“Who are you? I’ll choose what? And where are we?” I finally ask, finding my voice but startled to hear that it’s soft, unsure, and hesitant. When did I become such a wimp? What I should do is kick the guy in the balls, grab him by the throat, and sling him against the stone wall. Maybe even give him a little door prize for our meeting, like a nick on the cheek with one of my blades.
That doesn’t happen. None of it does.
He smiles again and moves a step closer to me. The candlelight flickers at his movement, causing shadows to shimmy across his face. With a crooked finger he lifts my chin, and I wait as his head bows closer to mine. Electricity soars through my veins, unwanted, uninvited, but there all the same, and his lips pass by mine so closely, they nearly touch. Instead, though, his mouth moves to my ear.
“Soon,” he answers, hovering close to me for several seconds while I stand there shivering. “Verra soon.”
When he pulls away, his face, his body, is encased in shadow once more.
“Wait,” I say, waiting for him to step back into the light.
He doesn’t. A soft, deep chuckle emerges from his outline just before the slow, strong beating of a single pair of wings meets my ears.
“Please, love, wake up.”
“Eli!” I gasp, and bolt up in the bed. It’s dark, and although my eyes scan the room, I’m dazed, it’s hazy, and I’m confused as Hell. Long shadows stretch across the floor and walls. I have no idea how long I’ve been out, but it seems like forever.
“All day you’ve been fast asleep.”
My heart is beating hard. Freaking hard. Not faster, as it doesn’t do that anymore, but hard. So hard I can feel it through my shirt. It feels as though someone is pumping a syringe of adrenaline straight into my artery with each heavy thump. Who the hell was that?
A hand finds mine and cool fingers link through my warm ones and grasp gently. “Shh. Calm down, Riley. It’s me. Victorian.” A lamp at the bedside turns on.
“Vic,” I say. I’ll worry about the dream later. Just a dream. Not real. And it wasn’t Victorian. No one I know.
Then it all rushes back. “Oh, God,” I mutter. It really happened. It’s real.
Pain crushes my chest and doubles me over, and I draw up my knees, press my forehead to them, and try to breathe. I don’t cry, though. I think my tears have dried up. I just . . . grunt. Groan against the pain. It almost sounds ridiculous, and I can’t even help it.
Victorian’s hand moves over my back, then to my neck. “Riley, don’t,” he says quietly. “I may not have had any love for your man, but I did respect him. I respected how he cared for you inevitably. And I know Dupré would insist on your strength in overcoming this. It will get better,” he says in a soothing tone. “All things eventually do.” He pushes my hair aside, strokes it. “You were talking in your sleep, love. To whom?”
It comes back to me. That . . . person. Man. In the dream. I know I’ve never seen him before. I would’ve remembered. Yet there was something familiar about him at the same time. It doesn’t make sense, and I shake my head. “I have no idea,” I answer, and I cross my legs. I look at Victorian, who sits close to me on the bed. His beautiful face is illuminated by the glow of the lamp. Only now do I realize I’m not even in my room. Victorian’s dark brown eyes catch the light and shine as he studies me in silence.
“This is impossible, Vic,” I finally say, and shake my head again. “I don’t understand how it happened. How something like this can happen,” I say, staring at him, “to one of you.”
Vic watches me closely. “The Fallen have powers beyond us, I fear,” he says. “More so than any of us expected. You will have to be guarded much closer. After all, you’re still only a fragile human, regardless of your incredible strength.”
Something about that just doesn’t sit right with me. Even before the tendencies, I was far from fragile. “Jake wouldn’t have brought me in if I was just a weak human, Vic.” I push off the bed and turn to look at him.
Now I’m pissed.
For a flash second, I think I see a slight grin on his face. Prick.
Not waiting to see if he follows me, I head downstairs. To the others. My team.
Inside, I separate myself into two people. The woman who now has her heart ripped in half and mourns the loss of her fiancé. I shove the pain aside, and I actually feel it as it recedes into the darkness of my too-recent memory. There’ll be time later for mourning. For tears. For heartache. Not now.
Because I’m also the woman who not only has a personal score to settle, but my own race to protect. I’m far from average. I can run. Jump. Fight like a wildcat.
I can kill. And I can make almost anyone do anything with my mind.
And I won’t stop until all of the Black Fallen are nothing but fucking dust.
As I ease down the corridor, I allow the shadowy, eerie halls of the Crescent to consume me. There’s something here, and I feel it. I allow myself to be enveloped by it. I become shadows. Aged darkness. Callous. Edgy. Treacherous.
Just as I near the landing to the steps, I see her again. The little girl. She emerges from a small recess in the wall, an alcove.
Our eyes meet; my green ones to her yawning black ones. With her skin illuminated, she almost glows. Instead of slowing down, I pass right by her. Before I take the first descending step, she disappears.
I don’t know why, but we connect.
I’m sure I’ll find out what she wants soon enough.
Downstairs, I slip through the darkened halls and chambers of the Crescent. I find the others still in the library. As I enter, I pull my loose hair back into a ponytail. I shake myself mentally, ready for the fight.
And inside of me, I will not give up on Eli. Until I know for absolute, positive sureness that he’s dead, I’ll not give in to it.
I have a Pictish scathe, holy water cartridges, and an ancient verse for protection.
And I’m going to fucking use them all.
“Riley,” Noah says, rising to meet me. “Sydney found something.”
His eyes lock with mine, and we share a long look before I acknowledge. In Noah’s face I can see he understands that I’ve compartmentalized my feeling. What I’ve done to see this through. “What is it?” I ask.
I glance over and see Jake, Gabriel, and Darius all hovering around Sydney. She looks up.
“I’m pretty positive it’s a clue to the location of the first relic,” Sydney says. Her blond hair hangs straight past her shoulders, and she glances back down at the aged tome she’s been searching through. “If my calculations are right and they coincide with the paragraph I found, it lies somewhere beneath the medical research center at the university.” She looks at me. “The morgue.”
I blink. “Beneath it?”
“Aye,” Darius answers. “At one time that ground was hallowed. Catacombs run below Old Town and below the university as well, although many are either filled in or haven’t been stepped into in centuries.”
“How do we move through the city now?” Noah asks. “The Fallen know we’re here.”
“We can’t be certain that the attack on Eli wasn’t just a random thing,” Jake says. “They could’ve noticed nothing more than that he was a vampire and wanted to toy with him. But thanks to some potent root doctor magic, we’ve something to help shield us,” Jake says, “from the Fallen.” He looks at me. “For a while anyway.”
I already know what he means. Potions. Similar to the ones I took for so many years to mask the heavy scent of my blood. Preacher must’ve sent some with us. “Let’s go,” I say, anxious to get moving. I have nervous energy now—energy that needs to be spent. Pacing, my eyes are on Jake. Waiting.
He watches me closely. As do the others. I already know they have reservations about me because of what just happened to Eli.
I shake my head. “I’m fine. Yes, I’m dying inside,” I say, and meet their gazes. “But if you think I’m just gonna sit around while you guys fry the Fallen, then you don’t know me very well.” I meet Gabriel’s gaze, then Darius’s, then Jake’s.
Victorian, now standing behind me, puts a hand to my lower back. “I’ll stay by her side—”
“The hell you will,” Noah says angrily, and stands and moves directly in front of Victorian, meeting his hard gaze head-on. “I still don’t trust you, Arcos. Eli never did, and I damn sure don’t trust you with my dead friend’s woman.” He steps closer. “So back the fuck off.”
When Noah gets pissed, it’s something you have to witness for yourself. Usually a flirt, a jokester, when he’s pissed off he is a force to be reckoned with. In that quiet, crazy, Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon kind of way.
I put a hand on Noah’s arm. “I’m fine. Seriously.” I look at Vic. “I can handle myself without a babysitter.”
“Riley, you’ll be with Miles, Gabriel, and me,” Jake says, making the final decision. He looks at Vic. “Arcos, you’re with Darius and the lupines.”
“What about Sydney?” I ask.
“She stays and continues her research through the volumes,” Jake says. “Gabriel has a protective ring surrounding the Crescent. She’ll be safe for now.”
Just then, old Peter bustles into the room.
“Come get your magic juice!” he calls out with a chuckle. He reminds me of Tootles from the movie Hook. And, yes, I truly believe he has lost his marbles. He has two pots of steaming something on a large tray. He sets it down on a side table, then bustles back out. Moments later he returns with another tray, this one loaded with cups. A paper sack, top rolled shut, sits beside them. One by one, he sets out the cups and fills them with the hot liquid. My root doctor grandfather’s art at work.
“Drink up,” Jake says, and steps over to grab a cup for himself. He takes the paper bag, opens it, and pulls something else out. A smile touches his mouth as he loosens the object, and a small silk satchel attached to a leather cord dangles from his fingers. He hands one to each of the vampires and the lupines, and even though I don’t believe it will work on me, I take one anyway.