Wednesday, June 19, 2019

A Matter of Death - Chapter 4

As I've said in the other samples, I'm posting in the order of how A Matter of Death originally began two years ago. Cthulu! I can't believe it's been that long already. 😄

This series is much more ambitious in scope than anything I've written before. There's things I need to layer in that will make sense in the next three books. So the changes you'll see in the published version expand the original story. But it'll give you a taste of the craziness a writer goes through to produce a readable book.

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If the demons were in the tunnels, that meant—

“Oh, sweet Balance!”

Luc’s expression was equally shocked before he roared, “Go!”

I jerked on my borrowed boots, grabbed my sword, and ran. Tyra appeared out of the cross hallway.

“Send clergy to the vacant temples!” I ordered as I passed her. “Demons are in the tunnels!”

She whirled and started shouting the DinĂ© words for “demon” and “tunnel”. If nothing else over the past few days of the siege, we’d learned the important terms in order to communicate with each other. With the alarm bells ringing, people raced to their assigned posts, some in a half-dressed state.

One of the Diné Lights priests caught up with me at the cracked marble steps into Balance. Elizabeth would have been a better choice to augment my efforts, but my doubts about her loyalty would have leaked through our link.

The bones and debris had been cleaned out of the main courtroom and the hallway to the sleeping quarters. Magic tingled behind me as the priest ignited a light ball. In my hurry, I’d forgotten it was dark inside the Temple to normally sighted folk.

ANTHEA! Reverend Father Nizhé'é' silent speech echoed through my head.

Whatever is happening at the gates are a feint. I sent a wordless impression of what Luc and I had felt. The demons are in the tunnels.

He issued orders through silent speech, ones that were echoed by a high brother of Conflict from each of the four nations trapped inside Tandor in their native languages. I had to tune out the noise inside my head.

Elizabeth’s former quarters were as bare as High Brother Dav’s had been when we arrived in Tandor. We’d destroyed anything organic in the Temple with our efforts to take out one of the skinwalkers. I skidded to stop before the sandstone block that served as the Balance entrance to Tandor’s tunnel system. My sword clattered to the floor when I dropped to my knees and held out my palms.

Alien magic scratched on my psyche from the other side of the wall. It seemed…hesitant.

“Does the energy seem odd to you, Justice?” the DinĂ© Light priest asked in the Peaceful Sea trade tongue as he knelt beside me.

I frowned. “It’s too much to hope they’ve learned to fear me.”

The Light priest chuckled. “I pray to Thief you’re wrong. They should fear you.”

The magic within the block was nearly as low as it had been after I activated the Balance defenses. The demons must sense the weakness here.

We were fools. We should have charged this entrance once we’d retaken the city. We should have brought down the tunnels with flashbangs when we had the chance. If only we could prime a light ball like a flashbang—

A memory went off like the Jing device inside my head. I turned to the Light priest.

“There’s spell in the Light library that can produce the same effect as flashbang. Do you know it?”

He looked at me as if I were mad. Maybe I was.

“Yes, but it won’t do us any good on this side of the wall, Justice.”

“I’m going to put it on the other side of the wall, only seven days ago. The last time this passage was opened. Can you delay the spell’s activation?”

“I can’t.” A sly look appeared on his face. “But you could.”

Three spells enfolded on each other. Well, it couldn’t be any more difficult than the layers of a truthspell, the blocker, and the counter to the blocker. Balance help us if I was wrong.

I frowned and looked around the bare room. “Once I’ve frozen your flashbang spell, get in the bathing room.”

“Why?”

“In case this goes very badly.” I grinned at the Light priest. “You can tell High Brother Luc I was an idiot if you survive.”

The demon magic scratched more insistently at the weak essence of Balance. We needed to hurry. I motioned for him to start the flashbang spell. On his last two syllables, I concentrated and murmured the time freeze spell.

Very carefully, he set the contained explosion on the floor beside me and scrambled into Elizabeth’s bathing room. I tried not to think about the possibility of my freeze spell failing before I finished, but I couldn’t freeze the whole room. Nor could I put it in a container since I couldn’t guarantee I could pass a three-dimensional object through time. Balance take me, I wasn’t sure I could pass energy through time, but I was out of options.

I sucked in a deep breath and concentrated on seven days ago when Elizabeth and I came in to close the passageway to the tunnels. Time rewound. I shoved the writhing ball of Balance and Light magic through the block that was there and not there.

Footsteps in the hallway sent a trill of alarm through me, and I jerked back. There were voices. I shuddered when I recognized my own and Elizabeth’s. We were coming to seal the passage.

I knew how cynical and suspicious I could be. If I saw myself, I could quite literally destroy my own spell. I scrambled to the bathing room, yanked my cowl low over my face, and folded my hands into my sleeves.

The faint outlines of the time ghost versions of Elizabeth and me entered the room. We didn’t appear to notice the spells on the floor of the tunnel. Of course not. The magic was literally a few minutes behind them unless or until I yanked it forward.

Elizabeth cocked her head as if she heard something. She looked over her shoulder, and her eyes widened.

She was totally blind. She couldn’t possibly see me, either as a real person or a time echo. It was the whole reason our order needed someone to recite events when we rewound time. But her mouth opened, and she reached out toward the past me beside her.

I held my index finger to my lips and prayed to Balance Elizabeth would take the hint. Finally, she nodded. I relaxed and let the timeline run forward. When time synched again, I yanked on my other spell.

A crack of thunder pounded against the wall. It was followed by screech of angry and injured demons. However, the scratching of their magic against the Temple stopped.

“That was impressive.”

I jumped at the voice. The DinĂ© Light priest. In my panic at Elizabeth being able to perceive me, I’d forgotten he was in here, too.

“I hope the demons were impressed as well.” I marched over to the wall, knelt by the block once again, and placed my palms on the sandstone. The alien presence of the demons seemed to be receding. Despite their efforts, the weak seal on the passage was intact.

For now.

“The Reverend Father will need to assign watches on all the Temples.” I rose to my feet and picked up my scabbard.

The Light priest nodded. “I’ll stay here and keep guard. He will want your report, and he’ll need your vision if the demons still assault the city gates.”

“Thank you—” I cocked my head. Despite real effort on my part, I still had trouble with people’s names, but I was fairly sure the priest and I hadn’t been formally introduced.

He smiled. “My public name is Bumblebee.”

“Bumblebee?”

He shrugged. “It was a childhood nickname. My grandmother said I was destined for Light because I could not stay away from sunflowers.”

“Thank you for assistance, Brother Bumblebee.” I bowed and strode from the room.

The instance of Elizabeth seeming to see me through time bothered me more than I cared to admit. She wasn’t a skinwalker. That I was certain of. But if she were a demon dressed in a human skin, why did she try to warn the past me instead of the demons?

I had too many questions and not enough answers. If we held back the current offensive wave against Tandor, I needed to truthspell Elizabeth. I couldn’t put it off any longer.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

A Matter of Death - Chapter 3

This was the original third chapter. Sometimes, a writer finds the beginning doesn't work the way she wanted it to and needed to revise a few thing. I'll let you compare once I've finished with the book.

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Shi Hua jumped to her feet. “Your Highness, give us a chance to try to resume contact with the Temples in Tandor before we resort to such measures.”

Crown Princess Chiara narrowed her eyes. “Do you always allow your juniors to speak out of turn, High Brother Jeremy?”

“With all due respect, Your Highness, it’s Acting High Brother,” Jeremy replied coolly. “And my predecessors Kam and Luc encouraged their juniors to find and offer solutions to problems. I follow their wise lead.”

However, he tugged on Shi Hua’s robes out of sight of everyone but the magistrate. She took the hint and resumed her seat.

“I must agree with Sister Shi Hua,” Han said in his deep, booming voice. “If Tandor had fallen, the demons would already be here. Since the city lies at the crossroads to DinĂ© and the Cliffdwellers, their own Temple alarms would have echoed Tandor’s, not just those in Issura.”

Shi Hua couldn’t miss the way his avoided any mention of Cant. The demon army had come from that direction. Unfortunately, they had so few distance speakers these days no one knew the real status of the Cantish clergy, or if another demon army headed southeast to the Mecas.

Han reached over and tapped a gap in the mountains north of Orrin on the map. “If the DinĂ© have followed our joint procedures, they will be marching west to Tandor. They will have also sent word north and east to the Cliffdwellers and the Plains Nations. The Commanche will spearhead a force through Kulshra’jek Pass.”

Crown Princess Chiara shook her head. “We’re assuming the winter snows have melted enough the pass is open. According to the villages we marched through on the way to Orrin, no traders from the east have come for the Spring Rituals.” She settled back in her chair. “For now, we must assume the worst—that Issura is on her own.” She turned to Bertrice. “You still haven’t given me an answer, High Sister.”

Bertrice closed her eyes as if in prayer. When she opened them, her gaze was bleak. “I can trigger the defenses remotely but not from here. The demon spells that block communication also block my link to Tandor’s Temple of Death from here. I would need to be closer.”

“How close?” The crown princess’s eyes narrowed.

Bertrice blew out a deep breath. “At best, ten leagues. Possibly closer.”

All the clergy at the table gasped. Acid burned the back of Shi Hua’s throat. When the Death priestesses of Eire and Albion triggered their Temples, the spells not only decimated everything on those islands but all the surrounding smaller islands as well. Hundreds of leagues full of living things died in an instant of power. That was four centuries ago, and to this day, nothing could touch those islands and live. Even Duke Marco and the rest of the civilians looked queasy at Bertrice’s words.

Crown Princess Chiara rose and stared at the map. Her index finger traced a path along the National Road from Orrin to a point northeast of Tandor. “Here?”

Bertrice nodded.

“But what about High Brother Nantan?” Shi Hua exclaimed. “He and his surviving priests are still in the city. Can’t they override Bertrice’s attempt to activate the spell?”

The crown princess looked at Bertrice who shrugged.

“Nantan could by himself,” the high sister of Death said. “He’s been the high brother in Tandor for ten winters.”

“Would he?” Crown Princess Chiara asked.

Bertrice pressed her lips together and didn’t speak for three heartbeats. “No. When he realizes what I’m trying to do, he won’t impede it. If the demons stop me by spell or death, he will finish the task.”

“But the civilians!” Shi Hua shoved her chair back and stood once again. “The Temples at least evacuated the Isles of Britannia before they launched the spell of last resort! Empress Bao De gave her armies time to escape before she and her consort ignited the trap they laid for the demon army in Jing!”

Shi Hua! Sit! Jeremy’s silent command rang through her mind.

She looked down at him and forced herself not to shout her next words. “With all due respect, High Brother, I would make the same protest if I were in Jing, Toscana, or any other nation.” She turned back to the crown princess. “Our duty is to protect the human race, not fling lives aside as if they are nothing more than autumn leaves.”

“How do you propose to get the citizens of Tandor out under the noses of the demons?” Chiara asked. Surprisingly, she didn’t seem angered by Shi Hua’s outburst. “They are my people, and it sickens me that I have to consider this action.” She tapped the stylized parapet symbol for the city on the map. “This place is cursed. The entire Apache nation gave up their lives here to prevent the demon incursion from spilling into the Great Plains. Our queendom was born from the aftermath of that battle. I don’t want to sacrifice my people, but do I try to rescue a few hundred in Tandor, or I lose the tens of thousands more in Issura, DinĂ©, or Pagonia who would be slaughtered if I let the demons past me?”

Shi Hua bit her lip. The question was the same type Brother Fang would have asked in one of his philosophy classes when she was a novice. Personal feelings must sometimes be set aside for the greater good.

She bowed to the crown princess. “My apologies for my outburst, Your Highness.” She resumed her seat.

Beneath the table, the magistrate squeezed her hand briefly. It was good to know someone else was as disturbed at the thought of abandoning their friends in Tandor as she was.

* * *

Between the preparations of the Orrin clergy and the duchy’s call to arms, Shi Hua never had a chance to consume a real meal. Her stomach growled in the middle of blessing Lord Antonio and his sons. While most of the nobles requested clergy from Conflict or Father to consecrate their men and women at arms, a few asked for her and High Brother Jeremy specifically.

Lord Antonio’s sons snickered when her stomach burbled again. Their eldest sister elbowed them both sharply though she kept her own head bowed. Even the nobleman and several of his retainers smiled.

“…and may the Lord of Light welcome you into his embrace for One is Twelve and Twelve are One,” she finished.

“One is Twelve and Twelve are One,” Lord Antonio and his people answered. They rose and drifted back to their campfires outside Government Gate, the main entrance into Orrin. Several hundred other fires dotted the darkening, grassy lawns outside of the walls. There simply wasn’t enough space in the city to house everyone.

Lord Antonio paused and bowed to Shi Hua. “Sister, your stomach indicates you haven’t had a chance to eat today. I’d be honored if you’d join us for the evening meal.”As if on cue, the Temple bells began pealing First Evening. And he was right. All she had eaten today was a couple of bites from a roll during the meeting at Duke Marco’s estate.

Shi Hua smiled and returned his bow. “Thank you for the invitation, m’lord, but as the bells are telling me, I’m already late for a meeting with Reverend Father Farrell.”

“Of course.” Lord Antonio turned to follow his people.

His request for her services gnawed on her more than the hunger. “Lord Antonio, would you answer a question, please?”

He stopped. Like many in Issura, he carried mostly Chumash features except for the prominent Toscan nose. His dark eyes flickered with curiosity. “Yes?”

“May I ask why you requested me for your blessing?” she said softly, stepping closer to him. “I’m not of Issura, and I’m all too aware of how Issurans feel about female clergy of Light.”

“You’ve survived several demon attacks, Sister. I’m hoping your good relationship with Thief rubs off on us.” Lord Antonio nodded before he turned and strode off in the direction of his encampment.

Warden Mateqai, who had been waiting nearby, led their horses to Shi Hua and handed her the set of reins for her own mount.

She cocked her head as she regarded the noble’s statement. “Why not ask for Thief’s blessing if that were Lord Antonio’s concern?”

Mateqai chuckled. “That was a compliment, Sister. It’s rare for so many of the Twelve to focus Their attention on one person.”

Shi Hua shivered at she mounted her horse. The vision she saw in the midst of Yanaba’s spell, whether it was Balance Herself or the long dead Chief Justice Thalia, bothered her more than she cared to admit. “Honestly, I’d prefer They turn Their attention directly to the demons.”

They rode toward Government Gate. Both Peacekeeper Jamie and Chief Warden Little Bear of Balance nodded and waved them through despite some grumbling from those who had been waiting for admittance most of the afternoon.

She felt a bit sorry for Little Bear. It had to be driving him and the Balance wardens insane that the crown princess ordered them to stay in Orrin, especially with Chief Justice Anthea being one of those trapped inside the Tandor city walls. And here he was, assisting the peacekeepers with basic guard duties, instead of protesting his lot.

Orrin bustled with people dodging to and fro as they went about their errands. It would normally be this busy during the week before Spring Rituals. But instead of the usual boisterous joy accompanying the holidays, everyone carried a grim expression along with their supplies, weapons, and messages.

The rear yard was crowded when Shi Hua and Mateqai reached the Temple of Light. Henry, their stablemaster, appeared harried as he directed his own staff and Reverend Father Farrell’s.

“You two need to get inside,” Henry snapped. “You’re late.”

Even Mateqai’s eyebrows rose at the lack of manners in their stablemaster.

“Excuse me?” Shi Hua frowned at the man as she dismounted.

Henry’s cheeks turned beet red above his beard. “I beg forgiveness, Sister. I meant no insult.”

“None taken,” she replied as she lowered her voice and stepped closer. “Is everything all right?”

Henry’s lower jaw worked before he murmured, “We don’t have enough room for this many people or animals. I’ve resorted to picketing some of the extra horses in the meditation garden.”

In other words, their head of household was throwing a major tantrum about equines chewing on the grass and newly sprouting herbs and flowers. She glanced at Mateqai who stared at the tips of his boots. Smart man. She pursed her lips before she turned her attention back to Henry.

“Do you want me to speak to Istaqa?” she whispered.

“I don’t want him sent back to Standora.” Henry’s expression shifted to guilt and regret he’d even brought up the subject. When Istaqa had been going on about having a woman in the Temple, High Brother Luc threatened to dismiss Istaqa and send him to the capital for reassignment if he didn behave. Such a measure would leave an indelible stain on the man’s record.

And if Jeremy found out Istaqa was harassing the rest of the staff, he’d follow through on Luc’s threat.

“Neither do I,” Shi Hua whispered. Despite butting heads with Istaqa over the Issuran decision to only have men serve the Temple of Light, she had to admit he was damn good at his job. “Let me try to talk some sense into him before Brother Jeremy learns of the issue.”

Henry almost looked relieved when he nodded. No doubt having the Reverend Father in residence didn’t put him totally at ease. Or maybe it was the demon army to the south setting Henry’s nerves on edge.

Regardless, she needed to have a little talk with their head of household.

Shi Hua marched into the temple. Luckily, Istaqa was right by the kitchen entrance, inspecting every dish before the kitchen boys and the drafted civilians scurried out of the kitchen with their burdens. Their cook shot her a pleading look. So, Henry wasn’t the only one having issues.

“Istaqa, may I have a word with you?”

He turned to her and shook his head. “Not right now, Sister. You need to get cleaned up. The Reverend Father is waiting. And I placed your new bow in your chambers.” He turned back to the cook. “That broth needs more seasoning—”

Shi Hua dropped her voice an octave. “That was not a request, Master of the Household.”

He pivoted slowly back to her. It must have finally sank through the man’s thick skull she outranked him from the expression of raw fear on his face.

“Your office. Now.” She strode out of the kitchen, not waiting for any acknowledgement.

“B-but, Sister—”

She didn’t look back, merely raised her right index finger. Watching Chief Justice Anthea in action had been a boon. Istaqa shut up.

When she reached his small office, she made a point of sitting behind his desk and jabbed her index finger in the direction of the one visitor’s stool. Istaqa immediately sat. Mateqai silently closed the office door. He would stand guard in the hallway to make sure they weren’t interrupted.

Shi Hua narrowed her eyes and stared at their head of household. Istaqa’s gaze flicked everywhere but at her. “I’ve put up with your behavior toward me because I realize the cultural differences between Issura and Jing are disconcerting to you,” she said, keeping her voice even. “But I will not tolerate you treating the staff poorly.”

A sullen expression overtook his features. “You have no standing here,” he muttered.

“Until the Reverend Father assigns new clergy to Orrin, I am the acting second. Given that there is a demon army four days south of us, I will not be leaving Issura any time soon.”

Obviously, neither thought had occurred to Istaqa from his expression of shock.

“Modify your behavior now, or I will relieve you of duty. Is that understood, Istaqa?”

He bowed his head. “Yes, Sister.”

“And thank you for delivering my bow safely.” A little bit of consideration was due. Istaqa’s efficiency had never been in question. “You are dismissed.”

Istaqa scrambled out of his office as if demons chased him.

Mateqai peered around the doorjamb, his black eyebrows raised in inquiry.

She merely shook her head as she rose. “Keep an ear out for me.”

The warden nodded. He struggled to keep the amusement off his face. He was probably not the only person in the Temple of Light who thought their head of household needed to be taken down a peg or two.

“Shall we attend the Reverend Father’s meeting?” she said as she strode to the door.

“Yes, Sister.”

When they approached the high brother’s private dining room, two unknown wardens stood guard at the door. The one on Shi Hua’s right saluted.

“They are waiting for you, Sister.”

“I’ll return at the end of your meeting.” Mateqai started to bow to her, but the warden who had spoke held up a hand. “Your presence is required as well, Warden Mateqai.” The unknown warden knocked a certain pattern before he opened the door.

Shi Hua exchanged a look with Mateqai, but he appeared as confused as she felt. However, it would be nice to have a familiar presence besides Jeremy at this dinner meeting.

There were fewer people seated at the oval table than she expected. Reverend Father Farrell sat at the far end, opposite from Jeremy. Three of the Reverend Father’s entourage of clergy were also in attendance. Chief Warden Nicolas and another warden she didn’t know sat to Jeremy’s left. The two seats to Jeremy’s right were empty.

The smile the Reverend Father favored them with wasn’t as broad as the one from this morning. From the dark smudges under his eyes and the deep lines around his mouth and eyes, he appeared to carry the weight of Issura.

Between the infiltration of his order by renegades and the demon army, he probably felt as if he carried the weight of the world.

“What’s the word amongst the nobles, Sister?” he asked as one of his priests poured wine for her and Mateqai. Her warden intercepted her goblet and took a drink before he handed it to her.

Reverend Father Farrell’s smile fell. “You don’t even trust us, Brother Jeremy?”

“How many demons have you killed, sir?” Jeremy’s tone was firm despite his insubordinate words.

The other three priests glanced at the Reverend Father and Jeremy before they exchanged worried expressions. None of them would even look in her direction.

After a long moment, the Reverend Father nodded. “I apologize, Jeremy. And to you, too, Shi Hua. Reading a report is not the same as experiencing something in life.”

She cleared her throat. “To answer your question, Reverend Father, the nobles and their people are nervous. It’s been four generations since the last demon incursion. We need to be mindful of the spiritual needs of the queen’s army.”

“What do you two think of the crown princess’s plan?” the Reverend Father asked as he dug into his meal.

Shi Hua looked to Jeremy. The anger he’d held in check earlier shone in his eyes. “I think the priests in Tandor have already considered her plan on their own. High Brother Luc is probably searching for a way to evacuate the civilians as we speak.”

“What would be his plan?” The Reverend Father tore off a chunk of flatbread and dip it in his broth.

“According to Chief Justice Anthea, only two of the tunnels in Tandor are passable,” Shi Hua said. “The north tunnel comes out too close to the demon army to be safely used. The east tunnel comes out in the Valley of the Lost far beyond the National Road. They wouldn’t able to move fast in the heat, and the dust raised by their passage would give them away. They’d have to find a third option.”

“So how do you two propose to evacuate the civilians?” The Reverend Father’s attention shifted between her and Jeremy. “The remainder of the Sea Peoples fleet, sir, and however many ships Duke Marco can muster.” Jeremy’s initial anger turned to bleakness. They’d run the calculations half a night with Titus, the captain of the duke’s flagship, and Captain Iakepa of the Sea Peoples. “However, there simply isn’t be enough ships to carry everyone out of Tandor, but we have to try.”

“Do you realize the panic we’ll cause when the civilians realize some of them will be left behind?” the Reverend Father said quietly. “Tandor doesn’t have anyone from Child left, and if we take anyone from Orrin—”

“That’s one less spot for a civilian on board.” Shi Hua nodded. “We know. There are a couple of ships still in Tandor’s harbor. If we take sailors with us to crew those ships—”

“It still won’t be enough.” The Reverend Father took a long drink of wine before he looked at them again. “This time of year, there should be plenty of ships plying this region of the Peaceful Sea to evacuate Tandor.” He shook his head. “The sinking of those trade ships and the murder of their crews off the coast hampers any rescue.”

“What if we send the ships south after the queen’s army marches for Tandor?” Jeremy said. “It’s four days by the National Road, but only two days by sea. We could trap the demons between the fleet and the army. You only need one distance speaker to coordinate between the two.”

“You’d give up Sister Shi Hua?” Reverend Father Farrell cocked his head.

Jeremy leaned back in his chair. “I thought that was why you brought Brother Elroy.” He waved a hand at the priest with orangish-red hair and freckles.

“How do you know—” The priest beside Brother Elroy started to rise, but he placed a hand on his friend’s upper arm. “Settle Long Wind.” Elroy grinned at Jeremy. “I didn’t think you remembered me.”

Jeremy shrugged. “It hasn’t been that long since I took my vows.”

Shi Hua desperately wanted to ask what was between Jeremy and the older priest. Well, he wasn’t that much older. He looked to be around High Brother Luc’s age. But now was not the time or place to ask such questions.

So, she steered the conversation back to the evacuation. “According to the histories, the demons haven’t mastered swimming. They are willing to sacrifice a small number of themselves to cross a river, but they can’t handle a large body of water. If we only bring one ship at a time into Tandor’s harbor, the other ships can launch spell-laced fireworks at the demon army.

“Fireworks?” Longwind frowned. “What are those?”

“A recreational use of flash powder in Jing,” Shi Hua replied. “We use them for celebrations, such as the Spring Rituals. With the right spells and ingredients, they can create pictures in the sky.”

Elroy snorted. “Pictures aren’t going to scare away a demon army.”

“No, but Jing flashbangs can hurt them,” Jeremy said. “We couple those with our Light abilities and we can extend the use of both flash powder and priests.” He glanced at Shi Hua. “And priestesses.”

The Reverend Father rubbed his chin. “Thief is working on flashbangs as we speak.”

“They already have the cask of powder Ambassador Quan donated before he left,” Shi Hua offered.

The Reverend Father eyed her. “I like the plan, but you realize the crown princess has the final say.”

“Yes, sir,” she and Jeremy both murmured.

“I still like to have some of these fireworks of yours with the main army regardless of what Her Highness decides.” The Reverend Father focused on Shi Hua. “Can you teach these men tonight? The crown princess plans to leave at first light.”

“Yes, sir.” Shi Hua nodded firmly.

The Reverend Father cleared his throat. He appeared totally discomfited. “The other matter I need to discuss is the recent order—”

“I’ve already spoken to Reverend Father Jin back home.” Her words come out in a rush. “I know my duty.”

An embarrassed smile appeared on Reverend Father Farrell’s face. “Given there is only one Light priest left in Orrin, you have your pick of any of the priests I brought with me.”

“I’ve made my choice, and I’m quite happy with it.” She lifted her chin and made a point of laying her hand on Jeremy’s arm.

“Well, then…” It was amazing the Reverend Father could look both mortified and relieved at the same time. Even odder was the disappointment in the other three priests’ expressions. What exactly were they expecting when they came to Orrin?

“What else was on your agenda, sir?” Jeremy sounded more sure of himself than she’d ever heard him.

“Garbhan will be staying here while you and the sister come south with me.”

The youngest brother in the Reverend Father’s entourage took a studied interest in his food at his senior clergy’s words.

Jeremy scowled, actually scowled, at the Reverend Father. “Are you sure taking both distance speakers with us is a wise course of action?”

“Under normal circumstances, no.” The Reverend Father poked at his stew before he stared at Jeremy. “But you and the sister are the only people I have who have actually fought any demon.”

The discussion went on to preparations for the coming battle, but all she could think about was what would happen after this day was finished. Something was going on with their visitors, but she couldn't quite put her finger on what crawled up the back of her neck.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Preorder A Matter of Death and Reality Bites!

In what is probably a massive amount of confidence (or overconfidence), the preorder link for A Matter of Death is up and running on Amazon. I'm planning to try other retailers' preorder links later this year.

BLURB

Two skinwalkers controlling Tandor had been bad enough, but then a demon army waltzed up to the city gates…

Anthea, Luc and their allies are trapped inside the border city of Tandor. They’ve all lost contact with the rest of Issura and their neighboring countries. And if the demons get by Tandor, the entire continent will become their dinner table. But the city is low on food and, more importantly, water.

Can Anthea and Luc find a solution? Or will they be forced to activate the final defense spells of Death to stop the demons, and kill everyone in Tandor and themselves in the process?

Magic and mayhem have never been this desperate. Or this fatal.


A Matter of Death will drop July 15th.

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I also set up the preorder link for Reality Bites.

BLURB

Being a regular human in the supernatural world is never easy, something Mai Osaka learned before she could walk. So when her boyfriend’s fairy ex strolls into the casino where Mai is head of security, she knows there’s more to the Seelie’s story than she’s telling. But can Mai figure out the real plan and who’s behind it before the fae pull the biggest heist in the history of Las Vegas?

Reality Bites will drop August 15th.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

A Matter of Death - Chapter 2

FYI - I'm posting chapters as they are in the first version of the manuscript. I'm currently doing some rearranging of the storyline. Don't worry! I'm not taking anything out. Just changing the order and adding some scenes.

Why am I doing this? Because I found the notes I'd forgotten I'd written for the unresolved plotlines from A Modicum of Truth that needed resolving A Matter of Death. I'd only added one of the subplots in the first manuscript version. Oops!

I'm usually not this disorganized, but it's amazing what surgery and opiates will do to your brain. LOL
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Bone-deep weariness dragged on my limbs. So much so, I leaned against the parapet of the Neighbor’s Gate watchtower. I wasn’t sure if it were night or day anymore.

“Anything, Chief Justice?” Reverend Father NizhĂ©'Ă©' of DinĂ© joined me in staring at the demon army camped outside the city of Tandor. Camped wasn’t the right word. They did not sleep or cook as humans did. They crouched in alternating rows. Not moving. Not even breathing from what I could see.

“No, sir.” I shook my head. “But they’re plotting out there. I can feel it.”

He lowered his voice. “Get some sleep, Anthea. You’ve been awake for nearly two days straight.”

“You don’t have anyone who can see them the way I can.” Normally, I would have shouted the words at anyone who questioned my abilities, but I couldn’t muster the strength.

“And the Twelve Temples have survived a thousand years without a clergy member with red eyes who can see demons through their glamours,” he almost sounded amused, but then, he always did when he spoke to me. “You’re of no use to me if you kill yourself, young lady.”

“Young lady?” I bristled. Maybe I had some energy after all.

“I have you by sixteen winters, so yes.” He smirked. “Young lady. Go back to Light and get some sleep.”

I gave up and nodded. The little bit of respite from my weariness had died under his logic.

As Luc had pointed out, all the clergy and wardens of the combined DinĂ©, Cliffdweller, and Plains Nations army reported to NizhĂ©'Ă©' as the seniormost priest of Conflict. Even though, the Reverend Father wasn’t Issuran, the surviving Temple seats of Tandor had followed High Brother Aduba’s lead in reporting to him as well. Therefore, Luc, our two wardens, and I acceded to the Reverend Father’s command, too.

The main purpose of the Temple of Conflict was to prepare for the exact situation we faced—a demon army on the loose. It merely made sense for the senior priest of Conflict to head our…

What in Balance’s name were we? A delaying action? A last resort?

High Sister Bertrice said our seconds in Orrin had destroyed the demons and eggs planted there, and the queen’s army was marching south from the capital in our last contact we had from home. Unfortunately, Bertrice depended on the only distance speaker we had in Orrin. And we hadn’t heard from Sister Shi Hua of Light in the last four nights.

Though I was fairly sure the demons’ spells blocked the young Jing priestess from talking to us, I prayed that nothing more had happened at home. Even though Balance didn’t deign to answer my pleas directly, the fact that the demon army remained camped outside our walls gave me hope. If the rest of Issura had been lost, they would have left a few troops here and marched east for DinĂ©.

No one was on the streets as I trudged back to Light, neither clergy nor civilians. How late was it? Or was it early? With the Temple bells silent and the sky overcast, I had no way to tell.

We had to disable the alarm spells on the bells. Otherwise, they would be constantly clanging due to the demons camped on our doorstep. The din would have driven everyone insane over the last few days.

I glanced at Balance, but only a trickle of magic came from the remnants of the building compared to the other Temples. Even if its structural integrity weren’t questionable, Chief Justice Elizabeth and I were reluctant to step inside it. We’d used all of Balance’s magic in a desperate effort to kill a skinwalker and its renegade allies who’d quietly took over Tandor before anyone noticed there was a problem.

My thighs and calves ached when I climbed the steps of Light. What I wouldn’t give for a good soak and a goblet of Pana red right now. But the damn demons had destroyed a large section of the aqueduct into the city, so we needed to conserve water. And the healers needed the wine for the injured since our medical supplies were as finite a resource as our water.

Instead of heading for the room I currently shared with my warden Tyra, I headed for the bedchambers of the former high brother of Tandor. Luc had taken them over, not to mention drafted his own army of the city’s children to bring books and scrolls from the Temple of Knowledge for him. If it was as late as I suspected, he should be alone.

I entered without an invitation.

Luc jerked upright from where he’d fallen asleep at the table he used as a desk. “What? Where?” He fumbled for the sword hanging at the side of his chair.

“It’s only me.”

“Anthea?”

Magic tingled across my skin. Luc squinted and blinked.

I cupped his cheek. “Extinguish the light ball, my love. We’ve both been ordered to get some sleep.”

“I thought we’d been ordered to mate.” He pulled me closer for kiss.

“I don’t think we’d stay awake long enough to do so,” I said with a laugh. Shi Hua and Jeremy had shared that little tidbit in our last communication with them. The clergy of Light from DinĂ© and the Plains Nations had confirmed they received the same directive from their home temples before the demons’ spells cut off all contact with the outside world. In theory, the new order validated mine and Luc’s illegal affair. After the messages had been received, he grumbled the Twelve had a warped sense of humor by giving us permission in the middle of a demon siege.

His kiss was brief. “Well, technically, I’m the only one who needs to be awake.”

“Not necessarily,” I teased as I straightened. “I recall a few mornings by our campfire while we were on circuit.” He grabbed his specially designed crutches and crossed to the bed. I quickly stripped off my gear and clothes and joined him. I turned on my side, and he curled around my back.

“It smells much better in here.”

“Mmmm.” He tightened his arm around my midriff. “Luckily, the master carpenter rallied some other civilians. They managed to clean out the bathing pool and drain before the demons arrived and destroyed the aqueduct.”

The renegades hadn’t even allowed poor High Brother Dav a chamber pot for his use. Even though he’d been driven mad by the skinwalker’s mental torture, he retained enough of his faculties to use one spot for his waste.

“What do you think is happening at home?” I whispered.

“Don’t.” Luc kissed my shoulder. “You’ll only drive yourself insane asking that question.”

“But Yanaba—”

“Is alive. You know Mya, Aaron, and their respective staffs will take excellent care of her mental and physical health.” I knew our high sister of Child and head of the Healers Guild would do everything in their power to help my own junior justice. Luc’s words didn’t ameliorate my guilt that I left Yanaba alone to face both the Assassins Guild and demons. “But you know Shi Hua wasn’t telling us everything,” I muttered. “Not with Bertrice in the link.”

Luc reached down and playfully smacked my left buttock before he resumed his hold of my waist. “What did I say about driving yourself insane?”

I inhaled deeply and released the breath. He was right. All the speculation in the world couldn’t change our predicament much less Orrin’s.

I’d closed my eyes for barely an instant it seemed when the alarm bells clanged. Both Luc and I were out of bed and dressing before we were fully awake. The rasp of demon magic grated against my own power, but it wasn’t from the direction of the city walls.

It came from below my bare feet.

Luc muttered a few obscenities in Cantish. “The damn demons are in the tunnels.”

Monday, June 3, 2019

Status Report - June 2019

Another life roll happened, which means another delay. To give myself and my subcontractors plenty of time to get things done, I'm pushing the release of A Matter of Death back a month. Which means everything else will be pushed back as well.

Here's the revised release schedule for the remainder of 2019:

July 15 - A Matter of Death (Justice #3) novel

August 15 - Reality Bites (Bloodlines Shorts #3) novella

September 15 - Ghouls in the Grocery Store (Bloodlines Shorts #4) novella

October 30 - Resurrected (Bloodlines #9) novel

December 1 - A Very HERO Christmas (888-555-HERO #4) novella

I'll definitely announce here when preorders go up on the various retailer websites.

What about 2020?

I've made plans to attend a workshop in Las Vegas in February, which involves a lot of writing and reading starting in November. I'll continue to work on my own books in between assignments, so I'm not sure yet how the release schedule will work out yet.

To keep myself and my readers happy, I'll alternate putting out books-- a sword and sorcery, an urban fantasy, a superhero book, then repeat.

If anyone has questions or comments, feel free to leave them below!

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

A Matter of Death - Chapter 1

With May's middle of the month chaos, I'm behind on my writing schedule. Unfortunately, that means A Matter Death will not be out on June 15th as I'd planned. I'm making a serious push to write a sizable chunk this week. By the time I post Chapter 3, I should have a solid release date for you.

In the meantime, enjoy!
==========================

The queen’s army arrived in Orrin at First Morning on Fifth Day, exactly a week after the demons were discovered and destroyed inside the Temples of Balance and Death. Everyone at the Temple of Light, except the wardens on duty, were at morning prayers when the peacekeeper arrived with the news regarding their visitors from the capital.

Shi Hua watched as Magistrate DiCook’s messenger whispered to Brother Jeremy, the acting seat of the Temple. Chief Warden Nicholas rose and joined the two men, probably more out of worry a priest he was charged with protecting might be harmed rather than curiosity.

Once the peacekeeper scurried out of the main sanctuary, Jeremy bowed to the civilians attending the dawn services. “Forgive me for our abbreviated worship, but Sister Shi Hua and I have been called to other duties.”

She scrambled to her feet, sketched the requisite gesture of respect toward the statue of Light, and crossed the sanctuary to join Jeremy. Are you sure the queen requested my presence? she asked silently.

Amusement filled his eyes. The crown princess is leading the army, and yes, she specifically asked for you. She’s with Duke Marco and Prince Alika at the duke’s estate along with Reverend Father Farrell.

Of course. It would not do for the crown princess to ignore the local nobility. She would need their vassals to augment her forces. Nor could she meet with one Orrin Temple alone without arousing the ire of the other eleven, which was why Jeremy had been summoned though he’d be the last person to protest a snub. Unfortunately, the queen, the duke of Orrin and the chief justice of Balance were too entwined in both their personal and professional relationships to totally avoid all questions of impropriety.

To add to the political complications, half of the Sea Peoples fleet still anchored in Orrin’s harbor. Prince Alika and several of his captains refused to leave Issura after the discovery of the demons and their eggs in the city. While captains and sailors of the departing ships had been truthspelled, no one could guarantee the ships weren’t carrying demons or eggs without the odd sight of Orrin’s chief justice to search people, ships, and all property for demon contamination.

However, Prince Alika didn’t have a distance speaker with him, and it would be nigh impossible for Shi Hua to contact someone in the islands she didn’t know. So he sent half his fleet home on the chance they could successfully raise the alarm.

I still don’t know why the crown princess would want to speak to me, Shi Hua protested silently while she jogged alongside Jeremy to the stables, their wardens following as if they were second shadows. It didn’t help matters that she was not an Issuran citizen, though both her own Reverend Father of Light in Jing and the Reverend Father of Light here in Issura had agreed to the temporary transfer. With the spate of demon activity over the last month and a half, Shi Hua wondered if she’d ever see home again.

Because right now, you are our primary contact with Tandor, Jeremy chided. And our sister city is under a demon attack.

Shi Hua swallowed a groan. She’d only talked with High Brother Luc, Chief Justice Anthea, and Ambassador Quan twice, once before the demon army arrived at Tandor’s doorstep and once after. Since then, she hadn’t been able to penetrate the demon’s magic, not even with assistance from other priests and priestesses in Orrin. All she knew for sure was those loyal to the queendom of Issura still held the city of Tandor. Otherwise, the demons would already be hammering at Orrin’s gates.

This was not going to be an enjoyable meeting at the duke’s estate. And she hadn’t broken her fast yet.

Who else will be there? she asked silently as she and Jeremy saddled their mounts. Chief Warden Nicholas and Warden Mateqai did the same. There had been too many assassination attempts against clergy in Orrin over the last month and a half. And after last week, not one of the Temple wardens allowed any of the clergy to attend the privy without a guard. High Brother Han and High Sister Bertrice are already there. The other seats are on their way.

Of course. The seat of Conflict was responsible for organizing the city’s defenses with the local nobility and the magistrate in the case of an attack. And demons had managed to have themselves delivered to the Temple of Death by wearing the bodies of a murdered peacekeeper and his family.

“What about Justice Yanaba?” Shi Hua asked.

Jeremy looked down at her from atop his horse. “You’re the one visiting her every day. What do you think?”

Jeremy’s gentle question was an answer in itself. Shi Hua climbed onto her own mount. The junior justice had nearly killed herself defending the city from the demons who’d snuck into Orrin wearing human skins. She shuddered. They’d come so close to losing the city, and its defense had been costly.

“You know High Mother Bianca will find a way to insert herself into this meeting,” Mateqai said.

Nicholas shot his junior warden a dirty look, but Jeremy merely nodded.

“If she is there, fine.” Jeremy sounded far older than his twenty-one winters. “All of the Temples need to let go of our petty differences. We have demons on our border, and we must work together.”

“Yes, sir.” Mateqai nodded.

Nothing more was said on the ride to the duke’s estate.

* * *

Loud voices and tension thickened the air in Duke Marco’s great hall when Shi Hua and the rest of the party from Light arrived. A huge map of Issura covered most of a large table. Whatever argument had been happening died as the duke’s steward announced their presence.

At the sight of High Mother Bianca seated next to Duke Marco, Shi Hua glanced at Mateqai. The corner of her warden’s mouth quirked, but otherwise, he kept the solemn mien the situation warranted.

However, High Mother Bianca sat on the duke’s left. His sister, Lady Alessa, sat on his right. Shi Hua wondered if she’d be allowed to extended felicitations to Lady Katarina before they left. The duke’s wife was Temple-born herself and had made a point of welcoming Shi Hua to Orrin. But she was also very aware of the politics between the orders. If Lady Katarina weren’t so close to her delivery, she would no doubt make sure Bianca wasn’t anywhere near her husband. On the other hand, Bianca may have inserted herself between the duke and Prince Alika on purpose so she wasn’t sitting next to her fellow clergy. There was still a quiet debate about whether she had been used by the traitor Gerd to remove Chief Justice Anthea by way of false accusation or whether Bianca was smarter about covering up her illicit activities than Gerd had been.

It was a bit of a relief when Reverend Father Farrell’s face lit up with a huge grin. “Just the people we need to speak with!”

The head of the Issuran order of Light sat at the opposite end of the table to the left of an imposing woman. Shi Hua sucked in her breath when Crown Princess Chiara turned to appraise the newcomers.

Not even Emperor Bao Chengwu of Jing gave off such an intimidating air. The crown princess’s long, sharp face was almost masculine in appearance. She didn’t bother with any accoutrements or insignia of her rank, other than her own gray-streaked blue-black braids wrapped and pinned in the shape of a coronet on her head. She dressed in plain black leather and steel chainmail. Her dark eyes were piercing, and Shi Hua had no doubt the crown princess missed little of what happened around her.

Following Jeremy’s lead, Shi Hua bowed.

“We come to serve, Your Highness,” Jeremy murmured.

A wry smile lightened the crown princess’s face. “From what your colleagues have said, it sounds to me like you and your Temple have been doing more than your fair share of service, Brother Jeremy.” She gestured at the two people on the other side of the Reverend Father.

To his left was High Brother Han of Conflict. The normally jovial priest was especially somber behind his bushy red beard.

Beside Han sat High Sister Bertrice of Death. Her cropped hair gleamed silver in the morning light from the manse’s high windows. She didn’t look any happier than Han.

“Please take a seat, Brother Jeremy. I’d like to ask both you and Sister Shi Hua some questions about the events in Orrin over the last two months.” The crown princess pointed at two empty chairs between another man on her right dressed in the same military garb as the crown princess and Orrin’s magistrate Malven DiCook.

Worry wormed its way through Shi Hua, and not just because the heir to the throne of Issura knew her name. She’d never feared the people here before, but Ambassador Quan had always been with her at these types of meetings. As his bodyguard, her attention had been consumed with watching for dangers to him.

But then came the discovery of renegades infiltrating Issura’s Temple of Light and her temporary transfer to Orrin. High Brother Luc’s irritation with her performance as a priestess would be a mosquito bite compared to the displeasure and consequences should she incur Crown Princess Chiara’s wrath.

For the next candlemark, Shi Hua and Jeremy were questioned. About their first encounter with a demon egg last autumn. The abduction and recovery of High Brother Luc. The more recent discovery of demons wearing human skins. Justice Yanaba’s spell to freeze and destroy the demons, the one that nearly killed her. The demon eggs hidden in the corpses of Peacekeeper Dante and his family.

But when Crown Princess Chiara questioned the wisdom of Chief Justice Anthea and High Brother Luc’s absence at such a crucial time, everyone from Orrin erupted in protest.

Everyone except High Mother Bianca.

“Enough.” The crown princess slapped the table hard enough that goblets, wine decanters, and even the parchment map jumped and shivered.

Everyone went silent until Reverend Father Farrell cleared his throat. “It was mine and Reverend Mother Alara’s decision to send the two of them to Tandor—”

The crown princess held up her forefinger.

His face flushed. “I will not be silent when you question—”

“I will not tell you again, Reverend Father,” she said coldly before she turned her intimidating gaze on Shi Hua. “Why aren’t you defending them, Sister?”

Shi Hua swallowed hard. “It’s not my place—”

“No, your place is in a Temple in Jing.” The crown princess’s eyes narrowed. “But you’re here, and I’ll use whatever resources are at hand. Now, why aren’t you defending them?”

Shi Hua dug her nails into her palms to keep from retorting in kind. Quan had never been this rude, even for the short time he had been the crown prince of the empire. She lifted her chin. “Because Chief Justice Anthea and High Brother Luc don’t need to be defended. They know their duty, and they have served to the best of their abilities.”

Something thawed in the crown princess’s icy demeanor. “Even if such service means the ultimate sacrifice?”

Shi Hua worked to keep her face impassive, but her gut clenched. Maybe it was a good thing she hadn’t broken her fast after all. “Yes, Your Highness.”

Crown Princess Chiara faced High Mother Bianca. “You were the only one from Orrin who didn’t take umbrage at my words. Why?”

The priestess cast a sly look in Reverend Father Farrell’s direction. “It’s not my place to question the instructions from the heads of other orders.” She turned to the crown princess. “But as Sister Shi Hua has stated, our seats of Balance and Light will defend the queendom from demons with their very lives if need be.”

The crown princess blew out a deep breath. “Since we’ve lost contact with our clergy in Tandor, we must assume the worst.” Her gaze bore into Bertrice. “High Sister, can you activate the defense spells at your sister Temple in Tandor from here?”

Bertrice’s face paled to nearly the color of her hair. “Your Highness, you cannot be serious!”

Crown Princess Chiara leaned her elbows on the scarred wood, her palms pressed together, and her chin resting on her fingertips. “I fear High Mother Bianca is right, albeit indirectly. Destroying the Duchy of Tandor may be the only way to stop the demon army.”

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Hero De Novo Is Out!

Hero De Novo (888-555-HERO #3) went live this morning on Amazon! If you pre-ordered this book, it should be on your Kindle now. Otherwise, it's available for purchase, or you can read it for free through Kindle Unlimited!

With Captain Justice presumed dead, Aisha faces raising her super baby as a single mother. A message from Asia gives her a glimmer of hope. But is it Rey, or a Corvus trap to take her son?

In the meantime, Patty’s baby daddy, the super assassin Black Death, comes out of the woodwork, filing for custody of Grace. Harri will do anything to keep her goddaughter out of Black Death’s clutches, but will she step across her personal legal and ethical lines to save Grace?

Can both attorneys win the day with their team split up and on different continents?

Call us at 888-555-HERO. The Law Offices of Winters & Franklin, where the only thing more dangerous than a superhero is his attorney.

If you missed last month's release, Hero Ad Hoc (888-555-HERO #2) is still available for purchase or to read through Kindle Unlimited.

If you're enjoying the adventures of Harri, Aisha, and their gang and want to see more, please drop me a line!
And if you haven't picked up the first book in the series, Hero De Facto, it's currently still available for purchase on Amazon or to borrow through Kindle Unlimited.

If you're enjoying these books, I'd appreciate it if you would drop a quick review on Amazon or Goodreads.

Thank you so much for reading!

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Not Again...

I got three books finished and pre-published before this year's personal life explosion.

My father passed away. It's not something I can talk about yet. So things will be quiet on the blog front except for some pre-planned posts about Hero De Novo for tomorrow.

I apologize for not getting one last chapter from the book posted. Thanks for your patience.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Hero De Novo - Chapter 2

Aisha Franklin stared at her to-do list on her computer screen. So much for any relaxation over the upcoming Labor Day weekend. Tim was still insisting on getting the patent filed on the new exoskeleton suit he’d built with Miguel and Francisco. Harri had pretty much destroyed the original in her battle with the man pretending to be Captain Justice. Tim wanted to do a presentation on the suit to NASA in two months, which Aisha personally considered a little too ambitious, considering he just got out of rehab after the imposter Captain Justice tried to kill him.

Taking a deep breath, she tried to roll back the fury and grief flooding her. Not an imposter. A brain-washed evil twin. How the hell did her life get this screwed up?

Her only consolation in the mess their lives had become was Black Death hadn’t been sitting outside their office building for the last two months. The last thing their assistant Patty needed was her super ex-boyfriend stalking her. Sometimes though, Aisha wondered if Harri had made a mistake by siccing Black Death’s boss from Corvus on him. If the super was still sitting on their street in his old Honda, they knew where he was.

Aisha tapped the key to bring up Tim’s application. If either NASA or the ESA picked up the exoskeleton for use on the space station, the licensing fees would cover Francisco’s education, room and board through a couple of doctorates. She smiled to herself. That’s assuming their building manager Miguel could come to terms with the idea of his soon-to-be eight-year-old son going off to college, even though his oldest son Domingo would accompany his baby brother next fall. Rey had already set aside some of his money for Dom to pursue his business degree. It only made sense for him to attend college at the same time as his baby brother.

Harri managed to pit the federal and the state governments against each other over the damage caused by the fake Captain Justice, which meant Rey’s estate was intact. And Aisha had negotiated more licenses for memorial memorabilia once the FBI had declared Captain Justice dead. All the proceeds went into a trust governed by Miguel, Tim, and Harri along with Aisha. For once, she was thankful for her law partner’s insight. Harri had insisted Rey include a clause providing for any of his children in his will long before Aisha herself knew she was pregnant.

The expected tsunami of agony at missing him rolled over her again, and she blinked away the tears as she rubbed her abdomen. Her baby bump was starting to show. And Rey would never have the chance to see his son.

She touched the jade amulet at her throat that hung from a titanium chain.

Miguel had brought it to her loft the other night when he came up to talk about Francisco’s education. He’d found the amulet in a box of his late wife Beatrice’s belongings. It was the original one Rey had taken off in a child’s fit of pique over bath time. The jade piece’s original leather thong was too short for an adult.

She and Miguel had talked for a long time that night. Jokingly, he said if she could be a surrogate mom for Francisco and thirteen-year-old Javier, he’d act as her baby’s surrogate dad.

Then they both had a good cry.

The man they knew and loved was gone.

Rey was gone.

Byron Trubble, head of the black ops group known as Corvus, claimed Rey had been kidnapped without his authorization. Aisha didn’t believe him.

Trubble had also told Harri everyone at the facility where Rey had been held was dead.

That part Aisha did believe. She had no doubt Trubble had killed everyone to cover up his mess. Or he had Professor Paranoia, the supervillain Trubble had hired to run the lab, murder them.

Her office phone buzzed, interrupting her maudlin thoughts. She sniffed back the tears before she answered.

“Aisha, your sister’s on line one,” their assistant Patty announced. “Do you want me to put her through?”

“Yes.” She had a pretty good idea what the call was about. Maybe dealing with family issues would get her mind off her own problems.

The receiver buzzed and clicked. “Hey, LaShun, what’s up?”

“Oh, so I’m finally good enough to talk to?”

Aisha rolled her eyes even though LaShun couldn’t see her and leaned back in her office chair. “I’ve texted you when I can. It’s been a little busy around here.”

“So we’ve seen on the news.” LaShun laughed. “How’s living the high life with all the studly superheroes around?” Fresh grief brought a lump to Aisha’s throat.

“Ah, crap,” LaShun muttered. “I stepped into it, didn’t I? I take it you knew Captain Justice pretty well?”

Damn. Leave it to her big sister to stumble over the truth in the dark.

Aisha forced a laugh. “More like Harri wanted to adopt him.”

LaShun snorted. “Like she has a maternal bone in her body.”

Time to change the subject. “I’m assuming you’re calling about Mom and Dad’s upcoming anniversary. Did you need more money?”

“Yeah, it’s about their anniversary, and no on the money.” There was a sucking sound on the other end of the line. LaShun must be baking and licking the batter off a spoon. Or her finger. She did that whenever she was nervous or upset. “Did you know they were seeing a marriage counselor?”

“Are they? Good. I suggested it to Dad after their blow-up here back in May.”

LaShun’s sigh sounded relieved. “I told Mom the same thing when she showed up in Portland without him. The kids were bummed Dad wasn’t with her.”

“Really? You suggested they see someone?”

“Why does that sound so strange to you?”

Aisha laughed. “Because you always take Mom’s side!”

“And you always take Dad’s,” LaShun shot back. “Martin was the swing vote. He told them they weren’t invited to his wedding if they were going to act like spoiled, nasty children.”

“I doubt Renata would have let him disinvite his own parents.”

LaShun snickered. “Or maybe he realized she’d force him to go to Vegas if he did.”

“That’s because our baby brother is more invested in having the fairytale wedding than our future sister-in-law,” Aisha added.

“Anyway,” LaShun continued. “Back to Mom and Dad. She called this morning. The therapy must have worked because they want to renew their vows for their forty-fifth anniversary, instead of just doing a family dinner. Since their anniversary is on a Thursday this year, she wants to throw an engagement party for Martin and Renata the following Saturday, so we all aren’t making two trips down to Atlanta.”

Wow. Not only Mom, but LaShun thinking ahead? Maybe some of that therapy was wearing off on her big sister.

Aisha pulled her planner up on her computer monitor. “Okay, marking those dates on the calendar.”

“Also, I haven’t gotten an RSVP from Harri. She’s not pissed at Mom and Dad, is she? They’re both pretty embarrassed they blew her off when they were in Canyon Pointe.”

“No, she’s not. The invite’s probably in the mess of paperwork on her desk. I’ll nag her about it.” Aisha hesitated a second before she asked, “What about Jeremy and Leo?”

“I already talked to Leo, and he can’t get Jeremy to come. I don’t know why he thinks Mom and Dad wouldn’t approve of their marriage. They were pretty hurt Jeremy didn’t invite them.”

“Whoa! Roll that back. Leo and Jeremy got married? When the hell did this happen?”

“I know something you don’t know?” LaShun cackled.

“Quit dancing around your kitchen, bitch, and answer the question.” With everything that had been happening in hers and Harri’s lives, Jeremy must have been scared to share his little bit of good news.

“I think they both realized they’ve got a good thing. They were looking for a house together, and a week ago Saturday, they decided to make it official down at Judge Inunza’s office.”

“Thanks for making me feel like a total shit.” New tears formed in Aisha’s eyes. She’d been so consumed with her own petty problems she hadn’t paid any attention to the life of one of her best friends. “I’ll talk to Jeremy, too.”

“Or you could sic Harri on him.”

Aisha laughed. “I thought you wanted him to come.”

At the knock on her office door, she looked up. Harri Winters, her law partner, stood in the doorway with a large file and a serious expression.

“Speak of the devil. Harri’s in my office with her ‘we need to attorney’ look. I’ll call you later tonight.”

“You’d better, then you can tell me about her new boyfriend. Leo was pretty coy about it. Love you.”

“Love you, too.” Aisha set the receiver back in its cradle and held up a finger when Harri opened her mouth. “Before you get started, Mom and Dad’s forty-fifth anniversary is Thursday, September 6th, you’re invited for their vow renewal along with Martin’s engagement party the following Saturday, and LaShun’s ticked you didn’t RSVP for the original dinner.”

Harri’s jaw snapped shut. She closed the office door quietly behind her before she plopped in one of the visitor chairs. “That’s only a week away. Have you told them about the bun yet?”

Her ponytail swung as she inclined her chin toward Aisha’s abdomen. Her new chunky highlights shone bright against her dark hair. Harri had finally given in about letting Jeremy color her hair after the receptionist at Tim’s physical therapist’s office had asked if Harri were Tim’s mother.

Aisha rubbed her bump. “What do I tell them? That my son’s dad is already dead?”

“Sweetie, that baby is their grandson.” Harri set the file on the chair beside her and leaned her elbows on Aisha’s new desk. “You’re past your first trimester. It’s time to tell your family.”

“I just turned forty-one, and I’m not married.” Aisha shook her head. “If I wear some baggy clothes—”

“Then they’re definitely going to know something’s wrong. Baggy’s not your style.” Harri shook her head again. “And I may have to bow out. We don’t have your maternity leave replacement set up yet—”

“Wait!” Aisha sat up straight. “What happened to Susan Kennedy?”

“Nothing.” Harri used her fake soothing voice that drove Aisha insane. “She had to delay joining us for a week.” She waved at the stack of paperwork on Aisha’s desk. “But word’s getting out about us, and we’ve received a dozen requests for legal services this morning alone.”

“So, what you are doing a horrible job of saying is it’s not smart for both of us to be out of town right now.” Aisha eyed her partner. “How about you go to Atlanta instead and I mind the law firm?”

“Oh, no, no, no!” Harri sat up straight and waggled an index finger at Aisha. “You are not using me as an excuse to avoid your family. Besides, isn’t Jeremy invited?”

“He is, but—” Aisha hesitated. She hated spilling, but if Harri already knew. “Did you know he and Leonardo tied the knot?”

“I…yes,” Harri murmured. “If it makes you feel better, I wasn’t invited either.”

“But they told you. Why didn’t anyone tell me?” Aisha threw up her hands. Her eyes burned. Dammit, she was getting emotional over something so ridiculous. Stupid hormones. She reached for a tissue. “Why am I the last to know?” “Because…” Whatever Harri was about to say changed into a supercilious smile. The one she’d been wearing since the federal government presumed Rey was dead. The one that needed to be smacked off her face.

Aisha clenched her fists in her lap. She’d worked too hard to get her powers under control. At least she didn’t float to the ceiling every time she got upset any more.

“Why don’t you come over for dinner tonight?” Harri said with her fake brightness. “I’ll call Jeremy and tell him to bring Leo.”

“I don’t know what’s worse—being the fifth wheel at your dinner or the fact that you can’t cook.”

Harri looked down for a moment, but when her gaze returned to Aisha, some of the old Harri shone through. “You can’t spend every night moping in your loft.”

The intercom buzzed before Aisha could think of an appropriate rejoinder. Patty wouldn’t interrupt unless it was important.

“Guys, Tim needs you two in the basement. Like now. There’s a big problem with Qiang. Arthur is already on his way down.” The word “problem” probably didn’t cover whatever was happening downstairs. Qiang Reilly, AKA the superhero known as Sparx and one of their firm’s clients, was usually too proud to ask for help. And for her to go to their security chief, who was the former vigilante known as the Ghost Owl, much less accept assistance from their IT manager Arthur, who was the former supervillain Professor Venom, meant things were very, very bad.

“On our way.” Aisha stood. “C’mon. I’ll fly us down.”

“No, you are not,” Harri growled. She was up and out the door pretty fast for someone with no powers.

Aisha followed her into the reception area. “Aw, come on! I need to practice. What if I only have them another five months?”

Patty grinned as they approached her desk. “Still won’t let you fly her around, huh?”

“Shut up, or you’re fired,” Harri snapped as she raced past.

“Don’t worry,” Aisha added as she strode by their assistant. “I’ll rehire you.”

Patty chuckled behind them while Harri punched in the security code for the basement entrance.

Aisha closed the door behind them, vaulted over the railing, and floated down to the concrete floor twelve feet below. She had the code punched in and the second security door open by the time her partner jogged down the stairs.

“After you, madam.” Aisha gestured inside the old fallout shelter with a flourish.

“Show off,” Harri muttered.

Once through, Aisha resealed the door and reset the basement level security alarm. Angry voices echoed down one of the side hallways.

“That doesn’t sound good,” she murmured.

“What doesn’t sound good?” A perplexed expression twisted Harri’s face.

“Tim and Arthur arguing.” Aisha strode in the direction of the fight.

“Wait! Slow down!” Harri jogged up beside her. “Tim and Arthur are arguing?”

“Yeah.” Aisha slowed her pace. It had nothing to do with superpowers. Her legs were simply longer than Harri’s. “You can’t hear them?”

“Damn you and your super hearing,” Harri growled.

They reached the next security door. Harri made a point of pushing in front of Aisha to enter the code.

Her unplanned pregnancy had been a sore point with Harri, but the unexpected triggering of superpowers by Aisha’s hormones seemed to send her best friend over the edge. Not for the first time, she wondered why Harri had wanted to open their boutique law firm specializing in the representation of supers when she had resented them long before the asshole pretending to be Rey had pounded her boyfriend to a bloody pulp.

Harri wrenched the door open and winced at the obvious shouting, except Qiang had joined in the fray with the mix of English and Vietnamese obscenities. It was the fourth super who drew Aisha’s attention.

The one who wore her beloved Rey’s face.

She flew across the room and grabbed the man by the throat. His eyes widened, and his hands locked on her wrist. When she slammed him into the thick concrete wall, a puff of gray powder rose. She cocked her right fist back.

“No!” Harri inserted herself between Aisha and the imposter and tried to shove her back. “Aisha! You’re not a killer!”

“Get out of my way, Harri!” Aisha glared at the man who probably had murdered Rey and nearly succeeded with Tim.

“He was under a supervillain’s influence, and you know it,” Harri snapped. “It wasn’t his fault!”

“Look, I don’t blame you.” The man she only knew as Hunahpu released her wrist, and his hands dropped to his sides. “I deserve whatever punishment you want to dish out, but help me find my brother before you kill me.” “What?” Aisha said at the same time as Harri, who turned to face him.

“You heard Xquic when she took me.” Disbelief and worry crossed his face. Maybe he was concerned they would commit him to a psychiatric facility for talking about a Mayan goddess like she was real.

Except Aisha and Harri had an extended conversation with the woman claiming to be Xquic.

“Sh-she is certain Xbalanque, er, Reyes is still alive,” Hunaphu finished nervously. “She detected his…essence or whatever you want to call it.”

“Then tell me where he is,” Aisha hissed.

“I don’t know. Xquic doesn’t know either. She couldn’t pinpoint his location, and she wants him back alive as much as you do.”

“Why couldn’t she locate him? She’s supposed to be a goddess.”

He fumbled under the collar of his cream-colored polo shirt and produced a leather thong. At the end hung a piece of jade, green with a curved white streak. The Mayan symbols for love and protection were carved into the stone. The same symbols that had been carved into Rey’s amulet. Only his had a straight blue streak through the stone. “The protection spells she placed on our talismans hide us from everyone’s sight, mortal and immortal. She sensed him for a day, but before she could triangulate his position, she lost him. She believes he’s regained possession of his amulet.”

Aisha’s heart jumped. No. She slammed the door on that glimmer of hope. She couldn’t bear dealing with the loss of Rey again. And for all she knew the man in front of her lied, playing some game with her head. But damn, how she wanted his words to be true.

Slowly, she released Hunahpu and took a step back. “Or he’s already dead.”

“Don’t say that.” Harri’s shoulders sagged. “Tell her she’s wrong.”

Hunahpu shook his head, his attention focused on Aisha. “No, he isn’t dead. Our grandfather is the Mayan lord of the Underworld. If Reyes were dead, he’d be holding it over our mother’s head.”

“He’s lying!” Arthur’s anguished cry sent an answering tremor through Aisha.

She turned toward him. Sparx held him back as best she could on one leg. From the size of the gash on her thigh and the amount of blood dripping down her costume, she couldn’t put any weight on the other leg. Arthur trembled so bad Aisha doubted he noticed the superhero’s grip on his arms.

“Aisha?”

She faced Tim. The former vigilante superhero everyone else knew as Jatz’om Kuh, the Ghost Owl, sat in his wheelchair. The wheelchair Hunahpu had put him in. Tim was still facing another surgery on his left leg. The one Hunahpu had practically crushed while he pretended to be Captain Justice.

“Let’s hear him out.” Tim gazed thoughtfully at Qiang before his attention returned to Aisha. “Sparx wouldn’t have brought him down here if she weren’t convinced of his sincerity.” A wry smile quirked his lips. “The only one harder to convince than Sparx is Harri.”

Harri stepped from between Aisha and Hunahpu and gave him a vicious grin. “And if I don’t like what I hear, I won’t stop Aisha from killing you. Got me, jerkwad?”

“Yes, ma’am.” No mocking in his expression. If he were faking the total sincerity on his face, he was one hell of an actor.

Aisha glared at the super. It was their grade school playground all over again when she had been the new student, and the other girls had been picking on a much smaller one named Harri. This time though the stakes were a hell of a lot higher than bloody noses and scraped knees.

“I hope you really do understand my partner,” she said softly. “Because there won’t be enough of you for your people, whoever they really are, to fill a copper pot when I’m done if you’re lying about this.”

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Hero De Novo - Chapter 1

It's been two weeks and a day since Hero Ad Hoc was released, and two weeks and a day before Hero De Novo comes out. So, I think it's fairly safe to give y'all a taste of what happens next...

==========
Rey Garcia stared at the woman with the gun, her words ringing through his head. They brainwashed Captain Justice to kill my ex-boyfriend. The Ghost Owl.

No. Tim couldn’t be dead. And how could I have killed him if I was a prisoner in this Corvus lab?

Despite the sick feeling in his stomach at the strange woman’s words, Rey tried to laugh, but pain shot through his side. The monster’s claws had cut deep enough to see bone, but he was pretty sure they hadn’t puncture his lungs. He wouldn’t have been able to draw a proper breath for his weak chuckle if they had.

“C’mon. The Ghost Owl is a Canyon Pointe urban myth,” Rey said. “How could Captain Justice kill a children’s tale?” Despite the drugged haze the morning he was abducted, he definitely remembered the man who looked just like him. Dios, if his doppelgĂ€nger had killed Tim, how could he live with himself? Bile rose in the back of Rey’s throat. And if the imposter had infiltrated his real life, that meant Aisha and their baby were in danger as well.

The woman gave him a suspicious look.

“I grew up on the east side of the Pointe.” He shrugged. “Everyone knows the story. Jatz’om Kuh, the Ghost Owl, is nothing more than the Robin Hood tale for this century.”

“No, he exists. Here.” The woman poked around the shelves of the lab some more. She pulled out a set of scrubs and shoved them at Rey. “These will work until we get to the mainland.”

“The mainland?” He accepted the wad of blue-green clothes. “What mainland? There aren’t any islands in Lake Del Oro.”

She paused and stared at him. “You really have no idea of where you are, do you?”

He shook his head.

“We’ll discuss it once we’re out of here.” She continued rummaging through equipment and supplies.

“No. We need to discuss it now.” He was fairly certain he heard the rhythm of the sea, but it could be the Gulf of Mexico or the Pacific Ocean for all he knew.

A shiver ran through him. What if Corvus had taken him from the U.S.? How would he ever get back across the border? Harri Winters, one of his attorneys, had pulled a lot of strings to make it look like he was born there, even though Mama had said more than once she had carried him to the U.S. from Honduras. But he hadn’t carried any ID the morning he was abducted. No superhero in their right mind would carry their civilian ID with them when responding to an emergency.

The woman sighed and shook her head. “We’re on an abandoned oil rig off the coast of Java.”

“What?” His heart sank at his predicament. “You mean as in the capital island of Indonesia Java?”

“Why are you stalling? You said you were worried about Corvus agents coming back here.” She stopped shuffling through the last supply cabinet. Again, the suspicious look from the woman.

“I am, but for all I know, you could be one of them,” he said.

“How’d Corvus get you here?”

“I’m not sure.”

When she raised her gun and pointed it at him again, he tried to look non-threatening. He couldn’t risk injuring his only potential ally.

“The last thing I clearly remember is getting a text about an emergency and to come into work early.” He shook his head. “I got dressed and was flying—” He swallowed hard at his slip. “Down the freeway.” He hated lying to anyone, but as both Aisha and Harri repeatedly pointed out, total honesty could be a detriment in the superhero business.

Her eyes narrowed. “Are you registered?”

Dios, she was sharp. But given her admitted rage at Captain Justice, telling her he was the real thing wasn’t smart.

“My attorney was working on it before Corvus abducted me.” Which was true if he stretched the definition of truth. He sighed. “I’m not even sure how long I’ve been here, much less if it was really Corvus.” The head of the top secret organization had taken a personal interest in Rey years ago. He couldn’t imagine General Trubble not coming in to gloat over Rey’s capture. But as far as Rey knew, Trubble had never come here.

The stranger lowered her weapon again.

Rey ran his tongue over his dry lips. “What happened to the Ghost Owl in this epic battle between him and Captain Justice? If the real guy is as good as the myth—”

“The Ghost Owl wasn’t a super.” The woman slid into an undamaged chair and popped a flashdrive into a port on the last functioning computer work station. “He had enough tricks up his sleeves to fool a lot of people, but in the end, he was a mortal man.”

“So are you going after Captain Justice?”

“Not exactly.” The woman sagged in her seat. “According to the rumor mill, an unknown female super claiming to be the Ghost Owl killed him.”

“A woman? But you said…”

The stranger looked at him and rolled her eyes. “I know, right? So insecure she couldn’t create her own super persona? What a pussy!” She turned back to the monitor.

“But you just said the Ghost Owl was your ex-boyfriend, and you don’t know who she is?”

“I’m guessing she’s a family member.” The woman’s fingers danced across the keyboard. “An illegitimate daughter or something.”

“If Captain Justice is dead, there’s no one to exact your vengeance on,” Rey said.

“I’m going to find this woman, and then I’m going after Corvus, like I should have done years ago.”

“What’s your issue with Corvus?”

“Besides the possibility they were the ones who were mind-controlling Captain Justice?” She whirled on the chair to face him. Anger sparked in her eyes. “Those assholes used the Supervillainy Act of 1947 to take my daughters from me.”

Monday, April 15, 2019

New Release Day!

Hero Ad Hoc (888-555-HERO #2) dropped this morning! If you're one of the folks who pre-ordered, a copy should be on your Kindle or Kindle app right now.

I'm so excited about this release because I'm alive, healthy, and sticking to my writing and publishing schedule. Considering a year ago, I was facing some serious and possibly life-ending news, I'm more excited about a release than normal.

Also, Hero De Novo (888-555-HERO #3) is now up for preorder on Amazon.

Don't worry. I leave the initial trilogy on a good note, though I leave it open for sequels. I'm enjoying this series too much not to write more books. *grin*

And if you need a bright spot on Tax Day and you haven't picked up the first book in the series, Hero De Facto, it's currently free on Amazon today and tomorrow.

If you're enjoying these books, I'd appreciate it if you would drop a quick review on Amazon or Goodreads.

Thanks so much for reading!

Friday, April 12, 2019

Hero Ad Hoc - Chapter 4

Here's your last little taste of my latest superhero adventure before Hero Ad Hoc drops on Monday!

====================

Aisha bobbed in the air above her new couch, which was where Tim tethered her with her bathrobe belt while he fiddled with stuff in his equipment bag. Thankfully, the rest of her furniture arrived three days before everything hit the fan. Nothing else in the loft was heavy enough to hold her down other than their mattress. After the hugging incident in the atrium this morning, she didn’t want Rey to get the wrong idea about her and Tim by being alone with him in the bedroom.

The loft door rolled open. Rey entered with a woman she presumed was the mysterious Serena.

She turned out to be a green-haired young woman with a variety of features that said mixed-race and skin a shade darker than Aisha’s. Serena’s hand covered her mouth when she spotted Aisha. From the glint in her gorgeous, and equally green, eyes, Serena was trying not to laugh.

Aisha crossed her arms and glared at the younger woman. “If you can’t help, then get out of my home.”

The younger woman immediately sobered. “I apologize, Ms. Franklin. I know the sudden appearance of powers can be frightening.”

“I’m not frightened. I’m pissed,” Aisha snapped. And it was true. Any fear from this morning had disappeared when she had to grab the freaking toilet seat and hold on for dear life in order to do her business. “It’s bad enough I’ll look like a Macy’s balloon in eight months, but I’m already floating like one!”

Serena tossed her large bag on the couch. “First, we need to figure out if it’s the baby who has the powers or if it’s you.”

Aisha threw her hands up in the air. “Why the hell would I have powers now when I’ve never had them before?”

“You might have HRSP. Pregnancy hormones can do some strange things to a woman’s body.” Serena grinned. “My mom was also non-powered when she wasn’t pregnant, but she had a different ability with me and each of my four siblings. In my case, she was constantly setting stuff on fire.”

Aisha swallowed a groan. Hormone related super powers, aka HRSP, wasn’t the worst thing that could happen in a pregnancy, but it would be damn inconvenient if she started to float in front of cameras during a press conference for one of their clients.

“I guess I should be thankful I don’t have some destructive ability,” she said.

“Yep, my aunt started developing pure calcium deposits on her skin,” Serena tugged on the terrycloth tied to Aisha’s ankle, pulling her down toward the couch. “Couldn’t take a shower without blowing up the bathroom. Can you imagine not bathing for nine months? Rey, you wanna hang on to your girlfriend and keep her within my reach?” She turned to Tim. “You got my payment?”

The inventor grinned and held out a blue plastic rectangle the size of a shoebox with a wand attached. “One portable ultrasound device, madam.”

Rey flew up a couple of feet and wrapped Aisha in his arms before settling them both on the couch. Aisha wouldn’t have minded sitting on his lap if they didn’t have company, but it was aggravating as hell that it was the only way she could stay in place.

As she untied the belt from her ankle, she eyed the green-haired woman suspiciously. “Do you have a medical degree of some kind?”

“Does school count?” Serena pulled a stethoscope out of her bag.

“Not really,” Aisha said sourly.

“I’m working on my degree to become a physician’s assistant.” Serena looked at her, all joking gone. “You can go to your regular doctor, but do you know what’s going to happen if you do?”

Aisha knew all too well. Part of the Superhero Act of 1945 allowed the federal government to “rescue” babies with powers if they could justify to a judge the parents’ inability to handle things. With the recent attacks by Corvus, the Attorney General could easily claim hers and Rey’s lifestyle put any baby in eminent danger, which was why she hadn’t called her own doctor. In theory, the reason for a government guardianship was to give the kids a safe place to learn control of their abilities, but a lot of childcare experts questioned what the government nannies did to the kids. “Obviously, Rey didn’t tell you what I do for a living.”

If possible, Serena became even more somber. “Ms. Franklin, everybody in the neighborhood knows who and what you and Ms. Winters are. Rey isn’t the only super living around here. And the only reason I’m making a house call is because Rey and Jatz’om Kuh vouched for you.”

Two realizations struck as hard as one of Sparx’s electric bolts. The first being Serena knew Tim’s secret identity. The other made her heart break. “Your parents hid you and your brothers and sisters.”

“Not on purpose at first. Actually, my dad’s gift is the ability to hide a super’s freaky EEG readings, including his own.” Serena’s smile was gentle. “Now, shush while I check your heart.”

Biting her tongue, Aisha remained silent while the younger woman checked her heartbeat, her breathing, and her blood pressure. But when Serena took Tim’s invention from him, Aisha couldn’t keep quiet any longer.

“Don’t you need gel for an ultrasound?”

Tim shook his head. “Nope. Serena wanted something a little more powerful than standard equipment so she’s not limited in what she can do with it. This can resolve internal pictures closer to the level of an MRI machine than a standard ultrasound.” He grinned. “It’s one of the patents I want you to file.”

Serena reached for the top of the blue box, and his grin disappeared. “Wait! Don’t turn it on yet!” He headed back to the island that separated the kitchen from the living area and reached into his equipment bag. He produced a set of headphones. “For Rey’s ears.”

Once Rey was wearing the noise canceling headphones, Serena lifted the lid on top of the blue box, which had a screen, and pulled out a wand connected to the box by a long cord. She flipped on the power.

A high-pitched noise pierced Aisha’s eardrums. She cried out and slapped her palms over her ears.

Serena instantly punched the power button. “What is it? What’s wrong?” Alarm showed on Tim’s face as well.

“What’s wrong, azĂșcar?” Rey murmured.

Aisha lowered her hands. “It was like that thing rammed an icepick through my brain.”

“You could hear the subsonics?” Tim’s expression was a cross between puzzlement and expectation.

“Yeah, I guess.” Aisha peered over her shoulder. Rey had taken off the headphones. “Does it hurt you when you don’t have protective gear on?”

Rey nodded, looking a little embarrassed. “That’s what really happened with the kitchen counter in Patty’s apartment. Tim tested the unit when Miguel and I were installing the granite.”

Aisha cupped his cheek. “Oh, honey, why didn’t you guys just say so?”

Tim laughed. “You have met Harriet Winters, haven’t you?”

Harri had gone ballistic over the crushed stone countertop. She had wanted to have Patty ensconced in the Lechuza Building before she gave birth, regardless of what her poor, pregnant assistant wanted. And Harri’s interference in Patty’s life probably had more to do with Patty and Arthur’s budding romance. Harri still didn’t trust the former supervillain, even though he hadn’t been much of a supervillain to begin with by her own admission.

Aisha rolled her eyes. “You can’t let her bulldoze you. Follow mine and Patty’s example.”

The two men exchanged glances that implied she and Patty were just as much under Harri’s thumb as they were.

Tim turned back to his bag of tricks and pulled out another set of ear protection.

Aisha eyed him suspiciously. “Do you bring spares for every contingency?”

“No, but I thought we might need them.” Tim’s face quirked in the weird way she’d come to recognize the genius was working out some theory in his big brain. He stayed by the island. “Rey let go of her.”

“But I’ll just float to the freaking ceiling,” she snapped.

“Aisha, I need you to concentrate on wanting these headphones.” Tim held up the set. “You want them as bad as you want a cigarette.”

“But I don’t want a cigarette,” she protested.

“Hey, I used to smoke, too.” He grinned at her. “Haven’t touched ’em in twenty-five years, but I still remember the desire. Focus on wanting the headphones as much as that morning cigarette.”

Rey released her waist, and she immediately started to rise into the air.

She pushed down the threatening panic. It wasn’t like he couldn’t fly up and pull her off the damn ceiling. But she sure didn’t want to feel that icepick-through-the-brain thing again either. If the headphones covered her ears—

She moved, not upwards, but across the room toward Tim. In that realization, she lost her focus and started drifting upward again.

This is no different than taking the bar. Concentrate on one thing at a time.

Aisha narrowed her eyes and stared at the headphones. She shot across the space and stopped right in front of Tim.

Now, feet on the floor.

The sudden contact of her stilettos with the floor made her stumble, but Tim saved her from falling on her face. Behind her, applause erupted.

“Good job.” Tim grinned and released her.

“How’d you know I could control this?” Suspicion ran through her.

“Because I told him how my abilities manifested.” Rey swept her into a huge hug. “I knew you could do it.” His lips claimed hers, and she fell into the emotions swirling through her.

Someone cleared their throat, and she reluctantly pulled away.

“Now you know why she’s pregnant,” Tim said dryly to Selena.

“Shut up,” Aisha muttered.

“Can I check the baby now that we know you might actually be a teachable super?” Sarcasm ran thick in Serena’s voice.

“Fine,” Aisha muttered.

Serena gestured back toward the couch.

Aisha had to concentrate fiercely in order to reach the couch on her feet. It was like gravity was no longer her default setting. She sat gingerly on the edge. Rey perched on the couch beside her. They both donned their ear protection.

Serena plopped down on Aisha’s other side. She checked them both before she flipped the power switch on Tim’s device again.

A bit of a hum penetrated the noise-cancelling headphones, but it was nothing like the brain-piercing pain of the first time. Serena slowly drew the wand across Aisha’s abdomen. A picture developed on the screen.

Aisha just stared at the little white blob about the size and shape of a peanut. Her baby. The one she’d wanted for so damn long.

Rey tapped her shoulder, and she jumped. He wasn’t wearing his earphones, and he gestured for Aisha to remove hers.

“Is it in the right place?” she asked once she could hear.

Serena raised an eyebrow. “It’s not an ectopic pregnancy if that’s what you’re worried about. He’s definitely in your uterus.”

“Oh, god!” Tears blurred Aisha’s vision. “This is really happening.”

“When was your last period?” Serena pulled out a notepad.

Aisha swallowed hard at the standard question. Too many doctors asked the same damn thing at too many appointments. “Six weeks ago, but with the loss of one of my ovaries, I’ve started perimenopause, and I’ve never been regular before that.”

The younger woman chewed her bottom lip for a few seconds before she said, “I’d like to use my powers to check both you and the baby.”

“You said your mom started fires when she was carrying you. How do I know you won’t set me on fire?”

Serena’s grin was a little rueful. “If the issue is HRSP, the mom and the baby don’t necessarily have the same abilities. Like I said, once Mom delivered me, no more powers.”

Aisha leaned away from her. “Won’t x-ray vision hurt the fetus?”

“I can sense bodily functions.” Serena hesitated for a moment before she added, “And I can affect them.”

“Affect them how?”

“She’s a healer,” Ray murmured.

“Or she can make you sicker than a dog if you try to pimp little girls on River Street.” Tim chuckled.

Well, they needed to know what was going on. Aisha sucked in a deep breath and nodded.

Serena leaned forward and rested both her hands on Aisha’s abdomen.

Nothing really seemed to happen. Aisha half-expected the girl’s hands to glow or to feel something other than the touch. Serena straightened and smiled. “You’re about four weeks along, and he’s a perfectly healthy baby.”

“He? You keep saying he?”

“Oops.” Serena winced. “Are you one of those moms who wants to be surprised?”

“No, I just, I…” Aisha’s voice faltered. This time, her waterworks weren’t from panic or pain. She swiped at the tears and cleared her throat. “I never thought I’d hear those words.”

Serena closed up the equipment Tim had given her. “My place is above Celia’s bodega. I’ll get you started on prenatal vitamins.” She hesitated. “If it’s okay, I’ll contact a friend who has a medical license. She’ll keep quiet. I swear. But we’ll want an ally just in case.”

“In case something goes wrong,” Aisha murmured.

Serena nodded, even as Rey hugged her and growled, “Nothing’s going to happen to you or the baby.”

Aisha couldn’t help rubbing her stomach. She’d wanted a baby for so long. This should have been the best thing to ever happen to her.

So why did she feel like something awful would occur in return for getting her wish?