Here is the book’s backside blurb: Ever since Alex Croft was little, robed beings have shadowed his every move. But after he is wrongfully incarcerated, the robed strangers have apparently abandoned him. Or so it seems. When Alex’s true identity is revealed, he enters a world he has always seen but never really known. A realm where he learns how to protect the innocent from an evil that desires to control everything in its path. Especially Alex. As he trains as an apprentice within the Voror Council, Alex uncovers a sinister secret seeking to destroy him. To save himself and others, he will have to endure the same darkness he sought to escape. In this first installment of The Guardian Trilogy, Alex Croft will not only learn magic-infused Words and make strange, new allies but also discover the truth about himself and his past. A truth that will become either his destiny or his downfall.
The Guardian is the first book in The Guardian Trilogy, of which I’m editing the draft of the second novel as we speak. It’s title will be The Guardian Prophecy and the final book (which only exists as an outline right now) will be The Guardian Wars.
Enjoy, fellow bookworms! 🙂
Pick up a copy of The Guardian today through Amazon or CreateSpace!
(Kindle version also available.) Find direct links below!
Where are the robed oddballs when I need them? Alex thought.
Alexander Croft was naked, standing in line with the other new inmates. Erebus Penitentiary’s cold, cramped processing room reeked of smoke as their old clothes smoldered in a corner. As soon as the men had stripped, a skinny, skittish guard collected their garments and burned them.
Bigelow Turk paced, ogling each man up and down. His guard uniform stretched across his chest and his massive gut jutted over his belt. Alex thought he had the perfect build for a mall Santa Claus if his bald forehead wasn’t angled like an angry pit bull.
“Welcome home, scumbags!” he growled, lighting a cigarette. “This place is as good as ya coffin.”
Alex swallowed hard. He figured Erebus was the sort of place men went to die. Its stony exterior and lifeless yard were eerie omens. His heart sank knowing he would never witness another sunny sky or smell cut grass again.
Bigelow neared the end of the line where Alex stood but he turned once he reached a man with a walrus mustache standing beside Alex. Alex was used to being ignored. Not it bothered him now.
When he was little, Alex was a magnet for the mysterious. Strange, robe-wearing people carrying gemstone-like vials always paid him attention. Some of them donned normal clothes but most sported amber or grey robes. Alex had no clue who these people were. But they seemed to be the only ones who noticed him, acknowledging him with a nod or a smile. As if he was part of a club so secret even he didn’t know he was a member.
Growing up in a tiny rural town, Alex knew outsiders were viewed with contempt and automatically labeled as rabble-rousers. That’s why Grandpa Cross and Great-Uncle Rick fit in so well. They were as normal as anyone could be. They raised Alex themselves and the only thing he knew about his parents were that they had perished in a house fire.
Alex left the farm upon finishing community college, eager to escape the rustic confines of his overly-bearing guardians. He eventually found work at Crowns and Croft, a private security firm in a larger city. Aside from its decent wages and location, Alex had been drawn to the firm for personal reasons. He wondered if his father had been partners with William Crowns but before he could explore his suspicions, Crowns passed away shortly after Alex was hired. Disappointment was nothing new to Alex. Any lead that may have revealed secrets about his family inevitably turned out to be a dead end.
Despite this, Alex at least managed to get his friend, Robert Highmore, on to work with him. Rob had been his only tie to the outside world during boyhood. He was also one of few people who didn’t act as if Alex was invisible. At least not all of the time.
Alex met Rob in an ice cream shop when he was ten and Rob was seven. Rob, a ratty-looking boy, was about to get beat up by bullies. At the first sign of trouble, little Alex dropped his mint chocolate chip cone and rammed the ringleader in the gut before the young thug landed a nose-breaking punch to Rob’s face. Alex and Rob had been friends from that moment on.
Their first major job was Connor Black, a CEO entering the political foray. Alex and Rob were in charge of keeping Black, his wife, and daughter, Penny, safe. At times, Black ignored Alex yet other times he acknowledged him. Mrs. Black never noticed him. Five-year-old Penny always had her eyes on Alex, never hesitating to grin. He made sure to smile back, happy at least someone could see him. He had been waiting for a detail like this to come along and accepted it as a chance to finally prove himself.
Now he wished he hadn’t been so ambitious.
One night, Black finished speaking at a rally and traversed an empty parking lot with his family in tow. Black strode alongside his wife while Penny skipped in their wake, tossing shy smiles back at Alex. He and Rob walked behind them, their eyes vigilant.
One moment was quiet, calm chatter.
The next was screams and blood.
Three pale men dressed in old-fashioned suits slipped out of the shadows. They sprang on the Blacks and Rob but left Alex alone as if he was simply part of the scenery.
The men tore into clothes and flesh, splattering blood. Penny succumbed quickly with deep gashes to her chest. Black and his wife had their throats ripped out. There was nothing Alex single-handedly could do. It all happened so fast, so systematically.
One of the men pinned Rob to the ground while the other two bit his neck. Dark arterial blood pooled around Rob’s head. His screams died as his throat filled up with blood. Alex managed to unfreeze his brain and tackled the attackers clinging at Rob’s neck. He aimed swift punches to their faces, which would have broken bones in anyone else. But these men merely sustained bloodied noses.
One of them shoved Alex off. Alex fought back, praying for someone to materialize and help. The robed oddballs were the first ones to come to mind.
But no one came.
The attackers left as swiftly as they had arrived. As one of them fled into the darkness, he sneered,
“Leave him for Rastaban.”
Alex sunk down numbly among the bodies, burying his face in his hands. He had been helpless to act, helpless to save anyone. Now he knew he would be the one to carry the blame.
His trial flashed across his mind like a frenzied dream. It was the one time Alex wished he could have remained unseen. But for some reason, all eyes were on him.
He was charged and convicted of four murders. Alex knew he was doomed from the start, considering there were no witnesses and the security cameras in the garage had conveniently gone out at the time. If Alex hadn’t known better, he would have sworn the killings had been meticulously planned. But who wanted him framed for murder? And why?
Alex burned with injustice. He knew he would be sentenced to die.
Or so he had assumed.
When he had appeared for sentencing, the judge’s brow sweated and his hands trembled.
“I don’t know who you know, Mr. Croft, but you better count your lucky stars. I’ve been persuaded to let you live. Someone…paid me a visit. And now…well…I’m sentencing you to life imprisonment in…humph…Erebus Penitentiary.”
The judge obviously had been scared by the intercessor. Or the audacity of the request.
Alex was stunned. He wondered and worried over who had enough power to frighten a judge. Who had the authority to disregard and overturn courtroom procedure? And on Alex’s behalf?
He was escorted away, torn between the joy of staying alive and the horror of spending the rest of his life behind bars. He hoped Erebus was a country club prison where aging millionaires spent their days playing shuffleboard and canasta.
Instead, Alex endured a suffocating van ride to the middle of nowhere. Dominating the insipid landscape was a black stone castle with six gargoyle-topped turrets. Once behind the massive front gate, Alex and the rest of the inmates were herded into a tiny room where they were forced to strip, shower, and be searched.
Luckily for Alex, the only two people who paid him any heed were the scrawny guard and the mustached prisoner. Not that he minded. But it turned his stomach to witness the other men be fondled by Bigelow.
Alex held his breath, refusing to intake the pungent cigarette smoke, but his lungs eventually gave out.
“You need to learn a thing or two about how things work here,” Bigelow spoke between labored breaths. “I’m Bigelow Turk, the boss. Warden Chuck Harbor don’t got the brains to do nothing. This here’s Clay Holmes,” he jerked his thumb in the skinny guard’s direction. “He don’t got much brains himself but he’s got the sense to keep quiet.”
“In the cell block, Black Gin’s boss,” he went on. “He used to run drugs, now he runs the show. He’ll be down here to tell ya the rules. So if ya don’t want trouble from me, listen to Black Gin. And if ya don’t want trouble from Black Gin, do what he says. ‘Else I’ll make sure ya end up here with me.”
Bigelow rounded on a gangly inmate at the end of the line. He forced the prisoner against the wall, holding him in place with one meaty hand.
Alex knew what was going to happen. His heart quivered in his chest as his hands sweated.
“Ain’t nobody in here deservin’ of that!” he shouted.
He wasn’t sure why he spoke up. If Bigelow couldn’t see him, how could he hear him?
Bigelow whipped around, slamming the prisoner to the floor. His beady eyes lit up with avarice.
“Well, well,” he sneered. “I don’t reckon we’ve met.”
“I’ve been here with the rest of these fellows,” Alex asserted, keeping his tone polite. But his blood ran cold. “Ask Mr. Holmes. He was the one who searched me.”
“Mr. Holmes? Ya sure are civil for being buck naked. What’s yer name?”
“Alex. Alex Croft.”
“Ya got a twang. Ya a country boy?”
“You could say that,” Alex replied cautiously.
“Well, now. You think ya a tough boy then? A good ol’ redneck?”
Bigelow spit his sodden cigarette on Alex’s foot like a gauntlet. But Alex refused to be provoked. Not after witnessing what sort of guards were employed here.
Suddenly, the processing room’s door opened, clanging against the wall. Bigelow jumped.
“Black Gin’s here,” an elderly guard announced before bowing out.
A tall Black man with dreadlocks approached Bigelow with confidant strides. A silver ring protruded through his nose and a thick bandage concealed his left eye. His ageless face retained a subdued ferociousness yet he looked tired. Black Gin’s single eye scanned the line of men but did not linger. He visually skipped over Alex.
“Nothing has been found on or in these men?” he asked.
Clay shifted his weight. “No…these men were… processed.”
“I can see that.” Black Gin’s voice was cool and calm, like a patient teacher. Or a calculating predator.
“Same scum we always get,” Bigelow snapped.
Black Gin scowled. “Did you use any of them?”
Bigelow’s lips clamped shut but Clay answered, “He…he tried to…but…but….”
He pointed at Alex. Black Gin’s eyes aimed directly at him.
“Go. Both of you,” he told the guards.
To Alex’s surprise, they obeyed.
Then Black Gin strolled up to him. Alex matched his stare.
“You saw what happened,” Black Gin said. “Which man was it?”
“I don’t know his name,” Alex replied in a steady voice. “He was the fellow at the end there. Mr. Turk tried to assault him.”
“Mr. Turk?” Black Gin mused. “I’ve heard Bigelow called many names but never Mr. Turk.”
“Well, where I come from, men treat each other with respect.”
Black Gin nodded in silent commentary. “And did Mr. Turk succeed?”
“No, I stopped him.”
“And how did you do that?” Black Gin pulled his lips into a taut, amused smile.
“I told him men don’t deserve to be treated like that.”
“That’s it,” Alex said with finality.
He didn’t wish to banter with this man. Black Gin was a violent criminal. Who else would rowdy inmates obey?
Black Gin laughed. “You should have punched him if you were that brave!”
Alex tried to swallow in his dry throat. He’s just tryin’ to make himself look like the biggest dog in the kennel.
“Well, the way I was brung up, men didn’t need to use fists to make a point,” Alex answered, never diverting his gaze. “Though I can use a weapon if I have to.”
“What were you then? A murderer?” Black Gin inquired.
“No, private security guard. I was only accused of murder.”
Black Gin laughed and shook his head. “We are all innocent here!”
Then he stepped back and addressed them all.
“Erebus is no common prison. The men here are beasts and need more than bars to hold them. I am those bars. I can turn them loose if I want or I can keep them quiet.”
That’s what’s got the warden’s scared, like what Bigelow said, Alex realized. He’s afraid of a riot. I bet there’s more prisoners than guards here and they could take this place easy.
Black Gin went on. “In this place, I am king. And as king, what I say goes. But I only have three rules. One, you may fight but can only kill on my orders. Two, never take what isn’t yours unless you want to fight. And lastly, no one has ever escaped Erebus. We are prisoners here until death.”
He sighed but never lost his stiff posture. “I have my own men who make sure everything runs according to my rules. Others live here but don’t get the same privileges. Then there are the Outs.”
Black Gin paused in front of the inmate Bigelow attacked. His eyes bored through the man.
“Outs do not fight for themselves or speak on their behalf. They are weak, cowardly. Abused because they let themselves be abused. I have no need for men like that.”
He punched the inmate in the face and tossed him a pair of underwear from a bundle behind the door. The man clutched it as if it was a sack of gold.
Black Gin distributed the rest of the clothing. The first inmate to get his garb was a shaven-head, thickset man.
“You’ll come with me,” Black Gin instructed.
Alex assumed the man was now in Black Gin’s inner circle. He hoped he wouldn’t be picked. He had no desire to be in a criminal’s company.
Black Gin silently tossed Alex the next bundle, which thankfully consisted of more than just underwear.
“Do not get dressed,” Black Gin said. “Follow me to the cell block. Find any cell that isn’t occupied. Only two to a cell.”
With that, the inmates filed out with Black Gin leading them. Alex kept his head up, knowing this was the final attempt to humiliate them.
Black Gin led them through corridors lined with moss and mold. They finally headed to a door at the end of the broadest hallway. A cacophony greeted Alex’s ears as soon as Black Gin opened it.
The cell block was a narrow passage lined with miniscule rooms. Instead of bars, sheets or crudely-fashioned doors separated the cells from the hall. Most of the light entered through slits dug deep into the walls. By nightfall the men would be in absolute darkness even though a solitary, naked light bulb burned futilely at the end of the hall.
The inmates’ raucous laughing and chatter ceased as all heads turned towards the new prisoners. Alex forced himself to stare straight ahead but he couldn’t block out the taunts, innuendos, and catcalls. Alex’s stomach twisted inside him.
The horses Grandpa Cross and Great-Uncle Rick raised were more civilized than these monkeys!
Someone nudged his shoulder. Alex spun around.
It was the mustached-inmate. He offered Alex a meager smile.
“Pardon my manners. I’m Truman of…ah, Truman Ryncheon. I don’t wish to share space with anyone Black Gin considers a friend, do you?”
Alex sized Truman up. He was tall but thin. His mousy brown hair was mussed as if he just exited a windstorm. The bristly mustache grew over his upper lip. Once Alex knew he could take Truman if the need arose, he said,
“Fine by me.”
He followed Truman to a room near the cell block’s door. Once inside, Alex dressed. The uniform consisted of a grey jacket, white shirt, and grey pants. The shoes were small but Alex didn’t have the mind to complain.
“It feels good to finally get something on,” Truman said. “I was wondering if we might have to live in our skins.”
Alex nodded, his eyes raking over the cell as he sat on the cot’s rocklike mattress. A thin layer of dust coated the floor. The walls were free from graffiti but Alex unnervingly wondered whose cell this had been.
“Where’re you from?” he asked Truman.
“My family lives far from civilization,” Truman replied, sitting on the cot across from him. “Father prefers it that way. He has been ill for some time. My mother is no longer alive. That is what has driven my father’s illness.”
Frustration and sadness crept into Truman’s voice. A spark of compassion briefly ignited in Alex, but for all he knew Truman was inventing a story to purposely seek sympathy.
“I’m sorry but I don’t think I caught your name earlier,” Truman said.
“Alex. Alexander Croft.”
Truman’s brows shot up quickly but he recovered.
“Well, it’s nice to properly meet you, Alex.”
Alex ignored his niceties. “So what are you in for?”
“Since I gave you my name first, I’ll let you share that about yourself now.”
“Fair is fair. I was charged with four counts murder. But I’m innocent. I swear.”
“Do you know who did it?” Truman asked.
“Three guys dressed funny. They were pale and…well, the rest is just too bizarre.” Alex shook his head as the gory memories resurfaced. He shut his eyes, trying to block them out but he shivered.
Truman inclined his head. “I’m sorry this happened to you.”
“Yeah. Me, too,” Alex mumbled.
“What is your sentence?”
“Could you not appeal?”
“What’s the point?” Alex snapped. “A big-shot CEO, his wife, daughter, and my friend got slaughtered in a parkin’ garage with nobody ‘round but me. I was too slow to help. It was an open and shut case.”
“Or one that was rigged,” Truman remarked darkly.
“Don’t think I haven’t thought that. But you never answered my question.”
“You mean regarding my conviction?” Truman said. “It’s a bit complicated. But to spare you the details, I volunteered.”
“Say what?” Alex scoffed. “Who the heck volunteers to go to prison? Or did you not know what you were gettin’ yourself into?”
“Oh, I knew. My knowledge was secondhand, but it’s been proven accurate thus far.”
Alex suspected Truman was hiding something but his brain was too tired to piece it together. He leaned back on his cot and closed his eyes, eager for sleep but it never came. Instead, his mind replayed memories of Penny’s mangled body, Rob’s shredded throat, and a fire roaring with the fury of a thousand dragons.
The days and weeks in Erebus repeated themselves. Dampness settled into the cell block and streams of fog and mist drifted in through the window slits.
Alex feared for his sanity. With each day like the one before, would he be bored into complacency or driven to animalistic behavior? He knew himself better than that but he had never been isolated from others before. At least other like-minded people.
Black Gin’s gang stayed near their boss’s cell, talking loudly or listening a sporting event on a battery-powered radio. The only things that interested the other inmates were bickering or lusting over pictures of pinup women someone had smuggled in. Often, a spat broke out, leaving one inmate injured, sometimes both. Any split blood was never cleaned up and stained the floor, causing the entire cell block to perpetually smell of sticky rust.
Alex opted to stay in his cell and refused to socialize, his gums hurting and his stomach churning from the constant smell of blood and occasional vomit. But before long, the other inmates’ activities and filthy banter eroded his nerves until he was numbed to their antics and words.
The Outs dwelled in the epicenter of Erebus’ appalling conditions, forced to either battle or bargain for food, water, or blankets. They reminded Alex of men begging on a street corner only the Outs received a kick in the face instead of alms. It repulsed Alex that there was nothing he could do.
Story of my life, he thought.
But the other inmates were not the only ones who enjoyed tormenting the Outs. Bigelow occasionally came under the pretense of a random cell search. But he used it to abuse any inmate who was too weak to resist. Whenever it happened, Alex hunkered down in his cell and clamped his hands over his ears as he retched. He didn’t leave for days, fearing that treading upon the floor where any Out had been attacked would be akin to walking on a grave. But eventually his bladder could hold out no longer.
The communal toilet was dirtier than any public bathroom he had ever used. Its walls were littered with graffiti and faded pornography. Odors remained trapped inside since there were no windows. Alex wanted to vomit just from opening the door, so he made sure to keep his stay short.
As he returned to his cell, he tripped over a bundle of cloth in the middle of the hall. The blanket pulled away, revealing a bare, wizened foot.
The Out’s face was a mass of wrinkles and his eyes were dull, as if only his body’s shell remained. Alex glanced down at the man’s face.
And the old man stared back.
“Can you see me?” Alex whispered excitedly.
“I can,” the Out spoke in a cracked voice. “The name’s Carl.”
“I’m Alex. You need anythin’?”
Carl curled up defensively.
“No, nothin’ like that,” Alex said quickly. “I mean anythin’ to eat or drink? An extra blanket or somethin’? No strings attached.”
“I don’t need anything,” Carl replied. “Just keep him away from us!”
“Who? Black Gin?”
“No, Bigelow. He’s not fit to live! You have no idea…”
But he shook his head, silently gesturing to the Out beside him who was chin-deep in his blanket. Alex recognized him as the inmate Bigelow had tried to assult in processing.
“You’re a funny young man,” Carl spoke again, peering into Alex’s face.
“What do you mean?”
“There’s lights dancing on the walls. Like sunlight on water. That’s what it looks like,” Carl said. “Are you a ghost?”
“No.” Alex fought back a laugh. “I ain’t no ghost.”
“There is a ghost that haunts this place. Haven’t you heard?”
“Can’t say I have.”
Carl blanched. “The ghost kills with a scream. Can you believe that?”
“A killin’, screamin’ ghost?” Alex said. “Somehow in this place I ain’t surprised.”
He had sensed something sinister the moment he arrived, as if Erebus was imbued with a dark, evil presence. Something that would make even Black Gin or Bigelow cower if it ever revealed itself.
Frank finally spoke, his voice muffled by his blanket, his eyes pleading,
“Keep watch. Watch out for us. I have a kid.”
He shuddered against the wall and shut his eyes.
“I’ll do my best,” Alex said and returned to his cell.
But his mind was abuzz with questions. What were these strange lights Carl claimed to see yet Alex was blind to them? How could two Outs see him while the other inmates couldn’t? Was he some sort of being only certain people noticed? Alex laughed at the idea as he dozed off.
Just then a dark voice spoke, shaking Alex awake from his fitful slumber. He knew it was not himself talking because it was not his voice. Whatever it was had hijacked his mind.
You are dead to the outside world. Why not accelerate the process? No one will miss you. Not to mention you would not have to exist like this. It would be easy to do but you must decide on the method. Regardless, no one will care or notice.
Death. That’s what the voice was suggesting.
Alex swallowed hard. He had never been one to despair. But after experiencing the place he would live in for the rest of his life, he assumed it was inevitable to entertain notions of suicide. After all, it was the only reasonable means of escape.
What’s it feel like to die? Would I be in pain? Would I just go to sleep? Alex recoiled at the thought.
You would be gone, never confined to a prison again, the voice countered.
I’d be confined in the hereafter, Alex argued.
The voice droned on, repeating the same ideas. Each time, a clearer picture formed in Alex’s mind. An image of what it would be like to take his life. There was some truth to the voice’s words. No one knew he was here. No one would miss him. It could be a blessing in disguise.
You’re strong enough. With the right tools, you could this end this now. What is the purpose of waiting?
But Alex was waiting. He just wasn’t sure what he was waiting for.
I ain’t ready to die. Not yet anyway, he thought.
The voice receded and Alex finally fell asleep. But his nap was punctured by bizarre images. Bigelow bore long fangs and grasped an inmate by the neck. People stood around in robes of different colors, holding out gemstone vials like magic wands. Alex was robed, too, and clutched a glowing vial.
Alex snorted and the dream vanished. Whatever those robe-wearin’ weirdos are, there sure ain’t none of them ‘round here, he told himself. And I sure as heck ain’t one of them!
Like what you see?
Pick up a copy of The Guardian today through Amazon or CreateSpace!
(Kindle version also available.)