Gates of Paradise (Blue Bloods #7) by Melissa de la Cruz
PART THE FIRST
ACQUAINTANCE BE FORGOT
Blood and fire are too much for
these restless arms to hold.
- Indigo Girls, "Blood and Fire"
he fireworks burst into a dazzling array of color and sound, shooting a rainbow above the London skyline as the crowd on the Victoria Embankment cheered lustily for the beginning of the new year. Schuyler Van Alen watched the festivities from the balcony of a town house across the way in Primrose Hill, admiring the spectacular view of the London Eye glowing silver and lavender against the night sky, bordered by a glittering framework of blue lights from the row of trees surrounding the park.
"It's almost midnight," said Oliver Hazard-Perry as he appeared with two champagne glasses and handed Schuyler one with a smile. He was wearing a crisp black tuxedo with shiny silver cuff links, and she was struck by his grown-up manliness - the gravity in the way he carried himself, the newfound confidence in his step. His sandy brown hair was combed back from his forehead, his hazel eyes crinkled with a few fine lines. The London girls couldn't get enough of him - his phone beeped constantly with texts to meet them for drinks at Loulou's or to join them for yet another Pimps and Hos party at "Harry's." Oliver had told her all about his love affair in New York, with the witch who had healed his heart and cured his blood of the longing he used to carry as Schuyler's familiar. He was back to being just her human Conduit, but he was still the dear boy who had been her best friend since the beginning.
"Cheers," she said, accepting the glass and clinking it against his. She had agreed to the party despite her mood, and was wearing a black velvet dress that suited her. A mourning dress, she couldn't help but think as she had slipped it over her shoulders earlier that evening. It was cut with a deep V-neck, sleeveless. Against the dark fabric, her clavicles were sharp lines, and she knew her arms looked painfully thin. She was wearing her bonding ring on her left hand, and a silver circlet on her forearm that Oliver had given her as a birthday present years ago.
Her friend appraised her thoughtfully. "You look beautiful and tragic, just the way a heroine should on the eve of battle. Like Joan of Arc in her silver armor."
"Nice of you to say, although I don't feel particularly brave," Schuyler said, fiddling with her new short haircut, a pixie with a bit of a "fringe" - what the Brits called bangs. "But maybe the champagne will help." She smiled even as she felt a strange chill, not from the cold breeze, but from an inexplicable, unshakable feeling that she was being watched. Standing on the terrace, she suddenly felt vulnerable and exposed, but she refrained from telling Oliver. She didn't want him to worry any more than he already did. But still - it was there - the feeling that someone was watching her. Watching and waiting.
She shook off her nerves, and they watched in companionable silence as the fireworks popped and the Ferris wheel spun. In the months they had lived in London they'd had yet to visit any of the usual tourist spots. Not that they were there to have fun - although with Kingsley Martin around, fun was never far from the agenda.
"There you two are!" Kingsley boomed, joining them on the terrace with a jolly crew of guests. The party was his idea - rounding up what was left of the London Coven, rallying the troops for one last hurrah before the end. His color was high, and he was handsome and dashingly disheveled in black tie - the bow unknotted and dangling roguishly from his shirt collar. They had Kingsley to thank for the formal costumes and the vintage champagne. "Let's meet the new year with style!" he'd insisted.
Kingsley and his friends were wearing conical hats and tooting brightly colored horns that shot out crepe paper tongues. He handed Schuyler a sparkler, and she waved it off the balcony, sharing a smile with Oliver as the sparks flew in the night air. The countdown began and they joined the Venators in chanting, "Ten, nine, eight, seven...three two one..."
The noise was deafening as the orchestra blared Beethoven's Fifth and the fireworks exploded with cannon-sized booms.
"Happy New Year," Oliver mouthed.
"HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY!" Kingsley yelled, giving each of his friends a sloppy drunken kiss on the cheek before leading the merry group into a rousing rendition of "Auld Lang Syne" in his rich baritone.
Schuyler exchanged a droll smile with Oliver over Kingsley's antics. For the last few months the two of them had effectively acted as the Venator's jailors, parents, and confidants; and while Schuyler was glad to see him in high spirits, Kingsley could be reckless and she worried about him.
"Happy New Year, Ollie," she said, kissing him lightly on the cheek, remembering past New Year's Eves spent with him, watching the televised Times Square ball drop, perennially uninvited to any of the raucous celebrations that their fellow Duchesne students were famous for throwing. Once upon a time, Schuyler had yearned to experience a really great party - a date for the evening, someone to kiss at midnight, the opportunity to wear a beautiful dress, to look forward to the coming year in the arms of a boy she loved. She gave Oliver's arm an affectionate squeeze even as her heart ached for her true love.
It had been several months since she'd said good-bye to Jack Force in the deserts of Egypt. Another climate, another life, it felt like. She had promised him she would move forward with her quest, with her mission; to forget about love in favor of duty. She remembered their last night together, the way he had held her close, the way they had burrowed into each other, skin against skin, breath against breath, not wanting to separate, not for a moment. What had happened to Jack? Was he even still alive? Had Mimi killed him? Schuyler didn't know. There was no way to know. There had been no sign of either of the Force twins for months, and with the Covens broken and the vampires in virtual retreat - there was no news anywhere.
"I'm sure Jack's alive," Oliver said, reading her thoughts as always.
She didn't answer, just took another sip from her glass.
"Mimi, too - somehow, I don't think either would be able to destroy the other. I just can't see it," he said.
If Jack was dead, she would know it, Schuyler thought. Somehow she would know, wouldn't she? She would feel it. But all she felt was numb. As if a limb had been cut off, as if her heart was so tired of fearing and grieving that it had given up hoping. It was too difficult to think of Jack and what they'd had together. A promise, a bond, a joy, a love for the ages, for the history books....But what was love but pain? It hurt to think of Jack; it distracted her from her work. She had to keep him out of her mind. Had to forget so she could concentrate on the task at hand. Lucifer was moving his pieces across the chessboard. Endgame was upon them. The survival of the vampires was in question. The fight for Heaven and Earth would begin and end with her.
"I know Jack would never lay a hand on her, and I hope you're right about Mimi," she said.
"I know I am," Oliver said staunchly.
He had been defending Mimi for months. Schuyler wasn't as certain as he was of Mimi's change of heart. Mimi had ever been hell-bent on destroying Jack, on seeking revenge, but Oliver was convinced her affections ran elsewhere now. Schuyler wasn't sure how much she believed that Kingsley had supplanted Jack in Mimi Force's heart. Besides, Kingsley never talked about Mimi and whatever happened between them. According to Oliver, Mimi had given up her soul to get him out of the underworld - which was even more troubling, because if Mimi had lost what little soul she'd had - then what did it mean for Jack?
Kingsley was certainly a lot more subdued than Schuyler remembered him - plugging away day after day, buried under Repository books. There had been rumors in the underworld that the demons had discovered a weapon more powerful than the White Fire of Heaven - but if there was such a thing, the Venator had not yet figured it out, and it troubled him that the Blue Bloods remained oblivious to the Dark Prince's malevolent designs. But he certainly wasn't acting as if he were heartbroken - the sly dog was out every night with a different girl on his arm, drinking, carousing, in a whirlwind tour of every nightclub, bar, and pub in the city.
Between Kingsley and Oliver and the skeleton crew of hard-living Venators, their flat - a Venator safe house - was crawling with girls. At first Schuyler had been amused at their bachelor lifestyle - it was such a contrast to her and Jack's quiet domicile as newlyweds in Alexandria. But her patience had been worn thin by the constant parade of lovely "English chippies" or "Chelsea birds" who flocked to their apartment. The bathrooms stunk of perfume, the kitchen counter was always lined with lipstick-stained wineglasses, and once she had even pulled a pair of lacy underthings from beneath the couch pillows.
Schuyler downed her glass and Kingsley appeared at her elbow with a magnum of Bolly. She raised her hand in protest, but it was futile. He filled it to the top until the bubbles overflowed.
"Bingo, Archie, Gig, and the rest of the crew are talking of streaking through the crowd on the Thames - you guys in?" he asked, his blue eyes sparkling with mischief.
"In this weather?" Oliver balked.
"Come on, man, it'll be a hoot!" Kingsley said.
Oliver hesitated. He looked at Schuyler, who shook her head. "You'll be all right?" he asked.
"I'm fine, go ahead. Kingsley's right, it'll be fun." Schuyler smiled at the two of them as they joined the merry crew already shedding clothing at the front door.
Since the three of them had arrived in town, they had accomplished a lot, including identifying the physical location of the Gate of Promise, a closely guarded secret that only they shared. Kingsley, as the highest-ranking among them (Schuyler had not yet achieved a real place in their society), had sent word out to the remaining Covens to come to London and await orders, and little by little, vampires had made their way back into the city. A number of them were at the party that night, but they were anxious and suspicious, and many were talking about returning underground instead. They had no idea what they were waiting for, and Schuyler wasn't yet ready to tell them. Kingsley had cautioned against sharing what they knew of Lucifer's plan - fearing more traitors within their midst.
The Gate of Promise had been established during the glory days of the Roman Empire, when the Order of the Seven was founded, with the discovery of the Paths of the Dead. Allegra Van Alen, or Gabrielle, as was her true name, determined that the Gate of Promise was bisected, and that while one path led to the underworld, another path, a secret path, led back to the paradise they had lost. Charles Force, the archangel Michael, had suspected such a path existed, and it was why he had ordered the paths to be guarded but not destroyed.
So what had happened in Rome? Why had Gabrielle kept her discovery a secret from Michael? It had been during the Crisis in Rome that the Blue Bloods had discovered that the Silver Bloods were hiding among them. Caligula was unmasked as Lucifer, but the archangel Michael had triumphed, sending him back to the underworld. The Silver Bloods were supposed to have been defeated. But instead, they continued to thrive in the shadows, and to menace the Blue Bloods for centuries after, preying on the young, until the present chaos. The victory Michael had won had been temporary at best.
Gabrielle's daughter will bring us salvation. She will lead the Fallen back into Paradise. Her grandfather Lawrence Van Alen had always believed it, and Schuyler knew in her heart that he was right, that she held the key. There was just one problem: she had no idea what that meant. The gate was immovable, as solid as a vault, and immune to every spell and incantation she threw at it. She had been trying for months and failing. Time was running out - the Dark Prince had set his sights on destroying the gate and was gathering his forces for battle to reclaim the throne he had been denied. The Silver Bloods could attack at any moment and take up the rebellion that had been subdued so long ago.
So where do I fit in? How do I fulfill my legacy?
Schuyler was still mulling over the questions when the boys trooped back in, cheeks blazing red from the cold, in various states of undress - Kingsley stripped to the waist, his strong chest heaving with deep breaths as he sprawled down on the couch in his tuxedo pants; Oliver standing in his boxer shorts, holding a flask of whiskey and grinning.
"You didn't get caught? I thought the bobbies were out in force," Schuyler said, taking a seat across from them and crossing her arms, feeling a bit like a schoolmarm tending to her naughty pupils. "Where's everyone else?"
"After-party in Notting Hill," replied Oliver as he threw the flask to Kingsley, who caught it and took a slug.
"Jolly good show," Kingsley said to Oliver. "Didn't think you'd be able to keep up with us."
Oliver smirked, flexing his broad shoulders. All those workouts in the underworld had paid off. "Your age is showing, old man...."
"Anyway - good news, yeah?" Kingsley said. "Tell her."
"Tell me what?" Schuyler asked, fully expecting to hear of some new conquest one of them had made.
"While we were running across the riverbank, we bumped into someone." Oliver grinned.
"Lucas Mendrion, a retired Venator captain. He - ahem - recognized Kingsley."
"Venator tattoo," Kingsley explained with a smirk. "Invisible to the human eye."
Oliver ignored him. "He said he didn't know any vampires were still around - he'd thought everyone had gone underground - he hadn't heard Kingsley had sent out a bulletin, and we got to talking and it turned out he'd been one of Gabrielle's Protectors during Rome."
"Exactly what it means. Venators assigned to her protection," Oliver said.
"And?" Schuyler leaned forward.
"He said he has something important to tell you." Kingsley grinned. "About your mother's legacy."
"You think it might be about the three remaining gatekeepers?" Schuyler asked. She had thought that if anyone knew anything to help them unlock the secret of the Gate of Promise, it would be one of the surviving members of the original order. Three left of the original Order of the Seven - Onbasius, Pantaleum, and Octilla were still alive, their whereabouts unknown.
"Maybe. He said it wasn't safe to talk, so he's coming to meet with us here. Tomorrow. I mean, tonight," Oliver said, looking at the clock, which showed that it was half past three in the morning. "Caught a break finally." He punched Kingsley on the shoulder, and the two of them looked at Schuyler like eager puppies hoping for a treat.
It was just as Jack used to say - one lead was all they needed - one light against the darkness and all would be illuminated. Jack...if only he were here with her now...but Schuyler couldn't continue to dwell on his absence. She had vowed to move forward. There was that feeling again - that odd sensation that she was not alone - but she ignored it. She was just paranoid.
So Schuyler returned their smiles, happy to bestow praise. "Happy New Year indeed."