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URBAN FANTASY

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Labyrinth of Stars

RELEASE DATE: FEBRUARY 2014
PUBLISHER: ACE

Tattoos with hearts, minds, and dreams. Created to be the armor that protects my body, these obsidian shadows come alive at night—demons made flesh.

After the Aetar nearly kill Maxine’s unborn child, and a betrayal within her own ranks leaves Maxine’s husband, Grant, poisoned and dying, Maxine is forced to attack a race of beings that possesses almost unlimited power. Doing so will require she make a deal with the devil—the devil that lives inside her—risking both her sanity and her soul as she slowly transforms into something more than human.

But even that might not be enough to save Grant, because the very thing that Maxine is becoming is destined to destroy the world.

Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

I’ll be honest: I can’t recommend having a demon as your obstetrician.

Fight with them, live with them, feed their hungry stomachs all the M&Ms, chain saws, and small artillery they can handle—but when it comes to taking pregnancy advice, avoid at all costs. Even if they’ve been delivering the babies in your family for the last ten thousand years.

“Need ash,” Zee muttered, pressing his sharp little ear to my belly. “Volcanic. Hot. Fresh to eat.”

My husband, sprawled in the grass beside me, started laughing. I flinched. He was turned away from me, so he didn’t notice.

I took a quick breath, trying to stay calm, and focused on the rich, delighted sound of his voice. I tried not to think about how long it had been since I’d heard him laugh—and I certainly didn’t dwell on how starved I was for it. Instead, I listened, listened with all the strength I’d once spent fighting demons—and suffered a panged mix of relief and joy.

I placed a hand on my belly. “Oh, sure. You think it’s funny.”

Grant turned his head and flashed me a grin. For a moment I had the crazy hope things might be getting better. But then the shadows crept through his eyes, and his smile turned brittle. He was trying, though, which made it all worse.

I clutched my cold bottle of ginger ale and took a long swallow, using it as an excuse to look away and wash down a wave of nausea. Grant rolled over on his side and placed his hand over mine.

Softly, he said, “Breathe, Maxine.”

“You breathe,” I grumbled, finishing off the ginger ale. I heard a hungry chirp and passed the bottle to the demon nesting in my hair, listening to glass crunch.

It was a warm night. Moon had already set. Around us, demons: Raw and Aaz, sprawled on top of my grandmother’s grave, clutching teddy bears and gnawing on meat cleavers—dashing them with gunpowder, tobacco, to spice the metal. The scent put a burn in the air.

Zee leaned on my stomach, listening to unborn secrets. Playing doctor, nutritionist, making clicking sounds with his skinny black tongue and closing the second lid of his red eyes, as if in a trance. Dek nibbled my ear and hummed the melody to an old Pat Benatar song, “We Belong.” Mal joined him: a soft trill, lilting into the night.

Oak leaves hissed, joined by the tall grass: waves and waves of those delicate dry hisses, rising and falling in the night with the wind. I listened to Grant’s slow, even breaths—the rasp of scales and claws, my own heartbeat—all of it, together, something I tried hard to relax into. As if I could make them, with sheer willpower, the only sounds in the universe.

But nothing—nothing—could drown out the drums.

It wasn’t a beat. Nothing as hollow as a human instrument. A throb, maybe a pulse: organic and wet. Accompanying it, floating like a loose thread, an eerie lilting chorus that sounded like a Chinese opera married to some ancient tribal chant. A melodic, thrusting sound that made the hairs rise on my neck.

I hated it. My mother was probably turning in her grave.

Because here we were—dead center in the middle of three thousand prime Texas acres—and somewhere near us an army of demons was partying.

“If I find out they’re sacrificing virgins, I’m chopping off heads.”

“Yes,” Grant replied, and opened his eyes. “Do you smell blood?”

I waited a moment because when someone, anyone in my life, says they smell blood, it’s usually not their imagination.

“No,” I told him, and he closed his eyes again.

“It’s the link,” he muttered, sounding tired. “The Shurik are nesting inside that new herd of cows we brought in. It hit me, all of the sudden. The smell and . . . taste . . . of it.”

It was like both of us were pregnant. Me, I had a human baby inside me. Grant had demons. Not just one, but nearly a thousand—more than half of an entire demon army. Bonded to him: through his heart, through his power. Which meant they felt everything he did. A pyramid of influence and dominance, trickling into every living Shurik and Yorana—keeping them under control. Otherwise, humans would be on the menu—and not a herd of cattle.

The price was that Grant could feel them, as well: the force of a thousand lives, a constant presence in his heart and head. Buzzing, burning, crowding. Voices that whispered, voices begging, voices that brought migraines that showed no signs of abating.

I knotted my fingers around the soft, loose flannel of his shirt, and tugged, gently. “I would do anything to help you.”

“I know,” he said, scratching the rough beard he’d been growing for the last month—a symptom of exhaustion rather than fashion. “I’m learning to cope.”

“Liar.”

“The other demon lords manage. Those bonds make them stronger.”

“You’re not a demon.”

“If I can’t do this,” he said quietly, then stopped, flexing his big hands: all of him, big, warm, hurting. “Breaking the bonds will kill them. I can’t do that. I can’t sacrifice all those lives just to save mine.”

“I can,” I muttered. “You’re not healthy, Grant. You’re barely eating. You aren’t sleeping. And when you do, you have nightmares. You’re going to be a father, for fuck’s sake. If we could talk to my grandfather—”

“Leave him out of it.” Grant gave me an unexpectedly hard look, which only made the circles under his bloodshot eyes stand out like bruises. The effect was worse at night: his face hollow. “I’m done talking about this, Maxine.”

He was being so stupid. Stupid and honorable, and courageous, and stupid. My irritation had irritation. Zee raised his head, giving Grant a cool look—even as Raw and Aaz jerked to attention, staring. Dek and Mal muttered something musical, and no doubt, vile—drew in deep breaths, rattled their little tails—and spat fire at him.

Grant yelped, rolling away. I laughed.

“Thanks,” he said, from the shadows. But he was laughing, too.

***

I’ve always had a good appetite, but being pregnant meant now I ate more like the boys—minus the barbed wire, engine oil, and occasional bomb.

Raw reached into the shadows, all the way down to his shoulder—fished around for a second—and then pulled out a small white cardboard box filled with two hamburgers smothered in cheese, what appeared to be a pound of fries, and a container of frozen custard that had the name of a famous New York burger joint written on the side.

I don’t ask where, or how, they get these things. Not anymore.

I held the box in one hand—propped against the small, barely noticeable bulge of my stomach—and started in on the hamburgers. Grant gave me an amused smile.

“You should eat one of these,” I said, and I thought he would refuse. But then, slowly, he reached over and took the second hamburger from the box.

We were walking down the hill, back to the farmhouse. Going slow, because it didn’t matter that Grant was sort-of-a-demon-lord (and even without that title, still one of the most dangerous men on earth), he had a crushed kneecap that had never healed right, and he needed a cane to walk.

The music hadn’t stopped. I kept checking the sky for helicopters, or police lights swerving up the long driveway.

“The odds are against us, no matter what we do,” I said, around a mouthful of burger. “We’ve gotten lucky so far, and that’s with mistakes. Nothing this weird is going to stay hidden forever, Grant.”

Nothing this dangerous, either. For ten thousand years, an army of demons had been locked inside a prison just beyond our world. Until, three months ago, the walls had fallen, releasing the horde upon this earth. An army accustomed to hunting humans. An army that was starving. Starving to death.

Now those four demon clans were living on my dead mother’s farm. Packed in like refugees. Eating cows, pigs, anything . . . meaty . . . our money could buy. And not particularly enjoying the taste, either.

“Alaska.” Grant’s hamburger was already gone: eaten in three bites. “We could buy land there. Or somewhere else even more remote, where no one goes. Parts of Canada. Detroit.”

I finished the hamburger and handed him the fries. Again, he hesitated. I waved them under his nose, making “choo-choo” sounds. He snorted, still holding off, and Dek began humming “Sing for Your Supper” an old film song recorded by the Mamas and the Papas.

Grant narrowed his eyes at the little demon but gave in. After the first several bites, I thought he would puke—that had been happening more and more—but he swallowed hard, waited a moment, and reached for another.

Zee was prowling in the shadows beside us. “Need territory. Migration. Someplace wild. Far.”

I tried imagining such a place. Maybe an island in the Pacific. Deserted. But even that wouldn’t be entirely safe. Humans were everywhere. And there would never be enough food to sustain the  demons.

“No such thing on earth,” I said, finally.

Zee glanced at his brothers. “Then leave earth.”

Raw and Aaz stopped tumbling through the grass. Dek’s and Mal’s purrs broke. Grant and I stopped walking and stared at Zee.

“Better to leave,” he rasped, meeting our gazes. “Enter Labyrinth. Find new world. Safe world.”

“Safe,” I echoed, and a primal urge to dig, dig and hide, hit me—with dread. Because I knew instantly what he was saying, and it was the one thing I hadn’t wanted to face. The very thing Grant and I had been skirting around for months.

It’s hard, knowing what you have to do. And worse, not quite having the strength to do it.

“Safe,” he whispered, giving me a long, knowing look. “For little light.”

I exhaled, slowly. Grant took my hand. “You think our baby is in danger.”

Zee continued holding my gaze. “Homes change. Or homes die.”

I looked back up the hill at my mother’s grave—at my grandmother, buried beside her. Grant squeezed my hand, but I barely felt his touch. I realized, suddenly, that I had expected to be buried beside them one day. Despite all the time that had passed since my mother’s murder, and no matter how much I had to live for—that was the one grim promise about my eventual death that I looked forward to.

How fucking sad.

Grant suppressed a cough, then another—his thinning shoulders jerked violently. In the six years we’d been together, I’d never even heard him sniffle. Now he was frail.

Another coughing fit hit, this one more violent. I dropped the food, wrapping my arm around his waist as he sank into the grass.

“Sorry,” he murmured, wiping his mouth.

“Don’t be,” I whispered. Our gazes locked. Remorse was in his eyes, and he wet his lips, which were suddenly dry, cracked.

“Grant,” I began, but stopped, overcome with nausea. It’s the pregnancy, I told myself, only this felt even more powerful than usual. In fact, I really thought I was going to—

I turned away, doubling over as I began puking into the grass. Nothing came up, but it left me shaken, dizzy. It didn’t feel right, either. In fact—

“Maxine,” hissed Zee. “Door opened.”

Door opened. I knew what that meant, and dread spread through me. The only door Zee ever talked about was the door to the Labyrinth—that quantum highway that connected countless worlds. The last two times it had opened, I’d felt it—just like this.

Someone had come through. Or something.

“Hurry.” I tried to stand, grabbing Grant’s arm, hauling him upright. He struggled with his cane, found his feet. But he didn’t run. He stood stock-still, head tilted as though listening. Raw and Aaz were doing the same, but looking in the opposite direction. Zee disappeared into the shadows.

My right hand tingled: pins and needles. No flesh around my fingers, palm, and wrist—parts of my forearm, lost—covered in a living, sentient metal, an armor that was quicksilver, dreaming. I could feel it dreaming now, dreaming itself to awareness, and it was not a good sensation. It was a warning.

Grant’s hand stretched out, slowly, as if to push me behind him. I took his hand, instead—squeezing it hard.

A sudden lightness fell around my throat. Two demons are heavier than one—and in the space of a heartbeat, Mal dropped into the shadows of my hair and disappeared. I glimpsed, almost in the same moment, his reappearance on my husband’s shoulders—

—just as a hail of darts whistled down upon us.

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