Tuesday, April 23, 2024

New Release - Snipe Hunt!

For those of you who didn't read Snipe Hunt when it was posted on the Free Short Story page or you simply want a copy of your own, the story is now available at online retailers.

BLURB
Be careful who, or what, you bargain with. As a little girl, Kelly would have done anything to save her kitten. But as a college student, she's still paying that debt. But payment isn't so hard when the currency is the nastiest girl in her sorority.

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Sunday, April 14, 2024

News May Be Intermittant

I've had more than a few readers ask about when the next release will be for their favorite series. The only definite one right now is Feline Navidad (Millersburg Magick #4), which will be out December 1st. The only reason that one is definite is because I was roughly a quarter of the way done with it before I realized I needed to make some large changes to the ending of Magick and Murder.

So, what's going on? Really, nothing but writing and organizing since I got the taxes done last week. I've been bouncing between Death Goddess Walking (The Books of Apep #1) and A Cup of Conflict (Justice #10) plus working on some short stories for submission.

Unfortunately, I'm not a speedy writer like some of my friends. Nor do I use AI. (I have my own thoughts on the use of AI, even though I know too many people using it, but we won't discuss that subject here or now.)

Also, I'm what is referred to as a "plantser". I usually have a rough idea of which direction a story will take. However, I don't know exactly what will happen, and I'm often surprised by which choices my characters make.

What can I say? The peeps living inside my head keep me on my toes.

As for the organizing part, Genius Kid will be deployed during the third quarter of the year. (If you want to know where and why, keep up with international events.) He wants to store his belongings here, which is totally fine. But I haven't unpacked our boxes yet. Yeah, yeah, I know. We moved into this house roughly three and a half years ago, but I've been busy writing books!😼

So, yes, I will post here when something is completed, when it goes up on pre-order and/or has a Kickstarter campaign scheduled, and when it is live on the various retailers. I just don't to give y'all false expectations.

Like Tiffany Stephens says in the Bloodlines series, Murphy is the one true god. And he likes to mess up my plans in this universe, too.

Thursday, April 4, 2024

Death Goddess Walking - Chapter 8

The Books of Apep series will be my next Kickstarter. The campaign is tentatively scheduled for October. I set this series aside six months ago because I needed to finish the first three books of the Millersburg Magick Mysteries.

I'd put off immersing myself in both series since 2020 thanks to the stupid pandemic. Now, that the initial Millersburg books are done, my Subconscious has not only jumped on the Books of Apep, but she's pushing my sci-fi series in my dreams. In other words, I need to be writing new, original things instead of rehashing some older ideas, or she's doing to drive me insane.

April's Camp NaNo has started, and my goal is finishing Death Goddess Walking. Also, I'll be traveling a bit over the next fifteen months by myself for "Reasons". That means I'll have plenty of time to write the other three books on planes.

In the meantime, here's another sample chapter from Death Goddess Walking!

-----------------------

While Selket’s symbol was the scorpion, she controlled all crawling and poisonous creatures. She was also the protector of children and pregnant women, as well as one of the four goddesses who guarded the dead. – Ancient Egyptians and Their Religion, George E. Herbert


A shiver passed through Billie at the sight of the weapon lying on the table in the interrogation room. Felt encased the end of the knife where Gorman had held it. Flint was such a brittle stone. Any Ohio child knew that from local history. It didn’t make the jagged, chipped edges of the bare end any less dangerous. Flint could slice through skin and muscle with a single stroke.

The stone knife still lay, protected in its plastic baggie, where Columbus PD had placed it after evidence processing. The cops weren’t about to let her touch it. Not that she wanted to. She’d come too damn close to an intimate introduction with the primitive knife as it was.

Billie raised her head from her examination of the weapon and looked across the table at Detective Hooper. The balding man had to be close to retirement from the multitude of lines on his craggy face and the extra weight he carried.

“If I knew why Gorman attacked Brittany Johnson, I’d be the first to tell you,” Billie said.

“So, you’re saying Gorman had no motive?”

“For trying to slice Mrs. Johnson’s throat in the middle of a busy courtroom? Not that I know of.” If Billie told the detective that Gorman was possessed, she’d be sharing a locked room in the mental ward with him. Though part of her wondered how much she’d imagined in those few seconds. She sucked down another deep breath, trying not to register the rancid combination of piss, sweat and fear that permeated the interrogation room.

“Gorman’s client says you planted the knife.”

She dug her nails into her palms to keep from rolling her eyes at the asinine accusation. The man was nearly as infuriating as his dead father. “If you believed Cyrus Johnson, Junior, and not everyone else in the court, you’d have me in cuffs.”

Hooper leaned back in the aluminum and pleather chair, which creaked ominously under his weight. “I may have you in cuffs before the end of the day anyway. He wants to press charges for assault and battery.”

She tried not to wince at the accusation, though at the time the blows she’d delivered had been singularly satisfying. “Has it occurred to you that maybe Junior knew his lawyer was a nutcase, and he set Gorman up?”

Hooper sucked on his teeth before answering. “It’s occurred.”

“And?”

“I’m looking at every angle, Ms. Edmunds.”

“C’mon, Detective. Gorman snuck in a weapon he knew wouldn’t set off the metal detectors. What do you really think?”

He grinned. “I think Brittany Johnson is one lucky bitch. I think courthouse security will include pat downs and briefcase examinations for a while. I think Professor Soren taught you a thing or two about hand-to-hand combat, which the DA will use against you if those battery charges do get filed.” He leaned forward again, leaning fleshy elbows on the table. “I also think whoever Johnson hires for his new attorney will be aiming straight for the bull’s-eye on your back. This is the second time your name’s appeared on the CPD blotter in the last three days.”

She blinked at the accusation. “Since when is my dog getting loose a major concern of Columbus’s finest?”

Hooper palmed the evidence bag and hefted his bulk from the chair. “You know how the game’s played, counselor.”

“Thanks for the ray of sunshine.”

He wasn’t telling her something she didn’t already know. She had seen how facts could be twisted in front of a judge and jury. Too many times. And she’d spent too long climbing out of hillbilly hell to be thrown back by someone else’s crap.

He reached for the door handle. “You’re free to go—”

“But keep you informed if I decide on a long vacation?”

Hooper ignored the dripping sarcasm and nodded. “Good to know you haven’t forgotten everything from your criminal law classes, counselor.”

She climbed to her feet, muscles screaming at the latest torture inflicted on them. Arms ached from the strain of stopping the stupid piece of flint from slashing Brittany Johnson’s throat and plunging into her own chest. Crashing into the courtroom floor had added a layer of bruises on her left hip to match the one on her right. Damn, it even hurt to breathe thanks to Gorman’s overweight, middle-aged body landing on top of her. Bracing herself against the pain, she tried to march down the hall. Though, in all honesty, her bold strides were more of a wobbly limp.

Golden eyes met hers the instant she entered the police department’s main lobby. What the hell was Porter Gates doing here? Equal parts of tension and relief jerked her sore muscles. She wanted to curse her traitorous body. This was the same person who encouraged Nettie to ditch her doctor’s advice.

He grinned as he rose and met her. “You look like shit.”

Well, one couldn’t fault his brutal assessment. Billie had gotten a good view of herself when a police woman had escorted her to the ladies’ room. The chignon she’d wrapped her hair in this morning had long since fallen thanks to the “wrestling” match on the courtroom floor as Judge Jackson had put it. Well, except for the strands sticking out at odd angles. Gorman’s weapon had ripped a gash in the sleeve of her jacket, and the side seam on her skirt had split in the struggle. So much for her favorite suit. So, why was she glad to see Porter after she told him to stay away from her and Nettie? However, irritation flared at her body’s excitement at his presence.

“What are you doing here? I called Kyra to come pick me up,” Billie snapped.

Some odd emotion passed across his features. “I was at the morgue for a pick up when she got your call. Since she couldn’t leave right away, I volunteered. Can we call a truce on the whole restraining order thing?” His eyes shifted to the left. Billie had to stifle a nervous giggle. The desk sergeant was listening to them with a worried look on his face. Porter shook his head in exasperation. “Let’s get you home and cleaned up.”

Her sigh ruffled the bangs hanging in her eyes. Great. He was the last person she should be around, but there wasn’t much of a choice unless she wanted to wait a couple of more hours until Kyra was done with her shift. Not trusting her voice, she nodded.

Outside, the temperatures were dropping again after the morning’s brief warm front had melted the weekend snow and ice. She paused when he led her to a hearse. Her eyes flicked up to meet his. That damn grin was back.

“You have a problem with the ride?” he asked.

“No.” Just your potential hitchhikers, but she didn’t dare say that aloud with the cops in the parking lot.

“I already dropped off my customer at the funeral home,” he said, unlocking the passenger-side door and holding it open with a flourish. “It could be worse.”

Her lips turned up on their own in response to his infectious smile. Damn, he was too good-looking for her sanity. “You mean, I could be doped up and talking in alien languages?”

His chuckle sent a shiver of warmth through her midsection. She shouldn’t like him. Any thought of a relationship made her “specialness” more problematic, and that was without the side-plots concerning Nettie’s mental health and her cougar-loving boyfriend.

What did her issues really have to do with him? So he saw her in the graveyard Friday night. It meant he also knew she could fight.

Climbing into the passenger seat, she contemplated the question swirling through her mind as he gently shut the door and crossed to the other side of the hearse. When they were in the McDonald’s Saturday, he hadn’t flirted with Nettie. Not the way he did with her. So maybe they weren’t an item. But that didn’t excuse his irresponsibility in encouraging Nettie to stop taking her meds. Her brain hurt too much to deal with everything that had happened over the last four days. She leaned her cheek against the window. The chill glass eased her raging headache.

Once he slid into the driver’s seat, she turned to face him. “If Kyra couldn’t come, why didn’t she call Nettie or Reyna?”

“Nettie has Reyna doing a little snooping on your friend Gorman at the hospital.” The engine purred to life, and he guided the vehicle towards the street.

Billie closed her eyes and leaned back against the headrest. “What did you and Nettie tell the twins?”

The silence dragged on for nine long heartbeats before she opened her eyes and glared at him.

“Just the essentials. Gorman tried to kill Brittany Johnson, but you stopped him. Has Cyrus Senior shown up again?” Porter glanced at her before returning his attention back to the rush hour traffic.

Despite the heater at full-blast, her blood turned frigid. “Why?”

A rueful smile tilted his lips. “You think you’re the only one with that particular gift.” A soft chuckle. “Though some don’t care to admit it.”

Her fingers dug into the rough vinyl covering the armrest. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” But she did. He’d mentioned Cyrus at the restaurant. He’d spied on her battle with the monsters in the cemetery Friday night. So why hadn’t he helped when that thing had tossed her around like a rag doll?

“Forget the games.” The skin around his eyes tightened though he didn’t so much as look at her. “We don’t have any more time now. If I’m right, Brittany’s their prime target as long as she’s pregnant, but if they can take you out in the process, they will.”

“Take me out?”

“Killing your human body will take you off the playing board.” The sun dipped behind buildings, lending an eerie quality to the twilight, as he turned north on 315 for the university district.

An eeriness that matched his words.

This whole conversation was getting too far into the freaky zone. Time to try a distraction. “You’re headed in the wrong direction. My car’s still in the downtown parking garage a block from the court.” She tapped a rhythm of a popular song on the armrest. It kept her from leaping out of the car and getting squashed by surrounding vehicles.

“Given what’s happened over the last four days, I want you in a safe place before dark.”

Skin stretched and pulled at her widening eyes. “Excuse me?”

A grim line soured his mouth. “The knife Gorman used was flint.” Another glance. “Wasn’t it?”

She nearly choked. The police hadn’t released that information. As far as the press was concerned, she’d jumped two guys in the middle of court. And she was well aware how her behavior would play out in the public eye.

Something in her expression must have confirmed his suspicion. He nodded. “We think their secondary objective was designed to get you to reveal yourself in front of the humans. Thank Neter, you didn’t take the bait.”

“Excuse me? Did Nettie meet you in the VA’s psych ward?”

His laughter filled the dark car. “No. I promise Nettie and I will explain everything once I get you home.

* * *

A half hour later, Billie limped into the kitchen after changing out of the ruined suit and into jeans and a scarlet OSU sweatshirt. Rich cinnamon and tangy orange filled the air, reminding her of how Porter the dog had smelled the other night.

She shook her head at the weird déjà vu. Thankfully, the light and heat of the old house gave a sense of sanity she desperately needed after the day’s events.

But the sight of Porter next to Nettie at the table brought her up short. He’d said they’d tell her the truth.

The truth about what?

They were talking about her, but she realized Porter and Nettie weren’t speaking English. In fact, they weren’t speaking any language she recognized, though there was a nagging sense of familiarity. Nettie froze when she spotted Billie. Porter turned to face her, his languid, amused grace evident in the motion.

“Are you going to stand there and stare at us?”

His words pricked her raw nerves. “No.” She limped toward the table. If his tongue hung out of mouth, he’d have the same shit-eating grin as Porter the dog—

“Nettie, where’s the dog?”

The professor’s sharp voice could have sliced her as easily as the creatures’ talons the other night. “Fix yourself some tea and sit down, Billie. We need to talk.”

A warning claxon hooted in her head, and she held up a hand. “No. We are not going to crazy land. I’ve had a very bad day. And I want to know where my dog is.” She’d gotten used to sleeping with the mutt over the last few nights.

“Tea first.”

“Dammit, Nettie! If you let him out again without his collar, I’m gonna—”

“Tea.”

The look on Nettie’s face said Billie wouldn’t get anything out of the professor until she obeyed. Ignoring the flutters in unmentionable places Porter’s gaze triggered, she crossed to the cupboard and retrieved her chamomile tea. The silence dragged as she poured water from the steaming hot kettle.

Despite the unease crawling across her skin, she sat at the table, her hands wrapped around her warm souvenir mug from her favorite musical. She nailed Porter with her stare. “Spill it. Now.” Her knuckles whitened against the black and green enamel of the mug.

“The monsters in the park the other night are sek hunters, soul eaters who owe their allegiance to the entity known as Apep the Unmaker.”

Yep, she should have known someone was about to jump off the sanity wagon. Her eyes narrowed at his admission. “So, you were in the cemetery Friday night.”

“Yeah,” he replied, anger heating his words. “And if I hadn’t followed you, you would have been chopped liver.”

“I can take care of myself.”

“You got lucky with the first one!”

“I didn’t see you stepping in to help!”

Golden fury flashed in his eyes, but Nettie laid a hand on his forearm. “Show her.”

Porter pushed away from the table and stood. Slowly, methodically, he peeled off his black t-shirt. Despite his slim build, every muscle under his dark skin stood in stark relief under the glow of the kitchen lighting. He kicked off his boots and unsnapped his jeans.

Billie finally got her mouth to work. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

A wicked grin lit his face. “Proving a point.”

Denim slid over hips. She averted her eyes from his, uh, other point, but oh, how she wanted to look. Then a black muzzle rested on her thigh.

“What the hell?” She jumped out of her chair. The wooden legs scraped the floorboards before crashing onto the antique oak flooring. The canine woofed softly.

The doggy laughter she might have held to chance, but the eyes? They were all-too-familiar.

She glanced at Nettie, who sat calmly sipping her tea. “You’re shitting me, right? Just messing with my already fucked-up brain?”

Nettie shook her head.

Ebony fur rippled, shifted, and faded to show dark skin again. The animal rose on his hind legs, forepaws shortening even as the toes lengthened and became fingers. Billie took a step back. She stumbled and fell over the chair. But landing on her already sore butt couldn’t make her tear her eyes from what was happening in front of her. Black fur on his head lengthened to the medium waves of familiar hair. And then, a very naked, very gorgeous Porter stood over her.

Moisture disappeared from her mouth from the mixture of lust and fear. It took her several tries before she could manage to say, “H-h-how did you do that?”

He held out a hand. She ignored the gentlemanly gesture. Running seemed a much better option.

Nettie cleared her throat. “Billie, there’s no reason for you to be on the floor for this conversation. And Porter, get dressed so the poor girl can concentrate.”

The last few nights penetrated Billie’s shocked mind. Anger quickly washed away her fear, and she slapped away his extended palm. “Oh my god, you let me think you were a dog! You slept in my bed!”

Amusement twinkled in his eyes. “Actually, my other form is a jackal. And while I trust Nettie’s wards on the house, it seemed the prudent thing to do after you revealed your presence to the sek.”

Billie glared up at him. “Prudent, my ass!”

“And a very nice ass it is, too.”

“Porter, stop.”

At Nettie’s warning, he stalked back to the chair where he left his clothes.

Billie climbed to her feet, muscles protesting every inch of the way. Thank goodness, he had buttoned his jeans and was reaching for his shirt. The image of his naked delectableness was seared in her gray matter. She righted the chair a little harder than necessary and braced herself on the table. “What does any of this have to do with me?”

His eyebrows rose to meet the shaggy bangs covering his forehead. “Sweet Neter, you really don’t remember me, do you?” He reached across the table for Billie’s hand.

She jerked away and hit her mug, chamomile sloshing across the pristine tablecloth. “Don’t touch me.” Every time he did, all rational though fled her mind. And someone needed to keep their wits in this insane conversation.

Like she could talk about sanity after watching a dog turn into a man.

Nettie shot him a look, and he finished dressing. She returned her attention to Billie. Patting the damp tablecloth near Billie’s cup, she said, “Please, sit down, hun. I promised to explain everything to you. And you know I keep my promises.”

Billie slid back into the chair, attention flicking between the two, and repeated, “What’s any of this have to do with me?”

Nettie’s burgundy-lacquered fingernail traced the rim of her OSU mug before she answered. “We aren’t exactly human, Billie.”

“Speak for yourself.”

Porter picked up the explanation. “This form, this human body if you will, is a shabti. A shell a Neteru can use to inhabit on this plane of existence.”

One of his words sounded familiar. The exhibit of Tutankhamun Kyra had dragged her to at the Columbus Museum of Natural History the weekend before last. The last time the Egyptian authorities had allowed an American tour of the boy king’s treasures had been before either of them were born. A shiver ran through her sore body. They couldn’t possibly be suggesting some kind of reincarnation shit, were they?

She swallowed hard. “A shabti is just a clay figure ancient Egyptians buried with their dead.”

A soft, sad smile stirred Nettie’s face. “And according to many creation stories, humans are clay figures that a deity gave the breath of life. It’s just in our cases—” Her wave included the three of them. “—instead of having a human soul we have a sliver of a Neteru’s soul.”

Billie shook her head. None of this made any sense, and the confusion left anger in its wake. “This is a load of bullshit. You cannot believe I’d buy into your dysfunctional delusions.” She started to rise, only to have Nettie lay a warm hand on top of hers.

Dark brown eyes stared earnestly into Billie’s. “Neteru is the proper name for the ancient Egyptian gods.”

Damn, this was worse than she thought. Billie laid her right hand on Nettie’s. This Porter had slipped something in her tea. Yeah, that had to be the explanation for her hallucination. Dogs didn’t turn into people. He must have done the same thing to her beer at the club Friday night. That would also explain what she saw in the cemetery.



She gave a reassuring smile to Nettie. “I’m going to give Doctor Blake a call—” “No, you can’t.” Anger flashed in the professor’s eyes. “Your mission and the lives of Brittany Johnson and her baby depend on you believing us.”

Billie sucked in a deep breath and clung to what little patience she still had. “There is no mission.”

Porter leaned forward. “Yes, there is.”

“Shut up.”

A slow, sexy smile spread across Porter’s lips. “You know, you are seriously cute when you are pissed.”

She fixed the nastiest look she could manage on her face. “You do realize I’ve beat up two guys and killed a monster in the last four days?” Might as well play up the insanity to her advantage.

His smile didn’t disappear. “Think of Neter as the universal whole of creation.” He flashed her a mischievous look. “The Force if you will.”

She rolled her eyes.

“The Neteru are conscious manifestations of the will of the whole. Egyptian archeologists and researchers call them ‘gods,’ but they are both greater and lesser than that term,” he said.

Okay, at least he wasn’t claiming God wanted him to kill people. She tested the story, trying to form it in a shape she could understand. “So, what are you saying? We’re living, breathing statues of Egyptian gods?”

Nettie gave a sharp nod. “Essentially, yes.”

“That’s fucking crazy!”

Porter laughed. “You see dead people and sucked the poison out of a dead child. I can turn into a black jackal, an animal which frankly doesn’t exist in—” He made air quotes. “—real life. None of us have told anybody else about these abilities except each other. Why?” His eyebrows rose, the dare to answer his question thrown on the table.

The crackers she bought from the snack machine at the police station, her only food for the day since breakfast, curdled in her stomach. Why hadn’t she ever told anyone besides her mother and her grandparents? Because Mom ended up dying in a psych ward. Because Grandma warned her if she spoke about the ghosts again, the same thing would happen to her.

Except she’d watched a soul eater rip her mother’s ghost to shreds. And Grandma had paid Billie’s pleas for help with pain and hunger.

She chewed on her lower lip, unwilling to meet those golden eyes. So where did that leave her and her odd abilities? Best case scenario? She’d be doped up and wearing a straightjacket along with Gorman. Worst case? If Porter was telling the truth? The cops would called the feds, and she’d be lying in Area 51 getting her ass dissected. Along with every other body part.

Sucking in what little courage she had, Billie looked up and met his unwavering gaze. No matter what doubts she had, conviction filled his eyes. “But in the hearse, you said these monsters, sek, demons, whatever they are, are targeting me. Why me, if you and Nettie are Neteru or shabti or whatever, too?” She watched his face, looking for a clue and not wanting one at the same time.

The tension along his neck and shoulders eased. “Other than Ra, Set and Selket provide the greatest threat to Apep.” Another wry look. “You revealed your true self the other night when you fought those sek.”

“So, you’re saying I’m—”

“Selket.”

The replica of one of the four golden statues guarding the pharaoh’s sarcophagus flashed through her mind. “The chick with the scorpion on her head?”

“Yep.”

The information swirled around inside her head. She cocked her head and stared at him. “If you can turn into a dog, doesn’t that make you the god of the dead? Aren’t you supposed to be evil?”

He snorted at the fear she couldn’t keep from her voice. “My other form is a jackal. And thanks for the vote of confidence. That’s right up there with the Universal movies saying I’d raise an army of the dead to help some king conquer an ancient city. Like I’d do something that asinine.”

Well, that explained the dog’s, oops, jackal’s constant growling at a certain DVD she and her housemates watched on Saturday night. “So. you’re not evil?”

He shook his head.

Billie turned to Nettie/ “Is this why you wanted to watch the Mummy movies this weekend?”

The professor shrugged. “It seemed a good way to prime the pump, so to speak.”

“Then what’s story about this Apep?” Billie asked.

“He’s the Unmaker and wants nothing more than to destroy all of creation.”

“So, he’s like the devil?”

Nettie made a disgusted sound in the back of her throat. “More like a drug-dealing son who got kicked out by his mother, then tries to burn down his mom’s house no matter how many innocent brothers and sisters are inside when he lights the gasoline.”

Wasn’t that a sweet, homey picture to relish? Billie took a swallow of her rapidly cooling chamomile. What else had the museum exhibit said about Egyptian mythology? “Ra’s the head god, right?”

Porter nodded.

“But isn’t Set was supposed to be one of the bad guys in Egyptian mythology, too?”

Porter chuckled. “And here Nettie and I were sure you were clueless about us.” He dodged the punch the professor aimed at his bicep, his eyes still fixed on Billie. “Did you ever play the game called Telephone as a kid?”

She nodded. “Yeah.”

“The human race twists the stories to suit their needs at the time. For the longest time, Set was the most skilled warrior of Ra’s retinue, then the human followers of Aten and Set had a falling out roughly thirty-five hundred years ago. Guess who won?”

“So, Set’s been cast as the villain, but he’s really a good guy?”

Another chuckle. “Good is such a relative term. More like, he’s total asshole, but someone you want on your side in a fight.”

Swallowing hard, she turned to Nettie and asked, “And that makes you?”

“Neit.” The name Porter had called her at the restaurant.

Another tug of memory delivered the names of the other three women surrounding the sarcophagus. Of course. The shabti of the goddess of war, oops, Neteru of war, would have a military background. Billie’s heart skipped a beat. The other two were Isis and Nephthys. Twin sisters.

“And Kyra and Reyna?”

Nettie’s eyes lit at her understanding. She nodded. “Yes.”

“Do they know?”

The professor shook her head. “Not yet.” Her confident expression wavered, and she shrugged again. “If they have figured it out, they haven’t confided in me.”

“But we need to tell them,” Porter added. At Billie’s questioning look, he continued, “The sek already know about you and me. They’ll assume the other six will be nearby.”

“Six?”

Nettie took up the story once more. “On this plane, each female guardian is paired with a male sidekick.” Porter rolled his eyes, but she ignored him and continued. “Anpu, or Anubis as he’s more commonly known these days, is your backup.”

Porter shot the professor a dirty look. “Partner.”

She ignored him. “As the shabti of Ra would be mine.”

The ceramic beneath Billie’s fingers had long since turned cold. “But?”

Porter’s gorgeous face twisted into a grimace. “We don’t know where the other three guys are.” He smacked his palm against the tabletop. A wave of frustration rolled off his skin. “Compare it to finding a needle in eight billion haystacks. Normally, we’d be drawn to each other on this plane, gathering at the right time and place. Somehow, Apep’s managed to make us forget our true selves.”

“Porter remembered when he touched an application for the funerary school.” Bitterness filled Nettie’s voice at her next words. “An attack against my convoy in Afghanistan triggered my revelation, and it nearly cost me my sanity. He mentioned you, well, Selket had a premonition of something going wrong prior to activating her shabti.”

A grin flashed Porter’s teeth. “But if Apep is behind our lack of memory about our true selves, his spell or whatever backfired. He couldn’t find any of us either.”

Billie swallowed hard, the battle in the cemetery flashed across her vision. “Until now.”

“Until now,” he agreed. “As I said before, you present the greatest singular danger to Apep, next to Ra or Set.”

“However, when we work together, we can defeat him,” Nettie stated.

Something wasn’t quite right in their analysis. A piece of the puzzle that hadn’t lined up.

“Gorman, or the thing inside Gorman, planned to slash Brittany Johnson’s throat today. That action had nothing to do with me. I got in the way.”

Nettie cleared her throat. “The thing inside Gorman was a mot. They’re possessor demons. I had Reyna check out certain signs for me at the hospital this afternoon.”

Porter nodded in Billie’s direction as he eyed the professor. “But she’s right. A mot demon can only work with thoughts already inside its victim’s mind.”

Billie shifted in her seat, her need for denial setting fire to her nerves even as the rest of her wanted the truth. “Maybe Gorman had an evil stepmother and he’s projecting his hatred on Brittany. But what does her pregnancy have to do with us? Aren’t we supposed to be protectors of the dead?”

Porter turned to face her. “Four of Horus the Elder’s children manifest on this plane every 300 years to lead the human race into its next age.”

She released her hands from Nettie’s and sat back in her chair. “And we’re here to make sure they’re born and grow up?”

He nodded, eyes narrowing.

“You think Cyrus and Brittany Johnson’s baby is one of these children of Horus?”

Again, he nodded. “It would explain Cyrus’s constant attention toward you, though I doubt if he realizes why.”

The oven timer beeped. Billie nearly flew out of her chair. The sound was so normal amid all this talk of gods and demons and prophesized children. The scary part was her acceptance of this craziness. Even worse, the stupid voice in the back her head hummed in approval.

Nettie rose and patted Billie’s shoulder before she pulled out oven mitts from the drawer and donned them. “We may have only a fraction of our power in this plane of existence, but without the knowledge to defend ourselves, both we and the promised children are easy targets.” She opened the oven door, retrieved the pan of homemade orange cinnamon rolls, and set them on the stovetop to cool.

Billie’s mouth watered at the aroma despite the crazy talk flying around the kitchen. But then, she hadn’t had much of a chance to eat since breakfast. “How am I supposed to know what to do?”

Porter’s grin sent another kind of hunger through her. “Part of you may be ignorant, but you still retained enough to know how to kill the sek.”

“Hey!” While she didn’t appreciate his condescending tone, he needed to realize a girl didn’t survive OSU law school through stupidity. Or without a heavy sense of self-preservation.

Nettie tossed the mitts on the counter. “But she still needs some training. As you have repeatedly pointed out, she got lucky the other night. The sek won’t be as easy to kill the next time.”

What the hell? The professor had never used the “dumbass student” tone in reference to her before, and dammit, she wasn’t the head case here. “You’re right. I forgot to sign up for the monster fighting class after torts.”

Porter shook his head. “No, I think she blessed the knife, even if it was by accident.”

“I didn’t bless anything! And I’m sitting right here!”

Nettie crossed her arms over her chest. “We need to start you on a training regimen.”

Billie shook her head. No, this was completely crazy. Irrational. She was not some Egyptian goddess, Neteru, or what the fuck ever. Somebody slipped something in her tea. She climbed to her feet, her muscles reminding her she had fought for her life twice in the last four days. “Nice fairy tale, but count me out. Go find your friends and play ‘save the world’ without me.”

The professor sighed and began retrieving plates and forks. “Do you really think you have a choice anymore?”

Billie leaned against the table. “Yeah, I do. Because you dance around your military service. Because when you’re not taking your meds, you act like a complete loon like you have the last few days. Because I don’t fucking believe in some supernatural destiny.” But how did she explain Porter changing from a dog to a man?

No, dammit. She was not getting in the middle of someone else’s crusade. She was a human being, no matter what these two crazy people said.

Nettie pulled out a knife from her butcher block holder on the counter. She paused, examining the stainless steel, glimmering shiny and sharp in the kitchen light. “When was the last time I tried talking to you about this?”

Muscles tensed. Billie forced the saliva down her throat. “Last year. Right after the twins moved in.”

The professor’s attention shifted from the knife she held to Billie. “That was when I stopped taking the pills. All of them.” With a flick of her wrist, she threw the knife, aiming for Billie’s heart.

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

A Cup of Conflict - Chapter 8

Despite trying to get taxes done amid a weekend of stomach flu, I managed to write a little bit here and there. Subconscious prods me to get moving on this novel by filling my dreams about Anthea battling demons in Jing. So here's a bit more for you to read!

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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 galler

y 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, March 20, 2024

A Cup of Conflict - Chapter 7

Things are slowly taking shape in this book. However, I had to put it on the backburner while I worked on getting Magick and Murder out to my Kickstarter backers, double-checked my documentation for taxes, and voted yesterday. Then the lake-effect snow flurries keep drawing my attention, even though it's officially spring.

Anyway, here's your next taste of A Cup of Conflict!

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A huge square, easily a quarter league wide and long, stood between the Temples and grounds of the imperial palace itself. Bricks covered the entire ground space. Wooden poles stood around the edges of the square while some were embedded in the middle, marking off a smaller square.

Workers were already decorating the square for the Spring rituals. They ran ribbons from pole to pole. Tables and benches were transported by oxen and wagons from a nearby warehouse to the square.

“Is the middle section for dancing?” I quietly asked Yin Li.

She smiled and nodded. “Knowledge will provide paper lanterns, which will be hung the night before the first day.” She chuckled. “Unless the weather oracles predict rain. Then the Temple of Light will provide the lanterns.”

I laughed in return. “That’s one thing we rarely have to worry about in Issura. The winter rains are often long gone before the Rituals.”

A waist-high wall separated the square from the imperial palace. No doubt, the vicinity of the Temples to the throne were part of what triggered the resentment of the schools of philosophy. I needed to research more Jing history. I had a strong feeling the schools existed before Balance’s Revelation. If so, that would add to the masters’ animosity.

We entered the palace grounds, and imperial guards lined the avenue. Like the majority of civilians, the guards exhibited an enormous sense of relief at the new emperor’s return to Chengzhou.

The avenue itself was constructed of Toscana concrete. A great expense, but the material would last longer than cobblestone given the amount of traffic the palace normally might see. And the lane would definitely be crowded between the Spring Rituals and the upcoming coronation.

Huge troughs of soil held flowering plants, most of which were starting to bud under the balmy weather over the past four days. Statues were randomly placed on the lawn. Each art piece was surrounded by bed of plants or sand. In the sand beds, designs were drawn. I couldn’t be sure if they were similar to the Diné sand paintings because all sand looked the same to me. It was something I would have to ask Luc about later.

At the end of the quarter-league avenue, people I assumed were the Dragon Palace staff lined up in neat rows at the ends of the wide steps up to the palace itself. Imperial guards kept a significant path in the middle of stair clear. The only people who weren’t surrounded by the armed men and women were the handful of nobles and the many squires at the foot of the palace steps.

When we reached the end of the avenue, Po gave the signal to stop and dismount. I glanced behind us, half-expecting the heads of the Temples to have joined the procession, but no one was behind us except the escort loaned to us by Duke Lixin.

Once the riders stood on the pavement, the lead noble approached Po and bowed deeply. “Welcome home, Your Majesty.”

“Rise, cousin.” Po chuckled. “We’ll have more than enough ceremony to stand on over the coming weeks and years.”

“As you wish, Your Majesty.” The noble straightened, a neutral expression on his face.

Po gestured Shi Hua to his side. “May I present my wife Bao Shi Hua? My love, this is my cousin, Duke Bao Mengchang, the Imperial Grand Chancellor.”

I didn’t miss the slight twitch of the duke’s lips when Po grasped Shi Hua’s hand in his and led her to each noble present and introduced them to her. Mengchang may simply have conservative views. Or he could simply be biding his time. All of his cousins with claims to the throne would be present for the coronation.

Maybe Mengchang still thought Shi Hua was the concubine who’d accompanied Po to Issura nine years ago.

Gah! Now I was seeing plots where none might be. The events over the last two years had ruined whatever normality that had existed in my life. I glanced at Luc and amended my thoughts. We’d lost whatever stability we had the day Katarina came to me at the inn.

Maybe there wasn’t a plot, but Mengchang’s disapproval increased when he noticed Captain Mateqai wasn’t from Jing. And he was outright frowning deeply when Po instructed him to house Luc, me, and our wardens in the imperial family wing.

“The staff are still cleaning the family rooms in the emperor’s wing,” Mengchang said stiffly.

Po eyed his chancellor. “What are you proposing, my cousin? That we place the esteemed ambassadors from Issura in concubines’ quarters?”

“They’re Temple,” Mengchang said. “I was not expecting clergy to reside in the palace, Your Majesty.”

Well, I had to admit, if only to myself, Po had told us the truth about how his own people regarded him. If anything, he had undersold the problems he faced.

“The Issurans lost their southern border city of Tandor at this time last year,” Po said coldly. “If it weren’t for Chief Justice Anthea and High Brother Luc, Teodora of Issura would have lost her entire queendom. You will treat them with the esteem Teodora holds them and the honor they have earned.”

“Of course, Your Majesty.” Mengchang bowed again. “I beg your forgiveness. No slight was intended. I shall double the housekeeping staff to make sure the rooms are ready for tonight.”

“Also, Duke Lixin should be here in two days,” Po added.

“We shall prepare for his arrival, Your Majesty.” Another deep bow.

“Once my lady wife and I have refreshed ourselves from our long journey, please dine with us and our guests this evening.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.” Mengchang’s annoyance lifted. Had he feared he would be dismissed due to Chengwu’s assassination? Or worse, executed for failing to protect the previous emperor?

“Your Majesty, if I may be excused briefly,” I said. “The high brother has had a proper audience with your Reverend Father of Light, but I must extend my own courtesies to your Reverend Mother of Balance.”

Po inclined his head. “Of course, Chief Justice. Dinner shall commence a candlemark after First Evening.”

I bowed. “Thank you, Your Majesty.” This time, I had to bite my tongue to keep from making any flippant remarks concerning the imperial couple staying out of trouble while I was gone. As much as I worried about their safety and Luc’s, etiquette needed to be observed.

And it gave me a chance to escape Sister Darys’s watchful eyes.

Monday, March 11, 2024

Sad, Sad Moment at the Oscars

This made me cry angry tears last night. So many of DH's work colleagues used to live in Kyiv.

Wednesday, March 6, 2024

A Unfortunate Break

Chapter 7 of A Cup of Conflict is almost done, but I need to take a unwanted break from writing in order to do the tax stuff. Yep, it's that time in the U.S. I always make a resolution to have this done by the end of February. Ir's only happened once since I started filing the 1040 form.

Goddess, I miss the 1040-EZ. It was so much easier to plan the withholding amounts.