Authors: Heather Killough-Walden
Tags: #Paranormal, #Angel, #Romance
He didn’t reply. But he felt his chest tighten. He felt his skin heat up in a responsive, knee-jerk flush. He kept his eyes down and continued to pretend to ignore her. His palms were beginning to sweat.
He’d left the concert in a transport flash, having decided once and for all that with Angel’s mode of operating, she would only use it as a temporary cover before transporting away herself.
. He’d realized that this would go on forever if he didn’t change the game once and for all. So that was what he’d decided to do. He formulated a plan, and now he was putting that plan into action.
Apparently, Lilith knew what that plan was, and she wasn’t happy about it.
She moved forward, placed her slim hands on the desk, and leaned in.
“I bet it
,” she said, her tone changing, becoming an acidic purr that got right under his flushing skin and stayed there. “I bet it occurred to you, Samael, and you can’t
it. In fact, I’m betting you’re afraid that her reason for avoiding you is that she actually
you.” She paused, leaning in a bit more. “Angel is a genuinely good person. She has empathy. She cares. She tries to do good things and make this world a better place. Why, in a million years, would she want to be saddled with a seasoned son of a bitch like Samuel Lambent, the multi-billionaire media tycoon who’s proven himself to be a genuine apathetic bastard?”
Her words rolled over him like a tidal wave of red, smooth and powerful and smothering. They seared across him like the truth. Nothing burned hotter than the truth.
Any other man in the world would probably have lost it at that point. Sam had lived here long enough to know that human men weren’t overly good at word battle. They were apes, really, cave men at their cores, prone to bursts of violent vengeance when a woman’s intellect got the better of them. It was their only remaining defense. When you can’t fight with your mind, you use your fists. As long as the loser was capable of bruising his opponent on the outside as deeply as he was bruised on the inside, he wouldn’t consider it losing.
Of course, Lilith was more than capable of taking care of herself. She’d been down here just as long as Sam had, after all. Longer, in fact. She was a woman who’d come through millennia of inquisitions, plagues, and the general male population in one piece. It said something about her defense mechanisms.
So it was probably fortunate for them both that Sam was not at all like most men. Rather than lose his temper, he simply straightened, smiled a small, sure smile, and said, “You’re right, Lilith. Angel
good. Which is why I’m fairly certain this is going to work.”
Lilith straightened herself and gave Sam a withering look. It hurt him more than he wanted to admit. “I can’t believe you’re going this far, Sam.” She shook her head, and then frowned, asking in all seriousness, “Is there
you won’t do to get your hands on – ”
“No.” Sam took a seat in the massive leather chair behind his desk and steepled his fingers to peer over them at her with stark determination. “Now, I hope you don’t mind seeing yourself out.”
With icicles in her eyes, Lilith did just that, turning slowly away to walk back to the office door. But there, as she so often did, she stopped and turned back to regard him. There was something else in her gaze now, something that deepened the unsettled feeling she’d given him so far.
It was disappointment, stark and pure. “All this time… and you’ve learned nothing,” she said softly, regretfully, then shook her head just once and left, closing his door behind her.
When you can’t breathe, nothing else matters.
It was a saying of some sort, but her brain was quickly becoming so addled, she couldn’t remember from where. The American Lung Association? The Asthma Association?
Something like that…
It was true, wherever it came from. But there was something else, and it mattered too, a little. Sometimes, when you couldn’t breathe, the reason was because you were in the process of being murdered and your killer hand his hand wrapped around your throat and had crushed your windpipe.
it. She would never have imagined, not in a million years, what that felt like. It was indescribable, really. There were no words for that pain.
Everything was blacking out. The thunder, which was as indescribably loud as the pain was indescribably bad, was becoming softer. It was turning indistinct and unimportant, and she had that bizarre numb feeling that lightning couldn’t hurt her anymore, so it didn’t matter how loud or close it all was.
She tried to call out, one last time. But the white stars in her vision had even gone away. Night was falling, the clouds were coming in, and the Cosmos was winking out one white dot after another. When she hit the ground, she heard it more than felt it. A distant banging kind of thing, hollow as her elbows and knees collided. She expected it to be the last thing she felt or heard.
But with excruciating slowness, the pain in her throat grew worse. She tried to scream in pain, and heard herself make a terrible, low sound, like a banshee’s moan. There was movement around her – boots in the mud, and more lightning. There were screams and shouts that sounded far off.
She knew she needed to heal herself, but her arms and legs wouldn’t respond. It was like they weren’t even there. There was nothing for her to do but lay sprawled in the dirt and hurt.
There was nothing – not a thing in the universe – but the knowledge that Sophie was in pain. He’d felt it in Angel’s tunneled-out path beneath the ground. He honed in on it with singular vision and intent, driven into a blur that became mist in the crowd and sped through every shadow of night.
Until he was rematerializing, and everything bad in the world was there before his eyes: his mate, being killed. A man with his hand around her throat, his Sophie against the fence, bleeding.
What happened next would never properly be pieced together in his mind. It was pure chaos, pure, visceral destruction. It was everything he had thought he’d left behind. In that moment, that desperate, horrible moment, he was the Angel of Death.
And when that moment had passed, he was kneeling and lifting his archess into his arms and sending a mental call to his brothers with everything he had.
He threatened the Earth not to absorb her blood, not to take her life force, not to rob him of the only thing he gave a fucking shit about on its surface. If it did, he would destroy it. He would systematically rip it apart, being by being, city by city, outer layer, mantle, core. Until nothing was left but chunks of empty rock floating aimlessly through space.
Up on the stage, the concert stopped. The image of Azrael suddenly disappeared. Confusion rippled through the crowd like waves on a disturbed pond. The cheering faltered. Where was he? The band members glanced at one another. Vampires began to communicate in a web of telepathy that crisscrossed through the audience.
But Az was oblivious to the disruption and the signals that went up afterward. His entire existence consisted of one thing. Distantly, he realized how fragile happiness was. “Sophie.”
“Az, put her down.”
It was Juliette. She and Gabriel were suddenly there. In his peripheral awareness, he noticed Max there as well. And others. They had heard him. More impossible moments passed, and somehow, he’d managed to lower Sophie once more to the undeserving ground. He’d managed to force himself to step back.
There was light; he saw it beneath spread fingers – an archess, laying her healing hands upon her sister. There was more moving, and there were things happening around him. Some of it seemed distantly important, maybe even desperate.
Also distantly, he realized he was in agony.
And then there was a sound, like a gentle scratching at his mental door. It was so soft, so quiet, he was uncertain whether he’d heard it right. He told the universe to shut the fuck up. So he could try to hear it again.
Everything around him was cast into absolute silence, as if a blast had gone off and there was that ringing afterward and nothing else. Except even the ringing was absent. Silence obeyed him. Like the darkness did.
He hit the ground, on his knees faster than any man had ever knelt, and his hand lifted her head.
I’m here. I’m here! Open your eyes for me, Sunshine.
Like the morning star rising at last on a long, soul-crushing night, Sophie’s eyelids parted, and gold peeked out. The world and everything it consisted of came crashing back into existence. Sound was allowed to resume once more. Movement recommenced.
There was entropy, to be sure. But it was over
, there was one single thing that made sense. Sophie was alive. And she was his. And the universe could go on existing for now.
Max could scarcely believe what he was seeing when he came upon the scene near the back fence surrounding the outer circle of the Valley of Shadow concert venue. The images would be forever burned upon his mind, and the cold, terrible dread and nausea that had claimed his gut would never be forgotten either.
But at least now he knew. Now he knew just how far one of his boys would go to protect the woman he loved.
The dead man had once been the “right hand” of Samael. Jason. That had been his name. At least, Max was fairly certain it had been him. What there was left of him was rather hard to mentally piece together. But one of the eyes was still there in the head that had been removed from its body, and it was a vivid blue. The body itself had been pushed through the chain link fence, like meat through a grinder.
The illusion on stage had vanished, the crowd was in disarray, and Azrael’s loyal, trained vampires had instinctively mobilized to overpower mortal minds, calm the situation, and erase memories of anything that might have been witnessed.
But the damage had been done, and the archangels were a band of confused men and women that he knew he had to somehow guide, somehow protect, and somehow give answers to. The questions would surely be coming soon enough.
Michael and Rhiannon were even there. They’d either heard Sophie’s call or felt the unrest with their brethren and come running back from New York.
“Why didn’t he hear her sooner?” Juliette breathed, shock making her face paper white.
Max shook his head. “Interference maybe. Or Gregori.”
“I did warn you.”
Everyone – Max, Gabriel, Juliette, Uriel, Eleanore, Azrael, Michael and Rhiannon – either turned around or looked up. None of them had been aware of the man’s approach. They should have been. The ground was covering itself in black dandelions. They were sprouting up around the blood, through the mud, and into full bloom like fast-forwarded time-lapse photography. There was a vibration to the air that made Max’s teeth feel like they were buzzing and his gut feel like it was churning. He had an instant headache.
But the man in white stood amongst them, calm and still, a tower of pale evil wrapped in serenity that was a lie.
He looked at Azrael, who knelt in the mud with Sophie laying against his legs. “Now you know. Samael will stop at nothing to win his archess, even going so far as to dismantle the archangels by sending his minions after your mates.”
Max had no idea what he was talking about as far as the “warning” was concerned, and he planned to speak with Azrael about that as soon as possible. But as far as Sam sending people after the archesses went? It didn’t look good. It was Jason who’d been responsible for this attack, after all, and the former incubi wasn’t known for his discretions. It was possible Gregori was right. Was Sam trying to get them out of the way? Was he afraid they would try to stop him?
If so, why?
“If the Culmination wasn’t enough to make up your mind,” Gregori said as he turned away from them to leave, “perhaps this event finally will.”
The people in the crowd had been subjugated by the vampires amongst them. They stood still now, and quiet, in the most eerie exhibition of suppression Max had ever seen. Thousands upon thousands of revelers who had been absolutely wild moments before now stood swaying slightly, their eyes glazed over, their stares unfocused and aimed vaguely at the concert stage in the distance.
Gregori stepped into this crowd with his final words, and disappeared.
Max looked down at the ground and the black dandelions the man in white had left behind. A chill went up his spine.
“Azrael, we need to talk,” he said softly as he then looked over at the very first vampire ever created.
Az met his gaze. “Gregori approached me in San Francisco last night. He warned me that Samael had an archess and that he should not be allowed to find her. He spoke of the Culmination.”
Michael, Gabriel, and Uriel exchanged looks.
After a moment, Michael cleared his throat. He nodded at the mess behind them – in the chain link fence. They needed to do something about that.
Gabriel nodded in understanding. The fleshy material was no longer living. It had once been a piece of a live being, but now it was as much as hamburger meat, as dead as the rocks and dirt around them. So that was what the archangels turned it into, cleaning up the remnants of a cold-blooded murder by transforming it molecule by molecule into something else. Not gold this time, as they’d often created. This time it was just dirt.
It cascaded harmlessly and insignificantly to the ground, and the sound it made was an audible reminder of how fleeting and unfulfilled life could sometimes be.
“The Adarians are gone,” said Az distractedly as he returned his attention to Sophie, who was now looking at him reassuringly, though she didn’t dare yet talk. No doubt, her throat was sore, despite Juliette and Eleanore both having healed her. The former incubus’s strength had been enormous. To an odd degree, actually. Max couldn’t help but wonder whether Sam had helped him along somehow with some kind of magic. Sophie was not an incapable archangel in her own right. She should have been able to fight Jason off, with telekinesis perhaps, or sprout wings and fly away at the very least.