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I heard it again! It was definitely a cat’s yowl. And it definitely sounded like it was in trouble. I couldn’t tell if it was Nal or not, but I could tell that it was coming from somewhere over by the east wall of the school.

Bad stuff always happens over there! I took off, jogging around behind the dorms, heading toward the wall, and calling, “Kitty kitty kitty kitty! Nala!”

The cat kept yowling. I realized that was good and bad. Good, because I could follow the sound of its voice. Bad, because as the closer I got, the more pitiful the cat sounded.

The next yowl had my stomach clenching. I was close enough to the old broken oak to know the cat was definitely somewhere up in that tree. Ah, hell! Why did it have to be that tree? The tree Kalona had split in two when he’d escaped his earth prison, the tree where Jack had died, the tree where I’d seen the disgusting Old Magick creatures.

I slowed down as I approached the creepy-looking thing. Okay, I like trees. I really do. I mean, I loved the Goddess Grove in the Otherworld. I love my earth affinity, even though I’m not as in tune to it as I am to spirit, but still. Normally, I don’t have a problem with trees.

This tree was different.

Kalona’s cave opened beneath it, and the way it had split apart made it look like it was the bones of a beast, frozen in death, crouched over the opening. All the other trees on campus were budding up, flushed with green. Not this one. It was black and leafless, malevolent and broken. Its branches making more claws than I could count.

“Mee-uf-ow!”

“Nala!” I scooped her up in my arms and kissed her wet nose. She, of course, sneezed on me.

“Rorw?”

I was still hugging squirming Nala when I heard the second cat and looked down. “Cammy?” He padded up to me and rubbed against my legs, leaving blond fur everywhere. “I’ll bet Damien doesn’t know you’re out here. You should be curled up with Duchess and him sound asleep.”

“Meeeeeow!”

That meow I knew without seeing the white beast who owned it. I looked over at the shattered base of the tree and, sure enough, there sat a giant white, smushed-face ball of fur and attitude. “Maleficent, Aphrodite would definitely not be happy that you’re out here terrorizing the other cats.” I paused. “Well, that’s probably a lie, but still. You should try not to be so much like her. Jeesh, what the heck do you think—” Then the shadows around the tree moved, and I realized that the creepy old oak was completely surrounded by House of Night cats.

I hugged Nala as an ice cube made its way down my spine. “What is going on out here?”

“That is what I was wondering.”

Aurox’s voice startled me into squeezing Nal too hard, and with a pissed-off grunt, she wriggled from my arms and padded to join the other cats around the tree.

“Did you make these cats come out here?”

“Me?” I shook my head at him. “Of course not. And if you knew anything about cats you’d know that you can’t make them go anywhere.”

“I do not know very much about cats,” he said.

“Well, all I did was follow the terrible yowl. Actually, it woke me up. I thought it was Nala, but she seems to be okay.”

“Yowl? What yowl? All I heard was you talking to the cats.”

I frowned at him and opened my mouth to explain the obvious—that something had brought me out here and that something was up with the cats, and also up with him. I mean, he didn’t have to sound so cold and rude whenever he bothered to talk to me, but the cat interrupted me.

“Wroooowwwwwwwww!” The pathetic yowl seemed to go on forever.

“It’s coming from up there, in the tree.” I shielded my eyes and squinted up into the nest of broken branches.

“There!” Aurox pointed. “I see it!”

I followed his finger and saw it, too. Way, way up, in the topmost branches, clung a really big cat. It was a long-haired orange and white tabby. Not the color of Nala’s bright orange. This cat was a softer color, like the orange had been diluted with cream. It looked familiar, and I squinted, trying to figure out whose cat it was, when I got a glimpse of his eyes. They were a startling greenish-yellow color, bright with intelligence.

“Holy crap! That’s Skylar! Neferet’s cat,” I said.

“Neferet’s cat? But why would he be here? He should be with her.”

“Wroooowwwwwwwww!” Skylar shrieked his yowl as the wind made the branches shudder beneath him and he scrambled to claw into his shifting perch.

“He’s going to fall,” Aurox said, moving so quickly that cats scattered in his wake.

“Hey, be careful. Skylar is a known biter. Seriously, Aurox. Cats pretty much reflect the fledgling or vampyre they choose, and we all know Neferet is—”

“Zo, I can’t just let him fall!”

And that shut me up. Not only did he sound like Heath, but he was doing a very stupid, very sweet, very Heath-like thing. Of course he was probably going to mess up as badly as Heath would have, but there didn’t seem to be much I could do about it except to wait to clean up the mess. And think. Hmm …

“Hey!” I called as he scrambled up the tree, monkey-like. “I’ve never heard of this, but maybe if a cat’s vampyre goes bad, it, well, commits suicide or something. He might be up there because Neferet is batshit crazy and he can’t deal with it.”

“I’m not going to let anyone commit suicide on my watch, not a fledgling or vampyre or annoying human—or even a cat. Known biter or not.”

“Okay, well, I hope Nyx is with you.”

“As do I.”

“Wroooowwwwwwwww!” Skylar shrieked as Aurox grabbed onto the group of branches that held him, adding a nasty-sounding, low-voiced growl while he scrambled backward.

“Try to talk to him. Kitty-kitty him nicely.”

“Kitty-kitty him? What is that?”

“Oh, boy. He’s doomed,” I told Nala. She sneezed and seemed to agree with me. The other cats were all staring up at Skylar, like they were there to witness something. I had no clue what to tell Aurox. “Um, well, try talking to him. I remember that he’s super smart.”

“All right. I will try.” Aurox hefted himself up so that he was sitting almost even with Skylar. I heard him clear his throat, and then in a completely normal, conversational voice, he started talking to the cat. “Merry meet, Skylar. I understand that you have been connected to Neferet. I, too, have been connected to her, so I can imagine some of what you may be feeling. She hurt me as well. She continues to hurt others. I cannot allow you to hurt yourself, though. I have chosen to protect this school, and you are part of this school.”

What happened next was one of the craziest things I’d ever seen—and I have definitely seen some serious crazy. Skylar cocked his head to one side as if he was listening to Aurox.

“Skylar,” Aurox continued solemnly, “I will protect you, even if it must be from yourself.”

Then Aurox held out his hand.

Slowly, Skylar stretched himself forward until he was within touching distance of Aurox’s hand. I held my breath, expecting the big cat to growl again and slap him with his claws. But he didn’t do that. Instead, Skylar sniffed him, paused, and then began rubbing his chin against Aurox’s hand. Even from where I was standing down below them, I could see the smile that lit Aurox’s face as he tentatively started to pet the cat. Skylar paused for a moment and cocked his head, studying Aurox again.

“You can choose not to let Neferet’s Darkness destroy your life,” Aurox told the cat earnestly as he stroked Skylar under his chin.

With no more hesitation, Skylar trotted nimbly forward into Aurox’s arms.

And every cat sitting around the broken tree began to purr.

When Aurox dropped to the ground, he was cradling Skylar tightly to him. The cat looked like he was hugging him and had his fluffy head tucked under Aurox’s chin. As Aurox got close to me, I could hear Skylar purring.

“Something happened up there,” Aurox said, moonstone eyes shining.

“Yeah.” I sniffed and wiped my face with the back of my sleeve. “Skylar chose you. You guys belong to each other now.”

Aurox gazed down at Skylar, petting the cat in long, loving strokes. Skylar never opened his eyes. Except for the fact that he was purring like crazy, he looked like he’d fallen asleep.

“Zo, he’s awesome!”

I smiled through my tears. “Yep, he sure is.”

Aurox glanced at me. Then he automatically reached into his jeans pocket and handed me the Kleenex. “You’re snotting again.”

“Yep, I sure am,” I said.

His eyes met mine. He looked away fast, but not before I saw the rawness of his expression.

“I am sorry. I should not call you Zo.”

“You can call me that if you want to,” I said.

His gaze met mine then, and I saw anger flash through his expression. “Do not be nice to me because you think I’m Heath.”

“Damn it, Aurox, I’m being nice to you because I like you! You saved my grandma. You’re cuddling a super-mean cat you just saved. YOU ARE A NICE GUY!” I paused, getting my voice under control before I finished. “That’s why I’m nice to you.”

“I wish that was the truth,” he said.

“Aurox, I promise you that I am only going to tell you the truth. I have way too much personal crap to deal with to add lying to the list.”

“You mean that, don’t you?”

“Yeah, I do.” I wiped my face and sniffled. “Thanks for the Kleenex.”

“You are welcome.”

“Do you have cat stuff in your room?”

He hesitated and then said softly, “I don’t really have a room.”

“Where’ve you been sleeping?”

“I don’t sleep.”

Goddess! He’s not even human! I felt the shock of it, and the memory of what he looked like when he morphed into the bull creature played through my mind. Purposefully, I pushed the image away.

“Well, you’re gonna need a room now. That cat needs a place to sleep and eat and, um, do you know anything about litter boxes?”

“What’s litter?”

I smiled at him. “Come on. Kalona doesn’t sleep either. Let’s find him. He can set you up with a room, cat food, and a litter box.” I kitty-kittyed Nala, and she actually came to me, jumping up into my arms. I noticed then that all the other cats had disappeared.

“Do you think Kalona knows things about cats?” Aurox asked me as we walked side by side.

“I’d bet on it. He used to be Nyx’s Warrior, and cats are a big part of the Otherworld. The Goddess loves them.”

Aurox’s expression went blank and he said, “Zo, do you think Skylar choosing me might mean Nyx cares about me? Just a little?”

“I’d bet on it,” was all I could say before my throat closed with tears and Aurox had to hand me another Kleenex.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Kalona

“Okay, I have to tell ya, that seemed really strange to me. Did it seem strange to you, too?” Detective Marx asked Kalona. He’d fallen in to step beside the winged immortal as they left the boys’ dormitory and walked out into the bright, beautiful midday sunshine.

Kalona raised his brows and gave a sideways glance at the detective. He was unused to conversing easily with anyone—especially anyone human. But Marx wasn’t awed by him. Nor did he judge him a monster because of his past. He treats me as if we are comrades-in-arms, Kalona realized with a small, unusual start of surprise.

It was with another start of surprise that the winged immortal realized he actually enjoyed the detective’s company.

“Strange? Having a mad, immortal vampyre’s cat choose a creature created out of Old Magick to be a weapon of Darkness, and then have to explain to the creature, who looks exactly like a confused boy, how to feed it and clean its litter box?” Kalona snorted. “Detective, I believe strange isn’t a strong enough descriptive word.”

“Glad to hear you say it!”

The detective smacked Kalona’s shoulder in a gesture that was filled with esprit de corps. Kalona had to grit his teeth against the stab of pain that shot through his body as Marx’s innocent gesture opened an unhealed wound. Kalona made certain his grunt reflected agreement and not discomfort.

Unaware of anything except their conversation, Marx chuckled and continued, “Yeah, there was a moment in there when the kid was scratching that damn giant cat under its chin that I was sure his eyes started to glow.”

“The cat’s or the kid’s?” Kalona joked mildly, ignoring the lingering pain.

“The kid’s. Can the cat’s eyes glow, too?” Marx shook his head. “No, don’t tell me. Now I understand why my sister says some vampyre things are off-limits to humans. It’s not good for our minds—might make us lose them.”

Kalona chuckled. “I think that has more to do with the strangeness of our times than the ability of humans to comprehend the abnormal.”

“You may have a point. These are definitely some weird-assed times.”

They walked on together without speaking, though Kalona didn’t feel the silence was awkward. They were just two men going about the business of protecting those who were important to them.

This is what it feels like to be part of a family. I like the way it feels! The thought came unbidden to Kalona’s mind, and he didn’t know what to do with it. How had the House of Night become his family? Kalona had no idea, but even Zoey Redbird, the fledgling he’d first tried to seduce and then destroy, had come to trust him enough that she sought him out to advise and aid Aurox when Neferet’s feline chose the vessel as his familiar.

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