• C.A. Lightfoot

The Guardian- Chapter 1-2

Updated: Sep 26

Hello & welcome to the first chapters of The Guardian! This will be updated every Tuesday before six am. The novel is complete, so updates WILL be maintained regularly.


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Title: The Guardian

Rating: 16+

Genre: Urban fantasy, paranormal fantasy

Synopsis: Dover Ellis is part of a garrison of angelic beings who protect innocents from the denizens of Hell. After meeting her newest charge, the energy in Atlanta shifts. Demons begin singing her name, mysterious angels begin to swarm, and betrayal appears around every corner.

Length: 96,000 words


 

Chapter One

There would always be something about a good fight.

Though before the battle began there might be anxiety and doubt, once the adrenaline kicked into gear, none of that mattered. It would become a dance, the steps coming from somewhere almost supernatural, somewhere utterly primal. Sweat and breath and muscle and movement, it would all mesh into a sort of terrifying beauty.

The final ricochet of her favorite sawed-off shotgun echoed through the cavernous warehouse. For one stolen moment, Dover Ellis found herself bemused by a random thought. It seemed that her adversaries were comfortable in any decrepit, abandoned structure, but they always had an affinity for a dingy warehouse.

Though her weapon still smoked in her hand, she slid it into the holster that kept it slung over her back for safekeeping. Thick leather scales she had sewn into her clothing would protect her flesh from overheated metal.

Taking a moment to assess the damage done to her, Dover rolled her shoulders experimentally. The demon got a few good shots in, dinging Dover’s pride more than causing any real damage. Still, demonic venom stung like a bitch and took far longer to heal than plain cuts or bruises. It would begin itching soon, not that she had the time to worry about such things.

Adrenaline had already begun its rapid ebb, replacing the heady rush she enjoyed with that smattering of pain that belied a damn good fight. Three bruised ribs, lacerations on the hip and shoulder, sore muscles, and a decent second degree burn all checked in as present. Dover knew that once she got home, cleaned herself up and infused her body with Light, she wouldn’t even feel the pain anymore.

There were legitimate perks in coming back from the dead.

Her sensitive hearing brought her the heartbeat she sought, along with fear-induced rapid breathing. The young man she had come here to save started out his evening as he might any other, with a trip to a new club with his friends. Of course, he hadn’t expected to get caught in a Lust demon’s web, carted into a nearby alley to be sucked dry of all sexual energy.

Poor guy.

The Calling brought her to the heart of Atlanta to save this young life with a familiar sense of urgency. Typically when need pulled her to a Charge, dawdling wasn’t recommended. Dover found the object of her search almost too late, since the Succubus already had her needle-thin fangs dimpling the flesh of his throat.

From the alley the doomed couple occupied, Dover chased them into the warehouse where she’d done righteous battle against a denizen of Hell. As she passed the remains of the demon – reduced to little more than a pile of oily-ash – Dover homed in her preternatural hearing on the Charge she’d stashed behind a stack of decaying pallets in her quest to keep him from becoming Demon Chow.

Talon marks left by the embodiment of lust began their infernal itching, forcing Dover to shift the weapon on her back to find some sort of relief. She didn’t have time to heal herself, not when the fight had probably resulted in more than a few concerned calls to the Atlanta Police Department. Dover stepped lightly over the remains of her prey, holding her hands up in the classic style meant to convey surrender or the lack of ill-intent.

In the few minutes she had before some nervous beat cop stepped into the warehouse, Dover had to convince her Charge of her angelic origin, persuade him to come with her, and get him the hell out of here. Sure. That would be easy enough, right?

She could only hope her other Charges managed to stay out of trouble this evening.

No matter how many of her Charges were attacked by demons, it always astonished her by the pure audacity of it. Surely they knew a Celestian creature would be immediately inbound. Could the prey really be worth a Guardian breathing down your neck?

Keeping her hands innocently held aloft, Dover approached the pallet stack as slowly as she dared. Her leather-gloved hands held no weapon, though she had them strapped to just about every inch of her person. The last time she’d moved too quickly in front of a frightened Charge, Dover had almost lost a finger. She still wondered where the woman had gotten that knife.

Deanne. Crazy thing.

“Ok!” Dover called out, her voice reverberating between the walls much as the gunshot had. “Everything’s all right now. I’m Dover Ellis and I’m your Guardian.”

A pause in the rapidity of breathing indicated her Charge holding his breath. At least she knew he had heard her. He continued to hide, probably weighing his options. Dover remained motionless, wondering what sort of picture she made to this normal guy having a normal night until all hell broke loose. Literally.

Dover stood at just over five feet tall, with a strong, slender build she didn’t have to work for. Perks linked to rising from the dead included coming back fighting fit, no matter what you’d been up to in life. She wore her cap of midnight black hair cropped at the chin, wavy now with the perspiration of battle. Her eyes, she thought, were a regular shade of light brown, something a romance author might pretty up by calling them ‘amber’. Her features bore clear marks of her mother’s Latin heritage. The pale complexion of her skin, however, belied Dad’s Anglo roots.

For work as a Guardian, she wore what might have been termed a uniform, since it was favored among her kind. Suits and dresses would only get in the way and denim shredded like paper under the talons of demons. Leather kept Hellfire from scorching her flesh and the heavy plates sewn into the material kept the worst talon-damage from ripping her to shreds. The vest she kept loaded with blades and ammunition gave her arms free movement, while belts that crossed her back, waist, and thighs held the assortment of weapons required for her work.

Tattoos ringed both wrists, a looping Celestian script given to her by the angels. They were complimenting images; one for strength and the other for healing.

“Who the hell are you?”

Her Charge spoke as he jumped from behind his pallet hideaway, brandishing a plank of dusty wood he had collected in his haste to find something, anything, with which to defend himself.

Dover shifted one hand, aware that the peace she’d bought with the life of that demon would likely be broken in minutes by human police. She reached for the thin leather thong around her neck, tugged out the small pouch kept in her vest for just such occasions. Pulling Charges out of the fire typically ended in a fire-fight, which meant the person she needed to protect had a penchant for panic by the end of it. They could be a little trigger-happy, best to err on the side of caution.

“I’m Dover Ellis,” she repeated patiently. “I’m your Guardian.”

Her fingers moved the cord around her neck with practiced ease, the vial inching toward her palm. “We need to go. I can explain everything if you put the wood down and come with me.”

“Right.” Her Charge’s voice heavy with sarcasm. “I just watched you kill someone!”

Dover resisted the urge to roll her eyes toward Heaven. Barely.

“Listen, what’s your name?”

“Jon. No ‘h’. Bennett.”

Dover smiled slightly. “Ok, Jon-no-h-Bennett. You just came about two minutes from being eaten alive and it’s so much worse than it sounds.”

She had done this dance a dozen times. No matter how often she said the words, believing them appeared to get no easier.

“Eaten?” Jon asked, taking a cautious step back. “It was just a girl, man.”

Dover raised one midnight brow, swallowing an exasperated sigh as she noted flashing blue and red lights reflecting in the dirty warehouse windows.

“That wasn’t a girl, honey. It was a Succubus, a lust demon. She was going to eat you alive.”

“You’re shittin’ me.” Jon stammered the words, that Deep South accent seeming to deepen with the force of his shock.

“You know something? I really, really hate that phrase.”

Deft fingers moved before her Charge could react, uncorking the Dust bottle and flinging the contents in the general direction of the startled young man. Silver-blue particles drifted through the air, moving toward her Charge as though he’d been magnetized.

His eyes drifted closed within a heartbeat, the 2x4 in his hands dropping with a muted thud a beat before his body gracelessly crumbled to the floor.

Dover dropped her arms with a sigh, shaking her head at his prone form before she tilted her head back to stare up at Heaven.

“You couldn’t give me an easy one just this once?”


His driver’s license told Dover that Jon-no-h Bennett lived in one of the northern suburbs of Atlanta. The alarm on his car keys revealed a sporty red coupe with an immaculate interior and dice dangling from the mirror. Dover managed to half-carry Jon toward the car in the garage without attracting attention thanks to an amulet in her belt that hid her weapons. They appeared to be nothing more than a drunk guy being carried home buy an irritated girlfriend and those were all too common downtown after midnight.

She piloted the coupe, Jon unconscious in the back seat, by following the GPS system with some Nickleback blasting from the speakers. No demonic forces appeared to be giving immediate chase, so Dover allowed herself to relax as the lights of Atlanta faded into the sleepy suburban neighborhoods often found outside of the metropolitan areas.

Within thirty minutes, Dover found herself at a neat little house that appeared unoccupied. She eased the car into the driveway, barely keeping her own exhaustion at bay as she tugged her snoring Charge out of the backseat and carried him inside.

Once Jon was deposited on his sofa, Dover reached for the secondary Dust pouch she kept in the back pocket of her old utility belt. She had at least an hour before Jon awoke, so she would use that time to reorient herself and recover from the Succubus fight. Demons often came knocking after losing prey to a Guardian, hoping to find the angelic creature too weak to defend their Charge.

To ensure they had fair warning of incoming demons, Dover sprinkled a line of Dust along the doorways and windows of the one-story house. Any agent of Hell trying to cross the Dust ended up inhaling it, then wandered around talking to themselves for a solid week. It would be entertaining, of course, but confused demons were hell on the general populace.

Angels got a little twitchy when things like that started happening.

Once she cleaned her skin of blue-black demon blood and pulled her hair back from her face, Dover reloaded her weapons. She still had a good half hour to kill once that was done, so she wandered into the kitchen after covering Jon with a blanket.

Being a Guardian came with a high metabolism which sped healing and meant she could go for days with little to no rest. It also meant she had to eat enough to fill a high school football defense on a regular basis.

Jon-no-h appeared to live a bachelor’s lifestyle. She found no evidence of a partner or children in the house, which was filled with mismatched furnishings and neon signs advertising beer brands. A smattering of photos were arranged haphazardly on the mantle along with a signed baseball and an old Sports Illustrated football phone.

His kitchen was what she might call ‘Dude Clean’. A few dirty dishes filled the sink, and though the countertop appeared mostly clean, the microwave hadn’t seen detergent in about a decade.

She found, as expected, ‘Dude Food’ in the refrigerator. Frozen meals, Miller Light, old takeout boxes, and an expired carton of sweet tea. All the staples of a single man. Shaking her head with amusement, Dover took a box of General Tao’s that looked more recent than the old pizza, snagged a bottle of Miller, and located a mostly-clean spoon from the sink. She stood at the counter to eat, munching on cold Chinese and relishing the burn of icy beer.

It was, probably, bad manners to eat someone else’s food without their permission after scaring the bejesus out of them and knocking them out with supernatural dust, but Dover wasn’t opposed to a bit of rudeness now and then. It could be good for the soul…or something.

Soft rustling began in the living room, likely the blanket being moved aside as her Charge slowly woke. Dover smiled into the box. Dust could knock a man out like nothing else and it woke a person up feeling as though they’d just had the best sleep of their lives. An added bonus to the concoction was that most minor wounds would be healed in the time it took the human to awake. Nifty little thing, Angel Dust.

Not bothering to call out to alert him of her presence, Dover waited. Jon released a long, satisfied groan as he stretched and stood. Any moment, he would shuffle into the kitchen in search of water. Angel Dust wasn’t without side effects and dry mouth wasn’t so bad as far as that list could go.

She continued to lean casually against the counter, one battered combat boot crossed over the other, her sawed-off still strapped to her back. It was an image one might expect out of a summer release action flick.

The look on Jon-no-h’s face, though, was priceless.

“Jesus-tapdancing-on-a-cross!”

The poor man startled so badly at seeing her there, he backed into the wall. A framed photograph boasting a replica of a swimsuit edition poster crashed to the floor, the glass miraculously remaining in place.

“Dover.” The Guardian said around a mouthful of spicy chicken. “Ellis.”

Jon clutched at his chest, breath regaining the rapidity she’d heard in the warehouse as he tried to calm his frenetic heartbeat.

“Right. Dover.”

“It’s your lucky night, Jon.” Dover kept her tone conversational, hoping not to startle him any further while he was still wild about the eyes. “You get to come face to face with your Guardian angel. I’m here to protect you.”

“What? Why?”

The confusion cast a minor shadow over his typically handsome face. Not that Dover would call him overly good looking. If she were to toss a nickel into any club in Atlanta, she chanced the coin bouncing off of at least four men with the same look.

Blue eyes framed by a spray of long lashes under a sweep of dirty blonde hair still stiff with styling gel. His tall, lean frame he had tucked into good Levis with a pair of fairly new Ropers on his feet. The red and white plaid shirt he’d been wearing at the bar remained rumpled from his ride in the backseat, but that did little to dull his appeal.

Attractive as he might be, Dover had seen so many in such similar style that she likened it to staring at a clone.

“Well, it could be a few different reasons or a mixture of them all.” Dover polished off the chicken with another bite. “A- You’re going to do something important someday. B- You’re special to the Host in some way.”

She stopped long enough to raise her hands in a shoddy shooting formation, tossing the empty carton into the nearby garbage can without bobbling.

“Nothin’ but net!” Dover returned her attention to her Charge. “Or, C- you’re destined to be a Guardian.”

“And just what the hell is a Guardian?” Jon asked, finally daring to come a little closer.

“I am,” Dover supplied with a shrug. “I am your Guardian and I’m here to protect you from demons like the one you were sucking face with tonight.”

“Nice.” Jon gave her a quick semblance of a smile.

Before Dover could respond, the sweeping chill of foreboding washed over her, bringing the Guardian instinct typically relaxed in moments such as these suddenly blazing to life. Her Perception reached out as she straightened her spine, searching the immediate area for information. Why did she feel that slow, creeping presence in the back of her mind? The darkness eked into the little kitchen, dimming her power. She stepped closer to her Charge instinctively.

Jon seemed to have noticed the change in her demeanor, stepping back as she approached as though he wasn’t sure to mark her in the friend or foe column. A quick sniff of the air around them brought her the pungent, unmistakable scent of sulfur so powerful it drowned out the Tao’s on her own breath and the musk of Jon’s cologne. The yellowish light reflecting on the glass pane of the kitchen door’s shaded window flickered before it faded, overtaken by darkness too thick for light to penetrate.

“Demon Dark.” Dover swore under her breath, palming her Sig Sauer from the holster at her right. “Shit.”

For a demon to follow a Guardian wasn’t all that uncommon, but having them cloak a structure holding a single angelic being in mystical darkness meant to dampen her power…that never happened. Conjuring such mist took concentration amongst the Legion.

Dover reached out grasping Jon by the open shirt front to tug him closer. Darkness butted up against the door, repelled by the layer of Dust she applied on arrival. She turned slowly, keeping Jon behind her as she surveyed the immediate area. As she did so, another deep inhalation brought her a secondary odor that sent a trickle of fear grasping at her heart.

Before she could properly react to that, a high, keening howl broke the stillness around them. Dover’s grip on Jon’s shirt tightened, balling the material in her fist.

Hellhounds.

While attempting to keep her breathing calm, Dover took a beat to identify the scents. Brimstone and sulfur were common in dealings with demons, but something more menacing lingered under the typical demonic flavors. Dover sampled decay and excrement on the air, as though someone had left a shit-covered corpse rotting in the sun for about a week. The aromatic air could only mean one thing: elite demons.

“Double shit.” Dover whispered. “We’re in trouble.”

“What? Why?” Jon asked, his voice rising with fear. “What the hell is going on?”

“Apparently me killing your date tonight didn’t send a strong enough message.” Dover pulled Jon to her, covering his mouth with her hand. Pure malice seemed to leak into her Perception, forcing her to draw it back as the darkness marred her angelic grace.

Wind began to whistle around them, forcing the red shutters outside to bang against the house. Dover turned her attention to the line of Dust she’d laid at the door, inhaling a shaky breath when she noted grains were sliding out of place slowly.

“Dover?” Jon’s voice was muffled by her fingers, the fear still audible.

“We’re surrounded.” Dover replied.

They could not make it outside to the car. Dover might be able to fight a couple of hounds on her own, the mangy things could be difficult, but she’d taken on worse. Higher demons, though, Dover knew could call on an entire Legion. Even if she could get a call out to the Host for backup, they wouldn’t arrive in time, not through the darkness spreading all over the house. Jon would be chewed up and dragged to hell before she managed to get him to the car.

That left her only one option and the very idea of it scared her to the core.

Standing toe to toe with Jon, Dover dropped the hand covering his mouth as she re-holstered the Sig to her hip. She pulled him as close as she could, peering up into his eyes as he stared down at her with fear reflecting back at her.

“Jon, this is very important. I need you to trust me. Can you do that? Can you trust that I am here to protect you?”

Though there still shone confusion and no small amount of fear in those blue eyes, but Dover found herself astonished to note the faint glimmer of trust there as well.

Jon nodded once, reaching out to take Dover by the waist even as his Adam’s apple bobbed so hard as he swallowed that Dover wondered if he’d hurt himself.

“Yeah. OK.” Jon answered. “What do we do?” Dover pressed herself closer, ammo belts and all, until she and Jon were touching. A glance to the side told her that the Dust had shifted almost enough to allow entry.

“Pull me close,” she replied. “As close as you can. Move only when I move and whatever you do, don’t let go. You’re going to want to let go, Jon, but don’t.”

Dover gave the instructions as she braced herself for what she had to do. Sliding alone required intense concentration and took a great toll on the body. Even after years of training, she avoided the entire thing if she could. Tonight, however, she’d been left with no choice but to Slide and take her Charge along with her.

Nothing could ever be easy.

Jon’s hands found a surer purchase on her hips, fingers looping through her utility belt to give him a better grip. Dover grasped Jon’s belt loops tightly, looking up at him as she tried to fix him in her mind. She wanted to keep him in the forefront of her thoughts, especially given what she was dragging her frightened, exhausted Charge into now.

Still, she had to get him out alive.

“Just hold on to me, Jon.” Dover repeated. “Don’t let go.”

“I won’t.” Jon said. “I promise.”

The wind surrounding the house howled, catching with it the baying of Hounds as they prowled beneath the windows. Dust took to the air as well, tickling Dover’s nose and forcing Jon to the beginnings of drowsiness.

Thrashing sounded at the door, making Jon jump. Dover closed her eyes, drawing on the light that powered angelic beings. She had run out of time, even as the kitchen door crashed open. Dover grasped on a sliver of the kitchen light as it blinked ominously, holding her breath as demonic wind lashed at her viciously. Demonic presence filled her senses. Dover strove to block it out.

With one last breath, Dover threw herself and Jon into the light.


Chapter Two


It would be all too easy to get lost in the Slide.

Moving between worlds on a highway of incandescent light could end with a person losing their soul between Heaven, and Hell, and Earth. Some said that to Slide taunted God and the Devil to battle for your soul, but the angelical beings charged with protecting humanity knew better.

In the Slide, bathed in that awesome light, Heaven ardently called a soul home. The phrase “going into the light” had long been termed by Guardians using the Slide. It beckoned more surely than a siren’s song, that entreating crook of a finger beckoning to be followed.

If a human soul were to give in to the pull of Heaven, their life would end forever. The soul would rise to Judgement without any hope of returning to the human realm.

Guardians trained for years to use the Slide effectively. They had to hone the skill, sharpen their own wits to resist the temptation of Heaven. Most Guardians had a difficult time bringing human souls along for the ride. For Dover, it proved nearly impossible.

As her Perception soared around them, searching for a pool of light that would be a safe haven, Dover adjusted her grip on Jon-no-h’s jeans. She held him to her, mind caught between tethering him to her and searching for a place to land. Pain lanced up through her chest from the effort of both tasks. Dover grit her teeth through it, hoping it might pass.

The Call of Heaven grew louder, pulling at the pain in her chest as though to remind her that in Heaven, pain would be a mere afterthought. Dover shoved the feeling away, keeping the pain her body experienced as she fought to maintain her position in the Slide and her grip on Jon.

To her horror, she felt Jon begin to slip away as they streaked toward the upper suburbs of Atlanta.

His consciousness began to fade, forcing Dover to absorb more of the Slide’s shock to her body in an effort to focus Jon back on her. He wanted to fade away, she knew by the rapturous look on his youthful face. Dover threw her Perception out once more, finding with no small measure of relief, that the haven she sought stood mere moments away.

Don’t.” Dover whispered the commandment through the link she shared with her Charge in the Slide. “Stay with me, Jon. I’m right here.

He slipped further from her, though her fingers had not loosened on the loops of his jeans. She felt it as well, that calling to come home, the release of pain and worry and doubt. All she had to do was let go, release herself back into the nirvana that awaited in Heaven. She’d done her duty, so many times over, surely she would be allowed to go home? Dover tried to shake herself again, realizing almost too late that her own grip on reality slackened .

“Jon!”

She cried out his name, yanking him back by force as she lost the tenuous grip she’d maintained in the Slide.

“Jon! Hold on! I’ve got you. I have you. Jon!

A beat before she lost his soul to Heaven, Dover flung both herself and her Charge out of the light.

They landed in an ungraceful heap, all limbs and gasping breath. Dover ended up beneath her Charge, wincing when his heavier form collided with her torso hard enough that she felt the bones of her rib cage snap beneath him.

“Jesus.”

She heard Jon whisper a prayer, rolling away from her as she tried to catch her breath. Pain still lanced through her chest, and now her rib cage burned. In all her years as a Guardian, Dover had only taken a passenger into the Slide four times. Human souls were so easily led to Heaven, so eager to embrace the end of their human lives to live eternity in God’s grace.

Idiots.

“Dover.”

Her Charge moved closer as Dover fought for breath. She knew the wheeze and rattle under the sternum couldn’t be a good thing, but she could scarcely move. Sliding without a full dose of light, with a passenger, after a fight with that Succubus had done what appeared to be serious damage to her supernatural body. Dover shoved Jon away as he tried to help her stand, rolling onto her belly as she felt her gut roil ominously.

Almost the moment she turned over, Dover’s stomach ejected its contents. Bright crimson stained the carpeting at her feet, thick and sending the aroma of copper into the air.

Worry and fear filled Jon’s voice as he called for her again. Dover shrugged him away again, this time almost violently, as blood continued to erupt from her mouth. She could hardly move, locked on her hands and knees, trembling so violently it was a wonder she hadn’t shaken her eyes from their sockets.

Weakness overtook her. Dover’s arms gave out, sending her crashing to the familiar green carpeting without a sound. Jon got to his knees beside her. Dover could dimly hear him calling her name, even as she closed her eyes to give in to the darkness.


The first breath Dover managed upon waking, sent her sitting up into a world full of pain.

She groaned, reaching for the butt of her pistol, as though shooting something might heal her. The last time she’d lost consciousness after a Slide, Dover needed hours under the care of a Power, a higher angel, who specialized in healing. Even then, she’d woken reaching for a weapon, her last memories of a fight that nearly killed her Charge.

Lucky for her, before she could do any damage, Embry Walsh’s red-trimmed, jovial face appeared in her field of vision. Strong, familiar hands held her down by the shoulders as he folded himself onto the cushion beside her.

“Hey.” Her old friend spoke calmly, though with that air of command that never left his voice. His hip trapped her weapon at her side, where she could do no damage.

“Hold up, babes. I don’t need you shooting at me just now. I’ve had a long day.”

Dover fought for only a moment longer, soothed by those kind blue eyes and the easy cadence of his thick Georgian accent. She sat back against the pillows, relieved that her gamble to save Jon appeared to have paid off. Embry’s house stood at the exact opposite end of Atlanta from Jon Bennett’s place, giving them enough room to breathe after the attack. Added to that, Embry Walsh had dedicated his life to not only the druidism of his ancestors, but to the study of the Host and the Legions. He knew more about magic than anyone else in Atlanta. Here, Jon would be safe until Dover recovered.

As she relaxed, Dover allowed Embry to lift her shirt. Her sensitive nose brought her the scent of warm Jameson and drying blood, forcing her to glance to the side. Embry’s pristine carpet had been cleaned well, but streaks of dried blood remained imbedded in the fibers.

“Sorry about the carpet.” Dover winced as Embry touched calloused fingers to her injured flesh. “I was sort of in a hurry.”

“Uh-huh,” Embry replied with a lift of his ginger brows. “I’ll be expecting a check to cover it, Little D, don’t worry.”

“Yes, sir.” Dover winced as Embry found a tender spot on her chest, hissing as he applied a red-brown salve that smelled of honeysuckle to the flesh.

Tensing to escape the pain, Dover threw her head back over the arm of Em’s crisp white sofa. The action brought an upside down image of her Charge into view, which pulled a tight smile across Dover’s face.

“Hey! You didn’t go into the light. Yay.” She chuckled, offering a silly little arm wave as a celebratory dance. Of course, even that small action made her ribs ache even more.

“Still!” Embry barked, scooting closer to his patient in an effort to pin her down. “You almost killed yourself with that sloppy-ass Slide, woman. I could have sworn you swore off taking passengers. ‘Never again, Em, I mean it. It’s too dangerous.’”

Dover chortled, sharing amusement with a startled Jon as Embry’s voice lifted to falsetto in an attempt to sarcastically imitate Dover’s tone.

Her friend located another tender space under her breasts. Embry smiled a brief apology as he went to work trying to heal her.

“I didn’t have a choice. We were cornered.” Dover explained softly as Jon came around the sofa. Her aching neck thanked him for the change in position. He stood at the back of the sofa, watching Embry curiously as he spread that strange salve over Dover’s injured flesh.

“You’ve been cornered before, Dove.” Embry commented, lifting a brow. “You usually do something stupid and drive like a bat out of hell to get clear. You certainly don’t Slide with a passenger when you’re already weak, like a dumbass.”

“In my defense,” Dover cut in with irritation. “They were using Demon Dark to block out the light.”

Embry frowned, fingers dipping back into the pot of druidic magic again.

“That’s weird.”

“Yeah,” the Guardian continued. “This whole thing was weird. I heard the Hounds baying, but I could smell something like rotted meat and shit. Literal shit, too.”

Those familiar blue eyes, crinkled at the edges with years of laughter and worry, raised to meet hers again. He was quiet as he set the salve aside, asking Jon to help lift her body gingerly and hold her up so he might bandage her. Dover held her breath through the aching pain, one hand reaching out to collect the soft light of a nearby candle in through her palm. Light would help speed the healing process for her.

When the men laid her back, Dover glanced down at her chest. She noted, with no small amount of amusement, that her old friend had removed her bloodied shirt but left her tattered bra on to protect her modesty. Always the gentleman, her Em.

From the blue-black hue of flesh she could see peeking out from under the poultice-heavy bandages, Dover had taken more damage than she initially thought. Embry’s druidic magic would increase blood flow, soothe pain, and encourage the body to heal more quickly. Still, peering down at the blackness spreading over her skin gave Dover an odd sort of chill. How much longer could she have kept Jon in the Slide before she lost the battle? How close had he come to slipping away?

The compression and pure speed of the Slide could only be protected against if the Guardian focused on it. Of course, keeping a passenger from slipping away into Heaven took some of that concentration away, leaving the brute force of angelic magic to wreak havoc on her preternatural body. It wasn’t the most efficient thing in the world, but then nature always required a balance.

Remaining still as Embry laid his hands on her ribcage and whispered his spells, Dover turned her attention to the Charge.

Bringing Jon here might not have been calculated, but she couldn’t have asked for a better ambassador between human beings and the angelic. Embry was the only strictly human being in Atlanta well versed in both Celestian and Hellspeak and the magic used by both. His druidic gifts drifted down from the ancient Celts, pure power radiating from a bloodline that survived centuries. Embry, unlike the angelic or demonic creatures often running about the world, drew his magic from the Earth herself, making it easier to strike when needed. Creatures of Heaven and Hell were ill equipped to face Mother Earth.

This unique power unnerved some of the angels Dover shared her Guardianship with, but she found him witty, intelligent, and utterly charming. No matter the problem – even a Guardian and Charge dropping onto his floor in the middle of the night – Embry handled it with his stoicism, charm, and no small amount of Gaelic swear words.

“What’d you tell Jon-no-h over here?” Dover asked as Embry finished his casting. The tightness in her chest eased a bit, allowing her to breathe without that infernal rattle. “And Jon, everything with a grain of salt, ok?”

Embry arched his light brows, a grin curling over his lips. His ginger beard was well trimmed over that handsomely lined face. He stood at just over six feet tall, with a stocky build that might have made him a decent Rugby player had he had the interest. Embry kept his fire-red hair cut just short of a military buzz and his beard never had a whisker out of place. Her old friend also rarely spent the night alone, so she assumed he’d scooted his evening’s entertainment out when she and Jon arrived.

“Behave, woman, or I’ll reverse those spells and you can deal with Elise instead.”

Dover pouted immediately. “I’ll be good.”

“That’s my girl.”

Jon snorted at the short exchange between friends.

Her Charge now sat on the back of Embry’s sofa, looking down at Dover warily. His green eyes held some of that fear and awe she’d long since grown accustomed to. It did well for Guardians to inspire awe and fear, it made Charges easier to handle in tough situations.

“Well,” Jon began as Embry helped Dover into one of his spare button-downs. “I guess it’s the basic, panic-inducing idea that angels and demons are real, I’m supposed to be protected for some reason, and you just came within seconds of dying to save my hide. Thanks, by the way.”

Though Jon kept his tone light, Dover could hear the underlying tension he tried so valiantly to fight back.

“Oh, so nothing that’ll send you cackling into the madhouse. Right.” Dover nudged Embry with her foot, pleased when he squeezed her toes in response. In that private moment, Dover knew he wanted to tell her how happy he was that she hadn’t died.

“What he didn’t tell me,” Jon went on, oblivious to the short exchange between friends. “Was why I need a warrior guardian angel looking out for me. I was hoping you might…”

Every Charge assigned to every Guardian asked the same question. Dover inwardly sighed, hating to disappoint him when he already seemed so impressed by her ability. They all wanted a concrete reason, to be given instruction since they knew that they were now different somehow. Surely, if God had a plan for them, God would have left an instruction manual.

Unfortunately, the role of a Charge had never been revealed to any Guardian. Ever.

“Jon.” Dover sighed as Embry excused himself to wash up in the kitchen. “We aren’t allowed to know why you’ve been chosen, only that you have been. I think it might interfere with the grand design or something.”

A beat of tense silence followed this declaration, broken only by Embry turning on the faucet. He would give them this moment of privacy as he cleaned his tools and washed his hands. Dover shifted a little on her makeshift sickbed, facing Jon as he mulled over her words with a serious expression on his face.

“Is there a grand design, Dover? Really?” He posed the question quietly, as though the weight of his new, unknown purpose had crushed his levity.

“Man, I sure as hell hope so.” Dover replied with a chuckle. “Cause if not, I just ruined Em’s carpet over nothing.”



Embry’s home resembled, what Dover called, a fly trap.

He’d taken great pains to decorate his house in Grayson, creating a space filled with clean lines, fine furniture, and plush carpeting. Tasteful art hung on the wall, flanked by wrought iron sconces that seemed to hint that the space invited romance. Her favorite feature of the house – aside from the ridiculously huge kitchen and spell room – had to be the enormously blown up photographs of old film stars hung in the living room. Each Embry had professionally framed and hung so that the place reminded her of a sort of museum dedicated to the golden age of cinema.

Of course, he had mounted an enormous television to the central wall, with speakers built into the ceiling and corners. Embry’s living room could double as a movie theater and no one would complain.

His sofa and armchair were overstuffed, plush and inviting. Dover enjoyed spending time at Embry’s place, even if it was just for a film and a beer. In the last thirteen years, he’d been her best friend, her confidant, the person who knew just about everything about her.

As Dover woke on the couch, she noted that Embry hadn’t left the armchair beside her all night, though he had a perfectly good king size bed just down the hall. Dover smiled as her rustling woke him from the attentive doze he’d lapsed into while acting as her sentinel. Books were scattered at his feet, pulled from the floor to ceiling shelves built into the wall of his guest room, where Jon currently slept.

Dover needed to get to the Arbor as the sun rose. Her body needed a hard, sudden infusion of light to complete the healing process, to reset her power base for whatever came next. Embry’s home, since it faced the south, wouldn’t be the best place to absorb what she needed. Since the Arbor rested only a few miles from the little town Embry called home, she could get there without any issue.

They did not speak as Dover stood. Embry unbuttoned the shirt he’d given her to sleep in, then unwound the bandages with quick, efficient motions. He inspected the bruising clinically, broad fingers moving delicately over her injured flesh. Already, Dover felt a great deal better, but the process would complete faster if she channeled the dawn light through her body. The very best place for that would be the Arbor.

Once his examination completed, Embry handed Dover an old pair of jeans and a t-shirt she’d left over once. He helped her into the clean clothing, tucking her ammunition belts back into place once she dressed and laced up her boots.

“I’ll look after your boy.” Embry whispered as she readied to depart. “Go get your power up so I don’t have to tear out any more carpet.”

She rolled her eyes heavenward, knowing that his teasing hid the deeper, darker fear that one day even his skill wouldn’t be enough to revive her. Guardianship came with a specific set of dangers. Most of them did not last through all of the promised years, their second lives ending at the hands of a demon.

Her ribs gave another angry little twinge, far less than it might have been had she still been human. Dawn approached swiftly, so Dover took the keys to Embry’s old Dodge and headed for the door.

“You scared me,” Embry whispered, grasping at her hand to keep her in place. “You’re going too far, too fast, Little D. You need to ease up, recharge.”

“I know.” Dover responded, nodding solemnly. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“Scared my evening’s entertainment, too.” He offered a slight jab at humor. “Don’t worry, I made something up, sent her off.”

“Good.” Dover said with relief. “That’s the last thing I need is another ‘you told a human!’ sanction.”

Their hands slid together, fingers interweaving so they could hold on to one another a minute. Since they met over a decade ago, nothing had ever been easy for them. Lucky for her, Dover had the druid master as a firm ally. Other Guardians were not so lucky.

“I did some research when you were sleeping.”

“I noticed.”

“You said you noticed two smells, alongside the Hounds, right?”

Dover nodded once. “Yeah. Death and shit, clear as I can recall, with a little sulfur thrown in for flavor.”

“That’s what I thought.” Embry continued, shaking his head. “Those are Summoner smells, Dover. Two different Legions.”

The Guardian’s mouth dropped open in surprise, closing and reopening several times as she tried to locate the ability to speak that had, for some reason, escaped.

“They don’t do that, Em.” She said softly. “They’re jealous and petty and damn stupid.”

“I know.” Embry squeezed the hand captured in his. “I just know that’s what I read, D. Summoners and Hounds, two Legions. They were using Demon Dark and you battled a Succubus. None of that fits the usual pattern. You need to be careful. Someone wants him. Bad.”

Dover frowned, glancing past Embry’s shoulder toward the closed door Jon slept behind.

“Who the hell is he, Em?”

“I don’t know.” Embry replied, reaching up to grasp her shoulder. “But, this one time, you might want to find out.”

Meeting her old friend’s eyes, Dover nodded. She might have luck with her superiors at the Arbor, or they might take offense to even being asked. Still…it might be worth the time. Something evil had come after Jon once before, she wasn’t naïve enough to think it wouldn’t happen again.

Hanael.

His face rose up in her mind from memory, giving her the relief and comfort that came from knowing someone else might have pertinent information.

Yes. Hanael would know what to do.





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