Memories cascaded within Elise as she stood over the sanctuary.
Rylie was good.
That statement hadn’t been enough.
As Alpha, Rylie Gresham had been a mess of contrasts: a knobby-kneed, innocent-looking blond girl with a shy smile who bit her bottom lip and stared at her feet a lot; a sleek golden werewolf as deadly as a flaming sword who had attacked Aquiel, a demon the size of a mountain, without even a moment’s hesitation.
She had been at Elise’s side when shit had hit the fan with James. They had faced the end of the world together.
Good was far from adequate.
Rylie had been fucking great.
She’d have been proud to see how big the sanctuary had grown in the decades after her death. Hell, Elise was proud of her.
Elise hadn’t dreamed she’d show up at the sanctuary to find Rylie dead.
Now Elise stood side-by-side with Nashriel Adamson, waiting to feel the stir of familiarity within her. She’d carried the soul of his mother, Eve, for many years. Their encounters had always been tainted by her presence.
He was staring at her as though waiting for it to arise again.
“She’s gone,” Elise said. “There’s nothing here but me.”
“And barely that,” Nash said, as though it were an insult. She’d have expected that to be a good thing. From what little she remembered of their history, flitting over the surface of her mind, there had been considerable conflict.
A squeak drew Elise’s gaze to her feet.
Something scraggly and skeletal was rubbing between her ankles.
It turned its face up to her, revealing a skull with empty eye sockets and sharp teeth uncovered by lips or whiskers.
A zombie cat.
“The fuck?” Elise asked.
The feline should have been dead. She could count its ribs and the number of joints in its tail. Yet its spine arched as it stroked along her thighs, and the wisps of dusty fur on its flank were layered over chunks of tough, dry fat, like beef jerky.
“Sir Lumpy.” Nash stooped and picked the cat up. It sank its claws into his sleeve to climb onto his shoulders, coiling around his neck. Sir Lumpy was wearing a collar with a tiny skull dangling from it, like a bell. “He’ll outlive us all.”
Elise never would have called the hideously flat-faced skeleton alive, even if it did look content nuzzling Nash’s jaw with its exposed cheekbones.
“Waste of magic,” Elise said.
Hatred flitted through Nash’s eyes. “You’ve been busy. Let me see it.” He extended his hands toward Elise.
Elise didn’t want to surrender the baby to him. It seemed that something hormonal was teaming up with her natural hatred of angels, turning the muscles in her arms to iron.
Nash continued to hold his hands out. He waited.
Elise shoved aside the natural instincts that rode her like a parasite and delivered Victoria to him. It was awkward trying to pass an infant between people, even when one of them was a skilled demon hunter and the other was an angel with preternatural grace.
Warmth smoldered within Nash’s eyes as he surveyed the baby, lifting her with long fingers curved around her soft skull and underneath her padded butt. Sir Lumpy leaned forward to sniff Victoria’s head. The cat didn’t seem to approve. He leaped off of Nash’s shoulders and vanished into the bush’s again.
“Humans and angels can breed,” Nash said. “The resulting creatures are called mages.”
Elise folded her arms. She knew that.
“Theoretically, werewolves and angels would be able to breed as well. Werewolves who had the curse bestowed upon them by a bite are still human—possessed by the spirit of the wolf, rather than a different species. The children of werewolves are not possessed. Shapeshifters are a completely different species.”
She understood now where Nash was going with this line of thought.
Summer Gresham was a shapeshifter born of two Alpha werewolves: a woman as much wolf as she was human, not possessed, but a true preternatural.
Nashriel was an ancient angel, older than time, once a loyal soldier of Adam.
They were not close enough genetically to reproduce.
“We’ve been married for a hundred years,” Nashriel said, “and I have never gotten the opportunity to hold a child who looks as much like myself and Summer as this child looks like you and James Faulkner.” Now his fingers were not so gentle on the back of Victoria’s skull. His knuckles tensed. “And you said that preserving my wife’s beloved pet is a waste of magic.”
“I’ll skin your wife and crush her beloved pet if you hurt my offspring.” Elise was surprised by how strongly she meant that.
“You are guilty of a thousand-thousand evils, yet you get to experience this bliss,” Nashriel said. “I’ve suffered for eons, and what do I get? I watch my wife die of age, as beautiful as the day we met, yet too frail for her heart to beat of its own volition.” His eyes fell shut as his nose dropped to Victoria’s soft hair. He inhaled. “Your daughter is beautiful, Elise, and one day, you too will watch her die.”
“I’m mortal,” Elise said.
“In this form. You’ll live on. She won’t.”
“Give her back.”
Nash did, much to Elise’s overwhelming relief. The baby slept through it all. No survival instincts at this age. “I’ve heard rumors of an angel who has seized Reno, Nevada, and is operating a crime ring out of its casinos. If you want to find James Faulkner, you should begin there.”
Worms writhed unpleasantly within Elise’s gut. “Are you certain of that information?”
“I’ve heard of no sightings of James there, but angels are few, even in these days, and none are in the Western Americas.”
Elise stared at the wrinkled face resting on her chest, which so closely resembled James’s.
In their new life as Danäe and Daniel, there had been minimal conflict between the two of them—only as much conflict as naturally occurred between, say, an overheated pregnant woman and the husband she considered responsible for fixing their air conditioning.
It hadn’t always been that way.
The warm memories of a great Alpha who had passed on came with other familiar feelings, which were far less pleasant.
This idea that James could be in the world, hiding somewhere, running a crime ring…
Not only did it stir disgusting emotions, it sounded revoltingly plausible.
“Give me crime details,” Elise said.
“I haven’t had time to investigate deeply. I’ve been distracted with caretaking duties in years of late.” Nash cast his pale gaze upon the earthen mound. “What I know is this: there is black market trade in pre-Genesis artifacts. Rumor has it that some retain old power, such that hasn’t been seen since the Treaty of Dis.”
“I don’t understand the implications.”
“You brought back the possibility of mages and warlocks when you entered the Origin in 2015. You didn’t restore the knowledge. Mages have made significant progress rediscovering what they can do—infernal warlocks have not. There aren’t warlocks left to communicate. Think of what they could learn from the original warlocks predating the Treaty by studying those artifacts.”
It didn’t make sense. James wouldn’t benefit directly from demon magic. In his avatar form, he was a man; in his god form, he was an angel. Warlock magic was another thing entirely.
But Elise had changed a lot of rules during Genesis.
It was like a light flickering to life in the fiber of her being.
Hadn’t magic begun to mix together during the Breaking? Infernal, ethereal, gaean. She’d wielded power in its many forms. So had James.
What would James want to do with all that?
Assuming it was even him.
“I’ll need money,” Elise said. “Weapons. Transportation.”
Nash’s eyes narrowed. “Why should I help you, when you’ve done so little for me?”
“Rylie would want you to.”
“What will you do if you find James up to his old tricks in Reno?”
Elise wasn’t sure. Kill him, maybe. It would be the fastest way to terminate his avatar and send him back to eternity as a god.
She’d have to raise Victoria alone.
“I’ll figure it out,” Elise said.
Hatred flashed through Nash’s eyes again. “You’ll have all the support you need, Godslayer.”
Her shoulders tightened at the sound of the old name. She managed to say, “Thank you,” but didn’t manage to make it sound authentic.
Nash returned to the earthen mound.
Before the door shut, she saw Nash lowering to his knees beside Abel and the woman in bed. He gazed at her with intensity that Elise recognized, since it was the same way that James looked at Elise, sometimes.
That was Summer Gresham, the woman that Nash had loved for years, now on the brink of death. He looked at her as though she were still the vibrant young thing that he’d sacrificed everything to be with.
The door closed, and Elise was alone with Victoria.
Elise spent the night in the sanctuary, her wounds knitting.
The guest cottage she was given had changed little since the Breaking. The furniture had been updated, but was clearly meant to harken back to the styles that the werewolf pack had used in the early twenty-first century. The furniture looked inexpensive, but it was sturdy underneath Elise when she laid down with Victoria—stuff that was meant to last in the generations to come, now that the sanctuary had enough money to afford finer materials.
She’d been given a crib for Victoria, and Elise looked forward to sleeping on her own without the baby on her chest. But the baby screeched when set down. Elise wanted sleep more than she wanted space.
Victoria settled when Elise curled around her.
Part of the problem was that the zombie cat had followed her into the cottage. For reasons Elise couldn’t understand, Sir Lumpy seemed equally attracted to and repulsed by the presence of a baby. As soon as Elise put Victoria on the twin bed, the cat leaped onto the headboard to affix its eyeless gaze upon the newborn. Elise flicked her fingers at it to encourage it to go away. Her fingernails connected with Sir Lumpy’s breastbone, and he didn’t move.
So there was a dead cat staring at them.
That wasn’t restful.
Even if Sir Lumpy hadn’t been glaring his fury at them, Elise doubted she’d have been able to sleep. The room was chilly. The sounds of life and movement outside of her cottage made her feel paranoid, even though it was still quieter than the OPA shelter where she’d stayed with Hailey.
For hours, she remained lying on her side, gazing out the parted curtains through the window at the shape of dark mountains against the sky, and her mind raced.
It was James’s fault that Elise was there. He had wanted to have a baby. Elise had only agreed to carry it for him.
In retrospect, she should have made him substantiate as a female avatar and carry his own damn fetus.
That hadn’t occurred to her in the expanse of eternity, and it wouldn’t have seemed as important at the time anyway, since Elise had expected to be able to offload the baby on him once born.
She’d been so certain that James would have only missed the birth if he’d been abducted.
Now she felt certain of nothing.
One of the sanctuary’s leaders had informed Elise of what would happen the next morning. She would be given access to a bank account and supplied an income—how much had yet to be determined. The sanctuary’s private jet would take her to Reno and provide her with a car, which would have a variety of helpful weapons in the trunk.
What happened after that was up to Elise.
No certainties in life.
Victoria began whimpering in her sleep, which quickly escalated to whining, and then crying. Sir Lumpy finally jumped down and vanished underneath the bed. The exposed bones of his paws clicked against the floor.
“Well, that’s one certainty,” Elise muttered. A baby at rest will only stay at rest until her mother tries to get some sleep.