The Guardian

Chapter 1


Hell had many connotations, each one as unique as the individual who defined it. To one person, the idea of being trapped for eternity in a Michael Bolton video was the epitome of horror. To another, it was being stuck in an elevator with someone talking too loud on a cell phone, and not being able to gut that person for their rudeness.
To Lydia Tsakali, hell was the darkness surrounding her that echoed with the screams of the damned being tortured. It wasn't just their loud misery or their pleas for mercy to the ones who didn't care that made it so bad, it was the memories those screams evoked. The haunting terror of something she never wanted to think about again. Long buried, those flashbacks of that one night in her life, and the raw emotions they exposed, still had the ability to bring her to her knees.
Don't think about it.
How could she not? That night had been the last time she'd had a family who loved her. Then, like now, she'd only been able to see the oppressive black that had made her eyes ache. The darkness had pressed so hard against her that she'd feared herself blind as well as mute. And when she'd finally breached the dark to see light, all she'd found was blood and terror ...
You're not a pup anymore.
No, she was a jackal full grown. More than that, she was a well-trained warrior with over a thousand years of hard combat training behind her. There wasn't a single soul in Azmodea who could harm her.
You forgot about Noir.
All right. There was one.
What about Azura?
Okay, two ... But that was all right. She'd had much worse odds more times than she could count. Yeah, but they didn't have the powers of a primary god.
Mind? Are you trying to turn me coward?
I'm trying to talk sense into you before it's too late. We haven't lived this long by being eat up with stupid-not with all the people out to kill us. And for what? Solin? He'll slaughter you when he finds out you did this.
What kind of idiot are you?
Apparently one with a limitless supply of stupid. If it'd been anyone other than Solin trapped here, she'd have never done this.
But she loved him too much to leave him to this end. He'd taken her in when no one else would. Had trained her and stood by her. Taught her how to survive and how to fight. Without him, she'd be dead.
Even he would call you stupid for this.
And he would, too.
Kindness is a rotten fruit that poisons anyone who partakes of it. Throw it in the face of your enemies and let it ruin them instead.
How many times had he said that to her?
Yet, in spite of the hatred he'd carried in his heart and had voiced repeatedly, he'd raised her like a beloved daughter. Never once had he been stingy with his love, patience, or kindness.
Not with her.
Others ... they saw a side of him that he very rarely turned in her direction. Thank the gods.
The personality is defined by its inconsistencies, not its consistencies. Another favorite Solin quote. It's what makes us unique and who we are. The sound of his voice in her head was enough to make her smile in spite of the danger she faced.
I've got to find him.
He would come for her if she needed it.
Yeah, right.
But she knew the truth in her heart that denied what her head tried to tell her. Solin would be there for her always. To her, he was a hero.
Something moved to her left. Lydia froze as her hyper hearing picked up on the slight sound. The surge of adrenaline kicked her other senses into high gear. Her nostrils widened as a new scent hit her. Male. Demon.
Don't breathe ... Don't breathe ...
Not because she didn't want it to detect her. But because the stench would be sickening for a human. To a half-breed Were-Hunter it was beyond painful. She clamped her fingers down on her nose to block the odor from getting in.
Still, she could smell it. Don't gag ...
What? Did demons bathe in shit? She hated to be so obscene, but really ... What was it about demons that made so many of them nauseating?
Out of nowhere, he appeared directly in front of her. A smile curved his bulbous lips. "My, my ... what have we here? Didn't realize I'd ordered delivery. How nice of you-"
To die for me. She finished his sentence in her head as she grabbed him by the throat, and cut his words off.
But when she moved to stab him, he evaporated from her grasp into a smelly purple fog.
Lydia turned a small circle in the blackness, trying to get her bearings and locate him before he told anyone she was here. She could no longer smell or hear him.
Definitely not good. At least not for her.
A piercing shriek drowned out the cries of the others. She clamped her hands over her ears. Just what I need. Bleeding eardrums.
The shriek grew louder.
It was getting closer.
Something hard struck her back, knocking her down.
Even though the mere thought of it killed her, she dropped her hands from her ears and pulled her other dagger out. Here, demon, demon ... come get some.
The sound of slithering moved to her right. She ran for it, lashing out in a hope of striking whatever foe was there.
Instead of drawing their blood, she drew her own the minute she slammed into a closed iron door that had blended in perfectly with the darkness.
Sonofa ... She hissed at the pain exploding through her skull. Blood poured from her nose.
She kicked at the offending door.
To her surprise, it slammed open, rattling on its hinges. Light flooded into her tiny space, temporarily blinding her. She blinked until her eyes adjusted, then frowned at the sight of some luminescent tubing that provided the light from the slick ceiling above her. How weird. It vaguely reminded her of a glowstick, but this fluid was thicker and a vivid and eerie blue.
Now she could see the dank walls that appeared to bleed and breathe. She curled her lip in distaste. What was that?
Bet it's what smells.
Nah, only demon toe funk could be this abhorrent. And speaking of demons, hers seemed to have vanished completely.
Where are you, you bastard?
Her luck, going for friends.
But that wasn't her main concern. Where was Solin? She'd tried repeatedly to use her telepathy to contact him, but whatever was holding him had somehow blocked that ability. She couldn't even reach him through a dream state. Which, given both of their powers, shouldn't have been a problem.
She hated this feeling of being completely alone. It reminded her of those weeks in her childhood when she'd had no one. The time she'd staggered through the blistering desert looking for water ...
We're always alone. You can be in a crowded room and still feel the bite of loneliness. Personally, I find that it bites deepest whenever others are around. Another thing Solin forever harped on.
He was ever the pessimist.
She turned a corner and froze.
The smelly demon was back.
And as she'd feared, it'd gone for friends ...
A lot of friends. Maybe two or three dozen. And the moment they saw her, their demonic eyes lit up and radiated color even brighter than the glowing tubes. They might as well have drool dripping from their chins.
She wasn't a coward, but only a fool would face that number without backup. And she wasn't a fool. After throwing her right dagger at the tallest one, she turned and ran in the opposite direction as fast as she could. She hoped that dagger had made contact and brought down at least one of them. But she wasn't going to wait around and find out.
Rule one in pursuit: Never look back.
Instead, she put her head down and kept going as fast as she could. She would have turned into her jackal form, but was afraid she might need her opposable thumbs for another invisible door.
She skidded around a corner, into a new hallway. Here the light wasn't quite as bright, but it was enough to let her see where the walls and doors were.
Unfortunately, it didn't let her see the floor. Or the thing that tripped her.
For a moment, she flew through the air until she landed face down on the ground. Putrid water splashed against her skin as pain throbbed in her knee, stomach, and cheek.
She pushed herself up and wiped away at the foul water and blood. Even though it hurt, she forced herself to start running again.
Pull out.
She could flee this realm for the time being, and then return again to search later. At least that was the thought until she heard something familiar from behind the door to her left.
"Fuck you and your little dog, too."
She'd know that acerbic tone and deep Greek accent anywhere. Smiling in spite of her pain, she opened the door, ready for battle.
What she wasn't ready for was the giant ... whatever it was that was trying to eat him. A mass of dark green skin with red markings, the demon turned toward her.
And this one did salivate as its yellow eyes pinned her with a salacious stare that gave her dancing heebie-jeebies. Not on your best day, buster!
"Lydia?" Solin asked incredulously. He was beaten so badly that but for his voice, she'd have never been able to identify him. "Child, what are you doing? Get the hell out of here while you can."
"Not without you." Since she couldn't speak with a voice, she sent her thoughts to him.
"I taught you better than that. Survival Rule Number One."
Save your own ass above all others. She knew it well. But someone following that rule wouldn't tell a rescuer to flee before freeing them.
Classic Solin.
Raising her dagger, she rushed at the demon. He moved a lot faster than something his size should be able to. With an impressive twist, he dodged her attack completely and caught her from behind.
She tried to break out of his hold. It was like being drowned in sticky Jell-o. Smelly three-month-old Jell-o.
He laughed at her useless attempts. If that wasn't bad enough, he licked her cheek. "What a tasty little morsel you are."
She cringed. For the sake of the gods, haven't any of you heard of breath mints? Pardon the pun, but Altoids could make a mint down here.
She jerked her head back, slamming it into his nose, and at least this time he satisfied her with a deep groan.
"You'll be sorry for that." He lifted her off her feet and threw her down on the floor.
Ignoring the pain that said she'd probably broken something, Lydia flipped herself back to her feet.
"Don't do this, Dee. Don't."
She ignored Solin as she and the demon circled each other slowly.
Right when she went in for another attack, the demon vaporized, just like the other one had done. All he left was his stench. That she'd have gladly done without.
She turned to look for him, but before she could do more than draw breath, he appeared behind her and kicked her into the wall.
More agony tore through her body, dulling her sight.
The demon seized her. "It's over for you, kitten." He tightened his grip, squeezing the last of the breath from her lungs.
Her ears started buzzing.
Just as she was sure he'd kill her, she heard a loud shout resonate off the walls. "Release her, demon. Now!"
Definitely not Solin. That deep, gravelly male voice was unique and filled with an unfathomable rage that came from someplace dark inside him. His accent was unlike anything she'd heard before. Lyrically sweet and beautiful, yet at the same time harsh and commanding.
The demon let go and shrank back in terror. That reaction only made her panic more. If something as scary as he was afraid of the newcomer, what chance did she have?
But she wasn't a coward. If she was going to die, it would be fighting to the last breath.
And she'd take as much of him with her as she could.
Coughing, she turned around, putting her back to the wall to confront this new creature. She wiped the sweat from her eyes and focused them on the door where the stranger stood.
Her jaw went slack as her gaze focused on the massive form that was bathed in that eerie blue light.
Holy mother of all electronics ...
I'm so dead.