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.

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

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!

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

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!

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

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.

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

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.”

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.

Amazon
Apple
Barnes & Noble            
Google Play
Kobo
                                                       Smashwords

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 call 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.