Nothing in the world compared to flying, to the feeling of the cool air rushing through my loose hair or sliding over my warm skin and along the curve of my spine, between my wings. I was so high, so far above the domes of the Adirondack Mountains that when I opened my eyes, I felt as though I could reach out and touch the stars or rise straight to the Heavens.
Which would be problematic if it happened. Somehow I doubted the Alphas would appreciate a Warden suddenly breaching their pearly gates. I laughed at the thought; the sound lifted and blew away on the wind. One couldn’t just fly into heaven. As with Hell, there were doorways all over the world, giving entry to those who knew how to find them and had reason to cross their thresholds.
During the past three years, much to my father’s displeasure, I’d spent every evening in the sky. Females weren’t supposed to fly alone or do anything other than pop out babies and raise and teach the young, but none of the males were as fast as me. At least none that were around or mattered or...
I cut off the train wreck of a thought process before it could derail me and ruin the lovely early-summer night.
Down below, the caps of the Adirondacks didn’t seem so large and unmovable. No. They appeared soft, like marshmallows. Between the peaks, lakes glistened like shiny vats of onyx and the forest was thick and virtually uninhabitable. Once, I had flown to all forty-six peaks of the Adirondacks, traveling into Canada and then back to Washington County.
A burst of wind caught the underside of my wings, causing their horns to tingle as the current lifted me up as if I was caught in a bubble. For a moment, the change of atmosphere, the pure quality of the air, caused my lungs to constrict and I couldn’t pull in enough oxygen.
There was a brief spike of panic at not being able to breathe, but it faded in the rush, in that moment when instinct took over and my brain held no control over my body.
I freefell, wings tucked in close, eyes wide open and mind blissfully empty of thought, as was my chest, void of the haunting ache that usually festered like an untreated wound. These moments were rare, when there was no obligation to my race or threat of death or memories of those I’d loved and lost. I cherished those brief, beautiful times.
And as always, this one was over too quickly.
Halfway back to Earth, I unfurled my wings, slowing my descent so I didn’t pancake into the side of a mountain. Soaring over the peaks for several miles, I dipped into the valley above Greenwich and glided low over the modest town.
Six years later and it was still weird not to worry about being seen by humans. Nothing like scaring the bejeezus out of a human or two by swooping down on them unexpectedly like a giant bird of prey.
The Wardens had stepped out of the shadows, making themselves known to the human world when I was twelve, and as expected, there had been a teeny-tiny bit of chaos among humankind in response to seeing legends and myths become a very real truth.
For thousands of years, my kind had been thought of as nothing more than the stone sculptures perched upon the rooftops of homes and churches. Aka gargoyles. And technically, that’s what we were?but the depiction of a gargoyle was vastly exaggerated. Even the ugliest of all Wardens didn’t have a bulbous nose or fangs jutting from his mouth. It was rather insulting when you thought about it.
Leave it to humans to get their facts wrong. Just as they misjudged the true nature of our kind, humans also had no idea that demons were everywhere. Some looked just like them, while other demons had no hope of ever blending in. But everything changed six years ago when there was an uprising in Hell. It wouldn’t have been the concern of anyone topside, except that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of demons had been forced out of Hell by the Big Guy, causing them to spill into the human realm at a rate never seen before. No one, not even the Alphas, seemed to know exactly what caused the uprising, but the level of demon activity all around the globe had gone through the roof. Wasn’t like demons hadn’t mingled with humans before and we’d managed to stay in the shadows and in our human forms, but there were just too many demons now, causing way too many problems and appearing way too human.
The Alphas—those who called the shots—had decreed that the Wardens come out of the shadows. That due to the increasing demon populace, we could no longer operate without the public knowing about us.
So the gargoyle was out of the stone, so to speak.
Alphas were like urban legends. I’d never seen one with my own two eyes, but I had felt them when they’d come to speak with my father. They were the most powerful of all angels and also the most frightening. Alphas were not warm and fuzzy or nice or even generally friendly on a good day. They saw things only in terms of black and white, evil versus good and wrong versus right.
And since they’d created us, they could also undo our very existence if they wanted. I pushed those thoughts away. Thoughts of being obliterated were a mood killer.
After the panic and chaos died down, there had been a million questions we didn’t answer and all of us had become skilled at deflecting. Most humans thought we were like Loch Ness or Big Foot. A legend that had been proven true.
If they only knew...
There were rules that even demons had to follow, and the biggest one was that humans were to remain ignorant of the presence of very real evil in the world. Some kind of BS about free will and what not—that humans needed to have faith that a Heaven and a Hell existed without proof. Seemed stupid to me. If the Wardens and humans could rally together, then maybe many lives would’ve been saved, including my mother’s.
But it was the way it was. Humans either thought the Wardens were superheroes fighting crime, or that we were the Devil incarnate.
You win some. You lose some.
I landed on the flat roof of our ancestral home a second before I registered another shadow in the sky, drawing close at a fast clip. A jolt of surprise shot through me as I recognized my father’s regal silhouette. He wasn’t supposed to be home! I shed my true skin quickly, taking on my human form a half breath before he hit the ledge in a crouch.
One look at him and I knew it was too late.
Yep. He knew.
Crap on a cracker.
My father rose to his full height, standing close to seven feet. His wings, spanning several feet on either side of him, rippled as he stepped over the ledge, causing the roof to tremble under his sudden weight. In his true skin, he was an intimidating sight to see. His flesh was the color of granite and would be just as hard to touch, making him and all Wardens almost indestructible. Two dark horns parted his mane of black hair, each curving into a fine, wickedly sharp point. His nose was flat, nostrils thin, and his eyes, normally the color of the sky at dawn, were now a vibrant electric blue.
He was my father, but as the head of the New York clan, he was the most powerful of all Wardens here. Even I knew to tread lightly when he was in a mood. And apparently he was in one now.
The curve of his jaw jutted out and his eyes flashed. “Jasmine.”
My back straightened, as if steel had been dropped down my spine at the sound of my name. “Dad?”
“You were out there again.” It wasn’t a question.
He made it sound as if I was chilling in the Gaza Strip instead of merely flying over mountains. I decided to play the old avoidance game. “I thought you were in New York City.”
“I was.” As he strode toward me, he too took on his human form. The effervescence of his eyes faded as his wings receded into his skin and his features became more commonplace. But he was no less fearsome as he stared down at me, and it took everything I had to match him, glare for glare.