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Tema: P. C. Cast & Kristin Cast  (Pročitano 19352 puta)
10. Jul 2009, 21:25:08
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Marked

 A House of Night Novel (Book 1)


 CHAPTER ONE

 

 Just when I thought my day couldn't get any worse I saw the dead guy standing next to my locker.  Kayla was talking nonstop in her usual K-babble, and she didn't even notice him.  At first.  Actually, now that I think about it, no one else noticed him until he spoke, which is, tragically, more evidence of my freakish inability to fit in.

 "No, but Zoey, I swear to God Heath didn't get that drunk after the game.  You really shouldn't be so hard on him. ”

 "Yeah," I said absently.  "Sure. " Then I coughed.  Again.  I felt like crap.  I must be coming down with what Mr.  Wise, my more-than-slightly-insane AP biology teacher, called the Teenage Plague.

 If I died, would it get me out of my geometry test tomorrow? One could only hope.

 "Zoey, please.  Are you even listening? I think he only had like four?I dunno?maybe six beers, and maybe like three shots.  But that's totally beside the point.  He probably wouldn't even have had hardly any if your stupid parents hadn't made you go home right after the game. ”

 We shared a long-suffering look, in total agreement about the latest injustice committed against me by my mom and the Step- Loser she'd married three really long years ago.  Then, after barely half a breath break, K was back with the babbling.

 "Plus, he was celebrating.  I mean we beat Union!" K shook my shoulder and put her face close to mine.  "Hello! Your boyfriend?”

 "My almost-boyfriend," I corrected her, trying my best not to cough on her.

 "Whatever.  Heath is our quarterback so of course he's going to celebrate.  It's been like a million years since Broken Arrow beat Union. ”

 "Sixteen. " I'm crappy at math, but K's math impairment makes me look like a genius.

 "Again, whatever.  The point is, he was happy.  You should give the boy a break. ”

 "The point is that he was wasted for like the fifth time this week.  I'm sorry, but I don't want to go out with a guy whose main focus in life has changed from trying to play college football to trying to chug a six-pack without puking.  Not to mention the fact that he's going to get fat from all that beer. ” I had to pause to cough.  I was feeling a little dizzy and forced myself to take slow, deep breaths when the coughing fit was over.  Not that K-babble noticed.

 "Eww! Heath, fat! Not a visual I want. ”

 I managed to ignore another urge to cough.  "And kissing him is like sucking on alcohol-soaked feet. ”

 K scrunched up her face.  "Okay, sick.  Too bad he's so hot. ”

 I rolled my eyes, not bothering to try to hide my annoyance at her typical shallowness.

 "You're so grumpy when you're sick.  Anyway, you have no idea how lost-puppy-like Heath looked after you ignored him at lunch.  He couldn't even…?”

 Then I saw him.  The dead guy.  Okay, I realized pretty quick that he wasn't technically "dead. ” He was undead.  Or un-human.  Whatever.  Scientists said one thing, people said another, but the end result was the same.  There was no mistaking what he was andeven if I hadn't felt the power and darkness that radiated from him, there was no frickin' way I could miss his Mark, the sapphire- blue crescent moon on his forehead and the additional tattooing of entwining knot work that framed his equally blue eyes.  He was a vampyre, and worse.  He was a Tracker.

 Well, crap! He was standing by my locker.

 "Zoey, you're so not listening to me!”

 Then the vampyre spoke and his ceremonial words slicked across the space between us, dangerous and seductive, like blood mixed with melted chocolate.

 "Zoey Montgomery! Night has chosen thee; thy death will be thy birth.  Night calls to thee; hearken to Her sweet voice.  Your destiny awaits you at the House of Night!”

 He lifted one long, white finger and pointed at me.  As my forehead exploded in pain Kayla opened her mouth and screamed.

 When the bright splotches finally cleared from my eyes I looked up to see K's colorless face staring down at me.

 As usual, I said the first ridiculous thing that came to mind.  "K, your eyes are popping out of your head like a fish. ”

 "He Marked you.  Oh, Zoey! You have the outline of that thing on your forehead!" Then she pressed a shaking hand against her white lips, unsuccessfully trying to hold back a sob.

 I sat up and coughed.  I had a killer headache, and I rubbed at the spot right between my eyebrows.  It stung as if a wasp had bit me and radiated pain down around my eyes, all the way across my cheekbones.  I felt like I might puke.

 "Zoey!" K was really crying now and had to speak between wet little hiccups.  "Oh.  My.  God.  That guy was a Tracker?a vampyre Tracker!”

 "K. " I blinked hard, trying to clear the pain from my head.

 "Stop crying.  You know I hate it when you cry. " I reached out to attempt a comforting pat on her shoulders.

 And she automatically cringed, and moved away from me.

 I couldn't believe it.  She actually cringed, like she was afraid of me.  She must have seen the hurt in my eyes because she instantly started a string of breathless K-babble.

 "Oh, God, Zoey! What are you going to do? You can't go to that place.  You can't be one of those things.  This can't be happening! Who am I supposed to go to all of our football games with?”

 I noticed that all during her tirade she didn't once move any closer to me.  I clamped down on the sick, hurt feeling inside that threatened to make me burst into tears.  My eyes dried instantly.  I was good at hiding tears.  I should be; I'd had three years to get good at it.

 "It's okay.  I'll figure this out.  It's probably some…some bizarre mistake," I lied.

 I wasn't really talking; I was just making words come out of my mouth.  Still grimacing at the pain in my head, I stood up.  Looking around I felt a small measure of relief that K and I were the only ones in the math hall, and then I had to choke back what I knew was hysterical laughter.  Had I not been totally psycho about the geometry test from hell scheduled for tomorrow, and had run back to my locker to get my book so I could attempt to obsessively (and pointlessly) study tonight, the Tracker would have found me standing outside in front of the school with the majority of the 1,300 kids who went to Broken Arrow's South Intermediate High School waiting for what my stupid Barbie-clone sister liked to smugly call "the big yellow limos. ” I have a car, but standing around with the less fortunate who have to ride the buses is a time-honored tradition, not to mention an excellent way to check out who's hitting on who.  As it was, there was only one other kid in the math hall?a tall thin dork with messed-up teeth, which I could, unfortunately, see too much of because he was standing there with his mouth flapping open staring at me like I'd just given birth to a litter of flying pigs.

 I coughed again, this time a really wet, disgusting cough.  The dork made a squeaky little sound and scuttled down the hall to Mrs.  Day's room clutching a flat board to his bony chest.  Guess the chess club had changed its meeting time to Mondays after school.

 Do vampyres play chess? Were there vampyre dorks? How about Barbie-like vampyre cheerleaders? Did any vampyres play in the band? Were there vampyre Emos with their guy-wearing-girl's-pants weirdness and those awful bangs that cover half their faces? Or were they all those freaky Goth kids who didn't like to bathe much? Was I going to turn into a Goth kid? Or worse, an Emo? I didn't particularly like wearing black, at least not exclusively, and I wasn't feeling a sudden and unfortunate aversion to soap and water, nor did I have an obsessive desire to change my hairstyle and wear too much eyeliner.

 All this whirled through my mind while I felt another little hysterical bubble of laughter try to escape from my throat, and was almost thankful when it came out as a cough instead.

 "Zoey? Are you okay?" Kayla's voice sounded too high, like someone was pinching her, and she'd taken another step away from me.

 I sighed and felt my first sliver of anger.  It wasn't like I'd asked for this.  K and I had been best friends since third grade, and now she was looking at me like I had turned into a monster.

 "Kayla, it's just me.  The same me I was two seconds ago and two hours ago and two days ago. ” I made a frustrated gesture toward my throbbing head.  "This doesn't change who I am!”

 K's eyes teared up again, but, thankfully, her cell phone started singing Madonna's "Material Girl. ” Automatically, she glanced atthe caller ID.  I could tell by her rabbit-in-the-headlights expression that it was her boyfriend, Jared.

 "Go on," I said in a flat, tired voice.  "Ride home with him. " Her look of relief was like a slap in my face.

 "Call me later?" she threw over her shoulder as she beat a hasty retreat out the side door.

 I watched her rush across the east lawn to the parking lot.  I could see that she had her cell phone smashed to her ear and was talking in animated little bursts to Jared.  I'm sure she was already telling him I was turning into a monster.

 The problem, of course, was that turning into a monster was the brighter of my two choices.  Choice Number 1: I turn into a vampyre, which equals a monster in just about any human's mind.  Choice Number 2: My body rejects the Change and I die.  Forever.

 So the good news is that I wouldn't have to take the geometry test tomorrow.

 The bad news was that I'd have to move into the House of Night, a private boarding school in Tulsa's Midtown, known by all my friends as the Vampyre Finishing School, where I would spend the next four years going through bizarre and unnameable physical changes, as well as a total and permanent life shake-up.  And that's only if the whole process didn't kill me.

 Great.  I didn't want to do either.  I just wanted to attempt to be normal, despite the burden of my mega-conservative parents, my troll-like younger brother, and my oh-so-perfect older sister.  I wanted to pass geometry.  I wanted to keep my grades up so that I could get accepted into the veterinary college at OSU and get out of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.  But most of all, I wanted to fit in?at least at school.  Home had become hopeless, so all I was left with were my friends and my life away from my family.

 Now that was being taken away from me, too.

 I rubbed my forehead and then messed with my hair until it semi-covered my eyes, and, with any luck, the mark that had appeared above them.  Keeping my head ducked down, like I was fascinated with the goo that had somehow formed in my purse, I hurried toward the door that led to the student parking lot.

 But I stopped short of going outside.  Through the side-by-side windows in the institutional-looking doors I could see Heath.  Girls flocked around him, posing and flipping their hair, while guys revved ridiculously big pickup trucks and tried (but mostly failed) to look cool.  Doesn't it figure that I would choose that to be attracted to? No, to be fair to myself I should remember that Heath used to be incredibly sweet, and even now he had his moments.  Mostly when he bothered to be sober.

 High-pitched girl giggles flitted to me from the parking lot.  Great.  Kathy Richter, the biggest ho in school, was pretending to smack Heath.  Even from where I was standing it was obvious she thought hitting him was some kind of mating ritual.  As usual, clueless Heath was just standing there grinning.  Well, hell, my day just wasn't going to get any better.  And there sat my robin's egg?blue 1966 VW Bug right in the middle of them.  No.  I couldn't go out there.  I couldn't walk into the middle of all of them with this thing on my forehead.  I'd never be able to be part of them again.  I already knew too well what they'd do.  I remembered the last kid a Tracker had Chosen at SIHS.

 It happened at the beginning of the school year last year.  The Tracker had come before school started and had targeted the kid as he was walking to his first hour.  I didn't see the Tracker, but I did see the kid afterward, for just a second, after he dropped his books and ran out of the building, his new Mark glowing on his pale forehead and tears washing down his too white cheeks.  I never forgot how crowded the halls had been that morning, and how everyone had backed away from him like he had the plague as he rushed to escape out the front doors of the school.  I had been one of those kids who had backed out of his way and stared, even though I'd felt really sorry for him.  I just hadn't wanted to be labeled as that-one-girl-who's-friends-with-those-freaks.  Sort of ironic now, isn't it?

 Instead of going to my car I headed for the nearest restroom, which was, thankfully, empty.  There were three stalls?yes, I double-checked each for feet.  On one wall were two sinks, over which hung two medium-sized mirrors.  Across from the sinks the opposite wall was covered with a huge mirror that had a ledge below it for holding brushes and makeup and whatnot.  I put my purse and my geometry book on the ledge, took a deep breath, and in one motion lifted my head and brushed back my hair.

 It was like staring into the face of a familiar stranger.  You know, that person you see in a crowd and swear you know, but you really don't? Now she was me?the familiar stranger.

 She had my eyes.  They were the same hazel color that could never decide whether it wanted to be green or brown, but my eyes had never been that big and round.  Or had they? She had my hair?long and straight and almost as dark as my grandma's had been before hers had begun to turn silver.  The stranger had my high cheekbones, long, strong nose, and wide mouth?more features from my grandma and her Cherokee ancestors.  But my face had never been that pale.  I'd always been olive-ish, much darker skinned than anyone else in my family.  But maybe it wasn't that my skin was suddenly so white…maybe it just looked pale in comparison to the dark blue outline of the crescent moon that was perfectly positioned in the middle of my forehead.  Or maybe it was the horrid fluorescent lighting.  I hoped it was the lighting.

 I stared at the exotic-looking tattoo.  Mixed with my strong Cherokee features it seemed to brand me with a mark of wildness…as if I belonged to ancient times when the world was bigger…more barbaric.

 From this day on my life would never be the same.  And for a moment?just an instant?I forgot about the horror of not belonging and felt a shocking burst of pleasure, while deep inside of me the blood of my grandmother's people rejoiced.
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CHAPTER TWO

 

When I figured that enough time had passed for everyone to have left school, I flopped my hair back over my forehead and left the bathroom, hurrying to the doors that led to the student parking lot.  Everything seemed all clear?there was just some random kid wearing those seriously unattractive gang wanna-be baggy pants cutting across the far end of the lot.  Keeping his pants from falling down as he walked was taking all his concentration; he wouldn't even notice me.  I gritted my teeth against the throbbing pain in my head and bolted out the door, heading straight for my little Bug.

The moment I stepped outside the sun began to batter me.  I mean, it wasn't a particularly sunny day; there were plenty of those big, puffy clouds that looked so pretty in pictures floating around the sky, semi-blocking the sun.  But that didn't matter.  I had to squint my eyes painfully and hold my hand up as a make- believe sun block against even that intermittent light.  I guess it was because I was focusing so hard on the pain the ordinary sunlight was causing me that I didn't notice the truck until it squealed to a stop in front of me.

"Hey Zo! Didn't you get my message?”

Oh crap crap crap! It was Heath.  I glanced up, looking at him from between my fingers like I was watching one of those stupid slasher movies.  He was sitting on the open tailgate of his friend Dustin's pickup truck.  Over his shoulder I could see into the cab of the truck where Dustin and his brother, Drew, were doing what they were usually doing?wrestling around and arguing over God only knows what stupid boy thing.  Thankfully, they were ignoring me.  I glanced back at Heath and sighed.  He had a beer in his hand and a goofy grin on his face.  Momentarily forgetting that I'd just been Marked and was destined to become an outcast blood-sucking monster, I scowled at Heath.

"You're drinking at school! Are you crazy?”

His little boy grin got bigger.  "Yes I am crazy, 'bout you, baby!”

I shook my head while I turned my back to him, opening the creaky door to my Bug and shoving my books and backpack into the passenger's seat.

"Why aren't you guys at football practice?" I said, still keeping my face angled away from him.

"Didn't you hear? We got the day off 'cause of the ass-kicking we gave Union on Friday!”

Dustin and Drew, who must have been kinda paying attention to Heath and me after all, did a couple of very Okie "Whoo-hoo!" and "Yeah!" yells from inside the truck.

"Oh.  Uh.  No.  I musta missed the announcement.  I've been busy today.  You know, big geometry test tomorrow. ” I tried to sound normal and nonchalant.  Then I coughed and added, "Plus, I'm getting a crappy cold. ”

"Zo, really.  Are you pissed or somethin'? Like, did Kayla say some shit about the party? You know I didn't really cheat on you. ”

Huh? Kayla had not said one solitary word about Heath cheating on me.  Like a moron, I forgot (okay, temporarily) about my new Mark.  My head snapped around so I could glare at him.

"What did you do, Heath?”

"Zo, me? You know I wouldn't…" but his innocent act and his excuses faded into an unattractive open-mouthed look of shock when he caught sight of my Mark.  "What the?" he started to say, but I cut him off.

"Shh!" I jerked my head in the direction of the still clueless Dustin and Drew, who were now singing at the top of their totally tone-deaf lungs to the latest Toby Keith CD.

Heath's eyes were still wide and shocked, but he lowered his voice.  "Is that some kinda makeup thing you're doing for drama class?”

"No," I whispered.  "It's not. ”

"But you can't be Marked.  We're going out. ”

"We are not going out!" And just like that my semi-reprieve from coughing ended.  I practically doubled over, hacking a seriously nasty, phlegmy cough.

"Hey, Zo!" Dustin called from the cab.  "You gotta lay off those cigarettes. ”

"Yeah, you sound like you're gonna cough up a lung or some- thin'," Drew said.

"Dude! Leave her alone.  You know she don't smoke.  She's a vampyre. ”

Great.  Wonderful.  Heath, with his usual total and complete lack of anything resembling good sense, thought he was actually standing up for me as he yelled at his friends, who instantly stuck their heads out of the open windows and gawked at me like I was a science experiment.

"Well, shit.  Zoey's a fucking freak!" Drew said.

Drew's insensitive words made the anger that had been simmering somewhere inside my chest ever since Kayla had cringed from me bubble up and boil over.  Ignoring the pain the sun caused me, I stared straight at Drew, meeting his eyes.

"Shut the hell up! I've had a really bad day and I do not need this crap from you. ” I paused to look from the now wide-eyed and silent Drew to Dustin and added, "Or you. " And as I kept eye contact with Dustin I realized something?something that shocked and weirdly excited me: Dustin looked scared.  Really scared.  I glared back at Drew.  He looked scared, too.  Then I felt it.  A tingling sensation that crawled over my skin and made my new Mark burn.

Power.  I felt power.

"Zo? What the fuck?" Heath's voice broke my attention and pulled my gaze from the brothers.

"We're outta here!" Dustin said, throwing the truck into gear and stepping on the gas.  The pickup lurched forward, causing Heath to lose his balance and slide, with a windmill of arms and flying beer, onto the blacktop of the parking lot.

Automatically, I rushed forward.  "Are you okay?" Heath was on his hands and knees, and I bent down to help pull him to his feet.

Then I smelled it.  Something smelled amazing?hot and sweet and delicious.

Was Heath wearing new cologne? One of those weird pheromone things that are supposed to attract women like a big genetically engineered bug zapper? I didn't realize how close I was to him until he stood up straight and our bodies were almost pressed together.  He looked down at me, a question in his eyes.

I didn't back away from him.  I should have.  I would have before…but not now.  Not today.

"Zo?" he said softly, his voice deep and husky.

"You smell really good," I couldn't stop myself from saying.  My heart was pounding so loud that I could hear its echo in my throbbing temples.

"Zoey, I've really missed you.  We need to get back together.  You know I really love you. " He reached up to touch my face and both of us noticed the blood that smeared the palm of his hand.  "Ah, shit.  I guess I?" his voice closed off when he glanced at my face.  I could only imagine what I must look like, with my face all white, my new Mark blazingly outlined in sapphire blue, and my eyes staring at the blood on his hand.  I couldn't move; I couldn't look away.

"I want…I whispered.  "I want…" What did I want? I couldn't put it into words.  No, that wasn't it.  I wouldn't put it into words.  Wouldn't say aloud the overwhelming surge of white-hot desire that was trying to drown me.  And it wasn't because Heath was standing so near.  He'd been close to me before.  Hell, we'd been making out for a year, but he'd never made me feel like this?nothing ever like this.  I bit my lip and moaned.

The pickup truck squealed to a halt, fishtailing beside us.  Drew jumped out and grabbed Heath around the waist, and jerked him backward into the cab of the truck.

"Knock it off! I'm talking to Zoey!”

Heath tried to struggle against Drew, but the kid was Broken Arrow's senior linebacker, and truly ginormous.  Dustin reached around them and slammed the door to the truck.

"Leave him alone, you freak!" Drew yelled at me as Dustin floored the truck and this time they really did speed off.

I got into my Bug.  My hands were shaking so hard I had to try three times before I got the engine started.

"Just get home.  Just get home. ” I said the words over and over between wrenching coughs as I drove.  I wouldn't think about what had just happened.  I couldn't think about what had just happened.

The drive home took fifteen minutes, but it seemed to pass in the blink of an eye.  Too soon I was sitting in the driveway, trying to get ready for the scene I knew, sure as lightning follows thunder, was waiting inside for me.

Why had I been so eager to get here? I suppose I hadn't technically been all that eager.  I suppose I'd just been escaping from what had happened in the parking lot with Heath.

No! I wasn't going to think about that now.  And, anyway, there was probably some kind of rational explanation for everything, a rational and simple explanation.  Dustin and Drew were retards? totally immature beer-brains.  I hadn't used a creepy new power to intimidate them.  They'd just been freaked that I'd been Marked.  That was it.  I mean, people were scared of vampyres.

"But I'm not a vampyre!" I said.  Then I coughed while I remember how hypnotically beautiful Heath's blood had been, and the rush of desire I'd felt for it.  Not Heath, but Heath's blood.

No! No! No! Blood was not beautiful or desirable.  I must be in shock.  That's it.  That had to be it.  I was in shock and not thinking clearly.  Okay…okay…absently, I touched my forehead.  It had stopped burning, but it still felt different.  I coughed for the zillionth time.  Fine.  I wouldn't think about Heath, but I couldn't deny it any more.  I felt different.  My skin was ultrasensitive.  My chest hurt, and even though I had my cool Maui Jim sunglasses on, my eyes kept tearing up painfully.

"I'm dying…" I moaned, and then promptly clamped my lips shut.  I might actually be dying.  I glanced up at the big brick house that, after three years, still didn't seem like home.  "Get it over with.  Just get it over with. " At least my sister wouldn't be home yet?cheerleading practice.  Hopefully, the troll would be totally hypnotized by his new Delta Force: Black Hawk Down video game (um…ew).  I might have Mom to myself.  Maybe she would understand…maybe she would know what to do. …

Ah, hell! I was sixteen years old, but I suddenly realized that I wanted nothing as much as I wanted my mom.

"Please let her understand," I whispered a simple prayer to whatever god or goddess might be listening to me.

As usual, I went in through the garage.  I walked down the hall to my room and dumped my geometry book, purse, and backpack on my bed.  Then I took a deep breath and headed, a little shakily, to find my mom.

She was in the family room, curled up on the edge of the couch, sipping a cup of coffee and reading Chicken Soup for a Woman's Soul.  She looked so normal, so much like she used to look.  Except that she used to read exotic romances and actually wear makeup.  Both were things her new husband didn't allow (what a turd).

"Mom?”

"Hum?" She didn't look up at me.

I swallowed hard.  "Mama. " I used the name I used to call her, back in the days before she married John.  "I need your help. ”

I don't know whether it was the unexpected use of "Mama" or if something in my voice touched an old piece of mom-intuition she still had somewhere inside her, but the eyes she lifted immediately from the book were soft and filled with concern.

"What is it, baby?" she began, and then her words seemed to freeze on her lips as her eyes found the Mark on my forehead.

"Oh, God! What have you done now?”

My heart started to hurt again.  "Mom, I didn't do anything.  This is something that happened to me, not because of me.  It's not my fault. ”

"Oh, please, no!" she wailed as if I hadn't said a word.  "What is your father going to say?”

I wanted to scream how the hell would any of us know what my father was going to say, we haven't seen or heard from him for fourteen years! But I knew it wouldn't do any good, and it always just made her mad when I reminded her that John was not my "real" father.  So I tried a different tactic?one I'd given up on three years ago.

"Mama, please.  Can't you just not tell him? At least for a day or two? Just keep it between the two of us until we…I don't know…get used to it or something. ” I held my breath.

"But what would I say? You can't even cover that thing up with makeup. ” Her lips curled weirdly as she gave the crescent moon a nervous glance.

"Mom, I didn't mean that I'd stay here while we got used to it.  I have to go; you know that. " I had to pause while a huge cough made my shoulders shake.  "The Tracker Marked me.  I have to move to the House of Night or I'm just going to get sicker and sicker. ” And then die, I tried to tell her with my eyes.  I couldn't actually say the words.  "I just want a couple of days before I have to deal with…" I broke off so I didn't have to say his name, this time purposefully making myself cough, which wasn't hard.

"What would I tell your father?”

I felt a rush of fear at the panic in her voice.  Wasn't she the mom? Wasn't she supposed to have the answers instead of the questions?

"Just…just tell him that I'm spending the next couple days at Kayla's house because we have a big biology project due. ”

I watched my mom's eyes change.  The concern faded from them and was replaced by a hardness that I recognized all too well.

"So what you're saying is that you want me to lie to him. ”

"No, Mom.  What I'm saying is that I want you, for once, to put what I need before what he wants.  I want you to be my mama.  To help me pack and to drive with me to this new school because I'm scared and sick and I don't know if I can do it all by myself!" I finished in a rush, breathing hard and coughing into my hand.

"I wasn't aware that I had stopped being your mom," she said coldly.

She made me feel even more tired than Kayla had.  I sighed.  "I think that's the problem, Mom.  You don't care enough to be aware of it.  You haven't cared about anything but John since you married him. ”

Her eyes narrowed at me.  "I don't know how you can be so selfish.  Don't you realize all that he's done for us? Because of him I quit that awful job at Dillards.  Because of him we don't have to worry about money and we have this big, beautiful house.  Because of him we have security and a bright future. ”

I'd heard these words so often I could have recited them with her.  It was at this point in our non-conversations that I usually apologized and went back to my room.  But today I couldn't apologize.  Today I was different.  Everything was different.

"No, Mother.  The truth is that because of him you haven't paid any attention to your kids for three years.  Did you know that your oldest daughter has turned into a sneaky, spoiled slut who's screwed half of the football team? Do you know what nasty, bloody video games Kevin keeps hidden from you? No, of course you don't! The two of them act happy and pretend to like John and the whole damn make-believe family thing, so you smile at them and pray for them and let them do whatever.  And me? You think I'm the bad one because I don't pretend?because I'm honest.  You know what? I'm so sick of my life that I'm glad the Tracker Marked me! They call that vampyre school the House of Night, but it can't be any darker than this perfect home!" Before I could cry or scream I whirled around and stalked back to my bedroom, slamming the door behind me.

I hope they all drown.

Through the too thin walls I could hear her making a hysterical call to John.  There was no doubt that he'd rush home to deal with me.  The Problem.  Instead of sitting on the bed and crying like I was tempted to, I emptied the school crap out of my backpack.  Like I'd need it where I was going? They probably don't even have normal classes.  They probably have classes like Ripping Peoples Throats Out um and…and…Intro to How to See in the Dark Whatever.

No matter what my mom did or didn't do, I couldn't stay here.  I had to leave.

So what did I need to take with me?

My two favorite pairs of jeans, besides what I had on.  A couple of black T-shirts.  I mean, what else do vampyres wear? Plus, they are slimming.  I almost passed on my cute aqua-colored sparkly cami, but all that black was bound to make me more depressed…so I included it.  Then I stuffed tons of bras and thongs and hair and makeup things into the side pouch.  I almost left my stuffed animal, Otis the Shish (couldn't say fish when I was two), on my pillow, but…well…vampyre or not I didn't think I could sleep very well without him.  So I tucked him gently into the damn backpack.

Then I heard the knock on my door, and its voice called me out of my room.

"What?" I yelled, and then I convulsed in a bout of nasty coughing.

"Zoey.  Your mother and I need to speak with you. ”

Great.  Clearly they didn't drown.

I patted Otis the Shish.  "Otis, this sucks. " I squared my shoulders, coughed again, and went out to face the enemy.

 
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 CHAPTER THREE

 

At first glance my step-loser, John Heifer, appears to be an okay guy, even normal. (Yes, that's really his last name?and, sadly, it is also now my mom's last name. She's Mrs. Heifer. Can you believe it?) When he and my mom started dating I actually overheard some of my mom's friends calling him "handsome" and "charming." At first. Of course now Mom has a whole new group of friends, ones Mr. Handsome and Charming thinks are more appropriate than the group of fun single women she used to hang with.

I never liked him. Really. I'm not just saying that because I can't stand him now. From the first day I met him I saw only one thing?a fake. He fakes being a nice guy. He fakes being a good husband. He even fakes being a good father.

He looks like every other dad-age guy. He has dark hair, skinny chicken legs, and is getting a gut. His eyes are like his soul, a washed-out, cold, brownish color.

I walked into the family room to find him standing by the couch. My mother was crumpled near the end of it, clutching his hand. Her eyes were already red and watery. Great. She was going to play Hurt Hysterical Mother. It's an act she does well.

John had begun to attempt to skewer me with his eyes, but my Mark distracted him. His face twisted in disgust.

"Get thee behind me, Satan!" he quoted in what I like to think of as his sermon voice.

I sighed. "It's not Satan. It's just me.”

"Now is not the time for sarcasm, Zoey," Mom said.

"I'll handle this, hon," the step-loser said, patting her shoulder absently before he turned his attention back to me. "I told you that your bad behavior and your attitude problem would catch up with you. I'm not even surprised it happened this soon.”

I shook my head. I expected this. I really expected this, and still it was a shock. The entire world knew that there was nothing anyone could do to bring on the Change. The whole "if you get bit by a vampyre you'll die and become one" thing is strictly fiction. Scientists have been trying to figure out what causes the sequence of physical events that lead to vampyrism for years, hoping that if they figure it out they could cure it, or at the very least invent a vaccine to fight against it. So far, no such luck. But now John Heifer, my step-loser, had suddenly discovered that bad teenage behavior?specifically my bad behavior, which mostly consisted of an occasional lie, some pissed off thoughts and smart- ass comments directed primarily against my parents, and maybe some semi-harmless lust for Ashton Kutcher (sad to say he likes older women)?actually brought about this physical reaction in my body. Well, hell! Who knew?

"This wasn't something I caused," I finally managed to say. "This wasn't done because of me. It was done to me. Every scientist on the planet agrees with that.”

"Scientists are not all-knowing. They are not men of God.”

I just stared at him. He was an Elder of the People of Faith, a position he was oh, so proud of. It was one of the reasons Mom had been attracted to him, and on a strictly logical level I could understand why. Being an Elder meant that a man was successful. He had the right job. A nice house. The perfect family. He was supposed to do the right things and believe the right way. On paper he should have been a great choice for her new husband and our father. Too bad the paper wouldn't have shown the full story. And now, predictably, he was going to play the Elder card and throw God in my face. I would bet my cool new Steve Madden flats that it irritated God as much as it annoyed me.

I tried again. "We studied this in AP biology. It's a physiological reaction that takes place in some teenagers' bodies as their hormone levels rise." I paused, thinking really hard and totally proud of myself for remembering something I learned last semester. "In certain people the hormones trigger something-or-other in a…a…" I thought harder and remembered: "a Junk DNA strand, which starts the whole Change." I smiled, not really at John, but because I was thrilled by my ability to recall stuff from a unit we'd been done with for months. I knew the smile was a mistake when I saw the familiar clenching of his jaw.

"God's knowledge surpasses science, and it's blasphemous for you to say otherwise, young lady.”

"I never said scientists are smarter than God!" I threw my hands up and tried to stifle a cough. "I'm just trying to explain this thing to you.”

"I don't need to have anything explained to me by a sixteen-year-old.”

Well, he was wearing those really bad pants and that awful shirt. Clearly he did need some things explained to him by a teenager, but I didn't think it was the right time to mention his unfortunate and obvious fashion impairment.

"But John, honey, what are we going to do about her? What will the neighbors say?" Her face paled even more and she stifled a little sob. "What will people say at Meeting on Sunday?”

He narrowed his eyes when I opened my mouth to answer, and interrupted before I could speak.

"We are going to do what any good family should do. We are going to give this to God.”

They were sending me to a convent? Unfortunately, I had to deal with another round of coughing, so he kept right on talking.

"We are also going to call Dr. Asher. He'll know what to do to calm this situation.”

Wonderful. Fabulous. He's calling in our family shrink, the Incredibly Expressionless Man. Perfect.

"Linda, call Dr. Asher's emergency number, and then I think it would be wise to activate the prayer phone tree. Make sure the other Elders know that they are to gather here.”

My mom nodded and started to get up, but the words that burst from my mouth made her flop back down on the couch.

"What! Your answer is to call a shrink who is totally clueless about teenagers and get all those uptight Elders over here? Like they would even begin to try and understand? No! Don't you get it? I have to leave. Tonight.” I coughed, a really gut-wrenching sound that hurt my chest. "See! This will just get worse if I don't get around the…I hesitated. Why was it so hard to say" vampyres"? Because it sounded so foreign?so final?and, part of me admitted, so fantastic. "I have to get to the House of Night.”

Mom jumped up, and for a second I thought she was actually going to save me. Then John put his arm around her shoulder possessively. She looked up at him and when she looked back at me her eyes seemed almost sorry, but her words, typically, reflected only what John would want her to say.

"Zoey, surely it wouldn't hurt anything if you spent just tonight at home?”

"Of course it wouldn't," John said to her. "I'm sure Dr. Asher will see the need for a house visit. With him here she'll be perfectly fine." He patted her shoulder, pretended to be caring, but instead of sweet he sounded slimy.

I looked from him to my mom. They weren't going to let me leave. Not tonight, and maybe not ever, or at least not until I had to be hauled out by the paramedics. I suddenly understood that it wasn't just about this Mark and the fact that my life had been totally changed. It was about control. If they let me go, somehow they lose. In Mom's case, I liked to think that she was afraid of losing me. I knew what John didn't want to lose. He didn't want to lose his precious authority and the illusion that we were the perfect little family. As Mom had already said, What would the neighbors think?what will people think at Meeting on Sunday? John had to preserve the illusion, and if that meant allowing me to get really, really sick, well then, that was a price he was willing to pay.

I wasn't willing to pay it, though.

I guess it was time I took things into my own hands (after all, they are well manicured).

"Fine," I said. "Call Dr. Asher. Start the prayer phone tree. But do you mind if I go lay down until everyone gets here?" I coughed again for good measure.

"Of course not, honey," Mom said, looking obviously relieved. "A little rest will probably make you feel better." Then she moved away from John's possessive arm. She smiled and then hugged me. "Would you like me to get you some NyQuil?”

"No, I'll be fine," I said, clinging to her for just a second, wishing so damn hard that it was three years ago and she was still mine?still on my side. Then I took a deep breath and stepped back. "I'll be fine," I repeated.

She looked at me and nodded, telling me she was sorry the only way she could, with her eyes.

I turned away from her and started to retreat to my bedroom. To my back the step-loser said, "And why don't you do us all a favor and see if you can find some powder or something to cover up that thing on your forehead?”

I didn't even pause. I just kept walking. And I wouldn't cry.

I'm going to remember this,I told myself sternly. I'm going to remember how awful they made me feel today. So when I'm scared and alone and whatever else is going to happen to me starts to happen, I'm going to remember that nothing could be as bad as being stuck here. Nothing.

 

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CHAPTER FOUR

 

So I sat on my bed and coughed while I listened to my mom making a frantic call to our shrink's emergency line, followed quickly by another equally hysterical call that would activate the dreaded People of Faith prayer tree. Within thirty minutes our house would begin to fill up with fat women and their beady-eyed pedophile husbands. They'd call me out to the family room. My Mark would be considered a Really Big and Embarrassing Problem, so they'd probably anoint me with some crap that was sure to clog my pores and give me a Cyclops-sized zit before laying their hands on me and praying. They'd ask God to help me stop being such an awful teenager and a problem to my parents. Oh, and the little matter of my Mark needed to be cleared up, too.

If only it were that simple. I'd gladly make a deal with God to be a good kid versus changing school and species. I'd even take the geometry test. Well, okay. Maybe not the geometry test?but, still, it's not like I'd asked to become a freak. This whole thing meant that I was going to have to leave. To start my life over somewhere I'd be the new kid. Somewhere I didn't have any friends. I blinked hard, forcing myself not to cry. School was the only place I really felt at home anymore; my friends were my only family. I balled up my fists and squidged my face up to keep from crying. One step at a time?I'd just take this one step at a time.

No way was I going deal with clones of the step-loser on top of everything else. And, as if the People of Faith weren't bad enough, the horrid prayer session would be followed by an equally annoying session with Dr. Asher. He'd ask me a lot of questions about how this and that made me feel. Then he'd babble on and on about teenage anger and angst being normal but that only I could choose how it would have an impact on my life…blah…blah…and since this was an "emergency" he'd probably want me to draw something that represented my inner child or whatever.

I definitely had to get out of there.

Good thing I've always been "the bad kid" and was well prepared for a situation like this. Okay, I wasn't exactly thinking about escaping from my house so I could run off and join the vampyres when I put a spare key to my car under the flowerpot outside my window. I was just considering that I might want to sneak out and go to Kayla's house. Or, if I really wanted to be bad I might meet Heath at the park and make out. But then Heath started drinking and I started to change into a vampyre. Sometimes life doesn't make any sense.

I grabbed my backpack, opened my window, and with an ease that said more about my sinful nature than the step-loser's boring lectures, I popped out my window screen. I put on my sunglasses and peeked out. It was only four thirty or so, and not dark yet, so I was really glad that our privacy fence hid me from our totally noisy neighbors. On this side of the house the only other windows were to my sister's room, and she should still be at cheerleading practice. (Hell must truly be freezing over because for once I was sincerely glad my sister's world revolved around what she called "the sport of cheer.") I dropped my backpack out first and then slowly followed it out the window, being careful not to make even a small oof noise when I landed on the grass. I paused there for way too many minutes, burying my face in my arms to muffle my horrible cough. Then I bent over and lifted up the edge of the pot that held the lavender plant Grandma Redbird had given me, and let my fingers find the hard metal of the key where it nestled against the smushed grass.

The gate didn't even squeak when I cracked it open and inched out like one of Charlie's Angels. My cute Bug was sitting there where she always sat?right in front of the third door to our three car garage. The step-loser wouldn't let me park her inside because he said the lawnmower was more important. (More important than a vintage VW? How? That didn't even make sense. Jeesh, I just sounded like a guy. Since when did I care about the vintageness of my Bug? I must really be Changing.) I looked both ways. Nothing. I sprinted for my Bug, jumped in, put it in neutral, and was truly thankful that our driveway was ridiculously steep when my wonderful car rolled smoothly and silently into the street. From there it was east to start it and zip out of the neighborhood of Big Expensive Houses.

I didn't even glance in the rearview mirror.

I did reach over and turn off my cell phone. I didn't want to talk to anyone.

No, that wasn't exactly true. There was one person I really wanted to talk to. She was the one person in the world who I was positive wouldn't look at my Mark and think I was a monster or a freak or a really awful person.

Like my Bug could read my mind it seemed to turn all by itself onto the highway that led to the Muskogee Turnpike and, eventually, to the most wonderful place in this world?my Grandma Redbird's lavender farm.

Unlike the drive from school to home, the hour-and-a-half trip to Grandma Redbird's farm seemed to take forever. By the time I pulled off the two-lane highway onto the hard-packed dirt road that led to Grandma's place, my body ached even worse than it did that time they hired that crazy new gym teacher who thought we should do insane weight circuits while she cracked her whip at us and cackled. Okay, so maybe she didn't have a whip, but still. My muscles hurt like hell. It was almost six o'clock and the sun was finally starting to set, but my eyes still stung. Actually, even the fading sunlight made my skin feel tingly and weird. It made me glad that it was the end of October and it had finally turned cool enough for me to wear my Borg Invasion 4D hoodie (sure, it is a Star Trek: The Next Generation ride in Vegas and, sadly, I am on occasion a total Star Trek nerd) which, thankfully, covered most of my skin. Before I got out of my Bug I dug around in the backseat until I found my old OSU trucker's hat and pulled it down on my head so that my face was out of the sun.

My grandma's house sat between two lavender fields and was shaded by huge old oaks. It was built in 1942 of raw Oklahoma stone, with a comfortable porch and unusually big windows. I loved this house. Just climbing the little wooden stairs that led to the porch made me feel better…safe. Then I saw the note taped on the outside of the door. It was easy to recognize Grandma Redbird's pretty handwriting: I'm on the bluffs collecting wildflowers.

I touched the soft lavender-scented paper. She always knew when I was coming for a visit. When I was a kid I used to think it was weird, but as I got older I appreciated the extra sense she had. All my life I've known that, no matter what, I could count on Grandma Redbird. During those awful first months after Mom married John I think I would have shriveled up and died if I hadn't been able to escape every weekend to Grandma's house.

For a second I considered going inside (Grandma never locked her doors) and waiting for her, but I needed to see her, to have her hug me and tell me what I had wanted Mom to say.

Don't be scared…it'll be okay…we'll make it be okay.So instead of going inside I found the little deer path at the edge of the northern-most lavender field that would lead to the bluffs and I followed it, letting my fingertips trail over the top of the closest plants so that as I walked they released their sweet, silvery scent into the air around me like they were welcoming me home.

It felt like years since I'd been here, even though I knew it had been only four weeks. John didn't like Grandma. He thought she was weird. I'd even overheard him tell Mom that Grandma was "a witch and going to He's such an ass.

Then an amazing thought hit me and I came to a complete stop. My parents no longer controlled what I did. I wasn't going to live with them ever again. John couldn't tell me what to do anymore.

Whoa! How awesome!

So awesome that it sent me into a spasm of coughing that made me wrap my arms around myself, like I was trying to hold my chest together. I needed to find Grandma Redbird, and I needed to find her now.

 
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CHAPTER FIVE

 

The path up the side of the bluffs had always been steep, but I'd climbed it about a gazillion times, with and without my grandma, and I'd never felt like this. It wasn't just the coughing anymore. And it wasn't just the sore muscles. I was dizzy and my stomach had started to gurgle so badly that I was reminding myself of Meg Ryan in the movie French Kiss after she ate all that cheese and had a lactose-intolerance fit. (Kevin Kline is really cute in that movie?well, for an old guy.)

And I was snotting. I don't mean just sniffling a little. I mean I was wiping my nose on the sleeve of my hoodie (gross). I couldn't breathe without opening my mouth, which made me cough more, and I couldn't believe how badly my chest hurt! I tried to remember what it was that officially killed the kids who didn't complete the Change into vampyres. Did they have heart attacks? Or was it possible that they coughed and snotted themselves to death?

Stop thinking about it!

I needed to find Grandma Redbird. If Grandma didn't have the answers, she'd figure them out. Grandma Redbird understood people. She said it was because she hadn't lost touch with her Cherokee heritage and the tribal knowledge of the ancestral Wise Women she carried in her blood. Even now it made me smile to think about the frown that came over Grandma's face whenever the subject of the step-loser came up (she's the only adult who knows I call him that). Grandma Redbird said that it was obvious that the Redbird Wise Woman blood had skipped over her daughter, but that was only because it had been saving up to give an extra dose of ancient Cherokee magic to me.

As a little girl I'd climbed this path holding Grandma's hand more times than I could count. In the meadow of tall grasses and wildflowers we'd lay out a brightly colored blanket and eat a picnic lunch while Grandma told me stories of the Cherokee people and taught me the mysterious-sounding words of their language. As I struggled up the winding path those ancient stories seemed to swirl around and around inside my head, like smoke from a ceremonial fire…including the sad story of how the stars were formed when a dog was discovered stealing cornmeal and the tribe whipped him. As the dog ran howling to his home in the north, the meal scattered across the sky and the magic in it made the Milky Way. Or how the Great Buzzard made the mountains and valleys with his wings. And my favorite, the story about young woman sun who lived in the east, and her brother, the moon, who lived in the west, and the Redbird who was the daughter of the sun.

"Isn't that weird? I'm a Redbird and the daughter of the sun, but I'm turning into a monster of the night.” I heard myself talking out loud and was surprised that my voice sounded so weak, especially when my words seemed to echo around me, as if I were talking into a vibrating drum.

Drum…

Thinking the word reminded me of powwows Grandma had taken me to when I was a little girl, and then, my thoughts somehow breathing life into the memory, I actually heard the rhythmic beating of ceremonial drums. I looked around, squinting against even the weak light of the dying day. My eyes stung and my vision was all screwed up. There was no wind, but the shadows of the rocks and trees seemed to be moving…stretching…reaching out toward me.

"Grandma I'm scared…" I cried between wracking coughs.

The spirits of the land are nothing to be frightened of Zoeybird.

"Grandma?" Did I hear her voice calling me by my nickname, or was it only more weirdness and echoes, this time coming from my memory? "Grandma!" I called again, and then stood still listening for an answer.

Nothing. Nothing except the wind.

U-no-le…the Cherokee word for wind drifted through my mind like a half-forgotten dream.

Wind? No, wait! There hadn't been any wind just a second ago, but now I had to hold my hat down with one hand and brush away the hair that was whipping wildly across my face with the other. Then in the wind I heard them?the sounds of many Cherokee voices chanting in time with the beating of the ceremonial drums. Through a veil of hair and tears I saw smoke. The nutty sweet scent of piñon wood filled my open mouth and I tasted the campfires of my ancestors. I gasped, fighting to catch my breath.

That's when I felt them. They were all around me, almost- visible shapes shimmering like heat waves lifting from a blacktop road in summer. I could feel them press against me as they twirled and moved with graceful, intricate steps around and around the shadowy image of a Cherokee campfire.

Join us, u-we-tsi a-ge-hu-tsa…Join us, daughter…

Cherokee ghosts…drowning in my own lungs…the fight with my parents…my old life gone…

It was all just too much. I ran.

I guess what they teach us in biology about adrenaline taking over during the whole fight-or-flight thing is true because even though my chest felt like it was going to explode and it seemed as if I was trying to breathe underwater, I ran up the last and steepest part of the trail like they'd opened up all the stores at the mall and they were giving away free shoes.

Gasping for breath I stumbled up the path?higher and higher?fighting to get away from the frightening spirits that hovered around me like fog, but instead of leaving them behind it seemed I was running farther into their world of smoke and shadows. Was I dying? Was this what happens? Was that why I could see ghosts? Where's the white light? Completely panicked, I rushed forward, throwing my arms out wildly as if I could hold off the terror that was chasing me.

I didn't see the root that broke through the hard ground of the path. Completely disoriented I tried to catch myself, but all of my reflexes were off. I fell hard. The pain in my head was sharp, but it lasted only an instant before blackness swallowed me.

Waking up was weird. I expected my body to hurt, especially my head and my chest, but instead of pain I felt…well…I felt fine. Actually, I felt better than fine. I wasn't coughing. My arms and legs were amazingly light, tingly, and warm, like I had just slipped into a bubbly hot tub on a cold night.

Huh?

Surprise made me open my eyes. I was staring up at a light, which miraculously didn't hurt my eyes. Instead of the glaring light of the sun, this was more like a soft rain of candlelight filtering down from above. I sat up, and realized I was wrong. The light wasn't coming down. I was moving up toward it!

I'm going to heaven. Well, that'll shock some people.

I glanced down to see my body! I or it or…or…whatever was lying scarily close to the edge of the bluff. My body was very still. My forehead had been cut and it was bleeding badly. The blood dripped steadily into a gash in the rocky ground, making a trail of red tears that fell into the heart of the bluff.

It was incredibly weird to look down on myself. I wasn't scared. But I should be, shouldn't I? Didn't this mean I was dead? Maybe I'd be able to see the Cherokee ghosts better now. Even that thought didn't scare me. Actually, instead of being afraid it was more like I was an observer, as if none of this could really touch me. (Kinda like those girls who have sex with everyone and think that they're not going to get pregnant or a really nasty STD that eats your brains and stuff. Well, we'll see in ten years, won't we?)

I enjoyed the way the world looked, sparkling and new, but it was my body that kept drawing my attention. I floated closer to it. I was breathing in short, shallow pants. Well, my body was breathing like that, not the I that was me. (Talk about confusing pronoun usage.) And I/she didn't look good. I/she was all pale and her lips were blue. Hey! White face, blue lips, and red blood! Am I patriotic or what?

I laughed, and it was amazing! I swear I could see my laughter floating around me like the puffy things you blow off a dandelion, only instead of being white it was birthday-cake-frosting-blue. Wow! Who knew hitting my head and passing out would be so much fun? I wondered if this was what it was like to be high.

The dandelion icing laughter faded and I could hear the shining crystal sound of running water. I moved closer to my body, able to see that what I had at first thought was a gash in the ground was really a narrow crevasse. The living water sound was coming from deep inside it. Curious, I peered down, and the sparkling silver outline of words drifted up from within the rock. I strained to hear, and was rewarded by a faint, whispering of silver sound.

Zoey Redbird…come to me…

"Grandma!" I yelled into the slash in the rock. My words were bright purple and they filled the air around me. "Is that you, Grandma?”

Come to me…

The silver mixed with the purple of my visible voice, turning the words the glistening color of lavender blossoms. It was an omen! A sign! Somehow, like the spirit guides the Cherokee people have believed in for centuries, Grandma Redbird was telling me I had to go down into the rock.

Without any more hesitation, I flung my spirit forward and down into the crevasse, following the trail of my blood and the silver memory of my grandma's whisper until I came to the smooth floor of a cave-like room. In the middle of the room a small stream of water bubbled, giving off tinkling shards of visible sound, bright and glass-colored. Mixed with the scarlet drops of my blood it lit up the cave with a flickering light that was the color of dried leaves. I wanted to sit next to the bubbling water and let my fingers touch the air around it and play in the texture of its music, but the voice called to me again.

Zoey Redbird…follow me to your destiny…

So I followed the stream and the woman's call. The cave narrowed until it was a rounded tunnel. It curved and curled around and around, in a gentle spiral, ending abruptly at a wall that was covered with carved symbols that looked familiar and alien at the same time. Confused, I watched the stream pour down into a crack in the wall and disappear. What now? Was I supposed to follow it?

I looked back down the tunnel. Nothing there except dancing light. I turned to the wall and felt a jolt of electric shock. Whoa! There was a woman sitting cross-legged in front of the wall! She was wearing a white fringed dress that was beaded with the same symbols that were on the wall behind her. She was fantastically beautiful, with long straight hair so black it looked as if it had blue and purple highlights, like a raven's wing. Her full lips curved up as she spoke, filling the air between us with the silver power of her voice.

Tsi-lu-gi U-we-tsi a-ge-hu-tsa. Welcome, Daughter. You have done well.

She spoke in Cherokee, but even though I hadn't practiced the language much in the last couple years I understood the words.

"You're not my grandma!" I blurted, feeling awkward and out of place as my purple words joined with hers, making incredible patterns of sparkling lavender in the air around us.

Her smile was like the rising sun.

No, Daughter, I am not, but I know Sylvia Redbird very well.I took a deep breath. "Am I dead?”

I was afraid she would laugh at me, but she didn't. Instead her dark eyes were soft and concerned.

No, U-we-tsi a-ge-hu-tsa. You are far from dead, though your spirit has been temporarily freed to wander the realm of the Nunne 'hi.

"The spirit people!" I glanced around the tunnel, trying to see faces and forms within the shadows.

Your grandmother has taught you well, u-s-ti Do-tsu-wa…little Redbird. You are a unique mixture of the Old Ways and the New World?of ancient tribal blood and the heartbeat of outsiders.

Her words made me feel hot and cold at the same time. "Who are you?" I asked.

I am known by many names…Changing Woman, Gaea, A'akuluujjusi, Kuan Yin, Grandmother Spider, and even Dawn…

As she spoke each name her face was transformed so that I was dizzied by her power. She must have understood, because she paused and flashed her beautiful smile at me again, and her face settled back into the woman I had first seen.

But you, Zoeybird, my Daughter, may call me by the name by which your world knows me today, Nyx.

"Nyx," my voice was barely above a whisper. "The vampyre Goddess?”

In truth, it was the ancient Greeks touched by the Change who first worshiped me as the mother they searched for within their endless Night. I have been pleased to call their descendents my children for many ages. And, yes, in your world those children are called vampyre. Accept the name, U-we-tsi a-ge-hu-tsa; in it you will find your destiny.

I could feel my Mark burning on my forehead, and all of a sudden I wanted to cry. "I?I don't understand. Find my destiny? I just want to find a way to deal with my new life?to make this all okay. Goddess, I just want to fit in someplace. I don't think I'm up to finding my destiny.”

The Goddess's face softened again, and when she spoke her voice was like my mother's, only more?as though she had somehow sprinkled the love of every mother in the world into her words.

Believe in yourself Zoey Redbird. I have Marked you as my own. You will be my first true U-we-tsi a-ge-hu-tsa v-hna-i Sv-no-yi…Daughter of Night…in this age. You are special. Accept that about yourself and you will begin to understand there is true power in your uniqueness. Within you is combined the magic blood of ancient Wise Women and Elders, as well as insight into and understanding of the modern world.

The Goddess stood up and walked gracefully toward me, her voice painting silver symbols of power in the air around us. When she reached me she wiped the tears from my cheeks before taking my face in her hands.

Zoey Redbird, Daughter of Night, I name you my eyes and ears in the world today, a world where good and evil are struggling to find balance.

"But I'm sixteen! I can't even parallel-park! How am I supposed to know how to be your eyes and ears?”

She just smiled serenely. 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.

Then the Goddess Nyx, the ancient personification of Night, leaned forward and kissed me on my forehead. And for the third time that day I passed out.
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CHAPTER SIX

 

Beautiful, see the cloud, the cloud appear. Beautiful, see the rain, the rain draw near…

The words of the ancient song floated through my mind. I must be dreaming about Grandma Redbird again. It made me feel warm and safe and happy, which was especially nice, since I'd felt so crappy lately…except I couldn't remember exactly why. Huh. Odd.

Who spoke?

The little corn ear,

High on top of the stalk…

My grandma's song continued and I curled up on my side, sighing as I rubbed my cheek against the soft pillow. Unfortunately, moving my head caused an ugly pain to shoot through my temples, and like a bullet through a pane of glass, it shattered my happy feeling as the memory of the last day overwhelmed me.

I was turning into a vampyre.

I had run away from home.

I'd had an accident and then some kind of weird near-death experience.

I was turning into a vampyre. Oh my God.

Man, my head hurt.

"Zoeybird! Are you awake, baby?”

I blinked my blurry eyes clear to see Grandma Redbird sitting on a little chair close beside my bed.

"Grandma!" I croaked and reached for her hand. My voice sounded as terrible as my head felt. "What happened? Where am I?"

"You're safe, Little Bird. You're safe.”

"My head hurts." I reached up and felt the place on my head that was tight and sore, and my fingers found the prick of stitches.

"It should. You scared ten years of my life from me." Grandma rubbed the back of my hand gently. "All that blood…" She shuddered, and then shook her head and smiled at me. "How about you promise not to do that again?”

"Promise," I said. "So, you found me….”

"Bloody and unconscious, Little Bird.” Grandma brushed the hair back from my forehead, her fingers lingering lightly on my Mark. "And so pale that your dark crescent seemed to glow against your skin. I knew you needed to be taken back to the House of Night, which is exactly what I did." She chuckled and the mischievous sparkle in her eyes made her look like a little girl. "I called your mother to tell her that I was returning you to the House of Night, and I had to pretend that my cell phone cut out so I could hang up on her. I'm afraid she's not happy with either of us.”

I grinned back at Grandma Redbird. Hee hee, Mom was mad at her, too.

"But, Zoey, whatever were you doing out during the daylight? And why didn't you tell me earlier that you had been Marked?”

I struggled to sit up, grunting at the pain in my head. But, thankfully, it seemed I'd stopped coughing. Must be because I'm finally really here?at the House of Night… But the thought disappeared as my mind processed all of what Grandma had said.

"Wait, I couldn't have told you any earlier. The Tracker came to school today and Marked me. I went home first. I really hoped Mom would understand and take my side." I paused, remembering again the awful scene with my parents. In total understanding, Grandma squeezed my hand. "She and John basically locked me in my room while they called our shrink and started the prayer tree.”

Grandma grimaced.

"So I crawled out my window and came straight to you,” I concluded.

"I'm glad you did, Zoeybird, but it just doesn't make any sense.”

"I know,” I sighed. "I can't believe I got Marked, either. Why me?”

"That's not what I mean, baby. I'm not surprised you were Tracked and Marked. The Redbird blood has always held strong magic; it was only a matter of time before one of us was Chosen. What I mean is that it makes no sense that you were just Marked. The crescent isn't an outline. It's completely filled in.”

"That's impossible!”

"Look for yourself, U-we-tsi a-ge-hu-tsa." She used the Cherokee word for daughter, suddenly reminding me very much of a mysterious, ancient goddess.

Grandma searched through her purse for the antique silver compact she always carried. Without saying anything else, she handed it to me. I pushed the little clasp. It popped open to show me my reflection…the familiar stranger…the me who wasn't quite me. Her eyes were huge and her skin was too white, but I barely noticed that. It was the Mark that I couldn't quit staring at, the Mark that was now a completed crescent moon, filled in perfectly with the distinctive sapphire blue of the vampyre tattoo. Feeling like I was still moving through a dream, I reached up and let my fingers trace the exotic-looking Mark and I seemed to feel the Goddess's lips against my skin again.

"What does it mean?" I said, unable to look away from the Mark.

"We were hoping you would have an answer to that question, Zoey Redbird.”

Her voice was amazing. Even before I looked up from my reflection I knew she would be unique and incredible. I was right. She was movie-star beautiful, Barbie beautiful. I'd never seen anyone up close who was so perfect. She had huge, almond-shaped eyes that were a deep, mossy green. Her face was an almost perfect heart and her skin was that kind of flawless creaminess that you see on TV. Her hair was deep red?not that horrid carrot-top orange-red or the washed-out blond-red, but a dark, glossy auburn that fell in heavy waves well past her shoulders. Her body was, well, perfect. She wasn't thin like the freak girls who puked and starved themselves into what they thought was Paris Hilton chic. ("That's Hott." Yeah, okay, whatever, Paris.) This woman's body was perfect because she was strong, but curvy. And she had great boobs. (I wish I had great boobs.)

"Huh?" I said. Speaking of boobs?I was totally sounding like one. (Boob…hee hee).

The woman smiled at me and showed amazingly straight, white teeth?without fangs. Oh, I guess I forgot to mention that in addition to her perfection she had a sapphire crescent moon neatly tattooed in the middle of her forehead, and from it, swirls of lines that reminded me of ocean, waves framed her brows, extending down around her high cheekbones.

She was a vampyre.

"I said, we were hoping you would have some explanation about why a fledgling vampyre that hasn't Changed has the Mark of a mature being on her forehead.”

Without her smile and the gentle concern in her voice her words would have seemed harsh. Instead, what she said came off as worried and a little confused.

"So I'm not a vampyre?" I blurted.

Her laughter was like music. "Not yet, Zoey, but I would say that already having your Mark complete is an excellent omen."

"Oh…I I.…well, good. That's good," I babbled.

Thankfully, Grandma saved me from total humiliation.

"Zoey, this is the High Priestess of the House of Night, Neferet. She's been taking good care of you while you've been"?Grandma paused, obviously not wanting to say the word unconscious? "while you've been asleep.”

"Welcome to the House of Night, Zoey Redbird," Neferet said warmly.

I glanced at Grandma and then back at Neferet. Feeling more than a little lost I stuttered, "That's?that's not really my name. My last name is Montgomery.”

"Is it?" Neferet said, raising her amber-tinted brows. "One benefit of beginning a new life is that you have the opportunity to start over?to make choices you weren't given before. If you could choose, what would your true name be?”

I didn't hesitate. "Zoey Redbird.”

"Then from this moment on, you shall be Zoey Redbird. Welcome to your new life." She reached out like she wanted to shake my hand, and I automatically offered mine. But instead of taking my hand, she grasped my forearm, which was weird but somehow felt right.

Her touch was warm and firm. Her smile blazed with welcome. She was amazing and awe-inspiring. Actually, she was what all vampyres are, more than human?stronger, smarter, more talented. She looked like someone had turned on a blazing inner light within her, which I realize is definitely an ironic description considering the vampyre stereotypes (some of which I already knew were totally true): They avoid sunlight, they're most powerful at night, they need to drink blood to survive (eesh!), and they worship a goddess who is known as Night personified.

"Th-thank you. It's nice to meet you," I said, trying really hard to sound at least semi-intelligent and normal.

"As I was telling your grandmother earlier, we have never had a fledgling come to us in such an unusual manner before? unconscious and with a completed Mark. Can you remember what happened to you, Zoey?”

I opened my mouth to tell her that I totally remembered it? falling and hitting my head…seeing myself like I was a floating spirit…following the weirdly visible words into the cave…and finally meeting the Goddess Nyx. But right before I said the words I got a weird feeling, like someone had just hit me in my stomach. It was clear and it was specific, and it was telling me to shut up.

"I?I really don't remember much?" I broke off and my hand found the sore spot where my stitches poked out. "At least not after I hit my head. I mean, up until then I remember everything. The Tracker Marked me; I told my parents and got into a ginormic fight with them; then I ran away to my grandma's place. I was feeling really sick, so when I climbed the path up to the bluffs…" I remembered the rest of it?all of the rest of it?the spirits of the Cherokee people, the dancing and the campfire. Shut up! the feeling screamed at me. "I?I guess I slipped because I was coughing so much, and hit my head. The next thing I remember is Grandma Redbird singing and then I woke up here." I finished in a rush. I wanted to look away from the sharpness of her green-eyed gaze, but the same feeling that was ordering me to be quiet was also clearly telling me that I had to keep eye contact with her, that I had to try really hard to look like I wasn't hiding anything, even though I didn't really have a clue why I was hiding anything.

"It's normal to experience memory loss with a head wound." Grandma said matter-of-factly, breaking the silence.

I could have kissed her.

"Yes, of course it is," Neferet said quickly, her face losing its sharpness. "Do not fear for your granddaughter's health, Sylvia Redbird. All will be well with her.”

She spoke to Grandma respectfully, and some of the tension that had been building inside me loosened. If she liked Grandma Redbird, she had to be an okay person, or vampyre or whatever. Right?

"As I'm sure you already know, vampyres"?Neferet paused and smiled at me?"even fledgling vampyres, have unusual powers of recovery. Her healing is proceeding so well that it is perfectly safe for her to leave the infirmary." She looked from Grandma to me. "Zoey, would you like to meet your new roommate?”

No.I swallowed hard and nodded. "Yes.”

"Excellent!" Neferet said. Thankfully she ignored the fact that I was standing there like a smiling stupid garden gnome.

"Are you sure you shouldn't keep her here another day for observation?" Grandma asked.

"I understand your concern, but I assure you Zoey's physical wounds are already healing at a pace you would find extraordinary.”

She smiled at me again and even though I was scared and nervous and just plain freaked out I smiled back at her. It seemed like she was genuinely happy that I was there. And, truthfully, she made me think turning into a vampyre might not be such a bad thing.

"Grandma, I'm fine. Really. My head just hurts a little, and the rest of me feels way better." I realized as I said it that it was true. I'd completely stopped coughing. My muscles didn't ache anymore. I felt perfectly normal except for a little headache.

Then Neferet did something that not only surprised me, but made me instantly like her?and begin to trust her. She walked over to Grandma and spoke slowly and carefully.

"Sylvia Redbird, I give you my solemn oath that your grand-daughter is safe here. Each fledgling is paired with an adult mentor.

To ensure my oath to you I will be Zoey's mentor. And now you must entrust her to my care.”

Neferet placed her fist over her heart and bowed formally to Grandma. My grandma hesitated for only a moment before answering her.

"I will hold you to your oath, Neferet, High Priestess of Nyx." Then she mimicked Neferet's actions by putting her own fist over her heart and bowing to her before turning to me and hugging me hard. "Call me if you need me, Zoeybird. I love you.”

"I will, Grandma. I love you, too. And thank you for bringing me here," I whispered, breathing in her familiar lavender scent and trying not to cry.

She kissed me gently on my cheek and then with her quick, confident steps she walked out of the room, leaving me alone for the first time in my life with a vampyre.

"Well, Zoey, are you ready to begin your new life?”

I looked up at her and thought again how amazing she was. If I actually Changed into a vampyre, would I have her confidence and power, or was that something only a High Priestess got? For an instant it flashed though my mind how awesome it would be to be a High Priestess?and then my sanity returned. I was just a kid. A confused kid at that, and definitely not High Priestess material. I just want to figure out how to fit in here, but Neferet had certainly made what was happening to me seem easier to bear.

"Yes, I am.” I was glad I sounded more confident than I felt.

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CHAPTER SEVEN

 

"What time is it?”

We were walking down a narrow hall that curved gently. The walls were made of an odd mixture of dark stone and jutting brick. Every so often flickering gaslights that hung from old-fashioned-looking black iron sconces stuck out of the wall, giving off a soft yellow glow that was, thankfully, really easy on my eyes. There were no windows in the hall, and we didn't meet anyone else (even though I kept peeking nervously around, imagining my first glimpse of vampyre kids).

"It is nearly four A.M., which means classes have been out for almost an hour,” Neferet said, and then she smiled slightly at what I'm sure was my totally shocked expression.

"Classes begin at eight P.M., and end at three A.M.," she explained. "Teachers are available until three thirty A.M. to give students extra help. The gym is open until dawn, the exact time of which you will always know as soon as you have completed the Change. Until then dawn time is clearly posted in all the classrooms, common rooms, and gathering areas, including the dining hall, library, and gym. Nyx's Temple is, of course, open at all hours, but formal rituals are held twice a week right after school. The next ritual will be tomorrow.” Neferet glanced at me and her slight smile warmed. "It seems overwhelming now, but you'll catch on quickly. And your roommate will help you, as will I.”

I was just getting ready to open my mouth to ask her another question when an orange ball of fur ran into the hall and without a sound, hurled itself into Neferet's arms. I jumped and made a stupid little squee sound?then I felt like a total retard when I saw that the orange ball of fur was not a flying boogieman or whatever, but a massively big cat.

Neferet laughed and scratched the fur ball's ears. "Zoey, meet Skylar. He's usually prowling around here waiting to launch himself at me.”

"That's the biggest cat I've ever seen," I said, reaching my hand out to let him sniff me.

"Careful, he's a known biter.”

Before I could jerk my hand out of the way, Skylar started rubbing his face on my fingers. I held my breath.

Neferet tilted her head to the side, as if she was listening to words in the wind. "He likes you, which is definitely unusual. He doesn't like anyone except me. He even keeps the other cats away from this end of campus. He's really a terrible bully," she said fondly.

I carefully scratched Skylar's ears like Neferet had been doing. "I like cats," I said softly. "I used to have one, but when my mom got remarried I had to give it to Street Cats to be adopted. John, her new husband, doesn't like cats.”

"I've found that the way a person feels about cats?and the way they feel about him or her in return?is usually an excellent gauge by which to measure a person's character.”

I looked up from the cat to meet her green eyes and saw that she understood a lot more about freaky family issues than she was saying. It made me feel connected to her, and automatically my stress level relaxed a little. "Are there a lot of cats here?”

"Yes, there are. Cats have always been closely allied with vampyres.”

Okay, actually I already knew that. In World History with Mr. Shaddox (better known as Puff Shaddy, but don't tell him) we learned that in the past cats had been slaughtered because it was thought that they somehow turned people into vampyres. Yeah, okay, talk about ridiculous. More evidence of the stupidity of humans… the thought popped into my mind, shocking me by how easily I'd already started thinking of "normal" people as "humans," and therefore something different than me.

"Do you think I could have a cat?" I asked.

"If one chooses you, you will belong to him or her.”

"Chooses me?”

Neferet smiled and stroked Skylar, who closed his eyes and purred loudly. "Cats choose us; we don't own them.” As if to demonstrate what she said was true, Skylar jumped out of her arms and, with a stuck-up flick of his tail, disappeared down the hall.

Neferet laughed. "He's really awful, but I do adore him. I think I would, even were it not part of my gift from Nyx.”

"Gift? Skylar is a gift from the Goddess?”

"Yes, in a way. Every High Priestess is given an affinity?what you would probably think of as special powers?by the Goddess. It's part of the way we identify our High Priestesses. The affinities can be unusual cognitive skills, like reading minds or having visions and being able to predict the future. Or the affinity can be for something in the physical realm, like a special connection to one of the four elements, or to animals. I have two Goddess gifts. My main affinity is for cats; I have a connection with them that is unusual, even for a vampyre. Nyx has also given me unusual powers of healing." She smiled. "Which is why I know you're healing well?my gift told me.”

 

"Wow, that's amazing," was all I could think to say. My head was already reeling from the events of the past day.

"Come on. Let's get you to your room. I'm sure you're hungry and tired. Dinner will start in"?Neferet cocked her head to the side as if someone was weirdly whispering the time to her?"an hour.” She gave me a knowing smile. "Vampyres always know what time it is.”

"That's cool, too.”

"That, my dear fledgling, is just the tip of the 'cool' iceberg.”

I hoped her analogy didn't have anything to do with Titanic- sized disasters. As we continued walking down the hall I thought about time and stuff, and remembered the question I had started to ask when Skylar had interrupted my easily derailed train of thought.

"So, wait. You said that classes start at eight? At night?" Okay, I'm usually not this slow, but some of this was like she was speaking a foreign language to me. I was having a hard time getting it.

"Once you take a moment to think about it you'll understand that having classes at night is only logical. Of course you must know that vampyres, adult or fledgling, don't explode, or any other such fictional nonsense, if subjected to direct sunlight, but it is uncomfortable for us. Wasn't the sunlight already difficult for you to bear today?”

I nodded. "My Maui Jims didn't even help much." Then I added quickly, feeling moronic again, "Uh, Maui Jims are sunglasses.”

"Yes, Zoey," Neferet said patiently. "I know sunglasses. Very well, actually.”

"Oh, God, I'm sorry I?" I broke off, wondering whether it was okay for me to say "God." Would it offend Neferet, a High Priestess who wore her Goddess Mark so proudly? Hell, would it offend Nyx? Oh, God. What about saying "hell"? It was my favorite cuss word ever. (Okay, it was really the only cuss word I usedregularly.) Could I still say it? The People of Faith preached that vampyres worshiped a false goddess and that they were mostly selfish, dark creatures who cared about nothing except money and luxury and drinking blood and they were all certainly going straight to hell, so wouldn't that mean that I should watch how and where I used…

"Zoey.”

I looked up to find Neferet studying me with a concerned expression and realized that she had probably been trying to get my attention while I had been babbling inside my head.

"I'm sorry,” I repeated.

Neferet stopped. She put her hands on my shoulders and turned me so that I had to face her.

"Zoey, quit apologizing. And remember, everyone here has been where you are. This was new to all of us once. We know what it feels like?the fear of the Change?the shock at your life being turned into something foreign.”

"And not being able to control any of it," I added quietly.

"That, too. It won't always be this bad. When you're a mature vampyre your life will seem your own again. You'll make your own choices; go your own way; follow the path down which your heart and soul and talents lead you.”

"If Ibecome a mature vampyre.”

"You will, Zoey.”

"How can you be so sure?”

Neferet's eyes found the darkened Mark on my forehead. "Nyx has chosen you. For what, we do not know. But her Mark has been clearly placed upon you. She would not have touched you only to see you fail.”

I remembered the Goddess's words, Zoey Redbird, Daughter of Night, I name you my eyes and ears in the world today, a world where good and evil are struggling to find balance, and looked quickly away from Neferet's sharp gaze, wishing desperately that I knew why my gut was still telling me to keep my mouth shut about my meeting with the Goddess.

"It's?it's just a lot to happen all in one day.”

"It certainly is, especially on an empty stomach.”

We had started walking again when the sound of a ringing cell phone made me jump. Neferet sighed and smiled apologetically at me, then she fished a small phone out of her pocket.

"Neferet," she said. She listened for a little while and I saw her forehead wrinkle, and her eyes narrow. "No, you were right to call me. I'll come back and check on her." And she flipped the phone shut. "I'm sorry, Zoey. One of the fledglings broke her leg earlier today. It seems she's having trouble resting, and I should go back and be sure all is well with her. Why don't you follow this hallway around to the left until you come to the main door? You can't miss it?it's large and made of very old wood. Right outside is a stone bench. You can wait there for me. I won't be long.”

"Okay, no problem." But before I'd finished speaking Neferet had already disappeared back down the winding hallway. I sighed. I didn't like the idea of being by myself in a place that was full of vampyres and vampyre kids. And now that Neferet was gone the little flickering lights didn't seem so welcoming. They seemed weird, throwing ghostly shadows against the old stone hall.

Determined not to freak myself out, I started slowly down the hall in the direction we had been heading. Pretty soon I almost wished I'd run into some other people (even if they were vampyres). It was too quiet. And creepy. A couple of times the hall branched off to the right, but like Neferet had told me, I kept to the left. Actually, I also kept my eyes to the left because those other halls had hardly any lights in them.

Unfortunately at the next right-hand turn off the hall I didn't avert my eyes. Okay, so the reason made sense. I heard something.

To be more specific, I heard a laugh. It was a soft, girly laugh that for some reason made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It also made me stop walking. I peeked down the hall and thought I saw movement in the shadows.

Zoey…My name was whispered from the shadows.

I blinked in surprise. Had I really heard my name or was I imagining things? The voice was almost familiar. Could it be Nyx again? Was the Goddess calling my name? Almost as afraid as I was intrigued, I held my breath and took a few steps into the side hallway.

As I walked around the gentle bend I saw something ahead of me that made me stop and automatically move closer to the wall. In a little alcove not far from me were two people. At first I couldn't make my mind process what I was seeing; then in a rush I understood.

I should have gotten out of there then. I should have backed silently away and tried not to think about what I'd seen. But I didn't do any of those things. It was like my feet were suddenly so heavy I couldn't pick them up. All I could do was watch.

The man?and then with a little jolt of additional shock I realized that he wasn't a man, he was a teenager?not more than a year or so older than me. He was standing with his back pressed against the stone of the alcove. His head was tilted back and he was breathing hard. His face was in the shadows, but even though he was only partially visible I could see that he was handsome. Then another breathy little laugh drew my eyes downward.

She was on her knees in front of him. All I could see of her was her blond hair. There was so much of it that it looked like she was wearing it as some kind of ancient veil. Then her hands moved up, running along the guy's thighs.

Go!my mind screamed at me. Get out of there! I started to take a step back, and then his voice made me freeze.

"Stop!”

My eyes got huge because for a second I thought he was talking to me.

"You don't really want me to.”

I felt almost dizzy with relief when she spoke. He was talking to her, not me. They didn't even know I was there.

"Yes, I do.” It sounded as if he was grinding his words from between his teeth. "Get off your knees.”

"You like it?you know you like it. Just like you know you still want me.”

Her voice was all husky and trying to be sexy, but I could also hear the whine in it. She sounded almost desperate. I watched her fingers move, and my eyes widened in amazement when she drew the nail of her index finger down his thigh. Unbelievably, her fingernail slashed through his jeans, just like it was a knife, and a line of fresh blood appeared, startling in its liquid redness.

I didn't want it to, and it grossed me out, but at the sight of the blood my mouth started watering.

"No!" He snapped, putting his hands on her shoulders and trying to push her away from him.

"Oh, quit pretending?" she laughed again, a mean, sarcastic sound. "You know we'll always be together.” She reached up with her tongue and licked along the line of blood.

I shuddered; against my will I was completely mesmerized.

"Cut it out!" He was still pushing at her shoulders. "I don't want to hurt you, but you're really starting to piss me off. Why can't you understand? We're not doing this anymore. I don't want you.”

"You want me! You'll always want me!" She unzipped his pants.

I shouldn't be there. I shouldn't be seeing this. I tore my eyes from his bloody thigh and took one step back.

The guy's eyes lifted. He saw me.

And then something truly bizarre happened. I could feel his touch through our eyes. I couldn't look away from him. The girl in front of him seemed to disappear, and all there was in the hallway was him and me and the sweet, beautiful smell of his blood.

"You don't want me? That's not how it looks now," she said with a nasty purr in her voice.

I felt my head begin to shake back and forth, back and forth. At the same moment he cried "No!" and tried to push her out of the way so that he could move toward me.

I ripped my eyes away from his and stumbled back.

"No!" he said again. This time I knew he was speaking to me and not her. She must have realized it, too, because with a cry that sounded uncomfortably like the snarl of a wild animal, she started to whirl around. My body unfroze. At the same instant I turned and ran back down the hall.

I expected them to come after me, so I kept running until I reached the huge old doors Neferet had described. Then I stood there, leaning against their cold wood, trying to get my breathing under control so I could listen for the sounds of running feet.

What would I do if they did chase me down? My head was pounding painfully again, and I felt weak and totally scared. And completely, utterly grossed out.

Yes, I was aware of the whole oral sex thing. I doubt if there's a teenager alive in America today who isn't aware that most of the adult public think we're giving guys blow jobs like they used to give guys gum (or maybe more appropriately suckers). Okay, that's just bullshit, and it's always made me mad. Of course there are girls who think it's "cool" to give guys head. Uh, they're wrong. Those of us with functioning brains know that it is not cool to be used like that.

Okay, so I knew about the whole blow job issue. I' d definitely never seen one. So, what I had just seen had definitely freaked me out. But what had freaked me out more than the fact that the blonde was doing the nasty to him was the way I'd responded to seeing the guy's blood.

I'd wanted to lick it, too.

And that's just not normal.

Then there's the whole issue about me sharing that weird look with him. What had that been all about?

"Zoey, are you all right?”

"Hell!" I gasped and jumped. Neferet was standing behind me looking at me with total confusion.

"Are you feeling ill?”

"I?I…" My mind flailed about. No way could I tell her what I'd just seen. "My head just really hurts," I finally managed to say. And it was true. I had a killer headache.

Her frown was full of concern. "Let me help you." Neferet placed her hand lightly over the line of stitches on my forehead. She closed her eyes and I could hear her whispering something in a language I could not understand. Then her hand started to feel warm and it was as if the warmth became liquid and my skin absorbed it. I closed my eyes and sighed in relief as the pain in my head began to fade.

"Better?”

"Yes," I barely whispered.

She took her hand away and I opened my eyes. "That should keep the pain away. I don't know why it suddenly came back with such force.”

"Me, neither, but it's gone now," I said quickly.

She studied me silently for a little while more while I held my breath. Then she said, "Anything upset you?”

I swallowed. "I'm a little scared about meeting my new roommate." Which technically wasn't a lie. It wasn't what had upset me, but I was scared about it.

Neferet's smile was kind. "All will be well, Zoey. Now let me introduce you to your new life.”

Neferet opened the thick wooden door and we walked out into a large courtyard that fronted the school. She stepped aside and let me gawk. Teenagers wearing uniforms that somehow looked cool and unique while still being similar walked in small groups across the courtyard and along the sidewalk. I could hear the deceptively normal sound of their voices as they laughed and talked. I kept staring from them to the school, not sure which to gawk at first. I chose the school. It was the less intimidating of the two (and I was scared I'd see him). The place was like something out of a creepy dream. It was the middle of the night, and it should have been deeply dark, but there was a brilliant moon shining above the huge old oaks that shaded everything. Freestanding gaslights housed in tarnished copper fixtures followed the sidewalk that ran parallel to the huge red brick and black rock building. It was three stories tall and had a weirdly high roof that pointed up and then flattened off at the top. I could see that heavy drapes had been opened and soft yellow lights made shadows dance up and down the rooms, giving the entire structure an alive and welcoming look. A round tower was attached to the front of the main building, furthering the illusion that the place was much more castle- like than school-like. I swear, a moat would have looked more like it belonged there than a sidewalk ringed by thick azalea bushes and a neat lawn.

Across from the main building was a smaller one that looked older and church-like. Behind it and the old oaks that shaded the schoolyard I could see the shadow of the enormous stone wall that surrounded the entire school. In front of the church building was a marble statue of a woman who was wearing long, flowing robes.

"Nyx!" I blurted.

Neferet lifted one eyebrow in surprise. "Yes, Zoey. That is a statue of the Goddess, and the building behind it is her temple." She motioned for me to walk with her down the sidewalk and gestured expansively at the impressive campus that stretched before us. "What is known today as the House of Night was built in the neo-French-Norman style, with stones imported from Europe. It originated in the mid-192os as an Augustine monastery for the People of Faith. Eventually it was converted into Cascia Hall, a private preparatory school for affluent human teenagers. When we decided that we must open a school of our own in this part of the country, we bought it from Cascia Hall five years ago.”

I only vaguely recalled the days when it had been a stuck-up private school?actually the only reason I'd ever thought about it at all was that I remembered hearing the news that a whole herd of kids who went to Cascia Hall had been busted for drugs, and how shocked the adults had been. Whatever. No one else had been shocked that those rich kids were majorly into drugs.

"I'm surprised they sold it to you guys,” I said absently.

Her laugh was low and a little dangerous. "They didn't want to, but we made their arrogant headmaster an offer even he couldn't refuse.”

I wanted to ask her what she meant, but her laugh gave me a skin-crawly feeling. And, plus, I was busy. I couldn't stop staring. Okay the first thing I noticed was that everyone who had a solid vampyre tattoo was incredibly good-looking. I mean, it was totally insane. Yes, I knew that vampyres were attractive. Everyone knew that. The most successful actors and actresses in the world were vampyres. They were also dancers and musicians, authors and singers. Vampyres dominated the arts, which is one reason they had so much money?and also one reason (of many) that the People of Faith considered them selfish and immoral. But really, they're just jealous that they're not as good-looking. The People of Faith would go see their movies, plays, concerts, buy their books and their art, but at the same time they'd talk about them and look down at them, and God knows they'd never, ever mix with them. Hello?can you say hypocrites?

Anyway, being surrounded by so many totally gorgeous people made me want to crawl under a bench, even though many of them greeted Neferet and then smiled and said hello to me, too. Between hesitantly returning their hellos I snuck looks at the kids who walked by us. Each of them nodded respectfully to Neferet. Several of them bowed formally to her and crossed their fists over their hearts, which made Neferet smile and bow slightly in response. Okay, the kids weren't as gorgeous as the adults. Sure, they were nice-looking?interesting actually, with their crescent moon outlines, and their uniforms that looked more like runway designs than school clothes?but they didn't have the glossy, inhumanly attractive light that radiated from inside each of the adult vampyres. Uh, I did notice that, as I had suspected, their uniforms had a lot of basic black in them (you'd think that a group of people so up on the arts would recognize a cliché when one goes walking by in boring Goth black. I'm just saying…). But I suppose if I was going to be honest I'd have to admit it looked good on them?the black mixed with tiny plaid lines of deep purple, dark blue, and emerald green. Each uniform had an ornate design embroidered in gold or silver on either its jacket breast pocket or blouse pocket. I could tell that some of the designs were the same, but I couldn't see exactly what they were. Also, there was a weirdly large amount of kids with long hair. Seriously, the girls had long hair, the guys had long hair, the teachers had long hair, even the cats that wandered across the sidewalk from time to time were long-haired balls of fur. Odd. Good thing I'd talked myself out of getting my hair cut in that short duck butt style Kayla had cut hers off in last week.

I also noticed that the adults and the kids had one other thing in common?their eyes all lingered with obvious curiosity on my Mark. Great. So I was beginning my new life as an anomaly, which figured about as much as it sucked.

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CHAPTER EIGHT

 

The part of the House of Night that held the dorms was way across campus, so we had a fairly long walk, and Neferet seemed to be walking slowly on purpose, giving me plenty of time to ask questions and gawk. Not that I minded. Walking the length of the sprawling castle-like cluster of buildings, with Neferet pointing out little details about what was what, gave me a sense of the place. It was weird, but in a good way. Plus, walking felt normal. Actually, as odd as it sounds, I felt like myself again. I wasn't coughing. My body didn't ache. My head even had stopped hurting. I was absolutely, totally not thinking about the disturbing scene I'd accidentally witnessed. I was forgetting it?on purpose. The last thing I needed was to have more to deal with than a new life and a weird Mark. So, blow job?forgotten.

Deeply in denial I told myself that if I hadn't been walking through a school campus at an ungodly hour of the night beside a vampyre I almost could pretend that I was the same today as I had been yesterday. Almost.

Well, okay. Maybe not even almost, but my head did feel better, and I was just about ready to face my roommate when Neferet finally opened the door to the girl's dorm.

Inside was a surprise. I'm not sure what I expected?maybe everything to be all black and creepy. But it was nice, decorated in soft blue and antique yellow, with comfy couches and clumps of puffy pillows big enough to sit on dotting the room like giant pastel M&Ms. The soft gaslight coming from several antique crystal chandeliers made the place look like a princess's castle. On the cream-colored walls there were large oil paintings, all of them of ancient women who looked exotic and powerful. Fresh-cut flowers, mostly roses, sat in crystal vases on end tables that were cluttered with books and purses and fairly normal-looking teenage girl stuff. I saw several flat screen TVs, and recognized the sounds of MTV's Real World coming from one of them. I took in all of this fast, while I tried to smile and appear friendly to the girls who had shut up the instant I walked in the room and were now staring at me. Well, scratch that. They weren't exactly staring at me. They were staring at the Mark on my forehead.

"Ladies, this is Zoey Redbird. Greet her and welcome her to the House of Night.”

For a second I didn't think anyone was going to say anything, and I wanted to die of new-kid mortification. Then a girl stood up from among the middle of a group that was clustered around one of the TVs. She was a tiny blonde and darn near perfect. Actually, she reminded me of a young version of Sarah Jessica Parker (who I don't like, by the by?she's just so…so…annoying and unnaturally perky).

"Hi Zoey. Welcome to your new home." The SJP look-alike's smile was warm and genuine, and she was clearly making an effort to make eye contact instead of gawk at my darkened-in Mark. Instantly I felt bad for making a negative comparison about her. "I'm Aphrodite," she said.

Aphrodite? Okay, maybe I hadn't been too hasty in my comparison. How could anyone normal choose Aphrodite as her name? Please. Talk about delusions of grandeur. I plastered a smile on my face, though, and said a bright, "Hi Aphrodite!”

"Neferet, would you like me to show Zoey to her room?”

Neferet hesitated, which felt really odd. Instead of answering right away she just stood there and locked eyes with Aphrodite. Then, just as quickly as the silent stare-down had started, Neferet's face broke into a wide smile.

"Thank you, Aphrodite, that would be lovely. I am Zoey's mentor, but I'm sure she would feel much more welcomed if someone her own age showed her the way to her room.”

Was that anger I saw flash through Aphrodite's eyes? No, I must have imagined it?or at least I would have believed I'd imagined it if that weird new gut feeling of mine hadn't told me otherwise. And I didn't need my new intuition to clue me in that something was wrong, because Aphrodite laughed?and I recognized the sound of it.

Feeling like someone had punched me in the gut I realized that this girl?Aphrodite?had been the one I'd just watched with the guy in the hall!

Aphrodite's laugh, followed by her perky, "Of course I'd be happy to show her around! You know I'm always glad to help you, Neferet," was as fake and cold as Pamela Anderson's humongously huge boobs, but Neferet just nodded in response and then turned to face me.

"I'll leave you now, Zoey," Neferet said, squeezing my shoulder. "Aphrodite will take you to your room, and your new roommate can help you get ready for dinner. I'll see you in the dining room.” She smiled her warm, mom-smile at me, and I had the ridiculously childish urge to hug her and beg her not to leave me alone with Aphrodite. "You'll be fine," she said, as if she could read my mind. "You'll see, Zoeybird. All will be well," she whispered, sounding so much like my grandma that I had to blink hard not to cry. Then she nodded a quick good-bye to Aphrodite and the other girls, and left the dorm.

The door closed with a muffled, dead sound. Oh, hell…I just wanted to go home!

"Come on, Zoey. The rooms are this way," Aphrodite said. She motioned for me to come with her up the wide stairs that curved to our right. As we walked upstairs I tried to ignore the buzz of voices that instantly erupted behind us.

Neither of us spoke, and I felt so uncomfortable that I wanted to scream. Had she seen me back there in the hall? Well, I sure as hell wasn't going to mention it. Ever. As far as I was concerned it never happened.

I cleared my throat and said, "The dorm seems nice. I mean, it's really pretty.”

She cut her eyes sideways at me. "It's better than nice or really pretty here; it's amazing.”

"Oh. Well. That's good to hear.”

She laughed. The sound was totally unpleasant?almost a sneer?and it crawled up the back of my neck like it had when I'd first heard it.

"It's amazing here mostly because of me.”

I glanced at her, thinking that she must be kidding, and met her cold blue eyes.

"Yeah, you heard me right. This place is cool because I'm cool.”

Oh. My. God. What a bizarre thing for her to say. I didn't have a clue how to respond to that very stuck-up piece of info. I mean, like I needed the stress of a fight with slutty Ms. Thinking-She's-All-That added on top of a life/species/school change? And I still couldn't tell whether she knew it had been me watching her in the hall.

Okay. I just wanted to find a way to fit in. I wanted to be able to call this new school home. So I decided to take the safest road and keep my mouth shut.

Neither of us said anything more. The stairs led to a large hallway lined with doors. I held my breath when Aphrodite stopped before one that was painted a pretty light purple, but instead of knocking, she turned to face me. Her perfect face suddenly looked hateful and cold and definitely not so pretty.

"Okay, here's the deal, Zoey. You have this weird Mark, so everyone's talking about you and wondering what the fuck is up with you." She rolled her eyes and clutched her pearls dramatically, changing her voice so that she sounded really silly and gushing. "Oooh! The new girl has a colored-in Mark! Whatever could that mean? Is she special? Does she have fabulous powers? Oh my?oh my!" She dropped her hand from her throat and narrowed her eyes at me. Her voice went as flat and mean as her gaze. "Here's what's what. I'm it here. Things go my way. You want to get along here, then you'd best remember that. If you don't, you'll be in for a world of shit.”

Okay, she was starting to piss me off. "Look," I said, "I just got here. I'm not looking for trouble, and I have no control over what people are saying about my Mark.”

Her eyes narrowed. Ah, crap. Was I going to have to actually fight this girl? I'd never been in a fight in my life! My stomach knotted up and I got ready to duck or run or whatever would not get me beat up.

Then, just as quickly as she'd gone all scary and hateful, her face relaxed into a smile and she turned back into sweet little blonde again. (Not that I was fooled.)

"Good. Just so we understand each other.”

Huh? I understood she'd forgotten to take her meds, but that was all I understood.

Aphrodite didn't give me time to say anything. With one last, weirdly warm smile, she knocked on the door.

"Come on in!" called a perky voice with an Okie accent. Aphrodite opened the door.

"Hi y'all! Ohmygosh, come on in.” With a huge grin, my new roomie, also a blonde, rushed up like a little countrified tornado. But the instant she saw Aphrodite, her grin slid from her face and she stopped hurrying toward us.

"I brought your new roommate to you." There was nothing technically wrong with Aphrodite's words, but her tone was hateful and she was putting on a terrible, fake Oklahoma accent. "Stevie Rae Johnson, this is Zoey Redbird. Zoey Redbird, this is Stevie Rae Johnson. There, now ain't we all nice and cozy like three little corns on a cob?”

I glanced at Stevie Rae. She looked like a terrified little rabbit.

"Thanks for showing me up here, Aphrodite.” I talked quickly, moving toward Aphrodite, who automatically stepped back, which put her out in the hall again. "See you around.” I closed the door on her as her look of surprise was just beginning to change to anger. Then I turned to Stevie Rae, who was still pale.

"What's with her?" I asked.

"She's…she's…,”

Even though I didn't know her at all, I could tell that Stevie Rae was struggling with how much she should or shouldn't say. So I decided to help her. I mean, we were going to be roommates. "She's a bitch!" I said.

Stevie Rae's eyes went round, and then she giggled. "She's not very nice, that's for sure.”

"She needs pharmaceutical help, that's for sure," I added, making her laugh some more.

"I think we're gonna get along just fine, Zoey Redbird," she said, still smiling. "Welcome to your new home!" She stepped aside and made a sweeping arm gesture at the little room, like she was ushering me into a palace.

I looked around and blinked. Several times. The first thing I saw was the life-sized Kenny Chesney poster that hung over one of the two beds and the cowboy (cowgirl?) hat that rested on one of the bedside tables?the one that also had the old-fashioned- looking gas lamp with the base shaped like a cowboy boot. Oh, nu uh. Stevie Rae was a total Okie!

Then she shocked me with a big hello hug, reminding me of a cute puppy with her short, curly hair and her smiling round face. "Zoey, I'm so glad you're feelin' better! I was so worried when I heard you'd hurt yourself. I'm really glad you're finally here.”

"Thanks," I said, still staring around what was now my room, too, feeling totally overwhelmed and weirdly on the edge of tears again.

"It's kinda scary, isn't it?" Stevie Rae was watching me with big, serious blue eyes that were filled with sympathetic tears. I nodded, not trusting my voice.

"I know. I cried the whole first night.”

I swallowed back my own tears and asked, "How long have you been here?”

"Three months. And, man, I was glad when they told me I was getting a roommate!”

"You knew I was coming?”

She nodded vigorously. "Oh, yeah! Neferet told me day before yesterday that the Tracker had sensed you and was going to Mark you. I thought you'd be here yesterday, but then I heard that you'd had an accident and been brought to the clinic. What happened?”

I shrugged and said, "I was looking for my grandma and I fell and hit my head." I wasn't getting the weird feeling that told me to keep my mouth shut, but I wasn't sure how much I should say to Stevie Rae yet, and I was relieved when she nodded as though she understood and didn't ask any more questions about the accident?or mention my weird colored-in Mark.

"Your parents freaked when you got Marked?”

"Totally. Didn't yours?”

"Actually, my mama was okay with it. She said anything that got me out of Henrietta was a good thing.”

"Henrietta, Oklahoma?" I asked, glad to move to a subject that was not all about me.

"Sadly, yes.”

Stevie Rae flopped down on the bed in front of the Kenny Chesney poster and motioned for me to sit on the one across the room from her. I did, and then felt a little jolt of surprise when I realized that I was sitting on my cool hot-pink and green Ralph Lauren comforter from home. I looked at the little oak end table and blinked. There was my annoying, ugly alarm clock, nerdy glasses for when I'm sick of wearing my contacts, and the picture of Grandma and me from last summer. And in the bookshelves behind the computer on my side of the room I saw my Gossip Girls and Bubbles series books (along with some of my other favorites, including Bram Stoker's Dracula?which was more than a little ironic), some CDs, my laptop, and?oh my dear sweet lord?my Monsters Inc. figurines. How incredibly embarrassing. My backpack was sitting on the floor next to my bed.

"Your grandma brought your stuff up here. She's really nice," Stevie Rae said.

"She's more than nice. She's brave as hell to have faced my mom and her stupid husband to get this stuff for me. I can only imagine the overly dramatic scene my mom caused." I sighed and then shook my head.

"Yeah, I guess I'm lucky. At least my mama was cool about all of this," Stevie Rae pointed to the outline of the crescent moon on her forehead. "Even if my daddy lost every bit of his mind, me being his only 'baby girl' and all.” She shrugged and then giggled. "My three brothers thought it was awesome and wanted to know if I could help them get vampyre chicks." She rolled her eyes. "Stupid boys.”

"Stupid boys,” I echoed and smiled at her. If she thought boys were stupid she and I would get along fine.

"Mostly now I'm okay with all of this. I mean, the classes are weird but I like them?especially the Tae Kwan Do class. I kinda like to kick butt." She grinned mischievously, like a little blonde elf. "I like the uniforms, which totally shocked me at first. I mean, would anyone expect to like school uniforms? But we can add stuff to them and make them unique, so they don't look like typical stuck-up, boring school uniforms. And there are some seriously hot guys here?even if boys are stupid." Her eyes sparkled. "Mostly I'm just so darn glad to be out of Henrietta that I don't mind all the other stuff, even if Tulsa is kinda scary because it's so big.”

"Tulsa isn't scary," I said automatically. Unlike too many kids from our suburb of Broken Arrow, I actually knew my way around Tulsa, thanks to what Grandma liked to call "field-tripping" with her. "You just have to know where to go. There's a great bead gallery where you can make your own jewelry downtown on Brady Street, and next door to that is Lola's at the Bowery?she has the best desserts in town. Cherry Street is cool, too. We're not far from there now. Actually, we're right by the awesome Philbrook Museum and Utica Square. There's some excellent shopping there and?”

I suddenly realized what I was saying. Did vampyre kids get to mingle with regular kids? I searched my memory. No. I'd never seen kids with crescent moon outlines hanging around the Philbrook or Utica's Gap or Banana Republic or Starbucks. I'd never seen them at the movies. Hell! I'd never even seen a vampyre kid before today. So would they keep us locked up here for four years? Feeling a little short of breath and claustrophobic I asked, "Do we ever get out of here?”

"Yeah, but there are all sorts of rules you have to follow."

"Rules? Like what?”

"Well, you can't wear any part of the school uniform?" She broke off suddenly. "Shoot! That reminds me. We have to hurry. Dinner is in a few minutes and you need to change.” She jumped up and started to rummage through the closet that was on my side of the room, chattering at me from over her shoulder the whole time. "Neferet had some clothes delivered here last night. Don't worry about the sizes not being right. Somehow they always know what size we'll be before they actually see us?it's kinda freaky how the adult vamps know way more than they should. Anyway, don't be scared. I was serious before when I said the uniforms aren't as awful as you'd think they'd be. You really can add your own stuff to them?like me.”

I looked at her. I mean, really looked at her. She was wearing a pair of honest-to-God Roper jeans. You know, the kind those ag-kids wear that are way too tight and have no back pockets. How anyone could think no back pockets and tightness was cute, I'd honestly never understand. Stevie Rae was totally skinny, and the jeans even made her butt look wide. I knew before I looked at the girl's feet what she'd be wearing?cowboy boots. I glanced down and sighed. Yep. Brown leather, flat-heeled, pointy-tipped cowboy boots. Tucked into her countrified jeans was a black, long- sleeved cotton blouse that had the expensive look of something you'd find at Saks or Neiman Marcus, versus the cheaper see- through shirts that overpriced Abercrombie tries to make us believe aren't slutty. When she glanced over at me I saw that she had double-pierced ears with little silver hoops in them. She turned and held out in one hand a black blouse like the one she had on, and a pullover sweater in another, and I decided that even though the country look wasn't for me she was kinda cute with her mixture of hayseed and chic.

"Here ya go! Just throw these on over your jeans and we'll be ready.”

The flickering light from the cowboy-boot lamp caught on a streak of silver embroidery that was on the breast of the sweater she was holding out. I got up and took the two shirts, holding the sweater up so I could see the front of it better. The silver embroidery was in the shape of a spiral that glittered around and around in a delicate circle that would rest over my heart.

"It's our sign," Stevie Rae said.

"Our sign?”

"Yeah, each class?here they call them third formers, fourth formers, fifth formers, and sixth formers?has their own sign. We're third formers, so our sign is the silver labyrinth of the Goddess Nyx.”

"What does it mean?" I asked, more to myself than to her as I traced my finger around the sliver circles.

"It stands for our new beginning as we start walking the Path of Night and learn the ways of the Goddess and the possibilities of our new life.”

I looked up at her, surprised that she suddenly sounded so serious. She grinned a little shyly at me and shrugged her shoulders. "It one of the first things you learn in Vampyre Sociology 101. That's the class Neferet teaches, and it sure beats the heck outta the boring classes I was taking at Henrietta High, home of the fighting hens. Ugh. Fighting hens! What kind of a mascot is that?" She shook her head and rolled her eyes while I laughed. "Anyway, I heard Neferet is your mentor, which is really lucky. She hardly takes on any new kids, and besides being High Priestess, she's way the coolest teacher here.”

What she didn't say was that I'm not just lucky, I'm "special" with my weird colored-in Mark. Which reminded me…

"Stevie Rae, why haven't you asked me about my Mark? I mean, I appreciate you not bombarding me with a hundred questions, but all the way up here everyone who saw me stared at my Mark. Aphrodite mentioned it almost the second we were alone. You haven't even really looked at it. Why?”

Then she did finally look at my forehead before she shrugged and met my eyes again. "You're my roommate. I figured you'd tell me what was up with it when you were ready. One thing growing up in a small town like Henrietta taught me is that it's best to mind your own business if you want someone to stay your friend. Well, we're gonna be rooming together for four years….” She paused and in the gap between words sat the big, ugly unsaid truth that we'd be roommates for four years only if both of us survived the Change. Stevie Rae swallowed hard and finished in a rush, "I guess what I'm trying to say is that I want us to be friends.”

I smiled at her. She looked so young and hopeful?so nice and normal and not at all what I imagined a vampyre kid would be. I felt a little stirring of hope. Maybe I could find a way to fit in here. "I want to be friends, too.”

"Yea for that!" I swear she looked like a wriggly puppy again. "But come on! Hurry?we don't want to be late.”

She gave me a shove toward a door that sat between the two closets before she hurried over to a makeup mirror on her computer desk and started brushing at her short hair. I ducked inside to find a tiny bathroom, and quickly pulled off my BA Tigers T-shirt and put on the cotton blouse and over it the silk knit sweater that was a deep, pretty shade of purple with little black plaid lines going through it. I was just getting ready to go back into the room to grab my backpack so I could try to fix my face and hair with the makeup and stuff I'd brought, when I glanced in the mirror over the sink. My face was still white, but it had lost the scary, unhealthy paleness it had earlier. My hair looked insane, all wild and uncombed, and I could faintly see the slim line of dark stitches just above my left temple. But it was the sapphire-colored Mark that caught my eyes. While I stared at it, entranced by its exotic beauty, the bathroom light caught the silver labyrinth embroidered over my heart. I decided that the two symbols somehow matched, even though they were different shapes…different colors…

But did I match them? And did I match this strange new world?

I squeezed my eyes shut tightly and hoped desperately that whatever we were eating for dinner (oh, please let there not be any blood-drinking involved) wouldn't disagree with my already screwed-up, nervous stomach.

"Oh, no…" I whispered to myself, "it would be just my luck to get a raging case of diarrhea.”

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CHAPTER NINE

 

Okay, the cafeteria was cool?oops, I mean "dining hall," as the silver plaque outside the entrance proclaimed. It was nothing at all like SIHS's freezing cold monstrous cafeteria where the acoustics were so bad that even though I sat right next to Kayla I couldn't hear what she was babbling at me half the time. This room was warm and friendly. The walls were made of the same weird mixture of jutting bricks and black rock as the exterior of the building and the room was filled with heavy wooden picnic tables that had matching benches with padded seats and backs. Each table sat about six kids and radiated out from a large, unoccupied table situated at the center of the room that was practically overflowing with fruit and cheese and meat, and a crystal goblet that was filled with something that looked suspiciously like red wine. (Huh? Wine at school? What?) The ceiling was low and the rear wall was made up of windows with a glass door in the center. Heavy burgundy velvet drapes were pulled open so that I could see outside to a beautiful little courtyard with stone benches, winding paths, and ornamental bushes and flowers. In the middle of the courtyard was a marble fountain with water spouting from the top of something that looked an awful lot like a pineapple. It was very pretty, especially lit up by the moonlight and the occasional antique gaslight.

Most of the tables were already filled with eating, talking kids who glanced up with obvious curiosity when Stevie Rae and I entered the room. I took a deep breath and held my head high. Might as well give them a clear view of the Mark they all seemed so obsessed with. Stevie Rae led me to the side of the room that had the typical cafeteria servers handing out food from behind buffet-style glass thingies.

"What's the table in the middle of the room for?" I asked as we walked.

"It's the symbolic offering to the Goddess Nyx. There's always a place set at that table for her. It seems kinda weird at first, but pretty soon it won't seem so weird and it'll feel right to you.”

Actually, it didn't seem that weird to me. In a way, it made sense. The Goddess was so alive here. Her Mark was everywhere. Her statue stood proudly in front of her Temple. I was also starting to notice all over the school little pictures and figurines that represented her. Her High Priestess was my mentor and, I had to admit to myself, I already felt connected to Nyx. With an effort, I stopped myself from touching the Mark on my forehead. Instead I grabbed a tray and moved behind Stevie Rae in line.

"Don't worry," she whispered to me. "The food's real good. They don't make you drink blood or eat raw meat or anything like that.”

Relieved, I unclenched my jaws. Most of the kids were already eating, so the line was short, and as Stevie Rae and I got up to the food I felt my mouth start to water. Spaghetti! I sniffed deeply: with garlic!

"That whole vampyres can't stand garlic thing is total bullshit?pardon my French," Stevie Rae was saying under her breath to me as we loaded up our plates.

"Okay, what about that whole vampyres have to drink blood thing?" I whispered back.

"Not," she said softly.

"Not?”

"Not bullshit.”

Great. Wonderful. Fantastic. Just exactly what I wanted to hear?not.

Trying not to think about blood and whatnot I got a glass of tea with Stevie Rae, and then followed her to a table where two other kids were already talking animatedly while they ate. Of course the conversation totally stopped when I joined them, which didn't seem to faze Stevie Rae at all. As I slid into the booth opposite her she made introductions in her Okie twang.

"Hey, y'all. Meet my new roommate, Zoey Redbird. Zoey, this is Erin Bates," she pointed to the ridiculously pretty blonde sitting on my side of the table. (Well, hell?how many pretty blondes could one school have? Isn't there some kind of limit?) Still in her matter-of-fact Okie voice, she went on, making little air quotes for emphasis. "Erin is 'the pretty one.' She's also funny and smart and has more shoes than anyone I've ever known.”

Erin pulled her blue eyes away from staring at my Mark long enough to say a quick "Hi.”

"And this is the token guy in our group, Damien Maslin. But he's gay, so I don't really think he counts as a guy.”

Instead of getting pissed at Stevie Rae, Damien looked serene and unruffled. "Actually, since I'm gay I think I should count for two guys instead of just one. I mean, in me you get the male point of view and you don't have to worry about me wanting to touch your boobies.”

He had a smooth face that was totally zit free, and dark brown hair and eyes that reminded me of a baby deer. Actually, he was cute. Not in the overly girly way so many teenage guys are when they decide to come out and tell everyone what everyone already knew (well, everyone except their typically clueless and/or in-denial parents). Damien wasn't a swishy girly-guy; he was just a cute kid with a likable smile. He was also noticeably trying not to stare at my Mark, which I appreciated.

"Well, maybe you're right. I hadn't really thought about it like that," Stevie Rae said through a big bite of garlic bread.

"Just ignore her, Zoey. The rest of us are almost normal," Damien said. "And we're desperately glad you finally got here. Stevie Ray's been driving everyone crazy wondering what you'd be like, when you'd get here?”

"If you'd be one of those freaky kids who smell bad and think being a vampyre means seeing who can be the biggest loser," Erin interrupted.

"Or wondering if you'd be one of them," Damien said, cutting his eyes at a table to our left.

I followed his gaze and felt a zap of nerves when I recognized who he was talking about. "You mean Aphrodite?”

"Yeah," Damien said. "And her stuck-up flock of sycophants.” Huh? I blinked at him.

Stevie Rae sighed. "You'll get used to Damien's vocabulary obsession. Thankfully, this isn't a new word so some of us actually know what he's talking about without having to beg him for a translation. Again. Sycophant?a servile flatterer," she twanged proudly like she was giving an answer in English class.

"Whatever. They make me want to retch," Erin said without looking up from her spaghetti.

"They?" I asked.

"The Dark Daughters," Stevie Rae said, and I noticed she automatically lowered her voice.

"Think of them like a sorority," Damien said.

"Of hags from hell," Erin said.

"Hey, y'all, I don't think we should prejudice Zoey against them. She might get along okay with them.”

"Fuck that. They're hags from hell," Erin said.

"Watch that mouth, Er Bear. You have to eat out of it," Damien said a little primly.

Incredibly relieved that none of them liked Aphrodite, I was just getting ready to ask for more of an explanation when a girl rushed up and, with a big huff, slid herself and her tray into the booth beside Stevie Rae. She was the color of cappuccino (the kind you get from real coffee shops and not the nasty, too-sweet stuff you get from Quick Trip) and all curvy with pouty lips and high cheekbones that made her look like an African princess. She also had some seriously good hair. It was thick and fell in dark, glossy waves around her shoulders. Her eyes were so black they looked like they didn't have any pupils.

"Okay, please! Just please. Did nobody," she stared pointedly at Erin, "think to bother to wake me the hell up and tell me that we were going to dinner?”

"I do believe I'm your roommate, not your mamma," Erin said lazily.

"Do not make me cut that Jessica Simpson look-alike blond hair of yours off in the middle of the night," the African princess said.

"Actually, the consuetudinary way to phrase that would be 'Do not make me cut that Jessica Simpson look-alike blond hair of yours off in the middle of the day.' Technically day is night for us and so night would be day. Time is reversed here.”

The black girl narrowed her eyes at him. "Damien, you are getting on my damn last nerve what that vocab shit.”

"Shaunee," Stevie Rae broke in hastily. "My roommate finally got here. This is Zoey Redbird. Zoey, this is Erin's roommate, Shaunee Cole.”

"Hi," I said through a mouthful of spaghetti when Shaunee turned from glaring at Erin to me.

"So, Zoey, what's up with your Mark being colored in? You're still a fledgling, aren't you?" Everyone at the table was shocked silent by Shaunee's question. She looked around. "What? Do not pretend that every last one of you isn't wondering the same thing.”

"We might be, but we also might be polite enough not to ask," Stevie Rae said firmly.

"Oh, please. Whatever.” She shrugged off Stevie Rae's protest. "This is too important for that. Everyone wants to know about her Mark. There's no time to play games when good gossip is involved." Shaunee turned back to me. "So, what's up with the weird Mark?”

Might as well face this now.I took a quick drink of tea to clear my throat. All four of them were staring at me, waiting impatiently for my answer.

"Well, I'm still a fledgling. I don't think I'm any different than the rest of you." Then I blurted something that I'd been considering while everyone else had been talking. I mean, I knew that I was going to have to answer this question eventually. I'm not stupid? confused, maybe, but not stupid?and my gut told me I needed to say something besides the real story about my out-of-body experience with Nyx. "I don't actually know for sure why my Mark is filled in. It wasn't that way when the Tracker first Marked me. But later that day I had an accident. I fell and hit my head. When I woke up the Mark was like it is now. I've been thinking about it, and all I can come up with is that it must have happened as some kind of reaction to my accident. I was unconscious and I lost a lot of blood. Maybe that did something to speed up the darkening- in process. That's my guess, anyway.”

"Huh," Shaunee huffed. "I was hoping it'd be somethin' more interesting. Something good and gossipy.”

"Sorry…," I muttered.

"Careful, Twin," Erin said to Shaunee, jerking her head at the Dark Daughters. "You're starting to sound like you should sit over at that table.”

Shaunee's face twisted. "I wouldn't be caught undead with those bitches.”

"You're confusing the crap outta Zoey," Stevie Rae said.

Damien gave a long-suffering sigh. "I'll explain, proving once again how valuable I am to this group, penis or no penis.”

"I really wish you wouldn't use the P-word," Stevie Rae said. "Especially when I'm trying to eat.”

"I like it," Erin chimed in. "If everyone called things what they are we'd all be a lot less confused. For instance, you know when I have to go to the bathroom I state the obvious?I have urine that needs to come out of my urethra. Simple. Easy. Clear.”

"Disgusting. Gross. Crude," Stevie Rae said.

"I'm with you, Twin," Shaunee said. "I mean, if we talked plainly about things like urination and menstruation and such, life would be much simpler.”

"Okay. Enough with the menstruation talk while we're eating spaghetti." Damien held up a hand like he could physically stop the conversation. "I may be gay, but there's only so much even I can handle.” He leaned toward me and launched into his explanation. "First, Shaunee and Erin call each other Twin because even though they are clearly not related?Erin being an extremely white girl from Tulsa, and Shaunee being of Jamaican descent and a lovely mocha color from Connecticut?”

"Thank you for appreciating my blackness," Shaunee said.

"Don't mention it," Damien said, and then continued smoothly with his explanation. "Even though they aren't related by blood they are freakishly alike.”

"It's like they were separated at birth or something," Stevie Rae said.

At the same moment Erin and Shaunee grinned at each other and shrugged. It was then that I noticed they were wearing the same outfit?dark jeans jackets with beautiful golden wings embroidered on the breast pockets, black T-shirts, and low-riding black slacks. They even had on the same earrings?huge gold hoops.

"We have the same shoe size," Erin said, sticking out her foot so we could see that she was wearing pointy-toed black leather stiletto boots.

"And what's a little melanin difference when a truly soul-deep love of shoes is involved?" Lifting up her foot Shaunee showed off another great pair of boots?only these were smooth black leather with sharp silver buckles across the ankles.

"Next!" Damien cut in, rolling his eyes. "The Dark Daughters. The short version is that they're a group made up of mostly upperclassmen who say that they are in charge of school spirit and such.”

"No, the short version is that they're hags from hell," Shaunee said.

"That's exactly what I said, Twin," Erin laughed.

"You two aren't helping," Damien told them. "Now, where was I?”

"School spirit and such," I prompted.

"That's right. Yeah, they're supposed to be this great, pro- school, pro-vamp organization. Also, it is assumed that their leader is being groomed to be a High Priestess, so she's supposed to be the heart, mind, and spirit of the school?as well as a future leader in vamp society, et cetera, et cetera, blah, blah. Think National Merit Scholar in charge of the Honor Society mixed with cheerleaders and band fags.”

"Hey, isn't it disrespectful to your gayness to call them band fags?" Stevie Rae asked.

"I'm using the word as a term of endearment," Damien said. "And football players?don't forget there are Dark Sons, too," Erin said.

"Uh-huh, Twin. It is truly a crime and a shame that such seriously hot young lads get sucked in?”

"And she does mean that literally," said Erin with a naughty grin.

"By hags from hell," concluded Shaunee.

"Hello! Like I would forget the boys? I just keep getting interrupted.”

The three girls gave him apologetic smiles. Stevie Rae pantomimed zipping her lips shut and throwing away the key. Erin and Shaunee mouthed "dork" at her, but they stayed quiet so Damien could finish.

I noticed that they'd played with the word "sucked," making me think that the little scene I'd witnessed hadn't been too unusual.

"But what the Dark Daughters really are is a group of stuck-up bitches who get off on lording power over everyone else. They want everyone to follow them, to conform to their freaky ideas of what it means to become a vamp. Most of all, they hate humans, and if you don't feel the same they don't want shit to do with you.”

"Except to give you a hard time," Stevie Rae added. I could tell from her expression that she must have firsthand knowledge about the "hard time" part, and I remembered how pale and scared she'd looked when Aphrodite had shown me to our room. I made a mental note to remember to ask her later about what had happened.

"Don't let them scare you, though," Damien said. "Just watch your back around them and?”

"Hello, Zoey. Nice to see you again so soon.”

I didn't have any trouble recognizing her voice this time. I decided it was like honey?slick and too darn sweet. Everyone at the table jumped, including me. She was wearing a sweater like mine, except that over her heart was embroidered the silver silhouette of three goddess-like women, one of them holding what looked like a pair of scissors. She had on a very short pleated black skirt, black tights that had silver sparkles in them, and knee-high black boots. Two girls were standing behind her, dressed in much the same way. One was black, with impossibly long hair (must be a really good weave), and the other was yet another blonde (who, on closer inspection of her brows, was probably, I decided, as much a natural blonde as I am).

"Hello, Aphrodite," I said when everyone else seemed too shocked to speak.

"Hope I'm not interrupting anything," she said insincerely. "You're not. We were just discussing the trash that needs to be taken out tonight," Erin said with a big, fake smile.

"Well, you would certainly know about that," she said with a sneer, and then purposefully turned her back on Erin, who was curling her fists and looking as if she might leap over the table at Aphrodite. "Zoey, I should have said something to you earlier, but I guess it just slipped my mind. I want to issue an invitation for you to join the Dark Daughters in our own private Full Moon Ritual tomorrow night. I know it's unusual for someone who hasn't been here long to take part in a ritual so soon, but your Mark has clearly shown that you're, well, different than the average fledgling.” She looked down her perfect nose at Stevie Rae. "I've already mentioned it to Neferet, and she agrees that it would be good for you to join us. I'll give you the details later, when you're not so busy with…uh… trash."She gave the rest of the table her tight-lipped, sarcastic smile, flipped her long hair, and she and her entourage flitted off.

"Hag bitches from hell," Shaunee and Erin said together.

 
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CHAPTER TEN

 

"I keep thinking that hubris is eventually going to bring Aphrodite down," Damien said.

"Hubris," Stevie Rae explained, "having godlike arrogance.”

"I actually know that one," I said, still staring after Aphrodite and her mob. "We just finished reading Medea in English class. It's what brought Jason down.”

"I'd love to knock the hubris right out of her bobble head," Erin said.

"I'll hold her for you, Twin," Shaunee said.

"No! Y'all know we've talked about this before. The penalty for fighting is bad. Really bad. It's not worth it.”

I watched Erin and Shaunee pale at the same time and wanted to ask what could be so bad, but Stevie Rae went on talking, this time to me.

"Just be careful, Zoey. The Dark Daughters, and especially Aphrodite, can seem almost okay at times, and that's when they're most dangerous.”

I shook my head. "Oh, nu uh. I'm not going to their full moon thing.”

"I think you have to," Damien said softly.

"Neferet okayed it.” Stevie Rae said as Erin and Shaunee nodded in agreement. "That means she'll expect you to go. You can't tell your mentor no.”

"Especially when your mentor is Neferet, High Priestess of Nyx," Damien said.

"Can't I just say that I'm not ready for…for…whatever it is they want me to do, and ask Neferet if I can be?I dunno, what would you call it?excused from their full moon thingy this time?”

"Well, you could, but then Neferet would tell the Dark Daughters and they'd think that you're scared of them.”

I thought about the major crap that had already passed between Aphrodite and me in such a short time. "Uh, Stevie Rae, I might already be scared of them.”

"Don't ever let them know." Stevie Rae looked down at her plate, trying to hide her embarrassment. "That's worse than standing up to them.”

"Honey," Damien said, patting Stevie Rae's hand, "stop beating yourself up about that.”

Stevie Rae gave Damien a sweet, thank-you smile. Then she said to me, "Just go. Be strong and go. They won't do anything too awful at the ritual. It's here on campus; they wouldn't dare.”

"Yeah, they do all their bad bullshit away from here, where it's harder for the vamps to catch them," Shaunee said. "Around here they pretend to be all sickeningly sweet so no one knows what they're really like.”

"No one except us," Erin said, sweeping out her hand so that she included not just our little group, but everyone else in the room, too.

"I don't know, y'all, maybe Zoey will actually get along with some of them okay," Stevie Rae said without any touch of sarcasm or jealousy.

I shook my head. "Nope. I won't get along with them. I don't like their kind?the kind of people who try to control others and make them look bad just to feel better about themselves. And I don't want to go to their Full Moon Ritual!" I said firmly, thinking about my stepfather and his buddies, and how ironic it was that they seemed to have so much in common with a group of teenagers who called themselves the daughters of a goddess.

"I'd go with you if I could?any of us would?but unless you're one of the Dark Daughters you can only get in if you're invited," Stevie Rae said sadly.

"That's okay. just deal with it." Suddenly I wasn't hungry anymore. I was just very, very tired, and I really wanted to change the subject. "So explain to me about the different symbols you wear here. You told me about ours?Nyx's spiral. Damien has a spiral, too, so that must mean he's a…I paused to remember what Stevie Rae had called freshmen, "a third former. But Erin and Shaunee have wings, and Aphrodite had something else.”

"You mean besides that cob stuck straight up her skinny anus?" Erin muttered.

"She means the three Fates," Damien interjected, beating Shaunee to whatever she was going to add. "The three Fates are children of Nyx. The sixth formers all wear the emblem of the Fates, with Atropos holding scissors to symbolize the end of school.”

"And for some of us, the end of life," Erin added gloomily.

That shut everyone up. When I couldn't stand the uncomfortable silence anymore I cleared my throat and said, "So what about Erin and Shaunee's wings?”

"The wings of Eros, who is the child of Nyx's seed?”

"The love god," Shaunee said, adding a seated gyration of her hips.

Damien frowned at her and kept talking. "The golden wings of Eros are the fourth formers' symbol.”

"'Cause we're the love class," Erin sang, raising her arms over her head and shimmying her hips.

"Actually, it's because we're supposed to be reminded of Nyx's capacity to love, and the wings symbolize our continuous movement forward.”

"What's the symbol for fifth formers?" I asked.

"Nyx's golden chariot pulling a trail of stars," Damien said.

"I think it's the prettiest of the four symbols," Stevie Rae said. "Those stars sparkle like crazy.”

"The chariot shows that we continue on Nyx's journey. The stars represent the magic of the two years that have already passed."

"Damien, you are a good little student," Erin said.

"I told you we should have gotten him to help us study for the human mythology test," Shaunee said.

"I thought I told you we needed his help, and?”

"Anyway," Damien shouted over their bickering, "that's about all there is to the four symbols of the classes. Easy-peasy, really," he looked pointedly at the now silent Twins. "That is, if you pay attention in class instead of writing notes and staring at guys you think are cute.”

"You're really prudey, Damien," Shaunee said.

"Especially for a gay boy.” Erin added.

"Erin, your hair's looking kinda frizzy today. Not to be mean or anything, but maybe you should think about switching products. You can't be too careful about those kinds of things. The next thing you know you'll be getting split ends.”

Erin's blue eyes got huge and her hand went automatically to her hair.

"Oh, no no no. I do not believe you just said that, Damien. You know how crazy she is about her hair." Shaunee started to puff up like a mocha-colored blowfish.

Damien, meanwhile, just smiled and returned to his spaghetti? the perfect picture of innocence.

"Uh, y'all," Stevie Rae said quickly, standing up and pulling me with her by the elbow. "Zoey looks beat. Y'all remember what it was like when you first got here. We're going to go back to our room. I have to study for that vamp sociology test, so I probably won't see you until tomorrow.”

"Okay, see ya," Damien said. "Zoey, it was really nice to meet you.”

"Yeah, welcome to Hell High.” Erin and Shaunee said together before Stevie Rae pulled me out of the room.

"Thanks. I really am tired," I told Stevie Rae as we backtracked through a hall that I was happy to recognize as the one that would lead to the main entrance to the central school building. We paused while a sleek, silver-gray cat chased a smaller, harassed-looking tabby across the hall in front of us.

"Beelzebub! Leave Cammy alone! Damien is going to rip your fur out!”

Stevie Rae made a grab for the gray cat and missed, but he did stop chasing the tabby and instead streaked back down the hall the way we had just come. Stevie Rae was frowning after him.

"Shaunee and Erin need to teach that cat of theirs some manners; he's always up to something.” She glanced at me as we left the building and walked out into the soft, pre-dawn darkness. "That cute little Cameron is Damien's cat. Beelzebub belongs to Erin and Shaunee; he chose both of them?together. Yep. It's as strange as it sounds, but after a little while you'll be like the rest of us and start thinking that they must really be twins.”

"They seem nice, though.”

"Oh, they're great. They bicker a lot, but they're totally loyal and will never let anyone talk about you." She grinned. "Okay, they might talk about you, but that's different, and it won't be behind your back.”

"And I really like Damien.”

"Damien's sweet, and really smart. I just feel bad for him sometimes, though.”

"How come?”

"Well, he had a roommate when he first got here about six months ago, but as soon as the guy found out Damien was gay? hello, it's not like the boy tries to hide it?he complained to Neferet and said he wasn't going to room with a fag.”

I grimaced. I can't stand homophobes. "And Neferet actually put up with that attitude?”

"No, she made it clear that the kid?oh, he changed his name to Thor after he got here"?she shook her head and rolled her eyes?"doesn't that just figure? Anyway, Neferet let it be known that Thor was way out of line, and she gave Damien the option of moving into another room by himself or staying with Thor. Damien chose to move. I mean, wouldn't you?”

I nodded. "Yep. No way would I room with Thor the Homophobe.”

"That's what we all think, too. So Damien has been in a room by himself since then.”

"Aren't there any other gay kids here?”

Stevie Rae shrugged. "There're a few girls who are lesbians and totally out, but even though a couple of them are cool and hang with the rest of us they mostly stick together. They're way into the religious aspect of Goddess worship and spend most of their time in Nyx's Temple. And, of course, there are the moronic party girls who think it's cool to make out with each other, but usually only if some cute guys are watching.”

I shook my head. "You know, I've never understood why girls think making out with each other is the way to catch a boyfriend. You'd think it would be counterproductive.”

"Like I want a boyfriend who only thinks I'm hot when I'm kissing some girl? Blech.”

"What about gay guys?”

Stevie sighed. "There are a few besides Damien, but they're mostly too weird and girly for him. I feel bad for him. I think he gets pretty lonely. His parents don't write or anything.”

"The whole vampyre thing freaked them out?”

"No, they didn't really care about that. Actually, don't say anything to Damien because it hurts his feelings, but I think they were relieved when he was Marked. They didn't know what to do with a son who is gay.”

"Why did they have to do anything? He's still their son. He just likes guys.”

"Well, they live in Dallas, and his dad is big into the People of Faith. I think he's some kind of minister or something?”

I held up my hand. "Stop. You don't have to say another word. I totally get it.” And I did. I was way too acquainted with the narrow- minded, "our way is the only right way" ideas of the People of Faith. Even thinking about it made me feel exhausted and depressed.

Stevie Rae opened the door to the dorm. The living-room area was empty except for a few girls who were watching That '7os Show reruns. Stevie Rae waved absently at them.

"Hey, do you want a pop or something to take upstairs with us?"
I nodded and followed her through the living room and into a
smaller room off to the side that had four refrigerators, a big sink,
two microwaves, lots of cabinets, and a pretty white wooden
table that sat in the middle of it?just like a regular kitchen, only
this one was weirdly refrigerator-friendly. Everything was neat and clean. Stevie Rae opened one of the fridges. I peeked over her shoulder to see that it was filled with all kinds of drinks? everything from pop to lots of juices and that fizzy water that tastes nasty.

"What do you want?”

"Any brown pop is fine.” I said.

"This stuff is for all of us," she said as she handed me two Diet Cokes and grabbed two Frescas for herself. "There're fruit and veggies and stuff like that in those two fridges, and lean meat for sandwiches in the other one. They're kept full all the time, but the vamps are pretty obsessed with us eating healthy, so you won't find bags of chips or Twinkies or stuff like that.”

"No chocolate?”

"Yeah, there's some really expensive chocolate in the cabinets. The vamps say chocolate in moderation is good for us.”

Okay, so who the hell wants to eat chocolate in moderation?I kept the thought to myself as we walked back through the living room and headed upstairs to our room.

"So the, uh, vamps"?I kinda stumbled over the word?"are big on healthy eating?”

"Well, yeah, but I think basically just fledglings eating healthy. I mean, you don't see fat vamps, but you also don't see them chewing on celery and carrots and picking at salads. Mostly they eat together in their own dining room, and rumor has it that they eat well.” She glanced at me and lowered her voice. "I heard that they eat a lot of red meat. A lot of rare red meat.”

"Eeesh," I said, not liking the bizarre visual image I suddenly got of Neferet gnawing on a bloody steak.

Stevie Rae shivered, and went on: "Sometimes someone's mentor will sit with a fledgling at dinner, but they usually have just a glass or two of wine and don't eat with us.”

Stevie Rae opened the door and with a sigh I sat on my bed and pulled off my shoes. God, I was tired. Rubbing my feet I wondered about why the adult vamps didn't eat with us, and then I decided I didn't really want to think about that long. I mean, it brought to mind too many questions like what are they really eating? And what will I have to eat when/if I become an adult vamp? Ugh.

And, part of my brain whispered that it also made me remember my reaction to Heath's blood yesterday. Had that been only yesterday? And also my more recent response to the blood of that guy in the hall. No. I definitely didn't want to think about either of them?at all. So I quickly refocused on the healthy-diet issue.

"Okay, they don't particularly care about eating healthy, so what's the big obsession with us eating healthy?" I asked Stevie Rae.

She met my eyes, looking worried and more than a little scared.

"They want us to eat healthy for the same reason they make us exercise every day?so that our bodies are as strong as possible, because if you start getting weak or fat or sick, that's the first sign that your body is rejecting the Change.”

"And then you die," I said quietly.

"And then you die," she agreed.

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