The Second Coming

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Previous: Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Henry had not gone home to nap. He was waiting in the parking lot of Our Mother of Sorrows Cemetery, leaning against the trunk, when Elise returned. He was white-knuckling his cell phone. Probably had enjoyed another call with Abel.

Elise didn’t ask why his itinerary had changed. She said, “Take me to Sun Valley Boulevard,” and then she put Victoria in the carseat.

Henry got behind the wheel.

He drove.

It was not far from the cemetery in north Reno to its northern neighbor, but traffic made it slow; the space between had been completely developed with towering apartments that overlooked the shining greenbelt downtown. The roads were under construction—hopefully to relieve future congestion—but it forced them to inch through a single lane with a lot of impatient drivers.

Elise watched the unfamiliar cityscape outside the window. Victoria hadn’t made a peep since running into the Traveler, and for the moment, in the peace that came before picking a deadly fight, Elise felt calm.

Magic hummed in the air north of Reno. Sizzling heat grew moist and the light grew gray when they crossed Clear Acre Boulevard—a horizontal line demarcating Reno from Sun Valley—and mist clung to the street.

“Weather witches,” Henry muttered. “They’ve been granted permits to modify the conditions in Sun Valley. It’s not safe, and it means the residents here are under perpetual storms, but they’ve got the permits.”

It wasn’t storming now. It just felt like a storm was on its way.

Elise wondered if the Traveler was watching her now.

She rubbed her arms when the hair stood on end, and it occurred to Elise how strange this was—this reaction to magic. She had not bonded as tightly to James in this life as the last, so she shouldn’t have been sensitive to the presence of magic at all.

So it wasn’t magic.

She slid to the right in her chair, looking through the side mirror. There was a jagged line of headlights behind them that reflected against the drizzling rain in white slashes.

Elise didn’t see anything that shouldn’t have been there.

She rubbed her arms again.

They crossed onto Sun Valley Boulevard. Where once there had been pits of trailer homes enclosed in chainlink, there now stood ramshackle hotel towers that looked at least fifteen years old. Signs advertised magic-proof plumbing and access to HBO. There were car washes beyond that, jammed within multi-tiered parking garages, and then mechanics on the other side of those. A wasteland of space for cars.

“The nearest OPA shelter,” she said.

Henry said, “Okay.” He pointed around at the garages. “Those are owned by the ride-share companies Ultra and Zyp. All their autonomous cars sleep there to avoid Reno city taxes.”

“Magical cars that move on their own?”

He gave her a strange look. “If software and cameras are magic.”

Elise realized this was some kind of information she should have possessed. Much had changed in the last century, and she felt oblivious to all of it. Surely Danäe McCollum would have been transported by autonomous cars if they were so common. But as Elise grew closer to herself—her true spirit—she lost more connections to her avatar.

What she lost in current memory was gained in the senses of a hunter.

She was on a safari through the futurescape of Sun Valley, bracketed on either side by ads for by-the-week motels, strip clubs, and loan payment centers. As the car slipped between the creepers, Elise grew nearer her quarry.

But she wasn’t the only hunter in the jungle.

Elise twisted in her chair to look behind them.

“You’re twitching,” Henry said.

“That white van,” Elise said. “Do you recognize it?”

His eyes flicked to the rearview mirror. Then back to the road. “It’s been following us since we left Dat-So-La-Lee Condominiums.”

That was what Elise had suspected.

“You noticed earlier and didn’t tell me,” she said.

“I didn’t want to worry you,” Henry said. “I can lose them.”

“No.” Elise wanted to be found. She wanted another swarm of fiends, another shapeshifting demon assailant, another body placed in her path. She wanted to build an image of what was happening.

She wanted James.

The nearest OPA shelter was a big one. It was seated in an old public school that resembled a prison in aesthetic, and Henry informed Elise that each converted classroom could hold three families.

“There’s also the biggest safe house in Northern Nevada in the basement,” he said.

“Safe house?” Elise asked.

Henry itched the back of his neck. “For the full and new moons.”

“So shifters use them when they change.” Was that why he looked uncomfortable?

“Most do,” he said. “If you submit to the Alpha’s control she can stop you from changing on the moons. But Deirdre and I…” He trailed off. “I use magical means to prevent shifting on the moons.” Henry tapped his cufflinks.

He called both Abel and Deirdre by their first names.

“Stop the car here,” Elise said.

“We’re still being followed.”

“I know.”

“Suit yourself,” he said.

She looked at him again. The way he was dressed, the way he held himself. Henry hadn’t stopped with combat training. If she wasn’t wrong, he’d been given social training from such an early age that, even now, he held himself in a way that made him look attentive, smart, inviting. Political training.

“Who are you?” Elise asked.

“Henry Lee,” he said automatically, as if programmed. “I am a sanctuary representative and mountain lion shifter assigned to northwestern Nevada.”

“But who are you?”

Henry didn’t seem to understand the question.

“You fight and know what to do with babies,” Elise said. “Who are you?”

“Abel raised me,” he said. “I grew up at the sanctuary, went to the Academy, interned with the Alpha before he was the Elder Wolf.”

“How much of that internship involved care for shifter children?”

“A lot,” Henry said. “There are always too many children, particularly around the Wilders. I’d know about it. Trust me.”

He was one of Rylie’s tag-ons. Not a random assignation at all, but practically a family member of the Wilders. Abel had pushed Elise and Victoria at him because he was exactly the kind of person to fill in the gaps in Elise’s knowledge, while still providing security.

In a way, Henry was a gift from Rylie.

Elise set her jaw, swallowed down her anger. “I’m sorry.” She didn’t specify for what, because in their time together, she had already done a lot of things that she most likely should have apologized for. Rylie would have been sorry.

Henry had come from a shifter pack where love and contrition had been openly expressed, so this was not adequate for him. “I’m only putting up with your attitude at this point because I can’t imagine anyone leaving a baby with you.”

Any beginnings of contrition Elise had been attempting to stir vanished.

“I am her mother,” Elise said.

It was the first time she’d said that, wasn’t it?

But it was true.

This was a baby she’d produced for James, but Victoria was also hers.

More hers than James’s at this point.

“You can’t take your baby looking for a fight,” Henry said.

“Watch me,” Elise said.

She got out of the car. Now she didn’t need help to get the baby on her back; within a matter of days, Victoria’s neck strength had advanced to the point that it was easy to slide her over Elise’s shoulder and tie the two of them together.

Henry opened the trunk.

There were guns and body armor inside. He had gone back to the condo, but only to arm himself.

Elise lifted the body armor to look at it. She had vague memories of wearing ballistic vests a couple of times in her last life. It would not fit over both Elise and Victoria, so she put it back.

Henry didn’t speak as she looked through the guns, lifting them to examine the unfamiliar names of manufacturers, checking the magazines for ammunition.

It was beginning to rain. Victoria was sleeping.

“I want swords,” Elise said.

“I didn’t bring swords,” he said.

But Henry had brought an assault rifle with a bayonet.

A bayonet.

Elise unscrewed it and stepped back.

“Get rid of the jacket,” she told Henry.

“What? Why…?”

She had no patience for explanations. Elise yanked his jacket off, and then his suit shirt; Henry seemed too busy gaping at her to complain. She shook a hand through his hair and stomped on his feet to scuff them with mud.

Henry reached in to grab a gun.

Elise shut the trunk first.

“Follow me,” she said, sliding the bayonet into her sleeve.

The lobby of this shelter was identical to the one in Seattle. All signs were black with bold white lettering, the seating was sterile with thin cushions, and the floor was laminate.

A pair of unamused men sat behind the check-in desk.

“Have you been here before?” asked the one on the left. He was looking at Elise, not Henry, who had been rumpled enough to look like he might have wandered in from the street.

“I’ve been at another shelter,” Elise said.

“All three of you?”

“Yes,” she said. “I’m Elise Kavanagh. This baby is two weeks old and this is my husband.” She didn’t even hesitate to falsely identify Henry, even though saying the h-word made her feel angry and sick and in a punching type mood.

“Thumbprint,” said the man on the right.

Henry was giving Elise sideways looks, his jaw clenched. He didn’t like this. He was confused. He didn’t need to understand what was happening to fulfill his function.

Elise scanned her thumbprint.

The phone rang. A clerk answered.

Elise’s eyes unfocused as she redirected her attention to her hearing. It was not preternaturally acute but she didn’t need it to listen in on the conversation. There was very little conversation for her to attempt to follow.

“Eurydice,” said the voice on the other end.

Her heart wouldn’t beat, her lungs wouldn’t expand.

The clerk set the hand piece down without responding. He hit a couple of keys on the keyboard.

“We’ll get your room ready,” he said. “We’ve got an empty one right now. Wait here.”

“Wait here,” repeated the clerk’s companion, even more forcefully.

“I’m going nowhere.” Elise let the full weight of her eyes bore into them. “I will be waiting.”

The door swung shut behind the men when they left—practically at a run—and then it beeped as it locked.

“This shelter is always full,” Henry said.

“Yes,” Elise said.

She circled the room, looking through the windows at communal areas on the locked side of things. They were near the cafeteria. A tired looking family sat nearest to her, and a happy laughing family occupied a table against the opposite wall. The happy ones had yellow eyes. Shifters.

“You gave them your real name,” Henry said.

“Yes,” she said again.

They waited several minutes, alone in the room. Elise noted that nobody came in from the dining room and that nobody passed through the entrance. All doors remained locked.

Elise and Henry were waiting for someone to arrive.

“What’s taking so long?” Henry asked.

“Watch this,” Elise said.

She went for the front door and grabbed the handle as if about to leave.

A woman entered from the other side of the room. She looked unmistakably nervous: sweating, eyes darting, face flushed. Had Elise possessed supernatural hearing she was confident that she’d have heard the woman’s heart pounding too.

She must have been watching them on the cameras.

“Thanks for your patience, and welcome to the Sun Valley shelter,” she said. “I’ll show you to your room.”

She walked behind Elise and Henry, which Elise would not have permitted from someone more intimidating. But this woman was not quiet, she was not subtle. She walked noisily on shoes with squeaking soles and her jangling necklaces sounded like keys.

“I’m Melinda,” she said, “and I’m the director of the shelter.”

“Does the director often check in new residents?” Henry asked. He didn’t sound nervous. Either he didn’t realize that threat levels were rising or he was comfortable with it.

“Sometimes, when I’m available.” And when she was checking a Godslayer reborn into her sanctuary.

Elise glanced over her shoulder, taking a mental photograph of Melinda’s face in a heartbeat before returning her attention to the narrow hallway ahead. Elise’s eyes remained fixed on the white cinderblock walls as she processed what she’d seen.

Melinda was an older woman with faint stress lines at the corners of her eyes—too faint for a woman her age. The white streaks in her hair were dyed. Elise could tell this because of the millimeter of darker hair at the roots. And she was wearing contact lenses that made her look brown eyed.

This woman was an angel, or a descendant of one.

“This is your room,” she said, taking them to the end of the hall.

Despite Henry’s claim that the rooms were occupied by multiple families, they were alone in the repurposed classroom. Everything appeared to be of the same make as the Seattle shelter even though it had been crammed into a single space. There were twelve cots, two sets of dressers, one bathroom, and a kitchenette.

“There’s a public canteen in the west hall,” Melinda said.

Henry followed Elise to the other side of the room, pretending to look interested in their accommodations. “How long are we keeping this up?” he asked under his breath.

Elise let her fingers trail across the appliances in the kitchenette. There were no knives. She still had a stiletto, but she preferred to save its deadly potential.

“Not much longer,” she said. “The assassins Melinda notified will get here soon.” They could have met the assassins in the lobby, but this was a much preferable point for defense, as it had a single easy entrance at the end of a narrow hallway.

Henry’s mouth dropped open. “Assassins?”

Elise yanked the toaster out of the wall and hurled it.

Half-angel or not, Melinda wasn’t prepared. She took the metal box to the face and fell.

Silver blood dripped from her temple.

Elise was on her moments later, and the suddenness of her movement woke Victoria where nothing else had not. She drove her fists repeatedly into Melinda’s face while her infant shrieked.

Melinda tried to fight back, but Henry caught up moments later. He pinned the woman’s hands down. Now he exhibited signs of distress—it gushed from his pours.

“Gods,” he breathed.

“Someone’s selling infernal artifacts in Reno,” Elise said, fisting Melinda’s collar. “I want the source.”

Melinda cried.

Elise punched her again, but that made the crying worse.

It had not become less irritating to interrogate someone so fragile. Elise preferred her enemies tough. She’d never enjoyed the kind of tortures her father Isaac taught her—a thought that brought his corpse vividly to the forefront of memory—but it was easier to shove pins up someone’s nose than it was to make them comfortable with speaking.

She had misjudged Melinda and now all she had was a sobbing wreck of a woman.

“Fuck me,” Elise grumbled, standing up. She rocked side to side to attempt to quiet Victoria.

Henry didn’t move, looking confused. “We should call the sanctuary.”

Abel would endorse whatever tactic Elise wanted to use. And right now, this was the tactic.

She peered through the reinforced windows. She could see the parking lot, and the van that had followed them there. No motion inside. They must have been coming around another way.

“Infernal artifacts,” Elise said again.

“You’re looking for him,” Melinda whispered.

She lifted a trembling hand.

On instinct, Elise knelt so that Melinda could touch her temple. “Wait,” Henry warned too late.

Fingertips brushed against skin.

Elise’s mind opened.

Melinda spilled into Elise, filling her thoughts as blood filled a slaughterhouse trough.

For an instant, Elise was in every part of Melinda’s life. She was in the moment that she had been carved from the womb of a witch through education at a private school of glittering glass, and the eventual moment of her rejection from ethereal culture—when she’d had an affair with a demon.

Then Melinda focused, and Elise did too.

They were inside a room so hot and damp that Elise couldn’t fill her lungs with oxygen. Within seconds, she felt as if she were suffocating. Within hours—because hours did pass while she stood there in the darkness—she felt close to death.

Something shuffled in the depths of the room.

Melinda and Elise, together, were in the room by the door and in the rear by the wall. It was Melinda’s hand that flicked a lighter to puncture the seamy darkness with faint flame. But it was Elise who cried out when she saw what was lit.

There was white bone against that wall—a structure like a doorway.

James Faulkner stood in the darkness on the other side of the doorway. It was truly him. Not his human avatar, the Daniel Hawker that she’d married, but the god. The angel. The white-haired, white-eyed, smooth-faced creature who looked to be cut from pure marble.

He held a piece of obsidian in one hand. There was diamond in the other.

“I found it,” he said, and that was him. That was his voice. “The last piece.”

And then Elise was shoved out of Melinda’s mind.

She fell back into her mortal form against the wall of the classroom. It took only a heartbeat to realize she’d bumped Victoria against a bookshelf, since the baby began screaming even louder.

“What just happened?” Henry asked.

Elise was frozen in a moment of total shock.

James. Melinda had seen him.

The memory had been too vivid to be artificial, wasn’t it? She’d smelled his scent on the heavy air—the faintly burned odor of ancient libraries tumbling under invasion, the sweat in his hair. She’d been able to see the very texture of his shirt and could see how carefully he’d rolled the sleeves to his elbows.

White hair, white eyes.

Not Daniel, but James.

An enemy.

But the Traveler had said to trust him.

“Where was that?” Elise asked, towering over Melinda. Victoria squalled. “Where did you see him?”

Which was when the gunfire started.

It punched into the classroom’s windows. They were reinforced, so the bullets didn’t immediately penetrate; there were entire seconds for Elise to dive behind a couch with Victoria. Henry took position behind another couch.

Glass shattered and bullet holes opened in the opposite wall.

Melinda scrambled onto her hands, crawling through the door as she dripped blood.

“No!” Elise roared.

She would have followed if Henry hadn’t hissed, “Stay down!”

Elise could probably take a few bullets without dying, even in this form, but Victoria likely could not.

She punched the back of the couch so hard that she cracked a board. “Fuck!”

“And you didn’t let me bring a gun,” Henry said.

“I don’t need you to shoot,” Elise said, mind spinning. “Get on the clerk’s computer and download lists of who’s checked in here in the last month.”

“The computer,” he echoed. It was all the way in the lobby. There were probably forces entering that way too, and Henry would need protection.

“Yes,” Elise said.

She moved swiftly to give Henry cover.

Elise was slower than she used to be, but still fast enough to knock a table over and get behind it while the shooter changed magazines. Her arm was strong and precise enough to hurl the bayonet through the window. And her judgment was good enough for the bayonet’s point to embed in the shooter’s throat, though she was guessing his position based on sound alone.

No, wait—it was not a he, but a she. A female demon staggered on the other side of the window and dropped her gun so that she could clutch at her bleeding throat.

It was a short wiry demon who wore human clothes. Its skin was shriveled, its hair stringy. It was the same species that had attacked Elise in the hospital. A nyctimus, if she recalled correctly.

A bayonet in the throat wouldn’t take it down.

Yet that was not the worst of it. Because if James was behind this strange plot—trying to kill Elise, trading in artifacts—then he was responsible for both of the nyctimus demons.

Henry took the chance to run, and Elise was tempted momentarily not to follow him.

She wanted to skin the nyctimus. See if its marks matched the first one. Verify or banish the worst of her worries.

But Victoria was still screaming—a desperate, endless scream that said her underdeveloped ears weren’t enjoying gunfire—and Elise needed to move.

She could hear the nyctimus climbing through the window by the time she hit the hallway; she heard screaming from the direction of the kitchen by the time she reached the lobby. Henry had dragged the computer behind the workstation for cover from fiends that were entering through the front door. They’d ripped it off its hinges.

There were too many. Elise had thrown the bayonet and no longer had that weapon.

But the nyctimus was on her tail, gun reloaded, lifting it to fire.

Six feet between Elise and the nyctimus.

Ten feet between herself and the frontmost fiend.

The demon raised its firearm.

She leaped, angling her body so that her back would be furthest from the line of fire, just in case she misjudged the distance. And a good thing she did. The demon fired and a bullet burned a scorching line across her pectorals.

It didn’t get a chance to fire again.

Elise closed a gloved hand around the hot barrel. There would be blisters later, perhaps skin peeling off. For now she managed to remove the gun from the nyctimus’s grip.

She was lightning bringing it to bear on the demon. Elise opened up, finger squeezing, mouth open in a roar she couldn’t hear.

The nyctimus bled as a demon should. It scorched the linoleum.

But her distraction left her open to attack from the fiends.

Elise was taken down. Slipped in nyctimus blood. She managed to hit her knees—not her back, not again—and scrambled as well as she could.

She’d have been mauled if not for the intervention.

An intervention which didn’t come from Henry.

Orange streaked across her vision and the weight against her legs was gone. One moment Elise was trying to mentally calculate how to mitigate the damage she was about to absorb; the next she was sprawled beside a beast that could enclose a fiend’s entire head in its jaws.

The happy, laughing family within the dining room had turned to animals and joined the fray. They were tigers like Hailey. Strange to see oversized predatory cats with the golden eyes characteristic of shifters. Strange to see how much more enormous the tigers were than any mundane animal, too.

The fiends didn’t stand a chance.

It was instant chaos. Through the flashing bodies, the leathery skin, the splatters of blood, Elise saw the nyctimus writhing. Still alive. Of course it was—they were perfect assassins, and it would survive until she destroyed the brain.

Was Victoria still crying?

Elise couldn’t hear her.

“I’ve got it!” Henry waved a hand over the desk, pointing at the computer. He’d gotten the records.

She swept low to dodge a fiend’s strike, blasting it with a chest full of lead. She skidded on the linoleum to grab Henry by the collar. She hauled him out the emergency exit as tigers growled, alarms screamed, and fiends choked on blood.

Elise didn’t stop running until they reached the car parked back on the road. She ripped Victoria out of the sling, jumped into the passenger seat.

Henry took off. The momentum slammed her door shut.

“Victoria?” Elise asked.

The baby was awake and silent, staring with blank gray eyes at absolutely nothing.

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