Now came the most difficult part of the day.
Tajael was a Protector Class angeling—Guarding came naturally to him—but his charge was about to leave the safety of her fortress of steel and glass, seventy stories tall. All day she spent with her wide blue eyes fixed upon her screen or pacing the tiny cell of her cubicle, either way keenly focused on her work. On occasion, she dashed to the break room for a steaming mug of tea, but even her lunchtime was spent in an almost prayerful silence as she worked her mathematics and physics and other incantations. The days were relatively safe in her citadel of science—at least from the demonkind who had to get past security—and the nights, once she was behind the locked doors of her tiny loft apartment in the heart of Seattle.
It was the twilights of the day—dawn and dusk—when she walked the streets between home and work that were fraught with danger. It wasn’t the brisk wind that made Tajael’s shoulders tense and his angel blade hum. The city was a demon-infested nightmare. And he could do without the immortal war raging around them as well.
Then again, he wouldn’t have this Guardian duty if it weren’t for those things.
Not every angeling had the ability to withstand the temptations of Guarding. He was better suited than many due to well-earned years and trial and Penance… which was ostensibly why Markos, the angel to whom Tajael had given his vows, had sent him to watch over Charlotte Brennan, a key scientist in the unfolding drama of humanity’s search to understand their world. She was not overly young, and she was blessedly unadventurous—two advantages when Guarding her—but she was far too pleasing to look upon, and worse, her soul shone with the intensity of a tiny sun. These things might lure in an angeling with less experience in resisting temptation—and they would outright slay a freshly-minted angeling on walkabout, out to prove his Virtue.
So Markos chose him, Tajael, despite his Fall in the beginning on a walkabout of his own—or perhaps because he came back from it. Tajael still had the markings of the shadow realm across his chest, a reminder to him and everyone else in Markos’s Dominion of his dark time. But that was a hundred years ago, and he had proven himself in myriad ways since. Yet he questioned whether that was truly why Markos had chosen him. Angels were inscrutable; one never knew the lesson they wished to teach until it was upon you. But angelkind was at war now, and Tajael dearly hoped this assignment was merely Guarding and not some test—one he wasn’t sure Markos wanted him to pass.
The clock ticked past eight, and the office had long-ago cleared out, but Charlotte still toiled at her desk, twirling her long dark hair around her finger. Over the last week, he’d had many an hour to watch her, cloaked as a Guardian need be, and always, in the morning, her hair was vigorously brushed straight as if the long locks had committed some offense against her. By evening, it was curled into soft ringlets, all from the nervous winding round and round as she fell deep into thought, staring at her screen as if it held the secrets of the universe.
Which, with the nature of her research, it very well may.
Abruptly, she pushed back from her desk, slapping at the button which made her screen go black. She rose up and with clenched hands, stormed out of her cubicle. He narrowly dodged her, leaping back and free of her path, but just as he set to follow, she whirled around to face him, staring a livid anger straight into his eyes.
His heart seized. But his cloaking should—
Then she charged him. As he stumbled back, he realized she was simply returning to the cubicle. She hadn’t seen him. Of course, not. The girl may have a Ph.D. from MIT, but she hadn’t broken the veil between the mortal and immortal worlds… yet. Even if that very work attracted the forces of darkness swarming the city. She stabbed her screen on again, and not bothering to sit, she madly tapped at the keyboard once more.
Tajael held in his sigh—his cloaking was visual, not auditory, and he had to take great care for silence, lest she sense his presence. He could cloak sound, but that took more focus and energy, and he needed those to remain alert during the long hours.
Charlotte growled at her screen, stabbed a few more keys, then muttered, “You better fucking run this time, you little bastard.”
Tajael grinned. Guarding was inherently voyeuristic, which could be a Sin if it weren’t for innocently delightful moments such as this. The times when she thought no one was watching and was just a little less restrained. Not that his charge held back in a general sense—more than once she’d had a sharp word for her co-worker who was well-deserving of rebuke—but it was different when she was alone.
Or thought she was alone.
That tempered his smile. He knew well the invasion of privacy his Guarding entailed, and that was only partially mitigated by his keeping her alive. In the short week of his duty, he’d already slain four demons intent on attack. He was close to the Sin of Pride with how well he’d kept that danger from her awareness. After all, he was Guarding her so she could complete her work… which would not be helped if she were distracted by the constant, imminent danger she was in.
Charlotte huffed her contempt at her screen then jerked open the drawer where she kept her purse. This time he was prepared for her exit and cleared the way. He followed her purposeful stride past the half dozen cubicles to the key-locked entry for the office. She paused to retrieve her jacket from the row of hooks by the door—all empty, as she was the last to leave—then pulled her keycard from her pocket. Getting out of the high-security office required only a swipe, while getting in entailed a host of protocols. But the problem for him was the quick care she took to slip through the door and close it quickly behind her. Following her—without detection—wasn’t possible, and while he sensed none of the sulfuric presence of demons anywhere nearby, he’d rather be sure. So, with a flick of will, he did the one thing Charlotte spent all her hours attempting to unravel the secrets of…
He opened an interdimensional door and traveled.
It was just a flash trip to the small atrium on the other side of the door, and this was but one of the many powers his angel half granted him, but still… it was the elusive secret she sought, and he wasn’t the only one who knew it. There were forces in the immortal world who would happily kill humans to stop them from unlocking those secrets, and in a sense, Tajael could understand the fear. How much harder would the bright, soul-shining temptations like Charlotte be to resist should they gain the power to enter the angel realm?
Tajael shook his head clear of those distracting thoughts. The atrium was empty, but he made another sweep of the floors above and below them. No demon-infected humans. No vampires, shifters, shadow angels, or immortals of any kind. So far, so good.
Charlotte slipped through the door, then out of the atrium and toward the elevator. He usually rode the car with her—a lot could happen during a seventy story descent—and it was relatively easy to slip in behind her. Blessedly, it was an uneventful ride, but his angel blade was out and ready by the time they reached the lobby. A guard manned his desk, but he would be useless against any immortal attack—indeed, Tajael considered him a possible threat, given the demon-infected were legion now throughout the city. It was madness that Markos and the other angels of light had not stamped out the epidemic, but Tajael knew it was more complicated than simply slaying the demons within those innocent humans who had been possessed.
Charlotte gathered her jacket tighter, lifting the collar to protect her against the wind, as she pushed through the rotating door. Tajael was momentarily trapped in the next cell behind her, but nothing outside posed a threat. Just a single human, hustling by on his way down the street. Seattle’s downtown sloped fiercely to the docks, so the sidewalks were a challenge unto themselves. Charlotte trudged up the street, head bent to the wind brought by the setting sun and the rush of cool air from the water. Tajael went aloft, letting his wings unfold from where they magically stowed in his back, and hovered over her for a better view of potential threats on all sides.
He was still cloaked, of course, but the wind ruffled his feathers, their lift and his magic keeping him aloft. It was blessedly cool on his heated angeling skin. He was clothed only in a standard training toga, suitable for the combat he’d already engaged in a multitude of times on these streets—only recently on Charlotte’s behalf. Before that, he was pledged to help the dragon shifters, the House of Smoke, keep their treaty, which protected humanity from at least one of their foes—the immortal and devious fae, around whom all of this warring circled like a hurricane of magic that just kept wreaking destruction, day after day. The treaty had been successfully renewed, but in the process, the epidemic of demon-infection had surged, and a war between immortals had been sparked.
Tajael was so busy scanning the area and lost in his thoughts, that he nearly passed over Charlotte when she stopped to talk to Hank. He was the homeless man near her office who camped in the stoop of a worn-out building—it was closed to trade but provided a shelter of sorts. Charlotte visited with him every time, both coming and going from her secretive research job—to smile, to say hello, and usually to give the elderly man something.
“Got any leftovers?” Hank asked, grinning up at her with his battered teeth.
Tajael knew she hadn’t bothered to stop work for a meal yet.
“Sorry.” She shook her head, liberating half her dark curls into the wind. “Next time.” She dug something small out of her purse. His weathered hand slipped from the blanket wrapped tight around him, head to toe, giving him shelter from the wind.
“A breath mint?” He looked askance at the plastic-wrapped piece of white. “You should save this for your boyfriend.” He tried to offer it back to her.
“You know you’re my only boyfriend, Hank.” The smile was bright on her face as she ignored his offer and peeked back into her purse.
“Well, I ain’t gonna try to kiss you, if that’s what you’re expecting.” Hank frowned and straightened under the heavy woolen blanket. “No, Ma’am. I know how to treat a lady.”
Charlotte’s smile grew. “That’s why you’re my boyfriend.” Then she leaned down and slipped a folded bill into his hand. “And you’re going to need that mint after Jose’s El Guapo Burrito from the food truck.”
Hank’s smile returned, and the hand with the money and the mint disappeared back inside his blanket. “I might get the tacos this time.”
“You can’t fool me,” Charlotte said. “You like those chilis. Even if they set your mouth on fire.”
These moments were hardest of all to watch.
Not simply because Charlotte was exposed to danger on the street, but because both their souls surged in Virtue—Charlotte’s with nearly all of them at once. Kindness. Patience. Humility. Charity. Diligence. She was already a model of Diligence, and as far as Tajael knew, Chastity. That left Temperance as the only Virtue not actively beaming from her soul. It made his heart quicken with something he—in Truth—could only call desire. Not the Lustful kind, but the pure, righteous love of an angel.
Unfortunately, he was only half angel.
Not even half, given he was conceived in Sin by a fallen shadow angeling of some unknown heritage. Tajael’s exact patronage—the percentage of him that was wholly angel vs. wholly human—was unknown, like most angelings of the light. But he suspected his human portion was far more than fifty percent, given the way his body and soul responded to this naked display of Virtue, crossing the wires of an angel’s righteous love of humanity with a human’s more base need for physical contact. His urge to intimately connect with this beautiful woman committing acts of Charity before him was so strong he had to literally loft higher in the air just to keep clear.
He’d seen a hundred humans coupling in the act of sex before. He’d seen the orgies of the shadow realm. He wasn’t completely ignorant of the pleasures of the flesh, although he’d kept his one shameful experience a secret from everyone in Markos’s Dominion, including the angel himself. But he had no true understanding of how little contact—or how much—it would take to make him Fall from Lust. And the last thing Charlotte Brennan needed was her Guardian turning to shadow because he couldn’t control his human side.
She and Hank finished their banter—both waving, her to say goodbye and him to shoo her away.
Tajael breathed a little easier.
Then a scent of sulfur grabbed hold of him. Demon. Instinctively, he dropped down to cover Charlotte, who was busy hiking up the street again, heading for her bus stop. The demon—or more likely, a demon-infected human—was up ahead on the right, at the corner of an alley, watching and waiting. For her. It couldn’t be any more obvious at this point in the evening, with the streets and businesses cleared out.
Tajael spread his wings and boosted higher, staying cloaked. The trick would be to surprise the would-be attacker from above before Charlotte could see him. Flying fast, Tajael tucked his blade into its sheath. When he reached the corner of the crumbling brick building, he hooked a handhold and pivoted hard, grabbing a handful of the attacker’s shirt and yanking him up and back into the alley. Surprise froze the man’s yelp until Tajael could wrap them both in his cloaking magic, quickly adding the extra auditory suppression that would be necessary.
The man struggled against him as Tajael gently landed them both on the broken pavement, a good dozen yards from where they started. “What the fuck—” The man cut off as he glimpsed Tajael’s snow-white wings spread wide. Here, inside the cloaking, he could see everything… but the man’s human strength was no match for Tajael’s, even if he was demon-possessed.
“I’m sorry,” Tajael said, still holding the man’s shirt tight but slipping his blade from the sheath at his side.
The blade slipped fast into the man’s chest. He screamed, and Tajael held him up as his knees buckled. The demon essence inside the man writhed and shrieked, unwilling to let go. Tajael’s blade wasn’t hurting the man’s human flesh—its angel magic was crafted for immortals—but the demon would do anything to stay with its host. Including kill the man out of spite. The struggle went on and on…
Tajael should have gone for the head. A quick thrust through the back of the skull usually severed the demon’s hold much quicker. But this was no simple possession.
Finally, with a wail that would have shattered the narrow windows of the mostly-brick alley if they hadn’t been cloaked, the demon relented, releasing the man. The rush of victory roared in Tajael’s ears, that special pleasure known to every angeling upon defeating evil. The inky form of the demon rose up and dissipated into the mist from which evil was conjured, usually by the fae, the immortal and avowed enemies of the angels of light. This epidemic was the Winter Court’s doing, cleverly getting around their magically-binding treaty with the dragons, which kept them from harming humanity. Instead, they used vampires, modifying their venom to infect humans with enough demon essence to bring out their darker side. Tajael loved humans as much as any angeling, but the darkness inside them rivaled the worst of the shadow realm.
And he’d seen that up close.
The man sagged in his arms. The demon must have wrecked the man physically while it had hold of him—his cheeks were hollowed, his mouth gaping, his eyes closed. Tajael sheathed his blade and searched for a pulse. There… but weak. So he brought the man closer and breathed upon him, mouth-to-mouth. Demon-slaying brought a righteous pleasure, but bestowing a life kiss? Restoring a human soul to its proper shining state? That flooded Tajael’s body and mind like a blessing straight from an angel. For a moment, the world whited out, all other sights and sounds drowned by the Virtuous passion of fulfilling his angelic purpose. He gasped with it, his human body responding to the surge of pleasure. The man grabbed at him, deep in the throes of it as well. If they weren’t cloaked, a stranger who happened upon them might think they were lovers. Or perhaps, given the shattered state of the man, that Tajael was giving him a kind of standing-up CPR.
Tajael’s life kiss was infused with blessing, but only at the power of an angeling, not a pure angel. And even those couldn’t outright save a life—he knew well there was a threshold beyond which one could not pull back a soul. Nor could he save a life too far gone. But this soul was not too battered… and quickly, the damage wreaked by the demon was restored.
Tajael pulled back but still held the man upright, making sure he had his feet under him.
His eyes were wide. “What…what did you…?” The man swallowed, fear gripping him as the pleasure subsided.
“Fear not,” Tajael said gently, the standard phrase he’d long been trained to use. “I have banished the demon that’s ruled you. Go forth, and do no more harm.” The words were really unnecessary—the man’s soul had just been infused with blessing. He could hardly do other than virtuous acts, at least for a while, until the effect wore off. But with the demon gone, the choice was once again his whether to follow evil or good.
The man swallowed again, lost for words, so Tajael simply released him and stepped back. Once the man was out of the cloaking space, Tajael would seem to disappear. The man could stay or go—Tajael’s duty lay elsewhere.
He turned only to see the tail end of Charlotte’s bus slip past the alley entrance.
Holy angels of light—he’d been so wrapped up in the man and his demon, he’d neglected his charge. And with the auditory shield, Tajael hadn’t even heard the bus approach. He didn’t bother with flying—he simply twisted to open an interdimensional door and stepped through to arrive on the bus. The tell-tale overpressure and flash of light of his arrival garnered a confused look around the bus by the driver, but Tajael was still cloaked. Blessedly, the bus was empty except for Charlotte. He sighed with relief, figuring that small sound would be covered by the bus’s trundling noise, then he moved aft, closer to Charlotte, his pulse still racing with his mistake. Yes, he stopped the demon-infected man from attacking her without her knowledge. And yes, he saved the man’s life. But all that was for nothing if something happened to Charlotte while his attention was turned.
He sat across from her and watched her fuss with something on her phone. She was oblivious to the threats around her—she hadn’t even noticed his blundering in through interdimensional travel as the driver had. Her greatest worry was whatever she saw on her phone, causing that small scowl to form between her eyes. A wisp of her now-curly hair loosed itself and fell across her face. She did nothing to stop it, and the temptation to reach out and restore that small bit of dishevelment gripped him like a demonic possession of its own.
He stood and strode back to the front of the bus.
He would see her safely home. Then he would summon Markos and petition for help. It was the only sensible thing to do.
Tajael followed her off the bus, as close as he dared, then into her apartment building, and up to the tenth floor. He watched as she shed her jacket and shoes, casting them carelessly on the floor along the way to the kitchen. Even her phone was finally stowed as she stood in the middle of the small, tiled room, head tilted back, eyes closed, hands weaving bunches of frustration into her hair. It seemed like minutes she stood there, anguish etching her face, his hand twitching with the need to ease it. Finally, she retrieved a microwaveable dinner—the same one she’d had three of the past seven nights—and ate it standing in silence in the middle of her kitchen. Her lips pursed as she chewed, her gaze infinite, probably pondering the mysteries of the universe she was trying to unravel.
His job wasn’t to help her with that. Or to ease her suffering. Or to ensure she had a decent meal at some point. Angelings rarely ate, but he knew enough about humans to realize a steady diet of microwaveable food was not optimal. But no… his only job here was to keep her safe. And even merely at that, he was struggling.
But her doors were locked. Her blinds were pulled. She was safe from all but a shadow angel who might decide to suddenly appear inside her apartment. But they would have to find her first, and so far, only random demons on the streets of Seattle had threatened her. Tajael had only to wait for her to retire to her bedroom so he could drop his cloak and summon Markos.
It took an agonizingly long time, but she eventually trudged to her room.
He could conjure some kind of protective shield around the small bedroom, but that would just shine like a beacon in the magical realm. Even using his blade to summon Markos was risky, but something had to be done. He pulled it from its sheath, held it with both hands, and closed his eyes. He reached past the mortal realm to the Dominion that had long been his home. Markos, angel of light, Protector Class, Chastity faction… he was Tajael’s leader and surrogate father. Tajael had vowed to serve him, but he had never needed the angel’s help more than now.
A small pop in the air and a brief flash of light announced Markos’s arrival.
Tajael sheathed his blade again. “Thank you for coming.”
The angel stood taller than any man, oversized in a way that marked him as clearly immortal. Angels could take any form they wished, and the one Markos chose looked much like the angelings he oversaw—blessed with angelic beauty, an homage to the form God created for His beloved humans, and clothed only in the standard toga most angelings wore for everyday use. It bared Markos’s chest, which was unmarked, not despoiled by magical tattoos from the shadow realm, like Tajael’s. No matter how long he served Markos, Tajael always felt the twinge of his shame when he stood before the angel. The contrast was simply too great.
It didn’t help that Markos seemed less-than-pleased at having been summoned. “Your charge is well.” It was both a statement and a question—for if Charlotte were safe, why was Tajael calling him?
“She’s been beset by demons nearly every day of my Guardianship.”
“Then it is well you are here.” Impatience showed as a tiny squint on Markos’s face. Tajael’s ability to read faces—both mortal and immortal—more readily than most of angelkind was a talent that oft gave him more insight than he wished.
“And I could use another Guardian besides.” He didn’t want to explain all the reasons—the temptation of her bright-shining soul, his mistake in the alley—but he would, if necessary.
“Another cannot be spared.” Markos looked away as if listening to an unheard voice.
But Tajael could guess, for even he could sense it. The city was overrun with demonkind. The angelings of light were fighting to liberate the infected humans, but shadow angelings were likewise trying to spread the mayhem. And there were far more in shadow than light. It had always been thus… but they had only recently been truly at war.
“She is important,” Tajael tried. “You yourself said—”
Markos’s gaze returned sharply to him. “I said she might discover the secret. There are a half-dozen others. We are Guarding them all, Tajael. The future is unwritten.”
Tajael’s shoulders dropped. “Even a short break would help. I’m afeared…” Did he have to speak his failure aloud?
“You are equal to this task. It’s why I chose you.” Kindness graced Markos’s face, and perversely, that show of angelic Virtue frustrated Tajael. For he should be able to trust in his faction leader, but he couldn’t help the suspicion that Markos sent him to spend all this time alone with Charlotte for a different purpose. One that had less to do with her safety and more with Markos’s not-so-secret belief that the key to winning this war between light and shadow—indeed, the way forward for all of angelkind—lay not in ensuring humanity’s technological progress, but in building a stronger army for the angels of light.
Which meant creating more angelings… a thing that until very recently had been a guaranteed Fall from Sin. But which now was apparently a battle strategy worth pursuing.
In short, he feared the temptation of Charlotte was not a side effect of being her Guardian… for Markos, it might be the purpose of his assignment.
But Tajael had no intention of ever Falling again. Angelings had very little need for sleep, but when he finally succumbed to it, his dreams were still haunted by the shadow realm.
He gritted his teeth and forced a pleading look onto his face. “At least allow Oriel to spell me once every few days. I must sleep at some point.”
Markos tipped his head, his face the picture of concern. “Of course.” As if he had nothing but the best of intentions.
Angels. Just as they could choose their form, they could carefully craft their expressions. And the message was clear: there would be no more discussion. Tajael was bound to this duty until Markos released him.
Before the angel could twist away, Tajael threw out, “I may have need for Penance as well.” A warning, should his faction leader choose to see it.
Markos only held his hands wide. “You may take whatever Penance helps you fulfill your duty.” Then he disappeared as he came, in a pulse of angelic power.
Tajael ran both hands through his hair—it was short and blonde, so unlike Charlotte’s midnight-dark long tresses—but he managed to muss it with frustration. Then he let out a couple growls of frustration and sighs of acceptance, all the soft noises he could allow with her down the hall in another room. It took several minutes, but he finally regained the Virtue of Patience.
Then he strode down the hall to her bedroom.
The door was ajar.
His heart spasmed for a moment, wondering if she had seen Markos and him, uncloaked, calming discussing her in her living room. But when he slid through the opening, fully cloaked again, she was sprawled on her bed, absorbed in a screen that flashed numbers and words and pictures. She was working. And this definitely wasn’t a woman who had just seen angels hanging out next to the kitchen.
He settled in to watch over her for the night.
When she worked, her soul shined forth. Not the overwhelming Virtue overload as when she was with Hank, but still. The curiosity made her blue eyes luminous. The intense devotion to her scientific cause made her shine with Diligence and Charity. The struggle as she worked her task beamed Humility. In an angeling, this was simply expected. But the angel-born didn’t consort with one another—not those in the light, anyway. The mere idea was repulsive, but further, their magic made it literally impossible. But this grace of Virtue in a human… that was an entirely different thing. His angel half was created to love humanity. His human half loved humanity too… but in a distinctly different way. And that was an angeling’s greatest danger. They could Fall into shadow from any of the deadly Sins—Pride, Envy, Wrath, Sloth, Greed, Gluttony—but it was Lust that took most. An angeling’s love of humanity was easily confused with the temptations of the flesh. Especially when one spent an extended time in the presence of their bright-shining souls and brilliant, curious minds. Doubly so when that soul was wrapped in tight, curve-hugging jeans and a soft white-silk blouse that covered pale, rosy skin like a veil meant to seduce by promising hidden treasures.
Not that Charlotte meant this seduction—she appeared as innocent of Lust as most angelings in his Chastity faction—but she was simply one of God’s beautiful creatures. Not as perfect as angelic beauty, but all the more endearing for her knobbed knees and bitten fingernails. And her dazzling sky-blue eyes with the rim of dark around the edges…
A twitch of recognition made him step back toward the door. Somehow he had edged far too close. Markos had to know the allure of a woman like Charlotte, and if so, the angel was simply playing with fire. Just because one of his angelings had mated with a dragon without Falling, didn’t mean it was possible for every angeling. Erelah—Tajael’s friend, cohort-mate, and now princess of the House of Smoke—was unique. And even she was concerned. While Markos might want to build an army of angelings of light, it was just as possible the opposite would occur. Angelings would try to mate… and Fall. The angels of light may be induced to try as well. The army of shadow would rise. And then it wouldn’t matter what technology Charlotte may or may not discover… the End of Times, the one foretold since the beginning, would be upon them.
Tajael would not be the first to herald it.
Not while he still had breath in his body.
Charlotte sighed and swiped her screen closed. She slipped it onto the stand by her bed and rose. Her room was small, but he was sequestered by the door—she should have plenty of room to change into her pajamas and retire without bumping into him. As he watched her undress, he was torn between averting his eyes and testing himself by watching. But he knew that was a lie. In Truth, he couldn’t have torn his gaze from the soft reveal of her long legs, the freeing of her breasts from their bindings, or the way she stretched as she slipped on her night clothes.
But as she climbed into bed, she did an unexpected thing. Something that hadn’t happened in the previous seven nights. Instead of turning off the light and settling into sleep… she slipped a hand under the covers. Between her legs. Her head tipped back, her eyes closed, and for a long, breathless moment, he stood transfixed, staring at the rippling movement of the bedsheet between her arched up knees.
Then she let out a small gasp… and he fled the room.
Tajael had never uttered a curse in his life, but he found new words that night, searching to contain his Wrath at Markos for sending him here.
And to fight a raging Lust he would conquer at all costs.