I didn't want to wait for Darius when I could have practically walked the short distance to the school in the time it would take him to get to his car, start it, and drive to the hospital, but I couldn't make myself. The night had gone from being a friend to a frightening, elusive enemy. While I waited for him, I dialed Stevie Rae's number.
But she didn't answer. It didn't even ring, and instead went straight to her voice mail. And again I wondered just what kind of message I was supposed to leave. Hi, Stevie Rae, big prophecy and ancient evil I wanted to chat with you about before you walk into the middle of it tonight, but I guess I'll catch you later. Somehow I didn't think that would be very smart. So while I waited for Darius, I chastised myself for not calling Stevie Rae earlier, but Grandma's accident had consumed me.
Which is exactly what the Raven Mockers had intended.
Darius's black Lexus pulled up to the curb by the ER entrance, and he hopped out to open the door for me.
"How is your grandmother?"
"There's really no change, which the doctor says is a good thing. Sister Mary Angela is sitting with her tonight, so I can go ahead and lead the cleansing ritual."
Darius nodded and swung the car around so we could head the short distance back to the school. "Sister Mary Angela is a powerful priestess. She would have made an excellent vampyre."
I smiled. "I'll tell her you said so. Anything happen today at school I should know about?"
"There was some talk about postponing the ritual when news of your grandmother's accident got out."
"Oh, no! We shouldn't do that," I said quickly. "It's too important to postpone."
He gave me a curious look, but said only, "That is what Neferet said. She convinced Shekinah to go ahead with tonight's schedule."
"Did she?" I mused aloud, wondering why it was so important to Neferet that I go ahead with the ritual tonight. Maybe she had some inkling that Aphrodite had lost her earth affinity and so she was looking forward to what she hoped would be a major embarrassment for her and for me. Well, Neferet was in for a big surprise if that's what she expected.
"You are cutting it pretty close, though," Darius said, glancing at the digital clock on the dash. "You have barely enough time to change your clothes and get to the east wall."
"That's okay. I'm great under time-crunch pressure," I lied.
"Well, I do believe Aphrodite and the rest of the group have everything prepared for you." I nodded and smiled at him. "Aphrodite, huh?"
He smiled back at me. "Yes, Aphrodite."
We pulled up to the sidewalk, and Darius got out to open my door for me. "Thanks, boyfriend," I teased. "See you at the ritual."
"I would not miss it for the world," he said.
"Ohmigod! Is your grandma okay? I was so upset when I heard!" Jack burst like a little gay tornado into my dorm room, practically choking me in an exuberant hug. Duchess crowded to me with him, wagging her tail and panting a doggy welcome.
"Yeah, we're really freaked about Grandma," Damien said, coming in right behind Jack and Duchess and taking his turn hugging me. "I lit a lavender candle for her and kept it burning all day."
"Grandma would like that," I said.
"So, what's the word? Is she gonna be okay?" Erin asked.
"Yeah, Aphrodite wouldn't tell us shit," Shaunee said.
"I told you everything I knew," Aphrodite said, following everyone else into my room. "And that was we wouldn't know anything for sure for a day or so."
"That's still all we know," I said. "But it seems good that she's not getting any worse."
"Was it really the Raven Mockers who caused her accident?" Jack asked.
"I'm sure of it," I said. "There was one in her room when I got there."
"Are you sure you should leave her there all alone? I mean, can't they hurt her?" Jack said.
"I'm sure they can, but she's not alone. Remember the nun Aphrodite and I told you about who runs Street Cats? She's there with her, and she's not going to let anything get Grandma."
"Nuns freak me out," Erin said.
"They scare me, that's for sure. I spent five elementary school years in a private Catholic school, and I can promise you they are some meeeeean women," Shaunee said.
"Sister Mary Angela can definitely handle herself," Aphrodite said.
"And any Raven Mockers who try to mess with Grandma," I said.
"So the nun knows about Raven Mockers?" Damien said.
"She knows about all of it--the prophecy and everything. I had to tell her so that she'd know why it's so important she doesn't leave Grandma alone." I paused, and decided to admit all of it. "Plus, I trust her. I feel a great force for good whenever I'm with her. Actually, she reminds me a lot of Grandma."
"Besides that, she thinks Nyx is just another version of their Virgin Mary, which means she doesn't see us as evil and going straight to hell," Aphrodite added.
"That's interesting," Damien said. "I'd like to meet her--as soon as this Kalona craziness is taken care of."
"Oh, speaking of craziness. Have you guys been keeping an eye on the nanny cam?" I asked.
Jack nodded and patted his ever-present satchel. "Yep, I sure have, and all is still totally, well, dead quiet." He giggled and then slapped his hand over his mouth. "Sorry! I didn't mean to sound so disrespectful of the maybe d-e-a-d," he spelled.
"Honey, it's okay," Damien put an arm around him. "Humor helps in these kinds of situations. And you're really cute when you giggle." "Okay, before I get sick and perhaps barf on my lovely new dress, can we go over the basic plan for the ritual and then get going? Being late tonight would not be a good thing," Aphrodite said.
"Yeah, you're right. We should get this going. But you guys really do look good," I said, grinning at all of them. "We are one pretty group."
Everyone smiled and took turns curtseying, bowing, and making cute little spins. It had been the Twins' idea that we should all wear new clothes to this cleansing ritual. They said to symbolize the new year and the newness of a newly cleansed school we all needed new things. I'd thought that was a lot of "new," but I'd been too busy to care one way or another. So while I'd been at Grandma's bedside, the Twins had been shopping. (I didn't ask how they'd skipped class--some things are better if I don't know the details.) We were all wearing black, but each outfit was different. Aphrodite's dress was black velvet, with a teardrop neckline and a totally short skirt. It looked killer with her black stiletto boots. My guess was she was going with her motto of No matter what happens, if you look good, everything's better. Damien and Jack were wearing black boy clothes. I don't know crap about boy clothes, but they definitely looked cute. The Twins were wearing short black skirts and those blousy black silk tops that I can't figure out if I think are cute or just pregnant-looking. Of course I'd never mention that to the Twins. I was wearing a new dress Erin had picked out for me. It was black, but it had little red glass beads sewn around the neckline and the long tight sleeves, as well as dangling from the skirt that ended just above my knees. It fit me perfectly, and I knew when I lifted my arms to invoke the elements, the moonlight would shimmer like blood off the decorative glass. In other words, it would look majorly cool.
Of course, we were all wearing our triple moon Dark Daughters and Sons pendants. Mine was trimmed in red stones that sparkled like my dress.
I grinned at my friends, feeling proud and confident. Grandma was in excellent hands with Sister Mary Angela. My friends were beside me--this time with no secrets between us. The ritual would go well, and Stevie Rae and the red fledglings would be out in the open, which meant Neferet would no longer be able to hide, whether she admitted her part in their existence or not. Erik had sorta started to talk to me again. And, speaking of guys, I was even feeling hopeful about Stark undeading. This time a kid coming back from death would be witnessed by the vamp power of Shekinah. And I wasn't going to worry about the possibility of being interested in two guys at the same time (again). Or at least not right now I wasn't going to worry about that.
Basically, I was feeling good and we were ready to take on any stupid ancient evil that tried to mess with us.
"Okay, so the ritual will go pretty much like it always does. I'll come in to whatever music Jack plays."
Jack nodded enthusiastically. "I'm ready! The best parts of the Memoirs of a Geisha soundtrack mixed with something else is what you're gonna come in to. But I'll wait and surprise you with the something-else part."
I frowned at him. Like I needed a surprise tonight?
"Don't worry," Damien said. "You'll like it."
I sighed. It was too damn late to change whatever it was now anyway. "So then I'll cast the circle with the elemental invocations. Aphrodite, let's be sure you're standing right in front of that huge oak by the east wall." "Already taken care of, Z," Erin said.
"Yeah, we set up the candles and the ritual table when Jack and Damien did the audio stuff. So we put the earth candle right next to the tree."
"Uh, you guys didn't catch sight of Stevie Rae, did you?"
"Nope," the Twins, Damien, and Jack all said.
I sighed again. She'd better show.
"Don't worry about it. She'll be there," Damien said.
Aphrodite and I exchanged a quick look. "I hope so," I said, "or I don't know what the hell we're gonna do about the earth candle being zapped from your hands when I try to invoke it."
"Aphrodite could always put the candle down while you light it and do an interpretive earth dance," Jack said helpfully.
Aphrodite rolled her eyes, but I said, "Let's consider that a Plan B we hope never happens. So once Stevie Rae appears and all of the elements are invoked and the circle cast, I'll make some kind of general announcement about the red fledglings and how their appearance should help cleanse the school of secrets."
"That's an excellent point to make," Damien said.
"Thanks," I said. "And what I'm expecting is that there will be a lot of explaining that will need to go on after the ritual, so I'm going to cut it pretty short."
"Then we watch Neferet deal with the fallout," Aphrodite said.
"And if she's Queen Tsi Sgili, like we think she might be, she's going to be way too busy trying to squirm her way out of how pissed Shekinah is going to be to do anything about fulfilling Kalona's prophecy," I said. And if the very worst happens, and Queen Tsi Sgili is Stevie Rae or one of her kids, I'll trust Shekinah and Nyx to handle that, too. Out loud I added, "Damien, keep an eye open for those Raven Mockers, though. If you think you see, or even hear one, zap him with wind."
"Will do," Damien said.
"So are we ready?" I asked my friends.
"Yes!" they yelled.
Then we all hurried out of the dorm and, with confident hearts, headed straight into our last moments of innocence.