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I swallowed hard. “Yes, I do.”

“Then speak from your soul and tell me truly, Zoey Redbird, should I forgive Kalona?”

I was stunned silent by her question. Me? I’m supposed to judge him?

While I struggled with an answer, I felt Grandma’s hand slip into mine. “Consider wisely and speak only the truth, u-we-tsi-a-ge-ya.”

I looked at Kalona. Nyx was right. He’d done terrible things—not just to me, but to people I loved, and to the Cherokee people. He’d created a whole breed of monsters, the Raven Mockers, who had terrorized the old and sick for centuries. My gaze went from him to Rephaim. He used to be one of those monsters, but love had saved him. Nyx had forgiven him, even when Rephaim could barely find a way to forgive himself.

And I knew the right answer to my Goddess’s question.

“Goddess, I believe you have already forgiven Kalona. You just wanted him to be worthy of your forgiveness.”

“And is he, young Priestess? Is he worthy? Can you forgive him?”

I squeezed Grandma’s hand. “Yes, and yes.” I said with certainty. “He’s earned his second chance.”

Kalona

From his knees, Kalona watched Nyx smile at Zoey, but instead of replying to her, the Goddess turned to Erebus. “It seems your duty has come to an end, my old friend.”

Erebus’s smile was a bright as summer sunshine. “It took him a long time, but I never doubted that he could do it.”

The Goddess raised one slender brow. “Never doubted?”

“Well, almost never. I will miss tormenting him.”

“You were not supposed to be tormenting him. You were supposed to be helping him to find his way back to us,” the Goddess said.

“Well, we both know how stubborn Kalona can be.” Erebus went to Kalona, who was staring at his brother, in shock. “Tell me, what would have happened if I had told you that during those uncountable years I was your greatest ally?”

“I would not have believed it,” Kalona blurted.

Erebus laughed heartily. “Exactly! And yet, from the day we both were created, I have wanted only one thing—and that is for our Goddess to be happy. You, my errant brother, used to make her very happy.”

Confused, Kalona shook his head. “But with me out of the way, you are her Consort!”

“No, Kalona. You have been wrong about that for eons. No matter what happened between Nyx and you, I have always been her friend and playmate. I have never been her Consort.”

“Do not play games with me now,” Kalona said. He wasn’t angry, but he felt as if his heart would break if Erebus played one more trick on him.

His brother sighed and glanced at Nyx. “Shall I continue?”

“Yes, my friend,” Nyx said. “Perhaps he is ready to listen with a brother’s heart.”

Erebus turned back to Kalona, saying, “Who is my father?”

Kalona’s brow furrowed. “The sun, of course.”

“And yours?”

“The moon.”

“And what is our Goddess’s most revered symbol? What illuminates her sky? What follows her, ever-changing, waning and waxing to her eternal delight?”

“The moon.” Kalona’s voice has gone hoarse.

“I am the friendly warmth of her spring and summer. You were created to spend eternity beside her, protecting and loving her. All you had to do was to choose to be worthy of her love. And that, you have finally done. Blessed be, Brother.” Erebus held out his hand to Kalona.

But Kalona didn’t take it. Instead he stared up at Erebus, finally understanding. “From the beginning I have been wrong about you. Can you ever forgive me?”

“Brother, I have been watching you suffer for eons. I willingly grant you forgiveness.”

“Thank you, Erebus.” Kalona stood then, and instead of grasping Erebus’s hand, he pulled his brother roughly into his embrace. When they finally parted, Kalona made no attempt to wipe the tears from his face. He smiled at his brother, whose cheeks were also wet. Then a movement at the side of Erebus pulled his gaze away from his brother, and Nyx stood before him. Erebus took several steps back, leaving him to face his Goddess alone.

Kalona dropped to his knees.

“I have been so wrong about so many things,” he said, gazing at Nyx fully, his body trembling at her nearness. “I chose anger and jealousy over love and trust. I betrayed you by allowing Darkness to enter your realm. I hated my brother because of my own insecurities. After I Fell, I committed atrocities.” Tears flowed down Kalona’s face. “I have no right to ask, but Nyx, my Goddess, my true and only love, will you forgive me?”

Nyx extended her hand to him and said softly, lovingly, “Oh, Kalona, how I have missed you!”

He stared at her slender hand, suddenly unable to move, unable to even look up at her. When he finally lifted his head he felt so filled with happiness that he was almost unable to speak.

“You forgive me,” he said, with a voice that trembled.

“I do.”

“You love me.”

“I do, and I always have.”

Kalona took her hand in his, but he did not rise. “Nyx, Goddess of Night, I pledge myself body, heart, and soul to love and protect you. I beg of you to accept my Warrior’s Oath.”

“I gladly accept your oath and will hold it binding for all of eternity.” As Nyx spoke, the air around Kalona shimmered. Power washed through his wings, changing them from raven black to the luminous white of a full moon.

Laughing joyously, Kalona stood, and just before the curtain to the Otherworld closed, he took his Goddess into his arms and lost himself in her welcoming kiss.

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

Zoey

After the curtain to the Otherworld closed, no one said anything for several long minutes. Everyone was sniffling, even the cops. Detective Marx finally broke the silence. He went to Thanatos and, totally surprising everyone—including Thanatos by the look on her face—Marx pulled her into a giant bear hug.

“Even if I was immortal, I think what I just witnessed would be the most incredible thing I ever saw in my entire life. Thank you for including us,” he said.

The other five officers nodded as they wiped their eyes.

Thanatos smiled and gently extracted herself from his embrace. “You are most welcome, Detective, though it was not me who allowed it. It was Nyx.”

“Then I hope you don’t mind if someday soon, after the business with Neferet is settled, I visit Nyx’s Temple with a gift to leave on her altar. I know it sounds crazy, but after what happened today, I feel really close to your Goddess.”

“It isn’t crazy at all. Nyx and I would welcome your altar gift. You see, Detective Marx, Nyx isn’t just our Goddess. She belongs to anyone who seeks her.” Thanatos’s gaze found me. “Zoey, you may close the circle now.”

I’d almost forgotten that I was still holding the lit spirit candle. While I quickly backtracked, thanking each of the elements in its turn and sending them all away, Grandma took one of the blankets from the pallet inside Thanatos’s tent and gently covered Kalona’s body.

The instant I blew out Stevie Rae’s candle, she went to Rephaim, wrapping her arms around him and holding him. And then Stark was there beside me, holding me and telling me how much he loved me.

“I’ll never leave you. I promise,” he said. “I don’t care about Aurox or Heath or even stupid Erik.” He paused as if he’d just noticed that Erik was standing a few yards away from us beside Shaunee. “Sorry, dude. I didn’t mean anything.”

Erik shrugged. “Not a problem,” he said. But he didn’t even glance at Stark or me. Erik was watching Shaunee with a cute, concerned look.

I took Stark’s face between my hands, telling him, “Don’t worry. I’ll never let you leave me.” Then I kissed him as if we’d just been reunited after an eon.

The wind chose that moment to blow the thunderclouds from the sky, and suddenly we were standing in the pinks and yellows of pre-dawn.

“Uh-oh,” I said. “You and Stevie Rae and Shaylin have to get under cover.”

“We still have seven minutes until dawn,” Stark said. “But you’re right.”

Reluctantly, I stepped out of his arms and went to Thanatos, expecting to have to help her to the tent. But she didn’t look nearly as tired as she had since she’d cast the protective spell. Actually, except for the shadows under her eyes, she looked rejuvenated.

“You look a lot better,” I said.

Thanatos nodded and smiled. “It seems guiding Kalona’s spirit home to the Otherworld had an energy-boosting side effect, for which I am grateful. I am afraid it will not last long, though, so let us be brief—especially as dawn is breaking and our red vampyres and fledgling need to be inside. Detective Marx has agreed to transport Kalona’s body to the House of Night. May I count on you to build his pyre and preside over his immolation?”

“Of course,” I said.

“Shaunee,” Thanatos called her over to us. “I have strength lent to me by Kalona, so I believe it would be safe for you to leave me long enough to return to the House of Night and add your element to Kalona’s pyre, if you can do so quickly. Would you do that for my Warrior?”

“It would be my honor to light Kalona’s pyre,” Shaunee said.

I thought she looked better, too, and I sent a silent but sincere thank-you to Kalona.

“And I will watch over my father’s pyre, from sunrise to sunset,” Rephaim said, wiping his eyes. “But we need to move fast. I’m going to change in six minutes, and that means Stevie Rae is going to burn.”

“What are you going to—” Marx began, then stopped himself, shaking his head. “Never mind. Explain it to me later. My men and I will take care of the big guy’s body. The rest of you can go ahead. We’ll meet you at the House of Night.”

I hugged Grandma. “You showed wisdom in your response to the Goddess,” she said as she let me go. “I am proud of you, u-we-tsi-a-ge-ya.”

“Sylvia, if you and the others need a break, I am quite sure I can manage on my own while you rest,” Thanatos said.

Sister Mary Angela moved up beside Grandma, along with Rabbi Bernstein and Suzanna Grimms. The ladies’ faces were radiant, as if the tears they had all just shed had washed years from them.

“We choose to stay with you on this sacred ground,” said the nun while the ladies nodded their agreement.

“Who could rest after that, anyway?” said Rabbi Bernstein.

“I’ll stay, too, and be sure no one bothers any of you,” Erik said, then added, “If you want me to.”

“We appreciate your protection very much, Erik,” Grandma said.

“Indeed,” Thanatos agreed. She bowed her head to Erik and to each of the four Wise Women. “You have my gratitude. Thank you, all.”

Stevie Rae took Rephaim’s hand, pulling him toward the van so that he couldn’t stand there and watch Marx and his men lifting his dad’s body. Stark, Shaylin, Damien, and I followed her, piling back into the vehicle, while Shaunee got in Erik’s car.

No one spoke. I searched my mind for the right thing to say to Rephaim. Should I tell him I was sorry about his dad? Or congratulate him about his dad? Since everyone else was silent, too, I figured they were all, even Stevie Rae, having a similarly tough time with what to say.

Thankfully, Rephaim saved us all. “I’m happy for Father,” he said softly. “He is back where he always longed to be. Even lately, after he decided to follow Light and swore his oath to Thanatos, there was a loneliness about him that didn’t get any better. Actually, I think it got worse.”

Stevie Rae said, “I think once your daddy was finally able to accept love—your love to start with and then Nyx’s love—once he did that it was like shuttin’ the barn door after the cows were already out.”

“Cows?” Rephaim said. I could hear the smile in his voice.

I turned around, and from where I sat in the front passenger seat, I could see that he was smiling at her. “She means that once he realized he needed love, he didn’t have any more excuses. He had to admit that he really did need Nyx’s love to be happy, even though he was the one who had left her, and not her him.”

Rephaim nodded. “He’s happy now. I felt it. That’s how Nyx soothed my grief. She let me feel his joy.” He smiled and wiped at his eyes again. “And I know I will see him again someday.”

“Are you sure you’re not immortal?” Shaylin asked. “Your aura looks an awful lot like his did.”

“I’m sure,” he said, putting his arm around Stevie Rae. “I’m just a boy who is lucky enough to be a lot like his father.” Rephaim met my gaze. “Zoey, do what Thanatos asked. Make Father’s pyre quickly so that Shaunee can light it and return to the Council Oak Tree.”

“You know it’ll be hard for the school to gather, especially if today is as sunny as it looks like it’s going to be,” I said.

“The school doesn’t need to bear witness. I will be there. I will watch over Father.”

I nodded and blinked fast, keeping myself from bawling.

Stark pulled through the entrance of the House of Night and just had time to park the Hummer under the covered parking attached to the building, when Rephaim kissed Stevie Rae quickly and said, “I love you.” He looked at the rest of us and said, “It really isn’t as bad as it sounds.” Then he pushed open the car door.

His feet didn’t even hit the ground. His scream pierced our ears, making everyone except Stevie Rae jump. The scream changed to the cry of a raven, and a huge black bird exploded from inside Rephaim’s clothes, big wings sweeping the air as he soared out of the covered parking and into the morning sky to circle the House of Night.

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