James Faulkner stood over an empty bassinet, looking into the depths of the coiled blanket that had once been wrapped around a baby, and he felt…
He wasn’t sure what he felt.
Elise was talking to the cougar shifter against the window, disinterested in James’s thoughts. She was unsurprised by their findings. She seemed to blame James for it all. And she was right, she was always right about James…though his responsibility was less direct than usual for this one.
His fingers coiled around the blanket. He raised it to his face.
The smell was similar to Elise’s, in a way. It reminded him of the way the sweat-moistened hair at the back of her neck had smelled on the hottest summer nights. It smelled like milk, too. Sour milk.
It was a cheap blanket made of stiff cotton, rough against his face.
He closed his eyes and tried to imagine what kind of infant would have been swaddled within it. When he tried to envision the baby, he saw…nothing. The same nothing that he’d seen for the duration of Elise’s pregnancy, and during the time they’d been attempting to conceive.
James couldn’t imagine what their child would look like.
She wasn’t here.
He was sitting on the couch but didn’t remember his knees giving out. In truth, there wasn’t much that James remembered anymore. He had spent so long with his arms chained above his head and his back against a shattered mirror that he’d started losing grip on everything.
But he’d never been able to visualize the baby.
She had been taken and he hadn’t been there to stop it. Elise had been searching for him instead.
James’s chest ached so hard that he felt like he might die. He was going numb. Light-headed. And the more that he hurt, the clearer his mind became.
Finally, he remembered.
One hundred forty-eight years earlier.
James Faulkner woke up from a dream crying. He didn’t remember the dream—only the fear. His heart pounded and his whole body trembled. The fear didn’t abate as he woke; instead he kept crying harder and louder until it felt like he was caught in a fever.
No matter how loudly he cried, nobody came into the room. His bedroom was situated on the opposite end of the house from his parents’, over near the greenhouse, the conservatory, and the crystalarium. This would be James’s practice space as he came into his powers of witchcraft, his parents said, and to fully develop his abilities, he needed to be immersed in the constant power.
He was still wailing when he staggered out of the room. He found his way past the piano, through the many shelves, and up the spiraling stairs to the master suite, where James was met by a locked door.
Only once he pounded his fists on the door for a few minutes did a bleary-eyed adult crack it open.
“Daddy,” he said, “I had a bad dream.”
“Why did you come here?” asked his father. “We’ve everything you need to cleanse your mind in the crystalarium. The dreamcatchers, the ash—”
“I want you.” James held his hands up. He was tall for a six year old, but nowhere near as tall as his father, and he felt especially small with the weight of the panic still upon him.
His dad eased out of the door, glancing over his shoulder as if afraid of being caught by his wife. He sank to his knees in front of James. But when the boy tried to hug him, he only held James at arm’s reach, hands firmly on his shoulders.
“Stop crying,” he said. “Men don’t cry.”
James stopped crying.
“When you have nightmares, you need to battle them as a witch befitting your station will,” his father went on. “We showed you how to cast circles three weeks ago. You can’t have already forgotten.”
James hadn’t. He hadn’t been casting his own circles for very long, but his memory was nearly perfect.
“Why didn’t you do that?” his dad asked.
But James had already told him. He wanted his daddy. He wanted the man with the sideburns who smelled like pine trees and mossy riverbeds—a man who never cried, who was so impossibly big and tall and huge, who taught James so many fascinating things. He wanted to be held and hugged.
Even with his father holding him at a distance, James felt safer than not being held at all.
“Will you show me how to cast the circle again?” James asked.
His dad let out a breath and ran a hand through his hair. “It’s three in the morning.”
“I want to learn,” James said.
That was the request that always got him attention. He wanted to learn. It would snap his mother away from cooking, make his Aunt Pamela rush to his side, and get the whole coven watching him attentively.
It was what got his dad standing, holding James’s hand, and guiding him back down the stairs.
“A quick circle, but you’re casting it, and then you’re going back to bed,” his dad said.
James cast the cleansing spell perfectly, as he always did, and his dad walked him back to bed. He didn’t get hugged, not once, and he still felt very afraid when he was left in his lightless bedroom, cleansing spell or no. It was not magic that had burdened his mind and wiping the magic away wouldn’t unburden it.
But in the darkness, where James couldn’t sleep, he didn’t cry. Not again.
One hundred forty-two years earlier.
James Faulkner, a leggy and quiet man-child of twelve years old, was sitting on a bed beside a very pregnant woman. She was not the first pregnant woman he’d ever seen; after all, a big coven that lived so close to one another meant that James had many surrogate cousins, nieces, and nephews.
This particular pregnancy was strange because the woman in question was sixteen years old. Her name was Ariane Kavanagh, and she had been chosen to have that pregnancy.
Rumor had it that Landon, the coven’s high priest—not James’s father, who James only saw a couple of times a year—was thrilled that Ariane had fallen pregnant. It was planned. She was a tool and so was her child.
All children were tools of the coven, in a way.
“Tell me what I can do to help you,” James said, holding Ariane Kavanagh’s hand. She was an adept raised alongside him and that meant that she was, in a way, his responsibility. The coven leadership had made it clear that he was destined to become high priest, so the coven and its people would soon belong to him.
“You are very sweet,” Ariane said. She patted his cheek. “Do you know what you can do to help?”
“What?” he asked.
He imagined the answer would be magical in nature. Though he hadn’t learned any midwifery spells, he was aware that many existed; his Aunt Pamela was skilled at such magic and would teach him upon request.
Since Ariane was a witch, it was likely her child would be born a witch too. Pamela had told James many stories of the spells that had been cast upon him in the womb to ensure he developed fully as a witch, even before he began sleeping atop a crystalarium.
It would be an honor, and a fascinating new adventure, to assist Ariane as the midwife witches did. He could begin fostering a fetus to join the coven for the first time. James could weigh the strength of his power against the strength of the baby’s upon birth to see how much he had influenced its development.
Yet what Ariane Kavanagh said was, “Never, ever go anywhere near my daughter.”
She did not want him for his magic. She did not want the coven’s magic placed upon her offspring.
James was not certain how to respond.
If a child was not meant to serve the coven, then what was it for?
One hundred twenty-seven years earlier.
James Faulkner was having dinner with his fiancee, Hannah Pritchard, and it was a deeply uncomfortable experience. Considering how long it had been since they began dating, and how many near-identical dinners they’d shared, it should have been tedious at worst. Quietude was to be expected as well.
The tension wasn’t normal.
He was bouncing his foot under the table, knee jiggling, fork rapping against his plate.
Hannah was looking at his fork as though she wanted to rip it out of his hand and use it to stab him in the eyeball.
“Well?” James asked.
Her lips pressed into a thin line. “Well what?”
“You said you wanted to talk, so talk,” he said. He’d been dreading this “talk” ever since Hannah left him that message earlier.
It had been a conspicuously vague message. Hannah had become increasingly curt since he’d had the audacity to vanish for weeks on what he could only describe as “coven business,” but this had been brief, even for her. She’d told him that they needed a Talk, capital T, and then hung up.
James had listened to that message roughly thirty minutes after discovering his Aunt Pamela dead in her office.
“Well what?” she mimicked in a half-snarl. “Is that how you want to start this conversation, James? Really? Ordering me to talk to you?”
He spread his hands wide in a frustrated gesture. “Should I sit in silence while I wait for you to get to the point?”
“You should ask me how my day’s been,” Hannah said. “You should care about how I feel, and what I’m doing.”
Pamela felt nothing. She was doing nothing. She had been murdered by an angel for the sin of refusing to make a human sacrifice to him, and now her body was most likely being dragged away by coven members.
Would she be buried the way that honored witches were, or would she be discarded?
The angel Metaraon owned their coven. Pamela had defied him.
She had sinned.
She was dead.
And Hannah wanted to talk.
James had been sick enough of Hannah’s resistance to the coven’s ways before this. Before the fissure between them.
Hannah had never respected how much they owed the coven.
All the money that was given to them. The property. The dynasty.
He’d thought that their passionate, youthful love could overcome Hannah’s disinterest, but he hadn’t felt that passionate love in too long. It had dulled in his mind and heart and flaked away into ash as the two of them had grown up and grown apart.
James had brought home dinner instead of cooking it for once. A rotisserie chicken, some potatoes. It was cooling at the center of the table between them. He had no appetite. “If this talk is about the coven…”
“No,” Hannah said. “It’s not about the coven directly. It’s going to end up involving the coven though.”
“I’m not talking about them,” James said. “I thought we agreed on that.”
“I told you, it’s not about the coven!”
She was the first of them to start yelling that night.
James was the first to get physical.
He slammed his fists into the table so hard that the dishes jumped and Hannah jerked back in her chair. She might have fallen if she hadn’t flung out a hand to grab the wall.
Hannah’s other hand went to her stomach, pressing to her navel.
A gesture that James had not noticed at the time.
Perhaps he didn’t really remember it. Perhaps he was inserting it into the memory.
He surged to his feet. “They own me, Hannah.”
She glared up at him with red-rimmed eyes. “They didn’t have to own you. That was your choice. I’ve always told you—”
“They own me,” he said, clutching his heart with both hands.
Why couldn’t Hannah see how the coven had changed him? His eyes hadn’t been blue before he vanished on coven business. He hadn’t had such pristine alabaster skin. He hadn’t been this graceful—and that was after decades of ballet training.
The angel Metaraon had killed James and resurrected him as an angel.
Hannah refused to see it.
If the coven hadn’t owned James before, they did now. They had remade him from scratch just to make sure that they owned all of his component pieces.
She stood up slowly, her chin trembling. “I wanted to talk to you about us, James. About the wedding, and setting a date.”
“You’ve got piss poor timing,” he said. “The wedding is the last thing I care about.”
Hannah flinched. “You don’t still want to marry me? Start a family?”
“We never wanted to start a family. We never wanted children.” Dinner was officially cold. James yanked it off the table, shoved it into their refrigerator, slammed the door shut. “Do you think that something has changed there?”
Was Hannah cradling her stomach back then?
Did he imagine that too?
“I guess you have changed more than I realized,” Hannah said, her voice gone empty. “But in some ways, you’ll never change. Will you?”
“You’re the one who said that babies would ruin your career,” James said.
“When I danced,” she said. She’d been a paralegal longer than a professional dancer at this point.
“And now you think I’ll support you so you can chase your biological clock? I expect you’ll want that to happen without the coven’s assistance even though everything we have, everything we are, is thanks to the coven.” A gift and a curse.
“Fuck you, James,” Hannah said. “You made this into a fight. You did! Not me!”
He couldn’t even see her face. He could only see Pamela’s motionless legs on the floor beyond her desk, and the statuesque figure of the angel who had just strangled her to death.
“It was going to end up a fight anyway,” James said. “I came here to tell you I’m leaving.”
She flinched again. Harder. “Leaving?”
“Coven business.” He had to rip the words out of his heart, dig deep to pull them free.
Just like the coven business that had led him to be turned into an angel.
Except now—now!—he was going to have to chase down Ariane Kavanagh’s teenage daughter. He would have to find the girl that he’d promised he would avoid so long in the past, back when Ariane had been pregnant.
Ariane had wanted him to stay away.
He hadn’t understood why, but he’d said he would.
And now Metaraon had informed James that he needed to go find Elise Kavanagh, retrieve her, and surrender her unto God as a human sacrifice.
Never mind James’s plans, his life, the woman he’d intended to marry.
“How long will you be gone?” Hannah asked hoarsely.
“As long as it takes,” James said.
A tear slid down her cheek. She pushed the chair into the table, yanked her hair back to the nape of her neck, tied it into a bun so tight that it made her eyebrows pull at the corners. Hannah looked like the prima ballerina she used to be, like that.
“If you leave now,” she said, “don’t come back.”
James didn’t expect the words to hurt so much. He’d left Hannah behind weeks ago, months ago… Perhaps he’d left her behind from the moment they’d met.
After all, the coven had always owned him, and the coven said that Hannah was not in his future.
But Elise Kavanagh was.
“Good talk,” James snapped.
Those were the last words that he told her before he left.
Nobody told James why Hannah had wanted to talk that night, even though the entire coven was soon to know the truth of it.
That part of James Faulkner’s story was one he’d only been able to piece together years later.
On the same day that Elise Kavanagh had escaped Metaraon—on the same day that Pamela Faulkner had been murdered—Hannah Pritchard had realized that she was experiencing strange yet totally explicable symptoms. How she diagnosed the pregnancy, James would never know. He hadn’t been with her when she used a pregnancy test, as he had when Danäe McCollum realized she was pregnant with Daniel Hawker’s baby.
One of a million moments he regretted missing.
He hadn’t been there to lift Hannah’s feet onto pillows when her ankles became swollen.
He hadn’t rubbed her back as she vomited her way through the first trimester.
He hadn’t gotten to watch her body change and know it was something he’d done to her.
In truth, James wouldn’t have enjoyed those moments with Hannah anyway. He couldn’t have stayed even if he’d known she’d been pregnant. And their relationship had been long since caustic and miserable.
He never really regretted missing it for Hannah.
He regretted missing it for Nathaniel Pritchard. The boy who resulted from it. A boy who James only met once he was already barreling head-first into adolescence, riddled with resentment for the father he had never known.
When James had woken in the night, crying because of dreams, he’d been able to knock on his father’s door to be put back to bed, one way or another.
Nathaniel had never even had a dismissive father to look up to.
James could have done so much better.
He should have done so much better.
But he hadn’t.
Life was not kind to men like James, and second chances could not be clawed out of the desperation of regret. He could not leap back in time to rock a fussing baby with Hannah’s eyes and James’s hair to sleep, nor could he choose to invite Nathaniel into his room to be held when the nightmares woke him.
But James was not a man at all. He was a god. Second chances, third chances, infinite chances…
Damn it, he was going to get it right the second time around.
One hundred nine years earlier.
James and Elise sat together in nothingness, inside the Genesis warp, and outside of their bodies. Clouds formed into galaxies. Stars scattered across a pond lit by the Cauldron—a Pit of Souls. They looked over its edge as they made a thousand-million decisions about the lives that would result from the Cauldron’s reversal and rebirth of all the souls it had consumed.
In truth, all decisions belonged to Elise. She was the first god to have entered the Origin. She held control.
But James had persistence.
“No,” Elise said the first time he asked. “Never.”
She also said it the second time, and the third.
They spent an infinity in that instant. James didn’t need to ask Elise again to change her mind. He only needed to wait, because it was a decision that ultimately fell upon her shoulders.
Can we make a baby? One that belongs just to the two of us?
They circled around those thoughts the way that souls circled around death, rebirth, life.
After a long time—after no time at all—Elise said, “Okay. We can do it.”
And that was that.
Two months earlier.
The night after James fixed the air conditioning and been assaulted by his grateful pregnant wife, he had not been able to sleep.
Usually Elise had been the sleepless one. Pregnancy was not gentle to her avatar. She was relentlessly sore, bloated, and cross. James had woken up most nights multiple times to find that Elise had beaten him to consciousness, and was busily beating a punching bag with her wrapped fists.
But that night, she slept.
She slumbered deeply in the bed they shared. It was nothing special—a cheap mattress on the floor of a room with big windows looking out at the pasture. The only proper furniture they’d bothered buying was in service of fitness or in service of the baby to come.
James had lingered over her, tucking sweaty curls behind her ear, tracing the path of the freckles over her cheekbones. She didn’t appreciate his sentimental, loving touches when she was awake.
He’d looked down at her, peaceful in sleep, and wondered what their baby would look like again.
James couldn’t envision it. He was going to have to wait and see.
Then he heard the thump.
He’d gone to the front door and found the note nailed to the frame.
A son needs a father.
There had been a photograph stapled to the paper. It was a picture of Nathaniel Pritchard when he’d been a mortal boy, a child, with enormous eyes and a perpetually worried expression adding years to his doll-like proportions. It was some kind of class photo. James had never seen it.
Nobody should have been able to associate Nathaniel Pritchard with Daniel Hawker.
For an instant, James wondered if this was something Nathaniel had done himself. After all, the boy had grown into a god himself; he’d had his powers stripped away, but there was no telling what Nathaniel might have done in his time of omnipotence.
Perhaps his son wanted to reconnect.
The thought was so distracting that James let his guard down.
He didn’t hear the sweep of wings until it was too late.
He didn’t hear the scrape of claws against dirt until there was already a rope around his throat.
And he didn’t get a chance to yell before he was yanked into the air, hauled away from Elise, and knocked unconscious by a single blow.
“Did they kill her?” Elise asked.
The words snapped James out of his reverie. He came crawling back through time, through the white light of Genesis that had pinched him into an infinite point for a finite amount of time, into present day.
He was sitting at the top of Dat So La Lee Condominiums next to an empty bassinet, holding a blanket sagging between his hands that smelled of rotten milk and Elise’s sweat.
Did they kill her? The question was targeted at the cougar shifter, no longer a big cat but a man attractive enough that James felt a surge of heat at the way that Elise was helping him sit upright.
The babysitter shook his head. “No, but…Elise…”
“What?” she asked. Her tone was dead, so dead. Elise was so angry.
“Nash Adamson took Victoria.”
Elise stood slowly. Muscles rippled under her skin, not quite as stocky as she had once been, but well-built nonetheless. There was fire deep in the shards of her almost-green eyes. Her jaw was clenched. Her shoulders tight.
She rippled with familiar rage. It was that rage that had made James fall in love with her as a person—an elemental force that Elise somehow bridled and rode bareback.
Her eyes turned to the windows, to the clouds beyond. Light fell upon the jagged lines of her face. The arch in the bridge of her nose so much like that of a bird of prey. Her strong chin. Her angry brow.
In her face, James saw their daughter.
He could imagine the baby now. He could imagine that she would have strong features, a strong heart produced by her mother’s strong muscles, and that she would be fierce and beautiful and deeply beloved.
And he felt the same anger that Elise did.
When he went to Elise’s side, she was the one who clutched at his hand, fingernails digging into his wrist.
“Nashriel,” she said quietly.
In that moment, James could see more than their baby.
He could see the way that the angel would die.