So far it's only live on Amazon, but I'm working on getting it uploaded on other e-book sights. However, I'm behind on paperbacks so it may be April before the paperback version is live.
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Sunday, February 28, 2021
So far it's only live on Amazon, but I'm working on getting it uploaded on other e-book sights. However, I'm behind on paperbacks so it may be April before the paperback version is live.
Wednesday, February 24, 2021
Despite the, well, I couldn’t call it a fight with Luc, I had a pleasant meal with Shi Hua. In my own wallowing, I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed the young priestess’s company.
“May I ask a favor?”
“If I can,” she said with a smile.
“Do you think Ambassador Quan or his concubine would object if Nathan attends the language and martial arts lessons with Ming Wei?”
From her expression, she understood why I was couching my words in such delicate terms. We didn’t have the warding to protect us. Only a few people knew her aunt was really the Jing ambassador’s bodyguard. Even fewer knew Ambassador Quan was the Jing emperor’s half-brother. And only three people outside of Shi Hua’s bedchamber knew Mistress Yin Li was actually a Love priestess.
Better yet, if Shi Hua needed to get a message to me without using silent speech, she could employ my squire.
The priestess smiled and nodded. “I will ask, but I don’t believe they will object. And please visit me since Yanaba can no longer come over. I need women to talk to.”
I could understand her feelings. Jing’s Temple of Light had all genders as part of their membership. Issura insisted on men only, not just clergy, but wardens and attendants as well. It had been a major adjustment for the personnel here when Shi Hua was transferred to Orrin’s Temple of Light. The Issuran standard seemed even more ridiculous when we were facing more demon invasions, and we needed every person with Light talent we could find.
“I will,” I promised.< br/>
I left her quarters with my two wardens in tow. No one bothered to escort us through the Temple, though Mateqai had a pleased expression on his face as we passed him, which I was sure stemmed from me standing up for his charge.
When we entered the sanctuary again, Garbhan and Yar waited along with Sisquoc from the Wildling Temple, two priests from Conflict, and more surprisingly, two priests from Father. Only Sisquoc didn’t have a warden accompanying him.
“Where is your warden, Brother?” I narrowed my eyes, but the huge Wildling didn’t flinch from my red gaze.
“I don’t need one.” Sisquoc jutted out his chin as if daring me to argue with him.
I really couldn’t argue his point. His second form was a mountain panther. I’d seen him in action against renegades, skinwalkers, and demons. No, he didn’t really need a warden.
Instead, I said, “Don’t expect me to watch your back.”
“It’s not my back my high brother is concerned about, but yours.” He managed not to flash a cheeky grin, but his humor rolled over my mental shields. It was a warm and soft as his fur.
“We all need to be careful,” Garbhan interjected.
“You showed everyone Leilani’s drawings?” I asked. All the men murmured their acknowledgement of having seen the description.
“Did any of you recognize it?” I looked at each of their faces, but they all shook their heads.
“We did confer with the Temple of Knowledge,” Garbhan said. “Not even High Sister Mariana had heard of anything like this creature. She assured me she would assign someone to research the matter.
I bit my tongue to keep from giving my opinion of who Mariana would assign to the task, much less whether they would find any worthwhile information. There was so much the Temple of Knowledge hadn’t recorded because they assumed such common lore wouldn’t be forgotten. Then there was the fact that Mariana considered requests from the other Temples to be of less of a priority than her own tasks. She didn’t do so out of spite, but simply because she didn’t understand their importance.
On the other hand, I didn’t know why I was worried about Mariana’s feelings. She had voted to condemn me to Orrin’s Balance seat last year after I killed Samael DiRoy, the queen’s cousin, in order to banish the demons he had summoned.
In fact, no one in Orrin cared about the sacrifices I’d made to protect them. No, they blamed the Red Justice for all their troubles instead of— “Chief Justice?” Garbhan said loudly.
All of the priests and wardens stared at me.
“I beg your pardon, Brother?”
“I asked if you were ready to perform the tracking spell.” His brows formed a blue “V”. He must have been trying to get my attention for longer than I realized.
“It would be best of one of the others assists you,” I said. “The rewind this morning took more out of me than I realized.”
“Of course, Chief Justice.” He inclined his head.
“I’ll assist you, Brother,” one of the Conflict priests murmured.
Together, they knelt before the eternal flame. A bowl with a few shavings of the creature’s cleaned talon sat between them. As Garbhan said, we often had far less to work with in a tracking spell, and not using all of it at one time would give us a second opportunity. Just in case.
It was odd not to see one of the other three Light clergy with him though. Things were simply changing too fast. And we were losing Light talents faster than we could breed them. Thanks to my mother I couldn’t do my share. If Luc couldn’t pull himself out of his well of grief, or Twelve forbid, we lost Shi Hua due to her delivery…
The two men chanted, but the Conflict priest’s voice was discordant compared to the rhythms of Light. Their magic prickled along my skin, the harsh buzz of the warrior a counterpoint to the insistent tickle of truth. Garbhan lit a reed from the eternal flame and set the contents of the bowl on fire. The energies mixed and formed an invisible ribbon that arrowed for the open door of the Temple of Light.
Diamond-sharp blackness surrounded the ribbon and exploded with the force of a bag of Jing flash powder. The cold rush of power knocked me backward. I slammed into a worshippers’ bench and flipped over it. The hilts of my knives dug into my hip bones, my scabbard into my spine and ribs, as I tumbled across the floor.
When I came to a rest, I wondered what it would cost to overlay Balance’s marble floor with wooden planks. I didn’t hurt half as bad as I did after being thrown into stone, though my head pounded.
It wasn’t just my head. The Temple bells rang the alert for demons
Ahiga, one of my own wardens, knelt next to me. “Lady Justice?”
“I’m still alive.” I grabbed the hand he offered to assist me in sitting upright. “What about Garbhan?”
I looked around us. The wardens were all upright. It was only the clergy on the floor.
This wasn’t a normal trap spell. A metallic taste filled my mouth. Demon magic.
Except it didn’t feel as alien as it had before.
The priest who had been assisting Garbhan sat up with some aid from his warden. “What in Conflict’s Hammer happened?”
“Chief Justice!” Yar’s alarm prickled painfully against my psyche. He knelt next to Garbhan who wasn’t moving.
“Is he alive?” I asked.
At the same moment, Brother Jeremy rushed into the room along with a handful of Light wardens. “What happened?”
“A tracking spell gone wrong,” Sisquoc spat. A fine layer of blue fur covered him. My other warden Daniel assisted the Wildling as he tamed his second form.
“He’s not breathing!”
Ahiga helped me to my feet, and I stumbled nearer to the prone Garbhan. Yar pinched the priest’s nose shut and breathed into his mouth. Another Light warden knelt on Garbhan’s left side and performed chest compressions.
I could only stare at the scene, though Jeremy shouted orders and one of their squires raced back to the stables to fetch a healer. Another Light talent was dying, and it was my fault.
Wednesday, February 17, 2021
Once I finally settled in my office at Balance and drank my first pot of Jing black tea of the day, I summoned both Gina and Little Bear. From both of their expressions, Gina had warned my chief warden of my conversation with Brother Garbhan and Magistrate DiCook.
“May we simply address the reason we are here without the social niceties?” Little Bear grumbled.
“I find that odd considering you are usually the one lecturing me for not adhering to them.” I stared at them both for a moment before I added in a more gentle tone, “Is it as bad as people are telling me?”
Gina snorted. “Actually, it’s worse. He’s not even leading dawn services anymore.”
Little Bear shot her a warning look, but Gina raised her chin and said, “She needs to know as the seat of Balance. This isn’t about their relationship.”
Little Bear dropped into one of my visitor chairs. For him to breach decorum in that manner meant he was truly disturbed. “You need to go visit him, m’lady.”
“And do you propose I do that?” I waved in the direction of my bedchambers. “The tunnels are shut down, and we’ve disabled the Temple entrances to prevent anyone, human or demon, to get inside the city again.”
Except I made a new passage in my quarters to hide the demon grimoire I’d confiscated from my mother after I beheaded her. The voices in the back of my mind encouraged me to make the passage bigger. Then I could create a new passage into Light so I could visit Luc whenever I wanted. He owed me after all the time he spent with Claudia in his bed—
With a deep breath, I ignored the voices. I really needed to focus on getting Light functional again. Garbhan couldn’t do everything, no matter how much he believed he could.
“You might want to try the front door,” Gina said dryly.
“I did,” I snapped. “He refused to see me.”
Though honestly, Luc’s head of household Istaqa was rather embarrassed when he asked me to leave the four times I traipsed across the boulevard to Light last month.
“Chief Warden Nicholas will hold Istaqa out of the way if you wish to try again,” Little Bear said.
“Nicholas disobeying a direct order from the high brother?” I shook my head. “Another demon attack is far more likely than that.”
“Not this time.” Little Bear grimaced. “He showed me the empty wine skins and bottles. He’s worried. Shi Hua is bedridden. Jeremy’s frightened for her and still having nightmares from the loss of Tandor. Garbhan is the only functional Light priest we have at the moment.”
“And it’s probably not a coincidence this creature is killing humans when we are low on light capable clergy,” Gina added.
“So you are expecting me to fix the high brother? He needs someone from Child, not me.” If Luc blamed me for my mother killing his child, so be it. Our relationship was illegal prior to the new edict anyway. Besides, the bitch tried to abort me. She was the reason I couldn’t give Luc a child anyway.
I blinked to clear the extra moisture from my eyes.
Gina placed her hands on the back of the other visitor chair. “I understand why the two of you are uncomfortable around each other. But you’re also taking your uncomfortableness out on Sister Shi Hua. You haven’t even tried to visit her in the last two months. She can’t come here, and she needs all the support she can get.”
“The ambassador and his concubine have been—”
“But Yin Li can’t be there all the time, and—” Gina shot a glance at Little Bear who gave her a slight nod.
She sucked a deep breath and continued, “Justice Yanaba is restricted to Balance until she delivers.”
I jerked to my feet. “Is she all right? Her baby’s not in danger, is she?”
“Calm down, m’lady.” Little Bear gestured for me to resume my seat. “She’s quite well, and so is the babe. This is a precautionary measure.”
“This is because I asked for her help this morning, isn’t it?” I slammed my fist onto the top of my desk. “Devin was furious she helped me with the rewind spell, and this is his revenge.”
“No, m’lady. This has nothing to do with the Healers Guild, though Master Healer Bly was not happy that Yanaba exerted herself this morning.” Little Bear sighed. “After the incident with Sister Claudia, the chief wardens met concerning protection of the remaining three Light pregnancies.”
“Three?” I feigned innocence.
“Nice try.” Sarcasm laced Gina’s words. “It’s a matter of time before Cedar Grove starts showing. And after your rather bold announcement of Lady Katarina’s condition, we all know you can see a pregnancy before the mother’s even aware.”
I grimaced. My congratulations had put a crimp in the duke and his wife’s relationship since she hadn’t told him. It hadn’t been one of my finer moments in manners and etiquette.
After clearing my throat, I asked. “So what precautions have you wardens put in place?”
“We’ve put together plans for getting all three priestesses out of the Temples if there’s another attempt on their lives. And it’s on a need to know basis,” he added sternly.
“But Yanaba is my responsibility,” I protested.
Gina chuckled. “High Brother Xander said the same thing. Neither of you are asking the young justice’s opinion.”
I swore under my breath. “This is about the price on my head.”
“We can’t give the Assassins Guild two easy targets in Balance,” Little Bear said, confirming my fears.
“Like having Yanaba preside in court,” I murmured. “She’s going to think I’m punishing her.” Maybe she deserved to be punished. She made no secret the Reverend Mother sent her here to spy on me, and if necessary, replace me.
I rubbed at the ache in my temples. I was obviously too tired if I were allowing petty thoughts like that to cloud my mind. Except the voices confirmed that I was right to feel the way I did.
My stomach rumbled. I had broken my fast far earlier than normal this morning. And maybe the ache in my head would go away with a decent meal. It was only logical to take advantage of Light’s hospitality and their cook’s excellent cuisine during the midday meal.
“I’ll visit with Sister Shi Hua now, and attempt—” At my wardens’ pleased expressions, I held up my right palm. “—attempt to speak with the high brother. I make no guarantees.”
“Even an attempt would sooth Nicholas’s concern,” Gina murmured.
“I don’t think I will miss your nagging when you leave with Chief Justice Elizabeth,” I snapped.
Gina merely grinned. “I’ll miss everyone here as well, m’lady.”
* * *
Wardens Daniel and Ahiga accompanied me to the Temple of Light, even through it was quite literally across the street from the Temple of Balance. Ever since the Assassins Guild’s attempt to slit my throat on the steps of Light, my wardens wouldn’t let me travel outside our Temple walls without them. Since the renewed demon attacks, I could barely go to the privy without one of them either.
The Light warden guarding the main doors inclined his head to me and my escort. He didn’t bar me from entering the Temple itself.
My escort and I strode into the main sanctuary. Except for the crisp scent of incense from the dawn services and the orderly benches, it was empty. Not even one of the private consultation rooms were in use. The eternal flame at the base of the statue of Light glowed with its blinding white light.
One of the attendants entered the sanctuary and bowed to me. No doubt Istaqa sent his staff member out to meet me because the Light head of household was tired of dealing with my demands.
“I beg forgiveness, Lady Justice, but the high brother—” he began.
“I’m here for a social visit with Sister Shi Hua,” I said. “I regret I have been remiss in allowing my duties to interfere with our friendship.” My stomach rumbled again.
“She would be most pleased if you would join her for the noon meal.” The attendant bowed to me again before leading the way to Shi Hua’s quarters. It wasn’t like I didn’t know where they were, but caution reinforced the Temple protocols.
Warden Mateqai stood at attention beside the priestess’s door. He inclined his head and knocked on the lacquered wood.
“Yes?” Shi Hua called out.
Mateqai opened the door a crack and peered inside. “The chief justice is here to see you, m’lady.”
“Anthea! Come in!”
Mateqai turned to face me with a barely suppressed grin. “Sister Shi Hua will see you now, Lady Justice.”
I entered the priestess’s bed chambers. The tingle of light balls caressed my skin. Shi Hua herself was propped on a multitude of pillows on her bed to the extent she looked like a child’s doll. Her hair was loose and cascaded over her shoulders. Instead of a uniform tunic and leggings, she wore a cotton shift that accommodated her growing belly. Her bright smile lifted my own spirits.
“How are you doing?” I crossed to the bed and hugged her.
“I’ll be better,” she said. I released her and sat down in the chair next to her bed. She glared at Mateqai. “Once all the nosey wardens close my door.”
He promptly obeyed her, and her wards sprung up in the room the instant the door shut and latched.
I pushed back my hood and cocked my head. “Is that really necessary?”
She groaned, leaned her head back against the pillows, and closed her eyes. “You have no idea, Anthea. I never dreamed kindness could be used as a torture device. They treat me like a total invalid.”
“They’re concerned about your welfare and the babe’s,” I murmured.
She opened her eyes and glared at me. “If you’re going to nag me, too—”
“This is a social visit.” I waved in the direction of the door. “But aren’t you worrying your wardens unnecessarily?”
Shi Hua sniffed with contempt. “You think I haven’t had to do this before? The bedrest is bad enough, but the constant harping of every man here!” She shook her head. “They act like this is the first baby ever conceived!”
“Well, it is the first pregnancy for any clergy of the Orrin Temple of Light,” I retorted.
We both laughed long and loud.
Shi Hua wiped her eyes. “Thank you. I needed that. I’m assuming Garbhan shared our worries with you.”
I sighed. “The magistrate volunteered his two coppers before Garbhan did. However, I am remiss in not visiting you over the last several weeks.”
“Pfft.” She waved her hand dismissively. “You’ve had your own issues to deal with.”
“That’s no excuse.”
“Anthea, your mother consorted in demon magic, and you beheaded her.” Shi Hua reached over and took my left hand in her right. “Even for children raised in the Temples like us, that affects your spirit. If I was forced to do the same to my aunt or cousin in order to protect my child—” She shuddered and rubbed her swollen belly.
“The difference is you care about your birth family,” I muttered.
She shook her head. “I don’t need a truthspell to see you’re lying, Anthea.”
The voices murmured that they could take my pain away. For an instant, I wanted to believe them. I needed to change the subject before my emotions overtook me.
“If it’s any consolation, Yanaba is restricted to Balance as well.”
Shi Hua squeezed my hand. “Is that why you look exhausted?”
“I am not exhausted,” I snapped.
“Mm-hmmm.” She gave me a wry grin. “Why does the skin under your eyes look like you applied a thick layer of kohl?”
“All right.” I stuck out my tongue at her, and she laughed. “I didn’t sleep well last night, and I finish a rewind not long ago. I’d really love to take a nap, but—”
“You’ll just have more nightmares,” she said softly.
Shi Hua’s warding spell muffled the knocking on her bedchamber door, but I definitely recognized the masculine roar of anger.
“Now, what’s got his small clothes in a wad?” I couldn’t help the thick layer of sarcasm in my words.
“Garbhan and the wardens won’t tattle on me, but Jeremy or Istaqa would,” she said sourly. “They all get angry if I ward my room for a little privacy.”
“I bet a silver on Istaqa tattling.” I grinned at her.
“I want a cocoa cinnamon pastry from the Meca place on Bakers street if it’s Jeremy.” Shi Hua’s expression lit up.
More pounding was followed by another roar of fury. There was a time when it would take far more than someone warding their bedchamber to anger Luc.
“Let me guess,” I said as I rose from the chair. “Istaqa has you on what he considers an appropriate diet for the child.”
Shi Hua groaned. “And the high brother threatened to lash Mateqai if he snuck anymore pastries into the Temple for me.”
That statement blew off the lid of my own rage. Mateqai would never do anything to harm Shi Hua or her baby. As long as he didn’t tell anyone the treat was for Shi Hua, it would be perfectly safe. And I couldn’t see him be anything but protective. Twelve blast it, he had been acting as her taster since the Assassins Guild tried to poison me.
At my nod, Shi Hua dropped her wards, and I yanked the door open. Sure enough, a guilty looking Jeremy stood behind his high brother. And Luc’s skin glowed a brilliant pink.
“What in Balance are you barking about?” I shouted. “Not every priestess wants to share every intimate detail of her body with a bunch of fishwives like you lot!”
Luc jerked back from the door and lowered his fist. The foul mix of unwashed body and alcohol fumes emanating from him made my eyes water. But even with my odd vision blurred by burning tears, I could see his blue hair stood at wild angles and blue stubble covered the lower half of his face. The only time he’d gone unshaven, a demon army laid siege to Tandor, and the city’s water supply had been cut off.
Behind him, both his wardens and mine tensed. However, Nicholas had a slightly smug look on his bearded visage.
“I gave her a direct order not to ward her room from the wardens,” Luc growled. “If a demon gets in disguised as—”
“Me?” I poked him in the chest. “The entire city knows you’re furious with me over the death of your child, but you’re taking it out on everyone else in this damn Temple. Enough is enough! Get a bath and sober up, or I will call a convocation on charges of dereliction of duty, High Brother.” I slurred his title into an insult.
“How dare you,” he breathed. His color flared to a deeper pink. “How dare you!”
“What are you going to do about it?” I stepped closer despite his awful smell until we were nose to nose. “Challenge me to a duel right at this moment?”
The muscle along his right jaw trembled. I didn’t need to touch his mind to know he was embarrassed I’d backed him into a trap. He was in no condition to fight me, even if he still had his left foot. He didn’t have any weapons on him. And he was barely upright on his crutches as it was.
“Are you going to draw steel on the chief justice, High Brother?” Nicholas asked. Given the circumstances, doing so would be a good way for Luc to lose his head.
Instead of answering either me or Nicholas, Luc turned and staggered back down the hallway. Mateqai and the new Light warden, whose name I couldn’t remember for the life of me at the moment, let him pass.
I glared at Luc’s second. “Jeremy, might I suggest that if you ever hope to share the sister’s bed again that you stop tattling on her? The high brother’s order against warding her own damn room is ridiculous, and you know it. Do we really want to cause a diplomatic incident with Jing?”
“No, m’lady.” The younger priest’s face glowed a brilliant crimson. Whether at my tongue-lashing or the fear he’d irreparably damaged his relationship with Shi Hua was up for debate.
I turned to Nicholas. “Chief Warden, please do everyone a favor.”
“Of course, Lady Justice,” he replied.
“When the high brother passes out, please get him into his bathing pool.” I shook my head. “Before his stench chokes all of you to death.”
Wednesday, February 10, 2021
Heat rushed to my cheeks. I hadn’t realized I’d spoken out loud, and I realized how my words could be misconstrued.
“I apologize. I’m tired and hungry and nauseated…” I stared at the gruesome pile on the table, then pivoted to check the walls. Certain stains showed to my odd vision. Unfortunately, one of them was blood. However, something was off. Something I didn’t notice until now. “There’s no blood splatter other than on the floor around the table.”
Yar nodded as he looked around the room. “Therefore, the victims were dead when the culprit brought them here.”
“Can I let Master Devin in so he and Simi can collect the limbs?” I asked.
“Yes.” Garbhan nodded sharply. “My warden and I will guard my drawings until your clerk arrives.”
* * *
I and the representative from the Temple of Death were still at the Healer’s Guild, observing the healers attempt to match limbs to each other, when Brother Garbhan and my clerk Leilani arrived along with Noko and Yar.
“I know you can’t see my drawing of the creature the brother and Warden Noko witnessed, Chief Justice,” Leilani said with a breathless rush. “But from the pattern of how it originally placed the limbs—”
“It definitely looks like it was trying to caste some kind of spell,” Garbhan interrupted.
“Well, now the cat’s out of the bag,” Devin said a little louder than necessary. “That’s what I was going to mention, too.”
“You noticed the symbol?” I asked. “But the rats had already disrupted the positioning.”
“It’s not any different than the rats running across parchment that was freshly written on with ink,” Devin said. “It may still be readable. I glad someone else noticed the pattern I noticed.”
Sister Raven Claw eased closer to see Leilani’s sketch. Nearly a century ago, the Healers Guild had split from the Temple of Death. Because of that rivalry, their home Temple in Standora insisted one of their clergy be present whenever I asked the Healers Guild to check an issue with a corpse in a suspected murder. But even as much as Raven Claw witnessed death in its many forms, she had issues keeping her stomach from rebelling with today’s discovery. She still carried the scent of Master Healer Bly’s peppermint concoction to sooth her digestive system.
“Dark magic?” Raven Claw asked.
Garbhan grunted in agreement.
“It used the limbs to form the ancient symbols for ‘priest’, ‘war’ and ‘power’. If I may, Chief Justice?” Leilani held out her palm. I placed my right hand in her left. She folded her fingers around my index digit as if it were a stylus or pen, and she drew the symbols with my own finger so I could “see” them. I frowned. “Is it declaring war on us? Or trying to force us to fight ourselves? And why invoke power?”
“If I may, Chief Justice?” Yar rumbled. He so rarely offered an opinion it took me by surprise for a moment.
I gestured for him to continue.
“Why didn’t any of the neighbors report hearing anything last week?” The Light warden pointed at Leilani’s picture of the creature. “Something of that size should have made a racket. Even if someone saw it and was afraid to venture from their dwelling or shop, they would have summoned the peacekeepers the next morning.”
“Also, I checked the back door,” Gina said. “It was still unlocked. From the tiny scratches on the metal, the lock was picked. Given its halfway appearance, maybe it was in human form before it entered the building. If so, and the fact it didn’t enter the building until after the magistrate’s sale, maybe no one thought twice about it, thinking it was the new owners.”
I sighed and rubbed my temples. The headache from the rewind and the demon voices was growing worse.
“First of all, that’s a lot of guesswork in so few sentences,” I said. “The peacekeepers have learned to canvas neighborhoods properly. We’ll put their findings with ours, and then deal with what we’re missing.”
“Chief Justice?” Bly called out.
“Did you find something?” I strode over to the main examination table, only for my stomach to start gurgling.
“You’re not vomiting all over our work,” Master Devin snapped.
“Unfortunately, those were hunger sounds,” I said dryly.
The healers and their apprentices looked at me as if I were mad. The demon voices in the back of my mind jeered at me.
I ignored the voices and my heated cheeks. “What did you find?”
Bly held up a pair of forceps. The tip held a tiny chunk, but it was so covered in body fluids I couldn’t tell what it was.
“It’s a portion of talon caught in the femur of one of the victims.” Bly grinned.
“We have a way to track the creature,” I breathed. My stomach rumbled, and the voices in the back of my head cheered.
Now, why would the dead demons forming the grimoire I had hidden in my quarters be happy about tracking down an unknown creature?
Unless it was a corrupted human like a skinwalker.
Tuesday, February 9, 2021
The reasons are many, but I want to make sure this story is done right. For those who've read A Twist of Love, Chief Justice Anthea obtained an artifact that in this upcoming volume is driving her batcrap crazy. It's a delicate balance. (Pun intended.)
It didn't help that as I was trying to write this, the United States was going through its own madness. But things are settling, and I rather like the boring news coming out of D.C. again.
Further more, I'm only doing preorders for the Justice series and 888-555-HERO for right now. As those of you who prefer print know, I'm behind on getting paperbacks out. I want to catch up on those before I go full bore on Soccer Moms of the Apocalypse, and for that series, I want to write all four books before I drop them. Not to mention, I need to fix the Millersburg Magick Mysteries and re-release them.
That's not to say you won't have reading fixes between novels. I'm sticking a couple of short story collections together for the spring. Why collections?
After the madness of 2020, I need a bit of a breather to get reorganized and productive according to my own standards. In the meantime, I'll drop chapters on my blog per normal.
To everyone, stay safe, stay socially distant, and stay warm!
Thursday, February 4, 2021
“Are you sure you want to continue?” I asked Garbhan. “One of my wardens can handle the witnessing.”
The brother sat on the tail of the Healers Guild wagon and sipped a drought Master Healer Bly had given him to settle his stomach. His skin returned to pale yellow, which was much better than the greenish hue he wore when I helped him out of the shop.
More citizens of Orrin had gathered around the shop. So far, it was curiosity. I prayed to Light to please keep them peaceful. I couldn’t handle another riot. I could not risk losing control.
The voices from the demon grimoire offered to show me how to control the lightning. I gritted my teeth and focused on the priest next to me.
“No, Lady Justice.” Garbhan gulped more of the medicine. “Master Bly’s potion is doing its job. Besides—” He smiled weakly. “—I don’t think there’s anything left in me to vomit.”
Bly exited the shop, followed by Master Healer Devin. At the peacekeeper’s initial report of multiple bodies, he accompanied her so she would have an extra pair of hand. Bly’s intern Simi was the last to come out.
Unfortunately, the young woman’s color was the same greenish shade Garbhan’s had been. She whirled away from the crowd and ran for the alley. She didn’t quite make it before she lost the contents of her stomach.
The two senior healers gathered their equipment to take samples for both themselves and me. If the people whose limbs lay inside in the dining table fought back against whoever killed them, there might be some of their murderer’s skin or blood in their fingernails if the insect hadn’t consumed the soft debris. Bly glanced at me as both she and Devin dabbed on ointment under their noses and tied on masks to deal with the odor of rotten flesh while they worked.
“In a way, I’m glad it’s not just me getting sick,” the Light priest whispered.
“It’s not just you,” I whispered. “The only reason the master healers and I didn’t get sick is we’ve seen worse things.”
Blood rushed to his cheeks, shifting the skin to an orange-red. “I meant no disrespect, m’lady.”
I patted his shoulder. “There’s nothing to apologize for. I hope to the Twelve you never see some of the desecration I have.”
My words seemed to be the right thing to say. Garbhan’s shoulder relaxed beneath my touch.
He looked around us, but the peacekeepers and wardens kept the fishwives back from the shop. His attention return to me, but he still kept his voice low. “I hope my reports to the Reverend Father make him realize what Orrin is dealing with. These things aren’t happening in Standora…”
No one in the capital, except maybe Crown Princess Chiara, was taking the events in Orrin and Tandor seriously. But then, she led the Queen’s army in the Battle of Tandor. Finding yourself face-to-face with one demon, much less an entire army of them, generally made one a believer.
“I’m going to give you the same lecture I gave Justice Yanaba, Brother Jeremy, and my own wardens.” I squeezed Garbhan’s shoulder. “We do not guess. We do not assume. We follow the evidence.”
“Yes, m’lady,” he murmured.
“And on that note, I want Warden Noko to witness for me.”
“B-but—” Garbhan stared up at me. “I assure you I can do my duty as your witness—”
“This isn’t about your skill or devotion to duty.” I tried to keep a reassuring expression on my face. “We can’t afford to lose any more Light clergy. If this is another trap, I don’t want anywhere near me when I start the rewind.” I grinned. “Besides, Sister Cedar Grove would be most vexed if I got you killed.”
His skin glowed orange, and his eyes widened. “You, uh, she, um…”
“I’m merely glad you’re making friends.” I scanned the crowd as we spoke. “It’s difficult being transferred from a prominent post to a backwater city.”
“Orrin is not a backwater,” he protested.
“I’m glad you think so,” I said agreeably.
He sputtered a bit more before Warden Gina leaned close to him and said, “She’s teasing you, Brother.”
“Oh.” He gulped.
Gina straightened and faced me with a frown. “And you need to stop, m’lady. He’s not the high brother.”
I probably teased Garbhan about his relationship with Thief’s second to avoid thinking about my own problems. I was the first to know Cedar Grove was pregnant with Garbhan’s child thanks to the peculiar sight I cursed myself with when I tried to cure my blindness. Still, it wasn’t fair to the young priest. Many of those in Balance and Light found the recent proclamation to procreate uncomfortable.
“I apologize, Brother.” I inclined my head. “Inappropriate humor is my own mechanism for dealing with uncomfortable situations.”
He gulped again before he said, “I understand your reasoning, Chief Justice, but I’ll never have the experience the city needs if you and the high brother don’t train me.”
His unspoken accusation sent a shiver through me. So Luc was ignoring the newest member of his temple. That was definitely not a good sign.
Gina grimaced. She would never say a word about someone outside of Balance, but her expression meant there was more going on than the news DiCook had told me when he arrived at my Temple. I would definitely need to have a private conversation with her and my chief warden once we were done here. In the meantime, I would have to see to Garbhan’s investigative training despite my reservations about putting his life in danger.
Masters Devin and Bly exited the seamstress shop once again. After setting their equipment and samples in their wagon, Bly pulled her mask from her face.
“We’ve got the initial samples we knew you’d request, Chief Justice.” She inclined her toward the building. “Do you want the body parts removed before you do the rewind?”
“As much as I want to, no.” I eyed Bly. “If you don’t mind, could Warden Noko, Brother Garbhan, and I have some of your nose ointment before we go in?”
“Of course.” She smiled.
While we applied ointment and cover our lower faces with clean silk handkerchiefs we normally used to collect potential evidence, Master Devin stepped closer to me.
“Are you coming to the Guild House to observe?”
“Then we’ll speak when there’s not so many ears around.”
A chill ran through me. Devin was one to always speak his mind, regardless of who was nearby. Did he notice something with the limbs piled on the table that neither Brother Garbhan nor I had?
“Very well.” I turned to Noko and Garbhan. “Ready?”
“Yes, m’lady,” my warden promptly replied.
Garbhan’s skin around his eyes shift to a greenish yellow.
I lowered my voice. “You don’t have to come.”
He straightened his spine despite his ghastly skin color and the green beads of sweat developing on his forehead. “I will do my duty, Chief Justice.”
I nodded before I pivoted and strode back inside the shop. The ointment helped a little, but it couldn’t completely block or disguise the scent of rotten flesh.
“How do you wish to proceed, Chief Justice?” Noko asked. Other than Gina, she was the best non-priest who witnessed for me. Before we left Balance, I had decided to give her a bit more experience. I really hoped she didn’t think I was punishing her by asking for her assistance.
“Justice Yanaba?” I said both aloud and silently.
Yes, Chief Justice.
“Have you started court yet?”
No, m’lady. Is there something you require?
“Have Justice Elizabeth preside over today’s cases. I need your assistance.”
Yanaba’s laughter tinkled like silver bells in my mind. How many blocks this time?
“It’s only one building. Barbora’s seamstress shop and apartment.”
I felt Yanaba’s sudden intake of breath. She’d nearly killed herself dealing with the murders of Barbora and her family because I’d been ordered to investigate the Temple of Balance in Tandor.
If this is too much for you or the baby… I said resorting solely to silent speech.
No, she whispered in my mind. Just old nightmares. I felt her exhale through the link before my skin tingled with her magic. What specifically do you want me to do?
“We’re going to rewind the events in the building,” I said aloud again. “Unfortunately, the last known time we know no bodies were in here was eleven days ago.”
Yanaba swore a few colorful oaths. No wonder you want help. Give me a moment to inform Elizabeth. Her presence receded. I counted my breaths. At twenty-four, Yanaba’s mind touched mine again. All right. Any chance a trap spell has been set on these bodies?
I laughed. “These days, I’d be disappointed if there wasn’t.”
I am ready.
I turned my attention to Noko and Garbhan. “Brother, be ready if there is a trap spell or any other nasty magic.”
“Warden, you’ll observe the front room.” I pointed to the tiny narrow staircase. “You’ll also follow if anyone goes up the stairs.” I lowered my arm. “Brother, you’ll stay here in the living quarters.”
They both answered, “Yes, m’lady.”
I crossed to the southern wall and sat cross-legged on the dusty floor, facing the stones. Sivan would chide me for getting my clothing filthy, but it couldn’t be helped. The best substance to pull the memories of the last eleven days would be the sea- and river-washed rocks forming the first story’s walls.
Placing my bare palms on the polished surfaces, I concentrated. With Yanaba’s help, I yanked the timelines back the necessary time period. I let the strings slip through my fingers at a certain rate. A day passed.
From the front room, Noko called out, “Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Slower, m’lady!”
Perspiration broke out on my forehead at the effort to curb the flow even with Yanaba’s help.
“Jaime has entered with two men and a woman,” Noko reported. From her clear voice, she stood near the doorway to the front shop. “All four are dressed in city peacekeeping uniforms. Two of them go into the living quarters. Jaime and one of the men start going through the seamstress’s equipment and supplies. Jaime is comparing what’s in the room with a scroll he’s carrying.”
That would be the copy of the list of Dante and Barbora’s belongings I had delivered to the magistrate’s office after their deaths. It was good to know DiCook was being thorough in his duties.
Garbhan picked up the recitation. “The other man and the woman come into the living quarters. She waves toward the staircase, and they proceed up the steps.” Wood creaked as the Light priest followed the ghost of the past to the second story. He and Noko ignored my orders, but I couldn’t berate them properly without dropping the spell.
“They are also cross-checking what is up here versus the inventory your Temple provided,” Garbhan shouted.
I let time speed up just a bit. A few heartbeats later, bootsteps come back down the steps.
“The two I followed are finishing their inventory of personal property in this room,” Garbhan added. “Now, they head back into the shop area.”
“Peacekeeper Jaime asks the other pair something,” Noko continued. “They both nod. All four are leaving.”
Nothing interesting or unusual so far, but I didn’t expect otherwise from Jaime. He was a quiet man, but very conscientious in the performance of his duties.
I let the strings of time slip faster through my fingers. One day passed. Two. Three. Four.
“Hold!” Garbhan’s shout nearly made me lose my control of the spell. It was night at this pause.
“Warden, get in here!” he called sternly.
It was rare for Garbhan to show his true nature. He’d adapted a quiet, unassuming personality in order to keep an eye on the Reverend Father of Light for the Reverend Father of Thief. As much as I hated politics, there was a growing body of circumstantial evidence Reverend Father Farrell may be connected to the renegades. He definitely hadn’t made a good impression on anyone at Love with his obsession for the younger priestesses.
Bootsteps pounded into the living room, and Noko gasped. “What in Balance’s thousand names!”
“Witness!” I demanded. Holding time in place strained my resources as well as Yanaba’s.
“I’m drawing in the dust,” Garbhan answered. “We’re going to need your clerks to draft a better picture. Something not human came through the back door. I think it picked the back lock.”
“The creature walks upright,” Noko said. “It appears like a Wildling caught halfway in their change. Furred. Long talons, but it still has thumbs. The head—” She paused, obviously searching for the right words. “Prominent ears. Long snout. It doesn’t quite resemble a bear or a wolf. Something…in between. And it has the horns of a white-tailed deer. It’s carrying an intact body. A woman.”
“I can’t hold the lines forever,” I said through gritted teeth. Sweat soaked through my small clothes and dampened my silk tunic.
“Go,” Garbhan said.
Time eased forward under my grip. Noko took up the recitation while Garbhan tried to capture the perpetrator’s appearance.
“It lays the body on the table. It—” She choked and coughed. “It uses its talons to rip open the body and starts eating the internal organs.” She made gagging noises before she added, “The creature seems to be relishing the heart the most.”
“Go outside, Warden,” Garbhan murmured. “Get some fresh air.”
“Go on, Noko,” I ground out. “Before I get sick myself from hearing you retch.”
“Yes, m’lady.” She sounded on the verge of tears. From the rhythm of the floorboards beneath me and the pounding of her boots, she ran from the living area.
“The creature rips off the head of the corpse, and it eats the brains,” Garbhan continued grimly. At least, he didn’t sound like he was about to get sick again, too. “It tears off the arms and the legs.”
“Was the woman clothed?” My words were punctuated by little gasps, and I blinked sweat from my eyes.
“No.” Garbhan sounded puzzled. “It collects the remains of the torso and skull, and it leaves, but it doesn’t touch the limbs.”
I could feel Yanaba listening through me, and she was just as confused. However, we need more information. I started to speed the timeline. Nearly a day passed.
“Slow,” Garbhan barked. My shoulders and back ached, but I did as he said. I could feel the creature’s timing was around First Night, the same as before.
“It brings in another woman. Again either unconscious or dead. No clothing. The creature performs the same ritual of eating the innards.” The priest paused before he added, “And the brains.”
I let time flow at a sedate pace through my fingers. There had to be a clue here in the creature’s actions.
“Again, it removes the limbs before collecting the torso. Chief Justice…” Garbhan hesitated. “It almost appears as if the creature is using the limbs to create a design on the table.”
He reported two more women devoured and dismembered over the course of two more nights before he said, “This is new. A male youth.”
“Young enough to be mistaken as female?” I asked.
“Or possibly berda,” Garbhan replied. “Without any clothing, it’s difficult to tell how he originally appeared.” Another pause filled the air. “This time, it is eating the heart first. I’m sketching the layers of the limbs. I recognize a couple of the symbols. If I’m right, this creature is leaving someone a message. Or possibly casting a spell.”
“Why here?” I murmured more to myself than to the young priest.
“The demon eggs? The family’s death?” Garbhan chuckled softly. “You’re the one who preaches that we shouldn’t jump to conclusions.”
This all happened on consecutive nights, Yanaba whispered in my mind at the same time Garbhan said the words aloud. My junior justice sounded as tired as I felt. Why didn’t anyone notice this thing? she added.
“I can’t hold the timelines too much longer, Brother,” I said.
“One moment,” he pleaded. His fingernail scraped against wood as fast as if he were using a stick of charcoal. “I have it. Go.”
Time flowed faster through my grip.
“Nothing, but the increase of insect activity,” Garbhan reported. “A family of rats have come in and are feasting on the flesh along with the flies and maggots. The rats’ motions through the pile result in the shifting and jumble of the limbs.”
Time oozed into the present. I groaned at the cramping of my major muscles along with a good number of little ones. DiCook’s estimate of how long the limbs had been rotting in here was only a few days off. I didn’t expect total accuracy from him, but he’d obviously picked up quite a bit from Luc and me over the last year. Warden Yar, Garbhan said silently.
From the boot treads, someone smaller followed the giant Light warden into the living area.
“Warden, I will guard my drawings, but I need you to fetch one of the Balance clerks to copy these to papyrus or parchment.”
“Yar, stay here with the brother,” Gina said. She had no problem countermanding a clergy member’s order if she believed it was in their best interest. “I’ll send Noko. It’ll get her mind off the grotesque scene in here and the rewind.” Gina crouched next to me. “Chief Justice?”
“I will need some help standing,” I admitted. Yanaba?
I was bright enough to lay down before we started, she said with an irritated tone. Sivan and Ming Wei are attending to me.
Once Gina half-carried, half-guided me to the healer’s wagon, Bly pressed a potion bottle to my hands while Devin checked my vitals. Noko shuffled nearby, no doubt to make sure I was all right before she faced Little Bear at the Temple.
“You all are worse than mother geese,” I protested. However, I swigged Bly’s concoction.
“That’s because you refuse to use the sense the Twelve gave a dog,” Devin snapped. “At least, your heartbeat is slowing. You’re damn lucky it didn’t seize.”
“I’m fine. Besides, Justice Yanaba helped with the rewind.” I immediately regretted my words. Both healers froze and scowled at me.
“Go on to Balance and check on her, Master Bly,” Devin said. “Simi and I can deal with the mess here.”
“Warden Noko, go with the master healer and then escort Clerk Leilani back down here,” Gina said.
Noko audibly gulped. “Yes, Warden.”
Part of me wished I could simply erase Noko’s memory or the horrible scene inside the shop. She would no doubt relive what she saw during the rewind for the next week or so, too. That would add one more to the list of people at Balance having nightmares.
Bly grabbed a shoulder bag from the seat of the wagon. Together, she and Noko trotted down the side street toward the Temple District.
“How many times do we need to remind you not to put so much on Justice Yanaba, Anthea?” Devin murmured. His fingers rested against my neck once more to check my pulse. Why had I asked Yanaba for help? She needed the rest.
Because I needed to do only one rewind for the entire house. Normally, our gift for viewing the past is hindered by the need to anchor ourselves in three dimensions, which means we’re limited by the walls of one room.
In Yanaba’s effect to destroy the demon last spring, she’d let go of her body and anchored her spirit to the walls of the city. Shi Hua, Jeremy, and Brother Turtle from Child managed to disentangle Yanaba and place her spirit back into her body, but my junior justice was still linked to Orrin.
To the point she couldn’t step outside the city walls or sail past the harbor entrance.
I couldn’t worry about Yanaba at the moment. Instead, I needed to focus on the atrocities committed. The creature had done its dismembering here, but did the actual deaths occur before it brought its victims to the shop. Balance only knew where it found these people. DiCook’s confirmation of no reports of missing people didn’t mean no one knew the victims were gone, only that their absence hadn’t been officially recorded.
The thought of every possible lead to follow was adding to my post-rewind headache. And this very morning, I told myself I needed to carry more of the court load while Yanaba dealt with her babe. I couldn’t imagine how I would handle everything without Elizabeth here, too.
“You’re right,” I replied equally softly to Devin. “I promise not to rely on her so much, but I fear putting too much on Chief Justice Elizabeth as well.”
“She’s doing much better than when she arrived here nearly six months ago.” His eyebrow lifted as his fingers withdrew from my neck. I didn’t need silent speech to know his unspoken question.
“Rebuilding and fortifying on Tuqan Island has begun, but it’s a long way from being ready for regular habitation.” I shook my head. “Crown Princess Chiara has thrown her support for the project, but it’s going to be expensive, and the queendom’s already pushed to the limit.”
“We didn’t expect to lose an entire city,” Devin remarked.
The hairs on the back of my neck rose despite being soaked in sweat. “No, but we didn’t have much of a choice, and we paid a steeper price in the lives we lost.”
“I wasn’t blaming you, Anthea,” he said gently.
“Why not?” I snapped. “Everyone else does.” I jumped down from my seat on the edge of the wagon and marched back into the seamstress shop. The voices in the back of mind whispered that I’d done everything in my power, but they could give me more so something like Tandor would never happen again.
They went silent, except a hum of discussion amongst themselves. That noise I could ignore, just like when I ignored the wagons, horses, and people outside of Balance during a court session.
What I needed was a way to shut down the demons in my head for good, instead of dealing with murders of people who didn’t matter.