Normally Elise would never have allowed herself to be surrounded by enemies. As a human fighting preternaturals severely higher in power than she was, she’d quickly learned from her father Isaac that positioning was the key to surviving every battle. You never let the enemy get your back. You never let them flank you. And you absolutely never let them surround you, unless you were prepared to die.
Elise was not prepared to die, but she was surrounded.
She’d propped Henry Lee against the window to help him sit up, and now she saw an airship on the other side of the glass, marked with OPA insignia and with armed guards on the balcony at its underbelly. They had machine guns aimed through the window.
Meanwhile a nyctimus had just kicked open the door to the hallway, and had brought in fiends with it.
Judging by the thudding on the rooftop, there were already enemies up at the dock too.
Elise’s eyes flicked to James. He was lost in thought—or perhaps so dehydrated, so starved, that his avatar’s brain no longer functioned.
“James,” she said, “we need to remember.”
His eyes met hers. Everything else that had made his form impressive had been stripped away by captivity—held by Nashriel, one of Eve’s favorite sons—but the sharpness in his eyes couldn’t be taken by anyone. Those eyes belonged to the god.
“Remember what?” he asked.
She lifted her hand to face him palm-first as a reminder. There was no mark on it now, but there used to be. “Everything.”
James’s brow crimped as fiends flooded the room behind him, circling the couch, the empty bassinet, the man holding a baby blanket limp in one hand. “I don’t have time for ritual. I don’t have a pen.”
“Don’t need one,” Elise said. “Remember.”
She stood, hauling Henry with her. He was going to be a necessary piece of their survival. Not that she thought Nash would want to spare his life; if the angel had done what Henry claimed, then Nash was so far beyond caring about human life that he’d have flattened Reno to get to Elise.
Nashriel may have been one of Eve’s favorite sons, but he’d also been Adam’s best soldier. He had stood by God long after He lost himself to madness and executed the most horrible commands.
Elise remembered how Nash had held Victoria in his hands, looking down at her with such loathing.
She should have known.
The nyctimus shouldered to the front of the fiends. It was the female one again, small and twisted and ugly. Its eyes glowed a strange kind of blue.
“Nashriel?” Elise asked.
“No,” said the nyctimus. Its voice was female too. It had absorbed a woman—an angel—and partially shapeshifted into her form. Had she donned a bulky enough jacket, she might have resembled Melinda. “But I speak for him.”
“What does he want?” James asked, rising slowly to his feet. He was strangely stable for a man of his condition. “What will it take to get her back?”
“There’s nothing that you can do.” The nyctimus’s cruel, sharp-toothed smile was one hundred percent demon, without a hint of the Gray it had shapeshifted into.
James’s fists clenched. “What are you going to do to her?”
“You’ll find out when you return to godhood,” said the nyctimus. “You’ll get to experience every wretched moment of what happens to Victoria Faulkner, omnipotent yet incapable of changing anything—or even caring about it. Your daughter will seem trivial. Your own blood.”
Elise’s hand went tight on the knife. She shook—not with anger, not with fear, but just with…she wasn’t certain. She was shaking. She was about to explode into motion. She was going to destroy everything.
It was true, what the nyctimus said. When Elise became a god again, this would all become a distant dream. Life was a fascination of the living. Gods operated on such a higher level, witnessing all of time simultaneously, that it gave hideous perspective to what seemed to be even the biggest tragedies.
Nash could skin Victoria with a paring knife and Elise would see it as a god…and she likely would not care.
Nor would she be able to form a new avatar to return and prevent it from happening.
Those were the rules.
The fiends were pressing close enough that Henry was making a little strangled sound beside Elise, disgusted and fearful, and his hand was groping for the moonstone charm at the opposite wrist.
Yes. He could shapeshift into a mountain lion again, broad-skulled and long-toothed and absolutely savage them.
Elise could kill them all too.
Except now there were OPA agents behind the fiends and the nyctimus. Humans. Their mortality and mundanity, radiated throughout the air. They wore body armor, they carried guns, they stank of fear underneath their anonymizing helmets.
For anyone else, it would have been overkill.
But Nash intended to see Elise and James’s avatars dead.
“Why?” James asked.
Elise could barely hear him. Her skull was ringing with white-hot nothing.
“Because I want you to live with the images of what happens to Victoria for eternity,” the nyctimus said, “just as I have to live an eternity without Summer.”
This wasn’t just a demon passing along a message from Nash now. This was Nash’s voice, Nash’s words, Nash’s perspective.
“Tell Nash that Summer’s life is forfeit,” Elise said.
Henry said, “What? No.”
James’s mouth opened and he spoke a word of power.
He had remembered.
Magic thudded through the room. It erupted as a wave with James at its epicenter, shoving through the demons, sending the fiends bowling into the OPA agents, knocking them all back.
James flung a hand toward the window.
The glass rippled like water.
The shards exploded outwards with a gust of sticky black smoke from the condominium fire, and glass rained upon the pentagram-oriented streets far below like cutting rain.
Elise kept an arm locked around Henry and jumped.
James was inches behind.
They soared toward the airship, buoyed on a blast of magical wind. The distance should have been just far enough to keep Elise from reaching it. But the railing rushed closer, she extended her feet, and she connected with the nearest of the guards heels-first. He fell and she landed.
She was on the deck of the airship.
Elise shoved Henry toward the bulkhead and didn’t wait to see if he took cover. An OPA agent turned his gun upon her and she spin-kicked it out of his hands, sending it over the railing.
Her fists closed on the collars of two more agents. She slammed their heads into each other hard enough that their faces would have collapsed, had they not been wearing helmets.
Gunfire rang out. The OPA agents in the condo had gotten up, and they were standing on the edge of the shattered windows, firing directly into the airship. Trying to puncture the envelope, it seemed.
James pointed at them. His mouth opened.
The entire tower swayed, and dust gushed out of the plaster between floors. Shining metal creaked. Glass splintered on every floor.
The OPA agents toppled backwards, mostly.
Elise dispatched the men on the deck, disarming them. There had only been a handful. They were a backup, not the main assault force.
More would be coming.
Elise kneeled in front of Henry. “Fly the airship to the sanctuary.”
He scrambled to his feet. Henry opened the door, shot inside.
She turned to James. “Get rid of our passengers.”
“They’re human,” James said.
“They’re on his side!”
“Employees,” he said.
Elise didn’t care. She sheathed a knife, grabbed James by the arm, glared up at him. She let every horrible thing she felt fill her eyes so that he would know, so that he would feel it.
“Get rid of them,” she said.
James didn’t look as angry. Fearful, maybe. Remorseful.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t there,” he said.
He bent and he kissed her. His lips were dry, cracked. He tasted like the sticky dryness that came after sleeping too long without water. He was hers. He was real and solid and, for the moment, alive in this avatar form. The same form that Elise had held between her thighs on long quiet nights while Victoria filled the belly between them.
While he kissed her, he lifted a hand, and he pushed with a wave of magic.
She didn’t look to see where James tossed the OPA agents. They screamed but the sounds were soon carried away on the wind.
Elise dug her fingertips into the back of his head and kissed him harder, biting at his mouth until his cracked lips bled.
“I’m going to get my baby back,” she said.
“We will,” James agreed, tucking a stray hair behind her ear.
Henry may not have known how to pilot an airship, but he was sure as hell giving his best effort. They had turned east and reached maximum speed for such a sluggish ship within moments.
When Elise slammed through the door to the cockpit he jumped and whirled, hands lifted, the moonstone charm glimmering.
She put the point of the knife under his chin and he stopped moving.
“Did you let him take her?” Elise asked.
Henry was calmer now that he’d had time to recover from the shock of the transformation. He swallowed—his Adam’s apple was nicked by the blade, but immediately healed—and he said, “No. I didn’t.”
She believed him.
Elise lowered the knife.
James went to the controls of the airship, flipping switches, checking trajectories. Whatever he saw must have satisfied him because he made no adjustments. “What happened?” he asked.
“Nash Adamson showed up at the door,” Henry said. “He ordered me to let him see the baby, and I told him no. Victoria was sleeping. It had taken an hour to get her down so I wasn’t going to mess with it.”
Strange emotion traveled over James’s face. “Does she sleep well?”
“No,” Elise said curtly. “And then Nash took her?”
“I didn’t realize what he was doing for a minute. I mean, it’s Nash.” Henry said that like it should have been an excuse all its own. “But I was talking to him like I always do—like the way I used to talk to Summer. Joking around. He wasn’t joking. When I got between Victoria and Nash, he pushed me into a fucking wall. He pulled out a flaming sword. Demons came in.”
“And at what point did you realize that this armed, angry, demon-accompanied angel might have been serious?” James asked.
Henry looked at Elise. “Who’s this asshole? Your husband?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Figures.” He gave James a short nod. “I’m Henry Lee.”
“James Faulkner,” James said. “It’s a pleasure.”
“What next?” Elise asked.
“I don’t care who you are, or what you might have done to Nash,” Henry said. “I wasn’t going to let him get revenge using a baby. I shapeshifted.” His throat worked as he swallowed, harder than before. “Fuck. I shapeshifted and it didn’t do anything. Couldn’t even get close to Nash. He’s fast. Never seen him move that fast.”
Elise surveyed his face, trying to decide if she trusted this account. She couldn’t be sure. She’d never been very good at reading emotions on others’ faces.
If she had, then maybe she’d have known how much trouble Nash was going to be earlier.
For the moment she needed Henry, so she would trust him.
“We have a problem,” James said.
They had a lot of problems.
For instance, if Nash had gone absolutely psychotic, leaving tableaus of dead bodies for Elise to find…what did that mean about the condition at the sanctuary? Was Abel complicit? Did Nash have full control of the OPA?
And if he was that psychotic, what was he going to do to Victoria?
Elise was no stranger to anger. She knew the full spectrum of its potential depths the way that children knew their alphabet. But this emotion she felt was new and strange. It churned inside of her, made her feel like her heart and loins were connected by rusty wires, and filled the back of her throat with a sour taste.
Her breasts hurt, they were so full of milk. She was well overdue to feed Victoria again. And she hadn’t taken the antibiotics so she could feel the fever returning too.
Yes. They definitely had problems.
“Oh shit,” Henry said. He’d moved beside James to look at the control panel. He started punching buttons. “I can’t fix it. I can’t change it.”
Elise pushed both of them aside. “What?”
The cause of the airship’s shuddering quickly became obvious. The screen on the control panel was flashing, and a message indicated that OPA command had taken control remotely.
Abel may or may not have been complicit, but Nash certainly had control of the OPA.
They could control cars. Airships. They had surveillance across all of Reno, and likely every other American city at the bare minimum. They could track anyone by those cameras. And they could bomb anything that they wanted with a moment’s notice, as Elise had seen.
And Nash had all of that.
“Fuck me,” Elise muttered. She yanked a machine gun off of the wall, checked the magazine, and then took aim at the panel.
“What are you doing?” Henry asked, alarmed.
She opened fire.
The machine gun chattered, metal sparked against metal, and her ears rang.
Elise kept shooting until there was nothing left to shoot and the lights on the control panel had gone blank.
The airship drifted, its engines killed.
She tossed the gun aside and grabbed another from the rack.
“Are you insane?” Henry asked, chasing her out onto the deck.
There were jets closing in. Elise could hear the faint roar of engines, see the contrails. They’d gotten to the edge of Reno before Nash stopped them. It wasn’t far enough. The fighters were going to intercept them within minutes.
“She’s not insane,” James said. He was following behind them with much less urgency. Color had finally returned to his cheeks and lips, along with grim determination in his eyes. “She is, however, unstoppable. You might want to find clothing, Henry. We’re about to reenter society.”
Henry was still naked from shapeshifting. He glanced around the deck of the dirigible, and his eyes fell on the one dead OPA agent who remained after James had cleaned house.
“How? Why?” he asked.
Elise lifted the gun to aim at the envelope of the airship. “We’re landing.”
She opened fire again.
A hole tore open in the airship.
And they plummeted.