Page 24

It was an instant before Neferet released her spell that she felt it. It seemed as if the skin of her Temple shivered. The thought flitted through her mind that something odd had occurred, but Neferet was too focused on shadow and night to give it much attention. Instead she swept her arms toward the doors and the waiting concealment of her night, while she willed her bound and blood-filled children to part for Lynette and Judson.

As Neferet expected, Lynette did not allow herself to hesitate. The Goddess had read in the human’s mind that she equated hesitation with weakness, and Lynette did not intend to show any weakness. So she strode to the doors, flung them open, and walked purposefully through the parted blood curtain and into a concealing shadow.

“Well, why are you waiting?” Neferet gave Judson and the three tendrils an annoyed glance. “Follow her!”

Judson walked mechanically forward with the three tendrils of Darkness clinging to his legs, but instead of stepping through her Temple’s curtain and into the concealment Neferet had summoned, they collided with a wall of scarlet fire.

For an instant, Neferet was too shocked to respond. She only stared at Judson, who was screaming and beating the flames from his clothing. The three tendrils left him the instant fire had appeared, slithering back to her.

“Concealment begone!” A sound like a thunderclap followed the command, and a burst of moon-colored light shot through Neferet’s cloaking shadows, exposing a wide-eyed Lynette, frozen in terror in the middle of the sidewalk.

It also exposed the immortal, who strode to the middle of the street, wings spread and spear raised in battle stance. That was all the goad Neferet needed.

“Children! Cripple Kalona and I shall let you gorge yourselves with his immortal blood!” She snarled the command.

From all around her, tendrils of Darkness shot from the shadows, rocketing toward Kalona. When the first wave of them breached her protective curtain, the wall of flames roared to life, swallowing them whole.

“No! Children! Come back—come back to me!” The tendrils not consumed by flame crawled back to wrap around her body. “What have you done?” she screamed at Kalona.

“Changed sides. Were you not so self-absorbed, you would have noticed before now,” he said. Then he held out his hand to Lynette. “Come with me and you will be free of her.”

“She is my Goddess. I cannot.”

Incredulous, Neferet realized Lynette sounded resigned, even disgusted, and not the least bit worshipful. That made her furious. “Return to me, Lynette! I command you!”

Kalona ignored Neferet. Hand still extended to the human, he said, “We’ve imprisoned her. Nothing of ill intent can leave or enter her Temple. And Neferet is incapable of ridding herself of ill intent. Come with me and you will be safe from her.”

Lynette hesitated. She looked back at Neferet, obviously appraising the situation.

“You are my supplicant! You must do as I command!” Unable to help herself, Neferet began moving forward, determined to force Lynette’s loyalty—until the wall of fire exploded with an intensity that seared her. The Goddess staggered back, shrieking in rage and pain so loudly that her divine cries echoed throughout the night.

Lynette turned her back to Neferet and grasped Kalona’s hand. “Get me out of here!”

“That I shall do,” he said.

“Lynette, hear me!” Neferet shouted at her departing back. “I will break this spell and free myself from this bondage, and when I do there will be no place in this realm or any other that you can hide from me. I will find you and I will possess you as my own!”

Lynette stumbled, but Kalona’s strong hand held her upright. He kept walking, ignoring Neferet.

“Kalona, hear me! When I free myself I will come after you, too. Never forget that I held you bound, doing my bidding, once before. I shall do so again!”

The winged immortal didn’t even bother to turn to look at her. He called back over his shoulder, “Yes, I remember. I also remember that you could not keep me bound to you.”

“The next time I will not be so magnanimous. The next time we meet, I give you my oath I will destroy you as Nyx should have done when you betrayed her!”

That halted the winged immortal. He turned to meet her gaze, and in a voice that seemed to share the power of the fiery wall, Kalona blasted back at her, “Do you know why Nyx didn’t destroy me when I chose to Fall? Because Nyx is a true Goddess—loving, benevolent, loyal, and kind. You? You are a petulant child, a pretender, and a usurper. No matter how much vengeance you spew or how much chaos you cause, you will never be a Goddess!”

As he and Lynette disappeared into the night, Neferet shrieked her fury to the sky.

Zoey

When I woke up I smelled the delicious, familiar scent of roasting sweet corn and warm salted butter. Still not quite awake, I smiled. I was at Grandma’s house. Grandma grilled the best sweet corn in the universe.

Then I made the mistake of opening my eyes. I was lying on one of Grandma’s quilts, but I was definitely not at Grandma’s house. I was looking up at the night sky through the drooping boughs of a giant oak tree. Then my memory caught up with the rest of my senses and I sat straight up.

“Slowly, Zoey. You shouldn’t try to stand yet,” said Sister Mary Angela. As she hurried over to me, the nun called, “Zoey’s awake,” over her shoulder.

“Here, drink this.” She handed me a plastic cup. I could smell that it was filled with blood-laced wine, and my mouth started to water. I hesitated to take it from her, though. It just felt too awkward, maybe even disrespectful, to take blood and wine from a nun.

She patted my shoulder. “It will ground you. Take, drink, and be nourished.”

“Thank you. I haven’t told you this recently, but I really appreciate how great you are. You—you mean a lot to me.” I sniffled, feeling tears in the back of my throat.

Sister Mary Angela smiled. “Well, thank you, Zoey. I know you mean what you just said, but I promise you won’t feel so emotional after you drink that.”

“Okay.” I sniffled again and upended the cup. I don’t really like wine, especially not red wine, but as disturbing as it sounds, I love blood. The blood in the wine made it taste like liquid chocolate, dark and smooth. My taste buds registered immediate deliciousness, and then an instant later power zipped through my body, clearing the impending tears from my eyes and the cobwebs from my brain. I looked around and right away saw Stevie Rae, Damien, and Shaylin. They were awake, standing by the park’s outdoor charcoal grill, munching away on grilled sweet corn. Well, at least I hadn’t imagined that. Smiling, Grandma was coming toward me with an ear of corn on a paper plate and another plastic cup in her hand. I started to smile at her and then realized who I hadn’t seen.

“Where are Thanatos and Shaunee?”

Grandma handed me the plate, saying, “Eat and finish grounding yourself, u-we-tsi-a-ge-ya. Thanatos is within, being well cared for.” She nodded her head toward a place behind me, and I swiveled around so that I was looking at the base of the ginormous tree.

White canvas had been draped over and through the lower boughs, forming a small tent above the wrought-iron ritual table. Suzanne Grimms and Rabbi Bernstein were seated on either side of the open front flap of the tent. The ladies had their eyes closed and their hands folded in silent, meditative prayer. Through the opening in the tent I could see that all five pillar candles had been placed on the table and lit. They sent a warm, flickering glow over the mound of blankets at the base of the table and the still figure that lay on the makeshift pallet. I could also see that Shaunee was sitting on the ground near the pallet. She was sipping from her own cup. There were two nibbled ears of corn on a paper plate beside her. She caught my gaze and gave me a grim smile.

I started to get up, but Grandma pressed my shoulder down, sitting beside me. “Eat and drink first. Besides Thanatos, you are the last to awaken.”

“So, she’s okay? She’s just sleeping?” I asked around a mouthful of corn.

“She seems well, though she doesn’t wake. Tell me, Zoeybird, do you remember your dreams?”

I shook my head. “I only remember seeing everyone passing out, and then I fainted. Then I smelled your corn and thought I was at your house.”

She smiled again. “I brought supplies with me. Corn is always eaten after a Busk Ceremony. I thought it would be appropriate after this ceremony as well.”

“It’s perfect, Grandma. And yummy, too. As usual.” I chewed quickly and swallowed, then asked, “Did it really work? Is Tulsa protected from the Mayo?”

“Well, I don’t know about the Mayo, but Tulsa is protected from the rest of the world.”

I looked up to see Detective Marx approaching me. He had his phone in his hand and a super-shocked look on his face.

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“It means this ancient spell Thanatos cast is working exactly like the spell Cleopatra cast around Alexandria. The 911 lines are flooded. Apparently, there is a selective wall of fire stranding some people inside the city limits and stopping others from entering Tulsa—and that includes the FBI team that was supposed to be providing our backup.”

“Thanatos’s spell asked that no one with ill intent enter or leave Tulsa,” I said. “Wow, it did work!”

“The FBI can be a pain in the ass, but they don’t wish us ill,” Marx said.

“They intend violence. Do you think violence is a positive or negative thing, Detective?” Aurox asked, joining us.

Marx frowned. “If I had to make a blanket categorization, I’d have to say violence is negative, but there’s way more to it than that. Violence can be used in a positive way, to protect and serve. I’d know a little something about that.”

Grandma nodded in acknowledgment. “We are all quite sure you do, Detective. It has been your life’s work.”

“And mine,” Aurox said. “That is why I understand it so intimately. Be it good or ill willed, there should be choices made that do not include violence. Thanatos has seen enough death to understand that, too. She cast a spell as raw and basic as Old Magick, and as Zoey can tell you, Old Magick works on intent more than anything else.”

“Thanatos’s intent wasn’t just to stop Neferet. It also was to stop the violence and chaos that are going on in our unbalanced world,” I said.

“You do understand,” Aurox said.

I started to tell him I understood and agreed, when the phone I’d stuck in my pocket started vibrating like crazy. “Sorry, I thought I turned this off,” I said, pulling it out of my pocket to see Aphrodite’s picture lighting up the screen.

“Speak to your Prophetess,” Grandma said.

I tapped the phone. “Hey,” I said.

“Get back here. Now,” Aphrodite said.

“What’s going on?”

“Kalona’s back. The spell worked. One of Neferet’s hostages got out. And to say Neferet’s pissed is like saying Louis Vuitton makes cute purses. Hello, understatement of the decade.”

“Okay, we’re on our way.” I clicked off and faced my audience, which now included Stevie Rae, Damien, and Shaylin. “It worked. Totally. And Kalona got one of Neferet’s hostages out. They’re waiting for us at the House of Night.”

“Neferet will be furious,” Grandma said.

“And hard to contain,” Damien said.

I glanced at the tent that held Thanatos in time to see Shaunee coming out to join us. She looked tired, but she seemed to be okay. “The spell worked,” I told her.

Shaunee nodded. “I know. I can feel it whenever the protective wall flames on.”

“You should eat more,” Damien said. “You don’t look grounded yet.”

“I’ll unwrap the sandwiches I brought and get more corn,” Grandma said, reaching into her bottomless picnic basket.

“You do look really tired. Are you okay?” I asked Shaunee.

She didn’t answer for long enough that I started to worry. Finally she said, “I’m not bad, but I’m not okay, either. And I can say the same for Thanatos.”

“Did she wake up?” I peered around Shaunee, but all I saw was the High Priestess’s motionless form.

“She’s not asleep,” Shaunee said. “She’s meditating. It’s only the power of her intent, mixed with the power of my element, that is holding the spell in place.”

“How long can you two keep this up?” Detective Marx asked.

Shaunee’s shoulders slumped. “I don’t know. It’s hard—really hard—and draining. It’s like I’m running a marathon without moving. I don’t understand how Cleopatra kept her spell up for all those years.”

“She wielded Old Magick.” I felt guilty as hell. “I wish I could help you!”

“’Course ya do, Z. We all know that. And we all believe you’ll figure it out,” Stevie Rae said.

“Go back to the school, Z. Meditate, pray, do whatever you have to do to find a way to use your Seer Stone,” Shaunee said. “Thanatos and I can’t hold on for the years Cleopatra did.”

“Wait, you’re not coming back to the school with us?” I asked.

“I’m staying here as long as Thanatos needs me. I promised her.”

Instantly I wondered: What am I supposed to do if I have to cast a spell and my fire is missing? But I didn’t get a chance to ask my question aloud because a car roared up and screeched to a stop, parking street side of the park. We all gawked.

“It’s a 1968 fastback Mustang, might even be a Bullitt. Silver with a black stripe, just like Eleanor in Gone in 60 Seconds. That old girl is a monster,” said Detective Marx with that weird guy appreciation they seem to all have for muscle cars.

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