read Burned | House of Night for Chapter Twenty-two by Kristin Cast
Author:Kristin Cast

Stevie Rae

"Okay, this really pisses me off." Stevie Rae kicked at another empty liter bottle of Dr Pepper that littered the tunnel.

"They's nasty and trifling." Kramisha agreed.

"Ohmygod. If they get me dirty, I'm gonna be so pissed," said Venus.

"Get you dirty? Girl, did you see what they done to my room?" Kramisha snarled.

"I really think we should focus," Dallas said. He kept running a hand along the concrete wall. The closer to the kitchen area they got, the more restless he became.

"Dallas is right," Stevie Rae said. "First we gotta kick them outta here, and then we can worry about gettin' our stuff back into shape."

"Pier One and Pottery Barn still have Aphrodite's gold card on file," Kramisha told Venus.

Venus looked majorly relieved. "Well, that'll fix this mess."

"Venus, you need a lot more than a gold card to fix the mess you've turned into." Sarcasm shot out of the shadows of the tunnel in front of them. "Look at you—you're all tame and boring. And I used to think you had seriously cool potential."

Venus, along with Stevie Rae and the rest of her fledglings, came to a halt. "I'm tame and boring?"

Venus's laugh was as sarcastic as Nicole's voice. "So your idea of seriously cool must be ripping out people's throats. Please. That can't even be attractive."

"Hey, don't knock it till you've tried it," Nicole said, tucking aside the blanket that had been resting across the entryway to the kitchen.

She was framed in the doorway by lanternlight from within. She looked thinner—harder than Stevie Rae remembered her looking. Starr and Kurtis stood a little way behind her, and behind them at least a dozen red-eyed fledglings gathered, glaring at them maliciously.

Stevie Rae took one step forward. Nicole's mean, red-tinged eyes darted from Venus to her.

"Oh, did you come back to play some more?" Nicole said.

"I'm not playin' with you, Nicole. And you're done ‘playing' "—she air quoted the word—"with people

around here."

"You can't tell us what to do!" the words exploded from Nicole. Behind her, Starr and Kurtis bared their teeth and made noises that were more snarls than laughter. The fledglings in the kitchen stirred restlessly.

It was then that Stevie Rae saw it. It hung near the ceiling over the rogue fledglings like a wavering sea of blackness that seemed to pool and write like a ghost made of nothing but darkness.

Darkness . . .

Stevie Rae swallowed down the bile of fear and forced her eyes to focus on Nicole. She knew what she had to do. She needed to end this now, before Darkness got a better hold than it already had on them.

Instead of responding to Nicole, Stevie Rae drew a deep, cleansing breath and said, "Earth, come to me!" When she felt the ground beneath her feet and the curved sides of the tunnel around her begin to warm, she turned her attention to Nicole.

"As usual, you have it wrong, Nicole. I'm not gonna tell you what to do." Stevie Rae spoke in a calm, reasonable voice. She knew from Nicole's widened eyes that she was probably taking on that green glow that had surrounded her at the House of Night, and she began lifting her hands, drawing more of the rich, vibrant energy of her element to her. "I'm gonna give you a choice, and then y'all are gonna take the consequences for what you choose. Just like all of us have to."

"How about you choose to take your pus**sy as**ses back to the House of Night with the rest of the spineless f**ks who call themselves vampyres," Nicole said.

"You know I ain't no pus**sy," Dallas said, stepping closer to Stevie Rae.

"Neither am I," rumbled Johnny B from behind Dallas.

"Nicole, I never did like you much. I always thought you had you a bad case of head-up-your-ass-itis.

Now I'm sure of it," Kramisha said, moving up to stand closer to Stevie Rae's other side. "And I do not like the way you talkin' to our High Priestess."

"Kramisha, I do not give one single shit for what you like or don't like. And she ain't my High Priestess!" Nicole shouted, spraying white spittle from her lips.

"Seriously gross," Venus said. "You might want to rethink this whole evil-fledgling thing. It's making you ugly, in more ways than one."

"Power is never ugly, and I have power," Nicole said.

Stevie Rae didn't have to look up to tell that the Darkness seeping from the ceiling of the kitchen was getting thicker.

"Okay, that's enough. Y'all clearly can't be nice, so this needs to be done. Here's your choice—and each of you need to make it for yourself." Stevie Rae looked behind Nicole as she spoke, meeting each set of glowing scarlet eyes, hoping beyond hope that she might get through to at least one of them. "You can embrace Light. If you do, that means you choose goodness and the way of the Goddess, and you can stay here with us. We'll be starting back to school at the House of Night Monday, but we'll be livin'

here in our tunnels, where we're surrounded by earth and we feel comfortable and all. Or you can keep choosing Darkness." Stevie Rae saw Nicole's little jerk of surprise when she gave a name to it. "Yeah, I know all about Darkness. And I can tell you that messin' with it, in any way, is a major mistake. But if that's your choice, then you're gonna have to leave here, alone, and not return."

"You can't make us do that!" Kurtis said from behind Nicole.

"I can," Stevie Rae lifted her hands, squeezing them into glowing fists. "And it won't be just me. Lenobia is tellin' the High Council 'bout y'all. You'll be officially banished from every House of Night in the world."

"Hey, Nicole, like Venus said before, you be lookin' kinda rough. How you feelin'?" Kramisha suddenly said. Then she raised her voice, talking to the kids over Nicole's shoulder. "How many a you been coughin' and feelin' like crap? Ain't no vampyre been 'round y'all for a while now, right?"

"Ohmygood ness, I don't know how I could've forgotten 'bout that," Stevie Rae said to Kramisha, then she turned her attention back to the kids in the kitchen, speaking right past Nicole. "So, how many of you wanna die? Again."

"Looks like bein' a red fledgling is really just another kind of fledgling," Dallas said.

"Yeah, you might die if you're around vamps," Johnny B said.

"But you for sure will die if you not around them," Kramisha said, with more than a hint of smugness in her tone. "But you know 'bout that 'cause y'all already died once. Wanna do it again?"

"So y'all need to choose," Stevie Rae said, still holding up her glowing fists.

"We sure as hell ain't choosing you for our High Priestess!" Nicole spat the words at her. "And neither would any of you if you knew the truth about her." With a Cheshire cat smile, she spoke the words Stevie Rae had feared most anyone hearing. "I'll bet she didn't tell you she saved a Raven Mocker, did she?"

"You're a liar," Stevie Rae said, meeting Nicole's red gaze steadily.

"How did you know there's a Raven Mocker in Tulsa?" Dallas said.

Nicole snorted. "He was here. Your precious High Priestess's scent was all over him because she saved his life . He's how we trapped her on the roof. She went up there to save him again ."

"That's bullshit!" Dallas shouted. He pressed his palm against the cement wall. Stevie Rae felt her hair lift in a sudden rush of static electricity.

"Wow, you really have them fooled." Nicole said mockingly.

"That's it. I'm done with this," Stevie Rae said. "Make your choice. Now. Light or Darkness, which will it be?"

"We already made our choice." Nicole's hand went up under her baggy shirt and came out with a snub-nosed gun, which she aimed at the middle of Stevie Rae's head.

Stevie Rae felt one instant of terror, and then she heard co**cking sounds and her stunned gaze went from Nicole's gun to the two Kurtis and Starr had raised and pointed at Dallas and Kramisha.

That pissed off Stevie Rae, and everything kicked into fast-forward.

"Protect them, earth!" Stevie Rae cried. Spreading wide her arms and releasing her fists, she imagined the power of earth, chrysalis-like, enclosing them. The air around her glowed a soft, mossy green. And as the barrier manifested, Stevie Rae saw the oily Darkness that was clinging to the ceiling shiver and then dissipate completely.

Dallas yelled, "Ah, hells no. You're not pointing that thing at me!" Closing his eyes and concentrating, Dallas pressed both of his hands against the side of the tunnel wall. There was a crackling sound. Kurtis yelped and dropped his gun. At the same instant, Nicole screamed—a raw, primal sound that was more like the roar of an enraged animal than something that should have come from a fledgling, and she squeezed the trigger.

The gunshots were deafeningly loud. The sound echoed painfully over and over until Stevie Rae lost count of how many real shots there were and how many were just an avalanche of sound, smoke, and sensation.

Stevie Rae didn't hear the screams of the rogue fledglings as the bullets ricocheted off the earth barrier and slammed into their bodies, but she saw Starr fall and watched the terrible blossom of red that bloomed from the side of her head. Two other red-eyed kids slumped to the ground, too.

Pandemonium broke loose, and the unwounded fledglings in the kitchen pushed and shoved and climbed over each other as they fought to get to the narrow entrance that led up to the main depot building above.

Nicole hadn't moved. She was holding the empty gun, looking wild-eyed and still pulling the trigger when Stevie Rae yelled, "No! You've done enough!" Acting on an instinct totally allied to the earth, Stevie Rae clapped her glowing hands together in front of her. With a tearing sound, a raw, gaping hole opened in the far end of the kitchen, where before there had only been the curving side of the tunnel.

"You need to leave here and never come back." Like an avenging goddess, Stevie Rae hurled earth at Nicole and Kurtis and the others who still stood with them, sending a wave of power washing through the kitchen. It lifted all of them and hurled them into the newly opened tunnel. While Nicole snarled curses at her, Stevie Rae calmly waved her hand. In a voice magnified by her element, she said, "Lead them away from here and close behind them. If they don't go, bury them alive."

Stevie Rae's last sight of Nicole was of her screaming at Kurtis and telling him to get his big as**s moving.

Then the tunnel sealed, and all was quiet.

"Come on," Stevie Rae said. Not giving herself time to think about what she was walking into, she strode into the kitchen, straight to the broken, bleeding bodies Nicole had left behind. There were five of them. Three, including Starr, had been struck by Nicole's deflected shots. The other two had been trampled. "They're all dead." Stevie Rae thought it was strange that she sounded so calm.

"Johnny B, Elliott, Montoya, and I will get rid of 'em," Dallas said, taking a second to squeeze her shoulder.

"I have to come with you," Stevie Rae told him. "I'm gonna open up the earth and bury them, and I'm not doin' that down here. I don't want them where we're gonna live."

"Okay, whatever you think's best," he said, touching her face gently.

"Here. Roll them into these sleepin' bags." Kramisha picked her way through the rubble and bodies in the kitchen, went to the storage closet, and started filling her arms with sleeping bags.

"Thanks, Kramisha," Stevie Rae said, methodically taking the bags from her and unzipping them. A noise pulled her attention back to the doorway, where Venus, Sophie, and Shannoncompton were standing, white-faced. Sophie was making little sobbing noises, but no tears were coming from her eyes.

"Go to the Hummer," Stevie Rae told them. "Wait for us there. We're goin' back to school. We won't be staying here tonight. 'Kay?"

The three girls nodded and then, holding hands, they disappeared down the tunnel.

"They's probably gonna need counseling," Kramisha told her.

Stevie Rae looked over the top of a sleeping bag at her. "And you won't?"

"No. I used to be a candy striper at St. John's E.R. I seen a whole lot of crazy there."

Wishing she'd had some "whole lot of crazy" experience, Stevie Rae pressed her lips together and tried not to think at all as they zipped the dead kids into five different bags and followed the boys, grunting under the weight of their burdens, out through the main depot building. Silently, they let her lead the way to a dark, deserted area beside the train tracks. Stevie Rae knelt and pressed her hands against the earth.

"Open, please, and let these kids return to you." The earth quivered, like the twitching skin of an animal, and then split, open forming a deep, narrow crevasse. "Go ahead and drop them in," she told the boys, who followed her orders grimly and silently. When the last body had disappeared, Stevie Rae said,

"Nyx, I know these kids made some bad choices, but I don't think that was all their fault. They are my fledglings, and as their High Priestess, I ask that you show them kindness and let them know the peace they didn't find here." She waved her hand in front of her, whispering, "Close over them, please." The earth, like the fledgling at her side, did Stevie Rae's bidding.

When she stood up, Stevie Rae felt about a hundred years old. Dallas tried to touch her again, but she started walking back to the depot, saying, "Dallas, would you and Johnny B look around out here and make sure any of those kids who got out through the depot understand that they aren't welcome back?

I'll be in the kitchen. Meet me there, 'kay?"

"We're on it, girl," Dallas said. He and Johnny B jogged off.

"The rest of you guys can go to the Hummer," she said. Without a word, the kids headed down the stairs that led to the basement parking lot.

Slowly, Stevie Rae went through the depot and climbed down to the blood-soaked kitchen. Kramisha was still there. She'd found a box of giant trash bags and was cramming rubble into them, muttering to herself. Stevie Rae didn't say anything. She just grabbed another bag and joined her. When they had most of the mess stuffed away in bags, Stevie Rae said, "Okay, you can go on now. I'm gonna do some earth stuff and get rid of this blood."

Kramisha studied the hard-packed dirt floor. "It ain't even soaking in."

"Yeah, I know. I'm gonna fix it."

Kramisha met her gaze. "Hey, you're our High Priestess and all, but you gotta understand that you can't fix everything."

"I think a good High Priestess wants to fix everything," she said.

"I think a good High Priestess don't beat herself up for stuff she can't control."

"You'd make a good High Priestess, Kramisha."

Kramisha snorted. "I got me a job already. Don't try to put no more shit on my plate. I can barely handle this poem stuff as it is."

Stevie Rae smiled, even though her face felt oddly stiff. "You know that's all up to Nyx."

"Yeah, well, me and Nyx gonna have us a talk. I'll see you outside." Still grumbling under her breath, Kramisha headed down the tunnel, leaving Stevie Rae alone.

"Earth, come to me again, please," she said, backing up to the entrance to the kitchen. When she felt the warmth build below and through her, Stevie Rae held out her hands, palms facing the bloody floor. "Like everything else living, blood eventually goes back to you. Please soak up the blood of these kids who shouldn't have had to die." Like a giant earthen sponge, the floor of the kitchen became porous, and as Stevie Rae watched, it absorbed the crimson stain. When it was all gone, Stevie Rae felt her knees wobble, and she sat down, hard, on the newly cleaned floor. Then she began to cry.

That was how Dallas found her. Head bowed, face in her hands, sobbing her guilt and her sadness and her heart out. She hadn't heard him come into the kitchen. She only felt his arms go around her as he sat next to her and pulled her into his lap while he smoothed her hair and held her close, rocking her like she was very, very young.

When her sobs turned into hiccups, and the hiccups finally stopped, Stevie Rae wiped her face with her sleeve and then laid her head on his shoulder. "The kids are waiting outside. We need to get goin'," she said, even though she was finding it hard to move.

"No, we can take our time. I sent them all back in the Hummer. I said we'd follow in Z's Bug."

"Even Kramisha?"

"Even Kramisha. But she complained about having to sit on Johnny B's lap."

Stevie Rae surprised herself by laughing. "I'll bet he didn't complain."

"Nah. I think they like each other."

"Ya think?" She leaned back so that she could look into his eyes.

He smiled at her. "Yep, and I'm gettin' kinda good at tellin' when someone likes someone."

"Oh, really? Like who?"

"Like you and me, girl." Dallas bent and kissed her.

It started out as gentle, but Stevie Rae didn't let it stay like that. She couldn't really explain exactly what happened, but whatever it was, she felt like a torch flaming out of control. Maybe it had something to do with having just come too close to death and needing to be touched and loved to feel alive. Or maybe the frustration that had been simmering inside her ever since Rephaim had first spoken to her finally boiled over—and Dallas was the one to be burned by it. Whatever the reason, Stevie Rae was on fire, and she needed Dallas to put the blaze out.

She tugged at his shirt, murmuring "Take it off . . ." against his lips. With a grunt, he yanked it over his head. While he was doing that, Stevie Rae pulled off her own T-shirt and started kicking off her boots and unbuckling her belt. She felt his eyes on her and looked up to meet his questioning gaze. "I want to do it with you, Dallas," she said in a rush. "Now."

"Are ya sure?"

She nodded. "Totally. Now."

"Okay, now," he said, reaching for her.

When their bare skins touched, Stevie Rae thought she'd explode. This was what she needed. Her skin was ultrasensitive, and everywhere Dallas touched, he scalded her, but in a very, very good way because Stevie Rae needed to be touched. She had to be touched and loved and possessed over and over to wipe away everything: Nicole, the dead kids, fear for Zoey, and Rephaim. Always, before anything else, there was Rephaim.

Dallas's touch seared him away. Stevie Rae knew she was still Imprinted with Rephaim—she could never forget that—but just then, with the slick heat of Dallas's sweaty skin smooth and human and real against hers, Rephaim seemed so distant. It was almost as if he was moving away from her . . . letting her go . . .

"You can bite me if you want to." Dallas's breath was warm against her ear. "Really. It's fine. I want you to."

He was on top of her, and he shifted his weight so that the curve of his neck was pressed against her lips. She kissed his skin, and let her tongue taste him, feeling the pulse there and the ancient rhythm of it.

Stevie Rae replaced her tongue with her fingernail, caressing lightly, finding the perfect spot to pierce so that she could drink from him. Dallas moaned, anticipating what was to come. She could give him pleasure, and take from him at the same time. It was the way it worked with mates—it was the way things were meant to be. It would be quick, easy, and feel really, really good.

If I drink from him, my Imprint with Rephaim will break. The thought made her hesitate. Stevie Rae stopped, one sharp fingernail tip pressed against Dallas's neck. No, a High Priestess can have a mate and a consort, she told herself.

But it was a lie—at least for Stevie Rae it was. She knew, in the deepest recess of her heart, that her Imprint with Rephaim was something unique. It wouldn't follow the rules that usually bound a vam-pyre to her consort. It was strong—amazingly strong. And maybe it was because of that unusual strength that she couldn't bind herself to any other guy.

If I drink from Dallas, my Imprint with Rephaim will break.

The knowledge was a cold certainty within her.

And then what about the debt she'd agreed to pay? Could she be bound to Rephaim's humanity without being Imprinted with him?

It was a question that wasn't to be answered because at that moment from behind them, as if conjured by her thoughts, Rephaim shouted, "Do not do this to us, Stevie Rae!"