I’d initially planned a more traditional opening to THE TALON & THE BLADE (Grace Bloods #3)– one that more closely linked the book to the series with familiar characters and summed up the action of the last two books. Something like the episode opener of your favorite television series that begins, “Last time on…”
But the deeper I got into Ana and Gregor’s story, the more I realized how much I wanted to narrow the focus the lens on them. Sure there are threads that tie this book to the larger arc (no spoilers, I promise) but I wanted to give their story a chance to shine on its own. I stripped the opening down to a simple establishing scene of Gregor and Isela, hinting at the conflict between them, and in the larger world. It felt like the right thing to do for the book.
Unfortunately, that meant cutting three pages of really fun (I thought) action and dialogue featuring the Prague crew. I’m happy to give you, from the cutting room floor, the opening that almost was. A word of warning, this does contain spoilers for the first two books in the series, so it should be read after DANCER’S FLAME (Grace Bloods #2). This is also largely unedited and may contain a few bumps, gnarls, and continuity issues –think of it like a glimpse into an Alternate Universe.
LAST CHANCE: This contains spoilers for Death’s Dancer & Dancer’s Flame. Read on at your own risk!
CW: Supernatural fight scene with lots ‘o blood and guts. Don’t worry, everybody lives.
Deleted Scene: Alternate Opening
The Talon & The Blade (Grace Bloods #3)
“You appear to have recovered your strength.” The necromancer known as Raymond Nightfeather appeared on the enormous wall screen.
Recovered? Azrael only wished it had been that simple. What was happening to him was something else entirely. Something he wasn’t yet sure he could share with his new ally.
“I am whole,” he said simply. “And what impact has this little shift had on you?”
The face as sharp as a raw cliff face did not smile, but Azrael guessed at a hint of humor in the raised brow. The ‘little shift’ had been more like a seismic upheaval of power. Paolo, one of the seven members of the Allegiance of Necromancers that divided and ruled the world between them had fallen in an attempt to overthrow Azrael. As for his killer–
“You progeny makes a formidable neighbor,” Raymond chuckled.
Azrael smiled. “I had no doubt she would.”
The youngest of the three Necromancers he had shepherded into their full powers, Gus challenged Paolo for his territory and defeated him, ending their rivalry once and for all.
The introduction of a new necromancer to the ranks of the Allegiance always came with a challenge that ended in the death of one. Almost. Azrael remembered his own ascension. Vanka challenged him for the territory he claimed after his mentor succumbed to madness. The savage battle earned him the respect of the rest of the Allegiance but ended draw with his rival. He knew the uneasy stalemate would not hold forever–but he had not anticipated Vanka to move against him again so soon, this time working with Paolo.
Gus would face unforeseen obstacles as Paolo’s old allies and underlings scrambled for a position in the new order. A few had openly resisted her right to rule, in spite of her victory. She moved decisively to purge her council of those who would not bend to her will, root out traitors, force, or win allies. All to preserve the stability for the mortals of her territory: the place she had come from, the people she loved.
He knew the feeling.
Azrael had no doubt that she would succeed, and that would shift the power of the Allegiance overall. One could never have too many allies. He’d avoided reaching out to her, respecting her independence, but he was eager for news.
“Sur American territories prosper,” Raymond said idly of his new neighbor to the south. “Selfishly, I find her desire to live and let live an improvement over her predecessor.”
Paolo may have been grasping for his own advantages but in the end, he had been little more than a powerful pawn in Vanka’s game. One Vanka sacrificed ruthlessly when her plan to bring forth another god failed. Azrael took small satisfaction in knowing the failure came because they overestimated the ability to control the god she summoned–the vengeance the gods sought had been aimed at the small god living in his own Consort.
The human dancer, Isela Vogel had made a living dancing to earn the favor of gods for her clients until she had been dragged into Azrael’s world to help stop an immortal killer. In the process, she’d become the vessel of a small god and
As far as Vanka was concerned, Isela was a sign of Azrael’s weakness and an opportunity seized on it with typical ruthlessness, endangering one of Isela’s closest friends and unleashing an army of golem on his city. A coven of witches, with Isela’s help, protected the city by activating its own guardians. While Gus challenged Paolo, and Vanka propositioned Azrael, one of the gods slipped through and taken Isela. Then Vanka surprised Azrael yet again, with strength and the ability to elude responsibility for the havoc she wreaked.
Azrael followed pursued through the web between their world and his and with the help of a phoenix turned human, he’d brought her back, and closed the path between gods and earth forever.
The city safe, Isela’s family and friends alive, his own guard and allies whole, it had been a victory. But it had also revealed new uncertainties.
The power to manifest himself across great distances brought Azrael to Isela twice, out of the sheer will of his love for her. It was also his first new ability in over 1000 years. Necromancers finished their evolution years after their final powers were acquired. For an Allegiance level necromancer to develop new powers was incalculably dangerous.
He could feel it, under his skin, something straining to emerge. He knew it was responsible in no small part for his new ability. But using it breeched the carefully crafted control he had built and opened him to a place of darkness beyond anything he’d ever known. It found a hold in his Quiet, the place that had always been the source of his restraint.
When he found Isela stolen away, love had made him frantic for her, but something else had delivered him to her across dimensions on the strength of will alone: possession. The cold darkness whispered that Isela belonged to him. His prize. His consort.
Fire had always been his element. He knew its heat in the cells of his body, relished in it. But this was different. It moved like ice – a blistering cold expanding rapidly as it solidified in him. So far he had been able to contain it. Mostly. Like a tongue at a sore tooth, each day he passed his awareness over the cracks, the places where it was beginning to creep through. Like a glacier, would it keep expanding until it fulfilled its growth? And if it tore him apart in the process?
Their escape from the godsrealm had been aided by his own sire, a god that claimed to be one of the original sentient forces in the universe. He remembered looking into what passed for the eyes of the god that claimed him as its offspring and seeing kinship there.
You and I are one and the same, those soulless, unblinking eyes promised. I see you as you are, my son.
If he was honest, it terrified him.
The old god had plans of his own, Azrael was sure of it.
He tore his thoughts back to the man on the screen before him. For the first time, he saw pure emotion cross Raymond Nightfeather’s face. He was troubled. Intrigued, Azrael focused on his words again.
“I hate to ask of you so soon,” Raymond was. “But I could use your help.”
Azrael nodded, it would be a drain on his resources, but he owed Ray a favor. “Anything I can do.”
The sound of blade on blade greeted Azrael before he stepped the sparring arena. None of the eyes fixed on the match moved from the blur of motion in the center of the ring at his arrival, but Lysippe shifted to make room for him on the rail. She kept her eyes on the combatants, the slight tightness in the corners the only indication that she was more than just one of the bystanders.
“How is she doing?” He tilted his head ring.
“See for yourself.” She sounded pleased.
The motion resolved itself under focus. Sand slid and flew beneath the feet of dueling adversaries; twisting toward and away from one another their blades caught glints of sun from the skylights and sent rainbows dancing onto the wall. Azrael knew them both.
One that had fought beside Azrael for almost 200 years; tall and lean, pale skin and jet black hair. Azrael recognized the cunning of an apex predator behind Gregor’s patrician face. His opponent was all muscular, golden brown limbs and the flawless composure of the performer Isela Vogel had been when she had thought she was only human.
Azrael’s first, and his consort.
The long braid of hair whipped behind her like the tail of a striking cobra as she spun out of range of his blade and slid back for another attack. Watching her, arousal cut through Azrael, rousing the primal male: a desire to mark her with his scent and his touch, full of his essence. Now that response was matched with a slow curling heat that bloomed in his chest. The pride that such a woman was his, and the desire to protect and please her outside of their bedroom, rubbed against one another with friction enough to spark flame.
Gregor did not pull his punches, but he landed fewer than anyone expected. Instead, Isela forced him to into a merry chase; just out of reach of his powerful strike. He was power, she was speed. He was strength, she was grace. He fought. She danced. It was no longer clear who led.
In the ring, Gregor saw his opening and pressed her, seeking to rob her of the wicked double blades that held death in the sensuous curves mirroring her own. Lysippe trained her in any number of weapons but the blades were her favorite.
And, Lysippe argued, if she was forced to fight, that meant both Azrael and the Aegis had fallen. “She’ll deserve to have whatever weapon she pleases at hand before the end.”
This pair of blades had been a gift from Tariq, the first of Azrael’s progeny. Tariq watched with narrowed eyes and folded arms from the railing. Grey streaked Tariq’s dark hair and beard and his face bore a decade’s worth of new lines. The aging had halted though. His movement was not as smooth as it once had been, but he no longer seemed in constant pain.
Part of that was due to his new role as the head of Isela’s nascent aegis. Isela had a way of bringing life to the nearly dead without a geas or spell. Even without being bonded to a god, she was grace blooded through and through.
Tariq’s fist clenched with pride at the sight of Gregor’s mistake and a barely audible hiss escaped him.
Gus had held nothing back when she warned Azrael on the tarmac before her plane departed for Sur America. “He loves her.”
Azrael guessed as much. “I know.”
Gus’ eyes went to him quickly in surprise before she masked the emotion. No longer hidden under a cloaking geas, the obsidian-sheened irises revealing her full power.
“How better to guarantee his loyalty,” she said slowly. “And her safety.”
He knew his expression was too savage to be a smile. The Allegiance had seen how far he would go to protect his consort. Let Gus hold no final illusions.
“She is mine,” Azrael said, the words ringing true through every cell of his being.
Of all his progeny, Gus would not be surprised by the ruthless logic that had kept him alive for two thousand years. But he should have counted on her response. After all she of all his progeny she had feared him the least.
“Make him your fodder and your allies will decrease by one.” Her eyes narrowed. “Sire.”
He nodded, accepting the terms of their new relationship. She and the Turkish necromancer had come into their powers together under his tutelage. She might have grown to appreciate Isela, but there would be no mistake where her final loyalty lay.
They’d clasped hands then, eye to eye. Her smile eased to the sardonic, sulking glare of her teenage persona before she released him and stalked toward the jet that would take her to her newly claimed territory across the Atlantic.
Back in the ring, he felt the collective withdrawal of breath when, instead of evading, Isela danced closer to her opponent. From anyone else, it would be a tactical error of the greatest kind. Gregor’s reach was not something to toy with. But for Azrael’s Consort, who carried the blood of witches and wolves, the act held a signature fearlessness. Extended in his strike, Gregor couldn’t move away from her fast enough.
The flash of Damascus steel caught the light then dulled as the blood slicked blade emerged and the second plunged up. Sliced open diagonally from collar to chin, Gregor avoided the killing blow meant for the narrow space between his ribs, but just. The blade skittered off the bone, drawing blood as he caught her wrist.
He twisted the small joint in his hand, even as he collapsed to one knee. Even at this distance, Azrael could hear the faint crackle of bones giving way and see the unnatural angle of her hand. Her blade bounced onto the sand.
Blood sprayed from the vein in Gregor’s neck—the dark burgundy of life’s blood—still he controlled the body behind him with an iron grip. Isela rotated on one heel to strike him across the back of his neck, but pain slowed her response. Gregor yanked and she lost balance. She kicked out as she fell, catching him in the ribs and surprise forced him to release her wrist. They scrabbled for one another in the sand.
Still armed and no less deadly for either wound, Azrael knew this could go on for far more time than he had. He spoke quietly. “Enough.”
Gregor left off his pursuit abruptly. It took Isela a moment longer to realize her opponent had given up, she reclaimed a blade and spun on her haunches, teeth bared. By the time she’d taken Tyler’s hand to rise from the sand, Gregor was already ringside, dabbing at the sealing cut on his neck with a towel Tariq offered.
She rolled her wrist, wincing a little as the bones ground against one another before settling into place.
“Still letting pain distract you,” Gregor muttered.
She grunted assent, wiggling the fingers. She might have a bit of bruising, but the breaks were healed.
“Nothing will cure that but time,” Tariq said. “She’ll learn. When pain brings no consequence, it will become negligible.”
Isela raised her brows at them both. “She’ll be less inclined to cut either of you if you start speaking to her instead of over her.”
Tariq laughed. “You’d take on both of us.”
Isela bared her teeth. “Keep testing me and find out, Dauntless.”
She dismissed them both from her attention with her turn to Azrael. The way her face lit up as their eyes met brought the heat back into his core. Heedless of the sweat—and blood—he dragged her to his chest. His fierce little dancer leaped into his arms, wrapping her legs around his waist.
“Hey lover,” she purred.
She tasted of salt and the copper tinge that meant she’d bitten the inside of her own mouth at some time during the fight. Even in the fitted, lightly armored black pants and a tank top, heat radiated off her body and the exposed bits of skin that touched his were damp with perspiration. It was all he could do not to think of her in his bed, splayed and wet with heat as he drove himself deep into her body.
He growled, parting their mouths. She slid her body along his as she returned her feet to the floor, and he would be a fool not to see the passion that combat had stoked in her gaze. Bloodlust indeed. He forced himself to focus. Any more and he was going to fist his hand in her hair and return them to the sheets they’d left a rumpled mess on rising that afternoon.
With the uncanny clarity in that golden gaze that always made him wonder if she could read his mind—or at least his mood—she grinned and separated herself. The slight curve of her mouth before she turned her attention to cleaning her blades served as a promise to take the matter up later.
“A word,” Azrael said to two closest members of his aegis, but his eyes remained on her as she returned to the ring.
She accepted a congratulatory back pounding from Aleifr, the nordic bruiser, stumbling forward into the sand.
Isela had come back from the realm of the gods changed. No longer was she sharing a body with a god. To escape the grasp of the gods, they had been bonded to the fiber of her cells. There was a sureness in her now, a steadiness and an indefinable strength he knew she had not yet begun to tap. Yet for all that, she remained his Isela: human-hearted.
As a mortal, she had intrigued him. He mistook his initial attraction as solely physical desire. Every inch of her body was graceful lines sculpted by her career as a dancer. It had been centuries since he’d taken a mortal lover, and the sense that though she feared his power she would not bow to him was as much an aphrodisiac as the sight of her moving with inhuman grace. It wasn’t until he’d seen her under pressure that he’d truly appreciated her courage. Wounded and cornered by demons, she placed herself between him and the enemy with nothing but her own trembling muscles and bared teeth.
She’d challenged him as no mortal had. Her trust came only once he’d proven himself. Thus earned, she’d taken his heart as he claimed her body. That she loved him he had no doubt. That it would mean as much to him as it did never ceased to fill him with an aching surprise.
Gregor cleared his throat. “You spoke with Raymond?”
Azrael raised a brow at his second and tore his gaze away from her.
“It’s slaughtered a half dozen so far,” Azrael said after briefing Gregor and Lysippe on the details he’d received from the North American necromancer that morning. “Confirmed. Though the number may be higher as there are several vessels that are yet unaccounted for.”
“And Ray has no idea what it could be.” Neither man missed the edge of disbelief in Lysippe’s voice.
“Or he has a good idea,” Gregor suggested. “And he needs someone to clean up the mess quietly.”
Azrael was inclined to agree. Ray didn’t seem like the kind that would have let it get this far without reason. Something was stopping him from pursuing this himself. He didn’t know the North American Necromancer well enough to make a guess at his psyche, yet. He’d agreed not just out of obligation to repay a debt, but at the opportunity to gain some insight into his potential ally.
“Someone effective,” Lysippe agreed. “But not in his inner circle. His hands can stay clean while taking care of his–problem.”
“When do I leave?” Gregor said bluntly. At Azrael’s silence and Lysippe’s surprise, he unfurled a languorous smile.
“You’ll have to take an oath of fealty,” Azrael said. “At least for the duration.”
Gregor nodded impatiently as if it were all a matter of formalities.
Lysippe shook her head. “I know Ray, I should—”
“Which is exactly why you shouldn’t,” Gregor said, with more gentleness in his voice than Azrael had heard in a long time. “Your history—”
“You question my ability to keep a clear head?” Lysippe rankled, but Gregor laid a hand on her shoulder in an unmistakable gesture of solidarity.
“He’s expecting Azrael to send you,” Gregor said. “This way we surprise him. We’ll learn more when he’s off-center.”
Azrael had reluctantly come to the same conclusion. Lysippe could match Gregor for ruthlessness any day of the week, and her ability to maintain diplomacy made her an even better choice for liaison in a job of this sensitivity. But he would not put her into a place where she might be vulnerable to deception, and he wouldn’t put it past Ray to try. He’d failed her once where Ray was concerned. He would not do it again.
“And I need you here,” Azrael said. “The witches gathering is coming up, and you’re the only one they’ll have in attendance besides Isela. After that business with Circe, I’d rather her not be unaccompanied.”
Lysippe’s lips tightened but she nodded. She’d given up leadership of the Aegis for more freedom centuries ago, but Azrael sensed that was no longer enough. A greater reckoning was coming. For now, he focused on Gregor’s mission.
“I’ll leave for Los Angeles immediately,” Gregor said, closing the discussion. “I could use some sunshine.”
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