Heath stirred and muttered something about skipping football practice and sleeping in. I watched him and held my breath as I paced my circle around where he slept.
I mean, would you want to wake him up and tell him he was dead as dirt and wouldn't ever be playing football again?
I tried to be as quiet as I could, but I couldn't hold still. This time I hadn't even pretended to lie down next to him. I couldn't help it. I couldn't stop myself. I had to keep moving.
We were in the middle of the same dense grove we'd run inside of before. When before? I couldn't
really remember, but the short, gnarled trees and lots of old rocks looked cool. And the moss. Especially the moss. It was everywhere - thick and soft and cushy.
Suddenly my feet were bare, and I was distracted by sinking my feet into the moss and letting my toes play in the living carpet of green.
Nope. I suspected nothing here was really alive, but I kept forgetting that.
The trees made a canopy of leaves and branches, so the sun only got through enough to be warm without being too hot, but a cloud passing overhead had me looking up and shivering.
Darkness . . .
I blinked in surprise, remembering. That was why Heath and I were tucked away in this grove. That thing had been after us, but it hadn't entered the grove after us.
I shivered again.
I had no clue what that thing had been. I only had a sense of utter darkness, a vague whiff of something that had been dead for a while, horns, and wings. Heath and I hadn't waited to see any more. We had both been breathless with fear, and we'd run and run . . . which was why Heath was sound asleep.
Again. Like I should be.
But I wasn't able to rest. So instead I paced.
It really bothered me that my memory was messing up. And, what's worse, even though you'd think if my memory was jacked, I wouldn't know it because I, well, wouldn't remember it - I was wrong. I knew I was missing hunks of stuff in my mind - some of it new stuff, like that I just now remembered the scary thing that had chased Heath and me into the grove. Some of it was old stuff, though.
I couldn't remember what my mom looked like.
I couldn't remember the color of my eyes.
I couldn't remember why I didn't trust Stevie Rae anymore.
What I could remember was even more upsetting. I remembered every instant of Stevie Rae dying. I remembered that my dad had left us when I was two and basically never come back. I remembered that I'd trusted Kalona, and that I'd been so, so wrong about him.
My stomach felt sick, and, like that sickness was driving me, I kept pacing around and around the inside circumference of the grove.
How could I have let Kalona fool me so totally? I'd been such an idiot.
And I'd caused Heath's death.
My mind skittered away from that guilt. The thought was too raw, too horrible.
A shadow caught at my vision. I started, turned quickly, and came face-to-face with her. I'd seen her before - in my dreams and in a shared vision.
"Hello, A-ya," I said softly.
"Zoey," she said, dipping her head in hello. Her voice sounded a lot like mine, except there was a sense of sadness about her that colored everything she said.
"I trusted Kalona because of you," I told her.
"You had compassion for him because of me," she corrected. "When you lost me, you also lost compassion."
"That's not true," I said. "I'm still compassionate. I care about Heath."
"Do you? Is that why you are keeping him here with you instead of allowing him to move on?"
"Heath doesn't want to leave," I shot back, and then closed my mouth, surprised at how angry I sounded.
A-ya shook her head, causing her long, dark hair to flutter around her waist. "You haven't stopped to think of what Heath might want - what anyone besides you might want. And you won't, not really, not until you call me back to you."
"I don't want you back. It's because of you that this has happened."
"No, Zoey, it's not. All of this happened because of a series of choices made by a number of people.
This isn't all about you." Shaking her head sadly, A-ya disappeared.
"Good riddance," I muttered, and started to pace again, even more restless than before.
When another shadow flickered at the corner of my vision, I whirled around, ready to tell off A-ya once and for all, but instead my mouth flopped open. I was staring at me. Well, actually, the nine-year-old version of me I'd seen with the other figures before they were scattered by whatever was chasing Heath and me.
"Hi," I said.
"We got boobies!" the kid me said, gawking at my chest. "I'm really glad we got boobies. Finally."
"Yeah, that's what I thought, too. Finally."
"I kinda wish they were bigger." The kid me kept staring at my boobies until I felt like crossing my arms over my chest, which was ridiculous because she was me - which was just weird. "But, oh, well, it could be worse! We could have been like Becky Apple, heehees!"
Her voice was so filled with joy that she made me smile in response, but only for a second. It was like it was too hard for me to hold onto the joy she seemed to glow with.
"Becky Renee Apple - can you believe her mom named her that and then had all of her sweaters monogrammed with 'BRA'?" the kid me said, and then broke into giggles.
I tried, unsuccessfully, to hold onto my smile while I said, "Yeah, that poor girl was doomed from the first day of cold weather." I sighed and rubbed a hand over my face, wondering why I felt so inexplicably sad.
"It's 'cause I'm not with you anymore," the kid me said. "I'm your joy. Without me, you can't ever really be happy again."
I stared at her, knowing that, like A-ya, she was telling me the truth.
Heath murmured in his sleep again, drawing my gaze to him. He looked so strong and normal and young, but he'd never step on another football field again. He'd never gun his truck around another slick corner and whoop like an Okie. He'd never be a husband. He'd never be a dad. I looked from him to the nine-year-old me.
"I don't think I deserve to be happy again."
"I'm sorry for you, Zoey," she said, and disappeared.
Feeling kinda dizzy and light-headed, I paced.
The next version of me didn't flicker or flutter at the edge of my vision. This version met me head-on, blocking my pacing path. She didn't look like me. She was super tall. Her hair was long and wild and a bright copper red. It wasn't until I met her gaze that I saw our similarity - we had the same eyes. She was another piece of me; I knew her.
"So who are you?" I said wearily. "And what part of me am I going to be missing if I don't get you back?"
"You may call me Brighid. Without me, you lack strength."
I sighed. "I'm too tired to be strong right now. How about we talk again after I take a nap?"
"You don't get it, do you?" Brighid shook her head disdainfully. "Without us, you won't take a nap - you won't get better - you won't rest. without us, you just get more and more incomplete, and you drift."
I tried to focus through the headache that was building in my temples. "But I'd be drifting with Heath."
"Yes, you might be."
"And if I get all of you back together inside me, I'll leave Heath."
"Yes, you might."
"I can't do that. I can't return to a world without him," I said.
"Then you truly are broken." Without another word, Brighid disappeared.
My legs gave out, and I sat down hard on the moss. I only knew I was crying when my tears started making wet marks on my jeans. I don't know how long I sat there, bent with grief and confusion and weariness, but eventually a sound slipped inside my mental fog: wings, rustling, beating against the wind, hovering, dipping, searching.
"Come on, Zo. We need to get farther into the grove."
I looked up to see that Heath was crouching beside me. "This is my fault," I said.
"No, it's not, but why does it matter so much whose fault it is? This is done, babe. It can't be undone."
"I can't leave you, Heath," I sobbed.
He brushed the hair back from my face and handed me another ball of Kleenexes. "I know you can't."
The sound of enormous wings got louder; tree boughs behind us swayed in response.
"Zo, let's talk about this later, 'kay? Right now we need to move again." He grabbed me under one of my elbows, lifted me to my feet, and started to guide me deeper into the grove, where the shadows were darker and the trees even more ancient-looking.
I let him move me. It felt better to move. Not good. I didn't feel good. But it was better when I wasn't holding still.
"It's him, isn't it?" I said listlessly.
"Him?" Heath asked, helping me step over a rough gray stone.
"Kalona." The word seemed to change the density of the air around us. "He's come for me."
Heath gave me a sharp look, and shouted, "No, I'm not going to let him get you!"
"No, I'm not going to let him get you!" Dragon shouted.
Along with everyone else in the Council Chamber, Stevie Rae stared at the Sword Master, who looked like he might be getting ready to pop a major blood vessel.
"Uh, him who, Dragon?" Stevie Rae said.
"That Raven Mocker who killed my mate! That's why you can't go out alone until we track that creature down and destroy it."
Stevie Rae tried to ignore the hollow feeling Dragon's words gave her and the horrible sense of guilt she experienced as she faced him, seeing his heartbreak and knowing that even though Rephaim had saved her life, twice, it was also a fact that he had killed Anastasia Lankford.
He's changed. He's different now, she thought, wishing she could say the words aloud and not bring her world crashing down around them.
But she couldn't tell Dragon about Rephaim. She couldn't tell anyone about the Raven Mocker, so instead she began, again, to weave lies with the truth, forming a terrible tapestry of evasion and deceit.
"Dragon, I don't know which Raven Mocker was there in the park. I mean, it's not like he told me his name."
"I think he was the head one - the Ref-whatever," Dallas spoke up, even though Stevie Rae shot him a look .
"Rephaim," Dragon said, with a voice like death.
"Yeah, that's it. He was huge, just like you guys described, and his eyes really were human-looking.
Plus, he had a thing about him. It was obvious he thought he was the shit."
Stevie Rae stifled the urge to press her hand firmly over Dallas's mouth - and maybe nose, too.
Smothering him would definitely make him stop talking.
"Oh, Dallas, whatever. We don't know who that Raven Mocker was. And, Dragon, I can understand why you're worried and all, but we're just talkin' 'bout me goin' to the Benedictine Abbey so that Grandma Redbird hears about Zoey from me. I'm not goin' off into the wilderness alone."
"But Dragon does have a good point," Lenobia said. Erik and Professor Penthasilea nodded, their disagreements about Neferet and Kalona temporarily put aside. "This Raven Mocker did appear where you were, while you were communing with earth."
"It's too simplistic to say she was communing with the earth," Dragon spoke quickly into Lenobia's pause. "As Stevie Rae explained to us, she was dialoguing with ancient powers of good and evil. That creature appearing during the manifestation of evil cannot be a coincidence."
"But the Raven Mocker wasn't attackin' me. It was - "
Dragon lifted a hand to silence her. "Undoubtedly it was drawn to the Darkness, which then turned on one of its own as evil often does. You cannot know with certainty that the creature isn't after you."
"We also cannot know with certainty that there is only one Raven Mocker in Tulsa," Lenobia said.
Panic fluttered in Stevie Rae's stomach. What if everyone was so freaked-out about the possibility of a bunch of Raven Mockers stalking around Tulsa that they made it impossible for her to get away to see Rephaim?
"I'm goin' to the abbey to see Grandma Redbird," Stevie Rae said firmly. "And I don't think there's a flock of those dang Raven Mockers out there. What I do think is that one bird guy somehow got left behind, and he was at the park because he was drawn to Darkness. Well, I'm sure as heck not gonna call Darkness to me again, so there's no reason for the bird to have anything to do with me."
"Do not underestimate the danger of that creature," Dragon said, his voice sad and somber.
"I won't. But I also won't let it keep me locked up on campus. I don't think any of us should let it do that," she added hastily. "I mean, we can be careful, but we can't let fear and evil rule our lives."
"Stevie Rae makes a valid point," Lenobia said. "Actually, I believe we should get the school back on a
regular schedule and include the red fledglings in classes."
Kramisha, who had until then been sitting silently to the left of Stevie Rae, snorted softly. She heard Dallas, who was sitting to her right, sigh heavily. She stifled a smile, and said, "I think that's a real good idea."
"I don't think we should say much about Zoey's condition," Erik said. "At least not until something more, well, permanent happens."
"She's not gonna die," Stevie Rae said.
"I don't want her to die!" Erik said quickly, looking obviously upset at the thought. "But what with the stuff that's gone on around here lately, including a Raven Mocker showing up, the last thing we need is a bunch of talk."
"I don't think we should hush it up," Stevie Rae said.
"How about we agree on a compromise," Lenobia said. "Answer questions about Zoey when they're asked, focusing on the truth - that we're all working to get her back from the Otherworld."
"And we issue a general warning through all homeroom classes for fledglings to be watchful and vigilant in reporting anything they see or hear that might be unusual," Dragon added.
"That sounds reasonable," Penthasilea said.
"All right, that seems good to me, too," Stevie Rae said. Then she paused before adding, "Uh, I'm just wonderin', but am I supposed to go back to the classes I was in before?"
"Yeah, I's wondering that, too," Kramisha said.
"Me, too," Dallas said.
"Fledglings should attend classes, taking up where they left off," Lenobia said smoothly, smiling at Kramisha and Dallas as if the "left off" part had been unscheduled vacations rather than unwelcome deaths, which somehow made the whole thing sound weirdly normal. Then she turned to Stevie Rae.
"Vampyres choose their career paths and the areas they'd like to study - not in class with fledglings but with other vampyres who are experts in their field. Do you know what it is you'd like to study?"
Even with everyone gawking at her, Stevie Rae had no hesitation in her answer. "Nyx. I want to study to be a High Priestess. I want to be one because I've earned it, and not just 'cause I'm the only dang red vamp female in the known universe."
"But we have no High Priestess under which you may study - not since Neferet was driven away,"
Penthasilea said, giving Lenobia a pointed look.
"Then I guess I'll study on my own until we get our High Priestess back." She met Penthasilea's eyes, and added, "And I can promise you that High Priestess will not be Neferet." Stevie Rae stood. "Okay, well, I'm gonna go to the abbey like I said before. When I come back, I'll go see the rest of the red fledglings and clue them in that classes start tomorrow."
Everyone had started to shuffle out of the room when Dragon pulled her aside. "I want you to promise
me that you will be cautious," he said. "You have powers of recovery that border on miraculous, but you are not immortal, Stevie Rae. You must remember that."
"I'll be careful. I promise."
"I'm goin' with her," Kramisha said. "I'll keep an eye to the sky for them nasty bird things. And I got me a girl scream that is deadly. If one shows up, I can make sure the whole world knows he there."
Dragon nodded but didn't look convinced, and Stevie Rae was relieved when Lenobia called him over to her and started a conversation with him about making his martial arts classes mandatory for all fledglings. She slipped out of the room and was trying to figure out how she could get rid of Kramisha, who was being way too sticky-boogerish, when Dallas caught up with them.
"Can I talk to you for a sec before you leave?"
"I'll be in Zoey's Bug," Kramisha said. "And no, you can't get outta takin' me."
Stevie Rae watched her march down the hall before she reluctantly turned to Dallas.
"Can we go in there?" he asked, pointing to the deserted media center.
"Sure, but I do gotta get goin'."
Without saying anything, Dallas opened the door for her, and they stepped into the cool, dim room that smelled like books and lemon furniture polish.
"You and me, we don't have to be together anymore," Dallas said, all in a rush.
"Huh? Don't have to be together? What do you mean?"
Dallas crossed his arms over his chest and looked super uncomfortable. "I mean we were goin' out.
You were my girlfriend. You don't want to be anymore, and I get it. You were right, I couldn't do shit to protect you from that bird thing. And I just want you to know I'm not gonna turn into an asshole about you and me. I'll still be here for you when you need me, girl, 'cause you're gonna always be my High Priestess."
"I don't want to break up!" she blurted.
"No," and she didn't. At that instant, Dallas was all she could see, and his heart and his goodness were so obvious that Stevie Rae felt like losing him would be like getting punched in her gut. "Dallas, I'm so sorry for what I said before. I was hurt and mad, and I didn't mean it. I couldn't even get out of the circle, and I cast the dang thing. There's no way you, or anyone else, not even a Warrior, could've gotten in there to me."
Dallas met her gaze. "That Raven Mocker got in there."
"Well, like you said yourself, he's on the side of Darkness," she said, even though his bringing up Rephaim was like throwing cold water in her face.
"There's a lot on the side of Darkness out there," Dallas said. "And a bunch of it seems to be runnin'
into you. So, be careful, will ya, girl?" He reached out and brushed a springy blond curl from her face. "I couldn't stand it if anything happened to you." He let his hand rest on her shoulder. His thumb gently caressed the line of her neck.
"I'll be careful," she said softly.
"You really don't want to break up?"
She shook her head.
"I'm glad, 'cause I don't want to either."
Dallas leaned down as he pulled her into his arms. His lips met Stevie Rae's in a hesitant kiss. She told herself to relax and melted into him. He was a good kisser - he always had been. And she liked that he was taller than her, but not crazy tall. He tasted good, too. He knew that she liked her back rubbed, so as he slipped his arms around her his hands went under her shirt - not to try to maul her boobs, like most guys would have. Instead, Dallas started to rub soft, warm circles over her lower back, pressing her closer to him and deepening their kiss.
Stevie Rae kissed him back. It felt good to be with him . . . to block out everything . . . to forget for even a little while about Rephaim and all that stuff . . . especially about the debt she'd willingly paid that made her -
Stevie Rae pulled away from Dallas. They were both more than a little breathless.
"I, uh, I do have to go. Remember?" Stevie Rae smiled at him, trying not to sound as awkward as she felt.
"Actually, I'd kinda forgotten," Dallas said, smiling sweetly at her and brushing that stubborn curl out of her eyes again. "But I know you hafta go. Come on. I'll walkya to the Bug."
Feeling part traitor, part liar, and part doomed prisoner, Stevie Rae let him take her hand and lead her to Zoey's car, just like they really, truly could be boyfriend and girlfriend again.