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Archangel's Shadows(Guild Hunter,book 7)(5) by Nalini Singh

Wondering if the Cajun would catch his dark-eyed hunter this time around, Illium rode the winter winds directly to the balcony outside Dmitri’s office. It was swept clear of snow, a task usually assigned to the youngest in the troop ranks, vampire or angel. Right now, with so many of the young injured, it was done by whoever had ten free minutes and didn’t mind a little manual labor.
From the damp in Dmitri’s hair where he stood behind his desk, his body clad in a simple black T-shirt and black cargo pants, Illium had the feeling Dmitri had cleared this himself. Not many who stood second to an archangel would do such a task, but this was why Dmitri was so trusted by Raphael’s men—despite his power, he was, and had always been, one of them.
Glancing up at Illium’s entry, his eyes having been on a map that showed the current position of Lijuan’s forces in China, Dmitri said, “Did you find it?”
“Trace did.” Illium had asked the slender vampire to follow the trail because most vampires outside the Tower had no idea he was Raphael’s man. “It’s called Umber.” He placed a tiny vial of a reddish brown substance on Dmitri’s desk, but while the color echoed the pigment for which it was named, the texture was unusual.
The contents glittered like tiny shards of glass—or crushed hard candy.
Dmitri picked it up, angled it to the light.
It was, Illium saw, oddly beautiful, despite the fact that light revealed the crystals to have an undertone of sickly yellow.
He nodded at Dmitri’s question. “That seems to be the preferred method of ingestion with the users Trace was able to pinpoint. The supplier is taking extreme care to keep this underground and available to only a select clientele.”
“Exclusivity makes it more valuable.” Dmitri put the vial back down. “Effects?”
“Sexual high and addictive with a single hit.” Trace had reported seeing the woman from whom he’d seduced the sample quivering in carnal pleasure after she ate a sliver, her hands cupping her br**sts and her eyes heavy lidded. “Long-term effects are unknown—Trace was able to confirm the drug only hit the streets two days past. We were lucky to pick up on it.”
“No. We weren’t lucky; we were prepared.” Dmitri had begun to create a network of informants throughout the city during the lead-up to the battle, and it was those informants who had reported a rising excitement in the wealthy vampire populace. All of it related to a mysterious new high.
Many of these new informants were human and a number were blood donors, specifically genetically blessed donors who came into contact with older, more powerful vampires on a regular basis. The trick was that none of the informants knew they served the Tower. One set of exclusive donors, for example, reported to the woman who ran the city’s top vampire club, in return for the cachet of being in her inner circle.
The idea of the subtle but powerful network had come from Raphael.
“Elena,” the archangel had said, “has made me realize we’re not fully utilizing all our assets.”
They’d been standing on the Tower roof at the time, the wind a savage beast. When Raphael turned to Dmitri, midnight black strands of hair had whipped across his face. “The mortals see things we do not, pay attention to those we might otherwise dismiss.” Facing the wind once again, Raphael had continued. “We need that information, but I will not drag Elena’s friends too deeply into the immortal world.” An instant of piercing eye contact. “Such can end only badly for them.”
Dmitri knew Raphael was no longer talking about Elena’s friends, but about the horror of Dmitri’s own past. “I do not blame you, sire. I never have.” He blamed the vicious angel who had tortured them both. “Without you, I would’ve carved out my heart and been lying dead in a distant grave an eon ago.”
“I blame myself, Dmitri, and I would not have Elena feel the same. Set up the network using mortals who have freely chosen to linger on the fringes of the immortal world as the base.”
“Raphael.” When the archangel turned to look at him with those eyes that burned with power, Dmitri had extended his arm. “The past is past, and if there ever was a debt between us, it was wiped clean the day you Made Honor.” Those vampires Made by an archangel were stronger from day one, harder to injure or kill. “You are my liege, but you will always first be my friend.”
Raphael’s hand had closed over his forearm, his over the archangel’s. “I hope to hear the same words a thousand years hence.”
“You will.” Both Dmitri and Raphael had come close to losing themselves to the insidious cold of eternity, but that was no longer a threat.
Today, it was Illium who concerned Dmitri. The majority of people, mortal and immortal, saw charm and a vivid zest for life when they looked at the blue-winged angel. Dmitri saw increasing power and an increasing darkness. All that held the darkness at bay was Illium’s tight-knit connection to Elena and Raphael, and to the Seven. But there would come a time when Illium became too much a power to remain in the city.
Then who would keep him . . . human?
“How long does the Umber high last?” Dmitri asked, making a mental note to speak to Raphael about Illium’s slow and near-imperceptible descent into the icy abyss that had nearly consumed the two of them. Unlike the others in the Seven, Illium couldn’t be seconded back to the Refuge to assist Galen and Venom; the distance from Elena and Aodhan, in particular, would indisputably hasten the ravages of the kind of power at Illium’s command.
“Longer than the high from a honey feed,” the blue-winged angel said in response to his question.
Dmitri frowned. A vampire’s metabolism differed from a mortal’s, meaning normal drugs, no matter how hard, metabolized too quickly to be worth the cost or the bother. A honey feed—drawing blood directly from the vein of a drug-addicted mortal who’d just shot up, snorted, or otherwise ingested their poison of choice, provided a trip that could last for up to ten minutes.
“How much better?”
“An hour per half gram of Umber.”
Dmitri went motionless. “An hour.” No other known drug on the planet had such an intense effect on the vampire population. “Unsurprising, then, that it’s become so coveted so quickly.”
“Trace has been able to pinpoint ten users so far, all gilded lilies.”
Dmitri knew the type: pretty but useless. Older, wealthy vampires who existed only to discover new indulgences, new sins. Anything to break the ennui. Dmitri had once, during the worst of his pain, joined them—only to discover he couldn’t spend his days doing nothing. It was a vapid, empty existence, and even as self-destructive as he’d been, he couldn’t sink into it. “They’re probably the only ones who can afford the drug.”
“It’s not all good times.” Illium shoved his hair back with an impatient hand. “During the high, a percentage of the junkies are hit by the urge to feed voraciously. At least one of the lilies is currently going through a vicious detox because he refuses to touch the stuff again.”
Dmitri raised an eyebrow. “Not much worries them in their pursuit of sensation.” Numb inside from centuries of indulging their every whim, the lilies’ need to grasp at the new, the bright, held a pitiable desperation.
“This lily is part of a long-term pair,” Illium told him. “He fed on his partner during the high and he wasn’t gentle—her neck was raw meat by the end, her spinal cord exposed. A few more minutes and he might’ve severed that, killed her.”
Dmitri understood the depth of the male’s horror. Such deeply loyal connections were rare among immortals, much less in the world of the lilies, and to be protected. Dmitri would end himself before laying a finger on Honor in violence. “Drop this downstairs,” he said, tapping the vial. “Have it tested for everything.”
Illium took the vial.
“Tell Trace he can report directly to me,” Dmitri added. “I want you focusing on the men and women the healers have discharged.” A significant percentage of the Tower’s forces remained down, but enough injured fighters were now walking under their own steam that he needed Illium to take charge of their physical training. It would take skillful work to get them back to full strength in a short time frame.
“Talk to Galen, come up with a workable regimen.” The weapons-master couldn’t leave the Refuge, especially after the recent tensions there, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t available to the rest of the Seven. “He’s already sent through his first set of orders, has people moving.”
Illium bowed deeply, adding an elegant flourish with one hand. “Yes, O Dark Overlord.”
Lips twitching, Dmitri hoped with every cell in his body that Illium would find his way through the crushing pressures of immortality and power, that he wouldn’t lose the joie de vivre that had been a part of him since he was a fledgling. Dmitri had once witnessed a tiny blue-winged baby angel fall hard to the earth after tangling his wings, his flight path prior to the fall that of a drunken bumblebee. Despite running full-tilt, Dmitri had been too far away to catch him.
When he’d reached the site of the accident, he’d expected to find a sobbing, hurt child. Hurt he had been, one wing crumpled, but Illium was already on his feet, his bruised and scraped arms thrust up and his hands fisted, face aglow. “I flew so far! Did you see?”
Dmitri had never forgotten that first meeting with a boy who’d reminded him of the irrepressible spirit of his own son. Illium’s life had not always been painless, and it had left scars, but none of it had been as dangerous as the power now gathering inside him. However, the issue wasn’t critical.
Not quite yet.
“Begone, Bluebell,” he said, an image of the tiny boy he’d carried home to his frantic mother that day at the forefront of his mind. “The Dark Overlord needs to talk to a certain spymaster.”
Walking backward to the door, Illium said, “Jason’s back in the country?”
“He returned from China last night.” From the territory of the insane archangel who thought herself a goddess. “Managed to get past the border and all the way to her innermost citadel.” Dmitri had no idea how, but that was why Jason was Raphael’s spymaster and Dmitri was his blade and his second.
A rustle of wings announced Jason’s presence at the balcony door.
It was time to discuss the heart of enemy territory.
•   •   •
Ashwini and Janvier reached the veterinary clinic in a comparatively short time thanks to Janvier’s skill at weaving through the traffic, the blue of the sky still edged with puffs of orange-pink that bathed everything in a forgiving light. Nothing, however, could soften the impact of seeing the body that awaited them at the run-down but clean clinic in Chinatown.
Sara had been right. This small, helpless animal victim needed a hunter’s attention rather than the vet’s. Not only was the cocker spaniel shriveled and bloodless, its throat had been ravaged as if by a wild beast. “Setting aside the loss of blood,” she said to the vet, “is it possible these wounds could’ve been made by another, bigger animal?”
The tall, mixed-race woman, her features sharp, striking, pushed her glasses farther up her nose and dragged her eyes off Janvier. “The dirty water in the drain where he was found did a good job of messing with the wound, and I’m pretty sure rats have been at this sweet boy, too.” She touched her hand to the dog’s emaciated head. “No telling how long he was down there. Could be days, could be weeks. Even if it was a vicious dog . . .”
“Yes, no animal sucked out every drop of blood in his body.” A chill in her bones, Ashwini checked the cocker spaniel’s teeth, the dog’s skin having tightly retracted to expose the gum line; the enamel was stained and cracked. Even if he had bitten his attacker, the evidence was already too contaminated to be of any forensic use. “Who found him?”
“A homeless man who hangs around the area. Poor thing was heartbroken over it.” A sudden stiffening of the vet’s body, her eyes flashing behind the clear lenses of her glasses. “He’s harmless—I’m sure he had nothing to do with this.”
“I’m not planning to hunt him down.” What Ashwini was looking at wasn’t a mortal crime. It had all the hallmarks of immortal involvement—though she’d dig up information on the subject of natural mummification, too, on the off chance that it was a possibility. “Can you autopsy the body?”
“It’s called a necropsy when it’s an animal—and sure. If someone’s going to pay for it.” Her gaze went from Ashwini to Janvier and back. “As you can see”—a wave around the shabby examination room, the paint peeling off the walls and the linoleum worn—“I don’t exactly charge my clients a lot, so I need the money from those who can afford it.”
“Guild will cover it. Look for anything strange—beyond the obvious.”
“It’ll have to be tomorrow. I promised my daughter I’d be home for dinner tonight.” The vet took off her glasses to pinch the bridge of her nose between forefinger and thumb. “With the battle and all, she needs her mom.”
Ashwini’s throat grew thick; she knew all about needing her mom. Coughing slightly in an effort to clear the obstruction, she said, “Call me when you’re done.” She didn’t really expect the vet to find anything significant, but better to check and make certain than miss a crucial fact. “You understand this is confidential?”
“I’m not about to mess with the Tower or the Guild by blabbing.”
Exiting the clinic a few minutes later, Ashwini glanced at Janvier. “Has an animal ever become infected with vampirism?”
“It’s not a disease, cher.”
“You know what I mean.”
“As far as I know,” he said, passing her a helmet, “no animal has ever become a vampire, but I’m comparatively young in immortal terms. Do you want me to check with Dmitri?”
“Yeah, I guess if anyone would know, it’d be him.”
His thighs defined against the denim of his jeans as he straddled the bike, Janvier picked up his own helmet. “The body,” he said, holding her gaze, “it reminds me of the atrocity we witnessed during the battle.”
A shudder rippled through her. “Me, too.”
Ashwini, Janvier, and Naasir had watched Lijuan bury her face in the neck of one of her soldiers, her mouth open and teeth glinting. When she lifted her face back up, the lower half was a macabre mask of red, and she was bloated with power, her wounds healed, while the soldier lay a dead husk at her feet, a willing sacrifice.
“But,” Ashwini pointed out, “even if Lijuan has somehow resurrected herself since the battle”—though she couldn’t imagine how, when Raphael had blown the crazy bitch to smithereens—“I can’t see an archangel who believes herself a goddess feeding off animals. I think she’d rather starve.”
Janvier slipped on his helmet. “The dog was also not desiccated enough for this to be Lijuan.”
“You’re right.” The empty husks that evidenced Lijuan’s feeds had been so fragile, Naasir had crumbled one into countless fragments when he tried to carry it off as proof. In the end, they’d had to leave the husks where they’d fallen—after Ashwini took multiple photographs using her phone.
When Janvier and Naasir returned to the site after Lijuan’s defeat, it was to discover the reborn had stampeded through it, crushing the remains to dust. “What’s the chance that Lijuan is fully dead?” Putting on her helmet, she got on the bike behind Janvier.
“Low,” he said over the throaty rumble of the bike’s engine. “Archangels don’t die easily, and Lijuan is the oldest of the Cadre, if we don’t include Raphael’s mother.”
It wasn’t the news Ashwini wanted to hear. Because who the f**k knew what a half-dead archangel could do even after her body had been annihilated?