Darius started forward, pulling me with haybe we?_im. We got to the little stoop that was the entrance to the girls' dorm. There were wide stairs, framed with staggered, waist-high stone walls, excellent for sitting on and flirting with your boyfriend after he'd walked you to the door and before he kissed you good night.
What Stark was doing was a twisted mockery of the good-night kissing that usually went on there. He was holding a girl in what could have been an embrace, had it not been obvious that, just seconds before his teeth had locked on her neck, she'd been trying to get away from him. I watched, horrified, as Stark, oblivious to our presence, continued his attack on her. It didn't matter that the girl was now moaning with sexual plea sure. I mean, we all know that's what happens when a vamp bites someone: The sex receptors in both the "victim" (and in this case she was definitely his victim!) and the vamp were stimulated. She was physically feeling plea sure, but her wide, terrified eyes, and the rigidity of her body made it obvious she would fight him if she could. Stark was drinking in huge gulps from her throat. His moans were feral and the hand that wasn't holding her tight against his body was fumbling at the girl's skirt, lifting it so that he could situate himself between her legs and--
"Free her!" Darius commanded, pulling his arm from my grasp and stepping out of the pocket of concealing mist and night that had been hiding us.
Stark dropped the girl with no more thought than he would have given an empty QT Big Gulp. She whimpered and on hands and knees scrambled away from him toward Darius. Darius tossed an old-time handkerchief he'd pulled from his pocket at me, and said, "Help her." Then he situated himself like a muscular mountain between the hysterical girl and me and Stark.
I crouched down, realizing with a start of surprise that the girl was Becca Adams, a pretty blond fourth former who had had a crush on Erik. As I watched Darius confront Stark, I handed Becca the handkerchief and murmured soothing words to her.
"You seem to keep getting in my way," Stark said. His eyes still glowed red, and there was blood on his mouth that he wiped absently away with the back of his hand. Again, I could see a darkness that pulsed around him. It wasn't completely visible, but more of a shadow within a shadow that shifted in and out of my vision, something that was actually easier seen when I wasn't looking for it.
And then it hit me. I knew where I'd noticed such strange liquid darkness before. It had been in the shadows of the tunnels, and then again in the glimpse of the spectral form of Neferet that had turned into the Raven Mocker who had almost killed me! With more sudden insight I recognized this darkness further. I was sure it had been present, pulsing like a living shadow around Stevie Rae before she'd Changed, only then my eyes and mind had just registered my best friend's need and anguish and struggle, and I'd processed the darkness she'd been moving in only as internal. Goddess, I'd been a fool! Overwhelmed, I tried to make sense of this new knowledge as Darius confronted Stark.
"Perhaps no one has explained to you that vampyre males do not abuse females, be they human, vampyre, or fledgling." Darius spoke calmly, as if he were having an ordinary conversation with a friend.
"I'm not a vampyre." Stark pointed to the outline of the red crescent moon on his forehead.
"That is an inconsequential detail. quo;"xmWe"--Darius motioned from himself to Stark--"do not abuse females. Ever. The Goddess has taught us better."
Stark smiled, but the gesture lacked any real humor. "I think you're gonna find that the rules have changed around here."
"Well, boy, I think you'll find that some of us have rules written here"--Darius pointed to his heart--"and rules written there aren't subject to the changing whims of those around us."
Stark's face hardened. He reached back and pulled free a bow that had been fitted in a strap on his back. Then he took an arrow from the quiver I'd assumed was a man purse hanging over his shoulder (I should have know it wasn't; Stark isn't exactly a man-purse kind of guy). He fitted the arrow in the bow and said, "I think I'll make sure you're never in my way again."
"No!" I stood up and moved to Darius's side, my heart pounding like crazy. "What the hell's happened to you, Stark?"
"I died!" he yelled, his face twisting in anger as the ghostly darkness rolled around him. Now that it was visible to me, I wondered how I could ever have missed it. Ignoring the shadowy evil, I continued to confront him.
"I know that!" I yelled. "I was there, remember?" That made him pause. The bow dipped down a little. I took that as a good sign, and went on. "You said you'd come back to Duchess and to me."
When I said his dog's name, pain flashed across his face, and all of a sudden he looked young and vulnerable. But the expression only lasted an instant. I blinked and he was back to being dangerous and sarcastic, though his eyes had stopped glowing red.
"Yeah, I'm back. But things are different now. And bigger changes are coming." He gave Darius a look of utter disgust. "All that old shit you believe in doesn't mean anything anymore. It makes you weak, and when you're weak you die."
Darius shook his head. "Honoring the way of the Goddess is never weakness."
"Yeah, well, I haven't seen much of any goddess hanging around here, have you?"
"Yes, actually I have," I spoke up. "I've seen Nyx. She appeared right in there"--I pointed at the girls' dorm--"just a couple days ago."
Stark looked at me silently for a long time. I searched his face, trying to find some hint of that guy I'd felt such a connection with--whom I'd kissed right before he'd died in my arms. But all I could see was an unpredictable stranger, and foremost in my mind was the knowledge that if he shot that bow he would not miss what ever he aimed at.
And suddenly that reminded me. He hadn't killed Stevie Rae. The fact that she was alive proved that he hadn't meant to kill her. So maybe there was some piece of the old Stark left within him.
"Stevie Rae's fine, by the way," I said.
"That's nothing to me," he said.
I shrugged. "Just thought you'd want to know, siv h Zmeantince it was your arrow that made her a shish kebab."
"I was doing what I was told to do. The boss said make her bleed; I made her bleed."
"Neferet? Is she who's controlling you?" I asked.
His eyes blazed. "No one's controlling me!"
"Your bloodlust is controlling you," Darius said. "If you weren't under its control, you wouldn't have had to force yourself on that fledgling."
"Yeah? Ya think so? Well, you're wrong. I happen to like my bloodlust! I liked doing what ever I want with that girl. It's time vampyres stopped slinking around. We're smarter, stronger, better than humans. We should be in charge, not them!"
"That fledgling isn't a human." Darius's voice was like a naked blade, reminding me that he wasn't just a big brother?type guy; he was a Son of Erebus and one of the most powerful warriors alive.
"I was thirsty and there wasn't a human handy," Stark said.
"Zoey, get the girl into the dorm." Darius didn't take his eyes off Stark. "She is done serving his convenience."
I hurried over to Becca and helped her to her feet. She was a little wobbly but able to walk. As we reached Darius, he moved forward with us, always keeping himself between us and Stark. Just as we were passing by him, Stark spoke with an angry intensity that sent a chill down the back of my neck.
"You know, all I have to do is think about killing you and shoot this arrow. Wherever you are, you're dead."
"If that is so, then I will be dead," Darius said matter-of-factly. "And you will be a monster."
"I don't mind being a monster!" "And I don't mind dying if it is in the ser vice of my High Priestess and, ultimately, my Goddess," Darius said.
"If you hurt him, I'll come against you with everything I have," I told Stark.
Stark looked at me and his lips tilted up in a ghost of that cute, cocky smile he used to have. "You're a little bit of a monster yourself, aren't ya, Zoey?"
I didn't think that nasty comment was worth a response, and obviously neither did Darius. He kept shepherding us by Stark, opening the front door of the dorm and helping Becca inside. But instead of me following her in, I paused. Intuition was telling me that there was something I had to do, and much as I'd like to ignore my intuition, I knew I shouldn't. "I'll be right in," I told Darius. I could see that he was going to argue with me, but I shook my head and said, "Trust me. I just need a second."
"I'll be inside the door," Darius said, threw Stark a hard look, and then stepped into the dorm.
I faced Stark. I knew I was taking a chance with what I was going to say to him, but I kept remembering Kramisha's poem and the line that said, "Humanity saves her / Will she save me?" I at least had to try.
"Jack's taking care of Duchess," I said without any preamble.
I saw that flash of pain in his eyes again, but his voice wasn't touched by it. "So?"
"So I'm just telling you that your dog's fine. She's had a pretty hard time, but she's okay."
"I'm not who I used to be, so she's not my dog anymore." This time I heard a quaver in his voice, which gave me enough hope that I took a step toward him.
"Hey, the great thing about dogs is that they give unconditional love. Duch doesn't care who you are right now. She'll still love you."
"You don't know what you're talking about," he said.
"Yeah, I do. I've spent some time with your dog. She's got a really big heart."
"I wasn't talking about her. I was talking about me."
"Well, I've spent some time with red fledglings, too. Not to mention that the first ever Changed red vamp is my best friend. Stevie Rae's different than she used to be, but I still love her," I said. "Maybe if you spent some time with Stevie Rae and the rest of the red fledglings you could, I don't know, find yourself again. They have." I said this with way more confidence than I felt. After all, I had glimpsed fragments of the darkness surrounding Stark down in those tunnels, around those red fledglings, but I couldn't help believing it would be best to get him away from here, where evil seemed to come and go so easily.
"Sure," he said too quickly. "Why don't you take me to this Stevie Rae vamp and I'll see what happens?"
"Sure," I said just as quickly. "Why don't you leave your bow and arrows here and show me how to get off campus without the bird freaks knowing and I'll do just that?"
His expression hardened and he was a mean stranger again. "I don't go anywhere without my bow, and no one leaves campus without them knowing."
"Then it looks like I won't be taking you to Stevie Rae," I said.
"I don't need you to show me where Stevie Rae is. She knows all about their little hideout. When she wants your friend, she'll have her. If I were you, I'd expect to see Stevie Rae a lot sooner than you thought you would." Warning bells were ringing like a fire alarm in my mind, and I definitely didn't have to ask who the "she" was Stark was talking about. But instead of showing just how upset Stark's admission made me, I smiled calmly and said, "No one's hiding out. I'm right here, and Stevie Rae is right where she's been since she Changed. No big deal. Plus, it's always great to see her, so if she shows up here, that's cool."
"Yeah, what ever. No big deal. And I'm cool staying right where I am." He looked away from me, out into the icy fog that was drifting lazily around us. "I don't get why you care anyway."
And suddenly I knew exactly what to say. "I' ampusWm just keeping my promises to you."
"What do you mean?"
"You asked me to promise you two things before you died. One was not to forget you, and I haven't. The other was to look after Duchess, and I'm letting you know that I've made sure she's okay."
"You can tell that Jack kid that Duchess is his dog now. Tell him..." Still not looking at me, he paused and drew a shaky breath. "Tell him she's a good dog and to take care of her."
Continuing to follow my intuition, I crossed the few feet between us and put my hand on his shoulder, almost exactly as I'd done the night he died. "You know it doesn't matter what you say or who you give her to, Duchess will always belong to you. When you died, she cried. I was there. I saw it. I didn't forget. I won't ever forget."
He didn't look at me, but slowly he dropped his bow to the ground and put his hand over mine. We just stood there like that. Touching but not saying anything. I was watching his face carefully, so I saw the entire transformation. As he pressed his hand over mine, he let out a long, slow breath, and his face relaxed. The last hint of red left his eyes, and the strange, shadowy darkness evaporated. When he finally looked at me, he was the kid I'd been so drawn to and who had died while I held him in my arms, listening to him tell me that he'd come back.
"What if there's nothing left in me worth loving?" He asked it in a voice so low that if I hadn't been standing close I wouldn't have heard him.
"I think you can still choose what you are, or at least what you are becoming. Stevie Rae chose her humanity over the monster. I think it's up to you."
I know what I did next was stupid. I'm not even sure why I did it. I mean, I already had unresolved issues with Erik and Heath. The last thing I needed was another boy complicating my life, but at that moment there was only Stark and me, and he was himself again--the guy who had agonized over the gift Nyx had given him because he had accidentally caused the death of his mentor; the guy who had been horrified at the thought of hurting anyone again. The guy I'd felt such an immediate and deep connection to I'd thought that just maybe there really were such thing as soul mates, and had considered, at least for a few brief moments, that he might be mine. That's all I was thinking about as I stepped into his arms. When he bent and hesitatingly pressed his lips to mine, I closed my eyes and kissed him softly and sweetly. He kissed me back, holding me so gently it was as if he thought I might break.
Then I felt him stiffen and he pulled away, taking a staggering step backwards. I was sure I saw tears in his eyes before he yelled, "You should have forgotten me!" Stark picked up his bow and bolted away into the roiling darkness of the stormy night.
When he was gone I stood there staring after him, wondering what the hell was wrong with me. How could I have kissed a guy who had been attacking someone just minutes before? How could I feel a connection to someone who might be more monster than man? Maybe I didn't even know myself anymore. I sure didn't know what I was becoming.
I shivered. The cold dampness of the night seemed to have settled through my clothes and skin and into my bones. And I felt tired. Really, really tired.
"Thank you, fire and air and water," I whispered to the listening elements. "You served me well to night. You may go now." Fog and ice swirled around me once, and then rushed away, leaving me alone with the night and the storm and my confusion. Wearily I trudged back to the dorm, wishing I could go inside, take a hot shower, and curl up in my bed to sleep for several days.
Naturally, my wish was no one's command...