Return to the darkly sensual world of the Guardians with a tale of a prophecy, a devilish bargain, and doomed love…
An RT BookReviews 2009 Reviewers’ Choice Nominee!
Four centuries ago, Irena and Alejandro would have succumbed to the need smoldering between them — if a demon and a monstrous bargain hadn’t shattered the possibility of love. Torn apart by shame, Irena avoided Alejandro for centuries — until a vampire’s call for help throws her into his arms again.
Alejandro can control fire, but he’s never been able to control — or quench — the flames between him and Irena. And he knows Irena, hardened by her hatred for demonkind, will never accept that he now works at a demon’s behest. But even as he fights for a second chance, a shocking betrayal and a deadly prophecy shake the foundations of the Guardian universe, and all Hell threatens to break loose…
“A dark, gripping read…the characters are brilliant, and the breathtaking romance, vivid setting and darkly delicious adventure will immerse readers in this spellbinding world until the satisfying conclusion. ½” —RT Book Reviews
The Story So Far
Are you starting with this book? Do you want a series refresher before starting the next? Catch up on The Story So Far in the Guardian series primer.
READ AN EXCERPT
From Chapter 2: A nosferatu is living in the catacombs beneath a church in Rome, and a vampire is no match for one of the cursed creatures. Deacon, a friend of Irena’s, has asked the Guardians for help. Both Irena and Alejandro answered the vampire’s call.
Deacon led them to a small chamber. A wooden door had been set into the center of the slate floor. On the walls, signs forbidding flash photography and souvenir collection hung over velvet upholstered benches. Alejandro eyed the stick figure clutching its head beneath a warning about low ceilings, and debated the merits of shape-shifting to Irena’s petite height versus stooping his way through the corridors.
“I was transformed by a beautiful vampire on a bed of silk,” Deacon said as Irena circled the chamber, peering out the small, barred window and testing the lock on a closed door. “All things considered, it makes me glad I’m not a Guardian.”
Without a word, Irena formed her wings. White feathers arched over her head and swept down to elegant wingtips.
Seeing her wear them always stole Alejandro’s breath.
The awe faded from Deacon’s expression, and he sighed. “And now you’ve made me a liar.”
“I’m sure I am not the first to do so,” she said, kneeling on the floor and pressing her ear to the wooden door. Suede pulled tight across a bottom framed by the straps of her leatherstockings and arcs of white feathers.
“We are none of us saints,” Alejandro murmured, grateful that they had long since passed the altar. His thoughts were far too impure to cross himself now.
With both relief and regret, he watched Irena stand and vanish her wings.
“I hear nothing,” she said, calling in her kukri knives from her cache. The angled blades were sharp and sturdy, but at only sixteen inches, their length forced her into closer proximity with an enemy than a sword would.
Alejandro tightened his jaw against his protest. Using the knives demanded that she was nearer to the kill—and, for that reason, was also more satisfying to her.
And he understood her; how could he not, when he took so much pleasure in his own weapons? When he anticipated the feel of their grips against his palms, and treasured the memory of their creation?
Irena stilled when his swords appeared in his hands, and he immediately wanted to vanish them again.
She didn’t lift her gaze from the swords. “Did you repair the blade yourself?”
He gave a short nod. She studied the fracture, her expression impenetrable. He’d mended the break with his Gift by heating the steel and hammering it back into shape—and no one but Irena would have noticed the faint discoloration of the blade, the slightly uneven balance.
Oh, he was a fool. He wished he’d brought out any blades but these—the last of the weapons they’d made together in her forge. But he hadn’t considered it; he used no other swords.
“Why did you not come to me? We could have—” She caught herself with an indrawn breath. Her gaze hardened and snapped up to his. “You thick-brained ass. I should let you be killed when it shatters.”
“Yes,” he agreed, to punish her for saying it so casually now. When it had mattered, she had not let him die.
The punishment became his when pain slashed across her features, and she looked away. But he could not unspeak his response.
Her voice was flat. “Rid yourself of them, Olek. Then open your hands.”
As soon as he did, a pair of swords appeared in his palms. He examined the intricate hand guards, hefted the deceptive delicacy of the blades, and fought the ache building in his chest. They had perfect length and balance—had been created specifically for him.
Had she made them recently, or carried them in her cache for the past four hundred years? He didn’t know which he hoped it was.
“These are satisfactory,” he finally said.
Deacon cleared his throat, and reached back for his short swords. “So, Irena—do you have anything nosferatu-sized in there for me?”
Irena tossed him a semiautomatic pistol before swinging the door open. Deacon caught the gun and raised his brows in query.
Alejandro explained as Irena dropped into the catacombs. “The bullets have been coated with hellhound venom. A shot will slow the nosferatu down.”
“Good to hear. Thank—”
“Barely slows it. If the nosferatu comes close enough for you to use your swords,” Alejandro said, moving to the hole in the floor, “then you are already dead.”
Two steps beyond the narrow, spiraling stairwell that brought them to the third level beneath the church, Irena froze.
Not just one nosferatu. A nest of them.
Her heart pounded. She stared down the gray stone corridor, praying that she’d been mistaken. An unlit string of electric lights ran along the ceiling, but she had no difficulty seeing through the darkness. None of the pale, hairless creatures lurked in the corridor, but she detected three distinct heartbeats in a chamber ahead and to the left.
The nosferatu were lying in wait for them.
She clamped her lips, swallowing the invectives that leapt to her tongue. They had no time for that.
Turning, she signed, Three. Is that your count?
Alejandro nodded, his gaze never leaving the corridor ahead of them. She bit back another curse when she realized how cramped he was in this space. His shoulders were hunched, his knees bent.
Nosferatu, however, usually neared seven feet tall—and they couldn’t shift their shape. She and Alejandro would have the advantage under the low ceilings.
We flank the chamber entrance and wait, she decided. If the creatures remained inside the chamber, she and Alejandro would slay them at dawn, after the creatures fell into their daysleep—but the nosferatu were not that stupid. They will abandon their position before sunrise. We’ll take them in the corridor as they leave.
Deacon looked around Alejandro’s shoulder. “Why did we stop?”
“It is a nest,” Irena told him.
“A nest? But I was—” Uncertainty flashed through his psychic scent. He shook his head. “I only saw one. And they are usually solitary.”
“Usually.” Irena turned away from the vampire before he saw her revulsion. Never had she seen him so disgustingly timid. Dread clutched her stomach at the thought of facing three nosferatu, but she’d never let fear prevent her from doing what needed to be done. “Yet it isn’t unheard of to find two or more together.”
Not unheard of, but incredibly rare. The only other nest Irena could recall was a group of nosferatu who’d made a bargain with Lucifer two years previous.
She moved silently down the corridor, stopping a few feet from entrance to the chamber. Had these nosferatu made a bargain with another demon? Or had they been here for years, waiting to carry out one of Lucifer’s plans? Or did they nest together for a different reason?
Alejandro took the other side of the doorway. We will slay two, he signed. The last, we shall bring back to SI and question him—
His hand fisted. Irena’s lips parted. She could hear it now—another heartbeat, rapid and weak. The heartbeat of someone who’d lost too much blood.
Deacon scented the air and grimaced. “Too much rot. Is it human?”
Human, vampire—it wouldn’t matter. She and Alejandro couldn’t wait now. The nosferatu would kill whoever it was before they abandoned the chamber.
She turned to Deacon. “Stay at the door. There may be more nosferatu that haven’t yet returned. Give a shout the moment you see one.” An important task, but it wouldn’t require him to fight. A vampire couldn’t stand his ground against a nosferatu, anyway.
“Christ, Irena.” Deacon smoothly chambered a bullet. Not as nervous now, she noted. “Can two Guardians handle three nosferatu?”
What a stupid question. She’d just told him nests were rare—how would she know what chance Alejandro and she had?
But someone needed rescuing, and so she would soon find out. Her blades would taste nosferatu flesh and their blood would run.
She let her anticipation rise, washing away the fear, the dread, and turned to grin at Alejandro. He returned her gaze beneath half-lowered lids.
Ah, yes. His furious expression.
He wasn’t like her. She loved killing the nosferatu. For Alejandro, it was a duty he willingly performed—until moments such as these, when a life was at stake. When the nosferatu’s inherent evil was clear to see, and not just words.
Moments such as these, when he was as impatient as she to rend them limb by limb, and burn the remains.
What did you see? she asked. Alejandro had passed the chamber entrance in a fraction of a second—more than enough time to memorize the layout and the location of any nosferatu.
An ossuary, he signed. At the touch of his psyche against hers, she lowered her shields, and he projected the image into her mind. Crude block columns, wide enough to conceal a nosferatu, stood at regular intervals throughout the large room. Bones were piled against the walls, skulls arranged in pyramids. Square, twenty meters deep. The ceiling is twice the height of the corridor.
She and Alejandro would have to watch their heads. The nosferatu could cling to the ceiling like bats. The nosferatu?
I did not see any of them.
Irena exhaled slowly through her teeth, nodding. Most likely, the nosferatu were in the same positions as she and Alejandro: against the entrance wall, waiting for her to rush through. As soon as she did, the nosferatu would attack from behind.
You find the human, he signed. I’ll cover your back.
Irena flicked a small mirror past the door. The spinning disk caught the reflection of a nosferatu clinging above the entrance; she had a glimpse of one against the wall to the right. She didn’t see the other one.
She signed their locations to Alejandro and charged through.
The nosferatu waiting above the door dropped. She heard the thud of flesh as Alejandro intercepted it. Irena spun to the right. The nosferatu against the wall lifted his arms, preparing to strike.
She struck faster. Her knife impaled the creature’s exposed chest, the tip of her blade digging into the wall behind him.
Too low. She’d missed the heart. Stupid, stupid.
Already triumphant, the nosferatu’s thin lips pulled back over his deadly fangs, sword raised high.
Irena let him swing it.
She flared her Gift the instant the blade touched her skin, forcing the metal to soften. Steel flowed like mercury over her neck. She hardened it again, grabbed his ruined blade, and yanked.
Unbalanced, the nosferatu staggered. Irena razed her second knife toward his thickly muscled throat, cutting through the spine. She didn’t wait for his head to topple from his shoulders before yanking her first knife from his chest and turning.
The third nosferatu skittered across the ceiling like an enormous white spider.
From behind her, she felt the drawing in of Alejandro’s Gift as if he pulled in a psychic breath. Orange light burst through the chamber, followed by the sizzle of flesh and a terrible shriek. A burning body rocketed over her head, toward the nosferatu scrabbling across the ceiling.
Startled, the creature lost his grip, came tumbling down. Instantly, he was up on his feet and sprinting for the rear corner of the chamber—after the human? To kill, or take a hostage.
Irena went after him.
Catching up was impossible, but by the gods, she would not fail. She pushed her speed to the limit, her teeth clenched with effort. Still not fast enough. Without missing a step, she whipped her arms forward and released her knives.
They pierced the back of his knees like arrows. The nosferatu stumbled—and that was enough time.
Irena called in her saber and swung as she sped past him. The blade sliced through his torso, ripping bone and flesh and tearing free in a spray of cold blood. She pivoted, and separated his head from his shoulders.
And it was done. Alejandro pulled his sword from the chest of the still-burning nosferatu. The flames cast a flickering light against the stacks of bones.
Her gaze fell to Alejandro’s hands. The flesh of his palms and fingers had split open, his skin blistered and charred. His blood trickled over the hilts of his swords, mingling with the nosferatu’s.
Alejandro’s Gift did not come without a price.
Irena met his eyes. His lips had flattened, his nostrils flaring as he breathed through the pain. Nosferatu blood streaked his jaw, splattered his neck. His own ran the length of his arm, soaking his sleeve. She wanted to lick it off. Wanted to take him now, with the heat of battle pounding through their veins.
A long breath steadied her. From near the chamber entrance she heard the tinkle of glass—the mirror she’d tossed shattering as it finally landed on the stone floor.
She looked away from Alejandro, her gaze searching for the human. The faint heartbeat was closer now, and the fetid scent of decaying blood hung heavily in the air.
Irena retrieved her kukri knives, and stepped around a column. Horror froze her lungs.
Dried blood crusted the woman’s face, her nude torso, her legs. Her long brown hair was clumped with it.
A woman, but not a human as they’d assumed. No human would still be alive, not with a spike through her forehead, pinning her upright against the stone column.
A Guardian—and an endless font of blood for the nosferatu. They could drain the body to the point of death, and because a Guardian healed quickly, drink their fill again the next evening. With that much brain damage, she couldn’t have projected her emotions, called for help. Even if another Guardian had looked for her, they couldn’t have detected her psychic scent. The woman’s mind was as empty as her ruined face.
How long had she been here?
“Help me, Olek.” Irena’s throat was raw. Her final steps to the Guardian’s side were a blur. She rose up on her toes, cupped the flat end of the spike in her palm.
She felt the heat from Alejandro’s body, heard his sharply indrawn breath as he came up beside her. He slipped his gloved hands under the woman’s slack, blood-encrusted arms.
“We have you, Rosalia,” he murmured in Italian. “You are with friends.”
“You know her?”
Slowly, Irena used her Gift to draw out the metal. She pulled her hand back; the iron followed. Rosalia’s brain would immediately begin healing, but unless they brought her to a Guardian with a healing Gift, it might be hours before she regained consciousness.
“She specialized with me,” Alejandro said.
So he’d honed her fencing skills. Irena vanished the spike, produced a thin blanket. “When? Who are her friends?”
Rosalia would need them when she realized what had been done to her.
“Two centuries ago. Who her friends are, I could not say.”
“Who was her primary mentor?”
His gaze never left Irena’s face as she tucked the covering around Rosalia’s motionless form. “Her early studies were with Hugh.”
Irena gritted her teeth. Hugh Castleford, after eight hundred years as one of Caelum’s best warriors, had voluntarily Fallen and become human again…and had since taken up with the hellspawn, Lilith.
But despite his choice of bed-partner, Hugh was still a brilliant mentor to the novice Guardians. And he was still, Irena hated to admit, a man that she would trust with her life.
More importantly, she would trust him with anyone else’s life.
“Then we will take her to Special Investigations,” Irena said, lifting Rosalia and cradling the woman against her chest. “Call Selah, have her teleport us there.”
Selah’s Gift would take them to San Francisco faster than using the Gates—the portals that were scattered around the world, linking Earth to Caelum.
Alejandro called in his phone from his cache and glanced at its face. “No signal.”
Irena sighed and strode toward the corridor, vanishing the nosferatu’s bodies and their blood into her cache. Humans would find little evidence of the battle—only a few dings in the walls, and the lingering reek of roasted nosferatu.
Irena stopped in front of Deacon. “Take her.”
The vampire did, gently, his breath skimming between his teeth. The puncture in Rosalia’s forehead gaped open, exposing brain tissue shredded by shards of her skull.
“Will you be coming with us?” Irena asked, calling in her knives again. To phone Selah they had to get aboveground, and might encounter any nosferatu who were returning late.
Deacon stared at Rosalia, his face paler than usual. “With you, where?” he finally asked.
“San Francisco. But if you stay, you will have to fight with us.”
Pained indecision contorted the vampire’s features before determination smoothed and hardened them. “I’ll come.”
She glanced at Alejandro. His lean hands were bare again, his skin healed. “Will you take the front or the rear?”
Asking was unnecessary. Irena’s greater speed and skill made her the obvious choice for the lead position, and Olek would know she wanted it….but she also wanted him to offer it to her.
He took his time. His thumb and forefinger stroked from the corners of his mouth to the point of his goatee. His dark gaze ran her length, settled on her hips.
“Rear,” he decided.
Pig. Irena threw her knife at his head, and didn’t wait to see him catch the blade before it split his skull. She struck out for the stairs, smiling.
It had been a good fight.