My wrist was still tingling from Erik's totally unexpected kiss (and bite and lick), and I wasn't sure I could speak yet, so I was relieved that there were only a few girls in the big entry room, and they did little more than glance at me before they went back to watching what sounded like America's Next Top Model. I hurried into the kitchen and plunked Nala down on the floor, hoping she wouldn't run off while I made a sandwich. She didn't; actually she followed me around the room like a little orange dog, complaining at me in her weird non-meow. I kept telling her "I know" and "I understand" because I figured she was yelling at me about what a moron I'd been tonight, and, well, she was right. Sandwich made, I grabbed a bag of pretzels (Stevie Rae had been right, I couldn't find any decent junk food in any of the cabinets), some brown pop (I don't really care what kind, just so that it's brown and not diet--eesh), and my cat, and I slipped up the stairs.
"Zoey! I've been so worried about you! Tell me everything." Curled up in bed with a book, Stevie Rae was obviously waiting up for me. She was wearing her pajamas that had cowboy hats all over the drawstring cotton pants, and her short hair was sticking out on one side as if she'd fallen asleep on it. I swear she looked about twelve years old.
"Well," I said brightly. "Looks like we have a pet." I turned so that Stevie Rae could see Nala squished against my hip. "Here, help me before I drop something. If it's the cat she'll probably never stop complaining."
"She's adorable!" Stevie Rae leaped up and rushed over to try to take Nala from me, but the cat clung to me as though someone would kill her if she let go, so Stevie Rae took my food instead and set it on my bedside table.
"Hey, that dress is amazing."
"Yeah, I changed before the ritual." Which reminded me that I was going to have to give it back to Aphrodite. Fine. I was not keeping the "gift," even though Erik had said I should. Anyway, returning it seemed like a good time to "thank" her for "forgetting" to clue me in about the blood. Hag bitch.
"So...how was it?"
I sat on my bed and gave Nala a pretzel, which she promptly started batting around (at least she'd stopped complaining), then I took a big bite of sandwich. Yes, I was hungry, but I was also buying time. I didn't know what I should tell Stevie Rae, and what I shouldn't. The blood thing was just so confusing--and so gross. Would she think I was awful? Would she be scared of me?
I swallowed and decided to steer the conversation to a safer topic. "Erik Night walked me home."
"Get out!" She bobbed up and down on the bed like a country jack-in-the-box. "Tell me everything."
"He kissed me," I said, crinkling my eyebrows at her.
"You have got to be kidding! Where? How? Was it good?"
"He kissed my hand." I decided quickly to lie. I didn't want to explain the whole wrist/pulse/blood/bite thing. "It was when he said good night. We were right in front of the dorm. And, yes, it was good." I grinned at her around another mouthful of sandwich.
"I'll bet Aphrodite shit puppies when you left the rec hall with him." "Well, actually, I left before him and he caught up with me. I'd, uh, gone for a walk along the wall, which is where I found Nala," I scratched the cat's head. She curled up next to me, closed her eyes, and started purring. "Actually, I think she found me. Anyway, I had climbed up on the wall because I thought she needed rescuing, and then--and you will not believe this--I saw something that looked like Elizabeth's ghost, and then my almost-ex-boyfriend from SIHS, Heath, and my ex?best friend showed up."
"What? Who? Slow down. Start with Elizabeth's ghost."
I shook my head and chewed. Through bites of sandwich I explained. "It was really creepy and really weird. I was sitting up there on the wall petting Nala, and something caught my attention. I looked down and there was this girl standing not too far away from me. She looked up at me, with red glowing eyes, and I swear it was Elizabeth."
"No way! Were you totally freaked?"
"Totally. The second she saw me she gave this horrible shriek and then ran off."
"I would have been scared shitless."
"I was, only I hardly had time to think about it when Heath and Kayla showed up."
"What do you mean? How could they be here?"
"No, not here, they were outside the wall. They must have heard me trying to settle Nala down after she completely freaked at Elizabeth's ghost, because they came running up."
"Nala saw her, too?"
Stevie Rae shivered. "Then she must have really been there."
"Are you sure she's dead?" My voice was almost a whisper. "There couldn't have been some mistake made and she's still alive but wandering around the school?" It sounded ridiculous, but not much more ridiculous than me seeing an actual ghost.
Stevie Rae swallowed hard. "She's dead. I saw her die. Everyone in class did."
She looked like she was going to cry and the whole subject was creeping me out, so I shifted to a less scary topic. "Well, I could be wrong. Maybe it was just some kid with weird eyes who looked like her. It was dark, and then Heath and Kayla were suddenly there."
"What was that all about?"
"Heath said they came to 'bust me out'," I rolled my eyes. "Can you imagine?"
"Are they stupid?"
"Apparently. Oh, and then Kayla, my ex-best friend, made it obvious that she's after Heath!"
Stevie Rae gasped. "Slut!"
"No kidding. Anyway, I told them to leave and not come back, and then I got upset, which is when Erik found me."
"Aww! Was he sweet and romantic?"
"Yeah, he was, kinda. And he called me Z."
"O000h, a nickname is a seriously good sign."
"That's what I thought."
"So then he walked you back to the dorm?"
"Yeah, he said that he'd take me to get something to eat, but the only thing that was still open was the rec hall, and I didn't want to go back there." Ah, crap. I knew right away that I shouldn't have said that much.
"Were the Dark Daughters awful?" I looked at Stevie Rae with her big deer-like eyes, and knew I couldn't tell her about drinking blood. Not yet. "Well, you know how Neferet was sexy and beautiful and classy?"
Stevie Rae nodded.
"Aphrodite did basically what Neferet did, but she looked like a ho."
"I've always thought that she was really nasty," Stevie Rae said, shaking her head in disgust.
"Tell me about it." I looked at Stevie Rae and blurted, "Yesterday, right before Neferet took me here to the dorm I saw Aphrodite trying to give Erik a blow job."
"No way! Jeesh, she's disgusting. Wait, you said she was trying to do it. What's up with that?"
"He was telling her no and pushing her away. He said he didn't want her anymore."
Stevie Rae giggled. "I'll bet that made her lose what little of her mind she has left."
I remembered how she'd been all over him, even when he was clearly telling her no. "Actually, I would have felt sorry for her if she hadn't been so...so..." I struggled to put it into words.
"Hag from hell?like?" Stevie Rae offered helpfully.
"Yeah, I guess that's it. She has this attitude, like it's her right to be as mean and nasty as she wants to be, and we should all just bow down and accept her."
Stevie Rae nodded. "That's how her friends are, too."
"Yeah, I met the awful triplets."
"You mean Warlike, Terrible, and Wasp?"
"Exactly. What were they thinking when they took those horrid names?" I said, popping pretzels in my mouth.
"They were thinking exactly what that entire group of hers thinks--that they are better than everyone else and untouchable because nasty Aphrodite is going to be the next High Priestess."
I spoke the next words as they whispered through my mind. "I don't think Nyx will allow that."
"What do you mean? They are already the 'in' group, and Aphrodite has been leader of the Dark Daughters since her affinity became obvious during her fifth former year."
"What's her affinity?"
"She gets visions, like of future tragedies," Stevie Rae scowled.
"Do you think she fakes them?"
"Oh, heck no! She's amazingly accurate. What I think, and Damien and the Twins agree with me, is that she only tells about the visions if she has one when she's around people outside her little group."
"Wait, are you saying she knows about bad things that are going to happen in time to stop them, but she doesn't do anything about it?"
"Yep. Last week she had a vision during lunch, but the hags closed ranks around her and started leading her out of the dining hall. If Damien hadn't run right into them because he was late and hurrying in to lunch, making them scatter so that he could see that Aphrodite was in the middle of a vision, no one would ever have known. And a whole plane full of people would probably be dead."
I choked on a pretzel. Between coughs I sputtered, "A plane full of people! What the hell?"
"Yeah, Damien could tell Aphrodite was having a vision, so he got Neferet. Aphrodite had to tell her the vision, which was seeing a jet crash just after takeoff. Her visions are so clear that she could describe the airport and read the numbers on the tail of the plane. Neferet took that info and contacted the Denver airport. They double-checked the plane and found some problem that they hadn't noticed before, and said that if they hadn't fixed it the plane would have crashed immediately after takeoff. But I know darn well Aphrodite wouldn't have said a word if she hadn't been caught, even though she made up a big lie about her friends leading her from the dining hall because they knew she'd want to be taken to Neferet right away. Total b.s."
I started to say that I couldn't believe that even Aphrodite and her hags would purposefully allow the death of hundreds of people, but then I remembered the hateful stuff they'd said that night-- Human men suck...They should all die--and I realized they hadn't just been talking; they'd been serious.
"So why didn't Aphrodite lie to Neferet? You know, tell her a different airport or switch the numbers of the plane around or something?"
"Vamps are almost impossible to lie to, especially when they ask you a direct question. And, remember, Aphrodite wants to be a High Priestess more than anything. If Neferet believed she was as twisted as she is, it would seriously hurt her future plans."
"Aphrodite has no business being a High Priestess. She's selfish and hateful, and so are her friends."
"Yeah, well, Neferet doesn't think so, and she was her mentor."
I blinked in surprise. "You've got to be kidding! And she doesn't see through Aphrodite's crap?" That couldn't be right; Neferet is way smarter than that.
Stevie Rae shrugged. "She acts different around Neferet."
"And she does have a powerful affinity, which has to mean that Nyx has special plans for her."
"Or she's a demon from hell, and she gets her power from the dark side. Hello! Has no one seen Star Wars? It was hard to believe Anakin Skywalker would turn, and look what happened there."
"Uh, Zoey. That's like total fiction."
"Still, I think it makes a good point."
"Well, try telling that to Neferet."
I chewed my sandwich and thought about it. Maybe I should. Neferet did seem way too smart to fall for Aphrodite's games. She probably already knew something was up with the hags. Maybe all she needed was someone to stand up and say something to her.
"So, has anyone ever tried to tell Neferet about Aphrodite?" I asked.
"Not that I know of."
Stevie Rae looked uncomfortable. "Well, I think it seems kinda tattletale-like. Anyway, what would we tell Neferet? That we think Aphrodite might hide her visions, but that the only proof we have is that she's a hateful bitch." Stevie Rae shook her head. "No, I can't see that going over very well with Neferet. Plus, if by some miracle she believed us, what would Neferet do? It's not like she's going to kick her out of the school so she can cough herself to death on the streets. She'd still be here with her pack of hags and all those guys who would do anything for her if she snapped her little clawed fingers at them. I guess it's just not worth it."
Stevie Rae had a point, but I didn't like it. I really, really didn't like it.
Things might be different if a more powerful fledgling took Aphrodite's place as leader of the Dark Daughters.
I jumped guiltily, and covered it by taking a big gulp of pop. What was I thinking? I wasn't power hungry. I didn't want to be a High Priestess or get caught up in a pain-in-the-ass battle with Aphrodite and half the school (the more attractive half, at that). I just wanted to find a place for myself in this new life, a place that felt like home--a place where I fit in and was like the rest of the kids.
Then I remembered the electric jolts I'd felt during the casting of both circles, and how the elements had seemed to sizzle through my body, and also how I had had to force myself to stay in the circle and not join Aphrodite in the casting.
"Stevie Rae, when a circle's being cast, do you feel anything?" I asked abruptly.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, like when fire's called to the circle. Do you ever feel hot?"
"Nah. I mean, I really like the circle stuff, and sometimes when Neferet is praying I feel a zap of energy traveling through the circle itself, but that's it."
"So you've never felt a breeze when wind's called, or smelled rain with water, or felt grass under your feet with earth?"
"No way. Only a High Priestess with a major affinity for the elements would--" She broke off suddenly and her eyes got huge. "Are you saying that you felt that stuff? Any of that stuff?"
I squirmed. "Maybe."
"Maybe!" she squeaked. "Zoey! Do you have any idea what this could mean?"
I shook my head.
"Just last week in Soc class we were studying about the most famous vamp High Priestesses in history. There hasn't been a priestess with an affinity for all four of the elements for hundreds of years."
"Five," I said miserably.
"All five! You felt something with spirit, too!"
"Yeah, I think so."
"Zoey! This is amazing. I don't think there's ever been a High Priestess who felt all five of the elements." She nodded at my Mark. "It's that. It means you're different, and you really are."
"Stevie Rae, can we just keep this between us for a while? I mean, not even tell Damien or the Twins? I just--I just want to try to figure this out on my own a little. I feel like everything's happening too fast."
"But Zoey, I--"
"And I might be wrong," I interrupted quickly. "What if I was just excited and nervous because I'd never been in a ritual before? Do you know how embarrassed I'd be if I told people 'hey, I'm the only fledgling ever to have an affinity for all the elements' and it turned out to be nerves?"
Stevie Rae chewed her cheek. "I dunno, I still think you should tell someone."
"Yeah, then Aphrodite and her herd could be right there to gloat if it turned out that I was imagining things."
Stevie Rae paled. "Oh, man. You're totally right. That would be really awful. I won't say anything till you're ready. Promise."
Her reaction reminded me. "Hey, what is it Aphrodite did to you?"
Stevie Rae looked down at her lap, clasped her hands together, and hunched her shoulders as if she suddenly felt a chill. "She invited me to a ritual. I hadn't been here very long, only about a month or so, and I was kinda excited that the 'in' group wanted me." She shook her head, still not looking at me. "It was stupid of me, but I didn't really know anyone very well yet, and I thought maybe they would be my friends. So I went. But they didn't want me to be one of them. They wanted me to be a--a--blood donor for their ritual. They even called me 'refrigerator: like I wasn't good for anything except holding blood for them. They made me cry and when I said no they laughed at me and kicked me out. That's how I met Damien, and then Erin and Shaunee. They were hanging out together and they saw me run out of the rec hall, so they followed me and told me not to worry about it. They've been my friends ever since." She finally looked up at me. "I'm sorry. I would have said something to you before, except I knew they wouldn't try that with you. You're too strong, and Aphrodite is too curious about your Mark. Plus, you're beautiful enough to be one of them."
"Hey, so are you!" I felt sick to my stomach thinking about Stevie Rae being slumped in the chair like Elliott...about drinking Stevie Rae's blood.
"No, I'm just kinda cute. I'm not them."
"I'm not them, either!" I yelled, causing Nala to wake up and mutter restlessly at me.
"I know you're not. That's not what I meant. I just meant that I knew they would want you in their group, so they wouldn't try to use you like that."
No, they managed to trick me and tried their best to freak me out. But why? Wait! I knew what they'd been up to. Erik said that the first time he drank blood he'd hated it, and had run out puking. I'd been here only two days. They'd wanted to do something that would disgust me so badly that I'd be scared away from them and their ritual forever.
They didn't want me to be part of the Dark Daughters, but they also didn't want to tell Neferet they didn't want me. Instead, they wanted me to refuse to join them. For whatever twisted reason, bully Aphrodite wanted to keep me out of the Dark Daughters. Bullies have always pissed me off, which meant, unfortunately, I knew what I had to do.
Ah, crap. I was going to join the Dark Daughters.
"Zoey, you're not mad at me, are you?" Stevie Rae said in a small voice.
I blinked, trying to clear my thoughts. "Of course not! You were right; Aphrodite didn't try to get me to do anything like giving blood." I popped the last bite of sandwich into my mouth, chewing fast. "Hey, I'm really beat. Do you think you could help me find a litter box for Nala so that I can get some sleep?"
Stevie Rae instantly brightened, and hopped off the bed with her usual perkiness. "Check this out." She practically skipped to the side of the room and held up a big green bag that had
FELICIA'S SOUTHERN AGRICULTURE STORE, 2616 S. HARVARD,TULSA
printed in bold white letters across it. From it she dumped onto the floor a litter box, food and water dishes, a box of Friskies cat food (with extra hairball protection), and a sack of kitty litter.
"How did you know?"
"I didn't. It was sitting in front of our door when I got back from dinner." She reached into the bottom of the bag and pulled out an envelope and an adorable pink leather collar that had miniature silver spikes all around it.
"Here, this is for you."
She handed me the envelope, which I could now see had my name printed on it, while she coaxed Nala into her collar. Inside, written in a beautiful, flowing script on expensive bone-colored stationary was one line.
Skylar told me she was coming. It was signed with a single letter: N.