Stone Heart (The Gargoyle Protectors Book 1)

Chapter 1

He made his way to the front of the crowd, silence echoing throughout the night. His warriors lowered their attention to the ground, and the sea of bodies parted to allow him to reach his destination. He curled his upper lip into a sneer while he gazed at the tendrils of smoke still lingering in the air.

That air shifted slightly, as if it sensed the anger mounting in his chest. He stared at the empty sight of where the stone staircase ended.

He sniffed.

Sulfur.

A growl vibrated in his chest, and he stared at the one thing his people were to guard.

The portal to the Terra realm.

“How did this happen?” he asked through clenched fangs. He turned, taking in the faces of his gargoyle warriors.

Gargoyles—a winged humanoid race of soldiers have guarded the portals to the human realm for close to a millennium. Never before had something escaped through a portal and gone undetected.

His focus went back to the area where the portal appeared when opened, the clear night sky the perfect backdrop to the rooftop access to this world.

It was a highly protected area that sat on top of one of the tallest buildings in Cleveland. The Steel Bank building, an old run-down structure in the heart of the toughest area downtown.

To the human eye, the edifice appeared dilapidated, abandoned, even considered haunted. But it wasn’t. It was warded with the strongest of magic to hide something so powerful.

A portal that connected the Terra realm with a multitude of realms.

Portals were located in major cities across the world. Sydney, Las Vegas, London, Tokyo, Moscow, and Cairo.

All protected by gargoyle clans.

Rhodack Gahnoth, leader of Clan Gahnoth, waited for his head of security to respond.

Vikuth stepped forward, anger blazing in his eyes. His demonic face mirrored Rhodack’s scowl. His head of security had been with their clan since they were children. Vikuth had taken a pledge to serve Rhodack when they were younger and had never let him down.

“That energy blast knocked out all our sensors during the day. We came right away—”

“What crossed over?” Rhodack’s three clipped words were met with silence.

The gargoyles surrounding him shifted uncomfortably. Rhodack’s sharp eyes took in the group. He already knew the answer they feared to relay to him.

They didn’t know.

Someone wouldn’t knock out their power grid, burst through the portal, and not come through. This was a carefully thought-out plan. Whoever it was had big balls to attack the portal when gargoyles were at their weakest—during the day.

Something or someone was now in the Terra realm that didn’t belong.

“Not quite sure,” Vikuth admitted quietly.

Rhodack’s growl echoed through the air. His wings on his back shifted as his irritation grew. Rhodack was the strongest of the gargoyles in his clan. It was he who they looked up to, and it was he who was feared as the fierce defender of the realm.

He held his clan to the highest of standards, and this lapse of care was unacceptable. He stepped forward toward his longtime friend. He narrowed his eyes on Vikuth when he stopped directly in front of him. As the leader of the clan, it was Rhodack’s job to ensure the gargoyles warriors were at their best.

Vikuth’s steady gaze met Rhodack’s. Being his friend would not keep Vikuth from feeling the wrath of the clan leader. If anything, Vikuth would suffer more at the hand of Rhodack for the breach. It was Vikuth who was the head of security. He would answer to Rhodack on why something had crossed over under his watch.

The realm depended on the gargoyles for protection. It was the gargoyles who ensured this realm was protected from those who would want to tear the world apart.

“I want to know what the fuck crossed over and why, Vikuth. You and your men will not rest until it’s found.” Rhodack shifted his attention to the gargoyles standing behind Vikuth.

Vikuth nodded. “Yes, sir.”

“This realm has been long protected by gargoyles, and we will not go down in history as the first clan to fail.” Rhodack’s voice carried across the rooftop, where all the gargoyles could hear. His muscles grew tense—the sensation of the unknown washed over him. Something was coming for the Terra realm, and they would be there to defend it. “We are Clan Gahnoth.”

“Gahnoth.” His family’s name echoed on the lips of the gargoyles. Each one of them had pledged to serve his family and the realm.

His beast was coiled tight. Rhodack paced, his men moving out of his way. He paused and turned toward the warriors before him, his wings flying out at his sides. He knew the picture he portrayed.

Fierce clan leader.

Defender of the realm.

His men would follow his every move. He slid his sharp gaze across the rooftop at the gargoyles in front of him. Each face held the look of stalwart determination. He knew his men would not fail him again.

“We have long been defenders of this realm, protecting this world from the evil spirits and deities. We will not let them down.” He growled. “We are gargoyles.”

Rumbles echoed around as each beast grew bold. Scowls lined the faces of his men. Their tails, horns, and talons were all unique. Some had horns while others didn’t. Gargoyles had long been confused with demons, but they weren’t demons at all. They could take the shape of a human when they chose, but this night, under a full moon, they’d all chosen to harness their inner beast. Howls filled the air as they prepared for the chase.

“Now go,” Rhodack ground out, pointing out into the dark night sky. “Find what crossed over. Bring it to me.”

He turned as his men rushed to the edge of the skyscraper. Their wings spread out, and bodies dived off the building. The sky became full of the winged protectors on the hunt.

Rhodack walked to the edge of the building, his chest rising and falling fast. He ached to go with his men, but as the clan leader, he knew what he must do first.

He must notify the other clans that there had been a breach.

They all must keep an eye out for what might be coming. And from the uneasy feeling rolling around in the pit of his stomach, he knew it wasn’t good.

No, not at all.

They would all need to prepare.

“I don’t know what it is about you that makes people buy whatever you suggest, Rina.” Alicia laughed as she closed the door behind their last customer.

Rina winced, trying to keep her pain at bay. This migraine of hers was a killer one today. Thank goodness it was closing time in their small clothing store. She glanced up at Alicia making her way back to the registers.

“Maybe because I’m honest with them?” Rina shrugged, counting the money in the register.

“I still say you put some form of voodoo over customers when they walk in the store. I’ve yet to see a customer tell you no.” She sighed, coming around the counter.

She began cleaning the mess they’d made while Rina counted down the drawers and packed the money for the nightly deposit run to the bank.

“Well, at least we met our goal tonight,” Rina announced. She tried to give Alicia an award-winning smile but failed. The room spun slightly as the pain intensified. She winced again, no longer able to hide her pain.

“Are you okay?” Alicia glanced over at Rina, her face showing her concern.

“Just a headache.” Rina tried to wave it off, but Alicia wasn’t hearing any of it.

“You’ve been getting these migraines more frequently lately. Maybe you should go get yourself checked out by a doctor?”

“And have him tell me I’m just under a lot of stress?” Rina arched an eyebrow at Alicia.

She had already been to her family physician. She’d requested a complete physical and, as usual, she was in perfect health. Not one thing was abnormal on any blood test or scan.

Nothing.

It was as Dr. Jameson had said—she was just under a lot of stress and needed to relax.

“I’m sure they will say more—”

“Well, he didn’t. Relaxation is what the doctor called for, and right now, I can’t afford to take time off.” She sighed, rubbed her temples, and glanced over at her coworker. A small smile finally graced her lips at the look of pity that came over Alicia’s face.

“I’m sorry, Rina. Is there anything I can do?”

“No. School is almost done for the semester, and once that is over, I’ll be taking the summer off. I’m just going to work and nothing else.”

“Well, that’s good. You’re too young to be working yourself into the ground.”

Rina chuckled and finished putting the money in the bank deposit bag. They rushed to finish cleaning the store. She had to admit she really did have a knack for selling. Customers flocked to her and always left with a good deal and a smile. Her manager could count on her making the store’s goal each night she worked.

“Any plans for the weekend?” Alicia asked, locking the door.

The bank was a few doors down, and they’d toss the money in the overnight bank deposit box.

“No, not really. Doing some studying and bumming around, if Chelsey lets me.”

Her roommate and best friend, Chelsey Coffey, probably wouldn’t let Rina stay in the house this weekend. Chelsey worked in marketing and had a big event planned this weekend that she was sure to try to drag Rina to as her plus-one.

“Well, you let your BFF know if she ever wants to give any tickets away, she can call me,” Alicia volunteered.

“I’ll be sure to let her know.” Rina chuckled as they arrived at the bank. A chill slid down her spine, and her breath caught in her throat. She paused and looked around the empty sidewalk.

“What is it?” Alicia asked, clearly picking up on Rina’s unease.

“Isn’t it weird that we’re the only ones out right now? I mean, usually there are other people coming to do drop-offs now, too,” she murmured, eyeing the empty street.

Both girls drew close together, and Rina carefully took in their surroundings. An eerie feeling crept over her. Usually, other people from the other stores would be making their way out of their stores and heading to the bank as well, but for some reason, Rina and Alicia were the first ones out here.

“Now that you’ve said it, it is a little weird. Let’s hurry.” Alicia motioned for Rina to move to the drop box.

Rina quickly opened the bank’s deposit slot and dropped her bag in. She closed it then opened it again to ensure the money bag had disappeared inside the bank.

“Let’s get the hell out of here,” Rina said, sliding her purse higher on her shoulder. She reached in and grabbed her keys so she could unlock her car as she approached it.

“You don’t have to tell me twice,” Alicia muttered.

Lucky enough, the parking lot for employees of the downtown shopping center was located across the street. They scurried over the still-empty road to the lot.

Rina held her purse close to her body, and they entered the parking lot. She turned to Alicia, knowing they would have to separate to get to their personal cars.

“Don’t forget to check your car first then lock the doors when you get in,” Rina said.

These were always the rules that her mother had taught her. Solana Smith, a single mother raising her daughter, had always drilled safety into her head. Her father, Joshua Smith, had died when Rina was a young girl. She really had no memories of her father aside from those her mother shared with her.

“Yes, Mom,” Alicia joked, but Rina was sure her friend would do it. “See you later.”

They gave a quick wave and jogged over to their cars. Rina just couldn’t shake the feeling she was being watched. She paused by her car and peered through in the windows to ensure no one was in her vehicle. She glanced at Alicia and waved again before watching her friend disappear into her car.

She pushed her thick blonde hair over her shoulders and grabbed the door handle. She looked up and across the lot. A dark figure stood still. She widened her eyes at the size of the…thing.

Not possible.

It didn’t even appear human.

“What in the world?” she muttered, quickly flying into her car.

She hit the lock button and immediately threw her key in the ignition. She didn’t waste any time turning the car on and putting it into drive. She pulled out of her spot and headed toward the street, away from the frightening figure, and checked in her rearview mirror.

It was gone.

“Either this migraine is really getting to me or I’m going crazy.” She guided her car out onto the street and hit the gas. She wanted to put as much distance between her and that parking lot as she could.

She shook her head at the memory of the figure. She had to have been hallucinating. Things like that didn’t exist. Large muscular figures with wings just didn’t inhabit the real world.

Maybe she needed a vacation after all.