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Moments after terrifying himself with memories of blood-splattered foliage and a splintered bamboo cage, Jake Hawkins opened his eyes and realized he had no idea where the hell he'd teleported.
At least it wasn'tHell. Though chances were, he'd end up in that realm sooner or later. Until he got his Gift under control, only dumb luck prevented him from taking a swim in the Lake of Fire. Or worse, landing on a warmongering demon horde.
Backstroking through burning lava was a damn good alternative to being skewered by a thousand swords—or kept alive so the demons could play a gleeful game of Torture the Guardian.
Fun for everyone but him.
But his dumb luck had held for one more jump, and instead of screaming Below, Jake was standing at the edge of a sheer cliff on the side of an arid, rock-studded mountain. A waxing crescent moon was settling behind the sand dunes on the horizon; early evening stars shot holes through the sky.
Not Hell, but he wasn't in Caelum, either—although the Guardian realm with its white marble and never-setting sun was almost as empty of people. No fires flickered in the foothills; no human odors floated in the air.
And there was no one to see Jake form his wings and step over the cliff.
Wind sifted through his white feathers, and Jake resisted the urge to look at his satellite positioning device. He'd been taking these unexpected jaunts since discovering his Gift; unfamiliar geography had become a challenge. If he used his GPS receiver to figure out his location, he'd failed.
But this place almost had him beat. The low-growing prickly scrub and the distant stretch of desert could be anywhere in North Africa or the Middle East. The recent sunset and mountain range narrowed it to Tunisia, Morocco, or Algeria; but as one of three Guardians who could teleport, Jake needed to learn how to identify a specific region within seconds.
He needed to be able to go where he intended, too.
A Gift ain't nothing but knowledge and willpower.Drifter, his mentor, had tossed out that not-so-helpful advice ten minutes before, when Jake had been trying to teleport from Drifter's home in Seattle to the Archives building in Caelum.
Jake shook his head, circled back toward the cliff. Ignorance wasn't his problem. He wasn't spineless, either. He'd known where Caelum was, and he'd wanted to visit the Archives—but he'd still had to scare himself shitless in order to make the jump.
He'd also been praying he wouldn't run into the Black Widow. An image of the archivist's cold, disapproving stare had filled his mind just before he'd teleported.
So he hadn't focused hard enough; his Gift had picked up on his reluctance and landed him here. Wherever here—
Hot diggety damn.
With a snap of his wings, he drew up vertical and stared at the wall of stone.
A temple had been carved into the face of the cliff.
And he was catching flies. Jake closed his mouth, vanished his wings. The drop and knee-jarring thud against the ground shook away the last of his surprise.
No way could something like this have remained undiscovered, not for the length of time the architecture suggested. The portico of columns was unmistakably Greek. The pediment and entablature recalled the Parthenon's—only lacking the ornamental sculptures.
The interior extended farther back into the mountain than even his Guardian sight could determine.
He'd seen rock-cut buildings before. Petra, in Jordan—though those were of sandstone. The Hindu caves at Ellora were granite, like this was; but they were far more ornate, and completely excavated from the surrounding mountainside.
With a quick mental touch, Jake pulled the GPS receiver from his hammerspace. Screw failure—and, for now, the Archives.
He was in Kebili, a sparsely populated governorate in southwestern Tunisia. After marking the coordinates, Jake vanished the device back into his mental storage. He couldn't contain his awe and excitement as easily.
But only a fool rushed into something like this. He opened his psychic senses. Nothing. No unusual sounds, either. Insects, the small squeaking of a shrew or rodent, his own heartbeat.
A light wind lifted and skimmed over his head, carrying grains of sand that settled on his scalp, rasped against his jeans, gathered at the neckline of his T-shirt. Each particle irritated his heightened nerves, distracting him. He scrubbed his hand over his buzz cut, brushing out the worst of the grit.
The forward chamber was a tall stone box, and hadn't escaped the desert wind. Sand lay thick on the floor, shifting beneath his feet.
And his weren't the only feet to have crossed it, Jake realized. Several sets of human footprints led to—or from—the inner chambers. The impressions had sunk deep in the soft sand, leaving the edges indistinct and making it impossible to determine size and direction.
No human scent lingered in the air. Either the footprints were well over a week old...or a human hadn't made them.
Jake performed another mental sweep, but knew it wouldn't be reliable. Any demon or Guardian knew how to conceal his presence, and dense stone could dull psychic probes.
The footprints were probably nothing—but he wouldn't go in unprepared.
He stored several pistols and swords in his hammerspace, but called in a crossbow. The grip was comfortable when the weapon appeared in his hand; he practiced with it often.
The prints vanished past the second chamber, where the corridor angled to the right and led to a narrow stairwell. It was too far inside for the wind to blow, and only a trace amount of sand lay scattered on the bare floor.
He jogged up the stairs—three hundred and fifty—and into another corridor, his weapon ready at his shoulder. There were dozens more chambers on this level, and each he passed was stripped to its square bones. A few had stone benches carved around the perimeter of the room; more had recesses cut into the walls like shelves. The ceilings were high and flat.
At the top of another long stairwell, the darkness, which had threatened with shadows in the corners of each chamber, became absolute.
Surprised, Jake stopped. Even on moonless, overcast nights and in closed rooms, objects were clear to his Guardian eyesight. He only needed the faintest illumination to see: star shine, refracted light, the tiny glow of an LED indicator.
But this was like closing his eyes and wrapping his head in a heavy black sack—and it was the first time he'd seen true darkness since he'd done exactly that as a kid. He'd walked out to the middle of a Kansas cornfield, put on the hood, and stumbled around with his arms out—
His short laugh echoed in the stone chamber, revealing its enormous size and pressing away the suffocating darkness. Fifty years had passed, and he'd thought of that cornfield often, but had forgotten how that particular adventure had ended: his granddad had snuck up behind and scared the piss out of him.
He'd screamed and took off running.
Jake shook his head, grinning. No wonder he'd tried to forget that part. His ten-year-old pride had been shredded.
His sixty-year-old pride withstood being scared all the time—but stumbling around here wouldn't get him very far.
He searched through his hammerspace, his mind skipping over each item. There'd be something he could use. He'd never bothered to store a flashlight; he'd never needed one.
Still didn't. The dim backlight from his cell phone lit the chamber like a carbide lamp.
It took a moment to register what he was seeing. The enormous chamber was terraced. A deep, rectangular pit had been carved into the floor of each level, with steps leading to the bottom. A colonnade surrounded the room; behind the rows of columns, giant arched entryways led east, west, north.
A bath, he realized. A Roman bath. Sculpted out of solid granite.
Two or three thousand years ago, someone in Tunisia had been flippin' insane.
Jake lowered the crossbow to his side, tossed a coin out of his hammerspace. Heads, so he went east.
An antechamber lay past the bath. Jake stopped, blinking up at the arch leading out—a line of symbols had been carved above it. Aside from the columns, the design of the temple, it was the first indication of a specific culture he'd seen.
But the symbols weren't Latin or Greek. He'd have recognized those. No, this reminded him of a script he'd only seen engraved in living flesh and used to cast spells.
A shiver ran up his spine. He turned and backed beneath the arch into the next chamber.
It didn't have to be the demonic script. There were many ancient languages he didn't know. He'd take a picture on his way out—another Guardian would recognize it, or he'd find a reference in the Archives.
Where he'd probably have to ask the Black Widow.
The shiver worked its way back down. The woman was straight-up creepy: always draped in black, playing with her spiders, and moving like a mechanical bird that'd been wound too tight. Talking to her made him feel eight again, his buddies daring him to trick-or-treat at Old Man Marley's house.
Finding the courage had been easy enough, but he'd still walked away with runny Jell-O for knees.
They almost gave out again when he turned and his phone illuminated the chamber.Whoa, boy.
The bath had been enormous; this was a cavern. His light didn't penetrate to the ceiling. The black granite floor had been polished to a mirror sheen—and at the opposite side of the chamber, a winged statue overlooked the room.
Her braids were a crown, her wings folded behind her, her arms bare. Despite the sword she brandished in her left hand, her expression was serene.
Jake estimated that, even at an inch over six feet, he stood no taller than her ankle.
There'd been crazy bastards living here, for sure. But they were talented crazies. The statue all but breathed with life.
But damn if he would be intimidated by it.
Awe was acceptable, though, he decided, forming his wings and crossing the chamber by air. He did awe very well: wide eyes, slack jaw. Hell, the first couple of decades in Caelum, surrounded by amazing architecture and beautiful, often-naked women, he'd done nothing but awe.
He missed those years.
Unfortunately, the statue wasn't naked. Even in granite, her draped gown appeared fluid, as if caught by a wind.
Jake landed, casting measuring glances to the sides of the chamber. His gaze narrowed on the walls behind the colonnade. There were the friezes he'd expected throughout the temple, ringing the room with their life-sized scenes. From this distance, shadows obscured their details.
And, he realized, the primary statue was just off-center. Judging by the large rough patch on the floor, there'd once been another figure in front and to the left of her.
Kneeling, he thought. Her face was downturned, and her right hand extended before her thigh, like a benevolent queen bestowing grace upon her subject.
Had it been a willing supplicant, he wondered...or a conquered one?
The tips of her fingers were broken off. She'd probably been touching the other figure, had been sculpted from the same stone. So removing it had destroyed part of her, as well.
Jake eyed the fingertips. They were too lifelike, and he was too accustomed to scaring himself—he expected blood to drip from them at any moment.
Time to move on, then. Fighting his girly shudder, he crossed to the south side of the room.
As soon as his light revealed the first sculpted panel, Jake froze.
He'd seen this before.
There was the dragon that Lucifer had called forth from Chaos during the Second Battle, and the human Michael thrusting his sword into its heart.
And it was a near replica of a frieze carved into the doors of Michael's temple in Caelum.
Why was ithere? Jake's heart kicked into overdrive.
And he heard a footstep from behind him.
A gloved palm slapped over his mouth before he could react. A slim hand rose in front of his face, fingers flashing a warning in the Guardians' sign language.
Do not move, novice. Do not even breathe if you wish to live.
He nodded, but didn't relax. Demons also knew how to sign. And like a demon, she had no odor.
Quickly, he tucked his phone into his jeans pocket, leaving the backlit screen exposed, and raised his own hand.How do I know what you are?
As if not being dead wasn't a gigantic hint.
The gloves vanished; the fingers pressing over his lips were strong, slender—and warm. A demon's would have been hot.
All right, he signed, and she released him after another warning to be silent.
The moment he faced her, she asked,Can you teleport away?
Probably not. Right now, he was more curious than afraid. Since she'd known about his Gift, she obviously recognized him—but he didn't recognize her. A hijab covered her hair and forehead; layers of loose robes concealed her tall form. Her dark eyes studied him from beneath black brows.
When he shook his head in response, the dusky skin over her jaw whitened and she looked toward the chamber entrance.
Jake knew almost every Guardian by sight, and most by mannerism. She'd probably shape-shifted into this form to blend with the regional population, but he didn't have a clue who she was.
And he wasn't going to get the opportunity to ask. Her weapon appeared in her hand: a tall staff topped by a long, curving blade.
Which Guardian wielded a naginata?Jake wondered as he replaced his crossbow with his sword. Even Mariko, the Guardian who'd introduced Jake to the weapon, didn't use it except for practice—the wooden staff splintered too easily.
But this one had obviously been modified to withstand a Guardian's strength and frequent use: the staff was fashioned of steel. To counter its weight, the blade extended half again a naginata's typical length.
With a wince, Jake glanced down at his own sword. He didn't quite measure up.
The Guardian's gaze followed his, and when she met his eyes again, he thought humor quirked her lips.
Use the crossbow, she signed.They'll flare their eyes to see.
Demons. Jake's grip tightened on the sword before he exchanged it with the crossbow again. Their eyes shone crimson; in the dark, they'd serve as a bright red target.
But rarely an easy one.
The Guardian was watching the entry again, and the low psychic thrum of her Gift pushed through his body. Her fingers moved at her side.They've entered the bathing chamber. Three of them.
No telling what her Gift was, except that it had helped her locate the demons. Jake couldn't hear or sense them—but because she'd used her Gift, they'd have sensed her.
She turned back to him.Do the bolts in your crossbow have venom?
Yes. The shafts and arrow heads had been coated with hellhound venom—not enough to paralyze a demon, but it'd slow one down.
Don't miss, she signed, and with an elegant sweep, she caught the edge of his cell phone on the point of her blade and flicked it out of his pocket.
Taking the hint, he vanished it into his hammerspace. Darkness surrounded them. Her hand clasped his, and he felt the brush of her wings before she tugged him into the air.
Okay. Apparently, her Gift was the ability to see in the dark. Jake dangled beneath her, aware that they were flying upward, expecting to smash into the ceiling at any second.
But she slowed, hovered, and maneuvered forward until stone was at his back, his side, and formed a shelf behind his knees. She lowered him onto the ledge, pressed her hand against his chest in an unmistakableStay put.
He heard the air rip through her wings as she dove away. A moment later, light flashed from the antechamber. A grating screech accompanied it, like iron fingernails scraping a rough chalkboard.
What the flippin' hell was she doing? Jake tried to stand, whacked his head on the ceiling and bit back his curse. But he didn't need to be silent to hear her. She wasn't flying anymore, but running. Her footsteps would make it stupidly easy for the demons to pinpoint her movements. Crazy.
And she'd stuck him up here in the corner, useless and—
On the opposite side of the cavern, a shower of sparks fell. For an instant Jake saw her, the blade of her naginata slashing across the granite wall.
Not so crazy, after all. Jake settled back down. The demons might not know there were two Guardians. Even if they did, she was forcing them to focus in her direction and making enough noise to cover Jake's heartbeat. He'd be able to get at least two shots before they located him.
In the antechamber, a female demon spoke. Another female answered her, then a male. Scarlet light gleamed across the floor before it was extinguished.
The female demon sang out a melodic stream of words.
Arabic. Jake didn't know the language, but the insult was plain enough. He firmed his jaw, waited.
From the direction of the statue came the Guardian's derisive snort. Then she was across the cavernous chamber, her steps echoing against the far wall.
The demon spoke again, in a lower tone. Her voice caught the Guardian mid-swing. The sparks illuminated her shocked expression; her head whipped around as she stared toward the antechamber. Dismay stabbed from her psyche before she blocked it.
The chamber went dark. Her whispered denial filled the silence. "No."
A crimson glow moved through the antechamber, and the first demon stepped through. Wearing robes and—except for her eyes and the batlike wings folded at her back—in her human form.
Come on,Jake urged the others. There was movement behind her, but he didn't have a shot yet.
In the wash of red light, he saw the Guardian standing in the center of the chamber, her arms slack at her sides, the tip of the naginata on the floor.
The demon smiled. Glowing eyes, leathery wingsandfangs. "And we've been charged to take something back to him as proof that you received his message. What shall it be—your hands? Your tongue?"
Just great. The demon had switched to English in response to the Guardian's "no," but Jake still had no idea what had stunned her. It wasn't the threat; between demons and Guardians, bloodshed was pretty much a given.
But whatever it'd been, she was coming out of it. A slow smile crept up the sides of her mouth. She no longer held her weapon in a slack grip, but with the loose confidence of a seasoned warrior.
Who the hell was she?
"Come, then," she challenged the demons. "Take them."
The male emerged, his unclothed body covered in crimson scales, a sword in each taloned hand.
The bolt flew faster than sound, embedding in the demon's side before he could react to the snap of the bowstring. He fell to his knees, clawing at the shaft.
Jake reloaded as the second female burst from the antechamber. The first female dove forward; Jake's next shot pierced her wing.
That was all he'd get. Her movements as fluid as a dancer's, the Guardian slipped around the male. The blade of her naginata flashed. She leapt into the air in pursuit of the second female before his horned head hit the floor.
The first demon had vanished her injured wings, and a semiautomatic pistol appeared in her grip. She aimed it at the flying Guardian.
Not in this lifetime. Jake plummeted toward the demon, calling in his sword. She heard him coming, shifted her stance. He looked down the barrel of the gun, saw her finger tighten on the trigger.
And felt his Gift activate as terror ripped through him. A memory of pain and failure.
No, goddammit. Can't leave her alone—
He jumped, opened his eyes to a giant statue bathed in scarlet light. Gunshots cracked.
Holy shit. A miracle.
Jake pivoted, scything his blade through the demon's neck before she realized that he'd teleported behind her.
He glanced up, then threw himself to the side as a mass of scales and taloned wings hurtled toward him. The last demon smashed to the floor at his feet, the naginata buried in her heart.
The crimson glow in the cavern faded. In the darkness, Jake heard the Guardian land, and the wet sound of tearing flesh as she removed her weapon from the demon's chest—then the thunk as the blade sliced through the neck.
His cell phone lit the scene. Blood pooled beneath the mound of demon bodies. The Guardian began cleaning off her blade with the hem of her robe.
Jake carelessly wiped his sword on his jeans and made himself look at the demon he'd slain.
To his surprise, his knees didn't wobble, his stomach didn't churn.
Hot damn. His first kill since becoming a Guardian, but he wasn't staggering off to the side and blowing chunks. The miracles just kept on coming.
Grinning, he vanished his sword and shoved his hands into his pockets, told his feet to stay still. Slaying his first demon deserved a victory dance, but judging by the sharp glance she gave him, the Guardian probably wouldn't appreciate his version of the twist.
Then her naginata disappeared, and he thought,What the hell.
He caught her beneath her arms, swept her around in a circle. She didn't try to stop him, though her lips clamped together. Probably to stifle a shriek of delight or laughter, he guessed, because it was flippin' impossible not to be thrilled at this moment. The demons were dead, he didn't have a bullet in his head, and this chamber was the most incredible thing he'd ever seen—on Earth, anyway.
Her mouth didn't relax when he put her down, and Jake suddenly found the tight line irresistible.
He closed his eyes and swooped in.
Her fists balled at his shoulders, but she didn't push him away. Nor did her lips soften.
Her clothes did. The robes disappeared beneath his hands, and his palms slid from her underarms to a slim, silk-covered waist.
God, what made women feel so good?
Even the unreceptive ones. Damn, damn, damn. He broke the kiss, fighting his disappointment. The nice thing about female Guardians, though—and he knew from experience—was that they generally wouldn't kill a man just for making a move.
Jake lifted his head, and his blood froze.
Her eyes were blue now, and icy with disapproval. A heavy brown braid snaked over her shoulder. Her dress wreathed her in black from her neck to her pointy witch-boots.
The Black Widow smiled, and Jake's stomach lurched. Something moved inside her mouth. A hairy, segmented leg thrust between her parted lips—
A tarantula crawled out.
Jake stumbled back, tripped. Wood thudded beneath his ass. Sunlight speared his eyes.
"Jesus Christ in Heaven!" he shouted, then scrubbed at his lips, his tongue. He could almostfeelthat thing in his mouth. He'd kissed a flippin' nut job.
A shadow fell across his face, and Jake looked up. A long way up. His mentor wasn't a short man, by any measure.
"I reckon you yelling that name means you didn't make it to the Archives," Drifter said, his gaze running over the bloodstains on Jake's jeans. "Though I'm doubting it was him who scared you back here."
Seattle.Jake flopped back on the deck outside Drifter's house, breathed in the clean scent of Lake Washington. "I ran into the Black Widow."
That was her name? If he'd ever learned it in his forty years as a Guardian, Jake had forgotten it.
"The Black Widow fits better," he said. Alice was a soft, sweet name. It belonged on girls in pretty dresses chasing after white rabbits and attending tea parties.
The Guardian was more like the frightening side of Wonderland. The Jabberwock, or the queen who ordered beheadings.
Scowling, Drifter shoved a flat-brimmed hat over his brown hair. "She ain't as bad as you novices make out. You all oughta—"
"I kissed her."
"Well, hell." Drifter whistled low, shaking his head. "I never figured you as suicidal. Why do a fool thing like that?"
Ah, that sweet elation was washing over him again. Jake grinned, laced his fingers behind his head. "I killed a demon."
"I suppose that's as good a reason as any." With a short nod, Drifter turned for the house. The wind from the lake kicked up the tails of his duster. "She do that spider-out-of-her-mouth trick?"
Jake jackknifed up to sitting. "That was atrick?"
* * *
Oh, dear God.
The light had vanished along with the novice. Surrounded by darkness, Alice stood absolutely still, holding in the scream that swelled in her throat.
Teqon had sent the demons to tell her that his patience was at an end.
But she would not think of it yet—not until she mended the cracks in her composure and in her psychic shields. For a short time, she would allow herself to push thoughts of her bargain aside.
With shaking hands, Alice called in her lantern and looked away from the spot where the novice had been standing. She'd heard he couldn't yet control his Gift—that his fear took him over.
But he didn't lack bravery, she thought as her gaze slipped over the demons' bodies, lingering on the head of the one he'd slain. And his vivid imagination would serve him well. A creative mind was an asset to a warrior—but it was a hindrance so long as he let it run wild. If the novice had taken even a moment to rein it in, he'd have perceived the illusion she'd created.
Alice touched her lips. Yes. Much too impulsive, but also skilled for his age. Ethan had taught him well—and, even now, was likely teaching him how she'd accomplished the illusion.
It was one of her best tricks. That did not mean very much, however, when she had so few.
And to be truthful, there wasn't much to it. Guardians couldn't hear thoughts or read minds; their psychic abilities were primarily empathic. But they could receive images if someone focused hard enough, and if their psychic shields were penetrable.
The novice's shields hadn't been until Alice shifted into her natural form. His shock had given her an opening, like a small rip in a seam. The suggestion of a spider leg had been the tug to tear it wide, and his overwhelming revulsion concealed Alice's psychic scent as she shoved the larger, more horrific image past his defenses.
Simple, yet the illusion wouldn't have succeeded if the novice hadn't believed that Alice might ferry spiders about in such a way.
She wouldn't, of course. There were few spiders on Earth with which she had more than a passing acquaintance, and no self-respecting woman let a strange spider crawl through her mouth.
And if Alice couldn't remember the last time she'd respected herself...well, that was hardly the point.
A novice would expect it of her. She hadn't listened to the stories they told about her, but she was aware of them.
Enough to know they'd gotten most of it wrong.
Her sigh echoed through the chamber, and when it returned it sounded like a breath from the statue. As always, the warrior woman wore her serenity like a mask, but her sculptors revealed a wealth of power and emotion in the tangle of her braids, the riot of her gown, the lift of her sword.
Alice had seen her before. But this statue, dating from the seventh century BC, was the most recent of the woman's likenesses. It was also the only one with wings, and by far the largest.
It was, finally, something new: not the woman herself, but the wings and the kneeling figure. Alice didn't know what the difference meant, however—if it meant anything at all.
And she didn't know why the male companion who'd appeared with the woman in so many of the friezes no longer stood beside her. Had the missing statue been of the same man? Or had another knelt before her?
In the two weeks since Alice had discovered the temple and this room, she hadn't found the answer. She'd photographed, measured, and sketched. There was no more to record, now; there was only much to wonder about.
But she did not have time left for that. Her chest was heavy as she turned back to the demons. Two were nude, and there was nothing unique about the third's robes to indicate her origin. They'd said the demon Teqon had sent them, but Alice had no idea where he'd sent themfrom. She'd preferred not knowing how to find him.
How had they located her? Not by following the novice. No demon could teleport.
Perhaps Teqon had been tracking her movements. She'd been using the Gate near Marrakech to travel between Caelum and Earth, then flying from Morocco to Tunisia. If she'd been identified and the location of the Gate compromised, she needed to warn the other Guardians; otherwise, anyone passing through the portal might be ambushed by demons.
And Teqon would send more if Alice didn't inform him that she'd received his message.
Her gaze drifted to the male's chest, and a knife appeared in her hand. It would not be the heart Teqon wanted.
But it would serve as an effective message in return.