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

Cast in Godfire

An Urban Fantasy Romance

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

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

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

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

Excerpt:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paranoid little ants.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And they reported…nothing.

Frost Tower was empty.

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

The wards detected nothing.

“Damn it all,” Jaycee said.

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

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

Her wards stopped being silent and started screaming.

Alert. Alert. Sidhe magic. Invasion. Alert.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jaycee slung her purse over her shoulder and headed through.

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

Someone was trying to get in.

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

The thumping grew louder.

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

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

The entire tower shook. Plaster dust showered around her.

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

Well, at least not this week.

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

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

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

Better demolished than turning everything over to King Konig.

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

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

Highly doubtful.

Jaycee activated her demolition spells.

A five minute countdown began.

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

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

“Well,” she said.

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

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

“Well, well, well,” Jaycee said.

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

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

Well, not a witch.

A mage.

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

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

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

There was no escape.

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

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

“Konig decided on sedition,” she said.

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

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

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

And she disabled the wards while she was at it.

“Well,” Jaycee said again.

She hadn’t expected that one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Former leaders?” Jaycee asked.

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

This arrest attempt was looking worse by the moment.

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

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

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

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

Now she didn’t hold back.

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

And she saw the moment that Marion was overwhelmed.

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

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

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

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

She was almost there. She was going to escape.

But then the lightning.

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

The helicopter pitched to its side and tumbled from view.

In her shock, Jaycee lost control of the wind.

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

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

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

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

The frost giant yanked them through the ley lines.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She should have exploded.

But Marion smiled thinly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She gave a shallow curtsy. “My King.”

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

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

Maddisyn looked startled. “Of course.”

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

“Reports?” Maddisyn asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Usually.”

“But not always?”

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

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

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

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

“Maddisyn?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Jaycee was waiting for interrogation.

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

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


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

Again, she didn’t even look his way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“In every sense of the sentiment.”

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

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

There was a lot Rage hadn’t told Konig.

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

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

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

“Even the darknet?”

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

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

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

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

Konig’s heart stopped beating.

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

“I’m very interested,” Konig said.

COLLAPSE

Cast in Balefire

An Urban Fantasy Romance

Half-angel mage Marion Garin has become Queen of the Unseelie, but she can’t hold the faerie courts without convincing everyone she’s in love with her cheating, abusive husband—the beloved King ErlKonig. Rumor says Marion’s in love with the God of Death. The unseelie are revolting. And it wouldn’t be so hard to fix if the rumors weren’t true…

Excerpt:

Niflheimr, The Middle Worlds

During her idle moments—of which there had been few—Marion had tried to learn about her absent mother. There hadn’t been much information to gather. Ariane Kavanagh wasn’t a popular character in Marion’s multitude of personal journals, so she had largely been mentioned when Marion was complaining.

Marion had been willing to filter that information through the understanding that Marion, pre-memory-loss, hadn’t been a popular character either.

Ariane might not have been as bad as the insults in Marion’s journals posited.

She couldn’t have been as vain as Marion painted her. She wasn’t self-centered but simply withdrawn. The preferential treatment Ariane seemed to give Dana had been the perception of a girl suffering ordinary sibling rivalry.

There was most likely a great reason that Ariane hadn’t made contact when Marion had gone missing, reappeared, or gotten married.

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Marion was ready to believe the best about her mother until the moment she realized that Ariane Kavanagh was colluding with the goat-demon who had stolen Marion’s memories.

Maman,” Marion whispered, reverting instinctively to French. She only took one step down her throne room’s stairs before stopping herself. She cleared her throat. Raised her voice. “Ravens! Heather!”

“Don’t do that,” said Onoskelis, the goat-demon.

The Raven Knights didn’t come even though someone should have been in earshot.

Marion was alone in her throne room. Freshly wedded, absolutely miserable, and cornered.

“I’m not one for the Middle Worlds, so let’s keep this meeting short.” Onoskelis hiked her robes high enough to flash cloven hooves as she clattered up the stairs. She settled into the stenographer’s empty seat, producing parchment and a fountain pen. “Do you prefer Garin? Kavanagh? You can’t take Konig’s last name. They never do last names in the sidhe courts.”

Marion was speechless.

“Why?” she asked after some moments of uncharacteristic floundering.

“For the contract to return your memories,” Onoskelis said.

“You took my memories. You were there that night, at Original Sin, and you took my memories!”

“It was not necessary to take your memories as I had copied them prior to that night. I only went to Original Sin to bear witness to a critical moment in time,” Onoskelis said.

The demon’s words passed by Marion unabsorbed. Her gaze was magnetically drawn to her mother’s. “And you’re behind this?”

Ariane tipped her cheek to her shoulder in a gesture that was too girlishly cute for a woman approaching fifty. “Frowning creates wrinkles, my little sweet.” She spoke in French too.

So it was true. All of it was true. Ariane was as horrible as Marion had feared.

“We arranged this meeting between the three of us before you lost your memory,” Onoskelis said, dashing out a few lines of text onto her parchment. “You insisted on having a mortal witness. Your mother volunteered.”

“Volunteered to witness…what, exactly?” Marion asked.

“The contract.” The goat-demon’s impatience made her hand scratch more aggressively across the page. “You have to do what I tell you in order to get your memories back.”

“You have to do a series of tasks, to be clear,” Ariane said.

Marion dug her fingernails into the arms of her chair. “I can’t believe you’re making demands of me after such a protracted absence. You missed my wedding. Where have you been?”

“You of all people should understand that life gets in the way of our best intentions. But I’ve been nearby, even if I haven’t been able to make contact.” Ariane swirled the large glass vessel cradled in her arms. It took a full-body motion, almost like a dance, to get it sloshing. Sparkles erupted from its bubbling surface.

“Should I recognize that?” Marion asked.

Ariane stopped swaying. “You would if you hadn’t lost your memories.”

“Which I’d really like to get on to fixing.” Onoskelis’s head was bowed so that her furry goat muzzle was millimeters from the papyrus. “Marion Garin or Kavanagh?”

“Garin,” Marion said distractedly. “Mother…the potion?”

Ariane set the glass vial on a table framed by velvet curtains. “It’s similar to the magic we embedded in the honesty bracelets. I was asked to use the potion on your behalf to sway the votes.”

That was why the group had voted for Konig to keep his title. Marion had unwittingly benefited from magical coercion.

“Who asked you to do that?” Marion said.

“Adàn.”

He was the stag shifter leading Los Cambiasformas Internacional, the alliance of Western European gaeans. Marion had never heard him addressed informally before. Nor had she seen anyone smile at the thought of Adàn Pedregon.

“How do you know each other?” Marion asked, though she suspected she already knew.

“Intimately,” Ariane said. “I’d have helped even if Adàn hadn’t asked the favor, but gratitude is a flattering look on him. Regardless, I’d planned to intervene in order to keep things on track.”

Marion was feeling lost again. “On track?”

“There’s a plan to all of this—a greater design.” Onoskelis waved at the throne room with her pen. Crimson ink splattered on the icy floor and began melting through. “You, Marion Garin, Queen of the Unseelie, have willingly shouldered the task of intervening where deities cannot. You must perform a series of labors I assign to you, each of which is intended to keep Events aligned with the Meta. When you’ve completed the tasks, you’ll have your memories restored.”

“You wanted me to inform you that these tasks are all in the service of the greater good, and your safety is ensured when you follow them,” Ariane added. “Onoskelis is making a generous offer. Take it and don’t look back.”

The back of Marion’s neck prickled unpleasantly. “First of all, I won’t be told what to do by someone who’s been absent since my initial abduction, and gods only know how long before that. I am not your property. I’m not a child. I’m Queen of the Unseelie, and you’ll speak to me with respect.”

Ariane stepped up the first stairs, approaching Marion. “What’s the second thing?”

“It’s impossible for me to get my memories back. They were destroyed in the Canope.”

“The originals were,” Onoskelis said without looking up from her writing. “I have copies. I am a Librarian.” She said the word without a hint of self-importance, but the sound of it resonated, as though plucking at Marion’s soul. “Librarians chronicle everything that happens throughout every genesis, and I’d never allow the pages from the notable book of your mind to be lost.”

“Bold claim,” Marion said. “Too bold. I’ve heard enough. Raven Knights!”

“They won’t come.” Onoskelis set her pen down and scattered sand over the page to dry the ink. “I’ve paused time.”

“You’ve paused…?” Marion swept off of the throne, flinging aside curtains to look outside.

The Winter Court had evolved in the hours since Marion’s wedding. The Autumn Court’s eternal sunset shone gold on the horizon, creating silhouettes of the mountains. Light had never touched the Winter Court, not once. Not until Konig began ruling it.

The snow eternally blasting through the lightened sky was not moving. The swaying trees had gone still. Even the shivering towers of Niflheimr were still.

Onoskelis had paused time.

“You can’t do that,” Marion said.

The goat-demon lifted a second page she’d been writing on. “Words are miracles, every one of them. Books open more doors than you can imagine.”

“You have no clue how many doors I can imagine.”

“I’m privy to the Meta, which means I know everything about you and everyone else I encounter. What that must happen, will happen.”

“Then I don’t need to sign any contracts,” Marion said.

Ariane took the paper from Onoskelis and transported it to Marion, who reluctantly read. The contract didn’t list each of the labors Onoskelis intended for her to perform. It said nothing about how long those labors would last, either.

The terms more or less said that Marion was promising to behave herself, like a naughty student who signed a contract promising to do her homework. But she had no clue what the homework was, and she had no proof that the teacher across the desk was legitimate.

Damn it all, Marion was a queen, and they wanted her to promise to be obedient.

“You’re too late to offer this to me,” Marion said. “I don’t want my memories back.”

Ariane’s cheeks paled. “You don’t—?”

“I’m a better person without them. I was a wretched, loathsome child on a power trip.”

“Sweetheart…” Ariane moved to touch her cheek, but Marion swept out of range.

Onoskelis’s oval pupils, veiled by thick eyelashes, focused on Marion’s face. “You haven’t been able to reach out to the gods since losing your memories. You’ll know how you used to reach them.” Her ears flicked within the hood, stirring the heavy cloth. “You’ll be able to speak to Death.”

The floor dropped out from under Marion’s feet, and there was nothing underneath her except a yawning chasm of grief. Wretched misery tasted like the brimstone that had devoured Seth.

Marion tossed the contract to the table. “Prove you can hold up your end of this.”

“Very well.” Onoskelis turned the contract over and wrote a couple quick lines on the back. “Sign this.”

It was a truncated contract offering Marion a “trial” of memory restoration. She plucked the pen from Onoskelis’s eerily child-like hand and signed it.

“I’ve restored a handful of nonconsecutive hours to you,” Onoskelis said. “For instance, the speech you gave at the shifter academy while running for student high priestess.”

Marion remembered.

It wasn’t like having missing moments replayed. There was simply new information available—recollections of standing under searing lights with confidence she was going to win.

“You’ve had some magical knowledge restored too. You’ll discover other memories as time goes on,” Onoskelis said, “but I’ll return them all to you once you’ve completed the tasks as dictated by this contract.” She flipped the page back over and shoved it under the nib of Marion’s pen.

She’d sign no such contract.

Those recollections weren’t the only things restored. They’d dragged wisps of Marion’s personality along with them, shrouding her in arrogance and affront.

Marion was a queen, gods damn it all. Onoskelis was withholding access to Seth. And Ariane was complicit.

She flung the pen to the table. “Who do you think you are, to hold my memories hostage? To blackmail me, Queen of the Unseelie?”

The goat-demon took dainty wire-framed spectacles off the end of her nose, folding her arms with cherubic fingers. “You’re the one who wanted me to make a copy of your memories for safekeeping.”

“You approached her,” Ariane agreed. “You asked me to insist on your compliance.”

Marion whirled on her mother, fist clenching as she lifted it.

Electric-blue magic lanced over her knuckles.

Ariane didn’t look nearly as surprised as Marion felt. Onoskelis had restored more than a few memory scraps—she’d returned some of Marion’s magic. She’d only needed to reach instinctively into the cables of energy that flowed through the universe and seize them.

“I’ve reached the limits of my tolerance for Niflheimr,” Onoskelis said, casting an annoyed side-eye toward Marion’s hand. “Tell Ariane Kavanagh once you’re ready for the first of your labors, and she will pass it onto you.”

The Librarian vanished.

The Raven Knights erupted into Marion’s throne room moments later, bows raised, looking for a fight that was long gone.

COLLAPSE

Cast in Faefire

An Urban Fantasy Romance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh,” Marion said, surprised.

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

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

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

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

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

Violet gave him a thin smile and finally stood.

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

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

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

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

“Mother,” Konig snapped.

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

Heather had been right.

“Then you did sanction it,” Violet said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now she employed it to inhale Deirdre’s proposal.

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

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

“How so?” Konig asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This absolutely cannot go through,” Violet said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You didn’t bring any for me?”

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

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

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

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

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

Her son had already signed.

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

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

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

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

It was gone as quickly.

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

Marion blinked. “Next week?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone she had worked with at the summit.

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

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

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

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

“So much for cupcakes,” Marion said faintly.

COLLAPSE

Cast in Hellfire

An Urban Fantasy Romance

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

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

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

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

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

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Marion Garin gripped a pen so hard that it snapped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rylie Gresham was all over everything.

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

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

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

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

So they were casting votes manually.

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

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

It felt like everyone was looking at her.

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

What is wrong with you?

A question that applied perfectly to so many situations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quite the anticlimax.

“Thanks for your time,” Rylie added.

Chairs were pushed back. Bodies shifted.

Then the whispers started.

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

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

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

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

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

“What did you write?” Jibril asked.

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

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

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

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

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

The angels wanted that Middle World for themselves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jibril made an impatient noise when they continued to kiss.

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

Her heart fluttered. “Already?”

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

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

War with the angels was bad enough.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her decisions?” Marion asked.

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

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

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

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

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

Get home, and probably batten down the hatches.

“Well, Marion?” Jibril demanded.

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

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

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

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

The lights flickered.

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

“Don’t you know what Leliel will do?”

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

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

Leliel was not a woman with an even temper.

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

Jibril’s eyes widened. “You did?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The wind caught them, and they were gone.

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

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

But it didn’t matter.

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

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

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

What’s wrong with you? Jolene had asked.

“If only I knew,” she muttered.

COLLAPSE

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…

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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