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It was Christmas morning, and as she woke in a bed that still seemed strange, Spirit White had never in her life felt less festive.
It didn't help, of course, that this was her first Christmas since … The Accident. Her first Christmas without Mom and Dad and her baby sister, Phoenix. As she lay there half asleep, Spirit expected to feel the thump of Fee bouncing down on her bed and demanding she get up right now, it was Christmas, come on. And that would never happen again, because on a summer night less than a year ago, her sister and her parents had died in an accident that never should have happened. That alone was enough to make Spirit want to burrow into the covers of this bed and sleep until New Year's Day. At least. But adding to her sense of dislocation was where she was. If someone had told her this was where she'd be twelve months ago, Spirit would have laughed in their face.
The middle of Montana was a place so unlike her Indiana home that she could have been on another planet. And she was living at Oakhurst Academy: a luxurious boarding school—an orphanage—that invested more money just in sports equipment than most people made in a year. But the most unbelievable thing of all was what Oakhurst taught, and who the school taught, and why she was here.
Oakhurst taught Grammery—magic. And the only people who were allowed to attend Oakhurst were future magicians. Orphaned future magicians.
But Oakhurst was no happy, cozy place that nurtured young wizards and witches with feasts and magical competitions and quirky living quarters. Oh no. Being at Oakhurst was like being in one of those teen slasher movies where only the most competitive survived. And she meant that literally—because some of her classmates hadn't survived.
Only three days ago, she and the few friends she'd managed to make here—Oakhurst didn't want its students to make friends or keep them—had managed to defeat the evil force that had been killing Oakhurst students for almost forty years. And no one had realized this was going on, because everyone—well, all the students anyway—had just assumed that the missing kids ran away, or got too sick for the Oakhurst medical facilities to treat, or were sent away for some other reason. Until Spirit arrived at Oakhurst, no one had counted up the missing and come up with the truly scary total that she and her friends had.
The five of them shouldn't even have realized anything was wrong. Everything about Oakhurst, Spirit had realized, was designed to distract you, to make you come up with some sort of plausible explanation instead of looking for the real truth. Spirit wasn't really sure what had made them look past the convenient smoke screen. Was it because she and Loch were new here? Was it because one of the kids who vanished had been a friend of Muirin's?
Was it because she, Spirit White, didn't have the magic powers every other kid here had? The teachers—and Doctor Ambrosius—told her she did. They'd told her that her magic was why she was here.
At least Burke had said that everybody's magic didn't show up at the same time. He was being kind—Spirit knew that—but at least not having magic had one advantage. Everybody who did have magic could sense each others' presence. It had been Loch who, knowing she didn't have magic, had used that to defeat the thing that had been killing Oakhurst students.…
* * *
As the sounds got closer, Spirit could see Jeeps, SUVs. The vehicles were rusted and burned out, as if they'd come from some supernatural junkyard. Lashed to every grille or hood was a set of antlers: deer, elk, even moose, and each vehicle held passengers. Some leaned out the sides of doorless, roofless SUVs. Some stood in the beds of pickup trucks, whooping and hollering and urging the drivers onward. They were dressed in the ragged remains of hunting clothes—hunter's orange and red-and-black buffalo plaids and woodland camo. Skeletal hands gripped roll bars and steering wheels and door frames. Eyeless skulls covered in tatters of rotting flesh gazed avidly toward their prey. Every single one of them was dead.…
* * *
The Wild Hunt was supposed to be a myth, a folktale, a legend: a ghostly troop of riders—a hunt—that galloped across the sky, capturing or killing anyone it met. It hadn't been supposed to be real. Spirit wanted to think she and her friends—Loch, Addie, Muirin, and Burke—had actually managed to destroy the Wild Hunt, but she was pretty sure they hadn't. They couldn't possibly be that lucky.
At least they'd made it go away. Spirit burrowed deeper under the covers, shivering at the memory. They'd been crazy to try taking on the Hunt by themselves. It was a miracle they'd won. And their reward for doing the impossible had been a pat on the head from Doctor Ambrosius, Oakhurst's headmaster.
And that was an odd thing that stood out even in the middle of the general weirdness that was Oakhurst. On the day she and Loch had arrived, Doctor Ambrosius had told them that they—everyone here at Oakhurst—had enemies, and that a final showdown was coming. That was why he brought all of them here after their parents died. That was why he was training them in magic.
So if that's true, wouldn't he be a little more interested in the fact that there is a band of ghosts or demons or elves running around outside his magical shields?
They'd already figured out that the Hunt had been raiding on the campus as well as off it. Oakhurst was surrounded by an invisible magical barrier—its wards—that wouldn't allow anything that didn't "belong" at Oakhurst to come in. For the Hunt to be able to raid on campus …
There had to be someone at Oakhurst—one of the teachers or one of the staff—letting them in.
And they had no idea who that might be.
At least we're still alive to try to figure it out, Spirit thought glumly. That beats the alternative. I guess.
Then again, the alternative was Christmas at Oakhurst.
There were no real "holidays" here, only a few days in which they didn't have classes, and despite the fact that there was a town only a few miles away, the students here were as isolated as if they were in prison: no television, no Internet—no junk food!—and the only movies they could watch were on the "approved" list. The rules were relaxed—just a little—at the school dances. That seemed to satisfy most of the kids. It only made Spirit think of how much she'd lost.
I hate this place, she thought numbly. And not because Doctor Ambrosius turned me into a mouse during my "Welcome to Oakhurst" interview, and not because I'm the only one in the entire school who can't cast spells, and not just because even the teachers here are trying to kill all of us, and not even because I'm pretty sure this whole place wants us to all hate each other. I hate it because they even turn the holidays into work.
The month of December had been packed not only with classes—and everybody's course-load was brutal—but with preparations for their so-called week of vacation. It wasn't really. There were a lot of requirements, like snow and ice sculptures, including a snow castle and a snow maze. You'd think stuff like that would be just for fun, but it wasn't. It was a course requirement for the Water Witches, who were graded on Grammery, art, and architectural design.
Way to suck the fun out of playing in the snow, thankyew, thankyew very much, Spirit thought mockingly.
The Water Witches weren't the only ones with "vacation" homework. The music classes rehearsed for a Christmas concert. The English classes rehearsed a play for New Year's Eve. The athletic teams practiced for yet another series of demonstrations and contests. And everybody rehearsed for Christmas Day, which included another of Oakhurst's hideous "formal dinners." Even the carol-singing was mandatory.
Even if no one else is as depressed as I am, by the time today comes, everyone should be so sick of getting ready for it, all they'll want is for it to be over.
Suddenly Spirit's pillow was snatched off her head. She made a grab for it, but Muirin held it out of reach.
"Up!" the redhead commanded. "You're going to miss breakfast!"
Spirit responded by pulling her blanket over her head. "Wake me when it's New Year's," she muttered. "And you aren't supposed to go into somebody's room without permission," she added sulkily.
In reply, Muirin pulled the blanket off the end of the bed. Spirit yelped at the blast of cold air. Oakhurst believed that sleeping in cold bedrooms was good for you. Now she was completely awake, and there was no point in trying to out-stubborn Muirin. With a growl, she tossed back the covers, grabbed her robe, and stalked into her bathroom, shutting the door on Muirin's smug look of triumph.
She stalked out again a few minutes later, damp from her shower, and stomped into her closet. It was big enough to dress in—her whole bedroom here had luxuries she'd never imagined owning, like a flat-screen TV and her very own microwave—and it was the same as every other student's. They all had private rooms, and their own computers, and …
Pretty much everything they wanted, except privacy, freedom, and their families back.
A few minutes later, she came out of the closet, dressed—in an Oakhurst uniform, of course—for another wonderful day on Planet Oakhurst. Almost everything she owned—after The Accident, and its aftermath—was an Oakhurst uniform. She was really tired of brown and gold. Since the fancy formal dinner was going to be fancy and formal, she couldn't even wear pants (even though you usually could during vacation), but she could still make her feelings known. She chose a brown skirt that went down to mid-calf, brown tights, brown shoes, brown sweater, and brown blouse. There. She looked like a Mennonite. A dowdy Mennonite. All she needed was the little white hat.
Muirin rolled her eyes at the sight of her outfit. "You don't really want Burke and Loch to see you in that, do you?"
Argh. No, she didn't. Burke was sweet, and Loch was really cute, and—unlike most of the other kids, like Kylee and Dylan—neither of them had tried to kill her in the four months she'd been here. But she'd be damned if she was going to look "cheerful" when she felt so depressed. She set her jaw. Muirin gave a pained sigh. Muirin had fire red hair and vivid green eyes and was fashion-model skinny and the closest thing to an outlaw rebel that could survive here, since even if you didn't just "disappear," collecting enough demerits could make your life a living hell. Muirin despised Oakhurst's Dress Code, and had somehow managed to alter every bit of her own clothing so that it was just barely within school guidelines. How she got away with it, Spirit still didn't know. Maybe she cast an illusion over herself every time there was a teacher in sight.
Only that wouldn't work, Spirit thought in irritation. Because if you have magic, you can tell when somebody's using it around you. The only one Muirin could really fool here … is me.
"Come on, come on—they're having French toast and pancakes even though it isn't Sunday!" Muirin said, bouncing up and down at her. Muirin was a sugar addict, and one of her many grievances with Oakhurst was the lack of junk food on the school menus. Spirit really didn't miss anything but soda, but Muirin and Seth—he'd been one of the Wild Hunt's last victims—had set up their own smuggling operation to get contraband into Oakhurst from nearby Radial.
* * *
The dining room was nearly empty. A lot of the school rules were relaxed a little over the Christmas holiday, so you didn't have to show up for breakfast if you didn't want to, though if you missed it, you had to starve until lunch. Today, missing breakfast meant you'd be stuck until about two-thirty, because the formal meals were always later than regular lunch. But even so, it looked as if at least half of the other kids had decided to skip breakfast in favor of more sleep. Not that it would be much more sleep, because there was a mandatory "spiritual education" service at ten. Any place else, it would be a church service, but Oakhurst was special. In the not-good way.
Addie, Burke, and Loch were already in the Refectory, sharing their usual table. Burke, as usual, was working his way through an enormous "healthy" breakfast: eggs and toast and sausage and potatoes and orange juice. Addie was crunching delicately away on a slice of toast, with a mug of tea at her elbow. Loch had a plate of bacon and eggs in front of him, but he was pretty much ignoring it to talk to the others. The moment Spirit slipped into her seat, one of the servers came around to ask her what she wanted for breakfast. (That was another creepy thing about Oakhurst. It was like living in a combination of Motel Hell and a fancy restaurant, because they had waiters and waitresses serving them at every meal.)
"Waffles!" Muirin said eagerly. "And cocoa, and orange juice, and bacon, and—"
"Just cornflakes, thanks," Spirit said, cutting Muirin off. At least during "vacations" you didn't have to eat a whole Healthy Breakfast if you didn't want to. The server nodded and walked away.
"Boy, somebody woke up in a bad mood this morning!" Muirin mocked.
Spirit glared at her, her blue eyes crackling with anger. "My parents are dead," she said, biting off each word. "My sister is dead. I don't even have any pictures of them because our house burned down while I was in the hospital having my third—or maybe it was my fourth—surgery after the crash. And now I'm here. And it's Christmas. So why don't you tell me what I've got to be perky about?"
"Well," Loch said, after a moment, "you don't have to go out and fight the Demon King of Hell today."
Addie gave a startled snort of laughter. It always seemed so odd when Addie made a rude noise. She was a plump girl with brown eyes and long, smooth, jet-black hair, and she looked a little like Snow White and a little like Alice in Wonderland, and a lot like somebody very prim and proper and maybe even stuck-up. And nothing could be farther from the truth, even though she was—Spirit had been stunned to discover—the sole heir to Prester-Lake BioCo., a pharmaceutical company worth literally millions.
"True," Addie said. "Unfortunately, you do have to attend the concert. Sorry," she added. Addie was in the Choral Society, so she'd be performing. Spirit was starting to suspect Addie'd joined the choir so she wouldn't have to attend the concerts. They were deadly dull.
The server returned with the plate of waffles and the bowl of cornflakes. Of course, since this was Oakhurst, they couldn't just be regular normal cornflakes. No, they were topped with slices of banana that had been dusted with brown sugar. Spirit picked up the milk pitcher and poured milk into her bowl.
"I know today's gotta be pretty awful for you—both of you," Burke said, nodding to include Loch in the statement. "It'll get, I don't want to say ‘better,' but you'll get used to it."
"Used to it hurting," Spirit said. She inhaled deeply, blinking against tears.
"Yeah," Burke said, and Addie nodded in sympathy. Addie had been orphaned three years ago, and Burke had been an orphan all his life—he had a set of foster parents in the Outside World that he talked about going back to once he graduated.
"I kind of wish it did hurt," Loch said quietly. Loch was the only other one of the five of them who'd lost his family recently, and all Loch had lost—as he'd be the first to say—was a father he hadn't been close to. Benjamin Spears had left his only son to be raised by a series of exclusive private schools. Oakhurst wasn't much of a change for Loch. Aside from the magic, of course.
At least Loch has his magic. I'm the only person at a whole school for magicians who can't cast a single spell.
It was true. The first thing that happened to you once you reached Oakhurst was getting tested to find out which School you had an "affinity" for. There were four of them: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. The School you belonged to determined what kind of magic you had: Addie was School of Water, a Water Witch, while Muirin's ability to cast perfect illusions meant her powers belonged to the School of Air, and Burke's Combat Magery put him in the School of Earth.
Even Loch had passed his tests with flying colors. He had what they called minor Gifts from two Schools: Shadewalking, and Kenning, from the School of Air, and Pathfinding from the School of Earth.
Spirit hadn't had an affinity for any School at all.
"So … before the concert we've got that religious service, right?" Spirit said, just to change the subject.
"Not really religious, but yeah," Burke replied. "That's ten to eleven-thirty, then the concert's from twelve to two, then dinner at two-thirty. Fifty different spoons, the whole formal thing."
"It'll be fun," Muirin said, looking up from drowning her waffles in syrup to make a disgusted face.
Spirit nodded glumly. When it all came down to it, in the last year she'd lost her family, Loch had lost his father, Muirin had lost her friend Seth, and all of them had known most of the victims of the Wild Hunt.
There really didn't seem much to celebrate.
* * *
The "religious service" made Spirit uncomfortable—and not just in the butt-numbing, having to sit on hard wooden pews for two hours way, but in a kind of soul-numbing way. She'd never been raised to be more than vaguely "spiritual," but services at Oakhurst always seemed wrong in a way she couldn't define, as if the entire thing was a smirky, mocking, yet somehow mind-deadening parody of a real religious service. Yet at the same time there wasn't a single thing that someone—whether they were devout or not—could have pointed to as being overtly insulting. She knew Burke was the only one of the five of them who was really religious, and even he couldn't say there was anything wrong with the Oakhurst services. They were all so very bland and inoffensive.
The concert that followed was pretty much identical to the one at Thanksgiving. Different music, but it sounded the same—like elevator music. It's just like the Christmas service, Spirit thought, with an odd air of discovery. It's all stuff that might have started out being good or interesting but now it's had all the life sucked out of it.…
By the time they were let out of the concert, Spirit was feeling like a marathon runner entering the final stretch of the race. Only two more things to get through. The Formal Dinner would have been okay if merely eating hadn't been an ordeal—and if Spirit had had any appetite for it. Like at Thanksgiving, there were place cards and assigned seating and extra-formal place settings, but even Dylan wasn't his usual vicious self. I guess everyone thinks about their family at Christmas. She took servings of everything she was offered—you weren't allowed to refuse anything, on the grounds that you were "broadening your gustatory horizons"—and just pushed it around on her plate with her fork until the potatoes and the vegetables were a beige mush. Then she covered them with the pieces of roast goose. At Thanksgiving, the meal had ended with pumpkin and mince pie. For Christmas, there'd be something called a Viennese Table set up in the dining room after the gifts were handed out. Spirit didn't think she'd have any appetite for that, either.
Now there was just one more thing to endure before she could go back to her room and indulge herself by being completely miserable and crying until she puked. One of the worst things about Oakhurst was that the Administration kept pretending that the school's money could make up for losing your family and your whole life. One of the ways they did that—tried to do that—was by giving all the students Christmas gifts, even though they didn't even bother to pretend anyone here knew you well enough to pick them out. No, the staff sent around a memo with guidelines and a list of "approved" gifts, and told everyone to pick three items. Not that they'd get all three. No. Despite the fact Oakhurst was rolling in money, each student got one "approved" gift from the Administration. They were probably told to pick three just so there'd be a little suspense.
I don't want an iPod or a pair of socks! I want Mom and Dad and Phoenix back!
Spirit wasn't even sure what she'd chosen from the list. Thinking about Christmas without her family had been so painful she'd just blanked on it and wasn't sure what she'd put down. Books and music, probably, to replace things she'd lost when her home burned down after The Accident. She wouldn't have come to the "gift-giving" at all if she could have avoided it. But she couldn't. Everything not compulsory is forbidden, she thought with a despairing flash of humor. 1984 had been one of Dad's favorite books, and he'd taught her to love it, too. She'd been surprised, on coming here, to find Muirin loved it as well. It seemed to be just as odd a choice for a Goth girl from New Jersey as it was for a reluctant hippie kid from Indiana.
* * *
There were about a hundred kids here at Oakhurst. It seemed like a lot when you thought about the fact that they were going to be your nearest and dearest until you left Oakhurst at twenty-one. Or get sacrificed to demons. Hey, anything to get out of SATs, right? It didn't seem like many when you thought about the fact that most high schools had about three times that many students.
It really didn't seem like many when they were all gathered in the Entry Hall and the place still echoed.
The Entry Hall was the first thing you saw when you came to Oakhurst. It was about sixty feet across, and its focal point was the biggest single tree trunk that Spirit had ever seen. It seemed to hold up the ceiling—which was at least thirty feet away. Behind the tree-pillar was a balcony stretching the breadth of the room with two half-circle staircases leading up to it. The rest of the ceiling was crossed with peeled-log beams—Loch had said the first time they saw it that Oakhurst was done in a style called "Arts and Crafts Lodge"—and between the rustic beams were panels of parquetry in vaguely Egyptian patterns. The floor was done in the same design, only in shades of green and gray stone instead of wood.
On the right side of the Entry Hall—as you came in—were the huge double doors that led to Doctor Ambrosius's office. On the left there was a stone fireplace more than big enough to park a horse in—or roast one. Hung above the fireplace was a huge banner with the Oakhurst coat of arms on it. Spirit hadn't liked the design the first time she saw it, and she liked it less now. (Loch called it "faux armigerous," whatever that meant.) The coat of arms appeared on everything at Oakhurst, including bedspreads, bathrobes, and towels, though most of the time it wasn't in color. The banner had the whole deal though: a red shield with a white diagonal stripe across it, an oak tree colored bright green and brown like a picture in a kid's book, and a bright yellow—or gold—snake coiled in the branches. On top of the shield there was a bear's head on a plate (brown head, silver plate, red blood). On the left side of the shield there was a gold upside-down cup, and on the right side there was a broken silver sword. Way to impress the parents. Oh, I totally forgot. None of us has any parents to impress.…
The log-and-leather couches that usually sat in front of the fireplace—though Spirit had never seen anyone sit in them—had been removed to make way for the Christmas tree. It looked like a tree in a movie, and that was another odd thing in a school that didn't believe in holidays: The Oakhurst tree was a gigantic blue spruce, tall enough to reach most of the way to the ceiling, and every inch of it was decorated. Not with a bunch of Kmart–Wally World plastic junk, either: The ornaments were glass, antique, and probably cost more than the last Star Wars movie.
All around it were presents, and Spirit saw, with a faint despairing disbelief, that no matter the design on the wrapping paper, every present under the tree was wrapped in the Oakhurst school colors: brown, gold, and cream.…
* * *
Since the couches were gone, there wasn't anyplace to sit. They'd all filed into the Entry Hall by the same alphabetical order they'd been seated at for the dinner, but once they were there, Burke beckoned to Spirit, and she saw that Loch and Addie were standing with him. Muirin joined them a few minutes later, looking—as usual—as if she were getting away with something. About half the other kids had shuffled around, too—maybe Oakhurst wouldn't care if you had friends on Christmas Day—but most of them still looked as if they were trying to pretend they didn't know anyone here. Conversation was kept to a subdued murmur.
That conversation died out completely with the entrance of Doctor Ambrosius. He was flanked by his assistants, Ms. Corby and Mr. Devon. Doctor Ambrosius looked like a venerable old college professor, white beard, flowing white hair, tweed jacket with leather elbow patches, and all. Ms. Corby and Mr. Devon looked—well, like bodyguards. Bored bodyguards. Ms. Corby was one of the few non-magicians here at Oakhurst. She was Doctor Ambrosius's personal assistant. Mr. Devon was also the supervisor of the Boys' Dorm Wing. Or, as they called them here at Oakhurst, "Young Gentlemen."
Doctor Ambrosius—and his bodyguards—walked over to stand in front of the fireplace. He gazed out at them for a moment, then cleared his throat meaningfully. Absolute silence descended.
"We are here to celebrate the end of another calendar year here at Oakhurst," he said, in a voice as smooth and reassuring as a documentary narrator on Discovery Channel. "Some of you haven't been with us long, and some are extended residents, but all of you are part of the Oakhurst family. Indeed, following the deaths of your parents, Oakhurst is your family now."
He beamed at all of them, but the moment his gaze had gone to another part of the room, Loch leaned over to whisper in Spirit's ear.
"Does he practice being that tactless, or does it come naturally?"
Spirit grimaced and shrugged.
"So, as the old year ends, and the new one begins, we pause for a time of remembrance. Remember—always—that it is your responsibility to live up to the high standards that other members of your Oakhurst family have set. An Oakhurst graduate who is merely average is one who has failed. An Oakhurst graduate soars where others plod. And an Oakhurst student can never rest on his accomplishments, for while he is resting, others are overtaking him."
He paused, and Ms. Corby signaled what was expected of them by initiating a patter of light applause.
"Now, in the generous spirit of the season and your family," Doctor Ambrosius concluded, beaming on them all again, "let us commence with the distribution of gifts."
While Ms. Corby and Mr. Devon handed out the gifts, Spirit stood there feeling a kind of bemused horror. She'd expected some kind of announcement about the Wild Hunt during the service, but when it hadn't come, she'd assumed there would be one here. But there wasn't. When the kids had disappeared—Seth and Camilla just since Spirit had come here, and that wasn't counting Nicholas and Eddie, who were alive but mind-blasted—Oakhurst had covered things up with lies that were meant to be reassuring. And maybe they'd had a good reason at the time, and maybe they'd even believed that Seth and Camilla ran away. But now that she and the others had defeated the Wild Hunt, and Doctor Ambrosius knew what had happened to everyone, Spirit had expected some kind of announcement. Wasn't the Wild Hunt a part of what they were being trained to defend themselves against? Didn't its appearance mean they should all be warned to be extra careful?
But there'd been nothing. Not one word about their classmates who were dead. Not one word about the fact that there were people here—and she'd even been one of them—who'd been marked for death at the hands of the Wild Hunt. It was just: too bad, so sad, you've lost your real families, people you knew, there's someone—probably inside the school!—that wants to kill you all, just forget about it, here's your iPod or your digital camera or your makeup kit or your Wii.
Even her own friends hadn't talked about what it all meant. Okay, maybe they were kind of in shock, but now they knew. Oakhurst wasn't safe. The enemies Doctor Ambrosius had talked about weren't out there. They were in here. Killing people. If the five of them wanted to live long enough to graduate—not to mention everyone else here living to graduate—they had to find out what was really going on. She knew they'd all been lied to. But adults lied to kids all the time, playing the "it's for your own good" card. Those kinds of lies were annoying, but they didn't mean the person lying to them was out to kill them.
But some people here were.
Who could they trust?
Muirin had mentioned a secret society within Oakhurst called the Gatekeepers. Loch said secret societies were common at private schools and at colleges. There was Skull and Bones at Yale, for example, or the Seven Society at the University of Virginia. But if the Gatekeepers were—as the others seemed to believe—just a kind of "honor society," why wasn't it made public? The students here were encouraged—were forced, really—to compete with each other at everything. It didn't make sense that Oakhurst would miss an opportunity to make them compete with each other to join the Gatekeepers.
She hated the whole idea of seeing the world in terms of Good Guys and Bad Guys—as if she was living in a Star Wars movie, and you were either a Sith Lord or a Jedi Knight. But there didn't seem to be a lot of middle ground. Were the Gatekeepers Good Guys or Bad Guys? What did they have to do with the Alumni who visited here every summer?
What happened to all the kids who—supposedly—graduated? They never wrote to their friends. Nobody here got any mail.
They had to start figuring out what was going on. Now—before whoever it was who had been behind the Wild Hunt came up with a new way to kill them.
Could they trust their fellow students? Maybe some. But which ones? Could they trust the teachers? Doctor Ambrosius? Half the time he was scary as all get-out, ranting on about the Final Battle. The other half of the time he was a doddering old man who couldn't even remember your name. Was he another victim of the Bad Guys? If so, how could they possibly rescue him?
She was so lost in her own thoughts that it wasn't until Loch nudged her sharply in the ribs that she noticed Ms. Corby standing in front of her with a look of impatience and irritation on her face. She was holding two small boxes wrapped in gold paper with a cream-and-brown design on it (the Oakhurst coat of arms, of course).
For a moment Spirit locked eyes with Doctor Ambrosius's assistant. She wanted to say that she didn't want Oakhurst's gifts and she didn't want to be here, either. But she didn't quite dare. She reached out for the gifts. Ms. Corby held on to them, staring at her meaningfully.
"Thank you, Ms. Corby," Spirit said, flushing angrily. Ms. Corby smiled in triumph and handed Spirit the boxes before turning away. Spirit's last name began with "W," so there weren't too many more gifts to hand out.
Spirit looked around at the others. Addie had a long flat box under one arm. It was about the size and shape of a board game. Burke was holding a large square box, a cube about twelve inches on a side. Muirin had a small box about three by three by ten.
And Loch had two boxes identical to hers in every way—except for the fact that they were wrapped in dark brown paper with the design on them in cream and gold. She and Loch exchanged a look, and for the first time today, Spirit felt like smiling. It really was idiotic for anyplace to be so logo-obsessed that it even had wrapping paper with its coat of arms on it. In half a dozen different designs, no less!
Loch brandished the larger of the two boxes.
"iPod?" Spirit mouthed.
Loch was about to answer, but Mr. Devon had stepped up in front of the fireplace.
"Every winner—and you're all winners here at Oakhurst—knows that one of the sweetest fruits of victory is the chance to kick back and enjoy what they've won. All of you have worked hard this year. Now is the time to enjoy yourselves. A dessert buffet is set up in the Refectory. Enjoy!" he added, clapping his hands together and smiling brightly.
Spirit thought it was the creepiest thing she'd seen—at least in the last few days.
Ms. Corby strode off ahead of Doctor Ambrosius, and Mr. Devon followed. When Doctor Ambrosius's study doors closed behind them, everyone began to shuffle in place and head in the direction of the Refectory. Muirin was off like a flash, of course. Unlimited sugar.
"Yup. iPod," Loch said, unwrapping the larger of the two boxes. "It's the Gift du Jour."
The "Gift du Jour" was brown, with the Oakhurst crest engraved on the back, and his name: Lachlan Galen Spears. Loch made a face, and Spirit winced in sympathy. It was awful to have a dorky name.
"They come in gold and cream, too, of course," Addie said kindly. "If you don't have one when you get here, you're pretty much guaranteed to get one for your first Christmas."
"Huh," Loch said, sounding surprised. "It's charged. And preloaded."
There was no real point in trying to push through the mob of students heading for the Refectory, and one thing Spirit could say for Oakhurst was that when it decided to let them fall off the healthy diet bandwagon, it didn't stint on the junk food. There was no need to hurry—there'd be more sugar and chocolate than all of them could eat in a week.
Bread and circuses. For a moment she could hear Mom's voice in her head. Mom had—used to have—a saying for every occasion. In Ancient Rome, the emperors used to keep the people from making trouble by giving them free food and free entertainment. Bread and circuses.
That's what we get, Spirit thought. Every few weeks there's another school dance, and a lot of candy, and most of the kids don't look past that, to all the things that are wrong with this place.…
"What color is yours?" Loch asked. With a feeling of resignation, Spirit unwrapped the larger of the two boxes. Her iPod was cream-colored. Same crest cut into the back, and her name: Spirit Victory White. She didn't bother to complain, even mentally, that now everyone at Oakhurst would know her middle name. "Victory" was just about as awful as "Spirit"—she'd always hated her name—but maybe someday she could just tell people her name was "Vicky" or something. She woke her iPod and looked at the preloaded playlist.
"Ah, I recognize this," she said mockingly, scanning the start of the list of titles. "This is next semester's Music History stuff."
"Heaven forbid we should actually use these for recreation," Addie said, her voice dripping with irony. "That would be frivolous. However could we expect to excel?"
"Ah, but you forget. We're all already winners here at Oakhurst," Loch replied, deadpan.
"Come on," Burke said. "It's cleared out a little, and we should go find the Murr-cat and stop her from eating herself into sugar shock."
"Fat chance of that," Addie answered.
* * *
The Refectory was full, but not crowded. Most of the crowd was around the dessert buffet, and Spirit had to admit it looked pretty. There were cakes on stands, pies, plates of brownies and blondies and cookies, pyramids of perfectly round scoops of ice cream frozen so hard that it would take them at least half an hour to melt, boxes of chocolates and marzipan shaped like fruit, and—because this was a school full of teenagers—stacked cases of soda.
The four of them, by mutual consent, took one of the empty tables at the opposite end of the room from the buffet table. Muirin saw them, waved, and came over, carrying two plates heaped high with goodies, including a stack of brownies topped with scoops of ice cream, hot fudge, and whipped cream.
"I don't see how you can eat all that," Addie said with a sigh as Muirin plopped down at the table opposite her.
"Practice," Muirin answered. She pushed the second plate toward them. It was stacked with plain brownies of various kinds.
Spirit picked up the top one—marbled and studded with M&Ms—and bit into it. She didn't have much of an appetite, but hey: chocolate. Bread and circuses, her mother's voice whispered in her mind.
"So, come on, open your other one!" Muirin urged around a mouthful of fudge and ice cream.
Spirit had almost forgotten about the second box. Why had she and Loch both gotten two when no one else had? She tore the paper off quickly. Inside it was a pasteboard box, and inside that was a tiny wooden jewelry box—a ring box—with the Oakhurst crest (what a shock) laser-cut into the top.
She opened it.
Inside, on a bed of black velvet, was what looked like … a class ring. Well, a really nice class ring, not the cheesy ones the high school kids back in Indiana had, the kind with fake stones, set into rings made out of some cheesy-yet-fancy-sounding made-up metal like "Valadium" or "Endurium." She lifted it out of its box and inspected it curiously. It was gold—when she looked inside the band, she saw it was stamped 24K—and felt heavy, very heavy. On the sides of the band were the broken sword and the inverted cup from the Oakhurst coat of arms. The bezel of the ring said: ABSOLUTUM DOMINIUM.
"Absolute dominion," Loch translated. He'd opened his own box and was looking at his ring curiously.
With everything else about the ring being so lavish, Spirit would have expected the stone to be something she recognized, something real. But to her surprise, it looked like something "lab created." It was opaque like an opal, a strange glittery sort of opalescent blue, the kind of thing that made you think there were other colors in it, only no matter how hard you looked, you couldn't see them.…
Spirit tore her eyes away with an effort and stuffed the ring back into the box and closed it. It made her uneasy for reasons she couldn't quite understand. She saw Loch slip his on—of course it fit perfectly—and bit back the impulse to cry out a warning. Against what?
"Oh, they gave you your rings," Muirin said offhandedly.
"Our rings?" Loch repeated, staring at his hand as if he was fascinated.
"Hey, open your stuff first!" Muirin demanded. "Look what I got!"
"You'd think they wouldn't want to encourage you," Addie murmured, as Muirin brandished the kit of makeup brushes and manicure tools. But she ripped the paper off her box gleefully, revealing a Monopoly set. It was the fanciest one Spirit had ever seen, with a wooden box and gold-colored counters.
"I get really tired of using the ones in the Games Library," Addie said, grinning. "There are always a couple of pieces missing, and not enough Monopoly Money to get through a full game."
She looked at Burke expectantly. He opened his gift methodically, prying the tape loose from the ends and folding the paper carefully.
"You got a football?" Muirin asked in disbelief. "This place has footballs coming out of its … ears."
"Yeah, but not like this," Burke said. "This is the old style, the one they stopped using around 1930. The modern one is more lightweight and streamlined." He hefted it appreciatively.
"Okay," Loch said, in tones that made it clear he didn't really get it. "But about the rings…?"
"Okay. Class rings. We all get them at some point in our first year at Oakhurst," Burke said.
"Why don't you wear them, then?" Loch wanted to know.
"Because they're dorky," Muirin said with contempt. "I mean, come on. Class rings? That's so Fifties!"
"Come on, Murr-cat," Addie said decisively. "You guys guard Muir's sugar-hoard. We'll be right back."
Muirin rolled her eyes, but followed Addie out of the room, while Burke continued. "You don't have to wear them, except for a couple of times a year—like Alumni Days, when we're doing the full School Uniform thing, with the blazer and scarf and everything, like we were—"
"—on the playing fields of Eton," Loch finished for him, in a broad fake English accent. Burke grinned at him.
"Some people wear them all the time, some don't," Burke continued. "The point about them is that they're … kind of magic. The stone changes color until it matches your School of Magic."
Great. A wizardly mood ring, Spirit thought.
"It does?" Loch stared at his hand again. "Try yours, Spirit," he urged.
Reluctantly, she reopened the box and slipped it on. It felt cold and heavy against her hand—much colder and heavier than she thought it should.
A few minutes later, Muirin and Addie returned; Muirin thrust her hand under Spirit's nose and wiggled her fingers. Her ring was identical to Spirit's, except for the fact that the stone was a pale lemon yellow. It seemed to have faint sparkles caught down in the stone. "School of Air," she announced.
"Mine's green," Burke said. "Earth, you know? Addie's is blue, but a deeper blue than—"
Suddenly, Addie squeaked. She smothered the sound immediately, but thrust her hand at them. "Look!" she whispered, half in excitement, half in alarm.
Just as Burke had said, the stone in Addie's ring was a deep translucent sapphire blue instead of the pale opal blue of the stone in Spirit and Loch's rings. But as Spirit stared down into it, she could see there was an image in it, too. It looked as if it had been engraved on the underside of the stone.
It was the image of a goblet, just like the one on the Oakhurst coat of arms.
"Holy Toledo, Addie!" Burke breathed. Spirit had never heard him sound so shocked.
"I know…" Addie gulped, staring at her hand. "I have a Destiny."
"A what?" Spirit was puzzled. Addie'd said it as if the word "destiny" was capitalized. Did that mean you were especially powerful? She could sure believe that of Addie.…
"Oh hey," Muirin said, trying not to sound impressed and failing. Out of the corner of her eye, Spirit saw Muirin slip her own ring off and stuff it into her pocket.
"Is this like a ‘it is your Destiny, Luke,' thing?" Loch asked.
"Kind of," Addie said hesitantly, staring at her hand.
"I heard a couple of the seniors talking about it a while back," Burke said. "It's something Ms. Groves teaches you about in your last year here. You can ask her about it if you like."
"No thanks," Spirit said. "I've already had enough extra assignments dumped on me." Ms. Groves taught the "History of Magic" courses, as well as teaching magic itself. Any time she thought you weren't interested enough, you got hit with an extra assignment on top of the stunning amount of homework the Oakhurst faculty already assigned.
Burke grinned a little at her comment. "So anyway, what I know is, if a Destiny appears in your ring, it means your future is pretty much set. Fixed. Unchangeable."
"It's not always good," Muirin said, her face unreadable. "Trailer Trash had a Destiny."
"Trailer Trash" was Muirin's cruel name for Camilla Patton—one of the victims of the Wild Hunt. "She showed me once. She thought it meant she was going to turn into a wolf. Stupid b—"
"Hey, look," Loch said, interrupting Muirin—probably on purpose. "My ring's already starting to turn!"
Sure enough, the pale blue was starting to change. Right now it was a pale greenish color: Loch's main Gifts came from the School of Air, so his stone would probably turn as yellow as Muirin's was.
Spirit looked down at her own ring. The stone remained a cool, serene blue.
Copyright © 2011 by Mercedes Lackey and Rosemary Edghill