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First the crazy-assed vampyre/goddess and the bloody black curtain at the Mayo. Now a winged giant who said he was Death’s Warrior.

Was he f**king dreaming?

Well, if he was, the dream kept on going and going, because Thanatos was talking to the winged giant and Marx damn sure wasn’t waking up.

“Go with me? To downtown Tulsa in full view of the—”

“What will you do if Neferet’s threads of Darkness attack you? I understand this manifestation of Darkness. I battled it over and over again in the Otherworld.” The giant’s powerful voice shot out: “Which would the humans fear more, the incarnation of evil, or the presence of a god battling it in the streets of Tulsa?”

“Humans don’t believe the gods walk the earth anymore,” Thanatos said.

“My point exactly!” said the winged giant. “Neferet’s actions have negated the norm. It is past time humans take their heads from the sand and realize this world is filled with magick and mystery and danger. It is also time I do what I was created to do—be a Warrior and battle Darkness.”

The High Priestess bowed her head ever so slightly in acquiescence to the winged man. Then she turned to Marx. “Detective, I would like to introduce you to my Oath Bound Warrior, Kalona. He is my protector, as well as this House of Night’s Sword Master. He will be accompanying us to the Mayo.”

Marx hesitated a moment and then did the only thing he could think to do—he held out his hand to the big guy. “Good to meet you, Kalona.”

Kalona gripped his forearm in the traditional vampyre greeting. “And you as well, Detective.”

“You aren’t a vampyre, are you?” Marx couldn’t help asking.

Kalona’s smile was sardonic. “No. I am not.”

Marx glanced at the guy’s wings, which now were tucked against his back. The damn things were so long they actually brushed the floor. “What are you?”

Kalona’s smile widened and seemed to turn genuine. “There is a complicated answer to that, one I promise to give you after we have dealt with Neferet.”

“I’ll hold you to that promise,” Marx said, trying not to look directly into the guy’s eyes because doing so made his head feel woozy and thick, like it was filled with cotton balls.

“You won’t have to, Detective. I’ve learned the hard way that it is best that I hold myself to my promises.”

“So we’re actually all going to the Mayo?” Aphrodite asked.

“No. Kalona and I are going, as well as Zoey, Stark, and her circle. Darius, Aurox, and Aphrodite—you will remain here with Lenobia. The two of you will call a school assembly. Fill in the professors, Warriors, and the student body. Give them the basics and no more. And put the school on high alert. We have no idea what Neferet’s next move may be.”

“Do ya really think everyone should know what’s goin’ on?” Stevie Rae said, echoing Marx’s thoughts.

Zoey spoke up before Thanatos could. “I’m thinking that Darkness hates to have light shined on it, so let’s shine a big ol’ spotlight on what Neferet’s up to.”

“That’s damn sure one way to find out who wants to slither back under the rocks with Neferet and who wants to stand up and fight her with us,” Stark said.

“The two of you have echoed my thoughts exactly,” Thanatos said.

“Well, all right, then. But I’m calling in Kramisha to help me. She always knows who’s up to what,” Aphrodite said.

“It is a wise Prophetess who gathers to her others gifted by her Goddess,” Thanatos said, giving her approval.

“It’s also a wise Prophetess who keeps her cell phone close by. Call if all hell breaks loose—literally or figuratively,” Aphrodite said.

“Will do,” Zoey told her.

“We’ll follow you, Detective Marx,” Thanatos said.

Marx drew a deep breath and totally turned off his sanity switch. “All right. Let’s do this.”

Lynette

“Lynette, I do adore a surprise…” Neferet hesitated before continuing, lifting one slender finger, “if the surprise is pleasant. If it is not, then a surprise is nothing more than an irritating interruption. I loathe interruptions almost as much as I loathe being irritated.” Her gaze left Lynette’s, and she glanced at what appeared to be her bare legs. “Speaking of irritations—why are you milling aimlessly about? I am perfectly safe, and you have all been perfectly satiated. Go amuse yourselves elsewhere and cease tugging at me. Go on now, shoo!” Neferet fluttered her fingers dismissively before turning her attention back to Lynette.

Lynette didn’t see the snake-things, but she could feel the cold brush of something slithering past her. She suppressed a shudder of revulsion.

“Dear Lynette, where were we? Ah, yes, I remember. You announced that you have planned a little surprise for me. Please continue to explain yourself.”

Lynette met the Goddess’s gaze without flinching. The panic that was gathered somewhere under her breastbone shivered and shied, but she tightened the mental reins she’d tethered it with and let only the joy of planning a spectacular event fill her mind. Lynette’s smile was full of confidence, as was her voice. “Goddess, I am very good at my job. Even though I was working under unusual circumstances with limited means, I absolutely believe you will find my surprise pleasant.”

“Limited means—that sounds so tawdry, so cheap.” Neferet frowned. “I certainly never meant for you to feel as if your Goddess is miserly.”

“Oh, I don’t feel that at all!” Lynette assured her, hoping she hadn’t tripped Neferet’s crazy trigger. “I put myself under a time and means constraint because I wanted to prove my worth to you. But of course this is just a small sample of the events I could plan for you daily—had I more time and money with which to work.”

Neferet’s brow unfurled. “You are a wise woman, Lynette. Show me what you have concocted for me. If it pleases me, you may be assured that you will be allowed to move forward with limitless means, though I cannot promise I will be patiently allotting you too much time. I waited far too long to begin my reign. I am restless for the worship of my supplicants.”

“That is very understandable, Goddess,” Lynette said. “I have never been as concerned about time as I have money when it comes to event planning.”

Neferet studied her.

Lynette concentrated on business. She excelled at business. She was confident about business. Business did not terrify or repulse her.

Neferet smiled. “You are being absolutely honest. Your business and the acquisition of money have long been your main concern. Lead on, my supplicant! Reveal my surprise.”

Lynette curtsied and led Neferet from the penthouse suite to the elevator, stopping it on the mezzanine. “Please wait just a moment, Goddess.”

Neferet smiled and made a gesture of acquiescence. Lynette punched the hold button on the elevator and then tapped the almost invisible earbud, speaking quickly and quietly. “Kylee, wait ten seconds and then cue the quartet to begin.”

“Yes, Lynette,” came Kylee’s robotic response.

Lynette glanced to her right and made a come-here gesture. Judson, the handsome bellman, stepped from the shadows. He was dressed impeccably in a freshly pressed uniform, and he was carrying a shining silver platter on which rested one perfect crystal flute filled with bubbling pink champagne. He bowed perfectly, mechanically, to Neferet and said, “May I offer you champagne, Goddess?”

“Why, yes. Thank you, Judson.”

The music began the instant Neferet lifted the flute from the tray. Lynette was pleased to see a smile lift the corners of the Goddess’s lips.

“Strauss’s ‘Blue Danube’—one of my favorite waltzes. Ah, Vienna—it was so lovely and decadent in the past.”

“Please, follow me, Goddess,” Lynette said formally, leading Neferet around the mezzanine to the spot she’d had her temporary throne moved to—just above the landing from which she’d addressed her new “supplicants” a mere three hours before, and where, now, the string quartet from last night’s wedding was nervously, but beautifully, playing.

Neferet sat gracefully, peering down at the quartet. “They play well, though I would prefer a full orchestra.”

“Time and means,” Lynette said with a wry smile.

The Goddess’s lips twitched. “I am taking note of that.”

Lynette bowed her head to Neferet and surreptitiously tapped her earpiece again. “Send them at the beginning of the next six count.” Then she held her breath and hoped the twelve performers managed to keep themselves together.

The heavy velvet drapes that enclosed the ballroom below parted, and from opposite sides of the room, six couples moved quickly to the center of the marble floor. The women were all wearing dresses that were as close to the same shade of scarlet as Lynette could find. The men were in tuxedos she’d managed to piece together from whatever was left over from the wedding, was clean enough, and could be made to fit.

Fit! That had been only part of this wretched event’s problems. It had been a horrendous job to find six men and six women from what Lynette had already silently named the prisoner pool, who were relatively attractive, relatively graceful, and relatively able to learn and perform the simple steps of a basic waltz. Yes, she could have used all of the snake-infested staff members—they’d certainly obey anything she told them to do as long as she didn’t try to escape the Mayo. But Lynette’s instinct had told her that people already under her control going through a performance by rote wouldn’t impress Neferet.

No, Lynette believed Neferet wanted, needed, the illusion of being worshipped. So she’d threatened, nagged, and cajoled twelve decent-looking people into working for her.

Lynette could see that they were nervous—two of the women were trembling so badly she could she their arms shaking—but just as she’d instructed, the couples positioned themselves in a large circle and managed to be in place at the end of the first six count. At the beginning of the second set of notes, all twelve people looked up at Neferet, paused for three counts, and then as one, each man bowed and each woman curtsied to the Goddess.

Lynette saw their mistakes. Saw that the woman named Cindi almost fell over, and only her partner’s quick hand under her elbow saved her. Camden, the tall kid who had been best man at the wedding last night—and unlucky enough to have been too hungover to have made the dawn flight the bride and groom had caught to Dallas—held his bow far too long. Lynette gritted her teeth. If that spoiled frat boy messed this up, he was going to be sorrier than she was.

Lynette glanced at Neferet. Obviously pleased, the Goddess smiled and nodded her head regally in response to the performers.

Now just dance and don’t look too awkward! Lynette thought.

They danced. All twelve of them actually began on the same note and moved around the room in an almost circular pattern. They were far from perfect, but the music was lovely, and if some of the dancers faltered, “Blue Danube” remained true. When the final note ended, the six couples curtsied and bowed again to Neferet, this time holding their poses in a freeze frame that even Lynette had to admit was actually rather beautiful.

Neferet stood and, to Lynette’s immense relief, applauded and laughed.

“Well done, all of you! That was quite nice. Judson, open fresh bottles of champagne for these lovely supplicants.”

“Goddess, they are waiting for you to allow them to rise,” Lynette whispered to Neferet.

“Of course they are, and thank you for reminding me, dear Lynette. You may rise!” Neferet called down to them. “Enjoy your champagne and your Goddess’s gratitude for your worship.”

Lynette tapped her earpiece. “Kylee, tell the quartet to begin the next piece.” Within just a few moments, music filled the ballroom again.

“‘Waltz of the Flowers’ from The Nutcracker. Two lovely pieces and excellent choices,” Neferet said.

“So my surprise was pleasant?”

“It was. The candelabrum, the flowers, the tuxedos, and the red dresses—they were all thoughtfully chosen. Lynette, you have made a very good beginning as my event planner. I approve of your theme—exquisite music, a beautifully appointed space, and respectful homage being paid to me.”

“Then is it safe for me to assume you would like more events planned as such?”

“Yes, it would be, but next time choose to set the event in a theme of my favorite era—the 1920s. That was a decade worth reliving. Can you Charleston, Lynette?”

“Do I have access to the Internet?”

“Yes, you do, as well as a very generous event account,” Neferet said, smiling knowingly at Lynette.

“Then I can Charleston, and so can your supplicants.”

“We will need more musicians,” Neferet said.

“Yes, Goddess. I will make it so,” Lynette said, already tapping notes into her smartphone.

“And costumes. We will need many more costumes.”

“Of course, Goddess,” Lynette agreed.

“And I need more than just dancing, though that is a nice beginning.”

Lynette glanced from her notes to Neferet. The Goddess wasn’t looking at her. She was stroking the crystal champagne flute and staring down at the ballroom and the six couples who were milling in a little group, nervously accepting the champagne Judson was offering them. Lynette followed her gaze. The spoiled frat boy was downing what appeared to be his second glass of champagne. Neferet was devouring him with her eyes.

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