Chapter 1: Dark Nights
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.
Demon pimp. With a mental eye-roll at the two half-dressed girls flanking the man, Jack pursed his lips. Demon hookers.
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, “Baal Adramelech”, 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 ‘Baal Adramelech’ 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 ‘Baal Adramelech’ 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 not 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, podna.”
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, podna.”
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.
“I ain’t fightin’ in no dress,” Micah retorted as he tossed the robe aside. He wore his customary tank top and jeans underneath, his dirty blond curls mussed from the hood. But his eyes glittered with a feral sort of excitement as he drew a pair of large and curved golden knives from his belt.
He’d once asked why Micah preferred knives, wondering why someone would want to have to get up close and personal with a demon in order to kill it. Micah had grinned and slapped him on the shoulder, telling him that’s why he’d chosen it.
“So, you wanna do your thing and clear the room?” Micah added, shooting a glance his way.
He sighed. “You always get to do the fun stuff.”
“Are you kiddin’? You have a beautiful voice, podna!”
Adramelech roared, sending a fan of flames screaming over their heads.
Jack and Micah exchanged glances and shrugged, before turning back to back. Jack took a deep breath, squaring his shoulders as the familiar warmth gathered in his throat. The first time it had happened, the vibrations of his vocal chords had scared him, and the heat had been intense. Now, he knew the high temperature represented the perfect gauge for measuring the force of his power.
At the same time that Micah lunged forward, locking in a grappling move with the demon, Jack let loose with a bellow that sent all of Adramelech’s worshippers sprawling to the ground and across the room, clearing a perfect path for them.
Micah’s arms tensed, the blue veins beneath his skin bulging as he dropped to one knee, buckling under the weight of the massive thing bearing down on him. Even so, his superhuman strength saved him—any other man would have been ground into dust by now.
With a swift motion, Jack retrieved his gun and took aim, letting loose with a rapid, white-hot blast.
Quick as lightning, Adramelech threw something toward Jack like a harpoon. It deflected the light and staked into the dirt where Jack had just been standing. If he hadn’t dived to get out of the way, it would have impaled him.
He leaped to his feet, eyes widening as he identified the weapon as one of the demon’s peacock feathers. The tip of it looked razor-sharp and would have hooked him like a fish if the demon had had his way.
Adramelech laughed, more sulfuric-smelling smoke and a few flames licking from his mouth and nostrils. The sound grated like nails on a chalkboard mixed with the screeching of faulty brakes. Flinging Micah aside, the beast then ambled toward Jack, now left with no choice but to run.
He dashed for the door, careful to keep a tight grip on his gun. Another one of the peacock barbs shot over his head, embedding in the wall in front of him. He kept moving, rounding the first curve in the staircase as the thing kept coming toward him.
He whirled and tossed another beam of voice waves over his shoulder, pumping his fist in the air as the bellow’s vibration knocked the thing’s feet—or hooves?—from under him. Micah dove on it in an instant, jumping onto its shoulders as it struggled to stand. Roaring, the demon flailed and swatted, trying to dislodge Micah, who held his knives high, ready to strike.
Jack took the opportunity to aim at the demon’s exposed torso, but just when he’d squeezed off a shot, the demon dislodged Micah and sent him falling to the stairs below, sprawling at Jack’s feet. Adramelech deflected the beam of light with another well-thrown bronze barb.
“This guy’s really startin’ to piss me off,” Micah growled as Jack helped him to his feet. Shrugging off Jack’s hold, he charged the creature again, snarling in response to the demon’s roar. The creature lunged, as well, and his body weight won out, sending him and Micah both tumbling down the stairs, just missing Jack—who pressed his body against the wall to avoid going down with them.
Jack ran down the curving staircase behind them as the two continued rolling, trading blows all the way. Micah grunted as he took a fist to the jaw—his superhuman strength also meant he could take a punch better than anyone Jack knew. The demon screeched when Micah returned the blow, driving an elbow into the side of its face.
They neared the opening now, which would lead them out into the alley. The behemoth would never fit through the narrow gap. They could trap it and get rid of the thing once and for all.
Sure enough, a well-timed kick from Micah sent the demon into the alley, where it soon became lodged between the narrow walls of the two buildings. The cacophony of music and laughter coming from Bourbon Street buried the noise as Adramelech struggled, clawing at the walls and screaming his anger and frustration with a huff of fire and smoke.
Before Jack could draw his gun, Micah came barreling through the door, driving his shoulder into Adramelech in a move worthy of a linebacker. Pressing him against the wall, Micah drew one of his knives.
“You came, you saw … but you ain’t conquerin’ anything, you demon piece of shit!”
He drove his knife between Adramelech’s ribs, causing a burst of light to flash at the contact point, before the demon disappeared … but not before he’d made a mess. His bronze form shattered, sending bits of metal whizzing in every direction as his spirit evacuated the vessel, blowing a humongous hole into the wall of the building across from the one they’d just run from.
Jack fell to his knees to avoid flying debris, but wasn’t so fortunate. He yelped in pain as a piece of shrapnel from the statue embedded in his shoulder, and kept his head down until the last of the metal and brick fragments fell. Lifting his head, he found that Micah had been thrown through the wall of the building next door.
He stood, stepping over the wreckage Adramelech had left in its wake, and dashed through the opening in the brick. The blast had thrown Micah through another wall and straight into the front room of Saints and Sinners.
He breathed a sigh of relief upon finding him safe—on his ass in a red vinyl chair, of all places. The chair sat just within the main entrance of Saints and Sinners, which meant everyone dining or sitting at the bar downstairs had had a front row seat for Micah’s little entrance.
Giving all the shocked onlookers a reassuring smile, Jack quickly tucked the gun back into its place at his back. “Sorry about that folks,” he said, injecting his voice with a sense of calm. “Filming a scene for a movie in the building next door and things got a little … out of hand.”
The predictable Bourbon Street response ensued. Instead of brushing him off, being afraid, or running off to investigate the source of just what had sent Micah propelling through two walls, the patrons let out a cheer and threw their hands up in the air. A blonde woman, wearing skimpy shorts and a too-tight tank top that read ‘Saints and Sinners’ across her massive implants, pulled a lever to tilt Micah’s chair back. Tipping a bottle of fireball whiskey over him, she poured a liberal amount into his open mouth, causing even more of those crowding around the bar to give a raucous cheer.
Swallowing, Micah bounded to his feet, standing in the chair. With a few streams of the whiskey dribbling down his chin and wetting the front of his tank top, he whooped and pulled the blonde up into the chair with him, before kissing her full on the mouth.
“Yeah!” he boomed, still holding his shot girl by the waist as he pumped one fist in the air. “I just kicked some demon ass, and now I’m gonna get shit-faced!”
More cheers greeted him, and Micah came off the chair and headed to the bar, the blonde in tow.
Shaking his head, Jack ignored the crowd gathering around his charismatic partner and reached into his pocket for his cell phone, glad it had survived the scuffle, unlike his last two phones which had been shattered during demon fights. Dialing one of the only five contacts he kept in his log, he inched toward the entrance, pressing one finger to his opposite ear to drown out the noise.
“Jack,” said the deep, smooth voice of Reniel from the other end. “Is it done?”
“It’s done. But, uh, you might want to get down here.”
“Micah exposed you with a public display again, didn’t he?”
He sighed and ran a hand over his face. “Does a bear shit in the woods?”
“I’ll be there in five.”
The line went dead and he slid the phone back into his pocket. Five minutes would be long enough for a beer—he took a seat at the bar and signaled one of the half-dressed female bartenders.
Bourbon Street … even a demon attack couldn’t kill its deep-seated weirdness. Jack took a deep pull on his beer and waited.