Ashwini navigated the darkened stairwell with quick steps, careful not to make a sound. Given the layout of the stairs—a kind of square spiral complete with a well in the center that went from the top of the seventy-three-story building to the basement—the echoes would bounce off the walls into a thundering racket.
It was unlikely anyone would hear the noise with the archangelic battle going on in the skies of New York while vampires fought the scourge of the reborn below, but getting cocky was a good way to end up dead. It was why Janvier had cut power to this part of the building, and why Naasir had set up a relay of small explosions to distract the enemy.
A bead of sweat rolling down her spine, she plastered herself to the wall when a door opened on a higher floor.
“There’s no light,” the irritated male voice boomed, magnified by the terrible acoustics for what was meant to be an office building, albeit one designed by an architect known for his “edgy” work. “Raphael’s most recent strike must’ve damaged the building.”
“No.” A female this time. “He has people on this side of the line. Lock the doors to the main part of the floor on both sides. I’ll alert our people to do the same throughout the building.”
Ashwini’s lips curved. She didn’t need to get onto the floor itself to do what she’d come to do. Not in this particular building.
Continuing up as soon as the enemy guards left, she found herself considering Naasir’s name for their small team: shadow fighters. It was a far more apt description than “spy” or even “soldier.” Together, Ashwini, Janvier, and Naasir’s job was to discomfort, discombobulate, and otherwise aggravate the enemy forces in the heart of the hostile encampment. For a three-person team, she thought they’d done one hell of a job.
This would be the icing on the cake.
Reaching the floor directly below the roof, she took off her small backpack and removed the charges. Ten seconds, that was all she needed to place and arm a device. The resulting explosion might not collapse the roof, but it should do enough damage to throw the invading force off its game. “Set,” she murmured into the mouthpiece of the sleek communications device she wore hooked over her right ear.
“Get out, cher.” A voice as languid as a hazy summer’s day—if you didn’t notice the steel beneath. “Your presence has been detected.”
“I’m moving.” Backpack on, she’d barely covered two flights when boots thundered some distance below, intermingled with shouts and war cries.
Time for plan B.
She slid off the backpack and retrieved the rappelling rope curled inside. Once it was anchored to the stairwell rail, she could use it to slide past and below any pursuers before they knew she was gone. The leather half-gloves she’d added to her outfit weren’t a fashion statement, but preparation for just this contingency. Else, her palms would be shredded by the end.
Locking the heavy-duty carabiner directly to the railing after testing the metal would hold—at least long enough for her to get below her pursuers—she threw the rope down into the well at the center of the building. It uncoiled in swift silence, the metallic rasp of the carabiner moving against the railing hidden by the noise of the hostile fighters heading her way. Leaving the empty backpack, she went to swing over . . . and realized she could feel a draft of warm air on her nape.
She turned, going in low, but she was too slow. The male who’d entered silently through the door at her back slammed into her. The carabiner clanged against the rail in a hard beat of sound this time, the lump of it digging into her lower back as her attacker shoved his arm to her throat.
Fangs flashed in her face. “It’s so nice when lunch has the manners to present itself on the doorstep.”
Having used his self-congratulatory pause to drop a knife into each palm from the arm sheaths hidden under her jacket, she thrust up through his gut. Her trapped position made a deep cut impossible, but she got his attention, his blood on her blade. He howled in anger, punched her in the stomach—and took a step back.
It was all she needed.
Breathing past the agony from his blow, she sliced out again. Connected hard and true enough to puncture a lung. It would’ve taken down a mortal, but her opponent wasn’t mortal.
A sound of frothing rage, his eyes appearing to glow in the dark. “Bitch.” When he swung back, it wasn’t with his fist.
Ashwini was skilled at close-contact combat, but she was in a tight space in the dark against a vampire who was clearly no neophyte in the art himself. And he had what felt like a broadsword. She brought up her knives to ward off the blow, but it was too heavy, too true a strike, the jarring impact brutal. Her blades clattered to the floor as he split her left palm and the underside of her right forearm open with the tip of the blade, and then that blade was cold fire across her chest.
Iron scent, wet and dark, filled her nostrils, her breath coming in shallow pants.
The vampire laughed.
Conscious she couldn’t get out of this now, not with the heavy clamor of enemy boots only a floor below and the sword-wielding vampire in front of her, she managed to make her right hand work well enough to grab the gun from her thigh holster. Becoming a prisoner of war was not an option; never again would she let anyone lock her up. Of course, that was unlikely to be an issue given that Lijuan liked to eat people, the husk that remained after the Archangel of China fed turning to dust in the hand.
“Sorry, cher,” she whispered to the man on the other end of the comm device, the man who’d taught her to play long after the end of her farcical childhood, and fired. The blunt, hard sound of her gun spitting fire filled the stairwell, the bullets passing through her vampire assailant to ricochet off the walls. Grunting from the impact, the vamp staggered back. Only to recover to scream obscenities at her; in the flashes from the gun, she saw him lift his broadsword for a fatal strike.
That sword clattered to the floor before it ever reached her, blood spraying her face in a hot gush. She stopped firing . . . and heard the dull, wet thud of his head bouncing down the steps, knew it had been sliced off by a fluid steel blade that wasn’t a sword or a knife but something in between, as sharp as a scythe and even deadlier.
“No apologies between us, sugar,” Janvier said and, scooping her up in his arms, ran up the stairs.
No point in protesting. Wounded as badly as she was, she’d only slow them down if she insisted on moving under her own steam. Instead, she reached her bloody left hand around his side for the gun she knew he wore in a holster at his waist. It took a second to get a grip, his breath warm on her neck, and his muscles bunching and flexing against her as he pounded up the steps.
Trying not to think about the fact that her chest was all but sliced in half, she sat up and pointed both guns, his and hers, over his shoulders. “Your ears are going to take a beating.”
She pressed the trigger on both guns.
Their pursuers fell back under the barrage, but she knew that wouldn’t last. Not only would she soon run out of bullets—and that was counting the two spare clips she had on her—she had to take out a vamp’s heart or the brain to kill with a gun. Even then, it depended on the age and strength of the vampire in question. Ashwini had once emptied an entire clip into a psychotic vamp’s brain only for him to lunge at her.
Janvier jerked at that instant, but didn’t slow his momentum.
She touched his shoulder, felt the warm slickness of fresh blood. Her stomach roiled. “You’ve been hit by a ricochet.”
“Don’t stop,” he ordered. “Keep them distracted.”
The scent of his blood igniting her deepest, most primal instincts, she did as he asked, mowing down a vampire about to leap up to them. Three bullets in the brain, her aim true thanks to the eerily staccato glimpse she caught in the split second of a muzzle flash, and he stayed down, giving his fellows pause. Her gun clicked on empty on the final shot. However, when she tried to use the breathing room to slot in a fresh clip, she almost dropped the gun to the floor.
“I’m getting fuzzy,” she said, her tongue thick in her mouth. “Leave me. Go.”
He could get out the same way he’d no doubt gotten in—by scaling the side of the high-rise. Janvier could climb even the sheerest wall without problem, his movements as beautiful as they were other, a reminder that he wasn’t human.
“You can drink my blood.” The words came out slurred, but she got off another shot when a clatter of sound betrayed an enemy vamp who’d poked up his head. It bought them a few more seconds. “For strength.”
“I would love to.” Pulse thudding against her as her face fell into his neck, the guns hanging limp from her fingers, he said, “But I’d rather you were sucking my c**k at the time.”
She tried to snarl a response, but the words wouldn’t come.
“Don’t you go, Ash. Don’t you f**king go.” Harsh, unforgiving words as he came to a stop on the final landing, the same place where she’d placed the charges.
“’m here,” she managed to mumble, patting at his cheek with a bloody hand. He was so sinfully pretty, was Janvier, with his green eyes and dark brown hair that got all coppery under the summer sun. She wished she’d kissed him for real, wished she’d hauled him into bed and bitten him on that tight butt of his.
“We can rectify that later,” he said and shifted his grip to hold her full-length against him, one arm around her waist. “Arms around my neck. Come on, sugar. Don’t let me down now.”
Her limbs were so heavy, her blood dripping over her skin to soak the waistband of her jeans, but she managed to link her arms around his neck. “Window?”
“No, my entrance route will have been plugged by now. We’re going down.” Using a rope he must’ve anchored to the railing when he arrived, he swung over the side and slid down at breathtaking speed.
Shouts and screams came from above, but all Ashwini could think was that he wasn’t wearing a glove.
A slamming halt as he swung them to a stop on a lower floor, below their pursuers but not home free. It was perfectly timed: she heard the rope slither past a heartbeat later, having been severed from above. Janvier was already racing down the steps, Ashwini once more cradled against his chest.
They rocketed past the first floor and down into the garage. A vampire with hair of metallic silver and eyes of the same startling shade against skin of rich, strokable brown was waiting for them, the door held open. Shoving it shut behind them, Naasir mangled the opening mechanism by bending part of it with brute strength. “Go! I’ll take care of any pursuit!”
A small boom reverberated through the building at that instant, dust falling onto her face from the concrete of the garage ceiling. “We did it,” she tried to whisper, but her throat wouldn’t work . . . and her heartbeat, it was a sluggish crawl. As if her body no longer had blood to pump.
Janvier’s voice was the last thing she heard before the lights went out.
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.