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“Well done, Kylee. And how many residents are living here?”

“Fifty.”

Neferet took one long finger and turned Kylee’s chin so that she had to meet her gaze again. “Fifty, what?”

Kylee shivered, as a horse would to dislodge clinging insects, but her gaze remained open, blank, and she corrected herself immediately by saying, “Fifty, Goddess.”

“Very well done, Kylee. I am going to retire to my penthouse. Remember, this building is now my Temple, and I insist on having my privacy, as well as my divine body, protected. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Goddess.”

“You understand that means that if anyone comes looking for me, you tell them that you are absolutely certain I am not here, and then you send them on their way.”

“I understand, Goddess.”

“Kylee, you have been exceedingly helpful. I am going to allow you to live long enough to worship me properly.”

“Thank you, Goddess.”

“You are most welcome, my dear.”

Neferet began to glide toward the gleaming elevator. She lifted her hand, beckoning. “Come, my children. I have a feeling we are going to need to redecorate.”

Bloated and pulsating with the blood on which they had so recently fed, the tendrils of Darkness slithered eagerly after their mistress.

*   *   *

“Just as I thought. It has been left in ruins! This is utterly unacceptable.” Neferet stalked around the overturned chairs and stained rugs of the living room that had once been a meticulously kept luxury penthouse apartment. “Stale blood! The room reeks of it. Clean it!” she commanded. The tendrils obeyed her, albeit more slowly than they did when the meal she provided was fresh. “Oh, don’t be so picky. Some of that blood is from Kalona. Even stale, immortal blood carries power.” That seemed to perk up the tendrils, and they slithered with more enthusiasm.

While they worked, Neferet went to her wine bar, only to find it empty. Not one bottle of the dark, expensive cabernet she preferred remained. “This is what happens when I am not here to oversee those lazy humans—they neglect their duties. I have no wine and my penthouse is left in a shambles!” Neferet’s annoyed gaze found the scattered pile of turquoise dust that had sifted from the cage of Darkness in which her tendrils had encased the tediously stubborn Sylvia Redbird. “And that! Get rid of that horrible blue dust. It mars the beauty of the onyx marble floor even more than those stained Persian rugs.” Several tendrils attempted to obey her command, but they shied away from the blue rubble, as if it still had the power to repel them. The boldest of the slithering threads scooped into the rock dust, only to shiver and cringe away, its slick, rubbery flesh smoking and oozing dark, fetid liquid. Neferet frowned, beckoning to the tendril. With one sharp fingernail, she pierced the flesh of her palm. “Come, feed from me and heal yourself,” she murmured, welcoming the cold, painful touch of the tendril’s mouth, stroking it fondly as it fed from her, quivering beneath her touch.

“This will never do. Cleaning up after a human’s mess is a job too menial for my loyal children. Human supplicants to clean up after human messes—that is what I need surrounding me, doing my bidding, easing my workload. And, happily, we have more than one hundred of them beneath this very roof. All of them, except the ever so helpful Kylee, are as yet unaware of how busy they will be quite soon. Hmm … how best to go about initiating my new subjects?”

Neferet shook off the feeding tendril. “Not so greedy. You are healed.” The tendril slunk away. Neferet stroked her long, slender neck, thinking. She must weigh the best way to move forward, and she must act quickly.

She had left no one alive at the Boston Avenue Church, but what she had left were several hundred mutilated, bloodless corpses.

“The authorities will go to the House of Night first, of course. Thanatos will insist none of her pristine flock would ever so such a thing. The crone will blame me. Whether they believe her or not, even the inept local police will eventually come here looking for me.” Neferet drummed her long, pointed fingernails on the black marble countertop of her disappointingly empty bar. She didn’t have the luxury of time, unless she chose to go into hiding.

“No. I will never hide again. I am a Goddess, an immortal, gifted with the ability to command Darkness. Nyx never understood me. Kalona never understood me. No one ever understood me. Now I will make them understand—I will make them all understand! The residents of Tulsa should hide from me, and not me from them.”

She must move quickly and decisively, before the police arrived to attempt, unsuccessfully, to arrest her—or before her feast at the church hit the news and began scaring away the Mayo guests: her future supplicants.

Neferet found the remote and clicked on the large flat-screen television that was wall mounted and had, luckily, come through the battle unscathed. Turning it to a local station, she muted the babble and began to pace, thinking aloud, as she kept her eyes on the screen.

“It is a shame that I cannot encage the humans as I did that old woman and release them when I require their worship or their services. It would be so much easier on them and, ultimately and more important, on me. I would wager a great deal on the fact that none of them would put up the fight Sylvia Redbird did. Normal humans could never enter or leave a cage of Darkness created by you, my darlings. And, from what I have seen thus far, my humans are exceedingly normal.” Neferet stopped abruptly, considering. “My supplicants are normal humans. Tulsa is filled with normal humans. And I have become so much more than a normal human or vampyre.”

Absently, Neferet stroked a tendril that had wrapped itself around her arm. “I wouldn’t be imprisoning the humans here. I would be protecting them, allowing them to exchange the tedium of their lives for the fulfillment of worshipping me, just as I have done for Kylee.” She fondled the smooth tendril while it wriggled in pleasure. “I don’t need to encage them. I need to cherish them!”

Throwing her arms wide, she beamed a smile at her Dark minions that was both exquisitely beautiful and terrifying. “I have an answer to our dilemma, children! The cage we created to hold Redbird was a weak, pathetic attempt at imprisonment. I have learned so much since that night. I have gained so much power—we have gained so much power. We will not cage people, as if I am a gaoler instead of a goddess. My children, we are going to blanket the very walls of my Temple with your magickal, unbreachable threads so that my new supplicants will be able to worship me unhindered. And that will only be the beginning. As I absorb more and more power, why not encase the entire city? I know it now—I know my destiny. I begin my reign as Goddess of Darkness by making Tulsa my Olympus! Only this is not a weak myth passed down as trite stories from schoolchildren to schoolchildren. This will be reality—a Dark Otherworld come to earth! And in my Dark Otherworld, there will be no innocents being abused by predators. All will be under my protection. I hold their fates in my hands—they have only to look to my welfare to be fulfilled. Ah, how they will worship me!”

Around her, the tendrils writhed in response to her excitement. She smiled and stroked those nearest to her. “Yes, yes, I know. It will be glorious, but what I require first, my children, is room service. Let us summon my new minions. Some of them will clean and set my chambers to right. Some of them will replenish my wine. All of them will obey me without question. Ready yourselves. The time of Neferet, Goddess of Darkness, is here!”

*   *   *

It went smoother than even Neferet had imagined. Not only were humans ridiculously easy to control, they were also all as utterly defenseless as little Kylee against the infestation of a single tendril of Darkness. She had been absolutely correct. They needed her to order their lives as a babe needs its mother.

The only problem in her plan was that Neferet did not have access to an infinite number of tendrils. Only the most loyal, her true children, had remained at her side after she had shattered.

She briefly considered sending out a call for more threads of Darkness, but just as quickly rejected the notion. She would not reward betrayal—and the threads that had abandoned her in her time of need had betrayed her at her deepest level.

Neferet sipped her favorite cabernet from a crystal goblet as she paced around her penthouse, counting the humans who were laboriously cleaning and setting to right the mess Zoey and her friends had left. Six. There were four women from housekeeping and two men from room service. Neferet’s lips tilted up. Actually, they were little more than boys—both blond and eager to answer her room service request. Stepping off her elevator, their expressions had given away their thoughts so clearly she hadn’t bothered probing their minds. They wanted her. Very badly. They had obviously been hoping she wanted a little blood and sex with her wine. Fools! Now they moved mechanically, completing the commands she had issued with no complaints, no worries, and no irritating flirtatious glances. They were, as she preferred her human men, silent and biddable and young.

“Gentlemen, life is glorious. Don’t you agree?”

The two blond heads lifted and turned in her direction. “Yes, Goddess,” they spoke together, as if by rote.

Neferet smiled. “As I often say, free will is a terrible burden. You are welcome for relieving you of it.” Then she commanded, “Get back to work.”

“Thank you, Goddess. Yes, Goddess,” they repeated, and obeyed.

So, she had used six threads already. No, seven, counting little Kylee at the front desk. Neferet glanced contemplatively at the nest of tendrils where they swarmed around the broken doors that led to the rooftop balcony, absorbing the last of Kalona’s dried blood. How many were there? She tried to count, but it was impossible. They moved too quickly and too often, and they tended to merge together and then separate at will. There did appear to be many of them remaining, though. And they had all grown larger, thicker, markedly stronger, after feasting.

I must make sure they remain well-fed. They cannot waste away—thus will my absolute control over the humans waste away.

Decisively, Neferet lifted the phone and punched zero for the receptionist.

“Front desk. How may I help you, Neferet?” Kylee’s perky voice answered on the first ring.

“Kylee, when I call you, the correct way to answer the telephone is to say, ‘How may I serve you, my Goddess?’”

Kylee’s voice flattened out, and with no emotion at all she said, “How may I serve you, my Goddess?”

“Well done, Kylee. You are such a quick learner. I need to know how many staff members are working here at my Temple today.”

“Six housekeepers, two bellboys, four room service personnel, and myself. Rachel should be working the front desk with me, but she called in sick.”

“Poor, unfortunate Rachel. But that leaves a lucky thirteen as my staff. Of course that doesn’t count the restaurant, though. Is it open today?”

“Yes, we are open for brunch until two o’clock every Sunday.”

“And how many staff are there today?”

Kylee paused and then counted off, “The chef, his sous chef, another cook who works the line, the bartender, who is also the manager, and three waitresses.”

“For a total of twenty. Here is what you will do, Kylee. Close the restaurant immediately, but do not allow any of the workers to leave. Tell them there has been a change in the management of the hotel and the new owner has called a meeting of all the staff.”

“I will do as you say, Goddess, but the restaurant is not owned by the Snyders.”

“Who are the Snyders?”

“The family who bought and renovated the Mayo in 2001. They own the building.”

“Correction, Kylee, my dear, they owned the building that was known as the Mayo Hotel. I control the Temple it has become. No matter. It will all be made very clear, very soon. All I need you to do for me right now is to gather every one of the staff members, restaurant and hotel, and direct them to report to my penthouse in thirty minutes. Afterward, I will do away with the staff meeting title and call it what it truly will become: an opportunity to worship your Goddess. Doesn’t that sound much more pleasant than a staff meeting?”

“Yes, Goddess,” Kylee repeated.

“Excellent, Kylee. I shall see you and the rest of my new supplicants in thirty minutes.”

“Goddess, I cannot leave the front desk unattended. What will happen if someone tries to check in or out?”

“The answer is simple, Kylee. Chain all of the doors through which one may enter or leave my Temple, lock them, and then join me with the keys.”

“Yes, Goddess.”

*   *   *

Neferet was going to have to find a different place in which to receive the supplications of her subjects. Her penthouse was far too intimate for so many humans. Nevertheless, she would have to make do temporarily. She’d positioned herself standing within the stained-glass doors that had been broken, now newly replaced by one of the two blond boys. She’d turned off all of the garish electric lights and commanded the housekeepers to bring candles to her chamber. Pillars and pots and votives covered the granite bar, the fireplace mantel, the marble art deco coffee table, and the large wooden dining room table. She’d also ordered the lanterns on either side of the doors to have the garish lightbulbs ripped from them and replaced with the warm, flickering light of two white tapers. She made a mental note to send one of her minions out for more candles—many, many more candles.

Neferet’s gaze swept around her penthouse, and she was pleased. Everything looked so much better, and she was so enjoying her second bottle of cabernet, thinking how much more she would enjoy it later, privately, when one of her supplicants offered to mix his—or her—blood with it.

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