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Yes, Kalona was still insufferably arrogant, no matter what his brother said, but he had also paid him a compliment, given Erebus a measure of respect for the role he had been fulfilling in Kalona’s absence for many, many years.

Erebus smiled. He’d always believed there was a hero buried beneath that obnoxious and prickly exterior. He could not, would not, change the events that were playing out in the mortal realm. Nyx would never allow that, and Erebus understood all too well why, but he could well-wish his brother:

A brother’s blessing from me to thee

Allow the hidden hero to be free

Accept what should have been your destiny

Forsworn no more shall you ever be.

Erebus spoke the well-wish into the wind so that it was carried away from his brother’s ears. Kalona hadn’t changed so much that he would welcome his brother’s blessing—their past was too filled with misunderstanding, jealousy, and conflict. No, Kalona must not hear the blessing, but Nyx must hear it. And Darkness must hear it. Nyx should know that Kalona, her fallen Warrior, had taken one more step into the Light. And Darkness—Erebus smiled grimly—Darkness should know to beware the power of a winged hero.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

Shaunee

Shaunee was so tired her hair actually felt heavy. She was glad Grandma Redbird and the other women were there with her and Thanatos—really glad. She might have been able to watch over the High Priestess, and keep her element focused for a little while, but she absolutely could not have set up a tent, fed and nurtured everyone, and turned the little park into a sanctuary. Grandma Redbird and the other women had done all of that, and they kept on doing it. All Shaunee was able to do was to wander a few feet from Thanatos’s side to the fire pit Grandma Redbird had built for her, plop her butt down on the ground, and stare into the dancing flames, trying to draw even a little strength from it to keep for herself.

“Uggh,” she moaned. The rush of power hit her again and she bent over, hugging herself around the waist.

“Hey, are you okay?”

Not able to speak yet, Shaunee nodded. Without looking at Erik, she focused on the campfire—on its heat and beauty and familiarity, on channeling it and encouraging it to blaze brighter and brighter. As her element roared through her, she snagged just a tiny bit of its strength for herself so that she didn’t pass out. She’d learned that trick a few hours ago, after passing out—again. Shaunee breathed slowly in and then out, in and then out, in and then out … until her element dissipated and she was able to sit up straight again.

Erik was at her side looking helpless and freaked-out. “Are you going to pass out? Should I get Grandma Redbird?”

“No.” Her voice sounded like sandpaper, and she cleared her throat. “And no, but I would like something to eat and drink.”

“Oh, sorry. Here.” He picked up the plate and the cup he’d put on the ground beside them. “I was bringing this to you.”

Shaunee took the plate, smiling wearily. “I think I’m becoming addicted to Grandma’s chocolate chip and lavender cookies. Seriously, I love them so much I feel like we’re in a relationship.” She took a big bite of soft, sweet cookie and a giant gulp from the glass. “Cookies and sweet tea. Does it get more Okie than that?”

Erik smiled, obviously relieved that she wasn’t doubled over in pain anymore or unconscious. “I think the only way you can get more Okie is to make it cookies and Dr Pepper.”

Shaunee screwed up her face. “That’s not Okie. That’s redneck. I’m not a native, but I’m pretty sure of those boundaries.”

“So, you’re feeling better,” Erik said.

Shaunee took another bite of cookie and talked around it. “Better than when I was bent over? Yes. Better better? No.”

“Why were you bent over like that anyway?”

“Someone of ill intent tried to enter or leave Tulsa, and the protective wall flamed on. When it does that, fire goes through me and I concentrate to intensify it,” she explained.

“That hurts?”

“Yeah, like trying to add one more set to a circuit workout that has already kicked your ass. Only I’m doing it over and over again and I don’t feel like I’m getting a break between circuits.”

Erik didn’t say anything for a little while. He just nibbled his own cookie and stared into the fire. Shaunee was okay with that. Silence and fire staring were good with her.

“You’re strong,” he eventually said, “a lot stronger than I realized before.”

“Before?”

“When you and Erin, well, you know,” he finished awkwardly.

“When we were Twins,” she said.

He nodded. “Yeah, but it was stupid of me to bring it up. The last thing you need is to feel sad right now. Sorry, sometimes I’m a douche and I don’t even mean to be.”

Shaunee felt herself smiling at him. “Hey, that’s a talent—being a douche without meaning to be.”

He sent a tentative smile back to her. “A crappy talent.”

“True, but still, not everybody has even a crappy talent,” she said. “Plus, you can act. Really act. So that accidental douche thing will probably come in handy when you head to Hollywood.”

“I don’t think I’m going to go to Hollywood,” he said.

Shaunee saw the shocked expression that fixed his face into frozen lines the instant he’d spoken the words.

“Is that the first time you’ve said that out loud?” she asked him gently.

“That’s the first time I’ve even thought it,” he said. His face had unfrozen, but now he was looking pale and unsure of himself. “I don’t know why I said it at all.”

Shaunee downed the rest of the sweet tea and then said, “Well, why did you want to go to Hollywood to begin with?”

“To be a star,” he answered quickly—automatically.

“Why?” she asked.

“Because I want to be famous,” he said.

“Why?” she prompted again.

This time he took longer to respond. “So that people think I’m important.”

“Why do you care what people think?”

He turned his gaze into the fire. “Because I’m tired of people thinking I’m nothing but a great smile and awesome bone structure.”

Shaunee studied his profile. Had she ever looked beyond Erik’s famous hotness?

No. He’d always been the hottest guy on campus, and all she really knew about him was that lots of girls wanted him, and the most popular girls on campus had had him. She didn’t actually know anything about the guy under the famous Erik Night suit.

“If you could change what people think, what would want them to think of you?”

He turned from the fire and looked at her, and she realized that in those gorgeous blue eyes she could see honesty and vulnerability. “I wish they would think that I’m strong like Aurox, or brave like Darius, or faithful like Stark. Instead everyone thinks I’m a useless, conceited pretty boy.”

The raw honesty of what Erik had said had shocked her silent, and Shaunee was trying to figure out what to say next to him, when her body convulsed and flame blazed through her, using her as a superconductor on its way to reinforce Thanatos’s spell.

“Argh,” she moaned, holding herself tightly again and focusing … focusing … trying to strengthen her element as it roared through her.

But she was so tired! This had been going on for hours and hours. Why were so many people filled with ill intent? They were draining her! And probably killing Thanatos. No way could she keep this up. No way could she—

A strong arm went around her shoulders and Erik’s deep, beautiful voice spoke soothingly to her. “Breathe through it. It’s okay. You can do this. You’ve got this. Remember, flame is your element. It’s part of you. Don’t fight it—go with it. You can do it. You’re strong and smart. That’s why fire chose you. You can do it. I’m right here, and I believe in you, Shaunee. I know you can do this.”

His voice was a lifeline and Shaunee grabbed onto it and clung, following it back to herself, back to the familiar campfire.

“Here, drink my tea.” He shoved his cup into her hands and she drained it.

“I’ll get you some more cookies.”

He started to get up, started to take his arm from around her shoulders. “No, not yet,” she said, still panting. “Could you stay here, like this, for a few seconds?”

Erik smiled at her. Not his oh-so-perfect movie star bazillion-watt smile. He really smiled at her, and within his vulnerability, Shaunee saw kindness and true compassion. “I’ll stay like this for as long as you want me to,” he said, tightening his arm around her.

“Shaunee, I thought you might like another sandwich and some more tea,” Grandma Redbird said. Her smile grew as her gaze took in Erik sitting there with his arm around her. “Well, I’ll get a sandwich for you, too, Erik.”

“Thank you, Grandma Redbird,” he said.

“That’d be awesome, thank you,” Shaunee said.

“You are most welcome,” Grandma Redbird said, and just before she turned away she added, “Well done, Erik Night. I am proud of you, son.”

Shaunee looked up at Erik and saw that he was actually blushing, but when his eyes met hers his gaze didn’t falter. “I’m starting to think I’m proud of myself, too,” he said, and squeezed her shoulders again.

Shaunee leaned against him, borrowing strength and comfort from him, thinking, Now I know what they mean when they say “when you’re not looking for it, it’ll find you.”

Lynette

“You’ve been very helpful, Ms. Witherspoon,” Detective Marx said, closing his little notebook and hooking his pen back in his jacket pocket. “I apologize if my questions have tired you. You have been through a terrible ordeal.”

“There’s nothing to apologize for, Detective,” Lynette assured him, though she felt as if there was sand under her eyelids, and she was pretty sure the shot the vampyre healer had added to her IV was a lovely anti-stress, pro-sleep pharmaceutical cocktail. “I want to do anything I can to help you stop Neferet.” Lynette paused and tried to order her thoughts. The damn drugs had her words slurring and her mind turning foggy. “Detective, may I ask you a few questions now?”

“If you feel up to it.”

“I do, though please pardon me if I get some of my words mixed up.” She gestured to the IV bag. “This is definitely not blood they’re giving me.”

The tall detective smiled. “Just a little something so that you rest easily. The nurse said your system has been through a terrible shock. You need sleep to recover.”

“Yes, that’s my first question. Why am I here, at a vampyre infirmary, rather than at St. John’s Hospital just down the street?”

“Well, Kalona brought you straight here after he rescued you. I don’t believe a hospital for humans is anywhere on the immortals’ radar.”

“He didn’t rescue me. The High Priestess who put up that wall of fire did.”

“I suppose you could say that Kalona was at the right place at the right time,” the detective agreed. “Would you rather I call an ambulance from St. John’s and have you transported there?”

“Maybe in the morning. It was the High Priestess who made the wall of fire, wasn’t it?”

“It was teamwork that created the spell.”

The detective seemed determined to evade her question, so Lynette got to the point. “Did the High Priestess and her team kill people to make the spell work?”

Marx looked genuinely shocked. “Of course not! Ma’am, I was there when Thanatos cast the spell. Elemental magick was used, not human lives. Neferet has gone mad. She kills without remorse because she’s a sociopath, not because she’s a vampyre.”

“Has Neferet tried to get to the House of Night? Has she tried to contact anyone here at all?”

“Not that I know of—not that any of the school officials or fledgling leadership knows of. Neferet cannot leave the Mayo as long as the spell holds and her intent is to cause harm.”

“What if she just wants another case of her expensive wine? Or a new outfit or two from Miss Jackson’s? She might go out for those things, especially now that I’m gone. And her intent would only be to shop.” Lynette could feel her heart rate increasing as she spoke.

“No matter what Neferet’s reason to leave the Mayo would be, her true intent will always be to do violence, which the spell interprets as ill intent. She swore to kill both you and Kalona. That oath alone is enough to keep her trapped.”

“She won’t kill me. She’ll command one of those black snakes to go into my mouth and wrap itself around my brain and posses me!” As Lynette’s body began to tremble in renewed fear, the detective called from the room, “Hey, I need some help in here!”

The vampyre healer with the tattoo that looked like geometrical figures hurried into the room, frowning at the detective as she checked Lynette’s vital signs and made some adjustments on the IV.

“Detective, you have questioned my patient enough. It is time you left,” the healer told him sternly.

“No problem. I can see Ms. Witherspoon needs her rest. If you have any more questions, or think of any details you missed, here’s my card.” He put it on her bedside table. “Just give me a call.”

“Ms. Witherspoon will be resting. Not calling,” said the vampyre.

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