"Holy shit!" Shaunee squeaked and stumbled back, clutching onto Erin's arm to keep from falling over.
"You were dead!" Erin said.
"I don't think I was," Aphrodite said, rubbing her forehead with one hand and gingerly touching the bite mark on her neck with the other. "Ouch! Dammit, I hurt all over."
"I'm really really sorry, Aphrodite," Stevie Rae said. "I mean, I don't like you, but I sure wouldn't bite you. Or at least not now I wouldn't."
"Yeah, yeah, whatever," Aphrodite said. "Don't worry about it. It was all part of Nyx's plan, as painful and inconvenient as that might be." She winced again at the pain in her neck. "God, does anyone have a Band-Aid?"
"I have some tissue in here somewhere. Hang on and I'll see if I can find it," Erin said, digging through her purse again.
"Try to find a clean one for her, Twin. Aphrodite has enough stress to deal with without a nasty infection."
"Gee, that's so damn nice of you two," Aphrodite said. She glanced up at the Twins with a half smile on her face, and I got my first good look at her.
My stomach dropped down somewhere around my ankles.
"It's gone!" I gasped.
"Oh shit! Zoey's right," Damien said, staring at Aphrodite.
"What?" Aphrodite said. "What's gone?"
"Ah-oh," Shaunee said.
"Yep, it is gone," Erin said as she handed Aphrodite some tissue.
"What in the hell are you guys babbling about now?" Aphrodite said.
"Here. Use this." Stevie Rae passed the mirror to her. "Look at your face." Aphrodite sighed, clearly irritated. "Okay, I know I look like complete shit. Hello! Stevie Rae just bit me. Here's a news flash: Not even I can look perfect all the time, especially when-" As soon as she focused on the mirror and got a look at the reflection of her face, Aphrodite's words ended like someone had pushed her stop talking button. With a trembling hand she reached up to touch the spot in the middle of her forehead where Nyx's Mark had been. "It's gone." Her voice was a hoarse whisper. "How can it be gone?"
"I've never, ever heard of anything like this happening. Not in any book-not anywhere," Damien said. "Once you're Marked you can't just get un-Marked."
"It's how Stevie Rae was healed." Aphrodite sounded dazed, and she kept touching the empty spot in the middle of her forehead. "Nyx took it from me and gave it to Stevie Rae." A horrible shudder passed through Aphrodite's body. "And now I'm nothing but a human again." She scrambled to her feet, dropping the mirror.
"I have to leave. I don't belong here anymore." She started backing woodenly toward the open trapdoor, eyes wide and glassy.
"Wait, Aphrodite," I said, starting after her. "Maybe you're not human again. Maybe this is something weird that will go away in a day or two, and your Mark will come back."
"No! My Mark is gone. I know it. Just-just leave me alone!" She ran through the door sobbing. The instant Aphrodite passed through the perimeter of the school wall the air rippled and there was a distinctive cracking noise like something big had been dropped and broken. Stevie Rae grabbed my arm. "You stay here. I'll go after her."
"No, I'm okay now." Stevie Rae smiled her sweet, full-of-life smile at me. "You fixed me, Z. Don't worry. I caused this to happen to Aphrodite. I'll find her and make sure she's okay. Then I'll get back to you." I heard noises in the distance, like something big was moving quickly our way.
"It's the warriors. They know the school's been breached." Damien said.
"Go!" I told Stevie Rae. "I'll call you." Then I added. "I wont text message you. Ever. So if you get a text message it will not be from me."
"Okey-dokey-smokey, I'll remember," Stevie Rae said and then grinned at the four of us. "See ya'll soon!" She ducked through the door, closing it after her. I noticed that the perimeter warning didn't so much as ripple when she passed and wondered briefly what the hell that meant.
"So what are we doing out here?" Damien asked.
"We're here because Erik dumped Zoey," Shaunee said.
"Yeah, she's upset," Erin said.
"Don't tell them about Aphrodite or Stevie Rae," I said.
My friends looked at me like I'd just said maybe we shouldn't tell our parents about that little beer-drinking episode.
"No shit?" Shaunee said sarcastically.
"We were just gonna spill our guts," Erin said.
"Yeah, because we can't be trusted to keep secrets," Damien said. Well, crap. They were definitely still mad at me.
"So who do we say broke the barrier?" Damien asked. I noticed he didn't even look at me, but addressed the question only to the Twins.
"Aphrodite, who else?" Erin said.
Before I could protest, Shaunee added, "Yeah, we won't say anything about the disappearing act her Mark played. We'll just say she came out here with us and got annoyed at all of Zoey's blubbering."
"And self-pity," Erin added.
"And lies. So she took off. As per typical for Aphrodite," Damien finished.
"She might get in trouble," I said.
"Yeah, well, consequence is a bitch," Shaunee said.
"A bitch who is clearly following some people pretty closely," Erin said, giving me a sharp look. Just then several warriors, led by Darius, burst into our clearing. With their weapons drawn they looked scary as hell and ready to kick some serious butt (potentially ours).
"Who broke the perimeter?" Darius practically barked the question.
"Aphrodite!" The four of us said together.
Darius made a quick gesture at two of the warriors. "Find her," he said. Then back to us, "The High Priestess has called an assembly of the school. You are needed in the auditorium. I will escort you there." Meekly, we followed Darius. I tried to catch Damien's eye, but he wouldn't look at me. Neither would the Twins. It was like I was walking with strangers. Worse, actually. Strangers might at least smile and say hi. There was definitely no smiling or hi-ing going on with my friends.
We'd only gone just a couple of steps when the first of the pains hit me. It was like someone was driving an invisible knife into my stomach. I was sure I was going to be sick, and I doubled over, groaning.
"Zoey? What's wrong?" Damien said.
"I don't know. I-" I stopped being able to speak, and at the same time everything around me got ultrafocused. The pain in my stomach seemed to mushroom, and I knew the warriors were surrounding me, even as I reached out and grabbed hold of Damien's hand. Even though I knew he was still pissed, he hung on tight to me, and I could hear him telling me that everything was going to be okay. Pain speared from my stomach to my heart. Was I dying? I wasn't coughing up blood. Could I be having a heart attack? It was like I had been thrust into someone else's nightmare where I was being tortured by invisible knives and unseen hands.
The searing pain that suddenly spiked through my neck was too much, and everything started to go black around the edges of my vision. I knew I was falling, but the pain was unbearable. There was nothing I could do ... I was dying ...
Strong hands caught and lifted me, and I was vaguely aware that Darius was carrying me. Then there was a terrible wrenching inside me. I screamed over and over again. It felt like my heart was being ripped from my living body. Just when I knew I couldn't stand any more, it stopped. As abruptly as the pain had started, it went away, leaving me panting and sweating, but perfectly fine.
"Wait. Stop. I'm okay," I said.
"My lady, you have been in terrible pain and you must be taken to the infirmary," Darius said.
"Okay. No." I was glad to hear my voice was completely back to normal. I thumped on Darius's overmuscled shoulder. "Put me down. I mean it. I'm fine."
Reluctantly, Darius stopped and put me gently on my feet. I felt like a science experiment as the Twins, Damien, and the other warriors all gawked at me.
"I am fine," I said sternly. "I don't know what happened, but it's over now. Really."
"You should go to the infirmary. After the High Priestess is finished with her speech she will be there to check you out," Darius said.
"No. Absolutely not," I said. "She's busy. She doesn't need to worry about a weird cramp or whatever that made my ... uh ... stomach hurt."
Darius didn't look convinced.
I lifted my chin and swallowed every last bit of my pride. "I have gas. A lot of it. Ask my friends." Darius turned to the Twins and Damien.
"Yep, she's one gassy girl," Shaunee said.
"Miss Smelly, that's what we call her," Erin said.
"She really is extraordinarily flatulent," Damien added.
Okay, I realized that the troops hadn't rallied around me because all was forgiven and we were best buds again. They had simply grabbed an excellent opportunity to embarrass me. God, I had a terrible headache.
"Gas, my lady?" Darius said, his lips twitching.
I shrugged and had no trouble at all blushing. "Gas," I confirmed. "Can we just go to the auditorium? I'm feeling much better."
"As you wish, my lady." Darius saluted me.
We all changed direction and started to the auditorium again.
"What was that all about?" Damien whispered, coming up beside me.
"I have no clue," I whispered back.
"No clue," Shaunee said quietly.
"Or you know but won't tell us," Erin murmured.
I couldn't say anything. I just shook my head sadly. I'd caused this. Yeah, I'd had good reasons, at least for some of it. But the truth was that I'd been lying to my friends for way too long. Like Shaunee had said, consequence was a bitch, and like Erin had observed, she was definitely following me around. No one spoke to me the rest of the way to the auditorium. As we walked through the front door, Jack joined us. He wouldn't even look at me. We all sat together, but no one talked to me. No one at all. The Twins chattered with each other as usual, clearly scoping the room for T. J. and Cole, who actually saw them first and rushed over to sit beside them. The flirting that ensued was almost gross enough to make me swear off dating forever. As if I had a choice.
I had been lagging behind everyone, so I was sitting in the last seat in the rear row. Damien was in front of me with the rest of the gang. I could hear him whispering to Jack and catching him up on what had happened with Aphrodite and Stevie Rae. Neither of them said anything to me, or even turned around to look at me. Everyone was getting really restless, and it seemed like we'd been waiting forever. I wondered what the hell Neferet was up to. I mean, she'd called this big meeting. Practically the whole darn school was there even though I felt incredibly, miserably alone. I looked around to see if Erik was glaring at me from somewhere in the room, but I didn't see him anywhere. I did see poor little Ian Bowser, who was sitting in the front row, red-eyed and looking like he'd just lost his best friend. I definitely knew how he felt. Finally there was a murmur in the crowd and Neferet entered the auditorium. She was followed by several of the senior professors, including Dragon Lankford and Lenobia; ringed by Sons of Erebus she made her way regally to the stage. Everyone got all silent and attentive.
She didn't waste time, but got right to the point. "We have long lived in peace with humans, though they have insulted and ostracized us for decades. They envy our talent and our beauty-our wealth and our power. And their envy has been steadily growing into hatred. Now that hatred has shifted to violence perpetrated against us by people who call themselves religious and righteous." Her laughter was cold and beautiful. "What an abomination."
I had to admit that she was incredibly good. She had the crowd mesmerized. Had she not been a High Priestess she could have definitely been one of the lead actresses of the age.
"It is true that there are many more humans than vampyres, and because of our smaller numbers they underestimate us. But I promise you this: If they murder just one more of our sisters or brothers, I will declare a state of war against them." She had to wait until the warriors' cheers quieted before she could continue, but she didn't seem to mind. "It will not be an outright war, but it will be deadly and-" The doors to the auditorium were flung open as Darius and two other warriors rushed into the room, interrupting Neferet. With the rest of us, she silently watched the grim-faced vampyre men approach her. I thought Darius looked weird. Not pale, but plastic. Like his face had turned into a living mask. Neferet stepped away from the microphone and leaned down so that he could whisper to her the news. When he was finished she stood up very straight, almost as if she was holding herself so rigid because she was in terrible pain. Then she swayed and clutched her throat with one hand. Dragon stepped up beside her to steady her, but the priestess shook off his help. Slowly she returned to the microphone and in a voice like death she said, "The body of Loren Blake, our beloved Vampyre Poet Laureate, has just been found nailed to our front gate."
I could feel Damien and the Twins staring at me. I pressed my hand against my mouth to stifle my sob of horror, just like I had done when I saw Loren and Neferet together.
"That was what happened to you," Damien whispered, his face gone almost gray it was so pale. "You'd Imprinted with him, hadn't you?"
I could only nod. All of my attention was focused on Neferet, who had continued speaking. "Loren was disemboweled and then decapitated. As with Professor Nolan, they nailed a foul scripture to his body. This one was from their book of Ezekiel. It said, Take away all the detestable things thereof and all the abominations thereof from thence, repent." She paused and bowed her head, looking like she was praying as she collected herself. Then she straightened, lifting her face, and her anger was so bright and glorious that it made even my heartbeat quicken.
"As I was saying when this tragic news reached us, it will not be an outright war, but it will be deadly and we will be victorious. Perhaps it is time that vampyres take their proper place in this world, and that proper place is not being subjugated by humans!"
I knew I was going to be sick, so I ran from the auditorium, glad that my seat was at the end of the back row. I knew my friends wouldn't follow me. They would still be inside, cheering with everyone else. And I would be outside, having my guts turned inside out because I knew at a soul-deep level that war with humans was wrong. This was not Nyx's will.
I gasped, drawing deep breaths and trying to stop shaking. Okay, I might know war was not our Goddess's will, but what was I going to do about it? I was just a kid-and my recent actions proved I wasn't a very smart kid. Nyx was probably mad at me, too. She should be.
And then I remembered the familiar pain that had seared around my waist. I glanced around, making sure I was alone, then I lifted the hem of my dress so that I could see my skin. They were there! My beautiful filigreed Mark had appeared around my waist. I closed my eyes. Oh thank you, Nyx! Thank you for not leaving me!
I leaned against the wall of the auditorium and cried. I cried for Aphrodite and Heath, Erik and Stevie Rae. I cried for Loren. Mostly I cried for Loren. His death had shaken me. My mind knew that he hadn't loved me. That he'd used me because Neferet had wanted him to get to me, but that didn't seem to matter to my soul. I'd felt the loss of him like he'd been ripped from my heart. I knew there was something wrong about his death, and the wrongness was more than his being murdered by religious freaks. And those freaks could be related to me. My stepfather could have caused Loren's death.
His death ... Loren's death ...
It hit me again. I don't know how long I leaned against the wall of the auditorium and cried and shook. I just knew that I was mourning the death of the girl I used to be as much as Loren.
"It's your fault."
Neferet's voice sliced through me. I looked up, wiping my face with my sleeve, to see her standing there, red-eyed but tearless.
She made me sick.
"They'll all think you're not crying because you're brave and strong," I said. "But I know you're not crying because you don't have a heart. You're not capable of caring enough to cry."
"You're wrong. I loved him, and he adored me in return. But you already know that, don't you? You watched us like the little sneak you are," she said. Neferet glanced quickly over her shoulder at the doors and raised her index finger up, as if saying she needed a minute. I could see the warrior who had been about to come out to her stop and turn his back against the doors; obviously his job was to keep anyone from interrupting us. Then Neferet turned back to me. "Loren's dead because of you. He could feel how upset you were, and when the perimeter was breached he assumed it was you running away from the little scene I orchestrated between you and poor, shocked Erik." She said it with a sarcastic sneer. "Loren went out to find you. And because he was looking for you, Loren was killed."
I shook my head, letting my anger and disgust drown out my pain and fear. "You caused all of this. You know it. I know it. And, more importantly, Nyx knows it."
Neferet laughed. "You've used the Goddess's name before to threaten me, yet here I am, a powerful High Priestess, and here you are, a silly, stupid fledgling who has been abandoned by her friends." I swallowed hard. She was right. She was all that, and I was nothing. I'd made stupid choices, and because of that I'd broken the trust of my friends. And she was still, well, in charge. I knew in my heart Neferet was hiding evil and hatred, but even I couldn't look at her and see it. She was bright and beautiful and powerful. She looked like the perfect picture of a High Priestess and someone Chosen by a goddess. How did I think I could ever stand up to her?
Then I felt the nudging of the wind, the heat of a summer's day, the sweet coolness of the seashore, the wild vastness of the earth, and the strength of my spirit. The new evidence of Nyx's favor tingled around my waist as the Goddess's words whispered from my memory: Remember, darkness does not always equate to evil, just as light does not always bring good.
I straightened my spine. Focusing on the five elements, I raised my hands, palms out, and without touching Neferet, I shoved. The High Priestess was thrown backward, stumbled, lost her footing, and fell smack on her butt. As several warriors burst out of the auditorium to help her to her feet, I bent, pretending like I was making sure she was okay, and whispered, "You might want to reconsider pissing me off, old woman."
"This isn't over between us," she hissed.
"For once I totally agree with you," I said.
Then I backed away from her and let the warriors and the rest of the fledglings and vamps who were swarming out of the auditorium mill around her. I could hear her reassuring them that she'd just broken a heel and tripped-that everything was okay-and then the crowd blanketed the sight and sound. I didn't wait for the Twins and Damien to come out and ignore me. I turned my back on all of them and headed toward my dorm. I was brought up short when Erik stepped out of the shadows at the edge of the auditorium. His eyes were wide with shock, and he looked shaken and pale. Clearly, he had witnessed the entire scene between Neferet and me. I lifted my chin and met his familiar blue eyes. Page 156
"Yeah, there's more going on here than you assumed," I said. He shook his head, but more like in surprise than in disbelief. "Neferet... she's-she's ..." He stuttered, glancing over my shoulder at the mob that still surrounded the High Priestess.
"She's an evil bitch? Are those the words you're searching for? Yeah, she is." It felt good to say it. It felt especially good to say it to Erik. I wanted to explain more to him, but his next words stopped me.
"This doesn't change what you did."
I suddenly felt nothing but very, very tired. "I know that, Erik." Without another word I walked away from him.
Predawn was lighting the sky, giving the darkness the pastel tint of misty morning. I breathed deeply, taking in the coolness of the new day. The confrontations with Neferet and Erik had left me weirdly peaceful and my thoughts easily organized themselves into two neat little columns.
On the positive side: One, my best friend was no longer an undead-dead blood-crazed monster. Of course, I wasn't really sure what she was, or, for that matter, where she was. Two, I no longer had three boyfriends to juggle. Three, I wasn't Imprinted with anyone, which was also a good thing. Four, Aphrodite wasn't dead. Five, I'd told my friends a whole bunch of stuff I'd wanted to tell them for a long time. Six, I wasn't a virgin anymore.
On the negative side: One, I wasn't a virgin anymore. Two, I no longer had a boyfriend. Not one. Three, I may have somehow caused the Vampyre Poet Laureate's death, and if I hadn't caused it someone in my family might have. Four, Aphrodite was a human, and clearly totally freaking out. Five, Most of my friends were pissed at me and didn't trust me. Six, I wasn't done lying to them because I still couldn't let them know the truth about Neferet. Seven, I was smack in the middle of a war between vampyres (which I was not one of yet) and humans (which I was no longer one of). And, for the grand prize winner, eight, The most powerful vamp High Priestess of our time was my sworn enemy.
"Mee-uf-ow!" Nala's grumpy voice gave me enough warning to open my arms just before she launched herself at me.
I cuddled her. "Some day you're gonna jump too soon and fall right on your butt." I smiled, remembering.
"Kinda like Neferet fell right on her butt."
Nala turned her purr button on and rubbed her face against my cheek.
"Well, Nala, seems I'm in the middle of some deep poo. The negatives in my life totally outweigh the positives, and you know what's weird? I'm starting to actually get used to it." Nala kept up her purr machine, and I kissed her on the little white splotch over her nose. "Hard stuff is coming, but I honestly believe Nyx has Chosen me, which means shell be with me." Nala made a huffy-old-lady cat noise, and I hastily corrected myself. "I mean us. Nyx will be with us." I shifted Nala in my arms so I could open the door to the dorm. "Of course, Nyx choosing me kinda makes me question her decision-making skills," I mumbled, only half kidding. Believe in yourself, Daughter, and get ready for what is to come.
I yelped as the Goddess's voice floated through my mind. Great. Get ready for what is to come did not sound good. I looked at Nala and sighed.
"Remember when we thought me having a sucky birthday was our biggest problem?" Nala sneezed directly in my face, making me laugh while I said "eew" and hurried into my room, going for the box of Kleenex I kept on my bedside table.
As usual, Nala summed up my life perfectly: kinda funny, kinda gross, and more than kinda messy.