“What is your advice on containing her without using Old Magick?” Thanatos asked, making my cheeks feel warm. I knew she shouldn’t have had to ask Sgiach that question—I should be grown enough to use the Seer Stone to help her.
“Look to the most ancient rituals and spells,” Sgiach said. “Do not think to defeat Neferet—you cannot do that without Old Magick. Think to isolate her, distract her, annoy her—anything you can do that forces her to rethink her plots and plans, anything that is a stumbling block slows Neferet, thus aiding you.”
“And giving Zoey more time to discover the path to commanding Old Magick,” Grandma said.
I sent her a nervous smile, wishing I had the confidence in myself she had in me.
“I’ll try as hard as I can, I promise,” I said.
“You cannot try, Zoey. Trying is far too dangerous. You can do nothing until you know you have banished from yourself all negatives: fear and anger, selfishness, vindictiveness, hatred, and even annoyance and frustration. Only then will you command and control Old Magick. Until then Aphrodite is to keep the Seer Stone far from you. We do not need to be battling two immortals who once were gifted Priestess of our Goddess.”
I couldn’t believe what she’d just said! She was actually sounding like she believed I could turn out like Neferet!
“I’m not immortal! I’m just a kid who doesn’t want anything to do with Old Magick or that damn Seer Stone!”
“I would imagine a young Neferet would have said much the same thing, and she was far from ‘just a kid’ as well,” Sgiach said.
Before I could even begin to recover from that horrid statement, Thanatos added, “I have only known one other fledgling who was as gifted as you are, Zoey Redbird. Her name was Neferet.”
I held tight to Grandma’s hand, feeling like my world was falling away from me.
“And now I must tend to my own flood,” Sgiach said. “I trust you, Zoey. I believe you will find a way to bring the forces of Old Magick into our battle on the side of Light. Until I see you again, may you blessed be.”
Then the Skype connection clicked off, leaving the room in utter silence.
“Obviously, this is your fault,” Aphrodite told Kalona before turning to me and adding, “If you start calling me Frodo I’m going to be pissed.”
“Not to be mean or anything, Aphrodite, but you are Frodo-ing for Z,” Stevie Rae said.
“If that’s true, then that would make you a short, fat Samwise Gamgee,” Aphrodite said.
“A teenager?” Marx’s voice grumbled from behind us. “Why would the power to balance good and evil be given to a teenager?”
I frowned at him.
“I have been wondering that for months,” Kalona said.
“I must insist on productive discussion only!” Thanatos’s voice cut through the room, making even Marx and Kalona look sheepish.
“Actually,” I said hesitantly, “Detective Marx’s comment got me thinking.”
“I didn’t mean it to sound so rude,” Marx insisted.
“Oh, I know,” I said. “What you said wasn’t rude—it was just the truth. Why would the balance of good and evil be dependent on me?” I hurried on, not wanting my thoughts to get interrupted. “Maybe it’s not me, or even us, that’s so important. Sgiach says Old Magick is what’s important. Basically, I’m just along for the ride because for some reason that none of us gets, it works through me. So, like I said, it’s not me who’s important. It’s the magick.”
“What are you getting at, Zoeybird?” Grandma asked.
“Well, Old Magick responds to Sgiach, too. Thanatos, Lenobia, please correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t Sgiach the personification of her island?”
“She is,” Thanatos said, and Lenobia nodded her agreement.
“Old Magick is in the land,” Grandma said, sitting up straighter in her chair. “Just as our Cherokee ancestors believed.”
“Oklahoma holds ancient power within its red dirt,” Kalona said. “I know. It drew me here not long after I was created, and again after I Fell.”
“And it entrapped you for centuries,” Thanatos said.
Kalona’s jaw tightened, but he nodded. “It did.”
“The day I was Marked, I ran away to your farm, remember, Grandma?” My voice was getting less hesitant as my thoughts discovered a path to follow. “I passed out trying to find you.”
“I remember,” Grandma said. “That was the first time Nyx appeared to you.”
“Yes! She told me that I was supposed to be her eyes and ears in a world that was struggling to find the balance of good and evil.”
“Even then the Goddess was warning us through you,” Thanatos said.
“Seems like it took way too long for us to listen,” Stevie Rae said.
“Not just you guys,” I said, “but me, too. I don’t think I really understood what Nyx was warning me about until now. I mostly just paid attention to the part she said about Light not always being good, and Darkness not always equating to evil. I thought Nyx was telling me to beware of Neferet, because Neferet’s so gorgeous to look at, but she’s totally rotten inside.”
“Makes sense,” Aphrodite said.
“Totally true,” Stevie Rae said.
“Yeah, but check out what else Nyx said. I remember she told me that I was special, her first U-we-tsi-a-ge-ya V-hna-I Sv-no-yi.”
“Daughter of Night,” Grandma translated for me.
“That’s not all she said, though. Nyx said I was special because of my ancient blood combined with my understanding of the modern world.”
“And your blood holds within it the power of ancient Cherokee Wise Women,” Grandma said. “Women who drew strength from the land.”
“This land,” Thanatos said.
“Oklahoma is where the Trail of Tears ended,” Grandma said.
“And where I was drawn, as well as Neferet,” Kalona said. “Let us not forget that Zoey holds within her a piece of the soul of A-ya, the maiden formed from this land.”
I didn’t want to think too long about that, so I hastily added, “It’s also where Aurox was created by the blood sacrifice of my mother with power taken from the land of my grandmother.”
Marx frowned. “Aurox?”
“I am Aurox,” he said, moving forward out of the shadows.
“Hang on,” Marx said. “You don’t even have a crescent on your forehead. I thought you were just some guy who was the Consort of the High Priestess.”
The thought of Aurox being Thanatos’s Consort made me feel hot with embarrassment.
Aurox ignored me and looked questioningly at Thanatos. She nodded slightly. He turned to meet Marx’s gaze. Sounding strong and sure, he said, “I am not human, nor am I vampyre. I am a vessel created by Old Magick whose purpose was vengeance and destruction.”
“But who was also created with a soul, and given the ability to choose to turn from vengeance and destruction, which is what you have done,” Grandma said.
“Hell, that almost sounds good!” Marx said, studying Aurox carefully. “If he has these Old Magick powers, can’t he help us fight against Neferet?”
“The fighting part isn’t important,” I said, not looking at Aurox. “It’s the creation part—how he, like me, came from this land and the blood that goes back generations on this land.”
“We need to use the power of the land to fight Neferet, at least until Zoey gets a handle on the Seer Stone,” Aphrodite said.
“Ohmygoddess! I have it!” Shaunee’s hand shot up. “Sorry, sorry, I don’t mean to interrupt, but I think I know what you need to do!”
“What is it, Shaunee?” Thanatos said.
She put down her hand, speaking rapidly. “Sgiach told us to look to the most ancient spells and rituals to mess with Neferet. You said we need to stop her from spreading. It’s been right in front of our faces! Thanatos, you even taught a lesson on it just the other day.”
“Shaunee, please be clear,” Thanatos said.
“We use Cleopatra’s Protection Ritual! We can make like Tulsa is Alexandria!” Shaunee said excitedly.
“I have no idea what she’s talking about,” Marx said.
“I do,” Lenobia said.
“As should all of us,” Thanatos said. “But as we all should also know, Cleopatra’s spell calls for the High Priestess who casts it to seclude herself, fasting and praying, for three days.”
“At the rate Neferet’s killing, we don’t have three days,” Marx said grimly.
“We do have ancient power in the land, though,” I said. “Can’t we use it to boost the spell and make it work?”
“Interesting idea,” Thanatos said. “The spell would have to be cast from a place of exceptional power as close to the Mayo as possible. And the Priestess who casts the spell and sets the ritual would have to remain in seclusion at that site in meditation and prayer, keeping her intent set and true.”
“That won’t be me,” I said. “And I don’t mean that because I’m whining about not being grown enough or High Priestess enough. I mean that because I have to figure out this Seer Stone thing and be free to use it against Neferet as soon as I do.”
“Agreed, Zoey. I am High Priestess of the Tulsa House of Night. It is my duty to cast the spell and to maintain it for as long as my will holds,” Thanatos said.
“Fire is the basis of Cleopatra’s spell. I’ll stay with you,” Shaunee said. “As long as it takes.”
Thanatos bowed her head respectfully to Shaunee. “I will appreciate your company and the power you lend to the spell, daughter.”
“Oh, thank the great Earth Mother! I know the place of power you must use!” Grandma said, slapping her hand on the top of the table to punctuate her words. “The Council Oak Tree—its ancient power has reigned over that Busk Ground for centuries, and it is within walking distance of the Mayo Hotel.”
“Lenobia, Aphrodite, Zoey, Stevie Rae, Shaunee—what say you? Are you in agreement with Sylvia Redbird?” Thanatos asked.
“I am,” Lenobia said.
“Yes,” Shaunee said.
“Yep,” Stevie Rae said.
“Sounds like a plan,” Aphrodite said.
I met Grandma’s gaze and saw wisdom and love and truth. “Absolutely,” I said.
“Then let us all rest. At dusk, Zoey’s circle will go to the place of power, and as the sun sets I will set the protective ritual and cast the spell, and may Nyx lend us strength. Thus we have chosen; so mote it be.”
“Stark, have you seen Nala?”
“No. Come to bed. She’s probably busy with the other cats letting the local mice know they’re back,” he said sleepily, patting the spot on the bed next to him. The sun had risen a little over an hour ago, and he was fading fast.
“But Nala always sleeps with me.”
“No she doesn’t. Sometimes she sleeps with Stevie Rae.” He yawned giantly. “Stop worrying and come here. You’ve been a big ball of stress ever since the Council meeting. You’re going to figure out how to use the Seer Stone—I know you will. Worrying all the time won’t help. Lay down and I’ll rub your shoulders.”
I looked at him and smiled. Not only did I love love love it when he rubbed my shoulders, but he was totally cute and sexy with his rumpled hair and his sleepy eyes. Plus, he was right. Me worrying wouldn’t help me figure out how to use the stupid Seer Stone. Giving in, I curled up in bed with my back to him and then moaned in pure bliss when his strong thumbs began kneading the stress knot that always bunched between by shoulder blades.
“I think you might be perfect,” I said.
“See, the less you worry, the smarter you get,” he said, yawning again.
“Hey, I’m fine. Go ahead and go to sleep.”
“I know you’re fine, but you’ll be finer if you be quiet and let me take care of your shoulders.” He kissed the back of my neck.
“Okay, but you can quit whenever you want,” I said, relaxing into his massage.
“Z, I’ll never quit you—you know that.” He kissed the back of my neck again.
I sighed happily. “I love you.”
“Love you, too,” he said. By the time his hands had stilled, I felt all limp and warm and tired. I closed my eyes and, smiling, fell sound asleep.
For about two point five minutes. Then my eyes popped open and I sat up, listening.
“Did you hear something?” I asked Stark.
He mumbled something that sounded like, “Cat … okay … stop wor…,” rolled over, pulled up the blanket around his ears, and started to snore softly.
“Jeesh, no Warrior on duty,” I grumbled. Then I yawned and stretched. I seriously needed to go back to sleep. My alarm was set. We had to be up and piled into the windowless school van and on our way to the Council Oak Tree before dusk. Who knew what kind of craziness a protective spell would cause Neferet to unleash. Hell, she was already—
Then I heard it again and knew exactly what had woken me up. It was faint, but it was definitely the sound of a cat yowling.
And there was no Dr. Nal curled up in a disgruntled orange ball at the foot of my bed!
As quietly as possible I pulled on my jeans and grabbed my shoes, tiptoeing in my socks to the door. Not making a sound, and concentrating on happy thoughts, I opened the door and slipped into the hallway. I hurried downstairs and through the deserted common room of the dorm, and went outside, blinking as the morning sunlight stung my eyes. No darn way could I go back upstairs and get my sunglasses, so I shielded my eyes and called, “Nala! Kitty kitty kitty kitty! Come here, Nal!” Then I held my breath, listening.
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