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Archangel's War(3)
Author: Nalini Singh

   A nightmare gnawed at him: that the worst had happened, that the chrysalis had succeeded in its purpose and created a being with Elena’s face, but without her soul, without her memories, without her laughter and her spirit.

   His nails dug into the dirt, the grit hard and hot.

   He forced himself to take in the rest of her. The chrysalis had been too small. He’d seen that for himself. It could not hold his hunter’s strong, lithe body, didn’t have space for the wings of the warrior who was his consort.

   Cracked pieces of the chrysalis lay all around her. The inner surface of the broken pieces swirled with wildfire: white-gold with violent swirls of blue . . . and now, an opalescent shade that morphed from midnight to dawn then back again. Elena’s skin glowed brighter than the wildfire, as if she had a light within. The Cascade had tried to turn her into a repository of power, so that he would have a source of extra fuel when he went into the war on the horizon. It had tried to turn his Elena into nothing but a reservoir.

   As if he would trade her for power.

   As if he would be alive without her.

   As if he wouldn’t give up eternity for her.

   Raphael had stopped the horrific unwanted process. But to save his Elena’s soul, her memories, he’d had to do it while the chrysalis was too small. Her body hadn’t had time to grow. It was small, misshapen. She was badly hurt and he was responsible.

   His hand fisted on the dirt, his eyes stinging.

   He squeezed them shut and when he next opened them, his pupils had adjusted to the piercing golden light that drenched them. He saw his Elena again. Why were her knees . . .

   Raphael sucked in a breath.

   She was not misshapen, was not wounded in a way that would mean centuries of constant pain. She was whole. At some point, she’d managed to tuck her knees to her chest, curling her body around it. Like a child in the womb . . . but Elena was no child.

   As he watched, she sighed and began to uncurl, a butterfly emerging from a too-small chrysalis. It seemed impossible even though he was watching it happen. And then he understood. Her body had made a trade.

   Elena was whole—but at a price.

   Her legs were long, the legs of his tall hunter who could haul him down for a kiss with a hand on his nape. Her arms were the right size to throw knives and shoot a crossbow and spar with him with skill and humor. Her face had begun to fill out, though her cheekbones still cut like glass against her skin.

   Then came the price: she was far too thin from her shoulders down, her rib cage prominent and her collarbones jutting out. Thin didn’t do enough to describe it. She was emaciated, her bones held together by tendons and covered by a translucent layer of skin. That skin continued to glow softly from the inside out, making his tough-as-nails hunter seem to be some ethereal otherworldly creature dropped into the world before she was ready.

   It’d infuriate her, but such a terribly fragile body—nothing but bone and tendon and a luminous inward light—could bend and curve and fit inside a too-small chrysalis without losing pieces of itself.

   She had made the right trade because flesh could be nourished. Missing limbs might take an eon to regenerate for an immortal so very young . . . because the Elena in front of him was not mortal. Not with eyes of liquid silver.

   Raphael didn’t care if she was mortal or immortal—whatever happened, they would go into it together. That was their promise. He worried about her physical body only to the extent that he couldn’t bear for her to be in pain. All he truly cared about was if she had come back to him; his Elena’s heart, his Elena’s soul, his Elena’s courage.

   He’d given her a piece of his heart, but only so she could make it hers.

   Never had Raphael been afraid except when it came to his warrior lover. He was an archangel. Beyond fear. But in that moment fear closed its cold hands around his throat. Breath tight in his lungs, he made himself take in the rest of her face. Short strands of near-white hair lying across her cheek. Fine bones under her translucent skin—but that skin was Elena’s dark gold. The glow hadn’t faded.

   As if her blood was liquid gold and the light of it shone through.

   She blinked, shook her head a tiny fraction. Around her fell the last pieces of the chrysalis as her legs unfurled to their full length. Her eyes opened again and when they met his, they were clear, a pure silver without the gray of humanity. That, however, could mean the worst had happened. That his Elena was immortal but lost to him forever, a container of energy without soul or self.

   I would rather die as Elena than live as a shadow.

   His hand flexed painfully then fisted again, dirt and grit crushing into his skin. He would do what he had promised. He would end her if she was no longer his Elena. He would not allow an empty shell, a corruption of life, to walk around with his consort’s face. He would not allow the Cascade to degrade his Elena. But first, he would know.

   Every muscle in his body locked, he reached out with his mind. Elena-mine.

   No response, no sense of a presence inside his head.

   He clenched his jaw. It wasn’t over yet. Her ability to speak to him mind-to-mind had been stolen long before the chrysalis. What they’d done together, wrenching her out of the chrysalis, shattering it before it was done consuming her, that might’ve compounded the harm. The piece of his heart that he’d given her held incredible power, but her body might not have known how to utilize it to protect her mind against the forces tearing at it.

   She’d been his Elena in the dream where they’d met before he released his power, but he had no idea how much time had passed in the dream. Had it taken him seconds to expend his power? Days? Months? What had happened to his consort’s mind and self during that time?

   “Hbeebti.” His voice was raw. And his heart, it was in pieces inside him. A new heart would grow in its place, was already beginning—though it faltered and stuttered, slowed by his lack of power. “Elena.”

   Nothing, no response.

   He had no weapon, no energy to form angelfire, but he was an archangel. His base strength was enough to break her neck, tear her limb from limb.

   Mouth opening in a yawn, she blinked again and gave a harder shake of her head, strands of her hair floating up into the golden energy, and her forehead lined in a frown. His pulse pounded, his regenerating heart sucking energy from his limbs—because arms and legs weren’t a priority when you had a heart to grow.

   There wasn’t much that could kill an archangel. Burned to a cinder by an ordinary fire, they would wake—perhaps after years, but wake they would. Blown to pieces by anything but the powers of another archangel, they would eventually regenerate from a single piece and rise again. Only another archangel could kill an archangel.

   Some laws of nature were fundamental. Even the Cascade could not alter them.

   His growing heart continued to draw energy from other nonessential parts of his body.

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