“I still disagree with you,” Lenobia said.
“But it’s my decision to make, right?” Stevie Rae said.
“It is. I just wish you would reconsider. Let me come with you. Or even Dragon—he could accompany you.”
“Dragon is still too messed up from Anastasia’s death, and you’re pretty much in charge here. The way things are going, I don’t think it’s smart for you to leave the school right now,” Stevie Rae said. “Look, I’ll be fine. I know them. They’re not gonna hurt me, and even if they’ve lost every bit of what’s left of their minds and they do try to mess with me, they can’t. I’ll call earth and smack them around or somethin’ like that. Don’t worry. I’ve handled them before. This time I’m hopin’ I can talk them into comin’ back here with me. I think bein’ back at the school would really help ’em.”
Lenobia nodded. “That is logical. Return them to where they last felt normal and perhaps they can find that feeling again.”
“That’s kinda what I thought.” Stevie Rae paused, and then added in a soft, sad voice, “I still argue back and forth with myself sometimes. Sometimes it feels like the darkness is so close to me that I could touch it. And I see it in my group—the ones who also found their humanity. It’s not always easy for them, either.”
“Maybe you’ll always have a choice. Maybe the line between good and evil is less clear for you and your red fledglings.”
“But does that make us bad? Or worthless?”
“No, of course not.”
“Then you can see why I have to go back to the depot and talk to the other kids again. I can’t turn my back on them. Zoey didn’t turn her back on Stark, even though he shot me—which sucked and wasn’t very nice of him, by the way—but it turned out okay in the end.”
“You will make a fine High Priestess, Stevie Rae.”
Stevie Rae’s cheeks went all hot. “I’m not really a High Priestess. I’m just all they have.”
“No, you are a High Priestess. Trust that. Trust yourself.” She smiled at Stevie Rae. “So when will you return to the depot?”
“I think I’ll be sure the red fledglings here are set. You know, get the rooms straight and get stuff for them to wear and all. Plus, they have to be put back into all their classes, which is a real pain in the butt since the classes change every semester. But I’d like to get back there tonight still.”
“Tonight? Are you sure you shouldn’t wait until tomorrow? Shouldn’t you get settled here first?”
“Well, the truth is I don’t really know if we can settle here.”
“Of course you can. The House of Night is your home.”
“No, it actually makes sense. You died. When that happens to any of us, all of our bodies return to the earth. Though you were resurrected, you still have a connection with the earth we do not.” Lenobia hesitated. “There is a basement under the main House of Night building,” she said. “It’s used for storage and is not particularly habitable, but with some work…”
“Maybe,” Stevie Rae said. “Let me see what happens with the kids at the depot. We really did like it there, and we were fixin’ it up real nice, too.”
“I don’t suppose there is any reason why we couldn’t bus your fledglings back and forth. Human children do it every day.”
Stevie Rae grinned. “The big yellow limo!”
Lenobia laughed. “Either way, we will make it work with your group. You are part of us, and this is your home.”
“Home… That sounds nice,” Stevie Rae said. “Okay, well, I better get busy if I’m gonna make it back to the depot before it gets close to dawn.”
“Be sure to give yourself plenty of time. I don’t want you stuck there, and the forecast is for lots of Oklahoma sunshine. Travis Meyers even reported it might get above freezing long enough to get rid of some of this ice.”
“Trav is my favorite weatherman, and don’t worry. I’ll be back before dawn.”
“Excellent, then you’ll have time to tell me how it went.”
“I’ll come straight here.” Stevie Rae started to get up and then changed her mind. She had to ask—Lenobia wouldn’t think it was a totally weird question—and she
Lenobia’s serene expression changed to disgust. “I pray to Nyx they were banished from this realm when their father was forced to flee from Tulsa.”
“Have you ever heard of them before? I mean, did you know about them before they all flew out of the ground?”
Lenobia shook her head. “No. I knew nothing of them. I’d never even heard of the Cherokee legend. But I did recognize one thing about them very easily.”
“You did? What?”
“Evil. I have battled evil before, and they were simply another of its dark faces.”
“Do you think they were totally bad? I mean, they were part human.”
“Not part human—part immortal.”
“Yeah, that’s what I meant.”
“And the immortal they are part of is completely evil.”
“But what if Kalona wasn’t always like he is now? He came from somewhere. Maybe he was good there, and if that’s true, then maybe there could be some good found in a Raven Mocker.”
Lenobia studied Stevie Rae silently before replying. Then she spoke quietly, but with conviction. “Priestess, do not let the compassion you feel for the red fledglings color your perception of evil. It exists here in our world. It also exists in the Otherworld. It is tangible there, just as it is here. There is a great difference between a broken child and a creature fathered by evil and conceived through rape.”
“That’s basically what Sister Mary Angela said, too.”
“The nun is a wise woman.” Lenobia paused and then continued, “Stevie Rae, have you sensed something I should know about?”
“Oh, no!” she said hastily. “I was just thinkin’, that’s all. You know, about good and evil and the choices we make. So I thought that maybe some of the Raven Mockers might be able to choose, too.”
“If they had that ability they made the choice for evil long ago,” Lenobia said.
“Yeah, I’m sure you’re right. Okay, well, I better get. I’ll come back around and see you before dawn.”
“I’ll look forward to meeting with you. May Nyx be with you, Priestess. And blessed be.”
“Blessed be.” Stevie Rae hurried from the stables, as if distance from the words she’d spoken could distance her from her guilt. What had she been thinking when she said that stuff about Rephaim to Lenobia? She needed to keep her mouth shut and forget about him.
But how could she forget about him when there was a chance she was going to see him again when she went back to the depot?
She shouldn’t have sent him there. She should have figured something else out. Or she should have turned him in!
No. No, it was too late to think about that. Now all Stevie Rae could do was damage control. First, contact the red fledglings. Then, deal with the Rephaim issue. Again.
Of course he might not be an issue. The fledglings might not have found him. He didn’t smell like food, and he wasn’t in any shape to attack them. He was probably hiding down in the darkest cubbyholed tunnel, licking his wounds. Or he could be dead. Who knows what would happen to a Raven Mocker if a nasty infection set in.
Stevie Rae sighed and pulled her phone from the pocket of her hoodie. Praying the reception was back up in tunnels, she text messaged Nicole:
I need to see u tonite
She didn’t have to wait long for a reply.
Busy. Won’t be bk til dawn.
She frowned at her phone and responded.
Get bk be4.
She’d started to pace by the time Nicole managed to text her back.
Be there @ 6.
Stevie Rae wanted to grind her teeth together. Six o’clock was only an hour and a half before dawn. Dang it! Nicole pissed her off so bad. She was really the biggest problem down there. The rest of the kids were just followers. Not very nice, but not like her. Stevie Rae remembered Nicole from before she’d died. She’d been a mean girl then, and that hadn’t changed. Actually, it’d gotten worse. So what Stevie Rae needed to do was to get to Nicole. If she turned her back on the darkness, then the rest of the kids would probably follow her.
Stevie Rae texted. Then she added,
Anything weird going on?
She held her breath, waiting for her phone to chime. Nicole would tell her if she’d found a Raven Mocker. She’d probably think Rephaim was cool. Or maybe she’d just kill him right off, without thinking anything. Either way, she’d blab it to Stevie Rae—it would make her feel all powerful and in charge.
Just looking for food. Live food. Wanna join us?
Stevie Rae knew it would do no good whatsoever to remind Ni-cole they shouldn’t be eating people. No, not even homeless people or bad drivers (who they liked to follow and then grab as they got out of their cars). She just texted back:
No. See u @ 6.
Stevie Rae stuck her phone back in her pocket. It was going to be a long night, especially that hour and a half between six and dawn.
“So that’s the plan, birdboy. Are you up for this?” Unannounced and uninvited, the red fledgling leader, Nicole, had come into Stevie Rae’s room, which Rephaim had claimed as his own, kicked the bed to wake him, and then started talking about her plan to trap Stevie Rae on the roof of a building.
“Even if, close to sunrise, you could lure the Red One to the roof of a building, how do you plan to hold her there?”
“The first part is simple because it’s not just any building. It’s this building. There’re two round towers up there, all nicey-nice with decoration and crap when this place was actually something, back in the day. They’re open to the sky ’cause it’s
“Why would she be on the roof, even if it is the roof of this building?”
“That’s even simpler. She’ll be there ’cause you’re gonna get her up there.”
Rephaim didn’t speak until he could control his shock, and then he chose his words carefully. “You think I can make the Red One come to the roof of a building near dawn? Why would I be able to do that? I’m not strong enough to overpower and carry her,” he said, sounding more bored than curious.
“You won’t need to. She saved you. And she had to do it without telling anyone. To me that says you mean something to her. Maybe even a bunch of something.” Nicole scoffed at the thought. “Stevie Rae’s pathetic. Always thinking she can save the world and shit like that. That’s why she’s stupid enough to come back here close to dawn. She thinks she can save us. Well, we don’t want to be saved!” Nicole started laughing and as the laughter overtook her, Rephaim saw the inklike shadow of Neferet slide across her eyes and taint her expression so that she appeared close to hysteria.
“Why would she want to save you?”
Rephaim’s question ended Nicole’s laughter as if he had slapped her across the face.
“What? You don’t think we deserve saving?” Quick as an envious thought, she moved to the bed and grabbed his uninjured arm by the wrist. “How about I see what you do think?”
She stared at him as his arm radiated the heat of her psychic violation, and as that heat spread throughout his body and soul, Rephaim concentrated on one thing: his anger.
Nicole dropped his wrist and took a step back from him. “Wow,” she chuckled uncomfortably. “You’re really pissed. What’s that about?”
“It issss about being wounded and left behind to deal with children and their petty gamesssss!”
Nicole stepped back into his personal space and snarled, “This isn’t petty! We’re getting rid of Stevie Rae so that we can do the shit we need to do, just like we told Neferet we would. So are you going to make nice and help us trap her, or do we leave you out of this and go with Plan B?”
Rephaim didn’t hesitate. “What is it you want me to do?”
Nicole’s smile reminded him of a lizard. “We’ll show you the stairs that go up to the tower—the one on the opposite side of the roof from that stupid tree. I’m not taking the chance that she can figure out some way to pull it over to her and have it shield her enough so she lives. So you’ll go to the other tower and wait. Be all crumpled up like we dragged you there after beating the shit outta you and draining you almost dry of blood. Which is exactly what I’m gonna tell Stevie Rae we did, but I’ll make sure she knows you’re still alive. Barely.”
“She’ll go up there to save me,” Rephaim said in a perfectly emotionless voice.
“Again. Yeah. We’re counting on it. Once she climbs into the tower with you, just stay hunkered down. We’ll smack the grate over the top and chain it in place. The sun’ll come up. Stevie Rae will burn up. Then we’ll let you out. See, simple.”
“It will work,” Rephaim stated.
“Yeah, and check this out. If you decide at the last minute you’re not with us after all, Kurtis or Starr will shoot your feathered ass and we’ll throw you into the tower anyway. That’ll work for us, too. ’Cause, see, you are Plan A and Plan B. You’re just deader in one than the other.”
“As I said to you before, my father commanded me to bring the Red One to him.”
“Yeah, but I don’t see your daddy around here anywhere.”
“I do not know why you play this game with me. You have already admitted you know my father has not abandoned me. He will return for his favorite son. When he does I will have the Red One for him.”
“And it’s cool with you that she’ll be charbroiled?”
“The state of her body does not concern me as long as I am in possession of it.”
“Well, you can definitely have it. I don’t want to eat her, so I don’t want her body.” She cocked her head to the side and gave him an appraising look. “I saw inside that birdbrain of yours, and I know you’re pissed, but I could also tell that you’re guilty as hell. What’s that about?”
“I should be at my father’s side. Anything else is unacceptable.”
Her bark of laughter lacked humor. “You are your father’s son, aren’t you?” She started to duck out of the blanket that was the door to the room. As she left she called back, “Get some sleep. You have a few hours before she’ll be here. And if you need anything, Kurtis will be out here with his big gun. He’ll get it for you. You just stay in there until I call. Got it?”
The red fledging left and Rephaim curled back up in the nest he’d made of Stevie Rae’s bed. Before he fell into another healing sleep his single thought was that he wished the Red One had let him die under that tree.