“I will do as you say, Father,” Rephaim said, sobbing. “I love you.”
“I will always love you. Always,” Kalona said. Finally, his fading gaze met Thanatos’s. “Thank you for trusting me.”
Thanatos’s chest felt heavy with grief, but she smiled at him. “I have never accepted a Warrior’s Oath before you, and there will be none to come after you. You have been a fine and worthy Guardian.”
Kalona’s red-flecked lips lifted in a satisfied smile. “I did not break my oath…” He drew a gasping half breath, and then his bloody chest did not rise again, his amber eyes lost their light, and Kalona died.
Dying was more painful than Kalona had imagined it would be—though during his eons of life, he had rarely imagined it. He had been familiar with death in an abstract sort of way. He had, of course, killed countless times. Some of the killings had been justified; some had not. Since he had left the Otherworld, most of the deaths he had been responsible for had fallen into the latter category.
It was a thing he regretted as he died—those unjust deaths he had caused. That, plus the time he had squandered before he accepted the love of his son as well as the loss of Nyx. Those were his three greatest regrets, though even as he died he could hardly bear to think of the loss of his Goddess.
When he could draw no more breath, his vision began to gray, to blacken—and then, finally, the shards of pain from what remained of his wings dissipated, and the blaze of agony that was his chest slowly cooled. Kalona had only an instant to ready himself for the unimaginable to come, and then everything went black.
“Reach out, Kalona. Take my hand.”
Thanatos’s voice drifted through the blackness that was smothering Kalona. He tried to draw breath. He could not breathe. He tried to open his eyes. He could not see. Kalona’s spirit battered against the walls that entrapped him.
“Kalona! You must take my hand.”
I cannot see your hand!
“You need not see it. Just have faith that it is there. Kalona, take my hand.”
Blindly, Kalona reached. And Thanatos was there! He could not see her, but he could feel her warm, steady hand. With all his might, he held that grip as she pulled. With a whoosh! of light and sound, Kalona’s vision returned. He staggered, but Thanatos held tightly to him.
“All is well, Warrior. You are free of the body that bound you,” Thanatos said.
Kalona glanced down and had the unexpectedly vertigo-like experience of seeing his own battered corpse. His gaze moved quickly away from the body and returned to Thanatos.
I am dead.
I can only see you and feel you because of your affinity.
“Yes and no. You can feel nothing on this realm except my grip that has freed you. You can see others, though they probably cannot see you.” Thanatos gestured around them.
Kalona blinked. His eyesight was strange, as if he were viewing everything except Thanatos through a thick, cloudy lens. He looked around. He could see the tree and the circle. He glanced quickly back at his body, and this time he saw Rephaim, kneeling at his side, weeping brokenly.
Tell him to stop grieving. Tell him I stand here, beside him.
“If that is what you truly wish, I will do so. But you should know that I will only be able to communicate with you for a limited time. Even my gift has limits.”
What am I supposed to do? How do I help him?
“You can no longer help him, or anyone else, on this realm. It is time you moved on.”
Kalona stared at Thanatos. You mean to the Otherworld—to Nyx’s realm.
Kalona felt some of the panic he’d experienced when he had been trapped in his body return. She banished me. She will not admit me.
“How can you be so certain Nyx will not admit you?”
His mind flailed, remembering what had happened when he’d trespassed and asked her forgiveness. Nyx’s response had been unwavering: “If you are ever worthy of forgiving, you may ask it of me. Not until then … your spirit, as well as your body, is forbidden entrance to my realm.”
I asked it of her. Nyx would not forgive me. She forbade me entrance.
“Had you earned her forgiveness then?”
No, of course I hadn’t! But have I earned it now? How could I possibly atone for the centuries of pain I caused the Goddess and her children because I chose anger and jealousy over trust and love?
“That is a question you must have the courage to pose to our Goddess,” Thanatos said.
What if she refuses to forgive me? What will happen to me?
Thanatos’s eyes suddenly seemed ancient with the knowledge of too much pain, too much suffering. “If Nyx does not allow you entrance to the Otherworld, you will wander the realm on which you died.”
Without being able to be heard or seen? Thanatos nodded. For how long?
“How long is an eternity?”
A terrible shiver went through Kalona, and his gaze returned to his son. Will you know whether Nyx accepts me or not?
“Yes, but I will lose the ability to communicate with you,” she said sadly.
If she rejects me, I will watch over my son.
“He will not know it,” Thanatos said.
He will if you tell him.
“I will do so, if that is your request.”
It is. He met her gaze again. I am ready. What must I do?
“I am all that anchors you to this world right now. Simply release my hand and ascend.”
Thank you, Thanatos. For everything.
“Kalona, I wish eternally for you to blessed be.” As the High Priestess of Death lifted her arm, he released her hand, and his spirit soared up … up …
Kalona was intimately familiar with flying. He’d taken to the skies of this realm as well as the Otherworld. And, if he had the time and inclination, he could recount other realms in which he’d flown, always on the Goddess’s business.
This ascent was like nothing he’d ever before experienced.
At first the blackness was complete, so much so that he could only hope he continued to rise. As he was beginning to despair—to think that Nyx had already judged and found him lacking—the blackness before him rippled, shimmered, and took on an iridescence that reminded him of the color of the sea surrounding the ancient island of Capri.
The topaz sky rippled again, and then, like a curtain, it parted to reveal a round patch of familiar rust-colored ground. Behind the ground were two trees, a hawthorn and a rowan. Kalona recognized them. He and Nyx had often visited the spot—this entrance to her Sacred Grove. Strips of brightly colored cloth were knotted together within the gnarled limbs of the trees, tied there with well-wishes by Nyx, as well as those who passed through the Goddess’s realm. The strips of cloth lifted lazily in the wind, changing colors so that an infinite number of wishes were represented. Behind the wishing tree stretched acres and acres of Nyx’s most sacred land. Kalona knew every path, every tree, every crystal stream and moss-carpeted glen.
Even if he could not be by her side, Kalona longed to walk there again and to have the peace of the grove fill him once more.
His ascent concluded, Kalona stepped onto the rust-colored ground and waited.
Kalona was dead! It was unbelievable but undeniable. I’d been standing next to Thanatos, holding the spirit candle, when he’d died—smiling and saying he hadn’t broken his oath.
Rephaim lost it. He was bending over his dad’s body, sobbing so hard it seemed like he was going to shake his body apart. Stevie Rae was behind me, still in the northern position of earth, but I could feel her restlessness. She was going to break the circle and go to Rephaim. I couldn’t blame her. I was just about to blow out my spirit candle and close the circle when Thanatos held out her hand, like she was offering it to Kalona as if he was going to reach up and take it. And I remembered what Thanatos had said as she told me to cast the circle, Zoey, ready your circle. I am going to need its borrowed power …
Thanatos had known Kalona was dying. She needs the circle for him!
“Stevie Rae, you have to stay there,” I said, looking over my shoulder at my BFF, who was bawling her eyes out. “We can’t close the circle. Thanatos needs it, and that means Kalona needs it, too.”
“But he’s dead!” Stevie Rae sobbed. “And Rephaim needs me now.”
“Stevie Rae, Thanatos is Death. Just like you’re Earth,” I said. “She asked us to cast this circle. Trust her to let us know when we can close it.”
Stevie Rae’s candle was trembling with her heaving shoulders, but she nodded and didn’t break the circle.
I turned my attention back to Thanatos. It looked like she was frozen with her outstretched hand. Her expressions changed, like she was having a psychic conversation with someone, but nothing else changed about her.
“Do you know what’s going on?” Detective Marx asked me. He looked pale and sad, and he was covered with Kalona’s blood.
I didn’t know for sure, but I took a chance and spoke from my heart. “Thanatos is helping Kalona’s soul. Remember, like in front of the Mayo.”
Marx squinted and lowered his voice to a whisper. “I don’t see any glowing lights.”
“Those were human souls. No matter what happened today, Kalona has been immortal for centuries and centuries. His soul probably looks way different.”
But I was wrong. Thanatos suddenly unfroze and threw up her arm as if she was slinging a Frisbee off into space, and a glowing silver orb—a whole lot like what she’d gathered in front of the Mayo—shot up into the thunderclouds of the predawn sky.
“Thanatos must have been right. We’re more alike than different,” Marx said.
“Ohmygoddess! Look up there!” Shaylin was pointing up.
We all looked, and the sky over the Arkansas River rippled and parted. Kalona was standing on a round space of red dirt in a place I remembered very well.
“It’s the entrance to the Otherworld and the hanging tree!” Stark said from his position just outside our circle.
“And Nyx’s Sacred Grove,” I added. My gaze met his and we shared a smile. We knew the place well. Stark had almost died there so that I could live.
“Son, turn your eyes from the shell that was your father and see what he has truly become,” Thanatos said, resting her hand on Rephaim’s shoulder.
He looked up in time to see Nyx step from her grove and approach Kalona. A winged immortal walked at her side. He looked almost exactly like Kalona except that his wings were gold and he seemed smaller, more delicately made.
“That has to be Erebus,” Damien said.
Then Kalona dropped to his knees and bowed his head, and we were too mesmerized by the scene unfolding to speak.
Nyx, I kneel before you and ask for your forgiveness. Kalona’s voice traveled easily between realms. I could even hear how vulnerable and unsure he sounded.
Do you truly ask her, or are you simply terrified that you might be forced to eternally wander the mortal realm? Erebus asked. He didn’t sound hateful. He sounded curious. But I could feel my hackles starting to rise. Why was he suddenly speaking for Nyx?
Kalona’s head remained bowed, as if he couldn’t bear to look at the Goddess, but he spoke again, this time with more confidence. Goddess, I am here only to ask for your forgiveness, and I fully accept whatever consequence I must face for the mistakes I have made.
As Erebus opened his mouth to say something else, Rephaim jumped to his feet, shouting, “Leave him alone! He’s not even talking to you!”
It didn’t seem like Kalona could hear him. But Erebus was silenced.
“That’s right!” Stevie Rae said with a little hiccup. “Leave Rephaim’s daddy alone. He’s asking for Nyx’s forgiveness, not yours.”
I held my breath as Nyx’s beautiful, loving eyes turned from Kalona to us. She stepped forward. I could see Kalona tremble as her gossamer robes brushed his arm. She raised her hand and swept the sky in front of her and suddenly they weren’t way up in the air anymore. They were right in front of us!
“Merry meet, beloveds,” the Goddess said.
Our answering “Merry meet” drifted around the circle that was now shining with such intensity that it was hard to look at.
Nyx approached Thanatos, who bowed deeply to her. “There is no need for such formalities between us,” Nyx said to her High Priestess, lifting her with a slight touch of her arm. “We have been acquainted too long for that.”
“Thank you, my Goddess,” Thanatos said.
“You are doing well here, Daughter,” Nyx told her. “The spell is difficult, but your intent is pure.”
“I will do my best to hold it firm,” Thanatos said.
Nyx smiled. “I would expect no less from my Priestess of Death.” Then she turned to Rephaim, who stood, sobbing, beside Kalona’s body. He was staring at his dad—well, the spirit version of his dad, who was still kneeling. He didn’t even seem to see Nyx, who reached across Kalona’s body to touch his shoulder, gently saying, “Your grief be soothed, my son.”
Rephaim jerked under her touch, and his focus shifted to the Goddess. Wide-eyed he said, “Thank you.” And his sobs slowed, and then stopped as he stared at Nyx.
And then she was turning to me. Today her hair was so light it was almost white, like a full moon, and her eyes were lavender. It was hard to look at her straight on for very long. There was something incomprehensible in her beauty.
“Zoey Redbird, of all the mortals here, Kalona has caused you the most pain. He has lied to you, seduced you, and tried to kill you. Through spite and anger and jealousy, he has murdered those dear to you. Within you, there rests the spark of the maiden created by the ancient Wise Women and breathed to life by the Great Earth Mother to keep him captive for the crimes he committed against your peoples. Do you acknowledge all of this, Zoey?”
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