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Thus came Kalona’s third start of surprise.

“Hey, never mind. I didn’t mean to pry. My sister keeps telling me it’s a bad habit I’ve developed since I made detective.”

Kalona mentally shook himself. “I am sorry, my mind was elsewhere. Did you ask something?”

“Yeah, but it was too personal, especially because of who you were. Forget about it—I need to grab a few hours of shuteye before all hell breaks loose again,” Marx said quickly.

“You may ask me what you will. We battle Darkness together. There should be trust between us.”

They’d reached the girls’ dormitory building and Marx paused, leaning against the wide porch stairs. “All right, then. I was just wondering why Nyx doesn’t come down from heaven and stop Neferet herself. She’s the Goddess’s ex–High Priestess. I’d think it would really piss Nyx off that she’s misused her power.”

“First, Nyx doesn’t reside in heaven, or at least not the traditional heaven of modern Western civilization.”

“Right, sorry. I forgot. My sister explained that part to me years ago. Nyx lives in the Otherworld, correct?”

“The Otherworld is Nyx’s realm, that is correct.”

“And you’ve been there?”

“For eons it was my realm as well,” Kalona said slowly, unused to talking about the Goddess or the Otherworld.

“If I’m prying, I’ll shut up, and—”

“I do not mind speaking of it,” Kalona said, and realized only after he’d spoken the words that he was telling the truth.

“Then you know Nyx pretty well.”

Kalona drew in and breathed out several long, slow, breaths. The answer to the detective’s question was as simple as it was heartrending.

“I knew the Goddess well. Very well.”

“I see, past tense.” Marx seemed to be musing aloud. “That could explain what’s going on. Nyx has changed since you knew her. Maybe she’s lost interest in the modern world. Who could blame her? That’s why she’s letting Neferet get away with corrupting her Goddess-given power and hurting not just humans, but fledglings and vampyres as well.”

“That’s not true. Our Goddess hasn’t lost interest in us.”

Kalona looked from Marx to see Shaunee walking down the sidewalk toward them, carrying a gray cat in her arms. She had on dark sunglasses and a hoodie pulled over her face, but it was clear that the sunlight was making her uncomfortable. She must be close to completing the Change, Kalona thought, and then realized that the idea of Shaunee making the Change and becoming a vampyre Priestess gave him a feeling that was very close to pride.

The realization had his voice turning gruff. “Shaunee, you should be in your room asleep. Sunlight is not healthy for you.”

She brushed his words off with a shooing motion, but she did move past them and into the shadows that the dormitory’s overhanging roof provided.

“I’m going to bed. I just had to find Beelzebub. But before I go I wanna make something real clear to Detective Marx.” She focused her guileless brown eyes on the detective. “Nyx hasn’t lost interest in us,” she repeated.

Marx’s gaze flicked to Kalona and then back to Shaunee. Before he could respond, the fledgling was already speaking. “Don’t go to Kalona for answers about Nyx.” She sent an apologetic look to Kalona. “This is going to sound mean, but I’m not being cruel on purpose.” She refocused on Marx and continued. “Kalona Fell. That makes him not a good expert witness on Nyx, Detective. If you have questions about our Goddess, ask me. I talk to her every day, and sometimes she even answers.”

“Okay, then. Can you explain why Nyx would let Neferet cause so much pain and suffering, and just stand by and do nothing about it? She gave Neferet the gifts that allowed her to accumulate so much power. Why doesn’t Nyx at least revoke her gifts? That would make sense. Doing nothing doesn’t make any sense to me. I say this with respect for your Goddess, but hers don’t seem the actions of a loving deity.”

“Nyx won’t take away Neferet’s gifts, or the gifts she’s given any of us, because she loves us unconditionally and she always keeps her word, even if we don’t keep ours and betray her,” Shaunee explained as Kalona crossed his arms and pretended nonchalance while he did not move—did not breathe—but only listened.

“And she doesn’t swoop in and save the day because she loves us so much that she will always allow us free will.” She paused and then asked, “Do you have kids, Detective Marx?”

“Yes, two daughters, nine and eleven.”

“What if you never let them make any mistakes? Or, better yet, what if you let them make mistakes, but then you swooped in and took all the consequences from them?”

“I suppose I’d be raising a couple of spoiled brats,” he said.

“What kind of women do you think they’d grow up to be?” Shaunee asked.

“Selfish and irresponsible ones. If they grew up at all.”

“Exactly!” Shaunee smiled. “How would we learn and grow and evolve if Nyx rescued us from our bad decisions—or stopped allowing us to make our own decisions, good or bad?”

Kalona couldn’t keep silent another moment. “It would be easier if Nyx took over! I still know her well enough that I can promise you the Goddess would be benevolent and kind—and that’s more than any of us can promise about the general public, vampyres or humans.”

“If Nyx took over, the powers of Light and Darkness would be out of balance forever,” Shaunee said.

“Light would win! Is that not the point?” Kalona said.

“Ohmygoddess! Don’t you see what you’re asking for?”

“Yes! I’m asking for peace! An end to bloodlust and bloodshed, betrayal and destruction.”

“No!” Shaunee countered with, “You’re asking for an end to free will. We’d be like those fat, floating people on WALL•E, or worse.”

“What language are you speaking?”

“I know what she’s talking about. It’s from a Pixar movie. She means we’d turn in to lazy, unmotivated idiots.” Marx scratched his chin. “Actually, she might be right. Have you been to the state fair recently?” Then the detective chuckled at his own joke, which made no sense at all to Kalona.

Shaunee didn’t blink. She didn’t so much as smile at Marx. Soberly, she met Kalona’s gaze. “You’re not going to get close to Nyx that way. You gotta let go of your control issues and choose to really trust—really believe—really love.” Then she kissed the sleeping gray cat on top of its head. “So, does that answer your questions, Detective Marx?”

“Not all of them, but it’ll do for now,” he said.

“Awesome! I’m going to bed. See you guys at dusk.” She skipped up the rest of the stairs and disappeared inside the girls’ dorm.

“I’m hitting the hay myself. Thanatos said I could bunk in the professors’ residence. You look beat. Are you coming?”

“No. I’ll take Aurox’s shift and sweep the perimeter,” he said.

“A double shift—those are tough. You want company?”

Kalona looked at the detective. The skin under his eyes was bruised, and his steps were dragging. “Maybe next time. Thank you for the offer, though.”

“No problem. Be safe out there and, like the kid said, see you at dusk.”

Kalona nodded and began walking toward the far wall of the school trying, unsuccessfully, not to replay Shaunee’s words over and over again in his mind.

Lynette

“The costumes are lacking!” Neferet said as she shook her head and glared at the group of trembling people Lynette had chosen to wear what were supposed to be 1920s-era clothing.

Had everything, or even anything been normal, Lynette would have said her latest event was experiencing a few roadblocks. In the insanity that her world had become, Lynette had decided her latest event was a suicide bomber’s vest filled with explosives and set to detonate—and she was wearing the damn thing.

“Goddess, remember the two things I need? Time and means?”

“I remember everything.”

Lynette clasped her hands in front of her so that Neferet would not see how badly they were trembling. She cleared her mind and concentrated on what she did best—handling the client so the event was successful.

“And that is just one reason why it is so refreshing to be planning events for a Goddess and not a human or a vampyre,” Lynette said.

Neferet’s slit-eyed glare softened with the flattery. “What is it you need that I have not provided? We decided on my next worship event last night. It is almost dusk, and all I asked was that I preview the costumes of my supplicants while they practice the Charleston. I am quite sure Tulsa has costume shops aplenty, and you have an unlimited access to my means. So explain to me why not one of these costumes remotely resembles the era of the 1920s.”

“Tulsa has two decent costume shops, Ehrle’s and Top Hat,” Lynette began.

“Only two?” Neferet sighed. “I should have begun my Temple in Chicago. Chicago is filled with exquisite shops. Kylee! My goblet is empty!”

The Kybot, which is what Lynette had silently renamed the robotic receptionist, scurried up the stairs to where Neferet lounged on her throne, instantly refilling the scarlet liquid the Goddess couldn’t ever seem to get enough of.

“But I interrupted you, dear Lynette. Please, continue to explain this travesty.” She fluttered her long red-tipped fingers at the ballroom below them and the group of mismatched people waiting there.

“I contacted the owners of both shops. They refused to deliver to us.” Lynette gave Neferet the news quickly and then braced herself for insanity.

Instead of exploding, Neferet got very still. In a voice that was soft and contemplative, she asked, “And why did they refuse me?”

“They said the police have the block around the Mayo cordoned off and that they are not allowing anyone to approach us.”

Neferet tapped her goblet with the tip of one sharp fingernail. She cocked her head contemplatively. Then her expression cleared and she smiled. “The solution is simple. The police are keeping humans from entering. Their attention is turned outward. They won’t expect anyone to be sneaking out.”

“Sneaking out?”

“Yes, well, it wouldn’t be just anyone who will be doing the sneaking. It will be you.”

Lynette leaned against the wrought-iron railing. “Me?”

“My dear, are you having a problem with your hearing?”

“N-no,” Lynette hastily assured her.

“Kylee, pour Lynette a glass of wine. She’s looking pale.” Gratefully, Lynette chugged the wine as Neferet began the insane explanation. “It will be quite easy for you. You’ll go out the back way, around where they pile the horrid refuse. Climbing the fence shouldn’t pose a problem for you—you appear to have kept yourself in decent physical condition. And, of course, you’ll have Judson with you to help with any problems that arise. Judson, you’ll be sure dear Lynette returns safely and you’ll carry her shopping bags for her, won’t you?”

Judson nodded automatically and, blank faced, said, “Yes, Goddess.”

“Excellent! I will have Kylee call a cab to meet you at, um, let’s say in front of the Central Library at Fourth and Denver. That’s far enough away that it won’t be within the police barricade, and close enough so as not to be too taxing when you are dropped back off. Judson will do all the heavy lifting for you.”

Lynette’s mind was racing. She’s making Judson come with me to force me to return. But he’s really not more than a robot when Neferet’s not pulling his strings. Maybe I can give him the slip, especially when we get to the library. Someone there will be able to—

“Let me be clear, Lynette. Judson and you won’t be alone. I wouldn’t think of allowing you to be so vulnerable. Several of my children will be escorting you.” The Goddess reached down and stroked the black snake-thing that was wrapped around her leg. “They will also be eager to get closer to you should you falter. Then you and Judson will have more in common than you do now—much more.”

Lynette snapped her thoughts into order. The job! I will concentrate on the job!

“Is something amiss, my dear? Surely you don’t have a problem with my solution.”

“Honestly, I agree with you about sneaking out.” Lynette focused on the one normal thing left in her world, being concerned with completing her job. “The police won’t be expecting anyone to do that. But I am worried about getting back in. Even you said that’s what they’re focused on—keeping people out.”

“You are so right to be concerned. I forget that you cannot read my mind because I can so easily read yours. The answer to that problem is simple as well. We shall wait until after the sun has set for you to begin your trek. Night and the inattention of the police will hide you on your way out. On your return, my children will call mist and magick, shadows and fog, so that Darkness will conceal you.”

Lynette gaped at her, keeping her thoughts carefully blank, not knowing what to say.

“You needn’t look so concerned. Being concealed by Darkness won’t hurt at all. Well, I should more correctly say, it won’t hurt you at all. My children will have to be fed. Tonight one taxi driver will get rather more than he expected as a tip!” Neferet’s laughter was cruel and utterly mad.

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