Elise Kavanagh is too busy liberating slaves in the City of Dis to worry about what’s happening on Earth. She hasn’t even noticed that more than three thousand people have gone missing—not until an anonymous client hires her organization, The Hunting Club, to rescue them. The man asking for help doesn’t seem to exist. But the trail of clues is too strange to ignore, and she finds herself caught in the investigation.
Werewolf Alpha Rylie Gresham is absorbed in troubles of her own. The pack is disobeying her, and the cult camped out in Northgate seems to be the source of the problem. Her mate, Abel, has resolved to fix it one way or another—even if it means going over Rylie’s head and killing their enemies.
Through secrets, lies, and assassination attempts, Elise and Rylie find that they have a new enemy in common. And what it takes to prevail might mean shattering the universe…
Gerard met Elise in the hallway outside her rooms. She wasn’t sure how he knew that she had returned from Malebolge, but he always seemed to know where everyone was in the Palace at any given moment. For a human, Gerard pulled off the illusion of omnipresence pretty well.
“We caught him,” he announced, unable to contain a wide grin.
Elise didn’t smile back, but dark satisfaction uncurled in her heart. “Finally.”
She changed directions and Gerard fell into step beside her. He wore her livery, though he had stripped off the jacket and wore a Black Parade t-shirt instead, which matched the leather boots surprisingly well.
“Where have you taken Gremory?” Elise asked.
“We’ve got him in the interrogation room. It’s the only place that the wards are strong enough. Plus, the chains are designed for his breed.”
Gerard had done well, as always. She didn’t have to force her smile of gratitude.
He held open the doors to the courtyard, allowing Elise to exit first. The Palace of Dis had never been busier. A new market had sprung up within the walls, trading goods brought down from Earth, and it had become the primary source of supplies for the Palace’s human residents. And she had a lot of residents to care for now. Of the thousand or so slaves that she had rescued, a full third of them had remained to help.
The survivors weren’t even half of the creatures living in the Palace, though. Elise had begun allowing certain demons to live within the battlements. She trusted few members of Belphegor’s army—her army—and kept most of them outside her defenses, where they wouldn’t be able to easily stage a coup; instead, she had taken in the artisans and servants, the lowest of the low who served with gratitude.
These demon additions to her staff had stalls in the new market, too. Products made from human byproducts weren’t permitted, but there were an impressive number of handcrafted tools and trinkets made from Dis’s more natural resources: blown glass, stone cookware, harpy wool blankets.
When Hell wasn’t murderous, it could be downright beautiful.
A hush fell over the market as Elise passed through the stalls, heading toward the interrogation room. She had been spending so much time with the army outside the walls that people freaked out when they saw her within the Palace. Neuma said it was because they admired her; Gerard claimed it was fear.
Neither of those were pleasant possibilities.
By the time she reached the ladder into the interrogation room, her face was fixed into a severe frown and tension was knotted between her shoulders. The nearby walkways were filling with people, all eager to watch.
The interrogation room was a suspended platform surrounded by magical walls that allowed spectators to watch the proceedings within. It used to be where the Inquisitor plied his trade—a role occupied by Elise’s father in the previous administration, the irony of which did not escape her—but now it was the best place to torture high-profile prisoners.
The wards were inviolable. And everyone could see exactly how merciful Elise was toward those who didn’t obey the Father.
Every time she went in there, it was like being on stage again. Elise hadn’t performed in years, not since she and James had advertised their fledgling dance studio by participating in competitions. She had never been a fan of the attention, but James had thrived on it.
She couldn’t hide behind a dance partner anymore. Elise was a soloist now, and with a blade rather than high-heeled shoes and a fixed smile.
The corner of her mouth quirked at what James would have thought of Elise’s latest performances.
She climbed hand-over-hand into the interrogation room. Gremory was supervised by a group of human guards and a single gibborim. He was so large that he had to crouch to fit under the arched roof. Elise wished she had seen how he managed to get into the room in the first place.
The prisoner was chained on his knees with his arms above his head. His scale armor had been stripped away, leaving his muscular, human-like body bared to the harsh air of Dis. His skin was bone-white and translucent. Red veins gripped his ribs and crawled down his thighs.
“Father,” Gremory said, “what a pleasure to meet you.”
Elise didn’t bother replying.
Gremory had been Belphegor’s praetor when he still possessed the army. They were also the same type of demon, although Gremory was much weaker. That didn’t mean much. Considering Belphegor’s power, it would have been hard for anyone to match him.
“We found him trying to lead one of your centuria away,” Gerard explained, taking position beside the gibborim. “The twenty-sixth.”
Elise lifted an eyebrow. It wasn’t surprising that Gremory had been trying to undermine her, but the twenty-sixth had been camping right by the gates—a dangerous place for a dissident to appear. “Were they leaving willingly?”
“It seems so. He was trying to transport them to the House of Volac.”
That House wasn’t allied with her yet, but she did have its daughter, Sallosa, as centurion of another century. More dissent within the ranks. “Send men to watch the thirtieth century—the one that Sallosa is commanding. Reassign the twenty-sixth to the wasteland perimeter. Kill the ones that resist.”
“Sure we shouldn’t kill them all?” Gerard asked.
Tempting. But Elise couldn’t kill every single demon that didn’t like her. Besides, she’d needed to move more forces into the hostile wastelands anyway. The forces she sent to patrol there kept going missing. Might as well put the centuries that disobeyed at risk.
“You heard my order,” Elise said.
Gerard sent one of his men out to take care of the twenty-sixth centuria. The trap door opened and slammed shut again.
Elise held out her hand. Without asking, Gerard gave her a knife.
Gremory’s eyes tracked the motion of the blade. There was no fear in his eyes. Elise would have to see if she could change that attitude.
“What’s at the House of Volac? Is that where you were going to meet Belphegor?”
The answer came from him easily. No threatening required. “He’s not there. I was merely planning to run an errand for him.”
“Then where is he?” she asked, circling Gremory.
“You already know that I won’t tell you. Attempt to torture me.”
He sounded so calm about it.
Elise’s eyes flicked up to the walkways ringing the room. Half of the Palace was watching. She needed to handle this as she did all things—swiftly, and without bullshit.
She stepped close to Gremory. “This isn’t going to end well,” she muttered. “We don’t need to do it like this. It’s a waste of time.”
“However long you waste attempting to beat information out of me is entirely within your control, Father.” A lazy smirk curved over his lips, and it was unsettling on a face so similar to Belphegor’s. Belphegor didn’t smile. Not like that. “There’s an alternative way to reach my master, you know. Let me go. I’ll arrange the meeting.”
Belphegor had offered to teach her to perform warlock magic. He was the only surviving demon that knew the archaic skill now that Abraxas was dead.
Elise hadn’t taken him up on the offer. She still didn’t know why Belphegor regarded her as an ally, and, frankly, she didn’t want to know. There would be a price for that knowledge, and Elise wasn’t going to pay it.
She dug the knife into Gremory’s chest.
At least, she attempted to dig it into his chest. The blade deflected from his skin, grating as though he were made of stone.
When she struck again a second time, harder than before, the blade simply shattered.
Gremory was still smirking.
Elise slipped the hilt of the broken knife into Gerard’s hand, careful not to let the spectators see that it had failed.
“What’s your backup plan?” Gremory asked casually, as if he were one of the guards ringing the room rather than the prisoner.
Gerard barked a laugh. “You think that was her primary plan? You really thought she was going to try to stab you?” He said it loudly, grandly, playing to the audience. They all laughed. Of course they all knew how hard Gremory was. Of course the Father knew better than to hope she could damage him physically.
She couldn’t falter when people were watching. She couldn’t have doubts.
Gerard was right, though. She had already suspected that torturing Gremory wouldn’t be possible.
Elise paused to gather herself, eyes closed, taking a deep breath. This is just another performance. She was about to go on stage to compete for a regional title. She only had to dance for a board of harsh judges and walk away with the prize. The fact that her dance partner of the day was in chains and the only accompaniment was the pounding of her heart didn’t change the fact that it was just another performance.
It would have been easier with James beside her.
She opened her eyes and turned to face the spectators. With her teeth, she tugged on each finger of her left-hand glove, loosening it. Then she peeled it away.
Gasps and hushed whispers spread over the walkways.
Her hand was covered in fiery orange runes that crawled over her knuckles, slithered between her fingers, orbited the joint of her thumb.
Elise lowered her arm and turned back to Gremory before the spectators could see that the runes were flickering. Not the flicker of fire, but the flicker of failing power. Every time the symbols darkened, pain lanced to her elbow.
She didn’t let it show on her face.
“Do you recognize this?” she asked, curling her fist around the magic, concealing the weakening runes from his view. Flames licked between her fingers.
Doubt had crept into Gremory’s features. He pulled on his chains, as if testing their strength. “Impossible.”
“Tell me where to find Belphegor.”
After a beat, he said, “No.”
She wasn’t going to ask him again.
Elise took off her warding ring, letting the full sense of magic settle over her. With her opposite hand, she gripped his throat. “I am the Father,” she said, loud enough for everyone to hear her. “Behold.”
Time to do the tango.
She let a word of power roll off of her tongue.
It spilled from her core, striking the air like a tuning fork rapped against stone. The tone was almost right. A little sharp.
The rune under her thumb flared.
Fire washed over Gremory. He radiated bonfire heat, veins burning bright red.
His head fell back and he screamed.
It was burning him—actually hurting a demon like Belphegor—so Elise didn’t let go. But she felt the wrongness in the spell. It was flickering harder. Her bones were shaking. The burn was creeping up her arm, lashing back against the wielder.
If she held it, she would be reduced to ash.
She gritted her teeth and pushed hard with all her willpower, trying to shove the magic into him.
Gremory’s eyes opened again. He glared at her.
“No,” he repeated.
His will was weaker than hers, but he wasn’t the one draining himself by using untested, hacked-together warlock magic.
She pushed, and Gremory pushed back.
The runes fizzled out. Her hand went blank.
“Shit,” Elise said.
With a roar, Gremory wrenched his arms down. The chains had been weakened by Elise’s faulty magic, too—they snapped.
His fist seemed to come from nowhere.
The blow sent Elise flying. Her back smacked into the wall, and she bounced off onto the floor.
Gremory was laughing as the humans fired on him with human guns. The bullets didn’t touch him.
And the spectators were watching every moment of it.
Elise had just fallen on a grand jeté.
Have to recover.
The gibborim threw himself on top of Gremory, and they wrestled, rolling across the tiled floor with a rain of meaty slaps and grunts. Her guard didn’t stand a chance against the prisoner. But the distraction gave her an instant to pull out her failsafe.
She wrenched off her other glove.
The ethereal runes blazed to life, making her entire body shake, blanking out her vision so that all she could see were green shapes when she blinked. This magic had been waiting for her for weeks. She hadn’t dared use it—not when it weakened her so much.
Now Gremory was slamming the gibborim’s head into the floor, and the gibborim wasn’t fighting back. Gremory got to his feet and turned to face Elise again.
She unleashed the ethereal runes.
Lightning lanced to Gremory, engulfing him in brilliant, burning light. It hurt. She was screaming. But it was so much more powerful than the warlock spell had been, and it was her only chance to kill him. There was no point containing something like Gremory for long.
The spectators shrieked with pain. Many were demons, and just as susceptible to ethereal light as Elise.
She didn’t stop to see if they were smart enough to run. She threw all of her strength into the spells, roaring as the magic ripped through her to consume Gremory.
He didn’t have any of Belphegor’s anti-magic defenses. He fell.
Elise stood over him for a full minute—about thirty seconds longer than she needed to—and kept pouring the rune magic into him, lighting up the interrogation room and the courtyard with nuclear white. She could actually watch as her skin faded away and the bones appeared underneath. But she kept electrocuting Gremory until he stopped moving, stopped breathing, until he was nothing but charcoal at her feet.
Then there was nothing left in her. The magic cut off.
She staggered, arms clutching her stomach. Hunger roared through her body.
“Elise!” Gerard moved to catch her.
She regained her footing and shoved him away. “Don’t,” she snarled. Just being near him made her hungrier. The heartbeats of her human guards made her salivate. Her body pulsed in time with their flowing blood.
“You killed him,” said another guard, Aniruddha. “But he could have told us where Belphegor was.”
Elise couldn’t respond. She stumbled toward the trap door.
“He wasn’t going to talk,” Gerard said from behind her. He still sounded confident. Unbothered. His trust in Elise was unaffected. “Send a cleaning crew up here. We’ll fertilize the flesh gardens with Gremory’s ashes.”
She wrenched open the exit and took a last glance around. The walkways had mostly cleared out, but not entirely. There were witnesses to Elise’s failure. Word would spread.
Elise had finished her dance, and the judges had awarded her a row of zeroes.