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I had to move Nala so that I could lie down next to Stark. She only grumbled for a second and then she circled the covers at my feet, making a little Nal nest, flopped her fatty body down, and started up her purr machine. I closed my eyes.

Go to sleep. Go to sleep. Go to sleep.

I sighed and fluffed my pillow and scooted away from Stark so that my restlessness wouldn’t bother him.

“You’re worrying again.” Stark’s voice was sleepy. He pulled me back against him, and his hand found my shoulder, which he started to knead gently.

“You don’t have to do that. I know you’re super tired,” I said.

He moved my hair and kissed the back of my neck. “I know I don’t have to. I want to.”

“Thank you for taking care of me,” I whispered.

“Always, Z. Always,” he said. And his touch led me to sleep.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

Lynette

“Lynette, my dear, you look lovely!” Neferet smiled and walked a circle around her. “I knew my gown would suit you. You’re much thinner than your old clothes make you appear.”

“Well, lately I’ve lost weight,” she said, smoothing down the silk dress. Lynette caught a glimpse of herself in Neferet’s long mirror. I do look good, even though the only way I could fit into this dress was to have the gathered waist completely ungathered. “And you were correct. It is good for morale to dress up and look our best.”

“Of course I am correct. I am Goddess!”

Lynette watched Neferet do a graceful twirl around the room. Her long golden dress swirled around her and her serpents wriggled enthusiastically about her ankles, like they were a perverted version of puppies.

Kylee entered the penthouse. “Goddess, your supplicants are gathered in the ballroom, awaiting the gift of your presence.”

Lynette was nodding her approval to Kybot—the girl had addressed Neferet exactly as she had coached her—when Neferet whirled by, taking the dumbstruck receptionist in her arms and commanding, “Waltz with me!”

She’s been like this ever since she figured out how to break the protective spell. It’s like she’s having a manic episode. Neferet’s jubilance worried Lynette. She knew all too well that what went up had to come crashing down. I’m not going to be in her path when she crashes, Lynette promised herself. My survival instinct is one of the things Neferet appreciates about me—she’s told me so.

“Lynette, do stop thinking of yourself and pay attention.”

Immediately, Lynette focused on Neferet, expecting to have to handle one of her temper tantrums. But Neferet wasn’t unpleasant at all. She gave Kylee a last twirl and then, smiling and fanning her flushed face, Neferet simply repeated herself—exhibiting no anger or irritation at all toward Lynette.

“I asked if you’d made sure Tony did as I commanded. You know he’s little more than a child’s windup toy.”

“Oh, yes, Goddess. Of course I did.” Lynette assured her. “I double-checked everything before I came to you. Tony did exactly as you commanded. He prepared a feast, using the last of the food, and serving the last of the wine and liquor, to all your supplicants.”

“Even my staff?” Neferet sent Kylee a fond smile.

Lynette nodded. “Yes, even your staff.”

“Did you enjoy your feast, Kylee?” Neferet asked her, as if she really cared about her answer.

“Yes, Goddess, I did.”

“Excellent!” She laughed happily and made a shooing motion at Kylee. “Go ahead and precede us to the ballroom, Kylee. Have the quartet begin to play the music I chose from the final scene of the ballet Giselle.”

“Yes, Goddess.”

When they were alone, Neferet said, “Come, Lynette. Would you help me make sure my hair is perfect?”

“I’d be happy to, though I have to admit that I’m not very good with hair.”

“Oh, just be certain none of the flowers the stylist wove into the back fell out as I was dancing. What was that stylist’s name? She was very proficient.”

“Allison,” Lynette said, tucking a stray sprig of baby’s breath back into Neferet’s dark auburn mane.

“Yes, that’s right—Allison. Such a nice name. I am pleased that she made it to the feast.”

“As am I,” Lynette agreed. Only one stylist of the four who had been hired for the wedding that had brought them all to the Mayo was still alive. Lynette thought that it seemed that night had happened an eternity ago.

“Lynette, I am sorry you missed the feast, but it pleased me that you and I were able to sup together earlier. I hope you don’t mind that the stew was simple and the wine not my best.”

“Our meal was wonderful. I enjoyed all of it, even the wine,” Lynette said, marveling at how genuine Neferet seemed. It was as if a switch had been thrown within the Goddess. Her entire attitude had changed.

Lynette was afraid to hope it would last.

“And now it is almost midnight. Everyone is dressed in their best and sated with food and drink. The scene is set for the perfect exit event,” Neferet said.

“That is my fondest wish,” Lynette said. Then she took a chance and asked, “Goddess, are you sure there is nothing I can do to help you with our actual exit?”

“Ah, my dear Lynette, no. I have already explained to you that your duty is to get everyone ready for our spectacular exit. The rest of this event is my duty, as it requires the magick of a Goddess.”

“As you wish, Goddess—after you.” Lynette curtsied as Neferet and her swarm of Darkness swept past her. Obediently, she followed her into the elevator, ignoring the cold-skinned serpents as they slithered over her feet in their haste to stay close to Neferet. Actually, Lynette was proud of herself. It was getting easier and easier to suppress the revulsion Neferet’s creatures made her feel. And Neferet appreciated that. Anything Neferet appreciated was a good thing.

Lynette was worried about how Neferet was going to break them free of the Mayo. She had no idea what the Goddess had planned. All she knew was that Neferet acted as if she had absolutely no doubt she could break the spell and lead them from the Mayo, and she was very happy about it. As with Neferet’s appreciation, her happiness was definitely a good thing.

“Lynette, my dear, have you ever been to Italy?”

Lynette blinked in surprise at the unexpected question. “Yes, actually I have. I’ve been to Rome and Venice, Sorrento and Capri.”

“Did you enjoy Italy?”

“Very much,” she assured the Goddess. “Would you like me to begin researching a trip for you?”

“Oh, let’s see how tonight goes, shall we? As you always say, you need time and means to plan the perfect event.”

A little confused, Lynette nodded in agreement. Supposing it was a good sign that Neferet was quoting her, she smoothed the lovely dress the Goddess had given her and patted her hair into place. This was one event for which Lynette absolutely wanted to look her best.

Zoey

“So, because I have somehow been drafted into being secretary for the Herd of Nerds, let me recap your pathetic attempt at coming up with a plan,” Aphrodite said, pausing to glance at the yellow legal pad I could see that she’d mostly just doodled Darius’s name all over. “We have zip. Nada. Nothing. And we’ve been brainstorming for hours, though I am getting extremely attached to the professors’ dining room.” She nibbled on the edge of a fudge brownie the chef had brought us a plate of an hour or so ago. “But if I stay up here much longer, my butt is going to be the size of this cushy chair.”

“That’s not true,” I said. “Well, the part about your butt is probably true. The zip, nada, nothing part isn’t true. We know I have to use Old Magick to kill Neferet. I’m wearing this”—I lifted the Seer Stone as Exhibit A—“and I haven’t freaked out or gotten pissed or anything. So I might be able to use it without turning into anything terrible. I mean, I don’t know how yet, but still.”

“The Seer Stone heats up around Aurox,” Stark added, sending Aurox an annoyed look.

“But not all the time,” Damien said.

“Z, is it hot right now?” Stevie Rae asked me.

I closed my fingers around it to be sure before I answered and shook my head. “Nope. It’s just a stone. Not hot. Not cold.”

“Neferet can’t be killed,” Aurox said. Everyone looked at him in surprise. He’d been sitting off to the side of our group, listening but hardly saying anything, for hours.

“Yeah, genius. We know that. She’s immortal,” Aphrodite said.

“But Zoey just said she needs to use Old Magick to kill Neferet. Damien said it an hour ago. You even said it forty-five minutes before that. Stevie Rae mentioned it as soon as we all sat—”

“Okay, we get it,” I interrupted him, feeling the irritation level in the room rising with each of his comments. “We know she can’t be killed.”

“At least we think she can’t be killed,” Rephaim said. “Father was immortal, and he is dead.”

There was a long, sad silence, so when Aurox spoke, it sounded extra loud and extra awkward.

“I believe that is the core of your problem. You’re not asking yourselves the right question because of what happened to Kalona. You know Neferet is immortal, yet you believe if Zoey wields enough power, she can still be killed. I think that is a mistake that is keeping you from finding your plan.” As if he was warming to the subject, Aurox leaned forward in his chair, studying Rephaim. “No one has explained it to me, but you all seem to know the answer unsaid. Forgive me if this brings you pain, but can you tell me how it is your father was killed, though he had been immortal for eons?”

Stark stood and put his hand on Rephaim’s shoulder. “I’ll answer that for you.” He gave Aurox a hard look. “When Heath, the kid who’s soul is inside you, was killed by Kalona, Zoey’s soul shattered and she was trapped in the Otherworld. I followed her there to try to get her back. Kalona did, too, because Neferet got control over him and sent him to be sure Z never made it back. Kalona and I fought in the Otherworld. He won. I lost. He killed me. Nyx interceded because Kalona cheated. He should have never been there to begin with. He was banished from the Otherworld by the Goddess, and he slipped back in under a technicality.”

I saw Aurox’s confusion and I explained, “Nyx banished Kalona physically, but didn’t specifically say his spirit wasn’t allowed in the Otherworld, either. He came back as spirit, not body.”

Aurox nodded. “I see.”

“Because Father disobeyed the Goddess’s edict, she commanded him to give Stark a piece of his immortality,” Rephaim said.

“And because Kalona obeyed her command, I’m alive today,” Stark said.

“But he’s dead because of it,” Aurox said. “I understand.”

“Do ya also understand that’s a pretty sore subject right now?” Stevie Rae said, taking Rephaim’s hand and sliding closer to him.

“Of course I understand that. I did not mean to cause anyone pain. Rephaim, you have my apology,” Aurox said.

“Accepted,” Rephaim said. “We all know Father made many mistakes. It’s just difficult to relive them right now.”

“And yet we need all of the information we can get to defeat Neferet, and that includes understanding that her immortality is intact,” Aurox said.

“So she doesn’t have an Achilles’ heel, like Kalona did,” I said.

“She doesn’t have a literal weakness, as did Kalona and Achilles,” Damien said in his teacher voice. “But maybe we can find something from her past that we can use against her.”

“We already tried that. The Seer Stone turned into a mirror that showed her past, when she’d been beaten up and raped by her dad,” I said. “The reason that worked then was that she was shocked enough that Aurox had a chance to gore her and throw her off the balcony. She won’t be surprised by that again.”

“But she was weakened enough to be defeated—even temporarily,” Aurox said.

“Talk about fighting creepy with creepy,” Aphrodite said. “No offense, Bull Boy, but you can be as gross as those spiders when you do that change-up thing.”

I shivered, not liking the memory that flashed in my mind of what lurked beneath Aurox’s normal-looking façade.

“No offense taken,” Aurox said.

“Aurox, can you kill her?” I asked.

He shook his head slowly. “I used all of my power against her at the penthouse, and that did not kill her. What we need is something like what you and I did to her, only more permanent. We need a prison fashioned to hold an immortal, not a weapon to slay one.”

“Holy crap,” I said, sitting up straighter. “A-ya!”

“What is A-ya?” Aurox asked.

“She’s a who, not a what,” I said, speaking fast, trying to keep up with my zooming thoughts. “A-ya was a maiden created from earth and breathed to life—”

“With Old Magick,” Aphrodite finished.

I nodded. “Yeah, with Old Magick. She lured Kalona underground.”

“Because unless they have ties to the earth, immortals are weakest underground,” Damien said, his voice mirroring my excitement.

“Neferet has no ties with the earth. She steals her power from souls as they die,” Shaylin said. “She is a soul leech.”

“The maiden A-ya was able to imprison Father because she was created with the Old Magick of the Great Earth Mother and elemental power focused by Wise Women who were defending their people,” Rephaim said. “He was trapped for centuries.”

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