Race of Thieves

An Urban Fantasy Adventure

Book Cover: Race of Thieves
Part of the Artifact Hunters series:

You’d never know that Shatter Cage is a were-squirrel by looking at him. Between fake fire charms and his impenetrable confidence, everyone believes he’s the phoenix he claims to be.

The lie is a necessary part of his branding. He’s determined to become a Hero, blessed by the Oracles and venerated by legions of followers. For now, he’s just one more thief slinging magical artifacts on the black market, hoping for infamy to strike like lightning. But he’s never going to become canonized if Gutterman, demon and loan shark, gets his pound of flesh from Cage first.

A job offer from the biggest Hero cult in America lights a path to fame—and enough money to repay Gutterman. Unfortunately, Cage’s ex-girlfriend, Brigid Byrne, wants the job as bad as he does. Whoever steals an artifact named Nábrók will be hired. And Brigid doesn’t mind kidnapping, poisoning, and back-stabbing Cage to win…

The race of thieves is on. And Cage is bent on scoring Nábrók before all his bad decisions catch up with him.

Excerpt:

The Helios Tether was open all night, so Phaethon Bay was too. Shops seldom closed. High-rises never darkened. Its rhythm merely shifted with the arrival of moonlight as the day-dwellers went inside and the population’s other half emerged.

At midday, children shouting at playgrounds formed the backbeat for the commuter vehicles on the way to the Tether. Once the sun dipped behind the towering skyscrapers, usually early in the afternoon, the music of the night rose. The howls of shifters, the sweep of feathered wings as long as helicopter rotors, the metallic zing of magetech.

Shatter Cage always thought that the city sounded alive at night. Almost like he was crouching upon the bony ridge of some impossibly huge animal’s brow rather than the roof of a skyscraper.

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Of course, if Cage had seriously thought that there was anything biological to the city itself, he wouldn’t have been wiring a bomb to blast the top off one of its skyscrapers.

Magic pulsed quietly by his right ear, where Vision hovered. Although his dangling optic nerve didn’t move the air, Cage had gotten used to the infernal eye that followed him everywhere, and he was sensitive to its weight upon the universe. He could always feel his assistant’s living spy camera when it drew close.

Anton Vex’s voice murmured from the Link at the base of Cage’s skull. “You mixed up the red and blue wires.”

“No, I didn’t.” Cage flicked his thumb to make the charmed ring flare. In the moment of bright orange light washing over his bomb’s initiator, he saw that the red and blue wires were indeed crossed. “I just wanted to try an alternative wiring scheme this time. See if we can add a longer delay to the fire suppressant.”

Vex turned enthusiastic. “That’s a great idea! I usually test everything in my lab before taking it into the field, but if you think that will work, I’m sure it’ll be fine!”

Bless the warlock’s shriveled black heart. Even when he thought Cage was about to blow himself up, he had nothing but positivity to send through Vision.

Cage would fix the bomb. Eventually. For now, he fiddled with the ignitor’s battery to waste time and spare his dignity, much like how his cat always gave her ass a thorough licking after falling off the bed.

His fingers were numb from going this long without gloves. The air was too cold and wet to be outside, and it was only going to get worse. Another storm was rolling in off the ocean. Weather witches said they should expect fifteen centimeters of rain that week alone, beginning at midnight.

“I’ll just do conventional wiring if you’re worried about it. If only to make you more comfortable, Vex.” Cage flipped the wires around again, connecting red and blue where they belonged. “How’s it look now?”

Vision vaulted weightlessly over his shoulder to examine the bomb from every angle. Vex was the designer of their explosives, so he should have been deploying them too. But Phaethon Bay’s lively nights meant there were people outside, and Vex didn’t do people. The eye was as close as he could get.

“It looks perfect! You did so great!” Vex cheered through the Link. His voice sounded loud to Cage, but since it was transmitted through the Link and encrypted by Vision, nobody else would be able to hear the warlock. Cage’s cheering squad of one never needed to stop talking, even when he was in delicate situations.

Like the very delicate situation Cage was about to be in.

He checked his watch before pulling warm gloves over his stiffening fingers. It was ten thirty-seven. Their plan would begin at ten forty-four at the latest.

Cage wedged the bomb between two air conditioning units and stepped onto the edge of the roof. He dropped into a crouch so the wind wouldn’t buffet him as hard.

He was so high up, in such a wealthy strata, that the understory’s freeway looked like a bioluminescent bloodstream hundreds of meters below. Tracks and tunnels sang with the passage of steel bodies. Cage had grown up in the city, among the best magetech you’d find in human spaces, and its beauty still staggered him. “Any signs of rewiring in our target’s security system?”

“Everything’s green for now.” Vision dropped onto his knee, warm and reassuring.

Not that Cage needed the reassurance. He was a seasoned thief with hundreds of grabs under his belt, so he wasn’t worried about the job. Yet Cage always felt better with Vision resting against him. He couldn’t resist the urge to pet the little eyeball while wind yanked his jacket’s flaps, enclosing them in a cocoon that Phaethon Bay’s ethereal glow couldn’t penetrate.

“Any sign of the silver BMW?” asked Cage.

Vision’s iris seemed to blink vertically. The Tether reflected off his eye, casting a blazing white bar over his crimson pupil. “No, but I’m watching every traffic camera for a kilometer radius. We’ll know when he’s out.”

Cage’s laugh was sucked away by the wind off the bay. “You won’t miss him. You never do.” Vex was meticulous. He’d kept Cage alive against the odds for years.

Of all of the professional thieves in the North American Union, Cage was not the smartest. Not to say that he was stupid—just not the smartest. Ever since the Gaean Security Amendment passed, trafficking pre-Genesis artifacts had become more lucrative than any other industry. The field attracted the best minds and the toughest competition. Cage was a medium-sized fish in a pond that was somehow fitting whales.

That meant he had to make up in other places. Mostly, he made up by having a constant connection with Vex—easily the best assistant any thief could ask for worldwide, not just in the NAU.

Cage also made up for his inadequacies by being obsessive. As the seconds ticked nearer the launch of the next phase, his fingers wandered, performing one last check of his gear. He’d brought a lot of things he’d probably never need. But if he did need them, and didn’t have them in functional condition, he’d be dead.

So he’d checked and repacked and checked again, every idle moment for the last several hours.

Parachute? Check. Backup parachute? Check. Grappling hook? Check. Spare grappling hook? Check, and check three more times, because he had brought a hook for every occasion.

Breaking into Araboth Condominiums was not an easy feat. Cage had spent all week looking for a way in and out other than the bay-facing windows, since they were thousands of meters above pavement. It was a scary entry point. Scary because failure meant falling. Scarier still because the fall wouldn’t kill him, and he’d fail the theft with no way to repay his debts.

Then he would die.

Unfortunately, Araboth Tower’s security couldn’t be evaded. Their lower floors were staffed by witches who could see through any glamour. Their computer system was impenetrable, meaning that Vex couldn’t fabricate credentials for Cage. Even hiding on a resident’s body as they passed security wouldn’t work against the scanners. Hitchhiking was a favorite way for demons to break into fancy places just like this one, after all. Araboth Condominiums was ready for it.

Cage had spent all week researching and found no way inside.

That left the windows.

Vision alighted from Cage’s knee. “Bad news,” Vex said. “He’s on the move.”

“Being on the move is part of the plan.” Cage clenched his fist and fire flared again over his knuckles. His hands warmed within the gloves.

“Not Forfax. Gutterman’s guys.” Vex’s voice over the Link was not exactly panicking, but he had lost some of his chill. If Vex lost his chill, Cage was going to lose his chill, and that was indeed bad news.

“Are they heading toward you? Did they find our apartment?”

“I can’t tell,” Vex said. “We should still have four hours, so…”

Cage relaxed. “He won’t try to kill us until we’re out of time. Gutterman always wants money more than blood.”

Gutterman was a nightmare demon by biology and a loan shark by choice. His infernal ability to feast upon human fear made him perfect for the criminal underworld. He could intimidate anyone into doing anything, except for producing money out of thin air. Cage was so terrified of the guy that he’d have done it if he could.

Cage had taken a teeny, tiny business loan from Gutterman six months back. A million northcoins.

He’d been due to repay a week ago.

It should have been easy to repay. Cage had immediately invested the loan into his Museum of Oddities and Hellspawn—a guaranteed income stream. It was near Third at Thirteen. It had a view of the Helios Tether. His exhibits were cool.

Perfect tourist bait…in theory.

In practice, the museum was dust bait. For some reason nobody was interested in Cage’s oddities, no matter how many thousands of fliers he left on car windows, how many northcoins he drained into his online ads, and how many fake five-star reviews he left on Yelp. The best he could figure was that someone had cursed him. Vex was still looking into that, but so far, no luck on the curse-breaking front.

When Cage had asked for an extension on the loan, Gutterman had replied with goons wielding silver-laced knuckle bars. They’d given him two good blows to the face and seven more days to pull together more money than Cage had seen at any other time in his life.

A miracle hadn’t materialized.

So now he was here, preparing to jump across the emergent layer, and probably going to pancake on pavement with disappointingly non-fatal results.

“This never would’ve happened if people just came to my museum,” Cage muttered under his breath.

“What did you say?” Vex asked.

“Nothing.” Cage fired a sticky charm at Forfax’s window, making an anchor for his grappling hook. The tracker was a dim green rune that Cage could barely see through the fog. It should have been brighter. The magic hadn’t adhered securely enough.

“Prepare to deploy the cable,” Vex said. “A silver BMW is leaving the parking garage.”

Crap. Cage didn’t have time to shoot another charm. His grappling hook would fall while he was still zipping through midair.

He latched the hook to the charm. The rope stretched tight above the glowing freeway. Several hundred meters of cable connected to Cage by little more than an enchanted carabiner.

“Yes, that’s Forfax’s car,” Vex said. “Go! Now!”

The tracking charm was already flickering.

But Forfax was going to his dinner appointment, and they had ten minutes until building security visited his condo on eleven o’clock rounds.

Cage leaped into space.

For a terrifying instant, Cage felt as though he were flying.

Then the carabiner caught, magic pulsed, and he soared feet first toward Forfax’s window.

By the time he could see the tracking charge in the foggy night, its flickering had intensified.

It cut out a heartbeat before his feet slammed into the window.

“Whoa!”

The grappling hook tumbled into misty night, thrashed by wind all the way down.

Cage’s fingertips scrabbled at the centimeter-wide ridge of the window frame. His entire weight hung on three fingernails for the two longest seconds of his life—until he brought up a diamond-tipped glass punch, slamming it into the window.

The glass turned into glittering shards.

He didn’t register the scrapes until he’d already somersaulted across the carpet and onto his feet. “Hellfire,” Cage swore, shaking glass off of his sleeves with a grimace. He’d been scratched a good dozen times on the shoulders and thighs. He burned with the healing fever as his body knitted itself back together.

Cage wasn’t often grateful to be a shapeshifter, but he never loved it more than when he pulled stupid stunts and survived.

He took inventory of the condominium while healing.

Air hushed from the vents. Wet wind whistled over the broken window. Glass crunched under the soles of his boots. His shifter ears were sensitive enough to tell that there were voices on the floors above and below him, but it was normal conversation from other tenants, not incoming security.

Vision bobbed through open air, breezing past the glass shards untouched. “Bad news, Cage. Silent alarms are going off. I swear to the gods that I cut those!”

“I’m sure you did. Security probably just repaired them.” That was okay—it just meant they were tighter on time.

Cage had memorized the floor plan and electrical layout of Forfax’s unit. He knew what to expect before he landed. But schematics had failed to convey the impressiveness of his decor.

As an archangel, Forfax was basically required to have a weird hobby; his poison of choice was antique wardrobe pieces. Half of his living room was filled with display cases underlit by hazy amber lights, giving them the moody look of a rock band music video.

“I like a man who really appreciates what he has, but...” Cage peered closely at a full set of SWAT gear from pre-Genesis New York. It was brutal yet quaint, utilitarian and mundane. It would have been a great entry into his Museum of Oddities and Hellspawn. “This is kind of weird, isn’t it? Just collecting fancy clothes?”

“You like baseball,” Vex said.

“What’s that got to do with anything?”

“Four minutes and thirty seconds left,” Vex replied.

It took five minutes for the security team to completely lock down after an alarm. The building would be quarantined from the surrounding city first. Other condos would become magical Fort Knoxes to isolate the site of the alarm—in this case, Forfax’s condo.

Then, at the five-minute mark—now four and a half minutes—the security team would descend to pepper Cage’s skull with silver bullets.

Every angel who visited the geosynchronous station at the top of the Helios Tether, called CYCNUS, held joint ownership in Araboth Tower. That gave them hardcore diplomatic immunity. Almost sovereignty. Nobody would question his death if he suddenly went missing, so security wouldn’t warn him before shooting.

In less than five minutes.

“Plenty of time!” Cage said.

He abandoned the SWAT gear and headed down a curved hallway. Its inner wall was made of glass, creating an exhibit out of the round room at its center. Within, a fountain bubbled round the roots of a marble tree. Magelights tipped each branch. The glass was too thick to allow sound to pass, but speakers piped the rush of water into the hall.

The serene bubbling chased Cage down the sloped hallway, which opened into a postmodern clerestory with stairs spiraling to three bedrooms. He wanted one on the right. That was where the electrical schematics had showed the highest concentration of cables, suggesting the highest security.

“You’ve now got three minutes, fifty-seven seconds until security arrives,” Vex said, “and Forfax’s silver BMW has flipped a U-turn three blocks down.”

An angel would be able to reach Cage much faster than the security team, lockdown or not.

There was no time for lock picking and skullduggery.

Cage lashed out with a heel. Rubber sole met lock mechanism. The mahogany around the handle pulverized and the door bounced open.

The bedroom had been converted to accommodate two aisles of armor stands within class cases. Some of the armor looked to belong to sidhe royalty. The black leather catsuit had belonged to the first Gray overlord in pre-Genesis history—first, last, and only. Forfax also owned a set of stone body armor that Cage didn’t recognize, though the placard attributed its design to half-angel Oracle Marion Wilder.

The two end cases were the most secure. They had battery backups in case the power went out, ensuring the climate within would be maintained. Magetech wards shimmered over the glass. He had expected this type of display for the Tigris Coat, which Gutterman had described simply as “an old red jacket.”

What Cage hadn’t expected was too find two old red jackets, both heavily locked down.

One jacket was dyed, tattered linen. The other one looked like an English gentleman’s coat, but frillier and stupider.

“Which one is the Tigris Coat?” Cage asked.

Vision had caught a ride down the hallway on his lapel. The eyeball slipped off his shoulder to take a closer look. “I don’t know,” Vex said after a moment. They had prepped exhaustively for this heist but hadn’t been able to find details about the Tigris Coat. It was an obscure artifact among obscure artifacts.

Neither of them could identify it.

An audible alarm began blaring. The building had shifted from its initial quarantine mode to locking down the other residents’ condominiums. That left Cage two minutes before guards showed up.

“Forfax is out of his car,” Vex said.

That gave Cage thirty seconds at best. He fumbled a pair of enchanted earplugs out of his breast pocket. “I’m gonna blow the bomb.”

“Give me twelve seconds so I can get outside and watch!” Vision whirred through the open door, racing toward the entry point.

“Don’t run off!” He jammed the earplugs into place. “How am I supposed to know which coat to grab?”

“You’re the Shatter Cage! You’ll figure it out!” Vex’s voice was softening as distance weakened the signal to the Link.

A rustle of feathers. A breath of wind. Moments after Vision disappeared, Forfax appeared at the end of the clerestory, his wings stretched to their full glory. Each one extended three meters and had feathers as long as Cage’s hand. They were not white like angel wings in kids’ books, but the multihued earth tones of a bird of prey. It brought out the gold in his skin and emphasized the chilly blue of his irises.

Chilly and hostile blue, for that matter. Forfax had spotted Cage within the shadows of the bedroom.

“Shapeshift!” Vex urged. “You’ll be too fast to catch if you change, and there’s a vent right behind you!” Cage’s animal form was small enough that “shapeshift” was great advice for escaping most situations. But it was advice he never took. Not when he had a dozen guys aiming guns at him, and not when he’d been spotted by a furious angel.

“Come out with your hands up!” Forfax drew a scimitar from within his jacket. It caught fire when he twisted his wrist, because of course it did. Archangels had to have the scariest, most fucked up toys to go along with their eccentric hobbies.

Cage didn’t look back before slamming the diamond-tipped punch into glass. He put all his weight into it, and it still barely cracked. Shapeshifter strength should have pulverized any glass on the planet. Angels were probably getting glass from Jupiter or somewhere ridiculous. They had a stranglehold on lunar mining, so they could afford it.

The hole in the glass was big enough for Cage to yank out the more elaborate of the red coats. It looked fancy enough to be worth Cage’s life.

Surprise burst over Forfax’s features. “What are you doing?”

“The dignified thing,” Cage said, and then he raced straight at the angel.

Shifters could go from zero to sixty faster than sports cars. Fast enough to surprise an angel.

Forfax was surprised all right. He leaped aside, plastering his back to the wall. That cleared a path for Cage to get to the living room. He arrived just in time to feel the concussion and hear the explosions and watch the building across the street go up in a fireball.

The shockwave made the glass remaining on Forfax’s windows ripple like water. Cage’s eyes watered from the blazing light, and his eardrums throbbed, even with the charmed plugs.

Every other shapeshifter for kilometers was going to be deaf like they had just seen a Black Death revival band playing at max volume.

The duller ears of the angel were still sensitive to the explosion. Forfax roared and staggered behind Cage. His sword dropped. The fire went out when it lost contact with his skin.

This would have been a great time to escape. He’d grabbed the coat, and Forfax thrashed on the ground. Finders keepers, losers bleeding eardrums.

But how was Cage supposed to escape when the fireworks were this good? He’d decapitated the building like Marie Antoinette. The reflection on Vision’s glossy eyeball somehow made it look delighted.

“Over here!” Cage reached out a hand.

Vision whirred away from the window, and Vex’s cheers of delight grew louder as it approached. “That was so cool! Did you see, Cage? Did you see what a mess that made?”

He nestled Vision in the neck of his shirt. “That was even better than the Centre Pompidou!”

Like the time they’d blown up a wing of the Centre Pompidou, they’d ensured the area they were destroying was empty. It was an office building—no employees at night. And Vex would have disconnected the trigger if any lifeforms had appeared at the top of the building before detonation.

That meant it was just pretty. Very, very pretty.

And they could giggle over it like total psychopaths because nobody was actually hurt.

Although at least one insurance company was gonna be pretty pissed off after this.

Forfax struggled to his feet, swiping at the silvery blood that trickled down his jaw line. “You—you thief, you fool—” It was perversely satisfying to see a perfect angel’s face twisted into such pain.

Gods, he hoped Forfax wasn’t the type to hold a grudge.

“Sorry about this! Nothing personal!” Cage called.

The eyeball tucked itself into Cage’s collar. Forfax lunged toward him, but Cage raced for the window. He didn’t need to run very fast. Forfax didn’t seem serious about getting him. Otherwise, he could have used his wings to close the distance in a heartbeat.

Instead, the last thing Cage saw before leaping out the window was Forfax’s bemused face.

Not angry, not vengeful.

Bemused.

Cage, the coat, and the eyeball plummeted out of the window.

One of his bigger grappling hooks connected easily with a grotesque perched on a building down the street. Cage swung away safely, and Forfax never chased him, and Cage tried not to worry why.

COLLAPSE

Cast in Godfire

An Urban Fantasy Romance

The gods are rallying to take down Marion, their ally and voice in the mortal worlds. She’s gotten her memories back to disastrous results. She’s destroying the faerie courts, and the rest of the universe is next. The other deities want Seth—also known as the God of Death—to stop Marion before she breaks something that can’t be fixed.

Unfortunately, when Marion looks at Seth with those eyes and insists that she’s not doing anything wrong, he wants to believe her. Marion claims she isn’t trying to rewrite history. She’s protecting it.

Seth wants to trust Marion. It’s only the universe that’s at stake, after all. And some women are worth shattering worlds over…

The final chapter in New York Times Bestselling Author SM Reine's Mage Craft series.

Excerpt:

Jaycee Hardwick was scrying throughout the Middle Worlds, and she was not happy about it. For one thing, her search was yielding no results. A task she’d blocked out an hour to take was instead consuming her entire morning.

For another thing, the hours she spent scrying meant that her damn tea was getting cold while she was zoned out. And now she needed to brew another pot.

“This is just ridiculous.” She pushed back from the palantír, which she had mounted upon a platinum stand in order to match the rest of her office’s furnishings.

Jaycee stood and smoothed her skirt over her hips as she walked toward the wall of windows. Seattle looked the way she felt—which was to say, buried under fog. It was raining again—it always rained at this time of year—and the moisture clung to the streets, the trees, the rooftops.

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The weather would have been perfect for quiet fireside time with her mate, had she any clue what had become of him. “Where are you, Pierce?” she muttered, digging her fingernails into her mug.

Pierce Hardwick had once been famous primarily for his role as founder of Hardwick Medical Research. That had been before Genesis, back when Pierce had been a mundane human.

Hardwick Medical Research was no more. It had cured lycanthropy shortly before the company was shattered into a thousand smaller companies and sold off. The skyscraper that Jaycee stood in now was Frost Tower. It was a beautiful building that housed thousands of offices, and only some of those offices did medical research, and absolutely none of them under the Hardwick name.

If humans discovered that this year’s flu shots had been designed by sidhe…

Paranoid little ants.

Jaycee sipped her cold tea, set it on her desk, and glared at the palantír again. It was no longer filled with fog. It only reflected the clouds outside her window.

“I didn’t want to look anyway,” she said with a haughty sniff. She tossed a silk cloth over it. “You don’t even know where anything has gone.”

Her assistant was buzzing. Jaycee was ten minutes late for a meeting with the Somalian Health Council, and she was never late for meetings. In the days she’d been human, she had even shown up for meetings with a high fever and delirium.

The fact that Pierce was missing was far more problematic than a flu bug. Especially because he’d most likely left of his own volition.

The day that Pierce went missing, Jaycee had woken up to find a note in his handwriting on her bedside table. It had said that he was safe and had not been abducted. Which was exactly what a note from an abductee would say.

Jaycee was not capable of verifying that claim, since wherever Pierce had gone, the palantír could not scry it.

She flung open her office door. Her assistant was mysteriously absent. A fresh vase of wildflowers stood next to the last week’s bouquet, both of which Pierce had sent as an apology.

Jaycee flicked the card on this week’s bouquet open with a fingernail. “To my beloved…” she read aloud. She rolled her eyes and tossed the card into the trash. “My beloved, pathetic wife who is holding down the castle while I frolic through my midlife crisis.” She shoved the flowers into her assistant’s trash for good measure.

There. Take that, Pierce. A hollow gesture that you won’t even see.

Where was Jaycee’s assistant, anyway? She had just buzzed about the meeting. She should have been there.

Jaycee set a hand on the wall and pulsed magic through Frost Tower.

Her sidhe magic connected with the wards, which were embedded so deeply into the foundations that nobody knew they were there. Jaycee hadn’t filled out the proper paperwork with the proper authorities. They’d have never let her plant a magical building in the middle of Seattle without absurd regulatory nonsense.

Jaycee could set the entire thing on fire and turn it to ash within five minutes if she so chose. That was the beauty of below-board warding.

The wards were not catching fire at the moment. They were reporting to her.

And they reported…nothing.

Frost Tower was empty.

At this hour of day, that was impossible. People should have been trundling in from the parking garage for hours, and most employees were so mundane that they blared in Jaycee’s senses like stink lines on cartoon feces.

The wards detected nothing.

“Damn it all,” Jaycee said.

She took off her shoes—a pair of next season’s Manolos—and put them into her assistant’s drawer. The big one with the lock. Jaycee stuck her feet into sneakers instead. When something terrible is about to happen, fashion must be sacrificed for proper footwear.

The terrible thing started approximately ten seconds after Jaycee finished lacing the first shoe.

Her wards stopped being silent and started screaming.

Alert. Alert. Sidhe magic. Invasion. Alert.

“Tell me something I don’t know,” Jaycee said, flicking her fingers to dismiss the alerts. Her wards strangled into silence.

Through the windows, Seattle had become foggier. She couldn’t even see the bay anymore, or the streets directly ringing her building, for that matter.

She gathered her power into her fists and blacked out the windows, obstructing the fog’s view into the building.

Jaycee returned to her office, shutting and locking the door behind her.

A second door was hidden behind her desk. It was a secret exit built into a water feature. The sound of the fountain running always made Jaycee feel like she needed to pee urgently, but it cloaked her escape route perfectly.

With a gesture, the water stopped, the wall opened, and a passage to her helicopter pad appeared.

Jaycee slung her purse over her shoulder and headed through.

She was barely two steps down the passage when she heard the thudding on her door.

Someone was trying to get in.

Jaycee lifted her watch toward her lips. “Remind me to call insurance about the extent of our coverage for magical battles tomorrow.” Her digital personal assistant blooped in serene acknowledgement.

The thumping grew louder.

She ran into her secret passage and the door shut. It was a small tunnel illuminated by only witchlights, urging Jaycee onward.

On the other side of the wall, she heard her office breaking open. My insurance better replace that door. It had been hand-carved by some Moroccan designer that Pierce liked. For all that Jaycee was annoyed by her husband’s mysterious absence, she still wanted him to have his stupid, beloved Moroccan doors intact.

The entire tower shook. Plaster dust showered around her.

“Good God, have they sent an entire army after me?” She hadn’t done anything worthy of being attacked by an army.

Well, at least not this week.

But if this was an army thumping around in her tower, ruining all her beautiful expensive furnishings, then they could have only come from one place.

The new unseelie king was even more of a moody brat than Jaycee had anticipated, and she’d anticipated he would be very bratty.

She pressed her hand to the wall as she rounded a corner. The wards were accompanied by a second, stronger set of spells that would demolish the whole building. She’d hoped she wouldn’t have to use them, but, well, if an entire army was coming…

Better demolished than turning everything over to King Konig.

King Konig. Lord, the sidhe were bad at names. Konig meant “king” in some other language, so he was “King King.” They might as well have named him “serious attitude problem” on his birth certificate.

Would a child with a normal name, like Eugene, have ever had the nerve to invade Frost Tower?

Highly doubtful.

Jaycee activated her demolition spells.

A five minute countdown began.

It took another ninety seconds for her to spiral up to the rooftop. She was rounding the final curve when she heard an explosion from ahead.

Jaycee’s eyes widened as light poured into the tunnel.

“Well,” she said.

Nobody should have known the secret passage was there, but someone had broken into it on the far end.

In order to know it existed, the invaders either knew Jaycee’s architect—highly unlikely—or been capable of accessing her wards, which would have taken unusually powerful magic. She was betting on the second one. And her bet was confirmed when she emerged from the end of the tunnel.

“Well, well, well,” Jaycee said.

A frost giant was crouched on the rooftop, his hands braced on either side of what used to be a hidden escape hatch, looking down into the not-so-secret passage with a jagged face. He was bigger than a car and probably weighed as much. He turned the air around him so cold that moisture became snow.

And he had a witch mounted on his shoulder, sitting delicately as though she were riding a horse side-saddle.

Well, not a witch.

A mage.

“Hello, Jaycee,” said Marion Garin, Queen of the Unseelie, also known as the Voice of God.

“Hello, Marion,” Jaycee said. “Want to tell me what’s happening?”

The hallway trembled. The army had penetrated her secret door and was coming up from behind.

There was no escape.

“We’re here to arrest you for sedition,” Marion said.

“Sedition?” Jaycee asked. “Couldn’t you have come up with a charge more creative? Or perhaps more accurate? You could have unleashed mundane bureaucracy on me just by reporting this building to the OPA.”

“Konig decided on sedition,” she said.

Of all the undignified ways to lose Frost Tower. Getting arrested over a silly charge by the wife of some temperamental brat.

“Just so you know, this tower is about to be demolished, and everyone inside will die,” Jaycee said. “There’s just enough time for you to escape. You may be able to withdraw much of your army if they access the ley lines as well.”

“No, I don’t think so.” With a wave of Marion’s hand, she hijacked Jaycee’s spells, laying claim to all of Frost Tower.

And she disabled the wards while she was at it.

“Well,” Jaycee said again.

She hadn’t expected that one.

Marion had always been good at magic, but she hadn’t been that familiar with sidhe magic. Becoming queen had done her a lot of favors.

The queen slithered off of the frost giant’s shoulder and her midnight blue dress pooled around her. “Ymir, would you kindly…?”

Ymir punched the tunnel wider and then reached in to grab Jaycee like he was King Kong. She slapped his chilly hand away. “Don’t you dare.”

Jaycee took herself up onto the roof, thank you very much, emerging into that dense magic fog. Even though she couldn’t see it, she could feel a helicopter incoming, and if any pilot would be capable of approaching in such conditions, it would be Isidora.

Even now, with her safeguards destroyed, Jaycee was not without options. She was never without options.

“What is the real goal of this?” Jaycee asked, circling Marion warily. “Have you allowed yourself to become pawn in Konig’s game of grudges?”

“We have no grudge against you,” Marion said.

“Surely you don’t believe I’m a traitor.”

“You were in the Autumn Court at the same time as the former leaders of the Summer Court. You invaded our party without an invitation. We’ve every reason to think you’re colluding with the seelie traitors.”

Jaycee couldn’t deny that she’d been in the Autumn Court. She had taken advantage of an opening in the wards, but only so that she could look for Pierce.

Far more concerning was the other thing that Marion had said.

Former leaders?” Jaycee asked.

“We no longer recognize the sovereignty of the Summer Court. The entire Middle Worlds are ours, as they have always meant to be,” Marion said.

This arrest attempt was looking worse by the moment.

On the bright side, Jaycee’s sensitive hearing was picking up the chugging of chopper blades. Isidora was incoming.

Jaycee peeled away the illusions that made her appear human--very much like the human she’d been before Genesis, in fact. Her real skin was diamonds. Her hair was the black fog rolling in off of a stormy ocean at midnight. She was the moisture in the air, the mist that perpetually clung to Seattle.

Jaycee’s magic and presence extended into infinity. She was a mighty gaean creature, connected to the fabric of the Earth in the way that a half-angel could not be.

She understood that non-sidhe couldn’t handle the full effect of a sidhe’s presence. She was accustomed to hiding herself at all times to prevent humans from perceiving the well of gravity with Jaycee at its center.

Now she didn’t hold back.

She let it all out. She pushed it out, forcing it on Marion.

And she saw the moment that Marion was overwhelmed.

In someone as powerful as the Voice of God, it wasn’t a total mental breakdown. The pain was demonstrated by Marion wavering on her feet and her eyebrows crimping. It showed in the step backward that she needed to take, reaching out to Ymir as though she was no longer certain that the ground was stable under her feet.

Jaycee smiled. “Remember next time who you’re dealing with, my so-called queen.”

The helicopter was near. Jaycee felt it in the shifting air.

Jaycee summoned the wind of winter and her sneakers lifted from the roof of Frost Tower. It wasn’t a precise way to fly, but it flung her toward Isidora’s helicopter. It appeared in the fog as a black form, hovering like an oversized bee just beyond the edge of the roof.

She was almost there. She was going to escape.

But then the lightning.

It lanced through the sky in a bolt of blazing white. It struck the propeller.

The helicopter pitched to its side and tumbled from view.

In her shock, Jaycee lost control of the wind.

She tumbled through the air—an undignified head-over-heels cartwheel.

Electric magic snapped around her like a lasso, yanking her back.

Jaycee struck the roof in front of heeled shoes and navy blue spills of fabric. Looking up at Marion from below, the mage girl seemed taller, her hair brushing the sky as the smoking helicopter vanished behind her. Ymir sauntered up behind her. He cuffed Jaycee’s wrist and yanked her upright.

“Please,” Marion said. “Don’t waste your time fighting me. You have so little time left.”

The frost giant yanked them through the ley lines.


Konig had captured many political prisoners in his short reign as king, but he’d left Heather to worry about detaining most of them. Jaycee Hardwick was different. She was a prize—the head of a deer that he would mount on his wall to commemorate the hunt. He escorted her back to the Middle Worlds personally.

“Impressive,” Heather said, keeping pace with them as they headed into the depths of Niflheimr.

Jaycee wasn’t shackled, but she didn’t need to be. Every resident of the Winter Court lined the halls to see a Hardwick in custody. If she tried to escape, she’d be buried under a hundred blasts of simultaneous faefire.

The stick insect of a woman kept her chin held regally high. She didn’t make eye contact with anyone, remaining focused on the end of the hallway.

“She’s not that impressive.” Konig glanced behind him to make sure that Marion was still at his back. She was serenely quiet, surrounded by handmaidens, and without a single external indication of the enormous magic she’d cast to capture Jaycee Hardwick.

“I meant the fact you got her at all,” Heather said. “We’ve been looking for Jaycee and Pierce for weeks. I was starting to think we’d never find them.” Her lips twisted. “Although I suppose I shouldn’t underestimate you by this point.”

It was really Marion who shouldn’t be underestimated. She had declared that she was going to arrest Jaycee, and she had formed the plan. Konig had let her do it as a favor. In return, he’d taken the credit with the news media—and with his people.

Raising his voice, Konig said, “Draft a statement to be issued to all the Middle Worlds. Tell them that I’ve ensured the safety of the unseelie courts by removing a dangerous traitor.”

You removed her?” Heather asked in a neutral tone.

Perhaps she did know that Marion had been behind it all. Heather was much less stupid than the average sidhe woman.

Konig cast another glance at his wife—and at the hundreds of sidhe behind her, who were listening attentively to the conversation. “Yes, I captured her,” Konig said. “And she’ll be put on trial for what she’s done to us.”

“I’ll draft a statement,” Heather said.

She broke away from the others. She cut a stunning figure with her curves wrapped in brown leather, and Konig’s eyes lingered on her back as she raced away.

They arrived in Niflheimr’s dungeon. Most dissidents were kept in Myrkheimr, but Jaycee was too dangerous to bring into Konig’s childhood home. Instead, she would get to enjoy the abattoir that Konig had built to contain demons.

Jaycee peered through the doorway and gave a disdainful sniff. “If you were as civilized as your father, you’d have the courtesy to lock me in a proper bedroom.”

“If I was my father, I’d probably chain you to my bed,” Konig said. “Is that your preference?”

She laughed. “Cute. No. Thank you.” Her eyes flicked down to his tight trousers. “Really, no thank you.”

Jaycee didn’t permit the Raven Knights to touch her. She climbed into the abattoir all on her own, dignified but for the sneakers that didn’t match her skirt suit. “What do you think?” Konig asked Marion.

He wasn’t asking what she thought of the capture or the reaction from the sidhe. That didn’t matter. He was asking what she thought of the aftermath—especially the statement where Konig took credit.

If Marion were attempting to play Konig, as he’d long suspected, being deprived of due credit should have set her off. She had too much pride to take that.

She should have exploded.

But Marion smiled thinly.

“You know what I think,” she said, quietly enough that everyone in the hallways wouldn’t be able to hear her. “I think you’re trying to provoke me.”

Clever as always. He lowered his voice. “How does Jaycee fit into your little pet project, anyway? Is she somehow qualified to help you with the…angel thing?” Marion had been working on some kind of heritage project where she recovered artifacts from Dilmun. Sentimental girl stuff.

“You said you don’t care about my project,” she said.

“I don’t, as long as you keep your attention where it belongs,” Konig said.

“Believe me,” she said, “my attention is exactly where it belongs.” She shot a cold look down at Jaycee. “Capturing Jaycee is a safeguard. The Hardwicks are too strong to let the Summer Court get them first. I did this for you, my love.”

Gods, he loved her when she was like this, cruel and pragmatic and focused. “I love you.” Konig wrapped a hand around the back of Marion’s neck and dragged her toward him for a kiss.

She leaned into it, biting at his lips. “I know,” she whispered back.

He pushed her away as quickly as he’d grabbed her. “Take care of whatever remains on your agenda. I will interrogate Jaycee Hardwick.”

She gave a shallow curtsy. “My King.”

Marion took two of her handmaidens by the elbows, and they vanished into the ley lines.

“Stay here with me,” Konig said to the third handmaiden.

Maddisyn looked startled. “Of course.”

He shut the door to the hallway, leaving the Raven Knights and onlookers outside. Jaycee was so far down the hole that she wouldn’t be able to hear them talking, not that there was anything she could do with information she overheard now. “You haven’t turned in any reports lately.”

“Reports?” Maddisyn asked.

“On Marion,” Konig said with an amount of patience that should have won him some big prize, like a Nobel.

Maddisyn fidgeted, pulling on her hair. “Oh. Well. You two have been spending a lot of time together lately, so I just figured you knew everything she’s been getting up to from firsthand observation.”

Spending more time with Marion made Konig feel like he knew her less by the moment. She wouldn’t budge from his side for weeks, but then vanish for days to work on her heritage project. And she never told him what she was doing when she returned.

It was an open, simmering point of resentment between the two of them. They both knew that this would explode. They’d even said it to each other’s faces more than once.

Marion was doing something, even if she insisted that Jaycee wasn’t part of it. Konig was busy enough trying to conquer the Summer Court to let her do it. But he’d have it conquered soon enough. Then there would be nothing left to do except break down the puzzle of his wife.

“Have you seen her working on her project?” Konig asked.

Maddisyn was the worst of the handmaidens at keeping her cool. Her face was already reddening like she might cry. “I’ve picked her up from Dilmun a couple of times, but I never stick around.”

“What’s she doing in Dilmun? Is she alone?”

“Usually.”

“But not always?”

She chewed on a knuckle—a nervous habit she’d had as long as Konig had known her. Right now, her knuckle had been gnawed so much that the skin was raw. “Sometimes there are other angels.”

“Like who?” On a hunch, he asked, “Have you seen Leliel?” Leliel had long been an enemy of Marion’s, and even stabbed her a couple of times. There was no way in the world that they could be meeting amicably to do some trivial project.

Maddisyn’s gaze fixed to the floor at Konig’s feet. She wouldn’t look at him.

Konig seized Maddisyn’s arm. Hard. “Have you seen Marion with Leliel? Tell me right now.” He dragged her toward the edge of the abattoir, and she gave a tiny squeal. “Tell me, or you’ll join Jaycee!”

“Maddisyn?”

One of the Raven Knights, Wintersong, peered through the door. He was an old white-haired sidhe whose brain hadn’t worked right since Genesis. He’d always spoken with his words a little bit jumbled, his thoughts wandering, his behavior often inappropriate. Konig had written him off as a useless moron who was good with a sword.

Wintersong’s timing was way too good for a useless moron.

“What do you want?” Konig snapped, yanking Maddisyn away from the ledge.

“I camed here to get her to Marion,” Wintersong said. “They’s gots errands. Dresses fittings and shit.”

That was probably true. Sidhe had parties every day, and seldom wore outfits twice. They were constantly getting new dresses fitted.

Konig considered keeping Maddisyn anyway. He could pull the truth out of her with magic. He’d learned from keeping his political prisoners that even powerful gentry were susceptible to a good hard squeeze from, say, tree trunks.

But Jaycee was waiting for interrogation.

He Maddisyn go. She hugged Wintersong’s side, and he put an arm around her shoulder.

“Have fun with the dresses,” Konig said. “I’ll see you soon enough.” He bared his teeth at her in a grin. He’d been told he had a very handsome smile by women throughout his entire life. “Very soon.”


Konig expected Jaycee to be difficult to interrogate. He hadn’t expected her to ignore him completely. “Jaycee,” he snapped for approximately the seventeenth time since he’d entered the abattoir.

Again, she didn’t even look his way.

It wasn’t as though Jaycee Hardwick couldn’t hear him. The abattoir transmitted sound superbly. His voice resonated so clearly that it was like three other Konigs spoke from opposite ends of the room.

Yet she was still circling the bottom of the abattoir, staring at its blank walls of black ice as though they held all the information she needed for escape.

“Jaycee!” He lashed out with magic that time, making the walls blaze with fire.

She jerked away from the edge of the abattoir. “Like a toddler,” Jaycee snapped, upper lip curling as she surveyed Konig. “You’ll do whatever it takes for attention, no matter how obnoxious. There’s a reason Pierce and I never opted to breed little Hardwicks. I’ve no patience for snot-nosed children.”

Snot-nosed? Konig was attended by so many healers that his mucosa couldn’t have permitted him a runny nose if he’d waded through a sea of pollen, cat hair, and dust. “Why don’t you rephrase that in a way that’s more respectful toward the man who has you captive?”

Her laughter was unpleasantly sour. “Man?” Jaycee toed her shoes off, kicking them across the floor. Barefooted, fresh ice spread from underneath her toes. “Do me a favor of being frank. Tell me what you want modified so I can tell you where to shove that request.”

Konig surveyed her features—as symmetrical yet uniquely strange as those belonging to any sidhe.

She must have meant the darknet. It was the only thing that Konig knew to be associated with the Hardwicks, since the prominent unseelie couple had declined to be otherwise involved with the activities of royalty.

“I want access to the records on the defenses on each court,” Konig said smoothly, as if that was what he’d intended all along. As if capturing Jaycee hadn’t been Marion’s idea.

“Records on defenses?” Jaycee snorted. That snort had haunted Konig’s nightmares ever since the one time she’d babysat him as a child. She’d never found any of his antics endearing, or even tolerable. “It’s insulting to use me for access to records. Gods, Konig. You may as well have contracted a mundane white hat for that.”

“You think you’re too good to give me what I want?”

“In every sense of the sentiment.”

Konig’s shoulders prickled. “What else would I want from the darknet?”

“Anything,” Jaycee said. “Everything. Rage didn’t tell you what the darknet can do?”

There was a lot Rage hadn’t told Konig.

In fact, Konig hadn’t seen the former king much lately. He’d lost his mate—Konig’s mother—to a bullet from Death’s gun, and with it had gone everything but a tenuous grip on sanity. His health was declining faster and faster. Rage seldom got out of bed.

“I’ll make a deal with you,” Jaycee said.

“You’re my captive. You have nothing to offer,” Konig said.

“Even the darknet?”

“I’ve sold administrator access away and I can buy it back from the vampire who holds it. I don’t need you for anything.”

“The administrator owns all the front end of the darknet,” Jaycee said. “There’s much more to the back end of the darknet that you can’t dream of. I can tell you what it’s capable of. I can tell you how to get what you want.”

“In exchange for what?” Konig’s eyes narrowed. “Your freedom?”

“Pierce,” Jaycee said. “He’s hiding from me, most likely somewhere in the Middle Worlds. Find him for me. Find him, and I’ll tell you how to change the rule of the Middle Worlds from matriarchal to patriarchal.”

Konig’s heart stopped beating.

If he didn’t need to be married to Marion in order to rule, then…well, he wouldn’t need Marion at all.

“I’m very interested,” Konig said.

COLLAPSE

Cast in Faefire

An Urban Fantasy Romance

Marion Garin, the Voice of God, is due to marry the Prince of the Autumn Court by the end of the week - assuming that the world's preternatural leadership doesn't have anything to say about it. They plan to strip Prince ErlKonig of his title, ensuring that Marion can't form a god-forbidden treaty with the angels.

Still injured from his final fight in Sheol, Seth Wilder is seeking a way to stay alive. If he dies, he'll lose more than his life - he'll be slave to the gods' whims for all eternity. He's ready to take drastic steps. Maybe even make a bargain with the vampires. But what the gods want, they get. And they don't appreciate being defied.

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Niflheimr’s throne room had changed drastically in the last month, more so than any other part of the palace, thanks to Konig’s mother. Violet had moved in during Marion’s recovery and taken charge of decorating for the wedding. Many of her touches were clearly meant to be permanent, though, from the tapestries of nymphs that concealed the cogs of ice to the furniture scattered around the nave.

The queen herself was seated upon the throne when Marion and Konig arrived. “You’re late.”

“Barely,” said their guest, checking her watch. Deirdre Tombs offered a smile to Marion. “I’ll forgive you for it this time, I guess.”

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The shifter leading the American Gaean Commission was startlingly young—which said a lot, considering Marion had yet to hit her twentieth birthday. Deirdre wore chunky combat boots, leather leggings, a leather jacket, and a tight leather corset. She looked like she should have been heading to a vampire bar for a night of blood-letting fun.

Deirdre jerked a thumb at the ornate chair Violet was sitting in. “Good move not doing another ice throne. I’ve got no idea what they were thinking the first time around, making a seat that melts.”

Marion extended her hand to shake. “I’m so grateful that you were willing to have this conversation here. I know it’s not convenient for gaeans to travel between the Middle Worlds.”

“Really?” Deirdre looked at her hand, laughed, and pulled Marion into a hug.

“Oh,” Marion said, surprised.

Deirdre looked just as surprised when she stepped back. “What’s wrong?”

Marion hadn’t inferred a friendship with Deirdre Tombs from reading her own journals, which had been written in a code that assigned obscure nicknames to everyone Marion knew. If they were friends, Marion surely would have written about it. She’d have to figure out what she had called Deirdre to know their history.

At least the AGC chair was greeting Marion with a hug instead of a gun.

“Wedding planning is overwhelming,” Violet said when Marion failed to think of a response. “I’m afraid my future daughter-in-law has been distracted these past few weeks.”

“Thanks for the help, mother,” Konig said pointedly.

Violet gave him a thin smile and finally stood.

The Onyx Queen was the obvious source of her son’s otherworldly beauty. White hair flowed around a face shaped like his. Chains dangled from her tiara, just above the delicate bridge of her nose, and the fullness of her lips was the color of roses faded in sun.

When she slid down the steps from the throne, she was trailed by voluminous veils that made Marion’s dress look like something she’d picked up at a gas station. It was the kind of descent that would have made anyone stop to stare. “Jolene Chang has already been released back to Earth,” Violet said. “We couldn’t allow her to stay. She wouldn’t answer any of our questions.”

Deirdre folded her arms. “What did you ask?”

“The wrong questions,” Violet said. “If we’d asked the right things, we’d know why she was in the dungeons. Did you sanction her spying? Is that why you agreed to have this meeting in the Winter Court?”

“Mother,” Konig snapped.

“It’s a fair question,” Deirdre said, lifting one shoulder in a shrug. “Jolene thinks she can find the darknet servers.”

Heather had been right.

“Then you did sanction it,” Violet said.

“No, I told her not to run off. If the darknet servers really are in the Winter Court, then they wouldn’t be easily accessible from Niflheimr, and we’re not in the habit of spying on allies,” Deirdre said. “I’m sorry for Jolene’s behavior. Thanks for taking it easy on her.”

Violet inclined her head in graceful acceptance of the apology. “Then what do you want, Deirdre Tombs?”

“I was hoping I could just talk to Marion,” Deirdre said. “Marion and Konig, if he’s still speaker for the unseelie. And the talk should be alone, ideally.”

“We aren’t really speakers anymore,” Marion said. “We only fulfilled those roles at the summit.”

“You’re both still authorized to make decisions for your factions, though,” Deirdre said. “You know your favorite terrorist’s gone legit, right?”

That was clearly a personal reference Marion should have understood. “Yes, I’m fully aware of your work with the American Gaean Commission. You’re doing wonderful things.”

Wonderful things, and dangerous things. Deirdre represented direct opposition to Rylie Gresham’s institution. She’d also been gathering faction-free North American Union preternaturals at her back, forming something that resembled a rebellion, if not an overt army. She was chaos in shifter form, as far as the establishment was concerned, but she draped herself in the robes of justice. Democracy.

Deirdre presented a thick binder with “Proposal for International Preternatural Council” on the cover. “I want to make a permanent coalition out of the people who attended the summit. I think we can accomplish a lot of good for the world with ongoing cooperation. Here, look at this.”

Marion took the binder and sat in one of the chairs on the floor of the throne room. It was the kind of furniture that Violet liked, all hand-carved wood and hard seats. She was forced to sit very straight or slide off onto the ground.

She flipped through the pages. It was a lot of information, but as a half-angel, Marion was capable of consuming staggering amounts of information in minimal time. Once she’d realized that she could speed-read at a rate of ten thousand words per minute with a little touch of angel magic, it had made tearing through her old journals a much easier chore.

Now she employed it to inhale Deirdre’s proposal.

“It’s good,” Marion said, shutting the binder.

Amusement touched Deirdre’s full lips. Amusement, but not surprise—she must have known Marion well indeed. “Gotta say, I’m relieved to have your approval. You’re the linchpin.”

“How so?” Konig asked.

“In the same way that she ensured the honesty of negotiations at the summit.” Deirdre lifted her wrist to flash a bracelet identical to the one that Marion had used on Geoff Samuelson.

Marion relaxed a tiny amount—as much as she could while sitting in one of Violet’s stiff chairs. The bracelet’s compulsion meant Deirdre couldn’t lie. When she said that she wanted to use the group to benefit the world, she must have been honest about the good intentions.

“We’ve also adapted the magically binding contract you wrote up for the summit to create a new contract for this council,” Deirdre said. “I’ve got copies both of you can check out. All the other factions have already signed on, including Adàn Pedregon, and he’s a real pain in the ass.”

She took a pair of envelopes from her bag, handing one to Marion and then climbing the stairs to give the other to Konig. He’d sat on the throne that his mother had vacated. His lazy rockstar posture made him look a little too sullen to be king.

“Here’s the proposal for those who can’t read War and Peace in a half hour. Each speaker agrees to contribute to a system of checks and balances for the factions. When we vote on something, the vote’s binding, magical-style. If we all vote to say that it’s illegal for sidhe to eat cupcakes, we’ve all gotta enforce that.”

“I’m not voting against cupcakes,” Marion said.

“Just an example,” Deirdre said. “Full disclosure, motivated by my fancy-shiny bracelet: the voting body will also be capable of removing people from power. If Rylie Gresham goes nuts, we’ll be able to vote a new Alpha in without a nationwide election.”

Violet peered over her son’s shoulder at the contract. “This sounds unconscionably intrusive.”

“It’s a way to take overwhelming power from any one faction. It’s a safety net.”

“It’s undemocratic to take leadership choices away from the people,” Marion said.

Deirdre smiled at Marion. “The Alpha only became an electable position because Rylie wanted it that way, so she’s still got absolute power. Without this agreement, she can change her mind about holding elections at all.”

“This would impact the sidhe royal families.” Violet plucked the contract out of Konig’s hands. He took it back.

“Stop, mother,” he said. “This is my choice. You made me speaker for the unseelie. And I have to say, Deirdre, I’m intrigued.”

“You should be. This could save lives. A lot of lives.” Deirdre planted her hands on her hips. “Look, Genesis screwed everything up, big time. And you know what caused that?”

“The gods dicking around with reality?” Konig suggested.

“Pre-Genesis factions pissing off the gods,” Deirdre said. “The angels were getting all up in everyone’s business, and the demons pulled the Breaking thing, and it was a mess. Rebooting the universe was the gods’ solution to cleaning it up. We’re lucky we didn’t get forty days and nights of rain too.”

“You want to be able to have all of the factions magically bound together to prevent another Genesis,” Marion said.

“Exactly. We’ll only vote on big stuff like that. It takes ten of the twelve factions agreeing we need a vote in order to do it. Although we can also chat more casually about other stuff—open up more diplomatic relations and stuff.”

Marion skimmed her copy of the contract. It was bordered with ethereal runes like those she had all over spellbooks in her private home, back on Vancouver Island. She traced her fingertips along the runes as the internet guides to magic had instructed. The spells whispered their truths to her.

Despite the simple designs, the magic behind them was immense. The elegance and complexity were breath-taking. Marion had a hard time imagining she’d ever been able to craft such a thing even though her fingerprints were all over it. The spells practically sang in delight at her acknowledgment.

It would be easy enough to activate the runes in the master contract. Marion could definitely bind the council.

“This absolutely cannot go through,” Violet said.

“It’s not your decision,” Deirdre said. “Right, Prince ErlKonig?”

He puffed up at being addressed directly. “Right.”

“I like the idea,” Marion said. The last thing they needed was another Genesis, and the gods had made it clear they weren’t afraid of interfering when people made them angry. “I have to wonder, though—what’s the specific motivation behind getting this together now?”

“It was inspired by events at the summit,” Deirdre said promptly. “We’ve got to be able to unite against threats—like demons—that might motivate another god-driven catastrophe.”

She set the master contract out on a marble-topped table and produced a pen.

Everyone had signed it. Everyone. Ten of twelve factions.

“I’m amazed you got everyone to cooperate,” Marion said. She’d barely survived the week of the summit without punching anyone in the nose, and she wasn’t exactly the nose punching type.

“You’re not the only one who’s good at politics,” Deirdre said. “Plus the whole ‘I can set fire to anyone who pisses me off’ thing doesn’t hurt.”

Marion’s eyes widened. She’d been told Deirdre Tombs was a shapeshifter. What kind of shifter could set fire to people?

Deirdre misinterpreted her reaction. “I’m kidding. I’ve spent weeks talking everyone into it. Cupcakes might have been involved—not cupcakes I made, mind you, because I’m awful at baking. Good cupcakes.”

“You didn’t bring any for me?”

“Sorry, I didn’t think they’d last the trip between worlds. I’ll give you an IOU if you sign.” She offered the pen to Marion. “All my work to this point means nothing if you and your husband-to-be don’t join the group.”

Violet ripped the pen out of Deirdre’s hand. “Where were you, Deirdre Tombs, when the sidhe courts needed to be established? What did you sacrifice to establish benevolent monarchies that would care for the sidhe, when nobody else did?”

Deirdre didn’t even blink. “I was getting shuttled between orphanages because Genesis killed my dad and left me without a home.”

Konig sauntered down the stairs and took the pen from his mother. “I’ll sign, and you will too, Marion.”

“You’re making a grave mistake,” Violet said.

Her son had already signed.

Now he extended the pen to Marion. “Do it, princess.”

Deirdre was practically glowing as Marion signed. “Now you just have to activate it,” the shifter said. “Go ahead.”

Marion stroked the page. She felt the instant that the binding spell activated. It locked into her breastbone like an invisible golden chain.

For a moment, the pain was so immense that she couldn’t breathe.

It was gone as quickly.

“Thanks,” Deirdre folded the contract and tucked it into her bag again. “I look forward to seeing you guys at the vote next week.”

Marion blinked. “Next week?”

“We’re voting to have Konig’s title as Prince of the Autumn Court removed. He won’t be heir. He won’t hold lands. That way, if the two of you get married, the peace treaty with the angels still won’t extend to the Winter Court.” Deirdre’s shrug almost looked embarrassed. “Sorry.”

“But…but…” Marion’s mouth opened and closed. The only thing she managed to get out was, “You’re wearing the bracelet.”

“I told you nothing but the truth, so help me gods. The voting body is meant to prevent god-level disasters again. And like you told us at the summit, Marion: the gods will have blood if you let the angels have the Winter Court.” Fierce light filled Deirdre’s eyes. “I’m not going to let that happen.”

“That’s not what we’re planning to do,” Marion said. She’d never dream of giving the Winter Court to the angels once Leliel killed the refugees.

“But you could do it,” Deirdre said. “Just like how Rylie doesn’t have to have elections for Alpha because she’s got absolute power. Nobody can have absolute power to ruin the world—even you, Marion.”

Shimmering magic overcame Konig. Niflheimr trembled with his fury. “I signed your contract!”

Marion felt dizzy. Ten of twelve people are needed to call a vote.

Everyone Deirdre had spoken to had agreed that Konig needed to be removed as prince.

Everyone she had worked with at the summit.

“Get her!” Violet roared, thrusting a finger toward the shifter.

The Raven Knights materialized from the ley lines. Even Marion, mostly immune to the reality distortion effects of sidhe magic, found herself incapable of standing when they swarmed in with battle magic flaring. She lost all sense of body. Her eyes and ears overloaded, reducing Niflheimr to fuzzy whiteness.

She could still see enough to know that Deirdre shifted in a burst of flame. The AGC chair became a fire bird—something halfway between heron and hawk, assuming she’d been rolled in kerosine then shot through a bonfire via cannon.

Deirdre seized the bag with the contract in massive talons and vanished into the night, untouched.

“So much for cupcakes,” Marion said faintly.

COLLAPSE

Cast in Hellfire

An Urban Fantasy Romance

Marion Garin is the  daughter of Metaraon, the former Voice of God. Now she's also the steward of the Winter Court, which has been in anarchy since a revolution five years earlier.

Problem: Marion still doesn't remember anything that happened before two weeks ago.

Seth Wilder has a lead on her memories. Whoever stole them and sold Marion's essence to a demon lord in Sheol. Marion wants to help steal them back, even though that means abandoning the Winter Court to war. And Seth can't seem to tell Marion no.

He wants Marion nearby. Very nearby. Possibly in his teeth. See, Seth has this little problem where he's developing a killing urge, and it seems to be centered primarily on the half-angel girl who adores him. It conflicts with everything Seth believes himself to be: a moral man, a doctor who heals instead of hurts. Yet he's obsessed with Marion. She wants her memories, and he wants her to have them as much as he wants her blood.

They'll work together to make Marion whole, come hell or high water. Even if it means war. Even if it means Seth might hurt Marion. And damned be the consequences...

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Publisher: Red Iris Books
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Excerpt:

Marion Garin gripped a pen so hard that it snapped.

Black ink oozed across the table. She bit the inside of her cheek and tried to mop it up with a piece of official stationary before anyone noticed.

“What’s wrong with you?” muttered the vampire on Marion’s left. Her name was Jolene Chang, and she was representing the American Gaean Commission. Jolene was an asanbosam—a weak breed with knives for teeth, long fingernails, and insignificant social power. Yet Marion was forced to sit beside her.

What was wrong with her? Marion wasn’t seated at the head of the table, that was what was wrong with her.

She was among a dozen preternaturals who had been selected as speakers for their various factions, which meant that she was ranked equally among them in this particular context. But in every context—including this one—she was still the Voice of God, and she should have been in charge.

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Instead, she was seated at the far end of the table beside Jolene, a great big nobody, and another vampire delegate, Lucifer, who was as much a nobody.

Being surrounded by speakers from insignificant factions spoke volumes about the organizers’ respect for Marion.

On the other hand, Prince ErlKonig of the Autumn Court was seated near the head of the table. When he caught her looking at him, he winked. Marion reluctantly smiled.

“Cast your votes,” said Rylie Gresham, Alpha of the North American Union shapeshifters.

She was the one in charge, so she had been seated at the place of honor at the head of the table. It was her logo on everything. Her blond-haired, apple-cheeked face on the posters ringing the room. Her guards, from both the Summer Court and the shifter sanctuary, protecting the doors and watching the delegates to make sure that they couldn’t cheat while voting.

Rylie Gresham was all over everything.

Marion couldn’t cast her vote with a broken pen. She gestured to her assistant for help. Jibril was an angel who looked as pleased to be her assistant as he would have been to scrape dog crap off of the bottom of his designer shoes.

Everyone else around the table had already marked off their vote, folded their papers, and passed them to Rylie.

That was how they were voting. They were writing “yes” or “no” on a paper, and then Rylie would count them. It was irritatingly low-tech for a summit of such importance.

Konig had said that Marion had originally been slated to cast some kind of voting spell. Unfortunately, Marion’s oeuvre at the moment was more along the lines of breaking pens, irritating the angels, and making people hate her, and not so much with the politically oriented magic.

So they were casting votes manually.

Marion glanced at Konig again. He was sitting back in his chair, hands folded behind his head. The decision had been easy for him.

Marion moved to mark her vote, but the tip of her new pen hovered over a clean sheet of paper…and she didn’t know what to write.

It felt like everyone was looking at her.

Jolene certainly was. So was Jibril. Marion didn’t want to look at anyone else in case they really were, too.

What is wrong with you?

A question that applied perfectly to so many situations.

Marion wrote quickly. She folded her paper. And then she passed it to Rylie Gresham.

Rylie’s eyes were warm but worried when she smiled at Marion. Their hands brushed, and Rylie’s fingers lingered in a fashion that was most likely meant to be comforting. “It will only take a moment to add these up,” Rylie said, returning to her seat.

The Alpha sorted them by yes and no votes. She counted them, and then had her Alpha mate count them as well. Abel seemed to take longer to count. He probably struggled to get above numbers like five or six. Abel was a stupid idiot moron who had only become important because the skanky Alpha female was sleeping with him.

Marion was so busy glaring at Abel and thinking mean things that she forgot to be anxious about the outcome of the vote.

“No,” Rylie finally said. “Nine votes say no. Four say yes.”

There were no cheers, no groans. Not a sound in the entire room.

Quite the anticlimax.

“Thanks for your time,” Rylie added.

Chairs were pushed back. Bodies shifted.

Then the whispers started.

Marion watched the others without getting up. She was getting better at picking up on their thoughts. That was apparently part of her oeuvre too—part of the oeuvre of anyone who had angel blood, which Marion did, though hers was watered down more than that of the others. She was only half-angel. Half seemed to be more enough.

Elation radiated from the seelie sidhe serving as speaker for the Summer Court. Storm must have voted no.

His elation was tinged with anxiety, though. He knew what his “no” meant.

Adàn Pedregon, speaker for Los Cambiaformas Internacional, was only angry as he stormed past Marion. He’d likely voted yes, as getting the angels out of the Ethereal Levant would mean more room for his gaeans to expand—or perhaps an easy route to move down into Africa.

She didn’t need to reach into Konig’s mind to know how he’d voted. He had told Marion how he wanted things to go, and she had ultimately agreed with him.

“What did you write?” Jibril asked.

Marion stood, smoothing her dress. It was a flashy thing that day: a red dress with a fitted bodice and ridiculous number of skirt layers, more akin to something sidhe might wear than an angel, half-blood or otherwise.

“Votes are private,” she said, stepping into the hallway behind the other speakers. Marion glanced over her shoulder at Rylie and Abel, who were still seated at the head of the table, discussing the votes in whispers.

“Votes aren’t private within the factions.” Jibril grabbed Marion’s arm the instant that the door swung shut behind her. “Did you vote for angels to get control of the Winter Court?”

The Winter Court was in the Middle Worlds: one of the four courts that was meant to be occupied by the sidhe. Specifically, it should have been occupied by the unseelie sidhe.

There had been a coup five years earlier which had resulted in the queen’s assassination. The rebels hadn’t managed to maintain power either, and since then, the Winter Court had been in anarchy.

The angels wanted that Middle World for themselves.

The gods had commanded that Marion should take stewardship of it until the unseelie could resume leadership.

The vote of nine against four meant that an overwhelming majority agreed with the gods.

“Hands off, angel.” Konig had been waiting for Marion outside the board room, leaning nonchalantly against the wall. Now he hovered beside them and he radiated danger.

Jibril released his grip on Marion instantly. He knew better than to pick a fight with Marion’s boyfriend.

“Are you okay?” Marion asked. She couldn’t imagine that Konig was thrilled about the outcome of the meeting.

“Of course I am. It’s over! Now we can deal with the next thing.” Konig was immediately pleasant again once he’d been obeyed. It was shocking how quickly he swung between intimidation and charm. “I thought I’d die of boredom during all the final speeches leading up to the vote.” He planted a kiss on Marion’s lips, wrapping a firm arm around her waist.

“Me too,” she said. “And they seated me so far away from you.”

“Precious thing,” Konig said. He seemed to think that Marion was offended that they didn’t get to sit together, not that she had been seated with a couple of vampires.

Jibril made an impatient noise when they continued to kiss.

“Time to turn this loss into a victory,” Konig said. “Good thing I had my knights getting everything packed this week, just in case. Now you and I can get to our home. Our new home.”

Her heart fluttered. “Already?”

“The sooner we move in, the sooner we can get the refugees somewhere safe.” He beamed at her, excitement glowing from the violet gemstones of his eyes. Sidhe weren’t subtle about any of their emotions, whether it was anger, lust, or happiness. He was shining brighter than the sun. “And the sooner we can get comfortable in Niflheimr.”

Marion wasn’t shining along with him. She had been trying not to think too hard about what the “no” vote would mean personally.

War with the angels was bad enough.

Becoming steward of the Winter Court—a Middle World frozen in eternal darkness—meant that Marion had to leave her comfortable home on Vancouver Island to live in Niflheimr.

Marion found the idea of such a leadership position appealing. The climate…not quite so much.

At least Konig had agreed to go with her if such a thing happened. He wasn’t from the Winter Court, but his unseelie power meant he’d be able to engage most of the wards around Niflheimr, and he was more familiar with the local culture. Together, they would cooperate to gather refugees and start the court anew.

It was like buying their first house together. Except that house happened to come with vassals, enemies, and an entire kingdom.

As a prince, Konig had spent his life prepared for such responsibility, and he got to do it with his girlfriend at his side. Of course he was excited.

“I should see Jibril off,” Marion said, twining her arms around Konig’s neck. “Will you wait for me?”

“Afraid not, princess. Have to give the order to start moving my belongings into the Winter Court. I’ll have Nori pick you up in a couple hours. Don’t be surprised if you get waylaid in the Autumn Court—my mother will want your feedback on her decisions about redecorating Niflheimr.” He rolled his eyes.

Her decisions?” Marion asked.

“Don’t start with me.” Konig kissed her again, hard enough to take her breath away and scramble her thoughts.

He released her, and Marion staggered, hand pressed to her beating heart.

The look he gave her… It almost made Marion forget about how queasy she felt about the outcome of the vote.

How could Konig be “business as usual” when that decision was going to piss off the angels so thoroughly?

He was already striding away with his entourage, leaving Marion with Jibril. The hall had otherwise emptied. Everyone was in a rush to get home.

Get home, and probably batten down the hatches.

“Well, Marion?” Jibril demanded.

Marion swallowed the knot in her throat and got into the next elevator. An empty one. “It doesn’t matter what I voted. We lost.”

“We’ll appeal,” Jibril said, joining her in the elevator.

She pushed the button to take them to the zeppelin dock at the apex of the tower. “Appeals aren’t possible.” That vote had concluded the summit. There had been other, more minor issues debated in the last week—such as territory squabbles between independent shifter packs—but the fate of the Winter Court was the only issue everyone had cared about.

“What am I supposed to take back to the EL?” Jibril asked. “I can’t tell them we’ve lost.”

The lights flickered.

“Control yourself,” Marion said. “You’ll break the elevator.” Angels could disable everything electrically powered within a mile if their power flared—say, during an emotional outburst. Jibril looked to be on the brink of an outburst that could fry all of New York City.

“Don’t you know what Leliel will do?”

Marion could imagine. Leliel was the ruthless leader in the Ethereal Levant—an angel who had been de-winged shortly before Genesis and hadn’t taken the amputation gracefully.

She’d tried to assassinate Marion in order to keep her from delivering a message from the gods. The one that had led to the vote.

Leliel was not a woman with an even temper.

Marion sighed, massaging her temples with her fingertips. “I’m sorry, Jibril.” She lowered her voice. “If it makes you feel any better, I voted yes.”

Jibril’s eyes widened. “You did?”

“I’m the Voice of God, not the Mindless Obedient Zombie of God. I’m allowed to have my own opinions.” At least, Marion assumed she was allowed such things. Her memories didn’t stretch far enough back to include her last conversation with the gods, presumably when they had told her that they wanted the angels to stay out of the Middle Worlds.

“Why?” Jibril asked. “You want to run the Winter Court. You want to run everything.”

Marion wasn’t going to argue with that. “Believe it or not, I don’t want to fight with you people, nor do I want angels to die out. If the Winter Court’s the best place for all of you to nest, then you should have it.”

“You’ve surprised me.” Jibril drummed his fingers on his hip. “What would you think of negotiating some kind of compromise, now that you’re steward?”

“I’d be thrilled to discuss it. I’d also be shocked if Leliel is willing to talk to me rationally.”

“We’ll see about that,” Jibril said. “We can arrange something without her, though. I’ll meet you and Prince ErlKonig tonight in the Winter Court. There may be something we can do.”

“Hopefully Leliel will come.” After all, Leliel led the angels in Dilmun—they couldn’t make a binding agreement without her. “I’ll propose negotiations to her personally.”

The angel had failed to kill Marion once already. She was reasonably certain she could handle another tantrum from that woman.

And Leliel probably wouldn’t try to murder her now that the summit was over. Angels were, if nothing else, deeply logical creatures. The vote had ended, so killing Marion at that point would only be a waste of energy and a great way to piss off the Autumn Court.

The elevator chimed and its doors slid open. The dock was already occupied by the rest of the ethereal delegation, preparing to return to the EL after the summit.

Suzume stood on the left—an amusingly crass angel—with Leliel on her right. Marion had been planning to escort Jibril to the edge of the dock, but the sight of Leliel stopped her two feet in front of the elevator.

Leliel was beautiful. Curvaceous for an angel, statuesque, auburn-haired with skin in warm olive tones. Her body was draped in layers of peach that accentuated her large breasts and hips. She could have also probably hidden a few knives under that dress. Maybe even one of the flaming swords angels so often carried.

The instant that Marion saw her expression, Marion knew that Leliel had already heard of the vote.

“I have a message for you to deliver to your in-laws,” Leliel said. “Tell them that war is coming.”

“Wait, Leliel. We should talk,” Marion said.

“You’ve done enough, mage girl.” Her enchanted wings whipped free of the tattoos on her back. The other angels unfurled their wings as well—genuine wings, feathers glowing with so much energy that all the lights immediately extinguished in the dock.

The wind caught them, and they were gone.

Marion stepped up to the edge to watch the three of them go. She had a foul taste in her mouth.

“I voted in your favor, dammit,” she said into the foggy evening.

But it didn’t matter.

Marion’s fists were shaking, and she realized that her fingernails had cut neat half-moons into her palm because they’d been clenched so tightly.

Strangely, she wasn’t angry that Leliel refused to listen. Marion never would have expected her offer to talk to go over well.

She felt queasy that she’d even voted in the favor of Leliel, her would-be killer, even she and Konig had agreed that it would be the easiest way to prevent war.

What’s wrong with you? Jolene had asked.

“If only I knew,” she muttered.

COLLAPSE

Cast in Angelfire

An Urban Fantasy Romance

Book Cover: Cast in Angelfire
Editions:Paperback - First Edition: $ 14.99 USD
ISBN: 9781937733995
Size: 8.00 x 5.00 in
Pages: 342
ePub - First Edition: $ 4.99 USD
ISBN: 9781937733322
Pages: 350
Kindle: $ 3.99 USD
ISBN: B01CN5G0EO

Marion can’t remember anything before waking up at Mercy Hospital. All she knows that a lot of people want to kill her. And her would-be assassins are not human…

Faeries are real. So are vampires and angels.

They all want Marion dead.

Surrounded by enemies, Marion turns to Lucas Flynn: a mysterious doctor as good with a gun as he is with a scalpel. He fights like a demon but claims that he’s human. And he’s hellbent on protecting Marion.

Lucas claims that Marion is a half-witch, half-angel mage with terrifying powers that could crack the world. But Marion can’t remember how to cast magic any more than she can remember where she comes from.

Marion must find her identity and her power…before the forgotten sins of her past catch up with her.

Excerpt:

CHAPTER ONE

Billings, Montana—September 2030

There was a bounty on the life of a girl named Marion. The dollar figure was high enough that the real question wasn’t whether she would die—it was how quickly, and who would land the reward.

The bounty was passed around on darknet forums where killers sought their next paychecks. The darknet had become more advanced as unseelie sidhe developed technology so complex that it seemed to be magical, and the content was immune to the eye of law enforcement, since the servers were hidden in the Winter Court. Only people invited to the darknet could access it. Invitations were not cheap, and they could never be purchased with money.

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The original posting of the bounty said that the target answered to “Marion,” and that she had multiple last names. This Marion had been born in 2011—four years before Genesis rebooted the world, spewing vampires, faeries, and a thousand other preternatural breeds across the face of the Earth.

It also said that she needed to die before the first of November. That meant that there was less than a month to form a plan, track her down, and murder her.

The bounty’s poster included a blurry photograph of the target taken from a distance. Only her wavy brunette hair was distinct, but she stood near a bus shelter, which allowed Geoff Samuelson to approximate her height at five feet, ten inches—perhaps a bit taller.

The information wasn’t much, but it was enough for Geoff to get that bounty.

And he didn’t plan to share.

“She’s only nineteen,” said Vasicek. “A baby.”

“Nineteen’s old enough to screw, and it’s old enough to die for your country,” Geoff said.

Vasicek slipped a magazine into his sniper rifle. “I’m not saying it’s a problem. I’m stating fact. My little sister is older than she is.”

“She musta done something to piss people off,” Geoff said. Nobody got million-dollar bounties put on their head unless they really deserved it. That was the thought that had been comforting Geoff while crossing the North American Union on Amtrak, rushing toward the target’s last known location in Montana. If someone was willing to pay that much money to knock off Marion Multiple-Last-Names, then she probably deserved it.

The thought of what Geoff would do with all that money was its own kind of comfort, too.

Vasicek had a dreamy look that said he was contemplating something similar. Even the serpents coiled over his ears looked like they were fantasizing about the bounty. “What do you think you’ll do with your half?”

“I’m out of this business,” Geoff said. “Out of the business, out of the country, retiring for life.”

“The money’s good, but not that good.”

It would be once Geoff murdered Vasicek, ensuring that he didn’t have to split the bounty in half. “What are you planning to do with your cut?”

“I’m franchising. Got lots of connections who are, you know, like me.” Vasicek probably meant demons in general, not specifically megaira. His specific breed made good assassins, though. They fed on aggression the way vampires fed on blood. “Us types do good with this killing stuff. I’ll buy ‘em, pay ‘em a salary, collect lots more bounties. Get some fat stacks going.”

“Like the Mary Kay of murder?”

“The Wal-Mart of murder. We’ll be huge. We’ll dominate.” The snakes creating Vasicek’s hair laughed along with him in a chorus of cruel hissing.

It was a nice fantasy all right. Before Genesis, Vasicek might have been able to do such a thing. Demons had been almost as numerous as humans back in those days, and there had been no sidhe or shifters to compete with. Now there weren’t many demons for Vasicek to hire. They’d all been shoved into the Nether Worlds, then the key to the door tossed away.

Geoff didn’t bother pointing out how impractical the plan was. Vasicek should enjoy the fantasy while it lasted. In a few hours, he’d be bleeding sulfurous blood onto the pavement, his soul dragged to the Nether Worlds to be with his brethren. No Wal-Mart of murder for him. Not on this plane.

“It’s a nice idea.” Geoff got to his feet as the train halted. He shouldered his backpack, which was a lot smaller than Vasicek’s gun-laden duffel bag. Geoff didn’t need weapons to kill. “Dream big, bro.”

“Dream and keep on dreaming,” Vasicek agreed.

The train station wasn’t far from the target, so Geoff braced himself for competition—the legions of assassins, primarily sidhe, who would be closing in on the same million-dollar skull that he was. It felt anticlimactic to step off the train to no fanfare, no blood, no gunfire.

He hoped they weren’t too late to kill Marion.

Their destination waited on the other side of the street. Original Sin. The name was picked out in bold neon sparkling with magic.

It was one of many clubs under the same name—a franchise not unlike Wal-Mart. This was the kind of franchise that mundane humans couldn’t see, though. Mundane humans passed on the sidewalk without ever glancing at it. Their eyes skipped from the tattoo parlor to the lingerie shop on the other side, like that space between didn’t exist.

Even Geoff had a hard time focusing on any of the Original Sins he’d visited. Like the darknet, Original Sin was intended only for the kind of souls who could locate it, and the owners didn’t make that an easy chore.

“What time did the email say?” Geoff asked.

Vasicek said, “Midnight.”

The train had been delayed at its last station; the time was already after eleven thirty. Geoff and Vasicek wouldn’t have much time to set up.

The bouncer at the door for Original Sin had the strange glittering flesh that was a hallmark of sidhe—also known as faeries, though the sidhe had made it clear that wasn’t their preferred term. And most people were smart enough to call sidhe whatever the hell they wanted.

Sidhe were a whole other deterrent to visiting Original Sin. The sheer power of their magic warped the world, consuming all light and emanating it from their glittering flesh. It was hard to think straight around the unseelie sidhe, harder still to focus on them, and near impossible to murder one of them.

If Geoff and Vasicek pissed off the bouncer, they’d die before they could track down the bounty.

This particular sidhe seemed too bored to fight. Vasicek paid their cover fees, and the sidhe didn’t even glance in their bags before stepping aside.

Eleven thirty should have been too early for any club to be so busy. Under ordinary circumstances, the creatures of the night didn’t get partying until the witching hour struck, but Original Sin wasn’t an ordinary circumstance. The regulars simply never left. It was as packed with bodies that evening as it would have been in brilliant, burning midday.

Every version of Original Sin was essentially the same, with minute differences. Geoff scanned the room to orient himself to the changes in this location.

The bar was at the back as it usually was, glowing like a beacon in the midst of inky shadow. Liquor bottles seemed to hold inner lights all their own, as if pixies had been trapped at their bottoms.

The dance floor was on a level below ground. Geoff skimmed the faces of the dancers as he walked along the mezzanine, picking out all the preternaturals he could. Shifters were easy to spot, golden-eyed as they were. Vampires were the pallid and frail. There were only a couple of sidhe besides the doorman. Having too many sidhe around was bad for business.

This particular version of Original Sin had columns of fire in each corner, a shade of white-blue that suggested magic. Geoff passed by one. It looked deadly, but it wasn’t hot. He still wouldn’t risk bumping into it. Original Sin was exactly the kind of place where they would decorate with something fatal at a touch.

“Up there,” Vasicek said, jerking his chin toward the south wall. Scaffolding supporting the lights that strobed over the dancers, lighting their preternatural flesh like prisms.

Geoff climbed the scaffold. Vasicek was right behind him. Much like the doorman, none of the regulars seemed interested in the fact that two men were scaling the rigging for the lights; of all the strange things that demons did in Original Sin, crawling up the walls was the most ordinary.

The scaffold gave them an excellent vantage point overlooking the rest of the club. Geoff could see into the curtained booths on the far side of the bar. He could even see the hallway behind the DJ.

When the target came in, he would know.

Geoff turned on his cell phone to read Marion’s emails again. An anonymous person had contacted Marion to ask for help, and despite the message’s brevity, Marion had readily agreed to meet that person at Original Sin at midnight. The target must have known the individual she was due to meet.

He checked the time again. Almost midnight. Geoff rolled the moonstone charm in his fingers as Vasicek set up. “Do you feel that?” Vasicek asked, scratching at the back of his neck. His nails were sharp enough to leave red streaks on his greasy skin.

Tilting his nose up, Geoff took a sniff. The club was filled with a nauseating cocktail of lethe, pot smoke, liquor, sweat, and piss. One smell was so strange that it rang alarm bells in his head, even though it was faint—the smell of burning oak.

His eyes swept the crowd, and he spotted the target near the door.

Marion shone among all the other preternaturals. She wasn’t the most beautiful of them, but there was something compelling about her willowy figure, high cheekbones, and cold blue eyes. She didn’t look like she was only nineteen. She didn’t exactly look older, either.

Ageless was the word for it.

Unease crawled over Geoff. What is she?

The options slithered through his consciousness—cherubim, gibborim, or messenger, maybe. He wouldn’t have expected any of them. Ethereal types seldom left their territory in the Levant, and they would never deign to socialize with mere gaeans.

He felt less guilty about Marion’s impending death.

Marion glided toward the bar and slipped into a booth. A waiter brought her drink in a martini glass, which she accepted with a smile. It must have been her regular drink. She wasn’t old enough to have a regular drink.

She sat out in the open, oblivious to how many creatures would be circling for her blood. Trusting enough to meet an unnamed contact in public, trusting enough to sit with her back to a room filled with strangers.

Vasicek extended the stand on his sniper rifle, propped it against the rails of the scaffold, and aimed it down. The light coming through the sight shined on his eye. Black swirled over the iris like pools of ink. “I have her in my sights.”

“Remember the plan,” Geoff said. “Wait until I’m down.”

“I’m waiting, I’m waiting.” Vasicek’s finger looked awful twitchy. “Hurry up.”

Geoff swung off of the scaffolding, landed behind the dance floor, and slipped out the back door to the alley. The moonstone charm was burning a hole in his pocket—almost literally. He needed to use the magic before it expired.

He stripped his clothing off and stuffed it behind a trashcan. The moonstone scorched his palms. He bounced it between them, waiting for the signal that it was time to change.

Muffled gunshots popped from within Original Sin.

People screamed.

That was Vasicek’s signal.

Doors burst open, and Original Sin’s patrons flooded onto the sidewalk. Geoff watched them from his hidden position at the back of the alley.

Some people clutched bloody wounds on their arms, shoulders, necks. Vasicek hadn’t deliberately been aiming to kill. He had been trying to create mayhem, and it had worked.

“Come on,” Geoff muttered, pressing his thumb against the stone.

Gaean magic settled over him.

It didn’t hurt to shapeshift into his wolf form when he allowed the Alpha to control him, as most shapeshifters did. But using a charm between moons to force the change—that was different.

He shapeshifted a piece at a time. Fast and brutal.

His knees broke. Switched positions. He collapsed onto his hands as the fingernails fell out. Silver claws thrust from the skin, oozing blood around the edges.

He threw his head back and roared through his breaking jaw, which extended into a muzzle.

Nobody heard him. They were too busy running from Vasicek’s attack inside. There were more gunshots, more screaming, the wail of a fire alarm.

After his spine extended into a tail, vertebrae replicating, grinding, twisting, the fever of fur extruding from his skin was nothing. It barely even itched. Within a minute, he had swollen to quadruple his former size, perhaps more, and Geoff could no longer hide behind the trashcan.

A pair of women burst through the rear door.

One of them Geoff didn’t recognize. She was a petite nobody with hair the color of straw. Most likely the anonymous person who had emailed Marion asking for help.

The other one was tall, with lots of curly brown hair, and bright-blue eyes.

Even Geoff’s wolf brain recognized the target, and it remembered how much she was worth.

A million dollars.

He could retire permanently.

Geoff lunged.

Werewolves were faster than any other gaean breed, so he flashed across the alley in a heartbeat, and he was on top of her the heartbeat after that. He slammed her into the wall hard enough to knock her out. Maybe even hard enough to kill her, if her skull hit in just the right way. He’d struck her with half a ton of werewolf at a hundred miles an hour, after all.

He reared back to rip her face off.

His claws halted inches from Marion’s cheek.

It felt as though a fist had closed around his body, holding him suspended in the air. He thrashed, howling. But no matter how he snapped, there was nothing to bite. Nothing physical held him.

Marion slid out from underneath him, hands outstretched, pupils white with magic. Her hair swirled around her neck, lifted in a wind that didn’t touch him. “Bad dog,” she said, and she flicked her fingers. “Down, boy.”

Geoff hurtled into the far wall hundreds of feet down the alley.

He’d been tossed around by Alpha shapeshifters before. He’d been shot more than once. He’d even been crushed by a car before.

None of that hurt as much as Marion tossing him with a single, magical gesture.

“Stay down,” she said. Her voice rattled within his skull. The very sound of it hurt.

Geoff scrambled to his feet while his head was still spinning.

Marion was holding hands with her straw-haired friend, ignoring Geoff as though he presented no threat whatsoever. “Are you okay?”

“I think so,” the girl said.

“Get back into Original Sin.” She pushed the other woman through the back door.

Geoff launched himself at Marion again, faked a left, and then swung right. All with lightning speed. The fastest that he had ever moved.

She stepped out of his way effortlessly.

He skidded past her, paws scrabbling uselessly on pavement.

Marion saw his lightning speed and decided to raise him by summoning real lightning. She pointed one hand toward the sky and the other toward Geoff. “I told you to stay down.”

Electricity danced down her upright arm and clustered on her fingertips. It arced from her fingernails.

Geoff dodged—barely. The lighting struck the wall behind him. It lanced up the bricks, sizzled against the roof.

He leaped toward Marion from the rear.

She swung around, annoyance twisting the graceful lines of her face.

“No,” she said, side-stepping him again.

The neon lights outside of Original Sin popped in a shower of sparks. Every single street light within range blacked out.

The night was absolute.

Unable to see, Geoff slammed into the trash. It exploded around him in a shower of stinking garbage. He shook it off, but old beer and vomit weighed his fur down.

His worst fears were true. There was only one type of creature that disabled all electricity simply by existing.

Angels.

The bounty on this kid should be a lot higher.

Light glowed at the end of the alley. Marion’s magic was gathering again, illuminating her the way that lanterns were illuminated by inner flame. Her eyes spilled ethereal blue down her cheekbones. She advanced on Geoff. “Who sent you?”

The back door banged open, bouncing off the wall. Geoff glimpsed Vasicek emerging from over Marion’s shoulder.

The megaira raised his gun. He fired as Marion turned to look at him.

Geoff didn’t get time to feel hopeful that Vasicek would finish the job. Marion plucked the bullet out of the air an inch in front of her nose. “Silver,” she said, rolling it between her fingers. “Whoever hired you must not know me well at all.”

She hurled the bullet at Geoff before he could react. It embedded in his foreleg as though shot from a gun.

There was no pain quite like silver burn. Geoff’s howls shook the bricks of the alley. His vision blurred, his head rang, his blood turned to acid.

Vasicek gave a strangled yowl.

And then he was silent.

Geoff couldn’t see what had happened to the demon. He could see nothing, think of nothing, feel nothing but the bullet. Marion seemed to have aimed it so that the point would flatten against the bone deep within his flesh. The moon was scorching him from the inside out.

Vasicek was probably dead.

Not enough money in the world for this.

Marion crouched and ran her hand through the ruff of hair at Geoff’s neck. He whined and snapped at her fingers. She pushed his muzzle to the pavement, as casually as though that were something she’d done to werewolves before. “I want you to shift back and tell me who sent you.”

If he could have, he would have. Anything to make her back away. Anything to stop the pain.

The charm wouldn’t wear off for another hour, and there was no way to tell her that.

She stood suddenly, distracted by another person appearing in the alley. Marion stood and turned to face them. The smell of her shock came off of her in waves so powerful that they pierced Geoff’s suffering.

Mon dieu,” Marion said softly. Her hands balled into fists. Her voice strengthened. “Qu’est-ce que toi, tu fais ici?

There was no responding voice. There was only blinding darkness, immense and total.

When the street lights flickered back on, Vasicek was dead, Geoff was still bleeding, and Marion Many-Last-Names was gone without a trace.

COLLAPSE

This series is urban fantasy romance unfolding over multiple books with an eventual happily ever after. It features some violence, mature language, and sexual references.