I raised my hands and thought up the nastiest spell I possibly could--one involving pus and bad breath and severe genital dysfunctions.
And nothing happened.
There was no sensation of water rushing up to my fingers, no quickening heartbeat, no hair standing on end.
I was just standing there like an idiot, pointing all of my fingers at him.
The heck? I'd never had trouble doing a spell before.
And then I heard a voice that sounded like a magnolia dragged through molasses say, "That's enough, my dear."
I turned toward the front porch, where an older woman in a navy suit stood between the scary ferns. She was smiling, but it was one of those creepy doll smiles. She pointed one long finger at me.
"We do not use our powers against other Prodigium here, no matter how provoked we may be," she said, her voice soft, smoky, musical. In fact, if the house could have talked, I'd have expected it to sound exactly like this woman.
"May I add, Archer," the woman continued, turning to the dark-haired boy, "that while this young lady is new to Hecate, you know better than to attack another student."
He snorted. "So I should have let him eat her?"
"Magic is not the solution for everything," she replied.
"Archer?" I asked, raising my eyebrows. Hey, you might be able to take away my magical powers, but the power of sarcasm was still at my disposal. "Is your last name Newport or Vanderbilt? Maybe followed by some numbers? Ooh!" I said, widening my eyes, "or maybe even Esquire!"
I'd hoped to hurt his feelings or, at the very least, make him angry, but he just kept smiling at me. "Actually, it's Archer Cross, and I'm the first one.
Now what about you?" He squinted. "Let's see . . . brown hair, freckles, whole girl-next-door vibe going on . . . Allie? Lacie? Definitely something cutesy ending in ie."
You know those times when your mouth moves but no sound actually comes out? Yeah, that's pretty much what happened. And then, of course, my mom took that opportunity to end her conversation with Justin's parents and call out, "Sophie! Wait up."
"I knew it." Archer laughed. "See you, Soph ie," he called over his shoulder as he disappeared into the house.
I turned my attention back to the woman. She was around fifty, with dark blond hair that had been twisted, teased, and probably threatened into a complicated updo. From her practically regal bearing and her suit in Hecate Hall's signature royal blue, I assumed she was the school's headmistress, Mrs. Anastasia Casnoff. I didn't have to look at the brochure to remember that. A name like AnastasiaCasnoff tends to stick with you.
The blond woman was in fact the awesomely named leader of Hecate Hall. My mom shook her hand. "Grace Mercer. And this is Sophia."
" Soh-fee-yuh," Mrs. Casnoff said in her Southern lilt, turning my relatively simple name into something that sounded like an exotic appetizer at a Chinese restaurant.
"I go by Sophie," I said quickly, hoping to avoid being known forever as Sohfeeyuh.
"Now, y'all are not originally from this area, am I correct?" Mrs.
Casnoff continued as we walked toward the school.
"No," Mom answered, switching my duffel bag to her other shoulder, the trunk still between us. "My mother is from Tennessee, but Georgia is one of the few states we haven't lived in. We've moved around quite a bit."
Quite a bit is something of an understatement.
Nineteen states over the course of my sixteen years. The longest we've ever stayed anywhere was Indiana, when I was eight. That was four years.
The shortest we ever lived anywhere was Montana three years ago. That was two weeks.
"I see," Mrs. Casnoff said. "And what do you do, Mrs. Mercer?"
"Ms." Mom said automatically, and just a little too loudly. She bit her lower lip and tucked an imaginary piece of hair behind her ear. "I'm a teacher. Religious studies. Mostly mythology and folklore."
I trailed behind them as we ascended the imposing front steps and entered Hecate Hall.
It was blessedly cool, meaning that they apparently had some sort of air-conditioning spell going on. It also smelled like all old houses, that weird scent that's a combination of furniture polish, old wood, and the musty smell of aged paper, like in a library.
I'd wondered if the smushed-together houses would be as obvious on the inside as they had been on the outside, but all the walls were covered in the same fugly burgundy wallpaper, making it impossible to see where the wood ended and the stucco began.
Just inside the front door, the massive foyer was dominated by a mahogany spiral staircase that twisted up three stories, seemingly supported by nothing. Behind the staircase was a stained-glass window that started at the second-floor landing and soared all the way up to the ceiling. The late-afternoon sun shone through it, filling the foyer with geometric patterns of brightly colored light.
"Impressive, isn't it?" Mrs. Casnoff said with a smile. "It depicts the origin of Prodigium."
The window showed an angry-faced angel standing just inside golden gates. In one hand the angel held a black sword. The other hand was pointing, clearly indicating that the three figures in front of the gates should get the heck out. Only, you know, angelically.
The three figures were also angels. They all looked pretty bummed.
The angel on the right, a woman with long red hair, even had her face buried in her hands. Around her neck was a heavy golden chain that I realized was actually a series of small figures holding hands. The angel on the left was wearing a crown of leaves and looking over his shoulder. And in the middle, the tallest angel looked out straight in front of him, his head high and shoulders back.
"It's . . . something," I said at last.
"Do you know the story, Sophie?" Mrs. Casnoff asked.
When I shook my head, she smiled and gestured to the fearsome angel behind the gates. "After the Great War between God and Lucifer, those angels who refused to take sides were cast out of heaven. One group"--she pointed to the tall angel in the middle--"chose to hide itself away under hills and deep in forests. They became faeries. Another group chose to live among animals and became shapeshifters. And the last chose to intermingle with humans and became witches."
"Wow," I heard Mom say, and I turned to her with a smile.
"Good luck explaining to God that you used to spank one of his heavenly beings."
Mom gave a startled laugh. "Sophie!"
"What? You did. I hope you like hot weather, Mom, that's all I'm saying."
Mom laughed again, even though I could tell she was trying not to.
Mrs. Casnoff frowned before clearing her throat and continuing her tour. "Students at Hecate range in age from twelve to seventeen. Once a student has been sentenced to Hecate, he or she is not released until his or her eighteenth birthday."
"So some kids could be here for, like, six months, and others could be here for six years?" I asked.
"Precisely. The majority of our students are sent here soon after they come into their powers. But there are always exceptions, such as yourself."
"Go me," I muttered.
"What are the classes here like?" Mom asked, shooting me a look.
"The classes at Hecate are modeled after those found at Prentiss, Mayfair, and Gervaudan."
Mom and I both nodded at her like we knew what those words meant.
I guess we didn't fool her, because Mrs. Casnoff said, "The premier boarding schools for witches, faeries, and shapeshifters, respectively. Classes are assigned based on both the student's age and the particular struggles that student was having blending into the human world."
She gave a brittle smile. "The curriculum can be challenging, but I have no doubt that Sophie will do very well."
Never had encouragement sounded so much like a threat.
"The girls' dormitories are located on the third floor," Mrs. Casnoff said, gesturing up the stairs. "Boys are on the second. Classes are held here on the first floor as well as in the surrounding outbuildings." She pointed to the left and right of the staircase where long narrow hallways branched off from the foyer. What with the pointing and the blue suit, she brought to mind a flight attendant. I expected her to tell me that in the event of an emergency, my brand-new Hecate blazer could be used as a flotation device.
"Now, are the students separated by . . . um . . ." Mom waved her hand.
Mrs. Casnoff smiled, but I couldn't help but notice that the smile was as tight as her bun.
"By their abilities? No, of course not. One of the founding principles of Hecate is teaching the students how to coexist with every race of Prodigium."
Mrs. Casnoff turned to lead us to the other end of the foyer. Here, three huge windows soared up to the thirdfloor landing. Beyond them was the courtyard, where kids were already beginning to gather on stone benches under live oak trees. I say kids. I guess they were all things, like me, but you couldn't tell. They just looked like any normal bunch of students. Well, except for the faeries.
I watched one girl laugh as she offered a tube of lip gloss to another, and something in my chest tightened a little bit.
I felt something cold brush my arm, and I jumped back, startled, as a pale woman in blue swept past me.
"Ah, yes," Mrs. Casnoff said with a small smile. "Isabelle Fortenay, one of our resident spirits. As I'm sure you read, Hecate is home to a number of spirits, all of them the ghosts of Prodigium. They're quite harmless--
completely noncorporeal. That means they're unable to touch you or anything else. They may give you a fright now and then, but that's all they can do."
"Great," I said as I watched Isabelle fade into a paneled wall.
As she did, I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye and turned to see another spirit standing at the foot of the stairs. She was a girl about my age, wearing a bright green cardigan over a short flowered dress.
Unlike Isabelle, who hadn't seemed to notice me, this girl was staring straight at me. I opened my mouth to ask Mrs. Casnoff who she was, but the headmistress had already turned her attention to someone across the foyer.
"Miss Talbot!" she called. I was amazed at the way her voice crossed the huge room without sounding even remotely like yelling.
A tiny girl, barely five feet tall, appeared at Mrs. Casnoff's elbow. Her skin was nearly snow white, as was her hair, with the exception of a hot-pink stripe running through her bangs. She had on thick, black-rimmed glasses, and even though she was smiling, I could tell it was just for Mrs. Casnoff's benefit. Her eyes looked totally bored.
"This is Jennifer Talbot. I believe you'll be rooming with her this semester, Miss Mercer. Jennifer, this is Sohfee-yuh."
"Sophie is fine," I corrected, just as Jennifer said, "Jenna."
Mrs. Casnoff's smile tightened, like there were screws on either side of her mouth. "Gracious. I don't know what it is with children these days, Ms. Mercer. Given perfectly lovely names, and determined to mangle and change them at the first opportunity. In any case, Miss Mercer, Miss Talbot is, like you, a relative newcomer. She only joined us last year."
Mom beamed and shook Jenna's hand. "Nice to meet you. Are you, um, are you a witch like Sophie?"