The Descent Series Prequels

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Previous: Death Scream

Dying Night

It was inevitable that someone would eventually use the Grand Canyon for evil. That was why it had been made in the first place, after all.

Sometime in the dark early years of existence, primitive demons cracked Earth in an attempt to route directly to the boiling river of hell-blood known as Phlegethon.

Many hundreds of years later, that crack would be known by mortals as the Grand Canyon.

The natural juncture between Earth and Hell occurred at a point in the south rim of the eventual Grand Canyon, below a rock formation later known as the Tower of Set. The ancient warlocks who created the canyon failed to burrow to that natural juncture despite many years of magical labor. They progressed to within a thousand feet of the fissure before angels, annoyed by all the commotion on Earth, slaughtered the warlocks and let their bodies rot in the sun.

That was why the Grand Canyon existed, and such inauspicious origins had a way of leaving a mark for millennia into the future.

Furthermore, the boiling blood of Phlegethon sensed the nearness of Earth’s air. It sensed light and mortals and food.

Those warlocks had failed to free it, but that didn’t mean that Phlegethon forgot how close it was to being unleashed.

It never forgot.

That lurking evil spent more than six thousand years building enough resentment, strength, and pressure to snap.

Anything twisted up with that much tension will always snap sooner or later.

#

September 8th, 2000 — The Grand Canyon, Arizona

In a stone vault under the earth, a portal opened.

The rocks shifted, groaned, cracked.

A fissure the width of an arm spread in the darkness.

Hot blood sprayed from it as if from an artery sheared by a razor. Fluid gushed over the opposite wall, splattered the cave floor, and instantly steamed the air near to boiling.

A hand thrust through the fissure. Unharmed by the blood, the arm stretched across dimensions to claw at Earth, feeling the freshness of the atmosphere and the waiting prey.

Then that hand began tearing the fissure wider.

On the surface, approximately a mile away, Elise Kavanagh was in a gift shop filled with many incredibly tacky keepsakes—slightly less horrible than the blood gushing from Phlegethon, but only slightly.

The knickknacks intended to look like they were Native American were the worst, with “Made in China” stickers plastered under totem faces. She sneered at the flimsy arrowheads that couldn’t have cut through paper. The XXL tourist clothing in garish colors were almost as bad as those inauthentic artifacts, though. Nothing in the store verged on displaying the slightest sense of taste.

“Ooh,” said Malcolm Gallagher, lifting a pair of fringed leather chaps to measure them visually against Elise’s hips. “Very cowgirl.” He affected an imitation American accent, which he was not getting better at despite traveling with Americans for several months. “I’d like you to ride my bucking bronco with these on, partner.”

Elise trailed her gloved fingers over leather satchels, looking for one pouch just large enough for a wallet or makeup.

“What do you think?” Malcolm asked, resuming his usual Irish accent. He swapped out the chaps for a smaller size and lifted them in front of Elise again. He seemed to find this size more satisfactory than the first one. “Should I buy them? You’d look great in these things. In just these things. Eh?” He thrust his hips against the hanger of the chaps, which was probably meant to indicate bending Elise over something.

Elise picked a leather satchel with turquoise fastenings. They looked genuine. The turquoise was a must; it would help cancel out the effects of the moonstone artifact they would soon carry into the depths of the Grand Canyon. The thick leather flap would allow a protection rune to be imprinted into it, too.

“Whoa doggy,” Malcolm said, now miming swinging a lasso over his head.

The corner of Elise’s mouth tugged into something that was the distant cousin of a smile.

Over Malcolm’s shoulder, she realized that there was another man standing in the doorway to the gift shop. He leaned his arm against the doorway. He was so tall that the top of his head nearly brushed the upper frame, and the harsh sunlight cast a yellow halo over his charcoal-black hair.

Even with his face shadowed, Elise could feel the chilly weight of his pale gaze.

James Faulkner was watching Elise shop with her boyfriend.

“Fine,” Elise said. “Buy the chaps.”

Malcolm cackled and slapped her ass. “Yee haw!”

She pointedly did not look for James’s reaction.

#

September 9th, 2000 — The Grand Canyon, Arizona

The demon hunters were staying at a campsite to the north of the canyon. It was one of many similar campsites, and they inhabited one of many motorhomes similar to those occupied by other tourists. The mundanity of it all rendered Elise and James anonymous among the crowd. Who would expect to find the world’s greatest kopis in a puke-colored Winnebago from the 80s?

That Winnebago was currently groaning on its springs.

Inside, in the double bed in the back, Malcolm reclined while Elise rode him.

Her motions were less like the cowgirl he’d requested and more like she was wrestling him into submission. Elise wasn’t stronger than Malcolm, physically speaking; despite the fact that they had equally impressive muscle from similar myostatin deficiencies, she was still female, with lower body mass, and therefore at a disadvantage.

He allowed her to top him, though. He liked it when she got rough with him. The more their sex verged on the scary and potentially murderous, the harder he got off.

To be honest, Elise liked it that way too.

She was always kind of pissed. Always on the brink of snapping.

Killing demons wasn’t enough to get it all out.

In the moments when she reached climax, in the brilliant white light of orgasm, Elise felt relaxed. Just for a moment.

She appreciated that release.

If she got to choke Malcolm while reaching that release—well, that was just part of the fun.

If there was one thing to be said for her relationship with Malcolm, it was that they always had fun.

Six months. It was easily Elise’s longest relationship to date, if one didn’t count her relationship with James.

James didn’t count their relationship as a relationship. Why should Elise?

Her aspis was down in the canyon, drawing on her energy as he cast a spell. Their bond was open in what was colloquially known as a “piggyback.” That meant that they were sharing their thoughts, feelings, and strength, as well as all of the sensations that went along with that. Being able to piggyback off of one another was one of the primary benefits to joining as kopis and aspis.

Separately, neither of them were as strong as they were together—or at least, that was how it worked when the bond was going well.

The bond hadn’t been going very well lately.

As Elise’s hips rocked atop Malcolm’s, she felt James’s hands sifting through salt and crystal as surely as he felt Malcolm’s ribs pressed between her knees.

James was taking extra care to shield his thoughts from her. She got no sense of his reaction.

He must have known what she was doing. He should have felt every moment of it.

Elise had no idea what James thought of the way she occupied her time while he cast a boring, lengthy ritual. But she could imagine it.

He’d be disgusted.

James barely tolerated Malcolm’s presence, the way that the demon hunter called him “Jimmy,” the constant sex Elise and Malcolm had—even when they were in a demon hive, fresh off of a dozen kills.

And that was fine.

Elise must have disgusted James long before Malcolm entered the picture.

At least she was giving her aspis good reason to hate her now.

Let him see her gloved hands clamped on the muscles of Malcolm’s neck. Let him watch the male kopis’s face contort with pleasure even as his cheeks purpled from asphyxiation. Let James hear the playful, laughing whoops of an Irishman who was pretending to be a cowboy, or whatever the hell those noises were supposed to mean.

Six months since they’d left Copenhagen.

Six months since James had stopped managing to conceal his distaste from Elise.

Malcolm flipped Elise over on the bed, shoving her hard enough that her head hung over the edge of the mattress. The fact that he’d managed to do that, when Elise usually thwarted his wrestling maneuvers, meant she was truly distracted.

It was hard to concentrate on sex when she was also mentally nestled near the Tower of Set, casting advanced magic.

James was speaking Latin. His words flowed through her.

Malcolm withdrew from Elise’s body and spent himself across her belly, as he always did in a lazy attempt at birth control. She hadn’t bothered telling him that it was impossible for her to get pregnant. She just preferred to clean him off of her skin rather than from her innards.

He was done. Finally.

Malcolm rolled onto the bed beside her with a sigh.

Elise remained sprawled on the bed. Eyes open, unfocused, she watched the candles flickering around James’s circle of power.

She could see every detail of the canyon as though she were the one standing in it. Elise could even feel the heat from the flames and the tingle of power flowing through both of them.

Yet she couldn’t pick up a single one of James’s thoughts.

He was so carefully shielded.

She filled in the blanks of his unreadable mind with her expectations, though. Elise had more than enough tumultuous thoughts for the both of them.

“You didn’t come.” Malcolm opened the drawer beside the bed, grabbed the whiskey, and took a swig. “Want me to finish you off, cowgirl?” He flicked his tongue out in a lewd imitation of snake.

Elise took a drink when he offered the whiskey bottle to her. “No.”

“How’s Jimmy?” he asked.

She was surprised that he asked. Elise hadn’t thought Malcolm realized that she had an open bond with James.

It wasn’t surprising that he would have had sex with her anyway, though. Malcolm got bored whenever they weren’t actively screwing or killing, so annoying James was high on his list of pastimes. Forcing James to watch them have sex probably only helped Malcolm get his rocks off.

“James is casting,” Elise said. Roughly a mile away, her aspis rolled the moonstone artifact between his palms. It was unsettling to feel rock against bare skin like that, when Elise took such care to never remove her gloves. She had to remind herself that it was only James’s hands that were unprotected, not hers.

Malcolm took the bottle back, and then another drink. “Is he jealous? Wishing he were here, eh? I know he wants my body.”

Actually, James hated Malcolm so much that even his carefully guarded emotions couldn’t conceal it.

“He’s almost done with the spell.” Elise climbed out of bed. Her gloves were stained with bodily fluid. Luckily, she always had spares.

She swapped her gloves out one at a time. Left hand first, and then right. She was careful not to let Malcolm see her palms. Even when she was lost in James’s thoughts, she was aware enough to hide her palms.

The moonstone glimmered in her mind’s eye. It was an impressive artifact—a magical padlock that could block dimensions. It had cost a good half of Elise and James’s stolen fortune to buy it in Lebanon, but they considered the artifact a worthwhile investment.

Once that padlock was placed on the fissure to Phlegethon, they could be confident that it the passage between dimensions would never open, sparing them the effort of confronting tens of thousands of demons and saving even more mortal lives.

James just needed to entrap that moonstone within the turquoise-and-leather bag first so that the fissure to Phlegethon wouldn’t feel it approaching. Hell had a way of reacting violently when it sensed something that could defeat it nearby, and Elise’s presence was warning enough that they were up to danger.

“Did Jimmy come when I did?” Malcolm was still lounging naked on the mattress, unselfconscious with all of his rippling muscle, shiny scars, and chest matted with brown hair. “Should I take him a clean pair of pants?”

Elise was about to drain the last of the whiskey when the Winnebago shivered around them.

Cabinets rattled. The wardrobe door swung open.

Then the floor jerked under Elise’s feet.

Surprised, she steadied herself with a hand on the counter.

“Earthquake,” Malcolm said. “Shit. We’re out of time.” He checked the clock on the bedside table. “The apocalypse isn’t due for a few more hours. I hate it when people show up early for a party.”

The earth shook harder for a few more seconds before subsiding. Not a big deal. Just a little quake.

When the next one came, it wouldn’t be little.

Elise wiped Malcolm’s fluids off of her skin with tissues, then put her wrist sheaths back on. She also donned her spine scabbard with the twin falchions that she always carried—presents from her kopis father.

She stepped outside.

Two people cut through the gloom of night, moving toward Elise with purposefulness unlike the confused tourists who wandered the campground.

One of the newcomers was as close to a friend as Elise had: Lucas McIntyre, a third kopis to complete their trifecta.

McIntyre had always resembled a bear fatted for winter. Ever since he had married his girlfriend, Leticia, he had only grown fatter still. He was broader than Elise and Malcolm combined. His hair was thinning on top of his head as it grew in fine curls on his pimply shoulders. He currently had a shotgun propped against one of those shoulders.

“Fuck, Kavanagh,” he said, rolling his eyes to the sky when he realized she was half-naked. “I don’t wanna see your…whatever you got going on there. I’m blind.” He pointedly didn’t look at her tits.

Elise held out a hand. Malcolm placed a shirt in her waiting grip as he emerged from the trailer. He tucked himself into his jeans and zipped the fly.

“The Traveler,” she said after a moment of studying McIntyre’s companion.

The Traveler was neither he nor she—a human witch who preferred to identify itself by its sole and unique power, which was a very special kind of traveling. Even James couldn’t imitate its abilities.

They would need the Traveler to apply the moonstone artifact to the fissure.

The Traveler had no breasts under its tank top, but its full lips were feminine. Long eyelashes framed pale eyes. Its mohawk flopped over one forehead, and tattoo sleeves covered it from knuckles to slender biceps.

Elise couldn’t tell if the Traveler had been born male or female. It was the Traveler, and that was all.

“At your service,” said the Traveler, inclining its head in greeting to Elise. “And not a moment too late.”

Another earthquake punctuated its sentence.

Elise could actually see the RVs in the campground rippling, tossed by the rolling ground. The suspension on her vehicle groaned.

She surfed the earthquake even as she pulled the shirt on to cover her breasts and protect McIntyre’s modesty. Elise was still trying to maintain her footing when she realized that Malcolm had given her a Hooters tee. It was short enough to expose the holsters on her arms and her scarred midriff.

Malcolm was grinning when she shot a look at him.

“What?” he asked innocently, side-stepping a trash can as it rolled past him.

Elise rolled her eyes.

Hooters. Hell of a way to face the apocalypse.

The earthquake slowed, but didn’t stop. Somewhere beyond the RV park, humans were screaming. Those screams weren’t because of the earthquake. Elise recognized the sounds of dismemberment when she heard them.

“Traveler, let’s travel,” Elise said.

McIntyre pumped his shotgun. “Before this campground turns into a graveyard.”

#

Demons flooded out of the depths of the Grand Canyon.

They clambered up the cliff, scrambling to reach James where he had constructed his circle of power within the Tower of Set’s crook.

The black tide of demons crashed against rock, unhindered by gravity. They slavered. They shrieked.

They came to kill James.

He pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. “Good Lord.”

James lifted his hand in front of the slavering mass of demons just before they reached his plateau, and they crashed into an invisible barrier of magic.

Inches from James’s face, teeth snapped, claws raked against his circle of power, and boiling blood gushed through the air.

James had had ample time to prepare the wards before the demons arrived, since the spell to shield that leather satchel had been long and boring. His magic was sturdy enough that Ba’al himself wouldn’t have been able to punch through—at least, not for ten minutes.

Ten minutes would be more than enough time for Elise to rescue him.

The demons shrieked as they smashed against his wards. They were black-skinned in the way that hardened lava was black. Boiling blood oozed from the cracks. James didn’t need to pull out his copy of Hume’s Almanac to identify these beasts. They were creatures from Phlegethon.

The fissure was opening.

“Damn,” James said.

He reached toward Elise through their bond. They’re here, he told her silently, and then he shut her out before she could respond. He blocked every iota of information emanating from his kopis: the sight of Malcolm’s grin, her muscle strain as she raced toward the canyon, the sound of McIntyre lumbering behind her.

James tucked the moonstone artifact into the leather satchel, closing it with turquoise buttons.

Magic hummed as his protections fell into place.

Demon claws skittered over the invisible dome of wards, filling the air with brimstone sparks.

James slung the satchel across his chest. It fit well. Elise had picked the perfect tool for his use. She had good taste—in some things.

Allowing Elise to graze the surface of his thoughts opened a hole in their bond again. She was making good use of their shared strength. Her heel snapped into the face of a demon that had been trying to claw open a motorhome. In the same motion, she leaped over its head and came up to plunge both falchions into the jaw of an attacking demon.

He saw through Elise’s eyes when she fought like this. He felt her strength as though it were his. His heart sped, pushing blood hard enough to dizzy him.

When Elise whirled to stab another demon, Malcolm got there first. He shot it in the face. Elise was close enough to watch skull fragments go flying.

Then Malcolm kissed Elise, and James felt the scrape of the male kopis’s stubble.

“Argh!”

He slammed his protective walls down on their bond again.

James destroyed his altar with a few swift kicks. He was usually more respectful when removing his work—he was an incredibly powerful witch, after all, and there were covens who would drain their collective life savings for a glimpse of his ritual spaces—but the kicking thing was far more satisfying after feeling like he’d kissed Malcolm. And fucked Malcolm. And…

He smashed his heel into the altar a few more times.

Demons continued to punch at the walls of his circle.

Dammit, James was better at hiding his feelings than this. All this time with Elise, and he hadn’t lashed out over his frustration once. Not once! Not even when he was alone, seemingly unobserved, and it should have been safe to scream his fury at the injustice of the universe.

That was because nobody was better at lying than him.

But today, he didn’t have the strength in him to lie.

Six months since Copenhagen.

Six months of knowing what Elise felt, being unable to respond, and watching her with that abortion of a human being.

James ground glass into the earth with his loafer.

The Traveler came over the ridge above first. James had never seen the Traveler before, but he still recognized it instantly, as there was only one Traveler.

Even if it had been wearing a paper bag over its head to conceal its identity, James’s inner wellspring of magic would have reacted to its presence.

All of existence bowed around the Traveler.

It beckoned to someone James couldn’t see.

“Found him!”

Elise launched over the Traveler’s head.

She was momentarily weightless, knees lifted, blades glinting in the moonlight.

Then she plummeted into the mass of demons, a flash of muscles veiled in freckled flesh. Metal sang as her falchions tasted blood.

James was safe.

She was here, and he was safe.

That didn’t mean he wasn’t irritated at her.

“We’re almost out of time,” he called, tapping his wrist as though he were wearing a watch.

Elise surfaced from among the bodies. She was wearing those stupid leather chaps, which were now slashed in several places and blistered from boiling demon blood. “I know!”

“The fissure’s going to finish opening within the hour.”

“I know!”

Elise came up with her swords swinging. Heads bounced, rolled, hit the border of his circle of power.

The strength of his wards waned.

Malcolm and Lucas McIntyre came down the slope more slowly, moving as a unit. The Irishman took the left, and Lucas took the right. They plugged bullets into demons methodically. Calmly. Nothing new about what they were doing here—just clearing a path so that the Traveler could approach.

They cleared the rear half of the plateau. Elise rose from among the demons at the front half, shoulders heaving, a curl plastered to her forehead by a thumbprint of blood.

Her eyes connected with James’s over the mass of bodies.

The bond between a kopis and aspis was strong when they couldn’t see one another.

Once they could, the floodgates opened.

Elise was spattered in blisters from the heat of the demons’ blood, her knuckles sore from repeated impact, her adrenaline high.

Yet she was thinking about Copenhagen.

That icy beach. The steely ocean waters.

Her attempt to kiss James, and the way that he hadn’t responded.

Elise had kissed James, and he had simply stepped away from her.

They hadn’t talked about it since.

If James hadn’t tortured himself thinking about it every night for the last six months, he could have convinced himself that it had never happened at all.

Self-loathing slicked Elise’s memory in oily disgust. She hated herself for struggling to make her one and only ever gesture of affection—or at least, attraction.

Worse, Elise truly believed that James hated her for it, too.

“No,” James said aloud, startled by the realization. “I would never.”

She didn’t hear him. They were too physically distant, and Elise had  broken the piggyback the instant that she realized they were sharing thoughts again. She was trying to hide the fact that she had been thinking about the kiss—constantly—ever since it had happened.

James ran a hand through his hair, mind whirling in the absence of Elise’s.

It hadn’t just been self-loathing in that memory. There had been other wisps of ugliness: an urge for revenge and punishment and endless flagellation.

Elise had begun dating Malcolm, if that was what it could be called, right after their kiss.

James felt like an idiot for failing to realize what that meant earlier.

He had pushed her toward that idiot. And she had been using Malcolm to punish both of them ever since.

“Lord, no,” he said, quiet under the shrieking of a new wave of demons cascading up the slope.

Elise moved into the battle again.

The swift dance of demon slaying was graceful, even on her stocky form. James had been teaching her to dance, and Elise had absorbed that knowledge into her already terrifying ability to kill.

Twin falchions flashed through the night. Blood sprayed.

She leaped, she ducked, she spun.

Malcolm and McIntyre were both stronger than Elise, but that didn’t matter. She was the greatest kopis for a reason.

Elise didn’t need to be the strongest when she was utterly untouchable.

Yet she didn’t realize how beautiful she was.

James was so distracted watching her fight that he didn’t realize his protective circle was weakening until a second wave of demons struck.

Lava black bodies crashed into his circle of power.

James’s warding magic broke.

The demons flooded in.

“Look out!” Malcolm shouted.

The male kopis smashed into James, pushing him out of the way just before a half-dozen hellspawn managed to strike.

Tangled together, the men tumbled into the canyon.

#

All things considered, falling was a much faster way to get down the canyon than the way James and Elise had done it last time, which had been on the back of flea-riddled donkeys.

It was a hell of a lot more painful, though.

“Good Lord,” James groaned, rolling onto all fours to look around.

They had landed conveniently near the cave underneath the Tower of Set.

Convenient because it meant they wouldn’t have to walk far to reach the fissure.

Slightly less convenient because it meant they were surrounded by demons.

Malcolm had taken the brunt of the tumble. Regardless of his feelings toward James, he still had a kopis’s protective instinct, and James was a mortal with all the associated weaknesses; Malcolm had shielded the aspis automatically. He had been cut open by the rocks in several places. Blood cascaded down the side of his face.

He was on his feet again, drawing a handgun from the small of his back and firing into a mass of demons that emerged from the cave.

Malcolm’s aim was precise. Each bullet planted into a fiend’s forehead. But he didn’t merely shoot them in the heads—he shot them in a place their stony flesh was cracked and oozing blood, indicating weakness.

Each bullet killed one demon.

Not as impressive as Elise, but close.

Still, his handgun could only hold twelve bullets at best, when he started with one chambered. Twelve demons died at Malcolm’s feet and that was it.

Then he yanked James to his feet.

“Still got the moonstone artifact?” Malcolm asked.

James patted himself down. He did. It was safely swaddled in the leather-and-turquoise satchel. “Yes, but we need the Traveler because—”

“Good enough for now!” Malcolm shoved his emptied handgun at James along with a fresh magazine he’d been carrying in one of his pockets. “Reload and follow me.”

More demons were squeezing out through the tunnel leading to the cave.

Another earthquake struck.

The canyon around them groaned, rocks grinding, debris falling. The ground heaved under James. It was even more powerful than the last earthquakes, as though the fissure to Phlegethon was starting to get really angry, and he couldn’t remain standing through it.

Malcolm clamped a hand on James’s collar and dragged him toward the tunnel, unperturbed by the fact that the walls of the canyon were swaying around them.

The Tower of Set was wiggling, for the love of God.

It looked like the rocks would collapse on them.

The hidden cave wasn’t so hidden now. Each successive earthquake was grinding it open wider. The demons pushing through were helping it widen on their way, too. They were preparing a path to allow the forces of Phlegethon to invade Earth.

Malcolm cleared a path of his own with a second handgun.

“Reloading?” he asked James cheerfully.

Oh, right. James’s hands shook as he removed the first magazine and replaced it with a full one.

As soon as he popped it into place, Malcolm took it from him, swung the gun over James’s shoulder, and fired again. It exploded directly to the left of James’s ear.

There had been demons coming up on them from behind.

If the fiends were heading back this way, it could only mean that Elise and Lucas were pushing them. They wouldn’t be far. And they would have the Traveler with them.

Malcolm shoved James inside the cave. The damp air stunk of melted copper.

“What an ugly situation,” Malcolm said, reloading his second gun. “Apocalypse showing up early, just when I was getting my rocks off. Barely even had time to empty that whiskey bottle. We did, mind you, but barely. And we could have easily started on another one.”

When he shot at the demons to clear the tunnel, it was a thousand times louder than when he had been shooting in the relatively open air of the canyon. James clapped his hands over his ears.

“Don’t you have melee weapons?” he shouted.

Malcolm’s mouth moved. “Where’s the fun in that?” James could barely hear him.

James stumbled over the felled body of a demon. Its magma flesh crunched under his heel. “It’s not all about having fun! Sometimes, just sometimes, it’s about saving lives!”

“Try to be more boring, please, Jimmy.” Malcolm unloaded the clip into a string of demons, and then whipped a high kick into the jaw of a survivor. “Elise isn’t boring. Even she thought it was funny when I handed her the Hooters shirt to fight in tonight.”

Frustration clawed at James.

Hooters? He hadn’t noticed what she was wearing up on the cliff. He’d only noticed how much pain she was in.

And Malcolm had stuck her in a Hooters shirt.

“I suppose you think that’s funny,” he hissed at Malcolm.

“You better believe I do, doggy.” That pretend Western drawl was even more irritating than the words coming out of his idiot mouth.

“Of all the disrespectful—”

“You think I could make her wear it if she didn’t want to? It seems to me like one of us has an issue respecting Elise’s choices and it’s not me.” There was a spark of possessive jealousy in Malcolm’s words.

James gathered himself to his full height, which was at least half a foot taller than Malcolm. “I’m her aspis. More fatal than friends, closer than family—”

“Whinier than an incy wincy baby,” Malcolm said. “Oi. Duck.”

After a few months of casual warnings from the kopis, James knew to duck immediately. He ate dirt.

Malcolm fired over James’s head.

The bullet embedded in a demon’s throat.

“You’re a pig,” James said.

“A pig who just saved your life,” Malcolm said. He blew imagined smoke away from the muzzle of his gun. “Again. You’re welcome.”

And he was running down the tunnel again.

James had no choice but to follow or get eaten by demons.

They were on both sides: ahead of them, emerging from the juncture between Earth and Phlegethon; behind them, pushed into Malcolm and James’s retreating backs by Elise. James felt as though he were trapped within the closing maw of Ba’al. He was about to be devoured.

The only escape was getting the moonstone artifact to the juncture.

He followed Malcolm.

The tunnel soon widened into the cave where ancient demons had once attempted to burrow between the dimensions. The marks of infernal carving were everywhere. At another time, James would have enjoyed analyzing the specific shapes of the scorch marks on the crimson stone walls.

“There it is!” Malcolm crowed. “The fissure! Gorgeous!”

James didn’t see it at first. There were too many black-skinned boiling-blooded demons between where he stood and the fissure.

But the fiends shifted, and then it became visible.

A gash in the stone.

That sliver was so narrow, barely wider than the width of a fingernail, that it would have been utterly invisible if not for the blood it gushed—and if not for the demons somehow, impossibly, twisting to extrude themselves into a mortal dimension where they didn’t belong.

That was where the moonstone artifact needed to go.

James wedged himself between two rocks while Malcolm fought, fumbling the Book of Shadows out of his back pocket. He had known he would need offensive spells for this battle, and James had prepared a few special tricks.

He ripped the first page out of his Book of Shadows. Paper dust puffed through the air.

Demons rushed him.

He opened his mouth to speak a word of power.

It rocked the entire cavern in a silent boom, as though the entire canyon were a gong and his magic were the mallet. The demons within ten feet simply turned to a spray of blood so hot that they scorched the earth where they touched. Fragments of flesh and bone flopped to James’s feet.

Malcolm rounded on James. Demons had splattered onto his shins. “Damn it, Jimmy! Be careful! You got close to me with that!”

“Not close enough,” James muttered. He ripped the next spell free and held it between forefinger and thumb, trying to decide if it was safe to cast it back toward the tunnel that led to the surface. Elise had severed their bond. He couldn’t tell where she was.

He shoved the rune back into his pocket and scrambled to the top of a rock, trying to escape the reach of the nearest demons.

Malcolm cleared the space in front of the fissure. “Easy!” He spun his handgun end over end and holstered it. “See, there’s advantages to being the kind of bloke who shoots things instead of blows things up with magic. Nice and clean! Toss me the moonstone artifact.”

“Not a chance in all the hells,” James said. He slithered down the opposite side of the boulder and hit the ground just a few feet from the fissure. The air rippling from it was hot enough to make his hair curl.

Malcolm stepped into his path. “Come on, give it here. I’ll take care of everything.”

“I can handle it, thanks,” James bit out.

“Like you handle Elise?”

That was an open challenge if James had ever heard one.

Not the first from Malcolm, certainly. Nor the most blatant.

But James didn’t ignore it this time.

He didn’t want to.

“I’m better than you are in every way possible,” James said.

“That’s not what she seems to think,” Malcolm said. “I’m the one who she wears the Hooters shirt for, after all. All you do is follow her around the world like a pathetic puppy.”

James swung first.

Unfortunately, Malcolm was still a kopis, and his reflexes were far faster.

He ducked under James’s fist and came up with a blow of his own.

It was like taking a baseball bat to the face.

James flattened on the ground.

Sweeping a leg out, James hooked his foot behind Malcolm’s knee. He jerked hard. Brought Malcolm to the ground. Jumped on top of him before his vision could clear.

James snapped his fist across Malcolm’s face.

It was impossible to tell if the brown smears on the ground beside his head belonged to the kopis or came from the earlier fight against demons.

He was pretty certain he’d broken Malcolm’s nose, though.

Malcolm tossed James off of him, leaping to his feet. “Seems I struck a nerve in old Jimmy boy! And I do mean old. Bet you couldn’t keep it up for her even if you tried!”

James hurled the second rune into the air.

Magic thudded. The cave shook.

A ripple of air thumped into Malcolm’s chest and kept going. It bowled down the kopis and the half-dozen demons beyond him who had begun scrambling into the cave.

Just behind those demons, Elise was escorting the Traveler to the fissure.

That was what she saw.

Not Malcolm’s taunts. Not James’s attempt to hold back the demon horde.

Just James attacking her boyfriend.

And judging by her expression, she was not at all impressed.

#

Considering that the Traveler was only a witch—which meant that it had average strength and reflexes, similar to those any other human might have—it was a useful asset to have against the demons. It didn’t need the runic paper magic that James used. It had a quick tongue and incredible powers of observation unlike any Elise had ever seen.

“Three coming over the hill,” the Traveler said, and it was right: there were three demons cresting over the hill to Elise’s left, where she wouldn’t have noticed them without help.

McIntyre swiveled. He fired his shotgun. The demons fell.

The Traveler spoke again. “Behind you.”

Elise spun, slashing her swords in an arc that reflected moonlight on the blades like blazing cerulean fire.

Blood sprayed from the throats of two demons.

That was how they reached the floor of the canyon. The Traveler barked instructions without needing to look. It always knew where the demons were coming from. Always knew what to say. It was as though it had lived this deadly night a dozen times before.

It walked calmly between the two kopides, side-stepping attacks from the fiends, and was never touched by an enemy. Not once.

“What is it?” Elise grunted to McIntyre when their paths of battle drew one them close to each other. They had worked together frequently enough now that he understood what she was asking: why the Traveler was so strange, separate from the reality surrounding it.

“It’s a witch,” he said.

“Yeah, but what?”

“Just a witch,” McIntyre said. “For real.”

But it was a witch who had clearly traveled this path before, because it never drew a weapon yet still never was injured.

They reached the floor of the canyon. Malcolm and James weren’t dead on the ground, though she had already known that would be the case. If James had been dead, she would have felt him cleaved out of her soul and spent the rest of her life aching for the absence.

She never should have bound to him. She never should have let anyone matter to her that much.

When she heard the echoes of fighting within the tunnel under the Tower of Set, she was afraid. Truly afraid that there would be one more cry, and then her heart would shatter with James’s death.

Elise never used to fear for anyone like that.

Now she feared for him, and all he had in return for her was disdain.

She hesitated at the mouth of the tunnel—her only hesitation throughout the entire fight. Her fists were clenched around the hilts of her falchions. Blood sizzled on the blade, sending plumes of steam spiraling toward the heights of the canyon. Her gloves were soaked. The H in Hooters on her right breast was stained.

James and Malcolm were in the cavern somewhere.

“Don’t bother second guessing yourself,” the Traveler said. “You won’t remember anyway.”

She frowned at it, brow creasing.

“Don’t bother asking what it’s talking about,” McIntyre said, breaking the shotgun over his arm to reload. “Ain’t no point in that.”

Elise would take his word for that.

She leaped into the cavern.

Killing the demons was an easy thing, and if she’d had a choice, she never would have done anything else. Going through the instinctive motions of murder was easy. It warmed her muscles and made her blood flow and touched her forehead with sweat. It was the good parts of sex without any of the complications.

A blade in the chest, a demon’s wail. Knuckles connecting with Elise’s ribs. Teeth sinking into her wrist.

It was good. Very good.

“Step to the left,” the Traveler said peacefully behind her.

Elise leaped behind an outcropping in the wall. She reached cover an instant before James’s magic pulsed within the cavern, exploding from one of his runes.

She watched through the crack as his magic bowled over the demons like pins.

The demons, and Malcolm.

Hatred filled James’s pale eyes. The fissure to Phlegethon gashed the wall behind him, twice as tall as the witch but narrower than a hair.

He was still holding the page from his Book of Shadows that had knocked down Malcolm.

The way that James was looking, it was clear that the kopis had been his target—not the demons.

“Check him,” Elise barked to McIntyre.

The other kopis kneeled beside Malcolm. “He ain’t dead.”

That was something.

Elise stalked toward James, the Traveler in her wake. She didn’t need to ask James what the fuck do you think you’re doing because she communicated it in every angry line of her body.

Even without an open bond between them, James would know she was pissed.

He was pissed, too.

“We’re done with him,” James said. Rage radiated from him. It glowed within his irises. “If we survive this, Malcolm’s not coming with us to our next destination. And that is final. No debate! Don’t even try!”

Elise wasn’t debating. She stood inches from James, glaring, breathing hard through her nostrils.

God, but she shouldn’t have been happy to see him alive and barely injured.

He hated her.

Hated her so much that he was using magic to kick her boyfriend’s ass.

“The artifact,” the Traveler said.

James ripped the satchel off over his head and tossed it to the Traveler without looking. Elise had the entirety of her aspis’s focus.

“He disrespects me,” James said. “He disrespects you. And whenever he’s awake, he’s drunk! I don’t care how useful he is as an ally. I won’t tolerate him anymore!”

“Bitch, bitch, bitch,” Malcolm groaned from the back of the cavern.

The Traveler glided toward the fissure, holding the leather satchel and its moonstone prize.

The earth shook harder as it approached.

Phlegethon knew its death was coming.

Fresh blood sprayed from the fissure, sloshing over Elise’s feet, staining James’s khakis.

“I’ll leave with Malcolm,” Elise finally said. “We won’t bother you again.”

Disbelief made James’s face sag. “I’m your aspis.”

“Yeah, and you hate me,” she said. “I’ll get out of your life. You can go back to Colorado. You’re welcome.”

Saying that hurt more than any single blow the fiends had landed, more than every cracked bone in her ribcage attempting to rapidly knit itself back together.

The Traveler was only a dozen feet from the fissure now.

James grabbed Elise’s wrist to maintain his balance, fingers sliding on her blood-slicked skin. An earthquake jolted the entire cavern.

His touch hurt her in a way that the demons’ claws hadn’t.

“Shit’s about to go down,” McIntyre said helpfully. He had helped Malcolm to his feet, but the other kopis still looked woozy, like he wasn’t quite sure if all the shaking was in his head or in the earth.

The Traveler began to glow.

It was preparing to travel.

“Let me go, James,” Elise said, eyes narrowed. She could have broken free without effort, but she didn’t. She didn’t really want James to let go. Not if this would be the last fight she had with him—the last battle fought against him, and beside him.

No matter how cruel the loathing that churned in her belly, she liked the feeling of steadying him against the shaking earth, and the curl of his fingers around her arm.

“I don’t hate you,” he said. “I would never hate you.”

The fissure widened.

Blood slopped across the room, hot enough that James felt it through his shoes. He could also see into the dimension on the other side: the hideous, darkest depths of inhospitable Hell, filled with flame, evil, and the creatures that flourished on such things.

Demons scrambled out of Phlegethon, illuminated by the Traveler’s glow.

The witch lifted the moonstone artifact in one hand. It gestured with the other hand, as though parting invisible curtains.

Time distorted.

“Don’t lie to me,” Elise said.

Even caught in this moment with James, she was hyper-aware of the tide of demons flowing around them, parting around their bodies. Most of those fiends recognized the greatest kopis. They didn’t attack her. They went for the easier targets—the mouth of the cave, and the helpless mortals beyond.

But one demon plunged toward her. She thrust a falchion under her arm, skewering a demon that rushed from behind her without looking back.

The earth bucked harder.

The Traveler reached the moonstone artifact toward the fissure.

“I’m not lying,” James said.

McIntyre started shooting again. There was screaming.

Elise turned to see what was wrong, prepared to help. But James didn’t release her wrist.

He yanked her back against his chest.

And he kissed her.

#

Of all the inadvisable things James had ever done—and there were many—deciding to kiss Elise when they should have been protecting the Traveler at the mouth of Phlegethon was probably one of the most inadvisable.

But dammit, he didn’t want to see her thinking like that.

And he wanted to do it once. Just once.

Even if they were going to forget about it as soon as the Traveler reached the fissure.

James used his grip on her wrist to snap her back against his chest. His other hand clutched the back of her head. And he kissed her with the utter desperation of a man who knew that the kiss would never be remembered, not by either of them, when he wanted to communicate a thousand fraught emotions despite the fact there was no time for words.

For an instant, Elise was stiff against him.

They kissed.

She shoved him away.

For once, James’s desperation was enough to make him almost as strong as she was. He held her to him with his fingers digging into her biceps.

Elise stared at him in wide-eyed confusion.

He could see her mind attempting to reboot.

They didn’t have a piggyback going anymore, but they had shared consciousness often enough in the last six months that James knew what she was thinking.

He rejected me in Copenhagen.

But he’s kissing me now.

Is it because he thinks we’re going to die?

Is he taking pity on me?

Is he mocking me?

“No,” James said. He had been holding onto his thoughts for so long that the one kiss had broken him, and now all of those emotions were spilling out at once. “Because everything you think that I think about you is wrong. You have no idea, Elise, you can’t even begin to imagine—”

The cavern shook hard enough to throw them against the wall. Rocks smashed to the ground around their feet.

Shotgun shells plugged holes into the wall about three yards away. McIntyre splattered a handful of demons before they could reach Elise and James.

“You deserve better!” James shouted over the echoing death. “I’m not going to watch you with Malcolm anymore!”

She finally managed to speak. “Why not tell me sooner?”

“Because of all the things you don’t know, Elise. Because you have two marks, and I am a living mark, and if we were to do anything—if we were to be together—then Eden would open, and He would find you, and it would all end, and I can’t let you—”

Her knuckles connected with his jaw.

Being punched by Malcolm was nothing like being punched by Elise when she was furious and heartbroken.

James hit the wall of the cave. He ragdolled to the ground. Standing seemed to be impossible.

He wasn’t sure that she hadn’t broken his neck.

“Because you think that it would mean I’d be dead?” She was shaking with rage. Her voice was ragged. “That should be my choice. Fuck you, Faulkner!”

A gong resounded through the cavern.

The Traveler had reached the fissure.

Its journey began.

This was the Traveler’s one magical power: The ability to shift time, to step back into the past after time’s natural flow had already compelled it forward.

There was no way to sneak up on Phlegethon, after all. It had sensed Elise coming days earlier. And a fissure, once opened, is nearly impossible to shut down, moonstone artifact or not.

But as the Traveler stepped forward in the cave, it also stepped backward in time.

It leaped back to a point before Phlegethon realized Elise or the moonstone artifact were anywhere nearby.

And once it traveled to lock the fissure, everything that happened in the timeline since it jumped back a few days would be forgotten.

Time would be rewritten. Elise and Malcolm fucking in the RV, the fall down the canyon, and even James kissing Elise—all gone, evaporated, erased as though it had never happened, because it wouldn’t have happened. The Traveler was folding time in on itself and cutting away the parts that endangered their mission.

Elise quickly realized that she was about to forget James’s kiss.

She bolted toward the Traveler to stop it.

“Wait!” James shouted, scrambling to his feet. It was hard. Every bone in his body cried out with pain.

She couldn’t even understand the enormity of what James was trying to tell her.

It wasn’t merely that James did care about her—that he cared about her far too much for someone who had been taking care of her since she was a teenager, someone who she should have been able to trust without thinking that he wanted love, or sex, or anything like that.

There was no way she could grasp the enormity of his betrayal.

If she did, James would never see her again.

“You crazy bastards!” Malcolm roared from the rear of the cave. His voice was distorted by slowing time.

James hurtled after Elise.

She struggled to reach the Traveler first.

Time and air were thicker around the glowing witch. It had already stepped out of the current timeline, and now it was little more than a ghost with the moonstone artifact held aloft in that enchanted leather satchel.

It smirked when it saw Elise struggling to reach it.

“I told you that you wouldn’t remember anyway,” the Traveler said.

She reached out. “Don’t close the fissure!”

“No, I don’t think so,” it said.

James smashed into Elise from behind. They hit the ground together.

“I’m sorry,” he said, hugging his arms tightly around her ribs. He buried his face against the nape of her neck. He inhaled the scent of her sweat. “I’m so sorry.”

And she said, “No!”

The Traveler lobbed the moonstone artifact, satchel and all, into the fissure.

Time stopped.

#

September 8th, 2000 — The Grand Canyon, Arizona

In a stone vault under the earth north of the Colorado River, a portal opened.

The rocks shifted, groaned, cracked.

A fissure the width of an arm spread in the darkness.

“No, I don’t think so,” said the Traveler.

It lobbed the moonstone artifact into the newly opened hole between Hell and Earth.

In a blink, the crack was gone.

In the canyon, approximately five hundred yards away, Elise Kavanagh was very confused.

She was currently being bear-hugged by James, both of them on the dusty ground in the hot sunlight. Malcolm and McIntyre were on a nearby ridge with their guns aimed at nothing. All four of them were sweaty and exhausted and bleeding, but there were no demons in sight.

For an instant, nobody moved.

James was spooned against Elise’s back. His breath was warm on her neck.

She was a little too comfortable.

James released Elise quickly.

“Sorry,” he said. He sat up, looking very confused. “Sorry, I don’t know what…” He coughed. “Sorry.”

Elise stood and looked around.

They were in the Grand Canyon near the rock formation known as the Tower of Set. Elise didn’t remember climbing down there. She had just been in some tacky tourist shop trying to find an appropriate vessel for James to hide the moonstone artifact in. Malcolm had been shopping for leather chaps. That was almost a mile away.

Yet here they were, indisputably at the bottom of the canyon, and it felt like they’d been in a fight.

“Well,” James said. “I suppose the Traveler did its job, then. We’ve clearly gone back a day.” He dusted himself off.

“Yeah,” Elise said.

She dusted herself off too.

It was unsettling to know they had suddenly lost a day like that, with no recollection of what events had gone missing. They had known that would happen, and it was still very strange.

Elise touched her lips. She looked at James. She frowned.

“Huh,” she said.

She felt like she was angry at him, but she couldn’t think of why.

James frowned back at her. “Hmm.” He rubbed a hand over his jaw. “Well.”

“Incoming!” Malcolm shouted from the nearby ridge.

Elise turned to see a few hundred demons flooding up the canyon, coming from the opposite direction as the cave.

That was one unfortunate side effect of using the Traveler to go on a short journey through time. The Traveler had sent Elise, James, Malcolm, and McIntyre back a day, before the fissure to Phlegethon would have had a chance to open. The tension that had been building for centuries had gotten a chance to erupt, and the Traveler had erased it.

Unfortunately, the Traveler had also sent back any demons who had already crossed over to Earth after that eruption, too.

Its only power was traveling, after all.

Elise’s eyes swept over the incoming horde, their black-fleshed bodies glimmering in the harsh Arizona sunlight. She estimated at least two hundred demons coming their way. And there were more scrambling up the ridge to attack the RV park.

“At least you aren’t deprived of a good fight,” James said dryly, plucking the Book of Shadows out of his back pocket. “Can’t ever have that.”

She rolled out her shoulders to loosen them, adjusted her grip on the falchions, and nodded.

“Yup,” she said.

“Dibs on the ugly ones!” Malcolm called, leaping into the canyon.

And they fought.

#

September 13th, 2000 — The Grand Canyon, Arizona

Elise and James ate breakfast at sunrise. He had made coffee and scrambled eggs over a campfire. He could cook far better food than that, but the simplicity was fine. It seemed right to keep things simple after yet another near-apocalypse.

The RV park was in shambles around them. Demon bodies had been turned to jerky after a few days in the sunlight. Everything stunk of rot and was brown with dried blood. But the eggs and coffee were still just eggs and coffee, and that was fine.

At least it was quiet.

“I’m done with Malcolm,” Elise said suddenly. Her head was bowed over her plate. She had drained her cup of coffee but barely touched the scrambled eggs.

James frowned. It seemed significant that she was deciding to be done with Malcolm, though he wasn’t sure why. He was glad, certainly. If he never had to suffer being called “Jimmy boy” again in his entire life, it would be too soon.

Even so, there was more weight to that declaration than there should have been.

He squinted at the rising sun. Even when it was only halfway over the canyon, it was bright enough to make his eyes water.

“Yeah?” James asked.

Elise picked up a chunk of egg. She glared at it. Her hair looked far redder than usual, as though she were Icarus flying too close to the sun, and she had caught fire. “Yeah.”

It was odd that Elise would be done with Malcolm so abruptly. Six months together—shouldn’t she have decided to get rid of him sooner if she cared for him so little? It wasn’t as though the stress of battle could have done it. They’d fought a lot of battles in the last few months.

Well, James wasn’t going to question it. He didn’t like Malcolm anyway.

Distant engines echoed over the RV park. McIntyre’s cleanup crew was on the way to sweep up all the demon bodies. Malcolm was waiting to meet them at the far end of the trail, and probably nursing a hangover because he had drunk quite a lot of whiskey to celebrate their victory against the demons of Phlegethon.

“All right,” James said. “Probably for the best. Our money will last longer with just the two of us anyway.”

Elise set her fork down. “McIntyre says there’s a nest of demons in Tampa.”

“Tampa.” He swirled his coffee in the mug. It was sludgy and black and strong enough to make hair grow on a frog’s forehead. Just the way Elise liked it. “Long drive to Tampa.”

“Mmm,” she said.

They ate together, and drank their coffee, and that was it.

One more apocalypse averted.

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