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“Only temporarily,” Aurox said.

Marx nodded. “Yeah, Thanatos and Shaunee are giving it all they’ve got, but it’s taking a terrible toll on them. Even they don’t have any idea how long they can keep the spell going—especially since it’s not confined just to the Mayo. It’s got all of Tulsa in a protective bubble.”

“You realize that’s good, right?” Stark said. When the detective looked at him questioningly, the boy continued. “The last thing we need right now is national involvement. Look at it like this—the fewer people who actually witness Neferet’s insanity, the easier our cleanup is going to be once we stop her.”

“Do you still believe she can be stopped?” Marx asked.

“I do,” Kalona said, and he did believe it. “I fought Darkness in one form or another for eons in the Otherworld. The war against it was never won because there must be Darkness as long as there is also Light. But Light does win individual battles. Neferet is simply another individual battle in which Light must vanquish this one particularly tenacious and evil form of Darkness.”

“But the whole balance and battle versus war thing means that you lost sometimes, too,” Marx said.

“I did,” Kalona said grimly. “But the biggest losses I experienced were internal. I allowed Darkness to corrupt something that was pure and honest and true, and when that happened, Darkness won a battle.”

“What makes you think Darkness won’t get to you again and you’ll lose another battle? This time at our expense,” Stark said.

“You’ve lost a battle to Darkness yourself, boy,” Kalona shot at the arrogant youth. “What makes you think Darkness won’t get to you again and you’ll lose another battle?”

Stark bristled, but he answered with no hesitation, “Because I love Zoey and I’ve pledged myself to the path of Nyx.”

“And that is how I can assure you, and myself, that I will not lose this battle—because of love and because of the oath I have given. I know what it’s like to be forsworn. I will not do that again. Ever,” Kalona said. He ran his hand across his brow. It was still damp with sweat, the only outward evidence he couldn’t control that showed the wounds he’d received the night before had not yet fully healed and continued to pain him. I need to climb high—perhaps to the roof of Nyx’s Temple. There the immortal magick in my blood can call healing to it—I must make time … I must make time.

“Hey, big guy, are you sure you don’t need some rest?” Marx was asking him.

Kalona waved away his inquiry, avoiding the question with one of his own. “Detective, I’d like to ask a favor of you.”

“Sure, anything, especially if it’ll help get rid of Neferet.”

“I’d like you to interrogate Lynette. She appears to be no more than an utterly terrified human, who has just been through the most traumatic experience in her life. She has answered all of our questions readily—explained how Neferet’s creatures are possessing humans, given us precise counts of how many humans are trapped in the Mayo, what Neferet is doing with them, and how many of them are under her control.”

“Sounds like she’s cooperating well,” Marx said.

“Yes, it does appear that way. But two things about her bother me. First, she keeps asking questions about Neferet.”

“Questions, like what?” Marx asked.

“Like what happened to Neferet to make her insane, how did she attain her power, is she really a goddess, and if she is, how are we going to stop her.”

“I can’t blame her for asking any of those questions,” Stark said. “If Neferet had just held me hostage, I’d want some info about her, too.”

“Agreed,” Kalona said. “And it wouldn’t worry me as much except for the second thing: she hesitated when I asked her to escape and come with me.”

“She absolutely refused to come with me,” Marx said, and then added, “Which was understandable. There was no protective shield up and Neferet would never have allowed her to walk out of there.”

“Very true, but my intuition says there is more to Lynette than she’s presenting. She claims that tonight she was being forced to go on an errand for Neferet, and that she was being accompanied by the threads of Darkness and a possessed servant to ensure her compliance and return. Yet she was outside the Temple, cloaked in Neferet’s concealment, well before anyone else joined her.”

“What’s her explanation for that?” Marx asked.

“That Neferet was showing all the other hostages she was her favorite by allowing her to leave the building unaccompanied,” Kalona said.

“Actually, that’s not good. Could be Lynette is harboring some Stockholm syndrome symptoms.”

“What is that?” Stark asked.

“It’s a survival mechanism for hostages fighting for their lives,” Darius said.

“I’m impressed,” Marx told him.

Darius’s lips twitched up. “Detective, Warrior training includes much more than swords and knives and guns. It also includes psychology—both human and vampyre.”

“I didn’t have any Warrior training,” Aurox said.

“Neither did I. I was born a Warrior.” Kalona paused and glanced at Stark, adding, “And the boy hasn’t had enough training to know much of anything. Please explain the syndrome to us.”

“Basically, certain conditions must be met. Let’s see, it’s been awhile since the academy. First, there has to be a perceived threat to the hostage’s survival and the belief that the captor is willing to act on that threat,” Marx said.

“The Witherspoon woman meets that condition,” Kalona said.

“The next step is that the hostage’s perceptions of small kindnesses from the captor must come within an atmosphere of terror,” Darius added.

“I would definitely call watching tendrils of Darkness burst through sixty human bodies while Neferet gave her a nice glass of wine and then discussed event planning afterward meeting that criterion,” Stark said.

“Yeah, you can check that box off,” Marx said. “And the last step is that she has to have been isolated from everyone’s perspectives other than those of her captor, and have the perceived inability to escape.”

“Check and check,” Stark said.

“That could explain her curiosity about Neferet. She isn’t asking because she’s worried. She’s asking because she’s obsessed,” Darius said.

“I’ll talk to her,” Marx said grimly. “Keep her on lockdown, only be sure you do so in an unthreatening manner. And your gut is right, Kalona. Don’t trust her.”

Kalona

By the Goddess he was tired! Now that he was finally alone, Kalona could allow the extent of his weariness to show. His wings drooped, brushing the ground. His shoulders ached. Actually, his entire body ached!

The winged immortal looked up at the rooftop of Nyx’s Temple and blew out a long, exhausted breath. Just do it. Do not think it. Stark has to be relieved before dawn, so I must find a way to shake off the lingering pain of my wounds. He put his head down, took several long strides and, with a groan, leaped, forcing his wings to beat against the air and lift him far enough off the ground that he was able to grab the lip of the Temple’s pitched roof. He pulled himself up and lay on his stomach, trying to catch his breath.

When the blast of sunlight hit him, Kalona couldn’t control his weakened body’s automatic response to turn away and cringe. Gruffly, he said, “Dim your light, Erebus! You’ll draw the entire campus.”

The garish sunlight faded to the soft glow of the gloaming of twilight. “Brother, you do not look well.”

Kalona used the peak of the Temple’s roof to pull himself to a sitting position, leaning against the stone chimney with what he hoped was nonchalance. “And you look exactly as you look every time you appear near me—unwelcome.”

Instead of responding in anger, Erebus studied his brother and then said, “Something has happened to you.”

“Yes. I have changed sides. Though I have not changed the level of my patience. This is the second time today I have had to explain myself, which is two times too many. Why are you here, Erebus?”

“Nyx sent me to check on you. It appears she was right to be concerned.”

Kalona’s heartbeat increased. Nyx is concerned about me! But he was careful to keep his expression bland. Erebus might exploit any weakness he showed—emotional or physical. “Tell the Goddess that I appreciate her concern, but I am simply following her edict. Nyx commanded that I protect those in need from Neferet, and that is what I am doing. Nyx commanded that I take responsibility for my role in Neferet’s descent into madness, and that is what I am doing. As my human friend, Detective Marx would say, There’s nothing to see here—move along.”

“I remember well Nyx’s edict,” Erebus said. “I carried it to you. So I also remember that the Goddess proclaimed”—he made a sweeping gesture, and the night sky lit up with words burning with sunlight—“IF HIS HEART DOTH OPEN, BARED AGAIN, FORGIVENESS MAY CONQUER HATE AND LOVE WIN … WIN…”

Once more, the Goddess’s edict blazed into Kalona’s eyes and heart. He looked away from the glowing words and they disappeared.

“Like you, I remember well Nyx’s words,” Kalona said.

“And?”

“And my heart as well as Nyx’s forgiveness are none of your business, Erebus!”

Erebus shrugged. “I am just here in the place of a concerned Goddess.”

“Tell the Goddess if she is really so concerned, the next time she should check on me herself,” Kalona couldn’t stop himself from saying.

Erebus laughed. “As you would say, that is between you and Nyx, and none of my business. Tell her yourself—if you think she will hear you.”

“I’ll do that, after I win the battle against Neferet,” Kalona said. Surely Nyx will hear me then. Surely she will forgive me then.

“You sound quite certain of yourself, but you don’t look as if you’re ready to battle Darkness,” Erebus teased.

Kalona straightened and glared at his brother. “I look as if I just battled Darkness and won! Little wonder you don’t recognize a Warrior after battle. You have never been in a battle, have you?”

Erebus’s bantering tone turned serious. “You Fell, but I remained by her side. Who do you think has kept her safe for all these long, lonely years?”

Kalona almost responded with an insult and a retort, but the words died before they were given voice. Instead the winged immortal nodded his head wearily. “Yes, I know who has kept the Goddess safe. Has Darkness been difficult to battle?”

Erebus was visibly surprised, so much so that he took several moments to collect himself to answer. “It has. I am no true Warrior. That was your role, not mine. I think I have been a poor substitute for you.”

Kalona met his brother’s golden gaze. “And yet Nyx is safe.”

“She is.”

“Then you have been a true Warrior.”

Erebus blinked several times. “You leave me speechless with your compliment.”

Kalona’s smile was wry. “Then I accomplished my goal. I have shut you up. Now, go back to the Otherworld and continue to try to hold the spot I mistakenly vacated.”

“Always so arrogant. You barely have the strength to cling to the roof of this Temple, and yet still you order me about as if it was your right. Take heed, Kalona! Someday your arrogance will cost you dearly.”

“Brother, it already has. I lost my Goddess because of it,” Kalona said.

“Then why haven’t you learned to temper your arrogance? What are you doing here, Kalona? Why must you lord your power over these mortals?”

“You call me arrogant? Well, I call you a blind fool! What I do here isn’t because of arrogance or a desire to lord power over mortals. What I do here is my duty! And for some of us, that entails more than frolicking about in the sunshine with nothing more than lovemaking and butterflies on our minds. For me it means I will battle Neferet, and not just because my Goddess commands it, but because my Oath Sworn duty requires it of me.”

Erebus stared at him, with an expression Kalona couldn’t read. “Apparently, Brother, you have changed more than sides. Still, I am compelled to remind you that Nyx trusts you will be the means by which Neferet is vanquished, so have care. Your actions affect others than just yourself.”

“Yes, yes, I know. I am the Warrior. I will eternally be the Warrior. Begone, Sunshine. You make my head ache.” Kalona was gathering his waning strength to slap Erebus with a clap of moonshine, when his brother jumped from the rooftop. Showing off his untaxed strength and agility, he hovered in the air for a moment before disappearing in a burst of glittering gold.

Kalona shook his head and used the chimney as a handhold to pull himself to his feet, muttering, “How can we be twins? He is like a yapping dog who eternally makes so much noise protecting his bone that no one notices his lack of teeth.” Finally standing, Kalona sent an apologetic look upward. “Not that I meant to compare you to a bone, Goddess.”

As Kalona threw open his arms and back his head, embracing the immortal magick that hummed through the ether of the night sky, calling healing and power to his body, he was almost sure he heard her laughter in the wind.

Erebus

Invisible to Kalona, Erebus watched his brother call the divine energy from which they both had been formed. He looks tired. He looks lonely. But he also looks determined. Kalona has changed—he truly has.

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