"You have to let me go, now." Stevie Rae's voice was rough and strained and sounded totally unlike her. So it had the desired effect. Damien and the Twins instantly stopped hugging her.
"You do smell funny," Shaunee said, trying to smile through her tears.
"Yeah, not to be mean or anything," Erin said.
"But we don't care," Damien added.
"Hey, nerd herd members who are still alive," Aphrodite called from where she'd retreated to under the big oak tree. "I suggest you step away from the undead dead kid. She bites."
"You bite!" Shaunee snapped.
"Bitch!" Erin said.
"She's telling you the truth," Stevie Rae said. Then she looked from Damien and the Twins to me. "Explain it to them."
"Stevie Rae has an issue with blood. She has to have it. Or she gets kinda cranky." Under the tree Aphrodite snorted.
"Tell them the truth," Stevie Rae said.
I sighed in resignation and gave them the short version. "She's just one of a bunch of fledglings who died and then came back like this. They're what killed those Union football players last month. And they almost killed Heath. Getting Heath away from them was how I found out about Stevie Rae. Only she is different than they are. She still has a hold on her humanity."
"But it's slipping," Aphrodite chimed in.
I frowned at her. "Yeah, you could say that. So what we need to do is to heal Stevie Rae so she can be like she used to be."
The Twins and Damien were quiet for what seemed like a long time. And then Damien said, "You've known about this for a month and you haven't said anything to any of us?"
"You let us think that Stevie Rae was dead," Shaunee said.
"You acted like you thought she was dead, too," Erin said.
"Morons! She couldn't tell you. You have no idea what kind of forces are at work here," Aphrodite said.
"You sound like a bad Sci-Fi Channel movie," Shaunee said.
"Yeah, we're not buying, bitch," Erin said.
"You've known about this for a month and you haven't said anything to any of us." This time Damien didn't phrase it like a question.
"Aphrodite is right," I said. "I couldn't tell you about her. There were extenuating circumstances." There still were. It was better for them not to know Neferet was behind the whole thing, even if it made them hate me.
"I don't care what Aphrodite said. We're your friends. Your best friends. You should have told us," Damien said.
"Extenuating circumstances?" Erin said. "Seems Aphrodite is suddenly a part of those circumstances."
"Were there extenuating circumstances when you kept Loren a secret?" Shaunee said. Her voice was guarded. Her dark eyes narrowed at me warily.
I didn't know what to say. I could feel them slipping away from me, and the worst part of the whole thing was that I knew I deserved them to all turn their backs on me.
"How are we supposed to trust you if you keep things from us?" As usual, Damien summed up everyone's feelings in one simple sentence.
"I knew this was a bad idea," Stevie Rae said. "I'm outta here."
"What? You got people to eat-places to terrorize?" Aphrodite said. Stevie Rae spun around and snarled at her. "Maybe I should start with you, hag."
"Jeesh, relax. It was just a question." Aphrodite tried to sound nonchalant, but I could see the fear in her eyes. I grabbed Stevie Rae's hand again and held tight when she tried to pull away. Ignoring her, I looked from Damien to the Twins. "Are you going to help me heal her or not?" After only a little hesitation Damien said, "I'll help you, but I don't trust you anymore."
"Ditto," said the Twins together.
My stomach had rolled back into a sick, tight little ball and I wanted to plop down right there in the grass and cry and beg them, Don't stop being my friends-don't stop trusting me! But I didn't. I couldn't. After all, they were right. Instead I nodded and said, "Okay, let's cast a circle and get her healed."
"We don't have any candles," Damien said.
"I can run and get some," Jack said. He didn't even look at me, but spoke directly to Damien.
"No. We don't have time for that," I said. "We don't need candles. We have the ability to manifest the elements. Candles are just ceremonial." I paused and added, "But I think you should probably go, Jack. I'm not sure what all's going to happen and I don't want to take a chance you might get hurt."
"O-okay," he stuttered. He put his hands in his pockets and walked slowly away.
"Looks like tonight we do away with ceremony," Damien said, giving me a hard look.
"Yeah, tonight we do away with a lot of things." Shaunee was watching me, but it felt like her eyes were those of a stranger. Erin nodded in silent but complete agreement with her. I clamped my jaws shut to keep from screaming my pain and sorrow and fear. My friends were all I had. If I lost them, how would I survive? How would I stand against Neferet? How would I face Loren? How would I deal with the loss of Heath and Erik?
And then I remembered something I'd read in one of the old, musty books I'd been poring through when I was trying to find a magic bullet to help me heal Stevie Rae. A quote from one of the ancient vampyre Amazon High Priestesses had been written under her fierce, beautiful picture. She'd said, Being Chosen of our Goddess is as much pain as it is privilege. I was beginning to understand what that ancient priestess of Nyx had meant.
"Are we going to do this or not?" Aphrodite called from under the tree. I pulled myself together. "Yes, we are. North is that way." I pointed to Aphrodite's tree. "Take your places." Still holding on to Stevie Rae's wrist, I walked to the center of the circle that was taking shape around me.
"If you don't let go of me, I can't go to the position of earth," Stevie Rae said. I stared into her red eyes, trying to see some trace of my best friend, but only another cold-eyed stranger looked out at me.
"You're not going to be earth. You're going to stay in the center with me," I said.
"Then who's gonna complete the circle? Jack's gone, and anyway he's not exactly-" She broke off as her eyes went to the top position of the circle and she saw Aphrodite standing there. "No!" Stevie Rae hissed. "Not her!"
"Oh, stop it!" I shouted, causing the elements to stir the air around me in response to my anger and frustration.
"Aphrodite's standing in as earth. I'm sorry you don't like it. I'm sorry you don't like her. I'm sorry about a whole hell of a lot that I can't seem to do anything about. You're just going to have to deal with it, just like I'm dealing with it. Now stand here and be quiet and let's see if I can make this thing work." I knew everyone was staring at me. The Twins and Damien with the accusatory eyes of strangers, Stevie Rae with anger and what I knew was real hatred, whether it was just directed at Aphrodite, or at Aphrodite and me I wasn't sure. I took a quick glance at Aphrodite. She was standing in the northern position and watching Stevie Rae with wary eyes.
Great. Like this atmosphere was good for goddess worship?
I closed my eyes and took several deep, long breaths to center myself. Nyx, I know I've messed up, but please be with me and my friends. Healing Stevie Rae is more important than the drama going on between us. Neferet wanted me separated from everyone so that I'd also separate myself from you. But I'm not going to stop depending on you... believing in you ... ever.
Then I opened my eyes and walked resolutely to Damien. He usually greeted me with a cute smile. Tonight he met my eyes steadily, but there was nothing sweet or friendly about him.
"As High Priestess in training for our Great Goddess Nyx, I use her power and authority to call to my circle the first element, wind!" I spoke with a strong, clear voice, raising my arms over my head when I said the element's name, and was unimaginably relieved when a powerful gust of air whirled around Damien and me, lifting our hair and making our clothes flap. I turned to my right and walked to Shaunee. I didn't expect her to welcome me, and she didn't. She watched me silently with her dark, guarded eyes. I pushed back the despair her rejection made me feel and evoked fire.
"As High Priestess in training for our Great Goddess Nyx, I use her power and authority to call to my circle the second element, fire!"
I barely paused to feel the rush of heat that beat against my skin, but moved quickly to Erin, who as also silent and withdrawn.
"As High Priestess in training for our Great Goddess Nyx, I use her power and authority to call to my circle the third element, water!"
I turned my back on scents of the sea and walked over to Aphrodite. She met my gaze steadily and smiled grimly at me.
"It sucks to have your friends pissed at you, doesn't it?" She said it quietly, so that only I could hear her.
"Yeah," I whispered back. "And I'm sorry I had something to do with your friends getting pissed at you."
"Nah," she shook her head. "It wasn't you. It was my stupid shitty choices. Just like it's your stupid shitty choices that got you into this mess."
"Thanks for reminding me," I said.
"I'm just here to help," Aphrodite said. "Better hurry this thing along. Scary Stevie Rae is losing it." I didn't have to look over my shoulder at Stevie Rae to know Aphrodite was right. I could feel Stevie Rae's restlessness increase. It was like she was a tightly wound rubber band that was getting ready to either break or zing out of control.
"As High Priestess in training for our Great Goddess Nyx, I use her power and authority to call to my circle the fourth element, earth!"
The clean, sweet scents of a spring meadow swirled around Aphrodite and me. I was still smiling when I turned to move back to the center of the circle and complete the casting by calling spirit when Stevie Rae broke.
"No!" The word was an almost unrecognizable snarl of rage and despair. "She can't be earth! I'm earth! It's all that's left of me! I won't let her take it away!"
With blinding swiftness, Stevie Rae hurled herself on Aphrodite.
"No! Stevie Rae, stop it!" I cried, trying to pull Stevie Rae off her, but it was like trying to move a marble column. She was too strong. Aphrodite had been right. Stevie Rae wasn't human or fledgling or vampyre. She was something more-and that more meant more dangerous. She was holding Aphrodite in an ugly parody of an embrace. I saw the sharp glint of her fangs and then Aphrodite screamed as Stevie Rae buried her teeth into her neck.
"Help me get her off!" I yelled, looking desperately at Damien and the Twins as I kept trying to pull Stevie Rae from Aphrodite.
"I can't!" Damien cried. "I can't move."
"We can't either!" Shaunee said.
The three of them had been rooted into place by their elements. Damien was being pressed to the ground by a furious wind. Shaunee was surrounded by a cage of fire. Erin was suddenly encased in a pool of bottomless water.
"You have to finish the circle!" Damien yelled above the wind. "Call all of the elements to help you. That's the only way you can save her."
I ran to the center of the circle. Raising my arms over my head I completed the casting. "As High Priestess in training for our Great Goddess Nyx, I use her power and authority to call to my circle the fifth and final element, spirit!"
Power surged through me. I gritted my teeth and tried to control the trembling within my body. Aphrodite's screams were getting weaker and weaker, but I couldn't think about that. I closed my eyes so that I could concentrate. Then I spoke the goddess-given words that drifted through my mind, like the sweet, sure answer to a child's prayer. My voice was magnified magically. I felt the words materialize, sparkling, in the air around me.
"Wind blow away that which is tainted
Fire burn through the blackness of hatred
Water wash clean evil intentions unsated
Earth nourish her soul with darkness abated
Spirited fill her so that from death she is emancipated!"
Like I was throwing a ball, I hurled at Stevie Rae the sizzling elemental power that I felt between my hands. At that moment I felt a searingly familiar pain ripple from the base of my spine all the way around my waist. My scream echoed Stevie Rae's.
I opened my eyes to a bizarre sight. Aphrodite had fallen to the ground during Stevie Rae's attack. Stevie Rae's back was to me, so I could only see Aphrodite's face. At first I didn't understand what was happening. They were surrounded by a swirling, glowing ball of power made up of all five of the elements. The two girls kept fading in and out of focus as the power rolled and thickened around them. But I could see that Stevie Rae was no longer holding on to Aphrodite. Now it was Aphrodite who was clutching Stevie Rae and forcing her to keep drinking from the wound on her neck. Stevie Rae was still drinking her blood, but she was struggling to stop-trying to pull away.
I rushed forward to try to separate them again, but when I hit the bubble of power it was like walking into a glass door. I couldn't get through it, and I had no idea how to open it.
"Aphrodite! Let her go! She's trying to stop before she kills you!" I cried. Aphrodite's eyes met mine. Her lips didn't move, but I heard her voice clearly inside my head. No. This is how I make up for everything I caused. This time it's me who was Chosen. Remember, I made this sacrifice freely. Then Aphrodite's eyes rolled back in her head and her body went limp as the breath slipped from between her smiling lips in a long sigh. With a terrible cry, Stevie Rae finally pulled away, collapsing on the ground beside Aphrodite's body. The bubble of power broke and then faded into nothingness. I knew the circle had been broken, too. I could feel the absence of the elements. I didn't know what to do. I didn't seem to be able to move.
Then Stevie Rae looked up at me. She was crying pink-tinged tears and her eyes were still a strange, reddish color. But her face was her own again. Even before she spoke I knew that whatever Neferet had broken in her when she'd caused her to become the walking, talking dead, had been healed.
"I killed her! I-I tried to stop! She wouldn't let me go, and I couldn't pull away! Oh, Zoey, I'm so sorry!" she sobbed.
I stumbled to her, Loren's words ringing in my head, You should keep in mind that you're invoking powerful magic, and there's always a cost associated with that. "It wasn't your fault, Stevie Rae." I told her. "You didn't-"
"Her face!" Damien's voice came from just behind me. "Look at her Mark." I blinked, not really understanding, and then I gasped. I'd been so busy looking into her eyes, so busy seeing the old Stevie Rae, that I hadn't noticed the obvious. The crescent moon that rested in the middle of her forehead had been filled in. A beautiful pattern of tattoos made of swirling flowers with long, graceful stems all twined together framed her eyes and stretched down her cheekbones. But the tattoos weren't vampyre sapphire. They were the brilliant scarlet of new blood.
"What are y'all lookin' at?" Stevie Rae said.
"H-here," Erin fumbled with her ever-present purse and pulled out a makeup mirror, handing it to Stevie Rae.
"Ohmygoodness!" Stevie Rae drawled. "What does it mean?"
"It means you're healed. You've Changed. But what you've Changed into is a new kind of vampyre," Aphrodite said, struggling to sit up.