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A shrill scream sounded in the distance.

“Neferet’s coming,” I said. “I’m your center. Circle around me, but hide! Now! And may all of you blessed be.”

My circle scattered north, south, east, and west, leaving me alone with Aurox and Stark. I took the Seer Stone out from under my T-shirt and pulled the thin platinum chain over my head. Holding it securely in my hand, I looked from Stark to Aurox. “If this thing starts to change me, kill me before I’m like her.”

“It will be as you say,” Aurox said.

Stark looked pale, but he nodded. “I won’t let it make a monster of you.”

“Thank you,” I said. “And now let’s stop this bitch before she hurts anyone else we love.”

Stark and Aurox followed me as I walked quickly down the stone path. I felt a weird sense of déjà vu. Had it only been a few days ago that I’d stomped down this path, pissed at the world? It seemed a century ago, and I seemed a totally different person.

I am a different person. What happened here changed me. What happened here made me grow up. I realized.

I came to the top of the wide stone stairs and stopped. Pointing down over the lip of the ridge, I said, “There, see it? Inside that rounded stone area over there is the grotto. That’s where we’re going to trap her.”

We heard another scream, this one closer to the park.

“I’m going down.” Aurox pointed. “I’ll hide behind the stones at the base of the stairs. Neferet will expect to see Stark. She won’t be looking for me.” He looked at Stark. “I’m going to change. If I lose control and turn on any of you, do whatever you have to, but stop me.”

“Aurox, you will not lose control.” Words whispered through my mind and I repeated them aloud. My voice didn’t even sound like my own—it was older, wiser, stronger, and utterly filled with love. “Your bull has changed. It is no longer a creature of Darkness. Your Old Magick is now that of Light.”

“Who are you? How do you know this?”

The whispers left me, and in my own voice, I said, “Well, I’m a Priestess of your Goddess. She tells me things. This time she also told you.”

“It will have all been worth it if that is true,” Aurox said.

“Then it’s been worth it, because our Goddess never lies,” I said.

Stark extended his hand to Aurox. “Good luck. I’m glad you’re here with us in the end. It’s only right that you help me protect Zoey.”

Aurox grasped his forearm. “When this is over, I’d like it if we could share a beer, or six.”

Stark grinned. “It’s a deal.”

“Great,” I said, shaking my head at them both. “Death—destruction—our Goddess speaking—and you guys want beer.”

“Not right now, Zo. Afterward,” Aurox said in Heath-speak, and then he went down the stairs, taking them three at a time.

I turned to Stark, but before I could say anything he pulled me into his arms and kissed me. “Just live,” he said when he finally released me.

“I will if you will,” I said.

“It’s a deal,” he repeated.

Then a movement over his shoulder caught my eye. Under the streetlight at the Twenty-first and Peoria Street intersection, tendrils of Darkness swarmed.

“She’s here,” I said. I gripped my Seer Stone, thinking … thinking … And then I knew—at least part of what I needed to do. “It has to be like on Skye. The Fey are attached to Old Magick!”

“What can I do to help you?”

“I need something sharp.”

“No worries. I got this handled.” Stark sprinted to the Hummer, yanking open the door and taking out the duffel bag full of arrows he’d brought. Then he was running to me. He paused and took one of his arrows from the bag. “Be careful. It’s real sharp.” He kissed me quickly, pulled his bow from his back, and took a position three stairs down from me. He smiled grimly and said, “I can’t kill her, but I sure as hell can hurt her.”

“She’s vain. Remember that. Aim for her face,” I said. “That’ll really piss her off.”

Then all my attention was focused on her tendrils of Darkness. They were swarming into the park, like black oil spilling over the ocean’s surface. In the center of them, being carried forward with their tide of evil, was Neferet.

I shouldn’t have been surprised that she’d changed. We’d all changed since the last time I’d seen her. I just hadn’t expected that the madness inside of her would eventually seep out so visibly.

Neferet was bigger than she had been before. Her arms and legs were out of proportion with the rest of her. They had elongated, especially her fingers. They moved continuously, restlessly, as if she couldn’t keep herself still.

A spider! Oh, Goddess, she reminds me of a spider!

“Spirit, come to me,” I said before fear overwhelmed me. Instantly, I felt the infilling of my favorite element, soothing my nerves, calming my fear.

Nyx, I’ll do the rest if you just please help me to be wise and strong.

The Goddess’s voice washed through my mind along with spirit, filling me and chasing away the last of my fear. You have my blessing, Zoey Redbird. Remember, love is the strongest of them all …

Confidently, I stepped to the edge of the stone stairs.

“Neferet! It’s Zoey Redbird. I’m here because I’ve had enough of your bullshit. Your killing time is over. Now.”

Neferet’s emerald gaze focused on me right away. Her smile was reptilian. “Don’t you mean you’ve had enough of my bullpoopie, you vapid, ridiculous child?”

“Actually, no,” I said. “Unlike you, I mean what I say. Bullshit it is because bullshit you are.”

“How very grown-up of you,” she sneered. “And what a lovely surprise it is to find you so quickly and easily. I thought I’d have to pry you from the middle of your circle after each of your friends willingly and stupidly sacrificed themselves for you.”

“Well, Neferet, you are wrong. Again.”

While she laughed at me and glided over the sidewalk and into the park, I drew a deep breath.

I can do this. I know that there is Old Magick in Tulsa, and where there is the most ancient of magicks, there is also the Fey.

I lifted the Seer Stone, and thinking about what Sgiach had taught me, as well as what Nyx had reminded me of, I sliced the arrowhead across my palm. I cupped my hand, welling the blood, then lifted my Seer Stone, saying, “Sprites of spirit! Come to me!” I blew a big puff of breath over my palm, shooting a cascade of blood at the Seer Stone. As if the blood were caught in a vortex, it swept through the center of the stone, and as it came out the other side there was an explosion of bright purple light.

I smiled at the sprites. “Thank you for hearing me. I ask one thing of the Fey. Shed your Light into that Darkness.” I pointed at the nest of writhing creatures surrounding Neferet.

The sprites shot away from me. Seconds later purple lights exploded all around Neferet, sending blood and gore skyward.

“No!” Neferet screamed. With her unnaturally distended fingers, she caressed the wounded creatures that slithered back to her, murmuring to them as if they really were her children. Then she straightened. Her anger blazed at me. “You will be sorry you did that!” Neferet began gliding forward, commanding, “Finally, finally, kill Zoey Redbird!”

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

Zoey

Neferet’s command released total chaos. Threads of Darkness moved in a wave of teeth and writhing, muscular bodies toward the stone stairs.

There was a deafening roar, and Aurox rushed from behind the rocks that had been concealing him. He didn’t hesitate. He charged straight into the thick of them, goring with his horns, tearing and stomping with his cloven hooves.

He was as terrifying as he was magnificent.

“The betrayer vessel!” Neferet shrieked at him. “Broken! You will forever be broken!”

Unable to speak, Aurox’s only response was a roar, as he kept spreading carnage around him.

It was hard for me to look away from him. As I stared I realized that he, too, had changed.

“His horns,” I shouted to Stark. “They aren’t that sickening white anymore!”

“No,” Stark said. “They’re black, like Nyx’s night.”

“And like the other bull. The good one.”

“Stay sharp, Z. Good bull or not, they’re getting past him,” Stark told me. “Watch Neferet. The second she’s close enough, get that circle cast.” Then Stark raised his bow and said, “Kill those bastards of Darkness!”

Arrows rained down on them, all around Aurox. But Stark’s aim was true. The bull was not pierced by them, though tendrils of Darkness all around him were skewered to the ground.

“More!” Neferet called into the night. “I need more of my children!”

It seemed that the shadows vomited Darkness. The things swarmed from everywhere.

And still Neferet wasn’t close enough.

“Her face! Do it!” I told him.

“Strike Neferet’s vanity,” Stark commanded as he pulled his bow taut and let fly two arrows at once.

Both sailed in a beautiful arch, falling in perfect timing with one another. Together they sliced her cheeks, scoring bloody, gaping wounds through her sapphire tattoos.

Screaming over and over, Neferet staggered, holding her face in her hands, trying to keep the skin on her cheeks from flapping open.

I’d thought wounding her would at least confuse her tendrils of Darkness, make them pause if she was unable to call out commands.

I’d been wrong.

Wounding her worked on them like spurs on a horse. Suddenly they were everywhere, and Aurox’s roar was no longer one of challenge but of pain.

“Zoey! Get back to the Hummer! Lock yourself in!” Stark yelled at me as he shot his last arrow. “I’ll follow you!”

“I’m not going anywhere,” I said.

He looked up at me and smiled grimly. “Then neither am I.” Stark planted his feet wide and held his fists up, ready to battle the tendrils with his bare hands.

Instantly, a longsword materialized before him, glistening with deadly beauty.

Stark’s hand closed around the Guardian Sword’s hilt, and with a triumphant shout, he began slicing through the tendrils of Darkness that dared try to get past him.

And still Neferet wasn’t close enough.

Grimly, I slashed the arrowhead across my other palm. This time deeper, causing my blood to rush into my hand. I held up the Seer Stone. “Sprites of air, fire, water, and earth—come to me!” I blew my blood through the center of the stone, and Fey appeared all around me in the forms of birds and fairies, merefolk and forest nymphs. “No matter the cost, I’ll pay it. Just get me to Neferet.”

The cost will be

Your true love from thee

I had no choice. Either Stark dies or the world as I know it dies. “You have my oath. I agree!” I said, promising silently to myself, When this is over, I’ll follow Stark. I’ll know where to find him. Under the wishing tree …

The Fey bowed their glowing heads briefly in acknowledgment of my oath, then they formed a circle around me.

Go to the Dark Goddess.

I did as they commanded, moving past Stark.

“Zoey? What the hell?”

“Stay there, Stark! Keep fighting them. I’m going to her.” I couldn’t look at Stark. I knew he wouldn’t listen to me. I knew he wouldn’t stay up on the stairs where he had a chance against the tendrils. “James Stark, I will always love you!” I shouted.

Then I ran. The Fey surrounded me and moved with me, a solid shield of ancient power, repelling any tendril that approached them. I circled around behind Neferet. And then, using my Fey shield as a battering ram, I hurled myself at her.

The Fey hit her from behind. Blinded by blood and pain, she didn’t see us coming. I knocked her toward the grotto. One step, then another.

Hissing at me like she was a cobra, she whirled around and her terrible, long fingers sliced through the Fey closest to her.

It was a water Fey, a mermaid, and the beautiful blue sprite gave a horrible, inhumane shriek of pain and dissolved into the ground.

I gritted my teeth and took another step toward her.

“You little bitch! That is you inside there. Do you think Old Magick will stop me from killing you? I truly command Old Magick! A mortal cannot defeat me!”

She struck again, and a fire sprite exploded.

I battered her back another step, and she hacked through a Fey in the shape of a graceful heron.

With only a forest nymph between Neferet and me, I ran at her. Neferet raked her talons through the Fey, who screamed and disappeared, but the dark Goddess was off balance from the uneven Oklahoma sandstones beneath her feet, and she fell.

Finally! Close enough!

“Damien, where are you?” I cried.

“Here!” His head popped up from behind a clump of azaleas to my left. “Air, I call you to our circle!” I shouted, and wind rushed around us.

“I’m here!” Shaunee yelled, stepping out from behind a fire-blackened tree.

“Fire, I call you to our circle!” I felt the heat of her element.

“Children! Stop her! Kill her!” Neferet commanded.

I stood my ground, even as I felt a tendril of Darkness slice into my leg. “Shaylin!”

“Right here!” She jumped and waved from the top of the ridge to my right.

“Water, I call you to our circle!”

“Stevie Rae!” I cried, as I grabbed a snake-creature as it shot toward my throat and bashed it against a rock.

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