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A movement by the gate caught my attention. Thanatos was taking off the cloak she’d been wearing. My breath caught as she stepped forward. The High Priestess was dressed in a long scarlet dress that seemed alive. As she moved, the silk train of the dress lifted and rippled. Except for that train, the dress was formfitting—high necked and long sleeved—so that it looked as if she had been dipped in fresh, shining blood. She wore no jewelry. The only adornment on her was a slender woven leather belt that wrapped low around her hips. From it hung a sheath. The hilt of the athame, a ritual dagger, that rested there was covered with rubies that twinkled even in the fading light.

She began immediately, picking up the box of ritual matches and going to Damien. I faced east with her. Thanatos lit the candle and touched the flame to Damien’s yellow air candle. “Air, in Nyx’s name I summon thee to this circle.”

Damien’s hair lifted as his element rushed to join him.

Thanatos moved deosil to where Shaunee waited expectantly with her red candle raised.

“Fire, in Nyx’s name I summon thee to this circle.”

Thanatos didn’t even have to touch the match to Shaunee’s candle. It burst into flame all on its own and Shaunee’s smile was as bright as her element.

Thanatos continued to the west and Shaylin. “Water, in Nyx’s name I summon thee to this circle.”

I smelled the salt of the ocean on the fire-lit breeze that swirled around the circle.

The High Priestess moved to stand in front of Stevie Rae, touching her green candle with her match and saying, “Earth, in Nyx’s name I summon thee to this circle.”

The scent of Grandma’s lavender field drifted through the circle. I heard Grandma’s joyous laughter, and I knew our elements were filling the sacred space.

Then Thanatos was standing before me.

“Spirit, in Nyx’s name I summon thee to this circle.” She lit my purple candle and I felt a rush of happiness as spirit completed the casting.

“Oh, that’s so beautiful!” Rabbi Bernstein exclaimed, and I looked up from my candle to see that a shining silver thread floated around the circumference of the circle, connecting each of the elements.

“Thank you, Goddess. Please continue to be with me and to strengthen me. Whatever comes, I accept it willingly as my fate. So I have spoken; so mote it be,” Thanatos spoke softly, reverently. She closed her eyes and drew in and let out three deep breaths. Then with no further hesitation, she took the sacred chalice in her left hand and, scooping the liquid with her right hand, she moved to Damien and began walking slowly around the circle, sprinkling the oil onto the ground. As she moved, she cast the spell:

I call upon the element fire to watch, bless, and guide this Ritual. To honor fire I anoint the circle with cinnamon oil poured into the goblet by the fledgling Shaunee, beloved of the fire element. I proclaim my Intent to seek fire’s protection over Tulsa. To show my Intent is pure, I proclaim these ancient truths first spoken long ago when Cleopatra, another child of Nyx, called upon you.

In a loud, clear, power-filled voice, Thanatos cried out the ancient Egyptian proclamation:

Hail, Nyx-Strider! Coming forth to cast this spell I do no wrong!

Hail, She-Whose-Two-Eyes-Are-on-Fire! I have not defiled the things of the Goddess in thought or deed!

Hail, Disposer-of-False-Speech! I have not inflamed myself with rage!

Hail, All-Seeing-Goddess-Provider-of-Her-Children! I have not cursed using Your name!

By this time Thanatos was back in the center of the circle, which was filled with the scent of cinnamon and the wonderful, electric sense I’d learned that powerful magick brought with it.

Thanatos lit the oil that was left in the chalice, and it blazed with a bright flame as red as her dress—as red as Shaunee’s candle. She lifted the flaming chalice over her head, saying:

With pure Ritual Intent I hold fire to this oath of protection. Its strength is in me, and through me its flame will be lasting, consuming with fierceness any who wish ill or violence to Tulsa. I ask especially that flame protect the heart of the city, where Darkness dwells. Entomb all there with ill intent and do not allow evil to escape this flame!

While Thanatos’s words still echoed around us, she grasped the hilt of her athame, pulling it free of its sheath. Still holding the flaming chalice, she approached Shaunee, who offered her pillar to the High Priestess. Thanatos bowed her head respectfully, saying, “I thank you, Child of Fire, for the gift of your element.” Then she took the pillar from Shaunee and dropped it into the chalice. As the flame ate the candle, growing higher and hotter, Thanatos didn’t flinch. She held the chalice up and slowly passed the blade of the dagger through the flame three times, speaking power-filled words:

I am one with the flame. Even in the midst of sunshine, I enter into the protective fire. I come forth from the fire, the sunshine has not pierced me, thou who knows my pure intent has not burned me, but thy fire will keep this city safe, cutting like this knife through wax any who dare defile this Ritual!

With the blade of the athame hot and glowing, Thanatos carved TULSA into the skin of the flaming red candle. Then she walked to me. She glistened with sweat. Her long silver-streaked hair was slick with it. She was breathing heavily, but she didn’t look burned—she just looked hot and tired.

“Thank you, spirit, you may depart. Blessed be,” she said, and I blew out my candle, sad, as always, to say good-bye to my favorite element.

Thanatos then went to Stevie Rae, Shaylin, Shaunee, and Damien—thanking and blessing each element, until the silver thread disappeared in a poof of glitter. Thanatos rejoined me at the table at the center of the circle, placing the still flaming chalice on the table, watching it carefully until the entire candle was consumed by fire. As the flame went out, Thanatos lifted her athame and drove it into the earth at her feet, crying, “And so I have set the protective spell for thee, what Nyx decrees next, so mote it be!”

As the dagger buried itself to its hilt, the sky north of us, in the heart of downtown Tulsa, flashed red with an explosion of blood-colored light. It was followed by a shriek filled with madness and rage that echoed across the night sky.

“Oh, blessed Goddess, thank you. The spell is set,” Thanatos said, and then she collapsed, falling lifelessly to the ground.

“Thanatos!” I meant to hurry to her, but all of a sudden my legs wouldn’t work. In one step they turned to jelly and I dropped to my knees. Dazed, I could see that Shaunee had toppled over, too. I turned to call out to Damien in time to see his eyes roll in the back of his head as he fainted. And then the power-filled earth beneath me seemed to spin, and somehow I was flat on my back with a weird ringing sound in my ears, looking up through the limbs of the Council Oak at the clear night sky. I saw specks of light as my vision tunneled, and then everything went silent and black.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Neferet

“Lynette, my dear, you look lovely in black, and the classic lines of those slacks suit you. I think slacks are so much more feminine and attractive than jeans, don’t you?”

“Yes, I do. Wearing jeans denigrates women’s fashion.” Lynette shuddered. “I especially dislike the so-called boyfriend jean. Do those girls not own mirrors? Where are their mothers? It’s shameful.”

Neferet beamed at her supplicant. It was this frankness and bigotry toward her own kind that the Goddess found so refreshing about Lynette. Even now, when Neferet could feel the waves of fear and nervousness flowing through the woman, Lynette was able to engage in an honest, interesting conversation with her.

“When I was a girl, it was unheard of for women to wear them. There were many things that needed to change as we entered the twentieth century, but the acceptance of those horrid waist overalls as fashion for women was not one of them,” Neferet said.

“I could not agree with you more. I’m not a goddess, so I wasn’t alive in the 1800s”—Lynette paused to curtsy gracefully to Neferet, which never failed to please the Goddess—“but I know the fashion was more appropriate then.”

“You are so wise, my dear. And that is why I look forward to beholding the spectacular worship event you will produce after you return with the new costumes. Are you prepared for your adventure?”

Lynette paled just a little, but she bowed her head slightly and said exactly what Neferet wanted to hear: “If you believe I am prepared, then I am prepared.”

“Judson, be sure you take good care of Lynette. She is my favorite supplicant and I would be highly displeased if anything untoward happened to her.”

“Yes, Goddess,” Judson responded automatically.

Her command to Judson was for Lynette’s benefit alone. Neferet expected no other reply from the possessed bellman. The tendril of Darkness that nested within him would ensure his complete cooperation and loyalty, but dear Lynette needed to be reminded that, even though she was out of Neferet’s eyesight, she was not out of her control. The Goddess adored her human pet; that did not mean she trusted her.

Neferet looked down at the threads of Darkness that writhed in constant motion around her. “You, you, and you.” She stroked three of the thickest, longest tendrils with her finger, appreciating the cold, pliant feel of their flesh. “I command you to accompany Lynette and Judson. Remain hidden from human eyes. You may each consume one human apiece as sacrifice, after Lynette makes her purchases and is safely out of the costume store. And if you eat the cabdriver, be sure he has driven Lynette and Judson back to the library. Then, this is my demand: With night and mist and magick made real, Lynette and Judson you shall conceal. Return them to me, whole and safely, then I shall welcome you joyously!”

The tendrils she’d chosen quivered with pleasure as she stroked them and spoke the rhythmic words that made her command into a binding spell. Neferet felt Lynette’s fear and disgust. The Goddess knew her children repulsed the human, and that Lynette’s greatest terror was not about her death but about being possessed by one of them. But the human never allowed her revulsion to show. She wore a pleasing mask at all times, and Neferet appreciated the talent and tenacity it took Lynette to do so.

She also appreciated the fact that Lynette would do anything for Neferet so that she would not be possessed. That was the kind of loyalty Neferet understood and could control. She smiled at her favorite supplicant. “Lynette, to show my appreciation for you, I have decided to cloak you myself as you leave my Temple. I have considered it carefully, and it is simply not right that you should have to scramble over rubbish and slink about to do my bidding.”

“Why, thank you, Goddess,” Lynette said, with true surprise.

Neferet laughed and gestured for Lynette to accompany her through the ballroom to the grand foyer and the glass and brass front doors.

“Shouldn’t we wait a little longer?” Lynette said, trying valiantly to mask her fear. “The sun just set a little while ago. It doesn’t even look like it’s fully dark outside yet.”

“That is nothing for you to worry over,” Neferet assured her, draping her arm familiarly around Lynette’s shoulders. “It does not need to be fully dark for me to call the powers of night to cloak you.” She paused as they passed the receptionist’s desk. Kylee was, of course, alert and at her station. “Are there any humans lurking outside my Temple?”

“Not that I have seen, Goddess. Even the police are keeping their distance.”

“Excellent, though I only ask for amusement’s sake. Lynette, be assured I can hide you so fully that the entire police force could be watching and they would see nothing but shadows and mist.”

“That’s good to know,” Lynette said.

“Kylee, call Lynette and Judson a cab. Tell the driver to meet this lovely couple at the Central Library’s main entrance.”

“Yes, Goddess.”

“Now, Lynette, I need you join me at the doors. I will call mist and shadows from within, and when I motion to you thus”—Neferet swept her hand regally toward the doors—“then you and Judson may exit. Make your way quickly to Denver Street. We wouldn’t want the cab to leave and have you stranded there, alone with my hungry children.”

“No, we wouldn’t want that,” Lynette agreed hastily. Then she added, “Goddess, may I ask a question?”

“Of course, my dear.”

“How am I going to walk through your…” The human hesitated, obviously struggling to find the correct word. “Your protective curtain?” she finally settled on.

“It will part easily with my command.” Neferet could see that Lynette was still struggling with a question. “If something is worrying you, simply tell me and I will see to it that it is a worry no more.”

“It’s the blood and the stench. I’m worried about it getting on my clothes,” Lynette said quickly.

“Of course that would worry you. That would be so inappropriate as you’re shopping, and draw entirely too much attention your direction. Worry no more, my dear. You and Judson shall pass through my barrier untouched.”

“Thank you, Goddess,” she said with genuine relief.

“You are most welcome. And now, I will send you off to do my bidding.” Neferet faced the doors and raised her arms, looking through the Darkness-covered glass to the night beyond.

Hear me, shadows and Darkness beyond,

to my command you must respond.

Cloak my servants with blackness and night

Hidden by will, conceived by my might.

No eyes but Darkness and mine shall see

Shadows they become, so I mote it be!

Neferet could feel the power of the night pulsing beyond her Temple. The things that came out at night—the deepest shadows, the blackness that not even a full moon could penetrate—those were the things that hearkened to her call. Their response thrummed through her body with her heartbeat. She gathered them, focusing them on her will, and readied herself to let loose those dark, secret things so that they could conceal Lynette and Judson, just as they often concealed beings who chose to embrace them.

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