"Oh, no damn way!" Shaunee shouted.
"Ditto, Twin! Only no fucking damn way!" Erin said.
"I can't believe this is right," Damien said.
"Believe it," I said, my back still to the rest of the circle as I continued to stare at Aphrodite. Before my friends could freak out any more I added, "Look at the circle." I hadn't needed to look at it. I already knew what I'd see, and their gasps told me I was right. Still, I turned slowly, awed anew by the beauty of the powerful thread of goddess-given light that bound the four of them together. "She's telling the truth. Nyx sent her out here. Aphrodite has an affinity for earth."
Shocked into silence, my friends just stared as I moved to the center of the circle and picked up my purple candle. "Spirit is what makes us unique, what gives us courage and strength, and it is what lives on after our bodies are no more. Come to me, spirit!" I was engulfed in all four elements as spirit rushed into me, filling me with peace and joy. I walked around the circle, meeting my friends' confused, upset gazes, trying to help them understand something I didn't really get myself, but what I could feel was, indeed, Nyx's will.
"I don't pretend to understand Nyx. The Goddess's ways are mysterious and sometimes she asks really hard things of us. This is one of those hard things. Like it or not, Nyx has made it clear that Aphrodite should take Stevie Rae's place in our circle." I looked at Aphrodite. "I don't think she's exactly thrilled about it."
"Understatement," Aphrodite mumbled.
I continued. "But we have a choice. Nyx doesn't force our will. We need to be in agreement about letting Aphrodite in, or-" I hesitated, not knowing how to finish. We'd tried to cast the circle with someone else, and Erik hadn't been allowed to represent earth. Maybe it was just Erik the Goddess didn't want standing in the circle, but I found that hard to believe. Not only was Erik a good guy and already a member of our Council, but my gut was telling me that the problem wasn't that Nyx didn't want Erik. The problem was that Nyx specifically wanted Aphrodite. I sighed and blundered on. "Or I guess we can start trying a bunch of different kids and seeing if any of them are allowed to manifest earth." I looked outside the circle and met Erik's shadowed eyes. "But I don't think Erik's the issue." He smiled at me, but it was just a movement his mouth made; the smile didn't reach his eyes or touch his face.
"I think we have to do what Nyx wants us to do. Even if we don't like it," Damien said.
"Shaunee?" I turned to her. "What's your vote?"
Shaunee and Erin shared a look and I swear, weird as it sounds, I could almost see words pass in the air between them.
"We'll let the hag join the circle," Shaunee said.
"But only because Nyx wants it," Erin said.
"Yeah, but we want to go on the record as saying we totally do not understand what Nyx is up to," Shaunee added, while Erin nodded in agreement.
"Do they get to keep calling me a hag?" Aphrodite said.
"Are you breathing?" Shaunee asked.
"Then if you're breathing you're still a hag," Erin said.
"Which is what we call you," Shaunee finished.
"No," I said firmly. The Twins turned their glares on me. "You guys don't have to like her. You don't even have to like that Nyx wants her here. But if we accept Aphrodite, then we accept her. That means the name-calling has to stop." The Twins sucked air, obviously getting ready to argue with me, so I hurriedly added, "Look inside yourselves, especially right now when you have manifested your element. What is your conscience telling you?" Then I held my breath and waited.
The Twins paused.
"Yeah, okay," Erin said unhappily.
"We see your point. We just don't like it," Shaunee said.
"And what about her? So we stop calling her a hag and such, but she still gets to act like one?" Erin said.
"Now Erin has a point," Damien said.
I looked over at Aphrodite. By her expression she was bored, but I could see that she kept taking big gulps of air, like she couldn't get enough of smelling the meadow earth had manifested around her. Every once in a while I noticed that she trailed her fingers down around her as if she was letting them brush through tall, fragrant grasses. Clearly, she wasn't as unmoved by what had just happened as she pretended to be.
"Aphrodite's going to do the same thing the two of you just did. She's going to search her conscience and then do the right thing."
Aphrodite looked mockingly around like she was searching for something that might be hidden in the night. Then she shrugged. "Oops. Seems I don't have a conscience."
"Stop it!" I snapped, and the energy I'd evoked with the circle whipped between Aphrodite and me, snaking dangerously around her body. The power augmented my voice, making Aphrodite's blue eyes widen in surprise and fear. "Not here. Not in this circle. You will not lie and pretend. Decide now. You have a choice, too. I know you've ignored Nyx before. You can choose to ignore her again. But if you choose to stay and do the Goddess's will, you're not going to do it with lies and hate." I thought she'd break the circle and walk away. I almost wished she would. It'd be easier not to have anyone represent earth. I could just light the green candle myself and put in on the ground. Whatever. But Aphrodite surprised me, and it would only be the first of many surprises Nyx had in store for me.
"Fine. I'll stay."
"Fine," I said. I glanced around at my friends. "Fine?"
"Yeah, fine," they grumbled.
"Good. So we have our circle," I said.
Before anything else bizarre could happen I moved counterclockwise around the circle, bidding each element good-bye. The silver thread of power disappeared, leaving behind the scents of the ocean and wildflowers on a warm breeze. No one said anything, and the awkward silence grew until I was starting to feel sorry for Aphrodite. Of course, she opened her mouth and, as usual, destroyed any pity anyone might feel for her.
"Don't worry. I'm leaving so you can get back to your Dungeons and Dragons meeting or whatever," Aphrodite sneered.
"Hey, we don't play Dungeons and Dragons!" Jack said.
"Come on, we have time to go down to the IHOP for something to eat before the movie starts," Damien said, and the whole group of them completely ignored Aphrodite as they walked away, chattering among themselves about how fine the Spartans are and how this time when they watch 300 they're going to keep track of how many vamp actors are in it.
They were several feet away before Erik noticed I wasn't with them.
"Zoey?" he called. The gang stopped and looked back at me, obviously surprised to see Aphrodite and me still standing in the dissolved circle. "Aren't you coming?" His voice was carefully neutral, but I could see his jaw tightening with a mixture of what might be annoyance or worry.
"You guys go ahead. I'll meet you at the movies. I need to talk to Aphrodite." I expected Aphrodite to make a smart-ass comment, but she didn't. I snuck a sideways glance at her and saw she was staring off into the darkness and not paying any attention to my friends or me.
"But, Z, you're gonna miss the chocolate-chip pancakes," Jack said. I smiled at him. "It's okay. I had some last night-it being my birthday and all."
"They need to talk, so let's go," Erik said.
I didn't like how he sounded-almost like he didn't care-but before I could say anything else he was walking away. Crap. I was definitely going to have some making-up to do with him.
"Erik likes things his way. He also likes a girlfriend who puts him first. Guess you're just finding that out," Aphrodite said.
"I'm not going to talk about Erik with you. I just want to hear about what Nyx has shown you of her will."
"Shouldn't you already know about Nyx's will, blah, blah, whatever? Aren't you her chosen one?"
"Aphrodite, I have a really bad headache right now. I'd like to be with my friends eating chocolate chip pancakes. Then I want to go see 300 with my boyfriend. So I'm already tired of the whole I'm-such-a-bitch-all-the-time act you put on. Here's the deal-just answer the question and we can both go do whatever we want to do." I was rubbing my forehead. The last thing I expected was the bomb she suddenly dropped on me.
"You really mean just answer the question so that you can go meet the creature Stevie Rae's turned into, don't you?"
I felt all the color drain from my face. "What in the hell are you talking about Aphrodite?"
"Let's walk," she said and started to walk alongside the huge stone wall that borders the school.
"Aphrodite, no." I grabbed her arm. "Tell me what you know."
"Look, it's hard for me to hold still so soon after I've had a vision, and the one I had that made me come out here was not like my normal visions." Aphrodite pulled free from me and brushed a hand across her brow like she had a headache, too. I noticed for the first time that her hands were shaking-actually that her whole body was trembling and she looked abnormally pale.
"All right. We'll walk."
She didn't say anything for a little while, and I had to fight with myself not to grab her and shake her and make her tell me how she knew about Stevie Rae. When she finally started talking, she didn't look at me and seemed to be speaking to the night more than to me.
"My visions have been changing. It started with the one I had when those human kids were being killed. I used to be able to see things like I was just an observer. I watched what was happening but wasn't touched by it. Everything and everyone were clear, easy to understand. With those boys it was different. I wasn't detached anymore. I was one of them. I could feel myself being killed with them." She paused and shuddered. "I also couldn't see things clearly anymore. Stuff becomes a big jumble of fear and panic and crazy emotions. I get some flashes of things I can identify or understand, like when I told you that you had to get Heath out of those tunnels or he'd die. But mostly I'm freaked and confused, and afterward I feel awful." Aphrodite glanced at me as if she was just then remembering I was really there. "Like it was with the vision I saw of your grandma drowning. I actually was your grandma, and it was just lucky that I caught glimpses of the bridge and knew where she'd go into the water."
I nodded, "I remember you couldn't tell me very much. I thought it was more because you didn't want to tell me than that you couldn't tell me."
Her smile was sarcastic. "Yes, I know. Not that I care what you thought."
"Just get on with the Stevie Rae part." God, she was annoying.
"I haven't had a vision for a month. Good thing, too, since my parents insist I visit during winter break. Often." Her grimace said that visiting her parents wasn't exactly a good thing, which I already knew. At the last parent visitation night I'd sorta accidentally watched a majorly nightmarish scene between Aphrodite and her parents. Her dad's the mayor of Tulsa. Her mom might be Satan. Basically, they made my 'rentals look like the Brady parents (yes, I'm a dork and watch Nickelodeon reruns).
"I had to have a birthday scene with my parents yesterday."
"Your stepdad's one of the People of Faith psychos, isn't he?"
"Totally. My grandma called him a turd monkey."
That made her laugh. I mean really laugh. I watched her, amazed at how it transformed her face from cold and pretty to warm and beautiful.
"Yep. I hate my 'rentals," I said.
"Who doesn't," she said.
"Stevie Rae doesn't. Or at least she didn't before ..." My voice trailed off and I had to fight the urge not to burst into embarrassing tears.
"So that part of the vision's already happened. Stevie Rae has been turned into a monster."
"She's not a monster! She's just different than she used to be." Aphrodite lifted one perfect blond brow. "I'd say that could be an improvement if I hadn't seen what she's changed into."
"Just tell me what you saw."
"I saw vampyres being killed. Horribly." Aphrodite had to pause to swallow, like she was trying hard not to throw up.
"By Stevie Rae?" I squeaked.
"No. That was a different vision."
"Okay, I'm confused."
"Try having the damn visions, or at least these new visions I've been having. Confusion is what they're all about. And pain. And fear. They completely suck."
"So Stevie Rae wasn't in the one where the vampyres died?"
She shook her head. "No, but the two felt like they went together." Aphrodite sighed. "I saw Stevie Rae. She was horrible. Real dirty and thin and her eyes glowed a weird red. And you wouldn't believe what she was wearing. I mean, not that she was ever Miss Fashion Sense, but still."
"Yeah, yeah, I get it. So you saw her undead."
"That's what she is, isn't it. She's turned into some kind of horrible vampyre clich??, the monster humans have been calling us for centuries."
"Not all humans. You know, you really need to get over your completely crappy attitude about humans. You used to be one," I said.
"Whatever. I used to be in love with Sean William Scott, too. Talk about old news." She flipped her hair back.
"Anyway, I saw Stevie Rae when she died. Again. This time for real. And I knew if the vision was allowed to come true that it would somehow mean all of the vamp deaths I saw would really happen. So we have to figure out a way to save Stevie Rae because Nyx is seriously not happy about a bunch of vamps being killed."
"How did Stevie Rae die?"
"Neferet killed her. She pulled Stevie Rae out into the direct sunlight and she burned up."