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Cover art and interior design/formatting

by Red Fist Fiction


Second edition 2018


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, events, or locales, is entirely coincidental.


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Contact Information can be found at www.ashkrafton.com


STRANGER AT THE HELL GATE: A Paranormal Romance Novella by Ash Krafton

Recruited by higher powers, an angel seeks out the only man who could prevent an apocalypse from happening—but how can someone born of Hell be a vital part of Heaven's mission?



ISBN: 978-1-946120-13-7

Smashwords Version

Copyright © 2018 by Ash Krafton


CONTENTS

Dedication

Start of Stranger at the Hell Gate

About Ash Krafton

Other Books by Ash Krafton

Connect with Ash Krafton


DEDICATION


To my family:

My husband, my children, my friends.


Most especially, for Tricia…my friend, my confidant, and my best writer friend. One day, I’ll find the right words to express my gratitude. Until I do, I’ll sling ‘em into another book.


ANGELS


Nightfall never came without a price in this city.

Like so many others in this world, the city was a conglomeration of concrete and chrome, its suburbs spinning off from the center like great galactic arms. Humans huddled together, heaping dwelling upon dwelling, building their spires in admirable attempts to pierce the skies.

In time, the city’s heart had grown so thick and congested that sunlight could not penetrate its depths. Day and night alike were eternally cloaked in a blanket of electric illumination. People moved in masses, caught in the ebb and flow of common, unremarkable life. Desperate to live. Desperate to survive. Desperate to exist in this hostile, wretched plane.

Further from the city’s center, the architecture thinned, the population thinned. Here, the sunlight reached the earth, washing the slower pace of less-urgent living in a warm glow. By daylight, the streets were touched by light’s grace, each cloudless day a blessing.

By night…that blessing was forgotten.

A woman in travel-worn trousers and a half-cloak hurried through the trash-strewn streets. Soon, the sun would fall below the horizon and night would begin its chaotic reign. Sonya Camael didn’t want to spend another night hiding in a church. She didn’t want to spend another night looking for a church to hide in.

The sunset painted the buildings with a fiery wash of sullen orange, doing little to gentle the harshness of weathered stone. The retreating light created long shadows, shadows she‘d swear moved as she strode through the deserted streets.

She covered her mouth and nose against the abrasive scents of smoke and sulfur, so thick in the air that she tasted it. The woman knew full well there were dark things that kept to the shadows, waiting for daylight to die. Those dark things were hungry for the moment when the shadows would swallow the city, giving them free range.

Careful to keep to the still-sunlit center of the street, she moved quickly and determinedly through the city, whispering a quick prayer of thanks when she caught sight of her destination. A green neon sign over the porch blinked sporadically, gleaming through the rising shadows: DEMONIC INTERVENTIONS.

By the time she’d climbed the steps, sunlight had surrendered to the damnable dusk. She pulled her dusty cloak tightly around her shoulders and shivered.

Not a good omen, she mused. It wasn’t in her nature to be superstitious, but she couldn’t suppress the chill that snaked around her very bones, squeezing.

It wasn’t the nicest building in town. It may well have been the least inviting. Something about a stone door bearing strange symbols made a person think twice about knocking.

Or maybe it was the deep claw marks that marred it. That could have been it, too.

She lifted her hand, slender fingers curled into a resolute fist, and knocked twice. The sound seemed to disappear into the wood, swallowed, devoured.

When the door was yanked open by a silver-haired man wearing little more than pants and a pair of leather boots, Sonya almost turned and ran down the steps. Thin lines of scars dotted his body like dewy cobwebs and a black leather strap crossed his chest, hinting at a weapon on his back. But that wasn’t what scared her.

It was the flatness of his stare. He had the coldest eyes she’d ever seen. Those eyes told her that scars and weapons were both daily exercises.

The man did a quick up-and-down glance before crossing his arms, filling the doorway. “I think you got the wrong address, lady.”

Everything about him screamed run. It took a lot of effort not to listen to his unspoken signals.

She swallowed and planted her feet. “No... I’m quite sure this is the right place.”

He smiled a cocky slant that flashed teeth and leaned against the door. His chin lifted. “Who ya looking for?”

“You.” She reached into a cloth pouch on her belt and pulled out a crystal wrapped in dull grey wire. A rosy glow pulsed from within like a gentle heartbeat. “Definitely you.”

His brows lowered but his expression didn’t change. “What the hell is that thing?”

“A compass.” The bright crystal generated heat as well as light, warming the wire to the point of discomfort. She turned it over in her palm before it could burn her hand.

“Doesn’t look like any compass I ever seen.”

Slipping it back into the pouch, she shrugged. “I don’t think they give these out at scout camp.”

“I ain’t a boy scout.”

“No. You aren’t.” She licked her lips and braced herself. “You’re a demon.”

He twisted an arm behind him. Metal scraped against hard leather, the sound of a sword sliding free of its sheath. His arm whipped a tight arc over his head, weapon in hand.

“Relax.” She raised her hands and backed away from the sword he pointed at her chest. “You don’t need that.”

“Look, lady. Anyone comes in here callin’ names like that makes me a little jumpy.”

She tilted her head and looked up at him. “Do I look like a threat?”

He lowered the blade but didn’t put it away. “Bad things come in pretty packages.”

“I am not a threat.”

“Then what do you want? I’m on the clock, lady. If you’re looking to hire a hunter, then you need to talk to my agent.” He glanced over his shoulder, turning enough so she could see around him. A man on the far side of the room appeared to be speaking on the phone.

“I... don’t know,” she said. “All I knew was I had to find you.”

“And that disco rock?”

“It’s how I found you. Only the blood of Tallon can waken it.”

The cocky mask slipped all the way off, and he moved out of the doorway, jerking a thumb over his shoulder. “You better come inside.”

She made as wide a berth around him as the doorway would allow. He leaned out, peering hard at the twilight-soaked streets, in both directions, before shutting the door and sliding the dead bolt across.


DEMONS


Jagger Sintallon reached up and jammed the top bolt shut for good measure, before turning to check out the girl standing in the center of his office. Whenever someone knocked on his door this time of night, it usually meant a job.

Or a fight, as occasionally the jobs went looking for him. “Hey, Enzo. We got a guest.”

“Client?” called the man from a side room. He’d hung up the phone when the girl came in and slipped around the corner to a storage closet. His query was followed by the slamming of a file cabinet drawer. A second sound followed: the quiet snick of a gun being cocked.

That Enzo, always watching my back. Like I need help with this. Aloud, he said “Hell if I know.”

Jagger was a demon hunter. There tended to be a lot of hazard in the occupation and never a shortage of work. Especially when a guy lived so close to a hell gate.

Then again, he always seemed to be living close to a hell gate. When they moved, he moved.

Skinny girls with big blue eyes never knocked on his door after sundown. They usually didn’t knock before sundown, either, at least not since that buck-toothed dork took over the pizza delivery job.

You’d think they’d get a foxy little thing to deliver, you know. Drum up business. Speaking of which. . . “Hungry?”

“Um, yeah.” She stood with hands folded, fingers tightly laced, looking around with wide eyes. “I could eat something.”

If he was seeing his office for the first time, he’d stare, too. A myriad of heads hung from the walls, faces frozen in grotesque expression. Demons, even trophy ones, were ugly. Ah, well. Home sweet Hell.

“I don’t suppose you have a kitchen?” She seemed to have recovered from the initial shock of the décor. “I can cook.”

“Nah, no kitchen. Just meals on wheels.” He flipped open a pizza box on the desk and pulled a slice free.

When she saw the pizza, she smiled. It was like sun crawling over the horizon after a really bad night. Approaching the desk with small unsure steps, she lifted a slice in her fingers and gazed at it a moment before taking a bite. Her eyes half-closed, ecstasy glazing every inch of her expression.

“Oh. This.” She chewed, swallowed, and leveled a knowing look at him. “This is good.”

He felt both chastised and praised. Odd combination, considering he never really felt one or the other before. Sure, it was good pizza. But he never met anyone who liked it the way he did.

“Hey, Enzo,” he called over his shoulder. “I think I found my soul mate.”


ANGELS


“Start at the beginning.” Jagger unhooked his harness and shrugged off the scabbard, swinging it to the floor.

The sword was massive, at least four inches across with a two-handed grip. The runes that marked the leather were archaic but familiar. They spelled protection in one direction and curse in the other.

Sonya knew the charm was in who held the sword and who met its naked blade. She also knew no ordinary man could carry those runes and maintain his sanity. That type of duality would shred even the strongest soul.

The harness removed, he reached up and rubbed his shoulder, drawing attention to a sickle-shaped scar on the skin over his heart. Unlike his other scars, this was a deep ridge, almost a branding. There was a story in that scar.

She pulled her gaze away from it. “I don’t know the beginning; all I can do is start when I became aware. That was three days ago.”

The quick meal had done much to ease her travel-weariness and now she rested more or less comfortably on a couch in the corner of the office. She’d raked her dusty hair back from her forehead before twisting it into a tight bun at her nape.

More than office, she surmised, spying the pillow on the floor next to the couch. The fact that he allowed her to rest in his personal space spoke much for his willingness to listen. She expected a lot worse when she uttered the name of Tallon.

Enzo, the man who’d been on the phone when she arrived, now occupied the desk, scribbling notes. He was a quiet man with quick eyes that seemed to take in everything at once. Integrity shined in him like moonlight.

So did suspicion. She couldn’t hold it against him. He worked for a demon—and she was anything but.

Jagger straddled a chair and took a deep breath. “How do you know about my father?”

“They told me his name.”

“Who told you?”

“Figures in dark clothes. Hoods, I think, like the monks of Parador wear.” She shrugged. “It wasn’t my place to question.”

“You didn’t get a name, did you?”

“Actually,” she said, tapping her lip. “They did tell me a name. Eranil. Said you’d know that name.”

His voice was leaden. “You were with him?”

“I’m sorry.” She dropped her gaze. “I don’t know. It was just a name. I might have been.”

He remained silent, eyes impassive.

Puzzled by his stony reaction, she took a deep breath. “So. They gave me this stone and pointed to the road. I was turned out with the clothes on my back, a velvet purse that never runs out of coin, and this compass. ‘Find Tallon’s son,’ they said. ‘He will unlock the door.’”

She laughed. “And I guess you did.”

“Yeah. I really need to find a new butler. Enzo.” Jagger cast a stern glare at his partner before continuing. “So, you make a habit out of taking on quests from complete strangers?”

“What did I have to lose? All I knew for certain was what I am. They said you were…just like me.”

Jagger leaned forward over the chair. His thick silver hair slid over his eyes, hiding them. “A half-breed.”

She knitted her brows. “You don’t sound happy about it.”

“Hard to be happy when you get the worst of both worlds.” When he lifted his head, the mask was back in place. “So. I’m like you, huh. Your daddy a demon, too?”

“Not exactly. He was human. My mother is slightly more ethereal.”

He scowled at her. “Ethereal? Funny word for a demon.”

“But completely appropriate for Seraphim.”

“Oh, shit.” Jagger went rigid, every muscle seeming to bunch and ready. The chair scraped backwards under the sudden tension.

Fight or flight. Sonya suspected this was the first time there was an equal likelihood of either one. She reached out and patted his arm. “Not in the least. I’m quite at peace with it.”

“If you were at peace with being one of…them.” She noticed he couldn’t even say the word Seraphim. Funny how the mythic rules still held. “Why come looking for me?”

“They said you were the only one who could stop the pain.”

“Pain.” He chuffed out a sardonic laugh. So much in that sound. “I don’t stop it. I cause it.”

“I know.” She lowered her gaze. “I saw it in my dreams.”

He made actual eye contact with her, a quick glance. “You dreamed about me?”

She nodded, her cheeks warming. “Yes.”

“Then you know what I do.” He crossed his arms and lowered his chin.

“Without doubt.” She raised her eyebrows. “You are either selfless or reckless.”

“Aren’t ya scared? What if I go bat shit on you and carve you up?”

Sonya bit her lip. She’s seen him handle a weapon, so she was no physical match for him. Even if she called upon her Seraph strength, she might get a head start on a run, but that was all. Her powers were not suited toward battle, or even toward defense. She was a healer. Healers were terrible fighters.

And yet…her instinct kept her seated. Kept her confident. There was something about him she trusted, despite his unholy heritage. “You won’t.”

“How do you know?”

“Look at me.” After a moment, she cleared her throat. “A little higher, please? Look into my eyes.”

When Jagger’s eyes locked with hers, she pulled herself down into him, seeking the secrets of his soul. It always felt like a quick drop of her stomach, a moment of free fall as time slipped loose from its grip on her skin. Soul-searching was a deep, submerging experience.

He swayed on his seat, jaw slacked, lips moving but no sound emerging. After a moment of contact, Sonya severed the connection and withdrew from his essence.

Wouldn’t do to burn him alive. Not polite, especially after how hospitable he’d been.

“Did you—what—” Jagger knuckled his eyes and shook his head as if he had water in his ears. “Did you hear something?”

Sonya knew he wouldn’t remember the seraphic touch but she’d never forget how it felt to look down into him. See his deepest parts, see what even he couldn’t, or wouldn’t. She knew him now. It took all her strength to resist reaching out to him. “You can only help me. I trust you.”

Jagger hung his head and groaned. “How do I get myself into these jams?”

She smiled, clear and sunny, and, with a mental touch, encouraged him to disregard what she’d just done to him. “Maybe you’re just lucky.”

He stood, pulling away the chair and tossing it aside. Instead of tumbling to the ground, the chair neatly flipped and landed upright, plum against the wall. Deliberate. Her instinct said nothing he ever did was accidental. There was no element of chance in any game he’d play.

As he turned and walked back to the desk, she allowed herself a lingering glance, making sure he didn’t notice. Maybe we both are.


DEMONS


He fixed her a bed on the couch using bedding from the old apartment upstairs. He didn’t often go up there, except on the occasion that something got in that wanted killing and ran upstairs. It wasn’t like Jagger needed a home. He didn’t even have a real life.

A call had come in sometime after full dark, a call that would have paid well. The agent eyed Jagger and eventually declined the job. Enzo left soon after, warning Jagger to stay in and keep an eye on her. It was a bad town to be harboring an angel.

As if he needed to be told. Jagger had a bigger job on his hands. Demons, he understood. Angel…that was way different.

For the first time in—how long? He spent the night playing video games, slaying imaginary demons instead of the real ones that prowled through the world, seeking the ruin of souls and the end of their captivity in Hell. Lucifer wanted to rule this dimension. No way would Jagger let Him take it without a fight.

And it was a wicked fight, one that felt like a never-ending game of tug-o-war. The whole mess would be so much easier if Lucifer fought His own battles. But, no. He’d enlisted the services of a man who was equal to Jagger in nearly all aspects.

Acheron.

Acheron wasn’t an ordinary Captain of Hell, not by a longshot. Trouble was, Acheron—like Jagger—was human-born. That chunk of mortality gave him a permanent anchor in this plane. Gave his master a permanent advantage.

The captain had a real knack for opening hell gates. Portals to hell. Allowed demons to come and go as they please.

That’s where Jagger came in. Just as Acheron was dedicated to bringing his asshole buddies through the hell gate, Jagger was equally determined to send them back.

Or destroy them. Either way was fine. Every time a demon got loose, a call from a terrified citizen came in and off Jagger would go, sword in hand. Demons, especially lower-ringed ones, could be more than an annoyance—some of them caused serious physical damage. The worst jobs, though, came when Acheron decided to get off his proud ass to join the fray.

Acheron matched Jagger, swing for swing, blow for blow. Sometimes, it was just to distract Jagger from the other demons. Other times, it was like he just felt like sparring with someone who could actually fight. Jagger guessed Acheron got bored, too.

Every once in a while, though, it seemed like Acheron wanted to do more than spar. He wanted Jagger dead. Times like that, Jagger could see the frustration leaking through Acheron’s cold, cocky veneer.

What a dick.

Acheron and Jagger were at constant odds. As fast as Jagger would shut down one portal, Acheron would open another, and it would start all over again. As long as there were humans around, willing to pay for exorcisms and demon exterminations, Jagger would continue making money.

So, yeah. Business was real good for a hunter of his skill. What a pain in the ass that was.

The woman stirred on the couch, rolling over and making a soft noise deep in her throat. He paused the game, holding his breath, until he was sure she settled again. She made a delicate curve under the blue blanket, the golden highlights of her hair glimmering in the unsteady light of the television screen. It would be a long night.

Jagger bit back a curse when the words GAME OVER flashed upon the screen. Everything about his life seemed to be a game, a constant contest between him and Acheron. It would only end when one of them was dead.

Jagger had definite plans for that. All he needed was a split second of advantage. It was hard to get the jump on someone who moved like your mirror reflection.

He nearly dropped the video controller in disgust. Killing virtual demons was definitely more aggravating, especially when you couldn’t yell at the game for cheating.

Sometimes, a sword was so much easier.


ANGELS


“So. Three days.” Sonya leaned over the railing. She found heights thrilling and boundless and was grateful to Jagger for showing her the roof top. “I walked, mostly. Rode when I could. Didn’t sleep. Stopped long enough to eat.”

“Couldn’t tell that. You polished off that pie fast enough.”

“What can I say? I like anchovies.” She grinned over her shoulder at him where he reclined on a battered chaise.

He shaded his eyes with the bend of his arm. Such white skin. He didn’t get out in the sun much, did he?

Sonya reached out a hand, feeling a high breeze brush through her fingers, remembering. “Sometimes I’d be on a street and I wouldn’t know how I got there. Like I just came out of a daze. I have so few memories of the last couple of years; what little I had kept looping over and over.”

“I thought your kind spent eternity living in a happy cloud somewhere.”

She cast a playfully stern look at him.

“Truthfully, my home was kind of like that when I was young. I had honestly planned on following in my mother’s footsteps as a healer. I even had my choice of temples narrowed down to my top three.” She turned and propped her elbows on the rail, leaning on them. “Then, something happened. I was…recruited, I guess, although I never knew exactly what for.”

She shrugged. “I’m Seraphim. We’re obedient to His Will, no questions. No need to question. I just went, and—well, next thing I know, those monks were there, telling me to trust my instincts. And those dreams—I suppose I was sleepwalking. This stone guided me. Whenever I wondered if I was on track, it would spark, and somehow I knew.”

He nodded, seeming to follow along. His brows never lifted, though, maintaining that suspicious expression. “Is anything chasing you?”

“If there is, I don’t know it.”

Jagger curled to sit upright and hunched, elbows on his knees, for a moment before getting up and dragging the lounge to the shady side near the door.

She didn’t blame him. Leather clothing trapped heat and, so far, that was all she’d ever seen him wear. He must be baking.

“Is there any kind of threat if you failed?” Jagger asked.

“You mean, such as the world falling to Hell’s dominion? That’s what it feels like. But, there is something in my head driving me. Telling me to find you before it’s too late.” She turned back to the breathless expanse of city for a few quiet moments, taking in each bright glint of sunlight on grass and steel. “I thought I found you yesterday. The stone became exceedingly bright and hot. It wasn’t dawn yet, and I was so tired. At first, I was relieved.”

His expression, easier to see now he wasn’t hiding his face under his arm, gave nothing away. She didn’t expect it to. “But then, I got a very bad feeling. Whatever was out there wasn’t supposed to find me. So, I hid. Some old church, I think, from the way it felt. When the sun rose, the stone quieted, and I ran.”

“Where were you?”

“The first person I saw after that spoke Jontu.”

Jagger chewed his bottom lip. “You said the stone responds to the blood of Tallon.”

She nodded. “Mmm.”

“Anything else?”

“No, if they told me the truth. That was the first time it lit.”

“The closest town that still uses Jontu is eight days away. You sure—”

“The street signs were in Jontu.”

“Well, that pretty much settles that. No other towns are daft enough to use that language if they have a choice.” He crossed his arms and tilted his head back, watching her with narrowed eyes. “Eight days away. And that was yesterday? How did you—”

She shook her head. At this point, she didn’t care how she travelled. Magic or curse, she’d endured those types of things all her life. “More importantly: who?”

He didn’t reply. Instead he rubbed his mouth and stared past her, unblinking.

It made her wonder if there was something behind her and she fought the urge to duck. After a moment, she realized he was looking more to his insides than to the outsides behind her. “Hello?”

“Hmm?” Jagger blinked.

“I thought you zoned out on me.”

“I’m fine. Just thinking.”

She leaned back against the rail and crossed her arms, hugging her ribs. “What were you doing yesterday?”

Jagger shook his head and scowled. “Wasn’t me, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“Then who?”

Jagger sighed and rapped his head against the frame of the chair, hard enough to make her wince. “My brother.”

Her mouth gaped a moment before she reclaimed her voice. “You have a brother?”

“He’s a dick. I don’t trust him, and I don’t keep track of him.”

Definitely not good news, she thought. They hadn’t warned me about another son. Smoothing her expression, she nodded. “That would explain the compass lighting.”

“Explains a lot of shit.” He curled to his feet and wiped his damp bangs from his forehead. “Let’s go in. This heat feels too much like the rim of Hell to me.”


DEMONS


Usually he passed this part of the day sleeping for lack of anything better to do. Although his body didn’t need sleep—and despite never resting easily—sleeping beat having a regular day job. “You said I could ‘ease your pain.’ What kind of pain?”

She opened the heavy rusted door with a smooth pull that surprised him. He never doubted seraphic strength. It was just weird to see it at work in a skinny girl.

Without turning around, she started down the steps. “Have you ever been haunted?”

“Can’t say that I have.”

“Well, the closest I can come to describing the pain would be to say it’s the same feeling a ghost would feel when it’s ripped out of its body. Something is missing and there is a hollow place and there’s a strong chance the next thing to come along to fill it up will be very, very bad.”

“And you feel like that a lot?”

She paused on the steps but didn’t look at him. “All the time.”

“I don’t know how someone like me could fix that. I’m not a good person.”

Turning, she looked up at him. The light pouring in through the doorway made her clear skin glow. “Why do you say that?”

“I kill. I don’t think twice, I don’t feel bad, and I sleep just fine. Well, maybe not sleep. But you know what I mean.”

“Who, exactly, do you kill?”

He shrugged. “Bad guys.”

She smiled, that dazzling flash that blinded him a little. “Then you’re a good guy by default.”

“You keep telling yourself that.”

“I’m not the one who needs convincing.”

Her weighty gaze made him uncomfortable. It wasn’t the kind of look he was used to getting. The softness of it rubbed the raw edges of his personal space. Jagger motioned for her to continue down the stairs, just so she’d stop looking at him. He wasn’t used to this sort of scrutiny.


“Right, right.” Enzo glanced over at Jagger and scribbled a few notes. “I’ll call you back.”

Jagger didn’t even glance up from the television screen. “Let Ionis take it.”

Enzo slapped his notepad on the desk. “They asked for you.”

“And I’m booked.”

“You call this booked?” The agent stomped over to the screen and pointed at it. “Another night of video games?”

“I can’t help it that Lydia chick keeps screwing with my quests. That dope walks right into my line of fire every single time.”

“You haven’t taken a job since she showed up.”

“I needed some R and R.”

Enzo sighed. “I don’t trust her.”

“She’s a divinity, Enzo. What’s not to trust?” Jagger tried very hard to keep a serious expression, but he couldn’t keep from grinning. Sick sense of humor but, hey. A laugh is a laugh.

Enzo wasn’t laughing. “Other than a natural loathing for demons, not mentioning any names?”

“See? I, too, have a natural loathing for demons. We’re like peas in a pod.”

“Mmm.” Enzo tapped his mouth with a slender finger. “And she’s still here…why?”

Jagger shrugged. “She’s got some kind of mission.”

Enzo went back to his desk, lifting the notepad once more. “Not your problem.”

“Maybe it is.” Jagger thumbed the edge of the controller, waiting for a cut scene to end. “She said she had orders to find me. That I’m part of whatever she has to do.”

“Big deal, Jag. She’s on their side. She’s got lots of people that can help her out. In case you forget, you are on a really small team.”

“So? I don’t play well with others.”

“They don’t need to play with you,” Enzo said. “All they need to do is send a legion or two to help with these hell gates.”

“Let’s not start this again. If they wanted to help, they would. I want to help her, so I am.”

“You know, that’s the part I don’t get.” Enzo closed a file drawer hard enough to slam. “You work for coin, not charity.”

“Yeah. That’s the real bite in the ass, innit.” Jagger paused the game and dropped the controller on his lap, reaching to rub his face with both palms. “I kinda owe ‘em this one.”

“You know her? I thought you said—”

“Not her. Never saw her before. But she said a name. And that guy…well, him, I knew.”

“And you owed him a favor?” Enzo’s voice was heavy with doubt.

Jagger couldn’t blame him. He wasn’t known for taking favors. But this hadn’t been a favor.

“More than that. I owe him my life.” Jagger picked up the controller. “He raised me.”

“Oh. That’s the guy?” Enzo was quiet a few moments, mulling it over. “But she said monks. You grew up in a cult.”

Jagger smirked. “Isn’t every monastery a little bit like a cult?”

“Just once, Jag.” Enzo sounded out of patience. Again. “I’d like to get the plain truth from you. Just once.”

Enzo sighed and leaned to pull a leather-bound book out of his satchel. He flipped through the pages before finding the one he wanted. “Did you get a chance to look at that crystal yet?”

“Nah.” Jagger suddenly pounded on the game controller. “Come-on-come-on-come-on-no! Geez! What do you call that? I hit him eight times, and he didn’t budge! What crap!”

“The crystal, Jag?”

“Yeah, what about it? She wears it inside her shirt. It’s creepy how it lights up when I come into the room.”

“Wonder if we can duplicate it? Would come in handy on those jobs where you disappear for days at a time.”

“Only if I’m knocked out. Or bound. Or transported. But other than that, how can you complain? I always call if I’m gonna be late.” Jagger stood to stretch, dropping the controller onto the chair. “Anyways, she might be useful.”

“Useful, how?”

“I’m not the only one with Tallon’s blood.”

“Well, I’m not surprised. Archdemons really sow their unholy oats around.” Enzo’s voice was colored with disgust.

He’s only human, Jagger reminded himself. Sometimes he forgot that Jagger wasn’t. Then again, Jagger had worked very hard to keep his demon blood in check, preferring to maintain his human impression. “True, that. But I’m thinking about one oat in particular.”

“Acheron?”

Jagger nodded, remembering the troubled expression Sonya wore when he’d told her he had a brother. “She said she got a blip near Jontu about three days ago.”

Enzo rocked back, eyes unfocused and falling silent. “Think you can talk her into scouting?”

“Too much of a liability. But maybe we can borrow that crystal of hers.”

“Not you. What would be the point?”

“Duh.” Jagger rolled his eyes. “Ionis, maybe. He’s the only one who’s ever seen Acheron.”

“Uh, he’s your twin, Jagger.”

Jagger clenched his jaw and spoke through his teeth, the words a hiss. “How many times do I have to remind you? He looks nothing like me.”

“As long as you insist on that, I won’t worry about you.” The phone rang, its shrill peal cutting the conversation. Business always came first. Enzo turned back to the desk, pausing just a moment before picking up. “It’s when you stop that means we’re in trouble.”


ANGELS


At the week’s end, the agent finally got Jagger to take a job. Sonya suspected her offering to pay for dinner had something to do with his sudden change of heart.

He needed to get out, that was plain to see. Jagger had become restless, training with sword exercises in the open space of the office, or repetitiously cleaning his guns. Always, his eyes sought the door as if anticipating a knock. Only when Sonya would move or speak would he seem to remember she was present and shake himself of his distraction. Obviously, his mind was on his job.

The job she kept him from doing.

She’d tried reassuring him she’d be fine if he went out, but he overrode it with cautions. She moved on to reminding him of his duties, which he dutifully turned around to say she was his duty. So, she resorted to taking a direct shot at his pride and pulled out her purse.

That did it. He was out the door in less than forty-five minutes. Enzo had sighed with both exasperation and relief before offering a short word of thanks for her intercession. He seemed glad that Jagger was back on the path to normalcy.

Sonya, however, didn’t experience similar relief. Although he was only gone three hours at best, she spent every minute in worry, waiting for his return. Realizing she wasn’t afraid for herself only made the anxiety worse. If anything happened to Jagger, she’d never learn the reason she’d been sent to find him.

To pass the time, she went upstairs and cleaned the apartment, wiping away cobwebs and scrubbing the thick layers of dust off every surface. The busy work occupied her hands and stilled her mind—she’d never been one to sit idly by when there was a task at hand.

There wasn’t a lot of furniture in the apartment; only a bed and a heavy wardrobe remained. Perhaps everything that could be carried off and sold had been.

Or destroyed. There were a lot of wood shards up there.

Inside the wardrobe, she’d found extra linens. Their dry dusty smell told her this was where her current bedding had come from. After pounding the mattress clean, she dressed the bed and cracked a window to let the room breathe.

She surveyed her work. Surely, he wouldn’t mind her staying up here. He probably wanted his couch back.

By the time she’d finished, she heard his boot step on the stoop outside. She nearly tripped on the stairs on her way down. Sonya paused in the doorway. “You’re back.”

“You’re still alive.” He glanced at her. “That’s good.”

She sat down on the couch and watched him draw his sword and lay it on the desk. With a roll of his shoulders, he shrugged off his coat, revealing the scraped leather harness he wore over his bare chest. When he turned to throw his jacket onto the desk, the light slid across his skin, picking out every scar and imperfection.

She couldn’t ignore those marks. Her mother had been a healer, and she was her mother’s daughter.

Jagger dropped onto the cushion next to her and leaned to loosen his boot straps. A long thin ridge arched over his shoulder blade. Without thinking, she traced it with a hesitant finger.

He flinched beneath her touch but didn’t move away.

“These scars are like a road map,” she whispered. “How many terrible places have you been?”

He straightened but didn’t look at her. “All of them.”

The darkness in his voice was cold and drowning-deep. It called to her the way a child would cry for help. She wasn’t accustomed to hearing him use such a tone.

“And did you go alone?”

“Every step of the way.” Jagger pushed to his feet and strode to the desk where his weapons still lay. He pulled each gun free from its holster, flicked open the chamber, and shook out the ammo into a brass goblet. “My line of work doesn’t run group rates.”

She remained on the couch and watched him through her Seraph eyes. His back was streaked with a myriad of silvered lines, each injury and scar glowing. The glow ranged from pale pink to sullen red depending on its degree of freshness. She’d never seen so much damage on a single living being. “But…you don’t work all the time, do you?”

“The day Hell takes a day off, so will I.”

She knit her brows. Her life had been one of a glowing comfort, a serenity that came from the earth below, the Heavens above. Conflict, struggle, war—these things were merely concepts to her. But not him—he experienced those things, yet he continued to persist. “That’s a hard way to live.”

“It’s a hard life. So, what? Everyone has their cross to bear. I just tend to do a lot of killing with mine.”

His causal blasphemy struck a discord within her, but she didn’t let it show. She knew he didn’t mean to insult her. “Turn around, please?”

He turned his head. “Why?”

“I want to see you.” She stood and braced herself, Seraphic sight locked on. “Please.”

Jagger hung his head, looking very much out of patience. With an exasperated huff, he turned in place, his boots clomping. Cocky stance, head back and eyes daring her to say something. But these things she only partially registered because when he turned to face her, his entire upper body—chest, face, arms—glowed with the marks of past insult and injury. And that sickle shape burned into the skin over his heart…

She whimpered, heart-sick to see him in this way. Her mother’s blood cried out at the thought of what agony he must have endured to stand here now, so marred and wounded. Covering her eyes, she dispelled the Seraphic sight and fought the tears.

“Hey.” He was in front of her within moments, pulling her hands down and leaning to peer at her downturned face. “Hey, what’s wrong?”

“You.” Her voice quivered. “You’ve been through so much. Just look at you.”

“I’d rather not. I’m not a pretty guy.”

“Jagger. These scars. You have countless hurts. I can’t see a part of you that isn’t injured.” She raised her eyes, tears brimming on her lower lashes. “Let me help you.”

“What, you’re a plastic surgeon?”

She swallowed and regained part of her composure. “Better.”

He looked alarmed and rocked back on his heels. “You don’t mean—”

“Yes, I do.” She held onto his hands and kept him from backing away. This felt right, this decision. It had to be a part of her mission. Her Seraphic blood ached for an opportunity to do good work. It stirred inside her, quickening her pulse. “I can fix some of these.”

His eyes shifted. “Ah, I don’t think it’s a good idea, doll. Our kinds don’t mix well.”

“Oh.” She gazed at him, uncertainty playing in her wide eyes. For the first time, she doubted herself. What would happen to a demon once exposed to her divinity? “I didn’t think of that.”

He extracted himself from her grasp. “Yeah, well. That’s my job. Always thinking one step ahead.”

Jagger pivoted and walked back to the desk, flipping open his jacket and pulling the vials of Holy Water out of the inside pockets. The water was fresh, glowing with pearlescent warmth. Divinity undiluted.

She noticed he had no qualms about handling Holy Water and took it as a good sign. Without a word, she walked up behind him, slid her hands around to his chest, and pressed a kiss to his wounded shoulder blade.

Her essence trickled into his skin, flowing along the ridge of scar in a streak of heat. Jagger cried out and arched his back, but she held him fast. The scar shimmered, smoothed and faded, until only perfect skin remained. Only once the healing had completed did she let go of him.

Jagger leaned heavily over the desk, palms planted and head bowed. His breath was labored.

Did she cause more pain? Her heart trembled. She never meant for that.

He twisted and sat against the desk, holding onto the edge as if he feared he might tumble off. His eyes were wide, the pupils swelling until the irises were reduced to thin rings. “What did you do to me?”

“I healed that scar on your—” She swallowed hard and backed away, her palms raised. “It was so terrible, I couldn’t help—please, I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

“You…didn’t.” He lifted his arm and rolled his shoulder, hunching his back and stretching his arm out in front of him. “It used to catch right there. How deep did that thing go?”

He reached behind him for his blade, hefting it in an arc over his head to slide it down into the scabbard on his back. He flicked his wrists, cracked his neck, then reached to draw the blade free.

And he smiled.

He repeated it twice more, stowing the blade and pulling it out again, before setting it back on the desk. “Wow. I haven’t been able to do that since I closed the Anthers portal. Not bad, doll. Not bad at all.”

“So…” She eyed him, watching him shrug out of the harness. “It didn’t hurt you?”

“Oh, it hurt all right. That shit stings. But, you know, at the end, there was a little…” He rubbed his mouth and unfocused his gaze. “A cool little glow, like peppermint.”

“I think it hurts more or less depending on the severity. There was a muscle torn underneath. But this one…” She stepped closer and indicated a thin line on his arm but did not touch him. “This is only on the surface.”

She tilted her head. “It wouldn’t take much.”

“You’re not going to kiss me again, are you?”

“Oh.” She chewed her lip. “It’s how I learned to heal. My mother, she’d kiss a scraped knee or a scratched finger. You know, make the ‘boo boo’ go away. Her healing was always connected to the deep love she had for me. I never…”

He eyed her, brows lifted. “Never tried just waving a magic finger?”

“I never tried to heal anyone before. A stranger, I mean. I guess I just reacted.”

Jagger regarded her for a moment.

“I’ve lived through worse.” He shrugged and lifted his arm. “I’m game.”

She cradled his forearm, leaning to press a kiss onto the scar. It warmed like a blush beneath her lips. Pulling back, she inspected the skin. The scar had vanished.

“That tickled,” he said.

Something in his eyes made her linger in her touch. There was something unspoken in his gaze. He cleared his throat as if to speak—

A crash sounded on the porch, a stomping that made the floor tremble. Sonya’s gaze jerked to the door. The lock rattled and the door opened hard, banging against the wall. The doorway was filled with a mountain of flesh and leather. The biggest man Sonya had ever seen.

She backed away without thinking.

He lifted his arm to partially shield her, chuckling. “Ionis, get your ass in here. You’re scaring her.”

Sonya remained behind Jagger, peering at the man called Ionis. He was huge. And human. She blinked, mouth agape. When had humans begun to grow so large?

Ionis shut the door with a deep laugh.

“Sorry, miss. Din’t know anyone was here.” He bowed deeply before her. “I am Ionis, son of Berkhall. At your service.”

“My partner.” Jagger scratched his head. “I’m sorry, Sunny, I—”

She shrugged. There was no point to picking up where they’d left off. Not in front of another person.

“You have business. I’ll give you privacy.” Sonya turned to Ionis. “Pleasure is mine, sir.”

She retreated to the muffled quiet of the upstairs apartment, the touch of Jagger’s skin on her lips a tingling memory.


DEMONS


“It’s not getting any better down there.” Ionis slid a massive axe out of its hip holster and leaned it against the desk. Turning to a chest cooler against the wall, he opened the lid and dug through the ice to retrieve a can of beer. “That hell gate gets hotter by the week.”

“Hmm?” Jagger had been staring at the apartment door, lost in thought. He shook his head to clear it, rubbing his arm. “It’s him.”

“So.” Ionis sighed. “He’s close?”

“Gotta be. I saw this before, in Anthers. Acheron and the gate fed off each other. He figured out how to loop the energy.”

“Look, Jag.” Ionis cracked the beer and drained it in three great swallows. “I know you don’t want to hear it, but we have no choice. We have to get to him and shut him down.”

Jagger sat down in the desk chair, rocking it on its back legs. “There’s gotta be another way.”

“There isn’t, and you know it.”

Jagger’s face went blank, devoid of expression. “He’s my brother.”

“And he’s tried to kill you, more than once. You said it yourself—he’s getting as strong as he was in Anthers. He almost beat you at Anthers.”

“That was a fluke. He can’t beat me. We’re matched.”

“Yeah, but if he gets help from the other side…” Ionis crossed his arms. “That portal was stable enough to allow some pretty high-level demons through. Those third ringers took everything we had.”

“And we did it, buddy. You gotta be proud of that.”

“Are you getting cocky, Jag? I don’t think I need to remind you who is first ring. Once he gets through, it’s over.”

Jagger rubbed his eyes. All this talk about Lucifer made his head hurt. “He won’t get through. Anthers won’t repeat itself here. I just need time to come up with a plan.”

“I got one. Kill Acheron.”

“Listen. I’m not going to kill him, all right? I can’t.”

“He’s nothing to you, man. You can’t hang on—”

Jagger stood, the chair dropping beneath him and falling against the wall. “I’m not. Okay? I just can’t kill him. He mirrors everything I do. How many times have I gone up against him? I can’t even count all the times. You can’t understand. It’s my damned father’s blood. It recognizes him. It’s fucked up, I know it. And it drives me insane.”

Jagger circled the desk and stood chest to chest with Ionis. “I know he has to die. Everything he’s done—these damned hell gates—”

He cut off, clenching his fists. His hatred for Acheron went far deeper than hell gates. It went all the way back to Jagger’s earliest memories. “I know it will only end when he’s dead. But you can’t beat him. And neither can I. All I can do is keep him from getting the jump on me.”

“There has to be something we can do. If he pulls off another Anthers, he’s going to make that gate permanent.”

Jagger spread his arms. “So whattaya think we should do? Pray for a miracle?”

A creak on the step behind the closed door took his attention. It was slight enough that Jagger was sure Ionis hadn’t heard it. How much had she overheard?

He rubbed his mouth. Didn’t matter what she knew.

She was probably used to his sarcasm by now, anyway. Half-demons didn’t exactly rank high up on the list of miracle recipients. He only got whatever he earned, whatever he fought for. It was the only return he had ever expected.

Jagger turned back to the desk where his weapons lay and spoke no more. Ionis, accustomed to Jagger’s habits, simply racked his gear and oiled his armor. He grabbed another beer before leaving for home, leaving Jagger alone in the office.

The sound of footsteps and distant singing overhead made him look up. Not exactly alone, he thought. There had never been footsteps overhead for as long as he’s stayed in this building. It was odd. Unsettling, almost.

Yet…comforting.

Jagger stripped down to his pants and dropped onto the couch, one arm crooked behind his head. A tingle on his forearm made him inspect the skin. That scar was definitely gone. Lowering his arm to his face, he breathed in her scent, lingering from her touch.

Jagger stared at the ceiling long after the sounds from above ceased.


ANGELS


Sonya lay awake long after the sun came up, thoughts churning in her head. She couldn’t sleep for all the noise her brain was making.

She felt guilty about having eavesdropped on the men after she’d left them. She only had meant to linger, hoping for another chance to speak with Jagger. However, the conversation had taken a grim tone, leaving little chance of rekindling an intimate exchange.

Was this the reason she’s been sent to find Jagger? She was more than familiar with hell gates—her kind had been fighting to close them for millennia—but this was the first time she’d found a non-divinity battling them.

Such a complex man, she mused. Jagger had more to his nature than demon’s blood. His sword was dual-natured. His body was dual-natured. Perhaps…his soul was dual-natured, too?

And he had a soul, she was sure of it. She’d peered inside him and had seen it firsthand.

So. Sonya lay under the covers, feeling the air change with the advent of sunrise, listening to the sounds of the night diminish with the dawn. A demon that fights against the forces of Lucifer.

A rebel? No, he couldn’t be so shallow a being. Something else drove him to fight against his brother, something stronger than his fear of the Morningstar himself. Rebellions against Lucifer never lasted long. He was the source of every demon’s power. Rebellions failed because Lucifer simply took back his power from the revolting demons.

After all, Lucifer was the ultimate rebel. His pride wouldn’t allow another to outshine his dark light.

Question was: did Jagger have that same dangerous pride?

She squeezed her eyes shut and whispered a prayer. Every angel knew that pride went before a fall.


Over the days that followed, Sonya fell into a routine. She meditated and prayed when Jagger went out on a job, searching deep within herself for some clue. She’d been raised to heal, to nurture. What could she possibly do to shut down a hell gate?

What if the hell gate was only secondary to her mission?

Now, it wasn’t only the desperate urgency within herself that drove her; it was the weariness she saw in Jagger’s expression when he thought she wasn’t looking.

Jagger didn’t realize just how much she could see.

He also didn’t realize just how close Acheron was coming to his office—and to her.

Sonya began to leave the confines of the office to go walking, usually when Enzo arrived. She made him uneasy, she knew; the human signs of suspicion and anxiety were simple to detect. Heart rate, skin temperature, perspiration—obvious signs he didn’t like when she was around.

Enzo was never rude to her…but she didn’t want to provoke him, either. Jagger valued him. She thought it best if she avoided the agent and let him concentrate on his job.

Going out at night wasn’t the most attractive idea but Sonya had been raised in a culture of sacrifice. It was the right thing to do. Still, she always hesitated on the stoop, unsure she should venture out.

Every time, Enzo’s vibe of relief made her step off the porch and into the damnable night, putting all her faith in the One whom she served.

This city was vast, sprawling for miles in every direction. Jagger’s office was located in an old neighborhood in one of the suburbs. Once, this had been a beautiful area—the architecture was splendid, if not well-maintained, and an over-grown garden park lay some four blocks to the east.

She didn’t have to venture far to discover where the hell gate stood. She couldn’t get very close to it—no untrained Seraph ever would, not without armor and a legion behind her—but she could feel it, smell it, hear it on the wind.

An old warehouse stood on the farthest edge of town, in a neighborhood now deserted by the humans who had grown tired of the paranormal occurrences that plagued the abandoned industrial park. The air surrounding the area was stagnant, thick and sluggish, lending to a sense of claustrophobia.

The hell gate had to be part of the reason why she was led to Jagger. Although she knew Jagger would disapprove, she had to get closer. Her instincts told her an answer lay close by.

She couldn’t allow fear to stop her. She’d come too far already.

One evening, she’d made it as close as the outer barrier, a bubble-like structure that she felt rather than saw. It was a tenacious film that smelled like baking garbage and human waste. Sonya covered her nose at the repulsive odor and backed away but before she could turn and hurry away, the crystal flickered and took up its glow.

Sonya stopped and looked around. “Jagger? Is that you?”

She peered through the darkness, using her Seraph sight. In the distance, deep within the barrier, she saw a figure standing on top of a steel crate some fifty yards off. The moonlight glinted off a shock of silver hair.

With a sigh of relief, she started toward him. The barrier repelled her, knocking her back several steps.

“Jagger,” she called. “I’m right here.”

The figure didn’t answer. Instead, it cocked its head toward her. His eyes glowed a sickly gleam of red.

Not Jagger. He didn’t have eyes that sinister.

Sonya ran and didn’t slow down until long after the crystal had quieted.

She kept the occurrence to herself, fearful Jagger would be angry to learn she’d gotten so close to the hell gate. That was the last time she ventured out at night. Instead, she paced the roof, searching the skies for an answer.

Days passed by, the urgency of her mission growing. She tried to dismiss the oppressiveness of the rooms, convincing herself the feeling came from staying cooped up. She looked forward to the moment late each night when the crystal would light, telling her Jagger had returned.

Although they’d never picked up their intimate conversation, they still seemed to be getting along. Sonya caught him grinning on a number of occasions, although he always did his best to quell the expression. She imagined he was worried about losing his gruff nonchalance.

He never asked when she’d be on her way, never questioned her supposed mission or her plans. He simply expected her to be there when he got back from a job.

One night, long before she expected his return, the crystal suddenly sparked, sputtering into activity. She had been deep in meditation when the heat became too great to ignore. Extinguishing her candle, Sonya opened the apartment door, expecting to see Jagger standing right outside.

The hall was empty. Sonya peered around the corner and down the steps. No one.

Brows furrowed, Sonya went back inside and re-lit the candle. “Must have been a fluke,” she muttered.

“Nope. It’s just me, darlin’.”

She spun to see a dark hooded figure crouched upon the sill of the open window. Beneath the hood lay heavy locks of silver hair. Red eyes gleaming in the shadow. The same man she’d seen at the hell gate.

He wolf-whistled at her. “Well, hello, gorgeous.”

Jagger’s voice, but gruffer, harder, meaner.

Sonya screamed and raced down the steps, charging straight for Enzo. The man looked so surprised he’d jumped up from his chair and caught her, holding her and trying to calm her.

All she had to do was show him the crystal, glowing hot. That brought out Enzo’s true nature.

“Don’t move!” He extended a hand toward the apartment door. It slammed shut.

A piece of lumpy chalk appeared in Enzo’s hand. He drew a protective circle around them on the floorboards, chanting low under his breath. Drawing a small knife from his pocket, he sliced his thumb and dripped the blood onto the chalk line. A flash of red light raced around the circle. When it closed, a veil of energy shimmered up from the floor, encompassing them within a shield of magic.

Blood magic. Sonya realized why Enzo was so wary of her. Blood magic was a sin, an affront to God.

They stood, chest to chest, with nowhere else to look but at each other. He pressed his lips into thin lines, defiance in his gaze.

She smoothed her expression and quelled the urge to preach. This was not the time. There was a much more immediate threat, and Sonya had to make a choice—denounce his display of sin or admit that same sin was saving their lives.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

Enzo merely nodded and dropped his gaze, before drawing her to his chest for a bolstering embrace.

She closed her eyes, welcoming the comfort.

They stood inside until the crystal flickered and dimmed, waiting for it to cool. When they seemed to be out of immediate danger, he scrubbed away a section on the circle. The light fell to the ground like sand, scattering onto the floorboards. As the grains melted, the circle vanished with them.


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