Heath wondered if Zo knew she was breaking his heart. Not that he wanted to be away from her. He didn’t. Actually, he wanted more of her. The problem was he also wanted what was best for her—he always had. Ever since grade school. He remembered the day he fell in love with her. Her mom had freaked out on her and had taken her to some girlfriend who worked at one of those girl beauty shops. They’d decided—Zo’s mom and her girlfriend—that it would be cute to chop off all of Zo’s long, dark hair. So the next day she’d showed up for third grade with hair that was super-short and kinda weirdly sticking out all over and fuzzy looking.
The kids had all been whispering and laughing at her. Her big brown eyes had been huge and scared, and Heath had thought he’d never seen anyone who was so beautiful. He’d told her he liked her hair—in front of the whole cafeteria at lunch. She’d looked like she was going to cry, so he’d carried her tray for her, and sat with her, even though it wasn’t cool to sit with a girl. That day she’d done something to his heart. She’d been doing something to it ever since.
So, here he was, going to find a guy who had a piece of her heart because it was what was best for Zoey. Heath ran his hand through his hair. All of this would be over someday. Someday Zo would go back to Tulsa, and even though the House of Night would take up a bunch of her time, she’d be with him when she could. They’d go to the movies again. She’d come watch him play football at OU. It would be normal again, or as normal as it could be.
He could hang in till then. When this crap with Kalona got straight—and Zo would get it straightened out, Heath was sure of it—when this crap was fixed, things would be better. He’d have his Zo back. Or at least as much of her as she could give him. And that would be enough.
Heath followed the path that led away from the palace, still going in the general direction Stark had taken. He looked around and couldn’t see much except the big stone wall on his left, and a parklike area filled with hedges that were almost as high as his head, on his right. He studied the park as he walked, realizing the hedges created some kind of circular, interwoven pattern. He decided it must be one of those old mazes—a labyrinth, he finally remembered from the Greek mythology story about the Minotaur on the island of some rich king, whose name there was no way he could remember.
Damn, he hadn’t realized how dark it was until he’d gotten away from the lights of the palace. It was quiet out here, too. So quiet he could hear the lapping of the waves just on the other side of the wall. Heath wondered if he should yell out for Stark, but decided, nah, like Zo, he didn’t mind a little time to himself.
All this vamp stuff was a lot to take in, and it was normal that he needed time to process. Not that he couldn’t deal with Stark and the other vamps. Hell, he kinda liked some of the vamps—and fledglings, too. If it came right down to it, he actually thought Stark was an okay guy. It was just Kalona who was fucking things up.
Then, as if his thoughts had drawn the immortal to him, Heath heard Kalona’s voice drifting through the empty night, and he slowed down, careful not to crunch any loose stones on the path.
“It goes exactly as planned,” Kalona was saying.
“I hate the subterfuge! I cannot bear that you pretend to be something you are not for her.”
Heath recognized Neferet’s voice and he inched forward. Keeping to the deepest of the shadows, he hugged the wall, being absolutely silent. The voices were coming from the park area, ahead and to his right, and as he moved forward, there was a break in the hedge, obviously an exit, and within the labyrinth Kalona and Neferet came into view. They were standing by a fountain. Heath breathed a shallow sigh of relief. The sound of the cascading water must have been what masked his footsteps. Pressing himself against the cold stone wall, he watched and listened.
“You call it pretense. I call it another point of view,” Kalona said.
“Which is why you can lie to her and still seem to be telling the truth,” Neferet snapped the words at him.
Kalona shrugged. “Zoey wants truth—so it is truth that I give her.”
“Selectively,” Neferet said.
“Of course. But do all mortals, vampyre, human, or fledgling, not select their own truths?”
“I am immortal, which makes me different. Even from you, though your Tsi Sgili powers are transforming you into something that is close to immortal.”
“Yes, but Zoey isn’t anything close to immortal. I still believe we should kill her.”
“You are a bloodthirsty creature.” Kalona laughed. “What would you do, cut off her head and impale her as you did the other two who got in your way?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I wouldn’t kill her the same way I did them. It would be too obvious. She could simply meet with an unfortunate accident when she visits Venice in the next day or so.”
Heath’s heart was pounding so loud he was sure they’d be able to hear him. Neferet had killed Zoey’s two professors! And Kalona knew about it
“No,” Kalona was saying, “We will not have to kill Zoey. Soon she will come to me willingly; I’ve planted the seeds for that. All I need do is wait for them to bloom, and then her powers, which are vast even though she is mortal, will be at my disposal.”
One of Kalona’s dark wings swept forward, stroking the side of Neferet’s body and causing her to sway toward him. “Of course, my Queen,” he murmured before he kissed her.
Heath felt like he was watching porn, but he was trapped there. He couldn’t move. He probably needed to stay until they were actually doing it, and then he could slip away, go to Zoey, and tell her everything he’d overheard.
But Neferet surprised him by pulling away from Kalona. “No. You can’t make love to Zoey in her dreams, and then again with your eyes in front of everyone, and expect me to open my body to you. I won’t be yours tonight. She is too much between us.” Neferet backed away from Kalona. Even Heath was captured by her beauty. Her thick auburn hair was wild around her. The silky stuff that wrapped around her body looked like a second skin, and her boobs were almost totally exposed as she breathed hard and fast. “I know I am not immortal, nor am I Zoey Redbird, but my powers, too, are vast, and you should remember I killed the last male who tried to claim me and her.” Neferet whirled around. With a wave of her hand she parted the hedge in front of her and stepped through it, leaving Kalona standing alone and staring after her in the dim clearing.
Heath was getting ready to back slowly away when Kalona’s head turned and his amber eyes went straight to where he was standing.
“So, little human, you now have a story to tell my Zoey,” he said.
Heath looked into the immortal’s eyes and he knew two things beyond any doubt. One was that this creature was going to kill him. The second was that somehow he had to show Zoey the truth before he died. Heath didn’t flinch under the creature’s stare. Instead he used all the strength of will he’d learned to harness so well on a different kind of battlefield—a football field—and he channeled it through the blood bond of their Imprint, trying to find the element Zoey had the strongest affinity with—spirit. His heart and soul shouted into the night:
“Ah, but she is,” Kalona said.
“Your girl’s soul belongs to me and I will not allow Neferet or you or
“What is that expression the vampyres use?” Kalona said. “I believe it is ‘curiosity killed the cat.’ It seems particularly applicable to this situation.”
“I’m an idiot.” Stark grumbled to himself as he made his way through the grand entrance to the palace.
“Sir, do you need direction?” asked a warrior who stood just inside.
“Yeah, I need to know where Aphrodite’s room is. You know, the human prophetess who came here with us today? Oh, I’m Stark, Warrior to the High Priestess Zoey Redbird.”
“We know who you are,” the vampyre said. His eyes moved to Stark’s red tattoos. “It’s all very fascinating.”
“Yeah, well, ‘fascinating’ isn’t the word I’d use.”
The warrior smiled. “You have not been bound to her long, have you?”
“No. Just a few days.”
“It gets better—and worse.”
“Thanks. I think.” Stark blew out a long breath. Even though Zoey made him crazy, he knew he could never walk away from her again. He was her Warrior. His place, no matter how tough it got, was by her side.
The warrior laughed. “The suite you seek is in the north wing of the palace. Go left here, take the first staircase on your right. On the second floor, that entire suite of rooms has been allotted to your group. You will find your friends there.”
“Thanks again.” Stark started in the direction the warrior had sent him, walking quickly. He had an itchy feeling on the back of his neck. He hated it when he got that feeling. It meant something was going wrong, and that meant it was a stupid time for him to get pissed at Zoey.
It was just so damn hard. He felt her attraction for Kalona! Why the hell couldn’t she see that the guy was bad? There was nothing in him left to save—there probably had never been anything worth saving inside him.
Stark had to convince her that he was right. And to do that he had to stop letting his feelings for her mess with his head. Zoey was a smart girl. He’d talk to her. Calmly. She’d listen to him. From the first time they’d met, before they’d been anything together, she’d listened to him. He knew he could get her to listen again.
Stark climbed the stairs three at a time. The first door to his left was partially open, and he could see into a rich-looking room that had a couple of those couches that were too little and a bunch of uncomfortable chairs—all done up in golds and creams. Like that wouldn’t get dirty? He heard the murmur of voices and was just opening the door farther when Zoey’s emotions smacked him like a tidal wave.
What was going through her head was such a jumbled mess that he couldn’t sort out anything except the basest of feelings.
“Stark? What is it?” Darius was there in front of him.
“Zoey!” he managed to rasp. “She’s in trouble!” And then the force of it literally made him stagger. He would have fallen had Darius not grabbed him.
“Get a hold of yourself! Where is she?” Darius had him by his shoulders and was shaking him.
Stark looked up to see the worried faces of Zoey’s friends all staring at him. He shook his head, trying to think through the terror in his mind. “I can’t—I’m—”
“You must! Do not try to think. Just let your instincts take over. A Warrior can always find his lady. Always.”
His body was trembling, but Stark nodded, turned, drew three deep breaths and then said one word, “Zoey!”
Her name seemed to echo in the air around him. He concentrated on it—not on the chaos in his mind. He thought only,
And like the words had become a lifeline, they began pulling him forward.
He could feel Darius and the others at his back. He vaguely saw the surprised look on the warrior’s face he’d so recently spoken to, but he ignored everything. He thought only of Zoey and let the strength of his oath draw him to her.
It felt like he was flying. He didn’t remember finding the path along the labyrinth, but later he did remember the crunching of stones under his feet as he pulled away from even Darius in his oath-driven speed.
Still he was too late.
If Stark lived for five hundred years he would never forget what he saw when he burst around the corner of the path and into the little clearing. The sight would forever be burned into his soul.
Kalona and Heath were farthest away from him. The two of them were standing in front of the outer wall that enclosed the island and shielded it from the eyes of Venetian humans.
Zoey was closer to him. Just a few yards away, but like him she, too, was running. Stark watched her lift her hands. At the same moment she commanded, “Spirit! Come to me!” Kalona lifted his hands, too, cupping Heath’s face almost as if he were caressing him.
Then in one swift, unstoppable movement, the fallen immortal twisted Heath’s head, cleanly breaking his neck and killing him instantly.
In a voice torn from her soul, and so filled with anguish Stark hardly recognized her, Zoey screamed,
Kalona dropped Heath and whirled around to face her, his expression utterly shocked. The power of the element hit him, hurling him into the air and throwing him over the wall and into the ocean where, with a cry of despair, Kalona’s enormous wings lifted him from the water and carried him up and into the cold night.
But Stark didn’t give a shit about Kalona or even Heath. It was Zoey he ran to. She lay crumpled on the ground not far from Heath’s body. She was facedown, and Stark knew the terrible truth before he reached her. Still, he dropped to his knees and rolled her gently over. Her eyes were open and staring, but vacant.
Except for the sapphire outline of a normal fledgling’s Mark, all of her tattoos were gone.
Darius reached them first. He dropped beside Zoey, feeling for a pulse.
“She lives,” Darius said. Then he processed what he saw and gasped, “Goddess! Her tattoos.” He touched Zoey’s face gently. “I don’t understand.” Shaking his head in confusion, his gaze lit on Heath. “Is the boy—”
“He’s dead,” Stark said, amazed his voice sounded so normal when everything inside him was screaming.
Aphrodite and Damien ran up.
“Oh, Goddess!” Aphrodite said, crouching beside Zoey’s head. “Her tattoos!”
“Zoey!” Damien cried.
Stark heard Jack and the Twins join them. They were crying. But all he could do was pull her more tightly into his arms and hold her close. He had to protect her. He
It was Aphrodite whose voice finally penetrated his grief and got through to him.
“Stark! We have to get Zoey back to the palace. Someone there can help her. She’s still alive.”
Stark met Aphrodite’s gaze. “Her body breathes for right now, but that’s it.”
“What are you talking about?
“Zoey saw Kalona kill Heath and she called spirit to try to stop him, but she was too late to save him.”
Then James Stark, Zoey Redbird’s Warrior, bowed his head and began to cry.