"Yeah, light's on, but there's definitely no one home." Aphrodite waved her hand in front of Stark's open but unseeing eyes. Then she had to snatch her hand out of the way as Seoras, ignoring that he came close to cutting her, too, made another knife wound down Stark's blood-drenched side.
"He already looks like hamburger. Do you have to keep doing that?" Aphrodite asked the Guardian.
There was no love lost between her and Stark, but that didn't mean she was cool with watching him get sliced to pieces.
Seoras appeared not to hear her. He was utterly focused on the boy who lay before him.
"They are bonded by this quest," Sgiach said. She'd left her throne to stand beside Aphrodite.
"But your Guardian is conscious and present in his own body," Darius said, studying Seoras.
"Yes. His consciousness is here. It is also so completely attuned with the boy that he can hear his heartbeat - feel his breathing. Seoras knows exactly how close Stark is to physical death. It is on the cusp between life and death that my Guardian must keep him. Too much one way, his soul will return to his body, and he will awaken. Too much the other, his soul will never return at all."
"How will he know when to end this?" Aphrodite asked, involuntarily flinching as Seoras's dirk sliced Stark's flesh again.
"Stark will awaken, or he will die. Either way, it will be Stark's doing and not my Guardian's. What Seoras does now enables the boy to make his own choices." Sgiach spoke to Aphrodite, but her eyes never left Seoras. "You should do the same."
"Cut him?" Aphrodite frowned at the queen, who smiled, but continued to watch her Guardian.
"You said that you're a Prophetess of Nyx, did you not?"
"I am her Prophetess."
"Then consider wielding your gift to help the boy, too."
"I would if I had one damn clue how to do that."
"Aphrodite, perhaps you should - " Darius began, taking Aphrodite's arm and pulling her away from Sgiach, obviously worried that she'd pushed the queen too far.
"No, Warrior. You need not draw her away. One thing you will find about being bound to a strong woman is that often her words will get her into trouble from which you cannot protect her. But they are her own words, and thus her own consequences." Sgiach finally looked at Aphrodite. "Use some of the strength that makes your words like daggers and seek your own answers. A true Prophetess gets very little guidance in this world, except through her gift; but strength, tempered by wisdom and patience, must teach you how to use it properly." The queen lifted her hand and gestured elegantly to one of the vampyres in the shadows. "Show the Prophetess and her Guardian to their chamber. Give them refreshment and privacy." Without another word, Sgiach returned to her throne, her gaze once again focused solely on her Guardian.
Aphrodite pressed her lips together and followed the ginger-haired giant whose tattoos were a series of intricate spirals that appeared to be made of tiny sapphire dots. They retraced their path back to the double staircase and then went up to a hallway where the walls were decorated with jeweled swords that glittered in the torchlight. A smaller, single staircase finally led them up to an arched wooden door, which the warrior opened and gestured for them to enter the room.
"Would you be sure someone gets me right away if Stark changes at all?" Aphrodite asked before he closed the door.
"Aye," the warrior said in a surprisingly gentle voice before leaving them alone.
Aphrodite turned to Darius. "Do you think my mouth gets me into trouble?"
Her Warrior's brows went up. "Of course I do."
She frowned at him. "Okay, look, I'm not kidding."
"Neither am I."
"Why? Because I say what I mean?"
"No, my beauty, because you do use your words like a dagger, and a drawn dagger often causes trouble."
She snorted and sat on the huge, four-poster bed. "If I sound like a dagger, then why the hell do you like me?"
Darius sat beside her and took her hand. "Have you forgotten that a throwing dagger is my favorite weapon?"
Aphrodite met his eyes, feeling suddenly vulnerable despite his gentle tone. "Seriously. I'm a bitch. You shouldn't like me. I don't think most people do."
"The people who know you like you. The real you. And what I feel for you goes beyond liking you. I love you, Aphrodite. I love your strength, your sense of humor, the depth of caring you show your friends. And I love that which was broken inside you and is only now beginning to heal."
Aphrodite kept meeting his gaze though she was blinking hard to fight back tears. "All that makes me a terrible bitch."
"All that makes you who you are." He raised her hand to his lips, kissed it gently, and then said, "It also makes you strong enough to figure out how to help Stark."
"But I don't know how!"
"You used your gift to sense Zoey's absence, as well as Kalona's. Can you not use the same road you followed before to sense Stark?"
"All I was doing with them was seeing if their souls were inside their bodies or not. We already know Stark's is gone."
"Then you shouldn't have to touch him as you did the other two."
Aphrodite sighed. "The same road, huh?"
She looked up at him, gripping his hand tighter. "You really think I can do it?"
"I believe there is little you cannot do once you set your mind to it, my beauty."
Aphrodite nodded, squeezed his hand before letting go. She unzipped her black leather stiletto boots and scooted back on the bed, resting against the mound of down pillows.
"Protect me while I'm gone?" she asked her Warrior.
"Always," Darius said.
He moved to stand beside the bed, reminding Aphrodite very much of the way Seoras stood beside his queen's throne. Pulling strength from the knowledge that her heart and her body would always be safe with Darius, she closed her eyes and willed herself to relax. Then she drew three deep, cleansing breaths and focused her thoughts on her goddess.
Nyx, it's me. Aphrodite. Your Prophetess. She almost added "at least that's what everyone's calling me," but stopped herself. Taking another deep breath, Aphrodite continued: I'm asking for your help.
You already know I'm not real sure how this Prophetess stuff works, so it won't surprise you to hear that I don't know how to use the gift you've given me to help Stark - but he does need my help. I mean, the guy's being sliced up in one world and flailing around trying to use poetry and an old guy's confusing words to help Z, in another. Just between us, sometimes I think Stark's more muscle and admittedly good hair than brains. Clearly, he needs help, and for Zoey's sake, I want to give it to him. So, please, Nyx, show me how to help.
Give yourself to me, daughter.
Nyx's voice in her mind was like the fluttering of a diaphanous silk curtain, transparent, ethereal, and beautiful beyond belief.
Yes! Aphrodite's response was instantaneous. She opened herself heart, soul, and mind to her Goddess.
And suddenly she was the breeze drifting along the delicate line of Nyx's voice, soaring up and away.
Behold my realm.
Aphrodite's spirit flew over Nyx's Otherworld. It was almost indescribably lovely, with endless variations of green, brilliant flowers that swayed as if to music, and sparkling lakes. Aphrodite thought she caught sight of wild horses and the many-colored flash of peacocks in flight.
And all throughout the realm, spirits flickered in and out of view, dancing, laughing, and loving.
"This is where we go when we die?" Aphrodite asked, awestruck.
"What sometimes? You mean if we're good?" Aphrodite had a sinking feeling that if being good was the criterion for getting to this place, she would probably never make it.
The goddess's laughter was like magic. I am your Goddess, daughter, not your judge. Good is a multifaceted ideal. For instance, behold one facet of good.
Aphrodite's spirit journey slowed, bringing her to a halt over an amazing-looking grove. She blinked in surprise as she studied it and realized it reminded her of the grove near Sgiach's castle. As she made the comparison, Aphrodite sank gently down through the canopy of tightly knit leaves to rest just above the thick carpet of moss that covered the ground.
"Listen to me, Zo! You can do it."
At the sound of Heath's voice, Aphrodite whirled around to see Zoey, looking so pale she was almost translucent, and Heath. Z was pacing around and around in a circle, looking totally creepy, while Heath stood still, watching her with an incredibly sad expression.
"Zoey! Finally! Okay, listen to me. You gotta pull yourself together and get back to your body."
Completely ignoring her, Zoey burst into tears, though she didn't stop pacing. "I can't, Heath. It's gone on too long. I can't bring my soul together. I can't remember things - I can't focus - the only thing I know for sure is that I deserve this."
"Oh, for shit's sake. ZOEY! Stop bawling and pay attention!"
"You do not deserve this!" Heath stepped close to Zoey and put his hands on her shoulders, forcing her to hold still. "And you can do it, Zo. You have to. If you do, we can be together."
"Great. I'm Christmas Carol -ing like the damn ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and whatever.
They can't hear a fucking word I'm saying!"
Then perhaps, daughter, for a change, you should listen.
Aphrodite stifled her sigh of frustration and did as her Goddess advised, even though she felt like a creeper gawking through someone's bedroom window.
"You mean it, Heath?" Zoey stared at Heath, seeming for an instant more like herself than the freaky ghostly thing that couldn't hold still. "You'd really want to stay here?" She smiled tentatively at Heath, her body twitching restlessly under his hands.
He kissed her, and then said, "Babe, wherever you are is where I want to be - forever."
With a painful groan, Zoey broke out of Heath's arms. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry," she said, pacing and crying again. "I can't hold still. I can't rest."
"That's why you have to call your soul back together. You can't be with me if you don't. Zo, you can't be anything if you don't. You'll just keep moving and moving and losing pieces of yourself until you fade completely away."
"It was my fault you died; it's my fault you're here where you don't belong. How can you still love me?"
She wiped her stringy hair from her face as she began circling around and around Heath - never still - never resting.
"It's not your fault! Kalona killed me. That's all there is to it. Anyway, what difference does it make where we are and even if we're alive or dead, as long as we're together?"
"You mean it? Really?"
"I love you, Zoey. I have since the first day I met you, and I'll love you forever. I promise. If you're whole again, we'll be together forever."
"Forever," Zoey whispered the word. "And you really do forgive me?"
"Babe, there's nothing to forgive."
With what was obviously a huge effort, Zoey stopped moving, and said, "Then for you, I'll try to do it."
She spread her arms and threw her head back. Her pale body began to glow, first with a small, tentative light from within. Zoey started to call out names, and -
Aphrodite was jolted from the vision and lifted out of the grove so quickly her stomach gave a nauseating lurch. "Oh, ugh! Too far, too fast. I may barf."
A warm wind passed over her, calming her dizziness. When she began to move again, her nausea was gone, but not her confusion.
"Okay, I don't understand. Z pulls herself together, but she stays here with Heath instead of going back to her body?"
In this version of the future, yes.
Aphrodite hesitated and then, reluctantly, asked, "But is she happy?"
Yes. Zoey and Heath are content together in the Otherworld for eternity.
Aphrodite felt the sadness, heavy and thick, but she had to continue, "Then maybe Z should stay where she is. We'll miss her. I'll miss her." Aphrodite hesitated, quelling an unexpected urge to cry before she continued. "It would definitely suck for Stark, but if this is where she's meant to be, then Zoey should stay.
What is meant for each person changes with their choices. This is only one version of Zoey's future, and like many choices that are made in the Otherworld, hers has threads that change the tapestry of the future on earth. If Zoey chooses to stay, behold earth's new future: Aphrodite was sucked down into a scene that was all too familiar. She was standing in the middle of the field she'd been in during her last vision. Just as before, she was one with people who were burning - humans, vamps, and fledglings. She reexperienced the pain of the fire, along with the abstract agony that had enveloped her during the original vision. As during the last vision, Aphrodite looked up to see Kalona standing before them all, only this time Zoey wasn't with him - making out or saying whatever she'd said in the second part of the vision that destroyed him. Instead, Neferet stepped into the scene.
She strode past Kalona, staring at the burning people. Then she began tracing intricate patterns in the air around her, and as she did so Darkness bloomed all around her. Spreading from her, it stained the field, extinguishing the fire, but not taking away the pain.
"No, I won't kill them!" She gestured with one finger, and a cluster of tendrils wrapped around Kalona's body. "Help me make them mine."
Kalona absorbed them. Aphrodite concentrated on him and, like a mirage materializing, the tendrils of Darkness that encased the immortal's body became visible. They writhed, causing the fallen immortal's skin to twitch and shudder. Kalona gasped, and Aphrodite couldn't tell if he felt pleasure or pain, but he smiled grimly at Neferet, spread his arms wide to accept Darkness, and said, "As you wish, my Goddess."
Covered in the tendrils, Kalona moved up so that he stood in front of her, and then the fallen immortal dropped to his knees and bared his neck. Aphrodite watched Neferet bend, lick Kalona's skin, and with a greedy fierceness that was frightening, she sank her teeth into Kalona and fed from him. The tendrils of Darkness quivered, throbbed, and multiplied.
Utterly grossed out, Aphrodite looked away to see Stevie Rae enter the field.
A dark thing moved beside her, and Aphrodite realized that Stevie Rae was standing next to a Raven Mocker, right next to him - as in so close they appeared together.
The Raven Mocker's wing spread up and out, and then curled around Stevie Rae, as if holding her in an embrace. Stevie Rae sighed and moved even closer to the creature, so that his wing totally enveloped her. Aphrodite was so shocked by the sight that she didn't see where the Indian kid came from - he was just suddenly there, right in front of the Raven Mocker.
Even through the pain and shock caused by her vision, Aphrodite could appreciate how incredibly gorgeous this new kid was. His body was amazing, and he was mostly naked, so there was a lot of it showing. His hair was thick and long, and as black as the raven feathers that were braided into its length.
He was tall and muscular and just super hot in general.
He ignored the Raven Mocker and held his hand out to Stevie Rae, saying, "Accept me, and he'll go away."
Stevie Rae stepped out of the creature's winged embrace, but she didn't take the kid's hand. Instead she said, "It's not that simple."
Still on his knees in front of Neferet, Kalona yelled, "Rephaim! Do not betray me again, my son!"
The immortal's words served as a goad to the Raven Mocker. He attacked the Indian kid. The two of them began to battle each other brutally while Stevie Rae stood there, doing nothing except staring at the Raven Mocker and crying brokenly. Through her sobs, Aphrodite could hear her say, "Don't leave me, Rephaim. Please, please don't leave me."
On the distant horizon behind all of them, Aphrodite saw what she thought was a blazing sun rising, but as she squinted against the brightness she realized it wasn't the sun at all but an enormous white bull climbing over the slaughtered body of a black bull as he tried, and failed, to protect the remnants of what was once the modern world.
Aphrodite was lifted from her vision. Nyx held her in a caressing breeze as her soul trembled. "Oh, Goddess," she whispered. "No, please no. A choice made by one teenage girl is able to mess up the balance of Light and Darkness in the entire world? How can that even be possible?"
Consider that your choice for goodness opened a path for an entirely new breed of vampyre to exist.
"The red fledglings? But they already existed before I did anything."
Yes, but the path to regain their humanity was closed until your sacrifice - your choice - opened it. And are you not simply one teenage girl?
"Oh, for crap's sake. Zoey has to come back."
Then Heath must move on from my realm of the Otherworld. That is the only way Zoey will choose to return to her body if her soul becomes whole again.
"How do I make sure that happens?"
All you can do is to give them the knowledge, daughter. The choice must rest with Heath and Zoey and Stark.
With a jolt, Aphrodite was pulled back and back. Gasping, she opened her eyes and blinked through pain and the haze of red tears to see Darius bending over her.
"Have you returned to me?"
Aphrodite sat up. She was light-headed, and her head throbbed behind her eyes with a pain she knew
too well. She brushed her hair from her face, surprised at how badly her hand was trembling.
"Drink this, my beauty. You must ground yourself after a spirit journey." He handed her a goblet and helped her hold it to her lips.
Aphrodite gulped the wine, and then said, "Help me get to Stark."
"But your eyes - you must rest!"
"If I rest, I take a chance that the whole fucking world goes to hell. Literally."
"Then I will get you to Stark."
Feeling weak and in way over her head, Aphrodite leaned on her Warrior as they returned to the Fianna Foil, where very little had changed. Sgiach was still watching her Guardian as he slowly and methodically continued to cut Stark.
Aphrodite didn't waste any time. She went straight to Sgiach.
"I have to talk to Stark. Now."
Sgiach looked at her, taking in her trembling body and her blood-filled eyes. "You've used your gift?"
"Yeah, and I have to tell Stark something, or it'll be bad. For everyone. Really bad."
The queen nodded and motioned for Aphrodite to follow her to the Seol ne Gigh.
"You will only have a moment. Speak quickly and clearly to Stark. If you hold him here too long, he will not be able to retrace his path to the Otherworld until he has recovered from today's journey, and you must understand that recovery could take him weeks."
"I get it. I have one chance at this. I'm ready," Aphrodite said.
Sgiach touched her Guardian's forearm. It was the lightest of caresses, but it caused a rippled reaction throughout Seoras's body. He paused in the downward stroke of another slice. His gaze remained on Stark, but with a voice like gravel, he said, "Mo bann ri? My queen?"
"Call him back. The Prophetess must speak to him."
Seoras's eyes closed as if her words wounded him, but when he opened them he retorted with a low growl, and said only, "Aye, wumman . . . as yie wish." He placed the hand that wasn't holding his dirk on Stark's forehead. "Hear me, boy. Yie must be returning."