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"You're coming with me, right?" I asked Rafe when he opened the silver veil that separated the physical world from the realm of angels. This misty otherworld was home to Rafael, my guardian angel, but not to me. I think I'd overstayed my welcome.
Rafe towered above me and scowled. "No."
I leaned forward to peer through the filmy curtain. "I'm not ready to go there alone. It's too soon."
"Chalice, it's been over a month." Rafe closed his eyes and sighed so deeply I thought he'd collapse a lung if he had one. "But if you prefer to wait a while longer.." He held his palm flat against the transparent veil and the sigil on his hand glowed. The surface began to solidify.
I grabbed his arm. "Wait."
His sigh came even louder this time. "Make up your mind."
I narrowed my eyes at him. "You have no idea how hard this is for me."
The deep creases in his forehead smoothed as his eyes crinkled with the start of a smile. It made him appear almost human. "I can imagine."
"No, you can't." The memory of my last day of bondage to Shui, a homicidal gargoyle, remained clear in my mind. The gargoyle's death had freed me of the curse that once threatened to take my humanity and turn me into a winged devil as horrible as Shui. But my freedom had come at a price. In order to save me from my fate, Shui had to be killed by another gargoyle. Aydin, who was also bonded to a gargoyle, had allowed the curse to change him so that he could fight Shui to save my life. But, by doing so, I'd lost the only man I'd ever loved. It was time for me to bring Aydin back, to make him human again. The only way for that to happen lay on the other side of this veil, at the Vyantara fatherhouse. Home of my nightmares, where failing a heist used to mean a beating by my master or a death threat from Shui. Lucky for me the gargoyle died before getting his chance to feast on Chalice tartare.
I sucked in a breath. "I can't face another gargoyle."
"Then don't face it. Just kill it." Rafe's hand stayed in place against the veil, but he didn't reopen it. He waited for my okay.
"Come with me," I told him, trying to make it sound like an order. He was usually good at following orders.
"You know what would happen if I did?" he asked, raising his eyebrows. "My presence would set off every alarm and ward in the house."
I winced. "That would defeat the purpose of sneaking in, right?"
I heaved in a fortifying breath and blinked. Even after a month, it felt strange not to wear my contact lenses. Or the filters for my ears and nose. I'd worn these protective devices practically all my life. For being half angel, even if that half was the fallen kind, my unusual abilities helped keep me out of trouble. Unfortunately, they helped get me into almost as much. Rafe had been forbidden to meet me until after my curse was broken, so only recently was he able to teach me control over my hypersensitivity through meditation. Now I could turn my powers off and on as easily as a light switch, though I hadn't practiced under stressful conditions. I was about to test my new skill big-time.
"I'm ready," I said. "Open the veil."
"One last thing before you go"
"No!" I glared at him. He was about to deliver another lecture about staying focused and making safety my first priority. I'd heard it over a dozen times. "Do it now before I lose my nerve."
"As you wish."
The veil opened and I stepped through, my booted feet landing on a dark Oriental rug as wide and long as the room I stood in. I glanced behind me. Rafe and the veil were gone.
My heart did a brief tap dance against my ribs before I reminded myself that Vyantara fatherhouses fed on fear. I knew from experience that this building would suck out my energy like a baby sucks milk from a bottle, and I'd end up too weak to do what I'd come for. I had to kill the gargoyle Shojin and take its heart for Aydin. Before he had turned into a gargoyle, Aydin had been bonded to Shojin and now only Shojin could save him. I knew the gargoyle was here because on the last day Aydin and I were together, this is where the Vyantara had said he would be.
I thinned my mind's sensory defenses just enough to get a sense of the place. Straining against the silence, I listened for signs of life and found two beings upstairs. Whether they were human or not didn't matter. I only cared about hearing one heartbeat: the rapid bass drum pound that belonged only to a gargoyle.
It didn't take long for me to detect it. One gargoyle was in the basement and it had to be Shojin. No two gargoyles could occupy the same space or there was sure to be a fight.
Mouth dry as parchment, I swallowed my fear and sniffed the air. The kitchen smelled close by and I knew I'd find a door to the basement there. That's how most fatherhouses were laid out due to the spell-casting needs of their magic-users.
I crept down the narrow hall toward the scent of herbs and cooking oil. Squinting in darkness that appeared gray as fog to my sensitive eyes, I detected no ghosts. Most likely the house's warding spells kept them out. Good. Ghosts were annoying distractions and the last thing I needed right now. My focus had to be sharp as a gargoyle's talon.
The vibration down my spine told me I was surrounded by curses and charms. I sensed a huge collection here, possibly even bigger than the fatherhouse in Denver before it blew up. It reminded me of one more task on my to-do list: steal back every magical object in the Vyantara's gallery of hellish artifacts. After I'd been kidnapped from a monastery in Lebanon at thirteen by the leaders of this nasty black veil group, I'd been forced to steal many of these artifacts for the Vyantara. I had my work cut out for me.
The wooden stairs creaked with my slight ninety-eight pounds of body weight. If Shojin didn't hear me coming, he'd surely have smelled me by now. A gargoyle's senses were nearly as keen as mine.
I sniffed the air and it chilled my lungs, which came as no surprise considering this was a Canadian fatherhouse in the dead of winter. But it didn't lessen the scent of damp feathers and unwashed fur. When I reached the bottom step, a plume of steamy gargoyle breath seethed out of the darkness and enveloped me like a blanket.
Shojin's eyes glowed red and I listened for his heartbeat to speed up, but he remained calm. His breathing came slow and steady despite the billowing clouds of hot air that puffed from his flared nostrils. I didn't know Shojin well, only that Aydin had been bonded to him and that their eight hundred years together had forged a rare friendship. I did a mental eye-roll. In the thirteen years I'd been with Shui, we had shared only hatred. Gargoyles were assassins for the Vyantara. I could never befriend a murderer.
The gargoyle growled. Oh, there we go. That was the behavior I expected. I didn't deal well with the unpredictable. Monsters should act and react in accordance with their vile and murderous nature.
I slid my balisong blade from its sheath on my back. The knife glinted a glorious purple in the red light that shone from Shojin's eyes. No ordinary blade, this balisong could do something no other knife could. It could kill an immortal gargoyle because it was created from the dead body of one.
"I know you and Aydin were good buddies, Shojin. And I'm sorry to have to do this." I brandished the blade and stood poised to strike. "But you have what I need to make Aydin a man again."
The gargoyle hissed and lunged at me. It was an ancient creature, possibly the oldest one on earth, but you'd never know it by its speed and agility. Shojin's wings spanned the width of the room and with just one flap, I was airborne and sailing toward the stairs. I landed on my back, the air whooshing from my lungs like a deflating balloon. I managed to roll sideways just as the gargoyle pounced. He missed me by a hair.
I wanted to yell but I didn't have enough breath to make a sound. It was all I could do to stay conscious. We were both in full battle mode and my intent to win replaced any fear I might have had. There was no room in my mind to be afraid. My head filled with tactics and strategy, driven by instinct to survive.
Shojin matched my intensity. He wanted to win just as badly. He knew what I'd come for and wasn't about to let me take it from him.
One clawed hand the size of a grizzly bear's paw sliced through the air to backhand my head and send me sprawling. My arms and legs flailed as I slid across the dirt floor to slam into a wall. I hit so hard I didn't see stars, I saw planets. I wasn't so fast getting back up this time. And Shojin took full advantage.
He grabbed me by the throat and lifted me up off the ground. I swiped the blade toward the arm holding me, but dizziness kept me from seeing straight and I connected with nothing but air.
I wanted to scream at him that he owed Aydin his heart. Killing me wouldn't bring Aydin back, but killing Shojin could. Struggling to breathe, I gritted my teeth and tried forcing my will on the gargoyle. He stared hard at me, his ridged brow deeply creased with age, his curved raptor's beak parted as if to bite. I fisted a clump of fur on his arm and hung on tight, sucking in what air I could while watching the edges of my consciousness fade to black.
Fury in his eyes, Shojin lowered me to the ground. His grip on my neck lessened, but I felt something warm trickle down the collar of my shirt. I vaguely wondered how badly I'd been wounded, and if it even mattered. For the second time in less than two months I was about to become gargoyle chow.
If I hadn't been so weak from lack of oxygen I'd be slicing through his thick chest right now and cutting out his beating heart. As it was, my legs couldn't even hold me up. I hung from Shojin's claws like a bloody rag doll.
The gargoyle growled and squawked as if trying to talk. He shook his head and clacked his beak. What would he say if he could speak? Thanks for the quick snack, and I'll have your guardian angel for dessert?
He pried the balisong from my hand, his clumsy claw gouging my arm in the process. Who knew a gargoyle preferred to cut his meat with a knife? But instead of peeling me open like a ripe piece of fruit, he plunged the blade into his own chest.
Shojin's grip on me weakened as he sawed through his flesh in search of what lay beating underneath.
I knew in that moment that he loved Aydin as much as I did. His adoration for a mere human stunned me. I wasn't sure I could grasp the concept of compassion coming from a fiend.
His eyes glazed and filled with tears. I could imagine pain had caused this reaction, but I had to give him more credit than that. Aydin had told me many times that Shojin was different. That his beast wasn't a homicidal killer like others of its kind. I realized now that he'd been right.