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“I’m right behind you, Z, and I got your back!”

I turned. Rephaim’s sword sang in an arc around us, while I called, “Earth, I call you to our circle!” I breathed in the scents of a meadow as I completed my casting by calling, “Spirit, I call you to our circle!”

A wide silver ribbon of light crackled into being, connecting the five of us and completely encircling Neferet.

“Do you think a circle will hold me?” Neferet was on her hands and knees. Her face was bloody but already healing. She looked at me and laughed. “You’ve just made this easier. I destroy this circle, I destroy you. Come to me, children! All of you come to me!”

Her creatures obeyed her. They slithered from all the shadows within the park, a dark tide rising around her.

I ignored her and the creatures she called to execute me. I raised my arms. “Air, fire, water, earth, and spirit—hear me! I am Zoey Redbird. My ancestors danced beneath the sky, evoking you in the name of the Great Earth Mother, in respect and love, themselves caretakers of this land, keepers of the mortal realm’s balance of Light and Darkness. Tonight I invoke your aid as a daughter of those ancient caretakers. This Tsi Sgili and her creatures defile us all and create unbalance. So as the Wise Women before me did, I beg of you, Great Earth Mother and the powers of Old Magick, entrap Neferet and her children!” Imagining myself as a fountain and the elements as streams of power shooting up from the bowels of the earth and through me, I threw air, fire, water, earth, and spirit at Neferet.

The silver ribbon that connected me to the circle rushed from me, closing like a noose around Neferet and her tendrils of Darkness, and drawing them back, together, into the open mouth of the grotto.

“Stevie Rae, help me!” Instantly, she was at my side, taking my hand.

“Earth,” she commanded, “close ’em in!” A green glow lit up the rocks all around the grotto. The earth beneath our feet began to shake, harder and harder, until the stones fell free, avalanching to seal the mouth of the grotto.

The silence that followed was incredible. I felt wobbly. My knees were weak. Stevie Rae and I were still holding hands.

“Stark!” I called. “Where are you?” My eyes were already beginning to tear. I knew he wouldn’t answer. I staggered, and Aurox caught me.

He was a boy again, bloody but alive.

“Take it easy,” he said as he and Stevie Rae helped me sit down. “Everything’s going to be okay.”

No, nothing is going to be okay.

“Take a few deep breaths, and before you close the circle, borrow some energy from spirit,” Aurox said.

I nodded numbly, staring at the silver ribbon that still circled me.

“Z! We did it!” Damien cried as he hurried up to us.

“That was super scary,” Shaylin said.

“But awesome,” Shaunee agreed.

They were all around me—all of my circle. And we had done it. We’d trapped Neferet. I was the only one who knew the cost, though.

“Yeah, it was awesome, but painful,” he said.

I looked up, and through my tears saw Stark. He was standing there, smiling down at me. He had a bunch of cuts on his arms and legs, and he was bleeding like crazy, but he was alive!

“Stark! Ohmygoddess!” I was in the process of hurling myself into his arms when the mound of rocks that were supposed to be sealing Neferet inside the grotto began to move.

“Oh, shit!” Stark said. “The tendrils—they’re boring holes through the rocks.”

I stood, in the center of my circle, and raised my hands again. I noticed there was blood all over them. I didn’t care. Stark was alive!

The cost will be

Your true love from thee

The Feys’ voices echoed in my mind, and I realized why Stark was alive.

They hadn’t meant they were taking Stark away from me. They’d meant I was going. It was my turn. This time I had to love my friends and my world enough that I would be the sacrifice that would make it right. I had to exchange my life for entombing Neferet.

“You promised to be sure they’re safe,” I said to Stark.

He narrowed his eyes. “Z, what are you up to?”

I drew a deep breath, readying myself. I lifted my Seer Stone and started walking forward. Grandma said it. Sgiach said it. And, most important, Nyx said it. My blood is special. There’s ancient power in it, living in the modern world. And I’m going to use my blood to seal that tomb.

“It won’t work.” Aurox was suddenly there in front of me, blocking my path.

“Get out of my way,” I told him. “And keep Stark out of my way. I know what I’m doing. You were right. Everything is going to be okay.”

“No, Zoey. You’re strong and wise, but you’re wrong about this. You aren’t an immortal. No matter what you do. No matter what you’re willing to sacrifice, you don’t have enough power to hold her. But I do. I was created from Old Magick as a tool of Darkness.”

“But you chose Light. You changed.”

“Because Heath’s spirit within me gave me a choice. I’m making that choice now, out of love. Not just for you, Zo, but for all of you. This is the right thing to do. I know I’m right. Zo, make Stark take care of Skylar for me, ’kay?” He smiled, and I saw Heath within his moonstone eyes. “Oh, and remember the two things I wanted? Got one of them tonight. Nyx spoke to me through you.” He reached out and took the Seer Stone from me, putting it over his head so that it dangled, flashing silver, in the middle of his chest. “I am the Old Magick you had to wield.”

“And what about the second thing you wanted? What about the girl?” I asked, my eyes filling with tears.

“Next time around, Zo. How ’bout you and me, we make a date for my next time around. ’Cause it’s true. The one thing that never dies is love, always love!”

Then Heath disappeared within Aurox’s sweet, serious eyes. He turned, lowered his head, and roared an ancient challenge. As Aurox charged the grotto, his body convulsed, shifted, and changed so that by the time he reached the stones and the tendrils that were trying to slither free, he had taken the form of a powerful, beautiful black bull. He gored the rocks, and his body changed again, expanding into a huge black shield that folded over the grotto, closing it, sealing Neferet forever within.

There was a terrible rumbling that became a deafening thunder, coming from the east and the west.

“What is it?” Stark yelled.

I started to say I didn’t know, and then I saw the shadow. It spread from the east—an enormous black cloud, taking shape as it grew—horns, mighty chest, and cloven hooves.

“The west! Look to the west!” Shaunee cried.

My gaze went there, and I saw the twin of the other bull taking form, only this one was the white of frost, of death, of the grave.

The two bulls met in the sky above us with a crash that had us covering our ears, even though the sound couldn’t be muffled. Pain flashed through my forehead, and I heard my friends cry out with me. I fell to the ground, feeling like my head was going to explode. Stark was holding me. I looked around wildly, and I could see that Rephaim had gone to Shaylin, and Stevie Rae was rushing from Damien to Shaunee. All of them were collapsed in pain with me.

What was happening to us? Ohmygoddess, what now?

Just when I thought I couldn’t stand any more pain, the sky flashed with a blinding light, and both bulls disappeared together, taking with them the terrible agony in my head.

Shakily, I sat up.

“Z, are you okay? What happened—” His smile interrupted his words. “Oh, that’s what happened!”

I frowned. What was he talking about? I rubbed my face. Man, my forehead hurt.

“Ohmygoddess! That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen!” Stevie Rae practically squealed.

Still confused, I glanced over to where she was, kneeling beside Shaunee. Shaunee looked as dazed as I felt. Blinking, she turned her head to me—and I understood.

My gaze went from her to Damien and from Damien to Shaylin.

“All of them!” I said. “They all made the Change!”

“All of you. You all Changed, Z. Even you!” Stark reached forward and traced a delicate filigree pattern that now spread down around my cheekbones—a real Mark for a real vampyre.

I looked up, through eyes filled and overflowing with grateful tears, and saw the moon shinning full and glorious down on us.

“Thank you, Nyx. Oh, thank you so much!” I called to the moon.

Zoey Redbird, may you and your faithful friends, eternally blessed be …

THE END. REALLY.

AFTERWARD …

Nyx giggled. “May I look now?”

Kalona thought she sounded like a carefree young maiden who was incredibly, eternally alluring. He grinned but managed to keep his voice stern, saying, “Not quite yet, Goddess.”

“But I want to see what you’ve been up to!” Nyx said.

“It wouldn’t be a surprise if you knew what we’ve been up to.”

“Erebus, what are you doing here?” Kalona growled at him.

“I’m not letting you take all the credit for this. It was, after all, me who found the thing ages ago and kept it here, safe, waiting for your return,” Erebus said, laughing at his brother’s thundercloud look.

“That’s it! I simply must look!”

Before the Goddess could open her eyes, Kalona turned her so that she was facing the Otherworld’s most lovely lake. He was standing behind her, holding her smooth shoulders in his hands, when she gasped and clapped in delight.

“My boat! The one you carved for me so long ago!” She turned and threw her arms around Kalona, laughing and kissing him. “Thank you!”

Erebus cleared his throat. “What about me?”

Nyx opened one arm, inviting Erebus to share her embrace. “Thank you, too, Erebus, for your unwavering faith in our Kalona.”

“Ah, it was nothing,” Erebus said, hugging both of them.

Kalona returned his embrace before shoving him teasingly. “Nothing? Maybe for you it was nothing, but I have spent days restoring what centuries of neglect caused.”

“Yes, well, when you put it like that, I can say that I know exactly what you mean,” Erebus said, shoving his brother back good-naturedly.

“Well, I love my surprise,” Nyx said, going to the little boat and running her hands appreciatively over the carvings of flowers and stars and moons and other symbols that Kalona had long ago created in remembrance of her. “And you found a pelt and a picnic basket! That does make this gift perfect.”

“I found them,” Kalona said. Then he glanced at his brother and smiled. “But Erebus suggested the nectar instead of wine, and he went to the mortal realm to gather it for you.”

“I gathered it for both of you,” Erebus said, returning his brother’s smile. “And now I will leave you to your boating. I bribed the naiads to stay away from this lake for the evening, and I have to make yet another trip to the mortal realm to fulfill that bribe.” He kissed Nyx gently on the cheek, saluted his brother, and disappeared in an explosion of golden glitter.

Kalona coughed and shook glitter from his hair. “I wish he would stop doing that.”

Nyx unsuccessfully hid a giggle behind her hand. “I think the dust of sunlight looks lovely on you.”

Kalona went to his Goddess and took her into his arms. “If you like it, I shall ask Erebus to explode more often.” He stifled her laughter with a kiss, and then picked Nyx up and gently placed her in the boat on the soft, thick pelt. He pushed the little boat into the lake and then joined his Goddess within, paddling lazily over the shimmering turquoise waters.

“If you would like, we could go back to the lake you loved so well,” he said. “Though I would have to ask that you call the elements to conceal us. I visited there earlier. Did you know it is now called Crater Lake, and humans flock to it?”

“I did,” Nyx said, letting her fingers trail over the surface of the lake. “I visited there often when you were no longer here.” Her eyes met his, and within them he could see a great sadness. “I hoped that someday I might see you there, though I never did.”

Kalona put the paddle down and took her hands in his. “It will never happen again. I vow that I have banished my jealousy and anger. I will never make the mistake of listening to those base emotions again and letting Darkness come between us.” He kissed each of her hands, slowly, reverently, willing the sadness to leave her beautiful eyes.

“The mistake was not yours alone, my Warrior, my love,” she said. “I, too, was at fault. I was so young, so inexperienced. I allowed a secret to come between us.”

“A secret? What do you mean?” Kalona’s stomach tightened. What could Nyx have been keeping secret from him?

“That night, that terrible night that you found me with Erebus. You misunderstood my words to him. I never spoke of it afterward, and I should have, if only to assure you that your brother and I were not betraying you.”

“No, we all vowed silence because of what happened that night. It was right to keep that vow,” Kalona said, feeling a measure of relief. “And then I wouldn’t have listened to you. Then I could only hear jealousy.”

“Well, I was wrong to make you and Erebus vow silence, but I do think what we created that night turned out rather well, even if we have been unable to speak of it.”

Kalona met her eyes. “Your children the vampyres are remarkable and unusual, and I admit that I have become very fond of them.”

“Do you not mean our children the vampyres? We both had a hand in their creation.”

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