The Descent Series Complete Collection

Elise Kavanagh was born to be a living weapon known as the Godslayer. She's tried to deny her destiny. She threw down her sword after one too many near-losses against the demons she kills. Now she's been retired in hiding for half a decade, and she's beginning to believe that she might be able to have a normal life. Until an ancient enemy rises to strike Elise again. Fighting the Hand of Death makes shockwaves like an arrow pointing out Elise's hiding place. Once one old enemy finds her, the others begin to find Elise, too.

The only person she can rely on is James Faulkner, the witch who has always protected her mind and body. Despite untrustworthy allies and unpredictable foes, James is a constant who never changes--someone who would never betray her. Someone whose past is cloaked in secrets that even Elise doesn't understand...

Elise must descend into the infernal to battle the angels who hunt her. She must become the very thing she's spent most of her life fighting: a powerful demon that feeds upon human flesh. A creature that might survive slaying God.

This collection contains all seven books of The Descent Series, as well as three short stories interspersed with the books.

THE COMPLETE SERIES

  1. Death's Hand
  2. The Darkest Gate
  3. Deadly Hearts
  4. Dark Union
  5. Damnation Marked
  6. Death Scream
  7. Dire Blood
  8. Defying Fate
  9. Dying Night
  10. Paradise Damned

Sins of Eden

There have always been three gods. Always.

Until Elise Kavanagh murdered them.

A demon named Belphegor has entered the Origin and become a new god, triggering genesis: the death and rebirth of the entire universe. He wants Elise to join him in Eden for the end of all things, but only once she’s watched everyone she cares about die painfully under his heel.

With nothing but a dwindling army of werewolves, Elise must enter Eden, slaughter Belphegor, and stop the genesis. But Belphegor’s smarter than Adam ever was, and far crueler. He’s spent lifetimes preparing for this.

He will have his world of Hellfire. He will have victory. And he will have Elise’s life…

Ruled by Steel

An Urban Fantasy Mystery

Book Cover: Ruled by Steel
Editions:Kindle - First Edition: $ 4.99 USD
ISBN: B00G7A6PGA
Pages: 391
Paperback - First Edition: $ 14.99 USD
ISBN: 1493547496
Size: 8.00 x 5.00 in
Pages: 390
Audiobook - First Edition: $ 24.95 USD
ISBN: B00SU4ZO1S

Only a demon can save the souls in Hell.

Elise Kavanagh failed to prevent the Breaking, and now Hell is spilling onto Earth. She’s delved deep into the City of Dis in an attempt to stop the infernal armies–but even the legendary Godslayer is unprepared to face Dis’s fiercest demons, not to mention the responsibility of liberating the humans they’ve enslaved.

On Earth, rogue angel Nash Adamson is wing-deep in damage control after the Breaking, and his fellow angels don’t want to get involved. War is approaching the werewolf sanctuary. If Heaven won’t help them, he’ll have to turn to Hell for salvation.

Everything hinges on who can control the City of Dis. Elise and her allies have no choice but to rule by steel…

Excerpt:

Belphegor selected the slave because she wouldn’t look at him. There was mystery to seeing only the tip of her nose under her hair, the hunch of her shoulders, her shins peeking out from behind the protective armor of folded arms. There was so little mystery in his life these days.

“That one,” he said, pointing at the cage. It was only one cage in a row of a hundred on that floor. The capacity of the kennels could accommodate a thousand slaves when filled.

Bek tu?” asked his attending fiend in the infernal tongue. The words were stilted, the syntax poor, but Belphegor understood the meaning. Are you certain? It tentatively went on to say, “Pach ohk nati.There are better slaves here.

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The fiend was a stupid, slobbering creature; it cringed when Belphegor glanced in its direction. His pale fingers stroked the throat of his high-collared shirt, tracing the edge of his steward’s pin. It was a meaningless decoration now that the Palace had fallen, but one he wore with pride.

“Your concern is noted,” Belphegor said. He replied in the higher form of the demon language, which only those with the education and proper mouthparts could pronounce.

Another cringe. The fiend nodded, fumbling to untie the leather cord holding the cage door shut. There was no lock. The slaves never made more than one attempt at escape.

This slave did not cry, nor did she attempt to shrink to the rear of the cage. She simply bowed her head to her knees and seemed to grow smaller.

Without the mesh door between them and the mortal immobile, Belphegor could admire the little details: the lines of every rib from her shoulder down to the place her waist cut in too shallowly from malnourishment, the dust caking her hair, the delicate twist to her bony toes.

The slaves always looked so miserable in the mornings, after a full quarter’s rest; there was no avoiding the brutal air of Dis. It wreaked such havoc upon tender mortal tissues. But the baths were being sharpened, and she would soon be gleaming and tender, as befitted such delicate creatures.

Ah, she did not even tremble at his gaze. He wondered if she had attempted escape before. He thought he would have recalled the pleasure of bringing her back.

“This one will do,” Belphegor said with a nod.

He flourished a hand into the kennel. She simply shifted onto all fours and began crawling toward him without ever lifting her head. He couldn’t help but notice that one of her hands was bandaged. She was already broken.

Exquisite.

Her head remained lowered when she stood beside him, utterly naked but for the smears of crimson clay upon the swells of her breasts. Even with her body hunched, he could see that she was in good condition: svelte but muscular, young but hardened by life. He rubbed a lock of her hair to clean away the clay. It would not stick to his waxy skin, so it crumbled to the floor of the slave pens without staining his flesh. The slave’s hair was black underneath.

“Come,” Belphegor said, not unkindly, as he took her elbow.

Many of the other cages had already emptied. Lines of mortals shuffled toward the dry baths. They curved around him as he led her through their ranks, as if pushed away from him by force of gravity. The fiend limped at his side, dragging the blunted blade of his sword.

The usual stations of daily maintenance waited on the black slopes beyond the kennels. The House of Abraxas was a fortress built upon the slopes of Mount Anathema, and the rear of the property butted against a nearly sheer cliff face. A few iron trees jutted from cracks in the stone, thrusting toward the sky with sharp fingers, as if hungering for the slaves that walked past them.

Belphegor performed a casual inspection upon the guards as he approached the pit, ensuring that the fiends were in the places he expected and handling the slaves with the utmost care.

The lines were led past a pit where the slaves were instructed to relieve their bladders and bowels of what had not already been eliminated in their cages overnight. Then they were taken to the dry baths, where fiends waited with brushes and stones to scrape away the stink of mortal sweat. They would be fed after that—quite the hassle, since so many of the slaves began refusing to feed themselves after a few months. Manual application of nutrition was necessary for these fragile slaves.

Daily maintenance for the full complement of the House of Abraxas’s slaves took almost a full quarter, from the time they woke up on Second Monday to the end of Second Friday. But Belphegor’s hand-picked selection was lucky that day. She would bypass the lines and be given first priority for maintenance so that she might spend the rest of the day in the House with Belphegor himself.

The sky in Dis was violet that day—a strange color that he hadn’t seen in his millennia of service. The fissure didn’t reach the sky directly above the House of Abraxas, but Earth’s light was strong, and it changed the entire atmosphere of the place. Belphegor found it distasteful, but great reward required great sacrifice. If an easy access point to conquer Earth required tolerating the occasional moist bite of a spring breeze in Hell, he would tolerate it.

Belphegor strode toward the pit with the slave at his side. He did not need to push aside the line to make room for her. The slaves shied away from him.

He stepped to the edge, holding her arm to steady her.

“Empty your bowels,” he said.

Without ever lifting her head, she did as instructed, teetering somewhat precariously on the tip of the outcropping in a squat. There were several other outcroppings, all of which were occupied. The scent of human waste mingled with Dis’s sulfuric breeze. It was impossible to distinguish the sounds and smells of each individual mortal.

Once she rose, he took her elbow again.

They ascended to the dry baths: stone platforms on which the fiends scrubbed the slaves with wire brushes to scrub them. They were elevated to allow the lines of waiting mortals watch. Belphegor helped position her upon the table on all fours.

“We will give special attention to her hair,” he instructed the fiend, tapping his fingers on his chin thoughtfully. “And attend to her teeth, as well.”

The fiend hurried to offer the brush to him. Belphegor took his time scraping at the smears on her rear and legs, pressing hard enough that it would leave raised welts on the skin of most slaves. Her skin was firmer than it looked. Broken or not, she must have been thoroughly nourished to be so strong.

He attempted to lift her head to brush her teeth, but she would not comply with the hand on her chin.

“Come,” Belphegor said. “Allow me to clean you.”

Her chin remained lowered to her chest, lips pinched shut, eyes invisible under the fall of hair.

Not so broken after all.

Belphegor rubbed the pin of his stewardship again. It was cold compared to the heat of the air. Annoyance turned his mouth down at the corners.

He enjoyed struggle. He did not enjoy defiance.

But perhaps the struggle was to come. Some mortals responded strangely to their time at the House of Abraxas. Mourning the lives they had lost seemed to be a lengthy emotional process; perhaps this one simply had some fire left.

If there was despair within her, he would find it by the time daylight fell on Earth above.

The teeth could wait.

“To the feedings,” Belphegor said after brushing the clay from her hair.

She was as compliant taking her breakfast as she had been relieving herself into the pits; she ate everything without ever lifting her eyes. Belphegor rubbed his hand through her silken hair as she chewed and swallowed the serving of protein, which was culled from the organs of obsolete fiends. It was iron-rich and would fuel her well for the day to come. He daydreamed of it while separating her soft locks into sections, only to let them fall into place again.

They sat at the front of the dining hall, looking down upon the other slaves as they moved through their breakfast routine. They ate as they were bathed: on all fours, under the watchful eyes of fiends. Scarred bodies trembled as they dipped down on their elbows to lift flesh from the troughs with their teeth.

Belphegor did not make his slave eat with the others. She remained on her knees, and ate off of a plate in his lap. A fond smile crossed his lips as he continued to stroke her hair. She knew to use her mouth properly; there was no need to muzzle her.

The anticipation was too great. He was beginning to tremble with excitement by the time the last bite of raw meat slid between her lips. The wet sound of swallowing thrilled him.

A fiend approached Belphegor at the head of the room.

Tu nati omak?” asked the fiend. Will you be on the first run?

The slaves were entertained and exercised by two walks through the City proper each day. He liked to accompany them, sometimes. But not that morning.

“No,” Belphegor said, perhaps a little too quickly. “We will not be attending the run.”

He stood. The slave followed suit.

Together, they approached the noble House of Abraxas.

The entryway gleamed and black and proud. Jagged teeth adorned the arch of the doorway, which was thrice Belphegor’s height. A true wonder to behold.

To prevent the escape of indoor staff, the front door had to be unlocked from the exterior by guards. Belphegor waited patiently as the pair of fiends assigned to the duty operated the levers to either side of the door. It lifted, baring a foyer carved of pit glass and a spiral stair beyond.

As soon as they stepped through, the door slammed shut behind them.

The House was an impressive manor exemplifying the artistry of the finest infernal architects to have passed through Dis. Parts of it had been cut directly from the solid stone of the mountain; other parts had been carved from imported chisav bone, slaughtered en masse to near extinction in order to provide enough materials for the wings. The entryway itself was decorated with pit glass: a crystal-clear substance that glowed with light, but not heat.

The slave’s tender feet slapped gently on stone as they crossed the foyer. There was no hint of curiosity within her; despite the glory of the House, she never lifted her gaze from her feet. She hadn’t even taken her arms from behind her back since leaving the dining hall.

Belphegor dwelled in a room with simple trappings near the center of the House. It was better described by what it was not rather than by what it was: he had no keepsakes of his long years of service, no bed in which to sleep, and no decorations that might please more common eyes than his. It was merely a black box with a single window, a desk, and a switch controlling the front gates. It required a demon with Belphegor’s unusual strength to operate that lever; it could unlock every guard tower along the wall in case of emergency, and they would not trust it with anyone else.

The only other remarkable thing in the room were the chains on his wall.

They dangled in sensual silver lines, tipped with hooks and spurs and corkscrews that gleamed wickedly in Hell’s half-light. He had bolted them in various positions on the wall, low and high, to accommodate entertaining a slave of any height, in any position. He had left room only for a shining steel cabinet in the corner, which held his accessories. They did not match the chains so much as compliment them.

Abraxas had once tauntingly called Belphegor’s office a “play room.” Derisive as the intention had been, the steward found it to be an adequate descriptor.

“To the wall,” Belphegor told the slave, closing the door behind them. The bolt made a heavy, satisfying sound when it settled into place, signifying the privacy they were to enjoy. “Arms above your head, palms flat to the wall, legs spread.”

She stood in the center of the room, head down, and did not go to the wall.

More defiance.

Belphegor was uncertain if he wanted to break her when he had been hoping for a slave that was already shattered, but now they were there. His choice had been made. He was as resolute as he was hungering.

Pale, deft fingers loosened the collar of his shirt.

“To the wall,” he said again. He rolled the wrists of his sleeves back. The forearms underneath were shrunken and skeletal.

The slave finally lifted her head and looked him in the eye.

Her face was as beautiful as her body, in that human sort of way. Her lips were full and red. The curve of her jaw to her cheekbones and forehead formed the shape of a blunted spade—pleasingly youthful, though decidedly ageless. Her eyebrows were slanted, giving her an angry expression.

“No,” she said.

Familiarity swelled within him, though he could not determine why, exactly. He didn’t think it was because she had tried to escape before.

“To the wall,” Belphegor said.

She went to the wall—but she did not spread her legs. She wrapped her hand in one of the chains and snapped it from its moorings with a jerk of her arm.

The slave whipped the chain in a wide arc, snapping the spurs at his knees.

You go to the wall,” she said.

Her voice did not have that raw quality characteristic of slave voices. Whether screaming for mercy or whispering a prayer, they spoke as though their delicate mucus membranes had been stripped by granite. The dry air was brutal to a mortal’s system. Their entire bodies cried out from the endless agony of it. But hers did not.

It stood to reason, then, that she was not mortal at all.

“Who are you?” Belphegor asked.

She snapped the chain at him again with a powerful twist of her arm. “Palms to the wall. Spread your feet.”

It was absurd. Like a dog asking its master to roll over.

He reached for her with the intention of positioning her body by force. She ducked under his hand, flinging the chain like a whip to wrap it around his forearm. The tip of it tug into his sleeve and caught.

The slave wrenched it back, almost pulling Belphegor off of his feet. He was surprised by her immense strength. He actually staggered.

She had behaved so well. She had defecated on command, allowed her hair to be brushed, ate the meat without her hands. This creature was nothing like the thing he had led from the cage.

It wasn’t anger in Belphegor. He didn’t have those kinds of shallow emotions. But there was a sense of resignation—the cold realization that he had erred in some way, or that a fiend had, and that he was facing punishment for that error now. Instead of a blissful day in seclusion, he would have to terminate the problem. Killing her was not how he had hoped to pass the hours. Far from it.

The spur of the chain had dug into his flesh and scratched him. Ichor welled to the surface.

Rather than attempting to remove it, he seized the chain and used her grip on it to pull her toward him.

“Who are you?” he asked again. She struggled against him at first, digging in her heels, but her feet found no traction on the stone.

She released the chain as he advanced on her. A quick side-step put the desk between them. It was an obelisk at the center of the room and made an excellent barrier.

“I’m the one who’s taking the House of Abraxas,” she said.

Sit. Stay. Beg. Roll over.

Belphegor weighed the chain in his fist, dragging it behind him like a tail. Metal slithered against the stone flooring.

It did not matter, he supposed, who this woman was. The priority was rectifying his mistake swiftly—or perhaps not swiftly at all.

Perhaps he could still enjoy the day the way he wanted.

She would need to die. They didn’t have the facilities required to contain slaves that were not mortal, nor was there any need to keep a dangerous creature when the helpless ones served Abraxas’s purposes just as well. But he could chain and enjoy her before the death. Not as much as he would have enjoyed a mortal, unfortunately, but it had been a long time since Belphegor had broken anything with such spirit; he believed that he could salvage the day with creativity.

With a mere thought, he crossed to the other side of the desk, seizing the woman’s throat in his hand and using his grip to slam her into the window. If it had been made of ordinary glass, it would have cracked. He expected her skull to break instead.

Her head bounced and left no blood.

He tightened his fingers—and his hand closed into a fist on nothingness. Her throat, and the rest of her body, had disappeared.

Belphegor turned in time to see her launching a kick at his face. He tried to grab her ankle. Her leg vanished before it contacted his hand, yet the hard edge of her foot struck him along the temple—just as solid as her leg had been untouchable.

Selective incorporeality. Definitely not mortal.

“We will not conduct this fight on your terms,” Belphegor said, ducking under her second kick as he walked toward his desk. He stepped around her jabbing elbows and thrusting fists without breaking stride. She may have been able to disappear and reappear at will, but she was still not as fast as Belphegor.

He slapped a hand on his desk. Red light flared within the room.

“I have activated a ward,” he went on. “You will no longer be able to turn incorporeal.”

With that announcement, he snapped the chain at her. The hooked edge caught her skin. Blood welled to the surface where he expected to see ichor—not the sweet crimson blood of mortals, but an amber-colored sludge.

The slave tried to free her wrist, but the motion only made the hook dig deeper. He flicked his wrist and wrapped the chain around her forearm.

Again, he said, “To the wall.” He punctuated this by kicking her in the back. The woman stumbled and caught herself on the play room wall.

She wasn’t nearly as fast without the ability to phase. The woman turned, but he seized the back of her neck and smashed her face into the black bricks between chains, slamming twice. A crack suggested that her nose may have broken.

A shame to damage such a pristine face.

He did it again.

Belphegor didn’t react to her foot slamming on his instep, nor did the elbow in his solar plexus have any effect. He bound both of her arms together with the chain, hook firmly entrenched in her wrist, and attached them to a pulley. With two pulls on the rope, the slave’s arms were jerked over her head, stretching her naked body tall and long. A third pull lifted her to the tip of her toes.

She grunted, jaw clenched.

“I have other spells built into the mortar of my office,” Belphegor said, as emotionlessly as ever. “It is sound-proofed, and, yes, energy-proofed. If our interaction hurts you, please feel free to leak all of your infernal powers in panic. It will harm nobody within the House.”

“Thanks for the information,” she said. She still was not afraid, bound to his wall and warded into corporeality.

Belphegor removed a drawer from his cabinet and set it on the edge of the desk. He had a delightful mix of tools within the drawer: studded phalluses and corkscrews and jagged-toothed pliers. There were many things that might be able to put the fear into her.

He selected a leather gag with a spiked mouthpiece and turned to face her again.

While Belphegor had been distracted, she had used the strength of her arms and her feet against the wall to lift her body, bringing her bent arms level with her face. She chewed at the bandages on her hand with her canines. Cloth ripped, and the bandaging fell free.

Light flared on her hand where the flesh had been concealed. Colorful runes slid over her knuckles, between her fingers, and down the inside of her wrist. Now that they had been freed, they marched down her arms like insects.

It was magic, but magic that he had never seen before.

And no demon had cast magic since the era before the Treaty of Dis.

Belphegor was becoming mildly concerned.

He seized the first thing in the drawer that he touched—the studded phallus. It was crafted from dense stone, capable of heating to a searing temperature, with metal protruding from the mushroomed head. It would make an excellent a bludgeon.

She pointed her fingers at him. At the same moment, he lunged at her, raising the phallus over his head.

The slave spoke.

It was not English or the infernal tongue that fell from her lips, but a silent word that quaked the room, making the floor tremble under his feet and his desk shudder. One of the runes ignited and vanished. He felt it punch him in the chest.

Belphegor’s back slammed into the opposite wall. The contact was severe enough to make his vision momentarily black out.

When he could see again, the woman had freed herself and stood over him with the chain still wrapped around one arm.

“I think I told you to get against the wall,” she said.

Belphegor didn’t bother responding. He instead began to swell, allowing his limbs to stretch and chest to widen. He could grow to the size of the Palace’s once-glorious tower, given enough space; he believed he would only need to be perhaps twenty feet tall to crush this woman.

She jumped behind him and wrapped her arm around his throat before he could grow more than a foot. Her rune-encrusted hand spasmed wildly over his chest. With another word of power and a second ignited wound, he felt his muscles harden.

He could neither grow nor run—nor make any other motion.

Belphegor’s concern increased fractionally.

She pulled the silver chain tight around his body. Her strength was easily equal to his when his muscles were ossified by magic, and she trussed him with the chain within moments. She dragged him across the floor, hooked him to the pulley, and lifted him off of the ground so that his stiff legs dangled uselessly beneath him.

He could only watch as she flicked a couple more runes at him, placing a wall of fire on the floor between them and reinforcing the chains. When she finished, she stepped back to study him. The woman seemed satisfied with the result.

She wiped the amber blood off of her upper lip and picked up the phallus. She registered no emotion as at its appearance, though her grip was white-knuckled.

The slave rounded on him and swung.

Pain exploded across Belphegor’s face, making his vision erupt in stars. The second strike split the skin on his cheekbone. Cold blood coursed down the side of his face, chilling his immobile flesh.

“You’re fucking sick,” she said, tossing the bloody phallus in the drawer. “How many humans have you raped?”

“One every month for centuries,” Belphegor said. His lips barely moved.

She grunted. “Guess you lose count after a while.”

With Belphegor rendered momentarily harmless—only momentarily—she turned her attention to the switch in the center of the floor. It was a simple mechanism. Moving the lever from the ten o’clock position to the two o’clock was enough to throw open the gates. They hadn’t bothered making it more difficult to open since there were very few demons that were strong enough to manually operate it, and fewer still that could get past Belphegor’s defenses.

“It doesn’t matter if you open the guard houses,” he said as she tested the weight of the lever. “The wards are linked by soul and blood to the lord of the House. You cannot invade without his compliance.”

“Soul links don’t work once the owner is dead,” she said. “And I killed Abraxas weeks ago.”

For the first time, Belphegor felt fear.

She kicked the lever.

COLLAPSE

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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