Summary: Still reeling from Elise's death, Dover goes demon hunting, with shocking results.
The pressure was almost too much to bear.
It built up in her chest, snaked through her veins, crawled through her head until she gave up the battle. Her armor smoothed over skin like a lover’s hand, beckoning her to pull the belts tighter, to slip into the role of warrior she so desperately needed to drown in.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Guardians were protectors, guides, the “good” guys. Striding into the rougher parts of Atlanta in full battle gear was frowned upon, especially if there were no Charges anywhere near the neighborhood in question.
But they were here. She knew it. Dover could smell the sickly-sweet of their demonic bodies; hear the lingering whispers of Hellspeak on the air. They were here; waiting, watching, begging to be brought to Celestian justice.
Or that’s what her mind kept whispering.
The Bluffs, as it was known to Atlanta’s residents, hadn’t recovered when the market crashed through it. What had once been full apartment buildings and packed shops now resembled a ghost town. It hadn’t been the high-end sort of area that was spared from the financial crisis to begin with, but the further fall of the downtrodden left so little in its wake.
Now, as Dover looked over the block, she could see nothing but despair and danger. Young men and women crowded on dilapidated stoops, passing bottles of liquor between them. The acrid aroma of burning tobacco filtered through the air, mingling with the sweet taste of something a little stronger.
Through all the broken windows and unlit buildings, Dover knew there were demons. They were drawn here, to the despair and darkness, as moths to a flame. No two types of demons were alike, but some fed on misfortune as though it were a four-star meal. Those were cloistered in the abandoned homes and empty storefronts.
It was the denizens of Strife that brought Dover to the Bluffs.
The streets were lost, long ago, to gangs and drugs. They swept over the houses, the shops, taking bit by bit until little of what it had been remained. Still, the hipster movement was trying to take it back, to bring in big money. That money would revamp the few square blocks of precious urban real estate, filling it with trendy apartments, specialty boutiques, and pun-titled bakeries. Dover wasn’t sure that a few construction facelifts and a Chipotle would scrape away years of despair and decay. They would try anyway.
Perhaps it was the fading feel of hopelessness that brought her here. Dover wanted to tell herself that she was doing her duty, fighting against evil, though she’d been trained to not go looking for demons. A large part of her, the part that spoke in Elise’s voice pointed out the lie before the thought could fully form. This was not her job. The line she should never cross now blurred before her.
The balance was necessary, Raziel told her so long ago, stirring up one side or the other only disturbed a carefully kept peace.
Her charges were safe, so why was she stalking the night to find demons in need of slaughter?
Dover knew why. Two days ago, she buried the body of her best friend, her confidante. Elise Porter’s murder was being investigated by the angelic creatures at the Arbor, of course it was. They would do their very best to locate, try, and punish the creature that took away the best Guardian the world had ever seen.
So, why couldn’t Dover sit still?
The rage was consuming. It clawed its way through her body until she had little room for anything else. The emotion roiled inside of her, churned at her belly. Dover ached to do something, anything, with the anger, the hatred boiling in her heart.
She took to the night, to the place she’d last hunted with her friend.
As the Guardian passed another building with a group of people clustered at the stoop, someone called out to her. Dover paid the cat-caller no mind, her face pulled into a mask of indifference. She wasn’t here for them, not the humans who remained blissfully ignorant of the real world around them.
She wanted battle, war, rage, and pain. Dover needed it, needed to purge the negative emotion burrowing into her body.
There stood a building at the end of the block that took her attention. Though several around her were empty, save for the few that had gathered small groups of loitering humans, this one stood alone. There was nothing remarkable about the building. It housed broken windows and not a single light glowed from any of them. The only light appeared to be from a violet bulb at what might have once been the front entrance. Heavy 2x4’s were nailed over the door. Everything about the building was silent and still, eerily so.
A small smile curved over Dover’s lips a she approached the corner. She stopped, pulling the bag of Dust from her back pocket. Embry’s newest batch was surprisingly strong and he’d been generous. Dover poured a handful of the silvery substance into her palm before lifting it to her lips. She took a deep breath before blowing the Dust toward the building.
It floated through the air, drawn as though by preternatural magnet toward the run-down building. Dover watched curiously as the particles clung to the runes inscribed into the brick, hidden from the naked eye by the magic of Hellspawn.
Dover ignored the voice calling to her, reading the wards carved into the building across the street. They were, as expected, signs of a Strife conclave, though a lesser one. There couldn’t be more than a dozen lesser demons in the building. It wouldn’t be a cakewalk, of course, but Dover had handled more with less.
“I said, comere.” The male, slightly slurred voice called again, his Georgian accent thick.
Once more, Dover ignored him.
She could hear Hanael’s voice in her head, urging her to call for backup if she decided she had to go inside. Then there was Embry, telling her it was suicide, that Elise wouldn’t want this, that she needed to stop being so damn pig-headed.
Dangerous. Reckless. Stupid.
Just as Dover moved to step closer to the building, the man calling for her approached. He reached out with one hand, obviously intent on grasping at the backside of her anatomy. Dover sighed, stepping to the side to escape his grasp.
Her .9mm leapt into her hands from the holster keeping it on her hip. Dover raised the pistol as she moved back, the barrel of it landing flush against her would-be assailant’s forehead.
He stilled immediately, eyes widening to the point of being comical. As his hands rose in surrender with the fingers trembling slightly, though it was anyone’s guess if that was fear or withdrawal.
“Wrong night, my friend.” Dover shook her head at the man. “Walk away.”
The scent of rot followed the man as he ran back toward his stoop. The heckling coming from his ‘friends’ stopped when Dover turned toward them. She knew most of them were likely armed, but they appeared to not want a fight this evening. Maybe it was the look of murder she’d perfected over the years or perhaps they could feel she wasn’t a typical young woman. Either way, Dover holstered her weapon as the crowd dispersed. She immediately turned her attention back to the demon-infested building.
A light flickered in an upper window as Dover moved across the street. The barrel of her sawed-off dug into her back, waiting to be unleashed. As she stepped to the back of the building, away from the violet bulb burning at the entrance, Dover whispered the memorized charms to nullify the warding done in Hellspeak. It was simple work. They were not expecting a Guardian to come knocking.
Nausea rolled over the Guardian as she approached the back door. She flattened against the wall, taking a moment to adjust the ammunition in her weapons. The belt of bullets across her left shoulder was inscribed particularly for Strife demons, the gunpowder mixed with enough dust to knock them back. Dover strapped the sawed-off onto her back again, taking her .9mms in her hands as she sized up the door.
It appeared to be un-warded, which wasn’t all that surprising. Dover smirked to herself, pushing at the broken wood and metal with her foot until it creaked open. The sound of rusty hinges seemed unnaturally loud in the sudden stillness. Dover hesitated only a moment, listening for sounds that she had roused someone or something before she stepped across the threshold.
Though autumn was upon them, the interior of the building was frigid. Dover fought the urge to shiver, wishing she’d stopped under that street light a few blocks back to infuse herself with light. Surrounding the cold that made even the tips of her fingers tremble as they gripped the handles of her pistols, was the stark silence. Dover heard nothing as she stepped inside, her boots cat-quiet on the ripped carpeting.
Absent was the hum of electricity, the vibration of air conditioning, the quiet whoosh of plumbing. Dover paused in the first junction of hallways, the fine hairs at the base of her neck rising as she considered her options. Something had gone wrong in this place. She could feel the foreboding sliding up her spine, coiling through her muscles like a serpent prepared to strike. She became hyper-aware, the periphery of her vision startling her with dancing shadows and phantom bodies moving in absent light.
She could turn back, take a few steps that would lead her back outside. She’d close the door, pretend none of this ever happened.
The second option would be to contact the Guardians or even Embry. Backup might just be the thing she needed. Of course, that option came with the knowledge of a following lecture. Dover dismissed the idea immediately.
That hadn’t been her imagination. Dover raised her pistols again, turning in a slow, deliberate circle to check each of the four corridors that intersected where she stood. Not even a blinking fluorescent light or closing door met her vision. Everything remained supernaturally silent, unmoving. What would Dover give to hear a cockroach skitter across the floor right now? Or the buzzing of a damn fly?
She swallowed hard, decision made. Backup would take too long to arrive and leaving was not an option. The demons that had plagued her with taunts and tricks over the last weeks now made their presence known. Dover had enough with their damn games. Tonight, she would have answers.
The ghost-like voice seemed to be coming from the western corridor, so Dover took a careful, measured step in that direction. Behind her, the door slammed so loudly she turned with a startled curse.
A distinct click was all she needed to hear before the stifling silence again surrounded her. With the decision made, they had effectively cut off her exit.
Now, Dover knew she’d sprung a carefully-laid trap.
“Outstanding work, Dove.”
Irritated with herself, Dover again pointed her body toward the phantom voice, swallowing over the dryness of her throat. Though they knew she was there and her pace increased a bit, she was still careful as she traversed the corridor. Each of the apartment doors was checked, only to be found sealed in some supernatural way. Dover did not see a specific rune or ward in the peeling paint of the rotting wood, even as she found it impossible to even wriggle the handles.
This got better and better.
She walked in that slow, suspicious pace for an age, the oppressive silence a living thing around her. Goosebumps raced over her flesh, leaving her with the creepy-crawling feeling that she once equated to her skin having an anxiety attack.
At the end of the corridor, Dover found herself at another junction. There was no voice beckoning her near, this time it was the scent of rotted flowers, of dank earth that drew her toward the north. She could not recall a demonic legion with that sort of scent. What were they? What the hell did they want with her?
The doors here were open; some haphazardly thrown back, others cracked only an inch. Dover ignored them all now, following the rotten aroma that churned her stomach. She thought her flesh prickled even more, an astonishing feat indeed. Dover swallowed hard again as she stepped past a doorway on the right.
She had a short warning of a shoe scraping the carpet. Dover turned in a fluid motion, only to have her head snapped to the side. The force behind the punch was staggering. Dover turned her body swiftly, firing blindly. Her assailant dodged the shot easily, crouching low as it came toward her again.
Balance regained, Dover spun. Her leg kicked out, finding the abdomen of her prey and knocking it back into the room. She gave immediate chase, gun barrels extended in the darkness. Though her eyes had long adjusted to the dimness of the building, inside the abandoned apartment, there seemed to be an even thicker blackness. Demon Dark. Dover blinked, trying to force her eyes to take in any miniscule bits of light so she might see.
When that did not work, Dover closed her eyes. She gave into the stillness of the demon-infested room, trying to find the assailant by any means necessary.
She smirked, hearing the soft exhalation of breath coming from the right. The Guardian squeezed the trigger of the .9mm in her dominant hand, firing three shots in quick succession.
A yelp told her she had hit the mark, but a beat later she was blinded by blue light. It singed her eyes, forcing them to close before the ball of demonic energy slammed into her chest. The runes inscribed there flared to life, protecting her from the Hellfire and curse, but not the impact. Dover’s body slammed into the wall, knocking the air from her lungs.
Training had her rolling onto her back immediately, her hands and legs braced in the air for impact. The demon did not hesitate, straddling the Guardian immediately. Dover pulled a knee up sharply, catching the demon somewhere tender. She rolled them both, hands grasping that of the Damned being trying to best her.
When she realized it was a slender, humanoid wrist, Dover felt a trickle of panic. This couldn’t be a lesser demon driven by Hellspeak and domination; it was something more deadly, more aggressive, an altogether different creature. She managed to get the creature beneath her, raising a fist – complete with pistol – and pounding into where she assumed the face of the creature dwelled.
Another energy bolt, this one more powerful, zinged through the air. Dover dodged it, barely, twisting the creature’s wrist until she heard it snap.
At the startlingly-human scream, Dover seized her chance. She stood, her chest and back aching, and backed slowly away from where the demon lay.
Still blinded by the unnatural darkness, Dover holstered one gun, fumbling in her many-pocketed vest to locate a flare.
She cracked the slender plastic tube, threw it across the room where it landed in what appeared to be the corner of a kitchen. The dim illumination was white, a Light the Guardian could draw from if needed. Dover turned, her breath ragged in her own ears, to find something unexpected.
It was a woman, diminutive and thin with a dark sort of beauty that left her breathless. She was standing, one wrist cradled protectively against her belly while the opposite hand thrust out before her in anticipation of attack.
Her face gave her age as barely older than Dover had been when she died, with luminous dark eyes were outlined in something sparkly that was unidentifiable in the light. Long braids lay neatly on her shoulders; a streak of red blood had smeared over her full lips. Dover hadn’t seen a human creature capable of tossing energy balls.
Hell, she’d never seen an elite demon. Were they supposed to be humanoid?
“Dover Ellis.” The creature said lightly. “It’s nice to put a name to a face.”
“What the hell do you want with me?” Dover demanded, her pistol still pointing at the creature’s belly.
“Prove yourself and then I’ll tell you.”
“Oh, fuck off.”
Dover stepped toward the creature, moving sinuously over the remnants of a broken coffee table. Her gun fired the remaining 11 rounds from the magazine without hesitation. She wasn’t surprised when the demonic being sidestepped and spun, easily avoiding her carefully aimed shots.
When that clip was spent, Dover pulled the other from her holster. It was at that moment Dover felt the air charge around her. Dover’s body tensed against her will, a feeling of illness swirling into her belly. Her limbs went cold, and when she looked at her bare, outstretched arms, Dover realized her flesh was now covered in deep, dark bruises.
“What the hell?”
Breath became impossible. Dover coughed, trying to fill her lungs as they constricted to reduce airflow. She’d never felt this way before, languid and slow with her body betraying her.
Unable to catch her breath, Dover fell to one knee. In this moment, she was at its mercy.
As Dover met the gaze of the beautiful creature somehow destroying her, she noted that another creature stepped out of the shadows. He stood tall, back rigid and arms folded behind his back. Dressed in black, Dover could not determine any further details about the man as he approached her captor.
“Shae.” His voice had a familiar tone, but Dover could not place it. “I think she’s got the point, my dear.”
The creature’s power retreated slowly. Dover felt her body warm, watched the bruises as they seeped away. She struggled to stand, still holding one pistol, though more for comfort than anything.
He called the woman Shae and he stood with his body held protectively before hers. Dover knew the man before her for a demon, full blooded and bold. Her blood sang for battle, calling on her angelic grace to dispose of the evil that captured her.
The lack of animosity in his light eyes stopped her from pulling the trigger, but barely.
Before she could speak, Dover was blinded by Light. She lifted one hand to guard her eyes, shocked by the sudden appearance given the late hour and the lack of windows in the abandoned apartment. Both demons hissed, retreated, even as the light dimmed as quickly as it appeared. Someone had used the Slide to enter the room.
Dover swallowed hard. Who would have come to her rescue?
“Why are you all standing about in the dark?”
Startled by the familiar voice, Dover lowered the hand grasping her pistol. She turned in a slow circle, facing the faint, glimmering light that focused on a single creature now stood in the eastern corner of what appeared to have once been a kitchen.
The Archangel Gabriel offered a small smile as her eyes met his.
“Now that we’re all here,” He said with no small amount of charm. “Shall we begin?”