Once Darkness Falls

The worst case scenario has happened: Reno NV has fallen to demons.

Someone at the Office of Preternatural Affairs fucked up.

As the lead of a secret internal investigations team, Agent Cesar Hawke needs to discover who is responsible.

And then he needs to kill them.

Excerpt:

I woke up to my phone ringing. That was a sure sign that I was about to have a bad day.

See, I don’t do the girlfriend thing, and I don’t have much by the way of man-friends either. If someone’s calling me in the middle of the night, it can only be my employers—the Office of Preternatural Affairs. It can only mean I’ve been volunteered for overtime. And the OPA doesn’t want to pay overtime unless shit’s going down.

The instant the ringing phone shattered the dream of being served fancy drinks with umbrellas by Rihanna, my gut told me that shit had gone way down.

It wasn’t like I’d developed magical powers of precognition. I’d just been conditioned to feel powerful dread whenever I was woken up with a phone call.

I know what follows middle of the night phone calls.

Hint: it doesn’t involve a sexy singer from Barbados bringing me a Mai Tai.

READ MORE

I was rolling out of bed to get dressed even as I answered my phone. “Agent Hawke here,” I said, handset pinned between my chin and shoulder as I stripped my sweat pants.

“Come outside.”

That wasn’t the voice of the woman who worked in dispatch—who I wasn’t actually sure was a real woman at all. The same individual seemed to work twenty-four-seven and her voice was a monotone, so I’d always harbored the theory she was a robot. Probably a magical robot, knowing us.

No robots for me tonight. The voice on the other end of the line was my best friend-slash-partner in crime-slash-guy who had recruited me to work for the OPA-slash-the director of the Magical Violations Department, Fritz Friederling—the one and only blond Jet Li of Beverly Hills.

I froze with one leg in my slacks, the other balanced on the edge of my bed. It freed up a hand for me to switch the phone to the other ear.

“What’s up?” I asked warily.

The OPA doesn’t call in the middle of the night unless something’s wrong, but Fritz might call for fun. Billionaires have some weird-ass quirks. The guy has been known to drive a cherry-red Bugatti around Westmont, for fuck’s sake.

“You heard me the first time, Hawke.” He hung up.

“Fucking fuck,” I grumbled under my breath, along with a few other select words that no decent guy says. I’m not real decent, though.

I finished getting dressed. Whatever Fritz wanted was gonna involve wearing the monkey suit, whether it was a job related to the OPA or one of his special tasks. Like the time he’d picked me up on a weekend to act as his bodyguard at the races. Not horse races—demon races. Turned out that chisavs could run faster than the wind when motivated by the right kind of meat. And the dress code at the races was strict as any government office.

Jesus, I hoped I wasn’t going to have to follow him around the races again. I hadn’t had to block that many knife attacks before in my life.

But by the time I was shoving my feet into loafers that hadn’t seen better days for at least two years, I heard the sound. That thumpa-thumpa-thumpa of a helicopter descending.

That told me we wouldn’t be going to the races.

See, I hear helicopters all the time in my neck of the woods. I’m a government employee. Unlike Fritz, I can’t afford rent in Beverly fucking Hills. Just the nature of the job.

It was also the nature of my job that I recognized the sound of an Apache.

Cops around here didn’t fly those. Bad as gang bangers might be, LEO still didn’t need air-to-ground missiles to handle criminals.

At least, not the human ones.

That dreadful churning in my gut was getting stronger. Almost as strong as that choking feeling I get whenever I’m stuck somewhere with a nightmare demon, like I’m about to drown in fear.

It was the dread that got me turning on the TV while I grabbed a protein shake out of the fridge.

I clicked over to the news. When I’d turned off the TV last night, it had been set to Adult Swim. I’d always been an anime fan, and I stayed up way too late to watch it on nights when I should have been resting for work.

“—bringing all kinds of problems. Buildings have collapsed. There are reports of people trapped in buildings that came down around them. They have made desperate calls to 911 asking for help, but rescuers aren’t able to get to them.” The news anchor, January Lazar, was looking blank in that way that talking heads only do when there are bodies on the ground. It was a tense blankness, afraid to show any emotion in case it was inappropriate, in case it hurt ratings.

The camera flashed away from her to footage of Reno, Nevada—a city just a couple hundred miles north of Los Angeles. It had never been a pretty city, what with all the old casinos past their heyday and the river that ran dry most days of the year. But now even the old hotel towers had collapsed under a black fog. Rubble peppered the streets.

From the looks of it, someone had dropped a bomb on Reno.

“It’s too dangerous for rescuers to venture into Reno south of McCarran Boulevard, so thousands of residents and tourists are still believed to be trapped,” January Lazar went on. There was a faint magical buzz to her words. The broadcast must have been arranged by the OPA. We had an entire team of people dedicated to throwing spells over the airwaves so that viewers’ opinions would shift whichever way we wanted.

That night, it seemed like we wanted everyone to believe there had been a volcanic eruption in Reno.

The sound of the Apache got louder.

I tossed my protein shake in the sink and flung my door open.

My jacket was whipped open, tie lashing around my neck. The chopper had landed close enough that the rotors blasted me with wind. The noise was going to wake up everyone in my apartment complex. Considering that the OPA didn’t officially exist, we must have been in a real hurry for secrecy not to matter.

The door was open. Fritz hung halfway out the side, arm hooked into the straps of a seat, Blackberry glued to his ear. He was wearing a suit like I was, along with sunglasses, and he was waiting for me impatiently.

Whatever had happened to Reno, it wasn’t bombs, and it wasn’t a natural disaster.

The Office of Preternatural Affairs doesn’t get called in for boring shit like that, after all.

My name is Cèsar Hawke.

It wasn’t that long ago that I worked for myself as a private eye. Yeah, that’s a real job. It’s not something invented by Hollywood explicitly for black-and-white noir movies.

The job is real, and a hell of a lot boring than you’d think—lots of following cheating wives to Pilates class, tracking the internet activity of people who jumped bail bonds, shit like that.

Shit that involves mortals.

Humans.

I’m not a private investigator anymore.

And I don’t deal with humans very often.

These days, I’m an agent for the Office of Preternatural Affairs, which is a secret government agency that you’ve never heard about. We’re not even mentioned in the fine print of bills that pass through the Senate. We silently siphon money out of other parts of the government, soaking up tax dollars in the name of public safety.

Officially, I work in the Magical Violations Department of the OPA. We’re all witches who track down other witches—the ones who break our unwritten laws. We clean up messes left behind by nasty spells. We enchant and disenchant and sing to the fucking moon if that’s what the job calls for.

Unofficially, I’m still an investigator, albeit a different kind than I used to be. I take all the odd cases that don’t fit anywhere else, the sensitive jobs.

Demon things.

Fritz had put me on his special team after I proved that I was trustworthy. At least, proving that I was someone he could trust. Fritz had always had agendas hidden in agendas, and only some of those agendas aligned with the OPA’s. I aligned with Fritz, so I did whatever he told me, whether it was above-the-desk stuff or the kind of case that led to fistfights next to the cashier’s cage at the chisav races. We’re bros like that. We’re tight.

Even though Fritz and I both work for the Office of Preternatural Affairs, our relationship doesn’t have a lot to do with them anymore.

See, we’re kopis and aspis now. You’ve never heard of those titles, just like you’ve never heard of the government agency that I work for. The long and the short of it means that Fritz and I are bound for life as partners. He fights demons with his super-strength as a kopis, and I protect him magically.

It also means if one of us dies, the other goes, too.

So yeah, I do what Fritz tells me.

He says, “You’re running a special investigation,” I say, “Yes, sir.”

That’s life with the Office of Preternatural Affairs.

That’s life with Fritz Friederling.

You’d think I’d be used to it after all these years. And sure, if you’d have asked me a week ago, I’d have said it was getting easier.

But a week ago, Reno hadn’t been blown up by demons.

COLLAPSE

Darkmoon

Rylie Gresham has survived becoming a werewolf, going crazy from silver poisoning, and being hunted by her fiance’s family. But all of that was nothing compared to the challenge Rylie faces now: being pregnant…with twins. And it definitely doesn’t help that her fiance’s brother has declared himself the father, either.

The brothers, Seth and Abel, are at each other’s throat over Rylie, even as the twins are fast approaching term. But it may be too late for all of them. The government has revealed the existence of werewolves, threatening everything that Rylie holds dear. And the evil werewolf Cain is preparing for his final act of revenge—destroying the pack and stealing Rylie’s children.

Excerpt:

It was seven o’clock at night on a cold December evening, and the news was bad. Seth sat in the living room with Levi rigid beside him. Neither had moved for ten minutes. The others weren’t any cheerier: Bekah was lumped against the wall, Scott and Gwyn were by the window, and nobody breathed as they watched a familiar face give a speech on the TV.

“Evil is real,” said Tate Peterson. His hair was spiked in the front, his eyes were clear, and he wore a neat three-piece suit. His knuckles were white as he gripped the podium in front of him.

Cameras flashed. He swallowed hard and glanced at his note cards.

“Evil is real,” he said again. “I’ve seen it myself. Evil took my mother—a respected county commissioner—and now evil has taken my grandfather, too. The man that you all know as Senator Peterson.”

Another pause, more shuffling cards.

READ MORE

“Evil comes in many forms. There’s evil in the hearts of men. The kind of evil that makes families fight, or forces us to commit crimes. I was a troubled kid. I knew that kind of trouble intimately before I found God.” He looked straight into the camera. “But there is a more literal evil in the darkness, too. It doesn’t care if you smoke pot or engage in homosexual behavior. There are creatures that want your blood, life, and soul. A thousand different kinds of demons: incubi, strigoi, mara.” Tate’s eyes narrowed. “Werewolves.”

Levi stood in a swift motion, haloed by furious energy. “Tate,” he growled, as if he thought his ex-boyfriend would be able to hear him through the TV.

Scott reached for his arm, but Levi jerked away and stormed out of the room. His father moved to follow. Bekah held up a hand.

“It’s okay,” she said softly. “I’ve got it.”

Tate was still talking as Bekah followed her twin brother out of the house. Seth barely heard the rest of the speech, but he didn’t think the details mattered anyway. The sentiment was perfectly clear.

A hand appeared from off-frame and pushed Tate gently aside. A new man took the podium as the camera zoomed back to show both of them. This speaker was older than Tate, and not nearly as handsome; he kind of looked like an ape in a suit. He had introduced himself at the beginning of the event as Gary Zettel, secretary for the brand new Office of Preternatural Affairs.

“Thank you for sharing that with us, Mr. Peterson,” Secretary Zettel said, a totally inauthentic smile glued to his lips.

It had been eighteen hours since a senator had been assassinated at his office in Washington, allegedly by some kind of demon. Tate’s speech laid out everything for the public: the truth that most people chose to ignore, and which most supernatural creatures tried to conceal from the public.

The United States government had just destroyed centuries of secrecy in one fifteen minute speech.

Only the blast of cold air blowing through the living room managed to draw Seth’s attention from the TV. Stephanie Whyte, doctor and witch, shut the door behind her, unwound her scarf, and hung her jacket on the hook.

Gwyn grabbed the remote and lowered the volume. “Thank goodness you’re back. Did you get everything?”

Stephanie lifted a plastic bag. “I did. Where is she?”

“In our bedroom,” Seth said, feeling queasy with nerves. It wasn’t from the press conference. He had even bigger worries than that. “Should I come with you?”

“I’d like to talk to her on my own first. Wait out here.” Stephanie tucked the bag under her arm and disappeared down the hall.

Seth sank onto the couch again, and Gwyn sat beside him. “It’s going to be okay,” she said, rubbing a cool hand over his arm. He forced a smile.

“Thanks, Gwyn. You’re probably right.”

Secretary Zettel continued to speak in front of the blue curtains with Tate hovering at his back.

“Evil is real, but there’s no reason for the American people to be afraid.” He removed the microphone from its stand and paced across the stage, forcing the camera to follow him. “Yesterday’s attack represented more than just an assassination on a respected senator. It’s an attack on our very freedom. Our nation has come face-to-face with evil, and we will respond with the core of America’s good heart.”

As he walked across the stage, Seth glimpsed people standing behind Tate. The press conference was being staged outside of Senator Peterson’s home, which meant that the rest of the surviving members of the Peterson family were there: Tate’s dad, his aunt, and his newly-widowed grandmother. There were also a cluster of men in black suits. Seth almost skimmed right over them, but one of the faces caught his eye.

“Wait,” he said, reaching for the remote. “Are you recording this, Gwyn?”

“Recording it? With what?” she asked.

Seth punched several buttons, but nothing happened. They had canceled their satellite subscription when they thought that the entire pack was moving to California, so their DVR didn’t work anymore.

“Watch the background,” he said, crouching in front of the screen and pointing at the corner.

“What are we watching for?” Scott asked.

“Just watch.”

Seth held his breath as he waited for Secretary Zettel to pace in the other direction again. And there he was: the man among the people that Seth had initially assumed were Secret Service. He was only on-screen for an instant before the speech ended and it cut back to the newsroom.

“Jesus,” Gwyn breathed. “Was that…?”

“I don’t understand. I didn’t see anything,” Scott said.

It felt like Seth’s heart was going to pound out of his chest.

Those hadn’t been Secret Service. The black suits, black shirts, and Bluetooth earpieces were all hallmarks of the Union.

And his half-brother, Cain, had been standing among them.

Rylie gnawed on her thumbnail as she paced in the twelve foot by twelve foot box that was her bedroom. She hadn’t stepped outside the door for hours. Not since Abel had claimed to be responsible for her pregnancy at the wedding.

She couldn’t face the awkward silences and the judgment in the eyes of her werewolf pack. Nobody had to speak for her to know that everyone thought that she had cheated on Seth.

It seemed so stupid to hung up on that when they had just defeated Cain. But she was. She didn’t even care that she had witnessed her evil mother-in-law die a second time. All she cared was that her pack thought their Alpha was a slut.

Her cheeks burned with the shame of it.

She jumped when her door creaked open, but it wasn’t Bekah trying to console her again. It was Stephanie Whyte, who was her usual brisk self.

“Heck of a night, isn’t it? Lie down and expose your stomach, please.”

The nonexistent bedside manner probably should have bothered Rylie, but it was comforting, for once. Stephanie couldn’t have cared less if Rylie was sleeping with Seth or Abel or Seth and Abel, or every single werewolf in the world. All that Stephanie cared about was doing her job.

Rylie stretched out flat on her back in bed, lifted her shift above her navel, and wiggled her jeans lower on her hips. “What are you going to do?”

Stephanie dragged the desk chair to her bedside and sat down. She squirted a dollop of hand sanitizer onto her fingers. “I’m just going to see if I can feel your fundus. This won’t hurt.”

“My what-us?”

“The top of your uterus. It will help me date your pregnancy.”

Rylie shut her eyes and tried to remember how to breathe. My pregnancy. It had been almost two weeks she took the pregnancy test and saw those two pink lines, but she still wasn’t used to the idea of it.

Stephanie palpated Rylie’s lower abdomen, eyes going distant with thought.

“Well?” Rylie asked after a few seconds of silence.

“What’s the date of your last menstrual period?”

“I don’t know. I don’t keep track.”

She pressed a little harder, but not painfully so. “Hmm. Well, when was the last time you changed into a wolf? Three months? Four?”

“It hasn’t been that long. I skipped a few moons, but…two months? Maybe less?”

“You can pull your shirt down.” Stephanie sat back, steepled her fingers, and gave Rylie a thoughtful look. “The average werewolf can’t sustain a pregnancy because of frequent, violent physical changes. Did you know that?”

“Yeah. Seth told me that I’d never have a baby,” she said.

“So I imagine you weren’t even using condoms, were you? Don’t answer that. I don’t need to know.” The older woman heaved a sigh. “Look, Rylie, you’re not an average werewolf. You’re an Alpha. And you feel like you might already be four months pregnant.” Rylie’s jaw dropped, but Stephanie wasn’t done. “Your fundal height is almost to your navel. You aren’t really showing because first time mothers have strong abdominal muscles.”

If Rylie hadn’t been laying down, she thought she would have fallen over. Dogs only gestated for sixty days. Was she going to have a dog pregnancy? “What does that mean? Does that mean I’m growing supernaturally fast? Do werewolves do that?”

“We don’t know anything yet. It’s too soon to worry.” Stephanie grabbed the plastic bag she had brought off the floor. “You’re hyperventilating, Rylie. Relax.” She punctuated those words by pulling out several color-coded vials and a needle. A very long needle.

“What’s that for?”

“It’s so I can draw your blood and make sure things are progressing normally. We’ll have to treat this as a high-risk pregnancy…assuming that you plan on keeping it.” She snapped on blue latex gloves.

Rylie was grateful for the surge of anger she felt at that suggestion. It was a nice change from the utter terror. “Of course I’m keeping it! What kind of person do you think I am?”

Stephanie wiped down the inside of Rylie’s elbow with an alcohol swab. “I think you’re the kind of person that turns furry twice a month. We’re not even certain that you can carry the baby to term, or that it will be healthy. We don’t even know who the father is. This isn’t a simple situation, and I would understand if you chose to abort.”

That was such an ugly word. “Abort.” Rylie felt queasy again.

“Seth’s the father. I’ve only ever had sex with him.”

“Right,” Stephanie said.

A sharp prick, and the needle was in. Rylie watched in sick fascination as the blood spurted into the vial with every beat of her heart. Once the first was filled, Stephanie swapped it out, and she ended up filling four vials total. She pressed cotton against the needle’s insertion point and withdrew it.

There was no need for a bandage. Rylie healed instantly.

“I can send one of these to a lab for paternity testing,” Stephanie said, turning the chair toward the desk to label the vials.

Rylie sat up, rubbing her arm. “Are you listening to me? I don’t need paternity testing. I would never cheat on Seth!”

Aside from the one time she had kissed Abel, anyway. But kissing didn’t produce babies.

“As I said, you’re hardly a typical situation. If you think that there’s any chance—even a small one—that you might have mated with Abel while in wolf form, then I recommend a paternity test. It would be good for your peace of mind, if nothing else.”

Rylie groaned and let her head bump against the wall.

Squeezing her eyes tight, she nodded once.

Stephanie dropped the vials in an envelope. “I’ll contact the hospital and arrange a dating ultrasound as soon as possible.” She removed her gloves and threw them in the trash. “I think it would be best if I performed the scan myself.”

“You don’t think you’ll look inside and see a puppy, do you?”

She had meant it as a joke, but Stephanie didn’t laugh.

“I’ll tell Seth he can visit you again,” she said on her way out of the room.

Rylie grabbed the wastebasket and threw up for the third time that day.

She had been having morning sickness for a while, and it wasn’t getting any easier. It always left her feeling dizzy and weak—almost as bad as silver poisoning. But Rylie could try to purge silver from her system. There was no purging a baby.

Assuming you plan on keeping it, Stephanie had said.

The suggestion of abortion angered Rylie, but it wasn’t the first time she had thought about it. Whether Seth or Abel was the father, it was going to be Eleanor’s grandchild. Eleanor was pure evil, and so was her oldest son, Cain, who was also a werewolf. And since there was no chance that Rylie was going to produce human offspring, the odds of making a baby like Cain were pretty high.

She buried her face in her arms. Maybe her baby was going to be a monster, but Rylie couldn’t kill it. She couldn’t.

The door opened, and Seth entered. She thought that he was going to be angry, but he only looked stunned. “We have a problem,” he said.

“I know,” Rylie said. Her chin quivered.

“You already know?” Seth looked puzzled. “Were you watching the news in here?”

“Huh? I was talking about this.” She placed her hands over her stomach. “What are we going to do?”

The shock vanished from Seth’s face and was immediately replaced by sympathy. “Oh, baby.” He sat at her side and wrapped his arms around her. He was so gentle, so sweet, and tears immediately spilled out of her eyes and splashed down her cheeks.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Seth.”

He pulled back to look at her. “Sorry?”

“I didn’t tell you. I can’t…I just…”

He wiped her tears away with the palm of his hand. “I just wish you had told me so that you wouldn’t have to deal with it alone. I’m not angry. Just surprised.” Seth gave a shaky laugh. “I didn’t think I’d ever be a dad.”

His hand trailed down her stomach and rested on her belly button, and Rylie put her hand over his. There was only a small, soft lump under her shirt. “Stephanie thinks that I might be growing too fast,” she said, and she couldn’t keep her voice from shaking.

Seth responded by kissing her, slow and deep, without moving his hand. Even though she had been throwing up, he still kissed her like he meant it. But when he pulled away, he wasn’t smiling.

“What were you saying about the news when you came in?” Rylie asked, grateful for a distraction.

“Forget about it. What about…” He trailed off, seeming to choke on the words he wanted to say. He cleared his throat and tried again. “What about Abel? I mean, there’s no chance, right? There’s no way that Abel could be…”

This time, when his words failed, he gave up speaking. But Rylie couldn’t respond.

When she remained silent, he kissed her again.

“Whatever happens,” he murmured against her lips, “I’m going to be here for you. We’ll do this together. Okay?”

Rylie rested her head on his chest. “Okay.”

COLLAPSE

The Descent Series

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

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

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

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

Defying Fate

Elise Kavanagh has exorcised demons, slain gods, and come back from the dead. And she’s done it all with the help of James Faulkner: a powerful witch, and the only person Elise has ever loved or trusted.

But now the worst has happened. The Treaty protecting humanity from war between angels and demons has fallen. Elise has been taken by her greatest enemy and imprisoned in madness. And James may be responsible for it…

Excerpt:

California – May 2010

Conan O’Brien cracked a bad joke on TV. The audience’s responding laughter was shrill, harpy-like, almost screaming. Hannah wanted to throw the remote through the screen. But late night programming was the only thing had kept her son quiet lately, and she couldn’t afford to replace the television, so she only dug her fingernails into her palm, gritted her teeth, and tolerated it.

Spring in Half Moon Bay smelled like saltwater and seaweed. The steely ocean rippled outside her window, unsettled by a coming storm, and the wind was just on the wrong side of cold. Hannah didn’t close the guest house’s window. She hadn’t been in Hell for months, but she still hungered for cool, moist air.

Another joke, more shrill laughter. Her nails dug into her hand.

“What do you want for dinner?” she asked.

Nathaniel didn’t respond.

READ MORE

She stepped into the kitchen. In the refrigerator, she had an open box of baking soda, half a liter of milk, a few slices of bread. The coven would have plenty of food if she wanted it—they were only a phone call away. But admitting that they had run through Hannah’s paltry savings was more than she could handle.

Hannah braced her hands on the granite counter and let her head hang between her shoulders. She could see a sliver of the television through the doorway. Conan O’Brien was dancing. The audience roared, but Nathaniel’s expression never changed. He had spent all night, every night, sitting in that same position. The couch had all but molded around his body now.

Zoning out was still better than what he had been doing with his days.

The phone rang, startling Hannah.

“Phone, Mom,” Nathaniel said without looking up.

A corded handset was mounted next to the refrigerator. She pulled it around to the dining room. The table was covered in books, papers, stones, crystals, pens, candles—everything a growing witch needed to cast magic.

She pressed the phone to her ear. “Hello?”

“It’s me, Hannah,” replied a man, whose voice she recognized.

She let out a breath that she hadn’t realized she was holding. Hannah hadn’t heard from James Faulkner, her former fiancé and father of her son, since she had left him in the City of Dis last December. After so long without word, she had started to think he must have been dead.

There was a time that Hannah had fantasized about James getting killed—the times when she was trapped at home with Nathaniel when he was a raging toddler, and James was off saving the world. But Nathaniel wasn’t a child anymore. He was an almost-teenaged witch who was drawing runes in his own blood. The idea of losing James—maybe the only witch powerful enough to control Nathaniel—had been haunting her for weeks.

“Where are you?” she asked in a low voice, gripping the receiver in both hands until the plastic creaked. “I thought you were going to contact us as soon as you got back.”

“You need to meet me at Pamela’s old house in one week. We’re going to go to the Haven.”

Hannah glanced at the wall calendar. Below the picture of an ocean sunrise, Nathaniel had been crossing off days. One week would be the end of the month.

Swallowing down the last vestiges of her shriveled pride, Hannah asked, “Could you meet us here instead?”

“I won’t be available for another week.”

“Why?”

“Because,” James said. “I’m about to be arrested by the Union.”

The phone slipped an inch before Hannah realized that her fingers had gone slack. She caught it, put it back up to her ear, leaned around the doorway. Nathaniel was still transfixed. She whispered anyway. “Arrested? For what?”

“That’s not important. They won’t keep me for long. My parents have agreed to hide you, and they won’t tell Landon you’ve returned. Don’t worry about it.”

“I’m not worried about it for me. I’m worrying for Nathaniel.”

He sighed. “Yes. I am, too.”

The silence between them carried a lifetime of secrets. Hannah had a thousand questions, but nothing to say—not over the phone. She didn’t even know where to begin. Thoughts of archangels, conspiracies, and deicide vanished as quickly as they occurred to her. She shut her eyes. Pressed her forehead against the wall.

“Here’s the thing, James: I don’t have any money left. I can’t afford to go to Colorado.” It was physically painful to confess that aloud. “And don’t tell me to ask the coven here for help.”

“I wasn’t planning on it. It’s not necessary anyway—I’ve added you to my bank account. You’ll be able to withdraw whatever you need from the local branch. But move quickly; my transactions are likely to be monitored, and they’ll be looking for you.”

“Who?” she asked.

James gave a low, mirthless chuckle. “Everyone.”

“This week is going to be bad. Isn’t it?”

“Very bad. But after that, you’ll be safe. You and Nathaniel. You’ll never have to worry again—not about money, your safety, or any covens. I promise you that.”

“You’ve made promises before,” Hannah said. The laughter from the living room abruptly stopped as Nathaniel turned off the TV. She was out of time for questions. “I’ll see you in Colorado.”

She hung up the phone.

COLLAPSE

Damnation Marked

There’s something in the earth deep below Elise Kavanagh’s territory. A shadow is falling upon local demons to devour their flesh and harvest their souls. And it’s coming for Elise next.

The Union has an easy way out. They want to send Elise into hiding again with her former partner, James Faulkner. All she has to do is surrender the territory and trust that they can protect the ethereal ruins, the dark gate, and the city she’s come to know as home.

Greater powers have other plans for Elise and her fabled power as Godslayer–plans that mean surrendering her life and blood to the most powerful demon alive. But if she descends, there’s no turning back. Once she gazes into the abyss, it will gaze back into her…and Elise will be damned forever.

Excerpt:

Rick used to make a living selling medicine to plague doctors. He once watched a patron stuff his beak with camphor, rose petals, and laudanum using gloved hands, while explaining that the aromas would spare him from miasmatic air. The doctor had spoken with confident authority, and Rick believed him. It seemed to be as good an explanation for the plague as anything else.

The doctor slid the mask over his face, donned his fedora, and departed to treat the dying.

A few weeks later, Rick passed a pyre of bodies and saw his former customer at the top of the pile. The doctor’s neck below the mask was riddled with buboes. His robes curled with flame. The mask’s long beak was cracked.

It was about then that Rick realized that humans were deeply stupid creatures.

READ MORE

He avoided Earth for a few hundred years after that. The market for human trinkets was good in Hell at the time, considering that there was no reliable way to travel between the dimensions, and he eked out a decent living.

The next time he set foot in a mortal city on the planes of Earth, those deeply stupid animals had somehow created heavy machines that could drive at unimaginable speeds, and they allowed anyone to do it. It was lunacy. Or idiocy. Or very possibly both.

He wanted nothing to do with them.

But his passport had expired, so it was too late for Rick to go back to Hell. He picked a town, bought a shop, and hadn’t left it since—not once.

Rick watched through the window as his newest assistant accepted a shipment, gnawing on his claws with jagged teeth. Jerica was taking her sweet time signing for those crates. She was a nightmare too, though much younger than Rick, newly substantiated and still marveling at the wonders of her corporeal form. She seemed to enjoy using it to flirt with the delivery driver.

What if that blasted truck rolled over and killed her? It had been hard enough finding one assistant. He didn’t want to find a replacement, too.

The shopkeeper kept an eye on the empty street as Jerica continued to talk with the driver, who didn’t seem concerned about the possibility of being killed on the sidewalk, either. She pointed at the boxes, then tipped her head back and laughed. Laughed!

Rick couldn’t watch. He just couldn’t. It was too much for his constitution to handle.

He returned to the counter of his drugstore and took a shot of cactus juice to settle his cramping gut. It tasted like ass, and Rick knew ass. They considered human anuses to be a gourmet treat in Hell. The cactus was definitely worse. But it did good things for his stomach.

Moving away from the window didn’t keep him from worrying over his assistant. He could watch Jerica on the blurry monitor hanging over the locked case of condoms. And watch her he did. Rick worried about that girl.

Eventually, after what felt like hours, the bell over the door chimed. His nightmare assistant backed into the shop carrying one of the crates on her shoulder.

“What is this? It’s heavy.” Jerica crouched to set it on the cracked linoleum.

He wrung his hands. “Do you think you took long enough?”

“What, are you having a rush of business in here?” She popped a bubble of gum and sucked it into her mouth again. “Relax. Being nice never hurt anyone.”

“You would be surprised,” Rick said darkly, thinking of plague doctors and blackened extremities. Jerica moved to open the crate, but he slammed a hand on the wood to stop her. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“Checking the shipment. Don’t you want to make sure we’ve got everything?”

“Not up here, where we can be seen through the windows,” he hissed. “Downstairs!”

Rick took the first crate to the basement while Jerica retrieved the other two.

The space beneath his shop was dim, narrow, and had a low ceiling. He still occasionally smacked his forehead on the beams, even after seventy-five years. His desk and reclining chair occupied one corner; the rest of the floor was filled with boxes of inventory.

He kicked a space clear for the crates and directed her to stack all three on top of each other. Then, and only then, did he lift the lid on one to examine the contents. It was filled with egg cartons, each of which protected twelve small, glowing cubes.

“Lethe?” Jerica asked, sounding wholly unimpressed.

“Mind yourself. This is a special order.”

She jutted a hip. With her asymmetrical haircut, scalloped tunic, and cocky stance, she looked more like an abstract geometric painting than a teenage girl. “Rick, man, you know I love you…”

He smashed the lid onto the crate again. “Ha.”

“…but anyone making special orders of lethe is not someone you should be dealing with. I mean, drugs? Demon drugs? You know what this stuff does to people?”

“It does nothing to people,” he said, unfazed by her attempt at showing concern for him. “Only demons. I don’t question the orders, and neither should you.”

A quick scan showed that every cube was in its proper place, and in good condition. Rick still had an intake bracelet somewhere, probably at the bottom of his laundry pile. Maybe the client would want to drop a couple together. He hadn’t been on a trip in a long time—literally or figuratively.

His assistant watched him replace the lids with disapproval. “Rick…”

“Get on out,” he said, shooing her upstairs. He locked the basement door behind them. “Go on. Get.”

She sighed. “Maybe I should stay and help you with this.”

“Your shift ends in fifteen. I’m not paying overtime. I told you, get on out.”

“You don’t have to pay me.”

But he pushed her toward the door, and she could hardly fight against him. Especially when he exerted the strength of millennia against her dozen or so years. “Careful on your way home. Stay out of the streets. And watch for those cars!”

Her lips stretched so wide from ear to ear that he could see the wad of gum pressed between two yellowed molars. “Nobody’s going to run me over on the way. But if you’re really worried, you could walk me home.”

“You’re funny. Just so fuckin’ funny.”

He shut the door in her face, but considering it was a glass door, it didn’t do much good. He saw her mouth moving on the other side: Be careful. Okay?

Then Jerica faded into the shadows, slipping across the street without touching the pavement, and reappeared under a streetlight. She waved at him before dancing into darkness once more.

Rick sat on his stool behind the counter and found his paperback under a folder of ledgers. Since he didn’t sleep, all he had was free time, and Rick read a lot. Despite being dumb animals, humans were good with stories. He was in the middle of “The Billionaire’s Busty Bride.” The pages curled under his long fingers.

Soon, he was so absorbed that he didn’t look up when the bell over the door jingled. Footsteps shuffled in.

“Leave your bag outside,” he said, licking his thumb to turn the page. “No backpacks.”

The silence that followed his order had weight to it. Rick glanced up. The customer was a tall guy in a leather jacket with a spiked iron band wrapped around his forehead. He was ugly, even by a nightmare’s standards: smashed nose, sausage lips, lined face. Flecks of dried blood were peeling off his leathery skin like he hadn’t washed his face since his last meal of manflesh.

Zohak slammed his fists on the counter. “Where is it?” He had been on Earth for months, but his accent was miserable. Everything was still pronounced in the back of his throat, like he was about to spill out a tirade of Hell’s native tongue.

Rick folded the corner of his page, closed the book, and stuck it under the cash register. “All right, all right.” He shuttered the windows to block out the night. “This way.” Zohak lumbered down the stairs to the basement. His weight made the whole building creak. “No company this time?”

The demon-king glared over his shoulder. “I trust no one.”

“That wasn’t the story last time I saw you.”

“My fiends hadn’t been slaughtered last time.” Bitterness dripped from his growls.

Rick knew a subject he shouldn’t touch when he heard one. It didn’t matter if Zohak had his legion anyway. Only if he had money.

They opened the top crate. A silvery-blue glow splashed over their faces, highlighting the furrows on Zohak’s face. The demon-king’s eyes raked over the inventory.

“Is this all you have?”

“It’s all you ordered. Three stacks of lethe.”

Zohak towered over the nightmare, clenching his hands and baring his teeth. “I ordered five!”

Rick wasn’t impressed, but he was prepared. He whipped the ledger out of his back pocket and held it up. “Three stacks.”

The demon king deflated a little. Actually, he deflated a lot. He quivered, and his broad shoulders sagged. For an instant, an oily sheen obscured his red irises.

He moved to put the lid back on the crate, but Rick stopped him. “Payment?”

The king blinked, and the oily veil vanished from his eyes. “This one is on…” Zohak searched for the word. “Credit.”

Rick flapped the ledger. “No. It’s not.”

“I must sell this before I can afford to buy it.”

“What about the last batch you flipped?”

Zohak seemed to struggle with the words, but not because of the language barrier. “I… lost it.”

And with that, the overhead light bulb flickered.

A strange energy rolled through the basement, and Rick closed his eyes to focus on it. Weight pressed between the space where his shoulder blades should have been. It tasted like ancient papyrus, like the clouds in the sky, and he tried to swipe it from his tongue.

“Wait here,” he said, leaving Zohak with the inventory to head upstairs.

The intensity of the energy grew as he ascended. The air buzzed as though a low electrical current were vibrating through it.

Rick lifted the blinds. One by one, the streetlights dimmed and turned off, marching in a line from the end of the block toward his shop.

His security system beeped, drawing his attention to the monitor. The camera mounted outside his shop flickered, snowed, and cut out. Then the “Open” sign in the window turned off, followed immediately by the lights inside.

A power outage? The clouds were heavy with the promise of snow, but a single flake had yet to fall, and the air was completely still.

Tendrils of dread began creeping over him. “What in the seven hells?”

He willed his corporeal form away, focused on the window, and reappeared beside the warped glass with a thought. He peered into the night.

There was someone moving on the street. A woman.

Rick locked the door and stepped back. “Zohak! Incoming!”

The demon-king already stood at the top of the stairs, and his eyes blazed with red fire. Rick didn’t recognize the woman approaching on the street, but apparently he did.

It only took a moment for her to reach the entrance. Her hair was in a thick braid over one shoulder. There were straps at her shoulders, as though she wore a backpack. A college student?

The back door creaked, slammed, and Zohak was gone.

Rick phased to the counter. Grabbed his crowbar.

The woman rattled the door—locked. She raised her booted foot and slammed it into the glass. Shards rained onto the linoleum.

Rick shook his crowbar. “I’ll call the police!”

The woman reached behind her, and he realized belatedly that she wasn’t wearing a backpack at all. She had a spine scabbard with two swords. The one she drew had a short blade, barely longer than her forearm, and occult symbols etched into the metal.

Rick had heard of that blade, and the woman who wielded it. They called her the Godslayer.

No wonder Zohak had run.

She used it to beat away the remaining glass and ducked through.

“Didn’t you hear me?” Rick said, with somewhat less steam than before. She wouldn’t be impressed by the police. Rumor had it that they had tried to arrest her once, but she killed half the force, bewitched the others, and escaped without a mark on her permanent record.

The Godslayer straightened and shook glass out of her hair. So she wasn’t ten feet tall after all. Her eyes weren’t filled with angelfire, either. She looked… human.

“Where’s Zohak?”

He sent out a tendril of energy to sniff at her mind, but there was no hint of normal, brittle human emotions. It was like trying to penetrate a brick wall with a toothpick.

Rick wavered. Surviving in Hell for millennia had left him without a hint of pride. And Zohak hadn’t paid for his goods anyway.

He dropped the crowbar. “Out the back door. Just leave me be!” Then he threw himself behind the counter and covered his head.

That should have been it. The Godslayer didn’t want puny Rick—merely a nightmare, a petty hellborn immigrant of no great consequence—but she rounded the counter and seized him by the arm regardless. Her gloved fingers dug into the place a human would have had a bicep.

“You’re coming with me.”

She strode to the back door, kicked it open, and Rick realized what she was about to do an instant before he crossed the threshold. “No!” he cried, struggling in her grip. “I can’t—stop!”

His feet hit pavement, and he could barely breathe. Electrical lines ran through the air over his head. Dear Lord, what were those animals thinking? And there was a car parked in the alley, so who knew when it might start to roll—

The Godslayer, of course, was unimpressed by this human madness. And she wasn’t slowed by dragging a nightmare, either. She lifted his featherweight body from the ground and strode after Zohak.

She dropped Rick at the mouth of the alley. He tried to scramble back toward his shop, but she kicked him to the ground. Her boot sank into his spongy gut and left an imprint of the sole.

His back hit the car’s tire. It didn’t hurt, but he gave a strangled yell. “Please, please, I can’t be outside!”

“Where does Zohak den? Point me.”

Rick lifted a quavering finger, silently praying that she would leave him to return to his shop if he told her where Zohak lived.

But she seized an ankle and pulled him along with her.

She forced him to give directions all the way to the empty tattoo parlor Zohak inhabited. She even took him across thestreet—black pavement, orange lines, traffic lights, cars! He almost passed out.

They reached the back of the parlor shortly after the demon-king. Zohak scrambled over the chain link fence, and the Godslayer finally dropped Rick to follow.

She scaled it in two short motions, vaulted the top, and landed on top of Zohak. He grunted as they both fell to the pavement.

Rick searched wildly for another exit from the alley. Anything to get him home without crossing another street. But he was trapped, so he pressed against the wall, drew his knees to his ears, and prayed to long-dead gods for help.

He watched as the Godslayer and Zohak exchanged blows on the other side of the fence. Her strikes were fast and brutal. She went for the soft spots on his face, and when he exclaimed with pain, she ripped the crown from his head and flung it into the wall.

Fury blackened his visage. He threw her into the back door of the tattoo parlor and grabbed his crown.

For an instant, Rick could see nothing around the back of the demon-king, and then he heard a wet crunch, a feminine cry, and a guttural laugh.

Blood splattered on the asphalt inches from Rick. Mortal blood.

So she was human.

“Stupid,” Zohak said, hand clenched around her throat. “You should have known by now not to face me alone.”

Her voice was strained when she replied. “I’m not alone.”

The streetlights flickered. Turned off.

A massive shape hurtled out of the night sky and slammed into the pavement.

The shockwave rushed through the alley, expanding the air inside the dumpsters and making their lids bang open against the walls. Grates rattled. The smell of rotting produce filled the air.

Rick gagged, but not from the smell. He gagged on the energy. His throat closed as that crushing pressure weighed on him, his vision darkened at the edges, and he realized that at least some of the rumors about the Godslayer were true.

She had an angel bodyguard.

He was tall, willowy, and ageless, with coppery hair to his shoulders. Luminous blue eyes turned on Zohak as the angel straightened. Downy feathers drifted to the asphalt.

“Took you long enough,” the angel said with a delicate snort. He addressed the Godslayer. “Are you okay? You’re bleeding.”

“Don’t worry about it, Nukha’il.”

He inclined his head. “How can I help you?”

“Hold Zohak down.”

The demon-king’s eyes went wild. He darted for the fence, but the angel grabbed the back of his shirt and threw him into the Godslayer’s waiting arms.

She pinned him against the wall with a hand to his throat and her sword digging into his stomach. Nukha’il didn’t have to do anything. His presence was threat enough.

“How many times did I tell you to leave my city?” the woman asked.

Bistak,” Zohak replied.

She shoved him to the ground and used her weight to pin him. Her bicep bled where he had injured her. Barely a scratch. “Tell me where your fiends are, and I’ll have Nukha’il escort you out of the city—out of the country.”

“They are dead. You killed them.”

She punched him with the hilt of her sword, and his head slammed against the pavement. One of his horns chipped. “Where are your fiends?”

“Dead!”

“He’s telling the truth,” Nukha’il said. “He believes you killed them.”

Her sword wavered. “How did they die?” she asked Zohak, and her voice wasn’t quite as angry as it had been earlier.

“Deep beneath the city. There’s something down there.” He whimpered. “Something… black.”

“Tell me.”

“It came from the earth, from the rocks. A shadow with inertia.” His voice changed, deepened, as though he were speaking through an echoing cavern. “It came upon us. One by one, it devoured them, and then…” His face twisted. “And then it took me.”

Rick had heard the rumors. Creeping shadows, a hungry darkness, a change in the Warrens. Everyone said it was the Godslayer. They said she had unimaginable power.

But she exchanged glances with the angel, and her expression was genuinely confused. She didn’t know anything. That information would be worth money—if Rick could get home without dying.

She shook his jacket. “You’re lying, Zohak. You have to be. Where are your fiends?”

Zohak responded with a groaning cry. The inky shadow devoured his eyes again. His body shuddered, and his hands reached up to close around the Godslayer’s wrists.

The demon-king jerked her hands down and plunged the blade into his heart with a sickening crack.

“Whoa!”

She struggled to free herself, but it was too late. A black fog spilled from his chest, creeping up her blade.

With a shout, she dropped the sword and leaped to her feet.

The ichor spread over the sword and fountained over Zohak as he twisted on the ground. His eyes were wide open, and his mouth yawned in a silent cry. He sat up, hands gripping his chest, and tried to get to his feet as the shadow devoured the last of his flesh. A croak tore from his throat.

Rick’s heart beat a panicked tattoo. Forget the humans. Forget their technology. Forget their goddamn cars.

The nightmare leaped to his feet and ran.

COLLAPSE

Dark Union

Every fifty years, the most powerful ethereal and infernal beings convene on Earth to resolve conflicts with mediation by kopides–humans born to police relations between Heaven and Hell. They’re meeting in Elise Kavanagh’s territory this year, and she used to be the greatest kopis in the world. But she’s not invited.

An old friend, Lucas McIntyre, asks her to attend the summit in his place. But when she arrives, she discovers that a human faction called The Union has taken charge of the summit, and they’re not playing nice. Worse yet, someone has killed a prominent Union member…and now they’re demanding blood.

Excerpt:

It was a miserable day. The temperature had reached one hundred degrees Fahrenheit, there was no wind, and Anthony Morales had been trying to sell his Jeep to random assholes from Craigslist all afternoon.

“What the hell have you done to this thing?” asked potential buyer number three, who claimed his name was “Buddy,” and was as thick in the waist as a baby elephant.

They stood in the shade of a high-rise apartment building, which funneled heat directly toward them over rippling asphalt. Anthony hoped that parking his Jeep in an alley stained with oil, covered in trash, and overlooked by barred windows might make his car look a little less offensive in comparison. Instead, the Jeep looked like it belonged in one of the big green dumpsters.

Anthony rubbed a hand down his face and left behind a greasy smear. “There were pictures in the ad.”

“Is that what I asked? No. I asked what you did to it.”

READ MORE

“I told you. I’m a mechanic. This was my hobby vehicle.”

Buddy snorted. “Is your hobby beating it with a goddamn crowbar?”

Anthony tried not to feel wounded. The Jeep was his first car, and it had been through a lot with him in the ensuing years. Sure, the bumper was missing, the upholstery was ripped, and the body was thoroughly dented. That was what happened when you drove through a cemetery full of zombies. But the engine was great and the tires were new. He had put a lot of love into it.

“Do you want it or not?” he asked in a dull voice.

The buyer walked around the Jeep again, his considerable girth swaying with every step. “I’ll give you three hundred for it.”

“I’ll only take twelve hundred.”

“You kidding? Three hundred is a good deal for this piece of shit.”

Anthony’s patience was gone. “Okay. Fine. Sorry to waste your time.”

He climbed into the Jeep, but Buddy leaned on the hood to prevent him from moving to a shadier spot. “Five hundred.”

“Now you’re wasting my time.”

“Come on. You can’t seriously think it’s worth twelve,” Buddy said.

Anthony’s girlfriend came around the end of the alley at that moment, sparing him from having to think of a response that didn’t use words like “insulted” and “asshole.” Elise’s curls were pulled out of her face in a thick braid, and she wore faded shorts, a tank top, and sneakers, yet still managed to look like a Greek Fury as she stalked down the alley.

She was followed by a teenage boy and his mother—potential buyer number four.

Elise glanced at Anthony. “Is he buying it?” she asked, jerking a thumb at the fat man, who smoothed a hand over his sweaty pate as he took a long look at Elise’s legs.

“He’s trying to get it for five hundred.”

“Get out of here,” she told Buddy. “We’re done with you.” He opened his mouth, and she didn’t seem interested in discovering if it was to argue or make a counter offer. She turned the full force of her stare on him and said again, “Get out.”

Buddy waddled his elephantine mass toward the street with a flip of the bird.

Why didn’t Anthony have that kind of gravitas? Someone was always screwing with him, whether it was over the sale of his Jeep, the cost of labor at the shop, or the grades he got on his college papers. Nobody screwed with Elise.

Of course, she also wasn’t much of a salesman.

“This is it,” she said to potential buyer number four, who was watching the alley like she expected muggers to jump out at any second.

Anthony jumped down to join them. The mother had contacted him by email that morning to see if he thought the Jeep would be good as her teenage son’s first car. “Hi,” he said, wiping his palms dry on his jeans and holding out a hand. “Thanks for coming all the way downtown. I’m—”

“Twelve hundred,” Elise interrupted. “Firm.”

The mother looked doubtful. “I don’t know…”

“What happened to that thing?” the boy asked. He had braces and a Grateful Dead t-shirt.

Anthony’s heart sank. That question again. He prepared to give his response about it being a project car, but Elise spoke first. “We drove it through a cemetery of zombies. There used to be a cowcatcher on front, but it crumpled after hitting the first dozen bodies.”

“Seriously?”

“Yes.”

The mother shot Elise a long-suffering look. “Does it run?” she asked, sounding exhausted.

“Perfectly. And insurance is cheap,” Anthony said.

“Great. I’m sold.”

She pulled out her wallet as her son pumped his fist in the air. He jumped in the driver’s seat and ran his fingers reverently over the wheel, like he had just gotten his first Porsche. Anthony resisted the wild impulse to push the boy away from his car. Twelve hundred dollars was more money than he and Elise had possessed for weeks.

“You can bring it to my shop if anything goes bad in the next month or two, but it shouldn’t be a problem,” he said, exchanging a business card for a small stack of twenties. “I just replaced the tires and transmission. Everything is in perfect condition.”

“I don’t really care,” said the mother. He spread the paperwork out on the hot metal of the hood, and they each signed it. “Anything to get him to leave the house for once. Maybe he’ll even get a few friends.”

“This sound system is totally sick!” her son enthused.

“We installed it for use in a mass exorcism,” Elise told him, leaning her elbows on the door. Anthony groaned. It was the truth, but nobody would ever believe her. The miniature zombie apocalypse in May had been treated like a natural disaster in the mainstream media. But Elise didn’t seem to care. She smiled a little as the kid swung the wheel around.

“What were you exorcising?” he asked.

“Demons. Really nasty ones.”

“That is so cool.”

“Don’t encourage him. He already plays too many video games,” the mother said. “And move over, Travis. I’m driving it home.”

“Mom!”

She climbed in, and Elise stepped back beside Anthony.

A few seconds later, the tail lights disappeared around the corner. His heart twisted painfully.

It only lasted for a second. He had lost everything in the last few months: his Millennium Scholarship (because fighting demons did zero favors for his grades), his cousin Betty, and now his beloved Jeep. It was getting to the point where the pain was a constant stabbing in his chest. He couldn’t work up additional grief over his car for longer than a few seconds.

“Let me see that,” Elise said, holding out a hand. He gave her the cash. She counted it out. “Great. This is rent for two months, at least.” She pocketed a few bills and returned the rest.

“Hey,” Anthony complained.

“Do you want groceries or not?”

He didn’t really care. The Jeep didn’t belong to Elise, and she had no right to the money. But what was the point in arguing? They had gotten an apartment together downtown—a furnished one bedroom for five hundred a month, which smelled like tobacco even though neither of them smoked—and all their money was getting poured into bills and debt and Top Ramen anyway.

“What now?” he asked dully.

“Now I’m going to run errands.” Elise stretched up to kiss his chin. “I’ll be home late. Don’t wait for me.”

She left before he could try to kiss her properly.

Anthony thought about going back to their apartment, which was just around the corner, but he found himself staring at the spot his Jeep had stood only minutes earlier.

That twinge was back.

He sank to a crouch, covered his face with his hands, and didn’t move for a long time.

II

Eloquent Blood was dark, and the sign on the alley door said CLOSED, but Elise walked in anyway. Its usual patrons weren’t bothered by heat, so they didn’t bother air conditioning the bar, but being positioned in the cavernous basement kept it temperate. The sweat on Elise’s skin cooled and made her shiver.

“Neuma?” she called, pausing by the railing to peer at the bottom several levels down. The DJ booth was empty. Three walls of a cage stood where the dance floor should have been, but it would be hours until the fights started. A demon with three eyes mopped the stage. “Hey! Is Neuma in yet?”

It nodded without looking up.

The fluorescent blue lights behind the bar were turned off. The stripper pole hadn’t been cleaned yet, so it was covered in fingerprints, sweat, and flecks of brimstone. But there was no sign of the bartender.

Elise hopped over the bar, snagging a bottle of tequila on the way. She was more than just a frequent patron of Eloquent Blood—she used to be the accountant, before getting in a fight with the owner. She had since killed David Nicholas and any chance of being gainfully employed with them again, but she still made frequent visits to enjoy Neuma’s generosity with the liquor.

She headed down the back hall. “Neuma, it’s me. Where are you?” Something bumped against the wall. Elise jiggled the handle to the dressing room. Locked. “Hey. Open up. I can hear you in there.”

“Go away,” Neuma said from the other side.

Elise’s senses sharpened. “Are you okay?”

“I’m peachy.”

“Bullshit. Open the door or I’ll kick it in.” She had done it once before, and she had no qualms about breaking the handle again.

“No, don’t do that,” Neuma said. “Hang on.”

A pause, and the lock clicked. Elise pushed inside.

The dressing room was even more of a mess than usual. Costumes were spread across the floor like a rug of latex and silver chains. One of the vanity mirrors was shattered, leaving shards of glass sprinkled over the strippers’ outfits, and half of the bottles on the shelves had been broken. It reeked of sulfur and booze.

Neuma was slumped in a chair by the door. Her skin and white bathrobe glowed in the black light, but her ink-dark hair was a shadow puddled on her shoulders. She had a hand over the left side of her face.

“What happened in here?” Elise asked.

“Nothing. Just haven’t cleaned in a long time.” Neuma’s voice was about an octave too high.

Elise sniffed the air. As if the wreckage wasn’t evidence enough, every sense told her that a powerful demon had been on the premises—from the uncomfortable pressure at the back of her skull, to the sour bite of brimstone in her nose. It was too strong to belong to Neuma, who was only a half-succubus Gray. She was mostly harmless. Her greatest threat was being a little too sexy.

The sight of the destruction was enough to trigger Elise’s protective instinct. Setting the tequila on the counter, she picked up a costume, shook out the glass, and threw it in the closet. “Your parties are getting too wild,” she said, working quickly to unclutter the floor and sweep the glass into a corner.

Neuma smiled weakly.

When Elise finished, she turned on the overhead lights without waiting for permission. The bartender flinched. She pulled her hand away from her face for an instant, but it was enough for Elise to see a massive gash running down the side of her face. Thin, watery blood poured into the collar of her robe.

“Jesus, Neuma.”

“I think I need a witch,” she whispered. Half-demons were fragile creatures. They couldn’t heal on their own—given a few hours, they could bleed to death from a paper cut. “Treeny, up in Craven’s—cocktail waitress for the sport’s bar—she can do a little hocus pocus.”

Elise pulled Neuma’s arm over her shoulder and supported her as they limped into the hallway. The facial injury wasn’t the worst of it. The robe gapped to show a missing chunk of flesh in her thigh.

They took the stairs to the manager’s office, slowly and carefully.

“Tell me who attacked you,” Elise said.

“Name’s Zohak. This thing, this demon—he took all our money, and I couldn’t do shit about it. He bit my leg and fuckinglaughed at me.”

“You couldn’t have fought?”

“I did,” Neuma said. “But half the bouncers left when David Nicholas died. There’s nobody left to help during the day anymore.”

They reached the office, and Elise helped her sit on the executive chair. The room was empty aside from a single filing cabinet and paperwork scattered on the desk. Neuma had been trying to keep up on bills and taxes, but she didn’t have the organizational skills.

“Wait here,” Elise said. “I’ll find Treeny.”

It wasn’t hard to locate the cocktail waitress. Most of the employees had worked for Craven’s when Elise and Death’s Hand destroyed half of the casino, and they were properly intimidated by her. She ordered the first demon she spotted to send Treeny to the office, and they scurried off to make it happen.

The waitress met them upstairs a few minutes later. She wore a tiny dress that barely covered her butt, hugged an empty drink tray to her chest, and trembled under Elise’s scrutiny.

“What’s up?” Treeny asked. To her credit, her voice didn’t shake nearly as much as her knees. A pentacle ring sparkled on her thumb. It danced with silver light in the corner of Elise’s vision, which meant it was enchanted.

“I’m told you can heal,” she said, wiping her hands off with a tissue. She had patched up the wound on Neuma’s thigh to slow the bleeding, but the bartender’s skin was ashen, and she could barely lift her head.

Treeny’s face lit up. “Oh. Yeah. A little, if I have time for a ritual. But I’ll need supplies.”

“You’ve got fifteen minutes to get them. Go fast.” The witch ran off, and Elise helped Neuma to the bathroom attached to the office, and the bartender washed the blood off her bruised face. “I don’t think you’re stripping tonight.”

“No kidding. That’s not sexy at all, huh?” Neuma tilted her head to study the damage in the mirror. “Forget it. I’ll have to call someone in, if I don’t die first.” She heaved a sigh. “Thanks for helping, doll. Is there a reason you came to see me? Are you covering my shift tonight?”

In the aftermath of the attack, Elise had completely forgotten that she visited Craven’s for a reason. “I got some cash, so I wanted to pay my bar tab. What am I up to this week—eighty bucks?”

“Nothing. It’s on the house.” Neuma tried to smile, and failed. Her skin had completely lost its usual glow. “It could be on the house forever if you would help me.”

Elise’s mouth twisted. Neuma had been trying to talk her into taking over Eloquent Blood and Craven’s casino—which continued to operate only by habit and the force of Neuma’s will since the overlord died—for the last several weeks. Every time she showed up for a drink, it was the same thing again. Help me, and, I need you.

It was getting on her nerves. Elise couldn’t help them—she couldn’t help anyone.

But the half-succubus’s eyes were wide and pathetic. It was getting harder to resist her pleas. “I just can’t handle this alone anymore,” Neuma whispered when Elise didn’t respond. “I thought it would be better if we could get rid of David Nicholas. I thought I could keep up on it myself. But I can’t, and everything’s falling apart. With the Night Hag gone…”

“How many times do I have to tell you no?”

Please. You could protect us, at least. This isn’t the first time someone’s rolled in to screw with us. If we could stop getting attacked for a few weeks, maybe we could find someone good to take charge. Maybe—”

Elise slapped two fifty dollar bills on the desk. It only left twenty for groceries, but she had been living off dried beans and rice for weeks anyway. “That’s for my tab.”

“Don’t go! Zohak will be back—he said he would.”

“I have stuff to do. Try not to die. I’ll see you later.”

“Elise!”

She left the office without looking back, and bumped into Treeny on the stairs. Elise didn’t need to see Neuma—that pathetic stare was stamped permanently on the inside of her skull.

It was hard being asked for help. It was even harder to deny it.

The walk to her new apartment was short—just two blocks from Craven’s. But even that distance was miserable in the afternoon sun. It was the kind of heat that melted the rubber on shoes and turned metal into a searing brand. Elise bumped the crosswalk button with her hip.

Her phone buzzed in her pocket as she crossed the street. She ducked under an awning’s shade to check the screen.

When she saw the number, her heart stopped. It took her two tries to speak. “Hello?”

“Hey, Kavanagh,” responded a masculine voice. “It’s McIntyre.”

Elise knew immediately that he was calling for help—and this time, she wouldn’t be able to say no.

COLLAPSE