Dark Hunger


Page 63



“You know,” Illium said with a smile that held no humor, “it’s a compliment. She’s starting to worry you might actually hurt her and win.”


Too bad the compliment could well lead to hell on earth.


• • •


Having forced herself to grab a couple of hours of down-time while she could, Elena was still grappling with the horrific possibility of a New York overrun with reborn when she walked into the refueling station to grab a cup of coffee just before dawn. “Sara.”


Face drawn, her best friend shared a photo her parents had sent of Zoe peacefully sleeping somewhere in a commune in Nebraska. “We’ll beat Lijuan, Ellie, whatever it takes.” An unyielding vow. “I will not have my baby growing up in a world ruled by a monster.”


Deacon came in just as they finished their coffee, and Elena left to give them a few minutes’ privacy, Deacon’s wide shoulders blocking Sara from view as he drew her into his arms. Elena couldn’t imagine how hard it must be for the two of them to be so far from Zoe. As far as she knew, their little girl had never before gone to bed without a kiss from Mommy or Daddy.


She hoped with everything in her heart that Sara’s words would prove prophetic, that they’d win this terrible fight so Zoe could play in the snow again, safe and happy and with wonder in her heart at the shadow of an angel’s wings. Picking up a feather of dappled black and gray that looked like it came from a squadron commander she knew well, she put it carefully into a pocket to save for Zoe.


Her aim was to find Raphael, maybe steal a few seconds in his arms, but when she reached the war room, she saw that he was in intense discussion with Jason. Not wanting to interrupt and needing some fresh air, she went to the balcony doors. She’d pushed the door to one side when she looked up and froze, her eye caught by the unexpected tableau outside.


Aodhan and Illium stood near the edge, weapons in hand, both bearing wounds that said they’d been in one of the ongoing light skirmishes along the perimeter. Aodhan had a cut on his cheek and what looked like a couple of shallow slices on his upper arms, while Illium’s right wing was notched as if by a blade. Not a disabling injury, Elena judged, and one that was healing before her eyes.


That, however, wasn’t what held her attention. It was the fact that they stood side by side, their wings overlapping the slightest fraction. Aodhan never made the mistake of putting himself in a situation where he could be touched, which meant this wasn’t a mistake. Fingers clenching on the doorjamb, her heart full at this sign of healing amid the hurt and the horror, she was about to turn away, leave them in peace, when Illium turned toward Aodhan.


The two angels were both tall, but Aodhan was perhaps an inch taller, and now his eyes locked with Illium’s for a long, quiet moment before he lowered his head very slightly. Illium raised his hand, the movement slow, hesitant . . . and then his fingers brushed Aodhan’s cheek just below the cut that had almost sealed. The first ray of dawn kissed the tear that rolled down Illium’s face, caressed the painful wonder on Aodhan’s as he lifted his hand to clasp the wrist of his friend’s hand.


That instant of contact, the power of it, stole her breath.


Then Illium smiled, said something that made Aodhan’s lips curve—Elena thought it might’ve been “Welcome back, Sparkle”—and they were separating to sweep off the Tower in a symphony of wild silver blue and heartbreaking light.


“Raphael,” she whispered, having felt him come up behind her. “Did you see?”


“Yes.” His hand on her nape, his thumb brushing over her pulse. “Of course it would be Illium who reached him,” he murmured. “They’ve been friends since Illium first talked Aodhan into flying to the bottom of the gorge—he was younger than Sam is now, Aodhan even younger.”


Elena hadn’t realized Illium was older, Aodhan was always so solemn. “Did they get in trouble?” she asked, turning sideways to his body.


“Yes. It’s a forbidden flight for such young babes—the gorge floor is far from the city and, though coasting down is not so hard, young angels don’t have the wing strength to get back up.


“When they were found,” he added, tucking her against him, “everyone knew it was Illium who must’ve been the instigator, and he took the blame without pretending otherwise.” A laugh. “He has never lied, your Bluebell, even as a child, and that’s why no one could ever be angry with him. ‘I did it’ is apt to be the most frequent thing he said as a child.”


Elena could just imagine. “And Aodhan? What was he like?”


“Always quiet, shy, gentle of heart. But that day, he was intractable, insisting Illium alone wasn’t to blame, that they’d come up with the plan together. He wouldn’t listen when Illium told him to shush, and the next thing the Refuge knew, they were close as two birds of the same nest, each as often at the other’s home as his own.”


Pressing his lips to her hair, he said, “Two hundred years, Elena, that is how long we have waited for our Aodhan to return.”


The solemn words made her eyes burn. Wrapping her arms around him, she stood in silence with her consort, their eyes on the squadrons that patrolled the uneasy border. Each time she glimpsed wings of silver blue, she looked for those of broken light.

• • •


Heavy fighting began again with true sunrise.


The Tower forces, Elijah’s two elite squadrons included, did considerable damage, but it wasn’t enough, not with Lijuan’s generals recharged by their mistress. Having learned from their previous skirmishes, they ganged up on the Tower’s most powerful fighters while an overwhelming number of ordinary fighters engaged anyone who might come to assist. Their tactic worked, bringing down five of Raphael’s experienced commanders one after the other.


Of the Seven, it was Aodhan who took the worst damage.


The angel, with his unearthly beauty, was almost decapitated when he left his flank unprotected in order to save the life of an injured commander. Aside from the gruesome neck wound, one of his wings had been hacked half off, his left arm gone. Crash-landing on a roof, he broke a number of bones and it was only the relentless fire of the shooters around him that kept the enemy angels from landing to finish the job.


Yet even close to death, he eschewed anyone’s touch but Illium’s.


Racing to the infirmary as soon as he forced Lijuan to retreat once more, Raphael saw that the other angel was conscious. “I must touch you, Aodhan.”


Throat destroyed, Aodhan spoke mind to mind. I will heal. Help the others.


Shaking his head, Raphael placed his hand very gently across the neck wound, and when Aodhan went white and stiff, knew he was throwing the angel back into the hell from where Raphael had carried him in his arms. I’m sorry, he said, adding yet another reason to the list of why he needed to kill Lijuan. I cannot lose one of my Seven.


He wasn’t certain Aodhan breathed until he lifted his hand, the neck wound sealed, though the other injuries would take weeks of painful healing. “I would not have done this unless I needed you.”


It is all right, Sire. Aodhan’s splintered eyes held forgiveness for the unutterable pain caused. Get me in front of a window. I can use my offensive abilities as long as I have a line of sight.


After personally moving Aodhan’s bed to a windowed area and smashing out the glass so the other man wouldn’t do it himself the first time he used his abilities, Raphael returned to the field of battle. Every time he rose, Lijuan did, too, meaning he couldn’t help his own forces, and sometime after midnight, she scored a hit almost directly to his heart.


The wildfire seared at the oily black of her power, but it was stuttering, almost overwhelmed. Knowing he couldn’t fight Lijuan and heal at the same time, Raphael blasted out with angelfire and managed to wing Lijuan, just as Jason sent his black lightning slamming into the other archangel. Neither hit was serious and Lijuan could have kept coming after him, but for some reason, she retreated—possibly, he realized, because her own power was starting to fade.


Her hair and eyes had both changed to oily black during the battles, but now he realized they were back to their usual shade. Lijuan, it seemed, wasn’t as all-powerful as she liked to make people believe and that was something they could use. Landing on a Tower balcony, he kept his feet by sheer strength of will as the battle raged within his body, Lijuan’s black poison attempting to shut him down, while the wildfire fought back.


He couldn’t fall, couldn’t allow his troops to see how badly he was injured.


Managing to make it inside, he caught Dmitri’s eye, saw his second understood what was happening, but Dmitri didn’t betray it by so much as a flicker of an eyelash. “Lijuan’s forces are pulling back,” he said. “I expect intermittent fighting throughout the night, but we should rest our troops in groups.”


Raphael spoke through a haze of red. “Numbers.”


Walking over so their words wouldn’t be overheard, his second said, “More than half our forces are dead or too severely injured to recover anytime soon. The others are exhausted, even our strongest. I predict Lijuan’s forces will launch an all-out offensive with the dawn—we have no other surprises to throw in their path and they know it.”


“Authorize the use of the rocket launchers come dawn,” Raphael said, but they both knew it wouldn’t be enough. “The cargo planes with the reborn?”


“Lifted off two hours ago,” Dmitri said, then lowered his voice. “Go. Heal. We’ll finish this discussion later.”


“Watch over my city, Dmitri.” He left the war room with agony searing up his spine, making it to his and Elena’s private Tower suite with teeth gritted. Collapsing on the living room floor on his front, he clenched his jaw to stifle the violent scream that wanted to erupt from his throat. A single sound and his entire fleet would realize how close they were to losing the city.


43


“Elena,” came Dmitri’s voice in her ear, “the fighting has lessened in intensity. You can stand down for now.”



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