Broken Angel: After stealing a copy on an ancient manuscript, Blaze Makaresh finds himself being hunted down by a gang of youkai – demons who infiltrate human society in order to satisfy their hunger for sex and flesh. When Talon, an elite society of demon-hunters, come to his aid, he’s soon enmeshed with the beautiful Asha, and the dawning of an age old prophecy.
This collections also features novellas by Mathilde Madden (Silver Chains) & Anne Tourney (Falling Dancer).
Titles in the Broken Angels Series:
“Broken Angel is a wonderfully gripping story… more, more, more.” Two Lips Reviews.com
CHAPTER ONE: THE CROSSROADS
The speedometer was climbing. He’d topped the ton two blocks ago, when he’d shot the red light and headed up into the old quarter. Somehow, he felt safer among the winding cobblestones and chewed-up tarmac of the old city. He understood how it operated, knew all the sharp corners and the short cuts, the winding alleyways of Birdcage Walk and the Copse Road down by the canal. The wide avenues of the Heights made him feel too exposed, and what he didn’t need right now was exposed. He’d only gone there for the book. Book! Huh, more like a pamphlet, and written in a cipher that made him dizzy just looking at it. He hoped it was worth all the trouble.
There were four, maybe five of them, all gaining fast, but he couldn’t push the bike any harder. He was already risking a head on collision. He might know this area, but places changed. Walls would appear overnight as if they’d always been there, because they were always made of the same yellow-grey stone. Still, he’d got himself into this mess. He’d been stupid, thought they were just some soft Lux gang seeing him off their turf, and he knew he could take on five of them. But instead of drawing knives and guns, he’d watched them morph, skin stretching and flexing, bones popping, elongating. He’d got on the bike fast—damn fast. Youkai! Bad shit! He wasn’t sticking around to be soul food for a demon. He’d kicked the bike into action, left a treadmark on the one that got in the way, and hadn’t looked back until he crossed the division bridge.
There’d been rumours about the youkai. How they were on the rise, that they were showing themselves more, but he hadn’t taken them seriously. Who had? The youkai were a fairytale parents used to keep their kids away from the crossroads. Fewer than a dozen people in the city had actually seen one, and they were mostly written off as delusional. They’d have been entirely dismissed if it weren’t for the Talon. Them you took them seriously. The Talon were nobody’s idea of a joke. If they so much as suspected you were a demon, you were butchered meat. People stayed clear of them; people told tales about them, more tales than they did of the youkai, if truth were told. ‘Little demons,’ they yelled at their kids, ‘the Talon’ll come and get you.’
The bike was juddering beneath him, as he burned uphill towards the crossroads and the swinging iron gibbets. He could hear them clanking in the wind, swinging on their the iron chains like the pendulum of a horrible alarm clock. Some nights he dreamed about those gibbets, how they’d burst open and the dead would spew out in their thousands to march through the city. Or was it the youkai? Demons or dead, it all added up to a nightmare.
Maybe the crossroads hadn’t been such a good choice. He hadn’t been thinking. Too late to turn back now, and the only side street led straight into the canal. He’d just have to head down into the Cathedral Quarter by way of Steepleside.
He barely noticed them at first; they were so still, just two black pinpoints in a world of grey. He was almost on top of them before their presence actually sank in—two frozen marionettes, waiting, but not for him. The Talon. He caught the eyes of one as the bike rushed between them; they were glassy green and cold, like a doll’s. That’s what the Lux called them, ‘Dolls’ or ‘Talon’s Dolls’, though never to their faces, even the Lux weren’t fools enough for that.
He skidded into the corner, narrowly avoiding the lich-gate and nearly ripping the knee out his leathers. Somehow, he brought the bike to a halt by a stinking gibbet, after a one hundred and eighty degree spin that left a scar of rubber on the road. He was just in time to watch the show. One doll decapitated the leading youkai at the waist and neck as he tried to pass between them.
The other three met similarly gruesome ends, their human skins torn from their filthy youkai hides, dying with shrieks of outrage, and a splatter of coppery dust, which seemed to hang in the air… floating…sinking…
An explosion of pain raked through his shoulders. Blaze jerked forward in shock. There was just the lich-gate behind him, yet something had him, drew threads of fire across his back. It lifted him off the pavement, off the bike, rattling him so hard his eardrums throbbed. He kicked out, fighting the terror. The shadow of its wings darkened the side of the buildings. Great black angel’s wings, their flapping accompanied by a majestic keening from beyond the lich-gate. Something else latched onto his ankle. One of the Dolls had come to him. Her fingers wrapped around his leg just below the knee, gripping and pulling. Tendons and sinews stretched. ‘Get the fuck off me! Get the fuck off.’ He kicked harder, brought his head back sharply into the demon’s face. Something crunched, but the wings just flapped harder, and the keening wail rose an octave.
Steel slashed through the air beside him. It hit the youkai with a gristly smack. Acid burned through the tears in his jacket. Then he was falling… falling in a cloud of crow feathers.
It released the boy, but despite the wound she’d opened in the winged youkai’s side, Asha watched it soar out of reach. The slash should have taken off its legs. Any normal demon would have had the courtesy to die.
Irked, she wiped her blade clean across the front of her long skirt and sheathed it. At least she’d given the bastard something to think about, judging by the thick coppery-stain in the air. The alchemists would be out later with their sheets to collect it, armed with their curses and their shotguns. Blood Rain, they called it: highly desirable, highly addictive and highly illegal. Just a teaspoon on the tongue could make a love slave of anyone. Then there were the other side effects, stamina, insomnia and a desperate hunger for red meat.
She flicked her tongue into the air, then looked down at the boy.
He’d fallen on his front, so she gazed at his spiky blond hair and the torn back of his fringed jacket. Ten lacerations had scored through the leather and flesh, bitten deep into the muscle. His blood was slowly seeping through, but not too fast. He wouldn’t bleed out.
‘Asha.’ Her partner clamped a gloved hand upon her shoulder. ‘Is he all right? We should get off the street.’
Asha bent and dipped a finger into one of his wounds, then licked the blood from her finger. ‘He’ll live. But he’s out cold, and he tastes of youkai.’
Jaku crouched beside her and stroked a hand through the boy’s blond hair. ‘The winged one… I think it was Venom. He’s probably poisoned him. Shame, he’s a pretty one.’ Asha shook her head at the glint in Jaku’s eyes. What was it about her partner and blonds? He was forever mooning over their leader.
‘Let him be.’ She stood and searched the skies, but there was no sign of the youkai. ‘Are you sure it was Venom? That doesn’t make sense. He wouldn’t normally risk exposing himself over a boy.’
‘That would depend on the boy,’ said Jaku, continuing to stroke the boy’s head, though he made a show of checking his pulse when Asha scowled. ‘It was him. He’s distinctive; like a hooded cobra. Besides, how many youkai do you know that routinely show their wings?’
‘The only youkai I know are dust on the breeze.’ Her tone was sour. Normally, she prided herself on doing the job properly. The fact that the demon’s captain had escaped didn’t lessen her annoyance. ‘What do we do with him?’ she asked.
Jaku stood, lifting the boy. ‘We take him to the archive with us. I know you’re a cruel-hearted bitch, but he’s too cute to leave for the Ghost Wind, and Talon will want to know why Venom thinks he’s so important.
The archive was dirty and dark, ingrained with a waxy miasma that permeated the skin. The archivist, Palter Rodgers, had visibly aged since Asha’s last visit eight months earlier. He scowled as they forced their way past him, through aisles of books to a table near the centre of the cavernous building.
Asha swept the papers from the table and Jaku laid the boy on the cleared surface. Finally, she got a proper look at him. Jaku was right. He was pretty. His ash-blond hair was swept back from his face as if blown by the wind and then frozen into spikes. He was far too pale, though, mostly a result of the blood loss, but he looked like the nocturnal type, too.
Asha stroked a fingertip across his brow. A livid bruise was spreading across his cheek and around his right eye-socket. She continued down his nose to his sensual upturned mouth. There was an appealing symmetry about him, that made you want to stare, to touch, explore. He had a cute little flaw, where someone had taken a nick out of his jaw.
‘I saw him first,’ said Jaku, pressing a hand to the boy’s blood drenched t-shirt.
‘I think you’ve been inhaling too much demon dust.’ She slapped his hand away. ‘What’s this?’ She slipped a wallet and a thin leather-bound book from the inner pocket of his jacket. ‘Blaze.’ Her eyes widened sceptically. ‘It says his name’s Blaze, and he’s out of the Birdcage.’ That much had been apparent from the kohl smeared around his eyes and the fringe of crows’ feathers on his jacket. ‘Not much cash, but take a look at this.’ She held out the folio to Jaku. ‘Reckon this might be what they were after? It’s a copy of—’
‘—Kell’s Prophecy!’ Palter Rodgers stretched over the table to snatch it from her hand. ‘In sixty years of working here, I’ve never seen a copy.’ He rubbed irritably at the ox-coloured stain the boy’s injures had caused on the cover. ‘It’s sacrilegious. Far too dangerous for the Talon or any boy to be walking the streets with.’
‘But what is it?’ Asha demanded.
‘The forgotten chapter, the whole truth, ripped out of the Apostle’s Dialogue by some pious fool in the fifteenth century.’
‘Almost certainly what we came looking for, then.’ Jaku held his hand out for the book, but Palter Rodgers clasped it to his body.
‘It stays here,’ he said.
Asha and Jaku exchanged glances.
‘I think Talon might have an opinion on that.’
‘Talon would agree with me. It should be kept locked up.’
‘Nevertheless, we need to know its contents, particularly if they relate to the cycles of demon rule, and the storm that’s brewing. I assume I can at least consult it in your presence?’
Asha patted him on the back. ‘Go find out what we need. I can patch him up on my own.’
Jaku lips formed a grim smile. ‘Let’s find ourselves a quiet spot.’ He rounded Palter Rodgers up like a sheep and herded him down the nearest aisle of books. ‘You can read it to me. I like a good story, and it’ll save me getting my mucky fingers on it.’ He waved his blood stained gloves under Rodgers nose. ‘Shout if you need anything, Asha. And watch him if he comes round.’
Asha waited until they were out of sight, then turned back to her patient. He was stirring slightly, his lips forming silent words. ‘What is it?’ She leant over his body. ‘Tell me.’
Blaze wasn’t quite sure when he became conscious of the motion around him or of the cool press of fingertips against his brow. When he opened his eyes, she was leant across him, her black hair tickling his neck, and her pale features frozen into perfection, like a painted porcelain mask, from which two green eyes peered.
‘Where am I?’ he asked, entranced by her cold loveliness, the slender arch of her eyebrows and her immensely long black eyelashes. She straightened, took a step back from the table upon which he was lying, and raised her palms to indicate the books. ‘You’re in the archive of the Blessed Brethren of the Deceased.’ He could see that now, every surface of the vast hall was littered with books and papers. They stood in piles that reached to the first floor balcony, and from there, almost to the great domed glass roof.
Papers… He felt his pockets for the pamphlet, but it was gone. Lost during the fight or perhaps taken by the youkai or the Talon. ‘Where’s my stuff?’ He swung his legs over the table edge and tried to sit. Pain shot up his spine and tightened like a knotted cord at the back of his neck. He doubled in agony and flopped ungracefully back onto the tabletop.
‘You probably ought to stay flat.’ Her tone was neutral, though there was a soothing burr to it. ‘You’ve lost a lot of blood.’ She reached over to touch him, but he warded her off. Loveliness aside, she was one of the Talon, and he didn’t trust her. ‘Hey, go easy. I’m just trying to help. You need stitches.’
Blaze drew himself up again, and this time managed to stay upright and face her. She was dressed head to foot in a fanciful black outfit that looked more suitable for a fairytale funeral than a sword fight. ‘You’re Talon,’ he said, trying not to focus on the swell of her breasts beneath the veil of lace. ‘You don’t help anyone.’
Anger flickered through the air between them, though her face remained emotionless. ‘The Talon protect people from the youkai.’
‘So you say.’ He watched her fingers curl into a fist. Her hands were pale and delicate, more, he imagined, like those of a pampered courtesan from the Heights than a trained killer, but he’d seen her in action. She was ruthless and precise.
‘If we hadn’t helped you outside, you’d be mincemeat by now.’ She stepped forward, so her long skirt brushed his knees, and he caught a faint scent of her perfume. It was dark, warm, and musky with a slightly sharp base that brought to mind more images of a high-class whore.
‘Maybe,’ he said, just to see her reaction, but he provoked little more than a twitch of her black-painted lips. ‘For all I know you’re the reason they attacked. Outside the Talon, only a handful of people in the entire city have even seen a youkai.’
‘Have seen a youkai, uncloaked,’ she corrected, looking him straight in the eyes. ‘They walk among the populace in the guise of humans, biding their time.’
‘Is that the truth, or a lie you use to ease your conscience after you massacre the innocent?’
Her eyes glittered with pale green fire. ‘No demon is innocent. Maybe I should have let Venom have his way?’
‘Likely I’d be dead.’ He folded his arms across his chest
‘You think so.’ She tilted her head to one side and smiled wickedly. ‘Actually, they like their meat fresh.’ She licked her lips. ‘And preferably, alive and still kicking while they swallow.’
Blaze felt the smile drop from his lips. His limbs felt suddenly heavy, and he sagged, bumping his elbow against the tabletop.
She caught him, her grip firm around his arm and helped him into a chair. ‘Now, do you wish my help, or shall I let you die of blood poisoning?’
‘Depends on the cost.’
‘No cost.’ She stroked a cool hand across his brow, which seemed to soothe some of the angry pain still beating there.
‘Everything comes at a price,’ he said. ‘Name yours or I’ll have to forgo the offer.’
She shook her head clearly bemused. ‘You’re a strange man, Blaze Makaresh. Is this what living in the Birdcage does to you? Makes you wary of accepting any gift?’
He heard her words but a fog seemed to be roiling through his head again. He shut his eyes as he was drawn into its hazy reality.
‘Hey, stay with me.’ She shook him gently. He felt her palms press to his burning cheeks. ‘Blaze,’ she whispered. Her breath was warm against his lips. ‘All right, you can pay me in kisses or eyelashes, your choice.’ Her words seemed to drift to him across a hazy veil. A kiss, that would be nice, he thought.
A kiss before dying…
Her lips were soft against his, just a gentle, chaste pressure and not a real kiss like he wanted. Nevertheless, it seemed to suck him into a realm of clinging shadows, where the only sound was the monotonous drumming of his slowing heartbeat.
‘You’re not blacking out on me.’ Her voice boomed inside his head, startling him into wakefulness. ‘You’re stronger than this. Snap out of it!’ She smacked him hard across the cheek.
Blaze’s eyes snapped open. He rubbed at the stinging mark. She was staring at him, her green eyes blazing and pointy little chin held high. ‘Ouch!’ he complained.
‘Enough crap.’ She grasped the cuff of his leather jacket and tugged. ‘We need to get this stuff off you.’ She peeled his t-shirt from him like a layer of skin. It was completely sodden with blood, and had matted to the flesh in places. White heat lanced through the base of his skull. Lifting his arms was pure agony.
‘Couldn’t you just have cut it off?’
‘I can just see your reaction if I’d pulled a knife on you. Besides, you’ll need something to get home in later.’ She dropped the sodden black shirt to the floor, and then placed his arm around her shoulder. ‘Stand up, please.’ She turned the wooden chair around, and made him straddle it facing its spindly back.
‘I’ll tell you when I’ve cleaned it up.’ She fetched a bowl of water and a cloth, and laid them out on the table along with a suture needle and a strand of silk thread she pulled out of the collar of her dress. ‘Ready?’ She moistened the cloth.
‘I guess.’ Blaze gritted his teeth as she wiped one small patch of crusted blood away from the first laceration, but it didn’t sting as much as he expected. ‘Have you a name?’ He rested his head on his arms.
‘Mmm,’ he said, silently rolling the name across his tongue. ‘So, what made you join the Talon, Asha?’
‘None of your business. Here, suck on this.’ She offered him a square of dun-coloured resin.
‘What is it?’
‘It’ll help with the pain. And it might keep you quiet.’
He nibbled a corner, then chewed the rest. It tasted of soil, and acidic, overripe apples. It didn’t seem to do much for the pain, but it did warm the area around his groin, although, that might have been the delicate brush of her fingers against his skin. He turned his head further, and strained to see her.
Asha wrung out the cloth, turning the water in the bowl red.
‘You’re hesitating.’ He observed, as she dragged her teeth over her bottom lip, so a teasing hint of pink showed through the black.
‘Poison,’ she said. ‘Can’t you smell it?’
Blaze shook his head.
‘Like burned sugar and sex.’
He shook his head more decisively.
Asha peered over her shoulder. Two faint voices were drifting through the layers of dust and parchment from the back of the building. ‘The best way is the old-fashioned way.’ She rested her hands upon his back and leaned close to him, treating him to a second draft of her exotic perfume. ‘To suck it out.’
A grin stretched across his face. She might have been talking about cleaning a wound but that didn’t stop his heart doing a little jump of excitement. ‘Suck away,’ he said, and it sounded dirty.
Asha was tempted to slap him again, except she knew it was the poison talking. Blood Rain wasn’t the only demon-derived drug that drove up the libido. Sexual excess was the demons’ main calling card. It was how they manipulated humans, how they insinuated themselves into the lives and beds of the rich and influential. Considering his wounds and the blood he’d lost, it was no wonder he was succumbing so easily.
She tentatively pressed her tongue to the first of the ten long gashes and licked. The mixture of blood and poison tingled on her tongue. It tasted bitter, like Blood Rain, though the ripple of pleasure that flowed down her throat was sweet. She licked again, her tongue delving into the wound, and the taste became acrid. She spat it out, then returned to the wound and began to suck.
Beneath her, she felt him tremble, and his spine stiffen. ‘Shh!’ she soothed before tending the next gash. Her eyes closed. Her nipples rasped against the inside of her bodice. Desire quickened between her thighs.
‘Drink it down,’ said a voice from her memory. ‘Drink it down, my pretty Asha.’
Cruel fingernails dug half-moon indents into the backs of her thighs. A second hand covered her mons and squeezed. ‘Cast off your restraints. Let go, let go…’
‘Ah!’ She jerked away from him and stood panting, her back to the nearest bookshelf, the taste of youkai poison thick on her tongue. She wiped it off, first with her hands, and then by dragging her tongue across her coat cuff.
The poison shouldn’t have affected her like that. She’d been exposed to enough Blood Rain to build some resistance.
Blaze lifted his head and looked at her. ‘Finished?’ His blue eyes were still bright, but they’d lost some of the feverish glaze.
Asha nodded. ‘I just need to stitch you and put on some wound filler.’ She produced a small pot from somewhere. ‘It’ll help seal the wound and keep it clean.’
He nodded. ‘I’m ready. I feel much better now my head’s cleared a bit.’
Asha threaded the needled, and then pressed another cube of resin on him. ‘Chew. This is gonna hurt.’