The drive to the Haven was not long from the sanctuary, and the longer that Elise spent in the front seat of the Chevelle, the more she felt her mind returning to the super-sharp clarity of her first life. It was a product of being in an old car. A very old car now, with all the mechanical parts and the physical buttons on its dashboard and the wheel that James needed to steer. The smell of its leather seats was straight out of her old life. The growl of its engine. The sticky brakes.
Elise sat with her feet up on the dashboard—which would have pissed off Abel, but it wasn’t like he was going to get her from his hospital bed—and she had James at the corner of her eye and it was…right. It was her life again. She was herself.
Except that her breasts hurt. She wouldn’t stop leaking.
She took another antibiotic and more ibuprofen and tipped back the handle of whiskey to wash them down.
James glanced at the sloshing bottle but didn’t remark on it. No snide health remarks did not match her memory of their old life, either.
Their eyes connected briefly.
He looked a lot like Victoria.
James returned his attention to the road.
They didn’t speak on that too-long, too-short drive. The relentless trees rushed past them and clouds drifted overhead and there was no hint of demons or drifting angel feathers. Nash must have known they were coming. But he wasn’t bothering trying to kill them anymore, since it would be much easier to kill them firsthand.
The spot where James pulled off at the side of the road looked like any other spot.
“Hannah died here,” he said, remaining in the driver’s seat.
“I know,” Elise said.
She got out and took the sword with her.
A narrow halloway disappeared into the forest. It had once been a road maintained by the Union, but now it was barely more than a tunnel through the trees, worn down by the footfalls of hikers and the occasional rider on horseback. She stood at the mouth of it, gazing down its shaded throat, her fingers curled so tightly around the sword that they hurt.
She walked without waiting to see if James would follow. She set a fast pace with long strides, feeling her heart speed, her blood flow. She felt the life in her body and hoped that it would be enough.
It only needed to last a little bit longer.
Elise willed her old kopis strength into her body. She willed the power of gaeans—shifters and basandere and sidhe and everything else that sprouted from the earth like the forest—and she plunged into the belly of the forest.
The Haven was inside of a cave, at the very back, exactly where it had been left before Genesis. The cave itself was empty. The rear wall was covered in runes that had been worn down by time and obscured by mildew.
She stopped there. She could not go on without help.
James’s scuffing footsteps stopped behind her.
“Does the Haven still run fast?” Elise asked.
“No,” he said. “It shouldn’t.” He was panting.
“Elise…” He raked a hand through his hair, pushing the bangs off of his face and letting them fall into his eyes again. “What is the endgame here?”
“But what about us? What about Victoria?”
Elise’s heart was hurting. “Do you think she’s still alive?”
“If she is, then we need to survive too,” James said. “She needs us. She needs Danäe and Daniel. Her parents. She needs a life, and a house, and—”
“Any damage we do to these bodies short of death can be repaired,” Elise said. “If Victoria’s alive. Open the door.”
There were unspoken words traveling over James’s face. Unspoken pain.
He pressed a hand to the wall of the cave. Magic raced from his fingertips, crawling up the stone in a lacework like glowing spiderwebs. His power set fire to the runes.
Elise saw beyond the magic to the atoms forming the fabric of the universe. Life, death, time. The three most primal powers. They fragmented into a million pieces—into fire and air, earth and water, gaean and infernal and ethereal.
It felt as though an eye at the center of her forehead was opening for the first time, exposing the truth at her core to the raw Infinite.
A doorway appeared among the runes.
“We don’t know what’s going to be on the other side,” James said. “It could be a trap.” The words didn’t seem to be formed from his mouth, though it was moving.
“It’s definitely a trap,” Elise said.
There was that sad smile again. “As long as you’re ready.”
She rolled her grip on the hilt of the Infernal Blade. “Yes.”
The door blazed white, and then faded.
All that remained on the other side was a cave mirroring the one they stood inside. James let his hand drop and the door stayed open. “Elise,” he said, and when she turned to look at him, he captured her face in his hands. “What happens now…”
“Time spent talking is time wasted,” she said.
Grief knitted his eyebrows. “I love you. I wish that we had more time. That’s all.”
More time. What was time to a god?
He bent to kiss her, and where their lips met, the universe began and ended.
She had missed him so much.
Yes, they should have had more time.
Without breaking apart from each other, they pitched laterally into the doorway, the world splintered, and Earth was gone.
The Haven was a trap.
Elise knew before they emerged from the cave on the other side what the Haven would look like. Her omnipotence was trickling back in now that she’d connected to her old self, forming the bridge between Elise Kavanagh and Danäe McCollum, permitting her access to brush against even the most trivial information.
She fully expected the forest that sprawled outside of the cave, and the idyllic valley of trees heavy with spring blossoms. She was ready for the glistening sapphire lake—Lake Ast, it was called—and even the sprawling manor on its shore, where she knew that Nashriel Adamson had spent some blinks of his immortal life.
Nothing had changed. Not the artificial sky with the starlight formed of suspended flame, or the surreal pinwheel twist to the moon hanging at its center.
Except now the Haven was filled with demons.
There were so many fiends seething among the trees that they formed a leathery ocean between Elise and Nashriel’s home. He must have been breeding them, preparing an army. It would have been overkill against anyone else. But there was no such thing as overkill here, now, against Elise, and when she saw those many tens of thousands of bodies she felt nothing.
Nashriel himself was at the mansion. His enormous wings gave away his position standing on the balcony, even though he was much too distant for Elise to make out any of his features.
She couldn’t tell if he was holding a baby, either.
Elise suspected he would be.
“There,” James said softly, over Elise’s shoulder. That was where he wanted their focus. Nashriel wanted them to chase him into his mansion, where he would have surely set up another tableau like Isaac Kavanagh, like James in the dance studio. Something sadistic. It would surely be effective; angels were master manipulators.
Elise didn’t have to play his game. She didn’t have to see what surprises he had in store.
“Kill him for me,” Elise said.
“What are you going to do?”
She turned to look around the valley. There were two sides to it—the hill with the cave at its center, with everything sloping away from that high point. It was gloomy and misty and miserable everywhere in the Haven except for a lone spot on the other side of the forest, where there were no clouds, no stars, no demons.
Just an empty patch of trees.
Elise never would have noticed it if she hadn’t been searching for one spot in the Haven that didn’t look like a complete hellhole.
“I’m going to get leverage,” Elise said.
She leaped. She plunged.
For a moment, she was weightless, falling down the side of a sheer drop-off. Her braid whipped behind her. Her knees were drawn to her chest, her arms outspread for balance. She was the hawk soaring at a field mouse, talons extended, about to strike.
She landed in the midst of the fiends.
Her feet hit ground and she used the momentum to carry her forward, blade clearing the path. It cut through bone like butter. The demons were momentarily shocked into stillness by it, unable to process the stimulus, the pain, the sudden absence of limbs.
When they began to move, there was no defending against them.
Claws gashed down Elise’s arms, her face, her legs. Teeth sank into the meat of her bicep, and when she ripped free of them, she lost muscle.
There was blood. It sprayed.
But it tore into her avatar, and she’d already begun to leave the avatar behind.
Each and every pain made her mind clearer.
Her Eye opened wider.
This avatar was not as trained as it should have been, and it lacked the conditioning to fight using the total instinct that Elise could now easily retrieve. It took enough damage that she was worried it would fail. But she got into the rhythm of it soon enough—the cutting, the pushing, the running.
She made progress through the trees.
Elise climbed, getting up high above the fiends, leaping between branches. She chased that patch of unremarkable forest.
A fiend grabbed her shoe, tried to yank her down. It pulled hard enough that she heard her ankle pop.
She swung the sword without looking, and it was gone.
When Elise glanced over her shoulder, it was easy to see where she had been. She hadn’t been thorough in attacking all those demons. She had delivered very few blows that would have been mortal with any other sword. But the Infernal Blade was not any other sword.
Anywhere that it had cut a fiend, ichor spread. Skin turned to stone. Bones turned brittle, crumbling. She had left a thousand statues in her wake.
Even the trees were turning to obsidian.
Elise opened gashes on a half dozen fiends when she dropped from the canopy again, and she heard their screams squeezing off as their lungs hardened.
And then there were no more demons.
The forest was silent.
She swung around, looking for more attackers. There were plenty. But they weren’t crossing the nearest of the trees—wouldn’t follow Elise into this part of the forest. Even the ones that were dropping dead still struggled to make sure they died on the other side of some invisible line.
This place was forbidden to them.
Which meant it was exactly where Elise wanted to be.
Light blazed elsewhere in the forest. Elise knew the flare of James’s magic, and she hoped it meant that somewhere, right at that moment, Nashriel Adamson was dying a very painful death.
She turned to move deeper into the forest and fell to her knees. And then she fell onto her face.
The fiends had ripped her hamstrings.
It was not a miracle that she’d gotten that far, but a stroke of godhood.
“Just a little longer,” Elise growled at her body, her avatar, the tool she was using to remain in this world for just a little longer.
Mechanically, her body was no longer sound. Too many tendons torn. Too much blood lost. James could fix her avatar later—he could patch her back together, turn her into a mother with functioning breasts and legs and a heart again—but for now, she needed to make sure that there was reason for the avatar to endure.
Willpower dragged her to her feet. A wounded marionette.
She couldn’t stop.
Not until she had killed Summer Gresham.
On the other side of the Haven, James decided to skip the fight.
“No, I don’t think I’ll be doing that,” he said, watching Elise cut a bloody path through the demons. That was one of the things that Nashriel wanted them to do. He wanted them to fight so that their avatars would be destroyed, returning them to godhood.
For Elise, that seemed to be fine. She surely had some kind of plan. She knew what she was doing, and her progress was impressive.
Not surprising, but impressive.
James would not make it very far doing something similar.
He spread his hands out in front of him. He pulled magic from the surrounding world, gathering it into himself as though it were sunlight and he were the prism.
Havens had been originally designed by mages—angels who could perform magic—and so there was ethereal power in every molecule of the world for him to access. It was almost obscene how much power he could reach.
But this avatar, this Daniel Hawker, was not a half-angel Gray as James Faulkner had been. He was human. Humans could use witchcraft, but not its purer, breathtakingly limitless sister known as magecraft. That had been a deliberate choice on Elise’s part. She hadn’t wanted James able to wield magic freely.
It would destroy his avatar.
That seemed to be part of Elise’s plan too.
So as he pulled the magic into himself and he began to fray.
He spread the power out into a platform over the tops of the fiends’ heads, and James stepped out onto invisible magic. He walked over them, just above the reach of their swiping claws, stepping around the tops of trees en route to the mansion.
When James stepped off onto the balcony of the mansion, there were more demons waiting for him. A couple of those tall ones. Elise had told him that they were called…what, nyctimus?
“I’m not surprised to see fiends in the employ of angels,” James said, adjusting the cuffs on his shirt, smoothing out his collar. He’d been rumpled by the Haven’s wind. “They are the cattle of the preternatural world. The very grumpy, very sharp-toothed cattle. You, on the other hand, are a higher breed capable of complex thought.”
The pair of nyctimuses stepped forward. A male and a female.
Both were holding knives.
“What has Nashriel offered you for your service?” James asked.
“Stop talking,” hissed the male.
“Are you aware that Elise has already killed some of your sistren? I can’t imagine that anything Nashriel offers is worth the price of death.”
“The Godslayer isn’t here,” said the female.
“No,” James said. “But I will have to do.”
They stepped near enough that they came out from under the roof’s overhang.
He pointed to the sky.
Lightning blasted the nyctimuses where they stood.
That was witch magic, thankfully. It didn’t tear into him the way that the invisible platform had. And it left nothing but charred ankle-stubs where the demons had been standing, as well as a pattern of black ash on his shins.
James wiped his slacks off. The skin underneath was spongy, delicate. He felt like he might tear if he pressed too hard on himself.
Fraying. Falling apart.
“No more ethereal magic,” he promised nobody in particular. “Nothing to bring me closer to godhood.”
Nothing to keep him from surviving for his daughter.
He expected to step into Nash Adamson’s office to find more assailants, but it was just an office. Not all that different from the sorts of offices that James had kept over the years, in truth. All angels liked to have stacks of books around and Nash was no exception.
Everything here was dusty and unloved, though. It all looked old. Not a hundred years old, but thousands of years old. Spiderwebs clung to every corner. The pages were crumbling. The heavy wooden desk was warped with age, and the plastic components to his desktop computer had degraded while the metal components had rusted.
James stepped toward the door.
It opened before he could get there.
Because he was trying not to see with a god’s eyes, he didn’t know it was coming. He was startled to see Nashriel standing on the other side, wings hanging loosely at his back, his eyes rimmed with bruises.
Nash took one look at James and said, “I didn’t mean for it to happen like that.”
His shirt hung open, unbuttoned. James realized with an unpleasant lurch that Nash didn’t have a bare chest underneath. There were…feathers. Feathers and scales all mixed together where there should have been flesh indistinguishable from human.
And there was a tail swinging under his coat.
“What happened to you?” James asked.
The angel’s eyes searched the room, flicking wildly from corner to corner.
When he didn’t see Elise, realization dawned.
“No,” Nash said.
James flung out a hand. His mouth opened, and a word of power fell from his lips.
The mansion shook like a bell hit by a sledgehammer. Nash leaped out of the way, and lightning blazed a path up the ground where he had been standing, scorching the floor tiles in fractal patterns.
The angel slammed into James, knocking him over.
James lifted his hands to cast another spell.
But Nash was already leaping past him, onto the balcony, over the balustrade, and swinging into the air to save his wife.
For a moment, James stared after him, mouth hanging open.
He considered following.
Elise didn’t need help. She didn’t need to be saved.
If Victoria was in the house…
James struggled to his feet, clutching his aching chest. He slammed through the doors to the hallway.
There was another door at the end of the hall. Down where the red carpet terminated at an open doorway. Dust motes drifted on the beams of sunlight, and there were footprints where Nash had obviously been walking recently.
It was so quiet.
James created a new line of footprints between the doors, and he went into the next room to find…a crib. A mobile. A little changing table.
An utterly silent nursery.
His heart twisted, his stomach flipped inside out, and it took all his willpower to walk toward that crib and look inside.
The cabin looked like it belonged in a fairytale. It was an ivy-drenched, rose-pocked fantasy surrounded by so many wildflowers that every one of Elise’s steps kicked up buckets of pollen. The design of the cabin was not dissimilar from those at the werewolf sanctuary. There were pentacles over the windows, trimmed in white, and the roof had similar shingles.
The door was unlocked. There was no need for locks in the Haven.
Elise kicked the door in anyway.
On the other side, she found a small living room that opened directly into a kitchen. Paintings hung on the walls. They depicted familiar faces—young members of the Wilder family. A teenage girl with wild brown hair and a stern-faced brother who had no hair at all. The paintings had faded with age and sun exposure. The kitchen hadn’t been used in centuries.
There were three bedrooms and one bathroom in this home. Four doors. Three of them were already open, and Elise had no interest in them because they were empty.
She opened the fourth.
On the other side, she found a young woman’s bedroom with a single twin bed. She had a computer desk, travel posters pinned to the walls, and French doors leading out into the forest. Elise could see fiends seething among the trees, unable to approach.
They weren’t allowed to come near Summer Gresham.
Elise understood that the old woman in the bed was the same as the fresh-faced, springy-haired girl in the paintings elsewhere in the cabin. But there was no obvious resemblance. She was crumpled in on herself, a raisin. She rested in bed with her head on a pillow and her hands folded over her chest and her eyes shut.
For an instant, Elise didn’t move, watching Summer’s chest.
It rose very slowly.
For the moment.
Elise shifted her grip on the sword as she crossed the room. Her shins bumped against the side of the bed.
“Your husband took my daughter,” Elise said to Summer’s unresponsive, withered face. “Your father is worried about you. I promised that I would take care of you.”
And if taking care of Summer meant destroying Nash in the process…
Elise gripped the hilt of the sword in both hands and lifted it so that the point hung over Summer’s breast.
And she plunged it toward the shifter woman’s heart.
Hands clamped so tightly on Elise’s wrists that she thought they probably broke instantly. Not that it mattered. She didn’t need bones at this point.
She turned to glare at Nashriel Adamson. He’d managed to stop Elise’s blade a centimeter from Summer’s chest.
“Don’t,” he said.
“I told you I’d kill her if you hurt my baby, and you took her from me,” Elise said.
“You’ll get nothing out of hurting Summer except for revenge,” Nash said, and for the first time, Elise saw it in him. The wildness in his eyes. The strange slouch to his back. His perfect immortal form breaking down into one more like a monster’s. He was fallen. “It’s too late, Godslayer. Your baby is already dead.”