Awakened, Page 2P. C. Cast
That didn’t matter now. That could be dealt with later.
Only two things mattered now: Kalona had returned to her, and Zoey Redbird was dead.
“Speak to me. Tell me everything slowly and clearly. I want to savor each word.” Neferet went to Kalona, kneeling before him, stroking the soft, dark wings that unfurled loosely around the immortal as he sat on the bench, face raised to the night sky, bronzed body bathed in the golden glow of the moon. She tried to keep herself from trembling in anticipation of his touch—of the return of his cold passion, his frozen heat.
“What would you have me say?” He didn’t meet her eyes. Instead he opened his face to the sky, as if he could drink in the heavens above them.
His question took her aback. Her lust abated and her hand ceased stroking his wing.
“I would have you give me the details of our victory so that I might savor the retelling of it with you.” She spoke slowly, thinking that perhaps his brain might still be slightly addled from the recent displacement of his soul.
“Our victory?” he said.
Neferet’s green eyes narrowed. “Indeed. You are my Consort. Your victory is mine, as mine is yours.”
“Your kindness is almost divine. Have you become a goddess during my absence?”
Neferet studied him closely. He still wasn’t looking at her; his voice was almost expressionless. Was he being impudent? She shrugged off his question, though she continued to watch him closely. “What happened in the Otherworld? How did Zoey die?”
She knew what he would say the instant his amber eyes finally found hers, though childishly she covered her ears and began to shake her head back and forth, back and forth as he spoke the words that were like a sword stroke to her soul.
“Zoey Redbird is not dead.”
Neferet stood and forced her hands from her ears. She stalked several paces from Kalona, staring unseeingly out at the liquid sapphire of the night sea. She breathed slowly, carefully, attempting to control her seething emotions. When finally she knew she could do so without shrieking in anger to the sky, she spoke.
“Why? Why did you not complete your quest?”
“It was your quest, Neferet. Never mine. You forced me to return to a realm from which I’d been banished. What happened was predictable: Zoey’s friends rallied about her. With their aid she healed her shattered soul and found herself again.”
“Why did you not stop it from happening?” Her voice was frigid. She didn’t so much as glance at him.
Neferet heard the name leave his lips as if he’d spoken a prayer—soft, low, reverent. Jealousy speared her.
“What of the goddess?” She almost spat the question.
“She did what?” Neferet whirled around. Disbelief tinged with fear made her words breathless, incredulous. “Do you expect me to believe that Nyx actually interfered with mortal choice?”
“No,” Kalona said, sounding weary again. “She didn’t interfere; she intervened, and only after Zoey had already healed herself. Nyx blessed her for it. That blessing was part of her and her Warrior’s salvation.”
“Zoey lives.” Neferet’s voice was flat, cold, lifeless.
“Then you owe me the subservience of your immortal soul.” She started to walk away from him, toward the rooftop exit.
“Where are you going? What will happen next?”
Disgusted by what she perceived as weakness in his voice, Neferet turned to him. She drew herself up tall and proud, and held out her arms so that the sticky threads that pulsed around her could brush her skin freely, caressingly.
“What will happen next? It is quite simple. I will ensure Zoey is drawn back to Oklahoma. There, on my own terms, I will complete the task you failed.”
To her retreating back the immortal asked, “And what of me?”
Neferet paused and glanced over her shoulder. “You will return to Tulsa, too, only separately. I have need of you, but you cannot be with me publically. Do you not remember, my love, that you are a killer now? Heath Luck’s death was your doing.”
“Our doing,” he said.
She smiled silkily. “Not according to the High Council.” She met his eyes. “This is what is going to happen. I need you to regain your strength quickly. By dusk tomorrow I will have to report to the High Council that your soul has returned to your body, and that you confessed to me you killed the human boy because you thought his hatred for me a threat. I will tell them because you believed you were protecting me, I was merciful in your punishment. I only had you flogged one hundred strokes and then banished you from my side for one century.”
Kalona struggled to sit. Neferet was pleased to see anger flash in his amber eyes.
“You expect to be bereft of my touch for a century?”
“Of course not. I will graciously allow you to return to my side after your wounds have healed. Until then I will still have your touch; it will simply be away from the prying eyes of the public.”
His brow lifted. She thought how arrogant he looked, even weakened and defeated.
“How long do you expect me to skulk in the shadows, pretending to heal from nonexistent wounds?”
“I expect you to be absent from my side until your wounds do heal.” With a quick, precise movement, Neferet brought her wrist to her lips and bit deeply, instantly drawing a circle of blood. Then she began to make a swirling motion with her uplifted arm, sifting through the air while sticky threads of Darkness slithered greedily around her wrist, attaching to the blood like leeches. She ground her teeth together, forcing herself to remain unflinching, even when the sharpness of the tentacles stabbed her over and over. When they seemed bloated enough, Neferet spoke softly, lovingly to them. “You’ve taken your payment. Now you must do my bidding.” She looked from the throbbing strands of Darkness to her immortal lover. “Lash him deeply. One hundred times.” Neferet hurled Darkness at Kalona.
The weakened immortal only had time to unfurl his wings and begin to vault for the edge of the castle’s roof. The razor threads caught him midstride. They wrapped around his wings at the sensitive base where they met his spine. Instead of leaping from the rooftop he was trapped, pinned against the ancient stone of the balustrade while Darkness began to slowly, methodically, slice furrows into his naked back.
Neferet watched only until his proud, handsome head sagged in defeat and his body jerked convulsively with every cutting stroke.
“Do not mar him permanently. I plan to enjoy the beauty of his skin again,” she said before turning her back on Kalona and walking purposefully from the blood-soaked rooftop.
“It seems I must do everything myself, and there is so much to do … so much to do…,” she whispered to the Darkness that flitted about her ankles.
From the shadows within shadows Neferet thought she caught the outline of a massive bull watching her with approval and pleasure.
For the zillionth time I thought about what an amazing place Sgiach’s throne room was. She was an ancient vampyre queen, the Great Taker of Heads, uber-powerful and surrounded by her own personal Warriors known as Guardians. Hell, way back in the day she’d even taken on the Vampyre High Council and won, but her castle wasn’t a nasty-outdoor-plumbing-medieval-version-of-camping (gross). Sgiach’s castle was a fortress, but it was—as they say over here in Scotland—a posh castle. I swear the view from any of the sea-facing windows, but especially her throne room, is so incredible that it looks like it should be on HD TV and not in front of me, in real life.
“It’s beautiful here.” Okay, talking to myself—especially so soon after being, well, kinda sorta crazy in the Otherworld—might possibly be a not-so-good idea. I sighed and shrugged. “Whatever. With Nala not here, Stark mostly out of it, Aphrodite doing stuff I’d rather not imagine with Darius, and Sgi
ach off doing something magickal or kicking ass in superhero-like training with Seoras, talking to myself seems like the only option.”
“I was simply checking my email—nothing magickal or ass-kicking about that.”
I suppose she should have made me jump. I mean, the queen seemed to materialize from the air beside me, but I guess being all shattered and crazy in the Otherworld had given me a pretty high spookiness tolerance. Plus, I felt a weird bond with this vampyre queen. Yeah, she was awe-inspiring and had mad powers and all, but in the weeks since Stark and I had come back, she had been a fixture by my side. While Aphrodite and Darius played gross kissy-face and walked hand in hand on the beach, and while Stark slept and slept and slept, Sgiach and I had spent time together. Sometimes talking—sometimes not. She was, I’d decided days ago, the coolest woman, vamp or not, I’d ever met.
“You’re kidding, right? You’re an ancient warrior queen who lives in a castle on an island no one can get to without you letting them, and you’re checking your email? Sounds like magick to me.”
Sgiach laughed. “Science often feels more mysterious than magick, or at least I have always thought so. Which reminds me—I have been considering how odd it is that daylight affects your Guardian with such debilitating severity.”
“It’s not just Stark. I mean, it’s been worse with him recently ’cause, well, ’cause he’s hurt.” I paused, tripping over the words and not wanting to admit how hard it was to see my Warrior and Guardian so obviously messed up. “This really isn’t normal for him. He can usually stay conscious during the day, even if he can’t stand direct sunlight. All the red vampyres and fledglings are the same about it. Sun does them in.”
“Well, young queen, it could be a distinct disadvantage that your Guardian is unable to protect you during the daylight hours.”
I gave a shoulder shrug, even though her words sent a shiver of what might be premonition down my spine. “Yeah, well, recently I’ve learned to take care of myself. I think I can handle a few hours a day on my own,” I said with a sharpness that surprised even me.
Sgiach’s green-amber gaze caught me. “Do not allow it to make you hard.”
“Darkness and the struggle against it.”
“Don’t I have to be hard to fight?” I remembered skewering Kalona to the wall of an Otherworld arena with his own spear, and my stomach clenched.
She shook her head and the fading daylight caught the streak in her silver hair, making it glisten like cinnamon and gold mixed together. “No, you must be strong. You must be wise. You must know yourself and trust only those who are worthy. If you allow the battle against Darkness to harden you, you will lose perspective.”
I looked away, staring out at the gray-blue waters that surrounded the Isle of Skye. The sun was setting into the ocean, reflecting delicate pink and coral colors across the darkening sky. It was beautiful and peaceful and looked utterly normal. Standing here it was hard to imagine that hanging around in the world out there was evil and Darkness and death.
But Darkness was out there, probably multiplied times a gazillion. Kalona hadn’t killed me, and that was really, really gonna piss off Neferet.
Just the thought of what that meant, that I was going to have to deal with her and Kalona and all the horrible bullpoopie that went along with them again made me feel incredibly tired.
I turned away from the window, squared my shoulders, and faced Sgiach. “What if I don’t want to fight anymore? What if I want to stay here, at least for a while? Stark’s not himself. He needs to rest and get better. I’ve already sent that message to the High Council about Kalona. They know he murdered Heath and then came after me, and that Neferet was all involved in it and has allied herself with Darkness. The High Council can handle Neferet. Hell, adults need to handle her and the nasty evil mess she keeps trying to make out of life.”
Sgiach didn’t say anything, so I took a breath and kept on babbling. “I’m a kid. Seventeen. Barely. I’m crappy at geometry. My Spanish sucks. I can’t even vote yet. Fighting evil isn’t my responsibility—graduating from high school and, hopefully, making the Change is. My soul’s been shattered and my boyfriend’s been killed. Don’t I deserve a break? Just a little one?”
Utterly surprising me, Sgiach smiled and said, “Yes, Zoey, I believe you do.”
“You mean I can stay here?”
“For as long as you wish. I know what it is to feel the world press too tightly around. Here, as you said, the world is only allowed to enter at my command—and mostly I command it to stay away.”
“What about the fight against Darkness and evil and whatnot?”
“It will be there when you return.”
“Seriously. Stay here on my isle until your soul is truly rested and restored, and your conscience tells you to return to your world and your life there.”
I ignored the little pang I felt at the word conscience. “Stark can stay, too, right?”
“Of course. A queen must always have her Guardian by her side.”
“Speaking of,” I said quickly, glad to steer the subject away from questions of conscience and battling evil, “how long has Seoras been your Guardian?”
The queen’s eyes softened and her smile became sweeter, warmer, and even more beautiful. “Seoras became my Oath Bond Guardian more than five hundred years ago.”
“Holy crap! Five hundred years? How old are you?”
Sgiach laughed. “After a certain point, don’t you think age is irrelevant?”
“And it isna polite to ask a lassie’s age.”
Even if he hadn’t said anything, I would have known Seoras had come in the room. Sgiach’s face changed when he was around. It was like he turned on a switch and made something soft and warm glow inside her. And when he gazed back at her, just for a moment, he didn’t look so gruff and battle-scarred and I’d-rather-kick-your-butt-than-talk-to-you.
The queen laughed and touched her Guardian’s arm with an intimacy that made me hope Stark and I could find even a little piece of what the two of them had. And if he called me lassie after five hundred years, that would be pretty cool, too.
Heath would have called me lassie. Well, more like girl. Or maybe just Zo—forever just his Zo.
But Heath was dead and gone and he’d never call me anything again.
“He’s waiting for yu, young queen.”
Shocked, I stared at Seoras. “Heath?”
The Warrior’s look was wise and understanding—his voice gentle. “Aye, yur Heath probably does await yu somewhere in the future, but it is of yur Guardian I speak.”
“Stark! Oh, good, he’s awake.” I know I sounded guilty. I didn’t mean to keep thinking about Heath, but it was hard not to. He’d been part of my life since I was nine—and dead only for a few weeks. I mentally shook myself, bowed quickly to Sgiach, and started for the door.
“He isna in your chamber,” Seoras said. “The boy is near the grove. He asked that you meet him there.”
“He’s outside?” I paused, surprised. Since Stark had come back from the Otherworld, he’d been too weak and out of it to do much more than eat, sleep, and play computer games with Seoras, which was actually a super weird sight—it was like high school meets Braveheart meets Call of Duty.
“Aye, the lassie’s done fussin’ about with his makeup the now and is actin’ like a proper Guardian again.”
I put my fist on my hip and narrowed my eyes at the old Warrior. “He almost died. You cut him to pieces. He was in the Otherworld. Give him a little break. Jeesh.”
“Aye, well, he dinna actually die, did he?”
I rolled my eyes. “You said he’s at the grove?”
As I hurried through the doorway, Sgiach’s voice followed me. “Take that lovely scarf you bought in the village. It is a cold evening.”
I thought it was a kinda strange thing for Sgiach to say. I mean, yeah, i
t was cold (and usually wet) on Skye, but fledglings and vamps don’t feel changes in weather like humans do. But whatever. When a warrior queen tells you to do something, it’s usually best to do it. So I detoured to the huge room I shared with Stark and grabbed the scarf I’d draped over the end of the canopied bed. It was cream-colored cashmere, with threads of gold woven through it, and I thought it probably looked prettier hanging against the crimson bed curtains than it did around my neck.
I paused for a second, looking at the bed I’d been sharing with Stark for the past weeks. I’d curled up with him, held his hand, and rested my head on his shoulder while I watched him sleep. But that was it. He hadn’t even tried to tease me about making out with him.
Crap! He’s hurt bad!
I mentally cringed as I recounted how many times Stark had suffered because of me: an arrow had almost killed him because he’d taken the shot that had been meant for me; he’d had to be sliced up and then destroyed a part of himself to pass into the Otherworld to join me; he’d been mortally wounded by Kalona because he’d believed it was the only way to reach what was shattered inside me.
But I’d saved him, too, I reminded myself. Stark had been right—watching Kalona brutalize him had made me pull myself together, and because of that Nyx had forced Kalona to breathe a sliver of immortality into Stark’s body, returning his life and paying the debt he owed for killing Heath.
I walked through the beautifully decorated castle, nodding to the Warriors who bowed respectfully to me, and thought about Stark, automatically picking up my pace. What was he thinking, dragging himself outside after what he’d been through?
Hell, I didn’t know what he was thinking. He’d been different since we’d been back.
Well, of course he’s been different, I told myself sternly, feeling crappy and disloyal. My Warrior had made an Otherworld journey, died, been resurrected by an immortal, and then yanked back into a body that was weak and wounded.