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P. C. Cast



  Lenobia bolted from her chamber, raced down the short stairwell that led from her quarters to the ground floor and the stables. Smoke was seeping snake-like from under the door. She controlled her panic and pressed her palm against the wood. It wasn't warm to the touch, so she yanked open the door, assessing the situation rapidly as she moved into her stables. The fire burned most fiercely at the far end of the building in the area where the hay and feed were stored. It was also the area closest to Mujaji's stall as well as the large foaling stall the Percheron, Bonnie, and her Travis had taken up residence in.

  "Travis!" she shouted, lifting her arm to shield her face from the heat of the growing flames as she raced down into the stables and began opening stalls, freeing the horses closest to her. Out, Persephone-go! Lenobia nudged the roan mare, who was frozen from fright and refusing to leave her stall. When she darted past her and through the exit, Lenobia called again, "Travis! Where are you?"

  "Gettin' the horses out that are closest to the fire!" he yelled as a young gray mare bolted from the direction of Travis's voice and almost trampled over Lenobia.

  "Easy! Easy, Anjo. " Lenobia soothed, steering the terrified horse to the exit.

  "East exit is blocked by flames and I-" Travis's words broke off as the tack room windows exploded and hot glass shards flew through the air.

  "Travis! Get out of there and call 911!" Lenobia yelled as she opened the closest stall and freed a gelding, hating that she'd not grabbed her phone and made the call herself before she'd run from her room.

  "I just did!" replied an unfamiliar voice. Lenobia looked through the smoke and flames to see a fledgling jogging toward her, leading an utterly panicked sorrel mare.

  "All is well, Diva," Lenobia calmed the horse automatically, taking the rope from the girl. At her touch the mare quieted, and Lenobia unhooked her lead rope, encouraging her to gallop through the nearby doorway after the other escaping horses. She pulled the girl back with her, away from the increasing heat, saying, "How many more horses are-" Lenobia's words broke off as she saw that the crescent on the girl's forehead was red.

  "I think there are only a few left. " The red fledgling's hand was shaking as she wiped sweat and soot from her face, gasping the words. "I-I grabbed Diva 'cause I always liked her and thought she might remember me. But even she was scared. Real scared. "

  Then Lenobia recognized the girl-Nicole. She'd had an aptitude for horses and a natural seat, before she'd died and then undied and joined Dallas's rogue group. But there was no time to question the child. No time for anything except getting the horses-and Travis-to safety. "You did well, Nicole. Can you go back in there?"

  "Yes. " Nicole nodded jerkily. "I don't want them to burn. I'll do whatever you tell me to do. "

  Lenobia rested her hand on the girl's shoulder. "I just need you to open the stalls and get out of the way. I'll guide them to safety. "

  "Okay, okay. I can do that. " Nicole nodded. She sounded breathless and frightened, but without hesitation she followed Lenobia and they jogged back into the swirling heat of the stables.

  "Travis!" Lenobia coughed, trying to see through the increasingly thick smoke. "Can you hear me?"

  Over the crackling flames he yelled. "Yes! I'm back here. Stall stuck!"

  "Get it open!" Lenobia refused to give in to her panic. "Get them all open! I can call the horses to me, to safety. I can get them out. Follow them. I can guide you all out!"

  "Got 'em open!" Travis yelled a moment later from the pit of the smoke and heat.

  "These are all open, too!" called Nicole from much closer.

  "Now follow the horses and get out of the stables! Both of you!" Lenobia shouted before she began sprinting, backward, away from the fire and to the double doors of the exit she'd left open wide behind her. Standing in the doorway she lifted her arms, palms open, and imagining she was pulling power directly from the Otherworld and the mystical realm of Nyx, Lenobia opened her heart, her soul, and her Goddess-given gift and cried, "Come, my beautiful daughters and sons! Follow my voice and my love and live!"

  Horses seemed to explode from out of the flames and the inky smoke. Their terror was so palpable to Lenobia it was almost a living being. She understood it-this terror of flames and fire and death-and she channeled strength and serenity through herself and into the horses that galloped past her and into the school grounds.

  The red fledgling staggered, coughing, after them. "That's it. That's all the horses," she said, collapsing into the grass.

  Lenobia barely spared Nicole a nod. Her emotions were focused on the restless herd behind her, and her eyes were focused on the thickening smoke and the licking flames before her from which Travis did not emerge.

  "Travis!" she shouted.

  There was no answer.

  "The fire's spreading fast," said the still-coughing red fledgling. "He might be dead. "

  "No," Lenobia said firmly. "Not this time. " She turned to look at the herd, calling out to her beloved black mare, "Mujaji!" The horse nickered and trotted toward her. Lenobia put up a hand, halting her. "Be calm, sweet one. Watch over the rest of my children. Lend them your strength and serenity, as well as my love," Lenobia said. The mare reluctantly but obediently began moving around the clusters of frightened horses, herding them together. Satisfied, Lenobia turned away, drew two deep breaths, and sprinted into the mouth of the burning stables.

  The heat was terrible. The smoke was so dense it was like trying to breathe boiling liquid. For an instant Lenobia was transported back to that terrible night in New Orleans and another burning barn. The thick ridges of the scars on her back ached with a phantom memory of pain, and for a moment panic ruled, rooting Lenobia in the past.

  Then she heard him cough, and her panic was shattered by hope, allowing the present and the true strength of Lenobia's will to overcome her fear. "Travis! I can't see you!" she shouted as she ripped off the bottom of her nightgown, stepped into the closest stall, and dunked it in the water trough.

  "Go-back-" he said between hacking coughs.

  "Like hell I will. I've watched a man burn because of me. I do not like it. " Lenobia pulled the soaking cloth over her like a hooded cloak and moved farther into the smoke and heat, following Travis's coughs.

  She found him next to an open stall. He'd fallen and was trying to pull himself up, but had only made it to his knees where he was bent over gagging and coughing. Lenobia didn't hesitate. She stepped into the stall and dunked the ripped cloth into the stall's water trough again.

  "What the?" Another cough raked him as he squinted up at her. "No! Get-"

  "I have no time for arguing. Just lay down. " When he didn't move quickly enough, she kicked his knees out from under him. He fell onto his back with a grunt and she spread the wet cloth over his face and chest. "Yes, like that. Flat," Lenobia commanded, as she reached into the water trough, and quickly splashed the liquid over her face and hair. Then, before he could protest or foil her plan by moving around, she grabbed Travis's legs and began pulling.

  Did he have to be this big and heavy? Lenobia's mind was getting fuzzy. Flames were roaring around her and she was sure she could smell burning hair. Well, Martin had been big, too . . . Then her mind stopped working. It was as if her body was moving on automatic with no one piloting it except a primal need to keep dragging this man from danger.

  "It's her! It's Lenobia!" Strong hands were suddenly there, trying to take her burden from her. Lenobia fought. Death would not win this time! Not this time!

  "Professor Lenobia, all is well. You made it out. " The coolness of the air registered, and then her mind was able to put sense to what was happening. She gasped, breathing in the clean air and coughing out heat and smoke as gentle hands helped her to the grass and put a mask over her nose and mouth, through which even sweeter air flooded her lungs. She sucked in the oxygen and her mind completely cleared.

  Human firemen swar
med the grounds. Powerful water hoses were being turned to the flaming stables. A pair of paramedics was hovering, staring at her, looking lost and obviously surprised at how quickly she was recovering.

  She ripped the mask from her face. "Not me. Him!" She yanked the smoldering cloth from Travis's too still body. "He's human-help him!"

  "Yes, ma'am," one of the EMTs mumbled and they started working on Travis.

  "Lenobia, drink this. " A goblet was thrust into her hands and the Horse Mistress looked up to see the two vampyre healers from the House of Night infirmary, Margareta and Pemphredo, crouching beside her. Lenobia drained the wine that was heavily laced with blood in one long swallow, instantly feeling the life energy it carried tingle through her body.

  "You should come with us, Professor," Margareta said. "You will need more than that to completely heal.

  "Later," Lenobia said, tossing the goblet aside. She ignored the healers, as well as the sirens and voices and general chaos around her. Lenobia crawled to Travis's head. The EMTs were busy. The cowboy already had a mask of his own, and they were starting an IV in his arm. His eyes were closed. Even under the soot smudges, she could see that his face was scalded and red. He was wearing an untucked T-shirt that had obviously been thrown on hastily over his jeans. His strong forearms were bare and already blistering. And his hands-his hands were burned bloody.

  She must have made an involuntary noise-some small outward sign of the horrible heartache she was feeling-because Travis opened his eyes. They were exactly as she remembered-whisky brown tinged with olive green. Their gazes met and held.

  "Is he going to survive?" she asked the paramedic closest to her.

  "I've seen worse, and he is gonna scar, but we need to get him to St. John's ASAP. The smoke inhalation is worse than his burns. " The human paused, and even though Lenobia hadn't taken her gaze from Travis's, she could hear the smile in his voice. "He's a lucky guy. You almost didn't find him in time. "

  "Actually, it took me two hundred and twenty-four years to find him, but I am glad I was in time. "

  Travis started to say something, but his words were drowned in a terrible, hacking cough.

  "Excuse me, ma'am. The gurney's here. "

  Lenobia moved to the side as Travis was transferred to the gurney, but their gaze never broke. She walked beside him as they rolled him to the waiting ambulance. Before they loaded him within, he pushed off his mask, and in a gravelly voice asked, "Bonnie? Okay?"

  "She's fine. I can feel her. She's with Mujaji. I'll keep her safe. I'll keep all of them safe," she assured him.

  He reached out to her, and she carefully touched his burned, bloodied hand. "Me too?" he managed to rasp.

  "Yes, cowboy. You can bet that big, beautiful mare of yours on that. " And not giving a damn that she could feel everyone staring at her-humans, fledglings, and vampyres-Lenobia leaned down and kissed him softly on his lips. "Look for happiness and horses. I'll be there. This time making sure you are safe. "

  "Good to know. My mamma always said I needed a keeper. Hope she rests better knowin' I got me one. " He sounded like his throat was full of sandpaper.

  Lenobia smiled. "You've got one, but I think it is you who needs to learn to rest. "

  The tips of his fingers touched her hand and he said, "I believe I can now. I was just waitin' to find my way home. "

  Lenobia stared into his amber and olive eyes that were so familiar, so very, very much like Martin's, and imagined she could see through to that also familiar soul-to the kindness and strength, honesty and love that somehow had fulfilled his promise to return to her. Deep within her Lenobia knew that even though the rest of the tall, wiry cowboy looked nothing at all like her lost love, she'd found her heart again. Emotion clogged her voice, and all she could do was smile, nod, and turn her hand so that his fingertips rested on her palm-warm, strong, and very much alive.

  "We need to get him to St. John's, ma'am," said the EMT.

  Lenobia took her touch reluctantly from Travis, wiped her eyes, and said, "You can have him for a little while, but I'll want him back. Soon. " She turned her storm cloud gaze on the white-jacketed human. "Treat him well. This barn fire is small in comparison to the heat of my temper. "

  "Y-yes, ma'am," the EMT stammered, quickly lifting Travis into the ambulance. Before they closed the doors and, with lights flashing, drove away, Lenobia was sure she heard Travis's chuckle turn to a wracking cough.

  She was standing there, staring after the ambulance and worrying about Travis, when someone nearby cleared his throat rather obviously, and Lenobia's attention instantly shifted. Turning, she saw what her tunnel vision-like focus on Travis had caused her to ignore. The school seemed to have exploded. Horses milled nervously as close to the east wall as they could get. Fire trucks were parked on the grounds beside the stable, spraying enormous hoses filled with rushing water on the still burning structure. Fledglings and vampyres had gathered in frightened groups, looking helpless.

  "Calm, Mujaji . . . calm. All is well now, my sweet one. " Lenobia closed her eyes and concentrated on using the gift her Goddess had granted her more than two hundred years ago. She felt the beautiful black mare respond instantly, releasing her agitation and blowing out the last of her fear and nervousness. Then Lenobia's connection shifted to the big Percheron, who was pawing the ground fretfully, ears flicking wildly as she searched for Travis. "Bonnie, he is well. You have nothing to fear. " Lenobia spoke softly, echoing the waves of emotion she was transmitting to the anxious mare. Bonnie quieted almost as quickly as had Mujaji, which pleased Lenobia immensely and allowed her to spread her attention easily to the rest of the herd. "Persephone, Anjo, Diva, Little Biscuit, Okie Dodger"-she picked through the herd, sending special warmth and reassurance to individual horses-"follow Mujaji's lead. Be calm. Be strong. You are safe. "

  The nearby throat cleared again, breaking her concentration. Irritated, Lenobia opened her eyes to see a human standing in front of her. He was dressed in a fireman's uniform, and he was watching her with raised-brow, open curiosity. "Are you talking to those horses?"

  "Actually, I am doing much more than that. Take a look. " She made a gesture at the herd behind him. He turned, and his face registered surprise. "They've calmed down a bunch. That's bizarre. "

  "Bizarre has such negative connotations. I like the word magickal instead. " Dismissively, Lenobia nodded to the fireman and then began striding toward the group of fledglings that were clustered around Erik Night and Professor P.

  "Ma'am, I'm Captain Alderman, Steve Alderman," he said, almost jogging to keep up with Lenobia. "We're working to get this fire under control, and I need to know who's in charge here. "

  "Captain Alderman, I would like to know that myself," Lenobia said grimly. Then, she added, "Come with me. I'll get this sorted out. " The Horse Mistress joined Erik, Professor P, and their bunch of fledglings, which included a Son of Erebus Warrior, Kramisha, Shaylin, and several fifth and sixth former blue fledglings. "Penthesilea, I know Thanatos is with Zoey and her circle, completing the ritual at Sylvia Redbird's farm, but where is Neferet?" Lenobia's voice was a whip.

  "I-I simply do not know!" The literature professor sounded shaken, staring over her shoulder at the burning stables. "I went to her quarters myself when I saw the fire, but there was no sign of her. "

  "How 'bout her phone? Didn't nobody try to call her?" Kramisha said.

  "Not answering," Erik said.

  "Wonderful," Lenobia muttered.

  "Can I assume that due to the absence of the others you just mentioned, you are in charge here?" Captain Alderman asked her.

  "Yes, it appears, by default, I am," she said.

  "Well, then, you need a school roster, ASAP. You and the teachers should check immediately to be sure all of your students are present and accounted for. " He jerked his thumb toward a bench not far from where they stood. "That girl-the one with the red moon on her forehead, is the only kid we fou
nd anywhere near the barn. She's not hurt, just shook up a little. The oxygen is clearing her lungs unusually fast. Still, it might be a good idea for her to get checked out at St. John's. "

  Lenobia glanced over to where Nicole was sitting, breathing deeply from an oxygen mask while a paramedic checked and rechecked her vitals. Margareta and Pemphredo hovered close by, glaring at the EMT like he was a particularly disgusting insect.

  "Our infirmary is better equipped to take care of injured fledglings than a human hospital," Lenobia said.

  "Whatever you say, ma'am. You're in charge here, and I know you vamps have your own unique physiology. " He paused and added, "No offense meant by that. My best friend in high school was Marked and Changed. I liked him then. I still like him. "

  Lenobia managed a smile. "No offense taken, Captain Alderman. You were only speaking truth. Vampyres do have different physiological needs than humans. Nicole will be fine here with us.

  "Good. Guess we'd better send some of our boys into that field house and look for any other kids that might be close by," said the captain. "Looks like we can keep the fire from spreading, but best search the adjoining parts of the school. "

  "I think the field house is a waste of your men's time," Lenobia said, following what her instinct was telling her. "Have them focus on putting out the stable fire. The fire didn't start by itself. That needs to be investigated, as well as being sure none of our people were trapped in the blaze. I'll have our Warriors search the adjoining parts of the school, beginning with the field house. "

  "Yes, ma'am. It does look like we got here in time. The field house will have smoke and water damage, but it's going to look a lot worse than it really is. I think the structure has remained sound. It's a nice building made from good, thick stone. It'll take some rebuilding, but its bones were made to last. " The fireman tipped his hat to her and went off, shouting orders at the nearest men.

  Well, at least that's some good news, Lenobia thought, trying to avert her eyes from the smoldering mess that was her stables. She turned back to her group. "Where's Dragon? Still in the field house?"

  "We can't find Dragon, either," Erik said.

  "Dragon's missing?" The stables had been built with a shared wall of the large, covered field house. Until then she'd been too preoccupied to think about it, but the absence of the Leader of the Sons of Erebus during a time of school crisis was highly unusual. "Neferet and Dragon-I do not like that neither are here. It bodes ill for the school. "

  "Professor Lenobia, um, I saw her. "

  Everyone's eyes turned to the petite girl with cascades of thick, dark hair that made the delicate features of her face seem almost doll-like. Lenobia put a name to her face quickly, Shaylin-the newest fledgling at the Tulsa House of Night, and the only fledgling whose original Mark was red. Lenobia had thought there was something rather odd about her from the first moment she'd met her just days before. "You saw Neferet?" She narrowed her eyes at the fledgling. "When? Where?"

  "Only an hour or so ago," Shaylin said. "I was sitting outside the dorm, looking at the trees. " She shrugged nervously and added, "I used to be blind, and now that I'm not anymore I like to look at stuff. A lot. "

  "Shaylin, what about Neferet?" Erik Night prodded her.

  "Oh, yeah, I saw her walking down the sidewalk to the field house. She, um, she looked very, well, dark. " Shaylin paused, looking uncomfortable.

  "Dark? What do you mean by-"

  "Shaylin has a unique way of seeing people," Erik interrupted. Lenobia watched him put a calming hand on Shaylin's shoulder. "If she thought Neferet looked dark, then it's probably a good thing you kept the human firemen from poking around the field house. "

  Lenobia wanted to question Shaylin further, but Erik met Lenobia's gaze and shook his head, almost imperceptibly. Lenobia felt a chill of foreboding shiver down her spine. That premonition decided her. "Axis, go with Penthesilea to the administrative office. If Diana isn't awake, wake her. Get the school roster and distribute it among the Sons of Erebus Warriors. Have them account for each student and then have the students report to their mentors before they return to their dormitory rooms. " As the professor and the Warrior hurried away, Lenobia met Kramisha's frank gaze. "Can you get these fledglings"-Lenobia paused and her gesture took in the random, lost-looking students that were milling around the area-"to report to their mentors?"

  "I'm a poet. I can figure out some serious iambic pentameter. That means I can boss around a few scared, sleepy kids. "

  Lenobia smiled at the girl. She'd liked her even before she'd died, and then come back as a red fledgling who had such prophetic poetic skills that she'd been named the new Vampyre Poet Laureate. "Thank you, Kramisha. I knew I could count on you. Be sure you hurry. I don't need to tell you, but dawn is getting too close. "

  Kramisha snorted. "You tellin' me? I'll be crispier than that barn if I'm not inside and under cover soon. "

  As Kramisha hurried off, calling to the scattered fledglings, Lenobia faced Erik and Shaylin. "The three of us need to search the field house. "

  "Yeah, I agree," Erik said. "Let's go. "

  Shaylin held back, though, and Lenobia noticed she shook his hand off her shoulder. Not in an irritated or mean way, but in a distracted way. She watched the young red fledgling gaze skyward and sigh. Lenobia caught a sense of importance-a sense of waiting or wanting.

  "What is it?" Lenobia asked the girl, even though the last thing she should have been doing was giving attention to a distracted, strange, red fledgling.

  Still gazing upwards, Shaylin said, "Where's the rain when you need it?"

  "Huh?" Erik shook his head at her. "What are you talking about?"

  "Rain. I really, really wish it would rain. " The girl looked from the sky to him and shrugged, appearing a little embarrassed. "I swear I could smell it in the air. It would help the firemen and make double sure the fire didn't spread to the rest of the school. "

  "The humans are handling the fire. We need to check out the field house. I don't like that Neferet was seen going in there. "

  Lenobia began heading toward the field house, assuming the two of them would follow her, but she hesitated when Shaylin still resisted. Turning on her, ready to call the fledgling to task for either insolence or ignorance, Erik beat her to it by saying something.

  "Hey, this is important. " He spoke in a low, urgent voice to Shaylin. "Let's go with Lenobia and check out the field house. The firemen can get the rest of this stuff under control. " When Shaylin continued to hold back and resisted going toward the field house, he said, more loudly, "What's going on with you? Since Thanatos and Dragon, and even Zoey and her group aren't here, we need to be careful about not letting everyone know what we might-"

  "Erik, I do think Lenobia's right," Shaylin cut him off. "It's just, I want to know what's going to happen to her. "

  Lenobia followed Shaylin's gaze to see Nicole, still sitting on the bench, between the two infirmary vampyres, looking soot-smudged and pink-skinned.

  "She's one of Dallas's red fledglings. I wouldn't be surprised if she had something to do with the fire," Erik said, clearly annoyed. "Lenobia, I think you should make Nicole go to the infirmary, and then keep her locked in there until we figure out what the hell really happened here. "

  Before Lenobia could respond, Shaylin was speaking. She sounded firm and much wiser than her sixteen years. "No. Have her go to the infirmary to be sure she's okay, but don't lock her up. "

  "Shaylin, you don't know what you're talking about. Nicole is with Dallas," Erik said.

  "Well, she's not with him right now. She's changing," Shaylin said.

  "She did help me get the horses out," Lenobia said. "If she was involved in the fire it would have been a lot easier for her to slip away in the smoke. I would have never known she was there. "

  "That makes sense. Her colors are different-better. " Then Shaylin, firmness and wisdom dissipating, looked big-eyed at Lenobia and s
aid, "Ah oh. Sorry. I said too much. I need to learn to keep my mouth shut. "

  "What atrocity has been committed on the school grounds this night!" The voice thundered over Lenobia. Across the school grounds, moving quickly toward them, was a phalanx of vampyres and fledglings with Thanatos in their lead, Zoey and Stevie Rae on either side of her and, bizarrely enough, Kalona, wings unfurled defensively, striding along with them just behind Thanatos, as if he had suddenly become Death's Guardian Angel.

  It was at that moment that the night sky opened and it began to rain.