Of all the motivations that Elise had expected, Nashriel as a fallen angel hadn’t been among them.
In retrospect, it should have been obvious. But she had been so prepared to think of Nash as a warrior for Adam rather than one of Eve’s beloved sons. He was a bitter man driven by hate, not a victim of his biology.
Yet here he was, standing in a living nightmare with cloven hoofs, a feathered chest, and the tail of a lion—the exact kind of chimera Elise had seen before in previous angels.
She had never seen it end well.
Elise stopped trying to stab Summer and stepped back.
“Dead?” Elise asked. It had taken a moment for the angel’s words to sink in. “Victoria is…dead?”
Nash nodded, and all Elise could think about was how the motion was a little jerky, a little bird-like. Because he wasn’t in his right mind. He wasn’t okay. He wasn’t aware of the world around him if he was fallen—not the way that an angel was aware before the fall—and as he sank into a more animal state, his thoughts and behaviors would be erratic.
He wouldn’t know if Victoria was dead.
He wouldn’t be able to tell.
Elise’s head was pounding, and only so much of it was due to her avatar’s loss of blood. Physical pain was something that she could push away. She could dominate it, ride it like a wild horse. But this…
“How?” Elise asked, and the word hurt. Acknowledging that there was a chance Nash could be right hurt, and it was so much more worse than her physical condition.
Nash was trying to remain himself. She could see the battle in his eyes, and in his posture. “There was something wrong with your baby.”
Elise remembered the words “transient blindness” and the way that the infant had looked directly at the Traveler.
Something is wrong with your baby.
And now she started to believe Nash.
Is Victoria already dead?
“How?” Elise asked again.
“You made so many mistakes when you remade the world,” Nash said. “You can’t begin to realize exactly how many mistakes you made. The Fascination—it’s driven me mad. I’m turning into a fallen angel by virtue of losing Summer alone. I’m doing the kinds of things that torment me the most, and it’s your fault!”
“Lilith made the Fascination when she made the last world,” Elise said. Technically, it was Lilith’s fault. Another of her curses. Not too different from the ichor that overtook the fiends when cut by the Infernal Blade.
“But you perpetuated it after Genesis. You didn’t fix anything. Not one God-damned thing!”
Elise was beginning to believe that was true. She had seen what had become of preternaturals firsthand, especially when she’d been in the OPA shelter with Hailey and all her tiger cubs. She’d seen how her new, beautiful world had become so quickly stratified so that people were crushed and left behind.
And she hadn’t fixed the Fascination. She hadn’t. She’d left a route for fallen angels to be created.
“So it was an accident,” Nash said. “I never intended…I never would have…” His throat worked. “Summer spent her youth here, in the Haven.” He swept his hands around the cabin where the Wilder woman had grown up. “She didn’t reunite with her parents until she was an adult, and I saw how much it hurt all of them to be divided during those critical mortal years. My intent was to simply withhold Victoria from you. I would force you to return to the Infinite, keep Victoria Faulkner on Earth, and make sure that you never got to walk the mortal planes alongside her again.”
He was right. That would have been torture enough…assuming Elise had cared once she got to the Infinite.
“But?” she prompted.
“She died when I crossed worlds,” Nash said. “I don’t know if it was a flare of my power, or the shift in dimensions, or…” He looked down at his hands. They shimmered with a failing glamour that hadn’t been intended to function off of Earth. He had claws, black claws, sort of like a big cat’s. “Her heart stopped beating.”
Elise was falling too. She was tumbling down into nothingness.
Her sword slipped from her hand and she didn’t even care.
Nash took the chance to lunge forward, seizing Elise. His arm locked around her throat. She didn’t struggle against him. She gazed up at his familiar face, which was familiar only in part because she’d known him in this life.
When she looked at Nash, she felt a lot like she did looking at Victoria. She felt…strange. Unsettled. Fearful, but fond.
It had been over a century since Elise had borne Eve’s soul inside of her, but she remembered being mother to Nash, and she remembered how that felt.
Such fondness coexisted seamlessly with the anger. Elise’s emotional landscape had become dizzyingly complex, an endless jangle of sensation that she couldn’t pick through. Only one thought rose above all the others. One thing that she could focus on through everything else.
I have to find Victoria.
“Where is she?” Elise asked, her fingers creeping up to seize Nash’s arm. Her nails dug into his forearm. It felt both too bony and too strong.
“I left her in the house,” he said.
He’d left her alone.
Elise shut her eyes and allowed herself to drift back. Not far, just a few days. She thought of lying in bed beside her infant and trying desperately to sleep in between Victoria’s periods of crying. She thought of how quickly the baby quieted when pulled from her carseat, and the dampness of her hot, tear-streaked cheek against Elise’s chest.
She was alone.
“Parenthood,” Nash snarled into Elise’s hair. He had been carried on the memories alongside her, witnessing the idle moments of having a new baby. The smells, the sounds, the exhaustion and the strange instants of giddy bliss. “I didn’t want it. I never needed it. But Summer… We adopted many children, and she loved them all like they’d come from her body.”
“Then what’s your fucking problem?” Elise asked.
“I needed it,” he whispered. “Summer’s blood mingled with mine. To face eternity without her…” His mind rippled over Elise’s. The ethereal energy had curdled and begun to reek like a bowl of milk on a hot day.
There was no way that Nash could have resisted an innate biological mechanism. He couldn’t stop from falling.
“You didn’t have to take my child,” Elise said.
“Would you have helped me if I hadn’t?”
“I’m not going to fucking help you now. There are rules, Nashriel. A thousand-million rules. The integrity of the universe rests on these rules, and if I start pulling on threads, the whole thing’s gonna fall apart.”
“But you can fix this,” he said. “You can die and return to the Infinite and fix it. Give Summer back her youth. Take away my Fascination. Restore me.”
“Why the fuck should I give anything to you?”
“Because it’s your fault! Everything is your fault!”
Simmering madness snapped into rage. His arms locked onto Elise, and when she fought against the press of his hands on her head, she found she could only twist the both of them together. She couldn’t break free.
Nash’s breath blasted against the back of her neck, stinking of sulfur.
“I’m going to kill you,” he said, “and you’re going to go to the Infinite and fix everything.”
Elise’s spine was aching. The cervical vertebrae at the base of her skull were on the brink of snapping.
No amount of godly willpower would keep her avatar animated after that.
And if Nash was confused—if he was wrong about Victoria’s condition—Elise would drop dead instantly, and she would indeed return to the Infinite.
That would be the end of her current life.
No more Danäe and Daniel.
No more naps stolen alongside a sweaty, stinking baby.
No first laughter, words, or footsteps.
Elise tried to say, “No.” But Nash was pressing harder. Twisting harder. He was leaning all his weight on her, and she knew with total certainty that she was about to die.
And then a woman spoke.
Her voice was small and quavering. Elise was so shocked to hear it that it took her a moment to realize there was also a blade sliding between her back and Nash’s concave stomach.
Summer Gresham had awakened, and she was holding the Infernal Blade on them.
The change that came over Nash was immediate. Elise could see him becoming himself again the way that Elise had felt more herself—more right, more normal—as soon as she’d gotten in that Chevelle with James. Nash’s broken mind was dragged back through the years to a happier time the instant he saw his wife, and he looked upon her as though she were still the fresh-faced girl in the living room paintings.
“Summer,” he said. His arms went limp. Elise yanked away from him.
The Infernal Blade didn’t follow her.
Summer kept the sword pushed against Nash’s belly.
It didn’t seem to be the first time she’d handled a sword. She had its point underneath his breastbone, angled upward toward his heart. Elise could tell that the trajectory would be perfect for killing Nash, assuming that Summer’s thin arms could apply the right amount of force.
She probably could. Even now, lost inside the wrinkles and white hair, Summer was a shapeshifter. She was a preternatural of strength only slightly lesser than her Alpha father’s.
Nash looked down at the sword. He looked up at Summer.
“Oh,” he said. “You heard everything.”
“Everything,” Summer said. “You didn’t tell me you were falling.”
“I didn’t realize it was happening until you were already…” His throat worked. His chest hitched. “Gone. But you woke up.”
“Wish I hadn’t,” she said. Pearlescent tears glimmered on her cheeks.
Nash looked crestfallen. “It was all for you.” And then he thought about it and said, “No. Not for you. It was her fault—she did everything to us.” He pointed at Elise, who had suddenly become completely superfluous to this scene.
“I always told you,” Summer said, her voice hoarse, her hands shaking. “I wouldn’t let you be like this. I wouldn’t let you turn into Him.”
Nash cradled her face in his hands, gazing at her as though she were as beautiful as the day they’d met. She wasn’t a shriveled centenarian. She wasn’t on the brink of organ failure, incapable of taking on her wolf form. In his eyes, she reflected back with unwrinkled skin and fluffy hair and strong arms.
“I know,” he said. “I love you, Summer. I will always love you.”
The Infernal Blade glinted. “Help,” she said.
His look of love turned to one of thoughtfulness. “You or me?”
He looked relieved. Nashriel’s knuckles stroked down her shoulder, traveled to her wrist. He closed his fingers around the delicate bones encased in paper-thin skin. “I love you.”
His mouth opened in a gasp.
Summer’s hand was still closed around the hilt of the sword. It was hilt-deep in his body.
The weight of his sinking body dragged the blade up to his heart. It must have cut it in half. He died quickly—before the ichor had even begun to to spread over his skin, turning his feathers into black shards of obsidian.
But the obsidian did take him.
And Elise was left standing over Nash and Summer, the woman’s body folded over the man’s, her very bones shaking. Elise could see the weight of this action taking its toll physically and mentally. She knew that it would kill Summer.
She didn’t care.
“Abel sends his regards,” Elise said.
Summer said nothing. She was crying.
Elise bent, holding her hand out, and Summer’s dull golden eyes lifted to hers.
“Here,” Summer rasped. She handed the Infernal Blade to Elise. “You should go.”
“You’re dying,” Elise said.
“Yeah,” Summer said.
Elise wasn’t going to argue. She abandoned Summer like that, carried on the buzzing white noise in her skull, trying to convince herself that a fallen angel could never know what had really happened around him.
The cruel twist of falling—usually a punishment inflicted by gods, not something that happened as an ethereal analogue to age-related decline—was that angels had to live out their worst nightmares. Elise had known one fallen angel to devour newborns, leaving behind nothing but husks. She’d heard of other fallen angels too, including one that had murdered men who looked like her late husband.
If Nash thought he’d killed the baby, then perhaps he feared it enough for his mind to make it true.
Perhaps Victoria was alive.
There was not much life in the Haven. The demons that Nashriel had rallied were dropping around her as she limped on wrecked legs through the forest.
She wasn’t sure she’d make it.
She needed to make it.
When she got to the edge of Nashriel’s mansion, she saw someone waiting for her there. A calm, genderless entity with full lips and empty eyes and hands folded in front of it.
Elise didn’t greet the Traveler. She’d already known that it would be there.
“You’re running short on time,” the Traveler said.
“That’s your wheelhouse,” Elise said.
“Yes,” the Traveler said, “it is. I’m here to make sure that you arrive just on time. As you requested.”
Elise had requested the Traveler’s help? She had no recollection of it.
But if the Traveler was here, it could only mean that drastic measures were necessary.
Hope and grief warred.
“You can save her,” Elise said.
The Traveler shook its head. “I can’t undo what’s been done.”
And that was the death of hope, impaled upon a blade just as swiftly as Nash killed by his wife.
“I can’t give you moments,” the Traveler said. “But I have held onto something for you. Something you will find valuable.” It held its hand out. “Let’s go inside.”
Elise didn’t want to go inside. She didn’t want to see what she now knew she would find.
She took the Traveler’s hand.
They walked together into the foyer, up the stairs, and down a crimson hallway runner past artifacts collected from an artificial world without history.
The Traveler stood back when they reached the open door.
Elise had to go in alone.
She found James sitting on a rocking chair.
“Victoria,” James said. “My victory. My triumph. My child.” He was looking upon her for the first and last time, cradling her soft head in one hand, stroking his other hand along her body. He felt the shape of her limbs, the curve of her belly. He counted her toes. All ten of them.
She wasn’t breathing.
James’s head bowed over his infant daughter, and his shoulders shook.
Elise did not cry.
She felt clearer than she’d ever felt before.
I made mistakes.
So many mistakes.
Right now, one of those mistakes meant that Nash and probably Summer were hurtling toward permanent death. Souls outlasted bodies by minutes. Time to fix these errors was short.
The time to save Victoria had already passed.
The baby was dead.
Elise struggled not to lose herself in the thoughts of things that would never happen: never again letting those little fingers curl around one of hers, never changing a foul sticky diaper, never getting to relieve the weight of her milk-heavy breasts, never getting the precarious satisfaction of stopping her cries.
Damn it, Elise didn’t even like motherhood. She’d hated every last goddamn moment of it.
Even when she looked at you? And when she smiled?
Judging by the color of the baby’s body, she had been dead for quite some time. Too long for Elise to resurrect the body using traditional methods of necromancy, had they even been accessible to her.
There was no time.
But there was still Time.
She turned to see that the Traveler was gliding into the room now, having permitted them the moment of shock. James gazed at the Traveler with hopeless pale eyes. “You’re too late,” he said. “Even you can’t revert the timeline this far.” His voice was thick with tears. Even if it pained Elise to think of the moments she wouldn’t get to repeat, James didn’t even have memories of those moments. This would be his only memory of their daughter.
Unless I fix my mistakes.
The Traveler touched a hand to Victoria’s forehead.
Then it said, “Be quick. I’ve only given you a few moments.”
“Thank you,” Elise said.
The baby didn’t come back to life. The Traveler was not a necromancer, and as James had said, it could not revert the timeline to a point before Victoria’s heart stopped.
She lifted the Infernal Blade that Summer had just used to kill Nash. It was still slick with silver blood.
“You or me first?” Elise asked James.
Realization dawned over him. He didn’t look happy. Fresh tears welled over, spilling down his cheeks, and he held the baby to his chest. He pressed a kiss to the top of her head.
“Both of us,” he said, “please.” His voice was thick with tears.
James leaned forward, as though the weight of his grief was dragging him down.
Elise rested a hand upon his spine, feeling the beat of his heart on the other side. This heart had provided half of Victoria—an infant Elise had neither wanted nor believed herself to love. Now her own heart felt as though it were collapsing. There was no air left in the room.
“We need to make changes,” Elise said.
James seemed to have gone to a place beyond words. He lifted his head to look at her, his pale eyes empty.
“We forbade second chances for a reason,” she said, bringing her fingers to his bicep. “We forbade afterlives for a reason too. Everything is for a reason.”
His hand convulsed over hers. He nodded.
“I’m going to make changes anyway,” she said, her voice dead, her soul dead, her heart unbeating. “I’m going to pull on the threads and see what happens.”
Elise didn’t wait for James to nod, or shake his head, or remember how to speak. She didn’t want to leave this choice to him. Whether he assented or dissented, Elise had already decided that some things were worth risking the universe over.
She killed him.
It was swift. She thought it would likely be painless, but Elise had never specialized in deaths that didn’t hurt. That was neither her interest nor her forte. She could guarantee nothing to James except that he would die.
A blow to the head to render him momentarily unconscious.
A blade to the heart through the slats of his ribcage.
A slice across his jugular.
His blood poured over the baby, and his body collapsed over hers, and Elise watched until there was no more motion. She watched until James’s skin was colorless.
She tasted the blood on the knife, savoring the flavors of James’s fading life. There were memories in that brief taste—not just memories of their time as Danäe and Daniel, young lovers building an ordinary life together, but memories of their first life too. Accepting a ribbon from their first dance competition. James embracing Elise when she graduated with an accounting degree. Curled against each other in a hospital bed, recovering from injuries.
Some of Nash and Summer’s memories lingered in that blood too. Elise did not know love; she knew need, urgency, dependence. She knew that James was her lungs and she was his spine and neither could survive without the other. But Nash and Summer…
They’d never needed each other. They’d wanted each other.
Chosen each other.
From the moment Nash had first seen Summer in an angel-built artificial paradise, he had chosen that this woman would be his. Summer had chosen him too. She had chosen a wretched, sinful soldier of God to be in her life—a life of joy and laughter—and they had been together out of love. Real love.
Nash’s anger had been as flawed as his love. But everything he’d done to Elise had been well-earned. She had left him vulnerable to Fascination and to Falling, as she did many other angels. And there were numerous other sins that she had permitted to exist.
James had done terrible things to keep Elise. Would Elise not do the same for James?
“I would do more,” she told James’s body, now nestled with the body of his daughter, where they would forever rest in the Haven alongside hers.
Elise used the knife to unzip her mortal form. She drew lines to expose her skull in flaming lines of pain, and she savored it. She sawed open her own body. A y-incision never meant to be performed upon a living body.
In the intensity of the pain, her mind stopped thinking. She stopped remembering.
There was godhood in the pain. There was transcendence—ascension to a higher state.
Elise suspected that she died of shock and blood loss before she reached her heart, but her fingers still guided the blade to the center of it all, just in case.
And she rose.
Elise returned at the edge of the Pit.
She was not alone.
James stood beside her in his godly form, radiating the blinding white light of ethereal power at its purest. The third god of their triad was also there: the man once known as Seth Wilder, now a wan shadow draped in grief, suffering through his eons as Death. Elise was the entire spectrum of colors between and beyond Life and Death.
She was Time.
And as Time, she saw that Nash and Summer’s souls were in the Pit, just moments away from being recycled.
Elise reached out to stop time. She halted processing within the Cauldron.
“What have you done?” Seth asked. His arms cradled white light. A soul.
When the Traveler had touched Victoria, it had turned back time just enough in a small enough bubble to preserve Victoria’s soul for this moment.
For a goodbye, maybe.
Elise didn’t plan on saying goodbye.
“I did what I had to do,” Elise said.
Seth gazed at the infinite bundle in his arms with an expression of such horror, such grief, such anger. “I’m sorry, Elise. I’m so sorry that this happened to you.” He folded Victoria against the heart at his dark core as if he could protect her. “You never should have done this in the first place.”
“I was owed a selfish decision after all this time. Now I’m making another one.” Elise extended her hands. “Give my daughter to me.”
“You know the rules. People die, they get mixed back up in the Cauldron, they get spit out again.”
“Not my daughter.”
“Even your daughter,” Seth said.
James loomed over Seth, endless light pressing against endless darkness. But even at full power, the ethereal god was nothing against the infernal god. Light was the exception to darkness; life was the exception to death. No matter how big James became, Seth was still everything beyond him. He couldn’t force anything on Seth. “The rules are changing.”
“You’ve always said it’s not possible.”
“Anything is possible if you let me,” Elise said. But Seth still wasn’t moving. And in a way, Time was victim to Death too. She hadn’t known that she could feel desperate as a god until it welled up inside of Elise. “I need to hold her.”
Seth finally spilled the light into her arms, and it was not a baby, but an idea. There was no soft, fragrant skin to inhale, no lungs to expand, no belly to fill with milk.
Victoria was as dead here as she had been in the Haven.
Elise imagined that she was burying her nose in the brush of Victoria’s black hair to smell her. She remembered the weight of the body draped over her arm that first time in the hospital. The strange odor of the white slickness on her skin. All the blood.
She remembered the tugging at her nipple as the baby fed, and the almost frightening bonelessness of a newborn loosely swaddled. Mortal sensations. Human feelings she wouldn’t have again.
But that didn’t mean losing Victoria.
“I’m going into the Origin again,” Elise said matter-of-factly.
“I can’t let you,” Seth said. “That’s how Adam snapped.”
James grew. He loomed. “Try to stop her.”
There would be a battle between Seth and James. It would last an eternity, and the resolution was irrelevant, because it served primarily as distraction.
Elise took Victoria to a place of swirling light. The same place that Elise had told James that she agreed, that they could substantiate into avatars, that they could make a baby.
A blind baby, a smiling baby, a baby who looked like James.
With a thought, Elise upended the universe to expose the place she had hidden the Origin underneath.
She held Victoria to her breast, plunged inside, and made some changes.