Elise was shocked to have twelve hours of sleep that night.
She hadn’t slept twelve hours since Victoria was born.
For that matter, Elise hadn’t slept twelve hours at a time before she was born, either, unless one counted times she’d been comatose or knocked unconscious.
Elise had hoped to immediately resume searching for James after she glassed her father’s dead body. Unfortunately, her living body had betrayed her with exhaustion. It had been severe enough that even Henry, irate from his abandonment with Victoria, noticed that Elise desperately needed sleep.
At that point, Henry asked how Elise felt about formula. Elise had exactly zero feelings about what he used to feed the baby, as long as Victoria was fed.
Formula it was.
So Elise had locked the bedroom door and slept as though she were dead.
There were upsides and downsides to this.
The upside was that for the first time in a long time, she went to the bathroom without excreting bowling balls of blood clots from her womb. Many of her new bruises had faded as well. Twelve hours had set her form to healing.
The downsides were much more numerous. Elise sat up with her limbs weighted by the desire to sleep longer, as though her body had realized that there was this thing called “resting” and now it was spoiled. She also woke up feeling sick, feverish, aching. The discomfort originated from her breasts. Elise lifted her shirt to see that they were both hardened spheres leaking milk.
Elise emerged from the bedroom to find Henry lying on the floor on a baby blanket, Victoria on his chest, dirty diapers kicked under the coffee table, and empty bottles strewn across every surface.
Both of them were snoring.
A little girl needs a father.
Henry was not Victoria’s father. He was a convenient babysitter assigned by the sanctuary.
Her real father was…where?
Elise was shocked by the force of the anger. She’d never been a stranger to such emotions, but she’d been trying to leave room for doubt in regards to James. The sight of her father’s preserved body entombed within Craven’s seemed to have sucked away what little room remained within her.
Now she felt three things: an aching body, despair at the idea of one more day parenting that shrieky little thing, and pure white-out rage.
She opted for a hot shower rather than moving Henry to a more comfortable bed. The enormous hot water heaters in Dat-So-La-Lee Condominiums allowed Elise to hand-express enough to stop leaking—a feat which produced disturbing amounts of milk.
The baby was screaming by the time she got out. Elise had to stand in the bedroom for a long time, gathering her composure. She kept her forehead pressed to the wall and her fingernails digging bloody half-moons into her palm and she tried to tell herself that Victoria wouldn’t always be like this. That eventually, she wouldn’t scream. She wouldn’t be a boneless limp thing that was never satisfied. Elise’s body would not always ache as it produced milk, and she would not always be a fucking cow.
Henry was waiting on the other side of the door, eyes heavy lidded.
“Want her?” he asked without preamble.
The demand in his tone made fresh anger claw inside Elise’s chest.
One more moment. Just one more moment where I am not tied to that thing. Is that so much to ask for?
Elise took Victoria, and this time, the screaming stopped at her touch. This time. It would have been easier if Victoria had expressed predictable responses in reaction to the same stimulus.
Instead, the gray-eyed baby gazed blankly at the roof past Elise’s head, looking so much like James that Elise wanted to spike her in the end zone of a football field.
Elise did not throw the baby.
“Where do the city’s most vulnerable populations live?” she asked.
Henry gave her a blankly glossy gaze. “What?”
“I bombed someone last night. That enemy will now know I have the capability, and he will be hiding somewhere I’m unwilling to bomb.” She sat down on the couch to attempt to nurse Victoria, who was arching her back too angrily to eat. She wasn’t screaming again yet but she was grunting those grunts that meant it wasn’t far away.
“I don’t think those are supposed to look like that,” Henry said.
Elise glanced down. Despite expressing all that milk, her breasts looked red and angry. There was a visible line shooting from one nipple toward her armpit.
She did not know if her breasts were normal. She had never seen a woman who breastfed.
Henry’s opinion was unwelcome.
“Where do the city’s most vulnerable populations live?” Elise asked, ignoring him. “I have to find someone. Now.”
“You have to see a healer,” Henry said. He was waking up now that he’d had a moment, and he quickly prepared a pot of coffee. “I’ve already got an appointment for you at eleven.”
For all Elise cared, she could cut her breasts off with a sword now that she had alternative food for Victoria. The idea was tempting. Raw open wounds on her chest would surely hurt less. “There are other matters much more urgent.”
“That looks like an infection,” he said. “You need treatment.”
His warning gave her pause. Infections were dangerous—and also something she’d seldom worried about in her past life as a kopis. Elise seemed to have accelerated healing. Why didn’t she have a better immune system?
Victoria still wasn’t eating. She was arching, grunting, staring at that same spot on the ceiling.
Elise’s breasts were starting to leak again and she felt increasingly feverish.
“Fine,” Elise said. “Doctor.”
They arrived at the medical center well before their appointment. “I received a report about Ria’s first newborn checkup from the sanctuary’s lead healer. Something got flagged,” Henry said. He waited for Elise to open the door so that he could carry Victoria’s carseat and the diaper bag inside. “This appointment was made on the orders of the Elder Wolf. He also sent a message.” He appeared uncomfortable suddenly, and he cleared his throat. “‘Fuck you very much.’”
Elise couldn’t decide where to start being angry. She turned her gaze down to the infant in her arms, and she saw the face of a tiny human named Victoria, deserving of whatever dignity could be afforded to an infant. Even one so frustrating as this. “You call her Ria?”
“I think she likes the name.”
“It’s a stupid name.”
“You left me with your newborn for twelve hours,” Henry said. “Me, a tactical genius and killing machine, forced to figure out how to cater to a baby’s whims for half a day. They trained me how to keep my head under torture and it was nothing like that.”
“Pathetic,” Elise said.
The elevator chimed and took them upstairs.
It only took a moment for Elise to be diagnosed with an infection, which resulted in only a prescription for extra-strength anti-inflammatories.
It took much longer for the healer and the doctor to confer about Victoria’s eyes.
“I’ll get the VISOR,” the doctor concluded after too long.
At Henry’s worried expression, the healer gave them a reassuring smile. “It’s only a diagnostic device,” the healer said. She bent over Victoria, tickling her feet. The baby kicked.
Ten minutes with VISOR led to more quiet talking between the medical team.
And then a diagnosis.
“It looks like transient vision loss,” the doctor said. “VISOR didn’t show any sign of absence seizures, so it’s not clear what the cause might be. It’s possible that Victoria’s eyes are just developing slowly.” Possible, his tone said, but unlikely.
Something was wrong with Victoria.
Elise had thought it was normal for babies to sometimes look stupid and unfocused.
“What does that mean for Ria?” Henry asked. Elise quietly contemplated murdering him.
“We’re not sure yet. We’ll refer to you a pediatric eye specialist who will have more answers for you, but don’t worry.” The healer rested her hands on Elise’s and Henry’s. “With great parents like you two, there’s no doubt in our minds that little Ria will conquer anything she’s faced with.”
Elise picked the baby up. “Fuck all of you,” she said.
And she left.
She stood next to the sanctuary car to swallow a double dose of anti-inflammatories and glare down at the baby in her arms. Elise couldn’t tell if Victoria was experiencing transient vision loss or if she was a normal level of blank for a baby. The newborn wasn’t screaming for once, but now even that worried Elise.
There was something wrong with her infant, and she didn’t know what.
Elise’s breasts hurt too.
“Eat,” she told Victoria, lifting her shirt again.
The baby ate this time. Victoria’s eyelids closed, and Elise did not have to see the gray-eyed stare of her infant.
Henry stormed into view, hair sticking up and frustration painted on his face. He’d grabbed the carseat and diaper bag. “You are the rudest—”
With Elise’s free hand, she grabbed his throat. She slammed his back into the side of the car. He dropped everything and grabbed her arm back, even as her fingers squeezed on his throat and his whole face reddened.
Henry could have done more to defend himself from that position, but his eyes kept flicking down to Victoria. He didn’t want to attack with the baby in the way.
Elise shoved her face into his. His strained exhalations made it clear he was not actually suffocating; Elise knew what it sounded like when she suffocated someone. “Where do the city’s most vulnerable populations live, Henry Lee?”
She released him so he could answer. Henry collapsed, hands on his knees, back heaving as he inhaled. “I don’t know, you crazy asshole!”
“Then let’s find them,” Elise said.
Elise no longer knew where to find information in this world, in this city. But she knew how to find the people that had clues.
There were universal constants, even when the universe had changed. People loved money. They struggled for it, and they struggled without it. Sex was as convincing a currency as the dollar bill in its way. Perhaps more so. Of those two things, Elise had neither, but she had a third currency—and that was violence, which functioned excellently against any creature with a rational fear of death.
People in Reno had forgotten what it meant to fear death, but Elise planned to remind them.
Henry drove Elise through the neighborhoods of Reno that afternoon, while Victoria screamed in her car seat. The baby had hardly stopped screaming in the last sixteen hours. Elise had expected she’d be able to tune it out eventually, but it only got worse by the hour, drilling into her skull like steel screw into rotting cork.
“Where are you going?” Henry had asked while settling Victoria in her seat, fitting the baby’s small, thrashing limbs into the harness.
“I don’t know,” Elise had replied.
She wished she knew. If she had, she could have kept the car seat out of the picture and ran there herself. Even now, Reno was not a particularly large city, and Elise was confident in her ability to run for miles.
But she didn’t know where, exactly, she wanted to be. She only knew what she was watching for.
Henry drove five under the speed limit and took every road without needing to be asked, looping around blocks multiple times, creeping down alleys, weaving in and out of casino parking lots.
While he drove, he made a call on speakerphone.
“I need to be reassigned,” he said. “I’m not the right person for this assignment.”
“Mr. Lee,” said the woman on the other end of the line, sounding alarmed. “This isn’t procedure.”
“It’s barely been hours,” she said. Now she sounded admonishing.
“Listen to me, you old bag—”
“Henry.” The woman’s voice had been replaced by a gravelly male voice. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” It was Abel Wilder, the Elder Wolf.
“I can’t do this,” Henry said.
“Elise? You hearing me?”
“Yes,” she said. She’d been ignoring the conversation until then.
“Is Henry meeting your needs?” Abel asked.
Her instinct was to say no, that he was worse than useless. But Elise had gotten twelve hours of sleep. He was giving her an adequate tour of Reno. Everything about him that grated could be ignored. “Yes.”
“Henry, kid, you’ve got to hang in there,” Abel said. “She needs you. I need you.”
Henry’s face went red again. “Abel—”
But Abel had hung up.
“I’m not doing this anymore,” Henry said.
Elise said, “Keep driving.”
And he did.
Outside of downtown and midtown Reno, things were less polished. The impoverished population that had been pushed away from the riverwalk district had migrated south and north. Some wreckage remained from the demon apocalypse of 2009 in these areas—and it was strangely disturbing for Elise to see untouched places where her friends had died.
“The triadists preserved as much as they could,” Henry said.
The triadists were wrong to believe that the gods would want these places preserved. There were too many wretched memories.
Street corners where Elise had vomited blood still had signs from the early 2000s. Areas that her enemies had burned to the ground were still ashy black, peppered with weeds that triadist volunteers were pulling even now.
It was miserable.
But the misery was a comfort. It pleased Elise to see the liquor store she used to frequent with her best friend, if not the fact that it still had graffiti of twin crossed blades on its wall.
“Go north,” Elise said. “Through the west side of the university.”
Henry obeyed. Victoria screamed.
She didn’t see what she wanted. She was looking for signs of more than poverty—there was always plenty of that, no matter the time period. She was looking for the people who exploited that. The organized crime, especially the kind that came from demons.
But she only saw people.
“Where are they?” Elise muttered.
Henry took a left turn down some tiny side street. “Who?”
He looked startled. “In Reno?”
The two words used to be synonymous.
Times had indeed changed.
Elise had him stop the car north of the university. “Here. We’re getting out here.”
He eased through the gates of Our Mother of Sorrows Cemetery and parked.
“Not you,” Elise said when he started to open his door.
Henry threw his hands in the air. “I’m done with you anyway. I’m going back to the condo to nap.”
She opened the back door and removed Victoria. At this point, the infant was so worked up that even being held didn’t appease her.
What was her problem? She was trying to find her bastard of a husband in an unfamiliar distortion of her home town while she continually dripped blood and milk and got no sleep and an ugly small human yelled at her ceaselessly.
And some asshole was asking her stupid questions.
“I’ll find my way back to the tower,” Elise said.
She didn’t watch to make sure he left. She carried Victoria into the cemetery with the baby tucked under her arm facing the ground, and the weird perspective seemed confusing enough to pause the cries. It was quiet enough that Elise heard when Henry finally restarted the engine and pulled away.
Our Mother of Sorrows was not the largest graveyard in Reno, but it was the one with which Elise was most familiar. It was a patch of grass tucked against a sagebrush-strewn hill, overlooked by townhouses and overlooking the university’s football field.
There were statues of angels in the cemetery, but far more flat placards memorializing infants stillborn, adults who had been loving wives and friends, and some recent installations for old unmarked graves.
The cemetery had been restored after Elise had driven through it with a Jeep. There were no tire tracks in the grass after a hundred years, and even the tombstones she’d run over had been replaces. The gashes that zombie fingernails had gouged into the side of the church had been plastered over.
She was back, after all this time. She was back.
It felt as though she’d never left.
Aside from the obnoxious baby under her arm.
Elise was drawn by instinct to the end of the cemetery. There was a path to another gate, and then a road; it swept down the hill and ducked underneath the freeway.
That was where she was going.
She wasn’t sure why, but it was.
Elise stood in the darkness underneath six lanes of roaring cars. She absorbed the flow of the city’s blood over her head. She closed her eyes to savor it all.
Somewhere in this city, there was an angel dealing warlock artifacts.
Somewhere in this city, James was waiting.
“Have faith in him.”
Elise opened her eyes and turned to see the Traveler. She wasn’t surprised to see it, nor did she have trouble recognizing it, even though a century had passed since she’d last worked with the Traveler.
The Traveler was a witch of indeterminate gender. It had no breasts, full lips, and a mohawk. At the moment it wore hole-riddled leggings with visible fishnets underneath and a loose black cardigan.
At the sight of the Traveler, Elise felt calm.
“It’s bad if you’re here,” Elise said.
The Traveler walked over. It looked at Victoria without touching, and Victoria looked back, suddenly falling silent. Empty gray eyes met the Traveler’s gaze. Victoria didn’t even make eye contact with Elise like that.
“It’s bad,” the Traveler agreed, “but not as bad as you think.”
“What are you doing?” Elise asked.
“You’ll want my help soon. I’m telling you I’m here. And I’m telling you to have faith in him.”
The Traveler passed its hands over Elise’s eyes without touching her face. The breeze from it fluttered Elise’s hair.
The anger drained from her for just a moment.
The frustration, the fear.
“You mean James,” Elise said.
“The region’s OPA shelter is in Sun Valley. It’s as bad there as you remember.” The Traveler turned to walk away. “I’ll see you soon.” Its hips swayed as it walked, even though it had little hips to speak of. From that angle, Elise could see the tattoos running from the nape of its neck down into the neck of its shirt.
It disappeared without turning the corner.
Normal emotions settled back into Elise’s gut when she could no longer see the witch. Except now Victoria had stopped screaming, and her strange gray eyes had settled on Elise’s face.
Elise met her infant’s gaze with a shock of surprise.
“Hello,” Elise said.
Victoria just looked at her, and the solemn line of her mouth was more similar to Elise’s than to James’s. There was a familiar angry slant to her faint baby eyebrows too.
It took Elise a moment to realize what the Traveler had given her.
The city’s most vulnerable population was in Sun Valley, Nevada. An OPA shelter filled with shifters like Hailey. A place that Elise would be unwilling to carpet bomb.
James was in Sun Valley.