Paradise Damned

Elise Kavanagh is being held captive without weapons or allies. The only way out of the garden is to kill God Himself.

James Faulkner's son has been taken by Metaraon, but James is caught in Limbo and helpless to save him.

An army of half-angel, half-demon hybrids is converging on the gates of Heaven, where the Union prepares for a final battle.

The end has arrived.

Excerpt:

Kansas – June 1989

Elise received her first mortal wound when she was eight years old. It happened during her second hunt without Mom, which should have been an easy fight; they had another local kopis backing them up, and chupacabras that migrated so far north were more of a livestock threat than a human one. But Dad had made a mistake. Since he had thought they were on the trail of a goat-eating monster, he didn’t have any silver weapons ready when the werewolf attacked.

“A werewolf in Kansas?” he muttered as he dragged Elise’s bleeding body out of the line of fire. He set her next to the back wall of the restaurant. Fidel, the territory’s local kopis, was still grappling with the beast. “There are no damn werewolves in Kansas!”

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The six-inch gashes on her stomach begged to differ. Elise clutched her falchions to her chest, gasping for air. The leather-wrapped hilts and steel blades weren’t as soothing as usual.

Dad shoved her arms out of the way so that he could look at the injury. Her eyes were too blurry to make out his expression, but she could tell that the damage was bad by the way he clicked his tongue. If it had been anything less than fatal, he would have told her to walk it off.

“I’ll be back in a minute,” he said, closing her arms over her chest again. She hugged the falchions like teddy bears.

“Where are you going, Dad?” Elise asked, craning around to watch him stepping around the Dumpster. “Dad? Don’t leave me—it hurts!”

“Don’t whine,” he snapped.

He was right. She was whining.

Her mouth closed, fists clenched on the hilts of her swords, and she practiced the breathing exercises he had taught her to get through pain.

The fighting could have been miles away, as far as she could tell. The werewolf’s claws sounded like chisels digging into the pavement.

Men grunted. A beast growled.

Then she heard a gunshot—and everything went silent.

It was quiet for so long that Elise thought that her father must have been killed. She acknowledged that possibility with a calm sense of inevitability. He had warned her it was likely to happen sooner rather than later, and her instructions for that scenario were to stay calm and focus on escaping. She needed to make sure that Mom was safe.

Elise hurt too much to want to move, but Dad never accepted injury as an excuse for failure. She rolled onto her stomach and crawled out from behind the Dumpster, seeking confirmation of her father’s condition.

Dad wasn’t dead. He stood over the immobile body of the werewolf, Fidel’s gun in hand. A pool of blood spread underneath the furred beast.

She would always remember how he looked framed by the light of the full moon, the long muscles of his arm taut as he continued to aim. He was waiting to ensure the werewolf was dead. It didn’t move.

Madre de Dios,” Fidel said. He sat beside the furred corpse with a hand pressed to his shoulder. “That was no chupacabra, Isaac. You were fucking lucky I had silver bullets with me, else I woulda gotten a lot more than bitten.”

“It bit you?”

“Yeah. Look at this.”

Dad bent to look at the other kopis’s wound. Fidel’s borrowed gun was a small cannon—a Desert Eagle. It glistened in the moonlight, as graceful and deadly as Elise’s swords. It was strange to see it in Dad’s hand. He said that guns were beneath them. Inelegant. He preferred to kill with his bare hands.

Elise’s vision blurred with pain. She grunted and pressed a hand to her stomach. So much blood.

When she looked up again, it was just in time to see Dad shoot Fidel in the head with his own gun.

Mom was waiting for them in the truck. It had been parked outside a 7-Eleven a safe distance away, where Dad’s quarry wouldn’t be able to hurt her. She cried when she saw Elise, drawing her into her lap like she was a much smaller child. “What happened to you?” she sobbed, pressing her lips to Elise’s cheek.

“Don’t coddle her,” Dad snapped. He was drenched in his daughter’s blood with Fidel’s gun at the small of his back. “Every kopis does this a few times. She’ll be fine if we’re fast enough. You know that, Ariane. I can’t believe I have to tell you again.”

He pushed Elise into the backseat, tossed a jacket over her, and gunned the engine.

Elise was embarrassed by her mother’s show of weakness, even as much as she longed to be in Mom’s arms. She tried not to make any noise.

“The hospital is that way,” Mom said.

“We can’t afford it. You know where we have to go.”

“Please, Isaac. We can’t take her there yet. She’s too young.”

If he replied, Elise didn’t hear it. She drifted in and out of consciousness, alone with the pain.

She replayed the fight against the werewolf in her dreams.

It had moved like lightning—a blur of fur that was impossible to focus on, much less attack. Elise had been shocked to stillness at the sight of it. None of her practice fights against Dad could have ever prepared her for a beast the size of a horse that moved with supernatural speed.

So she had failed. She tried to jump left too slowly; the werewolf’s claws had been waiting for her. Elise hadn’t gotten a single blow in before it knocked her down.

No wonder Dad was so disappointed.

It hurts so much.

Ma fille,” Mom whispered, smoothing her hand over Elise’s forehead. She murmured words of comfort, separated from Elise by the seats of the truck and Dad’s will. None of Mom’s French made any sense to Elise in her dazed condition, but it was nice to be touched.

She slipped into unconsciousness again.

What if she had jumped right instead of left? What if she had brought up her falchion in time, the way that she had originally intended? The blades weren’t silver, but surely a werewolf couldn’t survive decapitation.

If only Elise had gone right, she wouldn’t be pouring blood all over Dad’s truck. He wouldn’t be so annoyed with her. Mom wouldn’t be crying.

Je t’aime,” Mom said, her words punctuated by Isaac’s grunt of irritation.

Elise wished that Mom would stop babying her. Real kopides didn’t get babied by anyone.

Failure.

She drifted. She bled.

Elise woke up fully healed with the sour aftertaste of magic lingering on her tongue. “There,” said the witch, sitting back on her heels. She was an elegant older woman with gray-streaked hair sleeked into a bun, and she wore a silk bathrobe, like she had just stepped out of a spa.

“Thank God for you, Pamela,” Mom said.

Pamela grimaced. “Well, don’t do that. You never know who’s listening these days.”

Elise peered at her mother through bleary eyes. Mom’s cheeks were wet and her nose was running, but she still managed a grateful smile for the witch named Pamela. “I would have taken her to the hospital. I know we should have. But Isaac thought that—”

“You did the right thing. We’re far too invested in Elise to allow her care to fall to mundane doctors.”

“Will she become a werewolf?”

“No. Claws don’t transfer the curse. Many kopides are immune anyway.” Pamela finally noticed that Elise had opened her eyes. She wiped the blood off of Elise’s stomach with a damp cloth, and the skin underneath was undamaged. “How do you feel, Elise?”

“Fine,” she said, because Dad would have hated it if she had complained about her sore back and the strange taste in her mouth.

Elise pushed her mother away and sat up on her own. She was surprised to find, as her senses returned to her, that she was outside in a forest. The only light came from a bonfire that Elise glimpsed through the trees. Silhouettes of dancers flitted around the flames to the slow beating of drums.

“It’s Litha,” Pamela explained at Elise’s confused expression. “Midsummer. My coven is celebrating the sabbat tonight. Would you like to see?”

“But the hunt,” Elise protested. “The werewolf’s body—I have to get back.”

“Your father has returned to take care of the dead,” Mom said, smoothing her hand down Elise’s hair. “We have nothing else to do there.”

Elise hung her head.

Isaac had left them rather than wait for his daughter to be healed. He must have been even more disappointed than she feared.

She nodded, resisting the urge to wallow. Dad wouldn’t have wallowed.

“I’m going to join the circle,” Mom said. She stood and—to Elise’s surprise—began to strip.

She abandoned her skirt and blouse on a tree, like the branch was a hanger. She fluffed out her curls, smiled at her daughter, and stepped into the clearing.

Pamela washed Elise’s blood off of her hands with the remaining water.

“Many rituals are performed skyclad,” the witch explained. Pamela sounded like what Elise imagined a teacher would sound like, though Elise had never been to school. “It helps witches feel connected to the elements. Young and old alike participate. Strange as it seems to the uninitiated, it’s not sexual.”

The idea hadn’t even occurred to Elise, but having Pamela mention it brought heat to her cheeks.

“I’m not getting naked,” she said, folding her arms tightly across her chest. She didn’t have any of her mother’s physical features yet—and, hopefully, never would—but she wasn’t prepared to advertise their absence, either.

Pamela rubbed her back. “You’re not a witch. Nobody would expect you to join the ritual. But you can’t stay in the trees unsupervised, and I’m not babysitting you. Come, you can sit on this log over here.”

Elise would have preferred to face another werewolf than enter that clearing. But Pamela drew her onward, guiding her to a fallen tree at the edge of the meadow, and sat her down on the tree.

Mom had jumped in with the other witches as if she belonged there, and they greeted her with cheers of joy. The coven already knew her.

The shouts and cheers of the coven sounded a lot like the yipping of the werewolf as they had hunted it through the Kansas strip mall. The witches were more animal than human. Beasts of the earth and trees. Mom’s magic had never been like that before—it was a sedate, passive thing, best for making potions and poultices. Elise wondered if it was her mother who was strange, or the coven itself.

That was Elise’s first real impression of witchcraft: naked bodies dancing around the fire to the beat of primal drums, with the taste of blood and magic at the back of her throat.

But not everyone around the circle was a joyful participant in the bacchanalia. A man stood on the opposite side of the bonfire, occasionally visible through the licking flames. He wore a button-down shirt. His hair was charcoal black, like Pamela’s must have been when she was younger. And he was deep in argument with a naked old man whose skin was like leather.

“Who’s that?” Elise asked, tugging Pamela’s sleeve.

Pamela turned to see whom Elise was referring to. The younger man was shaking his fist in the face of the older man, silently threatening, even though Elise couldn’t hear the words over the drumming.

“That’s my nephew, James,” Pamela said. There was a strange expression on her face. Somewhere between wistful and worried. “I think you’d like him. Would you like to be introduced?”

How could Pamela possibly know what kind of people Elise would like? They had never even met before.

As frightening as the coven’s weird ritual was, the contrast between their joyous shrieks and James’s anger was stark. Among all of them, this was the man with the real power—the only one of them that didn’t succumb to the crowd’s energy, and was unafraid to stand apart. Of all the witches she faced that night, he was the one she would least want to fight.

“No,” Elise said. “I’m staying here.”

Pamela looked relieved. “Probably best, for now. Plenty of time for that later.” She let the robe fall from her shoulders, then joined the circle again.

Power drifted into the sky, gathered from motion, dance, and drums. Elise sat on the log and tried not to show her fear.

The next time she looked through the flames, James was gone.

Dad came back for Elise the next morning. The Desert Eagle was gone. The blood had been scrubbed out of the truck. And the first thing he said to Elise was, “What did you learn last night?”

“Never underestimate,” she replied promptly.

She didn’t just mean the werewolf that they had failed to anticipate. She couldn’t shake the image of her mother with those pagans, or her father calmly shooting Fidel in the face. She understood now that there were many things she didn’t know about her parents and the world at large—and many of those things were likely to be bad.

“Good,” Dad said. “Very good.”

COLLAPSE

Defying Fate

Elise Kavanagh has exorcised demons, slain gods, and come back from the dead. And she’s done it all with the help of James Faulkner: a powerful witch, and the only person Elise has ever loved or trusted.

But now the worst has happened. The Treaty protecting humanity from war between angels and demons has fallen. Elise has been taken by her greatest enemy and imprisoned in madness. And James may be responsible for it…

Excerpt:

California – May 2010

Conan O’Brien cracked a bad joke on TV. The audience’s responding laughter was shrill, harpy-like, almost screaming. Hannah wanted to throw the remote through the screen. But late night programming was the only thing had kept her son quiet lately, and she couldn’t afford to replace the television, so she only dug her fingernails into her palm, gritted her teeth, and tolerated it.

Spring in Half Moon Bay smelled like saltwater and seaweed. The steely ocean rippled outside her window, unsettled by a coming storm, and the wind was just on the wrong side of cold. Hannah didn’t close the guest house’s window. She hadn’t been in Hell for months, but she still hungered for cool, moist air.

Another joke, more shrill laughter. Her nails dug into her hand.

“What do you want for dinner?” she asked.

Nathaniel didn’t respond.

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She stepped into the kitchen. In the refrigerator, she had an open box of baking soda, half a liter of milk, a few slices of bread. The coven would have plenty of food if she wanted it—they were only a phone call away. But admitting that they had run through Hannah’s paltry savings was more than she could handle.

Hannah braced her hands on the granite counter and let her head hang between her shoulders. She could see a sliver of the television through the doorway. Conan O’Brien was dancing. The audience roared, but Nathaniel’s expression never changed. He had spent all night, every night, sitting in that same position. The couch had all but molded around his body now.

Zoning out was still better than what he had been doing with his days.

The phone rang, startling Hannah.

“Phone, Mom,” Nathaniel said without looking up.

A corded handset was mounted next to the refrigerator. She pulled it around to the dining room. The table was covered in books, papers, stones, crystals, pens, candles—everything a growing witch needed to cast magic.

She pressed the phone to her ear. “Hello?”

“It’s me, Hannah,” replied a man, whose voice she recognized.

She let out a breath that she hadn’t realized she was holding. Hannah hadn’t heard from James Faulkner, her former fiancé and father of her son, since she had left him in the City of Dis last December. After so long without word, she had started to think he must have been dead.

There was a time that Hannah had fantasized about James getting killed—the times when she was trapped at home with Nathaniel when he was a raging toddler, and James was off saving the world. But Nathaniel wasn’t a child anymore. He was an almost-teenaged witch who was drawing runes in his own blood. The idea of losing James—maybe the only witch powerful enough to control Nathaniel—had been haunting her for weeks.

“Where are you?” she asked in a low voice, gripping the receiver in both hands until the plastic creaked. “I thought you were going to contact us as soon as you got back.”

“You need to meet me at Pamela’s old house in one week. We’re going to go to the Haven.”

Hannah glanced at the wall calendar. Below the picture of an ocean sunrise, Nathaniel had been crossing off days. One week would be the end of the month.

Swallowing down the last vestiges of her shriveled pride, Hannah asked, “Could you meet us here instead?”

“I won’t be available for another week.”

“Why?”

“Because,” James said. “I’m about to be arrested by the Union.”

The phone slipped an inch before Hannah realized that her fingers had gone slack. She caught it, put it back up to her ear, leaned around the doorway. Nathaniel was still transfixed. She whispered anyway. “Arrested? For what?”

“That’s not important. They won’t keep me for long. My parents have agreed to hide you, and they won’t tell Landon you’ve returned. Don’t worry about it.”

“I’m not worried about it for me. I’m worrying for Nathaniel.”

He sighed. “Yes. I am, too.”

The silence between them carried a lifetime of secrets. Hannah had a thousand questions, but nothing to say—not over the phone. She didn’t even know where to begin. Thoughts of archangels, conspiracies, and deicide vanished as quickly as they occurred to her. She shut her eyes. Pressed her forehead against the wall.

“Here’s the thing, James: I don’t have any money left. I can’t afford to go to Colorado.” It was physically painful to confess that aloud. “And don’t tell me to ask the coven here for help.”

“I wasn’t planning on it. It’s not necessary anyway—I’ve added you to my bank account. You’ll be able to withdraw whatever you need from the local branch. But move quickly; my transactions are likely to be monitored, and they’ll be looking for you.”

“Who?” she asked.

James gave a low, mirthless chuckle. “Everyone.”

“This week is going to be bad. Isn’t it?”

“Very bad. But after that, you’ll be safe. You and Nathaniel. You’ll never have to worry again—not about money, your safety, or any covens. I promise you that.”

“You’ve made promises before,” Hannah said. The laughter from the living room abruptly stopped as Nathaniel turned off the TV. She was out of time for questions. “I’ll see you in Colorado.”

She hung up the phone.

COLLAPSE

Dire Blood

Elise Kavanagh died while killing the mother of all demons, and her fight should be over. But nothing is ever that easy where the Godslayer is concerned. Elise has been resurrected–and she came back as a demon.

Now the most powerful witch in the world, James Faulkner, has been dragged to Hell and accused of violating an ancient treaty. The punishment is eternity in Hellfire. Elise is the only one who can save him. But it means following him into Hell to face inhuman urges, the secrets in her past, and the horror in her future.

The Godslayer’s fight isn’t over yet. It’s only just beginning…

Excerpt:

It was almost midnight on a cold, snowy evening, and Gary Zettel was patrolling the Union warehouse’s perimeter. Leather gloves and a black scarf protected him from the chilly wind, and his gun, vest, and slacks blended in with the darkness of the night. Only the white, six-inch letters stamped on his chest in reflective tape caught any light.

He shifted his grip on the gun to keep his fingers limber as he headed down the south side of the fence. The dirt had been packed down and laced with pressure-sensitive wire that could pinpoint the position of an intruding mouse, but beyond the barbed wire was nothing but wild, unguarded desert. Sagebrush and sparse trees made formless shadows that Zettel could imagine as a hundred hostile beings—a mob of angry human survivors, possessed demons, or some other foe they had yet to face.

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But the night was quiet. An icy breeze whispered through the sagebrush. His footsteps crunched on the dirt, and his leather gloves creaked as he checked his gun’s safety yet again.

Zettel reached the corner of the fence, swiveled, and headed in the other direction.

His aspis, Allyson Whatley, hurried out of the building. She was bundled in a heavy jacket zipped to her chin. He felt her approach an instant before he saw her; he always knew where she was, even when they were in different states.

Her square face was triumphant. “I did it.” She faced the cold desert as she spoke, and she barely moved her lips. “I finally did it.”

Zettel turned off his earpiece. “Let me see.”

She removed a scrap of cloth from her pocket. A complex symbol was embroidered in the center of the white linen square and stained by a bloody thumbprint. From her other pocket, she took out a folded piece of paper on which she had drawn the same symbol.

“Watch,” she said, and she flicked the paper in the air.

It burst into flame and turned to ash in her hand. The paper was gone so quickly that Zettel almost didn’t believe that he had seen it.

Allyson had finally replicated written magic.

“Does this mean you can make the wedge?” he asked, pulse speeding.

“I’ve already started.”

Zettel struggled to suppress his excitement, but the implications of this were dizzying. He punched his fist in the air. “Yes,” he hissed. It was the only moment of celebration he would allow himself.

“I’m going to finish it,” she said. “You can contact HQ when you’re ready. But…quietly.”

He nodded. Yes, quietly. Nobody could know what they had found. Not yet. And especially not his commander.

“I have two hours left on my shift,” he said. “Do you think you’ll be done by then?” She hesitated, and then nodded. “Good. Great. I’ll see you in two hours.”

“We’re so close,” Allyson whispered.

He nodded stiffly as she stuffed the cloth back into her jacket again. It took all of his strength not to follow her as she spun on her heel and returned to the building. Instead, he stared at the flakes of ash settling on the tightly packed earth and felt his stomach flip-flop. Not with nerves—Zettel didn’t get nervous—but with anticipation.

So close.

But not for a few more hours.

He flicked his earpiece back on. Composed his features. Resumed walking the perimeter of the fence.

Zettel was so distracted by the heady, dizzying sense of impending victory that he didn’t feel the tingle at the back of his neck until it was almost too late.

A pale flash caught the corner of his eye—too far to the south to be a guard at the nearest watchtower.

He froze, watching for another hint of motion.

The night was still.

Scanning the compound’s exterior, he took inventory of everything that was meant to be there: spotlights focused on the outside of the warehouse, a man patrolling the opposite fence in the same black uniform he wore, the waiting SUV that had been left with the driver’s side door open.

All quiet. Unremarkable.

Unease crawled over him. Zettel wasn’t skittish, and he didn’t imagine things. Especially not people that weren’t there.

He picked up his pace and headed toward the SUV, putting two fingers to the bluetooth headset in his ear. His excitement was suppressed by a rising sensation of something gone awry. “Mack? Anything registering on the pressure sensors?”

A buzz, and then, “Just you and Mason.

There were shadows on the ground on the other side of the SUV—two dark shapes that looked like feet.

“What’s Mason’s position?” he asked, lowering his voice to a whisper.

Another buzz. “Northeast corner.

Nowhere near the SUV.

Zettel lifted his gun. “Suspected intruder by the garage. I’m going to engage. Verify reinforcements.”

Negative, Gary. There’s nothing with you.

Then who was standing on the other side of the SUV?

He stood by the hood for a moment, taking measured breaths and preparing to engage. His pulse thudded in his throat and temples.

Zettel leapt around the vehicle and brought his weapon to bear.

Nobody was there.

The ground was empty, and the door stood open. There was no sign of what had caused the shadows. The earpiece was buzzing again, and he put his fingers to it to hear the transmission. “I repeat, Gary: do not engage. There’s nothing there.”

He pushed the talk button. “Roger.”

Zettel scanned the door into the garage, the open land, the total absence of unusual shadows. He wasn’t the kind of person who imagined things, but maybe the stress of surviving the apocalypse was starting to get to him. Just a little bit.

Lowering his sidearm, he put a hand on the SUV’s driver’s side door to shut it.

A blinking blue light caught his eye. Whoever had driven the vehicle last had removed their earpiece and forgotten it in the cup holder. That was the kind of laziness that their new commander, Malcolm, was letting the unit get away with. When Zettel had been in charge of the unit, he would have brought swift, harsh retribution upon whoever was stupid enough to lose their equipment.

But Zettel wasn’t in charge anymore—for the time being.

Muttering a few choice swear words, he leaned in to grab the earpiece.

Black eyes stared at him from the backseat.

Adrenaline rushed through him, slowing time to a crawl and making his vision sharpen. Zettel took a step back. Reached for his gun.

He couldn’t move fast enough.

A white flash rushed through the air and connected with his chest. They both hit the ground. His head bounced, blurring his vision and making his ears ring.

The sensitive wiring in the ground should have registered someone sitting on top of him and made his earpiece blow up with chatter. He could see her—pale face, black eyes, black hair, lips peeled back in a grimace. He could certainly feel her, with her hands digging into his vest and knees pressing against his gut.

But there were no alarms. His earpiece remained silent.

She ripped the gun from his hands and flung it across the ground. And then she vanished into midair, scattering into shadow like a flock of ravens.

A buzz. “We’re registering unusual activity in your sector. Did you fall over?” The tiny voice had a hint of laughter to it. The dick in the control booth was laughing at him. Nobody fucking laughed at him when he had been commander. When the Union put him in charge again, Mack was going to be the first on latrine duty.

He tried to punch the button his earpiece and missed. He hit it on the second try.

“I just got attacked,” Zettel said, scrambling to his feet and grabbing his gun. “There is an intruder, and it’s not registering on the sensors.”

Negative, Gary—”

But control was cut off by jangling alarms. They shattered the air, echoed over the plains, and made his eardrums vibrate. The spotlights on the building turned red and began to flash.

A dozen voices began speaking in his earpiece simultaneously.

Something just entered the garage level—”

“—registering a bogey, moving fast—”

What did you see? What is it?

Zettel felt a surge of satisfaction that was almost as strong as his confusion. He pressed the talk button as he ran toward the door, but he didn’t know what to tell them he had seen. The pale skin, dark hair, and how it had vanished into the shadows—those things always meant a demon of some flavor, like a nightmare or a succubus.

But what he had seen couldn’t have been a demon. It couldn’t.

Mason rushed to meet him at the side door, which stood ajar. The lights inside were on alarm, too, and black shapes rushed through the halls as sleeping kopides began to awake and mobilize.

“Jesus, what was it?” Mason asked.

I think it was a ghost.

That would have sounded insane, so all Zettel said was, “I’m going after the bogey. Drag Malcolm’s drunken ass out of bed and have him find me.”

And then he slammed through the door and entered total chaos.

The screeching alarms were worse inside the warehouse. They rattled and bounced off of the walls, and the pitch made his eardrums tremble. The alarm lights were red, so it took no time for his eyes to adjust after the darkness outside.

He was surrounded by shipping trucks and the crates they had been carrying, each turned to black cubes by the strobes.

Nobody was working in the garage that late at night. The only active personnel should have been patrolling, just like Zettel had been outside. But as far as he could see, the room was empty.

Footsteps banged on the metal walkway above. He whirled to follow the sound, raising his gun.

The runner vanished before he could target.

Swearing under his breath, he launched himself up the ladder and onto the walkway. The shadow had already reappeared on the opposite catwalk, shoved open the swinging doors into the hallway, and passed through.

Ragged breaths tore through his throat as he chased the disappearing and reappearing shadow. The chatter on his earpiece fuzzed in and out of static.

The shadow swept through the halls ahead of him, darkening a few feet at a time, like a black hand was moving over the lights one by one. Doors slammed around him, opening and closing of their own volition.

Occasionally, he saw a flash of a hand, a slender throat, a face glancing over a shoulder—like he was chasing a beautiful ghost through a forest of fluttering darkness.

He was never going to catch up.

“Issue a quarantine protocol on my level!” he shouted into the earpiece.

Mack moved fast. The fire shields began to slide over the hallway doors.

Zettel slid under the nearest one just in time to see the shadow pass around the next corner, near the armory. He could cut it off if he reached the next level first.

He leaped up the stairs, taking them two at a time. His shoulder bumped into a kopis as he passed his quarters. He recognized the cry of protest, even under the blaring alarms—Malcolm.

Then the shadow swept over them.

For an instant, it was utterly black. Something cold washed down Zettel’s spine. The back of his neck itched and crawled.

It was gone an instant later.

“The hell?” Malcolm asked. He slept naked, like he was still a bachelor at university, but he had his clothes bundled under one arm and a gun in the other hand. What a goddamn pig.

Zettel hit the button on his earpiece. “This level also needs to be closed, control. I think the bogey must be going for artifact storage.”

The commander tried to follow him down the hall, bouncing on one leg to pull on his pants. “Oi! Gary! What bogey?”

Between control’s shouts on the earpiece and the blasting alarms, the rest of the units in the warehouse were mobilizing, but it was too late. Men stepped into the hall seconds after Malcolm had already run past them, and the shadow was already long gone.

That meant that the lift would be too slow, too. Zettel launched himself up the stairwell, Malcolm just a few steps behind with his trousers around his knees.

He got out on the fourth floor. Went two halls down.

There was nobody in sight, and the door into artifact storage was still closed. Totally silent. No shadows, no ghosts, no intruders.

Uttering a silent thanks, Zettel punched his access code into the panel to check the logs. Text scrolled past on the screen, but he wasn’t sure what he expected to find. If the door was locked, then even a shadowy bogey wasn’t going to be able to break through three inches of heavy steel without leaving some traces.

No attempts at opening the door showed on the log for six hours. He had beaten the bogey there.

He squinted through the reinforced glass. There were no alarm lights inside the secure storage room, so he could barely make out the shelves of crates and containers inside as the strobes behind him flashed.

A strobe momentarily illuminated the aisle between the shelves. A woman stood at the end, wearing the shadows like armor.

Cold shock washed over him. For a moment, all he could do was stand with his mouth agape, face pressed to the glass. The intruder glanced up at him as she pulled a box off of the shelves. It was the size of a suitcase, and marked with the Union insignia.

How had she gotten inside?

Zettel inputted his access code, but it took a few seconds for the whirring locks to disengage. He slammed his fist into the door, as if that could make it go faster.

“You bitch!” he yelled, spit flecking on the door.

The woman saluted him with two fingers to her temple.

Click. The locks released. Zettel flung the door open.

Everything went black.

The heavy hand of darkness pressed against his mouth and nose, squeezing into his throat, down his chest, and gripping his lungs. The rattle of alarms filled his skull. An impact rocked through his spine.

And then the darkness was gone—and so was the bogey, the box, and any sign of her shadow.

Zettel had somehow ended up sprawled out on his back, and he wasn’t sure how or when it had happened. Maybe that had been the pain he’d felt. The bitch must have pushed him.

Before he could get up, Malcolm ran out of the stairwell, one hand hanging onto the pants around his thighs and the other holding a 9mm. He jerked his trousers over his hips and belted them. He was still shirtless and barefoot. He must have abandoned the rest of his clothing somewhere in the stairwell.

“Did you see her?” Zettel asked, scrambling onto his hands and knees.

“Her who?” Malcolm grimaced and pressed a hand to his temple. “God, that shrieking—someone turn that shit off. Hear me?” When the alarms continued, he put a hand to his earpiece. “Come on, you bastards, turn off the bells!”

Silence flooded the hall. Control was still chattering away, the useless fucks. Zettel turned the volume down on his earpiece.

“We’ve got a problem, sir,” he said, getting to his feet.

“We’d better have a problem, if people are waking me at midnight when I was having a good dream. What in the seven burning hells is going on, Gary?” His Irish accent was even harder to understand when he had been woken up from a drunken stupor.

“Intruder. Thief. We’re under attack.”

“What?” He blinked stupidly as the red spotlights cut out and turned white again. “What kind of intruder? Nightmare? Succubus?” He gave a low chuckle. “A succubus would definitely explain the dream.”

Zettel took a deep breath. Let it out. “She was on me for a second. I only saw a glimpse, but I think I recognized her. And considering what she took…”

“Hang on. Back up a few steps. Who is ‘she?’”

He braced himself for the ridiculous, impossible truth.

“It was Elise Kavanagh.”

Malcolm only stared at him, as if waiting for the punch line to a joke. It never came. “Elise Kavanagh’s body is in cold storage,” the commander said.

“I know.”

“She’s been dead for weeks. You were there when we picked up her body.”

Zettel nodded. “I know.” That day was permanently emblazoned on his memory—the first sunrise that touched Reno after days of darkness, the swirling snow and ash, the decimated buildings. Elise had gone down after killing Yatai, the mother of all demons.

She had already been cold by the time they’d found her. And what sweet satisfaction that had been. It was Elise’s fault that Zettel had been demoted.

He had watched the video of the autopsy with great pleasure. Had seen the mortician weighing her organs. Had read the report on her unusually low body fat and blood volume, her missing reproductive organs, her severed arm.

Elise was definitely dead. But she was also, almost as certainly, the thing that had attacked him.

Malcolm strode for the stairs and hit the button on his earpiece. “Control, I need you to get in touch with Union HQ and have someone check the refrigerators. See if there are any missing bodies.”

A buzz, and the response piped over Zettel’s earpiece, as well. “Roger that.” They jogged down the stairs to the garage, and it didn’t take long for control to respond—nobody ever slept at Union HQ. “Everything is intact, sir.

“Shit,” Malcolm said. He jumped in the first SUV they came across and waved to Zettel. “You’re coming with me, Gary. Let’s get the bitch that stole Elise’s face.”

COLLAPSE

Damnation Marked

There’s something in the earth deep below Elise Kavanagh’s territory. A shadow is falling upon local demons to devour their flesh and harvest their souls. And it’s coming for Elise next.

The Union has an easy way out. They want to send Elise into hiding again with her former partner, James Faulkner. All she has to do is surrender the territory and trust that they can protect the ethereal ruins, the dark gate, and the city she’s come to know as home.

Greater powers have other plans for Elise and her fabled power as Godslayer–plans that mean surrendering her life and blood to the most powerful demon alive. But if she descends, there’s no turning back. Once she gazes into the abyss, it will gaze back into her…and Elise will be damned forever.

Excerpt:

Rick used to make a living selling medicine to plague doctors. He once watched a patron stuff his beak with camphor, rose petals, and laudanum using gloved hands, while explaining that the aromas would spare him from miasmatic air. The doctor had spoken with confident authority, and Rick believed him. It seemed to be as good an explanation for the plague as anything else.

The doctor slid the mask over his face, donned his fedora, and departed to treat the dying.

A few weeks later, Rick passed a pyre of bodies and saw his former customer at the top of the pile. The doctor’s neck below the mask was riddled with buboes. His robes curled with flame. The mask’s long beak was cracked.

It was about then that Rick realized that humans were deeply stupid creatures.

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He avoided Earth for a few hundred years after that. The market for human trinkets was good in Hell at the time, considering that there was no reliable way to travel between the dimensions, and he eked out a decent living.

The next time he set foot in a mortal city on the planes of Earth, those deeply stupid animals had somehow created heavy machines that could drive at unimaginable speeds, and they allowed anyone to do it. It was lunacy. Or idiocy. Or very possibly both.

He wanted nothing to do with them.

But his passport had expired, so it was too late for Rick to go back to Hell. He picked a town, bought a shop, and hadn’t left it since—not once.

Rick watched through the window as his newest assistant accepted a shipment, gnawing on his claws with jagged teeth. Jerica was taking her sweet time signing for those crates. She was a nightmare too, though much younger than Rick, newly substantiated and still marveling at the wonders of her corporeal form. She seemed to enjoy using it to flirt with the delivery driver.

What if that blasted truck rolled over and killed her? It had been hard enough finding one assistant. He didn’t want to find a replacement, too.

The shopkeeper kept an eye on the empty street as Jerica continued to talk with the driver, who didn’t seem concerned about the possibility of being killed on the sidewalk, either. She pointed at the boxes, then tipped her head back and laughed. Laughed!

Rick couldn’t watch. He just couldn’t. It was too much for his constitution to handle.

He returned to the counter of his drugstore and took a shot of cactus juice to settle his cramping gut. It tasted like ass, and Rick knew ass. They considered human anuses to be a gourmet treat in Hell. The cactus was definitely worse. But it did good things for his stomach.

Moving away from the window didn’t keep him from worrying over his assistant. He could watch Jerica on the blurry monitor hanging over the locked case of condoms. And watch her he did. Rick worried about that girl.

Eventually, after what felt like hours, the bell over the door chimed. His nightmare assistant backed into the shop carrying one of the crates on her shoulder.

“What is this? It’s heavy.” Jerica crouched to set it on the cracked linoleum.

He wrung his hands. “Do you think you took long enough?”

“What, are you having a rush of business in here?” She popped a bubble of gum and sucked it into her mouth again. “Relax. Being nice never hurt anyone.”

“You would be surprised,” Rick said darkly, thinking of plague doctors and blackened extremities. Jerica moved to open the crate, but he slammed a hand on the wood to stop her. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“Checking the shipment. Don’t you want to make sure we’ve got everything?”

“Not up here, where we can be seen through the windows,” he hissed. “Downstairs!”

Rick took the first crate to the basement while Jerica retrieved the other two.

The space beneath his shop was dim, narrow, and had a low ceiling. He still occasionally smacked his forehead on the beams, even after seventy-five years. His desk and reclining chair occupied one corner; the rest of the floor was filled with boxes of inventory.

He kicked a space clear for the crates and directed her to stack all three on top of each other. Then, and only then, did he lift the lid on one to examine the contents. It was filled with egg cartons, each of which protected twelve small, glowing cubes.

“Lethe?” Jerica asked, sounding wholly unimpressed.

“Mind yourself. This is a special order.”

She jutted a hip. With her asymmetrical haircut, scalloped tunic, and cocky stance, she looked more like an abstract geometric painting than a teenage girl. “Rick, man, you know I love you…”

He smashed the lid onto the crate again. “Ha.”

“…but anyone making special orders of lethe is not someone you should be dealing with. I mean, drugs? Demon drugs? You know what this stuff does to people?”

“It does nothing to people,” he said, unfazed by her attempt at showing concern for him. “Only demons. I don’t question the orders, and neither should you.”

A quick scan showed that every cube was in its proper place, and in good condition. Rick still had an intake bracelet somewhere, probably at the bottom of his laundry pile. Maybe the client would want to drop a couple together. He hadn’t been on a trip in a long time—literally or figuratively.

His assistant watched him replace the lids with disapproval. “Rick…”

“Get on out,” he said, shooing her upstairs. He locked the basement door behind them. “Go on. Get.”

She sighed. “Maybe I should stay and help you with this.”

“Your shift ends in fifteen. I’m not paying overtime. I told you, get on out.”

“You don’t have to pay me.”

But he pushed her toward the door, and she could hardly fight against him. Especially when he exerted the strength of millennia against her dozen or so years. “Careful on your way home. Stay out of the streets. And watch for those cars!”

Her lips stretched so wide from ear to ear that he could see the wad of gum pressed between two yellowed molars. “Nobody’s going to run me over on the way. But if you’re really worried, you could walk me home.”

“You’re funny. Just so fuckin’ funny.”

He shut the door in her face, but considering it was a glass door, it didn’t do much good. He saw her mouth moving on the other side: Be careful. Okay?

Then Jerica faded into the shadows, slipping across the street without touching the pavement, and reappeared under a streetlight. She waved at him before dancing into darkness once more.

Rick sat on his stool behind the counter and found his paperback under a folder of ledgers. Since he didn’t sleep, all he had was free time, and Rick read a lot. Despite being dumb animals, humans were good with stories. He was in the middle of “The Billionaire’s Busty Bride.” The pages curled under his long fingers.

Soon, he was so absorbed that he didn’t look up when the bell over the door jingled. Footsteps shuffled in.

“Leave your bag outside,” he said, licking his thumb to turn the page. “No backpacks.”

The silence that followed his order had weight to it. Rick glanced up. The customer was a tall guy in a leather jacket with a spiked iron band wrapped around his forehead. He was ugly, even by a nightmare’s standards: smashed nose, sausage lips, lined face. Flecks of dried blood were peeling off his leathery skin like he hadn’t washed his face since his last meal of manflesh.

Zohak slammed his fists on the counter. “Where is it?” He had been on Earth for months, but his accent was miserable. Everything was still pronounced in the back of his throat, like he was about to spill out a tirade of Hell’s native tongue.

Rick folded the corner of his page, closed the book, and stuck it under the cash register. “All right, all right.” He shuttered the windows to block out the night. “This way.” Zohak lumbered down the stairs to the basement. His weight made the whole building creak. “No company this time?”

The demon-king glared over his shoulder. “I trust no one.”

“That wasn’t the story last time I saw you.”

“My fiends hadn’t been slaughtered last time.” Bitterness dripped from his growls.

Rick knew a subject he shouldn’t touch when he heard one. It didn’t matter if Zohak had his legion anyway. Only if he had money.

They opened the top crate. A silvery-blue glow splashed over their faces, highlighting the furrows on Zohak’s face. The demon-king’s eyes raked over the inventory.

“Is this all you have?”

“It’s all you ordered. Three stacks of lethe.”

Zohak towered over the nightmare, clenching his hands and baring his teeth. “I ordered five!”

Rick wasn’t impressed, but he was prepared. He whipped the ledger out of his back pocket and held it up. “Three stacks.”

The demon king deflated a little. Actually, he deflated a lot. He quivered, and his broad shoulders sagged. For an instant, an oily sheen obscured his red irises.

He moved to put the lid back on the crate, but Rick stopped him. “Payment?”

The king blinked, and the oily veil vanished from his eyes. “This one is on…” Zohak searched for the word. “Credit.”

Rick flapped the ledger. “No. It’s not.”

“I must sell this before I can afford to buy it.”

“What about the last batch you flipped?”

Zohak seemed to struggle with the words, but not because of the language barrier. “I… lost it.”

And with that, the overhead light bulb flickered.

A strange energy rolled through the basement, and Rick closed his eyes to focus on it. Weight pressed between the space where his shoulder blades should have been. It tasted like ancient papyrus, like the clouds in the sky, and he tried to swipe it from his tongue.

“Wait here,” he said, leaving Zohak with the inventory to head upstairs.

The intensity of the energy grew as he ascended. The air buzzed as though a low electrical current were vibrating through it.

Rick lifted the blinds. One by one, the streetlights dimmed and turned off, marching in a line from the end of the block toward his shop.

His security system beeped, drawing his attention to the monitor. The camera mounted outside his shop flickered, snowed, and cut out. Then the “Open” sign in the window turned off, followed immediately by the lights inside.

A power outage? The clouds were heavy with the promise of snow, but a single flake had yet to fall, and the air was completely still.

Tendrils of dread began creeping over him. “What in the seven hells?”

He willed his corporeal form away, focused on the window, and reappeared beside the warped glass with a thought. He peered into the night.

There was someone moving on the street. A woman.

Rick locked the door and stepped back. “Zohak! Incoming!”

The demon-king already stood at the top of the stairs, and his eyes blazed with red fire. Rick didn’t recognize the woman approaching on the street, but apparently he did.

It only took a moment for her to reach the entrance. Her hair was in a thick braid over one shoulder. There were straps at her shoulders, as though she wore a backpack. A college student?

The back door creaked, slammed, and Zohak was gone.

Rick phased to the counter. Grabbed his crowbar.

The woman rattled the door—locked. She raised her booted foot and slammed it into the glass. Shards rained onto the linoleum.

Rick shook his crowbar. “I’ll call the police!”

The woman reached behind her, and he realized belatedly that she wasn’t wearing a backpack at all. She had a spine scabbard with two swords. The one she drew had a short blade, barely longer than her forearm, and occult symbols etched into the metal.

Rick had heard of that blade, and the woman who wielded it. They called her the Godslayer.

No wonder Zohak had run.

She used it to beat away the remaining glass and ducked through.

“Didn’t you hear me?” Rick said, with somewhat less steam than before. She wouldn’t be impressed by the police. Rumor had it that they had tried to arrest her once, but she killed half the force, bewitched the others, and escaped without a mark on her permanent record.

The Godslayer straightened and shook glass out of her hair. So she wasn’t ten feet tall after all. Her eyes weren’t filled with angelfire, either. She looked… human.

“Where’s Zohak?”

He sent out a tendril of energy to sniff at her mind, but there was no hint of normal, brittle human emotions. It was like trying to penetrate a brick wall with a toothpick.

Rick wavered. Surviving in Hell for millennia had left him without a hint of pride. And Zohak hadn’t paid for his goods anyway.

He dropped the crowbar. “Out the back door. Just leave me be!” Then he threw himself behind the counter and covered his head.

That should have been it. The Godslayer didn’t want puny Rick—merely a nightmare, a petty hellborn immigrant of no great consequence—but she rounded the counter and seized him by the arm regardless. Her gloved fingers dug into the place a human would have had a bicep.

“You’re coming with me.”

She strode to the back door, kicked it open, and Rick realized what she was about to do an instant before he crossed the threshold. “No!” he cried, struggling in her grip. “I can’t—stop!”

His feet hit pavement, and he could barely breathe. Electrical lines ran through the air over his head. Dear Lord, what were those animals thinking? And there was a car parked in the alley, so who knew when it might start to roll—

The Godslayer, of course, was unimpressed by this human madness. And she wasn’t slowed by dragging a nightmare, either. She lifted his featherweight body from the ground and strode after Zohak.

She dropped Rick at the mouth of the alley. He tried to scramble back toward his shop, but she kicked him to the ground. Her boot sank into his spongy gut and left an imprint of the sole.

His back hit the car’s tire. It didn’t hurt, but he gave a strangled yell. “Please, please, I can’t be outside!”

“Where does Zohak den? Point me.”

Rick lifted a quavering finger, silently praying that she would leave him to return to his shop if he told her where Zohak lived.

But she seized an ankle and pulled him along with her.

She forced him to give directions all the way to the empty tattoo parlor Zohak inhabited. She even took him across thestreet—black pavement, orange lines, traffic lights, cars! He almost passed out.

They reached the back of the parlor shortly after the demon-king. Zohak scrambled over the chain link fence, and the Godslayer finally dropped Rick to follow.

She scaled it in two short motions, vaulted the top, and landed on top of Zohak. He grunted as they both fell to the pavement.

Rick searched wildly for another exit from the alley. Anything to get him home without crossing another street. But he was trapped, so he pressed against the wall, drew his knees to his ears, and prayed to long-dead gods for help.

He watched as the Godslayer and Zohak exchanged blows on the other side of the fence. Her strikes were fast and brutal. She went for the soft spots on his face, and when he exclaimed with pain, she ripped the crown from his head and flung it into the wall.

Fury blackened his visage. He threw her into the back door of the tattoo parlor and grabbed his crown.

For an instant, Rick could see nothing around the back of the demon-king, and then he heard a wet crunch, a feminine cry, and a guttural laugh.

Blood splattered on the asphalt inches from Rick. Mortal blood.

So she was human.

“Stupid,” Zohak said, hand clenched around her throat. “You should have known by now not to face me alone.”

Her voice was strained when she replied. “I’m not alone.”

The streetlights flickered. Turned off.

A massive shape hurtled out of the night sky and slammed into the pavement.

The shockwave rushed through the alley, expanding the air inside the dumpsters and making their lids bang open against the walls. Grates rattled. The smell of rotting produce filled the air.

Rick gagged, but not from the smell. He gagged on the energy. His throat closed as that crushing pressure weighed on him, his vision darkened at the edges, and he realized that at least some of the rumors about the Godslayer were true.

She had an angel bodyguard.

He was tall, willowy, and ageless, with coppery hair to his shoulders. Luminous blue eyes turned on Zohak as the angel straightened. Downy feathers drifted to the asphalt.

“Took you long enough,” the angel said with a delicate snort. He addressed the Godslayer. “Are you okay? You’re bleeding.”

“Don’t worry about it, Nukha’il.”

He inclined his head. “How can I help you?”

“Hold Zohak down.”

The demon-king’s eyes went wild. He darted for the fence, but the angel grabbed the back of his shirt and threw him into the Godslayer’s waiting arms.

She pinned him against the wall with a hand to his throat and her sword digging into his stomach. Nukha’il didn’t have to do anything. His presence was threat enough.

“How many times did I tell you to leave my city?” the woman asked.

Bistak,” Zohak replied.

She shoved him to the ground and used her weight to pin him. Her bicep bled where he had injured her. Barely a scratch. “Tell me where your fiends are, and I’ll have Nukha’il escort you out of the city—out of the country.”

“They are dead. You killed them.”

She punched him with the hilt of her sword, and his head slammed against the pavement. One of his horns chipped. “Where are your fiends?”

“Dead!”

“He’s telling the truth,” Nukha’il said. “He believes you killed them.”

Her sword wavered. “How did they die?” she asked Zohak, and her voice wasn’t quite as angry as it had been earlier.

“Deep beneath the city. There’s something down there.” He whimpered. “Something… black.”

“Tell me.”

“It came from the earth, from the rocks. A shadow with inertia.” His voice changed, deepened, as though he were speaking through an echoing cavern. “It came upon us. One by one, it devoured them, and then…” His face twisted. “And then it took me.”

Rick had heard the rumors. Creeping shadows, a hungry darkness, a change in the Warrens. Everyone said it was the Godslayer. They said she had unimaginable power.

But she exchanged glances with the angel, and her expression was genuinely confused. She didn’t know anything. That information would be worth money—if Rick could get home without dying.

She shook his jacket. “You’re lying, Zohak. You have to be. Where are your fiends?”

Zohak responded with a groaning cry. The inky shadow devoured his eyes again. His body shuddered, and his hands reached up to close around the Godslayer’s wrists.

The demon-king jerked her hands down and plunged the blade into his heart with a sickening crack.

“Whoa!”

She struggled to free herself, but it was too late. A black fog spilled from his chest, creeping up her blade.

With a shout, she dropped the sword and leaped to her feet.

The ichor spread over the sword and fountained over Zohak as he twisted on the ground. His eyes were wide open, and his mouth yawned in a silent cry. He sat up, hands gripping his chest, and tried to get to his feet as the shadow devoured the last of his flesh. A croak tore from his throat.

Rick’s heart beat a panicked tattoo. Forget the humans. Forget their technology. Forget their goddamn cars.

The nightmare leaped to his feet and ran.

COLLAPSE

Dark Union

Every fifty years, the most powerful ethereal and infernal beings convene on Earth to resolve conflicts with mediation by kopides–humans born to police relations between Heaven and Hell. They’re meeting in Elise Kavanagh’s territory this year, and she used to be the greatest kopis in the world. But she’s not invited.

An old friend, Lucas McIntyre, asks her to attend the summit in his place. But when she arrives, she discovers that a human faction called The Union has taken charge of the summit, and they’re not playing nice. Worse yet, someone has killed a prominent Union member…and now they’re demanding blood.

Excerpt:

It was a miserable day. The temperature had reached one hundred degrees Fahrenheit, there was no wind, and Anthony Morales had been trying to sell his Jeep to random assholes from Craigslist all afternoon.

“What the hell have you done to this thing?” asked potential buyer number three, who claimed his name was “Buddy,” and was as thick in the waist as a baby elephant.

They stood in the shade of a high-rise apartment building, which funneled heat directly toward them over rippling asphalt. Anthony hoped that parking his Jeep in an alley stained with oil, covered in trash, and overlooked by barred windows might make his car look a little less offensive in comparison. Instead, the Jeep looked like it belonged in one of the big green dumpsters.

Anthony rubbed a hand down his face and left behind a greasy smear. “There were pictures in the ad.”

“Is that what I asked? No. I asked what you did to it.”

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“I told you. I’m a mechanic. This was my hobby vehicle.”

Buddy snorted. “Is your hobby beating it with a goddamn crowbar?”

Anthony tried not to feel wounded. The Jeep was his first car, and it had been through a lot with him in the ensuing years. Sure, the bumper was missing, the upholstery was ripped, and the body was thoroughly dented. That was what happened when you drove through a cemetery full of zombies. But the engine was great and the tires were new. He had put a lot of love into it.

“Do you want it or not?” he asked in a dull voice.

The buyer walked around the Jeep again, his considerable girth swaying with every step. “I’ll give you three hundred for it.”

“I’ll only take twelve hundred.”

“You kidding? Three hundred is a good deal for this piece of shit.”

Anthony’s patience was gone. “Okay. Fine. Sorry to waste your time.”

He climbed into the Jeep, but Buddy leaned on the hood to prevent him from moving to a shadier spot. “Five hundred.”

“Now you’re wasting my time.”

“Come on. You can’t seriously think it’s worth twelve,” Buddy said.

Anthony’s girlfriend came around the end of the alley at that moment, sparing him from having to think of a response that didn’t use words like “insulted” and “asshole.” Elise’s curls were pulled out of her face in a thick braid, and she wore faded shorts, a tank top, and sneakers, yet still managed to look like a Greek Fury as she stalked down the alley.

She was followed by a teenage boy and his mother—potential buyer number four.

Elise glanced at Anthony. “Is he buying it?” she asked, jerking a thumb at the fat man, who smoothed a hand over his sweaty pate as he took a long look at Elise’s legs.

“He’s trying to get it for five hundred.”

“Get out of here,” she told Buddy. “We’re done with you.” He opened his mouth, and she didn’t seem interested in discovering if it was to argue or make a counter offer. She turned the full force of her stare on him and said again, “Get out.”

Buddy waddled his elephantine mass toward the street with a flip of the bird.

Why didn’t Anthony have that kind of gravitas? Someone was always screwing with him, whether it was over the sale of his Jeep, the cost of labor at the shop, or the grades he got on his college papers. Nobody screwed with Elise.

Of course, she also wasn’t much of a salesman.

“This is it,” she said to potential buyer number four, who was watching the alley like she expected muggers to jump out at any second.

Anthony jumped down to join them. The mother had contacted him by email that morning to see if he thought the Jeep would be good as her teenage son’s first car. “Hi,” he said, wiping his palms dry on his jeans and holding out a hand. “Thanks for coming all the way downtown. I’m—”

“Twelve hundred,” Elise interrupted. “Firm.”

The mother looked doubtful. “I don’t know…”

“What happened to that thing?” the boy asked. He had braces and a Grateful Dead t-shirt.

Anthony’s heart sank. That question again. He prepared to give his response about it being a project car, but Elise spoke first. “We drove it through a cemetery of zombies. There used to be a cowcatcher on front, but it crumpled after hitting the first dozen bodies.”

“Seriously?”

“Yes.”

The mother shot Elise a long-suffering look. “Does it run?” she asked, sounding exhausted.

“Perfectly. And insurance is cheap,” Anthony said.

“Great. I’m sold.”

She pulled out her wallet as her son pumped his fist in the air. He jumped in the driver’s seat and ran his fingers reverently over the wheel, like he had just gotten his first Porsche. Anthony resisted the wild impulse to push the boy away from his car. Twelve hundred dollars was more money than he and Elise had possessed for weeks.

“You can bring it to my shop if anything goes bad in the next month or two, but it shouldn’t be a problem,” he said, exchanging a business card for a small stack of twenties. “I just replaced the tires and transmission. Everything is in perfect condition.”

“I don’t really care,” said the mother. He spread the paperwork out on the hot metal of the hood, and they each signed it. “Anything to get him to leave the house for once. Maybe he’ll even get a few friends.”

“This sound system is totally sick!” her son enthused.

“We installed it for use in a mass exorcism,” Elise told him, leaning her elbows on the door. Anthony groaned. It was the truth, but nobody would ever believe her. The miniature zombie apocalypse in May had been treated like a natural disaster in the mainstream media. But Elise didn’t seem to care. She smiled a little as the kid swung the wheel around.

“What were you exorcising?” he asked.

“Demons. Really nasty ones.”

“That is so cool.”

“Don’t encourage him. He already plays too many video games,” the mother said. “And move over, Travis. I’m driving it home.”

“Mom!”

She climbed in, and Elise stepped back beside Anthony.

A few seconds later, the tail lights disappeared around the corner. His heart twisted painfully.

It only lasted for a second. He had lost everything in the last few months: his Millennium Scholarship (because fighting demons did zero favors for his grades), his cousin Betty, and now his beloved Jeep. It was getting to the point where the pain was a constant stabbing in his chest. He couldn’t work up additional grief over his car for longer than a few seconds.

“Let me see that,” Elise said, holding out a hand. He gave her the cash. She counted it out. “Great. This is rent for two months, at least.” She pocketed a few bills and returned the rest.

“Hey,” Anthony complained.

“Do you want groceries or not?”

He didn’t really care. The Jeep didn’t belong to Elise, and she had no right to the money. But what was the point in arguing? They had gotten an apartment together downtown—a furnished one bedroom for five hundred a month, which smelled like tobacco even though neither of them smoked—and all their money was getting poured into bills and debt and Top Ramen anyway.

“What now?” he asked dully.

“Now I’m going to run errands.” Elise stretched up to kiss his chin. “I’ll be home late. Don’t wait for me.”

She left before he could try to kiss her properly.

Anthony thought about going back to their apartment, which was just around the corner, but he found himself staring at the spot his Jeep had stood only minutes earlier.

That twinge was back.

He sank to a crouch, covered his face with his hands, and didn’t move for a long time.

II

Eloquent Blood was dark, and the sign on the alley door said CLOSED, but Elise walked in anyway. Its usual patrons weren’t bothered by heat, so they didn’t bother air conditioning the bar, but being positioned in the cavernous basement kept it temperate. The sweat on Elise’s skin cooled and made her shiver.

“Neuma?” she called, pausing by the railing to peer at the bottom several levels down. The DJ booth was empty. Three walls of a cage stood where the dance floor should have been, but it would be hours until the fights started. A demon with three eyes mopped the stage. “Hey! Is Neuma in yet?”

It nodded without looking up.

The fluorescent blue lights behind the bar were turned off. The stripper pole hadn’t been cleaned yet, so it was covered in fingerprints, sweat, and flecks of brimstone. But there was no sign of the bartender.

Elise hopped over the bar, snagging a bottle of tequila on the way. She was more than just a frequent patron of Eloquent Blood—she used to be the accountant, before getting in a fight with the owner. She had since killed David Nicholas and any chance of being gainfully employed with them again, but she still made frequent visits to enjoy Neuma’s generosity with the liquor.

She headed down the back hall. “Neuma, it’s me. Where are you?” Something bumped against the wall. Elise jiggled the handle to the dressing room. Locked. “Hey. Open up. I can hear you in there.”

“Go away,” Neuma said from the other side.

Elise’s senses sharpened. “Are you okay?”

“I’m peachy.”

“Bullshit. Open the door or I’ll kick it in.” She had done it once before, and she had no qualms about breaking the handle again.

“No, don’t do that,” Neuma said. “Hang on.”

A pause, and the lock clicked. Elise pushed inside.

The dressing room was even more of a mess than usual. Costumes were spread across the floor like a rug of latex and silver chains. One of the vanity mirrors was shattered, leaving shards of glass sprinkled over the strippers’ outfits, and half of the bottles on the shelves had been broken. It reeked of sulfur and booze.

Neuma was slumped in a chair by the door. Her skin and white bathrobe glowed in the black light, but her ink-dark hair was a shadow puddled on her shoulders. She had a hand over the left side of her face.

“What happened in here?” Elise asked.

“Nothing. Just haven’t cleaned in a long time.” Neuma’s voice was about an octave too high.

Elise sniffed the air. As if the wreckage wasn’t evidence enough, every sense told her that a powerful demon had been on the premises—from the uncomfortable pressure at the back of her skull, to the sour bite of brimstone in her nose. It was too strong to belong to Neuma, who was only a half-succubus Gray. She was mostly harmless. Her greatest threat was being a little too sexy.

The sight of the destruction was enough to trigger Elise’s protective instinct. Setting the tequila on the counter, she picked up a costume, shook out the glass, and threw it in the closet. “Your parties are getting too wild,” she said, working quickly to unclutter the floor and sweep the glass into a corner.

Neuma smiled weakly.

When Elise finished, she turned on the overhead lights without waiting for permission. The bartender flinched. She pulled her hand away from her face for an instant, but it was enough for Elise to see a massive gash running down the side of her face. Thin, watery blood poured into the collar of her robe.

“Jesus, Neuma.”

“I think I need a witch,” she whispered. Half-demons were fragile creatures. They couldn’t heal on their own—given a few hours, they could bleed to death from a paper cut. “Treeny, up in Craven’s—cocktail waitress for the sport’s bar—she can do a little hocus pocus.”

Elise pulled Neuma’s arm over her shoulder and supported her as they limped into the hallway. The facial injury wasn’t the worst of it. The robe gapped to show a missing chunk of flesh in her thigh.

They took the stairs to the manager’s office, slowly and carefully.

“Tell me who attacked you,” Elise said.

“Name’s Zohak. This thing, this demon—he took all our money, and I couldn’t do shit about it. He bit my leg and fuckinglaughed at me.”

“You couldn’t have fought?”

“I did,” Neuma said. “But half the bouncers left when David Nicholas died. There’s nobody left to help during the day anymore.”

They reached the office, and Elise helped her sit on the executive chair. The room was empty aside from a single filing cabinet and paperwork scattered on the desk. Neuma had been trying to keep up on bills and taxes, but she didn’t have the organizational skills.

“Wait here,” Elise said. “I’ll find Treeny.”

It wasn’t hard to locate the cocktail waitress. Most of the employees had worked for Craven’s when Elise and Death’s Hand destroyed half of the casino, and they were properly intimidated by her. She ordered the first demon she spotted to send Treeny to the office, and they scurried off to make it happen.

The waitress met them upstairs a few minutes later. She wore a tiny dress that barely covered her butt, hugged an empty drink tray to her chest, and trembled under Elise’s scrutiny.

“What’s up?” Treeny asked. To her credit, her voice didn’t shake nearly as much as her knees. A pentacle ring sparkled on her thumb. It danced with silver light in the corner of Elise’s vision, which meant it was enchanted.

“I’m told you can heal,” she said, wiping her hands off with a tissue. She had patched up the wound on Neuma’s thigh to slow the bleeding, but the bartender’s skin was ashen, and she could barely lift her head.

Treeny’s face lit up. “Oh. Yeah. A little, if I have time for a ritual. But I’ll need supplies.”

“You’ve got fifteen minutes to get them. Go fast.” The witch ran off, and Elise helped Neuma to the bathroom attached to the office, and the bartender washed the blood off her bruised face. “I don’t think you’re stripping tonight.”

“No kidding. That’s not sexy at all, huh?” Neuma tilted her head to study the damage in the mirror. “Forget it. I’ll have to call someone in, if I don’t die first.” She heaved a sigh. “Thanks for helping, doll. Is there a reason you came to see me? Are you covering my shift tonight?”

In the aftermath of the attack, Elise had completely forgotten that she visited Craven’s for a reason. “I got some cash, so I wanted to pay my bar tab. What am I up to this week—eighty bucks?”

“Nothing. It’s on the house.” Neuma tried to smile, and failed. Her skin had completely lost its usual glow. “It could be on the house forever if you would help me.”

Elise’s mouth twisted. Neuma had been trying to talk her into taking over Eloquent Blood and Craven’s casino—which continued to operate only by habit and the force of Neuma’s will since the overlord died—for the last several weeks. Every time she showed up for a drink, it was the same thing again. Help me, and, I need you.

It was getting on her nerves. Elise couldn’t help them—she couldn’t help anyone.

But the half-succubus’s eyes were wide and pathetic. It was getting harder to resist her pleas. “I just can’t handle this alone anymore,” Neuma whispered when Elise didn’t respond. “I thought it would be better if we could get rid of David Nicholas. I thought I could keep up on it myself. But I can’t, and everything’s falling apart. With the Night Hag gone…”

“How many times do I have to tell you no?”

Please. You could protect us, at least. This isn’t the first time someone’s rolled in to screw with us. If we could stop getting attacked for a few weeks, maybe we could find someone good to take charge. Maybe—”

Elise slapped two fifty dollar bills on the desk. It only left twenty for groceries, but she had been living off dried beans and rice for weeks anyway. “That’s for my tab.”

“Don’t go! Zohak will be back—he said he would.”

“I have stuff to do. Try not to die. I’ll see you later.”

“Elise!”

She left the office without looking back, and bumped into Treeny on the stairs. Elise didn’t need to see Neuma—that pathetic stare was stamped permanently on the inside of her skull.

It was hard being asked for help. It was even harder to deny it.

The walk to her new apartment was short—just two blocks from Craven’s. But even that distance was miserable in the afternoon sun. It was the kind of heat that melted the rubber on shoes and turned metal into a searing brand. Elise bumped the crosswalk button with her hip.

Her phone buzzed in her pocket as she crossed the street. She ducked under an awning’s shade to check the screen.

When she saw the number, her heart stopped. It took her two tries to speak. “Hello?”

“Hey, Kavanagh,” responded a masculine voice. “It’s McIntyre.”

Elise knew immediately that he was calling for help—and this time, she wouldn’t be able to say no.

COLLAPSE

The Darkest Gate

Book Cover: The Darkest Gate
Editions:Kindle
ISBN: B009YADS38
Pages: 300
Paperback: $ 11.99 USD
ISBN: 1937733076
Size: 8.00 x 5.00 in
Pages: 302
Audiobook: $ 24.95 USD
ISBN: B00GCI9NJS

When Elise Kavanagh retired from demon hunting, she swore it would be permanent. But an attack from a powerful necromancer forced her back into the business, and now she's trying to balance her normal boyfriend and normal job with everything supernatural.

Mr. Black is a demon hunter gone rogue. He's enslaving angels and stealing ethereal artifacts in pursuit of forbidden immortality, and an old grudge drives him to make his final stand in Elise's territory. Destroying her life and killing her friends isn't the goal, but it's a definite perk.

A demonic overlord offers to join against Mr. Black and protect Elise's loved ones. All she needs to do is ally with the demons she's sworn to kill, at the cost of her morals--and maybe her immortal soul. But once she crosses that line, there's no turning back.

Nothing is sacred when Heaven and Hell collide on Earth...

Excerpt:

There was blood on the stone.

The column loomed so far overhead that its apex disappeared into night. Looping lines marked its surface like ossified muscle on beams of towering bone. The once-bright sigils ringing the base were lifeless.

The gate was one of a dozen silent scions in a dead city. For endless millennia, they slept over the empty streets waiting for… What?

Elise

Her bare toes hung over the tip of the world, hair swinging in her face as she craned forward to peer at the water miles below. Tiny stars sparkled in the water, like river stones reflecting moonlight.

The gate hummed at her back. She couldn’t look at it. She wouldn’t. She would prefer to fall into the abyss and shatter on the shore.

Elise

There shouldn’t have been anything on the other side of the arch. Nothing should have lived in the city.

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Yet there was blood on the stone, and something called her name from the other side, beckoning for her to turn. Invisible fingers clamped on her chin and forced her back from the edge, away from blissful suicide and on toward damnation.

The dry air vibrated. Sinewy stone flushed to life, and a breeze stirred the dead air.

Elise

She shut her eyes as she turned. She wouldn’t look. She wouldn’t watch the air darken until it devoured all light, wouldn’t see Him reaching through with white hands…

But something peeled her eyelids back, forcing her to look upon the darkest gate.

And she saw.

“Elise!”

The tent collapsed on her head. An electric bolt of consciousness shocked through her.

Something heavy smashed into her face and chest, like a bear rolling over the tent. She couldn’t inhale. Her neck strained as her head was crushed into the ground.

She felt a bare arm against hers—Anthony’s—and elbowed him away.

For a disorienting moment, she was seventeen again, on the run and camping out in whatever bare patch of land she could find. Motels were too expensive and too easy to track. Elise couldn’t remember why she was with Anthony instead of James.

A glistening black fang punctured the canvas by her head and brought cold reality with it. Venom gushed from the tip and splattered on her shoulder.

Knife. Where was her knife?

The body shifted enough for her hand to scrabble at the pillow, where she had tucked a blade before sleeping, but the attacker mashed against her again and she didn’t have space to grab it.

The fang withdrew and punctured again. Elise twisted her face to the side.

“Anthony! Do something!” she shouted.

His hot skin moved away from hers. He fumbled with the tent. The zipper opened, and chilly night air rushed to fill her lungs.

The weight lifted, but before she could sit up, a foot the size of a trash can slammed into her gut.

Her intestines crushed against her spine. Canvas ripped.

Elise’s hand closed on her knife, and she stabbed it into the foot. Something gave an inhuman shriek.

Its weight vanished.

She slashed and stabbed and tore until she could see the stars. Elise scrambled out of the tent’s remains, bare skin flushed with goosebumps. It was dark in the desert, much darker than the city, and she could barely make out sagebrush and hills under the sliver of moon.

Her attacker was a hulking black shape perched on top of the Jeep. Each of its eight legs was braced against the roll cage. Glossy black eyes reflected the starlight and shone with a faint red glow, as though fire burned within its furry carapace. It was a spider the size of a small pony.

Anthony brandished two halves of a snapped tent pole at the demon—like going after a tank with a twig.

The spider lunged. A half-second later, Elise jumped too.

She knocked into her boyfriend an instant before the spider would have. They rolled across the desert as the demon hit sagebrush.

Getting up again took too long. She whirled, bringing the knife to bear, but one of those huge legs struck her in the chest again.

Elise was airborne.

Her back hit the Jeep. Her lungs emptied. Her cheek hit dirt.

Anthony cried out. She got to her feet, gasping and wheezing and empty-handed. She had dropped her knife.

The spider darted at him. It moved at a ridiculous speed given its size, blurring through the night to slash with its fangs. He tried to roll out of the way, but a heavy leg pounded into the rock and blocked him. He kicked its face. The pincers caught his leg.

Elise sucked in a hard breath. “Don’t let it bite you!”

“Thanks for the suggestion,” Anthony grunted, snapping his free foot into its face.

It shrieked and reared. She dived onto its back.

The spider bucked beneath her, and Elise pressed her cheek into its furry carapace and clung tight to its abdomen. When it tried to bite Anthony again, she wrapped a hand around its pincer and yanked.

It ripped free with a wet crunch. Venom sprayed on the dirt.

“Find my knife!”

Anthony squirmed out from beneath them. The spider thrashed. Elise almost went flying again, but she wrapped her fists around its thick black hairs and hung on.

Each of the glistening black eyes rolled around to stare at her.

It flung itself sideways. She lost her grip and rolled across the dirt. The spider pounced, spraying venom and ichor from its open wound, and it stung like sparks of flame where it landed on her skin.

She punched her fist into its clacking mouth as hard as she could. It wasn’t hard enough. The spider reared back to bite again, and Elise grabbed the first thing she could reach—the remains of the tent.

Elise flung the canvas in the spider’s face. Its pincer tangled in the rope.

“I can’t find it!” Anthony shouted.

Her hand fell on a broken piece of tent post.

Elise drove the splintered end into the spider’s body. At first, she thought it wouldn’t be able to pierce the exoskeleton, but then the metal slipped. It buried into the knife wound and kept going.

She silenced its scream by shoving with all her weight. The bar cracked through the other side.

Its legs flailed wildly, and she had to crawl away to avoid getting hit.

Elise picked up the other tent pole and plunged it into the spider’s head. She pushed so hard that the tip sank into the earth and pinned the demon to the ground.

It finally stopped moving after that.

Elise let out a long breath. She was soaked in sweat even though it couldn’t have been more than sixty degrees in the cool desert night, which quickly approached cool desert morning. A sliver of blue glowed over the hills.

“Hell of a wakeup call,” she muttered. The spider’s foreleg twitched once.

Anthony crashed through the sagebrush again and grabbed her arms. “Are you okay? I couldn’t find your knife.”

She gave her body a quick inspection. She was wearing underwear instead of pajamas, so she could see where bruises were developing, which was most of her body. The contact burns from the venom were worse, but none of them were too bad. She would recover quickly.

“I’m fine.”

Anthony handed her a flashlight from the Jeep. “Is this the same as the other ones? It seems a lot bigger.”

She located her knife by its glimmer in the bushes. He had been searching in the wrong place. “Yeah. It’s a daimarachnid. Big fucking spider.” Elise rolled the demon onto its back and knelt by its body, pushing the legs away to examine the branded underbelly.

Most demons were like animals with a temper problem: stupid and directionless. But powerful demons could mark them with brands and control their behavior to some degree. If she could find who “owned” those symbols, she would find out who was responsible, much like a rancher and his cattle.

Elise began slicing along the edge of the brands.

Anthony recoiled. “Jesus! What are you doing?”

She focused on trimming the leathery skin from the shell underneath. It was tough work. She sawed back and forth with the serrated edge of the knife until a strip of flesh two feet long and four inches wide came free.

“Get a plastic bag from the Jeep,” Elise said, studying the strip with the flashlight. Someone had slashed crosses through each of the brands and made them hard to distinguish.

He handed a bag to her. Elise sealed the skin inside.

“What are you going to do with that?”

“I’m going to find out who’s letting their minions loose and have a talk with them.”

“And by ‘talk,’ you mean…”

“I’ll kill them,” Elise said. She put the skin in the cooler where they had kept their food all week. There was nothing left except melted ice and a couple cans of beer. “Still want to keep going hunting with me?”

To his credit, Anthony thought about it for a moment before answering. “Yeah. Camping has been fun.” He grinned. “And, you know. The attack was kind of hot. Watching you fight in your underwear was…” He pushed her back against the Jeep and growled against her neck. She didn’t react. “Aren’t you kind of hot?”

“No.”

He kissed down her collarbone and traced a finger along the tattoo on her hip. “Are you sure?”

“Getting attacked by demons doesn’t excite me.” She planted a hand on his chest to prevent his kisses from straying lower. “I’m not going to tell you again.” She left the unspoken threat hovering over them.

“Would you stab me? Is that what you’re saying?”

The corner of her mouth quirked up. “Would that turn you on, too?”

“You’re sick,” he murmured into her lips. Elise leaned against the car door with a sigh as he kissed her. His lips traveled to her earlobe. He nipped it lightly with his teeth.

“You think I’m sick?” She stretched her arm back to drop the knife in the Jeep’s backseat, and he traced his hand down her exposed ribcage. His fingers found a path under her bra to graze the curve of her breast. “At least demon attacks don’t get me horny.”

Her cell phone alarmed. She peered over Anthony’s shoulder to see it glowing blue underneath the tent canvas. He ignored it and pushed a knee between her legs. She stiffened, but he caught her wrist and pinned it to her side. “Ignore it.”

Elise shoved him. He stumbled a few steps back. “It’s time to leave,” she said, turning off the alarm. Anthony groaned.

“But we were just—”

“I have a meeting with a potential client this morning and it’s a four-hour drive from here.”

He adjusted the waistband of his sweats. Elise gathered their broken tent and threw it in the back of the Jeep. “I think you like to torture me.”

She planted a kiss on his chin as he passed. “It’s an unintended bonus.”

Anthony tried to glower, but Elise didn’t acknowledge him as she finished packing. His mood lost steam without her attention.

After a week of camping, their clothes were crusty with sweat and dust. Elise gritted her teeth as she pulled on dirty jeans. “What are we going to do with that?” Anthony asked when the only thing remaining in their camp was the body of the demon.

Elise kicked it in the side. It didn’t move. “We’ll let the coyotes have it. I’ve got what I need.”

They got in the Jeep and drove away, leaving the carcass of the demon to rot.

COLLAPSE

Death’s Hand

Book Cover: Death's Hand
Editions:Audiobook: $ 24.95 USD
ISBN: B00F9HQPIU
Kindle
ISBN: B00AQZX4BG
Paperback: $ 11.99 USD
ISBN: 1937733181
Size: 8.00 x 5.00 in
Pages: 300

Elise Kavanagh doesn’t want to hunt demons anymore. It’s been five years since she killed her last enemy, and life has been quiet since then. She went to college. Got a job, and then lost it. Made a friend or two. Lived a normal life. Now her former partner, a powerful witch named James Faulkner, wants Elise to fight one more time. The daughter of a coven member has been possessed, and Elise is the only exorcist nearby.

Becoming a hero again would mean risking discovery by old enemies. But digging into the case reveals that it might already be too late–bodies are disappearing, demons slither through the night, and the cogs of apocalypse are beginning to turn once more. Some enemies aren’t willing to let the secrets of the past stay dead…

Excerpt:

Steam drifted from the surface of Marisa Ramirez’s coffee. She blew on it gently, cupping the mug between her hands to warm her chilly fingers. Golden morning light rimmed the closed curtains over the sink. The thermometer outside the window read sixty-six. The swamp cooler clicked on and blew chilled air into the kitchen. Marisa shrank deeper into her sweater.

Augustin Ramirez sat across the table with his face in his hands. The ceiling rattled above their heads as distant screams and sobs peaked in time with fists pounding against the floor.

His left cheek muscle twitched. They exchanged glances, and he found his own haunted expression mirrored in her face.

Hands shaking, she lifted her coffee cup and took a sip.

The doorbell chimed. Their daughter shrieked in response.

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“Are you going to get that?” Augustin asked. Marisa didn’t respond. His jaw tightened. “I said, are you going to get that?” She ducked her head, lips trembling. The right side of her mouth was darkened with the shadow of a bruise. He made a disgusted noise, shoving his chair back as he stood. “Fine. I’ll get the door.”

She took another drink and set the mug down.

The living room blinds were shut and covered by heavy curtains, casting the room in twilight. Augustin navigated to the door by memory, unlocked the dead bolt, peeked through the door.

The woman on the other side pushed her sunglasses into her hair to study him with narrowed eyes. A single scar broke the line of her right eyebrow.

“Augustin Ramirez. Right?”

“Yes,” he said. “I’m sorry… do I know you?”

She held out a hand. She wore black gloves with a button at the wrist. “Elise Kavanagh. James sent me.”

He gave her hand a brief shake. Her grip made his knuckles ache. “James Faulkner?” Augustin asked. “He said he was going to send a—uh, an exorcist to look at our daughter.”

Elise nodded. “Yes, right. I’m the exorcist.”

“You’re not what I… that is to say…”

“Yeah, I know. Can I come in?”

“Yes,” Augustin said, stepping aside.

“I’m sorry I’m late. I was on my way to the office, and I wasn’t expecting James to ask me to do a job. I haven’t been an exorcist in a long time.” She indicated her outfit with a sweep of her hand—a black skirt, white blouse, and black blazer. Augustin wasn’t sure what he expected an exorcist to wear. Maybe leather and chains. Definitely not business casual.

She handed a business card to him. Elise Kavanagh, Certified Public Accountant. It was so absurd he had to laugh. “So you used to exorcise people a lot?”

“More often than I do now,” Elise said. “I went into retirement five years ago. Anyway, I’m not going to exorcise your daughter. I’m going to determine if it’s demonic possession.”

“Demonic possession,” he echoed. “You have me at a loss. Frankly, this all seems a little… absurd.”

She gave a humorless, thin-lipped smile that might have been a grimace.

“You’re here,” Marisa said. She hovered in the doorway, arms wrapped around her shivering body. “I’m so glad you came.”

Augustin frowned. “You know this woman?”

“She’s always at the coven meetings,” Marisa said. Her voice trembled slightly. “I think she does James’s accounting. And he told me they’re, uh, bound. Kopis and aspis.”

What?”

Her cheeks colored. “It’s Latin.”

“Greek, actually,” Elise said. “Kopis means sword, and aspis means shield. It means I am—or used to be—a warrior against the forces of Hell, and he’s my partner.” She wasn’t laughing at all. She was completely serious.

Distaste twisted Augustin’s mouth. “Coven nonsense. It’s taken me awhile to get used to the idea of witchcraft in the first place, and I don’t think—”

Elise held up a hand. “I have places to be. I don’t have the time to let you get used to it, Mr. Ramirez.”

His face grew hot. “I’m not—”

“Augustin,” Marisa said softly.

He closed his eyes and took a breath. Their marriage counselor harped on him about counting to ten when he was getting too angry, but he gave it to twenty this time. Covens and “warriors against Hell.” He could count to a thousand and still feel unsettled.

“Sorry,” Augustin finally said. “We’re stressed.”

Elise accepted his apology by inclining her head. “Where’s Lucinde?”

“She’s upstairs. We’ll go with you.”

Marisa and Elise headed up the stairs. Augustin followed a of steps behind, watching the legs of the supposed exorcist. She wasn’t wearing nylons. Another scar marred her ankle, like a dog bite that had long since healed into a fleshy white mass, and his stomach turned. Some accountant.

Elise spoke to Marisa as they walked, oblivious to the reaction her scars evoked. “I need to ask you some questions. Have you summoned any demons or used a Ouija board?”

“Of course not.”

“Any unusual noises or sightings? Animals with glowing eyes, objects flying across the room, strange noises on the telephone…”

Marisa shook her head. “Aside from Lucinde’s illness, everything has been normal.”

“What about nightmares? Have you experienced sexual dreams of a dark nature?”

“That’s a personal question,” Augustin interrupted.

Elise’s lip curled, but she didn’t respond.

“I haven’t,” Marisa said. Her voice was hardly louder than a whisper. “Augustin?” After a moment, he shook his head. “Lucinde was having nightmares before. Not… sexual. But she kept waking up screaming.”

“Did she tell you what she was dreaming about?” Elise stopped to peer at a family camping photo beside an artful arrangement of silk flowers. In the picture, the Ramirezes were tan and smiling. Lucinde’s low, croaking moans echoed through the house.

“She told me a monster was eating her heart,” Marisa whispered. “I thought… I mean, what a strange thing for a little girl to dream about. She dreamed a monster ate her heart and sat in her chest.”

Elise’s eyebrows lifted. “Really.”

“It’s not weird for her to have bad dreams,” Augustin interjected. “Especially not about her heart. She has a condition. The doctors don’t think it should be fatal, but you know how kids are. Of course she’s scared of bad things happening to her heart.”

“What kind of heart condition?” They reached the top of the stairs, pausing down the hall from Lucinde’s room. All the doors were open but hers.

“I don’t think you need to know that to do your job,” Augustin said.

“Just wondering. I assume you’ve already taken her to see a doctor and a psychologist?”

“Those were our first choices. They gave us the option of waiting to see if she would improve or sticking her in an institution. I wouldn’t have let Marisa call you unless we didn’t have any choices left.”

“I see. I’m going to go in and look at her now.”

“Be careful. She’s gotten… violent,” Marisa said.

“How violent can a five-year-old be?” Elise gave an unpleasant smile that didn’t suit her angular face. “I’m sure I’ve handled worse.”

“Just be careful. She’s in here.”

Elise approached the door Marisa indicated, and the Ramirezes hung back. The girl became quieter as she grew near. When she stood before the door, Lucinde became entirely silent.

Elise pushed the door open and went inside.

Lucinde’s room was even colder than the rest of the house. Heavy curtains cast the room in near-complete darkness, and a portable swamp cooler made the air chill and muggy. A white canopy bed blocked the back half of the darkened room.

There were multiple obstacles strewn across the floor: an overstuffed comforter, rose-colored pillows in varying sizes, and a toy chest. Possible hiding places included the closet and the shadowed area behind a pink trunk with princess costumes draped over the sides. No girl in sight.

Elise didn’t like the room’s poor visibility. It felt confined. Dangerous. “I’m going to open the window, Marisa.”

“She won’t like it.”

She moved toward the window, hugging the wall, and stepped over a toy unicorn with blood caking the mane to its neck. Ears perked for any hint of motion, she jerked aside the first layer of curtains, then the second.

Light filled the room. Someone squealed.

Elise rounded the bed in time to see bare feet disappearing under the bed. “Lucinde?”

She dropped to her hands and knees and leaned her cheek close to the carpet. A pair of luminous eyes stared back at her. The girl under the bed looked nothing like Marisa. Her skin was dark, like her father’s, and her flat nose was offset by his same expressive lips.

“Cold,” she hissed. “Cold!”

Elise’s gaze traveled over her bared legs. Her knees were heavily bruised, purple and black and brown on the edges. The flesh on her shins looked like broiled strawberries. “Have you used force to restrain her?” Elise asked.

“She hurts herself,” Marisa said. “We can’t stop her.”

“Colder!” Lucinde demanded again, sinking further into the corner as though she wanted to hide inside the wall. Elise glanced at the swamp cooler. Colder.

Lucinde tried to jerk away when she touched her foot, but Elise caught her ankle, pulling her foot into the light. A few remaining flakes of pink nail polish decorated her toenails under caked blood. One nail had been torn out. She released the child’s ankle, and withdrew again.

“How are you doing?” Elise asked. “Quomondo vales?”

Lucinde froze. Her eyes widened fractionally.

Quomondo vales?” she repeated. “Loquerisne Latine? No? ¿Hablas inglés?”

“She speaks English,” Marisa said, offended.

“Of course.”

Elise pulled the chains of her necklace over head and picked a bronze pendant from amongst the other charms. It caught the sun and scattered gold light on Lucinde’s forehead. The whites of her eyes were almost yellow, shot through with crimson veins, and a long, low hiss issued from between her lips.

Crux sacra sit mihi lux,” Elise whispered. Lucinde recoiled, covering her face.

“What are you doing?” Augustin demanded.

Lucinde remained flat against the carpet, fingers spread through the dusty shag as though she feared being dragged away. She whimpered like a wounded dog.

She was so small. Elise was sure she had never been that small.

Elise leaned closer. “Can you speak?”

Marisa stepped forward. “Watch out—”

The girl’s foot lashed out and the bedroom exploded into red stars. The pain struck a moment later like being struck in the jaw by a baseball bat.

She reeled, hand flying to her mouth. Lucinde scurried from beneath the mattress.

“Colder! Colder!” Her voice was shrill, piercing.

Lucinde’s nails flashed. Elise raised her arm in defense—but the little girl stopped short, swiping the hand inches from Elise’s face. Lucinde’s wrist was roped to the corner of the bed.

Augustin hauled the exorcist to her feet, dragging her away from Lucinde. She shook her elbow free of his grip.

“We told you to be careful,” he said, voice rough. “She’s not normal anymore.” Elise ignored him, meeting the girl’s eyes.

“Cold,” Elise echoed.

Marisa moved into the room, making soothing noises. Lucinde screamed a long note with the tenor of a beast. Augustin guided Elise out of the room and shut the door. Without windows, the hallway was darker than Lucinde’s bedroom, but it felt much less oppressive.

“We won’t be held liable for our daughter’s—”

“I’m not going to sue you for my wound, if that’s what you’re getting at. I’ve had many injuries much worse than this.”

“Good.” His mouth twisted. “Good. What were you doing in there?”

“Testing her,” she said. “This is the pendant of Saint Benedict. He’s the patron saint of a lot of things—nettle rash, servants who have broken stuff that belongs to their masters. Spelunkers.”

“Spelunkers?”

“He’s also invoked during exorcisms. I wanted to see if she would react to Latin because a lot of Greater Demons don’t speak any living languages.”

“She’s been speaking English,” Augustin said. “She keeps saying ‘cold.’”

“I saw that.”

“So… what do you think?”

“I can’t say if she’s possessed,” Elise said, touching the back of her hand to her mouth. It came away bloody. “She’s definitely got an attitude problem.”

“She was never like this before,” Augustin said.

“I’m sure.” She headed down the stairs, leaving Lucinde’s screams behind her. “I’ll do some research. I’ve seen my share of possessions and exorcisms, but never one as spontaneous as this. You’re sure nothing has been flying around?”

“Completely sure. We’re not freaks.”

“You don’t have to be a freak to be targeted by demons; just unlucky or stupid. Since you haven’t summoned anything, you could be the former.”

“We’re not stupid.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Don’t put words into my mouth.”

Augustin puffed out his chest. “Can you exorcise Lucinde or not?”

“I could, if she’s possessed,” Elise said. “It definitely seems like a demon problem.”

“Like in the Bible.”

“Yes. ‘Like in the Bible.’ I’m going to confer with James, after which he’ll be in contact with you. What would be the best number to reach you at?”

“Marisa’s so-called high priest has it,” Augustin said.

“Okay. Keep Lucinde in her room for now. Try to keep her eating and drinking water, because if she is possessed, she’ll resist it on her own,” Elise said. She touched her bleeding lip. “You already know to keep your distance.”

“Yes.”

He opened the front door to let in the hot summer air. The clouds had thickened since Elise’s arrival, and it smelled like rain again. “You have my card. Call me when she gets worse,” she said, stepping outside.

Augustin was already closing the door. He looked as inclined to give her a call as he was to offer a finger to his daughter’s mouth. “Right, thanks,” he said.

Elise paused by the Ramirezes’ gate. She glanced up at Lucinde’s window, half-covered in a heavy drape. As she watched, a hand came up to jerk it closed.

“You’re welcome,” she muttered. Elise turned on her car, cranked the radio, and pulled out of the cul-de-sac.

In the bushes between the Ramirezes’ house and their neighbor’s, an earless gray creature crouched in the shadow of the tree watching Elise’s car pull away. A small tongue darted out of its mouth to lick its leathery lips.

It blinked, dedicating Elise’s face to memory, and vanished.

COLLAPSE
Reviews:on Taking It One Book at a Time:

Freakin' loved, loved, loved this book from page #1! Elise is TOTALLY my kind of bad ass heroine. All in all this book would have received 6 stars from me if it was possible. By far one of my top 10 reads of the year! It was refreshing, unique and pulled at all of my emotions.