Cadre of Ten
The Cadre of Ten, the archangels who ruled the world in all the ways that mattered, met in an ancient keep deep in the Scottish Highlands. No one—human or vampire—would dare trespass on angelic territory, but even had they felt the need to give in to the suicidal urge, it would have proved impossible. The keep had been built by angels, wings a prerequisite for access.
Technology could’ve negated that advantage, but immortals didn’t survive eons by being left behind. The air above and around the keep was strictly controlled, both by a complex intrusion detection system and by units of highly trained angels. Today’s security had turned the sky into a cascade of wings—it wasn’t often that the ten most powerful beings in the world met in one place.
“Where is Uram?” Raphael asked, glancing at the incomplete semicircle of chairs.
Michaela was the one who answered. “He had a situation in his territory that required immediate attention.” Her lips curved as she spoke, and she was beautiful, perhaps the most beautiful woman who had ever lived . . . if you didn’t look beneath the surface.
“She makes Uram her puppet.” It was a murmur so low that Raphael knew it had been meant for him alone.
Glancing at Lijuan, he shook his head. “He’s too powerful. She might control his cock, but nothing else.”
Lijuan smiled, and it was a smile that held nothing of humanity. The oldest of the archangels had long passed the age where she could even pretend at being mortal. Now, when Raphael looked at her, he saw only a strange darkness, a whisper of worlds beyond either mortal or immortal ken.
“And are we not important?” A pointed question from Neha, the archangel who ruled India and its surrounds.
“Leave it, Neha,” Elijah said in that calm way of his. “We all know of Uram’s arrogance. If he chooses not to be here, then he forfeits the right to question our decisions.”
That soothed the Queen of Poisons. Astaad and Titus seemed not to care either way, but Charisemnon wasn’t so easily appeased. “He spits on the Cadre,” the archangel said, his aristocratic face drawn in sharply angry lines. “He may as well renounce his membership.”
“Don’t be stupid, Chari,” Michaela said, and the way she did it, the tone, made it clear she’d once had him in her bed. “An archangel doesn’t get invited to join the Cadre. We become Cadre when we become archangels.”
“She’s right.” Favashi spoke for the first time. The quietest of the archangels, she held sway over Persia, and was so good at remaining unnoticed that her enemies forgot about her. Which was why she ruled as they lay in their graves.
“Enough,” Raphael said. “We’re here for a reason. Let’s get to it so we can return to our respective territories.”
“Where is the mortal?” Neha asked.
“Waiting outside. Illium flew him up from the lowlands.” Raphael didn’t ask Illium to bring their visitor inside. “We’re here because Simon, the mortal, is growing old. The American chapter of the Guild will need a new director within the next year.”
“So let them choose one.” Astaad shrugged. “What does it matter to us as long as they do their job?”
That job happened to be a critical one. Angels might Make vampires, but it was the Guild Hunters who ensured those vampires obeyed their hundred-year Contract. Humans signed the Contract easily enough, hungry for immortality. However, fulfilling the terms was another matter—a great many of the newly Made had changes of heart after a few paltry years of service.
And the angels, despite the myths created around their immortal beauty, were not agents of some heavenly entity. They were rulers and businessmen, practical and merciless. They did not like losing their investments. Hence, the Guild and its hunters.
“It matters,” Michaela said in a biting tone, “because the American and European branches of the Guild are the most powerful. If the next director can’t do his job, we face a rebellion.”
Raphael found her choice of words interesting. It betrayed something about the vampires under her tender care that they’d seize any chance of escape.
“I grow tired of this.” Titus stirred his muscular bulk, his skin gleaming blue-black. “Bring in the human and let us hear him.”
Agreeing, Raphael touched Illium’s mind. Send Simon in.
The doors opened on the heels of his command and a tall man with the sinewy muscles of a street fighter or foot soldier walked in. His hair was white, his skin wrinkled, but his eyes, they sparkled bright blue. Illium pulled the doors shut the instant Simon cleared them, cloaking the room in lush privacy once more.
The retiring Guild Director met Raphael’s eyes and nodded once. “I am honored to be in the presence of the Cadre. It’s not a thing I ever thought to experience.”
Unsaid was the fact that most humans who came into contact with the Cadre ended up dead.
“Be seated.” Favashi waved to a chair placed at the open end of the semicircle.
The old warrior settled himself without any fuss, but Raphael had seen Simon in his prime. He knew the Guild Director was feeling the kiss of age. And yet, he was no old man, never would be. He was a man to be respected. Once, Raphael might’ve called such a man a friend, but that time had passed a thousand years ago. He’d learned too well that mortal lives blinked out with firefly quickness.
“You wish to retire your position?” Neha asked with regal elegance. She was one of the few who continued to keep a court—the Queen of Poisons might kill you, but you’d admire her refined grace even as you took your last agonizing breath.
Simon remained coolly composed under her regard. Being Guild Director for forty years had given him a confidence he hadn’t had as the young man Raphael had first seen take the reins. “I must,” he now said. “My hunters are happy for me to stay on, but a good director needs always consider the health of the Guild as a whole. That health flows from the top—the leader must be eminently capable of undertaking an active hunt if necessary.” A rueful smile. “I’m strong and I’m skilled, but I’m no longer as fast, or as willing to dance with death.”
“Honest words.” Titus nodded approvingly. He was most at ease among warriors and their kin—for though he might rule with brutal strength, he was as blunt as the hard line of his jaw. “It’s a strong general who can give up the reins of power.”
Simon acknowledged the compliment with a slight nod. “I’ll always be a hunter, and as is custom, I’ll remain available to the new director till my death. However, I have every faith in her ability to lead the Guild.”
“Her?” Charisemnon snorted. “A female?”
Michaela raised an eyebrow. “My respect for the Guild has suddenly increased a hundredfold.”
Simon didn’t allow himself to get drawn into the dialogue. “Sara Haziz is the best possible person to take my place for a number of reasons.”
Astaad settled his wings. “Tell us.”
“With respect,” Simon said quietly, “that is no concern of the Cadre’s.”
It was Titus who reacted first. “You think to defy us?”
“The Guild has always been neutral for a reason.” Simon’s spine remained unbending. “Our job is to retrieve vampires who break their Contracts. But through the ages, we’ve often found ourselves in the middle of wars between angels. We survive only because we are seen as neutral. If the Cadre takes too much of an interest, we lose that protection.”
“Pretty words,” Neha said.
Simon met her gaze. “That makes them no less true.”
“Is she capable?” Elijah asked. “This, we must know. If the American Guild falls, the ripple effect could be catastrophic.”
Vampires would go utterly free, Raphael thought. Some would slip softly into an ordinary life. But others, others would murder and kill. Because at heart, they were predators. Not so different from angels when all was said and done.
“Sara is more than capable,” Simon said. “She also has the loyalty of her fellow hunters—I’ve had a significant number of them come up to me this past year and suggest her name as a possible successor.”
“This Sara is your best hunter?” Astaad asked.
Simon shook his head. “But the best will never make a good director. She is hunter-born.”
Raphael made a note to find out her name. Unlike normal members of the Guild, the hunter-born came out of the womb with the ability to scent vampires. They were the best trackers in the world, the most relentless—bloodhounds tuned to one particular scent. “And Sara?” he asked. “Will she accept?”
Simon took a moment to think. “I have not a single doubt that Sara will make the right decision.”
Sara wasn’t used to feeling sorry for vampires. Her job, after all, was to bag, tag, and transport them back to their masters, the angels. She was no fan of indentured servitude but it wasn’t as if the angels hid the price of immortality. Anyone who wanted to get Made had to serve the angels for a hundred years. Non-negotiable.
You didn’t want to bow and scrape for a century, you didn’t sign the Contract. Simple. Running out on the Contract after the angels delivered their part of the bargain? That just made you a welsher. And nobody liked a welsher.
However, this guy had worse problems than being returned home to a pissed-off angel. “Can you talk?”
The vampire clamped a hand over his almost-decapitated neck and looked at her as if she were insane.
“Yeah, sorry.” She wondered how the hell he was still alive. Vampires weren’t true immortals—they could be killed by both humans and others of their kind. Cutting off the head was the most foolproof method, but the majority of people didn’t go that way—it wasn’t as if the vamps were going to stand still for it. Shooting out the heart worked, so long as you then cut off the head while they were down. Or fire. That did the job.
But Sara was a tracker. Her job was to retrieve, not kill. “You need blood?”
The vampire looked hopeful.
“Suck it in,” she said. “You’re not dead. Means you’re a strong one. You’ll last till I can get you home.”
Ignoring the gurgled rejection, she crouched down to slide an arm around his back so she could drag him to his feet. She was only five feet three, and he was considerably taller. But she wasn’t bleeding out from her neck, and she worked out seven days a week. Grunting as she got him up, she began to walk him to the car. He resisted.
“Need a hand?” A deep, quiet voice, aged whiskey and smoldering embers.
She didn’t know that voice. Neither did she know the body that moved out of the shadows. Six feet plus of solid, muscled male. Heavy across the shoulders, thick in the thighs, but with the liquid grace of a trained fighter. One she wouldn’t want to be up against in a fight. And she’d taken down vampires twice her size. “Yeah,” she said. “Just help me get him to the car. It’s parked at the curb.”
The stranger all but picked up the vampire—who was starting to make vaguely understandable sounds—and dumped him in the backseat. “Control chip?”
She pulled her crossbow off her back and aimed it at the vamp. The poor guy scrambled back, pulling his feet completely into the vehicle. Rolling her eyes, she returned the crossbow to its previous position and withdrew a necklet from its spot hooked into the waistband of her black jeans, under her T-shirt. Reaching in, she paused. “Don’t try anything funny or I’ll shoot you for real.”
Slumping, the vampire let her clamp the circle of metal around his rapidly healing neck. The science behind the device’s effect on vampiric biology was complex, but the results clear—the vampire was now constrained from acting without a direct order from Sara. Helpful didn’t begin to describe the control chip because even this injured, the vamp could probably rip off her head in two seconds flat.