A fetid breath on the back of the neck.
A chill of bones. A cold whisper in the darkness.
There are those things that should not exist, should not walk, should not breathe, should not be named.
There are those nightmares that, once given form, can never be put back into the dreamscape.
—Scroll of the Unknown Ancient, Refuge Library
There had been a war. Archangel against archangel. Squadrons of angels in the air and troops of vampires on the ground. He’d told it that when he returned. The being who no longer remembered its name, who no longer knew if it lived or was caught in endless purgatory, had heard the fighting. But it didn’t care. That war existed on another world, not in the small darkness that was its own.
Here, it fought its own war, screaming at the faint sound of the dragging scrape-shuffle that announced the monster’s approaching footsteps. But even as it screamed through a throat cracked and raw, it knew it was making no sound, its chest painful from a lack of air. Panic had clamped its cruel hand around its throat and now it squeezed, squeezed.
“No, no, no,” the trapped creature whimpered inside its skull, mouth remaining locked in that silent scream.
Part of who it had once been understood that its mind was broken and would never recover. That part was a tiny kernel hidden in a distant part of its psyche. The rest of it was clawing horror and fear . . . and sadness. Tears rolled down its face, caught in its ravaged throat, but the haunting sense of despair was soon crushed under the suffocating weight of naked fear.
Then light hit the eyes that must be its own in an agonizing blindness and its pulse froze.
The monster was here.
Three weeks after losing most of the blood in her body, Ashwini was considering painting one of her living room walls pink with purple polka dots when her phone began to buzz. Grabbing it from the exquisitely scarred wooden coffee table she’d restored the previous year, she answered to find Sara on the other end.
The Guild Director had a job for her. “Something weird’s been happening in the Vampire Quarter,” she said. “Dogs and cats disappearing. First report was postbattle, but it could’ve been going on for longer with the strays no one tracks.” Faint rustling sounds, pages being turned. “A canine body finally turned up in a sewer drain and reports are that it’s desiccated. ‘Like a mummy,’ according to the vet who called me. I want you to check it out.”
“You want me to investigate a mummified dog?” Ashwini loved animals, would have a big slobbering pup of her own if she didn’t live in an apartment in Manhattan, but this was hardly her area of expertise. “I’m no Egyptologist. I also don’t like sewers.”
“Dog’s not in the sewer anymore, so you’re safe,” Sara said without missing a beat. “Could be we have a crazy vampire feeding off pets. Just check it out.”
Narrowing her eyes, Ashwini glared at the view of the city’s cloud-piercing Archangel Tower through the reinforced glass of the living room wall opposite the one she’d been considering earlier, the oil-paint orange of the late afternoon sunlight brushing the angelic wings in her line of sight in shades of auburn and sienna. It was Ellie who’d told her about this building—the other hunter had had an apartment in a similar building next door before she fell in love with the bone-chillingly dangerous male who controlled North America from that Tower.
“Seriously, Sara,” she said, following the erratic flight path of an angel who appeared to be testing a lately injured wing, “you couldn’t find anything less dangerous? Like sending me to find a little old lady’s lost knitting needle?”
The Guild Director laughed, utterly unabashed. “Hey, you now hold the Guild record for the most stitches in one sitting—enjoy the time off.”
“I want a real hunt after this.” She scowled, but her hand was fisted as she silently urged on the unknown angel who was attempting to make a landing on a rooftop adjacent to the Tower. “Or I’m going to hunt Janvier on principle.” The damn vampire had been nice to her for weeks, ever since she got sliced up during the battle to hold New York against the invading force marshaled by the archangel Lijuan.
The angel who’d just made a good if shaky landing on that rooftop in the distance had no doubt been injured in the same battle.
“Excellent,” Sara said, as if Ashwini had just told her that unicorns not only existed but were currently granting wishes in Central Park. “Let me know when so I can buy tickets. Now go look at the canine mummy.”
“Grr.” She hung up after making the snarling sound she’d picked up from Naasir during the time she, Janvier, and Naasir had worked as a team behind enemy lines.
Walking into her bedroom, she pulled curtains of deep citrine across the sliding doors that led out onto her tiny balcony. That balcony was what had made Ellie recommend this apartment to her when she’d seen it go on the market—Ashwini had once told Ellie how much she liked the way Ellie’s balcony offered a sense of freedom even so high up in a skyscraper.
The block color of the curtains was vibrant against the crisp white walls Ashwini had left untouched, and a vivid contrast to the fuchsia pink of the throw pillows on her bed. The sheets were cream with fine pink stripes, the carpet a pale gold. A spiral sculpture of cerulean blue glass sat on a tall black wooden stool in one corner; she’d found the sculpture on the curb in Greenwich Village, after the previous owner threw it out just because the base was chipped. Their loss if they couldn’t see beauty in the fractured, the scarred.
The room might hold too much color for many, but after the genteel elegance of the place in which she’d spent five months of her fifteenth year of life, she couldn’t stand the stark or the minimalist. Texture, color, story, that was what she wanted around her, why she collected pieces others had discarded and gave them new life.
She, too, had once been considered too broken to be of any use.
Her fingers brushed the scar that diagonally bisected her chest as she pulled off her gray tee, the mark a reminder she’d almost been fatally broken. Opening up her closet door to reveal the tall mirror mounted on the other side, she took in the clean line that stated the skill of the vampire who’d wielded the sword. It was no longer raw and red, and it would eventually fade to the pale honey that was the shade of the other, smaller scars on her skin.
The memories, however, those would never fade.
“Don’t you go, Ash. Don’t you fucking go.”
Janvier’s voice had been the last thing Ashwini heard before blacking out, and the first after she woke. “It’s bad manners to snarl at the nice doctor, Ashblade.”
In truth, she’d been too weak to snarl, but she’d made her dislike of the institutional setting clear. So Janvier had brought her home, tucked her into her own bed, and made her soup. From scratch! Who did that? No one else ever had for her and she didn’t know how to handle the strange, lost feeling the memory aroused in her. So she just shut the door on it, as she’d been doing for the two weeks since she’d kicked him out, and focused on the scar.
Early on, she’d worried the wound had caused muscle damage that would limit her range of motion. A visit with the Guild’s senior medic a week prior, in concert with her increasing mobility, had erased that concern. Since she planned on keeping her recovery on track, she picked up the bottle of special oil Saki had given her. “Rub it in twice a day after the stitches dissolve,” the veteran hunter had said. “It’ll help with deep-tissue healing.”
Given Saki’s impressive record of injuries, Ashwini wasn’t about to argue.
The sweet-smelling oil rubbed in, she wove her hair into a loose braid, then took off her yoga pants to change into winter-appropriate jeans, hunting boots, a mohair turtleneck in vibrant orange over a thin, long-sleeved tee designed to retain body heat, and a thermal-lined black leather jacket that hit her at the hip. She found her gloves stuffed into the pockets of the jacket, so that saved her from hunting for them.
Deciding to leave in the dangly hoop earrings she was wearing—if the poor dead dog managed to rise up and attack her, it deserved to rip off her earlobes—she began to slot in her weapons. Knives in arm sheaths as well as one in her left boot, plus a gun in a concealed shoulder holster and another in a visible thigh holster.
Grabbing her Guild ID, she slipped it into an easily accessible pocket. Most of the local cops knew the hunters who lived in the area, but there were always the rookies. Since it would suck to be shot dead by a trigger-happy hotshot, especially after surviving an immortal war, she’d make it painless for them to confirm her identity.
That done, she considered her crossbow. Though she adored it almost as much as the portable grenade launcher she stored in a weapons locker at Guild HQ, it seemed a tad extreme for a visit to a vet.
“God, Sara,” she muttered into the air at the reminder of her so-safe-it-was-a-joke assignment. “I’m almost convinced you’re punking me.”
However, even that was better than sitting around twiddling her thumbs—or destroying her apartment with boredom-induced decorating choices.
Before she spun the dial to lock the weapons safe hidden in the back of her closet, she slipped on the glossy black bangle Janvier had sent her in the mail a year before. Snap it apart to reveal the wire within, and you were holding a lethally effective garrote. The damn male knew her far too well. Which was why she couldn’t understand his behavior after her injury. The two of them had an understanding; they irritated and challenged one another, and yes, they flirted, but the rest . . . the kindness, the tenderness, it was crossing a line.