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Archangel's War(4)
Author: Nalini Singh

   Raphael might lose some flesh during the process, might even lose an arm or a leg, but it would not be anything in the scheme of his immortal life. Nothing akin to Elena’s fragility. His hunter, who had never been fragile, would swear a blue streak at becoming conscious of her current state.

   He couldn’t wait to feel her ire, fight with her over her stubborn need to quickly regain her strength. She’d probably want to begin lifting weights before she could walk. He’d hand her the damn weights himself if she’d just talk to him, tell him they’d made it, that the Cascade hadn’t won this battle.

   Around them the golden energy continued to glow and form small eddies in the air, tiny lightning flashes hidden within it.

   He reached once again for her mind. Elena, do you hear me? His chest ached.

   If she was gone, this was it for him. He had lived over a thousand five hundred years. It was enough. If Lijuan had risen monstrous while he and Elena slept, he’d do what he could to burn out that scourge because Elena would want him to do that, but he would not live thousands of years without her. He could not live another day without her. Warrior mine, he said with his mind, repeating the words aloud.

   His body felt heavy, lethargic, but he lifted his hand to cradle her cheek. Gently, so gently. Her skin felt like the fine rice paper his mother had used to wrap homemade sweets for him when he was a child. It had torn so easily. He would not tear his Elena.

   Warm, she was warm. But her eyes, they were closed again. Silver glowed against the diaphanous shell of her lids. Had the chrysalis consumed her from the outside in? Had he stopped the process in time? Or had he taken too long and she’d been consumed down to the merest speck, only to begin again, this time as an empty husk meant to hold energy?

   If it was the latter, the woman he loved beyond life, beyond eternity was gone, their love story ended and his immortal existence with it. So be it. But he would know first. He would be certain. “Until you speak, I will wait.” He would know the instant she opened her mouth whether he held a creature of the Cascade or his Elena.

   And if she never spoke? That would be an answer in itself.

   His hunter was not a woman to hold her silence.

   “In the end,” he said, “before I released the power in my body, I spoke to Cassandra. You and I, hbeebti, we changed the prophecy.” He wanted Elena to open her eyes and ask him if Her Evilness was finally going to die, wanted to hear her groan when he told her what Cassandra had said:

   The future aligns. Paths are chosen. Death comes. Such death, child of flames.

   Goddess of Nightmare.

   Wraith without a shadow.

   Rising into her Reign of Death.

   Wings of silver. Wings of blue.

   Mortal heart. Broken dreams.

   Shatter. Shatter. Shatter.

   A sundering. A grave.

   I see the end. I see . . .

   “Not exactly an improvement over the last one, Archangel.” That’s what Elena would say were she awake. “Lots of dark portents and shattering, and now there’s a grave, too? Great, just great.”

   Had it been his and Elena’s grave that Cassandra had seen? For if death came, they would lie together in the earth. He would not permit a sundering—not in life and not in death. Whatever their future, they would walk into it together. Never divided. But if this wasn’t his hunter, she had already left him. He would have to follow. “Elena, wake for me,” he whispered on the stuttering beat of his broken heart.

   A whisper of warm steel in his mind. Umm? A sleepy sound.

   His tiny regenerating heart began to pound as loudly as if it was fully formed. Because that sleepy murmur, it had sounded like his Elena. The warm steel? That was her strength tempered with heart. “Guild Hunter?”

   She yawned and shifted closer, until her breath kissed his skin. He ran his thumb over her cheek with immeasurable care, afraid to snag it and break the fragile surface. “Elena, wake up.” Please.

   Raising a hand that was far too slender, her bones defined against her luminous skin, she rubbed at her face without dislodging his hand from her cheek. When she dropped her hand, she gave him a quizzical look. “Archangel, is your hair on fire?”

 

 

5

 

Raphael stopped breathing. The pounding in his chest turned into a roar in his ears. “Is it?” He didn’t care.

   But Elena did. Before he could stop her, she reached out an arm so thin it was barely there, and patted at his hair, as if putting out the flames. “There.” When she drew back her hand, he saw no scorch marks.

   She frowned and stared at her palm, then at his hair again. “They’re back.” Leaving the strange fire alone, she put her hand over the one he had on her cheek. “I think I’m glowing.” Her voice was husky, of a woman coming awake after a deep sleep. “Am I glowing?”

   Raphael nodded, clenching at the grit and dirt with his free hand. The dirt was real. The tiny stones within that jabbed into his palm were real. His consort was real. Speaking to him.

   “Damn it.” She shifted even closer, and her breath turned shallow. It took her minutes to speak again, her lungs and heart struggling to keep up with her need to move. “I don’t want to be a glow-in-the-dark hunter.” A sudden smile that reached eyes that were hers even if they were all silver with no gray. “At least we’ll match. You on fire. Me glowing.” But her smile of delight faded almost before it was complete. “I have legs. Arms. Eyes.”

   She turned her hand in front of her, examining the brittle structure. “My bones are like matchsticks.” A scrunched-up nose. “Do you think I’m as breakable as I appear?”

   Raphael nodded again, his soul stretching from its tiny curled-up ball. Elena was herself. The rest they could figure out.

   “Ugh.” Dropping her hand, she blew a strand of hair off her face, then reached up to tug at that hair. “Am I going loopy, or do I have tiny feathers at the ends of my hair?”

   Raphael hadn’t noticed, his focus on knowing who or what existed in his consort’s body, but he saw that she was right. Her hair had reached the middle of her back before the chrysalis. Now, it barely brushed her jaw and at the end of each strand was a tiny, tiny, tiny feather of the same shade as her hair. “Your Bluebell will be jealous he no longer has the most unusual hair in angelkind.” Black tipped with blue.

   “No one will notice. You have to look real close.” She dropped her hand onto his where it lay on her cheek. “I think the feathers got confused and ended up in the wrong place on my body.” A bleakly haunted look. “I feel the urge to stretch my wing muscles . . . but there’s no weight at my back. The chrysalis was too small.”

   Raphael saw no sign of the extraordinary wings of midnight and dawn that were his consort’s. He didn’t even know if his own wings had survived the cataclysmic release of power. He moved the muscles that would lift one.

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