(The fourth book in the Guild Hunter series)
A novel by Nalini Singh
Crouching on the concrete pier lit only by the dull yellow glow of a flickering streetlight several feet away, Dmitri tilted the severed head toward him with a grip in the dead male’s damp hair, not bothering with gloves. Elena, he thought, would not have approved of the breach in proper forensic protocol, but the hunter was currently in Japan and wouldn’t return to the city for three more days.
The victim’s head had been separated from his—as yet undiscovered—body with hacking slices, the weapon possibly some kind of a small ax. Not a neat job, but it had gotten things done. The skin, which appeared to have been either pink or white in life, was bloated and soft with water, but the river hadn’t had time to degrade it into slime.
“I was hoping,” he said to the blue-winged angel who stood on the other side of the grisly find, “for a quiet few weeks.” The reappearance of the archangel Caliane, thought dead for over a millennium, had rocked both the angels and the vampire population. The mortals, too, felt something, but they had no true knowledge of the staggering change in the power structure of the Cadre of Ten, the archangels who ruled the world.
Because Caliane wasn’t simply old, she was an Ancient.
“Quiet would bore you,” Illium said, playing a thin silver blade in and around his fingers. Having preceded Raphael and Elena home from Japan the previous day, he looked none the worse for wear after having been kidnapped and caught in the middle of a battle between archangels.
Dmitri felt his lips curve. Unfortunately, the angel with his wings of silver-kissed blue and eyes of gold was right. Dmitri hadn’t yet succumbed to the ennui that affected so many of the immortals for the simple reason that he never stayed still. Of course, some would say he was leaning too far in the other direction—in the company of those who lived only for the piercing pleasure of blood and pain, every other sensation having grown dull.
The thought should’ve concerned him. That it didn’t . . .
Illium balanced his blade on a fingertip, the yellow glow from the streetlight reflecting off it in an unexpected spark of color before he began to play it through his fingers once more. “He could’ve belonged to someone else, tried to escape his Contract, run into trouble.”
Since there were always idiots who tried to get out of their side of the deal—a hundred years of service to the angels in exchange for the gift of near-immortality—that was highly possible. Though why a vampire would come to New York when it was home to an archangel, and a powerful Guild of hunters dedicated to retrieving those who decided to run, wasn’t as explicable.
“Family ties,” Illium said, as if he’d read Dmitri’s thoughts. “Vampires that young tend to stay connected to their mortal roots.”
Dmitri thought of the broken burned-out shell of a house he’d visited day after day, night after night, until so many years had passed that there was no longer any sign of the small cottage that once stood there. Only the land, carpeted with wildflowers, remained, and it was Dmitri’s, would always be Dmitri’s. “We’ve been working together too long, Bluebell,” he said, his mind on that windswept plain where he had once danced a laughing woman in his arms while a bright-eyed boy clapped his hands.
“I keep saying that,” Illium responded, “but Raphael refuses to get rid of you.” That silver blade flashed faster and faster. “What do you think of the ink?”
Rising to his feet, Dmitri tilted the head to the other side. The tattoo high on the dead male’s left cheekbone—black marks reminiscent of letters in the Cyrillic alphabet intertwined with three scrolling sentences in what might’ve been Aramaic—was both intricate and unusual . . . and yet something about it nagged at Dmitri.
He’d seen it before, or something similar, but he’d been alive almost a millennium and the memory was less than a shadow. “It should make him easier to identify.” Light glinted off those small fangs. And he realized what he’d overlooked at first glance. “If his fangs aren’t mature, he should’ve still been in isolation.”
The first few months after their Making, vampires were scrabbling creatures, little more than animals, as the toxin that turned mortal to vampire worked its way into their cells. Many chose to navigate the conversion in an induced coma, except for certain necessary periods of wakefulness. Dmitri had spent the months after his violent Making locked in iron chains on a cold stone floor. He remembered little of that time beyond the ice of the stone below his naked body; the rigid grasp of the manacles around his neck, his wrists, his ankles.
But what came after he woke as an almost-immortal . . . that he would never forget, not even if he lived to be ten thousand years old.
Wild blue across his vision, the flickering yellow light turning the glimmering threads of silver in Illium’s feathers to pewter. “The Guild has good databases,” the angel said, closing his wings and slipping away the knife at the same time.
“Yes.” Dmitri had ways to access those databases without Guild cooperation, had done so on many a previous occasion, but it might be a good move to loop the hunters into this case so they knew to alert him to any similar incidents—because the instincts honed by close to a thousand years of bloody survival said he needed to