I was already out of the dining hall and heading to the dorm when I realized that I hadn't said anything to Neferet about the ghosts, but no way did I want to go back upstairs and start that subject. The conversation I'd already had with Neferet had completely exhausted me, and despite the beautiful dining room with its great view and its crystal and linen, I'd been eager to get out of there. I wanted to go back to the dorm and tell Stevie Rae about the whole Loren thing and then do nothing but veg out and watch bad reruns on TV and try to forget (at least for one night) that I had a terrible premonition about Chris's disappearance and that I was A Big Deal now and in charge of the most important student group at the school. Whatever. I just wanted to be me for a while. As I'd told Neferet, Chris was probably safely at home already. And there was plenty of time for everything else. Tomorrow I'd write down an outline of what I was going to say to the Dark Daughters on Sunday. I guess I'd also have to work on a Full Moon Ritual ... my first real public circle casting and formal ritual. My stomach started to gurgle. I ignored it.
I was halfway to the dorm when I remembered that I also had an essay due Monday for Vamp Soc. Sure, Neferet had excused me from most of the third former work in that class so I could focus on reading ahead in the higher level Soc text, but I'd been trying really hard to be "normal" (Whatever that was— hello—I'm a teenager and a fledgling vampyre. How could any of that be normal?), which meant I made sure I turned in papers when the rest of the class did. So I hurriedly backtracked to my homeroom class, where my locker and all of my books were kept. It was also Neferet's room, but I'd just left her having wine with several of the other profs upstairs. For a change I didn't have any worries about overhearing something awful.
As usual, the door was unlocked. Why have locks when you had vamp intuition to scare the bejeezus out of kids instead? The room was dark, but that didn't matter. I'd only been Marked one month, but already I saw just as well with the lights off as with them on. Actually, better. Bright lights hurt my eyes—sunlight was almost unbearable.
I hesitated as I opened my locker, realizing that I hadn't seen the sun in almost a month. I hadn't even thought about it till now. Huh. Weird.
I was considering the bizarreness of my new life when I noticed the piece of paper that had been taped to the inside shelf of my locker. It fluttered in the temporary breeze I'd created by opening the door. My hand lifted to calm it, and I felt a jolt of shock when I realized what it was.
Or, more accurately, a poem. It was short and written in a bold, attractive cursive. I read it and reread it, registering specifically what it was. Haiku.
-Ancient Queen awake...
A chrysalis not yet formed...
...Will your wings unfold?-
I let my fingers brush the words. I knew who had written it. There was only one logical answer. My heart squeezed as I whispered his name, "Loren ..."
"I'm serious, Stevie Rae. If I tell you, you have to swear you won't say anything to anyone. And when I say anyone I especially mean Damien and the Twins."
"Dang, Zoey, you can trust me. I said I swear. What do you want me to do, open a vein?"
I didn't say anything.
"Zoey, you really can trust me. Promise."
I studied my best friend's face. I needed to talk to someone—someone who was not a vamp. I searched inside myself, to the core of what Neferet would call my intuition. It felt right to confide in Stevie Rae. It felt safe.
"Sorry. I know I can trust you. I'm just ... I don't know." I shook my head, frustrated by my own confusion. "Okay, weird stuff has happened today."
"You mean more than the normal weirdness that goes on around here?"
"Yeah. Loren Blake came into the library today while I was there. He was the first person I talked to about the Prefect Council idea and my new ideas for the Dark Daughters."
"Loren Blake? As in the most gorgeous vamp any of us have ever seen? ness. I better sit down." Stevie Rae collapsed on her bed.
"That's who I mean."
"I can't believe you haven't said anything about this until now. You must have been dying."
"Well, that's not all. He ... uh ... touched me. And more than once. Okay, actually I saw him more than once today. Alone. And I think he wrote me a poem."
"Yeah, at first I was sure it was perfectly innocent and I was imagining anything else. In the library we just talked about the ideas I had for the Dark Daughters. I didn't think it meant anything. But, well, he touched my Mark."
"Which one?" Stevie Rae asked. Her eyes were huge and round and she looked like she was going to explode.
"The one on my face. That time."
"What do you mean that time!"
"Well, after I got done with brushing Persephone I wasn't in any hurry to get back to the dorm. So I went for a walk over by the west wall. Loren was there."
"Ohmydearsweetlord. What happened?"
"I think we flirted."
"We were laughing and smiling at each other."
"Sounds like flirting to me. God, he is so totally gorgeous."
"Tell me about it. When he smiles at me I can hardly breathe. And get this —he recited a poem to me, " I said. "It was a haiku a man wrote about looking at his naked lover in the moonlight."
"You have got to be kidding!" Stevie Rae started fanning herself with her hand. "Get to the touching part."
I took a deep breath. "It was really confusing. Everything was going really well. Like I said, we were laughing and talking. Then he said he was out there by himself because that's how he gets inspired to write haiku—"
"Which is insanely romantic!"
I nodded and continued. "I know. Anyway, I told him I hadn't meant to mess up his inspiration and bother him, and he said that more things inspired him than just the night. And he asked me if I'd be his inspiration."
"Exactly what I thought."
"Naturally you said you'd be happy to inspire him."
"Naturally," I said.
"And ..." Stevie Rae prompted eagerly.
"And he asked to see my Mark. The one on my shoulders and back."
"He did not."
"Man, I would have peeled off my shirt faster than you can say Bubba loves trucks!"
I laughed. "Well, I didn't take my shirt off, but I slid my jacket down. Actually, he helped me."
"Are you telling me Loren Blake, Vampyre Poet Laureate and hottest f-ing male on two feet, helped you off with your jacket like an old-time gentleman?"
"Yeah. Like this." I demonstrated by pushing my jacket down around my elbows. "And then I don't exactly know what came over me, but all of a sudden I wasn't all nervous and stupid-acting. I took the strap of my tank off for him. Like this." I pushed my tank strap down, exposing my back and shoulder and a good part of my breast (relieved all over again that I had on my good black bra). "That's when he touched me. Again."
"He traced the pattern of my Mark on my back and shoulder. He told me that I look like an ancient vampyre queen and recited the poem to me."
"Holy shit," Stevie Rae said again.
I plopped down on my bed facing her and sighed, pulling the strap of my tank back up. "Yeah, it was amazing for a little while. I was sure we connected. Really connected. I think he almost kissed me. Actually, I know he wanted to. And then, out of nowhere, he changed. He got all polite and formal and thanked me for showing him my Mark and then he walked away."
"Well, that's no big surprise."
"It sure as hell was to me. I mean, one second he was staring into my eyes and sending major signals that he wanted me and the next—nothing."
"Zoey, you're a student. He's a teacher. This is a vamp school and a whole different world from life at a normal high school, but some things don't change. Students are off-limits to teachers."
I chewed at my lip. "He's only a part-time, temporary teacher."
Stevie Rae rolled her eyes. "As if that matters."
"That's not all that happened. I just found this poem in my locker." I handed her the piece of paper with the haiku on it.
Stevie Rae sucked air. "Ohmygoodness. This is so romantic I could die. How? How did he touch the Mark on your back?"
"Jeesh, how do you think? With his finger. He traced the pattern." I swear I could still feel the heat of that touch.
"He recited a love poem to you, touched your Mark, and then wrote a poem for you ..." She sighed dreamily. "It's like you're Romeo and Juliet with the whole forbidden lovers thing." In the middle of fanning herself dramatically she stopped and sat straight up again. "Ah oh, what about Erik?"
"What do you mean, what about Erik?"
"He's your boyfriend, Zoey."
"Not officially," I said sheepishly.
"Well, shoot, what does the kid have to do to make it 'official'? Get down on one knee? It's been pretty obvious this past month that y'all are dating."
"I know," I said miserably.
"So do you like Loren more than you like Erik?"
"No! Yes. Oh, hell, I don't know. It's like Loren's in a whole other world. And it's not like he and I can really date, or whatever." But I wasn't so sure about the whatever. Could Loren and I see each other secretly? Did I want to?
As if she could read my thoughts Stevie Rae said, "You could sneak around and see Loren."
"This is ridiculous. He probably doesn't even feel like that about me." But even as I said the words I remembered the heat of his body and the desire in his dark eyes.
"What if he does, Z?" Stevie Rae was studying me carefully. "You know, you're different than the rest of us. No one has ever been Marked like you before. No one has ever had an affinity for each of the five elements. Maybe the same rules don't apply to you.
My gut clenched. Since I'd arrived at the House of Night I had been struggling to fit in. All I really wanted was to make this new place my home —to have friends I considered family. I didn't want to be different and I didn't want to play by different rules. I shook my head and said through clenched teeth, "I don't want it to be like this, Stevie Rae. I just want to be normal."
"I know," Stevie Rae said softly. "But you are different. Everyone knows that. Plus, don't you want Loren to like you?"
I sighed. "I'm not sure what I want, except that I know I don't want anyone to find out about Loren and me."
"My lips are sealed." Stevie Rae, little Okie dork that she is, pantomimed zipping her lips closed and throwing the key away over her shoulder. "No one's gonna get a word from me," she mumbled through half-sealed lips.
"Hell! That reminds me, Aphrodite saw Loren touching me."
"That hag followed you out to the wall!" Stevie Rae squeaked.
"No no no. No one saw us out there. Aphrodite walked into the media center when he was touching my face."
"Ah, crap, is right. And there's more. Remember when I missed part of Spanish 'cause I wanted to talk to Neferet? I didn't talk to her. I got to her class and the door was cracked, so I could overhear what was going on inside. Aphrodite was in there."
"That bitch was telling on you!"
"I'm not sure. I only heard a little of what they were saying."
"I'll bet you were totally freaked when Neferet pulled you out of the dining hall to eat with her."
"Totally," I agreed.
"No wonder you looked so sick. Jeesh, it all makes sense now." Then her got bigger. "Did Aphrodite get you in trouble with Neferet?"
"No. When Neferet talked to me tonight she said that Aphrodite's visions are false because Nyx has withdrawn her gift. So whatever Aphrodite told her, Neferet didn't believe."
"Good." Stevie Rae looked like she'd like to break Aphrodite in half.
"No, not good. Neferet's reaction was too harsh. She made Aphrodite sob. Seriously, Stevie Rae, Aphrodite was destroyed by what Neferet said to her. Plus, Neferet didn't even sound like herself."
"Zoey, I cannot believe we're going over this again. You've got to quit feeling sorry for Aphrodite."
"Stevie Rae, you're not getting the point. This isn't about Aphrodite, it's about Neferet. She was cruel. Even if Aphrodite was ratting me out and exaggerating what she saw, Neferet's response was wrong. And I'm getting a bad feeling about it."
"You're getting a bad feeling about Neferet?"
"Yes ... no ... I don't know. It's not just Neferet. It's like it's a mixture of stuff—everything coming down at once. Chris .. . Loren ... Aphrodite ... Neferet ... something's off, Stevie Rae."
She looked confused, and I realized she needed an Okie analogy to get it. "You know how it feels right before a tornado hits? I mean when the sky's still clear, but the wind's starting to cool off and change direction. You know something's coming, but you don't always know what. That's how things feel to me right now."
"Like a storm's comin'?"
"Yep. A big one."
"So you want me to..?"
"Help me be a storm watcher."
"I can do that."
"But first can we be movie watchers? Damien just ordered Moulin Rouge from Netflix. He's bringing it over, and the Twins managed to get their hands on some honest-to-God real chips and non-fat-free dips' She glanced at her Elvis clock. "They're probably downstairs right now pissed because they've been waiting for us."
I loved the fact that I could unload what felt like earth-shattering stuff to Stevie Rae and one second she could be "ohmygoodness-ing" and the next talking about something as simple as movies and chips. She made me feel normal and grounded and like everything wasn't so overwhelming and confusing. I smiled at her. "Moulin Rouge? Doesn't that have Ewan McGregor in it?"
"Definitely. I hope we get to see his butt."
"You talked me into it. Let's go. And remember—"
"Jeesh! I know I know. Don't say anything about any of this to anyone." She paused and waggled her brows. "So just let me say it one more time. Loren Blake has the hots for you!"
"Are you done now?"
"Yeah." She grinned mischievously.
"I hope someone brought me some brown pop."
"You know, Z, you're weird about your brown pop."
"Whatever, Miss Lucky Charms," I said, pushing her out the door.
"Hey, Lucky Charms are good for you."
"Really? So, tell me, what are marshmallows—a fruit or a vegetable?"
"Both. They're unique—like me."
I was laughing at silly Stevie Rae and feeling better than I had all day when we trotted down the stairs and into the front area of the dorm. The Twins and Damien had staked out one of the big flat-screen TVs, and they waved us over. I could see Stevie Rae had been right, they were munching on real Doritos and dipping them in full-fatted green onion dip (it sounds gross, but it's really yummy). My good feeling got even better when Damien handed me a big glass of brown pop.
"Took you guys long enough," he said, scooting over so that we could sit by him on the couch. The Twins, naturally, had commandeered two identically big chairs they'd pulled over by the couch.
"Sorry," Stevie Rae said, and then added with a grin at Erin, "I had to have a bowel movement."
"Excellent use of proper descriptions, Stevie Rae," Erin said, looking pleased.
"Ugh, just put in the movie," Damien said.
"Hang on, I have the remote," Erin said.
"Wait!" I told her right before she clicked play. The volume had been turned down, but I could see Fox News 23's Chera Kimiko. Her face looked sad and serious as she talked earnestly into the camera. At the bottom of the screen ran the blurb body of teenager found. "Turn up the volume." Shaunee clicked off the mute.
"Repeating our lead story this morning: the body of the missing Union running back, Chris Ford, was discovered by two kayakers late Friday afternoon. The body had become snagged in the rocks and sand barges used to dam the Twenty-first Street area of the Arkansas River to create the new recreational rapids. Sources tell us that the teenager died of loss of blood associated with multiple lacerations, and that he might have been mauled by a large animal. We'll have more on that for you after the official medical examiner's report is released.
My stomach, which had finally settled down and was acting normal, clenched. I felt my body go cold. But the bad news wasn't over. Chera's beautiful brown eyes looked earnestly into the camera as she continued.
"On the heels of this tragic news comes the report of another Union football player who has been listed as missing. " The screen flashed a picture of another cute guy in Union's traditional red and white football uniform. "Brad Higeons was last seen after school Friday at the Starbucks at Utica Square where he was posting pictures of Chris. Brad was not only Chris's teammate, he was also his cousin. "
"Ohmygoodness! The Union football team is dropping like flies," Stevie Rae said. She glanced at me and I saw her eyes widen. "Zoey, are you okay? You don't look so good."
"I knew him, too."
"That's weird," Damien said.
"The two of them were always at parties together. Everyone knew them because they're cousins, even though Chris is black and Brad is white."
"Makes perfect sense to me," Shaunee said.
"Ditto, Twin," Erin said.
I could barely hear them through the buzzing in my ears. "I .. . I need to go for a walk."
"I'll go with you," Stevie Rae said.
"No, you stay here and watch the movie. I just—I just need to get some air."
"Are you sure?"
"Positive. I won't be gone long. I'll be back in time to see Ewan's butt." Even though I could almost feel the worried look Stevie Rae was giving my back (and hear the Twins arguing with Damien about whether they would actually see Ewan's butt), I rushed out of the dorm and into the cool November night.
Blindly, I turned away from the main school building, instinctively moving in the opposite direction from anywhere I'd run into people. I forced myself to keep moving and to breathe. What the hell was wrong with me? chest felt tight and my stomach was so sick I had to keep swallowing hard so I wouldn't puke. The buzzing in my ears seemed to be better, but there was no relief from the anxiety that had settled over me like a shroud. Everything inside me was screaming, Something's not right! Something's not right! Something's not right!
As I walked I gradually noticed that the night, which had been clear, with a sky full of stars helping the almost full moon to illuminate its thick darkness, suddenly had clouded up. The soft, cool breeze had turned cold, causing dry leaves to shower down around me, mixing the smells of earth and wind with the darkness .. . somehow this soothed me and the tumult of disjointed thoughts and anxiety lifted enough for me to actually think.
I headed to the stables. Lenobia had said that I could groom Persephone whenever I needed to think and be alone. I definitely needed that, and having a direction to go—an actual destination—was one small good thing in the midst of my internal chaos.
The stables were just ahead, sprawling long and low, and my breath had started to come a little easier when I heard the sound. At first I didn't know what it was. It was too muffled—too odd. Then I thought that it might be Nala. It was like her to follow me and complain at me in her weird old lady cat voice until I stopped and picked her up. I looked around and called "Kitty- kitty" softly.
The sound got more distinct, but it wasn't a cat, I could tell that. A movement close to the barn caught my eye, and I saw that a shape was slumped on the bench near the front doors. There was only one gaslight there, and it was right beside the doors. The bench was just outside the edge of the pool of flickering yellow light.
It moved again, and I could tell that the shape must be a person ... or fledgling ... or vampyre. It was sitting, but kinda hunched over, almost folded in on itself. The sound started again. This close I could hear that it was a weird wailing—like whoever was sitting there was in pain.
Naturally, I wanted to run in the opposite direction, but I couldn't. It wouldn't be right. Plus, I felt it—the knowledge within me that I could not leave. That whatever was happening on the bench was something I had to face.
I took a deep breath and approached the bench.
"Uh, are you okay?"
"No!" The word was an eerie, whispering explosion of sound.
"Can—can I help you?" I asked, trying to peer into the shadows and see who was sitting there. I thought I could see light-colored hair, and maybe hands covering a face ...
"The water! The water is so cold and deep. Can't get out ... can't get out."
She took her hands from her face then and looked up at me, but I already knew who it was. I'd recognized her voice. And I also recognized what was happening to her. I forced myself to approach her calmly. She stared up at me. Her face was covered with tears.
"Come on, Aphrodite. You're having a vision. I need to get you to Neferet."
"No!" she gasped. "No! Don't take me to her. She won't listen to me. She —she doesn't believe me anymore."
I remembered what Neferet had said earlier about Nyx withdrawing her gifts from Aphrodite. Why should I even mess with her at all? Who knew what was going on with Aphrodite? She was probably making some pathetic play for attention, and I didn't have time for this crap.
"Fine. Let's say I don't believe you either," I told her. "Stay here and have your vision or whatever. I have other things to worry about." I turned to head into the stable, and her hand snaked out, grabbing my wrist.
"You have to stay!" she said through chattering teeth. Obviously, she was having difficulty talking. "You have to hear the vision!"
"No, I do not." I pried her vise-like fingers from my wrist. "Whatever's going on, it's about you—not me. You deal with it." This time when I turned I walked away more quickly.
But not quick enough. Her next words felt like she'd sliced them through me.
"You have to listen to me. If you don't your grandma will die."
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