Once the adrenaline wore off, it came to Elise’s attention that her femur had a hairline fracture. The pain nearly made her collapse immediately after meeting Deirdre Tombs. She was informed of the pain’s origin by a healer in a cottage at the bottom of the hill, who made a lot of aghast noises as he looked over Elise’s body.
“No prenatal care?” he asked. “No postpartum care? And what about seeing a pediatrician?”
“The newborn didn’t get hit with a shifter’s hammer,” Elise said.
The healer set spells to work fixing before looking over Victoria. He said that the baby’s hip joints were good. He felt no issues when palpating Victoria’s abdomen, though Victoria didn’t appreciate the cold fingers on her naked belly and yelled about it quite a bit. He traced his fingers over the soft spots on her skull and announced those were fine, too.
“Does the baby seem to be reacting to sight and sound normally, as far as you can tell?” he asked.
“As normal as a fucking potato that feeds on bodily fluids,” Elise muttered.
“She’ll need to be scanned,” he said, shining a light into Victoria’s eyes.
Elise had been instructed not to get off the table while the spell was repairing her thigh—and the healing wound where the placenta used to be attached to her uterus, which was, the healer scornfully informed her, the reason she was gushing blood every time she moved too much. Having a healer poking her crying baby and announce something was wrong made her want to stand very badly.
“Give her to me,” Elise said.
Something in her tone was very convincing. He spilled the baby into her arms. Victoria stopped crying once held by Elise.
“Her eyes look a little strange,” he said.
“Strange how?” They were that flat gray color that Marion’s had been when she’d been a baby. Elise thought all babies were supposed to look like that.
“They’re not reacting to stimulus properly,” he said. “So we’ll need to run tests.”
“Is she human?” Elise asked.
The healer looked startled. “Are you?”
That was a good question. Elise wasn’t sure if she and James had decided to bestow any powers on her in this life, and she hadn’t thought to experiment.
The door opened, preventing her from having to come up with a satisfactory answer. Deirdre Tombs reentered, flanked by more armed guards than were meant to fit into the little medical cottage.
“Out,” she snapped.
The healer scurried for the door. “Your femur needs five more minutes before it can handle weight!” he called before leaving.
Deirdre glared at Elise.
Elise glared back.
“You do look kinda like the Godslayer,” Deirdre finally said grudgingly.
“I don’t know you,” Elise said.
“Looks don’t mean a lot.” Deirdre shrugged it off, as if deciding it didn’t matter who Elise was. “You killed a lot of people. Bad people, though. So I’ll let that slide. I’ve been working my way through so-called ‘Alphas’ like Corina for months, and you just knocked one off of my list for me. I owe you thanks for that.”
“Where’s Rylie Gresham?”
“Get in the wheelchair,” Deirdre said. One of her guards brought it to the side of the table.
There was no way Elise was going to get in that.
She moved to stand from the table.
“If you don’t want to have O’Shea in here working on you again, you’ll get in the fucking chair,” Deirdre said.
Elise limped for the door.
The magic hurt significantly, but she’d been through worse.
Deirdre didn’t bother arguing with Elise once she got out of the cottage. Rock and hard place had met and decided they didn’t give any fucks about one another’s attitudes.
Elise was shamefully slow following Deirdre down the road, though.
They didn’t have far to go.
“Rylie Gresham,” Deirdre said, jerking her thumb.
There was a statue at the crossroads. It depicted a woman in her fifties, perhaps her sixties, with long straight hair and a serene expression. There was a wolf coiled around her body that was three or four times larger than her. Elise remembered the sleek, almost feline wolf that Rylie had been capable of shapeshifting into. The statue was meant to represent Rylie in both of her forms.
“She’s been dead for twenty years,” Deirdre said. “And you look like you’re not much older than that. So we’ve got three options as I see it: you’re delirious, you’re telling the truth about who you are, or you were besties with Rylie when you were a toddler and she was old as fuck. Which is possible. That’s something Rylie would have done. She did have eight children, after all.”
Rylie Gresham was dead.
The woman that Elise had been hoping to pass Victoria off to…gone.
The years stamped on the placard at Rylie’s stone feet were significantly higher than Elise expected, too.
When Elise shut her eyes and focused hard, she remembered a few dates from her previous life. She knew that she’d settled in Reno, Nevada with James the first time in…what had that been, 2009? And the world had undergone the Breaking—a terrible time when Hell had leaked onto Earth—in something like 2014.
This said that Rylie Gresham had died in the year 2062.
“What year is it now?” Elise asked.
Deirdre gave her a strange look and said, “It’s 2125.”
Time was such a strange thing as a god.
Elise could have sworn that she and James had returned to Earth, substantiating into avatar forms, at a time shortly following their previous lives. She’d intended to see what had become of the world they had made. They should have appeared no later than 2016, maybe 2017.
Instead, they were seeing a world that had lived a century with minimal interference from them.
How was it that she’d lived something like twenty-five years in this body without realizing she’d lost a hundred years?
Everything felt so foggy.
Time marched on for the pack, though.
“The Elder Wolf will see you now,” Deirdre said, stopping in front of a pile of dirt at the top of the waterfall. They’d gotten back to walking once Elise’s femur had finished healing, which she’d allowed to happen while sitting at the stone feet of Rylie Gresham’s statue. Elise was much faster now that her legs were working.
“Elder Wolf?” Elise asked. “The hell is an Elder Wolf?” There had been no such thing in her day and age, and the thought merely crossing her mind made her feel like an ancient curmudgeon.
“Just get in there. He’s expecting you.” Deirdre folded her arms, stood aside, and waited.
Elise shifted her grip on Victoria and ducked into the dirt mound.
She’d expected to find something magical inside. Witches could cast glamours that cloaked the most extraordinary things in ordinary exteriors, and anywhere a supposed Elder Wolf lived must have been pretty extraordinary.
Nope. Pile of dirt on the outside, pile of dirt on the inside.
It had been smoothed out by lots of people walking around it. There were two mattresses piled with comfortable pillows against opposite walls. There was a stone slab in the middle. And a fire pit in front of that.
The Elder Wolf was sitting in front of the fire pit.
Elise laughed when she recognized him.
“Fuck,” she said. “You’re old.”
“You’re not,” said Abel Wilder.
The man was truly ancient, and he was sitting on a tree stump turned stool more like a frog than a wolf. There was strength in his muscles and smoothness in the way he stood, but he was diminished with age, at least an inch shorter from spine compression without the biceps and shoulders that had once made him intimidating.
He was dark-skinned and heavily scarred on one side of his body. What hair remained was white. His gold eyes remained sharp as ever as he studied Elise, though.
“Shit,” he grunted. “I didn’t believe them. Shouldn’t have put anything past you, but there you go. Get older and stupider every day.” His gaze dropped to the squirming bundle in Elise’s arms, and he laughed. “Ha! You made a baby.”
“You made eight, apparently,” Elise said.
“And twenty-four grandbabies, and sixteen great-grandbabies, and a few great-greats that I’ve lost count of. Whole baseball teams worth of them. Babies are great. Love the little shitheads. Rylie would have been so fucking happy.”
Elise’s jaw clenched. “What happened?”
“A fight,” Abel said. “She sacrificed herself to stop enemies who would have killed the whole pack, grandbabies included. What else would you expect from her? She was too young.”
Dying in one’s late seventies didn’t seem “too young” to Elise, but then, she wasn’t a werewolf man who clearly had reached infirmity of age in his hundred thirties or forties, wherever he was.
He’d lived a long time without his mate.
“Is Deirdre one of those offspring of yours?” Elise asked. “She doesn’t look anything like either of you.”
“She’s not ours. She’s a phoenix. Keeps on coming back at random ages and times whenever she dies—little bit like you, I guess, without the god parts. She’ll get to be Alpha a long time. As far as I know, she’ll get to be Alpha forever unless someone figures out how to scrub her off the planet. She’s welcome to do it. I’m too old to worry about this crap.”
“I didn’t know werewolves could live this long,” Elise admitted.
“Neither did we. Surprise, surprise. Did you do it to us?”
That was another painful confession she had to make. “I don’t know.”
“Fucking avatars,” Abel muttered.
“You have experience with us? Have you seen James around?”
He eyed her suspiciously. “I’m surprised you don’t already know how I’ve run across avatars before. But, I mean, you always come back all scrambled up in the brains like this. Gods aren’t supposed to go mortal.” He added that part very pointedly, with no attempt to hide his judgment.
“I had plans,” Elise said. “James and I had plans, together.” Their main plan was starting to whine in the exact shrill pitch that made Elise want to drop the baby on the floor and walk out of the dirt mound. “Someone’s taken him. I have to find him. If you’ve seen him, now’s the time to mention it.”
“Naw, I haven’t,” Abel said. “I wouldn’t hide that from you. Got no interest in keeping people from their mates.”
Standing up seemed to be too exhausting for him suddenly. He sank onto the tree stump again, back leaning against the stone slab.
It was a sarcophagus, Elise realized.
The statue was the public memorial for Rylie Gresham, but Abel was living in a dirt mound with her body.
“I’d hoped to die of a broken hip or some shit right after Rylie, but instead I’ve had to watch generations carry on without her. Lots of mornings without her. Lots of nights without too. Lots of years,” Abel said. “Fucked up stuff. That’s life, though. Mortal life.”
Elise would never have to deal with mornings, nights, or years without James—once she found him again.
She had an eternity to be with the man she’d chosen. Who destiny had chosen for her.
Motion from one of the beds against the wall startled Elise. She hadn’t realized there was a body among all those pillows. Her senses truly were dulled. It was hard to hear, see, and feel anything except Victoria as she worked up a fuss. She couldn’t have been hungry again. She was just crying to cry.
Elise swung the baby in her arms as she walked over to the mattress.
The woman in bed was a woman with hair and skin similar to Abel’s. Elise hadn’t spent enough time with the pack to recognize who it was, especially with so many years wrinkling her face, etching canyons into features that surely had been beautiful in youth, and making her limbs weak and shriveled.
She was asleep, curled into the fetal position. Probably older than Abel. Probably weaker.
The woman practically reeked of death.
“Who’s this?” Elise asked.
“Like you care,” Abel said.
An angel glided into the room, escorted by Deirdre Tombs. All the age that had twisted Abel’s once-strong body didn’t touch Nashriel Adamson. He was as strong as he had always been, with the lofty height of the entire ethereal breed, the effortless grace, and the flawless skin. Eternally ageless. Perhaps forty-five at the oldest, twenty-five at the youngest. Impossible to tell.
In reality, Nash was thousands of years old.
Millions by some calculations.
He looked unsurprised to see Elise—unsurprised and unhappy.
“Elise,” he said.
“Nash,” she replied.
“You mean this really is her?” Deirdre asked. “Oh shit.” The Alpha kid looked angry all of a sudden, overwhelmed by anger, and her body seethed with flame. Literal flame—it leaped down her arms, ruffled her spongy curls, and turned golden eyes crimson.
“Walk it off,” Nash suggested.
“Don’t talk to me,” she said.
But she did leave.
Nash stared at Elise hard, as though waiting for something to happen. When they glared at one another in total silence for several minutes, he finally said, “I think we need to talk.”
“Be my guest,” Abel said. “I’ve said all I’ve got.” He shuffled over to the mattress with the woman and sat beside her. There was something possessive about his hand on her shoulder.
That possessiveness reminded Elise of the way she squeezed Victoria to her chest, even when she wanted the baby to go away.
Elise followed Nash to the door, but didn’t go outside. She caught herself staring at the stone sarcophagus.
Now that she was in the presence of Rylie’s remains, Elise felt some kind of old consciousness flickering within the shadowy fog of her mind. She remembered sitting beside Rylie in a shower as the girl tried to wash blood off of her body. She remembered exchanging kind words in Rylie’s home. She remembered riding a motorcycle through the forest while Rylie raced alongside her in the form of a wolf, free and wind-whipped and graceful.
They had been friends once.
She needed to say something, but she didn’t know what.
“Rylie was good,” Elise said. It wasn’t enough, but it was the most genuine thing she could pull out of those memories.
Abel looked a thousand years old all of a sudden. “I know,” he said. “I know.”