"Nice dress, Zoey. It looks just like mine. Oh, wait! It used to be mine." Aphrodite laughed a throaty, I'm-so-grown-up-and-you're-just-a-kid laugh. I really hate it when girls do that. I mean, yes, she's older, but I have boobs, too.
I smiled, purposefully putting an extra dose of cluelessness into my voice and launched into a gihugic lie, which I think I pulled off pretty well considering I'm a bad liar, I had just been attacked by a ghost, and everybody was staring at us and listening in.
"Hi, Aphrodite! Gosh, I was just reading the chapter in the Soc 415 book Neferet gave me about how important it is for the leader of the Dark Daughters to make every new member of the group feel welcome and accepted. You must be proud that you're doing your job so well." Then I stepped a little closer to her and lowered my voice so she alone could hear me. "And I must say you look better than you did the last time I saw you." I watched her pale and was sure fear flickered through her eyes. Surprisingly, it didn't make me feel victorious and smug. It just made me feel mean and shallow and tired. I sighed. "Sorry. I shouldn't have said that."
Her face hardened. "Fuck off, freak," she hissed. Then she laughed as though she'd just made a huge joke (at my expense), turned her back on me, and with a hateful flip of her hair walked to the middle of the rec hall.
Okay, I didn't feel bad anymore. Hateful cow. She raised one slim arm, and everyone who had been gawking at me now turned their attention (thankfully) to her. Tonight she had on an antique-looking red silk dress that fit her as if it had been painted on. I'd like to know just exactly where she got her clothes. Goth ho store?
"A fledgling died yesterday, and then another one died today."
Her voice was strong and clear, and sounded almost compassionate, which surprised me. For a second she really did remind me of Neferet, and I wondered whether she was going to say something profound and leader-like.
"We all knew both of them. Elizabeth had been nice and quiet. Elliott had been our refrigerator for the past several rituals." She smiled suddenly; it was feral and mean, and any resemblance she might have had to Neferet ended. "But they were weak, and vampyres do not need weakness in their coven." She shrugged her scarlet-covered shoulders. "If we were humans we'd call it survival of the fittest. Thank the Goddess we're not humans, so let's just call it Fate, and be happy tonight that it didn't kick any of our asses."
I was totally grossed out to hear sounds of general agreement. I hadn't really known Elizabeth, but she'd been nice to me. Okay, I admit that I hadn't liked Elliott —no one had. The kid was annoying and unattractive (and his ghost or whatever seemed to be carrying on those traits), but I was not glad he died. If I'm ever leader of the Dark Daughters I won't make fun of the death of a fledgling, no matter how insignificant. I made the promise to myself, but I was also conscious of sending it out like a prayer. I hoped Nyx heard me, and I hoped she approved.
"But enough gloom and doom," Aphrodite was saying. "It's Samhain! The night when we celebrate the end of the harvest season and, even better, it is the time when we remember our ancestors—all the great vampyres who have lived and died before us." The tone of her voice was creepy, like she was getting into the show she was putting on way too much, and I rolled my eyes as she continued. "It's the night when the veil between life and death is thinnest and when spirits are most likely to walk the earth." She paused and looked around the audience, being careful to ignore me (like everyone else was). I had a moment to wonder about what she'd just said. Could what have happened with Elliott have something to do with the veil between life and death being thinnest, and the fact that he had died on Samhain? I didn't have time to wonder any more about it because Aphrodite raised her voice and shouted, "So what are we going to do?"
"Go out!" the Dark Daughters and Sons yelled back.
Aphrodite's laugh was way too sexual to be appropriate, and I swear she touched herself. Right there in front of everyone. Jeesh, she was nasty.
"That's right. I've chosen an awesome place for us tonight, and we even have a new little refrigerator waiting for us there with the girls."
Ugh. By "the girls" did she mean Warlike, Terrible, and Wasp? I glanced quickly around the room. Didn't see them anywhere. Great. I could only imagine what those three plus Aphrodite would consider "awesome." And I didn't even want to think about the poor kid who had somehow been talked into being their new refrigerator.
And, yes, I was going to be in total denial about the fact that my mouth watered when Aphrodite mentioned that there was a refrigerator waiting for us, which meant I was going to get to drink blood again.
"So let's get out of here. And remember, be silent. Focus your minds on being invisible, and any human who happens to still be awake will simply not see us." Then she looked right at me. "And may Nyx have mercy on anyone who gives us away, because we certainly won't." She smiled silkily back at the group. "Follow me, Dark Daughters and Sons!"
In silent pairs and small groups, everyone followed Aphrodite out the back door of the rec hall. Naturally, they ignored me. I almost didn't follow them. I really didn't want to. I mean, I'd had enough excitement for one night. I should go back to the dorm and apologize to Stevie Rae. Then we could find the Twins and Damien, and I could tell them about Elliott (I paused to consider whether my gut feeling was warning me against telling my friends, but it stayed silent). Okay. So. I could tell them. That sounded like a better idea than following bitchy Aphrodite and a group of kids who couldn't stand me. But my intuition, which had been quiet when I'd thought about talking to my friends, suddenly reared up again. I had to go to the ritual. I sighed.
"Come on, Z. You don't want to miss the show, do you?"
Erik was standing by the back door, looking like Superman with his blue eyes smiling at me.
"Are you kidding? Hateful girls, totally cliquish drama-trauma, and the possibility for embarrassment and bloodletting. What's not to love? I wouldn't miss a minute of it." Together Erik and I followed the group out the door.
Everyone was walking quietly to the wall behind the rec hall, which was too close to where I'd seen Elizabeth and Elliott for me to feel comfortable. And then, weirdly, the kids seemed to disappear into the wall.
"What the—?" I whispered.
"It's just a trick. You'll see."
I did. It was actually a trap door. Like the kind you see in those old murder movies, only instead of a door in a library wall or inside a fireplace (as in one of the Indiana Jones movies—yes, I'm a dork), this trap door was a small section of the thick, otherwise solid-looking school wall. Part of it swung out, leaving an open space just big enough for one person (or fledgling or vamp or possibly even a freakishly solid ghost or two) to slip through. Erik and I were the last ones through. I heard a soft whoosh, and looked back in time to see the wall closing seamlessly.
"It's on an automatic keypad, like a car door," Erik whispered. "Huh. Who all knows about this?"
"Anyone who's ever been a Dark Daughter or Son."
"Huh." I suspected that was probably most of the adult vamps. I glanced around. I didn't see anyone watching us, or following us.
Erik noticed my look. "They don't care. It's school tradition that we sneak out for some of the rituals As long as we don't do anything too stupid, they pretend like they don't know we're going." He shrugged. "It works out okay, I guess."
"As long as we don't do anything too stupid," I said.
"Shush!" Someone in front of us hissed. I closed my mouth and decided to concentrate on where we were going.
It was about four thirty A.M. Uh, no one was awake. Big surprise. It was weird to be walking through this really cool part of Tulsa—a neighborhood filled with mansions built by old oil money—and have nobody notice us. We were cutting through amazingly landscaped yards and no dogs were even barking at us. It was as if we were shadows...or ghosts....The thought gave me a creepy chill. The moon that earlier had been mostly obscured by clouds was now shining silver-white in an unexpectedly clear sky. I swear that even before I was Marked I could have read by its light. It was cold, but that didn't bother me like it would have just a week ago. I tried not to think about what that meant about the Change that was going on inside my body.
We crossed a street, then slid soundlessly between two yards. I heard running water before I saw the little footbridge. The moonlight lit up the stream as though someone had spilled mercury across the top of it. I felt captured by its beauty, and I automatically slowed down, reminding myself that night was my new day. I hoped that I would never get used to the dark majesty of it.
"Come on, Z," whispered Erik from the other side of the bridge.
I looked up at him. He was silhouetted against an incredible mansion that stretched up the hill behind him with its huge, terraced lawn and pond and gazebo and fountains and waterfalls (these people clearly had entirely too much money), and he reminded me of one of those romantic heroes out of history, like...like... Well, the only two heroes I could think of were Superman and Zorro, and neither of them were truly historical. But he did look very knight-like and romantic. And then it registered on me exactly which amazing mansion we were trespassing on, and I hurried across the bridge to him.
"Erik," I whispered frantically, "this is the Philbrook Museum! We're really going to get in trouble if they catch us messing around here."
"They won't catch us."
I had to scramble to keep up with him. He was walking fast, much more eager than me to catch up with the silent, ghost-like group.
"Okay, this isn't just some rich guy's house. This is a museum. There are twenty-four-hour security guards here."
"Aphrodite will have drugged them."
"Ssssh. It doesn't hurt them. They'll be groggy for a while and then go home and not remember anything. No big deal."
I didn't reply, but I really didn't like that he was so 'whatever' about drugging security guards. It just didn't seem right, even though I could understand the need for it. We were trespassing. We didn't want to get caught. So the guards needed to be drugged. I got it. I just didn't like it, and it sounded like yet another thing that was begging to be changed about the Dark Daughters and their holier- than-thou attitudes. They reminded me more and more of the People of Faith, which was not a flattering comparison. Aphrodite wasn't God (or Goddess, for that matter), despite what she called herself.
Erik had stopped walking. We stepped up to join the group where it had formed a loose circle around the domed gazebo situated at the bottom of the gentle slope that led up to the museum. It was close to the ornamental fishpond that ended right before the terraces leading up to the museum began. It really was an incredibly beautiful place. I'd been there two or three times on field trips, and once, with my Art class, I'd even been inspired to sketch the gardens, even though I definitely can not draw. Now the night had changed it from a place with pretty, well-tended gardens and marble water features into a magical fairy kingdom all washed in the light of the moon and shaded by layers of grays and silvers and midnight blues.
The gazebo itself was amazing. It sat on the top of huge round stairs, throne¬like, so that you had to climb up to it. It was made of carved white columns, and the dome was lit from beneath, so that it looked like something that could have been found in ancient Greece, and then restored to its original glory and lit for the night to see.
Aphrodite climbed the stairs to take her place in the middle of the gazebo, which immediately sucked some of the magic and beauty from it. Naturally, Warlike, Terrible, and Wasp were there, too. Another girl was with them, who I didn't recognize. Of course I could have seen her a zillion times and wouldn't have remembered—she was just another Barbie-like blond (although her name probably meant something like Wicked or Hateful). They'd set up a little table in the middle of the gazebo and draped it with black cloth. I could see that there were a bunch of candles on it, and some other stuff, including a goblet and a knife. Some poor kid was slumped with his head down on the table. A cloak had been pulled around him, so that it covered his body, and he looked a lot like Elliott on the night he'd been the refrigerator.
It must really take a lot out of a kid to have his blood drained for Aphrodite's rituals, and I wondered whether that had anything to do with bringing on Elliott's death. I blocked from my mind the fact that my mouth started watering when I thought about the kid's blood being mixed with the wine in the goblet. Weird how something could totally gross me out and make me want it really bad at the same time.
"I will cast the circle and call the spirits of our ancestors to dance within it with us," Aphrodite said. She spoke softly, but her voice traveled around us like a poisonous mist. It was spooky to think about ghosts being drawn to Aphrodite's circle, especially after my own recent experiences with ghosts, but I have to admit that it intrigued me almost as much as it scared me. Maybe I was so certain I had to be here because I was meant to get some clue about Elizabeth and Elliott tonight. Plus, this ritual was obviously something the Dark Daughters had been doing for a while. It couldn't be that scary or dangerous. Aphrodite played all big and cool, but I had a feeling that it was an act. Underneath she was what all bullies are—insecure and immature. Also, bullies tended to avoid anyone tougher than them, so it was only logical that if Aphrodite was going to call spirits into a circle it meant that they were harmless, probably even nice. Aphrodite was definitely not going to face down a big, bad, boogie monster.
Or anything as truly freaky as what Elliott had become.
I started to relax into welcoming what was already becoming a familiar hum of power as the four Dark Daughters took candles that corresponded to the element they were representing, and then moved to the correct area of the mini¬circle in the gazebo. Aphrodite summoned wind, and my hair lifted gently in a breeze that only I could feel. I closed my eyes, loving the electricity that tingled across my skin. Actually, in spite of Aphrodite and the stuck-up Dark Daughters, I was already enjoying the beginning of the ritual. And Erik was standing beside me, which helped me not to care that no one else there would talk to me.
I relaxed more, certain suddenly that the future wasn't going to be that bad. I'd make up with my friends, we'd figure out together what the hell was going on with the weird ghosts, and maybe I'd even get a totally hot boyfriend. Everything would be okay. I opened my eyes and watched Aphrodite move around the circle. Each element sizzled through me, and I wondered how Erik could stand so close to me and not notice it. I even snuck a peek at him, half expecting him to be staring at me as the elements played over my skin, but, like everyone else, he was looking at Aphrodite. (Which was actually annoying—wasn't he supposed to be sneaking looks at me, too?) Then Aphrodite began the ritual of summoning of the ancestral spirits, and even I couldn't keep my attention from her. She stood at the table, holding a long braid of dried grass over the purple spirit flame, so that it lit quickly. She allowed it to burn for a little while, and then blew it out. She waved it gently around her as she began to speak, filling the area with tendrils of smoke. I sniffed, recognizing the scent of sweet grass, one of the most sacred of ceremonial herbs because it attracted spiritual energy.
Grandma used it often in her prayers. Then I frowned and felt a tendril of worry. Sweet grass should be used only after sage has been burned to cleanse and purify the area; if not, it might attract any energy—and "any" didn't always mean good. But it was too late to say anything, even if I could have stopped the ceremony. She had already begun calling to the spirits, and her voice had taken on an eerie, singsong quality that was somehow intensified by the smoke that curled thickly around her.
"On this Samhain night, hear my ancient call all you spirits of our ancestors. On this Samhain night, let my voice carry with this smoke to the Other-world where bright spirits play in the sweet grass mists of memory. On this Samhain night I do not call the spirits of our human ancestors. No, I let them sleep; I have no need for them in life or in death. On this Samhain night I call magical ancestors— mystical ancestors—those who were once more than human, and who, in death, are more than human."
Completely entranced, I watched with everyone else as the smoke swirled and changed and began to take on forms. At first I thought I was seeing things, and I tried to blink my vision clear, but soon I understood what I was seeing had nothing to do with blurry vision. There were people forming within the smoke. They were indistinct, more like the outlines of bodies than actual bodies themselves, but as Aphrodite continued to wave the sweet grass they grew more substantial, and then suddenly the circle was filled with spectral figures that had dark, cavernous eyes and open mouths.
They didn't look anything like Elizabeth or Elliott. Actually, they looked exactly as I imagined ghosts would—smoky and transparent and creepy. I sniffed the air. Nope, I definitely didn't smell any old basement yuckiness.
Aphrodite put down the still-smoking grass and picked up the goblet. Even from where I was watching, it seemed that she looked unusually pale, as though she had taken on some of the physical characteristics of the ghosts. Her red dress was almost painfully bright within the circle of smoke and gray and mist.
"I greet you, ancestral spirits, and ask that you accept our offering of wine and blood so that you may remember what it is to taste life." She lifted the goblet, and the smoky shapes churned and roiled with obvious excitement. "I greet you, ancestral spirits, and within the protection of my circle I—"
"Zo! I knew I'd find you if I tried hard enough!"
Heath's voice sliced through the night, cutting off Aphrodite's words.
Cliffhanger? Nope. Next.
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