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The humans had mostly wandered back inside, though some of the children had discovered a bunch of jump ropes in the Warriors’ gym, and they were noisily skipping up and down the sidewalk.

Aphrodite looked over the black rim of her sunglasses at the kids. “I don’t know why anyone would purposefully procreate.”

I grimaced as one of the children laughed so shrilly that I was pretty sure I heard Duchess howl in response.

“And this is the perfect time for me to make my exit back to Thanatos,” Shaunee said. “Even though I kinda like kids. I used to babysit for friends of my parents who were so rich their playroom was like a Toys R Us store.”

Aphrodite shuddered delicately. “Why did your parents hate you so much?”

Detective Marx joined us. “It was a nice funeral. Shaunee, what you said was perfect.”

“Thanks,” she said, smiling at the tall detective.

“Hey, I’m going to take that ambulance back to St. John’s, and the other officers are going off duty. I’ll get my truck and come on back here for the night.”

“Shouldn’t you go home to your daughters? They gotta be missing you,” Shaunee said.

Marx smiled. “My daughters and my wife are right over there.” He pointed at the group of jump-roping girls.

“Of course they are,” Aphrodite muttered.

We ignored her. “Want to hitch a ride with us?” Marx asked Shaunee. “I can swing you by the Council Oak Tree on my way back to the station.”

Erik cleared his throat. “If it’s okay with you guys, I’ll take Shaunee back and hang out there for a while.”

I shrugged. “Okay by me.”

“Awesome!” Erik said, smiling at Shaunee. “And tell Aurox he doesn’t need to worry about relieving me until sunrise tomorrow. I know the Warriors have a lot on their plate here with all these humans.”

“I’ll tell him,” I said. And everyone except Aphrodite scattered.

“When did they become a thing?” Aphrodite asked.

“Right? I was wondering the same thing.”

“Guess he needed a backup plan since Shaylin turned g*y.”

“Aphrodite, you do realize what you just said was full of stereotypes, don’t you?”

“Yes. It’s figurative language I hate, not English in general,” she said, rolling her eyes.

I frowned at her and shook my head. “Shaunee is an awesome person—and gorgeous. Erik could want to be with her for those reasons and not just because he needs to be with someone to make up for Shaylin.”

Aphrodite started to say something and then stopped herself, thought, and started again. “Actually, you might be right. Erik has changed since he was ‘our Erik,’” she air-quoted. “He’s turning out to be an okay guy. Just don’t ever tell him I said that.”

“I won’t.”

“Plus,” she said as she watched the two of them walk down the sidewalk together, “they’re reminding me of Olivia and the president in Scandal. I’m liking this whole black girl–white boy thing. It’s attractive. Not to mention how it broadens the typical white boy point of view. Goddess knows they need it.”

“That’s the most politically correct thing I’ve ever heard you say.”

“You are welcome, retard,” she said. “Go get some sleep. I’ll see you after sunset.” But before she could twitch away, Kramisha ran up to us, teetering on six-inch over-the-knee patent-leather boots, holding her hoodie up over her head so it wouldn’t mess up her flaming red wig. Even with the giant mirrored gold sunglasses she had on I could tell she was scowling.

“Your boots are crazy,” Aphrodite told her.

“Don’t start with me. I didn’t get my sleep.” Kramisha pulled out a piece of her purple notepaper from inside her giant tote and shoved it toward us.

“Oh, hell no!” Aphrodite took a step back. “That’s for Z.”

“Act like you’ve got some damn sense. It’s not like I’m out here ’cause I wanna be. Here, Z.” She handed me the paper. “It is for you.”

I wanted to scream and drop it like it was a spider, but I was trying to be grown up and have some damn sense. So instead I sighed and took the paper, reading the poem aloud:

Inevitable as death

Wield the Old Magick

His sacrifice accepted.

“Um, late much?” Aphrodite said. “Even I can tell that haiku’s about Kalona, and he’s already dead.”

“Do. Not. Speak.” Kramisha held her finger up at Aphrodite. Obviously thinking she had Aphrodite under control, she turned to me. “I got a strong feelin’ that you gotta get that stone back from Frodo over there.”

“I will beat you with my brush if you call me Frodo again.”

“Shhh!” I told Aphrodite. Then faced Kramisha, “I can’t wield it until I’ve figured out how not to turn into another Neferet.”

“Neferet’s broke. You ain’t. Old Magick is the only chance we have at beatin’ a goddess. So use it or you won’t have to worry ’bout turnin’ into a crazy bitch because we’ll all be the slaves of a crazy bitch.” Kramisha snapped her head around to glare at Aphrodite. “I’m leavin’ before she makes some stupid-assed slave joke that’ll make me have to go all Jackie Brown on her.” And Kramisha tottered away.

“Who’s Jackie Brown?”

“I have no clue,” I said.

“Maybe we should ask Shaunee.”

I sighed. “Maybe we should focus on how I can use the stupid stone!”

“You want my opinion?”

I stifled another sigh and said, “Yes.”

“Wear the stone. You know what it’s capable of now. Keep a check on yourself. We’ll all keep a check on you—this time out in the open. If you start to snap, you’ll be tackled by a Herd of Nerds. Literally and figuratively.”

“I really don’t have any choice, do I?”

“Not anymore you don’t. Neferet figured out how to kill Kalona. She’s going to figure out how to break the protective spell. Then she’s going to come after us. Mostly you, but the fallout will include the rest of us.”

“You’re right. Give me back the stupid stone.”

Aphrodite reached under the neck of her shirt and pulled out a delicate silver chain, long enough that she didn’t have to unclasp it to take it off. From the chain dangled the deceptively innocent-looking Seer Stone.

“It always reminds me of a coconut Life Saver,” I said, reluctant to touch it. “That’s a pretty chain.”

“It’s platinum. Try not to f**k it up, because I want it back. The chain, not the stone. Stop stalling and take it.” She held it out so I had to do exactly that. “You know, your first step in this whole wield-the-Old-Magick thing might have something to do with you working on your confidence. Z, if you don’t believe you can do this, there’s no damn way you’re going to be able to do this.”

“I know.” I put the chain around my neck and tucked the stone under my T-shirt. Then I waited for something to happen.

Aphrodite snorted. “Seriously? You walked around with that thing for weeks before you went postal.”

“Well, something could happen!” I said defensively.

“Yeah, sure, and Oklahoma could elect a female Democrat to the Senate, hell could freeze over, pigs could fly, blah, blah. Relax. Stressing over it can’t help.”

“Okay, yeah, you’re right.”

“I love hearing that twice in one conversation.”

“Don’t get used to it.” Aphrodite rolled her eyes and started to twitch away. I called after her, “Hey, I’m sending a group text. We gotta have a serious brainstorming session. Everyone needs to meet in the professors’ dining hall for breakfast. Fifteen minutes after sunset.”

“Make it an hour and fifteen minutes after sunset and I’ll send the text for you.”

“Aphrodite, we really need to get a plan.”

“Zoey, we really need to get some sleep.”

I chewed my lip and thought about how tired she looked and how tired I felt. “Deal,” I said.

“Oh, and by the way, I know you’re using this whole end-of-the-world thing as an excuse to take over the vamps’ cafeteria, and I like it!” She waggled her eyebrows at me and then off she twitched.

Shaking my head and yawning, I started toward the girls’ dorms—and then made a sharp turn, backtracked, and took a giant circular detour when I noticed that some of the jump-roping kids were gawking at me like they were gearing up to pull my feathers.

“It’s bad when Kalona seems nicer than me,” I mumbled to myself.

“You’re usually nice, Zo.”

“Holy crap, Aurox! You can’t just sneak up behind me and scare me like that.”

“I was jogging the perimeter and not sneaking at all,” he said. “You were talking to yourself so loud you didn’t hear me, or Skylar.” He nodded upward at the school’s wall, where the giant orange cat was padding on his tiger-like paws, keeping up with Aurox. “Why do you think Kalona was nicer than you?”

I made a gesture in the general direction from where distant girl giggles could still be heard. “He let them pull his feathers. I detoured all the way over here to avoid them.”

Aurox smiled. “That doesn’t make you less nice. It makes you smart. Young humans hurt my ears, too.”

I grinned back at him, glad things felt easier between us since we’d discovered Skylar together. “Young humans, especially young human girls, would like you. They’d think you’re super hot,” I teased. Then instantly wished I could take it back, because the easy, friendly feeling between us evaporated.

“I should get on with my patrol. Blessed be, Zoey.”

He started to jog away and I snagged his wrist. “Hey, hang on. I didn’t mean to say anything to make you mad.”

His broad shoulders slumped. “I’m not mad. I just get tired of it.”

“It?” I asked, clueless.

“It—the fact that I’m not what I seem. If those little girls knew what I could turn into, they would be terrified of me.”

“Oh,” I said, getting it. “But they don’t know, and you aren’t turning into anything right now. Why don’t you do what Rephaim does? He lives every moment of his human life to the fullest. He doesn’t let the fact that he has to be a bird every day ruin life for him.”

I could see I’d given Aurox something to think about. At least he didn’t jog away, or turn all cold and distant. We walked on for a while without saying anything. When he finally answered me, he did so in a voice that was barely above a whisper.

“I would like to be like that, but Rephaim has two things I don’t have, two things I don’t think I’ll ever have.”

When he didn’t keep talking, I prompted, “What two things?”

“The forgiveness of Nyx and the love of a woman.”

I started with the one that wasn’t a ticking time bomb. “Why don’t you think Nyx has forgiven you? Have you asked her?”

“Every day,” he said. “I light a candle at the feet of her statue and ask for her forgiveness every day.”

“Well, then, why would you think the Goddess hasn’t forgiven you? You’ve chosen her path. You’re only doing good. You even saved my grandma from Neferet.”

“She’s never spoken to me.” The sadness in his voice made him sound like he was a zillion years old.

“Nyx hasn’t spoken to a lot of us,” I said.

“That’s not true here. Nyx has appeared multiple times. She appeared today.”

“Well, yeah, but—”

“The Goddess knows what I am. She doesn’t want anything to do with me.”

“Aurox, that can’t be true. Nyx allowed Heath’s spirit to enter you so that you could choose to be more than a vessel.”

His gaze met mine. “She didn’t do that for me. She did that for you.”

I didn’t know what to say to him. I’d spoken with Nyx’s authority before, when I’d heard her voice, or felt that nudge in my gut that said I was on the right path. I didn’t feel either of those things right now. I just felt bad for Aurox.

“And as for the second thing—you know why I’ll never have that,” he said.

“Aurox, I care about you, but I’m with Stark. It’s just too complicated between us for that to change.”

“No, Zoey. You don’t care about me. You care about Heath. And that’s why it’s too complicated to change. Now I am going to finish my patrol.” His smile was sad and sweet. “Blessed be.”

It was after he’d walked away that I noticed the absence of the warmth that had been spreading from the small, circular stone that rested between my br**sts.

“Old Magick,” I whispered, staring after him. “Aurox is definitely hooked into Old Magick.” So how the hell could that help me?

I had no clue. But I was going to figure it out. I pulled out my phone and sent a quick text to Aphrodite: Include Aurox in your group text. I waited until my phone wookie roared with her return text saying Okay. Go to sleep before I walked the rest of the way to the dorm.

My feet felt super heavy as I dragged them up the stairs and to my room. It was cool and dark and quiet inside. Stark was sound asleep. I was glad. I didn’t want him to wake up and feel my sadness and stress. I’d have to explain about the Seer Stone soon enough. And I didn’t want to explain about Aurox at all. I brushed my teeth and washed my face, and worried in silence.

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