Walking down the sidewalk that ran from the girls' dorm to the main school building, I decided that it wouldn't be smart to see Shekinah all tense and stressed out, so I took several deep cleansing breaths to calm myself, collect my thoughts, and told myself to relax and appreciate the beautiful, unseasonably warm night. Gaslights made pretty shadows against the winter trees and hedges, and there was a soft wind blowing the scent of cinnamon and earth from the fallen leaves that carpeted the grounds. Groups of kids walked back and forth between the buildings, mostly heading to the dorms or the near end of the school that held the cafeteria. They were talking and laughing together. Several of them called hellos to me, and many of them saluted me respectfully. Despite the problems facing me, I realized I was feeling optimistic. I wasn't alone in this. My friends were with me, and for the first time in a long time, they knew everything. I wasn't lying or evading. I was telling the truth and really, really happy about it.
Nala padded out of the shadows and up to me, "mee-uf-owing" and giving me a reproachful look. With barely a pause, she hurled herself up and into my arms and I had to scramble to catch her.
"Hey! You could warn me, ya know!" I said, but ended up kissing the white spot over her nose and tickling her ears. We walked down the shadowy sidewalk, heading away from the kid-filled part of campus to the quieter section that held the library and eventually the professors' rooms. The night really was pretty, with a clear Oklahoma sky filled with glittering stars. Nala curled her head against my shoulder and was purring contentedly when I felt her entire body tense up.
"Nala? What's wrong with--?"
And I heard it. A single croaking raven that sounded like it was so close that I should be able to see it within the night-sleeping shadows of the nearest tree. His cry was taken up by first one, and then another and then another. That simple sound was indescribably terrifying. I understood why they were called mockers of ravens because, even though you could easily mistake them for regular birds, if you listened just a little more carefully, you heard in their suspiciously mundane call the echo of death and fear and madness. The breeze that had been warm and sweet-smelling was replaced by an icy nothingness, like I'd just entered a mausoleum. My blood went cold.
Nala hissed long and menacingly, staring back over my shoulder at the darkness surrounding the huge old oaks that were usually so familiar and welcoming. Not tonight. Tonight they housed monsters. I automatically started to walk faster, looking frantically around for the kids that had just moments ago seemed to be all around me. But Nala and I had turned a corner in the sidewalk, and we were totally alone with the night and all it shrouded. The ravens cried again. The sound made the hair on my arms and the back of my neck stand up. Nala growled low in her throat and hissed again. Wings fluttered all around me, so close, I could feel the cold wind they were displacing. I smelled them then. They reeked of old meat and pus. A scent that was deadly, sickeningly sweet. I tasted the bile of fear in the back of my throat.
More croaking caws filled the night, and now I could see darkness within the darkness of stirring shadows. I caught glimpses of something flashing, sharp and hooked. How could they have beaks that shone glossy in the softness of the gaslights if they were just spirit? How could spirits smell like death and decay? And if they weren't just spirits anymore, what did that mean?
I stopped, unsure of whether I should run on or go back. And while I stood there, frozen with panic and indecision, the blackness within the nearest tree quivered and launched itself at me. My heart was hammering painfully, and I was on the verge of panic that was making me dumb with numbing fear. All I could do was pant with terror as it got closer. Its horrible wings displacing freezing, putrid air, it came at me. I could see it--I could see the man's eyes within the mutated bird's face . . . and arms . . . the arms of a man with twisted, grotesque hands held up in the shape of ragged, dirty claws. The creature opened its hooked beak and shrieked at me, forked tongue extended.
"No!" I cried, scrambling back from it, keeping a tight hold on my hissing cat. "Get away!" I turned and ran.
It caught me then. I could feel its horribly cold hands hook on my shoulders. I screamed and dropped Nala, who crouched at my feet, snarling up at the creature. Its horrible wings unfurled on either side of me, holding me there. I felt it lean into my back in a mockery of an embrace. Its head craned over my shoulder so that its beak hooked around my neck, resting against the place my pulse beat frantically in my throat. It stayed there, and its beak opened just enough to let the thing's red forked tongue slide out and taste my neck, like it was savoring me before it devoured me.
I was absolutely frozen with fear. I knew it was going to slice open my throat. Aphrodite's vision was coming true, only it was a demon who was going to kill me and not Neferet! No! O Goddess, no! My mind shrieked. Spirit! Find someone to help me!
"Zoey?" Damien's voice was suddenly in a questioning wind whirling around me.
"Damien, help me . . . ," I managed in a broken whisper.
"Save Zoey!" Damien shouted.
A violent blast of air knocked the creature from my back, but the thing was still able to slide its beak across my throat. As I fell to my knees, my hand went to my stinging neck, expecting to feel the wetness of my life's blood pouring hot and thick, but there was nothing there except a raised line that hurt like hell.
The sound of flapping wings regrouping behind me had me jumping to my feet and whirling around. But this time the wind that smoothed against my skin wasn't frigid and rank with death. It was familiar and filled with the strength of Damien's friendship. The knowledge that I wasn't alone--that my friends hadn't deserted me--cut through the paralyzing mist of panic that had clouded my thoughts like a goddess's avenging sword, and my frozen mind began to work again. Spirits or monstrous birds or minions of Neferet's twisted desires--it didn't really matter. I knew something that would handle all those things. I quickly oriented myself, facing the direction I knew was east. Then I raised both my arms over my head, closed my eyes, and blocked out the evil mockery of twisted bird calls. "Wind! Blow hard--blow strong--blow true--and show these creatures what it is to attack someone who is beloved of a Goddess!" I hurled my hands outward toward the creatures that had overtaken the night. I saw the one closest--the one who had tried to slit my throat, caught first in the gale. The wind lifted it up and away and threw it against the stone wall that ringed the school grounds. It crumpled and then seemed to dissolve into the ground, completely disappearing.
"All of them!" I cried, my fear lending power and urgency to my voice. "Blow them all away!" I flung my hands out again and was grimly pleased when the mocking calls of the creatures that lurked in the trees turned to shrieks of panic and then died away completely. When I knew they were gone, I let my trembling arms drift down to my sides. "In the name of my Goddess, Nyx, I thank you, wind. I release you, and please tell Damien I'm fine now. I'm okay."
But before wind left me, it found my face, caressed it briefly, and then it was filled with more than Damien's presence. Within the lingering breeze there was suddenly a distinct warmth that reminded me of Shaunee with its hint of spice and sizzle, as well as the scent of a life-affirming spring shower, which I knew had been sent by Erin. The three elements of my friends joined together, and the wind became a healing breeze that circled around my neck like a silk scarf, soothing the stinging wound left by the Raven Mocker. When the pain around my throat had faded completely, the wind gently blew itself away, taking with it the warmth of fire and the healing touch of water, leaving only the peace of the night and silence.
I lifted my hand, letting my fingers run across my throat. Nothing. There was not a scratch there. I closed my eyes and sent a silent thank you for my friends prayer to Nyx. With their help, I'd overcome one of Aphrodite's death visions for me. One down . . . one to go . . .
I picked up Nala and, holding her close to me, hurried down the sidewalk, trying to stop the trembling that was still quaking through my body.
I was feeling shaky and ultrasensitive, and when my gut told me I really shouldn't be seen right now, I called spirit to me as I entered the quieting school building, and through it covered myself in silence and shadow. So I moved through the mostly deserted halls of school undetected. It was weird of me to do this inside our school building, and it made me feel detached, like I was hiding not just my body, but my thoughts, too, and gradually as I made my way to the Council Chamber, the fear and the triumph that trembled inside me stilled and I began to breathe more easily.
Though Neferet's hand hadn't literally tried to slit my throat, I knew deep in my gut that what I'd just avoided really had been my death, or at the very least a foreshadowing of it. Had Damien still been mad at me, I don't think I could have pushed through the terror the Raven Mockers washed over me and reached out to the elements for protection. And even though Neferet hadn't been holding a blade to my neck, I couldn't help but believe that she was somehow all tied up in what was happening.
Was I still scared? Hell yes!
But I was also still breathing and more or less in one piece. (Okay, I was currently invisible, but still.) Could I beat the Raven Mockers again? In their current form where they were part spirit, part body, yes--with the help of my friends and the elements. Could I beat them if they were fully formed and had come into all their power?
I shivered. Just the thought of it terrified me.
So I did what any reasonable kid would do--I decided to think about it later. A snatched piece of a quote surfaced from my memory, sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof, and as I ped deeply into the lovely Land of Denial, I kept my mind busy trying to figure out where I'd read it.
Soundlessly, I floated up the stairs to the Council Chamber, across from the library, where I thought I would probably find Shekinah. It was in the hall outside the room that I heard the all-too-familiar voice, and I was very, very glad I'd followed my instinct to conceal myself.
"So you admit to feeling it, too? This sense of something being not right?"
"Yes, Neferet. I readily admit to sensing there was something wrong about the school, but if you'll recall, I was firmly against buying this campus from the Cascia Hall monks five years ago."
"We needed a House of Night in this part of the country," Neferet insisted.
"And that is the argument that won the Council over and convinced them to open this House of Night. I didn't agree with it then, and I don't agree with it now. The recent deaths simply prove we should not be here."
"The recent murders prove we need more of a presence here and all over the world!" Neferet snapped. I heard her draw a deep breath, as if she was working hard to control herself. When she spoke again, her voice was much more subdued. "This bad feeling of which we were speaking--it has nothing to do with being reticent about opening a school. It's different, more malevolent, and it's grown far worse in the recent months."
There was a long pause before Shekinah answered her. "I do feel a malevolence here, but I cannot name it. It seems hidden, shrouded in something I do not find familiar."
"I think I can name it," Neferet said.
"What do you suspect?"
"I have come to believe it is an evil hidden, shrouded, in the appearance of a child, and that is why it is going to be so hard to expose," Neferet said.
"I don't understand your meaning, Neferet. Are you saying one of the fledglings is hiding evil?"
"I don't want to say it, but I'm coming to believe it." Neferet's voice was filled with sadness, like what she was saying was so difficult to admit, she was almost on the brink of tears.
I knew it was absolutely, utterly, an act.
"Again I ask you, what do you suspect?"
"It isn't a what, but a who. Shekinah, sister, it grieves me to say it, but the deep evil I have been sensing, that you have been sensing, too, began to build and intensify with one student's entry to this House of Night." She paused, and even though I knew what she was going to say, it was a shock to hear her actually speak the words. "I'm afraid Zoey Redbird is hiding a terrible secret."
"Zoey! But she is the most gifted fledgling in history. Not only has no other fledging ever wielded the power of all five elements, but no other fledgling has ever been surrounded by so many gifted peers. Each of her closest friends can manifest one of the elements. How could she possibly be so gifted and be hiding evil?" Shekinah said. "I don't know!" Neferet's voice broke, and I could tell she was crying. "I'm her mentor. Can you imagine how much it grieves me to even think these things, let alone say them aloud?"
"What evidence do you have for your belief?" Shekinah asked, and I was glad to hear that she didn't sound particularly convinced Neferet was on to something.
"A teenage boy who used to be her lover was almost killed by spirits she conjured just days after she was Marked."
I blinked in utter shock. Heath and I had been lovers? Not hardly! Neferet knew that. And I hadn't conjured those mean spirits--Aphrodite had. Yes, they'd almost eaten Heath--well, and also Erik--but with the help of Stevie Rae, Damien, and the Twins, I'd stopped them.
"Then not more than a month later, two more teenage boys, again humans who were, let's just say intimate with her, were abducted and brutally killed--drained of all blood. A third boy, another human close to her, was taken, too. The community was in a frenzy, and that is when Zoey rescued the boy."
Oh. My. Goddess! Neferet was twisting everything and lying her butt off! It was the nasty undead dead kids who had killed the two Union football players, who I definitely had not been intimate with! Yes, I'd saved Heath (again--sigh), but I'd saved him from her disgusting, bloodsucking (not that there's anything wrong with it) minions!
"What else?" Shekinah said. I was glad to hear that her voice had remained calm and she still didn't sound like she was convinced Neferet was right about me.
"This last part is the most difficult for me to admit, but Zoey was special to Patricia Nolan. She spent quite a bit of time with her before she was murdered."
My head was buzzing. Sure, I'd liked Professor Nolan, and I think she liked me, but I definitely hadn't been special to her, and hadn't spent any extra time with her, either.
Then I knew what she was going to accuse me of next, even though I could hardly believe it.
"And I have reason to believe Zoey had become Loren Blake's lover just before he, too, was murdered. Actually, I'm sure the two of them had Imprinted." Neferet broke off, sobbing brokenly.
"Why did you not report any of this to the Council?" Shekinah asked sternly.
"What was I supposed to say? I think this most gifted of all fledglings has allied herself with evil? How could I bring such a charge against a young girl with no more proof than coincidence, supposition, and a feeling?"
Well, that was exactly what she was doing right now!
"But Neferet, if a fledgling gets involved with a professor, it is the High Priestess's duty to put a stop to it, and to report it to the Council."
"I know!" I could hear that Neferet was still crying. "I was wrong. I should have said something. Perhaps if I had, I could have prevented his death."
There was a long pause, and then Shekinah said, "You and Loren were lovers, were you not?"
"Yes!" Neferet sobbed.
"You realize your relationship with Loren could be clouding your judgment of Zoey?"
"I do." I heard her "valiantly" (barf!) try to pull herself together. "Which is another reason I was hesitant to tell anyone about my suspicions." "Have you looked into her mind?" Shekinah asked.
I shivered while I waited for Neferet's answer.
"I've tried. I cannot read her mind."
"How about her friends? The other fledglings who have special affinities?"
Crap! Crap! Crap!
"I have looked within them periodically. I have not found anything disturbing. Yet."
I heard Shekinah's sigh. "It is good that I am staying on here for the rest of this semester. I, too, will watch and listen around Zoey and the other fledglings. There is always a chance, and a very good one at that, that Zoey only seems in the middle of these events because she is, indeed, a very powerfully gifted young woman. She might not be causing the events, but might have been put here by Nyx to help thwart evil that is not of her making."
"I sincerely hope so," Neferet said.
She was such a liar!
"But we shall watch her. Closely," Shekinah said.
"Be careful of the favors she asks," Neferet said.
Huh? Favors? I hadn't asked Neferet for any favors! And then, with a jolt, I realized what it was Neferet was doing. She was messing it up for me to ask that Grandma visit me and stay here on campus. Bitch!
And the jolt of understanding turned to a sick dread. How had Neferet known Grandma was coming?
Suddenly, a huge commotion from outside drowned Shekinah's response. I was listening from the hall, so it was easy for me to drift over to one of the large curtained windows. Because it was night, the drapes were open and I looked down on the front grounds of the school. What I saw made me press my hand against my mouth to keep from cracking up.
Duchess was barking her head off as she raced after a snarling, hissing, yowling white ball of Maleficent. Aphrodite was chasing after the dog, screaming for her to "Come! Stay! Be good, damnit!" Damien was close behind her, flailing his arms and yelling, "Duchess! Come!" All of a sudden the Twins' cat, the huge and very stuck-up Beelzebub, joined in the chase, only he was tearing around after Duchess.
"Ohmygod! Beelzebub! Honey!" Shaunee ran into my view, yelling at the top of her very healthy lungs.
"Beelzebub! Duchess! Stop!" Erin wailed, right behind her twin.
Darius suddenly burst into the hallway, and I stepped back behind the curtains, not sure if my shrouding could be detected by him. Apparently he didn't notice me, or anything else, because he ran into the Council Room. I peeked through the drapes and could hear him telling Neferet that she was needed on the school grounds--that there was an "altercation." Then Neferet was hurrying out of the room and down the hall, following Darius into the dog-barking, cat-yowling, kid-screaming craziness.
I noticed that through all of it I hadn't seen hide nor hair of Jack.
Talk about an excellent persion!