Hunted (House of Night Book 5): A House of Night NovelP. C. Cast
ALSO BY P. C. CAST and KRISTIN CAST
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
This one is for John Maslin—ex-student, research aide, and brainstormer extraordinaire. An all-around great guy who bears a striking resemblance to our Damien . . . hmmm . . .
The House of Night is a team effort, and not just because Kristin and I are the dynamic duo! The series is supported by an amazing group of people at St. Martin’s Press; their creativity is only exceeded by their generosity. Please know how much Kristin and I appreciate all of you: Jennifer Weis, Anne Bensson, Matthew Shear, Anne Marie Tallberg, Brittany Kleinfelter, Katy Hershberger, and our wonderful cover design team, Michael Storrings and Elsie Lyons. We heart SMP!
As always, we are indebted to our agent and friend, Meredith Bernstein.
We would like to thank the many fans who are so supportive of this series and who make appearances such fun for Kristin and me. A special thanks to the freshmen classes at Will Rogers High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma, who adopted Marked in their English classes and who made our visit to their very cool school a great time!
And while we are mentioning cool schools, we have to thank a group of longtime fans—the teachers from the Jenks, Oklahoma, school system. We heart us some Jenks teachers! (See y’all at the next signing!)
The dream began with the sound of wings. In retrospect I realize I should have known that was a bad sign, what with the Raven Mockers being set loose and all, but in my dream it was just background noise, kinda like a fan whirring or the TV turned on to the QVC.
In my dream I was standing in the middle of a beautiful meadow. It was night, but there was an enormous full moon hovering just above the trees that framed the meadow. It cast a silver blue light strong enough to throw shadows and made everything look like it was underwater, an impression that was strengthened by the gentle breeze blowing the soft grasses against my bare legs in sweeps and whirls like waves lapping sweetly against a shore. That same wind was lifting my thick dark hair from my naked shoulders and it felt like silk floating against my skin.
Bare legs? Naked shoulders?
I looked down and let out a little yip of surprise. I was wearing a seriously short buckskin minidress. The top of it was cut in a wide V, front and back, so that it hung off my shoulders, leaving lots of skin visible. The dress itself was amazing. It was white and decorated with fringe, feathers, and shells and seemed to glow in the moonlight. All over it was beaded with intricate designs that were impossibly beautiful.
My imagination is so darn cool!
The dress tickled a memory, but I ignored it. I didn’t want to think too hard—I was dreaming! Instead of pondering déjà vu moments I danced gracefully through the meadow, wondering if Zac Efron or even Johnny Depp was going to suddenly appear and flirt outrageously with me.
I peeked around as I twirled and swayed with the wind and thought I saw the shadows flicker and move oddly within the massive trees. I stopped and was trying to squint so I could get a closer look at what was going on in the darkness. Knowing me and my weird dreams, I’d created bottles of brown pop hanging from the limbs like bizarre fruit, just waiting for me to pick them.
That’s when he appeared.
At the edge of the meadow, just inside the shadows of the trees, a shape materialized. I could see his body because the moonlight caught the smooth, naked lines of his skin.
I stopped. Had my imagination lost its mind? I wasn’t really up to frolicking around a meadow with a naked guy, even if he was the amazingly mysterious Mr. Johnny Depp.
“You hesitate, my love?”
At the sound of his voice a shiver passed through my body, and terrible, mocking laughter whispered through the leaves of the trees.
“Who are you?” I was glad that my dream voice didn’t betray the fear I was feeling.
His laughter was as deep and beautiful as his voice, and as frightening. It echoed in the limbs of the watching trees until it drifted almost visible in the air around me.
“Do you pretend you do not know me?”
His voice brushed against my body, making the little hairs on my arms stand up.
“Yeah, I know you. I made you up. This is my dream. You’re a mixture of Zac and Johnny.” I hesitated, peering at him. I spoke nonchalantly even though my heart was beating like crazy because it was already obvious this guy was not a mixture of those two actors. “Well, maybe you’re Superman or Prince Charming,” I said, reaching for anything but the truth.
“I am no figment of your imagination. You know me. Your soul knows me.”
I hadn’t moved my feet, but my body was slowly being drawn toward him, like his voice was pulling me. I reached him and looked up and up . . .
It was Kalona. I’d known him from the first words he’d spoken. I just hadn’t wanted to admit it to myself. How could I have dreamed him?
Nightmare—this had to be a nightmare and not a dream.
His body was naked, but it wasn’t completely substantial. His form wavered and shifted in time with the caressing breeze. Behind him, in the dark green shadows of the trees, I could see the ghostly shapes of his children, the Raven Mockers, as they clung to the limbs with the hands and feet of men and stared at me with men’s eyes from the mutated faces of birds.
“Do you still claim not to know me?”
His eyes were dark—a starless sky. They seemed the most substantial thing about him. That and his liquid voice. Even though this is a nightmare, it’s still mine. I can just wake up! I want to wake up! I want to wake up!
But I didn’t. I couldn’t. I wasn’t in control. Kalona was. He’d built this dream, this dark, nightmare meadow, and somehow brought me there, closing the door to reality behind us.
“What do you want?” I said the words quickly so he couldn’t hear my voice shaking.
“You know what I want, my love. I want you.
“I am not your love.”
“Of course you are.” He moved this time, stepping so close to me that I could feel the chill that came from his unsubstantial body. “My A-ya.”
A-ya had been the name of the maiden the Cherokee Wise Women had created to trap him centuries ago. Panic spiked through me. “I’m not A-ya!”
“You command the elements,” his voice was a caress, awful and wonderful, compelling and terrifying.
“Gifts from my Goddess,” I said.
“Once before you commanded the elements. You were made from them. Fashioned to love me.” His massive dark wings stirred and lifted. Beating forward softly, they enfolded me in a spectral embrace that was cold as frost.
“No! You must have me mixed up with someone else. I’m not A-ya.”
“You’re wrong, my love. I feel her within you.”
His wings pressed against my body, drawing me closer to him. Even though his physical form was only semi-substantial, I could feel him. His wings were soft. Winter cold against the warmth of my dreaming self. The outline of his body was frigid mist. It burned my skin, sending electric currents through me, heating me with a desire I didn’t want to feel but was powerless to resist.
His laugh was seductive. I wanted to drown in it. I leaned forward, closing my eyes and gasping aloud as the chill of his spirit brushed against my breasts, sending shooting sensations that were painful but deliciously erotic to places in my body that made me feel out of control.
“You like the pain. It brings you pleasure.” His wings got more insistent, his body harder and colder and more passionately painful as it pressed against mine. “Surrender to me.” His voice, already beautiful, was unimaginably seductive as he became aroused. “I spent centuries in your arms. This time our joining will be controlled by me, and you will revel in the pleasure I can bring you. Throw off the shackles of your distant goddess and come to me. Be my love, truly, in body as well as soul and I will give you the world!”
The meaning of his words penetrated through the haze of pain and pleasure like sunlight burning away dew. I found my will again, and stumbled out of the embrace of his wings. Tendrils of icy black smoke snaked around my body, clinging . . . touching . . . caressing . . .
I shook myself like a pissed cat shaking off rain and the dark wisps slid from my body. “No! I’m not your love. I’m not A-ya. And I’ll never turn my back on Nyx!”
When I spoke Nyx’s name, the nightmare shattered.
I sat straight up in bed, shaking and gasping. Stevie Rae was sleeping soundly beside me, but Nala was wide awake. She was growling softly. Her back was arched, her body was totally puffed up, and she was staring slit-eyed at the air above me.
“Ah, hell!” I shrieked and bounded off the bed, spinning around and looking up, expecting to see Kalona hovering like a giant bat-bird over us.
Nothing. There was nothing there.
I grabbed Nala and sat on the bed. With trembling hands I petted her over and over. “It was just a bad dream . . . it was just a bad dream . . . it was just a bad dream,” I told her, but I knew it was a lie.
Kalona was real, and somehow he was able to reach me through my dreams.
Okay, so Kalona can get into your dreams, but you’re awake now, so pull yourself together! I told myself sternly as I petted Nala and let my cat’s familiar purr soothe me. Stevie Rae stirred in her sleep and murmured something I couldn’t hear. Then, still sleeping, she smiled and sighed. I looked down at her, glad that she was having better luck with her dreams.
Gently I pulled back the blanket she’d curled up under and breathed a sigh of relief when I saw no blood seeping through the bandage that covered the terrible arrow wound that had pierced her.
She stirred again. This time Stevie Rae’s eyes fluttered and opened. She looked confused for a second, then she smiled sleepily up at me.
“How are you feeling?” I asked.
“I’m okay,” she said groggily. “Don’t worry so much.”
“It’s a little hard not to worry when my best friend keeps dying,” I said, smiling back at her.
“I didn’t die this time. I just almost died.”
“My nerves are telling me to tell you there’s not a big difference in that ‘almost’ to them.”
“Tell your nerves to be quiet and go to sleep,” Stevie Rae said, closing her eyes and pulling the blanket back up over her. “I’m okay,” she repeated. “We’re all going to be okay.” Then her breathing deepened and I swear in less time than it took for me to blink, she was asleep.
I stifled my big sigh and scooted back on the bed, trying to get comfortable. Nala curled up between Stevie Rae and me, and gave me a disgruntled mee-uf-ow! that I knew meant she wanted me to relax and go to sleep.
Sleep? And possibly dream again? Uh, no. Not likely.
Instead I kept an eye on Stevie Rae’s breathing and petted Nala absently. It was so darn weird how normal everything seemed here in the little bubble of peace we’d made. Looking at sleeping Stevie Rae I found it almost impossible to believe that just a few hours ago she’d had an arrow sticking through her chest and we had had to escape from the House of Night as chaos tore our world apart. Unwilling to allow myself to sleep, my exhausted thoughts circled back, replaying the events of the night. And as I sifted through them, I was amazed anew that any of us had survived . . .
I remembered that Stevie Rae had, unbelievably, asked me to get a pencil and some paper ’cause she thought it would be a good time to make a list of stuff that we needed to get down in the tunnels so that we’d have the right supplies and whatnot if we had to stay hidden for a while.
She’d asked me that, in a totally calm voice, while she was sitting in front of me with an arrow stuck through her chest. I remember looking at her, getting really sick to my stomach, and then looking away and saying, “Stevie Rae, I’m not so sure this is a good time to be making lists.”
“Ouch! Dang, that hurts worse than gettin’ one of those goathead thistles stuck in your foot.” Stevie Rae had sucked air and flinched, but still managed to smile over her shoulder at Darius, who had ripped open the back of her shirt to expose the arrow that was sticking out of the middle of her back. “Sorry, I didn’t mean it’s your fault that it hurts. What’d you say your name was again?”
“I am Darius, Priestess.”
“He’s a Son of Erebus warrior,” Aphrodite had added, giving him a surprisingly sweet smile. I describe it as surprisingly sweet because Aphrodite is usually selfish, spoiled, hateful, and kinda hard to tolerate in general, even though I’m starting to like her. In other words, she’s definitely not sweet, but it was becoming clearer and clearer that she really had a thing for Darius, hence the unusual sweetness.
“Please. His warrior-ness is obvious. He’s built like a mountain,” Shaunee had said, giving Darius an appreciative leer.
“A totally hot mountain,” Erin echoed and made kiss noises at Darius.
“He’s taken, Twin freaks, so go play with each other,” Aphrodite automatically snapped at them, but it had seemed to me that she didn’t have her heart in the insult. Actually, now that I was thinking about it again, she’d sounded almost nice.
Oh, by the way, Erin and Shaunee are soul twins, not biological twins, being as Erin is a blond-haired blue-eyed Oklahoma girl and Shaunee is a caramel-colored easterner of Jamaican descent. But genetics didn’t matter with them—they might as well have been separated at birth and then rejoined by twin radar.
“Oh, yeah. Thanks for reminding us that our boyfriends aren’t here,” Shaunee said.
“’Cause they’re probably being eaten by man-bird freaks,” Erin said.
“Hey, cheer up. Zoey’s grandma didn’t say the Raven Mockers actually ate people. She said they just picked them up with their humongous beaks and threw them against a wall or whatever over and over again until every bone in their body was broken,” Aphrodite told the Twins with a lighthearted grin.
“Uh, Aphrodite, I don’t think you’re helping,” I said. Though she was right. Actually, as scary as it sounded, she and the Twins both might have been right. I hadn’t wanted to think about that too long, so I’d turned my attention back to my injured best friend. She’d looked absolutely horrible—pale, sweaty, and covered with blood. “Stevie Rae, don’t you think we should get you to a—”
“I got it! I got it!” Just then Jack had burst into the little side-tunnel area that had been made into Stevie Rae’s room, followed closely by the yellow Lab that rarely let the kid out of her sight. He was flushed and brandishing a white briefcase-looking thing that had a big red cross on it. “It was right where you said it’d be, Stevie Rae. In that kinda kitchen tunnel place.”
“And as soon as I get my breath I’ll tell you how pleasantly surprised I was when I discovered the working refrigerators and microwaves,” Damien said, following Jack into the room, breathing heavily and dramatically holding on to his side. “You’ll have to explain to me how you managed to get all of that down here, including the electricity to run it.” Damien paused, caught sight of Stevie Rae’s bloody, ripped shirt and the arrow that still protruded from her back, and his pink cheeks blanched white. “You’ll have to explain after you’re fixed up and not en brochette anymore.”
“En—Huh?” Shaunee said.
“Bro—What?” Erin said.
“It’s French for something being skewered, usually food, cretins. ‘The world going insane and evil letting slip the birds of war’” —he raised his brows at the Twins as he deliberately misquoted Shakespeare, obviously expecting them to recognize it, which they just as obviously didn’t—“does not excuse sloppy vocabulary.” Then he turned back to Darius. “Oh, I did find these in a not-so-sanitary pile of tools.” And lifted what looked like giant scissors.
“Bring the wire cutters and the first aid kit here,” Darius said in an all-business voice.