Lonesome Paladin

Book Cover: Lonesome Paladin
Part of the A Fistful of Daggers series:

God is dead. Lincoln Marshall knows who killed Him...

It's been a month since apocalypse destroyed the world as Lincoln Marshall once knew it. The new world is populated by deadly faeries, wild shapeshifters, and humans without a god. Lincoln's sins can never be absolved now that God is dead. There's nothing left for him but the bottom of a whiskey bottle.

Until Cesar Hawke comes seeking help. The undersecretary of the new Office of Preternatural Affairs has manifested uncontrollable magical powers. The only cure lies beyond the frontier of the untamed faerie worlds -- a land that no mortal man can survive. He needs Lincoln to escort him to the Winter Queen through hostile territory riddled by killer unicorns, doppelgangers, and false prophets. No big deal.

Lincoln Marshall once conquered Hell. He's certain he can conquer the Middle Worlds too -- and if he can't, he's happy to die trying.

Excerpt:

Eloquent Blood was only one of a dozen bars in downtown Reno—the oldest of the businesses in the area. It looked its age. Sulfur had long since crystallized on the tabletops and along the edges of the floor, then gathered dust on that, and dirt on the dust. Nobody had cleaned it since the world became new. That was part of the appeal. You could sink into Eloquent Blood and nobody would bother you.
There weren’t a lot of places in America these days where the government wasn’t watching.
That was why Spencer had spent most of his days in the last month at Blood. His golden eyes marked him as one of the Rebirthed, and he couldn’t wipe his ass without the Office of Preternatural Affairs wanting him to check in. Give a blood donation, get scanned for emergent powers, provide the mandatory hours of public service that all citizens were now expected to contribute to rebuild the infrastructure of the broken world.

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Spencer had tried to show up for Work Crew once, a couple mornings after Day Zero, and they’d had him sterilizing a hospital full of orphans. Hundreds of preternatural orphans with uncontrolled powers. Hundreds of crying children who didn’t understand why they’d died, why they’d come back, why they didn’t have parents anymore.
Blood was better. Grimy, smelly, but *better*.
“Two drinks,” Spencer said, lifting a finger to the bartender.
“You know what we’ve got,” said Cassandra.
“Yeah, I know.” They didn’t have any good liquor in the bar. At least, nothing that Spencer could afford.
“How’s it going?” Javi asked, sliding onto the barstool beside Spencer.
“Bad,” Spencer said. Cassandra cracked two beer cans and poured them into glasses. He took one and gave the other to Javi. “It’ll be worse in an hour though.”
Javi squinted up at the light at the surface. There used to be a casino named Craven’s atop what the patrons called Blood, but while the bar had survived urban warfare against demons, it’s surface-level structure had been flattened. The only way into Blood was through a crumbling rebar-prickled crevasse near Fourth Street, which flooded every time it rained and the Truckee swelled against its banks.
At the moment, Blood was dry, and the clear sky beyond was red-shifting away from daytime into twilight. Moonrise would come once the sun vanished. It was a shockingly regular activity these days. The moon came up when the sun went down, and they traded places in the morning. It was magic, no doubt about it, and a small nod toward order in a chaotic world.
They probably had thirty minutes to get to a safe house. The nearest was a five minute walk, not far from Greater Nevada Field on First. Plenty of time for them to drink.
Javi lifted the glass to his mouth, but the rim never met lips; instead of cold glass, his mouth touched the skin of his friend’s hand. Spencer scowled at him from the adjacent bar stool.
“You didn’t give thanks,” Spencer said. “You know better than that.”
Javi set the glass down slowly, and Spencer’s hand followed the rim to ensure that Javi wouldn’t sneak a gulp the instant he withdrew. “It’s three-year-old Coors Light,” Javi said. “It tastes like stale water and beer can. There’s nothing to give thanks over.”
“Don’t talk like that,” Spencer said. “We came back from the end of the world. We aren’t in one of those hospitals. We have *something* to drink, and a lotta people don’t. You think that NKF thinks there’s nothing to be thankful for?”
“I don’t think NKF is thinking much about what’s going on in some underground hole of a bar where two asshole shifters are trying to delay going to a safe house,” Javi said.
“NKF is God. He can think about everything.”
Javi grew quiet at this, contemplating the foul yellow drink in his murky glass. “All right.”
They extracted a couple of wooden crosses from under their shirts. Spencer had gotten a matching pair from a gift shop on North Virginia, right next to the Little Nugget. It used to sell novelty t-shirts and shot glasses. Now it sold crosses, charms, and flimsy switchblades. Nothing that could actually protect anyone from folks who Rebirthed as vampires or whatever, but it made folks feel good.
He wrapped his hands around it, bowed his head to his knuckles.
“We give thanks for this life, and what we’ve got in this life,” he murmured.
“We give thanks,” agreed Javi.
Spencer started to say, “We give thanks for—“
“Careful,” whispered Cassandra as she leaned across the bar to pass napkins to them. Her gaze flicked toward the corner. There was a booth in shadow, its leather sliced open to allow the guts of its stuffing to bulge free. A pair of crossed legs clad in tattered, mud-stained denim extended over the seat. The man was reclining so Spencer couldn’t make out a face.
Face or not, there was nobody to stop him from praying. “We’re supposed to give thanks to NKF every time,” Spencer said.
“Skip this time,” Cassandra said.
“That kind of shit’s how we got in trouble the last time.” If the gods hadn’t been pissed off at the world, then they wouldn’t have all died. The world wouldn’t have ended. They’d still be all human, without safe houses and cheap beer, and Spencer would have his old job at the Amazon warehouse.
If a few people had stopped to give thanks, maybe they wouldn’t have suffered through Genesis at all.
Cassandra lifted her hands in surrender. “You get into a fight with Lincoln, take it outside. We’re not having that in here.”
Javi waved her off. “Nobody’s gonna try to fight us looking like pussy babies who say their widdle prayers before drinking fucking Coors Light.”
“Javi,” Spencer warned.
“I give thanks for my fucking Coors Light,” he said, assuming prayer position again. “I talk crap but I’m happy for it. I’m happy for my life, this world, this ‘beer.’ So I give thanks to NKF.”
“What in the hell was that supposed to be?” The inquiry was said in an unfamiliar voice, gravelly and filled with hot anger.
The person in the jeans.
The man Cassandra identified as Lincoln.
He sat up slowly, his jacket creaking, blond hair slanting across sharp eyes. An arm hung over the back of the booth. He was glaring at Javi and Spencer.
“We’re praying,” Spencer said. “Do you have a problem with it?”
“Fuck, not this again,” muttered a guy down at the end of the bar. He picked up his drink and relocated closer to the surface tunnel.
“Who are you praying to when all the gods are dead?” asked Lincoln.
Spencer silently asked NKF for patience. That was one of the theories going around—that Genesis had been a result of war between gods, and that both sides lost. All the gods were dead now.
They were wrong. Spencer had seen death come upon him, he’d seen the dawn on Day Zero. He knew what it was to believe.
He drained his Coors, shoved the glass aside. “I take it you haven’t heard about NKF yet.” He lifted his wooden cross so that Lincoln could see it. The aluminum clasp caught the fading sunlight topside, making it glow where it draped over his fist. “The god who made us all what we are now. Shifters and sidhe, vampires and witches.”
“Is that right?” Lincoln asked. He pushed out of the booth and came upright. The man was a little above average in most ways. A little prettier than most men, yet a little more rugged; a little more thick-built but also a little taller. Just good enough to catch looks from Cassandra, even though he also looked like he hadn’t showered since Genesis. “How d’you know anything about what’s going on with the gods? You think you’re some kind of prophet?”
“I’m just a follower,” Spencer said. “Javi too.”
“Oh, so that’s how it is? We’re both doing this?” Javi asked. He’d come to recognize NKF more reluctantly, only because Spencer dragged him to worship on Sundays. He’d heard the stories. He believed too. But he wasn’t ready to face some ripped drunk dude over it.
Spencer didn’t think Lincoln would present much of a threat. He was swaying where he stood and it didn’t seem to be a result of alcohol. The man smelled like he’d never touched a drop of hard liquor. He didn’t have the sallow, sagging look of an alcoholic, either. But it had to be something. Everybody was on something to get through life these days.
A quick sniff told Spencer that Lincoln wasn’t a shifter. Wasn’t a vampire. He smelled like human man, unwashed and unshaven and unmotivated.
“God is dead,” Lincoln said. “You disrespect the man by praying to false idols.”
“Are *you* a prophet?” Spencer shot back.
“No,” he said, “but I dated the bitch who killed God, and she told me all about it.”
Spencer and Javi exploded into laughter.
Lincoln wasn’t laughing.
After a moment, it didn’t seem funny. Spencer shot a questioning look at Cassandra. She just shrugged.
“NKF appeared as a vision to people in Genesis,” Spencer said. “There are witnesses. The sidhe gentry—”
“Magic fags, all of them.” Lincoln spit on the ground of the bar.
Spencer’s hackles lifted. He went from dubious about this asshole to instantly loathing him. “They witnessed NKF. They’ve got a temple to our God in Alfheimr, and they talk to him, so his existence is fact.” He dropped off his barstool, cracked his knuckles. “You got a problem with fags?”
“Or just magic fags?” Javi asked. Now he was looming at Spencer’s side, equally offended.
“I got a problem with disrespecting God’s law,” Lincoln said. “The guy might be dead, but that doesn’t mean you should be spreading blasphemy and getting up to unholy bullshit. Leviticus was real clear about men laying with men. Now, my ex-girlfriend—the Godslayer—she said that the Bible was a book of man, not a word of God. But she did go out of her way climbing to Heaven in order to kill God. Maybe I shouldn’t have listened to her about much of anything.” He scratched the blond scruff on his jaw and gave a mirthless grin, a baring of teeth. “I’m gonna trust the Book.”
“Can you believe this dick?” Spencer elbowed his friend. “You hearing any of the shit he says?”
“Take it outside,” Cassandra called.
Lincoln stepped closer to them. When he passed through the last beam of fading sunlight, Spencer saw why he was swaying. The guy was already bruised in a few visible places. It was probably worse in the places his clothes covered. He was swaying from broken bones, struggling to breathe with cracked ribs.
But he didn’t smell like prey.
Spencer didn’t have a lot of experience as a shifter, but he’d run across enough injured people to know that weakness made them smell like prey. Didn’t take much. A broken bone in the foot, a mild flu. Anything that slowed them down and made them vulnerable. Just a whiff of it got Spencer’s animal stirring with frightening hunger, and sent him running to an OPA support group for shifters.
Sniffing Lincoln’s sweat and hair didn’t give Spencer any sense of weakness.
“Are you smelling me?” Lincoln asked.
Spencer had drawn nearer the man’s shoulder by force of habit. His animal liked greeting other shifters by smelling their necks, right behind the ear, along the hairline. And his animal was curious about this limping not-prey. “If you don’t like gay people then I bet you don’t like me getting in your face like this, huh?” Spencer kept his tone tauntingly soft. “Am I gay? What do you think I’ll do, suck your dick? Or are you afraid you’ll wanna suck *my* dick?”
Lincoln shoved him.
Had Spencer braced himself, he wouldn’t have moved an inch, much less stepped back. Lincoln pushed with human strength. But Spencer allowed himself to be rocked back, and he turned to Javi.
“That was a push,” Spencer said.
“Looked like aggression to me,” Javi said.
“Take it outside,” Cassandra said again.
And Spencer would have listened to her. He’d have walked away from this blond asshole in a heartbeat, since it was about time to get to a shifter safe house anyway.
Then Lincoln said, “If there’s still a Hell, I know at least two reasons you’re going there.”
So Javi punched Lincoln.
“Hey,” Spencer said. “That was my shot.”
Lincoln dropped, and Spencer smashed his heel into Lincoln’s gut.
“Fuck!” Cassandra leaped over the bar, yanking long linen ribbons along with her. Magic surged over the runes stitched into the cloth. “He’s human, you fuck-rods!”
“Homophobic too,” Javi said, delivering a bonus kick to Lincoln’s jaw.
“He’s *human*,” she hissed. She shoved between the man on the ground and the shifters standing over him, flinging her arms out to guard him. “And it’s sundown.”
There was no light left in the hole leading to the road.
“Shit,” Spencer breathed.
He grabbed his jacket, grabbed Javi’s arm.
“I already called the OPA,” Cassandra said, checking Lincoln for a pulse. “You know I have to report preternatural crime against mundanes. You know I do. And I warned you. You better not be here when an agent shows up. Nearest safe house is—”
“I know,” Spencer said.
They ran.


Lincoln swam to consciousness with Cassandra the bartender looming over him. She was a pretty enough lady, with big eyes and a little bow for a mouth. Too young for Lincoln. Too much like his kid cousin. She was slapping him gently across the face with her mouth moving, but all he heard was ringing.
When his ears cleared, she was saying, “The ambulance should be here before curfew.”
An ambulance.
Lincoln wasn’t getting in an ambulance.
He shoved away from her, rolled onto all fours. His skull pressed down on his eyeballs and his stomach pressed up against his throat. Cassandra didn’t help him stand, but she backed up to give him room. She had that look of frustrated helplessness again.
“You shouldn’t move,” she said. “They got you good this time. Better than Gutterman did.” Lincoln still had the bruises from that beating. It had a compounding effect. One beating atop another to scramble his neurons. “Hold still until the ambulance arrives.”
“No ambulance,” he said, leaning over the bar to get a water bottle. He fumbled in his pockets for cash. Lincoln had a dollar or two. He was sure of it. “Damn, Cass, can you find my wallet?”
“Just take it. Swear to God—whichever God, I don’t fucking care—you get into those fights because you *want* your ass kicked,” Cassandra said.
“Only a crazy man would want to get beat by shifters,” Lincoln said.
“Then what’s that make you?”
“A winner,” he said. He didn’t find cash in his pocket but he did find what he’d grabbed from Javi before falling. Lincoln lifted the chain and the wooden cross dangling at the end.
Cassandra flung her hands in the air. “Try getting your ass kicked in someone else’s bar once or twice!”
He lurched up the tunnel, lukewarm bottle pressed to his forehead. He couldn’t see much of anything. Couldn’t navigate through the rebar and rubble without slipping. He put the cross in his pocket to free a hand. It felt like he had to climb to the street, even though he knew it was real possible to walk the distance.
Ambulance lights whirled at the end of the street. He pitched the opposite direction, away from the ambulance, up the road toward Virginia.
It was Lincoln’s lucky day. Nine out of ten emergency calls didn’t get a response nowadays. Between first responders failing to return from Genesis, organizational collapse, and the frequency of crime, more people died while sitting on the line with a dispatcher than ever saw those red and blue lights.
But Lincoln was lucky.
So fucking lucky.
Maybe if everyone had woken up one day preternatural, the world could have continued the way it used to. They’d have found jobs for the werewolves and the faeries and vampires. Gotten them nice and integrated. Made them into cops and EMTs and made sure the world kept spinning.
Except people had died without coming back, too.
There were millions of orphans. Millions of businesses suddenly unstaffed. Millions of empty homes and grieving widows.
And a whole lotta folks had turned preternatural on top of that.
It was too much all at once. The world couldn’t keep spinning.
Civilization had kind of stopped.
So Lincoln wasn’t the only aimless soul on the streets of Reno, most of the time. Like most, he didn’t have a home to go back to. On Day Zero, he’d come back into his skin in Reno, Nevada—a city far from what he regarded as his stomping grounds—and without public transit working right, he wasn’t going to get far anytime soon.
In better years he’d heard Reno equated with whores, easy divorce, and gambling. In the worse years, he’d heard about its demon apocalypse. From what he knew, back in 2009—before anyone knew demons and angels were real, before anyone knew that God was on a one-way trip to murder town—there had been a visit from some kind of devil who essentially dropped the city into a sinkhole, rendering it permanently inhabitable.
The city Lincoln staggered through wasn’t in a sinkhole anymore. Not a literal one, anyhow. He’d never seen a city with so many bars. Never seen so many strip clubs, casinos, and homeless filth smeared across the gutters.
Except that these pits of sin had lost employees too. Only a couple of the casinos had opened part of their floors, and mostly just so that they could try to figure out how much was missing. In the meantime, every oversized casino sign was advertising mandatory Office of Preternatural Affairs “services” available to city residents.
“Gold eyes? No problem!” In the photograph on the banner, a model was grinning and pointing toward a structure that looked like a squat stucco house. “Check into your local safe house every full moon and new moon!”
Golden eyes were the universal symbol of shifters. Some of them had silver eyes, but they were the good kind, the type with more control over their animals. Or so they said. There was a push from silver-eyed shifters to be exempted from the brand new regulations saying all shifters had to spend their moons in safe houses.
The ad made it look real nice. Lincoln had stopped to stare at one of those billboards before, drinking in the sight of the flowers lining the sidewalks, the friendly signage, the beautiful model. There were three safe houses around downtown and midtown Reno alone. One on First, one on North McCarran, one over on Plumb. None of them had flowers.
The government was especially struggling to manage a world with thousands of shifters that hadn’t been there before. They’d commandeered bunkers, warehouses, anywhere with barred windows that could hold supernaturally strong people who didn’t know how to control their beasts.
The law said shifters needed to go to such safe houses.
But some of them didn’t.
Some did, but broke out.
Hence the curfew.
The sun had dropped behind Harrah’s, casting the streets in blue-black shadow. The Aces stadium darkened as Lincoln trudged past. He didn’t have to look up to see the big baseball over the ticket stands go dark; it had been bright enough to glint gold on the sidewalk where he stared. Arroyo darkened when he walked past too, and so did the signs outside an art studio, until the only light left on the street was from those damn OPA billboards.
“Answer the call!” A staggeringly attracting man was beckoning toward the camera. He looked like his skin was glowing on the inside. He had wings like a butterfly. “Get screened for sidhe blood at United Health Services!”
Lincoln heard voices behind him.
“It’s him again. Is he following us?”
“Don’t, Javi.”
His night was getting luckier. Turning away from the ambulance meant Lincoln had accidentally gone the same way as Spencer and Javi. They were ahead of him, looking back his way, golden eyes glinting in the casino billboard lights.
Lincoln got to the corner—a pay by the week motel with an art deco sign and a blinking light that said “VACANCY.” Most of the hotel rooms were dark. He’d break into one of them, sleep as long as he could behind the bed. They’d probably give him a room free if he asked, since the government claimed to reimburse hotels that accommodated people displaced by Genesis, but Lincoln didn’t want to ask. Not for that, not for anything else.
“Just keep walking,” Spencer said, trying to push his friend.
Javi resisted. “But he took my cross!”
“I’ll give you mine, all right? The safe house—”
“Hey! Asshole!”
That was all the warning Lincoln had. One shouted insult, a couple fast-pounding footsteps, and then Javi struck.
Brick wall met face.
Stars exploded through Lincoln, hot and sick and tasting like the stale canned lima beans he’d eaten two days earlier.
They were going to kill him this time.
Lincoln was going to die.
Lying there on the pavement, looking at the shifters’ legs as they swung and kicked and knocked his teeth out of alignment, he thought he saw a third person watching over him. A woman wearing black leather and a disapproving frown. He remembered the way her colorless skin had tasted when he fucked her in the shower, damp and sweaty and a little like blood, and he remembered her flat tone perfectly too. *Seriously, Linc? You’re just going to sit there?*
“They’re shifters,” Lincoln tried to say. Something jagged touched his lip. Broken molar. He spit it into the pool of blood. “Can’t fight back.”
He could have fought back. He could have avoided a fight impossible to win in the first place.
*Seriously, Linc?*
“Ask him where he put it,” Spencer said, hanging back, looking nervously around the street.
“Where’d you put it?” Javi asked. His voice writhed within Lincoln’s skull.
“Put what?” Lincoln asked.
Wrong answer.
Javi picked him up, and the change in orientation hurt worse than the impacts at this point.
Lincoln took a fist to the jaw. Felt like he should have been decapitated by the force of it. His head stayed on his shoulders, which meant that the shifters were being gentle. They could have turned his skull into a rotten watermelon with a blow. They wanted him to hurt, not die.
He had the dying part covered anyway. Javi let go of him and he stumbled again, caught in Spencer’s tree trunk arms.
The pale-fleshed woman wasn’t really there, but her annoyance felt so real. She was the only clear thing in a foggy world. She was in sharp focus, from her breasts piled atop the steel bones of her corset to the slick black hair slithering over one shoulder.
*You’re better than this, Linc.*
“I’m not,” he said.
“We don’t have time for this,” Spencer said. “Sorry Javi.”
Lincoln almost relaxed, thinking he was about to be freed, left to stagger to wherever he ended up next.
Instead he took a knee to the gut.
It was instinct to bend over at the impact, folding in half, but that put his face at the right level to take another jab. He was reeling so hard from that he didn’t even realize he’d been thrown into the street until his vision cleared and he saw the yellow double line under his head.
“Hurry,” Javi said to his friend.
Their retreating shapes were blurry and dark. Shadows in dusk. Not shifters, not men. Just the dark dreams that chased Lincoln everywhere he went.
*Seriously, Linc?*
He didn’t try to get up.
From the way it felt, Lincoln suspected he had broken ribs. Inhaling was like taking a knife to the collarbone. But his hand slid into his jacket, and he felt a cold aluminum chain wrapped around cheap wood, and he knew he’d kept the crucifix.
It was some kind of victory. Maybe not a victory that made anything better, but a victory that scuffed dirt in the eyeball of some blaspheming piece of shit clinging to lies after Genesis.
“You killed him,” Lincoln told his ex-girlfriend.
The Godslayer shrugged. *That doesn’t mean there aren’t any gods left, does it? You didn’t need to pick a fight.*
Lights swam over Lincoln.
His whole head was ringing like a bell, so it took him a minute to realize he heard sirens.
A tire stopped in front of him. Boots dropped out of a car. Black-gloved hands grabbed his arms, hauled him upright. Lincoln found himself face-to-face with someone whose eyes were a normal shade of brown, with thick brows at a disapproving slant. He wore a black suit with a silver pentacle pinned to the lapel. He was an OPA agent.
The agent’s mouth moved. Lincoln could hear just enough to figure out what he was saying.
“Are you aware it’s seventeen minutes past curfew?”
Lincoln opened his mouth, vomited on the agent, and blacked out.

COLLAPSE