Deirdre Tombs was intimidating for such a small girl, and James didn’t even think of words like “intimidation” lightly. He’d married the scariest entity he’d ever known—which was a sincere compliment—yet something about the way that Deirdre stalked around the three of them spoke of a power that went beyond death.
A phoenix, Elise had said. She was not a little girl but a being who was simply in the early stages of her current life cycle. Deirdre could not die without being reborn. She rose above the powers of gods in some ways. Not that it would be impossible to destroy her if such a thing became necessary, but it would require more effort than it would to destroy any other being. An impressive quality for any non-deity.
Now they were being held captive in this Alpha shifter’s office in Northgate. She kept space in a building outside of the shapeshifter sanctuary, not far from where the church used to stand. Her personal office was a hot, dry room, its climate carefully controlled, the decorations barren and desert-like. Deirdre Tombs would have liked Nevada, James thought.
“Who the fuck do you think you are, Henry?” Deirdre asked.
Strangely, she seemed most intently focused on the cougar shifter, who sat in his chair with a stiffness that said this wasn’t his first confrontation with the Alpha. “I know that I’ve gone against the OPA’s current directives. If I could just—”
“Gone against? You mean completely hijacked.” Deirdre leaned on the arms of his chair, shoving her face into his. “I knew that Abel was asking for trouble when he gave you unlimited authorization to fuck around with OPA powers. Bombing Reno, though? And then everything with the extrajudicial force tracking down that car, and the amount of lives we lost at the condominium…”
“I didn’t order that,” Henry said.
“I’m not stupid, Henry.” She yanked a tablet off her desk, lifted it up so they all could see. It was the OPA’s system, James assumed, though the user interface was so futuristic and convoluted that he couldn’t make sense of it.
English text remained English text, luckily enough, so he could see that orders had been indeed issued to the OPA under Henry Lee’s authorization. And Henry’s authorization was equal to Abel Wilder’s, under Abel’s authority.
“I ordered the bombing,” Elise said. “Nashriel Adamson ordered everything else. He’s using Henry’s credentials.”
Deirdre set the tablet down and turned slowly on Elise, surveying her with unimpressed eyes. “Godslayer.”
James tensed, but Elise did not.
“Alpha,” Elise said.
“Where’s the baby?” Deirdre asked.
“Nash. He took her.”
“Now I know you’re lying. I’ve spent the last hundred years dealing with Nash. I know him.”
“So do I,” Elise said. “I’ve known him since the day he hatched.”
“Eve knew him,” she admitted, “and I had Eve’s soul for a long time. I know Nashriel. I know what he’s capable of doing. I know that he would murder every single person in this country if that’s what he thought it would take to kill myself and James.”
“James?” Deirdre’s golden gaze turned onto him, and it felt unsettlingly like being placed underneath a heat lamp intended for snakes. There was no doubt in James’s mind that if his avatar was pitted against Deirdre, he would lose. “What makes the two of you so fucking special that you could turn a lovelorn angel from a moping slug of a man into a murder machine?” She swiped on the tablet and lifted it again to show another order issued under Henry’s credentials. “If I hadn’t intervened, Henry’s order would have shut down the entire hyperloop system and gassed one corridor.”
“Nash’s order,” James corrected automatically.
Elise stood and took the tablet. The fact that Deirdre allowed it suggested that the phoenix did, in fact, realize exactly how much trouble Elise could be.
“Nash tried to gas us,” she said, her fingers moving over the tablet. “And he tried to bomb the Carson City station.”
“Henry did,” Deirdre said.
Henry’s hands were clenched in his lap. “I didn’t issue those orders!”
James peered over Elise’s shoulder at the tablet. It took him a moment to sort through the information. “If you truly believe Henry attempted to cause this much devastation, then it will be trivial to ask Nashriel what he’s been doing for the last twenty-four hours. Won’t it?”
Deirdre jerked the device out of Elise’s hands.
“He’s not here,” she said. “He took his wife and left yesterday.”
“Come on, Deirdre, you know me too,” Henry said. “You know I’d never do anything like this.”
“I didn’t think you’d go rogue on my ass the instant you hit adulthood, either,” Deirdre said. “You’ve got surprises up your sleeves.”
“Go rogue? Go rogue?” Henry was getting more worked up.
Elise touched his shoulder. “We don’t have time. Victoria.”
Strangest of all, it settled him. He took a step back and let out a breath through his clenched teeth.
“Victoria,” Henry said.
“That’s the baby?” Deirdre asked. “So you’re saying that an angel who’s one of the pillars of our entire fucking civilized society kidnapped a baby and is abusing your credentials to try to pulverize half of the continental North American Union.”
“You don’t have to believe us,” James said. “A conversation with Abel—is it the same Abel Wilder?” It was hard to believe that the man could still be alive after all this time. He’d been in his twenties when Genesis struck, and a century had passed since then. But Elise nodded at his question. “Abel Wilder will vouch for all of us, I’m sure.”
“Abel’s not vouching for anyone,” Deirdre said. “He’s been comatose in the hospital for a day.”
The color drained from Henry’s face. “Comatose?”
“Yeah. And the doctors say he’s not going to wake up.” Deirdre sighed. “Sorry, Henry.”
“I have to see him,” Henry said.
Northgate’s hospital was of disproportionate size relative to the town’s population. Henry told James that this was because Northgate was a hub for the eastern half of the NAU. The town was kept artificially small so that it would look historically appropriate, but it was the heart of quiet at the center of a metropolitan storm spanning the entire coast.
Abel Wilder was on the topmost floor of the hospital, protected by heavily-armed guards that made James uneasy. They were wearing OPA branding. They were surely under Nash’s command. Yet they obeyed Deirdre when she ordered them aside, and nobody fired at Elise or James.
“Another order,” Deirdre said, lifting the tablet she’d brought along. “Guess you weren’t lying about this, Henry. Someone else is using your credentials.”
“Nashriel,” Elise said.
“There’s no proof of that.”
James skimmed the new order that had appeared on the screen. It was an order that, had it gone through, would have had the guards in the hospital shoot Elise and James on sight. Nash was tracking their motions even now.
He had to know that it was ineffective now. He would be regrouping, looking for new ways to destroy their avatars.
And in the meantime, he still had Victoria.
“This is his room,” Deirdre said, taking them to a spacious, glass-walled part of the hospital. It was even quieter here. The medical equipment was largely concealed in oak cabinets and it had a wide view of the Appalachians.
On the other side of the door, Abel was not in any condition to appreciate the view. He was a weak, unconscious old man in a bed ringed with warding magic.
It startled James to see Abel Wilder in such a condition.
Even more startling was James’s condition in his reflection. The dim lines of his visage stared back at him, shaggy-haired, skinny, and filthy.
Abel was not the only one that time had struck down.
Elise appeared in the reflection behind James. She was as beautiful as ever, and as angry-looking.
“Fuck me,” she muttered. She turned on Deirdre. “Abel wanted me to have access to all the OPA resources available. Can I still have them?”
Deirdre considered this, mouth twisted. “I guess.”
“Help me use the trackers. I need to find where Nash is hiding.”
“All right. Let’s use a secure terminal.”
Alpha led Godslayer away, and James was alone with his old-man reflection, beyond which lay an old-man werewolf.
Henry leaned his forehead against the window, gazing in at Abel’s passive form.
James had no interest in Henry personally, no interest in a relationship. Yet there was something in Henry’s eyes that looked unfamiliar. An emotion that made James feel strangely jealous, even though he wasn’t certain why.
“You’ve got a history with Deirdre Tombs,” James said, rather than asking about Abel directly.
When Henry sighed, his breath fogged a small circle on the glass. “I’m an orphan. I was raised at the sanctuary.”
James closed his eyes to remember the sanctuary as he had left it behind. “You were raised by Rylie?” She’d been a slip of a girl when James knew her, slight and blond and knock-kneed, growing into her role as Alpha. She had mothered at least three children of her own and likely many more.
“Rylie Gresham was already dead when I came around. I was raised by the whole pack. It wasn’t bad, and they were strict about making sure we took care of each other,” Henry said. “Kids looking after kids, a lot of the time. I know she looks young, but Deirdre wasn’t one of the kids—she was one of the adults, a teacher. Right hand to the Alpha at the time.”
“Abel,” James said.
Henry nodded. “Abel.” He pressed his knuckles against the windowsill, leaning hard, like he couldn’t stand without the support. “It’s stupid to see a guy who raised hundreds of children like a father.”
“But you do. He is your father.”
“I used to have nightmares as a kid,” Henry said. “Nightmares about Genesis, mostly. People used to tell us stories about Genesis to scare us. And boy did it fucking work. This black void eating everything… I’d wake up crying. You know who always showed up when I started crying?”
James felt cold. So cold.
He was a child again, tiny and vulnerable, isolated over the library and the crystalarium at his parents’ house.
“Abel,” James said again, quietly.
“He’d go through the room, sweep up the kids having a hard time, take them out into the forest,” Henry said. “Run us until we were tired. And then when we got all the energy out, we’d collapse in a pile under the trees and the stars, and Abel would stand over us until we were asleep. We’d wake up when the sun hit his flank and made his fur too hot to touch.”
Some distant part of James’s soul was being held at arm’s length, told not to cry.
“Interesting,” James said.
“I had a lot of issues when I was a kid so I spent a lot of time with Abel. He never treated me like I was one of a hundred other puppies bothering him.” Henry pushed away from the window, turned away. His cheeks were damp.
He was crying.
“Deirdre stole the Alpha role from him,” Henry said. “Abel started to get a little too old, a little too tired, to manage shifters across the whole country. He just needed help. But Deirdre took over completely—violently. I woke up one night after a new moon and the world I knew was gone. Abel was the Elder Wolf, Deirdre was Alpha, and I refused to swear fealty to her pack.”
“You went rogue.”
“I stayed loyal and wouldn’t work with someone who wasn’t,” Henry said. “Can you blame me?”
James’s mouth was so dry. It felt like rubbing against sandpaper when he swallowed. “No.”
James made use of one of the hospital bathrooms to tidy himself. There were showers to clean the sweat from his skin, scissors to trim his beard. He took a doctor’s street clothes out of a locker and dressed himself in jeans, sneakers that were a half size too small, and a button-down shirt.
He felt more human once he had cleaned himself, but that wasn’t necessarily a good thing.
More human meant more memories. More of a connection to the James-that-was. A man with angel-blood raised by a coven to lead them into some cruel future at the expense of innocent lives.
The only benefit to that life was how it had introduced him to Elise, and how it had produced his first son, but that was why he’d created Daniel Hawker. He’d wanted to meet Elise and have children without all the baggage that went along with it.
He wanted a great many things that seemed unlikely to come to pass.
When he returned to Abel’s hospital room, he stood well back among the potted plants, watching Henry talk quietly with Elise. The chemistry between them was oppositional but not entirely unfriendly. Elise had always had a way of finding trustworthy colleagues, even though she’d likely have described herself as an asocial misanthrope. She had plucked Henry out of the fabric of this current time just as she had picked former teammates—the McIntyre family, Anthony Morales, even Malcolm Gallagher.
That was who Elise was, regardless of which life she was occupying. She was a leader.
And now a mother.
She thought that she didn’t know how to love. Yet here she was speaking calmly to Henry, listening to him as he related some obviously emotional story to Elise. She was present. She did not tell him to stop crying, she did not send him back to bed alone.
Elise was there. And she was engaged in pursuit of finding her infant.
It was so much more than James could say for his own parenting experiences.
When Henry made a louder sound of surprise, James stepped forward quickly. He met them when they were opening the door to Abel’s room.
Elise saw James coming and didn’t appear surprised. She always knew where he was. “Abel’s waking up,” she explained.
The Elder Wolf’s eyes were peeling open when they approached his bed. Henry hung back, so the first person that Abel focused upon was James.
Abel groaned. “Fuck, not you.”
“You seem to be normal,” James said. He plucked the medical chart off the foot of the bed and flipped through it. He used to date a doctor and had some familiarity with medical codes—not that he’d needed to learn them; James just loved acquiring any knowledge available in his periphery—but medical technology had changed drastically in the last century too. It made no sense to him.
“We don’t have time for niceties,” Elise said. She leaned over Abel, her braid swaying over one shoulder like a serpent about to bite. “Nash kidnapped the baby and I’m going to kill him. I need whatever information you’ve got.”
“Nash.” The word came out as a growl. Abel’s eyes went dark. “He reopened the Haven a few years ago. Bet you anything that’s where he took her.”
“What would he do with a baby in the Haven?” Henry wondered aloud.
“Not the baby,” Abel said. “Summer. Yesterday he took her—grabbed her right out of bed, even though the doctors said she shouldn’t be moved. And when I tried to stop him…” One of his gnarled, shaking hands pressed against his brow. “I’m not strong enough anymore.”
“The Haven,” James echoed.
Elise lifted an eyebrow at him. “The Haven, huh? I didn’t remake the Haven.”
“Yes, well,” he said. Elise wasn’t the only god among them, after all.
James had a history with the Haven. It was a pocket dimension—a smaller alternate Earth. Time was accelerated within the dimension so that entire generations were born and died within a span of years on Earth Prime.
He had targeted the Haven as a way to protect his family in his last life, but he had failed to get them there in time. James had buried his ex-fiancee just outside the Haven.
When Genesis had allowed them to remake the universe, it had seemed wrong to destroy Hannah’s grave.
Deirdre Tombs had come to stand in the doorway while they were talking to Abel. She didn’t seem to care that the Elder Wolf was awake, and she leaned against the frame with her arms folded under her breasts. “You’ll never get to the Haven without getting killed, Godslayer.”
“Want to bet?” Elise asked.
“Look, I’ve got control of the OPA back from Nash. I rescinded authorizations just in case. But he’s still an angel, and he’s got lackeys. Gods only know how much trouble he’s grown in the Haven. Probably an army. And his wife is a hacker; Nash probably has tools to take charge of any vehicle you try to use even if he doesn’t have OPA authorization. Once you set foot out of Northgate, he’ll kill you.”
Abel coughed. It took James a moment to realize he was laughing. “Deirdre. Such a fucking optimist.”
“I’m not paid to see the brighter side of things,” she said.
“You’re not paid at all, bitch.”
“Fuck you, you ugly old prick.”
Henry’s hackles lifted and a growl rumbled in his chest. He didn’t seem to see what James saw: distinct but grudging admiration between Alphas past and present. Abel had always been like that, insulting the people he liked.
No matter how violently Deirdre had taken her role, it hadn’t been done violently.
“She’s right, though,” Abel said. “All these modern cars are shit. You’re fucked if you get in one of those.” He waved weakly at the bedside table. “In there.”
James looked into the drawer. There was a small leather bag of keepsakes inside—the kind of thing an old man might have put together so that he could have his favorite knickknacks with him even if he was abruptly taken to the hospital, as he had been now.
There was a phone charger in there, a very old flash drive, a necklace with a werewolf’s fang hanging from the end.
And a key to a Chevy.
“Take my car,” Abel said. “Be good to her.”
James’s eyebrows lifted. “Your 1960s Chevelle still works?”
“Better than any shitty car on the road now,” he said. “And Elise?” He was getting quiet enough that she had to bend over him to listen to what he said. Abel’s lips moved. He said something that made Elise nod, though James couldn’t hear it.
“Thanks,” Elise said. She grabbed James by the arm. “Let’s go. Henry?”
“He should stay,” James said.
Indeed, the cougar shifter was sitting on the edge of Abel’s bed, and he didn’t look inclined to move. Though he was watching Elise with a look of mingled worry and annoyance.
“I can help,” he said.
“No, you can’t,” Elise said. “You’re useless to me now. A liability.” The words were so harsh, but the sentiment was not. Her fingers were tight on James’s.
She saw the same thing that he did.
A son who needed to be with his father.
“Make sure she’s okay,” Abel said, and James wasn’t certain if he was asking after Summer or Victoria.
“We will,” Elise said. “And you know what happens if she isn’t.”
Elise nodded back.
That was the closest thing to a goodbye they ever said to each other.
Elise didn’t immediately take the Chevy Chevelle when they reached the shapeshifter sanctuary, even though it was parked in a position of honor, easily found and in obviously perfect condition. Its glittering blue paint with stripes up the hood seemed to have been touched up recently. Its tires were new, but era-appropriate for the vehicle. And the hood was propped open to display its original mechanical parts with pride.
She walked right past it and started jogging up the trail to the waterfall.
“Where are you going?” James asked, speeding to follow her. “What did Abel say to you?”
“He told me where to look,” she said.
Elise was tireless heading up the near-vertical trail. James felt a strange fracture in time racing a few feet behind her, watching her braid swinging rhythmically at her back. The forest surrounding them was familiar, even if the sanctuary at the bottom of the valley had grown too much to be anything but strange, and this situation was all the more familiar still.
How many times had they moved through the wilderness together like this? How often had James slogged up steep hills following that braid of hers, always just behind Elise, hoping to catch her even when she seemed more like a rage-filled elemental spirit than a human?
The adrenaline singing in his blood warned him of the fight to come.
His pounding heart was so familiar.
And when Elise broke through into sunlight, bathed in a golden glow that bronzed skin stretched tight over her muscles, he felt as though he were young again. Human again. He was a man once more.
She walked over to the place that the river crested over the cliff’s edge. She kicked off her shoes and waded into the turbulent waters.
Elise thrust an arm between the rocks, eyes turned to the sky as her fingers fumbled for something she could not see.
“Elise?” he asked again.
Her shoulders went taut. She had found something.
She straightened, water dripping from her arm, plastering her pants to her legs, the bottom of her braid dipped in the waters. Mist rose from where the water smashed against rocks. It made her flesh shimmer almost as though she were a demon again. She stood in the swirling calm of the river trapped between rocks and dredged a sword from the depths.
It was a black blade—glossy obsidian carved into a sword with a single sharpened edge. It was slightly curved. The hilt had once been wrapped in leather, but now she clutched bare, textured stone in her fist as comfortably as though it were an extension of her body.
Abel had saved one of Elise’s swords for her.
The Infernal Blade.
“He intends for you to kill Nash, doesn’t he?” James asked.
“Among others,” Elise said.
And James realized then, in that moment, that this would likely be his avatar’s final day on Earth.