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“How sweet of you,” Neferet said, her lips inches from Mabel’s bloody neck. Before she began feeding from her, she commanded, “Shield us!”

An instant later there was a deafening burst of gunfire. Lynette fell to the pavement, ducking into a ball and putting her arms up in a vain attempt to protect herself.

There was a cry of pain, and then the officers began shouting. Shaking violently, Lynette peeked up through her arms. Neferet was feeding on the girl, ignoring the chaos happening before them.

Apparently, the bullets meant for Neferet—and probably also Lynette—had bounced off whatever shield the vampyre had invoked and been deflected directly into the foul-mouthed pedophile officer’s body.

“Oh my god,” Lynette whispered in a rush.

“Do you not mean oh my goddess?” Neferet, lips scarlet from the girl’s blood, smiled down at Lynette.

“Y-yes, I do,” Lynette said, feeling light-headed.

Neferet let loose the girl, and Mabel fell heavily to the concrete. Then she held out her hand to Lynette, who took it and stood shakily. “Have no fear. I won’t allow them to harm you. I won’t allow them to harm anyone who is loyal to me,” Neferet told her. She turned her attention back to the officers. They had dragged Jamison’s bullet-ravaged body behind the cars, which is where the rest of the men were crouching. Lynette could hear their radios crackling as they called for an ambulance and backup.

“Do you understand now, Detective Marx? Have you learned your lesson?”

“We’ve learned that you’re a killer!” he shouted. “We’re not done here—this hasn’t ended!”

“For once, you are correct. I am not done here—this has only just begun. Watch and learn, watch and learn,” Neferet repeated. “Oh, and look up! Children, come with me!” she commanded. Linking Lynette’s arm with hers, Neferet turned her back to the officers and reentered the Mayo.

“Judson, chain the doors again.”

“Yes, Goddess. That will not hold them off for long, though.”

“I know that! Just do as I have commanded. As always, I will take care of the rest of the details myself.”

“Yes, Goddess.”

“Lynette, I’d like you to join me on the balcony of my penthouse. A spectacular event is getting ready to take place there.”

“Yes, Goddess,” Lynette said, entering the elevator with her.

Neferet’s smile was knowing. “You almost believe that I am divine.”

Lynette didn’t respond. What could she say that Neferet couldn’t refute by probing her mind and finding the truth? So again, she said the only thing she could, “I’m here to serve you, Neferet.”

“And so you shall.”

The doors to the penthouse opened. “Kylee, Lynette’s looking pale. Pour a glass of my best red wine and bring it to her on the balcony.” Neferet swept past Kylee with Lynette following, opening the glass doors and joining the sixty people who stood in frightened groups on the balcony. Many of them were near the stone balustrade that framed the wide outdoor expanse, and it was obvious from their expressions that they had heard the shots from below and had been watching the drama unfold from above.

“Wait here, Lynette, and drink your wine. It will help the bloom return to your cheeks. I can’t have my favorite supplicant looking sallow and ill,” Neferet told her. Then she walked to the stone railing, causing the people closest to her to shuffle nervously aside. “Because modern education is abysmal, I feel it is my duty as your Goddess to tell you that this”—she paused and pointed at the carved stones—“is called a balustrade. The thick, evenly spaced supports, here and here and here”—she pointed again—“are called balusters. It is a happy coincidence that there are exactly sixty balusters spaced all around this rooftop balcony of my Temple. I want each of you to choose a baluster and stand directly in front of it.”

“You—you aren’t going to make us jump, are you?” asked a terrified old woman.

“No, Grandmother,” Neferet said warmly. “That makes no sense at all. Did you not see how I protected Lynette from the deadly bullets the police fired at her?”

There was a long silence, and then someone called, “Yes, but you ate that girl.”

“Mabel was disobedient. Would you like to share her fate?”

Her words worked like spurs on the people. They scattered, each taking a position in front of a baluster.

“Excellent! Kylee, refresh my supplicants’ glasses of champagne while I have a private word with my Dark children.”

Lynette appreciated expensive red wine, and she usually savored it, sipping slowly as it deserved. Not then. She chugged it, snagging the bottle from robotic Kylee as the girl passed her to return inside, fetching more champagne. Lynette was grateful for the surreal, detached feeling the alcohol was giving her as she watched the vampyre. She’d moved to a shadowy corner of the balcony, well away from the stone railing, and was bent, talking to what looked like nothing at all.

Lynette knew better. And, sure enough, only another second or two passed before the air around the vampyre’s feet rippled, like heat currents lifting from a blacktop road in the summer, and Neferet’s snakes became visible. Lynette was glad the vampyre was distracted by her “children,” because she couldn’t repress her shudder of disgust. Lynette was reminded of an old western she’d seen as a young girl. In it cowboys were on a cattle drive, and as they made a river crossing, a young man had fallen off his horse, landing in the middle of an enormous nest of mating water snakes to be killed by them, though not quickly enough. It looked like Neferet was standing in the center of that nest, only her snakes were bigger, blacker, and even more dangerous than the old west vipers.

What in the hell were they? Granted, Lynette didn’t know much about vampyres. Though she would have welcomed their business—they were notoriously wealthy—she’d never been hired by one. She was far from a vampyre authority, but she felt sure she would have heard something about these deadly snake-creatures. Their familiars were supposed to be cats, for god’s sake, not reptiles!

Lynette poured the remainder of the wine into her goblet and took another long gulp, feeling relieved that her face was warm. Good, the flush would bring back the “bloom” of her cheeks. Lynette had no doubt the vampyre was capable of killing her on a whim. Surreptitiously, she pinched her checks to be sure they were in full bloom.

How was she going to get out of this mess? She didn’t even give a damn about profiting from the situation anymore. She just wanted to escape, without being chased down by one of the insane vampyre’s children.

“Excellent!” Neferet straightened, turning her attention to the sixty people, each standing in front of a rooftop baluster. “Now that my children understand my wishes, I am ready to share them with you—my loyal supplicants.” She took a position in the center of the balcony so that she could be seen and heard by everyone. “Kylee, that is enough champagne for now. Go stand by Lynette.” Kylee, of course, did as she was commanded.

Lynette snuck sideways glances at the girl. Her mouth was closed, and she couldn’t see any sign of snake infestation, but the girl was clearly on autopilot. Her eyes were open but blank. Her face was expressionless. This time Lynette did suppress her shudder of disgust. Who knew what the thing beside her would report to the vampyre?

“Now, I have a question for you, one that anyone may answer. What is your foremost concern right now?” Neferet was asking the people. Lynette thought how strange it was that she could sound so normal, even kind. It was all a façade, but it was a good one.

No one answered her question, and Neferet smiled warmly, encouragingly, saying, “Oh, come now! I am your Goddess. It is my duty and pleasure to hear your concerns—and as my supplicants, it is your duty to voice them to me. Please don’t make me force you to do your duty.”

A man spoke up. “My biggest concern is that I don’t want to be killed—or worse,” he said, giving the writhing nest of darkness that surrounded the vampyre a fleeting nervous glance.

“Good! Well said. Do any of the rest of you have the same concern?”

Neferet sounded like she authentically cared, and even Lynette felt her head nodding with the others.

“Perfect!” Neferet said. “I knew safety would be your key concern. Now, I’m not admonishing you, nor am I angry with you, but your key concern should be caring for and worshipping me.” Several of the people started to protest, obviously out of fear for what the vampyre would do next, but Neferet lifted her hand and, with a regal gesture, quieted them. “No, no, I understand. Truly I do. And that is why I am going to make quite sure that no one can harm my supplicants so that they can then be free to truly worship me.”

Lynette thought it was ironic that as Neferet made this pronouncement, the sound of multiple sirens screamed, ever closer, from below.

“In order to assure my supplicants of their safety, I need your help. Do exactly as I say, and I promise you my Temple will be impervious to harm.”

Lynette sighed softly. Too bad someone didn’t say what everyone was thinking: It’s not the outside world we’re worried about—it’s you! But of course no one spoke because it was Neferet they were all petrified of.

“What you need do is very simple. First, each of you must turn so that you are facing outward.” Slowly, reluctantly, the sixty people did as she commanded until they were all facing away from Neferet. “Now, raise your arms, close your eyes, and clear your minds by taking three deep breaths with me—in and then out … in and then out … in and then out.” Lynette heard the people breathing with her. “I want you to concentrate on my voice and think of nothing else.” Neferet paused, looking around the balcony as if to be sure everyone was in place. When her eyes found Lynette, her full lips turned up in a feral smile.

Lynette’s stomach twisted in foreboding and she worried that she would throw up the wine she’d guzzled.

Neferet’s gaze left her and went to the snakes that writhed around her feet. “Children, it is time!” Her next words were spoken in a singsong tone that was surprisingly soothing, almost mesmerizing.

In one swift strike you must kill

so those below may know my rage.

Power glutted, you drink your fill

now create for me a perfect cage.

Lynette felt the power build with every sentence the vampyre spoke and she, along with the sixty people who were frozen with their arms raised, could do nothing but wait for what would happen next.

For me to make the world anew

my Temple must be divine—strong.

To me you shall always be true

show Tulsa a righteous Goddess song!

For as long as she lived, Lynette would not be able to wipe the vision of what happened next from her memory. With the words “Goddess song,” Neferet lifted her arms, and, as if that was the signal they had been waiting for, sixty of the snakes shot away from her and rocketed toward the unknowing backs of the people. Lynette held her breath, expecting the serpents to slither up their legs and possess them, but her expectations were so, so wrong. Instead of possessing the people, the snakes—as one—hit the each of the sixty in the middle of their backs, bursting through them with such force that blood and gore spouted like scarlet rain flowing with the snakes over the stone balustrade. Disbelieving, Lynette watched as the creatures slithered down the sides of the Mayo, washing it with blackness and blood, as if unfurling a dark, dripping curtain.

A sound brought her attention back to Neferet. Numbly, she saw that the vampyre still had her arms raised. Her head had lolled back, and her body was jerking in spasms as she moaned in terrible pleasure. Lynette was certain she saw a dark glow shimmering and expanding around her. Suddenly she understood. It’s the people dying—somehow she’s feeding off their souls, just like her creatures are feeding off their bodies.

And they were feeding off the newly dead—all the snakes that had remained on the rooftop. Lynette felt her head shaking back and forth. There were so many of them, still so many of them.

Lynette was still shaking her head and staring at the creatures who seethed over and around the dead, attaching to them like giant leeches, draining what was left of their limp bodies, when Neferet’s arms went down. She straightened her robe and, without so much as a glance at any of the sixty, she turned and, smiling, approached Lynette.

“Kylee! Throw the bodies over the balustrade when the children are done feeding. Oh, and call Judson and the rest of my staff. There is no need for them to guard the door anymore. You are all safe. Nothing can penetrate my veil of Darkness. No one can enter or leave my Temple without me permitting it. So have the staff inform my remaining supplicants that they do not have to stay in that dismal basement. They may return to their rooms without fear. I have made sure they are protected—as long as they worship me. It is now time for them to begin worshipping me.”

“Yes, Goddess,” Kylee said, disappearing through the penthouse door.

Neferet’s emerald gaze met Lynette’s. “What did you think of my event?”

Lynette swallowed around the sick in her throat that threatened to choke her and answered with absolute honesty. “I have never seen anything like it.”

“I have never seen anything like it, what?” Neferet asked expectantly.

“I have never seen anything like it, Goddess,” Lynette said, dropping into a deep, trembling curtsy.

“And now you actually mean it. How delightful. Rise, Lynette, my dear, and pour us both a glass of wine while we discuss what type of worship events you intend to plan for me.”

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