Priest of Skulls

A Paranormal Romance

Allene Whelan is trapped in the True Kingdom, held captive by their cruel leader Macsen. It’s her job as the newest Raven Knight to assassinate him by any means necessary. As a sylph whose greatest weapon is her body, that means seducing him…all the way to the grave.

But the closer Allene gets to Macsen, the more she realizes he’s being played by a crueler enemy: Morgause, the manipulative sidhe he regards as mother. And Macsen doesn’t seem interested in hurting Allene. The closer they grow, the less she wants to kill him.

Trapped by passion in a shadowy labyrinth of lies, Allene forces Macsen to make a choice. Does the Priest of Skulls want to rule through death, or through love?

Published:
Publisher: Red Iris Books
Genres:
Excerpt:

The world didn’t stop moving until Allene and Macsen materialized in a grim space with furnishings as angular as they were dark. Allene wobbled and fell to the concrete floor at Macsen’s feet. It was shockingly warm, as though heated in sunlight. She didn’t think anything in that room had seen sunlight before, including Macsen. The only lights were tucked behind crown molding, giving the severe room the look of twilight. The reflection on the shiny steel hooks, crosses, and chains decorating the walls may have been starlight.

Collectively, the room looked like a windowless torture chamber that happened to have a few couches in it.

“Are you okay?” Macsen dropped to a knee. Compared to how he had been roaring earlier, his voice was now soft. The words came out awkwardly, like he wasn’t sure how to inquire nicely after his enemy but still felt he needed to.

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“Am I okay?” Allene’s laugh was even shakier than her hands. Blossoms streamed down her cheeks. She had already cried a pile between her knees. “I was having a perfectly nice orgy and you—you fucking ripped them in half! What the fuck, you asshole?”

“They went in there to kill you. Every single one of them will die.” His voice became growlier with every word. His eyes traveled over Allene as if searching for injury. There was nothing to find except her sodden thighs and still-swollen labia.

“I had everything under control until you came in.” Allene slapped his hands aside when he tried to help her get up. “Make sure a healer gets to those men. Right now.”

Macsen snarled under his breath. “There are always healers in that ward. They’re being treated as we speak. Unfortunately. They should die for touching you.”

He ignored her protests and lifted Allene to her feet. Some part of her wanted to melt against Macsen the way that she melted against Leander. It must have been a residual effect from pollinating. It wasn’t like she could be feeling this affectionate toward a man who had abducted her from Myrkheimr.

Macsen wasn’t just a big man with long hair who looked good in black. He supported Morgause, who’d killed at least two foundlings, then mauled three of his unsuspecting allies because he caught them having sex under Allene’s power.

“I have legs. I can walk.” She tried to push Macsen off but he wouldn’t have any of it. He gripped her tighter. “Typical bad guy. You’re not even trying to respect my agency, you—you big smelly asshole!” She struggled harder. Something fell out of Macsen’s pocket and clattered to the floor. Reflexively, Allene reached for it.

“No.” He snatched it off the floor before she could. He didn’t hide it in his fist before Allene saw that it was a pearl earring set in black backing. It was a lovely piece. Its image branded itself upon her mind immediately, and she easily imagined the person who might wear it. A lovely woman, beautiful and dark like Macsen. Someone who was gone.

Or perhaps Allene wanted to imagine a more sympathetic past for a monster who didn’t deserve it.

“What’s that?” Allene asked.

“A reminder.” Macsen rolled it briefly between his gloved fingers then pocketed it. He pushed her. “Get into the bathroom. You need a shower.”

 “No.” She wouldn’t let this man see the slightest tremor of fear from her. Now that Allene was close to him—albeit reluctantly—she needed to do the job she had virtually zero training to do.

She needed to defeat Macsen.

Not nestle deeper in his arms and inhale the scent of his magic, musky as a wolf crossing the forest with his pack.

Not feel a surge of sympathy, wondering who used to own that earring that made him look so sad.

Allene definitely should not have gazed up at him, while he gazed down at her with those monstrous eyes, and replayed the amazing sex they’d shared on stage. The joy Ham Hands and friends felt coming together was nothing compared to Macsen and Leander. It had felt like witnessing a miracle.

And just like with Ham Hands, Allene hadn’t been able to bear the thought of letting Macsen get caught. Heck, she could have killed him while he was down. She should have killed him.

Instead, she’d let him escape the Raven Knights.

She’d been transfixed by that moment they shared with Leander between them. Now they had nothing to prevent another moment, an infinite moment, where the two of them were finally alone.

Macsen’s hair looked closer to red than blond in the dark room. It fell over his face so that it was difficult to make out his expression, even when he wasn’t manifesting the Fenrir. The hair was clumpy and thick. He didn’t look unclean. Just like he wasn’t interested in petty things like combing or haircuts.

Allene wanted to touch his hair. Feel if it was as soft as it looked.

Killer. Murderer. World-eater.

“Did you really have nothing to do with the fire charm?” she asked. “Was it an accident?”

“I swear to you this: I’ve got no interest in killing foundlings. I still don’t know how the glamour got switched with actual flame charms,” Macsen said. “I would never kill the innocent. Never.” He said it with such ferocity that Allene couldn’t help but believe him. “And I also have no intent of hurting you.”

Allene didn’t have two fucks to rub together over his promises. “Then why did you kidnap me?”

“Do you know who Chryseis is?” he asked.

“If that’s a literary thing, I smoked too much weed to remember college,” she said.

Mirth flickered in his eyes. “Chryseis was a Trojan taken as a war prize by Agamemnon. Apollo murdered the entire Greek army to get her back.”

Allene felt woozy with fear. She couldn’t face that fear, or it would swallow her before Macsen got a chance. “I’m not a war prize,” she said with the fire she couldn’t feel. “My name is Allene, thank you very much, and I’m a sylph seelie sidhe. A person. And does that mean you’re hoping Leander’s going to murder the True Kingdom to get me back?”

“He won’t have to,” Macsen said. “I just need him to stop acting like a fool and come home.”

Then this was a plea for Leander’s attention. She threw her shoulders back and lifted her chin. “Leander will never come to save me. He knows better.”

“I know him much better than you do. He will come.” Pain furrowed his brow. “He’s going to come for you even though he won’t come for me.”

“Yeah, that’s so weird. I can’t imagine why he would avoid a man who abducted his girlfriend.”

The Fenrir exploded out of Macsen before she could finish the sentence. Beastly energy swarmed around his shoulders, haloing his body in the shadow of the wolf. “Girlfriend?”

Wow, Allene’s ex-boyfriend hadn’t been this jealous. Jealousy made people weak. It meant they were insecure. It was a vulnerability she could exploit, no matter how scary its manifestation.

Lucky thing too. Allene was garbage at punching, too clumsy to run, and not clever enough to outwit the average insurance adjustor.

But she sure could fuck with jealous people. Her mom had made Allene an expert.

She forced a mean smile. “Actually, Leander is a member of my cabal. That means technically he’s more like my servant or slave. You could say that I own Leander, and he loves being owned, and you will never get him back.”

“You’re like the rest of them,” Macsen said, and he sounded disappointed. “Another manipulative, prejudiced Court monster.”

Allene’s jaw dropped. “How dare you?”

She was so offended by the insult against the Court of kindly sidhe that she didn’t think to fight him when he shoved her into the bathroom. It was as vast and dark as the living room. The tub sank into the black-tiled floor so seamlessly that Allene worried she might fall into it if she didn’t step carefully. Becoming a sidhe absolutely had not seemed to have improved her clumsiness issues.

“You can clean yourself here,” Macsen said. “Wash off your wounds.”

Allene tossed her hair at him, eternally defiant. “I’m a sidhe now. It’s not like I can get an infection.”

“Yeah, but you’re not touching my furniture while you’re this disgusting.”

“This is your room? Not a fancier jail cell?”

“Would you prefer to be left for the next attackers to seek revenge against you?” Macsen snarled.

He had brought her to his bedroom.

Verbal diarrhea was Allene’s oldest weapon, but it was only one of a growing arsenal. The same powers that had risen to her call when she was cornered by three sidhe were still lurking, waiting for the opportunity to crescendo again, seeking familiar energy to latch upon. The very idea of being in Macsen’s bedroom was enough to make her newest weapon rise again.

Feeding off her attackers hadn’t sated Allene’s need. If anything, it had made her hungrier. The more she ate, the more she wanted. And she definitely wanted Macsen again. She wanted to watch him kiss the back of Leander’s neck. His massive gloved hands spreading down the man’s chest, gripping him close, pinning shoulders to his chest. The look of simultaneous relief and pain in his eyes.

She wanted him inside of her.

He’d just mauled those men and she wanted him.

“It’s not like they didn’t deserve a mauling,” she murmured.

Macsen’s eyebrow lifted. “What?”

“I talk to myself a lot,” she said. “You’ll get used to it if you’re hiding your war prize in your bedroom.” Fresh power roiled over her, vibrating between them like invisible strands of cobweb when she took a few more steps away from the Fenrir. Distance didn’t alleviate her need. It made her power splash gem-bright over glossy obsidian furnishings to paint them in technicolor hues. “Do you want to keep me in your bedroom, Macsen?”

Allene turned away from him and let her clothes drop.

His sudden intake of breath was satisfying.

“Your skin.” His warmth drew close to her back. She turned her shoulders so that her hair slithered over her chest, brushing across the rosy buds of her puckered nipples. Macsen’s hand grazed the air inches from her skin. His throat worked convulsively. “Your wounds are worse than I realized, Chryseis.”

Her flowery skin was indeed still crushed. She could feel bruises developing. But the pain was relatively minor, as easily dismissed as the iron circle’s constraints, and it did nothing to keep fireweed from blossoming between her toes. “I’m barely bruised.”

“On your neck,” Macsen said. “Bites.” His thumb trailed down the line of her throat. She hissed at the sting.

She touched her fingers to the willowy length of her neck and found blood. Before going down on her, Ham Hands had bitten her. Hard. She marveled at her fingertips, shiny and wet. The other sidhe bled in unnatural gemstone colors, but Allene’s blood was red as roses, red as rubies, and shiny as a pearl.

“Ouch,” she said quietly. It seemed like the reaction she should have to seeing her own blood. She should have been scared that a man had hurt her while caught in the passion of her pollination. She was strong but not invulnerable—important information.

But the sight of blood reminded her of other glistening things.

Allene had gotten horny when Macsen attacked the concert and she got horny over a bitten neck.

“I’ll kill all of them.” Macsen’s Fenrir had grown so dark that it blotted out all light. He wasn’t remotely turned on by the idea of Allene in pain—quite the contrary. It looked as though the man who had thrown her across Rage’s stage was now furious on her behalf. “I’m going to the healer’s ward right now and—”

“I told you no!” She jumped in front of him, slamming her small fist into his stomach. Obviously it bounced off his washboard abs. The Fenrir’s power surged darker, reminding Allene that she couldn’t fight. At all. Even a tiny bit.

Macsen seemed disinclined to fight back. “They put hands and teeth on you.”

“They wouldn’t have had a chance if you hadn’t stuck me in a cell!”

“Oh, so it’s all my fault then? You’ve got no responsibility for your complicity in crimes against the Kingdom, right? You’ve enlisted with the segregationists,” he said flatly. “Maybe I shouldn’t have saved you from those men in the first place. After all, nobody giving me this much trouble could be in any danger! Now let me go or I’ll make you!”

“I’m not going anywhere until you promise to spare those men!”

He yanked his arm free and stormed into the living room. Macsen swept aside the vines that Allene had accidentally grown down the walls, but didn’t tear them. He wouldn’t look at her when he said, “I’ll leave them alone.”

The living room had a different vibe now that Allene knew it was Macsen’s private space. She doubted he’d want to hear it, but his decor had similarities with Rage’s. If they hadn’t been on opposite sides of the bitter war, they might’ve been friends.

“Good,” Allene said. “Now I think you owe me. You interrupted my feeding. I don’t know how fast a sylph heals, but I bet it’s faster if I’m fed.” She flitted ahead of him so that he couldn’t avoid her. Her toes barely grazed the floor when she ran, buoying her across the waves of fireweed that preceded her. “What are you going to do about that?”

Macsen made no secret of drinking in the sight of her body. He shuddered at the sight of her exposed breasts, gleaming with pollen that couldn’t yet compel him. He let her stamen curl around his fingers, and Allene tasted his leather gloves through them. Her bitten neck ached. Blood trailed down her collarbone. Macsen watched that too.

“Even I’m not that much of a fool,” he said, withdrawing his fingers from her tendrils with painful gentleness. “I don’t know why you spared me once. You could have let me die on stage and you didn’t. Whatever it’s worth, I owe you for that. But I’m not going to give you a chance to change your mind.”

Someone cleared his throat.

Macsen moved instantly, shielding Allene with his body.

Another sidhe stood by the front door. He wasn’t one of the ones that attacked her in the cell, but he looked almost as angry when he spotted Allene naked in Macsen’s chambers. Allene mentally dubbed him as Benjamin Bunny, since he had whiskers. “Morgause wants to see you,” Bunny said.

Macsen swore under his breath. He rounded on Allene. “I will be back for you.” His gaze wandered to the chains on the wall, as if trying to decide if he wanted to tie her up. Eventually he said, “Take a shower. Get clean. Stay off my furniture. Don’t touch anything.”

Allene couldn’t breathe until both of the men had left the room, shutting the door and locking it behind them.

Her arousal faded. Her feet sank against the floor and her energy waned as the sidhe plants were reabsorbed by the surrounding earth.

Allene’s breath rushed out of her. She fell back against the wall, cradling her head. Everything hurt once the adrenaline faded. She’d heal from the beating whether or not she fed, but Allene would still be here. Trapped in the True Kingdom. Trying to seduce Macsen to death. And praying he didn’t do it to her first.

COLLAPSE

Knave of Blades

A Paranormal Romance

They are destined to find each other…

Allene Whelan is scavenging through the ruins of post-apocalypse Oregon when she finds a strange tarot card, the Knave of Blades. Touching it awakens her magic—the power of the sylph, a rare and deadly seelie sidhe who can defeat any other of her kind. Her pollen is intoxicating. Her magic is irresistible. And she’s suddenly at the center of the Autumn Court’s war against the rebellious True Kingdom.

She’s the only person who might be able to defeat Macsen, the prophesied Fenrir who will one day grow big enough to devour the world. But first she needs to make herself strong enough to face him, and that means collecting power as only a sylph can. Joining the Raven Knights means committing more than her life to defeating the True Kingdom. She’s committing her soul…and her body.

A new paranormal romance series from New York Times Bestselling Author SM Reine.

Published:
Publisher: Red Iris Books
Genres:
Excerpt:

One day in the not-too-distant past, the suburbs around Portland had been busy with families, animals, and the normal chaos of life. Leander had seen the population with his own two eyes, back before Genesis rebooted the normal world and flooded it with the preternatural. He and Macsen were running over overgrown lawns and through decaying houses that only implied life long since dead. Curated human civilization was gone aside from Leander, Macsen, and their prey.

The True Kingdom’s business had sent them deep into the jungle of the civilization-that-was. Macsen and Leander flew side by side over the pavement, vaulting over fences, scrambling up freeway sound barriers.

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Macsen was light on his feet for someone so large. Not as light as Leander, but Leander wasn’t as big as Macsen, either. Leander certainly wouldn’t have been able to carry a broadsword as tall as he was, especially not that enormous tangle of crimson blades Macsen loved. The red undertones of Macsen’s golden hair matched the sword. His blue eyes were narrowed with focus.

He never looked away from the path of the van they were following, which projected enough magic to light up the sky.

Leander kept his eyes on the environment.

“Up,” Leander said tersely, indicating the direction they should take on the forks of the road ahead. Macsen swerved toward it, sword whistling with every arm pump.

Macsen crouched, then leapt atop the freeway’s bridge.

Leander watched him go. Macsen had always been amazing to watch. Before Genesis, he’d been a werewolf unlike any other. He’d been able to perform partial shapeshifts. He’d been stronger and faster than other wolves, too. Now he was one of the sidhe—a cú sidhe, as lupine as the werewolf he used to be—and he was still exceptional in every way. Rather than needing to jump high, it seemed that the world bowed before him, making room for him to stand atop the freeway.

The wind tossed his jaw-length hair and the severe black jacket that covered him to the ankles. He looked every inch the king he was meant to be.

Leander felt a pang of worry.

He jumped up too.

“He’s not coming this way,” Macsen said, watching the magic-lit van careen through suburbia from above.

“He’s coming this way,” Leander reassured him.

As sidhe, they could see all the gaean energy flowing through over Earth: the glow of weeds emerging where lawns used to be, the shimmering bath of moon-drenched nighttime winds, the skittering rodents who lived in former human habitats.

Their prey looked like he kept shooting off a flare gun in the middle of it all. It was impossible to think why an agent of the Autumn Court—one of the Four Courts that ruled and crushed sidhe in the post-Genesis universe—would be so oblivious to the way he was shining.

Macsen shined, but he did not shine with light. His wolf spirit filled the night sky. Out of the corner of his eye, Leander sometimes saw a shaggy wolf muzzle rather than Macsen’s sculpted features.

“Okay,” Macsen said. He always trusted Leander easily, just like that.

The van swerved. It changed direction. Rather than plowing toward Portland proper, it was suddenly going north.

Right toward them. Utterly oblivious to the wolf sized like a building atop a freeway. The bridge would give them a place to cut Keane and his van off when it zoomed underneath.

“Go! Now!” Leander said.

Without an instant of hesitation, Macsen vaulted over the side of the bridge and landed like a sledgehammer on the pavement.

His sword was ready in time for the van’s passing. His twisted blades gashed a ragged wound into the metal. Tires hissed and brakes screamed as the van came to a halt.

Leander jumped onto the top of the van. He dented it. “Get the driver out!”

Macsen rushed the van and yanked the driver’s door open, pulling a man out from behind the steering wheel.

It was Keane.

One of the most famous Knights from the Autumn Court.

And he had been so sloppy with his magic trail.

Waves of shock rippled through Leander. He’d only ever heard of Keane because the Raven Knights’ leader was too fast to pin down. Whenever the True Kingdom made a move on Earth, Keane was the first to arrive and left minutes later with bodies on the ground. He was legendary.

Had he allowed himself to be caught?

“Nice sword,” he heard Keane say to Macsen as Leander slithered down the side of the van. “You buy it at Comic Con?”

Macsen whipped him across the face with the hilt of the sword. “Does it feel real?”

Keane’s head snapped to the side. He was kneeling calmly in front of Macsen, not even restrained, but he took the blow without reaction.

Blood trickled from his left nostril.

“Look inside the van,” Macsen told Leander. “Find out what the Autumn Court is doing this time.”

Leander was already on his way to the back of the van. He ripped the doors open, expecting to find weapons or supplies.

Instead, he found children.

They were young sidhe only beginning to show glimmers of their magic. Childhood was a mostly magic-free experience for sidhe, aside from a few zaps of weirdness here and there. They looked human with glowing eyes.

Only two teenagers in the back weighed against the world, showing early flares of their mature power. It was a flickering glimmer over their skin. They gathered the younger children against them. All looked terrified.

“Don’t be afraid,” Leander said. “You’re safe.”

One of the kids started crying.

“What is it?” Macsen called.

“Foundlings,” Leander said louder. “Eight of them.” He swung one of the doors shut, gently nudging a child back so he wouldn’t get pinched. “Careful there. You can all stay in here while we take care of business.”

The sound of the second door closing almost drowned out the smack of knuckles against face.

Macsen was beating Keane.

And Keane was not reacting.

“You lost,” Macsen snarled.

“At least I’m not in cheap cosplay. Come on, your outfit doesn’t even remotely go with your sword. That shirt is so thin, I can see your five-pack through it. You couldn’t even hire someone to make you some chainmail?”

Macsen tossed his sword aside and grabbed Keane with both hands roughly.

“Aw,” Keane said, lower lip stuck out. “Did I hurt your feelings?”

“I’m going to hurt you,” Macsen said.

“I’ll believe it when I see it.” His blood was a slow trickle of molten gold. His contusions were gray against olive skin. “I thought you were warming up to a good pillow fight.”

Macsen struck him again.

Keane laughed and said, “Oof, that tickles.”

“The hell?” Leander muttered.

They’d been hoping to summon Keane by attacking an agent of the Autumn Court. They hadn’t realized they’d be facing Keane immediately. Or that he’d be like…this.

Keane didn’t seem very threatening considering how big he was. He was bigger than Macsen, actually; Leander thought he’d be inches taller if he stood up. But he watched Macsen mildly, like he was trying to figure him out and was in no rush to do so.

It was good that Macsen was holding Keane because, otherwise, Keane would have been the most threatening guy in the Pacific Northwest. Maybe the whole country.

“What were you going to do with those foundlings?” Leander asked.

Keane focused on him through his bruised, swelling eyelids. “I was going to do what I always do. Take them home.”

Leander’s hair stood on end. “All that magic just to transport some kids?”

“That wasn’t magic. I just usually don’t go anywhere without backup to cloak me,” he said.

He was suggesting the blaze of magic wasn’t from a spell, but from him. That only served to reinforce Leander’s belief that Keane was among the strongest sidhe in the entire Middle Worlds—and a worthy foe for Macsen. Except he wouldn’t fight back.

“I’m taking those kids,” Leander said.

Anger flickered over Keane. “What do you do with the foundlings you take?”

Unclaimed sidhe children had been a frequent friction point between the True Kingdom and the Courts. Leander tried to get as many foundlings home to the True Kingdom’s island as possible, where they could be raised free. Too many of them ended up with the Four Courts.

“We free them,” Leander said. “You’re never going to see these children again.”

Keane smiled lazily. “You think that’s going to get me to fight?”

Leander had hoped it would. They’d wanted to provoke Keane into attacking Macsen—a necessary component to fulfilling the Fenrir Prophecy. Having Macsen attack an Autumn Court agent should have been provocative enough. Taking foundlings from under Keane’s nose was worth a few punches.

But nothing.

Macsen snarled again and reached into his jacket. Keane watched him with a surprising lack of concern and no sign of intention to attack. Why didn’t he punch Macsen?

Macsen pulled a charm out of his inner jacket pocket and slapped it on the side of the van. It clung, a barnacle against metal.

Fire sparked from underneath its sticky foot.

Disbelief and despair warred on Keane’s flame-lit features. “What are you doing?”

Leander could see into the back of the van. The kids were thudding their fists on the back and trying to twist the handles without much success. The door had automatically locked when he shut it. He took a step toward the rear of the van, but Macsen’s hand clamped down to his elbow. “I’m taking Keane to Morgause,” Macsen said through gritted teeth. “Make sure they don’t leave.”

Leander stared, searching his king’s face for answers. “What? Make sure they don’t leave the burning van?” The words didn’t make any sense. “They’re minor sidhe. Kids. They’re no threat to the Kingdom.”

Macsen kept talking like he hadn’t heard what Leander said. “Morgause will know how to put the fight back in this one. You know where to rendezvous.”

He grabbed his sword again and pulled Keane to his feet. The Raven Knight still wasn’t putting up a fight. Somehow, Keane knew that fighting Macsen would only make things worse—and he was right. It killed Keane to be taken away from the foundlings while the van burned.

How didn’t it kill Macsen?

It wasn’t like Leander hadn’t killed with Macsen before, but there was a big difference between fighting the Autumn Court and burning defenseless children to death.

Macsen dragged Keane away by his collar, and Keane caught Leander’s gaze. The Knight’s steely eyes spoke volumes.

For an instant, it felt like Keane and Leander were in complete consensus—no longer on opposite sides of the war, but the same team.

Keane almost seemed to be saying, Don’t let the foundlings die.

If he could have replied, Leander would have said, I would never.

Macsen wrapped his cloak around himself and Keane. The power of the wolf collapsed inward. They irised to nothing, planeswalking across ley lines.

Leander was alone with the van. The kids were beating against the inside.

He’s killing those children.

The handles of the van’s doors had started to warm, but Leander ripped them open anyway. A child immediately fell into his arms from the smoke, while the others shoved forward to reach him next. The dashboard had caught fire behind them.

“Here!” Leander cried. “Quickly!”

The teens immediately pushed the little ones forward, and Leander had to lead them to safety. They were coughing, their eyes streaming. They needed distance from the smoke to breathe. He got them all the way to the sidewalk before he realized the older kids weren’t keeping up.

Leander ran back to see if the teenagers had started to make their way out.

Or he thought he had.

He had traveled, but…the van had exploded, and he hit his head, and…

And a pair of concerned green eyes were studying him closely.

Leander had been thrown by the explosion to the other side of the street. His back felt sore—like someone had dragged him to a safer distance. He remembered nothing in between the explosion and this moment.

I didn’t save them.

There had been more foundlings in the van when it exploded. There must have been.

Somehow, fate had decided that he should survive where they did not. He was dazed on an abandoned yellow lawn.

A woman was leaning over him.

His breath left him as he studied her brassy red hair, slightly tousled. Her cheeks were flush with exertion. She was beautiful. Leander wasn’t sure he’d ever seen anyone so beautiful.

The remains of the van smoldered behind her.

He tried to sit up quickly and his head spun.

“Careful.” Her voice was as beautiful as she was, musical and sweet. “You probably have a concussion.”

“The kids…” He coughed. His throat was still raw from the smoke.

“Most of them got out,” she said.

“Most?”

The woman tilted out of view, and he could indeed see the kids clumped by the bridge, skin smeared in smoke. They were shaken, but alive.

The two teenagers who’d been helping weren’t among them.

He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, willing the stinging behind his eyes to go away.

“You did what you could,” she said gently. “I saw everything. It wasn’t your fault.”

It wasn’t the woman’s intention, but a fresh wave of guilt swept over Leander.

He had done what he could.

And that meant he had betrayed the True Kingdom.

Leander was a traitor.

* * *

Allene Whelan wasn’t native to the Portland area, but it was the only place she’d been since Genesis. When the whole world died, she’d been living in the Midwest. On Day Zero, when everyone came back to life, she’d woken up thousands of miles away from everything and everyone she’d known.

Not that she thought about it much. She hadn’t had much of a life before Genesis. It had been a straight trajectory from grade school to working behind the counter of a gas station. The work had been fine, between flexible hours, interesting folks, and getting away from the people she shared genetics with. She had a fifty-fifty chance of getting a smile back from customers. Better odds than she’d had at home.

So she’d woken up in a new place—in a new world—and Allene had spent the two years contentedly alone.

There weren’t gas stations after Genesis. No retail at all, actually. Or an economy. Most people were either working for the government or living off government benefits, meager as they were.

Allene had chosen secret option two: self-employment in the suburbs where she’d woken up on Day Zero. She lived as a scavenger in abandoned wings of Portland suburbs. They were nicer than anywhere she used to live, with granite countertops and two-car garages, and their owners were never coming back.

Nobody bothered her when she took things from those houses. She’d learned to stay away from the really rich areas where scavenging was more competitive and the competition was often armed with hexes. The paydays were smaller, and the nights were quieter. She’d sleep in stolen beds and pretend she was waiting for someone to come home to share the bed with her.

Could you miss something you’d never really had? Allene wondered. She didn’t have much else to do but wonder while relocating between houses. She was transporting her cart of supplies from Thicket Court to Bramble Court, and it had gotten so heavy that she trudged inch by inch.

Her musings were interrupted by a loud popping sound. She paused to listen.

“Car backfiring?” she wondered to herself.

Then there was another thump and a bang, and a masculine voice cried out.

She couldn’t remember the last time she’d heard someone so many miles from Portland proper, much less several someones. And the smell of gasoline on top of it all?

Allene shoved her cart behind a tree and scrambled between yards to get to the adjoining street.

As soon as she emerged from the shrubbery, she smelled smoke. It columned black from the other side of the freeway bridge at the end of the block. There was trouble—a fight, maybe.

Allene said a quick prayer for her cart before hurrying toward the fire.

She’d never be able to live with herself if someone was hurt and needed help. She was the only one who might be able to save someone so far away from civilization.

In her hurry, she tripped and skinned her knee. She was still fleet-footed enough to reach the bridge in time to see a van on fire.

And there was a fight all right.

One man was held tightly by another. The one on his knees was tall and broad, muscled like a gladiator in days of yore. Unlike the gladiators, his skin had a metallic shine in the moonlight. His hair was so dark, wiry like it had been spun from wrought iron. He was bleeding. Her heart ached at the sight of it.

Allene would have dived for his captor then if she thought she stood any chance against him. But the man on his feet was at least a foot taller than Allene with a hostile demeanor. There was something special about him. Something terrifying. And it wasn’t just the enormous red sword on the pavement at his feet.

Getting between them would be like trying to singlehandedly save a coastline from a hurricane.

But the gladiator looked stricken. Allene had to do something.

She’d barely gotten to her feet before the men vanished.

“Whoa! What the hell!?”

Allene froze, staring at the pavement where they’d been facing off. She’d felt like the world flipped upside-down in the heartbeat they disappeared. They must have been truly inhuman. Faeries or something. Allene had stumbled on preternatural lives a lot more interesting than hers.

The burning van was still there, though.

And she suddenly realized it was not empty.

She could see something inside the windows…

Something small. Something moving.

She ran.

Another bystander beat her there. A man she didn’t recognize was rushing children out of the burning van. Those bodies were so small, they had to belong to children. Some of them ran. The smaller ones clumped around the man’s feet after he pulled them out, crying and confused.

“Over here!” Allene called. A burning van was loud. The rush of wind—was that wind in her ears?—was even louder.

Some of the kids heard her. She caught their hands, pulling them toward the nearest lawn.

Her back was turned when the van exploded.

She heard it, smelled it, and felt the shock of it as she automatically shielded the smallest kid she was guiding. The shockwave punched a cry out of her lungs.

“Stay there!” Allene ordered.

She was running again before she knew it, into the black smoke, dragging the heroic bystander from the wreckage. His body had sheltered several kids. That meant he had taken shrapnel. The fire had scorched his back. He was unconscious.

His dead weight dragged against the pebbled asphalt. Allene couldn’t hear him breathing above the crackling fire and ringing in her ears.

When they were safely free, Allene crouched over the man. She had no experience in taking care of someone hurt, so she did what she had seen on TV, back when TV was a thing she could watch. She put a hand to his forehead, looked at his chest to see if it was moving, and pressed her fingers to his throat.

It seemed like he was alive, just unconscious.

But how could she be sure? Now that she was sitting with him, she could see that he was a faerie like the men who had left. His skin had the pebbled sheen of some kind of Earth faerie. Even when he wasn’t awake, it made Allene’s vision go funny looking at him. As if she were looking through stained glass.

Until his eyes shot open, Allene wasn’t sure he was alive.

Then their gazes met.

And Allene felt…something. Familiarity. Longing. She was a ship adrift on the waves of his power, which drowned out all surrounding noise and sensation. If she hadn’t been kneeling, she would have keeled over from the intensity of it.

The sidhe pushed up into a sitting position. She put up a hand to slow him automatically. “Careful,” she said. “You probably have a concussion.” That sounded like something a doctor on TV would have said. They never wanted injured people to move.

“The kids…” He coughed. His throat was still raw from the smoke.

Allene glanced back at the yard. The surviving kids had clustered to check on each other and cry. Apparently some of them hadn’t made it out. “Most of them got out,” she said.

“Most?” His face fell as he silently counted the kids.

“You did what you could,” she said. “I saw everything. It wasn’t your fault.”

“Why the hell did you save me?”

Allene blinked. “What?”

“There were children in there,” he rasped. “My life was nothing next to that.”

“I wouldn’t say that.”

His lip curled into a snarl. “I would.”

“Well, I’m sorry.” Her voice wasn’t raspy, but it hardened in reaction to his tone. “I haven’t used my van-exploding instincts before. I’m sorry I saved your life.”

“Well don’t be like that,” he said, eyebrow lifting. He got to his feet unsteadily.

The faerie was even taller than she’d realized. He was also a lot more muscular than she’d thought faeries could become. He was packed tight with muscle, from his barrel chest to his thick thighs. Like a lumberjack who’d gotten lost in suburbia. He was even wearing denim. He was a bit unsteady, but he seemed to be gaining strength with each passing moment.

“I’ll call the OPA,” she said. “Those kids—”

“No,” he said sharply. “The OPA won’t help. I’ll take care of them.”

“You?” Allene got to her feet, balling her fists by her side. “You probably need to go to a faerie hospital. I can take care of the kids.”

“Can you?”

They stared each other down for a moment. It didn’t take long for Allene’s resolve to waver. Maybe she could have figured some way to care for them. But she was scavenging for money, and supporting one person on that was hard enough.

“Why won’t the OPA help?” she asked, crossing her arms.

“Look, I don’t have time to explain,” he said. “I can take them somewhere safe. They’re not safe here. Are you gonna fight me on this?”

Put it that way, and the answer was obvious. Allene’s skin heated just being in close proximity to the sidhe. If he asserted any magic, she had no defenses.

Worse, she wasn’t sure she wanted to defend herself.

“No,” she said finally.

“Forget you saw anything here,” he said. “This is sidhe business. It’s too dangerous for humans to be around.”

Her breath was caught in her throat. “It looks dangerous for faeries too.”

“That’s not your concern. Worry about yourself, and be careful.”

The sidhe ran over to the children. He took the youngest of the group into his arms, cradling the child carefully, and took the hand of the one who looked next youngest. The others clumsily took each other’s hands, like they were some preternatural kindergarten, and Allene’s heart ached to see it.

The sidhe man looked at Allene one last time and nodded once. Allene nodded back.

Magic flared.

They all vanished.

“Wow,” she said to herself. “So that was…something.”

She scuffed her feet on the pavement as she headed to the van’s wreckage. The city felt too quiet after that explosion of activity.

Her heart ached at the sight of the van’s wreckage. It was too much of a mess to tell what used to be what. She was grateful to be unable to pick out the bodies of the children who had never escaped.

Allene had never considered herself a vengeful person.

But for the first time in her life, she knew what it felt like to want somebody dead.

Allene also couldn’t bring herself to leave the wreckage without searching it. Her ability to eat for the next few days was dependent upon turning up something worth selling. And that gladiator of a faerie, with his blazing golden blood, had been in that van. Maybe he had dropped something.

She whispered a few heartfelt prayers under her breath as she made a quick pass of the smoke-stained glovebox, the center console. Nothing but melted plastic and shattered glass.

Then she flipped over a piece of the driver’s seat that had blown clear. She had just long enough to register that there was an object underneath.

For a heartbeat, the world disappeared.

Allene was suspended in an endless void. It was so much like the Void—the one that had devoured the world in Genesis—that she should have been afraid, but her feelings were the complete opposite of that.

Instead, she felt a giddying rush of elation. It heated her between the legs. Her hair slithered over her neck like a lover’s fingers.

There were people floating in the creamy darkness with her, just beyond the point where she could see their faces. A violet fog obscured the details but Allene knew them. Somehow, she knew all those people waiting for her, watching her.

They wanted her. She wanted them.

Then the vision vanished.

Allene found herself pulling a card out from underneath the driver’s seat of the van. She dropped it out of shock.

“Oh!”

Just as quickly, she grabbed the card again so that it wouldn’t blow away.

Allene patted down her hair, feeling unexpectedly flustered. Somehow, touching the card had gotten her turned on—and she definitely wasn’t in the mood to be turned on.

Sometimes she scavenged artifacts with enough magic that she could feel them buzzing. Twice, she’d even fainted. But touching the card underneath the driver’s seat was a different kind of magic.

“This has got to be worth something,” she said, lifting it to the light.

The card was about the length of her hand and made of heavy stock. It must have been magic—there wasn’t so much as a smudge of smoke on its surface.

The back was covered in ornate art deco elements. When she flipped it over, she discovered a tarot card. The Knave of Blades. The picture showed a man slipping through an alpine forest, looking over his shoulder as he clutched daggers to his heart.

“That’s funny.” Allene had stolen more than a few tarot decks while combing suburbia. Most of them weren’t worth anything. None of them had a Knave of Blades. It wasn’t one of the standard Rider-Waite cards. “Maybe it’s from an oracle deck or something.”

She kept searching, but that was the only weird thing in the wrecked pieces of the cab. Allene couldn’t bring herself to inspect the smoldering wreckage of the rear.

She whispered a few more prayers for the victims and then left it behind to find her cart of supplies.

A single card couldn’t be worth much compared to a deck, but it had knocked her off her feet and tossed her halfway to orgasm in five seconds flat. Someone would pay for that. Someone like Gutterman.

It was a tragic night, but at least it wasn’t a total waste.

COLLAPSE