I tore my horrified gaze from the Raven Mocker to see Heath standing just a couple of feet in front of me. He had his gun out and was holding it before him, pointing it directly at the creature in the tree.
"Puny human!" the thing screeched. "You think to ssssstop an Old One?"
Everything went into fast-forward then. The creature exploded from the tree at the same time my body thawed and I sprinted forward. I saw Heath squeeze the trigger and heard the deafening blast of the gun, but the Raven Mocker was moving with inhuman speed. It dodged, and the place Heath had been aiming at was empty the instant before the bullet sliced through the air, embedding itself in the ice-coated tree. As the thing flew toward Heath, I saw its jagged talons curling into claws and I remembered how, even in spirit form, a creature like this had almost sliced through my neck. Now the Raven Mockers had their bodies returned to them and I knew unless I did something fast, this one was going to kill Heath.
With a scream I gave voice to my fear and rage as I launched myself at Heath, knocking him aside a moment before the Raven Mocker reached him so that the creature struck me instead. I didn't feel any pain then, just an odd pressure against my skin, starting at the top of my left shoulder and slicing across the upper part of my chest, above my breasts, all the way to my right shoulder. The force of the blow spun me around in a half circle so that I was still facing the Raven Mocker as it flew past us and then dropped to the ground on its terrible human legs.
Its blood-colored eyes widened as it looked at me. "No!" it cried in a voice that could belong to no sane being. "He wantssss you alive!"
"Zoey! Oh, God, Zoey! Get behind me!" Heath was yelling at me as he tried to scramble to his feet, but he slipped on the icy pavement that had somehow turned a wet red. He fell hard.
I glanced at him and thought how weird it was that even though he was right next to me it sounded like he was yelling from way down a long tunnel.
I didn't understand why, bu.Blood? Is that what's all over the pavement? That's odd. With a mental shrug I disregarded the pooling blood and shouted, "Wind, come to me!"
At least I thought I shouted. What really came out of my mouth was barely a whisper. Thankfully, wind is a good listener because the air instantly began to swirl around me.
"Keep that thing on the ground," I said. Wind instantly obeyed, and a lovely mini-tornado engulfed the grotesque birdman, causing its wings to be useless. With a terrible screeching sound the thing tucked its useless wings against its back and began to trudge toward me, ducking its mutated head against the battering of wind.
"Zoey! Shit, Zoey!" Heath was suddenly beside me. His strong arm was around me, which felt really good because I was thinking that I might want to fall over.
I smiled at him, wondering why he was crying. "Just a sec. Gotta finish off that thing." Wearily, I turned my attention back to the birdman. "Fire, I need you." Heat was there, warming the swirling air around me. Then I used the finger of the bloody hand I was still holding upright and I pointed it at the thing that was getting closer and closer to Heath and me. "Burn it up," I commanded.
The warmth that had been surrounding me changed tempo, going from gentle heat to a column of consuming flame. It followed the direction of my pointing finger and of my will, and it plowed into the Raven Mocker, engulfing it in an angry yellow flame. The air was filled with the awful scent of roasting meat and burnt feathers. I thought I might puke.
"Oh, ugh. Fire, thank you. Wind, before you leave, could you please blow that nasty smell away?" It was so strange that I thought I was saying all this stuff really loud, but my voice was actually coming out as a weak little whisper. The elements obeyed me anyway, which was good, because a wave of sickening dizziness washed over me and I was suddenly slumping against Heath, unable to hold myself upright anymore.
I tried to understand what was wrong with me, but my thoughts were all muddied, and for some reason knowing exactly what was going on didn't seem very important.
Way off in the distance I heard running feet, and then I was looking up at Heath's tear- streaked face as he yelled, "Help! We're over here! Zoey needs help!"
Next thing I knew, Erik's face had joined Heath's. All I could think was oh, great, they're going to start growling at each other again. But they didn't. Actually, Erik's reaction when he looked down at me started to make me feel kinda concerned, in a detached, only vaguely interested way.
"Shit!" he said, and his face turned really pale. Without saying another word Erik ripped off his shirt (which was the cool black long-sleeved Polo he'd been wearing at our last ritual), making buttons pop all over. I blinked in surprise, thinking that he looked really good in just his little wifebeater T-shirt. I mean, seriously, he has a hot body. He dropped down on the other side of me.
"Sorry, this is probably going to hurt." Erik balled up his shirt and pressed it against my chest.
Pain did slice through me then, and I gasped.
"Oh, Goddess! Sorry, Z, sorry!" Erik kept saying over and over.
I looked down to see what was making me hurt like that and was utterly shocked to see that my whole body was drenched in blood.
"Wh-what--" I tried to frame a question, but the pain mixed with the increasingly strong feeling of numbness made it difficult for me to speak.
"We have to get her to Darius. He'll know what to do," Erik said.
"I'll carry her. Just lead me to this Darius guy," Heath said.
Erik nodded. "Let's go!"
Heath looked down at me. "I have to move you, Z. Just hang in there, okay?"
I tried to nod, but the movement ended in another gasp when Heath picked me up and, clutching me to his chest like I was an overgrown infant, he ran, slipping and sliding, after Erik.
The trip back down into the tunnels was a nightmare I'll never forget. Heath rushed after Erik through the basement. When they got to the metal ladder that led down to the tunnel system, they paused only for a second.
"I'll hand her down to you," Heath said.
Erik nodded and disappeared down the hole. Heath walked to the edge of it. "Sorry, babe," he said. "I know this must be awful for you." Then he kissed me lightly on my forehead before he squatted and somehow passed me to Erik, who was standing below us.
I say "somehow" because I was busy screaming in pain and I wasn't really paying close attention to the logistics of what was actually going on.
Next thing I knew Heath had dropped lightly to the tunnel floor and Erik handed me back to him.
"I'm going to run ahead and find Darius. You keep following the main tunnel. Don't take any of the turnoffs. Stay where it's best lit and I'll come back to you with Darius."
"Who is Darius?" Heath said, but he was speaking to empty air. Erik had already sprinted away.
"He's lots faster than I thought he was," I tried to say, but a weak jumble of words was all that whispered from my mouth. And I noticed the lantern that I was sure had gone out right before I'd climbed up into the basement was lit again. "That's weird" was what I meant to say. Instead, I barely heard myself mumble something that sounded like "Thhhhat's weeeer" over the pounding of my heart in my ears.
"Shhh," Heath soothed as he started out as quickly as he could without jiggling me so badly that he made me scream again. "You stay with me, Zo. Don't close your eyes. Keep watching me. Keep with me." Heath kept talking and talking, which was really annoying because my chest hurt really bad and all I wanted to do was close my eyes and go to sleep.
"Gotta rest," I murmured.
&ldqu_ }nd I&rsooto;No! There's no resting! Hey, let's pretend like we're in that Titanic movie you used to watch over and over again. You know, the one with Leonardo DiStupio."
"DiCaprio," I whispered, irritated at the fact that after all these years Heath was still jealous that when I was a kid I'd had a crush on Leonardo. Or as I liked to think of him, "my boyfriend Leo."
"What ever," he said. "Remember how you said if you'd been Rose you would really never have let him go? Okay, well, let's do a little reenactment. I'm the gay-looking DiCaprio and you're Rose. You have to keep your eyes open and on my face, or you'll have let me go and I'll turn into a huge gay Popsicle."
"Dork," I managed.
Heath grinned. "Just never let me go, Rose. Okay?"
Okay, it was a stupid reenactment, but I'll admit that he hooked me. It had driven me crazy since the first time I'd seen the movie (and bawled my eyes out--and I do mean one of those shoulder-heaving, ugly snot cries). Stupid Rose says she'll never let him go, but then she does. And why couldn't she have scooted over and let Leo/Jack get on that floating board thing with her? There was plenty of room. So while my foggy mind circled round and round that heart-wrenching scene from one of my favorite movies, Heath held me tight in his arms and ran.
He'd just followed a gentle curve in the tunnel when Erik found us. Darius was at his shoulder. Heath came to a stop and it was then that I realized how hard he was breathing. Huh. I wondered abstractly if I should be embarrassed that I was heavy.
Darius took one look at me and started barking commands at Erik.
"I'm taking her to Stevie Rae's room. I'll get there well ahead of you, but I'll need this human to join me there, so show him where to go. Then you get the Twins and Damien. Wake up Aphrodite. We may need her, too." Darius turned to Heath. "I will take Zoey."
Heath hesitated. I could tell he didn't want to let me go. Darius's stony look softened. "Do not fear. I am a Son of Erebus and I give you my oath that I will always protect her."
Reluctantly Heath transferred me to Darius's strong arms. The warrior looked grimly down at me. "I'm going to move fast. Remember to trust me."
I nodded weakly, and even though I knew what was coming next, I was still amazed as Darius took off, moving with a speed that blurred the walls of the tunnel and made my head spin. Once before I'd experienced Darius's amazing ability to practically teleport from one place to another, and it wasn't any less breathtaking the second time.
It seemed only seconds had passed when Darius came to an abrupt halt in front of the blanketed entrance to Stevie Rae's room. He shoved inside. Stevie Rae was sitting up, rubbing her eyes and peering blurrily at us. Then her mouth opened in utter shock and she bounded off the bed.
"Zoey! What happened?" "Raven Mocker," Darius said. "Clear those things off that table."
Stevie Rae knocked the stuff off the table that sat by nketa!ditthe end of her bed. I wanted to protest that she really shouldn't make such a mess. I mean, I was sure she'd broken a glass or two and sent a whole bunch of DVDs flying across the room, but not only was my voice not working right, but I was really busy trying not to pass out from the terrible pain that was slicing through the top part of my body as Darius placed me on the table.
"What can we do? What can we do?" Stevie Rae repeated the question. I thought she looked like a little lost girl and I noticed that she was crying, too.
"Take her hand. Talk to her. Keep her conscious," Darius said. And then he turned away and started throwing stuff out of the first aid kit.
"Zoey, can you hear me?" I could feel that Stevie Rae had hold of my hand, but just barely.
It took what felt like a superhuman effort, but I whispered, "Yeah."
Stevie Rae clutched my hand harder. "You're gonna be okay. 'Kay? Nothin' can happen to you, 'cause I don't know what I'd do--" Her voice caught on a sob, and then she said, "You can't die 'cause you've always believed the best of me, so I've tried to be what you believe I am. Without you, well, I'm afraid the good in me will die, too, and I'll give in to the darkness. Plus, there are so many things I still need to tell you. Important things."
I wanted to tell her not to be silly, that she wasn't making sense and I wasn't going anywhere, but through the pain and the numbness I was starting to get a strange feeling. The only way I could describe it was as a sense of not-rightness. What ever had happened, what ever was going on with me, that was the source of the not-rightness. And this new feeling, more than the blood--more than the fear in my friends' faces--was telling me that something was so wrong with me that I might, indeed, be going somewhere.
It was then that the pain began to recede, and I decided that if this was what it felt like to die, then it was better than living and hurting like hell.
Heath burst into the room, came straight to me, and took my other hand. He barely looked at Stevie Rae. Instead, he smoothed the hair out of my face.
"How are ya, babe? Still holding on?"
I tried to smile at him, but he seemed so far away that I couldn't make the change in expression reach him.
The Twins ran into the room with Kramisha close behind them.
"Oh no!" Erin stopped several feet from where I was and pressed her hand against her mouth.
"Zoey?" I thought Shaunee looked confused. Then she blinked several times, her gaze traveled down my body, and she burst into tears.
"That don't look good," Kramisha said. "Not good at all." She paused and then her eyes went from me to Heath, whose attention was so focused on me I swear he didn't look like he'd notice if a giant white elephant in a tutu danced into the room. "Ain't that the human kid who was down here before?"
I don't know why, but except for my own body, which didn't seem to belong to me anymore, I had become majorly aware of everything that was going on around me. The Tw
D uins were holding hands and bawling so hard snot was running from their noses. Darius was still digging through the first aid kit. Stevie Rae was patting my hand and trying (unsuccessfully) not to cry. Heath was whispering silly butchered lines from Titanic to me. In other words, everyone was focused on me--except Kramisha. She was staring hungrily at Heath. Little warning bells started ringing in my mind and I tried to struggle to regain awareness of my body. I needed to warn Heath to be on his guard. I needed to tell him he should leave this place before something bad happened to him. "Heath," I managed to whisper.
"I'm here, babe. I'm not going anywhere."
I did a mental eye roll. Heath and his heroics were cute and all, but I was afraid they were going to get him eaten by Stevie Rae's red fledglings.
"Hey, ain't you the human kid who was down here before? The one Zoey came after?" Kramisha had moved closer to Heath. Her eyes had taken on a red tint that was a gigantic warning sign. Was I the only one who could see danger in the intense way she was staring at him?
"Darius!" I finally gasped.
Thankfully, the warrior looked up from rummaging through the first aid kit. I flicked my eyes from his to where Kramisha was practically drooling on Heath and saw understanding cross Darius's face.
"Kramisha. Leave the room. Now," Darius snapped.
She hesitated, then dragged her red gaze from Heath to look directly at me. Go! I mouthed the word. Her eyes didn't change, but Kramisha nodded once and walked quickly from the room.
It was then that Aphrodite slapped the doorway blanket aside and made her grand entrance. Looking seriously like poopie, she scowled at the room.
"Damn it, this Imprint is a pain in the ass! Stevie Rae, could you not get a handle on yourself and keep your emotional bullshit under control and show just a smidge of respect for those of us who can still have hangovers that would kill the average--" She finally managed to focus her blurry vision enough to actually see me. Her face, already pale and hollow-eyed, blanched so that it looked a sickly shade of fish-belly white. "Oh, Goddess! Zoey!" She started shaking her head back and forth, back and forth as she rushed over to me. "No, Zoey. No. I didn't see this." She was talking earnestly to me. "I never saw this. You beat the first death vision I had. The next one wasn't supposed to be you being cut again. The next was supposed to be you drowning. No! This isn't right!"
I tried to say something, but she'd already rounded on Heath.
"You! What the fuck are you doing here?"
"I--I came to see if she was okay," Heath stammered, obviously freaked by her intensity.
Aphrodite shook her head again. "No. You aren't supposed to be here. This isn't right." She paused and her eyes narrowed at Heath. "You caused this, didn't you?"
I watched Heath's eyes fill with tears. "Yeah, I think I did," he said.