"She has a point," Damien said.
"She joined the Dark Daughters," Shaunee said.
"What!" Damien squeaked, his voice going up about twenty octaves.
"Leave her alone," Stevie Rae said, instantly coming to my defense. "She's reconnoitering."
"Reconnoitering, hell! If she joined the Dark Daughters she's engaging the enemy full on," Damien said.
"Well, she joined," Shaunee said.
"We heard her," Erin said.
"Hello! I'm still right here," I said.
"So what are you going to do?" Damien asked me.
"I don't really know," I said.
"You better get a plan and get one quick or those hags are gonna have you for lunch," Erin said.
"Yep," Shaunee said, biting viciously into her salad for effect.
"Hey! She doesn't have to figure this out on her own. She has us." Stevie Rae crossed her arms over her chest and glared at the Twins.
I smiled my thanks to Stevie Rae. "Well, I kinda have an idea."
"Good. Tell us and we'll brainstorm," said Stevie Rae. Everyone looked expectantly at me. I sighed. "Well. Um...,"
I started hesitantly, afraid I was sounding like a moron, and then I decided I might as well tell them what had been on my mind since I talked to Grandma, so I finished in a rush. "I thought I'd perform an ancient purification prayer based on Cherokee ritual and ask Nyx to help me come up with a plan."
The silence at the table seemed to last forever. Then Damien finally said, "Asking for Nyx's help isn't a bad idea."
"Are you Cherokee?" Shaunee asked.
"You look Cherokee," Erin said.
"Hello! Her last name is Redbird. She's Cherokee," Stevie Rae said with finality.
"Well, that's good," Shaunee said, but she looked doubtful.
"I just think that Nyx might actually hear me and--maybe--give me some kind of clue as to what I should do about horrid Aphrodite." I looked at each of my friends. "Something inside me says it's just wrong to let her get away with all the crap she's getting away with."
"Let me tell them!" Stevie Rae suddenly said. "They won't tell anyone. Really. And it'd help if they knew."
"What the F?" Erin said.
"Okay, now you have no choice," Shaunee said, pointing at Stevie Rae with her fork. "She knew if she said that we would pester the crap outta you till you told us whatever it is she's talking about."
I frowned at Stevie Rae, who shrugged her shoulders sheepishly and said, "Sorry."
Reluctantly, I lowered my voice and leaned forward. "Promise you won't tell anyone."
"Promise," they said.
"I think I can feel the five elements when a circle is cast." Silence. They just stared. Three of them shocked, Stevie Rae smug.
"So, you still think she can't take down Aphrodite?" Stevie Rae said.
"I knew there was more to your Mark than falling down and hitting your head!" Shaunee said.
"Wow," Erin said. "Talk about good gossip."
"No one can know!" I said quickly.
"Please," Shaunee said. "We're just sayin' that someday this is gonna be great gossip." "We know how to wait for great gossip," Erin said.
Damien ignored both of them. "I don't think there's a record of any High Priestess who has had an affinity with all five elements." Damien's voice got more excited as he spoke. "Do you know what that means?" He didn't give me a chance to respond. "It means you could potentially be the most puissant High Priestess the vampyres have ever known."
"Huh?" I said. Puissant?
"Strong--powerful," he said impatiently. "You might actually be able to take out Aphrodite!"
"Now, that's some seriously good news," Erin said, as Shaunee nodded in enthusiastic agreement.
"So when and where are we doing the purification thingy?" Stevie Rae said.
"We?" I said.
"You're not in this alone, Zoey," she said.
I opened my mouth to protest--I mean, I wasn't even sure what I was going to do. I didn't want to get my friends mixed up in something that might be--actually, would probably be--a total mess. But Damien didn't give me time to tell them no.
"You need us," he said simply. "Even the most puissant High Priestess needs her circle."
"Well, I hadn't really thought about casting a circle. I was just gonna do a kind of purification prayer thing."
"Can't you cast a circle and then pray the prayer and ask for Nyx's help?" Stevie Rae asked.
"Seems logical," Shaunee said.
"Plus, if you really do have an affinity for the five elements, I'll bet we'll be able to sense it when you cast your own circle. Right, Damien?" Stevie Rae said. Everyone looked at the gay scholar of our group.
"Sounds like good logic to me," he said.
I was still going to argue, even though everything inside of me felt relieved and happy and grateful that my friends would be there with me, that they wouldn't let me face all of this uncertainty alone.
Value them; they are pearls of great price.
The familiar voice floated through my mind, and I realized that I shouldn't question the new instinct within me that seemed to have been born when Nyx kissed my forehead and permanently changed my Mark and my life.
"Okay, I'm going to need a smudge stick." They looked at me blankly, and I went on to explain. "It's for the purification part of the ritual because I don't have any running water handy. Or do I?"
"You mean like a stream or a river or something like that?" Stevie Rae asked.
"Well, there's a little stream that runs through the courtyard outside the dining hall and disappears somewhere under the school," Damien said.
"That's no good; it's too public. We'll need to use the smudge stick. What works best is dried lavender and sage mixed together, but if I have to I can use pine."
"I can get the sage and lavender," Damien said. "They have that kind of stuff in the school supplies store for the fifth and sixth former's Spells and Rituals class. I'll just say I'm helping out an upperclassman by picking some up for him. What else do you need?"
"Well, in the purification ritual Grandma always thanked the seven sacred directions the Cherokee people honor: north, south, east, west, sun, earth, and self. But I think I want to make the prayer more specific to Nyx." I chewed my lip, thinking.
"I think that's smart," Shaunee said.
"Yeah," Erin added. "I mean, Nyx isn't allied with the sun. She's Night."
"I think you should follow your gut," Stevie Rae said. "Trusting herself is one of the first things a High Priestess learns to do," Damien said.
"Okay, then I'll also need a candle for each of the five elements," I decided.
"Easy-peasy," Shaunee said.
"Yeah, the temple is never locked and there are zillions of circle candles in there."
"Is it okay to take them?" Stealing from Nyx's Temple definitely did not feel like a good idea.
"It's fine as long as we bring them back," Damien said. "What else?"
"That's it." I think. Hell, I wasn't sure. It's not like I actually knew what I was doing.
"When and where?" Damien asked.
"After dinner. Let's say five o'clock. And we can't go together. The last thing we need is for Aphrodite or any of the other Dark Daughters to think we're having some kind of meeting and get curious about us. So let's meet at a huge oak tree by the eastern wall." I smiled crookedly at them. "It's easy to find if you pretend that you've just run out of one of the Dark Daughter's rituals in the rec hall, and you want to get the hell away from the hags."
"That doesn't take much pretending," Shaunee said.
"Okay, we'll bring the stuff," Damien said.
"Yeah, we'll bring the stuff; you bring the puissantness," Shaunee said, giving Damien a smartass look.
"That is not the correct form of that word. You know, you really should do more reading. Maybe your vocabulary would improve." Damien said.
"Your mom needs to read more." Shaunee said, and then she and Erin dissolved in giggles at the really bad "your mom" joke.
I, for one, was glad that they shifted the subject away from me and I could eat my salad and think in relative privacy while they bickered back and forth. I was chewing and trying to remember all the words to the purification prayer when Nala hopped up on the bench beside me. She looked at me with her big eyes and then leaned into me and started to purr like a jet engine. I don't know why, but she made me feel better. And when the bell rang and we all hurried off to class, each of my four friends smiled at me, gave me a secret wink, and said, "Later, Z." They made me feel better, too, even though their easy adoption of Erik's nickname for me gave my heart a twinge.
Spanish class zoomed by: a whole lesson on learning how to say that we like things or don't like things. Prof. Garmy was cracking me up. She said it would change our lives. Me gusta gatos. (I like cats.) Me gusta it de compras. (I like shopping.) No me gusta cocinar. (I don't like to cook.) No me gusta lavantar el gato. (I don't like to wash the cat.) Those were Prof. Garmy's favorites, and we spent the hour coming up with our own favorites.
I tried not to scribble things like me gusta Erik...and no me gusta el hag-o Aphrodite. Okay, so I'm sure el hag-o is not how you say "hag" in Spanish, but still. Anyway, class was fun and I actually understood what we were saying. Equestrian class didn't quite zoom by. Mucking stalls was good for thinking--I went over and over the purification prayer--but the hour definitely seemed to take an hour. This time Stevie Rae didn't have to come get me. I was way too anxious to lose track of time. As the bell rang I was quickly putting up the curry combs, happy that Lenobia had let me groom Persephone again, and preoccupied because she had also told me that starting next week she thought I might actually begin riding her. I hurried out of the stables, wishing that the hour wasn't so late back in the "real" world. I'd have loved to call Grandma and tell her how well I was doing with the horses.
"I know what's going on."
I swear I almost choked. "God, Aphrodite! Could you make a sound or something! What are you, part spider? You scared the hell outta me."
"What's wrong?" she purred. "Guilty conscience?"
"Uh, when you sneak up behind people, you scare them. Guilt has nothing to do with it."
"So you're not guilty?"
"Aphrodite, I don't know what you're talking about."
"I know what you're planning for tonight."
"And yet I still don't know what you're talking about."Ah, crap! How could she have found out?
"Everyone thinks you're so damn cute and so damn innocent and they're so damn impressed by that freakish Mark of yours. Everyone but me." She turned to face me, and we stopped in the middle of the sidewalk. Her blue eyes narrowed and her face twisted until it was scarily haggish. Huh. I wondered (briefly) if the Twins realized how accurate their nickname for her was. "No matter what bullshit you've heard he's still mine. He'll always be mine."
My eyes widened and I felt a wash of relief so intense it made me laugh. She was talking about Erik, not about the purification prayer! "Wow, you sound like Erik's mom. Does he know you're checking up on him?"
"Did I look like Erik's mom when you watched me suck his dick in the hall?"
So she did know. Whatever. I suppose it was inevitable that we would have this conversation. "No, you didn't look like Erik's mom. You looked like what you are--desperate--while you pathetically tried to throw yourself at a guy who was clearly telling you he didn't want you anymore."
"Fucking bitch! Nobody talks to me like that!"
She raised her hand and, clawlike, moved to slash at my face. Then it seemed that the world stopped, leaving the two of us in a little bubble of slow-motion. I caught her wrist, stopping her easily--too easily. It was like she was a small, sick child who had struck out in anger, but was really too weak to do any harm. I held her there for a moment, meeting her hateful eyes.
"Don't ever try to hit me again. I'm not one of the kids you can bully. Get this, and get this now. I am not scared of you." Then I flung her wrist away from me, and was totally shocked to see her stagger back several feet.
Rubbing her wrist, she glared at me. "Don't bother showing up tomorrow. Consider yourself uninvited and no longer a Dark Daughter."
"Really?" I felt unbelievably calm. I knew I held the trump card on this and I pulled it. "So you want to explain to my mentor, High Priestess Neferet, the vamp whose idea it was for me to join the Dark Daughters in the first place, that you kicked me out because you're jealous that your ex-boyfriend likes me?"
Her face paled.
"Oh, and you may be very sure that I'll be totally, completely upset when Neferet asks me about it." I sniffed and sobbed a little like I was fake crying.
"Do you know what it's like to be a part of something and have no one else in the group want you there?" she snarled between her clenched teeth.
I felt my stomach clench and had to force myself not to let her see she'd struck a nerve. Yes, I knew exactly what it was like to be a part of something--a supposed family--and have it feel like no one else wanted me there, but Aphrodite wasn't going to know it. Instead I smiled, and in my sweetest voice I said, "Why, whatever do you mean, Aphrodite? Erik is part of the Dark Sons and just today at lunch he told me how happy he was that I'd joined the Dark Daughters."
"Come to the ritual. Pretend you're part of the Dark Daughters. But you'd better remember something. They're my Dark Daughters. You're the outsider; the one who is not wanted. And remember this, too. Erik Night and I have a bond that you'll never understand. He's not my ex anything. You didn't stay to see the end of our little game in the hall. He was then and he is now exactly what I want him to be. Mine." Then she tossed her very big, very blond hair and stalked away.
About two breaths later Stevie Rae stuck her head out from behind an old oak that was not far from the sidewalk and said, "Is she gone?"
"Thankfully." I shook my head at Stevie Rae. "What are you doing back there?"
"Are you kidding? I'm hiding. She scares the bejezzus outta me. I was coming to meet you and saw the two of you arguing. Man, she actually tried to hit you!"
"Aphrodite has some serious anger-management issues." Stevie Rae laughed.
"Uh, Stevie Rae, you can come out from behind there now." Still laughing, Stevie Rae practically skipped over to me and linked her arm with mine. "You really stood up to her!"
"I really did."
"She really, really hates your guts."
"She really, really does."
"You know what that means?" Stevie Rae said.
"Yep. I don't have any choice now. I'm going to have to take her down."
But I knew that I'd had no choice even before Aphrodite tried to scratch my eyes out. I hadn't had any choice since Nyx had placed her Mark on me. As Stevie Rae and I walked together in the gaslight-illuminated richness of the night, the Goddess's words repeated over and over through my mind: You are old beyond your years, Zoeybird. Believe in yourself and you will find a way. But remember, darkness does not always equate to evil, just as light does not always bring good.