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“It pleases me that my supplicants are so attractive,” she said.

Lynette’s sarcastic snort was automatic, but when the Goddess’s gaze snapped to her, she was instantly sorry she’d allowed her composure to slip.

Neferet raised an auburn brow. “Ah, I see. You chose the twelve of them carefully, because not all of my supplicants are so attractive—and that’s that truth, isn’t it.”

She didn’t frame the words as a question, but Lynette felt compelled to answer. “Yes, that is the truth.” She shifted her shoulders restlessly. “I’m sorry, Goddess. I just wanted to be sure that you were happy with this first, small event.”

“That is very understandable, dear Lynette. Actually, I appreciate your efforts, and while I appreciate all of my subjects, I also appreciate things—and people—that are pleasing to my senses.” Neferet leaned forward in her throne and spoke to Lynette in a conspirator’s voice. “You could add that to your duties as my event planner.”

“I’m willing to serve you in any way you require, Goddess.” Lynette tried to understand her meaning. “But what duties do you mean by ‘that’?”

“Making certain my supplicants always appear as attractive as possible, of course. Yes, I am quite sure you will have a talent for makeovers.”

“Makeovers.” Lynette repeated the word, feeling utterly overwhelmed as snapshots of some of Neferet’s less-than-attractive supplicants flashed through her memory. The fifty-something woman who needed to lose fifty-something pounds … the scrawny redheaded preteen whose face was already blotched with acne … the businessman who was bald and had a bulging gut and a triple chin that looked like a goiter …

Neferet’s mocking laughter ended the slide show in her mind. “Stop fretting, dear Lynette. Between the two of us we shall cull the herd. After all, I can control everything they eat, everything they do. Don’t you agree that diet and exercise are very important?”

Lynette felt her head nod and tried to keep her mind completely focused on Neferet’s emerald gaze.

“So besides putting some of them on a diet and making sure they spend time in my Temple’s gymnasium, I’m confident you can give hair, makeup, and clothing tips. Correct?”

“Yes, Goddess,” she said automatically.

“Excellent. I am glad you brought this to my attention. It is important my supplicants always look their best. They are, in some small manner, a reflection of myself.” As if that settled the subject, Neferet’s gaze moved back to the group below them, halting predatorily on Camden.

“You made an excellent choice in that one, Lynette. He’s tall, young, and blond. That is how I prefer my men,” Neferet said. “His name?”

“Camden,” Lynette said. “He was best man in the wedding that brought me to the Mayo.”

“Best man? Really?” Neferet’s emerald eyes gleamed with a dangerous intensity, and Lynette was thankful that intensity wasn’t focused on her. “Perhaps I will put that title to a test and see if Camden is, indeed, the best man here.”

Lynette repressed her shiver of fear. “Would you like me to send for him?”

“No, dear Lynette. I can summon best man Camden with ease. Perhaps he would like to visit the balcony of my penthouse.” Her jeweled gaze turned to Lynette and the feral gleam in them hardened. “My staff has gotten rid of those unsightly remains, have they not?”

Shit! I was too busy pulling off this performance to worry about being sure all the pieces of people were thrown off the balcony. Lynette’s mind scrambled and she let out a relived sigh when she found the answer. “Goddess, I believe Kylee was in charge of seeing to your balcony.”

“That girl,” Neferet muttered, sipping her champagne. “She’s good at some things, but she needs so much supervision. Could you use your useful little ear machine to remind her of my command?”

“Of course, Goddess,” Lynette said.

“And while you supervise Kylee, I believe I shall mingle with my adoring, attractive supplicants. Can you imagine how honored best man Camden would be if I allowed him to ask me for a dance?”

Thankfully, Neferet’s question was rhetorical, and instead of focusing on Lynette for a response, the Goddess turned her back to her and, sipping her champagne, she walked toward the large double staircase that led down to the ballroom.

Lynette noted Neferet didn’t glide. It’s because she sent the snake-things out to play, Lynette thought. Somehow they must carry her—or channel power to lift her—or something equally insane.

She shook her head, as if clearing cobwebs away. She couldn’t afford to overthink. She couldn’t afford to do anything except survive.

Lynette tapped her earbud. “Kylee, Neferet is going to inspect her balcony. Soon. She’s holding you responsible for it being clean.”

“I understand and will obey,” came Kylee’s robotic response.

Lynette sighed heavily. She took a few stumbling steps back and leaned against one of the marble pillars, doing nothing for just a moment except breathing.

She’d made it through Neferet’s first test. She was still alive, and still not possessed by anything that slithered. But if she was going to stay that way, she couldn’t afford to relax. There would be time for relaxation after she got through this. And Lynette would get through it—she always got through whatever bullshit life shoveled on her.

To begin, Lynette had a list to make.

She had to check out every single person in the building. They needed to be categorized as either attractive and acceptable, or needs work. Under the needs work category she’d subcategorize as fat, fashion impaired, or just plain ugly. The first two could be fixed—maybe. The third, well, just plain ugly would have to learn some skills that kept them behind the scenes.

“Here’s hoping they can cook or sew…”

Lynette was mumbling to herself as she tapped her smartphone notes list when she heard a scream coming from the ballroom. What now? What more could Neferet be doing? Her mind was heavy with fear and exhaustion, but she made her feet carry her to the mezzanine railing.

Neferet was standing beside Camden. He was staring at the plunging neckline of the Goddess’s short velvet dress. The other eleven people were staring at the slithering snakes that were coiling around Neferet’s bare ankles.

“Oh, do be quiet,” Neferet snapped at the girl who had screamed. “You need to get used to my children. They’re never far from my side, just as you, my loyal supplicants, are never far from my side.”

“I-I’m s-sorry, Goddess. Th-they look like snakes. I-I’m afraid of snakes,” the girl stammered.

“They are not snakes. They are much more dangerous. And I’m not asking that you get over your fear of them. I’m commanding that you not voice it.” Neferet shifted her gaze downward to the snake-things that were writhing with what seemed like excitement around her feet. “What is it, my darlings?”

“Goddess, the detective has returned,” Judson called from the front of the foyer. “He’s brought more people with him.”

“That means nothing. He can bring an entire Oklahoma National Guard armory with him. They cannot penetrate my protective curtain.”

“He hasn’t brought an army, Goddess. He’s brought a vampyre who is making the air around her glow while a large man who appears to have wings hidden under his trench coat paces nearby.”

“Why did you wait until now to tell me?” Neferet shrieked. “Children! Come with me!” Lifted by the fully visible nest of slithering vipers, the Goddess glided to the front doors.

Lynette’s body went cold. She slipped out of her chic heels so that she could sprint quietly around the mezzanine, heading for the large picture windows that overlooked the front of the building, trying not to think at all, but especially trying not to hope.

CHAPTER NINE

Zoey

“Holy crap, the Mayo looks awful!” I blurted.

“Like it’s dripping with death.” Damien sounded as horrified as I felt.

“Not with death,” Thanatos said. “Death is inevitable for all mortals. It is neither good nor evil; it is simply part of the great spiral of life. What Neferet has coated that building in is pain and fear, blood and despair.”

Her voice sounded weird. Grandma, Stark, Shaylin, and I were all smushed into the middle row of seats of the school’s Hummer, and Thanatos was sitting up front with Marx. I’d noticed that the closer we’d gotten to the Mayo, the more restless the High Priestess had appeared. She was literally fidgeting, which was super strange for her—Thanatos was usually like a mountain of calm.

Her obvious nervousness had my stomach clenching like crazy.

“Chaos,” Kalona said. I glanced over my shoulder where he was sitting with Damien and Shaunee (they were super smushed because his wings were taking up way too much room) to see him shaking his head in disgust. “Neferet has used the threads of Darkness to create chaos, and that is protecting her.”

“Well, chaos smells bad,” I said, wrinkling my nose.

“Fetid and horrible,” Damien agreed. “And we don’t even have a window cracked.”

“Sorry,” Marx said. “I meant to warn you about the stink.”

“No need to be sorry, Detective,” Grandma said. “I don’t believe there is any way you could have prepared us for this.”

“You’re probably right, but I better mention that we can’t be sure if all the body parts have been cleared from the area,” Marx added. “So watch where you step.”

“Body parts?” My voice squeaked.

Marx nodded. “The snake-things killed a lot of people when they came over the edge of the balcony and spread blackness and guts down the building. All evening Neferet’s been tossing pieces of people, drained of blood, off the penthouse balcony.”

“I can feel the spell she has bound in blood and death and Darkness,” Thanatos said. “She used the deaths of those poor people to make a barrier.”

“Neferet cast the spell, but she wouldn’t dirty her hands with the cleanup,” Kalona said grimly. “Which means she has people in there who are still alive and doing whatever she tells them to do.”

“Does it really matter who’s doing the tossing? Especially if Neferet’s holding them all hostage?” Shaunee said.

“What truly matters is that everyone remember if we stop Neferet, we stop all this madness,” Thanatos said.

We nodded in grim agreement.

Marx had driven through the police barricade areas and pulled up over the curb, parking across the street from the Mayo on the wide sidewalk in front of the ONEOK building, where we sat and gawked.

“We’ve set up two command posts inside the ONEOK. The one on the third floor has all the audiovisual equipment. The one on the roof has the snipers,” Marx explained as we sat stared at the gore-coated building across the street.

“Snipers can’t kill Neferet,” Kalona said.

“Yeah, we’ve figured that out,” Marx said dryly. “But they can kill people, even people who are under her spell.”

“You can’t shoot those people! They’re victims,” Grandma said, shifting beside me in agitation. “They’re not responsible for their actions—Neferet is.”

“Yes, ma’am, I know that and I don’t want to shoot anybody, but if Neferet commands a group of her minions, or whatever you want to call them, to attack us or any of Tulsa’s citizens, we’re going to be forced to stop them.”

“She would like that,” Thanatos said as she stared at the building. She sounded pissed. I thought she looked paler than usual, but she’d been a vampyre for, like, a gabillion years. She always looked white, so I couldn’t be sure. “It would give her power from their deaths, as well as the satisfaction that she had forced you to kill innocents.” Thanatos shifted her gaze to Kalona. “We can’t allow that.”

“Agreed,” Kalona said.

“Good,” she said. “Enough sitting and speculating. I need to be out there. I need to understand exactly what it is we’re dealing with.”

Thanatos exited the Hummer, slamming the door behind her and leaving the rest of us to follow—reluctantly.

Kalona moved quickly to her side. In the distance I could hear calls of, “Hey, there’re some vampyres!” and “Focus the camera in—something’s going on in front of the Mayo!”

The winged immortal had pulled on a long black trench coat over his typically na**d chest in a fairly successful attempt to hide his ginormous wings. I saw him shift his body, trying his best to tuck up the huge feathered things. He gave the crowd behind the barricade an annoyed look before his gaze found Detective Marx. “I believe it would be wise if you removed all of the civilians from this area of town. No one is safe here.”

“Yeah, try telling that to the media. We’ve managed to corral them back there, but a free press is a bitch to deal with.”

Kalona shrugged. “Then they will have to learn the lesson themselves.” On that ominous note, he turned his attention to the Mayo. Thanatos was staring at the building, almost as if it mesmerized her. I swallowed my fear and stood beside her, grateful for Stark’s strong presence.

“I should have known it before now.” Thanatos’s voice was strained. She took several steps toward the building. “But I have rarely been called to the site of a human’s death, and never to a human death site of this magnitude.” She moved closer to the building, standing within the circular driveway that fed into the grand entrance. Thanatos lifted her hands, palms out, and shuddered. “The terror used to make this barrier lingers.”

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