Stone Cold Bastards

Stone Cold Bastards
Jake Bible

February 2017   $15.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-719-9

Only a rag-tag team of gargoyles stands between humanity and extinction.
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Only a rag-tag team of gargoyles stands between humanity and extinction.

Hell has released its ravening horde of demons, leaving most of humanity a puke-spewing, head-spinning mess of possession.

Humanity’s last hope? A team of misfit gargoyles—including a cigar chomping, hard-ass grotesque—come alive and ready for battle during the End of Days. They guard the last cathedral-turned-sanctuary atop a bald knoll in the North Carolina mountains.

Gargoyle protection grudgingly extends to any human who can make it inside the sanctuary, but the power of the stonecutter blood magic, which protects the sanctuary, may not be enough when a rogue grotesque and his badly-wounded ward arrive.

All the hounds of hell are on their heels. The last sanctuary is about to fall.

Jake Bible, Bram Stoker Award nominated-novelist and author of the bestselling Z-Burbia series, short story writer, independent screenwriter, podcaster, and inventor of the Drabble Novel, has entertained thousands with his horror and sci/fi tales. He reaches audiences of all ages with his uncanny ability to write a wide range of characters and genres. Other series by Jake Bible: the bestselling Salvage Merc One, the Apex Trilogy, the Mega series, and the Reign of Four series. Jake lives in the wonderfully weird Ashville, North Carolina. Connect with Jake on Facebook, Twitter, and his website:


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THE SMALL, GRAY head popped off and rolled toward the end of the bar. It slowed, then stopped by the puddle of sticky, congealed blood cover­ing the faux teak, laminated surface.

"That squirrel?”

"Mmm hmm.” The man, the one eating the now eviscerated squirrel, the one happily slurping up the tiny intestines like bloody pasta, glanced up from his meal. He frowned, choked down the bite he had just taken, and squinted into the weak light of the approaching dawn. "Which one are you?” he asked, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

The squirrel-eater was maybe early thirties, emaciated—full-blown junkiechic minus the chic part. His brown hair was a tangled mess, match­ing the scraggly, bloody beard that sprouted from his cheeks and chin in malnourished patches. The piece-of-junk bar holding his meal leaned to the left, and had sunk a good few inches into the mud and muck of the trampled grass surrounding the high, wrought-iron enclosure the bar faced.

The man leaned back in the bar stool. The cracked Naugahyde’s creak­ing and groaning was the only sound in the still morning air other than the man’s quick licking of his lips. He rested an arm on the back of the stool and stared at the shape that stood on the opposite side of the iron fence.

"Not gonna tell me?” the man asked, sucking the tips of each finger, one by one. "You afraid that if I have your name I’ll have control over you? That it?”

"You’re new,” the shape replied, a low chuckle bubbling up behind the words.

"Maybe,” the man said.

"No, that wasn’t a question,” the shape said. "You’re new. Just out of Hell?”

"He is,” a new voice said from the massive iron gate only a few feet away. "His name is Anzu and I do not like him at all, Morty. Very rude fella, he is.”

"Sorry, Jack,” Morty, the shape, said to the gate. "He been out there all night?”

"He has,” Jack replied.

"That thing,” Anzu said and nodded at the gate’s two foot diameter face, also made of iron. "What is that? A Green Man?”

"I am,” Jack replied. He glared back at Anzu. "A Jack O’ The Wood, to be exact.”

"A jack o’ the off, to be exact,” Anzu laughed, spraying the disgust­ing surface of the weathered bar with spittle and squirrel bits.

"Sumerian,” Morty guessed, still only a shape in the early morning gloom. "Am I right?”

There was a flash of light, and Morty’s face became visible as he put a Zippo to the nub of a cigar clamped between his lips. Lips made of stone, hard and cracked. In the brief light thrown by the flame, it was obvi­ous that Morty was far from human. His features were chiseled, literally, from granite.

"Hey, look at you.” Anzu laughed some more. "Ain’t you just the typi­cal gargoyle. All fangs and wings and claws and shit. Where’d you come from, eh? Where’d that other one go? The little guy hiding in the grass?”

"He’s off. My turn at watch,” Morty said around his cigar, giving it a good, long puff to fully light the end.

"Watch. Watch, watch, watch. Watching,” Anzu said and nodded. "Watching me?” Morty didn’t reply. "Yeah. Watching me. Damn, look at you. They don’t make ’em uglier, do they?”

"Grotesque,” Morty replied, snapping his Zippo closed. The tip of his cigar nub glowed cherry red then died back to a brick umber, casting just enough light to see a heavy cheek here, a shadowed jaw there.

"Yeah, that’s what I’m saying,” Anzu responded as he tore back into the squirrel corpse, ripping off a back leg and crunching down on it like it was a mouthful of nachos. "Grotesque. Ugly as all hell.”

"Yeah, you’re new,” Morty said and leaned against the fence. "Gro­tesque is what I am. Not a gargoyle, a grotesque.”

"Huh?” Anzu asked. "What’s that?”

"There is a difference,” Morty explained. "Gargoyles are water spouts. Set into the corners of buildings to guide rainwater away from the stoneworkand foundation below. If the building had a moat, then the gargoyle would be large enough to divert the water out into the moat. Other­wise they would usually be aimed at a cistern or water barrel.”

"What are you telling me? There’s a difference?” Anzu asked.

"You’re Sumerian, right?” Morty asked.

"Yeah, so?” Anzu replied.

"Is there a difference between a Sumerian demon and an Assyrian de­mon?” Morty asked.

"Shit, yeah, there’s a difference,” Anzu snorted. He choked until he hawked up a hunk of squirrel flesh from out his nose. Splat. He stared down at it.

"Do not,” Jack begged. "Please do not do what I believe you will—”

Anzu picked up the snotty hunk and popped it into his mouth.

"Oh, he did it,” Jack whispered. "If only I could vomit. He’s been like this all night. You missed the toad.”

"Toad? You’re a hungry one,” Morty said.

"I eat,” Anzu replied and shrugged. "So, what’s this about Assyrian de­mons? Why do you care about that lot? Bunch of goat buggerers, if you ask me.”

"I don’t care about Assyrian demons,” Morty said. "Or about Sumeriandemons. I was making a point that there’s a difference between a gar­goyle and a grotesque, just like there is a difference between a Sumerian and an Assyrian demon.”

"You lost me,” Anzu said. "You’re all grotesque. Ugly as sin.” He gig­gled. "Maybe not that ugly. I have performed some sins that would crack your stone face in half, let me tell you.”

"He told me,” Jack said. "They are not pretty stories. I asked him to stop, but he would not. I do detest the new ones.”

"He’s not so bright, is he?” Morty asked Jack. "They must be getting des­perate to send an idiot demon like him to watch our little piece of the world.”

"No need to get personal, friend,” Anzu said. He belched and patted his stomach. "Uh, oh. Feels like squirrel doesn’t sit well with this vessel.”

"I told you that,” Jack said. "I specifically said that you needed to cook the meat first or there would be consequences.”

"Cook? Like with fire?” Anzu said. He shook his head and gave Jack a wry smile. "Not gonna happen, green man. I just got out of a pit of fire; no way I’m ever starting one on purpose during my tour above.”

"What I am trying to educate you on,” Morty continued, returning to the previous conversation, "is that what you would normally call a gar­goyle is actually a grotesque. A depiction of a human or animal form carved into the stone of a building.”

"Yeah, a gargoyle. Same thing,” Anzu said. "I’ve been through the orien­tation.We all have to go through it before they let us take a shift here.” He patted the bar. "Not that this is a choice gig. I mean, look around, I’m stuck at a rotting, moldy bar probably yanked from some subur­ban basement, plopped here in a muddy meadow at the top of a hill in the middle of banjo land.”

"It came from a recreational warehouse store,” Jack said.

"What?” Anzu replied.

"The bar,” Jack said. "It came from a recreational warehouse store. I was here when they brought it. It was much nicer then.”

"I don’t care where the bar came from,” Anzu snapped. "All I care about is doing my time so maybe I get transferred to one of the cities or something. See some real action. Have some real fun.” He belched and farted. "Get me a body that isn’t gonna keel over any second.”

The sky had begun to turn light pink and the gray of early morning was slowly fading. Morty shaking his head in disgust was much easier to see than he would have been only a couple of minutes before. It was also easier to see the scowl on Anzu’s face as Morty turned his back on the demon-possessed man and leaned heavily against the bars of the wrought- iron fence.

"What? You’re going to ignore me now?” Anzu snapped.

He picked up the mutilated squirrel and threw it at the fence. What was left of the tiny corpse split in two and the bloody rib cage smacked into a stone shoulder. There was the bright glow of the cigar butt, a huge cloud of bluish smoke, but no visible response from Morty to the assault.

"Grotesque, gargoyle, whatever,” Anzu said, flapping a bloody hand at the huge stone building that sat two acres beyond the iron fence. "It don’t matter none. This is all just a waiting game. We each do our time until one of us makes a move.”

"If you say so,” Morty replied, back still against the fence. He caus­ally brushed at a spot on his shoulder where a stray piece of squirrel fur was stuck. The fur floated down to the ground, lost in the calf-high grass that filled the acreage on Morty’s side of the fence. "You’ll learn.”

"You will,” Jack agreed.

"I’ll learn? I’ll learn what?” Anzu asked. His body shook and he crum­pled across the surface of the bar for a second before slowly pushing himself upright. "Forget it. I’m off shift. Harass the next guy, will ya? I don’t need your crap. Just gonna do my time and move on.”

"If you say so,” Morty repeated.

"I do!” Anzu snapped, jumping from the bar stool and onto his feet. He grimaced in pain as his facial features blurred for half a second. "Damn. Why does the shift change have to hurt?”

"Because you have chosen to possess a body that does not belong to you,” Jack said. "The pain you feel is the physical manifestation of the violation you have perpetrated on an innocent human being.”

"No such thing, green man,” Anzu said then coughed hard and col­lapsed into the muddy grass.

Morty smoked his cigar and waited. Three seconds later, the body stirred and issued a long, exhausted moan. Morty turned around, took the cigar out of his mouth, carefully snuffed it out in his palm so as not to crush it, then placed the butt back between his lips.

"That you, Todd?” Morty asked.

"It’s me,” the man whispered. He turned his head and bloodshot eyes tried to focus, failed, tried again, failed once more, then turned away from where Morty stood. "I don’t feel so well.”

"New guy,” Morty said. "He’s been eating all night.”

"All night?” the no-longer-possessed Todd asked. "Like what?”

"Squirrel,” Jack said. "Good morning, Todd.”

Todd groaned and clutched at his belly. "Feels like more than squir­rel.”

"Possibly a toad or two,” Jack said.

"Sorry, pal,” Morty said. "Gonna be a long day for your body and what­ever other demon they send to fill it.”

"No shit,” Todd said and groaned again. "Oh, man, do me a favor and tell the next asshole to at least pull down my pants and squat? I don’t want to wake up to trousers filled with crap tonight.”

"I will. I’ll be sure and have the next on watch ask, too,” Morty said, shrugging his massive, stone shoulders. The sun was cresting the hill and the hint of folded wings could almost be seen. "But you know demons.”

"Intimately,” Todd said. He sighed as his body shook with gastrointesti­naldiscomfort. "And good morning, Jack. Sorry I didn’t say it before.”

"No apologies needed, Mr. Birdgman,” Jack replied. "You are in an un­enviable position.”

"What’d you learn?” Morty asked, his granite eyes locked onto Todd as the man struggled to get to his feet. He waited for Todd to stabilize himself with a hand on the edge of the bar before asking again. "What’d you learn?”

"New demon named Anzu,” Todd answered, slumping into the bar stool. "Fresh out of Hell.”

"I know that,” Morty said. "I had to chat with him until he left for the shift change. What’d you learn about out there?” Morty waved a rocky hand at the horizon. "What’s going on in the weird, wide world?”

Todd closed his eyes, squirmed in his seat until he was semi-com­fortable, then shook his head.

"New York is lost,” Todd answered after a few minutes of slow, deep breathing. "Last cathedral went down yesterday.”

"What?” Morty exclaimed, the cigar butt nearly dropping from his mouth. He repositioned it and frowned, heavy stone brows dropping low and knitting in the middle. "How’d they manage that?”

"Found some humans not possessed and suckered them into leading the attack,” Todd replied. "Took out St. Luke’s in less than an hour once the gargoyles were removed.”

"Grotesques didn’t put up a fight?” Morty asked, his stone-cut fea­tures shocked at the revelation.

"I don’t know,” Todd said. "Those details weren’t in the new guy’s mind.”

"I would assume the assault was similar to Boston or Paris,” Jack said. "Once the gargoyles were destroyed, their protection of their sanctu­ary fell and the demon hordes invaded. The grotesques were over­whelmed.”

Todd shrugged, wincing at the simple movement. "Probably.”

"New York,” Morty mused. "They’re winning.”

"You think?” Todd asked and laughed, wincing again as a groan of dis­comfort overtook his sarcasm. His hands went to his belly. "Oh, man, here it comes.”

He hopped down from the stool and hurried away from the bar. Be­hind him, toward the base of the hill, was a thicket of large oaks. He rushed down the hill, slipping and sliding in the wet grass as he went.

"Tell the next shift to lay off the critters!” Todd called over his shoul­der. His bowels had begun to let loose several yards before he reached the oaks, but he kept going until he was lost in leafy shadow. "Please!”

"Will do, Todd!” Morty called after the man, but there was no re­sponse except the faint sound of a mess being made.

"Poor man,” Jack said. "He is forced to endure so much hardship and indignity.”

Morty didn’t respond. He kept his eyes on the spot where Todd had dis­appeared. After close to half an hour, the man appeared once more. He walked with his back erect and eyes staring at Morty. He slowly made his way up the hill and took a seat at the bar.

"Good Morning, Mordecai,” the man said and nodded. Then shifted his gaze to the gate. "Jack.” He looked up at the brightening sky. His stom­ach gurgled with painful intensity, but he didn’t show any discomfort on his face. "Looks to be a beautiful day.”

"Valac?” Morty asked. When the demon-possessed man nodded, Morty continued, "What brings you to Todd today? Sitting watch isn’t usually your gig.”

"No, it is not,” Valac said. His stomach gurgled again and that time he showed it. "But, apparently this vessel was disused last night, so manage­ment thought it would be wise to have someone of my stature inhabit the body while it repairs itself.”

"If you say so,” Morty replied.

Valac turned his gaze from the bluing sky to Morty. The demon’s eyes were made of flesh, but were infinitely harder than those of the crea­ture made of pure stone.

"I say so,” Valac replied. "You should know by now, Mordecai, that I do not mince words.”

"Yeah, I know,” Morty said. "But you’re also a demon, which means you’re hiding the truth.”

"Is something coming?” Jack asked. "Something must be coming. Why else would they send the Treasure Hunter to sit with us?”

Valac only smiled and returned to staring up into the dawn sky. Wisps of white clouds, lazy and ephemeral, floated away from the moun­tains.

"Yes, it looks to be a beautiful day,” Valac said after several minutes.

Morty grunted then relit his cigar. He puffed at it until it was nearly non-existent, then put it out permanently before tossing the stub into the grass at his feet next to the hundreds of other stubs.

"What will you do when you run out of cigars, Mordecai?” Valac asked.

"Get more,” Morty replied, extending his granite wings.

"As if it is that easy,” Valac replied.

"If it was, then it wouldn’t be fun,” Morty said.

"Our ideas of fun differ,” Valac said.

"That ain’t the half of it,” Morty said and laughed.

"No, I suppose it is not,” Valac said without looking away from the sky. "Nowhere near the half of it, as you say.”



"VALAC,” MORTY SAID to another grotesque as his watch ended, and he walked up the hill toward the great stone cathedral that topped the rise.

The sun was almost set behind the building, framing it in an orange light that bordered on heavenly. The stained glass windows, the alternat­ing colors of intricate stonework, the towers and tiled roof, were high­lighted by a sunset perfectly framed between two mountain peaks. It was an idyllic image that people used to drive for hours to witness. A chance to see a piece of European history set in the middle of rural Appalachia.

Morty wished he could appreciate the countryside’s beauty more, but it was hard when faced with the ugliness of the possessed and the demons that controlled them.

"Be careful,” Morty warned.

The other stone creature, one cut to look like an elegantly dressed woman—although from a time several centuries earlier—paused and held a hand against Morty’s chest. Her features were finely chiseled, shaped into an exquisite beauty that Morty’s features completely lacked. He was the monster; she was the angel.

Yet she did not possess the wings Morty did; instead, her back was draped in a long, stone shawl that flowed and drifted in her wake. An impossi­ble feat considering the shawl should be too heavy to be influ­enced by any air current she produced when she moved.

"Why would they send Valac?” she asked, the shawl settling silently into place as she stopped.

Five feet tall, a good foot shorter than Morty, the stone woman did not look to have the strength and bulk to stop a creature the size and breadth of Morty, but he had come to an instant halt at her touch. She withdrew her hand and frowned up at him.

"What did he say?” she asked.

"Nothing,” Morty replied. Her frown deepened. "Seriously, Olivia, he said nothing. I tried.” Her frown twitched at the corners. "Okay, I didn’t try. But Jack did, of course. He hates silence.”

"I am aware of that,” Olivia replied. "Valac really said nothing?”


"What about Todd? Did he say anything?” Olivia pressed as she saw Morty’s features darken. "Mordecai? What did Todd say between shifts?”

"New York fell,” Morty replied. "They finally took down St. Luke’s.”

Olivia sighed with a pain as old as the stone she was cut from.

"New York,” she whispered. "They are winning.”

"Looks like it,” Morty said and produced a fresh cigar from one of the crags in his stone body. He plucked his Zippo from another crag, lit the cigar, exhaled a long stream of smoke, then smiled down at Olivia as he clacked the lighter closed with a flick of his wrist and tucked it back into its hiding spot. "But, honestly? There is no winning or losing in this war, Olivia. Only won or lost. As long as we’re here, and the cathedral still stands, then they haven’t won and we haven’t lost.”

Olivia turned to look over her shoulder at the cathedral. She shook her head, but when she looked back at Morty, the frown was replaced with a smile.

"As long as we have your optimism, then perhaps we aren’t losing,” Olivia said. She patted him on the chest and moved on. "Artus would like to see you when you go in. He knows you are low on cigars and wants to speak with you before you foolishly go searching for more.”

"How does he know?” Morty asked without expecting an answer. "I swear, for a gargoyle stuck in a courtyard, that guy knows everything.”

"It is his job, Mordecai,” Olivia said. "Without him, we would be lost.”

"Maybe not lost,” Morty said and waved the hand that held his cigar around the grounds. "But we wouldn’t have this. That G is all that keeps us from dealing with our own horde of demons.”

"He is our protector,” Olivia said. "His power keeps the abomina­tions at bay and our wards safe. Wards that could be the last of their kind very soon.”

"Wards,” Morty scoffed. "This job would be a lot easier without the hu­mans to babysit.”

"You don’t mean that. Part of this job is keeping the humans alive,” Olivia admonished. "And it is not supposed to be easy, Mordecai.”

"Says you,” he replied, smirking around the cigar which was back in place between his lips. "I could sure go for a vacation.”

"What will we do with you?” Olivia asked as she continued toward the fence, the gate, and her scheduled watch of the rotting bar beyond. "Do not forget to speak with Artus immediately. He seemed tired and will need his rest tonight, so do not make him wait.”

"Yeah, yeah, I’ll go see him,” Morty called after her then continued his way up to the impressive building.

Despite his need to hurry, Morty slowed his walk as he puffed on his ci­gar and studied the only home he’d ever known.

Originally built as a Norman castle in Wales in the thirteenth century, the cathedral was often abandoned, cycling through many hands—including the Benedictine monks who had created an exquisite abbey, which became a bishop’s seat, necessitating the transformation from a simple structure into a grand cathedral befitting a bishop’s title and privilege. As the inhabitants of the county abandoned their homes and farms for the possibility of a more prosperous life in England or the United States, the castle sat for decades, moldering and falling apart until a bootlegger named Byrne, second generation Irish-American, found it dur­ing a detour on his first trip to the home country with his new wife.

Morty knew the story well, having heard it repeated plenty of times as new humans arrived at the sanctuary seeking safety.

Byrne’s wife, daughter of one of the more successful moonshiners in the Appalachian region of the Southeast, insisted that the cathedral be placed not outside Boston on the estate land Byrne had purchased for them, but on the miles of acreage comprising her family’s land and which straddled the mountainous, rural border of Western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee.

Piece by piece, stone by stone, the cathedral was moved across the Atlantic to be reassembled on ground officially known on maps as Hickok’s Knoll. But the locals called the place Margaret’s Patch, a gor­geous tract of hilled meadow with a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree view of the sur­rounding mountains. Less than a decade later, Prohibition ended, as did Byrne’s fortune, and the cathedral lay empty once again, a stolid landmark on the knoll.

The cathedral led many lives—army hospital, sanatorium, arts col­lege, and hotel—and had many deaths before it was purchased and re­stored to its original cathedral state by the Hickok’s Knoll Preservation Society.

Yet, during those many lives, one thing remained a constant: the gro­tesques.

When the HKPS got their hands on the cathedral, there were close to three hundred grotesques adorning the walls, the arches, the corners, the columns, and the courtyard of the historical building.

But amongst all of those grotesques, only one true gargoyle survived the years of neglect and change. A six-foot-long form carved into the like­ness of a praying monk, Artus stuck out from one of the four corners in the cathedral’s central courtyard, spilling water from his mouth into a wide, deep basin below when it rained, or just looking down with patience and piety on those who enjoyed the sunny, private space that was sur­rounded by the cathedral’s internal walls, arched windows and doorways.

It was toward that courtyard Morty headed as he stepped through the cathedral’s wide, double doors, which were flanked by two towers reach­ing four stories into the sky. Two thin, but healthy-looking, men stopped him in the gallery. Morty’s eyes flicked to the nave, beyond which was the courtyard. If he wanted to get there anytime soon, he’d best listen to what­ever complaints the humans had.

"Parsons, Birchstein,” Morty said, taking out the omnipresent cigar and tapping ash between the feet of the two men. "What can I do for you two this evening?”

"We hear you’re going on a cigar run,” Parsons blurted. "We got a cou­pleitems for you to look for.”

A man in his mid-forties, Parsons looked like he would have been at home in some Depression-era photograph of dustbowl farmers. All skinny limbs and angular joints, Parsons had a perpetual squint that made him look either stupid or constantly questioning the world around him. Unfortunately for the man, he was both.

Birchstein was just as angular and skinny, but he was half a foot taller and his eyes never squinted. His gaze held a wealth of knowledge that re­flected his former profession as a social analyst for one of the most well- known, nonpartisan think tanks in Washington D.C. Back when Washington D.C. wasn’t overrun with demons and nearly burned to the ground.

"What he means to say, Morty, is that we would truly appreciate it if you could look for a couple of needed items,” Birchstein said. "Only if you have the time, of course.”

"Get me a list,” Morty said, and pushed past the two men. For a crea­ture made of stone, it was like pushing past a couple of weak saplings. "If I have time, I’ll look. No promises.”

"Of course,” Birchstein said.

"Artus told us you’d look!” Parsons snapped as Morty walked from the gallery into the nave.

Morty stopped and slowly turned around. Birchstein had a hand over his face and was shaking his head while Parsons looked like he was ready to argue.

"Birch,” Morty said. "Explain to your friend how well I respond to or­ders by wards.”

"Come on,” Birchstein said, tugging at Parsons’s arm. "Let’s make the list. If he can get the items, then he can get them. If not, then not.”

"Artus said—” Parsons started, but was cut off by a hard slap from Birchstein. "Ow! What the hell was that for?”

"For wasting Morty’s time,” Birchstein said. He tugged harder on Parsons’s arm and gave Morty a shy, apologetic smile.

"If I was Elisa, he’d listen,” Parsons muttered as Birchstein dragged him away.

Morty watched them leave the gallery, headed around to the avenue lin­ing the south side of the building. Once they were out of sight, he tapped off more ash from his cigar and turned back to the nave.

"They never learn, do they?” a voice called from the top of the col­umn to the left of the nave’s entry. "Can’t push Morty. No, sir. Ain’t gonna happen.”

"Push Morty and he gets pissed,” a second voice said. "P-I-S-S-E-D. Pissed!”

The two voices broke into cackling laughter. Morty ignored them, refus­ing to look up at the two carved forms of sneering, twisted faces that were the capitals resting between the columns and the ends of a stone arch that separated the gallery from the nave.

"Artus wants to see ya!” the first cried out, loud enough for anyone within a couple of miles to hear.

"He’s waiting!” the other yelled, trying to beat the first’s volume.

"I know, I know,” Morty said, waving his cigar at them.

"Bye, Morty!” one called.

"See ya later, big guy!” the other shouted.

Morty put his cigar back between his lips and steadied himself for the gauntlet he was about to walk.

The nave.

A hundred feet long, and lined entirely with small, narrow makeshift beds up and down each side, the nave was the main living space for the humans that were housed inside the cathedral. The wards, as the stone creatures called them. They, in turn, were called Gs by the wards. An easy way not to make the mistake of calling a grotesque a gargoyle. Grotesques hated being called gargoyles.

"Morty?” a slight woman of about fifty asked from her cot. Hers was the closest to the archway that designated the end of the gallery and the beginning of the nave. "Would you mind talking briefly when you are done with Artus?”

"I’ll try, Hannah,” Morty replied. "I’ve been on duty since dawn and have a lot to do before I can stand still. If I’m able to stay animate, I’ll come find you.”

"Please do,” Hannah said, a sad smile on her face. She looked down the length of the nave and her eyes fell on a group of teenagers busy chat­ting loudly. "It’s important.”

Morty’s eyes followed hers, and he could tell the teenagers were inten­tionally pretending not to be interested in him. It was their little dance. They were very interested in him, and all the other Gs, but wouldn’t dare show it. That just wouldn’t be cool.

"Is it important enough that I need to stay and chat now?” Morty asked.

"Not yet,” Hannah answered. "But it will be soon.”

"I’ll swing by when I’m done with Artus,” Morty said. "I promise.”

Hannah’s bloodshot eyes went wide then softened as her smile grew. "Thank you, Morty. You didn’t have to promise, but I appreciate it.”

"Just wanted you to know I wasn’t blowing you off,” Morty said, his gaze still on the teens. "I’m bound by my promise now.”

Hannah nodded then went back to a game of solitaire she was play­ing on the thin blanket of her cot. Morty moved on, a sad look on his face. He felt sorry for Hannah. That deck of cards was missing the eight of clubs. She’d never win the game.

Morty suspected she knew the card was missing. It would be classic Hannah. Aware of the negative, but still able to push forward and make do with what was at hand. The act of play was what she needed, not the act of winning.

It was a concept that Morty understood completely. He had a duty to per­form and that duty was to protect the wards that dwelled within the sanctuary’s walls. The job was perpetual, there was no endgame, no win­ning, just the constant play as hero and protector. It was a role he felt com­fortable with despite his inclination to gruffness and occasional impa­tience with wards.

Technically, the magic that infused and animated the Gs only re­quired them to protect the sanctuary, the wards inside simply being an extension of the building. If the wards left the sanctuary, then they were supposed to be on their own. But he had a hard time reconciling that with the reality. He suspected most of the Gs did too, despite their occasional gray opinions to the contrary.

As he walked, the sunset lit up the stained glass windows that lined the top of the nave, bathing Morty and the others in a multicolored light show. Many of the wards who had been heavy in conversation stopped to look up at the windows, their sad, distressed faces warming instantly.

The flood of color in their mostly gray lives was a small relief that came each day, a hint that the world could still be beautiful. Morty wasn’t immune to it, despite being made entirely of stone. He might have looked like a monster, but he was far from it. He knew beauty when he saw it.

How could he not protect all those who saw the beauty as well?

Especially when a portion of that beauty sat cross-legged on a couple of cots pulled together. A young woman, encircled by some of the young children who had been lucky enough to find the sanctuary, laughed and teased those children, joking about something that Morty couldn’t quite hear. There was nothing romantic about his appreciation of her beauty. And it wasn’t because he was a grotesque and she was a human. He, as well as the other Gs, simply weren’t made that way. Romance was for the flesh, not for the stone.

It was simply that, in spite of the technicality of their magic, there was affection for the wards from the Gs. Their bodies were stone-cold, but their hearts weren’t. Not always, at least.

Morty smiled around his cigar at the same moment she looked his way. He tried to pretend he hadn’t been watching, but he failed miserably as he did a half turn one way then a half turn the other way, finally decid­ing to keep moving toward the courtyard as the woman smiled back and gave him a quick wave. His bluff and bluster had never had the slightest effect on Elisa. She spoke briefly to the children then hopped off the cots and hurried his way.

He’d almost reached the end of the nave and the archway to the court­yard outside, but the young woman was quick and blocked his way before he could take more than a few steps. She was in her early twenties, a tiny fraction of the years Morty had spent on Earth, but the look on her face told the world around her that she had lived more life than many of the people in that nave combined. Morty wondered if what he liked most about her was the contradiction of her, or her similarity to him. Both kind and gruff, hard as a rock, but giving when it counted. Not an ounce of quit.

"Elisa,” Morty said as he tried to move past her. She wanted to talk, but Artus was waiting in the courtyard for him. "You look lovely, as al­ways.”

"Save the compliments, M,” Elisa replied in the jokingly antagonistic manner the two of them had developed. It was almost a sibling relation­ship, instead of protector and ward. "I need something from you.”

Long, raven-black hair; dark complexion; high cheekbones; a body plump in places, muscular in others; eyes made of pure gray steel, Elisa Running Child was Cherokee through and through.

Except she wasn’t, as she’d told Morty many times. She’d never known a tribe. Never set foot on the reservation that was only a couple of dozen miles away from Margaret’s Patch. She’d been taken far away by hermother, a woman desperate to escape poverty and spousal abuse. Elisa had only her last name to connect her to the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians.

Running Child.

Which was what she had become, running from one bad situation to the next until she’d had enough of running and tried to hitch her way back to her people. She’d only made it as far as Margaret’s Patch. Then the Gates of Hell opened.

She was angry at the world, but she was also cautious, careful, practi­cal, and always upfront. No games, no drama, no crap.

Which was why Morty wanted to put off whatever conversation she had in mind.

"I don’t have time, E,” Morty said. "I need to speak with—”

"Artus. Yeah, I know,” Elisa said. She waved her hands around. "Every­one knows. You’re late to the party in the courtyard.”

"Party?” Morty asked. "What party?”

He tried to look past her, but she blocked his view. Elisa was not a short woman. Six feet and broad-shouldered, she could be a formidable physical presence. But she rarely used that size to intimidate. She had a natural command of who she was, and Morty respected that. He especially knew it wasn’t easy being large without coming off as aggressive. It was probably why the children of the sanctuary looked up to her the most. Elisa had a way of being in charge without a need to be constantly no­ticed.

At least until she wanted to be noticed.

"What?” he asked, rolling the cigar between his lips. "What is it, E? I’m busy.”

He overcompensated and was a little too gruff with her. It instantly showed on her face as some of the joking fell away. A small widening of the ever-cautious eyes, a hurt twitch pulling down the corner of her mouth. Morty knew he’d pay for being a jerk, but he’d have to worry about that later.

"Nothing,” Elisa said, stepping out of his way and giving him the most sarcastic curtsey in the history of sarcastic curtseys. "Sorry to bother you.”

Now he’d stepped in it. Morty knew people looked up to her. When things got hard, which was all the damn time, eyes glanced her way and looked to her for guidance. All it would take to make his life in the cathe­dral very uncomfortable was for word to get around to one or two people of how he’d disrespected Elisa. The key to staying safe, to keeping the sanctuary of the cathedral secure, was order. Elisa could rip that order and precarious balance apart with just a sentence, if she chose to make an is­sue of this.

Morty growled his capitulation, a sound like grinding gravel in his throat. "What do you need?”

"You sure you have time?” Elisa asked. She straightened up from her curtsey and placed her hands on her hips. Her thumbs instantly hooked into the belt loops of her jeans, and Morty smiled. It was a habit she had when she loosened up.

"What?” she asked. "What’s so damn funny?”

A couple of the humans hissed at the word damn, but Elisa ignored them, her eyes focused squarely on Morty.

"What do you need?” Morty asked again.

"Pregnancy test,” Elisa replied. Straightforward, no explanation. "Can you get it the next time you go out?”

"What? For you?” Morty asked. He tried to keep the surprise out of his voice, but failed horribly. "Never mind. Doesn’t matter.”

"Well, it kind of does matter,” Elisa said. She grinned as Morty tried not to look uncomfortable. "Just not for me. I’m good. Can you get it?”

"Who says I’m going out again anytime soon?” Morty asked.

Elisa cocked a hip and folded her arms in reply. A determined frown re­placed her grin.

"Fine, I’m going out,” Morty said. "But I don’t know when. Doesn’t Highlander have one in the infirmary?”

"Highlander still thinks babies are brought in by the stork,” Elisa said.

"No, he doesn’t,” Morty said. "He knows exactly how babies hap­pen.”

"Yeah, but you know he gets weird around me sometimes, so asking him for a pregnancy test is like catching a deer in the headlights,” Elisa said. "He freezes and all that autistic medical genius of his goes bye-bye.”

"You checked the supplies yourself?” Morty asked, but it wasn’t re­ally a question.

Again with the hip cock. The frown deepened.

"Fine,” Morty said. "I’ll add it to the list.”

"Good,” Elisa said, the frown banished and the grin returned. "Thanks. I knew I could count on you.”

She started to walk away, but Morty tapped her on the shoulder. She didn’t flinch, but Morty could see and sense her instantly tense. Elisa didn’t exactly like to be touched, a fact Morty forgot all the time.

"Yeah?” she asked.

"Answer me this,” Morty said as he pulled his hand back. "How the hell does everyone know that I’m going out soon?”

"We keep an eye on your cigar stash.” Elisa shrugged and then walkedoff.

The conversation was done. She was heading back to the kids and their eager faces, leaving a confused Morty in her wake.

"But I have that hidden,” Morty called after her.

Elisa laughed without looking back. "Sure you do.”

Morty grumbled as he continued to the courtyard, his mind going over the layout of the cathedral, searching for a new hiding place for his cigars.

When he walked out into the last rays of the sunset, he stopped cold. Every mobile G in the cathedral was there waiting, all stone eyes on him.

"Thank you for joining us, Mordecai,” Artus said from his perch high in the far corner of the courtyard. "Now we can begin.”

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