The first thing I realized as I began to regain consciousness was that the crisp sheets of the infirmary bed were cool against my naked skin, which meant I didn't have any clothes on.
The second thing I realized was everything within me was telling me to keep my eyes closed and keep breathing deeply. In other words, I needed to pretend I was still out.
Staying as still as possible I tried to take inventory of my body. Okay, the long nasty wound on my chest was hurting considerably less than it had been when I'd passed out. I searched around with my senses (except sight, of course) and could feel and smell the lingering presence of spirit, air, water, and fire. The elements weren't fully manifested and glaringly obvious, but they were there around me, soothing and strengthening--and making me worried as hell for my friends. Go back to the others! I ordered the elements silently, and felt their reluctant departures. All except for spirit. I wanted to sigh and roll my eyes. Instead I concentrated harder. Spirit, go to Aphrodite. Stay close to her. Almost instantly I felt the absence of the powerful element. I must have made an involuntary movement at the departure of spirit because from somewhere near my feet Neferet spoke up.
"She stirred. I do not doubt she will regain consciousness soon." There was a pause, and I could hear her moving as if she were pacing as she continued to speak. "I still say I should not have healed her. Zoey's death could have been easily explained. She was almost dead when she arrived here."
"If what you have told me is true and she has dominion over all five of the elements, she is too powerful to be allowed to perish," Kalona said. He, too, sounded like he was standing near the end of my bed.
"What I've told you is the complete truth," Neferet said. "She controls the elements."
] wj V"Then we can use her. Why not include her in our new vision of the future? Having her allegiance would sway any members of the Council who would not readily succumb to me."
New vision of the future? Swaying the Council? As in the High Council of Vampyres? Holy crap!
Neferet's response was smooth and confident. "We won't need her, my love. Our plan will succeed. You should know that Zoey will never use her power for us anyway. She is entirely too infatuated with the Goddess."
"Ah, but that can change." His deep voice was like melted chocolate. Even though my mind was racing with the news I'd just overheard, my body was mesmerized by the sound of him; it felt good just to listen to him. "I seem to recall another priestess whose infatuation with the Goddess was broken."
"She is young and not wise enough to allow her eyes to be opened to more intriguing possibilities, as mine have been." Their voices were so close together that I knew she must be in his arms. "All Zoey can ever be to us is another enemy. I believe the day will come when either you or I will have to kill her."
Kalona chuckled. "You are such a delightfully bloodthirsty creature. If the young priestess is not a benefit to us, then of course she shall eventually be disposed of. Until then I will see what I can do about breaking the shackles that bind her."
"No. I want you to stay away from her!" Neferet snapped.
"You would do well to remember who is master here. I will not be ruled or commanded or trapped, ever again. And I am not your impotent Goddess. What I give I will take away if I am displeased!" The sexy silkiness was gone from Kalona's voice, and a terrible coldness had replaced it.
"Don't be angry." Neferet was instantly contrite. "It is just that I cannot bear to share you."
"Then do not displease me!" he shouted, but already the anger was fading from his voice.
"Come with me from this room and I promise I will not displease you," Neferet said teasingly. I could hear the disgusting moist sounds of them kissing. Neferet's breathless moans were enough to make me gag.
After way too many totally R-rated nasty sound effects, Kalona finally said, "Go to our chamber. Ready yourself for me. I will follow you there shortly."
I could almost hear Neferet's No! Come with me now! shriek through the room, but she surprised me by saying, "Come to me soon, my dark angel," and that in a sweet, sultry voice. Then there was the swish of her clothes and the opening and closing of a door.
She's actually manipulating him. I wondered if Kalona knew it. Surely an immortal being would be wise to a vampyre High Priestess's mind games (well, and body games, too--eesh). Then I remembered the spectral image of Neferet I'd glimpsed at the depot. How had she done that? Maybe turning to the Dark Side has given her different powers; maybe she's not just a fallen vampyre High Priestess. Who knows what being Queen of the Tsi Sgili really means? This new thought terrified me.
A rustling around my bed interrupted my awful inner musings. tF`Y K I lay very still. I wanted to hold my breath, but knew that I had to keep taking deep, even breaths. I swear I could feel Kalona's eyes on me and was unbelievably glad that the sheet had been pulled modestly up over my breasts and tucked tight around my body.
I felt the familiar chill coming from his body. Kalona must be close to me. He was probably standing right there, right beside my bed. I heard the ominous rustle of feathers and could imagine him spreading those beautiful black wings. He could be getting ready to pull me into his arms again and wrap them around me, like he had in my dream.
And that was it. No matter what my instincts were screaming at me, I couldn't keep my eyes closed any longer. Sure that I was going to be looking up at his indescribably perfect face, I opened my eyes to find myself staring up at the mutated features of Rephaim. The Raven Mocker was bent over me, his terrible bird face just inches from mine. His beak was open and his tongue was flicking in my direction.
My reaction was immediate and automatic, and several things happened all at once. Shrieking my most piercing girl scream, I clutched the sheet to my chest and scrambled back so fast I smacked myself against the headboard of the bed. As I did that, the disgusting Raven Mocker hissed and spread his wings, looking like he was going to pounce on me, and the door burst open. Darius rushed into the room, took one look at the malevolent creature hovering over me, and with a move that was as graceful as it was lethal, reached inside his leather jacket to the knife he holstered there, pulled it free, and threw. The blade struck Rephaim high in his chest. The creature shrieked and staggered back, clutching at the pearl-inlaid hilt of the knife.
"You dare attack my son!" It took Kalona only two strides to reach Darius. With the strength of a god, he grabbed the warrior by the throat and lifted him off his feet. Kalona was so tall, his arms so long and muscular, that he was able to slam Darius against the ceiling of the room. He held Darius there as the warrior's legs kicked spasmodically and his fists beat ineffectually against Kalona's massive arms.
"Stop it! Don't hurt him!" Pulling the sheet with me off the bed I staggered over to the two of them, not realizing until I'd gotten to my feet how weak I still was. Kalona's black wings were unfurled, and I had to duck under one of them to get to Darius. I didn't know what I thought I was going to do when I leaped off the bed. Even if I had been myself and not hurt and drained I would have been no match for this immortal being--and right now, though I was screaming at him and pounding on his side, I could tell I was less troubling to him than an annoying mosquito would have been. But one thing did happen. As I looked up at Kalona, I saw his blazing amber eyes and how his teeth were bared in a feral smile, and I understood that he was enjoying slowly choking the life from Darius.
At that moment Kalona's true self was revealed to me. He was not a misunderstood hero who was waiting for love to bring out his good side. Kalona didn't have a good side. Whether he had always been like this or not wasn't important. What he'd become--what he was now-- was evil. The spell he had worked over me shattered like a dream made of glass. I hoped desperately that it was too broken to ever be pieced back together again.
Drawing a deep breath, I raised my hands, palms out, not caring that the sheet fell away from my body, leaving me standing there naked. Then I used the last of my strength to evoke, "Wind and fire, come to me. I need yot 3d oveu." Instantly I felt the presence of the two elements, and beyond their presence I could sense Damien and Shaunee and had a brief flash of the two of them concentrating with their eyes closed as they added their combined wills to strengthen their elements. That little burst of power was all I needed. I narrowed my eyes and put everything I had into my command. "Make the winged guy get off Darius!" I threw my hands at Kalona, focusing the elements on the movement, and at the same time thinking how fire and wind had gotten me out of some pretty tight spots with those stupid Raven Mockers, so using them against their daddy should work, too.
The effect of the blast of hot air was immediate. It caught Kalona's outstretched wings and tossed him up and back, and there was a weird sizzling sound as the heated air touched his naked skin, actually causing mist to form in the air around him.
Darius had fallen heavily to the floor, but he was gasping for air while he tried to stand, putting his body between Kalona, Rephaim, and me. I couldn't do much more than try to control my breathing and blink hard to clear the weird little bright spots from my vision. Fire and wind had gone, leaving me barely able to stay on my feet.
A movement at the edge of my vision had me glancing at the open door and I gasped in surprise as Stark ran into the room, his bowstring already notched with a deadly-looking arrow. He lifted it to take aim at Darius, and then hesitated, shook his head like he was trying to clear it, and stared at me.
At the first sight of him I felt a wonderful rush of happiness. He looked like himself again! His eyes weren't glowing red. He didn't seem crazed and wasn't hollow-cheeked and skeletal. Then I realized I was standing there completely naked as he and I stared at each other. I grabbed the sheet pooling at my feet and hurriedly wrapped it around me, bath towel?style. Even in the middle of the big mess and stress that was going on around me, I could tell that my face was blazing red with embarrassment. I should have said something, anything to him, and instead my mind was frozen by the fact that he had just seen me completely naked.
Recovering his composure sooner than me, Stark lifted his bow again, renotching the arrow and sighting it at Darius.
"Stark! Don't shoot him!" I cried. I didn't bother to try to block his view of Darius. If Stark shot, he wouldn't miss no matter what I did. He couldn't miss. Unlike Kalona, my Goddess didn't take back a gift once she'd given it.
"If you are meaning to kill the person who threw me across the room, then that arrow will strike the priestess and not the warrior," Kalona said. He had gotten to his feet and he sounded perfectly normal. His expression was calm, but the skin of his naked chest looked flushed and kinda odd, like he'd suddenly gotten a sunburn. Small wisps of vapor were still lifting lazily from his exposed skin, even though both elements had left the room. "And it is not the priestess I want killed. It is the warrior."
Before Stark could fire his deadly arrow, I turned to Kalona, beseeching him, "Darius was just protecting me. It was a Raven Mocker who did this." I pointed to the long wound across my chest that was no longer gaping nastily open, but was instead an angry, jagged red line. "When Darius heard me scream and he saw Rephaim bending over me, it was only logical for him to assume I was being attacked again." Kalona had held up a hand to Stark, halting the shot. With the fal } sig fal len angel's attention fully on me, I continued, "Darius has sworn to protect me. He was just doing his job. Please don't kill him for that."
I held my breath during a long pause. Kalona stared at me, and I stared right back at him. The weird, hypnotic allure I'd felt for him hadn't returned. Not that he wasn't totally the most gorgeous man I'd ever seen. He definitely was. Then I felt a little start of surprise as I realized exactly what I was seeing as I gawked at him.
Kalona had gotten younger.
When he'd first risen from his imprisonment in the earth, he'd been utterly and completely handsome, but he'd also been a man. Well, one that was abnormally big and had huge black wings, but still, a man. He'd had an ageless look about him, appearing anywhere from thirty to fifty. But that had changed. If I had to guess his age, I'd say he was about eighteen. Definitely no older than twenty-one.
He's the perfect age for me...
Finally Kalona stopped staring at me and slowly turned to Rephaim, who was crouched in the corner of the room, his terrible human hands pressed around the knife that still protruded from his bird chest.
"Is this true, my son? Did one of my children cause the priestess's wound?"
"I have no way of knowing, Father. Not all of the sentries have returned," Rephaim spoke between short, panting breaths.
"It is true," Darius said.
"Of course that is what you would say, Warrior," Kalona said.
"I give you my word as a Son of Erebus that I tell you the truth," Darius said. "And you have seen Zoey's wound. Surely you recognize an injury made by the claws of one of your own children."
I was glad to see that Darius wasn't all puffed up and ready to continue the fight, like an idiot teenage boy would have been (hello, Heath and Erik!), and then I understood. Darius was still protecting me. If Kalona knew a Raven Mocker had almost killed me, without getting the rest of the story about it having been an accident, then maybe he would at the very least not leave me alone with one of them, and at the most warn his nasty children to stay away from me. That is, if Kalona still wanted me alive.
Then I quit babbling anything in my mind because Kalona was closing the space between us. I stood very still, staring straight ahead at his bare chest as he reached out, stopping just short of touching me. Slowly, with one finger he traced the path of my wound without actually stroking my skin, but still I could feel the chill that came from his body. I had to grit my teeth hard to keep myself from either shivering and cringing back or looking up into his eyes and taking the chance that I would lean forward just enough for his cold finger to touch my heated flesh.
"It is the mark of one of my sons," he said. "Stark, this time do not kill the warrior." I had just heaved a long sigh of relief when Kalona added, "Of course, I cannot allow him to wound my beloved son without redress. But I prefer to admonish him myself."
Kalona's voice was so calm, so matter of fact, that I didn't really get the meaning of his words until, like a cobra, he struck. The waelf from*W thrrior only had time to begin to take a defensive stance when Kalona whirled, pulled the knife from Rephaim's chest, and in one motion raked the blade down the side of Darius's face.
Darius staggered under the blow, and then fell as blood sprayed all around me, a heavy, scarlet rain in the little room. I screamed and tried to go to him, but Kalona's frigid hand closed around my wrist, jerking me back against him. I looked up at the immortal, willing the anger and horror I felt to burn through his awful appeal.
And I wasn't drawn to him! His spell didn't work on me! Young and inhumanly beautiful as he was, I still saw him as a dangerous enemy. He must have seen the triumph in my eyes because suddenly his warlike expression changed to a slow, knowing smile. He bent and whispered for my ears alone, "Remember, my little A-ya, the warrior can protect you from all others except me. Not even the power of your elements can keep me from claiming what will eventually be mine again." Then he pressed his lips against mine and the wild taste of him was like a blizzard rushing through my body, numbing my resistance and freezing my soul with a forbidden desire that utterly overwhelmed me. His kiss made me forget everything and everyone--Stark, Darius, and even Erik and Heath were frozen from my mind.
He released me and my legs would not hold me up. I crumpled to the floor as he strode from the room, laughing, with his wounded favorite son hobbling behind him.