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P. C. Cast

  “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 said, “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.



  I’d known it before we saw the fire trucks and the smoke. I’d known all hell had broken loose at the House of Night the moment Thanatos had witnessed the truth of Neferet’s crimes. That night it had been proven beyond all doubt that Neferet was on the side of Darkness. Thanatos hadn’t wasted any time outing her. On the way back to the school from Grandma’s lavender farm, the High Priestess of Death had made the emergency call to Italy and officially informed the Vampyre High Council that Neferet was no longer a Priestess of Nyx—that she’d chosen Darkness as her Consort. Neferet had been seen for who she really was, something I’d wanted since I’d first realized her disgusting truth. Only, now that I’d gotten my wish, I had a terrible feeling that outing Neferet would serve more to free her than to force her to pay the consequences for her lies and betrayals.

  Everything seemed so awful and so confusing, like the entire night had been the last half of a terrible slasher horror movie: the ritual, rewatching images of my mother’s murder, what had happened with Dragon and Rephaim and Kalona and Aurox … Aurox? Heath? No, I can’t go there! Not now. Now the stables were on fire. Seriously. At our school horses were neighing and clustering nervously by the east wall. Lenobia looked singed and soot-covered. Erik and Shaylin and a bunch of other fledglings were standing there, shell-shocked and soggy because, of course, it had started to pour buckets of rain. And Nicole, as in the Nicole who was a super mean red fledgling and Dallas’s skanky, hateful girlfriend, was collapsed on a bench with a couple of human EMTs hovering around her like she was the gold-winged baby Jesus.

  I wanted to punch a button, turn off the scary movie, and drift to sleep safely curled up next to Stark. Hell, I wanted to close my eyes and go back to a time when the worst stress I had was triple boyfriend stress, and that had been really, really bad.

  I mentally shook myself, did my best to shut out the chaos that surrounded me inside and out, and focused on Lenobia.

  “Yes, the stables caught fire,” she was explaining to us. “We don’t know who or what caused it. Have any of you seen Neferet?”

  “We have not seen her in person, but we have seen her image in the recorded spirit of Zoey’s grandmother’s land.” Thanatos lifted her chin, and in a strong, sure voice that carried through the rain pronounced, “Neferet has allied herself with the white bull. She sacrificed Zoey’s mother to him. She will be a powerful enemy, but enemy she is to everyone who follows Light and the Goddess.”

  I could see that the announcement shook Lenobia, although I knew the Horse Mistress had been aware that Neferet had become our enemy months ago. Still, there was a big difference between thinking something, and knowing the worst you had imagined was true. Especially when that something was so horrible it was almost beyond comprehension. Then Lenobia cleared her throat and said, “The High Council has shunned her?”

  “I have reported what I have witnessed this night,” said Thanatos, acting High Priestess of our House of Night. “The High Council commands Neferet appear before them where they will mete out justice upon her for her betrayal of our Goddess and of our ways.”

  “She had to have known what you would find if your ritual was successful,” Lenobia said.

  “Yeah, which is why she sent that thing of hers after us—to kill Rephaim and mess up our circle and stop the reveal ritual,” Stevie Rae said, sliding her hand within Rephaim’s, who stood tall and strong by her side.

  “Doesn’t look like that worked,” Erik Night said.

  He was standing close to Shaylin. Now that I thought about it, it seemed Erik had been spending a lot of time standing close to Shaylin. Hmmm …

  “Well, it would’ve worked,” Stevie Rae said, “but Dragon showed up and stopped Aurox for a while.” She paused and looked back at Kalona. She actually sent him a warm, sweet, Stevie Rae smile before continuing, “Kalona is really who saved Rephaim. Kalona saved his son.”

  “Dragon! That’s where he is—with you guys,” Erik said, his eyes searching around behind us, obviously expecting to see Dragon.

  I felt my gut clench and blinked hard so that I wouldn’t start bawling. When no one said anything I drew in a deep breath and delivered the really crappy, sad news. “Dragon was with us. He fought to protect us. Well, us and Rephaim. But…” I trailed off, finding it hard to say the next words.

  “But Aurox gored Dragon to death, breaking the spell that had sealed the circle and setting the rest of us free so we could get to Rephaim and protect him,” Stark had no problem finishing for me.

  “It was too late, though,” Stevie Rae added. “Rephaim would have died, too, if Kalona hadn’t shown up in time to save him.”

  “Dragon Lankford is dead?” Lenobia’s face had gone still and white.

  “He is. He died a Warrior, true to himself and to his Oath. He has been reunited with his Mate in the Otherworld,” Thanatos said. “We all served witness to it.”

  Lenobia closed her eyes and bowed her head. I could see her lips were moving, as if she was murmuring a soft prayer. When she lifted her head her face was set in angry lines and her gray eyes looked like storm clouds. “Burning my stables was a distraction which allowed Neferet to escape.”

  “It seems likely,” Thanatos said. Then the High Priestess paused as if listening carefully through the rain and firemen and horse noises. Her eyes narrowed and she said, “Death has been here—recently.”

  Lenobia shook her head. “No, the firemen are clearing the stables. I do not believe anyone died there.”

  “I am not sensing a fledgling or a vampyre spirit,” Thanatos said.

  “All the horses got out!” Nicole spoke up suddenly. I was surprised at her tone. I mean, until then I’d only heard Nicole sneer or say something nasty. This Nicole sounded like a regular kid—one who was normal and upset by stuff like horses on fire and evil loosed on the world.

  But Stevie Rae, like me, knew a very different Nicole.

  “What the hell are you doin’ here, Nicole?” Stevie Rae said.

  “She was helping Lenobia and Travis get the horses out,” Shaylin said.

  “Yeah, I’m sure she was—right after she set the fire!” Stevie Rae said.

  “Bitch, you can’t talk to me like that!” Nicole sneered, her voice becoming way more familiar.

  “Watch yourself, Nicole,” I said, stepping up beside Stevie Rae.

  “Enough!” Thanatos lifted her hands and power surged, crackling through the rain and making all of us jump. “Nicole, you are a red fledgling. It is past time you gave your allegiance to the only High Priestess of your kind. You will not curse at her. Is that understood?”

  Nicole crossed her arms and nodded, once. She didn’t look sorry at all to me, and her attitude, on top of everything else that had happened that night, really pissed me off. I faced her and told her exactly what was on my mind. “You need to get that no one’s going to put up with your crap anymore. From here on things are going to be different.”

  “For one, you’ll have to get through me to hurt Zoey,” Stark said.

  “You used me to try to kill Stevie Rae once. That will never happen again,” Rephaim spoke up.

  “Zoey, Stevie Rae,” Thanatos said sharply. “To be respected as High Priestesses you must act accordingly, and so must your Warriors.”

  “She tried to kill us. Both of us!” Stevie Rae said.

  “Not recently!” Nicole shouted at Stevie Rae.

  “How can we battle the great and ancient Darkness that has been newly loosed upon this world if we are no more than bickering children?” Thanatos spoke quietly. She didn’t sound powerful or wise or strong. She sounded tired and hopeless, and that was way scarier than the zapping thing she’d done before.

>   “Thanatos is right,” I said.

  “What are you talkin’ ’bout, Z? You know what Nicole’s really like.” Stevie Rae pointed at her. “Just like you knew what Neferet was really like, even when no one else believed you.”

  “What I’m talking about is that Thanatos is right about the bickering. We can’t even begin to beat Neferet if our team isn’t strong and together.” I looked at Nicole. “Which means either get on our team, or get the hell off.”

  “If she’s cussing, she’s serious,” Aphrodite said.

  “I am in agreement with her,” Damien said.

  “As am I,” Darius added.

  “Me, too,” Shaunee spoke up, and close behind her Erin said a quick, “Yep.”

  “I chose my side,” Kalona spoke solemnly. “I believe it is time others do, too.”

  “I’m new here, but I know which side is right, and I choose their side.” Shaylin stepped over to stand with us. Erik followed her. He didn’t say anything, but he did meet my gaze and nod. I smiled at him and then turned to face Thanatos, supported by my group’s solidarity. “We’re not bickering kids. We’re just tired of being pushed around by people who say they know what’s best, but who seem to keep messing up—even more than we do.”

  “Which is a lot,” Aphrodite said dryly.

  “You’re not helping,” I responded automatically. To Nicole I said, “So choose your team.”

  “Fine. I choose Team Nicole,” she said.

  “Which really means Team Selfish,” Stevie Rae said.

  “Or Team Hateful,” Erin said.

  “Or Team Unattractive,” Aphrodite added.

  “Thanatos is leaving,” Lenobia spoke quickly, gesturing to the High Priestess’s back.

  “As I originally thought,” Kalona’s voice seemed to dry up the rain with his anger. “She returns to her civilized High Council and leaves us to battle evil.”

  Thanatos stopped, turned, and skewered the winged immortal with her dark gaze. “Oathbound Warrior, be still! My word is no less binding than yours. Where I am going is to follow Death. Sadly, that does not take me from this school, nor will it in the foreseeable future.” Without another word Thanatos continued walking away from us and toward the smoldering entrance to the field house.