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Hunted, Page 2

P. C. Cast

Chapter Two

  Okay, so Kalona can get i G zizento 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 goat-head 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 middld I kep` Me 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 mattered 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 what ever 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.

  "What are you going to do with the wire cutters?" Jack asked.

  "I'm going to cut the quill end of the arrow off so that I can pull it the rest of the way through the priestess's body. Then she can begin to heal," Darius said simply.

  Jack gasped and fell back against Damien, who put an arm around him. Duchess, the yellow Lab who had become completely attached to Jack since her original own er, a fledgling kid named James Stark, had died and then un-died and shot an arrow through Stevie Rae as part of an evil plot to let loose Kalona, a nasty fallen angel (yes, looking back on it I see that it's complex and even kinda confusing, but that seems to be typical for evil plots), whined and leaned against his leg.

  Oh, Jack and Damien are a couple. Which means they're gay teenagers. Hello. It happens. More often than you'd expect. Wait, scratch that. It happens more often than parents expect.

  "Damien, maybe you and Jack could, uh, go back to that kitchen you found and see if you can whip up something for us to eat," I said, trying to think up things for them to do that didn't include staring at Stevie Rae. "I'll bet we'd all feel better if we ate something. "

  "I'd probably puke," Stevie Rae said. "That is, unless it's blood. " She tried to shrug apologetically, but broke off the movement with a gasp and turned even whiter than her already totally pale complexion.

  "Yeah, not really hungry over here, either," Shaunee said, gawking at the arrow that was poking out of Stevie Rae's
back with the same kind of fascination that made people rubberneck at car wrecks.

  "Ditto, Twin," Erin said. She was looking everywhere but at Stevie Rae.

  I was just opening my mouth to tell them I really didn't care if they were hungry or not, I just wanted to keep them busy and away from Stevie Rae for a while when Erik Night hurried into the room.

  "Got it!" he said. He was holding a really old combo CD-cassette-radio that was humongous. It was one of those things they used to call boom boxes way back in the day. Like the 1980s. Without looking at Stevie Rae, he set it on the table that was close to her and Darius and started fiddling with the ginormic, glaringly silver knobs, muttering that he hoped it could pick up something down here.

  "Where's Venus?&rdqu C Ke if they o; Stevie Rae asked Erik. It obviously hurt for her to talk, and her voice had gone all shaky.

  Erik had glanced back toward the round, blanket-draped entrance to the room that served as a door, which was empty. "She was right behind me. I thought she'd come in here and--" Then he did look at Stevie Rae, and his words fell away. "Ah, man, that must really hurt," he said softly. "You look bad, Stevie Rae. "

  She tried, and failed, to smile at him. "Well, I've felt better. I'm glad Venus helped you out with the boom box. Sometimes we can actually get some of the radio stations down here. "

  "Yeah, that's what Venus said," Erik said vaguely. He was staring at the arrow sticking out of Stevie Rae's bare back.

  Even through my worry about Stevie Rae I'd started to wonder about the absent Venus and tried like hell to remember what she looked like. Last time I'd gotten a really good look at the red fledglings, they hadn't been "red" yet, which means the outline of a crescent moon in the middle of their foreheads had still been sapphire-colored like all fledglings' tattoos are when they're first Marked. But these fledglings died. Then un-died. And they had all been bloodsucking, crazed monsters until Stevie Rae went through a type of Change. Somehow Aphrodite's humanity (who knew she had any?) mixed with the power of the five elements--all of which I can control--and voil?! Stevie Rae got her humanity back, along with some gorgeous adult vampyre tattoos that look like vines and flowers framing her face. But instead of the tattoo being dark blue, it had turned red. As in the color of fresh blood. When that happened to Stevie Rae, all the undead-dead kids' fledgling tattoos had turned red, too. And they got their humanity back. In theory. I really hadn't been around them or Stevie Rae enough since her Change to know for sure that everything was one hundred percent with all of them. Oh, and Aphrodite lost her Mark--totally. So she's supposedly human again, even though she still has visions.

  All of this explains why the last time I'd spent any time with Venus she was more than kinda disgusting looking since she was very nastily undead. But now she'd been fixed--or at least sort of--and I knew that she'd hung with Aphrodite before she died (and un-died), which means she had to have been totally gorgeous because Aphrodite didn't believe in ugly friends.

  Okay, before I sound like an ?ber-jealous freak let me explain: Erik Night is to-die-for hot in a Superman?Clark Kent kind of way and, to carry through with the superhero analogy, he's also talented and honestly a good guy. Er, vampyre. Recently Changed vampyre at that. He is also my boyfriend. Er, ex-boyfriend. Recently ex-boyfriend at that. Sadly, that means I'm going to be ridiculously jealous of anyone, even one of the kinda freaky red fledglings, who might be catching too much of his interest (too much = any).

  Darius's businesslike voice had, thankfully, interrupted my inner babbling.

  "The radio can wait. Right now, Stevie Rae must be attended to. She will need a clean shirt and blood as soon as I get through with this. " Darius spoke as he put the first aid kit on Stevie Rae's bedside table, opened it, and busily pulled out gauze and alcohol and some scary stuff.

  That had definitely shut everybody up.

  You know I love y'all like white bread, don't you?" Stevie Rae said, giving us a brave smile. My friends and I had nodded woodenly. "Okay, so you won't take it the wrong way if I say that all of y'all but Zoey need to go find somethin' to keep yourselves busy while Darius yanks this arrow outta my chest. "

  "All of them except me? No no no no no. Why do you want me to stay?"

  I saw humor in Stevie Rae's pain-filled eyes. "'Cause you're our High Priestess, Z. You gotta stay and help Darius. Plus, you've already seen me die once; how much worse could this be than that?" Then she paused and her eyes widened as she stared at the palms of my still dorkishly raised hands and blurted, "Holy crap, Z, look at your hands!"

  I turned my hands over so I could see what the hell she was staring at, and felt my own eyes widen. Tattoos spread across my palms, the same beautiful intricate pattern of latticework swirls that decorated my face and neck and stretched down either side of my spine and around my waist. How could I have forgotten? I'd felt the familiar burning flash across my palms as we all escaped into the safety of the tunnels. I'd realized then what that burning meant. My goddess, Nyx, the personification of Night, had Marked me again as exclusively hers. Had set me apart, again, from all the other fledglings and vampyres in the world. No other fledgling had a filled-in, expanded Mark. That only happened after a kid went through the Change, and then the outline of the crescent moon on the forehead was filled in and expanded to a unique, one-of-a-kind tattoo that framed the face, proclaiming to the world that he or she was a vampyre.

  So my face proclaimed that I was a vampyre, but my body said I was still a fledgling. And the rest of my tattoos? Well, that was something that had never happened before--not to a fledgling and not to a vamp, and even now I wasn't one hundred percent sure what it meant.

  "Wow, Z, they're amazing," Damien's voice came from beside me. Hesitantly, he touched my palm.

  I looked up from my hands to his friendly brown eyes, searching them for any trace of a change in the way he saw me. I looked for signs of hero worship or nervous ness or, even worse, fear. And what I had seen was just Damien--my friend--and the warmth of his smile.

  "I felt it happening before, when we first got down here. I--I guess I just forgot," I said.

  "That's our Z," Jack said. "Only she could forget something that's practically a miracle. "

  "More than practically," Shaunee said.

  "But it's a Zoey miracle. They happen pretty much all the time," Erin said matter-of-factly.

  "I can't keep a tattoo and she's covered in them," Aphrodite said. "Figures. " But her smile took the bite from her words.

  "They are the Mark of our Goddess's favor, showing that you are, indeed, traveling the path she would choose for you. You are our High Priestess," Darius spoke solemnly. "The one Nyx has Chosen. And, Priestess, I need your aid with Stevie Rae. " "Ah, hell," I muttered, chewing my lip nervously and balling my hands into fists, hiding myd , c exotic new tattoos.

  "Oh, for crap's sake! I'll stay and help," Aphrodite marched over to where Stevie Rae was sitting on the edge of her bed. "Blood and pain don't bother me at all as long as they're not mine. "

  "I should take this closer to the entrance to the tunnels. I'd probably have more luck getting reception there," Erik said, and without so much as a glance at me, or a word about my new tattoos, he disappeared through the blanket door.

  "You know, I think food really was a good idea," Damien said, taking Jack's hand and starting to follow Erik out of the room.

  "Yeah, Damien and I are gay. That means that we are guaranteed to be good cooks," Jack said.

  "We're with them," Shaunee said.

  "Yeah, we're not as convinced about the genetics of gay good cooking. We'd better supervise," Erin said.

  "The blood. Don't forget the blood. Laced with wine, if you have it. She'll need it to recover," Darius said.

  "One of the refrigerators is full of blood. Then find Venus," Steve Rae said, grimacing again as Darius took an alcohol wipe and began to clean the dried blood on her back from the skin around the protruding arrow. "She likes
wine. Tell her what you need and she'll get it for you. "

  The Twins hesitated, passing a look between each other. Erin spoke for both of them. "Stevie Rae, are the red kids really okay? I mean, these are the kids who killed the Union football players and grabbed Z's human boyfriend, aren't they?"

  "Ex-boyfriend," I said, but they ignored me.

  "Venus just helped Erik," Stevie Rae said. "And Aphrodite stayed here for two days. She's still in one piece," Stevie Rae said.

  "Yeah, but Erik is a big, healthy male vamp. He'd be hard to bite," Shaunee said.

  "Even though he is definitely yummy," Erin said.

  "True, Twin. " Both of them had given me apologetic shrugs before Shaunee continued. "And Aphrodite is so damn nasty that no one would want to bite her. "

  "But we're little bits of vanilla and chocolate. We'd tempt even the nicest bloodsucking monster," Erin said.

  "Your mom's a bloodsucking monster," Aphrodite said, smiling sweetly.

  "If y'all don't stop bickering, I'm gonna bite you!" Stevie Rae yelled, then winced again and made little panting sounds as she tried to breathe through the pain.

  "Guys, you're making her hurt herself, and you're giving me a headache. " I said it quickly, getting more and more worried about how bad Stevie Rae looked by the second. "Stevie Rae says the red fledglings are okay. We just escaped from all hell breaking loose at the House of Night with them and they didn't try to eat any of us on the way here. So make nice, and go find Venus, like Stevie Rae said. "

  Z, that's not a big mark in their favor," Damien said. "We were running for our lives. No one had time to eat anyone. "

  "Stevie Rae, once and for all--are the red fledglings safe?" I asked. "I really wish y'all would concentrate on being nicer and accepting them. You know it's not their fault they died and then un-died. "

  "See, they're fine," I said. It was only later that I would remember that Stevie Rae never really answered my question about whether the red fledglings were really safe.

  "All right, but we're holding Stevie Rae responsible," Shaunee said.

  "Yeah, if one of them tries to chomp on us, we're going to have words with her about it after she's better," Erin said.

  "Blood and wine. Now. Less talking. More doing," Darius said bluntly.

  They all scurried out of the room, leaving me with Darius, Aphrodite, and my best friend, currently en brochette.