An excerpt from Keepers of the Dead

keepersofthedead_x

An excerpt from Keepers of the Dead
(Book 2 of the Cairnwood Manor series)

Bathed in blood, Garrick Ward emptied his second clip into the winged creature overhead. The beast spiraled out of control and collided with one of the great support columns that lined the cathedral as Ward discarded the spent Sig Sauer. At full sprint he leapt and sprang, using an oak pew to help propel him into the air where he met another of the winged demons in mid-flight. Straining with all his might, Ward wrenched the gargoyle’s head back, snapping its neck. He rode the dead body to the ground, using its body to shield himself from the impact. Rolling to his feet, he freed his bastard sword from the confines of the scabbard on his back and prepared to meet more assailants.

Gargoyles. Hideous beasts with reptilian flesh and massive bat-like wings, these creatures were the byproduct of the mating between humans and vampires. Homo Demonicus Inferior were the children of a male vampire and female human. They had a life expectancy of roughly two hundred and fifty to three hundred years. Generally of not more than average intelligence, the male spawn was large and powerful and cursed with berserker-like rages making them extremely dangerous.

Homo Demonicus Superior had a vampire mother and a human father. Much harder to conceive and be carried full term, these creatures rarely lived more than a century. They almost always possessed a near genius intellect and could shape-shift into human form at will. Although all gargoyles were hampered by the fact that they turned to stone during daylight hours, the homo demonicus species proved to be an enduring menace to mankind.

Ward was desperate. Out of ammunition, he swung wide with his sword to keep the beasts off of him. Four of them remained, all male spawn. He knew he had little time before their rage turned into a suicidal fury. It would not pay to have four berserkers on him at once, but without a distance attack his options were quickly diminishing. Bolting across the cathedral, Ward made headway for one of the side crypts. From the smaller area he would be able to defend himself from a greater vantage point, all but eliminating their aerial advantage.

He hurdled one of the oak pews and managed to duck under one of the gargoyle’s swooping attacks. In front of the wrought iron gateway to the crypt of the Duke of Argyll, Ward swung hard as another gargoyle joined the melee. His sword went wide and the force of his swing left him vulnerable to a wicked swipe of the fiend’s talons. Fumbling with the gate, Ward staggered inside and spewed hot blood across the marble effigy of the Duke.

“Damn,” Ward grimaced. He switched sword arms and prayed to the gods of the north that his wound would heal quickly. One of the advantages to being near immortal was an accelerated healing factor, but even he had limitations. He placed his back against the wall as two of his adversaries stormed the crypt gate.

The lead gargoyle was in full berserker rage. It charged forward, propelling itself across the chamber with a beat of its great and terrible wings. Ward was quick to dodge its first two swings, but he was overwhelmed and slammed hard into the stone wall by the beast’s charge. Twisting, he drove his sword deep into the gargoyle’s chest. With a horrid scream of anger and pain, the gargoyle fell back, spinning into the Duke’s effigy. Ward cursed as the sword was wrenched from his hands, but he had no time to react to its loss as his second attacker buried a clawed fist into his side. Meat and blood were torn away as the second gargoyle roared in delight.

Ward slid his good arm in and around the gargoyle’s neck and slipped in an arm-bar that drew the creature’s head back and away. With his free hand, Ward let loose with a ridge handed chop to the beast’s exposed throat, but the strike lacked enough force due to his injury. The gargoyle half stepped backward and drew himself face to face with the immortal warrior. They were locked in combat, Ward utilizing skill and cunning to match the preternatural creature’s superior strength.

Garrick Ward stared into the inhuman face before him. Its fiendish appearance spoke to him of another time, centuries past, when he stared into a similar face, but under different circumstances. The year was 1447. The place? Cairn Wood, near Loch Shiel in the Highlands.

“That’s one gruesome face you’ve carved Artus,” Ward had said, though in that Age he had gone by another name.

“Aye, Erik, it is fearsome, is it not?” Artus MacGregor said. He was putting the stone figure in place over the doorway to the forest keep that had been his family’s home for more than one hundred and twenty years. “There,” he said stepping away from the sculpture and looking upon it with an artisan’s discerning eye. “Tha’ beastie’ll rob the courage from e’en the bravest of cutthroats.”

“Of that I’m sure,” Erik of Germania laughed. “So Artus, how heavy with child is Braeda?”

“Noticed have you?”

“I was there when you wooed her away from her father’s hovel, remember?” the German said, playfully punching the giant Scot in the shoulder. “She’s either with child or you’ve been fattening her up with too much Meade. Though for a woman as fine as she, I could see how you might have to keep her drunk so that she’d stay with you,” he laughed.

“Is that so, Erik Bowman?” The German turned to see Braeda with a pail of fresh water and a sack filled with lunch.

“Ah Braeda the beautiful,” Erik said, lowering himself into a courtly bow, “you look ravishing, my sweet.”

“Here ‘nd I was thinking I was a drunkard with an overfull belly of Norse wine?”

“Now you’ve done it,” Artus laughed.

“You must admit, Artus, she’s far too pretty for the likes of you.”

“Aye Erik, she is that.”

“Enough of your buffoonery. Let me have a look at our guardian here,” the pregnant maiden said climbing up on the scaffolding.

“Take my hand my love,” Artus said, helping his bride up to join Erik and himself.

“Oh Artus, it is masterful. You’ve grown so much, my man. You’re an artist… a true artist,” she said, obviously in awe of her husband’s excellent masonry skills.

“I had plenty of practice, is for sure. The commissions for St. Clair’s Pagan Chapel alone would have made a master of the simplest stoneworker.”

“How fares the work at Rosslyn, Artus?” Erik asked.

“They’re decades from completion, but I left them dozens of devil heads and pagan gods to decorate their Kirk with. ‘S good work, but none so great as this beastie ‘ere,” Artus laughed, patting the cool stone on the side of its face.

“Tis an unsightly thing, isn’t it?” Erik laughed, staring into its carved eyes.

It was not unlike the dead stare returned to him now by the blood-crazed fiend he was battling. The gargoyle bit sharply into Garrick Ward’s forearm. The warrior returned the favor with an elbow strike to the bridge of the beast’s nose.

Ward’s mind mulled over the thoughts of Artus and Braeda in Cairn Wood. It all made perfect sense to him now. He shifted his weight and hip tossed the gargoyle. It went up and over his head and Ward heard a crunch as he drove the beast into the marble floor. He had slipped his arm around the gargoyles neck in mid-flight, and the force of gravity helped the warrior snap the creature’s neck. Ward took a deep breath and grimaced at the pain. He’d heal soon enough, he thought. The important thing was that he had figured out the mystery of where his showdown with the forces of Darkness would occur. He knew now where the World Tree was… Rosslyn Chapel.

He had not paid a visit to the small, out of the way chapel in more than two hundred years, but he could remember nearly every detail of its exquisite architecture. It was a marvel, filled with the beautiful stone carvings of Artus MacGregor. Green Men, Norse Gods, Heroic Warriors… but what had caught his attention even more than the tremendous work of his old friend was the famed Apprentice’s Pillar. There were a number of legends surrounding this pillar, but its symbolism as a whole was quite clear. It represented the Nordic ‘world tree’, the Yggdrasil, the fountain of immortality. The pillar illustrated perfectly the perpetual conflict of the forces of light and darkness. At its base was “Jormungandr”, the Midgard Serpent of Norse legend, said to lie at the root of Yggdrasil, continuously gnawing away at all that was good and true.

Garrick retrieved his sword and cleaned the gargoyle blood from the blade and re-sheathed it on his back. With but an hour till dawn, this night’s work was finished. He slinked out of the cathedral and disappeared into the back alleys of Edinburgh. The time was nigh, and in spite of the countless battles lost, the War was still in reach for Garrick Ward and his allies.

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