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“Makes sense,” Stevie Rae said. “Cats are weird like that. No offense,” she added, glancing at Aphrodite.

“I embrace weird. As I’ve said before, normal is overrated.”

“Okay, well, I’ll try not to worry about him. Sorry I crashed into you guys. See you later.”

“Join us in the Council Chamber, young fledgling.” Kalona’s voice surprised all of us.

“He lives in super stealth mode,” Stevie Rae whispered to me.

“Thanks for asking, Kalona, but no thanks,” Shaunee told him. “No one ever leaves a Council Meeting saying, ‘Wow! That was fun! I can’t wait to do it again!’”

I started to laugh and wave Shaunee away, but then my gut kicked in, making my mouth say, “Actually, I’d appreciate it if you did join us.”

Shaunee stopped, sighed, and shrugged. “All right. I guess it’s better than making beds in the field house.”

I smiled my thanks to her and the five of us entered the Council Chamber.

Thanatos and Grandma were sitting beside each other. Lenobia was there as well. I was surprised to see Detective Marx standing, arms crossed, behind Thanatos. I thought there wasn’t anyone else in the room, but a movement in the darkness by the rear door caught my eye, and I saw Aurox was there again, as if stationed on guard. He didn’t look at me.

“Zoey, Aphrodite, Stevie Rae, Kalona, please come in—sit,” Thanatos said. “Shaunee, I don’t believe I called for you.”

“I asked her to join us,” I said.

“Then she is welcome as well,” Thanatos said, gesturing for us to take our seats.

It wasn’t until I got to the table that I saw that the big, flat screen of the computer was lit up. I blinked in surprise and then smiled and hurried the last few feet to the table.

“Sgiach! Hi, it’s super awesome to see you!” I blurted.

The queen smiled and responded much more regally (and appropriately), “Merry meet, Zoey. It pleases me to see you as well.”

“We called Queen Sgiach, thinking to speak with one of her Warriors who could relay the message to her that we would like to confer,” Thanatos explained.

“And then were surprised—and pleased—when the queen herself answered our call,” Grandma added.

I quickly added in my head: if it was almost 6:00 A.M. in Tulsa, it had to be almost noon in Scotland. What the heck was Sgiach doing awake? I took a closer look at the queen. She was seated at the huge wooden desk in her private library—that all seemed normal. But Sgiach wasn’t looking normal. Her hair was crazy messy. Her face was smudged with dirt and, I leaned closer to the screen to get a better look … “Blood! Why is there blood and dirt on you? Are you okay?”

“I live,” Sgiach said, which I didn’t think really answered my question.

“Where’s Shawnus?” Aphrodite asked, mispronouncing Sgiach’s Guardian’s name on purpose.

“Seoras,” the queen said, enunciating it correctly and giving Aphrodite a narrow-eyed look, “is leading the daylight guard and protecting the island.”

“Wait, protecting during the day?” I shook my head in confusion. “But your island protects itself, especially during the day.”

“That was true as long as Light and Darkness were in balance,” Sgiach said.

“Zoeybird.” Grandma touched my hand, as if lending me strength. “Neferet has unbalanced the world. Ancient Darkness has begun to extinguish Light.”

My knees gave out and I sank down in the chair. Stevie Rae sat heavily beside me. Aphrodite paced back and forth behind us, almost colliding into Detective Marx, and Shaunee chose a chair close to Lenobia. “But Neferet has been crazy for a really long time. I don’t understand why she’s suddenly messed everything up,” I said.

“Oh, child,” Thanatos said sadly. “This is not a sudden thing. It is a culmination of a terrible tide that has been rising since Neferet released Kalona from his imprisonment.”

I frowned at the winged immortal who was standing across the room by the main doorway, bare chested, stone faced, and silent.

“He’s on our side now. That should help, not hurt, the balance,” I said.

“This isn’t a game. These forces can’t be tallied,” Sgiach said. “It is the act of release that caused the flood to begin. Kalona was simply the first chink in a failing dam.”

“Then let’s plug the stupid thing back up!” Aphrodite said.

“Indeed,” Thanatos agreed. “That is why we called on Sgiach.”

“So, what do we do?” I asked.

“You harken to the wisdom of a different time, a different world. Ancient forces are at work. It is with ancient knowledge that you must stem the tide and repair the balance.”

“Can you be less cryptic than one of my damn visions?” Aphrodite said.

“Absolutely, arrogant young Prophetess.” I thought Sgiach was going to give Aphrodite a serious butt kicking via Skype, but instead she turned her gaze on me, and even across the thousands of miles that separated us, what she said had the little hairs on my arms standing up. “Detective Marx has explained what happened between you and the humans in the park. Thanatos and your grandmother tell me your violence against them wasn’t an isolated incident, and that it involved your Seer Stone.”

“Yeah, but I don’t even have it anymore,” I assured her quickly. “I’m not using it at all.”

“Child, you were never using it. It was using you,” she said.

I swallowed around a terrible dryness in my throat. “I know. That’s why I gave it to Aphrodite when I gave myself up to Detective Marx.”

“Tell me what you were feeling the day of and the days leading up to the incident in the park,” Sgiach said.

I hesitated and tried to order my thoughts. Finally, I began. “I was mad. Frustrated. Annoyed. It seemed like I felt pissed off all the time.”

“Did it get worse after you used the Seer Stone to reveal the mirror that reflected Neferet’s broken past to her?”

My eyes widened. “I haven’t thought about it, but yeah, it did get worse after that.” Instinctively I rubbed the raised scar on my palm. “It got hot a lot more often. And I lost time.” I blurted this last part quickly, not looking at my friends, who I hadn’t told about that.

“Did you see things during the time you lost?” she asked.

“Yes,” I admitted slowly, not liking the look on her face.

“Things like the Fey, the elemental sprites you saw on Skye when you were with me?”

“No.” I shuddered. “They might have been Fey, but they weren’t like the elementals on Skye. They were horrible.”

“Some of the Fey are horrible. As with the rest of us, not all of them choose Light. What you saw when you lost time, was that before or after you used the stone to save your Grandmother?”

“Before,” I said.

“Zoey, here is a truth you must hear: Old Magick can set the balance of Light and Darkness to right again, which means your Seer Stone is key to winning the battle.”

“Then I need to give it to someone else because what I was doing with it didn’t work. Everything got worse, not better,” I said.

“I wish it were that simple,” Thanatos said. She and Grandma and Sgiach shared a look, and I knew they’d been talking about the stone and me before I’d gotten there.

Sure enough, Grandma patted my hand and said, “No one else may wield the Seer Stone, u-we-tsi-a-ge-ya. The stone warms for you. That means it has chosen you, and you alone can wield Old Magick through it.”

“Okay, well, how do I do that?” I asked, hating how my stomach clenched just at the thought of touching the Seer Stone again.

“I’m with Zoey,” Aphrodite said. “Simple or not, tell her what she has to do.”

“Yeah, Z’s kicked Darkness and Neferet in the butt before—we all have,” Stevie Rae agreed.

“Because of the volatile nature of Old Magick, I can only tell you what I know not to do,” Sgiach said. “In order for its power to work to balance and not corrupt, it must be commanded by a Priestess who is neither aggressor nor victim. Her intent must be pure. It cannot be vindictive or defensive.”

“But Zoey has to use it defensively!” Marx shouted. “Neferet is a sociopathic killer, bent on enslaving Tulsa, maybe even the world.”

“It is not a maybe,” Kalona said. “Neferet wishes to do more than force a few unlucky humans into worshipping her. She wishes to rule as the one and only Goddess in this world, and to make us all her slaves.”

“So how the hell is this stone thing supposed to be a key to stopping her if Zoey can’t use it defensively?” Marx asked.

“Detective, Old Magick is neutral—it is power at it rawest. And it is shaped by the intent of the Priestess who wields it. If her motives are not completely altruistic, chaos will be the result.” She shifted her gaze to me. “You have evidence of that before you. From what we know of Neferet’s past, in light of what she has done in the present, I believe there are clear indications that she has been wielding Old Magick for a very long time, perhaps even before she was Marked.”

“But I’ve never seen her wearing a Seer Stone,” I said.

“A Seer Stone is only one conduit for Old Magick. Consider the tendrils of Darkness that shadow her everywhere. They are too base, too raw, to be anything but connected to the Ancient Powers of Light and Darkness. I know. In the Otherworld I battled Darkness in different forms for ages. It can be seductive and cunning. Darkness wears many faces, and some of those faces can seem, at first, like allies.”

“I don’t see how those disgustin’ snake-things could ever seem good,” Stevie Rae said.

“Neferet rarely speaks of it, but she was raped by her father on the night she was Marked,” Lenobia said. “Something helped her get through that terrible ordeal, and it wasn’t another fledgling or even her Mentor. The records at the Chicago House of Night clearly state that she returned to her family home and strangled her father to death before she had even completed the Change. The coroner recorded that the assailant was so strong that her father’s head was almost severed from his body.”

“And she got away with that?” Marx asked.

“The crime happened in the late 1800s in a far bigger world, Detective. The Chicago House of Night Council, together with those of us on the Vampyre High Council, decided it would be best to secrete her from the state and allow her to start over on a new path whereby Neferet had the opportunity to heal from her tragedy,” Thanatos said.

Lenobia said, “And please remember, Detective, that this man raped and brutalized his sixteen-year-old daughter.”

“The High Council’s records reported that there were numerous bite marks—human bite marks—on Neferet, and that she had been horribly beaten and violated the night the Tracker found her,” Thanatos added in agreement with Lenobia.

I felt a shock of remembrance. “Right after I was Marked, Neferet mentioned something to me about being hurt by her parents.”

“Her mother died in childbirth. Her father was a monster,” Lenobia said. “All of us who knew Neferet from her youth knew the rumors about what had happened to her the night she’d been Marked.”

“I’m sorry about her past, but that doesn’t change the fact that Neferet is an unstable immortal who must be stopped,” Marx said.

“We do not mention Neferet’s past to excuse her present,” Sgiach said. “We mention it as a lesson for Zoey.” Sgiach’s gaze burned into mine. “Old Magick was drawn to Neferet, and Neferet discovered that she could wield it. Just as it has been drawn to you, and has been wielded by you.”

“Okay, yeah, but I don’t like being compared to Neferet,” I said.

“And yet what has been happening to you ever since you began using the Seer Stone is very like what happened to Neferet. It uses you, and as it does so, it corrupts you.”

I felt like she’d punched me in the gut. “I’d never be like Neferet!”

“Have you ever thought that if you could simply control everyone around you, then you could make everything better for your friends—for yourself?” Sgiach shot the question at me.

“Yeah, but I didn’t want anything bad to happen! I just wished I could make everyone act right so that all this craziness would stop.”

“Act right according to whom?” Thanatos asked.

“Well, me, I guess, since I was the one doing the wishing,” I protested, feeling trapped.

“Intent!” Sgiach blasted back at me. “Old Magick is neutral—it is shaped by the intent of the Priestess who wields it! And the Priestess’s intent cannot be revenge or frustration or anything self-serving. Your intent must be pure and entirely for the greater good—whether that means you survive being the vessel the magick uses or not.”

“I’m scared,” I admitted, and Grandma squeezed my hand, lending me strength. “And I don’t know how to do what you’re asking me to do. I need you to help me!”

“Only you can help yourself. Grow up, young Priestess. Show all of us why Nyx has chosen to gift you so greatly,” Sgiach said. “But do it quickly. You need to command the Seer Stone if we are to have a chance of stopping Neferet and setting the balance of Light and Darkness to right.”

The queen’s sharp gaze went to Thanatos. “High Priestess, understand that Neferet must be contained so that the contagion of evil is slowed.”

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