about how unfair it was that I had enough lashes for three girls and she only had short little blond ones. (Speaking of …I did miss Kayla, especially this morning as I was getting ready to go to a new school without her. Maybe I'd call her later. Or e-mail her. Or…I remembered the comment Heath had made about the party, and decided maybe not.) Anyway, the Mark somehow made my eyes look even bigger and darker. I lined them with a smoky black shadow that had little sparkly flecks of silver in it. Not heavily like those loser girls who think that plastering on black eyeliner makes them look cool. Yeah, right. They look like scary raccoons. I smudged the line, added mascara, brushed some bronzing power over my face, and put on lip gloss (to hide the fact that I'd been nervously picking at my lips).

 Then I stared at myself.

 Thankfully my hair was acting right, and even my 'weird widow's peak wasn't sticking all up crazily like it did sometimes. I still looked…umm…different, but the same. The effect my Mark had on my face hadn't faded. It made everything that was ethnic about my features stand out: the darkness of my eyes, my high Cherokee cheekbones, my proud, straight nose, and even the olive color of my skin that was like my grandma's. The sapphire Mark of the Goddess seemed to have flipped a switch and spotlighted those features; it had freed the Cherokee girl within me and allowed her to shine.

 "Your hair looks great," Stevie Rae said as she came into the room toweling dry her short hair. "I wish mine would act right when it's long. It doesn't. It just frizzes out and looks like a horse's tail.”

 "I like your short hair," I said, moving out of her way and grabbing my cute sparkly black ballet flats.

 "Yeah, well, it makes me a freak here. Everybody has long hair.”

 "I noticed, but I don't really get it.”

 "It's one of the things that happens while we're going through the Change. Vamps' hair grows abnormally fast, just like their fingernails.”

 I tried not to shudder as I remembered Aphrodite's fingernail slashing through jeans and skin.

 Thankfully, Stevie Rae was oblivious to my thoughts, and kept on talking.

 "You'll see. After a while you won't have to look at their symbols to know what year they are. Anyway, you'll learn all about that kind of stuff in Vamp Sociology class. Oh! That reminds me." She rifled through some papers on her desk until she found what she was looking for and handed it to me. "Here's your schedule. We have third hour and fifth hour together. And check out the list of electives you have for second hour. You can choose from any of them.”

 My name was at the top of the schedule, printed in bold letters, ZOEY REDBIRD, ENTERING THIRD FORMER, as well as the date, which was five (?!) days before the Tracker had Marked me.

 1st hour?Vampyre Sociology 101. Rm. 215. Prof. Neferet

 2nd hour?Drama 101. Performing Arts Center. Prof. Nolan

 or

 Sketching 101. Rm. 312. Prof. Doner

 or

 Intro to Music. Rm. 314. Prof. Vento

 3rd hour?Lit 101. Rm. 214. Prof. Penthesilea

 4th hour?Fencing. Gymnasium. Prof. D. Lankford

 LUNCH BREAK

 5th hour?Spanish 101. Rm. 216. Prof. Garmy

 6th hour?Intro to Equestrian Studies. Field House. Prof. Lenobia

 "No geometry?" I blurted, totally overwhelmed by the schedule, but trying to keep a positive attitude.

 "No, thankfully. Next semester we'll have to take economics, though. But that couldn't be as bad.”

 "Fencing? Intro to Equestrian Studies?”

 "I told you they like to keep us in shape. Fencing's okay, even though it's hard. I'm not very good at it, but you do get paired with upperclassmen a lot?kind of like peer instructors, and I'm just sayin', some of those boys are just plain hot! I'm not taking the horse class this semester?they put me in Tae Kwan Do. And I have to tell ya, I love it!”

 "Really?" I said doubtfully. Wonder what the horse class would be like?

 "Yep. Which elective are you going to pick?”

 I glanced back down the list. "Which one are you taking?”

 "Intro to Music. Professor Vento is cool, and I, uh…" Stevie Rae grinned and blushed. "I want to be a country music star. I mean, Kenny Chesney, Faith Hill, and Shania Twain are all vamps?and that's just three of them. Heck, Garth Brooks grew up right here in Oklahoma and you know he's the biggest vamp of them all. So I don't see why I can't be one, too.”

 "Makes perfect sense to me," I said. Why not?

 "You want to take music with me?”

 "That'd be fun if I could sing or play anything resembling an instrument. I can't.”

 "Oh, well, maybe not then.”

 "Actually, I was thinking about the drama class. I was in drama at SIHS, and I liked it okay. Do you know anything about Prof. Nolan?”

 "Yeah, she's from Texas and has a major accent, but she studied drama in New York and everyone likes her.”

 I almost laughed out loud when Stevie Rae mentioned Prof. Nolan's accent. The girl twanged so bad she sounded like an ad for a trailer park, but no way was I gonna hurt her feelings by mentioning it.

 "Well, then drama it is.”

 "Okay, grab your schedule and let's go. Hey," she said as we hurried out of the room and skipped down the stairs, "maybe you'll be the next Nicole Kidman!”

 Well, I guess being the next Nicole Kidman wouldn't be bad (not that I plan on marrying and then divorcing a manic short guy). Now that Stevie Rae mentioned it, I hadn't really thought much about my future career since the Tracker had thrown my life into complete chaos, but now that I was actually thinking about it I still really wanted to be a veterinarian.

 An obese long-haired black and white cat sprinted down the steps in front of us chasing a cat that looked like its clone. With all these cats you'd think that there would definitely be a need for vamp vets. (Hee hee…vamp vets…I could call my clinic Vamp Vets, and the ads would read: "We'll take your blood for free!")

 The kitchen and living room were crowded with girls eating and talking and hurrying around. I tried to return some of the hellos I was getting as Stevie Rae introduced me to what seemed like an impossibly confusing stream of girls and keep my concentration on finding a box of Count Chocula. Just when I was starting to worry, I found it, hidden behind several massive boxes of Frosted Flakes (not a bad second choice, but, well, they're not chocolate and they don't have any yummy little marshmallows). Stevie Rae poured a quick bowl of Lucky Charms, and we perched at the kitchen table, eating fast.

 "Hi, Zoey!”

 That voice. I knew who it was before I saw Stevie Rae duck her head and stare into her cereal bowl.

 "Hi, Aphrodite," I said, trying to sound neutral.

 "In case I don't see you later I wanted to be sure you know where to go tonight. The Dark Daughters' Full Moon Ritual will start at four A.M., right after the school's ritual. You'll miss dinner, but don't worry about that. We'll feed you. Oh, it's in the rec hall over by the east wall. I'll meet you in front of Nyx's Temple before the school ritual so we can go in together, and then I can show you the way to the hall afterward.”

 "Actually, I already promised Stevie Rae that I'd meet her and we'd go to the school ritual together.” I really hate pushy people. "Yeah, sorry 'bout that." I was pleased to hear Stevie Rae lift her head and say.

 "Hey, you know where the rec hall is, don't you?" I asked Stevie Rae in my most perkily clueless voice.

 "Yep, I do.”

 "Then you can just show me how to get there, right? And that means Aphrodite doesn't have to worry about me getting lost.”

 "Anything I can do to help," Stevie Rae chirped, sounding like her old self.

 "Problem solved," I said with a big smile at Aphrodite.

 "Okay. Fine. I'll see you at four A.M. Don't be late.” She twitched off.

 "If she shakes her butt any more when she walks she's gonna break something," I said.

 Stevie Rae snorted and almost spewed milk from her nose. Coughing, she said, "Don't do that while I'm eating!" Then she swallowed and smiled at me. "You didn't let her boss you around.”

 "Neither did you.” I slurped the last spoonful of cereal. "Ready?”

 "Ready. Okay, this'll be easy. Your first hour is right next to my first hour. All of the third former core classes are in the same hall Come on?I'll point you in the right direction and you'll be set.”

 We rinsed off our dishes and stuffed them in one of the five dishwashers, then hurried outside into the darkness of a beautiful fall evening. Jeesh, it was weird going to school at night, even if my body was telling me that everything was normal. We followed the flow of students through one of the thick wooden doors.

 "Third Former Hall is just over here," Stevie Rae said, guiding me around a corner and up a short flight of stairs.

 "Is that a bathroom?" I asked as we hurried past water fountains situated between two doors.

 "Yep," she said. "Here's my class, and there's yours right next door. See you after class!”

 "Okay, thanks," I called.

 At least the bathroom was close. If I had a case of raging nervous- stomach diarrhea I wouldn't have far to run.

 

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CHAPTER TWELVE

 

"Zoey! Over here!”

I almost cried in relief when I heard Damien's voice and saw his hand waving at an empty desk next to him.

"Hi." I sat down and smiled gratefully at him.

"Are you ready for your first day?”

No.

I nodded. "Yep." I wanted to say more, but just then a bell gave five quick rings and as the echo of it died Neferet swept into the room. She was wearing a long black skirt slit up the side to show great stiletto boots, and a deep purple silk sweater. Over her left breast, embroidered in silver, was the image of a goddess with her arms upraised, hands cupping a crescent moon. Her black hair was pulled back into a thick braid. The series of delicate wavelike tattoos that framed her face made her look like an ancient warrior priestess. She smiled at us and I could see that the entire class was as caught as I was by her powerful presence.

"Good evening! I've been looking forward to beginning this unit. Delving into the rich sociology of the Amazons is one of my favorites.” Then she gestured to me. "It is excellent timing that Zoey Redbird has joined us today. I am Zoey's mentor, so I'll expect my students to welcome her. Damien, would you please get Zoey a textbook? Her cabinet is next to yours. While you explain our locker system to her I want the rest of you to journal about what preconceived impressions you have of the ancient vampyre warriors who are known as the Amazons.”

The typical paper rustling and student whispering commenced while Damien led me to the back of the classroom where there was a wall of cabinets. He opened one that had the number "12" in silver on it. The cabinet contained neat, wide shelves filled with textbooks and supplies.

"At the House of Night there aren't lockers, like at regular schools. Here, first hour is our homeroom and we each have a cabinet of our own. The room will always be open, so you come back here to get books and whatever, just like you would go to a locker in the hall. Here's the sociology book.”

He handed me a thick leather book with the silhouette of a goddess stamped on the front of it along with the title, Vampyre Sociology 101. I grabbed a notebook and a couple of pens. When I shut the cabinet door I hesitated.

"Isn't there a lock or something?”

"No," Damien lowered his voice. "They don't need locks here. If someone steals something, the vamps know it. I don't even want to think about what would happen to someone stupid enough to do that.”

We sat back down and I started to write about the only thing I knew about the Amazons?that they were warrior women who didn't have much use for men?but my mind wasn't on my work. Instead, I was wondering why Damien, Stevie Rae, and even Erin and Shaunee all freak out about getting in trouble. I mean, I'm a good kid?okay, not perfect, but still. I've only had detention once so far, and that wasn't my fault. Really. Some turd boy told me to suck his cock. What was I supposed to do? Cry? Giggle? Pout? Umm . no… So instead I bitch-slapped him (although I prefer just using the word smacked), and I got detention for it.

Anyway, detention wasn't actually that bad. I got all my homework done and started the new Gossip Girls book. Clearly detention at the House of Night entailed more than going to a teacher's classroom for forty-five minutes of "quiet time" after school. I'd have to remember to ask Stevie Rae…

"First, what pieces of the Amazon tradition do we still practice at the House of Night?" Neferet asked, drawing my attention back to class.

Damien raised his hand. "The bow of respect, with our fist over our heart, comes from the Amazons, and so does the way we shake hands?by gripping forearms.”

"Correct, Damien.”

Huh. That explained the funny handshake.

"So, what preconceived notions do you have about the Amazon warriors?" she asked the class.

A blonde who sat on the other side of the room said, "The Amazons were heavily matriarchal, as are all vampyre societies." Jeesh, she sounded smart.

"That's true, Elizabeth, but when people discuss the Amazons, legend tends to add an additional layer to history. What do I mean by that?”

"Well, people?especially humans?think that the Amazons were man-haters," said Damien.

"Exactly. What we know is that just because a society is matriarchal, as ours is, it does not automatically mean that it is anti- male. Even Nyx has a consort, the god Erebus, to whom she is devoted. The Amazons were unique, though, in that they were a society of vampyre women who chose to be their own warriors and protectors. As most of you already know, our society today is still matriarchal, but we respect and appreciate the Sons of Night, and consider them our protectors and consorts. Now, open your text to Chapter Three and let's look at the greatest of the Amazon warriors, Penthesilea, but be careful to keep legend and history separate in your mind.”

And from there Neferet launched into one of the coolest lectures I'd ever heard. I had no idea an hour had passed; the ringing bell was a total surprise. I'd just shoved my sociology book back into my cubbie (okay, I know that Damien and Neferet called them cabinets, but come on?they totally remind me of the cubbies we used to have in kindergarten) when Neferet called my name. I grabbed a notebook and a pen and hurried over to her desk.

"How are you?" she asked, smiling warmly.

"I'm okay. I'm good.” I said quickly.

She lifted an eyebrow at me.

"Well, I suppose I'm nervous and confused.”

"Of course you are. It's a lot to take in, and changing schools is always difficult?let alone changing schools and lives." She glanced over my shoulder. "Damien, would you walk Zoey to Drama class?”

"Sure," Damien said.

"Zoey, I'll see you tonight at Ritual. Oh, and has Aphrodite issued a formal invitation for you to join the Dark Daughters in their private ceremony afterward?”

"Yes.”

"I wanted to double-check with you and make sure that you feel fine about attending. I would, of course, understand your reticence, but I encourage you to go; I want you to take advantage of every opportunity here, and the Dark Daughters is an exclusive organization. It is a compliment that they already seem interested in you as a possible pledge.”

"I'm fine with going." I forced my voice and my smile to be nonchalant. Obviously she expected me to go, and the last thing I wanted was for Neferet to be disappointed in me. Plus, no way in hell was I going to do anything that might make Aphrodite think I was scared of her.

"Well done.” Neferet said with enthusiasm. She squeezed my arm and I automatically smiled at her. "If you need me my office is in the same wing as the infirmary." She glanced at my forehead. "I see the stitches have almost completely dissolved. That's excellent. Does your head still hurt?”

My hand automatically found its way up to my temple. I could only feel the prickle of a stitch or two today when there had been at least ten yesterday. Very, very weird. And, even weirder, I hadn't thought about the cut once this morning.

I also realized I hadn't thought about my mom or Heath or even Grandma Redbird.…

"No," I said, suddenly realizing Neferet and Damien were waiting for me to answer. "No, my head doesn't hurt at all.”

"Good! Well, you two better go before you're late. I know you'll love Drama. I think Professor Nolan has just begun working on monologues.”

I was halfway down the hall, hurrying to keep up with Damien when it hit me.

"How did she know I was going to take Drama? I just decided it this morning.”

"Adult vamps know way too much sometimes," Damien whispered. "Scratch that. Adult vamps know way too much all the time, especially when that vamp is a High Priestess.”

In light of what I hadn't been telling Neferet I didn't want to think about that too long.

"Hey, y'all!" Stevie Rae rushed up. "How was Vamp Soc? Did y'all start the Amazons?”

"It was cool." I was glad to change the subject from the too mysterious vampyres. "I had no idea they really cut off their right breasts to keep them out of the way.”

"They wouldn't have had to if they'd been as flat as me," said Stevie Rae, looking down at her own chest.

"Or me," sighed Damien dramatically.

I was still giggling when they pointed me to the Drama room.

Professor Nolan didn't ooze power like Neferet. Instead she oozed energy. She had an athletic, but somehow pear-shaped body. Her brunet hair was long and straight. And Stevie Rae had been right?she had a serious Texas twang.

"Zoey, welcome! Have a seat anywhere.”

I said hi and sat beside the Elizabeth girl I recognized from Vamp Soc. She looked friendly enough and I already knew she was smart. (It never hurts to sit next to a smart kid.)

"We're just about to begin choosing the monologues that each of you will present to the class sometime next week. But first, I thought you'd like to have a demonstration of how a monologue should be performed, so I asked one of our talented upperclassmen to stop by and recite the famous monologue from Othello, written by the ancient vampyre playwright, Shakespeare.” Professor Nolan paused and glanced out of the window in the door. "Here he is now.”

The door opened and oh my dear sweet lord I do believe my heart totally stopped beating. I'm positive my mouth flopped open like a moron. He was the most gorgeous young lad I had ever seen. He was tall and had dark hair that did that adorably perfect Superman curl thing. His eyes were an amazing sapphire blue and…

Oh. Hell! Hell! Hell! It was the guy from the hall.

"Come on in, Erik. As usual, your entrance timing is perfect. We are ready for your monologue." She turned back to the class. "Most of you already know fifth former, Erik Night, and are aware that he won last year's worldwide House of Night monologue competition, the finals of which were held in London. He is also already creating a buzz in Hollywood as well as on Broadway for his performance last semester as Tony in our production of West Side Story. The class is all yours, Erik." Prof Nolan beamed.

As if my body were suddenly on automatic, I clapped with the rest of the class. Smiling and confident, Erik stepped up on the little stage that was situated front and center in the large, airy classroom.

"Hi. How are you guys doing?”

He spoke directly to me. I mean, directly to me. I could feel my face getting really hot.

"Monologues seem intimidating, but the key is to get your lines down, and then to imagine that you're actually acting with a full cast of actors. Trick yourself into thinking you're not up here all alone, like this…”

And he began the monologue from Othello. I don't know much about the play, except that it's one of Shakespeare's tragedies, but Erik's performance was amazing. He was a tall guy, probably at least six feet, but as he began to speak he seemed to get bigger and older and more powerful. His voice deepened and he took on an accent I couldn't place. His incredible eyes darkened and narrowed into slits, and when he said Desdemona's name it was like he was praying. It was obvious he loved her, even before he spoke the concluding lines:

She loved me for the dangers I had passed, And I loved her that she did pity them.

As he said the last two lines his eyes locked with mine and, just like in the hall the day before, it seemed as if there was no one else in the room?no one else in the world. I felt a shiver deep inside of something very much like what I'd felt the two times I'd smelled blood since I'd been Marked, only no blood had been spilled in the room. There was only Erik. And then he smiled, touched his lips to his fingers as though he was sending me a kiss, and bowed. The whole class clapped like crazy, including me. Really. I couldn't help it.

"Now, that's how it's done," Professor Nolan said. "So, there are copies of monologues in the red bookshelves at the rear of the class. Each of you take several books and begin looking through them. What you're trying to find is a scene that means something to you?that touches some part of your soul. I'll be circulating and can answer any questions you have about individual monologues. Once you've chosen your pieces, I'll go through the steps you'll need to take as you prepare your own presentation.” With an energetic smile and nod, she motioned for us to start looking through the zillions of monologue books.

I still felt flushed and short of breath, but I got up with the rest of the class, even though I couldn't help peeking at Erik over my shoulder. He was (unfortunately) leaving the room, but not before he turned and caught me gawking at him. I blushed (again). He met my eyes and smiled directly at me (again). And then he was gone.

"He's so f-ing hot," someone whispered in my ear. I turned and, shockingly, Ms. Perfect Student Elizabeth was staring after Erik and fanning herself.

"Doesn't he have a girlfriend?" I blurted like an idiot.

"Only in my dreams," Elizabeth said. "Actually, word has it that he and Aphrodite used to be hooked up, but I've been here for a few months and it's been over between them at least that long. Here ya go," she tossed a couple of monologue books at me. "I'm Elizabeth, no last name.”

My face was a question mark.

She sighed. "My last name was Titsworth. Can you imagine? When I got here a few weeks ago and my mentor explained that I could change my name to whatever I wanted it to be, I knew I was going to get rid of the Titsworth part, but then the whole issue of picking a new last name just stressed me too much. So I decided I'd keep my first name and not hassle with a last name." Elizabeth No Last Name shrugged.

"Well, hi," I said. There were really some odd kids here.

"Hey," she said as we went back to our desks. "Erik was looking at you.”

"He was looking at everyone," I said, even though I could feel my stupid face getting all hot and red again.

"Yeah, but he was really looking at you." She grinned and added, "Oh, I think your colored-in Mark is cool.”

"Thanks." It probably looked weird as hell on my beet-red face.

"Any questions about choosing a monologue, Zoey?" Professor Nolan asked, making me jump.

"No, Professor Nolan. I've done them before in drama at SIHS.”

"Very good. Let me know if I can clarify setting or character for you." She patted me on the arm and kept moving around the room. I opened up the first book and started to flip through the pages, trying (unsuccessfully) to forget about Erik and concentrate on monologues.

He had been looking at me. But why? He must have known that it had been me in the hall. So what kind of interest in me was he showing? And did I want a guy to like me who had been getting a blow job from the hateful Aphrodite? I probably shouldn't. I mean, I definitely wasn't going to take up where she left off. Or maybe he was just curious about my freakishly colored-in Mark, like practically everybody else was.

But it hadn't seemed like it…it had seemed like he'd been looking at me. And I'd liked it.

I glanced down at the book I'd been ignoring. The page was open to the subchapter: Dramatic Monologues for Women. The first monologue on the page was from Always Ridiculous by Jose Echegaray.

Well, hell. It was probably a sign.

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CHAPTER THIRTEEN

 

I actually found my way to Lit class by myself. Okay, so it was just on the other side of Neferet's room, but still I felt a little more confident when I didn't have to ask to be led around like the helpless idiot new kid.

"Zoey! We saved a desk for ya!" Stevie Rae yelled the instant I got to class. She was sitting beside Damien, and practically hopping up and down with excitement. She looked like a happy puppy again, which made me smile. I was really glad to see her. "So, so, so! Tell me everything! How was Drama? Did you like it? Do you like Professor Nolan? Isn't her tattoo cool? It reminds me of a mask?kinda.”

Damien grabbed Stevie Rae's arm. "Breathe and let the girl answer.”

"Sorry," she said sheepishly.

"I guess Nolan's tattoos are cool," I said.

"You guess?”

"Well, I was distracted.”

"What?" she said. Then her eyes narrowed. "Did someone embarrass you about your Mark? I swear people are just plain rude.”

"No, that wasn't it. Actually that Elizabeth No Last Name girl said she thought it was cool. I was distracted because, well…" I was feeling my face get hot again. I'd decided that I was going to ask them about Erik, but now that I'd started talking I wondered whether I should say anything. Should I tell them about the hall?

Damien perked up. "I feel a juicy tidbit coming on. Come on, Zoey. You were distracted becauuuuse?" He drew the word out into a question.

"Okay, okay. I can sum it up in two words: Erik Night.”

Stevie Rae's mouth dropped open and Damien did a little pretend swoon, which he had to straighten up from right away because at that moment the bell rang and Professor Penthesilea swept into the room.

"Later!" Stevie Rae whispered.

"Absolutely!" Damien mouthed.

I smiled innocently. If nothing else I was sure that I would love the fact that mentioning Erik would drive them crazy all hour.

Lit class was an experience. First of all, the classroom itself was totally different than any I'd ever seen. There were bizarrely interesting posters and paintings and what looked like original art work filling every inch of wall space. And hanging from the ceiling were wind chimes and crystals?lots of them. Professor Penthesilea (whose name I now recognized from Vamp Soc class as belonging to the most revered of all the Amazons, and who everyone called Prof P) was like something out of the movies (well, the ones on the Sci-Fi Channel). She had seriously long reddish-blond hair, big hazel eyes, and a curvy body that probably made all the guys drool (not that it's very hard to make teenage boys drool). Her tattoos were thin, pretty Celtic knots that traced their way down her face and around her cheekbones, making them look high and dramatic. She was wearing expensive-looking black slacks and a moss-colored silk cardigan sweater set that had the same goddess figure embroidered over her breast as Neferet had been wearing. And, now that I thought about it (and not Erik), I realized Prof Nolan's blouse had the goddess embroidered on the breast pocket of her blouse, too. Hmmm…

"I was born in April of year 1902," Professor Penthesilea said, instantly grabbing our attention. I mean, please, she barely looked thirty. "So I was ten years old in April of 1912, and I remember the tragedy very well. About what am I speaking? Do any of you have any idea?”

Okay, I knew exactly what she was talking about, but it wasn't because I'm a hopeless history nerd. It's because when I was younger I thought I was in love with Leonardo DiCaprio, and my mom got me the entire DVD collection of his movies for my twelfth birthday. This particular movie I watched so many times I still have most of it memorized (and I can not tell you how many times I snot cried when he slipped off that board and floated away like an adorable Popsicle).

I looked around. No one else seemed to have a clue, so I sighed and raised my hand.

Prof P smiled and called on me, "Yes, Miss Redbird.”

"The Titanic sank in April of 1912. It was struck by the iceberg late on Sunday night, the fourteenth, and sank just a few hours later on the fifteenth.”

I heard Damien suck air beside me, and Stevie Rae's little huh. Jeesh, had I really been acting so stupid that they were shocked to hear me answer a question correctly?

"I do love it when a new fledgling knows something?" Professor Penthesilea said. "Absolutely correct, Miss Redbird. I was living in Chicago at the time of the tragedy, and I will never forget the newsies shouting the tragic headlines from the street corners. It was a horrid event, especially because the loss of lives was so preventable. It also signaled the end of one age and the beginning of another, as well as bringing about many much-needed changes in shipping laws. We are going to study all of this, plus the deliciously melodramatic events of the night, in our next piece of literature, Walter Lord's meticulously researched book, A Night to Remember. Although Lord was not a vampyre?and it's really a shame he wasn't," she added under her breath, "I still find his take on the night compelling and his writing style and tone interesting and very readable. Okay, let's get started! The last person in each row, get books for the people in your row from the long cabinet in the back of the room.”

Well, cool! This was definitely more interesting than reading Great Expectations (Pip, Estella, who cares?!). I settled in with A Night to Remember and my notebook opened to take, well, notes. Prof P started to read Chapter One aloud to us, and she was actually a good reader. Three class hours almost over and I'd liked all of them. Was it possible that this vamp school would actually be more than a boring place I went to every day because I had to and, besides that, all my friends were there? Not that all of the classes at SIHS had been boring, but we didn't get to study the Amazons and the Titanic (from a teacher who'd been alive when it sank!).

I glanced around at the other kids while Prof P read. There were about fifteen of us, which seemed about the average in my other classes, too. All of them had their books open and were paying attention.

Then my eye was caught by something red and bushy on the other side of the room near the rear of the class. I'd spoken too soon?not all of the kids were paying attention. This one had his head down on his arms and he was sound asleep, which I knew because his chubby, way-too-white-and-freckled face was turned in my direction. His mouth was open, and I think he might have been drooling a little. I wondered what Prof P would do to the kid. She didn't seem like the kind of teacher who would be cool with some slug sleeping in the back of the room, but she just kept on with her reading, interspersed with interesting firsthand facts about the early twentieth century, which I really liked (I loved hearing about the flappers?I would definitely have been a flapper if I'd lived in the 192os). It wasn't until the bell was about to ring and Prof P had assigned the next chapter as homework, and then told us we could talk quietly amongst ourselves, that she acted as if she noticed the sleeping kid at all. He'd started to stir, finally lifting up his head to display the bright red sleeping circle that was on the side of his forehead and looked bizarrely out of place beside his Mark.

"Elliott, I need to see you," Prof P said from behind her desk. The kid took his time getting up and then dragged his feet, scuffing his untied shoes, over to her desk.

"Yeah?”

"Elliott, you are, of course, failing Lit. But what's more important, you're failing life. Vampyre males are strong, honorable, and unique. They have been our warriors and protectors for countless generations. How do you expect to make the Change into a being who is more warrior than man if you do not practice the discipline it takes even to stay awake in class?”

He shrugged his soft-looking shoulders.

Her expression hardened. "I shall give you one opportunity to make up the zero for class participation you received today by writing a short paper on any issue that was important in America in the early twentieth century. The paper is due tomorrow.”

Without saying anything, he started to turn away.

"Elliott," Prof P's voice had dropped and, thick with irritation, it made her sound way scarier than she'd seemed while she had been reading and lecturing. I could feel the power radiating from her, and it made me wonder why she would ever need a male anything to protect her. The kid stopped and turned back to face her.

"I did not excuse you. What is your decision about doing the work to make up today's zero?”

The kid just stood there without saying anything.

"That question calls for an answer, Elliott. Now!" The air around her crackled with the command, making the skin on my arms tingle.

Seemingly unaffected, he shrugged again. "I probably won't do it.”

"That says something about your character, Elliott, and it's not something good. You're not only letting yourself down, but you're letting down your mentor, too.”

He shrugged again and absently picked his nose. "The Dragon already knows how I am.”

The bell rang and Prof P, with a disgusted look on her face, motioned for Elliott to leave the room. Damien, Stevie Rae, and I had just stood up and were starting to walk out the door when Elliott slouched by us, moving more quickly than I believed possible for someone so sloth-like. He bumped into Damien, who was ahead of us. Damien made an oops sound and stumbled a little.

"Fucking faggot, get outta my way," the loser kid snarled, pushing Damien with his shoulder so he could get through the door before him.

"I should smack the crap out of that jerk!" Stevie Rae said, hurrying up to Damien, who was waiting for us.

He shook his head. "Don't worry about it. That Elliott kid has major problems.”

"Yeah, like having poopie for brains," I said, staring down the hall at the slug's back. His hair was certainly unattractive.

"Poopiefor brains?" Damien laughed and linked one arm though mine and one through Stevie Rae's, leading us down the hall Wizard of Oz fashion. "That's what I like about our Zoey," he said. "She has such a way with vulgar language.”

"Poopie's not vulgar," I said defensively.

"I think that's his point, honey," Stevie Rae laughed.

"Oh." I laughed, too, and I really, really liked how it sounded when he'd said "our" Zoey . like I belonged…like I might be home.

 

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CHAPTER FOURTEEN

 

Fencing was totally cool, which was a surprise. Class was held in a huge room off the gym that looked like a dance studio, complete with a floor-to-ceiling wall of mirrors. Hanging from the ceiling along one side were weird life-sized manikins that reminded me of three-dimensional shooting targets. Everyone called Professor Lankford Dragon Lankford, or just Dragon. It didn't take me long to figure out why. His tattoo represented two dragons whose bodies, serpent-like, wrapped down over his jaw line. Their heads were over his brows and their mouths were open, breathing fire at the crescent moon. It was amazing and hard not to stare at. Plus, Dragon was the first male adult vampyre I'd seen up close. At first he confused me. I guess if you'd asked me what I expected from a male vampyre I would have said his opposite. Honestly, I had the movie-star vampyre stereotype in mind? tall, dangerous, handsome. You know, like Vin Diesel. Anyway, Dragon is short, has long blondish hair that he pulls back in a low ponytail, and (except for the fierce looking dragon tattoo) has a cute face with a warm smile It was only when he began leading the class through its warm- up exercises that I began to realize his power. From the instant he held the sword (which I later found out was called an epee) in the traditional salute he seemed to become someone else?someone who moved with unbelievable quickness and grace. He feinted and lunged and effortlessly made the rest of the class?even the kids who were pretty good, like Damien?look like awkward puppets. When he finished leading the warm-ups, the Dragon paired everyone off and had them work on what he called "the standards." I was relieved when he motioned for Damien to be my partner.

"Zoey, it's good to have you join the House of Night," Dragon said, shaking my hand in the traditional Amazon vampyre greeting. "Damien can explain the different parts of the fencing uniform to you, and I'll get you a handout to study over the next few days. I am assuming you've had no previous instruction in the sport?”

"No, I haven't," I said, and then added nervously, "but I'd like to learn. I mean, the whole idea of using a sword is just cool.”

Dragon smiled. "Foil," he corrected, "you'll be learning how to use a foil. It's the lightest weight of the three types of weapons we have here, and an excellent choice for women. Did you know that fencing is one of the very few sports where women and men can compete on entirely equal terms?”

"No," I said, instantly intrigued. How cool would it be to kick a guy's butt at a sport?!

"This is because the intelligent and focused fencer can successfully compensate for any perceived deficiencies he or she may have, and may even be able to turn those deficiencies?such as strength or reach?into assets. In other words, you may not be as strong or as fast as your opponent, but you could be smarter or able to remain focused better, which will tip the scales in your favor. Right, Damien?”

Damien grinned. "Right.”

"Damien is one of the most focused fencers I've had the privilege to coach in decades, which makes him a dangerous opponent.”

I snuck a sideways glance at Damien, who flushed with pride and pleasure.

"For the next week or so I'll have Damien drill you in the opening maneuvers. Always remember, fencing requires a mastery of skills that are sequential and hierarchical in nature. If one of the skills is not acquired, subsequent skills will be very difficult to master and the fencer will be at a permanent and serious disadvantage.”

"Okay, I'll remember,” I said. Dragon smiled warmly again before he moved off to work his way among each practicing pair.

"What he means is don't get discouraged or bored if I make you do the same exercise over and over.”

"So what you're really saying is that you're going to be annoying, but there's a purpose behind it?”

"Yep. And part of that purpose will help lift that cute little butt of yours,” he said sassily, tapping me with the side of his foil.

I slapped at him and rolled my eyes, but after twenty minutes of lunging and settling back into the beginning stance and lunging? over and over again?I knew he was right. My butt would be killing me tomorrow.

We took quick showers after class (thankfully, there were separate curtain-draped stalls for each of us in the girls' locker room and we didn't have to barbarically and tragically shower in a huge open area like we were prison inmates or whatever) and then I hurried with the rest of the crowd to the lunch room?better known as the dining hall. And I do mean hurry. I was starving.

Lunch was a huge build-your-own salad buffet, which included everything from tuna salad (eesh) to those weird mini-corns that are so confusing, and don't even taste like corn. (What exactly are they? Baby corn? Midget corn? Mutant corn?) I piled my plate high and got a big hunk of what looked and smelled like freshly baked bread, and slid into the booth beside Stevie Rae, with Damien following close behind me. Erin and Shaunee were already arguing over something to do with whose essay for their Lit class was better, even though they'd both gotten 96 on their papers.

"So, Zoey, give. What about Erik Night?" Stevie Rae asked the instant I'd forked a big bite of salad into my mouth. Stevie Rae's words immediately shut up the Twins and focused the entire table's attention on me.

I'd thought about what I was going to say about Erik, and decided that I wasn't ready to tell anyone about the unfortunate blow-job scene. So I just said, "He kept looking at me." When they frowned at me I realized that through my salad mouth what I'd really said was "He keffft looookn at mmm." I swallowed and tried again. "He kept looking at me. In Drama class. It was just, I dunno, confusing.”

"Define 'looking at me’," Damien said.

"Well, it happened the second he came into class, but it was especially noticeable when he was giving us an example of a monologue. He did this thing from Othello, and when he said the line about love and such, he stared straight at me. I would have thought it was just an accident or something, but he looked at me before he started the monologue, and then again as he was leaving the room." I sighed and squirmed a little, uncomfortable with their way too piercing looks. "Never mind. It was probably just part of his act.”

"Erik Night is the hottest damn thing at this entire school," Shaunee said.

"Forget that?he's the hottest damn thing on this planet," Erin said.

"He's not hotter than Kenny Chesney," Stevie Rae said quickly.

"Okay, just please with your country obsession!" Shaunee frowned at Stevie Rae before turning her attention back to me. "Do not let this opportunity pass you by.”

"Yeah," Erin echoed. "Do not.”

"Pass me by? What am I supposed to do? He didn't even say anything to me.”

"Uh, Zoey honey, did you smile back at the boy?" Damien asked.

I blinked. Had I smiled back at him? Ah, crap. I bet I hadn't. I bet I just sat there and stared like a moron and maybe even drooled. Okay, well, I might not have drooled, but still. "I dunno," I said instead of the sad truth, which didn't fool Damien at all.

He snorted. "Next time smile at him.”

"And maybe say hi," Stevie Rae said.

"I thought Erik was a just pretty face," Shaunee said. "And body," Erin added.

"Until he dumped Aphrodite," Shaunee continued. "When he did that I realized the boy might have something going on upstairs."

"We can already tell he has it going on downstairs!" Erin said, waggling her eyebrows.

"Uh-huh!" Shaunee said, licking her lips like she was contemplating eating a big piece of chocolate.

"You two are gross," Damien said.

"We only meant that he has the cutest butt in town, Miss Priss," Shaunee said.

"As if you haven't noticed," Erin said.

"If you started talking to Erik it would really piss off Aphrodite." Stevie Rae said.

Everyone turned and stared at Stevie Rae as if she'd just parted the Red Sea or something.

"It's true," Damien said.

"Very true," Shaunee said while Erin nodded.

"So the rumor is he used to go out with Aphrodite," I said.

"Yep," Erin said.

"The rumor is grotesque but true," Shaunee said. "Which makes it even better that now he likes you!”

"Guys, he was probably just staring at my weird Mark,” I blurted.

"Maybe not. You're really cute, Zoey," Stevie Rae said with a sweet smile.

"Or maybe your Mark made him look, and then he thought you were cute so he kept looking,” Damien said.

"Either way, his looking will definitely piss Aphrodite off," Shaunee said.

"Which is a good thing,” Erin said.

Stevie Rae waved away their comments. "Just forget about Aphrodite and your Mark and all that other stuff. Next time he smiles at you, say hi. That's all.”

"Easy,” Shaunee said.

"Peasy," Erin said.

"Okay,” I mumbled and went back to my salad, wishing desperately that the whole Erik Night issue was as easy-peasy as they thought it was.

One thing about lunch at the House of Night was the same as lunch at SIHS or any other school I'd ever eaten at?it was over too soon. And then Spanish class was a blur. Profesora Garmy was like a little Hispanic whirlwind. I liked her right away (her tattoos looked oddly like feathers, so she reminded me of a little Spanish bird), but she ran the class speaking entirely in Spanish. Entirely. I should probably mention here that I haven't had Spanish since eighth grade, and I freely admit to not paying much attention to it then. So I was pretty lost, but I wrote down the homework and promised myself that I'd study the vocab words. I hate being lost.

Intro to Equestrian Studies was held in the Field House. It was a long, low brick building over by the south wall, attached to a huge indoor riding arena. The whole place had that sawdusty, horsey smell that mixed with leather to form something that was pleasant, even though you know that part of the "pleasant" scent was poopie?horse poopie.

I stood nervously with a small group of kids just inside the corral where a tall, stern-faced upperclassman had directed us to wait. There were only about ten of us, and we were all third formers. Oh, (great) that annoying redheaded Elliott kid was slouching against the wall kicking at the sawdust floor. He raised enough dust to make the girl standing closest to him sneeze. She threw him a dirty look and moved a few steps away. God, did he irritate everyone? And why couldn't he use some product (or perhaps a comb) on that nappy hair?

The sound of hooves drew my attention from Elliott and I looked up in time to see a magnificent black mare pounding into the corral at full gallop. She slid to a stop a couple feet in front of us. While we all gawked like fools, the mare's rider dismounted gracefully. She had thick hair that reached to her waist and was so blond it was almost white, and eyes that were a weird shade of slate gray. Her body was tiny, and the way she stood reminded me of those girls who obsessively take dance classes so that even when they're not in ballet they stand like they have something stuck way up their butts. Her tattoo was an intricate series of knots entwined around her face?within the sapphire design I was sure I could see plunging horses.

"Good evening. I am Lenobia, and this," she pointed at the mare and gave our group a contemptuous look before finishing the sentence, "is a horse." Her voice rang against the walls. The black mare blew through her nose as if to punctuate her words. "And you are my new group of third formers. Each of you has been chosen for my class because we believe you might possibly have an aptitude for riding. The truth is that less than half of you will last the semester, and less than half of those who last will actually develop into decent equestrians. Are there any questions?" She didn't pause long enough for anyone to ask anything. "Good. Then follow me and you shall begin." She turned and marched back into the stable. We followed.

I wanted to ask who the "we" were who thought I might have an aptitude for riding, but I was scared to say anything and just scrambled after her like everyone else. She came to a halt in front of a row of empty stalls Outside of them were pitchforks and wheelbarrows. Lenobia turned to face us.

"Horses are not big dogs. Nor are they a little girl's romanticized dream image of a perfect best friend who will always understand you.”

Two girls standing beside me fidgeted guiltily and Lenobia skewered them with her gray eyes.

"Horses are work. Horses take dedication, intelligence, and time. We'll begin with the work part. In the tack room down this hall you'll find mucking boots. Choose a pair quickly, while we all get gloves. Then each of you take your own stall and get busy.”

"Professor Lenobia?" said a chubby girl with a cute face, who raised her hand nervously.

"Lenobia will do. The name I chose in honor of the ancient vampyre queen needs no other title.”

I didn't have a clue who Lenobia was, and made a mental note to look it up.

"Go on. You have a question, Amanda?”

"Yeah, uh, yes.”

Lenobia raised one brow at the girl.

Amanda swallowed noisily. "Get busy doing what, Profes?, I mean, Lenobia, ma'am?”

"Cleaning out stalls, of course. The manure goes in the wheelbarrows. When your barrow is full you can dump it in the compost area on the wall side of the stables. There is fresh sawdust in the storage room beside the tack room. You have fifty minutes. I'll be back in forty-five to inspect your stalls!’

We all blinked at her.

"You may commence. Now.”

We commenced.

Okay. Really. I know it's going to sound weird, but I didn't mind cleaning out my stall. I mean, horse poopie just isn't that gross. Especially because it was obvious that these stalls were cleaned out like every other instant of the day. I grabbed the mucking boots (which were big rubber galoshes?totally ugly, but they did cover my jeans all the way up to my knees) and a pair of gloves and got to work. There was music playing through excellent loudspeakers? something that I was pretty sure was Enya's latest CD (my mom used to listen to Enya before she married John, but then he decided that it might be witch music so she quit, which is why I'll always like Enya). So I listened to the haunting Gaelic lyrics and pitch- forked up poopie. It didn't seem that hardly any time had passed when I was dumping the wheelbarrow and then filling it with clean sawdust. I was just smoothing it around the stall when I got that prickly feeling that someone was watching me.

"Good job, Zoey.”

I jumped and whirled around to see Lenobia standing just outside my stall. In one hand she was holding a big, soft curry brush. In the other she was holding the lead rope of a doe-eyed roan mare.

"You've done this before," Lenobia said.

"My grandma used to have a really sweet gray gelding I named Bunny," I said before I realized how stupid I sounded. Cheeks hot, I hurried on, "Well, I was ten, and his color reminded me of Bugs Bunny, so I started calling him that and it stuck.”

Lenobia's lips tilted up in the barest hint of a smile. "It was Bunny's stall you cleaned?”

"Yeah. I liked to ride him, and Grandma said that no one should ride a horse unless they clean up after one." I shrugged. "So I cleaned up after him.”

"Your grandmother is a wise woman.”

I nodded.

"And did you mind cleaning up after Bunny?”

"No, not really.”

"Good. Meet Persephone," Lenobia nodded her head at the mare beside her. "You've just cleaned her stall.”

The mare came into the stall and walked straight up to me, sticking her muzzle in my face and blowing gently, which tickled and made me giggle. I rubbed her nose and automatically kissed the warm velvet of her muzzle.

"Hi there, Persephone, you pretty girl.”

Lenobia nodded in approval as the mare and I got to know each other.

"There are only about five minutes left before the bell rings for school to end, so it is not necessary that you stay as part of today's class, but if you'd like, I believe you have earned the privilege of brushing Persephone.”

Surprised, I looked up from patting the horse's neck. "No problem, I'll stay," I heard myself saying.

"Excellent. You can return the brush to the tack room when you've finished. I'll see you tomorrow, Zoey." Lenobia handed me the brush, patted the mare, and left us alone in the stall.

Persephone stuck her head in the metal rack that held fresh hay, and got to work chewing, while I got to work brushing. I'd forgotten how relaxing it was to groom a horse. Bunny had died of a sudden and very scary heart attack two years ago, and Grandma had been too upset to get another horse. She'd said that "the rabbit" (which is what she used to call him) couldn't be replaced. So it had been two years since I'd been around a horse, but it came back to me instantly?all of it. The smells, the warm, soothing sound of a horse eating, and the gentle shoosh the curry brush made as it slid over the mare's slick coat.

At the edge of my attention I vaguely heard Lenobia's voice, sharp and angry, as she totally chewed out a student I guessed was the annoying redheaded kid. I peeked over Persephone's shoulder and took a quick look down the stall line. Sure enough, the redheaded kid was slouched in front of his stall. Lenobia stood beside him, hands on her hips. Even from the side view I could see she was mad as hell. Was it that kid's mission to piss off every teacher here? And his mentor was Dragon? Okay, the guy looked nice, until he picked up a sword?uh, I mean foil ?then he shifted from nice guy to deadly-dangerous-vampyre-warrior-guy.

"That redheaded slug kid must have a death wish," I told Persephone as I returned to her grooming. The mare twitched an ear back at me and blew through her nose. "Yep, I knew you'd agree. Wanta hear my theory about how my generation could single-handedly wipe out slugs and loser kids from America?" She seemed receptive, so I launched into my Don't Procreate with Losers speech.…

"Zoey! There you are!”

"Ohmygod! Stevie Rae! You scared the poo out of me!" I patted and reassured Persephone, who had shied when I'd squealed. "What in the world are ya doin'?”

I waggled the curry brush in her direction. "What does it look like I'm doing, Stevie Rae, getting a pedicure?”

"Stop messing around. The Full Moon Ritual is gonna start in like two minutes?”

"Ah, hell!" I gave Persephone one more pat and hurried out of the stall to the tack room.

"You forgot all about it, didn't you?" Stevie Rae said, holding my hand to help me balance while I kicked my feet out of the rubber boots and put my cute little ballet slippers back on.

"No," I lied.

Then I realized that I'd also forgotten all about the Dark Daughters' ritual afterward.

"Ah, hell!”

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CHAPTER FIFTEEN

 

About halfway to Nyx's Temple I realized that Stevie Rae was being unusually quiet. I glanced sideways at her. Was she also looking pale? I got a creepy walk-over-your-grave feeling.

"Stevie Rae, is something wrong?”

"Yeah, well, it's sad and kinda scary.”

"What is? The Full Moon Ritual?" My stomach started to hurt.

"No, you'll like that?or at least you'll like this one." I knew she meant, versus the Dark Daughters' ritual I had to go to afterward, but I didn't want to talk about that. Stevie Rae's next words made the whole issue of the Dark Daughters seem like a small, secondary problem. "A girl died last hour.”

"What? How?”

"How they all die. She didn't make the Change, and her body just…" Stevie Rae paused, shuddering. "It happened near the end of Tae Kwan Do class. She'd been coughing, like she was short of breath at the beginning of our warm-up exercises. I didn't think anything of it. Or maybe I did, but I put it out of my mind.”

Stevie Rae gave me a small, sad smile and she looked ashamed of herself.

"Is there any way to save a kid? After, you know, they start?" I broke off and made a vague, uncomfortable gesture.

"No. There's no way you can be saved if your body starts to reject the Change.”

"Then don't feel bad about not wanting to think about the girl who was coughing. There's nothing you could have done anyway.”

"I know. I just…it was awful. And Elizabeth was so nice.”

I felt a sharp jolt somewhere in the middle of my body. "Elizabeth No Last Name? She's the girl who died?”

Stevie Rae nodded, blinking hard and obviously trying not to cry.

"That's horrible," I said, my voice so weak it was almost a whisper. I remembered how considerate she'd been about my Mark, and how she'd noticed Erik looking at me. "But I just saw her in Drama class. She was fine.”

"That's how it happens. One second the kid sitting next to you looks perfectly normal. The next…" Stevie Rae shivered again.

"And everything's going to go on like normal? Even though someone at the school just died?" I remembered that last year, when a group of sophomores from SIHS had been in a car accident one weekend and two of them had been killed, extra counselors had been called in to school on Monday and all the athletic events had been cancelled for that week.

"Everything goes on like normal. We're supposed to get used to the idea that it might happen to anyone. You'll see. Everyone will act like nothing happened, especially upperclassmen. It's just third formers and good friends of Elizabeth, like her roommate, who will show any reaction at all. The third formers?that's us? are supposed to act right and get over it. Elizabeth's roommate and best friends will probably keep to themselves for a couple days, but then they'll be expected to get it together.” She lowered her voice, "Truthfully, I don't think the vamps think of any of us as real until we actually Change.”

I thought about this. Neferet didn't seem to treat me like I was temporary?she'd even said that it was an excellent sign that my Mark was colored in already, not that I was as confident as she seemed to be about my future. But I absolutely was not going to say anything that might sound as if Neferet was giving me special treatment. I didn't want to be "the weird one." I just wanted to be Stevie Rae's friend and fit in with my new group.

"That's really awful," was all I said.

"Yeah, but at least if it happens, it happens fast.”

Part of me wanted to know the details, and part of me was too scared even to ask the question.

Thankfully, Shaunee interrupted before I could make myself ask what I was really too freaked out to want to know.

"Just please with the taking so long," Shaunee called from the front steps of the temple. "Erin and Damien are already inside saving a place in the circle for us, but you know that once the ritual starts they won't let anyone else in. Hurry up!”

We rushed up the steps, and with Shaunee leading us, hurried into the temple. Sweet, smoky incense engulfed me as I entered the dark arched foyer of Nyx's Temple. Automatically, I hesitated. Stevie Rae and Shaunee turned to me.

"It's okay. There's nothing to be nervous or scared about." Stevie Rae met my eyes and added, "At least nothing in there.”

"The Full Moon Ritual is great. You'll like it. Oh, when the vamp traces the pentagram on your forehead and says 'blessed be' all you have to do is say 'blessed be' back to her," Shaunee explained. "Then follow us over to our place in the circle.” She smiled reassuringly at me and hurried ahead into the dimly lit interior room.

"Wait." I grabbed Stevie Rae's sleeve. "I don't want to sound stupid, but isn't a pentagram a sign of evil or something like that?”

"That's what I thought, too, until I got here. But all that evil stuff is bull that the People of Faith want you to believe so that…Heck," she said with a shrug, "I'm not even sure why they're so set on people?well, humans that is?believing that it's an evil sign. The truth is that for like a zillion years the pentagram has stood for wisdom, protection, perfection. Good stuff like that. It's just a five-pointed star. Four of the points stand for the elements. The fifth, the one that points up, stands for the spirit. That's all it is. No boogieman there.”

"Control.” I muttered, glad we had a reason to quit talking about Elizabeth and death.

"Huh?”

"The People of Faith want to control everything, and part of that control is that everyone has to always believe exactly the same. That's why they want people to think the pentagram is bad." I shook my head in disgust. "Never mind. Come on. I'm readier than I thought I was. Let's go in.”

We walked deeper into the foyer and I heard running water. We passed a beautiful fountain, and then the entryway curved gently to the left. Within a thick, arched stone doorway stood a vampyre I didn't recognize. She was dressed entirely in black?a long skirt and a silky, bell-sleeved blouse. The only decoration she had on was the silver embroidered goddess figure over her breast. Her hair was long and the color of wheat. Sapphire-colored spirals radiated from her crescent moon tattoo to down around her flawless face.

"That's Anastasia. She teaches the Spells and Rituals class. She's also Dragon's wife,” Stevie Rae whispered quickly before she stepped up to the vampyre and respectfully placed her fist over her heart.

Anastasia smiled and dipped her finger in a rock bowl she was holding. Then she traced a five-pointed star on Stevie Rae's forehead.

"Blessed be, Stevie Rae," she said.

"Blessed be,” Stevie Rae responded. She gave me an encouraging look before she disappeared into the smoky room beyond.

I took a deep breath and made a conscious decision to put all thoughts of Elizabeth and death and what-ifs out of my mind? at least during this ritual. I moved purposefully into the space in front of Anastasia. Mimicking Stevie Rae, I placed my closed fist over my heart.

The vampyre dipped her finger in what I could now see was oil. "Merry meet, Zoey Redbird, welcome to the House of Night and your new life," she said as she traced the pentagram on my forehead over my Mark. "And blessed be.”

"Blessed be," I murmured, surprised at the electric shiver that passed through my body when the damp star had taken form on my forehead.

"Go on in and join your friends," she said kindly. "There's no need to be nervous, I believe the Goddess is already looking after you.”

"Th-thank you," I said, and hurried into the room. There were candles everywhere. Huge white ones suspended from the ceiling in iron chandeliers. Big candle trees held more of them and were lined along the walls. In the temple, sconces didn't burn oil tamely in lanterns, like in the rest of the school. Here the sconces were real. I knew that this place used to be a People of Faith church dedicated to St. Augustine, but it looked like no church I'd ever seen before. Besides being lit only by candlelight, there were no pews. (And, by the way, I really dislike pews?could they be any more uncomfortable?) Actually, the only furniture in the big room was an antique wooden table situated in the center that was kinda like the one in the dining hall?only this one wasn't just loaded with food and wine and such. This one also held a marble statue of the Goddess, arms upraised and looking a lot like the embroidered design the vamps wore. There was a huge candelabrum on the table, its fat white candles burning brightly, as well as several thick sticks of smoking incense.

Then my eyes were caught by the open flame burning from out of a recess in the stone floor. It flickered wildly, its yellow fire almost waist high. It was beautiful, in a controlled danger kind of a way, and it seemed to draw me forward. Thankfully, Stevie Rae's waving hands snagged my attention before I could follow my impulse to approach the flame, and then I noticed, wondering how I could have failed to see this from the beginning, that there was a huge circle of people?students as well as adult vamps? stretching around the edges of the room. Feeling nervous and awestruck at the same time, I made my feet move so I could take my place in the circle beside Stevie Rae.

"Finally,” Damien said under his breath.

"Sorry we're late.” I said.

"Leave her alone. She's nervous enough as it is," Stevie Rae told him.

"Sssh!It's starting,” Shaunee hissed.

Four forms seemed to materialize from within the darkened corners of the room to become women who made their way to four spots just within the living circle, like the directions on a compass. Two more entered from the doorway through which I'd just come. One was a tall man?well, scratch that?male vampyre (all of the adults were vamps), and, ohmygod, he was hot. Now, here was an excellent example of the stereotype of the gorgeous vamp guy, up close and personal. He was over six feet tall and looked like he belonged on the big screen.

"And there is the only reason I'm taking that damn Poetry elective," Shaunee whispered.

"I'm with you there, Twin," Erin breathed dreamily.

"Who is he?" I asked Stevie Rae.

"Loren Blake, Vamp Poet Laureate. He's the first male Poet Laureate in two hundred years. Literally," she whispered. "And he's only like twenty-something, and that's in real years, not just in looks.”

Before I could say anything else, he started to speak and my mouth was too busy flopping open at the sound of his voice for me to do anything but listen.

She walks in beauty, like the night

Of cloudless climes and starry skies…

As he spoke he moved slowly toward the circle. As if his voice was music, the woman who had entered the room with him began to sway, and then to dance gracefully around the outside of the living circle.

And all that's best of dark and bright

Meet in her aspect and her eyes…

The dancing woman had everyone's attention. With a jolt I realized that it was Neferet. She was wearing a long silk dress that had tiny crystal beads sewn all over it, so that the candlelight caught each of her movements and made her shimmer like the star-filled night sky. Her movements seemed to call alive the words of the old poem (at least my mind was still working well enough that I recognized it as Lord Byron's "She Walks in Beauty").

Thus mellowed to that tender light

Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

Somehow both Neferet and Loren managed to end up in the center of the circle as he finished reciting the stanza. Then Neferet took a goblet from the table and lifted it, as if offering a drink to the circle.

"Welcome Nyx's children to the Goddess's celebration of the full moon!”

The adult vamps chorused, "Merry meet.”

Neferet smiled and put the goblet back on the table and picked up a long white taper that was already lit and sitting in a single candlestick holder. Then she walked across the circle to face a vamp I didn't know who was standing at what must be the head of the circle. The vamp saluted her, hand over breast, before turning around so that her back was to Neferet.

"Psst!"Stevie Rae whispered. "We all face each of the four directions as Neferet evokes the elements and casts Nyx's circle. East and air come first.”

Then everyone, including me even though I was kinda slow, turned to face east. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Neferet raise her arms over her head as her voice rang against the stone walls of the temple.

"From the east I summon air and ask that you carry to this circle the gift of knowledge that our ritual will be filled with learning.”

The instant Neferet began speaking the invocation I felt the air change. It moved around me, ruffling my hair and filling my ears with the sound of wind sighing through leaves. I looked around, expecting to see that everyone else had been caught in a mini- whirlwind, but didn't notice anyone else's hair getting messed up. Weird.

The vamp who was standing in the east pulled a thick yellow candle from the folds of her dress, and Neferet lit it. She lifted it into the air, and then placed it, flickering, at her feet.

"Turn to the right, for fire," Stevie Rae whispered again.

We turned and Neferet continued. "From the south I summon fire and ask that you light in this circle the gift of strength of will, so that our ritual will be binding and powerful.”

The wind that had been blowing softly against me was replaced by a sensation of heat. It wasn't exactly uncomfortable; it was more like the flush you feel when you step into a hot tub, but it was warm enough to make a light sweat break out over my body. I glanced at Stevie Rae. She had her head raised slightly and her eyes were closed. There was no sign of sweat on her face. The intensity of the heat suddenly jumped up a notch, and I looked back at Neferet. She had lit a large red candle that Penthesilea was holding. Then, as the east-facing vamp had done, Penthesilea lifted it up in offering before placing it by her feet.

This time I didn't need Stevie Rae's nudging to turn again to my right and face west. Somehow, I knew not just that we needed to turn, but that the next element to be summoned would be water.

"From the west I summon water and ask that you wash this circle in compassion, that the light of the full moon can be used to bestow healing to our group as well as understanding.”

Neferet lit the west-facing vamp's blue candle. The vamp lifted it, and placed it at her feet as the sound of waves filled my ears and the salty scent of the sea filled my nose. Eagerly, I completed the circle by facing north and knew I'd be embracing earth.

"From the north I summon earth and ask that you grow within this circle the gift of manifestation, that the wishes and prayers from tonight will come to fruition.”

Suddenly I could feel the softness of a grassy meadow under my feet, and I smelled hay and heard birdsong. A green candle was lit and placed at "earth"'s feet.

I should have probably been afraid of the odd sensations breaking over me, but they filled me with an almost unbearable lightness?I felt good! So good that when Neferet faced the flame that burned in the middle of the room and the rest of us turned to the interior of the circle I had to press my lips tightly together to keep from laughing out loud. The drop-dead gorgeous poet was standing across the fire from Neferet and I could see that he was holding a big purple candle in his hands.

"And last, I summon spirit to complete our circle and ask that you fill us with connection, so that as your children we may prosper together.”

Unbelievably, I felt my own spirit leap, like there were bird wings fluttering around inside my chest, as the poet lit the candle from the huge flame and then placed it on the table. Then Neferet began to move around within the circle, speaking to us, meeting our eyes, including us in her words.

"This is the time of the fullness of the moon. All things wax and wane, even Nyx's children, her vampyres. But on this night the powers of life, of magick, and of creation are at their brightest?as is our Goddess's moon. This is the time of building…of doing.”

My heart was beating hard as I watched Neferet speak, and I realized with a little start that she was actually giving a sermon. This was a worship service, but the casting of the circle and Neferet's words coupled to touch me like no other sermon had ever even begun to do. I glanced around. Maybe it was the setting. The room was misty with incense and magical in the flickering candlelight. Neferet was everything a High Priestess should be. Her beauty was a flame of its own, and her voice was a magic that held everyone's attention. No one was slumped down in a pew sleeping or sneakily doing sudoku.

"This is a time when the veil between the mundane world and the strange and beautiful realms of the Goddess become thin indeed. On this night may one transcend the boundaries of the worlds with ease, and know the beauty and enchantment of Nyx.”

I could feel her words wash against my skin and close my throat. I shivered and the Mark on my forehead suddenly felt warm and tingly. Then the poet began to speak in his deep, powerful voice.

"This is a time for weaving the ethereal into being, of spinning the strands of space and time to bring forth Creation. For life is a circle as well as a mystery. Our Goddess understands this, as does her consort, Erebus.”

As he spoke I felt better about Elizabeth's death. Suddenly it didn't seem so scary, so horrible. It seemed more like a part of the natural world, a world that we all had a place in.

"Light…dark…day…night…death…life…all is tied together by spirit and the touch of the Goddess. If we keep the balance and look to the Goddess we can learn to weave a spell of moonlight and fashion with it a fabric of pure magical substance to keep with us all the days of our lives.”

"Close your eyes, Children of Nyx," Neferet said "and send a secret desire to your Goddess. Tonight, when the veil between the worlds is thin?when magic is afoot within the mundane? perhaps Nyx will grant your petitions and dust you with the gossamer mist of dreams fulfilled.”

Magic! They actually were praying for magic! Would it work?could it work? Was there really magic in this world? I remembered the way my spirit had been able to see words and how the Goddess had called me with her visible voice down into the crevasse and then kissed my forehead and changed my life forever. And how, just moments ago, I'd felt the power of Neferet's calling of the elements. I hadn't imagined it?I couldn't have imagined it.

I closed my eyes and thought about the magic that seemed to surround me, and then I sent up my wish into the night. My secret wish is that I belong…that I have finally found a home no one can take away from me.

Despite the unusual warmth of my Mark, my head felt light and unimaginably happy as Neferet called for us to open our eyes and, in a voice that was at the same time soft and powerful? woman and warrior combined?she continued the ritual.

"This is a time of traveling unseen in the full moonlight. A time to listen for music not fashioned by human or vampyre hands. It is a time for oneness with the winds that caress us" ? Neferet bowed her head slightly to the east?"and the bolt of lightning that mimics the spark of first life.” She tilted her head to the south. "It is a time to revel in the eternal sea and the warm rains that soothe us, as well as the verdant land that surrounds and keeps us." She acknowledged the west and north in turn.

And each time Neferet named an element it felt as though a jolt of sweet electricity sizzled through my body.

Then the four women who personified the elements moved as one to the table. With Neferet and Loren, each of them lifted a goblet.

"All hail, O Goddess of Night and the full moon!" Neferet said. "All hail Night, from whom our blessings come. On this night we give thanks to thee!”

Still holding the goblets, the four women scattered back to their places in the circle.

"In the mighty name of Nyx," Neferet said.

"And of Erebus," the poet added.

"We ask from within your sacred circle that you give us the knowledge to speak the language of the wilds, to fly with the freedom of the bird, to live the power and grace of the feline, and to find an ecstasy and joy in life that would stir the very heights of our being. Blessed be!”

I couldn't stop grinning. I'd never heard stuff like this in church before, and I sure as hell had never felt so energized there, either!

Neferet drank from the goblet she held, and then she offered it to Loren, who drank from it and said "blessed be." Mirroring their actions, the four women moved quickly around the circle, allowing each person, fledgling and adult, to drink from a goblet. When it was my turn I was happy to see the familiar face of Penthesilea offer me a drink and a blessing. The wine was red and I expected it to be bitter, like the sip of my mom's hidden Cabernet I tried once (and definitely did not like), but it wasn't. It was sweet and spicy and it made my head feel even lighter.

When everyone had been given a drink, the goblets were returned to the table.

"Tonight I want each of us to spend at least a moment or two alone in the light of the full moon. Let its light refresh you and help you to remember how extraordinary you are…or you are becoming." She smiled at some of the fledglings, including me. "Bask in your uniqueness. Revel in your strength. We stand separate from the world because of our gifts. Never forget that, because you may be sure the world never will. Now let us close the circle and embrace the night.”

In reverse order, Neferet thanked each element and sent them away as each candle was blown out, and as she did so I felt a little twinge of sadness, like I was saying good-bye to friends. Then she completed the ritual by saying, "This rite is ended. Merry meet and merry part and merry meet again!”

The crowd echoed: "Merry meet and merry part and merry meet again!”

And that was it. My first ritual of the Goddess was over.

The circle broke up quickly?more quickly than I would have liked it to. I wanted to stand there and think about the amazing things I had felt, especially during the calling of the elements, but that was impossible. I was carried out of the temple on a tide of chatter. I was glad that everyone was so busy talking that no one noticed how quiet I was; I didn't think I could explain to them what had just happened to me. Hell! I couldn't even explain it to myself.

"Hey, you think they'll have Chinese food again tonight? I just loved it last full moon when they had that yummy moo goo stuff afterward," Shaunee said. "Not to mention, my fortune cookie said 'You will make a name for yourself,' which is way cool.”

"I'm so starved I don't care what they feed us as long as they feed us," Erin said.

"Me too," Stevie Rae said.

"For once we are in perfect agreement," Damien said, linking arms with Stevie Rae and me. "Let's eat.”

And suddenly, that reminded me. "Uh, guys." That nice tingly feeling the ritual had given me was gone. "I can't go. I have to?"

"We're morons." Stevie Rae thumped herself on the forehead hard enough to make a smacking sound. "We totally forgot."

"Ah, crap!" Shaunee said.

"The hags from hell," Erin said.

"Want me to save you a plate of something?" Damien asked sweetly.

"No. Aphrodite said they're going to feed me.”

"Probably raw meat," Shaunee said.

"Yeah, from some poor kid she caught in her nasty spider web," Erin said.

"By that she means the one between her legs," Shaunee explained.

"Stop, you're freaking Zoey out," Stevie Rae said as she started nudging me toward the door. "I'll show her where the rec hall is, then I'll meet you guys at our table.”

Outside I said, "Okay, tell me that they're kidding about the raw meat.”

"They're kidding?" Stevie Rae said unconvincingly.

"Great. I don't even like my steak rare. What am I going to do if they really do try to feed me raw meat?" I refused to think about what kind of raw meat it might be.

"I think I have a Tums somewhere in my purse. Do you want it?" Stevie Rae asked.

"Yeah," I said, already feeling nauseous.

 
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CHAPTER SIXTEEN

 

"That's it." Stevie Rae had stopped, looking uncomfortable and apologetic in front of the steps that led to a round brick building situated on a little hill overlooking the eastern part of the wall surrounding the school. Huge oaks wrapped it in darkness within darkness, so I could barely make out flickers of either gas or candles lighting up the entrance. Not one speck of light was coming from the darkened windows that were long and arched and seemed to be made of stained glass.

"Okay, well, thanks for the Tums." I tried to sound brave. "And save a place for me. This really can't take that long. I should be able to get done here and join you guys for dinner.”

"Don't rush. Really. You might meet someone you like and want to hang out. Don't worry about it if you do. I won't be mad and I'll just tell Damien and the Twins that you're reconnoitering.”

"I'm not going to become one of them, Stevie Rae.”

"I believe you," she said, but her eyes looked suspiciously big and round.

"So I'll see you soon.”

"'Kay. See you soon," she said, and started to follow the sidewalk back to the main building.

I didn't want to watch her walk away?she looked all forlorn and spanked puppy-like. Instead I climbed up the steps and told myself that this was going to be no big deal?nothing worse than the time my Barbie sister talked me into going to cheerleading camp with her (I don't know what the hell I'd been thinking). At least this fiasco wouldn't last a week. They'll probably cast another circle, which was actually very cool, do some unusual praying like Neferet did, and then break for dinner. That would be my cue to smile nicely and slip out. Easy-peasy.

The torches on either side of the thick wooden door were lit by gas and not the raw flame sconces used in Nyx's Temple. I reached my hand toward the heavy iron knocker, but, with a sound that was disturbingly like a sigh, it opened away from my touch.

"Merry meet, Zoey.”

Oh. My. God. It was Erik. He was wearing all black, and his dark, curly hair and his insanely blue eyes reminded me of Clark Kent?well, okay, without the dorky glasses and the nerdy slicked- back hair…so…I supposed that would mean he actually reminded me (again) of Superman?well, without the cape or tights or the big S…

Then the babble in my mind totally shut itself up when his oil- dampened finger slid over my forehead, tracing the five points of the pentagram.

"Blessed be," he said.

"Blessed be," I replied, and would be eternally grateful that my voice didn't croak or crack or squeak. Ah, man, he smelled good, but I couldn't place what he smelled like. It wasn't any of the tired, overused colognes guys apply by the gallon. He smelled like…he smelled like…the forest at night just after it's rained…something earthy and clean and…

"You can come on in," he was saying.

"Oh, uh, thanks," I said brilliantly. I stepped inside. And then I stopped. The interior was all one big room. The circular-shaped walls were draped in black velvet, totally blocking the windows and the silver moonlight. I could see that under the heavy curtains there were weird shapes, which started to freak me out until I realized that?hello?it's a rec room. They must have shoved the TVs and game stuff to the sides of the room and covered them so everything would look, well, creepier. Then my attention was captured by the circle itself. It was situated in the middle of the room and made up entirely of candles in tall red glass containers, like the prayer candles you can buy in the Mexican foods section of the grocery store that smell like roses and old ladies. There must have been more than a hundred of them and they lit up the kids who were standing in a loose circle behind them talking and laughing with a ghostly light that was tinted red. The kids were all wearing black and I noticed right away that none of them were wearing any embroidered rank insignias, but each had a thick silver chain that glittered around their necks from which an odd symbol dangled. It looked like two crescent moons positioned back to back against a full moon.

"There you are, Zoey!”

Aphrodite's voice slid across the room just ahead of her body. She was wearing a long black dress that flashed with onyx beading, reminding me weirdly of a dark version of Neferet's beautiful gown. She had on the same necklace as the others, but hers was bigger and outlined in red jewels that might have been garnets. Her blond hair was loose and draped around her like a gold veil. She was entirely too pretty.

"Erik, thanks for making Zoey welcome. I can take it from here." She sounded normal, and she even rested her manicured fingertips on Erik's arm for a second in what the uninformed might think of as just a friendly gesture, but her face told a different story. It was set and cold, and her eyes seemed to blaze into his. Erik barely gave her a look, and he definitely moved his arm away from her touch. Then he gave me a quick smile and, without glancing at Aphrodite again, walked away.

Great. Exactly what I didn't need was to get in the middle of a nasty breakup. But I couldn't seem to help the fact that my eyes followed him across the room.

Stupid me. Again. Sigh.

Aphrodite cleared her throat, and I tried (unsuccessfully) not to look like I'd been caught doing something I shouldn't have been doing. Her slick, mean smile said there was absolutely no doubt that she'd noticed my interest in Erik (and his interest in me). And, again, I wondered if she knew it had been me in the hall the day before.

Well, it wasn't like I could ask her.

"You need to hurry, but I brought something for you to change into." Aphrodite was talking quickly as she motioned for me to follow her to the girls' restroom. She threw me a disgusted look over her shoulder. "It's not like you can come to a Dark Daughters' ritual dressed like that." Once we were in the bathroom she brusquely handed me a dress that had been hanging from one of the partitions and kinda pushed me into the stall. "You can put your clothes on the hanger and carry them back to the dorm like that.”

There didn't seem to be any arguing with her and, anyway, I felt like an outsider enough as it was. Being dressed differently made me feel like I'd shown up at a party dressed like a duck, but no one had told me it wasn't a costume party so everyone else was wearing jeans.

I quickly got out of my clothes and slid the black dress over my head, sighing with relief when it fit. It was simple but flattering. The material was the soft clingy stuff that never wrinkles. It had long sleeves and a round neckline that showed most of my shoulders (good thing I'd worn my black bra). All around the neckline, the edge of the long sleeves, and the hem, which was right above my knee, were sewn little red sparkly beads. It really was pretty. I slipped my shoes back on thinking, happily, that a nice pair of ballet flats can go with just about any outfit, and stepped out of the stall.

"Well, at least it fits." I said.

But I noticed Aphrodite wasn't looking at the dress. She was looking at my Mark, which bugged the crap out of me. Okay, my Mark is colored in?get over it already! I didn't say anything, though. I mean, this was her "party" and I was a guest. Translation: I was totally outnumbered, so I better be good.

"I'll be leading the ritual, of course, so I'm gonna be too busy to hold your hand through it.”

Okay, I should've just kept my mouth shut, but she was wearing on my last nerve. "Look, Aphrodite, I don't need to you hold my hand.”

Her eyes narrowed and I braced myself for another psycho girl scene. Instead she smiled a totally non-nice smile that made her look like a snarling dog. Not that I was calling her a bitch, but the analogy seemed scarily accurate.

"Of course you don't need your hand held. You'll just breeze right through this little ritual like you've breezed through everything else here. I mean, after all, you are Neferet's new favorite.”

Wonderful. On top of the Erik issue and the weirdness over my Mark issue, she was jealous that Neferet was my mentor.

"Aphrodite, I don't think I'm Neferet's new favorite. I'm just new." I tried to sound reasonable, and I even smiled.

"Whatever. So, are you ready?”

I gave up trying to reason with her and nodded, wishing this whole ritual thing would hurry up and be over.

"Fine. Let's go." She led me out of the rest room and over to the circle. I recognized the two girls we walked up to as two of the "hags from hell" who had followed her around in the cafeteria. Only instead of wearing pursed-face, I-just-ate-a-lemon expressions, they were smiling warmly at me.

No. I wasn't fooled. But I made my face smile, too. When in enemy territory it's best to blend in and look inconspicuous and/or stupid.

"Hi, I'm Enyo," said the taller of the two. She was, of course, blonde, but her long, flowing locks were more the color of waving wheat than gold. Although in the candlelight it was hard to be sure which cliché was a more appropriate description. And I still didn't believe she was a natural blonde.

"Hi," I said.

"I'm Deino," said the other girl. She was obviously mixed and had a gorgeous combination of really pretty, coffee-with-lots-of-cream skin and excellent thick, curly hair, which probably had never had the nerve to nap up on her for an instant, no matter the humidity.

The two of them were freakishly perfect.

"Hi," I said again. Feeling more than a little claustrophobic, I moved into the space they'd created between them.

"You three enjoy the ritual," Aphrodite said.

"Oh, we will!" Enyo and Deino said together. The three of them shared a look that made my skin crawl. I turned my attention away from them before my better judgment won out over my pride and I bolted from the room.

I had a good view of the inner area of the circle now, and again it was similar to the one in Nyx's Temple, except this one had a chair pulled up beside the table and there was someone sitting in it. Well, kinda sitting. Actually, the whoever was slumped down with the hood of a cloak covering his or her head.

Well…hmmm…

Anyway, the table was draped with the same black velvet as the walls, and there was a Goddess statue on it, a bowl of fruit and bread, several goblets, and a pitcher. And a knife. I squinted to be sure I was seeing right. Yep. It was a knife?it had a bone handle and a long, wicked curving blade that looked entirely too sharp to be used for cutting fruit or bread safely. A girl I thought I recognized from the dorm was lighting several fat sticks of incense that sat in ornately carved incense holders on the table, and totally ignoring whoever was slumped in the chair. Jeesh, was the kid asleep?

Immediately the air began to fill with smoke that I swear was green-tinged and curled, ghostlike, around the room. I expected it to smell sweet, like the incense at Nyx's Temple, but when a feathery wisp of smoke reached me and I breathed it in I was surprised by its bitterness. It was kinda familiar and I frowned, trying to figure out what it reminded me of…crap, what was it? It was almost like bay leaf, with a clovey middle. (I had to remember to thank Grandma Redbird later for teaching me about spices and their smells.) I sniffed again, intrigued, and my head felt a little woozy. Weird. Okay, the incense was odd. It seemed to change as it filled the room, like expensive perfume that changes with each person who wears it. I breathed in again. Yep. Clove and bay, but there was something at the end of it; something that made the scent finish tangy and bitter…dark and mystic and alluring in its…naughtiness.

Naughtiness? Then I knew.

Well, hell! They were filling the room with pot smoke mixed with spices. Unbelievable. I'd stood up to peer pressure and for years said no to even the most polite offers to try one of those gross-looking homemade joints that get passed around at parties and whatnot. (I mean, please. Is that even sanitary? And just exactly why would I want to do a drug that made me want to obsessively eat fattening snack foods?) And now here I stood, immersed in pot smoke. Sigh. Kayla would never believe it.

Then, feeling paranoid (probably another side effect of the pot invasion) I looked around the circle, sure I'd see a professor who was ready to leap in and haul us all away to…to…I dunno, something unspeakably horrid, like the boot camp Maury sends all of his troubled teen guests to.

But, thankfully, unlike the circle in Nyx's Temple, there were no adult vamps here, and only about twenty kids. They were talking quietly and acting like the totally illegal marijuana incense was no big deal. (Pot heads.) Trying to breathe shallowly, I turned to the girl to my right. When in doubt (or panic), make small talk.

"So…Deino is a, well, different name. Does it mean something special?”

"Deino means terrible;" she said, smiling sweetly.

From my other side the tall blonde chimed in perkily, "And Enyo means warlike.”

"Huh," I said, trying hard to be polite.

"Yeah, Pemphredo, which means wasp, is the one lighting the incense," explained Enyo. "We got the names from Greek mythology. They were the three sisters of the Gorgon and Scylla. Myth says they were born as hags who shared an eye, but we decided that was probably just bullshit male-dominant propaganda written by human men who wanted to keep strong women down.”

"Really?" I didn't know what else to say. Really.

"Yeah," Deino said. "Human men suck.”

"They should all die," Enyo said.

On that lovely thought the music suddenly started, making it impossible (thankfully) to talk.

Okay, the music was disturbing. It had a deep, pulsing beat that was ancient as well as modern. Like someone had mixed one of those nasty bootie-humping songs with a tribal mating dance. And then, much to my shock, Aphrodite began to dance her way around the circle. Yes, I suppose you could say she was hot. I mean, she had a good body and she moved like Catherine Zeta- Jones in Chicago. But somehow it didn't work for me. And I don't mean because I'm not gay (even though I'm not gay). It didn't work because it seemed like a crude imitation of Neferet's dance to "She Walks in Beauty." If this music was a poem it would be more like "Some Ho Grinds Her Bootie.”

During Aphrodite's crotch-flailing display everyone was, naturally, staring at her, so I looked around the circle, pretending that I wasn't really looking for Erik, until…oh, crap…I found him almost directly opposite me. And he was the one kid in the room not watching Aphrodite. He was watching me. Before I could figure out whether I should look away, smile at him or wave or whatever (Damien had said to smile at the kid, and Damien was a self-proclaimed expert on guys), the music stopped and I looked from Erik to Aphrodite. She was standing in the middle of the circle in front of the table. Purposefully, she picked up a big purple pillar candle in one hand, and the knife in another. The candle was lit, and she carried it, holding it in front of her like a beacon, to the side of the circle where I now noticed one yellow candle nestled amongst the red ones. I didn't need any prodding from Warlike or Terrible (yeesh) to turn to the east. As wind ruffled my hair, from the corner of my vision I could see that she had lit the yellow candle and now she raised the knife, slashing a pentagram in the air as she spoke:

O winds of storm,

in Nyx's name I do call thee forth,

  cast thy blessing, I do ask,

upon the magic which shall be worked here!

I will admit that she was good. Though not as powerful as Neferet, it was obvious that she'd practiced voice control and the silky sound of her words carried easily. We turned to the south and she approached the large red pillar candle among the other red ones, and I could feel what I was already recognizing as the power of the fire and the magic circle wash over my skin.

O fire of lightning, in Nyx's name I do call thee forth, bringer of storms and power of magic, I ask your aid in the spell I do here work!

We turned again and, along with Aphrodite, I felt flushed and unexpectedly drawn to the blue candle that nestled within the red ones. Even though it thoroughly freaked me out, I had to keep myself from stepping from circle and joining her in the invocation of water.

O torrents of rain, in Nyx's name I do call thee forth. Join me with your drowning strength, in performing this most powerful of rituals!

What in the hell was wrong with me? I was sweating and instead of feeling just a little warm, like during the earlier ritual, the Mark on my forehead was hot?burning hot?and I swear I could hear the roar of the sea in my ears. Numbly, I turned again to the right.

O earth, deep and damp, in Nyx's name I do call thee forth, that I may feel the earth herself move in the roar of the storm of power which doth come when you aid me in this rite!

Aphrodite sliced the air again, and I could feel the palm of my right hand tingle, as if it ached to hold the knife and cut the air.

I smelled cut grass and heard the cry of a whippoorwill, like it was nesting invisibly in the air beside me. Aphrodite moved back to the center of the circle. Placing the still-burning purple candle back on its place in the middle of the table she completed the casting.

O spirit, wild and free, in Nyx's name I do call thee to me! Answer me! Stay with me during this mighty ritual and grant me thy Goddess's power!

And somehow I knew what she was going to do next. I could hear the words inside my mind?inside my own spirit. When she raised the goblet and began walking around the circle I felt her words, and even though she didn't have the poise and power of Neferet what she said ignited within me, like I was burning from the inside out.

"This is the time of the fullness of our Goddess's moon. There is magnificence to this night. The ancients knew the mysteries of this night, and used them to strengthen themselves…and to split the veil between worlds and have adventures we only dream about today. Secret…mysterious…magical…true beauty and power in vampyre form?not tainted by human rules or law. We are not humans!" With this, her voice did ring against the walls, very much as Neferet's had earlier. "And all your Dark Daughters and Sons ask tonight in this rite is what we have petitioned each full moon for the past year. Free the power within us so that, like the mighty felines of the wild, we know the lithe suppleness of our animal brethren and we are not bound by human chains or caged by their ignorant weaknesses.”

Aphrodite had stopped right in front of me. I knew I was flushed and breathing hard, just as she was. She raised the goblet and offered it to me.

"Drink, Zoey Redbird, and join us in asking Nyx for what is ours by the right of blood and body and the Mark of the great Change?the Mark that she has already touched you with.”

Yes, I know. I should have probably said no. But how? And suddenly I didn't want to. I definitely didn't like or trust Aphrodite, but wasn't what she was saying basically true? My mother and stepfather's reactions to my Mark came back hard and clear in my memory, along with Kayla's look of fear and Drew's and Dustin's revulsion. And how no one had called me, or even text- messaged me, since I'd been gone. They'd just let me be dumped here to deal with a new life all on my own.

It made me sad, but it also made me mad.

I grabbed the goblet from Aphrodite and took a big drink. It was wine, but it didn't taste like the wine in the other moon ritual. This one was sweet, too, but there was a spice to it that tasted like nothing I'd ever experienced before. It caused an explosion of sensation in my mouth that traveled with a hot, bittersweet trail down my throat and filled me with a dizzy desire to drink more and more and more of it.

"Blessed be," Aphrodite hissed at me as she jerked the goblet from me, sloshing some of the red liquid over my fingers. Then she gave me a tight, triumphant smile.

"Blessed be," I replied automatically, head still reeling with the taste of the wine. She moved to Enyo, offering her the goblet, and I couldn't stop myself from licking my fingers to get one more taste of the wine that had spilled there. It was beyond delicious. And it smelled…it smelled familiar…but through the whoosh of dizziness in my head I couldn't concentrate enough to figure out where I'd smelled something that incredible before.

It hardly took any time for Aphrodite to travel around the circle, giving each of the kids a taste from the goblet. I watched her closely, wishing I could have more as she returned to the table. She lifted the goblet again.

"Great and magical Goddess of Night and of the full moon, she who rides through the thunder and the tempest, leading the spirits and the Elder Ones, beautiful and awesome one, who even those most ancient must obey, aid us in what we ask. Fill us with your power and magic and strength!”

Then she upended the goblet, and I watched, jealously, as she drank until she drained the last drops. When she finished drinking, the music started up again. In time with it she made her way back around the circle, dancing and laughing as she blew out each candle and told each element good-bye. And somehow, as she was moving around the circle, my vision got all screwed up because her body rippled and changed and it suddenly seemed as if I was watching Neferet again?only now she was a younger, rawer version of the High Priestess.

"Merry meet and merry part and merry meet again!" she finally said. We all responded while I blinked my vision clear and the weird image of Aphrodite-as-Neferet faded, as did the burning of my Mark. But I could still taste the wine on my tongue. It was way strange. I don't like alcohol. Seriously. I just don't like the way it tastes. But there was something about this wine that was delicious beyond…well, beyond even Godiva dark chocolate truffles (I know, it's hard to believe). And I still couldn't figure out why it somehow seemed familiar.

Then everyone started to talk and laugh as the circle broke up. The gaslights came on overhead, making us blink from their brightness. I looked across the circle, trying to see if Erik might still be watching me, and a movement at the table caught my eye. The person who had been slumped and motionless during the entire ritual was finally moving. He kinda jerked around, awkwardly pulling himself more into a sitting position. The hood on the dark cloak fell back, and I was shocked to see bright orange-red, bushy, unattractive hair and a pudgy too-white and freckled face.

It was that annoying Elliott kid! Very, very odd that he was here. What could the Dark Daughters and Sons want with him? I looked around the room again. Yep, as I'd suspected, there wasn't one ugly, dorky-looking kid present. Everyone, and I do mean everyone, except Elliott was attractive. He definitely didn't belong.

He was blinking and yawning and looked like he'd been sniffing way too much of the incense. He lifted his hand to wipe something off his nose (probably one of the boogers he liked to go spelunking after) and I saw the white of thick bandages that were wrapped around his wrists. What the…?

A terrible, crawly feeling worked its way up my spine. Enyo and Deino were standing not far from me, talking animatedly to the girl they'd called Pemphredo. I walked over to them and waited till there was a lull in the conversation. Pretending that my stomach wasn't trying to squeeze itself to death, I smiled and nodded in the general direction of Elliott.

"What's that kid doing here?”

Enyo glanced at Elliott and then rolled her eyes. "He's nothing. Just the refrigerator we used tonight.”

"What a loser," Deino said, dismissing Elliott with a sneer. "He's practically human," Pemphredo said in disgust. "No wonder all he's good for is a snack bar.”

My stomach felt like it was being turned inside out. "Wait, I don't get it. Refrigerator? Snack bar?”

Deino the Terrible turned her haughty, chocolate-colored eyes on me. "That's what we call humans?refrigerators and snack bars. You know?breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”

"Or any of the meals in between," warlike Enyo practically purred.

"I still don't?" I started, but Deino interrupted me.

"Oh, come on! Don't pretend that you couldn't tell what was in the wine, and that you didn't love the taste of it.”

"Yeah, admit it, Zoey. It was obvious. You would have downed the whole thing?you wanted it even more than we did. We saw you licking it off your fingers," Enyo said, leaning forward all into my personal space as she stared at my Mark. "That makes you some kind of freak, doesn't it? Somehow you're fledgling and vamp, all in one, and you wanted more of that kid's blood than just a taste.”

"Blood?" I didn't recognize my own voice. The word "freak" kept echoing round and round in my head.

"Yes, blood," Terrible said.

I felt hot and cold at once and looked away from their knowing faces, and right into Aphrodite's eyes. She was standing across the room from me talking to Erik. Our eyes locked and slowly, purposefully, she smiled. She was holding the goblet again, and she raised it in an almost imperceptible salute to me before taking a drink from it and turning back to laugh at something Erik had just said.

Holding myself together, I made a lame excuse to Warlike, Terrible, and the Wasp, and walked calmly from the room. The instant I closed the thick wooden door of the rec hall behind me I ran like a crazy blind person. I didn't know where I was going, except that I wanted to be away.

I drank blood?that horrid Elliott kid's blood?and I'd liked it!And worse, the delicious smell had been familiar because I'd smelled it before when Heath's hands had been bleeding. It hadn't been a new cologne I'd been drawn to; it had been his blood. And I'd smelled it again in the hall yesterday when Aphrodite had slit Erik's thigh and I had wanted to lick up his blood, too.

I was a freak.

Finally, I couldn't breathe and I collapsed against the cool stone of the school's protective wall, gasping for air and puking my guts up.

 
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CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

 

Shakily, I wiped the back of my hand across my mouth and then stumbled away from the puke spot (I refused to even consider what I puked up and how it must have looked) until I came to a giant oak that had grown so close to the wall that half of its branches hung over the other side of it. I leaned against the tree, concentrating on not getting sick again.

What had I done? What was happening to me?

Then, from somewhere in the limbs of the oak I heard a meow. Okay, it wasn't really your normal, average, catlike meow. It was more like a grumpy, "me-eeh-uf-me-eef-uf-snort.”

I looked up. Perched on a limb that was resting against the wall was a small orange cat. She was staring at me with huge eyes and she definitely looked disgruntled.

"How did you get up there?”

"Me-uf," she said, sneezed, and inched her way along the branch, clearly trying to get closer to me.

"Well, come on kitty-kitty-kitty," I coaxed.

"Me-eeh-of-ow," she said, creeping forward about half one of her little paw lengths.

"That's it, come on, baby girl. Move your little tiny paddies this way." Yes, I was displacing my freak-out and channeling it into saving the cat, but the truth was that I couldn't think about what had just happened. Not now. It was too soon. Too fresh. So the cat was an excellent distraction. Plus, she looked familiar. "Come on baby girl, come on…" I kept up a conversation with her as I hooked the toe of my flats into the rough brick of the wall and managed to pull myself up far enough so I could grab onto the lowest part of the branch the cat was on. Then I was able to use the branch as a kind of rope to climb farther up the wall, the whole time talking to the cat, while she kept complaining at me.

Finally I got within touching range of her. We stared at each other for a long time, and I started to wonder if she knew about me. Could she tell that I'd just tasted (and liked) blood? Did I have blood puke breath? Did I look different? Had I grown fangs? (Okay, that last question was ridiculous. Adult vamps don't have fangs, but still.)

She "me-eeh-uf-owed" at me again, and moved a little closer. I reached out and scratched the top of her head so that her ears went down and she closed her eyes, purring.

"You look like a little lioness," I told her. "See how much nicer you are when you're not complaining?" Then I blinked in surprise, realizing why she seemed so familiar. "You were in my dream." And a little happiness pushed through the wall of sickness and fear inside me. "You're my cat!”

The cat opened her eyes, yawned, and sneezed again, as if to comment on why it had taken me so long to figure it out. With a grunt of effort I scrambled up so that I was sitting on the wide top of the wall beside the branch where the cat was perched. With a kitty sigh, she jumped delicately off the branch, onto the top of the wall, and walked on tiny white paws over to me to crawl into my lap. There didn't seem to be anything for me to do except to scratch her on the head some more. She closed her eyes and purred loudly. I petted the cat and tried to still the tumult in my mind. The air smelled like it might rain, but the night was unusually warm for the end of October, and I put my head back, breathing deeply and letting the silver moonlight that peeked through the clouds calm me.

I looked at the cat. "Well, Neferet said that we should sit in the moonlight. I glanced up at the night sky again. "It would be better if the stupid clouds would blow away, but still…”

I had only just spoken the words and a gust of wind whistled around me, suddenly blowing away the wispy clouds.

"Well, thanks.” I called aloud to nothing in particular. "That was a very convenient wind." The cat muttered, reminding me that I'd had the nerve to quit scratching her ears. "I think I'll call you Nala because you are a little lioness.” I told her, resuming my scratching. "You know, baby girl, I'm so glad I found you today; I really needed something good to happen to me after the night I've had. You would not believe?”

A weird smell drifted up to me. It was so odd that I broke off what I was saying. What was that? I sniffed and wrinkled my nose. It was a dry, old smell. Like a house that had been closed up for too long, or somebody's scary old basement. It wasn't a good smell, but it also wasn't so gross that it made me want to gag. It was just wrong. Like it didn't belong out here in the open at night.

Then something caught at the corner of my eyesight. I looked down the long, winding brick wall. Standing there, half turned away from me like she wasn't sure which way she wanted to go, was a girl. The light from the moon, and my new and improved fledgling ability to see well at night, let me see her even though there were no outside lights near this part of the wall. I felt myself tense. Had one of those hateful Dark Daughters followed me? No way did I feel like dealing with any more of their crap tonight.

I must have actually voiced the frustrated groan I thought I had made in my mind, because the girl looked up toward where I was sitting on top of the wall.

I gasped in shock and felt fear skitter through me.

It was Elizabeth! The Elizabeth No Last Name kid who was supposed to be dead. When she saw me her eyes, which were a weird, glowing red, widened and then she made an odd shrieking sound before whirling around and disappearing with inhuman speed into the night.

At the same instant, Nala arched her back and hissed with such ferocity that her little body shook.

"It's okay! It's okay!" I said over and over, trying to calm the cat and me. Both of us were shaking and Nala was still growling low in her throat. "It couldn't have been a ghost. It couldn't have been. It was just…just…a weird kid. I probably scared her and she?”

"Zoey! Zoey! Is that you?”

I jumped and almost fell off the wall. It was too much for Nala. She gave another tremendous hiss and leaped neatly from my lap to the ground. Completely and utterly freaked out, I grabbed the branch for balance and squinted out into the night.

"Who?who is it?" I called over the pounding of my heart. Then I was blinded by the beams of two flashlights aimed directly at me.

"Of course it's her! Like I couldn't recognize my own best friend's voice? Jeesh, she hasn't been gone that long!”

"Kayla?" I said, trying to shield my eyes from the glare of the flashlights with my hand, which was shaking like crazy.

"Well, I told you we'd find her," a guy's voice said. "You always want to give up too soon.”

"Heath?" Maybe I was dreaming.

"Yep! Whoo-hoo! We found ya, baby!" Heath yelled, and even in the awful flashlight glare I could see him hurl himself at the wall and then start to scramble up like a tall, blond, football-playing monkey.

Incredibly relieved it was him and not a boogie monster, I called down to him, "Heath! Be careful. If you fall you're going to break something." Well, unless he landed on his head?then he'd probably be okay.

"Not me!" he said, pulling himself up and over so that he was sitting beside me, straddling the wall. "Hey, Zoey, check it out?look at me; I'm king of the world!" He yelled, throwing out his arms, grinning like a total fool, and breathing alcohol-scented air all over me.

No wonder I'd refused to go out with him.

"Okay, there's no need to forever make fun of my unfortunate ex-infatuation with Leonardo!' I glared at him, feeling more like myself than I had in hours. "Actually, it's kinda like my unfortunate ex-infatuation with you. Only it didn't last as long, and you didn't make a bunch of cheesy but cool movies.”

"Hey, you're not still mad about Dustin and Drew are you? Forget them! They're retards." Heath said, giving me his puppy- dog look, which used to be really cute when he was in eighth grade. Too bad the cuteness had stopped working for him about two years ago. "And, anyway, we came all the way over here to bust you out.”

"What?" I shook my head and squinted at him. "Wait. Turn those flashlights off. They're killing my eyes.”

"If we turn them off we can't see," Heath said.

"Fine. Then turn them away. Uh, point them out there or something," I gestured out away from the school (and me). Heath turned the beam of the one he'd been clutching out into the night, and so did Kayla. I was able to drop my hand, which I was pleased to see had quit shaking, and stop squinting. Heath's eyes widened when he saw my Mark.

"Check it out! It's colored in now. Wow! It's like…like…on TV or something.”

Well, it was nice to see that some things never change. Heath was still Heath?cute, but not the brightest Crayola in the pack.

"Hey! What about me? I'm here too, ya know!" Kayla called. "Someone help me get up there, but be careful. Let me put my new purse down. Oh, and I better take off these shoes. Zoey, you would not believe the sale you missed yesterday at Bakers. All of their summer shoes totally on closeout. I mean, serious closeout. Seventy percent off. I got five pairs for….”

"Help her up," I told Heath. "Now. It's the only way she'll stop talking.”

Yep. Some things just didn't change.

Heath scooted around till he was on his belly, and then leaned down to offer his hands to Kayla. Giggling, she grabbed them and let him haul her up on top of the wall with us. And it was while she was giggling and he was hauling that I saw it?the unmistakable way Kayla grinned and giggled and blushed at Heath. I knew it as well as I knew I would never be a mathematician. Kayla liked Heath. Okay, not liked. She liked Heath.

Suddenly Heath's guilty comment about messing around on me at the party I'd missed made perfect sense.

"So how's Jared?" I asked abruptly, totally stopping K-babble's giggles.

"Okay, I guess,” she said without meeting my eyes.

"You guess?”

She moved her shoulders and I saw that under her very cute leather jacket she was wearing the tiny little cream lace cami we used to call the Boob Shirt, because not only did it show a lot of cleavage, but it was the color of skin, so it looked like it was showing even more than it actually was.

"I dunno. We haven't really talked much the past couple days or so.”

She still wouldn't look at me, but she did glance at Heath, who looked clueless?but that was really his only look. So my best friend was going after my boyfriend. Now that pissed me off, and for a second I wished it wasn't such a nice warm night. I wished it was cold and Kayla would freeze her over-developed boobies right off.

From the north the wind whipped around us suddenly, viciously, bringing an almost frightening chill.

Trying not to look obvious, Kayla pulled her jacket closed and giggled again, this time nervously instead of flirtatiously, and I got another big whiff of beer, and something else. Something that had been so recently imprinted into my senses that I was surprised I hadn't smelled it right away.

"Kayla you've been drinking and smoking?”

She shivered and blinked at me like a very slow rabbit. "Just a couple. Beers, I mean. And, well, um, Heath had one little bitty joint and I was really, really scared to come here, so I just had a couple tiny hits off it.”

"She needed some fortification," Heath said, but he's never been good with words over two syllables, so it sounded like fort-fi-ka-shun.

"Since when have you started smoking pot?" I asked Heath.

He grinned. "It's no big deal, Zo. I just have a joint once in a while. They're safer than cigarettes.”

I really hated it when he called me Zo.

"Heath," I tried to sound patient. "They are not safer than cigarettes, and even if they are that's not saying much. Cigarettes are disgusting and they kill you. And, seriously, the biggest losers at school smoke pot. Besides the fact that you really can not afford to kill any more brain cells." I almost added "or sperms," but I didn't want to go there. Heath would definitely get the wrong idea if I made a reference to his man parts.

"Nu uh," Kayla said.

"What Kayla?”

She was still clutching her jacket against the chill. Her eyes had changed from pitiful rabbit to sly, tail-twitchy cat. I recognized the change. She did it constantly with people she didn't consider part of her girlfriend group. It used to drive me crazy and I would yell at her and tell her she shouldn't be so mean. Now she was turning that crap on me?

"I said nu uh because not just losers smoke?at least not just once in a while. You know those two really hot running backs who play for Union, Chris Ford and Brad Higeons? I saw them at Katie's party the other night. They smoke.”

"Hey, they're not that hot," Heath said.

Kayla ignored him and kept talking. "And Morgan smokes sometimes.”

"Morgan, as in Morgie who's a Tigette?" Yes, I was pissed at K, but good gossip is good gossip.

"Yeah. She also just got her tongue and her"?K broke off and mouthed the word "clit"?"pierced. Can you imagine how much that must have hurt?”

"What? What did she get pierced?" Heath said.

"Nothing," K and I said together, for a moment sounding eerily like the best friends we used to be.

"Kayla, you're not staying on subject. Again. The Union football players have always been drug-happy. Hello! Please recall their steroid use, which is why it took sixteen years for us to beat them.”

"Go, Tigers! Yeah, we kicked Union's ass!" Heath said. I rolled my eyes at him.

"And Morgan has clearly begun losing her mind, which is why she's piercing her…" I glanced at Heath and reconsidered. "Her body and smoking. Tell me someone normal who's smoking." K thought for a second. "Me!”

I sighed. "Look, I just don't think it's smart.”

"Well, you don't always know everything." The hateful glint was back in her eyes.

I looked from her to Heath, and then back to her again. "Clearly, you're right. I don't know everything.”

Her mean look turned startled and then flattened out to mean again, and I suddenly couldn't help comparing her to Stevie Rae, who, even though I'd only known for a couple days, I was absolutely, totally sure would not ever go after my boyfriend, whether he was an almost-ex or not. I also didn't think she would run away from me and treat me like I was a monster when I needed her the most.

"I think you should leave," I said to Kayla.

"Fine," she said.

"It's probably not a good idea for you to come back again, either.”

She shrugged one shoulder so that her jacket fell open and I could see the thin strap of the cami slip down her shoulder, making it clear she wasn't wearing a bra.

"Whatever," she said.

"Help her get down, Heath.”

Heath was generally pretty good at following simple directions, so he hoisted Kayla down. She grabbed the flashlight and looked back up at us.

"Hurry up, Heath. I'm getting really cold." Then she spun around and started marching off toward the road.

"Well…," Heath said a little awkwardly. "It did get cold all of a sudden.”

"Yeah, it can quit now," I said absently, and didn't pay much attention when the wind suddenly stopped.

"Hey, uh, Zo. I really did come to bust you out.”

"No.”

"Huh?" Heath said.

"Heath, look at my forehead.”

"Yeah, you have that half moon thing. And it's colored in, which is weird because it wasn't colored in before.”

"Well, it is now. Okay, Heath, focus. I've been Marked. That means that my body is going through the Change to become a vampyre.”

Heath's eyes went from my Mark and traveled down my body. I saw them hesitate at my boobs and then my legs, which made me realize that they were showing all naked almost up to my crotch because my skirt had hiked up when I climbed on top of the wall.

"Zo, whatever's happening to your body is cool with me. You look seriously hot. You've always been beautiful, but now you look like a real goddess.” He smiled at me and touched my cheek gently, reminding me why I've liked him so much for such a long time. Despite his faults, Heath could be really sweet, and he always made me feel completely beautiful.

"Heath," I said softly. "I'm sorry, but things have changed.”

"Not with me they haven't.” Taking me completely by surprise he leaned forward, slid a hand up over my knee and kissed me.

I jerked back and grabbed his wrist. "Stop it Heath! I'm trying to talk to you.”

"How about you talk, and I kiss?" he whispered.

I started to tell him no again.

Then I felt it.

His pulse under my fingers.

It was beating hard and fast. I swear I could hear it, too. And as he leaned into me to kiss me again I could see the vein that ran along his neck. It moved, beating strong as the blood pumped through his body. Blood…His lips touched mine and I remembered the taste of the blood in the goblet. That blood had been cold and mixed with wine, and from a weak, loser kid who was a nothing. Heath's blood would be hot and rich…sweet…sweeter than Elliott the Refrigerator.…

"Ow! Damn, Zoey. You scratched me!" He jerked his wrist from my hand. "Shit, Zo, you made me bleed. If you didn't want me to kiss you, all you had to do was say so.”

He lifted his bleeding wrist to his mouth and sucked at the drop of blood that was glistening there. Then he raised his eyes to meet mine, and he froze. He had blood on his lips. I could smell it?it was like the wine, only better, worlds better. The scent of it wrapped around me and made the hair on my arms rise.

I wanted to taste it. I wanted to taste it more than anything I'd ever wanted in my life.

"I want…" I heard myself whisper in a voice I didn't know. "Yes…," Heath answered like he was in a trance. "Yes… whatever you want. I'll do whatever you want.”

This time I leaned into him and touched my tongue to his lip, taking the drop of blood into my mouth where it exploded? heat, sensation, and a rush of pleasure I'd never known.

"More," I rasped.

Like he'd lost the ability to speak and could only nod, Heath lifted his wrist to me. It was barely bleeding, and when I licked the tiny scarlet line Heath moaned. The touch of my tongue seemed to do something to the scratch, because instantly it started dripping blood, faster…faster…My hands were shaking as I raised his wrist to my mouth and pressed my lips against his warm skin. I shivered and moaned in pleasure and?

"Oh my God! What are you doing to him!" Kayla's voice was a scream that pierced through the scarlet fog in my brain. I dropped Heath's wrist as though it had burned me.

"Get away from him!" Kayla was shrieking. "Leave him alone!" Heath didn't move.

"Go," I told him. "Go and don't ever come back.”

"No," he said, looking and sounding oddly sober.

"Yes. Get out of here.”

"Let him go!" Kayla yelled.

"Kayla, if you don't shut up I'll fly down there and suck every last bit of blood from your stupid cheating cow body!" I spit the words at her.

She squealed and took off. I turned back to Heath, who was still staring at me.

"Now you need to go, too.”

"I'm not scared of you, Zo.”

"Heath, I'm scared of me enough for both of us.”

"But I don't mind what you did. I love you, Zoey. More now than I ever have.”

"Stop it!" I didn't mean to yell, but I caused him to flinch at the power that had filled my words. I swallowed hard and calmed my voice. "Just go. Please." Then, searching for some way to make him leave I added, "Kayla's probably going to get the cops right now. Neither of us needs that.”

"Okay, I'll go. But I won't stay away." He kissed me hard and quick. I felt a white-hot stab of pleasure when I tasted the blood that was still on our lips. Then he slid down the wall and disappeared into the darkness until all I could see of him was the little dot of light from his flashlight, and then, finally, not even that.

I wouldn't let myself think. Not yet. Moving methodically, like a robot, I used the branch to steady myself as I climbed down. My knees were shaking so badly that I was able to walk only the couple of feet to the tree where I sank down on the ground, pressing my back against the security of its ancient bark. Nala materialized, hopping into my lap as if she'd been my cat for years instead of minutes, and as my sobs started she crawled from my lap to my chest to press her warm face against my wet cheek.

After what seemed like a long time my sobs turned to hiccups and I wished I hadn't run out of the rec hall without my purse. I could really use a Kleenex.

"Here. You look like you need this.”

Nala complained as I jumped in surprise at the voice, and blinked up through my tears to see someone handing me a tissue. "Th-thanks," I said, taking it and wiping my nose.

"No problem," Erik Night said.

 
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CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

 

"Are you okay?”

"Yeah, I'm okay. Totally. Fine." I lied.

"You don't look fine," Erik said. "Mind if I sit down?”

"No, go ahead," I said listlessly. I knew my nose was bright red. I'd definitely been snotting on myself when he walked up, and I had the sneaking suspicion he'd witnessed at least part of the nightmare between Heath and me. The night was just getting worse and worse. I glanced at him and decided, What the hell, I might as well continue the trend. "In case you didn't realize it, it was me who saw that little scene between you and Aphrodite in the hall yesterday.”

He didn't even hesitate. "I know, and I wish you hadn't. I don't want you to get the wrong idea about me.”

"And what idea would that be?”

"That there's more going on between Aphrodite and me than there really is.”

"Not my business," I said.

He shrugged. "I just want you to know that she and I are not going out anymore.”

I almost said that it sure looked like Aphrodite wasn't aware of that, but then I thought about what had just happened between Heath and me, and with a sense of surprise I realized that maybe I shouldn't judge Erik too harshly.

"Okay. You guys aren't going out," I said.

He sat quietly beside me for a little while, and when he spoke again I thought he sounded almost angry. "Aphrodite didn't tell you about the blood in the wine.”

He hadn't said it like a question, but I answered anyway. "Nope.”

He shook his head and I saw his jaw tighten. "She told me she was going to. She said she'd let you know while you were changing your clothes so that if you weren't okay with it you could skip drinking from the goblet.”

"She lied.”

"Not a big surprise,” he said.

"Ya think?" I could feel my own anger building inside me. "This whole thing has just been wrong. I get pressured into going to the Dark Daughters' ritual where I'm tricked into drinking blood. Then I meet up with my almost-ex-boyfriend who just happens to be one hundred percent human, and no-damn-body bothered to explain to me that the tiniest speck of his blood would turn me into…into…a monster." I bit my lip and held on to my anger so I wouldn't start crying again. I also decided I wouldn't say anything about thinking I saw Elizabeth's ghost? that was too much weird to admit for one night.

"No one explained it to you because it's something that shouldn't have started to effect you until you were a sixth former," he said quietly.

"Huh?" I was back to being dazzlingly articulate.

"Bloodlust doesn't usually begin until you're a sixth former and you're almost completely Changed. Once in a while you'll hear about a fifth former who has to deal with it early, but that doesn't happen very often.”

"Wait?what are you saying?" My mind felt like bees were buzzing around in it.

"You start having classes about bloodlust and other things mature vamps have to deal with during your fifth form, and then, in your final year, that's mostly what school focuses on?that and whatever you've decided to major in.”

"But I'm a third former?barely I mean, I've only been Marked a few days.”

"Your Mark is different; you're different," he said.

"I don't want to be different!" I realized I was shouting and got my voice under control. "I just want to figure out how to get through this like everybody else.”

"Too late, Z," he said.

"So what now?”

"I think you'd better talk to your mentor. It's Neferet, isn't it?"

"Yeah," I said miserably.

"Hey, cheer up. Neferet's great. She hardly ever takes on fledglings to mentor anymore, so she must really believe in you.”

"I know, I know. It's just that this makes me feel…" How did I feel about talking to Neferet about what had happened tonight? Embarrassed. Like I was twelve years old again and I had to tell our male gym teacher that I'd started my period and had to go to the locker room to change my shorts. I peeked sideways at Erik. There he sat, gorgeous and attentive and perfect. Hell. I couldn't tell him that. So instead I blurted, "Stupid. It makes me feel stupid." Which wasn't actually a lie, but mostly what it made me feel, besides embarrassed and stupid, was scared. I didn't want this thing that made it impossible for me to fit in.

"Don't feel stupid. You're actually way ahead of the rest of us."

"So…," I hesitated, then took a deep breath and barreled on, "did you like the way the blood in the goblet tasted tonight?”

"Well, here's the deal with that: My first Full Moon Ritual with the Dark Daughters was at the end of my third former year. Except for the 'refrigerator' that night, I was the only third former there? just like you tonight.” He gave a small, humorless laugh. "They only invited me because I'd finaled in the Shakespeare soliloquy contest and was being flown to London for the competition the next day.” He glanced at me and looked a little embarrassed. "No one from this House of Night had ever made it to London. It was a big deal." He shook his head self-mockingly. "Actually, I thought I was a big deal. So the Dark Daughters invited me to join them, and I did. I knew about the blood. I was given the opportunity to turn it down. I didn't.”

"But did you like it?”

This time his laugh was real. "I gagged and puked my guts up. It was the most disgusting thing I'd ever tasted.”

I groaned. My head dropped forward and I put my face in my hands. "You're not helping me.”

"Because you thought it was good?”

"Better than good," I said, my face still in my hands. "You say it was the most disgusting thing you'd ever tasted? I thought it was the most delicious. Well, the most delicious until I?" I stopped, realizing what I had been about to say.

"Until you tasted fresh blood?" he asked gently.

I nodded my head, afraid to speak.

He tugged at my hands, making me unbury my face. Then he put his finger under my chin and forced me to look straight at him. "Don't be embarrassed or ashamed. It's normal.”

"Loving the taste of blood is not normal. Not for me.”

"Yes, it is. All vampyres have to deal with their lust for blood," he said.

"I am not a vampyre!”

"Maybe you're not?yet. But you're also definitely not the average fledgling, and there's nothing wrong with that. You're special, Zoey, and special can be amazing.”

Slowly, he took his finger from my chin and, as he had earlier that night, he traced the shape of a pentagram softly over my darkened Mark. I liked the way his finger felt against my skin? warm and a little rough. I also liked that being near him didn't set off all the weird reactions I'd had to being close to Heath. I mean, I couldn't hear Erik's blood beating or see the pulse in his neck jumping. Not that I'd mind if he kissed me.…

Hell! Was I becoming a vampyre slut? What was next? Would no male of any species (which might even include Damien) be safe around me? Maybe I should avoid all guys until I figured out what was going on with me and knew I could control myself.

Then I remembered that I had been trying to avoid everyone, which is why I was out here in the first place.

"What are you doing out here, Erik?”

"I followed you," he said simply.

“Why?”

"I figured I knew what Aphrodite had pulled in there and I thought you might need a friend. You're rooming with Stevie Rae, right?”

I nodded.

"Yeah, I thought about finding her and sending her out here to you, but I didn't know if you'd want her to know about…" He paused and made a vague gesture back in the direction of the rec hall.

"No! I?I don't want her to know." I stumbled over the words, I said them so fast.

"That's what I thought. So, that's why you're stuck with me." He smiled and then looked kinda uncomfortable. "I really didn't mean to listen in between you and Heath. Sorry about that.”

I focused on petting Nala. So, he'd watched Heath kiss me, and then saw the whole blood thing. God, how embarrassing…Then a thought struck me and I glanced up at him, smiling ironically. "I guess that makes us even. I didn't mean to listen in between you and Aphrodite, either.”

He smiled back at me. "We're even. I like that.”

His smile made my stomach do funny things. "I wouldn't really have flown down and sucked Kayla's blood," I managed to say.

He laughed. (He had a really nice laugh.) "I know that. Vampyres can't fly.”

"It freaked her out, though," I said.

"From what I saw, she deserved it." He waited a beat and then said, "Can I ask you something? It's kinda personal.”

"Hey, you've seen me drink blood from a cup and like it, puke, kiss a guy, lick his blood like I'm a puppy, and then bawl my eyes out. And I've seen you turn down a blow job. I think I can manage to answer a kinda personal question.”

"Was he really in a trance? He looked like it and he sounded like it.”

I squirmed uncomfortably and Nala complained at me till I petted her quiet.

"It seemed like he was," I finally managed to say. "I don't know if it was a trance or not?and I totally didn't mean to put him under my power or anything freaky like that?but he did change. I dunno. He'd been smoking and drinking. He might have just been high." I heard Heath's voice again, rising from my memory like a cloying mist: Yes…whatever you want…I'll do whatever you want. And I saw that intense look he'd given me. Hell, I hadn't even known Heath the Jock was capable of that kind of intensity (at least off the football field). I knew for sure he couldn't spell the word (intensity, not football).

"Had he been like that the whole time, or just after you…um…started to?”

"Not the whole time. Why?”

"Well, that rules out two things that could have been making him act weird. One?if he was just high then he would have been like that the whole time. Two?he might have been acting like that because you're really pretty, and that alone could make a guy feel like he's in a trance around you.”

His words made something flutter low in my stomach again? something that no guy had made me feel before. Not Heath the Jock, or Jordon the Sloth, or Jonathan the Stupid Band Kid (my dating history isn't long, but it's colorful).

"Really?" I said like a moron.

"Really." He smiled very unmoronically.

How could this guy like me? I'm a blood-drinking dork.

"But that wasn't it either, because he should have noticed how hot you look even before you kissed him, and what you're saying is that he didn't seem entranced until after blood came into the picture.”

(Entranced?hee hee?he actually said entranced.) I was too busy grinning stupidly at his use of complex vocab to think before I answered him. "Actually, it happened when I started to hear his blood.”

"Say again?”

Ah, crap. I hadn't meant to say that. I cleared my throat. "Heath started to change when I heard the blood pounding through his veins.”

"Only adult vamps can hear that.” He paused and then, with a quick smile added, "And Heath sounds like the name of a gay soap opera star.”

"Close. He's BA's star quarterback.”

Erik nodded and looked amused.

"Uh, by the way, I like what you changed your name to. Night is a cool last name," I said, trying to hold up my end of the conversation and say something even slightly insightful.

His smile widened. "I didn't change it. Erik Night is the name I was born with.”

"Oh, well. I like it." Why didn't someone just shoot me?

"Thanks.”

He glanced at his watch and I could see that it was almost six thirty?in the A.M., which still seemed freaky.

"It'll be getting light soon," he said.

Guessing that this was our cue for us to go our separate ways, I started to gather my feet under me and get a better hold on Nala so I could stand up, and I felt Erik's hand under my elbow, steadying me. He helped me up and then just stood there, so close that Nala's tail was brushing against his black sweater.

"I'd ask if you wanted to get something to eat, but the only place serving food right now is the rec hall, and I don't think you want to go back there.”

"No, definitely not. But I'm not hungry anyway." Which, I realized as soon as I said it, was a big lie. At the mention of food I was suddenly starving.

"Well, do you mind if I walk you back to your dorm?" he asked.

"Nope," I said, trying to be nonchalant.

Stevie Rae, Damien, and the Twins would totally die if they saw me with Erik.

We didn't say anything as we started walking, but it wasn't an awkward, uncomfortable silence. Actually, it was nice. Once in a while our arms would brush against each other and I thought about how tall and cute he was and how much I'd like him to hold my hand.

"Oh," he said after a while, "I didn't finish answering your question before. The first time I tasted blood at one of the Dark Daughters' rituals I hated it, but it got better and better each time. I can't say I think it's delicious, but it's grown on me. And I definitely like the way it makes me feel.”

I looked sharply at him. "Dizzy and kinda weak-kneed? Like you're drunk, only you're not.”

"Yeah. Hey, did you know it's impossible for a vamp to get drunk?" I shook my head. "It's something about what the Change does to our metabolism. It's even tough for fledglings to get wasted.”

"So drinking blood is the way vamps get wasted?”

He shrugged. "I suppose. Anyway, drinking human blood is forbidden for fledglings.”

"Well then why hasn't anyone clued the teachers in on what Aphrodite's up to?”

"She's not drinking human blood.”

"Uh, Erik, I was there. Blood was definitely in the wine and it came from that Elliott kid.” I shuddered. "And what a gross choice he was, too.”

"But he's not human," Erik said.

"Wait?it's forbidden to drink human blood," I said slowly. (Oh, hell! That's what I'd just done.) "But it's okay to drink another fledgling's blood?”

"Only if it's consensual.”

"That makes no sense.”

"Sure it does. It's normal for our bloodlust to develop as our bodies Change, so we need an outlet. Fledglings heal quickly, so there's no real chance of someone getting hurt. And there aren't any aftereffects, like when a vamp feeds off a living human.”

What he was saying was banging through my head like the annoying, too-loud music that blared in Wet Seal, and I grasped the first thing I could think clearly about. "Living human?" I squeaked. "Tell me you don't mean versus feeding off a corpse." I was feeling a little nauseous again.

He laughed. "No, I mean versus drinking blood harvested from the vamps' blood donors.”

"Never heard of such a thing.”

"Most humans haven't. You won't learn about it until you're a fifth former.”

Then some more of what he'd said broke through the confusion that was my mind. "What did you mean by aftereffects?”

"We just started learning about it in Vamp Sociology 312. Seems that when an adult vampyre feeds from a living human, there can be a very strong bond formed. It's not always on the part of the vamp, but humans become infatuated pretty easily. It's dangerous for the human. I mean, think about it. The blood loss alone isn't a good thing. Then add that to the fact that we outlive humans by decades, sometimes even centuries. Look at it from a human's point of view; it would really suck to be totally in love with someone who never seems to age while you get old and wrinkled and then die.”

Again I thought about the dazed but intense way Heath had looked at me, and I knew that, no matter how hard it might be, I'd have to tell Neferet everything.

"Yep, that would suck," I said faintly.

"Here we are.”

I was surprised to see that we'd stopped in front of the girl's dorm. I looked up at him.

"Well, thanks for following me?I think," I said, with a wry smile.

"Hey, any time you want someone to butt in when he's not invited, I'm the guy for you.”

"I'll keep that in mind," I said. "Thanks." I hefted Nala up on my hip and started to open the door.

"Hey, Z," he called.

I turned back.

"Don't give back the dress to Aphrodite. By her including you in the circle tonight she formally offered you a position in the Dark Daughters, and it's tradition that the High Priestess in training gives a gift to the new member on her first night. I don't imagine you'll want to join, but you still have the right to keep the dress. Especially because you look so much better in it than she ever did." He reached forward and took my hand (the one that wasn't clutching my cat), and turned it over so that my wrist faced up. Then he took his finger and traced the vein that was close to the surface there, making my pulse jump crazily.

"And you should also know that I'm the guy for you if you decide you might like to try another sip of blood. Keep that in mind, too.”

Erik bent and, still looking in my eyes, he lightly bit the pulse point at my wrist before kissing the spot softly. This time the fluttery feeling in my stomach was more intense. It made the inside of my thighs tingle and my breathing deepen. His lips still on my wrist he met my eyes and I felt a shiver of desire pass through my body. I knew he could feel me tremble. He let his tongue flick against my wrist, which made me shiver again. Then he smiled at me and walked away into the pre-dawn light.

 
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CHAPTER NINETEEN

 

My wrist was still tingling from Erik's totally unexpected kiss (and bite and lick), and I wasn't sure I could speak yet, so I was relieved that there were only a few girls in the big entry room, and they did little more than glance at me before they went back to watching what sounded like America's Next Top Model. I hurried into the kitchen and plunked Nala down on the floor, hoping she wouldn't run off while I made a sandwich. She didn't; actually she followed me around the room like a little orange dog, complaining at me in her weird non-meow. I kept telling her "I know" and "I understand" because I figured she was yelling at me about what a moron I'd been tonight, and, well, she was right. Sandwich made, I grabbed a bag of pretzels (Stevie Rae had been right, I couldn't find any decent junk food in any of the cabinets), some brown pop (I don't really care what kind, just so that it's brown and not diet?eesh), and my cat, and I slipped up the stairs.

"Zoey! I've been so worried about you! Tell me everything.” Curled up in bed with a book, Stevie Rae was obviously waiting up for me. She was wearing her pajamas that had cowboy hats all over the drawstring cotton pants, and her short hair was sticking out on one side as if she'd fallen asleep on it. I swear she looked about twelve years old.

"Well," I said brightly. "Looks like we have a pet." I turned so that Stevie Rae could see Nala squished against my hip. "Here, help me before I drop something. If it's the cat she'll probably never stop complaining.”

"She's adorable!" Stevie Rae leaped up and rushed over to try to take Nala from me, but the cat clung to me as though someone would kill her if she let go, so Stevie Rae took my food instead and set it on my bedside table.

"Hey, that dress is amazing.”

"Yeah, I changed before the ritual." Which reminded me that I was going to have to give it back to Aphrodite. Fine. I was not keeping the "gift," even though Erik had said I should. Anyway, returning it seemed like a good time to "thank" her for "forgetting" to clue me in about the blood. Hag bitch.

"So…how was it?”

I sat on my bed and gave Nala a pretzel, which she promptly started batting around (at least she'd stopped complaining), then I took a big bite of sandwich. Yes, I was hungry, but I was also buying time. I didn't know what I should tell Stevie Rae, and what I shouldn't. The blood thing was just so confusing?and so gross. Would she think I was awful? Would she be scared of me?

I swallowed and decided to steer the conversation to a safer topic. "Erik Night walked me home.”

"Get out!" She bobbed up and down on the bed like a country jack-in-the-box. "Tell me everything.”

"He kissed me," I said, crinkling my eyebrows at her.

"You have got to be kidding! Where? How? Was it good?”

"He kissed my hand." I decided quickly to lie. I didn't want to explain the whole wrist/pulse/blood/bite thing. "It was when he said good night. We were right in front of the dorm. And, yes, it was good." I grinned at her around another mouthful of sandwich.

"I'll bet Aphrodite shit puppies when you left the rec hall with him.”

"Well, actually, I left before him and he caught up with me. I'd, uh, gone for a walk along the wall, which is where I found Nala," I scratched the cat's head. She curled up next to me, closed her eyes, and started purring. "Actually, I think she found me. Anyway, I had climbed up on the wall because I thought she needed rescuing, and then?and you will not believe this?I saw something that looked like Elizabeth's ghost, and then my almost-ex-boyfriend from SIHS, Heath, and my ex–best friend showed up.”

"What? Who? Slow down. Start with Elizabeth's ghost.”

I shook my head and chewed. Through bites of sandwich I explained. "It was really creepy and really weird. I was sitting up there on the wall petting Nala, and something caught my attention. I looked down and there was this girl standing not too far away from me. She looked up at me, with red glowing eyes, and I swear it was Elizabeth.”

"No way! Were you totally freaked?”

"Totally. The second she saw me she gave this horrible shriek and then ran off.”

"I would have been scared shitless.”

"I was, only I hardly had time to think about it when Heath and Kayla showed up.”

"What do you mean? How could they be here?”

"No, not here, they were outside the wall. They must have heard me trying to settle Nala down after she completely freaked at Elizabeth's ghost, because they came running up.”

"Nala saw her, too?”

I nodded.

Stevie Rae shivered. "Then she must have really been there."

"Are you sure she's dead?" My voice was almost a whisper. "There couldn't have been some mistake made and she's still alive but wandering around the school?" It sounded ridiculous, but not much more ridiculous than me seeing an actual ghost.

Stevie Rae swallowed hard. "She's dead. I saw her die. Everyone in class did.”

She looked like she was going to cry and the whole subject was creeping me out, so I shifted to a less scary topic. "Well, I could be wrong. Maybe it was just some kid with weird eyes who looked like her. It was dark, and then Heath and Kayla were suddenly there.”

"What was that all about?”

"Heath said they came to 'bust me out’," I rolled my eyes. "Can you imagine?”

"Are they stupid?”

"Apparently. Oh, and then Kayla, my ex-best friend, made it obvious that she's after Heath!”

Stevie Rae gasped. "Slut!”

"No kidding. Anyway, I told them to leave and not come back, and then I got upset, which is when Erik found me.”

"Aww! Was he sweet and romantic?”

"Yeah, he was, kinda. And he called me Z.”

"O000h, a nickname is a seriously good sign.”

"That's what I thought.”

"So then he walked you back to the dorm?”

"Yeah, he said that he'd take me to get something to eat, but the only thing that was still open was the rec hall, and I didn't want to go back there." Ah, crap. I knew right away that I shouldn't have said that much.

"Were the Dark Daughters awful?”

I looked at Stevie Rae with her big deer-like eyes, and knew I couldn't tell her about drinking blood. Not yet. "Well, you know how Neferet was sexy and beautiful and classy?”

Stevie Rae nodded.

"Aphrodite did basically what Neferet did, but she looked like a ho.”

"I've always thought that she was really nasty," Stevie Rae said, shaking her head in disgust.

"Tell me about it." I looked at Stevie Rae and blurted, "Yesterday, right before Neferet took me here to the dorm I saw Aphrodite trying to give Erik a blow job.”

"No way! Jeesh, she's disgusting. Wait, you said she was trying to do it. What's up with that?”

"He was telling her no and pushing her away. He said he didn't want her anymore.”

Stevie Rae giggled. "I'll bet that made her lose what little of her mind she has left.”

I remembered how she'd been all over him, even when he was clearly telling her no. "Actually, I would have felt sorry for her if she hadn't been so…so…" I struggled to put it into words.

"Hag from hell–like?" Stevie Rae offered helpfully.

"Yeah, I guess that's it. She has this attitude, like it's her right to be as mean and nasty as she wants to be, and we should all just bow down and accept her.”

Stevie Rae nodded. "That's how her friends are, too."

"Yeah, I met the awful triplets.”

"You mean Warlike, Terrible, and Wasp?”

"Exactly. What were they thinking when they took those horrid names?" I said, popping pretzels in my mouth.

"They were thinking exactly what that entire group of hers thinks?that they are better than everyone else and untouchable because nasty Aphrodite is going to be the next High Priestess.”

I spoke the next words as they whispered through my mind. "I don't think Nyx will allow that.”

"What do you mean? They are already the 'in' group, and Aphrodite has been leader of the Dark Daughters since her affinity became obvious during her fifth former year.”

"What's her affinity?”

"She gets visions, like of future tragedies," Stevie Rae scowled.

"Do you think she fakes them?”

"Oh, heck no! She's amazingly accurate. What I think, and Damien and the Twins agree with me, is that she only tells about the visions if she has one when she's around people outside her little group.”

"Wait, are you saying she knows about bad things that are going to happen in time to stop them, but she doesn't do anything about it?”

"Yep. Last week she had a vision during lunch, but the hags closed ranks around her and started leading her out of the dining hall. If Damien hadn't run right into them because he was late and hurrying in to lunch, making them scatter so that he could see that Aphrodite was in the middle of a vision, no one would ever have known. And a whole plane full of people would probably be dead.”

I choked on a pretzel. Between coughs I sputtered, "A plane full of people! What the hell?”

"Yeah, Damien could tell Aphrodite was having a vision, so he got Neferet. Aphrodite had to tell her the vision, which was seeing a jet crash just after takeoff. Her visions are so clear that she could describe the airport and read the numbers on the tail of the plane. Neferet took that info and contacted the Denver airport. They double-checked the plane and found some problem that they hadn't noticed before, and said that if they hadn't fixed it the plane would have crashed immediately after takeoff. But I know darn well Aphrodite wouldn't have said a word if she hadn't been caught, even though she made up a big lie about her friends leading her from the dining hall because they knew she'd want to be taken to Neferet right away. Total b.s.”

I started to say that I couldn't believe that even Aphrodite and her hags would purposefully allow the death of hundreds of people, but then I remembered the hateful stuff they'd said that night? Human men suck…They should all die? I realized they hadn't just been talking; they'd been serious.

"So why didn't Aphrodite lie to Neferet? You know, tell her a different airport or switch the numbers of the plane around or something?”

"Vamps are almost impossible to lie to, especially when they ask you a direct question. And, remember, Aphrodite wants to be a High Priestess more than anything. If Neferet believed she was as twisted as she is, it would seriously hurt her future plans.”

"Aphrodite has no business being a High Priestess. She's selfish and hateful, and so are her friends.”

"Yeah, well, Neferet doesn't think so, and she was her mentor.”

I blinked in surprise. "You've got to be kidding! And she doesn't see through Aphrodite's crap?" That couldn't be right; Neferet is way smarter than that.

Stevie Rae shrugged. "She acts different around Neferet."

"But still…”

"And she does have a powerful affinity, which has to mean that Nyx has special plans for her.”

"Or she's a demon from hell, and she gets her power from the dark side. Hello! Has no one seen Star Wars? It was hard to believe Anakin Skywalker would turn, and look what happened there.”

"Uh, Zoey. That's like total fiction.”

"Still, I think it makes a good point.”

"Well, try telling that to Neferet.”

I chewed my sandwich and thought about it. Maybe I should. Neferet did seem way too smart to fall for Aphrodite's games. She probably already knew something was up with the hags. Maybe all she needed was someone to stand up and say something to her.

"So, has anyone ever tried to tell Neferet about Aphrodite?" I asked.

"Not that I know of.”

"Why not?”

Stevie Rae looked uncomfortable. "Well, I think it seems kinda tattletale-like. Anyway, what would we tell Neferet? That we think Aphrodite might hide her visions, but that the only proof we have is that she's a hateful bitch.” Stevie Rae shook her head. "No, I can't see that going over very well with Neferet. Plus, if by some miracle she believed us, what would Neferet do? It's not like she's going to kick her out of the school so she can cough herself to death on the streets. She'd still be here with her pack of hags and all those guys who would do anything for her if she snapped her little clawed fingers at them. I guess it's just not worth it.”

Stevie Rae had a point, but I didn't like it. I really, really didn't like it.

Things might be different if a more powerful fledgling took Aphrodite's place as leader of the Dark Daughters.

I jumped guiltily, and covered it by taking a big gulp of pop. What was I thinking? I wasn't power hungry. I didn't want to be a High Priestess or get caught up in a pain-in-the-ass battle with Aphrodite and half the school (the more attractive half, at that). I just wanted to find a place for myself in this new life, a place that felt like home?a place where I fit in and was like the rest of the kids.

Then I remembered the electric jolts I'd felt during the casting of both circles, and how the elements had seemed to sizzle through my body, and also how I had had to force myself to stay in the circle and not join Aphrodite in the casting.

"Stevie Rae, when a circle's being cast, do you feel anything?" I asked abruptly.

"What do you mean?”

"Well, like when fire's called to the circle. Do you ever feel hot?”

"Nah. I mean, I really like the circle stuff, and sometimes when Neferet is praying I feel a zap of energy traveling through the circle itself, but that's it.”

"So you've never felt a breeze when wind's called, or smelled rain with water, or felt grass under your feet with earth?”

"No way. Only a High Priestess with a major affinity for the elements would?" She broke off suddenly and her eyes got huge. "Are you saying that you felt that stuff? Any of that stuff?”

I squirmed. "Maybe.”

"Maybe!" she squeaked. "Zoey! Do you have any idea what this could mean?”

I shook my head.

"Just last week in Soc class we were studying about the most famous vamp High Priestesses in history. There hasn't been a priestess with an affinity for all four of the elements for hundreds of years.”

"Five," I said miserably.

"All five! You felt something with spirit, too!”

"Yeah, I think so.”

"Zoey! This is amazing. I don't think there's ever been a High Priestess who felt all five of the elements." She nodded at my Mark. "It's that. It means you're different, and you really are.”

"Stevie Rae, can we just keep this between us for a while? I mean, not even tell Damien or the Twins? I just?I just want to try to figure this out on my own a little. I feel like everything's happening too fast.”

"But Zoey, I?”

"And I might be wrong," I interrupted quickly. "What if I was just excited and nervous because I'd never been in a ritual before? Do you know how embarrassed I'd be if I told people 'hey, I'm the only fledgling ever to have an affinity for all the elements' and it turned out to be nerves?”

Stevie Rae chewed her cheek. "I dunno, I still think you should tell someone.”

"Yeah, then Aphrodite and her herd could be right there to gloat if it turned out that I was imagining things.”

Stevie Rae paled. "Oh, man. You're totally right. That would be really awful. I won't say anything till you're ready. Promise.”

Her reaction reminded me. "Hey, what is it Aphrodite did to you?”

Stevie Rae looked down at her lap, clasped her hands together, and hunched her shoulders as if she suddenly felt a chill. "She invited me to a ritual. I hadn't been here very long, only about a month or so, and I was kinda excited that the 'in' group wanted me.” She shook her head, still not looking at me. "It was stupid of me, but I didn't really know anyone very well yet, and I thought maybe they would be my friends. So I went. But they didn't want me to be one of them. They wanted me to be a?a?blood donor for their ritual. They even called me 'refrigerator: like I wasn't good for anything except holding blood for them. They made me cry and when I said no they laughed at me and kicked me out. That's how I met Damien, and then Erin and Shaunee. They were hanging out together and they saw me run out of the rec hall, so they followed me and told me not to worry about it. They've been my friends ever since." She finally looked up at me. "I'm sorry. I would have said something to you before, except I knew they wouldn't try that with you. You're too strong, and Aphrodite is too curious about your Mark. Plus, you're beautiful enough to be one of them.”

"Hey, so are you!" I felt sick to my stomach thinking about Stevie Rae being slumped in the chair like Elliott…about drinking Stevie Rae's blood.

"No, I'm just kinda cute. I'm not them.”

"I'm not them, either!" I yelled, causing Nala to wake up and mutter restlessly at me.

"I know you're not. That's not what I meant. I just meant that I knew they would want you in their group, so they wouldn't try to use you like that.”

No, they managed to trick me and tried their best to freak me out. But why? Wait! I knew what they'd been up to. Erik said that the first time he drank blood he'd hated it, and had run out puking. I'd been here only two days. They'd wanted to do something that would disgust me so badly that I'd be scared away from them and their ritual forever.

They didn't want me to be part of the Dark Daughters, but they also didn't want to tell Neferet they didn't want me. Instead, they wanted me to refuse to join them. For whatever twisted reason, bully Aphrodite wanted to keep me out of the Dark Daughters. Bullies have always pissed me off, which meant, unfortunately, I knew what I had to do.

Ah, crap. I was going to join the Dark Daughters.

"Zoey, you're not mad at me, are you?" Stevie Rae said in a small voice.

I blinked, trying to clear my thoughts. "Of course not! You were right; Aphrodite didn't try to get me to do anything like giving blood." I popped the last bite of sandwich into my mouth, chewing fast. "Hey, I'm really beat. Do you think you could help me find a litter box for Nala so that I can get some sleep?”

Stevie Rae instantly brightened, and hopped off the bed with her usual perkiness. "Check this out." She practically skipped to the side of the room and held up a big green bag that had

FELICIA'S SOUTHERN AGRICULTURE STORE, 2616 S. HARVARD,TULSA

printed in bold white letters across it. From it she dumped onto the floor a litter box, food and water dishes, a box of Friskies cat food (with extra hairball protection), and a sack of kitty litter.

"How did you know?”

"I didn't. It was sitting in front of our door when I got back from dinner.” She reached into the bottom of the bag and pulled out an envelope and an adorable pink leather collar that had miniature silver spikes all around it.

"Here, this is for you.”

She handed me the envelope, which I could now see had my name printed on it, while she coaxed Nala into her collar. Inside, written in a beautiful, flowing script on expensive bone-colored stationary was one line.

Skylar told me she was coming.It was signed with a single letter: N.
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 CHAPTER TWENTY

 

I was going to have to talk to Neferet. I thought about it as Stevie Rae and I rushed through breakfast the next morning. I didn't want to tell her anything about my supposed strange reaction to the elements?I mean, I hadn't been lying to Stevie Rae. I could have imagined the entire thing. What if I tell Neferet and she makes me take some kind of weird affinity test (in this school, who knew?) and she finds out that I don't have anything other than an overactive imagination? No way did I want to go through something like that. I'd just keep my mouth shut until I knew more about it. I also didn't want to say anything to her about thinking I might have seen Elizabeth's ghost. Like I wanted Neferet to think I was psycho? Neferet was cool, but she was an adult, and I could almost hear the "it was just your imagination because you'd been through so many changes" lecture I would get if I admitted to seeing a ghost. But I did need to talk to her about the bloodlust thing. (Yeesh?if I liked it so much why did the thought of it still make me feel queasy?)

"Ya think she's going to follow you to class?" Stevie Rae said, pointing to Nala.

I looked down at my feet where the cat lay curled, purring contentedly. "Can she?”

"Do you mean, is she allowed?”

I nodded.

"Yeah, cats can go anywhere they want.”

"Huh," I said, reaching down to scratch the top of her head. "I guess she might follow me around all day then.”

"Well, I'm glad she's yours and not mine. From what I saw when the alarm when off, she's a serious pillow-hogger.”

I laughed. "You're right about that. How such a petite girl could push me off my own pillow, I do not know." I gave her head one more scratch. "Let's go. We're gonna be late.”

I stood up with my bowl in my hand, and almost ran smack into Aphrodite. She was, as usual, flanked by Terrible and Warlike. Wasp was nowhere to be seen (maybe she'd taken a shower this morning and melted when the water touched her?hee hee). Aphrodite's nasty smile reminded me of a piranha I'd seen at the Jenks Aquarium when my biology class went there last year on a field trip.

"Hi, Zoey. Gosh, you left in such a hurry last night I didn't get a chance to say bye. Sorry you didn't have a good time. It's too bad, but the Dark Daughters isn't for everyone." She glanced at Stevie Rae and curled her lip.

"Actually, I had a great time last night, and I absolutely love the dress you gave me!" I gushed. "Thank you for inviting me to join the Dark Daughters. I accept. Totally.”

Aphrodite's feral smile flattened. "Really?”

I grinned like an utterly clueless fool. "Really! When's the next meeting or ritual or whatever?or should I just ask Neferet? I'm going to see her this morning. I know she'll be happy to hear how welcome you made me feel last night and that I'm now a Dark Daughter.”

Aphrodite hesitated for just a moment. Then she smiled again and matched my clueless tone of voice perfectly. "Yes, I bet Neferet will be glad to hear you've joined us, but I am the leader of the Dark Daughters and I know our schedule by heart, so there's no need to bother her with silly questions. Tomorrow is our Samhain celebration. Wear your dress," she emphasized the word, and my smile widened. I'd meant to get to her and I had. "And meet at the rec hall right after dinner, four thirty A.M., sharp.”

"Great. I'll be there.”

"Good, what a nice surprise," she said slickly. Then, followed by Terrible and Warlike (who looked vaguely shell-shocked), the three of them left the kitchen.

"Hags from hell," I muttered under my breath. I glanced at Stevie Rae, who was staring at me with a stricken expression frozen on her face.

"You're joining them?" she whispered.

"It's not what you think. Come on, I'll tell you on the way to class." I put our breakfast dishes in a dishwasher and herded the too quiet Stevie Rae out of the dorm. Nala padded after us, occasionally hissing at any cat who dared wander too close to me on the sidewalk. "I'm reconnoitering, just like you said last night," I explained.

"No. I don't like it," she said, shaking her head so hard she made her short hair bounce crazily.

"Have you never heard of the old saying 'keep your friends close and your enemies closer'?”

"Yeah, but?”

"That's all I'm doing. Aphrodite gets away with too much crap. She's mean. She's selfish. She can't be what Nyx wants for a High Priestess.”

Stevie Rae's eyes got huge. "You're going to stop her?”

"Well, I'm gonna try." And as I spoke I felt the sapphire crescent moon on my forehead tingle.

* * *

"Thanks for the cat things you got for Nala," I said.

Neferet looked up from the paper she was grading and smiled. "Nala?that's a good name for her, but you should thank Skylar, not me. He's the one who told me she was coming." Then she glanced at the orange ball of fur that was impatiently twining between my legs. "She's really attached to you." Her eyes lifted again to meet mine. "Tell me, Zoey, do you ever hear her voice inside your head, or know exactly where she is, even when she's not in the same room as you?”

I blinked. Neferet thought I might have an affinity for cats! "No, I?I don't hear her in my head. But she does complain at me a lot. And I wouldn't know about whether or not I know where she is when she's not with me. She's always with me.”

"She is delightful." Neferet crooked a finger at Nala and said, "Come to me, child.”

Instantly, Nala padded over and jumped up on Neferet's desk, scattering papers everywhere.

"Oh, gosh, I'm sorry, Neferet." I grabbed for Nala, but Neferet waved me away. She scratched Nala's head, and the cat closed her eyes and purred.

"Cats are always welcome, and papers are easily reorganized. Now, what is it you really wanted to speak with me about, Zoeybird?”

Her use of my grandma's nickname for me made my heart hurt, and I suddenly missed her with an intensity that had me blinking tears from my eyes.

"Are you missing your old home?" Neferet asked softly.

"No, not really. Well, except for Grandma, but I've been so busy that I guess I just now realized it," I said guiltily.

"You don't miss your mother and father.”

It wasn't like she'd said it as a question, but I felt that I needed to answer her. "No. Well, I don't really have a dad. He left us when I was little. My mom remarried three years ago and, well…”

"You can tell me. I give you my word that I will understand," Neferet said.

"I hate him!" I said with more anger than I'd expected to feel. "Since he joined our family"?I said the word sarcastically? "nothing has been right. My mom totally changed. It's like she can't be his wife and my mother anymore. It hasn't been my home for a long time.”

"My mother died when I was ten years old. My father did not remarry. Instead, he began to use me as his wife. From the time I was ten until Nyx saved me by Marking me when I was fifteen, he abused me." Neferet paused and let the shock of what she was saying settle into me before she continued. "So you see, when I say that I understand what it is to have your home become an unbearable place I am not just spouting platitudes.”

"That's awful.” I didn't know what else to say.

"It was then. Now it is simply another memory. Zoey, humans in your past, and even in your present and future, will become less and less important to you until, eventually, you will feel very little for them. You'll understand this more as you continue to Change.”

There was a cold flatness to her voice that made me feel odd, and I heard myself saying, "I don't want to stop caring about my grandma.”

"Of course you don't.” She was back to being warm and caring again. "It's only nine P.M., why don't you call her? You can be late to Drama class; I'll let Professor Nolan know that you are excused.”

"Thank you, I'd like that. But it's not what I wanted to talk to you about." I took a deep breath. "I drank blood last night.”

Neferet nodded. "Yes, the Dark Daughters often mix fledgling blood with their ritual wine. It's something the young like to do. Did it upset you greatly, Zoey?”

"Well, I didn't know about it until afterward. Then, yes, it did upset me.”

Neferet frowned. "It wasn't ethical of Aphrodite not to tell you before. You should have had a choice about partaking. I'll speak with her.”

"No!" I said a little too quickly, and then I forced myself to sound calmer. "No, there's really no need. I'll take care of it. I've decided to join the Dark Daughters, so I don't want to start off by looking like I set out to get Aphrodite in trouble.”

"You're probably right. Aphrodite can be rather temperamental, and I trust that you can take care of it yourself, Zoey. We do like to encourage fledglings to solve the problems they have with each other among themselves whenever possible." She studied me, concern obvious in her face. "It's normal for the first few tastes of blood to be less than appetizing. You'd know that if you had been with us longer.”

"It's not that. It?it tasted really good. Erik told me that mine was an unusual reaction.”

Neferet's perfect brows shot up. "It is, indeed. Did you also feel dizzy or exhilarated?”

"Both," I said softly.

Neferet glanced at my Mark. "You are unique, Zoey Redbird. Well, I think it would be best to pull you out of this section of Sociology, and move you into a Sociology 415.

"I'd really rather you didn't do that," I said quickly. "I already feel like enough of a freak with everyone staring at my Mark and watching to see if I'll do something weird. If you move me into a class with kids who have been here for three years, they'll really think I'm bizarre.”

Neferet hesitated, scratching Nala's head while she considered.

"I understand what you mean, Zoey. I haven't been a teenager for over one hundred years, but vampyres have long, accurate memories, and I do recall what it was like to go through the Change.” She sighed. "Okay, how about a compromise? I'll allow you to stay in the third former Soc class, but I want to give you the text we use in the upper-level class, and have you agree to read a chapter a week, and promise that you'll discuss any questions you have with me.”

"Deal," I said.

"You know, Zoey, as you Change, you literally are becoming an entirely new being. A vampyre is not a human, although we are humane. It may sound reprehensible to you now, but your desire for blood is as normal for your new life as your desire for"?she paused and smiled?"brown pop has been in your old life.”

"Jeesh! Do you know everything?”

"Nyx has gifted me generously. Besides my affinity for our lovely felines and my abilities as a healer, I am also an intuitive.”

"You can read my mind?" I asked nervously.

"Not exactly. But I can pick up bits and pieces of things. For instance, I know that there's something else you need to tell me about last night.”

I drew a deep breath. "I was upset after I found out about the blood, so I ran out of the rec hall. That's how I found Nala. She was in a tree that was real close to the school's wall. I thought she was stuck up there, so I climbed up on the wall to get her and, well, while I was talking to her two kids from my old school found me.”

"What happened?" Neferet's hand had stilled; she was no longer petting Nala, and I had all of her attention.

"It wasn't good. They?they were wasted, high and drunk." Okay, I hadn't meant to blurt that!

"Did they try to hurt you?”

"No, nothing like that. It was my ex–best friend and my almost-ex-boyfriend.”

Neferet raised her brow at me again.

"Well, I'd quit going out with him, but he and I still had a thing for each other.”

She nodded as though she understood. "Go on.”

"Kayla and I kinda fought. She sees me differently now and I guess I see her differently, too. Neither one of us likes the new view." As I said it I realized it was true. It wasn't that K had changed?actually, she'd been exactly the same. It was just that the little things I used to ignore, like her nonsensical babble and her mean side, were now suddenly too irritating to deal with. "Anyway, she left and I was alone with Heath." I stopped there, not sure how to say the rest of it.

Neferet's eyes narrowed. "You experienced bloodlust for him."

"Yes," I whispered.

"Did you drink his blood, Zoey?" Her voice was sharp.

"I just tasted a drop of it. I'd scratched him. I hadn't meant to, but when I heard his pulse pounding it?it made me scratch him.”

"So you didn't actually drink from the wound?”

"I started to, but Kayla came back and interrupted us. She totally freaked, and that's how I finally got Heath to leave.”

"He didn't want to?”

I shook my head. "No. He didn't want to." I felt like I was going to cry again. "Neferet, I'm so sorry! I didn't mean to. I didn't even know what I was doing until Kayla screamed.”

"Of course you didn't realize what was happening. How could a newly Marked fledgling be expected to know about bloodlust?" She touched my arm in a reassuring, mom-like gesture. "You probably didn't Imprint with him.”

"Imprint?”

"It's what often happens when vampyres drink directly from humans, especially if there is a bond that has been established between them prior to the blood-letting. This is why it is forbidden for fledglings to drink the blood of humans. Actually, it's strongly discouraged for adult vampyres to feed from humans, too. There's an entire sect of vampyres who consider it morally wrong and would like to make it illegal," she said.

I watched her eyes darken as she talked. The expression in them suddenly made me very nervous and I shivered. Then Neferet blinked and her eyes changed back to normal. Or had I just imagined their weird darkness?

"But that's a discussion best left for my sixth form sociology class.”

"What do I do about Heath?”

"Nothing. Let me know if he tries to see you again. If he calls you, don't answer. If he began Imprinting even the sound of your voice will effect him and work as a lure to draw him to you.”

"It sounds like something out of Dracula," I muttered.

"It's nothing like that wretched book!" she snapped. "Stoker vilified vampyres, which has caused our kind endless petty troubles with humans.”

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean?”

She waved her hand dismissively. "No, I shouldn't have taken out my frustration about that old fool's book on you. And don't worry about your friend Heath. I'm sure he'll be fine. You said that he was smoking and drinking? I assume you mean marijuana?”

I nodded. "But I don't smoke," I added. "Actually, he didn't used to and neither did Kayla. I don't get what's happening to them. I think they're hanging with some of those druggie football players from Union, and none of them have enough sense to just say no.”

"Well, his reaction to you might have had more to do with his level of intoxication than a possible Imprint." She paused, pulling a scratch pad out of her desk drawer, and handing me a pencil. "But just in case, why don't you write down your friends' full names and where they live. Oh, and add the names of the Union football players, too, if you know them.”

"Why would you need all of their names?" I felt my heart fall into my shoes. "You're not going to call their parents, are you?”

Neferet laughed. "Of course not. The misbehavior of human teenagers is no concern of mine. I only ask so that I can focus my thoughts on the group and perhaps pick up any vestiges of a possible Imprint among them.”

"What happens if you do? What happens to Heath?”

"He's young and the Imprint will be weak, so time and distance should make it fade eventually. If he actually Imprinted in full, there are ways to break it." I was about to say that maybe she should just go ahead and do whatever she did to break an Imprinting when she continued. "None of the ways are pleasant.”

"Oh, okay.”

I wrote the names and addresses for Kayla and Heath. I didn't have a clue where the Union guys lived, but I did remember their names. Neferet got up and went to the back of the classroom to retrieve a thick textbook whose title in silver letters read Sociology 415.

"Begin with Chapter One and work your way through this entire book. Until you've finished it, let's consider it your homework instead of the work I assign to the rest of the Socioi class.”

I took the book. It was heavy and the cover felt cool in my hot, nervous grip.

"If you have any questions, any at all, come see me right away. If I'm not here you can come to my apartment in Nyx's Temple. Go in the front door and follow the stairs on your right. I am the only priestess at the school right now, so the entire second floor belongs to me. And don't worry about disturbing me. You're my fledgling?it's your job to disturb me," she said with a warm smile.

"Thank you, Neferet.”

"Try not to worry. Nyx has touched you and the goddess cares for her own." She hugged me. "Now, I'm going to go tell Professor Nolan what's been keeping you. Go ahead and use the phone at my desk to call your grandma." She hugged me again and then closed the classroom door gently behind her as she left.

I sat down at her desk and thought about how great she was, and how long it'd been since my mom had hugged me like that. And for some reason, I started to cry.
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