About halfway to Nyx's Temple I realized that Stevie Rae was being unusually quiet. I glanced sideways at her. Was she also looking pale? I got a creepy walk-over- your-grave feeling.
"Stevie Rae, is something wrong?"
"Yeah, well, it's sad and kinda scary."
"What is? The Full Moon Ritual?" My stomach started to hurt.
"No, you'll like that--or at least you'll like this one." I knew she meant, versus the Dark Daughters' ritual I had to go to afterward, but I didn't want to talk about that. Stevie Rae's next words made the whole issue of the Dark Daughters seem like a small, secondary problem. "A girl died last hour."
"How they all die. She didn't make the Change, and her body just..." Stevie Rae paused, shuddering. "It happened near the end of Tae Kwan Do class. She'd been coughing, like she was short of breath at the beginning of our warm-up exercises. I didn't think anything of it. Or maybe I did, but I put it out of my mind."
Stevie Rae gave me a small, sad smile and she looked ashamed of herself.
"Is there any way to save a kid? After, you know, they start--" I broke off and made a vague, uncomfortable gesture.
"No. There's no way you can be saved if your body starts to reject the Change."
"Then don't feel bad about not wanting to think about the girl who was coughing. There's nothing you could have done anyway."
"I know. I just...it was awful. And Elizabeth was so nice."
I felt a sharp jolt somewhere in the middle of my body. "Elizabeth No Last Name? She's the girl who died?"
Stevie Rae nodded, blinking hard and obviously trying not to cry.
"That's horrible," I said, my voice so weak it was almost a whisper. I remembered how considerate she'd been about my Mark, and how she'd noticed Erik looking at me. "But I just saw her in Drama class. She was fine."
"That's how it happens. One second the kid sitting next to you looks perfectly normal. The next..." Stevie Rae shivered again.
"And everything's going to go on like normal? Even though someone at the school just died?" I remembered that last year, when a group of sophomores from SIHS had been in a car accident one weekend and two of them had been killed, extra counselors had been called in to school on Monday and all the athletic events had been cancelled for that week.
"Everything goes on like normal. We're supposed to get used to the idea that it might happen to anyone. You'll see. Everyone will act like nothing happened, especially upperclassmen. It's just third formers and good friends of Elizabeth, like her roommate, who will show any reaction at all. The third formers--that's us-- are supposed to act right and get over it. Elizabeth's roommate and best friends will probably keep to themselves for a couple days, but then they'll be expected to get it together." She lowered her voice, "Truthfully, I don't think the vamps think of any of us as real until we actually Change."
I thought about this. Neferet didn't seem to treat me like I was temporary-- she'd even said that it was an excellent sign that my Mark was colored in already, not that I was as confident as she seemed to be about my future. But I absolutely was not going to say anything that might sound as if Neferet was giving me special treatment. I didn't want to be "the weird one." I just wanted to be Stevie Rae's friend and fit in with my new group.
"That's really awful," was all I said.
"Yeah, but at least if it happens, it happens fast."
Part of me wanted to know the details, and part of me was too scared even to ask the question.
Thankfully, Shaunee interrupted before I could make myself ask what I was really too freaked out to want to know.
"Just please with the taking so long," Shaunee called from the front steps of the temple. "Erin and Damien are already inside saving a place in the circle for us, but you know that once the ritual starts they won't let anyone else in. Hurry up!"
We rushed up the steps, and with Shaunee leading us, hurried into the temple. Sweet, smoky incense engulfed me as I entered the dark arched foyer of Nyx's Temple. Automatically, I hesitated. Stevie Rae and Shaunee turned to me.
"It's okay. There's nothing to be nervous or scared about." Stevie Rae met my eyes and added, "At least nothing in there."
"The Full Moon Ritual is great. You'll like it. Oh, when the vamp traces the pentagram on your forehead and says 'blessed be' all you have to do is say 'blessed be' back to her," Shaunee explained. "Then follow us over to our place in the circle." She smiled reassuringly at me and hurried ahead into the dimly lit interior room.
"Wait." I grabbed Stevie Rae's sleeve. "I don't want to sound stupid, but isn't a pentagram a sign of evil or something like that?"
"That's what I thought, too, until I got here. But all that evil stuff is bull that the People of Faith want you to believe so that...Heck," she said with a shrug, "I'm not even sure why they're so set on people--well, humans that is--believing that it's an evil sign. The truth is that for like a zillion years the pentagram has stood for wisdom, protection, perfection. Good stuff like that. It's just a five-pointed star. Four of the points stand for the elements. The fifth, the one that points up, stands for the spirit. That's all it is. No boogieman there."
"Control." I muttered, glad we had a reason to quit talking about Elizabeth and death.
"The People of Faith want to control everything, and part of that control is that everyone has to always believe exactly the same. That's why they want people to think the pentagram is bad." I shook my head in disgust. "Never mind. Come on. I'm readier than I thought I was. Let's go in."
We walked deeper into the foyer and I heard running water. We passed a beautiful fountain, and then the entryway curved gently to the left. Within a thick, arched stone doorway stood a vampyre I didn't recognize. She was dressed entirely in black--a long skirt and a silky, bell-sleeved blouse. The only decoration she had on was the silver embroidered goddess figure over her breast. Her hair was long and the color of wheat. Sapphire-colored spirals radiated from her crescent moon tattoo to down around her flawless face.
"That's Anastasia. She teaches the Spells and Rituals class. She's also Dragon's wife," Stevie Rae whispered quickly before she stepped up to the vampyre and respectfully placed her fist over her heart. Anastasia smiled and dipped her finger in a rock bowl she was holding. Then she traced a five-pointed star on Stevie Rae's forehead.
"Blessed be, Stevie Rae," she said.
"Blessed be," Stevie Rae responded. She gave me an encouraging look before she disappeared into the smoky room beyond.
I took a deep breath and made a conscious decision to put all thoughts of Elizabeth and death and what-ifs out of my mind-- at least during this ritual. I moved purposefully into the space in front of Anastasia. Mimicking Stevie Rae, I placed my closed fist over my heart.
The vampyre dipped her finger in what I could now see was oil. "Merry meet, Zoey Redbird, welcome to the House of Night and your new life," she said as she traced the pentagram on my forehead over my Mark. "And blessed be."
"Blessed be," I murmured, surprised at the electric shiver that passed through my body when the damp star had taken form on my forehead.
"Go on in and join your friends," she said kindly. "There's no need to be nervous, I believe the Goddess is already looking after you."
"Th-thank you," I said, and hurried into the room. There were candles everywhere. Huge white ones suspended from the ceiling in iron chandeliers. Big candle trees held more of them and were lined along the walls. In the temple, sconces didn't burn oil tamely in lanterns, like in the rest of the school. Here the sconces were real. I knew that this place used to be a People of Faith church dedicated to St. Augustine, but it looked like no church I'd ever seen before. Besides being lit only by candlelight, there were no pews. (And, by the way, I really dislike pews--could they be any more uncomfortable?) Actually, the only furniture in the big room was an antique wooden table situated in the center that was kinda like the one in the dining hall--only this one wasn't just loaded with food and wine and such. This one also held a marble statue of the Goddess, arms upraised and looking a lot like the embroidered design the vamps wore. There was a huge candelabrum on the table, its fat white candles burning brightly, as well as several thick sticks of smoking incense.
Then my eyes were caught by the open flame burning from out of a recess in the stone floor. It flickered wildly, its yellow fire almost waist high. It was beautiful, in a controlled danger kind of a way, and it seemed to draw me forward. Thankfully, Stevie Rae's waving hands snagged my attention before I could follow my impulse to approach the flame, and then I noticed, wondering how I could have failed to see this from the beginning, that there was a huge circle of people--students as well as adult vamps-- stretching around the edges of the room. Feeling nervous and awestruck at the same time, I made my feet move so I could take my place in the circle beside Stevie Rae.
"Finally," Damien said under his breath.
"Sorry we're late." I said.
"Leave her alone. She's nervous enough as it is," Stevie Rae told him.
"Sssh! It's starting," Shaunee hissed.
Four forms seemed to materialize from within the darkened corners of the room to become women who made their way to four spots just within the living circle, like the directions on a compass. Two more entered from the doorway through which I'd just come. One was a tall man--well, scratch that--male vampyre (all of the adults were vamps), and, ohmygod, he was hot. Now, here was an excellent example of the stereotype of the gorgeous vamp guy, up close and personal. He was over six feet tall and looked like he belonged on the big screen.
"And there is the only reason I'm taking that damn Poetry elective," Shaunee whispered. "I'm with you there, Twin," Erin breathed dreamily.
"Who is he?" I asked Stevie Rae.
"Loren Blake, Vamp Poet Laureate. He's the first male Poet Laureate in two hundred years. Literally," she whispered. "And he's only like twenty-something, and that's in real years, not just in looks."
Before I could say anything else, he started to speak and my mouth was too busy flopping open at the sound of his voice for me to do anything but listen.
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies...
As he spoke he moved slowly toward the circle. As if his voice was music, the woman who had entered the room with him began to sway, and then to dance gracefully around the outside of the living circle.
And all that's best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes...
The dancing woman had everyone's attention. With a jolt I realized that it was Neferet. She was wearing a long silk dress that had tiny crystal beads sewn all over it, so that the candlelight caught each of her movements and made her shimmer like the star-filled night sky. Her movements seemed to call alive the words of the old poem (at least my mind was still working well enough that I recognized it as Lord Byron's "She Walks in Beauty").
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.
Somehow both Neferet and Loren managed to end up in the center of the circle as he finished reciting the stanza. Then Neferet took a goblet from the table and lifted it, as if offering a drink to the circle.
"Welcome Nyx's children to the Goddess's celebration of the full moon!"
The adult vamps chorused, "Merry meet."
Neferet smiled and put the goblet back on the table and picked up a long white taper that was already lit and sitting in a single candlestick holder. Then she walked across the circle to face a vamp I didn't know who was standing at what must be the head of the circle. The vamp saluted her, hand over breast, before turning around so that her back was to Neferet.
"Psst!" Stevie Rae whispered. "We all face each of the four directions as Neferet evokes the elements and casts Nyx's circle. East and air come first."
Then everyone, including me even though I was kinda slow, turned to face east. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Neferet raise her arms over her head as her voice rang against the stone walls of the temple.
"From the east I summon air and ask that you carry to this circle the gift of knowledge that our ritual will be filled with learning."
The instant Neferet began speaking the invocation I felt the air change. It moved around me, ruffling my hair and filling my ears with the sound of wind sighing through leaves. I looked around, expecting to see that everyone else had been caught in a mini- whirlwind, but didn't notice anyone else's hair getting messed up. Weird.
The vamp who was standing in the east pulled a thick yellow candle from the folds of her dress, and Neferet lit it. She lifted it into the air, and then placed it, flickering, at her feet.
"Turn to the right, for fire," Stevie Rae whispered again.
We turned and Neferet continued. "From the south I summon fire and ask that you light in this circle the gift of strength of will, so that our ritual will be binding and powerful."
The wind that had been blowing softly against me was replaced by a sensation of heat. It wasn't exactly uncomfortable; it was more like the flush you feel when you step into a hot tub, but it was warm enough to make a light sweat break out over my body. I glanced at Stevie Rae. She had her head raised slightly and her eyes were closed. There was no sign of sweat on her face. The intensity of the heat suddenly jumped up a notch, and I looked back at Neferet. She had lit a large red candle that Penthesilea was holding. Then, as the east-facing vamp had done, Penthesilea lifted it up in offering before placing it by her feet.
This time I didn't need Stevie Rae's nudging to turn again to my right and face west. Somehow, I knew not just that we needed to turn, but that the next element to be summoned would be water.
"From the west I summon water and ask that you wash this circle in compassion, that the light of the full moon can be used to bestow healing to our group as well as understanding."
Neferet lit the west-facing vamp's blue candle. The vamp lifted it, and placed it at her feet as the sound of waves filled my ears and the salty scent of the sea filled my nose. Eagerly, I completed the circle by facing north and knew I'd be embracing earth.
"From the north I summon earth and ask that you grow within this circle the gift of manifestation, that the wishes and prayers from tonight will come to fruition."
Suddenly I could feel the softness of a grassy meadow under my feet, and I smelled hay and heard birdsong. A green candle was lit and placed at "earth"'s feet.
I should have probably been afraid of the odd sensations breaking over me, but they filled me with an almost unbearable lightness--I felt good! So good that when Neferet faced the flame that burned in the middle of the room and the rest of us turned to the interior of the circle I had to press my lips tightly together to keep from laughing out loud. The drop-dead gorgeous poet was standing across the fire from Neferet and I could see that he was holding a big purple candle in his hands.
"And last, I summon spirit to complete our circle and ask that you fill us with connection, so that as your children we may prosper together."
Unbelievably, I felt my own spirit leap, like there were bird wings fluttering around inside my chest, as the poet lit the candle from the huge flame and then placed it on the table. Then Neferet began to move around within the circle, speaking to us, meeting our eyes, including us in her words.
"This is the time of the fullness of the moon. All things wax and wane, even Nyx's children, her vampyres. But on this night the powers of life, of magick, and of creation are at their brightest--as is our Goddess's moon. This is the time of building...of doing."
My heart was beating hard as I watched Neferet speak, and I realized with a little start that she was actually giving a sermon. This was a worship service, but the casting of the circle and Neferet's words coupled to touch me like no other sermon had ever even begun to do. I glanced around. Maybe it was the setting. The room was misty with incense and magical in the flickering candlelight. Neferet was everything a High Priestess should be. Her beauty was a flame of its own, and her voice was a magic that held everyone's attention. No one was slumped down in a pew sleeping or sneakily doing sudoku.
"This is a time when the veil between the mundane world and the strange and beautiful realms of the Goddess become thin indeed. On this night may one transcend the boundaries of the worlds with ease, and know the beauty and enchantment of Nyx."
I could feel her words wash against my skin and close my throat. I shivered and the Mark on my forehead suddenly felt warm and tingly. Then the poet began to speak in his deep, powerful voice. "This is a time for weaving the ethereal into being, of spinning the strands of space and time to bring forth Creation. For life is a circle as well as a mystery. Our Goddess understands this, as does her consort, Erebus."
As he spoke I felt better about Elizabeth's death. Suddenly it didn't seem so scary, so horrible. It seemed more like a part of the natural world, a world that we all had a place in.
"Light...dark...day...night...death...life...all is tied together by spirit and the touch of the Goddess. If we keep the balance and look to the Goddess we can learn to weave a spell of moonlight and fashion with it a fabric of pure magical substance to keep with us all the days of our lives."
"Close your eyes, Children of Nyx," Neferet said "and send a secret desire to your Goddess. Tonight, when the veil between the worlds is thin--when magic is afoot within the mundane-- perhaps Nyx will grant your petitions and dust you with the gossamer mist of dreams fulfilled."
Magic! They actually were praying for magic! Would it work--could it work? Was there really magic in this world? I remembered the way my spirit had been able to see words and how the Goddess had called me with her visible voice down into the crevasse and then kissed my forehead and changed my life forever. And how, just moments ago, I'd felt the power of Neferet's calling of the elements. I hadn't imagined it--I couldn't have imagined it.
I closed my eyes and thought about the magic that seemed to surround me, and then I sent up my wish into the night. My secret wish is that I belong...that I have finally found a home no one can take away from me.
Despite the unusual warmth of my Mark, my head felt light and unimaginably happy as Neferet called for us to open our eyes and, in a voice that was at the same time soft and powerful-- woman and warrior combined--she continued the ritual.
"This is a time of traveling unseen in the full moonlight. A time to listen for music not fashioned by human or vampyre hands. It is a time for oneness with the winds that caress us" -- Neferet bowed her head slightly to the east--"and the bolt of lightning that mimics the spark of first life." She tilted her head to the south. "It is a time to revel in the eternal sea and the warm rains that soothe us, as well as the verdant land that surrounds and keeps us." She acknowledged the west and north in turn.
And each time Neferet named an element it felt as though a jolt of sweet electricity sizzled through my body.
Then the four women who personified the elements moved as one to the table. With Neferet and Loren, each of them lifted a goblet.
"All hail, O Goddess of Night and the full moon!" Neferet said. "All hail Night, from whom our blessings come. On this night we give thanks to thee!"
Still holding the goblets, the four women scattered back to their places in the circle.
"In the mighty name of Nyx," Neferet said.
"And of Erebus," the poet added.
"We ask from within your sacred circle that you give us the knowledge to speak the language of the wilds, to fly with the freedom of the bird, to live the power and grace of the feline, and to find an ecstasy and joy in life that would stir the very heights of our being. Blessed be!"
I couldn't stop grinning. I'd never heard stuff like this in church before, and I sure as hell had never felt so energized there, either!
Neferet drank from the goblet she held, and then she offered it to Loren, who drank from it and said "blessed be." Mirroring their actions, the four women moved quickly around the circle, allowing each person, fledgling and adult, to drink from a goblet. When it was my turn I was happy to see the familiar face of Penthesilea offer me a drink and a blessing. The wine was red and I expected it to be bitter, like the sip of my mom's hidden Cabernet I tried once (and definitely did not like), but it wasn't. It was sweet and spicy and it made my head feel even lighter.
When everyone had been given a drink, the goblets were returned to the table.
"Tonight I want each of us to spend at least a moment or two alone in the light of the full moon. Let its light refresh you and help you to remember how extraordinary you are...or you are becoming." She smiled at some of the fledglings, including me. "Bask in your uniqueness. Revel in your strength. We stand separate from the world because of our gifts. Never forget that, because you may be sure the world never will. Now let us close the circle and embrace the night."
In reverse order, Neferet thanked each element and sent them away as each candle was blown out, and as she did so I felt a little twinge of sadness, like I was saying good-bye to friends. Then she completed the ritual by saying, "This rite is ended. Merry meet and merry part and merry meet again!"
The crowd echoed: "Merry meet and merry part and merry meet again!"
And that was it. My first ritual of the Goddess was over.
The circle broke up quickly--more quickly than I would have liked it to. I wanted to stand there and think about the amazing things I had felt, especially during the calling of the elements, but that was impossible. I was carried out of the temple on a tide of chatter. I was glad that everyone was so busy talking that no one noticed how quiet I was; I didn't think I could explain to them what had just happened to me. Hell! I couldn't even explain it to myself.
"Hey, you think they'll have Chinese food again tonight? I just loved it last full moon when they had that yummy moo goo stuff afterward," Shaunee said. "Not to mention, my fortune cookie said 'You will make a name for yourself,' which is way cool."
"I'm so starved I don't care what they feed us as long as they feed us," Erin said.
"Me too," Stevie Rae said.
"For once we are in perfect agreement," Damien said, linking arms with Stevie Rae and me. "Let's eat."
And suddenly, that reminded me. "Uh, guys." That nice tingly feeling the ritual had given me was gone. "I can't go. I have to--"
"We're morons." Stevie Rae thumped herself on the forehead hard enough to make a smacking sound. "We totally forgot."
"Ah, crap!" Shaunee said.
"The hags from hell," Erin said.
"Want me to save you a plate of something?" Damien asked sweetly.
"No. Aphrodite said they're going to feed me."
"Probably raw meat," Shaunee said.
"Yeah, from some poor kid she caught in her nasty spider web," Erin said.
"By that she means the one between her legs," Shaunee explained.
"Stop, you're freaking Zoey out," Stevie Rae said as she started nudging me toward the door. "I'll show her where the rec hall is, then I'll meet you guys at our table."
Outside I said, "Okay, tell me that they're kidding about the raw meat."
"They're kidding?" Stevie Rae said unconvincingly.
"Great. I don't even like my steak rare. What am I going to do if they really do try to feed me raw meat?" I refused to think about what kind of raw meat it might be. "I think I have a Tums somewhere in my purse. Do you want it?" Stevie Rae asked.
"Yeah," I said, already feeling nauseous.