The Descent Series Complete Collection

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

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

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

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

THE COMPLETE SERIES

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

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.

back to top!


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

Darkmoon

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

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

Excerpt:

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

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

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

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

Another pause, more shuffling cards.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Recording it? With what?” she asked.

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

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

“What are we watching for?” Scott asked.

“Just watch.”

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

“Jesus,” Gwyn breathed. “Was that…?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her cheeks burned with the shame of it.

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

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

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

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

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

“My what-us?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t know. I don’t keep track.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s that for?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Right,” Stephanie said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rylie groaned and let her head bump against the wall.

Squeezing her eyes tight, she nodded once.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Assuming you plan on keeping it, Stephanie had said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Seth.”

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

“I didn’t tell you. I can’t…I just…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

When she remained silent, he kissed her again.

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

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

COLLAPSE

Damnation Marked

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

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

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

Excerpt:

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

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

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

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

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

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

He wanted nothing to do with them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lethe?” Jerica asked, sounding wholly unimpressed.

“Mind yourself. This is a special order.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You don’t have to pay me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is this all you have?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about the last batch you flipped?”

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

And with that, the overhead light bulb flickered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was someone moving on the street. A woman.

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

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

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

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

Rick phased to the counter. Grabbed his crowbar.

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

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

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

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

No wonder Zohak had run.

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

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

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

“Where’s Zohak?”

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

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

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

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

“You’re coming with me.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Where does Zohak den? Point me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So she was human.

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

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

The streetlights flickered. Turned off.

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

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

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

She had an angel bodyguard.

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

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

“Don’t worry about it, Nukha’il.”

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

“Hold Zohak down.”

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

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

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

Bistak,” Zohak replied.

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

“They are dead. You killed them.”

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

“Dead!”

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

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

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

“Tell me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Whoa!”

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

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

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

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

The nightmare leaped to his feet and ran.

COLLAPSE

Dark Union

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

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

Excerpt:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll only take twelve hundred.”

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

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

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

“Now you’re wasting my time.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Seriously?”

“Yes.”

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

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

“Great. I’m sold.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What were you exorcising?” he asked.

“Demons. Really nasty ones.”

“That is so cool.”

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

“Mom!”

She climbed in, and Elise stepped back beside Anthony.

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

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

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

“Hey,” Anthony complained.

“Do you want groceries or not?”

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

“What now?” he asked dully.

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

She left before he could try to kiss her properly.

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

That twinge was back.

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

II

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

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

It nodded without looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m peachy.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What happened in here?” Elise asked.

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

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

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

Neuma smiled weakly.

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

“Jesus, Neuma.”

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

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

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

“Tell me who attacked you,” Elise said.

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

“You couldn’t have fought?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Elise!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COLLAPSE

The Darkest Gate

Book Cover: The Darkest Gate
Editions:Kindle
ISBN: B009YADS38
Pages: 300
Paperback: $ 11.99 USD
ISBN: 1937733076
Size: 8.00 x 5.00 in
Pages: 302
Audiobook: $ 24.95 USD
ISBN: B00GCI9NJS

When Elise Kavanagh retired from demon hunting, she swore it would be permanent. But an attack from a powerful necromancer forced her back into the business, and now she's trying to balance her normal boyfriend and normal job with everything supernatural.

Mr. Black is a demon hunter gone rogue. He's enslaving angels and stealing ethereal artifacts in pursuit of forbidden immortality, and an old grudge drives him to make his final stand in Elise's territory. Destroying her life and killing her friends isn't the goal, but it's a definite perk.

A demonic overlord offers to join against Mr. Black and protect Elise's loved ones. All she needs to do is ally with the demons she's sworn to kill, at the cost of her morals--and maybe her immortal soul. But once she crosses that line, there's no turning back.

Nothing is sacred when Heaven and Hell collide on Earth...

Excerpt:

There was blood on the stone.

The column loomed so far overhead that its apex disappeared into night. Looping lines marked its surface like ossified muscle on beams of towering bone. The once-bright sigils ringing the base were lifeless.

The gate was one of a dozen silent scions in a dead city. For endless millennia, they slept over the empty streets waiting for… What?

Elise

Her bare toes hung over the tip of the world, hair swinging in her face as she craned forward to peer at the water miles below. Tiny stars sparkled in the water, like river stones reflecting moonlight.

The gate hummed at her back. She couldn’t look at it. She wouldn’t. She would prefer to fall into the abyss and shatter on the shore.

Elise

There shouldn’t have been anything on the other side of the arch. Nothing should have lived in the city.

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Yet there was blood on the stone, and something called her name from the other side, beckoning for her to turn. Invisible fingers clamped on her chin and forced her back from the edge, away from blissful suicide and on toward damnation.

The dry air vibrated. Sinewy stone flushed to life, and a breeze stirred the dead air.

Elise

She shut her eyes as she turned. She wouldn’t look. She wouldn’t watch the air darken until it devoured all light, wouldn’t see Him reaching through with white hands…

But something peeled her eyelids back, forcing her to look upon the darkest gate.

And she saw.

“Elise!”

The tent collapsed on her head. An electric bolt of consciousness shocked through her.

Something heavy smashed into her face and chest, like a bear rolling over the tent. She couldn’t inhale. Her neck strained as her head was crushed into the ground.

She felt a bare arm against hers—Anthony’s—and elbowed him away.

For a disorienting moment, she was seventeen again, on the run and camping out in whatever bare patch of land she could find. Motels were too expensive and too easy to track. Elise couldn’t remember why she was with Anthony instead of James.

A glistening black fang punctured the canvas by her head and brought cold reality with it. Venom gushed from the tip and splattered on her shoulder.

Knife. Where was her knife?

The body shifted enough for her hand to scrabble at the pillow, where she had tucked a blade before sleeping, but the attacker mashed against her again and she didn’t have space to grab it.

The fang withdrew and punctured again. Elise twisted her face to the side.

“Anthony! Do something!” she shouted.

His hot skin moved away from hers. He fumbled with the tent. The zipper opened, and chilly night air rushed to fill her lungs.

The weight lifted, but before she could sit up, a foot the size of a trash can slammed into her gut.

Her intestines crushed against her spine. Canvas ripped.

Elise’s hand closed on her knife, and she stabbed it into the foot. Something gave an inhuman shriek.

Its weight vanished.

She slashed and stabbed and tore until she could see the stars. Elise scrambled out of the tent’s remains, bare skin flushed with goosebumps. It was dark in the desert, much darker than the city, and she could barely make out sagebrush and hills under the sliver of moon.

Her attacker was a hulking black shape perched on top of the Jeep. Each of its eight legs was braced against the roll cage. Glossy black eyes reflected the starlight and shone with a faint red glow, as though fire burned within its furry carapace. It was a spider the size of a small pony.

Anthony brandished two halves of a snapped tent pole at the demon—like going after a tank with a twig.

The spider lunged. A half-second later, Elise jumped too.

She knocked into her boyfriend an instant before the spider would have. They rolled across the desert as the demon hit sagebrush.

Getting up again took too long. She whirled, bringing the knife to bear, but one of those huge legs struck her in the chest again.

Elise was airborne.

Her back hit the Jeep. Her lungs emptied. Her cheek hit dirt.

Anthony cried out. She got to her feet, gasping and wheezing and empty-handed. She had dropped her knife.

The spider darted at him. It moved at a ridiculous speed given its size, blurring through the night to slash with its fangs. He tried to roll out of the way, but a heavy leg pounded into the rock and blocked him. He kicked its face. The pincers caught his leg.

Elise sucked in a hard breath. “Don’t let it bite you!”

“Thanks for the suggestion,” Anthony grunted, snapping his free foot into its face.

It shrieked and reared. She dived onto its back.

The spider bucked beneath her, and Elise pressed her cheek into its furry carapace and clung tight to its abdomen. When it tried to bite Anthony again, she wrapped a hand around its pincer and yanked.

It ripped free with a wet crunch. Venom sprayed on the dirt.

“Find my knife!”

Anthony squirmed out from beneath them. The spider thrashed. Elise almost went flying again, but she wrapped her fists around its thick black hairs and hung on.

Each of the glistening black eyes rolled around to stare at her.

It flung itself sideways. She lost her grip and rolled across the dirt. The spider pounced, spraying venom and ichor from its open wound, and it stung like sparks of flame where it landed on her skin.

She punched her fist into its clacking mouth as hard as she could. It wasn’t hard enough. The spider reared back to bite again, and Elise grabbed the first thing she could reach—the remains of the tent.

Elise flung the canvas in the spider’s face. Its pincer tangled in the rope.

“I can’t find it!” Anthony shouted.

Her hand fell on a broken piece of tent post.

Elise drove the splintered end into the spider’s body. At first, she thought it wouldn’t be able to pierce the exoskeleton, but then the metal slipped. It buried into the knife wound and kept going.

She silenced its scream by shoving with all her weight. The bar cracked through the other side.

Its legs flailed wildly, and she had to crawl away to avoid getting hit.

Elise picked up the other tent pole and plunged it into the spider’s head. She pushed so hard that the tip sank into the earth and pinned the demon to the ground.

It finally stopped moving after that.

Elise let out a long breath. She was soaked in sweat even though it couldn’t have been more than sixty degrees in the cool desert night, which quickly approached cool desert morning. A sliver of blue glowed over the hills.

“Hell of a wakeup call,” she muttered. The spider’s foreleg twitched once.

Anthony crashed through the sagebrush again and grabbed her arms. “Are you okay? I couldn’t find your knife.”

She gave her body a quick inspection. She was wearing underwear instead of pajamas, so she could see where bruises were developing, which was most of her body. The contact burns from the venom were worse, but none of them were too bad. She would recover quickly.

“I’m fine.”

Anthony handed her a flashlight from the Jeep. “Is this the same as the other ones? It seems a lot bigger.”

She located her knife by its glimmer in the bushes. He had been searching in the wrong place. “Yeah. It’s a daimarachnid. Big fucking spider.” Elise rolled the demon onto its back and knelt by its body, pushing the legs away to examine the branded underbelly.

Most demons were like animals with a temper problem: stupid and directionless. But powerful demons could mark them with brands and control their behavior to some degree. If she could find who “owned” those symbols, she would find out who was responsible, much like a rancher and his cattle.

Elise began slicing along the edge of the brands.

Anthony recoiled. “Jesus! What are you doing?”

She focused on trimming the leathery skin from the shell underneath. It was tough work. She sawed back and forth with the serrated edge of the knife until a strip of flesh two feet long and four inches wide came free.

“Get a plastic bag from the Jeep,” Elise said, studying the strip with the flashlight. Someone had slashed crosses through each of the brands and made them hard to distinguish.

He handed a bag to her. Elise sealed the skin inside.

“What are you going to do with that?”

“I’m going to find out who’s letting their minions loose and have a talk with them.”

“And by ‘talk,’ you mean…”

“I’ll kill them,” Elise said. She put the skin in the cooler where they had kept their food all week. There was nothing left except melted ice and a couple cans of beer. “Still want to keep going hunting with me?”

To his credit, Anthony thought about it for a moment before answering. “Yeah. Camping has been fun.” He grinned. “And, you know. The attack was kind of hot. Watching you fight in your underwear was…” He pushed her back against the Jeep and growled against her neck. She didn’t react. “Aren’t you kind of hot?”

“No.”

He kissed down her collarbone and traced a finger along the tattoo on her hip. “Are you sure?”

“Getting attacked by demons doesn’t excite me.” She planted a hand on his chest to prevent his kisses from straying lower. “I’m not going to tell you again.” She left the unspoken threat hovering over them.

“Would you stab me? Is that what you’re saying?”

The corner of her mouth quirked up. “Would that turn you on, too?”

“You’re sick,” he murmured into her lips. Elise leaned against the car door with a sigh as he kissed her. His lips traveled to her earlobe. He nipped it lightly with his teeth.

“You think I’m sick?” She stretched her arm back to drop the knife in the Jeep’s backseat, and he traced his hand down her exposed ribcage. His fingers found a path under her bra to graze the curve of her breast. “At least demon attacks don’t get me horny.”

Her cell phone alarmed. She peered over Anthony’s shoulder to see it glowing blue underneath the tent canvas. He ignored it and pushed a knee between her legs. She stiffened, but he caught her wrist and pinned it to her side. “Ignore it.”

Elise shoved him. He stumbled a few steps back. “It’s time to leave,” she said, turning off the alarm. Anthony groaned.

“But we were just—”

“I have a meeting with a potential client this morning and it’s a four-hour drive from here.”

He adjusted the waistband of his sweats. Elise gathered their broken tent and threw it in the back of the Jeep. “I think you like to torture me.”

She planted a kiss on his chin as he passed. “It’s an unintended bonus.”

Anthony tried to glower, but Elise didn’t acknowledge him as she finished packing. His mood lost steam without her attention.

After a week of camping, their clothes were crusty with sweat and dust. Elise gritted her teeth as she pulled on dirty jeans. “What are we going to do with that?” Anthony asked when the only thing remaining in their camp was the body of the demon.

Elise kicked it in the side. It didn’t move. “We’ll let the coyotes have it. I’ve got what I need.”

They got in the Jeep and drove away, leaving the carcass of the demon to rot.

COLLAPSE

Death’s Hand

Book Cover: Death's Hand
Editions:Audiobook: $ 24.95 USD
ISBN: B00F9HQPIU
Kindle
ISBN: B00AQZX4BG
Paperback: $ 11.99 USD
ISBN: 1937733181
Size: 8.00 x 5.00 in
Pages: 300

Elise Kavanagh doesn’t want to hunt demons anymore. It’s been five years since she killed her last enemy, and life has been quiet since then. She went to college. Got a job, and then lost it. Made a friend or two. Lived a normal life. Now her former partner, a powerful witch named James Faulkner, wants Elise to fight one more time. The daughter of a coven member has been possessed, and Elise is the only exorcist nearby.

Becoming a hero again would mean risking discovery by old enemies. But digging into the case reveals that it might already be too late–bodies are disappearing, demons slither through the night, and the cogs of apocalypse are beginning to turn once more. Some enemies aren’t willing to let the secrets of the past stay dead…

Excerpt:

Steam drifted from the surface of Marisa Ramirez’s coffee. She blew on it gently, cupping the mug between her hands to warm her chilly fingers. Golden morning light rimmed the closed curtains over the sink. The thermometer outside the window read sixty-six. The swamp cooler clicked on and blew chilled air into the kitchen. Marisa shrank deeper into her sweater.

Augustin Ramirez sat across the table with his face in his hands. The ceiling rattled above their heads as distant screams and sobs peaked in time with fists pounding against the floor.

His left cheek muscle twitched. They exchanged glances, and he found his own haunted expression mirrored in her face.

Hands shaking, she lifted her coffee cup and took a sip.

The doorbell chimed. Their daughter shrieked in response.

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“Are you going to get that?” Augustin asked. Marisa didn’t respond. His jaw tightened. “I said, are you going to get that?” She ducked her head, lips trembling. The right side of her mouth was darkened with the shadow of a bruise. He made a disgusted noise, shoving his chair back as he stood. “Fine. I’ll get the door.”

She took another drink and set the mug down.

The living room blinds were shut and covered by heavy curtains, casting the room in twilight. Augustin navigated to the door by memory, unlocked the dead bolt, peeked through the door.

The woman on the other side pushed her sunglasses into her hair to study him with narrowed eyes. A single scar broke the line of her right eyebrow.

“Augustin Ramirez. Right?”

“Yes,” he said. “I’m sorry… do I know you?”

She held out a hand. She wore black gloves with a button at the wrist. “Elise Kavanagh. James sent me.”

He gave her hand a brief shake. Her grip made his knuckles ache. “James Faulkner?” Augustin asked. “He said he was going to send a—uh, an exorcist to look at our daughter.”

Elise nodded. “Yes, right. I’m the exorcist.”

“You’re not what I… that is to say…”

“Yeah, I know. Can I come in?”

“Yes,” Augustin said, stepping aside.

“I’m sorry I’m late. I was on my way to the office, and I wasn’t expecting James to ask me to do a job. I haven’t been an exorcist in a long time.” She indicated her outfit with a sweep of her hand—a black skirt, white blouse, and black blazer. Augustin wasn’t sure what he expected an exorcist to wear. Maybe leather and chains. Definitely not business casual.

She handed a business card to him. Elise Kavanagh, Certified Public Accountant. It was so absurd he had to laugh. “So you used to exorcise people a lot?”

“More often than I do now,” Elise said. “I went into retirement five years ago. Anyway, I’m not going to exorcise your daughter. I’m going to determine if it’s demonic possession.”

“Demonic possession,” he echoed. “You have me at a loss. Frankly, this all seems a little… absurd.”

She gave a humorless, thin-lipped smile that might have been a grimace.

“You’re here,” Marisa said. She hovered in the doorway, arms wrapped around her shivering body. “I’m so glad you came.”

Augustin frowned. “You know this woman?”

“She’s always at the coven meetings,” Marisa said. Her voice trembled slightly. “I think she does James’s accounting. And he told me they’re, uh, bound. Kopis and aspis.”

What?”

Her cheeks colored. “It’s Latin.”

“Greek, actually,” Elise said. “Kopis means sword, and aspis means shield. It means I am—or used to be—a warrior against the forces of Hell, and he’s my partner.” She wasn’t laughing at all. She was completely serious.

Distaste twisted Augustin’s mouth. “Coven nonsense. It’s taken me awhile to get used to the idea of witchcraft in the first place, and I don’t think—”

Elise held up a hand. “I have places to be. I don’t have the time to let you get used to it, Mr. Ramirez.”

His face grew hot. “I’m not—”

“Augustin,” Marisa said softly.

He closed his eyes and took a breath. Their marriage counselor harped on him about counting to ten when he was getting too angry, but he gave it to twenty this time. Covens and “warriors against Hell.” He could count to a thousand and still feel unsettled.

“Sorry,” Augustin finally said. “We’re stressed.”

Elise accepted his apology by inclining her head. “Where’s Lucinde?”

“She’s upstairs. We’ll go with you.”

Marisa and Elise headed up the stairs. Augustin followed a of steps behind, watching the legs of the supposed exorcist. She wasn’t wearing nylons. Another scar marred her ankle, like a dog bite that had long since healed into a fleshy white mass, and his stomach turned. Some accountant.

Elise spoke to Marisa as they walked, oblivious to the reaction her scars evoked. “I need to ask you some questions. Have you summoned any demons or used a Ouija board?”

“Of course not.”

“Any unusual noises or sightings? Animals with glowing eyes, objects flying across the room, strange noises on the telephone…”

Marisa shook her head. “Aside from Lucinde’s illness, everything has been normal.”

“What about nightmares? Have you experienced sexual dreams of a dark nature?”

“That’s a personal question,” Augustin interrupted.

Elise’s lip curled, but she didn’t respond.

“I haven’t,” Marisa said. Her voice was hardly louder than a whisper. “Augustin?” After a moment, he shook his head. “Lucinde was having nightmares before. Not… sexual. But she kept waking up screaming.”

“Did she tell you what she was dreaming about?” Elise stopped to peer at a family camping photo beside an artful arrangement of silk flowers. In the picture, the Ramirezes were tan and smiling. Lucinde’s low, croaking moans echoed through the house.

“She told me a monster was eating her heart,” Marisa whispered. “I thought… I mean, what a strange thing for a little girl to dream about. She dreamed a monster ate her heart and sat in her chest.”

Elise’s eyebrows lifted. “Really.”

“It’s not weird for her to have bad dreams,” Augustin interjected. “Especially not about her heart. She has a condition. The doctors don’t think it should be fatal, but you know how kids are. Of course she’s scared of bad things happening to her heart.”

“What kind of heart condition?” They reached the top of the stairs, pausing down the hall from Lucinde’s room. All the doors were open but hers.

“I don’t think you need to know that to do your job,” Augustin said.

“Just wondering. I assume you’ve already taken her to see a doctor and a psychologist?”

“Those were our first choices. They gave us the option of waiting to see if she would improve or sticking her in an institution. I wouldn’t have let Marisa call you unless we didn’t have any choices left.”

“I see. I’m going to go in and look at her now.”

“Be careful. She’s gotten… violent,” Marisa said.

“How violent can a five-year-old be?” Elise gave an unpleasant smile that didn’t suit her angular face. “I’m sure I’ve handled worse.”

“Just be careful. She’s in here.”

Elise approached the door Marisa indicated, and the Ramirezes hung back. The girl became quieter as she grew near. When she stood before the door, Lucinde became entirely silent.

Elise pushed the door open and went inside.

Lucinde’s room was even colder than the rest of the house. Heavy curtains cast the room in near-complete darkness, and a portable swamp cooler made the air chill and muggy. A white canopy bed blocked the back half of the darkened room.

There were multiple obstacles strewn across the floor: an overstuffed comforter, rose-colored pillows in varying sizes, and a toy chest. Possible hiding places included the closet and the shadowed area behind a pink trunk with princess costumes draped over the sides. No girl in sight.

Elise didn’t like the room’s poor visibility. It felt confined. Dangerous. “I’m going to open the window, Marisa.”

“She won’t like it.”

She moved toward the window, hugging the wall, and stepped over a toy unicorn with blood caking the mane to its neck. Ears perked for any hint of motion, she jerked aside the first layer of curtains, then the second.

Light filled the room. Someone squealed.

Elise rounded the bed in time to see bare feet disappearing under the bed. “Lucinde?”

She dropped to her hands and knees and leaned her cheek close to the carpet. A pair of luminous eyes stared back at her. The girl under the bed looked nothing like Marisa. Her skin was dark, like her father’s, and her flat nose was offset by his same expressive lips.

“Cold,” she hissed. “Cold!”

Elise’s gaze traveled over her bared legs. Her knees were heavily bruised, purple and black and brown on the edges. The flesh on her shins looked like broiled strawberries. “Have you used force to restrain her?” Elise asked.

“She hurts herself,” Marisa said. “We can’t stop her.”

“Colder!” Lucinde demanded again, sinking further into the corner as though she wanted to hide inside the wall. Elise glanced at the swamp cooler. Colder.

Lucinde tried to jerk away when she touched her foot, but Elise caught her ankle, pulling her foot into the light. A few remaining flakes of pink nail polish decorated her toenails under caked blood. One nail had been torn out. She released the child’s ankle, and withdrew again.

“How are you doing?” Elise asked. “Quomondo vales?”

Lucinde froze. Her eyes widened fractionally.

Quomondo vales?” she repeated. “Loquerisne Latine? No? ¿Hablas inglés?”

“She speaks English,” Marisa said, offended.

“Of course.”

Elise pulled the chains of her necklace over head and picked a bronze pendant from amongst the other charms. It caught the sun and scattered gold light on Lucinde’s forehead. The whites of her eyes were almost yellow, shot through with crimson veins, and a long, low hiss issued from between her lips.

Crux sacra sit mihi lux,” Elise whispered. Lucinde recoiled, covering her face.

“What are you doing?” Augustin demanded.

Lucinde remained flat against the carpet, fingers spread through the dusty shag as though she feared being dragged away. She whimpered like a wounded dog.

She was so small. Elise was sure she had never been that small.

Elise leaned closer. “Can you speak?”

Marisa stepped forward. “Watch out—”

The girl’s foot lashed out and the bedroom exploded into red stars. The pain struck a moment later like being struck in the jaw by a baseball bat.

She reeled, hand flying to her mouth. Lucinde scurried from beneath the mattress.

“Colder! Colder!” Her voice was shrill, piercing.

Lucinde’s nails flashed. Elise raised her arm in defense—but the little girl stopped short, swiping the hand inches from Elise’s face. Lucinde’s wrist was roped to the corner of the bed.

Augustin hauled the exorcist to her feet, dragging her away from Lucinde. She shook her elbow free of his grip.

“We told you to be careful,” he said, voice rough. “She’s not normal anymore.” Elise ignored him, meeting the girl’s eyes.

“Cold,” Elise echoed.

Marisa moved into the room, making soothing noises. Lucinde screamed a long note with the tenor of a beast. Augustin guided Elise out of the room and shut the door. Without windows, the hallway was darker than Lucinde’s bedroom, but it felt much less oppressive.

“We won’t be held liable for our daughter’s—”

“I’m not going to sue you for my wound, if that’s what you’re getting at. I’ve had many injuries much worse than this.”

“Good.” His mouth twisted. “Good. What were you doing in there?”

“Testing her,” she said. “This is the pendant of Saint Benedict. He’s the patron saint of a lot of things—nettle rash, servants who have broken stuff that belongs to their masters. Spelunkers.”

“Spelunkers?”

“He’s also invoked during exorcisms. I wanted to see if she would react to Latin because a lot of Greater Demons don’t speak any living languages.”

“She’s been speaking English,” Augustin said. “She keeps saying ‘cold.’”

“I saw that.”

“So… what do you think?”

“I can’t say if she’s possessed,” Elise said, touching the back of her hand to her mouth. It came away bloody. “She’s definitely got an attitude problem.”

“She was never like this before,” Augustin said.

“I’m sure.” She headed down the stairs, leaving Lucinde’s screams behind her. “I’ll do some research. I’ve seen my share of possessions and exorcisms, but never one as spontaneous as this. You’re sure nothing has been flying around?”

“Completely sure. We’re not freaks.”

“You don’t have to be a freak to be targeted by demons; just unlucky or stupid. Since you haven’t summoned anything, you could be the former.”

“We’re not stupid.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Don’t put words into my mouth.”

Augustin puffed out his chest. “Can you exorcise Lucinde or not?”

“I could, if she’s possessed,” Elise said. “It definitely seems like a demon problem.”

“Like in the Bible.”

“Yes. ‘Like in the Bible.’ I’m going to confer with James, after which he’ll be in contact with you. What would be the best number to reach you at?”

“Marisa’s so-called high priest has it,” Augustin said.

“Okay. Keep Lucinde in her room for now. Try to keep her eating and drinking water, because if she is possessed, she’ll resist it on her own,” Elise said. She touched her bleeding lip. “You already know to keep your distance.”

“Yes.”

He opened the front door to let in the hot summer air. The clouds had thickened since Elise’s arrival, and it smelled like rain again. “You have my card. Call me when she gets worse,” she said, stepping outside.

Augustin was already closing the door. He looked as inclined to give her a call as he was to offer a finger to his daughter’s mouth. “Right, thanks,” he said.

Elise paused by the Ramirezes’ gate. She glanced up at Lucinde’s window, half-covered in a heavy drape. As she watched, a hand came up to jerk it closed.

“You’re welcome,” she muttered. Elise turned on her car, cranked the radio, and pulled out of the cul-de-sac.

In the bushes between the Ramirezes’ house and their neighbor’s, an earless gray creature crouched in the shadow of the tree watching Elise’s car pull away. A small tongue darted out of its mouth to lick its leathery lips.

It blinked, dedicating Elise’s face to memory, and vanished.

COLLAPSE
Reviews:on Taking It One Book at a Time:

Freakin' loved, loved, loved this book from page #1! Elise is TOTALLY my kind of bad ass heroine. All in all this book would have received 6 stars from me if it was possible. By far one of my top 10 reads of the year! It was refreshing, unique and pulled at all of my emotions.