I hadn't needed to set my alarm to go off at five o'clock that evening (which is really my morning--remember, a fledgling's day and night are mixed up, as in our school starts at 8 P.M. and ends at 3 A.M.). I'd been lying there wide awake, petting Nala and trying not to think about Stark or Heath or Erik when my alarm beeped at me.

Groggily I stumbled around my room, pulling on a pair of jeans and a black sweater. I stared at myself in the mirror. Okay, just ugh. I had to get some sleep tonight-- the bags under my eyes had bags.

Nala had just arched her back and hissed at the door when someone pounded on it.

"Zoey! Would you hurry the hell up?"

I opened the door to see a disgruntled Aphrodite dressed in a very short (and very cute) black wool skirt, a deep purple pullover, and to-die-for black boots. She was tapping one of those boots in irritation.

"What?" I said.

"I know I've told you this before, but you are slow as a fat kid on crutches," she said.

"Aphrodite, you're mean. I know I've told you that before, too," I said, trying to blink the grogginess from my eyes and somehow think it from my mind. "And I'm not slow, I'm ready," I finally added.

"No, you're not. Your Mark isn't even covered."

"Ah, jeesh. I forgot about--" My eyes automatically went to her forehead, which was completely clear of a fledgling Mark.

"Yeah, one of the few advantages of pretending that I'm a fledgling is that I don't have to worry about covering up my Mark when I go off campus." Aphrodite's tone was flippant, but I could see the hurt in her eyes.

"Hey, remember what Nyx said. You're still special to her."

Aphrodite rolled her eyes. "Yeah, special. Whatever. Would you just hurry up? Darius is waiting, and you still have to tell Shekinah I'm going with you."

"And I need my bowl of cereal," I said as I slathered concealer on over the intricate tattoos of my Mark.

"No time for that," Aphrodite said while we hurried down the stairs. "We have to get to Street Cats before the stupid humans close up shop and scuttle away to their ridiculously middle class homes."

"You're a stupid human," I whispered.

"I'm a special human," she corrected me, and in an equally low voice, she continued. "When's Stevie Rae meeting us? She'll be cool if we're a little late, right?"

"Ah, crap!" I whispered. "I didn't get her last night." "I'm not surprised. Cell service in those tunnels sucks. I'll make excuses to Darius about why you're late. You call her again. This time let's hope you get her."

"I know, I know," I said.

"Hey, Z!" Shaunee called as Aphrodite and I passed by the kitchen.

"How are ya feelin' this morning? Better?" Erin asked.

"I am--thanks, guys," I said, smiling at them. The Twins were beyond resilient. It took more than another brush with death to freak them out for very long.

"Excellent. We got your box of Count Chocula right here," Erin said.

"Hey, Dorkamese Twins, you two want to take me up on some pedicures tonight? We can do some major nerd herd bonding over the wicked bunion I have on my right foot." Aphrodite lifted up her right stiletto boot and pretended like she was going to unzip it.

"We have your breakfast ready, too, Aphrodite," Erin said.

"Yeah, we fixed you up a nice bowl of Count Skankula," Shaunee said.

"You two are so not amusing. Zoey, I'll get Darius and we'll meet you in the parking lot. Hurry up." She flipped her hair and twitched away.

"We hate her," Erin and Shaunee said together.

"I know," I sighed. "But she really was nice to me last night."

"Probably because she has a serious personality disorder," Erin said.

"Yeah, I think she's one of those split-personality people," Shaunee said. "Hey, maybe she'll get institutionalized pretty soon!"

"Excellent thinking, Twin. I like it that you always look on the bright side," Erin said.

"Here, Z. Have some cereal," Shaunee said.

I sighed at the enticing box of my favorite cereal. "I don't have time to eat. Gotta get to Street Cats and set up our community charity work."

"You should talk them into having a cool flea market sale," Erin said.

"Yeah. We need to do some serious closet cleaning to get ready for the season change, and we might as well sell the old stuff to make room for the new," Shaunee said.

"That's not a bad idea, actually. Plus, Street Cats could have the sale inside so the sun doesn't bother us," I said.

"Twin, let's go through our shoes," Shaunee said.

"Will do, Twin," Erin said. "I hear metallic is majorly in for next season."

I left the dorm on a tide of the Twins' new-shoe-purchase chatter.

The Son of Erebus warrior who was stationed outside wasn't Darius, but he was equally as big and bad looking, and he gave me a quick respectful salute. I returned it and then hurried down the sidewalk toward the main school building, nodding hi to the fledglings coming and going. Flipping open my cell phone, I punched the number of the disposable phone I'd given to Stevie Rae a few days ago. Thankfully, this time she answered on the first ring.

"Hey there, Zoey!"

"Oh, thank god." I didn't say her name, but I still kept my voice low. "I tried to call you earlier, but I couldn't get you."

"Sorry, Z. Reception down in the tunnels is crappy." I sighed. We'd have to do something about that, but right now I couldn't take the time to think of what. "Well, never mind that. Can you meet me at Street Cats in a little while? It's important."

"Street Cats? Where's that?"

"It's at Sixtieth and Sheridan in that cute little brick building. The one behind Charlie's Chicken. Can you be there?"

"Yeah, I guess. I'll have to take the bus, so it may take me a little while. Wait, can't you come get me?"

I'd opened my mouth to explain why I couldn't give her a ride and also why it was so important I talked to her today, when the background noise of a scream followed by some truly scary-sounding laughter came through her phone.

"Um, Zoey. I gotta go," Stevie Rae said.

"Stevie Rae, what's going on?"

"Nothin'," she said too quickly.

"Stevie Rae--," I began, but she cut me off.

"They're not eatin' anybody. Really. But I gotta go make sure the pizza delivery guy doesn't remember too much of this particular delivery. See you at Street Cats--bye!"

And she was gone. I closed the phone (and wished I could close my eyes and curl into a fetal position and go back to sleep). Instead I walked through the big wooden, castlelike doors of the main entrance of the central House of Night. We don't have what you'd call a principal's office, but we do have an area manned by an attractive young vampyre named Miss Taylor. She's actually not a secretary, but an acolyte of Nyx. Damien had explained to me that part of her priestess training was to provide service for a House of Night--hence the fact she could be found busily answering phones, making copies, and running errands for the professors when she wasn't setting the chapel up for rituals and whatnot.

"Hi there, Zoey," she said with a sweet smile.

"Hi, Miss Taylor. I'm supposed to tell Shekinah who's going with me to Street Cats, but I don't have a clue where she is."

"Oh, she's made the Council Room her office when she's not teaching. And since first hour hasn't started yet, she's there right now."

"Thanks," I called as I hurried down the hall to the left and then up the circular staircase that led to the library and the Council Room across the hall from it. I wasn't sure if I should just go on in or not, and I was just raising my hand to knock when Shekinah's clear voice called, "You may enter, Zoey."

Jeesh, vamps were so scary with their weird we-know-who's-gonna-call-before- they-call thing. I straightened my shoulders and went in.

Shekinah was wearing a black dress that looked like it was made of velvet, with the silver embroidered insignia of Nyx, a woman's silhouette with her arms upraised and cupping a moon, on her breast. She smiled at me and I was struck anew at her exotic beauty and the sense of age and wisdom that surrounded her.

"Merry meet, Zoey," she said.

"Merry meet," I replied automatically.

"How are you today? I hear that one of our young fledglings died last night and that you were witness to his passing." I swallowed. "Yes, I was with Stark when he died. And I'm as okay as I can be today."

"Do you still feel up to visiting Street Cats? You know it could be a difficult first meeting."

"I know, but I still want to go. It helps if I stay busy."

"Very well. You know yourself best."

"I'd like to take Aphrodite with me, if that's okay with you."

"She's the fledgling with the earth affinity, isn't she?"

I gave a quick, nervous nod and said, "Earth is the affinity Nyx gave her." Okay, well, it wasn't technically a lie.

"Earth is a calming influence. Usually those with an affinity for it are well grounded and dependable. You made an excellent choice as to who should accompany you today, young priestess."

I tried not to look guilty. Aphrodite grounded and dependable? As the Twins would say, please just please. "Well, she and Darius are waiting for me, so I better go."

"Just a moment." Shekinah glanced down at a paper she held in her hand and then passed it to me. "Here is your new class schedule. With my approval, Neferet has transferred you from an entry-level of Vampyre Sociology to a sixth former level of the class." She looked pointedly at my unusual Mark, already filled in even though I am still definitely a fledgling. And of course, no vamp or fledgling has ever had the expanded tattoo Marking I have down my neck, shoulders, back, and waist. Shekinah couldn't see those, but her knowing gaze said that she was more than aware they were there. "You're too unusually developed to stay in such a simplistic level of sociology. I have a feeling, and your High Priestess agrees, that you are going to need to know details about vampyre life a normal third former would not need to know."

"Yes, ma'am," was all I could think to say.

"Putting you in the advanced class has altered your schedule somewhat. I've made sure you're excused today until after lunch. Just be sure you've returned by then, and that you attend the correct classes."

"Okay, I will. Oh, would you make sure Aphrodite is excused, too?"

"I've already done that," she said.

I swallowed hard. "Well, thanks. I mean, thank you." As usual, the uber- knowledge of the vamps made me extremely nervous. "Um, I was thinking that I would suggest to the Street Cats people that the Dark Daughters sponsor a flea market?like sale, with the money going to them. Do you think that would be okay?"

"I think it's a lovely idea. I'm sure the Dark Daughters and Sons will have some interesting items to sell."

I thought about the Twins' designer shoe horde, Erik's collection of Star Wars action figures (who knows--he might have grown out of them now that he's an "adult" vamp), and Damien's obsession for braided hemp choker necklaces, and I had to agree with her. "Yeah, interesting is a good way to describe the stuff."

"I'm giving you the autonomy to decide how you want to proceed with your charity work. I agree with you that more interaction with the local populace is a good idea. Segregation breeds ignorance, and ignorance breeds fear. I've already begun working with the local police about the murders, and I agree with them that it seems to be the work of a very small, very disturbed group of humans. I do have my doubts about allowing you to interact with humans right now, but I believe the good in your idea outweighs the risks."

"So do I."

"And you will be well protected in the company of Darius."

"Yeah, he reminds me of a mountain," I said without thinking, then blushed at my moronic description.

But Shekinah smiled. "He does, indeed, remind one of a mountain."

"Okay, well, I'll let you know how it goes with Street Cats."

"Please do report back to me tomorrow. Speaking of tomorrow, I've decided to call a special New Year's Ritual in which we will focus on cleansing the negative energy from the school. After the deaths of the two professors and now this poor fledgling, the grounds need a powerful, thorough cleansing. I've heard that you're very familiar with cleansing rituals, as you were raised to be aware of your Native American heritage."

"Yes!" I couldn't keep the surprise out of my voice. "My grandma still follows the Cherokee ways."

"Good. Then I'll count on you and your group of very gifted peers to perform the cleansing ritual. Tomorrow is New Year's Eve, so let's plan the ritual to begin at midnight. We will call in the new year with a schoolwide cleansing near the east wall."

"The east wall? But that's where . . ." I trailed off, feeling sick.

"Yes, that is where Professor Nolan's body was left. It is also a place of great power, and thus it should be the focal point of your cleansing."

"Isn't that what Neferet did when she performed her ritual there?" Neferet had performed a kind of funeral service for Prof Nolan at the place her body had been found. That had also been when Neferet cast a strong spell around the school that would let her know whenever anyone came or went from the House of Night.

"Cleansing and protection are two very different things, Zoey. Neferet was focusing on protection at that time, which was a perfectly admirable response to such a tragedy. There has been time for our heads to clear now, and it is time to look to the future. For that, we need to cleanse the past. Do you understand?"

"I think so," I said.

"I'll look forward to your circle," she said.

"Me, too," I lied.

"Be vigilant and wise today, Zoey."

"I'll do my best," I said. I gave her a respectful salute and a little bow as I left.

So I had to lead a cleansing ritual for the whole school tomorrow--minus my earth element--even though everyone believed Aphrodite still had her affinity for earth. Well, everyone believed Aphrodite was still a fledgling, too. Oh, jeesh. I was in serious trouble. Again.

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