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“Right, well then, good night, Ms. Witherspoon.”

After the detective had left the room, the healer offered her a glass of ice water, holding it for Lynette while she sipped gratefully from a straw.

“You are safe here, Lynette,” the healer spoke calmly, soothingly. “You are among friends and allies. Our campus is filled to overflowing with humans who have come to the House of Night so that they are out of Neferet’s reach. Have no fear. Rest and recover. We will watch over you.”

Lynette’s mouth couldn’t seem to form the word to thank her, so she just nodded and tried to smile. The vampyre understood because she patted her hand gently and, before she left, extinguished all except one of the gaslights that had been softly illuminating the room. Finally alone, Lynette leaned back against her mound of pillows and allowed herself to close her eyes and relax into the drugs.

“Ah, hell! She’s asleep.”

Lynette kept her eyes closed, careful not to move or change her breathing. She’d told the vampyres and the detective all she knew—and she had absolutely had enough questioning for one day. This new voice was going to have to wait.

“I told you we should have come straight here. She was fading fast last time I saw her.”

Lynette recognized the second voice as that of the mayor’s fledgling daughter, Aphrodite. Though it seemed the girl had somehow exchanged her fledgling status for that of a Prophetess.

“Zoey, Aphrodite, Stevie Rae, you may not disturb the human,” came the no-nonsense voice of the vampyre healer. “I have drugged her to ensure she is not bothered for the remainder of the night.”

Lynette could hear the soft squeak of the healer’s rubber-soled shoes fading away.

“Drugged to the gills,” said Aphrodite after a brief pause. “Lucky her.”

“Lucky? No dang way would I call that woman lucky,” said a voice with a thick Oklahoma twang. “Neferet is gonna hunt her down and skin her alive.”

“We’re not going to let her.”

Lynette recognized Aphrodite’s sarcastic snort. “Then you better get to Old Magicking and stop her, Z. From what you described, Thanatos and Shaunee aren’t going to be able to keep that spell up for long. But you’re right, bumpkin. I shouldn’t have called her lucky. It’s us that are lucky because of her and Kalona.”

“What do ya mean?”

“Simple. Those two have pissed Neferet off badly enough that she’s going to go after them first. It’s good luck to be moved down on Neferet’s who-I’m-going-to-kill-and-torture list.”

“I have a feeling we’re always close to the top of that list,” said the girl who must be Zoey.

“Yeah, no shit,” said Aphrodite. “Okay, I’m outta here. And I’m not going back to the field house. Did I mention that even more humans flocked here while you guys were off having a good time spell casting?”

“Yes, Aphrodite, you’ve mentioned that.”

“Only about a gabillion times. Jeesh, you’re definitely our whine expert.”

“I’m going to go find Stark while he’s still conscious. I don’t care if I have to stand guard with him, he and I need some alone time.”

“I hear you on that, Z. I need to find Rephaim before dawn.”

“Why don’t you marry him and put a GPS chip in the ring. Then you could track him. It’d be like a National Geographic reality show…”

Bickering, the girls’ voices faded away, leaving Lynette alone and paralyzed by fear and drugs.

CHAPTER NINETEEN

Neferet

“Sometimes I cannot help but wonder why I have the desire to be worshipped by humans at all.” Neferet lifted her lip in a sneer as she looked down from the mezzanine at the herd of people Kylee had commanded to gather in the ballroom. “Fat, ugly, and unimpressively dressed. I wager their blood tastes like sloth. Kylee, are you quite certain this is all of them?”

“Goddess, these are all of the people Lynette had on her list under the column headed UNATTRACTIVE AND NO SKILLS.”

Neferet rounded on the girl, backing her against the marble pillar and lifting her by her neck so that she gasped for air and twitched like a fish out of water. “I told you I never want to hear that woman’s name uttered in my company again!”

Kylee’s eyes grew wide and her face began turning colors. Neferet watched, enrapt by approaching death, when the head of the thread of Darkness that possessed the human began emerging from her mouth. The Goddess let loose her hold on the girl, allowing her to slide to the floor while she gulped air and the tendril, which disappeared within her again.

“You are right, my child. It wouldn’t do to lose one of you because of a human’s mistake.” She looked down at Kylee. “I forgive you. Do not let it happen again. Now, get me another bottle of wine while my children and I cull our herd.”

Neferet ignored Kylee as she crawled away. She crouched and stroked the tendrils that still clung to her, weak and wounded from being scorched by the wall of flame.

“They have dared to imprison me. They will pay—I vow it. For every one of you they harmed, I will sacrifice one hundred of them. And you may choose whether those hecatomb are human, fledgling, or vampyre.” Neferet stroked the injured tendrils and crooned to them. “And when I destroy the winged immortal, you shall all feast on his blood.” She stood and pointed at the group of nervous humans huddled together in the middle of the ballroom. “Until then, those of you who have been wounded, feed from this herd and restore yourselves.”

The scorched tendrils moved slowly. Their kills were awkward. They lacked the beautiful razor edges—the neatly severed limbs—with which her healthy children killed. Annoyingly, the screaming went on and on.

Quivering around her, eager to be loosed and join the feeding frenzy, her unharmed children pulsed and throbbed.

“Be patient, as am I. You shall all be fed.” Then the first of the humans died, and Neferet closed her eyes, concentrating on the rush of power she felt as she absorbed the humans’ energy, thinking, Sloth-like or not, they feed and renew us. They are not worthy sacrifices; they are necessary sacrifices.

Kylee returned with a new bottle of wine as the last of the herd stopped breathing. “Ah, excellent timing. I am going to retire to my penthouse.”

“Yes, Goddess.”

“Well, then, give me the bottle and go back to your receptionist’s station and await my next command.”

Kylee obeyed her instantly, and as Neferet entered her penthouse elevator alone, the Goddess shook her head in disgust. She wouldn’t tolerate hearing Lynette’s name spoken, but that didn’t change the fact that none of these humans could take her place.

Irritated, Neferet strode from the elevator, through her spotless penthouse, and out to the wide stone balcony.

The night was clear and cold. She approached the stone balustrade cautiously. Slowly, Neferet extended her hand. As it neared the edge of the railing, the air began to glow red, singeing her fingers.

Shrieking in anger, she hurled her glass of wine at the abomination. “Traitors! Betrayers! You will not cage me!” Unhindered, it flew through the barrier to shatter far below on the street.

Enraged, Neferet stalked around the balcony, careful to stay away from the balustrade. Power swirled around and through Neferet. What an irony it was! She was at her most powerful, and yet she was trapped.

There must be a way out of this prison, she reasoned as she returned inside her penthouse to replace her absent goblet and pour herself another glass of wine. Even the betrayer Kalona found a way out of the oath that bound him to do my bidding. Breaking this wall must be simpler than breaking an oath.

Kalona’s voice mocked her as the scene echoed from her memory.

The winged immortal hadn’t even bothered to turn to look at her. He’d called over his shoulder, “Yes, I remember. I also remember that you could not keep me bound to you.”

Traitorous, forsworn bastard! Neferet’s memory shifted, replaying the night she’d discover him, too badly wounded from Zoey’s tantrum to protect himself, yet still selfish and ambitious enough to agree do her bidding and be bound by the oath she’d conjured: “If you, Kalona, Fallen Warrior of Nyx, break this oath and fail in my sworn quest to destroy Zoey Redbird, fledgling High Priestess of Nyx, I shall hold dominion over your spirit for as long as you are an immortal.”

Kalona had failed to destroy the fledgling, though he had somehow broken his bondage to her. Trying to drown the indignity of the memory, Neferet lifted the goblet to her lips—and realization hit her with such force that her hand convulsed and she snapped the stem, sending wine and crystal shards all over her marble floor. Kalona hadn’t broken his oath. The oath could not bind him because the conditions of it no longer applied.

“That fool! He has shown me the path to his destruction.” Neferet ignored the glass that cut her feet and the tendrils of Darkness that lapped at her pooling blood. She was immortal—cuts and blood meant little to her.

She lifted the telephone and punched reception’s number.

Kylee answered on the first ring. “How may I do your bidding, Goddess?”

“Send Judson to me. I believe he can help me with a small matter, and you can help me with another. Do I remember correctly that that woman made special annotations regarding the personalities of the more attractive of my worshippers, their likes and dislikes and such?”

“Yes, Goddess. That woman took notes on everyone she thought you might value.”

“Excellent! Go over the lists and find the nicest of my supplicants.”

“The nicest, Goddess?”

“Yes, Kylee. Are you having difficulty understanding English?”

“No—no, Goddess.”

“Good. Then do as I command. Bring me my supplicants who that woman noted as the most kindhearted, those whose intentions are always good.”

“It will be as you command, Goddess.”

“Of course it will be,” she said. “But don’t bring those people to me yet. I need to speak with Judson first. He will let you know when I am ready to receive my most loving supplicants. At that time, I want you and all of the male members of my staff to escort the group to my penthouse.”

“Yes, Goddess.”

Neferet hung up the telephone. Her victorious laughter mixed with the scent and taste of her blood, and her children rejoiced.

Aphrodite

“Seriously, Z, you’ve got to stop the whole coitus interruptus thing. It’s getting on my nerves.” Aphrodite untangled herself from Darius, straightening her clothes but not getting off his lap.

“You weren’t doing it. Yet. So it’s not technically coitus interruptus,” Stark said.

“How do you even know what she’s talking about?” Z asked him.

“Big Bang Theory.” Stark grinned his ridiculous, cocky smile at Zoey. “Now who’s the dork?”

“Oh, for shit’s sake, you’re both dorks.”

“Oh, I think I get it,” Zoey said, and her cheeks turned pink. “Uh, sorry. Stark and I just wanted to grab a few minutes by ourselves. We didn’t think anybody would be over in this part of campus. You know, too close to Nyx’s Temple for the humans to wander over here, too far from the wall for Aurox or Kalona to patrol.”

“And too near dawn for noisy fledglings to be wandering around. Yeah, exactly what Darius and I thought, too,” Aphrodite said.

“Great minds think alike, my beauty,” Darius said, scooting both of them over so that there was room on the blanket. “Would you sit with us?”

“Being as you already interrupted our plans,” Aphrodite muttered.

“That’d be great,” Zoey said, sitting beside Stark, hand in hand. “I don’t feel like I’ve had a break since we ate after the ritual.”

“Humans are a lot of work,” Darius said.

“And there are so many of them.” Aphrodite shuddered delicately.

“I wish Grandma was here. She knows how to deal with large groups of people. She’d have them all weaving herbs and beating drums,” Z said.

“Well, I heard Lenobia say something about beating, but I’m pretty damn sure it wasn’t drums she had in mind,” Aphrodite said, rubbing at a headache that had just begun in her forehead.

“Yeah, she’s pissed that they’re so close to the horses. She and Travis are doing double duty to keep those kids out of the stables,” Stark said.

“I should never have told those mommies that the House of Night vampyres didn’t want to eat them. I should have told them we all wanted to eat them, so they’d better take their Valiums and stay quiet,” Aphrodite said, wishing the damn headache would go away. “I even heard Damien almost lose his temper when some brat asked if he could see his fangs—six times after Queen Damien had already explained, patiently, that real vampyres don’t have fangs.”

Zoey was laughing when Aphrodite realized her headache was causing her vision to blur and narrow. She only had time to reach for Darius when the vision crashed over her.

Aphrodite was in the sky, looking down at a wall of clouds rolling into Tulsa. It was night, but sky lightning was flashing so often that it was illuminating the entire skyline. Nyx, I don’t mean to be a bitch, but T-Town can watch Travis Meyer and The News on 6 for a weather report. It doesn’t take a vision to clue Okies in about wicked weather—we’re down with that.

The scene shifted, focused on downtown, and something fell out of the sky. Suddenly Aphrodite wasn’t an outside observer anymore. She was inside the body as it tumbled, end over end, hurtling toward the earth below. She tried to make her wings work (wings?), but they wouldn’t obey her. She tried to brace herself, but the shock of hitting the ground reverberated throughout her body, breaking her bones. Gasping but unable to draw in air, her fading gaze found her body. There was a bloody hole where her heart should have been and her broken wings lay useless, their raven black color turning red as her life’s blood seeped from her body.

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