Archangel's Consort / Page 46

Page 46


Loading...


“What do you see, Guild Hunter?”

For a moment, she thought he’d guessed the direction of her thoughts, but then she followed his gaze. This lost city, its stone walls carved with ethereal, delicate art she recognized as so ancient as to have no modern equivalent, slumbered around them, an elegant lady perfectly preserved. “It should be crumbling into pieces, but everything’s ...”

“As if the city is simply sleeping through a long night,” Raphael murmured.

Elena nodded. “Yeah.” Followed the thought through to its logical conclusion. “Raphael, what happened to the people who lived in Amanat at the time it went to sleep?”

Without discussion, they walked through the first doorway wide enough to accommodate wings, and found themselves in some sort of a temple full of light despite being carved into a mountainside. Elena didn’t know what she’d expected to see, but it wasn’t what they found.

32

They lay in peaceful repose, small groups of women curved around each other, faint smiles on their faces, as if they were having the most pleasant of dreams. “My God.” Stunned, she kept watch as Raphael walked across the stone floor inlaid with precious gems of sparkling fire and dazzling brilliance, his wings leaving droplets of water in their wake.

When he bent to touch his fingers to the neck of a maiden—the word fit better than any other given the woman’s gauzy, flowing garment of softest peach, her tumble of curls laced with ribbon—who lay in graceful repose on a silk cushion of gold-shot ivory, she walked to join him.

“We’re right below the dais,” she murmured.

Because that dais was set only a few feet above the rest of the floor, coming to just below her breasts, she could see across the sweeping breadth of it, see, too, the square of stone that was a different color from the rest. It was, she knew without being told, the place where the statue of a goddess—not a god, not in this place that sang of feminine power—had once stood.

“She is warm.” Raphael rose to his feet. “The Cadre of my mother’s time was wrong—she took her people into Sleep, not into death.”

Elena shoved her hands through hair that was frizzy with damp. “Raphael, this kind of power . . .”

“Yes.” Walking up the steps cut into the side of the dais and to the empty space she’d already noted, he stared down at the square imprint. “The populace of Amanat once had their own gods and goddesses, but when Caliane claimed it as her home, they became her people, their devotion complete.”

“Did she sing them to that devotion?” Elena asked, able to hear the soft breaths of the sleepers now that she was listening for it. It raised the hairs on the back of her neck and nothing was going to get those hairs to go back down—not until they were out of the unnatural grasp of this city frozen in time.

Raphael shook his head. “No. Amanat was hers from long before I was born.”

Elena thought of all she’d read about Caliane in the history texts, all Raphael had told her, remembered, too, that his mother had been called the Archangel of Grace, of Beauty. “The love always went in both directions.”

“Yes.” Crouching down, he touched his fingers to the square of stone that spoke of absence. “Illium.”

Elena began to circle the stone walls below the dais, searching for an entrance. Nothing, the gray walls seamless. Then . . . a tiny blue feather lying at her feet. Illium. Tucking the feather into a pocket, she focused on the wall directly in front of where she’d found it. She felt nothing under her palms on the first pass. Or the second. But on the third . . . “Raphael, I think there might be a seam here.”

He was beside her an instant later. “I played in this temple as a young boy—I may remember how it opens.”

“Here.” She stepped away to stand guard while he ran his fingers over the spot.

As she watched, he appeared to press down on specific areas of the stone, though she couldn’t differentiate any one section of the wall from another. But the instant after he lifted his hand, the stone cracked open with a groan that spoke of great age, releasing a puff of dust that had Elena coughing as she ducked to poke her head inside.

At first, she saw nothing, the area beneath the altar was so dark.

Then her nose picked up the wicked bite of some exotic liqueur. Lime, she thought, it had the tart sweetness of lime, kissed with a richer, more languid flavor. It was a scent she hadn’t realized she associated with Illium until that second. “He’s here.”

“Be ready.” A brightness of blue.

In the lingering flash, she saw Illium’s crumpled form in the corner, his head tipped against the stone wall, his wings crushed under his body. “What’s she done to him?”

“Go, Elena.” Taut words. “I need to remain here to ensure the door does not close.”

Blinking against the aftereffects of the blaze of light, she stepped down into the cavern—it went deeper than the floor outside, until even Raphael could’ve stood upright—and made her way through the dark space by feel, stumbling over Illium when she miscalculated. Please be okay. Crouching, she touched his leg, his thigh, his chest, then finally, found her fingers on his face.

“Come on, Sleeping Beauty. I can’t carry you out of here.” He was too heavy with muscle, and under no circumstances did she want Raphael to leave the doorway—it would snap shut the instant he did, of that she was as sure as she was of her own name.

No response from Illium.

Leaning closer, she gave in to the urge to press her cheek against his, trembling in relief at the warmth of his skin. “Illium, you have to wake up. I need you to protect me against Dmitri.”

A change in his breathing, fingers brushing against her hip, then ... “Liar.”

Thank God. She got to her feet, one of her hands around his. “Up, Sunshine, now.”

Illium mumbled something, but she could tell he was attempting to obey. He got himself on his feet after a few tries, but then all but collapsed against her. Bracing his front against her own, she let out an oomph before managing to manhandle him enough that she could wrap an arm around his waist, pull his own muscular arm over her shoulders.

“Walk,” she ordered, gripping at the wrist of the arm around her shoulders.

His wings lay heavy against her own as he spread them in an instinctive attempt to find his balance. The intimate slide was not something she’d have allowed even Illium under normal circumstances. Today, she held him even tighter, muttering orders in the voice of a drill sergeant in an effort to keep him conscious as she hauled him out of the pit where he’d been dumped, her back and shoulders straining against his muscled weight.

“Elena.”

Only when she heard Raphael’s voice did she realize she’d reached the doorway. “He’s dazed,” she told her archangel.

Illium lost consciousness again right then, becoming a dead weight.

“I’ve got him.” As Raphael reached in to haul the blue-winged angel up out into the light, Elena made a mistake. She put her hand on the wall and took a moment to catch her breath. At the same instant, Raphael shifted just out of the doorway, turning to set Illium down against the outside wall.

The door slammed shut.

The shock of the absolute pitch-dark was so sudden and unexpected that Elena didn’t scream, didn’t cry out, didn’t do anything but stare at the door that she knew was there, though she couldn’t even see her own fingers in the extremity of the blackness. There was no light. None. Raphael? she tried after a couple of seconds, her brain kicking itself back into gear.

Silence.

It didn’t scare her—she knew he was on the other side, working with single-minded focus to get her out. All she had to do was stay in place and fight the disorientation caused by the utter lack of sensory cues to aid perception. “Nice and easy,” she told herself, shifting very carefully to lean against the wall, her wings tucked neatly to her back. The quiet within the stone room was . . . tomblike.

That was when she heard them.

Whispers. So many whispers. Around her. Inside her.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

Come here, little hunter. Taste.

Get on your knees and beg, and maybe I’ll let you back into this family.

Run, Ellie. Run.

She won’t run. She likes it, you see.

Ah, chérie, you know I never left this room.

Mama?

Ari’s having a nice nap—

“Stop it!” she screamed, clapping her hands over her ears. But the voices continued to torment her, her nightmares boiling over to trap her in a prison far more terrible than the stygian gloom that surrounded her on every side.

Little hunter, little hunter, where aaaaaarre you?

Perhaps I’ll tie you to Bobby, let him feed.

You disgust me.

Dead, they’re all dead.

Because of you. Her sister’s voice. Ari’s voice.

Monster. Belle, whispering so low and mean. You’re a monster.

“I’m sorry,” Elena whimpered. “I’m sorry.”

Monster.

“I didn’t know. I swear I didn’t!”

Better that you die here in this tomb, than lead others to their deaths.

Ari would never say that to her. Belle had never spoken to her in that vicious tone. The wrongness of it snapped the snare of nightmare. Shoving up the mental shields she’d been working on since she woke from the coma, she slammed herself against the wall, only then realizing she’d taken several steps forward. “I’m not playing this game!”

The instant her back met the wall, she became aware of the rush of cold air at her feet. Horror uncurling within her, she reached out with a foot, scooting forward an inch at a time. Her leg was almost fully extended when she felt a “lip” of stone—as if there was nothing beyond except a deadly crevice.

Shaking, she pulled back her leg, dropping her knives into the palms of her hands at the same time. Sweat trickled down her temples, stuck her hair to the sides of her face, made the air chill against her skin—she welcomed the rush of sensation, even as she decided to gamble with what might very well be her life. Wish me luck, Archangel.

There was no response, but she knew he had to be blasting the rock with angelfire by now. He’d get her out. She just had to keep herself alive in the interim.

Right on cue, she heard the slither of something on the stone, something heavy and scaly and reptilian. Shivering, she switched one of her daggers for the short sword Galen had drilled her in until she could fight in the dark—so long as she avoided that gaping pit in the center—and she opened her mouth. “Games,” she said, speaking to the alien intelligence behind this trap, “are beneath you.”

The slithering didn’t cease, but she felt the sense of something, someone watching and listening, the heavy weight of that presence pressing down on her as she drew in long, slow breaths and tried to pinpoint the location of whatever it was that had crawled out of the pit to join her.

Musk. Dirt. Moss.

It was the last that gave her the anchor she needed—the stone room had been bare of living plants when she’d retrieved Illium. The creature was in the left-hand corner, she thought, heading toward her. So she began to inch to her right a fraction at a time, always testing ahead before she moved. She didn’t trust the hole to remain in the center of the room.


Prev Next
Loading...