Stevie Rae knew she was going to die, and this time it would be for good. She was scared, more scared even than she’d been when she’d bled out her life in Zoey’s arms surrounded by her friends. It was different this time. This time it was a betrayal and not a biological act.
The pain in her head was terrible. She reached up and felt gingerly around on the back of her head. Her hand came away soaked in her blood. Her thoughts were woozy. What had happened? Stevie Rae tried to sit up, but a terrible dizziness claimed her, and with a groan, she puked her guts up, crying at the pain the movement caused her. Then she collapsed on her side, rolling away from the vomit. That’s when her tear-blurred gaze moved to the metal cage above her, and then the sky beyond it—a sky that was getting increasingly less gray and more blue.
Her memory rushed back, and with it panic made her breath come in short little pants. They’d trapped her here and the sun was rising! Even now, even with the cage above her and the memory of their betrayal fresh in her mind, Stevie Rae didn’t want to believe it.
Another wave of nausea washed over her, and she closed her eyes, trying to regain her equilibrium. As long as her eyes were shut, she could control the horrible dizziness and her thoughts began to clear.
The red fledglings had done this. Nicole had been late for their meeting. Not like that had been all that shocking, but Stevie Rae had been pissed and sick of waiting, so she had been in the process of leaving the empty tunnels to return to the House of Night when Nicole and Starr finally came into the basement. They had been laughing and joking with each other, and had obviously just fed—their cheeks were still flushed and their eyes were glowing red from fresh blood. Stevie Rae had tried to talk to them. Actually, she’d tried to
The two red fledglings had spent a long time being sarcastic and giving jerklike excuses not to go with her: “Nah, the vamps don’t let us eat junk food and we heart us some junkies!” And “Will Rogers High School is right down the street on Fifth. If I want to go to school I’ll go there—after dark—for
Still, she’d tried to be serious and give them good reasons for coming back to school, like not only was it their home, but there was lots of stuff about being vampyres they didn’t know—that Stevie Rae didn’t even know. They
They’d laughed at her, called her an old woman, and said they were totally cool staying at the depot, especially now that they had it to themselves.
Then Kurtis had lumbered into the basement, looking breathless and excited. Stevie Rae remembered having a bad feeling from the second she’d seen him. The truth was she’d never liked the kid. He was a big, stupid pig farmer from northeastern Oklahoma who basically thought women were one step below hogs on the redneck What You’re Worth Scale.
“Yepper, I found him and bit him!” He practically crowed.
“That thing? You got to be kidding. He smelled nasty,” Nicole had said.
“Yeah, and how’d you get him to hold still while you ate him?” Starr asked.
Kurtis wiped his mouth with his sleeve. A splotch of red smeared his shirt and the scent of it hit Stevie Rae, completely shocking her.
“I knocked him out first. It wasn’t hard to do, with his broken wing and all.”
“What are you talkin’ about?” Stevie Rae snapped the words at Kurtis.
Bovinelike, he blinked at her. She was getting ready to grab him and shake him and maybe even have the earth open up and swallow his big, stupid ass, when he finally answered. “I’m talking about the birdboy. What’d you call ’em, Raven Mockers? One showed up here. We been chasin’ it all around the depot. Nikki and Starr got sick of messing with it and went out to chomp on some of the late night Taco Bell fourth meal feeders, but I had me a taste for chicken. So I kept after him. Had to corner him up on the roof in one of those tower things, you know, the far one over there, away from the tree.” Kurtis pointed up and to his left. “But I got him.”
“Did he taste as bad as he smelled?” Nicole’s shock and revulsion were as obvious as her curiosity.
Kurtis shrugged his beefy shoulders. “Hey, I’ll eat anything. Or anyone.”
They all dissolved into laughter. All except Stevie Rae.
“You have a Raven Mocker on the roof?”
“Yeah. Don’t know why the hell he was down here in the first place. Especially all beat up and broken.” Nicole lifted a brow at her. “Thought you said it was okay to go back to the House of Night ’cause Neferet and Kalona were gone. Looks like they left some shit behind, huh? Maybe they’re not really gone.”
“They’re gone,” Stevie Rae had said, already moving toward the door to the basement. “So none of you want to come back to school with me?”
Three heads shook silently back and forth as red-tinged eyes followed her every move.
“How about the others? Where are they?”
Nicole shrugged. “Wherever they want to be. Next time I see any of them I’ll tell ’em you said they should go back to school.”
Kurtis cracked up. “Hey, that’s great. Let’s all just go back to school! Like that’s something we really want to do?”
“Look, I gotta go. It’s almost sunrise. But I’m not done talkin’ about this with you. And you should know that I may want to bring the other red fledglings back here to live, even though we’ll officially be part of the House of Night. And if that happens y’all can either be with us and act right, or you need to leave.”
“How about this: How about you keep your pussy fledglings at school, and we’ll stay here because
Stevie Rae stopped moving toward the exit. Almost as if it was second nature to her, she imagined she was a tree with roots growing down, down, down into the amazing, incredible ground.
Without giving them another glance, Stevie Rae hurried out of the basement, through the maze of rubble and metal grates spread haphazardly around the abandoned depot grounds to the stone stairs that led from the parking lot at railroad track level up to the street level of what used to be a thriving railway station. She had to be careful as she rushed up the stairs. It had stopped sleeting, and the sun had actually come out the day before, but night had brought falling temperatures and almost everything that had thawed had refrozen.
She reached the circle drive and the big covered entryway that used to keep Oklahoma weather from train passengers. She looked up and up and up.
The building was just creepy-looking. That’s all there was to it. Z liked to describe it as something out of Gotham City. Stevie Rae thought it was more like
Of course, some of her freaky feeling could have been because the sky was already starting to shift from black to gray with the coming dawn. In retrospect, that should have stopped her. She should have turned around, gone back down the stairs, climbed into the car she’d borrowed from the school, and driven to the House of Night.
Instead, she’d stepped squarely into her fate and, as Z would have said, then the poopie hit the fan.
She knew there were circular stairs inside the main part of the depot that led up to each tower room—she’d done lots of exploring during the weeks she’d lived there. But no dang way was she going back inside that building and taking a chance that some random red fledgling wouldn’t be tucked into bed and would see her—and question her—and find out the truth.
Plan B led her to a tree that at one time had obviously been decorative, but had long since overgrown its concrete circle so that its roots had broken through the ground below in the parking lot, exposing lots of frozen earth and allowing it to grow taller than it should have. Without its leaves, Stevie Rae didn’t have a clue what kind of tree it was, other than the kind that was tall enough that its branches brushed the roof of the depot, near the first of the two towers that faced out from the roof on the front side of the building, and that was tall enough for her.
Moving quickly, Stevie Rae went over to the tree and jumped to grab the branch closest to her head. She scrambled up the slick, bare bough, shimmying along it until she got to the main part of the tree. From there she made her way up and up, silently thanking Nyx for her red vampyre enhanced strength ’cause if she’d been a normal fledgling, or maybe even vamp, she’d never have been able to make the treacherous climb.
When she was as high up as she could go, Stevie Rae gathered herself and then jumped onto the roof of the building. She didn’t waste time looking in the first of the towers. Pig boy had said Rephaim was in the one farthest from the tree. She jogged across the roof to the other end of the building and then climbed the short distance up so she could look down into the circular space.
He was there. Crumpled in the corner of the tower, Rephaim lay unmoving and bleeding.
Without hesitation, Stevie Rae threw her legs over the stone ridge and then dropped the four feet or so into the room.
He’d been curled up in a ball, his good arm cradling his bad one in its dirty sling. Down the outside of his arm she could see that someone had slashed his skin, which is obviously where Kurtis had fed from him, though he hadn’t bothered to close the cut, and the odd, off smell of his inhuman blood filled the little chamber. The bandage that had immobilized his wing had come loose and it was a torn pile of bloody towels half draping his body. His eyes were closed.
“Rephaim, hey, can you hear me?”
At the sound of her voice his eyes instantly opened. “No!” he said, struggling to sit up. “Get out of here. They’re going to trap—”
Then there had been a terrible pain in the back of her head, and she remembered falling into blackness.
“Stevie Rae, you have to wake up. You have to move.”
She finally felt the hand that was shaking her shoulder and recognized Rephaim’s voice. Carefully she opened her eyes, and the world didn’t pitch and roll, though she could feel her heartbeat throbbing in her head.
“Rephaim,” she rasped. “What happened?”
“They used me to trap you,” he said.
“You wanted to trap me?” Her nausea was a little better, but Stevie Rae’s mind felt like it was working in slow motion.
“No. What I wanted was to be left alone to heal and make my way back to my father. They gave me no choice.” He stood up, moving stiffly, bent at the waist because of the metal grate that made a low, false ceiling. “Move. You have little time. The sun is already rising.”
Stevie Rae looked up at the sky and saw the soft pastels of pre-dawn that she used to think were so pretty. Now the lightening sky filled her with absolute terror. “Oh, Goddess! Help me get up.”
Rephaim grabbed her hand and pulled her to her feet, where she stood unsteadily beside him, bent like he was. Drawing a deep breath, she raised her hands, gripped the cold metal of the grate, and pushed. It rattled a little, but didn’t really move.
“How is it stuck up there?” she asked.
“Chained. They hooked chains through the edges of the metal and then padlocked them to anything on the roof that couldn’t be pulled up.”
Stevie Rae pushed against the grate again. Again it rattled, but held firm. She was trapped up on a roof and the sun was rising! Gathering all her strength, she pushed and pulled, gripping the metal and trying to slide it to one side so that maybe she could crawl through. With each second the sky got brighter. Stevie Rae’s skin shivered like a horse trying to twitch off a fly.
“Break the metal,” Rephaim said urgently. “Your strength can do it.”
“I might be able to if I was underground, or even standing on the earth,” she said between gasping breaths as she continued to struggle impotently against the caging metal. “But up here, a huge building away from my element, I’m just not strong enough.” She looked from the sky to his scarlet eyes. “You should probably stand back away from me. I’m gonna burn, and I don’t know how big the flames will be, but it could get pretty hot in here.”
She watched Rephaim move away and, with a growing sense of hopelessness, went back to struggling with the immovable metal. Her fingers were starting to sizzle and Stevie Rae was biting her lip to keep from screaming and screaming and screaming…
“Over here. The metal is rusted and thinner, weaker.”
Stevie Rae pulled her hands down, automatically clutching them under her armpits and, bent backed, rushed to him. She saw the rusted metal and grabbed ahold of it with both hands, and then pulled with all her might. It gave a little, but her hands had started to smoke, as had her wrists.
“Oh, Goddess!” she gasped. “I’m not gonna make it. Get back, Rephaim, I’m already startin’ to—”
Instead of running from her, he moved as close to her as he could get, spreading his good wing so that it provided some shade. Then he raised his uninjured arm and took hold of the rusted grate. “Think of the earth. Concentrate. Do not think of the sun and the sky. Pull with me. Now!”
In the shadow of his wing, Stevie Rae grabbed the grate on either side of his hand. She closed her eyes and ignored the burning of her fingers and the sensitivity of her skin that was screaming at her to run! Run anywhere, just get out of the sun! Instead she thought about the earth, cool and dark, waiting underneath her like a loving mama. Stevie Rae pulled.
With a metallic snap the grate broke, leaving an opening just big enough for one person at a time to slip out of.
Rephaim stepped back. “Go!” he said. “Quickly.”
The instant Stevie Rae was no longer covered by his wing, her body flushed and, literally, began to smoke. Instinctively, she dropped to the floor and curled into a ball, trying to shield her face with her arms. “I can’t!” she cried, frozen with pain and panic. “I’ll burn up.”
“You will burn if you stay here,” he said.
Then he pulled himself up through the opening and was gone. He’d left her. Stevie Rae knew he was right. She had to get out of there, but she couldn’t push through the paralyzing fear. The pain was too much. It was like her blood was boiling in her body. Just when she thought she couldn’t bear it any longer, a small, cool shadow fell on her.
“Take my hand!”
Squinting against the cruel sun, Stevie Rae looked up. Rephaim was there, crouched on the grate, his good wing spread above her, blocking as much of the sun as possible, his uninjured arm reaching for her.
“Now, Stevie Rae. Do it!”
She followed his voice and the coolness of his dark wing and grabbed his hand. He couldn’t pull her up by himself. She was too heavy and he only had one arm. So she thrust out her other hand, took hold of the metal, and chinned herself up.
“Come to me. I will shield you.” Rephaim opened his wing.
Without any hesitation Stevie Rae stepped into his embrace, burying her head in the feathers of his chest, and wrapping her arms around him. He enfolded her with his wing and lifted her.
“Get me to the tree!”
Then he was running, lurching, and limping, but running across the rooft op. The backs of Stevie Rae’s arms were exposed, as was some of her neck and shoulders, and as he ran she burned. With a detached, out-of-body feeling she wondered what that terrible noise was that rang in her ears, and then she realized it was her voice. She was screaming her pain and terror and anger.
At the edge of the roof he yelled, “Hold on. I’m jumping to the tree.” The Raven Mocker leaped. His body tumbled, spiraling because of his lack of balance, and they crashed into the tree.
Adrenaline helped Stevie Rae keep her hold on him and, feeling thankful his body was so light, she lifted him, putting herself between Rephaim and the tree. With the bark to her back she told him, “Try to hold on to the tree while I slide us down.”
Then they were falling again as the rough bark ripped Stevie Rae’s already blistered and bleeding back. She closed her eyes and felt for the earth, finding it serene and waiting below her.
“Earth, come to me! Open and shield me!”
There was a great ripping sound and the ground at the base of the tree broke open just in time for Stevie Rae and Rephaim to slip within a cool, dark pouch in the earth.