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Archangel's Enigma(Guild Hunter,book 8)(1) by Nalini Singh
Zhou Lijuan stared into the large metal disk that hung on the far wall opposite her throne. It was a piece of art given to her by an admirer long, long ago. The admirer was lost in the mists of her millennia-old memory, but she’d kept the gift—there was something about the sleek shine of the disk, the way the carvings on the edges had been done with such delicacy, that spoke to her.
Even after thousands of years of having it in the throne room of her innermost stronghold, she found it fascinating. Perhaps because that disk reflected her as clearly as any mirror, and yet was not fragile. The metal disk might dent but it would never break. It had reflected her strength and ambition as a young archangel, wisdom and power as she grew older. Today, it showed her the ravages of war.
Many in the world still thought her dead and it suited her to allow them to believe such, so long as they kept their hands off her territory. Her generals were taking care of security, though she didn’t think even Michaela was arrogant enough to attempt an incursion. All feared her.
But for the fear to remain, they could not see the woman in the metal mirror. Not yet. That woman had hair of a familiar icy white; Zhou Lijuan had been born with hair as black as night, but the color had faded with the growth of her power, as if her strength had leached it all away. By the time she was a thousand years old, her hair was “white as snow.”
Her mother had said that to her and if she tried very hard, Lijuan could sometimes recall the face of the woman who had given birth to her. Mostly because she had bequeathed Lijuan her fine facial bones. The reflection in the metal had dramatic cheekbones that pushed against delicately translucent skin so thin it appeared it might tear with a touch. Thin blue veins pulsed beneath, but it was the red blood vessels around the pearlescent shade of her irises that caught the attention.
It was as if her irises were swimming in blood.
And they were—Raphael had hurt her. Her rage at that knowledge was a violent cold deep inside her body. No one hurt Zhou Lijuan. She would annihilate the upstart Archangel of New York for the insult, but first, she would make him watch as she enslaved his mortal consort. And for that, she needed to have patience, needed to finish healing, needed to finish becoming.
Because not all of her had regenerated the same as before Raphael tried to obliterate her from existence.
Lifting her hand with muscles that were weak and quivering, she examined her nails. They had grown back a gleaming ruby red and hooked over her fingertips like the talons of a great bird of prey. The incisors in her mouth, too, weren’t the same. Her other teeth were pure white, the incisors dark scarlet.
It was oddly beautiful. As befit a goddess.
Those incisors weren’t functioning yet, however. She’d attempted to feed on the glowing lifeforce of loyal subjects who wished to sacrifice themselves so their goddess could heal quicker and with less pain, but while her incisors appeared strong, they weren’t mature. She couldn’t penetrate the skin, and even when she used a knife to make the cut, she could suck up only a little useless blood, not the lifeforce of the sacrifice.
Agony burned her nerve endings every instant of every day.
Her bones ached.
Her wings couldn’t hold her aloft.
Only her mind was whole.
Laying down her fully regenerated right hand on the arm of the throne of jade carved with nightmares and dreams and considered a treasure among angelkind by those who had seen it, she focused on the kneeling form of the angel below the dais. He had his forehead to the floor, his wings held gracefully to his back. She couldn’t remember how long he’d been sitting there and she couldn’t quite make out his form with clarity.
Her bleeding eyes didn’t always work as they should.
“Speak,” she said, and the word came out through a ravaged throat, the sound a harsh whisper that nonetheless howled with screams.
Raising his head from the floor, the man . . . ah, it was the Scribe. Yes, she recognized that yellow hair down to the shoulders. The Scribe placed his hands on his thighs and kept his head respectfully bowed as he began to speak.
“I have finished my work on the prophecy, sire.”
Her blood pulsed, her senses sharpening. She remembered assigning him this task in the months before the battle with Raphael, even remembered reading the prophecy in an old scroll when she’d been a mere angel. At the time, it had meant nothing and she’d forgotten it for an eon. Then had come her growing power, and with it, a faint whisper of memory that told her the scroll was important.
It had taken her scholars and trackers almost a year to rediscover the ancient text, and since the moment of rediscovery, the words had become an echo at the back of her head, a drumbeat she couldn’t unhear.
Archangel of Death. Goddess of Nightmare. Wraith without a shadow.
Rise, rise, rise into your Reign of Death.
For your end will come.
Your end will come.
At the hands of the new and of the old.
An Archangel kissed by mortality.
A silver-winged Sleeper who wakes before his Sleep is done.
The broken dream with eyes of fire.
Shatter. Shatter. Shatter.
“Tell me,” she ordered the Scribe.
The Scribe’s voice was crystalline as he said, “I have traced the origins of the prophecy to the Archangel Cassandra.”
Lijuan’s hand curled over the armrest of the jade throne, the carvings cutting into her flesh as the tiny hairs on her nape rose in a primeval response. “You are certain?” Cassandra had gone to Sleep so long ago that she was more myth than memory, an Ancient among Ancients. But one thing about her legend had never changed: that on her ascension, she had gained the great and terrible gift of seeing the future.
Legend stated that she’d chosen to Sleep soon after she clawed out her own eyes in a vain effort to stop the visions. Her eyes had grown back within the day, and in the hour afterward, her dress still bloody, she’d disappeared. Most of her prophecies had been lost in time and the ones that remained were often disregarded as the scribblings of some unknown fantasist.
“Raphael is the one kissed by mortality.” Lijuan didn’t understand how such a weakened archangel had almost been able to bring her down, but she would not make the mistake of underestimating him again.
“I have no answers for the last-mentioned, for the broken dreams with eyes of fire,” the Scribe responded. “But the silver-winged Sleeper can be only one.”
Lijuan’s grip on the armrest grew vicious as her back spasmed. Her wings had grown back after her brain and spinal column, as per the angelic hierarchy of what was important, but they were weak and prone to causing her torso to spasm, further exacerbating her remaining injuries.
Breathing through the vicious sensations, she stared into the metal disk that acted as her mirror, and spoke the name of the Sleeper who needed to die. “Alexander.”