There had been a time when Elise and James had been enemies—a time that had lasted years. They hadn’t been terrible years.
In their time separated by hatred, Elise’s life had been fulfilling. She’d brought justice to the mortal worlds with her friends at the Hunting Club. She’d entertained boyfriends. Not many, since most men were terrified of a demon from Hell who turned into shadow if she wasn’t paying attention, but a few. She’d also entertained one girlfriend. Her best friend and lover. Elise had ruled the City of Dis with blood and blade with that woman by her side, and it had been good.
She’d kept busy. She hadn’t missed James. For all that Elise was dedicated to James, and he to her, she could live without him. She wouldn’t forget how to breathe if her husband vanished off the face of the Earth.
While they had been separated, all Elise had done was watch him from afar, wary for him to interfere with her life again.
And he had.
His later redemption via self-sacrifice didn’t negate the harm he’d inflicted in the cruel years that had come before. It only made Elise capable of overlooking these things because of sincere promises of change.
Could a man really change? Even a god?
Confronted with the idea of living without him again ten months earlier, Elise could have adjusted. She could have found other hobbies. She even could have found a replacement god, assuming that he angered her enough to justify such a maneuver.
It wasn’t the idea of losing James that nagged her out the lobby doors of Dat So La Lee Condominiums. It was the idea of Victoria’s crying on the top floor, high above the sidewalk, and what in the seven hells Elise was supposed to do about that without a partner. She couldn’t scrape those thoughts from the inner curve of her skull.
Elise had never had “mother” as part of her identity.
She didn’t even know what to do with “single mother” as a possibility.
James needed to answer questions.
Her temporary condo was east of downtown, a grassy district with alpine swaths indistinguishable from those around Incline Village. She walked over the over-full Truckee and passed a dozen families, cousins, churches, and groups of bored youths on her way toward the place that Craven’s used to be.
As she walked the greenbelt, she recalled a trail that used to be near the parched, drought-stricken Truckee. Elise had jogged on it hundreds of times, cutting a path from James’s dance studio in midtown to accounting clients that worked downtown. It was washed over now. There was no sign of the homeless camps or the bare, jagged rocks the indigent once slept upon.
It was almost impossible to imagine that this was the Reno Elise had fallen in love with. Tacky casinos had blossomed into brick-walled brownstones with antique-looking flourishes. A few shops called back to the glory days of the casinos with sixties-style geometric signs, but even those were too clean to be legitimate; everything was polished smooth and immaculate.
She didn’t pause in front of the new St. Thomas of Aquinas Cathedral. There were too many faint memories of the old one rattling within her innards, and all of them unpleasant. The new cathedral had the same polish as the rest of central Reno. It showed no hint of old Wild West charm, as it once had.
The carefully cultivated greenery terminated suddenly, leaving a pile of rubble with a broad radius. Broad, because it had once housed the worst locals casino ever. There was no faux-aged brick or sixties-like adornments here. There was only pulverized pavement, cracked sidewalks, and the woman who had seen it collapse firsthand.
Henry had promised a crater where Craven’s had been, and a crater it was.
This was the Reno Elise remembered.
She wavered on the edge of the pit, staring down into its depths hard enough to block out the more attractive downtown district. She made out hideous carpet covered in dust. Broken, rusted bar stools. Shattered glass.
These triadists must have preserved it magically.
Or someone even more powerful.
Elise didn’t check to make sure she was unobserved before jumping into the hole.
She surprised herself by landing on her ankle wrong. Elise dropped to her knees with a grunt, face hot with pain. “Fuck me.” She probed the bone with her fingertips. Not broken, probably, but it wasn’t going to be fun to walk on it.
How had Elise managed to hurt herself dropping less than twenty feet, for fuck’s sake? She’d used to do much wilder things than that.
But it had been a different life. The Elise of this world—archaeologist Danäe—hadn’t been fighting demons. Her most rigorous physical activity had involved crouching over dig sites with tiny brushes for weeks on end. The fact she’d summoned the ability to fight an assassin during labor had been the blissful descent of survival instinct. A side-effect of adrenaline. She felt no such urgency now, and her body made the pain of a twisted ankle painfully known.
Worse, her body was still healing from birthing a baby. It simply didn’t move the way she remembered bodies moving. Not yet.
That made her angry enough to stand. She’d killed a demon while in labor—adrenaline soaked or not—so this avatar couldn’t be too useless.
An ankle would heal quickly.
Quicker still if she could beat a healing spell out of James.
She limped through the dusty memories of another life.
Eloquent Blood was the bar where Elise had met her late girlfriend, Neuma. The first time that they’d encountered one another, Elise had been pretending to be a normal human visiting a demon client—a nightmare named David Nicholas. Neuma had liked Elise immediately. She was one of the few who’d ever reacted to Elise that way, and Elise still didn’t understand what had attracted the succubus to her.
When Elise swiped dust off of the bar’s surface, she found crusted sulfur underneath where it had always been.
Neuma used to strut along the crusty bar on six-inch heels, shaking her ass for tips and pouring drinks so strong they’d gotten even Elise drunk. And it had been hard to get Elise drunk.
That was why Elise had liked Neuma, at first. Because of the strong drinks.
Later, the drinks had little to do with it. Any of it.
Elise followed the wreckage down to the dance floor, and to evidence of the second reason she liked Neuma. There was throne built of twisted scrap metal where the DJ’s booth used to be. In order to sit upon it, one needed to know exactly where to position arms and posterior in order to avoid getting impaled on car parts.
Neuma had reigned as the demon overlord for Reno for some time. Impressive, since she’d only been half-demon.
To hold her position, Neuma had employed a team of demons and witches who, together, had been capable of holding together the pieces of a post-apocalyptic city. Not the polished green gem straddling the river, but a place where men only visited with the intent to die.
“Where’s your magic, Neuma?” Elise asked, head tipped back to gaze at the elevated throne.
When she thought hard enough, she could imagine her friend grinning down from that dangerous chair, oozing sex appeal and the scent of vodka from her pores.
Neuma had died for Elise. She’d been ripped apart at the end of the world, never again capable of shaking her ass, strutting on six-inch heels, or serving drinks strong enough to kill most mortals.
Elise turned from the throne.
Something shifted in the upper bar. A stool fell over.
Elise drew the sword. She’d stuck it inside her jacket to conceal it from the citizenry above, but it gleamed in the dim light now, letting her reflect light on the shelves of glass bottles.
She turned the blade so that light shined among the darkness. The bottles caught it like starlight.
Another skittering sound.
There was something in Eloquent Blood.
Elise scaled the stairs silently, favoring her injured ankle. She didn’t call out. She held her breath.
She couldn’t sense anything in the darkness. Her avatar was not meant to be bestowed with incredible power; she was strong, but incapable of the many feats she’d once performed as a kopis. There were no kopides anymore. That was a special warrior class of human with supernatural strength, reflexes, and senses that Elise had eliminated during Genesis.
Elise was only a woman who had once been Godslayer.
Even without the supernatural everything to back that up, she was still herself.
She knew to look for the signs of demonic infestation. Fresh sulfur residue, inhuman footsteps, broken furniture. Mostly she found a lot of dust and graffiti.
Yet something was in there.
Metal rattled behind the bar. It sounded like a body passing through a curtain made of chains.
Elise reached the hall moments later.
Indeed, there was a chain curtain midway down, which would have acted as a shield for strippers to dress without being watched by probing eyes.
It was still swaying.
She slipped her blade between the strands, pushing a narrow door open so that she could slide through silently. They jingled softly behind her.
The hallway was so dark. But there was a silver of light around the corner.
A door opened an inch.
Her heart pulsed in her temples, adrenaline burning bright in her veins. Elise stood beside the doorway and listened. There was no more movement.
Whoever had passed through was gone.
Or they were waiting for her.
She threw her mind back to the distant past—a time so long ago that her current body hadn’t lived through it. She recalled the layout of Neuma’s dressing room. It had doubled as storage for excess liquor; there was an entire wall of shelving where they’d kept unopened cases. There was a deep closet where they had stored costumes and bondage equipment. And also a row of mirrored vanities.
If an attacker were to hide, it would be in that closet. Or behind the door.
Elise kicked the door open.
She whirled around its side to look behind the door—and found nobody.
They couldn’t be in the closet either. The doors had been ripped off and it was empty.
Most of the dressing room was empty, in fact, because it had been rearranged to prominently feature a table at the center of the floor.
Such a table had never been there before. It was covered in a pristine white cloth.
The ridges underneath suggested a body resting between cinderblocks.
The rest of the room was lit by a ring of orange candles, allowing her to see that someone had tidied it. The wreckage had been swept to the edges of the room, and whoever had done the cleaning had been rather immaculate about it, leaving not so much as a speck of dust on the cleared floor.
Elise stepped around the candles, careful not to cross the line. It didn’t look complete enough to be a circle of power. She was hesitant to risk it. Her body had no protections against spells, as far as she knew.
But there was something underneath that white sheet.
She toed one of the candles, knocking it over. Wax pooled across the floor. Without the wick lit, the candle itself looked to be the red of fresh blood.
Elise kicked the candle holder into the circle.
She stepped warily toward the table, sword lifted. Her reflection in the shattered vanity mirrors was fragmented. Elise could see a dozen subtly different angles of herself cautiously approaching the table, and none of them looked like her.
With her free hand, she yanked the white sheet back.
There was a male body underneath.
But this was somehow worse.
Magic shimmered over the preserved form of a man who had been dead for decades. He was the reason that Elise’s original form had been freckled, and the reason her hair was tinted red when she stood in sunlight. He was the reason for her beak-like nose and fierce, angry eyebrows.
Not that Isaac Kavanagh still had a nose.
His entire face had been bashed in. Most likely, that was how he’d died.
Elise had never known the details of it. She dimly recalled asking her mother, Ariane, about Isaac’s passing; Ariane had explained in terse sentences that Isaac had been beaten to death by an angel. Isaac had deserved it. That much was certain. For every blow that caved in the bones on Isaac’s mangled face, he had delivered a hundred other blows to Ariane over many years.
He was dead. Still dead. But frozen in time, almost waxen from the magic.
“Holy shit,” Elise said.
She took a few deep breaths to slow her pounding heart.
Someone had found her father’s grave and exhumed him—presumably not long after his death, considering the state of his body. And they had arranged him in the depths of Craven’s for Elise to find.
That wasn’t all they had done. The facial wounds had been the cause of death, but there were several postmortem wounds inflicted upon his chest. His heart had been dug out. There was no bruising or clotting of blood, so he must have been dead when it had happened.
Whoever had moved Isaac Kavanagh’s body had filled his chest with black silk flowers. A morbid bouquet.
A parchment card rested between the petals, folded in half.
Elise took the card out of the flowers. She flipped it open with a thumbnail. A short message had been written inside with familiar handwriting—James’s handwriting, Elise knew. His cursive was immaculate.
All it said was, A little girl needs a father.
The magicked body would not burn.
Elise knew. She tried several times.
By the time she gave up trying to burn Isaac Kavanagh’s corpse—including a trip to the store for matches and accelerant—her breasts were painfully hard, like two rocks stuffed into her sports bra. It was long past time for her to return to Victoria.
The body of Elise’s mortal father would need to remain where it was for now.
She was leaking breastmilk through her shirt when she trudged back to the condo, and she attracted multiple stares on her way to the topmost floor. Victoria’s screaming was audible as soon as she stepped out of the elevator.
Elise entered the condo to find Henry Lee unbothered by the banshee shrieking on his chest. On his chest—the man had somehow procured a baby carrier, and was currently attempting to rock the baby to sleep while he worked on cooking food. A cozy, domestic sight too similar to one Elise might have found if James had been in her life.
Until that moment, Elise had not felt any anger or fear. She’d felt alert. Wary. But not angry.
Now she was angry.
“How’d it go?” Henry asked.
She pointed her sword at him. “Give me the baby and Abel Wilder’s private phone number.”
Henry didn’t stop rocking. But he did stop cooking. Now she realized he was not making anything from scratch, but simply reheating something he’d bought at the grocery store in the oven, most likely while walking Victoria around. He was not James. He was not Elise’s husband.
He was not her little girl’s father.
“Are you okay?” he asked. “Should I bother asking?”
“Baby,” Elise said. “Number.”
He took the infant out, and Elise sat with Victoria to attempt to nurse her. She had so much milk that the baby couldn’t even eat it. Her nipples hurt at the faintest touch. Victoria just screamed louder, angry that Elise’s breasts were not as accommodating as usual. Elise briefly entertained the idea of throwing Victoria across the room like a football, but did not.
Henry had the unfortunate luck of returning to her a moment later. “The number is in the contacts,” he said, offering a phone to her.
Elise stood, shirtless, dusty from Craven’s, and feeling increasingly like she might be the one who would shapeshift into a mountain lion. She ripped the phone from his hand. “Get the fuck out of the condo.”
“You know how to reach me,” he said.
He was rolling his eyes when he turned around. This was not the first time Henry had been assigned to work with someone unpleasant, it seemed, and the fact that he wasn’t even scared of Elise only made her angrier.
She set the baby on the floor and hand-expressed milk while calling Abel. Anything to make her breasts stop hurting. Victoria did not appreciate being set down.
Elise was surprised when the old werewolf Alpha picked up after two rings. “You killing your baby, or is she killing you?” Abel asked with the weary amusement of someone who’d suffered such screaming many times.
“The Office of Preternatural Affairs has bombers,” Elise said. It wasn’t a question.
“All right,” Abel said. “Coordinates?”
She gave them to him. “Radius needs to be tight. Potential civilian casualties are high.”
“Oh, this isn’t our first run like this. Sit tight and wait for fireworks,” he said, and he hung up.
No questions asked.
Elise finally managed to latch Victoria, and she nursed while standing by the windows, looking out over downtown Reno’s serene calm. She strongly doubted that things would happen the way she wanted. She was used to others mistrusting her, or trying to control her.
Yet it was ten minutes before black vehicles rolled toward the coordinates–toward Craven’s–and witches emerged to cast wards. From that distance, Elise could not see the individual witches; only the perimeter that the OPA had established, the walls of golden wards, and the bustle of civilians emerging to see what had happened.
Five minutes after the witches were done, the bombers swooped in.
Victoria was sleeping when the fireworks started, as promised.
Elise watched Craven’s light up under small blossoms of flame. They were not any type of bomb she was familiar with. The wards that the witches had cast contained the explosions, and all that escaped was some dust.
Within the hour, Craven’s was no longer a historical site. It was a hole.
Isaac Kavanagh would be gone, Elise was certain.
And tomorrow would be hell when the news caught on. People would panic at seeing military action in such a way, as she suspected that most people hadn’t seen the OPA making maneuvers on home territory in their lifetime at this point. But Abel had pulled the trigger because Elise told him to, trusting that the one-time Godslayer would only call for bombers when it was truly necessary.
It wasn’t necessary. But it was worth it.
Even though it couldn’t blast Elise’s memory of the black bouquet and the card out of her mind.
She stared blankly at Victoria in her arms, unseeing, as the words seemed to scream at her from within.
A little girl needs a father.