Danäe and Daniel, as they were known in this life, had been married with a small courthouse ceremony. He had worn a white button-down over gray slacks and brown shoes, every inch the teacher’s assistant even though he’d left the position earlier that year. She had worn a black sundress slashed with red and ankle-high Doc Martens. The bored, exhausted judge hadn’t looked twice at the strange couple. She’d barely lifted her eyes from the paperwork.
“Do you, Danäe McCollum, swear to love, honor, and cherish Daniel Hawker for as long as you both shall live?”
“Sure,” she’d said. “And then some, even when he’s a jackass.”
That had gotten a flicker of interest from the judge. Her faint smile spoke of nostalgic appreciation as she scanned the woman’s shoes, her dress, her messy hair. The judge had once been a wild girl who loved wildly too, and she was filled with new energy for the wedding ceremony. “Do you, Daniel Hawker, swear to love, honor, and cherish Danäe McCollum for as long as you both shall live?”
“I already have,” he said, “and I always will.”
The judge finished the ceremony by saying that they were bound to each other, but they didn’t need to hear that part.
The man called Daniel had gripped the woman called Danäe by her narrow waist, clutching her to his chest while she tangled her fingers in his hair, and they’d kissed. Eternities opened between their lips: the swirling of stars and roaring of waterfalls and the beating of two human hearts in synchronicity, making legal the agreement that they’d lived with since their first mortal lives.
She had first seen him in his element, surrounded by skyclad witches dancing widdershins around a bonfire in the wilderness. He hadn’t been with the coven, but above them, and apart from them, radiating with the magic that he was famous for inventing. She had been a small child on the brink of death. If not for his aunt, she’d have died that night. Instead, she’d glimpsed him through the trees, all long legs and angry eyes and white button-down shirt, and she’d tasted destiny.
He’d first seen her as a teenager unconscious in the forest, surrounded by dead angels who’d helped her escape God. She’d almost been dead then too.
For once a noteworthy moment in their life didn’t involve someone dying.
As they kissed, she promised herself that they would have more moments like this: two people doing exactly what normal people did, spending forty dollars on the marriage license and twenty on a pair of cheap rubber rings that wouldn’t interfere with manual labor, married in the clothes they’d been wearing the day before.
The trappings were insignificant. What mattered were the promises.
Elise Kavanagh had promised to love, honor, and cherish James Faulkner for as long as they both lived…even when James was a jackass.
Even if James had gotten into trouble again.
Even if he was trading infernal artifacts in Reno.
Even if he sought dark powers while Elise was breastfeeding their stupid baby around the clock.
“You know,” the judge had said afterward, “saying the vows is easy. They’re not just words, though. For better or for worse only sounds nice. It’s hard stretched out across a lifetime of fuck-ups.”
“We know,” Daniel Hawker had said, taking the wedding license from the judge and kissing his new bride again.
A lifetime of fuck-ups.
It was time for Elise to test the strength of those vows.
During Genesis, Elise had been given an eternity collapsed into a heartbeat to remake the entire universe in whatever form suited her tastes. She’d made so many choices in that instant that she couldn’t have remembered them even if she wasn’t a foggy-brained avatar hauling a newborn around the country with her.
She did remember deciding that Reno, Nevada deserved to be restored to its previous gritty glory.
When she stepped out of the sanctuary’s private jet into the blasting heat of Reno-Tahoe International Airport’s tarmac, she was satisfied to see that everything was much the way she remembered it.
There were some changes to the skyline. The last hundred years had been busy with construction, developing a downtown filled with tired casinos into something more similar to San Francisco, or Portland. Lots of high rise condominium towers, a few quirky tourist towers.
The view of the Sierra Nevadas, jagged blue shapes tipped with white on the horizon, was the same as it had always been. The air still tasted of blooming sagebrush.
Elise was home.
A sanctuary employee waited for her with a sleek luxury sedan. He was a tall, attractive man with black eyes, a pointed chin, and the kind of cheekbones most people paid money to attain. It was strange to see someone with leading man good looks standing like a patient chauffeur.
“How much does she weigh?” he asked Elise.
It took her a moment to realize he was referring to the infant nestled against her heart. “I don’t know. Eight pounds.”
“Perfect.” He circled the sedan and returned with a car seat, which he installed swiftly while Elise watched in confusion. He took great care to ensure it was tight enough in the back seat that it couldn’t wiggle. “I can buckle her in if you want.”
“No.” Elise waited for him to step aside and then poured her baby’s jelly body into the car seat.
Jelly immediately turned into thrashing fury. Victoria didn’t seem to appreciate her first introduction to a car seat. Trying to thread her limbs through the straps was like trying to capture an octopus hopped up on meth. Her face soon grew purple with screaming.
“I can buckle her in,” said the waiting chauffeur again.
Elise stepped back.
It took him barely a moment to get the baby to hold still in her seat. He adjusted the five-point harness and clipped it into place.
“Does it hurt her?” Elise asked uneasily. Victoria was screaming so much she’d turned purple.
“She’s fine,” he said. “The ride’s fortunately short.”
Elise got into the front seat with the driver so that she wouldn’t have to see the baby’s sweaty, wrinkled face.
“I’m Henry Lee,” he said, starting the car and pulling away from the airport.
“Elise Kavanagh,” she said. The fastest way to get James’s attention would be to spread her real name far and wide. If he was around, he wouldn’t be able to resist tracking her down.
It did mean she’d have to deal with assassins too.
Luckily she’d taken quite a few weapons from the sanctuary.
“Are you a friend of the Alpha’s?” Henry asked.
He hadn’t been debriefed on who Elise was. “Who are you?”
“I’m the sanctuary’s northern Nevada municipal liaison.”
“Mountain lion,” he said. “You’ll never see me shift. I’m more useful as a human.”
As if she cared. “It’d be hard to operate a car seat with paws.” Speaking of which, Victoria was still shrieking. “Thanks for the help.”
“It’s my job. I’ve been asked to help you with anything you want while staying in Reno. Anything at all.”
The help from a cougar shifter who didn’t like shifting wouldn’t be very helpful. At least he was there to drive Elise and Victoria to their destination…wherever that was.
The city blocks outside the airport had been leveled and rebuilt in the last century. No more was the region populated by scattered, half-empty strip malls; it was now a coordinated neighborhood lined with climate-friendly pine trees and towers with apartments on top and fashionable restaurants on the bottom.
It was a shock to see Reno looking so new. Elise had hoped to revitalize it, but she hadn’t done that much.
This was the work of the citizenry.
Henry Lee noticed her staring. “Is this your first visit to Reno?”
“Sure,” she said. It might as well have been. “Tell me about the area.”
“We’ve essentially been a suburb of the Bay Area ever since they built the monorail. If you know Sacramento and San Francisco, you know Reno.”
That answer was adequate for Elise. She took it to mean that everything was gentrified and occupied by yuppies who thought that living adjacent to former meth dens was fashionable.
“I was to be given an apartment,” Elise said.
“That’s where we’re heading. Dat So La Lee Condominiums. They renovated it two years ago, so it’s not like it used to be,” Henry added hastily, as if worried she’d have heard a bad reputation about it. “You’re on the top floor. Easy zeppelin access.”
“I have a zeppelin?”
“The sanctuary has a few,” Henry said.
Good gods, the world had gone steampunk. That was surely James’s fault. He’d always been charmed by needless retrofuturistic flourishes. Elise wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he’d molded the universe to favor ballet as America’s national sport too.
They passed a new bridge that arched over the Truckee River, which flowed stronger than Elise had ever seen it, to the point where it had no visible banks. The bridge was sleek glass glistening with magic on the edges.
“Reno’s become popular among technowitches,” Henry said. “Between the lithium factory and the arsenic mining, it’s a one stop shop for those covens. Whenever a new coven incorporates here, they’re required to commit a project to the community, so we get lots of…that.” He took a hand off the wheel to wave at the magicked bridge.
Victoria was still shrieking so loudly that Elise could barely hear Henry speak.
He pulled into an underground parking garage. Elise barely waited for him to stop before getting out to retrieve Victoria.
The baby showed no signs of stopping—until Elise removed her, at which point the baby collapsed against her chest, making pathetic quivering sounds.
Henry unhooked the car seat from its base. “Can I carry anything of yours?”
“No,” Elise said.
She held Victoria in her arms all the way up the elevator.
The sanctuary had splurged on renting a condo with windows all the way around the edges, giving her a perfect view of the overflowing Truckee, the snowy mountains, and the sprawling magical urban landscape.
“It’s a pentagram,” she said, surprised. Everything from West 2nd all the way out to Sparks was laid out in large triangle patterns, which, when put together, formed a five-pointed star. The University of Nevada’s old brick buildings took up half the northern slope of the star. Dat So La Lee Condominium Tower was on the easternmost side.
The only roads Elise could see formed the lines between neighborhoods. Everywhere else, asphalt had been torn out and replaced with pine trees.
“It’s the result of a sustainability cooperative between Bay Area developers and the covens,” Henry said. “All the rooftop parks are licensed spaces for spellwork.”
“Where’s all the old stuff? The casinos, the pawn shops…?”
The shifter set Victoria’s car seat by the front door. He pushed a button to open the remaining curtains, allowing daylight to pour over the apartment’s marble features. “Most of them are still around, even if you can’t see them between all the trees. Historical preservation. There was this big uproar from local triadists when Reno started getting reshaped—they were upset that the gods’ design wasn’t being respected.”
Elise gave Henry a blank look. “Triadists?”
“The only triadist church I know of is up near Incline. Big population here,” Henry said. He’d misunderstood her question.
“What are triadists?”
“Oh.” He swept the sides of his jacket aside so to plant his hands on his hips. “Well…you know, the triadists. Those people who think that there are three gods—hence ‘triad’—and that the gods are still around, and involved, and canonize every statement the Voice of God gives. The triadists around here aren’t radicals. We’ve got a close eye on radicalization because of that church, but it’s safe.”
The corners of Elise’s mouth lifted in what might have been a smile. She didn’t exactly feel amused. “Why would they think the gods care about what’s happening on Earth?”
“They’ve been like that since the Balefire Wars.” Henry rubbed a hand over his jaw, surveying Elise in confusion. “You’re not from around here, are you?”
Clearly she was missing some important elements of history that were considered common knowledge in America.
“I’ve been busy,” she said, patting Victoria’s back. The infant had fallen asleep before the elevator had hit the top floor. Even though her eyes were closed, she was squirming, lifting her knees to her chest, and grunting.
“You from LCI?”
Elise could safely say, “No.” She didn’t even know what that was.
Henry looked like he wanted to ask more questions, but didn’t dare. Elise was there by order of the Alpha, this Deirdre Tombs, a girl-child who wielded enough power to get Elise a condo nearest a helicopter pad in Reno, Nevada just because Nash said she needed it. Henry Lee was smart enough to have been given stewardship of a region as important Reno, and he was smart enough to keep his mouth shut when it mattered.
“I’m at your service for as long as you stay here,” Henry said. For the first time, he seemed more confused, and his politely suave demeanor was slipping. “Here’s your phone. My number is first in the contacts list.”
Their fingers brushed when Elise took it. Henry flooded her senses: the coarseness of his knuckles, the smell of his hair gel, the chemicals used to dry-clean his suit.
He also smelled bitter, like wolfsbane.
Elise flipped the phone open with her thumb. Text slid over the glass screen, detailing the weather, the time, the local news. She tapped the map icon.
“What are you looking for?” Henry asked.
“Historical buildings. I want to know what’s still downtown that was there in 2012 too.”
“I know the area as good as any app. I can help you.”
“All right.” She flipped the phone shut again. “Craven’s. Eloquent Blood.”
He looked puzzled. “The demon club?”
“It’s wreckage,” Henry said. “There’s a hole in the ground—that’s Eloquent Blood. It’s condemned. Craven’s is a few crumbling walls with a placard. It couldn’t be torn down because its historical status was established by triadists but there’s nobody there.”
An unpleasantly sour aroma rose from Victoria. Elise gave her a short sniff.
Unlike Henry, Victoria did not smell like wolfsbane and manly haircare products, but like runny yellow feces peppered with mustard seed-like clumps of spoiled milk.
“What interests you about Craven’s?” Henry asked. “Can I help you?”
“Sure. Where are the weapons?” There had to be weapons.
He opened the door for her. Elise stepped inside to find an array of guns, swords, and knives mounted on the wall, lit by floodlights such as those that might be at an art gallery. The glistening steel was much more appealing to her.
No more rusty demon blades and gas station pocket knives.
A yellow sticky note had been affixed below a short sword with a single curved blade.
“Hope this helps. -AW”
Those initials meant Abel Wilder, the former Alpha’s mate. He was so thoughtful. He knew just what a woman wanted.
Elise hefted the sword. It had excellent balance.
“What are you doing?” Henry asked.
“Whatever I want, and you’re helping me do it.” She slid Victoria into his arms. “That thing needs a diaper change.”
His eyes went wide. Elise was assured to see that he cradled the baby as naturally as he’d installed the car seat, and he was as unlikely to drop her as he was likely to know how to change a diaper. “I’m a decorated veteran ranked highly at the sanctuary with highly technical martial skills and you want me to…babysit?”
Victoria realized she was no longer on her mother’s chest and started crying.
“I’ll be back in a few hours,” Elise said.