CHAPTER 30

Zoey

It was the same castle rooft op; there was no doubt about it. The orange trees were filled with fat fruit that scented the cool breeze. In the center was the same fountain shaped like a naked woman with water cascading from her raised hands. Seeing her twice, I realized why she looked familiar. She reminded me of Nyx, or at least of one of the faces I’d seen the Goddess wear. And then I remembered what I’d learned about this place—that it was the ancient site of the original Vampyre High Council, so it totally made sense that the fountain would look like our Goddess. I wanted to sit beside it and breathe deep the smell of citrus and the sea air. I didn’t want to turn where my gut was telling me to turn—and see who I knew I was going to see. But, like the snowball down the mountain, I couldn’t seem to control the avalanche that was happening to me, so I turned in the direction my soul was leading me.

Kalona knelt by the edge of the castle’s toothlike roof. His back was to me and he was on his knees. He was dressed, or rather, undressed, like he’d been the last time we’d been here—he had on jeans and that was it. His dark wings spread down around him, leaving only his bronze shoulders visible. His head was bowed, and he didn’t seem to know I was there. As if I couldn’t stop them, my feet moved toward him, and as I approached, I realized that he was kneeling exactly where I’d been standing when I’d flung myself off the rooftop.

I wasn’t far from him when I saw his shoulders tense. His wings rustled and then his head lifted and he glanced over his shoulder.

He was crying. Tears made wet paths down his face. He looked crushed, broken, completely defeated. But the instant he saw me his expression changed. His face was suff used with such incredible joy that my breath literally caught at his incomparable beauty. He stood, and with a shout of happiness strode toward me.

I thought he would pull me into his arms, but at the last second he checked himself so that he only lifted one hand as if he was going to touch my cheek, but his fingers stopped short of my skin, hesitated there for an instant, and then, without touching me, his hand dropped back to his side.

“You came back.”

“Dreams aren’t real. I didn’t die,” I said, though it was hard for me to speak.

“The realm of dreams is part of the Otherworld; don’t ever underestimate the power of what happens here.” He wiped his face with the back of his hand and, surprising me again, gave an embarrassed little chuckle. “I must seem foolish to you. I knew you weren’t dead, of course. Yet it still felt so real—so horribly familiar.”

I stared at him, not knowing what to say. Not knowing how to react to this version of Kalona—the version who looked and acted more like an angel than a demon. He reminded me of the Kalona who had surrendered to A-ya, willingly giving himself to the trap of her embrace with a vulnerability that still haunted me. It was such a contrast from the last time I’d been here, when he’d been in super-seduction mode, all groping me, and…

I narrowed my eyes at him. “Just exactly how can I be here again? I’m not sleeping alone, and I don’t mean I’m with one of my girlfriends. Or rather, friends who are girls,” I corrected hastily. “I’m sleeping in the arms of the human guy I’ve Imprinted. He and I are definitely more than friends. You shouldn’t be able to get in here.” I pointed to my head.

“I am not inside your head. You have never called me into your dreams. I draw your essence to me. The invasion was mine, not through any invitation of yours.”

“That’s not what you said before.”

“I lied to you before. I am speaking the truth to you now.”

“Why?”

“For the same reason I was able to draw you here through your sleep even though you are in the arms of another. This time—for the first time—my motives are pure. I am not attempting to manipulate you. I am not attempting to seduce you. And I will speak only truth to you.”

“How can you expect me to believe that?”

“Whether you believe it or not does not change the nature of truth. You are here, Zoey, when you should not be. Is that not proof enough for you?”

I chewed my lip. “I don’t know. I don’t know the rules here.”

“You do know about the power of truth, though. You showed me that during your last visit. Can you not draw on that power to judge the veracity of what I’m saying?”

Thanks to Damien, I knew veracity meant truth, so I wasn’t standing there chewing my lip with a big question mark on my face because I didn’t get what he meant. I question marked because I didn’t know how to respond to him. Kalona was completely baffling me. Finally I opened my mouth to tell him that, no, I couldn’t count on the power of truth when I didn’t have a clue what he might be lying about, but he held up one hand and stopped my words.

“You asked me once before if I have always been as I am now, and I only gave you evasions and lies. Today I’d like to give you the truth. Will you let me, Zoey?”

Again, he called me Zoey! He hadn’t once called me A-ya, as he liked to do. And he wasn’t touching me. At all.

“I–I don’t know,” I stuttered like a moron and took a half step back, expecting the good-guy act to fade and the seductive immortal to reappear. “What are you going to do to show me?”

His beautiful amber eyes darkened with sadness. He shook his head. “No, Zoey. You need not fear that I’ll try to make love to you. Should I attempt to shift from truth to seduction, this dream would shatter and you would find yourself waking in another man’s arms. For me to show you what you need to see, you need only take my hand.” He held it out to me, strong and normal-looking.

I hesitated.

“I give you my oath that my skin will not burn you with the cold power of the lust I have for you. I know you have no reason to trust me, so I ask only that you trust in truth. Touch me, and you will see that I am not lying to you.”

It’s just a dream. I reminded myself. No matter what he says about the Otherworld, a dream is a dream. This isn’t real. But truth was real, whether in dreams or the waking world, and the sad truth was that I wanted to take his hand. I wanted to see what it was he needed to show me.

So I lifted my hand and pressed my palm to his.

He’d been telling the truth. For the first time, his skin didn’t freeze me with a passion and power that I couldn’t accept, even when I couldn’t make myself completely reject it.

“I want to show you my past.” The hand not holding mine swept in front of us like he was wiping an invisible window once, twice, three times. Then the air wavered and with an awful ripping sound something opened before us, like he’d torn a piece of the dream realm open. “Now behold the truth!”

At his command the rip in the sky shivered and then, like a big flat-screen TV had suddenly been turned on, I began watching pieces of Kalona’s past.

The first scene I saw had me breathless at its beauty. Kalona was there, half naked as always, but this time he held one long, dangerous-looking sword while another one was in a scabbard strapped across his back, and his wings were pure white! He was standing outside a magnificent door to a marble temple. He looked dangerous and noble—every bit a true Warrior. As I watched, his stern expression changed to something softer, and as the woman walked up the stairs of the temple, he smiled at her with obvious adoration.

Merry meet, Kalona, my Warrior.

Her voice echoed eerily from the past and I gasped. I didn’t need to see the woman’s face. I instantly recognized her voice. “Nyx!” I cried.

“Indeed,” Kalona said. “I was Nyx’s Oath-sworn Warrior.”

The Kalona in the vision followed his Goddess into her temple. The scene changed, and suddenly Kalona was using both his swords to battle something I couldn’t quite focus on. The thing was black and kept changing shape. One instant it would be a huge serpent, in another it was an open mouth filled with glistening teeth, in yet another it appeared to be a hideous spiderlike creature with claws and fangs.

“What is that?”

“Just an aspect of evil.” Kalona spoke slowly, as if the words were hard for him to say.

“But weren’t you in Nyx’s realm? How could evil get there?”

“Evil is everywhere, just as good is everywhere. It’s the way the world and the Otherworld were made. There must be balance, even in Nyx’s realm.”

“That’s why she needed a warrior?” I asked, watching the scene shift again to show Kalona, white wings blazing, walking behind Nyx as she strolled through a lush meadow. His eyes were never still, but constantly scanned the area around and behind the Goddess. One sword was drawn and in his hand. The other was ready in its scabbard.

“Yes, that is why she needs a warrior,” he said.

“Needs.” I tested the word, and then managed to look from the scenes of Kalona’s past to the Kalona of the present. “If she still needs a warrior, then why are you here instead of there?”

His jaw tightened and his eyes filled with pain. His voice was broken when he answered me. “Look there, and you shall see the truth.”

I focused my gaze back on the changing scenes to see Nyx standing before Kalona. He was on his knees in front of her, and just as he had been when I stepped into this dream, he was weeping. This incarnation of Nyx looked so much like the statue of Mary at the Benedictine nuns’ grotto that I felt a little jolt of shock. But as I kept watching, I saw that something was off about Nyx. Unlike the serene beauty of the nuns’ Mary, Nyx’s expression was hard and appeared weirdly more stonelike than the statue.

Please do not do this, my Goddess. Kalona’s voice lifted to us. It sounded as if he were begging.

I do nothing, Kalona. You have a choice in this. I give even my Warriors free will, though I don’t require them to use it wisely. I was shocked by how cold Nyx sounded. For a second she actually reminded me of how Aphrodite used to be.

I cannot help myself. I was created to feel this. It is not free will. It is preordination.

Yet as your Goddess I tell you what you are is not preordained. Your will has fashioned you.

I cannot help how I feel! I cannot help what I am!

You, my Warrior, are mistaken; therefore, you must pay the consequences of your mistake.

Nyx raised one perfect arm and flicked her fingers at Kalona. The Warrior was lifted from his knees and hurled backward, tumbling end over end.

Kalona fell.

I watched it.

I watched him scream and writhe in agony as he fell and fell and fell. When he finally landed, crumpled, broken, and bloody, in a lush field that reminded me of the Tall Grass Prairie, his wings had turned from white to the raven black they are today.

With a cry filled with pain, Kalona lifted his hand and wiped away the vision of the past. As the air before us shimmered and then became the rooft op garden of the castle again, he let loose of my hand and stepped away from me to sit on a bench under an orange tree. He didn’t say anything. He just sat there looking out at the sparkling blue of the Mediterranean.

I followed, but didn’t sit beside him. Instead, I stood in front of him, studying him as if I could really judge truth with my eyes.

“Why did she kick you out? What was it that you did?”

His eyes met mine. “I loved her too much.” His voice was so emotionless he sounded like a ghost.

“How can you love your Goddess too much?” I asked automatically, even as the obvious answer came to me. There were different types of love—I was ?ber-aware of that. Kalona’s love for Nyx was obviously the wrong type.

“I was jealous. I even hated Erebus.”

I blinked in shock. Erebus was Nyx’s consort, her eternal lover.

“My love for her made me break my oath. I was so obsessed with her, I couldn’t protect her anymore. I failed as her Warrior.”

“That’s terrible,” I said, thinking of Stark. He’d only been sworn to me for days, and already I knew it would be like ripping away a part of his soul if he failed to protect me. And how long had Kalona been Nyx’s Warrior? Centuries? How long was a piece of eternity?

Incredulous, I realized I was feeling sorry for Kalona. I couldn’t be feeling sorry for him! Sure, he’d had his heart broken and fell from the Goddess’s realm, but then he’d turned into a bad guy. He’d become the evil he used to fight.

He nodded his head and, as if he could hear my thoughts, said, “I did terrible things. I’ve continued to do them. Falling changed me. Then, for so long I was numb inside. I searched and searched, century after century, trying to find something, someone to fill the bloody wound Nyx had left within my soul, within my heart. When I found her, I didn’t know she wasn’t real, that she was just an illusion created to entrap me. I went willingly into her arms. Did you know that when she began to shift her form back to the clay from which she’d been made, she wept?”

My body jerked. I knew what he was talking about. I’d experienced it with her.

“Yes.” My voice was a rough whisper. “I remember.”

His eyes widened in shock. “You remember? You have A-ya’s memories?”

I didn’t want to admit the extent of the A-ya memory, but I knew I couldn’t lie. So I fashioned a small piece of the truth and gave it to him in short, tight words. “Only one. I just remember dissolving. And I remember A-ya crying.”

“I am glad you don’t remember anything else, because her spirit stayed with me, trapped there in the darkness, for a long time. I couldn’t touch her, but I could sense her presence. I think it was the only thing that kept me sane.” A shiver rippled through his body and I saw his hands begin to lift, as if he would literally try to push away the memory. He was silent for a long time. I thought he might be done with his retelling of the past, and I was trying to sift through the shock and disbelief in my mind to find a question to ask him when he began to speak again. “Then A-ya was gone. That is when I began calling. I whispered my need to be free to the world, and the world finally heard me.”

“Don’t you mean Neferet heard you?”

“It is true that she heard me, but it wasn’t only the Tsi Sgili who answered my call.”

I shook my head. “You didn’t call me to the House of Night. Nyx Marked me. That’s why I’m there.”

“Is it? I must speak only the truth or our dream disappears, so I will not try to persuade you by pretending I know more than I do. I will only say what I believe, and I do believe you heard me, too. Or at least the part of you that was once A-ya heard and recognized my voice.” He hesitated, and then added, “Perhaps Nyx’s hand was guiding your reincarnation. Perhaps the Goddess sent you to—”

“No!” I couldn’t listen to any more. My heart was beating so hard I thought it would burst from my chest. “Nyx didn’t send me to you, just like I’m not really A-ya. It doesn’t matter that I have some random memory that’s hers. In this lifetime I’m a real girl, with free will and a mind of my own.”

His expression changed again. His eyes soft ened as he smiled at me tenderly. “I know, Zoey, and that is why I have had such a struggle with my feelings for you. I woke from the earth wanting the maiden who had imprisoned me, to find a girl with free will fighting against me.”

“Why are you doing this? Why do you sound like this? You’re not really this guy!” I shouted at him, trying to yell down the terrible, wonderful way his words were making me feel.

“It happened when you fell. I saw myself falling again, and in that vision I also saw my heart breaking again. I couldn’t bear it. I swore to myself that if I could draw you to me one more time I would show you the truth.”

“If this is really true, then you have to know that you’ve become the evil you used to fight.”

He looked away from me, but not before I saw shame in his eyes. “Yes. I know.”

“I’ve chosen a different path. I can’t love evil. And that is the truth,” I said.

His eyes came instantly back to me. “And if I choose to reject evil? What then?”

His questions threw me totally off guard, so I blurted the first thing that came to my mind. “You can’t reject evil, not while you’re with Neferet.”

“What if I’m only evil with Neferet? What if the truth is that if I were with you, I could choose good?”

“Impossible.” I was shaking my head back and forth, back and forth.

“Why do you call it impossible? It has happened before. You know because you caused the choice for good. The warrior who is bound to you is proof of it.”

“No. This version of you isn’t real. You’re not Stark. You’re a fallen immortal, Neferet’s lover. You’ve raped women—made people your slaves—killed people. Your sons almost killed my grandma. One of them did kill Professor Anastasia!” I grabbed on to all the negatives I could and hurled them at him. “The fledglings and professors at the House of Night started to question Nyx because of you. They’re still acting wrong. Whether it’s their choice or not, they’re filled with fear and hate and jealousy, just like you were with Nyx!”

He acted like I wasn’t standing there shrieking at him. He simply said, “You saved Stark. Can’t you save me, too?”

“No!” I screamed.

And sat straight up in bed.

“Zo, it’s okay. I got ya.” Heath was there, wiping sleep from his eyes with one hand and rubbing my back with the other.

“Oh, Goddess,” I said, blowing out a long, trembling breath.

“What’s wrong? Bad dream?”

“Yeah, yeah. Weird, bad dream.” I glanced at the bed across the room. Stevie Rae hadn’t moved. Nala was curled by her shoulder. My cat sneezed at me. “Traitor,” I told her, trying to force myself to sound normal again.

“Well, then, go back to sleep. This switching up days and nights is finally working for me and I want to stay in practice,” Heath said, holding his arms open for me to slide back into.

“Okay, yeah, sorry.” I lay back, curling into a ball that was frighteningly similar to a fetal position.

“Go back to sleep,” Heath repeated around a huge yawn. “Everything’s okay.”

I lay awake for a long time wishing desperately that it was true.

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