PREVIEW: Song of Scarabs and Fallen Stars
Fateless Trilogy, book 1
“These are dark times,” I said, resting my elbows on the table and leaning in closer to the microphone to add my personal commentary to the prescribed broadcast I had just read aloud. “Trust me, I know. There are literal gods attacking our world. But we’re all in this together.”
At sunrise and sunset every day for the past week, I emerged from my Saharan hidey-hole to broadcast a daily public service announcement updating both humans and immortals on the current state of the war. I delivered the message—Don’t give up, we’re working on it, and things will get better—because the world knew me. Trusted me. Loved me. I was Tarsi Tiff, the chart-topping singer-songwriter beloved by all. Well, not all. One only needed to check out my social media to see that.
“I know how hard this is, I really do,” I told listeners. “I, um—” A faint, breathy laugh caressed the microphone. “Well, I’ve been working on something for you all.” I crossed my ankles under my folding chair and sat a little straighter, a small smile curving my lips. “A new song, just for you.”
An arid breeze fluttered the canvas flap covering the doorway of the broadcast tent. The tiny hairs on my arms and the back of my neck stood on end, and I shivered despite the sweltering desert heat. I glanced to one side, then peeked over my other shoulder, making sure I was still alone.
“I hope this will remind you to stay strong. To never give up. We will get through this—and we’ll do it together.” I cleared my throat and inhaled, filling my lungs in preparation to hum the first notes.
It had been ages since I last sang for an audience. Okay, maybe it had barely been a week, but I was used to regular doses of the sweetest sound in existence—the roar of a crowd of adoring fans. I missed it. Missed them.
I craved the swell of energy that poured onto the stage as a crowd’s anticipation mounted and the hush that fell right before I sang. The last bastion of social media went down three days ago, so I couldn’t even rely on virtual adoration. This war had cut me off from my fans, from their love, and I was jonesing for a fix.
My dad wanted me to make these broadcasts quick. Deliver the message and get back to the oasis, he would say. The longer I lingered out in the open, the more likely it was that one of my people’s almighty ancestors, the Netjers, would detect me. They were like bloodhounds, hunting for the scent of a Nejeret’s immortal soul.
But I just wanted to sing a song. Surely my dad couldn’t begrudge me that. It was just a song. One little song. No harm ever came from singing a song.
I closed my eyes and released the first string of notes.
A brutal pain stabbed into my back, and my eyelids flew open. I cried out, the inhuman sound strangling the beginning of my song as the pain burrowed deeper, boring through my chest. My lungs seized, and the cry gurgled out.
Eyes opened wide and mouth gaping, I stared down at my chest and watched the tip of a gleaming iridescent sword blade sprout from my sternum. My diaphragm flexed and spasmed, straining to make my lungs work.
I felt pressure on the back of my shoulder, followed by a rush of searing agony as the blade disappeared, yanked free of my body. My vision momentarily whited out.
But then the worst of the pain receded, and I could breathe again. Sort of.
My lungs worked in fits and starts. The first shallow inhale carried with it the sensation of drowning.
“Wha—” The half-formed word came out with a gush of blood.
I coughed, sputtering crimson onto the textured white surface of the folding card table and down the front of my tank top. Drops of blood splattered the exposed skin of my thighs below the frayed hem of my cut-offs.
My vision grew fuzzy, slowly narrowing my view of the world to a dim tunnel. I slumped forward, banging my cheekbone against the microphone. It tumbled off the table, hitting the canvas floor with a dull thunk.
My arms hung limply on either side of my chair as blood dribbled from my mouth. It pooled on the table under my cheek, hot against my chilled skin.
The darkness continued to close in until it was all I could see. Until it was everything.
I felt a lingering sadness that the world would never hear my song. My last song. But soon enough, even that faded away.
I woke to a pounding headache, ringing ears, and sand so far up my nose that if I started crying, it would probably come out in my tears. I flared my nostrils and inhaled through my mouth, intending to blow the breath back out through my nose to clear it. Massive backfire. Now I had sand up my nose and in my mouth.
Spitting sand, I rolled from my stomach to my side and cracked one eyelid open to blinding sunlight. The sun beat down from high in the sky, saturating my exposed back with its pervasive heat. I immediately squeezed my eyes shut again.
Gritting my teeth, I forced my eyelids open and raised my throbbing head, squinting against the bright sunlight. It took my eyes long seconds to adjust. It took my fuzzy brain even longer to process what I was seeing.
Sand. So much sand. An endless sea of the stuff stretching out in undulating waves, surrounding squat peaks formed of craggy limestone like white-capped waves. I craned my neck, peering all around me. The expanse of desert continued in all directions, vast and endless.
“What the shit?” The words came out creaky, like my voice hadn’t been used in days.
I laid my head back down and squeezed my eyes shut. Clearly, I was in the desert—specifically, Egypt’s Western Desert. That made sense as the last thing I remembered was reading the morning broadcast in the radio tent outside the Netjer-At Oasis.
But where was the canvas tent? Where was the buggy? Where was the satellite and radio tower?
My mind registered the press of skin on skin where my torso touched my inner arm. I was positive I had been wearing a tank top when I left the oasis. I had been known to let the girls hang out in private, much to the joy of the paparazzi who made it their business to be all up in my business, but I wasn’t in the habit of walking around topless around my dad. However, I sure as hell didn’t seem to be wearing a shirt now.
I risked another raise of my eyelids to peer down at my body. Yep, I was naked as the day I was born.
“What the actual shit?” I mumbled, completely baffled.
Don’t get me wrong, I had been living in LA for the better part of the last decade. I’d had some wild times, resulting in more than my fair share of WTF wake-ups, but this—waking up face-planted in the sand and buck-ass naked in literal Bumfuck, Egypt—was a new one for me.
I rolled onto my back and flung an arm over my eyes to shield them against the sunny daggers stabbing down from the sky. I took a deep breath and delved deeper into my tender mind, searching for any possible explanation for my current, totally bonkers situation.
Last thing I remembered, I was in the broadcast tent. I had finished reading out my dad’s morning update, and I was about to sing my new song. I was excited. It’s a pretty fucking fantastic song.
A flash of memory seared through my mind. A mere flicker, there and gone in a heartbeat.
A lightning bolt of pain struck my back, and a gleaming sword blade burst out of my chest.
I gasped, sitting bolt upright. My eyes flew open, and I searched my bare chest with frantic hands for the bloody, gaping wound. But there was no sign of it.
Before I had recovered from the disorientation of the first, another flicker of memory flashed through my mind.
I floated through a streaming rainbow, being sucked toward a dark, looming void.
I whimpered, curling up my legs and hugging my knees to my chest. My heart galloped, adrenaline flooding my veins. That looming darkness frightened me more than the memory of the killing blade.
I buried my face between my knees, hiding from the disturbing scenes. It did no good. The vivid flickers of memories continued to invade my mind, choppy and incomprehensible, there and gone in a flash.
I was in the rainbow stream again, only this time I wasn’t floating. I was drowning. A violent, suffocating undertow dragged me away while I thrashed wildly.
Panic gripped me, and my breaths came faster. I focused on slowing my breathing, on drawing the hot, dry air deep into my lungs before releasing it in a measured exhale.
What were those flashes—genuine memories? Or leftovers from some horrific nightmare? I honestly couldn’t tell.
I felt like I had blacked out. My recollection of everything from the broadcast tent onward was too slippery, those flashes too brief. I couldn’t make sense of any of it, and the harder I tried, the more intensely my headache pounded.
Regardless of the how and why of it, my strange situation remained the same. I was naked and alone in the desert in the middle of the day. I needed to find shelter from the blistering sun, and soon, before my delicate skin really did burn to the point of blistering. I was Nejeret, descended from the all-powerful Netjers currently assaulting our world, which made me immortal—so long as nothing killed me—but not indestructible.
Once the panic receded some, I raised my head and squinted, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the bright glare of the midday sun. I curled my legs underneath me and sat on my knees, raising one hand to shield my eyes. In every direction, jutting limestone outcroppings and rolling dunes stretched to the horizon, where they met the cerulean sky. A few wispy clouds broke up the unrelenting expanse of blue overhead, but they were worthless for providing shade.
I craned my neck to examine my shoulder. The coppery flesh had yet to take on the telltale rosy hue of a sunburn. I pressed a finger into the skin to be sure. Nope, not burned. Yet. I couldn’t have been out here for very long.
Frowning, I pulled on my shoulder to get a better look at my back. I hadn’t noticed it at first, what with the sand coating my skin. My pristine, unmarked, uninked skin. My clothes weren’t the only thing missing.
Last I checked, the phases of the moon were inked onto my back, running down the length of my spine. It was a beautiful piece, given to me by my aunt Kat on my eighteenth birthday. The black ink faded to gray once my Nejeret traits manifested and my body started to reject it. I twisted this way and that, brushing away the sand to make sure my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me.
They weren’t. The tattoo was gone. Not faded. Gone.
“What the hell is going on?” I said, my voice more than a little shrill as I grew increasingly distressed.
Hastily, I glanced down at my forearms, twisting my wrists to expose the undersides. The string of music notes on my left forearm and lyrics on my right were missing as well.
I wasn’t just naked. My skin was brand new.
My brows bunched together, and I shook my head, attempting to dislodge the cobwebs tangling my most recent memories. I scanned my immediate surroundings, this time using a more critical eye. No broadcast tent. No satellite or radio tower. No buggy.
I chewed on the inside of my cheek. It was as though I had been plucked out of the tent—and out of my clothes—and dropped in some random part of the desert.
I adjusted my feet so the soles pressed into the warm, coarse sand and placed my palms on the ground, pushing myself up into a crouch. My joints creaked, my muscles protesting at the movement. I felt bruised all over, like I had tumbled down the side of a mountain, pinballing between trees and boulders. Groaning, I straightened until I was standing about as steadily as a rheumatic octogenarian.
I rubbed the center of my bare chest with my fingertips as I peered around, feeling a ghost of that blade skewering through flesh and organ and bone. But there was no actual pain, no tenderness, only the memory of searing agony. I inhaled, filling my lungs completely, relieved to find no sense of drowning.
My hand fell away from my chest when I spotted what I was looking for. There, near the horizon, I could make out a massive mound of craggy, sand-swept limestone boulders. The Netjer-At Oasis.
I smiled to myself and trudged through the sand toward the oasis. I didn’t relish the idea of waltzing in there naked, but if I didn’t get out of the sun soon, I really would start toasting.
Ten minutes into the trek, a terrifying possibility struck me: the Netjers.
If those frightful flashes weren’t from a nightmare, but pieces of actual memories, then those bastards must have found me while I was broadcasting. It didn’t explain how I had ended up naked and relocated—or not dead. I clearly recalled the sensation of a blade stabbing me through the chest, which should have been a killing injury, even for an immortal-ish Nejeret.
The hows and whys fled my mind as fear gripped my heart. I picked up the pace, stumbling forward through the bone-dry sand until I was running. If the Netjers had found me, I feared they would find the other Nejerets hiding in the oasis soon enough. If they hadn’t already. Everyone I loved was there—my dad and Lex, Aset, the twins, little Reni . . .
A sob clawed up my throat at the thought of the Netjers attacking my sweet baby sister, and I covered my mouth with one hand. I tripped in the sand, barely catching myself on my hands and knees.
I loved Reni like I had birthed the kid myself. If the Netjers found her, they would kill her. Their mission was to search and destroy. No Nejeret was safe, no matter how young or innocent. Especially not a special Nejeret like Reni, who carried a rare sheut within her tiny toddler body, affording her some yet-to-be-revealed magical power.
I took heaving breaths, wrestling the wild fear into submission, and pushed back up to my feet. I ran the rest of the way to the oasis as fast as I could. I needed to get there before the Netjers. I had to warn my people.
I was gasping for breath by the time I reached the veritable mountain of limestone, shielding the oasis from the world. Gripping my side and gulping air, I stumbled around the perimeter of the massive mound, searching for the mouth of the tunnel that burrowed through the limestone barrier to the idyllic haven concealed within. When I reached the opening, I stopped in my tracks.
“No, no, no . . .” I lunged forward and slapped my hands against the solid barrier covering the entrance to the oasis.
The tunnel was blocked by a thick, opalescent sheet of At, the otherworldly substance created when the very fabric of space and time was pulled into the physical dimension and given solid form. The solidified At shimmered, iridescent in the unrelenting sunlight. Super pretty. Also, super impenetrable.
Only a few Nejerets could wield At, and two of them were supposed to be inside the oasis right now. Had they done this? Had they sealed themselves inside the oasis to protect the Nejerets hiding within from our far more powerful ancestors? It would only buy them time. Once the Netjers realized my people were in there, those monsters would tear through the dome of At shielding the oasis like it was cheap wrapping paper.
“Come on!” I wailed, pounding the sides of my fists against the unbreakable barrier of At blocking the only way into the oasis.
I dropped my arms to my sides and leaned my forehead against the indestructible barrier. The At was smooth and warm, but not hot to the touch like the limestone surrounding it.
“What is going on?” The words fell from my lips, little more than a whisper.
I turned around and, back pressed against the At barrier, slid down to the ground. Something dark and terrible slithered in my chest, constricting around my heart. Dread, sickening and insidious, settled in my belly. Those flickering still frames shifted around in my mind, expanding and gaining substance.
I knew. I knew what had happened to me—why the others had sealed themselves in the oasis—and the truth was too horrifying to face.
I hugged my knees to my chest, feeling wretched and exposed. My chin trembled, and tears welled in my eyes, quickly spilling down my cheeks. I squeezed my eyelids shut and pressed my cheek against my knee. My shoulders shook as silent sobs racked my body.
Images flooded into my mind, coalescing into scenes and fusing into a cohesive sequence. Into a full-fledged memory.
I was in the broadcasting tent, staring down at the tip of the shimmering blade protruding from my chest. The blade was yanked free of me, and I fell forward, drowning in my own blood and lamenting the song that would never be sung.
Suddenly, I was floating above my body, staring down at myself. The change in perspective was disorienting, but oddly enough, not disturbing. It was as though all my fears and worries died with my physical body. I slowly floated backward, my discarded body shrinking as distance separated me from it.
With a pop, I passed through a filmy barrier and floated into a gently swirling sea of vibrant colors. The soul-energy. I was in Duat, I realized, the blissful realm where mortal souls mingled after death. An overwhelming sense of peace and calm settled into me, and I basked in the serenity of it all.
The tranquility vanished as I passed through another barrier. This one was a dark and menacing void. It was the cold absence of life, of light. It clung to me, oily and clammy. Viscous. Hungry. The fear I thought I had left behind surged forth, and for an infinite moment, that nightmarish darkness held me captive.
There was a strange, suctioning sound, like pulling a boot free from the mud, and a cool, glittering mist replaced the dark void. It was silvery and so thick I could hardly see through it. I felt my chest, but I could find no wound. No stain of blood on my tank top. I turned around and around, peering into the mist. Into the utter stillness. The complete silence. This had to be Aaru. The inescapable land of the dead. The prison the Netjers built to hold Nejerets’ immortal souls.
A whisper of sound cut through the silence, and I moved toward it. A shadowy silhouette took form. I rushed forward, the slap of my sandals on hard-packed ground echoing through the mist. As I ran, more silhouettes became visible, other Nejerets.
Before I could get close enough to see anyone clearly, a blinding flash of light vaporized the mist, and I was surrounded by shouting. Screaming.
Silence fell, sudden and deafening.
I blinked, and Aaru—and all the other Nejerets—vanished. I was back in that rainbow sea of soul-energy, in Duat. Only this time, the current wasn’t gentle and welcoming. It was violent and raging, throwing me about. Sweeping me away. Tearing me apart. I tumbled and rolled, unable to get my bearings.
Just when I thought I couldn’t take any more, the mystical maelstrom stopped. Once again, I floated along in a lazy current, my soul bruised and battered. I sensed the barrier into Aaru before I saw it, the dark, looming wall. The sucking void. It drew me closer, a moth to a fatal flame.
But before Aaru could reclaim me, an invisible hook caught in my heart. I gasped as something tugged me backward, away from the looming abyss. My arms and legs trailed through the rainbow current, disturbing the flow of the soul-energy.
I heard a pop, and another blinding flash of light consumed the world.
My eyes snapped open, and I raised my head, searching the horizon but seeing another time. Another dimension. Another life.
It hadn’t been a nightmare.
I died. And when my life ended, I was sucked into Aaru, just like every Nejeret who had died before me.
Narrowing my eyes, I studied my sandy surroundings. I was still in Aaru. I had to be. Aaru was a one-way trip. Not even an all-powerful Netjer could escape the dark, imprisoning shell surrounding the immortal underworld.
So, where was everyone else I had seen in that strange mist? I frowned and glanced down at my au naturel state. And where were my clothes? When I first arrived in Aaru, I had been wearing the same tank top and shorts I’d been wearing when I died. I returned my attention to the endless stretch of sand and limestone.
I knew a fair bit about the Nejeret land of the dead. Aaru was filled with an endless and varying array of landscapes, like some infinite and twisted theme park, ruled by strange, wish-like magic. The denizens of Aaru were able to think things into existence. In fact, the first Nejeret who ever entered Aaru was the one who thought the labyrinthine structure of the place into existence. So far as mythical underworlds went, it wasn’t half bad.
I stood and peered down at myself, imagining a tank top and shorts covering my extreme nakedness.
My brow furrowed, and I tried again. I pictured myself wearing that stupid outfit until a sharp, stabbing pain joined the dull throbbing inside my skull.
But still, nothing happened. I remained as naked as ever.
With a sigh, I gave up. Clearly, there was some trick to the strange magic. Either that or I was no longer in Aaru. And that was impossible.
I stalked around the rocky mound covering the Netjer-At Oasis. Being on my feet and moving helped my mind work, giving clarity to my muddled thoughts.
The longer I pondered my predicament, the more the impossble became probable: I couldn’t get Aaru’s strange magic to work because I wasn’t in Aaru.
I died, that was a certainty. And like all Nejerets who had died before me, I had been immediately sucked into Aaru. But somehow, the impossible had happened. I had escaped—or rather; I had been spat back out—and then reborn. My brand-spanking-new body was a testament to my unexplained resurrection.
“It must’ve been Kat,” I speculated aloud as I chewed on my thumbnail.
My aunt was the only being in this universe more powerful than a Netjer. She must have somehow cracked Aaru open, letting my immortal soul escape. It was the only plausible explanation, not that I could come up with anything more specific than the vague certainty that Kat had somehow saved me.
I glanced over my shoulder, then up at the sky for the umpteenth time. Having been stabbed through the back by a Netjer left me paranoid and jumpy. Were those bastards still around? Still hunting us? Or had Kat taken care of them as well? Not that there was anything I could’ve done about it if they were still lurking about. Well, other than not linger here and lead them right to the oasis and to all the Nejerets hiding within.
“Isfet, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,” I murmured under my breath. “The courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” The serenity prayer had become something of a security blanket for me during my troubled years. I often fell back on its simple, no-nonsense guidance when life grew too heavy.
The Netjer situation—whatever its status—was out of my hands. But I could do something about my precarious naked-and-stranded-alone-in-the-desert predicament.
I reached the blocked entrance to the tunnel that led into the oasis and stopped, crossing my arms over my chest. I glared at the impenetrable At barrier barring my way. There was no way through, at least, not for me. Here was another of those things I couldn’t change.
I needed to move on, to find shelter elsewhere. And water. If my gut was right and I had been miraculously resurrected, my shiny new body wouldn’t remain alive for much longer without water, especially not at the rate I was melting in this heat.
I angled my face up toward the sun and squinted, studying its position in the sky. I estimated six or seven hours of full daylight remained in the day. Once the sun set, the air would cool, buying me some more time.
“What’s that rule?” I muttered as I shifted my focus to the horizon, far beyond which I would find the Farafra Oasis. “Something about threes…” I pursed my lips. “You can survive three minutes without air, three days without water, and three weeks without food?”
I frowned. I couldn’t imagine holding my breath for three whole minutes, and the idea of not eating for even a week made my stomach groan in protest. I wasn’t sure how long it would take to walk to the Farafra Oasis from here. It was about an hour’s drive. Did that equate to less than three days of walking?
I let out a breathy, semi-hysterical laugh. “Does it matter?”
It wasn’t like I had any other options. I could either hoof it to the Farafra Oasis, or I could sit here and feel sorry for myself while I slowly died of dehydration. Or heat stroke. Or both.
Huffing out a breath, I turned my back to the blocked tunnel and marched into the desert. I was about a half-mile out when I paused and turned to peer back at the rocky mound covering my people’s ancient home.
What about my family? My dad, Lex, Reni, and the others who were supposed to be in the oasis. Had they been among the silhouetted Nejerets I had seen in Aaru? What if they were fine and were still holed up in the oasis? Maybe if I just sat tight near the tunnel entrance, eventually someone would come and remove the At barrier to let me in.
“Accept the things you can’t change,” I reminded myself in a sing-song voice.
I could wait by the At barrier, and someone might find me there and let me into the sanctuary of the oasis. Or a Netjer could find me, then find the Nejerets hiding in the oasis and kill them all. Or I could sit there until my body shriveled up, waiting for someone to come who wasn’t even in there. It was safest to assume that the oasis was empty and that I was on my own.
I let out a sigh, turned, and continued onward, delving deeper into the wilds of the Western Desert. As I walked, I cataloged my extremely limited knowledge of survival skills. A Jack-of-all-trades, I was not. I was the dreaded master of one. I knew a lot about one thing—music—and not much about anything else. Certainly not much about anything that might help me survive out in the desert on my own. Well, my dad had taught me to fight, but that wasn’t the type of survival skill I needed right now.
I mentally berated myself for not taking up my ex, Wolf, on his offer to feature me as a guest on his survival show. Wolf in the Wild was an international sensation. Not as big as me but big enough to get between us. Of course, he would never have admitted that. He would probably fire back with something lame, like saying there was no room for his career to get between us with my ego taking up all the space.
“Ugh,” I grunted.
But what had I learned from listening to Wolf drone on and on about survival craft? I must have soaked up something. Cognitive osmosis is a thing, right?
I knew not to drink untreated water from a natural source. Doing so risked exposure to all kinds of nasty bugs. But I didn’t have any way to treat water—let alone know how to do such a thing. I thought maybe iodine was involved. Or was it bleach?
“That doesn’t make any sense,” I mumbled, shaking my head. Why would anyone voluntarily drink bleach? Surely doing so would kill anyone who tried it faster than any parasite.
I weighed the merits of dying of straight-up dehydration versus diarrhea-induced dehydration. If I found water and didn’t drink it, I would most definitely die of dehydration. If I did drink it, there was a chance I would contract something like giardia and die in the least glamorous way possible. But there was also the chance that I would be fine. And, bonus—I would be alive.
“In a worst-case scenario, you can always drink your pee.”
I gagged as Wolf’s remembered words whispered through my mind. “Not going to happen, bucko.” Way too gross. With some of the things that came out of his mouth, it was a miracle I ever even wanted to have sex with him.
And then there was the issue of food. The rule of three applied to humans, and while Nejerets were originally born of humans—Nuin, the Netjer who created this universe, boinked and impregnated a human woman many thousands of years ago–humans and Nejerets were different enough that I feared the three-weeks-without-food rule wouldn’t apply to me.
Our relative immortality was born of the gift of hyper-regenerative cells. A Nejeret’s body kicked healing and renewal up into overdrive when injured, but the regeneration process required a ton of energy—in other words, food—and coma-like rest. A Nejeret in the throes of healing was held captive by the gorge-rest cycles that dominated the process. Theoretically, we could live forever, so long as nothing injured us beyond our hyper-regenerative means.
I had no doubt that the damage caused to my body by dehydration or—shudder—a waterborne parasite would trigger my body’s built-in regenerative process. Which meant that if I suffered from either, I would need food—right away and a lot of it.
What was edible in the Sahara? I might as well have been on Mars for all the plant life visible at the moment. It was all sand and rocks as far as the eye could see. Far ahead, I could just make out the first hints of lumpy white chalk formations poking out of the sand. I was entering the White Desert, which was a welcome sign because it meant I was heading in the right direction. It was less welcome for the extreme lack of anything alive in that portion of the Sahara.
I had never personally experienced a regeneration cycle. I was twenty-five years old, and as was standard with my kind, my Nejeret characteristics had only manifested a few years ago. I didn’t actually know what my energy needs might be if I tripped on a stray chunk of chalk and sprained my ankle while trekking across this stupid, barren desert. I shifted my focus from the horizon to the sand right in front of me, suddenly more mindful of where I placed my feet.
My shoulders were feeling slightly roasted, and I glanced down at my forearm. The coppery skin was definitely darker and rosier than usual. No sunburn press test required.
Would a bad sunburn trigger a regenerative cycle? I wasn’t sure.
I picked up the pace.
At least it wasn’t crazy hot. I estimated the temperature to be around ninety degrees, which was a little cooler than the desert had been lately. It seemed like every time I emerged from the pseudo-cavern of the oasis, I was smacked in the face with a hundred-degree wall of hot, dry air. Not that I minded.
My friends joked that I had the aged, skin-damaged soul of an eighty-year-old snowbird, but I preferred to call myself a sun chaser. Misery was spending more than a day or two under overcast skies and dodging rain showers. Or worse, snow. When I wasn’t touring, I was out basking in the sun, under the protection of a thick layer of SPF 100.
While my soul was well acclimated to spending long periods of time under the sun, since manifesting my Nejeret traits, my skin was another matter entirely. I couldn’t tan. My skin cells constantly shed and renewed. It meant I would never wrinkle, never get freckles or moles or sunspots, but I also would never develop calluses, leaving the bottoms of my feet hypersensitive and the tips of my fingers prone to bleeding when I played the guitar. And if I ever dared to spend over ten minutes in the sun with unprotected skin, I would burn.
About an hour into my desert trek, I was well into the White Desert, and the skin on my shoulders was feeling decidedly crispy. All around me, white chalk formations jutted out of the golden sand like meringue peaks.
I should have reached the desert road by now. Even if sand completely covered the road itself, the darker limestone blocks periodically marking the route should have been easy enough to spot among the sea of stark white chalk. But I hadn’t seen a single road marker.
Awkwardly, I climbed to the top of the nearest chalk formation, one that looked like a ten-foot cresting wave, and raised my hand to my forehead to use as a visor. I scanned the petrified sea of white chalk, my heart sinking deeper and deeper into my stomach with each slight rotation.
“Come on,” I murmured. “Where’s that stupid road?”
A pile of golden rocks, standing out in stark contrast to the white chalk, caught my attention, and I squinted to focus. It was in something of a valley between a string of taller, tree-like chalk formations. Rocks didn’t just stack themselves up like that, especially not limestone rocks in a place where chalk dominated the landscape. Even from a good two hundred yards out, I could tell it was a man-made cairn.
I hustled down the side of my dune and hurried toward it. As I drew near, a large limestone block came into view another hundred yards or so beyond the stacked stones. Finally, road marker.
I grinned, wincing as my dry lips cracked and split.
“Ow…” I touched a fingertip to my bottom lip, and it came away crimson. I licked my lips to moisten them, despite knowing doing so would only dry them out further. I couldn’t help it.
The cut had already healed, but I was prepared to be more cautious with my smiles.
“This is a no-fun zone,” I chastised myself under my breath. Then I laughed—without smiling—the sound a little too shrill. As if I needed any reminder of that.
I passed the cairn but paused at the larger limestone block marking the route. The road itself was completely sand swept, and the marker was half-buried, as though nobody had traveled this way in decades. Hands on my hips, I pursed my lips and quirked them to one side, studying the block for a long moment before looking up the road one way, then down the other.
“This is weird,” I told myself. “Really, really weird.”
I had been on this road barely a week ago, and it had appeared well-traveled. There hadn’t been any notable sandstorms since then, so how had the desert suddenly reclaimed the road?
I returned my attention to the limestone road marker. The block’s edges were the sharpest of any ancient road marker I had ever seen. Most had been extremely eroded by wind and sand over the thousands of years that had passed while they stood sentry.
Groaning, I let my head fall back as my hands slipped from my hips. “I’m so thirsty,” I whined and wallowed in self-pity for a solid thirty seconds.
I inhaled purposely and raised my head before blowing out the breath. Water wasn’t going to deliver itself to me from the Farafra Oasis. I needed to get my crispy butt there myself. And so, after a deep breath, I started along the desert road.
Another couple of hours passed, and the soles of my feet were feeling decidedly raw. I was too much of a wuss to look, knowing that seeing the no-doubt ravaged state of my feet would make the pain ten times worse. Dehydration was setting in, fogging my brain. Three times now, I would have sworn I saw the shimmer of water in the distance, only to have it vanish in a blink. Stupid mirages.
I sang to myself to help pass the time and to distract my mind from my body’s increasing aches and pains. I worked on half-finished songs, adding new verses and lyrics.
“Damn,” I said when I—finally—sang the perfect final verse in a song I had been writing and rewriting for the better half of a decade. “That was epic. Baz’ll make it a lead single for sure.”
My manager was going to pee his ridiculous plaid pants when he heard the finished song. I could already see the glazed-over look in his eyes, the ghosts of dollar signs spinning in his soulless pupils.
I considered scratching myself deep enough to draw blood so I could jot down the lyrics on my skin. I really didn’t want to forget them. But even as I considered doing so, the exact shape and form of the verse slithered away.
My eyes stung with a sudden welling of tears. I stopped in my tracks and bowed my head, my shoulders slumping as I fought the urge to cry. I couldn’t believe I was on the verge of tears. Over song lyrics, of all things.
I didn’t even know if Baz was still alive. The entire music industry might be dead, for all I knew. The Netjers had been smashing cities left and right for days. But this—forgotten song lyrics—was going to be the thing to break me down?
Not dying—or being inexplicably resurrected. Not wondering if my family was okay. Not finding myself stranded, naked and alone, in the middle of the godsforsaken Western Desert. And not walking for hours on raw feet, my skin singed and throat parched.
No, nothing sensible like that. I was falling apart over stupid fucking song lyrics.
Growling in frustration, I combed my fingers through my hair, pulling chunks of the long dark strands free from the loose knot I had tied at the base of my skull. “Get your shit together, chick. Come on.” I gripped my hair tight at the roots and pulled. “Come on. Get it together.”
I inhaled shakily and raised my head, setting my jaw. I would. Not. Cry. Not right now. Not about this. I wasn’t that self-centered. I couldn’t be.
Except, I distinctly recalled that my last conscious thought before I died was of a song. Not worry for my family, who the Netjers were sure to find. Oh no. A song.
“You were right, Wolf.” I took a step. Then another. And another. “I’m completely fucking obsessed with myself.”
When this was over, I was going to do a serious reassessment of my priorities. I would be making some big changes in my life. I would learn how to be less of a selfish asshole.
When this was over.
“Left. Right. Left. Right. Left. Right . . .”
The words were little more than grunts, but they kept me going. I staggered onward, my skin scorched and my bloody feet caked with sand. I was going on hour six or seven of trudging along the desert road. The smooth white chalk formations jutting out of the sand had gradually given way to darker, craggier limestone.
I had long since lost the ability to gauge the passage of time, but the sun clued me in. It had slowly sunk toward the horizon off to the right of the road and now hovered there like it was purposely delaying setting. What a dick.
I considered dropping to my knees to crawl for a little while, giving my soles a chance to heal. But if I got down on the ground, I wasn’t sure I would be able to get back up, and I had made a promise to myself not to stop until I reached the oasis. Until I reached water and salvation.
The distant sound of children’s laughter reached my ears, carried by a gentle breeze. The sound lured my gaze up from the rock-strewn sand covering the patch of road immediately in front of me. I couldn’t recall the last time I had looked up. It took energy away from walking, from convincing each brutalized foot to lift and touch back down on the coarse, burning sand.
When I did look up, I was a little surprised to find the road ahead of me sloping downward. I felt like I was trekking up a steep incline. I was even more surprised to see tall stone pillars silhouetted by the tangerine sky.
Squinting, I trudged onward. Not pillars. People.
My eyes opened wide, and I stumbled forward. I was too weak and clumsy to catch myself, and I ended up sprawled out on the road, face in the sand.
I spat out sand and lay there for a few seconds, my forehead resting on my forearm as I caught my breath, working up the nerve to raise my head. To look. To see.
If it was a mirage. If the people were suddenly gone, I wasn’t sure I could make myself stand up again. To keep going.
This was so hard. Too hard. I couldn’t do it.
A wretched sob rattled around in my chest, clawing its way up my throat. When I opened my mouth, I released a hoarse cry.
“Please be real. Please be real. Please be real.” The words were a whispered wish, barely audible. After a few more ragged lungfuls of air, I slowly raised my head.
The people were still there, several dozen of them, robed in white from head to toe. They still looked like stone pillars to my sluggish mind, except stone didn’t move. And there was some kind of animal. Camels? No, the shape was wrong. Horses? But that made no sense. Horses didn’t do well this far out in the desert. But I didn’t really care because there, beyond the cluster of white-robed figures, was water. Glorious, drool-inducing water.
The small, pristine pool of water glittered amber in the golden light of the setting sun, surrounded by a border of greenery.
I swallowed glue-like saliva, imagining it was cool, clear water, then licked my cracked, peeling lips with a tongue like a tacky eraser and pushed myself up to my hands and knees. After a deep, fortifying breath, I gingerly placed one foot on the ground. And whimpered. It was like stepping on hot coals.
I forced myself to transfer my weight to that foot and straighten my leg as I placed my other foot on the ground, earning a muted cry. I squeezed my eyes shut, sending a cascade of tears streaming down my cheeks. I was so close. So damn close. The water was right there.
I could not give up now.
After a deep inhale, I blew out the breath and opened my eyes. I lifted my right foot and took a step. Then I stepped forward with my left foot. Each step brought forth a starburst of pain and a muffled sob, but I did not stop.
As I drew nearer to the people, I saw that the animals were donkeys, their backs laden with woven baskets and hide waterskins. Something about that seemed off, but I didn’t have the mental energy to figure it out.
I attempted to arrange my face into a warm, friendly expression. I was just a woman out for a nice, peaceful stroll through the desert. But deep down, I knew there was no way to disguise the desperation in my eyes.
And then I remembered I was naked and burned to a crisp, and I wondered why I was even trying to pretend that anything about this situation was casual or normal.
All stares were focused on me as I approached. I tried to see myself through their eyes. I probably looked half dead and fully nuts. The white-robed figures murmured among themselves, some tilting their heads to the sides as they watched me. A few of the smaller figures—children—giggled and ducked behind adults, peeking out around their robes.
A lone figure stepped forward from the group and cautiously approached me.
I stopped walking. It was all I could do to remain on my feet. To not drop to my knees and beg this stranger to take pity on me and fetch me a handful of water. Just one handful. It didn’t even need to be clean water. At this point, I would gladly have slurped from a mud puddle.
“What has happened to you, child?” the figure asked, voice feminine but seasoned with the gravel of age. It took my shriveled mind eons to process the meaning of her words. She stopped a half-dozen paces away, and I focused on what I could see of her aged face under her linen cowl. As she studied me, concern deepened the lines in her brown, leathery skin.
“I’m Nejeret,” I told her, betraying every survival instinct in my body. But she needed to know the Netjers would hunt me. Being near me meant danger to her and her people. If they were smart, they would run away from me and never look back.
Confusion clouded her dark, shrewd eyes. She studied me for a long moment, and then she stunned me speechless by dropping to her knees. She bowed her head, holding her hands out, palm up. Her knuckles were bulbous and gnarled, but her hands were steady.
At first, I thought she must have recognized me as Tarsi Tiff, international superstar. She wouldn’t have been my first elderly fan, but she may have been my most unexpected. I supposed I should have been flattered, or maybe embarrassed. I didn’t deserve such deference. But I didn’t have energy for anything beyond lusting after the natural well a scant hundred yards away. I couldn’t even manage a halfhearted effort at covering what I could of my nudity with my hands and arms.
The woman spoke without raising her head. “You honor us with your presence, divine one.”
Again, it took me ages to comprehend her words, and even longer to discern the reason for the delay. It wasn’t because extreme dehydration slowed my mind. Or, rather, not only because of the dehydration. I was having a hard time understanding her because she was speaking a language I hadn’t heard since I was a young child: my native tongue, Old Egyptian.
Among humans, the language had been dead for thousands of years. And this old woman was decidedly human. Nejerets didn’t age, at least not in the traditional, physical sense. So, how could she possibly be fluent in that ancient language?
Only then, once my brain code-switched to Old Egyptian, did I fully process what she had said. Specifically, what she had called me. Divine one. It was an honorific that humans used for my kind during ancient times. The title hadn’t been used in hundreds, possibly thousands, of years—in any language.
This woman hadn’t recognized me as Tarsi Tiff; she had recognized me as Nejeret.
Despite the lingering end-of-day heat and my extreme dehydration, an icy chill cascaded over my skin. I shivered as things that had seemed odd or out of place shifted, and I reoriented myself in the world.
I had wondered why my people would have replaced the At barrier blocking the tunnel to the Netjer-At Oasis. But now I could see that it hadn’t been replaced at all. Rather, it had never been removed. And the limestone blocks marking the desert road were in such remarkable condition because they had yet to be eroded by eons of sandstorms.
When I was expelled from Aaru, I had tumbled through Duat for what felt like an eternity because I hadn’t jumped straight from Aaru to the same time and place of my death. I had been dragged back to the distant past. To the time and place of my birth.
It was impossible. Miraculous. Almost unheard of.
I had, like my beloved stepmom before me, unintentionally traveled backward in time.
LETTER FROM THE GUEST EDITOR
Archaeology Today Magazine
Not long ago, I was in your metaphorical shoes. I was an average Jane graduate student. I knew the rules of the world and understood the limits of humankind. There was no place for immortals or soul mates or time travel in the real world—such things were relegated to works of fiction. Until I learned I was an immortal. Until I met Heru and bound my soul to his. Until I traveled through time.
So much has happened in the two decades since I learned the truth of the world—that I am Nejeret. I witnessed the death of a god—Nuin, the father of all Nejeretkind—and became his interim successor. My babies, Susie and Syris, have grown into near omnipotent beings. My little sister, Kat, has transformed into a veritable goddess powerful enough to protect not just the world, but the entire universe.
I learned that existence extends beyond the physical realm. I learned of At and anti-At, the elemental building blocks of this universe. I learned to enter and view the Echoes, the higher dimension where I can view all past, present, and potential future events like a streaming video.
I learned about Duat, the higher dimension filled with a rainbow river of soul-energy, the source of all mortal souls. I learned that as a Nejeret, I have an additional part of my soul called a ba, which, in the event of my death, will be lured into and trapped within a separate, self-contained dimension beyond Duat, called Aaru.
And I learned that some Nejerets have yet another soul element called a sheut, which gives us incredible otherworldly abilities. I borrowed Nuin’s sheut for a short while and wielded his terrifying power over time and space. Now, I have my own sheut that allows me to pull raw At into the physical realm and shape it to my will. My husband, Heru, can teleport from one location to another. Kat’s drawings take on a life of their own, and her unique connection to the universe allows her to draw on not only At and anti-At, but also on the vast river of soul-energy.
It seems like magic; I know. Like the familiar world is no longer bound by the rules of physics. Like there is no place for science in this new reality. But as Arthur C. Clarke said, “Magic’s just science that we don’t understand yet.”
I know it’s scary. I know these recent revelations require an enormous paradigm shift within each of us. But you will get through this. We all will—together.
Remember, Nejerets may descend from Nuin, a nearly omnipotent being from another universe, but we also descend from you—from humans. My mother was human. My grandmother was human. I was, until my Nejeret traits started to manifest when I was twenty-four years old, human.
We are not the enemy. The other. We are of you. And we must all remember that in the difficult days to come.
I have worked closely with the editors and writers of Archaeology Today to bring you this special issue on the history, science, and archaeological record of my people. If you have any further questions or concerns after reading this issue, please reach out to the Nejeret Human Relations Agency.
AND THE STARS WILL FALL FROM HEAVEN
An op-ed piece from Archaeology Today Magazine
Do the gods now walk among us? Are we entering the end of days? Who are these mysterious immortals who call themselves “Nejerets” and why are they here?
It may feel as though the Nejerets have invaded our planet—that they are the ancient aliens so many conspiracy theorists have long hunted. These immortals couldn’t possibly be as native to Earth as you or me, right? Evidence suggests a bit of both. Let’s examine the archaeological record to understand a little more about the origins of the Nejeret species.
EVOLUTION OR DIVINE INTERVENTION?
According to Heru, one of the Nejeret leaders, his species is homo sapiens nejeret, an offshoot from our own homo sapiens sapiens, much like our cousin species, the more familiar homo sapiens neanderthalensis. However, unlike Neanderthals, with whom we share a common ancestor, the Nejerets are direct descendants of our species.
During a candid press conference, Heru explained that Nuin, one of the near-omnipotent creators of our universe, implanted himself into the womb of a pregnant human woman many thousands of years ago. He lived as one of us, and his progeny, born of human mothers, became the beings we now know as Nejerets.
Nejerets have inherited many enviable perks from their “Great Father,” including—but not necessarily limited to—heightened senses and enhanced cellular regeneration, the latter of which leads to their extreme longevity. Heru, though unwilling or unable to pinpoint his exact date of birth, insinuated that he has been alive for over five thousand years—and he is not even the oldest among his kind.
While these traits may seem like something straight out of a fantasy novel, some of the world’s top geneticists have been studying Nejeret blood and tissue samples since their public “coming out” last month. In the weeks since, these devoted researchers have detected several genetic markers that they believe cause the notable differences between our two species.
Egyptologists have been scouring the historical record for evidence of Nuin, as well as Heru (more commonly known as “Horus” to mythology buffs), Hat-hur (more commonly known as “Hathor,” the supposed ancient alter-ego of Alexandra Larson), Aset (more commonly known as Isis), Nekure (Aset’s son, known as “Nik” among devoted admirers), Tarset (Heru’s daughter and beloved pop star better known as “Tarsi Tiff”) and many more. Temples, tombs, and other preserved historical sites spread across Egypt support Heru’s claims.
There is even mention of an ancient Nejeret homeland in a lost oasis, long buried under the sands of the Sahara. When asked about the events that led to the ancient diaspora of his people, Heru turned the microphone over to his wife, Alexandra, who claimed that the events surrounding Nuin’s death destroyed the oasis—though this hasn’t stopped archaeologists and treasure hunters from seeking it. Alexandra knows this because she was there, a modern woman supposedly transported across a vast chasm of time to the ancient past.
Time-traveling? Teleportation? Surely such abilities are impossible—
I blew out an annoyed breath and tossed the open magazine down on the coffee table in front of me. How had everything gone so wrong so fast? For two days after the special issue of Archaeology Today released—moving record copies, I might add—it looked like we were making genuine progress on the human-Nejeret relations front.
But then the Netjers invaded, smiting cities all over Earth in their effort to exterminate all Nejeret life. We did the only thing we could do—we fled to the safety of our hidden oasis. I may have exaggerated the level of destruction there, just a smidge. It had been lost for millennia, hidden under a mountain of limestone and thousands of years of sand, but beneath all of that lay the ancient Nejeret settlement, perfectly preserved and awaiting our return.
Of course, humanity had a completely understandable reaction to us fleeing. They blamed us—for everything. For abandoning them in their time of need. For drawing the Netjer’s attention to this universe in the first place. For the destruction and devastation caused to this planet. In the eyes of most humans, we were responsible for every death that resulted from the immortal war. And I could hardly blame them for that.
A squeal drew my attention to the wrestling match taking place on the floor of the playroom. Syris struggled under the dual assault of his tiny attackers. My baby girl, Reni, giggled maniacally as she clung to my full-grown son’s back like a barnacle, while her partner in crime, Bobby, rained tickles of fury upon Syris’ feet.
The corners of my mouth tugged upward, but my worries weighed too heavily upon my mind to result in anything beyond the tiniest of smiles. We had been hiding in the oasis for well over a month now. The Netjer threat was gone, driven away by Kat during the epic battle that led to the destruction of Aaru and the resurrection of all our people. Now, it was the humans who had us cowering in fear. Or, at least, what remained of them . . .
Again, I could hardly blame them for their hatred. Their condemnation. Billions of people died—and remained dead—while every Nejeret who had fallen as a casualty of the immortal war had been granted a miraculous rebirth. It wasn’t remotely fair, and it was our fault. But the continued aggression served no purpose other than to fuel humanity’s hatred of Nejerets.
They wanted us gone. But we had nowhere else to go.
I looked to the doorway as Susie walked into the playroom. She eyed her twin brother wrestling with her younger siblings on the floor, smirked and shook her head, then turned her attention to me. She crossed the room to where I sat perched on the edge of an At bench, her brow furrowing when she spotted the open magazine on the coffee table in front of me.
“Mom,” she said, a faint hint of exasperation in her tone, “why do you beat yourself up with that thing?” She flicked her hand toward the discarded magazine. “There’s nothing you could have said differently in there that would have made this situation better.” She stopped near the end of the table and crossed her arms over her chest, raising her eyebrows for emphasis. “It is what it is. We can only move forward from here.”
I let out a single, dry laugh. “I think we both know that’s not entirely true.” Our family had a bad habit of hopping this way and that around in the timeline. Even if Kat had put a kibosh on any further time travel before her powers burned out, there was always a chance for temporal displacement. I knew that better than anyone.
Susie rolled her eyes. “I’m sure Dad’s waiting for you,” she said.
With a sigh, I stood and brushed a whole lot of nothing off the front of my linen pants. “Yes, I’m sure he is.” I pointed to the low table tucked into one corner of the playroom with tiny chairs arranged around it. “The kids’ snacks and waters are right there,” I told her.
We had done what we could to make the space comfortable, but our resources were extremely limited out in the middle of the desert. It wasn’t like there was an Ikea nearby to furnish all the palaces in the oasis. In the last month and a half, we had made do with fabricating what we could from solidified At and repurposing the few creature comforts we had hauled out here before.
Had it really only been a month and a half since everything went down? Since the war ended? Since we died and were reborn? Since Tarset vanished?
It felt like a lifetime ago.
A squeal followed by a peal of laughter shook me out of my daze, and a smile curved my lips as I watched Syris chase Reni and Bobby around the room, stomping after the smaller children and roaring like a deranged T-Rex.
It was probably time for me to stop thinking of Syris as a child. He was twenty years old now and nearly as large as his dad. But for the leaner build of youth, I could almost mistake him for Heru from behind. But Syris was my child, my baby boy, my first-born son. He would always be my baby, regardless of how big or strong he grew.
“We’ll be fine, Mom,” Susie said, linking her arm with mine and tugging me toward the doorway, away from her siblings. “Take a breath. Go to the meeting. And don’t worry.”
I cast one last, uncertain glance at Syris and his toddler charges before stepping out into the hallway. The trio was oblivious to me leaving. Somehow, that stung more than it reassured me.
I frowned as Susie pulled me further down the hallway. We were on the second floor of the oasis palace that had been my husband’s home in ancient times. Most of the bedrooms and more private living spaces were on this level and the one above. Heru had turned one such space into his office, where Susie currently led me. Half of my mind was on Heru—and the upcoming meeting with the rest of the heads of clans—but the other half lingered back in the playroom, on my grown boy, my baby girl, and my adopted son.
Susie and Syrus may have been my first children, but ridiculously complex time-travel circumstances had prevented me from experiencing the joys and struggles of raising them. Rearing Reni and Bobby was my first true mothering experience, and my helicopter parenting tendencies disturbed me to no end. But they had died on my watch. In my arms.
I swallowed the sorrow, shoving the memory of those horrifying last moments into a locked vault in my mind. They were okay now, and the Netjers were gone. Nothing like that would ever—ever—happen to my children again.
I glanced over my shoulder as Susie led me further down the hallway. “If anything happens while we’re at the meeting—”
“Nothing’s going to happen, Mom,” Susie cut in.
“But if something does happen and you need any help—,” I persisted, anxiety twisting in my gut.
Some nights, I didn’t sleep a wink. I just laid there in bed, thinking through all the worst-case scenarios, imagining every bad thing that could happen to my babies. Not even Heru could distract me from the horror show playing out in my mind, not while he battled his own demons.
“Get grandma,” Susie said, finishing for me. She added an eye roll for good measure. “I know.”
We slowed as we approached the open doorway to Heru’s study. The faint hum of Tarset’s voice told me my beloved was watching one of Tarset’s many recorded interviews. Susie and I stopped in the doorway and peered in at Heru. He sat at his desk, hunched forward on his elbows, his back bent and shoulders slumped. Only the top of his buzzed head was visible over the upper edge of his laptop screen. It was so strange to see his powerful figure bowed and his dazzling charisma dulled by such heavy burdens. Not just his role as the leader of our people, but his heartbreak over losing Tarset.
I pressed my lips together, the corners dipping down into a frown as my heart broke for my husband, my bond-mate, the man whose soul resonated in perfect harmony with mine. Our unique connection meant I felt his pain on a visceral level. Not quite as if it were my own, but close.
He had been watching recordings of Tarset obsessively since the dust settled after Kat resurrected us and defeated the Netjers. It was when we first realized Tarset was missing. I wasn’t sure what he thought he would find in those videos, but it certainly hadn’t brought us any closer to finding her.
All it had done was reinforce Heru’s belief that he had failed in his role as Tarset’s father. He blamed himself for what happened to her, not that we had any clue of what that might actually be.
Susie loosened her hold on my arm and dragged hers free. I glanced at her face to find her features arranged in a mirror image of mine. She gave me a slight nod of understanding, her eyes filled with pity, and inched backward. When she was out of arm’s reach, she turned and retreated at a quicker pace.
I watched her go, waiting until she disappeared around the corner, then turned my attention back to Heru. I inhaled deeply, grounding myself in my own emotions to resist the undertow of his turmoil, and stepped into the study.
Heru didn’t look up as I crossed the room. I doubted he even realized I was there. I rounded his desk and planted myself behind his low-backed chair, slipping my arms around him and resting my chin on his shoulder. The soft fabric of his linen button-down shirt brushed against my forearms. He pressed the side of his head against mine in silent greeting.
On the screen, Tarset sat in an elegant upholstered armchair, one leg crossed over the other, her usual poised, bubbly self. She looked glamorous and gorgeous, as always, her copper eyes glittering with good humor, and her long, dark hair tied back in a sleek high ponytail that trailed over one shoulder.
“But, yeah,” Tarset said, smiling like she was talking to her closest girlfriend in the universe, “we’re still friends. Wolf and me—we were right for each other for a little while, but not for forever, you know?”
“Hmmm, yeah,” the interviewer said, and the camera cut to her. “I think we can all relate to that.” She was the curvy journalist from Celeb News Now—Miranda something—which meant this was that interview.
I held in a sigh.
“So, tell us,” Miranda started. “What has it been like to grow up as an ancient Egyptian magically transported to modern times?”
Tarset laughed, the sound musical, like every other sound that came out of her mouth. Her expression remained warm and open as she answered. “Honestly, I couldn’t tell you. I mean, how many people remember much from before they were, you know, four years old?” She shook her head, shrugging. “This world—” Tarset held out her hands, gesturing to the world beyond the set of the interview. “This is all I’ve ever really known.”
The camera cut back to Miranda, capturing her thoughtful nod. “You’ve been notoriously tightlipped about the actual circumstances that led to your move from ancient times to our modern world. Can you tell us anything about what happened—about how you ended up here?”
Tarset laughed again. “You mean, can I tell people how to travel through time?” She grinned. “I hate to disappoint your viewers, Miranda, but it was kind of a onetime deal.”
“Surely you must be able to share something,” Miranda persisted. “Maybe not the how of it—but what about the why? You were born at the end of the Old Kingdom in Egypt, during the final years of the incredibly long reign of Pepi Neferkare, if I’m not mistaken.”
The camera cut to Tarset’s wilting smile, but it only lingered on her for a second before returning to Miranda.
Miranda leaned forward, her face locked in that dog-with-a-bone journalist’s expression that I knew for a fact Tarset despised. “Why did you leave that time? Why jump forward four thousand years?”
The camera cut back to Tarset, capturing the last ghost of her smile as her gaze grew distant, her eyes unfocusing. The darkness from her childhood cast shadows on her usually sunny, effervescent personality. The shadows vanished almost as soon as they appeared, and Tarset’s smile returned, but it looked forced.
I clenched my jaw, hating Miranda whatever-her-last-name-was for forcing Tarset to dredge up those haunting memories. What right did this woman have to push and push and push? Tarset was a person, but all this woman saw was a story.
More than once, I had heard Tarset confess she felt like she was public property, that it was part of the whole fame gig. She would say it with a single-shoulder shrug and a lopsided smile, like the masses thinking they owned her didn’t bother her. But here, now, in this interview, it clearly did.
“I was sick,” Tarset finally said, pausing to clear her throat.
The heartache in her voice shoved me back to those traumatic events, and in a blink, the memory replayed in my mind.
“Something’s wrong,” Heru said, stopping before the columned entrance to the palace. He looked up at the descending sun, still hours from the horizon. “They never go in this early. There’s still much to do…”
Heru took the stairs leading up to the palace’s arched doorway two at a time, me close on his heel. Vomit and sweat scented the air, and I suppressed a gag. “Sesha?” he called out to his wife.
There was no response.
“Sesha! Where are you?”
A groan came from one of the back rooms, accompanied by the faint sound of weeping.
Heru made his way through several sparsely furnished chambers and down a long hallway that led to the back of the palace, to the cozy room where the three youngest children slept.
Sesha kneeled on the floor beside one of three polished, wood-framed beds carved to display a bevy of animals native to Egypt, her head resting on her curled-up arm on the edge of the bed and her body shaking with each of her faint sobs. Tarset lay atop the bed, her skin pallid and coated in a sheen of sweat, her breaths quick and shallow. A brief glance at the other beds told me the children occupying them were also unwell, but not nearly as ill as Tarset.
“Sesha…” Heru strode into the room and dropped to his knees beside his wife. When Sesha didn’t look up, didn’t show any sign of having heard him, he shook her shoulder. “Sesha!”
She raised her head and turned red-rimmed eyes on him. With a wail, she threw herself into his arms and cried harder.
While Heru attempted to comfort her, I made my way around the room, checking on the other two children. They were both burning up, but neither seemed to be having as much trouble breathing as Tarset was having.
I stopped at the head of Tarset’s narrow bed and stared down at her. Her eyes were closed, her mouth open, and each ragged, rattling breath was clearly a struggle. My stomach knotted, and fissures laced through my heart. Not her. Not the little girl I had grown to love so deeply.
“What happened?” I swallowed roughly. “How—”
Without warning, Sesha spun on her knees and wrapped her arms around my thighs, hugging my legs. “I beg of you, save her!” She stared up at me with hope-filled eyes. “Please!”
Slowly, I shook my head. “I don’t know how to—”
“Please,” she cried, desperation making her voice hoarse. “Please! You must be able to do something. Whatever you say, you have the powers of the gods… I know you do. Please, Alexandra! Use this great power you have. Save my little girl. Please!”
“Do not drink any water—it’s been poisoned,” Aset said as she rushed into the room, Nik close on her heels. She scanned the beds quickly. “Ah… but I see I am too late.”
“Can you save them?” Heru asked his sister, his voice rough.
Aset approached the foot of Tarset’s bed and shook her head. “I can do nothing for her, but the other two I may be able to save.” She moved to the youngest boy’s bed and bent over the child.
My throat constricted. Aset—a renowned doctor in the future—was a healer even now. But not even her skills could save the little girl who’d snuggled her way into my heart. Tarset was going to die. A sob lodged in my throat. Not her…
“Please…” Sesha’s hands were clutching the backs of my leg so hard that it was painful. “Help her!”
“There was no way to save me using the medicine available at the time,” Tarset said, her voice dragging me back to the here and now. “And well . . .” Her forced smile on the screen faded as the shadows of the past returned and her gaze grew glassy. This time, she didn’t banish the darkness with a smile. “I was delirious. I don’t really know how much is memory and how much is from a fever dream. My mom—”
Her voice broke, and she averted her gaze to her lap, where she fiddled with the thick gold band encircling her left thumb. It had been her mother’s. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
“Lex, my stepmom—,” Tarset opened her eyes, and a tiny smile touched her lips. “Well, you know who she is. The entire world does. She saved me the only way she could, by turning me into a type of otherworldly statue, preserving my body here on Earth while my soul waited in some other dimension outside of time and space—it’s all super complicated,” she said, interrupting her own explanation.
To call the events that had led to Tarset’s shift from the distant past to the present super complicated was a gross understatement. I had been there, and it had been epic—in every possible meaning of the word.
“Long story short,” Tarset said on the screen, “I remained frozen in time for four thousand years until medicine advanced far enough that I could be unfrozen and saved.” She shrugged, the shadows in her eyes clearing as her smile widened. “And then I was here.”
The camera shot lingered on Tarset.
“Wow,” Miranda said, slowly shaking her head. “I can’t imagine what that must have been like.” Her features shifted into an exaggerated expression of sympathy. “So, just like that, you left your family behind.”
“Part of my family,” Tarset corrected her. “I still have my dad and Lex and their kids, and I have more cousins and aunts and uncles than I know what to do with.” She laughed, clearly trying to steer the conversation back onto lighter ground.
“But your mother,” Miranda said, refusing to shift gears. “You must miss her.”
I let out a derisive snort. What a stupid thing to say. Of course, Tarset missed her mom. Sesha was amazing. I missed the damn woman, and she still owned a sliver of my husband’s heart.
A hint of irritation flashed across Tarset’s face, so quick and subtle that if I hadn’t known her—the real Tarset—I would have missed it.
Heru balled his hands into tight fists on the arms of his chair. Beneath me, I could feel the tension humming through his muscles, and I tightened my arms around his shoulders.
“Yeah, I miss her,” Tarset said. “I suppose it’s the same for any kid who loses a parent when they’re young. I mean, it doesn’t matter if they died four years ago, or four millennia ago. It will always hurt, always be fresh . . . always raw.” A tear breached the brim of Tarset’s eyelid and streaked down her cheek. “So, yeah, I miss my mom. I miss her every day.” Tarset inhaled a shaky breath, her nostrils flaring, and turned her face away from the camera.
Tears filled my eyes and spilled over. I sniffed and wiped them away.
Tarset was our ambassador, the public face intended to help humanity accept Nejeret kind. I had watched her give countless interviews in this role since the big Nejeret coming out, and she almost never showed such vulnerability. She had always been so careful to conceal her inner scars, even around family. Such an open, raw display of pain was rare.
I had long assumed she held everything in because she didn’t want to seem ungrateful. She bottled up all of her missing, all of her longing for the life—the mother—she left behind in ancient times and only projected what she believed others wanted to see in her. Calm, happy, friendly, cheerful, kind—those were the adjectives that fit Tarset. Or rather, that fit her public image as Tarsi Tiff.
When had her public face invaded her private life? It seemed like the polished, plastic version of Tarset was all we saw these days, even behind closed doors.
I reached past Heru and tapped the laptop screen to pause the video.
Heru expelled a breath like he had been holding it for minutes. “I should have seen it,” he said, the silken baritone of his voice vibrating against my chest. “How much she was struggling.” He exhaled a laugh, brief, muted, and bitter. “I didn’t. I couldn’t. I was so focused on our people, on the bigger picture and the war, that I failed to see what was going on with my daughter.”
Closing my eyes, I turned my head toward Heru, pressing my face into the crook of his neck and inhaling his intoxicating spicy scent. Then I placed a soft kiss against his smooth, golden-brown skin, sighed, and opened my eyes, pulling away just enough to see his strong profile.
“Tarset is a performer,” I reminded him. “She’s an expert at putting on a show to make her audience see and feel whatever she wants them to see and feel. She didn’t want you to see her pain, to feel it with her, so she didn’t let you.”
Heru sat motionless for a long time, but slowly, the tension eased from his muscles and he relaxed beneath me. He shifted his hands to my forearms crossing over the front of his chest. We remained that way for nearly a minute, not moving, not talking. Just being together. Sometimes that was enough.
Heru slid his left hand into mine and rotated it to place a gentle kiss on my palm. He exhaled a sigh, the sound slow, deep, and rough, and turned his chair away from the desk, angling his body toward me. Hands on my hips, he pulled me down to sit across his lap before raising his hands to cradle either side of my face. He kissed me softly, gently.
When he wrapped his arms around me and pulled me in close, it felt as though he was seeking refuge in my embrace. I melted into him, pressing my cheek against his shoulder and twining my arms around his neck, lending him what strength I could.
“It’s been five weeks,” he said, resting his cheek against the top of my head. “Where is she?”
I squeezed him more tightly in response but said nothing. He wasn’t looking for an answer from me so much as he was putting the question out there, hoping Isfet, the soul of the universe, might take pity on him and answer.
Was Tarset dead? After the Great Resurrection, we honestly didn’t know what happened to Nejerets when their new bodies died. Aaru had been destroyed. Where would our souls go now? Would they float for all eternity in the stream of soul-energy in Duat? We couldn’t merge with the collective soul-energy there; our souls were eternal. Apart.
Was there a chance that some part of Aaru had survived the implosion and that Tarset was trapped there? Or had the Netjers stolen her away when Kat drove them out of our universe? Did something happen to her during that final battle that somehow destroyed her, body and soul?
I held in a sigh. Would we ever know for sure?
I twisted my wrist and peeked down at my watch, checking the time. “They’ll start gathering soon,” I said, loosening my hold on Heru. “We should prepare.”
Lips pursed into a perma-frown, I flipped a fourth card from the deck of tarot cards, adding it to the three cards already laid faceup on the small patch I had cleared on the dining table in front of me. Half-finished sketches lay scattered around the tarot cards, the fruits of a brief but productive manic drawing session.
Scowling at the partial tarot spread, I took a gulp of whiskey—breakfast of champions—then set my empty glass down with a thunk. I flipped another card, the motion jerkier.
“Mother fucker,” I muttered.
I flipped another card and slapped it down.
“Mother fucking mother fucker.”
When I flipped the next card, I didn’t even bother laying it in the spread on the table with the others. I held it pinched between my fingers and glared at the image displayed on its face. The tarot card quivered.
The Star card displayed Tarset, nude, kneeling at the edge of a pool of water surrounded by palm trees and sand, arms extended over the pool and water dripping from her cupped hands. Seven stars hung above her in the twilight sky, looking like silver asterisks. Near the horizon, in the place of an eighth star, a black scarab hovered, its wings flared up and around a golden disk. Upright, this card represented hope and creativity, which seemed fitting for Tarset. But upside down, as the card kept appearing, The Star suggested loneliness and defeat.
The spread of cards was the same as before. The same as always.
The silence filling the cabin grated on my nerves. The endless falling snow outside muffled all the noise of the surrounding world. A world that had become far too quiet. We may have vanquished the enemy, but they had left brutal scars on the earth.
Growling, I unleashed my frustration on the useless tarot cards, shoving them off the table with a violent sweep of my arm. Several sheets of paper fluttered to the hardwood floor, covering some of the cards.
With a harsh scream, I shoved my chair back and stood partway. Another, angrier arm sweep sent more sketches flying, along with my empty whiskey glass and a few discarded pens. The glass smacked against a cabinet door, then rolled on its side down the length of the aisle between the kitchen island and the row of cabinets. A couple of sheets of paper made it all the way to the rug in the living room beyond the far end of the table.
Breathing hard, I leaned forward, my palms planted on the table’s smooth oak surface. I had been raw and on edge since that final showdown with the Netjers, like the colossal force I had channeled had overloaded my synapses and singed my nerve endings. The smallest things set me off these days, and the most minute use of my powers exhausted me.
Nik had brought me here, to this cabin in the remote Alaskan wilderness, to give me a chance to recuperate in peace. I had no idea what was going on out there, in the rest of the world. Though I supposed I would find out today, when we met with the Nejeret clan leaders at the oasis. It would be my first time revisiting the scene of the battle.
I straightened and reached out to my right to snatch the half-full whiskey bottle off the end of the counter. I yanked the stopper free, took a long pull of the burning amber liquid, then stuffed the stopper back into the neck of the bottle.
Rage bubbled up, boiling over. With a hoarse howl, I chucked the bottle across the cabin. It hurtled toward the picture window in the living room. I hadn’t actually intended to throw the bottle at it, but that’s where it was headed, and part of me gleefully anticipated the impending explosion of glass.
The bottle froze feet from smashing into—and likely through—the window. It hovered in front of the glass, the idyllic winter wonderland displayed beyond remaining undisturbed by my tantrum. A delicate vine of iridescent At coiled around the neck of the bottle, the other end of the vine rooted in the floor.
In the entryway beyond the corner of the living room, the cabin’s front door stood open. Nik stepped inside holding an armful of firewood, his tall, imposing figure framed by a serene, snowy backdrop. The early morning light tinted the snow behind him rose gold. He had been out since I woke up some forty minutes ago. Now I knew where he’d been—chopping wood. Sometimes, he needed physical activity to expel his frustration. I wasn’t oblivious enough to think I wasn’t the root source of most of that frustration.
Nik stomped his boots on the entry rug and scanned the chaos on the floor around the table before fixing his attention on the hovering bottle. A grim expression hardened his stunning angular features. At his direction, the At vine lowered the whiskey bottle, gently setting it on an end table beside the couch. The thin vine unwound from around the neck of the bottle and withdrew, fizzling away in a glittering mist.
Nik took another step into the cabin and kicked the front door shut. “I thought we talked about this, Kitty Kat.” He speared me with his pale blue stare, one eyebrow elevated. “It would seem you and I have different definitions of the word rest.”
I raised my right hand, thrust it out in front of me, and flipped him the bird.
The corner of Nik’s sinful mouth tensed, and he narrowed his eyes to irritated slits. In the same heartbeat, a new vine of At snuck up from the floorboards at my feet and snaked around my outstretched wrist.
Nik tutted and shook his head. “Such crude manners. Somebody should really teach you a lesson.”
My stomach did a little flip-flop at the dark promise in his words. I tugged my arm, attempting to pull free from the vine’s hold, but it was useless, like being cuffed in an iron manacle. Before that final, no-holds-barred battle with the Netjers, I easily would have been able to shatter the At vine with focused thought. But at the moment, the task was utterly impossible.
Nik crossed the living room to the oversized hearth in the far wall, taking his time. Letting me struggle. He crouched and set down the firewood, stacking it in a neat little pyramid in the recessed cubby beside the fireplace. By the time he stood and faced me, I had stopped struggling.
I couldn’t break free, not in my current state. I assumed that was the whole point of this little display of his power. And of my lack thereof. Nik wanted me to face my weakened state. To acknowledge the lingering effects of the battle. The war was over, but the trauma from the fight lingered in my body. In my soul.
Nik crossed his arms over his chest and stood in front of the hearth, simply staring at me. His eyes trailed lazily down the length of my body, taking in the baggy sweats and T-shirt I had taken from his dresser when I crawled out of bed. When his gaze finally returned to mine, his pale eyes glinted dangerously.
“Since you seem to be incapable of resting on your own,” he said, slowly stalking toward me. He unzipped his checked wool coat and shrugged out of it, shedding his lumberjack disguise and tossing the coat aside like it contained the last shreds of his civility. “It falls to me to make you rest.”
I gulped, a zing of anticipation shooting down my spine, striking my core. I licked my lips, my chest rising and falling faster than before.
Another vine of At shot out of the floor and captured my other wrist. Those twin vines holding me captive pulled my hands down and dragged me backward, toward my abandoned chair. When the back of my right calf hit the wooden chair leg, two more At vines burst up from the floor and coiled around my ankles, climbing up my calves and around my knees. They forced my knees to bend, and I resisted for only a few seconds before dropping into the chair.
As soon as I sat, the vines holding my limbs latched onto the arms and legs of the chair, restraining me. I instinctively struggled against my bindings, but by the time Nik reached me, I had fallen still.
His heated, hyper-focused gaze roved up and down my body. He was hunger. Need. Desire. And he was just a little bit scary.
I watched him, motionless save for the rapid rise and fall of my chest. I had a rough idea of where this was headed, but Nik could be extremely creative. I could only imagine what he had planned for me. The only thing I knew for sure was that I would love every damn second of it.
Nik leaned in, looming over me. He set his hands on the arms of my chair, directly behind my elbows, and bent his arms, sinking deeper into my personal space. A low, rough noise rumbled in his chest as he nuzzled the hollow of my neck, his nose barely skimming that sensitive flesh.
The At vines twining around my legs crept higher, inching up the insides of my thighs. They forced my knees further apart until the outsides of my legs were flush against the chair’s armrests.
Nik pulled back enough that I could see his achingly beautiful face. His gaze skimmed over my features, dark lust burning in his pale irises. His face was naked of his signature piercings, but his neck displayed the goddess Isis tattooed in black ink, her wings outstretched to embrace him.
I had done that. Marked him. My ink stained patches of his skin, all over his glorious body. A small, possessive smile curved my lips.
“You want me to punish you, don’t you?” Nik said, his voice a low purr. His attention lingered on my lips before returning to my eyes. “Do you want pain or pleasure?” He licked his lips as they curved into a slow, wicked grin. “Or both?”
“I—” My voice caught in my throat, my heart hammering and my whole body flushing. Don’t get me wrong—my sexual tastes were far from vanilla. But Nik was every other fucking flavor in the ice cream shop, and he made me feel like an inexperienced young virgin at least once a day. “I want—”
But Nik’s focus abruptly strayed away from me, and my words faltered. He fell still, absolutely and completely. Even his At vines ceased their slow, incessant creep up my body. I watched as the desire bled from his eyes. As his eyelids opened wider. As something that looked a hell of a lot like fear took root in his shocked stare.
“What?” I craned my neck to see what had captured his attention.
Something on the floor. But all that was down there were my scattered tarot cards and the dozens of half-finished, hastily sketched drawings.
Straining the muscles and tendons in my neck, I glanced from Nik to the drawing I thought had captured his attention and back. “What is it?”
The At vines restraining me vanished, leaving me startlingly free to move. I twisted my wrists, increasing the blood flow to my fingers.
Nik stepped away from my chair and crouched to pick up the sketch. He stood and extended his arm, holding the sketch out in front of me. “What is this?”
I scanned the drawing. It was one of the first I had done this morning. Like all the others, it featured a winged scarab holding a circle over its head in its buggy pincers, much like the scarab on The Star card. Aesthetically, this particular rendition of the winged scarab was very much in the style of the ancient Egyptians.
“It’s a drawing,” I said dryly. Duh.
Nik didn’t react to the sarcasm dripping from those three words. It wasn’t like him to ignore my pokes and prods. He liked it when I gave him shit, and he enjoyed dishing it back out even more. Unease settled in my belly, replacing the need Nik had stoked just moments ago.
Nik locked eyes with me. “Why did you draw this, Kat?” The paper shivered as he shook the drawing for emphasis.
He called me Kat. Not Kitty Kat–just Kat. This was bad.
My brow furrowed and my lips parted. Again, I looked from Nik to the drawing and back. I searched his eyes, trying to understand why this sketch had shaken him so badly. I didn’t get it.
“I was trying to find Tarset,” I admitted. He was going to love that, especially after I had promised not to even try to use my powers when I was alone. Lately, I had a bad habit of ending up unconscious when I pushed myself too hard, magically speaking.
A bitter laugh bubbled up from my chest, and I flung a hand, gesturing to the rest of the unfinished sketches littering the floor. Each displayed some variation of the same scarab symbol in different artistic styles.
“Clearly, I’m broken,” I added, my shoulders slumping as I lowered my arm. “I give up. You win. No more powers. I’ll rest.”
Nik ignored my admission of defeat, which was unlike him. His eyes remained locked on the drawing in his hand. “Do you know what this represents?” His gaze flickered up, meeting mine for a fleeting moment before returning to the sketch. “This symbol?”
I shook my head, frowning as I studied the drawing more closely. “I mean, other than the sun. Right? That’s what the scarab is holding—the sun?” At Nik’s minute nod, I continued, “So maybe it represents Re or Amun or another of the divine manifestations of the sun?”
Nik finally tore his stare away from the drawing. His eyes locked with mine once more. “Atum,” he said, naming one of those solar gods. “It represents Atum.”
I shook my head slowly, unwilling or unable to make the necessary mental leap quickly as fear iced through my veins. Atum was a Nejeret myth. A legend. He was our version of the bogeyman, said to hunt naughty Nejerets and kill them in their sleep. And I had drawn his symbol—over and over—while trying to find Tarset.
I swallowed roughly. “But—” I cleared my throat and held Nik’s haunted stare. “But Atum is a myth. He’s not real.”
“Yeah, sure,” Nik said. But despite his quick agreement, his voice lacked conviction. “Whatever you say, Kitty Kat.”
I hung back as Kat strode toward the magical gateway drawn on a sheet and pinned up on the living room wall. Heading outside dressed in only jeans and a T-shirt felt wrong when the cabin’s windows provided a view of knee-deep snow. But then, we weren’t heading outside here. Kat’s hand-drawn gateway would transport us to the other side of the world, to the oasis, where a Who’s Who of the Nejeret world was probably already gathering.
I leaned back against the edge of the kitchen island and crossed my arms over my chest. “I don’t think we should go.”
We had made a deal. If she could create the gateway without overexerting herself and passing out, then we would go to the meeting. I wasn’t too proud to go back on my word. Not if it meant keeping her safe.
Kat halted mid step, two paces from the gateway. She stood with her back to me for a solid ten seconds before slowly turning to look at me, her eyebrows raised. She looked ready to go to battle in her black leather coat and combat boots, and with her sword, Mercy, strapped to her back. But despite her appearance—and trademark fuck-off attitude—I knew her nerves were eating her alive.
The corners of my mouth tensed as I anticipated an outburst. Being with Kat was like riding a roller coaster built on emotional extremes every second of every day. It was fucking exhausting. And exciting as hell. She wasn’t just volatile. She was a fucking volcano. And nobody—not even me, the person who shared a soul bond with her—could predict when she was going to blow.
“They don’t need us,” I said, not backing down. “Let’s sit this one out.”
Her scowl deepened with each word.
“We’ll hit up the next gathering,” I went on. “Give you a little more time to—”
Her expression hardened, her eyes flashing with rainbow luminescence as she subconsciously drew on her unique connection to the soul-energy. It had been happening more and more often, and neither of us knew why or what it meant. The battle had damaged her soul so badly that she couldn’t even feel it when she channeled soul-energy. Most of the time, she didn’t even know it was happening unless I told her.
The vibrant, burning colors filling her eyes faded almost as soon as they appeared, giving way to the dark brown irises I drowned in every night . . . and morning . . . and afternoon . . .
Fuck. I wanted her. Right now. Always.
I pushed off the counter and stalked toward her. If I could just get my hands on her body, I knew I could convince her to stay.
Kat widened her stance and reached over her shoulder, drawing her sword in one smooth motion. The cabin filled with the ringing of the At blade. “Back off, Nik.”
This time, I was the one to stop mid step. I raised my hands, quietly surrendering. Slowly, deliberately, I slipped my hands into the front pockets of my jeans to let her know I wouldn’t try anything more. She wasn’t beyond fighting me to get what she wanted. Even if we both knew she wouldn’t beat me, she would still try.
“We’re going,” she said, staring at me for a moment longer before trusting my show of defeat and sheathing her sword. “Deal with it.”
Before I could even think about arguing further, she spun on her heel and stomped through the gateway.
I blew out a breath and followed her. Looked like it was an eruption kind of day.
The gateway transported us to the portico outside the arched front entrance of Heru’s palace. Kat stood on the edge of the porch and stared out at the oasis. I stepped forward to stand beside her. There were hints of green, growing things everywhere I looked. The land was coming back to life, now that the Netjers had ripped away the mountain of limestone that had shielded the oasis from the rest of the world.
I angled my face upward, taking in the deep purples, oranges, and reds staining the sky while secretly keeping a close watch on Kat. If she felt like I was hovering—or if I dared to inquire about her wellbeing—she might just deck me. It wouldn’t have been the first time.
The corner of my mouth tensed as I suppressed a grin. Not that I minded.
Without warning, Kat trotted down the porch steps and started along the paved pathway that would lead toward the gathering area at the heart of the oasis. I begrudgingly followed her, a glowering shadow.
By the time we reached the small, sunken amphitheater our people had used as a gathering space for thousands of years, the curved bench seats were already packed with immortal bodies, leaving little room for us. I spotted my mom on the far side, seated in the row behind Heru and Lex. Heru was on his feet, addressing the gathered Nejerets.
Kat stopped near the entrance to the South stairway, her hands balled into tight fists at her sides. She was losing her nerve. But if she walked away now, she would see it as backing down from a challenge, something she was practically allergic to. She would hate herself for the perceived show of weakness, and she didn’t need that on top of all the other shit she was dealing with.
I placed my hand flat against her lower back and guided her around the outside edge of the amphitheater, heading for the East stairway. We quietly descended the stairs and slipped between the rows, squeezing in beside my mom.
“Good to see you, dear,” my mom murmured, curving her arm around Kat’s shoulders and giving her a side hug.
“You too, Aset,” Kat said, her rigid expression warming momentarily as she leaned into the embrace.
My mom released Kat and reached across her back to grip my shoulder. Her eyes locked with mine, her stare overflowing with questions—about Kat, about me, about how we were doing and what we had been up to. There was a silent admonition in there, too, for being so out of touch.
“Later,” I mouthed.
She nodded and returned her attention to the debate happening in front of us. Heru was still on his feet, but a woman across the amphitheater had joined him in defiance of whatever he had been saying. Her name was Saskia, and she was the leader of one of the Baltic clans. I hadn’t been paying attention to their debate, but her body language told me it wasn’t a friendly discussion. I tuned in now.
“… is not our place to force them to cohabitate with us,” Heru countered vehemently. “If they want to form human-only settlements, we must allow them to do so.”
“Human-only—” Saskia sneered and shook her head. “Open your eyes, Heru. They’re not human-only. They’re anti-Nejeret. And these so-called ‘safe havens’ are little more than breeding grounds for anti-Nejeret terrorists.” She sniffed in disgust. “We need to snuff this problem out before it grows. How many more of our people need to be captured and tortured to convince you of that? How many more of our people need to die?”
Saskia flung her hand out, pointing a single, slim finger straight at Kat. “Behold, our great savior.” Sarcasm dripped from her words.
All eyes turned to Kat, who tensed beside me. Lex glanced over her shoulder, surprise at seeing us there melting into an apologetic smile for Kat being drawn into the argument.
Tension vibrated in my muscles, making my body go rigid. This was exactly the kind of thing I had been hoping to avoid.
Saskia lowered her hand. “Weak, power depleted.” Her gaze swept across the assembly. “Who’s to say if the great Katarina Dubois will ever return to full power? We can’t rely on her to once again resurrect those of us who are slain. We are bleeding people. How many Nejerets have been killed by these human purists? The situation is spiraling out of control, and we must act swiftly and with a firm hand before we lose our foothold in this new world order.”
Anger radiated off Heru. The surrounding air seemed to thicken. Those nearest him could sense the change, even if only subconsciously. I didn’t think they realized they were doing it, but all around Heru, Nejerets leaned away or even scooted on their benches.
I watched Kat out of the corner of my eye. She seemed to shrink in on herself, and I reached for her hand, gripping it tightly. Her slender fingers felt frail, so unlike her.
Coming here was a mistake. We had barely been sitting here for two minutes and Kat had already been attacked for her current, depleted state. A state she was only in because she had saved these ungrateful pricks.
“More violence will only reinforce the position of these wayward groups,” Heru countered, his voice low and carefully controlled. “We would be feeding fuel to their fire. If you want to see a situation that is out of control, by all means, Saskia, launch an attack.”
Saskia scoffed. Apparently, she was shit at reading people because she continued her verbal onslaught on Heru. “Oh, and I suppose you want us to turn a blind eye to all these attacks? To roll over and let them push us back into the shadows?” She flung her arms out to either side. “This is our world, too, Heru. We deserve to stand in the light as much as humans do.”
“But it is also their world,” Heru said, his voice getting very quiet. It was his don’t-fuck-with-me tone, which meant shit was about to hit the fan. “And our war has nearly destroyed it. We made a mess, and now we must clean it up.”
“By going back into hiding?” Saskia bit out. “By pretending we don’t exist?”
“That’s not what I—”
Another Nejeret stood, joining the argument. I didn’t even see who as I shifted all of my attention to Kat. Her body trembled beside me, and a faint tingle thrummed between us everywhere we touched, from hips to shoulders to hands.
My focus snapped up to her face. Her eyes were squeezed shut, her expression a pained grimace. The rising energy in the group awakened her connection with the soul-energy, and if that connection continued for much longer, she would pass out right here, in front of everyone, only strengthening Saskia’s anti-human arguments.
“Shit,” I hissed.
Thankfully, the attention of the assembly remained locked on the verbal sparring match. Nobody was paying Kat any attention.
Quietly and unobtrusively, I stood and pulled Kat up to her feet and out to the aisle. Wrapping an arm around her shoulders, I guided her up the stairs and away from the charged amphitheater. I tried to hurry her along, but it was like dragging someone who was half-asleep.
“It’s going to be okay, Kitty Kat,” I assured her, stopping and turning to face her.
I rested my hands on her shoulders, skimming my thumbs up and down her neck as I studied her face. No change, at least, not for the better. I clenched my jaw and scooped her into my arms, cradling her body close to mine as I jogged toward a secluded spring hidden by a semicircular rock outcropping nearby.
Once we were concealed by the barrier of limestone, I eased Kat down onto the barren ground. I needed to get her in the water, to mute the influx of sensory input. That was the closest thing to an off switch we had found for her haywire connection. Well, that and sex, but that only worked in the earlier stages. When it was bad, like this, the sensory deprivation seemed to be the only thing that could help her regain her inner balance, and through that, her control over her connection to the soul-energy.
She was shivering, unable to assist me as I removed her sword harness and guided her arms out from her coat sleeves. I pulled her tank top off over her head, then got to work untying her bootlaces.
She hugged herself, her eyes squeezed shut. “I—I’m sorry,” she said through chattering teeth. “You w-were right. We sh-sh-shouldn’t have c-come.”
Damn fucking straight I was right, but I wasn’t about to throw an I told you so in her face right now. Not while tears streamed down her cheeks and soul-energy flooded her every cell. The charged tingle surrounding her grew increasingly uncomfortable, and I gritted my teeth as I pulled her boots off her feet. I yanked her socks off next, then moved higher to unbutton her jeans.
I pulled my hand away when my bare skin contacted hers. It was like touching a live electrical socket. I shook out my hand, then carefully unbuttoned and unzipped her jeans. There was no way I was going to get them off her lower body with her sitting like that. I could just leave them on, but bare skin worked best.
“Lay down, Kitty Kat,” I told her. “Just for a second.”
She seemed locked in that position, and it took her a painfully long time to relax onto her back.
I finally pulled her jeans off and tossed them away. Kneeling at her feet, I surveyed her nearly naked body. For once, the sight didn’t induce even a hint of lust. There was no room for desire right now, not when the need to protect her consumed everything within me.
Now, for the hard part. I stood, moved to her side, and crouched. I inhaled deeply, holding my breath. This was going to hurt.
Jaw clenched, I sucked in a breath and slid one arm under her knees, the other under her shoulders, then lifted her off the ground. The shock of energy was so intense, it momentarily locked up my muscles. I pushed through the pain, forcing our way forward. By the time we reached the edge of the pool, I was gasping for air and covered in sweat.
An image of tossing a live toaster into a bathtub flashed through my mind, and I paused at the water’s edge. This was the worst she had ever been, but even so, the water never reacted to the soul-energy flowing through her like it would to actual electricity. I knew I would be fine entering the water with her—I had been every time before—and I silently told my survival instincts to fuck off.
With no further hesitation, I stepped into the pool, pushing forward toward the deeper section. I formed a snorkel out of At before submerging Kat under the water, sinking down myself until I was immersed up to my neck. The tepid water soothed the sting of touching her. And—hey—I hadn’t been electrocuted, so things were looking up.
Ever so slowly, Kat’s trembling subsided, and her body relaxed in my arms. I waited until she went completely limp, and then I eased her out of the water, holding her close as I waded toward the edge of the pool. She was unconscious, wiped out by the battle for control within her body. Her scarred soul. It would be hours until she woke.
This was why I didn’t want her using her powers, not when she could no longer do so without tapping into her connection to the soul-energy. She shouldn’t have to go through this. Not after everything else she had already been through to save us. She deserved to rest, to take it easy for once in her damn life.
So why wouldn’t she fucking do it?
I closed my eyes and drew in a deep breath, then released it, slow and controlled.
She wouldn’t—couldn’t—take it easy, because she was Kat. Because she was either on, or she was off. There was no room for a dimmer switch in her life. I knew that when I bound my life—my soul—to hers. But it didn’t mean she couldn’t still drive me batshit crazy sometimes.
I formed a thin, pillowy bed of At on the ground near the edge of the pool and gently set her down on the shimmering surface. Kneeling, I straightened her arms and legs until she looked comfortable and brushed her hair out of her face with a sweep of my shaking hand, then covered her in a soft blanket of At.
Leaning forward, I pressed a kiss to her brow and rested my forehead against hers. She always woke disoriented and frightened after one of these episodes. I wouldn’t let her wake to face that confusion—that darkness—alone.
Upon hearing the crunch of footsteps in dry, cracked earth, I straightened and looked around. I was in the mood for a fight, and if anyone—anyone—even looked at Kat wrong, I would rip their fucking eyes out.
“It’s just me,” Lex said, picking her way down the rocky path to join us by the edge of the pool. Her face displayed unguarded concern as she peered past me at Kat. “How is she?”
“She has good days and bad days,” I said, standing. I walked around Kat’s makeshift bed to meet Lex on the other side.
Lex’s eyes trailed over me as I approached, her gaze assessing. “You’re soaking wet.”
I shrugged one shoulder. “It happens.” I sank to the ground to sit and watch over Kat while I waited for her to wake. I propped my forearms on my upturned knees and nodded toward Kat’s slumbering form. “We’re going to be here for a while,” I told Lex, then looked at the ground beside me, silently inviting her to join me.
Lex chewed on the inside of her cheek, her brow furrowing. She stepped forward and lowered herself to sit beside me, hugging her knees to her chest and resting her chin on one knee. “Does this happen often?” She tore her stare away from Kat to look at me.
I nodded, more of a rocking of my body than a bobbing of my head. “More often than I’d like, that’s for damn sure.”
Lex was quiet for a long moment. “Is she getting worse?”
I shifted my attention from Lex to Kat. She was so still, her only movement the slight expansion and contraction of her ribcage with each breath.
“It’s hard to say,” I admitted. “If she’d stop pushing herself every time I turned my back, she might actually make some progress and heal. But I don’t know if she’ll ever recover fully.” I picked at a hangnail. “If she’ll ever be the Kat they want her to be.”
Lex let out a brief, harsh laugh. “They don’t know what they want.” She shook her head, clearly annoyed by the argument in the amphitheater. “Saskia and her cohort think Kat’s the answer to everything, like she should be able to wiggle her nose and fix all our problems.” Lex scoffed. “Like Nejeret society didn’t function just fine without her for thousands of years.”
Sighing, Lex reached for me, placing a hand on my arm. “It’s barely been a month. Give her time. She’s been through more than any of us can comprehend.” Lex laughed again, the sound softer than before. “She deserves decades to recover, and if that’s what she needs, then that’s what we’ll give her. The clan leaders be damned.”
I covered Lex’s hand with mine and bowed my head in thanks. Her words were kind but pointless. “You know she’ll never go for that,” I murmured, removing my hand.
Lex pulled hers back as well. Again, she sighed. “I know.”
“It was a mistake for us to come here,” I said, my focus returning to Kat. “Too much, too soon. Don’t expect us back for a while.”
Lex nodded. “Whatever you guys need. I’m here for you.”
A surge of otherworldly energy warned me we would soon have company. Lex must have sensed it as well because she glanced over her shoulder at the same time as I did.
Heru appeared in a burst of rainbow mist, my mom at his side, her fingers curled around his upper arm. Fuck, I wished I could teleport. What a sweet ability. But no matter how many times I tried or how hard I focused, I couldn’t expand my sheut—the part of my soul that housed my magic—to enable that power.
Heru was a thundercloud beside my mom’s calm serenity. The ancient gods Horus and Isis, in the flesh. They had been yin and yang as twins in the womb, and their counterbalancing relationship continued to this day.
Lex stood and hurried toward them. She traded places with my mom, placing her palm on Heru’s chest over his heart and murmuring softly. Some of the tension eased from Heru, his shoulders relaxing and his stony expression softening. They were one of the few other Nejeret couples who shared a soul bond, like Kat and me. It was so strange to see it at work from the outside, now that I had experienced the intensity of the bond first hand.
My mom headed my way, and I stood, glancing down at Kat to assure myself she would be all right without my full attention for a few minutes. I strode toward Kat’s discarded leather coat and dug through her pockets until I found the folded-up drawing. I pulled it free and turned to meet my mom.
“There’s something you need to see,” I said before she could dive into an interrogation about Kat’s recovery—or lack thereof. Ever the healer, my mom.
I lured her back over toward Heru and Lex with the mystery of the folded paper.
She shot an endless string of furtive glances over her shoulder as we walked, her instinct to help Kat wrestling with her curiosity over what was on the paper.
“She’ll be fine,” I told her as we drew near Heru and Lex. “You can examine Kat as soon as we’re done here.” I unfolded the paper and handed it to her. “I promise.”
My mom pressed her lips together, accepting my terms, and turned her full attention to the sketch of the scarab. She stumbled, missing a step, and I caught her elbow to keep her upright.
“Where did you get this?” she asked, looking from the scarab to me. The color had drained from her face, leaving her looking like she might be sick.
“Aset?” Heru asked, closing the distance between us. “What is it?”
My mom handed him the paper.
Heru studied the sketch for all of two seconds and scowled. “Is this some kind of joke?”
“What?” Lex asked, craning her neck to peer down at the sketch. “That’s a solar scarab,” she said. “A representation of Khepri-Atum, the rising and setting suns.” She looked up from the drawing, her brows bunching together. “Unless it means something else to Nejerets?”
Lex was so ingrained into our society now, it was easy to forget that she hadn’t grown up among our kind. She was often unaware of the finer nuances of Nejeret lore. Like this one.
“She drew this?” Heru asked, glancing past me at Kat. His hawkish gaze refocused on me.
I nodded. “This morning,” I explained. “She drew dozens of them.” I paused before adding, “While she was searching for Tarset.”
Heru hissed an ancient curse I hadn’t heard for centuries.
“I don’t understand,” Lex said, looking from Heru to my mom to me. “Why would Kat draw this”—she glanced down at the sketch—“while searching for Tarset?”
Tension clouded the air all around us, fueled by our extended silence.
“The legend of Atum is,” my mom started, then paused as she searched for the right word. All eyes focused on her, but her attention was on the drawing. “Complicated,” she finally said. “He is far more than the mythological deity you know from your studies of ancient Kemet.” She looked at Lex. “Our lore claims Atum lurks in the shadows, waiting to emerge from Rostau to punish Nejerets who stray too far from the light.”
“Rostau?” Lex said. “Like, Osiris’s fiery realm from the Book of Two Ways?”
“Rostau is surrounded by fire,” Aset said. “Not in flames, itself.”
“It’s not an actual place,” Heru added. “Just as Atum isn’t a real person. He’s a myth. Nobody has ever actually met him.” And lived, hung unsaid between our little group.
“Nobody?” I stared pointedly at the side of my mom’s face.
My mom stood a little taller, which wasn’t saying much with her petite stature, and turned her back to us. She took several steps away, gazing out at the setting sun. “Atum is not a myth,” she said quietly. “A legend, yes, but not a myth.” Her shoulders rose and fell with a deep breath, and then she turned to face us. “He’s real.” Her eyes locked with her brother’s. “I’ve met him.”
“When?” Heru demanded.
“A very, very long time ago.” She tugged on a delicate gold chain hidden under the collar of her linen shirt and fished the pendant free—a medallion of iridescent solidified At about the size of a quarter, displaying the scarab symbol from Kat’s drawing—and held it out for us to see.
“I healed him,” she explained. “I saved his life, and he gave me this token. He said it would provide me safe passage through the flames surrounding Rostau if ever I found myself in need of sanctuary.” She looked at me, a quizzical smile curving her lips. “You knew all along, didn’t you?”
I glanced at the medallion. It was made of At, after all, and I had sensed it for millennia as well as the symbol displayed on its face. “I suspected,” I said, locking eyes with her. “When did you heal him, exactly?” I shook my head. “I can’t remember when you first started wearing that.”
My mom tucked the pendant back into the collar of her shirt. “It was a few decades after Lex visited us in ancient times,” she said and arched one eyebrow higher. “I don’t recall the exact year. You were off somewhere.” She looked away like she was annoyed with me.
For not telling her I knew? That was laughable. If anyone should have been annoyed right now, it was me. She was the one who had hid this huge fucking thing from me.
“A couple of decades after Lex visited,” Heru thought aloud. “That would have been around 2160.” He frowned, his eyes narrowing on the drawing. “What does this mean?” He shook the paper, dragging our collective focus back to the sketch. “Does Atum have Tarset?” He looked from me to my mom and back. “Or is he hunting her?” Heru’s throat bobbed as he swallowed roughly. “Did he already—” What I assumed was the word kill caught in his throat, and he crumpled the paper in his fist.
His focus shifted past me, to Kat, unconscious on the bed of At. “She has to try again,” he said, his voice ringing with command. “Perhaps if she searches for Atum instead of Tarset . . .” He trailed off, his thoughts leaping around to all the options. “We can make him talk.”
Heru shouldered past me and marched toward Kat.
I snagged his arm at the elbow, holding him back. “Leave her. The fuck. Alone.”
Heru turned partway, glancing down at my hand on his arm, then slowly raised his gaze to meet mine. A dangerous challenge glinted in his golden eyes.
I took a step closer. Leaned in. “You don’t scare me.” That same dangerous challenge dripped from my words. I held his stare for a long moment before I released his arm.
Heru took a step back, putting some distance between us.
“Every time Kat draws on her connection to the universe, she backslides,” I told him, figuring an explanation would ease the sting of the refusal. “She gets weaker. If you want her to have a chance in hell at finding Tarset, you need to give her the space and time she needs to heal. She’ll help when she’s ready.”
Thanks for reading this preview of Song of Scarabs and Fallen Stars (Fateless Trilogy, book 1)!
The complete book will be released on 3/29/2022.
If you haven't already, be sure to snag your free copies (ebook or audio) of Echo in Time and Ink Witch, the first books in the Fateless Trilogy's two sister series, the Echo Trilogy and the Kat Dubois Chronicles.