Wings of Redemption
by Sarah Gilman
Humans and archangels don’t mix on the best occasions. When Saffron Morin goes to the gates of the demon colony, Eden, in search of her sister, she meets an archangel who is curious one minute and hostile the next, and she ends up the colony’s “guest” against her will.
Kestrel’s archangel psychic talent tells him the human woman’s life is in danger. Despite her family’s association with poachers who hunt archangels for their valuable feathers, he vows to save her life. Enemies by birth, lovers by choice, they give in to growing attraction as days pass.
Even if he succeeds in saving her life, he must hurt her to protect others of his kind, and he may not be able to live with himself after a betrayal he has no choice but to commit. In order to find redemption, the Collector’s daughter and an archangel must first find each other.
© 2012 Sarah Gilman
Saffron got out of her car and approached the gates of the demon colony, Eden, wishing she’d written a will. No way she’d walk away from this alive.
“Hey!” she spat out. “I want to talk to someone, right now!”
Security cameras hung on either side of the bulky, wrought-iron gate. Despite the windy evening, she stripped off her coat and stood there in her tight-fitting jeans and tank top, the breeze lifting her elbow-length hair off her shoulders. She held her arms out and turned in a circle. “I have no weapons!”
The maple trees that lined the gravel road swayed in the wind. Lush leaves rustled and birds took flight. Nothing else moved. “Crisse de Tabarnak!” she swore in Quebec French. “Someone had better get out here and tell me what you did to Thyme!”
She paced in front of the gate. If her sister was still alive, Saffron had to try to get the demons to release her. If Thyme was dead, she deserved a proper burial.
“Crisse!” She covered her mouth and sobbed. Her sister was probably rotting in the woods.
The demons’ equivalent to police and bodyguards, the Guardians, didn’t take prisoners or show mercy. They couldn’t afford to, what with all the aggression and ire directed at the colony. The majority of humans, even those who weren’t religious, feared and hated the demons and fallen archangels.
Just as she’d been taught as a youth to avoid talking to strangers and to look left and right and left again before crossing the street, she’d been cautioned over and over to avoid Eden and the forest that surrounded it. Children grew up fearing demons, creatures with venomous fangs and night vision. That fear drove her rapid heart rate and trembling hands, but nothing would make her back down.
Though Eden had experienced a golden age of sorts since Quebec’s Quiet Revolution—in which the increasingly secular society of the province took a substantial amount of power away from the Roman Catholic Church—most people remained suspicious of their nonhuman neighbors. Add the poachers who hunted the archangels for their valuable plumage, and the result? Nasty, uncompromising Guardians. “Cowards! Either shoot me or give me answers! I’m not leaving!”
Twilight gave way to darkness. Shivering, Saffron pulled her coat on and sat. Thank goodness for the tissues she’d stashed in her pockets. She dabbed the tears from her face.
Saffron started and lifted her gaze from her hands. The half-moon illuminated her surroundings in shades of black and white. A man crouched on top of the stone wall to the left of the gate, his elbows on his knees. Wings draped on either side of him, casting long shadows across the ground. His feathers swayed in the wind. She couldn’t make out his features in the low light, but the size of his falcon-shaped wings alone made her whole body shake.
“Maudit,” she whispered. Damn.
“And while we’re at it, who’re you?” The archangel leaned forward.
Her voice froze in her throat, but she reached for her left hip out of habit, the instinctive reaction of a career photographer. She’d left her camera in the car. Intent on helping her sister, work had been the last thing on her mind. She got to her feet.
A real, live archangel. How many years had she and Thyme tried to get this close to one? But now, her sister wasn’t here, and this was far from a photo shoot.
A fierce gust hit the archangel broadside. He beat his wings, balancing himself with ease, never taking his gaze off her. “You can’t expect me to believe you’re mute, miss.”
“I’m here for my sister,” Saffron managed to say. “Thyme.”
“I don’t recognize the name.”
“Of course you wouldn’t. Your Guardians shoot first and don’t ask any questions at all.” She glanced around. The darkness and dense vegetation gave away nothing, but given the presence of the archangel, demons must be lurking all around her. Because of poachers and the high price some people paid for the incredible feathers, Guardians protected the fallen archangels with lethal dedication.
“I’m asking questions,” he said. “You haven’t answered all of them.”
She squared her shoulders. “I’m Saffron. My sister hasn’t come back after going into the woods with a group of poachers last week. She’s not answering her cell phone.”
“She came out here with poachers,” he repeated, speaking slowly. “And you expected her to come back alive?”
“She’s a photographer!” Saffron fought back a fresh wave of tears. “A thin-as-a-rail, overly made up diva who probably shrieked at the first speck of forest dirt that touched her shoes. No one who gave a shit could have mistaken her for a threat.”
“And no one did. Eden’s Guardians haven’t come across any poachers in months.”
She folded her arms. Thyme had gone with a group of competent outdoorsmen. No way they just disappeared. “Tell me the truth.”
“I am. If your sister has come to harm, you should look to the company she was keeping for answers.”
“They wouldn’t have hurt her.” Poachers got away with hunting archangels, despite vague laws that protected the creatures, largely because they avoided getting caught breaking any other laws. These particular poachers worked for Saffron’s father, for Christ’s sake.
“Then I suggest you hurry home and contact your authorities.” He glanced toward the sky. “The weather is supposed to be abysmal this coming week. No time to be lost in the woods.”
She held her ground. If she walked away empty-handed, what would she do next? Leave it to the police to search the hundreds of thousands of acres of forest around the demon colony? What were the odds of finding a missing person in rural, central Quebec? And what if the colony was, in fact, involved? The demons remained her best hope. At a loss, she stalled. “Why is an archangel out here talking to me, anyway?”
“I wanted to.” He shrugged. “I don’t make a habit of hiding behind my Guardians, to their dismay. I’ve often been told my curiosity will get me killed.”
“So you’re the colony rebel?”
He grinned. “I suppose.”
“Why are you curious about me?”
“Well, it’s not every day a human woman storms the gates. And you were crying. The Guardians in charge of the front gate aren’t known for being gentlemen.”
“A gentleman would tell me the truth about my sister.”
“I am telling you the truth. Look, I know what it’s like to worry about a loved one.” His voice quieted. “I understand, but we have no answers for you. It’s getting late, and it’s a long drive to the nearest human town. You should go.”
“Or she could stay here,” a new voice said, threat heavy in his tone.
Saffron whirled around. A tall man in black clothes—a Guardian, certainly—stood in front of her car, not ten feet away. He stepped forward, his movement soundless on the gravel. She backed toward the gate, her footsteps crunching over the loose stones.
The demon appeared human, except his eyes reflected the moonlight. His closed lips concealed upper and lower sets of venomous fangs—even a minor bite would kill. She’d taken a class on North America’s three demon colonies and had learned a lot. Money well spent.
The demon glowered as he moved, stalking her in the dark.
“What? Why?” The archangel flew over Saffron’s head. The wind from his flight whipped her hair into her face. She raked the strands away, her heart in her throat. He dropped to the ground, keeping a distance between both her and the Guardian. Darkness obscured the exact colors of his feathers, but the archangel’s feathers progressed from light to dark to darker. He folded his wings with a whoosh, like closing heavy drapes.
A second demon stepped forward from the darkness and stood within inches of the archangel.
Saffron pulled her tactical flashlight—a tiny gift from her Navy Seal cousin and identical to the one he himself carried—from her knee-high boots. Perfect for blinding a human assailant or even hitting one on the head, the intense light from the little self-defense tool would drop a demon better than a gunshot. Their eyes, built for night vision, couldn’t handle bright light. She pressed the button, but aimed the beam at the ground.
The first demon smirked. “You claimed to be unarmed.”
“I am unarmed.” She forced her voice to sound calm even though her hands shook. She shrugged. “This is just a flashlight.”
“Smart girl.” The demon didn’t sound daunted in the slightest. Merely amused.
“Virgil,” the archangel snapped. “She hasn’t done anything.”
The demon glanced at him. “She admitted to knowledge of poachers. We have the right to detain and question her.”
Oh, hell no. Saffron took a deep breath. She’d have one shot at this. Blind the demons and make a run for her car. Three…two…
“Don’t you want to find your sister, Ms. Morin?” The demon took a step closer. “Daughter of Abel and Claudia Morin, correct?”
“Abel Morin, the Collector?” The archangel’s tone hardened.
“Don’t bother lying, sweets,” the demon said. “Saffron Rose and Thyme Camellia, the Morin sisters. We know who you are. Who your parents are.”
In a noisy burst of movement, the archangel took flight and disappeared beyond the gate. Then the demon who’d stood at his side turned and vanished into the shadows.
Virgil clicked his tongue. “So much for your advocate.”
“Look, my sister and I aren’t poachers. We don’t collect archangel feathers like our father. We co-own a photography magazine and drink too many lattes. I just want her home safe.”
“And I want to keep the colony safe. Tell you what. You cooperate, and we won’t hurt you. You tell us everything you know, and we won’t harm your sister when we find her. We’ll make sure you both get home safely.”
Saffron didn’t trust for a second the exaggerated sincerity in the demon’s voice. “You’re going to kill me.”
“Ms. Morin, I detest you and your family, but no, contrary to popular opinion, we’re not lawless savages and we don’t kill anyone who isn’t personally trying to kill us or our archangels. We need and want to build peaceful relations with humans and human governments. You are just a young woman with a flashlight, not worth a public relations shit storm with Canada. Behave, and you will walk away.”
Before she could respond, hands grasped her arms from behind and squeezed until she dropped the flashlight. She bit back a scream and a curse, holding herself rigid. The demon shoved her toward the gate, which opened in a smooth, silent motion, nothing but dark trees beyond. Body shaking from adrenaline, she tried to dig her heels in, but Virgil took her arm and dragged her into Eden.
Kestrel landed on his private terrace and glanced back, telling himself to leave the woman to her fate. He’d never interfered with the death of an enemy and had no reason to start. As the daughter of the Collector, she deserved no mercy.
However, he continued to stare in the direction of the gate, his shoulders heavy. Had she personally ever done anything to harm his kind? Would she, if given the chance? Wasn’t there a human saying about not punishing someone for the sins of his or her father?
Or was it the other way around?
Pondering the situation, he stared out at the night-shrouded demon city, which stretched for over a mile. His home near the top of the clock tower afforded him the best view in the colony. Far below, demon-fire lanterns hung off the buildings, providing street-side light just right for demon eyes and sufficient for the archangels and few human residents—those humans who were in rare relationships with demons.
The lanterns swung in the persistent wind like amber fireflies. So peaceful, unlike the woman’s ongoing “death whispers” in his mind. His psychic ability to mentally hear the voices of individuals near death never ceased to make him sick to his stomach, even after five hundred years of life.
Please take these cuffs off. I’m not going to run, I swear. His psychic talent didn’t drain his energy as quickly as some other archangels experienced, but it didn’t spare him, either. He stretched, fighting the growing fatigue. He’d have to find sugary food if this kept up for too long.
“What the hell was that all about?” Decimus stepped out from Kestrel’s single-room home. He must have run, even up the stairs, to have made it back from the gate so fast. As usual, the effort hadn’t even winded the Guardian. The red flush on the demon’s face indicated only his mood. “I should clip your damned flight feathers. Have you gone suicidal?”
Kestrel tensed and flicked his wings, but let the offending words slide, even though the threat of a feather clipping—serious or no—would get any other demon thrown in Eden’s prison.
“You’re right to be angry—”
“Damn right I am! I wake up, you’re gone, and I find out you’re at the front gate? She appeared harmless enough, but she could have been working with poachers, Kes. She could’ve had a gun or been a diversion for a sniper. There are a dozen ways you could have been killed tonight. For the first time in three centuries, I actually thought I might lose you.”
Kes had never seen his dedicated Guardian so rattled. No words came.
“You’ve always been rash. This was downright reckless.” Decimus met Kestrel’s gaze, his spooky orange eyes bright despite the darkness. “What were you thinking, going out there without me?”
“She’s going to die. Soon.”
A pause. “You can hear her?”
“Shit. Damn it.” The demon took a deep breath and held it for a moment. “Still. You should have left her for Virgil to deal with or waited for me to wake.”
“There was no time. I wanted her gone before Virgil got there.” Kes sighed. He absolutely would have deferred to Dec, but demons slept only once a week and nothing on the green earth could wake them. Literally. “I had a choice to make and I made it. The only person I knew for sure wouldn’t kill her was me.”
Dec cracked his knuckles, his brow furrowed. “Virgil is an ass, but you and I both know death has a bottomless bag of tricks. Maybe she has a heart condition.”
“One way or another, it’s going to happen.” Kes shook his head. “My bet is on Virgil.”
“The woman aside, I know we walk a carefully drawn line. You’re not a prisoner or a child and I’d loathe to treat you like either. My purpose is to keep you breathing, not have your feathers mounted in a display case by the likes of Abel Morin. But I can only protect you if you want to be protected. Do you still require my services, Kestrel?”
Kes stared. “Of course I do.”
“Perhaps it’s time we gave our professional relationship an objective look and consider making some changes.”
He wasn’t thinking of leaving, was he? “You’re my friend, Dec.”
“Exactly. I’m your Guardian and your friend, but you still landed on that wall while I was sleeping. If you get killed, it’s both my charge and my friend I’ll have to mourn. If you don’t care about your own neck, I can’t stay.”
“Give it some thought. I’ll do the same.” His expression unreadable, Decimus turned to leave. But he paused and glanced back. “The woman. You’re going to give up on helping her now?”
“I don’t know.”
“She isn’t her old man by default.”
“Sure as hell doesn’t make her a friend. You, of all people, are defending her?”
“There’s no one I wouldn’t kill to protect you, but I never kill—or let someone die—if it’s not necessary. Even a Morin. It’s up to you to be a better man than your enemies. Now that she’s in colony custody, and I’m fucking awake to protect your ass, there’s no danger—she’s been searched for weapons and confined. Still, you wouldn’t have turned your back on this woman a century ago, not without proof of her direct involvement with poaching. Have you really become so bitter over the years?”
“You want that?”
Kes rubbed a painful knot in his neck. “No.”
“Then get down there and talk to Virgil. They took the woman to town hall.”
Decimus left, but didn’t really leave. The demon was never far—an invisible shadow at every moment of every day, except when he had to sleep. Kestrel had counted on the Guardian since he moved into Eden three hundred years ago, and he couldn’t imagine spending the closing years of his life without his constant companion. They were like family, the only family Kes had left. Had he endangered that by going to the gate that night?
Cold and nauseous, Kes spread his wings and dove off the terrace. He had to finish what he’d started.