ANGEL SLAYER - prologue and 1st chapter © Michele Hauf 2010
An obsidian sea roiled behind a black titanium throne. The throne grew up from the sea at the tongue of a dark steel island, its surface intermittently visible through the wavering liquid surface.
A demon sat upon the throne, his horned head bowed. A crown of bone and feather tilted upon his skull. His powerful forearms relaxed upon the throne arms. Taloned fingers of muscled black flesh tapped resolutely.
He had been tapping for centuries. It meant nothing. It passed the time.
A silver cloud, thick as mercury, dusted across the sea. The commotion behind him made no noise.
Noise did not exist here—Beneath. At times he attempted to sense his own heart beat. He had a heart. It was black, forged from the same ineffable substance of which he’d been forged. But he had never heard it beat. Never.
He did not require that confirmation of life. He knew he existed on a level forbidden to most, and unreachable by mere mortals. Feared by all others.
He was Ashuriel the Black, Stealer of Souls, Master of Dethnyht. Only he wore the crown. Not a mortal or otherworldly creature in any of the realms—no matter how twisted and black—should like to claim the same.
Time did not exist here, though he knew he had once grasped the hours and days and even years that some valued to order their lives. He had no need. He had lost memory of time, of physicality and sensation, and emotion.
Save the one emotion he yet clung to as if a screaming soul seeking escape—but he would not think on it, for to do so would render excruciating pain throughout his being.
When a brilliant burst shimmered across the jet surface of the sea it startled him. He had not been aware such light could exist Beneath.
Ashuriel lifted his head. The black armor he wore—fashioned from demonic metal mined from the depths of his realm—clanked, but the noise was only imagined, not real.
He waited for the light to form into shape, a recognizable creature, something that would remind him of what he’d once known in another time, another place. It did not.
Instead the light brightened until he had to close his eyes, and yet the intensity seared a bold flash across the inside of his metallic lids. Strange warmth welled inside him, but he could not touch the meaning or properly label it.
“You are summoned, Sinistari,” the light intoned in a voice so deep it vibrated inside Ashuriel’s metal chest.
And then the light vanished, leaving only a fading silver resonance behind his eyelids.
Reaching for the crown of bone and feathers upon his head, the Sinistari demon removed it. He stroked a talon over the thirteen feathers of all colors and design that marked a kill, each of them.
The Sinistari were summoned for only one reason. He’d thought the threat controlled and swept away with the great flood. A time long ago, or perhaps only moments had passed.
But he would not question a summons.
Cracking his neck from side to side, he stood from the throne and stretched out his arms, thrust out his chest, and sucked in the airless nothing about him.
Ashuriel let out a roar. The noise was audible, and it shuddered waves across the obsidian sea. It pleased him. Dangling the crown on one long finger, he flicked it over a shoulder to land upon the throne.
master slayer was back in business.
Eden Campbell worked the small corner art gallery across the street from Chelsea Park like a pro. Though she cautioned herself not to break into song or shout, “Hey! This is my first gallery showing! It means the world to me, and it’s going well!”
No, that would be crass. Beyond the occasional eccentricity, she was known for her calm, collected demeanor—and her killer legs, of which, she’d decided to showcase as well as her artwork this afternoon.
She was happiest in sweats and a T-shirt when painting, but she could do the sexy businesswoman look, too. A black leather skirt skimmed her thighs. A white long-sleeved silk blouse boasted a deep-vee neckline and ruffles at wrist and waist. Diamond chandelier earrings added a necessary touch of romance. She’d pulled her waist length wavy hair into a loose ponytail to keep it from tangling in her earrings. Sexy violet suede stilettos finished the look with a promise of things Eden usually only whispered, and only to men.
She unbuttoned her left sleeve because her forearm tingled weirdly, much like getting hit in the funny bone. The thought to itch was put off when she caught the eye of a woman in black horn-rims who thrust her a discerning nod.
“Act professional,” she coached inwardly. “You want them to take your work seriously.”
As seriously as a woman with preternatural knowledge of the heavenly ranks could be taken. That was a detail she kept close to the cuff.
The people milling about were all like her; rich, stylish, entitled—but not like her. Eden wondered if they had heartbreaks, dreams and obsessions. Or did they simply exist on the surface, decorating themselves to catch an approving nod from the right kind—and class—of person.
Eden didn’t require approval. She wanted to exist in her world, even if it wasn’t like their world beneath the surface. She tried to fit in, and succeeded. Most saw her as a privileged society woman who attended charity balls and had once been a common fixture on Page Six.
But this artistic side of her was the real Eden, no fake smiles allowed. This showing was her attempt to show them she needed to breathe her own air, as different as that may be.
It was easier for her to walk behind people and listen in on conversations about her work, than to boldly approach a visitor face-to-face. Control the urge to tell them what you know. It’s all there on the canvas; they can figure it out for themselves. Sure, a few friends were in the mix for support, but Todd, who worked part-time at the gallery, and Cammie, a friend since prep school, lingered somewhere off near the wine and cheese.
Eden caught the middle of a conversation and frowned.
“But angels are heavenly beings. Innately good,” the critic argued with a friend. “What the heck is that?”
That was one of her favorite pieces.
Eden painted only angels, but their variety was as vast as her imagination. Rare did she paint a winged angel descending on a beam of light from the clouds. That image had been overdone.
And really, she knew fluffy wings and white robes were all wrong.
Hence, her titanium angel with steampunk-geared wings of binary code. Its face was hollow, exposing honeycomb bone, and silver filaments sprouted on the skull. A halo spun like the rings of Saturn at the back of its head. The angel’s grin was more seductive than some of the expressions Eden had seen on her lackluster dates of late.
“It’s blasphemous,” the critic decided.
Eden shrugged and walked on. Definitely not her sales base. Didn’t matter. She wasn’t showing her work to make a profit; she simply wanted to hear what others thought. And so far most of the feedback had been awesome.
A particular man caught her eye. He stood before The Fall, her depiction of an angel falling from the heavens. The angel wore a devious smile on its glass face and its redwood wings blazed with blue fire. Steel rain extinguished some of the flame. Its halo, detached, cut through the rain, spattering it like oil stains. A single crystal tear dripped from the angel’s eye and stained the ground it had yet to touch.
Though he was unusual in appearance, the man who studied her work didn’t shock Eden. All sorts crowded Manhattan; she loved the exercise in individuality. Silver-white hair punked about his head. He wore a black eye patch over his left eye, and a tight white T-shirt enhanced considerable abs. Gleaming silver hardware hung from his ears, nose, eyebrows and chin. Leather pants hugged his lanky legs like plastic wrap, rendering the belts buckled about his thighs and hips unnecessary. The entire look screamed anarchist raging for a fire to fan.
Paralleling him, Eden waited to see if he would make the first comment. She didn’t like to influence her viewers one way or another.
A familiar scent emanated from him. Sweet and subtle like fruit. He smelled enticing, which baffled her because she was not attracted to his type—it was Wall Street business suits all the way for her.
Her forearm tingled again, like the pins and needles sensation she got when her arm or leg fell asleep. What could it be from? She hadn’t challenged Cammie to a match of tennis for weeks.
She shrugged up her sleeve to itch, then reminded herself to be cool.
When finally the punk jerked a shoulder back and looked at her it was as if she had materialized beside him out of the blue.
“Sorry,” Eden offered politely. “Didn’t mean to surprise you.”
“My fault. I was lost in the painting. It’s interesting. You are very…” His one pale gold eye squinted as he studied her face. Rather, gold was the prominent color. Many colors glittered like a kaleidoscope in that single eye. A trace of blue curled out the bottom of the eye patch. Must be a tattoo.
“Unremarkable,” he finally announced. “Your voice is green,” he continued. “Square. And your scent…” He sniffed. “Smooth. But those shoes. Red. Yes. Nice. Short leather skirt. Hair…chestnut.”
His weird inventory unsettled Eden. She didn’t judge people by their clothing choices, personal habits or even religion. Hell, she’d been judged far too many times to know exactly what that felt like.
Intuition, on the other hand, had a tendency to knock a little too late on her skull.
“Who are you?” He tilted his head and looked her up and down. It was the most uncomfortable dressing down Eden had ever experienced. She should politely dismiss herself.
Yet what was with her arm? Eden’s divided attention pestered her. Something strange was going on beneath the silk sleeve. That’s the last time she took her shirts to the dry cleaners on Fifth. She suspected they weren’t as green as their ads claimed to be.
“I’m the artist,” she offered and thrust out her hand. The punk looked at it a few moments before shaking it. “Eden Campbell.”
“Eden. How…sardonic. Means nothing.
What I want to know is how do you know all…this?”
“That!” He gestured angrily toward the painting. “You’ve quite the talent. One could call a preternatural talent.”
“You think?” Heart beats skipping, Eden beamed at the painting. No one had ever labeled her work that way. She was the only one who believed she had—
Stop it, Eden. He hasn’t a clue. Do not make a fool of yourself.
“If I were of the mind to purchase I’d buy them all,” he remarked, “but unfortunately I’ve no permanent residence. Bit of a world traveler.”
“That must be exciting.”
“There is something about you, Eden.” He leaned in close and his fruity scent enticed her to remain in place, despite the creepy stranger signals he was sparking out at her. “Do you by chance,” he whispered, “wear a sigil on your body?”
“A…sigil?” That was a weird question, yet oddly intuitive.
Could he also know what she knew?
The man glanced about the crowded gallery, not appearing too interested in her response.
No. What Eden knew about her paintings was private, personal. He hadn’t a clue, and she didn’t dare discuss it because she had a healthy fear for mental wards.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I need to go talk with the manager. Excuse me.”
Compelled to get away from the man, Eden slipped away while he returned his attention to studying the painting. She insinuated herself behind a few tall men in business suits.
Todd appeared and slipped a goblet of pinot noir into her grasp. “I thought you were taking off before seven, Eden? I can close up shop with Cammie and handle the stragglers.” He tugged at his pink tie; it clashed brilliantly with his purple shirt and his soft emerald eyes.
“Thanks, Todd. Did you talk to the guy with the white hair and all the nose rings?”
“Not yet. He just wandered in. Creepy?”
“To the tenth degree. He makes me feel uncomfortable.”
And yet, intrigued. Could a person be compelled and repelled at the same time?
“Want me to go punch him for you?”
She hugged Todd across the shoulders. “No. Save those valuable fingers for your IT work. I think I’m going to sneak out, though. I’ve been here six hours. Need to sit and put my feet up.” She pointed out the toe of her velvet shoe. “No one ever said Christian Louboutin was kind to women. See you tomorrow evening for part deux of Eden Campbell’s fabulous debut.”
“I’ll be here. But it’ll be a close call. I’ve a shift at Cloud Nine until five.” He kissed her check. “Talk to you later, sweetie.”
Eden tilted down the wine and claimed her purse from the office before deftly making her way toward the front door.
Rolling up her left sleeve as she gained the door, she spied the top of the strange man’s white hair. He still stood before The Fall. His attention was rapt, so she was able to slip out without his notice.
After hobnobbing in the stuffy gallery for hours, Eden welcomed the refreshing summer rain. She lifted her face to catch the light mist. She should have utilized her father’s limo, always at her disposal, but the driver’s son turned twelve today, so she’d given him the day off. She wasn’t one of those trust fund-babies who thought they were entitled to everything. At least, she tried not to be.
The July sun peeked through the clouds and glinted high on the windows of another trendy little gallery across the street. She examined her forearm. It had stopped tingling and the skin wasn’t red so it couldn’t be a rash.
Tapping the birthmark below her inner elbow, she wondered at what the punk had asked her.
Do you wear a sigil on your body?
“How could he know?” Was it possible he knew things like she did? Though, she’d never heard it called that before. A sigil?
“No.” He must have seen her tug up her sleeve and spied the birthmark. Talk about a cheap pickup line at its strangest.
Waving her arm, she sought a cab. The sidewalk was cluttered with people en route to the subway for the supper rush. Toeing the curb, Eden was distracted by the sudden appearance of the white-haired man—charging toward her.
A cab pulled up with a squeal.
Startled by the man’s intent path toward her, Eden rushed for the cab’s back door and managed to open it just as the punk grabbed her by the wrist.
“You were holding out on me, Eden.”
The wild look in his eyes cautioned her. His crooked grin freaked her. “Let go of me!”
He stroked his fingers over her forearm. “A number? That’s an interesting one. Six,” he pronounced with a hiss.
She struggled, but his grip pinched her skin.
Then he did something so bizarre Eden could but stand, frozen like a scared alleycat, and watch. He licked her forearm, right below the weird birthmark that looked like a roman numeral six. Like a cat’s tongue, the contact abraded her skin.
His exposed eye glowed a brilliant blue as he drew his gaze up to hers.
Survival impulse kicked in. Eden leaned against the cab and kicked high. The spike of her heel sunk into his gut. The man staggered backward with a yowl of pain.
Eden bent and landed the backseat of the cab butt-first. “Go!” she yelled. “There’s a creep after me.” She slammed the door shut as the cab spun away from the curb.
“Fight with the boyfriend?” the cabbie asked in a Texan accent.
“What?” She was so flustered, she sat sprawled across the back seat, arms groping for hold and one leg still poised for another kick against the door. “Boyfriend? No, he dumped me after the— No! I’ve never seen the guy before.”
“They’re all a bunch of crazies. Where to?”
She shuffled upright on the seat and looked out the rear window. The punk’s arms pumped vigorously.
“He’s running after us!” He couldn’t possibly catch a car on foot, could he? “Take the next left turn. Don’t slow down or let him catch up.”
“Yes ma’am. A car chase. Haven’t done one of those in a while.”
“Yeah? There’s a big tip in it for you if you lose the guy.”
“He’s on foot.” The cabbie gunned the engine. “No problem.”
Shaking the rain from her hair and tugging up her sleeve, Eden stroked her forearm. It was pink.
“He licked me,” she said in horror.
“What did you say?”
“That man, he licked me. Why do you think he’d do that? Oh my God, I wonder if he has AIDS? No, I can’t get it that way. What are you doing? I said don’t stop!”
“Sorry, ma’am, red light.”
Eden twisted up onto her knees and scanned the sidewalk. No sight of the punk. He was thin and she hadn’t nailed him for being overly strong. That she’d been able to kick him away impressed her inner kick-ass chick. He must have given up. Though it was likely a man on foot could catch a cab in this rush-hour traffic—
The man landed the trunk of the car on all fours, as if an animal had dropped from above.
“Holy crap,” the cabbie said, and rolled through the green light. “That is a might dangerous.”
“Shake him off,” Eden warbled nervously. She slid her hand along her thigh, feeling for the small blade she kept strapped there. “He’s climbing onto the top of the cab.”
“I don’t want anyone to get hurt,” the cabbie protested.
A sudden right turn resulted in a clatter across the top of the vehicle. Eden saw the punk land the tarmac—on two feet. Not like he’d been whipped off the car and couldn’t catch his bearings. He was agile and determined. One glowing blue eye remained focused on the cab.
“Unbelievable,” the cabbie said. “There’s a short tunnel ahead. We’ll lose him in there.”
“Go for it!”
The punk stood in the middle of the road, right on the yellow no-pass center line. Arms curved out in a fierce stance, he stomped one booted foot and snarled.
Eden couldn’t comprehend this.
He must be on drugs to have survived being thrown from the top of the car, and then to stand as if nothing had happened. Now he ran after the cab like some indestructible robot from a sci-fi movie.
The cab interior went dark. The lights lining the inner walls of the tunnel flashed intermittently. The cab slowed.
“What are you doing? Traffic is going faster than this. Keep up!”
“It’s…an…angel…” the cabbie said on a wondrous tone.
“What?” Eden leaned over the front seat, dodging her head down to see around the rearview mirror. “I’m the only nut who ever thinks she sees an— I don’t see anything. You have a clear lane. Keep driving!”
She snapped her fingers next to the cabbie’s ear. He shook his head as if snapping out of something.
Daylight burst into the cab as the car cruised out of the tunnel. Ahead, a four-way stop did not slow the cab for more than a ‘rolling stop’. Eden gripped the driver’s seat headrest and twisted her body to scan out the side and rear windows. No sight of the punk.
It was when the car turned left—into incoming traffic—Eden’s body was thrown from the back of the cab into the front. Her head plunged toward the passenger side floor. Impact thudded her shoulder. Metallic blood trickled across her tongue.
The vehicle’s tires left the tarmac. The cab tilted and landed upside-down, spinning twice before slamming into a street signal pole. Glass shattered. Iron bent.
Eden blacked out.
Her eyelids fluttered.
The smell of gasoline mixed with the sweet odor of blood. Her chin was shoved down to her chest and her legs felt higher than her shoulders.
Blinking rapidly, Eden grasped for what had happened. The accident. They’d run a stop sign. Because the punk with the eye patch had tracked them across the city—on foot!
She eased herself out through the open door and landed the tarmac on her knees. Safety glass littered the ground, but she avoided it. Hands on the seat, she spied the cabbie, his head on the steering wheel. No visible blood, and he was groaning.
“Not dead, thank goodness.”
A constant honking car horn effectively cleared her foggy brain. Other vehicles had been involved in the crash—two, she saw from her kneeling position.
Fore in Eden’s mind remained the strange man. He’d literally been hell-bent on getting to her. Was he still in pursuit? Had he been hit by one of the cars that had collided in the accident?
She slid shaky fingers along her forearm. It itched where he had licked her. She scratched, but a drop of blood on the seat distracted her. Where had that—? She touched her head. A gash across her eyebrow bled. Didn’t feel deep. It didn’t hurt at all, which could be a good thing, or very bad.
A slide of fingers under her skirt and along her thigh verified the small blade still there. She could have been stabbed with it. She’d been fortunate.
“Have to…” If the punk found her what would he do? Heart racing toward a cliff, she couldn’t think beyond the insanity her pursuer had instilled in her. “Hide.”
Shuffling backward, Eden scrambled along the curb until she stopped at a rolling tire attached to a battered SUV. The radio inside the car blasted a Jimmy Hendrix tune.
Bent over, she crept-walked around the front of the SUV and spied a magazine seller’s stand on the sidewalk. She dove to the ground behind the wooden rack, her position clear from the accident.
The sound of a new crash, like rubber-soled boots landing a trunk set her rigid. Already her heart beat maniacally. She couldn’t get more alert or tense.
“Here, pretty, pretty.”
It was the punk. Clasping her arms about her legs, she winced when her forearm crushed another cut below her knee. She would not cry. She must not make noise.
What would a man who had followed her through traffic, been thrown off a moving vehicle, and was now sorting through the scene of a wreckage, want with her? No answer was good.
And any answer tested the boundaries of what was real and what could only be supernatural. Eden believed in beings not like herself. She had to, because she believed in angels.
The boots stomped the sidewalk not twenty feet from where Eden hid. She heard a snorting noise, like some kind of animal. He was…sniffing? It was as if he were a wild cat stalking its prey.
She didn’t like thinking that word—prey. Her gut clenched and she tried to stifle the uncontrollable need to sob.
Bootsteps slowly approached her. They paused. Sniffing, testing the air. Then the boots jumped onto a vehicle. Metal crunched and echoed bluntly.
In the distance an ambulance siren wailed. Eden realized people from nearby shops had begun to step out and were gathering near the crashed cars.
“Not here,” the punk growled. “Bitch got away.” He landed the tarmac. It sounded like he was walking away.
The back of Eden’s head fell against the boards behind her. She may be injured but she didn’t care. It was a relief to know the creep had given up. Finally.
She itched her forearm. As if a wasp sting, it burned worse than any of her cuts.
The crowd exhaled a group ‘oh’ gasp, as if they’d witnessed something strange or horrible.
A pair of heavy leather biker boots landed the sidewalk right next to Eden.
ANGEL SLAYER is in bookstores May 20th! Find it in the Harlequin section or at your favorite online retailer.