"Heath! What in the hell are you doing here!"
"Well, you didn't call me back." Oblivious to everyone else, he hugged me. I didn't need the bright light of the moon for me to see his bloodshot eyes. "I missed you, Zo!" he blurted, wafting beer breath all over me.
"Heath. You need to go—"
"No. Let him stay," Aphrodite interrupted me.
Heath's gaze swiveled up to her, and I imagined what she must look like through his eyes. She stood in the pool of light made by the gazebo's spotlights shining through the sweet grass smoke, illuminating her almost as though she was underwater. Her red silk dress clung to her body. Her blond hair was thick and heavy down her back. Her lips were tilted up in a mean-looking smile, which I'm sure Heath would misunderstand and think she was being nice. Actually, he probably wouldn't even notice the smoky ghosts that had stopped hovering around the goblet and had now turned their blank eyes toward him. He also wouldn't notice that Aphrodite's voice had a weird, hollow sound to it and that her eyes were glassy and staring. Hell, knowing Heath he wouldn't notice anything except her big boobies.
"Cool, a vampyre chick," Heath said, totally proving me right.
"Get him out of here." Erik's voice was tight with worry.
Heath tore his eyes from Aphrodite's boobs to glare at Erik. "Who're you?"
Ah, crap. I recognized that tone. It was the one Heath used when he was getting ready to have a jealous fit. (Another reason he was my ex.)
"Heath, you need to get out of here," I said.
"No." He stepped closer to me and put his arm possessively around my shoulders, but he didn't look at me. He kept staring down Erik. "I came to see my girlfriend, and I'm gonna see my girlfriend."
I ignored the fact that I could feel Heath's pulse where his arm rested against my shoulders. Instead of doing something utterly gross and disturbing, like biting into his wrist, I shrugged off his arm and then yanked at it so he had to face me and not Erik.
"I am not your girlfriend."
"Aw, Zo, you're just sayin' that."
I gritted my teeth. God, he was dumb. (Yet another reason he was my ex.)
"Are you stupid?" Erik said.
"Look, you bloodsucking fuck, I'm—" Heath began to say, but Aphrodite's strangely echoing voice drowned him out.
"Come up here, human."
Like our eyes were magnets to her freaky attraction, Heath, Erik, and I (and, for that matter, the rest of the Dark Daughters and Sons) stared up at her. Her body looked weird. Was it pulsing? How could it? She flipped back her hair and ran one hand down her body like a nasty stripper, cupping her breast and then moving down to rub between her legs. Her other hand lifted and she curled her finger, beckoning Heath.
"Come to me, human. Let me taste you."
This was bad; this was wrong. Something terrible was going to happen to Heath if he went up there and stepped within that circle.
Totally entranced by her, Heath lurched forward without any hesitation (or common sense). I grabbed one of his arms, and was pleased to see Erik grab his other.
"Stop it, Heath! I want you to go. Now. You don't belong here."
With an effort, Heath pulled his eyes from Aphrodite. He jerked his arm from Erik's grip and practically growled at him. Then he turned on me.
"You're cheating on me!"
"Can you not listen? It's impossible for me to cheat on you. We are not together! Now get out of—"
"If he refuses our summons, then we shall go to him."
My head jerked up to see Aphrodite's body convulse as gray wisps seeped out of her. She let out a gasp that was a cross between a sob and a scream. The spirits, including the ones that had obviously been possessing her, rushed to the edge of the circle, pressing against it in an effort to break free and get to Heath.
"Stop them, Aphrodite. If you don't they'll kill him!" Damien shouted as he stepped out from behind an ornamental hedge that framed the pond.
"Damien, what—" I began, but he shook his head.
"No time to explain," he told me quickly before turning his attention back to Aphrodite. "You know what they are," he called up to her. "You have to contain them in the circle or he'll die."
Aphrodite was so pale she looked like a ghost herself. She moved away from the smoky shapes that were still trying to push against the invisible boundary of the circle, until she was pressed against one edge of the table.
"I won't stop them. If they want him, they can have him. Better him than me —or any of the rest of us," Aphrodite said.
"Yeah, we don't want any part of this kind of shit!" said Terrible before dropping her candle, which sputtered and went out. Without another word, she ran out of the circle and down the gazebo stairs. The other three girls who were supposed to be personifying the elements followed her lead, disappearing quickly into the night and leaving their candles overturned and unlit.
Horrified, I watched one of the gray shapes begin to melt through the circle. The smoke that was his spectral body began seeping down the stairs, reminding me of a snake as it slithered in our direction. I felt the Dark Daughters and Sons stir and glanced around me. They were nervously backing away, looks of fear twisting their faces.
"It's up to you, Zoey."
She was standing unsteadily in the middle of the circle. She'd thrown off the cape that had covered her, and I could see the white linen bandages on her wrists.
"I told you we needed to stick together." She smiled weakly at me.
"Better hurry," Shaunee said.
"Those ghosts are scaring the shit right outta your ex," Erin said.
I looked over my shoulder to see the Twins standing beside the white-faced, open-mouthed Heath, and I felt a jolt of pure happiness. They hadn't abandoned me! I wasn't alone!
"Let's get this done," I said. "Keep him here," I told Erik, who was staring at me with obvious shock.
Without needing to look back to be sure my friends were following me, I hurried up the steep stairs to the ghost-filled gazebo. When I reached the boundary of the circle I hesitated for a second. The spirits were slowly dissolving through it, their attention completely focused on Heath. I took a deep breath and stepped inside the invisible barrier, feeling an awful chill as the dead brushed restlessly against my skin.
"You have no right to be here. This is my circle," Aphrodite said, pulling herself together enough to wrinkle her lip at me and block my way to the table and the spirit candle, which was the only one still lit.
"Was your circle. Now you need to shut up and move," I told her.
Aphrodite narrowed her eyes at me.
Ah, crap. I really didn't have time for this.
"Bobble-head, you need to do what Zoey says. I have been dying to kick the shit outta you for two years," Shaunee said, moving up to stand beside me.
"Me, too, you nasty ho bag," Erin said, stepping up to my other side.
Before the Twins could pounce on her, Heath's scream shattered the night. I whirled around. Mist was crawling up Heath's legs, leaving long, thin tears in his jeans that instantly began to weep blood. Panicked, he was kicking and shrieking. Erik hadn't run away, but was hitting at the mist, too, even though whenever some of it stuck on him it ripped his clothes and tore open his skin.
"Fast! Take your places," I yelled before the seductive smell of their blood could mess with my concentration.
My friends ran to the deserted candles. Hastily they picked them up and waited in the proper positions.
I moved around Aphrodite, who was staring at Heath and Erik, with her hand pressed against her mouth as if to hold back her screams. I grabbed the purple candle and rushed over to Damien.
"Wind! I summon you to this circle," I yelled, touching the purple candle to the yellow one. I wanted to cry with relief when the familiar whirlwind suddenly sprang up, swirling around my body and lifting my hair crazily.
Shielding the purple candle with my hand I ran to Shaunee.
"Fire! I summon you to this circle!" Heat flared with the whirling air as I lit the red candle. I didn't pause, but kept moving clockwise around the circle. "Water! I summon you to this circle!" The sea was there, salty and sweet at the same time. "Earth! I summon you to this circle!" I touched the flame to Stevie Rae's candle, trying not to flinch at the bandages that covered her wrists. She was abnormally pale, but she grinned when the air filled with the scent of freshly cut hay.
Heath screamed again, and I rushed back to the center of the circle and lifted the purple candle. "Spirit! I summon you to this circle!" Energy sizzled into me. I glanced around at the boundary of my circle and, sure enough, I could see the ribbon of power marking its circumference. I closed my eyes for an instant. Oh, thank you, Nyx!
Then I put the candle down on the table and grabbed the goblet of bloody wine. I turned to face Heath and Erik and the ghostly horde.
"Here is your sacrifice!" I yelled, sloshing the liquid in the goblet in a messy arc around me, so that it made a blood-colored circle on the gazebo floor. "You weren't called here to kill. You were called here because it's Samhain and we wanted to honor you." I spilled more wine, trying hard to ignore the seductive scent of fresh blood mixed with wine.
The ghosts paused in their attack. I focused on them, not wanting to distract myself with the terror in Heath's eyes and the pain in Erik's.
"We prefer this warm young blood, Priestess." The eerie voice echoed up to me, sending chills over my skin. I swear I could smell his rotting flesh-scented breath.
I swallowed hard. "I understand that, but those lives aren't yours to take. Tonight is a night for celebration, not for death."
"And yet we choose death—it is dearest to us." Ghostly laughter floated through the air with the tainted smoke of sweet grass, and the spirits began to converge again on Heath.
I threw down the goblet and raised my hands. "Then I'm not asking anymore;
I'm telling you. Wind, fire, water, earth, and spirit! I command in Nyx's name that you close this circle, pulling back to it the dead who have been allowed to escape. Now!"
Heat surged through my body and shot from my outstretched hands. In a rush of salt-scented wind that was burning hot, a shining green mist whooshed from me down the stairs to whip around Heath and Erik, making their clothes and hair flap like mad. The magical wind caught the smoky shapes and tore them from their victims, and with a deafening roar, it sucked them back into the boundary of my circle. Suddenly I was surrounded by ghostly shapes, from which I could feel danger and hunger pulsing, as clearly as I had felt Heath's blood earlier. Aphrodite was curled up on the chair, cowering from the specters. One of them brushed against her and she let out a little shriek, which seemed to stir them up even more, and they pressed violently around me.
"Zoey!" Stevie Rae cried my name, her voice shrill with fear. I saw her take a hesitant step toward me.
"No!" Damien snapped. "Don't break the circle. They can't hurt Zoey—they can't hurt any of us, the circle is too strong. But only if we don't break it."
"We're not going anywhere," Shaunee called.
"Nope. I like it right here," Erin said, sounding only a little breathless.
I felt their loyalty and trust and acceptance like a sixth element. It filled me with confidence. I straightened my spine and looked at the swirling, angry ghosts.
"So—we're not leaving. Which means you guys have got to go."
I pointed down at the spilled blood and wine. "Take your sacrifice and get out of here. It's all the blood that is owed to you tonight."
The smoky horde paused in their seething. I knew I had them. I drew a deep breath and finished it.
"With the power of the elements I command you: Go!"
Suddenly, as though an invisible giant slapped them down, they dissolved into the wine-soaked floor of the gazebo, somehow absorbing the blood-tinged liquid and making it disappear with them.
I breathed a long, ragged sigh of relief. Automatically, I turned to Damien.
"Thank you, wind. You may depart." He started to blow out his candle, but didn't need to, a little puff of wind, which felt surprisingly playful, did it for him. Damien grinned at me. And then his eyes got huge and round.
"Zoey! Your Mark!"
"What?" I lifted my hand to my forehead. It tingled, as did my shoulders and my neck (which figured, I always get shoulder / neck aches when I'm over-stressed), plus my whole body was still humming with the aftereffects of elemental power, so I hadn't even noticed it.
His shocked look changed to happiness. "Finish closing the circle. Then you can use one of Erin's many mirrors to see what's happened."
I turned to Shaunee to say good-bye to fire.
"Wow.. .amazing," Shaunee said, staring at me.
"Hey, how did you know I have more than one mirror in my purse?" Erin was complaining from across the circle at Damien when I turned to her and sent water away. Her eyes got big when she caught a good look at me, too. "Holy shit!" she said.
"Erin, you really shouldn't curse in a sacred circle. Y'all know it's not—" Stevie Rae was saying in her sweet Okie twang when I turned to say good-bye to earth, and her words were suddenly cut off as she gasped, "Oh, my goodness!"
I sighed. Hell, what now? I went back to the table and lifted the spirit candle.
"Thank you, spirit. You may depart," I said.
"Why?" Aphrodite stood up so abruptly that she knocked over the chair. Like everyone else, she was staring at me with a ridiculously shocked expression. "Why you? Why not me?"
"Aphrodite, what are you talking about now?"
"She's talking about this." Erin handed me a compact she pulled out of the chic leather purse she always had slung over her shoulder.
I opened it and looked. At first I didn't understand what I was seeing—it was too foreign, too surprising. Then, from my side, Stevie Rae whispered, "It's beautiful."
And I realized she was right. It was beautiful. My Mark had been added to. A delicate swirl of lace-like sapphire tattooing framed my eyes. Not as intricate and large as an adult vamp, but unheard of in a fledgling. I let my fingers trace the curling design, thinking that it looked like something that should decorate the face of an exotic foreign princess.or maybe the High Priestess of a goddess. And I stared hard at the me that wasn't really me— this stranger who was becoming more and more familiar.
"And that's not all Zoey. Look at your shoulder," Damien said softly.
I glanced down at the deep, off-the-shoulder neckline of my cool dress and felt a jolt of shock surge through my body. My shoulder was tattooed, too. Stretching from my neck, down my shoulder and back, were sapphire tattoos in a swirling pattern much like that on my face, only the blue marks on my body looked even more ancient, even more mysterious, because they were interspersed with letter-like symbols.
My mouth opened, but words wouldn't come out.
"Z, he needs help." Erik broke through my shock and I looked up from my shoulder to see him stumbling into the gazebo, half carrying an unconscious Heath.
"Whatever. Leave him here," Aphrodite said. "Someone will find him in the morning. We need to get out of here before the guards wake up."
I whirled on her. "And you ask why me and not you? Maybe because Nyx is sick and tired of you being selfish, spoiled, indulged, hateful..." I paused, so pissed I couldn't think of any more adjectives.
"Nasty!" Erin and Shaunee added together.
"Yeah, and a nasty bully." I took a step closer to her and got all in her face. "This whole Change is hard enough without someone like you. Unless we want to be your"—I glanced up at Damien and smiled—"your sycophants, you make us feel like we don't belong—like we're nothing. That's over, Aphrodite. What you did tonight was totally, completely wrong. You almost caused Heath to die. And maybe even Erik and who knows who else, and it was all because of your selfishness."
"It wasn't my fault your boyfriend tracked you here," she yelled.
"No, Heath wasn't your fault, but that's the only thing that wasn't your fault tonight. It was your fault that your so-called friends wouldn't stand by you and keep the circle strong. And it was your fault that negative spirits found the circle to begin with." She looked confused, which pissed me off even more. "Sage, you hateful hag! You're supposed to use sage to clear out negative energy before you use sweet grass. And it's not surprising that you drew such horrid spirits."
"Yeah, 'cause you're horrid," Stevie Rae said.
"You don't have shit to say about it, refrigerator," Aphrodite sneered.
"No!" I put my finger in her face. "This refrigerator crap is the first thing that's ending."
"Oh, so now you're going to pretend that you don't crave the taste of blood more than any of us?"
I glanced up at my friends. They met my eyes without flinching. Damien smiled encouragement. Stevie Rae nodded at me. The Twins winked. And I realized that I'd been a fool. They weren't going to shun me. They were my friends; I should have trusted them more, even if I hadn't learned to trust myself yet.
"We'll all eventually crave blood," I said simply. "Or we'll die. But that doesn't make us monsters, and it's time the Dark Daughters stopped acting the part. You're finished, Aphrodite. You're no longer leader of the Dark Daughters."
"And I suppose you think that now you're the leader?"
I nodded. "I am. I didn't come to the House of Night asking for these powers. All I wanted was a place to fit in. Well, I guess this is Nyx's way of answering my prayer." I smiled at my friends and they grinned back at me. "Clearly, the Goddess has a sense of humor."
"You stupid bitch, you can't just take over the Dark Daughters. Only a High Priestess can change their leadership."
"Convenient, then, that I am here, isn't it?" Neferet said.
Whew, drama is over.
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