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Fury’s Choice

By Brey Willows

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2017 Brey Willows

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Fury’s Choice

Fury Tisera Graves needs a break. She wants a normal life, but she can’t see a way out of Afterlife. When the gods begin running marketing campaigns in an effort to woo followers, she steps in to keep them in line, although she really just wants to get away from it all.

Playgirl philanthropist Kera Espinosa made a nearly fatal mistake, and now she’s trying to make up for it by doing good work around the world. She’s got no time for the gods, who don’t do nearly enough. And she’s still searching for the people who nearly destroyed her. When she finds them, she’s prepared to sacrifice it all to make them pay.

When it comes time for both women to choose, will they find love or destruction?

Fury’s Choice

© 2017 By Brey Willows. All Rights Reserved.


ISBN 13: 978-1-62639-870-2


This Electronic Original is published by

Bold Strokes Books, Inc.

P.O. Box 249

Valley Falls, NY 12185


First Edition: September 2017


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.


Credits

Editor: Cindy Cresap

Production Design: Susan Ramundo

Cover Design By Sheri (graphicartist2020@hotmail.com)

By the Author

Fury’s Bridge


Fury’s Choice

Acknowledgments

Thanks to my editor, Cindy, who makes the process painless and always makes me laugh more than she makes me cry. Thanks to Radclyffe and Sandy, who gave me the chance to do what I love on an entirely different scale with a concept that’s a little on the fringe. Thanks to all the Bold Strokes staff who do so much behind the scenes to get the books to readers.

Unquestionably, thanks goes to my wonderful partner, Nic; my biggest cheerleader and fan, who keeps me writing even when I get stroppy about it.

Dedication

For Nic, who saves me each and every day. Thanks for not giving up on me, babe.

Prologue

Kera Espinosa woke slowly, sweating, chilled, breathing fire through parched lips. “Please. Water.”

The head of the rebel group smiled down at her with his broken, blackened teeth. “I told you. As soon as we’ve got the rest of your information, we’ll take care of you. Our scientists are working through your formulas, but you’ve done a superior job of making them senseless. All you have to do is give us what we need, and you’ll be free to go with all the water you like.”

“Don’t do this. It wasn’t meant to kill people.”

His laugh was like sandpaper on a chalkboard. “Stupid woman. You know as well as I do you can’t control nature. You wanted knowledge not meant for people, and you got it.” He squatted down next to her to look her in the eye. “Just like the man who created the nuclear bomb. What did he think the information would be used for? Geniuses seem to be the stupidest idealists. Fortunately for us, you’re an attractive one, which makes trying to get you to talk far more interesting.”

He was right. She’d known what could be done with it, with any number of the deadly airborne illnesses she’d investigated, but the incredible power it gave her, the feeling of being God, had been a temptation she couldn’t fight.

She would have spit on him if her mouth didn’t feel stuffed with dry cotton. He gave her cheek a hard pat and left, his bad guy whistle echoing off the cell’s cement walls.

She coughed and winced at the pain of a broken rib. A scream from another cell crashed through the silence, until it was abruptly cut off.

As she slipped back into blissful unconsciousness, she briefly wondered if anyone would answer her prayers.

They say you always reach for God when you’re at your lowest. She knew another few days of this, and her body would give out entirely. If you’re listening, whoever you are…please.

Chapter One

“Thank you, Lord Shiva, for that enlightening information. And with that, we’ll leave our audience to, as always, consider what’s been said, think critically about it, and make their own decisions. Good night.”

Tisera Graves laughed as Selene signed off on her weekly TV talk show. When they’d begun the process of the gods coming out months ago, after several more months of administrative wrangling, she hadn’t been sure what would happen. None of them were. But once the ball started rolling, there was no stopping it. God after god appeared to their followers, primarily in their places of worship. And then Selene started the show, where she not only interviewed the deity of the week but asked them some tough questions. Foremost, she asked the audience to think, to really consider what the gods’ answers were, what they were offering, and the way of life they embodied. She asked them not to follow blindly, but with forethought.

Tis wasn’t sure how she felt about all of it. When she and her sisters were in their heyday, the gods had been public figures. They’d appeared to their people all the time in various forms. There hadn’t been any question they were real, and people took prayer and sacrifice seriously. But then the gods had moved away from the public view as the world expanded, and new gods made their way into new lands. Humans continued to worship, but soon they started to take it on faith that their gods existed. Proof was no longer necessary.

The phone startled her from her reverie, and she glanced at the display. She smiled as she answered. “Hey, superstar. How’s my celebrity sister?”

Alec laughed. “Glad I kept my day job. Dealing with murderers and psychopaths is easier than dealing with gods and their egos. I’m heading to a job on the East Coast. Want to come?”

“Sure. Tough one?”

“I think it might be. One of those cult leader things. With the gods out in force, the extremists are coming out of the woodwork. I think we’ve got a Kool-Aid situation.”

Tis sighed inwardly. This was the kind of thing she was worried about. There was no telling how humanity would react. Apparently, following people who made promises, but only if their followers offed themselves, was one of those reactions. “Sure, when do you want to leave?”

“About an hour? We’ll take the Hummer, unless you want to drive?”

Tis’s top-of-the-line Range Rover Evoque had a glass roof, and the inside was like sitting in an upscale hotel suite. “Since it’s a long one, let’s take mine. We’ll see the night sky that way.” She’d gotten the car for that reason. She didn’t like the openness of a convertible, especially as it messed with her hair and wings, but she hated feeling boxed in. Gone were the days they’d fly everywhere, and she missed them, but larger territory meant longer trips, and it wasn’t practical to go everywhere on their own.

“Cool. See you soon.”

Tis hung up and wandered into her bedroom. Every wall in the house was floor to ceiling glass. The back of the house looked out onto the Pacific Ocean, with a steep cliff path leading past an opulent gazebo-cum-guesthouse and down to a private beach. Trees surrounded the house, providing a deep sense of privacy, even though the outside world had no idea the house was even there. It reminded Tis of the old days, of nature and peace, away from the constant noise and distraction of the modern world. It was her sanctuary, and she protected it fiercely. Only her sisters had ever been inside, and even then, only when she invited them.

She heard Alec’s Hummer a short time later and grabbed her things. She was outside before Alec had climbed out. “Hey.”

“Hey yourself. Feeling okay?”

Tis winced slightly. If anyone would notice something wasn’t right, it would be Alec. Their other sister, Meg, wouldn’t notice unless someone pointed it out. “Yeah, fine. Just had a long job in Africa. I’ve only been home a few days.”

“Damn, Tis. You should have said. I can do this job on my own, no problem.”

Tis shook her head. “No, it’ll be nice to spend some time with you. Really, I’m okay.”

Alec looked at her searchingly before she smiled. “Let’s get on the road then.”

They got into the Range Rover and set off. Soon, scenery was whizzing past at the typical supernatural rate they often traveled. Alec put her seat back and stared at the sky as they drove in silence for a while.

Tis asked, “So, how is life in the limelight? How’s Selene handling things?”

“So far, it’s going okay. A lot of questions are coming up in the organization, and plenty of people are coming back to the office more than a little frazzled. It’s been a long time since the gods had to work instead of lounge around, but their egos are growing with the flock of believers. It all feels a little unstable, and Selene’s in the middle of it. But the gods seem to respect her, and she’s doing better than she thought she would on stage.” She shrugged. “We’ll have to see how it goes, I guess.” She looked at Tis. “How are you holding up? Really. No bullshit.”

No bullshit. Then what is there to say? More than anything, Tis wanted to tell Alec the truth. But it wasn’t the right time. She didn’t know if there would be a right time, but now definitely wasn’t it. She wasn’t ready. “Honestly, I’m okay. Better than the last time we talked, I guess. You know how it gets to you. Sometimes I wish we were angels, or leprechauns, or tooth fairies. The beings who get to see the good stuff, hand out miracles or gold, or pull pranks on people. Not the ones always dishing out the nightmares.”

Alec nodded and closed her eyes. “I sure as hell get that. It’s funny, I didn’t really notice it until I met Selene. Now, being around someone so…human, I get to see the nicer side of life a lot more than I used to.” She opened her eyes and grinned. “Maybe you just need a girlfriend. Maybe one of the happy goddesses. What about Ame-no?”

“The goddess of orgasms? Too much sex is distracting, as well as boring. Have you ever had to sit on a chair after her? She always leaves a wet patch. No thanks.”

Alec laughed. “Okay. So Aphrodite is out too.”

“Without question. I couldn’t deal with all the orgies, and that whole lingerie line she has going makes me vomit in my mouth a little every time she brings it up.”

“Let me tell you, there’s nothing wrong with lingerie.” Alec grinned. “Is there anyone you would consider?”

Tis thought about it. She pictured their various colleagues and discarded them quickly. “Not a one. I’ve been with the ones who were options, and they’re old news. And besides, everyone is busy getting back to their followers. I’m not looking for anyone right now.” She sighed and swallowed back the feeling of isolation she really felt. “I would need to be with someone who could take me like this. All the time, not just when I’m working. Or having sex.” She threw Alec a small smile to show she was teasing. She shifted to adjust her wings, liking the way their pearlescent white glowed against the black interior of the SUV.

“I get that. I’m not bothered by staying in my more human form, but I know you’ve never been totally comfortable in it.” She reached over and squeezed Tis’s hand. “Just remember you’re not alone, okay? You’ve got me and Meg. And of course the rest of Afterlife.”

Tis squeezed her hand in return. “I know. You and Meg are my rocks. You always have been.”

“Good. I think we’re nearly there. Take the next exit.”

Alec guided them to the farm in the middle of a massive cornfield. There were no neighbors, but a dozen cars were parked behind the house. Only one light was on inside.

Tis parked a distance away so they could get a feel for the scene before they got too close. It was always good to know if there were victims beyond the immediate area, so they could be counted among the perpetrator’s crimes. They got out, and Tis stretched her wings. She sniffed the air, and mixed in with the fresh earthy smell was the scent of the recently deceased, underscored by the harsh tang of fear. She looked at Alec and saw her wings were out, her eyes had gone completely black, and her fangs glinted in the moonlight. Tis raised her arms and let her true form come completely to the surface.

Her white hair was replaced by a multitude of thin, long white snakes with eyes the same color red as her own. She welcomed their presence like old friends and felt her fangs extend. Together, she and Alec flew toward the house, following the smell of human destruction.

* * *

An hour later, Tis and Alec leaned against the Range Rover and stared up at the night sky. The full moon looked back at them, and Tis wondered, as she often did, how so much ethereal beauty could be matched with so much violence and death.

“That was messy.” Alec sounded tired.

“I think it will get messier. With the gods coming out, humans will have a hard time coping, especially those not strong enough. It’s like some bizarre, paradoxical natural selection.”

Forty of the people inside were already dead, having ingested the “elixir” their leader promised would take them straight to the home of the gods, where they’d be welcomed as gods themselves. Of course, at the last minute, he’d chickened out and not had any himself. They’d found him in a corner, wide-eyed and mumbling about new worlds and other planets. When he’d looked up and seen them, he’d begun to laugh. That laugh had quickly turned to screams as Tis punished him for the murders by creating a terrible, painful illness in him that would lead to a short, horrible death, and Alec punished his lack of morality by giving him nightmares he’d endure for the rest of his brief life. Such was the punishment of the furies.

“Hey there.”

Tis looked over to see Dani walking toward them, dressed in her ceremonial garb of black cloak and massive scythe.

“You look fancy,” Alec said, giving her a hug.

“Yeah, well, wouldn’t do for Death to show up looking like a slob, would it?” She threw her hood back and breathed in the night air. “Besides, we’re being watched so damn closely these days, I have to have my A game on all the time. I’ve warned my team to do the same.”

Tis winced. “I hate that we’re being monitored that way. Like we’re under some kind of performance review.”

Dani nodded. “I know what you mean. Thankfully, some of us don’t really need approval. In fact, maybe it would be better if they saw me as just a normal person, doing a different kind of job. Maybe they wouldn’t be so afraid…”

She stopped talking, clearly lost in thought. Tis cleared her throat slightly. “Guess we’ll leave you to it.”

Dani looked startled and then laughed softly. “I’m always distracted lately. Yeah, I’d better get to work.” She pulled her massive hood back up and gave them a little wave. “See you at Meg’s party Friday?”

Alec shook her head. “Not me. Selene’s got a press release thing going, and I want to be there to support her.”

Tis couldn’t imagine the pressure Selene was under. She didn’t envy her at all. “I think I’ll head to Venice, actually. Meet up with a friend and relax away from it all.”

Dani started toward the house. “Okay, well, don’t be strangers.” She disappeared into the house, and the air around the area cooled dramatically.

“I wonder why that happens?” Alec wrapped her wings around her to ward off the cold.

“Weird, isn’t it? There’s no logical reason for it. It’s as though the souls give off heat, and when she takes them, there’s a void.” She shrugged. “Or something.”

“I feel like we’re asking questions we’ve never had to ask.”

“That’s because it’s a new era. We just have to learn to live in it, right?” Tis flexed her wings. “I think I’ll catch that flight to Venice today. Get away for a few days. That okay with you?”

Alec nodded thoughtfully. “Sure. Meg and I can handle it for a few days, and I’ll get another department to jump in if things get too crazy.” She punched Tis’s shoulder. “Just come back, okay?”

Tis turned and hugged her tightly, suddenly overwhelmed by their love for one another. “Always.”

Chapter Two

Tis took a deep drink of merlot and sighed happily. Water lapped lazily beneath her feet as the tides of aqua alta, the Venetian term for high water, brought the lagoon surging into the city, right to the doors of the restaurants and shops. Still, people moved through it easily, walking on the bridges of trestle tables set up in the squares, or splashing through the water in rain boots. Cafés like this one, alongside the Grand Canal, kept their outdoor seating open, the tables on slightly raised platforms so the water wasn’t deep, and gave patrons blankets to wrap up in. Venice was too beautiful a city to stay indoors, even in the winter during high tide.

She looked up when her closest friend splashed through the water to their table, looking for all the world like a child playing in a puddle. She jumped up to give her a hug.

“Aulis. You look amazing, as always.”

Aulis, one of the Praxidice, or oath keepers, held Tis at arm’s length and studied her. “And you, my lovely terrifying friend, look tired.”

They sat down, and Aulis ordered a Bellini. The waiter nearly tripped over himself in his hurry to please her. Men and women often fell over themselves when Aulis was around. Her diminutive frame, together with her thick, long brown hair and stunning purple-blue eyes made an exotic, enticing package. Though she wasn’t Tis’s type and never had been, it was easy to see why so many others fell willingly into her bed.

Tis waited to speak until Aulis had taken a drink of her Bellini. It was a tradition for them—no one spoke of anything serious without first taking in a bit of alcohol.

“Beautiful. Now. Tell me why those lovely gray eyes of yours look more like hurricane skies than wispy summer clouds.”

Tis smiled wryly. “You make them sound elegant rather than drab.”

Aulis tilted her head slightly. “You’re the only one who has ever thought them drab, my love. Others see the beauty you don’t. Spill it.”

Tis stared at the dark, lapping waters of the Canal, and tried to put her thoughts in some kind of order. “Before the exodus, I didn’t know why we do what we do. I mean, we serve justice, but the humans just seem to find new, awful ways to hurt one another. For every one we punish, five more take their place. Do you know, in 2015 alone, nearly two hundred thousand people were killed in various wars? And those are just the ones reported. In America, nearly fifteen thousand were killed in gun related violence. How are we supposed to keep up with those numbers?” She finally looked at Aulis, who appeared to be listening intently. “And why do we want to? Why not let them kill one another off, if that’s what they’re so intent on?”

Aulis took a sip of her drink, looking at Tis thoughtfully over the top of her glass. “And now that the exodus is happening?”

Tis sighed. “I don’t know if it changes anything. Some of the really bad stuff has gone down, I think while the humans figure out what it means to their ways of life. But I’m worried it will get worse when they figure out that the gods have human-type limitations. And then? What does that say about us?”

“Heavy questions, my friend. In fact, those sound like questions of a pre-fader.” She looked at Tis searchingly, waving off the waiter headed their way. “Are they?”

Tis stayed silent for a long time. She didn’t want to acknowledge the truth of it. “I can’t let my sisters down,” she finally said.

“If you live for someone else, you’ll never be happy. Believe me, I know.”

Tis was reminded of Aulis’s last love affair, which had resulted in the inferior goddess she’d taken to her bed becoming a burnt shadow on a wall after she’d insulted one too many of the immortal kind.

“I know. But if I’m not a fury, what am I?”

“You. Tisera Graves. Bookworm, lover of bland food and rich wine. Cave and mountain dweller. Intelligent, sincere, kind—”

“Okay, okay. I didn’t come for an ego boost, though it doesn’t hurt.” Tis laughed, feeling a bit better. “I don’t know who I’d be if I didn’t have my job and my sisters. It’s all I’ve ever known.”

“Do you really think your sisters would turn their backs on you? I’ve known them almost as long as I’ve known you, and I seriously doubt it.”

Tis thought about it. “Alec would be disappointed, but she’d be okay with it, as long as I was happy. Meg…I don’t know. She’s not like Alec and me. She’s more…”

“Temperamental? Volatile? Moody? Unpredictable?”

Tis laughed and held up her hand to stop her. “Yes. All those things. I think she might take it personally if I quit.” It was the first time she’d ever mentioned that possibility out loud, and it made her feel slightly dizzy.

“Well, you have to do what’s right for you. At the end of the day, you can’t do anything but.” Her eyes widened, and she leaned forward. “You didn’t take an oath to do this job, did you? For eternity?”

Tis thought back to when she and her sisters had been born. They’d frolicked as children, testing their wings and their mother’s fortitude. Fortunately for them, Gaia had immeasurable patience and more love than anyone could ever know. She’d taught them what their roles would be when they were of an age. “No. No oaths. Our mother instructed us, but we never swore to it. We just…are.”

Aulis sat back with a sigh of relief. “Thank goodness. Then there’s no reason for you to stay in a job you no longer want to do.”

“But you know what happens if I walk out. A pre-fader can’t just go back to Afterlife. There has to be a damn good reason to let someone back in once they’ve left the fold. What if I make the wrong choice?” A police boat went by, sirens blaring. The officers on board waved as they went past. That’s Venice. Always overtly friendly. She loved that about this special city. Nowhere else in the world was like it. She felt her tension begin to ease.

“Lady, you can’t tell me they wouldn’t let a fury back into the fold? Please.” She took Tis’s hand and said seriously, “I’m not going to say there isn’t a place for you at their table. The world will always need you and your sisters, as well as the others who do your line of work. But that’s the thing.” She let go of Tis’s hand and sat back with her drink. “The world will always need you, and there are lots of you doing the work. If you need to leave…” She shrugged. “We’re all replaceable.”

Tis thought about it as they silently sipped their drinks. Could that be true? Could someone replace her? The thought of someone taking her position with her sisters made her distinctly uncomfortable. And yet, the thought of being free, of not having to face the worst of humanity each and every day, ignited an excitement she hadn’t felt since her first serious girlfriend, several centuries ago.

She looked up when Aulis stood up abruptly. “Enough of this serious talk. Let’s go to every café in the city and see who has the best cake and wine.”

Tis laughed and stood. “We’ve done that. Several times.”

“Indeed we have, beautiful. But we haven’t done it yet this decade, and time changes even places like Venice.”

They headed down one of the narrow side alleys Venice was famous for. For the moment, Tis could let go of her worries, her doubts, even her inhibitions. She could pretend, for just a little while, that life was meant to be enjoyed. As Aulis took her hand and started to run through the flooded square, Tis thought that maybe, just maybe, there was truth to that idea.

* * *

Tis groaned and grasped her head in both hands. The pounding hangover made her want to fade. Her stomach rebelled at the scent of bacon and eggs. She staggered into the bathroom and splashed water on her face. Her eyes were bloodshot, and her hair was a tangled mess. She did her best to finger comb it, but it would take a shower and brush to tame it properly. She shuffled into Aulis’s kitchen, her wings dragging, and squinted against the sunlight coming through the lovely old windows. “How on earth are you not dying of alcohol poisoning?”

“I live here. I have a wonderful tolerance. You, my friend, have lived too long among the fruits and nuts of California. There was a time you could drink like Bacchus and fuck like Aphrodite. Now you eat granola and fall asleep cradling a book instead of a breast. Coffee?”

Tis nodded and gratefully accepted the mug. She sipped the potent brew and slowly felt like she could live again. “Thanks for the character update. When did I become so boring?” Her phone buzzed on the table, and she glanced at it.

“It didn’t happen on my watch. And your phone’s been doing that for hours,” Aulis said.

Tis sighed and read the numerous text messages. Several were from Zed, and a few were from Alec. The overall idea was that she was needed back home, urgently. She closed her eyes and felt the familiar sinking sensation of work calling. She opened her eyes when Aulis put a gentle hand on her shoulder.

“It seems like your decision needs to come sooner rather than later. Listen to your heart, not your head.”

Tis hugged her tightly. She trusted few people and had fewer friends. Aulis’s friendship meant more to her than Aulis could imagine. “That’s never been my forte, but I’ll think about it. I promise.” She let her go and headed for a shower. “But now, duty calls.”

When she arrived back in LA, she was surprised to see Meg in the airport waiting for her. She threw her arms around her and hugged her with typical exuberance.

“I’m so glad you’re here. Did you have any idea you were going to be the next savior? I mean, not of the world, or anything, I don’t think, but of our sanity?”

Tis laughed, as always buoyed by Meg’s boundless energy. “I have no idea what you’re talking about, but you’ve never been sane. What’s going on?”

Meg tossed her flaming hair over her shoulder as they slid into her Z4 convertible. “I’ll let the big man explain. You know how much I hate details.” She pulled into LA traffic and glanced at Tis. “But if the hubbub is anything to go by, you’re in for a ride.”

Tis sighed, the sinking feeling from earlier deepening. What I wouldn’t give to be a librarian, or an accountant. Or…anything else.

Chapter Three

“Get down!” Kera flung herself over the woman and child as the building exploded around them. A large piece of concrete hit her back and knocked the wind from her. She held her breath to keep from inhaling the acrid smoke and dust. As soon as she could, she wiped the soot from her eyes and looked around. They’d managed to get most of the women and children out, but there had been a few stragglers, like the ones beneath her. She sat back on her heels, letting them up. Coughing, she pointed at the massive military style truck, and the mother quickly grabbed her child and began climbing over the rubble toward the vehicle. Kera watched them go, then began her own scramble over the debris, looking for any other survivors.

A soft sob caught her attention.

A small child, malnourished and already careworn, rested its head on a woman’s chest. Kera knew right away the woman was gone. She looked up when she heard the telltale thrum of a truck coming their way. She grabbed the child, who didn’t have the energy to fight but kept crying, and made her way to the waiting truck and the crew yelling for her to hurry. She quickly passed the child up to her chief’s waiting hands before climbing in behind them and reaching up to yank down the armored shutters.

Before she lowered them, she saw her.

It was the pale woman, the one she’d seen before at another bombing site. With enormous white wings and snakes for hair, she was probably terrifying to anyone else. To Kera, she was awesome in the truest sense of the word. Almost as though she knew she was being watched, the being slowly turned and looked at her with eyes the color of fresh blood. The truck rumbled away, and Kera could swear she saw surprise in the being’s expression. The bombers pulled into the site and started crawling all over it. The pale woman turned toward one of them and held up her hand. Red smoke that almost looked like oil paint rose from her palm, and the man in front of her began to scream.

Thank fuck I’m one of the good guys. Kera slammed the door shut and slumped against the side of the truck. The child she’d pulled from its mother crawled into her lap silently and lay there still and light as a feather. She stroked its head, unsure whether it was male or female. She asked its name in what she hoped was its native language, and the soft reply confirmed female.

“That was too close. We need to close shop here, boss.” Her chief, Ajan, also held a child in his lap, while the mother rested against him, tears streaking down her dirt covered face.

“I know. I just hate giving in to these bastards. But we can’t lose any more people. We’ll close down and get everyone home. Once they’ve razed it to the ground and have moved on like the locusts they are, we’ll try to come back and rebuild.”

He nodded and passed the child back to its mother. “We got twenty out of the main building and all ten out of the secondary building. Yang and Deek are already en route to the rendezvous point with the other group, and the plane is ready. As long as we can avoid any ground-to-air missiles, we’ll be in France by morning.”

Kera sighed, exhaustion and frustration finally sweeping away any adrenaline she had left. “Take off after dark, unless we need to get up before that.”

“That’s only an hour away. Shouldn’t be a problem.”

The rest of the ride to the plane was made in silence, except for the soft crying of the women and children. As she studied them, remembering their names and places of origin, she felt the weight of her work more than usual. An unbidden image of the pale woman came to mind. It’s time for a vacation. When she started to see the orishas her mother had told her about as a child, it was time to take a break and get away from the daily horrors she dealt with.

Once they’d loaded the women and children onto the passenger plane, along with some of her staff, she and the rest of her senior staff boarded her own private jet. It would get to France faster, which meant she could have things moving before the other plane touched down. They buckled in, and it was only minutes after full dark that the two planes took off.

Ajan fell asleep almost instantly in the plush leather seat opposite her, and all the other staff were either asleep or subdued. Once in the air, Kera headed for a quick shower, needing to wash off the dust and death of the educational outpost in Nigeria that was now nothing but a pile of blasted stone. She let the water sluice over her, and slowly she felt almost normal again. It’s all part of the job. That’s what I tell everyone, and it’s as true for me as it is for them. She knew without asking they didn’t see the pale woman. She’d learned as a child to keep silent about seeing the beings no one else could.

She headed back to her seat and closed her eyes, determined to dream about the mysterious being rather than the destruction they’d barely lived through.

* * *

The six-hour flight to France had gone quickly, and once on the ground, Kera took control and made the necessary arrangements for the next steps. The refugees would be taken to a safe house, where they’d receive medical care and food. Then, with the help of interpreters, they’d be asked where they wanted to go next. If they wanted to stay in Europe, the paperwork would begin. If they wanted to go to family somewhere else, that would be arranged too. It was entirely up to the women, and because they’d hardly known a time with that kind of choice, it often took a little while for them to decide. There was no rush.

Kera met Ajan for breakfast in the hotel the next morning, feeling refreshed and ready to get moving. He didn’t look quite as good.

“You look like you got hit by a bomb,” Kera said with a smile after taking an appreciative sip of her coffee.

“Funny. You look like you just left a Beverly Hills salon.”

“Yeah, well, I’m lucky that way. It’s hard to be this good-looking, you know. It takes enormous effort and self-control not to let it go to my head.”

He rolled his eyes, and she was glad to see his trademark smile beneath the lines of exhaustion.

“I’m sure it does. I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to getting home, to my own bed.”

Home. It feels like a place in a dream. She pushed away the loneliness that thought always brought with it. “Me too, buddy, me too. I can’t wait to have a conversation with my favorite scotch again. You?”

“Ice cream. The good stuff. I’m going to spend the night in an ice cream locker and eat myself into a cookie dough coma.”

She laughed and relaxed. It was well known that Ajan had the most intense sweet tooth on the planet. It was one of the best ways to bribe him. “Everyone get settled in okay last night?”

“Fine. Lots of tears and plenty of fear. That bombing really shook things up. But I think everyone will figure out where they want to go before long.”

“Medical?”

“Starting with the kids, then moving on to the mothers. Mostly dehydrated and malnourished, though they’re checking for cholera and TB.”

Kera picked up her phone and rang the main office. “Hey, Shell. We’ve just made a drop-off at the French location from our base in Nigeria. Be ready for influx, will you? And have status reports available on Kenya, Madaya, and Ethiopia. I’ll also want to check in with the medical unit, so let them know I’ll need reports and concerns by Friday. And get the president of Full Drum on the phone for me tomorrow morning.”

She hung up, and Ajan shook his head. “I don’t know how you keep all this stuff in your head.” He leaned forward and took her hand in his. “Make sure it isn’t staying in your head, hear? This stuff…” He swallowed hard. “Once it gets hold, you have to scrape it out, like a cancer. Don’t let it get hold, girl. I can see it sometimes. It’s like watching ghosts in your eyes.”

You don’t know the half of it. She squeezed his hand and returned his serious gaze. “I know, old friend. I do. I don’t think you can get through what we do without carrying some of it with you. But that’s okay. I’d rather carry them than forget them. Because then the world would forget them too, and to have lived and died, with no one to mourn you, is a tragedy.” She let go of his hand and grinned, needing to lighten the moment. “Besides. We’re taking a vacation. You and I, and a few of the others from this mission. We all need a break to, as you say, scrape the stuff away.”

He nearly jumped from his seat he was so excited. “You mean it? Real time off?”

“Real time off. Go see your family, go see the Great Wall of China, whatever. But take the entire month off. The world will still need saving when we get back. And I could do to spend some time on the money side of things instead of the saving people side of things.”

The hotel steward came over to tell them it was time to go, and that their bags were already in the car. Ajan was on the phone as they walked out, making reservations for a flight to Haiti. He held the phone away from his mouth and put a hand on her arm to stop her. “Come with me? You know your aunties would love to see you.”

A fresh wave of pain hit her as she thought of her mother’s sisters. “Thanks, but I’m not ready. You go ahead.”

He nodded sympathetically and went back to his call.

As they headed to the jet, Kera considered what she might want to do with her time off. Suddenly, the idea of taking a vacation seemed ludicrous. There was so much to do—more research to focus on, heads of state to visit. I can do some of it from the house in France. At least I’ll feel like I’m away. They were on the tarmac, heading for the plane steps, when she noticed a commotion at a nearby plane. Reporters jostled for a place near the front and cameras were all pointed at an impossibly tall man with a thick, black beard and almost shiny swarthy skin, wearing a turban. Instinctively, Kera knew it was Mohammed, the prophet of the Muslims. He nodded solemnly at those waiting for him but ignored the cacophony of questions thrown at him by the reporters.

Since the gods had shown up, life had become more complicated. Praying to someone who may or may not be listening was one thing. Asking that person over a cup of coffee about things like cancer and genocide was something totally different. She knew for a fact the women who’d been in her facility had prayed just as hard as those who prayed in temples. But many of them were still buried beneath the rubble, their prayers silent on their bloodless lips. What had belief gotten them?

Kera tried to stay out of it all. No matter what, people needed help, and that’s what she was going to give. Even if the gods don’t.

Chapter Four

“Why me?” Tis crossed her arms and glared at Zed.

“You know why. You’re among the oldest here, you have experience with legal matters, you’ve spent the most time with the varied religious personnel, and you’re the most rational of your sisters.” He grinned at Alec. “No offense.”

Alec shrugged. “None taken. It’s all true.”

Tis felt like she’d been ambushed, and there was nothing she hated more than being backed into a corner. She needed time to consider every angle, but they were pushing for an answer now. The room was filled with the heads of every major religion, as well as a few of the larger minor ones. They all waited expectantly, to see if she’d be the one to draft the new constitution and business plan for Afterlife, Inc. Now that the gods had moved into the public sphere, entirely new issues had been raised, and the department heads felt boundaries had better be drafted sooner rather than later. It made sense, of course. But drafting a new rulebook with gods whose egos had gotten serious boosts from the corporate changes was going to be a nightmare of vanity and narcissism.

She sighed. “Okay. But I’m not squabbling. You decide on the big things, hell, decide on as many of the little things as you can as well, before I start. I’m not sitting in on the preliminary discussions. I don’t have the patience, and I’d end up feeding all of you to my snakes.”

Alec coughed behind her hand, and Tis knew she was trying not to laugh. Maybe threatening a room full of deities wasn’t a great idea, but she didn’t care.

“Once you’ve decided on whatever you can agree on, I’ll come in and start drafting the new constitution, and I’ll ask questions to clarify the rules. I’ll also try to think of any situations which might need addressing, so when I do come back, they can be dealt with accordingly.”

“That sounds wise and as though we’ve chosen the right person.”

Buddha’s smile was gentle, and as always, looked slightly mischievous. Tis smiled back at him, glad he was there. He’d been a friend and mentor for longer than she could remember. Although not technically a god, so many people prayed to him as an enlightened being they wanted to emulate, just as the other’s followers did, he had developed god status.

“Thanks, Bud. I’ll do what I can.”

Zed stood and surveyed the table. “In that case, why don’t we let Tis go, and we’ll begin bullet-pointing our guidelines.”

Tis gratefully headed for the door. As it closed behind her, she heard Zed say, “Now, let’s begin with territory and how we publicly discuss our own religions in comparison with others.”

Alec and Meg followed Tis, and they both burst out laughing the moment the door was closed.

“What? What have I missed?” Tis stared at them, bewildered.

“You just told a room full of egomaniacal gods how to act, what to do, and that you’d feed them to your hair if they didn’t behave. I love you so much.” Meg wrapped her arm around Tis’s waist.

Tis leaned into her embrace. “I’m thinking ahead. Can you imagine what’s going to happen in there? It will be a miracle if the building is still standing by tomorrow.”

Alec shook out her wings as though shivering. “I don’t envy you, Tis. I mean, every religion has its own take on war, the afterlife, death, submission…how do they say theirs is the right version without stepping on someone else’s toes?”

The elevator let them out into the reception area, and they each stopped to pet one of Cerberus’s enormous heads. She rarely stayed in human guise these days, preferring her normal three-headed canine form now that the building had become visible to the world at large. A cluster of humans constantly waited outside to catch a glimpse of their god. A strange phenomenon of “spiritual autograph hunter” had sprung up, along with bizarre trading cards. As press cameras flashed whenever a god left through the front door, humans pressed forward for inhuman signatures. Tis couldn’t help but find something about it distasteful, though she wasn’t sure why.

“I have an idea.” Meg took both their hands in hers and headed for the back door, which led into the safety of the compound. “Let’s fly.”

* * *

Tis closed her eyes as she soared over the black-jade Pacific Ocean, the sun warming her entire being. She reopened her eyes when she heard laughter. Ahead of her, Meg’s red wings looked like they were on fire as she twisted, spun, and dove through the air like a bird freed from a cage. She glanced behind her at Alec, who looked as relaxed and free as Tis felt. Her onyx wings looked like a living shadow, and her black eyes were alight with the freedom that only came with flying unhindered.

Tis couldn’t remember the last time they’d flown together just for fun, without having to head to a job site or business meeting. She concentrated on the way the wind lifted her hair and caressed her feathers, the way the warm ocean air felt against her skin. The tension she’d been carrying, the worry and frustration, dropped away into the ocean’s white caps. Meg’s shout made her focus, and she looked down to where Meg was pointing. Below them, a pod of humpback whales surfaced, and Tis laughed as they blew water high enough to hit all three of them.

Alec called from behind, “Let’s head to the Rim of the World.”

Meg banked hard and dove toward the water. She dipped one wing in the water and created a wave of spray. Tis dipped her other wing, sent up a line of spray to the other side, and giggled like a girl when Alec followed suit behind her. They hadn’t played in the water together since…no, Tis couldn’t think of when.

She followed Meg inland, and they flew high above the smog layer and heat rising from the dry desert landscape into the cool air of the mid-level atmosphere. The constant human noise abated, and Tis drank in the silence like a tonic to her frayed soul. Desert turned to mountains, and she felt another part of herself return. She missed the forests and caves of their old life.

Meg finally slowed and landed on a heavily treed cliff, closely followed by Tis and Alec. She walked straight over to a massive oak and hugged it like an old friend.

Tis smiled, glad to know she wasn’t the only one missing the peace nature used to bring them. She sat on the edge of the cliff, and Alec sat beside her. Soon, Meg let go of her tree friend and sat on Tis’s other side. For a long while, they sat in silence, staring out over the thick blanket of clouds below them. They’d always loved this part of Southern California and had come here often when they’d first moved to Afterlife. This part of the San Gabriel Mountains was always above the cloud layer, and often empty. There were even a few caves in the cliff face below where they sat, and every once in a while Tis would sleep in one, just so she could feel like her old self again.

Eventually, Alec said, “I forget how noisy the world is now, until I hear the trees speaking again.”

“Mmm,” Tis murmured, not ready to break the silence.

“You know I like a lot of the changes, but I’ll always love this.” Meg wrapped her wings around herself, still staring out at the clouds.

They listened to the wind in the trees, the sounds of small animals rustling in the underbrush, and when Meg silently pointed, they watched a mountain lion stalk a rabbit in the valley below.

This is what life should be. Not squabbling gods or corporation contracts. Good and bad, moral and not moral. Nature, not concrete.

Almost as though she could hear Tis’s thoughts, Alec said quietly, “Want to talk about it?”

“I don’t know. I’m not sure what it is myself.”

Meg bumped Tis’s shoulder with her own. “Start with the emotion. Then go from there.”

Tis thought about it. Naming emotions had never been something she enjoyed. She preferred logic, justice, facts. Emotions were so nebulous, so unpredictable, and often irrational. “Okay. Frustration. I’m frustrated that it never changes. We do what we do, and then there’s another case, and another. I don’t know if humans have gotten worse, or if we’re simply more aware of them because we work a larger area. And granted, they’ve gotten a little better since the gods have appeared among them. But how long will it last?”

Her sisters listened without interrupting, and Tis could see them taking her seriously. She continued. “Tired. But not just had-a-long-day tired. I’m tired in my soul, in my being. We never get any real time off, and seeing the worst in people, and never having any fun…it’s exhausting. I want to go to bed, but when I do, I lie awake wondering when I’ll be called out on the next case, or I’m thinking about previous cases. And now, the company wants me to do this extra thing, and I feel like…like I don’t have a life outside work anymore.”

“Have you ever?” Meg asked, sounding genuinely curious.

“We did. We had relationships, we had friends, we went to cafés and bars and traveled just to travel, and not to work.” They stayed silent, and then it hit her. They still had all those things. They had relationships, and friends, and all the other stuff. She was the only one who didn’t. She felt the tears come, and she didn’t try to hide them. “Lonely. I don’t know how it happened, or when. I don’t know when I became this shell. Aulis reminded me—”

“Oh my god, how is she? Does she still drink like a whale? Is she still with that beautiful Norwegian with the huge—”

“Meg! Hush.” Alec frowned at her.

“Sorry. Go on, Tis.” Meg looked slightly contrite, but not entirely.

“Anyway, Aulis reminded me I used to be someone else. Someone fun, and daring, and sexual. What happened?”

Birdsong filled the air, and a slight breeze ruffled Tis’s feathers. She let her sisters think, knowing they’d give her question real consideration.

Alec said, “I don’t really remember it happening. I don’t think there was a moment when things changed. I think you were gradually taken over by the new way of life. It’s so different. And you know, I don’t think humanity has gotten any worse. I mean, when you think about Oedipus, Orestes, and even Clytemnestra, you know how awful people were, way back then. The Crusades, Vietnam, World War II. I think we just had fewer of them to look after. Now, with this global workload, I agree it’s overwhelming sometimes.”

“Maybe you need a break?” Meg’s brow was furrowed, and she leaned forward, as though into a thought. “I don’t mean a vacation. I mean a break. As in, we take over your workload, and maybe even grab someone from another department, and you take the time to figure out what you want. For as long as it takes.”

“Go find myself?” Tis gave them a wry grin.

“Well, yeah. Why not? Being immortal doesn’t mean we don’t get ennui. In fact, maybe we’re even more prone to it. Or maybe you’re having a midlife crisis.”

Alec snorted. “I think you have to have a life end to have a midlife.” She avoided the pebble Meg threw at her. “But you know, I think she’s right. With people behaving now that they think their particular afterlives are real, it’s a good time to do it. Go have some fun. Travel. Go to libraries in other countries and have sex with women between the stacks. Go see friends you haven’t seen in ages. Fly.”

Can I? Really? Then she realized. “What about Zed and the company stuff?”

Meg laughed. “How soon do you think they’ll figure out the answers you need? They’re going to come up with new ones every day they’re out among their fans. I’d say you’ve got time.”

At the same time, both sisters put an arm around Tis, and she felt safe, and more importantly, she felt hope. Maybe with some time away, she really could turn things around. She didn’t want to be this person anymore.

But who do I want to be?

Chapter Five

Kera woke to sunlight warming her naked skin. The thin curtains blew in a soft morning breeze and parrots called to one another over the lapping water beyond her deck. The beautiful woman next to her stirred and gave her a sleepy smile.

“Time?”

Kera kissed her forehead before getting out of bed. “Who cares?”

Anabelle stretched, and Kera appreciated, as she always did, her sculpted, toned, and tanned figure. Whenever Kera made it to her place in Port Grimaud, France, she and Anabelle spent some quality time together. Anna was a journalist, and they’d met when she was covering one of Kera’s projects. Ever since, they’d been close friends, and the benefits were truly an aside to an exceptional friendship.

“Coffee, then?”

“Always.” Kera loved being naked, and as she moved about the kitchen making coffee and chopping fresh fruit for their breakfast, she paid attention to the feel of the cool slate tile beneath her feet, the way the warm air caressed her skin, and the glorious smell of fresh coffee. For a long time, when she’d been younger and far more foolish, life had been about pleasure, whether in the form of women or daily living, it didn’t matter. It still was, to a large degree, and she didn’t apologize for it. When Anabelle’s hands slid over her stomach and moved up to cup her breasts, she was glad she spent so much time in the gym.

“I have to get going,” Anabelle murmured in her ear. “Work just called.”

Kera turned around in her embrace and cradled her face in her hands. “Busy lately?”

Anabelle sighed. “Since the gods have reappeared, there’s never a moment when something isn’t happening somewhere. Crime rates are down, but you can feel the tension in some places…like believers are just waiting to explode. When people could say God works in mysterious ways as an excuse, they were content. Now that they’re getting answers, or not getting them, as the case may be, they’re not sure where they stand.”

Kera rested her forehead against Anabelle’s. “Be careful, okay? Zealots are zealots, and knowing their gods are real isn’t going to make them less so. They’ll just find new levels of crazy.”

Anabelle placed a kiss on Kera’s nose and grinned before she walked back toward the bedroom. “I’m always careful. And if I didn’t know better, I’d think you cared.”

Kera laughed. “You know I care. If I didn’t care, we’d do this at your place.”

Anabelle ducked back around the corner to look at her. “I know you do. And it’s not just because I’m the best lay you’ve ever had.”

After Anabelle left, Kera took her coffee out to the deck. The little village south of St. Tropez was a hidden gem. Built on canals by someone who wanted to re-create Venice, every house had a boat dock and a view of the water, often both in front and behind the house. Her sixty-four-foot yacht, the Madaline-Rose, bobbed gently, covered until it warmed up a bit more. She couldn’t wait to take it out again. Being on the water was freeing, not only because she felt at one with the waves, but because it was so hard to get hold of her. Thanks to no Wi-Fi or phone reception, she was forced to live in the moment, and there’d never been a time she wasn’t grateful for that. It was something her mother had tried to teach her, which was why she’d named the boat after her. But she hated the cold, and being stuck inside, even on the water, wasn’t what it was about. There was nothing like having sex on the deck in the sun—

Her phone rang, calling her back to the moment. She grabbed it. The head of a company couldn’t take a real vacation, not the way other people could. She accepted that and was just glad she had the kind of staff she could leave in charge so she could get away physically once in a while.

“Hey, boss. Sorry to bother you. There’s a situation.”

“There’s always a situation, Ajan. Which one are you talking about? And why are you working? You’re supposed to be in Haiti under some woman.”

He laughed. “Who says I wasn’t? I just got a call from HQ. You know I only care about the people-based situations. It’s the child, the one you took off the deceased mother. We can’t find any relatives, and the people we got out don’t want her. Apparently, there’s some superstition involved because she was taken from her mother’s body.”

“What, if they’d been hit by the bomb separately it would have been okay?”

“Yeah, pretty much.”

She sighed. “Okay, get hold of the adoption agencies we use. See if we can get her on the books.”

“I will. In the meantime, do we keep her in the medical center?”

She thought about it. The child had been terribly malnourished, a late arrival to the project who hadn’t had time to make use of the facilities in place for health care. Without family, the child had no one to visit her in the care center, but she wasn’t strong enough to go live among children yet either.

“Put her in the children’s ward once she’s strong enough. Let’s integrate her slowly, and see that she gets into some English classes right away, so she doesn’t feel so helpless. We’ll go from there.”

“I’ll pass it on. Enjoying your break?”

“You know it. See you soon.”

She hung up and thought about the child as she stared at the water without seeing it. Before the gods had come out, she couldn’t imagine wanting to bring a child into the world. There was constant war and chaos. Even Westernized countries had their share of homelessness, addiction issues, poverty, and violence. She’d never understood the biological calling people felt to pass on their genes or create a being. Ego always seemed to be at the heart of it—the desire to make sure the nature of who a person was continued on through time. Once, that might have been necessary to propagate the species. Now, in a world with a population overrunning the planet’s resources, it seemed so…frivolous and narcissistic. Not that she had anything specific against being frivolous or narcissistic—she was known for being both, labels she considered part and parcel of being who she was. But when there were orphaned children in desperate need of someone to care, having one of your own seemed a lot like going to a dog breeder for a special breed, rather than saving one from a pound.


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