Two years had passed.
Two years since Alexander woke.
Two years since the last confirmed sighting of Zhou Lijuan.
Two years since Illium threatened to burn up in a catastrophic explosion of power.
Two years while the Cascade seemed to hit Pause.
Elena was fucking over waiting for the other shoe to drop.
"Come on already," she muttered up at the sky, Manhattan a toy borough hundreds of feet below the edge of the railing-free Tower balcony on which she stood.
"Speaking to your ancestors, Elena-mine?" The voice came from behind her, familiar and imbued with a power so violently deep that the mere sound of it engendered fear in the hearts of mortals and immortals alike.
It made Elena's own heart ache, the love she felt for her archangel a painful, terrifying thing in these times of uncertainty. If she lost him . . . No, she couldn't think that way. Even if that damn other shoe was still smirking at her, just waiting to thunk down on top of her head when she least expected it.
"Whoever or whatever it is that controls the Cascade, that's who I'm talking to." She leaned back into Raphael. The position trapped her wings in between, but with Raphael, she could be vulnerable, she could be weaponless, and still be safe. Not that she wasn't armed to the teeth, but that was habit and none of it would ever be turned against Raphael except when they sparred-or when he pushed her buttons a little too hard.
Her archangel hadn't quite got the hang of the fact he wasn't lord and master over his consort. He tried but a thousand-five-hundred-years-plus of power had a way of messing with his attempts at seeing his once-mortal lover as an equal when it came to their personal relationship.
Elena cut him some slack every so often. "Some" being the operative word.
Today, he wrapped his arms around her shoulders from behind, his jaw brushing her hair as the two of them looked out over their city from their vantage point on the cloud-piercing form of Archangel Tower. New York. Brash and messy and noisy and full of color and energy and life. So much life. Elena could hear it on the busy streets far, far below, sense it with every beat of her heart, taste it in the myriad scents that clashed and fought and yet somehow made their peace.
Her blood hummed in awareness.
"I have news," Raphael murmured. "It may inject a little excitement into your currently mundane life."
Elena snorted. "I don't need any more excitement. I just need the damn Cascade off Pause so we can get it done." Her hand twitched to go for the lightweight crossbow strapped to her thigh.
Unfortunately, she didn't have anyone or anything to shoot at right now.
Raphael's chuckle vibrated against her. "You sound a little tense, Consort."
Elena would've elbowed him if her wings hadn't been in the way. "Why are you in such a good mood?" The past two years had been as tautly tense for him as they'd been for her. All the archangels had stayed within the borders of their own territories-but for a few secret trips here and there-in preparation for further Cascade madness.
Only the unpredictable worldwide phenomenon that caused dangerous power fluctuations in the archangels as well as some angels, along with tumult across the earth in the form of storms, quakes, and floods, seemed to have decided it was finished. But of course, they all knew it wasn't. Not by a long shot. Even Elena could feel the thunderous portent in the air, just hanging there, waiting to unleash itself.
"My good mood is because something has at last broken the stalemate of the past two years."
"I'm not going to like this, am I?" Elena said darkly.
"Such a suspicious mind."
"Yes. It keeps me alive." She watched an angel with wings of an astonishing, haunting blue edged with silver rise up over a skyscraper in the distance, Illium's physical strength back to what it should be for his age and development. There had been no other vicious and possibly deadly surges that threatened to tear his body apart from the inside out.
Even better, he was laughing again, was once more the playful angel who'd become her first friend in this immortal world. "Bluebell's about to do a dive," she predicted from the way Illium was soaring up into the crystalline sky.
And then he was turning and falling, a sleek bullet whose laughter she could almost hear.
"I bet you he's planning to go low enough to freak out the pedestrians." New Yorkers were used to angels in their city, turned up their noses at the tourists who gawped up at the sky, but angelic acrobatics could still make them jump. Especially acrobatics done by an angel as fast and as quick to maneuver as Illium.
"That is no bet," Raphael answered. "He's been playing such tricks as long as I've known him."
And Raphael, Elena thought, had known Illium since the other angel was a child.
She reached up to close her hands over the arms he'd wrapped around her. Illium meant a great deal to her archangel; that was a truth most people didn't comprehend. All of Raphael's Seven meant far more to him than simply the positions they filled in his Tower or in his Refuge stronghold.
They weren't just his most trusted warriors-the Seven were family.
Rubbing his jaw against her temple in a silent response to her touch, he said, "We are about to leave New York."
Elena blinked; she couldn't have been more surprised if he'd told her he wanted her to strip naked then and there and start chanting to invisible sky gods. "What happened to batten down the hatches and watch for an attack? All our enemies are still out there."
"The Cadre has been called to meet."
Rubbing at her face, Elena turned and took a step back so she could face Raphael, her wings a familiar weight at her back and the wind tugging lightly at her feathers as if in invitation for flight. The almost cruel masculine beauty of his face hit her hard, as it sometimes did when she looked at him after glancing away. All clean lines and skin brushed with finest gold, he had eyes so shatteringly blue they had no equal on this earth, his hair a black beyond midnight and his lips shaped with a sensuality that hinted at passion and power both, wings of white gold arching over his shoulders.
Already, he'd been magnificent, but the Legion mark on his right temple-the violent, vivid blue and hidden white fire of it shaped like the primal manifestation of a dragon-added a wildness to his beauty that made him beyond beautiful, beyond magnificent. He was Raphael, Archangel of New York, and the man she loved so much that sometimes she couldn't breathe from the force of it.
And he loved her.
That truth she could never doubt, no matter if, at times, he crossed lines in their relationship that made her threaten to pull out a blade. Even if the Cascade messed with everything else, this one thing no one and nothing could ever mess up.
Lifting his hand, he cupped her cheek, brushed the pad of his thumb over her cheekbone. "Your eyes are even more luminous today."
Elena scowled. "I don't want luminous eyes," she said. "I want normal gray eyes that let me blend in, not silver eyes that make it obvious I'm an immortal."
Raphael's lips curved. "A pity about the wings then."
"Ha ha." Putting her hands on her hips, she turned her head to press a kiss to his palm before facing him once more. "Which one of the archangels called for the meet?" It would tell her which ones were likely to go-and which ones would be salivating at the opportunity to attack other territories while the archangels to whom those territories belonged were occupied elsewhere.
The single word fell like a gunshot between them.
Shaking her head, Elena reached up to tuck back a strand of hair that had whipped across her face. She'd left the near-white stuff unbound today since she wasn't on a hunt and had been planning to hang out close to the Tower and the Legion skyscraper.
"I know I've only been an immortal a zillionth of a second according to angelic time," she said dryly, "but I'm pretty sure there's no one more powerful than an archangel. Unless it's one of those Ancestor creatures Naasir told me about." She'd taken those Sleeping beings to be myth, but maybe not.
"There is no one more powerful than the Cadre," Raphael confirmed. "However, in one situation and one situation only, another group can call the Cadre to a meeting. Attendance is mandatory-anyone who does not attend can have their territory divided with the might of all angelkind standing behind those who are given the resulting pieces."
Elena whistled. "Sounds like an invitation to war." Especially since angelkind wasn't exactly united right now.
"Yes-which is why no one refuses an invitation. It's not worth the aggravation when all possible threats will be at the meeting with you." Raphael nodded to behind her. "Aodhan is dodging crossbow bolts."
Swiveling on her heel, Elena spotted the angel who seemed created of pieces of light, a thousand rays of sunshine sparking off the filaments of his wings, the glittering strands of his hair; he was darting this way and that while an entire squadron shot at him. The members of the squadron were wearing wraparound sunglasses in an effort to track the piercing blaze of him in the sky.
Aodhan, meanwhile, dropped and dodged with uncanny skill.
"And the prize for most bored goes to . . ."
Raphael moved forward to stand beside her, his wing sliding over her own. "He's just staying in shape for the battle to come."
Unfortunately, that was true. The battle would come and that damn shoe would drop. "This group that has the power to force the Cadre to meet, what's it called?"
"The members call themselves the Luminata. They are a spiritual sect-not religious in the human sense." He paused, as if thinking of the right words to describe them. "The closest mortal analog is likely the Buddhist search for enlightenment. The Luminata seek to understand themselves individually and angelkind as a whole; their self-imposed task is to discover who and what we are in the greater scheme of the universe, and to accept whatever answer may come. They call it a search for luminescence."
Spreading his wings, he folded them back in a susurration of sound she'd never associate with anyone but her archangel. "Many mortals believe in gods, but when death is but a faint glimmer on a distant horizon that may never be breached, such beliefs fade into confusion. The Luminata attempt to find luminescence in the now, rather than hoping for it on the other side of that distant horizon."
"I met a holy man once during a hunt in India," Elena found herself saying. "He lived as a hermit, had nothing to his name but the clothes on his back, but his eyes . . . such peace, Raphael. I think he's the most peaceful being I've ever met. Even Keir doesn't have such a well of peace inside him." And the revered angelic healer had lived thousands of years.
"From what I know, this is what the Luminata search for." Raphael continued to watch Aodhan's movements in the sky ahead of them. "A purity of soul that leaves them with no earthly questions or concerns."
"Have they had any success in their quest?"
"The only Luminata I've ever met are those who have been asked to leave the sect, and the once-novices-those who walked away from the life after a short attempt. So I have no basis to judge the luminescence of those who follow the path."
Elena raised an eyebrow, but kept silent, interested in this sect that could call a Cadre of archangels to order.
"At some point in our past," Raphael told her, "a point so far back that no one remembers-"
"Did you ask the Legion? Their memories of the past are fading but they're not totally gone."
"I did." Raphael's eyes went to a nearby high-rise, one that had a shape unlike any other in the city, and that was covered in the fresh green of living things, a building that was designed to be a living thing. For the Legion were of the earth and it was in earth, in growth, that they thrived. "But those memories, if they existed, are gone. The Legion know the Luminata only from more recent times."
"Recent" being a relative term, Elena thought. "So a long time ago in a land far away, the Luminata . . ." she prompted.
Raphael's laughter was a caress of sunkissed waves over her senses, the power of him no threat but a promise. "I wonder what the sect will make of you, Elena." Love surrounded her, so deep that she felt it in her bones. "As you say, long ago the Luminata were entrusted with a certain task. This task was given to them because it was-and is-believed that they are the only group that can be trusted to be impartial with it."
He raised one hand to stroke it over the arch of her wing, the touch an intimate one between lovers, as, not far in the distance, Aodhan took a crossbow bolt in the thigh. Pulling it out, he threw it back and kept dodging. Yeah, Elena thought, he might be training to stay in shape, but he was also bored. So was Illium, if the screams floating up from the city streets were any indication.
He'd clearly kept up the dive bombing.
"I think," Raphael said, "I must tell your Bluebell to stop scaring our citizens."
Illium appeared in view a few seconds later, a grin on his almost too handsome face that Elena could see from here. Dipping his wings toward the Tower in acknowledgment of Raphael's order, he joined Aodhan's "dodge the bolts" game.
One bolt went crazily wild at nearly the same instant, heading straight for Elena.
Snatching it from the air with a single hand, Raphael passed it to her. "Whoever this is needs further training."
Elena recognized the markings on the shaft, grinned. "Izzy." The young angel was still a baby in angelic terms. "You have to admit, he's brilliant for his age."
"Galen wouldn't have recommended him for a Tower apprenticeship elsewise," Raphael said before continuing to speak about the Luminata. "By dint of their spiritual quest, the Luminata have no earthly ties and no loyalties beyond that to their quest for luminescence. They take no lovers, participate in no wars, and when they become Luminata, they sever all blood ties."
Copyright © 2016 by Nalini Singh. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.