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With no emotion, the two men swung the hysterical girl once, twice, thrice, and then heaved her up and over the balcony. Curious, Neferet watched her windmill her arms and legs until she landed almost exactly where Neferet had imagined.

“Next time aim a little more to the right,” she commanded the men. Then she returned to the penthouse door and the screaming, panicked people within. “The loudest of you will go next!” Like snuffing a candle, they muffled their own screams. “Kylee, set the kitchen timer for five minutes,” she said, then she shut the door to the penthouse, took the Glock that Judson had found in pharmaceutical representative’s room, and sat at the wrought-iron bistro table she’d chosen earlier for its height and stability.

“Come to me, children,” Neferet commanded.

The tendrils obeyed her immediately, swarming to her and circling around her bare feet. She studied them carefully, finally bending to pick up an especially fat one. Neferet placed it on the top of the little table before her.

“This will be over swiftly,” she told the waiting tendril. “I will honor your sacrifice with my own blood.” Though it trembled, the creature did not struggle or try to escape. Neferet smiled. “You are brave and strong—exactly what my spell needs. And so it begins!” She pierced the black, rubbery flesh near the tendril’s open mouth, and then, in one swift motion, Neferet ripped a thin thread of skin from her child.

Precious flesh filled with magick power

Obey my command; fulfill my will

Kalona’s end I prophesy within this hour

The masquerading immortal I shall kill!

Neferet lifted the Glock and wrapped the bloody thread of skin around its muzzle, covering the weapon in Darkness. Then she pursed her full lips and blew on it. As her breath touched the tendril, it rippled and then disappeared, having been fully absorbed.

“If I am right, and I am rarely wrong, that should do very, very well.” Absently, Neferet slit the inside of her forearm and offered the scarlet slash to the wounded tendril, who eagerly began to feed and heal itself.

Then Neferet sipped her wine and waited.

Kalona

“Do her eyes always bleed like that when she has a vision?” Marx asked him.

Before he could respond, his son answered for him. “Yes. The visions cause her a lot of pain. Stevie Rae and Zoey worry about her, especially because the intensity of them seems to be getting worse.”

Kalona and Marx hadn’t left Nyx’s Temple, but they had moved to one of the candlelit meditation alcoves, along with Rephaim, making way for Stevie Rae and Damien, whom Zoey had called to bring wet washcloths, fresh clothing and, after much discussion, a bottle of red wine. Aphrodite had gotten sick when Darius had tried to move her, so Darius had announced it was in the Goddess’s Temple his Priestess would remain until she was recovered.

Truth be told, Kalona had been glad for the excuse to stay within Nyx’s Temple. After so long being absent, he couldn’t seem to get enough of the Goddess’s presence, even if it was only through the blessed energy that, as surely as vanilla and lavender, permeated the air.

“Father, the vision troubles me.” The worry in Rephaim’s voice brought Kalona’s attention from the ethereal to the tangible.

He smiled at his son, enjoying the warm feeling it gave him to accept the boy’s affection. “It is no more than symbolism. You know how much Aphrodite dislikes symbolism. That is why she prefers a literal interpretation.”

“But she saw you fall and die.”

“And she said it was a real death, not a symbol,” Marx added.

Kalona shrugged. “Yet here I am, two feet solidly on the ground, very much alive.”

“But not completely immortal.” Rephaim spoke the words so softly that Marx said, “What was that, Rephaim? Your father isn’t what?”

“My son worries too much.” Kalona cut Rephaim off, giving him a look that stopped whatever else he might have said. “The truth is, Aphrodite has seen Zoey’s death twice, as well as her grandmother’s death. There stands Zoey. And you know Sylvia Redbird is alive and well.” Kalona put his hand on his son’s shoulder, pleased by his concern but also wanting to alleviate it. “It is less than an hour until dawn. Should you not be—”

The detective’s phone rang. Marx glanced at it and excused himself to take the call.

“I won’t be silenced about this, Father,” Rephaim said.

“About what?” he prevaricated.

Rephaim frowned at him. “Your impending death.”

Kalona chuckled. “Immortals do not die. Or did you forget why Neferet is causing us such problems? Were it otherwise, Stark could simply direct an arrow to kill her and we would be done with it.”

“You changed in the Otherworld, enough that an oath you swore on your immortality was no longer binding.”

“Son, I have battled Darkness since then and survived what would surely kill any mortal. I appreciate your concern, but your worry is needless.”

Marx rushed into the Temple. “Neferet is throwing live hostages from the balcony of the Mayo—one every five minutes. Two are already dead. We have four minutes until a third is added to that number.”

A sense of calm came over Kalona. “She must be trying to break the protective spell.” He turned to Zoey. “Get your circle to the Council Oak Tree. Strengthen Thanatos and the protective spell. No matter what happens, do not let that spell fail.”

“I’ll drive,” Stark said. Already they were all running for the door.

“Go with them!” Aphrodite said, pushing Darius away from her. “If Neferet gets out, we’re all dead.”

“Rephaim, go with Stevie Rae. Be sure your Priestess is safe,” Kalona told his son.

“You riding with me?” Marx asked him as they jogged toward the parking lot.

“No,” Kalona said. “I’m flying. It’s faster. I’ll meet you there.”

“Be careful up there,” Marx said, offering his hand.

Kalona grasped it. “You stay safe as well, my friend.”

Then he turned to Rephaim and pulled his son roughly into an embrace. “You are the part of my life of which I am most proud.” He released Rephaim, but before he could launch himself skyborne, Kalona felt a soft hand touch his arm. He looked down to see Zoey Redbird watching him with wide, knowing eyes.

“I’m glad you got your second chance with us,” she said. “I’m glad you’re on our side.”

He smiled at her, surprised by how much her words meant to him. He touched her cheek. “As am I.” Then he took to the sky, beating the air powerfully with sweeps of his mighty wings.

Kalona streaked across the billowing thunderclouds almost in time with the lightning. The storm’s winds buffeted him, but Kalona took no heed of it. He had one duty, one responsibility, one edict from his Goddess. He would protect the people in need. No matter the cost, he chose to stand between Neferet and those he had come to value, even to love.

Suddenly, the clouds before him began to boil and change form until Kalona was staring into the glowing eyes of the White Bull. His body was an enormous cloud, his horns dripping with a rain of blood.

Though it has been eons since last we met, you are as predictable now as you were then. The voice blasted through Kalona’s mind. What mutually beneficial deal shall we make this time, Kalona?

“None, bull. Last time we met I rejected you in words, but not in my heart, nor in my deeds. Last time we met I allowed your Darkness to feed that which was weak within me and poison my life. This time I am different. This time I reject you in words, in heart, and in deeds.”

Really, Son of the Moon? Would you still reject me if I told you I had the power to restore to you everything you lost during the eons you have wandered the mortal realm?

“There is nothing you can give me that would be worth the price.”

But you haven’t even heard my price. It would be so very little in comparison to that which you have lost.

“Hear me, and hear me well, bull, though you will never truly understand what I say because your spirit is diseased. Even if I do not get everything I desire—even if I cannot control everything around me—the end does not justify the means. It is impossible to capture love with evil. Once and for all, I choose Light!” Kalona lifted his arm and his onyx spear appeared. “Now, begone and leave me to the consequences of my choice!” He hurled the spear into the bull-shaped thundercloud. With a roar of pain and anger, the creature disappeared.

Kalona fisted his hands to control the tremors that cascaded through his body. “I have no time for fear. I have my duty to complete.” Resolutely, he flew on.

Kalona landed on the rooftop of the taller ONEOK building in time to see two men dragging a struggling girl across the Mayo’s balcony. Neferet was seated at a small table in the middle of the balcony, sipping from a crystal goblet.

What is she doing? Why is she throwing people from the balcony? Kalona tried to puzzle it through as the men holding the girl watched Neferet expectantly, obviously awaiting her sign. Kalona could see nothing but madness behind Neferet’s actions. It is not unlike her to torture humans. And death gives her power. Perhaps this is an amusement and an energy gain for her. Perhaps she is simply bored and playing her macabre version of a game.

Neferet nodded. One man took the girl’s arms. Another took her legs, and they began to swing the girl so that she could be tossed over the edge. Even above the howling wind and the rumbling thunder Kalona could hear her screams.

Kalona stood, spread his wings, and readied himself to dive—to catch the girl.

Neferet’s goblet shattered on the stone floor as she saw him. She picked up a handgun and sighted it at him.

Then Kalona understood her game.

He also understood Aphrodite’s vision. The Prophetess had been correct. It had been literal rather than symbolic.

Thank you, Nyx, for allowing me a choice. But this time, I will uphold my duty. This time, I choose Light, no matter the cost.

Kalona leaped from the rooftop of the ONEOK building, arms and wings spread, a clear target as he hurled forward to save one more human from the consequences of Neferet’s madness.

But the men didn’t throw the girl. Instead they ducked down, giving Neferet a clear line of sight. The red laser lit up the center of Kalona’s chest instants before Neferet began to pull the trigger over and over and over again, emptying the weapon into his body.

Darkness-coated bullets slammed into Kalona, piercing him and sending poison to scorch his heart. He tried to remain upright, but his body, driven back by the force of the bullets, tumbled head over feet, disorienting him. He commanded his wings to catch the sky and hold him aloft, but all control over his body and its preternatural strength had been severed.

For the second time in his eons of existence, Kalona fell.

Detective Marx

“He’s down! The winged guy is down! We need a bus to the Mayo—now!” The radio in Marx’s unmarked car blared the news and he floored the accelerator, turning left down Seventh Street. He picked up the mike and shouted, “This is Detective Marx, clear the blockade on Seventh and Boulder—I’m coming through.” As his car fishtailed, he prayed silently, Let your warning have saved him, Nyx … Let your warning have saved him …

As he sped through the roadblock and the street in front of the Mayo came into view, Marx tightened his grip on the steering wheel. A sickness gripped his stomach. Kalona lay crumpled in a heap in the middle of the street. Heedless of his own safety, Marx maneuvered his car between the Mayo and Kalona, forming a shield. He ran to Kalona’s side and knelt. The big guy was still breathing, but it was bad. Worse than bad. He didn’t seem to have any broken bones, and his head hadn’t split open. But the center of his chest was a jagged burned and bloody wound, obviously made by multiple gunshots. The brunt of the fall had been absorbed by Kalona’s enormous wings. They lay around him in pieces, shattered as if they had been made of black porcelain. Blood seeped from the broken bones that protruded through the raven-colored feathers. Marx did the only thing he knew—he pressed both of his palms to the chest wound an applied pressure.

“Hang on, Kalona. There’s an ambulance coming.”

His amber eyes opened and he focused on Marx. “Tell Aphrodite she was right.” He had to force the words, and the effort made him cough and moan.

“Save it. Tell her yourself. Just stay with me. I’ll get you to the hospital.”

“No hospital. Take me to Thanatos.” Then he closed his eyes and didn’t speak again.

Marx kept talking to him, though, and kept pressure on the wound, even as Kalona’s blood pooled around them in an ever-widening tide.

The ambulance finally got there. The EMTs who got out looked confused and afraid, hesitant to approach.

“What the f**k is your problem? Get him on the gurney!” Marx exploded on them.

“Detective, he’s too big. He won’t fit on the gurney,” said one of the EMTs.

“We’ll lift him with you, Detective.” Marx looked up to see young Officer Carter and a dozen or so uniforms.

Marx nodded a grim thank-you. “Get the gurney out of the back. We’re gonna put him in there, and then we’re taking the bus.” Not giving the EMTs a choice, he said to Carter, “Let’s get him in there. On three, lift him.”

The officers circled Kalona and lifted him, leaving broken pieces of his wings in the blood pool. Kalona didn’t make a sound as they slid him into the back of the ambulance. Marx would’ve thought he was dead had he not climbed in beside him and saw that his heart was still pumping fresh blood from the terrible wound. Marx ripped open HemCon pads, pressing them against Kalona’s chest while he shouted through the open window at Carter, who had taken the driver’s seat. “Get us to the Council Oak Tree, stat!”

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