Wednesday, June 19, 2024

A Cup of Conflict - Chapter 12

This is will be the last sample chapter for A Cup of Conflict. I've made some significant progress on the novel, thanks to some writer friends doing sprints with me. Next week, I won't post until Thursday or Friday when I'm in San Antonio. (My flight doesn't get in until midnight CDT.) Granted, the post will probably consist of a photo of my Grandpuppy who's coming to live with us for a year. *smile*

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The rest of the meal passed far more sociably after Lord Jia Hao’s pronouncement. He quickly changed the subject to our sea voyage from Issura during the late winter. I kept him entertained with some of the more amusing aspects of the trip, such Yin Shang’s fascination with sailing.

I had a strong suspicion Po and Shi Hua had Duke Mengchang sit Jia Hao next to me to analyze any potential trouble from him. However, the young lord only exuded an expected level of grief at his loss despite his pleasant demeanor after his declaration.

He explained each of the dishes to me and how to eat them properly. The dishes were more exquisite than the simple fare at the caravanserai and definitely more flavorful than the dried and salted rations during our sea voyage.

“What do you miss in Issura at this time of year?” he asked.

“I—don’t know.” I chuckled. “I was on circuit for the first ten years after my ordination. My partner and I usually spent the Spring Rituals in one of the small mountain villages on our route.” I left out the part where I deliberately planned to avoid Orrin and Nastine during the holidays. “And last year, we were trapped in Tandor during the siege. I and the other Orrin seats spent most of the Ritual week arranging for housing for the Tandoran refugees.”

“If I may ask…” Jia Hao started.

I nodded. “Please feel free to inquire about anything.”

Jia Hao lowered his voice. “What is it like? Actually battling a demon, I mean.”

“Difficult.” I shook my head as I sought the best words in his language. “Even with magick. They are faster than a Gray Mountain panther. Stronger than the white bears of the northern ice fields.” A vision of Warden Tyra protecting me when the demons breached the city. High Sister Beatrice giving her life to old the Death spells to destroy the demons. My own grandfather. All of those memories stabbed me with old grief. “You’re not to only one who has lost people to them. If there’s anything I miss in Issura, it’s the people I’ve lost to this war.”

Beneath the table, Luc squeezed my thigh in reassurance. Of course, he felt my pain.

“I apologize, Lady Justice,” Lord Jia Hao murmured. “I did not mean to cause you distress.”

“You didn’t, my lord.” I forced a smile. “It’s the demons who have. Therefore, I understand your feelings regarding your own losses.”

He nodded and dropped the subject as the servants laid bowls containing the last course of the state dinner before us.


We had returned to our state rooms long enough for Warden Jonata to light the kindling in the fireplace when there was a knock on the suite door. Warden Long Feather answered, and the imperial guard announced Duke Mengchang.

“Please forgive the late hour.” He bowed and straightened. From his coloring, his news bothered him. “The crown prince and his lady wife request the presence of Chief Justice Anthea and High Brother Luc to accompany them breaking their fast and during their inspection of the palace household afterward.”

Luc and I exchanged looks. We didn’t need silent speech to know why the duke was miffed or Po’s reasons for wanting us with him.

“Unless you are pressed for time, Your Grace, would you like to join us for a small glass of Pana wine?” I asked.

My invitation startled him. “You have Pana wine?”

“It’s our private supply.” Luc inclined his head. “We’d be honored to entertain a noble the crown prince holds in such high esteem.”

Mengchang’s obvious desire for a portion of the prized wine and Luc’s flattery mollified the duke’s hurt feelings. “I would be honored to join you.”

Warden Yar retrieved one of our last two bottles. While he poured the wine, Luc and I sat with Mengchang before the fire. Thankfully, Long Feather had already positioned my chair so I wouldn’t squint at the brightness of the fire to my odd sight. Few outside of my Temple household knew my peculiar vision was affected by heat.

“Did the crown prince explain why he wished us to accompany him and Lady Shi Hua tomorrow?” I asked.

“Yes,” the duke replied stiffly. “Is it true you can see demons no matter what form they take?”

I nodded, but I wasn’t about to list the exception to my odd sight. “But that’s probably not his only reason. Do you know what a skinwalker is?”

“A skinwalker is a human sorcerer dealing in demon magick,” he said.

“And I can also see them.” I accepted the goblet Yar handed to me. “Thank you, Warden.” I faced Mengchang again. “In some ways, they’re far more dangerous. Demons are simply hungry. Skinwalkers combine the worst attributes of human and demon.”

“I don’t remember that item of information during my childhood lessons.” He sipped the Pana red. “I wish we had the soil produce such wine.”

“You know your horticulture,” Luc said.

Mengchang nodded. “My duchy brews a hearty beer and plum wine. However, I promise not to bore you with the details. My eldest daughter manages our family interests while I serve the emperor.”

Again, I braced myself as I endured Mengchang’s grief. It relieved me to know it was honest grief for a family member and not fear at losing his position.

“I hope you aren’t planning to leave the capital after the coronation ceremony,” I said.

He blinked, and surprise muted his grief. “That is not my decision to make, Chief Justice.”

“Nor is it mine, Your Grace,” I replied gently. “However, the crown prince needs people he can trust to assist him in his service to Jing.”

His eyes narrowed. “Is this the true reason you invited me for a cup of your wine? To test my loyalty? Did you already lay a truthspell on me?”

“The answer is no to all of your questions,” I said. “The crown prince was trapped with the high brother and me in Tandor. He knows first hand the speed and destructive force even a small division of demons can inflict. He and his guards were instrumental in the plan to evacuate the city. Only by Thief’s grace did we save as many citizens as we did.”

Mengchang’s chin lifted. “I already know the ferocity of our foes. And I know my failures very well.”

“Someone within in the palace let those demons in,” I said softly. “Neither the Lady Shi Hua or I believe it is you, but we ask your assistance in investigating the matter.”

“The crown prince rules here,” Mengchang snapped. “Not the Temples.”

“And the nobles and clergy working together are the only reason we didn’t lose our entire queendom,” I replied. “Crown Prince Po hopes to unit all the factions of Jing in order to do the same.”

The tension eased from the duke’s shoulders. “I will consider your words, Chief Justice.” He swallowed the rest of his wine before he rose. “However, I reserve the right to give my answer to my liege.”

“Of course.” I inclined my head.

“Good night, Chief Justice, High Brother.”

“Good night, Your Grace,” Luc and I said in unison.

Once the duke departed, Luc laid a ward on the receiving room of our suite. “Opinions?”

“The duke hasn’t discovered how the demons entered the palace, and he’s worried he will be blamed for Emperor Chengwu’s death,” Jonata said.

“The chief justice’s compassion is improving,” Long Feather volunteered.

“Tomorrow, you and the chief justice will need to address the crown prince’s favoritism toward you, High Brother. It will not be seen favorably by any Jing citizen.” Yar rarely said anything, but win he did, I listened.

Luc nodded. “That was one of my concerns as well.” He eyed me. “What are your thoughts on the matter, m’lady?”

I sighed. “I have more fun playing Mill than I do with these political games. But I share Yar’s analysis. I’m praying to the Twelve our esteemed crown prince isn’t setting us up to take the fall.”

Thursday, June 13, 2024

A Cup of Conflict - Chapter 11

June is going by too fast! I'm trying to finish two novels, but I fly down to Texas on the 26th to convoy Genius Kid's cars back to Ohio. The Grandpuppy will be riding with me because I'll be driving the sedan, and it has a much bigger back seat. (The Grandpuppy is a German Shepard/Staffordshire mix. He's huge and mainly black, but he's a lover, not a fighter.)

However, I am making progress on the writing front! Here's the latest unedited chapter of A Cup of Conflict.

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A member of the imperial household banged a gong with a huge hammer before anyone from the schools of philosophy could make a comment or ask a question about Master Quan’s demise. The guests immediately quieted before the last echoes of the instrument died.

“His Imperial Highness, Crown Prince Po and his wife Lady Shi Hua invite you to join them for the evening meal!” the household staff cried out.

The walls next us slid apart to reveal a larger, ornate dining room. The walls were covered in lacquered panels. Swatches of silk hung at intervals. Imperial guards stood at every other panel.

Po and Shi Hua were already seated at the head of humungous wooden tables arranged in a narrow U. Captains Huizhong and Mateqai stood at attention behind their charges. The arrangement was reminiscent of a Temple convocation on a much larger scale. Except I had no clue of where to sit since Luc and I were the only clergy present.

Follow Duke Mengchang, Shi Hua whispered silently inside my mind.

Thank you, my lady, I responded as the duke subtly gestured for us to follow him.

Stop being so formal, Anthea, she chided. It’s silent speech.

Except thoughts can become deeds, I responded. I can’t make a mistake while in Jing.

The empress-to-be giggled silently, her mental voice girlish in nature. Deep down, I pitied the young woman. She would have been an excellent leader of a Temple of Light in any place in the world.

She would have been an excellent leader anywhere.

Was that why the Twelve had seen fit to condemn her to a throne in the middle of the fight to save the human race from extinction?

And then it registered where the duke was leading us.

He stopped at the bend to the left of Shi Hua and bowed to us. “High Brother.” He gestured at the chair closest to Shi Hua. “Chief Justice.” He indicated the chair to Luc’s left.

A glance at the other dinner guests hinted that we should remain standing. Yin Li had taught us a bit about Jing etiquette during our voyage across the Peaceful Sea, but we didn’t have much chance to practice the formalities on the journey from the coast to the capital. I was grateful for the pointers in the middle of the welcome dinner.

Once all the guests were in their places, Po rose to his feet. “Thank you for coming my friends. Please be seated.”

No one moved until he lowered himself to his throne-like chair. Then as one the rest of the guests sat. Luc handed his crutches to Warden Yar. Much attention was on him with a whisper of surprise emanating from those people who hadn’t met him yet as he maneuvered in front of his assigned chair and sat.

I didn’t have to look behind me to feel our wardens take places between the imperial guards behind us. We weren’t the only ones with security personnel, but there was only one guard for each noble and their family. From Yin Li’s lessons, this was highly unusual.

What was Po’s purpose in allowing his nobles to bring guards to his table? To reassure them? Or to test the noble’s loyalty by seeing if they would use their own people against him?

Po struck a smaller gold gong next to him. On that cue, servant paraded into the dining room with huge steaming bowls. They ladled what smelled like a savory soup into the bowls in front of the guests.

I surreptitiously watched the other guests. As I’d hoped, Master Ma and those who had been within hearing range of my revelation concerning Master Quan’s death passed along the tidbit to the other diners. Many of the Jing nobles and sorcerers glanced at me. Some with speculative expressions. Others with worry. But a token few eyed me with suspicion.

I think your plan is working too well. Luc pretended to focus on his soup.

I’m not trying to kill two geese with a single sling stone, I chided. But I do believe the murders of Master Quan and Emperor Chengzhou are connected.

That’s assuming Po is correct the School of Sorcery was behind his father’s condition. Luc turned to Shi Hua and answered her question. “I believe this is the best meal I’ve eaten since we left Orrin.”

“What do you think of our cuisine, Lady Justice,” the man seated to my right asked in careful and heavily accented Issuran.

“Thank you for the effort to learn my language…” I examined him as I smiled. I hadn’t been introduced to him by Duke Mengchang. Like most Jing men, he wore his hair in a top knot with jewels dangling from the tips of his moustache.

“Lord Jia Hao.” He inclined his head.

I switched to the Jing tongue. “A pleasure to meet you, my lord. If you don’t mind, may we please use your own language for this dinner. I do not wish to disrespect the crown prince.”

Jia Hao nodded politely. “As you wish, Lady Justice.”

“And to answer your initial question, I enjoy trying new delicacies.” I dipped the ceramic spoon into the hot soup and tasted the broth and meat. “This is delicious. What is it? I don’t recognize the meat.”

“Turtle soup.” He ate a spoonful from his own bowl. “It’s considered good luck.” He leaned closer. “The palace cook will probably serve swallow’s nest soup next Rest Day. A very rare delicacy that’s only made during the Spring Rituals.” He smiled. “Which is why most heirs to the throne schedule their coronations for this time of year.”

“I don’t think he chose this time of year on purpose,” I murmured.

“No, he didn’t.” Jia Hao stared at his bowl. “That’s one thing the crown prince and I have in common.”

A hint of grief leaked from the lord. I hesitated a moment before I said, “He never believed he’d be in this position with the births of his nephews.”

“And I never believed my sister would die on the same day as her husband and children,” he said sadly.

Air caught in my lungs, but I forced out the words. “Your sister was the former empress?”

“Yes.” Jia Hao met my horrified stare with his own glare. “And I’ll do anything to make her murderers pay.”

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

A Little Behind

I meant to have Chapter 11 of A Cup of Conflict posted today. However, I'm behind on everything. So behind, I'm actually skipping yoga this week.

With all the rain and sunshine this spring, it's been difficult to keep up on the yard. I'm splitting my time between unpacking, cleaning, and writing. I still have two Christmas presents sitting on the kitchen table that I haven't mailed yet.

Well, you get the picture.

I literally can't catch up, so I'm rebooting on Saturday. It's the first of June. And the last three days of May will be spent dealing with paperwork and clearing off my desk so I don't have any distractions on Saturday.

In the meantime, I hope everyone is enjoying their spring!

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

A Cup of Conflict - Chapter 10

While the weather has been good, I've been splitting my time between the yard, flowerbeds, and writing. Weeding is the third best thing after a shower or cleaning the bathroom to get the idea juices flowing. Here's the next unedited sample chapter of A Cup of Conflict.

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I and my wardens barely had time to sponge off the road grime and dress appropriately for a state dinner. It was all my fault, and I apologized to them repeatedly. And repeated the apology to Luc in silent speech while a palace steward escorted us to the dining room.

My fellow priest and his warden Yar had waited for us outside of our shared suite when we return from the Jing home Temple of Balance. When I and my wards exited once we’d changed our clothes, the palace steward stood nearby. His expression remained serene, but the power of his internal seething .slammed into my mental shields.

While we followed him, I said yet again, I’m terribly sorry for my tardiness.

What was so blasted important you would risk embarrassing or insulting Quan?” Luc wouldn’t look at me. He stared straight ahead, swinging on his specially designed crutches at a rapid pace.

The same pace as the palace steward’s.

Reverend Mother Xiang asked for my testimony regarding the complaint Reverend Mother Fumiko filed.

Luc let out a stream of invectives in several different languages that would have made the crew of the Mars Tranquilus blush. Thankfully, my love didn’t speak the words aloud.

Is she planning to bring formal charges against you?

No. From the murmuring voices ahead, we must be approaching our destination. She wanted to know if Reverend Mother Fumiko exaggerated Ogusuku’s behavior and actions.

Did she question you under a truthspell?

I glanced at Luc. No. But she wanted to know if I wished to file a charge of slander against Ogusuku and Biming.

What did you say to her?

I told her if Ogusuku or Biming insult me when I’m not charged with escorting the Jing crown prince home for his coronation, I would consider her suggestion.

Luc made an odd sound deep in his chest as he tried to contain his physical laughter.

“Are you all right, High Brother?” Yar murmured.

Luc cleared his throat. “Just a bit of a digestive issue. Something from our last caravanserai stop didn’t agree with me.”

“You’ve probably burned away all of your digestive tissues with Cantan sauce,” I said.

“Or else my sauce coated my stomach so nothing bothered me.” He shot me a wicked grin. “It’s been three weeks since I ran out.”

The steward paused midstride and whirled to face us. “Is everything all right, Chief Justice?”

I realized we’d been speaking in Issuran, which was incredibly rude of us. I inclined my head to the steward. “We beg your forgiveness,” I said in Jing. “The high brother has pointed out I should have been more attentive to the time. Your Reverend Mother of Balance had some concerns that needed to be addressed. No insult was meant to you, your liege, or your Temples.”

His serene expression didn’t change, but his mood lightened. I realized in all of my apologies in the last few moments, I’d neglected one.

The steward nodded in return. “Etiquette may be different in your queendom than it is in our empire, but one does not keep a higher rank waiting at his own table.” “I will not forget, good sir.”

He sniffed, pivoted, and continued toward the sounds of conversation. My party followed him. For once, Luc didn’t make a witty aside at my expense. Neither did my wardens. I would probably pay for my moment of grace later, but for now, I accepted the quiet.

We entered a large room that would have made Queen Teodora’s throne room appear provincial. The steward made no grand pronouncements of our titles upon our appearance. However, we drew the attention of the entire crowd.

A wave of curiosity from them flowed over me. Neither Luc nor I wore our clerical robes. However, our formal wear did display our Temple affiliation. Gold beads on the left chest of Luc’s deerskin vest outlined the flame of Light while the silver broaches that pinned the shoulders of my dress in place formed Balance’s scales. My deal with the silversmith Govind had paid off handsomely with the accessories he’d crafted for me.

Duke Mengchang approached us and bowed deeply. “Chief Justice Anthea, High Brother Luc. May I introduce you to the rest of the guests?”

I bowed in return. “We would be honored, Your Grace.”

“We appreciate your hospitality.” Luc bowed as well.

Mengchang led us through the crowd. Everyone was perfectly polite. Almost too polite. Now that their curiosity of our identities was satiated, a general sense of unease filled the room. While Po hadn’t been formally exiled to Issura by his half-brother, his subjects no longer viewed him as Jing.

I could pick suspicion and worry as the primary emotions swirling around us, some of which was aimed specifically at our party. There were occasional flashes of shock from the other guests that Luc and I were fairly proficient in their language. But the majority of feelings were concerns over the demon attack within the walls of Chengzhou. For once, the appearance of my eyes took a back seat in the pieces of gossip I could pick out.

Considering the majority of people were capital bureaucrats, their basic dread over the new emperor made sense. Humans loathed change when it affected their livelihood. With the switch in regimes, they feared for their positions.

Everything was politely pleasant until Mengchang led us to the heads of the various schools of philosophy. We were met with stiff postures and cold attitudes, which barely stayed on the side of etiquette.

Were they still upset over the demise of the School of Sorcery? The idiots from that particular center had been consorting with demons. They’d even managed to get a demon inside the city walls of Orrin without setting off the Temples’ alarms.

I think it’s time to cast our line into the water, I silently said to Luc.

He chuckled in the back of my mind. Be careful. You might accidently hook a sea wolf.

“Chief Justice, High Brother, this is Master Ma of the School of the Phoenix and the Dragon,” Mengchang announced.

I forced a brilliant smile and bowed. “It is such a pleasure to meet you, Master Ma. Master Quan spoke quite highly of you during my visits with him.”

My pronouncement took all the philosophical school dignitaries by surprise, including Master Ma, whose beaded moustache ends swayed with the twitch of his lips. “He was one of our most learned members and a dear friend. Do you visit with him often?”

“As much as I could for the short time he spent in Orrin.” I let my smile drop. “However, I fear I bring sad tidings. Death embraced Master Quan during our voyage to Jing.”

Ma’s eyes closed, and grief spilled from his psyche. He swallowed hard before he opened his eyes again. “Your news saddens me, but it is not unexpected.”

“The Child’s Curse is a terrible affliction,” another master I hadn’t been introduced to yet muttered.

“The Child’s Curse?” I affected a confused manner.

“Yes,” Master Bolin of the School of Nature said. “Master Quan’s decline showed all the classic symptoms of the condition.”

“He didn’t have the Child’s Curse.” I frowned. “Master Quan was murdered.”

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

A Cup of Conflict - Chapter 9

While I finish Death Goddess Walking, here's another taste of A Cup of Conflict for you to savor!

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I could feel unseen eyes watching me while Long Feather, Jonata and I retraced our path back to the Jing home Temple of Balance. Hopefully, I would be able to meet with Justice Mei Wen as well, if only to reassure Shi Hua her friend had recovered from the injuries the young justice received during the demon attack on the city last winter.

When we reached the Temple of Balance, the wardens on guard at the main entrance treated us courteously. One of them raised two fingers to his mouth and blew a piercing whistle that would surely have deafened me if I stood right next to him.

A squire raced down the steps to take the reins of our horses. She had to be three or four winters older than my own squire Nathan. Once again, I bit my tongue to keep from insulting the child, but she handled all three steeds with aplomb as they disappeared down the street between Balance and Knowledge.

Something must have shown on my face however. The warden with the piercing whistle said, “Do not worry, Lady Justice, Squire Yang has a talent with all animals. Your horses will be well cared for.”

I smiled and inclined my head. “If it were my own Nassa, I would not be as concerned. However, the Reverend Mother of Balance in Haung He was gracious enough to allow me to borrow the mares from her Temple’s stable for the journey to Chengwu. I pray the Twelve will allow me to return the horses to her in the same, if not better, health than when I left.”

The warden shrugged. “Balance in all things. Ours is not to reason why any of the Twelve do as They do, Lady Justice.” He gestured for me and my party to follow him up the steps.

As we stepped through the main doors, the first sense of familiarity I’d felt in nearly three months enveloped me. Hallways led left and right from the foyer. Through the second set of doors, the statue of Balance stood on Her dais on the other side of the courtroom. Her hood hid Her features from view, and She clasped her hand in front of her, holding a non-existent sword.

A podium rested in front of the statue of Balance. High windows illuminated the court for those with normal sight. The gallery was larger than the one in the courtroom in Standora, as was the defendants’ box. But everything else was so similar that for a moment, homesickness nearly drowned me.

“Greetings, sister.” The justice who entered the courtroom from the door to the back hallway and the clerks’ offices spoke Issuran. A warden guided her to me.

“Greetings to you,” I said in Jing. My wardens and I bowed even though she couldn’t see our gestures. “I am Chief Justice Anthea, the seat of the Duchy of Orrin in the Queendom of Issura. I have come to pay my respects to your Reverend Mother.”

The justice pushed back her hood and smiled. The only hair on her head were her brows and lashes. Yet, there was a sense of familiarity about her.

“It’s a pleasure to finally meet you in person, Chief Justice Anthea. I am Justice—”

“Mei Wen?” I blurted.

Her smile turned into a full-on grin. “Yes.”

I forgot all etiquette and pulled her into a tight hug. “Shi Hua has been so worried about you! So have I and the crown prince!”

She laughed. “It was a close thing. If it weren’t for Warden Yichen here, the demons would have surely have killed me.”

“Thank you, Warden Yichen.” I bowed deeply to the warden. “Not only from myself, but from Lady Shi Hua and her husband as well.”

His cheeks glowed red at my sincere gratitude. “I serve the Temple of Balance to the best of my ability.” He wrapped Mei Wen’s right hand around his left elbow once again.

“If you and your wardens will follow us,” Mei Wen said. “Our Reverend Mother is looking forward to meeting you as well.”

The Chengzhou home Temple of Balance was indeed much larger than Issura’s home Temple back in Standora. However, the general layout was much the same. The justice and staff offices were directly behind the courtroom. A single warden was stationed at several the doors we passed. However, Mei Wen and Yichen led us past the business area and to the personal quarters. Two wardens stood guard at a single door.

“Chief Justice Anthea to see Reverend Mother Xiang,” Mei Wen announced in her crystal bell voice.

Both wardens at the door nodded, and the one on the right opened the door and repeated her statement.

“Come in, come in,” said a woman. Her melodious tone made it difficult to determine her age.

Mei Wen and Yichen led the way inside. My wardens and I followed.

And it struck me that I’d never seen Reverend Mother Alara’s personal receiving room.

A woman in clerical robes sat beside a huge fireplace. A female warden stood behind the beautifully carved wood chair and slight to the left. What struck me was the Reverend Mother was as bald as Mei Wen. I needed to ask Yin Li about the style. Last thing I needed was to stumble over a cultural issue on the mission.

The Reverend Mother rose, and both she and her chief warden bowed. “A pleasure to meet you, Chief Justice Anthea. Justice Mei Wen has spoken highly of you.” When the Reverend Mother straightened, a bit of a smile tilted her mouth. “After assisting the Lady Shi Hua with her marriage trousseau, I hope you would allow our Temple to reimburse you.”

I bowed in return though she couldn’t see my gesture. “I appreciate your offer, but the trousseau was my wedding gift to Lady Shi Hua. No recompense is necessary.”

The Reverend Mother’s smile brightened. “I shall send for some tea. Would one of your wardens care to accompany my squire to the kitchen?”

Safety warred with etiquette in my mind, and I hesitated.

“My dear, you would not offend me by being cautious,” Reverend Mother said gently. “Justice Mei Wen has made me aware of the issues in Issura.” She sighed. “And frankly we’ve had our own share of problems here in Jing. If it weren’t for your tracking spell, Crown Prince Po would not have discovered the complicity of the School of Sorcery. Jing owes you a great debt.”

“I have come to serve,” I said. “There is no debt, Reverend Mother. I have come to regard the Lady Shi Hua as family. All I ask is that you allow Justice Mei Wen to visit your future empress as much as her duties allow. The lady will need a confidante in her new role much as I did when I was assigned to the Balance seat in Orrin.”

Mei Wen emitted a slight gasp of surprise.

However, Reverend Mother Xiang chuckled. “Fumiko didn’t overestimate your shrewdness.”

I quelled my shock. “You have spoken with her?”

“Don’t dissemble with me, young lady.” The Reverend Mother settled back in her chair. “She followed through with her complaint against Reverend Father Ogusuku. I would like to hear your side of the tale. To my knowledge, no human who entered a demon portal has ever returned from one.”

“Warden Long Feather, would you please accompany Warden Yichen to fetch the Reverend Mother’s tea?” I said.

“Yes, m’lady.”

“Please sit, my dear.” The Reverend Mother gestured in the direction of another carved chair across from her. From the position, the sharp white light of the fireplace made me squint, but I didn’t dare refuse.

While we waited for our refreshments, I told Reverend Mother Xiang of my strange adventures. She didn’t truthspell me, but her questions were rather thorough. And the conversation lasted through two pots of tea and a platter of almond-flavored short bread cookies.

I didn’t even register the temple bells until Jonata murmured, “I beg your pardon, Chief Justice, but it’s First Evening.”

“I apologize, my dear,” the Reverend Mother exclaimed. “Please stay for the evening meal. I still have so many questions to ask you.”

“I’m afraid I can’t, Reverend Mother.” I rose from the chair. “The crown prince has requested my presence at the palace. I enjoyed our conversation. I hope we can speak again.”

“We will, my dear.” She smiled. “We will.”

The young squire waited with our horses at the bottom of the steps when we exited the main doors of the Temple.

I bowed to the girl. “Thank you for your assistance, Squire Yang.”

Her face brightened to a lovely orange, and she bowed in return. “I am here to serve, Chief Justice.”

As we rode back to the palace, I sense Long Feather holding in a round of laughter. I turned to him. “What is so funny, Warden?”

“I merely imagined the chief warden and Sivan’s pleasure upon hearing my report when we returned home.”

“Your report?” I ground out.

“You remembered a squire’s name and addressed as such.” He shrugged.

Jonata made an odd sound in her throat before she added, “I believe Little Bear’s exact words were ‘Do whatever you must to prevent the chief Justice from starting a war with Jing. We have enough problems with the demons’.”

Even I had to laugh along with my wardens as our horses trotted down the Temple avenue.

Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Death Goddess Walking - Chapter 10

I'm chugging away on the current wips, but weeds wait for no man. Or woman. In between writing stints, I've been slowly making my way through the landscaping and flower beds in an effort to get the weeds under control before the summer flowers start blooming.

It doesn't help that Frito (Chip's daughter), Smoke and Ash (Jet and Ebony's progeny), and Queen Latifah (Rusty and Lady Gaga's offspring) have decided that my flower beds are good places to store their victuals. I don't want to spoil the chipmunks and squirrels' fun. Nor Jane Doe and daughter's delight on chomping on my ferns and other greenery.

However, I can't blame the critters for everything. Spring flowers came and went early, and the irises are blooming a month ahead of schedule, so I need to get cracking.

Enjoy this last little preview of Death Goddess Walking!

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The mot are the worst of Apep’s sins. Neither spirit nor material being, they live only to pollute the souls of our mortal children. – The Lost Books of Selket, Djehuti’s Library at Akasha


An hour later, Nettie gave up on convincing the twins of who and what they allegedly were. She nagged Reyna until the medical resident agreed to go back to the hospital to play junior sleuth concerning the mot demon inhabiting Jim Gorman. Billie wasn’t sure what the pair would accomplish, but she had been too tired and too hungry to argue. Any energy from the sweet roll had long since dissipated with all the talking.

After the day Billie had, she splurged and ordered a pizza while Kyra went up to her room to change clothes. Dinner arrived just before Kyra jogged downstairs. Billie nudged the pizza box across the coffee table toward Kyra as her housemate flopped on the other end of the couch.

“How’s Brittany Johnson really doing?” Billie asked between bites.

Kyra swallowed a huge mouthful of cheese and pepperoni before answering. “As well as can be expected. They’ve got her on bed rest and observation since she’s at thirty-six weeks, but it doesn’t look like the baby was hurt in the fall. Other than that, she’s scared shitless. Her step-son’s attorney tried to kill her.” One shoulder lifted in a shrug as she took another bite.

Billie relaxed against the arm of the couch and gave a small laugh. “I’m impressed Reyna finagled a shift in the maternity ward, but I’m glad one of us is keeping an eye on her.”

One of us.

Damn, she was already thinking of their bizarre little group in terms of “us” versus “them”.

“The joys of residency. Trust me, with the hours we pull, anybody is ecstatic to get some extra ‘zzzz’s if they can.” Kyra swigged root beer from her can. “She didn’t have a problem getting someone to trade shifts.”

Years ago, Billie would have prayed for the widow out of the habits instilled by her super-religious grandmother. But now? Who the hell does a goddess, or the living statue of a Neteru, pray to?

Kyra eyed Billie over the pizza slice while she absently picked off mushrooms and tossed them on the pizza box lid. “What’s your take on the mumbo jumbo the professor spouted about us being the protectors of these special kids?”

Billie opened her mouth, but what could she add that Nettie hadn’t already covered? It’d help if she could remember things like Nettie and Porter claimed they did. And it wasn’t just the Johnson baby she worried about. She hadn’t had a chance to go back to the graveyard and check on Marcus or the other dead children. “I think there’s some truth there I don’t fully understand.”

Kyra watched her, an odd look on the twin’s face. Finally, she swallowed and said, “I can see them, too.”

Why was it everyone around her seemed to be able to read her mind? Billie’s mouth lost all moisture, and she had to take a sip of her Diet Coke before answering. “See who?”

An embarrassed smile twitched the corners of Kyra’s lips. “I figured out your secret back in April, the night you stumbled by the main gate of Hess Cemetery as we were out running. When the little girl in the old-fashioned dress poked her head through the fence and waved at you.

Billie’s mouth fell open. She’d played off Kyra’s teasing about a ghost scaring her during their evening jog. “You knew? You could see Sarah Jane?”

Kyra laughed, a much softer sound than normal. “Yeah. I was hoping I could talk to you about it, but you blew me off, so…” She shrugged.

“I-I’m sorry. I—” Tears filled her eyes at her own childhood traumas. The weirdness, the schoolyard taunts thanks to attending a grade school next door to the town cemetery, Grandma dragging her to a backwoods hoodoo woman to purge the devil within her. What would have happened if they succeeded, if there really was a piece of Selket within her and they drove it out? Would she have died, been a vegetable, what?

Blinking back the moisture threatening to leak from her eyes, she dragged air deep into her lungs and released it, trying to expel her personal, and very human, demons. “I shouldn’t have done that to you.”

Kyra held up her palm. “It’s in the past.” Her old evil grin was back in place. “And you’re avoiding my question, counselor.”

Another deep breath as she really considered Kyra’s original question about Nettie. “It’s like something out of the Twilight Zone, but after killing a monster that eats ghosts and the thing inside Gorman trying to stab me—” She took another sip from her can of cola. “It feels…true. Does that even make sense?”

Kyra nodded as she tossed another mushroom on the box lid. A thoughtful look passed across her features. “Why isn’t there any adult ghosts at Hess? I’ve seen them other places.”

Billie set her empty paper plate on the coffee table. Kyra seemed so accepting of the weirdness. The last thing Billie wanted was to freak her roommate out even more.

Kyra’s slippered foot nudged her calf. “C’mon. Spill.”

“Have you seen things other than ghosts at a cemetery or where someone’s died?”

Kyra’s brown eyes widened. “Yes.” Her voice came out with a hiss. “Black things with talons.” She swallowed hard. “Like shadows. I saw two of them prowling around the grounds at my grandfather’s interment.”

Billie shrugged. Too bad shoving off the memories of her mother’s fate wasn’t as easy. “They’re soul eaters. If a ghost doesn’t follow its guide to the afterlife, he or she becomes fair game. There’s a soul-eater that prowls the university area.” A wry smile tugged her lips. “If you’re a predator, would you go after the small, smart, quick prey or the big, dumb, slow ones?”

Kyra nodded. “Makes sense. Kids believe monsters exist and run.” She took another bite, chewing as she worked up another question from the look on her face.

Heavy pounding on the front door echoed through the old Victorian. Billie sat up at the same instant as Kyra, though she was sure her housemate’s muscles didn’t ache from the effort. They peeked through the curtains behind the couch. A familiar silhouette stood under the front porch light.

She shot Kyra a look. “What’s Officer Houlihan doing here?”

The medical examiner’s fine black eyebrows knitted in a frown. “And why would the police come here this late at night?”

Billie added it together and came up with one sorry jackal. “Shit. They caught Porter running around without a collar.” She climbed to her feet as fast as her bruised body allowed. Too bad the twins wouldn’t cross the ethical line and write a stronger prescription for her. The ibuprofen barely took the edge off the pain from getting her ass knocked around the last few days.

It seemed all she did was limp from one destination to another lately. Another round of impatient knocking rattled the door.

“Hold your horses,” she muttered, but she plastered on a smile anyway. No sense antagonizing the cop until she rescued Porter from whatever trouble he got himself into. She whipped the door open.

It wasn’t the standard issue firearm Houlihan aimed at her forehead that caused the pizza to lurch in her stomach.

It was Houlihan’s red eyes.

A blur of black and a clap of thunder sent her stumbling backward. Ankles crashed into stairs, and she fell. Her hip bone struck the edge of a step, and the joint screamed in agony again.

Kyra followed her umbrella strike to the cop’s hand with quick thrusts to the temple and solar plexus before slamming the front door on the poor lady’s face and flipping the lock in one smooth motion. “Come on!” She whirled, dropped the umbrella back in the canister next to the door, and jerked Billie to her feet.

Adrenaline kicked in and she raced after Kyra. They flew down the hallway and through the kitchen. She plowed into her roommate when Kyra struggled to unlock and open the back door.

A loud pop splintered the wooden doorframe inches from Kyra’s head as they plunged into frigid night.

Ducking would have been a good idea. Instinct had other plans. Billie dove for the box that stored the gardening tools, fingers curling around a hand spade.

Kyra vaulted over the porch’s half-wall, drawing the gunfire. Taking advantage of their opponent’s distraction, Billie slipped through the broken trellis railing covered by Nettie’s rose bushes. The thorny arms parted, leaving not a scratch on her abused flesh. She couldn’t think about the weirdness, not now. Instead, she focused on the flashes coming from behind the ancient oak at the rear of the lot.

More gunfire shredded brittle bark as Kyra dived behind the tiny grape arbor.

A dead run brought Billie to Officer Burns, his eyes burning scarlet in the dark. Before the possessed policeman could turn his weapon on her, she slammed his head into the century-old trunk. The hand spade sliced through the heavy insulated jacket sleeve before it buried into the oak’s bark, trapping the cop’s arm. The gun hit the dead grass with a muffled thud.

The oak wailed at its injury. Acid burned the back of Billie’s throat. Dammit, she shouldn’t be able to hear things like that. An eerie cry joined with the old tree’s keening. She stepped back, yanking the tiny spade out of the trunk. Burns collapsed, but something oozed and twisted under his skin. Red runnels dripped from his pores, through his clothes, and collected on the dead grass under his body. She took another step back. The mass congealed, like old blood trying to form something it had no right to be.

Lightning filled her veins, drawing electricity from the ground, not the sky. When the power seemed on the verge of exploding every cell in her body, she plunged the hand spade into the mass. It screamed and thrashed, reaching for her skin. She jerked out the reach of its tendrils.

She and her roommates were too damn vulnerable in human form. Her muscles flinched at that thought.

Kyra yanked her away from the injured officer and the dying horror. “Come on!”

In answer to her housemate’s panic, another bullet chipped oak bark in front of her nose. She crouched and crawled after Kyra toward the twin’s car. The Porsche’s alarm system beeped over Houlihan’s shots.

She scrambled into the passenger seat. Kyra already had the engine revving. Gravel and bullets pinged against the detached garage as the car peeled down the alley.

Billie’s lungs demanded that she breathe again. She clutched the armrest and looked over her shoulder. “What the hell just happened?”

“I’d say an attempted hit by our otherworldly friends. Did you see the cops’ eyes?” Kyra shuddered as she shifted gears. Tires squealed against asphalt. “Buckle up. I don’t need you flying through my windshield.”

Billie reached for the buckle, her arm trembling so much she had trouble latching the damn thing. Kyra reached over and jammed the buckle into place, running a red light in the process.

“Where are you going?”

“Not to the police, that’s for damn sure.” Kyra’s face scowled under the faint light coming from the dashboard. The speedometer arrowed past any reasonable safe zone. “We need to hide you and the Johnson chick.”

The shakes began in earnest. Billie clutched her arms around her chest, trying to stem them.

“You okay?” Kyra flicked a concerned look at her before weaving around a delivery truck.

“No. It happened when I killed that thing in the cemetery. Not this bad though.” The words made no sense with her teeth chattering, but she knew with a scary certainty she had screwed up. Big time.

“Hang on. We’re almost to the hospital.”

Damn. If she didn’t know better, she’d think it was alcohol withdrawal. The feeling reminded her too much of her foster father’s behavior the one time he’d tried to kick the habit. Cramps twisted her gut.

A gentle hand pushed her back against the seat. Whimpers filled the car. It took a minute to realize it was her.

Beside her, honking blasted through the compartment. Kyra’s form blurred and sharpened before she realized the other woman talked on her cell phone. Worry and fear tinged the twin’s voice, but Billie couldn’t concentrate enough to make out Kyra’s words.

The Porsche shot through the parking garage reserved for the medical staff and slammed to a halt near the elevator. Billie’s body whipped forward. The seatbelt’s hold kept her forehead from hitting the dash.

Fear crawled through her nerves. She had no freaking control of any muscle now. Hell, she couldn’t even blink. Her head lolled to the right. The car dipped as Kyra climbed out. She reappeared in Billie’s line of sight as she raced over to the elevator and pressed the ‘Down’ button.

Screams damned up in Billie’s throat. She wanted to yell, “Don’t leave me!” Her lips and tongue refused to form the actual sounds. Her terror was a physical thing sitting on her chest, crushing the air from tender tissue.

Kyra banged on the doors of the elevator, panic in her voice as she yelled into the phone, now in her hand. The sounds bounced around the concrete beams and careened off the handful of vehicles parked in this level. Billie’s heart hammered double-time to the echoes.

Finally, the doors parted. Reality shifted and bent. Porter and Reyna appeared, but they were two-dimensional, as if she were watching them on a TV screen. Reality snapped back into place, and the pair stepped out of the elevator. Kyra pointed at the Porsche, and the three ran to the car, but Porter disappeared from her vision.

“Love, stay with us.” His words. She had the impression he held her hand, but there was no warmth, no pressure, nothing.

The twins she could see. Reyna placed fingers against Billie’s neck, but again, she couldn’t feel Reyna’s touch.

Kyra peered over her sister’s shoulder. “I think that thing in the cop poisoned her.”

“No.” Amusement colored Porter’s voice.

This wasn’t funny, dammit. She was dying.

“She pulled too much of her own power into her human body while breaking the mot’s hold on the policeman. A shabti can’t handle that kind of energy load.”

Reyna checked Billie’s eyes with a clinical dispassion. “Her pulse is two hundred and climbing.”

“You two stay back. I need to drain the excess energy.”

Reyna nodded at Porter’s instructions and stepped back. Feather-soft warmth stole over Billie, little cat’s paws kneading feeling back into her very cells. The paralysis trickled from her nerves. The trickle turned to a gush, then a torrent. The weight lifted from her ribs, and she gasped, relishing the cool air.

Finally, she could lift her head from its neck-kinked position. “Oh, god, I thought I was going to die.”

Porter chuckled.

She wanted to smack him and hug him at the same time. “What happened?” The weakness in her voice didn’t improve her mood.

“From what Kyra described, Officers Houlihan and Burns were possessed by mot demons.” This time, his gold eyes flamed with anger, not his ever-present warped humor. “Since you had to improvise a weapon, you accidentally pulled too much power. If Kyra hadn’t gotten you here in time, you would have fried your own brain.”

“How am I supposed to know how to do this right?”

“You should already know. Goes back to our original problem. How’d Apep block our memories in the first place?” He grimaced. “Can you walk?”

She nodded and swung her legs out of the car, relishing the feeling of bare toes on cold concrete. Looking down, she blinked in surprise. How the heck had she not noticed her naked feet while running around the back yard?

Because two possessed cops were determined to put a bullet through your brain, the little voice in the back of her head said.

Standing up met a new standard of endurance though, and she fell back against the frame of the Porsche.

Kyra grabbed Billie’s right arm and slung it over her own shoulder. “Don’t you dare scratch my paint job.”

Billie couldn’t flip an obscene gesture at Kyra because Reyna had leveraged Billie’s left arm around her neck. Needing the help rankled Billie, but she wouldn’t have made it to the elevator without the twins’ assistance.

Porter pressed the button, and the doors slid apart. He glanced back at the three women. “Whatever you do, don’t let go of each other.” He reached for Reyna’s free hand, but she jerked back.

Billie swallowed hard against the vertigo from Reyna’s sharp motion. “Please don’t do that again.”

Reyna scowled at Porter. “Oh, hell no! You cannot make me do your freaky shortcut thing! We are taking the elevator like normal people.”

Porter glared back at her. “We don’t have time to debate this. If mot have infiltrated the police, they can just as easily possess the hospital staff and send the elevator into freefall.”

Another round of vertigo threatened Billie’s equilibrium. She closed her eyes to stop the garage from spinning. “He’s right, Reyna. We need to get Brittany out of the hospital now.” Half-afraid of finding out what else Porter had in his bag of tricks, she gritted her teeth and forced her eyes open. “Do it.”

A resigned sigh blew from Reyna’s lips, and she clasped Porter’s outstretched hand. He stepped into the elevator.

And disappeared.

A gasp forced itself from Billie’s lips. Reyna’s handless arm seemed to hang in space until she followed, dragging Billie along. Before she could fight, Kyra pushed forward. Reality itself popped. Ice shot into her lungs as she inhaled. The cold blackness terrified her more than the paralysis a few minutes earlier. It wasn’t normal Ohio winter cold. This was a sensation that penetrated bones and froze marrow. The dark side of the moon would have been warmer than this.

When she was sure she’d never be warm again, desert air blasted her face. She blinked at the twilight surrounding them. Her heart thrummed at the familiar cliffs rising before her. Something deep in her heart leapt with joy.

Home.

A statue of Anubis stood to her left, the only thing on the landscape besides the four of them. The stone figure was similar to the one at the Tut exhibit Kyra had dragged her to see. Too similar. The carved obsidian gleamed in the weird light. Gold and lapis lazuli decorated the headdress, armbands, belt, and sandals. He carried a staff molded from the same obsidian as his flesh. But instead of gold, the kilt on the statue looked like real linen cloth.

She looked up. Topaz eyes commanded her attention. Gems glittered in those sockets, staring at her. She stared back.

The statue winked.

Then the cold slammed her harder than the first time. Another pop and stale, antiseptic hospital air filled her nose.

Billie looked around the little room. A refrigerator hummed a soft tune in counterpoint to the CNN commentator’s drone on the TV bolted to the opposing wall. The small table in the middle was accompanied by four uncomfortable-looking chairs. A glance behind her showed Kyra stepping out of the open closet.

A closet that had no freaking room to hold one person, much less four.

Shelving filled the little pantry-style storage space. Extra paper towels, Styrofoam cups, coffee filters and non-dairy creamer took up most of the area.

Before she could question the utter lack of regard for the laws of physics, the twins carried her to the vinyl-covered couch. She sank down, grateful to be off her feet. The psychedelic trip through the elevator and closet with the weird in-between stop left her exhausted.

Kyra stepped over to the window set in the other door and peered out into the hallway. “We’re clear.” Dammit, she didn’t even question what just happened. When she turned around, Billie’ heart jammed in her throat. Something very dark and very ancient looked through the twin’s eyes despite her usual shit-ass grin.

Before she could say anything, Kyra marched to the water cooler and filled a paper cup. “Billie needs wheels. Our cars will be traced thanks to the incident at the house. Who’s on duty tonight?” She pressed the cup into Billie’s hand.

Water sloshed when she tried to drink, and Kyra’s hand guided the rim to her lips. Frustration brought tears to her eyes as she sipped. Damn, she hated feeling helpless.

A smile spread across Reyna’s face, so similar to Kyra’s mischief-promising one that a shiver ran down Billie’s spine. “Raj. He’ll be here at least fourteen hours on a delivery.”

The shiver reversed course and shot back up Billie’s spine. Reyna’s talent for predicting the length of a delivery had won her the maternity ward pool more than once. Now, she wondered how much of her housemate’s ability was supernatural talent.

Reyna’s expression twisted with concern. “Billie’s in no shape to drive.”

“Quit talking like I’m not here.” She leaned forward, gingerly testing muscles. The stunt with the hand shovel had left a new layer on pain on top of the previous aches. “And Reyna’s right.” Acid burned in her gut at the admission. She’d always been able to take care of herself. But now, they were talking about two other lives.

“I’ll go with her. I’m her backup.” Porter’s eyes bore into her soul.

The connection sparked, then flared. She had no doubt he’d sacrifice himself to save her, just as she had for him. She wanted, needed, to pray things wouldn’t come to that, but she had absolutely no idea from whom she was asking for that favor. Then reality crashed into place through the odd thoughts.

She shook her head. The dizziness wasn’t as bad as in the garage. “Wait. We can’t take Brittany from here. What if she goes into labor?”

Kyra arched an eyebrow. “You’ll have to deal. Neither of you can stay here. You’ll both be sitting ducks.”

Billie glared back. “Quack.”

Ignoring her smartass comment, Kyra dug into her pockets. “I’ve got a couple of twenties. What do the rest of you have?”

Billie winced. Her purse, along with her driver’s license, were sitting on the kitchen counter back at the house. Dodging possessed cops shooting at her and Kyra had been more of a priority at the time.

Another worry slammed home. Her hunting knife was still under the pillow on her bed. No doubt Columbus’s finest would be searching the house after she attacked a police officer. Claiming self-defense from a demon-possessed cop wasn’t going to cut it with any judge in Franklin County.

Reyna moved to a nearby steel locker and twisted in the combination. “I can hit the ATM in the lobby while you get Brittany. I’ll meet you in the parking garage.”

The vertigo had faded, and Billie carefully climbed to her feet. “You shouldn’t go alone.”

Reyna shot her a wry smile. “When you’re steadier on your feet, then you can argue.”

Unfortunately, her housemate was right. The swaying of the room grew worse now that she was upright. Porter grabbed her as she started to slide to the floor. “The Guinness Book doesn’t have a record for the most non-fatal injuries.” He guided her back to the ugly couch.

She caught his eye. “Maybe one of you should go with Brittany instead. I can’t do anything in this state.”

White light blinded her, and Cyrus Johnson’s voice filled the tiny staff room. “Oh no, missy. You’re not getting out of this. You screwed it up. You’re fixing it by saving my wife and unborn son.”

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Death Goddess Walking - Chapter 9

Hello, my lovely readers!

Here's the next unedited tidbit from Death Goddess Walking. I had hoped to finish this novel during April's Camp NaNo, but I had other things, like taxes, sidetracking me. So for May, I'll punch the afterburners to get this baby finished and get back to writing A Cup of Conflict. Enjoy this taste of my new upcoming series.

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I aim my stinger, like a knife, into the heart of my Father’s enemies. – The Lost Books of Selket, Djehuti’s Library at Akasha


Without a thought, Billie slapped her palms together. Steel quivered between them, the point centimeters from the OSU emblem over the breast of her sweatshirt. No, the knife wasn’t shaking. Her arms were.

The knife clattered against the hardwood floor. She grabbed the back of her chair to keep from falling to the floor as well. What she’d done was fucking impossible. She tore her gaze from the deadly utensil to the landlady she trusted despite both of their screwed-up pasts. Had trusted.

Despite Nettie’s peculiarities, Billie never thought of her as truly dangerous. Hell, under the current gun laws, the woman couldn’t own a firearm due to her psychiatric history.

Had trusted. Until now.

Blistering hot emotion boiled up from her gut. “What the hell is wrong with you, you crazy bitch?”

Nettie’s cool look said how much Billie’s anger affected her. “You caught it, didn’t you?” With casual indifference, she reached for another knife in the butcher block holder. Instead of throwing this one, she started slicing rolls apart and placing them on the plates.

Overtaxed muscles shook in earnest. Billie turned to Porter, praying for some support. Any support. The man clasped both hands over his mouth, trying to stifle his . . . laughter?

“What the hell is wrong with both of you?”

Her disbelief released the belly-wrenching guffaws from Porter. Her bruised hips and ribs screamed as the adrenaline rush faded. She fell more than sat back in her chair.

“You should have seen the look on your face.” He slapped the table and launched into another round of laughter.

Nettie plopped a plate and fork in front of her, steady brown eyes on her. “I wouldn’t have thrown the knife if I didn’t know you would catch it. You’ve already seen Porter shift, but you still had doubts. A demonstration of your own abilities is far more effective than anything I could have said.”

Billie eyed the delicious-looking sweet roll. Her urge to throw it in the trash fought with her growling stomach. If Nettie resorted to throwing dangerous utensils at her renters, then who knew what Nettie could have laced the roll with?

But the professor was right. She had caught the steel aimed at her heart. Her heavy sigh rippled the air, and she picked up the fork. If she really believed Nettie meant to harm her, she should have run screaming from the house and flagged down a squad car after that stupid knife stunt. She glared at the older woman. “I still don’t believe your shit that I’m some Egyptian goddess.”

The professor carried over the other two plates before resuming her seat between Porter and Billie. “That’s because you’re not. Once again, you’re the mortal incarnation of the Neteru—”

“Selket. Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Billie finished before cramming a hunk of sweet roll into her mouth. Sunshiny goodness mixed with the spice and sugar. Damn, if Nettie had poisoned the roll, Billie was going to die with happy taste buds.

The professor cut a tiny bite and forked it into her mouth, watching for Billie’s reaction. Her look was calculating, contemplative. Not the angry, crazy, or generally rude expression that normally sat on the professor’s face.

Billie stopped in mid-chew, the orange tang clamoring to join the acid already burning a hole in her stomach. She swallowed, the lump slowly sliding down her throat. This was a new posture for Nettie. Billie looked over at Porter, who’d already plowed through half of his giant roll. Though he focused on his treat, she doubted he was actually ignoring the discussion.

If one could call what was happening a discussion.

She turned back to the professor. “Are you going to continue, or are we playing twenty questions?”

Nettie’s fine dark eyebrow rose, attempting to join her hairline. “So, you’re accepting your role?”

Billie decided to ignore the knife still lying on the floor beside her chair. “For now.” She waved the fork between the three of them. “How are we supposed to find these children we’re supposed to protect? And what makes you think Brittany Johnson’s baby is one of them?”

Porter smiled, white teeth gleaming under the Tiffany lamp suspended over the table. “The mot aren’t going to waste their time killing the mother if they weren’t sure.”

She placed her fork on her plate. He could not possibly be saying what she thought he was. But it would explain why a certain ghost had been harassing her lately. “Does Cyrus Johnson know his unborn child is one of these special children?”

“Of course not.” Nettie’s voice had picked up the stentorian tones she used when lecturing a class. “He’s human, not a Neteru shabti. Albeit a very stupid human since he refuses to follow his ka to the afterlife.”

Billie rubbed her temples, the growing headache making her wish she didn’t have to ask the next question. “Okay, I’ll bite. What’s a ka?”

“You’ve seen the white lights that follow a newly deceased person like Cyrus, right?” Nettie said.

At Billie’s nod, Porter reached for her hand again, and this time she didn’t pull away. “The human soul is comprised of three parts. The ka remembers the way home.”

“If the human’s too stupid to listen to himself, there’s all kind to things waiting to turn him into a snack.” If the professor’s words weren’t enough, her scowl defined her opinion of the person’s lack of smarts.

Billie glared at Nettie, but she couldn’t repress her shudder. She’d seen the results one too many times. “Thanks for clarifying that little tidbit.”

“It also means Apep can hurt the rest of the Neteru through us,” Nettie added.

Billie frowned. “Because our souls are split?”

Nettie nodded.

Oxygen froze in Billie’s lungs. She’d seen the thing that had devoured the ghost of her mother, bit by bit, in Grandma’s front yard. To know now she had real power. To know that maybe she could have saved Mom as she had Marcus—

To know she may be in danger of suffering the same fate as her mother.

She couldn’t think, not with Porter stroking the back of her hand with his thumb, trying to calm her. The one thing she needed was to keep her wits sharp. She tugged her hand free and crossed her arms. “You mean kill us and eat our souls.” Neither of them flinched at her angry tone.

“Yes.” Nettie’s sharp answer didn’t have the nasty, poisonous talons of the sek, but the pain was the same.

“I could have saved my mother if I remembered what I was all those years ago?” Rage and grief poured through her. If she was a Neteru, had her existence driven her mother mad while she was pregnant? Was it her fault Gisele Edmunds had gone insane bringing her into this world?

“Yes.” Nettie had the grace to look embarrassed.

“No.” Porter leaned back in his chair, the remaining bite of his sweet roll forgotten. “Channeling that kind of power as a child could have destroyed your current body.”

Billie nibbled on her bottom lip. She’d like to think she would have saved her mother, but if she was Selket and knew she was Selket, would she have saved the woman who brought her into this world?

Time to change the subject before she did go crazy over the paradox. “What would have happened if I’d accidentally died before I found the rest of you?”

“The essence in us will rejoin our Neteru,” Porter said. “Our knowledge becomes part of the whole. Unless something captures or destroys the fragment.”

Billie cocked her head. “Like this Apep or his minions?”

He nodded.

The information tumbled through her mind. Their crazy logic made a certain sense. Almost.

She sucked in a deep breath of cinnamon and orange-laced air. “Okay, let’s assume I buy all your bullshit. What do we do to keep Brittany and the baby safe?”

Porter and Nettie looked at each other. If she didn’t know better, she would’ve thought they were having an entire conversation in front of her. For all she knew about their abilities, they may be.

Finally, Porter’s attention returned to Billie. He cleared his throat before beginning. “Stay as close to her as possible.”

“Reyna said she’s being held overnight for observation,” Nettie added.

Billie closed her eyes. This was getting messier by the minute. “University Hospital won’t be safe. Not if one of your mot possesses someone who works there.” The scrape of chair legs made her open her eyelids.

Porter slung his leather coat over his shoulders. “No one will question my presence or the twins’. I can keep watch over Brittany until you two fill the girls in.”

A weak smile tugged at the corner of Billie’s lips. “Do you really think they’re going to handle your fairy tale better than me?”

He shrugged, his cocky grin making her think of things that had nothing to do with demons or prophesized babies. “Depends on how much they’ve been lying to themselves.” A commotion at the back door punctuated his words.

“Sweet rolls!” Reyna’s face lit up as she plowed through the door, followed by her sister.

Nettie ignored the twins, her intense gaze on Porter. “I want to question the mot in Gorman.”

He nodded. “Call me when you’re done here. I’ll get you in.” A wink at Billie sent flutters through her stomach before he strode into the living room. The sound of the front door opening and closing followed.

Billie sipped her cold chamomile tea. What was she thinking? Saving children from demons? The whole story sounded so fantastic, so unbelievable. Then why did her gut confirm everything Nettie and Porter said?

Kyra knelt by Billie’s chair. When the gothette rose, the knife Nettie had thrown dangled between Kyra’s thumb and forefinger. “Who the hell is leaving knives on the floor?”

* * *

All in all, the talk with the twins went about as Billie expected.

Reyna’s wide, green eyes shifted from Billie to Nettie and back again. “You’re both nucking futs,” the medical resident finally said, her snack long forgotten. It was the closest she ever came to swearing.

“I think it’s totally cool!” Kyra scraped her fork along the ceramic plate to collect the last drops of cinnamon syrup before licking them off the stainless steel. “What kind of powers will I have?”

“The sisters are powerful magicians—” Nettie started.

“So, I can, like, wiggle my nose to clean the bathroom?”

Billie choked back her laughter at the endearing, hopeful look on Kyra’s face.

Nettie glared at the gothette. “No.”

Apparently, Reyna didn’t find her sister’s enthusiasm cute either from the way she shoved back from the table and jumped to her feet. “This is stupid.” Her intense gaze focused on Billie. “I can’t believe you’re going along with this charade.” She jabbed a finger in Nettie’s direction. “I expect this crap out of Professor Nutcase, but I thought you had common sense.”

For only having on the rubber-soled shoes she wore on duty at the hospital, Reyna made a racket as she stomped out of the kitchen and up the stairs. The slamming of a bedroom door nailed the coda on her anger.

Nettie started to rise, but Billie laid a hand on her forearm. “Let me. She expects the crazy stuff out of you two—”

“Hey!” Kyra protested.

Billie shot an apologetic smile at Kyra before she turned back to Nettie. “It’s me she’s pissed with for backing up your story.”

To her surprise, Nettie relented with a nod. Muscles whined in protest as Billie climbed to her feet. Too much sitting on the hard wooden chair had stiffened every bruise she’d earned the last few days.

The wail in her muscle fibers turned into a scream as Billie climbed the staircase. She hesitated between the bathroom and Reyna’s closed door. Yep, she was going to need the painkillers before dealing with her roomie. Two ibuprofen later, she knocked on the door.

“Go jump into the river!” came the muffled answer.

Turning the knob, she stuck her head in the room. “It’s too cold.” Incense tickled her nose, and she blinked to adjust her eyes to the dim light from a single low-watt lamp.

Reyna glared up at her from the sitting lotus position she held on her yoga mat. “If you’re here to talk nonsense—”

Billie eased down on emerald green comforter covering Reyna’s bed. It was the only way to get her aching hips and back to shut up long enough to form a coherent argument. “I know how incredible all this sounds—”

“Yeah, like you all should be committed.” Reyna’s attention shifted to the floor, fingers plucking the hem of her scrub shirt.

“And normally, I’d agree with you.” Billie drew a deep breath. That hurt almost as much as the bruises on her lower body. Releasing the breath, she yanked her hair out of its ponytail and scratched her scalp. “If I hadn’t gotten tossed around by a monster in the graveyard on my way home from the club Friday night.”

Reyna still wouldn’t meet Billie’s eyes.

“And you were convinced when you checked out Gorman for Nettie,” Billie added.

“He—” Reyna looked around her room and Billie followed her friend’s gaze. The framed diplomas hanging from the walls. The fencing trophies. The laundry spilling out of her hamper.

Nice normal things that suddenly seemed totally foreign. Yeah, it didn’t take mind-reading abilities to understand Reyna’s confusion.

No, not confusion. Haunted was the only word Billie could think of when Reyna finally faced her.

“He wasn’t just—” She stopped, struggling to put the experience into nice, neat medical terminology. Except in the end, she couldn’t. “Being around him. It like experiencing pure evil. Everyone in the ward felt it. The staff. The patients.”

Acid curdled around the sweet roll in Billie’s stomach. She knew all too well exactly what Reyna meant. “It wasn’t Gorman. It was the thing inside him.”

Reyna slowly nodded. “I know. I could see it inside of him. One of the nurses suggested calling a priest for an exorcism when none of the meds could calm him down.” She sniffed back the emotion threatening to overwhelm her. “So, you see dead people, huh? Think you’ll get a cable show like one of those psychics?”

Billie snorted. “Not with a history of mental illness in my human family.”

“Except we’re not crazy, are we?” Reyna sounded like she needed reassurance.

“No, we’re not crazy.” Billie smiled. “Unfortunately, I have the bruises to prove it.”