CHAPTER 22

Zoey

I heard Stevie Rae’s horrified gasp echoed by everyone surrounding us, but Darius didn’t hesitate. “Are there any Raven Mockers left alive here?”

“None. May their souls rot eternally in the deepest depths of the Otherworld,” Lenobia said bitterly.

“Did anyone else die?” I asked.

“No, though there are several wounded. They’ve filled the infirmary. Neferet was our only real healer, and now that she…” Lenobia’s voice trailed off.

“Then Zoey needs to get to the wounded,” Stark said.

Lenobia and I wrinkled our foreheads questioningly at him.

“Me? But I’m—”

“You’re the closest thing we have to a High Priestess. If there are hurt fledglings and vampyres at the House of Night, they need their High Priestess,” Stark said simply.

“Especially if she has an affinity for spirit. You could definitely help soothe the wounded,” Darius added.

“You are correct, of course,” Lenobia said, brushing her long white-blond hair back from her face. “I’m sorry. Stasia’s death has taken a toll on me. I’m not thinking clearly.” She smiled at me, but it was really more of a grimace of upturned lips than a true smile. “Your help is welcome and needed, Zoey.”

“I’ll do whatever I can.” I put pretend confidence in my voice, but the truth was, just the thought of hurt people was making my stomach sick.

“We’ll all help out.” Stevie Rae spoke up. “If one affinity can help, maybe five can help times five.”

“Perhaps,” Lenobia said, still looking defeated and sad.

“It’ll bring hope back in.”

I glanced down in surprise to see Aphrodite move to Darius’s side and wrap her arm through his. Lenobia gave her a skeptical look. “I think you’ll see things have changed at the House of Night, Aphrodite.”

“That’s okay. We’re getting good with change,” Aphrodite said.

“Yeah, change is almost our same,” Kramisha said. Several of the other kids made sounds of agreement.

I was so proud of them I almost burst into tears.

“I think we’re all ready to be home,” I said.

“Home.” Lenobia repeated the word in a sad, soft voice. “Then follow me into what home has become.” She turned, made a clucking sound, and, as one, the three horses followed her without any direction from us.

From the main entrance of the school we moved through the parking lot, which was where Darius motioned for Heath to park the Hummer, and we all paused to dismount and regroup. The edge of the professor’s building and the infirmary blocked our view of the center of the school grounds so, eerily, all we could see were the dancing shadows made by the flames.

Except for the crackling of fire consuming wood, the school was absolutely silent.

“It’s bad,” Shaunee said softly.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I can feel sadness through the flames. It’s bad,” she repeated.

“Shaunee is correct,” Lenobia said. “I’ll take the horses to the stable. Do you want to come with me, or would you rather…” Her voice faded as her gaze was drawn to the flickering shadows the firelight cast against the boughs of the ancient oaks that grew throughout the center of the school grounds.

“We’ll go in there,” I said, motioning toward the heart of the school. “Might as well face it.”

“I’ll follow as soon as the horses are cared for,” Lenobia said. She disappeared into the darkness with the horses at her heels.

Stark’s hand was warm and steady on my shoulder. “Remember, Kalona is gone, and so is Neferet. That leaves fledglings and vamps for you to handle, which should be simple after what you’ve gone through,” he said.

Heath stepped up to flank my other side. “He’s right. Even dealing with hurt fledglings and vamps isn’t as bad as Neferet and Kalona.”

“It is our home, no matter what has happened,” said Darius.

“Yeah, home. It’s about time we took it back,” Aphrodite said.

“Let’s see what kind of mess Neferet left for us,” I said abruptly. I stepped away from Stark and Heath, leading everyone to the sidewalk that went around the pretty fountain and garden area outside the professors’ entrance and the castle-like round wooden doors, beside the turret that was really a media center. Finally, the central grounds of the school came into view.

“Oh, Goddess!” Aphrodite gasped.

My feet stopped without me consciously telling them to. The scene was just so awful that I couldn’t make myself move forward. The funeral pyre was an enormous mound of firewood that had been placed under and around a wooden picnic bench. I knew it was a picnic bench because even though it was burning, the structure was still completely recognizable, as was the body that lay on top of the table. Professor Anastasia, the beautiful wife of our Fencing Master, Dragon Lankford, had been dressed in something long and flowing and covered by a white linen shroud. Horribly, her body could still be seen through it. Her arms were crossed over her chest and her long hair fell toward the ground, lifting and crackling in the fire.

A terrible noise, like a heartbroken child’s cry, pierced the night, and my gaze, which had been fixed on the grisly pyre, shifted to a place near the head of the bench. Dragon Lankford was there on his knees. His head was bowed and his long hair swept forward, though it didn’t hide the fact that he was weeping. Beside him a huge cat I recognized as Shadowfax, his Maine Coon, leaned into him, staring up into his face. In his arms was a delicate white cat who was yowling and struggling to get free, apparently willing to hurl herself onto the pyre with her vampyre.

“Guinevere,” I whispered. “That’s Anastasia’s cat.” I pressed my hand to my mouth, trying to hold in the sob that was building there.

Shaunee stepped quickly away from us and walked over to the pyre, standing way closer than any of us could have. At the same time, Erin moved to Dragon’s side. As Shaunee raised her arms and called loudly, “Fire! Come to me!” I heard Erin’s softer voice asking water to join her. While the pyre and the body were suddenly engulfed in camouflaging flames, Dragon was surrounded by a cool mist that reminded me of tears.

Damien moved close to Erin. “Wind, come to me,” he said. I watched him direct a soft breeze to blow away the terrible smell of burning flesh.

Stevie Rae joined Damien. “Earth, come to me,” she said. Instantly the breeze that had blown away the scent of death was filled with the delicate sweetness of a meadow, bringing to mind images of springtime, growing things, and the verdant meadows of our Goddess.

I knew my part was next. Filled with sadness I walked to Dragon and gently put one hand on his shoulder, which shook with his sobs. I raised my other hand and said, “Spirit, come to me.” When I felt the beautiful rush that was the element answering my call, I continued, “Touch Dragon, spirit. Soothe him and Guinevere and Shadowfax. Help their grief to be bearable.” Then I concentrated on directing spirit through me, into Dragon and the two devastated cats. Guinevere stopped yowling. I felt Dragon’s body jerk and slowly his head raised and his eyes met mine. His face was terribly scratched, and there was a deep gash over his left eye. I remembered that last time I’d seen him he had been battling three Raven Mockers. “Blessed be, Dragon,” I said softly.

“How will it ever be bearable, Priestess?” His voice was rough. He sounded completely broken.

I felt an instant of panic—an instant of I’m seventeen! I can’t possibly help him! Then, like a perfect circle, spirit spiraled from Dragon, through me, and into the Fencing Master again, and I pulled strength from my element. “You’ll see her again. She’s with Nyx now. She’ll either wait for you in the Goddess’s meadows, or she’ll be reborn and her soul will find you again during this lifetime. You can bear it because you know that spirit never really ends—we never really end.”

His eyes searched mine, and I held his gaze steadily. “Did you defeat them? Are the creatures gone?”

“Kalona and Neferet are gone. So are the Raven Mockers,” I assured him.

“Good… good…” Dragon bowed his head and I heard him praying softly to Nyx, asking the Goddess to look after his beloved until they met again.

I squeezed his shoulder once and then, feeling like an intruder, stepped away to allow him some privacy for his grief.

“Blessed be, Priestess,” he said without lifting his head.

I probably should have said something mature and wise in response, but just then I was so filled with emotion I couldn’t talk. Stevie Rae was suddenly there beside me, Damien next to her. Erin moved away from Dragon to stand at my other side, and Shaunee stepped into the space beside her. We stood there silently, respectfully, a circle un-cast but present as Shaunee’s magickally enhanced fire took the last of Anastasia’s physical shell.

The silence that surrounded us was broken only by the sounds of flames and Dragon’s murmured prayers. Which was when a new thought struck me. I glanced around the pyre. Dragon had placed it in the middle of the paved drive that circled between Nyx’s Temple and the main school buildings. It was a good choice—there was plenty of room for the fire. There was also plenty of room for the other professors and fledglings who should have been there, standing beside Dragon and sending prayers to Nyx for Anastasia, as well as her mate, not intruding on his grief, but bearing silent witness that they loved and supported him.

“No one’s out here with him,” I said quietly, not wanting Dragon to hear the disgust in my voice. “Where the hell is everyone?”

“He shouldn’t be out here alone,” Stevie Rae said, wiping tears from her face. “It’s just not right.”

“I was with him until I felt the horses approaching,” Lenobia said, jogging up to join us.

“What about everyone else?” I asked.

She shook her head, the disgust I felt was mirrored in her expression. “The fledglings are in the dorms. The professors are in their rooms. Anyone else is in the infirmary—anyone else who would have cared to stand with him, that is.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.” I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. “How could his students and the professors not care to stand with him?”

“Kalona and Neferet might be gone, but their poison remains,” Lenobia said cryptically.

“You need to be in the infirmary,” Aphrodite said, coming up behind us. I noticed she kept her gaze from moving to the pyre or Dragon.

“Go,” Lenobia said. “I’ll remain here with him.”

“So will we,” Johnny B said. “He was my favorite professor before, you know.”

I did know. Johnny B meant before he’d died and then un-died.

“We’ll all stay with him,” Kramisha said. “It ain’t right that he’s alone, and you and your circle’s got business to take care of in there.” She turned her eyes to the infirmary part of the school building. “Come on,” she called, and the rest of the red fledglings stepped out of the shadows to take places beside Dragon, creating a circle around the pyre.

“I’ll stay, too,” Jack said. He was crying steadily, but he didn’t hesitate to take his place in the circle the red fledglings were making. Duchess stayed close beside him, her tail and ears down as if she truly understood. Without saying anything, Erik stepped beside Jack. Then Heath surprised me by filling the space next to Erik. He nodded at me solemnly before bowing his head.

I wasn’t sure of my voice, so I simply turned and, with my circle following me, along with Aphrodite, Stark, and Darius, we reentered the House of Night.

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