The instant Kevin passed between worlds, he felt it: that awful, panicked sense of being lost. The strangeness that was the effect of Zoey’s spell—the one which had pulled him from and then returned him to his own world—was overwhelming. The feeling of being hopelessly lost was so strong, so urgent, that it took him back to a spring day when he was seven years old and he’d gone shopping with his mom at the Seventy-First Street Super Target in Tulsa. He’d wandered away while his mom and his sisters had been looking at girl clothes. The next thing he knew, he was sitting in the middle of the home appliances department sobbing uncontrollably.
This was the same awful feeling, only now there would be no friendly employee to comfort him while waiting for his mom to respond to the lost-child page. Yeah, he was a fully Changed vampyre—a lieutenant in the Red Army—but there definitely were times he wished someone would save him.
“Not possible, Kev. Get it together,” he muttered to himself.
With a great whoosh, like an exhalation of breath, the bizarre hole between worlds disappeared, leaving only a rowan tree, out of place with its greenery, in the space where the tear in the fabric between worlds had been. As his lifeline to his sister Zoey—and her world, which had felt more like home than his own—closed, Kevin wished more than anything else that he could devolve to his seven-year-old self, sit down, and cry for his mommy to save him.
But he wasn’t a child anymore, and his mother had stopped being a mommy years ago, so Kevin did what he’d told himself to do—he got himself together. He reassuringly touched the pouch that hung from the leather cord around his neck and took comfort that it had made the trip with him. He checked the inside pocket of his jacket to be sure the copy of Neferet’s journal was still there, and then he studied his surroundings.
It was dark, just as it had been when he’d left Zo’s world, and cold—though here there wasn’t any snow covering the winter-brown grass. He looked to his right. There was no stone wall enclosing High Priestess Neferet’s tomb. There was only a rocky grotto and a small, half-frozen pond.
Because in this world Neferet is free and in charge. Just the thought had his stress level spiking.
Kevin cracked his knuckles as he lifted his gaze and followed the ridge overlooking the grotto. Sure enough, ancient oaks formed a backdrop to huge clumps of sleeping azaleas.
“This is definitely Woodward Park, but not the one I just left.” Kevin sighed. Okay, one thing at a time—that’s all I can do—but I have to actually do something, and not just stand here cracking my knuckles and feeling miserable.
Kevin did have a plan, but it was one that made his stomach clench with nerves. He needed to see someone, and he wasn’t sure how well it would go over. People were the same yet disturbingly different here, and he hadn’t seen her in over a year.
What if she wouldn’t see him at all? Or worse, what if she saw him, but rejected him—refused to see he was different than the others and wouldn’t invite him in? Then what the heck will I do? And how will I bear it if she turns her back on me?
“I have to take the chance. If I want to try to make things right I don’t have much choice. I need allies, and she’s the best one I can think of,” Kevin told himself as he made his way across the brittle brown grass to the sidewalk that edged Twenty-First Street and bordered the park. Walking quickly, he turned right, heading up the little rise in the street for the soft glow ahead that was Utica Square.
It was a short walk to the upscale stores and restaurants that made up the square, though Kev found himself wishing it would take him longer. Utica’s big old four-faced clock, which stood proudly in front of the Russell Stover Candies store, said that it was past midnight, but the square was humming with activity. Since Neferet had taken control of Tulsa and most of the Midwest, human business hours had changed drastically to reflect the fact that vampyres, not humans, were in charge. Utica Square’s stores, as well as any store or restaurant in Tulsa and the surrounding area that vampyres might want to patronize, opened at dusk and closed at sunrise.
There were, of course, a few stores that opened for humans during the day—mostly groceries, gas stations, and other necessities. But compared to vampyre-patronized businesses, they were shabby remnants of a dying past.
This cold Christmas Eve, Utica Square was dressed with lights—not in celebration of Christmas, but rather because Neferet liked everything to look bright and shiny and beautiful on the surface, no matter what went on just under the pretty veneer.
Blue vampyres and fledglings passed Kevin on the sidewalk, hardly giving him a look, which he found comforting. If an alert had been sounded when he, General Dominick, and the others from his Red Army squad had gone missing, Sons of Erebus Warriors would have been posted at all public venues in Tulsa and Kevin would definitely have been stopped.
The few humans who were out and about reacted normally to him as well. They didn’t make eye contact and gave him a wide berth, leaving the sidewalk or darting into whatever restaurant or boutique was close by to avoid him and the possibility that he was hungry enough to snatch one of them up and have a quick bite. Though Neferet’s “official” stance was to discourage red vamps feeding on humans in public, the truth was the only reason the High Priestess wanted the Red Army to show any self-control was that public feeding tended to cause panic. Neferet considered human panic ugly and distracting. So, basically, if it happened … well, it happened. There were usually no consequences for the vamps except a mild verbal rebuke.
It used to upset Kevin that humans were so obviously and justifiably terrified of him, but this night it relieved him. He knew he smelled different—or, specifically, not grave-like—since Nyx had gifted him with his humanity again, but the people of Tulsa were so used to monsters in the night they didn’t get close enough to him to realize he was no longer the boogeyman.
Kev didn’t let his guard down, though. He considered taking the bus to the depot where his car was parked, but just the thought of facing ravenous red fledglings and curious red vampyres had his stomach clenching. What the heck would he tell them when the inevitable happened—when they realized he’d irrevocably Changed? He needed time and a plan.
But mostly Kevin needed help.
He could easily walk the block to the House of Night, but there was no help waiting there, and he had no desire to return to this House of Night. Not now. Not after he’d spent time at the other House of Night, where his sister was High Priestess and humans were welcome as friends, not abused as slaves and walking blood refrigerators.
There was only one place Kevin wanted to go, and only one person he wanted to see. Again, his hand went to the lump that rested under his shirt near his heart. He pressed his palm against the little hand-beaded leather bag, finding comfort in its presence.
Kevin made his way through Utica Square to the rear of the village-like shopping center, past Fleming’s Steakhouse and Ihloff Salon to the darker, quieter parking lot beyond. It was crowded, so it didn’t take long for Kevin to find what he needed.
A lone man, human and well-dressed, wove his way quickly through the cars, heading to the parking spaces that faced the Italian villa–style condos rising like an out-of-place piece of the Mediterranean that had been wrenched from the Amalfi Coast and plopped down in midtown Tulsa.
Silently, Kevin followed him. When his remote key beeped, unlocking the Audi SUV, Kevin stepped from the shadows to face the man.
“Good evening,” Kevin said.
The man’s eyes went huge and round and his face blanched to bone white. He held out the packages in his hands as part offering, part shield. “P-please! I have a family at home. Please don’t bite me. I’ll give you anything else you want, but my kids need me, and I don’t want to die.”
Kevin’s stomach roiled. He hated this. He hated that just the sight of his red vampyre Mark instantly created a sense of fear and panic in humans. Kevin stared into the man’s eyes and spoke slowly, gently.
“I’m not going to hurt you. You don’t need to be afraid.” The man instantly quieted. “You’re not under a vampyre’s protection?” Kevin asked as he glanced at the man’s unmarked hand. Blue vamps had taken to tattooing crescent moons on the hands of humans under their protection so that hungry red vamps knew they were off-limits.
“Not a specific vampyre,” the man spoke as if from a dream as Kevin’s will held him, rooted in place and unable to do anything except what Kevin commanded.
“But you do something that protects you?”
The man nodded sleepily. “I own Harvard Meats. On the corner of Fifteenth and Harvard.”
“Oh, sure, I know the place.” And Kevin did. This man didn’t need to be under the protection of a specific vampyre because his business—being the butcher who provided the best meats in town to the House of Night and their favorite restaurants—was protection in itself. “Okay, here’s what I want you to do. Give me your keys. Are you within walking distance of your home?”
The man nodded again. “I live at Thirteenth and Columbia.”
“Good. You’ll need to walk home. Tomorrow report your SUV missing. Tell them you think it was high school kids—from Union,” Kevin added as an afterthought. He’d grown up in Broken Arrow. BA and Union were major rivals, and he had to hide his grin at this small payback for Union winning the last state football championship.
“I’ll report it stolen. By Union kids. Tomorrow,” the man repeated by rote, handing Kevin his keys.
Kevin hesitated, calling the man back as he turned, moving mechanically, to begin walking home. “Hey, uh, do you need anything from your SUV?”
The man blinked at him, as if he didn’t understand the question.
“Is there anything in your SUV that you should take home with you?” Kevin rephrased the question, looking into the man’s eyes, increasing his control over him.
“Yes. My laptop,” the man said immediately, though his voice still had a dreamy tone to it. “And a few more gifts for the kids.”
“Take them,” Kevin said. “Hurry.”
The man moved quickly, opening the back door and taking out a slim laptop and a bag full of wrapped packages. Then he turned back to Kevin, waiting to be told what to do next.
“Go home now. Fast. Don’t talk to anyone. If you get stopped by a Warrior tell him you are on the business of a lieutenant of the Red Army.”
“I am on the business of a lieutenant of the Red Army.”
“One more thing. This is going to be your best Christmas ever. Actually, it’s going to be your best year ever. You’re going to show your wife and kids how much you love them every day, and you’re going to be sure that you and your family are invaluable to the House of Night by choosing special cuts of meat only for Neferet.” Kevin paused, thinking, and then added, “Marinate the meat in a red wine sauce. Neferet really likes her red wine. Understand?”
“Okay, now go. Fast!”
The man rushed away, clutching the laptop and the bag of presents to his chest as if they were all made of gold.
Humming the Broken Arrow fight song softly to himself, Kevin got in the Audi. He took a moment to appreciate the nice interior before starting the car and pulling out of Utica Square. And then he was on his way to the Muskogee Turnpike, which was just a short skip from downtown Tulsa. Once he headed south on the turnpike, Kevin turned up 98.5 and attempted to let Blake Shelton’s familiar Okie twang soothe his nerves.
Kevin wasn’t exactly sure what he was going to do, but he was exactly sure who he needed to see to get help figuring it out.
The hour-and-a-half drive whizzed by, and soon Kevin was pulling off the highway and winding around an old two-lane until he came to the gravel and dirt road driveway that divided sleeping lavender fields and led to a familiar stone cottage with a wide front porch.
His stomach did nervous flip-flops as he cracked his knuckles and then raised his fist to knock on the door.
Kevin paused. What if she wouldn’t invite him in?
He swallowed that terrible thought just as the door opened before he could even knock.
“Hi, G-ma Redbird! It’s me. Kevin.”
The only sign of shock the old woman gave was a slight pinking of her brown cheeks.
“It has been a while, but I do recognize my own family,” G-ma said. She made no move to invite him in. “What can I do for you, Kevin?”
“I need your help. Actually, I need more than your help. I need a plan. It’s a lot to explain. Could I please come in?”
“I get no pleasure in saying this, but no. You may not come in. I see that you made the Change.”
“Yeah, months ago. I’m sorry I haven’t come to see you until now, but you know why I didn’t. I had to be sure I could control myself. Well, I’m sure now, and the reason I’m sure is incredible.”
“I’m sorry, Kevin. Today is not my day to die, and even were it, I would not want to meet the Great Goddess after my grandson turned me into a ravenous monster. No. Please leave, child. You are breaking my heart, and it is already in more pieces than I can count.” Sadly, slowly, Grandma Redbird began to turn from the door.
“Wait, G-ma. Please look at this first.” Kevin lifted the medicine bag from around his neck and held it so that Grandma Redbird could get a good look at it.
Her brow wrinkled in confusion. “That is mine. But, I’m wearing it …” Her hand lifted automatically, going to the leather cord that held an identical medicine bag around her neck.
“G-ma, you gave it to me.”
“No, Kevin.” She lifted the identical beaded bag. “This is mine. That one, well, it is a strangely similar copy.”
Kevin couldn’t cross the barrier of her doorway unless he was invited in, but the bag definitely could. “Here, look at it. You’ll see.” He tossed it to her, and G-ma caught it easily.
He watched her open the little bag and pour the contents into her palm. There was a purple amethyst crystal and a piece of raw turquoise shaped like a perfect heart, as well as a sprig of lavender, the breast feather of a dove, and a spoonful of red dirt. The last thing that fell out of the bag was a rolled-up strip of lavender-scented paper.
With steady hands, G-ma Redbird unrolled the paper to reveal two words, written in her strong cursive script.
G-ma’s sharp brown eyes found his. “Where did you get this?”
“Like I said, from you. In another version of our world. After Zoey called me there and Aphrodite and Nyx restored my humanity. G-ma, it’s a long story, but I swear on Zoey’s memory that you did give this to me and told me to go to you and show you. I need you, G-ma. I don’t know where else to go or who else I can turn to. Will you please let me come in? I won’t hurt you. I won’t ever hurt you.”
Sylvia Redbird studied Kevin carefully. Then her gaze fell, once again, to the two words written in her own hand on the stationery she made for herself there on the lavender farm that grew such fragrant, unique plants that the vampyres left her in peace—as long as she kept providing them with the lavender products Neferet so enjoyed.
“Kevin, I would like to invite you into my home.” The old woman stepped back, holding the door open for her grandson.
He entered the cottage and took a deep breath of air scented with childhood memories. Through the tears flooding his eyes he grinned at his g-ma. “Do I smell lavender chocolate-chip cookies?”
“You do, indeed. Would you like some?”
“More than almost anything,” Kevin said. “But first, could I please have a hug?”
“Oh, u-we-tsi, that would bring me great pleasure!”
Kevin held open his arms, and his tiny, loving, beautiful g-ma stepped into his embrace. And suddenly he found himself sobbing as she held him and patted his back gently, while he released the sorrow and loneliness and regret at having to leave his sister and return to a world filled with struggle and fear.
“It will all be okay now, u-we-tsi. It will be okay. I am here. I am here …”