It seemed like the whole school was already there waiting for us. By prepositioning the tall pillar candles, the Twins had already set the stage, so fledglings and vampyres made a huge circle around the appointed area, with the big oak serving as the focal point and head of the soon-to-be-cast circle.
I was glad to see all the Sons of Erebus. The warriors had situated themselves all along the outside of the circle, but they'd also taken up positions on top of the big stone- and-brick wall that surrounded the school. I knew it was probably making it a pain in the butt for Stevie Rae and the red fledglings to get onto the school grounds, but between the Raven Mockers, Kalona, and whoever had been killing vampyres--they made me feel safe.
Jack and I stood off to the side while Damien, the Twins, and Aphrodite took their places facing inward with the colored candles representing their elements in their hands. If I stood on my tiptoes, I could just make out Nyx's feast table that we sometimes put in the center of the circle. Tonight I imagined it held dried fruits and pickled vegetables, as would be right for deep winter, along with the ritual goblet of wine and such. I thought I also saw someone standing beside the table, but there were too many people in the way, and I couldn't be sure.
"Merry meet!" Shekinah greeted me.
"Merry meet." I smiled and saluted her.
"How is your grandmother?"
"She's holding her own," I said.
"I considered canceling the ritual, or at least postponing it, but Neferet was adamant it should go on as planned. She seemed to believe it would be important to you."
I fixed my expression so that I looked interested but neutral about what she'd said.
"Well, I think the ritual is important, and I wouldn't want to be the cause of it being cancelled," I said. I looked around. Weird that Neferet herself wasn't here to jab at me. I was sure the only reason she'd been pushing for this to go on tonight was because she knew I'd been hurt and distracted by Grandma's accident. "Where is Neferet?" I asked.
Shekinah glanced behind her, and then I saw her frown and send a quick look around the crowd. "She was just here behind me. Odd that I can't find her now . . ."
"She's probably already part of the circle." I hoped my face didn't betray any of the warning bells that had started to bong in my head. I looked over at where Jack was tinkering with the audio equipment. "Well, I should probably get started."
"Oh, I almost forgot to mention this to you. Actually I expected Neferet to tell you." Shekinah paused and looked around for Neferet again. "No matter, I can let you know just as easily. Neferet mentioned that you'd never performed such a large cleansing ritual before and that perhaps you didn't know, because you are such a very young fledgling, that during a ritual of this type you must mix the blood of a vampyre with the sacrificial wine you'll offer to the elements."
"What?" I couldn't have heard her right.
"Yes, it's quite simple, actually. Erik Night has volunteered not only to call you into the circle, taking our poor Loren Blake's place, but Erik will also play the traditional role of priestess's consort and offer his blood to you as sacrifice. I hear he's an excellent actor, so he'll do quite well tonight. Just follow his lead."
"That was the surprise I was talking about!" Jack said, popping up beside Shekinah. "Well, the part about Erik calling you into the circle, I mean. The blood part is just whatever." Said the kid who was still a young enough fledgling not to be deeply affected by blood like, say, I was. "Isn't it cool that Erik volunteered!"
"Oh, yeah, cool," was all I could make myself say.
"I shall take my place now," Shekinah said. "Blessed be."
I muttered a "Blessed be" at her back, then I turned on Jack.
"Jack," I whispered violently. "Erik playing Loren's part tonight is not what I'd call a good surprise!"
Jack frowned. "Damien and I thought it would be. It just shows that you guys can maybe try to talk to each other."
"Not in front of the whole school we're not!"
"Oh. Um. I didn't think about it like that." Jack's lip started to quiver. "Sorry. If I'd known you'd be mad, I would have told you first thing."
I wiped a hand across my forehead, brushing my hair out of my face. The last thing I needed was Jack breaking down into tears. No, the last thing I needed was having to face seriously hot Erik and his delicious blood in front of the entire school! Okay, okay, just breathe . . . you've gotten through more embarrassing situations than this.
"Zoey?" Jack sniffled.
"Jack, it's okay. Really. I was just, well, surprised. Which is what a surprise is all about. I'll be fine now."
"O-okay. Are you sure? Are you ready?"
"Yes and yes," I said before I could run screaming in the opposite direction. "Start the music for me."
"Knock 'em dead, Z!" he said, and ran back to the audio equipment, keying the beginning of the music.
I closed my eyes and began the deep breathing that would help me clear my mind and prepare myself for calling the elements and casting the circle--and because of the Erik surprise, totally forgetting to tell Jack he should check the nanny cam.
As always, I was a ball of nerves until I started toward the circle and the music filled me. Tonight the soundtrack of Memoirs of a Geisha was haunting and beautiful. I lifted my arms and let my body move gracefully to the orchestra. Then Erik's voice joined with the music and the night, creating magic.
Beneath the shining stars, Beneath the gleaming moon, When night has healed the scars Of burning noon . . . The words of the poem caught me, carrying me on a tide of Erik's voice. I flung back my head and let my hair fall around me as I moved slowly into the circle, weaving words with music and dance and magic.
. . . And so, I say to you, If hate possess your heart, When day's hot strife is through Bid hate depart . . .
I moved unerringly around the circle, loving the perfection of the poem Erik was reciting. It felt so right, and I knew that before, when Loren had called me into the circle, he'd used it as an opportunity to seduce and dazzle me. He hadn't thought about what the ritual should mean to me, or the rest of the fledglings, or even to Nyx. Loren's motives had always been self-serving. I could see that so easily now that I wondered how he could have ever fooled me so completely. Erik was as unlike him as the moon was unlike the sun. The poem he'd chosen was about forgiveness and healing, and though it would be nice to think he meant some of it for me, I knew that his first thought had been what would be best for the school and the kids who were trying to heal from the deaths of two professors.
The disappointing day, Whenever wrong, or how, Is something passed away, Is ended now. Forget, forgive, the scars, And sleep will find you soon Beneath the shining stars, The gleaming moon.
The poem ended as I joined Erik in the middle of the circle in front of Nyx's table. I looked up at him. He was tall and heart-stoppingly handsome dressed all in black, which complemented his dark hair and intensified the blue of his eyes.
"Hello, Priestess," he said softly.
"Hello, Consort," I replied.
He saluted me formally, bowing deeply with his right fist closed over his heart; then he turned to the table. When he came back to me, he was holding Nyx's ornately decorated silver goblet in one hand, and a ceremonial knife in the other. Okay, by "ceremonial" I don't mean it was for play. It was sharp, wicked sharp, but it was also beautiful and had been carved with words and symbols that were sacred to Nyx.
"You'll need this," he said, handing me the knife.
I took it, disturbed by how the moonlight glinted off the blade, not having a clue what to do next. Thankfully, the music was still playing and the watching horde of people were swaying gently to the mesmerizing Geisha melody. In other words, they were watching us, but only with easy anticipation, and as long as we kept our voices low, they couldn't hear us. I did glance at Damien, and he waggled his brows at me and winked. I looked away fast. "Zoey? You okay?" Erik whispered. "You know it's not going to hurt me much at all."
"You haven't done this before, have you?"
I shook my head slightly.
He touched my cheek for just a second. "I keep forgetting how new you are to all of this. All right, it's easy. I'm going to hold my right hand out, palm up, over the goblet." He lifted the goblet, which he had already shifted to his left hand. I could smell the red wine that almost filled it. "You lift the dagger over your head, salute all four directions with it, then slash my palm."
"Slash!" I gulped.
He smiled. "Cut, slash, whatever. Just run the blade along the meaty part under my thumb. It's seriously sharp, so it'll do the work for you. I'll turn my hand and while you thank me in the name of Nyx for my sacrifice to her, some of my blood will run into the wine. After a little while I'll close my fist, and that's when you take the goblet and walk to Damien so you can start casting the circle. Tonight you give each of the representatives of the elements a drink of the wine, ritualistically cleansing the elements before you do the big school cleansing part. Got it?"
"Yeah," I said shakily.
"Better get going then. Don't worry. You'll do fine," he said.
I nodded, and lifted the dagger over my head. "Wind! Fire! Water! Earth! I salute you!" I said, turning the blade from east to south, west, and north as I called each element's name. My nerves stated to fade as I could already feel the power of the elements building around me, eager to answer my coming summons. While I could still feel the echo of my salute, I brought the dagger down. I pressed the tip of it against the base of Erik's thumb, which he held steadily for me, and then with one quick motion, sliced the deadly sharp blade across his palm, exactly where he'd told me to cut.
The scent of his blood hit me immediately, warm and dark and indescribably delicious. Transfixed, I watched it bead, like ruby jewels, and then Erik turned his hand so that they could fall into the waiting wine. I looked up into his clear blue eyes.
"In Nyx's name, I thank you for your sacrifice tonight and for your love and loyalty. You are blessed by Nyx and beloved of her Priestess." And then I bent and gently kissed the back of his bleeding hand.
When I met his eyes again, I saw that they were unusually bright, and I thought his face was tender, his expression intimate, but I couldn't tell if he was just acting the part of Nyx's consort, or if he was really experiencing the feelings he was showing me. He fisted his hand and saluted me again saying, "I am now, and always will be, loyal to Nyx and to her High Priestess."
There wasn't any more time for me to wonder whether he was talking about me, or whether he was just acting out the rest of his part. I had a job to do. So I took my goblet of blood-spiked wine and walked over to stand in front of Damien. He lifted his yellow candle and smiled at me.
"Wind, you are as dear to me and familiar as the breath of life. Tonight I need your strength to cleanse the stagnant breath of death and fear from us. I ask that you come to me, wind!" This ritual was a little different, and Damien had obviously been more forewarned than I had been, so he was ready with a lighter to touch it to his candle. The moment it lit, we were surrounded in a mini-tornado of exquisitely controlled wind. Damien and I grinned at each other, and then I held the goblet up so he could sip from it.
I moved clockwise, or deosil, around the circle to Shaunee, who was already holding her red candle up and smiling eagerly.
"Fire, you warm and cleanse. Tonight we need your cleansing power to burn the darkness from our hearts. Come to me, fire!" As per usual, no one needed to touch Shaunee's candle with a lighter, the wick burst into glorious flame all by itself as we were filled with warmth and the light of a guiding hearth fire. I lifted the goblet for Shaunee, and she took her drink.
From fire I moved to water and Erin holding her blue candle.
"Water, we go to you dirty and rise from you clean. Tonight I ask that you wash us free of any lingering taint that might want to cling to us. Come to me, water!" Erin lit her candle, and I swear I could hear the rush of waves against a beach and feel the coolness of dew against my skin. I lifted the goblet for Erin, and after drinking, she whispered, "Good luck, Z."
I nodded and moved resolutely to Aphrodite, who was looking pale and tense as she held the green candle she knew would zap her if we tried to call earth. "Where is she?" I whispered, without hardly moving my lips.
Aphrodite made a nervous little shrug.
I closed my eyes and prayed. Goddess, I'm counting on you to make this work. Or at least if I make a fool out of myself, I'm hoping you'll somehow get me out of it. Again. When I opened my eyes, my mind was made up. It didn't really change things if Stevie Rae didn't show. I was going to tell everyone anyway. Some would believe me without proof. Some wouldn't. I'd take my chances on how things came down. I knew I was telling the truth, and so did my friends.
So instead of beginning my invocation of earth, I winked at Aphrodite and whispered, "Well, here we go," and turned around to face the circle and the questioning crowd of watchers.
"I need to invoke earth next. We all know that. But there's a problem. You all saw that Nyx gifted Aphrodite with an affinity for earth. And she did. But it turns out the gift was just a temporary one because Aphrodite was keeping the element safe for the one who really represented earth, Stevie Rae."
As soon as I said her name, there was a fluttering movement in the big oak and the night-darkened boughs that spread over our heads, and then Stevie Rae dropped gracefully from the branch above us.
"Dang, Z, it took you long enough to get to me," she said. Then she walked over to Aphrodite and took the green candle from her. "Thanks for keeping my place warm."
"Glad you could make it," Aphrodite said, and stepped aside so that Stevie Rae could move into her place.
Stevie Rae took the earth position, turned, and shaking her curly blond hair back from her face, grinned out at everyone while the intricate pattern of vines and birds and flowers that made up her scarlet tattoo blazed as brightly as her smile. "Okay, now you can invoke earth."