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Neferet had dressed carefully, glad none of her clothes had been disturbed while she’d been gone. She chose a dressing gown made of golden silk that clung to her body as if it were caressing her. As usual, Neferet left her thick auburn hair falling free in glistening waves around her waist. She did not adorn herself with a symbol of any other goddess. No upraised, silver embroidered images would ever be allowed on her person again—she’d ripped the last of those threads out herself.

Neferet had a new symbol. She had been considering it carefully, and she could hardly wait until one of her supplicants ordered the custom piece from Moody’s jewelry store and “surprised” her with a six-carat ruby shaped like a perfect teardrop. She would be effusive in her thanks and wear it always on a solid gold chain.

It was, indeed, going to be good to be Goddess of Darkness—Goddess of Tulsa—Goddess of Chaos.

The elevator chimed. “Children, come to me!” The threads of Darkness rushed to her, surrounding her, lapping against her na**d feet with their comforting coldness. “Oh, and supplicants, you may return to my presence,” she called over her shoulder to where she’d sent her servants to wait until she wished to command them again. They shuffled past her just as the elevator doors opened and Kylee led the rest of the staff into the penthouse.

“Welcome!” Neferet raised her glass and lifted her arms. “You are blessed to be in my presence.”

Most of the group looked confused. Two women, dressed as waitresses, muttered questions to one another. Neferet’s sharp eyes took note of them. One of the men, the one wearing the silly white chef’s hat, spoke up. “Can you tell us what’s going on here? We had to close the restaurant and make our patrons leave—even though they weren’t finished with brunch. I can tell you, there are some pissed off ex-customers out there right now.”

“What is your name?” Neferet asked him, keeping her voice pleasant.

“Tony Witherby, but most people call me Chef.”

“Well, Tony, I am not most people. You see, most people call me Goddess.”

He barked a patronizing laugh. “You’re kidding, right? I mean, I can see your tattoos and I know you’re a vampyre and all, but vampyres aren’t goddesses.”

Neferet was pleased to see that Kylee had stepped away from the chef as if she didn’t want to be contaminated by his disobedience. Kylee really was becoming an excellent supplicant.

Neferet didn’t waste even a glance at the chef. Instead she smiled down at her writhing children. “So eager,” she half chided, half encouraged. “So smart.” She bent to stroke a particularly precocious tendril that had wrapped itself around her leg and crawled almost to her thigh. “You will do nicely.”

“Okay, you’re gonna have to let us in on the joke or I’m gonna call the owner of the restaurant,” the chef said. When she continued to ignore him, he began to bluster, “This really is ridicu—”

“Take him!” Neferet commanded. “And let yourself be seen.”

The tendril became visible as it flew at the chef. It was so large that it easily coiled around his thick waist, moving quickly upward.

“What the f**k! Get it off me!” the chef shrieked, and lurched backward, beating impotently at the tendril with both of his thick hands.

Neferet thought he sounded like a young girl who had been frightened by a spider.

A tall, handsome black man dressed in a bellman’s uniform moved to go to the chef’s aid.

“Stay where you are or your fate will be the same as his!” Neferet snapped.

The man froze.

“Nooooo!” The chef’s shrieks echoed with hysteria, and Neferet was relieved that it was at that moment the tendril slithered up his neck and surged into his mouth, causing it to open so impossibly wide that the corners of his lips split open and began to bleed before the thick length of it disappeared within the human’s body. The chef slumped to the floor.

“I do think it is unfortunate when a grown man sounds like a frightened little girl, don’t you?”

The humans who were not possessed by her children stared at her with mixed expressions of horror and disbelief. The whispering waitresses had begun to sob. Another woman, one of the housekeepers who hadn’t answered Neferet’s earlier summons, was praying in Spanish and clutching the crucifix that dangled around her neck from a rather cheap-looking silver necklace. The entire group, except for misguided Tony, were backing, herd-like, toward the elevator doors.

“No,” Neferet said mildly. “You may not leave until I release you.”

“Are you going to kill us, too?” one of the women asked, holding her friend’s hands and trembling spasmodically.

“Kill you? Of course not. Tony isn’t dead.” Neferet addressed the chef, who was still slumped on the floor. “Tony, my dear, stand up and tell the others that you are perfectly fine.”

Woodenly, Tony stood. He jerked around until he was facing Neferet. Then, with no expression on his florid, blood-spattered face he said, “I am perfectly fine.”

“You forgot something,” Neferet said.

Tony’s body twitched spasmodically, as if he had been electrified from within, and he hastily repeated, “I am perfectly fine, Goddess.”

“There, you see? It is just as I said. What is your name, my dear?” she asked the trembling woman.

“Elinor,” she said.

“What a lovely old name. You don’t hear names like that anymore, and it is such a shame. Where have all the Elinors and Elizabeths, Gertrudes, Gladyses, and Phyllises gone? No, no need to answer me. They have been overrun by the Haileys and Kaylees, Madisons and Jordans. I loathe modern names. You know, Elinor, I must thank you. Your tasteful name has helped me come to a decision about you, my new supplicants. I am going to rename any of you who have overly perky names.” Neferet glanced at Kylee and smiled. “Except for you, Kylee. I like your gold name tag too much to change your name.”

“Goddess?” Elinor whispered the name as a question.

“Yes, my dear.”

“Are—are we working for you now?”

“Oh, much better than that. You are worshipping me now. The twenty of you are the first witnesses of my reign as Goddess of Darkness. You each will have a very special and important role to fulfill as you worship me and attend to my every need. You will offer gifts and sacrifices to me, and in return I will take from you the exhausting free will that has obviously repressed and depressed you all of your lives. Why else would you be working in such menial and meaningless jobs?”

“I don’t understand what is happening.” Elinor wept.

“Very shortly your confusion will be gone. Don’t worry, sweet Elinor, it only hurts for a moment.” Neferet raised her arm. “Children—” she began.

“Wait!” The bellman who had wanted to help Tony stepped forward and unflinchingly met Neferet’s gaze. “You said if we tried to help Chef, our fate would be the same as his. I didn’t help him. None of us helped him. So, according to your own word, you’re not going to send those snake-things on us.”

“And what is your name?”

“Judson.” He paused and then added, “Goddess.”

“Judson, that’s a name from the Old South, did you know that?”

“No, I—I, no, I didn’t,” another pause, “Goddess.”

“Well, it is. I won’t change your name, either. And about what I said before? I lied. Take them!” Neferet commanded.

Thankfully, her children had anticipated her wishes and moved swiftly, so that the annoying shrieking ended very, very soon.

CHAPTER FOUR

Neferet

Neferet sent her new supplicants, each initiated into her worship by the possession of one of her children, and commanded that they rouse the hotel guests and residents, and have them gather in the grand ballroom.

Neferet had decided she would set up her offering room in the main ballroom. It was surrounded by marble columns with a lovely high ceiling, ornate art deco chandeliers, and a wide double staircase with a curved wrought-iron banister that had a landing between the ground floor—where her supplicants would stand—and the upper-level promenade, where only her closest worshippers, or those tending to her needs, would be allowed. The others would be confined either to their rooms or to the basement holding area, which Kylee had been so kind as to show her. Or if they were too much of a nuisance, and she didn’t care to waste a tendril to possess them, they would become food for her children.

Neferet would, of course, only feed from those supplicants who captured her interest.

Kylee had been tasked with finding a chair that would have to suffice as a throne until she could have a proper one commissioned to be carved.

“You’ll need to find a master craftsman to create exactly what I require. The wood must be stained the deep red of bull’s blood,” she spoke as she chose the setting carefully. “And with none of those wretchedly cold, hard seats that the crones on the High Council prefer. Pillows of golden velvet—that is what I will sit upon.”

Neferet allowed two of the most attractive housekeepers to wrap her in a luxurious dressing gown of royal purple, and had just decided that she would not wear any shoes—she would be barefoot, as should befit a newly born Goddess, when she returned to her living room to refill her wine goblet—annoyed that there was no eager human waiting on her. She was already waiting, impatiently, for the guests and residents to be rounded up by her obedient staff so that she could make her entrance to the ballroom.

“Even for a Goddess, it is so difficult to find good help. But I shall let this mistake pass. There are only twenty of them. They must be quite busy herding the humans into my offering room. Though I shall only let it pass this one time.” She was sipping the rich red liquid, enjoying the taste of the blood the handsome bellman had so graciously volunteered to slice open his flesh to flavor her wine with, when the television caught her peripheral vision. There was a breaking news feed going across the bottom of the screen, MURDERS IN TULSA, and the anchor, Chera Kimiko, was speaking with a somber expression.

Delighted, Neferet hit the mute button, expecting to relive the delicious details of her feast. But instead of the Boston Avenue Church, the screen filled with a picture of Woodward Park, in a terrible state of burned-out unattractiveness. Then the camera shifted and Neferet’s brows lifted as they focused on the rock wall beside the grotto that had so recently been her sanctuary. She tapped impatiently at the volume in time to hear Kimiko, sounding oh-so-serious.

“This is the site of the gruesome murders of the two men, whose bodies were discovered by firefighters yesterday morning. As we reported earlier, the violent thunderstorm that created winds in excess of seventy miles per hour also carried with it deadly lightning. Lightning strikes in the Tulsa area have accounted for five deaths today, with ten more people still hospitalized in serious condition. But the death of these two men was, apparently, unrelated to the storm. Adam Paluka is live with Detective Kevin Marx, and we go to him for the details. Adam?”

The scene changed from the storm-ravaged park to a detective sitting behind a desk in a mundane-looking office. Neferet recognized him as the officer who had, annoyingly, seemed sympathetic to Zoey Redbird in the past. She scowled as she watched the brief interview.

“Detective Marx, could you please explain about the two additional deaths at Woodward Park, and have you truly ruled out storm-related causes?”

“The bodies of two men, both in their mid-forties, were discovered early yesterday. The cause of death was the same for both men—blunt force trauma and loss of blood.”

Neferet smiled, deciding this was an excellent preshow rehearsal for the carnage they would soon discover.

“And is it true that you have taken into custody someone who confessed to the killings?”

Neferet’s brows lifted. “Confessed to the killings? In custody? That is quite impossible.”

“Yes, I am sad to report that a young fledgling, one I know personally, came forward of her own volition and confessed that she killed the two men.”

“A fledgling!” Neferet exploded off the chaise, shouting at the television screen.

“May we have the name of this fledgling?”

“Zoey Redbird.”

Neferet shrieked, picked up one of the electric lamps she had unplugged, and hurled it at the screen.

“That simpering, feeble child believes she killed those two men? I found them, barely stunned, mere feet from my sanctuary, and their blood served to feed me so that I could make my way to the grand feast at the Boston Avenue Church. Zoey Redbird kill two grown men? What utter nonsense! She doesn’t have the will to kill anyone! And she actually confessed to their murder? That girl is a bigger idiot than even I could have imagined.” Neferet threw back her head and mocking laughter filled the penthouse.

*   *   *

Neferet had taken her position in the middle of the graceful double staircase of the main ballroom of the Mayo Hotel. She loved the irony that she was standing in the very spot where so many deluded human couples had spoken their wedding vows.

“Boxed pasta lasts longer than most human marriages. Did you know that?” She smiled at the crowd assembled on the gleaming black and white marble floor. She had ordered that the chandeliers be dimmed and that large candelabrums be set and lit to the left and right of her on the landing. She knew her beauty was divine and complemented by the way her gown shimmered with the candlelight’s caress.

She had commanded that half of her twenty supplicants surround her, though without actually entering her landing. The other ten possessed humans were stationed at the entrance to her Temple. She had given them one command: no one is allowed to enter or exit.

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