Elise entered the dance hall slowly, sliding along the edge of the room, careful not to let the door out of her sight. James’s avatar looked bad, but that meant nothing. The appearance of an avatar was unreflective of the god’s condition. And she had no way of knowing what else might be around.
James kept trying to lift his head to see her. His dry lips moved, but the only sound that came out was a croak that echoed through the silence of Motion and Dance.
If she felt especially creative, she could imagine that he was trying to say her name.
She lowered to his side, blade in hand.
“James,” Elise said quietly.
He couldn’t look at her, so she put a hand under his chin, lifting his face. Daniel Hawker looked very much like James Faulkner. He was too vain to think of ways to improve upon himself, so the only real difference was that he was younger than Elise had ever known him. His face was unlined underneath the grime. His skin was firm. The limbal ring around his irises was darker.
Had he been any older, she likely would have found him dead after his time being held captive. But this avatar was young and sturdy. Just like Elise’s avatar.
“Elise,” he said.
She glanced around the room. There was no motion except what the broken mirrors reflected her doing. Her senses didn’t register any threat, either. “You’re still an avatar.”
He didn’t reply. He couldn’t.
She rubbed her fingers through his hair to see if the black coloring was dyed or magicked, but it looked real. In Melinda’s memories, James had been white-haired and -eyed, in a godlier form. This body was barely alive.
Elise left him long enough to summon a cup of water out of the rusty pipes in the downstairs bathroom. She had to tip his head back in her hand, cradling it as she cradled Victoria’s, and spill the water over his mouth. He didn’t react much at first, but then his lips began moving, and his tongue.
His collar was soaked by the time he became coordinated enough to drink.
“Is it you?” James managed to ask.
She leaned him against the mirror again, wedged a knife in the first of his chains, and used it as a wedge to shatter the lock. He groaned when his arm came down.
“It’s you,” he said when she broke the second lock in the same way.
Elise rubbed circulation into his arms. “Yes.”
He cupped her face with both of his trembling hands, and she picked away some of the blood that prevented his other eye from opening. The eye itself was not damaged; there was a deep cut in his eyebrow that hadn’t been cleaned, so there was no harm to be done now in helping him open the eyelid.
“Where are the warlock artifacts?” she asked.
James’s hands fell to her shoulders. It was not an affectionate grip, but a steadying one. He would have fallen over if he weren’t putting his weight on her. “What artifacts?”
“The ones you’re selling.”
“I’ve been here the entire time.” His hands moved down her arms, to her elbows, and then to her hips. And her belly. It was still softer than it had ever been before the baby, but she no longer looked pregnant. “Rosalind?” he asked with a note of worry.
Elise frowned. “Victoria.”
Hope bloomed in his eyes. “She’s alive?”
“Yes,” she said.
“But we discussed names,” James said. “We picked Rosalind.”
“You picked Rosalind,” she said.
Until that moment—rehashing that familiar argument—Elise hadn’t been convinced that it was really James. It didn’t matter how real he felt, or how real he looked. There were monsters in this world that could look like anyone, and other monsters who could have convinced Elise she was seeing anything.
But it was really him, and he believed it was really her.
He bowed against her. His head pressed to her chest, his arms encircling her midsection. James was shaking. She was not. Her anger was resentful and quiet, and a little bit confused.
“You missed everything,” she said. “The birth. The assassination attempts. The running.”
“How long?” James asked.
“A few weeks.”
“Thank God,” he mumbled against her stomach. “I was afraid…it felt so long. Like Limbo again. I thought I wouldn’t get to see my child until she was already halfway to adulthood. Again.”
“It was long enough,” Elise said. She glanced at her face broken into a thousand pieces over his shoulder. When she saw herself now, she saw the resemblance between herself and Victoria. “Too long.”
Elise peeled James’s arms off of her. It wasn’t a time for hugging. Melinda could be tracked by facial recognition, so she could too; it wouldn’t be long before the nyctimus and friends were on her tail again. And James was even more useless than Henry at the moment. “Stand up.”
“I can’t,” he said after a moment’s consideration.
She trickled a little more water into his mouth, which he drank with pained grunting sounds. And then pulled his arm over her shoulders. Unfortunately they had chosen a height disparity identical to the one from their previous lives, meaning that he was nearly a foot taller, but Elise didn’t seem imbued with the same strength. She couldn’t lift him off of his feet. They had to settle for leaning on each other.
“What the fuck are you doing here?” Elise asked. “What happened?”
“I was taken, Elise,” James said. “You have to believe me.”
“Why should I?”
He didn’t have an answer for that. A deep cough rose from his chest, and Elise dug her heels in to brace him against the wall until the hacking subsided.
In a way, it was nice to have his face buried against her shoulder, his weight bowing her spine backward. She felt the jutting ribs under his soiled shirt and they were his ribs.
James needed a healer.
When he spoke again, his voice was so raspy it was hard to make out. “It was an ambush. Someone had left a note outside our house—and a photo of Nathaniel.” Nathaniel was James’s first son, from his last life. “I should have told you, but you were sleeping when I found it, and I thought… They overwhelmed me when I left our house. They were waiting for me.”
Cold sank through Elise’s body. “That note you found with the photo. Did it say something like ‘a son needs a father’?”
His eyes met hers in an instant of electric shock.
“Yes,” James said. “That’s what it said. How did you—”
A dead girl needs nothing.
“We have to get to Victoria,” Elise said.
There were still no lights outside Motion and Dance. Power to the grid in the area seemed to have shut down. Elise had initially attributed this to Melinda’s presence, but Melinda was now dead.
Either there was another angel, or someone with a lot of authority had deliberately shut down the power in the area.
Elise suspected she knew which it was.
Dread was growing in her gut as she hauled James’s dead weight out to the parking lot, where there was only a single unoccupied vehicle. Elise shattered the window with a sharp-tipped rock, unlocked it, and poured James into the back seat.
“What’s happening?” he asked with a groan.
Elise started pushing buttons on the dashboard. Nothing seemed to react. She didn’t understand how modern cars worked—there were no keys, no wires to cross, not even a parking break. Henry had been driving her everywhere. He’d seemed to operate a car normally. But the sticker on this windshield said that the vehicle was owned by Zyp, and it didn’t seem intended to accommodate an actual driver.
She needed to move. She didn’t have time to learn this bullshit.
“How the fuck does this work?” Elise growled, slamming her palm into the dash.
The lights came on. The car chimed cheerfully at her as it booted, sort of like a computer. There was no rumble of engine. Only a prompt on the dashboard screen which greeted her by name—Elise Kavanagh—and asked if she wanted to charge the ride share to her account.
“Yes?” she asked.
The car asked for a destination.
“Dat So La Lee Condominiums,” she said.
It took off so quickly, so silently, that it felt like she wasn’t moving at all.
Elise took another magazine out of her pocket and reloaded the gun as they blasted up the road. The trees and river blurred around them into a streak of green-brown.
“What’s happening?” James asked again, levering himself into a seated position. His eyes were clearer now. He was coming back into himself, starting to look sharper, more conscious.
“I left Victoria with a babysitter,” Elise said. “I think that’s what they wanted.”
“What who wanted?”
Elise opened her mouth to respond.
She didn’t get to speak.
The car came to an abrupt stop on the bridge over the Truckee—quickly enough to throw her into the dashboard. A red light was blinking next to the map.
A calm female voice spoke through the car’s speakers. “Local authorities have taken control of the car’s navigation. Please put your hands on the dashboard and wait to be intercepted.”
“Fuck,” Elise said again, with even more gusto. She whipped around to glare at James. “Who took you? A nyctimus? Fiends?”
“And an angel,” she said.
For the first time since birthing Victoria in that godforsaken hospital, Elise felt clear-headed. She could think her way through the fog of sleep deprivation, through the haze of an avatar disconnected from time, reality, and godhood. She saw what she had failed to see before.
Elise had made no enemies in her time as Danäe McCollum. She’d been much too boring for that. Yet someone was out to get her with a very personal grudge.
Police cars screamed toward them. They blocked either side of the bridge so that Elise couldn’t have driven the vehicle through them even if it had a steering wheel. It was a sloppy barricade. They must not have been prepared to intercept Elise on her way back to the condominium.
As Melinda had said, Elise had found her too quickly. She most likely hadn’t been meant to find James until he was already dead. Another obscene tableau like her father.
Speed was Elise’s last advantage.
“I need you to be strong now,” she told James.
It felt like telling a skeleton that he needed to grow flesh. James’s nod was unconvincing, but his hand was solid in hers when she seized it.
He tightened his fingers.
“Let’s go,” he said.
She kicked open the door to the car.
Police were still emerging from their vehicles, positioning themselves so that they could use them as shields from gunfire. They’d clearly been warned that Elise was dangerous. That she would fight them.
They hadn’t been told she would run.
Elise shoved James over the side of the bridge.
He tumbled, a bag of bones, and vanished into the Truckee. The maneuver never would have worked a hundred years earlier. It had never been so full. But now he went under, sinking below the shimmering waters.
She leaped next.
Gunshots rang out, whip cracking through the air.
Elise’s heart swelled into her throat.
She struck water.
Only when she saw the crimson clouds billowing around her head did she realize she’d been struck. One lucky law enforcement officer had hit her on the way down.
Elise pushed her hands forward, cutting her body through the river like a blade slicing through muscle tendons, and she felt the bite in her bicep. Her arm. They’d shot her dominant arm. She was clumsy, unbalanced.
Her body flipped and spun and banged into rocks and she couldn’t see James. But she also couldn’t see police. The cameras couldn’t see her face, either.
Elise’s head broke through the surface. She gasped once to fill her lungs then let it drag her under again.
Darkness swept over her—a bridge—and then there was light again, city lights. She’d gotten out of the zone that had lost power.
She kicked against the bottom to right herself. Her mind processed the map of Reno from above, as seen at the top of the condominium, and she tried to calculate how far she would have been carried.
A hand plunged into the water. It gripped her injured arm.
Elise gave a cry as she was hauled out, sodden and dripping. She yanked out a knife. She lifted it to stab.
But when she came up for air, it was James’s face over hers. James holding her halfway out of the water, sheltered under two feet of clearance under a downtown bridge, his alert eyes focused outward and upward.
She had forgotten what it was like to be with someone she could rely upon.
Her fingers loosened, letting the knife fall into the water. She let her head fall against her shoulder, and for an instant—just one instant—she shut her eyes. When she breathed in deeply, she could smell his sweat like a wood-burning stove.
“They haven’t found us,” James said.
“Yet,” Elise said, returning her attention to the present moment. Her eyes tracked the path up the rocky banks. The tower wasn’t far. “We have to run.”
Elise and James would not win any medals for the time it took them to close the distance between river and condo, but they arrived before the police.
She suspected it was because the police weren’t worried about beating them there.
The Dat So La Lee tower was burning. Smoke billowed from its upper floors. Whatever terrible thing had happened in the condominium was already over.
“The street lights,” James said.
It was a detail that seemed so insignificant that Elise never would have noticed if he hadn’t pointed it out. The street lights were all off. The stoplights too. Even the bulbs that should have been flashing outside the nearby casino were dark. There was no power on the entire block surrounding the condo.
She had to bodily shove the doors open—no power assist—and leap up the stairs that spiraled toward the top.
Elise didn’t wait to see if James could keep up.
Even with a hand clutching her wounded arm, she spilled blood on the steps, leaving a trail of droplets that looked black in the unlit stairwell. She was leaving a thread behind her on the way to the center of the labyrinth. James would follow it, but so too might others.
They’d have to be fast. Faster than her exhausted, aching thighs were capable of being with her glycogen stores depleted. Faster than any human could be without preternatural powers.
She reached the top floor and kicked the door in with a single savage blow.
Smoke billowed out of the condo where she had been staying.
There were bodies on the ground. Fiends, mostly. Elise would have checked their brands against those in the refrigerator but the kitchen was actively smoldering. She stepped over them, on top of them, crouched low to get what little air she could. It felt like breathing in charcoal.
It was so dark that she tripped over a furry mass.
Not a demon, but a large feline. A mountain lion.
He was an impressive beast in his animal form. Time and selective breeding had clearly done favors for the shifter population; he was bigger still than the wolves Elise remembered from Rylie’s pack, well-muscled, and with each paw so big that Elise couldn’t lift one in her exhaustion.
Henry wasn’t moving.
“Help me move him,” Elise said. James had come in behind her, gasping and tired, but he still crawled over to offer what little strength he could provide. They both shook trying to get one leg out from under Henry.
That was where Elise found Henry’s moonstone charm, which he’d said he used to control his shapeshifting without the Alpha. She pressed her fingers into the stone to activate it.
Henry’s fur shivered, and he slowly began shapeshifting back.
“Who is this?” James asked.
“The babysitter,” Elise said.
James was on his feet immediately, striding through the condominium. The smoke was thick, the room dark. No electricity. This was significant, Elise knew, but her mind had moved onto other details that seemed more significant.
Predominantly: Victoria was not crying.
Elise knew what this meant.
There was comfort in the grim fury that boiled up inside of her. The drive to hunt. The resolve to murder.
As Henry shifted back to his human form, his bones giving muffled pops and his fur spilling over the floor, Elise began thinking of new ways to kill people. Humans, angels, demons—it wouldn’t matter. She’d never savored pain. She would savor it now because she knew what James was going to find when he combed through the smoky condo.
Elise staggered to her feet. James was hunched over an empty bassinet on the other side of the room.
“She’s not here,” he said hollowly.
She believed him, but she still had to look into every room herself to be sure. Some of the rooms were too smoky to see much. But there was no crying inside, no sounds of protest from a fussy infant.
Elise felt nothing.
She was empty.
She was going to murder.
“Elise?” Henry had managed to awaken. He was still losing the last vestiges of his fur, but his body was smaller. She dragged him closer to the windows, where the smoke was thinner, so that he could breathe well enough to regain his strength.
James was sitting on the couch, staring at the bassinet.
The floor underneath them was thumping. They were going to have company soon.
Elise helped Henry sit up. He was already healing the wounds that the fiends had inflicted upon him,
“Did they kill her?” Elise asked.
Henry shook his head. “No, but…Elise…”
“What?” she asked, biting the word off with her teeth.
He turned wide, horrified eyes on her. “Nash Adamson took Victoria.”