CHAPTER 27

Zoey

“Do you want a brown pop, too?” I called over my shoulder to Stark, who was waiting impatiently for me out in the very silent, very weird main room of the dorm. I say weird because it was silent, even though there were a bunch of fledglings, girls and guys, sitting in the clusters of chairs staring at the flat-screen TVs. Seriously. They just sat and stared. No talking. No laughing. Nothing. They did look up when Stark and I walked into the room. Actually, I was semi-sure some of the kids sent us hateful glares, but they still didn’t say anything.

“No, I’m fine. Just grab your pop and let’s get upstairs,” he said, already walking toward the stairway.

“Okay, okay. I’m coming. I just—” And I ran smack into a kid named Becca. “Jeesh, sorry!” I said, stepping back. “I didn’t see you ’cause I was—”

“Yeah, I know what you were doing. What you’re always doing. You were checking out a guy.”

I frowned. I didn’t know Becca very well. Except that she’d had a big crush on Erik. Oh, and I’d caught Stark biting and practically raping her—before he’d chosen good and sworn himself as my Warrior. Of course, Becca hadn’t remembered the raping part. She’d only remembered the biting pleasure part, again thanks to the jerk Stark used to be.

Still, that didn’t give her permission to pop this ridiculous attitude on me. But I didn’t have time to get things right with her and, honestly, I didn’t really care that she was a big, festering pile of I’m-jealous-of-Zoey. So I just made one of Aphrodite’s unattractive snorting noises and walked around her and over to a fridge, opened it, and started my quest for brown pop.

“You did this, didn’t you? You messed up everything.”

I sighed. I found my can of brown pop and turned around. “If you mean, did I get rid of Kalona, who is not Erebus come to earth but really an evil fallen immortal, and chase away Neferet, who is not Nyx’s High Priestess anymore but really an evil Tsi Sgili who wants to take over the world, then yes. Yes, with the help of some friends I did that.”

“Why do you think you know everything?”

“I definitely don’t know everything. If I did, I’d know why you still can’t see that Kalona and Neferet and the Raven Mockers are evil, even after they killed Professor Anastasia.”

“The Raven Mocker only killed her because you pissed them off by running away and then fighting Kalona, who a bunch of us think really is Erebus.”

“Get a clue, Becca. Kalona isn’t Erebus. He’s the Raven Mockers’ dad. He created them by raping Cherokee women. Erebus wouldn’t do that. Has that occurred to the whole bunch of you?”

She acted like she hadn’t heard a word I’d said. “Everything was fine when you were gone. Now you’re back and everything’s screwed up again. I wish you would just leave for good and let the rest of us do what we want to do.”

“The rest of you? You mean like the kids in the infirmary who were almost killed by your winged friends. Or do you mean Dragon, who is out there mourning the death of his wife by himself?”

“That only happened because of you. No one was attacked before you took off.”

“Seriously, are you not hearing a word I’m saying?”

“Hey, Becca.” Stark was standing in the doorway to the kitchen, just behind Becca.

She turned her head, tossed her hair, and gave him a flirty smile. “Hey there, Stark.”

“Erik’s free meat,” he said bluntly.

She blinked and looked a little confused.

“He and Zoey broke up,” he added.

“Oh, really?” She tried to sound nonchalant, but her body language gave away her pleasure. She glanced back at me. “It’s about time he dumped you.”

“Other way around, you… you… bitch!” I blurted.

Becca actually took a step toward me, raising her hand like she was going to try to hit me, which shocked me so badly that I didn’t even think about calling one of the elements to smack her down. Thankfully, Stark wasn’t so shocked, and he stepped quickly between us.

“Becca, I’ve done enough bad to you. Don’t make me toss you out of here. Just walk away,” he said, looking very warriorlike and dangerous.

Becca backed down instantly. “Oh, whatever. Like I care enough about her to mess up my nails?” She spun around and huffed out.

I opened my pop and took a long drink before saying, “Well, that was really disturbing.”

“Yeah, I must be losing it. The real me would never stop a good girl fight.”

I rolled my eyes at him. “You’re such a guy. Come on, let’s get upstairs where there’s less crazy.”

We walked out of the kitchen and had to go through the main dorm room to get to the stairs, which meant jumping back into a whole bunch of crazy. Becca was all whispery with the biggest cluster of kids, though she stopped talking to give me the stank eye, which was the same stank-eye-kill-you-dead that all the other kids were giving me, too.

I picked up the pace and practically vaulted up the stairs.

“Okay, that’s freaky,” Stark said as we hurried to my dorm room.

I just nodded. It was hard for me to find the words to describe how it felt to me that almost everyone at my school, my home, obviously hated my guts. Opening the door to my room, I was instantly assaulted by an orange ball of fur that hurled herself into my arms as she “mee-uf-owed” like a disgruntled old woman.

“Nala!” I ignored her annoyance and kissed her on the nose, which made her sneeze in my face. I laughed and juggled my brown pop to my other hand so I didn’t spill it or my cat. “I’ve missed you, little girl.” I pressed my face into her soft fur, which stopped her complaining and started her purr machine.

“When you’re done making out with your cat, we have stuff to discuss—important stuff,” Aphrodite said.

“Oh, don’t be so odious,” Damien told her.

“Ode this, Damien.” Aphrodite made a rude gesture at him.

“Stop it!” Lenobia spoke before I could tell them to be quiet. “The body of my good friend is still smoldering out there and I don’t feel like listening to teenage bickering.”

Aphrodite and Damien actually muttered apologies and looked uncomfortable, which I decided was an excellent cue for me to start talking. “Okay, so, every single one of those kids down there is hating my guts.”

“Really? They were just being Stepfords when we came in,” Damien said.

“Really,” Stark said. “I almost had to pull that Becca girl off Zoey.”

I could see by the looks on Aphrodite and Damien’s faces that they were remembering Stark’s not-so-nice past. Neither of them said anything.

“That doesn’t surprise me,” Lenobia said.

I looked at the Horse Mistress. “What is going on? Kalona’s gone. Way gone. Like I don’t even think he’s in the country anymore. How can he still be affecting fledglings?”

“And vampyres,” Damien added. “No other professor except for you came out to be with Dragon. That means the rest of them are still under Kalona’s influence, too.”

“Or they’re simply allowing fear to defeat them.” Lenobia said. “It’s hard to tell whether they’re afraid, or whether the demon began something within them that is still at work, even though he’s no longer present.”

“He isn’t a demon,” I heard myself say.

Lenobia gave me a sharp look. “Why would you say that, Zoey?”

I shifted uncomfortably under her scrutiny and sat on my bed, curling Nala into my lap. “It’s just that I know things about him, and one of the things I know is that he isn’t a demon.”

“What difference does it make what we call him?” Erin asked.

“Well, true names are powerful,” Damien said. “Traditionally using someone’s true name in a spell or ritual can be more binding than sending out energy generally, or even just using their first name.”

“You make a good point, Damien. So we won’t call Kalona a demon,” Lenobia said.

“And we also won’t forget he’s evil, like those other kids have,” Erin said.

“But not all of them have,” I said. “Those kids in the infirmary weren’t under Kalona’s spell, and neither are Lenobia and Dragon—neither was Anastasia. But why? What do you guys have that everyone else doesn’t?”

“We already decided that Lenobia and Dragon and Anastasia all had heightened gifts from Nyx,” Damien said.

“Okay, so what’s special about the kids that stood up to the Raven Mockers?” Aphrodite said.

“Hanna Honeyyeager can make flowers bloom,” Damien said.

I stared at him. “Flowers? Seriously?”

“Yeah.” Damien shrugged. “She has a green thumb.”

I sighed. “What else do we know about the kids in the infirmary?”

“T.J. is a wicked good boxer,” Erin spoke up.

“And Drew’s an awesome wrestler,” I said.

“But are any of these abilities true gifts?” Lenobia said. “Vampyres are talented. That’s the norm and not unusual at all.”

“Does anyone know anything about that Ian Bowser kid?” I asked. “I just know him a little from drama class. He used to have a big crush on Professor Nolan.”

“I know him,” Erin said. “He’s really sweet.”

“Okay, he’s sweet,” I said, feeling overwhelmed by the hopelessness of our task. The kids were nice and good at things, but being good at something didn’t equal being gifted by Nyx. “What about that new girl, Red?”

“None of us know her at all.” Damien glanced at Lenobia. “Do you?”

Lenobia shook her head. “No, only that she was being mentored by Anastasia, and she had become close enough to her in just a few days so that she was willing to risk her life to save her professor.”

“Which doesn’t mean there’s anything special about her except that she made the right choice and—” My words broke off as I realized what I was saying. Suddenly I was laughing. “That’s it!”

Everyone gawked at me.

“She’s lost it,” Aphrodite said. “It was bound to happen sooner or later.”

“No! I haven’t lost it. I found it. Found the answer. Goddess, it’s so obvious! Those kids aren’t ?ber-gifted. They’re just kids who made the right choice.

No one said anything for several seconds, and then Damien picked up the thread of my thought. “Just like in life. Nyx gives us all choices.”

I grinned at him. “And some of us choose wisely.”

“Some of us mess up,” Stark said.

“Goddess! It really is obvious,” Lenobia said. “There’s no mystery to Kalona’s spell.”

“It’s all about choice,” Aphrodite said.

“And truth,” I added.

“It does make sense.” Damien broke in. “I couldn’t understand why only three of our professors were able to see through Kalona. I’ve always thought that all of the vampyres here were special and had Goddess-given gifts.”

“And most are,” Lenobia said.

“But gift or no gift, finding the truth and following the right path is always a choice.” Stark spoke softly as his gaze trapped mine. “That’s something none of us should forget.”

“Which could be why Nyx has brought us here. To remind us that all of her children have free choice,” Lenobia said.

That’s my whole point with A-ya. I have the choice not to follow her path. But wouldn’t that mean Kalona also has free choice, and can choose good over evil? The thoughts whirled through my mind. I pushed them away and said, “Okay, so, any ideas on where we go from here?”

“Absolutely. You follow Kalona. We come with you,” Aphrodite said. When we all stared at her, she continued, “Look, Kalona has proven he’s evil, so let’s make the choice to destroy him.” Before I could say anything, Aphrodite added, “It’s not impossible. One of my visions showed Zoey taking him out.”

“Visions?” Lenobia said.

Aphrodite briefly recapped the two visions she’d had, leaving out the specific mention that in the “not so good” one I’d joined with Kalona. So when she was done, I cleared my throat, put on my big-girl panties (figuratively), and said, “In the bad vision I was with Kalona. As in with him. We were lovers.”

“But in the other vision you did something to vanquish him,” Lenobia said.

“That was clear, even if everything else was a jumbled mess,” Aphrodite said. “So, like I was saying before, she has to go to him.”

“I don’t like it,” Stark said.

“Neither do I,” Lenobia said. “I wish we knew more—had more details about what caused each vision to happen.”

“Goddess! I’m a moron,” I said, fishing in my pocket for the piece of paper I’d put there. “I forgot all about Kramisha’s poem.”

“Ugh, so did I,” Aphrodite said. “I hate poetry.”

“A fact that baffles me, my beauty,” Darius said as he came into the room with Stevie Rae and Shaunee close behind. “Someone with your intelligence should enjoy it.”

Aphrodite gave him a sweet smile. “I’d like it if you read some to me, but then again, I’d like anything you read to me.”

“Disgusting,” Shaunee said, going over to sit by Erin.

“Totally,” Erin agreed, grinning at her twin.

“Good, we didn’t miss the poem part,” Stevie Rae said, plopping down next to me and petting Nala. “I was wonderin’ what Kramisha had come up with.”

“Okay, well, I’ll just read it out loud,” I said, and began,

A double-edged sword

One side destroys

One releases

I am your Gordian knot

Will you release or destroy me?

Follow truth and you shall:

Find me on water

Purify me through fire

Trapped by earth nevermore

Air will whisper to you

What spirit already knows:

That even shattered

anything is possible

If you believe

Then we shall both be free.

“I hate to say it, but even I can tell that’s from Kalona to you,” Aphrodite spoke into the thick silence that followed my reading.

“Yep, sounds like it to me, too,” said Stevie Rae.

“Ah, hell,” I muttered.

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