“Oh, for shit’s sake, throw the bull a bone. Without you he’s been bereft.” Aphrodite shook her head in disgust. “And I’m using alliteration. If I start rhyming, I’m going to hurl myself off a tall building. Suck face or whatever quickly, and then get your butt into the Council Chamber. Sadly, we don’t have time for boy drama.” She flipped her hair, opened the door, and twitched inside.
Aurox and I stared at each other.
“Suck face?” he asked.
My cheeks felt like they were on fire. “She means kiss.”
His brows lifted. “Would you like to kiss me?”
Thankfully, nothing he’d said after whoohoo sounded the least little bit like Heath. I cleared my throat. “I don’t think that would be a good idea, but thanks for asking.”
“Well, I am glad you’re back,” he said, smiling tentatively.
“Me, too.” I returned his smile. “And even though it’s confusing, I’m glad you’re back also.”
I’d meant it to be a compliment—and maybe even an inside joke (wouldn’t the whole situation be better if we could laugh about it??), but Aurox’s tentative smile instantly faded.
“You don’t mean me. You mean Heath. And Heath’s not me. Excuse me. Darius said he thought I should be in this meeting.” I moved aside and let him open the door. He didn’t hold it for me but let it swing shut in my face, leaving me standing in the hallway alone, feeling like poop.
Okay, I told myself, it would make my life easier if Aurox stayed pissed at me—or at least annoyed and uninterested. Aphrodite was proving to be right too damn often. I didn’t have time for boy drama (though I didn’t think that was very sad).
I combed my fingers through my really messy hair, squared my shoulders, and entered the School Council Chamber.
The room was big, but it always appeared to be small because of the giant round table that dominated it. I’m pretty sure the idea had been to mimic King Arthur (who had, of course, been the High Priestess, Mogan le Fay’s, consort), so that it had no real head, but what had ended up happening was that wherever the school’s current High Priestess sat, well, that automatically became the table’s head.
Speaking of the current High Priestess, I was surprised to see her enter the room from the rear door, just as I closed the front door behind me. Thanatos nodded to Aurox, who took a guard-like position standing beside that door. Then she glanced at me and gestured to the empty seat between Grandma and Aphrodite. Thanatos sat to Grandma’s left, beside Detective Marx. As I settled myself and tried not to fidget, Thanatos leaned forward and spoke around Grandma.
“It is officially good to have you home, Zoey,” said the High Priestess of Death.
“I can’t tell you how glad I am to be here—and to know I didn’t kill anyone,” I said.
“But you have learned a valuable lesson from the experience,” Grandma said.
“Yeah. Neferet has to be stopped no matter what,” Aphrodite said.
“Well, yeah, she does. But I think the lesson Grandma’s talking about is when in doubt, choose kindness,” I said.
“Don’t think that one is going to do us much good with Neferet,” Aphrodite muttered.
“You may be surprised, child,” Grandma said softly, smiling wisely at her.
The door opened then, and Stevie Rae burst in, followed by Stark, Damien, and Shaunee.
“Z! Ohmygoodness it’s so good to see you free!” Stevie Rae ran to me and enveloped me in a giant bear hug. “I knew you couldn’t have killed those guys.”
I gave her a quick hug back before disentangling myself. I met her gaze. “I have something to say about that, but I want to wait until everyone gets here.”
“Wait is over. Handsome is here,” Aphrodite said, smiling as Darius entered the room with Lenobia and Shaylin. Darius and Stark took their places on either side of the main door. Stark sent me a quick wink, and I was glad to see that he wasn’t as pale and his eyes had lost their bruised look. For him to be looking so much better, the sun must have set, and I figured Rephaim would probably be showing up any second, too.
Lenobia sat beside Detective Marx, nodding cordially to him. Shaylin chose a seat as far as she could away from me and wouldn’t meet my gaze. I stood up and cleared my throat.
“I know an emergency with Neferet is going on downtown, but I need to say something before we start dealing with that—and I’ll make it quick. As you guys know, I found out today that I didn’t kill those two men in the park. But even though I didn’t actually cause their deaths, I know that I could have. I was out of control. It had something to do with the Seer Stone, but it was also me. I was wrong. Aphrodite was doing exactly what Nyx would expect from one of her Prophetesses—she was letting Shaylin know that there was something going on with me, something bad.” I looked at Shaylin until she reluctantly met my gaze. “Shaylin, I’ve already apologized to Aphrodite, but I owe you a major apology, too. You were right to follow me. You were right to talk to Aphrodite about the changes you were seeing in my aura. I was very, very wrong to push you and lose my temper like that, and I’m not just asking if you’d accept my apology. I’m also giving you”—I paused and looked around the room at my friends—“and everyone else here my oath that I’m going to do whatever it takes to be sure it never happens again.”
“I forgive you,” Shaylin said with no hesitation, though her smile was hesitant, and she still seemed scared. “By the way, your colors are back to normal now.”
“Thank you,” I said. “And please let me, or anyone else here, know if you see my colors messing up again. I was wrong when I told you that you should keep that kind of stuff to yourself. It’s not an invasion of privacy. It’s using a gift given to you by Nyx.”
“Zoey, where is the Seer Stone right now?” Thanatos asked.
“I have it,” Aphrodite spoke up before I could.
“And I don’t want it back,” I added.
“If it’s as powerful as you all are saying it is, Zoey may have no choice but to take it back,” Detective Marx said. “Because it’s going to take a whole lot of power—magickal power—to fight Neferet.”
“Detective, it’s your turn. Explain exactly what Neferet has done,” Thanatos said.
I sat down and listened with a clenching stomach and a terrible premonition that Marx was right.
There had been a long, sickening silence after Detective Marx described, in awful detail, Neferet’s slaughter at the church, and then what had happened at the Mayo.
“I felt the deaths,” Thanatos said, shaking her head sadly. “I knew it was some type of mass human tragedy that had to have occurred very close to Tulsa. I’ve been watching the news, expecting to hear that a commuter plane had gone down, or maybe there had been one of those tragic school shootings again. I hadn’t expected this. I truly hadn’t expected that Neferet was responsible for all of this.”
“We have been unable to predict her behavior, but we may be able to learn something of what to expect from her in the future by retracing Neferet’s crimes,” Grandma said. “She killed the mayor, and that death fueled her as far as Woodward Park.” Grandma paused and smiled sadly at Aphrodite. “I am sorry to speak about your father’s death in such a clinical manner, child.”
“I understand. I want you to,” Aphrodite said earnestly. “If Dad’s death helps us figure out how to take down Neferet, then at least it’ll mean he died for something.”
Grandma nodded and continued. “She must have hidden at the park until Zoey had her altercation with the two men.”
“I was sitting on that bench by the grotto when they started messing with me,” I said, trying to help put the pieces together. “Neferet could have been hiding in the grotto.”
“I’ll have some uniforms check it out,” Detective Marx said, taking notes on his little black spiral pad.
“The deaths of the two men in the park must have given Neferet the power to get to the Boston Avenue Church,” Grandma said.
“And there she found another, greater source of power,” Lenobia added. “We must remember that power is always what is most important to Neferet.”
“She uses power to control those snake-like creatures—the things that killed the people on the roof of the Mayo and created that … I don’t even know what you’d call it.” Marx hesitated, thinking. “It’s a protective skin, or a barrier. But whatever it is, it’s filled with power.”
“Those snake-creatures are made of Darkness. Think of them like hateful, horrible, evil thoughts that have taken physical form,” I explained to Detective Marx. “They do what she wants them to do because she makes sacrifices to them. I promise you Neferet didn’t eat all of those people at the church. She sacrificed them to those creatures so that they’d keep doing what she wants them to do.”
“A Tsi Sgili requires much more than blood for power,” Grandma said.
“Tsi Sgili—Queen Tsi Sgili,” Marx said, “that’s what Neferet called herself when she named herself a Goddess.”
“Tsi Sgili is an ancient name my people have for witches who have chosen Darkness over Light. They live apart, shunned by everyone.” Grandma shuddered. “Our legends say they feed from souls.”
“Death,” Thanatos said. “I should have understood it before now. Neferet feeds from the energy that is released from a person’s spirit at the instant of death.”
“Oh Goddess!” Lenobia looked horrified and pressed a hand against her chest. “I have known Neferet for more than a century. She was always nearby when a fledgling rejected the Change. We thought—the Priestesses thought—that Neferet’s healing gift comforted the young ones’ passings.”
“She didn’t comfort them. She used them,” I said.
“Neferet had something to do with us dying and undying,” Stevie Rae said. “I can’t remember—maybe ’cause I can’t make myself. I dunno.” She shivered. “But I know it felt like something inside me was being torn apart.” Her gaze found Stark, the only other red vampyre in the room. “What do you remember?”
“Pain. Darkness. Terror. Anger.” His words were clipped, though his voice remained low and we strained to hear him. “And when I came out of it, I wasn’t me anymore. Not until Zoey said she believed in me and trusted me.”
“And I didn’t really come out of it, either, until Aphrodite believed in me and trusted me,” Stevie Rae said.
Aphrodite snorted. “That’s not exactly how I remember it. What I remember is that you tried to eat me and then you took my fledgling-ness from me.”
“Because you let me. Because you sacrificed your humanity for me,” Stevie Rae said.
“The eating part was not cool,” Aphrodite muttered.
“Love is stronger than hate. That is the only absolute in the universe. Love can conquer Darkness,” Grandma said. “We simply need to discover how love can conquer Neferet.”
I heard a bunch of sighs echoing mine.
“Okay, I’m all for love winning,” Detective Marx said, “but we have to contend with whatever is going on with those snake-things, too.”
“Neferet’s feeding them,” I said, feeling the truth of my words as I spoke them. “She gives them what they want—fresh blood sacrifices—and they obey her. If we can get to Neferet, make her weaker—or at least contain her and keep her from killing more people—she won’t be able to feed them, and they will leave her.”
“I agree, but I think there is more to it than that, Zoey. The tendrils of Darkness are changing—evolving—along with Neferet,” Thanatos said. “I have never, in the more than five centuries I have been a vampyre, heard of anyone creating the kind of barrier Detective Marx described.” She turned to Marx. “And you said it seems sentient, that it actually directed those bullets back to specific officers?”
“No doubt about it. I was there. I saw it up close and way too personal. The first shots fired at her all hit the officer who had offended Neferet—but only in places on his body that his Kevlar vest didn’t protect. The next shots wounded several other uniforms, but killed the chief of police—the man responsible for giving the order to storm the building,” Marx said.
“Lenobia, have you ever heard of such a thing?” Thanatos asked.
“Then call in the cavalry,” Marx said. “Get the Vamp High Council involved. Maybe they can help us figure out how to stop Neferet.”
“The High Council has refused to aid us,” Thanatos said. “We are the cavalry.” She stood. “So, Detective Marx, let’s go to the Mayo and see exactly what we’re up against.”
The rear door to the Council Chamber opened and Kalona, bare-chested, with amber eyes flashing in anger, strode to Thanatos. “It is time you call in the full cavalry. I am Death’s Warrior—so where you go, I go. Humans and consequences be damned.” His black wings unfurled and seemed to encase the entire room.
Detective Marx’s jaw dropped open. Literally.
“Holy shit,” Aphrodite whispered.
“Ditto,” I said, wondering what the hell would happen next.
The guy was huge. And he had wings. Gi-fucking-gantic wings. Marx was glad he was already sitting because just looking at the … whateverthehellhewas … made his knees feel like rubber.
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