Okay, the cafeteria was cool--oops, I mean "dining hall," as the silver plaque outside the entrance proclaimed. It was nothing at all like SIHS's freezing cold monstrous cafeteria where the acoustics were so bad that even though I sat right next to Kayla I couldn't hear what she was babbling at me half the time. This room was warm and friendly. The walls were made of the same weird mixture of jutting bricks and black rock as the exterior of the building and the room was filled with heavy wooden picnic tables that had matching benches with padded seats and backs. Each table sat about six kids and radiated out from a large, unoccupied table situated at the center of the room that was practically overflowing with fruit and cheese and meat, and a crystal goblet that was filled with something that looked suspiciously like red wine. (Huh? Wine at school? What?) The ceiling was low and the rear wall was made up of windows with a glass door in the center. Heavy burgundy velvet drapes were pulled open so that I could see outside to a beautiful little courtyard with stone benches, winding paths, and ornamental bushes and flowers. In the middle of the courtyard was a marble fountain with water spouting from the top of something that looked an awful lot like a pineapple. It was very pretty, especially lit up by the moonlight and the occasional antique gaslight.

Most of the tables were already filled with eating, talking kids who glanced up with obvious curiosity when Stevie Rae and I entered the room. I took a deep breath and held my head high. Might as well give them a clear view of the Mark they all seemed so obsessed with. Stevie Rae led me to the side of the room that had the typical cafeteria servers handing out food from behind buffet-style glass thingies.

"What's the table in the middle of the room for?" I asked as we walked.

"It's the symbolic offering to the Goddess Nyx. There's always a place set at that table for her. It seems kinda weird at first, but pretty soon it won't seem so weird and it'll feel right to you."

Actually, it didn't seem that weird to me. In a way, it made sense. The Goddess was so alive here. Her Mark was everywhere. Her statue stood proudly in front of her Temple. I was also starting to notice all over the school little pictures and figurines that represented her. Her High Priestess was my mentor and, I had to admit to myself, I already felt connected to Nyx. With an effort, I stopped myself from touching the Mark on my forehead. Instead I grabbed a tray and moved behind Stevie Rae in line.

"Don't worry," she whispered to me. "The food's real good. They don't make you drink blood or eat raw meat or anything like that."

Relieved, I unclenched my jaws. Most of the kids were already eating, so the line was short, and as Stevie Rae and I got up to the food I felt my mouth start to water. Spaghetti! I sniffed deeply: with garlic!

"That whole vampyres can't stand garlic thing is total bullshit--pardon my French," Stevie Rae was saying under her breath to me as we loaded up our plates.

"Okay, what about that whole vampyres have to drink blood thing?" I whispered back.

"Not," she said softly.

"Not?"

"Not bullshit."

Great. Wonderful. Fantastic. Just exactly what I wanted to hear--not.

Trying not to think about blood and whatnot I got a glass of tea with Stevie Rae, and then followed her to a table where two other kids were already talking animatedly while they ate. Of course the conversation totally stopped when I joined them, which didn't seem to faze Stevie Rae at all. As I slid into the booth opposite her she made introductions in her Okie twang.

"Hey, y'all. Meet my new roommate, Zoey Redbird. Zoey, this is Erin Bates," she pointed to the ridiculously pretty blonde sitting on my side of the table. (Well, hell--how many pretty blondes could one school have? Isn't there some kind of limit?) Still in her matter-of-fact Okie voice, she went on, making little air quotes for emphasis. "Erin is 'the pretty one.' She's also funny and smart and has more shoes than anyone I've ever known."

Erin pulled her blue eyes away from staring at my Mark long enough to say a quick "Hi."

"And this is the token guy in our group, Damien Maslin. But he's gay, so I don't really think he counts as a guy."

Instead of getting pissed at Stevie Rae, Damien looked serene and unruffled. "Actually, since I'm gay I think I should count for two guys instead of just one. I mean, in me you get the male point of view and you don't have to worry about me wanting to touch your boobies."

He had a smooth face that was totally zit free, and dark brown hair and eyes that reminded me of a baby deer. Actually, he was cute. Not in the overly girly way so many teenage guys are when they decide to come out and tell everyone what everyone already knew (well, everyone except their typically clueless and/or in-denial parents). Damien wasn't a swishy girly-guy; he was just a cute kid with a likable smile. He was also noticeably trying not to stare at my Mark, which I appreciated.

"Well, maybe you're right. I hadn't really thought about it like that," Stevie Rae said through a big bite of garlic bread.

"Just ignore her, Zoey. The rest of us are almost normal," Damien said. "And we're desperately glad you finally got here. Stevie Ray's been driving everyone crazy wondering what you'd be like, when you'd get here--"

"If you'd be one of those freaky kids who smell bad and think being a vampyre means seeing who can be the biggest loser," Erin interrupted.

"Or wondering if you'd be one of them," Damien said, cutting his eyes at a table to our left.

I followed his gaze and felt a zap of nerves when I recognized who he was talking about. "You mean Aphrodite?"

"Yeah," Damien said. "And her stuck-up flock of sycophants." Huh? I blinked at him.

Stevie Rae sighed. "You'll get used to Damien's vocabulary obsession. Thankfully, this isn't a new word so some of us actually know what he's talking about without having to beg him for a translation. Again. Sycophant--a servile flatterer," she twanged proudly like she was giving an answer in English class.

"Whatever. They make me want to retch," Erin said without looking up from her spaghetti.

"They?" I asked.

"The Dark Daughters," Stevie Rae said, and I noticed she automatically lowered her voice.

"Think of them like a sorority," Damien said.

"Of hags from hell," Erin said.

"Hey, y'all, I don't think we should prejudice Zoey against them. She might get along okay with them."

"Fuck that. They're hags from hell," Erin said.

"Watch that mouth, Er Bear. You have to eat out of it," Damien said a little primly.

Incredibly relieved that none of them liked Aphrodite, I was just getting ready to ask for more of an explanation when a girl rushed up and, with a big huff, slid herself and her tray into the booth beside Stevie Rae. She was the color of cappuccino (the kind you get from real coffee shops and not the nasty, too-sweet stuff you get from Quick Trip) and all curvy with pouty lips and high cheekbones that made her look like an African princess. She also had some seriously good hair. It was thick and fell in dark, glossy waves around her shoulders. Her eyes were so black they looked like they didn't have any pupils.

"Okay, please! Just please. Did nobody," she stared pointedly at Erin, "think to bother to wake me the hell up and tell me that we were going to dinner?"

"I do believe I'm your roommate, not your mamma," Erin said lazily.

"Do not make me cut that Jessica Simpson look-alike blond hair of yours off in the middle of the night," the African princess said.

"Actually, the consuetudinary way to phrase that would be 'Do not make me cut that Jessica Simpson look-alike blond hair of yours off in the middle of the day.' Technically day is night for us and so night would be day. Time is reversed here."

The black girl narrowed her eyes at him. "Damien, you are getting on my damn last nerve what that vocab shit."

"Shaunee," Stevie Rae broke in hastily. "My roommate finally got here. This is Zoey Redbird. Zoey, this is Erin's roommate, Shaunee Cole."

"Hi," I said through a mouthful of spaghetti when Shaunee turned from glaring at Erin to me.

"So, Zoey, what's up with your Mark being colored in? You're still a fledgling, aren't you?" Everyone at the table was shocked silent by Shaunee's question. She looked around. "What? Do not pretend that every last one of you isn't wondering the same thing."

"We might be, but we also might be polite enough not to ask," Stevie Rae said firmly.

"Oh, please. Whatever." She shrugged off Stevie Rae's protest. "This is too important for that. Everyone wants to know about her Mark. There's no time to play games when good gossip is involved." Shaunee turned back to me. "So, what's up with the weird Mark?"

Might as well face this now. I took a quick drink of tea to clear my throat. All four of them were staring at me, waiting impatiently for my answer.

"Well, I'm still a fledgling. I don't think I'm any different than the rest of you." Then I blurted something that I'd been considering while everyone else had been talking. I mean, I knew that I was going to have to answer this question eventually. I'm not stupid-- confused, maybe, but not stupid--and my gut told me I needed to say something besides the real story about my out-of-body experience with Nyx. "I don't actually know for sure why my Mark is filled in. It wasn't that way when the Tracker first Marked me. But later that day I had an accident. I fell and hit my head. When I woke up the Mark was like it is now. I've been thinking about it, and all I can come up with is that it must have happened as some kind of reaction to my accident. I was unconscious and I lost a lot of blood. Maybe that did something to speed up the darkening- in process. That's my guess, anyway."

"Huh," Shaunee huffed. "I was hoping it'd be somethin' more interesting. Something good and gossipy."

"Sorry...," I muttered.

"Careful, Twin," Erin said to Shaunee, jerking her head at the Dark Daughters. "You're starting to sound like you should sit over at that table."

Shaunee's face twisted. "I wouldn't be caught undead with those bitches."

"You're confusing the crap outta Zoey," Stevie Rae said.

Damien gave a long-suffering sigh. "I'll explain, proving once again how valuable I am to this group, penis or no penis."

"I really wish you wouldn't use the P-word," Stevie Rae said. "Especially when I'm trying to eat."

"I like it," Erin chimed in. "If everyone called things what they are we'd all be a lot less confused. For instance, you know when I have to go to the bathroom I state the obvious--I have urine that needs to come out of my urethra. Simple. Easy. Clear."

"Disgusting. Gross. Crude," Stevie Rae said.

"I'm with you, Twin," Shaunee said. "I mean, if we talked plainly about things like urination and menstruation and such, life would be much simpler."

"Okay. Enough with the menstruation talk while we're eating spaghetti." Damien held up a hand like he could physically stop the conversation. "I may be gay, but there's only so much even I can handle." He leaned toward me and launched into his explanation. "First, Shaunee and Erin call each other Twin because even though they are clearly not related--Erin being an extremely white girl from Tulsa, and Shaunee being of Jamaican descent and a lovely mocha color from Connecticut--"

"Thank you for appreciating my blackness," Shaunee said.

"Don't mention it," Damien said, and then continued smoothly with his explanation. "Even though they aren't related by blood they are freakishly alike."

"It's like they were separated at birth or something," Stevie Rae said.

At the same moment Erin and Shaunee grinned at each other and shrugged. It was then that I noticed they were wearing the same outfit--dark jeans jackets with beautiful golden wings embroidered on the breast pockets, black T-shirts, and low- riding black slacks. They even had on the same earrings--huge gold hoops.

"We have the same shoe size," Erin said, sticking out her foot so we could see that she was wearing pointy-toed black leather stiletto boots.

"And what's a little melanin difference when a truly soul-deep love of shoes is involved?" Lifting up her foot Shaunee showed off another great pair of boots--only these were smooth black leather with sharp silver buckles across the ankles.

"Next!" Damien cut in, rolling his eyes. "The Dark Daughters. The short version is that they're a group made up of mostly upperclassmen who say that they are in charge of school spirit and such."

"No, the short version is that they're hags from hell," Shaunee said.

"That's exactly what I said, Twin," Erin laughed.

"You two aren't helping," Damien told them. "Now, where was I?"

"School spirit and such," I prompted.

"That's right. Yeah, they're supposed to be this great, pro- school, pro-vamp organization. Also, it is assumed that their leader is being groomed to be a High Priestess, so she's supposed to be the heart, mind, and spirit of the school--as well as a future leader in vamp society, et cetera, et cetera, blah, blah. Think National Merit Scholar in charge of the Honor Society mixed with cheerleaders and band fags."

"Hey, isn't it disrespectful to your gayness to call them band fags?" Stevie Rae asked.

"I'm using the word as a term of endearment," Damien said. "And football players--don't forget there are Dark Sons, too," Erin said.

"Uh-huh, Twin. It is truly a crime and a shame that such seriously hot young lads get sucked in--"

"And she does mean that literally," said Erin with a naughty grin.

"By hags from hell," concluded Shaunee.

"Hello! Like I would forget the boys? I just keep getting interrupted."

The three girls gave him apologetic smiles. Stevie Rae pantomimed zipping her lips shut and throwing away the key. Erin and Shaunee mouthed "dork" at her, but they stayed quiet so Damien could finish.

I noticed that they'd played with the word "sucked," making me think that the little scene I'd witnessed hadn't been too unusual.

"But what the Dark Daughters really are is a group of stuck-up bitches who get off on lording power over everyone else. They want everyone to follow them, to conform to their freaky ideas of what it means to become a vamp. Most of all, they hate humans, and if you don't feel the same they don't want shit to do with you."

"Except to give you a hard time," Stevie Rae added. I could tell from her expression that she must have firsthand knowledge about the "hard time" part, and I remembered how pale and scared she'd looked when Aphrodite had shown me to our room. I made a mental note to remember to ask her later about what had happened.

"Don't let them scare you, though," Damien said. "Just watch your back around them and--"

"Hello, Zoey. Nice to see you again so soon."

I didn't have any trouble recognizing her voice this time. I decided it was like honey--slick and too darn sweet. Everyone at the table jumped, including me. She was wearing a sweater like mine, except that over her heart was embroidered the silver silhouette of three goddess-like women, one of them holding what looked like a pair of scissors. She had on a very short pleated black skirt, black tights that had silver sparkles in them, and knee-high black boots. Two girls were standing behind her, dressed in much the same way. One was black, with impossibly long hair (must be a really good weave), and the other was yet another blonde (who, on closer inspection of her brows, was probably, I decided, as much a natural blonde as I am).

"Hello, Aphrodite," I said when everyone else seemed too shocked to speak.

"Hope I'm not interrupting anything," she said insincerely. "You're not. We were just discussing the trash that needs to be taken out tonight," Erin said with a big, fake smile.

"Well, you would certainly know about that," she said with a sneer, and then purposefully turned her back on Erin, who was curling her fists and looking as if she might leap over the table at Aphrodite. "Zoey, I should have said something to you earlier, but I guess it just slipped my mind. I want to issue an invitation for you to join the Dark Daughters in our own private Full Moon Ritual tomorrow night. I know it's unusual for someone who hasn't been here long to take part in a ritual so soon, but your Mark has clearly shown that you're, well, different than the average fledgling." She looked down her perfect nose at Stevie Rae. "I've already mentioned it to Neferet, and she agrees that it would be good for you to join us. I'll give you the details later, when you're not so busy with...uh...trash." She gave the rest of the table her tight- lipped, sarcastic smile, flipped her long hair, and she and her entourage flitted off.

"Hag bitches from hell," Shaunee and Erin said together.



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