The male’s whimper was barely discernible with the blood filling his mouth, his nostrils. But he still tried again. “Please.”
Hunt Athalar’s sword dripped blood onto the soaked carpet of the dingy apartment in the Meadows. Splatters of it coated the visor of his helmet, speckling his line of vision as he surveyed the lone male standing.
The male’s friends littered the living room floor, one of them still spurting blood from what was now his stump of a neck. His severed head lay on the sagging sofa, gaping face rolled into the age-flattened cushions.
“I’ll tell you everything,” the male pleaded, sobbing as he pressed his hand against the gash on his shoulder. “They didn’t tell you all of it, but I can.”
The male’s terror filled the room, overpowering the scent of blood, its reek as bad as stale piss in an alley.
Hunt’s gloved hand tightened on his blade. The male noted it and began shaking, a stain paler than blood leaking across his pants. “I’ll tell you more,” the man tried again.
Hunt braced his feet, rooting his strength into the floor, and slashed his blade.
The male’s innards spilled onto the carpet with a wet slap. Still the male kept screaming.
So Hunt kept working.
Hunt made it to the Comitium barracks without anyone seeing him.
At this hour, the city at least appeared asleep. The five buildings that made up the Comitium’s complex did, too. But the cameras throughout the 33rd Legion’s barracks—the second of the Comitium’s spire-capped towers—saw everything. Heard everything.
The white-tiled halls were dim, no hint of the hustle that would fill them come dawn.
The helmet’s visor cast everything into stark relief, its audio receptors picking up sounds from behind the shut bedroom doors lining either side of hallway: low-level sentries playing some video game, doing their best to keep their voices down as they cursed at each other; a female sentry talking on the phone; two angels fucking each other’s brains out; and several snorers.
Hunt passed his own door, instead aiming for the shared bathroom in the center of the long hallway, accessible only through the common room. Any hope for an unnoticed return vanished at the sight of the golden light leaking from beneath the shut door and the sound of voices beyond it.
Too tired, too filthy, Hunt didn’t bother to say hello as he entered the common room, prowling past the scattering of couches and chairs toward the bathroom.
Naomi was sprawled on the worn green couch before the TV, her black wings spread. Viktoria lounged in the armchair next to her, watching the day’s sports highlights, and on the other end of the couch sat Justinian, still in his black legionary armor.
Their conversation stalled as Hunt entered.
“Hey,” Naomi said, her inky braid draping over her shoulder. She wore her usual black—the triarii’s usual black—though there was no trace of her wicked weapons or their holsters.
Viktoria seemed content to let Hunt pass without greeting. It was why he liked the wraith more than nearly anyone else in Micah Domitus’s inner circle of warriors, had liked her since those early days in the 18th, when she’d been one of the few non-angel Vanir to join their cause. Vik never pushed when Hunt didn’t want to be bothered. But Justinian—
The angel sniffed, scenting the blood on Hunt’s clothes, his weapons. How many different people it belonged to. Justinian blew out a whistle. “You are one sick fuck, you know that?”
Hunt continued toward the bathroom door. His lightning didn’t so much as hiss inside him.
Justinian went on, “A gun would have been a Hel of a lot cleaner.”
“Micah didn’t want a gun for this,” Hunt said, his voice hollow even to his ears. It had been that way for centuries now; but tonight, these kills he’d made, what they’d done to earn the wrath of the Archangel … “They didn’t deserve a gun,” he amended. Or the swift bolt of his lightning.
“I don’t want to know,” Naomi grumbled, punching up the volume of the TV. She pointed with the remote at Justinian, the youngest in the triarii. “And neither do you, so shut it.”
No, they really didn’t want to know.
Naomi—the only one of the triarii who was not Fallen—said to Hunt, “Isaiah told me that Micah wants you two playing investigators tomorrow for some shit in the Old Square. Isaiah will call you after breakfast with the details.”
The words barely registered. Isaiah. Tomorrow. Old Square.
Justinian snorted. “Good luck, man.” He swigged from his beer. “I hate the Old Square—it’s all university brats and tourist creeps.” Naomi and Viktoria grunted their agreement.
Hunt didn’t ask why they were up, or where Isaiah was, given that he couldn’t deliver the message. The angel was likely with whatever handsome male he was currently dating.
As Commander of the 33rd, acquired by Micah to shore up Crescent City’s defenses, Isaiah had enjoyed every second here since he’d arrived more than a decade ago. In four years, Hunt hadn’t seen the city’s appeal beyond it being a cleaner, more organized version of any Pangeran metropolis, with streets in clean lines rather than meandering curves that often doubled back on themselves, as if in no hurry to get anywhere.
But at least it wasn’t Ravilis. And at least it was Micah ruling over it, not Sandriel.
Sandriel—the Archangel and Governor of the northwestern quadrant of Pangera, and Hunt’s former owner before Micah had traded with her, desiring to have Hunt clear Crescent City of any enemies. Sandriel—his dead lover’s twin sister.
The formal papers declared that Hunt’s duties would be to track down and dispatch any loose demons. But considering that those sorts of disasters happened only once or twice a year, it was glaringly obvious why he’d really been brought over. He’d done most of the assassinating for Sandriel, the Archangel who bore the same face as his beloved, for the fifty-three years she’d possessed him.
A rare occurrence, for both siblings to bear an Archangel’s title and power. A good omen, people had believed. Until Shahar—until Hunt,
leading her forces—had rebelled against everything the angels stood for. And betrayed her sister in the process.
Sandriel had been the third of his owners after the defeat at Mount Hermon, and had been arrogant enough to believe that despite the two Archangels before her who had failed to do so, she might be the one to break him. First in her horror show of a dungeon. Then in her blood-soaked arena in the heart of Ravilis, pitting him against warriors who never stood a chance. Then by commanding him to do what he did best: slipping into a room and ending lives. One after another after another, year after year, decade after decade.
Sandriel certainly had motivation to break him. During that too-short battle at Hermon, it was her forces that Hunt had decimated, his lightning that turned soldier after soldier into charred husks before they could draw their swords. Sandriel had been Shahar’s prime target, and Hunt had been ordered to take her out. By whatever means necessary.
And Shahar had good reason to go after her sister. Their parents had both been Archangels, whose titles had passed to their daughters after an assassin had somehow managed to rip them to shreds.
He’d never forget Shahar’s theory: that Sandriel had killed their parents and framed the assassin. That she’d done it for herself and her sister, so they might rule without interference. There had never been proof to pin it on Sandriel, but Shahar believed it to her dying day.
Shahar, the Daystar, had rebelled against her fellow Archangels and the Asteri because of it. She’d wanted a world free of rigid hierarchies, yes—would have brought their rebellion right to the crystal palace of the Asteri if it had been successful. But she’d also wanted to make her sister pay. So Hunt had been unleashed.
Fools. They had all been fools.
It made no difference if he’d admitted his folly. Sandriel believed he’d lured her twin into the rebellion, that he had turned Shahar against her. That somehow, when sister had drawn blade against sister, so nearly identical in face and build and fighting technique that it was like watching someone battle their reflection, it was his fucking fault that it had ended with one of them dead.
At least Micah had offered him the chance to redeem himself. To prove his utter loyalty and submission to the Archangels, to the empire, and then one day get the halo removed. Decades from now, possibly centuries, but considering that the oldest angels lived to be nearly eight hundred … maybe he’d earn back his freedom in time to be old. He could potentially die free.
Micah had offered Hunt the bargain from his first day in Crescent City four years ago: a kill for every life he’d taken that bloody day on Mount Hermon. Every angel he’d slaughtered during that doomed battle, he was to pay back. In the form of more death. A death for a death, Micah had said. When you’ve fulfilled the debt, Athalar, we’ll discuss removing that tattoo on your brow.
Hunt had never known the tally—how many he’d killed that day. But Micah, who’d been on that battlefield, who’d watched while Shahar fell at her twin sister’s hand, had the list. They’d had to pay out commissions for all the legionaries. Hunt had been about to ask how they’d been able to determine which killing blows had been made by his blade and not someone else’s, when he’d seen the number.
Two thousand two hundred and seventeen.
It was impossible for him to have personally killed that many in one battle. Yes, his lightning had been unleashed; yes, he’d blasted apart entire units, but that many?
He’d gaped. You were Shahar’s general, Micah said. You commanded the 18th. So you will atone, Athalar, not only for the lives you took, but those your traitorous legion took as well. At Hunt’s silence, Micah had added, This is not some impossible task. Some of my missions will count for more than one life. Behave, obey, and you will be able to reach this number.
For four years now, he had behaved. He had obeyed. And tonight had put him at a grand total of eighty-fucking-two.
It was the best he could hope for. All he worked for. No other Archangel had ever offered him the chance. It was why he’d done everything Micah had ordered him to do tonight. Why every thought felt distant, his body pulled from him, his head full of a dull roaring.
Micah was an Archangel. A Governor appointed by the Asteri. He was a king among angels, and law unto himself, especially in Valbara— so far from the seven hills of the Eternal City. If he deemed someone a threat or in need of justice, then there would be no investigation, no trial.
Just his command. Usually to Hunt.
It would arrive in the form of a file in his barracks mailbox, the imperial crest on its front. No mention of his name. Just SPQM, and the seven stars surrounding the letters.
The file contained all he needed: names, dates, crimes, and a timeline for Hunt to do what he did best. Plus any requests from Micah regarding the method employed.
Tonight it had been simple enough—no guns. Hunt understood the unwritten words: make them suffer. So he had.
“There’s a beer with your name on it when you come out,” Viktoria said, her eyes meeting Hunt’s even with the helmet on. Nothing but a casual, cool invitation.
Hunt continued into the bathroom, the firstlights fluttering to life as he shouldered his way through the door and approached one of the shower stalls. He cranked the water to full heat before stalking back to the row of pedestal sinks.
In the mirror above one, the being who stared back was as bad as a Reaper. Worse.
Blood splattered the helmet, right over the painted silver skull’s face. It gleamed faintly on the intricate leather scales of his battle-suit, on his black gloves, on the twin swords peeking above his shoulders. Flecks of it even stained his gray wings.
Hunt peeled off the helmet and braced his hands on the sink.
In the harsh bathroom firstlights, his light brown skin was pallid under the black band of thorns across his brow. The tattoo, he’d learned to live with. But he shrank from the look in his dark eyes. Glazed. Empty. Like staring into Hel.
Orion, his mother had named him. Hunter. He doubted she would have done so, would have so lovingly called him Hunt instead, if she’d known what he’d become.
Hunt glanced to where his gloves had left red stains on the porcelain sink.
Tugging off the gloves with brutal efficiency, Hunt prowled to the shower stall, where the water had reached near-scalding temperatures. He removed his weapons, then his battle-suit, leaving more streaks of blood on the tiles.
Hunt stepped under the spray, and submitted himself to its relentless burning.