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Her Dark children writhed around her, invisible to the gaping humans but comforting to her with their familiar eagerness.

“Ah, you are correct not to respond. That question really wasn’t worthy of a Goddess’s first address to her chosen people. Let me begin anew.”

Neferet positioned herself in front of her throne, spread her arms wide, and said, “Behold! I am Neferet, Goddess of Darkness, Queen Tsi Sgili. I have made this hotel my Temple Dark, and you—you fortunate few—shall be my loyal supplicants, my Chosen Ones. I, in turn, shall reward your worship by removing the cares of the mundane world from you. You need no longer toil at your meaningless jobs. You need not return to tedious marriages and unappreciative children. From today until your deaths, your only purpose is to worship me. Rejoice, humans!”

Her speech was followed by a long moment of absolute silence, and then the crowd began to rustle nervously with whispers.

Neferet waited for what she knew would come, and that knowledge kept the beatific smile on her face. She did so enjoy teaching humans life lessons.

As expected, Neferet didn’t have to wait long. A woman stepped forward. She was tall and brunette—probably late middle-aged, though she had the well-preserved, well-exercised look of a woman who worked diligently to maintain what was left of her youth. She was wearing a tasteful, meticulously cut dress that was a beautiful shade of emerald green.

“Wherever did you get that lovely dress?” Neferet asked the human before she could speak.

The woman blinked in obvious surprise at the question but answered, “It’s a Halston. I bought it at Miss Jackson’s.”

“Kylee,” Neferet called down to where the girl stood, looking serenely robotic, at the bottom of the stairs. “Make a note. I’m going to need you to go to Miss Jackson’s and choose a variety of dresses for me. Be sure to include a Halston design.”

“Yes, Goddess,” Kylee intoned emotionlessly.

Neferet frowned, staring at Kylee. Did she really want the girl choosing her raiment for her? The child couldn’t be more than twenty, and if her hacked-off haircut was an example of her fashion sense, it really could be a disaster to—

“Okay, you need to explain what is really going on. I don’t have time for this.” Recovering from her surprise, the emerald-dressed woman interrupted Neferet’s internal contemplation. She rested one well-manicured hand on her slim hip and looked up at Neferet, tapping her foot impatiently. “I have early dinner plans at the Summit Club, and a plane back to New York to catch afterward.”

“I have already explained the situation to you,” Neferet said. “I am now your Goddess. You will not have dinner at the Summit Club, nor will you be returning to New York—unless I command you there on an errand for me. Your only job is to worship me. In return I take away your worldly woes and cares. What size is that dress? A four or a six?”

“Seriously, this is a bad joke. Frank Snyder is behind this, isn’t he? Frank?” The woman ignored Neferet and called the man’s name, looking around as if expecting him to appear. “She’s dressed like a silver screen diva. Let me guess—she’s going to sing “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” for my birthday, right? How ever did you find a vampyre for hire? Or are those tattoos painted on?” The woman had completed a full circle and was facing Neferet again, peering up at her as if she was considering trying to wipe at her tattoos.

Neferet decided that her patience had come to an end.

“Chosen Ones, let this be a lesson for you. I am not a joke. I am your Goddess—powerful, possessive, immortal, and omniscient. I am almost completely devoid of patience, and I never, ever suffer fools.” Neferet leaned forward, resting a hand on the iron banister. She met the woman’s gaze and plunged into her unprotected mind. “So, your name is Nancy, and it is the day of your birth.” Neferet’s smile was catlike. “And you are fifty-three, though you tell your friends you are forty-five.”

The woman’s body spasmed and she gasped, shocked by the violation but powerless to resist. “How could you know that? And how dare you!”

Neferet made a tsking sound. “Such a life of self-deprivation in the name of beauty. Did no one explain to you that, no matter what you did, you were human—you were meant to age? Nancy, you should have eaten more pasta, drunk more wine, slept with your neighbor’s young son more than twice, and left your loathsome husband when he had his first affair twenty-five years ago. And, Nancy, I know these things because I am a Goddess. I dare to say these things because I am your Goddess, though you are, obviously, undeserving of me.”

The people standing around Nancy shifted, as if they wanted to move away from her, but still had dazed looks of confusion and disbelief on their bovine faces.

“It would be wise to stand away from Nancy. I know my Temple has laundry facilities, but there is no reason to unnecessarily stain your clothing.” The people closest to Nancy took a few halting steps away from her. Neferet smiled encouragement at them as she bent and lifted one of the tendrils that lapped around her bare feet. It was satisfyingly thick and heavy, and its cold, rubbery skin pulsed against her flesh as it wound around her arm. “Kill Nancy. Make her suffer. She filled her life with suffering, so suffering in death should be a comfort to her.” Neferet spoke fondly to her child. “And allow yourself to be seen.”

She hurled the creature at Nancy. It became visible midair. There were gasps and exclamations from the crowd, which changed to screams when the tendril wrapped itself around Nancy’s neck and began, slowly, to saw through her flesh and cut off her head.

The crowd unfroze all at once and, crying out in panic, they surged toward the exit.

“I have not given you permission to leave my presence!” Filled with immortal power, Neferet’s voice echoed around the vast ballroom. “Children, show yourselves to my people!”

The nest of Darkness surrounding her rippled and became visible, but few of the people noticed them. They were too busy staring in horror at the black snake-like heads of the tendrils that had possessed her staff and who, at her command, had made themselves visible within the open, gaping mouths of each of the robotic humans guarding the exit.

Neferet made another mental note—she must be certain to reward those of her children who had volunteered for the tedious task of possessing her staff. They were being so obedient, so responsive. Another feast must soon be in order for them.

Neferet felt a small shaft of power slide into her body and she shifted her attention to Nancy, whose head had finally been sliced off. There was so much blood, though, that the one tendril couldn’t feed fast enough. Neferet sighed. The shining marble floor was going to be soiled. Must she do everything herself?

“Feed from her—quickly!” Neferet commanded the children closest to her. “I cannot abide a mess in my Temple.” Then she sighed again and turned her attention to the panicked crowd. “You are making a poor beginning!” she called to them. “In return for lives filled with new purpose, all I ask is your obedience and your worship. Nancy gave me neither, and you see what happened to her. Let that be a lesson to you—to all of you.”

“What are those creatures?” a short, round man asked, obviously trying to control his fear as he stroked the arm of a woman who was likewise short and fat, and who had buried her face in his suit coat, sobbing.

“They are my children, formed of Darkness and loyal only to me.”

“Why are they in those people’s mouths?” he said.

“Because those people are my staff and they, too, must be loyal only to me. Possessing them is more efficient than cutting off their heads. Now, do you see how much simpler it is if you just do as I command?”

“But this is insane!” a man standing near the rear of the ballroom yelled. “You can’t really expect us to stay here and worship you? We have lives, families. People will miss us.”

“I am certain they will, but as they are people and not immortals, that does not concern me. Though, if you are very, very good, I may give permission for your families to join you.”

“You won’t be allowed to do this,” said a woman between sobs. “The police will come for us.”

Neferet laughed. “Oh, I do hope so. I look forward to the confrontation. Let me assure you, the Tulsa Police Department will not be victorious.”

“What now? What are we going to do? Oh my god! Oh my god!” shrieked another woman.

“Shut her up!” Neferet commanded, and a tendril flew at the woman, wrapping around her face and closing her mouth. Writhing, she fell to the floor.

Neferet breathed a long sigh of relief when not just her shrieks stopped but all of the herd-like panic stilled as well. She straightened her already perfectly fitted gown and spoke calmly to her shocked and staring supplicants. “You should learn these lessons now.” She ticked the lessons off with her long, slim fingers. “I cannot abide hysteria. I cannot abide disloyalty. I am also not overly fond of middle-aged white men. Now, I need sixty volunteers. Who would like to attend to some very important business in my penthouse?”

No one moved. No one met her gaze. Neferet sighed again and added, “I will not be feeding on any of those sixty volunteers.” A young woman raised a trembling hand. “Yes, my dear. What is your question?”

“Are—are you going to tell the snakes to go into our mouths?”

Neferet smiled sweetly at her. “No, I am not.”

“Th-then I’ll volunteer,” she said.

“Well done!” Neferet praised. “What is your name?”

“Staci.”

“No, I shall call you Gladys. That is a much more dignified name, don’t you think?”

The young girl’s head nodded jerkily.

“So, Gladys, move over to the left side of my offering chamber. Now, I want fifty-nine more people to be as enthusiastic as Gladys, and to join her.”

When no one else moved, Neferet filled her voice with anger and shouted, “Now!”

As if struck by a whip, a group of the humans bolted to join Gladys.

“Kylee, count them and let me know when I have sixty volunteers.”

With increasing impatience, Neferet waited. Finally, Kylee called, “There are sixty volunteers, Goddess.”

“Very good. Be a dear, Kylee, and take them to my penthouse. Have them wait on the balcony for my command. Oh, and open several cases of champagne. Pour generously. My volunteers must be rewarded!”

Looking confused but relieved, the sixty shuffled to the elevators. Neferet turned her attention to the remaining worshippers. They were staring up at her as if they were waiting for her to drop an enormous guillotine blade on them all.

“It would be easier to possess them all. Instructing modern humans on how to properly worship a Goddess is going to be unendingly tedious,” Neferet muttered to herself as she drummed her fingers against the iron railing.

A woman who was standing close enough to hear her took several steps toward the staircase and then, catching Neferet’s gaze, she sank into a deep, graceful curtsy. Neferet’s brows went up. She studied the woman, who remained in a curtsy, head respectfully bowed. She was older than Nancy had been, but not by much. And though she was tastefully dressed in a well-cut, expensive suit, she looked her age.

“You may rise,” Neferet finally said.

“Thank you, Goddess. May I have your permission to present myself to you?”

“You may, indeed,” Neferet said, thoroughly intrigued.

“I am Lynette Witherspoon, owner of Everlasting Expressions. I would like to offer my services to you.”

“Lynette. Yes, that name is inoffensive. You may keep it. And what exactly is Everlasting Expressions?”

“It is my company. I provide event planning, design, and coordination for a discriminating clientele,” she said.

Neferet appreciated the pride and confidence in her voice. “And what is it you propose to do for me?”

“Everything,” Lynette said firmly. She looked around the ballroom at the people huddled behind her before candidly meeting Neferet’s gaze. “I believe the worship of a Goddess is an ongoing event of major importance that should be smoothly and tastefully run. If you allow me, I can assure you that your worship will be one spectacular event after another.”

“Interesting…” Neferet mused. “Lynette, you will not mind if I take a brief and painless glimpse at your motives, will you?” Though she phrased it as a question, Neferet didn’t wait for Lynette’s response. She did move into the woman’s mind more gently than she had Nancy’s, though.

What she found made the Goddess smile. “Lynette, you are an opportunist.”

“Y-yes,” she said a little shakily after Neferet left her mind.

“And you loathe men.” Neferet’s smile widened.

“I am not divine, so I can only guess, but I think you understand that loathing,” Lynette said.

“I like you, Lynette. I will allow you to manage the planning of my worship.”

Lynette curtsied deeply again. “Thank you, Goddess.”

“And what is your first order of business?” Neferet was almost unbearably curious about what this unusual human intended.

“Well,” Lynette said, patting her chignon and studying the people who stood silently, stupidly behind her, “all events begin with two things—the correct clothing and the correct decorations.”

“I have only one requirement—dazzle me,” Neferet said.

“Yes, Goddess,” Lynette said respectfully.

“And you, my supplicants”—she gestured at the rest of the herd—“do whatever Lynette commands.” Neferet cut her eyes at Lynette and added, “As long as she doesn’t command you to try to leave my Temple.”

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