The Agency of Interrealm Defensive Operations (the “AIDO”) of Valëtyria—an interdimensional realm of technologically advanced immortals—discovers one of their agents murdered outside their secret earthside headquarters. In response, the AIDO sends KITARA VAKRENADE to infiltrate territory belonging to the enemy realm of Ostragarn. Though posing as a Fallen, a Valëtyrian exile stripped of all supernatural abilities, Kitara’s true bloodline is more sinister. Unknown to all but a few AIDO leaders, she is a daughter of the now-extinct Ninthëvels—a race of reviled immortals who rebelled against Valëtyria thousands of years ago.
STORM AVENSÄEL, a celebrity Valëtyrian searching for purpose, is assigned as Kitara’s handler while she is undercover. He has long resented Kitara, believing her family attacked his mother and left her in an unnatural coma twenty years ago. After Kitara saves his life during an ambush in the field, he starts questioning his understanding of who she is.
Kitara meets BAYLEN, who eventually reveals he works for the Maker. After a few exchanges, he confesses he wants to leave that life. To prove his intentions, he reveals knowing Kitara’s blood-soaked ancestry and more: SHYAMAL, the former ruler of Ostragarn, orchestrated the assassination of Kitara’s Ninthëvel father. Though Shyamal was ultimately overthrown and slain, Ostragarn still assassinated Kitara’s father to preempt the possibility of another Ninthëvel seizing power.
Baylen vows he won’t use his knowledge against her and shares his belief that the key to Ostragarn’s plot against Valëtyria involves the Fallen, despite their lack of power and status. Kitara reluctantly agrees to investigate. Despite his assurances, she fears his exposure of her identity, knowing Ostragarn would assassinate her for hatred of her kind, or the AIDO would execute her to keep her background a secret.
Still unaware of his agent’s origins, Storm’s relationship with Kitara improves after his father’s closest confidant, TYRRELL, shares that he was with Storm’s mother the day she was injured, and Kitara’s family didn’t induce her coma. Storm’s mother tried to save Kitara’s family from assassins, and, unable to aid her when she was injured, Tyrrell has sought a cure ever since to treat her twenty-year condition.
When a vampire claiming to be the Maker ambushes Kitara while proclaiming who—and what—she is, Kitara has no choice but to admit the truth of her Ninthëvel bloodline to Storm. Though shocked and suspicious at first, Storm eventually concludes her father’s actions do not dictate the identity of the woman he’s grown to care for. Their relationship blossoms romantically, and a supernatural mental bond forges between them.
Their research reveals the Ninthëvels’ rebellion against Valëtyria somehow resulted in the creation of the first Fallen. Their search for answers stalls, however, when all other information—and thus the key to thwarting Ostragarn’s plan—is locked behind high-clearance security measures in Myragos: the homeworld of Storm’s mother.
While they’re deciding how to proceed, Baylen reveals he is actually the Maker: displaying reality-warping abilities beyond any supernatural powers of Valëtyrians or even the Myragnar. Still maintaining he is not an enemy, Baylen admits to having killed the AIDO’s former agent upon realizing he was actually an Ostragonian informant, thus preventing the divulgence of further secrets to Ostragarn.
Being half-Myragnar, Storm has access to Myragos, and travels there seeking the key to neutralizing Ostragarn’s plan. He learns Shyamal inadvertently created the first Fallen through his traitorous actions, but it included his own unintended Fall. Storm also discovers that Kitara’s father was not, in fact, a part of the Ninthëvels’ traitorous rebellion, but rather betrayed by Shyamal. Storm and Kitara’s ancestral genetics are the key to Ostragarn’s plan to conquer Valëtyria, making them both targets.
Through their mental bond, Storm sees Kitara drugged by a stranger revealed to be Tyrrell, his father’s friend. Storm frantically tries to return in time to save her, but his father revoked his interrealm travel clearance. Tyrrell kidnaps Kitara, revealing/implying he is Shyamal, not dead after all. As Storm breaks down in helpless despair, he receives a message: after twenty years, his mother has woken from her coma.
Kitara Vakrenade’s rigorous training kept her from broadcasting her unease as she waited in an elegant reception room. She folded her hands neatly in her lap and stilled the urge to bounce her knee, though adrenaline coursed through her in anticipation.
Three days before, when she answered the call offering her the most prestigious assignment possible in her field, she couldn’t refuse. It was the chance of a lifetime, a shot at proving them all wrong, at silencing the naysayers and doubters for good.
The dissenters told her she would never overcome the duplicitous legacy in her blood, so she chose to embrace it.
As a double-agent working for the skeptics.
Despite her honed skillset and obvious talent in the field, Kitara spent most of her adult life at the dead-end outpost in Spokane. High Councilor Cornelius Avensäel wanted it that way. If left up to the High Councilor, she would have languished in Spokane for eternity, and all the dangerous secrets of her bloodline with her.
Apparently, he had been overruled.
Now, Kitara leaned back in her chair as she waited for her transfer through the portal system, facing tall arched windows with views of the supernatural realm where her kind originated. The sky ranged in color from soft pinks to rich purples to royal blues, punctuated by sky-scraping buildings of intricate ivory architecture, some so tall it was impossible to see where they ended. Even in the daylight, a luminous moon hung in the pastel sky, near enough to make out the imperfections on its surface, its breadth taking up a quarter of the sky as its equator dipped below the horizon. Beyond it, other celestial bodies, planets and stars scattered across a galaxy not of black, but of velvety indigo and violet, seeming almost close enough to touch.
Earth’s sky was immensely boring compared to this one. She almost hated to leave it behind. But the realm of Valëtyria was only a brief stop on her journey to the headquarters of the Agency of Interrealm Defense Operations back on Earth.
Historically, Valëtyria did not interact much with Earth, even though the terrestrial dimension overlapped many other realms and served as a sort of thoroughfare between them. But when enemies began using those crossings to infiltrate Valëtyria some centuries ago, the Valëtyrians established the AIDO and built facilities where the realms crossed: both to safeguard the gateways and to access their otherworldly tech directly.
The room where Kitara waited was mostly quiet, save for the hum of tech, the tapping of keys, the occasional phone call, the rustle of feathers. It should have been unmemorable, but Kitara never let her guard down, even in what appeared to be routine normalcy.
Out of habit, she furtively studied the others present. Most wore asymmetrical uniforms of white trimmed in black. A few sported gilded insignia and badges, indicating a higher rank. But all possessed large, feathered wings, ranging in hue from smokey gray to pure white: draped behind chairs, sweeping the floor when they stood, carefully tucked away to avoid knocking anything off desks or countertops.
Kitara’s own wings remained hidden within the confines of her skin. Their color would reveal just how out of place she was here—would prompt the whispers and sidelong glances she’d lived with her entire life. Would reveal she was Fallen.
Most Valëtyrians possessed extraordinary abilities, including the capacity to heal, protect themselves with psionic energy, and even manipulate light or electricity. However, those dark few who committed abhorrent acts against their society were branded as “Fallen:” their supernatural powers violently stripped away. Exiled from Valëtyrian society, they became nothing more than long-lived humans with wings.
Kitara’s mother had been one of those stripped angels, so while Kitara was not completely Fallen herself, that tainted blood still ran through her veins. And it wasn’t even the darkest stain on her bloodline.
Kitara instinctively checked the trigger sheaths under her sleeves, ensuring the mechanism hadn’t shifted during travel, risking one of her blades inadvertently discharging through her hand.
Others might overlook her mother’s Fallen lineage, but her father’s? If they knew, they’d be aghast at the blasphemy of allowing her to step foot within Valëtyria, and at the AIDO for forging her into a weapon meant to protect it.
Fortunately or unfortunately, Kitara was sworn under threat of death to never reveal the truth of her father’s pedigree.
She reminded herself not to fidget, not to bounce her rebellious knee as she replayed the rest of the phone call in her mind. Her predecessor had been murdered, hence the promotion. The news of his death surprised her less than the role she accepted as the top Sleeper at AIDO headquarters in rural New York, hidden from humans and other immortals alike.
Well, it was supposed to be.
While the murder itself didn’t raise alarm, where they discovered him did. The agent’s mangled corpse was dumped outside the border of the hidden facility, sending a very clear message: headquarters’ secret location was a secret no longer.
It was a challenge, and Kitara thrived on challenge.
The new position came with strings in the form of a new handler, but handlers were a regular part of the Sleeper profession so it didn’t faze her at first.
But every light has a shadow, every cloud a silver lining, and cold, icy strife somehow always riddled Kitara’s “silver linings.” The next blow made her second-guess her decision to accept the role.
They told her who it was, and she almost bailed. Gave in. Threw up a white flag to the High Councilor. Cornelius had chosen his weapon well. A double-edged sword, as it were. While not required, handlers and Sleepers often grew close—sometimes more intimate than lovers. Holding the life of someone else in one’s hands would do that.
But how could she trust her life to the son of the High Councilor who’d rather she didn’t exist at all?
Kitara braced her chin on one hand. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. After all, she personified “the sins of the father don’t extend to the child;” maybe Storm Avensäel would too. They’d never met, though she knew of him, of course. Everyone did. As one of only two silverbloods to exist in all the realms, he was renowned for both the color of his blood and his father’s position. Kitara didn’t associate positive memories with them following an encounter with the other silverblood some years ago, but hopefully, Storm would prove superior—in every way.
If he didn’t…
Kitara sighed, suddenly itching to escape Valëtyria and its reminders of her place in it, even if it meant facing the son of the archangel who once threatened to destroy her entire life.
Her bittersweet silver lining.
Her new handler.
She began to bounce her knee.
Kitara stilled, looking up at the winged lieutenant.
“We’re ready for you.”
She nodded and stood to follow the angel through the reception area, past the security gates, and into a circular interior room inlaid with smooth white panels featuring a raised dais in the center. A lacy violet pattern glowed softly on the surface of the platform.
“Someone will meet you on the other side to escort you,” the lieutenant said, reviewing information on the crystalline tablet in her hand. “Any questions?”
Kitara had plenty, but this angel wouldn’t know the answers. “No. Thanks.”
The lieutenant exited the room again, and a smooth white door slid closed behind her with a soft hiss.
“Safe travels, Kitara Vakrenade,” a disembodied AI voice said.
The purple pattern beneath her feet glowed blue, and Kitara braced herself as her vision darkened. The sudden pressure threatened to steal her breath as she was compressed, spun, and pulled between dimensions and space. The sensation lasted only a fraction of a second.
She could breathe again. The bright blue pattern on the dais faded to a soft turquoise glow, reflecting off a silver chamber now, rather than white. An air of cool sterility filled the room, which contained enough space to hold the dais and a handful of steps leading to an imposing metal door. Kitara wasted no time stepping off the platform. The door opened with a lack of sound that belied its size.
Someone waited in the anterior room to greet her. Kitara had only a moment to register a set of black feathers and a head of dark curly hair before she was seized in a hug, much to the amusement of the officers on this side of the gateway. “Kitara!”
“Hey, Dev,” Kitara said with a laugh, giving her shorter friend a quick spin. “I didn’t know you would be here!”
While relegated to Spokane, Kitara found an unexpected sliver of solace in that tiny corner of the realms, in the form of a surrogate sister. With warm hugs and an infectious cheerfulness that could bring joy to even the gloomiest of souls, Devika Lyven slowly wormed her way into Kitara’s heart. But several months ago, Devika received her own job offer of a lifetime: a chance at a future beyond Spokane as headquarters’ newest Historian—the profession responsible for researching and cataloging their extensive history. Kitara refused to let her turn it down.
The tall chunky soles of Devika’s black combat boots helped offset the height discrepancy as she stood back to observe her friend. “When you told me you were coming, I insisted that Kenric let me meet you.”
Kitara smiled at the mention of headquarters’ Commander. Though he led the AIDO’s principal facility now, Kenric Kasama also came from humbler beginnings. Almost a decade had passed since he, Devika, and Kitara had been stationed in Spokane together, but to the ageless, ten years was only a drop in the vast ocean of time—and he often acted as a brother to them both.
Devika hugged her again. “Oh my god, I just can’t believe you’re here!”
“Now you can stop worrying so much and focus on your job,” Kitara teased.
“Sorry, it was just…such a change, you know? I hated leaving you behind.” Devika gestured for her to walk with her. “I’m supposed to take you to Kenric’s office immediately, but…we can take the long way, right?”
Kitara chuckled. “Sure.” She fell in a half-step behind her friend: close enough to converse, far enough to follow. “And you didn’t leave me behind, Dev. You got an amazing job offer which I never would have let you turn down.”
“But now it doesn’t matter, because you’re here.”
Kitara couldn’t help smiling at her enthusiasm. “For now.”
They exited the portal’s security office, traversing a narrow, windowless breezeway. The lack of windows in the hallways did nothing to diminish the beauty of the architecture. Gilt rococo-adorned arches decorating doorways served in place of windows. The halls boasted white marble tile flooring. Paneled ceiling lights radiated something like daylight, though Kitara knew true sunlight couldn’t reach this place.
Now out of earshot of the immortals manning the portal chamber, Devika’s expression sobered. “What will you be doing?”
As Kitara’s best friend and adopted sister, Devika was one of few immortals authorized to know Kitara was a Sleeper.
“I’m not sure yet,” Kitara admitted. “I imagine that’s why Kenric wants to see me right away, and why they made the security exception to let me portal in through Valëtyria.”
Devika scoffed. “I met the head Engineer. Alasdair. He insisted on it when Kenric agreed I could be here when you arrived. It’s ridiculous that most of us have to come in a plane and then take a car to get here. I told him so.”
Kitara laughed outright. Engineers managed technological defense and most other systems, which meant her friend had admonished the highest-ranked security officer in the AIDO. “Of course you did.”
They paused outside a locked door, and the Historian pressed her palm to a scanner beside it. A light blinked green, and the lock disengaged. “It’s even more ridiculous that he wouldn’t grant the exception to let you portal straight from Spokane. I didn’t tell him that part, though.”
“Probably wise. Is he a technopath?”
Devika nodded. “I guess he’s a good one, since he’s head Engineer.”
Technopathy—the power to communicate with and manipulate technology—was a highly sought skill amongst the Engineers.
“So what did he say when you told him what you thought of his protocols?”
Devika rolled her eyes. “Something about multi-dimensional auratic compatibility between locations without a direct uplink to Valëtyria, like Spokane.”
“Sounds reasonable to me.” Kitara’s voice carried a note of sarcasm as they walked down another hallway of soaring ceilings, ornamental scrollwork, and arched entryways.
“Because your baseline for ‘unreasonable’ is skewed,” Devika said, casting a sidelong look at her friend with a loaded pause. “Is he still going to work with you?”
Kitara didn’t need to ask who she meant. “There’s nothing to be done, apparently. Cornelius put him forward, the High Council agreed, and so did he.”
Cornelius was the thirteenth member and overseer of Valëtyria’s High Council, comprised of the leaders of the AIDO’s twelve official professions. Some professions were military-focused, including Sleepers, while others, like Historians, Engineers, and Technologists, spanned research, infrastructure, and technology. While immortals like the head Engineer, Alasdair, led departments in individual facilities, immortals like the High Engineer supervised the heads of all the AIDO’s facilities.
The High Council members hadn’t visited Spokane much, but they frequented headquarters regularly.
“Have you considered he might report stuff about you to his dad?”
She had. Kitara found an uninteresting spot on the wall to observe as she replied. “Yes. I’ll just have to make sure I don’t give him anything that will pique Cornelius’s interest.”
“Isn’t that…dangerous too? What if you leave out something important?”
Kitara tried not to take that personally, turning her gaze back to her anxious friend. “I won’t. And I plan to check in with Kenric occasionally too, to ensure all the intel is relayed the right way.”
Devika worried her bottom lip with her teeth. “I don’t like it, Kitara.”
“It was that or turn down the promotion.”
“But after everything that happened with Phoenix…”
Kitara’s expression frosted over. “I don’t think Cornelius could get away with something like that again. Too many others on the High Council know now. Apparently, they like Storm well enough to sign off—silverblood or not.”
Devika shook her head. “Well, I don’t like it.”
Kitara shot her a strained half-smile. “Well, you’re here too, which makes me feel better. I know you’ll speak up if you notice anything suspicious.”
“Hell yeah, I will. And I’ll give Storm a royal ass-chewing if he messes this up for you.” Her grin was feral. “Silverblood or not.”
“That’s why you’re my best friend.” Kitara returned the smile, more genuinely now. “We’ll video chat like we planned. And if I come in for debriefings, I’ll probably get to see you then.”
“I’ll still worry about you.”
Kitara took her friend’s hand. “I work a dangerous job, but I’m always careful.”
“If you need me to help you with anything, let me know, okay?” Devika squeezed her fingers.
“Will you have time?” Kitara asked. “And don’t give me a knee-jerk ‘yes.’ I know you. Seriously, consider your workload for a minute.”
“I think so.” The Historian pulled her hand free to admit them through another locked corridor. “I’m working on some genetic research a Healer needs, and Philemon wants me to focus on book restoration. He was thrilled when I told him restoration was my specialty.”
“I bet. Well, I’ll try not to lean on you too much, if I can help it,” Kitara said.
Devika slowed to a stop at the end of the next hall. “Kenric’s office is there.” She gestured to a door. “I’m not supposed to actually go in with you. Protocol, and all.”
The tiny hairs on the back of Kitara’s neck rose as a whisper of something she couldn’t identify brushed over her skin. “Right.” She extended her arms for a hug. “I’m sorry we don’t have more time.”
“I’m just happy I got to see you at all,” Devika asserted, returning the embrace. “Be careful,” she murmured into Kitara’s shirt. “You’ll video-chat with me? When you’re settled?”
“Whenever you want, promise.”
Devika stepped back, swiped at her suspiciously bright eyes, then disappeared back down the hall.
Kitara turned and took a deep, steadying breath. Her pulse hammered in her ears as anxiety—or anticipation, she wasn’t sure—put every nerve on high alert. Moment of truth.
Bracing herself, she knocked. A muffled voice bade her enter, and she pushed the door open. Two immortals looked up from their grim conversation, slowly rising to their feet as she walked in.
The first Kitara recognized on sight. Commander Kenric Kasama’s crisp white and black uniform gilded with gold accents identified his rank, everything pressed and polished to perfection, except for the uncharacteristic stubble dusting his normally clean-shaven jaw. He offered her a half-smile as she walked in. It didn’t quite reach his eyes, which reflected un-immortal-like weariness—their redness accentuating his heterochromatic blue and green irises.
Despite his familiarity, Kenric might as well have been one of the ornamental chairs in his office for all he compared to the second.
Thick ebony hair swept back from a broad forehead in styled waves, while his defined jaw and angular features gave him a rugged, handsome appearance. He wore an immaculate white uniform, tailored to hug the contours of his muscular frame, which accentuated his broad chest and powerful arms.
Kitara swallowed. All Valëtyrians possessed an unearthly beauty, but his surpassed even that of the typical immortal. Of course, he wasn’t just any typical immortal.
An invisible arc of awareness passed between them, and Kitara’s stomach dropped. He sucked all the air out of the space, until there was nothing and no one in existence except him. On cue, a pair of silver eyes met Kitara’s own, the irises showcasing his prominence. Like frozen mercury, they were cold as ice and brilliant as the sun, mesmerizing, breathtaking…and dangerous.
Storm Avensäel, son of the High Councilor and legendary silverblood. Her new handler.
And if those eyes could kill, she’d be bleeding to death on the white marble floor.
Storm Avensäel had only a second to process her entry before her aura crashed into him.
Most immortal auras were background noise, a sort of sixth sense indicating someone inhuman. But hers…had her aura been corporeal, the power of it would have brought him to his knees. As it was, his breath caught as it flooded his senses. It eclipsed everything else. In that moment, Storm’s awareness shrank to nothing more than the tall blonde immortal entering the room.
Her blonde hair was pulled back, and she wore tactical pants and a midriff-baring tee beneath a casual, loose button-up. Despite her deceptively relaxed posture, he knew she was one of the deadliest immortals in the AIDO and despised her all the more for it. Even if the impact of her aura had momentarily turned his world upside-down.
When Storm requested an assignment beyond serving as a glorified mascot, he never expected his father to return with this proposal. He almost turned it down, until he realized the High Councilor had never expected him to take the offer. So, much to his father’s chagrin, Storm agreed.
It was a drastic departure from Storm’s current role, which made him the ideal candidate. No one expected him to do more than entertain the masses, so no one would question what he really did for the AIDO.
It hadn’t stopped him from second-guessing his decision for the last three days.
Either oblivious or choosing to ignore the tension crackling in the room, Kenric gestured in Kitara’s direction. “Major, this is Kitara Vakrenade. Kitara, this is Major Avensäel, your new handler.”
He introduced them as if they hadn’t heard of each other before. Like they didn’t know one was at least partially responsible for destroying the family of the other.
Once again, Storm considered refusing this entire assignment.
And once again, his father’s fierce blue eyes came to mind. The High Councilor’s determination to keep Storm out of the field irritated him more than the resounding aura of an immortal he despised.
He managed a stiff nod. “Kitara.”
“Major.” The reply was quick and detached.
Unfazed by the frosty exchange, the Commander continued. “I know this arrangement is unorthodox, but I expect nothing less than professionalism and cooperation.”
Storm didn’t know if it was a rebuke or a warning.
Kitara hadn’t looked away yet. The vibrant green of her eyes burned with intensity, unwavering, as if she searched for something hidden deep within him. Whatever thoughts spun through her head, she hid them well.
Because Sleepers lied for a living.
And now he would too.
The Commander gestured for the two of them to sit in the chairs across the desk from him, settling into a wingback chair behind it. Kitara finally broke his gaze, and Storm couldn’t help his sharp exhale. Her eyes were like bottomless pools of emerald, and he’d been drowning.
Kitara sat down, and he didn’t miss the subtle way her body angled toward him, like she didn’t want to risk letting him out of her sight.
With a slight scowl, Storm took his own seat across from the Commander, whose eyes flicked between them, as if suddenly questioning the wisdom of this plan.
He wasn’t the only one.
Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. As long as he didn’t have to feel that damn aura constantly, which lingered in the room like perfume. Storm rubbed one arm absentmindedly. A ghostly sensation settled over his skin, almost imperceptible, like the brush of a butterfly’s wing. It made him twitch.
Whatever his thoughts, Kenric kept them to himself as he slid a pair of twin folders across the desk. A golden griffin crest glinted on the navy exteriors. “Landon’s file,” he explained as they each took one. “Careful, it’s…not pretty.”
“It never is,” Kitara murmured.
Her low voice held an air of seductive power, a razor blade dripping with honey, hinting at secrets and danger. Storm could imagine Ostragonians baring all their secrets at the sound of that voice. Even he, almost unable to tolerate occupying the same space, felt the alluring caress of it.
As they flipped the folders open, Storm throttled down his revulsion at the report, which included photos, of how the previous Sleeper was tortured and killed. He quickly turned the page. Kitara, for her part, remained impassive: reviewing the contents like she saw violence of this nature every day.
Who knows, maybe she did.
“What happened?” she asked as she perused.
“It’s unclear,” Kenric admitted. “We didn’t have any reason to think he was compromised. He’d been in and out for…god, years.”
“Do we know who’s responsible?” Storm asked, earning himself a sidelong glance from the Sleeper. He ignored her.
“Someone in Ostragarn for sure, but the who…” Kenric ran a hand through his hair. “That’s the bigger question.”
Unlike Valëtyria, Ostragarn was an acerbic and inhospitable realm, from its climate to its inhabitants. Another dimension that overlapped Earth, Ostragarn’s leaders were Valëtyria’s self-proclaimed adversaries, and the primary catalyst for the AIDO’s creation.
Kitara looked up. “Was there a demand? Anything?”
The Commander shook his head. “We think Landon found information they didn’t want us to know.”
Storm leaned forward. “Which was?”
“Something new they’re building: a weapon.”
“What kind of weapon?” Storm and Kitara asked in unison, exchanging glances when they did.
“Look at the last page of the file,” Kenric instructed. “The end of his notes don’t make much sense, but the emphasized parts…”
They didn’t need to ask what to look for; the words jumped off the page in bold ink.
Metaphysical. Not technology. NO DEFENSE.
The former Sleeper had written the words and underlined them, scribbling the last two with such vehemence he tore the paper.
The current Sleeper frowned at the scrawl. “‘No defense?’ What does that mean?”
Kenric’s brows drew together over his intense dual-colored eyes. “We found a dead drop after he was killed. He must have left it a day or so before he died. Whatever it is, Landon seemed convinced we can’t counteract it. We’ve had our share of conflict with other realms, but this one…this one has the High Council in a panic. Whatever they know, the Councilors believe if Ostragarn successfully develops and uses this weapon against us, Valëtyria will fall.”
“Stars…” Storm breathed despite himself. He thought he heard Kitara suck in a sharp breath at the mention of Valëtyria’s governing body.
“What’s the assignment?” Kitara asked.
Storm had to admire her directness.
Kenric handed over another pair of navy folders. “Locate an immortal called ‘the Maker,’” he replied. “He’s said to be the most well-connected immortal in Ostragarn, but we can’t find anything useful to identify him. We think he’s behind this newest initiative, considering his coordinated efforts against us before, but this is…another level.”
Storm glanced through the files, which revealed scant information about the immortal’s identity, but contained quite a few documents regarding his exploits. His eyes widened. “He gained control of the AIDO in Tokyo?”
Kitara frowned as she looked up at the Commander, who nodded in response. “Temporarily, about a year or two ago. We had to scrub the whole place after we took it back, and there’s still legislation pending about whether to demolish it and start over.”
Storm flipped through a few more pages, his expression growing increasingly incredulous. “The Czech Republic, France, Bolivia…”
“Guy gets around,” Kitara noted.
“He single-handedly dismantled an entire Sleeper network on the West Coast once too. And yet, no one has any idea who he is.” Kenric laced his fingers on his desk. “The assignment is this: find and apprehend him. If we can’t do that, then we sabotage whatever they’re doing in whatever way we can. Major, you’ll be driving Kitara to her new apartment in the city, under the guise of traveling to your speaking engagement in New Haven. Kitara, your things should be delivered by tonight, but you’ll need to go up as soon as possible.”
Kitara nodded. “Where am I headed?”
“A stretch of Ostragonian establishments nicknamed ‘the dark strip,’” the Commander replied. “Your apartment is a few miles away.”
At Valëtyrian intersections with Earth, the AIDO built their facilities. At Ostragarn’s crossings, however, Ostragonians erected entertainment venues designed to entice humans with their supernatural glamor. Even dark immortals, excepting Ostragarn’s mutated demon brood, intrigued and seduced humankind with otherworldly beauty.
Humans served as nothing more than fodder: a source of sustenance or power. By establishing the AIDO on Earth, Valëtyria indirectly protected them from Ostragonian predators when possible. The less power available to Ostragarn, even in the form of mortal blood, the better.
“Do you have a plan for infiltration yet?” Kenric wanted to know.
Kitara balanced an ankle on her opposite knee and cleared her throat. “Masquerading as Fallen.”
The faint furrow of a troubled line appeared between Kenric’s eyebrows, but his body language didn’t betray his thoughts. “The Fallen are the lowest caste in Ostragarn. You don’t think that will give you trouble?”
“No. If anything, they’ll underestimate me.”
“What about Valorn?” Kenric suggested. His voice, though measured and carefully controlled, hinted at a deeper emotion beneath the surface. Storm couldn’t decipher what it meant.
Kitara’s voice, professional to a fault until now, softened. She clearly knew something Storm didn’t. “I can’t pass as Valorn: not without black wings.”
Once cast out of Valëtyria, the Fallen’s exile inevitably led them to Ostragarn. Desperate to regain anything like the extraordinary abilities they once possessed, the powerless Fallen learned that consuming blood—mortal or immortal alike—granted temporary power. But the act came at a cost, devolving them into the black-winged Valorn.
When Kenric nodded, almost in resignation, Storm spared another glance at the Sleeper to his left. There was something between the two of them: he just couldn’t put his finger on what. It occurred to him that the Commander hadn’t introduced himself to the Sleeper when introducing her and Storm.
They’d met before.
Before he had time to dwell on it, Kenric moved on.
He reminded them of their roles: handler was a loose term for Storm’s role. Kenric expected Kitara to take point in the partnership regularly. Storm’s responsibility lay in collecting her reports and checking in at regular intervals to ensure her cover remained intact, and to let the right people know if something went off the rails. They’d rarely speak face to face; most communication would occur via encrypted messages or phone calls. The Commander explained the relationship in such lengthy detail, Storm suspected the man knew more about Kitara’s past than he let on, reinforcing his belief that their relationship went further than he originally thought.
When he finished, Kenric leaned back in his chair, observing them with a modicum of uncertainty. “Should I anticipate any trouble?”
“Not from me.” Kitara turned her piercing eyes back to Storm, daring him to contradict her.
“Of course not,” Storm said. “As far as I’m concerned, we’ll work the same way, in the city or not.”
For a beat, Kitara didn’t react, weighing his response. Then she nodded, almost reluctant, like she hated the idea of agreeing with him. “I’ll only be doing recon tonight,” she said, but she looked at Kenric again.
Kenric jerked his chin in Storm’s direction. “Share your findings with your handler.”
Kitara bristled, but she nodded again.
“Major, you know where the SUV is. Go bring it around and I’ll escort Kitara out momentarily.”
Storm couldn’t escape the room fast enough: the feeling of her aura threatened to drive him mad. He saluted the Commander and left the office.
Kitara and Kenric exchanged a long look after he’d gone.
“Could have been worse,” Kenric finally said, making Kitara snort.
“Sure, if by worse you mean he could have killed me on the spot.”
The Commander pursed his lips. “It wasn’t that bad.”
“Did you see the way he looked at me, K? How am I supposed to work with that?”
“Kitara, if I thought he would put you at risk, I would have sooner canceled your transfer than let him endanger you,” the Commander said. “But he’s been here for some years now, and I’ve gotten a sense of who he is and how he works. He wants a job that means something beyond the color of his blood.”
“He probably only got the job because he’s a silverblood,” Kitara pointed out. “That and who his father is. Has he been a handler before?”
“No, but I’m hoping you’ll give him some pointers. It’s not unusual to partner new handlers with veteran Sleepers. If he does screw up in a major way, you’ll have grounds to request a change. He’s got as much riding on this as you do.”
“Will his screw-up get him killed?” She arched an eyebrow. When the Commander didn’t answer, she shook her head. “I thought not. I’ll work with him, Kenric, but trusting him might take some time. You need to know that now. I’ll send my reports and do what the job requires, but if things go sideways, it’s you I’ll be calling.”
He sighed, dipping his head a little. “I’ll accept that. As long as you make a good-faith effort.” He checked the comm unit on his wrist. “Come on. It’s time to get you into the field.”
Before they left his office, Kitara stopped him to give him a hug. “It’s really good to see you, K.”
He returned the embrace. “You too, Kitara. I wish it was under better circumstances.”
“Maybe someday, huh?”
He snorted, his half-smile feigned. “Maybe.”
Kitara followed him through a series of twisting hallways until they stepped out of the building to the SUV waiting in the parking lot.
Storm sat in the driver’s seat, appearing unhappy with his current role as her chauffeur. His fingers gripped the steering wheel harder than necessary, turning his knuckles white.
“Thanks, Kenric,” Kitara said as he opened the back door for her.
“Be careful,” he warned and handed her a set of keys. “Stay in touch with the Major.”
Kitara’s gaze flickered to the back of Storm’s neck and the tension radiating from his shoulders, then managed a nod.
Kenric shut the door, closing her in with the silverblood and his raging aura. Kitara pocketed the keys and tried to settle in her seat.
“False floor,” Storm said curtly.
Kitara glanced up. “What?”
“They’re going to check what I’m doing, and you’re not part of my story, which means they can’t see you. There’s a false floor. You’ll need to stay in there for a few minutes.”
Kitara balked. “Why don’t you say you’re taking me to the airport?”
“Because you didn’t come through the normal channels.” His voice dripped derision, like he was trying to explain it to a five-year-old.
For the briefest of seconds, Kitara considered telling him what she could do. The secret she hid from everyone, including Kenric and Devika. But one glimpse of those silver eyes in the rearview mirror, still hard with distaste, and she decided to suck it up. She could manage for five minutes. Feeling around under the seat, she found the latch that opened the compartment: most of it hidden beneath the row of seats.
Kitara folded herself into the space, ignoring the skin-crawling claustrophobia that reared its head. “I swear, if you lock me in here…”
“No thanks,” Storm replied dryly. “I’d rather get you out of the car sooner than later.”
She narrowed her eyes through the rearview mirror, then closed herself into the dark space.
In all fairness, Storm had considered locking her inside the storage compartment and leaving her to rot. But he was her handler now, and handlers didn’t kidnap or torture their agents.
Pretend she’s someone else. Anyone else.
Once he was sure she was shut inside the hidden compartment, Storm shifted the SUV into gear and headed for the surface.
Headquarters’ secret location remained so because the breathtaking collection of gleaming white buildings was nestled in a vast underground cavern. Illuminated with stadium lights and surrounded by parking lots brimming with cars, the AIDO’s ten square miles of subterranean structures represented the crown jewel of Valëtyria’s alien outposts: an ironic homage to the realm of flying immortals where it originated.
Atop the grandest building, the words “THE AGENCY OF INTERREALM DEFENSE OPERATIONS” blazed over the same griffin seal hanging in the lobby.
The sun shone high in the sky as Storm pulled the SUV forward into the open air. Soldiers in black body armor patrolled the surface property, framed by massive, feathered wings of every shade between gray and white.
Enclosing the AIDO’s property overhead, a faint shimmer distorted the air: the technological pride of headquarters. The field protected the facility from unregistered immortals—who could not portal through or otherwise cross the supernatural shield—and monitored registered immortal signatures within its borders.
A blond angel signaled Storm to stop, and he rolled his window down. “Hey, Declan. You’re up here earlier than usual.”
Declan Seanste was a Guardian Captain, tasked with the physical security of the AIDO and its inhabitants. He also usually worked the night shift, so Storm had hoped to keep him unaware of his departure. No such luck now.
Declan’s blue-eyed gaze flickered to the tablet in his hand, then back to Storm’s face. “Yeah, Zayne’s coming back from his seminar today, so I swapped a day shift with somebody. He and Alasdair will meet us later.” He scrutinized the silverblood for a moment. “Where do you think you’re going, man? You’re not supposed to leave the property.”
Grinding his teeth and hoping Kitara’s current hiding spot kept her from hearing the assertion, Storm pulled out his phone. “I’ve got special permission for this.” He showed Declan the message and subsequent authorization codes. “A speaking engagement at the outpost in New Haven.”
“No shit,” the angel replied, simultaneously surprised and impressed as he confirmed the codes on his own tablet. “This was what you were doing today?”
“Part of it.”
“Can’t believe your dad’s finally easing up a little. Christ, about time.”
Storm managed a tight smile. The speaking engagement wasn’t a lie: the Commander had colluded with his dad to arrange it so he could drop off Kitara on his way, while also keeping up his facade as the AIDO’s preferred talking head. “Should be back later tonight,” he said. “At least, it was made very clear that if I didn’t get back by tonight, it’s the last time I’d be let out of the facility.”
“Shit, get on your way then, man.” Declan patted the top of the car then signaled to someone up ahead. Storm rolled the window back up and pulled through the gate into the human world.
Once out of sight of the patrols—ground and aerial—and after briefly considering leaving Kitara in the hiding space for the duration of the trip, Storm pulled over. Leaning behind the driver’s seat, with some effort, he managed to pound a fist on the floor, but Kitara was already emerging. Pale-faced, she said nothing as she buckled herself into her seat. Instead, she crossed her arms and made a point to gaze out the window as Storm pulled back onto the road.
He forced himself to address her. “If you’ve got nothing better to do, I’d appreciate your infiltration plan.”
“You’ll get it tonight,” came the reply. “I can’t give you specifics if I don’t have details yet.”
The confined air in the vehicle swam with her aura, intoxicating, almost to the point Storm worried about his ability to drive. “You could at least start one,” he grumbled.
Kitara raised an eyebrow. “Maybe while I waited for you to finish shooting the shit with ‘Declan’ before we left?”
Storm’s eyes narrowed as he glanced in the rearview again. “Captain Seanste is my friend,” he corrected. “And just doing his job.”
“Yeah? Like making sure you weren’t leaving headquarters without permission? I didn’t realize my handler was grounded.”
So much for her not hearing their conversation.
“That’s not your concern.”
Her eyes flashed. “You being confined to the facility is my concern. If I need your help or—”
“If you need help, I will get the right people there to help you. That’s the job.”
He could feel her glare through the back of his headrest. “While you were chatting with your friend, I looked you up.” She brandished her phone. “Major Avensäel, Warrior, Academy graduate with honors and commendations in advanced swordsmanship.”
“Congrats, you can use a search engine,” Storm drawled, his grip tightening on the steering wheel as he threaded through traffic. “Your point?”
“Your creds should make it almost impossible to confine you to HQ. Unless, of course, your dad—”
“I’m not discussing my dad,” he snarled, turning his head enough to catch her eye. “Or anything else besides the job. If you have something to say about the job, I’ll oblige, but otherwise, shut up so I can drive.”
Kitara blinked, frowned, then turned to stare out the window at the passing traffic.
Even Phoenix hadn’t affected her like this. Storm’s aura hummed through her veins, the smell and sound of him doing nothing for her nerves. She’d thought Cornelius assigned him as her handler to screw with her head. Yet Storm didn’t seem to want this any more than she did.
So why had he agreed to it?
That’s not your concern…
She’d considered pushing the matter, because if they were going to work together, she needed to know who she was working with. If she could trust him.
But the hypocrisy of the thought silenced her. Because she might be a Sleeper, but in reality, he could never know the true identity of who he worked with.
Her file stated she was half-Valorn, born to a Fallen mother and Valorn father. As two of the few Netherling offspring in the otherwise Valëtyrian AIDO, Kitara and Devika naturally bonded when they were younger. Valorn by birth, not mutation, Devika was a second-generation Valorn who inherited her parents’ black wings and lack of natural power but did not require the same bloody diet.
If they could find them young enough, the AIDO took in second-generation Valorn and trained them as potential Sleepers, so Devika never questioned Kitara’s half-Valorn backstory.
But Kitara wasn’t Valorn. Not even half. And for her safety, Devika could never know otherwise.
No one could.
Storm had no idea how much she risked, how much he risked, taking on this role. If he’d been anyone other than Cornelius’s son, she might have warned him.
But Cornelius thrust him into this position, same as her. If he was willing to damn his own son to see his vendetta through, who was she to stop him? It wasn’t damning her.
Never had she been so eager to escape the relative safety of the AIDO and head into a world of darkness. Because if the anger radiating from the front seat was any indication, there was more to Cornelius’s manipulation than her discomfort with silverbloods. Storm was somehow involved beyond that, and stars only knew what that ‘beyond’ might be.
Silence descended between them until, after a few miles had passed, Storm’s temper cooled enough so that he no longer felt like throwing the car off the road. He flicked his eyes to her reflection in the rearview mirror. “There’s something else we need to discuss.”
Kitara didn’t respond, arching an eyebrow.
His gaze returned to the road. “Mindspeaking.”
The silence in the car amplified to something oppressive.
After a moment, Kitara answered. “What about it?”
“We need to be able to communicate,” Storm said, his voice controlled. “And the first time requires proximity to establish contact. Better to do it now so we can make contact again once you’re in the field.”
“I don’t mindspeak with anyone,” Kitara said.
Storm glanced in the rearview mirror again, his jaw tightening. Her mistrust permeated the air like a physical force, but it didn’t stop the words coming out of his mouth. “Mindspeaking is part of military training. You’re telling me you don’t know how?”
She glared at him. “Of course I do. I just don’t.”
“What about with the Commander?”
She almost laughed. “Definitely not.”
For a moment, curiosity won out over irritation. “Why? I would think as a Sleeper…”
“Trust me,” Kitara said. “You don’t want to let me rummage about in your head. And I don’t need anyone doing that to me either.”
His brow furrowed. “I wouldn’t—look, we have to work together. Mindspeaking is safest and fastest, especially in a situation where you might be…where there might be complications.”
She eyed him through the rearview mirror, her posture mimicking his own tension. “I said no, Major.”
The muscle in Storm’s jaw ticked. “Then we need an alternative.”
“We have one. It’s called texting.”
“You’re impossible,” he said, giving up.
“Family trait,” she said under her breath, turning to look out the window again.
For the next hour, uncomfortable, tense silence permeated the vehicle as they drove without speaking.
When Storm pulled into the parking lot of the apartment complex that would be her new home for the foreseeable future, Kitara studied her surroundings. The buildings had seen better days. Patches of plaster sloughed off the exteriors, giving them a leprous appearance. The faint smell of a dead animal wafted close by. Winter weather left grass sparse and shriveled. All the first-floor windows were barred. Luckily, her apartment was on the third floor with a fire escape, and the security and structural soundness of that unit far exceeded any of the others.
Kitara hesitated as she reached for the door handle, then turned toward him, her brow furrowed. “One question. Why?”
Storm scowled at her in the rearview mirror. “Why what?”
“Why this? Why me?”
Storm resisted the urge to run a hand through his hair. “Let’s get one thing straight, Kitara,” he replied flatly. “My job is to know your file and the intel you send me. Your job is to gather that intel and report it in a timely manner. That’s it. How I got here isn’t your concern, just how you got here isn’t mine.” He hadn’t intended to say that last part out loud, but it had occupied his mind for so long—how she had landed a position in the most elite profession in the AIDO, despite all the things she’d done.
Ever the professional, Kitara’s expression gave no indication of her thoughts. “Noted,” she replied dryly. “I’ll send you an infiltration report this evening.”
She got out of the car then and shut the door behind her, leaving Storm wondering, not for the last time, if spiting his father was worth working with Kitara Vakrenade.
Kitara escaped from the car and its frosty atmosphere into the equally frigid open air. She detested winter and the icy temperatures it brought.
Taking the steps of the building two at a time, in a rush to escape the cold, Kitara didn’t look back when she heard the SUV’s tires crunching over the asphalt as Storm left her behind.
Kitara let herself in. The glint of blue tech flickered inside the tiny etchings of her new keys. One of several cutting-edge technologies known only to Sleepers, it linked to her aura—she needed to be present for it to open the door. Anyone—or anything—else would find themselves unable to force the lock or the window or any other potential access point.
It was a studio apartment—bare but for the standard AIDO furniture set—bed, desk, armchair, dresser—and a small table with two chairs. Her computer was there, too. She stuck her head through an adjoining door into the tiniest of bathrooms, standing shower, sink, toilet. The kitchenette consisted of a small fridge and sink and one lone counter surface to prep food.
After Kitara confirmed she could connect to the AIDO’s servers, she sent a message to Devika to let her know she had arrived safely, and they would talk tomorrow. She settled on the bed with her laptop and re-read Landon’s files, determined to put Storm out of her mind.
The AIDO reported Landon had entered a sexual relationship with two different Ostragonians—it wasn’t common, but it did happen. Sex was another way to foster relationships, though Kitara hoped it wouldn’t come to that in her case. Most of the time, in Ostragarn’s unoriginally patriarchal realm, luring a male to bed and thus having some kind of hold on him constituted a power move. Landon worked the reverse angle until one of them went nuclear after learning he was seeing someone else.
Devika replied to her earlier message, expressing relief at Kitara’s safe arrival, and agreed to chat the next evening.
The Sleeper tried to keep busy…but Storm invaded her thoughts. What she’d read in his file as she waited to reemerge from her hiding spot in the car surprised her. She’d expected the Major’s rank to be a formality only, a token of his celebrity. But no, he’d been awarded the rank as a result of his exceptional sword skills, something she hadn’t expected.
Silverbloods were the natural-born children of some of the rarest and most powerful immortals: the ethereal silver-haired, silver-eyed Myragnar. Native to Valëtyria’s sister realm, Myragos, the Myragnar were rumored to possess metaphysical abilities beyond those of most Valëtyrians. However, they’d remained hidden in their realm for so long, it wasn’t clear how much of that was truth or hyperbole. Valëtyrians conceived and gestated artificially but the Myragnar procreated naturally, and only rarely. As a result, only a handful of silverbloods existed, and most of them resided in Valëtyria.
Storm’s mother may have been a Myragnar, but his father was also the leader of the High Council. His head should have been the size of the giant seal hanging in the lobby. The thought made Kitara snort.
Then there was his aura. She’d been nearly drunk on it when she got out of the car. At one time, Kitara knew another silverblood, Phoenix, but his aura never felt like this. Phoenix was a wisp of cloud compared to Storm’s hurricane. But the cold steel of Storm’s silver gaze contradicted his alluring warmth, resulting in a jarring dissonance.
Residual pain speared her in the gut. With a sigh, Kitara closed her eyes and leaned back in her desk chair. Once upon a time, silver eyes like his had been her whole world…until they became the stuff of her nightmares. She’d never be able to look at him without seeing that. Not when she knew what they represented, and especially when her judge, jury, and near-executioner after that experience had been Storm’s father.
Kitara wasn’t sure what Storm knew, but Cornelius had certainly told him something to provoke such tangible disdain. Now the question remained: which of her bloody secrets had the High Councilor shared?
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