Guardian Demon

guardian demon cover

In this thrilling conclusion to the Guardian series, New York Times bestselling author Meljean Brook delivers another stunning page-turner, in which the fate of humanity depends upon a tortured warrior winning the trust—and heart—of the woman he wounded…

After a terrifying encounter in Hell destroys her trust in Michael, the Guardian’s powerful leader, former detective Andromeda Taylor is ready to call it quits as one of the angelic warriors and resume her human life again. But when demonic forces threaten her closest friends and she uncovers a terrifying plot devised by Lucifer, Taylor is thrown straight into Michael’s path again…

To defeat Lucifer, Michael needs every Guardian by his side—and he needs Taylor more than any other. The detective is the key to keeping his own demonic side at bay, and Michael will do anything to protect her and keep her close. And when Taylor manifests a deadly power, her Gift might tip the scales in the endless war between Heaven and Hell…or it might destroy them both with a single touch.

The Story So Far

Are you starting with this book? Do you want a series refresher before starting the next? Catch up on The Story So Far in the Guardian series primer.

<– The previous book in the series



READ AN EXCERPT

Chapter 1

Detective Andromeda Taylor’s life had ended with a kiss.

As dying went, a kiss wasn’t the worst way to go out. It sucked that she’d been shot first, though. The lead slugs ripping through her chest had hurt like a son of a bitch. But throwing herself in front of bullets aimed at her partner wasn’t a bad way to go, either—and during her career she’d investigated most of the bad ways, had seen all of the pointless ways. Saving Joe at least gave her death some meaning.

Now Taylor was in Hell, her pistol in hand and a wary eye turned toward the crimson sky. A wasteland stretched around her. Tall, jagged boulders littered the barren sands. As far as she could see, nothing moved. Nothing flew overhead. No sun or moon brightened the endless, bloody bruise of the sky. She didn’t know where the reddish glow that illuminated the realm came from. She didn’t want to know where the rotten stench came from. Something—or a lot of things—had died down here, and she didn’t want to meet whatever had killed them. Not everything in Hell was dead, including Taylor.

The bullets should have killed her. But after she’d sacrificed her life, the Guardians’ leader had changed her into one of those angelic warriors. Surrounded by a brilliant white light, Michael had transformed Taylor while cradling her in his powerful arms. His firm mouth had covered hers, tasting her lips, taking her breath.

And the reason behind this stupid trip to this stinking realm was that damned kiss.

Michael hadn’t just taken Taylor’s breath with that kiss—he’d stolen her blood and forged a connection between their minds. Then, because Michael was a big damn hero, he’d deliberately broken a bargain with a demon and sacrificed his life to save the world, even though it meant his soul would be trapped in Hell, tortured by Lucifer in the frozen field that surrounded the demon’s tower.

A big damn hero—and a big damn bastard. Michael hadn’t warned Taylor that he intended to link their psyches with that kiss, and he hadn’t asked her permission to do it. Three months after her transformation and his sacrifice, she’d woken up with Michael’s dark presence lurking in her head, like a long-distance connection to Hell that she couldn’t break. For more than a year now, Taylor’s brain hadn’t been her own. He’d known her every thought and action. He’d saved her life when she’d been threatened by demons and nosferatu—but to save her, he’d taken over her mind and used her body like a puppet’s.

They’d eventually come to an agreement on that—Michael could take over and fight when her life was threatened, but he wouldn’t force Taylor out of her own head if she didn’t want to go.

Then he had forced her, and Taylor was done with him.

Until then, she’d tolerated his presence in her head because he had saved everyone—and there was some hope that he could be brought back to life. As a Guardian, she possessed a mental storage space that could hold weapons and any other items; Taylor’s hammerspace also preserved Michael’s lifeless body. Without it, he’d stay dead, so she kept his body safe for him—even though carrying it deepened their psychic connection. Taylor had hated that, too, but she’d tolerated him because the world would be safer with Michael in it.

As a human, she’d tolerated him for the same reasons. She’d hated that the Guardians butted in on her investigations and turned the legal system upside down, faking evidence and skipping straight over fair trials by handing out executions, but she also understood that police departments didn’t have the resources to capture or imprison nosferatu and demons. So even though she’d disapproved of their methods, Taylor couldn’t deny that the Guardians fought on the side of the humans, and they were all better off for it—and Michael was the most powerful Guardian, the most dedicated. He’d protected humanity from Lucifer and his demons for millennia. Compared to that, complaining about sharing her headspace for a few years seemed like the petty whine of a spoiled brat, and Taylor couldn’t have tolerated herself if she’d become that. So she’d been determined to soldier through and wait for his escape from the frozen field.

Then he’d broken his promise and betrayed her trust. It didn’t matter that Michael had been protecting her when he’d done it; after he forced Taylor to abandon a woman who’d desperately needed her help, she refused to tolerate him anymore. Then, as if in answer to her prayer, a halfling demon’s sacrifice had destroyed the frozen field and Michael had been released from his torture. Now his soul only needed to return to his body, and Taylor would be free.

According to Khavi, an ancient Guardian who understood magic symbols and spells and how to stick someone’s soul back into his dead body, the process would be as easy as pie.

Khavi was also crazy and a liar.

Nothing about this was easy. Lucifer’s torture had shredded Michael’s humanity, ravaging him to the core. Sure, his soul had been released from the frozen field—but he’d emerged in the form of an enormous, fire-spitting dragon.

A ravenous dragon. He’d chomped his way through a legion of demons surrounding Lucifer’s tower. The Guardians hadn’t been able to catch up to Michael in Hell, but they’d seen the destruction he’d left behind. A city had been flattened, black marble reduced to rubble. Roasted demon corpses littered the red sands, some partially eaten. God knew how many he’d completely devoured.

Though the Guardians had searched, not one had seen the dragon. Those Guardians who could teleport attempted to use Michael’s psychic scent as an anchor and jump to his location—but they’d only teleported to Taylor’s side. Others had put themselves in danger, flying over demon armies and perilously close to Lucifer’s tower, hoping Michael would come bust their asses for their stupidity. No dice.

Obviously Michael didn’t want to be found, so he’d have to come to them. And because his mind was still linked to hers, because she could still feel Michael’s dark psyche prowling through her brain like a hungry beast, Taylor was the bait.

Bait! Fifteen thousand years of combined experience between almost fifty Guardians, and the best plan they had was tossing Taylor into Hell like a worm on a hook.

“Just walk around,” Khavi had said. “He’ll come to you.”

Taylor couldn’t imagine how Khavi would know that. The other Guardian had a Gift of foresight and prophecy, but she hadn’t been able to see anything of Michael’s future after he’d been released from the frozen field. But when Taylor had asked how Khavi knew that Michael would come, the other woman had answered, “It’s in his nature.”

After hearing that, Taylor had barely stopped herself from telling Khavi to fuck off. The seer hadn’t predicted that Michael would turn into a dragon. Obviously, she didn’t know his nature as well as she thought.

Neither did Taylor. She’d known Michael wasn’t a normal Guardian. She’d known that he was the son of the demon Belial and a human woman. She’d known that demons weren’t fertile; to impregnate a human, Michael’s father had first consumed the flesh and blood of a dragon and his body had been transformed by it. She’d known all of that, but who could have guessed that Michael’s soul would become a dragon? Not Taylor, though he’d lived in her brain. Not even Khavi, who was the offspring of another human and demon pairing.

Now that dragon might be coming after Taylor, and none of them knew whether a bit of Michael still existed in that form, or if he was like the dragons in the Chaos realm: hungry, destructive, and almost unstoppable. They were all hoping that Michael was still himself, because he’d always protected Taylor. But the truth was . . . he might just eat her.

God. What had she done to deserve this? She’d been a good daughter, a good cop. She’d never betrayed a friend. She’d never cheated on a lover. She’d never deliberately hurt anyone—well, aside from the criminals she’d had to throw down, but they didn’t count.

Life wasn’t fair. Taylor knew that. All too often, decent people were hurt and the bad ones got away with it. Tweakers killed good cops and then had their charges reduced after ratting out their dealers. Mothers worked their fingers to the bone, then handed over their salaries to pay someone else to care for their comatose sons. There were millions of people who deserved better and got worse, and that was just the way the world worked. But if some almighty being was up there giving out superpowers to Guardians and transforming angels into demons, Taylor thought life should be fair. People should get what they deserved.

Taylor didn’t deserve to be eaten by a dragon. But that was exactly how this fishing expedition might end.

And that would be a really stupid way to go out.

If she did become dragon chow, though, it would be her own fault. She could have refused to act as bait. She could have told Khavi to fuck off. The other Guardians would have respected her decision. But the world needed Michael back, and Taylor needed to be free of him. If that meant playing the worm, she’d play the worm.

So here she was, walking through Hell, hoping that he’d come for her. After he arrived, Khavi had a plan to trick him back into his body—a plan she hadn’t shared with Taylor, because through her psychic connection with Michael, he would know it, too. Of course, through their connection, he would know they planned something. He might already be a few steps ahead of them.

Or behind her.

A faint rasp sounded, like the scuff of a foot over sand. Heart jumping into her throat, Taylor whipped around. She scanned the barren territory, her eyes and weapon moving as one.

Nothing. Only the jagged boulders, strewn across the wasteland as if a god had crushed a mountain in his fist and tossed the pieces away.

A god . . . or Lucifer.

A shiver ran over her skin. Taylor forced the demon’s name from her mind. Thinking about the lord of Hell probably wouldn’t alert him to her presence in his realm, but she didn’t want to take any chances. Khavi had deliberately brought her to a territory far away from the demon’s throne so that Taylor would escape his notice.

Yet she must have attracted someone’s attention. Something had made that sound. On Earth, she might have blamed it on a breeze, but no wind blew in Hell. She held her breath, listening over the rapid beat of her own heart. Silence. But she couldn’t trust her ears. A Guardian’s hearing was far superior to a human’s, but her brain hadn’t fully recalibrated since her transformation. When Michael had been a strong presence in her mind, he’d made those mental adjustments for her so that knowing the distance and direction of any noise seemed instinctive. Though he was still in her head, he wasn’t doing that anymore—and that rasp could have been ten feet away or a thousand feet.

Hopefully a thousand. And hopefully made by a small creature, like a wyrmrat. As long as they didn’t come in a swarm, Taylor could deal with the scaly rodent beasts. Other things wouldn’t be so easy.

Whatever was out there, it had probably smelled her. Guardians didn’t have much of a natural odor, but Khavi had carved a symbol into Taylor’s chest with the tip of a flaming spear before bringing her here. Normally, such a shallow injury would have mended by now, but the spear had once stabbed through a dragon’s heart and absorbed that creature’s power, and even a Guardian couldn’t heal quickly from that weapon. The scent of raw, burned flesh likely wafted through Hell’s stench, calling to the monsters here like blood to a shark.

Maybe it called to a hungry dragon, too. Right now, Michael might be coming because he smelled a tasty snack. It’s in his nature. Taylor really hoped that wasn’t what Khavi had meant.

Supposedly, the symbol was part of Khavi’s plan to return Michael to his body. The woman had carved similar demonic symbols into Michael’s body just before he’d kissed Taylor and transformed her into a Guardian. Those symbols had linked their minds and strengthened the bond between Michael’s soul and his flesh, so that when Taylor took his body into her hammerspace, the link between their psyches also deepened.

The symbol between Taylor’s breasts apparently reversed that process. Khavi hadn’t let Taylor see the glyph that she’d carved, because Michael would see it through their mental link, too. Taylor had pointed out the stupidity of that—he might not know what the symbol said, but he would know it was there and that they were trying to bait him—but Khavi had only shaken her head and said the same damn thing:

“He will come. It’s in his nature.”

So maybe Michael was just the curious sort and couldn’t resist coming in to take a look. It hadn’t mattered in the end, anyway. Taylor hadn’t watched when Khavi used the burning spear to write the symbol. She’d been too busy gritting her teeth and trying not to scream.

But being free of Michael would be worth the pain.

Where was he? Her gaze searched the sky. Empty. She turned and studied the horizon. A smudge in the far distance might have been a phalanx of flying demons or a cloud of nychiptera. Whatever they were, they didn’t worry her. With her Guardian eyesight, Taylor could read the number on a license plate from a half mile away. If she couldn’t see them well enough to differentiate between demons or giant bats, they were obviously too far to threaten her—at least for now.

She’d keep an eye on them. And if they came closer . . . well, then she was screwed. Like any other Guardian, Taylor could form wings—but she couldn’t fly yet. Michael had always done that for her, too, and even though she’d practiced flying on her own, she hadn’t realized how much he’d been helping her before he’d stopped. Until then, flying had been yet another skill that had seemed instinctive.

It wasn’t. She just flapped around like a wounded chicken. If any demons or nychiptera came, she’d have to rely on Khavi to rescue her.

Yep. Khavi’s plan had shaped up into a brilliant freaking idea, all right.

Unless . . . if Michael had made that noise, then this really had been the right plan. Taylor looked to the boulders again. No movement. That didn’t mean much. Some Guardians could force false images through another Guardian’s psychic shields, creating illusions. Michael was already in her head and past her mental defenses. He could be standing right next to her and she wouldn’t know it until she heard him.

Or felt him. With a quick thought, Taylor vanished her shoes into her hammerspace. She waited, her toes curling against the hot sand. She’d learned this from Michael—even when she couldn’t see or hear something coming, bare feet could detect vibrations and movement.

She didn’t sense anything. If Michael had made that sound, maybe he was still waiting. If it hadn’t been Michael, perhaps it had been Khavi—hiding and watching to make certain that nothing ate her before Michael got his chance. And if it hadn’t been either of them, Taylor prayed that whatever it was would run the other way.

Then again, maybe it was waiting for her to run the other way. Or just waiting for her to look the other way, so that it could sneak up behind her.

Still holding her breath, Taylor pivoted and stared at the boulders ahead. Come on, she urged whatever it was. Come on out and let me see you. This wouldn’t trick Michael. He’d know that she was waiting, listening. Still, there was no reason not to give a little mental incentive to him, too.

You know you want me, Michael. A yummy redhead. I’ll probably taste like ginger.

And a little stringy, but that was partially his fault. The demons’ fault, too. Taylor hadn’t coped all that well in the years between discovering the Guardians existed and her own transformation: smoking too much, drinking too often, not eating enough. Now nicotine didn’t do anything for her and she couldn’t get drunk—and she still looked just as thin. Hardly an appetizing mouthful.

Of course, any dragon that ate demons who were covered in scales probably wouldn’t care if she was a bit bony.

A slight tremor under her feet. A whisper of sand behind her. Taylor spun around, gun raised, searching for her target. There, a thousand yards away, maybe. A hulking figure emerged from behind a boulder. A huge form. Eyes glowing red.

Six eyes. Three heads. Taylor’s heart stuttered. Not Michael. Not a wyrmrat or a dragon.

A hellhound.

It paused, watching her—a predatory beast sizing up its prey.

Taylor’s stomach dropped and rolled into a sick ball of fear. Only a little over a half mile separated them. Not far enough. Not nearly far enough. Frozen, terrified that any move would provoke it into chasing after her, she stared across the distance.

She’d encountered hellhounds before. One served as a companion to the woman who directed the Guardians’ investigations on Earth. Khavi kept another as a pet. Both were puppies, stood taller than Taylor’s head, and scared the crap out of her even when they were playing nice. She didn’t think this hellhound intended to play nice—and it was no puppy. Fully grown, probably over two thousand years old, it appeared almost as big as Lucifer’s hellhound, Cerberus. Taylor couldn’t have reached its belly with her hands raised. Each of its giant heads possessed a mouth full of serrated teeth, with fangs as long as her arms. Barbed fur spiked through crimson scales, creating a mangy hide of armor that could shred flesh.

Her gun wouldn’t do shit. Even a shot to one of its eyes would barely slow it down. Taylor maintained her aim, praying the hellhound didn’t know that. It probably hadn’t seen a pistol before. Uncertainty was the only thing holding it back now.

That wouldn’t last long. Hellhounds weren’t just big, mean dogs. Though not as smart as a human or a demon, they could analyze and reason. Soon it would determine that Taylor didn’t pose a danger—and realize that since she hadn’t already escaped by air, she couldn’t fly. Then it would come after her.

What to do then? Her mind raced, searching for options. All of her guns were useless against it. Her skill with a sword was nonexistent. She should have brought a rocket launcher, but even that might not work. Hellhounds were too fast. By the time she’d fired a missile, the hellhound could already be on her.

She needed the spear that Khavi had used to carve the symbol into her chest. Taylor had once used the flaming weapon to intimidate Cerberus—and even if this hellhound wasn’t scared away, the spear could penetrate its scaly hide.

But she didn’t have the spear because Khavi needed it for her damn plan.

Her shoulders tensed as the hellhound took a careful step forward. Testing her. In a few seconds, it would realize she wasn’t a threat.

Shit. Shit! Being ripped apart by a three-headed monster dog would be a really bad way to go out, too. The only option: running like crazy. She couldn’t outrace it. Guardians were faster than anything on Earth, but compared to a hellhound she might as well have been human. She wouldn’t have to be faster, though. She just needed to reach one of those giant boulders before it did. Hellhounds could jump, but she didn’t think they could climb.

Taylor pictured the terrain behind her. The nearest boulder stood a quarter mile distant. With her Guardian speed, only a few seconds away.

The hellhound took another step—then bounded forward. A hundred yards in a single leap.

She was so dead.

Taylor pivoted and fled, opening her mental shields and projecting her terror like a scream. If Khavi was out there, she’d sense Taylor’s fear—and now would be a really, really great time for a rescue.

But Taylor would be damned before she ever relied on anyone else to save her.

She tucked in her elbows and sprinted faster. Sand flew from beneath her feet. The boulder loomed near. But so was the hellhound, closer, louder. It thundered behind her, the pounding of enormous paws as it landed and leapt again—then suddenly not leaping, but racing, the drumbeat of each step so much quicker than hers. Only a few seconds to run a quarter mile, but those seconds were stretching out into a forever that was ending on a low growl and hot breath on her neck. The boulder was only a few steps away but the hellhound was right at her back. Oh, Jesus. She wasn’t going to make it—

A deafening roar spiked her eardrums in the moment before she was hit from behind. The push between her shoulder blades felt absurdly gentle, like a nudge—but at this speed, even a nudge tossed her forward off her feet. Her balance destroyed, Taylor skidded across the sand, friction abrading her palms, ripping through the knees of her trousers. She smashed into the boulder sideways. Pain flared through her hip and shoulder. Instinct screamed at her to curl up into a ball, to make her body as small a target as possible. No damn way. Maybe the hellhound meant to play with her before tearing her apart but she wouldn’t make it easy. Scrambling to her knees, she whipped her gun around, aiming for where the hellhound’s middle head should be.

Holy shit. Disbelief dropped her mouth open. The hellhound was sprawled on the sand, pinned and struggling beneath the talons of an enormous dragon.

That roar hadn’t come from the hellhound, she realized. That had been Michael. Protecting her.

A laugh swelled up, relief and astonishment rolling into a giddy mix. She climbed to her feet and stared. God. She’d only seen the dragon from a distance—she hadn’t realized he was so big. He caged the hellhound to the ground with a single clawed foot tipped with curving talons. His body was the length of a jumbo jet, and his tail half as long. Leathery wings lay folded against a massive back. He bent his head, and amber scales rippled over powerful shoulders and a thick neck.

Enormous jaws engulfed the hellhound’s torso. With a sickening rip of flesh, the dragon tore the beast in half—and swallowed the howling heads in a single gulp.

Oh, Jesus. Taylor stumbled back. Her shoulders hit stone, her heart thundering. No safety could be found climbing the boulder now.

“Khavi,” she breathed, not daring to close her eyes as Michael devoured the hellhound’s remains. “He came. Do your magic. And get me out of here.”

The other Guardian didn’t appear. Desperately, Taylor tried to teleport—but that was Michael’s Gift, not hers, and he wasn’t letting her use it.

But he must have felt her trying. Finished with the hellhound, Michael lowered his giant reptilian head and looked at her with glowing amber eyes.

Taylor froze. On a second’s thought, she vanished her gun. It wouldn’t do any good, and threatening him might not be the smartest idea. Holding up her empty hands, she tried for a smile and hoped that showing her teeth wouldn’t be considered a challenge.

“Hey, Michael,” she said, and her voice shook as badly as her body did. “Thanks for swooping in before I became hellhound kibble. It’s really good to see you.”

God, he would know she was lying. He’d know how badly this dragon form was scaring her.

She tried again. “We’ve been looking for you, but you know that. I really need to talk to you for a minute, though. Not in my head. Face-to-face. And I can give your body back to you.”

Or she could drop the body and run. It might slow him down if he stopped to eat it.

The dragon stepped forward. Taylor flinched back against stone, instinctively cringing away—but he wasn’t coming closer. He seemed to be retreating. Leaving? Oh, no. That wasn’t part of the plan.

But the “Wait!” that jumped into her throat stuck there. Michael wasn’t leaving. Instead he was shape-shifting into a human form, decreasing in size. Within the space of a second, he crouched less than twenty yards away. Relief joined the surreal realization that a huge dragon—and the giant hellhound inside his stomach—could shrink into a man-sized body. She’d seen some crazy things since learning about Guardians, but this had to be one of the weirder events she’d witnessed.

And despite Taylor’s doubts, Khavi apparently did know his nature. Michael had protected her. That shouldn’t have been surprising. Even when Taylor had hated him for it, Michael had always protected her.

But of course he did. If Taylor died, then his body in her hammerspace would be destroyed, and he’d be stuck in Hell forever. Protecting her life was the same as protecting his own.

Oh, now her cynicism was showing. She should give him more credit than that. Back when she’d barely tolerated the Guardians, she’d still admired how they watched each other’s backs. Just like cops did. Just like Taylor and her partner always had. And Michael, the first Guardian and their leader, watched everyone’s back. So the only real surprise was that, after months of evading the Guardians, he hadn’t flown off again—despite knowing that Khavi had a spear and a plan. Perhaps he was as eager to get out of Taylor’s head as she was to be free of him.

That idea didn’t please Taylor as much as it should have. Instead, thinking that he was ready to be rid of her started an ache in her chest. So stupid. She was so messed up. Getting him out of her head was exactly what she’d wanted, and it looked like she was about to get her wish. This called for celebration, not cynicism and regret.

But when Michael rose to his feet, the smile she forced to her lips locked into place. Unease squirreled its way down her spine.

He appeared more human—but not completely human. And not like Michael. Overlapping scales plated his body, a warmer amber than the dark bronze of his skin. Stretched over a frame of segmented bones, membranous wings arched over his head instead of his own black feathers. A demon’s horns curled back from his temples. And he’d always been big, but not like this. Michael had a warrior’s body, strong and tall. The first time she’d seen him, Taylor had pegged him at six-four and two-twenty. Now he stood at least seven feet tall and a hundred pounds heavier—a good portion of it in the caveman’s club of a dick hanging between his thighs.

And he was walking toward her.

A panicked laugh gurgled up her throat. She swallowed it before a sound emerged. Michael was in her head, so he had to know she was scared, but she refused to show it.

She focused on his eyes instead. They were pure obsidian—no whites, no irises—but that was normal, not frightening. Michael’s eyes had often looked like that before he’d sacrificed himself.

“Okay. Hi.” She raised her hand in greeting. “I’m glad you’re looking at least a little human again.”

His smile revealed two rows of sharpened teeth and pointed fangs. Oh, God. Not normal.

“Human again.” He spoke with exaggerated care, as if tasting each syllable against those razored teeth. “Andromeda.”

Another tremor of fear rattled her. That wasn’t Michael at all. Not the one she knew. His voice usually created a beautiful harmony, like a chorus of voices singing together. Now there was only one voice. Dark and hollow, like the echo from an abyss.

He continued walking toward her. Thirty feet away. Coming closer.

“Okay, that’s close enough.” And when he didn’t even slow down, fear ratcheted up to terror, shaking through her. “Michael, stop!”

He didn’t. She called in her gun from her hammerspace. Her clammy palms felt slick on the grip, but she held the pistol steady and aimed at his forehead.

A bullet to the brain wouldn’t kill him. But it’d drop him to the ground for a few minutes.

He still didn’t stop.

“No, Michael. Just stay there.” She didn’t want to shoot him, but he had to know she would. “We can talk with this distance between us. So just stop. And listen. The Guardians need you back on Earth.”

He was still coming, still smiling. “You need me?”

“Yeah. Caelum has fallen apart.” The Guardians’ realm lay broken, nothing but piles of shattered marble where a beautiful city had once stood. “Khavi says it’s because you were tortured, but that you can put it back together by singing or something.”

With a forefinger tipped by a sharp talon, he touched the center of his forehead. “Caelum isn’t here anymore.”

He wasn’t linked to the realm anymore? Great. “Okay. But there’s more. The spell that broke you out of the frozen field strengthened the barrier between Hell and the Chaos realm, but Khavi still sees Lucifer finding his way into Chaos. And from Chaos, into Earth. If he does that, he’ll bring along dragons and who knows what else. We can kill one or two dragons, but more? God knows how many people might die. So we could really use your help back on Earth. But to do that, you need to return to your body.”

“What help would that be? A dragon could kill me in that body. One has killed me before.”

“Well, yeah. But that’s what Guardians do, right? We try to help people even if it’s dangerous. And you set that standard, so you don’t get to wimp out on us now.” Thousands of years ago, sacrificing himself to kill a dragon was why the angels had offered him the powers of a Guardian. That was Michael, the big damn hero. But this was a different Michael—and he was only ten feet away. “You have to stop now. I don’t like the way you’re smiling. I don’t like the way you sound, and you’re scaring the shit out of me. One more step and I’m shooting a ball of lead through your skull.”

He stepped, damn him. Taylor fired.

She barely felt the recoil. The report cracked in her ears—followed by a dull clink! The bullet flattened against the scales armoring his forehead and fell to the sand.

Michael didn’t even flinch. His long stride never faltered.

“Oh, shit.” she whispered and stumbled back against the boulder again.

The cotton of her T-shirt felt damp, and her pistol slick in her grip. God. Guardians didn’t perspire except under severe emotional distress, but sweat was practically squirting from her pores.

This was extreme fucking distress.

He loomed over her, coming to a halt with the barrel of her gun digging into his chest. The slow, rhythmic thud of his heartbeat reverberated through the steel, into her palms. Heat radiated off him—hotter even than a demon, whose skin felt feverish to the touch. Taylor had heard that a dragon’s heart was like a furnace. Apparently Michael’s was, too.

His big hand folded over the top of the gun, engulfing the weapon in his grip. A sharp talon scraped her forefinger. Shuddering, Taylor let go and jerked her hands back—then immediately wished she hadn’t. Without her arms extended and braced, nothing separated them.

But after she imagined flattening her palms against his scaly chest to hold him in place, she kept her hands where they were.

“I can’t die here.” He dropped the pistol to the sand. “Even if you cut off my head or slash through my heart.”

The only ways to kill a Guardian . . . or a dragon. Taylor swallowed hard. “Okay. Since you’re invincible, maybe you should go kill Lucifer, then.”

Maybe he should go right now.

“I will.”

“You haven’t yet.”

“The coward hides from me. But you do not.”

Another panicked laugh bubbled up. Lucifer obviously had more brains than she did. “And what will you do after you kill him? Rule over all of Hell?”

“I have no desire to rule. Only to burn every demon to ash.”

Taylor could get behind that idea. “That sounds great. But before you do that, we need to talk about getting you out of my—”

His head dipped toward hers. Taylor choked, turned her face away. There was nowhere to go—but this wasn’t what she’d thought. He wasn’t aiming for her lips. He bent lower. Polished horn pressed against her jaw. Her body shaking, she remained absolutely still, his heat warming her chest like an oven.

With his mouth hovering an inch from the curve of her neck, he inhaled. Smelling her? His eyelids drifted closed, as if he were savoring the scent.

Did she smell like food? An image of those sharpened teeth flashed through her mind and a terrified whimper built in her throat. She desperately needed to think of something else. What had they been talking about?

Demons. “So you’ll burn them all.” It emerged trembling and faint. “Then eat them?”

“Some. But the hunger never ceases.”

Oh, God. She shouldn’t have asked. “Killing them all is a good plan, though.”

Where was Khavi with her plan?

“With one vulnerability.” Michael’s head lifted, and he looked down at her with unreadable obsidian eyes. A sharp talon skimmed down her cheek. “Give the body to me.”

She’d feared he might say that she was his weak spot. But giving his body back, no problem. That was why she was here—to dump it from her hammerspace and be free of him.

Yet she hesitated. This wasn’t the Michael she knew. “What will you do with it?”

“Consume it.”

She forced herself not to shudder when his claw traced the shape of her mouth. “You couldn’t return to Earth if you did.”

“But I could destroy all of Hell.”

Like a dragon would. Consuming, destroying. Khavi had said the torture of the frozen field had stripped away Michael’s humanity. Was this all that remained? Was this what lay at his core?

She prayed that wasn’t true. “And if Lucifer reaches Chaos first?”

“I don’t care.”

That dark, hollow voice. Taylor closed her eyes, shook her head. This was not Michael. Not Michael at all. He’d sacrificed his life to stop Lucifer from doing that very thing because he cared.

His talons curled under her chin, pricking the soft skin. “You want to be rid of me, Andromeda.”

Yes. She couldn’t lie about that. But she didn’t want Michael dead or trapped in this realm for eternity. That was why she’d put up with him in her head, why she’d carried his body around all this time. Not many Guardians were left. There weren’t enough of them to fight if Lucifer escaped from Hell. Every single Guardian mattered, and Michael was the strongest of them.

They needed him back. So why wasn’t Khavi here to finish this? Michael had come.

“Because it’s in my nature,” he said.

That terrifying smile stretched his lips again. His hand fell to the front of her shirt. Shocked, Taylor grabbed his wrist, tried to pull it away.

“Don’t you dare—”

Cotton shredded like tissue. A claw sliced through her bra. Oh, fuck that. Furious, she lashed out with her foot. Her kick should have shattered bones. Her punch could have fractured rock. He shrugged them off, catching her wrists, pinning them over her head with one hand.

Gritting her teeth, she waited . . . but this wasn’t what she’d thought, either. Though he stared at her naked chest, that thick club between his legs wasn’t hard.

He must have felt her relief. “That is not in my nature.”

Sex, or forcing it? “Because you’re half-demon?”

Those creatures could perform the physical act of sex, but they couldn’t feel arousal. She’d never questioned whether Michael could. Maybe she should have.

“No. I have experienced those needs. But there is nothing I have not done many times over in many different forms. The appeal was lost thousands of years ago. Your body does not tempt me to try again.”

Oh. Well, that was . . . really fucking cruel. The bastard. He’d been in her head. He had to know how many times she’d imagined him being tempted and trying—and how quickly she’d always repressed those thoughts, feeling slightly blasphemous and guilty. But she couldn’t help having them. He had a face like sculpted granite and his body was her personal sexual fantasy come to life. Of course she’d imagined him in bed.

But this was for the best. He’d only been a fantasy; she’d never wanted sex with him to become a reality. And now that she’d seen this hunger and cruelty at his core, he’d never interest her again.

Still, his words made her chest ache. But she wouldn’t show it. She wouldn’t show it.

It didn’t matter. He knew it. Strong fingers caught her chin, forced her gaze to his. “You feel pain over such words? You misunderstand. Your body does not interest me, Andromeda. But you do. When I am invulnerable, I will claim you as my own and fill you with my seed.”

Taylor sputtered on a hysterical laugh. He couldn’t have just left it at her unappealing body? Because this didn’t make her feel better. “Keep dreaming, asshole. Even on the zero chance of that happening, your seed isn’t filling anything. I’m a Guardian, so that means no kids. Ring a bell?”

“I do not want children. I want to possess you in every way, to make you mine.” His hand tightened around her wrists when she struggled. “I will keep you close and protect you.”

“No, thanks. Really. I’ll take care of myself.”

“As you are now?”

Fucker. Her jaw clenched as she stared back at him, gathering every bit of hate and anger inside her before projecting it outward. Unmoved by her rage, his flat obsidian gaze held hers for a long moment before dropping to read the symbol between her breasts. She blinked with surprise when she felt the touch of his healing power, then gasped as pain flared through the raw flesh. The warmth of his Gift immediately vanished.

“It has to be cleansed with fire,” he said softly. “I will kill her for doing this to you.”

Khavi? Arms still pinned over her head, Taylor looked down at her chest, trying to ignore her tits on display. The skin surrounding the symbol appeared swollen, infected. Just looking at the wound seemed to make it hurt more.

Taylor despised having to ask him, but she wanted to know. “What does it say?”

“‘Release.’”

“What will it do?”

“Take me from here.” His thumb brushed her temple. “Just as you wished. But destroying the body will do the same. Give it to me.”

This time she didn’t hesitate. “No. Not when you’re like this.”

“Then there is another way to destroy it.”

Gently, his hand wrapped around her neck. Icy horror slithered through her veins. He only had to rip off her head and the body in her hammerspace would be forever lost.

“Make your choice, Andromeda.”

Decide whether to let him kill her? Cold sweat trickled down her spine. “You wouldn’t do it.”

His fingers tightened. “No?”

“No.”

She wheezed past his hold on her throat. Choking didn’t matter; she didn’t need to breathe except to speak. His dark gaze bored into hers—perhaps wondering if she was as certain as she sounded. Taylor was certain. He’d protected her, after all. He’d tried to heal her. She had faith that he wouldn’t kill her now.

Stupid, maybe. But she couldn’t protect herself, so that faith was all she had left.

The seconds drew out. She couldn’t stand this. “Do it, Michael. Or don’t. Just stop fucking around.”

His grip eased, but her relief was short-lived. With a sharp smile, he bent his head again. “Perhaps I can convince you to give me the body . . . one bite at a time.”

Still holding her wrists, he pulled her up, off her feet. She tried to wrench away. The weight of his body held her in place. His fangs pinched the side of her neck and she froze, fear wracking her frame with involuntary tremors.

God. Would he really torture her? She couldn’t see his eyes, his face—but Michel knew she’d feared he would eat her. Maybe he bluffed, trying to terrify her?

Maybe he wasn’t bluffing. Michael wouldn’t kill her, but maybe he would hurt her. After all, he could just heal her.

But Taylor knew that a part of her would never heal from that—and she couldn’t summon even an ounce of faith in him now.

One bite at a time. Damn him. She would survive this. Let him do his worst.

“Go on, then. But even if you chew down to my bones, I won’t give the body to you.”

His mouth was a brand against her skin. The pinch of his fangs became a piercing pain, and beyond their points were his sharpened teeth. She braced herself for that bite, the shredding agony. God, would he really do this? Would he really tear a piece of her away? Her eyes burned. The crimson sky blurred.

Damn him for that, too.

“I might cry,” she said hoarsely. “I might scream. But I won’t give it to you.”

The moment stretched out, endless. Was this more torture, drawing out her horror and fear? He could draw it out all he wanted. She wasn’t going to give him a goddamn thing—

“I know you will not,” he said against her neck. “And I cannot, either.”

He hadn’t been extending the torture, then. He’d been trying to work himself up to biting her, and he couldn’t follow through. Thank God. He couldn’t kill her, couldn’t hurt her. There was nothing he could do to her.

So why wasn’t he letting her go?

The touch of his healing Gift soothed the pain at her neck. A burning lick up the length of her throat followed. Taylor shuddered, recoiled.

His left hand gripped her hip, held her still. “So we will sate your hunger, instead.”

Her hunger? But she wasn’t— Oh, God.

Arousal burst inside her like a summer storm. Wet. Hot. Electric. Her body arched, straining against his. Her bare nipples brushed his chest. The delicious rasp of his reptilian scales wrung a moan from her throat, but this wasn’t sexy because he still looked like a giant demonic monster, and he wasn’t hard or tempted, and this wasn’t her, this was Michael—

“Get out of my head!” Her shout cleared the fog of need. Taylor swung her knee, slammed into dick but didn’t produce a flinch. “You bastard! You can’t kill me or hurt me, so you play with my brain? Threaten me with dragon sex? Are you trying to frighten me or just piss me off?”

Darkness swamped her mind. He was taking over again. Screaming, Taylor fought his possession, but she couldn’t stop herself from lifting her lips to his, from sliding her tongue between his razored teeth to taste the burning heat of his mouth. A desperate sob built in her chest. Tears spilled as she deepened the kiss. Oh, God. It didn’t even matter what he did with her when he took over her mind. That he did it against her will was horror enough.

His hand cradled her jaw. Still holding her mind tight, he lifted his head. “I’ll keep you with me for eternity, Andromeda. I’ll use you as a brainless puppet. Your body will live, but you won’t be truly alive—”

You rotten fucking bastard!

The shout rang inside her head. She shoved him out of her mind with a scream of rage. Tears still burned her eyes but not in horror and desperation anymore. Only fury remained—and she was done. Done, done, done. A puppet? He’d use that against her? It wasn’t even a threat. Even if Michael could hurt her, even if he ripped out her brain, that wouldn’t give him his body as he’d wanted. No. He’d only threatened that because it stabbed the most painful part of her, opened the wound that never healed and poured acid and salt into gaping flesh. And he’d known to do it because he’d been in her head, because he’d seen her little brother lying in his bed, his mind gone but his body still living on.

Not a threat. Just deliberate cruelty.

And if this was at the core of him, if this was his nature, then he wasn’t a Guardian—he was the kind of monster that the Guardians wanted to destroy. So he could have his goddamn body. Just as he’d wanted.

She met his obsidian gaze, felt his triumph, and realized he’d pissed her off just so that she would give it back. It really didn’t matter anymore. He could have it, and stay here in Hell where he belonged.

“Fuck you, Michael,” she said.

She dropped his body out of her hammerspace and onto the sand behind him. Now he’d have to let her go to eat it, and she’d get the fuck out of here.

But he didn’t move. And she hadn’t known that getting rid of his body would feel like this—her chest painfully tight, as if filled with sudden pressure. She stared up at Michael. Over her head, the grip of his fingers holding her wrists loosened. His arm dropped to his side but she didn’t fall back to the ground. The pain in her chest became agony. Blood spilled from his mouth . . . and she could taste her own. She looked down between them.

Oh, God. A long spear impaled the symbol between her breasts, so deep that she couldn’t see the spearhead. Blood coated the steel shaft. Michael’s blood. The spear had stabbed through his back, then all the way through her chest.

Khavi.

Taylor couldn’t see the other Guardian behind him, only a familiar muscled form with dark bronze skin and lifeless limbs. His body from her hammerspace, skewered with them. So this had been the plan. No wonder Khavi hadn’t shared it with her. Khavi hadn’t just considered Michael’s nature—she’d known Taylor’s nature, too. Taylor would never have given his body to this dragon, not until he pushed past her limits with his cruelty, not until she was done with him and said her final “fuck you.” Khavi had known. And they’d both fallen perfectly into place. Now the spear connected them all. Michael’s body, his soul—and Taylor, who’d linked them together.

A thrum resonated through the steel shaft. In front of her, Michael’s dragon form shrank again . . . but not shape-shifting. Held motionless by pain and shock, Taylor watched as he melted back, as if slipping along the bloodied spear—and was sucked into the symbols that Khavi had carved into Michael’s body on the day he’d transformed Taylor, on the day he’d sacrificed himself.

His soul, returned to his body. And his life . . . ?

His eyes opened. Amber. Human. His gaze locked on hers and his body surged forward on the spear.

She flinched back and he froze. His hand lifted toward her.

“Andromeda.”

She wanted to tell him not to call her that, he knew she hated that name, but she couldn’t speak past the blood in her throat. But at least that had been his voice. His voice. A harmony. Michael was back. Why wasn’t she free? She felt him in her head, dark and protective, building up her psychic shields and pushing away the agony. His healing Gift slipped along the spear, still impaled through their chests—he wouldn’t be able to heal her, not a wound from that weapon, but he was trying. She was safe, though; she’d survive this. It hadn’t touched her heart.

His gaze fell to the symbol. Release. His amber eyes darkened to obsidian, realization and denial tearing through his mind and echoing in hers.

Khavi yanked the spear back.

Excruciating pain tore a gurgling cry from her, but that wasn’t all that went. Bits of her bone and flesh clung to the spear. Michael’s big hands rose to catch her even as the spear’s head, dripping with her blood, jerked back through his body.

And her mind didn’t release him. He was ripped away, and she screamed as his psyche tore free with bits of hers still clinging. He caught her as darkness filled the shredded remains.

No white light, no kiss. Just darkness and pain and the stench of Hell, wrapped up in Michael’s arms.

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