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CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

 

"Hi Grandma, it's me.”

"Oh! My Zoeybird! Are you okay, honey?”

I smiled into the phone and wiped my eyes. "I'm good, Grandma. I just miss you.”

"Little bird, I miss you, too." She paused and then said, "Has your mom called you?”

"No.”

Grandma sighed. "Well, honey, maybe she doesn't want to bother you while you're settling into your new life. I did tell her that Neferet had explained to me that your days and nights will be flip-flopped.”

"Thanks, Grandma, but I don't think that's why she hasn't called me.”

"Maybe she has tried and you just missed her call. I called your cell yesterday, but I only got your voicemail.”

I felt a twinge of guilt. I hadn't even checked my phone for messages. "I forgot to plug my cell phone in. It's back in the room. Sorry I missed your call, Grandma.” Then, to make her feel better (and to get her to quit talking about it), I said, "I'll check my phone when I get back to my room. Maybe Mom did call.”

"Maybe she did, honey. So, tell me, how is it there?”

"It's good. I mean, there are a lot of things I like about it. My classes are cool. Hey, Grandma, I'm even taking fencing and an equestrian class.”

"That's wonderful! I remember how much you liked to ride Bunny.”

"And I got a cat!”

"Oh, Zoeybird, I'm so glad. You've always loved cats. Are you making friends with the other kids?”

"Yeah, my roommate, Stevie Rae, is great. And I already like her friends, too.”

"So, if everything is going so well, why the tears?”

I should have known I couldn't hide anything from my grandma. "It's just…just that some of the things about the Change are really hard to deal with.”

"You're well, aren't you?" Worry was thick in her voice. "Is your head okay?”

"Yeah, it's nothing like that. It's?" I stopped. I wanted to tell her; I wanted to tell her so bad I could explode, but I didn't know how. And I was afraid?afraid she wouldn't love me anymore. I mean, Mom had quit loving me, hadn't she? Or, at the very least, Mom had traded me in for a new husband, which in some ways was worse than quitting loving me. What would I do if Grandma walked away from me, too?

"Zoeybird, you know you can tell me anything," she said gently.

"It's hard, Grandma." I bit my lip to keep from crying.

"Then let me make it easier. There is nothing you could say that would make me stop loving you. I'm your Grandma today, tomorrow, and next year. I'll be your Grandma even after I join our ancestors in the spirit world, and from there I'll still love you, Little Bird.”

"I drank blood and I liked it!" I blurted.

Without any hesitation, Grandma said, "Well, honey, isn't that what vampyres do?”

"Yeah, but I'm not a vampyre. I'm just a few-days-old fledgling.”

"You're special, Zoey. You always have been. Why should that change now?”

"I don't feel special. I feel like a freak.”

"Then remember something. You're still you. Doesn't matter that you've been Marked. Doesn't matter that you're going through the Change. Inside, your spirit is still your spirit. On the outside you might look like a familiar stranger, but you need only look inside to find the you you've known for sixteen years.”

"The familiar stranger…," I whispered. "How did you know?”

"You're my girl, Honey. You're daughter of my spirit. It's not hard to understand what you must be feeling?it's very much like what I imagine I'd be feeling.”

"Thank you, Grandma.”

"You are welcome, U-we-tsi a-ge-hu-tsa.”

I smiled, loving how the Cherokee word for daughter sounded?so magical and special, like it was a Goddess-given title. Goddess-given…

"Grandma, there's something else.”

"Tell me, Little Bird.”

"I think I feel the five elements when a circle is cast.”

"If that is the truth, you have been given great power, Zoey. And you know that with great power comes great responsibility. Our family has a rich history of Tribal Elders, Medicine Men, and Wise Women. Have a care, Little Bird, to think before you act. The Goddess would not have granted you special powers on a whim. Use them carefully, and make Nyx, as well as your ancestors, look down and smile on you.”

"I'll try my best, Grandma.”

"That's all I would ever ask of you, Zoeybird.”

"There's a girl here who also has special powers, too, but she's awful. She's a bully and she lies. Grandma, I think…I think…" I took a deep breath and said what had been brewing in my mind all morning. "I think I'm stronger than she is and I think that maybe Nyx Marked me so that I can get her out of the position she's in. But?but that would mean that I have to take her place, and I don't know if I'm ready for that, not now. Maybe not ever.”

"Follow what your spirit tells you, Zoeybird." She hesitated, then said, "Honey, do you remember the purification prayer of our people?”

I thought about it. I couldn't count the times I'd gone with her to the little stream behind Grandma's house and watched her bathe ritualistically in the running water and speak the purification prayer. Sometimes I stepped into the stream with her and said the prayer, too. The prayer had been entwined throughout my childhood, spoken at the change of seasons, in thanks for the lavender harvest, or in preparation for the coming winter, as well as whenever Grandma was faced with hard decisions. Sometimes I didn't know why she purified herself and spoke the prayer. It simply had always been.

"Yes," I said. "I remember it.”

"Is there running water inside the school grounds?”

"I don't know, Grandma.”

"Well, if there isn't then get something to use as a smudge stick. Sage and lavender mixed together are best, but you can even use fresh pine if you have no other choice. Do you know what to do, Zoeybird?”

"Smudge myself, starting at my feet and working my way up my body, front and back," I recited, as if I was a small child again and Grandma was drilling me in the ways of our people. "And then face the east and speak the purification prayer.”

"Good, you do remember. Ask for the Goddess's help, Zoey. I believe that she will hear you. Can you do this before sunrise tomorrow?”

"I think so.”

"I will perform the prayer, too, and add a grandmother's voice to ask the Goddess to guide you.”

And suddenly I felt better. Grandma was never wrong about these sorts of things. If she believed it would be okay, then it really would be okay.

"I'll speak the purification prayer before dawn. I promise.”

"Good, Little Bird. Now this old woman had better let you go. You are in the middle of a school day right now, aren't you?”

"Yeah, I'm on my way to Drama class. And, Grandma, you'll never be old.”

"Not as long as I can hear your young voice, Little Bird. I love you, U-we-tsi a-ge-hu-tsa.”

"I love you, too, Grandma.”

Talking to Grandma had lifted a terrible weight from my heart. I was still scared and freaked out about the future, and I wasn't wild about the thought of bringing down Aphrodite. Not to mention that I really didn't have a clue how to go about it. But I did have a plan. Okay, maybe it wasn't a "plan," but at least it was something to do. I'd complete the purification prayer, and then…well…then I'd figure out what to do after that.

Yeah, that would work.Or at least that's what I kept telling myself through my morning classes. By lunch I'd decided on the place for my ritual?under the tree by the wall where I'd found Nala. I thought about it while I made my way through the salad bar behind the Twins. Trees, especially oaks, were sacred to the Cherokee people, so that seemed to be a good choice. Plus, it was secluded and easy to get to. Sure, Heath and Kayla had found me over there, but I wasn't planning on sitting on top of the wall again, and I couldn't imagine Heath showing up at dawn two days in a row, whether he had been Imprinted or not. I mean, this was the guy who slept till two in the afternoon in the summer, every day. It took two alarm clocks and his mother shrieking at him to get him up for school. The kid was not going to be up at pre-dawn again. It would probably take him months to recover from yesterday. No, actually, he'd probably snuck out of the house and met K (sneaking out had always been easy for her, her parents were totally clueless), and they'd been up all night. Which meant that he'd missed school and would be playing sick and sleeping in for the next two days. Anyway, I wasn't worried about him showing up.

"Don't you think baby corns are scary? There's just something wrong about their midget bodies.”

I jumped and almost dropped the ladle of ranch dressing into the vat of white liquid, and looked up into Erik's laughing blue eyes.

"Oh, hi," I said. "You scared me.”

"Z, I think I'm making a habit of sneaking up on you.”

I giggled nervously, very aware that the Twins were watching every move we made.

"You look like you've recovered from yesterday.”

"Yeah, no problem. I'm fine. And this time I'm not lying."

"And I heard you joined the Dark Daughters.”

Shaunee and Erin sucked air together. I was careful not to look at them.

"Yep.”

"That's cool. That group needs some new blood.”

"You say 'that group' like you don't belong to it. Aren't you a Dark Son?”

"Yeah, but it's not the same as being a Dark Daughter. We're just ornamental. Kinda the opposite of how it is in the human world. All the guys know that we're just there to look good and keep Aphrodite amused.”

I looked up at him, reading something else in his eyes. "And is that what you're still doing, amusing Aphrodite?”

"As I said last night, not anymore, which is one reason I don't really consider myself a member of the group. I'm sure they'd officially kick me out if it wasn't for that little acting thing I do.”

"You mean 'little' as in Broadway and LA already being interested in you.”

"That's what I mean." He grinned at me. "It's not real, you know. Acting is all pretend. It's not what I really am." He bent down to whisper in my ear. "Really, I'm a dork.”

"Oh, please. Does that line work for you?”

He exaggerated a look of being offended. "Line? No, Z. That's no line, and I can prove it.”

"Sure you can.”

"I can. Come to the movies with me tonight. We'll watch my favorite DVDs of all time.”

"How does that prove anything?”

"It's Star Wars, the original ones. I know all the lines for all the parts." He leaned closer and whispered again. "I can even do Chewbacca's parts.”

I laughed. "You're right. You are a dork.”

"Told you.”

We'd come to the end of the salad bar and he walked with me over to the table where Damien, Stevie Rae, and the Twins were already seated. And, no, they weren't making any attempt to hide the fact that they were all totally gawking at the two of us.

"So, will you go…with me…tonight?”

I could hear the four of them holding their breaths. Literally.

"I'd like to, but I can't tonight. I?uh?I already have plans."

"Oh. Okay. Well…next time. See ya." He nodded at the table and walked away.

I sat down. They were all staring at me. "What?" I said.

"You have lost every last bit of your mind," Shaunee said. "My exact thoughts, Twin," Erin said.

"I hope you have a really good reason for blowing him off," Stevie Rae said. "It was obvious you hurt his feelings.”

"Think he'd let me comfort him?" Damien asked, still gazing dreamily after Erik.

"Give it up," Erin said.

"He doesn't play for your team,” Shaunee said.

"Shush!" Stevie Rae said. She turned to look me straight in the eyes. "Why did you tell him no? What could be more important than a date with him?”

"Getting rid of Aphrodite," I said simply.

 

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 CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

 

"She has a point," Damien said.

"She joined the Dark Daughters," Shaunee said.

"What!" Damien squeaked, his voice going up about twenty octaves.

"Leave her alone," Stevie Rae said, instantly coming to my defense. "She's reconnoitering.”

"Reconnoitering, hell! If she joined the Dark Daughters she's engaging the enemy full on," Damien said.

"Well, she joined," Shaunee said.

"We heard her," Erin said.

"Hello! I'm still right here," I said.

"So what are you going to do?" Damien asked me.

"I don't really know," I said.

"You better get a plan and get one quick or those hags are gonna have you for lunch," Erin said.

"Yep," Shaunee said, biting viciously into her salad for effect.

"Hey! She doesn't have to figure this out on her own. She has us." Stevie Rae crossed her arms over her chest and glared at the Twins.

I smiled my thanks to Stevie Rae. "Well, I kinda have an idea."

"Good. Tell us and we'll brainstorm," said Stevie Rae. Everyone looked expectantly at me. I sighed. "Well. Um…,”

I started hesitantly, afraid I was sounding like a moron, and then I decided I might as well tell them what had been on my mind since I talked to Grandma, so I finished in a rush. "I thought I'd perform an ancient purification prayer based on Cherokee ritual and ask Nyx to help me come up with a plan.”

The silence at the table seemed to last forever. Then Damien finally said, "Asking for Nyx's help isn't a bad idea.”

"Are you Cherokee?" Shaunee asked.

"You look Cherokee," Erin said.

"Hello! Her last name is Redbird. She's Cherokee," Stevie Rae said with finality.

"Well, that's good," Shaunee said, but she looked doubtful.

"I just think that Nyx might actually hear me and?maybe?give me some kind of clue as to what I should do about horrid Aphrodite." I looked at each of my friends. "Something inside me says it's just wrong to let her get away with all the crap she's getting away with.”

"Let me tell them!" Stevie Rae suddenly said. "They won't tell anyone. Really. And it'd help if they knew.”

"What the F?" Erin said.

"Okay, now you have no choice," Shaunee said, pointing at Stevie Rae with her fork. "She knew if she said that we would pester the crap outta you till you told us whatever it is she's talking about.”

I frowned at Stevie Rae, who shrugged her shoulders sheepishly and said, "Sorry.”

Reluctantly, I lowered my voice and leaned forward. "Promise you won't tell anyone.”

"Promise," they said.

"I think I can feel the five elements when a circle is cast." Silence. They just stared. Three of them shocked, Stevie Rae smug.

"So, you still think she can't take down Aphrodite?" Stevie Rae said.

"I knew there was more to your Mark than falling down and hitting your head!" Shaunee said.

"Wow," Erin said. "Talk about good gossip.”

"No one can know!" I said quickly.

"Please," Shaunee said. "We're just sayin' that someday this is gonna be great gossip.”

"We know how to wait for great gossip," Erin said.

Damien ignored both of them. "I don't think there's a record of any High Priestess who has had an affinity with all five elements.” Damien's voice got more excited as he spoke. "Do you know what that means?" He didn't give me a chance to respond. "It means you could potentially be the most puissant High Priestess the vampyres have ever known.”

"Huh?" I said. Puissant?

"Strong?powerful," he said impatiently. "You might actually be able to take out Aphrodite!”

"Now, that's some seriously good news," Erin said, as Shaunee nodded in enthusiastic agreement.

"So when and where are we doing the purification thingy?" Stevie Rae said.

"We?" I said.

"You're not in this alone, Zoey," she said.

I opened my mouth to protest?I mean, I wasn't even sure what I was going to do. I didn't want to get my friends mixed up in something that might be?actually, would probably be?a total mess. But Damien didn't give me time to tell them no.

"You need us," he said simply. "Even the most puissant High Priestess needs her circle.”

"Well, I hadn't really thought about casting a circle. I was just gonna do a kind of purification prayer thing.”

"Can't you cast a circle and then pray the prayer and ask for Nyx's help?" Stevie Rae asked.

"Seems logical," Shaunee said.

"Plus, if you really do have an affinity for the five elements, I'll bet we'll be able to sense it when you cast your own circle. Right, Damien?" Stevie Rae said. Everyone looked at the gay scholar of our group.

"Sounds like good logic to me," he said.

I was still going to argue, even though everything inside of me felt relieved and happy and grateful that my friends would be there with me, that they wouldn't let me face all of this uncertainty alone.

Value them; they are pearls of great price.

The familiar voice floated through my mind, and I realized that I shouldn't question the new instinct within me that seemed to have been born when Nyx kissed my forehead and permanently changed my Mark and my life.

"Okay, I'm going to need a smudge stick." They looked at me blankly, and I went on to explain. "It's for the purification part of the ritual because I don't have any running water handy. Or do I?”

"You mean like a stream or a river or something like that?" Stevie Rae asked.

"Yeah.”

"Well, there's a little stream that runs through the courtyard outside the dining hall and disappears somewhere under the school," Damien said.

"That's no good; it's too public. We'll need to use the smudge stick. What works best is dried lavender and sage mixed together, but if I have to I can use pine.”

"I can get the sage and lavender," Damien said. "They have that kind of stuff in the school supplies store for the fifth and sixth former's Spells and Rituals class. I'll just say I'm helping out an upperclassman by picking some up for him. What else do you need?”

"Well, in the purification ritual Grandma always thanked the seven sacred directions the Cherokee people honor: north, south, east, west, sun, earth, and self. But I think I want to make the prayer more specific to Nyx." I chewed my lip, thinking.

"I think that's smart," Shaunee said.

"Yeah," Erin added. "I mean, Nyx isn't allied with the sun. She's Night.”

"I think you should follow your gut," Stevie Rae said. "Trusting herself is one of the first things a High Priestess learns to do," Damien said.

"Okay, then I'll also need a candle for each of the five elements," I decided.

"Easy-peasy," Shaunee said.

"Yeah, the temple is never locked and there are zillions of circle candles in there.”

"Is it okay to take them?" Stealing from Nyx's Temple definitely did not feel like a good idea.

"It's fine as long as we bring them back," Damien said. "What else?”

"That's it." I think. Hell, I wasn't sure. It's not like I actually knew what I was doing.

"When and where?" Damien asked.

"After dinner. Let's say five o'clock. And we can't go together. The last thing we need is for Aphrodite or any of the other Dark Daughters to think we're having some kind of meeting and get curious about us. So let's meet at a huge oak tree by the eastern wall." I smiled crookedly at them. "It's easy to find if you pretend that you've just run out of one of the Dark Daughter's rituals in the rec hall, and you want to get the hell away from the hags.”

"That doesn't take much pretending," Shaunee said.

Erin snorted.

"Okay, we'll bring the stuff," Damien said.

"Yeah, we'll bring the stuff; you bring the puissantness," Shaunee said, giving Damien a smartass look.

"That is not the correct form of that word. You know, you really should do more reading. Maybe your vocabulary would improve.” Damien said.

"Your mom needs to read more.” Shaunee said, and then she and Erin dissolved in giggles at the really bad "your mom" joke.

I, for one, was glad that they shifted the subject away from me and I could eat my salad and think in relative privacy while they bickered back and forth. I was chewing and trying to remember all the words to the purification prayer when Nala hopped up on the bench beside me. She looked at me with her big eyes and then leaned into me and started to purr like a jet engine. I don't know why, but she made me feel better. And when the bell rang and we all hurried off to class, each of my four friends smiled at me, gave me a secret wink, and said, "Later, Z." They made me feel better, too, even though their easy adoption of Erik's nickname for me gave my heart a twinge.

Spanish class zoomed by: a whole lesson on learning how to say that we like things or don't like things. Prof. Garmy was cracking me up. She said it would change our lives. Me gusta gatos. (I like cats.) Me gusta it de compras. (I like shopping.) No me gusta cocinar. (I don't like to cook.) No me gusta lavantar el gato. (I don't like to wash the cat.) Those were Prof. Garmy's favorites, and we spent the hour coming up with our own favorites.

I tried not to scribble things like me gusta Erik… and no me gusta el hag-o Aphrodite. Okay, so I'm sure el hag-o is not how you say "hag" in Spanish, but still. Anyway, class was fun and I actually understood what we were saying. Equestrian class didn't quite zoom by. Mucking stalls was good for thinking?I went over and over the purification prayer?but the hour definitely seemed to take an hour. This time Stevie Rae didn't have to come get me. I was way too anxious to lose track of time. As the bell rang I was quickly putting up the curry combs, happy that Lenobia had let me groom Persephone again, and preoccupied because she had also told me that starting next week she thought I might actually begin riding her. I hurried out of the stables, wishing that the hour wasn't so late back in the "real" world. I'd have loved to call Grandma and tell her how well I was doing with the horses.

"I know what's going on.”

I swear I almost choked. "God, Aphrodite! Could you make a sound or something! What are you, part spider? You scared the hell outta me.”

"What's wrong?" she purred. "Guilty conscience?”

"Uh, when you sneak up behind people, you scare them. Guilt has nothing to do with it.”

"So you're not guilty?”

"Aphrodite, I don't know what you're talking about."

"I know what you're planning for tonight.”

"And yet I still don't know what you're talking about."Ah, crap! How could she have found out?

"Everyone thinks you're so damn cute and so damn innocent and they're so damn impressed by that freakish Mark of yours. Everyone but me.” She turned to face me, and we stopped in the middle of the sidewalk. Her blue eyes narrowed and her face twisted until it was scarily haggish. Huh. I wondered (briefly) if the Twins realized how accurate their nickname for her was. "No matter what bullshit you've heard he's still mine. He'll always be mine.”

My eyes widened and I felt a wash of relief so intense it made me laugh. She was talking about Erik, not about the purification prayer! "Wow, you sound like Erik's mom. Does he know you're checking up on him?”

"Did I look like Erik's mom when you watched me suck his dick in the hall?”

So she did know. Whatever. I suppose it was inevitable that we would have this conversation. "No, you didn't look like Erik's mom. You looked like what you are?desperate?while you pathetically tried to throw yourself at a guy who was clearly telling you he didn't want you anymore.”

"Fucking bitch! Nobody talks to me like that!”

She raised her hand and, clawlike, moved to slash at my face. Then it seemed that the world stopped, leaving the two of us in a little bubble of slow-motion. I caught her wrist, stopping her easily?too easily. It was like she was a small, sick child who had struck out in anger, but was really too weak to do any harm. I held her there for a moment, meeting her hateful eyes.

"Don't ever try to hit me again. I'm not one of the kids you can bully. Get this, and get this now. I am not scared of you." Then I flung her wrist away from me, and was totally shocked to see her stagger back several feet.

Rubbing her wrist, she glared at me. "Don't bother showing up tomorrow. Consider yourself uninvited and no longer a Dark Daughter.”

"Really?" I felt unbelievably calm. I knew I held the trump card on this and I pulled it. "So you want to explain to my mentor, High Priestess Neferet, the vamp whose idea it was for me to join the Dark Daughters in the first place, that you kicked me out because you're jealous that your ex-boyfriend likes me?”

Her face paled.

"Oh, and you may be very sure that I'll be totally, completely upset when Neferet asks me about it." I sniffed and sobbed a little like I was fake crying.

"Do you know what it's like to be a part of something and have no one else in the group want you there?" she snarled between her clenched teeth.

I felt my stomach clench and had to force myself not to let her see she'd struck a nerve. Yes, I knew exactly what it was like to be a part of something?a supposed family?and have it feel like no one else wanted me there, but Aphrodite wasn't going to know it. Instead I smiled, and in my sweetest voice I said, "Why, whatever do you mean, Aphrodite? Erik is part of the Dark Sons and just today at lunch he told me how happy he was that I'd joined the Dark Daughters.”

"Come to the ritual. Pretend you're part of the Dark Daughters. But you'd better remember something. They're my Dark Daughters. You're the outsider; the one who is not wanted. And remember this, too. Erik Night and I have a bond that you'll never understand. He's not my ex anything. You didn't stay to see the end of our little game in the hall. He was then and he is now exactly what I want him to be. Mine." Then she tossed her very big, very blond hair and stalked away.

About two breaths later Stevie Rae stuck her head out from behind an old oak that was not far from the sidewalk and said, "Is she gone?”

"Thankfully." I shook my head at Stevie Rae. "What are you doing back there?”

"Are you kidding? I'm hiding. She scares the bejezzus outta me. I was coming to meet you and saw the two of you arguing. Man, she actually tried to hit you!”

"Aphrodite has some serious anger-management issues." Stevie Rae laughed.

"Uh, Stevie Rae, you can come out from behind there now." Still laughing, Stevie Rae practically skipped over to me and linked her arm with mine. "You really stood up to her!”

"I really did.”

"She really, really hates your guts.”

"She really, really does.”

"You know what that means?" Stevie Rae said.

"Yep. I don't have any choice now. I'm going to have to take her down.”

"Yep.”

But I knew that I'd had no choice even before Aphrodite tried to scratch my eyes out. I hadn't had any choice since Nyx had placed her Mark on me. As Stevie Rae and I walked together in the gaslight-illuminated richness of the night, the Goddess's words repeated over and over through my mind: You are old beyond your years, Zoeybird. Believe in yourself and you will find a way. But remember, darkness does not always equate to evil, just as light does not always bring good.

 

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 CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

 

"I hope the rest of them can find it," I said, glancing around me while Stevie Rae and I waited by the big oak tree. "It didn't seem this dark last night.”

"It wasn't. It's really cloudy tonight, so the moon's having trouble shining through. But don't worry, the Change is doing really cool things for our night vision. Heck, I think I can see as good as Nala." Stevie Rae scratched the cat affectionately on her head and Nala closed her eyes and purred. "They'll find us.”

I leaned against the tree and worried. Dinner had been good? seriously yummy broiled chicken, seasoned rice, and baby snow peas (one thing I could say for this place, they could really cook)?yeah, everything had been great. Until Erik had come by our table and said hi. Okay, it wasn't really a "hi, Z, I still like you" hi. It was a "hi, Zoey." Period. Yep. That was it. He'd gotten his food and was walking with a couple other guys the Twins called hotties. I will admit that I didn't even notice them. I was too busy noticing Erik. They came to our table. I looked up and smiled. He met my eyes for a millisecond, said, "Hi, Zoey," and walked on. And all of a sudden the chicken didn't taste nearly as good.

"You just hurt his ego. Be nice to him and he'll ask you out again," Stevie Rae said, bringing me and my thoughts back to the present under the tree.

"How'd you know I was thinking about Erik?" I asked. Stevie Rae had quit petting Nala, so I reached down to scratch the cat on top of her head before she started complaining at me.

"'Cause that's what I'd be thinking about.”

"Well, I should be thinking about the circle I have to cast but have never cast before in my entire life, and the purification ritual I have to perform, and not some boy.”

"He's not 'some boy: He's some fiiine boy,” Stevie Rae drawled, making me laugh.

"You must be talking about Erik," Damien said, stepping out of the shadow of the wall. "Don't worry. I saw the way he was looking at you at lunch today. He'll ask you out again.”

"Yeah, take it from him," Shaunee said.

"He is our group expert on All Things Penile," Erin said as they joined them under the tree.

"Quite true,” Damien said.

Before they could make my head hurt I changed the subject. "Did you get the stuff we need?”

"I had to mix the dried sage and lavender together myself. I hope it's okay that I tied them like this." Damien pulled the smudge stick of dried herbs out of his jacket sleeve and handed it to me. It was thick and almost a foot long, and right away I smelled the familiar sweetness of lavender. He'd wrapped the bundle tightly together on one end with what looked like extra-thick thread.

"It's perfect.” I smiled at him.

He looked relieved, and then said, a little shyly, "I used my cross-stitch thread.”

"Hey, I told you before you shouldn't be ashamed that you like to cross-stitch. I think it's a cute hobby. Plus, you're really good at it," Stevie Rae said.

"I wish my dad thought so," Damien said.

I hated hearing the sadness in his voice. "I wish you'd teach me sometime. I've always wanted to learn how to cross-stitch," I lied, and was glad to see Damien's face brighten.

"Anytime, Z," he said.

"How about the candles?" I asked the Twins.

"Hey, we told you. Easy…" Shaunee opened her purse and pulled out green, yellow, and blue votives in correspondingly colored thick glass cups.

"Peasy." From her purse Erin took a red and purple votive in the same kind of colored containers.

"Good. Okay, let's see. Let's move over here, a little way from the trunk, but close enough that we're still standing under the branches." They followed me as I walked a few paces from the tree. I looked at the candles. What should I do? Maybe I should…And as I thought about it, I knew. Without stopping to wonder how or why or question the intuitive knowledge that had suddenly come to me, I simply acted on it. "I'm going to give each of you a candle. Then, just like the vamps in Neferet's Full Moon Ritual, you're going to represent that element. I'll be spirit." Erin handed me the purple votive. "I'm the center of the circle. The rest of you take your places around me." Without hesitation I took the red candle from Erin and handed it to Shaunee. "You'll be fire.”

"Sounds good to me. I mean, everyone knows how hot I am.”

She grinned and shimmied to the southern edge of the circle. The green candle was next. I turned to Stevie Rae. "You're earth."

"And green's my favorite color!" she said, happily moving to stand across from Shaunee.

"Erin, you're water.”

"Good. I used to like to lay out, which involves swimming when I needed to cool off." Erin moved to the western position. "So I must be air," Damien said, taking the yellow candle

"You are. Your element opens the circle.”

"Kinda like I wish I could open people's minds," he said, moving to the eastern position.

I smiled warmly at him. "Yep. Kinda like that.”

"Okay. What's next?" Stevie Rae asked.

"Well, let's use the smoke from the smudge stick to purify ourselves.” I set the purple candle at my feet so I could concentrate on the smudge stick. Then I rolled my eyes. "Well, hell. Did anyone remember matches or a lighter or whatever?”

"Naturally," Damien said, pulling a lighter from his pocket. "Thanks, air," I said.

"Don't mention it, High Priestess," he said.

I didn't say anything, but when he called me that a shiver of excitement tingled through my body.

"Here's how you use the smudge stick," I said, glad that my voice sounded way calmer than I felt. I stood in front of Damien, deciding that I should begin where the circle would be started. Realizing that I was eerily echoing my Grandma and the lessons of my childhood, I began explaining the process to my friends. "Smudging is a ritual way to cleanse a person, place, or an object of negative energies, spirits, or influences. The smudging ceremony involves the burning of special, sacred plants and herbal resins, then, either passing an object through the smoke, or fanning the smoke around a person or place. The spirit of the plant purifies whatever is being smudged." I smiled at Damien. "Ready?”

"Affirmative,” he said in typical Damien fashion.

I lit the smudge stick and let the fire burn the dry herbs for a little while, and then I blew them out so that all that was left was a nicely smoking ember. Then, starting at Damien's feet, I wafted smoke up his body while I continued my explanation of the ancient ceremony.

"It's really important to remember that we're asking the spirits of the sacred plants we're using to help us, and we should show them proper respect by acknowledging their powers.”

"What do lavender and sage do?" Stevie Rae asked from across the circle.

While I smudged my way up Damien's body I answered Stevie Rae. "White sage is used a lot in traditional ceremonies. It drives out negative energies, spirits, and influences. Actually, desert sage does the same thing, but I like white sage better because it smells sweeter.” I'd made it to Damien's head and I grinned at him. "Good choice, Damien.”

"Sometimes I think I might be a little psychic," Damien said. Erin and Shaunee snorted, but we ignored them.

"Okay, now turn clockwise and I'll finish up with your back," I told him. He turned and I continued. "My grandma always uses lavender in all of her smudge sticks. I'm sure part of the reason is that she owns a lavender farm.”

"Cool!" Stevie Rae said.

"Yeah, it's an awesome place." I smiled over my shoulder at her, but I kept smudging Damien. "The other part of the reason she uses lavender is because it is able to restore balance and create a peaceful atmosphere. It also draws loving energy and positive spirits." I tapped Damien's shoulder so he'd turn around. "You're done." Then I moved around the circle to Shaunee, who was representing the element fire, and I began smudging her.

"Positive spirits?" Stevie Rae said, sounding young and scared. "I didn't know we'd be calling anything more than the elements to the circle.”

"Please. Just please, Stevie Rae," Shaunee said, frowning through the smoke to Stevie Rae. "You can not be a vampyre and be afraid of ghosts.”

"Nope. It doesn't even sound right," Erin said.

I glanced across the circle at Stevie Rae and our eyes met briefly. We were both thinking about my encounter with what might have been Elizabeth's ghost, but neither of us seemed willing to talk about it.

"I'm not a vampyre. Yet. I'm just a fledgling. So it's okay for me to be scared of ghosts.”

"Wait, isn't Zoey talking about Cherokee spirits? They probably won't pay much attention to a ceremony done by a bunch of vampyre fledglings whose non-Native American-ness outweighs our High Priestess's Cherokee-ness four to one," Damien said.

I finished with Shaunee and moved on to Erin. "I don't think it matters that much what we are on the outside," I said, instantly feeling the rightness of what I was saying. "I think what matters is our intent. It's kinda like this: Aphrodite and her group are some of the best looking, most talented kids at this school, and the Dark Daughters should be an awesome club. But instead we call them the hags and they're basically a bunch of bullies and spoiled brats.” Wonder how Erik fit into all of that? Was he really just `whatever' about the group, like he told me, or was he into it more deeply than that, as Aphrodite implied?

"Or kids who have been bullied into joining and who are just along for the ride," Erin said.

"Exactly." I mentally shook myself. Now was not the time to daydream about Erik. I finished smudging Erin and walked over to stand in front of Stevie Rae. "What I mean is that I do think the spirits of my ancestors can hear us, just like I think the spirits of the sage and the lavender are working for us. But I don't think you have anything to be afraid of, Stevie Rae. Our intention is not to call them here so that we can use them to kick Aphrodite's ass.” I paused in my smudging and added, "Even though the girl definitely needs a good ass-kicking. And I don't think there will be any scary ghosts hanging around tonight," I said firmly, then handed Stevie Rae the smudge stick and said, "Okay, now you do me.” She began mimicking my actions and I relaxed into the familiar sweet smoke as it drifted around me.

"We're not going to ask them to help us kick her ass?" Shaunee definitely sounded disappointed.

"Nope. We're purifying ourselves so that we can ask for Nyx's guidance. I don't want to beat Aphrodite up." I remembered how good it'd felt to toss her away from me and tell her off. "Well, okay, I might enjoy it, but the truth is that doesn't solve the problem of the Dark Daughters.”

Stevie Rae was done smudging me and I took the stick from her and carefully rubbed it out on the ground. Then I returned to the center of the circle where Nala was curled contentedly in a little orange ball beside the spirit candle. I looked around at my friends. "It's true that we don't like Aphrodite, but I think it's important not to focus on negatives like kicking her ass or pushing her out of the Dark Daughters. That's what she would do in our place. What we want is what's right. More like justice than revenge. We're different than her, and if we somehow manage to take her place in the Dark Daughters, that group will be different, too.”

"See, that's why you'll be the High Priestess and Erin and I will just be your very attractive sidekicks. Because we are shallow and we just want to knock her bobble-head off her shoulders," Shaunee said while Erin nodded.

"Positive thoughts only, please," Damien said sharply. "We are in the middle of a purification ritual!’

Before Shaunee could do anything more than glare at Damien, Stevie Rae chirped, "'Kay! I'm thinkin' only positive things, like how great it would be if Zoey was leader of the Dark Daughters!’

"Good idea, Stevie Rae," Damien said. "I'm thinking the same.”

"Hey! That's my happy thought, too," Erin said. "Peter Pan with me, Twin," she called to Shaunee, who stopped scowling at Damien and said, "You know I'm always up for some happy thoughts. And it would be damn nice if Zoey was in charge of the Dark Daughters and on her way to being High Priestess for real.”

High Priestess for real…Iwondered briefly whether it was a good or bad thing that those words made me feel as if I might need to puke. Again. Sighing, I lit the purple candle. "Ready?" I asked the four of them.

"Ready!" they said together.

"Okay, pick up your candles.”

Without hesitating (which meant I also wasn't giving myself time to chicken out), I carried the candle over to Damien. I wasn't experienced and brilliant like Neferet, or seductive and confident like Aphrodite. I was just me. Just Zoey?that familiar stranger who had gone from being an almost normal high school kid to a truly unusual vampyre fledgling. I took a deep breath. As my grandma would say, all I could do was try my best.

"Air is everywhere, so it only makes sense that it is the first element to be called into the circle. I ask that you hear me, air, and I summon you to this circle." I lit Damien's yellow candle with my purple one and instantly the flame began to flicker crazily. I watched Damien's eyes get big and round and startled-looking as wind suddenly whipped in a mini-whirlwind around our bodies, lifting our hair and brushing softly against our skin.

"It's true," he whispered, staring at me. "You can actually manifest the elements.”

"Well," I whispered back, feeling lightheaded, "one of them at least. Let's try for two.”

I walked over to Shaunee. She raised her candle eagerly and made me smile when she said, "I'm ready for fire?bring it on!”

"Fire reminds me of cold winter nights and the warmth and safety of the fireplace that heats my grandma's cabin. I ask that you hear me, fire, and I summon you to this circle.” I lit the red candle and the flame blazed, much brighter than should have been possible for an ordinary votive. The air around Shaunee and me was suddenly filled with the rich, woody scent and homey warmth of a roaring fireplace.

"Wow!" Shaunee exclaimed, her dark eyes dancing with the reflection of the candle's shimmering flame. "Now, that's cool!"

"That's two," I heard Damien say.

Erin was grinning when I took my place in front of her. "I'm ready for water," she said quickly.

"Water is relief on a hot Oklahoma summer day. It's the amazing ocean that I really would like to see someday, and it's the rain that makes the lavender grow. I ask that you hear me, water, and I summon you to this circle.”

I lit the blue candle and felt instant coolness against my skin, as well as smelled a clean, salty scent that could only be the ocean I'd never seen.

"Awesome. Really, really awesome," Erin said, drawing in a deep breath of ocean air.

"That's three," Damien said.

"I'm not scared anymore," Stevie Rae said when I stood in front of her.

"Good," I said. Then I focused my mind on the fourth element, earth. "Earth supports and surrounds us. We wouldn't be anything without her. I ask that you hear me, earth, and I summon you to this circle.” The green candle lit easily, and suddenly Stevie Rae and I were overwhelmed with the sweet scent of freshly cut grass. I heard the rustle of the oak's leaves and we looked up to see the great oak literally bowing its branches over us as though it would shield us from all harm.

"Totally amazing," Stevie Rae breathed.

"Four," Damien said, his voice filled with excitement.

I walked quickly to the center of the circle and lifted my purple candle.

"The last element is one that fills everything and everyone. It makes us unique and it breathes life into all things. I ask that you hear me, spirit, and I summon you to this circle.”

Incredibly, it seemed that I was suddenly surrounded by the four elements, that I was in the middle of a whirlpool made up of air and fire, water and earth. But it wasn't scary, not at all. It filled me with peace, and at the same time I felt a surge of white-hot power and had to press my lips tightly together to keep from laughing with pure joy.

"Look! Look at the circle!" Damien shouted.

I blinked my vision clear and instantly felt the elements settle down, as if they were playful kittens who were sitting around me, waiting happily for me to call them to bat at string and whatnot. I was smiling at the comparison when I saw the glowing light that wrapped around the circumference of the circle, joining Damien, Shaunee, Erin, and Stevie Rae. It was bright and clear, and the luminous silver of a full moon.

"And that makes five," Damien said.

"Holy crap!" I blurted, very un?High Priestess-like, and the four of them laughed, filling the night with the sounds of happiness. And I understood, for the first time, why Neferet and Aphrodite had danced during the rituals. I wanted to dance and laugh and shout with happiness. Another time, I told myself. Tonight there was more serious work to be done.

"Okay, I'm going to speak the purification prayer," I told my four friends. "And while I say the prayer I'm going to face each of the elements, one at a time.”

"What do you want us to do?" Stevie Rae asked.

"Focus on the prayer. Concentrate. Believe that the elements will carry it to Nyx, and that the Goddess will answer it by helping me to know what I should do," I said with way more certainty than I felt.

Once again I faced east. Damien smiled encouragement to me. And I began to recite the ancient purification prayer I'd said so many times with my grandma?with just a few changes I'd decided on earlier.

Great Goddess of Night, whose voice I hear in the wind, who breathes the breath of life to Her children. Hear me; I need your strength and wisdom.

I paused briefly as I turned to the south.

Let me walk in beauty, and make my eyes ever behold the red and purple sunset that comes before the beauty of your night. Make my hands respect the things you have made and my ears sharp to hear your voice. Make me wise so that I may understand the things you have taught your people.

I turned again to the right, and my voice felt stronger as I fell into the rhythm of the prayer.

Help me to remain calm and strong in the face of all that comes toward me. Let me learn the lessons you have hidden in every leaf and rock. Help me seek pure thoughts and act with the intention of helping others. Help me find compassion without empathy overwhelming me.

I faced Stevie Rae, whose eyes were squeezed shut as though she was concentrating with all of her might.

I seek strength, not to be greater than others, but to fight my greatest enemy, the doubts within myself

I walked back to the center of the circle and finished the prayer, and for the first time in my life, I felt a flush of sensation as the power of the ancient words rushed from me to what I hoped with all my heart and soul was my listening Goddess.

Make me always ready to come to you with clean hands and straight eyes. So when life fades, as the fading sunset, my spirit may come to you without shame.

Technically, that was the conclusion of the Cherokee prayer my grandma had taught me, but I felt the need to add: "And Nyx, I don't understand why you Marked me and why you have given me the gift of an affinity for the elements. I don't even have to know. What I want to ask is that you help me know the right thing to do, and then give me the courage to do it." And I finished the prayer the way I remembered Neferet completed her ritual: "Blessed be!”

 
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CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

 

"That was truly the most prodigious circle-casting I've ever experienced!" Damien gushed after the circle had been closed and we were gathering up the candles and smudge stick.

"I thought 'prodigious' meant 'big,' " Shaunee said.

"It also can show exciting wonder and can refer to something stupendous and monumental," Damien said.

"For once I'm not going to argue with you," Shaunee said, surprising everyone except Erin.

"Yeah, the circle was prodigious," Erin said.

"Do you know I actually could feel earth when Zoey called it?" Stevie Rae said. "It was like I was suddenly surrounded by a growing wheat field. No, it was more than being surrounded by it. It was like I was suddenly a part of it.”

"I know exactly what you mean. When she called flame it was like the fire exploded through me," Shaunee said.

I tried to understand what I was feeling while the four of them talked happily together. I was definitely happy, but overwhelmed and more than a little confused. So it was true, I did have some kind of affinity with all five of the elements.

Why?

Just to bring down Aphrodite? (Which, by the by, I still didn't have a clue how to do.) No, I didn't think so. Why would Nyx touch me with such unusual power just so that I could kick a spoiled bully out of the leadership of a club?

Okay, the Dark Daughters were more than a student council or whatever, but still.

"Zoey, are you all right?”

The concern in Damien's voice made me look up from Nala, and I realized that I was sitting in the middle of what used to be the circle, with my cat on my lap, completely engrossed in my own thoughts as I scratched her head.

"Oh, yeah. Sorry. I'm fine, just a little distracted.”

"We should get back. It's getting late," Stevie Rae said.

"Okay. You're right," I said, and got up, still holding Nala. But I couldn't make my feet follow them as they started to head back to the dorms.

"Zoey?”

Damien, the first to notice my hesitation, stopped and called back to me, and then my other friends stopped, looking at me with expressions that ranged from worried to confused.

"Uh, why don't you guys go ahead? I'm going to stay out here for just a little while longer.”

"We could stay with you and?" Damien began, but Stevie Rae (bless her little bumpkin heart) interrupted him.

"Zoey needs to do some thinkin' on her own. Wouldn't you if you just found out you were the only fledgling in known history to have an affinity for all five elements?”

"I suppose," Damien said reluctantly.

"But don't forget that it'll be getting light soon," Erin said.

I smiled reassuringly at them. "I won't. I'll be back at the dorm soon.”

"I'll make a sandwich for you and try to scare up some chips to go with your brown non-diet pop. It's important that a High Priestess eats after she performs a ritual," Stevie Rae said with a smile and a wave as she pulled the rest of the four along with her.

I called thanks to Stevie Rae as they disappeared into the darkness. Then I walked over to the tree and sat down, resting my back against its thick trunk. I closed my eyes and petted Nala. Her purr was normal and familiar and incredibly soothing, and it seemed to help ground me.

"I'm still me," I whispered to my cat. "Just like Grandma said. All the other stuff can change, but what's really Zoey?what's been Zoey for sixteen years?is still Zoey.”

Maybe if I repeated it over and over enough to myself, I'd actually believe it. I rested my face in one hand and scratched my cat with the other, and told myself that I was still me…still me…still me…

"See how she leans her cheek upon her hand! O, that I were a glove upon that hand, that I might touch that cheek!”

Nala "me-eeh-uf-owed" in complaint as I jumped in surprise.

"Seems like I keep finding you by this tree," Erik said, smiling down at me and looking like a god.

He made me feel all fluttery in my stomach, but tonight he also made me feel something else. Just exactly why did he keep "finding" me? And just exactly how long had he been watching this time?

"What are you doing out here, Erik?”

"Hi, it's nice to see you, too. And, yes, I would like to have a seat, thank you," he said and started to sit beside me.

I stood up, making Nala mutter at me again.

"Actually, I was just going to go back to the dorm.”

"Hey, I didn't mean to intrude or whatever. I just couldn't concentrate on my homework so I went for a walk. I guess my feet carried me this way without me telling them to, 'cause next thing I knew here I was and here you are. I'm really not stalking you. Promise.”

He stuck his hands in his pockets and looked totally embarrassed. Well, totally cute and embarrassed, and I remembered how much I had wanted to say yes to him earlier when he asked me to watch dorky movies with him. And now here I was, rejecting him and making him uncomfortable again. It's a wonder the kid ever talked to me. Clearly, I was taking this High Priestess thing way too seriously.

"So how about walking me back to my dorm? Again," I asked. "Sounds good.”

This time Nala complained when I tried to carry her. Instead she trotted along after us while Erik and I fell into step together as easily as we had before. We didn't say anything for a while. I wanted to ask him about Aphrodite, or at the very least tell him what she'd said to me about him, but I couldn't come up with a good way of saying something that I probably didn't have any business questioning him about.

"So what were you doing out here this time?" he asked.

"Thinking," I said, which technically wasn't a lie. I had been thinking. A lot. Before, during, and after the circle-casting I was conveniently not going to mention.

"Oh. Are you worried about that Heath kid?”

Actually, I hadn't thought about Heath or Kayla since I'd talked to Neferet, but I shrugged, not wanting to get specific about what I'd been thinking.

"I mean, I guess it's probably hard to break up with someone just because you got Marked," he said.

"I didn't break up with him because I got Marked. He and I were pretty much finished before that. The Mark just made it more final." I looked at Erik and took a deep breath. "What about you and Aphrodite?”

He blinked in surprise. "What do you mean?”

"I mean today she told me that you'll never be her ex because you'll always be hers.”

His eyes narrowed and he looked truly pissed. "Aphrodite has a serious problem with telling the truth.”

"Well, not that it's any of my business, but?”

"It is your business," he said quickly. And then, totally and utterly shocking me, he took my hand. "At least I'd like it to be your business.”

"Oh," I said. "Okay, well, okay." Once again, I was sure I was astounding him with my witty conversation skills.

"So you weren't just avoiding me tonight; you really had some thinking to do?" he asked slowly.

"I wasn't avoiding you. There's just …," I hesitated, not sure how the hell to explain something I was pretty sure I shouldn't explain to him. "There's a lot of stuff going on with me right now. This whole Change thing is pretty confusing sometimes.”

"It gets better," he said, squeezing my hand.

"Somehow, for me, I doubt it," I muttered.

He laughed and tapped my Mark with his finger. "You're just ahead of some of the rest of us. That's hard at first, but, believe me, it'll get easier?even for you.”

I sighed. "I hope so." But I doubted it.

We stopped in front of the dorm, and he turned to me, his voice suddenly low and serious. "Z, don't believe the crap Aphrodite says. She and I haven't been together in months.”

"But you used to be," I said.

He nodded and his face looked strained.

"She's not a very nice person, Erik.”

"I know that.”

And then I realized what had really been bothering me and decided, oh, well, what the hell, I'd just say it.

"I don't like it that you'd be with someone who's so mean. It makes me feel funny about wanting to be with you." He opened up his mouth to say something and I kept talking, not wanting to hear excuses I wasn't sure that I should or could believe. "Thanks for walking me home. I am glad you found me again.”

"I'm glad I found you, too," he said. "I'd like to see you again, Z, and not just by accident.”

I hesitated. And wondered why I was hesitating. I did want to see him again. I needed to forget Aphrodite. Seriously, she is really pretty and he is a guy. He probably fell into her haggish (and hot) clutches before he knew what was happening. I mean, she did kinda remind me of a spider. I should be glad that she hadn't bitten his head off, and give the guy a chance.

"Okay, how about I watch those dorky DVDs with you Saturday?" I said before I could freakishly talk myself out of going out with the most gorgeous guy at this school.

"It's a date," he said.

Obviously giving me time to pull away if I wanted to, Erik slowly bent down and kissed me. His lips were warm and he smelled really good. The kiss was soft and nice. Honestly, it made me want him to kiss me more. Too soon it was over, but he didn't move away from me. We were standing close, and I realized that I had my hands on his chest. His were resting lightly on my shoulders. I smiled up at him.

"I'm glad you asked me out again,” I said.

"I'm glad you finally said yes," he said.

Then he kissed me again, only this time he wasn't hesitant. The kiss deepened, and my arms went up around his shoulders. I felt, more than heard, him moan and as he kissed me long and hard it was like he flipped a switch somewhere deep inside me, and hot, sweet, electric desire flashed through me. It was crazy and amazing, and more than anyone else's kisses had ever made me feel.

I loved the way my body fitted his, hard against soft, and I pressed myself against him, forgetting about Aphrodite and the circle I'd just cast and the entire rest of the world. This time when we broke off the kiss we were both breathing hard, and we stared at each other. As my sense started to return to me I realized that I was totally smushed against him and that I'd been standing there in front of the dorm making out like a slut. I started to pull out of his arms.

"What's wrong? Why do you suddenly look different?" he said, tightening his arms around me.

"Erik, I'm not like Aphrodite." I pulled harder and he let me go.

"I know you're not. I wouldn't like you if you were like her.”

"I don't just mean my personality. I mean standing out here making out with you isn't normal behavior for me.”

"Okay." He reached one hand toward me as though he wanted to pull me back into his arms, but then he seemed to change his mind and his hand fell to his side. "Zoey, you make me feel different than anyone has ever made me feel before.”

I felt my face getting hot and I couldn't tell if it was from anger or embarrassment. "Don't patronize me, Erik. I saw you in the hall with Aphrodite. You've clearly felt this kind of stuff before, and more.”

He shook his head and I saw hurt in his eyes. "What Aphrodite made me feel was all physical. What you make me feel is about touching my heart. I know the difference, Zoey, and I thought you did, too.”

I stared at him?at those gorgeous blue eyes that had seemed to touch me the first time he looked at me. "I'm sorry," I said softly. "That was mean of me. I do know the difference.”

"Promise me that you won't let Aphrodite come between us."

"I promise." It scared me, but I meant it.

"Good.”

Nala materialized out of the dark and started winding around my legs and complaining. "I better get her inside and put her to bed.”

"Okay." He smiled and gave me a quick kiss. "See you Saturday, Z.”

My lips tingled all the way up to my room.

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CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

 

The next day started with what I looked back on later as suspicious normalcy. Stevie Rae and I ate breakfast, still whispering good gossip about how hot Erik was and trying to figure out what I'd wear on our date Saturday. We didn't even see Aphrodite or the hag triplets, Warlike, Terrible, and Wasp. Vamp Soc class was so interesting?we'd moved from the Amazons to learning about an ancient Greek vampyre festival called Correia?that I'd stopped thinking about the Dark Daughters ritual planned for that evening, and for a little while I'd actually quit worrying about what I was going to do about Aphrodite. Drama class was good, too. I decided to do one of Kate's soliloquies from The Taming of the Shrew (I've loved that play ever since I saw the old movie starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton). Then as I was leaving class Neferet snagged me in the hall and asked how far I'd read in the upper level Vamp Soc book. I'd had to tell her that I really hadn't read much (translation: I hadn't read any) yet, and I was totally distracted by her obvious disappointment in me when I hurried into English class. I'd just taken my seat between Damien and Stevie Rae when all hell broke loose, and everything vaguely resembling anything normal about the day ended.

Penthesilea was reading "You Go and I'll Stay a While Chapter Four” of A Night to Remember. It's a really good book, and we were all listening, as usual, then that stupid Elliott kid started coughing. Jeesh, the kid was totally and completely annoying.

Somewhere in the middle of the chapter and the obnoxious coughing I started to smell something. It was rich and sweet, delicious, and elusive. Automatically, I inhaled deeply, still trying to concentrate on the book.

Elliott's coughing got worse, and with the rest of the class, I turned to give him a dirty look. I mean, please. Could he not get a cough drop or a drink or whatever?

And then I saw the blood.

Elliott wasn't in his usual slouched and sleeping position. He was sitting straight up, staring at his hand, which was covered with fresh blood. As I watched him, he coughed again, making a nasty, wet sound that reminded me of the day I'd been Marked. Only when Elliott coughed, bright scarlet blood spewed from his mouth.

"Wh??" he gurgled.

"Get Neferet!" Penthesilea snapped the command as she jerked open one of her desk drawers, yanked out a neatly folded towel, and moved quickly down the aisle to Elliott. The kid who was sitting closest to the door took off.

In utter silence we watched Penthesilea make it to Elliott just in time for his next bloody cough, which she caught in the towel. He clutched the towel to his face, hacking and spitting and gagging. When he finally looked up, bloody tears were running down his pale, round face, and blood was running from his nose like it was a faucet someone had left on. When he turned his head to look up at Penthesilea, I could see that there was a red stream coming from his ear, too.

"No!" Elliott said with more emotion than I'd ever heard him show. "No! I don't want to die!”

"Sssh," Penthesilea soothed, smoothing his orange hair back from his sweaty face. "Your pain will end soon.”

"But?but, no I?" He started to protest again, in a whiny voice that sounded more like his own, then he was interrupted by another round of hacking coughs. He gagged again, this time puking blood into the already soaked towel.

Neferet entered the room with two tall, powerful-looking vampyre men close behind her. They carried a flat stretcher and a blanket; Neferet was carrying only a vial filled with milky-colored liquid. Not two breaths behind them, Dragon Lankford burst into the room.

"That's his mentor,” Stevie Rae whispered almost soundlessly. I nodded, remembering when Penthesilea had chastised Elliott for letting Dragon down.

Neferet handed Dragon the vial she'd been holding. Then she stood behind Elliott. She put her hands on his shoulders. Instantly, his gagging and coughing subsided.

"Drink this quickly, Elliott," Dragon told him. When he started to weakly shake his head no, he added gently, "It will make your pain end.”

"Will?will you stay with me?" Elliott gasped.

"Of course,” Dragon said. "I won't let you be alone for even a moment.”

"Will you call my mom?" Elliott whispered.

"I will.”

Elliott closed his eyes for a second, and then, with shaking hands he held the vial to his lips and drank. Neferet nodded to the two men, and they picked him up and lay him on the stretcher as if he was a doll and not a dying kid. With Dragon by his side, they hurried from the room. Before Neferet followed them she turned to face the shocked classroom of third formers.

"I could tell you that Elliott will be fine?that he will recover, but that would be a lie." Her voice was serene, but filled with commanding strength. "The truth is his body has rejected the Change. In minutes he will die the permanent death and will not mature into a vampyre. I could tell you not to worry, that it won't happen to you. But this would be a lie, too. On average, one out of every ten of you will not make the Change. Some fledglings die early in their third former year, as is Elliott. Some of you will be stronger and last until your sixth former year, and then sicken and die suddenly. I tell you this not so that you will live in fear. I tell you for two reasons. First, I want you to know that as your High Priestess I will not lie to you, but will help ease your passing into the next world if that time comes. And second, I want you to live as you would be remembered if you would die tomorrow, because you might. Then if you do die your spirit can rest peacefully knowing that you leave behind an honorable memory. If you do not die, then you will have set the foundation for a long life rich with integrity." She looked straight into my eyes as she finished, saying, "I ask that Nyx's blessing comfort you today, and that you remember death is a natural part of life, even a vampyre life. For someday we all must return to the bosom of the Goddess.” She closed the door behind her with a sound that seemed to echo finality.

Penthesilea worked quickly and efficiently. Matter-of-factly she cleaned up the spatters of blood that stained Elliot's desk. When all evidence of the dying kid was gone, she returned to the front of the class and led us in a moment of silence for Elliott. Then she picked up the book and began reading where she'd left off. I tried to listen. I tried to block out the vision of Elliott bleeding out through his eyes and ears and nose and mouth. And I also tried not to think about the fact that the delicious smell I'd noticed had been, without a doubt, Elliott's lifeblood pouring from his dying body.

* * *

I know things are supposed to go on as usual after a fledgling dies, but apparently it was unusual for two kids to die so close together, and everyone was unnaturally quiet for the rest of the day. Lunch was silent and depressing, and I noticed that most of the food was picked at rather than eaten. The Twins didn't even bicker with Damien, which might have been a nice change if I hadn't known the awful reason behind it. When Stevie Rae made some lame excuse to leave lunch early and go back to the room before fifth hour started, I was more than happy to say I'd go with her.

We walked along the sidewalk in the thick dark of another cloudy night. Tonight the gaslights didn't feel cheerful and warm. Instead they seemed cold and not bright enough.

"No one liked Elliott, and somehow I think that makes it worse," Stevie Rae said. "It was weirdly easier with Elizabeth. At least we could feel honestly sorry she was gone.”

"I know what you mean. I feel upset, but I know I'm really upset that I saw what can happen to us and now I can't get it out of my mind, and not upset that the kid's dead.”

"At least it happens fast," she said softly.

I shivered. "I wonder if it hurts.”

"They give you something?that white stuff Elliott drank. It makes it stop hurting, but it lets you be conscious till the end. And Neferet always helps with the actual dying.”

"It's scary, isn't it?" I said.

"Yeah.”

We didn't say anything for a while. Then the moon peeped through the clouds, painting the leaves of the tree with an eerie silver watercolor, and reminding me suddenly of Aphrodite and her ritual.

"Any chance Aphrodite will cancel the Samhain ritual tonight?"

"No way. The Dark Daughters' rituals are never cancelled.”

"Well, hell," I said. Then I glanced at Stevie Rae. "He was their refrigerator.”

She gave me a startled look. "Elliott?”

"Yeah, it was really gross, and he acted all drugged and weird. He must have been starting to reject the Change even then." There was an uncomfortable silence, and then I added, "I didn't want to say anything to you before, especially after you told me about…well…you know. Are you sure Aphrodite won't cancel tonight? I mean, what with Elizabeth and now Elliott.”

"It won't matter. And the Dark Daughters don't care about the kid they use as a refrigerator. They'll just get someone else.”

  She hesitated. "Zoey, I've been thinking. Maybe you shouldn't go tonight. I heard what Aphrodite said to you yesterday. She's going to make sure no one accepts you. She'll be really, really mean.”

"I'll be okay, Stevie Rae.”

"No, I have a bad feeling about it. You don't have a plan yet, do you?”

"Well, no. I'm still in the reconnoitering stage I said, trying to lighten up the conversation.

"Reconnoiter later. Today's been too awful. Everyone's upset. I think you should wait.”

"I can't just not show up, especially after what Aphrodite said to me yesterday. She'll think she told me and now she can intimidate me.”

Stevie Rae took a deep breath. "Well, then I think you should take me with you.” I started to shake my head but she kept right on talking. "You're a Dark Daughter now. Technically, you can invite people to the rituals. So invite me. I'll go and watch your back.”

I thought about drinking blood and liking it so much that it was obvious, even to Warlike and Terrible. And I tried, and failed, not to think about the scent of blood?Heath's and Erik's and even Elliott's. Stevie Rae would find out someday how blood affected me, but it wouldn't be tonight. Actually, if I could help it, it wouldn't be anytime soon. I didn't want to chance losing her or the Twins or Damien?and I was afraid I would. Yes, they knew I was "special,” and they accepted me because that uniqueness meant High Priestess to them, and that was good. My bloodlust was not so good. Would they accept it as easily?

"No way, Stevie Rae.”

"But, Zoey, you shouldn't go into that hag pack alone."

"I won't be alone. Erik will be there.”

"Yeah, but he used to be Aphrodite's boyfriend. Who knows how good he'll be at standing up to her if she gets real hateful with you.”

"Honey, I can stand up for myself.”

"I know, but?" She broke off and gave me a funny look. "Z, are you vibrating?”

"Huh? Am I what?" And then I heard it, too, and started laughing. "It's my cell phone. I stuck it in my purse after it charged up last night." I pulled it out of my purse, glancing at the time on the face dial. "It's past midnight, who the heck…" Flipping the phone open I was shocked to see that I had fifteen new text messages and five missed calls. "Jeesh, someone's been calling and calling, and I didn't even notice.” I checked the text messages first, and felt my stomach start to clench as I read them.

Zo call me I stl luv u

Zo call me plz

Got 2 see u

U & Me

Will u call?

I wnt 2 talk 2 u Zo!

Call me bak

I didn't need to read any more of them. They were all basically the same. "Ah, crap. They're all from Heath.”

"Your ex?”

I sighed. "Yeah.”

"What does he want?”

"Apparently, me." Reluctantly, I keyed in the code to access my voice messages, and Heath's cute, dopey voice shocked me with how loud and animated he sounded.

"Zo! Call me. Like, I know it's late, but…wait. It's not late to you, but it's late to me. But that's okay 'cause I don't care. I just want you to call me. Okay. So. Bye. Call me.”

I groaned and deleted it. The next one sounded even more manic.

"Zoey! Okay. You need to call me. Really. And don't be mad. Hey, I don't even like Kayla. She's lame. I still love you, Zo, only you. So call me. I don't care when. I'll just wake up.”

"Man oh man," Stevie Rae said, easily overhearing Heath's gushing. "The boy's obsessed. No wonder you dumped him.”

"Yeah," I mumbled, quickly deleting the second message. The third was much like the first two, only more desperate. I turned the volume down and tapped my foot impatiently while I went through all five messages, not listening except to see when I could delete and move on to the next one. "I gotta go see Neferet," I said, more to myself than to Stevie Rae.

"How come? You need to block him from calling or something?"

"No. Yeah. Something like that. I just need to talk to her about, well, about what I should do.” I avoided Stevie Rae's curious gaze.

"I mean, he's already showed up here once. I don't want him to come by again and cause any trouble.”

"Oh, yeah, that's true. It'd be bad if he ran into Erik.”

"It'd be awful. Okay, I better hurry and try to catch Neferet before fifth hour. I'll see you after school.”

I didn't wait for Stevie Rae's good-bye, but took off in the direction of Neferet's room. Could this day get any worse? Elliott dies and I'm attracted to his blood. I have to go to the Samhain ritual tonight with a bunch of kids who hate me and want to make sure I know it, and I've probably Imprinted my ex-almost-boyfriend.

Yep. Today really, really sucked.

 
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CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

 

If Skylar's hissing and growling hadn't caught my attention, I would never have seen Aphrodite slumped in the little alcove down the hall from Neferet's room.

"What is it, Skylar?" I held my hand out gingerly, remembering what Neferet had said about her cat being a known biter. I was also sincerely glad that Nala wasn't tagging long after me as usual?Skylar would probably eat my poor little cat for lunch. "Kitty-kitty," the big orange tom gave me a considering look (probably considering whether or not to bite the crap out of my hand). Then he made his decision, un-puffed himself, and trotted over to me. He rubbed around my legs, then he gave the alcove one more good hiss before he took off, disappearing down the hall in the direction of Neferet's room.

"What the hell was his problem?" I looked hesitantly into the alcove, wondering what would make a mean cat like Skylar puff up and hiss, and I felt a jolt of shock. She was sitting right on the floor, hard to see in the shadow under the ledge that held a pretty statue of Nyx. Her head was tilted back, and her eyes were rolled so that only their whites were showing. She scared the total crap out of me. I felt frozen, expecting any second to see blood pouring down her face. Then she moaned and muttered something I couldn't understand while her eyeballs shifted around behind her closed lids as though she was watching a scene. I realized what must be happening. Aphrodite was having a vision. She'd probably felt it coming on and hidden in the alcove so no one would find her and she could keep her info about the death and destruction she could prevent to her hateful self. Cow. Hag.

Well, I was done letting her get away with that crap. I bent down and grabbed her under the arms, pulling her to her feet. (Let me tell you, she's a lot heavier than she looks.)

"Come on," I groaned, half carrying her while she lurched blindly forward with me. "Let's take a little trip down the hall and see what kind of tragedy you want to keep quiet about.”

Thankfully, Neferet's room wasn't far away. We staggered in and Neferet jumped up from behind her desk and rushed to us.

"Zoey! Aphrodite! What?" But as soon as she got a good look at Aphrodite, her alarm changed to calm understanding. "Help me bring her over here to my chair. She'll be more comfortable there.”

We led Aphrodite to Neferet's big leather chair, and let her sink into it. Then Neferet crouched beside her and took her hand.

"Aphrodite, with the Goddess's voice I beseech you to tell her Priestess what it is you see." Neferet's voice was soft, but compelling, and I could feel the power in her command.

Aphrodite's eyelids instantly began to flicker, and she drew a deep, gasping breath. Then they opened suddenly. Her eyes looked huge and glassy.

"So much blood! There's so much blood coming out of his body!”

"Who, Aphrodite? Center yourself. Focus and clear the vision," Neferet commanded.

Aphrodite drew another gasping breath. "They're dead! No. No. That can't be! Not right. No. Not natural! I don't understand…I don't…" She blinked her eyes again, and her gaze seemed to clear. She looked around the room, like she didn't recognize anything. Her eyes touched me. "You…," she said faintly. "You know.”

"Yeah," I said, thinking that I sure did know that she was trying to hide her vision, but all I said was, "I found you in the hall and?" Neferet's raised hand stopped me.

"No, she's not finished. She shouldn't be coming to so soon. The vision is still too abstract," Neferet told me quickly, and then she lowered her voice again and assumed the compelling, commanding tone. "Aphrodite, go back. See what it is you were meant to witness, and what you were meant to change.”

Ha! Got you now.I couldn't help being a little smug. After all, she had tried to scratch my eyes out yesterday.

"The dead…" Getting more and more difficult to understand, Aphrodite murmured something that sounded like "Tunnels…they kill…someone there…I don't…I can't…" She was frantic, and I almost felt sorry for her. Clearly, whatever she was seeing was freaking her out. Then her searching eyes found Neferet, and I saw recognition flash through them and I started to relax. She was coming around and this whole weirdness would be cleared up. And just as I thought that, Aphrodite's eyes, which seemed to be locked on Neferet, widened unbelievably. A look of pure terror blanked her face and she screamed.

Neferet clamped her hands on Aphrodite's trembling shoulders. "Awaken!" She spared hardly a glance over her shoulder at me to say, "Go now, Zoey. Her vision is confused. Elliott's death has upset her. I need to be certain she is herself once more.”

I didn't need to be told twice. Heath's obsession forgotten, I got the hell outta there and headed to Spanish class.

I couldn't concentrate on school. I kept replaying the weird scene with Neferet and Aphrodite over and over in my head. She'd obviously been having a vision about people dying, but from Neferet's reaction it hadn't behaved like a normal vision (if there was such a thing). Stevie Rae had said that Aphrodite's visions were so clear that she could direct people to the right airport and even the specific plane she'd seen crashing. Yet today, all of a sudden, nothing was clear. Well, nothing but seeing me and saying weird stuff, and then screaming her brains out at Neferet. It so didn't make sense. I was almost looking forward to seeing how she'd act tonight. Almost.

I put away Persephone's curry brushes and picked up Nala, who'd been perched on top of the horse's feeder watching and making her weird me-eeh-uf-ows at me, and started slowly back to the dorm. This time Aphrodite didn't hassle me, but when I rounded the corner by the old oak Stevie Rae, Damien, and the Twins were huddled together doing a lot of talking?that suddenly shut up when I came into view. They all looked guiltily at me. It was pretty easy to guess who they'd been talking about.

"What?" I said.

"We were just waiting for you," Stevie Rae said. Her usual perkiness was missing.

"What's wrong with you?" I asked.

"She's worried about you," Shaunee said.

"We're worried about you," Erin said.

"What's going on with your ex?" Damien asked.

"He's buggin', that's all. If he didn't bug, he wouldn't be my ex." I tried to speak nonchalantly, without looking any of the four of them in the eye too long. (I've never been a particularly good liar.)

"We think I should go with you tonight," Stevie Rae said.

"Actually, we think we should go with you tonight," Damien corrected.

I frowned at them. No possible way I wanted all four of them to watch me drink whatever loser kid's blood they managed to mix into the wine tonight.

"No.”

"Zoey, it's been a really bad day. Everyone's stressed. Plus, Aphrodite is out to get you. It makes sense that we should stick together tonight," Damien said logically.

Yeah, it was logical, but they didn't know the whole story. I didn't want them to know the whole story. Yet. The truth was, I cared too much about them. They made me feel accepted and safe?they made me feel like I fit in here. I couldn't risk losing that right now, not when all of this was still so new and so scary. So I did what I had learned to do too well at home when I was scared and upset and didn't know what else to do?I got pissed and defensive.

"You guys say that I have powers that will someday make me your High Priestess?" They all nodded eagerly and smiled at me, which squeezed my heart. I gritted my teeth and made my voice real cold. "Then you need to listen to me when I say no. I don't want you there tonight. This is something I have to deal with. Alone. And I don't want to talk about it anymore.”

And then I stomped away from them.

Naturally, within half an hour I was sorry I'd been so awful. I paced back and forth under the big oak that had somehow become my sanctuary, annoying Nala and wishing that Stevie Rae would show up so I could apologize. My friends didn't know why I didn't want them there. They were just looking out for me. Maybe…maybe they would understand about the blood thing. Erik seemed to understand. Okay, sure, he was a fifth former, but still. We were all supposed to go through it. We were all supposed to start craving blood?or we died. I brightened a little and scratched Nala's head.

"When the alternative is death, blood drinking doesn't seem so bad. Right?”

She purred, so I took that as a yes. I checked the time on my watch. Crap. I had to go back to the dorm, change my clothes, and go meet the Dark Daughters. Listlessly, I started following the wall back. It was a cloudy night again, but I didn't mind the darkness. Actually, I was starting to like the night. I should. It was going to be my element for a very long time. If I lived. As though she could read my morbid thoughts, Nala "me-eeh-uf-owed" grumpily at me as she trotted along beside me.

"Yeah, I know. I shouldn't be so negative. I'll work on that right after I?”

Nala's low growl surprised me. She'd stopped. Her back was arched and her hair was standing on end, making her look like a fat little puffball, but her slitted eyes were no joke, and neither was the ferocious hiss that snaked from her mouth. "Nala, what…”

A terrible chill fingered its way down my spine even before I turned to look in the direction my cat was staring. Later, I couldn't figure out why I didn't scream. I remember my mouth opening so I could gulp air, but I was absolutely silent. It seemed I'd gone numb, but that was impossible. If I'd been numb there's no way I could have been so thoroughly petrified.

Elliott was standing not ten feet from me in the darkness that shadowed the space next to the wall. He must have been heading in the same direction Nala and I were walking. Then he'd heard Nala, and half turned back toward us. She hissed again at him and, with a frighteningly quick movement he whirled around to fully face us.

I swear I couldn't breathe. He was a ghost?he had to be, but he looked so solid, so real. If I hadn't watched his body rejecting the Change, I would have thought he was just looking especially pale and…and… weird.He was abnormally white, but there was more wrong about him than that. His eyes had changed. They reflected what little light there was and they glowed a terrible rust red, like dried blood.

Exactly as the ghost of Elizabeth's eyes had glowed.

There was something else different about him, too. His body looked strange?thinner. How was that possible? The smell came to me then. Old and dry and out of place, like a closet that hadn't been opened in years or a creepy basement. It was the same smell I'd noticed just before I'd seen Elizabeth.

Nala growled and Elliott dropped into an odd, half crouch and hissed back at her. Then he bared his teeth, and I could see that he had fangs! He took a step toward Nala as if he was going to attack her. I didn't think, I just reacted.

"Leave her alone and get the hell out of here!" It amazed me that I sounded like I wasn't doing anything more exciting than yelling at a bad dog, because I was definitely scared totally shitless.

His head swiveled in my direction and the glow of his eyes touched me for the first time. Wrong! The intuitive voice inside me that had become familiar was screaming. This is an abomination!

"You…" His voice was horrible. It was raspy and guttural, as if something had damaged his throat. "I will have you!" And he began to come toward me.

Raw fear engulfed me like a bitter wind.

Nala's battle yowl rent the night as she hurled herself at Elliott's ghost. In complete shock I watched, expecting the cat to go spitting and clawing through empty air. Instead she landed on his thigh, claws extended, scratching and howling like an animal three times her size. He screamed, grabbed her by the scruff of her neck, and threw her away from him. Then, with impossible speed and strength he literally leaped to the top of the wall, and disappeared into the night that surrounded the school.

I was shaking so hard that I stumbled. "Nala!" I sobbed. "Where are you, little girl?”

Puffed up and growling, she padded over to me, but her slitted eyes were still focused on the wall. I crouched beside her, and with shaking hands checked to make sure she felt all in one piece. She felt unbroken, so I scooped her up and began jogging away from the wall as fast as I could.

"It's okay. We're okay. He's gone. What a brave girl you were.” I kept talking to her. She perched halfway over my shoulder so that she could see behind us, and she continued to growl.

When I got to the first gaslight, not far from the rec hall, I stopped and shifted Nala's position so that I could look more closely to see that she was really okay. What I found made my stomach clench so hard I thought I was going to throw up. On her paws was blood. Only it wasn't Nala's. And it didn't smell delicious like other blood had smelled. Instead it carried the scent of musty dryness, old basements. I forced myself not to retch as I wiped her paws on the winter grass. Then I picked her up again and hurried down the sidewalk that led to the dorm. Nala never stopped looking behind us and growling.

Stevie Rae, the Twins, and Damien were all conspicuously absent from the dorm. They weren't watching TV?they weren't in the computer room or the library, and they weren't in the kitchen, either. I climbed quickly up the stairs, hoping desperately that at least Stevie Rae would be in our room. No such luck.

I sat on my bed, petting the still distraught Nala. Should I try to find my friends? Or should I just stay here? Stevie Rae would eventually come back to our room. I looked at her gyrating Elvis clock. I had about ten minutes to get changed and to the rec hall. But how could I go on to the ritual after what had just happened?

What had just happened?

A ghost had tried to attack me. No. That wasn't right. How could ghosts bleed? But had it been blood? It didn't smell like blood. I had no idea what was going on.

I should go directly to Neferet and tell her what had happened. I should get up right now and take myself and my freaked-out cat to Neferet and tell her about Elizabeth last night and now Elliott tonight. I should… I should…

No.This time it wasn't a scream within me. It was the strength of certainty. I could not tell Neferet, at least not at that moment.

"I have to go to the ritual." I said aloud the words that were echoing through my mind. "I have to be at this ritual.”

As I pulled on the black dress and searched around the closet for my ballet flats I felt myself becoming very calm. Things here didn't play by the same rules as they did in my old world?in my old life?and it was time I accepted that and started getting used to it.

I had an affinity for the five elements, which meant that I had been gifted with incredible powers by an ancient goddess. As Grandma had reminded me, with great power comes great responsibility. Maybe I was being allowed to see things?like ghosts that didn't act or look or smell like ghosts should?for a reason. I didn't know what that meant yet. Actually, I didn't know much besides the two thoughts that were clearest in my mind: I couldn't tell Neferet, and I had to go to the ritual.

Hurrying to the rec hall I tried to at least think positively. Maybe Aphrodite would not show up tonight, or be there but forget to harass me.

It turned out, as my luck would have it, neither was the case.

 
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CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

 

"Nice dress, Zoey. It looks just like mine. Oh, wait! It used to be mine." Aphrodite laughed a throaty, I'm-so-grown-up-and-you're-just-a-kid laugh. I really hate it when girls do that. I mean, yes, she's older, but I have boobs, too.

I smiled, purposefully putting an extra dose of cluelessness into my voice and launched into a gihugic lie, which I think I pulled off pretty well considering I'm a bad liar, I had just been attacked by a ghost, and everybody was staring at us and listening in.

"Hi, Aphrodite! Gosh, I was just reading the chapter in the Soc 415 book Neferet gave me about how important it is for the leader of the Dark Daughters to make every new member of the group feel welcome and accepted. You must be proud that you're doing your job so well.” Then I stepped a little closer to her and lowered my voice so she alone could hear me. "And I must say you look better than you did the last time I saw you." I watched her pale and was sure fear flickered through her eyes. Surprisingly, it didn't make me feel victorious and smug. It just made me feel mean and shallow and tired. I sighed. "Sorry. I shouldn't have said that.”

Her face hardened. "Fuck off, freak," she hissed. Then she laughed as though she'd just made a huge joke (at my expense), turned her back on me, and with a hateful flip of her hair walked to the middle of the rec hall.

Okay, I didn't feel bad anymore. Hateful cow. She raised one slim arm, and everyone who had been gawking at me now turned their attention (thankfully) to her. Tonight she had on an antique-looking red silk dress that fit her as if it had been painted on. I'd like to know just exactly where she got her clothes. Goth ho store?

"A fledgling died yesterday, and then another one died today.”

Her voice was strong and clear, and sounded almost compassionate, which surprised me. For a second she really did remind me of Neferet, and I wondered whether she was going to say something profound and leader-like.

"We all knew both of them. Elizabeth had been nice and quiet. Elliott had been our refrigerator for the past several rituals." She smiled suddenly; it was feral and mean, and any resemblance she might have had to Neferet ended. "But they were weak, and vampyres do not need weakness in their coven." She shrugged her scarlet-covered shoulders. "If we were humans we'd call it survival of the fittest. Thank the Goddess we're not humans, so let's just call it Fate, and be happy tonight that it didn't kick any of our asses.”

I was totally grossed out to hear sounds of general agreement. I hadn't really known Elizabeth, but she'd been nice to me. Okay, I admit that I hadn't liked Elliott?no one had. The kid was annoying and unattractive (and his ghost or whatever seemed to be carrying on those traits), but I was not glad he died. If I'm ever leader of the Dark Daughters I won't make fun of the death of a fledgling, no matter how insignificant. I made the promise to myself, but I was also conscious of sending it out like a prayer. I hoped Nyx heard me, and I hoped she approved.

"But enough gloom and doom," Aphrodite was saying. "It's Samhain! The night when we celebrate the end of the harvest season and, even better, it is the time when we remember our ancestors?all the great vampyres who have lived and died before us." The tone of her voice was creepy, like she was getting into the show she was putting on way too much, and I rolled my eyes as she continued. "It's the night when the veil between life and death is thinnest and when spirits are most likely to walk the earth." She paused and looked around the audience, being careful to ignore me (like everyone else was). I had a moment to wonder about what she'd just said. Could what have happened with Elliott have something to do with the veil between life and death being thinnest, and the fact that he had died on Samhain? I didn't have time to wonder any more about it because Aphrodite raised her voice and shouted, "So what are we going to do?”

"Go out!" the Dark Daughters and Sons yelled back.

Aphrodite's laugh was way too sexual to be appropriate, and I swear she touched herself. Right there in front of everyone. Jeesh, she was nasty.

"That's right. I've chosen an awesome place for us tonight, and we even have a new little refrigerator waiting for us there with the girls.”

Ugh. By "the girls" did she mean Warlike, Terrible, and Wasp? I glanced quickly around the room. Didn't see them anywhere. Great. I could only imagine what those three plus Aphrodite would consider "awesome." And I didn't even want to think about the poor kid who had somehow been talked into being their new refrigerator.

And, yes, I was going to be in total denial about the fact that my mouth watered when Aphrodite mentioned that there was a refrigerator waiting for us, which meant I was going to get to drink blood again.

"So let's get out of here. And remember, be silent. Focus your minds on being invisible, and any human who happens to still be awake will simply not see us." Then she looked right at me. "And may Nyx have mercy on anyone who gives us away, because we certainly won't." She smiled silkily back at the group. "Follow me, Dark Daughters and Sons!”

In silent pairs and small groups, everyone followed Aphrodite out the back door of the rec hall. Naturally, they ignored me. I almost didn't follow them. I really didn't want to. I mean, I'd had enough excitement for one night. I should go back to the dorm and apologize to Stevie Rae. Then we could find the Twins and Damien, and I could tell them about Elliott (I paused to consider whether my gut feeling was warning me against telling my friends, but it stayed silent). Okay. So. I could tell them. That sounded like a better idea than following bitchy Aphrodite and a group of kids who couldn't stand me. But my intuition, which had been quiet when I'd thought about talking to my friends, suddenly reared up again. I had to go to the ritual. I sighed.

"Come on, Z. You don't want to miss the show, do you?”

Erik was standing by the back door, looking like Superman with his blue eyes smiling at me.

Well, hell.

"Are you kidding? Hateful girls, totally cliquish drama-trauma, and the possibility for embarrassment and bloodletting. What's not to love? I wouldn't miss a minute of it.” Together Erik and I followed the group out the door.

Everyone was walking quietly to the wall behind the rec hall, which was too close to where I'd seen Elizabeth and Elliott for me to feel comfortable. And then, weirdly, the kids seemed to disappear into the wall.

"What the??" I whispered.

"It's just a trick. You'll see.”

I did. It was actually a trap door. Like the kind you see in those old murder movies, only instead of a door in a library wall or inside a fireplace (as in one of the Indiana Jones movies?yes, I'm a dork), this trap door was a small section of the thick, otherwise solid-looking school wall. Part of it swung out, leaving an open space just big enough for one person (or fledgling or vamp or possibly even a freakishly solid ghost or two) to slip through. Erik and I were the last ones through. I heard a soft whoosh, and looked back in time to see the wall closing seamlessly.

"It's on an automatic keypad, like a car door," Erik whispered. "Huh. Who all knows about this?”

"Anyone who's ever been a Dark Daughter or Son.”

"Huh." I suspected that was probably most of the adult vamps. I glanced around. I didn't see anyone watching us, or following us.

Erik noticed my look. "They don't care. It's school tradition that we sneak out for some of the rituals As long as we don't do anything too stupid, they pretend like they don't know we're going." He shrugged. "It works out okay, I guess.”

"As long as we don't do anything too stupid," I said.

"Shush!" Someone in front of us hissed. I closed my mouth and decided to concentrate on where we were going.

It was about four thirty A.M. Uh, no one was awake. Big surprise. It was weird to be walking through this really cool part of Tulsa?a neighborhood filled with mansions built by old oil money?and have nobody notice us. We were cutting through amazingly landscaped yards and no dogs were even barking at us. It was as if we were shadows…or ghosts.…The thought gave me a creepy chill. The moon that earlier had been mostly obscured by clouds was now shining silver-white in an unexpectedly clear sky. I swear that even before I was Marked I could have read by its light. It was cold, but that didn't bother me like it would have just a week ago. I tried not to think about what that meant about the Change that was going on inside my body.

We crossed a street, then slid soundlessly between two yards. I heard running water before I saw the little footbridge. The moonlight lit up the stream as though someone had spilled mercury across the top of it. I felt captured by its beauty, and I automatically slowed down, reminding myself that night was my new day. I hoped that I would never get used to the dark majesty of it.

"Come on, Z," whispered Erik from the other side of the bridge.

I looked up at him. He was silhouetted against an incredible mansion that stretched up the hill behind him with its huge, terraced lawn and pond and gazebo and fountains and waterfalls (these people clearly had entirely too much money), and he reminded me of one of those romantic heroes out of history, like…like…Well, the only two heroes I could think of were Superman and Zorro, and neither of them were truly historical. But he did look very knight-like and romantic. And then it registered on me exactly which amazing mansion we were trespassing on, and I hurried across the bridge to him.

"Erik," I whispered frantically, "this is the Philbrook Museum! We're really going to get in trouble if they catch us messing around here.”

"They won't catch us.”

I had to scramble to keep up with him. He was walking fast, much more eager than me to catch up with the silent, ghostlike group.

"Okay, this isn't just some rich guy's house. This is a museum. There are twenty-four-hour security guards here.”

"Aphrodite will have drugged them.”

"What!”

"Ssssh. It doesn't hurt them. They'll be groggy for a while and then go home and not remember anything. No big deal.”

I didn't reply, but I really didn't like that he was so 'whatever' about drugging security guards. It just didn't seem right, even though I could understand the need for it. We were trespassing. We didn't want to get caught. So the guards needed to be drugged. I got it. I just didn't like it, and it sounded like yet another thing that was begging to be changed about the Dark Daughters and their holier-than-thou attitudes. They reminded me more and more of the People of Faith, which was not a flattering comparison. Aphrodite wasn't God (or Goddess, for that matter), despite what she called herself.

Erik had stopped walking. We stepped up to join the group where it had formed a loose circle around the domed gazebo situated at the bottom of the gentle slope that led up to the museum. It was close to the ornamental fishpond that ended right before the terraces leading up to the museum began. It really was an incredibly beautiful place. I'd been there two or three times on field trips, and once, with my Art class, I'd even been inspired to sketch the gardens, even though I definitely can not draw. Now the night had changed it from a place with pretty, well-tended gardens and marble water features into a magical fairy kingdom all washed in the light of the moon and shaded by layers of grays and silvers and midnight blues.

The gazebo itself was amazing. It sat on the top of huge round stairs, throne-like, so that you had to climb up to it. It was made of carved white columns, and the dome was lit from beneath, so that it looked like something that could have been found in ancient Greece, and then restored to its original glory and lit for the night to see.

Aphrodite climbed the stairs to take her place in the middle of the gazebo, which immediately sucked some of the magic and beauty from it. Naturally, Warlike, Terrible, and Wasp were there, too. Another girl was with them, who I didn't recognize. Of course I could have seen her a zillion times and wouldn't have remembered?she was just another Barbie-like blond (although her name probably meant something like Wicked or Hateful). They'd set up a little table in the middle of the gazebo and draped it with black cloth. I could see that there were a bunch of candles on it, and some other stuff, including a goblet and a knife. Some poor kid was slumped with his head down on the table. A cloak had been pulled around him, so that it covered his body, and he looked a lot like Elliott on the night he'd been the refrigerator.

It must really take a lot out of a kid to have his blood drained for Aphrodite's rituals, and I wondered whether that had anything to do with bringing on Elliott's death. I blocked from my mind the fact that my mouth started watering when I thought about the kid's blood being mixed with the wine in the goblet. Weird how something could totally gross me out and make me want it really bad at the same time.

"I will cast the circle and call the spirits of our ancestors to dance within it with us," Aphrodite said. She spoke softly, but her voice traveled around us like a poisonous mist. It was spooky to think about ghosts being drawn to Aphrodite's circle, especially after my own recent experiences with ghosts, but I have to admit that it intrigued me almost as much as it scared me. Maybe I was so certain I had to be here because I was meant to get some clue about Elizabeth and Elliott tonight. Plus, this ritual was obviously something the Dark Daughters had been doing for a while. It couldn't be that scary or dangerous. Aphrodite played all big and cool, but I had a feeling that it was an act. Underneath she was what all bullies are?insecure and immature. Also, bullies tended to avoid anyone tougher than them, so it was only logical that if Aphrodite was going to call spirits into a circle it meant that they were harmless, probably even nice. Aphrodite was definitely not going to face down a big, bad, boogie monster.

Or anything as truly freaky as what Elliott had become.

I started to relax into welcoming what was already becoming a familiar hum of power as the four Dark Daughters took candles that corresponded to the element they were representing, and then moved to the correct area of the mini-circle in the gazebo. Aphrodite summoned wind, and my hair lifted gently in a breeze that only I could feel. I closed my eyes, loving the electricity that tingled across my skin. Actually, in spite of Aphrodite and the stuck-up Dark Daughters, I was already enjoying the beginning of the ritual. And Erik was standing beside me, which helped me not to care that no one else there would talk to me.

I relaxed more, certain suddenly that the future wasn't going to be that bad. I'd make up with my friends, we'd figure out together what the hell was going on with the weird ghosts, and maybe I'd even get a totally hot boyfriend. Everything would be okay. I opened my eyes and watched Aphrodite move around the circle. Each element sizzled through me, and I wondered how Erik could stand so close to me and not notice it. I even snuck a peek at him, half expecting him to be staring at me as the elements played over my skin, but, like everyone else, he was looking at Aphrodite. (Which was actually annoying?wasn't he supposed to be sneaking looks at me, too?) Then Aphrodite began the ritual of summoning of the ancestral spirits, and even I couldn't keep my attention from her. She stood at the table, holding a long braid of dried grass over the purple spirit flame, so that it lit quickly. She allowed it to burn for a little while, and then blew it out. She waved it gently around her as she began to speak, filling the area with tendrils of smoke. I sniffed, recognizing the scent of sweet grass, one of the most sacred of ceremonial herbs because it attracted spiritual energy. Grandma used it often in her prayers. Then I frowned and felt a tendril of worry. Sweet grass should be used only after sage has been burned to cleanse and purify the area; if not, it might attract any energy?and "any" didn't always mean good. But it was too late to say anything, even if I could have stopped the ceremony. She had already begun calling to the spirits, and her voice had taken on an eerie, singsong quality that was somehow intensified by the smoke that curled thickly around her.

On this Samhain night, hear my ancient call all you spirits of our ancestors. On this Samhain night, let my voice carry with this smoke to the Otherworld where bright spirits play in the sweet grass mists of memory. On this Samhain night I do not call the spirits of our human ancestors. No, I let them sleep; I have no need for them in life or in death. On this Samhain night I call magical ancestors? mystical ancestors?those who were once more than human, and who, in death, are more than human.

Completely entranced, I watched with everyone else as the smoke swirled and changed and began to take on forms. At first I thought I was seeing things, and I tried to blink my vision clear, but soon I understood what I was seeing had nothing to do with blurry vision. There were people forming within the smoke. They were indistinct, more like the outlines of bodies than actual bodies themselves, but as Aphrodite continued to wave the sweet grass they grew more substantial, and then suddenly the circle was filled with spectral figures that had dark, cavernous eyes and open mouths.

They didn't look anything like Elizabeth or Elliott. Actually, they looked exactly as I imagined ghosts would?smoky and transparent and creepy. I sniffed the air. Nope, I definitely didn't smell any old basement yuckiness.

Aphrodite put down the still-smoking grass and picked up the goblet. Even from where I was watching, it seemed that she looked unusually pale, as though she had taken on some of the physical characteristics of the ghosts. Her red dress was almost painfully bright within the circle of smoke and gray and mist.

"I greet you, ancestral spirits, and ask that you accept our offering of wine and blood so that you may remember what it is to taste life." She lifted the goblet, and the smoky shapes churned and roiled with obvious excitement. "I greet you, ancestral spirits, and within the protection of my circle I?”

"Zo! I knew I'd find you if I tried hard enough!”

Heath's voice sliced through the night, cutting off Aphrodite's words.
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CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

 

"Heath! What in the hell are you doing here!”

"Well, you didn't call me back.” Oblivious to everyone else, he hugged me. I didn't need the bright light of the moon for me to see his bloodshot eyes. "I missed you, Zo!" he blurted, wafting beer breath all over me.

"Heath. You need to go?”

"No. Let him stay," Aphrodite interrupted me.

Heath's gaze swiveled up to her, and I imagined what she must look like through his eyes. She stood in the pool of light made by the gazebo's spotlights shining through the sweet grass smoke, illuminating her almost as though she was underwater. Her red silk dress clung to her body. Her blond hair was thick and heavy down her back. Her lips were tilted up in a mean-looking smile, which I'm sure Heath would misunderstand and think she was being nice. Actually, he probably wouldn't even notice the smoky ghosts that had stopped hovering around the goblet and had now turned their blank eyes toward him. He also wouldn't notice that Aphrodite's voice had a weird, hollow sound to it and that her eyes were glassy and staring. Hell, knowing Heath he wouldn't notice anything except her big boobies.

"Cool, a vampyre chick," Heath said, totally proving me right.

"Get him out of here.” Erik's voice was tight with worry.

Heath tore his eyes from Aphrodite's boobs to glare at Erik. "Who're you?”

Ah, crap. I recognized that tone. It was the one Heath used when he was getting ready to have a jealous fit. (Another reason he was my ex.)

"Heath, you need to get out of here,” I said.

"No." He stepped closer to me and put his arm possessively around my shoulders, but he didn't look at me. He kept staring down Erik. "I came to see my girlfriend, and I'm gonna see my girlfriend.”

I ignored the fact that I could feel Heath's pulse where his arm rested against my shoulders. Instead of doing something utterly gross and disturbing, like biting into his wrist, I shrugged off his arm and then yanked at it so he had to face me and not Erik.

"I am not your girlfriend.”

"Aw, Zo, you're just sayin' that.”

I gritted my teeth. God, he was dumb. (Yet another reason he was my ex.)

"Are you stupid?" Erik said.

"Look, you bloodsucking fuck, I'm?" Heath began to say, but Aphrodite's strangely echoing voice drowned him out.

"Come up here, human.”

Like our eyes were magnets to her freaky attraction, Heath, Erik, and I (and, for that matter, the rest of the Dark Daughters and Sons) stared up at her. Her body looked weird. Was it pulsing? How could it? She flipped back her hair and ran one hand down her body like a nasty stripper, cupping her breast and then moving down to rub between her legs. Her other hand lifted and she curled her finger, beckoning Heath.

"Come to me, human. Let me taste you.”

This was bad; this was wrong. Something terrible was going to happen to Heath if he went up there and stepped within that circle.

Totally entranced by her, Heath lurched forward without any hesitation (or common sense). I grabbed one of his arms, and was pleased to see Erik grab his other.

"Stop it, Heath! I want you to go. Now. You don't belong here.”

With an effort, Heath pulled his eyes from Aphrodite. He jerked his arm from Erik's grip and practically growled at him. Then he turned on me.

"You're cheating on me!”

"Can you not listen? It's impossible for me to cheat on you. We are not together! Now get out of?”

"If he refuses our summons, then we shall go to him.”

My head jerked up to see Aphrodite's body convulse as gray wisps seeped out of her. She let out a gasp that was a cross between a sob and a scream. The spirits, including the ones that had obviously been possessing her, rushed to the edge of the circle, pressing against it in an effort to break free and get to Heath.

"Stop them, Aphrodite. If you don't they'll kill him!" Damien shouted as he stepped out from behind an ornamental hedge that framed the pond.

"Damien, what?" I began, but he shook his head.

"No time to explain," he told me quickly before turning his attention back to Aphrodite. "You know what they are," he called up to her. "You have to contain them in the circle or he'll die.”

Aphrodite was so pale she looked like a ghost herself. She moved away from the smoky shapes that were still trying to push against the invisible boundary of the circle, until she was pressed against one edge of the table.

"I won't stop them. If they want him, they can have him. Better him than me?or any of the rest of us," Aphrodite said.

"Yeah, we don't want any part of this kind of shit!" said Terrible before dropping her candle, which sputtered and went out. Without another word, she ran out of the circle and down the gazebo stairs. The other three girls who were supposed to be personifying the elements followed her lead, disappearing quickly into the night and leaving their candles overturned and unlit.

Horrified, I watched one of the gray shapes begin to melt through the circle. The smoke that was his spectral body began seeping down the stairs, reminding me of a snake as it slithered in our direction. I felt the Dark Daughters and Sons stir and glanced around me. They were nervously backing away, looks of fear twisting their faces.

"It's up to you, Zoey.”

"Stevie Rae!”

She was standing unsteadily in the middle of the circle. She'd thrown off the cape that had covered her, and I could see the white linen bandages on her wrists.

"I told you we needed to stick together." She smiled weakly at me.

"Better hurry," Shaunee said.

"Those ghosts are scaring the shit right outta your ex," Erin said.

I looked over my shoulder to see the Twins standing beside the white-faced, open-mouthed Heath, and I felt a jolt of pure happiness. They hadn't abandoned me! I wasn't alone!

"Let's get this done," I said. "Keep him here," I told Erik, who was staring at me with obvious shock.

Without needing to look back to be sure my friends were following me, I hurried up the steep stairs to the ghost-filled gazebo. When I reached the boundary of the circle I hesitated for a second. The spirits were slowly dissolving through it, their attention completely focused on Heath. I took a deep breath and stepped inside the invisible barrier, feeling an awful chill as the dead brushed restlessly against my skin.

"You have no right to be here. This is my circle," Aphrodite said, pulling herself together enough to wrinkle her lip at me and block my way to the table and the spirit candle, which was the only one still lit.

"Wasyour circle. Now you need to shut up and move," I told her.

Aphrodite narrowed her eyes at me.

Ah, crap. I really didn't have time for this.

"Bobble-head, you need to do what Zoey says. I have been dying to kick the shit outta you for two years," Shaunee said, moving up to stand beside me.

"Me, too, you nasty ho bag," Erin said, stepping up to my other side.

Before the Twins could pounce on her, Heath's scream shattered the night. I whirled around. Mist was crawling up Heath's legs, leaving long, thin tears in his jeans that instantly began to weep blood. Panicked, he was kicking and shrieking. Erik hadn't run away, but was hitting at the mist, too, even though whenever some of it stuck on him it ripped his clothes and tore open his skin.

"Fast! Take your places," I yelled before the seductive smell of their blood could mess with my concentration.

My friends ran to the deserted candles. Hastily they picked them up and waited in the proper positions.

I moved around Aphrodite, who was staring at Heath and Erik, with her hand pressed against her mouth as if to hold back her screams. I grabbed the purple candle and rushed over to Damien.

"Wind! I summon you to this circle," I yelled, touching the purple candle to the yellow one. I wanted to cry with relief when the familiar whirlwind suddenly sprang up, swirling around my body and lifting my hair crazily.

Shielding the purple candle with my hand I ran to Shaunee.

"Fire! I summon you to this circle!" Heat flared with the whirling air as I lit the red candle. I didn't pause, but kept moving clockwise around the circle. "Water! I summon you to this circle!" The sea was there, salty and sweet at the same time. "Earth! I summon you to this circle!" I touched the flame to Stevie Rae's candle, trying not to flinch at the bandages that covered her wrists. She was abnormally pale, but she grinned when the air filled with the scent of freshly cut hay.

Heath screamed again, and I rushed back to the center of the circle and lifted the purple candle. "Spirit! I summon you to this circle!" Energy sizzled into me. I glanced around at the boundary of my circle and, sure enough, I could see the ribbon of power marking its circumference. I closed my eyes for an instant. Oh, thank you, Nyx!

Then I put the candle down on the table and grabbed the goblet of bloody wine. I turned to face Heath and Erik and the ghostly horde.

"Here is your sacrifice!" I yelled, sloshing the liquid in the goblet in a messy arc around me, so that it made a blood-colored circle on the gazebo floor. "You weren't called here to kill. You were called here because it's Samhain and we wanted to honor you." I spilled more wine, trying hard to ignore the seductive scent of fresh blood mixed with wine.

The ghosts paused in their attack. I focused on them, not wanting to distract myself with the terror in Heath's eyes and the pain in Erik's.

"We prefer this warm young blood, Priestess."The eerie voice echoed up to me, sending chills over my skin. I swear I could smell his rotting flesh-scented breath.

I swallowed hard. "I understand that, but those lives aren't yours to take. Tonight is a night for celebration, not for death."

"And yet we choose death?it is dearest to us."Ghostly laughter floated through the air with the tainted smoke of sweet grass, and the spirits began to converge again on Heath.

I threw down the goblet and raised my hands. "Then I'm not asking anymore; I'm telling you. Wind, fire, water, earth, and spirit! I command in Nyx's name that you close this circle, pulling back to it the dead who have been allowed to escape. Now!”

Heat surged through my body and shot from my outstretched hands. In a rush of salt-scented wind that was burning hot, a shining green mist whooshed from me down the stairs to whip around Heath and Erik, making their clothes and hair flap like mad. The magical wind caught the smoky shapes and tore them from their victims, and with a deafening roar, it sucked them back into the boundary of my circle. Suddenly I was surrounded by ghostly shapes, from which I could feel danger and hunger pulsing, as clearly as I had felt Heath's blood earlier. Aphrodite was curled up on the chair, cowering from the specters. One of them brushed against her and she let out a little shriek, which seemed to stir them up even more, and they pressed violently around me.

"Zoey!" Stevie Rae cried my name, her voice shrill with fear. I saw her take a hesitant step toward me.

"No!" Damien snapped. "Don't break the circle. They can't hurt Zoey?they can't hurt any of us, the circle is too strong. But only if we don't break it.”

"We're not going anywhere," Shaunee called.

"Nope. I like it right here," Erin said, sounding only a little breathless.

I felt their loyalty and trust and acceptance like a sixth element. It filled me with confidence. I straightened my spine and looked at the swirling, angry ghosts.

"So?we're not leaving. Which means you guys have got to go.”

I pointed down at the spilled blood and wine. "Take your sacrifice and get out of here. It's all the blood that is owed to you tonight.”

The smoky horde paused in their seething. I knew I had them. I drew a deep breath and finished it.

"With the power of the elements I command you: Go!”

Suddenly, as though an invisible giant slapped them down, they dissolved into the wine-soaked floor of the gazebo, somehow absorbing the blood-tinged liquid and making it disappear with them.

I breathed a long, ragged sigh of relief. Automatically, I turned to Damien.

"Thank you, wind. You may depart.” He started to blow out his candle, but didn't need to, a little puff of wind, which felt surprisingly playful, did it for him. Damien grinned at me. And then his eyes got huge and round.

"Zoey! Your Mark!”

"What?" I lifted my hand to my forehead. It tingled, as did my shoulders and my neck (which figured, I always get shoulder/neckaches when I'm over-stressed), plus my whole body was still humming with the aftereffects of elemental power, so I hadn't even noticed it.

His shocked look changed to happiness. "Finish closing the circle. Then you can use one of Erin's many mirrors to see what's happened.”

I turned to Shaunee to say good-bye to fire.

"Wow…amazing," Shaunee said, staring at me.

"Hey, how did you know I have more than one mirror in my purse?" Erin was complaining from across the circle at Damien when I turned to her and sent water away. Her eyes got big when she caught a good look at me, too. "Holy shit!" she said.

"Erin, you really shouldn't curse in a sacred circle. Y'all know it's not?" Stevie Rae was saying in her sweet Okie twang when I turned to say good-bye to earth, and her words were suddenly cut off as she gasped, "Oh, my goodness!”

I sighed. Hell, what now? I went back to the table and lifted the spirit candle.

"Thank you, spirit. You may depart," I said.

"Why?" Aphrodite stood up so abruptly that she knocked over the chair. Like everyone else, she was staring at me with a ridiculously shocked expression. "Why you? Why not me?”

"Aphrodite, what are you talking about now?”

"She's talking about this." Erin handed me a compact she pulled out of the chic leather purse she always had slung over her shoulder.

I opened it and looked. At first I didn't understand what I was seeing?it was too foreign, too surprising. Then, from my side, Stevie Rae whispered, "It's beautiful…”

And I realized she was right. It was beautiful. My Mark had been added to. A delicate swirl of lace-like sapphire tattooing framed my eyes. Not as intricate and large as an adult vamp, but unheard of in a fledgling. I let my fingers trace the curling design, thinking that it looked like something that should decorate the face of an exotic foreign princess…or maybe the High Priestess of a goddess. And I stared hard at the me that wasn't really me? this stranger who was becoming more and more familiar.

"And that's not all Zoey. Look at your shoulder," Damien said softly.

I glanced down at the deep, off-the-shoulder neckline of my cool dress and felt a jolt of shock surge through my body. My shoulder was tattooed, too. Stretching from my neck, down my shoulder and back, were sapphire tattoos in a swirling pattern much like that on my face, only the blue marks on my body looked even more ancient, even more mysterious, because they were interspersed with letter-like symbols.

My mouth opened, but words wouldn't come out.

"Z, he needs help." Erik broke through my shock and I looked up from my shoulder to see him stumbling into the gazebo, half carrying an unconscious Heath.

"Whatever. Leave him here," Aphrodite said. "Someone will find him in the morning. We need to get out of here before the guards wake up.”

I whirled on her. "And you ask why me and not you? Maybe because Nyx is sick and tired of you being selfish, spoiled, indulged, hateful…" I paused, so pissed I couldn't think of any more adjectives.

"Nasty!" Erin and Shaunee added together.

"Yeah, and a nasty bully." I took a step closer to her and got all in her face. "This whole Change is hard enough without someone like you. Unless we want to be your"?I glanced up at Damien and smiled?"your sycophants, you make us feel like we don't belong?like we're nothing. That's over, Aphrodite. What you did tonight was totally, completely wrong. You almost caused Heath to die. And maybe even Erik and who knows who else, and it was all because of your selfishness.”

"It wasn't my fault your boyfriend tracked you here," she yelled.

"No, Heath wasn't your fault, but that's the only thing that wasn't your fault tonight. It was your fault that your so-called friends wouldn't stand by you and keep the circle strong. And it was your fault that negative spirits found the circle to begin with." She looked confused, which pissed me off even more. "Sage, you hateful hag! You're supposed to use sage to clear out negative energy before you use sweet grass. And it's not surprising that you drew such horrid spirits.”

"Yeah, 'cause you're horrid," Stevie Rae said.

"You don't have shit to say about it, refrigerator," Aphrodite sneered.

"No!" I put my finger in her face. "This refrigerator crap is the first thing that's ending.”

"Oh, so now you're going to pretend that you don't crave the taste of blood more than any of us?”

I glanced up at my friends. They met my eyes without flinching. Damien smiled encouragement. Stevie Rae nodded at me. The Twins winked. And I realized that I'd been a fool. They weren't going to shun me. They were my friends; I should have trusted them more, even if I hadn't learned to trust myself yet.

"We'll all eventually crave blood," I said simply. "Or we'll die. But that doesn't make us monsters, and it's time the Dark Daughters stopped acting the part. You're finished, Aphrodite. You're no longer leader of the Dark Daughters.”

"And I suppose you think that now you're the leader?”

I nodded. "I am. I didn't come to the House of Night asking for these powers. All I wanted was a place to fit in. Well, I guess this is Nyx's way of answering my prayer.” I smiled at my friends and they grinned back at me. "Clearly, the Goddess has a sense of humor.”

"You stupid bitch, you can't just take over the Dark Daughters. Only a High Priestess can change their leadership.”

"Convenient, then, that I am here, isn't it?" Neferet said.

 
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CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

 

Neferet stepped from the shadows and into the gazebo, moving quickly to Heath and Erik. First, she touched Erik's face and checked the bloody slash marks on his arms from where he'd struggled futilely to try to pull the ghosts off Heath. As she passed her hands over his wounds I could actually see the blood drying. Erik breathed a sigh of relief, like his pain had disappeared.

"These will heal. Come to the infirmary when we get back to school and I'll give you some salve that will lessen the sting from your wounds." She patted his cheek and he blushed bright red. "You showed the bravery of a vampyre warrior when you stayed to protect the boy. I am proud of you, Erik Night, as is the Goddess.”

I felt a rush of pleasure at her approval; I was proud of him, too. Then I heard murmured agreement all around me and realized that the Dark Daughters and Sons had returned and were crowding the stairs of the gazebo. How long had they been watching? Neferet turned her attention to Heath, and I forgot about everyone else. She lifted the torn legs of his jeans and examined the bloody marks there and on his arms. Then she cupped his pale, rigid face in her hands and closed her eyes. I watched his body stiffen even more and convulse, and then he sighed and, like Erik, he relaxed. After a moment, he looked like he was sleeping peacefully instead of fighting silently against death. Still on her knees beside him, Neferet said, "He will recover, and he will remember nothing of this night except that he got drunk and then lost trying to find his ex-almost-girlfriend.” She looked up at me as she said the last of it, her eyes kind and filled with understanding.

"Thank you," I whispered.

Neferet nodded slightly to me, before she stood to confront Aphrodite.

"I am as responsible for what happened here tonight as you are. I have known for years of your selfishness, but I chose to overlook it, hoping that age and the touch of the Goddess would mature you. I was wrong.” Neferet's voice took on the clear, powerful quality of a command. "Aphrodite, I officially release you from your position as leader of the Dark Daughters and Sons. You are no longer in training for High Priestess. You are now no different than any other fledgling." With one swift movement, Neferet reached out, grasped the silver and garnet necklace of rank that dangled between Aphrodite's breasts, and tore it from her neck.

Aphrodite didn't make a sound but her face was chalky and she stared unblinkingly at Neferet.

The High Priestess turned her back on Aphrodite and approached me. "Zoey Redbird, I knew you were special from the day Nyx let me foresee that you would be Marked." She smiled at me and put a finger under my chin, lifting my head so that she could get a better look at the new addition to my Mark. Then she brushed my hair aside so that the tattoos that had appeared on my neck, shoulders, and back could also be seen. I heard the Dark Daughters and Sons gasp as they, too, got their first look at my unusual Marks. "Extraordinary, truly extraordinary,” she breathed, letting her hand fall back to her side as she continued. "Tonight you showed the wisdom of the Goddess's choice in gifting you with special powers. You have earned the position of Leader of the Dark Daughters and Sons and High Priestess in training, through your Goddess-given gifts as well as through your compassion and wisdom." She handed me Aphrodite's necklace. It felt heavy and warm in my hands. "Wear this more wisely than did your predecessor." Then she made a truly amazing gesture. Neferet, High Priestess of Nyx, saluted me, fist crossed over her heart, head bowed formally, with the vampyre sign of respect. Everyone around us except Aphrodite mimicked her. Tears blurred my vision as my four friends grinned at me and bowed with the other Dark Daughters and Sons.

But even in the midst of such perfect happiness I felt the shadow of confusion. How could I have ever doubted that I could tell Neferet anything?

"Go back to the school. I'll take care of what needs to be done here," Neferet told me. She hugged me quickly and whispered into my ear, "I am so very proud of you, Zoeybird." Then she gave me a little push in the direction of my friends. "Welcome the new Leader of the Dark Daughters and Sons!" she said.

Damien, Stevie Rae, Shaunee, and Erin led the cheering. And then everyone surrounded me and it seemed that I was washed from the gazebo in an exuberant wave of laughter and congratulations. I nodded and smiled at my new "friends," but I wasn't a fool. Silently I reminded myself that only moments before they had been agreeing with everything Aphrodite had said.

It would definitely take a while to change things.

We got to the bridge and I reminded my new charges that we'd have to be quiet as we made our way back through the neighborhood to the school, and I motioned for them to go on ahead of me. When Stevie Rae, Damien, and the Twins started to cross the bridge I whispered, "No, you guys walk with me.”

Grinning so broadly they looked goofy, the four of them stood around me. I met Stevie Rae's bright gaze. "You shouldn't have volunteered to be the refrigerator. I know how scared you were.” Stevie Rae's grin faded at the reprimand in my voice.

"But if I hadn't, we wouldn't have known where the ritual was going to be, Zoey. I did it so I could text-message Damien, and he and the Twins could meet me here. We knew you'd need us.”

I held up my hands and she stopped talking, but she looked like she was going to cry. I smiled gently at her. "You didn't let me finish. I was going to say that you shouldn't have done it, but I'm so glad you did!" I hugged her, and smiled through tears at the other three of them. "Thank you?I'm glad you were all there.”

"Hey, Z, that's what friends do," Damien said.

"Yep," said Shaunee.

"Exactly," said Erin.

And they closed around me in a giant, smothering group hug?which I totally loved.

"Hey, can I get in on this?”

I looked up to see Erik standing nearby.

"Well, yes, you absolutely may," Damien said brightly.

Stevie Rae dissolved into giggles, and Shaunee sighed and said, "Give it up, Damien. Wrong team, remember?" Then Erin pushed me out of the center of the group and toward Erik. "Give the guy a hug. He did try to save your boyfriend tonight," she said.

"My ex-boyfriend," I said quickly, stepping into Erik's arms, more than a little overwhelmed by the mixture of the scent of the fresh blood still clinging to him and the fact that he was, well, hugging me. Then, to add to everything else, Erik kissed me so hard that I swear I thought the top of my head would spin off.

"Please, just please," I heard Shaunee say.

"Get a room!" Erin said.

Damien giggled as I stepped self-consciously out of Erik's arms. "I'm starving," Stevie Rae said. "This refrigerator stuff makes you hungry.”

"Well, let's go get you something to eat," I said.

My friends started over the bridge and I could hear Shaunee bickering with Damien about whether we should have pizza or sandwiches.

"Mind if I walk with you?" Erik asked.

"Nah, I'm getting used to it," I said, smiling up at him.

He laughed and walked onto the bridge. Then from the darkness behind me I heard a very distinct, very annoyed, "me-eeh-uf-ow!”

"Go on, I'll catch up with you guys in a minute," I told Erik and then I walked back into the shadows at the edge of the Philbrook's lawn. "Nala? Kitty, kitty, kitty…," I called. And, sure enough, a disgruntled ball of fur trotted out of the bushes, complaining the entire time. I bent down and picked her up and she instantly started to purr. "Well, silly girl, why did you follow me all the way out here if you don't like walking that far? Like you haven't been through enough tonight already," I murmured, but before I could head back to the bridge, Aphrodite stepped out of the shadows and blocked my way.

"You might have won tonight, but this isn't over," she told me. She made me feel really tired.

"I wasn't trying to 'win' anything. I was just trying to make things right.”

"And that's what you think you did?" Her eyes darted nervously back and forth from me to the path that led to the gazebo, as if someone had followed her. "You don't really know what happened here tonight. You were just being used?we were all just being used. We're puppets, that's all we are." She angrily wiped at her face and I realized she was crying.

"Aphrodite, it doesn't have to be like this between us," I said softly.

"Yes it does!" she snapped. "It's the parts we're supposed to play. You'll see…you'll see.…" Aphrodite started to walk away.

A thought drifted unexpectedly from my memory. It was of Aphrodite, during her vision. As if it was happening again, I could hear her say, They're dead! No. No. That can't be! Not right. No. Not natural! I don't understand…I don't…You…you know. Her scream of terror echoed eerily through my mind. I thought of Elizabeth…of Elliott…the fact that they had appeared to me. Too much of what she said made sense.

"Aphrodite, wait!" She looked over her shoulder at me. "The vision you had today in Neferet's office, what was it really about?”

Slowly, she shook her head. "It's only beginning. It's going to get much worse." She turned and suddenly hesitated. Her way was blocked by five kids?my friends.

"It's okay," I told them. "Let her go.”

Shaunee and Erin parted. Aphrodite lifted her head, shook back her hair, and marched past them as if she owned the world. I watched her walk over the bridge, my stomach clenching. Aphrodite knew something about Elizabeth and Elliott, and eventually I was going to have to find out what it was.

"Hey," Stevie Rae said.

I looked at my roommate and new best friend.

"Whatever happens, we're in it together.”

I felt the knot in my stomach release. "Let's go," I said. Surrounded by my friends, we all went home.
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