Elise had not been in so much pain since she substantiated into a mortal avatar form, and that said a lot, considering that she had used this avatar to push a melon-sized human being out of her cunt and had broken her leg while fighting demons. Crash-landing an airship into the Sierra Nevadas was a whole new kind of pain, though. Especially because, in the blinding moment of adrenaline that had come immediately before the crash, she had chosen to shelter James’s fragile body with her own.
As a result, the avatar representing her husband survived intact. No small feat considering that he had just been found, starved and dehydrated, in Motion and Dance. And also because the cabin of the airship had crumpled around them like a can of beer stomped underneath the heel of a drunkard on recycling day.
Another result of this was excruciating, hideous pain.
Elise couldn’t move one of her arms. Every inhale hurt. There was a piece of the metal deck pressing against her temple, and had it gone a centimeter further, she suspected that it would have penetrated skin.
This was painful enough.
She restrained herself to giving only a low groan as James eased his way out of the wreckage, loosening his limbs from where they’d been wedged, and coughing as he inhaled smoke.
“Next time,” James said, gently pulling Elise’s broken form from the airship, “let’s just try jumping into a haystack.”
“Pain,” she said articulately to inform him of her condition.
Even that one syllable was laughably unnecessary. She was bleeding all over James. Elise was fairly certain she’d broken half of the bones in her body. Of course she was in pain; this many internal parts of a mortal form were not meant to be exposed to open air, slick and crimson-black and the glossy white of bone.
James did not look concerned.
“It’s all right.” He rested her upon the ground and stroked the hair from her face. His touch did not feel good. Nothing felt good in such a condition.
And nothing was all right.
“Liar,” Elise whispered. James had always been a liar.
This lie was meant to be a kindness.
His fingers smoothed over her forehead again, and his lips parted to allow a word of power to slide over his tongue, breeze between his teeth, bathe her in the cool apple-scented breeze of ethereal magic. James’s eyes flared a brighter shade of blue.
Her body began to knit.
She hadn’t realized her jaw had been loose on one side until she spoke again, and found it much less painful. “Henry?”
“I’ll look,” he said.
Elise continued to heal as James stood, moving himself out of her immediate range of view into the blurry distance that her eyes could not focus upon. Beyond him, blurrier still, lay the crumpled shell of the airship. The envelope sagged between the pointed tops of trees. The cabin was a lot of jagged lines fogged by black smoke, none of which Elise could see distinctly. The exhaust traced a ladder toward a swimming gray sky.
Distant voices. Two of them, both male. One was James. The other must have been Henry.
Elise let her eyes fall shut.
Henry had survived. She had been hoping that his shifter form would be strong enough to heal anything, but she hadn’t been certain. A lot had changed in a century.
One of her ribs popped into place. She felt its crack deep within her core.
She took a deep breath that didn’t hurt.
Magic rippled through her again and again, and when James and Henry returned to her, she was capable of helping them sit her upright.
“We have to move,” Elise said, pressing a hand to her gut. The gash was knitting shut.
“Holy shit,” Henry said. He was staring at her condition. He was bloody, but he had no visible wounds remaining. “I didn’t know demigods healed like this.”
“Demigod?” James asked.
Elise waved their help aside and stood on her own. Her legs were shaking. She felt weak—so weak, so terrible. James’s healing was working its magic on broken bones and lesions but not on the overflow of milk that clogged the ducts in her breasts.
“Where are we?” Elise straightened, rubbed her eyes, turned around to look.
They were in the mountains, as she’d suspected. Reno stretched throughout the valley below them like a circuitboard designed by occultists—brilliant flashing lights, pentagram streets, an elaborate lacework of buildings.
There were helicopters circling with search lights aimed at the ground. They weren’t close yet, but they’d soon realize that the wreckage of the airship wasn’t in Reno, and they would expand their search.
“West of Reno,” James said.
That wasn’t good. They needed to go east.
Elise yanked a knife out of her boot, turned to Henry, pressed the blade under his chin again. “What’s the fastest way to the sanctuary?”
He shoved her arm down. “I’m going to help you. Don’t fucking threaten me.”
“Sanctuary,” Elise bit out.
“There’s a hyperloop connecting west and east coasts,” Henry said. “Much faster than airships, much more heavily monitored. We’d never survive a trip on the hyperloop.”
“Hyper…what?” James asked.
Henry gave James the same confused, disbelieving look that had become so familiar to Elise. “Hyperloop. Kind of like a train in a vacuum tunnel?”
“It’s the twenty-second century,” Elise said by way of explanation. Sun Valley was filled with parking garages for automated vehicles, Reno had been rebuilt into a rainy pentagram controlled by triadist witches, and people crossed the country in some bizarre train-thing.
James’s brow knitted. “The twenty-second century. Good Lord. That’s not when we were aiming to be reborn.”
“Yeah, well.” She sheathed her knife. The choppers must have realized that the airship wasn’t in Reno because they’d broken formation, and it wouldn’t be long before they made their way in this direction. “Where’s the hyperloop’s nearest station?”
“Carson City,” Henry said. “The state capital.”
Elise knew that much. She’d been there several times in her previous life. “Then we better start walking.”
They didn’t have to walk long. Elise got them to the highway and then hijacked the first car that crossed their paths. She tossed the man in the front seat onto the shoulder, then used James’s palm to activate the automated driving program. He had not logged into multiple OPA shelters, so hopefully his fingerprints were not in the database.
The car quickly rushed to over two hundred kilometers per hour. Henry flopped into the back seat, wiggling himself into gym clothes that had been in the prior passenger’s backpack.
“This isn’t going to last long,” he said. “Car cameras have facial recognition too. If they’re not monitoring it then we’ll have a few minutes, but…”
“We’ll worry about it when it happens,” Elise said.
The car blinked and began slowing before they’d even gotten into the Carson Valley. It wasn’t as far as Elise would have liked to travel. But it was far enough that James finished healing her body.
She kicked the door open with a single powerful blow from both of her feet, and the three of them rolled out when it decelerated to take a curve.
From there, they had to run down the slope into King’s Canyon. Luckily the hyperloop station had been placed near C Hill—a monument overlooking Carson City featuring an oversized American flag, with its shapeshifter paw among the star field and everything.
“Wait,” Henry said, grabbing Elise’s shoulder when she tried to run to the station. “Cameras.”
She swore under her breath. “James, we need glamours.”
James had already lifted his hands to begin casting when Henry spoke again.
“The cameras see through glamours,” he said.
“Fuck,” Elise said. “What can’t the OPA see?”
Henry shrugged. “I haven’t found anything that the government can’t monitor. I don’t think anything exists. It helps that we don’t have cell phones on us, because that’s the worst of it, but…all public spaces are coated in enough tech and magic to track everyone’s motions from San Francisco to Brooklyn.”
“The American people have allowed this totalitarian intrusion into their privacy?” James asked.
“It’s not usually abused,” Henry said.
Usually. One hell of a word right there.
Usually it wasn’t an insane angel with a grudge controlling the entire goddamn country.
“We have to make our faces harder to see,” Elise said.
The hyperloop station was a log-sided building that looked like an oversized cabin from outside. Inside, there was glass and metal and platforms where people could wait for their train to arrive. There were also a great many lockers that, charmingly enough, were held shut by padlocks.
Elise kept her head down while she broke padlock after padlock, getting into the lockers to search.
She found hats, hooded sweaters, bulky jackets. It only took a few minutes to outfit their crew in fashion that would make their faces harder to see.
“The locks have alarm wards that will notify security,” Henry said.
“Of course there are,” James said.
But Elise was already yanking the men toward the platform. She was running under the assumption that there were people on her heels—almost literally—and that everything she did would be observed, analyzed. It didn’t matter if some minimum wage asshole in a security guard’s uniform saw her breaking into the lockers. Chances were good that bombers would flatten the whole fucking station if they didn’t move fast enough.
Everybody who was getting onto the hyperloop scanned their hands to open the doors. James didn’t need to be told to slap his palm against the sensor this time.
They leaped onto the hyperloop moments before it left the station.
Elise watched through the windows, expecting to see OPA agents flooding Carson Station. Or to see the station collapse under the weight of bombs similar to those dropped on Craven’s.
If anything so apocalyptic happened, then Elise didn’t have time to witness it. The hyperloop accelerated smoothly enough that she barely felt the pressure, but it did accelerate, and at breathtaking speeds.
Her eyes traveled over the cabin. It was small, intended only for individual groups, she assumed. There were comfortable leather seats and touch-screen televisions.
“What are the odds that Nashriel already knows we’re in this cabin?” Elise asked.
“Very good,” Henry said.
“James,” she said.
But he was already pressing both of his hands against the walls, his eyes unfocusing as his lips moved.
Magic swelled within Elise.
“I’m disabling cameras and sensors on trains across the nation,” he said. “Hopefully they’ll be less eager to bomb or otherwise annihilate us if they’re not certain which cabin we’re in.”
“Pod,” Henry said. “They’re called hyperloop pods.”
The cabin lights flickered and then turned off.
It was dark inside. Pitch black, in fact, aside from the dim blue safety lights gleaming along the floor and ceiling.
“Done,” James said.
There was a door connecting their pod to the one ahead of them; Elise brute-forced it open with a hard flex of muscle. She scattered the worried passengers to reach the next door, and the next. She didn’t stop moving until they found an empty cabin. Then Elise shoved one of the leather-cushioned chairs in front of the door—an act which required snapping several bolts—and she said, “We’ll stay here as long as possible.”
“It takes three and a half hours to cross the country,” Henry said. “We don’t need long.”
Three and a half hours.
Elise tried to see the tunnel rushing outside of the pod’s windows, but it was too dark. She had too little sense of motion. No idea of how fast they were traveling, or where they were going.
One thing was certain.
There was no way to escape if Nash attacked them at this location.
Strangely, Elise found that to be a relief. She had moved them from their original pod to another. There was a slight chance that Nash had yet to realize they were even on the hyperloop. And the vehicle was moving, even if she couldn’t tell how fast. She had done everything she could.
They were on their way to Victoria, one way or another.
Elise would reach her. She would save her.
But for now, there was nothing for her to do except wait.
Without lights and with minimal sensation of movement, time became an indistinct, foggy thing with no meaning. Elise sat against the wall of the pod with her elbows propped on her knees and shut her eyes so that she could rest.
Even with James’s healing, she ached. It was nothing to do with the crash or her earlier fights. This was an ache that came from deep within, reaching white-hot points of agony where her breasts were confined by two layers of sports bras, and originating from the pit of her stomach.
Elise was not one to worry. Even when she’d been on the run from Adam, a god who had believed Elise to be his bride, she hadn’t spent too much time dwelling on it. And Adam had been omnipotent. As frightening as Nashriel’s access to OPA resources seemed, it was still a few degrees short of omnipotence.
Now she was worrying.
When she shut her eyes, she could see Victoria’s squashed face right after birth. She could easily evoke the memory of how it had felt to have a warm slippery human cradled in her arm as blood gushed from between Elise’s legs.
Strange how she could feel nostalgic for such unpleasant sensations.
Her eyes popped open again when someone sat beside her.
It was James.
“I don’t think he’ll kill her,” James said under his breath. Henry was sitting in one of the leather chairs on the far end of the pod, which was not far—barely further than a driver was from a passenger in the back seat of a car. It felt close to privacy, though. “The Gresham daughter—Summer—if she is alive, Nashriel won’t kill Victoria. Summer won’t allow it. Nor would she permit him to inflict torture upon the infant.”
Elise had witnessed Summer’s condition firsthand. Her total infirmity. The inability to move, to lift her head under the weight of age. Assuming James were right that Nash would obey his wife’s will—which was a big enough assumption to make—then there was still no guarantee that Summer was alive.
“If he’s not going to torture and kill Victoria, then why the fuck do you think he took her?” Elise asked.
“She doesn’t have to die to make us miserable,” James said. “How would you feel witnessing Victoria’s life isolated in an orphanage, unloved? How would you feel seeing her thrown into poverty, sold into human trafficking, prostituted? How would you feel seeing her die alone as an old woman who has never loved? There are so many terrible things Nash can do to Victoria without physically harming her.”
“Stop.” Those words were painful words, worse than serrated knives wedged into the soft tissue of Elise’s palate.
“She’s leverage against us,” James said. “He knows what we are. He knows what we can do.”
“What can we do?” Elise asked.
“Die,” he said.
Because once they died, they would no longer focus their attentions upon their avatars. They would be gods again, capable of godly deeds.
“The Fascination, Elise—it drives angels to madness,” James said. “He will want us to give him Summer a new life lest he loses himself completely. If we become gods and offer him such succor, it would be our only currency to offer in exchange for Victoria’s life.”
“We can’t give Summer another life.” It was against the laws of the universe. Those weren’t even the rules that Elise had established; they had been created by Lilith in the genesis that came before, and Elise had trusted in Lilith’s vision to that degree.
Once dead, people entered a cauldron—the Pit of Souls—and all life became a slurry of rebirth. Summer’s soul as Nashriel knew it would be tiny fragments within millions of others reborn.
“It’s unfair, isn’t it?” James asked. “Here we are, having our second lives as avatars, getting to fix our mistakes, and—”
Elise gripped his collar, jerking his face closer. “And he took my goddamn baby.”
James looked at her as though he’d never seen her before. Whatever he saw, he didn’t seem to disapprove. His fingers sought her waist and pulled her close. “We will get her back safely. But maybe we should consider his demands.”
He didn’t know their child. He didn’t know how tiny and fragile she was.
Would they feed her while she was in captivity? Would she be kept warm, her diaper clean?
Even if she survived, would she be whole?
Elise’s breasts hurt.
“I’m going to kill him,” she said. And she meant it.
“I know,” James said. His lips moved over hers. He tasted of sickness, weakness. He had depleted what little strength he possessed in order to heal Elise.
He lifted his arm, and she sank against his side. Her head rested against his collarbone. His chin pressed against the top of her skull.
When Elise shut her eyes, wrapped up in James like this, she felt the ache so much more acutely.
Longing. That was what she felt.
Her body longed to be wrapped around Victoria’s.
“It’s my fault,” James said. “I should have been there.”
Henry spoke up. “It’s my fault. I didn’t protect her.” He must have been able to hear their entire conversation.
Irritation rippled down the back of Elise’s neck.
“No,” she said. “This is Nash’s fault. His and nobody else’s. Now shut the fuck up. I need to get ready for what comes next.”
“What comes next?” Henry asked.
She didn’t reply.
James said, “It will surely involve screaming and running, so you should rest too.”
“We just have to find Abel,” Henry said. “He’d never stand for this. Any of this. We’re going to get to Northgate, and we’ll have to make a break for the sanctuary but… Once we get to Abel, we’ll be safe. He’ll protect us. He’ll stop Nash.”
“Shut up,” Elise said again.
The blind optimism in Henry’s tone was more than she could tolerate.
Perhaps an hour after the pod moved, James spoke again.
“What’s she like?”
The words jolted Elise from something like a half-unconscious fugue state. She had been drifting on the turbulent tides of eternity, witnessing souls and stars alike rushing past her, and feeling nothing.
Even when she became alert again, Elise did not reply for a long time.
When she did, it was to say, “She cries a lot.”
“And?” James asked.
He sounded desperate in a way that Elise had never heard from him before. He sounded more like his son Nathaniel. A boy. Someone small and confused and worried.
Elise closed her eyes. She envisioned Victoria again, with her balled-up body, the unpleasant odors, and the fine hairs that grew on her forehead and cheeks.
“She looks like you,” Elise said. “She might be blind. Doctors aren’t sure.”
“They said it looks transient.”
“Oh,” James said.
Was that disappointment? Was he disappointed in the child they’d produced?
“It doesn’t matter if she can’t see. She’s mine,” Elise said sharply. She felt those words with absolute certainty. That baby belonged to her, in the same way that her body had always belonged to her, no matter how many angels and elder gods tried to lay claim to it.
“I was very much looking forward to seeing this from you,” James said. “This wasn’t how I’d wanted it to happen.”
“Seeing this? What?”
“You’re maternal,” he said. “I thought you would be.”
Anger surged inside of her. “I can’t be maternal if I don’t love her. I don’t know how.”
“Did you change her diapers? Feed her?”
“Obviously,” Elise said. “I’m not the kind of monster that wouldn’t.”
“What do you think love is, Elise?” he asked.
She studied him in the dim emergency lights. At this distance, with such poor illumination, he looked like a painting. An artist’s interpretation of a ragged-haired man worn down by time. Not the handsome witch that Elise had once fallen in love with, but a man with a foot over the doorstep into death.
Elise knew that she loved James. It was something that had endured through years of hiding together and many, many eons of godhood. She did not like being without him. She was willing to tolerate more from him than anyone else.
That was love, wasn’t it?
“Fuck off,” she said.
James said, very quietly, “You fed her, you cared for her, you will now go to any lengths to save her.”
“I save a lot of people.”
“It’s different,” he said.
Then why didn’t Elise feel love? Weren’t mothers supposed to love their children?
Elise didn’t remember either of her parents saying that they loved her.
“I’m done talking,” she said.
He pressed his lips into her hair and said, “Okay.”
The hyperloop stopped after three hours.
And then the doors did not open.
“It makes sense,” James said, trying to wiggle his fingers between the sliding doors to pry them loose. “Nashriel must have realized where we were going and wanted to meet us here. I guarantee you that his forces are on an intercept course as we speak.”
Elise could taste her thundering pulse. “Out of my way.”
She took James’s position. She had no trouble fitting her smaller hands into the cracks, and she gritted her teeth as she forced the doors open. She had to wedge her feet between them to keep the doors from shutting as she opened the second set of doors, which protected the vacuum seal on the tunnel.
Gears snapped, the vacuum broke. Air rushed through Elise’s hair as light from the platform flooded the pod.
“This is Northgate Station,” Henry said breathlessly. He leaped through, taking Elise and James with him.
James yanked the hood low over his head and put an arm around Elise. He’d been touching her on the entire ride, quiet but present, as though he hoped to be her safety blanket. Or the other way around.
Henry had lost all shreds of caution now that they were in the area he’d grown up. The trees outside of the station windows were not like those in Nevada, nor was the texture of the air, or even the design of the platform. The rustic cabin-like accents had been supplanted by Victorian flourishes. The town outside was quaint and small.
Elise felt a stirring of hunger when they emerged from the station beside a familiar diner. Poppy’s diner.
“Best cherry pie in the world,” she murmured.
“Hell yes,” Henry said. He wasn’t being careful now. He’d let his hood fall back as they raced across the busy street. “You know Poppy’s, but not what a hyperloop is?”
His back bumped into someone on the sidewalk. He stumbled.
Before Henry could fall, a girl’s hand shot out to grab his elbow.
Deirdre Tombs dragged him back to his feet.
It was the Alpha. The phoenix shifter.
She had found them, and she was surrounded by a dozen uniformed agents from the shifter sanctuary.
“Well, well,” she said. “Look at what we have here. Two of America’s most wanted, and a hyperloop-hijacking wizard. I have been dying to talk to you three.”