Damien, Jack, and Erik ran into the room, followed closely by Duchess. Jack took one look at me, screamed like a girl, and fainted. Damien caught him in time to keep him from falling and bashing his head on the floor. He laid him down on Stevie Rae's bed while the poor confused Lab whined and stared with big, worried brown eyes from Jack to Damien and me, and then back to Jack again. Damien joined everyone else, including Erik, who was crowding around me. Darius waded into the group, parting kids like he was a vampyre Moses and they were the fledgling Red Sea.

"They need to cast a circle and focus the healing powers of the elements on Zoey," Darius told Aphrodite. She nodded, touched my forehead gently, and then started snapping commands at my friends.

"Nerd herd! Take your places. Let's get this circle cast."

Shaunee and Erin stared blankly at her. Damien, his voice thick with tears, said, "I--I don't know which direction is east."

Stevie Rae squeezed my hand again before letting it go. "I do. I always know where north is, so I can show you where east is, too," she told Damien.

"Make the circle around the table," Darius said. "And give me the sheet from that bed."

Damien grabbed the top sheet from Stevie Rae's bed, murmuring to an awake and crying Jack that it was going to be okay. He handed the sheet to Darius.

"Stay with me, Priestess," he told me. He glanced at Heath and Erik. "Keep talking to her, both of you."

Erik took the hand Stevie Rae had let loose. "I'm here, Z." He threaded his fingers with mine. "You have to make it through this. We need you." He paused and his beautiful blue eyes met mine. "I need you, and I'm sorry about all that stuff before."

Then Heath raised my other hand to his lips, kissing it softly. "Hey, Zo, did I tell you I haven't had one drink for more than two months?"

It was seriously weird to have both of my guys there. I was glad they weren't banging their chests at each other, but I understood that might not be a particularly good thing because it meant that I was hurt even worse than I'd realized.

"That's good, huh? I've totally stopped drinking," Heath said.

I tried to smile at him. It was good. The reason I'd broken up with Heath right before I was Marked was his drinking. It had totally gotten out of control, and--

Darius pulled Erik's wadded-up shirt from my chest and quickly ripped the top of my dress in half so that I felt the cool air of the tunnel against my blood-drenched skin.

"Sweet Goddess, no!" Erik blurted.

"Ah, shit!" Heath was shaking his head back and forth. "This is bad. Really bad. No one can live with--"

"No human can live with this kind of wound, but she's not a human and I'm not going to let h6 k?)er die." Darius interrupted Heath as he (thankfully) covered my naked boobs with the sheet.

I made the mistake of glancing down. Maybe it was a good thing that I didn't have the energy to scream. There was a long laceration that went all the way from the top of my left shoulder, across my chest a couple of inches above my breasts, and didn't end until it sliced through the skin on my right shoulder. The cut was deep and jagged. The edges of my skin flapped sickeningly apart, showing way more muscle and fat and layers of skin than I was ever meant to see. Blood seeped from all along the terrible wound, but not as much blood as I would expect. Was that because I was running out of it? Hell! It was probably because I was running out! My breath started to come in hysterical little pants.

"Zoey, look at me," Erik said. When I kept staring down at the wound Darius was pressing thick pads of gauze against, Erik took my chin gently in his hand and turned my face up, forcing me to look at him. "You're going to be fine. You have to be fine."

"Yeah, Zo. Just don't look at it," Heath said. "You know, like you told me whenever I messed myself up playing football. You used to say, `Just don't look at it and it won't hurt so bad.'" Erik let loose of my chin and I managed to nod. Had I been able to talk I would have told both of them Hell no, I'm not looking at it again! I'd already scared the crap out of myself. No need to revisit it.

"Get that circle cast," Darius said.

"We're ready," Damien said.

I looked around (definitely avoiding glancing down at myself again) to see that Damien, Stevie Rae, and the Twins had taken their positions in a circle around us.

"Then get it cast!" Darius snapped.

There was a pause into which Erin finally spoke. "But Zoey always casts the circles. We never have."

"I'll do it." Aphrodite stepped within the circle and marched over to Damien. Damien gave her a look that even I could see was filled with doubt. "You don't have to be a fledgling or a vampyre to cast a circle. All you have to be is attached to Nyx. And I'm attached to Nyx," she said firmly. "But I need you guys to be behind me on this. Are you?"

Damien paused long enough to look at me. With an effort that seemed to sap the last of my strength, I nodded at him. He smiled at me and nodded back.

"I'm behind you," Damien told Aphrodite.

Aphrodite looked from him to the Twins. "We're with you, too." Erin spoke for both of them.

Finally she turned to Stevie Rae, who wiped her eyes, sent me a big, confident smile, and then she said to Aphrodite, "You've saved my life twice. I'm trusting that you can do the same for Zoey."

I saw Aphrodite's face flush, her chin lift, and her shoulders straighten and knew that for the first time in a very long time she felt like an accepted part of a group.

"Okay, let's do this," Aphrodite said. "It's the first element, the one we all embrace from our first b8{/2 Sreaths to our last. I call wind to the circle!" Sure enough, I saw a sudden breeze begin to lift Aphrodite's and Damien's hair, and with a look of obvious relief, she moved clockwise around the circle to Shaunee.

And then I stopped paying attention--or rather my attention started to narrow, getting all gray and tunnel-vision-like around the edges.

"Zoey, are you still with us?" Darius asked as he pressed more gauze against my chest.

I couldn't answer him. My head felt really light, but the rest of my body was unbelievably heavy, like some moron had parked a Mack truck on top of me.

"Z?" Erik was saying. "Z, look at me!"

"Zoey? Babe?" Heath looked like he was going to cry again.

Okay, I really wanted to say something to make them feel better, but it just wasn't possible. I couldn't make my body work anymore. It was like I'd become a distant spectator in the game that was going on around me. I could watch, but I couldn't play.

"All the elements but spirit have been evoked," Aphrodite said. She was standing beside Darius. "That's the element Zoey always personifies, and I feel weird calling it in her place."

"Call it," Darius said. He glanced up from me and looked around the circle at my friends. "Concentrate the power of your element on Zoey. Think about filling her with strength and warmth and life." Vaguely I heard Aphrodite evoking spirit, although I didn't feel the quickening its presence usually gave me. I briefly felt a distant warmth and thought for a second that I also smelled rain and cut grass, but that was gone quickly while the gray framing my vision became thicker and thicker.

"Are you the human Zoey was Imprinted with?" I heard Darius talking to Heath. I listened, but couldn't manage to care too much about what they were saying.

"Yes," Heath said.

"Good. Your blood would be even better than Aphrodite's for her."

"That's the first good news I've heard in ages," Aphrodite mumbled, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand.

"Are you willing to allow Zoey to drink from you?"

"Of course!" Heath said. "Just tell me what I need to do."

"Sit up here. Hold her head in your lap. Then give me your arm," Darius told Heath.

Heath got up on the end of the table, and with Erik and Darius's help my head was soon resting against his warm thigh, like he was a living pillow. Heath held his arm out and Darius grasped it firmly. My mind was too fuzzy to make sense of what they were doing until Darius reached behind him and took the all-purpose knife/scissors/bottle opener from the first aid kit, flipped the knife partway open, and pressed the blade against the soft skin on the inside of Heath's muscular forearm.

The scent of his blood settled over me like a delicious fog.

"Press her mouth against it," Darius said. "Make her drink."0 Jt="0%=

"Come on, babe. Take some of this. It'll help you get better."

Okay, my rational mind knew that Erik was standing right there beside me watching along with all of my best friends. Under normal circumstances I would never have done what I did next, no matter how delicious and amazing and enticing Heath's blood smelled.

But I wasn't currently experiencing anything that even mildly resembled normal circumstances. So when Heath pressed his bleeding arm against my lips, I opened my mouth, sank my teeth deep into him, and started sucking.

Heath moaned and wrapped his other arm around me, pressing his face into my hair as I drank from him. The world immediately narrowed so that there was only Heath and me as his blood exploded into my body. With that first drink, awareness slammed back into my chest, and with it pain so intense that I would have wrenched my mouth from his skin had he not tightened his grip on me and whispered into my ear, "No! You can't stop. If I can stand it, so can you, Zo."

See, I knew I wasn't just causing him to feel the exquisite plea sure feeding from a human usually caused both vamp and victim. We'd instantly Imprinted again. Even in the bad shape I was in I could tell that. Heath's whole awareness filled me along with his blood, and we were bound together through the magical fabric that was the need and attraction between human and vampyre, stitched together in a single garment of the ancient bond that was an Imprint. But I wasn't just drinking from him. I was feeding in a frenzy that was a natural instinct for survival, and through our connection Heath was feeling my pain and fear and need, everything that I'd been numb to when my body was in near-fatal shock. His blood had changed that, though. It had revitalized me, and in doing so it had wrenched me out of the deadly shock state and thrown me directly into searing pain and the realization that I was perilously close to dying.

I whimpered, still feeding from him, but was miserable because I knew what I was making him feel. Of course, he knew what I was feeling, too, and how sorry I was that I was hurting him.

"It's okay, babe. It's okay. It's not that bad, really," he whispered in my ear through teeth gritted against the intense mixture of pain and desire.

I don't know how much time had passed when I realized that, even though the cut across my chest hurt like hell, my body was warm, and I could feel caressing me a soft breeze that carried the scent of spring rain and a hay-filled meadow. My spirit, too, felt invigorated, and I knew that Heath's blood had energized me enough that now I was able to accept the healing aid of the elements that comforted my soul as they soothed my body.

At about the same time I realized Heath had stopped talking to me. I opened my eyes and glanced up. He was kinda slumped over me but was being held upright by Darius's firm grip on his shoulders. His eyes were closed and his face was pale.

Instantly I pulled my mouth from his arm. "Heath!" Had I killed him? Panicked, I tried to sit up, but the pain shooting through my body stopped me.

"The human is fine, Priestess," Darius soothed. "Stanch the wound on his arm so that he will not lose any more blood."

Automatically I ran my tongue ove Btense had stor the narrow slice on Heath's arm and the bigger gash I'd made when I bit him while I thought Heal...don't bleed anymore, and when I pulled away this time I saw that the knife wound, as well as the marks my teeth had left, had completely stopped bleeding.

"You can close the circle," Darius told Aphrodite, who was watching me with undisguised curiosity.

See, I wanted to tell her, there are a lot of different kinds of Imprints. What I have with Heath is definitely not what you have with Stevie Rae. But I couldn't summon the energy to say the words. Actually, I wasn't looking forward to the gazillion questions I was sure she was going to have for me. And then before she turned to Stevie Rae to begin thanking and then sending away the elements, I saw Aphrodite send Darius a sexy smile filled with promise, and I remembered that the first Imprint I'd shared with Heath had been broken when I'd had sex with Loren, and I realized that it was Darius who was going to have to field her questions. By the intimate smile he gave her in return, I was guessing he was going to like that kind of questioning wayyyy more than I ever would.

Okay, gross.

As a grinning Aphrodite closed the circle, Darius turned back to Heath and me.

"Erik, help me get him over to the bed," Darius said.

A stone-faced Erik lifted my head out of Heath's lap. He and Darius carried him the short distance to the bed and laid his still body on the spot so recently vacated by Jack (who was watching, wide-eyed, from the side of the room while he manically petted Duchess over and over).

"Go get something fast to eat and drink. Oh, and find some more of Venus's wine," Darius told Jack. "But tell the red fledglings to stay away," he added before Jack nodded and scampered off with Duchess at his heels.

"They're not gonna attack Heath," Stevie Rae said. She came to me and held my hand. "Especially now that he's Imprinted with Zoey again. His blood smells wrong."

"I don't have time to test whether they will or will not right now," Darius said. He came back over to the bed and started inspecting my wound again. "Good. It has completely stopped bleeding."

"I think I'll take your word for that. I don't really want to look again." I was pleased as hell that I had my voice back, even if I did sound weak and more than a little shaky. "Thanks, guys, for the circle," I told my friends, who grinned at me and started to rush the table.

"No!" Darius put up a hand, halting their jubilation. "I need room to work. Aphrodite, find some of those butterfly bandages in that kit and bring them over to me."

"Hey, am I done almost dying?" I asked the warrior.

Darius looked up from my wound to meet my eyes, and I saw there a relief that told me exactly how close I must have been to not making it.

"You are done dying." He paused, clearly at the brink of saying more.

"But?" I prompted.

"There's no but about it," Stevie Rae said [ oXI was quickly. "You're done dyin'. Period."

I didn't look away from Darius, and he finally answered me. "But you need more help then I can give you if you're going to recover fully."

"What do you mean, more help?" Aphrodite asked as she moved to Darius's side, a handful of weird Band-Aids clenched in her fist.

Darius sighed. "Zoey's wound is severe. The human's blood has saved her life by replacing the blood she lost and strengthening her enough that she was able to accept the energy of the elements, but not even Zoey can recover from so great a wound by herself. She is still just a fledgling, though even were she a fully Changed vampyre, an injury like this would be difficult for her to recover from."

"But she looks better now, and she's talking to us," Damien said.

"Yeah, I don't feel like I'm not really here anymore," I said.

Darius nodded. "That is all good, but the truth is you need many stitches so that the wound can close and heal."

"What about these?" Aphrodite held up the butterfly Band-Aid packages. "I thought that's why you needed them."

"Those bandages are only temporary. She needs real stitches."

"So stitch me up." I tried to sound as brave as I could, even though the thought of Darius sewing up my flesh made me want to puke or cry, or both.

"There are no sutures in the kit," Darius said.

"Can't we get some?" Erik asked. I noticed as he spoke, he was looking everywhere but at me. "I could drive Heath's truck to the St. John's pharmacy and Stevie Rae could do her mind control thing on a doc there. We'd bring back what ever you need, and then you could stitch her up."

"Yeah, we can do that. I can even grab a doctor if you want and bring him down here, then wipe his memory clean when we return him," Stevie Rae said.

"Okay, Stevie Rae, that's a nice offer," I said, more than a little disturbed that she was talking about what amounted to kidnapping and brainwashing. "But I really don't think that's a good idea."

"It's not that simple to solve the problem anyway," Darius said.

"So explain it so it is that simple," Heath said, propping himself up on his elbows and looking totally like crap even though he smiled sweetly at me. "Zoey needs more than a doctor's care. Zoey needs to be around adult vampyres so that the damage to her body doesn't become fatal."

"Hang on. I thought you said I was done almost dying," I said.

"You are done almost dying from this particular wound, but if you don't get within a coven of vampyres, and I mean more than one or two or three of us, the damage caused to your body will use up your reserves of strength and you will begin rejecting the Change." Darius paused, letting what he was saying sink in with all of us. "You'll die from that. You may come back to u

{t7_s, like Stevie Rae and the rest of the red fledglings did, but you may not."

"Or you may come back like that stupid Stark kid and be a crazed asshole who starts attacking us," Aphrodite said.

"So you really don't have any choice," Darius said. "We have to get you back to the House of Night."

"Well, hell," I said.

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