JUDGEMENT: Chapter 1
Kat Dubois Chronicles, book 5
*NOTE - This is an unedited excerpt. Please excuse any typos.*
“What’s wrong?” Nik asked, watching me pace. He was leaning against the wall to the left of the door leading out of our cozy little waiting area. And I was using the words “cozy” and “little” lightly. The private lounge was palatial. Literally, it was a room in a palace.
We were in the old Nejeret council headquarters in Rome, a relic from days long past, back when Nejerets had been ruled by a patriarchal group of seven men. Heru had been among them, as had my father, Set. But the Council of Seven had gone the way of the pharaohs…as had the governing body that replaced it, the Senate. Now we were back to a good old fashioned feudal monarchy, with Heru as the high king. And in true feudal fashion, war was an ever-burning fire threatening to reduce us all to little more than ash and bone.
Nik and I had been busy little bees the past two weeks, attempting to stave off that dire outcome. Since the shadow souls incident, we’d been spending most of our time gateway-ing around the world, meeting up with small groups of Nejerets—the good guys who supported Heru, not the asshats supporting the rogue Senate, of course—and addressing live audiences of humans, just like Garth suggested weeks ago to make up for my one-fingered PR blunder. Only now, we were attempting to counter something much more devastating, PR-wise—the damage caused by the Senate’s ever-increasing hostilities against humanity. It was why Nik and I were in Rome in the first place. In a few minutes, we would be on stage, once again, the “goddess” and her Nejeret friends, addressing yet another crowd of gathered humans.
The now defunct council headquarters was a stunning complex—an old palazzo dating back to the thirteenth century that took up an entire city block in central Rome. It was extravagant, with plenty of lavish marble inlays, gold-leafing, and arched ceilings. And like many an Italian palace, there were frescos for days and artwork galore. It was over the top in a way mastered by the Italian nobles of old. And apparently embraced by the Nejerets of old, as well.
The private lounge where Nik and I had been hanging out for the past twenty minutes was toned down from the main gallery by just a hair. Whoever had decorated the room had tried to warm it up with Persian rugs and upholstered seating, but no amount of furnishings could dampen the effect of the immense oil portraits of Nejerets lining the crimson walls in their gaudy gilded frames or the enormous, intricate crystal chandelier glittering giddily over the center of the room.
I stopped mid-step under the chandelier and looked at Nik, one arm hugging my middle, the other raised so I could chew on my thumbnail. He looked like he could’ve been posing for some avant-garde fashion magazine. He was leaning one shoulder against the wall by the oversized door, head tilted to the side and fingers tucked into his trouser pockets, his tailored pinstripe suit fitting him just right and tattoos peeking out here and there. He looked damn good—more than good enough to momentarily waylay the worries making me pace, replacing them with more pleasurable thoughts for a few seconds.
Nik raised his pierced brow, the corner of his mouth lifting into a slight but satisfied smirk. He liked that he could distract me by simply sharing the same space as me. I would never admit it aloud, but I kind of liked it, too.
“Well?” he said, the one-word prompt knocking my thoughts back out of naughty-land.
Right, he’d asked me a question—what’s wrong?
I cleared my throat. “Nothing,” I said, gaze sliding away from his to the small, round table in the corner of the room.
I’d left the velvet drawstring bag holding my deck of hand-drawn tarot cards on the table. They’d been burning a hole in my pocket, so I’d taken them out, hoping that by removing the distraction I would be able focus on the upcoming address. The meeting scheduled to take place in the ballroom downstairs was the most significant yet, with over two thousand humans slated to attend.
But now, having the tarot deck out in the open was just making the problem worse. I’d taken to pacing around the room, if only to distract myself from the urge to pull out the cards and flip through them in an impromptu reading. This was so not the time. I needed to focus...to get my head in the game. I did not need to preoccupy my mind with thoughts of even more what-ifs and oh-shits. Not right now.
If we could just get the humans to trust us—if we could just convince the governments to agree to work with us—we would be able to launch a coordinated assault on the Senate and finally wipe them off the playing board. But while the vast majority of humans still gazed at me with a fervor of divine adoration, the logical-thinking, slow-moving governmental bodies were harder to sway. Humanity’s growing fear of the Senate and what they might do next overruled their love of me, and no matter how hard I tried, I’d yet to find a way to tip the scales in favor of a full-blown alliance.
“You do seem rather agitated,” Dom said from the little mirror pendant handing on a leather cord around my neck.
I clenched and unclenched my jaw, then forced myself to look at Nik again. “I’m fine,” I said, both to him and to my incorporeal half-brother.
“Right…” Nik crossed his arms over his chest, the fabric of his suit jacket straining oh-so-faintly at his shoulders.
Damn it. They both knew me too well to believe my attempted blow-off.
I huffed out a breath, hands falling to my sides. “Alright, fine. You’re right. It’s just that—” I pressed my lips together, inhaling and exhaling deeply through my nose. “It’s going to sound crazy, but—” I shook my head. “I don’t know…something just feels off. Like really, really off.”
I raised a hand to run my fingers through my hair, realizing too late that I was messing up Lex’s styling. It wasn’t anything fancy, but she’d given me a super neat left-side part—one she said made me look very respectable—a hairdo to match my respectable outfit and respectable shoes and the air of general respectability I was supposed to convey as the Nejeret figurehead. I was playing a part these days, showing the world that Nejerets were productive, law-abiding, respectable members of society. We had to do everything we could to counter the negative stigma and mistrust caused by the Senate’s seemingly never-ending string of terrorist attacks.
“Damn it,” I said using both hands to comb my hair back. I pulled the hairband off my wrist and tied my hair up into a ponytail.
Nik’s eyes never left me. “You were tossing and turning all night,” he said.
It was my turn to smirk, though my heart wasn’t in it. “And whose fault was that?”
Nik chuckled, and the wicked glint in his pale blue gaze caused a blush to rise up my neck and cheeks, leaving me on the verge of overheating. “After that, Kitty Kat,” he said, his expression turning serious. “Did you see something in your dreams?”
“Was it another echo?” Dom added.
Chewing on my lip, I shook my head. In fact, I hadn’t seen a single vision of the future since vanquishing the shadow souls a couple weeks back.
“No, nothing like that,” I told them both. “I don’t even remember my dreams from last night.” I shrugged half-heartedly, gaze drifting away from Nik’s. I looked from portrait to portrait, like the Nejerets captured in oil paint centuries ago might hold the answers. “I just—I don’t know. This feeling is…I don’t really know how to describe it, other than off-ness.”
It was like I knew something bad was going to happen. Like I was watching a horror movie, and the suspense was building and the music was telling me to tense up for a big scare. That was it—that was the feeling exactly. Except this wasn’t a horror movie; this was real life.
I looked at Nik, a chill creeping up my spine. “Something’s coming, Nik,” I said with absolute certainty. “Something bad.” I could feel it in bones. In my soul.
Nik frowned. “Any idea of what?”
I gave him a pointed look, eyebrows raised and lips pressed together.
“Right,” Nik said. “Stupid question.”
“Mmhmm…” If I knew the answer to the what question, I wouldn’t have spent the past ten minutes pacing around the room like a caged animal, trying to figure it out.
I returned to pacing, making a full circuit around the room and letting my thoughts circulate with me before saying anything more. “Maybe this is a new power manifesting,” I finally said as I passed Nik, focusing on the up side. “I could end up with a nifty Spidey sense. That wouldn’t suck.”
“And it would be nice to know our efforts are paying off,” Nik added.
I grunted my assent.
When Nik and I weren’t attempting to sway humanity to our side, we’d been spending our time back at Nik’s secret cave in Port Madison, working on training my ever-expanding powers. For months, my magical abilities had been growing in leaps and bounds…until I’d started trying to purposely hone and cultivate them.
I’d hit a wall. Sure, I was way better at wielding At and anti-At and connecting with the soul-energy than ever before, and my drawings were so life-like that they were verging on peeping Tom territory, but I hadn’t had a new power show up in fourteen days, and the universe seemed to have zipped its lips where echoes were concerned. It was beyond frustrating. And also, so very typical. It almost felt like the universe was playing a joke on me.
There was a knock at the door.
I froze, heart leaping into my throat. The mounting sense of dread had me convinced that whoever was on the other side of the door was distinctly not good.
Nik stepped away from the wall and cracked the door open, foot lodged against the bottom of the door to keep whoever was on the other side from forcing it open farther.
“We’ll be ready for you in five minutes,” a woman said from just outside. Her voice was unfamiliar, but then, I’d spent so little time with the European Nejerets until recently, it wasn’t a surprise that I didn’t recognize her. At least she wasn’t charging through the door in attack mode.
I exhaled in relief. I was probably getting myself all worked up over nothing. More likely than not, I was just battling an extreme case of nerves. I did suffer from mild stage fright, after all. That was probably all it was.
“Thanks, Mary,” Nik said. While the unfamiliar Nejeret might’ve been a stranger to me, apparently Nik knew her.
Tension tightened my shoulders in an instant, and I had to swallow the swell of jealousy that had become all too common these days. Oh, the joys of sharing a soul bond. It brought unimaginable pleasure and a sense of love and understanding I’d never considered possible, but along with that came a possessiveness so extreme it verged on stalker-level obsession. Sometimes it was a struggle not to let the soul bond overtake me completely. Sometimes it seemed a hell of a lot easier to just give in. But much as I enjoyed being bonded to Nik, I also still kind of liked being me.
I reminded myself not to hate the woman on the other side of the door just because Nik knew her name. He’d probably crossed paths with her at some point during his thousands of years of being alive. That wasn’t so crazy to believe, was it? Just because he knew her name didn’t mean they shared any kind of a history, sexual or otherwise. They were probably just acquaintances. Little more than strangers. There was no reason to jump to conclusions or believe the worst. No reason, at all.
My hands balled into fists. Once I realized what I was doing, I forced my fingers to stretch out and took a deep, calming breath.
Nik started to close the door, but stopped and pulled it open a few more inches. “Tell me, Mary—is Set here?” he asked, referring to my absentee father.
Not that I held our distant father-daughter relationship against my dear old dad—he’d been possessed by the spirit of the mad god Apep when he’d knocked up my mom, and he hadn’t broken free of Apep’s hold until I was all but grown. Now, Set managed things on this side of the pond, acting as Heru’s co-regent in the European arena, so we hadn’t exactly had much of a chance to make up for lost time. One day, maybe, when things calmed down. But until then, our on-stage appearances would have to pass for father-daughter quality time.
“He is,” Mary said. “He’s with the princess.” I assumed she was talking about Princess Anne, the heir apparent to the British throne and also Set’s long-time paramour. “She’s rather nervous,” Mary added.
We were about to do our thirteenth live town-hall-style meeting. As always, Nik was there as both participant and as bodyguard to me. Heru and his sister Aset—Nik’s mother—would be showing up directly on stage via Heru’s sheut power, which enabled him to teleport from any location on earth to any location on earth. A few other local Nejeret leaders would be joining us as well, most notably Princess Anne. This would be her official coming out; after today, the world would know that the future Queen of England was a young immortal. Not exactly an insignificant revelation.
I couldn’t help but wonder if my thoughts had just touched upon the root source of my overwhelming sense of unease. Would the humans react badly to finding out that one of their own future leaders wasn’t, in fact, human? Heru and Set claimed they’d accounted for every possible outcome, from rioting in the streets of London and other major cities across the globe to an all-out declaration of war against Nejerets. We all knew this was a risky step, but most of us agreed it was a necessary one, too. Progress demanded it. The only way through our current mess was forward.
I moved closer to the table in the corner, staring at the drawstring bag containing my tarot cards. Hands on my hips, I drew my bottom lip between my teeth. I could just check the top card. Quick and easy.
My palm itched, and I rubbed it against my hip absently.
A heartbeat later, I froze, eyes going wide.
Ever so slowly, I pulled my hand away from my slacks and turned it over so I could see my palm. That onyx and moonstone Eye of Horus inked into my skin glowed with a subtle, otherworldly light. And my skin itched with an all-too-clear warning: something bad was going to happen.
It wasn’t just a niggling feeling anymore, and I certainly couldn’t write it off as “nerves” about the impending meeting any longer. The threads of At and anti-At lacing through my body and soul agreed—the danger was real. The rise and fall of my chest grew more pronounced with each breath as I stared at my palm and processed what this warning meant.
Nik shut the door and turned to me. “Kitty Kat?” When I didn’t respond, he took a step my way. “Kat?”
I raised my eyes, meeting Nik’s, and turned my hand so the palm was facing him, giving him a solid eyeful of the glowing symbol.
Nik whistled, long and slow. He knew very well that the ancient protection amulet I’d tattooed on my palm—the symbol that represented our clan—could function as an actual alarm when danger was nearby. He closed the distance between us, reaching out to take my hand in his and get a closer look. “Any sense as to what it’s trying to warn you about?”
I curled my fingers into a tight fist and clenched my jaw, shaking my head. “It doesn’t work like that,” I told him. And then I frowned. Maybe the symbol couldn’t give me more than a generalized warning, but there was another way to find out more specifics. Screw focus; it was time to give in to the urge to do a reading.
I snatched the drawstring bag off the table. I could feel the cards within, humming with power even through the fabric. With nimble fingers, I untied the loose knot holding the bag closed and dumped the deck of tarot cards out into my hand. They sizzled and crackled with otherworldly energy. They were charged and ready to go. Whatever was going on, whatever had triggered the Eye of Horus on my palm, the cards would have the answers. Or at least some answers.
I didn’t even bother with shuffling. There was no need, not when the power was thrumming through the deck so strongly. Holding my breath, I drew the top card and flipped it over.
The moment I saw which card I’d drawn, I hissed and dropped it on the coffee table.
The scene was much the same as it had been weeks ago, all of my Nejeret loved ones, dressed in rags and scattered on a desolate landscape. The Seattle skyline was visible in the distance, the buildings ravaged and crumbling. There were more Nejerets fanning out beyond my friends and family along the decaying earth, unidentifiable where the ink blurred and lines became too close.
But there was one major, glaring difference. I wasn’t depicted on the card. The last few times I’d drawn Judgement from the deck, an image of me had floated above the depressing scene, arms outstretch to either side and back to the viewer, skin glowing with a brilliant golden soul aura. Now, there was no sign of me. I was gone. Vanished.
“Judgement,” Nik said, craning his neck to get a better look at the card. “That looks dreary. What does it mean?”
“Nothing good,” I said hollowly.
Judgment, itself, wasn’t a negative card, but in its current incarnation, it exuded an almost palpable sense of dread.
Numbly, I set the deck of tarot cards on the coffee table, eyes glued to the only card lying face up. “Judgement usually means that some decision will need to be made,” I told Nik. “Something about the past—before the subject of the reading can move on to their better, brighter future.” I frowned, eyes narrowing as I studied the card. “Or, it sometimes has to do with a spiritual awakening.”
Considering I’d been present on the card the last few times I’d drawn it, soul glowing a bright gold, and now I was nowhere in sight, I thought it might be closer to the latter meaning.
After a moment, I added, “But it’s mostly about letting go of the past.” This particular scene suggested that the thing from the past that needed to be let go was me. And if that didn’t happen, the consequences would be dire…for everyone.
That little realization gave rise to goose bumps that started on my arms and worked their way around the rest of my body.
“Huh,” Nik said.
I glanced at him. “You’re telling me.”
My heart stopped for a moment as the room quaked with the force of an explosion.
I steadied myself with a hand on the table, while Nik reached for me, our gazes locked in a shocked stare. A heartbeat late, we both looked at the door, then back at each other.
To shake this building enough that we had to steady ourselves, the explosion either had to be really damn close, or really damn huge. Both were terrifying options.
“Must be the fucking Senate,” Nik said, his voice a whiplash. He turned and rushed to the door.
“It’s got to be them,” I said, hastily collecting the tarot cards and stuffing the whole deck back into its drawstring bag. I shoved the deck into the pocket of my leather coat, draped over the arm of the couch—good enough for now—and hurried to the door.
Nik blocked my way with an extended arm, his other hand on the knob. “Stay here, Kitty Kat. I’ll check it out.”
I scoffed. “Are you fucking kidding me?” I said. I mean, had he even met me? Stay here? Not a chance in hell.
Nik laughed a dry, humorless laugh, and shook his head. “Fine, but don’t do anything stupid out there.”
Oh yeah, he’d met me. And he knew me well.
As I followed Nik out of the room and into the palazzo’s extravagantly decorated second floor gallery and was surrounded by the sound of panic and mayhem from below, I thought we had our answer about the weird feeling I’d been having—the something that was coming was here. Except the sense of dreadful expectation wasn’t gone. If anything, it was worse.
This wasn’t it. The explosion wasn’t the “bad thing” setting me on edge. Or, at least, it wasn’t all of it.
More was coming. And soon.
That's it for CHAPTER 1! You can read CHAPTER 2 here. :)