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“That was awesome,” Stark said, squinting and using his hand to shield his eyes against the dawn, but still trying to follow Rephaim’s flight.

“Yeah, he tells me it doesn’t hurt that bad,” Stevie Rae said, squinting alongside Stark. “I don’t believe it, but I love him for tryin’ to make me believe it.”

“Hey, you guys need to get inside and go to bed,” I said, herding along Stark and Stevie Rae and Shaylin.

“Not unless you’re coming, too,” Stark protested around a giant yawn.

“I’m coming, but first I’m going to fill in Darius and Aphrodite, and have him get Travis and some of the other humans to start building Kalona’s pyre. Shaunee needs to get back to Thanatos before her burst of energy runs out,” I said.

“I’ll help,” Damien said. “I’ll tell Travis and Lenobia what’s happened.”

“And I’ll supervise the humans building the pyre,” Shaunee said. “Well, first I’ll go get a hoodie and some sunglasses.”

“But I can—” I stopped Stark’s protest with a kiss and then whispered against his lips, “Please sleep so that you can stay strong and be safe. I’m not as strong as Nyx. I couldn’t lose you.”

Stark paused, and then, pulling me into his arms, he gave in.

Lynette

“You should be resting,” said the Asian healer with the geometrical tattoos whose name Lynette had learned was Margareta. “Are you in pain?”

“No, I’m fine. I’m just not used to sleeping during the day,” Lynette assured the vampyre. She was standing at the window and had pushed aside the heavy black curtain so she could watch a group of people piling logs and wooden planks in the center of the campus green. “Margareta, do you know what they are building out there?”

The healer moved forward a little, glancing out the window, but she didn’t get close enough to have the bright morning light actually touch her. “I do know,” she said. “They are building a pyre.”

“A pyre?” Lynette stomach heaved. “Did someone die?”

“Someone was killed,” she said.

“Who?”

Margareta studied her and then shrugged. “I see no harm in telling you. Kalona was killed.”

“By her?” Lynette could hardly force her voice above a whisper. “Did Neferet kill him?”

Margareta nodded.

“Oh, God! He was supposed to be immortal.”

“Apparently not,” the healer said.

Lynette stumbled to her bed, collapsing there as her knees gave way. “Did she break the spell? Is she out of the Mayo?”

“No, the spell holds. For now. Are you quite sure you don’t want me to give you something to help you sleep?”

Numbly, Lynette shook her head. “No. I’m fine. Really. Fine. I—I just need some time alone to think.” She met the healer’s watchful gaze and added, “Kalona saved me. It’s a shock to think that he’s dead.”

“It is for us all as well,” Margareta said. “I will leave you to your thoughts, then. As you know, I will just be down the hall. If you have need of me, just press the red button on your bed.”

“I will. Thank you, Margareta.”

When the vampyre was gone, Lynette’s mind began to race. Neferet had managed to kill an immortal while she was trapped inside the Mayo! It would be worse, so much worse, if she escaped. Lynette shook herself mentally and made the correction in her thoughts. Not if she escaped. When she escaped. LaFont’s daughter and the other two girls had said it themselves: it was only a matter of time before the spell their High Priestess cast was broken. And then they would be the lucky ones because Neferet would come after Kalona and her first. With Kalona gone, that leaves only me. Fear made Lynette feel dizzy. An immortal Warrior couldn’t stop her. A protective spell couldn’t stop her. The stone walls of this school and a small group of teenagers and vampyre professors sure as hell couldn’t stop her.

If Lynette remained where she was, she would be on the losing side, and she would be found and possessed by Neferet’s hideous serpents.

No! Lynette forced her breathing to slow, drawing in and out long, strong breaths. She fought back the panic, just as she had every moment she’d spent as Neferet’s captive. No! She corrected herself. I wasn’t Neferet’s captive; I was her employee. Her favorite employee. Her event planner. I was of value to her then. I will be of value to her again.

Quietly and quickly, Lynette went to the small closet where the vampyres had hung her clothes. She changed from the hospital smock into her slacks and sweater. She exchanged her slippers for the attractive black ballet flats she’d worn the night before.

And then she tiptoed down the hallway. She paused at the door to the healer’s office. Lynette could see the back of Margareta’s head. She was studying a large computer screen that was showing the local news. Lynette watched, silent and horrified, as someone’s iPhone caught Kalona’s death. First it had focused on the rooftop balcony, as if waiting for something to happen. The immortal came suddenly into view, hovering with his enormous wings spread, his arms opened wide as he faced the balcony, looking like he was positioning himself to catch something. Or someone, Lynette thought the first time the video played through. And then she heard several cracks, one right after another, and Kalona’s body was hurled backward. Shots, Lynette realized. Neferet shot him! The camera followed Kalona’s fall. He tumbled end over end, landing on his back—broken and bloody—in the middle of the street where not long before he had led her from the Mayo.

Lynette couldn’t make herself move until she’d watched the video play again. Then, as Margareta tapped replay once more, Lynette made her legs move. She held her breath until she was through the exit door and had closed it quietly behind her.

Even then she didn’t pause. She knew she was on the third floor of the building at the edge of campus. She knew the way off campus as she had been very much awake and aware when the detective and Kalona had driven her there. She’d also seen the long line of cars that filled the school’s parking lot to overflowing, so that people had had to park over the curb up and down Utica Street.

Lynette reached the ground-level door and paused, solidifying her plan. If she was questioned on her way out, she would say that she had decided to go home, that her adult daughter needed her. People weren’t being kept as prisoners at the House of Night. As long as Lynette was not recognized, she would be free to come and go.

If she was recognized and stopped—what then?

Then they will have to keep me prisoner, and they have no reason to do so. It’s a House of Night, but it’s still America. I’m still free!

But by the time Lynette reached the big iron gates, she realized she had no need to worry about being stopped or questioned. There was no one patrolling the walls of the school. All of their attention was turned inward.

It was a little over three miles from the House of Night to the Mayo Hotel. Lynette walked. As she walked, she cleared her mind and then ordered her thoughts, focusing only on what had been most important to her for more than twenty years—making her business successful.

I am going to finish the job I started. I am going to finish the job I started. I am going to finish the job I started …

By the time Lynette reached West Fifth Street, her intent was solidly set. She walked calmly, not hurrying, taking in the roadblock and the uniformed officers who leaned against their cars, drinking coffee and talking to one another. There were other civilians in the vicinity. They wore lanyards, and Lynette recognized a few of them as reporters from the local networks. She remained calm, and she kept walking, settling comfortably into the role she’d played countless times over the past two decades. Lynette faded into the background. It was a unique and important talent. She had learned years ago that if one was to be a success in the event-planning business, one must have the ability to blend with the decorations—to stay out of the pictures—to keep the focus on the bride and not on oneself.

It worked for Lynette then as it had so many times before—right up until the Mayo was in view and she slipped quietly past the final police car in the roadblock. A uniformed officer was standing beside the car obviously trying to calm down a plump blond woman who was crying hysterically and clutching the hand of a tall, balding man.

“We have to know if our daughter is okay!” the bald man was shouting at the officer over the woman’s crying. “Kylee Jackson is her name. She’s the Mayo’s receptionist.”

“Please let us go see her!” the woman sobbed.

“Mr. and Mrs. Jackson, you have to stay back. Please, I understand how upset you must be, but we have a task force at the downtown station that is handling all of the inquiries of the victims’ families.”

“They aren’t telling us shit!” Mr. Jackson said.

“They’re telling you everything—”

Holding her breath, Lynette began to sneak past the distracted officer.

“Hey, hang on there! You gotta stay back behind the cars,” the officer called to her. “No one’s allowed past here.”

Lynette turned and smiled at him. “Oh, no problem officer. I just wanted to thank you. You’re doing an excellent job in a very difficult situation. I appreciate your service, as do Mr. and Mrs. Jackson.” He returned her smile. The moment his shoulders relaxed and he turned back to the couple, Lynette sprinted away. Her blood pumped so loudly in her ears she couldn’t hear what the officer was shouting at her. Just run. Run as if your life depends upon it, she told herself.

The buildings seemed to whiz past her as Lynette ran, expecting any moment to be tackled—or even shot. Not expecting to make it.

When she reached the shrouded Mayo, Lynette was too shocked to hesitate. She hurled herself against the door, paying no heed to the fetid, bloody curtain that had become the building’s skin.

“Goddess! Let me in! Neferet, please! I’ve come back to you!” She pounded her fists against the slick surface of the door.

“Lady, get back here!” The cop had caught up with her and lunged forward to grab her arm.

The wall of flame blazed, setting him afire.

Horrified, Lynette watched him stagger back, screaming in agony as other officers, who had been physically restraining the Jacksons from following her, took off their jackets and tried to smother the flames.

With the sound of a bandage being torn from a fresh wound, the black curtain parted and the door to the Mayo opened.

Lynette bolted inside, gasping and trying to catch her breath.

“How dare you leave me!”

Neferet was standing on the landing between the floor-level ballroom and the mezzanine. The black serpents writhed all around her feet, covering the white marble of the landing and making it look as if it were alive with them.

With the single-minded intensity she had been practicing for the two hours it had taken her to walk there, Lynette went to the middle of the ballroom and knelt, bowing her head.

“Forgive me, Goddess. I was wrong. I should have never left unless you said my job was finished and you no longer needed me.”

“You let him take you away! You betrayed me!”

“Forgive me, Goddess. Not because I deserve it, but because you deserve better.”

“I deserved your loyalty!” Neferet battered Lynette with words as she glided down from the landing.

“Yes,” Lynette said. She didn’t lift her head. She squeezed her eyes closed so that she couldn’t see the serpents that slithered around her. “And you have it. I have returned to you of my own volition.”

“And why would you do that?”

“I came back because I left a job undone, and in the entire time I have been in business I have never done that. I don’t intend to start now,” Lynette said truthfully.

“We shall see about that!”

Lynette felt the violation as Neferet’s mind probed hers. She trembled, holding her breath until the Goddess’s will departed, leaving a pounding ache in her temples.

“You did return of your own will. You do want to complete your job.”

Lynette was relieved enough at the surprise in Neferet’s voice that she opened her eyes, though she did not lift her head.

“Please forgive me and allow me to finish what I started for you,” she said.

“Do not think you fool me! I feel your loyalty. I also feel that it is based in fear and is self-serving.”

“I don’t deny that, Goddess. Since the moment I offered my services to you, I have not denied that.”

“No, you control your fear and use your selfish nature to my benefit. Or you did until you betrayed me.” Neferet’s voice had softened.

“I still do,” Lynette said. “I passed through the wall of fire without being burned. I have no ill intent whatsoever.”

Lynette could see that the Goddess was pacing because the terrible serpents crawled back and forth, shadowing her every movement.

Finally, Neferet halted, so close to Lynette that she could see her bare feet. “Look at me,” she commanded.

Lynette lifted her head and met her Goddess’s gaze without flinching.

“Everything you have said is true, but tell me why I shouldn’t command one of my children to possess you. You would still have the ability to perform your duties for me, and I would not have to worry about you running off again. It seems a good solution to your recent history of questionable loyalty.”

Lynette drew a deep breath, forcing down the panic that threatened to choke her. With the pretense of calm, she said not what she had intended, not what she had practiced over and over again until the thought consumed her. Instead Lynette spoke the small, silent thing that she had kept buried beneath her single-mindedness. “Because I believe you truly care about me and you know how badly I am frightened of being possessed by one of your children. Goddess, I can prove my loyalty to you with the information I bring. I’ve been inside the House of Night. I’ve listened to Zoey and Aphrodite and Stevie Rae. They said the protective barrier is draining Thanatos. That the more it has to work, the faster it will drain her, until finally she won’t be able to keep it up at all.”

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