CHAPTER 24

Zoey

“No, I do not need a bed in the infirmary,” I repeated for the third time to Stark, who kept hovering around me looking way too worried. “And there are no extra beds here anyway.”

“Hey, I’m feeling lots better,” Denio called. “You can have my bed, Z.”

“Thanks, but no thanks,” I told her. And then I stuck my hand out to Stark. “Just help me stand up, would ya?”

He frowned dubiously at me, but helped me up. I stood very still so that no one was aware that the room was spinning like a crazy mini-tornado around me.

“I think she looks worse than I feel,” said Drew from his pallet on the floor.

She can hear you,” I said. “And I’m fine.” I let my slightly blurry vision wander from wounded kid to wounded kid. They were all looking better, which gave me a great sense of relief. I checked “be sure the hurt kids aren’t writhing in pain and dying horribly” off my mental to-do list. Time for the next list item. I stifled a sigh because I didn’t want to waste the oxygen. “Okay, things are better here. So, Stevie Rae, we need to figure out where the red fledglings will be staying when the sun comes up before the sun comes up.”

“Good idea, Z,” said Stevie Rae, who was sitting on the floor next to Drew. I remembered then that she’d had kind of a thing for the kid before she’d died and un-died, and I acknowledged to myself that seeing her flirting with him, when I thought she probably had a thing for that red fledgling kid named Dallas, gave me a little moment of selfish glee. It might be borderline mean of me, but it would sure be nice if my BFF and I could talk about how to juggle multiple-guy problems.

“Z? Do ya think that’s a good idea?”

“Oh, sorry, what?” I realized Stevie Rae had been talking away at me while I’d been hoping she’d accumulate a zillion (or at least two) boyfriends.

“I said the red fledglings could stay in empty dorm rooms. There should be enough, even if they have to sleep three to a room. We could be sure their windows are covered. It’s not as good as being underground, but it’ll do, at least until this stupid ice storm stops and we can figure something else out.”

“Okay, then let’s get that going. And while the room situation is being fixed, we”—I enunciated the word carefully, taking in my circle plus Aphrodite, Darius, and Stark—“need to have a talk with Lenobia.”

My gang nodded, everyone apparently clued in to the fact that we needed to quickly be brought up to speed on what had happened at the House of Night while we were gone.

“You guys are all going to be okay,” I told the hurt kids as my gang said their goodbyes and we started straggling toward the exit.

“Hey, thanks, Zoey,” Drew called.

“You really are a good High Priestess—even if you’re not really one yet,” Ian yelled from his room.

I wasn’t sure his lopsided compliment required a thanks or not, and as I was standing in the entrance to the infirmary, looking back at the kids and thinking that, except for the fact that they’d just battled Raven Mockers and witnessed the murder of a professor, they all seemed so normal.

Then it hit me. They seemed normal. Just the day before, almost everybody at the school, with the exception of my group, Lenobia, Dragon, and Anastasia, had fallen under the charismatic spell of Kalona and Neferet, and hadn’t acted normal at all.

I walked back into the infirmary hallway. “I have a question for all of you guys. It may sound weird, but I really need honest answers, even if that might be embarrassing.”

Drew grinned over my shoulder, where I was sure my BFF was standing, “Ask me anything you want, Z. Any friend of Stevie Rae’s is cool by me.”

“Uh, thanks, Drew.” I managed not to roll my eyes at him. “This question is for all of you, though. Here’s the thing: Did you guys think there was anything wrong with the Raven Mockers, or even Kalona and Neferet, before Professor Anastasia was attacked?”

Not surprisingly, Drew answered first. “I didn’t trust the winged guy, but I didn’t know why.” He shrugged. “I dunno, maybe because he had wings. It’s just too weird.”

“I thought he was hot, but those man-bird sons of his were super-disgusting,” said Hanna Honeyyeager.

“Yeah, the Raven Mockers were gross, but also Kalona was old, and I couldn’t figure out how come so many fledgling girls had a thing for him,” said Red. “I mean, George Clooney’s hot and all, but he’s too old, and I wouldn’t want to, like, do him. So I didn’t get why practically everyone else wanted to do Kalona.”

“How about the rest of you?” I asked the rest of them.

“Like you said before, Kalona exploded from the ground. That’s just bizarre.” Denio paused, looked at Aphrodite, and then continued. “Plus, some of us have known for a while that Neferet wasn’t everything she seemed to be.”

“Yeah, you knew it, but you didn’t do anything about it.” Aphrodite’s voice wasn’t hateful or pissed. She was just making a statement, an awful but true statement.

Denio lifted her chin. “I did do something about it.” She gestured at her bandaged arm. “It was just too late.”

“Nothing’s felt right to me since Professor Nolan was killed,” Ian said from his room. “The stuff with Kalona and the Raven Mockers was more of that same feeling.”

“I saw what he was doing to my friends,” T.J. called from the last room down the hall. “They were like zombies and believed anything he said. When I tried to talk to them about anything, like asking how we could be sure he was really Erebus come to earth, they’d get pissed or laugh at me. I didn’t like him from the very beginning. And those damn bird things were evil. I don’t know why everyone couldn’t see it.”

“Neither do I, but that’s something we’re going to figure out,” I said. “Right now y’all don’t worry about any of this. Kalona is gone, and so’s Neferet and the Raven Mockers. Just get well. Okay?”

“Okay!” they yelled back at me, sounding way healthier than they had when we first saw them.

On the other hand, channeling all five elements had me feeling like poo, and I was glad Stark grabbed my elbow and lent me his strength as we left the building. Unbelievably, the ice and rain had stopped. The clouds that had blanketed the sky for days actually had breaks in them through which I glimpsed sections of a starry night. My gaze moved to the center of the school grounds. The fire that had completely consumed Anastasia’s pyre was beginning to die, though Dragon was still on his knees in front of it; Lenobia stood beside him, one hand resting on his shoulder. The circle made of red fledglings, plus Erik, Heath, and Jack, stretched all the way around the smoldering funeral pyre. They stood quietly, bearing witness to their respect for Dragon and his beloved.

I motioned for my group to follow me a little way into the shadows and huddle up. “We gotta talk, but we don’t need to do that with an audience. Stevie Rae, can you delegate getting rooms ready for your kids to someone?”

“Sure, Kramisha is so organized she’s almost OCD. Plus, she was a sixth-former when she died and un-died. She knows all sorts of stuff about this place.”

“Good. Put her on it.” I turned to Darius. “The bodies of the Raven Mockers have to be gotten rid of—now. If we’re lucky, this storm is finally clearing, which means humans are going to start to stir as soon as it’s light. They can’t find those creatures.”

“I’ll take care of it,” Darius said. “I’ll get the red fledgling males to help me.”

“What are you going to do with the bodies?” Stevie Rae asked.

“Burn them,” Shaunee answered, then she looked at me. “If that’s okay with you.”

“It’s perfect,” I said. “Just don’t burn them anywhere around Anastasia’s pyre. That would be too much for Dragon to handle.”

“Burn them at the east wall. Right where their disgusting father exploded from the earth.” Aphrodite’s gaze went to Shaunee. “The old oak that broke apart when Kalona escaped, can you make it burn?”

“I can make anything burn,” Shaunee said.

“Go with Darius and the guys then, and make sure every feather of those creatures is burned beyond anyone’s recognition. Then the two of you meet the rest of us in my room. Agreed?”

“Agreed,” Darius and Shaunee said together.

I thought it was weird that Erin hadn’t said anything to her Twin, but as Shaunee started to follow Darius over to the circling red fledglings, she called, “I’ll fill you in on anything you miss, Twin.”

“Of course you will, Twin,” Shaunee said, smiling over her shoulder at Erin.

“Okay, we really need Lenobia with us.” I looked over to where the Horse Mistress stood beside Dragon. “But I don’t know how to pull her away from that.”

“Just tell him,” Damien said.

I gave him my question mark look.

“Dragon understands how dangerous Kalona and Neferet are. He’ll understand that we need Lenobia.” Damien’s gaze went over to the vampyre, who was still on his knees. “He’s going to stay there and grieve until he feels right leaving. We can’t change that or hurry him up. So just tell him we need Lenobia.”

“You’re a smart kid, you know it?” I said.

“Affirmative,” he said with a smile.

“All right.” I drew a long, weary breath. “Stevie Rae—explain to Kramisha what she needs to do. The rest of you guys can meet in my room. I’ll be there as soon as I get Lenobia.”

“Z, I’m going to tell Jack to help Kramisha,” Damien said.

I raised my brows at him.

“Your room’s only so big. Plus, I can fill him in on stuff later. Right now we need to get our heads on straight.”

I nodded and started trudging toward Lenobia and Dragon. Around me I could see Darius and Stevie Rae pulling kids aside and speaking quietly to them. Damien petted Duchess’s head while he talked to his boyfriend.

Through it all Stark stayed by my side. I didn’t have to look for him. I could feel him. I knew if I stumbled, he would make sure I didn’t fall. I also knew he understood better than anyone else exactly how much channeling the elements in the infirmary had taken from me.

As if reading my mind, he whispered, “You’ll be able to sit down soon. And I’ll find something for you to eat and drink.”

“Thank you,” I whispered back. He took my hand and together we went to Lenobia and Dragon. The cats were quiet, though both were pressed against Dragon’s body. His bruised and battered face was wet with tears, but he’d stopped crying.

“Dragon, I need Lenobia to come with me for a little while. I don’t want to leave you here alone, but I really do need to talk to her.”

He looked up at me. I thought I’d never seen anyone so sad.

“I won’t be alone. Shadowfax and Guinevere will be with me, and our Goddess will be with me,” he said. His gaze returned to the pyre. “I’m not ready to leave Anastasia yet.”

Lenobia squeezed his shoulder. “I will return soon, my friend,” she said.

“I will be here,” Dragon said.

“I’ll wait with Dragon. Kramisha doesn’t really need me. She already has enough fledglings to boss around,” Jack said to me. He and Damien had joined us. Duchess stopped several feet away and was lying on the grass with her nose on her paws. The cats paid no attention to her. “I’d like to stay with you, that is, if you don’t mind,” he finished, speaking to Dragon nervously.

“Thank you, Jack,” Dragon said, his voice catching on a sob.

Jack nodded, wiped his eyes and, without saying anything else, sat next to Dragon and began gently petting Shadowfax.

“Well done you,” I said softly to Jack.

“I’m proud of you,” Damien whispered to Jack and kissed him gently on the cheek, which made Jack smile through his tears.

“Okay,” I said. “Let’s meet in my room.”

“Lenobia, Zoey has to take a detour through the kitchen,” Stark said abruptly. “She and I will meet you in the dorm as soon as possible.”

Lenobia nodded absently, already walking toward the dorms with Damien, Erin, and Aphrodite.

“Why are—,” I started, but Stark cut me off.

“Just trust me. This is what you need.”

He took my elbow and guided me toward the center of the school building where the entry hall led to the cafeteria. We were almost to the doors when he said, “Go on in to the cafeteria. I gotta grab something and then I’ll be right with you.”

Too tired to question him, I went in. It was weird how deserted everything was. The lobby was lit by half the gaslights that usually blazed at this time of night. I glanced up at a clock. It was a little past midnight. School should be going on. There should be fledglings and vamp professors all over. I wished the place was packed. I wished I could turn back time and make the past two months disappear so I could go back to worrying about Aphrodite being a mean girl and Erik being an untouchable hottie.

I wanted to go back to a time when I didn’t know anything about Kalona or A-ya or death and destruction. I wanted normal. I wanted it so bad I felt sick.

I walked slowly into the cafeteria, which was also completely empty, and darker than the hallway had been. There were no yummy food smells, no clusters of kids gossiping about other kids, no professors giving dirty looks to kids sneaking Doritos.

I stumbled over to the picnic bench—like booth I usually shared with my friends and let my knees give out, sitting heavily on the well-polished wood. Why had Stark told me to come in here? Was he going to attempt to cook for me? For a second the vision of him with an apron tied around his waist was almost funny. Then I realized why he’d pushed me to come in here. One of the fridges in the massive school kitchen was kept filled with baggies of human blood. At that moment he was probably grabbing several bags o’ blood and would bring them for me to drink like thick red juice boxes.

Okay, I know it’s gross, but the thought made my mouth water.

Stark was right. I had to recharge, and a bag o’ blood (or two) would be a good way to do that.

“Zo! There you are! Stark said you’d be in here.”

I blinked in surprise and turned to see Heath walking into the cafeteria—alone.

And I suddenly understood that I’d only been partially right. Stark had gone to get me blood, but instead of it coming from the side-by-side, stainless steel kitchen refrigerators, my blood was coming from the cutie football player Heath.

Ah, hell.

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