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CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

Shaunee

“It’s hard to stop thinking about it, isn’t it?” Shaunee said, as she and Erik had fallen into another silence while they stared at the spot Grandma Redbird and the other women had covered with sage and lavender—the spot where Kalona had died.

“It was amazing. I know Zoey and the rest of you guys have seen Nyx a bunch of times, but it still has my head spinning.”

“Hey, I totally understand. Yeah, I’ve seen Nyx before, but it’s not like I’ve gotten used to it. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it.”

“Kalona and Erebus—wow!”

Shaunee nodded, agreeing with him, and happy that he was still so awestruck by what he’d witnessed. She watched him out of the corner of her eye. He’d changed, and she liked the change.

“Thanks for sitting here with me,” she said, glancing at the four mounds the human women made in their sleeping bags, and then looking inside the tent at Thanatos, who had gone back into her silent meditation not long after everyone else had left. “It’d be lonely out here by myself if it wasn’t for you.”

“I’m glad I’m here,” Erik said. “I like being with you and—”

Waves of heat and pain slammed through Shaunee, and she doubled over with a terrible cry. Use me—channel through me—let me strengthen the spell, Shaunee recited over and over to herself as she rocked back and forth, trying to get control of the heat and the chaos and the pain that had exploded through her.

“It’s okay. You can do this, I know you can. Just focus and breathe. Try to relax, just like before,” Erik was saying.

“No!” Shaunee gasped. “Different—from—before! Bad.” She moaned and fell to her side. “Can’t—control.”

“Shaunee, listen to me!” Erik’s voice had gone from calm to concerned. “You can do this. Fire is your element. Remember that. Focus on that.”

Pain flooded Shaunee. It was like she was being torched from within. It was asking too much of her. She had no more to give. Suddenly she realized that, like Cleopatra, she was going to be engulfed by her own element.

Then, as quickly as it had torn through her, it was gone, leaving her gasping, lying in Erik’s lap. His arms were around her and, with a hand that trembled, he was smoothing her hair back from her damp forehead, murmuring, “You can do it … you can do it…”

Grandma Redbird and Sister Mary Angela were kneeling beside him, each holding one of her hands.

“Sweetheart, have you come back to us?” Grandma Redbird asked her.

“Y-yes,” Shaunee said. “It’s—it’s gone. Whatever happened, it’s over.”

“Shaunee!” Thanatos was standing at the entrance to her tent. Her face was completely white. She was weeping tears of blood. “Neferet has broken the spell. Warn Zoey.” Then she collapsed.

Shaunee struggled to get up, to rush to Thanatos. They all did. But before they could reach her, a smoky mist lifted from the ground in front of the High Priestess. The mist rolled like it was bubbling water and then took the form of a woman. She was beautiful and ethereal, but frightening. She held out her hand. Thanatos opened her eyes and took it, smiling beatifically.

And so finally, it is my turn to take your hand, Thanatos said.

Come with me where this world will no longer bind you. I have lifted the burden you have borne for me so long and so well. For you, my beloved daughter, the cares of this realm at last, at last, are over.

Still smiling, Thanatos stepped into the woman’s embrace, and both of them turned into smoke and then mist, which drifted slowly down until it was absorbed into the earth.

Sister Mary Angela crossed herself reverently. Shaunee heard her begin to recite the rosary.

“That was Death,” Erik said. “She took Thanatos away—all of her!”

Shaunee looked at where the High Priestess’s body had been. He was right. Her clothes lay flat and empty on the ground.

“Warn Zoey!” Grandma Redbird shook her shoulders. “Now!”

Shaunee pulled her thoughts together and met Grandma’s worried gaze. “I will. We’ll stop Neferet. Somehow we will.” She grabbed Erik’s hand. “Get me to the House of Night, fast!”

“We will pray for you,” said Rabbi Bernstein. All the women knelt under the Council Oak circle.

“May you all blessed be!” Grandma Redbird called after them.

Zoey

“Okay, so you each have your assignments,” Damien said as we stood and stretched and finally got ready to leave the dining room.

“Yes, Queen Damien, Shaylin and I are going to get with Kramisha and Lenobia. We’ll put our Prophetess superpowers together with what Lenobia knows about Neferet’s past, and see if we can figure out an Achilles’ heel in Crazy Town. After I work out,” Aphrodite said, and then stuffed another brownie in her face.

“Before,” I said. “This is more important than your butt.”

Aphrodite gave me a look that clearly said nothing was more important than her butt. Thankfully, she was too busy chewing to speak.

“I’m going ask Professor P to go to the media center with me to research old myths and legends. Hopefully, we can find something in them that will help us,” Damien said.

“Aurox, Rephaim, and I are going to relieve Darius, Detective Marx, and the fledgling Warriors they’ve recruited to patrol the walls,” Stark said.

“And we’re going to discuss more about Father’s past,” Rephaim said.

“I hate that you have to do that,” Stevie Rae said.

“He would want me to. He’d want anything that would help us stop Neferet,” Rephaim said.

“And Stevie Rae and I are going to Skype Sgiach. Again.” I lifted the yellow pad Aphrodite had given me. “Yes, I have the questions we all came up with to ask her.”

“Excellent,” Damien said, and I thought, not for the first time, that he was going to make a really good professor someday.

“It’s a few minutes after midnight,” I said. “Let’s meet back here about four thirty–ish. That’ll give us a chance to talk about what we’ve learned and have dinner before sunrise.”

“Okay, see you in a few—” Stark said, bending to give me a good-bye kiss, when Nicole burst into the room, followed by Shaunee and Erik.

“Thanatos is dead—the spell is broken—Neferet is free!” Shaunee said, gasping for breath.

“What happened? Are you okay?” I asked as Stark and Erik helped her to sit.

“I’ll be fine. And all I know about what happened is that a lot of something big and bad hit the wall at the same time. Fire couldn’t handle it. The force of it killed Thanatos.” Shaunee gulped the wine Aphrodite handed her.

“It almost killed Shaunee, too,” Erik said.

Marx and Darius ran into the room. “It’s Neferet. She’s loose and heading this way,” Darius said.

“I’m getting reports from the uniforms at the barricades. She’s taking them all out,” Marx said.

Inside of me, everything got calm. My thoughts were clear and focused. “Damien, Shaunee, Shaylin, Stevie Rae—come with me,” I said.

“You’re not going anywhere without me,” Stark said. “And why the hell aren’t we all staying here? At least there are walls around us.”

“A wall won’t protect us against Neferet. She’ll go right over it. She’ll kill everyone, starting with that big group of humans who came to us for protection,” I told him. “No, we’re not staying here. But yes, you are coming with me. So are you, Rephaim, and you, Aurox.”

“You’re out of your f**king mind if you think I’m staying here,” Aphrodite said.

“You have to. If she gets past us, you and Darius and Marx have got to get the people out of here. Go to the Benedictine abbey. Hide in the tunnels. She’ll be less powerful down there. Call the High Council. Call Sgiach. Hell, start calling all the House of Nights in the world. If we can’t stop Neferet, she’s not just going to be Tulsa’s problem. She’s going to be the whole world’s problem,” I said, walking over to Aphrodite. I hugged her and she hugged me back. “Pray that Nyx helps us find a way to stop Neferet,” I whispered to her.

Aphrodite took me by the shoulders and met my gaze. In a firm, loud voice she said, “I’m going to pray that you’re as smart and strong as I’ve thought you were since the first day I met you. You can stop her. I know you can. Just believe in yourself.”

“And us,” Stevie Rae said. She and the rest of my circle were standing by the door. “Believe in all of us, Z. We won’t let you down.”

“Then let’s go,” I said. “Let’s stop her for good.”

“Where are we going?” Stark asked.

“To Woodward Park.” I looked at Marx. “Get on your radio. Tell your men to pull back. And tell them while they’re getting out of her way they need to shout to each other that Zoey and her vampyres are circling in the park, waiting to trap her.”

“She’ll come straight to you,” Marx said.

“That’s the plan,” I said.

“Blessed be,” Darius said.

“Merry meet, merry part, and we will merry meet again,” I said. And then we sprinted to the parking lot and piled into the Hummer.

It only took a few minutes to get to Woodward Park. “Drive the Hummer over by the ridge, the one that faces downtown.” As I gave Stark direction, I had a burst of realization. Holy crap! That might be it!

“Isn’t that where you thought you killed those men?” Stark said.

“Yes!” Get us there, fast!”

Stark barreled over the curb and floored the Hummer, fishtailing to a stop under a blackened oak. We all rushed out of the vehicle.

“Okay, listen guys,” I said. “I have a plan—it’s a small one, but at least it’s something. At the base of the ridge is the grotto Neferet hid in before she killed the two men I thought I’d killed.”

“Want us to circle around it, Z?” Stevie Rae asked.

“No. I’m going to stand at the top of those stone stairs, right over there.” I pointed. There was only one streetlight working in the park—the place had been pretty messed up by the fire the lightning had caused. But that one light was enough for us to see the stone path that led between clumps of scorched azaleas and emptied into wide, rough stairs descending to street level and the grotto. “Get your direction set, fast.”

“North’s that way!” Stevie Rae pointed in front of us.

“The rest of you have your positions from there?”

Air, Fire, and Water nodded. “Okay, spread out. Call your elements to you. I’m not going to cast a circle, not until she’s close enough to be caught inside it.”

“You mean caught inside the grotto,” Aurox said.

I nodded.

“Our crystal cave,” Damien said.

“How are we gonna keep her in there once we manage to smush her inside?” Stevie Rae asked.

“Old Magick,” I said, with lots more confidence than I felt.

“How are we going to get her close enough to the grotto?” Stark asked, watching me closely.

“Well, her Achilles’ heel is going to stand at the top of the stairs and talk crap to her until she’s pissed enough to get close,” I said.

“You’re Neferet’s Achilles’ heel,” Damien said.

“Yep,” I said. “She’s gone after me since I was Marked. She’s gonna keep going after me.”

“I don’t like you being bait,” Stark said.

“Then keep me safe until she’s close enough for me to cast a circle around her,” I told him.

“She’ll have to go through me to get you,” Stark said.

“And me,” Aurox said.

“Thank you,” I told them. “I believe in both of you.” I turned to Stevie Rae and Rephaim. “Rephaim, keep Stevie Rae safe. We’re going to be trapping Neferet inside the earth—that means Stevie Rae’s element is going to be the key to this.”

Rephaim nodded. “I’ll always keep her safe.”

“Damien, Shaunee, Shaylin—get your elements to conceal you until I let you know you can call them to the circle. The three of you will be the least protected of all of us.”

Damien took Shaunee and Shaylin’s hands. “We understand. And we won’t let you down.”

I went to Shaunee and took her hand. Stevie Rae joined me, completing our circle. “I love you. All of you. No matter what happens to me, if our circle breaks, get the hell out of here. Go to our tunnels under the depot. Stevie Rae, get them there. Use earth to seal yourselves in until you can regroup.”

“Not without—” Stevie Rae began.

“No!” my voice was filled with power, making the four of them jerk in surprise. “You have to listen to me. If the circle breaks, I’ll be like Thanatos. It’s my circle, my spell. It’ll kill me.” As I said it, I knew it was true. My gaze found Aurox. “If I’m dead, protect them.”

Aurox said nothing, he only nodded once.

My eyes met my Stark’s. “If you’re still alive, help Aurox get them to safety.”

“I will, my High Priestess, my Queen, and then I will follow you to the Otherworld,” Stark said, bowing somberly to me.

“At least this time you’ll know where to find me.” I smiled at him. “At the entrance, under the wishing tree. I’ll wait for you.”

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