Child of the Air


Author’s Note – Today’s flash fiction challenge was to write about an extinct flower that somehow blooms for the first time in a hundred years. Of course I couldn’t help putting an apocalyptic spin on a little floral fiasco. ~ J


It seemed like such a good idea, you know?

Just grow this seed into something people could connect with …

The rest of our work is so distant and impersonal to most of the world. Go dig around where the permafrost is thawed, tell everyone about what climate change is revealing, what it’s doing to us and our world.

Noble, important work, right?

Yeah, well, most people don’t give a shit. And I want them to. I want people to care.

As a botanist, my enthusiasm for finding the plant was no surprise, but the whole team was intrigued by my discovery. Here was the seed to a species that no one alive has ever seen bloom. Aerides glacies orchidaceae, a flower so long extinct that we don’t even have any photographs.  Not just the seed either. But spores from the fungus it would need to penetrate its route systems to nourish its growth.

I just thought, if I could grow it, take my work out of the lab … Maybe people would care about it, care about the other things we’re finding, too.

I guess it worked.

Everyone knows about my ice orchid; a flower no one had seen or smelled in a hundred years.

Unfortunately, it’s killing them.

And I don’t know how to stop it.


Opening Gambit


Author’s Note – The challenge in my writing group today was “An encounter with a deity.” That’s so close to what we write for the series, it seemed like an ideal opportunity to give readers a little preview of Before the Dawn, Book II in The Arbitratus. We are very close to finishing and I’m excited for you to get a sneak peek. This is Chapter 2. It hasn’t been through an editor yet, so apologies if there’s anything untidy about it.

For those who don’t know, it fits into the challenge because Ba’al is an ancient Canaanite deity or one of the seven princes of Hell in traditional mythology, depending on who you ask. In our world he’s an Old god, Lucifer’s second in command, and Hell’s Chief inquisitor. He’s also not a fan of our Ben.

If you don’t want spoilers for the end of Always Darkest, this is not the post for you. If you’ve been dying to know what comes next, then read on. ~ J


Lucifer’s anger weakened the spells that created this space and the room grew uncomfortably warm. Ba’al met his eyes boldly, while Castor and his attendants tried to find places to look other than his burning gaze. Failure again!” Lucifer said from between clenched teeth. “Scores of Fallen. Lahash and Lilith slain!”

A deep sadness tempered his anger. Lilith and he had a history. She had been the first to answer his call after the war. And Lahash, well, she had been a special favorite of his, and she had come so close to securing the girl. Castor made the grievous error of interjecting. “I lost hundreds of demons. Not to mention the countless I lost to that old magic, so you could have a handful that can see through wards …” his voice trailed off with the hiss of Lucifer’s blade separating his head from his body in one smooth motion.

“As though demons matter.”

His expression dismissed the king’s people and they scurried from the room.

Ba’al cleared his throat. “My Lord, the survivors have arrived.”

His voice revealed an anticipatory relish. Ronoven had always gotten under his skin; he was so sure of himself, and whenever he opened his mouth seemed able to convince a fire it didn’t burn. Ba’al would like to see him talk his way out of this situation. The only way any of Hell’s people could have survived was simple cowardice, or more likely, betrayal.

Lucifer glared at him, as the Agent Aife and Lord Ronoven, looking composed and dressed for a formal audience, were escorted into the room. Lucifer’s voice rumbled from deep in his chest, dripping menace. “You have failed me and …”

“Disagree,” Ben interrupted pleasantly, waving a dismissive hand, as he strolled over to a side table. “May I?”

He casually poured himself a glass of wine without waiting for an answer. He moved with deliberate unhurried calm to the table in the center of the room, sat down, and put his feet up on the nearest chair.

“Bit of a rough day. I’m sure you don’t mind.”

Aife stood looking anywhere but at the other beings in the room. Lucifer’s eyes flashed burgundy fire, and Ba’al moved off to a safe distance. Lucifer closed the distance between them without seeming to move, his blade drawn. He spoke with icy composure that could not conceal the rage in his eyes. “Explain yourself.”

Ben looked up at him steadily, took a sip of his wine. “I told you where to be looking more than two years ago.”

His tone was not quite a challenge, but only just.

“I’ve been doing my job since the beginning, and I accomplished it per your instructions.”

Lucifer’s eyes narrowed.

“I risked my immortal being to test dangerous old magic to overcome the protections on the half-breed. I found her, confirmed her identity, and was following the procedure you expect of demons. I had just reached our Agent to summon Lahash. I certainly didn’t anticipate a bunch of angels showing up.” He let his eyes flash just a bit. “Like a freaking Arch. I’ve never seen anything like what Metatron … And her Guardian came calling, wielding a sword and tossing around holy fire like paper airplanes … And then Uriel showed up.”

He paused and took another longer drink.

“That gal knows her smiting.”

Lucifer placed his blade against Ben’s neck and asked in a low voice, “Then how is it you survived?”

Ben didn’t flinch, didn’t even move his eyes away from Lucifer’s face, but it took all his will. He still felt heavy with his flesh. In fact, when he’d dressed for his audience with Lucifer, that bothersome scar was on his chest underneath the sun tattoo, as though he were still in his human form.

Worse, the scar on his palm from consecrating the dark blades was highly visible, looking almost fresh again. He was holding the glass of wine more to conceal it than because he wanted to force any liquid past the tightness in his throat. Perhaps as the result of the old magic or perhaps because he’d been back in a body longer than he’d spent in it when he was alive, he didn’t feel like he expected. But he was determined.

“Lahash revealed that we weren’t to murder the girl; that you believe the prophecy is real, that you wanted her brought before you. When it was clear that the operation wasn’t going as planned, the Agent and I attempted to complete the mission. We managed to grab her and then … I’m not certain what happened.”

The pressure of the blade on his neck increased fractionally, tilting his chin up slightly.

“We touched her and there was a flash, a burning like fire, and we were back in Hell. Of course, we collected ourselves to report to you immediately.”

“I see,” Lucifer said tightly, but he lowered his blade to rest on Ben’s shoulder.

“It must have been the wards, My Lord,” Ba’al interjected.

“Perhaps.” Lucifer was not convinced. “But what of your kind’s magic now supposedly part of our friend here?”

Ba’al strode over to the table and grabbed Ben’s exposed wrist. The mark burned mercilessly, and his jaw tightened almost against his will, but he gazed at Ba’al, unblinking. What he wouldn’t like to do to this washed up god after the things he said to Mal when he’d possessed their friend, the things he had done to Teddy for that matter. Mentally, Ben recoiled from this creature, but his face remained almost expressionless.

“The mark is there, Lord Lucifer. There must be another explanation.” He enjoyed the momentary discomfort that had crossed the demon’s face; impressed at Ronoven’s self-control, and wondering, not for the first time, what it might take to finally break it. He had never seen even a crack in his steely resistance and was curious. Fascinated was perhaps a better word.

Out of nowhere Aife interjected, “Begging your pardon, my Lords,” Lucifer and Ba’al turned as she dipped into a low bow, “There was other magic involved. As you know, I also bear the mark, and a strong repellent force made it difficult to even approach the girl.”

Sensing that Aife’s contribution was at least a chance for some fast talking, and impressed at how convincingly she lied, Ben jumped in, “My Lord, the city was half destroyed. No one else from Hell survived. I have no doubt that, if not for whatever magic was protecting the girl that thrust us through the veil, we would have perished as well. That cannot be part of their plan, my Lord. Had we not been cast back, you would not have this new opportunity.”

Lucifer lowered his sword, considered Ronoven for a moment, and re-sheathed the blade. “Opportunity?”

“Word around Hell is the girl survived whatever happened after we got thrown out of the party, and I know what she looks like, as well as her companions. I believe I could track her.” He glanced at Aife and gave an almost imperceptible nod.

“As do I, my Lord,” Aife added, bowing deeply again.

Lucifer smiled, went and poured himself a glass of wine, and joined Ronoven at the table. “It is no wonder you have been favored by several Kings of Hell. Perhaps you will please the next one as well if you serve me in this matter.” Ben glanced over at Castor’s smoldering body, wondering briefly where his head had gotten to, and gave an appreciative dip of his head. “You will go and hunt this girl. You may take the Agent as your second.”

He paused significantly.

“But know this: Failure will not be tolerated.”

Ben raised and drained his glass, placed it on the table, and rose. He inclined his head to the seated Lucifer by way of a bow. “We will prepare to depart immediately.”

He turned and walked toward the exit with purposeful measured strides, ignoring Ba’al and concealing a smile when he saw that the god felt his slight. He didn’t think Aife was going to be able to move but when he got near her she bowed again and followed Ben silently out the door.

When it closed behind them, Ba’al joined Lucifer, sitting almost primly, hands folded on the table top. “You trust that smooth talking slippery little demon, do you?”

“I’m not a fool.” He sighed. “He knows who destroyed the city. If he’d been that close, he should be dead, the final death since Uriel was involved. I never had cause to doubt the Agent before now, and Ronoven is not one I would have guessed to play dice with his own skin, but I’m sure you noticed there wasn’t so much as a scrape on either of them, and given the nature of the battle and the presence of a Guardian and more than one Archangel, I can’t believe that’s possible. Wounds inflicted by angelic weapons travel with a body between realms, down to the base matter of our existence, not unlike the mark of the shielding spell. Someone powerful helped them. And it wasn’t one of us. I can’t imagine what he’s up to and I mean to find out.” Lucifer shrugged with an appreciative smile, “I must admit though, I admire his style.”

“What are your plans then?”

“Summon Abaddon, Belial, and Samael.”

Ba’al gave a derisive snort. “Honestly, Lucifer, the bold play didn’t work out particularly well the only two times you’ve tried it. What makes you think it has a chance now when all are alerted to your desire? Besides, whether intentionally or unintentionally, Ronoven seems to keep evading your efforts to keep proper track of him. And even if the only thing he’s lying about is hiding instead of fighting during that battle, he’s not terribly likely to find the girl in a land that large. Today’s events are sure to have sent her back on the run. Without Lahash your options are extremely limited. While I welcome you to try, even to trust that Ronoven will be trying for you, I’d prefer you also looked at some fresh ideas that have some chance of success.”

Lucifer’s eyes flashed, and he was about to let loose a diatribe about Ba’al’s subordinate position when Ba’al continued, “Please.” He was dismissive. “We both have too much to lose. Taking her isn’t enough. She is a woman now. You will have to win her cooperation. I offer you a true opportunity to do so, if only through building fear and then offering escape.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Her little friend. I’ve still got a thread of connection. He thinks obsessively of our time together. I’d be happy to try to work in the background; see if I can break through.”

“And if he’s nowhere near her?”

“How would he have survived if he weren’t rescued with the girl? The devastation there is total.”

Lucifer nodded, seeing the possibilities. “What do you want in return?”

“Only things you already hold in no regard, old friend.” He smiled coldly.


Down the hall, Ben and Aife proceeded to his home, with Ben greeting and accepting congratulations on a battle well fought and accolades that he survived the day from various demons they passed. He saw no reason not to confirm those rumors and thought it might shore up his story with Lucifer if everyone talked about it. Aife walked beside him, face as still as stone. When they were what she deemed a safe distance away and found themselves alone, she grabbed his arm.

“Were you trying to get us killed?”

She tried to drag him to a stop, but he continued, determined to be done with this as quickly as possible, pulling her along.

“He likes that; has a weakness for it. It made him question killing us on sight … or turning us over to the interrogation squad.” He paused. “There was a time when that wouldn’t have worried me, but now that Ba’al has taken over they’re much more creative and determined. I know from experience …” He felt Aife tense beside him, so he pressed on, his voice purposely more casual. “I’ve at least bought us a moment to breathe. But we need to leave as soon as possible.” Ben shrugged. “Fortune favors the bold.”

He stopped and looked at her steadily.

“Let go. Please.”

When she did, Ben kept walking. She paused for a moment and then ran a few steps to catch up. “But you can’t possibly trust him!”

“Of course not. He’s not foolish enough to have bought the story about wards that magic from the old gods’ bag of tricks can’t deal with.”

“All you’ve done is delay the inevitable, Lord Ronoven.” It had been so long since she’d addressed him in that way, Ben stopped again and turned to face her fully.

“You don’t have to do this, you know.” He spoke with a grim shake of his head. “No matter how I play this out in my head, it doesn’t end well, and I already gave up any chance at …” He trailed off. The way Chris looked at him sometimes when he didn’t think Ben noticed made his stomach flip. He couldn’t tolerate Aife looking at him like that, too. Some things were best left forgotten.

She frowned but didn’t say anything. Whatever was going on inside his head to make him look so lost … She didn’t think she wanted to know.

“I’ll understand if you go right back and spill everything. I don’t want you to feel obligated to me. You have a choice.” His eyes searched hers, very serious.

She put her hand on his arm, almost smiling, and shook her head. “I don’t believe I do.” She was sure that he hadn’t meant her to see the relief that passed over his face, so she stepped away from him and said in a businesslike manner, “What are we going to do now?”

Ben started walking again. “We’re going back to Earth to find Mal and help her, whatever that means. We’ll find a way to stay there as soon as we can.”

“Let’s just get out of here before Lucifer changes his mind!”

“I’d like to check on my souls, if you don’t mind.” Ben shrugged, “Besides, I know what I’m doing. If we take off in a rush it will only bring them down on us. We need to do what demons do when they’re ordered out on a mission. We can use the time they think we’re preparing and see my servant Gareth. If Ciara found her way here after that angelic nuke he can get her clear of the worst of it.”

Aife gasped, having not even spared Ciara a thought since before the Battle. Then she admitted in a rush, “I tore up her contract and freed her before I left to meet Chris. I don’t know what made me do it. Seems suicidal in retrospect.”

Ben chuckled from deep in his throat, shaking his head. She was as rash and impulsive as he was sometimes. Small wonder they were friends. Then he was serious, “Still, you never know which direction they’ll travel, do you? And there are other things we might need.”

“Like what?”

“I’ve got some rare books and spell ingredients.”

“Why would we want to go to all that trouble? The spell is ridiculously complicated.”

Ben opened the door to his apartments with an exasperated sigh. “Well, I can’t exactly call you anymore, can I?”

She followed him in, the reality of their situation beginning to sink in. “What about the other offices? We can just …”

Ben cut her off, “He knows; you know he does. Letting us go is some kind of ruse. He’ll be trying to track us as soon as he can, and someone’s bound to notice what you did with that contract sooner or later.” She tried to interrupt but he continued, “We’re burned.”

Her eyes were wide as she watched Ben see to his souls, pack the things he mentioned, and say goodbye. The reality of seeing him set his affairs in order, ensuring things could work without him, that the right mechanisms were in place to shelter his people, to keep souls continually being added to his retinue and thus protected, brought home to Aife more than anything else that Ben knew if he came back it would not be to a position of privilege. She knew he meant it when he said he would understand her deciding to give him up.


He looked up from the trunk he was sifting through, surprised to hear what he thought of as his proper name spoken in this place.

“What can I carry, love?”

Pool Shark


There’s something in the water.

The thought came with such easy certainty, Roz almost laughed.

When she was small she wouldn’t even go in the pool because Sean had told her the pool sharks would eat her. Home from college on summer break, he’d given her shit about it at the breakfast table this morning. She’d chucked a syrup covered Eggo at his head and gone up to her room in a huff. She’d brooded about how to shut him up about it for hours.

The sounds of Rob’s noisy old pickup pulling in next door. She hadn’t seen him since the start of summer break. He’d been off doing some junior counselor soccer camp thing. Before exams started he’d never even noticed her as anything other than the awkward neighbor kid before … But they’d been partnered up in the Chem final and it apparently occurred to him that she was a lot less awkward, and maybe a lot more graced with cleavage, than she had been.

It was hot and Rob and his brother would almost definitely go swimming. Roz’s pool was easily visible from the Danforth’s deck.

She decided she’d kill two birds with one stone and go for a swim. Casually hitting the pool alone ought to shut Sean up. And … it couldn’t hurt neighborly relations any for Rob to see her in the ruffled fuchsia bikini she could finally fill out.

She got changed, grabbed one of the big fluffy towels from the linen closet, and headed out onto their deck. Sean has raised his eyebrows at her announcement that she was going to catch some sun and go for a swim, but he didn’t say anything. Maybe he didn’t believe his baby sister’s stated intentions. He was probably just waiting to give her more crap when she didn’t go through with it.

She glanced around. No sign of Rob yet. But she could hear talking and laughing through the screens next door. She cranked up her radio so the boys next door couldn’t miss that she was outside and stood on the edge of the deck looking into the cool blue water.

It was perfectly tranquil and had the inviting Caribbean color that had always sort of fascinated her.

Throwing caution to the wind, and trying not to over-think how edgy the idea of swimming alone made her, she took a running start and splashed noisily into the water.

At first how chilly it felt compared to the warm air set her gasping and sputtering. But she quickly adjusted to the temperature and after swimming a few laps, she started to actually enjoy herself. She was having such a nice time, in fact, she got one of the pool floats off the deck. She tossed it into the water then followed it with another loud and splashy jump in.

She stood on her tiptoes in the shallow end, trying to glean any sign that Rob might be on his way outside. The quiet yard from across the fence yielded no encouraging information, so she stretched out on the float and closed her eyes. The baking sun had her sweating in minutes. She wasn’t ready to get all the way back in yet, so she let her legs hang off the float and trailed her hands through the water.

That’s better.

She had almost dozed off in the sun when the thought jolted her back to wakefulness.

There’s something in the water.

A warning from somewhere outside herself, sending a shiver over her whole body, raising goosebumps on her arms and legs.

Don’t start being ridiculous Rosalind Kelly, she chided herself. No way was she going to let a reemerging case of toddler brain send her running inside so Sean could pick on her and she could miss seeing, and being seen by Rob.

She talked herself down and pretty successfully. She started to relax again.

The tug on her ankle was so sharp, so sudden, for a second she didn’t even process it. Before she envelope opened her eyes she was ready with Sean’s most embarrassing childhood nickname and a plan to dead arm him maybe on both sides.

But he wasn’t there.

The back yard and pool was empty except for her and her blaring radio.

Another tug.

This one hurt.

She was about to call for help, but she was pulled under too quickly.

She screamed, but no one heard her over the radio. And it was over quickly in the time that existed above the surface of the water.


Underneath, the end went on forever.



When Rob Evans headed outside a while later it was wearing his nicest swim trunks. He wasn’t above trying to impress the neighbor either. He strode out onto the deck, cocky smile firmly in place. He looked over toward the Kelly’s pool.


This time everyone in the neighborhood heard the screams.

Next Time, Duck

Author’s Note – More May Writing Challenge fun. Not necessarily in cannon, but it could be.

Caleb was still half dreaming of how he’d wound up here in an alley flat on his back.

The searing pain in his chest convinced him he must be dying. He must’ve said something to that effect because he gasped at the sudden increased pressure over a painful wound somewhere between his breastbone and his left shoulder.

“What the fu …?”

“Hold still, dumbass,” a deep voice snapped.

“Eh … Wha … happen … I’m …”

“You caught a bullet,” the voice snarled. It was more irritated than angry or scared.

“I … Yeah, I guess I did.” His breath hitched. “How bad?”

He could almost hear the eyeroll in the reply. “I’m guessing pretty damn bad. You guys are all nuts.”

The pressure let up for a minute and there was the sound of rummaging in a backpack.

“What do you mean ‘you guys’?” If the newbie had blown their cover, he vowed he’d live just to beat the hell out of him. Kid was worse than Charlie. It was a hell of a thing when your current partner made you think fondly of the long ago Tinkles the WonderDog he’d been saddled with his first go round as a training officer.

A snicker in the dark as wadded fabric was pressed into the wound. “Don’t worry, I only know who you are because you guys were hunting me. Well, you were hunting my boss. But it’s kind of the same thing lately.”

The pressure happened again and Caleb swore; the sort of curse that should probably be grounds for dismissal given who he worked for. “Did your boss shoot me?”

Another snicker. “Yeah, right. You guys act like he’s the bad guy, but he’s not. He saved my life when my girl’s brother in law stabbed me just trying to get money to feed her when she was sick. Quit squirming, dude. You’re not making this any easier, you know.”

“Sorry,” he groaned. “Hurts.”

“I know it. Sorry.”

“Not a good guy,” Caleb insisted. “Are you a demon, too?” His impromptu medic’s hands were so warm either he had a fever or he was just inhabiting the body.

The young man seemed to know what he was thinking. “He’s not a bad guy. And I’m not a demon. I’ve got the healing touch. You know what that is, Templar?”

“Strong Kirlian aura.” He snickered a little himself, then bit back the cry that wanted to follow the unguarded sound. “Ah, Hell.”

“I know, man. Help is on the way though. Boss is callin’ ‘em. Sent me in to keep you from bleeding out.”

“You see who …” Caleb lost the thread in a haze of overwhelming heat and ache.

“Just caught in the crossfire, pal. Welcome to life on the streets here. Where everybody’s got more guns than brains.”

“So nothing to do with those cursed specs?”

“Not a damn thing.”

Red and blue lights started bouncing off the brick in the alleyway. Caleb could see his rescuer couldn’t even be twenty. And here he was, loyal to a demon who’d been peddling cursed objects for decades, and asserting that demon was a good guy while he kept a member of the Order from bleeding out on that demon’s order.

The boy got to his feet and slung his backpack over one shoulder. “The cavalry’s arrived. I’ll point your partner to the right hospital once the boss picks those glasses out of his pocket. You’ll be alright. I can tell. I can always tell.”

The kid started to walk away.

“Hey, um …”

“Alex,” the boy supplied. “My name’s Alex.”


Voices were approaching them from the head of the alley. The boy glanced that way, then at the fence at the back. “Boss said it’d be a shame to let someone almost as good as him eat it in an alley … I mean … You’re welcome.”

He waited a beat.

“Boss also said to tell you …”

“Tell me what?”

“Next time, duck.”

The boy turned and ran at the fence, then vaulted over it. He must’ve been just out of sight when the EMS guys started jogging toward him.

As professional help reached him, assuring him that he’d be fine, he had the fuzzy thought that while Alex and his boss might not be good guys, as the kid asserted, maybe they weren’t completely bad guys either.



Our Frightful Position

stormy sea

The world knew.

It had been told again and again.

By artists, poets, writers, and madmen. The day would come.

In his house, in its undisclosed place with its mythical name, the dead god slumbered, dreaming his dead dreams. Waiting.

We should have realized.

Nothing waits forever.

I was alone when he came for us.
On the beach, mourning the dog who wasn’t with me for the first time in over a decade. I’d walked aimlessly since well before the dawn.

I felt a vague tremor of the earth beneath my feet as light broke behind me. It was as unremarkable as the sun rising at my back as I stared out over the Pacific, noting an almost eerie calm befall the water.

Another tremor came a moment later and the glassy sea began to foam.

Then he rose.

To my dismay, he did not eat me first.

I am not one of the faithful.

He passed over me like I didn’t exist.

No, that’s not true.

His fathomless eyes met mine for just a moment. I felt my sanity waver, but he left it intact.

I think …

I think he wanted a witness.

Peace Is A Lie

I really didn’t want to wake up.

Well, that actually sounds kind of ominous. I didn’t want to wake up until I’d slept off the hangover I knew was coming my way.

But wake up I did.

Only to find my head trapped in some, hot, steamy hell of a head covering. I could feel its stiff edges resting against my collar bones and it’s weight bearing down on my head.

“What the actual … ?” I asked aloud, not expecting an answer, but also not expecting the hollow special-effect sound of my voice echoing around the damn thing.

I peeled my eyes all the way open and could sort of see out of two foggy orbs of darkened plastic.

Then I remembered.

Never let your younger brother challenge you to a holiday drinking game. His liver is in better shape than yours and his capacity for clearing a hangover is almost definitely higher. Plus, he’s been a little shit since he was three.

He proved me right as he bounded into the basement game room blaring the Star Wars theme from his phone.

I pulled the strange headgear off to glare at him and discovered it was a pretty authentic Stormtrooper mask. He beamed at my disgruntled expression. “How you feelin’, bruh?”

I rolled my eyes, even though it hurt. “Like maybe I wish I could Force choke your chipper ass into silence.”

He grinned and killed the music on his phone. “Alcohol is why they call today Revenge of the Fifth, dude.”





Shaken By A Strong Wind

The dream had been plaguing me for days. I’d go to bed determined that this night would be different, that I’d break the cycle. But I couldn’t.


I should have paid more attention to what the dream was trying to tell me.


I’m in bed, and at first, I think I’m just waking up in the random way people do where we sigh and roll over and drift right back off. Then I realize that it’s cold.


My bedroom is never cold.


The heat must be broken. I reach over and shake my husband’s arm. “Joshua,” I whisper, not wanting to wake the girls sleeping next door. “The fire’s gone out again.”

Josh mumbles something unintelligible and throws an arm up over his face.


He’s been working so much. I decide I’ll just take care of it. I always get splinters when I fill the stove, but there are worse things.


I get up and slide on my robe. I tiptoe past the girls’ room and out into the living room to take care of the fire.


It’s too bright out there, but not because there are any lights on. The moon must be full, I think absently.


I nearly jump when I start to walk past the bay window and Rachel’s bell clear, but startlingly inflectionless, voice says, “Mamma, the stars went out.”


It takes a split second before I can breathe again. Then I answer. “Sweetie, you scared me half to death! What are you doing out of bed?”


Carolyn speaks then, sounding, as always, exactly like her twin. “The stars went out, and now they’re falling. We want to watch them burn it all up.”


Gooseflesh zings up and down my arms, my spine. I look out the window, past their identical white blonde heads stained lavender by the strange light pouring in the picture window.

And they’re right.


The stars are indeed falling from a sky that looks nothing like it could possibly belong to Earth.


The girls turn toward me then, and their light blue eyes are gone. All that’s left are puckering holes filled with the light from that alien sky.


It woke me up screaming every day for a week. Once I could breathe again, once I could stop sobbing in terror, I’d go make my coffee, regardless of the hour and be up for the day.


Why didn’t I seek comfort from Josh, or go check on my girls?


Because they don’t exist. And they never have.


I’ve never married, and I don’t intend to. I’ve certainly never had children. I can’t. And even if I could, I don’t think I’d want them.


Especially now.


Now that I know.


When the dream came to me again this morning, instead of getting up and making coffee, I lay in bed for a long time.




I finally got up a couple of hours later and dressed for a long hike. I even packed my backpack for one.


I walked straight through my silent living room, not looking left or right. I especially avoided looking at my bay window. It was no longer stacked with pillows as a reading nook. As the dream persisted, I started filling that shelf up with everything I could that would prevent anyone, including eyeless dream offspring, from sitting on it.


I walked out my front door, not bothering to lock it behind me. I knew with eerie certainty that locks stopped mattering sometime between the dark and the dawn.


I looked up and saw what I’d been both dreading and expecting.


The sky has gone purple.


The same purple as the eyes my twins didn’t have. My twins that don’t exist.


The stars aren’t falling yet. But I know they will.


I feel it.


Deep in my chest.


But I feel something else, too.


We might be able to stop it.




I’m sure as Hell going to try.


Border Planet Blues – Expansion


Author’s Note – Day Two of the May Challenge – Lost in a city.  This started in a mircofic challenge last year, I think it was. Just a snippet that I keep going back to. I’m posting what I originally wrote and the little follow up bit that occurred to me this morning as I was thinking about the challenge.


It wasn’t easy to work the border planets, but Bez couldn’t deny that the money was about the best you could make without joining up with the Federals. It was hard to believe that rustlers were still a problem what with gene stamping, but here she was, tracking the Temple Sibs again.

If she drew a bead on Ned Temple this time, she was going to kneecap him just to avoid seeing his face for a couple of months. Bastard couldn’t seem to get over the fact that his sister had a fling with a ranch cop. And Talulah just didn’t have the spine to bust up the gang. More’s the pity.

Bez squinted at a cloud of dust rising on the horizon. Yup, that was them.

She drew her revolver.

She was going to enjoy this.


What the hell? Bez groaned to herself. Not out loud. Her head hurt too damned much for that.

The mattress was lumpy beneath her, but other than the pounding headache and oil slick that was her stomach she didn’t feel too bad. So this wasn’t a bunk in a jail cell. Whore house, maybe?

She had been in a celebrating mood after she collected her fat wallet of Credits from Doc Jones.

He was real pleased she’d pinched Ned Temple when he showed up to make off with Doc’s best stud. That bull made cows with more meat on them than she could rightly explain. But then again, she wasn’t a rancher from a long line of geneticists from the Central Planets. She was just a ranch cop. And damned if she’d ever paid any attention in school.

Through the haze of what had to be the worst hangover she’d ever had, she rifled through her fuzzy memories of the take down at the Whispering Pines Ranch (which she couldn’t help but think sounded like a goddamned undertaker lived there, but it paid pretty well, so she could forgive it). She’d drawn down on Ned from a fair distance.

She’d hesitated for a second, she remembered. They were coming in hot and she wasn’t sure she could get a shot off without hitting Greyleigh, the pride of the Temple herd of non-mutated horses. At this point in her career she hated Ned Temple about as much as it was possible to hate someone who was too plain stupid to be any better than he was, but she bore no ill-will to the rest of the clan. Besides, she had a real soft spot for Talulah and if she could ever pry her off her brother’s side, the family ranch was the only means of support she’d have to go legit.

That second was all Ned had needed to shoot first. His ultra-modded electro-mag had it all over her own legal Winchester Pulse blaster for speed, recharging, and accuracy. He’d grazed her. But all that had done was piss her off. She liked that jacket a lot. It was real leather, which was damned hard to come by these days. Any concern for his horse was forgotten in the searing pain in her bicep and the stink of singed fifty year old cow hide.

She’d done exactly what she’d fantasized about and clipped him right in the knee, narrowly missing Greyleigh, but scaring the hell out of the steed anyway. She was glad she hadn’t hurt the horse, because for one thing she didn’t really like hurting animals, especially holdovers from the old days like the Temple’s raised. But even more, she decided she liked that silvery little fella personally when he tossed Ned unceremoniously in the dirt and took off.

Talulah had done the smart thing and kept her distance until she had Ned cuffed and Doc raised on her communicator to come collect the lousy little bastard. Doc had patched up her arm for her with some fancy new glue one of his researchers had recently invented so that was good as new before her jacket had stopped smoking. Unfortunately, there was nothing to be done for the leather. She decided to keep wearing it to remind herself what happened when you hesitated.

Doc had taken pity on Talulah and let her go with a pretty stern talking to and the confiscation of her equally fine Temple mare, Zeign. Then he’d called the Federals to come pick up Ned and check the fencing they’d sold him under high tariffs. If he was going to pay for shit to get shipped in from Central, it had damned well better work so he didn’t have to spend his hard earned Credits contracting with ranch cops, too.

Talulah had just about begged her to take her back into town with her and help her send a message to their folks. That was her default strategy when Ned did something breathtakingly dumb and got busted. She’d play the helpless little lady led astray by her domineering criminal brother and get let off the hook. Her parents usually bought it, too. And she’d always walk away from any bad situation richer than when she tumbled into it. Bez should have known better, but, speaking of tumbles, Talulah was an especially fine companion for one.

They hit the nearest saloon after raising one of the Temple servants for a little loan to get Miss T a transport home, gotten pretty loaded, danced an awful lot, then … gotten a room. Well, at least this isn’t a whore house. Sheets should be pretty clean for laying around in until I can shake this hangover.

Hell and damn, Bez grumbled (still not out loud). I should never drink with that woman. She’s got iron innards and more willpower than sense.

Finally she forced herself to open her eyes.

“Son of a bitch.”

It still wasn’t very loud, but the scene was definitely worth a little volume. Bitching in her head just wasn’t going to cut it.

This wasn’t the tavern crash pad she’d gone to sleep in in Little Duck (weird name for a town, but it was a cute little one, with dusty yellow roads that seemed to make it fit) . It was a very nice hotel room. Not a Little Duck place. This was a city joint.

Bez moved to get up. She paused. Stark-assed naked to boot.

She looked around. The only article of clothing she could see was her leather jacket with its freshly torn sleeve that she could have sworn she could smell across the room. No Winchester Pulse. No Credit wallet. Not even any god damned boots.

Cursing, much more loudly this time, she got up and stomped across the room to one of the windows and threw back the curtains. When she looked out of her ground floor room on the busy street, she swore again. Not only was she not in Little Duck, she wasn’t even in the nearby city of Albans. In fact, the twin suns blazing white overhead said she wasn’t even in the same system.

“I’m gonna kill her,” she growled. A passing fellow dressed much to well for the time of day for him to be anything other than a Fed, tipped her a wave and an appreciative wink. She returned the implied compliment with as rude a hand gesture as she could conjure up from her days at the Academy.

She turned and stomped over to her coat. If she zipped it up it would cover enough of her ass to go to the desk, get them to contact the Home Office, and at least get her some clothes and enough Credits to hit a transport back to her nearest safehouse. She picked it up off the chair and a note fluttered to the floor.

Bez, I’m sorry.

I had to spring him. We’ve got a big job coming. I swear I’ll make it up to you. Hope you don’t get too lost in the big city. Herodis is one of the most populated planets in the Central System. At least it shouldn’t be too hard for you to find some clothes. Although, to be honest, I prefer you without them. I’ll be in touch.


P.S. Ned made me leave the jacket.

Bez sighed and pulled on her coat.

“I’m not just gonna kill her. But I am gonna gut Ned Temple like a fish.”

The door slammed so hard on her way out to find the desk and figure out where the hell she actually was, she heard the mirror fall off the wall and break.


Something Wicked


Author’s note – I’m participating in a little May Flash Fiction Challenge in a writing group I admin, so I thought it would be fun to share the fruits of that here, since otherwise I’m busy wrapping up Book II, Before the Dawn.

Today’s challenge, “Your character gets a threatening letter,” offered me the opportunity to write a little fan fiction for our own characters. How can I resist that? ~ J


Ben started down the steps of the RV and froze.

Mal nearly ran into his back. After a split second of thinking he did it on purpose to get another embrace, she saw his tension. His whole body looked like an over-tuned guitar string someone had plucked just to get it to snap.

She followed her original impulse and wrapped her arms around him from behind. Maybe he wasn’t playing around to steal another hug before their run, but he clearly needed the contact right now.

“Ben?” she prompted.

At the sound of her voice, something in him unlocked and he was able to breathe again.

“Sorry.” He sounded like someone had their hands around his neck. He cleared his throat and tried again. “Sorry.”

He paused, biting his lip. This was probably going to be an argument, but he felt like a live wire, like danger was suddenly all around them. He caressed her arms, wrapped tightly around his middle, and gently pried them away, squeezing her hands as he released them so she wouldn’t read the gesture as having to do with her.

He scanned the sparsely populated campground. No one appeared to be awake. The sun was barely up.

Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Nothing except the parchment envelope placed neatly at the foot of their steps.

Ronoven, Count and Marquis of Hell
Open immediately

“Mal, I need you to head back inside and close the door. Get Chris up, too. I’ll be right behind you. I promise.”

Her arms went stubbornly around him again. She couldn’t see around his broad shoulders, but she knew the subtleties of his voice and body language well enough to know he sensed a threat and was about to do that thing where he tried to face it all on his own.

She was going to break that particular bad habit if it was the last thing she did.

“Ben, what’s wrong?” He drew in another breath and held it. “You know I’m not going anywhere so spit it out.”

Roughly an hour seemed to pass before he exhaled slowly. “Do you have your knife on you?”

“Of course.”

“Not your pocket knife. Your … I meant the weapon one.”

“I know what you meant. I always carry it now.”

“Okay.” Another long breath. “There’s an envelope on the ground with …”

“Ben.” Her voice lost some of its soft understanding. He clearly needed help. And he was going to get it whether he liked it or not.

“With my demon name,” he admitted.

Oh, how he hated that, hated that he had to say those words out loud, hated anything that reminded him he wasn’t just Ben Brody. Even more, he hated having to remind Mal of that fact.

“And my titles. Someone from Hell might be watching right now. Even if it’s not Hell, it’s still somebody dangerous enough that it doesn’t matter.”

Mal released him and drew the knife from the clever sheath Teddy had made her for the small of her back.

“Let’s see what it says. I’ll keep my eyes on everything.”

He sighed. “Okay.”

He drew his own dagger and carefully edged down the last few steps, eyes darting around, trying to look everywhere at once. He bent down to retrieve the envelope. As soon as his fingers closed around it, it grew almost unbearably hot in his hand.

He put it back down. It was treated with something not awesome for him. Something blessed, if he had to guess. Before Davi’s magic it might have lit his hand on fire, or at least blistered it. But now, it just stung. Still, it wasn’t a good idea to hang onto it. Just in case.

“You okay?” Mal stood next to him, but wasn’t looking his way. She was scanning the area, just like he, Chris, and Aife had taught her. In spite of the situation, he felt his lips quirk up at the corners. How did I ever get lucky enough to know her?

He found it easier to answer this time. She didn’t care about his, as she put it, demon bullshit. “It … um … I think it’s got something consecrated soaked into it.”

“Are you alright?” She moved like she’d take his hand to look it over.

“I’m fine,” he said hastily, holding it up before she could slip into her ‘team medic’ role. “But …” Why does asking her to do this feel like jumping off a damned cliff? He knew it was the right thing to do. For both of them. But his protective streak still had a hard time being reigned in. “Could you pick it up and see what it says? I’ll stand guard.”

She flashed him a little smile. He was trying so hard not to shut her out or close himself off to protect her. It warmed her all over when he did things like this. In her mind, it meant he really saw her as an equal. She didn’t like it when he treated her like she was better than him, exalted in some way. She bent and picked up the envelope, feeling it’s texture between her fingers, then sniffing it.

“Seems like it was maybe soaked in consecrated salt and holy water. It smells a little oceany. Feels gritty, too.”

Ben couldn’t help the lopsided grin that pulled at his lips. “Alright Miss CSI, but what’s it say?”

She slit the envelope with her knife, then put the blade back in its sheath. She unfolded the letter inside, careful not to rip the stiff, crinkly paper. It wasn’t parchment like the envelope, but it was something other than plain paper. It felt strange in her hand. The ink was rusty colored. And the letter stunk.

“Blood,” Ben said in a disgusted almost whisper.

Mal’s nose did an involuntary wrinkle that he usually found adorable, mostly because not much grossed her out. Right now all it did was make him swallow hard, his momentary smile fading into a frown with the fluid ease of muscles that remember it too well.

She quietly read the short message aloud.

“I know what you are. I know who you are. I need demon blood. This letter represents the dregs of my last acquisition. How convenient that you’re here in a body that belongs to you.” She paused for a breath and realized Ben was holding his again. “Surrender yourself in the clearing by the stream immediately, and I won’t curse the rest of your party to oblivion. If you don’t, they’ll die a bloody death, in terror, and it will be on your hands.”

He still hadn’t breathed. He tried; tried to speak, too. But his brain and body were having none of it.

Mal’s eyebrows drew together in concern. “Ben?”

Still nothing.

He was actually contemplating going to that clearing and giving himself up.

Nope, not happening, Brody. She made a snap decision.

Turning toward him, she reached into his front pocket as provocatively as she could and retrieved his lighter. Not that he really needed it with his ability to light things on fire psychically, but he liked to fidget with it.

Finally, he gasped. “Hey! Getting fresh while we’re being stalked by some dark witch or worse, because lots of magic-abusing pricks like demon blood, too, is probably a really bad idea.”

She forced a natural looking smirk onto her face even though she was, truth be told, shaking a little. “Since when does me getting fresh ever end badly for you?”

She sparked the lighter to life and held it to the corner of the note and envelope. It caught slowly, burning with a smoky orange-yellow flame that told her she’d been right about it being treated with salt. She walked the burning paper over to the campsite’s fire pit.

Ben followed, right on her elbow, dagger still in hand, eyes taking in the whole area. “What are you doing?”

“Making sure this can’t be used to track us.”

Ben smiled. “Good idea. I hadn’t gotten that far in my thinking, I guess.”

Because you were thinking of giving yourself up, she thought, but didn’t say. At that moment the flame reached the letters and they popped and sparked, burning red and deep blue alternatively. Ben’s brow creased and he mumbled in what sounded like realization. “Huh.”

“Someone you know?” she asked, half teasing.

“Actually, I think so,” Ben nodded slowly. “Most likely Zuhal. A friend. Such as they are in Hell.” His eyes watered with the stink of sulphur and the images it conjured in his mind. He almost sighed with relief that telling Mal something more of Hell seemed marginally easier this morning. “He’s probably fine though. He’s always trading his blood to lovelorn witches for …” He cleared his throat, suddenly blushing furiously all the way up to his ears. “Favors,” he finished awkwardly.

Mal dropped the letter into the pit before it could singe her fingers. She slid an arm around him for a brief hug. “Let’s go wake up the others so we can get out of here.”

Ben glanced around again, then sheathed his knife. “I like the idea of getting right the Hell out of here, but what are we going to do about this threatened curse?”

She opened the door to the RV, but turned to give him an encouraging nod. “Protection spell, obviously. I’ve been practicing. Besides, we’ve got our own badass witch, and Chris, and you.”

They got inside and turned on the lights, eliciting groans from their sleeping travel companions. “The vibe I got off that letter was it was written by somebody pretty powerful,” Ben said, chewing his lip.

She cocked an eyebrow. “Some dumb evil witch doesn’t scare me.”

Ben pulled her into his arms, feeling himself relax already, even though he was certain there was real danger here. “You’re not scared of anything,” he said, voice full of admiration as he buried his face in her tangled curls for a moment and kissed the top of her head.

Except losing you, she thought.

What she said was, “Damn right. Let’s get them up and get out of here.”

He squeezed her again. “Whatever you say, Mal.”