A hard-as-nails cop... Homicide detective Alexandra Jarvis is up against a serial killer unlike any she's ever encountered. She has neither time nor patience for the arrogant new partner assigned to her in the middle of the case, but he seems hellbent on getting in her way—and under her skin—at every turn.
An undercover hunter... A millennium ago, Aramael sentenced his own brother to eternal exile. Now the fallen angel is back and wreaking murderous havoc in the mortal realm, and it's up to Aramael to stop him—and to keep the stubborn human police officer out of his path.
A world made to pay for the sins of the angels... With tensions flaring between them and Alex's uncanny ability to see him for who he really is, Aramael's mission and his soul are both in serious danger. Can he and Alex work together to capture the fallen one? Or will Aramael end up committing a sin more unspeakable than that of his brother?
A thrilling, dark urban fantasy that fans of Supernatural and Nalini Singh are sure to devour...scroll down to read an excerpt!
It was done.
There could be no turning back.
Caim stared down at the destruction he’d wrought and held back a shudder. They would come after him, of course, as they had the first time. They couldn’t allow him to succeed. Couldn’t risk him finding a way back and opening a door to the others. They would send someone to hunt him, try to imprison him in that place again.
His breath snared in his chest and for a moment the awfulness of the idea made him quail inside, made his mind go blank. An eternity of mind-hollowing emptiness, of nothingness. His belly clenched at the thought. That he had escaped at all was a miracle. Whatever happened, he couldn’t go back. He could never go back.
He curled his hands into fists at his sides and made himself focus on now, not then. Not what if. Because he could do this. He could do what the other, his visitor, had told him was possible. He could find the right one who would open the door to where he belonged, who would let him go home again. It was just a matter of time.
A matter of numbers.
Caim looked again at the corpse by his feet. But he would have to be more careful if he wanted to succeed. This one had been…messy. He crouched and touched a withered fingertip to the crimson that welled from the gash in the mortal’s chest. He rubbed the viscous fluid between thumb and forefinger and studied his work, displeased at the lack of control he saw there. The haste.
He scowled at the frisson of remembered, wanton pleasure that even now edged down his spine, making his heart miss a beat. Fucking Heaven, he disliked that side of himself, the part that thrilled at the destruction. He had never wanted this, had tried so hard not to give in to what she had claimed to see. He wished he’d had another choice; that she’d given him another choice.
But whether he was here by choice or not, he would do well to maintain better control. If one of her hunters had been near just now, his search would have been over before it began. He’d been so caught up in his task, he wouldn’t have felt an approach until it was too late.
No, to stay ahead of her, ahead of the hunter she sent for him, he needed to rein himself in, to contain the bloodlust that clouded his mind. To be disciplined. Caim lifted his head and breathed in the alley musk, scented with rain and death. He needed to be faster, too. Finding one of the few he could use among the billions that existed now—the task seemed nothing short of monumental.
He wiped bloody claws on the corpse’s clothing, and then, on impulse, reached over and spread the corpse’s arms straight out, perpendicular to the body, and crossed the ankles over one another.
Pushing to his feet, he surveyed his handiwork with twisted satisfaction. Perfect. Even if she never saw it herself, she would know of his contempt, know what he thought of the esteem in which her children still held her.
He drew a breath deep into his lungs and stretched his wings over his head, letting his body fill out again, taking on flesh and warmth. He reveled in the fierce pleasure of his own aliveness. The pull of wet cotton against his skin; the remains of the summer rain dripping from his hair; the thick, sullen night air, unrelieved by the storm that had proclaimed his return. The sheer gratification of feeling. He cast a last, dispassionate glance at the remains on the pavement, folded his wings against his back, and started down the alley toward the street. His mind moved beyond the kill to other matters such as finding a place to stay. Somewhere he could hide, where a hunter wouldn’t think to look for him.
Caim emerged from the alley onto the sidewalk and looked up the deserted pavement to his left, then his right. Somewhere—
He paused, staring across the street. He grinned. Then he laughed.
That was the thing about a murder scene, Alexandra Jarvis reflected. It would be difficult to drive past one and later claim that you couldn’t find the right place. No matter how much you wanted to.
She wheeled her sedan into the space behind a Toronto Police Service car angled across the sidewalk. Alternating blue and red spilled from the cruiser’s bar lights, splashing against the squat brick building beside it and announcing the hive of activity in the dank alley beyond. Powerful floodlights, brought in to combat the predawn hours, backlit the scene, and yellow crime-scene tape stretched across the alley’s mouth.
And just in case Alex needed further confirmation she’d found the right place, a mob of media looked to be in a feeding frenzy street-side of a wooden police barricade, microphones and cameras thrust into the faces of the two impassive, uniformed officers holding them at bay. One of the uniforms glanced over as she killed her engine, acknowledging her arrival with a nod.
Alex took a gulp of lukewarm, oversugared coffee and balled up her fast-food breakfast wrapper. She’d bought the meal on her way home as a combined supper and bedtime snack, knowing her refrigerator to be woefully empty. The nearest she could figure, it was the first food she’d had in almost twenty hours, and she hadn’t made it past the first bite before she’d been called to this, another murder. She’d eaten it on her way over, even knowing what she would face when she got here. Working Homicide had that effect on you after a while.
She stuffed the wrapper into the empty paper bag, drained the remainder of her coffee, and dropped the cup in with the wrapper. Then she slid out of the air-conditioned vehicle.
The early August humidity slammed into her like a fist, oozing from the very pores of the city. Alex grimaced. After a storm like the one that had raged from midnight until almost three, knocking out power to most of the city’s core for the better part of an hour, surely they’d earned at least a brief respite from the sauna-like weather.
She fished in her blazer pocket for a hair elastic, checked that her police shield was still clipped to her waistband, and scraped back her shoulder-length blonde hair as she kneed shut the car door and started toward the alley.
The media piranhas, scenting new prey, engulfed her.
“Detective, can you tell us what—?”
“Can you describe—?”
“Is this death related—?”
The questions flew at her, fast and furious, each becoming lost in another. Alex elbowed her way through the throng and shouldered past a television camera, wrapping the elastic around her fistful of hair. If any of them knew how many coffees and how little sleep she operated on, they wouldn’t be so eager to get this close.
She patted her pockets in an automatic inventory. Pen, notebook, gloves...Lord, but her partner had picked a fine time to retire and take up fly-fishing. Davis was a hundred times more diplomatic than she was, and she’d always counted on him to run media interference for her at these times. She hoped to heaven his eventual replacement would be as accommodating.
“Don’t know, can’t say, and no comment,” she told the piranhas. She winced at the snarl in her voice, glad her supervisor wasn’t there to overhear. “We’ll let you know when we have a statement for you, just like we always do.”
The uniform who had acknowledged her arrival lifted the tape so she could duck beneath it.
“Yeah,” he muttered, “and the sharks will keep circling anyway, just like they always do.”
Alex flashed him a sympathetic look and headed down the alley, her focus shifting to the tall, lanky man silhouetted against the floodlights, and to the scene he surveyed.
Her stomach rolled uneasily around its grease-laden meal. Even from here, she could see the remains of a bloodbath. Splashes of shadows darkened the brick walls on either side of the narrow passageway, and rivulets of water, stained dark, ran together to pool on the pavement where they reflected crimson under the floodlights.
Alex scanned the alley as she strode deeper into its belly. She passed a sodden cardboard box, mentally catalogued it as nothing out of the ordinary, and continued without breaking stride. Her gaze flicked over a numbered flag, placed by Forensics, and the blurred shoe imprint that it marked in a patch of mud. Another sat beside a door where nothing visible remained, likely the site of something already bagged and tagged.
She inhaled a slow breath through her nose as she got closer to the scene. If this was the same as the others, if it was another slashing...
She blew out the air in a soft gust, drew back her shoulders, and lifted her chin. If it was another slashing, she would handle it as she did any other case, she told herself. Professionally, efficiently, thoroughly. Because that was how she worked. Because her past had no place here.
She stepped over the electrical cables powering the floodlights and joined Staff Inspector Doug Roberts, head of their Homicide unit. A tarp a few feet in front of him covered the vague form of a human body.
“Good sleep?” Roberts asked, looking sideways and down at her. Even raised over the guttural thrum of the generator powering the lights, his voice held a dry note. He knew she’d never made it home. None of their shift had. Again.
Alex snorted. “Nah. I figured the concept was highly overrated, so I settled for caffeine.”
She ran a critical eye over her staff inspector’s height, noting the two days’ growth along his dark jawline. Perspiration plastered his short-cropped hair to his forehead, and she felt her own tresses wilt in mute sympathy. If the air out in the street had been heavy, here in the alley it was downright oppressive. The man looked ready to drop.
“What about you?” she asked, wondering if she’d have to call for another gurney.
He grunted. “Ditto on the sleep, but I missed out on the caffeine.”
That explained it. Given enough java in his or her system, a homicide cop could run almost indefinitely, but without...
Alex’s gaze slid to the tarp. “Well?” she asked.
“We won’t know for sure until the autopsy.”
Silence. Because he didn’t know, or because he didn’t want to say?
“Chest ripped open, throat slit, posed like the others,” he said finally.
“Damn it,” she muttered. She scuffed the toe of her shoe against a dandelion growing through the pavement. Four bodies in as many days, with the last two less than twelve hours apart. She flinched as one of the floodlights gave a sudden, loud pop, and the light in the alley dimmed a fraction. Underneath a loading dock, someone bellowed for a replacement bulb, his voice muffled.
Alex pushed a limp lock off her forehead, scrunched her fist over it for a moment, and said again, “Damn it, damn it, damn it.” She released her clutch on her scalp and balanced hands on hips. “Is Forensics finding anything?”
“After the rain we just had? We’re lucky the body didn’t float away.”
“Maybe the killer’s waiting for it,” she mused. “The rain, I mean. Maybe he knows it will wash away the evidence.”
“So what, he’s a disgruntled meteorologist?” Roberts shook his head. “The weather’s too unpredictable for someone to rely on it like that, especially lately. None of these storms this week were even in the forecast. I think it’s just bad luck for us.”
She sighed. “You’re probably right. So, has the chief called for a task force yet?”
“Not yet, but my guess is it’s about to become a priority. I’ll put in a call to him and get the ball rolling. The sooner we get a profiler working on this psycho, the better. You have a look around here, then go home, okay? I’ve put Joly and Abrams on point for this one. You’ve been on your feet longer than anyone else on this so far, and you need some sleep.”
Alex rolled her eyes. “If this guy keeps up at the rate he’s going,” she muttered, “I can pretty much guarantee that won’t happen.”
“If this guy keeps up at the rate he’s going, I’m going to need you on your toes, not dropping from exhaustion. So let me rephrase that: get some sleep.”
Staff Inspector Roberts stalked away, his long legs covering the distance to the end of the alley in remarkably few strides. Alex watched him bulldoze his way through the waiting scavengers, and then, with a sigh that came all the way from her toes, she turned back to the bloody, rain-washed alley.
Roberts was right. The others were getting more downtime than she was on this case. They always did on slashings, because as much as she liked to pretend her past had no bearing on her present, no one else brought the same unique perspective to these cases that she did. The kind of perspective that made her drive herself a little harder, a little longer...
And made sure she wouldn’t sleep much until it was over.
The Dominion Verchiel, of the Fourth Choir of angels, stared at the Highest Seraph’s office door, and then, grimacing, she raised her hand to knock. She didn’t look forward to delivering bad news to Heaven’s executive administrator, but she could think of no way to avoid the task, and standing here would make it no easier.
A resonant voice, hollowed by the oaken door, spoke from within. “Enter.”
Verchiel pushed down on the ornate metal handle and stepped inside. Mittron, overseer of eight of the nine choirs, sat behind his desk on the far side of the book-lined room, intent on writing. Verchiel cleared her throat.
“Is it important?” Mittron asked. He did not look up.
Verchiel suppressed a sigh. The Highest knew she would never intrude without reason, but since the Cleanse, he had taken every opportunity he could to remind her of her place. In fact, if she thought about it, he had been so inclined even prior to the Cleanse, but that was long behind them and made no difference now. She folded her hands into her robe, counseled herself to ignore the slight, and made her tone carefully neutral.
“Forgive the intrusion, Highest, but we’ve encountered a problem.”
The Highest Seraph looked up from his work and fixed pale golden eyes on her. It took everything in Verchiel not to flinch. Or apologize. She tightened her lips. Her former soulmate had always had the uncanny knack of making her feel as though any issue she brought before him was her fault. Over the millennia, it had just become that much worse.
“Tell me,” he ordered.
“I am aware of the situation,” he interrupted, returning to his task.
Irritation stabbed at her. She so disliked this side of him. “I don’t think so. There’s more to it than we expected.”
After making her wait several more seconds, Mittron laid aside his pen and sat back in his chair,. “Where Caim is concerned, there is always more than expected. But go on.”
“The mortals have launched an investigation into Caim’s work. They’re calling him a serial killer.”
“A valid observation, given what he’s been up to.”
“Yes, well, because the police officers involved will be more likely than most mortals to put themselves in his path, I thought it prudent to warn their Guardians. To have them pay particular attention to keeping their charges safe.” Verchiel hesitated.
“And one of the officers doesn’t have a Guardian.”
Mittron waved an impatient hand. “Don’t be ridiculous. Every mortal has a Guardian.”
“You know that’s not true.”
“Fine. Then every mortal has the opportunity to have a Guardian. If this one has rejected his, that’s his choice. He is of no concern to us.”
“That’s what I thought at first, but I thought it prudent to make certain and—well, she is of concern. Great concern.”
The Highest Seraph frowned. He tilted back in the chair, and a shadow fell across his face, darkening the gold of his gaze to amber. “She is Nephilim.”
“She is descended from their line, yes.”
“That does complicate matters.”
“What do you suggest we do?”
Verchiel shook her head, no closer to a solution now than she had been when she’d first heard the news herself. Uninvited, she crossed the study and settled into one of the enormous wing chairs opposite him.
“I don’t know,” she admitted.
“How far back are her roots?”
“We’re not sure. We’re attempting to trace her, but it will take time. Even if the lineage is faint, however—”
Mittron nodded even as Verchiel let her words die away. “There may still be a risk,” he agreed.
Mittron levered himself out of his chair and paced to the window overlooking the gardens. His hands, linked behind his back, kept up a rhythmic tapping against his crimson robe. Out in the corridor, the murmur of voices approached, another door opened and closed, and the voices disappeared.
“What about assigning a Guardian to her?” he asked, his voice thoughtful.
Verchiel shook her head. She’d already considered and dismissed the possibility. “Even if we could get one to agree to watch over a Naphil, no Guardian would stand a chance against a Fallen Angel, especially not one as determined as Caim.”
Mittron looked over his shoulder at her. “Not that kind of Guardian.”
“What other kind of Guardian is there?”
“A Power? One of my Powers? With all due respect, Mittron, there is no way a hunter would agree to act—”
“Not just any Power,” Mittron interrupted. “Aramael.”
Verchiel couldn’t help it. She snorted. “You can’t be serious.”
Mittron turned from the window, his eyes like chips of yellow ice, and Verchiel’s insides shriveled. She paused to formulate her objection with as much care as she could. She needed to be clear about the impossibility of Mittron’s suggestion. She had allowed him to sway her once before where Aramael and Caim were concerned, and could not do so again. And not just for Aramael’s sake.
“Hunting Caim very nearly destroyed him the first time,” she said. “We cannot ask him again.”
“He is a Power, Verchiel. The hunt is his purpose. He’ll recover.”
“There must be some other way.”
“Name one angel in all of Heaven who would risk a confrontation with a Fallen One to protect a Naphil, no matter how faint the lineage.”
Verchiel fell silent. The Highest knew she could name no such an angel, because none existed. Not one of Heaven’s ranks had any love for the Nephilim, and Verchiel doubted she could find one who might feel even a stirring of pity for the race. The One herself had turned her back on the bloodline, a constant reminder of Lucifer’s downfall, denying them the guidance of the Guardians who watched over other mortals. She’d left them to survive—or in most cases, not—on their own.
But this…this was different, and both Verchiel and the Highest knew it. Where this particular Naphil was concerned, surviving Caim was essential. For all their sakes. Verchiel felt herself waver. She rested her elbow on the chair’s arm, fingertips pressed to her lips. Tried, and failed, to think of an alternative.
“It will consume him,” she said at last.
“Caim already consumes him, which is why we will ask him. The moment you mention Caim’s name, Aramael will do anything necessary to complete the hunt, even if it means protecting one of the Nephilim.” Mittron left the window and returned to his desk. Apparently having decided the matter was closed, he lowered himself into the chair and picked up his pen. “See to it. And keep me informed.”
Despite the obvious dismissal, Verchiel hesitated. The Highest’s logic made a certain kind of sense, but sending Aramael after Caim for a second time felt wrong. Very wrong. He was already the most volatile of all the Powers, barely acquiescing to any standard of control at the best of times. How much worse would he be after this?
The Highest Seraph lifted his head and looked at her. “You have a problem, Dominion?”
She did, but could think of no way to voice her elusive misgivings. At least, none that Mittron would take seriously. She rose from her chair.
“No, Highest. No problem.”
Mittron’s voice stopped her again at the door. “Verchiel.”
She looked back.
“We will keep this matter between us.” He put pen to paper and began to write. “There is no need to alarm the others.”
Mittron laid aside his pen as the door snapped shut behind the Dominion. Leaning back, he rested his head against the chair, closed his eyes, and willed the tension from his shoulders. He was becoming so very tired of Verchiel’s resistance. Every other angel under his authority obeyed without question, without comment. But not Verchiel. Never Verchiel.
Perhaps it was because of their former soulmate status, when, out of respect, he had treated her more as an equal. A mistake he’d realized too late and had paid for ever since. The Cleanse had been intended to provide a clean slate between them, between all the angels, but it hadn’t been as effective in every respect. Not as he would have liked.
Not for the first time, he considered placing the Dominion elsewhere, where they wouldn’t be in such constant contact with one another. Also not for the first time, he discarded the idea. She was too valuable as a handler of the Powers, particularly where Aramael was concerned, and particularly now.
Mittron sighed, straightened, and reached again for his pen.
No, he’d keep her in place for the moment. As long as she followed orders, however grudgingly, it would be best that way. If she didn’t—well, former soulmate or not, he was able to discipline an uncooperative angel. More than able.
Alex studied the minutiae of the scene in great detail. The lay of the alley, the distance between the body and the walls on either side, the pebbles and puddles and sodden bits of garbage strewn in all directions. At last, when she’d examined everything Forensics had already tagged, she admitted to herself that she avoided the inevitable. The admission wasn’t easy. In six years of homicide detail, she’d seen just about everything there was to see, and had witnessed far worse than what they dealt with now. But this one…this one unnerved her. As had the three before it.
Her mouth twisted as she glared balefully at the tarp-covered corpse from a few feet away. She knew why slashings bothered her, of course. She didn’t need a shrink to tell her what she’d seen twenty-three years ago had left its mark. But she’d made a point of dealing with that. Made herself learn how to shut off the memories and disregard the initial horror that threatened to swamp her whenever she viewed such a victim. She’d had no choice—not if she wanted to stay in this career. And she did.
But this case, where they’d already had so many victims so close together, and there was no sign that the killer would let up...
Alex put the brakes on her thoughts and reached into her pocket for a pair of latex gloves. No. She could do this. It was just another victim. Nothing more. She stepped across a puddle to the tarp. Taking a deep breath, she pulled on the gloves. Latex snapped into place around each wrist. She exhaled. Braced herself. Crouched beside the tarp. Every time she had a case like this, the memories threatened. Most of the time, she could hold them back. She lifted a corner of the plastic sheeting.
And sometimes she couldn’t.
Unbidden images slammed into her brain, vivid, horrifying, resisting all attempts to push them away. She squeezed her eyes closed to shut out the corpse at her feet. The images continued. A kitchen floor, slick with blood. A knife. A body. One like this, with its skin laid open and—Alex took a shuddering breath and gritted her teeth. With a monumental effort, she summoned her mental door—huge, thick, impenetrable—and made her mind force it shut again on the unwanted images. The memories. The past.
Seconds crept by. Slowly, the nausea receded. At last, her grasp on her stomach’s contents still precarious at best, Alex opened her eyes again, careful to focus beyond the victim. She wiped her sleeve across her forehead, removing moisture that couldn’t all be blamed on the alley’s stifling air. Footsteps approached from behind and mud-spattered black shoes entered her peripheral vision. They stopped at the edge of a murky red puddle.
Alex looked up to find fellow detective Raymond Joly standing beside her. “Christ,” she said softly, “Do you ever get used to seeing this, do you think?”
“Some say they do.” Joly shrugged, his face hidden in shadow as he viewed the remains. “I think they’re kidding themselves.”
Alex tasted a faint metallic tang and realized she’d bitten her lip hard enough to draw blood. She wiped away the droplet. Then, aware of Joly’s presence at her side, she made herself to do her job and lift the tarp clear of the lifeless, wrecked young woman on the pavement. A single, bloody gash ran from ear to ear across the throat, and other slices across the torso—in groups of four, equidistant from one another—had gone through clothing, skin, and muscle alike, exposing pale bone and now-bloodless organs.
Roberts had been right. This was no ordinary murder—if murder could ever be ordinary. And it was exactly like the three before it. Alex chewed at the inside of her cheek as she studied the young woman’s waxen features and the way she had been posed on the pavement, arms outstretched perpendicular to the body, legs together, feet crossed at the ankles.
Simple death did not satisfy whoever had done this, whoever had done the same to the others. There was more here than mere disregard for human life, more than a desire to kill. This was...Alex paused in her thoughts, searching for the right word. Obscene. Depraved. Another word whispered through her mind, and she shuddered.
Evil. It was evil.
She dropped the tarp and pushed to her feet. Then, to cover her discomposure, she flipped open her notebook and put pen to paper.
Joly plucked the pen from her. “Go home.”
“Excuse me?” Alex looked up in surprise.
Six inches shorter than she was, but with an enormous handlebar mustache that somehow made up for his lack of stature, Joly waved his cell phone under her nose. “Roberts called and said that if you were still here, I was to kick your ass for him.” He stuck the cell phone back into its holster on his belt. “He also said to tell you this is a limited-time offer. The task force meets at eleven.”
Alex glanced at her watch. That gave her six hours including travel time, first to home and then to the office. Given the fact she lived a good forty minutes from work—without traffic—the allotment wasn’t nearly as generous as it first seemed. “Lucky me,” she muttered.
“Take it,” Joly advised, handing back her pen. “If this lunatic keeps up this pace, none of us will be going home again for a while.”
Recognizing the truth of his words, and cringing at the thought of the catnaps she faced on the lumpy sofa in the office break room, Alex slid the pen into her pocket and closed the notebook cover. “Do we have enough people for the canvass?”
“We’ll manage. We’re not exactly tripping over witnesses around here at this hour.” With the unspoken respect they all gave the dead, Joly stepped around the tarp-covered body and strolled away to join his partner, tossing a last disheartening comment over his shoulder. “I hate to be the one to break it to you, Jarvis, but you won’t miss a thing. This is one I’ll guarantee we won’t solve today.”
“No.” Aramael didn’t turn around to deliver his refusal. Didn’t care that nothing had been asked yet. He’d sensed the approach long before a presence filled his doorway, and knew it was Verchiel who stood there. Just as he knew why she had come. They needed him for another hunt, but he wouldn’t do it. Not so soon after the last.
“Warmest greetings to you, too,” Verchiel said dryly. “May I come in?”
Aramael selected a slim volume from the shelf in front of him. Poetry? The flowery verses might be just what he needed to soothe his battered soul. Or they might drive him over the edge into outright rebellion. Kill or cure, so to speak—and perhaps not the best choice in his current frame of mind. He slid the book back into place. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Verchiel join him, her pale silver hair glowing against the rich purple of her gown. He continued to ignore her.
“This is rude even for you,” she commented at last, mild reproof in her voice.
Aramael reminded himself that she was only the messenger, and that snarling at her would serve no purpose other than to alienate one of the few angels with whom he shared any kind of civility. Gritting his teeth, he looked down and sideways at her. “You’re right. I am being rude. But I’m still not doing it.”
“You don’t even know why I’m here.”
“There is only one reason a Dominion visits a Power, Verchiel. Why any of the others would visit us, either, if they bothered at all.” Aramael ran his finger down the title on the spine of a massive volume, paused, and moved on. Too heavy—in the literary, as well as the literal, sense. “So, yes, I do know why you’re here.”
Verchiel fell silent for a moment, then admitted, “I’d never thought of it quite like that. I suppose it is rather obvious.”
“You’re right, of course.”
“Of course. And I’ve told you, I’m not doing it. I’ve only just come back from the last hunt. Find someone else.”
“There is no one else.”
Aramael met the other angel’s serene, pale blue gaze for a moment before he turned away. “Ezrael is in the garden. Send him.”
“There’s more to it this time. Mittron wants you to go.”
Aramael caught back an unangelic curse and pulled a book from the shelf. “I’m tired, Verchiel. Do you understand? I’m tired, and I’m empty, and I’ve just finished four consecutive hunts. I’m not doing it. Send Ezrael.”
“There’s a woman—”
“A what?” He pushed the book back into place without glancing at its title and eyed her narrowly. “What does a mortal have to do with this?”
“She—well, she—” Verchiel floundered, avoiding his eyes. Her hands fluttered in a way that reminded him of a trapped bird. Any hint of serenity had vanished. “She’s important to us,” she finished.
“We think the Fallen One might attack her.”
He wasn’t sure if he found it more unsettling or annoying that she seemed to have lost her capacity to give him a straight answer. “And?”
“We’d like you to watch over her.”
That was straight enough. But incomprehensible nonetheless. He stared at her.
“You want me to what?”
“To look out for her. Make sure that the Fallen One doesn’t reach her—”
“I’m not a Guardian.”
“I know.” Verchiel’s hands fluttered faster. “We know. And we don’t expect you to protect her in any other way, just to keep...” Her voice trailed off.
“I am not a Guardian,” he repeated. He turned his back on her and glared at the row of books, but their titles had become a meaningless jumble of letters.
“We know that.”
“Then you shouldn’t be asking.”
Verchiel muttered something that sounded like “I know that, too,” but when Aramael glanced over his shoulder, she had closed her eyes and begun massaging her temple. He regarded her, toying with the idea of asking her to repeat herself. He decided to let it go because whatever she may or may not have said had no bearing on a conversation he preferred not to be having in the first place. A conversation he now considered finished. He turned his attention to the bookshelf once more.
She didn’t leave.
Long seconds crawled by.
Aramael’s impatience surged and he rounded on the Dominion. “I don’t know why this woman is so important to you, and I won’t even pretend to care. But I do know that I will not be sent on another hunt right now. Especially one where I have to act—without explanation, I might add—as a Guardian! Now, if you don’t mind—”
Aramael almost choked on the rest of his outburst as it backed up in his throat. He stared at the Dominion. “She’s what?”
“Nephilim. The bloodline is very faint at this point, of course, but—”
He held up a hand, cutting off her words, and narrowed his eyes. “You want me to act as Guardian to a Grigori descendant.”
The Dominion’s hands retreated back into the folds of her robe. She nodded.
Aramael turned and paced the room’s perimeter. His mind raced. Nephilim. The very name tasted bitter on his tongue, as it would on the tongues of all those who remained loyal to the One. He spun around at the door and retraced his steps, then paused at the window, bracing a hand on either side of the frame. He staring through the glass without seeing.
Nephilim. Seed of the original Fallen Angels, the Grigori, who were cast from Heaven for interference with the mortals they were to watch over. Who remained a reminder of all that had been lost in the ensuing exodus from Heaven, and of the enduring, irreconcilable split that remained between angelkind.
And now Mittron wanted one of those reminders protected from one of the Fallen? An ugly suspicion crawled up Aramael’s spine. His belly clenched. His fists followed suit. He knew of only one former angel who might target a Naphil and raise the concern of Heaven’s administrator, the highest of the Seraphim.
“It’s him, isn’t it?” he asked.
He willed Verchiel to confirm his guess without speaking the name. If she didn’t say it, if he wasn’t named, maybe Aramael might still escape. Deny the hunt. Retain his soul.
Verchiel cleared her throat. “Yes,” she said.
Aramael closed his eyes and braced himself, knowing what would come next.
A dark fury exploded in him before the sound of her voice had died. A fury as timeless as the One herself. A pulsing, nearly living thing that wanted to consume him, that tried to become him. And the harder he fought it, the more he struggled, the more he lost to it.
The rage was as familiar to him as it was hated. It was what set him apart—set all of the Sixth Choir apart—from the others. What made them Powers. Hunters. Now it had awakened in him and would drive him, relentlessly, until he found the prey that had been named to him. And not just any prey.
No other name could have triggered a wrath of quite this depth; no other Fallen Angel could have aroused this passion. He knew that, and in a blinding flash of clarity, he understood Verchiel and Mittron had known it, too. More, they had counted on it.
“Then you’ll do it,” Verchiel said, her voice seeming to come from a very long way off, hollow and flat. “You’ll accept the hunt and protect the woman.”
Aramael wanted to deny it. He wanted with all his being to tell Verchiel that she and the Highest Seraph had misjudged him, that he didn’t care in the least about the hunt, and that he cared even less about the woman.
But he wanted Caim more.
More than anything else in his universe.
His voice vibrated with the anger that now owned him. “You knew I would.”
“You promised I would never hunt him again.”
The Dominion’s robe rustled softly. “I know.”
He wanted to shout at her. To rage and yell, and fling himself around the room. To demand that she release him from the hunt; that she hold to the promise she had made four thousand years before. But it was out of her hands now. She had already inflicted the damage: she had designated his prey, and he had no choice but to complete what had begun, even as his every particle rebelled at the knowledge.
Caim had escaped. After all the pain, all the torment he had caused, he walked the mortal realm as if none of it had ever happened. As if it had not torn Aramael nearly in half to capture him in the first place and would not destroy him now to do so again.
Aramael clenched his jaw until it ached and the muscles of his neck and shoulders throbbed in sympathy. When he finally forced his teeth apart, he leveled a look of pure malevolence over his shoulder, uncaring of Verchiel’s authority. “Then know this, too, Dominion,” he snarled. “Know that I hate you for what you’ve done. Almost as much as I hate him.”
Almost as much as I hate my own brother.