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The Demon Within (A PeaceKeeper Novel Book 1)(3)

By:Stacey Brutger



A heavy hand landed on her shoulder, jolting her attention back to her surroundings, leaving her guts in her throat.

"Did you find anything of interest?"

Oscar.                       
       
           



       

Shit.

"No." The protest rose automatically to her lips. It took more force than she liked to drop her hand to her sides.

A hand she hadn't even known she'd raised.

The vines swung inward, the statue disappeared from sight, and her stomach dropped. Caly honestly didn't know if her reaction was due more to the fact she messed up or because the statue was no longer under her watchful eye.

She had an awful, sinking feeling it was the latter.

"Nothing of interest." Guilt caused her to flush, but she didn't want the old man to find the statue, feeling protective of the stupid thing. She tried to tell herself she was overreacting, but her mind didn't agree. She held her ground, waiting for him to move away.

The contest of wills broke when, with his usual vigor, Oscar leaned past her and yanked on the vines. Vegetation shredded, bruised leaves drifted abandoned to the ground. Bold and savage, her statue faced forward, a sentinel frozen in time, waiting to be awakened.

She swore that Oscar instinctively knew what she wanted and made sure she never received it. In her peripheral vision, she watched him circling the stone, but once he disappeared from view, he disappeared from her thoughts as well.

One step forward, then two, she stood only inches away from temptation. Her palms itching for just one touch. She stole a quick glance at the statue from under her lashes, then forced herself to turn away and put him … it out of her mind.

The urge to linger pulled at her sense of duty. The simple task to turn and walk away was surprisingly hard, especially since she'd dedicated her life to her work.

"You know what it is." Oscar's low growl didn't have its normal bite, yet the tone stiffened the muscles of her back.

Caly refused to face him, refused to let him see the fear in her eyes. Fear for the stone man. She licked her dry lips. "A statue."

"Don't be a fool. It's a demon, one of the cursed guardian statues. Just pray that your blood isn't human enough to wake him. If the blasted thing wasn't mounted in granite, I'd have it smashed."

The lash of his words stung, but the threat to the statue sent a surge of terror through her. And that pissed her off. She opened her mouth to protest when a jungle cat's roar rang out and echoed in the treetops.

Caly whipped her head around, her eyes narrowing at the undergrowth. At first, she didn't see anything. After a moment, two green eyes blinked, staring back at her as a big ass cat licked its muzzle.

A chill crept down her spine. There was nothing behind those eyes but pure predator. Not hunger, but a need and desire to kill for the pleasure of it. A twitch of muscles betrayed her abhorrence of the creatures.

"Skins!" Possessions were when a demon took over a body and the human went along for the ride. Skins were when a demon killed the host by forcing the actual soul out of the body, then slipped inside to use the body as an indestructible suit. Only a beheading would free the demon and allow it to be killed.

Even as she bellowed the warning, the guides screamed like kids and took off. A streak to the left broke her concentration, and she saw another animal, a black panther, bound after the two men. Their bloodcurdling screams were cut off abruptly, leaving no doubt as to their fate.

The other panther slowly slunk out hiding, its eyes locked on her.

A sound to her right caused the big cat's head to swing in that direction.

"Run!"





Chapter Two





Oscar shoved her shoulder to get her moving, and Caly took off in the direction of the temple at a breakneck pace, her palms itching for a sword. Two men, Wilson and Andrews, split off in the wrong direction, panic pumping their legs, too far gone to realize they were heading deeper into the jungle's interior. Cunningham met her gaze, his eyes telling her to stay safe. Then he, too, veered away to follow them.

"No!" She twisted to plunge after them when Oscar snatched her elbow and forced her to keep on the path.

"Leave him. He knows what he's doing."

Caly wanted to protest that they were her team, her job to keep them safe, but the cat took that second to swat at them and barely missed tripping her. The claw scored down her leg, deflected only by her leather pants.

Oscar overtook her. Henry had vanished at the first sign of the cats, self-preservation kicking into overdrive.

Refusing to be lunch, she increased her speed, dodging and leaping over obstacles with a natural grace provided to her by her infection. Only when she realized the cat kept pace did the sick feeling come back twice as strong. The bastard was guiding her. Every time she veered off the path, the panther swiped at her with a massive paw.

She heard the men ahead of her and double-timed it. Sweat trickled between her breasts, soaking her tank top. To make matters worse, the thick leather pants that normally fit like a second skin steamed under the heat. They adhered to her skin in the most awkward of places, making the run difficult.                       
       
           



       

The temple appeared ahead, the color a mixture of red and brown clay bleached almost gray under the sun. It had to be at least thirty feet high with a set of crumbling steps leading to the peak. A stone platform dominated the top of the structure.

If she could reach the temple and find a defensible position, she could hold off the beast. She doubted the ground under the temple remained sacred after all these years, the only thing guaranteed to keep demons away.

The ruins came into view. No plants grew within a ten-foot radius. As she drew closer, dark foreboding curled through her gut. She skidded to a stop outside the circle. She licked her dry lips, her hand unconsciously settling over her weapons.

Fight or flee, her mind screamed.

As her foot lifted to take a step back, the cat roared. Options limited, she stepped on the ravaged ground, knowing it was the wrong choice. The cat paced around the circle, watching her, then laid down and rested its ginormous head on its paws to wait.

"They'll leave us be for a while. They have us where they want us, at least until night falls and they can toss the suits. They weren't expecting us a day early. The welcoming party hasn't arrived yet." Oscar waved her over and vanished back within a cavern carved out of the side of the temple.

She forced herself toward the temple, the air thick, almost pushing against her in warning. Henry's voice rang out sharply in the blackened tunnel. "Look at the walls. The ancients had Playboy." A dark chuckle followed, echoing in the coal-black entrance.

Caly rolled her eyes, and the restriction in her chest loosened. They'd made it. She didn't realize how worried she was about being abandoned and alone in the temple. As her vision adapted to the dimmed light, she entered in time to see Oscar smack Henry on the back of the head.

"Hey."

"Idiot. Those are human sacrifices." He leaned closer to study the walls, his tense body strumming with energy that always hovered over him when on the hunt. "I'd bet my spear that they were orchestrated by demons."

Caly bit the inside of her cheek. Oscar thought anything evil meant demons, like humans were incapable of such monstrosities.

With a snap of plastic, Oscar tossed a few fluorescent tubes around the perimeter of the room. The light wasn't great, but after years on the team, she'd fought in worse conditions. An extra boost of demon genetics lit the remaining darkness like daylight.

The men bickered while searching for anything to use as barricades. They wouldn't hold long. Little did against demons. As she suspected, there was no sign of her cousin either. The only things in the room were seven prominent altars at the back of the room and the ragged skeletal bodies on top.

Instead of assisting the men, she shrugged off her pack and pulled out a clean package of gauze. Blood soaked the pristine cloth when she bandaged her hand, the slow trickle coming to a halt. The wound throbbed in time with her heart. Despite the pain, she flexed her fingers to test her dexterity. She couldn't afford to be vulnerable, not with Oscar watching, waiting for her to mess-up and give them a reason to eliminate her.

The green lighting created an atmosphere that had her jumping at shadows, giving the mummies an appearance of life she found disturbing.

Feeling like a sissy, she hardened her nerves and turned to examine the sacrificial paintings dotting the wall, fascinated at the incredible detail. But the longer she studied the design, the more convinced she became that they didn't suit the culture of the time.

Like the statue.

Caly shuffled along the wall, committing each sketch to memory as she scrambled for answers. The secret hope of finding even the smallest clue about the mysterious statue dwindled after each brutal panel was revealed.

The walls told of a society destroyed virtually overnight by mass genocide. A band of cold constricted her heart as she moved to the next panel depicting a ceremony where an elite guard escorted their willing victims to the peak of the temple, then stood back as the person disrobed and laid down on the raised altar.

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