“No,” I whispered, stepping onto the bridge. I didn’t know how I felt to have it confirmed that to Lilith—my mother—I was nothing more than a tool, a weapon in a never-ending war. Anger and disappointment roiled together, and I forced out a rough laugh. What I had meant to Lilith couldn’t matter now. It hadn’t mattered before. “I’m not like her.”
“But you are also not like the Wardens, or so you think.” He chuckled softly, stopping to gaze over the stone wall of the bridge, down to the river below. And what a river it was.
A deep red, the river bubbled and foamed with sludge, and I had a feeling that was where the nasty scent was coming from. I didn’t want to know what the river actually consisted of, but it looked chunky, so I doubted it was water.
“I’m going to tell you a little story, one that you should pay very close attention to.”
I wasn’t sure I could handle another story, but I forced myself to focus.
Removing his hands from his pockets, he lightly placed them on the wall. “When the angels were sent to enlighten man, they failed in the most glorious way. They succumbed to evil and temptation, became gluttonous with food and drink. They fornicated.” Pausing to grin, he glanced at me. “And there were many failures, Layla. So many that the big guy in the sky knew he had a major problem on his hands. These angels were powerful, created after his own virtues, and they were corrupt. They could undo everything he created, so they were to be dealt with, punished by the Alphas.”
Lost in a part of history that had never been willingly shared or spoken of, I was silent as I listened. I was also trying not to breathe too deeply, because the stench was close to knocking me out.
“Some of those that fell, the original angels sent to man, escaped punishment by descending into Hell. The Boss welcomed them with open arms. They are your fallen, the originals that other demons fear. There are those that refer to them as demons, but they are not and have never been created by the Boss or spawned by another demon. It would be wise to remember where they came from,” he explained, tilting his chin up. His shoulders tensed under the plain white shirt he wore. “Then there were those who fell who took their punishment, those pious creatures who realized that they were at fault and whose love for their creator was greater than their desire for freedom. And they were punished. Do you know how, Layla?”
My name drifted off his lips like an arctic blast and I shivered. “No.”
He twisted toward me, leaning against the wall with a confidence in the craftsmanship I did not share. “They were turned to stone.”
I gasped as understanding floored me.
“You see my meaning.” His eyes glittered coldly. “Those who fell and accepted their punishment were turned to stone—and were given horrifying, bestial appearances not just to remind mankind that evil existed, but to serve as a tangible lesson to those who should be above temptation that they too can fall from grace.”
“Whoa.” My head spun. The Wardens originally were angels that had fallen? Suddenly what Roth tauntingly called them—heavenly rejects—made sense. He’d known, but had always said it hadn’t been his story to tell.
“For many centuries, those penitent fallen remained entombed—until the Alphas woke them to combat the rapidly expanding demon population and the Lilin who were created so many centuries ago,” Grim went on, turning his gaze back to the river. “They didn’t wake all of them, Layla. Some still slumber. Even your clan wouldn’t know that, but those whose sins were most offensive are those still trapped in their punishment.”
“God,” I breathed, thinking of all the gargoyles adorning the buildings just in DC alone. This whole time I’d believed man had simply carved them.
“Those who were awakened became the first Wardens, but their punishment had changed them. That is why they have two forms, and it is also why, in their true form, they resemble the very creatures they are charged with dispatching. Ironic, isn’t it?” He smiled again. “I am sure your clan hasn’t forgotten their true history, but they would love to, wouldn’t they? The only beings more arrogant than the Alphas would be the Wardens.”
There was another thing I couldn’t deny. “This is all fascinating, but—”
“Why am I telling you this, the history of your mother and the race that raised you as their own? You want something from me, but I want you to understand what you are.” He pushed away from the wall, facing me from a mere foot away. “You stand before me, cowering like a helpless girl.”
The hairs were standing along the back of my neck again. “That’s because you are...you are the Grim—”
“I know what I am. At least I can say that. You can’t.”
“Yeah, I get that, but—”
His hand snapped out, wrapping around my throat. I’d taken my last breath before I knew it. Panic flooded me as I reached up, gripping the massive hand. I willed my body to shift, but Grim smiled as he lifted me clear off my feet.
“You can’t shift. Not here. Cayman did not tell you that? Foolish demon, he tends to leave out important information. You’re not from this realm, child, therefore you cannot take your true form here,” he said, lifting me even higher. “I could snap your neck in a second and do you know what would happen?”
I would die.
Wasn’t like I could say that since I was busy trying to conserve whatever oxygen was left in my lungs, which wasn’t much. My chest was burning, my heart pounding fiercely.
“It would hurt. It would knock you out, but no, you would not die,” he continued, as if he could read my thoughts. “Frankly, the only thing that will kill you is an iron dagger to the heart or if someone cuts off your head.” His words were breaking through the burning haze, but they made little sense. “Fire? Nope. Falling from a hundred stories? It cannot kill you. Gutted? No. Once you understand that, you will be stronger and fiercer than any Warden to walk topside, and even Upper Level demons will flee your presence.”
Suddenly he released his hold on me. I hit the bridge, staggering into the stone wall. It crumbled like ash under my weight, falling into the teeming water below. I teetered on the edge, arms flailing.
He caught me by the arm, hauling me away from the edge and against his chest. The full body contact was like cuddling up to a snowman—a psychotic snowman. My skin chilled, and as I exhaled roughly, then dragged in air in huge gulps, a misty cloud formed in front of my lips.
“Now do you see what I’ve been trying to show you, the purpose of all my stories? You are not a demon. You have never been a demon, you silly girl.”
YOU’RE NOT A demon.
I stopped struggling for air as I stared into his cold eyes. What he’d told me about Lilith and the Wardens had rocked me, but now I was struck stupid by pure disbelief. “That doesn’t make sense,” I gasped out.
“Why? Because your clan believes you to be one? Because the Prince has never said differently? That’s what he’s been told by the Boss, because if the Upper Level demons knew what the Boss had done for Lilith all those years ago, they would not be happy. No demon likes the idea that the Boss has played favorites and still does. The Prince had no reason to believe differently. To all of them, you feel like a demon, only because you feel like an original fallen angel.” His grip was tight, bordering on cruel. “If you paid attention to my story, you can follow where I’m going with this.”