Book 7: Order of the Blade
Ryland spun around, engaging all his preternatural senses as he searched the graveyard for Catherine. He knew she had to be close. He’d touched her backpack just before she’d vanished right in front of him.
“Catherine!” he shouted again. He’d been so close. Where the hell was she? All he could sense were the deaths of all the people in the graveyard. Women, children, old men, young men, good people, scum who had taken their demented values to the grave with them. The spirits were thick and heavy in the graveyard, souls that had not moved on to their place of rest.
They circled him, trying to penetrate his barriers, seeking asylum in the creature that would be their doom. “No,” he said to them. “I’m not your savior.” Not by a long shot. He was about as far from their savior as it was possible to be.
Dismissing them, Ryland focused more directly on Catherine, opening his senses to the night, but as much as he tried to concentrate, he couldn’t keep the vision of her out of his head. He’d finally seen her up close. She’d been mere inches away, the angel who had filled his thoughts for so long. Her hair was gold. Gold. It must have been tucked up under a hat when he’d seen her before, but now? It was unlike anything he’d ever seen before. He’d been riveted by the sight of it streaming behind her as she ran, the golden highlights glistening in the dark as if she’d been lit from within.
Her gait had been smooth and agile, but he’d sensed the sheer effort she’d had to expend during the run. Another few feet, and he would have caught up to her easily, but she’d sensed him while he’d still been a quarter mile away, giving her a head start that had gotten her to the graveyard first.
Shit. He had to focus and find her. Summoning his rigid control to focus on his task, Ryland crouched down and placed his hand on the dirt path where he’d last seen her. The ground was humming with the energy of death, but again, he couldn’t untangle her trail from all the others. He realized that she’d mingled her own scent of death with those of all the other spirits, making it impossible for him to track her. He grinned as he rested his forearm on his quad and surveyed the small cemetery. “I’m impressed,” he said aloud. “You’re good.”
There was no response, but he had the distinct sensation that she was watching him.
Slowly, he rose to his feet. “My name is Ryland Samuels,” he said. “I’m a member of the Order of the Blade, the group of warriors that you protect. I’m here to offer you my protection and bring you into our safekeeping.”
Again, there was no answer, but suddenly threaded through the tendrils of death was the cold filament of fear. Not just a superficial apprehension, but the kind of deep, penetrating fear that would bring a person to their knees and render them powerless. Fear of him? Or of the fact he said he wanted to take her with him? Swearing, Ryland turned in a slow circle, searching for where she might be. “There’s no need to be afraid of me. I would never hurt an angel.”
The fear thickened, like the thorns of a dying rose pricking his skin.
Ryland moved slowly toward the far corner, and smiled when he felt the terror grow stronger. She might be able to hide death, but there was no cover for the terror that was hers alone. He was clearly getting closer to her. “Look into my eyes,” he said softly. “I don’t hurt angels.”
There was a whisper of a sound behind him, and he felt the cold drift of fingers across his back. She was touching him. He froze, not daring to turn around, even though his heartbeat had suddenly accelerated a thousand-fold. Her touch was so faint, almost as if it were her spirit that was examining him, not her own flesh. Was she merely invisible right now, or had she abandoned her physical existence completely and traveled to some spiritual plane? He had no idea what she was capable of. All he knew was that he felt like he never wanted to move away from this spot, not as long as she was touching him. He wanted to stay right where he was and never break the connection.
He closed his eyes, breathing in the sensation of her touch as her fingers traced down his arm, over his jacket. What was she looking for? Was she reading his aura? Searching for the truth of his claim that he would not hurt her? She would get nowhere trying to get a read on him. He never allowed anyone to see who he truly was, not even an angel of death.
But even as he thought it, he made no move to resist, his pulse quickening in anticipation as her touch trailed toward his bare hand. Would she brush her fingers over his skin? Would he feel the touch of an angel for the first time in a thousand years? He felt his soul begin to strain, reaching for this gift only she could give him.
He tracked every inch of movement as her hand moved lower toward his bare skin. Past his elbow. To the cuff of his sleeve. Then he felt it. Her fingers on the back of his hand. His flesh seemed to ignite under her touch. A wave of angelic serenity and beauty cascaded through his soul, like a breath of great relief easing a thousand years of tension from his lungs.
At the same time, there was a dangerous undercurrent beneath the beauty, a darkness that he recognized as death. A thousand souls seemed to dance through his mind, spirits lodged in the depths of her existence. Her emotions flooded him. Fear. Regret. Determination. Love. A sense of being trapped.
Trapped? He understood that one well. Far too well. Instinctively, he flipped his hand over, wrapping his fingers around hers, not to trap her, but to offer her his protection from a hell that still drove every choice he made.
He heard her suck in her breath, and she went still, not pulling away from him. Her hand was cold. Her fingers were small and delicate, like fragile blossoms that would snap under a stiff breeze. A hand that needed support and help.
Ryland snapped his eyes open but there was no one standing in front of him. He looked down and could see only his own hand, folded around air. He couldn’t see her, but she was there, her hand in his, not pulling away. “Show yourself to me,” he said. “I won’t hurt you.”
Her hand jerked back, and a sense of loss assailed him as he lost his grip on her. “No!” He reached for her, but his hands just drifted through air. “Catherine,” he urged, as he strained to get a sense of her. “I—”