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Tempted, Page 2

P. C. Cast

Chapter Two

  All right, you two, listen up. I'm only gonna say this once--act right. Standing between the two guys, Stevie Rae put her hands on her hips and glared at Erik and Heath. Without taking her eyes from them she yelled, Dallas! Almost instantly the kid jogged up to her. What's up, Stevie Rae? Get Johnny B. Tell him to take Heath and search around the front part of the abbey over by Lewis Street and make sure the Raven Mockers are really gone. You and Erik take the south side of the building. I'll go down along the tree row by Twenty-first and check it out.

  All by yourself? Erik said. Yes, all by myself, Stevie Rae snapped. Are you forgettin' I could stomp my foot right now and make the ground under you shake? I could also pick you up and toss you on your silly jealous butt. I think I can handle checkin' out those trees by myself. Beside her, Dallas laughed. And I'm thinking red vamp with an earth element affinity trumps blue drama vamp. That made Heath snort and laugh; and, predictably, Erik started to bow up again.

  No! Stevie Rae said before the stupid boys started throwing punches. If y'all can't say anything nice, then just shut the heck up. Did you want me, Stevie Rae? Johnny B said, coming up to stand beside her. I saw Darius carrying that arrow kid into the abbey. He said I should find you.

  Yeah, she said with relief. I want you and Heath to check out the front part of the abbey over by Lewis. Make sure those Raven Mockers really are gone. I'm on it! Johnny B said, giving Heath a pretend punch on the shoulder. Come on, quarterback, let's see what you got.

  Just pay attention to the dang trees and shadowy stuff, Stevie Rae said, shaking her head as Heath ducked and dodged and struck Johnny B's shoulder with a few quick punches. No problem, Dallas said, starting to move off with a silent Erik. Make it quick, Stevie Rae called to both sets of guys. The sun'll be up soon. Y'all meet me in front of Mary's Grotto in half an hour or so. Holler loud if you find anything and we'll all come runnin'. She watched the four guys to be sure they were really going where she'd sent them, and then Stevie Rae turned and, with a sigh, started on her own mission.

  Dang, talk about annoying! She loved Z more than white bread, but dealing with her BFF's boyfriends was making her feel like a toad in a tornado! She used to think Erik was the hottest guy in the world. After spending a couple of days with him, she now thought he was a big ol' pain in the butt with a super-sized ego. Heath was sweet, but he was just a human, and Z had been right to worry about him. Humans definitely died easier than vamps or even fledglings. She glanced over her shoulder, trying to catch sight of Johnny B and Heath, but the icy darkness and the trees had swallowed her and she couldn't see anyone. Not that Stevie Rae minded being by herself for a change.

  Johnny B would keep an eye on Heath. The truth was that she was glad to be rid of him and jealous Erik for a little while. The two of them made her appreciate Dallas. He was simple and easy. He was her kinda-sorta boyfriend. The two of them had a thing, but it didn't get in the way of stuff. Dallas knew Stevie Rae had a lot to deal with, so he let her deal.

  And he was there for the off times. Easy-peasy, cute and breezy! That was Dallas. Z could learn a thing or two about handling guys from me, she thought as she trudged through the grove of old trees that ringed Mary's Grotto and buffered the abbey's land from busy Twenty-first Street. Well, one thing was for sure--it was definitely a crappy night. Stevie Rae hadn't gone a dozen paces before her short blond curls were soaked. Dang, water was even drippin' off her nose! She backhanded her face, wiping off the cold, wet mixture of rain and ice. Everything was so weirdly dark and silent.

  It was freaky that there were absolutely no streetlights working on Twenty-first. Not one car was on the street--not even a cruising TPD squad car. She slipped and slid down the incline. Her feet met road and only her super-good red vampyre night vision kept her oriented. It seemed like Kalona had run away and taken sound and light with him. Feeling skittish, she backhanded the sopping wet hair from her face again and pulled herself together. You're actin' like a chicken, and you know how stupid chickens are! She spoke aloud and then got double spooked when her words sounded bizarrely magnified by the ice and darkness. Why in the world was she so jumpy? It could be 'cause you're keepin' stuff from your BFF, Stevie Rae muttered, and then clamped her lips shut. Her voice was just too loud in the dark, ice- filled night. But she was gonna tell Z about the other stuff.

  Really she was! There just hadn't been time. And Z had enough on her mind without more stress. And . . . and . . . it was hard to talk about it, even to Zoey. Stevie Rae kicked at a broken, ice-covered branch. She knew it didn't matter if it was hard. She was gonna talk to Zoey. She had to. But later. Maybe a lot later. Better to focus on the present, at least for right now. Squinting and cupping her hand over her eyes to try to shield them from the sting of the icy rain, Stevie Rae peered up into the branches of the trees. Even with the darkness and the storm her eyesight was good, and she was relieved not to see any big dark bodies lurking above her.

  Finding it easier to walk on the side of the road, she made her way down Twenty-first Street heading away from the abbey, all the while keeping her eyes up. It wasn't until she was almost at the fence line that pided the nuns' property from the upscale condo beside it that Stevie Rae smelled it. Blood. A wrong kind of blood. She stopped. Looking almost feral, Stevie Rae sniffed the air. It was filled with the wet, musty scent of ice as it coated earth, the crisp, cinnamon smell of the winter trees, and the man-made tang of the asphalt beneath her feet. She ignored those scents and instead focused on the blood. It wasn't human blood, or even fledgling blood, so it didn't smell like sunlight and spring--honey and chocolate--love and life and everything that she'd ever dreamed of.

  No, this blood smelled too dark. Too thick. There was too much of something in it that wasn't human. But it was still blood, and it drew her, even though she knew the wrongness of it deep in her soul. It was the scent of something strange, something otherworldly, that led her to the first splashes of crimson. In the stormy darkness of the sunless predawn, even her enhanced vision saw it only as wet splotches against the ice that sheeted the road and covered the grass beside it. But Stevie Rae knew it was blood. A lot of blood. But there was no animal or human lying there bleeding. Instead there was a trail of liquid darkness thickening in the sheeting ice, moving away from the street and into the densest part of the grove behind the abbey.

  Her predator's instincts kicked in instantly. Stevie Rae moved stealthily, hardly breathing, hardly making a sound, as she tracked the blood path. It was beneath one of the largest trees that she found it, hunkered down under a huge, newly broken branch as if it had dragged itself there to hide and die. Stevie Rae felt a shudder of fear pass through her. It was a Raven Mocker. The creature was huge. Bigger than she'd thought they'd looked from a distance. It lay on its side, head tucked down against the ground, so she couldn't see its face very well. The giant wing she could see looked wrong, obviously broken, and the human arm that lay beneath it was weirdly angled and covered with blood.

  Its legs were human, too, and curled up like it had died in a fetal position. She remembered hearing Darius firing a gun as he and Z and the gang had ridden like bats outta hell down Twenty-first to the abbey. So, he'd shot it from the sky. Dang, she said under her breath. That must've been one heck of a fall. Stevie Rae cupped her hands around her mouth and was getting ready to holler for Dallas so he and the other guys could help her drag the body somewhere when the Raven Mocker twitched and opened its eyes.

  She froze. The two of them stared at each other. The creature's red eyes widened, looking surprised and impossibly human in the bird face. They flicked around her and behind her, checking to see if she was alone. Automatically, Stevie Rae crouched, putting her hands up defensively and centering herself to call earth to strengthen her.

  And then he spoke. Kill me. End this, he gasped, panting in pain. The sound of his voice was so human, so completely unexpected that Stevie Rae dropped her hands and staggered a step back. You can talk! she blur
ted. Then the Raven Mocker did something that utterly shocked Stevie Rae and irrevocably changed the course of her life. He laughed. It was a dry, sarcastic sound, and it ended in a moan of pain. But it was laughter, and it framed his words with humanity.

  Yes, he said between gasps for breath. I talk. I bleed. I die. Kill me and be done with it. He tried to sit up then, as if he were eager to meet his death, and the movement caused him to cry out in agony. His too-human eyes rolled back and he collapsed to the frozen ground, unconscious. Stevie Rae moved before she remembered even making the decision. When she reached him, she only hesitated for a second. He'd passed out facedown, so it was a simple thing for her to move his wings aside and grab him under his arms.

  He was big, really big--like, as big as a real guy, and she'd braced herself for him to be heavy, but he wasn't. Actually, he was so light that it was super-easy to drag him, which was what she found herself doing while her mind screamed at her: What the hell? What the hell? What the hell? What the hell was she doing? Stevie Rae didn't know. All she knew was what she wasn't doing. She wasn't killing the Raven Mocker.