"A fallen angel escapes Hell and comes to Earth seeking redemption, but can she elude the Hunters?"
Reviewed by Lenore Howard
Posted November 25, 2010
Once one of God's highborn, Astarte is now a fallen angel,
living among fire and demons. Somehow she manages to escape
and arrives on Earth in human form, taking the name Brynna
Malak, hoping to find a way back to God's grace.
Not long after Astarte/Brynna arrives, she's witness to a
murder, and at first thinks it was an attempt on her life
by a Hunter, one of Lucifer's minions. But then she figures
out that someone is assassinating nephilim. These unique
creatures are half-human, half-angel and are always on
Earth for a specific divine purpose. Of course she can't
explain all this to the logical, cynical detective who
suspects she may be involved in the killing.
Eran Redmond is annoyed, baffled and intrigued by this
woman who seems unaffected by seeing a man shot right
before her eyes, and seems to have no home, no job and no
conscience. However, she's able to provide the only leads
in a string of killings that have the city of Chicago on
edge, and soon Redmond realizes she may also be the only
person who can stop the murderer.
I loved Astarte/Brynna, although she's certainly not a
warm, cuddly character. Her awkwardness in her initial
encounters with humans was entertaining, and she's one of
the most kick-ass female characters I've seen in a long
time -- a gunshot wound is little more than a bee sting.
(Think a female version of Castiel on Supernatural.)
She fears virtually nothing in the mortal world, but her
vulnerability shows in her fear of the Hunters and her
tentative friendships with humans. She and Redmond make a
great team. I liked how he gradually came to think outside
his practical-cop box and managed to hold his own with this
supernatural being. There's definitely sexual attraction
between them (partly due to Brynna's triggering lust in
people and partly due to plain old chemistry), but mostly
they develop a strong partnership based on trust and
respect, which is refreshing. This is an exciting new urban
fantasy that will keep you on the edge of your seat and
leave you wanting more.
Learn more about Highborn
Everyone deserves a second chance. Brynna Malak might be
the exception to the rule.
Brynna is a fallen angel trying to earn redemption. She’s
escaped from Hell in search of a new life on Earth, but
Lucifer’s deadliest hunters are hot on her trail. Police
Detective Eran Redmond is after her for a different reason:
he needs Brynna to help him find a serial killer who is
terrifying Chicago...and the trail leads them right to
Hellspawned demons of the most dangerous kind. She’s also
got a very human problem: dealing with a stubborn,
attractive cop who makes her long for everything she knows
she can’t have.
Staying alive long enough to earn a shot at Heaven will mean
breaking some major rules in the mortal world, as she learns
just how complicated and wonderful being human can be. With
so much stacked against her, even Brynna has to wonder if
she’s crazy. But she’s not giving in without a fight.
Not a chance in Hell...
Most of the time, Astarte could smell the souls
Accompanying the heavy fragrance, the tortured
screams below her window endlessly swelled and receded,
strung together like notes pried from a twisted violin and
seething with the burned-sugar scent of agony.
There had been a time, early on, when she had enjoyed
this, had relished the eternal punishment being hammered
upon the spirits of those creatures she and her long-time
lover considered no better than the rats that infested
their earthly world. No, not rats; mice, tiny,
insignificant rodents worthy only of being food for those
beings not much better than themselves. The shrieks had
been musical back then, filled with blood and retribution,
but eventually Astarte found that she barely heard the
sounds—they faded to the background like the constant
buzzing of ever-present insects.
But now the soul cries had changed. They should have
been as natural as the blood that constantly oozed from the
cracks in the walls of her opulent rooms, nothing more
unusual than the eternity of time one second took to pass
to another. But no; lately the undulating waves of
suffering had begun to eat at her, stinging her psyche like
hungry, biting blowflies diving relentlessly at the wounds
of a dying beast. Sometimes she would lash out and silence
the ones within range, her rage and impatience incinerating
them instantly and giving her a few moments—just that—of
heavy, anticipatory silence.
Then, of course, the next shrieks would ripple across
the plains as more souls were pushed forward to fill the
void left by those she had temporarily destroyed. A hundred
or a thousand seconds from now, the same souls she had just
obliterated would be reborn into another cycle of their
punishment and would be heard yet again. If she was lucky,
their wails would fall upon the ears of another rather than
herself, one who would grin rather than flinch at the sound.
But who in Hell was ever lucky?
She turned away from the sill and its vista of
glowing scarlet rivers, a landscape that was dark but
forever well lit. It was an arena filled with abominations
that were always new and unspeakably dangerous, things that
even now continued to surprise her when they crossed her
Everything in Hell watched everything else; it was a
living thing, encompassing all, missing nothing, revealing
everything to everyone. Even so, she neither knew nor cared
who or what watched as her cracked and blackened fingertips
lifted the only thing that remained of what she had once
Its quill still glowed white, crystalline and pure—
even the fires of Hell could not dim the light within its
center. That the edges of the vane were singed and stained
with sulfur and smoke took nothing away from the power it
held over her. The pain she felt each time she held it was
worse than anything a thousand demons could inflict, and
the agony grew deeper and more overwhelming every time.
The feather’s light was an aberration in this room, a
single spot of perfection that was impossible to disguise
or hide in this city of sheer obscenity; as if to prove
that, the screams of the damned would swell to an
unbearable cadence of want if she held it toward the
unshuttered window. That the feather had not been ripped
from her possession was a testament to the fact that even
she, with all her vile, hallowed standing in this place,
was not above being personally tormented. Nothing reminded
an immortal being of its own eternity like an everlasting
memento of that which could never again come to be.
Hell had taught her many things, not the least of
which was how to wait. She had spent countless days, each
like a century, with one elbow resting on her knees as she
contemplated the feather, that glorious relic of the time
before her fall from Grace. As the heat of Hell swirled
inside and outside of her, she had to wonder—
Could she be redeemed?
It was said that nothing and no one could truly
return from Hell, that time ceased to exist once those
colossal black gates closed behind a weeping spirit. Any
chance of salvation or forgiveness was left behind, as
eternally unreachable as the Great Light of God Himself.
But Lucifer was the King of Lies, and what better way to
intensify the punishment of those who were forever
condemned than to take away the one thing that had always
kept even that weakest of creations, mankind, going?
She had it now, but only because she was allowed to,
only because someday she would awaken to find the feather
gone, spirited away as though it had never been. Then her
symbol of hope would be gone, and what would be worse, she
wondered: to have had it and lost it, or to have lost it
and wonder if she had ever truly had it at all?
No, she had to get out of here before it truly was
all gone. Not just the feather itself, but the hope, and
the memories—before the last of those finally fled to leave
her with nothing but a nameless, charred emptiness she no
longer remembered how to satisfy.
A butterfly saved her.
Being what she was, she’d always been partial to
anything with wings, and the fireball missed her only
because she leaned sideways to look at the creature where
it was balanced on the back of a park bench in Chicago’s
Lincoln Park. Two inches wide at best, the butterfly was
orange and yellow, plus a couple more colors that never
registered because of the agony that suddenly ran up one
arm and nearly spread to her neck and jawline.
A Hunter had already found her!
She dropped forward and rolled away from the next
fireball, then scrambled around and behind the bench. A
third fireball, small and white-hot, arced across the space
in which she’d been standing only a second before, then
disintegrated against a massive old tree. It made a sound
like a fast-moving forest fire then instantly burned out,
leaving a smoking, circular scar on the tree’s thick trunk.
On its heels was a scream from a woman who had come around
the bend in the path just in time to see the miniature
Good. Getting humans involved would put the balance
on her side, give her a chance to escape while her pursuer
was forced to hide. He wouldn’t kill her, but it was
glaringly obvious he was going to have fun hurting her
before he dragged her back.
Like she was ever going to let that happen.
It wasn’t difficult to lose herself in the trees off
the path while the Hunter tried to follow without being
seen. Once he made it into the trees, she could hear her
attacker crashing after her, and all it took to leave him
behind was stealth—he was overconfident and noisy; she was
neither. She stayed close to the ground, almost on all
fours, and moved as fast as she could, intentionally
weaving in and out of the populated areas. In these she was
barely more than a blur that made passersby frown and
blink, and when she got to the edge of a body of water next
to a sign that said South Pond, she sucked in air and
slipped into the warm mud- and leaf-choked liquid without
hesitating. She didn’t breathe for a long, long time,
swimming blindly away from the danger and coming up like an
alligator at the water’s edge several hundred feet later,
slow and cautious as only the top of her head and her eyes
broke the surface.
She was safe.
She washed her face and hands at a water fountain in
the park, then pulled clean water through her hair until
she felt reasonably presentable. Water was such an amazing
thing—refreshing and clear, sweet against her skin despite
the chemicals added by the city’s processing system.
Although she hadn’t been able to stay and appreciate it,
she’d even enjoyed the dirty, slightly polluted water in
Quickly moving west and away from the upscale
lakefront area, she found some clothes hanging on a line in
a small backyard. In this world of modern conveniences, she
didn’t think people did that anymore—hang clothes out to
dry—but perhaps this person wanted the smell of fresh air
in the fabric. To her sensitive nose, Chicago’s exhaust-
choked air wasn't truly fresh, but people here were used to
Taking the simple T-shirt and denim jeans and the
worn pair of athletic shoes she found by the back door was
stealing, but she was out of options and that, surely, was
not even a blip on the chart of her many crimes. Besides,
walking around in rags stinking of pond water and streaked
with dried mud wasn’t going to help her accomplish her
task. The stolen jeans fit her tall frame surprisingly
well, although the T-shirt was stretched snugly across her
wide back and small breasts. The fabric was tight around
her biceps, and every movement of her right arm sent a hot
jolt down the flesh burned earlier. The side of her neck
and face were deep pink from the heat spillover, but the
pain was minor; her hair was singed and still smelled of
fire. But she was quite used to that smell.
"That’s a pretty nasty burn on your arm."
The voice came from her right and belonged to a nice-
looking guy in his late thirties and who was a good four
inches taller than her own six foot two. She was in
Walgreens, a store like a twenty-first-century apothecary,
staring at a shelf full of gauze and burn salve and
thinking about the products on display. Her own physical
pain was something she hadn’t had to contemplate in quite
awhile. The last time she’d paid it any mind, human
medicine had been little more than someone waving burning
clumps of herbs over a wound and uttering a meaningless
chant. Was there anything among the brightly colored boxes
on these shelves that would actually soothe the monstrous
stinging on her arm, or would it simply be a waste of time?
Humans were certainly good at that. Because of what she
was, a lot of things-- how to dress, how to talk, even a
culture's customs and slang, just came to her
automatically. But for this, she really had no idea,
simply because she'd never needed such a thing. And in the
meantime, here was this man.
No, not a man.
A child fathered by an angel and born of a human
She could smell him, in the way that only her kind
could. It was an unmistakable thing, deep and alluring, as
though he were surrounded by a mist of clean ocean water.
The scent was so strong and so unexpected that all she
could do for an overly long moment was breathe it in, pull
it deep into her lungs and hold it there while she reveled
in his nearness as his essence spread throughout her body.
A double heartbeat later, she exhaled. Without
conscious thought, her tongue flicked over her lips,
seeking the last trace.
He was looking at her expectantly. The burn—right.
He’d said something about it. "Yeah," she responded at
last. Her voice was low and husky, a bit hoarse. She hadn’t
actually spoken in centuries—it simply hadn’t been
necessary—and she certainly hadn’t carried on a
conversation with a human. Was there something else she
should say about her injuries? What would this nephilim
want to hear?
No, she reminded herself. Don’t think of him as
nephilim, think of him as a man. After all, that’s all he
knows that he is. Just a man.
The guy looked down at her arm again, then his gaze
skimmed along the display. "This," he said, pointing to a
small blue-and-white box labeled Burn Jel. "If you’re not
going to see a doctor, this is your best bet. Wash the
entire area thoroughly every morning and evening, then
spread this stuff on a piece of sterile gauze and scrub off
the newly formed skin until all the dead skin is gone and
the new is growing in evenly. It’s called debriding. It’ll
be painful but it will help it heal and keep scarring to a
She shrugged, then winced as the movement pulled the
fabric of the shirt against her arm. "I don’t care about
that," she said. She wanted to keep him talking, but her
people skills sucked. "It just... hurts."
He nodded. "I’m sure it does, but there’s not much
over the counter that’s going to help the pain. The
ointment has a small amount of lidocaine in it, and you
could take some aspirin along with that. You could also try
one of the burn sprays, but I wouldn’t expect much out of
it, not at that level." He nodded at her arm, then fell
silent for a moment. "You know," he added finally, "that’s
a fresh second-degree burn. I can’t believe you’re not
going to see a doctor."
She managed a small, strained smile. The pain made
that easy, even if normal conversation was a challenge. "I
thought you were one."
He looked momentarily surprised, then shook his
head. "Me? No, I’m an EMT."
She squinted at him. "What does that stand for?"
"Emergency medical technician. I drive an ambulance."
"Next best thing."
"To a doctor?" He shook his head again, this time
more emphatically. "Not at all."
"Well," she said. She hesitated, finally stepping
back from the shelf. She’d run out of creativity and
couldn’t think of anything else to talk about. "Thanks for
His eyes widened. "Wait—aren’t you going to pick up
"Ah." He frowned at her, then his expression
smoothed. She realized instantly that he knew she had no
money. As much as he dealt with people, he was probably an
expert at reading situations. "I’m Toby. What’s your name?"
Name? Of course—she should have one of those, yet she
hadn’t given it a moment’s thought. Giving her real name
was unthinkable, but what should she call herself? Twice
before she had been formally named, and she had used
thousands of others through the millennia; for the first
time, now she could choose her own. A million alternatives
flashed through her brain, letters and languages with
little rhyme or reason, still others with hidden purpose—
"Brynna," she blurted.
All right. That would do.
"Very nice," he said, but it was clear he was
thinking about anything but that as his hand dug in his
back pocket and brought out a worn leather wallet. "Listen,
Brynna. I think you could use a little hel—"
The left side of his head caved in.
There wasn’t much sound with it, just a sort of thump
and a crystalline tinkling that seemed to come afterwards,
almost as an addendum to the actual event. One moment
Brynna was gazing at Toby, whose expression was sincere and
vaguely like that of an eager-to-please child as he
prepared to offer her money; in the next, she was blinking
at a misshapen red hole easily two inches around. It was a
huge and ugly thing that gouted blood down his shoulder;
even more hideous was the way the right side of his skull
had suddenly bulged outward, like someone had forced air
into a balloon then let only part of it out. Toby’s knees
buckled and he turned and fell in front of her, leaving a
pattern of bloody mist and vaporized skin in his wake. He
went down as quickly and gracelessly as a dropped wooden
Brynna scowled and bent over him, but it was a
useless gesture: he’d been gone and sent to glory in the
millisecond between when the bullet had touched his left
temple and slammed against the inside of his skull on the
right. If she touched him, she might be able to see at
least a hint of the duty his destiny had demanded, but why
bother? Whatever task had been assigned to this gentle and
generous nephilim soul would never be completed. Now he was
just an empty husk ready to be returned to the dust of the
earth. "For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou
return," she murmured.
Brynna straightened, then realized someone was
screaming. It was an older man in a white coat behind the
counter at the end of the aisle, and the only reason she
even noticed was because it was so odd to her senses that
there was just one man screaming instead of thousands. He
was frozen in place, his sight locked on her as his mouth
gaped and howled, and he gave no sign of stopping anytime
soon. She sent him a puzzled look, then it hit her that
this must be a terrible shock—most humans simply weren’t
used to blood and death on the same scale she was.
As if to underscore that, something red and moist
dribbled down Brynna’s forehead and slid across the bridge
of her nose. When she reached to flick at it, her fingers
came away washed in the familiar hue of scarlet. Her hair
and face were splattered with Toby’s blood. Nothing new
historically, but it was really kind of admirable, the way
humans had come up with so many deadly methods of killing
one another. Twenty thousand years ago she never would have
thought them capable of much more than desperate hunting
with rudimentary tools, yet look at them now.
Brynna sighed and automatically tuned out the old
man’s screeching as she turned away from the nephilim’s
corpse. There was nothing to be done for Toby now, and she
didn’t have currency or anything else that seemed likely to
be accepted in trade for the medicine the dead EMT had
recommended. She had an idea that Toby’s death was going to
throw off the normal rhythm of things, anyway. From where
she stood, Brynna could see the front window of the
drugstore, or what had been the window before it, too, had
been shattered by the same single bullet that had killed
her nephilim. Glass fragments sparkled in the sun where
they weren’t shadowed by the flapping remains of the
advertising posters that had been taped to the inside
surface. She glanced back at Toby one more time before
starting toward the door. As she did, her gaze skimmed
across the people gathering on the sidewalk; she stopped
short as her eyes locked with those of a single young man’s.
Brown hair cut very short, hazel eyes. Tall and
overly thin, all arms and legs underneath a hip-length
denim jacket that was too heavy for the hot afternoon and
bulky along one side—
The escalating sound of a siren cut through the
jabber of conversation outside. The man jerked his gaze
away from Brynna’s, then backed up and disappeared behind
the gawkers crowding up to the broken window.
Brynna stared at the space where he’d been,
considering, before she quickly left the drugstore. There
was no reason to stay here, and she certainly didn’t want
to be involved in any police investigation. The man
outside, though, he was another story; there was something
about him that intrigued her. Was he also a nephilim?
Nephilim weren't common but they also weren't rare; still,
to see one at the moment of another’s death... that was
certainly on the side of odd.
The people standing on the sidewalk stepped aside to
let her pass, and it took Brynna a couple of seconds to
figure out why—she was bloody, her face and shoulders
splattered with the last moments of Toby’s earthly life.
With her history, it was ridiculously easy for her not to
notice something like this; the sensation, the sticky,
heavy copper scent, the warmth—it was all just one more
part of a bigger normalcy. But that had to change if she
was going to blend into this world. Judging from the
appalled expressions of the onlookers and the way they
backstepped, she really needed to work harder on
remembering her surroundings. It was damned ironic—all the
mayhem, murder, and devastation that mankind had wrought
throughout the ages, yet now people in some of the most
densely populated areas on the globe couldn’t seem to
stomach the sight of blood. How had the human race ever
gotten through the Dark Ages? The Inquisition? The
countless, never-ending wars they waged upon each other?
There wasn’t any place she could wash as she had in
the park, so the best Brynna could do was stay close to the
buildings and duck her head when someone came toward her on
the sidewalk. She didn’t miss that she was essentially
skulking in broad daylight, and she hated having to do
that. Skulking reminded her of the alley demons from
Below, hideously filthy creatures that looked like a cross
between hyenas and Komodo dragons. They prowled the blood-
soaked passageways of the undercities and preyed on fleeing
souls, darting forward to snap and drag a fugitive into the
darkest shadows. There they chewed on the screaming victim
until nothing remained but ragged, twitching puddles of
ripped and half-digested soul-flesh. When the soul finally
died, they moved onto the next and left the ruined spirit
to disintegrate and re-form back at the original location
it had so stupidly thought it had escaped. Hell was nothing
if not repetitious.
Finally Brynna found a service station with outside
restrooms. She waited, and when an older man came out of
one door, she ducked inside; the sarcastic comment he
started to utter died in his throat at the sight of her
With her face and hands cleaned a few minutes later,
Brynna came out and studied her surroundings. There was a
big yellow Shell symbol above her, and on the corner was a
dual street sign that read Halsted on one side and
Wrightwood on the other. The air was heavy with the smell
of gasoline, but Brynna barely noticed. She’d smelled a
The slight breeze tingled the places on her face that
were still wet and Brynna let herself soak in the feeling
for a few seconds. But only that—she wasn’t here, standing
on this particular corner in the city, by happenstance;
even as she’d tried to make herself as invisible as
possible, she’d been tracking the man she’d seen staring at
her through the drugstore’s broken window. There wasn’t
much to go on but the slightest hint of his body odor; by
itself it wouldn’t have been enough—there were too many
other scents in the city that smothered it. But there was
something unnatural mixed with it, something much stronger
and heavier and impossible to miss.
Feeling less conspicuous now that she’d been able to
clean up, Brynna lifted her head to the sunshine as she
turned onto Wrightwood and followed the acrid scent west.
She’d only gone two blocks before her sharp sense of smell
made her turn north onto a heavily tree-lined street called
The thick canopy of leaves from hundred-year-old oaks
made the air cooler and dimmer; instead of heavy summer
sunshine, the sidewalks and buildings were mottled with
thousands of sunlit circles that moved and danced as the
breeze cut through the leaf-laden branches. It gave the old
apartment buildings a softer, more appealing look than they
would have normally had. On an overcast day, Brynna knew
they would appear as they really were: worn and overused
brick and crumbling mortar fronted by cracked sidewalks and
lawns dotted with weeds. Here and there were halfhearted
splashes of color, geraniums, petunias, and marigolds
planted along borders that weren’t particularly straight.
Right now there wasn’t much going on and the street was
devoid of people. That made it easy for Brynna to follow
the stink of gunpowder down a shadowed walkway to where it
ended at the glass-fronted door of an apartment building.
Brynna stood there for a moment, then tried the door.
It was locked, which wasn’t much of a surprise. Humans
always thought they could keep out their version of the Big
Bad with things like flimsy metal fastenings. It was a
useless effort, but she wasn’t here to be the evil anymore,
She was pretty sure her target was a nephilim—he’d
paused at the door and she was almost positive an ocean
scent lingered beneath the caustic smell of gunpowder.
There were names and doorbells along one side but unless he
made a habit of pushing his own bell, she had no way of
sensing which one belonged to him. It was a big building,
at least thirty-six units, but once she was inside, it
would be easy to find the door to his apartment.
Brynna tried the door again. The handle was nothing
but decoration; the lock mechanism above was what kept it
closed. To force it, she’d only have to break the jamb on
"What are you doing down there?"
A sudden gravelly voice somewhere above her head made
Brynna jump. She backed away from the door and looked up to
where a wrinkled old woman with fuzzy, iron-colored hair
was glaring down at her from two stories above. "This is a
Neighborhood Watch area, missy, and you’d better believe I
watch it all the time." The woman’s voice climbed higher
and took on a threatening tone as she squinted at
Brynna. "Never seen you here before."
"I was looking for a friend of mine," Brynna
"Then ring the damned doorbell instead of hanging
around like a hoodlum!"
"I don’t know his last name," Brynna said without
"Then you’re not much of a friend," the woman snapped
back. "You get out of here or I’m calling the police. This
is a Neighborhood Watch area!"
"I heard you the first time," Brynna said. She gave
the door a final look, then shrugged. If the murderer who’d
gone into this building really was a nephilim, he’d been
corrupted, led astray from the path God had set out for
him. It was unlikely Brynna would do herself any good by
finding him anyway. Let the humans deal with the killer in
their midst. She wanted nothing more than to forget he
"I’m warning you!" the elderly woman screeched.
Brynna turned to follow the sidewalk back to the
street. "You have a nice day, ma’am," she said as sweetly
as she could. The woman muttered something cantankerous in
return as Brynna touched her forehead in a gesture of
farewell. A moment later the crone gasped and backed away
from her concrete windowsill.
Brynna grinned darkly. Stone was always so good at
soaking up heat. Maybe that would keep the old bat away
from her Neighborhood Watch area for a while so her fellow
tenants could go in and out in peace.
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