I was going to have to talk to Neferet. I thought about it as Stevie Rae and I rushed through breakfast the next morning. I didn't want to tell her anything about my supposed strange reaction to the elements--I mean, I hadn't been lying to Stevie Rae. I could have imagined the entire thing. What if I tell Neferet and she makes me take some kind of weird affinity test (in this school, who knew?) and she finds out that I don't have anything other than an overactive imagination? No way did I want to go through something like that. I'd just keep my mouth shut until I knew more about it. I also didn't want to say anything to her about thinking I might have seen Elizabeth's ghost. Like I wanted Neferet to think I was psycho? Neferet was cool, but she was an adult, and I could almost hear the "it was just your imagination because you'd been through so many changes" lecture I would get if I admitted to seeing a ghost. But I did need to talk to her about the bloodlust thing. (Yeesh--if I liked it so much why did the thought of it still make me feel queasy?)

"Ya think she's going to follow you to class?" Stevie Rae said, pointing to Nala.

I looked down at my feet where the cat lay curled, purring contentedly. "Can she?"

"Do you mean, is she allowed?"

I nodded.

"Yeah, cats can go anywhere they want."

"Huh," I said, reaching down to scratch the top of her head. "I guess she might follow me around all day then."

"Well, I'm glad she's yours and not mine. From what I saw when the alarm when off, she's a serious pillow-hogger."

I laughed. "You're right about that. How such a petite girl could push me off my own pillow, I do not know." I gave her head one more scratch. "Let's go. We're gonna be late."

I stood up with my bowl in my hand, and almost ran smack into Aphrodite. She was, as usual, flanked by Terrible and Warlike. Wasp was nowhere to be seen (maybe she'd taken a shower this morning and melted when the water touched her-- hee hee). Aphrodite's nasty smile reminded me of a piranha I'd seen at the Jenks Aquarium when my biology class went there last year on a field trip.

"Hi, Zoey. Gosh, you left in such a hurry last night I didn't get a chance to say bye. Sorry you didn't have a good time. It's too bad, but the Dark Daughters isn't for everyone." She glanced at Stevie Rae and curled her lip.

"Actually, I had a great time last night, and I absolutely love the dress you gave me!" I gushed. "Thank you for inviting me to join the Dark Daughters. I accept. Totally."

Aphrodite's feral smile flattened. "Really?"

I grinned like an utterly clueless fool. "Really! When's the next meeting or ritual or whatever--or should I just ask Neferet? I'm going to see her this morning. I know she'll be happy to hear how welcome you made me feel last night and that I'm now a Dark Daughter."

Aphrodite hesitated for just a moment. Then she smiled again and matched my clueless tone of voice perfectly. "Yes, I bet Neferet will be glad to hear you've joined us, but I am the leader of the Dark Daughters and I know our schedule by heart, so there's no need to bother her with silly questions. Tomorrow is our Samhain celebration. Wear your dress," she emphasized the word, and my smile widened. I'd meant to get to her and I had. "And meet at the rec hall right after dinner, four thirty A.M., sharp."

"Great. I'll be there." "Good, what a nice surprise," she said slickly. Then, followed by Terrible and Warlike (who looked vaguely shell-shocked), the three of them left the kitchen.

"Hags from hell," I muttered under my breath. I glanced at Stevie Rae, who was staring at me with a stricken expression frozen on her face.

"You're joining them?" she whispered.

"It's not what you think. Come on, I'll tell you on the way to class." I put our breakfast dishes in a dishwasher and herded the too quiet Stevie Rae out of the dorm. Nala padded after us, occasionally hissing at any cat who dared wander too close to me on the sidewalk. "I'm reconnoitering, just like you said last night," I explained.

"No. I don't like it," she said, shaking her head so hard she made her short hair bounce crazily.

"Have you never heard of the old saying 'keep your friends close and your enemies closer'?"

"Yeah, but--"

"That's all I'm doing. Aphrodite gets away with too much crap. She's mean. She's selfish. She can't be what Nyx wants for a High Priestess."

Stevie Rae's eyes got huge. "You're going to stop her?"

"Well, I'm gonna try." And as I spoke I felt the sapphire crescent moon on my forehead tingle.

***

"Thanks for the cat things you got for Nala," I said.

Neferet looked up from the paper she was grading and smiled. "Nala--that's a good name for her, but you should thank Skylar, not me. He's the one who told me she was coming." Then she glanced at the orange ball of fur that was impatiently twining between my legs. "She's really attached to you." Her eyes lifted again to meet mine. "Tell me, Zoey, do you ever hear her voice inside your head, or know exactly where she is, even when she's not in the same room as you?"

I blinked. Neferet thought I might have an affinity for cats! "No, I--I don't hear her in my head. But she does complain at me a lot. And I wouldn't know about whether or not I know where she is when she's not with me. She's always with me."

"She is delightful." Neferet crooked a finger at Nala and said, "Come to me, child."

Instantly, Nala padded over and jumped up on Neferet's desk, scattering papers everywhere.

"Oh, gosh, I'm sorry, Neferet." I grabbed for Nala, but Neferet waved me away. She scratched Nala's head, and the cat closed her eyes and purred.

"Cats are always welcome, and papers are easily reorganized. Now, what is it you really wanted to speak with me about, Zoeybird?"

Her use of my grandma's nickname for me made my heart hurt, and I suddenly missed her with an intensity that had me blinking tears from my eyes.

"Are you missing your old home?" Neferet asked softly.

"No, not really. Well, except for Grandma, but I've been so busy that I guess I just now realized it," I said guiltily.

"You don't miss your mother and father."

It wasn't like she'd said it as a question, but I felt that I needed to answer her. "No. Well, I don't really have a dad. He left us when I was little. My mom remarried three years ago and, well..."

"You can tell me. I give you my word that I will understand," Neferet said.

"I hate him!" I said with more anger than I'd expected to feel. "Since he joined our family"--I said the word sarcastically-- "nothing has been right. My mom totally changed. It's like she can't be his wife and my mother anymore. It hasn't been my home for a long time."

"My mother died when I was ten years old. My father did not remarry. Instead, he began to use me as his wife. From the time I was ten until Nyx saved me by Marking me when I was fifteen, he abused me." Neferet paused and let the shock of what she was saying settle into me before she continued. "So you see, when I say that I understand what it is to have your home become an unbearable place I am not just spouting platitudes."

"That's awful." I didn't know what else to say.

"It was then. Now it is simply another memory. Zoey, humans in your past, and even in your present and future, will become less and less important to you until, eventually, you will feel very little for them. You'll understand this more as you continue to Change."

There was a cold flatness to her voice that made me feel odd, and I heard myself saying, "I don't want to stop caring about my grandma."

"Of course you don't." She was back to being warm and caring again. "It's only nine P.M., why don't you call her? You can be late to Drama class; I'll let Professor Nolan know that you are excused."

"Thank you, I'd like that. But it's not what I wanted to talk to you about." I took a deep breath. "I drank blood last night."

Neferet nodded. "Yes, the Dark Daughters often mix fledgling blood with their ritual wine. It's something the young like to do. Did it upset you greatly, Zoey?"

"Well, I didn't know about it until afterward. Then, yes, it did upset me."

Neferet frowned. "It wasn't ethical of Aphrodite not to tell you before. You should have had a choice about partaking. I'll speak with her."

"No!" I said a little too quickly, and then I forced myself to sound calmer. "No, there's really no need. I'll take care of it. I've decided to join the Dark Daughters, so I don't want to start off by looking like I set out to get Aphrodite in trouble."

"You're probably right. Aphrodite can be rather temperamental, and I trust that you can take care of it yourself, Zoey. We do like to encourage fledglings to solve the problems they have with each other among themselves whenever possible." She studied me, concern obvious in her face. "It's normal for the first few tastes of blood to be less than appetizing. You'd know that if you had been with us longer."

"It's not that. It--it tasted really good. Erik told me that mine was an unusual reaction."

Neferet's perfect brows shot up. "It is, indeed. Did you also feel dizzy or exhilarated?"

"Both," I said softly.

Neferet glanced at my Mark. "You are unique, Zoey Redbird. Well, I think it would be best to pull you out of this section of Sociology, and move you into a Sociology 415.

"I'd really rather you didn't do that," I said quickly. "I already feel like enough of a freak with everyone staring at my Mark and watching to see if I'll do something weird. If you move me into a class with kids who have been here for three years, they'll really think I'm bizarre."

Neferet hesitated, scratching Nala's head while she considered.

"I understand what you mean, Zoey. I haven't been a teenager for over one hundred years, but vampyres have long, accurate memories, and I do recall what it was like to go through the Change." She sighed. "Okay, how about a compromise? I'll allow you to stay in the third former Soc class, but I want to give you the text we use in the upper-level class, and have you agree to read a chapter a week, and promise that you'll discuss any questions you have with me." "Deal," I said.

"You know, Zoey, as you Change, you literally are becoming an entirely new being. A vampyre is not a human, although we are humane. It may sound reprehensible to you now, but your desire for blood is as normal for your new life as your desire for"--she paused and smiled--"brown pop has been in your old life."

"Jeesh! Do you know everything?"

"Nyx has gifted me generously. Besides my affinity for our lovely felines and my abilities as a healer, I am also an intuitive."

"You can read my mind?" I asked nervously.

"Not exactly. But I can pick up bits and pieces of things. For instance, I know that there's something else you need to tell me about last night."

I drew a deep breath. "I was upset after I found out about the blood, so I ran out of the rec hall. That's how I found Nala. She was in a tree that was real close to the school's wall. I thought she was stuck up there, so I climbed up on the wall to get her and, well, while I was talking to her two kids from my old school found me."

"What happened?" Neferet's hand had stilled; she was no longer petting Nala, and I had all of her attention.

"It wasn't good. They--they were wasted, high and drunk." Okay, I hadn't meant to blurt that!

"Did they try to hurt you?"

"No, nothing like that. It was my ex?best friend and my almost-ex-boyfriend."

Neferet raised her brow at me again.

"Well, I'd quit going out with him, but he and I still had a thing for each other."

She nodded as though she understood. "Go on."

"Kayla and I kinda fought. She sees me differently now and I guess I see her differently, too. Neither one of us likes the new view." As I said it I realized it was true. It wasn't that K had changed--actually, she'd been exactly the same. It was just that the little things I used to ignore, like her nonsensical babble and her mean side, were now suddenly too irritating to deal with. "Anyway, she left and I was alone with Heath." I stopped there, not sure how to say the rest of it.

Neferet's eyes narrowed. "You experienced bloodlust for him."

"Yes," I whispered.

"Did you drink his blood, Zoey?" Her voice was sharp.

"I just tasted a drop of it. I'd scratched him. I hadn't meant to, but when I heard his pulse pounding it--it made me scratch him."

"So you didn't actually drink from the wound?"

"I started to, but Kayla came back and interrupted us. She totally freaked, and that's how I finally got Heath to leave."

"He didn't want to?"

I shook my head. "No. He didn't want to." I felt like I was going to cry again. "Neferet, I'm so sorry! I didn't mean to. I didn't even know what I was doing until Kayla screamed."

"Of course you didn't realize what was happening. How could a newly Marked fledgling be expected to know about bloodlust?" She touched my arm in a reassuring, mom-like gesture. "You probably didn't Imprint with him."

"Imprint?"

"It's what often happens when vampyres drink directly from humans, especially if there is a bond that has been established between them prior to the blood- letting. This is why it is forbidden for fledglings to drink the blood of humans. Actually, it's strongly discouraged for adult vampyres to feed from humans, too. There's an entire sect of vampyres who consider it morally wrong and would like to make it illegal," she said.

I watched her eyes darken as she talked. The expression in them suddenly made me very nervous and I shivered. Then Neferet blinked and her eyes changed back to normal. Or had I just imagined their weird darkness?

"But that's a discussion best left for my sixth form sociology class."

"What do I do about Heath?"

"Nothing. Let me know if he tries to see you again. If he calls you, don't answer. If he began Imprinting even the sound of your voice will effect him and work as a lure to draw him to you."

"It sounds like something out of Dracula," I muttered.

"It's nothing like that wretched book!" she snapped. "Stoker vilified vampyres, which has caused our kind endless petty troubles with humans."

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean--"

She waved her hand dismissively. "No, I shouldn't have taken out my frustration about that old fool's book on you. And don't worry about your friend Heath. I'm sure he'll be fine. You said that he was smoking and drinking? I assume you mean marijuana?"

I nodded. "But I don't smoke," I added. "Actually, he didn't used to and neither did Kayla. I don't get what's happening to them. I think they're hanging with some of those druggie football players from Union, and none of them have enough sense to just say no."

"Well, his reaction to you might have had more to do with his level of intoxication than a possible Imprint." She paused, pulling a scratch pad out of her desk drawer, and handing me a pencil. "But just in case, why don't you write down your friends' full names and where they live. Oh, and add the names of the Union football players, too, if you know them."

"Why would you need all of their names?" I felt my heart fall into my shoes. "You're not going to call their parents, are you?"

Neferet laughed. "Of course not. The misbehavior of human teenagers is no concern of mine. I only ask so that I can focus my thoughts on the group and perhaps pick up any vestiges of a possible Imprint among them."

"What happens if you do? What happens to Heath?"

"He's young and the Imprint will be weak, so time and distance should make it fade eventually. If he actually Imprinted in full, there are ways to break it." I was about to say that maybe she should just go ahead and do whatever she did to break an Imprinting when she continued. "None of the ways are pleasant."

"Oh, okay."

I wrote the names and addresses for Kayla and Heath. I didn't have a clue where the Union guys lived, but I did remember their names. Neferet got up and went to the back of the classroom to retrieve a thick textbook whose title in silver letters read Sociology 415.

"Begin with Chapter One and work your way through this entire book. Until you've finished it, let's consider it your homework instead of the work I assign to the rest of the Socioi class."

I took the book. It was heavy and the cover felt cool in my hot, nervous grip.

"If you have any questions, any at all, come see me right away. If I'm not here you can come to my apartment in Nyx's Temple. Go in the front door and follow the stairs on your right. I am the only priestess at the school right now, so the entire second floor belongs to me. And don't worry about disturbing me. You're my fledgling--it's your job to disturb me," she said with a warm smile. "Thank you, Neferet."

"Try not to worry. Nyx has touched you and the goddess cares for her own." She hugged me. "Now, I'm going to go tell Professor Nolan what's been keeping you. Go ahead and use the phone at my desk to call your grandma." She hugged me again and then closed the classroom door gently behind her as she left.

I sat down at her desk and thought about how great she was, and how long it'd been since my mom had hugged me like that. And for some reason, I started to cry.



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