Darius was the first of us out of the vehicle. His face was set in expressionless lines so that he looked strong and confident, but entirely unreadable. He ignored the Raven Mockers, who were staring at him with their terrible eyes, and addressed the warrior in the center of the group.
"Greetings, Aristos," Darius said. Though he clenched his fist over his heart in a quick salute, I noticed Darius did not bow. "I have several fledglings, including a young priestess, with me. The priestess has been severely wounded and is in need of immediate medical attention."
Before Aristos could respond, the largest of the Raven Mockers cocked its head to the side and said, "Which priestess returns to the House of Night?"
Even inside the Hummer I shivered hearing the creature's voice. This one sounded more human than the one that had attacked me, but that made it even more frightening.
Slowly and deliberately Darius shifted his attention from Aristos to the horrible creature who was neither bird nor man, but a mutated mixture of both. "Creature, I do not know you."
The Raven Mocker narrowed its red eyes at Darius. Z^x the creat"Son of man, you may call me Rephaim."
Darius didn't blink. "I still do not know you."
"You will know me," Rephaim hissed, opening his beak so that I could see into his maw.
Darius ignored the creature and addressed Aristos again. "I have a priestess who has been badly wounded and several fledglings who are in need of rest. Will you allow us to pass?"
"Is it Zoey Redbird? Do you have her with you?" Aristos asked. Every one of the Raven Mockers reacted to my name. Each of them turned their attention from Darius to our Hummer. Wings ruffling and abnormal limbs twitching with subdued energy, the things stared. I'd never been so glad for tinted windows in my life.
"It is." Darius's response was clipped. "Will you let us pass?" he repeated.
"Of course," Aristos said. "All fledglings have been ordered to return to campus." He gestured toward the school buildings. The movement briefly allowed the side of his neck to be illuminated by the nearest gaslight, and I saw a thin red line running across his skin, as if his neck had recently been injured.
Darius nodded tersely. "I will carry the priestess to the infirmary. She cannot walk."
Darius had started to return to the vehicle when Rephaim said, "Is the Red One with you?"
Darius glanced back at him. "I do not know what you mean by the Red One," he said blandly.
In an instant Rephaim had spread his massive black wings and leaped on the hood of the Hummer. The crackling of the metal denting under his weight was drowned out by the collective hissing of the agitated cats. Rephaim perched there, human hands curled into claws, lurking over Darius. "Do not lie to me, ssssson of man! You know I sssspeak of the red vampyre!" As his temper spiked, his voice became less human.
"Get ready to call your elements," I said, trying to push down the pain and speak clearly and calmly, even though I felt so weak and lightheaded that I wasn't certain I could call spirit for Aphrodite, let alone help control and direct the rest of them. "If that thing attacks Darius, we throw everything we have at it, pull Darius in here, and drive away like hell."
But Darius didn't seem perturbed at all. He looked up at the creature coolly. "You mean the red vampyre priestess Stevie Rae?"
"Yessss!" The word was one long hiss.
"She is not with me. I have only blue fledglings here. And the priestess among them needs immediate aid--as I have already explained." Darius continued to gaze calmly up at the thing that looked like it had stepped out of a nightmare. "For the final time, do you allow us to pass or not?"
"Passss, of courssssse," the creature hissed. It didn't get off the Hummer, but leaned back so that Darius could barely get the driver's side door open.
"Come this way. Now." Darius motioned for Aphrodite to slide across the seat, and held his hand out so that she could take it. "Stay close," I heard him murmur to her and slly. &ldque creVaw her nod her head quickly. Keeping glued to Darius's side, she moved with him to my door. He leaned in, meeting our eyes. "Are you ready?" he asked quietly. The question was filled with so much more than those three simple words.
"Yes," Damien and the Twins said together.
"Ready," I said.
"Again, stay close," he whispered.
Darius and Damien managed to move me painfully into the warrior's arms. Glaring silently at the Raven Mockers, all the cats in the vehicle slunk out and seemed to melt into the icy shadows. I breathed a sigh of relief when none of the creatures pounced on my Nala. Please let the cats be safe, I sent a silent plea to Nyx. I felt more than saw Aphrodite, Damien, and the Twins surround Darius and me, and then, as if we were one being, we moved away from the Hummer and onto the school grounds.
The Raven Mockers, including Rephaim, took to the sky as Aristos led us the short distance to the first building on campus, the one housing the professors' quarters as well as the infirmary. As Darius carried me through the arched wooden doorway that always reminded me of something that should stand behind a moat and into the familiar building, I thought about how it had only been a little more than a couple of months ago that I'd first arrived here and had been taken unconscious into the infirmary to wake up, not having a clue about my new future. Weird that I was in almost that exact position again.
I glanced at my friends' faces. Everyone looked calm and confident. It was only because I knew them so well that I recognized the fear in the tight line of Aphrodite's mouth, and that Damien's hands, fisted at his sides, hid their shaking. The Twins walked on my right, so close that Shaunee's shoulder brushed Erin's, which in turn brushed against Darius--as if through touch they could gain courage.
Darius turned down a familiar hallway, and because he was carrying me, I felt the instant tension in his body and knew before she spoke that he had seen her. I lifted my heavy head wearily from his shoulder in time to see Neferet standing in front of the door to the infirmary. She was beautiful in a long, body-hugging dress made of an iridescent black material that shimmered and showed hints of deep purple whenever she moved. Her dark auburn hair fell in thick, glossy waves down to her waist, and her moss-green eyes sparkled with emotion.
"Ah, so the prodigal returns?" Her voice was melodic and slightly amused.
Instantly I pulled my eyes from her and whispered frantically under my breath, "Your elements!" I only worried for the space of a heartbeat about them not hearing and not understanding, because almost immediately I felt the light brush of a fire-warmed wind and smelled a cool spring rain. Even though Neferet could not read Aphrodite's mind, I murmured, "Spirit, I need you," and felt the flutter within me as the element responded. Before I could change my mind and selfishly keep invigorating spirit for myself I commanded, "Go to Aphrodite," and heard the sharp intake of her breath as the element filled her. Sure that my friends were as protected as they could be, I turned my attention to our tainted High Priestess. I opened my mouth to comment on the irony of her using a Biblical comparison, when a door a few feet down the hall from where Neferet stood opened and he stepped out of it.
Darius stopped so abruptly it felt as if he'd suddenly hit the end of a tether.
"Oh!" Shaunee breathed.
"Shiiiiiit!" Erin said on a long sigh.
"Don't look at his eyes!" I heard Aphrodite whisper. "Stare at his chest instead."
"Not a hard thing to do," Damien said softly.
"Stay strong," Darius said.
Then time seemed to suspend.
Stay strong, I told myself. Stay strong. But I didn't feel strong. I felt exhausted and hurt and utterly defeated. Neferet intimidated me. She was just so perfect and powerful. Kalona made me realize my insignificance. The two of them together dwarfed me, and my head swam dizzily with a cacophony of thoughts. I was just a kid. Hell, I wasn't even a full vampyre yet. How could I hope to stand against these two amazing beings? And did I really want to fight Kalona? Did we know for one hundred percent sure that he was evil? I blinked, clearing my blurring vision and stared at him. He absolutely did not look evil. Kalona was wearing pants that looked like they were made of the same creamy brown deerskin real moccasins were made of. His feet were bare, and so was his chest. It sounds stupid to say it--that he was standing there in the hallway half-naked--but then it didn't feel stupid at all. It felt right. It's just that he was so incredible! His skin was completely free of any blemish and was the golden tan that white girls try but always fail to get by roasting in tanning beds. His hair was thick and black. It was long but not ridiculously Fabio long. It was just kinda shaggy and had a cute wave to it. The more I looked at it, the more I could imagine running my fingers through it. Not heeding Aphrodite's warning, I looked directly into his eyes and felt a jolt of electricity sizzle through me as his eyes widened in recognition, and that jolt seemed to zap even more of my already almost non ex is tent strength. I sagged in Darius's arms, so weak I could hardly hold my head up.
"She is wounded!" Kalona's voice boomed down the hall. Even Neferet cringed. "Why is she not being tended?"
I heard the sickening sound of huge wings fluttering, and then Rephaim stepped out of the room Kalona had just been in. I shivered as I realized the Raven Mocker must have flown up to the window and then crawled in from there. Isn't there any place aboveground that the horrid things couldn't get to?
"Father, I ordered the warrior to take the priestess to the infirmary so that she could be properly cared for." Rephaim's unnatural voice sounded even more obscene after hearing the majesty of Kalona.
"Oh, bullshit!" Completely shocked, I stared openmouthed at Aphrodite, who was giving the Raven Mocker her best bitchy sneer. She tossed back her thick blond hair as she continued, "Bird boy kept us out there in the freezing rain while he yammered about the Red One this and the Red One that. Darius got Zoey in here despite his help." Aphrodite air-quoted over the word "help."
There was utter silence in the hallway, and then Kalona threw back his beautiful head and laughed. "I had forgotten how amusing human women can be." With a graceful ak blo Nmovement of his hand he gestured to Darius. "Bring the young priestess here so that she may be tended."
I could feel Darius's reluctance in the tension of his body, but he did as Kalona ordered, with my friends at his side. We reached Neferet and the infirmary door at the same time Kalona did.
"Your duty is finished here, Warrior," Kalona told Darius. "Neferet and I shall attend her now." And the fallen angel opened his arms as if he expected Darius to give me to him. With that movement the enormous raven-feathered wings that had until then been tucked neatly against his back, rustled and half opened.
I wanted to reach out and touch those wings and was glad I was too weak to do more than stare.
"My duty is not finished." Darius's voice was as tense as his body. "I have sworn to care for this young priestess, and I must stay by her side."
"I'm staying, too," Aphrodite said.
"And I stay." Damien sounded small and shaky, but I saw that his fists were still clenched firmly by his sides.
"Us, too," Erin said, and Shaunee nodded grimly.
It was Neferet's turn to laugh. "Surely you don't think you can stay with Zoey through my examination?" The amusement in her voice disappeared. "Stop being ridiculous! Darius, take her into that room and leave her on the bed. If you insist, you may wait here in the hall for her, though by the look of you, the wiser choice would be for you to eat and refresh yourself. After all, you have brought Zoey home, where she is safe, so you have completed your charge. The rest of you return to the dorms. The human part of the city might be paralyzed by a simple storm, but we are not humans. Life goes on for us, which means school goes on." She paused and gave Aphrodite a look so filled with hatred that it twisted her face into something that was too hard and cold to keep even a tiny bit of its beauty. "But you are now a human, are you not, Aphrodite?"
"I am," Aphrodite said. Her face was pale, but she lifted her chin and met Neferet's frigid gaze.
"Then you belong out there." Neferet made a vague motion away from us. "No, she doesn't," I said. Concentrating on Neferet had broken the spell staring at Kalona had cast over me. I barely recognized my own voice. It sounded like a whispery, weak old woman, but Neferet didn't have any problem hearing me, and she turned her attention from Aphrodite to me. "Aphrodite still has visions from Nyx. She belongs here," I managed to say, even though I had to blink rapidly because gray spots kept messing up my sight.
"Visions?" Kalona's deep voice cut the air between us. This time I refused to look at him, though he was standing so close that I could feel the weird chill that came from his body. "What type of visions?"
"Warnings of future disasters," Aphrodite spoke up.
"Interesting." He drew the word out. "Neferet, my Queen, you did not tell me you had a prophetess at the House of Night." Before Neferet could speak, he continued, "Most excellent, most excellent. A prophetess can be quite useful."
"But she is not a fledgling, nor is she a vampyre, and thus she does not belong at the House of Night. So I say she should leave." Neferet's voice had an odd tone to it I didn't recognize at first, and then as I blinked more and my vision cleared enough for me to get a good look at her body language--she was all but hanging on Kalona--I realized with a little shock that Neferet was actually pouting.
Then, mesmerized, I watched Kalona reach out and stroke the side of Neferet's cheek, sweeping his palm along the curve of her long, smooth neck, continuing to caress her shoulder, and finally trailing off down the length of her back. Neferet trembled under his touch and her eyes dilated, as if his caress made her high.
"My Queen, surely a prophetess will be of some use to us," he said.
Still staring at him, Neferet nodded.
"You stay, little prophetess," Kalona told Aphrodite.
"Yes," she said firmly. "I do. I stay with Zoey."
Okay, I'll freely admit that Aphrodite was utterly surprising me. I mean, yes, I was hurt badly and probably in serious shock, so I can blame my altered mental and physical state on that and hope that some of the weirdly hypnotic affect the fallen angel was having on me was because I very well might be dying. But obviously everyone else was being affected by Kalona to some degree. Everyone except Aphrodite. She totally sounded like her normal bitchy self. I just didn't get it.
"Prophetess," Kalona said. "You say you are given warning of future disasters?"
"Yes," Aphrodite said.
"Tell me, what do you see in the future if we were to turn Zoey away at this moment?"
"I haven't had a vision, but I know Zoey needs to be here. She's been hurt badly," Aphrodite said.
"Then let me assure you that I, too, have been known to prophesy." Kalona spoke. His voice, which had been so delicious and deep that I honestly wanted nothing more than to curl up and listen to him forever, had started to change. Subtly, at first, I felt the shift in timbre. As he continued to speak to Aphrodite, my flesh began to crawl with fear. His obvious displeasure was reflected in his voice, until even Darius took a staggering step away from him. "And on my oath I tell you if you do not do as I command, this priestess will not live another night. Leave us now!"
Kalona's words crackled through my body, causing my already dizzied senses to reel. I clung to Darius's shoulders. "Just do what he says," I told Aphrodite, pausing to try to catch my breath. "He's right. I'm not gonna last long if I don't get help." "Give the priestess to me. I shall not ask another time," said Kalona, spreading his arms for me again.
Aphrodite hesitated for just a moment, then she reached over and grasped my hand. "We'll be here when you're better." She squeezed my hand and I suddenly felt the rush of spirit reenter my body.
I wanted to tell her no, she needed to keep the element--she needed its protection--but Aphrodite had already turned to Damien and given him a nudge toward me, saying, ng tofys,"Tell Zoey bye, and give her your strongest get-well wishes."
I watched Damien glance quickly at Aphrodite, who nodded slightly. Then he grabbed my hand and squeezed, too. "Be well, Z," he said, and when he let loose my hand I could feel a sweet breeze wrap around me.
"You guys, too," Aphrodite told the Twins.
Shaunee took one of my hands, and Erin the other. "We're pulling for you, Z," Erin said, and when they turned away, I was left with the warmth of summer and the freshness of a cleansing rain.
"Enough sentimentality. I'll take her now." And before I could draw another breath Kalona had taken me from Darius. Pressed against his naked chest I closed my eyes and tried to cling to the strength of the elements as I trembled at the wonderful cold heat of his body.
"I will wait here." I heard Darius say before the door closed with a sickening thud of finality, shutting my friends out and leaving me alone with my enemy, a fallen angel, and the monstrous bird creature his ancient lust had created.
Then I did something I'd only done twice before in my entire life. I fainted.