Sins of the Angels
When homicide detective Alexandra Jarvis is assigned a new partner in Aramael, a Guardian Angel who doubles as a hit man, they have only one thing in common: a fallen angel hell-bent on triggering the apocalypse. Now they have no choice but to work together-relentlessly, fearlessly, intimately. Because only they can stop the rogue angel from ushering in the end of days.
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 that awful, mind-hollowing emptiness, that nothingness. His belly clenched at the thought. It was a miracle he had escaped, and whatever happened, he couldn't go back. Could never go back.
He focused his thoughts, made himself calm. He could do this. He could find the right one and return to where he belonged; it was just a matter of time. A matter of numbers.
Caim gazed at the corpse by his feet. It was also a matter of being more careful than this. 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. He so 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, Caim needed to rein himself in, to contain the bloodlust that clouded his mind. To be disciplined. He 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 his bloody, clawed fingers 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 bitter 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 arms over his head, letting his body begin to 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 fierce 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.
Then, casting a last, dispassionate glance at the remains on the pavement, he turned and started down the alley toward the street. His mind moved beyond the kill to other matters. Matters such as finding a place to stay. Somewhere to 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. Stared across the street. Smiled.
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 Metropolitan Police 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 pre-dawn 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, their 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, over-sugared coffee and balled up her fast-food breakfast wrapper. She'd bought the meal, if it could be called such, out of desperation on her way home, as a combined supper and bedtime snack. 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. Even knowing what she'd have to view when she arrived at the scene, she'd gone ahead and eaten it. Working Homicide had that effect after a while.
She dropped the wrapper into the empty paper bag, drained the remainder of her coffee, and tossed the cup in to join the wrapper. Then she slid out of the air-conditioned vehicle.
The early August humidity slammed into her like a fist, rising from the damp pavement and the puddles that lined the uneven sidewalk. 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 raised her arms to scrape 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, and became lost in each other. Alex elbowed her way through the throng and shouldered past a television camera, wrapping the elastic around her fistful of hair. If they 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 check. 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 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 replied, and 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: telltale shadows darkened the brick walls on either side of the narrow passageway; rivulets of the night's rain, stained dark, pooled on the alley floor; crimson reflected back from puddles lit by the floodlights.
She flicked a glance at a sodden cardboard box, catalogued it as nothing out of the ordinary, strode deeper into the narrow passageway. A numbered flag, placed by forensics, marked a blurred shoe imprint in a patch of mud. Another sat beside a door where nothing visible remained, perhaps the site of something already bagged and tagged.
Alex drew nearer to the scene and inhaled a slow breath through her nose. She held it for a moment before expelling it in a soft gust. If this was the same as the others, if it was another slashing…
She drew her shoulders back and lifted her chin. If it was another slashing, she would handle it as she did any other case. 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 Staff-Sergeant Doug Roberts, in charge of the Homicide unit where Alex worked, turned. A smile ghosted across his lips but didn't reach his strained eyes. Alex made out the vague shape of a human body beneath a tarp stretched out just beyond him.
"Have a good sleep?" Roberts asked. 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.
Alex produced a credible return smile. "Nah. I figured the concept was highly overrated, so I settled for caffeine."
She ran a critical eye over her staff-sergeant's height, noting the two days' growth along his jaw line. 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.
"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," she muttered. She scuffed the toe of her shoe against a weed growing through the pavement. Four in as many days, with the last two less than twelve hours apart. 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, damn, damn." She released her clutch on her scalp. "Is forensics finding anything?"
"After the rain we had? We're lucky the body didn't float away."
"Maybe the killer's waiting for the rain," Alex mused. "Maybe he knows it will wash away the evidence."
"So what, he's a disgruntled meteorologist? How does he know it will rain hard enough?" 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 that it's about to become a priority. I'll put in a call 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."
The head of Homicide Squad stalked away, dodging a police photographer who looked to be performing a weird kind of dance in his efforts to catalogue the scene's every angle. Alex watched Roberts cover the distance to the end of the alley in remarkably few long-legged strides, and then bulldoze his way through the waiting scavengers. 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 down-time than she was on this case. They always did on slashings, because as much as she like to pretend that 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…
That 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 for a long moment, and then raised her hand to knock. As much as she didn't look forward to delivering bad news to Heaven's Executive Administrator, 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 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 Verchiel had not to flinch. Or apologize. 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, giving her his full attention. "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."
"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. Have them pay particular attention to keeping their charges safe." Verchiel hesitated.
"One of the officers doesn't have a Guardian."
"Every mortal has a Guardian."
"Actually, not every mortal has."
"Rejected his, has he?" Mittron shrugged. "Well, he has made his decision then. 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 sat up straighter and a shadow fell across his face, darkening the gold of his gaze to amber. Then the creases in his forehead smoothed over.
"She is Nephilim," he said.
"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. She moved into the study and settled into one of the enormous wing chairs across from 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. He 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.
"None of the Guardians would stand a chance against a Fallen Angel, especially one as determined as Caim."
Mittron shook his head. "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 to face her, 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 Nephilim, 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; had denied them the guidance of the Guardians who watched over other mortals, and left them to survive—or in most cases, not—on their own.
But where this particular Nephilim was concerned, surviving Caim was essential. For all their sakes. Verchiel felt herself waver. She rested her elbow on the chair's arm.
"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 protect a 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 heard the door snap shut and laid aside his pen. 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 all respects as he would have liked.
Not for the first time, he considered placing the Dominion elsewhere, where they wouldn't need to 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 scene in detail for several long minutes before 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 unnerved her. This one, and the three before it.
She eyed the tarp-covered corpse with distaste. She knew why slashings bothered her, of course. She didn't need a shrink to tell her that what she'd seen twenty-three years ago had left its mark. She had learned to deal with it, however; learned 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 in this career.
But this case, with so many of them so close together, and the near certainty that there would be more…
Alex pulled up her thoughts sharply. After thirty-six straight hours on her feet, her resistance was bound to be a bit low. She'd just have to be careful. She swallowed, steeled herself, and then started towards the body, pulling on latex gloves to protect the scene from contamination, steadfastly placing one foot in front of the other. She paused at the tarp. Every time she had a case like this, the memories threatened. Sometimes she could hold them back. She crouched and lifted a corner of the plastic sheeting.
And sometimes she couldn't.
Alex's breath hissed from her lungs. Despite her best efforts, images bombarded her, vivid, horrifying; resisting all attempts to push them away. She squeezed her eyes closed and gritted her teeth. Made herself think only of her mental door, made her mind force it shut again on the past. Waited for the heave of her stomach to subside and the nausea to recede.
Seconds crept by. At last, her grasp on her stomach's contents still precarious at best, she opened her eyes again, careful to focus beyond the victim. She wiped her sleeve across her forehead, removing moisture she couldn't blame on the stifling air. Footsteps approached from behind and mud-spattered black shoes entered her peripheral vision and 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 a closed mask 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 licked away the droplet and, aware of Joly's presence at her side, forced herself to do her job and lift the tarp clear of the lifeless, wrecked young woman on the pavement.
Under control once more, Alex examined the victim: the single, bloody gash that ran from ear to ear across the throat, and the other slices across the torso—in groups of four, equidistant from one another—that had gone through clothing, skin, and muscle alike to expose pale bone and now-bloodless organs.
Roberts had been right. It was exactly the same pattern as the three previous killings and, like the ones before it, it wasn't an ordinary murder—if murder could ever be ordinary.
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 jolted through her mind, and she shuddered.
She dropped the tarp and struggled 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 that this was 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 that 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 handed back her pen. "If this lunatic keeps up this pace, none of us will be going home again for awhile."
Recognizing the truth of his words, Alex slid the pen into her pocket and closed the notebook cover. "Do we have enough people for the canvass?"
"We'll manage. We won't exactly be tripping over witnesses around here at this hour." Joly stepped around the tarp-covered body with the unspoken respect they all gave the dead 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 Verchiel's approach long before her presence filled his doorway, and knew she was there.
He wouldn't do it.
"Warmest greetings to you, too," Verchiel said dryly. "May I come in?"
Aramael shrugged and 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 and, from the corner of his eye, saw Verchiel join him, her pale silver hair glowing against the rich purple of her gown. He ignored 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. He gritted his teeth, looking down and sideways at her. "I'm sorry. And 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.
"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. 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, but decided to let it go. Whatever she'd said had no bearing on a conversation he would prefer 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, Verchiel, and I won't even pretend to care. But 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. Narrowed his eyes. Clarified, "You want me to act as guardian to a Grigori descendant."
The Dominion slid her hands back into the folds of her robe. She nodded.
Aramael left the bookshelves and began pacing 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 paused at the window, bracing a hand on either side of the frame, staring out 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. 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? His belly clenched. His fists followed suit. He knew of only one former angel who would target the Nephilim, who could raise the concern of Heaven's administrator, the highest of the Seraphim.
"It's him, isn't it?"
He willed Verchiel to acknowledge that he was right 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.
Ugliness rose to engulf him, a dark fury as timeless as the One herself. A pulsing, nearly living thing that wanted to consume him, to become him. The harder he fought it, the more he struggled, the more of himself 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 that 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."
Verchiel's hands disappeared into the purple folds of her robe with a soft rustle. "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 that pain, all that torment, 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 gritted his teeth until his jaw ached. "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.
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