Better the Devil You Know Book One
“But I don’t understand.” She brought up a hand and clutched her throat. Her fingers were shivering, just like the rest of her.
Father Smith stood several meters back, behind the pulpit, the shape of his angry face outlined by the light streaming in through the stained-glass windows beyond.
Even though it was a brilliant, bright, sunny morning, in here it was as cold as the depths of space.
“You need to get out, Maggie. Get out of this town completely. You have to leave before they track you down,” he said, and he had the practiced voice of a preacher. One that shook with power as he took a final step away from the pulpit and pushed a hand toward her.
Though she was standing several meters back, the move had all the force of him locking his hands on her shoulders and shoving her away.
She shook her head.
Trust her, you would have in her situation, too.
None of this made any sense.
From the day her life had changed two weeks ago – when she’d found the box in her dead uncle’s closet – nothing had made sense.
She wasn’t ashamed to say several tears trickled down her cheeks as she clutched one hand into a tight fist and used the other to hold onto the hem of her coat as if it were the only safe thing in existence.
Father Smith took another angry step toward her, and again she saw his contorted face in a beam of light from one of the clear panes of the windows that ran along either side of the church.
His brow was all crumpled, all slicked with sweat. His mouth was pulled to the side, his teeth clenched in obvious anger.
Ever since she’d been a kid, Father Smith had always been her rock. One of those true priests of old. Not someone who simply stood at the pulpit and read from the Bible – one who got into the nitty-gritty of your problems and helped you pick the right path forward. He’d never judged her before, despite her crazy life. He’d always helped her.
Now he was chasing her out.
Literally. He took another step toward her, the tarnished cross he always wore around his neck swinging at the power of the move.
She’d never before assumed that Father Smith would physically harm her – but that look in his eyes….
She shivered back, bringing a hand up and clutching the cross that hung around her own neck.
Father Smith took another step toward her, brought a hand up, and stiffly pointed at the half-open doors to the church. “Get out, Maggie. Leave the city. Leave everything behind. If you don’t, you’ll regret it,” he said, his voice shuddering down low on the word regret.
Now she was crying in full, her body shaking back and forth, the only strong thing about her her grip as she clutched her cross for all she was worth.
But even that? Even that couldn’t stop Father Smith from taking one final step toward her and bellowing. “Get out. You’re not welcome here anymore.”
She turned, tears streaming down her cheeks, loose hair slapping over her shoulders as she ran.
Ran from the only place that was meant to keep her safe.
Where would she go?
She had no idea.
Another sinner. Another chance at redemption. And, more importantly? Another paycheck.
Luc walked through the prison, throwing a small, gold cross in his hand up and down. Every time he caught it, he let the cross roll over his knuckles. He was good at the move. He had good reflexes, you see.
As for being good? Oh, trust him – his skills were the only good thing about him.
He reached the right door, and the nervous looking guard beside it quickly plunged a hand into his pocket, fidgeted around, then brought out the right key. If you had a careful eye – and Luc did – you’d be able to see that it was no ordinary key. Somebody – with a quick, shaking, flighty hand – had scrawled several symbols over it.
Powerful symbols that were meant to keep the dark out.
Well, how ironic – because as the guard thrust forward and opened the lock, he would be letting the dark in.
Remembering his manners and his unique position, Luc offered the guard half a nod. “Thank you,” he said, his accent a lilting one.
Though, to be honest, it could be any accent he felt like. You see, he spoke every language in the world. No, he wasn’t some kind of savant. He was… other.
Rolling the cross through his knuckles, he walked in.
The first thing he felt – the first thing any ordinary human would feel – was the cold. It wasn’t your ordinary cold – it was far more insidious. It was as if the lack of heat had turned into a virus. The cold spread not just through the room and through your peripherals, but seeped into every muscle like poison.
It didn’t affect him.
He shuddered, brought up a hand, rubbed his shoulder, and looked at Luc with a wide-open gaze. It was a gaze that Luc had a lot of experience with.
“You can stay here,” Luc said as he spread his lips into a smile, tilting his head toward the secondary door that would lead into the interview room.
The guard looked unimaginably relieved, selected another key from his pocket – this one much larger than the last and carved with far more symbols. He thrust it forward, though he almost dropped it at one point. Eventually he managed to gather the coordination to push the key into the lock and open it.
Ah, Luc felt it. He could’ve basked in it.
Anger, desperation, cruelty, the desire for death. You name it.
The door swung open, and Luc walked in.
There was a man chained to the desk. Though this was technically an ordinary police setting – those chains were not ordinary.
They were thick, for one, and just as the key had been carved with unique symbols – every single link in the chain had been marked.
It was a painstaking process, and he could’ve laughed to think of how many hours some solitary monk in a monastery of old had put into casting and carving these chains.
He wouldn’t have bothered.
The door swung shut behind him, and he stopped rolling the cross around his knuckles.
He took a single step forward, hooked the small, flimsy metal chair in front of the table with his leg, pulled it around, and sat roughly. Then, holding the cross in his hand, he stabbed it into the table.
The table was made of an inch-thick layer of steel. It was seamless, and should not easily be destroyed. The prisoner was chained to it and left alone in this room without guard, and you didn’t want to give him the opportunity to escape.
As Luc plunged the cross into the table, the metal puckered as he buried the cross right down as far as it would go.
He was old, possibly in his 50s, with long greasy hair that sat in front of his face like an old, moth-eaten curtain.
From beneath the wiry strands, Luc could see two eyes.
They’d been closed before he’d stabbed the cross into the table, but now they opened, slit by slit, like a dragon waking up from sleep.
Beyond the lids were two yellowed, old, bloodshot eyes, the pupils pinpoint and dark, the irises a murky brown like some poisoned well you could never hope to see the depths of.
An ordinary man would recoil.
Luc wasn’t a man.
He was wearing a white suit. Yes, he understood it may not be the height of fashion, but he could pull white off better than most.
It was a joke, see.
As Luc leaned back in the flimsy chair, the legs groaning under his weight, he crossed his arms, the fabric of his suit bunching around his elbows.
He spent some time gazing around the room until he locked his eyes on the man.
The man didn’t move. Not once. He kept staring at Luc through the greasy veil of his long, unwashed, unkempt hair. Which could be said for the rest of him. Though Luc knew for a fact that this prison had washing facilities, obviously this man had been too distracted to care for himself. Or perhaps, he hadn’t had the time.
You see, despite the four walls of this thick prison, a man as accomplished as Blake could still ply his trade.
Shifting back and forth in his chair until the sound of the legs groaning filled the room, Luc came to a stop, sniffing as he brought a hand down and started to drum his fingers on the steel table. “We can do this the long way or the short way – the pleasant way or the…” he let his lips spread wide in anticipation, “or the painful way. You choose.”
“I’m honored,” the man said, voice little more than a growl.
Luc tilted his head to the side. “So you know who I am, then?”
The guy continued to look at Luc with his yellowed, bloodshot eyes from beneath his cracked veil of hair. “Yes,” the man replied. His voice never rose beyond the same dark, twisted pitch.
This man would have little to celebrate. Little to laugh about.
He was what happened to a human soul when it contracted one too many sins.
“Let’s cut to the chase,” the man began, “I’ll negotiate.”
Luc let one eyebrow lift on his admittedly perfect visage. Just as he could change his accent, he could – and often did – change his appearance. Yes, he had a fundamental form, but no, it hadn’t been seen in centuries.
“If you know much about me – you must realize that only I decide who I negotiate with,” Luc said, enunciating every word clearly. He also brought a finger up, tapped it on the top of the cross, and then drummed it there for three beats. With every drum of his finger, the cross was knocked further into the steel.
All it took was the barest movement of his finger – no strength, no power.
The man? Though he tried not to react, Luc could feel it. Luc could taste it. He reveled in it. The man’s fear – as it lapped through his heart, as it pulsed and shuddered in his veins, and, more than anything, as it made him desperate.
“This one’s good. Trust me, you want to know about it,” the man promised, his words whip-crack fast as his tongue licked quickly over his lips.
Luc brought his hand back, shifted in his chair, crossed his arms, tilted his head, and looked at the man. “I’m aware of your recent jobs. But I can’t say they fill me with greed. You’re a small-time assassin, Henry Blake, and always have been. And through the alliance, I have been requested to exorcise you.” He got down to business as he reached forward, clutched his hand around the cross – which was now buried in the steel – and he wrenched it free.
He rose and walked toward Henry Blake, feeling the evil washing off him from here. All Luc had to do was follow it, follow it like you would a rope through the dark. It would lead to Henry’s heart, which was incidentally where Luc would stick this crucifix.
Henry Blake reacted, jolting backward, but he couldn’t push off the table and break the sacred chains locking him in place. He brought his hands up in a supplicating position – but it wasn’t one you would use against the local Catholic priest. His thumbs were bent in until the nails touched and his pinky fingers were spread wide.
It was the symbol of allegiance with the Dark Lord.
Luc paused, but not because that hand gesture surprised him. He’d peered into Henry’s past. Even if Henry wasn’t aware of it – even if Luc’s nostrils didn’t flare – Luc could sniff it off him. All those sins. A life dedicated to the dark.
If it weren’t for the alliance – and Luc’s wretched position in the middle of it – he would offer him a job.
But Luc only had license to negotiate with a few.
He brought his hands up higher just as he clutched the cross above his head, intending to use the sharpened edge to cut right through Henry’s heart.
“My last hit – I’ll give it to you. It’s worth a lot. It’ll be yours.”
“I’m sure it is. But it doesn’t matter. You have nothing—” Luc began.
“It didn’t come from the dark side,” Henry hissed, his lips now moving so fast, they could have torn from his face. “It came from the Church. They contacted me. They wanted me to kill one of their own,” he said, trying to spit his words out so fast they became a mumbled, muttered mess.
Luc hesitated, releasing the tension in his limbs that would’ve allowed him to plunge the cross through Henry’s chest as easily as a man cutting into soft butter.
Luc tilted his head to the side, allowing his eyes to partially shut. “What?”
Henry took a rattling wheeze of a breath. “It came from the church. A hit. Want me to kill some girl. Ain’t a sinner – I did a séance on her. Hasn’t killed. Checked her up through police records – no crimes. But they want her dead. And they were willing to pay with my sins.”
At that revelation, Luc stiffened. “Clarify.” Though throughout most of the conversation his voice had been easy and unrestrained, now it bottomed right out, and even someone who wasn’t aware of the dark arts would be able to hear his natural power filtering beneath.
“My sins – they said they would expunge them from the Holy Record. They said I could go back to a normal life. They said,” Henry gagged, “they would protect me from you.”
Luc tilted his head all the way to the side now. Any further, and he would practically be lying down. “That’s… interesting.”
The light in this interrogation room was harsh, the fluorescent globes above Luc still glinting off the cross, and he watched Henry’s eyes widen as he stared at the cross then back to Luc.
As Henry’s eyes widened? Luc looked right into his soul.
A capacity he had not lost when he’d been forced into the alliance.
The capacity that came easily to all the sons of Satan.
He hadn’t mentioned that yet? His particular family heritage?
You’ll find out soon enough.
“Prince,” Henry said, taking another breath that garbled his words and made it sound as if he’d already slit his throat, “I’ll give you her address – I’ll transfer the contract over to you.”
Luc let his tongue slowly press out and lock over his teeth, taking particular pleasure as it pressed past the pointed tips of his canines. “I have no use for your award. My sins cannot be expunged in the Ledger of Heaven.”
“But… if I transfer the contract over to you… it… must be worth something.”
“Indeed, it is. And you will tell me the Church’s target.”
Henry took another garbled breath. “Some young woman. Maggie… Maggie Brown or something. I got her address. Wrote it down in my black book.” He reached a hand through the unbuttoned top of his prison uniform and plucked out a small black, leather-bound book. One he shouldn’t have. He was in prison – and though this country’s penal budget had been significantly cut, one hoped that they were careful not to allow prisoners to keep ledgers of their contract killings.
But Henry was a resourceful fellow. Luc had read his file – and he could see it in Henry’s eyes. Henry knew more dark magic than your average goon.
Luc reached a hand out, and Henry paused for a single second until he winced and passed the book over.
Luc closed his hand around it.
Then as Henry stared up at Luc with hopeful eyes, with the wish that he had bought his life?
Luc exorcised him.
Henry Blake was a bad man, and it was up to bad men like Luc to keep the balance.
She stood at the threshold of her door, staring at the darkened house within.
She was shaking. Cold all over. She’d never felt this cold, in fact.
This wasn’t fair.
Two weeks ago, her life had been perfect. Okay, not perfect – but it had been getting better.
The crazy childhood and screwed adolescence that had followed her like the plague had passed. She’d been getting back on her feet. She’d had a well-paying job. She could afford the rent on a nice house – even if it was out of town. And she was finding her feet.
Goddammit, she’d been finding her feet.
Then? Two weeks ago, all that shit had changed.
Now… she just didn’t know.
She pushed against the door, letting it swing open, tuning out the irritating squeak of the hinge that echoed through her cold, dark kitchen and living room.
She pushed in, swallowed, and pressed a hand over her eyes. She stood there on the threshold as another wave of fear slammed into her.
She… didn’t know what to do.
It took her several seconds before she could bear to pull her hand from her face. She faced her dark kitchen.
She brought an arm around and latched a hand on the wall, searching out the light switch. She found it and flicked it.
Could anything else go wrong in her life?
The answer was yes.
As she brought a hand up and worked a few stray tears from her eyes, she stumbled through her kitchen, trying to use the dim street light from beyond to navigate through the chairs and furniture.
She snared her toe against a chair, despite her best efforts, and stumbled over it. She caught herself before she could topple over and gash her head.
The chair fell. It clattered to the floor with a thump.
There was another thump.
… She swore there’d been a thump just as the chair had dropped.
It’s paranoia, she tried to tell herself. Nothing but the paranoia of a woman who’d had her life destroyed over the past two weeks. Her body was full of adrenaline, and it was causing her to hear bumps in the dark.
There was another thump.
One of her hands shot up, and she clutched the cross around her neck. As she did, her ring clinked against it. The same ring her uncle had written about in the box of papers she’d found in her uncle’s cupboard.
The box of papers that had ruined her life in a single day.
They’d been there at the back of her uncle’s closet.
He was dead – long dead – but it was the first time she’d gone to his house in years. His sister – an old spinster who was so into Catholicism that every single room in the house had possessed at least two crosses on the wall – had left the house practically untouched. It was in the same state Uncle Ray had left it in before he disappeared five years ago.
As for Auntie Camille?
She died two weeks ago, and Maggie had found the cupboard during the wake.
She’d always been intensely curious of Uncle Ray as a child. A priest – but unlike ordinary fathers, it’d taken him more than seven years to train for his position.
20 years, apparently.
If Father Smith had been her rock, it was only because Uncle Ray had been taken from her five years ago.
So yeah, she’d been curious. Yeah, she’d wanted to clutch at any information she could find about him. More than anything, his mysterious disappearance five years ago – though everyone was pretty sure he was dead by now – had derailed her.
It’d sent her off the deep end.
So when she’d… when she’d spied that closet? She’d opened the door, rifled through it. It hadn’t taken her long to find the box.
She remembered it. When he’d been alive, he’d been so damn protective over the box. He said it contained family secrets.
Whenever she’d asked to see it, he’d always put it on top of the cupboard out of her reach.
Now – now there’d been no one to stop her.
So she’d opened the box.
There was someone in her house.
Her whole body stiffened as she heard the soft but perceptible sound of footfall against her hallway runner.
She bolted for the door.
But the door?
Though it had been half open, at that exact moment, despite how fine the day had been, a massive gust of wind caught it and closed it.
It slammed shut, the sound strong enough that it reverberated through the entire house and shook the floor.
She reached toward it, intending to yank it open, intending to run back to her car and get the hell out of here, but as soon as she clutched hold of the handle, it rattled loosely in her grasp, bits of it falling off into her fingers.
Yes, this house was old – it was all she could afford – but no, the handle had never broken like this before.
“Jesus, Jesus,” she whispered under her breath, her voice too startled and small to carry. No matter how hard she rattled the handle, there wasn’t enough of it left to open the door.
She turned. She pressed her back against the door just as she heard footfall in front of the closed door that would lead to the rest of the house.
She stared at the door.
She crammed a hand over her mouth, tried to stop her ragged breathing in the stupid hopes that whoever was out there didn’t know she was already in here.
There was no point.
You have to fight, a voice in her head said. It sounded like her uncle – she swore it did. Despite the fact he’d been the most pious man she had ever met, he’d also been proactive. He’d been the kind to get in there, get amongst the disaffected communities in their area and show them another path.
He was a man of action.
No, sorry – he’d been a man of action.
She was soldered to the spot.
She heard the door handle rattle.
She had no phone – it was back in her car.
As for weapons?
She inched forward, grabbed one of the chairs and held it as the door opened.
… No one came through.
The door handle had rattled, and the door squeaked open, the sound of its unoiled hinges loud enough to be heard across the street.
But nothing. No one. There was no one behind it.
She felt it again – that erratic chase of wind that had caught the front door and slammed it.
It whistled past her cheek, caught the ends of her hair and sent them tumbling over her shoulders.
And… she swore she heard something on it. A mutter, a hiss. Something that shouldn’t be there.
She didn’t move.
Despite the fact there was no one behind the door, she couldn’t encourage her hands to let go of the chair.
She just… she stood, and she waited. Her eyes darted back and forth as she surveyed the kitchen, as she searched through every shadow.
As for the wind?
It kept catching the door into the kitchen. Kept swinging it back and forth as the sound of its hinges groaning filled her mind.
A part of her told her she couldn’t stand here forever – that she had to go out and find out for certain if someone was in her house. Or if this… had just been the wind.
No. It couldn’t be the wind. She’d heard footsteps.
And she heard them again, didn’t she?
Right behind her. Clear as day.
She spun on the spot, lurching forward, clutching the chair high and bringing it around.
… But there was no one there.
Then she heard it again. Right behind her. Footsteps. Loud, heavy, unmistakable.
She screamed, the sound choked and messy as it tore from her throat. She swung on her foot, hair slicing over her cheeks as she brought the chair around. She slammed it forward, losing her footing, her leg banging harshly into the edge of the table, hard enough that she would have a hell of a bruise.
That didn’t matter; there was still no one there.
Her eyes were as wide as they could possibly be, drawing in as much light as could make it through the crack in her kitchen curtains.
Behind her – again, footfall.
She spun, letting that chair drop as her tired muscles began to twitch. She pressed her back against the table, her hips banging into it. Her eyes darted from left-to-right, but nothing.
She felt it on her shoulder. A tap. Like someone reaching out and touching her, if only for a split second.
She screamed again, jerking a hand up, clutching her shoulder wildly.
She thought she felt a hand.
She screeched and turned again.
She was shaking all over, a complete mess. Couldn’t think. Couldn’t act. Had no idea what was going on.
But the sound of footfall? And those ghostly touches? They continued.
Right behind her, more footfall. And along her shoulders, a ghostly grip.
Did she believe in ghosts?
Did she believe in demons? Did she believe in the denizens of Hell?
Did she believe, full stop?
Her whole family did. Especially her uncle. Her uncle had taught her everything she knew. That’s why she had gone to the Church – to Father Smith – after he died.
But did she honestly believe? In God, in the Devil? In Heaven, in Hell?
No. She’d been down that path before, and it had almost destroyed her sanity.
So did she believe in ghosts, in demons, in the evil shadows of the dark?
That didn’t stop her from quaking on the spot as something happened to her house.
The footfall – the ghostly touches. She couldn’t deny them.
And the touches shifted. From the tip of her shoulder, down to her arm, to her waist, to her ankles. It felt like something was clutching her.
She jolted hard into the table, shoving it to the side as she pushed up and ran for the door that led out of the kitchen.
Though it had been swaying on its hinges as it was caught in that erratic wind, suddenly it slammed closed.
“No,” she shrieked as she reached it, latched a hand on the handle, and tried to wrench it open.
It happened again – the handle disintegrated in her hand, the spring jolting out, shifting past her, and pinging into the darkness.
Now she stood rigidly. She stood as rigidly as a man waiting to be hung.
Behind her, the footfall continued to echo out. It was quicker, more of it, too. As if she were listening to an army racing back and forth through the kitchen.
And the touches? They became harder, more solid. She swore she could feel something’s elongated fingers – something’s jagged fingernails – as it tried to clutch her body.
She fell backward against the door, clutching her arms around her head, falling down to her knees.
Then she heard the whispering. Low mutters, dark, just perceptible.
“Go away, go away,” she begged.
She reached for her cross. She’d let go of it when the door had slammed shut.
She clutched a hand over it and held it with all her might.
She didn’t believe. Not truly. That didn’t stop her from reciting the Lord’s Prayer, over and over again.
And for a second? For a second it worked. For a second the scampering footfall cut out. And the touches along her arms? They disappeared.
She felt two hands wrap around her throat.
Two hands that started to choke her.
St. Joseph’s Church, Westside
The first noise Father Smith heard would also be his last.
Right from the back of the church, it sounded like a window cracking. No, that wasn’t right. The noise was too loud, the crack too specific.
It was more like a mirror.
Nerves cascaded through his middle, fear climbed up his back, and he shoved hard on his foot, the tails of his priest’s cassock flaring out.
It was too late.
A rush of wind, a hiss of breath, and something latched onto his chest. He brought a hand up, tried to punch it toward the tarnished cross around his neck, but he couldn’t latch hold of it in time.
Something shoved him down to the floor, forcing his body to slam against the cold, polished, worn stone with such force, blood splattered from his lips.
He couldn’t see it.
Though he could feel the pressure of something pinning him as if an anvil had been dumped on his rib cage, and he could feel claws slicing into his shoulders and stomach, his eyes couldn’t see.
Breath buffeted against his cheek, hot and putrid.
“You have sinned,” something said.
Just for a split second, he saw it – the creature’s eyes. Two yellowed pinpricks of hatred. Right there, barely several inches from his face.
But they flickered out. The weight pinning him did not.
Though Father Smith wasn’t able to reach for his cross, he didn’t give up. He started to chant, just the way Father Ray had taught him – low, a specific tone, a specific beat that was banned by the Church in Medieval times for a good reason.
It had an instant effect on the creature pinning Father Smith down.
He felt it recoil, felt its long, jagged claws pull free from his shoulders and gut.
He gasped, more blood splattering over his lips and down his chin.
He never stopped chanting. As loud as he could, never missing the exact tones that made up the dark tune.
He heard the creature let out a howling hiss. “You, father of the Church, dare to use a weapon of the Devil against me?”
Father Smith did not speak; he didn’t dare stop chanting. It was the only thing extending his life now.
The creature let out another howling hiss and thrust itself forward.
Father Smith tried to push back, tried to scramble away, but there was nowhere he could go. The creature had already ruptured his intestines, and blood spilled down his stomach, covering the dark fabric of his cassock.
He raised his voice, putting all the last of his power into it until he could see its eyes once more.
Those two yellowed pinpricks of hatred.
Father Smith brought up a hand, clutched it over his cross, and muttered something under his breath.
Two quick secret words.
They had the desired effect.
They were not two words he hadn’t learned from the Church. They were banned by the Holy See.
They opened up the dark.
Despite the fact it was night, this church was located in the middle of the city, and there were more than enough streetlights dotted around it that the reflected illumination pushed in through the windows that rimmed the entire building.
In an instant, that light disappeared. It was as if it was eaten up by an invisible creature, one that shifted through the church, and as it did, brought with it a unique coldness.
The cold of Hell.
It is a mistake to think that only fire is associated with Hell. Pitiless, life draining cold is, too. It is the extremes where life cannot exist that are associated with Lucifer himself.
It was this cold as it marched relentlessly through the church that did it – in a snap, the creature was revealed in full.
It was no demon. He had no forked tail, no whipping tongue, no eyes as black as chunks of coal.
It was the long, hunched over body of a monk. His robes were unmistakable – cut in the old, floor-length, brown woolen style of years gone by.
There was a large, heavy cross around the man’s neck, hung there not with rope or gold chain, but with heavy steel links, as if the monk were a dog that had been tied to a leash.
Though technically it had the form of a man, its face was other.
Its eyes were hollowed out and had so much power, so much definition, it was as if the rest of the man’s face had been half rubbed away.
A Dog of the Church.
The monk shifted back, brought up a hand, and hissed against it as its yellowed eyes flicked toward Father Smith.
Father Smith was not an idiot. He knew he would die. Slowly or quickly. It wouldn’t be up to him. The wounds inflicted on his stomach could not be healed. Though they didn’t look severe – and any emergency room doctor would be hopeful of a full recovery, no recovery would happen.
There was nowhere for Smith to go now.
The Church was after him.
He would not turn toward his enemies for protection – turn toward Hell itself – just to buy himself another day on God’s green earth.
Though it hurt, though shudders plowed through his form, shook his back, and threatened to crush his spine, Father Smith rose. All the time, he kept his hand clutched on his cross. “I have not sinned,” he proclaimed, letting his voice shake through the church as he used every ounce of his training and worth.
The Dog of the Church drew down his hand, planted his sweaty, old, gnarled palm on the polished floor, jerked his head forward, and hissed. He pulled back his old, sallow lips to reveal jagged, yellow teeth that looked as if they’d been pulled from the jaw of a shark.
The man’s eyes widened, too, and as they did, Father Smith could feel it. Power pulsing into him. It shifted through the church, coming from key positions in the building.
This church, like most of the sanctified locations in the city, was built on specific ley lines. The longer such a building had existed – the more power its practitioners and parishioners had pushed into the building – the more powerful the location would become.
It was enough to see lines of actual light begin to filter off from the pulpit and the pews and the stained-glass window above. They intermeshed, weaving slowly through the air until they reached the monk. With snaps and crackles like electricity discharging over water, they entered the man’s body. Father Smith watched as the monk’s eyes widened, enlarging like two sponges that were gorging on water.
“You have gone against the wishes of the Church,” the monk said, and as he spoke, his voice changed. Smith could hear it – other priests. Other fathers he had once called his colleagues. Colleagues who were now turning on him and would be the last voices he would ever hear.
Father Smith stood his ground, his hand now wrapped so tightly around the cross, even a full contingent of the dogs of the Church would not be able to pull it free from his aged grip.
He clenched his teeth. He did not shiver, did not shake, and he did not ask for forgiveness.
A part of him had known this day would come. Since Father Ray Brown had come to him all those years ago, Father Smith had known this would one day happen.
He just hoped it wouldn’t be in vain.
“You will be fed to the dark,” the monk continued, still speaking with the voices of Father Smith’s colleagues. He could hear their words, bridled with passion, dark with the desire to kill him. Though they wouldn’t see it as being dark. They believed themselves to be the pinnacle of light and good. The force which protected humanity from the sins of the lower realms.
Father Smith slowly tilted his head back and locked his gaze on the growing wide, yellowed, powerful eyes of the monk. “You won’t win,” he said. “She’ll get out of here. She’ll change everything.”
The monk twitched his head to the side with a sound like snapping bones. His eyes blinked once, and then only opened wider, now consuming most of the man’s face. “She is already dead. Or if the assassin has not completed the task, she will be soon. Now, Father Smith? It is your turn.”
Father Smith’s eyes opened wide at that revelation, and he made the mistake of twitching back.
It brought him out of alignment with the major ley lines in the building, and it allowed the monk’s power to turn on him.
From every direction, force pushed into Father Smith. It barraged him as if he were being beaten by a thousand hands. Though he kept his hand clutched as tightly as he could around the cross, there was only so much resilience it could impart him. With a thump, he heard one of his knees buckle, and he fell down to the ground. Then the other buckled, and he snapped forward. He kept one hand locked on the cross as the other fell flat against the now cold stone floor. Slowly, using the last of the energy in his muscles, he tilted his head up and he stared at the monk.
In an instant, it was upon him. It moved so fast, its body was possessed of speed no ordinary human could match.
Smith saw it there, an inch above him, its head tilting from one side to the other as if it were a weathercock shifting around in a confused gale.
The monk’s eyes were now so wide, they could have swallowed up its skull.
With a jerk, it snapped forward and brought its face right down close to Father Smith’s. “Your merits have been expunged. You will be given to the Devil. May he feast on your soul forevermore.” The monk brought his hand back, his long, yellowed nails glinting in the light of the power reflected from his body.
Father Smith had a second. A second to pray to God. Not the Church – not the institution he had served his entire life, but God. That force which existed above. The un-corruptible Kingdom of Heaven….
He closed his eyes.
The monk latched a hand around his throat and tore it free from his body. Blood splattered the once clean floor.
Father Smith’s soul departed.
But as his limp, lifeless body struck the stone, his hand? It somehow remained clutched over the cross.
In life, just as in death, he knew to whom he was aligned.
He strode toward the house, nostrils flaring in and out as he could smell it. This well of fear, this pall of desperation. It was seeping off the house, flowing in every direction, as if it were a fire hydrant someone had torn the top off.
With one hand still stashed in his pocket, he reached the door, pushed out a single finger, and tapped the wood. The door had been closed, the mechanism within locked by some foul force, but it didn’t matter. His power was greater, and with a click, the door swung to.
He knew precisely what he would find inside. Another assassin. Another kindred spirit, if you will. A contracted killer from Hell who had been hired to expunge some secret of the so-called light.
Sure enough, there it was.
On the opposite side of the room was a woman crumpled on her knees, her hair scattered around her shoulders, stuck to her sweaty brow, her limbs pressed in front of her as she madly tried to push something off.
But she couldn’t see it.
But the thing? Oh, it couldn’t see him.
Luc, like many denizens of Hell, had the ability to become invisible. They were the apocryphal bumps in the night. If they didn’t wish for ordinary human eyes to see them, then they would not be seen. There were methods – both existing in the annals of the light and dark – to make the unseen seen. He was no ordinary practitioner. As a son of Lucifer, as a Prince of the Kingdom of Hell, there were few who could best him.
He strode forward. He deliberately muffled the sound of his expensive shoes slapping against the marked kitchen floor.
He reached the assassin as it continued to try to tear the woman in two.
No, it wasn’t using its claws to clutch at her arms and flesh and limbs and bone as it attempted to pull them free of her skeleton.
It had to get past the barrier.
Not every human had a barrier. The truly pious, truly religious ones did. Those who didn’t simply go to church, read their Bible, and espouse it to anyone who would listen. But those who understood the key concepts of the divine. Kindness and love, if you will. Though they were terms he would dispute.
There was another category of beings who had barriers. Those who knew enough about how the world worked to erect them, or those who had been granted a barrier by someone else.
And this woman? As she remained there, locked on her knees, trying with all her might to fight off invisible hands she couldn’t see? She belonged to the latter category. For if she understood the real nature of the world – the true reality of light and dark – she would be fighting more effectively. There were simple mantras one could chant to make the unseen seen. Just as there were actions one could undertake to fight another – even without weaponry.
No. Someone had erected a barrier to protect this woman. And it was powerful.
He could’ve intervened. He could have broken the assassin’s disguise. And with a simple movement, Luc could have broken its neck, too.
He didn’t. He waited.
She was screaming, though her voice was hoarse from overuse. Her face and hands were cold and wet with sweat. Even in the dark of this room, he could see how wide her eyes had become.
She thought she would die.
It was a look he had seen in many people’s eyes before. Yet….
He’d come here to claim this kill. Henry Blake, despite his foolishness, had been right. There was something intriguing about the Church turning on one of their own, especially if that person had not technically committed a sin. The Church had to toe a very careful line. The ledgers of Heaven and Hell were kept methodically. If a man of the Church committed too many sins, he would fall into the clutches of Luc’s father. And if a man of Hell committed too many good deeds? He would be handed to the Church.
So the Church would only have contracted a kill on this woman if they had to. If there was a very good reason they so desperately needed her dead.
The barrier that protected the woman from the bulk of the assassin’s magic was still holding.
The assassin – a type of demi-human demi-demon – had the form of a squat goblin-like creature with a long, forked tail, slit-like eyes that traveled down from its face to its jaw, and two rotted, yellowed teeth that sat over its perpetually bloody bottom lip.
It was called a jiq. A truly odious creature, and that was coming from a Prince of Hell.
It was the type of creature that had given itself 150% to its master. In other words, the perfect assassin. Not only did it possess particularly strong magic, but it had no will to speak of of its own. It would go through every trial, push past every barrier to bring in its kill.
It worked frantically. Luc saw its long, jagged claws as it tried to shred the barrier.
The barrier itself looked like a cog made of light. One that spun this way and that as symbols burnt its surface.
It was strong.
Luc reached a finger forward and experimentally tapped his nail against it.
As he’d already mentioned, being a Prince of the Kingdom of Hell, he was no ordinary practitioner. He had skills that would make his father’s generals blush. He could break through any barrier with ease. Yet? As he tapped his extended finger against that barrier, it did not crumble.
He let his hand return to his pocket as he tapped it against his hip. “Interesting,” he commented. He let his voice ring out loud.
The jiq turned, yanking its head so quickly toward where it had heard his voice, Luc heard several muscles twang.
As for the woman?
She was already fraught, already terrified out of her mind. Though her eyes bulged wider and sweat and saliva and blood mixed across her face as she jerked her head toward him, there was nothing she could do.
The jiq continued to jerk its head this way and that.
Though it couldn’t break through the barrier, it had another set of hands that were pinning the woman down, lest she get creative and escape.
With one hand still in his pocket, Luc pushed forward, drawing his head alongside that of the jiq.
Though he could wait here and calculate how much time it would take for the creature to break through her barrier, he didn’t have all day.
“Is… something out there?” the woman managed.
Luc flicked his gaze over to her, brows scrunching down low.
She was speaking.
She should not be able to speak. Scream, yes. But push past the confusing, deliberately fear-filled magic of the jiq to string together a sentence?
Luc let his gaze flick up, and he locked it on her. On her eyes, to be exact. The windows to her soul.
In times of great desperation or passion, one could easily see into the destiny of another. Stare directly into their gaze, and you will catch their future.
So he looked into her gaze.
… He saw nothing.
He straightened up, tipped his head to the side, shoved his hand further into his pocket, and shook his head. “What do we have here?” he said, again deliberately speaking out loud.
The jiq now hissed loudly, jerking back and pushing free from the woman.
It no longer pinned her against the door, probably realizing she was too overcome to make a run for it.
The creature warily locked its clawed fingers on the ground and pushed up. Luc caught sight of its eyes. There, just as he had seen with the woman, he caught a glance of its soul.
Its path. Its destiny, if you will.
Unlike the woman, he could see where the jiq’s life would end.
Soon, by Luc’s hand.
Luc brought a hand up, smoothed a single finger down his lapel, then pushed his thumb against the flap of his jacket. He opened it, letting a finger trail down the organized pockets within.
Though his suit sat perfectly on the outside, within, he had a range of every weapon you could think of.
Quickly assessing this creature as a denizen of Hell, he selected a Star of David. Large, it fit in his palm like a shuriken. Each edge of the star was pointed and sharp. He ran a thumb over it and waited.
The woman lay propped against the door, her head jerking from side-to-side as she tried to discern them.
Again, he saw it – right through her eyes, into her soul.
As he’d said before, he’d stared into many a man’s eyes, and seen many a destiny, twisted or straight.
But this? Emptiness?
Nothing at all?
That he had never seen.
It wasn’t to say that the woman had a vacant stare. It wasn’t to say that she didn’t have a mind beneath that sweaty brow and those wide, wide eyes.
No, she was functioning – had a personality, had an identity.
But her destiny?
“Interesting,” he commented once more.
The jiq pushed toward him.
Though the creature was strong and a trained assassin, it had no chance.
Luc sidestepped it neatly, one hand still in his pocket as he played with the Star of David with the other.
Running his fingers over the sharpened tips, he felt them drain his energy. Why, of course he did – this was a symbol of the light, was it not? Even though he was in a truly unique position, squeezed between Heaven and Hell, he was not immune to the power of Heaven.
Yet he smiled.
The jiq shoved toward him, but again he sidestepped the creature.
“This is my kill,” the jiq spat, voice low and shaking through the room.
The woman heard it, and she shoved her hands to her sides, back jolting against the door.
Luc kept his attention locked on her, fascinated to see what she would do next.
For a second… for a second he doubted his initial assessment. Perhaps she was familiar with the light and dark. Because she brought a hand up, and though it shook badly, she clutched her cross.
And the cross? Why, even from here he could sense its power.
It would have belonged to an exorcist. A truly powerful exorcist, and as such, had been imbued with the power to protect.
“Hmmm,” he said, again giving away his position.
The jiq jerked toward him, snarling as it slashed one of its clawed hands at the point where it thought he was. With one hand still in his pocket, he twisted out of the way, the tails of his jacket flaring around him as he took a step toward the woman.
“My kill, my kill. My contract. My sins will be expunged,” the jiq spat, its garbled words echoing through the room.
With one hand still clutched around the cross, the woman shook back and forth, tears staining her cheeks. But she never let go of her cross.
For the first time, Luc jerked his attention off her and locked it on the jiq. “Sorry? The Church offered to expunge your sins, too? How intriguing,” he commented.
For it was interesting. Offering to expunge a human like Henry Blake’s sins was one thing. But a jiq? He was half rooted in Hell. He was a demi-demon. For the Church to offer to expunge its sins from the Ledger of Heaven – that was something else altogether.
“My kill,” the jiq spat one last time. Then, rather than trying to figure out where Luc was, the jiq threw itself at the woman.
Luc didn’t let the jiq reach her.
Luc reached out a hand and flicked the Star of David at the creature.
With the mere push of Luc’s finger, the Star shot from his palm and lodged right into the center of the jiq’s head.
The jiq appeared – for it could no longer channel its dark magic into making its body invisible.
The woman shrieked, her back jolting hard against the door until the entire wall shuddered.
The look in her eyes? Exquisite fear. The kind of fear Luc would be able to smell a continent away. It set his heart pounding and caused a tight smile to press across his lips.
The jiq jerked several times, its head shifting violently from left to right as steam escaped its widened eyeballs, licked off the dark blood that had spread from the wound in its head, and circled its face.
The woman kept shuddering, her hand now locked so tightly around the cross, her fingers had turned as white as bone.
With one last gasp, the jiq fell, struck the ground, jerked once more, and became still.
And the woman? Maggie Brown, if Henry Blake’s information was anything to go by?
Luc expected her to remain there locked against the door as abject fear froze her muscles.
She didn’t. She pushed up, and though the jiq would’ve infected her with a spell that should lock her in place, he heard a crack as it broke. She bolted for the door.
Luc stepped aside, wrapped a hand around her middle, and appeared, right there in front of her.
He looked down at her, she looked up at him, and he saw it once more.
The destiny that awaited her.
But no destiny could be empty.
“Interesting,” he said once more.
This… couldn’t be happening. Nothing… nothing like this could happen. It was impossible. This was a nightmare, a nightmare!
That creature – she’d seen it appear, seen it bleed out and fall on the floor.
A man had appeared in her kitchen. He wasn’t a thing… an unidentifiable creature like that other monster had been.
He was a man. Handsome, dressed in an impeccable white suit, with eyes that were clearer than any she had ever seen.
He looked down at her, using those eyes to stare into her own as if his gaze possessed hands that could push away her every thought and belief until they reached her center.
He opened his lips, a unique smile spreading across his face. “Interesting.”
She brought up a hand and struck him on his chest as she tried to wriggle free.
Hitting him was like hitting a wall.
She pushed against him with all her might until her shoes scrabbled against the kitchen floor. He was like an anvil.
There was nothing she could do to escape his grasp. Nor the look in his eyes as he turned on her again. He let his gaze unashamedly tick down her entire form, his head darting up and down until once more a smile spread his lips. “What exactly have you done, Miss Maggie Brown, to come to the attention of your own Church?”
She couldn’t answer. No one would be able to answer.
She didn’t have a brain anymore. It felt like it had been chopped into pieces in her head, thrown into a blender, and poured down the sink.
His eyes. His eyes… they were like… like a tunnel. They narrowed off the rest of the world until it was just her and him. Until it was just her and his question.
… She felt her lips opening, felt her breath calm just as long as it took to push her words out, “Nothing.” She was aware that there was a detached quality to her voice. Hell, she was aware that there was a detached quality to her entirely. Though a second before she had been fighting him with every last scrap of strength she had, now she was limp in his arms as he held her there like nothing more than a compliant doll.
… A part of her mind – a distant, blocked off part – remembered something Uncle Ray had once told her. That there were dark forces out there that could control you. Manipulate you.
At the time, she’d chosen to believe that he’d been talking about people. Society.
From criminals to corrupt politicians – humans were very good at manipulating each other.
But something snapped in her as she realized that dear Uncle Ray had been talking about this.
This wasn’t some charming politician, this wasn’t some ordinary criminal painting her into a corner, torturing her, and getting her to tell him what she knew.
This was… something reaching inside her. Pushing down her throat, latching hold of her vocal cords, and moving them of its own accord.
The man tilted his head to the side, and again she swore his eyes were the clearest things she’d ever seen. Two reflective pools. Ones that hid their depths. “That is not an answer, Maggie Brown. Tell me, what did you do to anger the Church? They want you dead. They do not set contracts as costly is this,” he let his gaze tick toward the dead thing on her kitchen floor, “if they do not stand to gain something. So,” again he turned his gaze on her, and his eyes widened. It was like… it was like they were a pathway. That was the only way to describe it. They chopped away the rest of the world until it was just her and him, and it was just his arms wrapped around her waist, just his force against her own. It felt as if he could pluck her up by the hand and lead her forward, and there would be nothing, nothing she would ever be able to do to break his grip.
She felt her lips open again. “Nothing.” Her voice was so far off, so weak, it was as if she’d just woken up from a coma. Or maybe she was going into one. If it weren’t for his grip around her waist, she would fall to the floor with a thump.
His eyes narrowed. “One last chance, Maggie Brown. Tell me what you’ve done to anger Heaven, and maybe… maybe I will negotiate.”
He smiled. It was a specific kind of smile. Practiced, too. And, more than anything, dark. It spoke of cruelty, of the desire to punish others.
Yet… there was something else there, wasn’t there?
Her mind was still shutting down with every second, and yet she remembered another piece of advice Uncle Ray had imparted on her. She was uniquely placed to see people’s true potentials. He’d told her that one day when she’d come around to his house as a young teenager. After there’d been another incident at school, after she’d run away during class hours and hidden behind the back of his shed, shaking, covered in blood.
He’d sat her down, cleaned her up, and looked at her. He’d told her she was uniquely placed to see people’s true potential.
Though simple reason told her this man – whatever he was – only had the dark potential of a killer. Something… there was something in his gaze. Buried so deep even he may not be able to see it.
His eyes narrowed all the way down to pinpricks, and he abruptly dropped her. He jerked his arms to the side, took a step back, and clasped his hands behind his back.
She felt a lack as he removed his arms from her middle, as if somebody had taken a safety line from her during a blizzard.
There was nothing she could do to hold herself up. She fell to the floor with a rigid thump that sent a jolt hard through her back and up into her jaw.
With his hands still clasped behind his back, he stopped and took several steps around her, staring down at her the whole time, a calculating look in his eyes. “I suggest you stop lying. You clearly have some knowledge of the light and dark,” he commented as he ticked his head momentarily toward the dead creature to the left. It was smoking and occasionally jerked. It clearly wasn’t alive. Its body was being… eaten up by something. This dark smoke that had erupted from its mouth when it had died was whisking its way around every limb as it seemingly digested the creature’s flesh.
And the scent?
It was categorically the most horrible thing she’d ever smelt. Burnt fingernails, metal shavings, singed plastic, sizzling hair.
It raked her nostrils and made her want to choke.
But the man? He kept circling her, his hands clasped behind his back. “You clearly have knowledge of the light and dark,” he repeated once more. “Because you – you were trying to look into my soul, weren’t you?”
She didn’t answer. Couldn’t. Though she felt the man’s manipulation magic reaching down her throat once more, she shook her head.
She also fought against her weariness to return a hand to her cross.
Though the man had been walking briskly around her, he stopped. With a squeak of the soles of his shoes against the floor, he turned to her in full. He also took a single step forward until he loomed over her. “You have no chance, Miss Maggie Brown. You will tell me what you know. And if I find that knowledge useful enough, I may negotiate with you.” His lips moved hard around the word may.
Something inside her told her there was no point in pleading.
This man did not know pity. He did not know generosity. Apart from that deep flicker of something else within his gaze, all he knew was self-preservation and cruelty.
“… What… what are you?” she asked.
His face stiffened. “I did not give you leave to ask questions. You will only answer mine,” he said stiffly. He waved two fingers to the side.
That’s when she felt it – this pressure wrap around her throat. It felt like a chain trying to choke her – as if she was some rabid dog who’d just been tied up. She spluttered, jerked one hand up, and tried to wrap it around the invisible feeling, attempting to pull it off her, but there was nothing she could do.
With wide, tear-filled eyes she stared at him. “What are you?” she demanded again.
She could still feel it – his compulsion power pushing down her throat, trying to make her answer only what he wanted.
Its effect wasn’t as strong as it had been when his arms had been wrapped around her middle.
No, now – even though she could feel it was still there – she could fight it, too.
She watched the man’s hands stiffen, but not nearly as much as his jaw did as it clicked with tension. “I don’t have much time. Answer, or I will claim this kill.”
Yes, yes he would.
All thoughts of that grain of goodness deep within his soul filtered out of her mind. She watched as he opened the lapel of his jacket in a smooth move, and he pulled out a cross.
It was sharp and pointed, and certainly didn’t look like the kind of symbol you would pray to. More like the kind of tool you would use to slit someone’s throat.
He paused, tapping a finger on the cross, and he shook his head. “I think you may need something darker,” he pointed out as he returned the cross to his pocket and pulled out a twisted scrap of burnt metal. It didn’t have a specific shape and rather writhed and wriggled as if it were a tentacle that had been chopped off some jet-black denizen of the deep.
She stared at it, her heart shuddering.
“Seconds.” His tongue whipped over his lips quickly as his eyes filled with a dark certainty. “One more chance,” the man said, lips spreading wide and hard over his teeth.
This was when she should be filled with the certainty she was going to die.
For some reason, she couldn’t believe it.
She tugged her head up and looked into his eyes once more. She could still see it – buried right in the center of his gaze.
He wasn’t going to kill her. She brought up a hand – the hand upon which she wore her uncle’s ring. She spread it wide. “You’re not going to kill me.” Despite the situation, her voice didn’t waver. It was firm and strong, if quiet.
His eyes widened. It wasn’t at her. His gaze sliced down and locked on the ring she always wore on her index finger.
It fit her – she’d had it resized. As per her uncle’s wishes. When he died – or at least disappeared in circumstances that one could assume had led to death, as the court had put it – his will had been read out. He’d left her the ring with specific instructions to have it resized and that she should wear it at all times along with the cross.
Though it had taken her weeks upon months to bother to do it, finally she’d dragged herself into a jewelry store.
It wasn’t because the ring was ugly – though it was meant for a man and was one of those signet ring things of an unusual style.
It was just… the ring was strange.
It felt… she couldn’t put her finger on it, which was ironic, considering it was a ring.
It had always filled her with a sense she didn’t like, a sense that made her uncomfortable.
Now? A handsome man in a white suit had appeared out of nowhere, and he was staring at the ring as if she’d just pulled a gun on him.
That’s it – that was the look in his eyes. They widened, his lips slackened, and his brow became indented and high. “You have my attention.” His lips spread wide around each word as he enunciated them clearly.
She kept her hand spread wide, but it was her turn for her jaw to drop. “What… what are you? What… happened here? And why are you so interested in this ring?” She flipped her hand around and stared at it.
Though she locked most of her attention on the ring, she could still see the man’s expression in her peripheral vision, and his lips twitched at her move. “You cannot honestly expect me to believe you don’t know what you possess there.” His voice was low and rumbling like far-off thunder over the sea.
Despite the fact she’d just been in a fight for her life, and that dead creature was still several meters to her left, his body being eaten up by black wisps of smoke, she started to become absorbed by her uncle’s ring. She stared at it for several seconds, bringing a hand up and locking it over the ring as if she intended to pull it off.
But just as she did? Just as she did, she saw the man’s expression, and she stopped.
Don’t take it off, a voice told her.
Never take it off.
She kept her hand up. Though she’d been crumpled on the floor, her energy started to return to her, and slowly, with her hand still raised, she pressed her other palm into the floor and rose.
Her body creaked like it was an old tree that had just survived a gale.
She knew she was bruised and cut from where that invisible creature’s hands had pinned her, and it felt like it would probably take her a year to get over the adrenaline rush, but she was still whole. If she kept this ring on, maybe she’d have a chance of getting out of here.
She wasn’t good with dangerous situations. Nothing surprising, nothing scary.
Her entire adolescence and childhood were proof of that. The number of times she’d run home from school when she’d… seen something or done something… she couldn’t count them. The number of times she’d ended up in her uncle’s backyard, the number of times he’d bundled her inside and sat her down by the fire to thaw her aching bones.
She couldn’t count them. Couldn’t count them.
As soon as she saw something she couldn’t… understand, she usually crumpled.
So she should be crumpling now. She should be hitting the floor, and she should never be getting up. This situation went beyond impossible. This was the stuff of nightmares. Yet she still pushed to her feet. She didn’t let her hand drop. A bomb could have gone off outside, and she would’ve kept it raised there, her fingers as stiff as steel sticks as she centered her attention half on her ring and half on the man.
For his part, he didn’t move a muscle. Honestly, it was like the ring was a weapon.
He cut his gaze from it back to her. “What do you want?” The quality to his tone was different. The accusation was still there, but there was a tremor of… something else.
“I want you to get out of my house and never return.” Her voice shook but was still audible.
His eyes narrowed in confusion.
He dipped his head to the side again. “You should appreciate that while that ring may give you… leverage with me, it will only give you leverage with me and my family members. There are other,” very carefully, he brought his hand out and gestured it toward the creature on the floor, “contractors out there who will come for you. If you intend to use that ring,” he swallowed, his large Adam’s apple bouncing hard against his tight collar, “to negotiate, I suggest you do so now. Lay down your terms.” His voice hit a low, trembling pitch that felt like it would upend her stomach.
She kept her hand raised – she would never drop it. With her other hand, she made a tight fist, shoving her nails hard against her palm and not caring that they could cut the skin. “I,” she began, but she stopped herself from screaming out that she wanted him to leave and never return.
With a breath locked in her chest, she let herself look at the creature once more.… It had almost been consumed by that black smoke now. As for the smell? The smell like torn out hair and fingernails that had been burnt in a plastic fire? It was everywhere. It made her want to gag.
Though she wanted to push this situation away, do anything to make the man leave her house so she could run to her bed and hide under her covers, what would that achieve?
If this was a nightmare – some horrible apparition – it would go away. Right? All she would have to do was squeeze her eyes tightly shut and beg herself to wake up, and everything would resolve.
She wasn’t foolish enough to close her eyes in front of this man. This? It was no nightmare.
“We don’t have,” he ticked his gaze to the left and then to the right, letting it linger behind her as he watched the door that led out into the rest of the house, “a great deal of time. As I have already said, the Church appears to be intent on killing you, Miss Maggie Brown. If you wish to negotiate,” his lips moved stiffly around the words as if it were the hardest thing he would ever have to say, “then do so now. Lay down your terms.”
“Tell me what you are. Tell me exactly what you are,” she demanded, voice shaking.
He tilted his head to the side, gaze narrowing once more. “Is that it? Are those your terms?”
She stiffened. She was now holding her hand so tightly, it was shaking.
Though she was trembling with fear and leftover adrenaline, she still realized this was important. What she would say next was very important.
She could squeeze her eyes closed and tell herself she didn’t believe in demons and things that go bump in the night, but if she was wrong? She would die.
She felt cold, all over. All she wanted to do was clutch a hand around her shoulders and try to warm herself up.
She took a breath. “I,” she began again, but she didn’t know what to say.
It was clear this man was scared of the ring, and just as clear he was willing to negotiate, whatever that meant. She had to be careful. Show too much ignorance, and he would take advantage of her, or heck, maybe he’d just reach a hand into his pocket, withdraw that strange dagger, and get right down to killing her.
He ticked his gaze toward the door once more, and it was then that she swore she heard the patter of feet.
He made meaningful though brief eye contact. “If you want to negotiate,” he said once more, and there was finality to his tone, “I suggest you do it now. That ring allows you the chance to make a pact with me. And I will be honor-bound to keep that pact. But I have no pact with you thus far. And that means that the water demon out in your hallway,” he jammed a thumb behind him, though the move was slow, “will have no trouble in dispatching you, and I will have no obligation to stop it.”
She heard another thump. Then a rustle. No, it wasn’t a rustle; it was the light sound of water dripping from a tap.
An electric bolt of fear slammed hard up her back.
“Lay down your terms.”
So she did. She didn’t think about them, didn’t have time. She just said the first words that crammed into her throat, “Keep me safe. You have to keep me alive. Do anything you can to keep me alive.”
“You wish to make a pact for life. Very well.” He nodded low.
Her body… did something on the term ‘pact for life.’ At the same time, it felt like chains wrapped around her, locking her to the spot. Yet – as she looked into his penetrating gaze – she saw it. Another path. One that led to eternity.
He reached out a hand, and that would be when she realized he had a ring just like hers.
“Accept the hand, and it will seal the deal.”
The sound outside in the hall grew louder. Now she swore there was a rushing waterfall right there behind the doorway.
Then? The door handle rattled.
She jolted forward and grabbed his hand. Their rings clinked together.
That’s not all they did. As soon as they touched, something happened to them. They melted. “What the hell is this?” she shrieked, trying to jerk her hand back, but the man wouldn’t let her.
He darted forward, locked his other hand on her wrist, and held it in place. “You must seal the pact,” he growled.
Their rings continued to melt, but rather than take her finger and the rest of her hand with them, she could feel a pricking. Just a light tingle as the metal shifted in and out. They began to knit together – strings of molten metal intertwining right before her very eyes.
It looked like an invisible chain linking them together.
But the sound out in her hallway? The hissing and spluttering and dripping?
She heard something slam against the door. She jerked her gaze down to see something begin to ooze beneath it.
Something brushed toward her ankles. Just as she screamed and tried to jerk back, whatever was happening to their rings stopped.
And the man?
He pushed forward, casually looped an arm underneath her legs, and plucked her away from the water welling at her feet. He turned.
Not even looking at her, not caring that she was a human being, and though she was small, still weighed more than air, he reached a hand through his lapel, pulled out a cross, and casually dropped it into the puddle.
It began to hiss.
Without looking at her, he reached a hand around and grabbed something from the back of his pants. It was a gun. A massive, white and black gun. The lights weren’t on, so she only caught a glance of it, but she could still see that one side of it was emblazoned with religious symbols, and on the other? Dark Satanic verses.
“Water demon,” he proclaimed as he pointed the gun at the puddle, “I have made a pact with this human. If you intend to go through with your contract to kill her, I will be forced to exorcise you myself.”
The water demon – if that’s what it was – hissed, and she started to see an apparition push up from the puddle, reaching a shadowy hand toward her.
She shrieked. Because there was nowhere else to go, she crammed herself further against the man’s chest.
He didn’t look at her. Not once. It might as well have been as if she weren’t there at all. “No pity. Plenty more where you came from,” he muttered.
He fired. Several shots from his gun, right into the puddle.
There was a massive hiss, an explosion of darting sparks, and a jet of steam.
Sniffing casually, arching his neck, the man returned the gun to his unseen holster.
He locked his attention back on her. This time it was different – because this time she was right up close to his eyes, still locked there against his chest.
She stared at him, and just for a split second, she saw it again. Some kind of… path leading through his gaze to something else.
He quickly jerked his head to the opposite side, choosing to stare at the kitchen table. “You’ve made your pact, Maggie Brown. Your terms did not include the permission to search my soul,” he growled. “What happens next is up to you.”
“Next?” she stuttered.
“You have made a life pact. Had you not possessed,” his jaw stiffened, “a Ring of Satan, I would never have accepted. But you do, and I did. So what happens next is up to you,” he repeated.
She shook her head, not following. “Who… who are you? What is this? What’s going on?”
“Don’t play stupid. Just answer the question.”
“But you didn’t ask a question,” she pointed out, voice shaking.
He looked right at her. “It was implicit. Should I live with you, or would you prefer to live with me?”
This… this couldn’t be happening. Nothing made sense.
To her left, was the smoking remnants of the demon who’d attacked her.
And above her, smiling down into her face? His eyes as deep as the darkest cave on Earth?
A man who’d claimed to be a Prince of Hell.
She… just stared at him. There was nothing else she could do.
And he? He stared at her too, his gaze the most penetrating experience in the world. “We don’t have all day,” he said in that same easy voice that reminded her of listening to classical music. Not a serenade, mind you – Wagner. Something that shook the soul.
She swallowed. She kept her hand locked over her cross, but most of her attention was locked on her uncle’s ring.
As was the man’s. Though he kept watch over her in his peripheral vision, he focused on the ring like a hunting dog to its target.
… This was where she should demand the man put her down. This was where she should run out onto the street, flag down a car, and beg to be taken to the police station. This was where she should do something, anything. Yet all she did was stare up into his impossibly deep eyes, his stance casual as he held her aloft, his muscles not even straining.
She didn’t react, because there was no point. This wasn’t normal. This was….
He tilted his head to the side again, and there was something so easy and practiced about the move that it told her he’d done it on many occasions previously. “You look like you have no idea what’s going on. But that can’t be right. Because you have that ring,” his lips pressed hard as he said ring, his breath coming out in a spit, “and you made a deal with a Prince of Hell.”
She shuddered, shuddered as that fact hit her. With the widest eyes possible, she stared at the spot where the demon had disappeared, then down at the point where this man had shot the water apparition.
Finally she looked up at him.
“Maggie Brown, I will repeat once more – where do you choose to live? Though,” he pulled his attention off her and cast it around the room, his nose scrunching in disgust, “this abode is not fit for a son of the Devil.”
That did it – broke the spell of fear that was holding her in place. She jerked backward, trying to pull herself free of his tight grip. She couldn’t. His arms didn’t even shift, nor did he have to brace his shoulders as she pushed against his chest with all the strength she had.
… This man… he couldn’t be human.
But could he really be a son of Satan himself?
“Is there any reason you’re wriggling about?” There wasn’t a hint of danger left in his voice, just curiosity – one that was matched by that perpetually penetrating look.
She gasped and became still. She locked her attention on his chest – on the neat collar of his suit. There wasn’t a wrinkle, wasn’t a stain. He’d just fought off a… a… demon, but there was no mark on him.
He… he couldn’t be human, couldn’t be human.
She’d spent her life telling herself that she didn’t believe in things she couldn’t see. From ghosts, to demons, to angels, to Heaven, to Hell – it was nothing but superstition.
The man half raised an eyebrow, the move slow, drawing her attention to his face as she pulled her head back and stared at him. “You look as if this is the first time you have encountered my kind and my world. But that can’t be true.” He shifted his head forward, the move snapped.
Just when she thought he was shifting in to kiss her, he snapped his head back and sniffed. It was the most animalistic move she’d ever seen, and made her stomach pitch and clench.
“I can smell my kind on you.” He smiled, his lips taking an age to spread over his white teeth. “You’ve touched the light and dark before, even if no crimes have been written down in the ledger of either realm.”
“You have neither committed commendable good deeds nor sins. And yet – and yet you clearly have experience of this world.” He nodded down at her ring.
She tightened her hand instinctively as if she suspected he’d try to wrench the ring off.
He didn’t – he continued to smile at her with that knowing smile that made her stomach clench as if he’d pushed a hand through her middle and grasped it.
“I… I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she gasped. “You… you can’t be a… a demon. Those things don’t exist. This isn’t possible.”
He arched an eyebrow. “You’re right – I’m not a demon; I am a prince of the Kingdom of Hell,” he said, emphasizing prince with a flick of his tongue.
She shook her head harder as if that could shake her from this nightmare. “You can’t be… this isn’t possible.”
The man let out a heavy sigh. Without a word of warning, he released her, letting his arms fall to his sides.
Rather than fall to her ass for the second time tonight, she instinctively snapped up and wrapped her arms around his neck. No, it wasn’t her that did it – it was her arms themselves. They moved of their own accord as they locked around his shoulders.
She expected him to buckle forward as her full weight pulled him against her. He didn’t. He didn’t even shift. Not a millimeter.
He shifted his eyes, though, as he blinked slowly and locked them on her. “Is there any reason you are hanging off my neck?”
She couldn’t answer. All she could do was stare at those eyes. She was closer now than she’d ever be, and as she gazed into their depths… she saw it again. That path—
“Enough of that.” He shoved back, easily breaking her grip on his neck as he brought up a hand and smoothed down his already impeccable lapels. “I should not have to say this again – I have not given you leave to stare into my soul. Plus,” his lips flicked high into a cursory smile, “trust me when I say that you would not like what you find there. If the mere concept of a low-level demon causes you to shake with fear,” he spread a hand toward the spot where the demon had disappeared, “then a Prince of Hell will undo you.”
There was something about the way he said undo. It rolled off his tongue with particular relish.
She shivered and took a step back, drawing up a hand and locking it on her collar as she took a shuddering breath. “What… what happens now?” she asked.
This was the time to run away, not concede. But there was nothing she could do against this man. She’d seen him move, felt his strength, and she’d seen the promise in his eyes.
He brought a hand up and casually pressed it into the pocket of his pants. “Now you come home with me.” He gave her house another cursory glance. “This abode is not to my liking, nor does it fit my position.”
Her stomach clenched as if someone had wrapped wire around her middle. “W-what? Come home with you? There’s no way—”
“I don’t have time for this. If you’re going to continue to pretend to be innocent,” again, he took particular relish in saying the word innocent, as if it were some kind of rare sweet he could savor, “so be it. But I have work to do. I must exorcise a varlock before dawn. Now come along.” He turned, waved a hand at her dismissively, and walked toward the door, his footfall as loud as a drum by her ear.
She didn’t move a muscle. That is, until something twanged in her ring. It reverberated right down into her wrist and felt like a rubber band that had been stretched to breaking point before flicking back in on itself.
The man – the Prince of the Kingdom of Hell – had already made it out of her front door, through the yard, and out to the gate.
She could see him as he paused, one hand still casually pressed into his pocket. As a ray of moonlight split through the clouds above and cast him into an eerie silvery glow, he reached a hand toward her and beckoned her forward with a dismissive wave.
That twang in her ring? It snapped.
She shot forward as if someone had shoved her hard in the middle of her back.
She skidded out of the door and onto the path through her yard where she promptly fell on her ass in a heap.
The guy tilted his head to the side and shook it in disappointment. “You are disappointingly uncoordinated and underpowered for a woman the Church was trying to kill. I expected more from you. Now get up and follow.” He pointed to his side as if she were a dog he expected to heel.
He’d just said too much. Though he’d already mentioned back in her house that the Church had tried to kill her… this… it struck home. This man was a Prince of Hell, and she’d just made a pact with him.
If she’d had any resistance to that idea before, it now died as the man waved her forward once more and she felt something propel her down the path as if she’d been tied up with invisible chains.
She reached the small gate that ran around the boundary of her property and hurtled against it, the old brick catching along her knees and tipping her forward.
She slammed against the pavement with a bang that saw her teeth shake in her skull and a massive bruise start to appear over her leg.
The man had been within reach of her, and she knew he had more than enough speed and agility to snap forward and catch her. He hadn’t. He kept one hand perpetually locked in his pocket and his head tilted to the side in curiosity. “Get up.” His lips moved slowly around each word. “And come with me.”
Tears streaked her cheeks, and she swore – if only for a second – his gaze flicked toward them and he softened. But it was only for a second, and even then she couldn’t be sure what she was seeing was something soft. No… it was calculating. It appeared that this man never stopped assessing the world as he turned, pointed forward, and strode off.
With nothing else she could do, she pushed herself up and followed.
She cast her gaze down to her ring and stared at it breathlessly. She could feel this… kind of invisible string connecting her ring to his. It had to be the source of whatever was pulling her along with him.
So as she staggered after him, trying not to put too much weight on her injured leg, she brought a hand up and tried to pull her ring off.
That would be when she realized she couldn’t. It was locked against her finger as if someone had soldered it there. Worse, as she latched her fingers around it, it felt. It honestly felt. It was like it had become a part of her body and her senses had extended to it.
The man, continuing forward, turned his head over his shoulder and looked at her. “You can’t remove that ring, for it is now a part of you. Though… others may be able to remove it, trust me when I say that would be an undesirable outcome for you. For if that ring is removed, your soul will be removed from your body. And that,” he let another cruel, satisfied smile spread his lips, “will not be pleasant.”
“You… you mean I’ll die?” she stuttered, barely capable of breath.
“Something like that,” he conceded. He nodded toward a car on the opposite side of the street.
It was a convertible, it was black, it was a make she didn’t recognize, and it hadn’t been there a moment ago.
She took a double take and shifted back, clutching a hand to her chest as fear jolted through her. You’d think she wouldn’t be able to feel shocked anymore – not considering the night she’d had. As this nightmare kept twisting before her very eyes, the fear kept slamming against her.
The surprises weren’t done yet.
The man delved a hand into a pocket and brought out a set of keys. He flicked the button on them, and the car across the street unlocked, its headlights flashing twice.
It also disappeared and reappeared right in front of the man as he walked out into the road, reaching for the handle a second before it appeared under his grip.
She jerked back, trying to get away, shaking her head as sweat drenched her brow.
He didn’t bother to snap at her to come along; he just waved a hand dismissively at her, and she felt that twang in her ring once more.
Before it could thrust her forward with the power of a ball from a cannon, she took a shaking step toward him, then another, her eyes unblinking as she stared at the car.
He leaned against the open door and took a deep sigh. “Get in the car, Maggie Brown.”
She stared from him to the car. Then? She walked around to the passenger side. What other option did she have?
John Godspeed, Class X Exorcist
He walked into the church, stomach and cheeks cold.
Blood covered the cold stone floor, a few deep scratch marks inscribed on the rock.
He ticked his eyes to the left, locking them on the dead priest.
John walked up to the body, cheeks still as cold as the darkest night.
It wasn’t just John. It was the whole church. It felt as if all the light and warmth had been sucked from it.
“Was his spell contained to here?” he heard one of the other exorcists ask as they walked past, headed toward the dead priest.
He watched them, the distinct white and black uniform of their order catching the light flickering from the 100 candles that had been set up along the walls.
The candles had been placed in a very specific pattern at very specific intervals. When the lower-class exorcists had laid them out, they’d done so with tape measures. Get the exact measurements wrong, and the light of the candles would not be able to chase back the dark.
“We don’t know yet,” one of the other exorcists answered as they ran past, their footfall failing to echo on the stone floor. Though the rock was resonant, and every step should have been magnified in this echoing room, there was no sound.
Just the cold and dark.
John brought a hand up and latched it on the golden cross that sat around his neck. He never removed it. Not in the shower, not when he went to bed, never. Do that, and it would be inviting the dark in.
“Shit, I still can’t believe he turned,” one of the other exorcists commented as they rushed by, a sophisticated device clutched in their leather-gloved hand.
They couldn’t believe Father Smith had turned? Neither could John. Smith had been a good man….
John jerked his head up and stared from the peaked ceiling of the church down to the floor, then across to Father Smith’s lifeless body. His corpse was covered in blood, but it was already starting to turn to ash. Not dust – ash, as if he’d been burnt.
Which should tell John one thing. Even a new exorcist with no training knew what ash meant – the hand of the Devil.
“This goes against the Treaty,” Mercy said. Mercy was a Level V exorcist – one of the best this city had. Her jaw was as stiff as if she’d swallowed nails.
John didn’t answer; he waited for one of the higher-class exorcists to point out the obvious. And, with a sigh, Martin did, “This doesn’t contravene anything. There’s no evidence to suggest Father Smith was lured to the dark. No,” Martin’s face stiffened with anger, “he chose.”
On the word chose, John swore one of the candles to his side chose that exact moment to flicker out.
Though every exorcist jerked toward it as one, John got there first, grasping the candle in a firm hand and incanting under his breath until a flame – bright and strong – leaped up over the wick.
There was a collective sigh of relief as everyone else in the church realized they’d dodged a bullet. Not that bullets were the Devil’s chosen tool of destruction. He and his sons had far more creative and effective means to kill.
John walked back, stared at the candle for a few more seconds, then let his gaze cut back toward Father Smith.
John had known the man, and he’d believed him to be good. But the first thing you learned in this world was that belief was insignificant.
“I wonder why he turned?” Martin muttered as he walked over to the circle that had been drawn roughly around Smith’s body. It glowed brightly, combating some of the dark smoke that still licked around the corpse. The smoke shifted in and out, squeezing itself between the man’s dead lips, traveling through his stilled and cold circulatory system, and then pushing out through the gaps in his lifeless eyes.
John watched, heart sinking.
Father Smith had been an exorcist. A good man, a brave man, a man who’d purportedly known the difference between right and wrong. Yet a man who’d gone down the dark path at the end of his life. If the evidence in this church was anything to go by, that decision had cost him his soul.
Father Smith had sacrificed himself to the dark, cast a summoning spell that had backfired, and had died with the Devil.
Another lost to the dark. As he thought that, he brought a hand up, pulled off his glasses, and clamped his stiff fingers over his eyes. Blinking, he took a second to push away the anger and let his hand drop.
The rest of his team looked at him. And he looked at them. “Clean the body up, clear the church of negative energy, and burn every book Smith had.”
They all nodded and strode off, keen to get this done.
Him? He stared down at Father Smith, wondering how a man like him could fall. For a man like him had surely known the fundamental difference between light and dark, Heaven and Hell?
John did. It was a knowledge that was burnt into him, literally. As he crammed his glasses back on his face, he caught sight of the symbols that had been seared into the back of both of his hands. Wards. Reminders. Call them what you will. Though the scar tissue was old and ridged, the symbols could still be made out. For the day they could not would be the day he burnt them there once more.
He, John Godspeed, had learned the difference between Heaven and Hell the hard way. It was a lesson he would never again forget.
He looked past Father Smith’s tortured, broken, darkened body, and stared up at the stained-glass windows behind, locking his attention on a picture of Jesus as he reached his hand toward the proverbial sinners.
John stared at it and turned away.
She wasn’t speaking. She was sitting there in the seat of his car as she stared out of the windscreen with a broken gaze.
She was a curiosity.
He’d met people like her before. People who pretended not to know anything about this world. It was a self-defense for some. The housewife who dabbles in the dark arts, the bored business manager who finds the wrong thing on the Internet, the common criminal who starts getting the wrong kind of contract. If you found them and made them account for their sins, they would always plead ignorance.
So that’s what she was doing, correct?
He wasn’t so sure. Glancing at her out of his peripheral vision, she was either a very good actor, or she wasn’t playing.
Her quickened heartbeat, panting breath, sweaty brow, and pale cheeks suggested the latter.
For the past five minutes, she hadn’t made a sound. She sat there, her hand clutched around the tarnished exorcist cross she wore around her neck. And her ring? Ah, her ring – the entire reason she was still alive. A rare artifact from days gone by which enabled the wearer to make a pact with Hell.
He kept gazing at her out of the corner of his eye, even though, truth be told, all his attention was locked on her and none on the road.
He didn’t run the risk of a car accident – this car could drive itself. And he didn’t have accidents – he only killed when he wanted to.
She swallowed, and though she’d been steadfastly staring ahead out through the windscreen until now, she slowly ticked her hazel eyes his way. “Why do you keep staring at me? You should be paying attention to the road.”
“Firstly, I am looking at the road. Secondly, trust that I have the skills to drive without paying attention. You do realize you are no longer in the ordinary world, don’t you?”
“Stop saying that.” Her jaw was clenched tightly, her teeth locked together with frustration.
So it was finally happening, ha? The fear that had claimed her since the altercation in her kitchen was twisting into anger. It did that. For some people, it happened instantly. For others, it never happened. But he’d seen it in Maggie’s eyes when he plucked her up off that floor – she was the kind to turn.
And turn she did. Tightening her grip on her cross until her fingers were like sheets of steel, she turned to him fully. “I don’t believe what you are, not for an instant. I don’t… I don’t understand what’s happening here. But I don’t believe in Heaven and Hell,” she proclaimed, voice shaking low.
He’ll admit… there was a… somewhat scary quality to it. Forthright, powerful, a quality that shouldn’t be there. Then again, he was very much not the kind of man to be scared of anything. A somewhat amused smile pressed itself across his lips. “Curious,” he commented. “I would’ve thought you would have seen plenty of evidence tonight to suggest your conclusion is erroneous. Heaven and Hell,” he kept a hand on the steering wheel and twisted his head toward her, “exist, my dear. How else would you explain what happened to you tonight?”
She opened her mouth, her bottom lip jerking down in a muscular twitch. “Magic… or something. I don’t know. Some kind of government experiment? It doesn’t make sense, but that doesn’t mean Heaven and Hell exist.”
He arched an eyebrow. “You wear a cross, my dear.” He nodded toward it. “And you possess a Ring of Satan. Yet you sit there and tell me Heaven and Hell don’t exist?”
He watched her face – watched it twitch at his statement. “Ring… of Satan?”
He looked right at her, letting his gaze flick across her face as he tried to gauge her reaction. “Yes, Ring of Satan. Very few were made. I’m curious as to how you happen to have one and why you think it is a good fashion match with a Cross of Heaven? An exorcist cross, no less.”
Her face crumpled. “Exorcist… exorcist… exorcist cross?” She had considerable trouble spitting that word out. Though she looked crushed at the assertion that the ring belonged to Satan, the possibility that her cross belonged to an exorcist? Oh, that appeared to kill her.
He let both hands fall from the wheel as the car comfortably kept itself straight along the road. He leaned right over to her, having no care whatsoever for personal space as he settled his unblinking gaze on her face.
He focused on her blood pressure, on the micro movements of her muscles, on everything. He tilted his head to the side. “Knew an exorcist, did you? Did they give you that cross?”
She didn’t answer – didn’t look like she could.
He had his evidence. He didn’t honestly think this woman had the acting abilities to lie this well. No, which left only one option – she was telling the truth.
And that? Oh, that just made this delicious situation all the more curious.
Why was he looking at her like that? Like he thought he could literally strip her with his eyes. No, she didn’t mean her clothes. The way he was looking at her was like a knife that intended to cut right down to your soul.
Why… why was she looking back? Everything she had – every scrap of sense told her to look away, to cower in the corner, to beg him to let her go. Instead? She was staring right back. Which was a feat considering he was less than an inch from her face.
He was somehow driving without having either hand on the steering wheel.
It shouldn’t be possible. Then again, two demons had died in her kitchen – and that, that was….
She swallowed again, tightening her hand on her cross until she swore the metal would cut her. Yet it never did, as if it were too scared of her skin to try.
He didn’t blink, not once. He looked as if he would remain there until they arrived at their destination. That would be when she did it – looked right into his eyes, right at his pupils as if they were doors she was trying to—
He jerked back, a snarl tightening his lips. “I’ve already told you three times, don’t do that. You do not have permission to pass through those gates.” His voice dropped so low, she could barely register it.
She was just… just holding herself together. Or maybe she wasn’t. Maybe the fear that had been riding her since the incident in her kitchen had turned into something else – anger and confusion. But mostly? Anger that this could happen at all.
Oh, and then there were her questions. The questions that were curling through her gut and boiling her blood.
Her uncle. Just who had he been? Because this Ring of Satan and his… exorcist cross? They’d come from him. He’d requested so clearly that she never take them off.
He was doing it again – the man, whoever he was, kept looking at her without looking at her. She knew that sounded crazy. How could she know? Because she could feel him. His gaze was unlike anything she had ever experienced. It narrowed her world when he looked at her – there was no other way to describe it.
She naturally stiffened, clutching her cross tighter. Yet, all of a sudden, she wanted to drop it, pull it from her neck, and throw it out the window.
If she didn’t believe in Heaven and Hell, then she didn’t believe in exorcists even more. Maybe that statement didn’t make sense, but trust her, when it came to that word, her only reaction was one of revulsion.
He smiled. Even though she could only just see him out of the corner of her eye, she could goddamn feel it. It twisted her stomach. “How long until we get to wherever we’re going? And what happens then?” she asked. Her anger was pushing her fear further and further away.
She needed answers. And she needed them now.
“You accompany me to this exorcism, and then? You move in.”
She clutched a hand into a tight fist, curling her nails hard into her palm. Though her stomach kicked at the mere suggestion, it wasn’t exactly with fear. It should be. A man she did not know – a man who could turn invisible and produce guns from nowhere – had demanded that they move in together. She should be going out of her mind with fear.
… Somehow, someway, she didn’t think he would hurt her.
That belief came from two places – that grain of truth she’d seen in the center of his eyes and the ring.
It honestly felt like the ring was part of her now – another sense she could rely on beyond the standard five.
That sense was telling her this man couldn’t hurt her.
“Who are you, anyway?”
“I’ve already introduced myself. I’m a Prince of the Kingdom of Hell.” He locked a hand on his chest and bowed formally.
“Is that your name?”
His smile curled high. “You’re becoming braver now, aren’t you? You’re trusting in your anger.” His voice pitched all the way down low on the word anger. It had such a specific vibration that it felt as if it went straight to her stomach. “A good choice,” he added in that same low tone. “I guarantee you will be embracing it more around me.”
Everything he was saying – everything about his expression and body language told her she should be freaking out. But she couldn’t deny the wish from her Ring of Satan. So she stood – or at least sat – her ground. “Answer the question.”
“Luc,” he said.
“Luc?” she said, trying out the specific pronunciation he’d used but not quite managing it.
“Close enough. Now, what else would you like to know? Where I live? I have two primary residences. Only one of them is above ground,” he said, taking pleasure in the statement.
She just stared at him. She swore something was happening to her the more she clutched this cross. She swore it was actively combating her fear and pushing it away. Or at least if it wasn’t pushing it away completely, it was enabling her to see over the top of it. “Where… where is your primary residence?”
Her brow compressed. “As in the physical principle?”
“As in the bar. Congratulations for being able to converse with me without shaking in fear. As I said before – embrace your rage.”
She just stared at him. “How… how does this world work?” she began. Then she shook her head. No, she refused to believe in a world of Heaven and Hell. She’d done that once upon a time, and it had almost killed her.
He saw her reaction, and this elicited another slow lift of his eyebrow. Somehow, despite the fact the move looked choreographed, there was a hardened, rugged edge to it. “Why are you having so much trouble believing in this reality?”
“Because Heaven and Hell are nothing but superstitions. I’ll admit… that I don’t understand what happened tonight, but there will be a rational explanation.” The more she spoke, the more forceful she became.
Luc returned a hand to the steering wheel, but he simply rested it there, drumming his fingers against the leather. “I think I preferred you when you were scared,” he commented, and there was something about the exact way he spoke that told her the comment was specifically engineered to scare her. “Aren’t you terrified of what I’ll do to you?”
She realized she wasn’t. In an instant. And trust her, she wasn’t usually the kind of person to think fast, let alone trust her intuition.
But with Luc? The apparent Prince of the Kingdom of Hell? It was different.
So, despite everything, she kept looking at him. “No,” she answered.
He tilted his head to the side. “No?”
“No. You won’t hurt me.”
“And how do you know that?” He was obviously trying to control his tone once more, obviously trying to make it scare her.
She just hardened her jaw and faced him. “Because you can’t, can you?” Her hand jerked off her cross to reveal her ring in full.
“I knew you were lying,” he said, and yet there was something about the way he said knew that told her he was baiting her. “You do understand your situation after all.” He brought his hands wide and then clapped them together, the sound echoing through the car as if they’d been transported into a stone hall.
“No. I have no idea what’s happening here. I just know you won’t hurt me,” she added, and there was a strength behind her words that shouldn’t be there.
It was certainly one that got his attention. His eyes narrowed as his jaw stiffened. “And how do you know that?”
“Because I saw it in your eyes.” There was a far-off quality to her voice. One she didn’t choose to be there. In an instant, it felt like she was… stretching away from him. Like the person she believed she was – her ego, her personality – like it became stretched thin for a single second.
The second didn’t last, but Luc’s expression did.
She wouldn’t say it was calculating – it was an emotion far, far deeper than that.
He turned from her and actually pulled his attention away from hers as he brought a hand up, latched it on his jaw, and scratched at some stubble that hadn’t been there several seconds earlier.
… He could change his appearance. She watched as a beard grew over his chin in a second. And the suit he was wearing? It changed. A line of blue energy traveled down from the tip of his head to the bottom of his suede shoes, and as it passed, his clothes transformed.
She could’ve jerked back – should have jerked back – but her body was starting to become used to the fear.
Once the process was complete – whatever the hell it was – he looked like a different man. On the surface. Though his eyes were now a different color – a curious, flecked hazel – they were somehow exactly the same.
Though she’d only just met this man – if in fact he was a man – she knew she would be able to recognize him no matter how much he changed his outer appearance. For whatever was on the inside could never be altered.
He looked at her triumphantly, as if he wanted to lap up her surprise. But when she didn’t show any, he tilted his head even further to the side. “What a curiosity you are,” he commented. He opened his door.
The car was still moving. They were traveling through a set of lights, in fact. Though him changing his appearance in a few seconds right beside her hadn’t elicited a scream, as he thrust into traffic, she jerked over, reaching a hand toward him.
That would be when the car drew to a halt. Not in the middle of an intersection – but outside of a building.
Somehow, they’d shifted location in a split second, the car parking just as Luc got out of it.
She remained there for several seconds, hand spread toward him, eyes wide with total shock.
He locked a hand on his open car door, turned smoothly, his new shoes squeaking against the bitumen, and he tilted his head down to her. “We’re here.”
“How… how did we get here?”
“I expended some magic. I think it would be best to get this exorcism over and done with and return home so we can get to know each other.” His gaze flicked down her body, but it wasn’t in a lustful move, even if he wanted to pretend it was. No, his eyes locked on her ring once more.
Something struck her. Exorcism. There was that word again. Though she wanted to hold onto the fact that she did not believe in Heaven and Hell, she had to admit something was going on here. This car could change position in the blink of an eye, and this man – Luc, the apparent Prince of Hell – could change his appearance with nothing more than a smile.
So didn’t that mean… didn’t that mean that there was every possibility that she was about to attend… another… another exorcism?
He drummed his fingers on his door several times until he nodded toward her.
The passenger door opened with a creak, extending wide. When she didn’t shift, her seat belt unbuckled and snapped back into its casing with a rattle.
“I would leave you in the car – but unfortunately I cannot. The contract we have made is a strong one, and the binding between our Rings of Satan is equally as tight,” he said, taking pleasure in saying the word tight. “You will never be able to travel far from my side. That is, after all, how I will keep you safe and hold up my side of the bargain. Now come.”
So much had been revealed in that moment that she felt as if her jaw would unhinge and drop into her lap.
That would be when Luc walked away from the car. She could feel it again – the connection between their rings threatening to snap her toward him like a strained rubber band. Before that could happen, and she could hurtle headfirst into the windscreen, she hurriedly pushed out of the car and rushed toward him.
… This couldn’t be happening, shouldn’t be happening, right?
She had no choice but to follow.
The soul of Father Smith
It lingered. In and out, in and out. Floating between the realms of life and death.
It could not remember, not completely.
A soul without a body is constrained to the memories of its last moment.
Father Smith’s last moment had been strong enough to emblazon a single, strong desire into what was left of his wandering consciousness.
No, not revenge. It was deeper than that, purer than that.
The desire to hold back the oncoming storm.
Father Smith’s soul retained enough intelligence to know it was not a good idea to return to the church. Do that, and the exorcists of Heaven would find him, track him down, seal him, and interrogate the remnants of his consciousness until it dissipated and he would never be born again.
No. His soul lingered, flickering in and out of existence like a candle ready to die.
It could not give up.
The message it had to impart was too important.
So it searched for her.
Only she could stop them now.
“No, we have not found his soul,” John answered, his voice low as he walked away from the Westside Church, heading to his car on the opposite side of the street. He didn’t need to unlock it – it unlocked as he approached, the charms built into the metal reacting to his presence and the symbols on the back of his hands.
The other exorcists under his command were currently packing up, preparing to burn the church.
It was a shame. It was an old building, and it had been built on ley lines that were powerful.
Considering the dark magic Father Smith had used, there was no other way. Let that dark propagate? And it would consume the city.
“You must find his soul.”
“It would have been burnt up by the spell,” John began.
“You must find his soul to confirm. It cannot be allowed to wander as a ghost.”
John straightened up, hand on the door, pausing. The wind was picking up, howling through the streets, and it collected the ends of his jacket. The jacket that had been a uniform back in the church. The second he’d walked out into the public city streets, it’d changed. Now he wore nothing but a simple set of brown chinos, a cream shirt, and an old rain jacket. The wind caught the ends of the jacket, causing it to buffet against his sides.
“It is highly unlikely that Father Smith’s soul would wander. It doesn’t have the requisite purpose to turn into a ghost,” he began, momentarily forgetting who he was speaking to.
He heard a hiss over the line. It was the kind of hiss he was not used to hearing from his handlers. They were men of the cloth, with the strong hearts and morals that entailed. As such, they were very rarely rattled. That could not be said of John’s handler as he took another sharp breath. “Do not question. Just find it. It cannot be allowed to wander.”
John opened his mouth to reiterate his point, but he stopped. His handler would know just as well as John that a soul must have a purpose to turn into a ghost. And Father Smith would have given up his purpose – sacrificed it in his accident. The purpose required to turn one into a wandering soul must be pure. There would be nothing pure left in the dead Father Smith’s mind.
John was not in a position to point this out again. He took a tense breath. “I will search. I will tell—”
“You will not tell the rest of the team. You will do this alone. Do you understand?”
He blinked hard, shifting his jaw to the left. He paused.
“Do you understand?”
“Yes, I understand.”
“You are a valued member of the team. We entrust this to you. Do not fail.” The handler ended the call.
John stood there for several seconds, hand still clutched on the door as he pressed the phone to his ear.
This… didn’t make any sense. But he didn’t have the option to ignore this order. Unlike the other exorcists under his command, he could never ignore an order.
He walked the line. And if he ever took a step over it?
… John looked down at the symbols emblazoned on the back of his hands, stowed his phone in his pocket, and got in the car.
This was not ideal. Yet he was honor-bound to go through with this exorcism. After all, that was the role his father had given him.
Yet, as his gaze ticked toward the mysterious Maggie Brown, his jaw stiffened ever so slightly. She was an unknown.
An unknown that kept getting more mysterious by the second.
When she’d looked at him in the car – after he’d tried to scare her – the exact quality of her gaze…?
He couldn’t put his finger on it. Maggie had secrets, and he was keen to get to the bottom of them.
So he would make this quick.
As he strode toward the library steps, he took them two at a time, expensive shoes slapping against the worn-out stone. He opened the lapel of his designer suit jacket, letting his fingers trail along the weapons within, and he picked his favorite – the pointed cross. There were few creatures of either the light or the dark who would be able to survive a slash across their throat with this weapon.
Though, on most days, his work – though tiresome – brought him some satisfaction, today…?
His gaze cut back toward Maggie.
Her face was covered in sweat, her hair sticking against her brow, and her cheeks were a ruddy, confused, mottled white and red.
Yet, if she were honest – and she knew nothing about this world – you would expect her to have never left the car – nay, never left her house. On occasions, he had come across the truly innocent – the truly ignorant who had no idea of the existence of the realms of light and dark. When provided with unequivocal evidence of Heaven and Hell, they would always crumble.
Though Maggie had half crumbled, she was back on her feet.
He let his gaze cut up and down her figure as she strode beside him, one hand permanently clutched into a fist, the other always hovering close to the exorcist cross she wore around her neck.
It was a unique design. What was more, it was beaten and obviously well-used. Though he longed to get a better look at it, he also didn’t dare. If it was nearly as powerful as he suspected it to be, it could hurt even him – a Prince of Satan.
He reached a hand toward the locked library door.
It was one of the large libraries downtown, and it was a megalithic old sandstone building dating from at least 200 years ago. He could feel it – all of that history. All of those sins. Though you wouldn’t equate a library with deeds of the Devil, it was a public place. All public places bring with them the negativity of the people who frequent them.
From murderers, to common criminals, to people who wielded their knowledge for wrong – he could smell it all, and he took pleasure as that particular taste tickled along his tongue.
“What… what are you going to do here exactly?” She was keeping quick step beside him, which was good for her. She’d clearly realized that the connection that had been forged between their Rings of Satan would not allow her to fall behind.
It was a precaution for her own safety. Maggie Brown – even if she was ignorant – had made a very clever bargain with him. The exact words she’d used ensured that he could never let her out of his sight, and consequently, she would enjoy his full protection.
Well, at least when it came to those creatures of Heaven and Hell who intended to hunt her down. He couldn’t protect Maggie Brown from the vagaries of her own body – from the biology of a human and all the sickness and age that entailed. She would die sometime – and she could easily take her life if someone convinced her of the necessity. As for the assassins of the upper and lower realms? They wouldn’t have a chance. Or at least, they would have to go through him, and that was the same thing, wasn’t it?
He toyed with the possibility of answering her, then quickly decided it wasn’t a good idea.
He played with the pointed cross he’d pulled from his pocket.
Her eyes jerked toward it and locked on the old, beaten gold.
He could sense her fear. Even if he hadn’t been a creature who was engineered to taste the despair of others, he would be able to see her discomfort. It played as bright as day over her face. From her pale cheeks, to her drooped open lips, to her wide, fearful gaze. “You’re… you’re going to kill someone with that, aren’t you?” she stuttered.
“The correct term is exorcism,” he said plainly and with an easy tone.
She shook her head. “That’s not what exorcists do,” she began, then she stopped herself halfway through with a gargled gasp.
Though he was telling himself to get in, get this done, and then set his mind to the mystery that was Maggie Brown, he couldn’t stop himself as he paused in the long, echoing hallway, turned, and narrowed his gaze at her. He was careful not to get too close, just as he was careful to keep his eyes half closed. Maggie, you see, had a rare ability. It seemed to come very easily for her to stare into his soul. That was a strange gift indeed.
She wouldn’t like the contents of his soul, nor would he like to share them. “Who gave you that cross?” He nodded toward it. “For whoever they were, they were an exorcist. I imagine they gave you the ring, too, didn’t they? Which, considering its particular pedigree, meant they were a particularly complicated exorcist.” He took pleasure in revealing that fact as he smiled.
Though she looked freaked out at his comment, she didn’t particularly look freaked out at him. Which was peculiar.
He’d already looked up Maggie Brown’s ledger – and she had not committed any grave sins, nor any astounding merits. She was an ordinary person. And ordinary people should not so easily be able to ignore the taunts of a Prince of Hell.
She pressed her lips together and swallowed. “He wasn’t an exorcist,” she managed.
“He? Blood relative?” he questioned.
She balked, telling him everything he needed to know. “Blood relative,” he confirmed with a smile. He looked right at her, letting his tongue slice across his teeth, enjoying the particular prickle as it encountered his particularly sharp canines. “Not your father – as he’s dead, isn’t he? Judging from what I’ve learned about you, it has to be an uncle, doesn’t it? The one who was technically a priest.”
“Technically?” her voice tightened, becoming quicker as she pushed it from her tense lips. “He was a priest.” His voice bridled with anger. There it was again – the beginning of the rage he’d seen in the car. The anguish his mind told him shouldn’t be there. Normal girls like Maggie Brown had no right to get angry at extraordinary men like him. Even if he wasn’t technically a man.
He smiled, ensuring it was slow, ensuring it was intimidating, ensuring it was the kind of move that should freeze any person’s blood. “Trust me when I say this, Maggie Brown, you’d be doing yourself a service if you shared with me everything you know. The sooner we can find out why the Church decided to take an illegal contract out on you, the better. Though you are safe now you’ve formed a pact with me, you will find that I have an insatiable curiosity.” His voice drew out long and low on the word insatiable, tone as rumbling as it could be. It was engineered to have a specific effect on her.
To make her cheeks blush, to make her stomach clench. But it did neither. She clamped her hands behind her back, took another swallow, and stepped right in front of him. And the expression she wore? It looked like a woman ready to throw herself in front of a train. “He wasn’t an exorcist. He was a priest. A good man. A great man.” Her emotion was evident as it constricted her throat and paled her lips.
“I think you’ll find there is no correlation between working for the Church and being good. You’ll find that what is meritorious is in the eyes of the beholder.”
She pressed her lips together, scrunching them hard over her teeth, looking as if she were trying to swallow her jaw. “Don’t ask me about my uncle. You don’t need to know…” she began.
She suddenly turned over her shoulder, jerking her gaze to the side. There was a confused expression on her face as if she’d heard something unexpected.
There was nothing there.
He opened his mouth to tell her that she could not so easily distract him, but he heard something.
The cracking of glass.
A very specific sound.
A sound he’d only heard a handful of times in his life, and yet a sound he would never forget.
“They sent their dogs.” He reached forward, wrapped a hand around Maggie Brown’s wrist, and pulled her toward him.
She didn’t have the strength to jerk free. Even with the world’s biggest crowbar, she wouldn’t have been able to break Luc’s grip. It was too strong, like his fingers were steel beams that he’d wrapped around her hand.
She didn’t want to, either. A fear more exquisite and more powerful than any she had ever felt was now shaking through her, locking her to the spot. Her spine felt as if someone had injected cold water into it, and her muscles were so tight, it felt as if she would never move again.
There was one sense that was still working properly – her Ring of Satan. It was sending a pulsing heat through her finger and hard into her palm, as if it were fire chasing through her circulatory system.
“What—” she began, intending to ask Luc what was happening, but he brought up a finger and pressed it against her lips. The move was quick and was over in less than a second, but his touch lingered. She didn’t mean for a moment – she meant it felt as if the impression of his finger pressed against her lips would never disappear. It brought with it a certain kind of heat – a very specific kind of heat she’d never felt in her life before – one that could thaw the ice chasing through her veins. One that led to the thought that if he could just touch the rest of her, her despair would go away.
That thought didn’t last. Didn’t have the time to last.
She heard it again – this sound like something snapping. A sound the likes of which she had never heard before. It was as if something was being stretched all around her – something that was being pulled to the point of breaking. Something which she just could not let break, for if it did?
If it did, something terrible would occur.
In a smooth move, Luc returned the pointed cross into his suit jacket, latched a hand around his back, and pulled out his gun. It hadn’t been visible seconds before, but as his hand brushed along his belt, it appeared, solid, heavy, and as bright as the sun – or at least, half of it was as bright as the sun.
He still kept a hand locked on her wrist, and despite the fact she was not the kind of girl who liked to be dragged around, there was no way she would try to break his grip, even if she could.
Though she didn’t want to admit it to herself – though it sounded mad – a part of her knew she was most secure in Luc’s grip.
“You will do exactly as I say – and you will not interfere,” Luc said as he brought his gun around and thumbed an invisible button on the side.
Though the gun had been half black and half white a second before, as he pressed the button, it changed to completely black. And the feeling coming off it? Oh, it shifted. It felt as if a shadow had just crossed over the sun permanently. It felt as if cold had spread from a glacier that had grown in the middle of reality.
Suffice to say, it felt evil.
Yet… she didn’t freak out. Which… which was wrong. Though she didn’t believe in God and the Devil, she’d been to Sunday School for years until Uncle Ray pulled her out. The dreams she’d had – they’d been too bad. Horrendous. Every time the Sunday School teacher had spoken of Hell, Maggie had come back a blubbering mess.
… For some reason those memories – though traumatic – seemed too far away right now. Not usually. Usually, they formed the backbone of her personality – a trauma that had broken her.
Now? For some reason? They felt distant. Maybe… maybe it had something to do with the heat still pushing from her ring and spreading through her body.
She heard the sound of claws – like a dog scrabbling over the floor and rushing toward her.
Her back straightened and another shot of adrenaline shoved through her, but she didn’t dare move a muscle.
Luc lifted his gun and fired off a single shot.
There was nothing before them, and yet, as the bullet sliced into the stone of the floor, something happened. It didn’t split the rock apart, dust spreading everywhere as the floor cracked under the onslaught of the bullet. As soon as he fired, some kind of… wall spread from the gun. That was the only way to describe it. This wall of magical symbols. They danced and wriggled through the air until they dashed against the floor. They struck it like a glass being thrown from a great height, and as soon as the symbols dashed against the floor, they spread, encasing the two of them like water from a broken pipe.
Though at first they terrified her and she tried to jerk back, Luc held onto her and growled at her to stand her ground.
She expected those symbols to burn through her. That part of her mind that was still locked in Sunday School told her that the touch of that dark energy would scour the light from her heart and send her straight down to Hell.
They didn’t. They didn’t feel like anything at all. Yes, the field spread underneath her feet, and yes, as the magic shifted around her, she swore it felt as if it secured her position somehow. But that was it. The magic didn’t make her feel as if her soul was about to leak from her heart.
Finally, she saw it.
Two great big yellow eyes glinting several meters away.
“It’s rude to stay invisible. You know that, don’t you?” Luc said casually as he lifted his gun in a quick move and fired directly at those two yellow eyes. The bullet slammed into an invisible wall of light, and just as had happened when his bullet had slammed into the ground, more symbols spread everywhere until she saw it.
A man. No, a monk. He was dressed in the classic old, brown, woolen robes of a monk of old.
That was the only thing she recognized. He had a dog collar on – like a priest – but his was made out of metal, and there was a loop around the middle as if he’d been chained up.
His eyes? Jesus Christ, his eyes were huge. They seemed to swallow his entire face as the rest of him paled into insignificance. It was like his eyes were sucking the rest of his body into them.
As she stared at them, as she looked right through, it happened again. Just as kept happening every time she stared into Luc’s gaze – for a second, her world narrowed. Narrowed until it was just her and the monk – just her and the unique path that opened up as she stared into his gaze.
That would be when the creature screamed, brought a hand up, and locked it over its face.
Luc jerked toward her, angling his head down, narrowing his gaze for a split second until he brought his gun up toward her. He didn’t point it at her – didn’t shoot, thankfully. Flattening the gun against her cheek, he used it to turn her head in the opposite direction. “Don’t.” His voice vibrated down low.
Though he didn’t have time to explain what he meant, she knew.
Or at least, a part of her knew.
Stare too deeply into the eyes of that twisted monk, and something… something might happen.
Though all she wanted to do was turn over her shoulder and watch the fight, she couldn’t. So she squeezed her eyes closed, she stood there, she clutched her cross, and she waited for it to be over.
He had not counted on this. Not here, not now, not because of her.
A Dog of the Church?
They did not let those beasts out for simply anyone. They kept them in the Holy See for only the greatest sinners. They were the elite band of assassins of the Church, and they did not come cheaply. Nor were they easy to replace. It took over 100 years of transformation to make an adherent into a Dog of the Church. First, the Church had to break down the defenses of the monk’s body, then their mind, and finally, their belief. Though the Church wouldn’t see it in those terms. To them, creating a dog out of a monk was a sacred act. A Dog of the Church no longer had their own free will – they became an instrument of the Holy See, doing as they were told, meting out justice as the Cardinals saw fit.
It seemed that today they saw fit to send an assassin after Maggie Brown.
Luc had to tread carefully.
Due to his precarious position holding up the Treaty, he could not kill this monk without reason.
Yet, due to his new contract with Maggie Brown, he couldn’t let her die at this soulless bastard’s yellowed fingertips.
Luc raised the gun again, making his position clear. “This one is with me. I don’t care what contract the Church has out on her – she has made a separate contract with me. Under the terms of the Treaty—” he began.
That would be when the dog attacked.
Rabid – that was the only word for it. Though Luc had only ever fought dogs of the Church on a few occasions, it had never been like this.
The creature threw itself forward, and Luc could see the desperation in its eyes – feel it all around it as this pall of darkness settled through the corridor.
Not that the Church would see it as darkness – they would view it as determination.
The dog came toward Luc, slashing one of its hands toward Maggie Brown.
Luc rolled his shoulder, shoved forward, pushed into the dog, and pulled Maggie at the same time, ensuring he always kept her out of the creature’s reach.
It started to hiss, started to snarl and bark – and in between those guttural blasts he heard words. The muttered spell of the Cardinals who were controlling the dog. The creature’s desperation did not come from itself – but from those who were controlling it.
“I repeat again,” Luc said, voice calm despite the fact he was still in a frantic fight, “I have made a separate contract with this woman—”
The dog didn’t heed his words – just attacked.
Luc brought the gun up and fired, expecting to catch the Dog of the Church right in the center of its chest.
He didn’t. The bastard used that moment to transport.
There were few creatures above and below who could transport from one position to another. The requisite magic it took was massive.
He, as a Prince of Hell, had that skill – and yet, he used it sparingly. It took up too much energy.
As for the Dogs of the Church, though they technically had the ability, it too would cost them. And, more importantly, it would cost the people controlling the dog.
That didn’t seem to matter. The Cardinals were so intent on capturing and killing Maggie Brown that they were clearly prepared to do whatever it took.
Before the dog could go for Maggie’s throat, its yellowed, extended claws jerking toward her neck, Luc looped an arm around her middle, never letting go of her wrist and rather pinning it against her own stomach as he pulled her bodily out of the way.
Then he started firing, in every damn direction as he switched his gun mentally to defense mode. Rather than use the bullets to kill – the magic that blasted out of his gun was specifically designed to lay down walls – magical barriers that could be used to stop an opponent from going any further.
Though his wall spells were powerful – and the black wriggling, writhing symbols that constituted them were some of the darkest in the vernacular of Hell, it seemed the Cardinals controlling this dog would not give up so easily.
The dog had a charm bracelet around its wrist. With every movement it made, the charms clanked with the sound of anvils striking one another.
They were crosses – every single one of them. As the dog jerked to the side, spinning before Luc could shoot through its stomach, it grabbed one of the crosses and threw it at Luc.
It sliced through the wall spell and embedded right in Luc’s shoulder.
Not Maggie’s – though that’s where it had been aimed. At the last moment, Luc had ducked forward and had taken the blow for her. He had no choice in the matter – his Ring of Satan forced him to do so. As he had already said, dear Maggie Brown had made a very clever pact with him.
He hissed, baring his teeth as the cross embedded in his shoulder. A single drop of black blood oozed from the impact wound, staining the once perfect fabric of his jacket.
Though Maggie was still pinned against his chest, she jerked her head toward him, her eyes opening wide as they stared at the cross sticking out from his shoulder. There was something very close to concern flickering in her deep, confused hazel pupils.
Yet it was an emotion he did not have the chance to explore any further. The dog was upon them again.
The charm bracelet the dog wore was not a standard weapon. It was an extraordinary one. The kind of weapon the Cardinals would only crack out when Luc’s father himself was let loose on this world.
It came from the banned range of weaponry that was kept beneath the Vatican.
It was extremely effective.
Luc jerked to the side once more as the dog ripped off another cross from the charm bracelet and threw it at Luc.
Luc brought up his gun just at the last moment, using the strong metal to knock the cross off course before it could slice through Maggie’s throat.
Frantic. Frantic was the only way to describe this creature. The collective desperation being pushed through it by the Cardinals that controlled it was something Luc had never experienced, even in his long life.
The Church, it seemed, was willing to do anything and everything to kill this woman.
There was one thing Luc was thankful of. She wasn’t trying to wriggle out of his grip. Do that, distract him at the wrong moment, and she could die.
The single drop of blood that had oozed from the wound in his shoulder continued to trickle down his chest until it splashed onto her shoulder.
His eyes jerked open wide as he expected one thing to happen – her to scream as the blood began to burn through her flesh, more effective than any bullet as it gouged a hole through her until it reached the floor below.
Such was the curse of Satan’s blood – at least when it encountered a human.
But it didn’t happen.
As his blood dashed against Maggie’s shoulder, it did nothing but stain the fabric of her top.
He wasn’t given the opportunity to finish that thought.
He heard a crack from behind him.
“There’s another one,” Maggie screamed.
Sure enough, there was. Another Dog of the Church. Right behind them. Just like his friend, this dog possessed a charm bracelet of crosses.
Dear God. Or should Luc say, dear father who art in Hell?
This shouldn’t be happening.
Something… something wasn’t right. That thought? That thought had been repeating through his mind for several months now. No, who was he kidding? For several years.
Something… just wasn’t right with the higher ups. With the Holy See. With the unit that controlled the exorcists.
Yet, as soon as John thought that, he shook his head, clenched his jaw violently, and wrapped his hands tighter around the steering wheel. That was not a thought he had any right to think.
He was not in a position to question the higher ups. They had granted him leniency, and he needed to respect that. If he lost that respect – even for a second?
He would be extinguished.
As if in reaction to his thoughts, the two symbols burnt against the back of his hands began to itch. He didn’t dare unclench his fingers from around the steering wheel and rub them to chase away the itching sensation.
He continued to chant under his breath as he let his gaze dart toward the modified GPS on his dash.
The chant he was making was specific – and he was sure not to miss a beat. In most enchantments, it wasn’t the specific words you said, but the way you said them that gave them their magic.
The particular chant he was making was directed at tracking down Father Smith’s soul. Though he still couldn’t wrap his head around the possibility that part of the Father had become a wanderer – a ghost.
Ghosts were not nearly as common as human suspicion made them out to be. It took very specific conditions for a dead person’s soul to wander. Usually, a purpose that burned so brightly it could be seen after death.
The situation as he read it – the facts of the case as had been given to him – didn’t make sense. Father Smith would not have had a burning desire bright enough to enable his soul to wander.
John clenched his teeth again, forcing himself to continue to chant, even though it felt like Hell to move each of his stiff lips in and out.
He’d cut his gaze toward the GPS screen once more, realizing the tracking dot shifting over the city was beginning to pulse in and out – a telltale sign that his chant was working.
Spread out on the seat beside him were personal items he’d grabbed from the church. He cast them a dark, wary gaze before he shifted his attention back to the GPS.
If it was up to him, he would’ve burnt these items – Father Smith’s cross, a journal, and a postcard John had managed to find before the other exorcists had swooped in. These items should have enough of a connection to Smith’s soul that if it was still out there – wandering – John would be able to find it.
Sure enough, as the location point on the GPS screen continued to shudder, he realized he was narrowing in on something.
He clenched his jaw once more, and it took him a long time to shift it.
He shouldn’t be thinking this – didn’t have the right to think this – but what if… what if Father Smith hadn’t died in the dark accident the Church was leading everyone to believe in?
It made sense, didn’t it? What if Father Smith had been wronged? What if he had been killed by the Church by mistake?
Surely that would give him the kind of purpose he required to become a wandering ghost?
“Shut up,” he spat to himself. “You have no right to be thinking this, bastard,” he hissed, voice vehement, for a second shaking down to the same pitch it had back then – back before he’d been found by the Church and given another opportunity.
He took a tight, tense breath that couldn’t for a second shift the rigidity locked in his shoulders.
He continued to chant.
The location dot on the GPS screen shivered and shook as if it were a needle on a compass that had been brought too close to magnetized iron.
His eyes widened.
He was close.
… The Church had been right.
Either he was picking up extraneous readings – which was unlikely, considering how skilled he was at chanting – or… Father Smith’s soul had wandered, and it would be up to John to capture it.
He unhooked a hand from the steering wheel, even though it felt like pulling back wire, and he brought it up to his chest. Pushing a hand beneath the buttons of his shirt, he clutched it – the vial he would need to lock Father Brown’s soul in containment until he could take it back to the Cardinals.
And there? What would they do with him there?
John shook his head and told himself that was none of his business. He may not always understand what the Church did – but nor did he have a right to question. They had saved him, and he would serve them until the end.
He was… he was injured. This man she’d only met barely an hour ago was injured.
It… it felt like she’d somehow been injured in his place.
That… that was the only way to describe it.
As soon as that cross had embedded in his chest, this… this shattering sensation had spread through her as if she were a pane of glass that someone had thrown off the highest building.
The fight was frantic. She couldn’t keep up. When the second dog had appeared, it had felt like the world had been pulled out from underneath her.
She was shaking, all over, but she didn’t dare do it – didn’t dare break Luc’s grip around her middle.
A single drop of black blood had oozed from the wound on his chest and splashed against her shoulder.
Just like the permanent impression his finger had left against her lips, she could feel the blood, too. It was different to the heat still spreading over her lips – it was cold. Cold and dark like a corpse.
She didn’t have time to interrogate the situation – didn’t have time for anything as Luc whirled her around on the spot, bodily picking her up once again, pinning her to his chest, shifting her out of the way just before the dog behind her could latch a yellowed fingered hand around her ankle.
They were rabid. Frantic. She’d never seen anything like it. She wasn’t built for situations like these. Her mind just couldn’t keep up. It felt as if… as if that was going to happen to her again. The thing she’d been hiding from since childhood. The whole reason she couldn’t dare allow herself to believe in Heaven, Hell, and worst of all – exorcists.
Sweat slicked her brow, dribbled down her cheeks, and flattened her hair to her face.
She held onto Luc. He was her only hope.
He didn’t like his odds. He was now pinned down from both directions.
Peeling his lips back in a sneer, he darted his gaze between the two Dogs of the Church. “She must be worth a lot to you if you’re willing to go against your pact with Hell,” he snarled. “Because you do know who I am, don’t you?” He clenched his hand, sending a charge of magic into his ring. As he did, it burst with light, burning as brightly as a fog lamp.
Neither of the dogs said a thing, though their eyes were wide and one had to hope that the Cardinals behind them understood the severity of the situation. Luc’s father would not take it lightly if he were killed in the line of duty. Though father had seven sons, Luc was his favorite.
“Why do you want her so much, anyway?” Luc asked, realizing he needed to buy himself some time. Though he had the strength to attack, he was somewhat constrained by his Ring of Satan. The pact sanctified between Maggie and him meant that he could not allow her to be harmed. That was becoming increasingly hard as the dogs of the Church circled her from either side, their charm bracelets glinting.
… Luc didn’t have the presence of mind to calculate what was going on here – why the Holy See would release two forbidden weapons, all to obtain the death of this one insignificant woman.
Nor did he have high hopes that the Cardinals behind the dogs would tell him. Indeed, as the dog right before him brought its lips back and sneered, Luc heard the Cardinals chanting behind it, the pitch of their voices low and powerful enough to make the floor shake. “We know what you are, son of Satan,” he heard the Cardinals spit his name, their voices bridling with so much vehemence, they reminded him of a creature of the dark. “But if you have chosen to protect this woman, that is your own mistake.”
The closest dog snarled, getting ready to leap, but Luc took a defensive step back, gun still raised. “I have not chosen to protect her. She possessed a Ring of Satan, and I was forced to make a pact. This all falls within the terms of the Treaty. If you continue to attack me—” He snarled around his words, making them just as dark – nay, darker than the Cardinals had managed. He truly understood what it was to be sinful. “You will bring down the full wrath of Hell upon your shoulders,” Luc said, and as he did, he let power swell within him. Though it was already night, this library was close to the center of town, and the high windows along one wall let in the light of the street beyond. That no longer mattered. As Luc let his full power build within him, it sucked the light from the room, causing it to swell around him like confused smoke until it sank into his body, eaten away, its warmth giving power to his form.
Now both dogs hissed, their voices becoming wild as he could hear the chanting of the Cardinals beyond, their tones hitting a freakish pitch.
Luc kept darting his gaze from left to right as he tried to keep both the dogs in his field of view at the same time. “I reiterate, I have made a pact with this woman to protect her life. If you want her, you have to go through me,” his voice dropped down low and shook until the floor and ceiling pitched as if the building were being torn apart by an earthquake.
Theoretically, he could start to relax. He’d imparted the severity of this situation to the Cardinals, and he knew what they would choose to do. They wouldn’t dare break the pact. Do that – go against the Treaty that had kept the balance for the past few millennia, and it could send humanity into another dark age. An age of Heaven and Hell, of angels and demons, of holy wars and righteous violence. Though the mere thought should whet the appetite of a son of Satan, it didn’t. He could appreciate that the Treaty benefited both sides. They existed alongside each other, gaining their sinners and saints without tearing humanity asunder.
So he knew what the Cardinals would choose to do – there was only one thing they could dare to do.
Attack him in cold blood, and it would break the terms of the Treaty and everything it stood for.
So he started to relax.
The two dogs made eye contact. Just when he thought they would back away, turn, and leave Maggie to him, they pounced.
He had taken stock of their weaponry, taken stock of their abilities, and he knew their limitations. Or at least, he’d told himself that.
He was wrong. Both dogs possessed a weapon he had not accounted for. In the realms of both Heaven and Hell, there were devices of nearly unquenchable power. Devices that had been saved over the centuries, kept from the times of the holy wars. The greatest weapons that Heaven and Hell could create, all in the name of destruction.
The dogs pulled such a weapon from their robes.
Two daggers. Ostensibly, nothing more than a common weapon a mere human would use. That would be ignoring the exact symbols carved across the metal. It would be ignoring the metal itself. It was not ordinary alloy. It was something created by a ritual that hadn’t been committed since the holy wars. The metal could only be created when the burning blood of a demon was poured down the throat of a saint. The Holy See would not be able to create another of its like, and it would not waste such an armament unless it had to.
His eyes had time to blast open wide. He was a lot of things, but he had no chance of surviving this.
She could feel it inside her. Feel the same sensation she’d been running from her entire life. The same sensation that had dogged her since school, that had all but destroyed her teenage years and that had kept her frightened forevermore.
A force like no other. It was impossible to describe it. It wasn’t heat, it wasn’t pressure, it had no smell, no taste, no nothing. Because that’s what it was. Nothing. It was as if the embodiment of nihilism was forming in her chest and spreading out, spreading out, covering her, pulling her down beneath it.
Luc had been arrogant – up until a second ago. Up until the Dogs of the Church, as he’d called them, had revealed new weapons from beneath their robes. She’d never seen their like, and yet, with just one look, she could tell they were powerful. This dark sense came off them, or if not dark, at least destructive. It gave her the instant impression that if any flesh or bone were to come in contact with those daggers, they would be extinguished.
Luc had time to hiss, then the two Dogs of the Church leaped toward him. The daggers they held began to spin in their hands, the tips moving in and out as if they were centrifuges.
They produced some kind of… field between them, one that spread around Luc and appeared to lock him in place.
She could see as he tried to fight it – and yet she could see even he didn’t have the power.
He took a stuttering breath as light began to build within the field – a light that began to attack him. Tendrils of it looped around and snaked toward him, slashing at his flesh like violent snakes.
Just before the light could pull him apart, her cross did something. It… reacted. In a blast, it sent out a halo, and that very same halo encased him.
It pushed away that violent light, gave Luc long enough to jerk forward, swivel his head from side to side as he stared at the two dogs of the Church, and sneered.
He reached a hand into his jacket. Though once upon a time it had been pristine, the fabric smoothed and pressed as if it had just come out from the dry cleaners, now, it was torn – tattered. Though she’d just met the man and didn’t understand what he was, she could tell that this wasn’t a good sign.
Regardless of his injuries, it didn’t stop him from pulling something from his jacket pocket.
It wasn’t another cross. It was a sword. It physically couldn’t have been in the space allotted for it, but that didn’t matter. With a sneer still curling his lips and revealing his teeth, Luc pulled out the sword with a sound as if it were being yanked from a metal sheath.
It was no ordinary sword. She didn’t need to see the symbols dancing across the black metal to know that. She didn’t need to hear the particular way it cut the air to appreciate it wasn’t from this realm.
She could rely on the feeling that sank hard through her stomach and climbed her back.
This? This was power.
It was a power that Luc did not hesitate to use. “You attacked me, and under the Treaty, I have every right to defend myself.” He thrust forward.
He didn’t push her back – just kept a hand locked on her wrist, and as a consequence, pulled her along with him.
He moved so quickly, her hair was plastered over her face and her T-shirt stuck to her body. He twisted toward the first Dog of the Church, slashing the sword at its neck. At the moment his sword detached the thing’s head, Luc twisted her to the side, her hair fanning across her face. Though she didn’t see the monk’s head being sliced off, she heard it. A crack of bone, an unearthly hiss, and a zap of magic.
The other Dog of the Church screamed, and she heard a muttering voice behind it – as if the monk had swallowed an entire village.
“There’ll be none of that,” Luc said smoothly as he twisted her to the side, pinned her against his chest once more, and sliced the other dog’s head clean off. He whirled her to the side, and again she didn’t see the moment when the thing’s head slammed onto the floor.
She heard a hissing as if a fire had been put out. An acrid, cloying scent filled the air as she felt a cold more penetrating than the depths of space spread through the corridor.
Luc leaned over her, his weakened body collapsing against her shoulder.
It was only for a moment.
A moment where she felt his crinkled jacket against her hips, a moment where she felt his breath tickle along the back of her neck. A moment where – for just a fraction of time – she became aware of his heart beating in his chest.
The moment didn’t last.
He pushed up and straightened, letting go of her wrist for the first time since this ordeal had begun.
He took a smooth step back. He was still holding the sword. He threw it a cursory glance as he opened his jacket and placed the sword back in his pocket. There was the unmistakable sound of a sword against metal as it was returned to its sheath, and yet, essentially, it was just being put back into his pocket.
Luc grabbed both of his lapels and tugged them down tightly. He looked at her. He tilted his head to the side, narrowed his eyes, and spread his lips wide. “Well… I can’t say I was expecting that,” he said smoothly. The way he looked at her was anything but smooth. That calculating glint she’d seen in his eye previously had now turned into a hell of a lot more than a glint. It was burning as brightly as the sun.
She just stood there. What else could she do?
He continued to smooth down his lapel, and every time he patted it, the rumples and rips in the fabric smoothed themselves out, as if his jacket was self-healing.
He sliced his gaze from her toward the Dogs of the Church – or at least what was left of them.
She’d never even seen their heads hitting the ground. Their bodies had turned into swirling masses of yellow smoke. The only things that remained where their rumpled woolen robes.
“That,” Luc brought up a hand and extended a finger, pointing at her chest, “will have its uses.”
She blinked back her surprise. “What?”
“Your exorcist cross.” He took pleasure in saying the word exorcist, though she could tell he wasn’t taking nearly as much fun as he had previously. The fight, despite appearances, had gotten to him.
Sure enough, as he took several steps toward her, he swiveled his head down to the spot where both Dogs of the Church had disappeared.
He reached her. He stopped a step in front of her, and though he technically didn’t press up against her side, that didn’t matter. Being this close to him was—
Without warning, and certainly without invitation, he reached forward, plucked up the cross, and inspected it.
Her breath caught in her chest as her head told her the cross would burn his fingers. That’s what it was meant to do, right? The cross was meant to keep away the Devil – and his sons, presumably.
She caught herself thinking that, and she shook her head. Because she didn’t believe, did she?
Though he’d been inspecting her cross, his gaze darted up and locked on hers. For like a split second. It quickly jerked away, he dropped the cross, he cleared his throat, and he shifted back. She could tell this was not his usual behavior. She could tell he would continue to intimidate her if it weren’t for one fact – he didn’t want to look too deeply into her eyes.
He took another step back, pushed a hand into his pocket, cleared his throat, and latched a hand on his chin. “Though I had an exorcism to perform tonight – I really doubt my target has stuck around. Not considering the full-scale holy war that went on in the library tonight. So no more games. No more prevaricating. Who exactly are you?”
“My name’s… Maggie,” she began.
“I know your name, Miss Brown. Tell me why,” his jaw stiffened as his teeth clenched together, “tell me why the Church was willing to break the Treaty for you.”
She shook her head. “Treaty?”
“The sacred pact that has existed between Heaven and Hell for the past 2000 years. It has prevented humanity from being plunged into any more holy wars. It enables the light and dark to… coexist, as it were.”
“Coexist?” she stuttered. “But how—”
He ticked his head to the side quickly. “Were you just about to ask how Heaven and Hell could possibly coexist? To do that, don’t you have to believe that Heaven and Hell exist in the first place?”
She blinked and swallowed. “Just… answer the question.”
With his hand still in his pocket, he nodded, and there was a regal quality to the move. Just for a second, she caught herself thinking this man could be a prince.
“We both go about our businesses without meddling in the other’s affairs.” The words rolled off his tongue in a practiced way that suggested he’d said this on many occasions.
“But isn’t it the nature of,” she clenched her teeth, “Heaven and Hell that they are opposites? Aren’t you both vying for human souls? Aren’t you destined to fight?”
He looked at her evenly. “… Misunderstandings do arise, and that is why I exist.” He flattened a hand on his chest and half bowed, but he never pulled his eyes off her.
“I am tasked to deal with such misunderstandings. When… men of the dark overstep their boundaries, I act. And when men of the cloth overstep their boundaries,” he darted his gaze toward the spot where both Dogs of the Church had disappeared, “I act.” As he spoke, there was a powerful quality to it. No, powerful didn’t do justice to the import behind his words. It felt like he was channeling God. And if not God, Satan.
For the first time since she’d met him, she began to question her initial assessment – that part of her that seemed to inherently trust him.
The moment didn’t last as a smile spread across his lips. “Is that explanation enough? Do you understand my position now? I am the man who upholds the Treaty. A Treaty which was partially broken tonight,” he growled. “Now I have told you my part, tell me yours. Tell me why the Church,” he drummed a finger against his leg, “was willing to break our mutual agreement,” he kept drumming that finger, “all to kill you.”
She took a hard swallow that lodged in her throat. “I don’t know.”
“You must know something. And if you don’t know, you must have the means to find out. Who gave you that cross and the ring? Your uncle?”
She stiffened. “My uncle. But he’s dead,” she managed, voice dropping to a whisper, “he died a long time ago.”
“I see. Do you have any other association with the Church?”
“No,” she began, but she paused, the memory of Father Smith chasing her out of his church still fresh in her mind.
“Who?” Luc demanded.
“A Father Smith. He was a friend… a friend of my uncle’s.”
“I see. And where is this man?”
She recoiled. Despite the fact a part of her trusted this guy – for some crazy reason – she couldn’t forget he kept claiming to be a Prince of Hell. She could not – would not – lead him to Father Smith.
Her reluctance to answer brought a confused smile to Luc’s lips. “You’re in no position to keep things from me. Not after what happened here tonight.” He inclined his head toward the remnants of the Dogs of the Church once more. “Let me assure you, your eyes don’t deceive you. The church went after you tonight – with everything they had.” His lips moved hard around each word. “If you have any possibility of living through this, you need to tell me everything, now. Who are you, where do you come from, and what exactly have you done to anger the Church?”
“I don’t know—” she began.
“That’s not good enough. I missed out on an exorcism today because of you. Oh, and I was almost killed,” he admitted as he grabbed his lapels and tugged them down as hard as he could. “So I suggest you hurry up and tell me everything you know.”
“That’s just the thing – I have no idea why… why the Church would be after me. I don’t think… I don’t think I’ve committed any sins,” she managed, pushing away her doubt in Heaven just long enough to answer his question.
“You have not committed any sins – or at least, none significant enough to be written in the ledger.”
This was the second time he’d spoken of the ledger.
“We don’t have much time, Maggie Brown—”
“My name’s just Maggie. Just call me Maggie,” she tried.
He shrugged his shoulders. “Very well, Maggie. The removal of the formality regarding your last name will save me a little time, but it will not save your life. To do that, you must tell me everything.”
“I don’t know anything—”
“You must. Trust me when I say that the Church wouldn’t dare use so much force to kill someone of insignificance.”
This man kept asking her to trust him, and for some reason she doubted it was just a slip of the tongue.
She couldn’t tell him what she didn’t know. Despite the fact she should be falling at his feet, a meek ball of fear, she pressed her lips together and tilted her head back, locking her full gaze on his. “I had a troubled life, Luc,” she said, trying out his name, but not getting the pronunciation right. “A troubled childhood… at least.” She brought a hand up and locked it over her throat, patting it in a move that would signal to anyone that she was just holding her true emotion back. No matter how many times she told herself that she’d dealt with the tumultuous emotions of her adolescence, they always had the same effect on her.
Though she didn’t dare face him directly, she could tell that Luc’s eyes narrowed in interest. She didn’t let that stop her. She took a grounding breath and continued, “My father died when I was young, and my mother,” her eyes darted to the side, focusing on nothing as she stared into the middle distance, “wasn’t capable of caring for me.”
She thought he wouldn’t interrupt her tale. She was finally telling him her backstory, not that it could possibly explain what was happening to her.
She was wrong. With an expression that was devoid of even a hint of compassion, Luc nodded her way. “Crazy?”
She darted her gaze to the side. “Something like that. She… also had a troubled adolescence.”
“I will be sure to look into that. But continue. You haven’t yet begun to touch on your significance to the Church. And as I have said many, many times already, Maggie, we don’t have the luxury of time.”
She darted her gaze back down to the spot where the two Dogs of the Church disappeared, and she swallowed. “Is it… is it safe here? Didn’t you say… didn’t you say there was someone you had to exo-exor—” she couldn’t say it. Goddamn herself, she couldn’t even say the word, let alone broach the possibility that exorcisms could be real.
This brought an amused smile to Luc’s lips, though it wasn’t nearly as fulsome as it had been back in her kitchen. It seemed that Luc was having less and less fun with her the more this torturous night continued. No, any hint of amusement in his expression had long ago given way to suspicion and burning curiosity.
“Exorcism,” Luc said without a smile. He was doing it again – staring at her as if he expected the secret to the universe to pop out of her very skull. “I find it curious that you still can’t even say that word – especially since your exorcist cross was the only thing that saved us both back there.”
She looked down at it, slowly, carefully drawing up a hand and locking it over the cross. As her fingers fixed around the tarnished metal, she was disappointed that she didn’t feel anything. Not a zap, not a tingle, nothing. Luc was right – she had seen this exorcist cross save their lives by emitting some kind of halo and protecting them from the dogs.
Luc shook his head. “You don’t have time to become distracted. I see I must keep you on track, Maggie. To answer your original question – though I came here to perform an exorcism tonight, my target has long since disappeared. Scared off by the veritable holy war we had. No problem,” a specific kind of smile spread his lips, “I will track him down later.”
She shook her head. “You… that doesn’t make sense. You’re… you’re meant to be a demon. You… demons can’t perform exorcisms – only the Church can.”
He tilted his head back and looked at her. “Firstly and finally, I am not a common demon. Do me the dignity of respecting my position, Maggie. Secondly, I am unique amongst my kind considering the position I have been given.”
“You… you mean the fact you hold up this Treaty?” she asked, part of her surprised that she’d pushed the words out.
Two sides of her were at war – the side that had forced herself to stop believing in the dark and light for her own sanity, and the side that had just endured this nightmare of a night. Though maybe she should believe in the evidence before her eyes, and conclude that Heaven and Hell existed, she just couldn’t push away the doubt. It was a doubt that had kept her safe for the past five years since her uncle’s death. Without it, she would have turned into her mother years ago.
She shook her head, dislodged the thought, and waited.
Luc always had his attention locked on her, even if his gaze appeared to be elsewhere. “Yes. I have been given permission and resources,” he tapped his jacket pocket, no doubt indicating the plethora of weaponry lined up within, “to deal with those who attempt to break the Treaty – whether they be my own kind or from Heaven. I bring all into line.” He brought a hand forward, planted it on his chest, and bowed. It was a long, slow move that made him once more look like the prince he kept purporting to be. “But before you again demand to know how this is possible, let me confirm that we should be safe here for now. I doubt the Church will continue to throw dogs at us, not considering you appear to have significant defenses of your own.” He nodded at her cross.
She just looked at him. “So… what now?”
“You continue your tale. What dealings have you had with the Church?”
She blinked hard. “Nothing.”
“Your reaction suggests otherwise. Who was your uncle?”
“Like I said… he was a priest.”
“Incorrect – he was clearly an exorcist if he left you that cross and the Ring of Satan,” Luc said as he thumbed his own ring distractedly. “Were any of your other relatives related to the Church?”
She began to shake her head, but he could see through her and just cleared his throat.
She looked down at her hands sharply. “My aunt was a very good woman.”
“In this context, I will assume that by good, you mean pious. She adhered closely to the dictates of the Church, did she? And what side did she come from? Was she the sister of your uncle?”
She nodded her head.
“And your mother? Who was she directly related to?”
She wouldn’t look at him. She stared at the wall as she quietly answered, “My uncle.”
“Interesting,” he commented. “And what of your father? How did he die?”
She shut down. Not like a robot – she didn’t fall to the floor, her eyes closing as her brain switched off. But it was damn close. At the question of how her father died, it felt like something inside her wanted to curl up and die.
Despite the fact Luc was already close, he took a direct step forward until he stopped right in front of her. “How did your father die, Maggie? I have ways to find out—”
“He was killed by my mother, during… one of her episodes,” she said. She actually said it. She had never freely told anyone else about how her father had died. Not only was it a closely guarded secret amongst her family, but… but it crushed her every time she thought of it.
She watched Luc out of her peripheral vision.
For the first time, he didn’t let one of those cruel smiles press across his lips. No, he just watched as he tipped his head back and nodded. “I see. And where is your mother now?”
“She’s institutionalized,” she whispered.
“Saint Bartholomew Hospital.”
This elicited a slight chuckle from Luc. “Now that really is interesting.”
She looked up at him sharply. “Why?”
He didn’t answer. He nodded at her. “I’m going to ask this one more time, do you know why the Church is after you?”
She shook her head.
“No. You don’t, do you? Now, are you leaving anything out?”
She couldn’t look at him.
“Maggie, you made a deal with me – a pact on a Ring of Satan. In order for me to uphold my end of the bargain, I need to know everything about your situation so that I can keep you safe from the Church. For trust me,” he swept a hand toward the two dark marks gouged on the floor – the only remnants of the fight, “the Church are not playing around.”
Again, she didn’t dare look at him. She stared at her hands, paying particular attention to her ring.
“Maggie?” he warned.
“Something changed two weeks ago,” she revealed quietly.
“My aunt died. And I… found something in her house. It was my uncle’s house originally. And she’d left it in the exact state he had before he’d died. I… found something in the closet on the second floor.”
“What?” Luc leaned in, and that smile was back on his face.
She looked up at him. “Exorcisms.”
Luc frowned. “That’s it? I was expecting something more.”
She blinked. It was the kind of flickering blink that was more a twitch and that would reveal to anyone that she was trying to hold something back. “It documented exorcisms on my own family,” she revealed. She had no idea why she was revealing this, to him of all people. She couldn’t hold it back. It wasn’t the piercing look in his eyes, and it wasn’t the mere fact he was supposedly a Prince of Hell. It was the ring and the connection it had forged between them. Though she didn’t want to believe this, that ring seemed to confirm what he kept repeating – that the only way for her to live would be to trust him.
Back in Sunday School, she’d been the freak of the class. While the other kids had begrudgingly taken in the lessons of light and dark, Heaven and Hell, she’d believed them with all her soul. She’d understood the warning inherent in every lesson – that if you allowed yourself to fall into the embrace of Hell, you could never be saved again. No amount of repenting could purify your tortured soul. No, God would abandon you to the dark, and you would justly deserve your wretched demise.
Luc reached out a hand to her, and she stared at it.
“What are you doing?” she stuttered.
“Taking you to start your new life.”
“The deal for protection you made with me is for life. It’s time to begin.”
She stared at his hand and up to his face. Any sane person would walk away, scream, or clutch at their cross, begging God to save them.
Her body was too tired, her mind too confused.
Without thinking, she reached a hand forward and accepted his.
He smiled and pulled her away into the night.
He pulled the car up just as the heavens opened up. No, not the heavens – the clouds. When the Heavens chose to open up, they brought down much more than rain.
A chill wind chased down the street as he pushed open his car door, got out, and stared around him.
He could feel it – the telltale energy that came along with a wandering soul. Few other exorcists would be able to discern it, but few others had his history and the skills that gave him.
He tugged down hard on his rain jacket, surreptitiously running a hand over his shirt as he searched for the vial. It was there, still locked around his neck on a length of holy chain. The chain, though technically made of an ordinary alloy of gold and copper, was extraordinary in every other sense. It was manufactured using the distilled tears of saints mixed with the blood of willing priests. It was powerful, it was rare, and it would become Father Smith’s prison. Or at least a prison for whatever was left of his soul.
Staring at the storm brewing above for several seconds, John pulled his head down, took a breath, and moved forward.
He’d driven out of town to one of the outer suburbs. The houses were older and lacked the uniform design you saw in newer areas. Their age also gave them another feature – history. Either good or bad. And that led to energy. He could feel it as he tugged his head from left to right, following the tell-tale taste of ethema on the wind. Ethema was the energy of spirits – that which was left after the body had died away. It was thick in churches and graveyards, thicker still at murder scenes and the sites of great massacres. The ethema of a soul would react to great wrong doings.
And Father Smith’s ethema? It seemed powerful indeed.
Slipping a hand into his pocket, he pulled out a portable ethema tracking device – one that looked enough like an old-school phone that it would not raise anyone’s suspicions.
Walking forward, the dull sound of his footfall ringing out against the pavement, he felt his hackles rise.
The ethema was growing thicker with every step until it felt like it would rise up from the ground, push down from the sky, and squeeze him to a pulp within it.
He brought up his fingers and rubbed the scar tissue on the back of his hand, using methodical sweeps of his thumb as he felt the old wound.
Above, lightning split the night sky, sending a blast of illumination out over the sleepy suburb. Then, like a light bulb blowing, it cut out. As it did, the electricity on the block went with it. He watched every house grow dark.
He locked his hand harder around the ethema tracker. It was starting to go haywire, picking up so much energy, the screen was flashing a dark green.
He drew it up for half a second, then returned it to his pocket. In its place, he plucked out a gun.
His hands clutched tightly around the smooth metal as he swiveled his head to the left and right, using nothing more than his blind senses to track the ghost.
He could feel it in one of the houses to his left.
Mounting the pavement, moving slowly, body as rigid as steel, he headed along the street, following his gut instinct until it led him to a specific building.
The ghost of Father Smith was inside – John could feel it, and the ethema tracker in his pocket was beeping wildly.
That wasn’t what made him freeze. No. He knew this house.
He jerked his head back and stared at it for a single second, then he threw himself past the fence and into the yard. The first thing he noted was the door hanging wide open, the wind catching it and swinging it back and forth, its hinges groaning like wolves howling.
Then, he felt a blast of energy soar past his shoulder, rumpling the collar of his jacket and sending his short hair playing across his face.
He jerked to the side, neck straining as he swore he heard something caught along the wind – a dark mutter.
The ghost of Father Smith.
He hesitated a single moment before throwing himself in through the door and into the kitchen.
It was trashed. Several chairs were turned over, the table had been shoved to the side, and the door into the rest of the house was dented as if an anvil had been thrown at it.
That wasn’t to mention the floor. There were two massive gouge marks in it, dark energy seething out of them.
He’d run in expecting a ghost, but as his eyes widened at the sight of those marks on the floor, his breath became trapped in his chest.
Demons. Two high-level demons had been killed. Recently – only earlier tonight, if his senses were any judge.
He jerked forward, screaming her name, “Maggie!”
He threw himself past the remnants of the dark energy, reached the door into the rest of the house, yanked it open, and screamed her name once more.
She didn’t answer. Maggie Brown was not in the house.
The ghost of Father Smith was.
There were many other things he should be doing with his time, but he no longer had a choice. Earlier tonight, when he’d saved the mysterious Maggie Brown from the demons in her kitchen, he’d written her off as nothing more than a curiosity.
Now? Oh, now he wouldn’t stop until he delved into the depths of her particular mystery.
She was sitting in the car, silently staring out the window.
His attention was on her, though she wouldn’t be able to tell. With his eyes ostensibly on the road – even though they didn’t need to be – he was free to lock his every other sense on her.
She was quiet and withdrawn, her hand never leaving her exorcist cross.
It had considerable power. Though he longed to get the opportunity to take it off her and give it a good check, he would have to stow that desire – he had a feeling that cross was the only thing keeping her safe.
Not for the first time, he let his gaze cut toward her Ring of Satan. He rued the fact she had one, for, without it, this woman wouldn’t be a mystery to him – she’d be another cross on his balance sheet of exorcisms.
But she’d possessed the ring, and that, that was perhaps the greatest mystery of all. His father had only ever crafted fourteen of those rings – for good reason. Any human, whatever their spiritual ilk, could use one of those rings to make a pact with Hell. Though Satan was usually free with the contracts he crafted with humans, the terms were always dictated by him – some useless worldly pleasure in exchange for said human’s soul.
With a ring of Satan, the wearer could dictate terms. He was quietly thankful that Maggie had only asked for his protection. With that ring, she could have asked for much, much more.
Then again, with the Dogs of the Church after her, he may come to rue that statement. The Church, it seemed, were willing to break every rule to get their hands on her.
“It’s coming up on the left.” She pointed toward a house on the side of the street. It was up a short dirt incline, nestled behind an unruly garden.
… It also had a unique feel. He couldn’t put his finger on it. It was neither dark nor light. It was something curiously in between.
He didn’t say another word to Maggie as he pulled the car up the incline and stopped outside of the house. Set back on a hill, it was old, had two stories with a small attic on top, and had unkempt gardens trailing around the sides.
Maggie appeared to withdraw further into herself as she now clutched the cross as tightly as her weak human hands could.
“I would offer for you to stay in the car, but you can’t.” He nodded toward the house.
She jerked her gaze toward him, and though a part of him wanted to make eye contact – wanted to stare into her eyes even for a split second – the rest of him knew better. With Maggie’s unique ability to stare unchecked into one’s soul, he couldn’t afford to make lengthy eye contact.
He turned and opened his door. “Come on, Maggie.”
Reluctantly, she pulled herself from the passenger seat, opened the door, and walked out.
The weather had turned, and there were thick storm clouds marching through the sky. The wind caught her hair and whipped it over her shoulders in every direction. She just clutched her cross tighter, her shoulders drawing high and her head drooping down low.
He kept his attention on her as he walked around the side of the car and headed for the house.
“I don’t have a key on me,” she pointed out in a quiet voice as they walked down the loose stone path toward the front door.
“I don’t use keys,” he noted as he reached the door, pushed out a hand, and locked a single finger on it.
The door remained closed.
He could feel her eyes on him. “It’s locked,” she pointed out.
Yes, but it wasn’t locked with an ordinary human lock. No. There were sophisticated magical locks all the way through the door – a fact he only appreciated now as he flattened his palm against the wood.
“Hmm,” he muttered, trying to calculate how much magic it would cost him to force his way through the door.
Though on any other night he wouldn’t have cared, and he would have used his magic as he saw fit, this wasn’t an ordinary night, was it?
Tonight had been a particularly extraordinary one, and though he’d told Maggie that the Church wouldn’t dare send any more forces after them, the fact was, they could.
If they did, he would need his strength.
So he needed another way.
He turned his head toward Maggie, narrowing his eyes at her cross. “Maggie – open the door,” he instructed her abruptly.
She blinked at him, obviously confused. “I told you – I don’t have a key.”
“Indeed, you do not. But I suspect you don’t need one. Now open the door.”
She looked at him sideways but didn’t move.
He sighed and reached for her, but before he could pluck up her hand and flatten it against the door, she jerked away. With a tight breath, never removing her hand from her cross, she reached out and touched the door.
Sure enough, he heard the telltale click of magical locks unlocking.
“Ah,” he let out a satisfied sigh. “I was right. Now, Maggie, do me a favor – walk first into the house.”
She looked at him from over her shoulder, her eyes wide. Fortunately, she didn’t argue. With another tight breath, she turned around, pushed the door further open, and walked tentatively over the threshold.
Immediately, he felt more of that confusing energy. It was all around, impregnated within every brick and piece of furniture. Even the drapes held the energy.
This was undoubtedly the home of an exorcist.
A powerful one.
As Maggie strode ahead, he let his gaze lock on the back of her neck, and he began to calculate what she could be worth to him.
For now, whether he liked it or not, they were stuck together for life. Or, at least for her life.
This house… it felt wrong. It had felt wrong since her aunt’s death. But now it felt worse.
Every step brought with it such uncomfortable memories, she wanted to turn around and run out.
She’d hated coming here long before the incident two weeks ago. But now? There was no doubting it – the energy in the house had changed. Don’t ask her how, but it felt… cloying, as if it were trying to crush her. Or, if not crush her, push her out.
She cast a nervous, wary glance toward Luc once more.
He seemed to have one hand perpetually pushed into his pocket, his stance easy and casual. But it was an act, wasn’t it? His gaze – and, more importantly, the quality that sat behind it – had changed since the incident in the library.
… The incident in the library had rattled him. It had almost killed him, too.
She still had a hand locked on her cross. It alone felt like the realest thing in her world. Every belief, every other experience, every other goddamn person – they all seemed fake. All seemed to be nothing more than apparitions of her twisted mind.
Because yes, she’d thought that. She’d been thinking that since the kitchen – since this apparent Prince of Hell had saved her.
What if… what if this was all in her head? What if this was nothing more than her mind finally snapping?
It was in her family, wasn’t it? Wasn’t this how her mother had gone?
With her free hand, she kept pumping it in and out, forming a tight fist, letting her nails dig hard into her flesh until she pulled her fingers away. Though she never relaxed them. Couldn’t.
“This house doesn’t feel right,” she muttered under her breath, words short and breathy.
“You can sense that, can you?” Luc commented quietly.
He was keeping a step behind her and to her side. If she swiveled her eyes to the left, she could just make out his wary expression.
“I would ask you what class of exorcist your uncle was, but you won’t answer the question, will you? You’ll pretend not to know.”
“I don’t know,” she commented, momentarily losing control of her voice as her tone wavered on the word know.
Jesus Christ, that word had the power to undo her. It was like a thread-unpicker that was slowly and methodically cutting away every single belief that made up her personality.
The only goddamn thing she could clutch onto was this cross. It was a surprise it hadn’t cut her yet – the old, tarnished corners of the beaten metal were hardly smooth. Considering how locked her palm had become around it, the skin should have been sliced through.
But it wasn’t. Something… something in her mind was whispering to her that the cross wouldn’t dare cut her. It was the only thing that could save her now.
She quickly jerked her head to the side, wincing as she blinked hard.
Chase the thoughts away, she told herself firmly – using the voice the psychologists had taught her. After the… incidents of her childhood and after what had happened to her mother, her aunt had paid for the best psychiatrists. Maggie had followed the advice. It was the only thing that had saved her, allowed her to regain a scrap of normalcy.
Normalcy which had died two weeks ago.
She could feel Luc’s gaze on the back of her neck. She wasn’t making it up. As he stared at her, she honestly swore her world narrowed down and the chaos driving through her mind calmed, if only for an instant.
It hadn’t sunk in that he was a Prince of Hell – because she couldn’t allow it to sink in. In her mind, this was… either a hallucination, or a mistake. It wasn’t magic; it wasn’t demons and angels. It was something that could ultimately be explained by science. Her entire personality and worldview were predicated on the assumption that Heaven and Hell couldn’t exist. Start believing in them? And she’d crumble like her mother.
She shook her head again, wincing so hard, she had to pry her eyes open lest she fall over the coffee table to her side.
“You’re a weird one, aren’t you?” Luc commented to himself from behind her.
She didn’t bother to stop and make eye contact. Not that he would make eye contact – despite his bluster, he seemed scared to look into her gaze.
… Why? Though her uncle had once told her that the eyes were the most powerful tool a human possessed, and they could literally stare into another person’s soul, she didn’t believe him.
Such things weren’t possible.
As they walked through the house, Luc pulled his hand from his pocket and locked it behind his back as he strode along behind her like a thoughtful general. Occasionally he would reach for objects, almost touch them, then think better of it before he locked his hands behind his back once more. “Take me to this box.” His voice bottomed out low.
“It’s just up here,” she said, though she could barely make out her own voice. The tension was climbing through her again, despite the fact she was using every psychological trick she’d ever been taught to calm herself, to center herself, to stop herself from believing the man behind her was a Prince of Hell and she was about to take him to a book her uncle had kept. A book of every exorcism he’d ever committed on their family.
Just thinking of it made her hand twitch, and she now clutched the cross so tightly she felt something through it. A… trickle of magic. No, not magic – just energy, as if it had momentarily picked up a charge of electricity.
Though Luc had been keeping a step behind her until now, he reached out a hand, somehow closing the distance between them, and he latched it on her shoulder. “I don’t suggest you use the cross’ power here. It might draw the wrong kind of attention,” he commented.
She jerked her head toward him, messy hair catching on the collar of her top. “What are you talking about?”
He did it again – looked at her as if he were calculating her every move, as if he were trying to figure out if she was innocent or just a very, very good actor.
She held his gaze. Well, as long as he let her hold it before he jerked his eyes to the left. “I’m going to assume for your sake that you don’t understand what that cross is, how it works, and how to activate its power. But trust me – if you continue to clutch onto it with such desperation, you will call forth its protection. And if you want to survive tonight,” he said, teeth clenched, “I suggest you do not call the Dogs of the Church toward you again.”
Her eyes pulsed open wide. “I thought you said they wouldn’t come—” she began.
His expression stiffened. He hesitated as if he were going to tell her something, but he shrugged easily. “I lied. You’ll find I do that a lot – I am a Prince of Hell.”
She stood there, frozen on the first step that would lead up to the second level. It was covered in old, worn carpet, but despite its age, it was clean. Like everything else in this house. Though her aunt had never dared replace anything – she’d kept everything pristine. Maggie had heard from a family friend at the wake that Aunt Camille had polished every single cross in the house daily – morning and evening, all while reciting the liturgy.
A shiver raced up hard down Maggie’s spine at that.
Luc still had a hand on her shoulder, still locked her in place. Though the weight of his hand wasn’t considerable, she knew that in a single instant that could change. Luc had unchecked and immeasurable power. He was a man who could produce a glowing sword from his chest pocket, a man who could force a car to transport right in front of him. A man – if he were to be believed – who held her life in his hands.
… She felt it again. Her sanity slipping. Her world threatening to crumble under the weight of this nightmare.
So she clutched the cross tighter.
Luc snarled lightly. “I’ve already warned you – let the cross go. Don’t call to its power.”
“You are. Whatever you’re running from – whatever thoughts torture you—”
“I’m not tortured by my thoughts,” she lied.
He snorted. “Even if I weren’t a Prince of Hell and didn’t have access to extended senses you humans couldn’t even imagine, I would be able to tell you are tortured.” He enunciated the t of tortured until it echoed through the house. “And though, in an ordinary human, I wouldn’t care, in you,” he nodded toward the ring, “I’m afraid I must. Trust me when I say that I don’t want to end this night with more Dogs of the Church.”
“You keep asking me to trust you,” she commented, voice quick as she tried to change the topic.
He arched an eyebrow. “I suppose I do. A slip of the tongue.” Again he enunciated the t in tongue, but this time lower, and she saw his tongue flick out from his lips as he did.
Before she could protest that her thoughts weren’t torturing her once more, he kept that hand locked on her shoulder, turned her around, and pointed up the steps. “Time – we don’t have it.”
Her gaze jerked back toward him as she reluctantly continued to walk up the stairs. “You promised the dogs of… the dogs wouldn’t come after me again,” she commented once more, returning to her original point.
“As I said, I lied.” He was steadfastly not looking her way as he took each creaking stair, one after another.
“But… isn’t… isn’t there anywhere we can go?” she asked, part of her not believing she could push the question out. To ask such a question, didn’t it require that she believed in what he was saying?
Somehow… she swore he was connected to her mind. That, or he was particularly good at reading people, as he’d already claimed. At that thought, his gaze ticked toward her, if only for half a second. “How much more will it take for you to believe in this new world, Maggie?” he asked pointedly. “Would you like me to take you to meet my father?” he suggested with a particularly wry smile.
Her cheeks paled.
He chuckled. “But to answer your question, yes, there are places I can take you that are safe. When we return home,” he said casually, as if they’d been living with each other for most of their lives, “you will not need to worry. But,” he said, his smile all but cracking as he drummed a hand on his thigh, “you will not be able to stay there. The particular connection you made between our Rings of Satan will mean you must always remain close by my side.”
Her cheeks paled as, all of a sudden, she took in what he was saying.
For a second, all her doubts washed away, and she comprehended what that could mean. That – for the rest of her damn life – she would have to stay close to this man.
Her cheeks lost all muscular control, and her jaw opened with a click.
This brought the first genuine laugh he’d made that wasn’t a mere act of intimidation. “You are finally appreciating your new situation, aren’t you? Well, you can appreciate it and walk at the same time,” he commented as he shoved her hard in the shoulder.
They reached the top of the stairs, and she faced the dark hallway.
Despite the fact there was a storm raging outside, there were intermittent flashes of lightning. They kept sending bursts of illumination through the windows to her left, casting erratic shadows through the hallway, but none more so than the crosses placed at even intervals over the walls.
She watched Luc’s luminescent gaze dart toward each of them in turn. “A particularly well-defended house your uncle had here,” he commented.
She didn’t reply. Her mind was too stuck on the prospect that her life would never be the same again. Though her life had never been particularly great – not considering… her adolescence – this… she… she couldn’t take it in.
Luc’s gaze flicked from the crosses then back to her.
He’d already dropped the hand from her shoulder, but again he walked forward and clasped it on her arm, this time locking it around her wrist, his Ring of Satan close to hers.
Just before she thought the threads of her mind would unravel, it felt as if someone reached in and locked their grasp around her mind. Though that didn’t make any sense – though it wasn’t possible – it was the only way to describe it. It felt like, with nothing more than the simple touch of his hand along her wrist, he was holding her sanity in check.
“This is going to be a lot harder than I initially thought it would be,” he commented to himself, bringing up his free hand, locking it on his chin, and brushing at his beard.
He was still in the same disguise he’d used to walk into the library, but again, it didn’t matter to her – because she could see him underneath.
His… essential form, if you will. The force behind Luc, Prince of the Kingdom of Hell.
She shook her head and swallowed.
“You either have a trait toward insanity,” Luc commented, as he shot her another rare look before he darted his eyes quickly to the left on the premise of checking the crosses, “or somebody has willfully unraveled your sanity. A family curse, perhaps?” he mused. “Or perhaps something a little darker.” He cut his gaze off her and down the corridor. “Now, take me to this book that purports to show the exorcisms your uncle committed on your family.” His voice dropped all the way low, his tone becoming unreadable.
She couldn’t move, but then she had to – not because he shoved her in the shoulder, but because the connection between their rings sent this compelling force pushing through her muscles. It wasn’t manipulative; it was much softer than that, much gentler. Like a guiding hand of destiny pushing her toward a better path.
Long ago, she’d stopped repeating to herself that this couldn’t be happening – that nothing like this was possible. The thoughts couldn’t penetrate her skull as he kept his hand locked over her wrist. For the first time in two weeks, she felt… centered.
Which was crazy. This was crazy – but again, that thought… it just couldn’t undermine her.
She took him into the room, sucked in a deep breath, and pointed toward the closet.
She hadn’t turned the lights on in the room, and when she’d reached toward them to try, Luc had stopped her.
As a consequence, the room was dark. Yet there were shadows playing through it. Long, dancing, the kind of shadows that felt like they held more than you could comprehend.
She reached a hand forward and pointed at the closet.
Luc released her wrist, though the move appeared to be reluctant, for he paused halfway through opening his fingers, his thumb brushing against her wrist. It sent an immediate charge of energy snaking up her arm, powering down her side, and sinking into her gut.
It wasn’t magic so much as—
She didn’t have time to finish that thought.
Luc walked forward. As he did, he brought a hand up and flattened it on his lapel, opening his jacket, his fingers hovering close by his inside jacket pocket.
She doubted he was reaching for a handkerchief or a pen – no, he was getting ready to pull a weapon if he had to.
Now Luc had released her, the threads of her sanity felt like they were unraveling again.
She brought up a hand, intending to clutch her cross.
Luc didn’t turn to her. He let out a specific growl. “I suggest you endure it – just for now. Let me find out what’s in this closet, then we’ll leave.”
… His words calmed her, even if they had no right to calm her. There was something about his low and steady voice that allowed her to believe that – despite appearances – her world wasn’t falling apart.
Luc returned his full attention to the closet. With one hand hovering over his pocket, he let his tongue whip across his teeth. “Perhaps you should do this,” he commented. “Your uncle has already proven himself to be competent when it comes to setting traps.”
Though all she wanted to do was stand there, she couldn’t. The warmth from her ring was compelling her, and, before she knew what she was doing, she took several steps toward him, reaching his side. She could feel his attention on her, even if, technically, his eyes were locked on the cupboard.
With a tight breath, she reached a hand forward, locked it on the handle of the closet door, and pulled it open.
There was the box. The lid was securely closed, but that didn’t matter. It felt as if she could see inside. She felt as if that old, black, leather-bound book with the imprinted gold cross on the cover was staring at her. She felt as if it had been staring at her her whole life.
Luc’s attention on her intensified, even if his eyes still weren’t locked on hers. “Open the box, draw out the book, and,” he hesitated, fingers darting over his inside pocket once more until he withdrew something. It was a section of cloth – linen, if her eyes could be trusted in the half dark. It also had bloodstains on it.
Her stomach kicked as a wave of revulsion sailed through her. “What is that?”
“The shroud of a saint. A dead saint,” he pointed out needlessly.
A surge of fear began to shoot through her, but before it could undo the already frayed threads of her sanity, he nodded toward the door. “I assure you, I didn’t kill the saint. He was very much dead when I stole this. Just as you will be if we can’t solve this mystery. Now find me that journal.”
Though she hated his tone – though she hated everything about this man – some part of her had to trust him. Because, despite the fact the situation made no sense and seemed specifically engineered to turn her insane, she still shoved forward. She still got down on one knee, hesitated, then carefully opened the box. As she did, she felt a repeat of what she had felt two weeks ago. This sense of… something building within her. This powerful sense, like she was a train picking up speed, ready to pull itself off its tracks – ready to do untold damage. Damage no one would be able to stop.
She half closed her eyes, clenched her teeth, and finally did it – reached a hand in and grasped the book. As soon as her fingers alighted over the old leather, her Ring of Satan reacted, as did her cross. Though she no longer had a hand locked on the cross, it was pressed against the bare skin of her neck, and it sent a charge of energy sinking through her sternum.
Luc locked his full attention on her, and her cross began to glow.
He growled. “Careful. Hand the book over.”
Feeling like she was holding a loaded gun, she swiveled, reached over, and handed him the book.
“Don’t let it touch my skin,” he snarled as he yanked the cloth further over his hands.
Clenching her teeth, controlling her hands, she placed the book in the shroud.
Instantly, movements too quick to track, he wrapped the shroud around the book, tucking it up tightly, tying the ends of the shroud until there was no leather visible.
… And the feeling went away.
The feeling that she was that train that would run off its tracks and kill everyone – it just… disappeared as if someone had thrown water on a fire.
She blinked and rose.
Luc stared at the book through the shroud, brought a hand up, tapped his chin, shrugged, then placed the book carefully in his jacket pocket. He crossed his arms, turned to her, and once more let his gaze tick up and down her body.
… There was a different quality to it now. A truly searching one. “This is no ordinary exorcism book. And you,” his gaze ticked up and locked on hers for longer than it had before, “are no ordinary girl. Now come with me, Maggie Brown. It’s time to start your new life.”
She had no choice. She followed.
She did not get far.
The ghost of Father Smith
Nothing here. Nothing to keep it locked in the temporal realm.
The ghost of Father Smith was running out of time. Time was now the only thing it had. As every second ticked by, it robbed the ghost of its purpose. Its purpose was the only thing that kept it alive, kept it tied to this realm. Without it, the ghost of Father Smith would escape into the afterlife.
It couldn’t. Couldn’t until it confirmed one thing.
It had gone to her house, gone to see the evidence of her destruction. But evidence it could not find.
Maggie Brown was alive.
Now the ghost could taste it – her unusual, unique presence. It followed it, flitting through the city streets, pushing through cars, through people, through cats, through trees, through dogs, through all life. As it did, it brought with it the characteristic cold of the dead passing through the living.
Moss along the wall it climbed died at its touch. The leaves of a young, weak tree shriveled at its approach. People in full health succumbed to sickness.
It didn’t matter.
The purpose of the ghost was too strong.
It soared high through the storm, the electrical discharge incapable of pulling apart its form. The only thing capable of destroying the remnants of Father Smith’s soul now were two things – time, and an exorcist.
They would have to be a very well-trained exorcist, an exorcist with the power of old – and few of those existed anymore.
So it soared, it traveled, and finally, finally it found.
A remnant of the woman who would change everything.
She’d returned to her uncle’s house.
A wise choice.
The soul approached the property, pushed on by the storm and the last of its desire.
Shit, it’d left. As soon as John had pushed through the house, he’d felt it escaping, pushing out through a broken back window, soaring high into the storm above.
This was the worst night imaginable to track a ghost – with the electrical discharge of lightning and the plain power of the heavens, it was hard to keep a lock on the ghost’s readings.
John swore again as he pushed through the house, pausing to stare at the two marks on the kitchen floor before he threw himself through the front door. He reached his car, wrenched the door open, jumped inside, shoved the keys in the ignition, and pulled out from the curb as fast as he could.
He was terrified that he would lose the ghost, but then he realized he could follow it. One by one, lights throughout the city were losing their power – turning out like candles that had been crushed underfoot.
His phone rang. He didn’t bother to answer it. It would be the rest of his team ringing to question what the hell was happening, to warn him that something dark was happening in the city tonight. He didn’t need such a warning – he was tracking it before his very eyes.
His mind… his mind couldn’t focus.
That had been Maggie’s house – Maggie’s kitchen. Though he hadn’t found any evidence of her body, he’d seen her blood on the kitchen floor.
Maggie… had been his first exorcism.
Because Maggie Brown had almost killed him.
Her uncle had saved John in more ways than one. Without him, John would’ve turned toward the dark long ago. Because of Ray, John had kept a firm watch on his niece ever since.
She, like her mother… had a predisposition to be haunted, to be possessed. But since the death of Father Ray, Maggie had been largely fine. Father Ray had put in place strong enough enchantments to protect her.
Now… now those enchantments must’ve broken. Somewhere out there was Maggie.
Possessed by the dark, ready to kill.
Her family… was unique. Her mother especially. A different kind of creature as Father Ray had pointed out. One that hadn’t been seen in millennia.
Exactly what kind of creature? John didn’t know. If Father Ray had ever known, he hadn’t divulged that secret.
John owed Father Ray, just as he owed Maggie.
Yet… he had competing priorities. He had been given a direct order from his Masters to go after the ghost of Father Smith. If he contravened that order? His life would be as good as dead.
Still, he felt himself being pulled. Father Ray had saved him, and John couldn’t abandon Maggie. Yet, at the same time, John couldn’t call the rest of his team and ask them to track her. Do that? Do that, and they could die. Worse, the Church could become heavy-handed and kill her.
He shook his head, jerking his gaze up and locking it on the storm through his windscreen as he followed it.
It didn’t take long to realize where it was heading. Nor did it take long for the blood to drain out of his cheeks.
Though there were any number of houses in this suburb, there was one that mattered more than every other.
Father Ray’s old house. John remembered it well. It had been there that Father Ray had shown John how to exorcise.
John’s phone rang again. This time he knew he couldn’t ignore it. He pushed a hand into his pocket, pulled it out, answered, and pressed it against his ear, never pulling his attention from the storm above. He had the requisite skills as an exorcist to be able to drive without the use of his vision – extending his senses along the road before him, letting them direct the car as he locked the rest of his attention on the hiss of breath he heard over the receiver. “Have you found the father’s soul yet?” he heard several Cardinals demand at once, their voices meshing together somehow.
They could do that. The Cardinals had the unique ability to intermingle their power, creating something more than the sum of their parts. And right now, the sum of their parts was angry, desperate. John could hear it in their darkened tones.
“No. I found him,” he qualified, “but he escaped. I’m tracking him now.”
“Catch him,” the Cardinals said, now hissing so loudly, the phone vibrated by his ear.
He didn’t jerk it away, just clenched his teeth. “What exactly—” he began, but he stopped himself just in time.
He didn’t have the right to question them.
A fact they well knew as they hissed, their displeasure obvious. “Just find him. Capture his soul and return it to us. Ask no questions,” they demanded.
“I understand,” he said, voice subdued.
“Good. Report when you have the soul,” they demanded. Then the call cut out.
Slowly, he turned off the phone and returned it to his pocket, his gaze now unsteady as he stared at the boiling clouds above.
… That doubt… that same doubt that had been assailing him since he’d been given this mission returned. It was stronger than ever. It threatened to undermine his certainty in his path. The same certainty that had made him trust Uncle Ray in the beginning. The same certainty that had pulled him off the path of dark he’d been on since adolescence.
He pushed the questions away. He had no option but to. Allow them to undermine him, and he would fall.
So he drove. Headed straight to Father Ray’s house.
This situation had twisted into something he could no longer recognize.
All those hours ago, when he’d exorcised Henry Blake, he’d assumed tonight would end with nothing more than an ordinary exorcism of an apparently innocent woman.
Now? He felt himself being pulled further into a deep hole. One he couldn’t fathom.
He had, suffice to say, lived a long life. He couldn’t technically die. With emphasis on the technically. Age wouldn’t kill him, nor would sickness – but there were certainly weapons out there that could. And tonight, in the library, he had almost passed away. He had survived the holy wars of millennia gone by, and yet tonight, the Church had almost killed him. Despite his unique position – despite the rights he had as the being who upheld the Treaty – they had risked everything.
That – that did not make sense.
No, none of this made sense, he pointed out to himself as he cut his gaze toward Maggie once more.
She was walking by his side quietly as they pushed through her house, headed toward the front door. Though part of him wanted to stay and investigate the rest of this curious abode, another – far more powerful part of him – realized it was high time to leave, head home, and return to safety.
Plus, he would have to report to his father and his brothers. They would be intrigued about what had happened tonight.
Yet, as he thought that, he brought up a hand and drummed it against his thigh.
… Should he tell them? While he should certainly divulge that the Church almost killed him tonight, he had no requirement to inform his family of the particular mysteries of Maggie Brown. Though they would figure out sooner rather than later that he’d made a pact with her through her Ring of Satan, they did not need to know the rest.
“What happens now?” Maggie asked in a soft tone as they approached the front door. “I really… do I really have to follow you home?”
He snorted. “As I have told you many times, it will now be your home too.”
She shook her head. “I can’t… I can’t leave my life. This….”
He could see it again – the threads of her sanity starting to unravel.
Though you could tell from first glance that Maggie Brown didn’t have a strong, rational mind, he didn’t believe she was insane, either. He could peer into her mind – or as far as her piercing gaze would allow him – and he didn’t sense an underlying insanity there.
Which meant something else, didn’t it?
Something had been haunting this woman since childhood – somebody with a specific desire to undermine her.
His mind ticked through the possibilities. A family curse? Unlikely. It would have been on her ledger. A genetic trait? Again – impossible. He would’ve sensed it.
He longed to reach a hand into his pocket, pluck out her uncle’s exorcism journal, and read it. If she was to be believed, her uncle had performed exorcisms on her family. Not one, mind you – but multiple. Though it sounded as if her mother had lost her mind and killed her father – and that could’ve been at the hands of a possession – very few people are possessed more than once; very few minds can allow it.
They reached the front door. That would be when he felt it. Just outside, pushing through the storm, charging toward them with every strike of lightning.
He pushed forward, locked a hand on her arm, and held her in place.
She jerked her head toward him, her hair fanning around her face as her eyes pulsed wide. “What is it?”
“A ghost. What a busy night tonight has become,” he commented wryly, though if you’d known him, you would have been able to tell it was an act. “And it’s headed this way.”
“The… the ghost?” she said, voice wavering. For a second – for a second it seemed as if she believed him. It seemed as if the barrier she kept up in front of her mind for anything that had to do with Heaven and Hell fell.
The second didn’t last, and she shook her head and clenched her jaw. “Ghosts aren’t real,” she began.
He snorted. He kept his eyes on her, watching as a specific kind of tension locked her jaw and tightened her cheeks.
“Trust me,” he began, but then paused as he remembered she’d already pointed out he was saying that a lot. He cleared his throat. “Ghosts are real. And there’s one right outside the front door,” he commented as he reached a hand into his pocket. Initially, he loosened his grip on her wrist, intending to drop it, but he couldn’t. The reason he couldn’t was his Ring of Satan pulsed with a specific kind of energy.
Even as a son of Satan himself, he didn’t understand the magic behind these rings. They were old. Far older than he.
Regardless of whether he understood how the technology of the ring worked, it was clear it was telling him not to let her go.
So he kept his hand clamped around her wrist as he drew a tight breath through his clenched teeth. “Though I have not been requested to exorcise this ghost, considering it is between us and the car,” he pushed a hand through his jacket and pulled a cross from his pocket, “I suppose this will have to be a freebie.”
Maggie opened her mouth again, and he could tell from the particular look in her eyes that she was going to fight him – fight him to the death as she kept repeating that ghosts and demons and gods and devils couldn’t exist.
She stopped. Her eyes pulsed wide in unmistakable fright, and she jerked her head to the side.
He hadn’t heard anything, but that didn’t matter. A second later, he did.
A cracking sound.
More dogs. “Shit,” he spat as he pushed into her, shoving her out of the way of the door.
This… this shouldn’t be possible. He knew enough about the Treaty, knew enough about the Church to know that the incident in the library should not be repeated. There was too much at stake.
That did not change the fact that as he licked his tongue across his lips, he tasted the unmistakable presence of dogs.
Readying for another fight.
She didn’t want to pull away anymore. Jesus, it felt like she would never want to pull away from him again. Every time his fingers loosened around her wrist, it felt like she would curl in on herself and die.
She wanted to tell herself she’d never felt anything like this before, but that was wrong, wasn’t it?
These chaotic feelings reminded her of what had happened to her as an adolescent. When her mind had… been torn apart by visions of devils and angels.
… They’d said… they’d said that her mother had been possessed when she’d killed Maggie’s father. That’s what Uncle Ray had said – that’s what her mother had said before she’d been carted away, before falling into a catatonic state.
A spirit had pushed into her, controlled her body, plucked up the knife, and stabbed him 50 times.
Maggie didn’t believe that. Her mother had been insane. An insanity Maggie had a predisposition toward. If she wanted to keep her fragile mental state, she had to keep a hold on reality.
But reality? It’d started crumbling tonight.
It was nothing more than shattered beliefs like a broken mirror at her feet.
She started to shake. That crack – she’d heard it. A second before Luc had reacted. It had been there, right at the corners of her mind. As if somebody had smashed a glass door into her very brain.
She brought up a jerking hand and clamped it over her sweaty brow.
Though Luc had all of his attention locked on the door, he shifted his gaze toward her, and he made enduring eye contact again, obviously no longer perturbed by the fact she could see into his very soul.
“Somebody’s trying to unravel your mind,” he commented, his eyes drawing wide as if he was staring at something she couldn’t see.
“Maggie Brown, clutch hold of your cross and don’t let it go. Don’t leave this house, either.” He let go of her wrist.
She reached for him. Actually reached for him. The Prince of Hell – a man who would’ve killed her had she not made a contract with him. She reached for him as if he were the only thing she cared about anymore.
That didn’t matter. He was out of the door and had closed it before she could pull him back.
She stood there. Cold, filled with dread, incapable of moving as the shadows loomed toward her.
Her senses were peeled, and she continued to hear the cracking. Like a thousand panes of glass, all shattering at once, coming from every direction in her mind as she fell down to her knees, clutched hold of her temples, and screamed.
She’d felt this before. Back when she’d been a teenager. Back when she’d almost murdered a boy.
She was feeling it again.
Though Luc had told her to clutch hold of her cross, she locked her hands on her temples harder and harder until her nails started to snag and cut the skin.
Something was pushing its way in.
The ghost of Father Smith
Close now. Only a few meters. Right through that doorway. Maggie Brown.
The ghost of Father Smith had to reach her. Had to warn her before it was too late.
There was only one path forward for Maggie Brown’s soul now. If she didn’t take it – if she succumbed to the various forces aligning against her – all would fall.
All would fall.
The power of Father Smith’s purpose burnt brightly, and it brought him the time he needed, the power too.
More and more lightning continued to discharge through the storm as the weather reacted to his presence. The clouds above Father Ray’s house began to boil, began to twist around as if they were forming a hurricane.
It gave the remnants of Father Smith’s soul all the energy it needed as it rushed toward the house.
But it could not breach the walls.
Suddenly, a shot was fired from nowhere, but it was not a bullet from an ordinary gun. As the bullet pierced and sailed through the clouds, it pushed them back like hands throwing open curtains.
Though the remnants of Father Smith’s soul did not possess a mouth – for he no longer had a body – they screamed. Screamed with the eternal voice of man. It was a scream that couldn’t be heard by ordinary ears, but one that echoed through the afterlife.
No. The ghost of Father Smith could not give up now. Not when it was so close.
Another bullet slammed through the clouds, fraying the strings that kept Father Smith’s soul together.
A chuckle rang out. “Ghost,” someone said in a low, gravelly voice that could be heard even above the thundering storm, “I have no argument with you. But I can’t let you into that house, and I can’t let you leave. Now, where are those dogs? I heard them, but… now they seem to have disappeared.”
The voice was dark. Though Father Smith’s soul no longer retained its intelligence, part of him recognized the tone.
The arrogance. The unquestioned power.
One of the sons of Satan.
He had no right to be here, and yet he was standing between the remnants of Father Smith’s soul and Maggie.
Nothing, nothing could stand in its way.
So the ghost surged forward, calling to the power of the storm.
He reached the short dirt driveway that would lead up to Father Smith’s house.
His hands now clutched the wheel so tightly, he would need crowbars to pull them back.
He kept jerking his head up, kept checking on the power of the storm. It was growing more tumultuous by every second.
He’d never faced a storm like it. It wasn’t natural. This wasn’t some tornado forming over the city.
No, this was the power of Father Smith’s soul.
Despite the fact that ordinarily a ghost lost its purpose as time wound on – and seconds sapped away its power – somehow it had worked in reverse for Father Smith’s soul. His purpose had grown, pushed into the storm, and the clouds and lightning were gorging themselves on it.
This was no longer going to be an ordinary exorcism, and as John stopped the car halfway up the driveway, he reached a hand over, opened the dash, and pulled out a sword.
Though there wasn’t the room to keep a sword in the dash, that didn’t matter. With the sound of metal on metal, he unsheathed the sword from its ethereal lock and held it tightly but expertly in one hand.
Turning the engine off, he kicked the door open and threw himself out of the car. All the time, he was aware of the vial around his neck. The situation had changed, and he doubted he’d be able to use it. Now the remnants of Father Smith’s soul had pushed into the storm, it would be hard to defeat him, let alone capture his soul and bring it back to the Church.
They had been so adamant. He’d heard the specific tone of the Cardinals, felt their desperation as it had pushed through the phone. They needed the remnants of Father Smith alive. No doubt to interrogate him.
As John shoved out of the car, a strike of lightning blasted into a tree several meters to his left.
He allowed a magical barrier to pulse over his form, protecting him from the brunt of the force and the sound as the tree cracked, splintering and exploding beside him.
Massive chunks of wood slammed against his car, some large enough that they shifted the wheels a good inch to the left.
Though the wood dashed against him, it couldn’t cut him as it struck against his magical shield.
Jerking his head up, sweat now slicking his brow, mouth now unhinged, he stared at the clouds as they raced and raced and raced.
Slowly, he let his hand drop, his eyes blasting open wide as he stared at the burning remnants of the tree. He’d seen lightning strike trees before, and though the power of the heavens was immeasurable – this was different. The exact force the lightning had struck the tree with was far too powerful.
He yanked his head up, lips turning pale and thin as he stared at the power of the weather.
He had to reach Father Smith’s ghost before it emptied more of its soul into the storm. Do that – allow his ghost to lend these clouds and lightning the rest of his power and will – and it could draw the city into destruction. So John thrust forward, clutching his sword higher.
He felt it. Something darker. Something that reached into his soul and activated that part of him that had given itself over to being an exorcist completely. When he had chosen the path of light, he had expunged every dark essence from his being. Yet he still recognized him.
Every exorcist did.
The special one. The only son of Satan – the only creature in all of the realms that the exorcists could not touch.
A second later, John heard the specific tone – that arrogant voice as Luc chuckled at the storm. “I’ll give you one more chance, ghost. Tell me what you want and where those dogs have gone, and maybe, maybe we can make a deal.”
John pushed toward Luc.
It was breaking. That wall – the wall that kept her safe. The wall that kept her sane. She could feel it quickening with every second now. There was… there was nothing she could do.
Maggie heard it – her voice. Her mother’s voice. Maggie hadn’t heard it since her mother had entered a catatonic state. Now her lilting words called to Maggie, trapped on the wind that could only push through Maggie’s mind.
“Give into it, give into it,” her mother hissed through Maggie’s lips.
Maggie was down on both knees, her whole body shaking, tears permanently streaming from her eyes as she fought, fought to regain her sanity. It was too late. It was slipping… slipping away. Slipping away.
She started to see them. All around her. Just as she’d seen them when she’d been a kid. People… souls. The remnants of their lives. That’s what her mother had called them. Her mother had been insane. Maggie knew what they really were – apparitions of a tortured mind. Nothing more than a symptom of a sick brain.
“No, no, go away. Go away,” she screamed at them, but she could not listen to her own words. There was nothing she could do as they continued to pull themselves up from the shadows.
They didn’t rush toward her. Like they had as a child; they didn’t surge into her body like she was some kind of vessel made to be filled. This… this kind of glow picked up through the house, emanating from every single cross that lined the walls. For an instant, they started to glow, brighter and brighter as if they were picking up every powerful surge of lightning beyond.
It was enough… enough for her to stop. For half a second. Enough for her to let her hands pull back from her face.
There was only so much distraction that light could provide.
Her mother’s voice kept calling to her, and with every second, it was growing.
In this state… she could remember things, remember things that had been blocked off from her mind during her ordinary consciousness.
She could remember… things entering her. Apparitions. The same shadows that were trying to push into her. They would attack her, surge into her soul, push it aside, and take her body. And, just like her mother? Just like her mother, they would try to enact their last wishes.
“Let them in. Let them in,” she heard her mother’s lilting words. They were so easy to listen to, and it would have been so easy to give into them. Low and sweet and caring, they begged Maggie to give up.
For half a second, as the crosses continued to glow, her hands shifted toward the tarnished cross around her neck.
She almost clutched it, but her mother’s voice became louder in her mind. “Just let them in. They deserve to have a voice, deserve to have the means to enact their final wishes. Just let them in,” she whispered.
Maggie… she tried to fight. She could not.
She saw one of the shadows jerk toward her, saw a face form out of the darkness. Extended, grotesque, violent in every way imaginable. With wide eyes, a distended mouth, and broken, broken teeth. The mouth, it opened, opened wide right in front of her face.
She screamed one last time.
Luc felt John long before Luc heard him. John’s mere presence brought a snarling smile to Luc’s lips. Just exactly what he did not need. Another player to this twisted, confusing game.
Luc had his gun out, pointed up at the storm above. Though he’d heard the Dogs of the Church and felt their unmistakable presence, they had disappeared. Either he’d been wrong, and the confusing energy of the storm had tricked him into believing they were here, or the storm itself was hiding their presence.
The ghost was powerful. Far more powerful than Luc would have suspected.
Whatever purpose the ghost’s soul had possessed in life, it had been undoubtedly strong. It gave it the energy it needed to feed off the storm.
In response, the storm was becoming increasingly more violent.
It pitched and writhed, the desperation of the ghost powering into it with unquenchable force. If Luc weren’t currently under a Ring of Satan contract to protect Maggie, he would’ve made a deal with the ghost.
He didn’t have that option anymore, nor did he have the opportunity.
The exorcist John Godspeed appeared. He came running over the loose gravel that led up to the house, an exorcist sword in his hands, his own tarnished cross sitting on his chest, bouncing about with every frantic movement.
John’s eyes didn’t blast wide as he saw Luc – John would’ve known he was here. All exorcists of the Church knew how to track Luc. They were aware of his presence, and when they sensed it, as the Treaty dictated, they knew not to interfere. Do that, and they would threaten their precarious peace. Did that idiot John Godspeed stop?
No, he reached Luc, eyes wide as he stared at the storm.
After the ghost, was he?
It would’ve attracted a lot of attention.
Luc let his lips pull back in a dark snarl. “Exorcist, as you can see, I have this. You are instructed to leave.”
John jerked his head down, gaze narrowing. Luc swore he still saw it behind John’s eyes – an inkling of what John had once been.
Few would know this, but John Godspeed had not always been a puppet of the Church. Once, he had delved into the dark and had shown promise, even as an adolescent. Then, as the story goes, he’d strayed across an exorcist who’d made a deal with him. Now John Godspeed was an enormous pain in the ass. For, unlike the other exorcists, he understood the dark.
John bared his teeth. “Son of Satan, Heir to the Kingdom of Hell,” he said, using Luc’s full title, “the Treaty hasn’t been activated. You have not been requested to exorcise this ghost,” he began.
“This ghost is currently interfering in my affairs, so this is my responsibility. Now leave,” Luc said, voice echoing down low and shaking above the tremulous pitch of the storm. “Leave this to me.” His voice bridled with every word.
Luc saw it again – that kernel of dark in John’s eyes. John would be unable to recognize it, for the individual cannot stare into their own soul. There are truths within the depths of a person’s mind that only others can perceive. Luc could still see it shining there in the middle of John’s powerful gaze – just a grain of his past self. A grain that could grow, given the right conditions.
But right now, Luc had much bigger problems. Though he had not detected the Dogs of the Church again, and he could feel that nothing had breached the house, he had no idea how much time he had.
“This ghost belongs to us,” John pushed.
Luc arched an eyebrow. “He belongs to the Church?”
John nodded low. “A priest.”
Luc smiled at the deliciousness of that statement, but then his lips froze all of their own accord as a suspicion ran deeply through his mind. “What was his name?”
“You have no right to ask that – I have informed you that this priest belongs to the Church. This is no longer your case,” he spat.
Luc leveled his gaze at John Godspeed. “I will ask you once more, exorcist, whose soul is that?” he said as he pointed a stiff hand up at the storm. It was a testament to the severity of the situation that Luc wasn’t taking the opportunity to taunt Godspeed.
“A Father Smith,” John answered.
Indeed. Without another word, Luc turned toward the house, threw himself at the door, wrenched it open, and ran in.
He was too late.
Something pushed into her.
She… she had no chance of shoving it back. If she’d ever possessed any power against it, her mother’s words washed that defense away.
She felt herself being thrust open like a door that had just been wrenched from its hinges.
Her body started to shake. Faster and faster as her muscles spasmed in violent convulsions.
The cross around her throat – it tried to push the force back, but it didn’t have the strength. The force – the shadow before her – it was possessing Maggie.
Every defense she had buckled, and in her last moment of consciousness, the presence pressed toward her.
She saw its eyes. Two yellow pinpricks. She heard the clink of a chain around its neck.
Maggie’s eyes rolled into the back of her head, and her body fell limply against the worn carpet.
He’d been wrong. Shit, he’d been wrong.
There was a Dog of the Church in the house. The tremendous power of the storm and the sheer force of the ghost had combined to confuse the energies, to make it impossible for Luc to pick up where the dog was.
John, the idiot exorcist, was still there, still angling to claim the ghost.
Well, he could have him.
Luc clutched his gun in both hands, thumb hovering over the invisible button that would change the function of the gun from light to dark. The gun had been crafted by a rare collaboration between the metal smiths of Hell and Heaven. A one-time weapon given to Luc to uphold the Treaty. It was one of the only weapons still in existence that could function against both the light and dark.
That would be a very good thing. As Luc rushed into the room, he felt it – the confused energy. It buffeted around the room, shaking the curtains, pulling the nick nacks and doilies off the dust-covered tables. It shook the paintings on the walls, rattled the windowpanes, and yet, could not touch the crosses.
Jerking his gaze up to the seven crosses that lined the main entrance, Luc could see they were glowing with power – exorcist symbols emblazoned over the painted wood and metal.
The light they could produce could not help her.
He saw her there on the carpet, her eyes rolled into the back of her head, her hair a fan around her face, and her cheeks and hands as pale as fresh new snow.
Her every muscle was stiff, rigid as if she’d turned into a board.
She would have looked dead if it weren’t for two facts – her eyes darted around in her skull as if they were ball bearings in a whistle.
Then there was the smoke. Black, turgid, thick like blood. It coiled around her throat, pushing into her mouth.
Luc lifted the gun, his eyes fixed wide open.
So this was her secret, then?
Maggie Brown could be possessed. But not in an ordinary way. No.
She was a Vessel.
Luc didn’t immediately shoot. It wasn’t because he was curious to see what would happen next. His Ring of Satan was pulsing, vibrating hard against his finger as if it wanted to pull it from its joint. It was screaming at him to save her.
But that would be no simple task. Shoot her with his gun, and it would kill her, too.
This… this wasn’t something he’d ever seen.
Heard of, yes. Tales of Vessels were legendary. But Luc had never met one. And now? Why, he’d made a pact on his Ring of Satan to keep a Vessel safe.
Luc was barely aware of John as he ran into the room.
“What—” John began.
He stopped. Dead.
Even though Luc was concentrating on Maggie, he had enough brain power left over to assess John’s physical symptoms. John’s heart skipped several beats as every muscle in his body contracted.
The conclusion was obvious. John knew Maggie.
Sure enough, John jolted forward, pulling a hand up and clutching his cross with such a white-knuckled grip, his fingers could have broken.
With a rattling, clearly emotional breath, John gasped.
Then, he started to chant.
Luc shoved out a hand. “Stop,” he rumbled. “Not another word.”
“Stay out of this, Prince,” John snapped, his voice rattling. “This child,” he said, voice choking on the word child, “belongs to the light.”
Luc didn’t even look at John as Luc took a step forward, gun still raised. “Incorrect. She belongs to me.”
John jerked his head to the side, staring at Luc with wide eyes. “What did you just say?”
Luc, in the kind of casual, arrogant move that could only be associated with a son of Satan, plucked one hand off his gun and brought it up. Using his thumb, he tapped the Ring of Satan he wore. Except there was a problem, the move was meant to look casual, but even John could see how stiff Luc’s face had become. And the look in his eyes? There was a hint of desperation there as Luc kept his gaze firmly locked on Maggie.
“What—” John began.
“Ring of Satan. She made a pact with me, exorcist. Now leave before you do more damage.”
It was a testament to how fraught Luc was that he wasn’t taking the opportunity to bait John.
John’s world came crashing down as he slowly swiveled his head to the side, dropped his gaze down as if his eyes were shaking hands, and stared at Maggie. That’s when he saw it – the ring on her hand. A ring identical to the one Luc wore.
According to the legends of Hell, Satan had only crafted 14 Rings of Satan. Seven for his seven sons, and seven others that were distributed through the world. Why Satan had created them, no one knew, for they bound his sons to form pacts with whoever held one.
And Maggie? Sweet, innocent Maggie?
There was one on her hand.
Just before John’s world could come crashing down, he heard the storm rage from outside. There was an almighty flash, and he heard a tree close by the house exploding. Chunks of wood slammed against the window to his left and blasted into the old weatherboard, and yet somehow, the house held.
He could feel it now – the house’s particular defenses, defenses that had been crafted by an exorcist. Father Ray had been one of the most powerful exorcists the Church had ever trained. Yet he hadn’t plied his trade with the other exorcist teams. Though Father Ray had never told John the full details, John had read between the lines. Rather than being sent out to hunt down demons and the damned, Father Ray had been sent to gather objects of force and, more than anything, secrets of the dark.
So the house’s defenses held. For now.
Luc wasn’t doing anything. He was just standing there, his light-dark gun still raised, still pointed at Maggie’s chest.
John took a hissing breath and jerked toward her once more, knowing she didn’t have much time until the possession claimed her in full. And when it did…?
John could remember it – the first time he’d exorcised someone. The first time Maggie had attacked him. He’d broken into Father Ray’s house. As a kid, John had meddled in séances, not for the purpose of communing with long-lost loved ones. For the purpose of finding out where power lay. You could do that, see – if you had a strong enough heart and a cold enough mind. You could push past the dead, lost, and desperate spirits who were attracted to séances and use them to find power. Whether it be lost objects of import or simply stashed of cash – all you had to do was tap into the unquenched desire of the spirit world, and you could find anything.
It would come at a cost, though – a high one. Call the wrong spirit, wander into the wrong spiritual ley line, and you could call forces much stronger than you. Have a weak enough mind, and they could possess you. Unlike Maggie and her mother, most people can’t survive more than one possession.
On that day years ago when John had broken into Father Ray’s house he’d unwittingly brought with him a spirit from his séance – a spirit that had wasted no time in pushing past this house’s considerable protections and possessing Maggie.
So John knew he didn’t have much time.
Luc pushed out a hand to stop John, but John stepped to the side, his drab brown, mud-covered shoes staining the carpet.
John latched a hand on his tarnished cross and opened his mouth, ready to plunge down to one knee, press a finger and thumb against Maggie’s steaming brow, ready to recite the Lord’s Prayer until his throat ran raw and his lips cracked.
Luc wouldn’t let him. The Prince of Hell brought around his gun and slammed it against John’s back, pushing him to the side. The blow wasn’t hard enough to crack John’s spine – though it could have been. It pushed him off course, causing John to roll to the side to cushion the blow.
He jerked to his feet, whirling around, the tails of his soaked rain jacket slamming against his pants with a wet slap. “Don’t interfere,” John roared. He momentarily lost control of his voice, and it rang with that note he’d kept hidden for years. The note of dark Father Ray had helped him to hide deep, deep in his soul.
Luc didn’t take the chance to point out that John was losing it. Though the arrogant Prince of Hell would have never let an opportunity slip on any other day, John could see it – the desperation in the Prince’s gaze.
Luc took a solid step between John and Maggie, lifting his gun and pointing it at the floor, the threat clear. “You are instructed to leave this to me, exorcist,” he spat, his lips nothing more than jerking thin white lines like silver whips cracking in the dark. “I have told you – through her pact, she is mine.”
“You can’t just leave her. She’s being possessed. She – she’s not normal,” John began, voice cracking as he revealed a fact Father Ray had always kept hidden.
“No, she is not,” Luc agreed in a quiet, constricted tone as he shifted his head over his shoulder and locked his gaze on Maggie’s body once more.
Maggie was still as stiff as a board, her eyes still rolling about her head like balls in a pinball machine.
John stiffened, the sight enough to destroy the remaining scraps of his reason as he pushed up once more.
He didn’t get the chance to thrust toward Maggie – Luc raised his gun and pressed it right against the center of John’s head. “You will not,” Luc spat, his tone dark – so dark that it momentarily sucked some of the light out of the room.
Which was the last thing Maggie needed – as the light blazing off the crucifixes on the wall was the only thing slowing down the possession.
Something snapped in John’s chest, and he went to push past Luc before he could sacrifice Maggie to the dark.
Luc pulled the trigger on his gun, firing a bullet right past John’s ear. It blasted past his face, close enough that it seared his skin and sent a biting cold slamming into his jaw and up into his ear. It felt like he’d sprayed his face with liquid nitrogen.
Rather than jerk back and clutch at his frozen skin wildly, he faced Luc.
Luc didn’t turn away. “Though I would give anything to encourage that seed of violent hatred in your eyes, exorcist, I have bigger problems. Now stay down and leave this to me.”
“You’re a son of the Devil,” John roared, saliva darting over his lips as they sliced around his words. “Your presence is going to exacerbate the curse—”
“Have you slipped so far?” Luc spat. “That you can’t see what’s happening here? She’s not being possessed by the dark, fool – but by your light.”
John’s stomach lurched at the insult. It was nothing more—
Before he could finish that thought, Maggie jerked once, then twice, her eyes rolling into the back of her head and her eyelids twitching like a flickering candle.
She became still.
The room filled with tension, as did his body as a vein began to throb in his temple.
Maggie’s eyes opened. John expected them to be as black as the heart of outer space and just as cold. He expected dark smoke to spill from her mouth and twist around her throat.
He expected evil.
He got the light.
Her eyes were yellow – yellow like old skin under light.
John jerked back, his skin feeling like frozen plastic wrap as it held his surprise in check. “What—”
“Is happening?” Luc finished his question as he leveled his gun straight at Maggie’s heart. “She’s been possessed by a Dog of the Church.”
“That’s – that’s not possible,” John spat, his mouth answering for him as his brain shut down.
“For an ordinary human, maybe. But as you’ve already admitted, Maggie isn’t normal – she’s a Vessel.”
“But – but a Dog of the Church—”
“Has no mind of their own? Is nothing more than a tool for their masters? True, but Maggie, ah, Maggie has a unique space in her mind. As a Vessel, a part of her is empty,” Luc said, and as he did, his eyes widened as if he’d just solved a mystery. “So trust me – it is possible. Your precious Cardinals are now inside her mind.”
“That – that can’t be true. They wouldn’t do that – couldn’t do that.”
“Trust me, they can and they have. Now stand back. This won’t be pretty.”
“W-what the Hell are you going to do?”
Luc momentarily shifted his gaze toward John. “Not Hell – Heaven.”
In her mind… it was in her mind.
Pushing her away like she was nothing more than trash that could be thrown in the bin.
There was nothing she could do, no trick she could fall back on.
Something was possessing her mind.
… This wasn’t meant to be possible – all those psychiatrists had promised her Heaven and Hell were nothing but figments of her imagination.
But this figment was real – and it was trying to kill her from the inside out.
She could hear their voices – hear them muttering about the best way to end her life. More than anything, she sensed their desperation as it flowed through her like a violent storm – one far, far more powerful than the one that still raged outside.
Yet, despite the fear, despite everything, she was still aware of his presence. Luc, Prince of the Kingdom of Hell.
He was her last hope….
He had his answer. He didn’t like it.
Maggie was a Vessel; a big one if the emptiness he’d seen in her eyes was anything to go by.
Now that Vessel was being filled by the Cardinals.
John hadn’t started reciting the Lord’s Prayer again, thankfully. Do that, and the fool would only be increasing the Cardinals’ power.
No. To end her possession, Luc would have to call on the dark.
Maggie rose. She sat. And she tried to strangle herself. With a snap of tightened muscles, she clutched her own neck with stiff white fingers.
Luc had to play this carefully. He couldn’t shoot her. Do that, and the Cardinals could rip a hole in her mind, which was precisely what they wanted to do.
“Do something,” John hissed.
“I am,” Luc replied as he took a step forward and stared right into Maggie’s yellowed eyes. “I’m going to give you one more chance. I have made a contract with this woman to save her life. And I will do whatever it takes to do that. So, once more, I’m warning you off this. You may want to kill this woman, but to do that, you must go through me. And if you go through me, you will break the Treaty.”
Luc could see the Cardinals’ eyes – and they blinked.
Then they went right back to trying to strangle Maggie with her own hands.
Luc growled, pressed forward, grabbed Maggie by the arm, and pulled her to her feet, breaking her grip on her throat as he twisted her around. “There’ll be none of that.”
Maggie jerked against him, her lips twisting to the side as dark mutters escaped them.
“Did you fail to hear me, Cardinals? Try to kill her, and you will break the only thing that keeps back my father. Are you seeking another holy war?” Luc said through clenched teeth, his lips barely moving.
It didn’t last. Maggie brought up a hand and tried to latch it on her neck.
Luc twisted her to the side.
He could keep this up all day, but so could the Cardinals. He’d warned them three times now. There wouldn’t be a fourth.
The Cardinals wanted Maggie Brown dead, no matter the costs.
Luc had no intention of letting the Cardinals break the Treaty. Yes, Luc hated his position in the middle of it, but no – holy wars were no better.
He took a breath, concentrating on the power coming from his ring. From the moment he’d seen Maggie lying there on the floor, the Cardinals pushing into her soul, the ring had been pulsing. This hot, chaotic power that shifted through his hand and ate hard into his wrist like hands clutching at his cells.
Luc didn’t care. Not usually. He had a level of… professionalism. Some would call it that – he called it cold distance.
And that cold distance should keep a wall between him and Maggie – a wall that would stop him from seeing her pain.
Ah, but that wall? Why, the wretched Ring of Satan had brought it down, brick-by-brick, until Luc swore he could feel it – Maggie’s body-shaking despair.
Luc didn’t like it one bit.
He reached an arm over and locked it over hers, and his power was enough to fight against the Cardinals, stopping them from using her own hands to pul out her own throat.
As Luc collapsed his body over hers, locking her frantic limbs in place, he stared over her shoulder at the storm. The light escaping off the crosses in the room was powerful enough that the drapes in front of the window kept fluttering back and forth, their jerking movements framing the violent night beyond.
The storm had pushed down – the rage-filled clouds reaching from the heavens down to the ground. He could see them writhing about like headless snakes.
And the sound? The pound of the rain cut by blasts of thunder? Ah, it sounded like chaos itself.
On any other day, Luc would have reveled in it.
Today, he narrowed his eyes.
The ghost was still out there, and this house may have been keeping back its power for now, but it would fail.
And the ghost would rush in.
Luc drew his face alongside Maggie’s. “Maggie,” his breath pushed her hair over her neck, “I know I say this a lot – but trust me.”
Luc brought his gun around. Without turning, he shot every single crucifix in the room. They blasted into chunks of painted wood that scattered over the floor, singeing the worn carpet with sizzles.
“No – what are you doing?” John screamed.
Luc didn’t look at him. Luc darted his gaze from the storm back to Maggie. “The ghost wants in – it’s time to let it have its final wish.”
With a snap that could be heard through every realm, the house’s protection broke.
In rushed the storm.
Still there. Still in her head. Nothing she could do to push it out. Taking up more room, pushing her out. Pushing her out.
But… she could see. Could hear. If she drowned out the frantic, murderous muttering of the Cardinals long enough, she could feel him. Right there around her, his arm locking hers in place so her stiff fingers couldn’t pull out her own throat.
And… the storm.
There. Outside. Getting louder. More violent. The power too much for the clouds to contain.
She watched through the window as energy pushed down from the clouds, spreading into the yard, curling through the broken, blasted trees, coiling over the grass.
It looked like a snake ready to strike. And it did.
With a crack, the window broke.
“You’re mad,” John spat, jumping to his feet and rushing forward, hand over his cross.
Luc didn’t let him do anything. With a frustrated hiss, Luc jerked to the side, shoved his foot out, and caught John.
John lurched to the left, losing his grip on his cross.
“Let the storm in – it’s the only way to save her now,” Luc said, his voice dark with power and warning.
“It’ll make it impossible to exorcise her,” John screamed back.
“No, no it won’t. Like I said,” Luc brought his face close to hers again, “all you have to do is trust me.”
She… she had enough control over her mind to hear his words, just enough to understand them.
He… he’d been telling her to trust him all night. A slip of the tongue, he’d called it.
This was different. His cheek alongside hers, his arm over her middle, and, more than anything, his attention fixed on her – she could feel his wish.
… Trust him.
Maggie’s eyes jerked up, controlled by the Cardinals as they stared at the broken window.
The storm coiled outside. In a snap, it pushed in. She could feel it as a blast of wind slammed into her, scattering her hair over her face, making it whip over the stiff collar of Luc’s shirt and the rough ends of his beard.
… Trust him.
She’d… she’d just met this man. Only two hours ago, he’d saved her in her kitchen. No. He hadn’t saved her. He was the son of the Devil, one of the princes of the Kingdom of Hell as he kept telling her.
He was only looking out for her because of the pact. A pact she could still feel – even under the control of the Cardinals.
Her Ring of Satan was the only thing keeping her whole.
That, and his lingering touch along her lips. She could still feel it, even now. When he’d pressed a finger to her lips, he’d left a permanent well of heat trapped beneath the skin. Concentrate on that, and she could drown out the chaotic screaming of the Cardinals.
The storm swept in through the broken window, wafts of shuddering black cloud pressing past the jagged glass. It moved so fast, she could feel the air being sucked from the room with the sound of a scream.
She wanted to recoil. That part of her body that had never forgotten the horror of being possessed – all it wanted to do was run.
Yet… and yet he’d asked her to trust him.
Trust the Prince of Hell?
Luc didn’t let her go, didn’t for a second let her possessed hands grip her neck. That counted for something….
This shouldn’t be possible. The… Cardinals. They… no, Luc was lying. There was no other explanation.
This – the storm, Maggie, her yellow, yellow eyes – it was all some trap. Some nightmare the Prince of Hell had cooked up.
It was the only explanation….
Sweat drenched John’s brow as the storm pushed in through the window. But it was no storm anymore. Every particle of every cloud had been imbued with the remnants of Father Smith’s soul. His purpose. His last wish. But if what John’s handlers had told him was true, then Father Smith’s final purpose had been to meld with the dark – to summon a demon to embellish his power.
Such a wish could not lead to force like this. The Devil would have gladly claimed Father Smith’s soul as his body lay crumpled at the pulpit.
No. The force… the power that had possessed the clouds did not come from a man who’d accidentally died at the hand of his own foolishness. It came from injustice – a man who’d died at the hand of other’s sins.
But… to believe that, John had to—
Luc kept his body locked around Maggie’s as he leveled his gun, not at the black clouds pushing through the window, but at the carpet.
This was madness. Impossible chaos.
John hadn’t clutched at his cross since Luc had kicked him out of the way, but John’s stiff fingers yearned to grasp it as he stared in horror at Father Smith’s tortured soul.
“Trust me,” Luc asked Maggie once more.
Watching him whisper into Maggie’s ear made John’s stomach turn. It also pushed him forward.
He’d dropped his exorcist sword before he’d entered the house. Now he called to it as he jerked a hand to the side, spreading his open palm and splayed fingers toward the window.
With a whistle like a bolt from a crossbow, the sword wrenched itself from the sodden grass outside and shot through the window, slamming into John’s grip. His shoulder jerked backward, his mud-caked shoes grating back several inches on the carpet.
He twisted his head to the side and faced Luc just as Luc sliced his gaze toward John.
“Don’t,” Luc warned.
“Like hell I’m going to stand here and let you hurt her—”
“Like Hell? Yes, exactly like Hell. For Hell is the only thing that can save her now. Don’t deny your senses, exorcist – your precious Church is trying to kill her.”
John tried to fight it, but he couldn’t stop himself from locking his gaze on Maggie’s yellow eyes.
There was much John could push away, but those eyes….
“Put down your exorcist sword and wait,” Luc commanded.
“For what? For the storm to tear us apart?”
“No – for the ghost behind the storm to seek its rightful revenge,” Luc said as he tilted his head up and looked at the broiling clouds through the cracked window. More and more foul smoke was spilling into the room with every second, and it crackled with the unholy power of a ghost. Sparks darted over the remaining shards of the window in the pane and sank down the paint on the wall, causing it to blister and pucker like singed flesh.
Though Luc had shot every holy crucifix in the room, there were still other protections built into this house, and John could feel them straining to hold back the ghost.
Maggie kept trying to clutch at her own throat, her fingers locked and distended with rigid strength – a strength that was not her own but came from the Cardinals. No, as soon as John caught himself thinking that, he shook his head violently.
He couldn’t… couldn’t start to doubt the men who’d saved him from the dark. Do that – doubt the wall he’d spent his whole adult life building between him and his past… and he could… he could fall.
He still held the exorcist sword, and its reassuring weight in his claw-like grip felt like the only real thing left in reality.
Luc gave him one last wary, cautious glance before turning his attention back to the storm.
As more of the spirit-filled storm pushed its way into the room, John started to hear it – this low, sonorous muttering, like a priest at the pulpit chanting his prayers.
John had never met him. If you believed the stories, he’d been a good man before he’d turned. Then, then he’d been lured by the dark, and—
Luc had one hand locked around his light-dark gun and one arm keeping Maggie’s hands from her throat. He stared up at the clouds coiling around the room. “You seek your revenge, Father Smith. So take it.”
The clouds appeared to react to Luc, shifting faster, curling around the foot of the couch, around the coat rack in the hall, around and around the coffee table, looking like jet streams blazing through the sky.
Luc took a deep breath. An unusual move for the son of Satan. Half closing his eyes once more, he aligned his cheek with Maggie’s. “Trust me.”
There was a hint of… softness about Luc. One that John knew shouldn’t be there, and yet one that made John’s hand curl into a fist and a jolt of hatred slam into his gut.
“Don’t fight him – let him purge the Cardinals. But, Maggie, no matter what happens – never stop concentrating on your ring,” Luc whispered to her.
He removed his arm from her middle with a sweeping move and shoved her hard in the back with his gun. She fell to the floor with a thump, her head jolting forward and her hair spilling over her face, cutting out the piercing glow of her yellow eyes.
“What are you doing?” John screamed, jolting forward, a hand stretched wide to grab Maggie up before the storm could do anything.
He was too late – and Luc wouldn’t let him. The Prince of Hell jolted around and slammed his foot against John’s knee, sending him tumbling to the side.
John lashed out at Luc with his sword, but Luc twisted out of the way. “You claim to want to help her, then you too have to trust me. For this is the only way to purge the Cardinals from her mind now,” Luc said as he turned over his shoulder to look at Maggie.
The smoke was twisting around her as if it were a tornado forming around the eye of the storm. Though at first Maggie brought her hands up and tried to latch them on her throat, all too soon her eyes widened with a pulse at the sight of the smoke.
Her lips split open wide in a jerked move like rubber bands snapping back on themselves. John heard it – the muttering. Low, frantic, distinct.
… The Cardinals.
Each city had their own set of Cardinals – a group of the most learned priests sent to control the clergy and, most importantly, the exorcists. Though many cities were relatively peaceful, this city wasn’t. Pax City was known as a hotspot for evil, primarily because that’s where Luc plied his trade.
This city also had a powerful confluence of ley lines, and, if you believed the legend, had been built on the spot of a deadly holy war of millennia past.
So the Cardinals of this city were strong, and yet, they were not the highest voice of the Church. They too were beholden to the Vatican in Rome and the Holy See.
Though the force possessing Maggie hadn’t acknowledged John’s presence, it did now. All of a sudden, as the smoke curled around her body and made it toward her mouth, Maggie’s head jerked to the side, and her wide-open yellow eyes locked on him. “Stop the ghost and kill the traitor,” they said. This time, there could be no denying who they were.
Maggie’s soft tone had been replaced with the combined voices of the Cardinals of Pax City.
For a second, John couldn’t move. He remained soldered to the spot as reality struck him.
“Kill the ghost and slay the traitor,” the Cardinals screamed, Maggie’s mouth jerking so hard to the side, he could hear her jaw unclick from here.
“Don’t interfere,” Luc snarled. His eyes darted back to John, and it was obvious he was assessing who John would trust.
“You owe the Church,” the Cardinals spat.
That did it.
John pushed forward, slashing at Luc with the sword.
Luc jerked to the side, flipping backward in a smooth move, his body momentarily unaffected by gravity.
John came at him again.
Luc dodged to the side as John slashed at him with the sword. As Luc sailed past, he rounded his free hand into a fist and slammed it into John’s jaw.
John’s head jerked hard to the left, and stars exploded through his vision, sparks of light to add to the magic escaping off Maggie.
She was still kneeling there on the floor, the smoke now enshrouding her in full.
Luc sliced to the side, now going on the offensive, twisting his gun in his grip until he used the butt to bash into John’s shoulder.
An ordinary exorcist wouldn’t have been able to hold their own against one of the seven princes of Hell, but John wasn’t ordinary. As Luc slammed into him, John muttered a single word under his breath, forcing a protective shield to blast into place over his body. It moved so quickly that it flattened his short hair and sent the still damp tails of his rain jacket beating against his sides.
Luc snarled, jerking back just as John swiped at him once more.
“You clearly know Maggie, exorcist – just as you are clearly happy to sacrifice her to your masters like a scrap of meat thrown to the dogs.”
“Shut up,” John snarled, the hatred burning through him, twisting around his muscles and moving them faster, giving him speed the light had never been able to match.
Wait, no, he thought desperately. He wasn’t giving in to the dark – even if its dangerous allure beckoned him with more power, with the promise that only if he succumbed to evil would he have the power to defeat Luc.
“Do whatever you have to – whatever you have to—” the Cardinals began, their voices blasting so high, they echoed through the room and sent the curtains buffeting and slamming against the walls.
Then their voices were cut short. Maggie’s head jerked all the way back, the long line of her neck arching as the smoke entered her mouth.
“No,” John screamed, lurching to his feet and throwing himself at her.
He didn’t reach her. Luc capitalized on the distraction, brought his knee around, and slammed it into John’s gut. The move was laden with power, the black fabric of Luc’s suit pants crackling with energy.
John fell back, and Luc was upon him. He shoved a hand into John’s shoulder, pinning him to the sodden, mud-soaked carpet as Luc shoved his gun into the center of John’s head. Though Luc had raised his gun at John before, now it was different.
Now Luc let his thumb hover over the invisible button along the butt of his gun – the one that chose which mode it was in.
John stared up into Luc’s eyes, and Luc stared down, his face compressed with real emotion. “Interfere again, and I will exorcise you,” Luc promised, his voice slicing down low in a whip-crack of bitterness.
“You can’t exorcise a priest,” John spat, body stiff under Luc’s weight, but muscles ready to throw the Prince off when they got the chance.
Luc didn’t blink, just made the kind of enduring eye contact that could easily have fooled someone into thinking his eyes were whips coiling around your face. “Trust me, exorcist, I can exorcise you, and I will if you interfere again.” Luc hesitated, his thumb still hovering over the button on the side of his gun. He flicked it, and it turned to light.
Any entry level exorcist knows that the light exorcises the dark, and the dark, the light.
So if Luc had selected the light….
“Trust me when I say, John Godspeed, that you have fallen far again. Now, wait. And watch.” Luc turned his head over his shoulder, never removing his gun from John’s head.
Luc stared at Maggie.
She fell flat on her face.
“Don’t lose sight of your ring, Maggie Brown,” Luc said softly. “It’s all up to you now.”
In… in her head. So much in her head. Things that shouldn’t be there. Other people’s voices, other people’s thoughts. All pushing against her own, trying to force her out.
But she could… she could see him. Father Smith.
Maggie could no longer see out of her eyes. The Cardinals had lost that ability as the black smoke had covered her body.
Now all she saw was the tortured contents of her own skull.
Swirling darkness punctuated by visions of a room – a stone room full of seven men. Cardinals in their purple and gold robes, seated in a circle, hands raised in a supplicating position. Around them, there were seven hundred candles – arranged behind each cardinal like the points of a star.
They chanted and muttered, each responsible for repeating their own line of their dark song.
Every single one of them stared at her, their eyes wide and glowing yellow. In her mind, she could not hide from them – couldn’t run from their burning desire to kill her with her own hands.
The fear… it should be too much. It should sap her last will to live.
But she held on. She held on, because of the ring. It was the realest thing about her. She hadn’t been lying when she’d said it now felt like some kind of extension of herself. Not only had her senses pushed into it like it was some kind of new limb, but her will had too.
It seemed to be some kind of pocket, no vessel for her mind. As the Cardinals pushed and scrabbled and screamed to kill her, she could descend into the ring, for there, they could not follow.
Now – oh, now she felt another.
Father Smith. But unlike she had known him in life. He had no face, no smile, no strong light. His whole mind and body had been whittled down to nothing but a single desire.
The desire to keep her safe.
He had no mind with which to communicate, no words to share. But he showed her images, and she followed them.
Visions of her uncle with his smiling eyes and gray beard. Visions of the Westside church – of the pew she’d always retreated to when she’d run to the church to hide from the shadows of her mind.
The Cardinals… their chanting grew louder, seemed to shake her mind somehow, as if the foundation of her thoughts was actually the ground and they were some kind of drill ready to split her apart.
She… couldn’t hold on. Just… just wanted it to end.
The ring wouldn’t let her. It sang to her, called to her. Though it lacked a voice, somehow it sounded like him – Luc.
He was begging her to trust him, if only a little longer.
So… she held on.
She felt Father Smith fight with the Cardinals. There was… no way to describe it, for it could not make sense in the ordinary physical realm. The singular will of Smith’s ghost pushed into the considerable mental power of the Cardinals, and the Cardinals pushed back.
All the while… Maggie was… pushed further away, like her body had only ever been a temporary vessel for her, as if she’d been caretaking it for someone else all these years.
… Just before she could give in to the spiraling dread threatening to drag her into the depths of her soul and out into oblivion, she heard him. Really speaking to her now. Though her eyes could not pierce through the swirling darkness of the storm, her ears could pick out his tone. Low, loud, forthright. “Trust me, Maggie Brown. Just hold onto the ring.”
Hold onto the ring.
… Just… hold on….
He’d started this night with an exorcism of a criminal in prison – a man of the dark who’d stepped too far over the threshold of the Treaty. Luc would end it with an exorcism of Pax City’s seven Cardinals.
A part of him should be rejoicing at the possibility to strike back at the Church. But he couldn’t begin to comprehend such an emotion, for all of his mind was centered on her as he watched the fight.
John still spat and hissed at Luc, John’s expressions and bitterness as dark as Devil’s. Fortunately, the exorcist had just enough sense left over not to attack. Luc didn’t want to shoot him. Do that, and he would lose another clue to the mystery that was Maggie Brown. Though Luc now knew what she was, he could tell this story was much, much more complicated. Though he hated to admit this, John Godspeed was part of that mystery.
So Luc stowed his natural desire for revenge, overcame the anger that always licked at his heart, and kept staring at her.
He could only catch glimpses of her from under the chaotic, swirling force of Father Smith’s soul.
Father Smith’s final desire must have been strong indeed, for his ghost was growing more powerful with every second.
But would it be powerful enough?
There was a war going on in Maggie Brown’s mind – a war between Father Smith, the Cardinals, and Maggie herself.
“Trust me, Maggie Brown,” Luc found himself saying once more, “just hold on to the ring.”
… Luc didn’t know why he kept repeating that. He’d already told Maggie once. But he couldn’t stop the words from spilling from his lips every few seconds. His ring was to blame. It was now pulsing with unimaginable force. It felt like all the fires of Hell were trapped within the metal, all burning and pushing against his skin, sending their chaotic heat spreading into his flesh, further and further until it felt like he would burn.
The ring was holding him to his pact – Luc must keep her safe. And he would.
He dropped John, sensing his chance.
Luc turned his back to John, despite the fact the man still possessed an exorcist sword, and despite the fact Luc’s better judgment told him that John was angry and stupid enough to use it.
No. Luc turned anyway, for he could feel it.
He raised his gun and pointed it right at Maggie’s chest. Not her heart – but her exorcist cross. He could catch glimpses of it as the swirling smoke of Father Smith’s soul now circled her faster.
Luc heard the sound of John scrabbling to his feet, heard the sound of the exorcist reaching for his sword.
Luc didn’t move.
He would save this woman, even if it cost him his life.
The fight was growing more intense. If her mind had been a battlefield, it would have been pockmarked and covered with the remnants of once great buildings. A personality laid to ruin.
But… she was still here, wasn’t she? And it was all because of him – because of the heat that wouldn’t stop pushing from her ring. The more she concentrated on it, the less the battle affected her.
She could hear the Cardinals as they called higher, chanted louder, their hate-filled voices vibrating with the power to rend the earth in two.
Father Smith would not give up. He used all the considerable force of his soul to fight the Cardinals until they started to cave.
She could feel them… slipping. Slipping like bare feet on wet stone. Slipping like a sweaty grip on a smooth rail. Slipping like a body being consumed by a violent sea.
Yet, as they fell, succumbing to Father Smith’s force, they only screamed all the louder.
So loud, that she could pick up what they were saying.
“No, she must be killed. Killed for the sake of humanity and the Treaty. Killed before it’s too late.”
“Before it’s too late.”
Their fervor was like a flame, one that threatened to burn her up from the inside out.
Just before it could – she heard Luc’s voice again. For a man she’d only met several hours ago, she felt primed to recognize his voice, as if her ears had been built from the day she’d been born to react to his lilting words. As if her heart had been structured to beat for him. As if her eyes had been crafted to see him – him alone through the darkness.
For that is what she saw. As the smoke of Father Smith’s soul spun faster around her face, she saw him through it. Luc now stood above her, his gun pointed at her cross.
Behind him, John Godspeed rose, a sword in his hand.
“No,” Maggie screamed. Shock and horror pulsed through her, stronger than any emotion she’d felt. Stronger than the Cardinals’ hatred, stronger even than Father Smith’s desire to keep her safe.
That was all Luc needed.
He made eye contact – enduring, penetrating eye contact. He fired.
The bullet from his gun slammed into her cross. It didn’t plunge through her chest or even tear the fabric of her top. The cross absorbed it. With a powerful blast of ethereal light, the cross exploded with force.
“Use it to force them out,” Luc snarled.
He turned, just as John sliced the sword toward Luc’s stomach.
The smoke enshrouded her again, cutting out her sight before she could see if Luc had been struck.
“No,” she screamed again.
The Cardinals screamed back.
Terror – true terror tore through her, ripping through the last of her defenses, ripping through the last of the lies that kept her personality in check. The lies she’d repeated to herself, the lies that promised that Heaven and Hell, the light and dark did not exist.
In a moment of clarity, as Maggie pushed back the last doubt in her mind, she felt the power of her cross push into her.
It provided her with something – a weapon, a will. Though she’d possessed no force to fight the Cardinals before, now she did. She wielded it with all her might, all the while the desperation pulsing through her. She could no longer see, and she could no longer hear, and she had no idea what had happened to Luc.
Luc. One of the seven princes of Hell. A man of the dark. A man who’d tried to kill her, and yet, a man who was now her everything.
So she pushed, using the power of the cross to expel the Cardinals, one-by-one, their screams growing distant like men pushed from cliffs.
Maggie Brown, the Vessel, prevailed.
He jerked to the side, just at the last moment, just before John could skewer Luc right through the heart.
But he couldn’t protect himself completely. As John’s blade came down, it glanced off Luc’s shoulder, tearing through the protective layer of his suit and rending flesh from bone.
A blast of biting, blinding pain slammed into Luc’s mind as the light of the exorcist sword tried to push back the dark of Luc’s blood.
Luc didn’t fall. He jerked to the side, rolling over the carpet, his black, glistening blood staining it. Where it fell, it started to burn holes through the pile and down into the foundations of the house below.
John slashed toward Luc’s throat, but Luc jerked to his feet and flipped. He was slower now. He’d been wounded. More than that, his attention – all of Luc’s attention – was locked on Maggie.
Luc, the Seventh Prince of Hell, could feel something. Something he’d never felt before. Something he’d always elicited and enjoyed in others, but had never endured himself.
Despair. The kind of despair that shakes through you like an earthquake, that undermines and destroys.
The kind of despair that sat like an anvil in his chest, getting heavier and heavier as he again dodged one of John’s mad blows.
Just as that despair rose until it felt like it would strangle him, Luc felt it. A rift. A tear in space like something snapping back on itself.
There was a crack – one that echoed through all the realms. It would have blasted through Heaven, shook through Hell, and blared through all of space.
The Cardinals screamed, for they had lost their possession of Maggie Brown.
Her body jerked all the way back, her head slamming into the carpet, her hair fanning around her and half covering her face.
Though John had been relentlessly attacking until now, as soon as Maggie fell, John swiveled his wide eyes toward her.
They were black. Maggie’s eyes were encapsulated by black smoke – the remnants of Father Smith’s soul.
It had been a gamble to allow the ghost to possess Maggie, and it had paid off. But there was still a chance the ghost would decide not to leave.
Luc’s back stiffened.
Maggie rose. Planting two shaking hands into the burnt carpet beneath her, she pushed up until she stood. Her body shook, her knees like saplings in a hurricane, but the possession of Father Smith forced her to stand.
It also tilted her head back and locked her black-filled eyes on Luc.
“You had your uses, Father Smith. But you have served them, and now it’s time to leave her.” Luc could have said, “that body,” he could have even referred to her as a vessel. He didn’t, because he couldn’t.
His lips tightened over his teeth just as his finger tightened on the trigger of his gun.
Now Maggie was no longer being possessed by the Cardinals, Luc was free to exorcise her, but something stopped him just as he leveled the gun at her head.
Her eyes pulsed wide and she jerked a hand out to him. “Wait,” he heard Father Smith’s voice. Though Luc had never met the man, the power behind it obviously came from a priest.
John stood several meters to the side, his sword still raised, his hair plastered in a sweaty mess over his brow. “… Father Smith?”
Maggie’s black eyes didn’t shift from Luc. Her chin drooped down, her tangled hair covering her face but never daring to jerk in front of her eyes.
“What?” Luc managed.
“Seventh Prince of Hell,” the Father said, Maggie’s lips stiff as they shook over her lips. “They will be back.”
Luc stared from under his eyebrows and tension-locked brow, never blinking. “The Cardinals? I would have thought they would have torn holes in their own minds when you pushed them from Maggie’s.”
“Correct. The seven Cardinals of Pax City are no more. But the others – others will come. Even your unique position cannot save her. And yet,” Maggie brought a hand up and rested her fingers over her Ring of Satan, “you will find a way.”
Luc stiffened, the threat clear.
“For if you don’t, not only will you fall, but so will your precious Treaty. Now do all you can to keep her safe from him.”
Luc’s back prickled with nerves, a charge of tension blasting down his back. “Who?” he managed through stiff lips.
“The one the Vessels were bred to hold.”
Luc’s cheeks slackened. “Who? I have never heard of this.”
Maggie’s lips jerked open wide again, but there was a weakness to the move, her gums and flesh paling as blood drained from her face.
The ghost had managed its task – had achieved the last desire of its soul. Now the force that kept it together and locked in this realm was disintegrating. Wafts of stray smoke kept escaping from Maggie’s body, evaporating with a hiss as they hit the air.
Luc pushed forward. “Tell me,” he demanded.
The Father could not hold on.
The hazel of Maggie’s eyes was returning. There was only the faintest hint of black smoke left, just the faintest glow as Maggie’s body lost its strength and she fell down to her knees.
Luc and John darted forward, but Luc got there first, wrapping a hand around Maggie’s back as he stared into her eyes.
“Follow Father Ray’s path, and you will find,” Father Smith said, his voice nothing more than the faintest whisper. A whisper that turned into a hiss of escaping steam as the last black smoke drifted from Maggie’s eyes.
With a gasp, she fell backward, unconscious.
Luc, Prince of the Kingdom of Hell, held her.
He stared over her shoulder and tangled hair, his gaze unfocused.
He’d begun this night with an exorcism that would change his life forever. Now he was tasked with the impossible.
He had no chance to turn away, no chance to exorcise her and be done with it; his ring wouldn’t let him.
So Luc leaned down, picked her up, and carried the mysterious Maggie Brown out of the house and into the night.
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