Showdown

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

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

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

Excerpt:

NOVEMBER 9, 2019.

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

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

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

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

And where is Abel?

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

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

—and she found herself facing a stadium.

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

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

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

"Ow!"

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

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

"I'm Marion," said the girl.

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

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

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

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

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

Something was beginning.

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

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

"Showdown?" Rylie echoed in a whisper.

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

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

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

This pleased the crowd too—this Army of Evil.

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

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

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

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

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

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

COLLAPSE

The Descent Series Complete Collection

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

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

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

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

THE COMPLETE SERIES

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

Spellsmoke

It's not much of a life, taking bounty hunts on vampires. But as a disgraced former deputy, Lincoln Marshall's not exactly knee-deep in job offers, and airplane tickets are expensive after the apocalypse. His dying father is all the way across the country in Northgate. It's Lincoln's last chance to see him, and he'll do whatever it takes to get there - even though the werewolf pack in Northgate is still out for his blood.

Sophie Keyes, the one and only Historian, needs Lincoln's help. She fears the gods may be out to kill her. So Lincoln drags her back home despite his better instincts - only to learn that home's not exactly safer than Reno. Some preternatural monster is killing hospice patients in Northgate.

Sheriff Noah Adair is convinced the killers are werewolves. The werewolves are convinced Lincoln Marshall is the killer. And Lincoln thought surviving the post-apocalypse had been bad enough before all this crap.

Book 2 of the A Fistful of Daggers series.

Lonesome Paladin

An Urban Fantasy Novel

God is dead. Lincoln Marshall knows who killed Him...

It's been a month since apocalypse destroyed the world as Lincoln Marshall once knew it. The new world is populated by deadly faeries, wild shapeshifters, and humans without a god. Lincoln's sins can never be absolved now that God is dead. There's nothing left for him but the bottom of a whiskey bottle.

Until Cesar Hawke comes seeking help. The undersecretary of the new Office of Preternatural Affairs has manifested uncontrollable magical powers. The only cure lies beyond the frontier of the untamed faerie worlds -- a land that no mortal man can survive. He needs Lincoln to escort him to the Winter Queen through hostile territory riddled by killer unicorns, doppelgangers, and false prophets. No big deal.

Lincoln Marshall once conquered Hell. He's certain he can conquer the Middle Worlds too -- and if he can't, he's happy to die trying.

Excerpt:

Eloquent Blood was only one of a dozen bars in downtown Reno—the oldest of the businesses in the area. It looked its age. Sulfur had long since crystallized on the tabletops and along the edges of the floor, then gathered dust on that, and dirt on the dust. Nobody had cleaned it since the world became new. That was part of the appeal. You could sink into Eloquent Blood and nobody would bother you.
There weren’t a lot of places in America these days where the government wasn’t watching.
That was why Spencer had spent most of his days in the last month at Blood. His golden eyes marked him as one of the Rebirthed, and he couldn’t wipe his ass without the Office of Preternatural Affairs wanting him to check in. Give a blood donation, get scanned for emergent powers, provide the mandatory hours of public service that all citizens were now expected to contribute to rebuild the infrastructure of the broken world.

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Spencer had tried to show up for Work Crew once, a couple mornings after Day Zero, and they’d had him sterilizing a hospital full of orphans. Hundreds of preternatural orphans with uncontrolled powers. Hundreds of crying children who didn’t understand why they’d died, why they’d come back, why they didn’t have parents anymore.
Blood was better. Grimy, smelly, but *better*.
“Two drinks,” Spencer said, lifting a finger to the bartender.
“You know what we’ve got,” said Cassandra.
“Yeah, I know.” They didn’t have any good liquor in the bar. At least, nothing that Spencer could afford.
“How’s it going?” Javi asked, sliding onto the barstool beside Spencer.
“Bad,” Spencer said. Cassandra cracked two beer cans and poured them into glasses. He took one and gave the other to Javi. “It’ll be worse in an hour though.”
Javi squinted up at the light at the surface. There used to be a casino named Craven’s atop what the patrons called Blood, but while the bar had survived urban warfare against demons, it’s surface-level structure had been flattened. The only way into Blood was through a crumbling rebar-prickled crevasse near Fourth Street, which flooded every time it rained and the Truckee swelled against its banks.
At the moment, Blood was dry, and the clear sky beyond was red-shifting away from daytime into twilight. Moonrise would come once the sun vanished. It was a shockingly regular activity these days. The moon came up when the sun went down, and they traded places in the morning. It was magic, no doubt about it, and a small nod toward order in a chaotic world.
They probably had thirty minutes to get to a safe house. The nearest was a five minute walk, not far from Greater Nevada Field on First. Plenty of time for them to drink.
Javi lifted the glass to his mouth, but the rim never met lips; instead of cold glass, his mouth touched the skin of his friend’s hand. Spencer scowled at him from the adjacent bar stool.
“You didn’t give thanks,” Spencer said. “You know better than that.”
Javi set the glass down slowly, and Spencer’s hand followed the rim to ensure that Javi wouldn’t sneak a gulp the instant he withdrew. “It’s three-year-old Coors Light,” Javi said. “It tastes like stale water and beer can. There’s nothing to give thanks over.”
“Don’t talk like that,” Spencer said. “We came back from the end of the world. We aren’t in one of those hospitals. We have *something* to drink, and a lotta people don’t. You think that NKF thinks there’s nothing to be thankful for?”
“I don’t think NKF is thinking much about what’s going on in some underground hole of a bar where two asshole shifters are trying to delay going to a safe house,” Javi said.
“NKF is God. He can think about everything.”
Javi grew quiet at this, contemplating the foul yellow drink in his murky glass. “All right.”
They extracted a couple of wooden crosses from under their shirts. Spencer had gotten a matching pair from a gift shop on North Virginia, right next to the Little Nugget. It used to sell novelty t-shirts and shot glasses. Now it sold crosses, charms, and flimsy switchblades. Nothing that could actually protect anyone from folks who Rebirthed as vampires or whatever, but it made folks feel good.
He wrapped his hands around it, bowed his head to his knuckles.
“We give thanks for this life, and what we’ve got in this life,” he murmured.
“We give thanks,” agreed Javi.
Spencer started to say, “We give thanks for—“
“Careful,” whispered Cassandra as she leaned across the bar to pass napkins to them. Her gaze flicked toward the corner. There was a booth in shadow, its leather sliced open to allow the guts of its stuffing to bulge free. A pair of crossed legs clad in tattered, mud-stained denim extended over the seat. The man was reclining so Spencer couldn’t make out a face.
Face or not, there was nobody to stop him from praying. “We’re supposed to give thanks to NKF every time,” Spencer said.
“Skip this time,” Cassandra said.
“That kind of shit’s how we got in trouble the last time.” If the gods hadn’t been pissed off at the world, then they wouldn’t have all died. The world wouldn’t have ended. They’d still be all human, without safe houses and cheap beer, and Spencer would have his old job at the Amazon warehouse.
If a few people had stopped to give thanks, maybe they wouldn’t have suffered through Genesis at all.
Cassandra lifted her hands in surrender. “You get into a fight with Lincoln, take it outside. We’re not having that in here.”
Javi waved her off. “Nobody’s gonna try to fight us looking like pussy babies who say their widdle prayers before drinking fucking Coors Light.”
“Javi,” Spencer warned.
“I give thanks for my fucking Coors Light,” he said, assuming prayer position again. “I talk crap but I’m happy for it. I’m happy for my life, this world, this ‘beer.’ So I give thanks to NKF.”
“What in the hell was that supposed to be?” The inquiry was said in an unfamiliar voice, gravelly and filled with hot anger.
The person in the jeans.
The man Cassandra identified as Lincoln.
He sat up slowly, his jacket creaking, blond hair slanting across sharp eyes. An arm hung over the back of the booth. He was glaring at Javi and Spencer.
“We’re praying,” Spencer said. “Do you have a problem with it?”
“Fuck, not this again,” muttered a guy down at the end of the bar. He picked up his drink and relocated closer to the surface tunnel.
“Who are you praying to when all the gods are dead?” asked Lincoln.
Spencer silently asked NKF for patience. That was one of the theories going around—that Genesis had been a result of war between gods, and that both sides lost. All the gods were dead now.
They were wrong. Spencer had seen death come upon him, he’d seen the dawn on Day Zero. He knew what it was to believe.
He drained his Coors, shoved the glass aside. “I take it you haven’t heard about NKF yet.” He lifted his wooden cross so that Lincoln could see it. The aluminum clasp caught the fading sunlight topside, making it glow where it draped over his fist. “The god who made us all what we are now. Shifters and sidhe, vampires and witches.”
“Is that right?” Lincoln asked. He pushed out of the booth and came upright. The man was a little above average in most ways. A little prettier than most men, yet a little more rugged; a little more thick-built but also a little taller. Just good enough to catch looks from Cassandra, even though he also looked like he hadn’t showered since Genesis. “How d’you know anything about what’s going on with the gods? You think you’re some kind of prophet?”
“I’m just a follower,” Spencer said. “Javi too.”
“Oh, so that’s how it is? We’re both doing this?” Javi asked. He’d come to recognize NKF more reluctantly, only because Spencer dragged him to worship on Sundays. He’d heard the stories. He believed too. But he wasn’t ready to face some ripped drunk dude over it.
Spencer didn’t think Lincoln would present much of a threat. He was swaying where he stood and it didn’t seem to be a result of alcohol. The man smelled like he’d never touched a drop of hard liquor. He didn’t have the sallow, sagging look of an alcoholic, either. But it had to be something. Everybody was on something to get through life these days.
A quick sniff told Spencer that Lincoln wasn’t a shifter. Wasn’t a vampire. He smelled like human man, unwashed and unshaven and unmotivated.
“God is dead,” Lincoln said. “You disrespect the man by praying to false idols.”
“Are *you* a prophet?” Spencer shot back.
“No,” he said, “but I dated the bitch who killed God, and she told me all about it.”
Spencer and Javi exploded into laughter.
Lincoln wasn’t laughing.
After a moment, it didn’t seem funny. Spencer shot a questioning look at Cassandra. She just shrugged.
“NKF appeared as a vision to people in Genesis,” Spencer said. “There are witnesses. The sidhe gentry—”
“Magic fags, all of them.” Lincoln spit on the ground of the bar.
Spencer’s hackles lifted. He went from dubious about this asshole to instantly loathing him. “They witnessed NKF. They’ve got a temple to our God in Alfheimr, and they talk to him, so his existence is fact.” He dropped off his barstool, cracked his knuckles. “You got a problem with fags?”
“Or just magic fags?” Javi asked. Now he was looming at Spencer’s side, equally offended.
“I got a problem with disrespecting God’s law,” Lincoln said. “The guy might be dead, but that doesn’t mean you should be spreading blasphemy and getting up to unholy bullshit. Leviticus was real clear about men laying with men. Now, my ex-girlfriend—the Godslayer—she said that the Bible was a book of man, not a word of God. But she did go out of her way climbing to Heaven in order to kill God. Maybe I shouldn’t have listened to her about much of anything.” He scratched the blond scruff on his jaw and gave a mirthless grin, a baring of teeth. “I’m gonna trust the Book.”
“Can you believe this dick?” Spencer elbowed his friend. “You hearing any of the shit he says?”
“Take it outside,” Cassandra called.
Lincoln stepped closer to them. When he passed through the last beam of fading sunlight, Spencer saw why he was swaying. The guy was already bruised in a few visible places. It was probably worse in the places his clothes covered. He was swaying from broken bones, struggling to breathe with cracked ribs.
But he didn’t smell like prey.
Spencer didn’t have a lot of experience as a shifter, but he’d run across enough injured people to know that weakness made them smell like prey. Didn’t take much. A broken bone in the foot, a mild flu. Anything that slowed them down and made them vulnerable. Just a whiff of it got Spencer’s animal stirring with frightening hunger, and sent him running to an OPA support group for shifters.
Sniffing Lincoln’s sweat and hair didn’t give Spencer any sense of weakness.
“Are you smelling me?” Lincoln asked.
Spencer had drawn nearer the man’s shoulder by force of habit. His animal liked greeting other shifters by smelling their necks, right behind the ear, along the hairline. And his animal was curious about this limping not-prey. “If you don’t like gay people then I bet you don’t like me getting in your face like this, huh?” Spencer kept his tone tauntingly soft. “Am I gay? What do you think I’ll do, suck your dick? Or are you afraid you’ll wanna suck *my* dick?”
Lincoln shoved him.
Had Spencer braced himself, he wouldn’t have moved an inch, much less stepped back. Lincoln pushed with human strength. But Spencer allowed himself to be rocked back, and he turned to Javi.
“That was a push,” Spencer said.
“Looked like aggression to me,” Javi said.
“Take it outside,” Cassandra said again.
And Spencer would have listened to her. He’d have walked away from this blond asshole in a heartbeat, since it was about time to get to a shifter safe house anyway.
Then Lincoln said, “If there’s still a Hell, I know at least two reasons you’re going there.”
So Javi punched Lincoln.
“Hey,” Spencer said. “That was my shot.”
Lincoln dropped, and Spencer smashed his heel into Lincoln’s gut.
“Fuck!” Cassandra leaped over the bar, yanking long linen ribbons along with her. Magic surged over the runes stitched into the cloth. “He’s human, you fuck-rods!”
“Homophobic too,” Javi said, delivering a bonus kick to Lincoln’s jaw.
“He’s *human*,” she hissed. She shoved between the man on the ground and the shifters standing over him, flinging her arms out to guard him. “And it’s sundown.”
There was no light left in the hole leading to the road.
“Shit,” Spencer breathed.
He grabbed his jacket, grabbed Javi’s arm.
“I already called the OPA,” Cassandra said, checking Lincoln for a pulse. “You know I have to report preternatural crime against mundanes. You know I do. And I warned you. You better not be here when an agent shows up. Nearest safe house is—”
“I know,” Spencer said.
They ran.


Lincoln swam to consciousness with Cassandra the bartender looming over him. She was a pretty enough lady, with big eyes and a little bow for a mouth. Too young for Lincoln. Too much like his kid cousin. She was slapping him gently across the face with her mouth moving, but all he heard was ringing.
When his ears cleared, she was saying, “The ambulance should be here before curfew.”
An ambulance.
Lincoln wasn’t getting in an ambulance.
He shoved away from her, rolled onto all fours. His skull pressed down on his eyeballs and his stomach pressed up against his throat. Cassandra didn’t help him stand, but she backed up to give him room. She had that look of frustrated helplessness again.
“You shouldn’t move,” she said. “They got you good this time. Better than Gutterman did.” Lincoln still had the bruises from that beating. It had a compounding effect. One beating atop another to scramble his neurons. “Hold still until the ambulance arrives.”
“No ambulance,” he said, leaning over the bar to get a water bottle. He fumbled in his pockets for cash. Lincoln had a dollar or two. He was sure of it. “Damn, Cass, can you find my wallet?”
“Just take it. Swear to God—whichever God, I don’t fucking care—you get into those fights because you *want* your ass kicked,” Cassandra said.
“Only a crazy man would want to get beat by shifters,” Lincoln said.
“Then what’s that make you?”
“A winner,” he said. He didn’t find cash in his pocket but he did find what he’d grabbed from Javi before falling. Lincoln lifted the chain and the wooden cross dangling at the end.
Cassandra flung her hands in the air. “Try getting your ass kicked in someone else’s bar once or twice!”
He lurched up the tunnel, lukewarm bottle pressed to his forehead. He couldn’t see much of anything. Couldn’t navigate through the rebar and rubble without slipping. He put the cross in his pocket to free a hand. It felt like he had to climb to the street, even though he knew it was real possible to walk the distance.
Ambulance lights whirled at the end of the street. He pitched the opposite direction, away from the ambulance, up the road toward Virginia.
It was Lincoln’s lucky day. Nine out of ten emergency calls didn’t get a response nowadays. Between first responders failing to return from Genesis, organizational collapse, and the frequency of crime, more people died while sitting on the line with a dispatcher than ever saw those red and blue lights.
But Lincoln was lucky.
So fucking lucky.
Maybe if everyone had woken up one day preternatural, the world could have continued the way it used to. They’d have found jobs for the werewolves and the faeries and vampires. Gotten them nice and integrated. Made them into cops and EMTs and made sure the world kept spinning.
Except people had died without coming back, too.
There were millions of orphans. Millions of businesses suddenly unstaffed. Millions of empty homes and grieving widows.
And a whole lotta folks had turned preternatural on top of that.
It was too much all at once. The world couldn’t keep spinning.
Civilization had kind of stopped.
So Lincoln wasn’t the only aimless soul on the streets of Reno, most of the time. Like most, he didn’t have a home to go back to. On Day Zero, he’d come back into his skin in Reno, Nevada—a city far from what he regarded as his stomping grounds—and without public transit working right, he wasn’t going to get far anytime soon.
In better years he’d heard Reno equated with whores, easy divorce, and gambling. In the worse years, he’d heard about its demon apocalypse. From what he knew, back in 2009—before anyone knew demons and angels were real, before anyone knew that God was on a one-way trip to murder town—there had been a visit from some kind of devil who essentially dropped the city into a sinkhole, rendering it permanently inhabitable.
The city Lincoln staggered through wasn’t in a sinkhole anymore. Not a literal one, anyhow. He’d never seen a city with so many bars. Never seen so many strip clubs, casinos, and homeless filth smeared across the gutters.
Except that these pits of sin had lost employees too. Only a couple of the casinos had opened part of their floors, and mostly just so that they could try to figure out how much was missing. In the meantime, every oversized casino sign was advertising mandatory Office of Preternatural Affairs “services” available to city residents.
“Gold eyes? No problem!” In the photograph on the banner, a model was grinning and pointing toward a structure that looked like a squat stucco house. “Check into your local safe house every full moon and new moon!”
Golden eyes were the universal symbol of shifters. Some of them had silver eyes, but they were the good kind, the type with more control over their animals. Or so they said. There was a push from silver-eyed shifters to be exempted from the brand new regulations saying all shifters had to spend their moons in safe houses.
The ad made it look real nice. Lincoln had stopped to stare at one of those billboards before, drinking in the sight of the flowers lining the sidewalks, the friendly signage, the beautiful model. There were three safe houses around downtown and midtown Reno alone. One on First, one on North McCarran, one over on Plumb. None of them had flowers.
The government was especially struggling to manage a world with thousands of shifters that hadn’t been there before. They’d commandeered bunkers, warehouses, anywhere with barred windows that could hold supernaturally strong people who didn’t know how to control their beasts.
The law said shifters needed to go to such safe houses.
But some of them didn’t.
Some did, but broke out.
Hence the curfew.
The sun had dropped behind Harrah’s, casting the streets in blue-black shadow. The Aces stadium darkened as Lincoln trudged past. He didn’t have to look up to see the big baseball over the ticket stands go dark; it had been bright enough to glint gold on the sidewalk where he stared. Arroyo darkened when he walked past too, and so did the signs outside an art studio, until the only light left on the street was from those damn OPA billboards.
“Answer the call!” A staggeringly attracting man was beckoning toward the camera. He looked like his skin was glowing on the inside. He had wings like a butterfly. “Get screened for sidhe blood at United Health Services!”
Lincoln heard voices behind him.
“It’s him again. Is he following us?”
“Don’t, Javi.”
His night was getting luckier. Turning away from the ambulance meant Lincoln had accidentally gone the same way as Spencer and Javi. They were ahead of him, looking back his way, golden eyes glinting in the casino billboard lights.
Lincoln got to the corner—a pay by the week motel with an art deco sign and a blinking light that said “VACANCY.” Most of the hotel rooms were dark. He’d break into one of them, sleep as long as he could behind the bed. They’d probably give him a room free if he asked, since the government claimed to reimburse hotels that accommodated people displaced by Genesis, but Lincoln didn’t want to ask. Not for that, not for anything else.
“Just keep walking,” Spencer said, trying to push his friend.
Javi resisted. “But he took my cross!”
“I’ll give you mine, all right? The safe house—”
“Hey! Asshole!”
That was all the warning Lincoln had. One shouted insult, a couple fast-pounding footsteps, and then Javi struck.
Brick wall met face.
Stars exploded through Lincoln, hot and sick and tasting like the stale canned lima beans he’d eaten two days earlier.
They were going to kill him this time.
Lincoln was going to die.
Lying there on the pavement, looking at the shifters’ legs as they swung and kicked and knocked his teeth out of alignment, he thought he saw a third person watching over him. A woman wearing black leather and a disapproving frown. He remembered the way her colorless skin had tasted when he fucked her in the shower, damp and sweaty and a little like blood, and he remembered her flat tone perfectly too. *Seriously, Linc? You’re just going to sit there?*
“They’re shifters,” Lincoln tried to say. Something jagged touched his lip. Broken molar. He spit it into the pool of blood. “Can’t fight back.”
He could have fought back. He could have avoided a fight impossible to win in the first place.
*Seriously, Linc?*
“Ask him where he put it,” Spencer said, hanging back, looking nervously around the street.
“Where’d you put it?” Javi asked. His voice writhed within Lincoln’s skull.
“Put what?” Lincoln asked.
Wrong answer.
Javi picked him up, and the change in orientation hurt worse than the impacts at this point.
Lincoln took a fist to the jaw. Felt like he should have been decapitated by the force of it. His head stayed on his shoulders, which meant that the shifters were being gentle. They could have turned his skull into a rotten watermelon with a blow. They wanted him to hurt, not die.
He had the dying part covered anyway. Javi let go of him and he stumbled again, caught in Spencer’s tree trunk arms.
The pale-fleshed woman wasn’t really there, but her annoyance felt so real. She was the only clear thing in a foggy world. She was in sharp focus, from her breasts piled atop the steel bones of her corset to the slick black hair slithering over one shoulder.
*You’re better than this, Linc.*
“I’m not,” he said.
“We don’t have time for this,” Spencer said. “Sorry Javi.”
Lincoln almost relaxed, thinking he was about to be freed, left to stagger to wherever he ended up next.
Instead he took a knee to the gut.
It was instinct to bend over at the impact, folding in half, but that put his face at the right level to take another jab. He was reeling so hard from that he didn’t even realize he’d been thrown into the street until his vision cleared and he saw the yellow double line under his head.
“Hurry,” Javi said to his friend.
Their retreating shapes were blurry and dark. Shadows in dusk. Not shifters, not men. Just the dark dreams that chased Lincoln everywhere he went.
*Seriously, Linc?*
He didn’t try to get up.
From the way it felt, Lincoln suspected he had broken ribs. Inhaling was like taking a knife to the collarbone. But his hand slid into his jacket, and he felt a cold aluminum chain wrapped around cheap wood, and he knew he’d kept the crucifix.
It was some kind of victory. Maybe not a victory that made anything better, but a victory that scuffed dirt in the eyeball of some blaspheming piece of shit clinging to lies after Genesis.
“You killed him,” Lincoln told his ex-girlfriend.
The Godslayer shrugged. *That doesn’t mean there aren’t any gods left, does it? You didn’t need to pick a fight.*
Lights swam over Lincoln.
His whole head was ringing like a bell, so it took him a minute to realize he heard sirens.
A tire stopped in front of him. Boots dropped out of a car. Black-gloved hands grabbed his arms, hauled him upright. Lincoln found himself face-to-face with someone whose eyes were a normal shade of brown, with thick brows at a disapproving slant. He wore a black suit with a silver pentacle pinned to the lapel. He was an OPA agent.
The agent’s mouth moved. Lincoln could hear just enough to figure out what he was saying.
“Are you aware it’s seventeen minutes past curfew?”
Lincoln opened his mouth, vomited on the agent, and blacked out.

COLLAPSE

Ascension Series

Sacrificed in Shadow, Oaths of Blood, and Ruled by Steel

This urban fantasy boxed set contains the first three novels in The Ascension Series and totals 300,000 words.

When it comes to problems involving evil, Elise Kavanagh is the expert in saving the day. Not only is she a legendary demon hunter known as the Godslayer, she’s also the most powerful demon to ever walk the Earth—a once-human creature that other demons now look up to as a deity.

Rylie Gresham is Alpha of the last werewolf pack. They’re hiding from recent government laws regulating preternaturals and trying to avoid conflict.

But someone’s trying to get into Eden. The garden holds secrets too dangerous for anyone to possess, including Elise’s former partner James Faulkner: a half-witch, half-angel bent on becoming God. He doesn’t care what it takes to get into Eden, and the werewolf pack gets trapped at the center of the conflict.

Elise will do anything to keep James—or anyone else—from reaching Eden, even if it means journeying deep into Hell and seizing control of the City of Dis. Trapped between shadow and light, Elise walks a fine line trying to save the world yet again…even if it means losing her friends among the werewolves, the man she once loved, and her soul itself.

ABOUT SACRIFICED IN SHADOW
Lincoln Marshall is a small-town deputy with a very big problem. Six members of his church have been found dead, killed by a rogue werewolf. He’ll have to make a deal with the Devil to save victims that have gone missing—maybe literally. Elise Kavanagh, preternatural investigator and exorcist, is the expert when it comes to violent deaths at the jaws of evil. She’s also among the most powerful demons that Hell has spawned.

Elise jumps at Lincoln’s case, and it’s not just because of his down-home charm. Someone’s laid a trap for her in Northgate, and she wants to find out who. She’ll have to team up with Rylie Gresham, Alpha of the last surviving werewolf pack, to figure out who’s trying to blame the murders on werewolves. Only together can they stop the killings—and uncover the secrets buried in Northgate.

ABOUT OATHS OF BLOOD
Werewolves are immune to every illness and can heal any wound. It should be impossible for one to become possessed by a demon. But that’s exactly what Seth Wilder is facing: a werewolf gone insane from possession. He has no choice but to deliver her to the only exorcist in America, Elise Kavanagh, who also happens to be a powerful demon known as the Godslayer.

Elise is in hiding when Seth and Rylie Gresham, Alpha werewolf, arrive seeking her help. She agrees, but everything has its price. What they learn about the possessed werewolf changes everything—Hell and Earth, the pack, and the future of the entire world…

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

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

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

Sins of Eden

There have always been three gods. Always.

Until Elise Kavanagh murdered them.

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

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

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

Torn by Fury

Elise Kavanagh is marching on New Eden, the city angels have built from the bones of human victims. She’s hellbent on making them atone for their sins–no matter the cost.

Rylie Gresham has realized that werewolves are the key to defeating angels. They’re apex predators, designed to bring powerful, immortal beings to heel. She has no choice but to follow Elise into war against Heaven…especially since it’s the only way to protect her family from complete annihilation.

The angels are prepared to fight. Their magic will tear the universe apart. And if they have their way, there will soon be no Earth left to save…

Lost in Prophecy

Elise Kavanagh is too busy liberating slaves in the City of Dis to worry about what’s happening on Earth. She hasn’t even noticed that more than three thousand people have gone missing—not until an anonymous client hires her organization, The Hunting Club, to rescue them. The man asking for help doesn’t seem to exist. But the trail of clues is too strange to ignore, and she finds herself caught in the investigation.

Werewolf Alpha Rylie Gresham is absorbed in troubles of her own. The pack is disobeying her, and the cult camped out in Northgate seems to be the source of the problem. Her mate, Abel, has resolved to fix it one way or another—even if it means going over Rylie’s head and killing their enemies.

Through secrets, lies, and assassination attempts, Elise and Rylie find that they have a new enemy in common. And what it takes to prevail might mean shattering the universe…

Published:
Publisher: Red Iris Books
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Excerpt:

Gerard met Elise in the hallway outside her rooms. She wasn’t sure how he knew that she had returned from Malebolge, but he always seemed to know where everyone was in the Palace at any given moment. For a human, Gerard pulled off the illusion of omnipresence pretty well.

“We caught him,” he announced, unable to contain a wide grin.

Elise didn’t smile back, but dark satisfaction uncurled in her heart. “Finally.”

She changed directions and Gerard fell into step beside her. He wore her livery, though he had stripped off the jacket and wore a Black Parade t-shirt instead, which matched the leather boots surprisingly well.

“Where have you taken Gremory?” Elise asked.

“We’ve got him in the interrogation room. It’s the only place that the wards are strong enough. Plus, the chains are designed for his breed.”

Gerard had done well, as always. She didn’t have to force her smile of gratitude.

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He held open the doors to the courtyard, allowing Elise to exit first. The Palace of Dis had never been busier. A new market had sprung up within the walls, trading goods brought down from Earth, and it had become the primary source of supplies for the Palace’s human residents. And she had a lot of residents to care for now. Of the thousand or so slaves that she had rescued, a full third of them had remained to help.

The survivors weren’t even half of the creatures living in the Palace, though. Elise had begun allowing certain demons to live within the battlements. She trusted few members of Belphegor’s army—her army—and kept most of them outside her defenses, where they wouldn’t be able to easily stage a coup; instead, she had taken in the artisans and servants, the lowest of the low who served with gratitude.

These demon additions to her staff had stalls in the new market, too. Products made from human byproducts weren’t permitted, but there were an impressive number of handcrafted tools and trinkets made from Dis’s more natural resources: blown glass, stone cookware, harpy wool blankets.

When Hell wasn’t murderous, it could be downright beautiful.

A hush fell over the market as Elise passed through the stalls, heading toward the interrogation room. She had been spending so much time with the army outside the walls that people freaked out when they saw her within the Palace. Neuma said it was because they admired her; Gerard claimed it was fear.

Neither of those were pleasant possibilities.

By the time she reached the ladder into the interrogation room, her face was fixed into a severe frown and tension was knotted between her shoulders. The nearby walkways were filling with people, all eager to watch.

The interrogation room was a suspended platform surrounded by magical walls that allowed spectators to watch the proceedings within. It used to be where the Inquisitor plied his trade—a role occupied by Elise’s father in the previous administration, the irony of which did not escape her—but now it was the best place to torture high-profile prisoners.

The wards were inviolable. And everyone could see exactly how merciful Elise was toward those who didn’t obey the Father.

Every time she went in there, it was like being on stage again. Elise hadn’t performed in years, not since she and James had advertised their fledgling dance studio by participating in competitions. She had never been a fan of the attention, but James had thrived on it.

She couldn’t hide behind a dance partner anymore. Elise was a soloist now, and with a blade rather than high-heeled shoes and a fixed smile.

The corner of her mouth quirked at what James would have thought of Elise’s latest performances.

She climbed hand-over-hand into the interrogation room. Gremory was supervised by a group of human guards and a single gibborim. He was so large that he had to crouch to fit under the arched roof. Elise wished she had seen how he managed to get into the room in the first place.

The prisoner was chained on his knees with his arms above his head. His scale armor had been stripped away, leaving his muscular, human-like body bared to the harsh air of Dis. His skin was bone-white and translucent. Red veins gripped his ribs and crawled down his thighs.

“Father,” Gremory said, “what a pleasure to meet you.”

Elise didn’t bother replying.

Gremory had been Belphegor’s praetor when he still possessed the army. They were also the same type of demon, although Gremory was much weaker. That didn’t mean much. Considering Belphegor’s power, it would have been hard for anyone to match him.

“We found him trying to lead one of your centuria away,” Gerard explained, taking position beside the gibborim. “The twenty-sixth.”

Elise lifted an eyebrow. It wasn’t surprising that Gremory had been trying to undermine her, but the twenty-sixth had been camping right by the gates—a dangerous place for a dissident to appear. “Were they leaving willingly?”

“It seems so. He was trying to transport them to the House of Volac.”

That House wasn’t allied with her yet, but she did have its daughter, Sallosa, as centurion of another century. More dissent within the ranks. “Send men to watch the thirtieth century—the one that Sallosa is commanding. Reassign the twenty-sixth to the wasteland perimeter. Kill the ones that resist.”

“Sure we shouldn’t kill them all?” Gerard asked.

Tempting. But Elise couldn’t kill every single demon that didn’t like her. Besides, she’d needed to move more forces into the hostile wastelands anyway. The forces she sent to patrol there kept going missing. Might as well put the centuries that disobeyed at risk.

“You heard my order,” Elise said.

Gerard sent one of his men out to take care of the twenty-sixth centuria. The trap door opened and slammed shut again.

Elise held out her hand. Without asking, Gerard gave her a knife.

Gremory’s eyes tracked the motion of the blade. There was no fear in his eyes. Elise would have to see if she could change that attitude.

“What’s at the House of Volac? Is that where you were going to meet Belphegor?”

The answer came from him easily. No threatening required. “He’s not there. I was merely planning to run an errand for him.”

“Then where is he?” she asked, circling Gremory.

“You already know that I won’t tell you. Attempt to torture me.”

He sounded so calm about it.

Elise’s eyes flicked up to the walkways ringing the room. Half of the Palace was watching. She needed to handle this as she did all things—swiftly, and without bullshit.

She stepped close to Gremory. “This isn’t going to end well,” she muttered. “We don’t need to do it like this. It’s a waste of time.”

“However long you waste attempting to beat information out of me is entirely within your control, Father.” A lazy smirk curved over his lips, and it was unsettling on a face so similar to Belphegor’s. Belphegor didn’t smile. Not like that. “There’s an alternative way to reach my master, you know. Let me go. I’ll arrange the meeting.”

Belphegor had offered to teach her to perform warlock magic. He was the only surviving demon that knew the archaic skill now that Abraxas was dead.

Elise hadn’t taken him up on the offer. She still didn’t know why Belphegor regarded her as an ally, and, frankly, she didn’t want to know. There would be a price for that knowledge, and Elise wasn’t going to pay it.

She dug the knife into Gremory’s chest.

At least, she attempted to dig it into his chest. The blade deflected from his skin, grating as though he were made of stone.

When she struck again a second time, harder than before, the blade simply shattered.

Gremory was still smirking.

Elise slipped the hilt of the broken knife into Gerard’s hand, careful not to let the spectators see that it had failed.

“What’s your backup plan?” Gremory asked casually, as if he were one of the guards ringing the room rather than the prisoner.

Gerard barked a laugh. “You think that was her primary plan? You really thought she was going to try to stab you?” He said it loudly, grandly, playing to the audience. They all laughed. Of course they all knew how hard Gremory was. Of course the Father knew better than to hope she could damage him physically.

She couldn’t falter when people were watching. She couldn’t have doubts.

Gerard was right, though. She had already suspected that torturing Gremory wouldn’t be possible.

Elise paused to gather herself, eyes closed, taking a deep breath. This is just another performance. She was about to go on stage to compete for a regional title. She only had to dance for a board of harsh judges and walk away with the prize. The fact that her dance partner of the day was in chains and the only accompaniment was the pounding of her heart didn’t change the fact that it was just another performance.

It would have been easier with James beside her.

She opened her eyes and turned to face the spectators. With her teeth, she tugged on each finger of her left-hand glove, loosening it. Then she peeled it away.

Gasps and hushed whispers spread over the walkways.

Her hand was covered in fiery orange runes that crawled over her knuckles, slithered between her fingers, orbited the joint of her thumb.

Infernal runes.

Elise lowered her arm and turned back to Gremory before the spectators could see that the runes were flickering. Not the flicker of fire, but the flicker of failing power. Every time the symbols darkened, pain lanced to her elbow.

She didn’t let it show on her face.

“Do you recognize this?” she asked, curling her fist around the magic, concealing the weakening runes from his view. Flames licked between her fingers.

Doubt had crept into Gremory’s features. He pulled on his chains, as if testing their strength. “Impossible.”

“Tell me where to find Belphegor.”

After a beat, he said, “No.”

She wasn’t going to ask him again.

Elise took off her warding ring, letting the full sense of magic settle over her. With her opposite hand, she gripped his throat. “I am the Father,” she said, loud enough for everyone to hear her. “Behold.”

Time to do the tango.

She let a word of power roll off of her tongue.

It spilled from her core, striking the air like a tuning fork rapped against stone. The tone was almost right. A little sharp.

The rune under her thumb flared.

Fire washed over Gremory. He radiated bonfire heat, veins burning bright red.

His head fell back and he screamed.

It was burning him—actually hurting a demon like Belphegor—so Elise didn’t let go. But she felt the wrongness in the spell. It was flickering harder. Her bones were shaking. The burn was creeping up her arm, lashing back against the wielder.

If she held it, she would be reduced to ash.

She gritted her teeth and pushed hard with all her willpower, trying to shove the magic into him.

Gremory’s eyes opened again. He glared at her.

“No,” he repeated.

His will was weaker than hers, but he wasn’t the one draining himself by using untested, hacked-together warlock magic.

She pushed, and Gremory pushed back.

The runes fizzled out. Her hand went blank.

“Shit,” Elise said.

With a roar, Gremory wrenched his arms down. The chains had been weakened by Elise’s faulty magic, too—they snapped.

His fist seemed to come from nowhere.

The blow sent Elise flying. Her back smacked into the wall, and she bounced off onto the floor.

Gremory was laughing as the humans fired on him with human guns. The bullets didn’t touch him.

And the spectators were watching every moment of it.

Elise had just fallen on a grand jeté.

Have to recover.

The gibborim threw himself on top of Gremory, and they wrestled, rolling across the tiled floor with a rain of meaty slaps and grunts. Her guard didn’t stand a chance against the prisoner. But the distraction gave her an instant to pull out her failsafe.

She wrenched off her other glove.

The ethereal runes blazed to life, making her entire body shake, blanking out her vision so that all she could see were green shapes when she blinked. This magic had been waiting for her for weeks. She hadn’t dared use it—not when it weakened her so much.

Now Gremory was slamming the gibborim’s head into the floor, and the gibborim wasn’t fighting back. Gremory got to his feet and turned to face Elise again.

She unleashed the ethereal runes.

Lightning lanced to Gremory, engulfing him in brilliant, burning light. It hurt. She was screaming. But it was so much more powerful than the warlock spell had been, and it was her only chance to kill him. There was no point containing something like Gremory for long.

The spectators shrieked with pain. Many were demons, and just as susceptible to ethereal light as Elise.

She didn’t stop to see if they were smart enough to run. She threw all of her strength into the spells, roaring as the magic ripped through her to consume Gremory.

He didn’t have any of Belphegor’s anti-magic defenses. He fell.

Elise stood over him for a full minute—about thirty seconds longer than she needed to—and kept pouring the rune magic into him, lighting up the interrogation room and the courtyard with nuclear white. She could actually watch as her skin faded away and the bones appeared underneath. But she kept electrocuting Gremory until he stopped moving, stopped breathing, until he was nothing but charcoal at her feet.

Then there was nothing left in her. The magic cut off.

She staggered, arms clutching her stomach. Hunger roared through her body.

“Elise!” Gerard moved to catch her.

She regained her footing and shoved him away. “Don’t,” she snarled. Just being near him made her hungrier. The heartbeats of her human guards made her salivate. Her body pulsed in time with their flowing blood.

“You killed him,” said another guard, Aniruddha. “But he could have told us where Belphegor was.”

Elise couldn’t respond. She stumbled toward the trap door.

“He wasn’t going to talk,” Gerard said from behind her. He still sounded confident. Unbothered. His trust in Elise was unaffected. “Send a cleaning crew up here. We’ll fertilize the flesh gardens with Gremory’s ashes.”

She wrenched open the exit and took a last glance around. The walkways had mostly cleared out, but not entirely. There were witnesses to Elise’s failure. Word would spread.

Elise had finished her dance, and the judges had awarded her a row of zeroes.

COLLAPSE

Caged in Bone

Abel Wilder, werewolf Alpha, has gone missing, leaving his mate and the pack in a panic. His captor magicked his scent out of the sanctuary so that his mate can’t track him down. Only one witch can cast a spell that powerful.

James Faulkner has finally crossed a line that Elise Kavanagh can’t ignore.

Elise is going to have to hunt James down before the werewolf pack loses its Alpha and Rylie loses her mate. And Elise will have to find a way to make sure that James never bothers the pack—or anyone else—ever again.

Excerpt:

Abel woke up on the last day he would spend with the werewolf pack and stared at his ceiling. The sun hadn’t risen yet. Moonlight reflected off the icy lake, casting silhouettes above his bed in the shape of tree branches and the ridged edge of a bush.

The pillow next to him was empty, indented where a body used to be. The sheets had been pulled aside. He could still smell the woman that had been there, even though the rapid fade of her sweat meant that she had already been gone for an hour. He dropped his hand into the empty space and imagined her warmth.

Rylie Gresham, Alpha werewolf, was an early riser. Had been for as long as he’d known her. He couldn’t remember the last time she’d slept in later than him, but he wished she would have slept in that morning. Would have been nice to wake up beside his mate just the once.

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Abel shut his eyes again, tried to relax. But even though he had just woken up, he felt completely alert—no chance of falling back asleep now. His heart was already starting to race and he hadn’t gotten out of bed yet.

He inhaled deeply. Through the artificial barrier of the walls, he could smell the world beyond. Pine. Ice. Mud. Tar. Smoke. Wolves. Deer. Someone was already awake and starting to cook breakfast. It was a big job, feeding a pack of hungry wolves and all the humans that hung out with them. There hadn’t been a new werewolf in months, yet their pack was growing rapidly.

This was the last time he’d be smelling all of that for a while—the soaps and shampoos and sweat and human stink of it all.

He wondered if he would miss it.

***

Abel stuffed his feet into boots, pulled on a sweater, stepped outside. Most of the pack was still asleep. The sanctuary was quiet, even though what used to be a collection of cottages straddling a single road was rapidly becoming a small town. The two greenhouses had become four. They were building a trading post, kind of like a general store, and a school—a goddamn school.

Originally, they’d talked about those additions casually, like a “maybe someday” thing. Maybe if we don’t all die in the apocalypse, then someday we can build a school.

Hell was on Earth, the apocalypse had come, they were still alive, and now they were building a school.

He never thought he’d see the day.

Shoving his hands in his pockets, he walked fast to warm himself up, lifting his knees high to trudge through the feet of snow that had accumulated overnight. Wind bit at his nose and cheeks.

He found a shovel in the storehouse and got to work unburying the main road. They’d recovered a plow that could handle the road between the sanctuary and Northgate, but it had trouble getting down the hill into the valley. That meant that it took manual labor to clear a path all the way down. Usually, Abel let someone else do it. He liked to spend his day as a wolf, patrolling the perimeter, tracking the movements of deer through their mountains, sheltering in that no-emotion warmth of the beast’s mind.

But this morning Abel put all his weight into shoveling. He dug deep into the snow by the greenhouses and piled it on the side of the road, moving slowly down the hill. In the dim light of early morning, the snow had purple undertones. Almost the same color as the clouds in the sky.

His breath was a gray mist as he worked. The ice was settling in the forest, cracking and shifting. The river had frozen and turned the waterfall into a few long icicles plastered to the side of the cliff, and it always seemed too quiet without the water flowing. There was nothing to listen to but the rhythm of his slow, steady footsteps and the scrape of a metal shovel against asphalt.

He lost himself in the motion of it. The repetition.

Abel cut through the cottages and past the kitchen before he took a break, jabbing the shovel into a snowdrift so that he could lean on it. He was suddenly too hot. He pulled off the jacket and tossed it onto a picnic table.

The creak of hinges told him he wasn’t alone anymore. Abel turned.

A woman had appeared on the steps of the kitchens while his back was turned. She was bundled in a jacket, oversized jeans, snow boots. Her face below the collar was covered in a scarf, but he could tell she was smiling at him by the way her eyelids creased.

Abel sniffed the air, inhaling her scent across the long road. She must have been cooking breakfast. The air that came from the kitchen behind her smelled of a slow-cooked roast. But his wolf stirred at the musk of the woman, not the meat.

Mate.

This was the missing woman from his bed, the woman that had been missing in his life long before he had known she existed.

He didn’t have to speak or wave to acknowledge her. The heat of their joined gazes was enough. He wouldn’t have been surprised if it had been hot enough to melt all the snow between them.

Unfortunately, it didn’t. He had to keep shoveling.

Abel ducked his head and got back to work.

When he looked up again, Rylie had gone back inside.

***

The sound of an idling car engine echoed over the snow. The sky had lightened to pale violet, heralding the approach of sunrise—still too early for most of the pack to be awake, much less going anywhere. Abel propped the shovel against the wall of the nearest cottage and went to the carport.

Summer and Abram were loading a pickup, pouring gas into its tank and setting bins of produce in the bed. “Hey, Abel!” Summer called once she spotted him, waving a gloved hand over her head. “Good morning!”

“Morning,” he grunted.

Abel watched as they rearranged the bins to make them all fit at the bottom, and Abram watched Abel right on back. Under the brim of his knitted black cap, his face was filled with barely concealed irritation, as if Abel had interrupted something.

They’d gotten a lot of leafy winter vegetables out of the greenhouses that week. Too many to fit in the pickup easily. Abel grabbed a bin to help and Abram jerked it out of his hands.

“I’ve got it,” Abram said.

He jammed it in place and slammed the tailgate shut.

Abel’s wolf bristled. He straightened his spine, squared his shoulders. Made his profile as big as possible.

Submissive wolves knew to shrink down and lower their eyes when he looked like that. Problem was, Abram wasn’t a wolf, and he wasn’t submissive. His posture screamed dominance. It took all of Abel’s self-control not to start growling.

Summer, of course, was oblivious. “I’ve got a couple more bins before we can go,” she said, tossing a tarp over the truck bed. “We’ll need to trade all these veggies for scrap in Northgate, and I want the greenhouses pretty much empty when we go.”

“I’ll meet you back here in a few,” Abram said. “I have a couple other things to do.”

“Also known as hiding in a warm cottage while I do the hard work,” she said to Abel in a stage whisper. She dropped down from the truck, landed in the snow, and gave him a hard pinch in the ribs. “Tomorrow is a homecoming day, so we’ll be staying overnight at St. Philomene’s. See you when we get back?”

Abel stepped away from the pinch. “Well…” The gold ring on her left hand seemed to catch all the light and glow. “You still wearing that thing?”

Summer pulled her hand against her chest, like he had smacked her knuckles. “It’s an engagement ring. I’ll be wearing it for the rest of my life.”

He snorted. He didn’t mean to—it just came out of him.

A frown looked so foreign on Summer’s normally cheerful face, but her expression quickly shuttered, hiding her hurt. “Yeah, okay. Homecoming tomorrow. Stuff to do. Gotta go.”

She jogged toward the greenhouses again, curly hair bouncing behind her.

Shit. That wasn’t what Abel had meant—well, except that it was. He didn’t think much of one of the angels marrying his daughter. Especially a jackass like Nash. But Abel hadn’t wanted to pick any fights, not this morning.

Abram jumped out of the truck too. He was a little shorter than Abel. The spare inches were enough to make the Alpha wolf relax—even if just a fraction.

“I could use help shoveling, since you got a few minutes,” Abel said, pushing thoughts of Summer’s engagement out of his mind. It was hard make the request nicely. He didn’t ask for help with the pack; he demanded compliance. But today was going to be a good day, and Rylie would want him to be nice about asking.

His son didn’t seem to have gotten the message. Abram’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t bother,” he said. “It’s not happening.”

A growl escaped Abel before he could stop it. “I told you to help me shovel.”

“I don’t help assholes do anything,” Abram said.

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Deleted Scene

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This scene originally took place toward the end of the first chapter of Caged in Bone. I truncated and rewrote it in Abel’s perspective when I realized that the tone and mood was all wrong for the book – it just didn’t fit. But we so seldom get to see Rylie and Abel being intimate that it seemed like a shame to keep it to myself. This has had ZERO editing. It’s a rough draft, fresh from my brain. Also, it is sexy, so (like the rest of The Ascension Series) it’s not recommended for young readers. Happy reading!

Rylie touched a match to the last candle just as the flame crawled to her fingertips.

“Ouch,” she whispered, flicking her hand to extinguish the flame on the match. She sucked on her burned hand. The skin tingled with the healing powers of a werewolf, but the memory of pain lasted long after the actual injury was gone.

She stepped back to look around the bathroom in her cottage. She had picked the design of the buildings herself and selected the floor plan with the largest bathrooms, but they were still pretty small. There was barely enough room for the deep corner tub, a toilet, and a sink. It had taken a lot of clever placement to fit two dozen tapers in the room. It lit everything up with a pinkish-orange hue.

“Okay,” Rylie said, shoving matches in the drawer and grabbing the bathrobe off the wall hook. “Almost done.” She was talking to herself. That was bad. She was way more nervous than she had any right to be.

She and Abel had been together for over a year now. They had two adult children together.

Being a couple should not have been this hard.

Awkward or not, Rylie could try. It was the best she could do.

So she stripped down, put on a bathrobe, filled the bath with painfully hot water, and she waited.

She didn’t have to wait for long. The walls of the cottage shifted, air sighed from under the bathroom door, and she heard footsteps.

Rylie fidgeted with her bathrobe, then made her hands hold still at her sides.

Abel pushed the door open. He was tall and broad enough that he dwarfed the room, sucking all the air out as soon as he stepped in. There was faint amusement in his eyes as he took in the steamy bathroom and all of the candles.

“That,” he said, pointing at the tub, “is a bath, not a shower. You promised me a shower.”

Her whole body cringed at the criticism. “Sorry. It’s dumb. I’ll put out the candles.”

“No, I don’t mean—fuck it, Rylie,” Abel said, “just shut your mouth.”

He pulled her against him and kissed her hard. She melted against him, all soft curves against the hard plane of his muscular chest.

They kissed for endless minutes. His tongue explored her mouth as his hands stroked down her back, to her hips, molding her in his grip.

He hooked a finger through the knot on the tie of her robe. Tugged it loose.

The robe fell open, and Rylie could barely breathe as he stepped back looked at her. His gaze was tangible. Hot fingers teasing her nipples to peaks, making her skin pebble. He palmed her breast, rolling the hardened nipple between his fingers, squeezing the flesh so that his hands left pale imprints on her skin.

Abel’s touch was possessive. He claimed her with every stroke and squeeze and rub.

He pushed her thighs apart with his knee, pushing her against the wall, lifting her weight so that her feet came off the floor. There was nothing holding Rylie up but his leg and her back against the tile. They were close enough to the candles on the back of the sink that she could feel their warmth, and Abel shifted the folds of her robe so they wouldn’t catch.

“The candles are a little dumb,” he said, sliding a hand down her stomach to slip his fingers under the waistband of her panties.

She didn’t have enough brain cells to be offended this time. “I thought they were sexy.”

“You’re sexy,” Abel said, hiking her thigh up, his fingers burning a path from her knee to the edge of her underwear, “and I want to see you.”

He reached out for the light switch. Rylie grabbed his wrist.

“Wait, don’t—”

She pulled on him, and he pulled back. They unbalanced. The back of her legs bumped against the edge of the tub. She slipped and crashed into the water, hands still locked on Abel’s shoulders.

One more benefit of being Alphas was the incredible reflexes. He had the presence of mind to cup the back of her head against the impact and turn at the last instant, splashing down next to her instead of on top of her. But that meant that they were both almost fully submerged, from knees to chin, feet dangling over the side. Hot water sloshed over the floor.

Rylie gasped, wiping her soaked hair out of her face. “Oh my God—are you okay?”

Abel choked and spluttered. For an awful, embarrassed second, she thought that he had swallowed too much water. But then she realized that he was laughing. “Leader of the pack,” he said, leaning over her, water streaming off his sodden shirt, beading on his square jaw. He was even warmer than the water. “Biggest, baddest wolf alive. Clumsy as hell.”

“Stop it,” Rylie said, but she couldn’t stop giggling, either.

His shirt was stuck to his abs. She peeled it up his chest and he lifted his arms to let her take it off over his head.

Once that was out of the way, he collapsed on top of her, pushing her legs into the tub. It was deep enough to fit both of them, though not wide enough for them to comfortably lay side by side. He fit himself between her knees instead. The fly of his jeans dug into her tender flesh. Her bathrobe floated around them.

“First the candles, now this,” he said, nipping the side of her throat hard enough that she felt the burn of healing fever.

“I promise I will never try to seduce you again,” Rylie said. She ripped his jeans open. The button popped off and bounced against the porcelain side of the tub. She winced at the sound.

Abel’s laughter faded to a heated stare. “Like I told you before, I ain’t complaining.” He jerked the elastic of her panties hard enough that they snapped.

“Hey,” she protested, “I liked that pair.”

“And I liked these jeans,” Abel said, tossing her panties to the floor.

He pushed inside of her, no preparation, no warning. Rylie was ready for him, but it was still a shock—the fullness of it, the sheer size of his body in proportion to hers. Her fingernails dug into his shoulders as she gasped. Abel liked it when she did that, digging her fingers into the muscles of his back hard enough that another ounce of pressure might draw blood. He growled as he began to move.

The rhythm of their bodies made the water ripple over her, hot water on hot skin. She felt like she was going to slip under. Rylie’s hand slapped against the tile, seeking purchase, and found nothing. She had nothing to hold onto but Abel.

They moved and rocked together. Tension built within Rylie, making all her muscles clench and heat spread to the tips of her toes.

“Abel,” she gasped.

He sank his teeth into her neck. Hard. “Do it,” he said.

She hit her peak, and he followed a moment later, roaring and cresting and emptying half of the bath tub onto the floor.

And outside, it continued to snow.

COLLAPSE

Ruled by Steel

An Urban Fantasy Mystery

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

Only a demon can save the souls in Hell.

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

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

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

Excerpt:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exquisite.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Empty your bowels,” he said.

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

Once she rose, he took her elbow again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not so broken after all.

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

He enjoyed struggle. He did not enjoy defiance.

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

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

The teeth could wait.

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

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

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

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

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

A fiend approached Belphegor at the head of the room.

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

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

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

He stood. The slave followed suit.

Together, they approached the noble House of Abraxas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More defiance.

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

Pale, deft fingers loosened the collar of his shirt.

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

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

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

“No,” she said.

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

“To the wall,” Belphegor said.

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

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

You go to the wall,” she said.

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

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

“Who are you?” Belphegor asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sit. Stay. Beg. Roll over.

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

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

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

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

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

Her head bounced and left no blood.

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

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

Selective incorporeality. Definitely not mortal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A shame to damage such a pristine face.

He did it again.

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

She grunted, jaw clenched.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Belphegor was becoming mildly concerned.

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

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

The slave spoke.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Belphegor’s concern increased fractionally.

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

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

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

The slave rounded on him and swung.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the first time, Belphegor felt fear.

She kicked the lever.

COLLAPSE

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