Unlike when Stevie Rae had been dying, I didn't have even an instant of numbness or hesitation.
"No!" I screamed, running over to Erik and falling to my knees beside him. He was on his hands and knees, groaning in pain, with his head almost touching the floor. I couldn't see his face, but I could see that sweat-or maybe even blood, though I didn't smell it yet-was already soaking his shirt. I knew what would follow: Blood would gush from his eyes, nose, mouth, and he would literally drown in his own fluids. And, yes, it would be as horrible as it sounded. Nothing could stop it. Nothing could change it. All I could do was be there for him and hope that somehow he became like Stevie Rae and managed to retain some kind of hold on his humanity. I put my hand on his trembling shoulder. Heat radiated through his shirt, as if his body was burning from the inside. I looked around frantically for help. As always, Damien was there when I needed him. "Get towels and Neferet," I said. Damien took off with Jack on his heels.
I turned back to Erik, but before I could pull him into my arms Aphrodite's voice cut through the noise of his moans and the sounds of the frightened, watching crowd of kids.
"Zoey, he's not dying." I looked up at her, not really getting what she was saying. She grabbed my arm and pulled me away from Erik. I started to struggle, but her next words got through to me and made me freeze.
"Listen to me! He's not dying. He's Changing."
Suddenly Erik screamed, his body curling in on itself as if something inside his chest was trying to claw its way free. His hands were pressed against his face. He was still trembling violently. Clearly, he was in pain and something big was happening to him. But there was absolutely no blood. Aphrodite was right. Erik was Changing into an adult vampyre.
Jack rushed up to me and thrust several towels into my hands. I looked up at him. The kid was bawling so hard he was snotting on himself. I stood up and hugged him.
"He's not dying. He's Changing." My voice sounded weird-hoarse and strained-as I repeated Aphrodite's words.
Then Neferet burst into the room with Damien and several of the warriors following close behind her. She ran over to Erik. I watched her face closely, and felt a dizzying rush of relief as her tense, worried expression changed instantly to one of joy. Neferet dropped gracefully to the floor beside him. Murmuring something so softly that I couldn't catch the words, she gently touched his shoulder. His body jerked violently once, and then he began to relax. His awful trembling stopped, and so did his scary, painful moaning. Slowly Erik's body unwrapped from around itself and he pulled himself to his hands and knees. His head was still bent down oward the floor, so I couldn't see his face.
Neferet whispered something else to him and he nodded in response. Then she stood and turned to us. Her smile was amazing, completely filled with joy and almost blindingly beautiful. "Rejoice fledglings! Erik Night has completed the Change. Arise, Erik, and follow me for your purification ritual and the beginning of your new life!"
Erik stood up and raised his head. I gasped along with everyone else. His face was luminous. It seemed someone had turned a switch on inside him. He'd been handsome before, but now everything was intensified. His eyes were bluer, his thick hair was wild and black and dangerous, he even appeared taller. And his Mark had been completed. The sapphire crescent was filled in. And framing his eyes, along his brows and over his well-defined cheekbones, was a stunning pattern of interlocking knots that formed the shape of a mask, reminding me instantly of Professor Nolan's beautiful Mark. I felt dizzy with the Tightness of it. Erik's gaze touched mine for a moment. His full lips tilted up and he smiled a special smile just for me. I thought my heart would burst. Then he raised his arms over his head and cried out in a voice filled with power and pure joy, "I've Changed!"
All the kids started to cheer, though no one except Neferet and the vamps actually approached him. Then he left the rec hall with them on a tide of excitement and noise.
I just stood there. I felt numb and shocked and more than a little sick.
"They'll take him to be anointed into the service of the Goddess," Aphrodite said. She was still standing beside me and her voice sounded as bleak as I suddenly felt. "Fledglings don't know exactly what happens during the anointing. It's a big vamp secret, and they're not allowed to tell." She shrugged. "Whatever. Guess we'll find out some day."
"Or we die," I said through numb lips.
"Or we die," she agreed. Then she looked at me. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah. Fine," I said automatically.
"Hey, Z! Was that cool or what?" Jack said.
"Man, it was incredible. I'm still reeling!" Damien fanned himself and his large vocabulary.
"Oh, baby! Now Erik Night joins the other vamp hotties like Brandon Routh, Josh Hartnett, and Jake Gyllenhaal."
"And Loren Blake, Twin. Do not leave his hottiness out," Erin said.
"Wouldn't think of it, Twin," Shaunee said.
"It is totally cool that Z's boyfriend is a vamp. I mean a real one," Jack said. Damien took a breath to say something and then shut his mouth and looked uncomfortable.
"What?" I said.
"Well, it's just that... uh ... well..." He hesitated.
"God, what it is? Just spit it out!" I snapped.
He flinched at my tone, making me feel like a jerk, but answered me. "Well, I don't know much about it, but once a fledgling goes through the Change he leaves the House of Night and starts his life as a full-grown vampyre."
"Zoey's boyfriend is gonna leave?" Jack said.
"Long-distance relationship, Z," Erin said quickly.
"Yeah, you two will work it out. Easy-peasy," Shaunee said. I looked from the Twins to Damien and Jack, and finally at Aphrodite.
"Sucks," she said. "At least for you." Aphrodite raised her brows and shrugged. "Makes me glad he dumped me." Then she tossed back her hair and headed toward the food that was set out in the other room.
"If we can't call her a hag from hell, can we call her a bitch?" Shaunee asked.
"Hateful bitch would be my choice, Twin," Erin said.
"Well, she's wrong," Damien said stubbornly. "Erik's still your boyfriend, even if he's off doing vamp stuff." They were all staring at me, so I tried to smile at them. "Yeah, I know. It's okay. It's just-just a lot to take in, that's all. Let's get something to eat." Before they could do any more comforting, I strode off toward the food with them trailing after me like baby ducks.
It seemed like it took forever for the Dark Daughters and Sons to eat and then clear out, but when I looked at the clock I realized that they had actually eaten quickly and were leaving early. There had been a lot of excited talk about Erik, and I'd nodded and made noises in semi-appropriate response, trying to hide how numb and wrong I felt. I suppose everyone taking off early was proof of what a crappy job I did of it. Finally I realized the only kids left were Jack and Damien and the Twins. They were quietly throwing away the leftovers and bagging up the trash.
"Uh, guys, I'll get that," I said.
"We're just about done, Z," Damien said. "Really all that's left is to put away the stuff on Nyx's table in the middle of the circle."
"I'll do that," I said, trying (unsuccessfully by the looks on their faces) to be nonchalant.
"Z, is everything-"
I held up my hand to cut off Damien. "I'm tired. I'm kinda freaked about Erik. And, honestly, I need some alone time." I hadn't wanted to sound so totally bitchy, but I was getting beyond the point where I could keep the happy look plastered on my face and continue pretending that I wasn't shaking all over inside. And I absolutely would rather have my friends think I was PMS-ing than that I was ready to totally fall apart. High Priestesses in training didn't fall apart. They handled things. I really really really didn't want them to know that I was so not handling things. "Guys, could you just give me awhile. Please?"
"No problem," the Twins said together. "Later, Z."
"All right. I'll, uh, see you later, too," Damien said.
"Bye, Z," Jack said.
I waited till the door closed behind them before I walked slowly into the side room that was used as a dance studio and yoga room. It had a bunch of soft mats stacked in the corner and I sank down on them. My hands were shaking when I pulled my cell phone out of the pocket of my dress. Are U ok?
I keyed in the short text message and then sent it to the disposable cell phone I'd bought Stevie Rae. If felt like an eternity before she answered.
Hang on I replied.
Hurry she texted back.
I closed my phone, leaned against the wall, and, feeling like the entire world was pressing down on my shoulders, I burst into sobbing, snotty tears.
I cried and shook and shook and cried while I hugged my legs hard to my chest and rocked back and forth. I knew what was wrong with me. It surprised me that no one else, not one of my friends, had figured it out. I'd thought Erik was dying, and it had brought back the night Stevie Rae had died in my arms. It was as if it was happening all over again-the blood, the sadness, the horror. It had completely blindsided me. I mean, I'd thought I was over what had happened to Stevie Rae. After all, she wasn't really dead. I'd just been fooling myself.
I'd been bawling so hard that I didn't know he was there until he touched my shoulder. I looked up, wiping tears from my eyes, trying to think of something reassuring to say to whatever friend had come back for me.
"I could feel that you needed me," Loren said.
With a sob I hurled myself into his arms. He sat beside me, pulling me onto his lap. Holding me tight, he murmured sweet words, telling me that everything would be okay now and that he'd never let me go. When I finally got myself under control and hiccupped instead of sobbed, Loren handed me one of his old-time linen hankies.
"Thanks," I muttered as I blew my nose and wiped my face. I tried not to look at myself in the wall of mirrors across from us, but I couldn't avoid catching a glimpse of my puffy eyes and red nose. "Oh, great. I look like utter crap."
Loren chuckled and shifted me on his lap so that I was facing him. He gently smoothed back my hair. "You look like a goddess who has been saddened by stress and hardship." I felt a little hysterical laughter bubble up from somewhere inside my chest. "I don't think goddesses snot on themselves."
He smiled. "Oh, I wouldn't be too sure about that." Then his expression sobered. "When Erik Changed you thought he was dying, didn't you?"
I nodded, scared that if I said anything I'd start bawling again.
Loren's jaw clenched and unclenched. "I've told Aphrodite over and over that all fledglings, and not just fifth and sixth formers, should be aware of how the Change manifests in the final stage so that they're not frightened if they witness it."
"Does it hurt as bad as it looks like it does?"
"It is painful, but it's a good pain-if that makes sense. Think of it like sore muscles after you've worked out. They hurt, but it's not a bad hurt."
"Looked like a lot more than sore muscles," I said.
"It's not that bad-more shocking than painful actually. Sensations rush into your body and everything becomes hypersensitive." His hand caressed the side of my face as his finger lightly followed the line of my Mark.
"You'll experience it yourself some day."
"I hope so."
Neither of us said anything for a moment, although he continued to caresses my face and trace the Mark that decorated the side of my neck. His touch was making my body relax and tingle at the same time.
"But something else is upsetting you, isn't it?" Loren spoke gently. His voice was deep and musical and hypnotically beautiful. "It's more than just Erik's Change bringing back the memory of your friend's death." When I didn't say anything, he leaned forward and kissed me on my forehead, touching his lips softly to the crescent-moon tattoo. I shivered.
"You can talk to me, Zoey. There's already so much between us that you must know you can trust me."
His lips brushed over mine. It would be really nice to tell Loren about Stevie Rae. He could help me, and god knows I needed his help. Especially now that I'd kinda decided that Stevie Rae might be healed by my asking Nyx, which, of course, meant that there was going to be a circle casting involved, and that meant either getting Damien, the Twins, Aphrodite, and me to Stevie Rae or getting Stevie Rae to us. Neferet's protective spell would not be helping that, but maybe Loren knew some adult vampyre secret way around it. I tried to listen to my gut-tried to decide whether if my instinct was still screaming at me to keep my mouth shut-but all I could feel were Loren's hands and lips.
"Talk to me," he whispered against my mouth.
"I-I want to ..." I whispered back breathlessly. "It's just so complicated."
"Let me help you, love. Together there's nothing we can't work though." He kisses got longer, hotter. I wanted to tell him, but my head was spinning and it was hard for me to think, let alone talk.
"I'll show you how much we can share ... how completely we can be together," he said. Loren took the hand he was fisting in my hair and pulled at his shirt so that the buttons popped, exposing his chest. Then he drew his thumbnail slowly over his left breast, leaving behind a line of perfect scarlet. The scent of his blood wrapped around me.
"Drink," he said.
I couldn't stop myself. I lowered my face to his chest and tasted him. His blood surged through me. It was different than Heath's-not as hot, not as rich. But it was more powerful. It pounded through me, along with a desire that was red and urgent. I moved against his body, wanting more and more.
"Now it's my turn. I have to taste you!" Loren said.
Before I realized what he was doing he'd wrenched off my dress. I didn't have a chance to freak about the fact that he was seeing me in nothing but my bra and panties because he took his thumb and this time sliced it across my breast. I gasped at the sharp pain, and then his lips were on me and he was drinking my blood and the pain was replaced by waves of amazing pleasure so intense that all I could do was moan. Loren tore at his clothes while he drank me, and I helped him. All I knew what that I had to have him. Everything was all heat and sensation and desire. His hands and mouth were everywhere and still I couldn't get enough of him. Then it happened. His heartbeat was under my skin and I could feel my pulse pounding in time with his. I could feel his passion along with mine and hear his desire roaring inside my head. And then, somewhere in the back of my jumbled mind I heard Heath screaming, "Zoey! No!" My body jerked in Loren's arms. "Ssh," he whispered. "It's okay. It's better this way, love, much better. Being Imprinted with a human is too difficult-it has too many ramifications." My breath was coming fast and hard. "Is it broken? Has my Imprint with Heath been broken?"
"It has. Our Imprint has replaced it." He rolled so that I was under his body. "Now let's finish it. Let me make love to you, baby."
"Yes," I whispered. My lips found Loren's chest again, and as I drank from him, Loren made love to me until our world exploded in blood and passion.