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Lynette upended her goblet and drank deeply.

“Now, send these poorly clad supplicants to their rooms. The next time I see them I want to be dazzled.” Neferet clapped her hands with her command, as if she was a pharaoh dismissing slaves. “Lynette, you should probably change that dress for slacks and a dark top. I would hate for you to accidentally be overexposed. You are dismissed until after the sun has set.”

“Yes, Goddess,” Lynette curtsied and backed shakily away, heading to the elevator that would take her to the fourth-floor loft Neferet had given her. When the doors closed, she covered her mouth with both of her hands, muffling the scream she couldn’t stop. For the first time, Lynette understood that there really was no way to survive Neferet’s madness, that the question wasn’t if she was going to die, but how and when.



“That is one ginormous tree! I’m glad the stupid icepocylapse didn’t kill it. I saw somethin’ online about how many Bradford pear trees were killed this winter in T-Town, and it was a crazily high number,” Stevie Rae said. She was huddled next to me in the van looking like a bad Halloween ghost costume with a white blanket covering her except for where she’d poked two little eyeholes. The sun had almost set, and the van was windowless, but Thanatos said we weren’t going to take any chances. Stevie Rae and Shaylin were totally covered up, and they were the only red vampyre and fledgling allowed to go with us—much to the pissed-off-ness of Stark.

“We cannot take chances with our most powerful assets,” Thanatos had told Stark when he’d protested that he damn sure was coming with me. “And you, young Warrior, have proved yourself to be powerful and an asset.”

I would rather have had Stark with me, but I’d agreed with Thanatos. Plus, I’d said, we wouldn’t be far from the school. As soon as the sun had set, he could come to us.

Thanatos had totally messed that plan up by deciding no, Stark didn’t need to come to us. It was more reasonable that Stark and Aurox would change positions for a little while. Stark was going to protect the school. Aurox was going to protect the circle—and me.

I would have protested and overridden Thanatos’s command. I mean, Stark was my Warrior. Not even the school’s High Priestess could boss him around. But Kalona had to be at the Mayo while Thanatos was casting the spell to be sure that if, for some horrible reason, it didn’t work as well as she’d planned, he’d be there to battle whatever awful things Neferet did. So Thanatos was sending away her Warrior because that was what was best for everyone. It would be childish and selfish of me not to do the same.

Stark knew that—I could see it in his eyes as we drove away from the school, leaving him behind. And that didn’t make any of it even one tiny bit easier.

“Z, you’re not even listenin’ to me,” Stevie Rae said, butting against me when she’d failed to get my attention.

“Yeah, I’m listening to you. The tree’s big.”

I could see her frown through her eye peepholes. “I said way more than that, but never mind, now you’re listenin’. Have you ever been here before? It’s way cooler than I thought it was gonna be.”

“I’ve been here before with Grandma,” I said, trying to shake off the unease I felt at leaving Stark behind. “She likes to come for the New Year’s Busk, even though that’s a Creek ceremony, not Cherokee. Grandma says the tribe doesn’t matter as much as the positive energy.”

“Your grandmother is a wise woman,” Thanatos said.

“What is a Busk?” Shaylin asked from where she was hunkered down next to Stevie Rae. She was holding as tightly to her blue water element candle as she was to the blanket that protected her from the setting sun. I didn’t blame her for being nervous. I had practically picked off all my fingernails because of my nerves.

“I looked it up,” Damien answered her because I was busy inner-babbling. “It’s a sacred and lovely ritual—the most important yearly ritual of the ancient Creek peoples. Tribes would come together to do everything from cleansing themselves to settling disputes and debts. It was established here in Tulsa in 1836 by the Loachapoka clan of the Alabama Creek Nation. They had been forced to leave their homes. It was a terrible ordeal for them, not unlike the tragic Trail of Tears. The survivors held a Busk Ceremony around the tree where they deposited ashes from their home fires in Alabama, proclaiming that they were Tulsa-Loachapoka, and this was their new home.”

We were all quiet, peering through the front window of the van, studying the tree and thinking about what Damien had said. I’d known the story. Grandma had told it to me the first time I’d come to the little park that now surrounded the Council Oak Tree.

“Sounds like a place filled with energy,” Aurox said from behind me.

“Yes, and let’s be certain that energy is positive,” Thanatos said.

“You’re going to have to tell me what I should and shouldn’t do,” Detective Marx said. He’d driven us. Thanatos had decided that he and Aurox would be the perfect guardians for this ritual. The detective could deal with any problems with the locals, and Aurox could deal with anything supernatural. Neither of them looked particularly frightening. Marx was tall and in good shape. Actually, he kinda reminded me of John Reese from Person of Interest. (All he needed was the black suit!) And Aurox, well, Aurox looked like a cute boy. Tall, blond, built. The only weird thing about him, unless he morphed into a hideous beast, was his eyes, and they weren’t that bad. Unless you really stared at him, they just looked baby blue and—

“Zoey Redbird! You must focus!”

Thanatos’s voice cut through my mental fog and I jumped. “I am focusing,” I said automatically.

“Then what did I just tell Detective Marx?” she asked, turning around in her seat to give me a stern look.

I sighed. “Sorry. You’re right. I wasn’t focusing. I’ll try harder.”

“Don’t try! Do!” she commanded.

Damien lightened the mood when his whispered, “Yoda?” carried through the Hummer. Stevie Rae giggled and Shaylin whispered back, “You’re such a nerd!”

Thanatos sighed deeply and her expression relaxed. “We are all nervous. We are all on edge, and it does no good for any of us to snap at one another. I apologize for my harsh words. So, let me begin anew.”

“Thank you,” I said. “You have all of my attention.”

“Mine as well,” Damien said.

“Yep, I’m listenin’,” Stevie Rae said.

“Me, too!” Shaunee and Shaylin said together.

Aurox and Marx didn’t say anything, their attention had been focused on Thanatos the entire ride.

“Well done, all of you,” Thanatos said. “As I was saying to Detective Marx, I appreciate that he visited the site earlier to unlock the gate so that we can access the sacred tree.”

“You’re welcome,” Marx said. “I also brought the wrought-iron table you asked for. I placed it under the tree, a few paces south of its base, like you said. Does it look good to you?”

We’d parked where the sidewalk fed into stairs leading up to the little Council Oak Park. The plot of land the tree sat on was a raised knoll, now in the middle of a neighborhood. It had been fenced in for protection but the gate was open and there was a finely built wrought-iron table placed under the tree.

“It looks excellent,” Thanatos said. She lifted the basket she’d brought with her and continued to explain. “Beginning at this moment, it is of the utmost importance that each of you focus on what it is you wish to protect—Tulsa from Neferet’s Darkness. And why it is you wish to protect it—because you want to restore the balance of Light and Darkness.”

“Even Aurox and me?” the detective asked.

“Absolutely,” Thanatos said. “You will not be within the circle, but your energy will affect it. Why do you think I chose the two of you as our Guardians?”

Aurox spoke up, “You’re using us because we’re expendable.”

Marx’s brows shot up. He started to speak, but Thanatos responded too quickly. “You are not expendable,” she said sternly. “I chose the two of you because your ethos is one of guardianship. That is exactly the energy this ritual needs surrounding it. And, young Aurox, let me assure you—I do not use people.”

Aurox nodded slowly. “Thank you for explaining that to me, High Priestess.”

“Yeah, it’s good to know,” Marx said.

“Now, Shaunee, as you know, the element that is most important in this ritual is fire.”

“Yes,” Shaunee said.

“I would ask that you carry the sacred chalice, the ritual matches, and the oil-and-cinnamon mixture I’ve brought in this bull bladder to the iron table.” Thanatos passed a large crystal chalice, beautifully made with the image of Nyx etched around it, a floppy brown bag-thing full of sloshy liquid, and a long box of ritual matches to Shaunee. “Before you take your place in the south, pour the cinnamon oil into the chalice and leave the matches on the table.”

“I can do that,” Shaunee said. “And I reread the ritual in my Fledgling Handbook. I’m ready to do the rest of my part, too.”

“Good. I am counting on the support of you and your element.”

“You’ll have it. I promise.”

“Thank you, daughter,” Thanatos said. “Other than that, I ask only that the five of you set and keep your intention strong, no matter what happens outside—or inside—the circle. I shall do the rest.”

My intuition was like an itch I couldn’t scratch, and I couldn’t help asking, “Is something weird going to happen inside the circle?”

“Weird, no? It isn’t weird for a Major Ritual to drain the High Priestess casting the spell. But you should be prepared for what might happen to me.”

“You’re gonna be okay, right?” Stevie Rae said.

“I believe I will be, but perhaps not until after I no longer need to maintain the spell.”

“Until then, what can we expect?” Damien asked. “I’ve studied Cleopatra’s protective spell. Nothing happened to her when she cast it.”

“Cleopatra had time to fast and prepare. I do not have that luxury. Just know that even after I tell you to close the circle, you cannot move me. I must remain at this place of power, channeling protective energy from the land, if the spell is to remain effective.”

“But we can’t just leave you here by yourself,” Damien said.

A movement outside the van caught my gaze, and my eyes widened in happy surprise. “I don’t think Thanatos is going to be all by herself,” I said, pointing to my little blue Bug that had just pulled up across the street from us. While we watched, Grandma, Sister Mary Angela, Rabbi Margaret Bernstein and Suzanne Grimms piled out of my car.

Grandma led them to the passenger’s side of the van, where she waited, patiently, for Thanatos to crack the window.

“Merry meet, High Priestess,” Grandma said, smiling broadly.

“Sylvia? Whatever are you and these ladies doing here?” Thanatos asked.

“My spirit told me you would need to be watched over. We are here to do so,” Grandma said simply. “I have smudged each of us and set our intent to protect Tulsa. We are ready to proceed when you are.”

Thanatos reached through the open window to grasp Grandma’s hand. “Thank you, my friend—my friends,” she said, her voice husky with emotion.

“The sun just set!” Stevie Rae said, pulling off her blanket.

“Perfectly timed now that we are all here,” said Sister Mary Angela.

“Then let us proceed,” Thanatos said. “Zoey, as spirit, please lead your elements into the space around the tree. Position yourself at the head of the table, facing away from Stevie Rae. You will turn with me as I invoke each element.”

“Okay, I got it,” I said.

“Does everyone have their candles?” The five of us held up our ritual pillars. Thanatos smiled. “I see my circle is ready. Zoey, proceed, and may Nyx be with us.”

Automatically, I whispered, “May Nyx be with us” in response—and so did every person gathered there, so that the blessing seemed to echo around and through us with magickal intensity.

That’s good, I thought. That’s really good.

I drew a deep breath and slid open the van door. I waited on the sidewalk until my five friends fell into step behind me, and then, like a Pied Piper, I led them up the stairs and through the gate to the tree.

The ancient burr oak seemed to grow bigger as I approached it. Its branches spread high, wide, and low. I could see that it was budding up, but no leaves had formed yet. Even so, some of its massive boughs brushed the ground. I moved around them, making my way to the iron table placed beneath it. Shaunee stayed with me, but Damien, Shaylin, and Stevie Rae silently took their places, forming a circle around me. I could see that Grandma and the other ladies came inside the fence but were careful to stay outside the circumference of the circle Thanatos would soon cast. Detective Marx and Aurox remained outside the fence. Keeping their attention turned outward, they began walking around the area, vigilant and ready to act.

Shaunee poured the thick liquid into the crystal chalice. I inhaled deeply the familiar scent of cinnamon. She met my gaze briefly when she was done.

“Blessed be,” I said softly.

“And blessed be to thee,” she responded before moving to her position at the southernmost part of the circle.


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