Kalona couldn't tell how long he'd been in Nyx's realm.
At first it'd been such a jolt to be wrenched from his body by the Darkness Neferet harnessed that, physically and spiritually, he'd been unaware of anything except the awe and fear of having returned to Her realm.
He hadn't forgotten the beauty of the place—the pure wonder of the Otherworld and the magic it held for him. Especially for him.
He'd been different when he'd belonged there.
He'd been a force for Light, protecting Nyx against anything Darkness could conjure to attempt to sway the balance of the world toward the evil and pain and selfishness and despair on which it thrived.
For centuries uncountable, Kalona had protected his Goddess against everything except himself.
Ironic that it had been love that Darkness had used to bring him down.
Still more ironic that, after he'd fallen, Light had also used love to entrap him.
He wondered briefly if love could possibly do anything worse to him than it already had. Was he even capable of it anymore?
He didn't love Neferet. He'd used her to free himself of the earth's imprisonment, and then, in turn, she'd used him for her own means.
Did he love Zoey?
He didn't want to be the cause of her destruction, but guilt wasn't love. Regret wasn't love, either. They also weren't strong enough emotions to make him want to sacrifice the freedom of his body to save her.
Moving through the Goddess's realm, the fallen immortal had put all questions of love and its painful trappings from his mind and focused on the task at hand.
The first step was to find Zoey.
The second was to be certain she could not return to the earthly realm, so that he could reclaim his body and fulfill the oath he'd sworn to Neferet.
Finding Zoey hadn't been difficult. He'd only had to concentrate his will on her, and his spirit had ridden the tide of Darkness directly to her—to the fragmented pieces of her soul.
The human boy he'd killed was there with her, or rather he was with the part of her that was most purely Zoey in this lifetime.
It was odd to see him comforting her—reassuring her—and then, somehow, instinctively, guiding her to the Goddess's sacred grove. A place so purely made of Nyx's essence that, as long as the balance of Light and Dark remained in place in the world, no evil could ever enter it.
Kalona remembered the grove well. It was within it that he had first realized his love for Nyx. In that terrible time before he chose to fall from Her, it was the only place he could go to find even a small measure of peace.
He'd tried to enter again. To follow Zoey and Heath and be finished with this burden Neferet's machinations had laid upon him, but Kalona had been unable to breach the barrier of the sacred grove.
The attempt had left him weak and breathless, reminding him all too well of the way he felt whenever he was entrapped by the earth.
This time it was the peace and magic of the Goddess's earth that had rejected him, and not imprisoned him.
He had been too much a part of Darkness for Nyx's grove to accept him.
Kalona half-expected Nyx to appear before him at any moment—accuse him of being the interloper he so obviously was—and, again, cast him from her realm.
But the Goddess did not appear. It seemed Neferet was correct. Had it been his body and soul that Nyx had banished, Erebus himself would have met him to do his Goddess's bidding and, with the all the powers of a divine consort, driven his spirit from the Other-world.
So Kalona was allowed this freedom, this Goddess-be-damned choice to return and glimpse what he most desired but could never have.
Anger, familiar and safe, boiled within the immortal.
He stalked Zoey and the boy. It didn't take Kalona long to realize that by simply forcing them to stay within the grove, he would eventually accomplish his task.
Zoey was fading away from herself. She was becoming an unresting Caoinic Shi', and as such, she would never return to her body.
The thought of Zoey turning into a being not living and not dead, eternally unable to rest, gave Kalona a curiously painful feeling.
Feeling again! Would he ever be rid of it? Yes. There must be a way. Perhaps Neferet had been right.
Perhaps it would be as easy as ridding himself of Zoey. Then he would be free of the guilt and desire and loss she evoked in him.
Even as the thought came to him, Kalona knew he would not be free of her if he left her here to become a wraith, a mere shade of herself. The knowledge of that would haunt him for eternity.
Kalona reconsidered as, from outside the grove, he watched Heath by Zoey's side, attempting to comfort her when comfort was impossible.
He does love her, and she him. It surprised Kalona that he felt no anger or jealousy at the thought. It was simple fact. Had the world not turned upside down for Zoey, she might have spent an innocent, mundane, happy lifetime with this human boy.
And with sudden clarity, Kalona understood how he could rid himself of Zoey and fulfill Neferet's oath.
She would be content here with the boy, and her contentment was enough to soothe the guilt he felt at being the impetus behind her death. She would be here, in Nyx's grove, with her childhood love, and Kalona would return to the earthly realm free of his entanglement with her. It would be an action for good if she remained, Kalona rationalized. She would never know earthly worries and pain again. It seemed a satisfying solution.
Kalona put out of his mind the thought of what it would be like to be bereft of the only person who, in two lifetimes, had reminded him of his lost Goddess and truly made him feel .
Instead, he concentrated on the boy. Heath was the key. It was his death that had caused her soul to shatter, and it was guilt over his death that kept her from being whole again. Foolish human! Does he not know only he can assuage her guilt and allow the healing of her soul?
No, of course he didn't. He was only a boy, and not a very insightful one at that. He'd have to be led to the realization.
But the boy was in the grove, and Kalona was denied entrance there. So Kalona hovered and observed, and when the boy's anger spilled over to rage and blood, he used that sliver of base emotion to whisper to him, guide him, send him on his way.
Nearly content, Kalona withdrew to the edge of the grove to wait. The boy would help Zoey mend her soul, but she wouldn't leave him—not if he was the vehicle through which she was made whole again. So it was only a matter of time, and a very little amount of time at that, before her earthly body perished without her spirit.
Then he could return to his own body, and his oath to Neferet would be fulfilled. Then, Kalona thought grimly, I will be sure the Tsi Sgili never gains control over me.
Smug in his rationalizations and internal deception, the immortal didn't see Stark enter the grove, so he didn't witness Zoey's world turning upside down again.
Stark watched Heath step through the curtain from one realm to the next. For a moment, he couldn't make himself move, not even to go to Zoey.
He'd been right. Heath was braver than he was. Stark bowed his head, and whispered, "Be with Heath, Nyx, and somehow let him find Zoey again in this lifetime." Stark's lips curled up, and he added, "Even if it will cause me a pretty big pain in the ass later on."
Then Stark lifted his chin, wiped his eyes, and left the concealing rock, going quickly and silently to Zoey.
She looked scary bad. Her matted hair lifted in a strange breeze that seemed to whisper around her as she paced, as if moving in time to a ghostly wind. Just before she saw Stark, she raised her hand to brush back some of it from her face, and he saw that her hand and even her arm suddenly looked transparent.
She was literally fading away.
"Zoey, hey, it's me."
The sound of his voice acted on her like an electric shock. Her body jerked, and Zoey whirled around to face him. "Heath!"
"No. It's Stark. I-I'm sorry about Heath," he blurted, feeling stupid but not knowing what else to say.
"He's gone." She looked blankly at the place Heath had stood before he disappeared, and then her pacing took her around the circle again, and her anguished gaze moved to Stark's face.
He knew when she recognized him because she staggered to a stop, wrapping her arms around herself as if in protection from a blow.
"Stark!" She shook her head from side to side, over and over. "No, not you, too!"
He knew what she must be thinking and went to her instantly, pulling her stiff, cold body into his arms and holding her close. "I'm not dead." He said the words slowly and carefully, looking into her face. "Do you understand, Zoey? I'm here, but my body is just fine. It's back in the real world with yours. Neither one of us is dead."
For a moment she almost smiled. She did, briefly, step fully into his embrace and allow him to hold her.
"I've missed you so much," he murmured.
She pulled away from him, studying his face carefully. "You're my Warrior."
"Yeah. I'm your Warrior. I'll always be your Warrior."
With a small sigh, she started pacing her circular path again. "Always is done now."
He kept pace with her, not sure how to reach this strange, ghostlike version of his Zoey. He remembered that Heath had talked to her pretty much like he normally did, so ignoring her confusing words and the fact that she couldn't stop moving, he took her hand, acting like they were just walking through the grove together. "This is a pretty cool place."
"It's supposed to be peaceful."
"I think it is."
"No. Not for me. Nothing will ever be peaceful for me again. I lost that part of me."
He squeezed her hand. "That's why I'm here. I'm going to protect you so that you can pull the pieces of your soul together, and then we'll go home."
She didn't even glance at him. "I can't. Go back without me. I have to stay here and wait for Heath."
"Zoey, Heath's not coming back here. He went on to another lifetime. He'll be reborn. Back in the real world is where he'll be."
"He can't be there. He's dead."
"Okay, I'm not so good at understanding this Otherworld stuff myself, but from what I can figure, Heath left here so that he can be reborn and live another lifetime. That's how he'll see you again, Z."
Zoey paused, stared blankly at him, shook her head, and then resumed her endless pacing.
Stark pressed his lips together hard to keep from saying what was tearing him apart inside—that she would've pulled herself together because of how much she loved Heath, but not for him. She didn't love him enough.
Stark shook himself mentally. This wasn't just about love. He'd known it when Seoras had first confronted him, asking whether he'd risk his life for Zoey, even if he lost her. "I stay with her," Stark had told him. "Aye, laddie, as her Warrior fer sure, but perhaps not as her love."
Perhaps not as her love.
Stark looked at Zoey and really saw her. She was completely broken. Her tattoos were gone. Her spirit was shredded. She was losing herself. Yet still he saw the goodness and strength within her, and Stark was drawn to her. She wasn't what she'd been before—she wasn't what she could be—but even shattered, she was his Ace, his bann ri shi', his queen.
. . . Know there is no going back, for this is the law and lot o' the Guardian pure, nae grudge, malice, prejudice, or vengeance, only yer unflinching faith in honor can be yer reward, nae guarantee of love, happiness, or gain.
Stark was Zoey's Guardian, no matter what. He was bound to her by something stronger than love: honor.
"Zoey, you have to come back. Not because of you and Heath, and not even because of you and me.
You gotta come back because it's the right thing, the honorable thing to do."
"I can't. There's not enough of me left."
"There is now that you've got help. Your Guardian's here." Stark lifted her hand to his lips, kissed it, and then smiled down at her as he remembered. "Aphrodite made me memorize a poem for you. It's one of Kramisha's. She and Stevie Rae think it's like some kind of map you might be able to follow to get yourself whole again."
"Aphrodite . . . Kramisha . . . Stevie Rae . . ." Zoey whispered hesitantly, as if relearning the words.
"They're my friends."
"Yeah, that's what they are," Stark squeezed her hand again. Since he seemed to be getting through to her, he kept going. "So, check out the poem. Here goes: A double-edged sword
One side destroys
I am your Gordian knot
Will you release or destroy me?
Follow truth and you shall:
Find me on water
Purify me through fire
Trapped by earth nevermore
Air will whisper to you
What spirit already knows:
That even shattered
anything is possible
If you believe
Then we shall both be free
When he'd finished reciting the poem, Zoey stopped moving long enough to meet his gaze, and say, "It doesn't mean anything."
She started walking again, but she had a tight hold on his hand, keeping him with her.
"Yeah, it does. It's about you and Kalona. He has something to do with you getting free of here." Stark paused, and then added, "You remember you two are linked together, right?"
"Not anymore we're not," she said quickly. "He broke that link when he broke Heath's neck."
I sure as hell hope so, Stark thought, but what he said was, "Yeah, still, part of it's already come true.
You followed what you thought was the truth about him to find him on water. So the next line says: Purify me through fire. What do you think that could mean?"
"I don't know!" Zoey shouted at him. Even though she was obviously getting pissed, Stark was glad to see the animation in her face that had been so blank and dead-looking. "Kalona isn't here. Fire isn't here.
I don't know!"
Stark kept a tight hold on her hand and let her settle down before he told her, "Kalona is here. He's come after you. He just can't get into the grove." Then, without rational thought, he spoke the next words as if they came from his heart and not his mind. "And fire got me here. Or at least it felt like fire."
Zoey glanced at him, and in a very matter-of-fact voice, changed the course of his life by saying, "Then it sounds like that poem's for Kalona and you, not Kalona and me."
Her words settled over Stark like a mesh of steel. "What do you mean, Kalona and me?"
"You went with me to Venice, and you knew the real truth of how much of a monster Kalona is before I did. Fire brought you here. The rest probably means something to you if you think about it enough."
"A double-edged sword . . ." Stark spoke the words softly. The claymore was double-edged. And he'd destroyed as well as released with it. He did know the truth about Kalona being dangerous when he followed him with Zoey to Venice . . . the fire of pain from Seoras's cuts had brought him to here, a place that reminded him of earth, even though it was in the Otherworld. And Zoey was trapped here, needing to be released. And now he had to follow what his spirit knew about honor to bring this whole thing to an end. "Oh, shit!" He looked at Zoey, ever-moving beside him, and the pieces of the puzzle fell into place. "You're right. The poem is for me."
"Good, then it shows you how to be free," Zoey said.
"No, Z. It shows me how to make both of us free," he said. "Kalona and me."
Her troubled, restless eyes lit on his face before looking hastily away. "Free Kalona? I don't understand."
"I do," he said grimly, remembering the killing blow that had freed the Other. "There are a lot of different ways to be free." He tugged on her hand, making her slow down and look at him. "And I do believe in you, Zoey. Even shattered, you still hold my Oath. I will protect you, and as long as I remember honor and don't ever let you down again, I think anything is possible. That's what being your Guardian's all about: honor."
He lifted her hand and kissed it again before he began walking. He didn't let her circular pacing control him. This time Stark led her in a straight line directly for the edge of the grove.
"No. No. We can't go over there," Zoey said,
"Over there is where we have to go, Z. It'll be okay. I trust you." Stark kept walking toward the widening bright spots between the green that marked the grove's edge.
"Trust me? No. It doesn't have anything to do with trust. Stark, we can't leave this place. Ever. There are bad things out there. He's out there." Zoey was pulling at his hand hard, trying to get him to change direction.
"Zoey, I'm gonna say some things to you really fast, and I know your concentration is messed up right now, but you gotta hear me." Stark was almost dragging Zoey with him, but he kept relentlessly moving them ahead, to the boundary of the grove. "I'm not just your Warrior anymore. I'm your Guardian. And that means a major change for me and for you. The biggest change is that I'm bound to you by honor even more than I am by love. I'm not ever gonna let you down again. I can't tell you what your change is gonna be." The end of the grove shimmered in front of them. Stark stopped and, following a gut impulse, he dropped to one knee in front of his shattered queen. "But I do believe one hundred percent that you're gonna be up to it. Zoey, you're my Ace, mo bann ri, my queen, and you have to pull yourself together, or none of us are getting out of here."
"Stark, you're scaring me."
He got to his feet. Stark kissed both of her hands, and then her forehead before saying, "Well, Z, stay tuned, 'cause I've only just started." He gave her his old, cocky grin. "No matter what happens, at least I made it here. If we get back, we'll be able to tell the sticks-up-their-asses Vampyre High Council ‘told ya so!' " Then he parted the leaves of two rowan trees and stepped over the rocky boundary of the grove.
Zoey stayed within the grove but held the branches open so she could stare out at Stark as she rocked back and forth, causing the leaves to rustle like a murmuring audience.
"Stark, come back!"
"Can't do that, Z. I got something to take care of."
"What? I don't understand!"
"I'm gonna kick some immortal ass. For you, for me, and for Heath."
"But you can't! You can't beat Kalona."
"You're probably right, Z. I can't. But you can ." Stark threw wide his arms and yelled into Nyx's sky.
"Come on, Kalona! I know you're here! Come get me. It's the only way you're going to be sure Zoey won't get back, 'cause as long as I'm alive I'm gonna fight to save her!"
The sky above Stark rippled, and the pristine blue began to gray. Tendrils of Darkness, like smoke from a toxic fire, spread, thickened, and took form. His wings appeared first. Massive, black, and unfurled, they blotted out the golden light of the Goddess's sun. Then Kalona's body formed—bigger, stronger, more dangerous-looking than Stark had remembered.
Still hovering above Stark, Kalona smiled. "So, it is you, boy. You sacrificed yourself to follow her here.
My work is done. Your death traps her here more easily than I ever could have."
"Wrong, asshole. I'm not dead. I'm alive, and I'm gonna stay that way. So is Zoey."
Kalona's eyes narrowed. "Zoey will not leave the Otherworld."
"Yeah, well, I'm here to make sure you're wrong again."
"Stark! Get back in here!" Zoey shouted from just inside the boundary of the grove.
Kalona's gaze went to her. He sounded sad, almost heartsick when he spoke. "It would have been an easier thing for her had you let the human boy do my will."
"That's the problem with you, Kalona. You have that god-complex thing going on. Or, no, I guess I should call it a God dess complex you got. See, just because you're immortal, it doesn't make you in charge. Actually in your case, it just makes you wrong for a really, really long time."
Slowly, Kalona shifted his gaze from Zoey to Stark. The immortal's amber-colored eyes had gone flat and cold with anger. "You are making a mistake, boy."
"I'm not a boy anymore." Stark's tone matched Kalona's.
"You'll always be a boy to me. Insignificant, weak, mortal ."
"Which makes you wrong three times in a row, mortal doesn't mean weak. Come on down here and let me prove that to you."
"Very well, boy. Let the pain this causes Zoey be on your soul, not mine."
"Yeah, 'cause I'd hate for you to fucking take responsibility for any of the messed-up shit you've done!"
As Stark knew it would, his taunt pushed Kalona's simmering rage to boiling. He roared at Stark, "Do not dare speak to me of my past!"
The immortal stretched out his arm, and from the Darkness writhing in the air around him, plucked a spear, tipped by metal that glistened wickedly, black as a moonless sky. Then Kalona dropped from the sky.
Instead of landing in front of Stark, his massive wings swept down and forward, slicing the ground in a perfect circle around Stark. Under his feet, the earth shuddered and then disintegrated, and like hell opening beneath him, Stark was falling down . . . down.
He hit bottom with such force his breath was knocked from him, and his vision grayed. He struggled to stand as he heard mocking laughter all around him.
"Just a small, weak boy trying to play with me. This won't even be amusing," Kalona said.
Arrogant. He's more arrogant than I ever was.
And with the thought of what he had been, and what he'd already defeated, Stark's chest loosened. He was able to draw breath. His vision cleared in time to see a flash of brilliant light pierce the darkness between him and Kalona, and the Guardian claymore was there, blade driven in the earth at his feet.
Stark grasped the hilt and felt it instantly, the warmth and the pulse of his heartbeat as the claymore, his claymore, sang in tune with his blood.
He looked at Kalona and saw surprise in the immortal's amber eyes.
"I told you I wasn't a boy anymore." Without hesitation, Stark strode forward, holding the claymore with both hands, perfectly centered on the geometrical strike lines that coalesced over Kalona's body.