Elena noticed the sparrows with the periphery of her mind.
The small birds were dipping and dancing beyond the Tower windows, their wings nearly brushing the glass. For a second, she felt a chill on the back of her neck, but then the sparrows flew off to do sparrow business and she realized she was being paranoid. Just because the city’s birds had gone all creepy and otherworldly once didn’t mean every sparrow was a harbinger.
Sometimes a bird was just a bird.
She returned to her Scrabble death match with Vivek.
Ten minutes later, the two of them were taking an insane amount of pleasure in arguing over a word when Sara called to ask her to track a young vampire who thought he could skip out on his Contract. “Why?” she said to both Sara and Vivek, after putting the conversation on speaker.
“Because you’re a Guild Hunter, and we find and haul back runaway vampires,” was Sara’s dry response. “If you don’t know that by now, Ellie, there’s no hope for you.”
“No.” Elena leaned back in her chair across from Vivek. “Why do a certain percentage of baby vamps think that (a) all the nasty, terrible things they’ve heard about the old angels aren’t true, and (b)—after discovering that, in fact, all the previous knowledge they had is true, why do they think they’ll be the one wet-behind-the-ears idiot who’ll make it to freedom?”
Both of those things made zero sense to Elena. You’d have to be blind, deaf, and mentally unhinged not to realize that angelkind was not human in any way, shape, or form. To a being who had lived a thousand years, what were mortals and new-Made vampires but bugs to be crushed? Nothing but fragile fireflies. Pretty perhaps, if your tastes ran that way, but gone and forgotten in mere heartbeats.
That Elena was now the consort of the most powerful immortal in North America didn’t change her bone-deep understanding of that searing truth. Raphael was learning to act with more humanity because of the bond of love that tied them together, but he wasn’t human, and he never would be; it’d be like asking a ferocious tiger to turn tame. An impossibility—and a destruction.
Raphael was a glorious fury, a power.
As Elena was a newborn angel with a heart that would always be mortal, even should she live ten thousand years.
“I have an answer.” Vivek raised his hand, his sharply handsome face bearing a cheek-creasing grin, and the rich brown of his skin lit with good humor.
It had been a long time since Elena had seen any sign of the petulance and pettiness that had once been as much a part of him as his striking intellect. Then Vivek had controlled the Cellars, the hidey hole the Guild kept for hunters who needed to lie low for a while—such as a wayward hunter who might’ve slit the throat of a vampire so brutally powerful he was an archangel’s second.
Elena still wasn’t sorry about that. Dmitri had deserved to feel the lethal edge of her knife and more. And it wasn’t as if he’d been at any risk of dying. The arrogant fuck had blown her a kiss while his shirt was wet with darkest crimson, the blood loss nothing to a vampire that strong.
Not that his lack of injuries and twisted delight in the violent interaction had stopped him from stalking Elena—hence her need to disappear into the Cellars. In that underground world, Vivek had been king, and he’d relished his power. Piss him off and you’d say good-bye to air-conditioning, your room a sauna—and forget about fresh coffee. These days, however, the Cellars were someone else’s domain; and, like her, Vivek was growing into a strange new skin.
In the five years since he’d been Made a vampire, the formerly tetraplegic guild hunter had regained the use of his arms and most of his upper body. Even though his lower body remained numb to sensation and offered no way for him to get out of the wheelchair he’d been in since childhood, Vivek wasn’t complaining.
The healers had predicted it would take decades for him to regain even basic movement.
“Enlighten us,” Sara said in response to Vivek’s declaration, her tone distinctly amused. Whispers coming through the line told Elena her best friend was clearing paperwork while she spoke to them; the Guild director’s job was never finished.
“The transition to vampirism,” Vivek said in an ostentatiously pompous tone, “causes a reaction in a small percentage of vampires that turns on the idiot gene.” He held up a finger in a “pay attention” stance. “Said gene is located on chromosome pair twenty-four, colloquially known as the vampire chromosome.”
Elena nodded with equal solemnity. “An intriguing hypothesis, Professor Kapur. Perhaps you should apply for a VPA research grant.”
As Vivek cracked up at her reference to the Vampire Protection Authority—which seemed to exist to slap guild hunters with “excessive force” violations, usually while the hunters were still bleeding from vampire bites and clawings—Sara said, “If you two comedians are finished, I need you to haul ass, Ellie. Angel involved is very senior and very angry. Name’s Imani.”
Elena could’ve resigned from the Guild years ago. Being Consort to the Archangel of New York tended to tie up a woman’s time. But she’d clung to the Guild with her fingernails, being a hunter as much a part of her psyche as breathing. Even more so because she was hunter-born: a bloodhound with the capacity to track vampires by scent.
Rusted oak, champagne, sugar mixed with camphor, a cascade of flowers.
Just four scents among the millions in the world. Her brain had the capacity to narrow down a particular scent to a particular vampire. Vivek, for example, was cold and fresh river water and a vivid burst of aquamarine shards. She knew the latter wasn’t a scent, but it was the only way she’d found to describe what she picked up around her friend.
As for the angel-tracking ability she’d begun to develop after waking as an angel, that remained erratic at best and nonexistent at worst.
“I know Imani,” she said to Sara.
“I was hoping you’d say that. She’s . . . touchy.”
That was one word for the angel in question. “I’ll calm her down.”
“I’ve sent the details to your phone. You want a necklet?”
“No, I’ll be fine.” No point detouring to Guild HQ for the vampire immobilization device when she already had the advantage of wings as well as a droplet of immortal strength. Not much. Laughable when compared to angelkind, but she was now much harder to hurt than any other hunter in the Guild. “If I can’t haul back a runner on my own, I need to be put in Guild remedial school.”
As Vivek grinned, Sara said, “Come by tonight for a coffee. I want to talk to you about something.”
“I’ll be there.” Hanging up, Elena pointed a finger at Vivek. “I do not withdraw my challenge about your most recently created word.”
“Your funeral.” Vivek had on his Scrabble poker face. “I’ll save the game to continue the next time you’re in.” A beep sounded behind him in the surveillance control center.
Turning his wheelchair around using his hands, he went to check on the alert. After much anguish, he’d retired his previous high-tech and networked electronic chair—the manual chair gave him a way to exercise his upper body without having to spend even longer with the physiotherapists. He’d bulked up considerably in the past couple of years, his shoulders strong and his arm muscles defined.
“Ellie, hey, wait.” He flicked up an image onto one of his many screens. “Signs of seismic activity out by the Catskills.”
“Shit.” She stared at the jagged lines that danced across the screen, her stomach suddenly in knots and images of the sparrows blazing to the forefront of her mind. One word loomed large in her thoughts: “Cascade.”
A confluence of time and unknown critical events that had ignited a power surge in the archangels who ruled the world, with a side-helping of random cataclysmic occurrences, the Cascade had demonstrated a tendency to spike then flatline as it built toward an endgame none of them could predict. It had been two and a half years since the last resurgence—back during her and Raphael’s trip to Morocco—and she’d been hoping the damn thing would go from dormant to stone dead.
Elena was sick of fucking zombies, impossible diseases that struck angels from the sky, and storms and quakes that left scars in the earth. Oh, and let’s not forget the Hudson turning crimson, as if the city was bleeding. That had been just lovely. “How bad?”
“Too deep and too weak for humans to feel. And it looks like I have a report from the seismic people at the university.” He read the e-mail. “Movement tagged as standard settling of the land. Only picked up because they’re testing the super-sensitive new equipment the Tower helped finance.”
Stomach unknotting, Elena blew out a quiet breath. No Cascade-linked insanity, then. No need to put on her tinfoil hat and start yelling about the end of the world. Just a tiny—normal—tremor deep in the earth. “Ping me if you get any more alerts, and make sure Dmitri knows too. I better get going on this hunt.”
Vivek swiveled his wheelchair around. “Happy hunting.” In his eyes, dark and intense, lived a feral hunger. It was as if his transition to vampirism had splintered more than two decades of grim-willed control.
Because Vivek, too, was hunter-born, the hunt in his blood.
That he hadn’t gone mad long ago was a testament to his incredible resolve. Elena had used him as backup on two recent jobs where he could situate himself on a rooftop and cover her using a sniper’s rifle. A number of other hunters had pulled him in the same way. For now, that seemed to be enough to take the edge off. “You, too,” she said with a nod at his control center. “Say hi to your man-crush for me.”
A raised middle finger before he turned back to the screens that flowed with data. “Come back when you’re ready to get massacred on the Scrabble board.”
Leaving the Tower’s tech hub with a final “You made up that word!”—to which Vivek called out, “Illiterate Luddite!”—she read the details of the job on her way to her and Raphael’s Tower suite. All she had on her were knives, and she liked to take a weapon with distance reach when on a retrieval.
Droplet of immortal strength or not, arrogance was a good way to get dead.
Just last week, Ransom had barely escaped being disemboweled by an aggressive vampire’s disgusting dirty claws. Some people had no sense of good hygiene. As it was, Ransom’s treasured leather jacket hadn’t escaped the attempted mauling unscathed.
He’d still be sulking over it if his wife hadn’t managed to source a near-identical jacket from who-knew-where: Librarians obviously had stellar research skills. And librarians married to guild hunters had nerves of steel. Per Ransom, his wife had told him to hose himself clean of the vampire blood before he set foot in their home.
Demarco had snorted when Ransom relayed that story, the shaggy blond of his hair in serious need of a cut. “I wouldn’t obey my wife’s orders like that—you gotta be the man in the relationship, wear the pants.”
“Sure,” Ransom had drawled, unperturbed. “I’ll pass your words of wisdom on to Nyree the next time she talks about inviting your sorry ass over for dinner. Enjoy the moldy bread in your fridge.”
Laughing at the memory of how Demarco had clutched at his heart and fallen off his chair, Elena entered the suite. She grabbed her crossbow first and strapped it to her left thigh. Lightweight, with the extra bolts carried in a new flat quiver she would strap to her other thigh, she treasured and babied it like it was “her precious.”
She decided against a gun; she kept up her training, but the crossbow combined with blades was more her thing. Today, she slid a long blade into the sheath that ran down her back. The near-white of her hair was already in a tight braid, and she had her chunky hunting knife in her boot, so all that was left for her to do was check that the knives she wore in her forearm sheaths were all snugly slotted in and she was done.
Striding across the thick carpet of the living area, she opened the doors that led out to a railingless balcony and stepped into the crisp white of a winter’s day.
The cold slapped her. Hard.
She gritted her teeth, grateful for her long-sleeved thermal black top. It had been designed especially for her, to provide a measure of protection at high altitudes. She had nowhere near ordinary angelic levels of cold toleration. The squadron with whom Raphael had gone out in the pre-dawn darkness were probably in sleeveless tunics.
Her teeth threatened to chatter.
“Screw looking tough,” she said to the disinterested pigeon that had stopped on the balcony. “I’d rather be warm.” Going back inside, she pulled on a form-fitted black jacket designed with slits for her wings, and fancy straps that held it tight to her body. Then she tugged on gloves for good measure—after first moving the forearm knife sheaths to on top of the jacket sleeves.
“Okay, now I’m ready.”
Shutting the balcony doors behind herself, because she had no desire to return to an arctic environment, she took a moment to enjoy the glittering spectacle of New York gearing up for the day after a long, cold night, then fell off the edge of the balcony, her wings spreading behind her in a snap of strength. Those wings were an extraordinary blend of colors, beginning as pure black on the inner curve, then flowing into indigo, deepest blue and the whispered shade of dawn.
Her primaries were a shimmering white-gold.
Beautiful wings, but they could’ve been dishwater brown and she’d have loved them as much, for they took her to the skies.
The air was razored glass in her lungs, it was so cold, but a cool yellow sun rode the sky today. The distant star wasn’t strong enough to melt the snow that blanketed the city, but it made that snow ignite with light and turned the ice that dripped off the edges of buildings into iridescent diamonds.
Beneath her, the Legion building lay draped in pristine white.
The greenery that covered its outsides in spring and summer slept under winter’s kiss, but Elena knew that should she fly inside, she’d be met with a blast of heat and the rich, earthy humidity of growing things. Green was the color of the Legion building on the inside—living green.
The beings who’d risen from the sea in response to the turbulence of the Cascade, their age unknown and their origins lost in time, had worked with two of the Tower engineers to create a method of heating for their building that didn’t put undue pressure on the city’s systems, but that kept their plants alive through the coldest months. At least ten of the Legion sat with gargoyle-perfect immobility on the roof, their bat-like wings folded to their backs.
Snow had collected on their motionless bodies, a coat they didn’t shrug off and never seemed to feel.
Elena. Elena. Elena.
No movement from the gargoyles, but their whispers echoed inside her head, the Legion’s voice both singular and a multitude.
Waving a quick hello, she carried on toward the Hudson River. It had begun to freeze at the edges, shards of ice spearing across its surface in a jagged painting, but that ice was an illusion. It wouldn’t hold if she landed on it—a frigid truth two younger angels had learned yesterday.
Regardless, the beauty of it stole her breath.
Maybe that was why it took her a second to notice the sparrows.