CHAPTER 21

Zoey

The ride back to the House of Night was slow and weird and awkward.

It was slow because even with Shaunee and me directing fire to warm the hooves of the horses so that we could trot down Twenty-first Street and take a left at the Utica Street light (which was totally dark), it was still a slick, frigid, difficult trek.

It was weird because everything was so darn dark. Here’s what happens when your city loses light: it doesn’t look right. It sounds simplistic, especially coming from a kid who is supposed to be one of the children of the night or whatnot, but the world doesn’t look the same when the lights go out.

And it was awkward because Shaunee and Erin kept throwing looks at me like they thought I was a bomb that might explode. Johnny B and Kramisha hardly talked to me at all, and Stark, who was sitting behind me on my amazing mare, Persephone, wouldn’t so much as rest his hands on my waist.

Me? I just wanted to go home.

Darius drove the Hummer behind us at I’m sure what must have felt like a crawl to him, even though the three horses were managing a steady trot. The red fledglings, led by Stevie Rae and Erik, followed the Hummer. Except for the car and the hooves of the horses, the night was as silent as it was dark, though once in a while, creepily, a branch would give up under its icy weight and, with a terrible crack! a tree would break.

We’d turned left on Utica before I said anything.

“So are you just not going to ever talk to me again?” I asked Stark.

“I’ll talk to you,” he said.

“Why does it seem like there should be a ‘but’ at the end of that sentence?”

He hesitated and I could practically feel the tension that radiated off him. Finally he let out a long breath and said, “I don’t know whether to be pissed at you, or to say I’m sorry for the messed-up shit that happened in the cafeteria.”

“Well, the cafeteria wasn’t your fault. Or at least most of it wasn’t.”

“Yeah, see, I know that, but I also know your feelings were hurt by the whole Erik thing.”

I didn’t know what to say to that, so we rode on in silence for a while until Stark cleared his throat and said, “You were pretty hard on everyone back there.”

“I had to shut up the bickering, and that seemed like the quickest way.”

“Next time you could try saying something like, ‘Guys, shut up your bickering!’ I dunno, maybe it’s just me, but that makes more sense than freaking on your friends.”

I stifled the urge to snap back and say I’d like to see him do any better. Instead I thought about what he’d said. He might be right. I didn’t feel comfortable with the fact that I’d snapped at everyone—especially since a bunch of the “everyones” were my friends.

“I’ll try to do better next time,” I finally said.

Stark didn’t gloat. He didn’t turn all tough-guy—like and patronize me, either. He just rested his hands on my shoulders, squeezed, and said, “The fact that you actually listen to other people is one of the things I like best about you.”

I could feel my cheeks get warm at his unexpected compliment. “Thanks,” I said softly. I ran my fingers through Persephone’s cold, wet mane, liking how her ears twitched back in response. “You’re a really good girl,” I crooned to her.

“Thought you mighta noticed by now that I’m not a girl,” Stark said with a cocky smile in his voice.

“I noticed.” I laughed and the tension between us evaporated. The Twins, Johnny B, and Kramisha looked our way with tentative smiles.

“So, uh, you and I are okay?” I asked him.

“You and I will always be okay. I’m your Warrior, your protector. No matter what else is going on, I’ll have your back.”

When my throat cleared enough for me to speak, I said, “Being my Warrior might not always be an easy job.”

He laughed, full and loud and long. He also slid his arms around my waist and said, “Zoey, sometimes being your Warrior will suck royally.”

I was going to mention that, just perhaps, his mom sucked royally, but his arms were warm around me and his touch was soothing. So I grumbled something about him being full of bullpoopie, and let myself relax back against him.

“You know,” he said. “If you could forget all the craziness the storm is causing, and the whole Kalona-Neferet mess, the ice really does look cool. It’s almost like it’s taken us out of the real world and transported us to a weird winter land. Like someplace the White Witch would really like.”

“Oooh, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe! That was a great movie.”

He cleared his throat. “I didn’t see it.”

“You didn’t see it?” My eyes widened and I glanced over my shoulder at him. “You read the book?”

“Books,” he said, putting special emphasis on the plural. “C. S. Lewis wrote way more than one Narnia book.”

“You read?”

“I read,” he said.

“Huh,” I said, feeling befuddled (as Grandma would have said).

“What’s wrong with that? Reading’s good,” he said defensively.

“I know! It’s cool you read. Actually it’s hot that you read.” And it was. I loved it when cute guys showed they had brains.

“Really? Well, you’d definitely be interested in the fact that I just read To Kill a Mockingbird.

I smiled and elbowed him. “Everyone’s read that.”

“I’ve read it five times.”

“Nu-uh.”

“Yep. I can quote parts of it.”

“That’s bullpoopie.”

And then Stark, my big, bad, macho Warrior, raised his voice, put on a little girl’s Southern drawl, and said, “ ‘Uncle Jack? What’s a whore-lady?’”

“I do not think that’s the most important quote from that book,” I said, but laughed anyway.

“Okay, how about: ‘Ain’t no snot-nosed slut of a schoolteacher ever born c’n make me do nothin’!’ That one’s really my favorite.”

“You got a twisted mind, James Stark.” I was smiling and feeling warm and happy when we turned into the long driveway that led to the House of Night. I was just thinking how magical it looked, all lit up and welcoming, when I noticed there was more light than usual coming from the school’s backup generators and old-fashioned oil lanterns. Then I realized the light wasn’t coming from any of the school buildings. Instead it was flickering from an area between Nyx’s Temple and the school proper.

I felt Stark tense instantly.

“What is that?” I asked.

“Stop the horses,” he said.

“Whoa.” I pulled Persephone to a halt, calling for Shaunee and Johnny B to stop their horses, too. “What’s going on?”

“Keep your eyes open. Be ready to ride back to the abbey. Go and go quickly if I tell you to. And don’t wait for me!” was all Stark said before he slid off Persephone and sprinted behind us to the Hummer.

I twisted around and could see that Darius was already getting out of the Hummer as Heath took his place behind the driver’s wheel. The two warriors talked briefly, and then Darius called Erik and all the male red fledglings to him, plus Stevie Rae. I was just getting ready to head Persephone over to the Hummer when Stark jogged back to me.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Something’s on fire inside the school grounds.”

“Can you tell what it’s from?” I asked Shaunee.

“Don’t know,” Shaunee said, wrinkling her forehead in concentration. “But it feels sacred.”

Sacred? What the hell?

Stark took Persephone’s bridle to get my attention. “Look under the trees.”

I looked to my right, to the row of Bradford pear trees that lined the lane leading to the House of Night. There were things under them—shadows within shadows of crumpled forms. My stomach felt sick when I realized what I was seeing.

“Raven Mockers,” I said.

“They’s dead,” Kramisha said.

“We have to check. We have to know for sure,” Stevie Rae said. She had stepped up with the red fledgling males and Erik.

“That we will,” Darius said. Then, pulling a knife for each of his hands from inside his leather jacket, he told Stark, “Stay with Zoey.” Nodding to Stevie Rae and Erik to follow him, he started toward the trees.

It didn’t take long.

“Dead,” he called, after pausing by each one.

When the group rejoined us, I couldn’t help but notice how white Stevie Rae’s face looked.

“You okay?” I asked her.

She looked up at me, her eyes more than a little startled. “Yeah,” she said quickly. “Fine. It’s just…” Her voice trailed off and her gaze went back to the grisly lumps under the trees.

“It’s ’cause they smell bad.” Kramisha said. We all looked at her. “Well, it’s true. Them Raven Mockers have something nasty in they blood.”

“Their blood does smell wrong. I know because I had to clean it up from where Darius had shot some of them down from the sky back at the abbey,” Stevie Rae spoke quickly, like the subject made her uncomfortable.

“That’s what I smelled on you!” I was relieved I’d finally identified the odd scent.

“Everyone needs to focus on the here and now,” Darius said. “We don’t know what’s happening in there.” He motioned toward the school grounds and the flickering flames that were illuminating its heart.

“What is that? Is the school really on fire?” Stevie Rae spoke our thoughts aloud.

“I can tell you what it is.” The voice startled all of us except the three horses we rode, which should have clued me in instantly to who was standing in the shadows on the field house side of the lane. “It is a funeral pyre,” said Lenobia, Professor of Equestrian Studies, and one of the few adult vamps who had stood by us after Kalona and Neferet had taken over the school.

She went straight to the horses, greeting them, checking them, and generally ignoring us until she was sure they were okay. Finally, looking up from caressing Persephone’s muzzle she said, “Merry meet, Zoey.”

“Merry meet,” I responded automatically.

“Did you kill him?”

I shook my head. “We chased him away. Kramisha’s poem was right. When the five of us joined, we were able to banish him with love. But whose—”

“Is Neferet dead or just fled with him?” she interrupted my question.

“Fled. Whose funeral is the pyre for?” I couldn’t wait any longer to ask.

Lenobia’s beautiful blue-gray eyes met mine. “Anastasia Lankford lost her life. The last act Kalona’s favorite son, Rephaim, did before he called his brothers with him to follow you to the abbey was to slit her throat.”

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