Showdown

Twenty heroes have been stolen. Removed from their times, their worlds, and their lives, they're put in front of a bloodthirsty audience to fight.

Every one of these people has fought to save the world. They've killed and died. And now they must become enemies in order to meet the monster behind it all.

Showdown is a 30,000-word novella that was originally serialized online as an interactive reader event. It's not intended to be read unless you're a fan of The Descentverse (such as The Descent Series, The Ascension Series, or Seasons of the Moon).

Excerpt:

NOVEMBER 9, 2019.

Rylie Gresham woke at three o'clock in the morning, and she wasn't certain why. Her bedroom was still and her werewolf ears could tell the world outside was asleep. The sanctuary had been peaceful as of late; with the new hospital facilities, freshly built downtown, and the new Academy under construction, everyone was kept productively busy. Too busy to fight. Too busy to stay awake at night when the air hung with a quiet chill.

Her mate, Abel, wasn't with her. Is something wrong?

She donned her bathrobe and padded to the kids' room. Benjamin slept peacefully, sprawled over the toddler bed he refused to trade for a Big Boy Bed. His baby sister slept peacefully on a floor mat because she kept climbing out of the crib. Rylie’s aunt, Gwyneth, took the twin bed, and the zombie would have woken if they needed anything. They hadn’t roused Rylie.

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"Then why am I awake?" Rylie whispered to herself, shutting their door silently.

And where is Abel?

She headed barefoot into the night. It wasn't too cold for a werewolf Alpha. Her breath came out as fog while her toes scrunched against ice. The clouds had vanished. It felt like the stars were watching her.

A wind lifted. It smelled of coffee, whiskey, and cannabis. Rylie's nose wrinkled at the scent, turning to look for the source—

—and she found herself facing a stadium.

It was an open dirt was lit by fires around the edges. Across that pit, the benches were filled with a quiet group, watching the ground with anticipation. Rylie’s acute eyes could make out every detail of the onlookers in the darkness. Her nose told her that if she was in some kind of strange viewing box, there were others next to hers, occupied by other people.

The entire world had changed in a blink and she’d felt no sense of movement.

Shock rolled through Rylie's body. She tried to take a quick step back onto her stairs, but they weren't there. She bumped a stone bench hard enough to bruise her ankle.

"Ow!"

"Careful," said a lovely young woman with mounds of chestnut curls, who sat against the wall in the corner.

She looked familiar. Her luminous white-blue eyes were the signature mark of an angel, which put Rylie’s hackles on edge. She’d met few angels who she could trust. "Who are you? Where am I?" Rylie asked.

"I'm Marion," said the girl.

Rylie blinked. "No you're not." Marion was one of Ariane Garin's daughters, and she was an adorable schoolchild with too much attitude and little respect for adults. She’d spent last summer staying with Rylie. She wasn’t even tall as Rylie’s ribcage yet, much less a gazelle-legged supermodel with glowing eyes, a designer gown, and eerily calm features.

"You look young, which explains why you don’t know me like this,” Marion said thoughtfully. "I don't think you and I were pulled from the same year. Where did you wake up today?"

"The sanctuary," Rylie said. "Um, in 2019."

"Ah, yes. It's 2032 for me." Marion hugged herself, even though the stadium was warm. She shivered. "Don't try to leave. We can't. Whoever brought us here—”

The fires blazed higher, erupting with a boom that washed charcoal heat over Rylie. The crowd erupted with cheers, launching from their benches to wave their arms over their heads. They were a diverse crew, from what Rylie could see and smell. There were demons, sidhe, angels, and humans among them, mingled as one.

Something was beginning.

Rylie edged to the waist-high wall overlooking the stadium. A pair of people walked into the dirt pit.

"Army of Evil, we hear you!" roared a beast of a woman with a cat coiled around her shoulders. She wore all leather. She was plastered in so many tattoos that hardly a bare inch showed. "You want a showdown of heroes? We'll give you a showdown of heroes!"

"Showdown?" Rylie echoed in a whisper.

"I'm Louise the Monster," went on the woman. "This here's Flora the Destroya. Make some noise!"

They lifted their arms to receive the adulation. Rylie clutched her heart, adrenaline rising at the sound.

Flora had sharp eyes and a mischievous smile. "We've pulled twenty champions from every world we could reach—the infernal and ethereal planes, and the Middle Worlds—at the times when these heroes were strongest. All of them veterans of war. And none of them have any choice but to fight for our entertainment!"

This pleased the crowd too—this Army of Evil.

Rylie grabbed the half-wall so she could lean out and look for somewhere to escape. But she butted against an invisible wall. It zinged like she’d made the mistake of blow drying her hair with wet hands again. She jerked back.

"Fights are to the death," said Flora. "Two by two, we're going to narrow these heroes down to person standing!"

"They won't be dead forever," added Louise. "Once they drop dead, they're going back to their lives with no memory of this. There are no costs. No consequences. Just glorious battle! And today, we're starting with two of the greatest—Elise Kavanagh, from the Breaking, and Deirdre Tombs from the first election for Alpha werewolf!"

Iron gates rolled open from either end of the pit. Rylie's heart splashed into her stomach as she watched the two woman enter.

Elise Kavanagh was a demon. Pale flesh, flowing black hair, and looking pissed as hell. Rylie pitied her opponent until she saw an unfamiliar shifter stroll into the arena...and immediately catch fire, standing in the midst of a blazing inferno. Rylie had never heard of a shapeshifter who could catch fire. This was something else entirely.

"Who's ready for some fun?" shouted Flora.

COLLAPSE

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

The Descent Series

Death's Hand, The Darkest Gate, and Dark Union

Book Cover: The Descent Series
She was destined to be a weapon. Elise Kavanagh is good at one thing: killing demons, angels, and gods. For years, she was the death that supernatural creatures feared. More myth than woman, she walked the Earth as the embodiment of vengeance.
But Elise doesn't want anything to do with destiny. She wants time off to spend with her only friend and former investigative partner, James Faulkner - a powerful witch, the only person she trusts - and try to be a normal person, whatever that means.

Destiny hasn't forgotten her.
It's not easy to retire when you were born to be a killing machine. Old enemies still hold bitter grudges against Elise. The demon overlord of her new home isn't happy to have the Godslayer hiding out in her territory. And there are still gods that need to be killed...
This is a collection of the first three titles in The Descent Series, which are gritty urban fantasy books about an exorcist, a witch, and their battles against the forces of Heaven and Hell. (Approx. 200,000 words total.)

Books included:
1. Death's Hand
2. The Darkest Gate
3. Dark Union

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.