Conspiracies (Mercedes Lackey) - By Mercedes Lackey


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