Please don’t post spoilers for your fellow House of Night fans! Thanks, fledglings!
“Wow, Z, this is a seriously awesome turnout. There’re more humans here than fleas on an old dog!” Stevie Rae shielded her eyes with her hand as she looked around at the newly lit-up campus. Dallas was a total jerk, but we all admitted that the twinkling lights he’d wrapped around the trunks and limbs of the old oaks gave the entire campus a magickal, fairylike glow.
“That is one of your more disgusting bumpkin analogies,” Aphrodite said. “Though it’s accurate. Especially since there are a bunch of city politicians here. Total parasites.”
“Try to be nice,” I said. “Or at least try to be quiet.”
“Does that mean your daddy the mayor is here?” Stevie Rae’s already gawking eyes got even wider.
“I suppose it does. I caught a glimpse of Cruella De Vil, a.k.a. She Who Bore Me, not long ago.” Aphrodite paused and her brows went up. “We should probably keep an eye on the Street Cats kittens. I saw some cute little black and white ones with especially fluffy fur.”
Stevie Rae sucked air. “Ohmygoodness, your mamma wouldn’t really make a kitten fur coat, would she?”
“Faster than you can say Bubba’s drinkin’ and drivin’ again,” Aphrodite mimicked Stevie Rae’s Okie twang.
“Stevie Rae—she’s kidding. Tell her the truth,” I nudged Aphrodite.
“Fine. She doesn’t skin kittens. Or puppies. Just baby seals and Democrats.”
Stevie Rae’s brow furrowed.
“See, everything is fine. Plus, Damien’s at the Street Cats tent, and you know he’d never let one little kitten whisker be hurt—let alone a whole coat,” I assured my BFF, refusing to let Aphrodite mess up our good mood. “Actually, everything is more than fine. Check out what we managed to pull off in a little over a week.” I sighed in relief at the success of our event and let my gaze wander around the packed school grounds. Stevie Rae, Shaylin, Shaunee, Aphrodite, and I were manning the bake sale booth (while Stevie Rae’s mom and a bunch of her PTA friends moved through the crowd with samples of the chocolate chip cookies we were selling, like, zillions of). From our position near Nyx’s statue, we had a great view of the whole campus. I could see a long line at Grandma’s lavender booth. That made me smile. Not far from Grandma, Thanatos had set up a job application area, and there were a bunch of humans filling out paperwork there.
In the center of the grounds there were two huge silver-and-white tents draped with more of Dallas’s twinkling lights. In one tent Stark and Darius and the Sons of Erebus Warriors were demonstrating weaponry. I watched as Stark was showing a young boy how to hold a bow. Stark’s gaze lifted from the kid and met mine. We shared a quick, intimate smile before he went back to helping the boy.
Missing from the Warrior Tent were Kalona and Aurox. For obvious reasons, Thanatos had decided the Tulsa community wasn’t ready to meet either of them.
I agreed with her.
I wasn’t ready for . . .
I mentally shook myself. No, I wasn’t going to think about the Aurox/Heath situation now.
Instead I turned my attention to the second of the big tents. Lenobia was there, keeping a sharp eye on the people who clustered like buzzing bees around Mujaji and the big Percheron mare, Bonnie. Travis was with her. Travis was always with her, which made my heart feel good. It was awesome to see Lenobia in love. The Horse Mistress was like a bright, shining beacon of joy, and with all the Darkness I’d seen lately, that was rain in my desert.
“Oh, for shit’s sake, where did I put my wine? Has anyone seen my Queenies cup? As the bumpkin reminded me, my parents are here somewhere, and I’m going to need fortification by the time they circle around and find me. ” Aphrodite was muttering and pawing through the boxes of unsold cookies, searching for the big purple plastic cup I’d seen her drinking from earlier.
“You have wine in that Queenies to-go cup?” Stevie Rae was shaking her head at Aphrodite.
“And you’ve been drinkin’ it through a straw?” Shaunee joined Stevie Rae in a head shake. “Isn’t that nasty?”
“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” Aphrodite quipped. “There are too many nuns lurking around to drink openly without hearing a boring lecture.” Aphrodite cut her eyes to the right of us, where Street Cats had set up a half-moon display of cages filled with adoptable cats and bins of catnip-filled toys for sale. They had their own miniature version of the silver-and-white tents, and I could see Damien sitting inside busily handling the cash register, but except for him, running every aspect of the feline area were the habit-wearing Benedictine nuns who had made Street Cats their own.
One of the nuns looked my way and I waved and grinned at the Abbess. Sister Mary Angela waved back before returning to the conversation she was having with a family who were obviously falling in love with a cute white cat that looked like a giant cottonball.
“Aphrodite, the nuns are cool,” I reminded her.
“And they look too busy to pay any attention to you,” Stevie Rae said.
“Imagine that—you may not be the center of everyone’s attention,” Shaylin said with mock surprise.
Stevie Rae covered her giggle with a cough. Before Aphrodite could say something hateful, Grandma limped up to us. Other than the limp and being pale, Grandma looked healthy and happy. It had only been a little over a week since Neferet had kidnapped and tried to kill her, but she’d recovered with amazing quickness. Thanatos had told us that was because she was in unusually good shape for a woman of her age.
I knew it was because of something else—something we both shared —a special bond with a goddess who believed in giving her children free choice, along with gifting them with special abilities. Grandma was beloved of the Great Mother, and drew her strength directly from our magickal Oklahoma earth.
“U-we-tsi-a-ge-ya, it seems I need help at the lavender booth. I simply cannot believe how busy we are.” Grandma had barely spoken when a nun hurried up. “Zoey, Sister Mary Angela could use your help filling out cat adoption forms.”
“I’ll help you, Grandma Redbird,” Shaylin said. “I love the smell of lavender.”
“Oh, honey, that would be so sweet of you. First, could you run to my car and get into the trunk? There is another box of lavender soaps and sachets tucked back there. Looks like I’m going to sell out completely,” Grandma said happily.
“Sure thing.” Shaylin caught the keys Grandma tossed to her and hurried toward the main exit of the school grounds, which led to the parking lot as well as to the tree-lined road that joined Utica Street.
“And I’ll call my momma. She said just let her know if we get too busy over here. She and the PTA moms will be back in a sec.”
“Grandma, do you mind if I give Street Cats a hand? I’ve been dying to check out their new litter of kittens.”
“Go on, u-we-tsi-a-ge-ya. I think Sister Mary Angela has been missing your company.”
“Thanks, Grandma,” I smiled at her. Then I turned to Stevie Rae. “Okay, if your mom’s group is coming back, I’m gonna go help the nuns.”
“Yeah, no problem.” Stevie Rae, shielding her eyes and peering through the crowd, added, “I see her now, and she’s got Mrs. Rowland and Mrs. Wilson with her.”
“Don’t worry. We can handle this,” Shaunee said.
“’Kay,” I said, grinning at both of them. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.” I left the cookie booth and noticed Aphrodite, clutching her big purple Queenies cup, was right on my heels. “I thought you didn’t want a lecture from the nuns.”
“Better than a lecture from PTA moms.” She shuddered. “Plus, I like cats more than people.”
I shrugged. “Okay, whatever.”
We’d only gotten partway to the Street Cats tent when Aphrodite slowed way down. “Seriously. Effing. Pathetic.” She was muttering around her straw, narrowing her eyes and glaring. I followed her gaze and joined her frown.
“Yeah, no matter how many times I see them together, I still don’t get it.” Aphrodite and I had stopped to watch Shaunee’s ex-Twin BFF, Erin, hang all over Dallas. “I really thought she was better than that.”
“Apparently not,” Aphrodite said.
“Okay, eeew,” I said, looking away from their way-too-public display of locked lips.
“I’m telling you, there’s not enough booze in Tulsa to make watching those two make out okay.” She made a gagging sound, which changed to a snort and a laugh. “Check out the wimple, twelve o’clock.”
Sure enough, there was a nun I vaguely recognized as Sister Emily (one of the more uptight of the nuns) descending on the too-busy-with-their-tongues-to-notice couple. “She looks serious,” I said.
“You know, a nun may very well be the direct opposite of an aphrodisiac. This should be entertaining. Let’s watch.”
“Zoey! Over here!” I looked from the train wreck about to happen to see Sister Mary Angela waving me over to her.
“Come on.” I hooked my arm through Aphrodite’s and started to pull her to the Street Cats tent. “You haven’t been good enough to watch.”
Before Aphrodite could argue, we were at the Street Cats booth, facing a beaming Sister Mary Angela. “Oh, good, Zoey and Aphrodite. I need the both of you.” The nun made a gracious gesture to the young family standing beside one of the kitten cages. “This is the Cronley family. They have decided to adopt both of the calico kittens. It’s so lovely that the two of them have found their forever homes together—they are unusually close, even for littermates.”
“That’s great,” I said. “I’ll start on their paperwork.”
“I’ll help you. Two cats—two sets of paperwork,” Aphrodite said.
“We came with a note from our veterinarian,” the mom said. “I just knew we’d find our kitten tonight.”
“Even though we didn’t expect to find two of them,” her husband added. He squeezed his wife’s shoulder and smiled down at her with obvious affection.
“Well, we didn’t expect the twins either,” his wife said, glancing over at the two girls who were still looking in the kitten cage and giggling at the fluffy calicoes that would be joining their family.
“That surprise turned out great, which is why I think the two kittens will be perfect as well,” said the dad.
It was like seeing Lenobia and Travis together—this family made my heart feel good.
I had started to move to the makeshift desk with Aphrodite when one of the little girls asked, “Hey, mommy, what are those black things?”
Something in the child’s voice had me pausing, changing direction, and heading to the kitten cage.
When I got there I instantly knew why. Within the cage the two calico kittens were hissing and batting at several large black spiders.
“Oh, yuck!” the mom said. “Looks like your school might have a spider problem.
“I know a good exterminator if you need a recommendation,” the dad said.
“We’re gonna need a shit ton more than a good exterminator,” Aphrodite whispered as we both stared into the kitten cage.
“Yeah, uh, well, we don’t usually have bug issues here,” I babbled as disgust shivered up my back.
“Eesh, Daddy! There are lots more of them.”
The little blond girl was pointing at the back of the cage. It was so completely covered with spiders that it seemed to be alive with their seething movements.
“Oh, my goodness!” Sister Mary Angela looked pale as she stared at the spiders that appeared to be multiplying. “Those things weren’t there moments ago.”
“Sister, why don’t you take this nice family into the tent and get their paperwork started,” I said quickly, meeting the nun’s concerned gaze with my own steady one. “And send Damien out here to me. I can use his help to take care of this silly spider problem.”
“Yes, yes, of course.” The nun didn’t hesitate.
“Get Shaunee, Shaylin, and Stevie Rae,” I told Aphrodite, keeping my voice low.
“You’re going to cast a circle in front of all of these humans?” Aphrodite whispered at me.
“Would you rather have her do that, or have Neferet start eating all these humans?” Suddenly Stark was there, beside me. I could feel his strength and his concern. “It is Neferet, isn’t it?”
“It’s spiders. Lots of spiders.” I pointed at the cages.
“Sounds like Neferet to me,” Damien said quietly as he joined us.
“I’ll get the rest of the circle.” Aphrodite dropped her to-go cup and started jogging back to the bakery tent.
“What’s the plan?” Stark asked, his eyes not leaving the ever-growing nest of spiders.
“We protect what is ours,” I said. Then I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket and tapped the name THANATOS. She answered on the first ring.
“Something has changed here. I can feel the approach of death.” The High Priestess didn’t raise her voice, but I could hear the tension thrumming through it.
“Spiders are materializing in the Street Cats booth. Lots of them. I’ve called my circle to me.”
“Neferet.” She spoke the name solemnly, confirming my gut reaction. “Invoke the protection of the elements. Whatever the Tsi Sgili is materializing, we know it isn’t natural—so use nature to expel it.”
“Will do,” I said.
“I’ll begin the raffle and call the attention of the humans to the Warrior Tent. They’ll be safest there. Zoey, be as discreet as you can be. It only serves Neferet’s purpose if today ends in panic and chaos.”
“Got it.” I hung up.
“Are we circling?” Damien asked.
“Yep. We’re using our elements to get rid of this bug problem.” I didn’t hesitate, nor did I wait for the rest of my circle. While Stark looked on protectively, I took Damien’s hand. He and I faced the kittens’ cages.
“Air, please come to me,” Damien said.
I felt the response of his element instantly. “Focus it,” I told him.
He nodded. “Air, blow this Darkness away.”
The wind, that had been almost teasingly lifting Damien’s hair, rushed from him, swirling around the nest of spiders and making them writhe angrily.
“Ladies and gentlemen, fledglings, and vampyres, this is Thanatos, High Priestess of Tulsa’s House of Night, and your hostess this evening. I ask that everyone please make their way to the center of the campus and the silver-and-white Warrior Tent. Our raffle is beginning and you must be present to win.”
Thanatos’s voice over the loudspeaker sounded so normal, so principal-like, that it made the skittering nest of spiders seem even more abhorrent.
“Oh, no, you don’t need to worry about the details,” Sister Mary Angela said as she was herding the young couple and their twin girls from her tent. “My assistants will have the kittens all ready for you to pick up after the raffle.”
“Why are the kids holding hands like that?” I heard one of the little girls ask.
“Oh, I’m sure they’re just praying,” Sister Mary Angela said smoothly. Then, over her shoulder, she told the half dozen or so nuns who had been running the booth, “Sisters, be sure the young people have the privacy they need for their prayers.”
“Of course, Sister,” the women murmured, and with no questions or hesitations, they spread out, standing between us, their tent, the cat cages, and the rest of the campus, thus effectively creating a nun curtain between us and possible gawkers.
Then Shaunee and Stevie Rae sprinted up with Aphrodite, burst through the nun barrier, and skidded to a halt, their eyes bugging wide at the seething mass of insects.
“Ah, shit!” Shaunee said.
“Ohmygoodness!” Stevie Rae pressed her hand over her mouth in distaste.
“Neferet seriously makes my ass hurt,” Aphrodite said, grimacing at the spiders.
“We need to get all the elements here and have them kick these spiders off campus,” I said. “But we can’t make a scene.”
“Yeah, ’cause Neferet would want to F everything up by causing a big ol’ scary scene and freaking out the humans,” Shaunee said. “No worries, Z. I’ll keep it on the back burner.” She walked purposefully over to Damien, who held his hand out to her. She took it and, staring at the mass of dark legs and pulsing bodies, said, “Fire, come to me.” The air around us heated. The beautiful black girl smiled and continued, “Heat ’em up, but don’t make ’em fry.”
Fire did exactly as she asked. There was no smoke or flames or fireworks, but the air around us got really warm and the mass of spiders twitched in obvious discomfort.
I looked around, just then noticing that Shaylin hadn’t joined us. “Where’s water? We need Shaylin for the circle.”
“She’s not back from the parking lot,” Stevie Rae said. “I called her phone, but she’s not answering.”
“Probably can’t hear it,” Damien said. “There’s a lot going on out there.”
“Okay, no problem. I’ll stand in for water,” Aphrodite said. “It won’t be as strong, but at least it’ll be a complete circle.”
Aphrodite started to move to take Shaunee’s hand when Erin stepped through the nun barrier.
“I knew a circle was going on! I could feel it,” Erin said, and then she curled her lip at Aphrodite. “You’re going to call water? Ha! You’re a piss-poor substitute for me—the real deal.”
“You’re a real something, that’s for sure,” Aphrodite told her. “But a deal isn’t it.”
“I told you not to have anything to do with these pussies,” Dallas said, sneering at a nun who tried to keep him outside their barrier.
“I know what you said, baby.” Erin sent him a flirty smile. “But you know I gotta do what I gotta do. And I’m not cool with water being left out of a circle.”
Dallas shrugged. “Whatever. Seems like a waste of time to me. Plus, why the hell are your idiot ex-friends circling during the open house?” His mean, sharp gaze narrowed, as if he had just realized what the nun barrier meant. “Hey, just exactly what’s going on in here?”
“We don’t have time for this,” I snapped. “Stark, get rid of Dallas, and be sure he stays shut up until the open house is over.”
“Gladly!” Smiling, Stark picked Dallas up by the back of his shirt and pulled him away from us and from the center of campus. Dallas was struggling and cussing, but he was little more than a buzzing mosquito to Stark’s strength. I turned to Erin. “No matter what else has happened, you’re water and your element is welcome in our circle, but we don’t need any negative energy here—this is too important.” I nodded to the spiders. Erin’s gaze followed mine and she gasped.
“What the hell is that?”
I opened my mouth to evade her question, but my gut stopped me. I met Erin’s blue eyes. “I think it’s what’s left of Neferet. I know it’s evil and it doesn’t belong at our school. Will you help us kick it out?”
“Spiders are disgusting,” she began, but her voice faltered as she glanced at Shaunee. She lifted her chin and cleared her throat. “Disgusting things should go.” Resolutely, she walked over to Shaunee and paused. “This is my school, too.”
I thought Erin’s voice sounded weird and kinda raspy. I hoped that meant that her emotions were unfreezing and that, maybe, she was coming back around to being the kid we used to know.
Shaunee held out her hand. Erin took it. “I’m glad you’re here,” I heard Shaunee whisper.
Erin said nothing.
“Be discreet,” I told her.
Erin nodded tightly. “Water, come to me.” I could smell the sea and spring rains. “Make them wet,” she continued.
Water beaded the cages and a puddle began to form under them. A fist-sized clump of spiders lost their hold on the metal and splashed to the waiting pool.
“Stevie Rae,” I said and held my hand out to her. She took mine, then Erin’s, completing the circle.
“Earth, come to me,” she said. The scents and sounds of a meadow surrounded us. “Don’t let this pollute our campus.”
Ever so slightly, the earth beneath us trembled. More spiders tumbled from the cages and fell into the pooling water, making it churn.
Finally, it was my turn. “Spirit, come to me. Support the elements in expelling this Darkness that does not belong at our school.”
There was a whooshing sound and all of the spiders dropped from the cages, falling into the waiting pool of water. The water quivered and began to change form, elongating and expanding.
I focused, feeling the indwelling of spirit, the element for which I had the greatest affinity, and in my mind I pictured the pool of spiders being thrown out of our campus, like someone had emptied a pot of disgusting toilet water. Keeping that image in mind, I commanded: “Now get out!”
“Out!” Damien echoed.
“Go!” Shaunee said.
“Leave!” Erin said.
“Bye-bye now!” Stevie Rae said.
Then, just like in my imagination, the pool of spiders lifted up, like they were about to be hurled from the earth. But in the space of a single breath the dark image reformed again into a familiar silhouette—curvaceous, beautiful, deadly. Neferet! Her features weren’t fully formed, but I recognized her and the malicious energy that radiated from her.
“No!” I shouted. “Spirit! Strengthen each of the elements with the power of our love and loyalty! Air! Fire! Water! Earth! I call on thee, so mote it be!”
There was a terrible shriek, and the Neferet apparition rushed forward. It surged from our circle, breaking over Erin like a terrible black tide. With the sound of a thousand skittering spiders, the specter fled through the main entrance of the school and then disappeared completely.
“Holy shit. That was seriously gross,” Aphrodite said.
I was going to agree with Aphrodite when I heard the first, terrible cough.
I felt the circle break before I saw her fall to her knees. She looked up at me and coughed again. Blood sprayed from her lips. “Didn’t think it would end like this,” she rasped.
“I’m getting Thanatos!” Aphrodite called as she sprinted away.
“No! This can’t be happening,” Shaunee said, dropping to her knees beside the already blood-soaked Erin. “Twin! Please. You’ll be fine!”
Erin fell into her arms. Damien, Stevie Rae, and I shared a look, and then as one, we joined Shaunee as she held her friend.
“I’m so sorry,” Shaunee sobbed. “I didn’t mean anything bad that I said to you.”
“It’s—it’s okay, Twin.” Erin spoke slowly between wracking coughs as the blood bubbled in her throat and streamed crimson from her eyes and ears and nose. “It was my fault. I—I forgot how to feel.”
“We’re here with you,” I said, touching Erin’s hair. “Spirit, calm her.”
“Earth, sooth her,” Stevie Rae said.
“Air, envelope her,” Damien said.
“Fire, warm her,” Shaunee spoke through her tears.
Erin smiled and touched Shaunee’s face. “It already has warmed me. I—I don’t feel cold and alone anymore. Don’t feel anything except tired . . .”
“Just rest,” Shaunee said. “I’ll stay with you while you sleep.”
“We all will,” I said, wiping tears and snot from my face with the back of my sleeve.
Erin smiled one more time at Shaunee, and then she closed her eyes and died in her friend’s arms.
The House of Night story continues in REVEALED, coming October 2013!
Please don’t post spoilers for your fellow House of Night fans! Thanks, fledglings!