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Copyright © 2017 by Amy Vansant
Interior design by Pronoun
Distribution by Pronoun
Angeli Book III
©2016 by Amy Vansant. All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form, by any means, without the permission of the author. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Library of Congress: 2016915022
Vansant Creations, LLC / Amy VansantAnnapolis, MDhttp://www.AmyVansant.comhttp://www.TheAngeli.com
Cover art by Steven Novak: http://www.novakillustration.com/
Copy editing by Carolyn Steele: http://carolynsteele.ca/
Proofreading by Effrosyni Moschoudi: http://effrosyniwrites.com/
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Other Books by Amy Vansant
Kim pulled at her recently blonde hair and gnawed at her lip.
She couldn’t sleep.
Not because she’d dyed her hair blue earlier that evening. The new hair was amazing—even if her forehead was a little less than amazing. A blue blotch marred the skin near her hairline. She hadn’t applied enough Vaseline to keep the dye from creeping, but that wasn’t what kept her awake. She didn’t care about a blotchy blue forehead.
She just felt—agitated. Nervous. Like something wasn’t quite right.
Kim scanned her pitch-black room.
I should get a nightlight.
There was no moon. Often, she’d awake in the middle of the night to find moonlight streaming through her window. It gave her a sense of peace, as if someone was watching out for her.
Not tonight, though. Dark, dark dark.
She glanced where she knew her bureau stood and saw the hint of its outline. Her eyes drifted toward her closet as her lids closed.
Skin tingled as the hair on her arms rose.
Something wasn’t right.
She swallowed, knowing she had to investigate but was reluctant to reopen her eyes. She didn’t know what it was—she hadn’t been looking at, or for, anything in particular as she closed her eyes—but the final picture in her mind was off. She could feel it.
I imagined it.Look again and everything will be normal.
She opened her eyes, directing her gaze toward the bureau where she knew everything was as it should be.
The bureau stood like a sentinel. She followed the curve of the brass handle on her sweater drawer.
She closed her eyes again.
Bracing herself, she pointed her gaze toward the closet, flashing her eyes open before squeezing them shut, allowing herself only a snapshot of that part of her room.
See? This is silly.
Her lids opened and she made a visual pass from bureau to closet.
The skin on her scalp crawled. It wasn’t the closet. Something stood between the bureau and the closet. A dark spot. The area just inside the closed door of her room was blacker than it should be.
Kim felt immobilized. Even the subtle movement of her chest rising and falling as she breathed frightened her. She wanted to be perfectly still.
It was too late to close her eyes and pretend she hadn’t seen the blackness. She considered turning on the lamp, but at that moment, reaching over the edge of her bed was as impossible as flying.
Frozen, she searched for the edges of the blackness. There had to be an explanation. Maybe a coat hanging on the back of the door? She found the edge where the blackness turned to the deepest, darkest gray and traced it with her gaze.
The blackness had a shape.
It was shaped like a person.
The panic became too much and Kim opened her mouth to scream. No sound but a wet clicking noise escaped as her throat struggled to unlock.
She managed a squeak.
The blackness moved toward her.
The shadow collapsed on her like an inky octopus, arms wrapping around her head, fingers in her mouth, stifling the scream that never made it past that ragged peep.
There was a flash of light and a word burned into her mind’s eye.
She felt her lungs screaming for air.
And then, nothing.
The screaming stopped.
Rathe sat up and scanned the empty cabin. He felt disoriented. He felt—sweaty.
Did I fall asleep?
He suspected the screaming had been his own. It happened sometimes. He’d been dreaming about that woman. The Sentinel Anne Bonny. All red hair and glowing knives flashing. She was both magnificent and utterly terrifying.
The Angeli sure knew how to invent a Sentinel. She may have been created to battle the Angeli’s own corrupted souls, but she’d adapted easily to hunting him. She seemed to relish beating Cherubim. At least it seemed that way—the gleeful way she’d thrust her glowing daggers into his skull.
Granted, he’d orchestrated the death of her Angelus boyfriend, Michael. He could see how that might have irritated her. But in all fairness, she’d poked him in the head with her fire knives before Michael’s death. She hadn’t been fond of him from the moment they met.
He chuckled to himself. He’d just discovered the word literally and liked the way it punctuated a pun.
Maybe if he’d made a joke, Anne would have liked him better. He’d be ready next time.
Sometimes when his mind drifted he saw Anne staring at him, her sizzle sticks poised to stab. Again and again. He worried that he’d die at her hand. At the time of their first meeting in New York’s Gramercy Park, he didn’t imagine he’d live long enough to dread the memory of their encounter.
Maybe I should be grateful for dread.
Still—she’d be the one to kill him. He knew it. Especially after his own Sentinel and protégé Mallory had his fun with her. When he thought about how that monster had tortured her it made him sick. Queasy.
He felt like that a lot now.
With his fingertip he stroked the thin cot on which he’d slept.
Why did I fall asleep? I don’t need to sleep.
It had been two weeks. He’d done his job. The Arch Angelus Michael was gone. Banished back to Chaos. Dead for all intents and purposes. He wasn’t sure exactly what happened when Mallory syphoned away the angel’s energy; he only knew Michael and the other Angeli had to be drained if more Cherubim were to join him on Earth.
That was his mission. Replace the Angeli with Cherubim. The Angeli had coddled humans for too long. The Cherubim would make humans pay for their evils.
He didn’t know. He wasn’t even sure what human evil was, he just knew he could smell it. He gagged thinking about the stench. Sometimes, when he stood too close to an evil human, he’d receive a vision of what made them smell so horrible. Murder, usually. General cruelty to others. Bad attitudes of one sort or another. When he smelled that smell he was supposed to turn the human to ash but he didn’t—most of the time.
The other day, he’d smelled a miserable old man in the bread section all the way from where he stood near the lunchmeat.
He didn’t do a thing about it. He pushed his cart to the self-checkout and left.
The whole mission thing wasn’t really working out for him. He’d learned to master the self-checkout at the food store though. He was pretty proud of himself about that. Sometimes he even showed other people how to use it. Even if they glowed a little green and stank.
Rathe looked around the cabin where he’d awoken. It was an insect-infested, dirty hunting cabin in the middle of nowhere.
It would be nice to have Tyannah here to talk to.
He missed Tyannah, his rogue sentinel. He’d been such a terrible boss that she’d gone to work for the Angeli. If she’d stayed with him, she could have shown him how to work the self-checkout a lot sooner.
Instead, he was with his new child Cherub. He’d found her alone on a street, Alida branded on her arm, the way he had Rathe on his, so that’s what he called her.
Why had he been sent a child as a reinforcement? Why had he, himself, arrived as a teenager? It didn’t feel right that baby Cherubim should be popping up, preparing for battle against full grown Angeli and their blood-hungry, redheaded helpers.
Rathe chewed on his nails as a rising tide of panic filled his breast.
No. Stop it, stop it. No time for regrets. Two down. Right? Wasn’t that good? He’d sent the Angeli Eris and Michael to wherever dead angels flew.
But his soldier, Mallory, was gone. Tyannah— Another pang of regret gripped his heart. I was good to her, wasn’t I?Why did she leave? Why did she betray me? Of the two Sentinels he’d made, Tyannah was the prize, though Mallory had done all the dirty work. He supposed that’s what Sentinels were for: dirty work. On that account, Tyannah had been pretty useless. Still. She was a good girl. He’d liked her. She made him feel—
He dropped his head into his hands.
She’d made him feel happy.
He suspected his growing concern for humans was her fault.
He scanned the cabin again. Speaking of girls—
Rathe had found the abandoned hunting cabin for Alida. He wanted to provide a safe place for her. And himself, he was ashamed to admit. A safe place to gather themselves. His nerves were shot and he needed time to bring the new Cherub up to speed. No one had been there for him when he arrived, and he didn’t want things to be as hard on her.
But Alida was a puzzle. Cold. Distant. She never seemed to listen to him. It was almost as if she was living a whole other life in her head. One he didn’t want to see.
Alida mentioned the Angelus Eris’ name when he found her. She must have taken the space left by Eris, which meant his first order of business would be to find the third Cherub; the one that took the Arch Angel Michael’s place. Then the three of them could work as a team and he wouldn’t be so alone.
Rathe raised a triumphant fist and tried to generate excitement at the prospect of creating more Sentinels, killing more Angeli and releasing more Cherubim to Earth so they could decimate the population.
His determined grimace faded as his fist fell to his lap.
It all just sounded exhausting.
He’d read somewhere that people often prayed to powers bigger than themselves for help. He decided to give it a try.
“Oh, power greater than me, please let the next Cherub be an adult. A big, strapping monster of an adult. Like Mallory, only nicer to me. Or make the next one a ferocious, stabby, Cherub version of Anne Bonny—only—again—nicer to me. If I remain the biggest, baddest Cherub on the planet, my people are in real trouble. You understand that? Right?”
He stared at the ceiling. All he saw were spider webs. A disturbing number of spider webs.
How could there be that many spider webs in one cabin?
Rathe shivered and looked away. He needed support. He didn’t feel as committed as he once had. He didn’t want to wear the crown. He was tired.
I’m terrible at this. Maybe I should—
A scream echoed from the forest that surrounded the cabin and his stomach soured.
It hadn’t been his own scream that awoke him.
His body rigid, Rathe stopped breathing. He moved only his eyes to peer at the front door. It was closed—but was it locked?
Did it matter? In this world, the things that scared him the most always came through closed doors.
Another scream pealed, no closer than the last, and he jumped to his feet as if propelled by the cot itself.
Alida. I have to protect her.
He took three quick breaths before striding to the door.
He stepped outside.
He’d said her name much too quietly. He’d barely heard it himself. His hands felt numb. His throat, dry. He tried to swallow and found he couldn’t. Chewing his tongue to work up some spit, he cleared his throat and tried again.
Maybe it’s an animal.
There was another noise, this one more of a yelp, followed by what sounded like frantic begging. In English.
Not an animal.
He turned his head to the left and saw firelight dancing on the tree trunks.
He shifted to his energy form and moved like a ball of lightning to the outskirts of the area where he thought the noisy thing might be. He heard sobbing. Blubbering.
A small fire flickered in the center of the clearing. Moving closer, he spotted a figure dancing. A human male, middle-aged, a little paunchy. He was the one making all the noise. Begging for someone to stop.
Who? Stop what? Why is he dancing in the forest?
It was Alida’s voice, but he’d skittered behind a tree before recognizing it. Clinging to the trunk like a panda, he told himself to sack up. He’d heard a human man outside a convenience store tell another man to sack up. The second man—the one in need of upping his sack—mentioned he’d be sick if he had another beer and the first man told him to sack up. From that context, Rathe imagined sack up meant to put all your concerns in a sack and throw them away.
That’s what he needed to do.
He needed to be strong for Alida. She had to be terrified, being so small and alone in a new world. And now, here she was with some lumpy freak dancing around in the dark.
“Where are you?” he hissed.
“Come see!” She sounded giddy.
She’s hysterical. The poor thing’s losing her mind with fear.
“Don’t worry, I’m coming. Uncle Rathe is here.”
He emerged from behind the tree and shuffled two steps into the clearing.
His anxiety doubled.
He wanted to keep eyes on the dancer, but a dark blob hovered in the opposite corner of his vision. Advancing without identifying the blob would be madness.
He glanced to the right.
Two trees away, a man lay at the base of a pine tree, unmoving. There were three things that disturbed Rathe about this discovery.
First, the body’s outstretched right arm ended much too abruptly. A pool of liquid, glistening in the firelight, filled the space where the man’s right forearm should have been.
Hello, Lefty, I see it’s been a hard day.
The second issue evolved directly from the first. Lefty was dead, possibly killed by the dancing man who now taunted Alida.
The third and most unsettling fact about the body by the tree was this: Lefty looked a lot like him.
Rathe took a deep breath without smelling the stench of human evil. Lefty hadn’t been a bad man.
“Alida? Are you okay?”
He swiveled toward the dancing man. The man appeared tired, as if he wanted to sit down but couldn’t. There was something unnatural about the way his hands jerked in the air above his head.
Rathe tilted his gaze and found Alida sitting on a tree branch above the dancer. She worked her arms as if she were climbing a ladder, sticks gripped in each hand. When she lifted her left hand, the dancing man lifted his left in perfect timing, as if they’d been working on their choreography all evening.
It would have been charming but for the man’s relentless sobs and begging. And the blood. Red liquid besmirched the man from head to toe, but for where his tears had cleared a glistening path.
Rathe noticed a glint of something in the firelight; a gossamer thread leading from Alida to the dancing man’s hands.
That’s when he saw the hooks.
The man had hooks in his hands.
Rathe raised his own hand to cover his mouth, his gaze darting from the grinning Alida in the tree down to the bloody dancer and back again.
Alida was working the dancer like a puppet.
The man’s face twisted in agony as he struggled to lessen the resistance between Alida’s desires and his own movements.
Rathe could smell that the dancing man wasn’t evil either. He didn’t have the green glow to his aura he saw in evil humans. He was just a man.
“What are you doing?” he asked, trying to keep his voice as steady as possible. Every nerve in his body threatened to destroy any credibility he might still possess with his young charge.
He really, really, really wanted to freak out.
“I can make him move!” she said. “Do you want me to play out a story? I can string up his feet too—I think. Maybe just his knees to make them bend. There must be a way to make his head nod I think, but I’d need a bigger hook—”
“No!” Rathe screamed the word so suddenly that for a moment he wasn’t sure he’d spoken it.
Alida scowled. “What’s wrong with you?”
“What are you doing?”
“That’s why we’re here, isn’t it? I just thought, why kill them right away?”
“No, that’s not why we’re here. Maybe I didn’t explain things to you correctly.”
“What do you mean?”
“They have to be bad.”
“The humans. We’re not allowed to kill good people. These are good people!” he flopped his hand in Lefty’s direction and then swept it to the dancer.
Alida threw down her puppetry sticks and the man collapsed in a heap, sobbing.
“I’m good people,” said the man.
“Shut up!” The girl dropped from the tree and landed without a sound before kicking the puppet man in the side with her oversized cowboy boots.
The man whimpered and covered his head with his arms.
Rathe’s lip twitched. How’d she get so good at flying already?
Alida’s spotless white dress fluttered down to brush the top of her knees. Raven curls bobbed against her shoulders. He’d warned her that keeping such a lovely dress neat would be difficult and require unnecessary energy, but she’d ignored him. When she paired it with the cowboy boots he didn’t even bother to disapprove.
He’d guessed Alida’s age at twelve when they first met, but now he felt certain that if she’d been human, she’d be younger. Maybe eight. While in town, he’d asked a few ladies with similar children in tow how old their daughters were. They’d been eight. He’d asked what kind of toys their daughters like to play with in the hopes they’d share ideas for Alida, but they’d given him dirty looks and hurried away, dragging their girls behind them.
He didn’t really understand humans.
He bought Alida a doll that looked something like her. She ripped away its limbs and head, looked inside of it, and never touched it again.
He didn’t really understand Cherubim, either.
The girl put her hands on her hips. “What’s the difference?”
“Good and bad people.”
“Can’t you smell that these are good people?”
“Smell? All humans smell the same.”
“No, they don’t. Look, the difference is, well, it’s right and wrong...it’s...” Rathe put both hands over his face and rubbed his eyes. “We need to talk.”
Alida huffed and with a streak of light, appeared in front of him. The suddenness of it made him jump. He told himself it was the shock of the movement, but he was beginning to think he might be afraid of her.
She stared at him with her all-black eyes. He’d told her to add white to her eyes and blend in, but, again, she’d ignored him.
I need to reclaim control.
“What happened to him?” he asked, pointing a thumb in Lefty’s direction.
“What does that mean?”
“He was in a contest and he lost. It was an experiment.”
“What kind of experiment?”
“I tied him to another man and gave them an axe.”
Rathe felt the blood drain from his face. “You what?”
“I wanted to see if they’d cut themselves loose to get away.”
“Where’s the other man?”
“He went running through the woods with this guy’s arm tied to his arm.”
“Whaaa—” Rathe’s pictured the scenario in his mind and a barrage of questions arose. “Why didn’t they just run together?”
“I tied them in different directions. It would have been hard. One would have had to run backwards. Wasn’t that smart? I told them if they didn’t get a mile away in a minute, I would kill them both.”
It appeared Alida couldn’t stop grinning. Rathe found it unsettling.
“So the first man chopped this man’s arm off and ran?”
She nodded and pointed at Lefty. “I thought he might. This one was pretty scared.”
“Alida, don’t you see what you’ve done? Now we have to go! The one that ran away will find help and bring more people—”
“No, he won’t.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I caught him and turned him to dust. He lost, too. Humans can’t run a mile in a minute. Duh.”
Rathe recalled killing the first evil man he’d encountered, turning him to dust by drawing his energy. It had felt so good and right at the time. Alida’s incessant leer told him she felt the same about her accomplishments.
“Why didn’t you dust Lefty over there and clean up that awful mess?”
She giggled. “Lefty. That’s funny. He bled out pretty fast. I didn’t have time.”
Rathe regarded the puppet man, still slumped at the bottom of the tree, too exhausted to beg for his life any longer.
“We need to leave.”
“Why?” She followed his gaze to the puppet. “Him? I’ll just kill him—”
“No!” Rathe grabbed her arm before he realized what he was doing and she turned on him, her shark eyes reflecting his own terrified expression. He felt her failed attempt to draw his energy. They hummed at the same frequency, making it impossible.
“Did you just try and kill me?”
“Don’t touch me.” She jerked her arm from his grasp.
He set his jaw. “We’re leaving. Come here, young lady. I need to hold you while we travel so we don’t become separated.”
She picked up a twig and threw it at him. “You don’t know anything!”
“I—” He cut short, unsure how to respond. He didn’t know anything.Not really. Was it so obvious to her?
She flew to the side of the puppet man and set her hand on his head. “Go! Leave me alone!”
Rathe saw the man’s eyes bulge and shook his finger at her. “Do not kill him young lady!”
“I can do whatever I want!”
He took a step towards her. “I have to train you. We have to work together if we’re going to have a chance—”
Alida roared the word and Rathe feared his eardrums would burst. She raised her hands and threw a blast of energy at him, sending him flying backwards as if a giant had jerked his leash.
He hit a tree and fell to the ground, stunned. “You’re a monster.”
She snarled. “You’re a ridiculous.”
“That’s not even a proper sentence!”
He flew towards her, hoping to catch her off guard. She dove to the side and he passed her, scooping the puppet man into his arms. The human’s corporeal body shifted into energy, mingling with Rathe’s own as he flew on, traveling for miles, zigging and zagging as he had the night he’d run from Michael.
Hundreds of miles away from the cabin, Rathe attained his human form on the porch of a white house with cars in the driveway. He put the man on the doorstep, unconscious, but breathing. He knocked on the door and then hid behind a nearby tree. The moment the porchlight flickered on, he flew away.
Rathe traveled until he found a house far from the others. Dark. He could feel the emptiness. In his energy form he passed through the walls and reformed himself in the bedroom. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he stared at the floor until his eyes began to well with tears.
Everything is wrong.
All the time he’d spent dreaming about meeting other Cherubim—finally, one comes, and she’s a terror. She’s too young. She hasn’t had time to form any moral center. Any empathy.
He looked up, brows knit together.
Is that what I feel in my chest? Empathy?
He rubbed at his stubbly cheek. He was aging. Quickly. The more he aged, the more regret and insecurity he felt. No wonder the Angelus Michael wanted to stop him. No wonder the redhead wanted to end his life.
He was a monster.
I don’t want to be a monster.
He tried to remember the last time he’d been happy. Really happy.
He sat up and felt for her energy. Far away, he felt a ping of life.
She was still alive.
She’d know what to do.
“Michael says hi.”
The Angelus Leo stood, naked, on the threshold of Anne’s doorway, an awkward smile plastered across his face. Everyone in the room froze. Anne Bonny’s eyes and brain were in violent disagreement over how to process the vision. Months earlier she’d watched Leo slowly crumble to pieces and disappear. Now here he stood, blond locks flowing to his massive tan shoulders. He’d phased through her apartment door naked and whole once more.
Her gaze slid downward across the ridges of his abdominal muscles to his considerable manhood.
“Is he using a python for a bath wrap?” asked Con, echoing her own thoughts.
Leo remained motionless as a wax figure, inspiring everyone else to remain inert for fear of startling him.
“Isn’t he dead?” whispered Anne’s assistant, Jeffrey, from a crouched position, eyes peeping over the kitchen island.
She nodded. “Last I checked.”
“If zombies all looked like that no one would run from them.” Jeffrey giggled and threw up his hands, screaming in whispers. “Eat me! Eat me!”
Leo’s head tilted ever-so-slightly in Jeffrey’s direction and with a tiny yelp he disappeared behind the island.
“Is it safe to look yet?” asked Tyannah, holding her hands over her eyes.
“Not if you don’t want to spend the rest of your life disappointed by the men in your life,” muttered Con.
Leo’s expression remained unchanging, but he turned his head toward Anne. She shifted her gaze to his eyes.
Leo’s body trembled.
The angel’s knees buckled and he fell to the ground, his head clonking against the hardwood flooring.
“Leo!” Anne leapt forward and crouched beside him. She glared at Jeffrey, who peeked around the side of the kitchen island, watching her. “You couldn’t have caught him?”
“Me?” Jeffrey placed his hand on his chest. “He would have crushed me! Look at his back. It looks like a topographical map of the Andes. I didn’t even know people had muscles in those places.”
Anne scowled at him. “Con, help me get him to the guest room.”
Con sauntered over and peered down at the unconscious blond angel. “Me?”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
Con sighed. “Fine. But I’m taking the top half.”
“I’m not going to stare at his clackers the whole way.”
“Just shut up and grab him.”
Anne rolled Leo on to his back and moved to his feet. Con squatted to slip his hands under the Angelus’ armpits and hoisted him up.
“Sweet Mother Mary, is he made of granite?”
“Even his feet are heavy,” agreed Anne as they shuffled to the back bedroom.
Anne lowered Leo’s feet to the ground so Con could hold the angel aloft while she pulled back the sheets. They lifted him to the mattress and Anne covered him with a blanket.
“Well, I’m going to go kill myself now,” said Con, turning to leave.
“Hold on! We have to figure out what’s wrong with him. Have you ever seen an Angelus pass out before?”
“No. But what are we supposed to do? Every time we ask if they have an angel doctor they laugh at us.”
“This is the part where I usually call Michael.”
At the mention of Michael, Con’s expression grew dark. He crossed his arms across his chest. “And this would be the part where I usually start drinkin’.”
“Come on, this is serious.”
Con grunted, his gaze fixed and distant. “I suppose if Leo’s come back, Michael will be next, eh?”
Anne looked away and allowed herself a moment to embrace the hope rising in her breast. Michael could come back. Granted, Michael had been drained by Rathe’s Sentinel, Mallory, and Leo had been infected by the mad Arch Angelus Seth, but...wasn’t it possible? If Leo had found his way home, Michael could too.
Con snapped his fingers in her face and she broke from her thoughts.
“That’s annoying,” she said, pushing away his hand.
“So is talking to someone who’s mentally left the building.”
“I was just thinking that Leo said Michael said hi. That must mean he’s alive somewhere.”
“Aye. My math turned out much the same way. I never did like math.”
Anne’s labradoodle, Gordon, trotted into the room and hopped up on the bed. He flopped, the front half of him on Leo’s chest.