Authors: Elise Marion
The Guardians Series
Part One: The Guardians
Copyright 2014 by Elise Marion
Edited by Zee Monodee
Cover Art by P.J. Friel
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, places, or people, living or dead, is coincidental.
– friend, or partner
term of endearment for another person (male).
– “darling”, “sweetie”, or “honey”
– no way!
– Well … usually used to start a sentence.
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The pavement thrummed under his feet, the vibrations echoing from the soles and up his legs, travelling the length of his body. This place teemed with life, pounding, resounding … brimming with temptation. Half-naked women struck a variety of provocative poses in the display windows of clubs, hoping to entice the men walking down the street to come inside.
Jack Bennett avoided their unfocused gazes; the glazed eyes of drugged-up strippers didn’t appeal to him, and neither did the breasts pressed against the glass in tawdry exhibition. He moved on with purpose, weaving through the sea of bodies clogging the street. Ahead, in a large circle left open by spectators, a group of B-boys performed their best tricks for tips. Jack cut through the middle, ignoring the jeers and hisses of the gathered crowd and the largest of the three dancers who held his arms out in challenge and bellowed, “Hey, what’s your problem, asshole?”
He kept moving, jerking the hood of his sweatshirt over his close-shaven head. He didn’t have time for anyone’s bullshit tonight; the cold metal of the gun pressing against the small of his back reminded him of the urgency of his mission.
Shouldering his way through the crowd, he continued on. Here and there, people dressed as ‘living statues’ entertained for money. He saw them everywhere—pulling out all the stops to make a buck on a Saturday night. Musicians sang, a group of gypsies danced, and one guy dressed as Uncle Sam would even pose with you—along with his cigar-smoking stuffed dog—for a mere donation of a few dollars. From the open doors of clubs and bars, music pounded out, a mingling of hip-hop, jazz, blues, and country that spilled into the street and mingled with the smell of crawfish being boiled outside a restaurant nearby.
Bourbon Street … a place unlike any other; where all the best and worst parts of New Orleans converged into one debauched playground—one that served to mask the demonic activity going on here on a regular basis. A hotbed of depravity, the perfect stomping ground for a minion of the underworld. Eleven years as a Guardian had honed his senses and now, he could see them as if they’d shed their human disguises and stood exposed to the entire world. A man in a tacky linen suit and fire-engine red, alligator-skin shoes walked past him, a matching fedora sitting at an angle on his bald head. His skin appeared dark and oiled, gleaming in the moonlight, his eyes black as night.
With a mental eye-roll at the two half-dressed girls flanking the man, Jack pursed his lips.
One of them met his gaze, her smile wide as she let her human mask slip, flashing her red, glowing irises and a peek at a face even a mother couldn’t love.
Jack curled his upper lip in disgust. His trigger finger itched to draw the pistol from his waistband and dispatch the ugly bitch back to Hell. Unfortunately, he couldn’t, so he moved on. Those demons weren’t breaking any of the rules, which made them off-limits to him. If he had his way, he would round them all up and drop them through the nearest portal. But there were rules involved, and he couldn’t break them or risk the wrath of Reniel … and worse, Michael. Those angels of war proved something to see when they got angry, and he would be damned if he had to be on the receiving end of that.
Nearing his destination, he snatched his cell phone from the pocket of his jeans to check the time.
Eleven forty-five. Right on time.
Coming to a stop in front of two buildings, he slid into the narrow alleyway between them, remembering to snatch the zipper of his hoodie all the way up to his neck. The last thing he needed was for someone to notice the glow emanating from the symbol branded into his chest and come running down the alley to ‘check things out.’ He hated having to erase people’s memories, but this represented yet another necessity of his job.
There didn’t appear to be anyone or anything in the alley. If he didn’t know better, the narrow space would seem to be no more than a dark slit stretching between two bars. But Jack did know better.
Inching down the darkened space, he braced his hands on either side of the wall, forced to feel his way to what he searched for. As usual, his partner, Micah, could be found nowhere and Jack had to go at it alone. Micah always carried a flashlight; his absence left Jack in the actual dark.
He smirked in satisfaction as his fingers found the right brick, which sunk in at the slightest pressure, causing a large panel of wall to slide away and reveal a secret passage. Without hesitation, he stepped into the now-open doorway. Swallowed up by darkness, he descended a narrow, curving staircase. His fingertips caressed rough brick as he felt his way along, drawn toward the orange light becoming brighter as he stepped downward on steady feet. The throbbing techno music coming from the club above him faded, suffocated by layers of stone and earth. As he went deeper underground, the hum of voices reached out to him. At first, their words proved indiscernible, but as he came to a rough wooden door, the chanting became clear.
“Baal Adramelech. Baal Adramelech. Baal Adramelech.”
His source had led him to the right place—he wouldn’t have to go back to the sorcerer, Prema, and smash his face in, after all.
Impossible to tell how many voices he heard, and he was running out of time. He pushed the door open and peered around it to see inside.
Hundreds of candles, which sat dripping wax in sconces and candlesticks on several surfaces, lit the dark room. Figures in hooded, brown wool robes knelt before a makeshift altar, on top of which a man in a black robe strode back and forth, his face shadowed by a hood, as well. Those kneeling rocked along, their covered heads bobbing in a synchronized rhythm as they chanted, “
”, their voices rising and falling like a song. Beyond the altar and the pacing man, a bronze structure loomed over them all. It had the upper body of a man, complete with a wide, rippling torso, and bulging arms. Its head and hindquarters would be better suited to a mule. Behind it, gleaming peacock feathers fanned out in a glorious display.
A likeness of the demon Adramelech.
The being pacing on top of the altar like a caged lion had to be the demon himself in human form.
Jack slipped into the room, careful to close the door without making a sound. So far, no one had even noticed his entry, so wrapped up in their worship of the demon known as the ‘king of fire.’ Keeping his gaze fixated on the black, hooded figure, he leaned against the wood panel and waited for the right moment to make his move. The chanting began to swell even more, growing louder and louder until the repetition of ‘
became enough to make him want to run screaming from the room. He gritted his teeth and waited, watching.
All of a sudden, the noise ceased, each voice breaking off at the same time to let an eerie silence settle over the room. Another door on the opposite wall swung open, and four more, brown-robed figures came into the room carrying tiny, writhing bundles. Despite the burlap concealing them, Jack knew what the hooded figures carried. Their tiny sacrifices.
One of them began to cry, its sharp wails muffled by the coarse fabric covering its face.
In the past, he might have reacted viscerally to the sound, hurdling into trouble and doing something reckless. He’d grown too seasoned for that now, and knew better. Being emotional about this wouldn’t help anyone, least of all that crying baby. Taking a deep, slow breath, he willed himself to stand still and wait.
The figure in black held up his hands, yet, those kneeling had not moved or spoken since the baby-carriers came into the rooms. Stepping down from the altar, he strode toward the effigy, reaching out with gloved hands to open a hatch built into its belly. An orange glow emanated from it, the crackling of flames filling the room.
Heat spread through the space, causing sweat to break out along Jack’s brow, trickling down his face and into the collar of his hoodie and T-shirt.
The people who’d arrived carrying the babies knelt before the altar and raised their offerings high. A roar rippled through those gathered and the chant of ‘
continued, drowning out the cries of the infants bold enough to call out their displeasure. Jack put one hand behind his back, taking comfort in the solid weight of the Desert Eagle handgun pressed against his tailbone.
Adramelech’s human form came forward, accepting a squirming sack from one of the kneeling worshippers. He held the child high, exulting in the praise of those chanting his name.
Jack went for the gun, keeping it behind his back, determined to make a move at the right time.
Adramelech moved toward the bronze-statue-turned–makeshift-furnace, clutching the infant.
A sinking feeling warned him of what came next. The demon wasn’t called the king of fire for nothing … burning children being the way his followers had paid him tribute in the days of old. It seemed the ancient demon had forgotten about the rules, one of which said a demon could not impart physical harm upon its prey. Mental and spiritual influence were fair game, but kidnapping and sacrificing human children amounted to a big no-no.
He couldn’t wait another second. The gold barrel of his gun gleamed in the light of the fire coming from the statue’s belly as he lifted it and took aim. One quick trigger squeeze proved enough. A white beam of light arced from the gun, before striking the demon in the back. It disappeared in a puff of black smoke and a blinding flash of bright light. The baby landed on the pile the robes made as its wearer disintegrated in a swirl of ash. The child rolled from its burlap sack and onto the dirt floor with a wail. A girl, he could see. Naked and afraid, but unharmed.
Jack shouldered his way through the gathered group; they had stopped chanting and now stood, pulling back their hoods to stare at him in bewilderment. After kneeling to pick up the baby, he wrapped her in the burlap with care and faced the several pairs of eyes boring into him.
“Listen up, everybody.” His voice, deep and booming, rang in the little room. “You have gathered here under the compulsion of the demon Adramelech. While you have the free will to choose who to worship, you do
have the right to kidnap and sacrifice innocent children. Lay the babies down, and leave this place now and no one will be hurt.”
Now that Adramelech had been dispatched back to Hell, the gathered people should have been freed from any sort of mind control the demon had exercised. Jack didn’t have very much faith left in humanity, but he had a hard time believing these people had all been willing to sell their souls to a demon who demanded sacrifices be made of human babies.
Dozens of blank stares bore into him, almost unseeing, as if no one was home behind the irises.
“What the hell, Jack!”
One of the hooded worshippers came forward, still clutching a burlap-wrapped baby. Revealing his face, he stabbed Jack with a narrow, green stare.
Jack’s jaw dropped. “Micah! What are you doing here?”
The hulking Cajun he’d been paired with came closer, his voice dropping to a whisper. “I told you I had a plan,
Jack scowled. Micah always ‘had a plan,’ almost always contrary to Jack’s ideas about what they should do. Glancing at the other hooded figures holding babies, he identified four other Guardians in the room. They’d gone along with Micah’s plan of infiltrating the cult by pretending to join.
Micah had gone behind Jack’s back and done things his way.
“Well, thanks, but I got it handled.” He gave his gun a twirl before sticking it back into his waistband. “As you can see, your boy Adramelech is done for.”
Micah winced. “Yeah, um … about that.”
A low grown sounded behind them, causing the surrounding space to rumble.
A cold stone settled in his gut, and a fist-sized lump formed in his throat.
With a noisy swallow, he whispered, “Micah …”
“That was Eli, one of Adramelech’s sorcerers. Since he was possessed by the demon, your little gun just got him to his final destination a little faster.”
Jack scowled, already annoyed with Micah for going behind his back, and now this on top of everything? “So if that wasn’t Adramelech …?”
Micah pointed behind Jack with his eyebrows raised and cleared his throat. “Behind you,
Jack swallowed past the lump in this throat; someone breathed down the back of his neck; he could actually feel each hot huff. Every muscle in his body grew tense as he turned to face the real Adramelech.
He sucked in a sharp breath as he came face to face with the bronze statue. Its hatch lay closed now, but the heat emanating from the fire still burning in its belly reached out to him in scorching waves. The bronze thing had come to life, inhabited by the spirit of Adramelech. The face moved as it scowled—as much as a mule could scowl—and snorted in Jack’s face.
“Babies. Out. Now.” Jack didn’t dare move a muscle, but Micah got the message. He took Jack’s baby before handing that one and his own off to the other Guardians.
“You heard him. Shit’s ’bout to get real in here.”
Jack reached for his gun as Micah pulled the wool robe over his head.
“Can’t that wait?” he hissed, never taking his eyes from the demon. It would strike at any moment. Smoke curled from its nostrils, its human hands reaching behind it for something. Jack got a hold on the butt of this pistol and held his breath, waiting.