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BURNED
by P.C. Cast, Kristin Cast

Genre: Urban Fantasy, Young Adult

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Kalona lifted his hands. He didn’t hesitate. There was no doubt whatsoever in his mind about what he had to do. He would not allow anything or anyone to get in his way, and this human boy was standing between him and what he desired. He didn’t particularly want to kill the boy; he didn’t particularly want the boy alive, either. It was a simple necessity. He didn’t feel remorse or regret. As had been the norm during the centuries since he’d fallen, Kalona felt very little. So, indifferently, the winged immortal twisted the boy’s neck and put an end to his life.

“No!”

The anguish of that one word froze Kalona’s heart. He dropped the boy’s lifeless body and whirled around in time to see Zoey racing toward him. Their eyes met. In hers were despair and hatred. In his was an impossible denial. He tried to formulate the words that might make her understand— might make her forgive him. But there was nothing he could say to change what she had seen, and even if he could work the impossible, there was no time.

Zoey threw the full power of the element spirit at him.

It hit the immortal, striking him with force that was beyond physical. Spirit was his essence— his core— the element that had sustained him for centuries and with which he had always been most comfortable, as well as most powerful. Zoey’s attack seared him. It lifted him with such force that he was hurled over the huge stone wall that separated the vampyres’ island and the Gulf of Venice. The icy water engulfed him, smothering him. For an instant the pain within Kalona was so deadening that he didn’t fight it. Perhaps he should let this terrible struggle for life and its trappings end. Perhaps, once again, he should allow himself to be vanquished by her. But less than a heartbeat after he had the thought, he felt it. Zoey’s soul shattered and, as truly as his fall had carried him from one realm to another, her spirit departed this world.

The knowledge wounded him worse than had her blow against him.

Not Zoey! He’d never meant to cause her harm. Even through all of Neferet’s machinations, through all of the Tsi Sgili’s manipulations and plans, he’d held tight to the knowledge that, in spite of everything, he would use his vast immortal powers to keep Zoey safe because ultimately she was the closest he could come to Nyx in this realm— and this was the only realm left to him.

Fighting to recover from Zoey’s attack, Kalona lifted his massive body from the clutching waves and realized the truth. Because of him, Zoey’s spirit was gone, which meant she would die. With his first breath of air, he released a wrenching cry of despair, echoing her last word, “No!”

Had he really believed since his fall that he didn’t truly have feelings?  He’d been a fool and wrong, so very wrong. Emotions battered him as he flew raggedly just above the waterline, chipping away at his already wounded spirit, raging against him, weakening him, bleeding his soul. With blurred, blackened vision, he stared across the lagoon, squinting to see the lights that heralded land. He’d never make it there. It would have to be the palace. He had no choice. Using the last reserves of his strength, Kalona’s wings beat against the frigid air, lifting him over the wall, where he crumpled to the frozen earth.

He didn’t know how long he lay there in the cold darkness of the shattered night as emotions overwhelmed his shaken soul. Somewhere in the far reaches of his mind, he understood the familiarity of what had happened to him. He’d fallen again, only this time it was more in spirit than in body— though his body didn’t seem his to command any longer either.

He felt her presence before she spoke. It had been like that between them from the first, whether he truly wished it or not— they simply sensed one another.

“You allowed Stark to bear witness to your killing of the boy!” Neferet’s voice was more frigid than the winter sea.

Kalona turned his head so that he could see more than the toe of her stiletto shoe. He looked up at her, blinking to try to clear his vision.

“Accident.” Finding his voice again he managed a rasping whisper.  “Zoey should not have been there.”

“Accidents are unacceptable, and I care not one bit that she was there. Actually, the result of what she saw is rather convenient.”

“You know that her soul shattered?” Kalona hated the unnatural weakness in his voice and the strange lethargy in his body almost as much as he hated the effect Neferet’s icy beauty had on him.

“I imagine most of the vampyres on the island know it. Typically for her, Zoey’s spirit wasn’t exactly quiet in its leave- taking. I wonder, though, how many of the vampyres also felt the blow the chit dealt you just before she departed.” Neferet tapped her chin contemplatively with one long, sharp fingernail.

Kalona remained silent, struggling to center himself and draw together the ragged edges of his torn spirit, but the earth his body pressed against was too real, and he had not the strength to reach above and feed his soul from the wispy vestiges of the Otherworld that floated there.

“No, I don’t imagine any of them felt it,” Neferet continued, in her coldest, most calculating voice. “None of them are connected to Darkness, to you, as I am. Is that not so, my love?”

“We are uniquely connected,” Kalona managed, though he suddenly wished the words were not true.

“Indeed . . .” she said, still distracted by her thoughts. Then Neferet’s eyes widened as a new realization came to her. “I have long wondered how it was that A-ya managed to wound you, such a physically powerful immortal, badly enough that those ridiculous Cherokee hags could entrap you. I believe little Zoey has just provided the answer you’ve so carefully withheld from me. Your body can be damaged but only through your spirit. Isn’t that fascinating?”

“I will heal.” He put as much strength as possible in his voice.

“Return me to Capri and the castle there. Take me to the rooftop, as close to the sky as I can be, and I will regain my strength.”

“I imagine you would— were I so inclined to do that. But I have other plans for you, my love.” Neferet lifted her arms, extending them over him. As she continued to speak she began weaving her long fingers through the air, creating intricate patterns, like a spider spinning her web. “I will not allow Zoey to interfere with us ever again.”

“A shattered soul is a death sentence. Zoey is no longer any threat to us,” he said. With knowing eyes, Kalona watched Neferet. She drew to her a sticky blackness he recognized all too well. He’d spent lifetimes battling that Darkness before he embraced its cold power. It pulsed and fluttered familiarly, restlessly under her fingers. She shouldn’t be able to command Darkness so tangibly. The thought drifted like the echo of a death knell through his weary mind. A High Priestess shouldn’t have such power.

But Neferet was no longer merely a High Priestess. She had grown beyond the boundaries of that role some time ago, and she had no trouble controlling the writhing blackness she conjured.

She is becoming immortal, Kalona realized, and with the realization, fear joined regret and despair and anger where they already simmered within the fallen Warrior of Nyx.

“One would think it would be a death sentence,” Neferet spoke calmly as she drew more and more of the inky threads to her, “but Zoey has a terribly inconvenient habit of surviving. This time I am going to ensure she dies.”

“Zoey’s soul also has a habit of reincarnating,” he said, purposefully baiting Neferet to try to throw off her focus.

“Then I will destroy her over and over again!” Neferet’s concentration only increased with the anger his words evoked. The blackness she spun intensified, writhing with swollen power in the air around her.

“Neferet.” He tried to reach her by using her name. “Do you truly understand what it is you are attempting to command?”

Her gaze met his, and, for the first time, Kalona saw the scarlet stain that nested in the darkness of her eyes. “Of course I do. It’s what lesser beings call evil.”