Home > Archangel's Kiss (Guild Hunter #2)(12)

Archangel's Kiss (Guild Hunter #2)(12)
Author: Nalini Singh

Wondering if she'd just given herself a good hard whack for no reason, she began to turn in a slow circle. That whistling noise, it had sounded so much like - Her eye fell on the hilt of a throwing knife still quivering as it lay embedded in the trunk of a tree directly in line with where she'd been standing. Limping over on a slightly twisted ankle, she took a sniff of the knife before touching it.

Fur and diamonds and all things good girls shouldn't want.

"Goddamn vampire." She was so annoyed at herself for having missed him shadowing her that it took her two attempts to pull off the piece of paper wrapped around the hilt and secured with a rubber band.

The message was written in a strong masculine hand, flowing bold and dark.

This is not a Refuge for you. You're prey. Don't forget.

Chapter 9

Raphael watched Elena walk in, her hand shredded, her foot dragging, and wondered if he'd have to kill the leader of his Seven after all.

"I get to kill him," she said, collapsing on a sofa in their living area. "And I plan to enjoy every minute of it."

Assessing the bloodthirsty expression on her face, he decided he'd leave Dmitri to her.

"Does your foot need looking at?"

"It seems to be fixing itself up real fast." A questioning glance. "My ability to heal has been accelerated?"

"To an extent. Simple scratches and sprains will fade within the day, but, given your recent transition, breaks will still take weeks."

"Better than months." She ran her uninjured hand over her face. "I figured you were busy doing archangel stuff."

Looking at her, bedraggled and beaten, some might have seen weakness. He saw strength, determination, and a will no one could crush. "I've spoken to Noel."

"What did he say?" Her expression was grim by the time he finished. "No solid trail for us to follow."

"No. He was ambushed while alone in one of the less populated sections of Elijah's Refuge territory." Cross traffic was permitted throughout the city, so long as certain courtesies were observed. "I've had Jason checking, but he's been unable to find any witnesses."

"The ambush site?"

"Exposed to the elements. Any trace of their passage is long gone." Which spoke to some very careful planning. "And Noel was so badly injured, it was impossible to tell whether the ones who took him left anything of their own blood or sweat behind."

Elena shook her head. "I don't think they did - I would've picked up the most minute trace when we first saw him, that area was so clean of scent. What about the shoe prints on his back?"

"Not enough detail - his flesh had already begun to heal." Raphael was certain that had been deliberate. Not to hide the boot marks, but to ensure the shards of glass were buried deep enough that they'd cause excruciating pain when Noel rose to consciousness.

"How bad is it for him?" A quiet question.

"Brutal."

She closed her injured hand over her knee, the tendons turning white against the dark gold of her skin. "You give any credence to the Elijah angle?"

"Nothing but an attempt to play me." If Elijah decided to kill Raphael, he wouldn't waste time on petty games. "Elijah has no desire for conquest."

Elena met his gaze, her frustration at the dead ends clear. "Can I do anything?"

"The stronger you get, the more difficult it becomes to hurt you."

Her expression grew intent, as if she'd heard something he hadn't been aware of saying.

"It's personal for you, just like it is for Illium and the others."

"I won't allow my people to be treated as disposable pawns." And he'd cold-bloodedly end the life of anyone who dared come after Elena.

"That's how hunters work. Attack one, attack us all." A quick nod. "I have a feeling you suspect someone."

"Nazarach is over seven centuries old and as with many of the old ones, pain has become his pleasure." Nazarach was also bound to Raphael. If he'd turned traitor, his punishment would send a scream through the world.

Elena played her fingers along the hilt of a knife he hadn't seen her draw. "That's when you know you've stepped over the line." She looked up, her eyes haunted. "When it starts to feel good."

"You'll never cross that line," he said, moving to pull her to a standing position. He might not be certain of himself, but he had no doubts when it came to Elena.

"How do you know?" Her face was a mask hiding a thousand nightmares. "I was glad when Uram died. I was so damnhappy the bastard was dead."

"Did you delight in his pain?" he murmured in her ear. "Did you smile when he bled, when his flesh burned? Did you laugh when I ended his life?"

He felt her rejection of the idea even before she shook her head, wrapping her arms tight around him. "Do you ever worry?"

"Yes. Cruelty seems to be a symptom of age and power." He thought of Lijuan, raising the dead, playing with them as a child would with toys. "I look into my heart and see the abyss looking back at me."

"I won't let you fall." A fierce promise.

He held her close, his immortal with a mortal heart.

An hour later, and still able to feel Raphael's arms around her, Elena walked into a classroom. Ten pairs of shiny eyes stared at her in mute fascination as she took a seat in the semicircle. Elena was doing some staring of her own. This was the closest she'd ever been to the youngest of immortals - they appeared significantly frailer than she would've guessed, their wings so delicate she could've torn apart each with her bare hands.

Finally, one little girl, her tawny hair in pigtails, wings of autumn and sunset at her back, dared to speak. "Are you a kid?"

Elena bit the inside of her lip and shifted on the big, firm cushion - to her eternal gratitude there'd been one in her size in the corner - that seemed to function as a chair.

"No," she answered, feeling her spirits lighten in a way she'd never have expected after her conversation with Raphael. "But I haven't been an angel very long." Of course, when Dmitri had told her she'd be attending lessons to bring her up to speed on angelic culture - to save her from her own ignorance - she hadn't quite expected this.

Whispers behind raised hands, passed angel to angel. Until one almond-eyed girl said,

"You were mortal."

"Yep." She leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees.

"You're not supposed to do that," a boy with loose black curls whispered urgently from her left. "If Jessamy sees you, you'll be in trouble."

"Thanks." Elena sat back up as the boy - who looked about four - nodded in approval.

"Why am I not allowed to do that?"

"Because it's bad for your posture."

"Excellent, Sam," an adult voice said from behind Elena. An instant later, a tall, painfully thin angel dressed in a long blue gown swept around Elena's right, heading to the top of the semicircle. This, Elena though, must be the dreaded Jessamy.

"I see you've all met our newest student," the teacher said.

Sam raised his hand.

"Yes, Sam?"

"I can show her around."

"That's very kind of you." A twinkle in those stern brown eyes, hidden within a blink.

But Elena had seen it, and it made her like this woman.

"Now," Jessamy said, "because it's Elena's first day, I'd like to review some of the material we've already covered, particularly that which relates to our physiology."

Elena glanced at Sam. "You're not four, are you?"

"I'mnot a baby," was the indignant response, before they were both hushed by their neighbors.

Then, as Elena listened and learned, the other students taught her the names and functions of every muscle, every bone, and every feather, from the ones that controlled direction to the ones that reduced drag and increased thrust.

By the time class was over, Elena had a head full of information and a keen awareness of just how much more she still needed to learn.

"You may go," Jessamy said to the class as she rose. "Elena, I'd like a word with you."

Sam's disappointment was all huge brown eyes. "Shall I wait for you?"

"Yes," Elena said. "I haven't been to this part of the Refuge before." It lay in the dead center of the sprawling city - neutral territory according to Illium.

A sunny smile, so innocent it made her suddenly afraid for him. "I'll wait in the play area." Inclining his head toward the teacher, he made his way out the door, his black-tipped brown wings trailing on the floor.

"Sameon," Jessamy said gently.

"Oops." Another smile. "Sorry." The wings lifted up.

"They'll be back down the instant he's out of sight," Jessamy waved to two adult-sized cushions beside a desk piled with books. "Who told you to join the class?"

Suspicion licked up Elena's spine as they took their seats. "Dmitri."

"Ah." The teacher's eyes sparkled. "You weren't supposed to be with the little ones. I'm meant to tutor you separately."

"I'd threaten to skin him," Elena muttered, "but I enjoyed the lesson. Do you mind if I sit in on more? They teach me by simply being."

"You're welcome at any time." Jessamy's thin face grew solemn. "But you must learn far faster than they if you're to survive Zhou Lijuan."

Elena hesitated.

"I know about the reborn," Jessamy said in a voice thick with horror. "I'm the depository of angelic knowledge. It's my duty to keep the histories - but this history, I wish I didn't have to write."

Nodding in silent agreement, Elena put her hand on the books piled on the desk. "Are these for me to read?"

"Yes. They contain a concise glimpse into our recent past." She stood. "Read as much as you can, come to me with any questions, no matter how small or impolitic. Knowledge is very much power when it comes to dancing with the oldest among us."

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