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“Until Neferet freed him,” I said.

“I don’t think she was ever a vampyre,” Stevie Rae said. “She’s more like a sorceress, a super-crazy, super-manipulative, super-mean one.”

“Ohmygoddess!” Damien exclaimed, his fingers flying across his iPad. “Nimue’s imprisonment of Merlin in the crystal cave created from his own magic! It’s more than a boring trope or a clichéd, overused parable. It’s our answer!”

“Oh, for shit’s sake, speak English. Modern English,” Aphrodite said.

Damien didn’t even take time to frown at her. “Merlin was King Arthur’s adviser, remember?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Wasn’t he a vampyre?”

Damien shook his head. “No, no, no, though people tend to make that mistake pretty often. The Arthurian legends were based on a human king who lived in medieval times. They were romanticized by authors like Alfred Lord Tennyson, T. H. White, and Marion Zimmer Bradley, who really just fictionalized everything—including Merlin.”

“I remember,” Stark said. “I read the Merlin Trilogy by Mary Stewart. Merlin basically makes Arthur king, and then isn’t there to help stop the downfall of Camelot because he’s trapped by his own magick used by Nimue—the apprentice he fell in love with. At least I think that’s how the story went. I read them when I was a kid.”

“I saw the Disney Sword in the Stone,” Stevie Rae said. “I liked it, but I don’t remember Nimue.”

“The specifics aren’t important,” Damien said. “It’s the heart of the myth that has the clue we need.”

“We use her own magick to trap Neferet,” I said.

“Not we, Zo. You,” Aurox said.

“Ah, hell,” I said. I sighed and took a big gulp of my brown pop. It was going to be a long night.

Lynette

The elevator opened to the mezzanine level, and Neferet walked gracefully around the balcony-like hallway, drawing the entire ballroom’s attention to her as she came to the wide marble stairway and descended to the level on which her throne sat. Lynette followed more slowly, her eyes automatically searching the crowd below for anything or anyone who could spoil the festive ambiance she had worked so hard to create.

She breathed a long, satisfied sigh as everything appeared as close to perfection as possible. Well, at least the only people left alive are the most attractive ones. That had definitely made her job easier. Studying them, Lynette had to admit that they were a pretty group—if one didn’t look too closely at their pale, worried faces, or notice the nervous way they tended to cluster into little groups, as if they were trying to make themselves as small and unnoticeable as possible. Lynette thought that the lack of light probably helped them feel more secure. They were running out of candles, so Lynette had told Judson to be sure the majority of the candelabrum trees were placed around Neferet’s landing, hoping she would be spotlighted and not take notice of the lack of illumination in the ballroom.

Apparently, Lynette’s plan was working. There was just enough light on the crowd so that the women’s jewelry flashed, leaving everyone except the Goddess washed in a soft sepia color.

Neferet lifted her arms. Lynette was standing in the corner of the landing behind her, so she couldn’t see the Goddess’s face, but Neferet’s voice broadcasted joy.

“My loyal supplicants, a grateful Goddess stands before you!” Lynette brought her hands up, miming applause. Neferet’s servants immediately mimicked her, and the rest of the people followed, though with less enthusiasm.

“Thank you, thank you, how lovely of you!” Neferet said. The applause trailed away and the Goddess continued. “We have been through much together. I want you, my first supplicants, to know that your Goddess will eternally remember that her reign on earth began here, in Tulsa, with you.”

Lynette decided not to interrupt with any more applause, especially since it died away so quickly. She’d save it until Neferet’s speech was finished, and then cue the finale ovation.

“I would like to show special appreciation for my staff. Judson, Kylee, could you and the rest of the staff come to the front of the ballroom, please?”

That’s unexpected, Lynette thought. She was just supposed to thank her supplicants with a rather long-winded speech, wait for the clock to strike midnight … Lynette glanced at the large clock that hung over the foyer, suspended in its elaborate art deco frame. Fifteen minutes until midnight. Neferet hadn’t said anything about any special recognition. Shit! I hope she wasn’t expecting me to have gifts to present to them.

Stress began to churn Lynette’s stomach. It can’t be good that Neferet’s gone off script. Lynette watched the staff members moving forward from their normal stations at the rear of the ballroom. She grimaced. They were so mechanical, with no will left of their own! She didn’t like to imagine what the serpents inside of them were doing to the actual people who were still in there.

Lynette repressed a shudder, glancing down to where there should have been a nest of the disgusting things slithering around Neferet’s ankles.

They were gone. There wasn’t one serpent anywhere around the Goddess.

That’s really strange. Maybe she told them to be invisible. But no, Lynette had been within hearing distance of Neferet since they left the penthouse. She hadn’t said anything to the creatures.

“Ah, my loyal staff.” Neferet was beaming down at the eighteen serpent-possessed people who were standing side by side just below the landing. “How nice you all look in your newly pressed uniforms. Your Goddess is pleased with you.”

Lynette was paying only partial attention to what Neferet was saying because she’d found the serpents. They had formed a black circle around the ballroom floor that was undulating slowly around and around.

“I want to acknowledge your obedience. Yes, yes, I understand that because of being possessed by my children, you had no choice but to be obedient,” Neferet spoke lovingly to them. “Yet still I acknowledge appreciation of you.”

Lynette’s stomach heaved. The people in the ballroom hadn’t noticed that they were encircled by Neferet’s serpents. Yet. The ballroom was too poorly lit, and all of their attention was on Neferet.

“Now, to show my appreciation, I have decided that I would give the eighteen of you the ultimate honor. You know how much I love my children, don’t you?”

Each of the eighteen nodded robotically.

“Then you will understand how much I love you as well when I sacrifice each of you to my child resting within.” Neferet’s voice changed to a singsong rhythm.

Eighteen children I do now set thee free!

Take, eat, each loving sacrifice from me!

Bile rose in Lynette’s throat as Neferet’s staff began to shriek and writhe. Then their mouths opened, opened, until they could open no more. Until little Kylee, Judson, Tony, and the rest of them exploded in showers of blood and gore, and the enormous emerging serpents consumed each of them, from the inside out.

The ballroom erupted in screams. Neferet seemed to take no notice. She raised her arms and shuddered with pleasure as each of her staff members died. A movement along the walls caught Lynette’s shocked gaze. A curtain of pulsing black was pouring down the ballroom’s walls, moving toward the circle of serpents.

It’s the curtain Neferet created with the sacrifices on the balcony. Lynette’s mind was spinning with panic, but her body had frozen her in place. Somehow she’s called those creatures back to her.

Arms still raised, Neferet’s voice was amplified by a terrible power so that her words echoed, drowning out the chaos and panic below her, and she began another spell:

The time has come.

Create for me bedlam.

Death brings me power,

Glut me for the midnight hour.

I lose you now.

My supplicants to you will bow.

Sate yourselves! Feed!

This night fulfill your every need!

Neferet hurled her arms wide. The horrid creatures she called children became a living noose that closed on the screaming, panicking people, slaughtering them, every single one.

Neferet turned to face Lynette. Waves of energy were flooding the Goddess. Her skin quivered and pulsed with it, as if her body was changing, growing, beneath it. Her eyes glowed a solid emerald green.

Lynette pressed herself against the wall, too terrified to speak.

“Ah, my dear Lynette. I have truly saved the best for last.”

“Please! Don’t let one of them possess me!” The words exploded from her.

Neferet looked shocked. “Of course I won’t let one of my children possess you. That is your greatest fear. I know that. I have known it all along.” The Goddess glided closer and closer to her, until she was able to reach out with spider-like fingers and caress Lynette’s cheek. “You returned to me. For that I reward you. Your sacrifice will be made to me alone. You will never again be frightened. You will never again have to struggle to rise above what the past has done to you. And, my dear, I will remember you for all of eternity.”

Lynette felt a tug along her neck. It wasn’t painful. It was oddly pleasant and soothing to her panicked nerves. Then she felt the wet heat of something wash down her body, soaking the beautiful gown Neferet had given her. Lynette’s legs stopped working, and she collapsed, but the Goddess didn’t let her fall. Neferet took Lynette in her arms and began to feed from her, and as her world went black, Lynette wept silent, bloody tears.

Neferet

Neferet didn’t allow Lynette’s body to fall to the floor after she’d drained her dry. Instead she gently lifted her, carefully placed her on the throne, arranging her lifeless limbs and straightening her dress so that anyone who saw her would know that her Goddess honored her sacrifice.

“I will miss you, my dear,” Neferet told the corpse, smoothing her hair from her face and kissing her forehead reverently. “You were the first to understand that it is impossible to flee from me. There will be so many others who will come to that understanding after you, but you will always be my first and eternally my favorite.” She caressed Lynette’s cheek one last time before descending the marble stairs and entering the ballroom.

Dismembered body parts littered the white and black checkered marble, but there was very little blood left to stain the well cared for floor. Her children had done an excellent job, and no wonder. Those of them who had so valiantly covered her Temple with protection had had nothing to eat for days, poor dears. And yet still they had remained where she’d commanded—vigilant, protective, loving.

They will do this thing for me. I know they will. My children love me as I love them.

Neferet stopped in the foyer before the wide brass and crystal-paned door, directly under the beautiful clock that was so artfully suspended from the ceiling.

“Children, come to me,” she called. They rushed to her. Bloated and throbbing with power gained from their feast, they filled the foyer, eager to respond to her next command. Neferet knelt, gathering them to her, stroking their familiar, beloved skin, marveling at their strength—at how they truly had become her children.

“I know how to break Thanatos’s spell and free us,” she told them. Their eyeless faces turned to her, their writhing bodies surrounded her. “But I cannot do it myself. You must help your Goddess, your Mother. Lynette made it clear, the crone Thanatos hasn’t the power to hold the spell; even she believes it will eventually break. As you know, my darlings, I am not a patient Goddess. And why should we wait?” She petted those children closest to her fondly as she explained to them, “Well, we needn’t wait at all. The White Bull’s words inspired me, and I know the answer. He said, Throughout eternity I have found that the more something is desired, the dearer the sacrifice must be to attain it. I have never desired anything more than to be free of this imprisonment so that I may reign over this mortal realm as Goddess of Darkness, once and forever to be in complete control of my own destiny. And there is nothing dearer to me than you, my loyal children.”

Neferet stood. “So I am going to ask you, not command you. Will you save me? Will you break this spell and free me? If your answer is yes, not all of you will survive this night, but those of you who do will go with me, first to the betraying House of Night, where we will feast on fledgling, vampyre, and human alike, and then we shall go forth together to rule the mortal realm! Know that:

I swear by my immortality,

beside me you forever shall be.

The air around Neferet rippled with the force of her oath. Her children stilled in their writhing. It was a listening stillness—a waiting stillness—and it filled Neferet with joy.

The Goddess whirled around and faced the doors. “Open them!” she cried.

Her children rushed to obey her, holding wide open the Mayo’s double doors so that Neferet could see the quiet, dark night beyond. As she spoke, the power within her began to build, amplifying her words, lifting her hair, skittering under her skin, and pulsing with Dark magick all around her.

I charge you,

oh my children

be my blood

surge forth

to me always true.

I charge you,

oh my children

be my sword

strike forth

with me make the world anew.

I charge you,

oh my children

be my life

carried forth

so that finally, eternally, I receive what to me is due!

Neferet flung her arms wide, and like dark lightning bolts, her children shot forth. The wall of fire flamed, engulfing the first wave of her children. Neferet shrieked her loss as they died. But their deaths did not stop the others. Her children surged forth, battering the flames. Where one burned, another took its place, and though tears washed down Neferet’s face, her shrieks of rage and loss turned to cries of victory as slowly, inevitably, the flames burned lower and lower, until finally, with a hiss of ice covering a candle, the protective wall was extinguished.

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