Neferet stepped from the shadows and into the gazebo, moving quickly to Heath and Erik. First, she touched Erik's face and checked the bloody slash marks on his arms from where he'd struggled futilely to try to pull the ghosts off Heath. As she passed her hands over his wounds I could actually see the blood drying. Erik breathed a sigh of relief, like his pain had disappeared. "These will heal. Come to the infirmary when we get back to school and I'll give you some salve that will lessen the sting from your wounds." She patted his cheek and he blushed bright red. "You showed the bravery of a vampyre warrior when you stayed to protect the boy. I am proud of you, Erik Night, as is the Goddess."
I felt a rush of pleasure at her approval; I was proud of him, too. Then I heard murmured agreement all around me and realized that the Dark Daughters and Sons had returned and were crowding the stairs of the gazebo. How long had they been watching? Neferet turned her attention to Heath, and I forgot about everyone else. She lifted the torn legs of his jeans and examined the bloody marks there and on his arms. Then she cupped his pale, rigid face in her hands and closed her eyes. I watched his body stiffen even more and convulse, and then he sighed and, like Erik, he relaxed. After a moment, he looked like he was sleeping peacefully instead of fighting silently against death. Still on her knees beside him, Neferet said, "He will recover, and he will remember nothing of this night except that he got drunk and then lost trying to find his ex-almost-girlfriend." She looked up at me as she said the last of it, her eyes kind and filled with understanding.
"Thank you," I whispered.
Neferet nodded slightly to me, before she stood to confront Aphrodite.
"I am as responsible for what happened here tonight as you are. I have known for years of your selfishness, but I chose to overlook it, hoping that age and the touch of the Goddess would mature you. I was wrong." Neferet's voice took on the clear, powerful quality of a command. "Aphrodite, I officially release you from your position as leader of the Dark Daughters and Sons. You are no longer in training for High Priestess. You are now no different than any other fledgling." With one swift movement, Neferet reached out, grasped the silver and garnet necklace of rank that dangled between Aphrodite's breasts, and tore it from her neck.
Aphrodite didn't make a sound but her face was chalky and she stared unblinkingly at Neferet.
The High Priestess turned her back on Aphrodite and approached me. "Zoey Redbird, I knew you were special from the day Nyx let me foresee that you would be Marked." She smiled at me and put a finger under my chin, lifting my head so that she could get a better look at the new addition to my Mark. Then she brushed my hair aside so that the tattoos that had appeared on my neck, shoulders, and back could also be seen. I heard the Dark Daughters and Sons gasp as they, too, got their first look at my unusual Marks. "Extraordinary, truly extraordinary," she breathed, letting her hand fall back to her side as she continued. "Tonight you showed the wisdom of the Goddess's choice in gifting you with special powers. You have earned the position of Leader of the Dark Daughters and Sons and High Priestess in training, through your Goddess-given gifts as well as through your compassion and wisdom." She handed me Aphrodite's necklace. It felt heavy and warm in my hands. "Wear this more wisely than did your predecessor." Then she made a truly amazing gesture. Neferet, High Priestess of Nyx, saluted me, fist crossed over her heart, head bowed formally, with the vampyre sign of respect. Everyone around us except Aphrodite mimicked her. Tears blurred my vision as my four friends grinned at me and bowed with the other Dark Daughters and Sons.
But even in the midst of such perfect happiness I felt the shadow of confusion. How could I have ever doubted that I could tell Neferet anything?
"Go back to the school. I'll take care of what needs to be done here," Neferet told me. She hugged me quickly and whispered into my ear, "I am so very proud of you, Zoeybird." Then she gave me a little push in the direction of my friends. "Welcome the new Leader of the Dark Daughters and Sons!" she said. Damien, Stevie Rae, Shaunee, and Erin led the cheering. And then everyone surrounded me and it seemed that I was washed from the gazebo in an exuberant wave of laughter and congratulations. I nodded and smiled at my new "friends," but I wasn't a fool. Silently I reminded myself that only moments before they had been agreeing with everything Aphrodite had said.
It would definitely take a while to change things.
We got to the bridge and I reminded my new charges that we'd have to be quiet as we made our way back through the neighborhood to the school, and I motioned for them to go on ahead of me. When Stevie Rae, Damien, and the Twins started to cross the bridge I whispered, "No, you guys walk with me."
Grinning so broadly they looked goofy, the four of them stood around me. I met Stevie Rae's bright gaze. "You shouldn't have volunteered to be the refrigerator. I know how scared you were." Stevie Rae's grin faded at the reprimand in my voice.
"But if I hadn't, we wouldn't have known where the ritual was going to be, Zoey. I did it so I could text-message Damien, and he and the Twins could meet me here. We knew you'd need us."
I held up my hands and she stopped talking, but she looked like she was going to cry. I smiled gently at her. "You didn't let me finish. I was going to say that you shouldn't have done it, but I'm so glad you did!" I hugged her, and smiled through tears at the other three of them. "Thank you--I'm glad you were all there."
"Hey, Z, that's what friends do," Damien said.
"Yep," said Shaunee.
"Exactly," said Erin.
And they closed around me in a giant, smothering group hug--which I totally loved.
"Hey, can I get in on this?"
I looked up to see Erik standing nearby.
"Well, yes, you absolutely may," Damien said brightly.
Stevie Rae dissolved into giggles, and Shaunee sighed and said, "Give it up, Damien. Wrong team, remember?" Then Erin pushed me out of the center of the group and toward Erik. "Give the guy a hug. He did try to save your boyfriend tonight," she said.
"My ex-boyfriend," I said quickly, stepping into Erik's arms, more than a little overwhelmed by the mixture of the scent of the fresh blood still clinging to him and the fact that he was, well, hugging me. Then, to add to everything else, Erik kissed me so hard that I swear I thought the top of my head would spin off.
"Please, just please," I heard Shaunee say.
"Get a room!" Erin said.
Damien giggled as I stepped self-consciously out of Erik's arms. "I'm starving," Stevie Rae said. "This refrigerator stuff makes you hungry."
"Well, let's go get you something to eat," I said.
My friends started over the bridge and I could hear Shaunee bickering with Damien about whether we should have pizza or sandwiches.
"Mind if I walk with you?" Erik asked.
"Nah, I'm getting used to it," I said, smiling up at him.
He laughed and walked onto the bridge. Then from the darkness behind me I heard a very distinct, very annoyed, "me-eeh-uf-ow!"
"Go on, I'll catch up with you guys in a minute," I told Erik and then I walked back into the shadows at the edge of the Philbrook's lawn. "Nala? Kitty, kitty, kitty...," I called. And, sure enough, a disgruntled ball of fur trotted out of the bushes, complaining the entire time. I bent down and picked her up and she instantly started to purr. "Well, silly girl, why did you follow me all the way out here if you don't like walking that far? Like you haven't been through enough tonight already," I murmured, but before I could head back to the bridge, Aphrodite stepped out of the shadows and blocked my way.
"You might have won tonight, but this isn't over," she told me. She made me feel really tired.
"I wasn't trying to 'win' anything. I was just trying to make things right."
"And that's what you think you did?" Her eyes darted nervously back and forth from me to the path that led to the gazebo, as if someone had followed her. "You don't really know what happened here tonight. You were just being used--we were all just being used. We're puppets, that's all we are." She angrily wiped at her face and I realized she was crying.
"Aphrodite, it doesn't have to be like this between us," I said softly.
"Yes it does!" she snapped. "It's the parts we're supposed to play. You'll see...you'll see...." Aphrodite started to walk away.
A thought drifted unexpectedly from my memory. It was of Aphrodite, during her vision. As if it was happening again, I could hear her say, They're dead! No. No. That can't be! Not right. No. Not natural! I don't understand...I don't...You...you know. Her scream of terror echoed eerily through my mind. I thought of Elizabeth...of Elliott...the fact that they had appeared to me. Too much of what she said made sense.
"Aphrodite, wait!" She looked over her shoulder at me. "The vision you had today in Neferet's office, what was it really about?"
Slowly, she shook her head. "It's only beginning. It's going to get much worse." She turned and suddenly hesitated. Her way was blocked by five kids--my friends.
"It's okay," I told them. "Let her go."
Shaunee and Erin parted. Aphrodite lifted her head, shook back her hair, and marched past them as if she owned the world. I watched her walk over the bridge, my stomach clenching. Aphrodite knew something about Elizabeth and Elliott, and eventually I was going to have to find out what it was.
"Hey," Stevie Rae said.
I looked at my roommate and new best friend.
"Whatever happens, we're in it together."
I felt the knot in my stomach release. "Let's go," I said. Surrounded by my friends, we all went home.