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I heard the door open, but I didn’t roll over. I didn’t want to see the horrified expression of a stranger. I closed my eyes tight and tried to pretend I was at Grandma’s lavender farm, sleeping in my bedroom there. Tried to pretend the egg and bacon smell was her cooking, and my coughing was just a cold keeping me home from school.

And I was doing it! Oh, thank you, Nyx! Suddenly I swear I could smell the scents that always lingered around Grandma, lavender and sweetgrass. That gave me the courage to speak quickly, before my voice was drowned in blood, to whoever was there. “It’s okay. This is what happens to some fledglings. Just please go away and leave me alone.”

“Oh, Zoeybird, my precious u-we-tsi-a-ge-ya, do you not know by now that I will never let you be alone?”

CHAPTER TWO

Zoey

I thought she was part of my dying hallucination, standing there at the door of my cell, dressed in a purple linen shirt and worn jeans, with one of her many picnic baskets in the crook of her arm, but as soon as I turned to face her, she rushed to me, sitting on the edge of my bed and enveloping me in her arms and in the scent of my childhood.

“Grandma! I’m so sorry! I’m so sorry!” I sobbed into her shoulder.

“Shhh, u-we-tsi-a-ge-ya, I am here.” She rubbed a soft circle in the middle of my back.

My coughing had temporarily eased, so I said in a rush, “It’s selfish of me, but I’m so glad you are. I don’t want to die all by myself.”

Grandma pulled back from me enough to take my shoulders in her hands and give me a stern shake. “Zoey Redbird, you are not dying.”

Tears spilled down my cheeks. I ignored them and wiped at the corner of my mouth, holding my trembling fingers out to her so that she could see the blood.

She barely glanced at the proof I was trying to show her. Instead she opened her picnic basket and took out a red and white checked napkin and began dabbing at my tears and my nose, just like she had when I was a little girl.

“Grandma, I know you love me more than anyone in the world,” I said, trying (unsuccessfully) not to cry. “But you can’t stop my body from rejecting the Change.”

“You are correct, u-we-tsi-a-ge-ya, I cannot. But they can.” She nodded to the doorway behind me.

I turned and saw Thanatos and Lenobia, Stevie Rae, Darius, and Stark—my Stark—all clustered in the doorway. Stevie Rae was bawling so hard I wondered how I hadn’t heard her.

Stark was crying, too, but silently.

“But I said not to follow me! I said I deserved to face my consequences.” I was crying as hard as Stevie Rae now.

“Then live and face them! And I’ll be right here as close to you as I can get through the whole thing!” Stark hurled the words at me.

“I can’t. I’ve already started rejecting the Change.” I sobbed.

“Child, your grandmother spoke the truth. Unless your body’s rejection of the Change was already fated, our presence will stop it,” Thanatos said.

“You’re not dying! I won’t let you!” Stark shouted through his tears, and started to come into my cell.

“Hold on there, boy! I said only one of you at a time can go into her cell.” A guy in a sheriff’s uniform stepped up from behind my group of friends and placed himself between them and my cell. “Detective Marx told me I had to allow you vampyres in the building if you showed up, but I ain’t bending the rules enough to let her have more than one visitor at a time. Her Grandma’s family. The rest of you can wait in the interrogation room.” He gave Grandma a stern look. “You have fifteen minutes.” Then he slammed the door.

“Fifteen minutes.” Grandma made a small sound of disgust. “That isn’t a proper visit. That is a hard-boiled egg. Well, then, I’ll not dillydally. Zoeybird, blow your nose and stand for me. You need a good smudging. Oh, the gentleman who searched this certainly made a mess of my basket.”

She was already rummaging around in her bottomless picnic basket, so I had to take her hands in mine to stop her and get her attention focused on what I was saying.

“Grandma, I love you. You know that, right?”

“Of course, u-we-tsi-a-ge-ya. And I love you—with all my heart. That is why I must smudge you. I wish there was a bathtub in here, or even a sink, to help cleanse you even more. But the smudging will have to do. I worked all night and finally chose to smudge from this oyster shell you and I dug when we followed the Mississippi River to the Gulf the summer you turned ten. Do you remember?”

“Yes, of course, but Grandma—”

“Good. I’ve ground and mixed together sage, cedar, and lavender. Combined, they make a powerful smudge for emotional and physical cleansing.” She was pouring dried herbs from a black velvet pouch into the oyster shell. “I’ve also brought an eagle feather and my favorite piece of raw turquoise. I know they might take it from you, but let us try to hide it within your mattress. It should serve to protect you while—”

“Grandma, please stop,” I interrupted her. Meeting her eyes without flinching, I said, “I killed those two men. I don’t deserve to be cleansed or protected. I deserve what was happening to me before you all showed up.”

I hadn’t meant to sound cold, but my words made her flinch, so I softened my voice, but not my resolve. “The vampyres may have made it so that I won’t drown in my own blood, but that doesn’t change the fact that I did a terrible thing—a thing that I have to be punished for.”

She paused in the preparation of my smudging and her sharp eyes met mine. “Tell me, u-we-tsi-a-ge-ya, why did you kill those two men?”

I shook my head and brushed my tangled hair from my face. “I didn’t know that I killed them until Detective Marx came to the House of Night. All I knew was that they’d made me mad—they were hanging around Woodward Park looking for people, mostly girls, to scare into giving them money.” I paused and shook my head again. “But that doesn’t make what I did okay. Once they realized what I was, they were going to leave me alone.”

“And move on to find another victim.”

“Probably, but not one to kill. They were panhandlers not serial killers.”

“So tell me what happened. How did you kill them?”

“I threw my anger at them. Just like I’d shoved Shaylin earlier and knocked her on her butt. Only I was even madder in the park. Somehow the Seer Stone amplified my feelings and gave me the power to attack all of them.”

“But you did not kill Shaylin,” Grandma said logically. “I saw the child at the House of Night just before I came here. She looked very much alive to me.”

“No, I didn’t kill her. Not that time. Who knows what would have happened if I hadn’t taken off and found my way to the park—and vented my anger on those two men? Grandma, I was out of control. I was a monster.”

“Zoey, you did a monstrous thing. But that does not make you a monster. You turned yourself in. You gave up the Seer Stone. You allowed yourself to be imprisoned. Those are not the actions of a monster.”

“But Grandma, I killed two men!” I felt tears well in my eyes again.

“And now you will have to face the consequences of your actions. But that does not mean you may give up and cause the people who love you even more pain.”

I bit my lip. “My whole point was to take responsibility by myself so that I didn’t hurt anyone else, especially not the people I love.”

“Zoeybird, I do not know why this terrible thing has happened. I do not believe you are a killer.” She held up her hand to quiet me when I tried to speak. “Yes, I am aware the two men are dead, and that you appear to be responsible for their deaths. And yet even you admit the Seer Stone played a major role in the accident, which means Old Magick is at work.”

“Yes, I have been using it,” I said sternly.

“Or it has been using you,” she countered with.

“Either way, the results are the same.”

“For the two men. Not necessarily for you, u-we-tsi-a-ge-ya. Now, stand before me. You need your mind cleared and your spirit cleansed so that you can analyze exactly what has brought you to this cell. You see, I am not here to help you hide from what you have done. I am here so that you may truly face it.”

As always, Grandma was the voice of reason and of unconditional love. I stood and allowed myself the brief, small comfort of watching her cradle the oyster shell in one hand while with the other she placed a tiny round piece of charcoal on top of the herbal mixture and lit it. As it sparked, she said, “Three deep breaths, u-we-tsi-a-ge-ya. And with each, release the toxic energy that clouds your mind and darkens your spirit. Envision it, Zoeybird. What color is it?”

“A sick green,” I said, thinking of the disgusting stuff that had come out of my nose last time I’d had a sinus infection.

“Excellent. Breathe out and envision ridding yourself of it along with your breath.”

The charcoal had stopped sparkling and was beginning to gray around the edges. Grandma reached into the black velvet pouch and began sprinkling the herbs over the coal, saying, “I thank you, spirit of white sage, for your strength, your purity, your power.” Sweet smoke began to lift from the oyster shell. “I thank you, spirit of cedar, for your divine nature, for your ability to create a bridge between earth and Otherworld.”

More smoke lifted and I breathed deeply in and out, in and out.

“And, as always, I thank you, spirit of lavender, for your soothing nature, for your ability to allow us to release our anger and to embrace calm.” Then Grandma began walking a clockwise circle around me, shuffling her feet in an ancient, heartbeat rhythm that seemed to electrify the fragrant smoke and pulse it into my body as she wafted it around me with her eagle feather. Not missing a beat in her dance, Grandma’s voice paired with her movements, echoing through her blood to mine. “Out with what is toxic—green and bile-like. In with sweet smoke—silver and pure.”

I concentrated as she moved around me, falling into the ritual as easily as I had throughout my childhood.

“Draw in healing. Draw in cleansing. Draw in calming. Green bile, gone it will be. Replaced by silver and clarity,” Grandma sang to me.

I lifted my hands, guiding the smoke around my head, concentrating on the silver cleansing.

“O-s-da,” Grandma said, then repeated in English, “Good. You are regaining your center.”

I’d been lulled into a sleepy, trance-like state by the smoke and Grandma’s song. I blinked, as if surfacing from a deep dive, and my eyes widened with surprise. Clearly visible through the smoke was a bright silver light that, bubble-like, surrounded Grandma and me.

“That is what you are projecting now, Zoeybird. It has taken the place of the Darkness that was within you.”

I drew another deep breath, feeling an amazing lightness in my chest. Gone was the terrible tightness that had been there when I’d begun coughing. Gone was the awful sense of despair that had been with me for—

For how long? I wondered. Now that it was gone, I realized how smothering it had been.

Grandma had halted in front of me. She placed the still-smoking oyster shell between us at our feet, and then she took my hands in hers.

“I do not know everything. I do not have the answers you seek. I cannot do more than cleanse and heal your mind and spirit. I cannot take you from this place or change the past that has brought you here. I can only love you and remind you of this one, small rule that I have tried to live my life by: I cannot control others. I can only control myself and my reactions to others. And when all else fails, I choose kindness. I show compassion. Then, if I have made poor choices, I have at least not damaged my spirit.”

“I failed in doing that, Grandma.”

“Failed—that is past tense, and you should leave that failure in the past where it belongs. Learn from your mistakes and move on. Do not fail again, u-we-tsi-a-ge-ya. That means if you must stand trial and go to prison for this terrible thing that has happened, then you do so speaking with truth and acting with compassion—as would a High Priestess of your Goddess.”

“I shouldn’t push away the people who love me.” I hadn’t phrased it as a question, but Grandma answered me nevertheless.

“Pushing those away who love you and have your best interest at heart would be the action of a child, and not that of a High Priestess.”

“Grandma, do you think Nyx still wants me to be her High Priestess?”

Grandma smiled. “I do, but what I think is not important. What do you believe of your Goddess, Zoey? Is she so fickle that she would love and then discard you so easily?”

“It isn’t Nyx I question. It’s myself,” I admitted.

“Then you must look to yourself. Hold tightly to your center.” She retrieved the raw turquoise stone she’d taken from the picnic basket earlier and folded it into my hand. “You have used the Seer Stone to focus your powers, whether willingly or not. Now I think you must find a focus within you, just as turquoise has its own protective power, you must find your own power—within yourself. This time do not look to anger, Zoeybird. Look to compassion and love.”

“Always love,” I finished for her, taking her stone in my hand and feeling its smoothness.

“Hold as tightly to your true self as you do this stone, and remember that I will always believe you are stronger, wiser, and kinder than you know you are.”

I put my arms around her and hugged her tightly. “I love you, Grandma. I always will.”

“As I will always love you.”

“Time’s up!” The guard’s voice made me reluctantly let go of Grandma. “Hey, what’s going on in here? What’s that you’re burning?”

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