"Well, crap. Chaos and love are the same, but not. Neferet still has her powers, but she's not listening to Nyx anymore. Oh, and she's trying to wake up something dangerous. What does that mean? Is it an abstract wake up, like 'waking up' danger in the form of a war with humans, or is she literally trying to wake up some horrible, scary thingie that could eat us all? Like that creepy thing that scratched me earlier, which I didn't even get a chance to ask her about. Crap again!" I babbled as Aphrodite and I hurried from the girls' dorm. Sadly, it appeared we were going to be late for the Council Meeting.
"Don't look at me. I have enough mysteries of my own to solve. I'm human, but I'm not? What does that mean? And how can my humanity be so big and bad anyway--I don't even like humans?" Aphrodite sighed and fiddled with her hair. "Shit, my hair's a mess." She turned her face to me. "Can you tell I've been crying?"
"For the gazillionth time, no. You look fine."
"Shit. I knew it. I look terrible."
"Aphrodite! I just said you look fine."
"Yeah, well, fine is fine for most people. For me it's terrible."
"Okay, our Goddess, the immortal Nyx, just manifested and spoke to us and all you're thinking about is how you look?" I shook my head. That was incredibly shallow, even for Aphrodite.
"Yeah, that was amazing. Nyx is amazing. I never said she wasn't. So what's your point?"
"My point is that after experiencing a visit from the Goddess, you should, I dunno, maybe care about something more important than your already perfect hair," I said, completely exasperated. This was the kid I was supposed to battle world-shaking dangerous evil with? Jeesh, Nyx's ways were absolutely, totally mysterious. Talk about an understatement.
"Nyx knows exactly how I am and she loves me anyway. This is who I am." She flapped her hand up and down in front of herself. "So, you really think my hair is perfect?"
"It's as perfect as your shallow, pain-in-the-butt attitude," I said.
"Oh, good. Okay, I feel better already."
I frowned at her, but didn't say anything else as we hurried up the stairs to the Council Room that was opposite the library. I'd never been in the room before, but I'd peeked inside it often enough. When it was empty, the door was rarely closed, and the zillions of times I'd come and gone from the library, I couldn't help glancing in and gawking at the huge beautiful round table that was the predominate feature of the room. Seriously, I'd even asked Damien if that round table could have been the Round Table, circa King Arthur and Camelot. He'd said he didn't think so, but wasn't for sure. Today the Council Room wasn't an empty oddity. It was filled with vamps and Sons of Erebus and, of course, the few fledglings who were on the Prefect Council. Thankfully, we slipped in as Darius was closing the door and positioning himself, all tall and muscley, beside it. Aphrodite gave him a big flirty smile, and I stifled a sigh when his eyes sparkled at her in response. She tried to hang back so she could talk to him. Instead I grabbed her arm and practically hauled her over to the two empty chairs beside Damien.
"Thanks for saving us seats," I whispered to him.
"Not a problem," he whispered back, giving me his familiar smile. It warmed me and helped ease some of my nerves.
I glanced around the table. Aphrodite and I were sitting to Damien's right. Beside Aphrodite was Lenobia, Professor of Equestrian Studies. She was talking with Dragon and Anastasia Lank-ford, who were beside her. To Damien's left sat the Twins. They gave me twinlike head bobs and tried to look nonchalant, but I could see that they felt as nervously out of place as I did. I knew the Council was made up of the most powerful members of the school's faculty, but along with the professors, several of whom looked familiar but I'd never been in their classes and really didn't know who the heck they were, was a heavy show of power from the Sons of Erebus, including a massive guy who had taken a chair close to the door. He was the biggest person, human or vamp, I had ever seen. I was trying not to stare at him and thinking about asking Damien, Mr. King of the Rules, if the warriors were really supposed to be allowed in a Council Meeting, when Aphrodite leaned over and whispered, "That's Ate, the Leader of the Sons of Erebus. Darius told me he was coming in today. He's one hunk of a guy, isn't he?"
Before I could answer that he was more like several hunks of many large guys, the back door to the room opened and Neferet entered.
I could tell something was wrong even before I caught sight of the woman who came into the room after her. Neferet's public face was usually implacable perfection-- she more than personified calm, cool, collection. But this Neferet was shaken. Her beautiful features looked somehow tighter, as if she was straining to control herself, and the strain was a stretch for her. She took a couple steps into the room and then moved aside so we could see the vampyre who entered behind her.
As they sighted her, the shock that zapped through the vamps was immediate and obvious. The Sons of Erebus were first to their feet, but the Council followed closely. Along with everyone else, Damien, the Twins, Aphrodite, and I stood, too, automatically mimicking the vamps' respectful closed fists over their hearts and bowed heads.
Okay, I will admit that I peeked up from the head bow to get a look at the new vamp. She was tall and thin. Her skin was the color of rich, well-polished dark wood, and like mahogany, it was smooth and flawless, marred only by the intricate tattoo of her sapphire Mark, which was, incredibly, in the shape of the curving outline of the goddess figure all the vamp professors wore embroidered on their breast pockets. The female figures were mirrors of one another, their bodies stretched down her high cheekbones and along the side of her face. The inside arms were lifted, hands raised as if to cup the crescent in the middle of her forehead. Her hair was impossibly long. It fell well past her waist, in a heavy length of shining black silk. She had large dark eyes that were shaped like almonds, a long, straight nose, and full lips. She held herself like a queen, with her chin up and her gaze steady as it swept over the room. It was only when that gaze stopped briefly on me and I felt its strength that I realized she was something I'd never seen in a vamp before then--she was old. Not that she was all wrinkled, like an old human would be. This vampyre looked like she might be in her forties, which translated to ancient for a vamp. But it wasn't wrinkles and saggy skin that made her look old. It was a sense of age and dignity that she wore like a fine piece of expensive jewelry decorating her body.
"Merry meet." She had an accent that I couldn't place. It sounded Middle Eastern, but not. British, but not. Basically, it made her voice as rich as her skin. It filled the room.
We all automatically responded. "Merry meet."
Then she smiled, and the sudden resemblance between her and Nyx, who had just smiled at me moments before, made my knees feel disturbingly jellylike, so that I was relieved when she motioned for us to take our seats.
"She reminds me of Nyx," Aphrodite whispered to me.
Relieved I wasn't imagining things, I nodded. There was no time for anything else because Neferet recovered her composure enough to speak.
"I was, as I can see you all are, surprised and honored by Shekinah's rare and unannounced visit to our House of Night."
I heard Damien's sharp intake of breath and sent him a big question mark look. As per usual for Mr. Studious, he had paper and a well-sharpened number two pencil held at the ready position so he could, of course, take proper notes. He quickly wrote a few words and unobtrusively tilted the paper so I could read: SHEKINAH = HIGH PRIESTESS OF ALL VAMPS.
Ohmygod. No wonder Neferet looked freaked.
Shekinah continued to smile serenely while she motioned for Neferet to sit. Neferet bowed her head in a gesture that I was sure was meant to look respectful, but to me the movement seemed wooden, the respectful action forced. She sat, still holding herself with that odd rigidity. Shekinah remained standing as she began to speak.
"Were this a normal visit, I would, of course, have made the proper announcements of my coming and allowed you to prepare for it. This is far from a normal visit, which is only right because this is far from a normal Council Meeting. It is unusual enough to admit the Sons of Erebus, but I understand their presence here is needed in such a time of turmoil and danger. But even more unusual, there are fledglings present."
"They're here because--"
Shekinah raised her hand, instantly cutting off Neferet's explanation.
I couldn't figure out which freaked me out more--Shekinah's powerful, goddesslike presence, or the fact that she shut Neferet up so easily.
Shekinah's dark eyes went from the Twins to Damien, Aphrodite, and finally came to rest on me. "You are Zoey Redbird," she said.
I cleared my throat and tried not to fidget under her direct gaze. "Yes, ma'am."
"Then these four with you must be the fledglings who have been gifted with affinities for air, fire, water, and earth."
"Yes, ma'am, they are," I said.
She nodded. "I understand now why you have been included here." Shekinah tilted her head so that her eyes skewered Neferet. "You wish to use their power."
I stiffened at the same time Neferet did, although for a very different reason. Did Shekinah know what I had only begun to suspect--that Neferet was abusing her power and instigating a war between humans and vampyres? Neferet spoke sharply, dropping all pretense of cordiality. "I wish to use every advantage the Goddess has given us to keep our people safe." The other vampyres on the Council shifted in their seats uncomfortably at her obvious lack of respect.
"Ah, and this is exactly why I am here." Completely unruffled by Neferet's attitude, Shekinah turned her gaze to the Council Members. "It was fortuitous I was making a private, unannounced visit to the House of Night in Chicago when word of your tragedies reached me. Had I been home in Venice, the news would have reached me too late to act upon, and these deaths could not have been prevented."
"Prevented, Priestess?" Lenobia spoke up. I glanced at her and saw the horse mistress looked much more relaxed than Neferet. Her tone was warm, though undeniably respectful.
"Lenobia, my dear. It is lovely to see you again," Shekinah said familiarly.
"It is always a joy to greet you, Priestess." Lenobia bowed her head, causing her unusual silver-blond hair to sweep around her like a delicate veil. "But, I think I speak for all of the Council when I say we're confused. Patricia Nolan and Loren Blake are dead. If you meant to prevent their murders, you are too late."
"I am, indeed," Shekinah said. "And their deaths make my heart heavy, but I am not too late to prevent more deaths." She paused and then said slowly and distinctly, "There will be no war between humans and vampyres."
Neferet shot to her feet, almost overturning her chair. "No war? So we are to let murderers go unpunished for their heinous crimes against us?"
I could feel more than see the tension that rippled through the Sons of Erebus as they mirrored Neferet's shock.
"Did you call in the police, Neferet?" Shekinah's question was asked in a soft, conversational tone, but I felt the power in it brush against my skin and stir something within me.
"Call in the human police and ask them to catch the human murderers so they can be taken before a human court? No, I did not."
"And you are so sure that you will not find justice with these humans that you are willing to begin a war."
Neferet's eyes narrowed and she glared at Shekinah, but didn't say anything in response. In the ugly silence, I thought about Detective Marx, the cop who had helped me when Heath had been taken by the creepy undead dead kids. He'd been incredible. He'd known I'd made up the story about a street person abducting Heath and killing the other two human kids, and he'd trusted me enough to believe me when I said the danger was over, and through the whole thing he'd covered my butt. Detective Marx had explained that his twin sister had been Changed, and he'd stayed close to her, so he definitely didn't hate vamps. He was a senior homicide detective--I knew he'd do everything he could to find whoever was killing vampyres. And he couldn't be the only one in Tulsa who was real and honest.
"Zoey Redbird, what do you know about this?"
Shekinah's question was a shock. Like she'd pulled a weird string inside me that made me talk, I blurted, "I know an honest human cop."
Shekinah smiled her Nyx smile again, and my freaked nerves calmed a little. "I think we all do, or at least I thought we all did until word came to me of this declaration of war--without so much as an attempt at allowing humans to police their own." "Don't you see how impossible that even sounds?" Neferet's moss-colored eyes were flashing. "Police their own, as if they would!"
"They have, many times over the decades. You know that, Neferet." Shekinah's calm words contrasted dramatically with Neferet's passion and anger.
"They killed her, then they killed Loren." Neferet's voice was almost a hiss.
Shekinah gently touched Neferet's arm. "You are too close to this. You aren't thinking rationally."
Neferet jerked away from her touch. "I'm the only one of us thinking rationally!" she snapped. "Humans have gone unpunished for their vile deeds too long."
"Neferet, very little time has passed since these murders, and you haven't given the humans even the opportunity to attempt to punish their own. Instead you instantly judge them all as dishonest. Not all humans are, despite your own personal history."
As Shekinah spoke, I remembered that Neferet had told me that her Mark had been her salvation because her father had abused her for years. She'd been Marked almost one hundred years ago. Loren had been killed two days ago. Professor Nolan only the day before that. It was obvious to me that their murders weren't the only "vile deeds" Neferet was talking about. It seemed Shekinah had come to a similar conclusion.
"High Priestess Neferet, it is my conclusion that your judgment in the matter of these deaths is skewed. Your love for our fallen sister and brother, and desire for retribution, has clouded your reason. Your declaration of war against humans has been rejected by Nyx's Council."
"Just like that!" Neferet's anger had gone from passionate to thin-lipped and steely. I was mega-glad Shekinah was the focus of that anger 'cause Neferet was just plain scary.
"Were you thinking clearly, you would realize that Nyx's Council never makes rash decisions. They weighed the situation carefully, even though word of your declaration of war did not come from you, as it should have," she said pointedly. "You know, my sister, that something of this magnitude should have been presented before Nyx's Council for their consideration."
"There was no time," Neferet snapped.
"There is always time for wisdom!" Shekinah's eyes flashed, and I had to fight the urge to cringe back in my seat. I'd thought Neferet was scary? Shekinah made her look like a bratty child. Shekinah closed her eyes briefly and drew a deep, calming breath before she continued speaking in a soothing, understanding tone. "Neither Nyx's Council nor I dispute the fact that the murders of two of our own is reprehensible, but war is unthinkable. We have lived in peace with humans for more than two centuries. We will not break that peace because of the obscene actions of a few religious zealots."
"If we ignore what is happening here in Tulsa, it will be the Burning Times again. Remember that the Salem atrocities were also begun by what you would call a few religious zealots."
"I remember well. I was born a scant century after those dark days. We are more powerful now than we were in the seventeenth century. And the world has changed, Neferet. Superstition has been replaced by science. Humans are more reasonable now."
"What will it take to make you and the almighty Council of Nyx see that we have no choice but to fight back?" "It would take a shift in the thinking of the world, and I pray to Nyx that never happens," Shekinah said solemnly.
Neferet's eyes darted around the room until they found the Leader of the Sons of Erebus. "Are you and the Sons going to just sit by while the humans pick us off one by one?" Her voice was a cold challenge.
"I live to protect, and no Son of Erebus would allow any charge of his to be harmed. We will protect you and this school. But, Neferet, we will not stand against the judgment of the Council," Ate said solemnly in a deep, strong voice.
"Priestess, what you imply--that Ate should follow your desires rather than the Council--is unfair of you." Shekinah's tone was no longer understanding. Her gaze was fixed on Neferet, and her eyes narrowed.
Neferet said nothing for a long moment, and then a tremor passed through her body. Her shoulders slumped and she seemed to age before my eyes.
"Forgive me," she said softly. "Shekinah, you are right. I am too close to this. I loved Patricia and Loren. I am not thinking clearly. I must . . . I need to . . . please, excuse me," she finally managed. And then, looking utterly distraught, she hurried from the Council room.