“Circle? Right now, Z?” Stevie Rae asked.
“Circle yes, and now, kinda. Would you come with me? It’s easier to show you than to explain,” I said.
“Z, if you need us, we’ll always come with you,” Damien said.
“I’ll pull the Hummer around,” Stark said.
“I’ve already gathered your ritual candles and put them in my basket,” Grandma said.
“Fine, let’s go. The Herd of Nerds rides again,” Aphrodite said.
* * *
“I thought the city agreed to build a wall around this part of the park to keep gawkers out,” Aphrodite said, frowning at the blacked front of the sealed stone grotto.
“They did. But I asked them to wait until after today,” I explained.
“What’s up, Z?” Stevie Rae asked.
“Well, here’s the deal. Aurox won’t leave me alone,” I said.
“Aurox? Isn’t he over there, keeping Neferet from getting out here?” Shaylin asked, pointing at the grotto.
“He is, but he’s also in my dreams,” I told my friends.
“What kind of dreams?” Aphrodite asked.
I shook my head. “I don’t really know. I can’t remember anything from them except that Aurox keeps calling my name, and no matter how many times I try to answer him, I can’t reach him. But I know he’s there. I know he needs me.”
“What do you think it means?” Damien said.
“Well, I think it means he is trapped and I need to free him,” I said.
“Wait, no. If you let him out of there”—Aphrodite jerked her chin at the grotto—“Neferet and her disgusting minions will escape.”
“Actually, I don’t think that’s what will happen. I’m not going to let out Aurox’s Old Magick. I’m just going to release his soul.”
“But his soul’s already gone. We saw it that night, right before he charged the grotto, and it was definitely Heath, who definitely got out of that bull’s body,” Stevie Rae said.
“Yeah, see, here’s the thing about that—I don’t believe Aurox was soulless without Heath. I believe Aurox developed his own soul because of the choices he made, and that’s what’s trapped in there,” I said.
“And because Thanatos is dead, you’re willing to act in her place and help Aurox move on to the Otherworld,” Damien said.
“Well, I’m willing to try—if you guys help me.”
“Oh, for shit’s sake. Circle up, Nerd Herd. What’s the worst thing that can happen? Darkness is loosed on the world? Again?” Aphrodite gave a big pretend yawn. “Been there, kicked that ass.”
“We’ll help you, Z,” Stevie Rae said.
“Yea, we trust you,” Shaunee said.
“If you say Aurox needs your help, then we’re here for you,” Damien said.
“Absolutely,” Shaylin agreed.
“Thank you. I’m so damn proud to be part of your Nerd Herd,” I said, sniffing and wiping my eyes.
“Z, you put the nerd in herd. Circle up before you start snotting,” Aphrodite said. “And don’t cuss. It never sounds right when you try.”
I grinned at her as my circle fanned out, taking their familiar places. Grandma gave each of us our candles. I went to Damien and began where it had all started what now felt like so long ago.
“Air is everywhere, so it only makes sense that it is the first element to be called into the circle. I ask that you hear me, air, and I summon you to this circle.” I touched the yellow candle with the lit match, and air whooshed around Damien and me, lifting our hair.
He smiled at me though tears that pooled but didn’t quite spill from his eyes. “That’s what you said the first time you called air to our circle—that very first time my element manifested for me.”
“You remember!” I said, blinking hard so that I wouldn’t cry.
“Of course I remember. We’ll all remember, Z,” Damien said.
Smiling through my tears, I turned to the south and went to Shaunee.
“Fire reminds me of cold winter nights and the warmth and safety of the fireplace that heats my grandma’s cabin. I ask that you hear me, fire, and I summon you to this circle.” Shaunee’s red candle flamed before I could light it. She grinned at me. “Go on, Z. We’re here for you.”
I kept walking around the circle to Shaylin.
“Water is relief on a hot Oklahoma summer day. It’s the amazing ocean that I have finally seen, and it’s the rain that makes the lavender grow. I ask that you hear me, water, and I summon you to this circle.”
Shaylin’s blue candle lit easily, and the scent of spring showers filled the space around us.
“I’m glad Nyx gifted me with this affinity,” Shaylin said. “I’m glad I am a part of your circle.”
“Me, too, Shaylin,” I told her.
Then I moved to stand in front of my BFF.
“One more time, Z. Let’s do this, and do it right,” Stevie Rae said.
I swallowed down the lump that kept trying to rise in my throat and said, “Earth supports and surrounds us. We wouldn’t be anything without her. I ask that you hear me, earth, and I summon you to this circle.” The sounds and scents of a grassy meadow filled the air. My BFF and I smiled at each other.
Then I moved to the center of the circle and completed the casting, lifting my purple candle to light. “The last element is one that fills everything and everyone. It makes us unique and it breathes life into all things. I ask that you hear me, spirit, and I summon you to this circle.”
Spirit swirled around and through me as my circle was enclosed in a brilliant silver light. I closed my eyes and prayed. “Nyx, it won’t surprise you to know that I’m not real sure what I’m doing here—I’m only sure I need to be here. Please guide me and strengthen me.”
Opening my eyes, I walked to stand before the blackened stones that had been seared together to close Neferet’s living tomb. Thinking of Thanatos, and remembering what I had watched her do for Kalona, I held out my hand and said, “Aurox! You must take my hand!”
It happened way faster than I’d anticipated. A blindingly bright globe the color of moonstones burst from the center of the blackened stones. It elongated and expanded until it became Aurox!
“Ohmygoodness, Z was right!” Stevie Rae gasped.
“Hi,” I said. “Can you see me?”
I can, he said. A brilliant smile lit his face. You heard me. You came back for me!
“Yeah, I did. I don’t leave part of the Nerd Herd behind,” I said.
Part of the Nerd Herd. I like that. I’ll remember that.
“Remember something else. Remember that I came back for you.”
Aurox looked utterly shocked, and then his smile was back. You really do care about me.
“I really do,” I said.
From just outside the circle, Stark added, “We all really do, Aurox.”
Aurox turned his glowing eyes on Stark. Can we still have that beer together someday?
“Absolutely!” Stark said. “Next time around.”
Next time around, Aurox repeated. Then he looked at me. Now what?
“Now you stop keeping your Goddess waiting,” I said. “Here, take my hand again.”
I’m not sure I’m ready, he said.
I smiled at him. “I’m sure.”
He took my hand, and I lifted again, imagining that I was tossing him into the sky. The silver light that had been encircling us funneled through me, and with a great push of energy, Aurox shot upward.
The night sky above us shivered and then parted like an opening curtain to reveal Nyx standing before a beautiful blue lake. Kalona was beside her, smiling down on us. I watched as the Goddess opened her arms to embrace Aurox as if she were a mother welcoming home her beloved son.
“I finally did the totally right thing!” I said, wiping tears from my cheeks.
Before the curtain to the Otherworld closed, Nyx’s gaze went to me. The Goddess grinned. She looked younger and happier than I’d ever seen her look. And then, very distinctly, Nyx, Goddess of Night, winked at me.
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