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Erik got out of the driver’s side.

“I thought Erik had a new red Mustang,” Shaylin said.

“He did. He sold it and bought this one,” Damien said.

“Of course he did,” Stevie Rae and I said at the same time.

“Girls, be kind. Erik is a nice young man,” Grandma said.

“His colors are getting better,” Shaylin said. “But he’s not really my type.”

I was super glad Aphrodite wasn’t with us, but the comments I could imagine her saying had me biting my cheek to keep from giggling.

“Hi, guys. Nice job on the spellwork,” Erik said. His gaze went to the tent. “Is Thanatos okay?”

“For right now,” Shaunee said.

“Meaning she or the spell isn’t going to be okay for much longer?” he asked.

Shaunee blew out a frustrated breath. “Look, Erik, we’re doing our best!”

“No, no, that came out all wrong. I didn’t mean to sound negative. What you’ve all done here is incredible. It’s just that Kalona sent me here to relieve Marx and Aurox because he’s calling all of you back to the House of Night, and I just wondered how long I’m going to be here.”

I frowned at him. “Like you mind being here?”

He ran his hand through his hair in frustration. “No! That came out wrong, too. I’m going to start over.” He turned around and the Erik that faced us again was totally the actor—charming, smiling, concerned. “Hey, guys! Great job on the spell! Kalona has called you back to the House of Night. I’m going to stay here, though, and take care of Thanatos and Shaunee, for as long as you need me to.”

I still frowned at him, saying, “No one knows how long the spell can last. Thanatos is meditating too hard to talk. Shaunee is helping her with the fire part, but that’s about all anyone can do.”

“And four Wise Women are watching over them both as they struggle to maintain the spell,” Grandma said.

“The rest of us are ready to go back to the school,” I said, standing up and brushing off my jeans. “Right, guys?”

Everyone nodded except Aurox, who was studying Erik thoughtfully. He said, “Did Kalona request by name that I return?”

“Yeah, Kalona said you and Marx were needed back at school, and I’m going to take your place protecting Thanatos.”

Aurox looked from Erik to me, clearly not happy. “What’s up?” I asked.

“Well, Zo, Erik isn’t exactly a Warrior,” Aurox said, having one of his I-sound-freakishly-like-Heath moments.

“Hey, kiss my ass!” Erik said, puffing up like a blowfish. “I don’t have to be a Warrior to keep nosy humans from messing with Thanatos and the rest of the women.”

“I meant no disrespect to the vampyre,” Aurox said, ignoring Erik completely (which only made the situation worse) and addressing me. “I simply wish to be sure our people are protected.”

“Our people?” Erik said sarcastically. “You don’t have any people, Bull Boy.”

“Okay, that’s enough,” I said as Marx stepped between them because idiot Erik looked like he actually might throw a punch at Aurox. “You’re not going to fight on this sacred ground.”

“It would be a sacrilege,” Grandma said, shaking her head sadly at Erik. “Erik Night, I would have thought you would know better by now.”

He stepped back, unable to meet Grandma’s eyes. “I’m sorry. You’re right.”

“It is Aurox who deserves your apology, not me,” Grandma told him.

“I was wrong. I’m sorry,” Erik said, offering his hand to Aurox.

“Apology accepted.” Aurox shook his hand in a forearm grip. “I truly meant you no disrespect.”

“Well, I truly meant some to you,” Erik said. “You touched a nerve with that whole Warrior thing.”

“Understood,” Aurox said. “I will choose my words more carefully in the future.”

“There, that energy is what this sacred ground represents—the joining of peoples and the clearing of enmity,” Grandma said with satisfaction. Then she turned to me. “Return to the school with the rest of your circle, u-we-tsi-a-ge-ya. We will look after Shaunee and the High Priestess. Let your mind be free of worry for them.” Grandma hugged me tightly. “Take my love with you and let it give you strength and wisdom.”

I clung to her, wishing with all my might that at least a little of the Wise Woman my grandma is would rub off on me and my friends.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Aphrodite

“I don’t trust her. At all,” were the first words Aphrodite said to Zoey as she led her group through the main entrance of the House of Night. She’d stopped her pacing and stood in front of Zoey, hands on hips, frowning at all of them and feeling a ball of stress stabbing between her shoulder blades. “And the next time you try to leave me behind to deal with a group of humans, I am going to quit. I’d rather face Neferet alone with no damn powers at all than explain to one more paranoid mommy that No, fledglings and vampyres are not all salivating at the thought of so many humans sleeping under their roof, no one is going to eat you or your snot-nosed offspring! Talk about annoying! Why would anyone want to eat any of them? Most of them are fat anyway. Eesh!”

“Aphrodite, you’re gonna have to slow down. I have no clue who the ‘her’ is, or why mommies would be asking you crazy questions,” Zoey said.

“The her is Lynette Witherspoon, supposed ex-minion of Neferet. And mommies are asking me questions because I am the only non-threatening, non-fledgling slash vampyre in sight.”

“They don’t know her very dang well if they think Aphrodite is non-threatening,” Stevie Rae said.

Aphrodite skewered her with her eyes. “Zip it, bumpkin.”

“Did you say Lynette Witherspoon? As in the owner of Everlasting Expressions?” Damien asked.

“Yes and yes,” Aphrodite said. “And how the hell do you know that?”

Damien grinned. “I simply adore Brides of Oklahoma magazine, and Everlasting Expressions is the event planner for the most spectacular of the magnificent weddings.”

“You are so g*y,” Aphrodite told him.

“Good, you have finally returned,” Kalona said, striding into the foyer.

“That’s what I was saying. Are you going to fill them in or am I?” Aphrodite said.

“I am going to relieve Darius and Stark at the perimeter. You brief Zoey and the rest of them.” Kalona hesitated. “I will bring our Warriors up to date. Detective Marx and Aurox, would you join me?”

The guys nodded and moved off with Kalona.

Aphrodite sighed, wishing she were going to meet Darius, even if that would mean she’d have to put up with Aurox and Kalona and Marx. It seemed like forever since she and her gorgeous Warrior had had one stress-free day.

“Earth to Aphrodite—hello? Anybody home?” Damien said.

“Yeah, you’re supposed to be briefin’ us, remember?” Stevie Rae said.

“Stand down, Herd of Nerds. I’m getting to it. Follow me to the infirmary. Lenobia is tucking Witherspoon away in one of the rooms there. I think she should be in the dungeon, but Lenobia and, shockingly, Kalona, outvoted me. Apparently, dealing with Neferet has the woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Whatever. Like we haven’t all been there before?” Aphrodite started marching away while we scrambled to keep up with her.

“Do we have a dungeon?” Shaylin asked.

“No, we don’t,” Damien assured her. “Don’t let Aphrodite get to you.” Then he reached out and plucked at Aphrodite’s sleeve. “Slow down, we’re all exhausted from the Protection Ritual.”

Aphrodite narrowed her eyes at Damien, but Z stepped in. “Damien’s right. Plus, none of us need to hear whatever Crazy Town you’re going to tell us about while we’re chasing after you. And there’s no point in updating us in front of the woman you’re talking about, especially if you don’t trust her. Let’s go to the cafeteria, get some more to eat so that we can start to feel normal again, and you can tell us about this Lynette Witherspoon person there.”

Aphrodite clued Z in, saying, “The cafeteria is full of humans. Loud, nervous, stress-eating, annoying humans.”

“All righty, then, let’s make it the professors’ dining hall instead,” Z said.

“Oooooh! I’ve never been up there! Are you sure it’s okay?” Stevie Rae chirped.

“I’m sure it is,” Zoey said before Aphrodite could answer her.

Aphrodite raised one brow, stepped aside, and motioned for Z to take over. “Well, then, lead on with your big girl panties.”

And Zoey did.

Zoey

A long, shocked silence followed Aphrodite’s retelling of everything the Witherspoon woman had reported.

Shaylin brushed a trembling hand over her face and said, “Dead Fish Eyes—that isn’t just the color of Neferet’s aura; it’s what she really is—dead inside.”

“All those people,” Damien said in a hushed voice. “She’s going to kill them all eventually.”

Aphrodite nodded. “When Lynette described everything that had happened, the puzzle pieces fell into place from my last vision. Goddess, I hate figurative language.” She looked at me and raised her brow. “You were too busy being a raving bitch, so I haven’t had a chance to tell you, but a pain-in-the-ass poem was my bonus prize.” She closed her eyes and recited:

With great power comes great responsibilities

Weigh the pleasure of leadership and luxury with the sword Damocles

When she believes the ancient is the key to all her needs

Then is when all will tumble down; then is when Light bleeds and bleeds.

Aphrodite opened her eyes and met my gaze. “I thought it was talking about you.” She held up her fingers, ticking off her points. “First, you have way more power than makes sense. Second, you sometimes do actually act like a leader, and we do actually follow you, which means you have access to all of this—” Aphrodite paused and gestured at the beautiful dining hall. “Then there’s the end part about ‘she’ believing the ancient is the key and Light bleeding because of it. Well, that sounds like you using your Seer Stone and messing up the balance of Light and Darkness.”

“That analysis does sound reasonable,” Damien said.

“Thank you, Queen Damien. Reasonable, yes. Correct, apparently not. I skipped the whole sword Damocles part because I didn’t want to look it up and because I seriously hate trying to figure out symbolism. But then we found out you didn’t kill those men, and Neferet slaughtered a shit ton of people and proclaimed the Mayo her Temple and herself Goddess. So I read the stupid story of Damocles.”

“That’s about, like, waiting for something awful to happen, right?” Stevie Rae said.

“Most people think so,” Damien said in his teacher voice. “Actually, the story is an ancient parable. Damocles was a courtier whose job was, basically, to do nothing but lie around and amuse and flatter his king. One day Damocles made some comment about how fabulous it would be to be king. Basically, his king said, ‘Hey, if you think it’s so great to be king, then go ahead, try out my throne.’ Naturally, Damocles took him up on the offer. He was having a g*y old time—” Here Damien stopped to giggle and say, “Gay! Heehees!”

“Oh, for shit’s sake, tell the rest of the story or I will,” Aphrodite said.

Damien got himself under control and continued. “Anyway, Damocles was having such a good time that it took him awhile to notice it, but hanging above him, on a thread as thin as a horse hair, was a sword. All of a sudden being king didn’t seem so awesome to Damocles and he begged the king to let him go back to his own life.”

“Oh, so the moral isn’t that doom and gloom is lurking,” I said as my mental lightbulb lit up. “It’s that you should be happy with what you’ve been given.”

“Yeah, and—as the guy in the NPR story explained so that I could effing understand the metaphor—not covet what you haven’t been given because that other oh-so-awesome life has it’s own bad shit, usually in proportion to how much responsibility and luxury you have. In conclusion, I think the prophecy was more about Neferet than you,” Aphrodite finished.

“Which means we’re super screwed because it’s not Zoey,” Shaylin said.

“Huh?” I said.

“Zoey, if it was about you, you’d listen to the warning,” she continued. “You really already have. You know Old Magick is important, but you realize the key to that power is you and your intent, and not just hooking into the power. Right?”

“Absolutely,” I agreed, and my mental lightbulb got brighter. “Oh, I get it! It is a warning about what Neferet is up to. She’s messed up the balance of Light and Darkness by waking up Old Magick.”

“And she’s not going to stop,” Damien said.

“True,” I said. “So the answer is simple. We’re going to have to stop her. For good.”

“I’m hoping you have a plan for that,” Aphrodite said.

“Thanks to you guys, I have the beginning of one. We need to find Neferet’s Damocles sword,” I said.

Kalona

“At least the protective wall contains her.” Darius was the first to speak after Kalona had explained to him, Stark, Aurox, and the detective the full extent of the macabre charade Neferet was playing out in her “Temple.”

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