The Morning Star – Debra Dunbar

The blaze bubbled up inside him, warm and sweet. Unhinging his jaw, Coapt launched a stream of fire just under the back end of a car, melting the metal and igniting the gas in the tank. The sound of the explosion thrilled him, as did the screams of the people fleeing down the street. Another two blasts, then he turned his attention to a building to his left. The lunch crowd was riveted, many of them with forks suspended halfway to their mouths as they watched the chaos on the street. He could practically read their thoughts. They were wondering if it was safer for them inside the building as opposed to outside where the pavement was scorched and bits of fiery debris rained down. They were deciding it was safer inside. They were wrong. Unhinging his jaw once more, he retracted his fangs, drew his clawed hands backward, then launched himself forward to give the blast the added force of his momentum. He could turn the whole block into a furnace if he wanted, but he needed to hold some back, just in case things went wrong and he found himself having to launch defensive maneuvers against a foe far stronger than this paltry gate guardian hiding behind a statue. Metal hit his back. Pain radiated outward as he felt another blow. He turned, yanking the parking meter from his shoulder and melting it in his hands. Misshapen coins dropped onto the sidewalk.

Flashing his fangs, he took a step toward the gate guardian. “Hurry. Hurry,” she whispered, her eyes huge and terrified as she stared at him. Something akin to arousal roared through him at her fear. He longed to kill her, to take his time and listen to the little angel scream as he took her apart. Her wings would be beautiful mounted on the wall of his home in Hel. He’d helped kill the other gate guardian, but to have an angel all to himself…the idea was so tempting that he was nearly overcome by it. But the price he would pay would be death, and he wasn’t willing to die for a paltry gate guardian. Disobeying the Ancient never ended well. He’d seen that with his own eyes.

Death itself wasn’t a big deterrent, but that death was. The Ancient was one scary motherfucker. And Coapt had seen enough Ancients in his lifetime to know this one was different. This one deserved respect and obedience. Leave this little angel alive…for now. That had been the command, and with it the implicit promise that whoever pleased the Ancient would receive special privileges. He just hoped those privileges came his way and included an angel of his own to torture and kill. There weren’t that many of them—not enough for every demon to have one. He only hoped he proved worthy enough to receive his very own angel to kill at his leisure. But at the moment, he hoped the enforcer would hurry, because this little gate guardian was shredding his control with her wide eyes and defiance and fear.

And there were only so many more human establishments he could destroy before he risked weakening himself to the point where self-defense might prove difficult. There was a flash of light, and a grim-faced angel appeared before him, sword upraised. It wasn’t the sword, thankfully, but he’d been told that these lesser powerful copies could still kill him dead—if the blow rang true, that is. Without even a glance around the scene, the angel swung, and Coapt jumped out of the way. What the fuck? Dick. He’d heard these angels were supposed to try to convince him to go back to Hel first. Either this guy hadn’t gotten the memo, or that piss-ass little gate guardian had somehow managed to let the enforcer know that he’d been killing humans. Instead of listening to a lecture he was now scrambling backward, ducking and dodging the lightning-fast blade. Trying to buy himself some time, he sucked in a gulp of air and blew out a stream of fire. The angel threw his arms in front of his face, blocking as much of the fire as he could.

When he lowered them, he was singed, but barely harmed. Good. He’d get in trouble if this angel was too injured to make it to his destination. The delay gave the demon time to pull a small talisman from the leather pouch around his neck. It gave him the shivers just to touch the thing—a tattered decayed feather that still held enough personal energy to link him to its owner. Now. He hated this part. It made him feel as if he was being stretched like a piece of taffy, then shaken violently. This time was worse because he wasn’t just being yanked halfway down the coast, he was leaving a stream of energy behind like a trail of breadcrumbs. It fucking hurt, but whatever the Ancient commanded, he did.

It was that or die horribly. The end of this mode of transportation was always a lesson in humility. Coapt arrived in a dim, grungy alleyway. The walls twisted and turned, the ground heaving underneath him. He staggered sideways and retched, vomiting as he struggled to not face-plant into his own puke. The sound of snickering and laughter echoed in his ears and he snarled, wanting nothing more than to teach those hidden demons a lesson. But that would come later. Right now he had to regain his balance, get his guts back where they needed to be, and be prepared for what was about to appear before him. He didn’t have to wait long. This angel wasn’t an idiot, although maybe he should have been more wary of the blazing “follow me” trail left for him.

The angel appeared like a golden-haired warrior, sword upraised, only to hesitate. No, he wasn’t all that stupid after all. He’d felt them. The demons may have physically hidden, but the traces of their personal energy, their spirit-selves, were evident all around them. The angel lowered his sword and shot the demon a narrowed glare. “Running to hide behind your friends? They won’t be able to protect you, worm. I’ll kill them with just as much ease as I’ll kill you.” “Thought you weren’t supposed to kill us anymore,” Coapt taunted. “I’m not, but I’ll hardly suffer for my actions. You’ve killed humans.

As for the others…” he pivoted in a circle, “their deaths will be ruled as justifiable self-defense. I’m not fond of this policy anyway. In my mind the only good demon is a dead demon.” “Now, isn’t that just a coincidence, because I feel the same way about angels.” The demon put his fingers to his lips and whistled. The other demons materialized from their hiding spots, some of them shifting into larger, more intimidating forms as they blocked the only exit to the alley. The angel sneered, clearly confident that even a dozen demons would pose no threat to him. That sneer quickly faded as a very different energy signature came into range— powerful and distinctive, cold and clean, sharp. The angel caught his breath, a muscle in his jaw twitching. Coapt grinned, knowing who was coming, feeling the rush of adrenaline through his veins as he imagined what was about to happen.

The demons at the end of the alleyway parted, and an Ancient stepped through the gap. He was tall with golden skin, white-blond hair and ice-blue eyes. His physical form was breathtakingly beautiful, aside from the scar diagonally bisecting his torso. His leathery wings had decaying black feathers, a few of them retaining their original gloss. The demon felt as if a weight had been suddenly put upon him, and knew the others felt the same. He saw the angel bow under the pressure, as if an invisible hand was holding him in place. The angel stepped backward. “Is that…it can’t be. You’re not. It’s not…” “It is,” Coapt crowed, feeling the fire lick through his chest with excitement.

“You’re thinking he’s a faker trying to get street cred for scaring off a mighty Grigori enforcer, aren’t you? You’re wondering if you should flee and risk the humiliation of being a coward, or stay and possibly meet your death. Doesn’t matter what you do, pretty boy. You’re dead. And your wings are gonna be nailed to someone’s wall in Hel.” The angel winced at the last statement, but otherwise ignored the demon, his attention completely on the Ancient who was slowly approaching. The demon cackled, knowing the angel was feeling the grip tightening around him, that this angel knew the end was near, that there was no escape, no way he could flee the Ancient before him. The Ancient smiled. “It’s been a long time, Humiel. Still working for my brother, I see.” The angel’s face registered shock and disbelief, then fear.

“Samael…we thought you were dead. No one has heard from you in two-and-a-half-million years.” Coapt shifted to the side as the others flanked the angel, surrounding him and edging in closer. The demon’s lungs burned with fire, his heart beat fast with excitement. This was better than lust, better than killing a bunch of humans, better than watching that other gate guardian be torn to shreds. He was going to see Samael, the Ancient he’d vowed fealty to, destroy an angel—not just any angel, but a Grigori enforcer. Samael stepped closer and sneered. “Heard from me? You all banished me as well as the other Angels of Chaos. You all sent us to Hel without hope of ever returning to Aaru again. Did you really expect me to write? Send the occasional holiday card? I’ve been too busy nursing a grudge and waiting for the right moment.

Happily, the right moment is now.” “I didn’t have anything to do with the banishment,” the angel protested. “Many of us weren’t in agreement with that. It was Michael. How were we supposed to oppose him? How were we supposed to go against him?” “Maybe get a fucking backbone?” Samael stepped closer, his black wings brushing the ground as he walked. The others edged in, the air vibrating with anticipation. “Maybe stand up for half of the angelic host? No one said a word. Not one of you stuck your neck out for us.” “I wanted to. I really wanted to, but—” Samael was suddenly before him, his hand lightning fast as it rose to grip the angel’s throat.

“Kneel and acknowledge me as your lord and master.” The angel swallowed hard. “No,” he croaked out. Samael shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. The end result would have been the same, although a bit of groveling might have extended your life by a few seconds.” His grip tightened and the angel screamed as he slowly dissolved into a pile of sand. Staring down at what once was an angel, Samael dusted off his hands, then looked up at the silent demons that surrounded him, the demons that stared at him with worshipful eyes. “Well, don’t just stand there. Go fetch me another.

” “ N CHAPTER 1 o. Absolutely not.” Gabe scowled at me. “I’m afraid I cannot support you in this, Cockroach,” Gregory warned me. “Asshole.” I glared at him. “You’ve been okay with Infernal Mates. You’ve been allowing an increase in demon travel across the gates—” “Only of your household,” he corrected with a quick warning glance my way. I rolled my eyes. In truth, he’d been turning a blind eye to a whole lot more.

In truth, he’d put in place several unofficial policies among the gate guardians and other Grigori, but that was between us and not meant for the rest of the Ruling Council to hear about. Well, they were about to hear about it because I was pissed, and a pissed-off imp wasn’t good at keeping secrets. “Bullshit. I’m the Iblis. Technically they’re all in my household. And you know as well as I do that the gate guardians are using their own judgement about who ‘sneaks’ through and who they toss back in. The unspoken rule is that each demon gets a lecture about what is and isn’t allowed in order to safeguard their immunity, and what punishment occurs if they violate those rules.” “What? That has never been discussed or agreed upon.” Gabriel glared at his eldest brother who in turn glared at me. “Are your Grigori establishing unauthorized policies and procedures behind your back, or have you been party to some deception, brother? Perhaps you should be better in control of the angels that are supposed to be reporting to you.

” I grimaced, feeling the sudden heat of Gregory’s power. Normally it was me exchanging insults with Gabe and eventually brawling with him. Today’s Ruling Council meeting might prove to be more of a deviation from the script than I’d thought. “Gate Guardians have always had some latitude in how they enforce the rules as well as the letter versus the intent of the law,” Raphael chimed in helpfully. “I don’t see a problem in this expansion.” “No, of course you wouldn’t.” Gabe turned his glare Raphael’s way. “They are not supposed to be interpreting the rules, only following and enforcing them. The fact that Gate Guardians have already strayed so far is proof of a history of lax management and control that should never have been tolerated.” “I changed the policy,” Gregory admitted.

I wasn’t sure if he was unwilling to throw his staff under the bus for this one, or he couldn’t stand the accusations that his Grigori were running around making up their own rules. “You changed the policy?” Gabriel snarled. Yeah, there was going to be a fight. And at the end of it, Gregory was going to tear me a new one for letting our little secret out of the bag. “Yes, I changed the policy. We cannot continue to regard the residents of Hel as mortal enemies. We need to hold them accountable for their actions, yes, but we should not be assuming every demon who wants to cross plans to massacre humans. Or angels. We need to put our prejudice aside as a step toward a peaceful future between angels and demons.” Hey, that was my argument.

Although it sounded better coming from an archangel. “They’re demons,” Gabe snapped. “There are reasons they’re not allowed here. And there are reasons they are supposed to be killed if they trespass. The Grigori need to return to the previous policy. Immediately.” “I’m afraid I agree,” Asta chimed in. “You agree?” I snorted. “Didn’t you fuck and life-partner a demon instead of killing him? I don’t think even you can stretch the rules far enough to justify that one.” The angel squirmed in her seat.

“Those were special circumstances. We had a greater danger to consider. Dar was more useful to me in ridding the world of a worse demon menace than he would have been dead.” “More useful to you in your bed,” I taunted before I turned to the others. “And believe me, I’ve got no problem with that. I want angels and demons to find common ground, to form beneficial associations up to and including intimacy—both physical and spiritual. We all agreed that’s our end goal. It’s time we took some steps toward that goal instead of sitting around paying it lip service for a few thousand years.” “But you’re proposing a demon-controlled area of this world.” Gregory shook his head.

“I’m fine with allowing demons access here with behavioral standards and certain restrictions, but this? It’s a dangerous path that would only lead to more fighting between us instead of less. The demons will inevitably have a culture and structure diametrically opposed to ours. It will create friction, and we’ll find ourselves back in a war. I agree with the sentiment of your proposal, Cockroach, but not this implementation of it.” Cockroach. In the Ruling Council meetings I was always the Iblis to Gregory. It was a sign of his emotion on this matter that he’d slipped and twice called me by the pet name he’d given me when we first met. Although at first it hadn’t been a pet name, but a slur. “You’re allowing demons greater, nearly unfettered, access to this world whether you’ve formally legislated that new policy or not,” I pointed out. “This is a logical next step.

It’s not as radical as all you pearl-clutchers are making it out to be.” “There is a difference between letting demons individually run around on a mini vacation, and having them actually control part of the human world,” Rafi chimed in. “What if they enslave the humans in their area? Restrict their movements? We just stopped the elves from doing this, but now we’re going to let the demons?” He shook his head. “Vacations only. One year or less for each demon. Formalize it with policy and procedures. Form a committee to study the outcomes. We’ll revisit this in three thousand years and possibly make some allowances for longer stays with appropriate behavior on previous visits.” I glared at the archangel. Of all the Council, I’d hoped at least he would be on my side.

“That’s one ‘no’ vote,” Gabe proclaimed, turning to the others. Nyalla bit her lip and shot me a guilty look. “I’m not sure I like the idea of demons having half the human world. I’ve seen what some of them do to humans, how they treat them. It’s just who they are, and humans are fragile with short lifespans. I’m so sorry, Sam. I have to vote ‘no’ as well.” It was as if she’d punched me in the gut. How was this happening? I’d prepared so carefully. I’d rehearsed my arguments.

I’d even put together a deck of PowerPoint slides. With four “no” votes, I’d already lost, but I still turned to the other two, hoping some dissent might move up Raphael’s proposed timeline for consideration. Ahia wrinkled her nose. “It would be hell on earth. I don’t know many demons, but I don’t want to live in a demon-controlled area. And who would get to decide which area the demons controlled and which the angels controlled?” “We would,” I told her. “We’re the Ruling Council. The demons have a representative here in me. Nyalla speaks for the humans. You speak for the humans and werewolves and give added balance on the side of Chaos.

We decide which group gets which spot, and we don’t have to start out fifty-fifty. Let the demons have a few major cities, or maybe a state or two. Or maybe a few third-world countries. Probably wouldn’t be any worse than what the humans are dealing with in those countries right now. Probably would be an improvement.”

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