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Neferet’s face went utterly blank. Then slowly, the Goddess bent and placed both of her hands on Lynette’s cheeks, cupping her face.

Lynette froze, unable to think. Unable to move.

Neferet kissed her softly but fully on the mouth.

“Rise, Lynette, my dear one. And take your place by my side where you belong and where you will remain until your too-brief mortal life comes to an end. And know when that happens, your Goddess will eternally mourn your loss.”

Neferet helped Lynette stand, and even steadied her as she stumbled.

“Kylee! My dear Lynette and I are going up to the balcony to enjoy the sunset. Bring us my favorite wine and something nourishing to eat.” Neferet paused. “A fortifying stew? Would that replenish your strength?”

Feeling utterly detached from any reality she’d ever known before, Lynette nodded. “Yes, please, Goddess.”

“You heard her, Kylee! Lynette wants stew! Get it for her. And check with Tony about my chocolate cake as well. Chocolate goes so well with my favorite red wine.”

As Kybot scampered away, Neferet led Lynette up to her penthouse, speaking sweetly and softly to her the entire way.

“My dear, you said you were at the House of Night. Were they cruel to you?”

“No, they weren’t cruel. They didn’t trust me, though.”

“Did you actually see Thanatos upholding the spell?”

“No, I just saw the mayor’s daughter, Aphrodite, and the healers,” she told the Goddess.

“Those wretched creatures aren’t true vampyre healers. They are mere assistants. Did you know that one of my abilities is that of a healer?”

“No,” Lynette said with genuine surprise. “I wasn’t aware of that.”

“Yes, my dear Lynette. Rest assured that if one of them dared harm you, I could heal you.”

“Thank you, Goddess.”

“I would imagine Detective Marx had many questions for you.”

Lynette ignored the chill that began working its way down her spine and answered the Goddess with complete honesty. “He did. He wanted to know how many people were inside your Temple.”

“And did you tell him, my dear?”

“Yes,” Lynette said without hesitation. “I told him. I also told him how devoted your servants are to you.”

The cloud that had been beginning to form in Neferet’s emerald eyes cleared and she smiled fondly at Lynette. “And he didn’t like hearing that.”

“No. Neither did Aphrodite or Kalona.”

That made Neferet laugh with wicked-sounding glee.

By this time, they had reached the penthouse balcony. Neferet motioned for Lynette to sit at one of two barstools placed around a tall bistro table. On the table was a handgun, one of those dangerous-looking things that people in the movies tended to wave around a lot. Lynette shivered. She was a native Oklahoman, but she hated guns.

The Goddess sat beside her and leaned toward her intimately. “Did you know that today I killed Kalona?”

Lynette nodded. “Yes, I saw it on the news.”

Neferet’s smile was radiant. “Someone filmed it? How fabulous! Oh, and that reminds me, Lynette, when we are free of this place, I want you to hire the best camera crew my endless money can buy. I simply must have an accurate video record of my reign.”

“Yes, Goddess.” Lynette said.

“Hmm, yes. Hire someone to film it, but I will want you to edit the film. It must be the correct version of accurate. Do you understand my meaning?”

“Of course I do,” Lynette said as she gained confidence and slid back into her familiar role. “I wouldn’t allow anything distasteful or unattractive to make the edit cut.”

“Oh, speaking of distasteful and unattractive. I referred to your list while you were taking your small sabbatical. I’m afraid you’ll find I have a few less supplicants than when you left. I think you’ll be pleased to know that I began with those you listed as unattractive and untalented.”

Lynette hesitated only a moment. Then she nodded her head. “Well, Goddess, if you had to begin somewhere, that is where I would have advised.”

“You are so wise, my dear Lynette.”

Kylee hurried in, carrying a silver tray holding two large slices of a delicious-looking chocolate cake decorated with delicate white flowers, a bottle of red wine, and two crystal goblets. Lynette noticed immediately that Kybot’s usually expressionless face looked worried.

“Ah, there you are, Kylee. I was beginning to wonder if you’d lost your way. I trust Tony is busily preparing Lynette’s stew?”

“Yes, Goddess, he is. But there is a problem with the wine.”

Neferet frowned. She looked at the bottle and her frown deepened. “Kylee, this isn’t my favorite.”

“Goddess, we are out of your favorite,” Kylee said in a rush.

“Out of my favorite? How can that be?”

“Goddess, you drank it all, and we cannot leave to go to the liquor store, nor are they allowing us to receive shipments. And Tony sends his sincere apologies, but he wanted you to know that we are running short of supplies in the kitchen as well.” Kylee place the tray on the table and stood trembling, obviously waiting for Neferet to explode in rage. Lynette braced herself, expecting the same.

The Goddess proved them both wrong. Instead of exploding, she spoke calmly. “Pour this wine for Lynette and me. It will do for now. And then tell Tony that I have heard his concerns.”

Kylee’s hand trembled as she did as Neferet commanded. After the girl had left, Neferet lifted the goblet, swirling it and studying it as if it might contain the answer to a great mystery. The Goddess sniffed delicately and then took a sip. She grimaced only slightly.

“It is exceedingly average, but drinkable,” she said. “Go on, my dear. Try it and give me your opinion.”

Lynette went through the motions of swirling the wine, sniffing, and sipping. “I agree with you, Goddess. It isn’t your usual, but it will do.”

“Yes, it will do,” Neferet said, staring down at a spot in the center of the balcony as she swirled the wine and continued to sip.

Lynette knew when to stay silent. She averted her eyes from the Goddess and drank her own wine. Which was, actually, very good.

“Lynette, my dear, if I said to you, The more something is desired, the dearer the sacrifice must be made to attain it, how would you interpret that?”

Lynette’s lack of food mixed with the rich red wine, and she was just tipsy enough to blurt, “That’s easy. It’s why I’m here right now. Nothing and no one means more to me than being successful and surviving. I’ve sacrificed everything in my life for those two things. And it has been worth it.”

“Nothing and no one…” the Goddess mused. Then a long, slow smile lifted Neferet’s lush lips. “After listening to you and an associate of mine, I have just realized how I can break Thanatos’s spell. Now, let us eat cake while we plan the most spectacular event Tulsa has ever witnessed!”

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

Zoey

Kalona’s funeral was sad and happy at the same time, and it happened super fast. Travis and Shaunee worked together so well it sometimes seemed like they were reading each other’s minds. Darius and Aurox put up an awning to shield her from the sunlight, and from there she gave directions to Aurox, Travis, and a team of humans, which included Detective Marx and the officers who’d put themselves in charge of Kalona’s body, as well as a group of men they’d somehow talked into helping.

All the while a big raven, obviously Rephaim, perched on the edge of the awning roof, right above Shaunee, cocking his head with active interest and silently watching over everything.

It was mid-afternoon when Shaunee said the logs and planks were perfect and called for Kalona’s body. Detective Marx and Darius carried the front of the litter. The TPD officers, in freshly pressed uniforms, and Aurox, dressed all in black, spread out around the rest of the litter, lifting it and walking slowing, in perfect step, to the pyre. I waited beside the pyre with Shaunee, Damien, Lenobia, and Erik. At the last minute, wearing round, heavily tinted Chanel sunglasses, Aphrodite joined us.

“You okay?” I asked her softly.

“No, but too many of the Nerd Herd are missing. Someone has to represent.”

I smiled at her and gave her a quick hug. “Thanks from them.”

“Stop. Seriously. There’s only so much PDA I can take when I’m hungover. Or even when I’m not hungover.”

Then everyone’s attention focused on Kalona’s body as they carried him across the center green. He was covered with a ginormous silver rectangle of cloth. The afternoon sunlight seemed to brighten as he got closer and closer to the pyre, and the material shined and fluttered as if it were made of liquid mercury.

“That’s incredible,” I said. “I’ve never seen anything like that cloth.”

“I found it in the drama room and gave it to Damien for Kalona’s shroud,” Erik said. “But it didn’t shine like that inside.”

“It’s Erebus,” Damien said. “He’s put magick in the sunlight for his brother.”

I blinked fast, and was so focused on not crying that I didn’t notice the people until Shaunee pointed them out.

“Wow, check out all the humans!”

Led by Travis, a long line of somber people were trailing out of the field house.

“They liked him,” Lenobia said. When I gave her my question mark look, she explained, “Kalona fascinated the humans, but it seems they also truly liked him. He was patient with their questions and didn’t get angry when children tugged on his feathers.”

“So kids did actually grab his feathers,” Aphrodite said. “Wish I’d seen that.”

“And also you have to remember that interview made him look like a hero,” Lenobia said. “And the YouTube thing went viral.”

“Kalona was a hero,” Shaunee said firmly. “He saved Rephaim. He tried his best to save Grandma Redbird. He saved a bunch of us in front of the Mayo. He even died trying to save someone he’d never met. He made terrible mistakes in his life, but at the end, he was on the right side—he did the right thing.”

“And Nyx forgave him,” I said, agreeing with her.

The raven, circling low over our heads, croaked as if agreeing with Shaunee, too. And then he landed in the oak tree nearest the pyre, perching on a thick branch that extended toward it.

“Zoey, I’ll help Travis circle the people. You can start whenever you’re ready.” I nodded and then turned to Shaunee.

“I think you should speak. He and I had too much history.” She started to protest, but I interrupted her. “I don’t mean that I have any bad feelings about Kalona now. Actually, I haven’t for a while. But that’s different from being his friend. His friend should speak at his funeral, and I think you were his friend.”

“I’m agreeing with Z,” Aphrodite said.

“As am I,” Damien said.

“But I don’t know what to say,” Shaunee said.

“Yes you do.” Erik took her hand and smiled intimately at her. “You’re good at saying what you feel. Just do that for Kalona one more time.”

Huh! They’ve got something going on between them! I was honestly happy for them.

“Okay, I’ll do it,” Shaunee said.

“I’ll follow you with the torch. Let me know when you want me to give it to you,” I said.

Shaunee nodded, lifted her chin, and walked purposefully through the circle of people to stand in front of Kalona’s pyre.

The already quiet crowd went absolutely silent. I heard Shaunee draw in a big breath, and then she began, “Kalona was our High Priestess’s Warrior, and Protector of this House of Night. He was my friend. He was father to his son, Rephaim. Those things are important—Warrior, friend, and father—but Kalona was something more. He was an ancient walking this earth among us, for good or ill, a constant reminder that our world is filled with magickal forces. Kalona was tangible proof that those forces can be awe-inspiring and awesome, frightening and mesmerizing, wonderful and terrible—all at the same time. He was our superhero, and even a superhero sometimes makes mistakes. Ours did, but in the end he kept his oath and sacrificed himself to protect us. When I remember Kalona, I’ll remember him with respect and love, always love.”

Shaunee motioned to me, and I stepped forward, handing her the burning torch I carried.

“Now you should all move back three big paces. I’m going to light Kalona’s pyre, and it’s going to be bright and hot. But you don’t need to be scared. Fire listens to me, and I give you my oath that I will only use it to protect and serve goodness and Light.” I saw her exchange smiles with Detective Marx and the uniformed officers. When everyone had moved far enough back, Shaunee said, “Fire, I call you to me. Light a blaze that Kalona will see all the way from the Otherworld!”

She touched the torch to the pyre, and fire roared from it, like she had just turned on a flamethrower. At the same instant a beam of light speared from the west, intensifying Shaunee’s already awesome blaze. We all shuffled back farther, though no one acted scared or panicked. Above us, Kalona’s son, in the form of a raven, called mournfully over and over. As dark shapes circled far above us, throwing strange shadows over the pyre, Rephaim’s cries echoed in the wind, and I realized that it wasn’t just one raven I was hearing, but hundreds of them.

Zoey

With the help of fire and, we suspected, a major dose of sunlight, the pyre had burned faster than any I’d ever seen before. Aphrodite, Damien, Erik, and I hadn’t left yet, even though we were all doing a lot of yawning. No one said it, but I guessed they felt a lot like I did—I didn’t want to leave Rephaim perched up there by himself, cawing pathetically. Stevie Rae would want us to stay. Hell, Kalona would probably even want us to stay. So we stayed.

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