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Despite knowing how unlikely it was, Valen had still been allowing herself to hope that Nytep’s presence in Albany was a fluke and didn’t constitute a real, ongoing threat. That hope was shot down when July called yet again to chew her out because he had shown up a second time.Meaning she would have to find him in person to deliver a verbal cease anddesist. It had been a while since she’d had to deal with his particular brand of smartassery, and he’d always had a talent for getting under her skin—but she wasn’t about to start making excuses when she’d already promised July.

It wouldn’t have surprised her if he was only sticking around because he knew that she was making a point of keeping Albany mostly immortal-free. He had always been the kind of person, an instigator, the childish, contrary kind who felt took a Keep Out sign as an open invitation. Asshole. That was only one of the many reasons she couldn’t stand him. But then, all the more reason to get him out of her town ASAP.

Hoping she might run into him by coincidence seemed like a stretch; there weren’t many gods who could sidestep her perception, but he was definitely one of them. And of course, he ignored her when she tried calling him. So she did the next best thing and kept an eye out for any instances of observable chaos in the city. After all, wherever he went, it was never far behind.While she sat in her current ‘home’ downtown, looking over a report from one of her RMs, she had the news on in the background just waiting for something noteworthy enough that he might have been involved.

What did he want with July, anyway? Sure, her being a Seer made her interesting to a lot of lower-level immortals, but last Valen had checked, he preferred working with big groups rather than individuals.Mob psychology, that was his thing. The fact that she couldn’t reason out his interest only made it that much more dangerous in her book. She was about 98% sure he wouldn’t directly put July’s life in danger—as again, that wasn’t his M.O.—but his influence was also literally impossible to predict. She didn’t want that bullshit anywhere near her work.

“Valen?” Savina’s voice pulled her out of her brooding, and she realized she hadn’t even been reading the report in front of her, instead just sitting there agitatedly clicking the pen in her right hand.

“Yeah?” she sighed, dropping it to look up at her girlfriend, who had brought her phone over to show Valen a breaking news story on Twitter. Of course, why hadn’t she thought to look there? That was a way smarter bet for live news than some cable report. Goddamn it, I’m getting old.Looking through the feed, shefound multiple headlines about some bridge that had partially collapsed on the south side of town. No one was dead (yet), but plenty were injured and some were still trapped in their cars either under rubble below or in danger of falling. Something that big and potentially life-threatening happening without any effort on her part was a pretty damn big red flag, but the fact that it was still ongoing was the real giveaway. He enjoyed drawing out suspense like that.

“It sounds like something he’d be involved in, right?” Savina asked, equal parts hopeful that she was helping and distressed over seeing so many people in danger; the only time she enjoyed seeing anyone get hurt was when they’d explicitly asked for it.

“I’ll say it does.” Handing her phone back, Valen got up to grab her jacket and shoes from the closet. “I’ll go check it out. If I’m lucky, I’ll catch him in the act and we can be rid of him once and for all.”

“Okay. Be careful,” Savina agreed, fidgeting nervously with the loose waves of brown hair hanging over her shoulder.

“Please. The guy’s a pain in the ass, but he can’t touch me. Don’t worry. And hey—” The Reaper caught her for a quick kiss. “Thanks for keeping an eye out. I appreciate it.”

“No problem,” she hummed in delight as Valen strode toward the door, grabbing her attaché case on her way out. “Good luck!”

Most times, she would’ve taken the bus, but considering this was time-sensitive, she called an Uber instead and tried to ignore her driver’s obvious discomfort with her presence. A few thousand years of seeing it from everyone around her had made the experience pretty commonplace. Luckily, they reached their destination, a couple of blocks away from the ‘accident,’ within about fifteen minutes, so the guy didn’t have to suffer her company for very long.

Naturally, a few different brands of first responders were on the scene and keeping people at a distance. She walked right past them. Humans tended to ignore things they didn’t want to see, so unless she addressed them directly, most didn’t notice her at all. Convenient in some ways, irritating in others. Seeing Nytep at the base of the bridge, observing the whole scene with one of his usual eager grins, she fought between relief and dread over the conversation they were about to have. He could never make things like this easy.

“How did I know you had something to do with this?” she called as she approached him. The briefest moment of surprise flashed across his face, as if he’d been too engrossed in his excitement over seeing people suffer to remember exactly where he was—but he quickly replaced it with another confident smile.

“Woman’s intuition, maybe?” he suggested, remaining where he stood with his hands in his pockets. “Nice to see you too, Desavi. You’re looking…well, exactly the same as ever. Aren’t you getting tired of that old thing yet?” He gestured to her body.

“Not everyone has the luxury of a thousand faces.”

“Which is a failing on your part, if you ask us.”

“I didn’t,” she said flatly. Nodding toward the bridge, where red and blue lights flashed from emergency vehicles and she could see multiple stretchers already lined up, she asked, “What the fuck did you do?”

“Us? Why do you assume we did anything?” he asked, feigning indignation. “It isn’t our fault this concrete is very old and hasn’t been inspected recently enough. Or that the inspectors were too lazy to report the structural issues they found. Or that whoever is in charge of maintenance decided those issues didn’t need to be addressed, or any the many other potential explanations for what happened here.”

“Maybe not, but I’m willing to bet it wouldn’t’ve happened if you weren’t around. What are you doing here, anyway? You've been spending a lot of time in the area, in this town, and don’t act like you haven’t.”

“The same could be said of you,” he pointed out. “What are you doing here, Desavi? With all the rumors we’ve heard, we’re quite curious.”

“You really can't just answer a fucking question, can you?”

“Oh, fine.” He rolled his eyes and started toward the bridge, forcing her to follow if she wanted to hear his explanation. Besides, if he tried something and put people’s lives in danger, she wasn’t just going to stand there and let it happen. “We’ve found something here that interests us, that’s all. Is that a crime?”

“Something or someone?” As they got closer to the scene, the mess of voices and sirens became harder to ignore, and Valen’s grip on her attaché case tightened. She knew these people, from the harried EMTs to the little girl they were trying to calm to her older sister to her barely-conscious older sister already on a stretcher. None of these people was supposed to die today—and they wouldn’t if she had anything to say about it, but the trauma would still affect them for years to come. This was exactly the reason she hated thoughtless, careless gods like Nytep. Like she used to be.

“Oh yes, you do know her, don’t you?” His voice reminded her of their conversation and its real purpose. At least for right now, July and Emma had to be her priority.

“I know everyone,” she reminded him, tearing her eyes away from the suffering mortals around her to focus. One thing at a time.

“Fair enough. It’s more significant to say she knows you.” The road had been blocked off on both sides, so he could safely stroll across the two-lane street to examine the rest of the damage. It looked like a few more small pieces of the bridge above had broken off and fallen since Valen’s first view of the situation. Most of the stalled or damaged cars had been evacuated already and sat abandoned among crumbling concrete and steel rebar. Without looking up, picking his way through the rubble, he asked, “So it’s true you’re here on her behalf? That’s a surprise. Since when do you work this hard for any one human?”

Even though it was true, her pride railed against the idea of confessing to the deal she’d made with July. “I’m here because I heard you were causing trouble the one fucking place I don’t want you to be. And shit like this”—she gestured to the surrounding wreckage—“is exactly why.”

“So really, it’s a sort of ‘not in my back yard’ principle,” Nytep concluded. “In other words, you don’t care if we’re causing trouble; you just don’t want it happening anywhere you have to deal with it personally. As usual, it’s more about your maintaining control than about any genuine concern for the wellbeing of those around you.”

Catching up with him, she grabbed his shirtfront to stop him and growled, “You have no idea what the fuck I care about, and I’m not interested in listening to you run your mouth all afternoon.” He was visibly unaffected by her aggression, even smiling slightly in amusement. She would’ve given anything to wipe that smug look off his face, to wipe him off the face of her planet altogether—but his realm of influence was so broad that just murdering one of his forms wouldn’t do much good; he’d still have another 999 out there doing his infuriating bidding. “So are you going to leave by choice, or do I have to make you?”

“Make us!” he repeated in delight, throwing his head back for a laugh. “Desavi, when have you ever been able to make us do anything?”

“I’ve never really been pressed.” She shoved him back a few steps, but he didn’t stumble in the slightest, still watching her, like he was eager to hear what kind of threat she’d come up with. “But if you keep testing me, you aren’t leaving me much choice, and if you think you’re untouchable, you’ve got another thing coming.”

"That’s all conveniently vague.” He leaned back against the half-crushed car behind him, totally nonchalant about all the damage he’d caused just by being there. “You must have a more tangible consequence in mind. So what will you do? It’s not as though you can kill us.”

“Don’t tempt me. But no, that’s not what I had in mind.” Flicking her wrist out to check her watch, forcing herself to remain cool and casual, she explained, “You aren't the only one with numbers. Trust me when I say there are plenty of people who, like me, want to see you on a shorter leash. Now, your usual little chaotic bullshit isn’t worth my time to address in person. But Albany’s got most of my attention right now, so if you insist on sticking around, I don’t mind calling in some backup to help me get rid of you.”

Judging by the look on Nytep’s face, he realized he was at a disadvantage, so she pressed on, “Really think about that for a minute. Whatever you’re trying to do here, it’ll be a hell of a lot harder to accomplish with a few more orderly presences around to cancel you out. You think you’ll still be able to have your fun if I invite Pugu or Haukim? Hell, I might even bring Maat into the picture; I bet she’d love to see you again.”

“Enough!” he hissed, his cockiness having altogether disappeared by that point. After a moment of trying to think of some way around it, pouting fiercely, he let out a defeated groan. “Fine, spoilsport. If it means that much to you, so be it. You won’t see us here again.”

“That’s not what I asked for,” she answered immediately, not about to fall prey to some loophole in his wording. “I want you out of Albany as long as I’m here, and I want you to stay the hell away from July Morgan. Got it?”

“All right, all right,” he said, waving a hand at her. “We’ll be on our way, and we won’t seek her out again. Happy? No, that’s unlikely. Are you at least satisfied?”

“Fucking leave already.”

With much eye-rolling and heavy-sighing, he did as he was told, throwing a fit like an impetuous teenager, clearly miserable over being told he wasn’t allowed to do something (for once). Of course, Valen didn’t trust him as far as she could throw him. She knew his ‘word’ wasn’t worth much. But she also knew that if he didgo back on it, if he did show up again, July would certainly tell her about it, and she could make good on her threat if she had to.

Trying to put him out of her mind and assure herself that the problem was solved at least for now, she instead turned her attention to this mess he’d caused with the bridge and doing everything she could to ensure there were no casualties. Her mortals didn’t deserve to suffer because of his carelessness.

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A note from Sara N. Gardiner

Remember that line about Maat, kiddos; it'll come into play muuuuch later on in the story~


About the author

Sara N. Gardiner

Bio: I am but a humble nerd trying to make a living writing about magic and love.

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