MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
“He is waiting for you.” Piasa’s words sounded so crystal clear in the night. They snapped Night Shadow Star out of a deep sleep. The Spirit Beast’s mouth might have been but a finger’s width from her ear.
She blinked in the darkness, her thoughts unusually sharp after being roused from such a deep slumber.
Images flashed. The memories like second sight. Given the intensity and clarity of their details, she might have just stepped from Matron Columella’s burning palace in Evening Star Town. What she’d seen inside the blazing inferno haunted her: blood everywhere—a scarlet intensity as it soaked into the woven mat covering the floor.
And there, laid out in a bizarre pattern, were pieces of Lace’s body. The tiny bits of arm, leg, head, and torso had been hacked from the fetus Lace had carried inside her. Each of the parts had been placed just so to create a partial circle—the beginnings of a portal that her brother believed would have allowed the Powers of the Underworld to flow upward into the Sky World.
In the middle of the carnage, staring at her with gleaming and predatory eyes, a smile of anticipation on his bloody lips, stood her brother, Walking Smoke. Blood smeared his naked skin, partially obscuring where it had been painted in magical designs. The long chipped-stone ceremonial knife was held as if to mimic his straining and erect penis.
Walking Smoke had indicated that partial circle of body parts on the floor. “The sacred opening, like that wonderful sheath of yours, Sister. The passage of life through which Piasa’s souls will emerge in order to consume my body.”
He had believed that. Thought that through ritual he could call Piasa’s Spirit from the Underworld, that he could trap the Underwater Panther’s essence inside his own flesh as Black Tail had first done with the Morning Star.
Memories. Just memories.
Night Shadow Star stared up at the dark ceiling above her bed and replayed the events of that terrible day. She’d managed to defeat Walking Smoke. At Piasa’s whispered command, she had accompanied her brother as he fled the burning palace. Lured Walking Smoke out onto the river and distracted him. She had loathed every moment of it. The first time her brother had raped her had been so hideous, so terrible, that she’d denied herself the memory—buried it so deeply down between her souls it had taken Piasa and Horned Serpent’s Underworld Power to make her recall. Had that day started it all? Her violation, first by the newly reincarnated Morning Star, and then, within mere hands of time, by a jealous Walking Smoke? Was that the moment that forever set the three of them on this path that would end in the destruction of one or more of them?
That day on the river she’d sought to end it all, stripped, offered herself to Walking Smoke once their canoe was well out in the Father Water’s current. She could almost feel her brother’s chilled body as he crawled on top of her. Rain was beating down in a hard and pounding cadence. She had heaved violently at his touch. In the last instant before he had driven himself into her, she had capsized the canoe.
In the icy river’s depths, Night Shadow Star had struggled, his hands clasped tight on her throat …
“He knows you are coming.”
Piasa flickered at the edge of Night Shadow Star’s vision, a flash of glowing blue light in the darkness of her room. It no longer bothered her that no one else saw the Spirit Beast or heard its voice when it spoke to her. Most of her family and associates had taken for granted that she was possessed. That the creature owned her souls and used her for its own purposes.
“It’s up to me to destroy him,” she said aloud as she stared at the darkness of her sleeping quarters. “The three of us, Morning Star, me, and Walking Smoke, we’re caught in a terrible triangle. Brothers and sister, torn between Sky and Underworld Power, locked in a combat of possession, jealousy, and incest.”
Piasa hissed his agreement. She caught flickers of his movement among the shadows as he darted between her storage boxes.
“Lady?” Fire Cat’s voice asked from her doorway. “Did you say something?”
“Piasa says that Walking Smoke knows I’m coming.”
Fire Cat stepped in, seated himself at the foot of her bed. Bound to her by oath, he was in his early thirties, muscular. In the dark she couldn’t see his pink, healing scars.
“How can he? Some agent of his? A spy who sent word? Even then, he’s half a world away.”
“He can feel the Power. Can feel me.”
“Your family line is tangled in Power like a flock of birds in a net.” He paused, and she could imagine his smile. Then he said, “That or madness.”
“Is there a difference?”
“Lady, I no longer know. I have trouble accepting that your other brother, Chunkey Boy, really plays host to the souls of the Morning Star. After our journey to the Underworld, he taunted me. Told me outright that he was manipulating me for his own ends.”
“Is it really so hard for you to believe that Morning Star is the resurrected god?”
“I don’t waste my time questioning. I have other more pressing concerns.”
“The journey to Cofitachequi? The knowledge that Walking Smoke knows I’m coming?”
“That’s for later. My immediate concern, along with the preparations for the journey, is that you turned away two runners yesterday. One from Clan Matron Rising Flame, and the other from your betrothed.”
“Don’t call Spotted Wrist my betrothed.”
“Your clan matron has ordered you to marry him.”
She felt the tightening in her chest, the fear that Fire Cat might be right. That somehow, some way, Rising Flame and Spotted Wrist would manage to force her to marry before she could escape downriver. It would be done through trickery, some threat. A manipulation that made her choose between two intolerable situations.
“There are whispers.” She reached out in the darkness, laid her fingers on his knee. Felt his instant reaction, as if a charge had run through his muscles. Her own body quickened at the contact, brief as it was. This small intimacy was all that she would allow herself.
“Whispers?” he asked somewhat hoarsely.
“That we spend every spare moment with our loins locked together. That their spies can’t prove it? I think that drives them half mad.”
He was silent for a time, thinking—no doubt as she was—about the bargain she’d struck with Piasa. Saving her world had come at a price. She might love this former enemy and slave of hers more than life itself, but the choice had been Fire Cat, or her city. Trained to rule, she’d chosen her people over the man she loved.
Copyright © 2019 by W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O’Neal Gear