She made me such a thing as to give you nightmares. Vlad’s words filled her fevered sleep. Alice didn’t know what they meant, only that they felt good. She wanted a nightmare at her side, which was just proof of how fucked up she was.
“Why are you still lying abed when the sun is out?”
Alice sat up and rubbed her eyes. A pale, dark-haired woman—she assumed his daughter—was standing at the foot of the bed. “Uh…good morning.”
The woman clasped her hands behind her back and tilted her head expectantly. “Good morning.”
“W-where is Vlad?” Alice’s throat felt dry, and mentally, she was still a mess, but the fever was gone.
“My father is out with Gwendolyn. He left me to see after the S-M-E he’s ostensibly in a relationship with.”
“Suspicious Magical Entity, a term I recently coined because I don’t what the fuck you are or what’s going on with that child of yours.”
Alice felt a chill that went down to her bones. “There’s nothing wrong with Gwendolyn. And Vlad knows I’m some kind of witch,” Alice glanced around the room, her panic rising, “Where did you say they went?”
“I didn’t. And you are not a witch. You reek of magic, true, but not because you’re wielding it. It’s coming from inside you. My father never mentioned it, so either his sense of smell has gone too hell—doubtful since he sussed out those fake babysitters…”
“Fake babysitters?” Alice stumbled out of bed. She was still weak. Her legs shook as she collapsed against the wall. “What do you mean fake? I picked them. I checked with the agency, and I…”
I fucked up. I made shitty choices.
Her eyes squeezed shut. When she opened them, Lilith was kneeling beside her, head tilted with an odd, gleeful sort of expression. “There are so many things you don’t know, Alice Martin—about my father, about magic, about witches. Would you like me to tell you?”
The proper way to respond to your father when he showed up unannounced after 180 years was…er…well, Caleb didn’t really know the right response. “Father?”
Vladislaus slowly lowered a toddler to the ground. “Here’s your bunny. No touching anything, and before you ask, no more snacks.” He turned his attention back to Caleb, “This won’t take long, and then you can return to the sex you were having; speaking of which, do you have condoms?”
“I…what?” It took Caleb a moment to recover. “I don’t need condoms!”
“I suppose not; you are fully dressed. Still, it’s safer. Unless you want children? Are you trying to get someone pregnant?”
Caleb could hardly keep his eyes from popping out of his head. “What the fuck are you doing here? Why are you covered in plasma? And who is this child?”
The child in question blew him a kiss and began shaking the toy bunny and waving it around. His father, meanwhile, glanced down at his shirt.
“I’ve been to see your mother. The child is Gwendolyn. She’s off her schedule, chock full of animal crackers, and liable to start crying any second, though she likes sword fights. Do you keep weapons here? If she has a tantrum, you should be prepared to stab me.”
But his father had already moved on to examining Caleb’s apartment. He frowned at a broken light. “It’s good you won’t have children in this place. The stairs are awful for strollers, and you haven’t repaired a single outlet. You can’t run the fridge and microwave on the same circuit.”
“I’m not worried about a stroller.“
“Obviously not; you chose this squalid shed.”
Caleb blinked. He didn’t know which feeling was worse: being insulted or confused. “You can’t just waltz in here and—“
“I’m here to tell you about a crime.”
Caleb stared at his father. Was this a dream? Or some kind of nightmare? Maybe he was high, and he just didn’t know it. “You’ve come to my house out of the blue after a century because you committed a crime?”
“Not me, mortals. Well, not mortals, exactly. It’s…I…” Vladislaus cleared his throat. “I’ve been seeing someone. Her name is Alice. Gwendolyn is her daughter and my…mine. We’re not married. I…I haven’t asked. But I do love her, and—I said no!” His father swiftly lifted a letter opener out of Gwendolyn’s tiny hands and set it on the table. He pulled out a chair, “Sit!”
The toddler climbed up and huffed, crossing her arms and scowling. “Monster mean! Monster take my toys!”
“Monster is trying not to have your mother kill me. I’ll teach you to use a dagger when you have better motor control.” Vlad turned back to Caleb, hand massaging his brow. “Honestly, she’s a menace, and I’ve never been more proud or frustrated. Everything I read says to try gentle parenting, but I do not know if I have the patience.”
“Parenting. It’s an accepted school of thought, and really Caleb, if you intend to have children, you should know these things.”
“I don’t want children!”
This is why he was unwell. His parents were insane! Why was his father nervous? What sort of mother would let him take around her toddler covered in someone else’s plasma? How did Vladislaus even know where he lived? And what was—
“Wait,” Caleb stopped spinning in his thoughts. “Did you say you were seeing Alice Martin?”
His father looked startled, “I didn’t say her last name. How did you already know it?”
Caleb filled his father in on as much as he knew, including Alice’s innocence. Not that it mattered; his father had loved far more dangerous creatures than Alice Martin. A single murder was not enough for him to even bat an eye.
“I despised Johnny when Alice mentioned him,” his father said. “So he killed your werewolves and the one in San Myshuno?”
“No,” Caleb sighed, “Mother killed Nina. She wasn’t particularly forthcoming about why. And as for the Netherwand, it looks to be a death relic, though the Queen of the Fae said even she is too young to know much about its making.”
His father perked up, the look on his face delighted. “Right. Yes. So you’re courting Titania?”
“I am not courting her.”
“But you just said you took her to the museum so she could retrieve her stolen artifacts. You invited her on a trip to lift classified information from a military compound. You stalked and slaughtered Darrel Charm together,” Vladislaus looked confused, “Is that not dating?”
“No!” Caleb threw up his arms to emphasize his point and ward off the suspicion creeping up his spine. “It’s not! Dates are movies and dinner and taking long walks in the park!”
“Some dates,” his father corrected, “How does Titania feel about the woman in the back room? I can’t imagine she’s thrilled since Oberon fucked everyone from her advisory council to the Moon. Or do you two have some sort of arrangement?”
“I know about Oberon; I confronted him when he insulted her because I…” Caleb trailed off as the realization hit. He was courting a queen whose last lover had broken her heart, and when she asked him what came next, he’d reeled off a list of things to do for Bella and the case. “We don’t need an arrangement,” he declared hotly, “Because I haven’t done anything, and she isn’t mad at me.”
The look Vladislaus gave him was pitying. “Have you considered groveling? Or a gift? The Fae like gifts. I have a set of blades that William won off a dryad in 1683. You can have them if you want.”
“Why would you still have blades from a bet you didn’t even win? And I don’t need to buy her affection. We had a small misunderstanding which I will simply remedy by talking to her.” Caleb rubbed his eyes tiredly. “Can we just get back to the Netherwand? You said Alice touched it?”
Thankfully, his father let the topic drop. “Yes, and the wand altered her. She sees ghosts, but I don’t know if she has any other powers. Lilith says she is teeming with magic, and so is Gwendolyn.”
Caleb bit his lip. “We don’t know who Johnny was supposed to get the wand for, but as much as I dislike Salim, I doubt it was him. Alice is his ex-girlfriend and co-parent; he could go straight to source without bothering to kill the comedian.”
Vladislaus’s eyes blazed. “I’d use the term ‘co-parent’ very, very loosely. Besides, they were there to get a space artifact—something called the Ascension Container. Alice had no intention of helping Johnny. She only grabbed the wand because it called to her. Salim could still be the killer.”
Caleb pinched his lips together. After almost a year of working on this case, all he had were answers that didn’t seem to matter in the grand scheme of things—Johnny slaughtered the werewolves, his mother killed Nina, and Eliza accidentally killed herself. “There are too many unanswered questions. I…I need your help,” he blurted out, surprising himself. “The Landgraabs must have a connection that Johnny exploited; there’s no way he got a buyer for the wand alone. The military wouldn’t be involved if Alice wasn’t somehow valuable to them. I don’t trust Clive Beeden.”
Caleb nodded. “If Salim hasn’t already fled town, he will. And I wouldn’t be surprised if he heads to Windenburg.”
“Then I will be happy to welcome him.”
The look on his father’s face was terrifying, but Caleb found it only made him angry. “Are you not listening? I just said I need your help in Oasis Springs, where everything is going down! I need Salim alive until I figure out what’s going on.” He rubbed his temples again, “What am I even saying? Of course, you won’t help. There is always something and someone else before me.”
Caleb’s head whipped up. “What?”
“I’m a very good warlord, excellent gardener, but not a particularly good father,” he shifted uncomfortably. “Gwendolyn and Alice are a package deal. And even if they weren’t, I’m trying not to make the same mistakes.”
Caleb swallowed, resentment nipping at his heels. He told himself that Gwendolyn didn’t choose for her mother to be his father’s current hyperfixation. “So you’ll help?”
“Of course,” Vladislaus replied. Like it was easy, like being there for Caleb was second nature. He glanced back at Gwendolyn, who had given up her tantrum in favor of a nap. “I should get her home. Tell me the details, and I’ll be there. I’ll call Morgyn about the wand. They’re likely to have some sense of how it works and how worried we should be.”
“Let me check into that,” Caleb said, ignoring his father’s knowing look. Yes, it was an excuse to call Titania again, but he didn’t have to admit that. “I’ll tell you what I find and if we need to connect with Morgyn.”
Vladislaus picked the sleeping toddler up and smoothed her hair. “Your mother’s reasons for killing Nina may yet be callous, but she is sane. She is not me.”
With that, his father strapped Gwendolyn into the stroller and headed down the steps, his words a subtle reminder that Caleb had never feared Vladislaus’s cruelty.
Only his madness.
And the beast that came with it.