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Archangel's Shadows(Guild Hunter,book 7)(14) by Nalini Singh

Ashwini knew she should stay home, sleep, but her body wasn’t hurting, while her heart was in agony. After giving Janvier the holster she’d had made for him, she waited until he’d driven off before she left her apartment building again, having arranged to borrow a car from her doorman’s cousin as she’d done a couple of times before. She figured the money might as well go to a young couple raising a family as to a rental place.
“Thanks,” she said when the stocky blond handed over the keys. “I was planning to jump on the subway to your place, but Nic told me you were already on your way.”
“I needed the drive and it wasn’t like I was asleep.” Yawning, the twentysomething male stretched, bones popping one after another. “Anyway, I better get back home before my wife decides to divorce me for leaving her alone with the baby.” A good-natured laugh. “The lungs on her come from her ma, no doubt about it.”
Ashwini frowned when he turned to head to the nearest subway station. “Hop in with me,” she said. “I’ll drop you off on my way out.”
He scratched his head. “You sure? You paid for it fair and square—more than fair.”
“It won’t take me out of my way,” she lied. “The company would be nice.”
“In that case, I won’t say no.”
He was good company. Easygoing and besotted with his wife and baby both. Listening to him patter on about the two of them distracted her for the time it took to drive him back to his apartment building. Once there, she saw him stop in front of the stoop to wave up at the silhouette of a woman in a third-story window, her arms rocking a baby.
Ashwini sat there for another minute and she didn’t even know why until she saw the silhouette change, mother and child joined by a masculine form, stocky and with arms that went around them both. Wrenching her eyes away from a scene that would never be a part of her own life, she drove off.
It was stupid to do this, she knew that. Once she was outside Manhattan, the drive would take eighty minutes or more there, the same back, and she planned to wake early to attend the autopsy. But a night without sleep wouldn’t kill her, and her gut pulsed with the remorseless tug she felt only during the worst episodes, when neither medication nor therapy would fight the monsters. Oddly, Ashwini’s voice, reading from a piece of classic literature, had proven the best panacea when things began to go downhill . . . as was happening more and more frequently.
She reached her destination just under an hour and a half later, was welcomed by a familiar nurse, his red hair combed in a simple style. All the senior staff knew Ashwini had permission to visit at any time.
Carl’s face made it clear her instincts hadn’t let her down. “How bad?” she asked.
“Most severe end of the scale.”
“Did anyone unauthorized go into the room?”
Shaking his head, Carl said, “I double-checked. The episodes are simply getting worse, Ash.”
It was a fact she’d admitted to herself three months back. “Have you told Arvi?” Unlike her, he refused to face the truth even a blind man could see.
“Yes. He’s here, but you know your voice is the only one that seems to help.” Blue eyes sad against the freckled paleness of his skin, he spread his hands, palms out. “I would’ve called you, but it was so late and with your injury . . .”
“It’s all right, Carl.” Leaving the nurse at his station, she strode down the thick gray carpet of the hallway toward the corner suite, the walls around her hung with elegant pieces of art, and the arched window at the end reaching the floor. It allowed sunlight to pour in during the day while showcasing the hedge maze that was part of the extensive gardens.
Tonight it revealed only stygian darkness.
The book was waiting for her on the little hallway table beside the closed door, the soundproofing so good that she couldn’t hear anything beyond it.
Arvi sat on a chair beside the table. His head was in his hands, his shoulders slumped and the white of his business shirt stretched across the breadth of them. He’d always seemed so big to her, larger than life. Yet he was only a man, a man who was in pain. She went to reach out, closed her hand into a fist before she could make contact.
Turning, she picked up the book . . . and Arvi’s hand closed over her wrist, the leather of her jacket insulating her from the skin-to-skin contact that might have plunged her into her brother’s life and his secrets against her will. Chest thick with a thousand unsaid things, she shifted to look at him.
When his shoulders shook, a harsh sound escaping his throat, she turned completely and held his head against her stomach as he cried. Her own tears were locked up inside her, knotted up with fear and anger and loss. But she held Arvi as he cried, her strong, determined older brother who couldn’t fix this one thing that had changed everything.
The past. The present. The future.
He could’ve been her future in another world, another time, when Arvi’s rough tears didn’t hold pure heartbreak and the knots inside her weren’t formed of a terrible, inevitable truth. Because Ashwini would never permit herself to be the one on the other side of the locked door.
No matter what.
•   •   •
Raphael walked downstairs long past midnight, his city swathed in a moonless and velvet dark while his consort lay peacefully in their bed. She’d been sleeping with her hand over his heart until he left. Though Elena had gone to bed tired but happy and he didn’t expect the nightmares to find her, he didn’t like to leave her in the twilight hours. However, Dmitri had made direct contact, and his second didn’t interrupt Raphael at such times for trivialities.
A woman is dead, Dmitri had told him, and her body bears hints of Lijuan’s hand. Janvier is on his way to the Enclave to give you a report.
Icy fury filled Raphael at the thought of the archangel who’d sought to harm his people in her lust for power. He wanted no taint of her in his territory. That thought uppermost in his mind, he turned at the bottom of the steps and made his way to the library.
The man who stood facing the sliding glass doors that looked out to the Hudson, and beyond it, the million pinpricks of light that was Manhattan, held himself like a fighter, his stance light. He wore a white T-shirt and over it, a holster that crisscrossed his back. That holster wasn’t the weathered brown one Raphael had previously noted; the supple leather of this was golden in color, the blades it held distinctive.
Those blades had been lethal in combat.
Raphael was well aware that Janvier, along with Naasir and Ashwini, had done far more behind enemy lines than was known even among their own troops. The three had a way of making it all seem a game, not to be taken seriously. A number of their actions during the battle might have appeared foolish to others, but he’d seen the strategic calculation behind it—distracting, annoying, or frustrating the enemy at a critical juncture could be as deadly a strike as a cleaving blow with a sword.
Turning the instant Raphael stepped into the room, Janvier put his hands behind his back, his stance altering to that of a soldier with his liege. “Sire.”
The other man didn’t dally, giving him a crisp, clean report of the night’s discovery. “While the final state of the victim’s body hints at Lijuan,” he added, “the scars and bruises point to long-term abuse.
“As it is, we all know Lijuan can’t have regenerated already. Even if she had, she’d hardly be interested in prowling the streets, attacking pets and women—but I also can’t see Lijuan sharing this particular power.”
Raphael had witnessed Lijuan fly apart into a thousand shards and, regardless of her attempts to convince the world that she was a goddess, he was certain she needed her physical body. He’d injured that body multiple times during the battle and the only reason she’d been able to so quickly erase the wounds was because she’d fed on the life force of her soldiers.
And for that, she’d needed her mouth.
Even an archangel couldn’t regenerate the mouth without first regenerating the brain and all the systems of the body that kept that brain alive. Lijuan wasn’t dead, of that he was in no doubt, but neither was she a goddess. It would take her considerable time to repair her physical form, especially taking into account that he’d obliterated her using a combination of wildfire and angelfire.
The former was a new, Cascade-born gift, and it had proven to have a debilitating effect on Lijuan. Raphael hadn’t mentioned it to anyone but Elena and Dmitri, but he believed the wildfire had caused damage it would take Lijuan much longer than usual to rectify.
“You’re right about her not sharing this ability,” he said to Janvier. “She’s both too used to controlling her people through the leash of doling out power, and too greedy. You say this victim wasn’t an empty husk as you witnessed in battle?”
“No, she still had a sense of humanity and of flesh about her, enough that we could immediately identify her as female.”
Whereas Lijuan’s victims had been so shriveled into themselves, determining gender had been impossible from a visual scan of the high-resolution photographs Janvier’s hunter had taken. The shadow team had all three reported being unable to make the determination at the scene, either—except, of course, for those they’d personally witnessed being consumed.
“Fang marks?” A vampire could conceivably drain a victim of all her blood, given a long enough time frame.
“Yes, but not at the site of the fatal throat wound. There was too much damage to determine what caused that injury—similarly to the dog, she appeared gnawed on.”
That didn’t exclude vampires; it could be one of the Made who’d given in to bloodlust, torn and ripped and chewed at the flesh in his feeding. “Can the situation be contained?” Raphael had to be ruthless; a mortal had lost her life and deserved justice, but that justice could not happen on a public stage. Not this time.
“I’m confident Ash and I can deal with this quietly, with help from the Guild and Tower as necessary. The two witnesses, responding officers, and crime scene techs can be trusted to keep their silence.”
Before Elena, Raphael would’ve made a hundred percent sure of that by wiping the memories of the people involved, but now he’d seen mortals through her eyes, understood that these people were her friends and colleagues and she would protect them—because memories were what made a person.
I would rather die as Elena than live as a shadow.
The echo of what she’d said to him soon after they first met, paired with her passionate words before the battle, made him no less ruthless when it came to his city, but he did consider other options before taking this particular measure.
“I’ll have Dmitri put a watch on all their communications as a contingency.” Greed could sink its hooks into the most unexpected of people, and this information had value to the media. “Do you expect to uncover any further information tonight?”
“Non. The late hour means we’ll have to explore other avenues come morning.” The languid rhythm of Janvier’s voice belied the hard edge in his eyes. “Even the victim’s fingerprints can’t be used to search for her identity until the pathologist rehydrates her fingertips.”
“Take care of her, Janvier,” Raphael said. “I will not have the mortals in my territory become hunted.” Human lives might be a fleeting firefly flicker in comparison to the endless span of an angel’s, but Raphael now knew their light could burn so bright, it had the strength to vanquish the ice of eternity itself.
Walking to a small cherrywood table on which sat a faceted crystal decanter and six tumblers, Raphael poured out two measures of the carefully aged amber liquid in the decanter. He handed one of the tumblers to Janvier and said, “Your blades are from Neha’s land.” The Cajun, as all called Janvier, was now one of his trusted people, but they didn’t have between them the relationship Raphael had with his Seven.
That was to be expected. Janvier wasn’t yet past his third century—even Venom, the youngest of the Seven, had over a hundred years on the vampire with the bayou in his voice. However, Raphael saw in Janvier the same thing he’d seen in Venom, in Aodhan, in Illium, and in the others of his Seven: the Cajun had honor so deeply woven into his bones that it would take a cataclysm to shatter it.
Dmitri hadn’t lost it even during the worst years of his existence.
“Yes.” Janvier took the drink, his posture easing now that the report was done. “Neha gifted them to me when I left her court, said she had a feeling I’d be getting into trouble and she enjoyed my wit too much to hear I’d lost my head because I didn’t have adequate weapons.” Reaching back, the vampire withdrew one distinctively curved blade in a smooth motion, held it out handle first toward Raphael.
He took it, tested the weight and heft. It was heavier than it appeared when Janvier used it. That weight, along with the razored edge, explained how the Cajun was able to slice off heads with a single swipe. Interestingly, however, the weapon appeared decorative at first glance, the carved bone handle inset with small gemstones that sparkled prettily, drawing the eye away from the honed death of the blade itself.
“Neha favored you.” More than Raphael had realized—because he recognized the workmanship behind Janvier’s blades now that he’d handled one. “These were created by Rhys himself, if I’m not mistaken.” Neha’s trusted general, a man who’d been a weapons maker in his youth, and to this day made blades renowned for their strength and handling.
It was said he only created a new set once every decade.
Janvier took the blade back, slid it into the specially designed scabbard. “Rhys is responsible for much of my skill at the kukri.”
“And, like Venom, you keep those ties.” The youngest member of his Seven had been Made by the Queen of Poisons herself. “He manages to make himself welcome in her lands even when Neha carries a grudge against me.”
“Perhaps that’s why she’s been known to refer to the two of us as Charm and Guile.” A faint smile. “I’ve never worked out which one of us is which.”
They spoke for several more minutes before Raphael walked with the vampire to the front door.
“Sire.” Janvier paused on the doorstep after shrugging on the leather jacket he’d left with Montgomery, the gleaming red of his motorcycle visible behind him. “Ash—her Making—is it still—”
“She is cleared.” Had been for a number of years, ever since her abilities first came to the attention of the Tower, her blood covertly obtained and tested for compatibility with the process that led to vampirism. “But, Janvier”—he held the other man’s eyes—“she has shown no inclination toward accepting the offer quietly made her.”
Janvier clenched his jaw, looked away before facing Raphael once more, a bleak hollowness to his gaze. “That is the thing . . . I don’t think anything could convince her to choose a life among immortals.”