Blood Before Sunrise (Shaede Assassin #2)
Publisher: Signet Eclipse July 3rd, 2012
What you can’t see can kill you…
For months Darian and her Shaede guardian Raif have searched for the Oracle who attempted to overthrow the Shaede Nation—and kill Darian in the bargain. But now that they’ve finally found the half-crazed Oracle, for their efforts they are granted a possibility too painful for Raif to imagine, and too enticing for Darian to ignore.
Darian is determined to reunite Raif and the daughter he thought was dead, but her mission quickly proves dangerous when her lover Tyler is almost killed. And when a brooding and mysterious Fae warrior offers his guidance—at an extraordinary price—Darian finds herself willing to risk everything. As her single-minded hunt turns into an obsession, and she and Tyler grow further apart, Darian finds herself caught between the man she loves like a brother, and the man whose love she can’t live without…
“What are you looking at?”
I tore my gaze from the delicate curve of the dagger’s blade, my eyes drawn to Azriel’s dark, handsome face like a magnet to metal. “Nothing,” I said, though that wasn’t entirely true.
“Ever lacking patience,” he said with humor. “You’ll never make it as an assassin if you can’t wait more than a few minutes to get a job done.”
True enough, I supposed. I liked to wait about as much as I liked to be doused with gasoline and set on fire. “Lorik’s late,” I said. “It’s not like him.”
Azriel stroked his finger along my jaw, and his eyes burned with an intensity that had nothing to do with business. “It matters little to me if he shows or not. Either way, my night won’t be wasted.”
I flushed at the innuendo, knowing all too well where a jobless night would lead us. Not that I’d complain. . . .
An engine growled in the distance, followed by the squealing of tires. The Cadillac La Salle Roadster came to a halt inches from where I stood, and the driver’s expression was full of adrenaline-infused excitement. Lorik loved flashy cars, and despite his need to lie low, he could never resist showing off. What was the point in not putting that engine and sleek body to use? He’d consider it a waste. Besides, I had a suspicion that the combination of fancy car, coupled with his pin-striped suit and fedora pulled low over his brow, made Lorik feel as if he’d just pulled a bank caper. Driving into the sunset and immortal glory would be the icing on the cake. And I’d be willing to bet a Chicago Typewriter rode shotgun to round it all out. I mean, what self-respecting gangster didn’t have a machine gun in the front seat?
“Looks like your clothes will be on for a while longer, my love.” Azriel leaned down and pressed his mouth to the pulse-point just below my ear.
I shivered at the contact, suddenly not caring whether Lorik’s life was in danger or not. Though the guy’s father did pay our bills, I supposed I could put my erotic thoughts on hold. But if he didn’t get down to business—and soon—he could rot in hell for all I cared.
“What are you looking at?” Tyler asked again, his tone bemused when I didn’t answer him right away.
“Nothing,” I finally said as I stared at the spot near the alley where that LaSalle had come to a skidding stop all those years ago. “Not a damned thing.”
God, I hadn’t thought of that crazy Armenian in decades. He had to have been dead for a while now, if someone hadn’t managed to do the deed in his youth. Lorik had been the closest thing Azriel had to a friend. I always wondered about it, the comfortable way Azriel had with him. Usually we lay lower than low, but with Lorik, Azriel had allowed us to let our guard down a bit. Maybe I’d do some digging just for shits and giggles and find out what really happened to him after he went off the grid. Because I had so much free time on my hands these days.
My annoyance wasn’t so much about memories of Lorik—and Azriel—intruding on my thoughts, or even my lack of actual downtime. Rather, it was more about the fact that I stood at yet another dead end. It’s damn hard to catch someone who’s always one step ahead of you.
And chasing an Oracle is like chasing the wind.
I drove my katana into the scabbard at my back. Yet another close call, and the bitch had slipped right through my fingers. You wouldn’t think someone as blind as a bat could escape so easily.
But she had.
Time and again.
A discarded can nudged at my toe and I kicked it, sending it sailing down the sidewalk toward the street where it narrowly missed a parking sign. Beyond frustrated, I felt my agitation settle as a knot between my shoulder blades, and I stretched my neck from side to side in a futile effort to ease my mounting tension. Raif, my mentor and the best friend I’ve ever had, laid a comforting hand on my shoulder. “Don’t worry,” he said. “We’ll get her.”
Tyler took a step closer, his body touching mine in more places than appropriate for work hours. He snaked an arm around my waist as he brought me against his body, his eyes narrowing in Raif’s direction. Jeez, touchy much?
Raif shook his head. He looked to me, his expression saying, Is he for real? I raised my brows, the action as good as a shrug. I had no idea what had gotten into Tyler, but I could almost hear the predatory growl, the low rumble of a wary bear. “Relax, Jinn,” Raif said, tucking a dagger into a sheath at his side. “You look a little wound.”
“Not hardly,”Tyler said, his tone just on the edge of becoming hard. “In fact”—he lowered his face to the top of my head and nuzzled my hair—“I’m pretty damned relaxed right now.”
Again, Raif gave me a look. And again, I gave him the equivalent of a facial shrug. Hell if I knew why Tyler was acting like a high school jock facing off with the opposing quarterback. Maybe we all needed to take it down a notch and hang it up for the night.
As if he’d read my mind, Raif gave me a playful knock against the shoulder, eliciting another grumble and glare from Tyler. “I’m calling it a night. See you tomorrow?”
“You know it.” There was no way I was letting up any time soon. I’d search day and night until I found that mousy, pain-in-the-ass Oracle. “Meet me at my place.”
Raif’s brilliant blue eyes glowed against the backdrop of night as he gave Tyler a last questioning glance. He flashed one of his deadly smiles. “Tyler,” he said with a nod, his tone dry. He scattered into a dusting of shadow and left us alone in the alley.
I turned a caustic eye to Tyler. I hated it when he got all territorial on me. It made me feel like a bone—and tonight, Ty was definitely the dog. He put his lips to my forehead, ignoring my accusing glare. Apparently he didn’t think his behavior as juvenile as I did. That was saying a lot, considering Tyler had centuries on me in the age department.
Hunting a mark had never been enjoyable—exciting, sure, but also a necessity. Going out with Tyler put a whole new spin on “job perks.” As my Jinn, personal genie, and sworn protector, he made it his business to have my back. But since he was my boyfriend, it was a pleasure to have him along. Although the word “boyfriend” didn’t do justice toTyler’s role in my life, I thought he might appreciate the more modern reference. He might have had centuries on me, but he was a modern guy, through and through. I doubted a word existed to describe what Tyler was to me. More than simply my lover, and definitely more than a friend, he had captured more than just my heart over the five years I’d known him. Tyler had claimed my soul.
He’d been out combing the city with me every night this week staying out even after Raif abandoned the hunt. I guess Ty was the only person with the stamina to keep up with me. And believe me, his stamina wasn’t something I was about to grumble over any time soon.
“We might as well call it a night too,” he said, giving me a squeeze. “I think we should try Idaho again. Maybe next week. I know a lesser Seer in Coeur d’ Alene who might be tempted to shelter Delilah—for the right price.”
Idaho again. We’d already searched most of the panhandle, and I doubted another go-around would produce better results. “No,” I said, leaning into him so I could feel his muscled chest against my shoulder. “I don’t think she’s that far away. Don’t ask me why, but I can’t shake the feeling that she’s staying close to home. Delilah has unfinished business, and she never struck me as a quitter.”
“Darian,” he said, his fingers stroking up my arm, “let’s go home.”
I melted against him, loving the way my name rolled off his tongue like a sacred word—or a prayer. It never took much for Ty to break down my defenses, and the thought of spending the rest of the night naked and twined around his magnificent body beat the hell out of standing on the cold, rain-drenched street for another second. He placed his lips against my neck, his tongue darting out to trace my flesh. Chills rippled across my skin from the contact. Oh yeah. It was time to go home.
Side by side, we walked through the Queen Anne District just like any human couple would. Though nothing would have stopped me from becoming one with the shadows and traveling under the cover of darkness, I liked walking with Ty. As we headed down the street, the black tails of my duster floating out behind me, I was just a woman, one of thousands inhabiting the city of Seattle. It made me feel just a little less like a freak of nature, and more like the person I used to be. Night, day, dawn, or twilight—I could now pass through the world without the hindrance of being corporeal no matter the hour. I had to admit it was a nice perk, one that no other Shaede could claim, though the means to that end had been anything but pleasant. I never used to believe in ancient prophecy or rituals until I’d been the focal point of both. One attempted sacrifice and an eclipse later, and I had a whole new perspective on life.
Though months had passed since my transformation to something more than Shaede, it seemed only a matter of days. My former lover, Azriel—the one who had supposedly made me what I was in the first place—had made an alliance with the Oracle Delilah and a small army of nasty Lyhtans—violent, praying mantis–looking bastards who hold a serious grudge against any Shaede—to bring down Xander Peck, the King of the Shaede Nation. The fact that Azriel had been Xander’s son made the situation that much worse. Hungry for power, he’d had designs on Xander’s crown for centuries. And he’d been willing to do anything to get it. I’d been the pawn in their little power struggle. But I wasn’t randomly selected for the honor. As it turned out, I was a creature created of my own will, and my super special blood had been used to awaken the Enphigmalé, hideous gargoyles with a serious binge-eating problem.
When I’d first been introduced to the gargoyles by the raven-haired children who’d made me their prisoner and served as the Enphigmalé caretakers, they’d been solid stone. But one eclipse and a sip of my blood later, they’d sprung to life, hell-bent on devouring anything that crossed their path. Of the gargoyles that had made the transformation from stone to flesh, I’d killed all but a single beast. And just like the Oracle who’d orchestrated its resurrection, the Enphigmalé escaped. Azriel had been Delilah’s right-hand man, and he’d looked on as a spectator while I was almost killed. But since I was alive and well, and Azriel had gone into the shadow forever—meaning I had run my dagger across his lying, traitorous throat—it wasn’t hard to tell who’d come out on top of his little attempted coup.
Delilah had been the one loose end I’d failed to tie up—so far. According to Azriel, she’d had more reason to hate Shaedes than anyone, though for the life of me, I couldn’t guess why. She’d proved to be more slippery than I’d given her credit for, however, and that was a sharp thorn in my side.
Night wrapped me in its warm embrace, tickling my senses. I grabbed onto Tyler’s hand as we continued at a steady pace, not as my shadow-self, but in my corporeal form. I liked the feeling of being real, substantial, and not just a whisper of something too foreign for even preternatural creatures to comprehend. The lonely anonymity of my life prior to my transformation was gone. Up until several months ago, I’d thought I was the only Shaede in existence—part of Azriel’s lie to keep the secret of my self-made transformation good and hidden. It’s hard to hide under the cover of darkness when shadows are watching, though. Alexander Peck—Shaede High King, or to me, just plain Xander—had been watching me for a while. Once he plucked me from obscurity, there was no going back.
Splinters of muted silver moonlight shone between the taller buildings, casting shadows on the rugged, handsome lines of Tyler’s model-worthy face. My pace slowed, and I released his hand as a strange urging pulled at my center. Turn here, intuition called, and as if I had no control over my limbs, I obeyed.
“Darian?”Tyler said. “What’s up?”
I ignored his question, my mind too focused to answer. My legs followed a path down an abandoned side street, the stench of ripe garbage wafting from a nearby Dumpster. Clearing my mind of conscious thought, I moved on instinct alone, allowing the strange feeling to guide me past a fire escape and toward a gaping door where the street dead-ended.
“Darian!” Tyler’s tone sharpened as something close to a growl rumbled in the lone word. A warning. He was bound to me as my Jinn, a mystical protector, and his Spidey sense must have been tingling. I held up a hand to quiet him as much as to reassure him. I wasn’t in any danger—at least, not yet.
I walked through the opening, surprised to find a storage space large enough to park a car in. From the look of it—not to mention the stale smell—no one had used the space for a while. Through the dark, I perceived the presence of another, and the feeling in my stomach tugged lower, like a rope drawing me to the floor. Squatting down, I roved the space with my eyes, marking a path of dirty blankets and discarded food containers, grateful for the ability to see through the dark. And at the end of it all, a body sat huddled in the corner, knees tucked up and head hidden beneath thin, bony arms.
“Hello, Delilah,” I said. “I’ve been looking for you.”
“I’d never considered it.” Raif’s thoughtful voice echoed as we walked down the staircase into Xander’s council room. The High King’s brother rested his hand on his sword, his hand gripping and releasing the pommel as if it were a stress relief ball. “Perhaps it was the lack of decision making that allowed you to find her. If you hadn’t settled on a course of action, there would be no future act for the Oracle to see.”
Sure, it made sense. Why not? But something aside from knee-jerk reaction had led me to Delilah. I was certain of it. We’d been searching for months, and she’d stayed just out of our reach each and every time. But tonight, she’d been handed to me on a silver platter. The only thing missing had been a large, shiny apple shoved into her mouth. A strange, otherworldly force had guided me. I couldn’t discount my feelings, though what they meant, I had no idea.
We came to a bookcase at the far end of the council room. Raif pushed on one of the books, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I snorted before reining in my gasp of surprise. The bookcase gave way to admit us into what I can only describe as a prison cell. It wasn’t your run-of-the-mill sparse concrete square like you see in the movies. Like everything of Xander’s, this room bespoke a certain regality that almost made me laugh. A full-sized bed, decked out with pillows, a petite sofa, even a toilet complete with a privacy screen, furnished the cell—and a small flat-screen TV, for shit’s sake. No windows—after all, the room was meant for containment—but the walls were adorned with lavish oil paintings of landscapes. The cell was nicer than most hotel rooms. And I’m not talking about a Motel 6. Muttering under her breath, Delilah sat on the bed, dirty, with downcast, unseeing eyes.
“Why didn’t you keep Azriel here after we’d captured him?” I asked, regretting the words before I could take them back. Since his death, speaking of him was forbidden in Xander’s house.
“Azriel was a crown prince.” Raif’s tone became stiff, his usual formal self. “I would not have dishonored him so.”
I opened my mouth to speak but reconsidered. Best to let sleeping dogs lie. “What are we going to do with her?” I asked.
“For the time being, she’s Xander’s . . . guest. We can’t have her out roaming the streets and causing trouble. The PNT Council will hear her case, and I suppose they can decide her fate.”
The Pacific Northwest Territories, as the area was called, encompassed the nonhuman population of Oregon,Washington, and Idaho. They met once per quarter to address business pertinent to the supernatural community. Who better to decide what should happen to Delilah than a jury of her peers?
“Do you think that keeping me locked up is going to do you any good?” Delilah’s words came through clenched teeth, anger infusing every syllable. She rocked back and forth, her hands twitching in her lap. She brought a finger to her mouth and bit it, hard. Blood welled from her fingertip, and she passed it along the lines of her palm, studying the bright red pattern with frightening intensity for someone who supposedly couldn’t see. “Of her blood, they’ll drink like wine. Stronger, faster, changing still, she’ll be forced to do his will! From herself she has been born, all will die and none will mourn!”
Oh, just great. “Listen, Delilah. I’ve had enough of rhyming words and prophecy to last me the next thousand years or so. What’s done is done. You failed. It’s over. Time to let go.”
“He’ll finish my business,” she said, laughing like a lunatic.
“Azriel?” I asked, walking toward her. “Is that who you’re talking about? He’s dead, Delilah. He won’t be doing anything ever again.”
She burst into another fit of laughter that raised my hackles. “No,” she said. “Not Azriel. The Man from The Ring is strong. Stronger than me. He gave me a gift of glamour! The Man will come, and he’ll succeed where I failed. Then you’ll know what true suffering is!”
“We should kill her and do the council a favor,” Raif said, totally disinterested. “She’s useless and half mad.”
“Do it!” Delilah screamed, excited. “Do it now, and I can join my sister who you killed!” She shrieked the last word, extending a bloodied finger in Raif’s direction. “Your wife went willingly! She paid the price, and you killed my sister for it!”
I turned and looked at Raif in silent question. His story had been a tragic one: His daughter missing, and with nowhere left to turn, he’d sought an Oracle for answers. Her price for information about his daughter had been the life of his wife. When he refused, his wife had sacrificed herself. Raif hadn’t taken it very well. He’d killed the Oracle, Delilah’s sister.
Brow quirked, I waited silently for his answer. Raif shrugged as if to say he’d killed a hundred Oracles in his life and couldn’t tell one from another. A look of deep hurt, of past wounds reopened, marred his warrior’s face as he turned on a booted heel and headed for the door.
“I know where your daughter is,” Delilah said in a low, monotone voice.
Raif froze halfway out of the room, his hand jutting out to the wall as he steadied himself. I took several steps back, putting myself safely in the middle of the cell, shocked. “Raif.” I didn’t know what else to say.
He paused at the doorway and looked over his shoulder at the thin, dirty girl sitting on the pristine baby-blue comforter. “Lies.” Grief and doubt tore at his voice. “She lies. Her time has run out, and she says it to torture me. My daughter is dead.”
“How can you be sure?” I said, wanting to comfort my mentor, my friend, and not knowing how. “What if—”
“No.” In two quick strides, he was back across the room, his hands gripping me just below the shoulders. He pulled me close, his mouth next to my ear. “It is a lie. Her mind is gone. She knows nothing, and every word from her mouth is insanity.” Without a parting word, he released his grip on me and strode from the room.
Delilah sat on the bed, her legs crossed in front of her as she rocked back and forth, back and forth. She’d resumed muttering to herself, laughing and pulling out strands of her matted hair, examining each like ticker-tape before letting it drift to the floor. I approached the bed and the mindless Oracle nested there. I bent low to her face, my voice a snarl as it tore from my throat. “Tell me the girl’s name.”
Delilah laughed, a smirk pulling at her thin, dry lips. “Brakae.”
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