Book excerpt

Immortal Hope

The Curse of the Templars

The Curse of the Templars

Claire Ashgrove

Tor/Forge

CHAPTER 1
 

Kansas City, Missouri
November

Things kept secret are revealed.
Anne MacPherson held the solitary High Priestess card in both hands. Her brow furrowed as she recited the tarot card’s meaning for the dozenth time. Over the years, she’d had odd cards crop up for her daily self-reading, but this one beat them all. And it hadn’t just turned up once. Beyond the solitary draw she began each morning with, she’d done several readings in between clients, and the High Priestess showed up in every one. Always in the position of what lay in the near future.
She was about to learn secrets. With the day half gone, the chances of that being true rapidly dwindled. A night of unpacking the boxes in her new house’s basement didn’t look too promising for prophecy fulfillment either.
Unless, by some odd chance, she stumbled across some mystical object the old witch rumored to have lived in the brick Victorian had stashed away. Again, highly unlikely. Especially since thieves had ransacked the house after the woman’s death. They’d even knocked in the wall searching for her spell book, according to Gabe, her boss and much-adored house finder.
“Anne?” Gabe Anderson called from the shop’s front room. “You about ready to lock up for the night?”
“Yeah.” She tossed the card on to the top of her deck and stood up. “Coming.” She gave the High Priestess another frown before she gathered her purse and jacket. Secrets. Right.
Ducking under the heavy curtain that divided the shop’s retail section from the reading room, Anne found Gabe hunched over the counter, fiddling with a small brown box. As she approached, he tucked thick gray dreadlocks over his shoulder and smiled. “How’s your sister? Did she get back to California okay? I’ve been thinking about her a lot.”
Anne just bet he’d been thinking about her. With the way he’d fawned over Sophie last week, he probably did a lot more than thinking about her fraternal twin. Of course, that was the way things went with Sophie. Anne had yet to meet a man who didn’t harbor some fantasy about her drop-dead-gorgeous sister.
She shrugged. “Sophie’s fine. She has some charity gala coming up right after Thanksgiving. I guess the emcee canceled at the last minute, and she’s been tearing out her hair to replace him.”
“Well. Maybe this will cheer her up.” Gabe pushed the small box in front of Anne.
She glanced down and squinted. Gabe’s elegant handwriting covered the wrapping with fancy loops and swirls. He’d addressed it to Sophie’s Malibu home. Anne groaned inwardly. Just what she needed—her boss fawning over her sister. “What’s this?”
“One of these.” He reached under the counter and produced a clunky gold bracelet. “I found this when I was in St. Louis yesterday. Since you’re doing your doctoral thesis on the Knights Templar, I thought you might like it.”
Wrinkling her nose, Anne took a half step back. Gabe had an uncanny way of picking up old objects that had some misplaced spirit attached to them. For a man so in tune with the metaphysical world, he sucked at reading energy. Gingerly, she took the bracelet between thumb and forefinger and held it at arm’s length.
When a vision of some previous owner didn’t immediately assault her, she closed her fingers around the ornament and brought it closer. What she had mistaken for gold was brass. Veins of black patina etched out a series of intricate scales around the large loop, forming two serpentine heads that joined nose to nose. Two small rubies served as eyes. Atop the smooth heads, two inlaid crimson crosses identically matched the Templar mark in her basement door. Though meticulously crafted, the artistry was crude, and the piece obviously held a tremendous amount of age. “St. Louis?” She held it up to the light, assessing the odd play of color in the snakes’ scales. Energy rippled beneath the metallic surface, a pulse Gabe had evidently missed. Yet it laid dormant, content to keep its identity hidden. Not too terribly threatened, she tried the trinket on.
Gabe’s weathered features crinkled with a mischievous smile. “Yep. You like it?”
“It’s interesting.” And too big for her wrist. The heavy piece rested at the base of her thumb. If she tucked her thumb against her palm, she’d bet it would fall off without encouragement. She tested the theory, dismayed when the bracelet tumbled to the floor.
A quiet chuckle made her glance up. Gabe shook his head, amused. “It’s not a bracelet, Anne. It’s an armband. And it’s quite old.”
“Armband?” Curious, Anne picked up the adornment and slipped it back on. She pushed it over her elbow and higher, until it came to a neat, snug fit above her bicep. “How old?”
Gabe winked at her. “You study it tonight. Tell me later.”
His meaning went unsaid. He knew if she studied it long enough she could identify those who had possessed it before. Doing so would take time and concentration, however. A task better left to late-night entertainment after she unpacked her boxes. And after she caught up on the research she’d neglected for the last two weeks.
“Okay.” She tapped the package. “This is the same thing?”
“Black eyed, but yes.”
Anne fingered the serpents’ tiny gemstones. Fitting. And just like Gabe. Red to match her hair, black to match Sophie’s. She dropped the package into her purse.
“By the way.” He turned around and punched in the store’s security code. “I have to leave town for a while. I’m not sure how long.” He slid her a sideways glance that set Anne’s instincts on alert. She reflexively stiffened.
“I know things are tight financially right now, Anne. I’ve arranged for you to receive your usual weekly pay, but I’m closing the shop for a while.”
Anne’s eyebrows lifted. “What? I can run things here, you know. I don’t feel right about taking money I haven’t earned.” Despair tightened her chest. Though she didn’t feel comfortable with the generous offer, she had more important things at stake. Two weeks ago, she’d run into a stranger with a particularly old soul at the library. When the woman discovered Anne read past lives, she begged for Anne’s card and promised to come in for a reading. Anne felt certain the woman had some link to early medieval France, and since meeting her, Anne had been unable to think about anything else. If Gabe closed the store, she would miss the opportunity to discover what was essentially a firsthand account of the exact era her thesis depended on.
Gabe shook his head as he took her elbow and guided her toward the front door. “No. Take some time for yourself. I know the semester is in full swing at the college. You’ve got papers coming in from your students, I’m sure, what with Thanksgiving break next week. You can relax and really move into the new house too.”
“But—”
He cut her off with a hard stare. “No arguing. You’ve let your research slip to make time for this store of mine. You’ve got an interesting theory, and I won’t see you jeopardize your PhD.”
Steering her through the exit, he pulled the front shade and locked the door. He leaned down and kissed her cheek. “Go on home. Enjoy a paid vacation. Get that thesis finished. Tell me what you learn about those crosses and how they came to be there when I get back.”
Before she could stutter another protest, he shut himself inside his car. With a hearty wave of his hand, he started the ignition.
Anne grumbled as she unlocked her Honda Civic’s door. Sometimes Gabe Anderson could be the most frustrating man on earth. She’d worked for him for a year—long enough to learn when he set his mind to something, there was no changing it. With a heavy sigh, she slid behind the steering wheel and tossed her purse onto the passenger’s seat.
He was right on several accounts. She did have a stack of research papers waiting on her desk. There wasn’t much else she could do with the house once she finished her unpacking. Fresh paint and wallpaper adorned all the walls. In her favorite colors too—a surprise Anne had gushed over when Gabe first took her to view the Atchison, Kansas, landmark. He was also right about the financial aspect. She counted herself lucky the house had stigma attached to it. Yet while murder dropped prices, the payments left little bargaining room in her budget.
Then there was the matter of her thesis. When she’d developed the premise that the Knights Templar were deliberately sabotaged by the medieval Catholic Church, it had seemed an easy statement to prove. Using the accepted theory that the Templars found something beneath the Temple Mount, she was able to prove their early rise in power tied directly to the Church and backers within the clergy. She’d even been able to nail out proof that the same rise in power and unique freedoms the Templar Order enjoyed came from hush money. In addition, enough evidence lurked between the lines of recorded fact to prove their last grand master was the Church’s pawn. But with most of the documentation about the Order’s demise lost to time, her driving theory hinged on discovering what the Order had found—something no one in history had ever been able to discover. As such, her paper was at a dead standstill, unless she could find the evidence through the metaphysical.
If she didn’t manage to prove the statement by Christmas break, Dr. Phillip Knowles would retire, and she could kiss the position as head of the History Department good-bye. As Dr. Knowles’ protégée, and the foremost expert on medieval France despite her relative youth, it had been conditionally promised to her.
She turned the key and backed out of the alley lot. Sometimes she hated the drive back to Atchison. But working at a Catholic college dictated she hide her association with the occult. And she loved guiding people through spiritual journeys. She used the cards as a mask to her true talent, which came with touch. One clasp of the hand with the appropriate focus, and she could see her clients’ past, present, and immediate future. More than once, she’d made a real difference to people in need.
Then there was the fact that twice she’d found trinkets in Gabe’s store that held some attachment to the Middle Ages and the Knights Templar. The possibility she might find a piece that would answer, once and for all, why the Church had eradicated the Order kept her driving back and forth.
Maybe this bracelet would tell her something important. She’d spend some time with it when she got home. If it told her anything, she could justify putting off grading papers for another night.
The miles passed as she envisioned the bracelet’s possible originations. Egypt, Rome, China … all favored the serpent in some portion of culture. But the Templar cross dated the thing as more modern. Only, by the time the Templar reigned, snakes had lost their divinity, assuming instead the symbol of the devil. Had the bracelet been some sort of alms or payment given to the Order? It wasn’t entirely out of the realm of possibility they would have marked it with their insignia to keep something so obviously old within the membership.
She chuckled. What would Gabe say if he knew the tattoo on her ankle bore a striking resemblance to his gift? Two intertwined snakes, both circling her ankle in opposite directions. Although hers were black and lacked the curious crosses on their heads.
Still laughing to herself, she swung past Atchison’s post office and dropped Sophie’s present into the drive-through box. Her sister would get a kick out of the thing. While she hated to listen to Anne babble about the Templar, Sophie loved anything old. Anne would ask to change bracelets with her later and see if her sister’s had anything important to share.
Inside the two-story, brick Victorian, the smell of fresh paint welcomed Anne home. She inhaled deeply, searching for the lingering undertones of vanilla that mingled with the aroma. She’d never been able to identify where the scent came from, but it hung in the air, a comfort each time she walked through the door.
She dropped her purse onto the dining room table, then shoved aside her stack of research materials so she could sit down. Sliding off the armband, she held it between both hands and closed her eyes. The energy attached to the piece buzzed against her fingertips, subtly increasing the more she opened her mind. When it filled her veins and she could identify it as a tangible entity separate from hers, she opened her eyes and stared at the serpents.
An image rose with the force of a fist. Clear, concise, it punched through her subconscious and swamped her with intensity. A clouded sky cast hues of gray on a barren landscape. Trees overhung a narrow lane, their leaves droopy with dew. In the distance, a solitary horse and rider stood atop a grassy hill.
She focused on the figure, expecting features to morph in slowly, to fit together like a puzzle until she could grasp a vague expression, a shrouded picture. But with digital precision, the man’s features leapt forth. A mass of unkempt dark hair tumbled against his shoulders. Through a hardened stare, dark eyes fixed on an unseen subject. Strong jaw, firmly set mouth. Harsh, yet oddly beautiful. Power emanated from his cold expression. He kept a hand on a broadsword’s plain hilt. The other held his horse’s reins. Her belly fluttered, unaccustomed to the strikingly accurate portrayal.
The image shifted, giving her a broader view. He was dressed in full chain mail, and a white surcoat hung from his shoulders. The cloth was pristine, despite the dreary landscape. Her throat slowly closed as she focused on his attire, the bold crimson cross against his chest unmistakable.
Templar.
Her pulse jumped to life with a buzz of excitement. A real Knight Templar had touched this hunk of brass. But when?
She struggled to identify what he stared at on the horizon. A battle? A building? Was he fleeing or arriving? Where were his companions? For that matter, where was he? Panning backward, she focused on the energy, asked it for more information. Yet the vision vanished, leaving her staring at the armband.
Templar. Her gaze riveted on the crosses in the serpents’ heads, and she stepped through the vision once more. He looked so regal sitting on that horse. Intimidating, though he’d been at rest. That long hair gave him a roguish appeal, his chiseled features almost threatening. And his eyes … Sudden recognition filtered a chill through her veins. She’d seen him before.
Slowly, she lifted her stare to the closed cellar door. The first day she’d walked through the house, she had touched that cross on the door. Like this bracelet, that emblem refused to grant her the vision after the initial revelation. But she hadn’t forgotten the picture—a dark-haired knight digging in soft earth in a torchlit tunnel. He had looked up, as if he’d sensed her, and those onyx eyes stared right back.
Determined to discover more about the handsome knight, Anne closed her eyes and focused once again.
*   *   *
Merrick crumpled under the weight of a heavy blow. His knees hit the hard cave floor, jarring his spine and forcing the air from his lungs. Evading an onslaught of claws and fangs that tore at his arms and face, he arched his back to assess the enraged nytym, one of Azazel’s demi-demons. With skin like cracked leather, it had two hate-filled orange eyes and a gleaming set of razor-sharp teeth protruding from a piggish snout—the word ugly did not do it justice. The stench rolling off it was enough to make any man nauseous, but Merrick had long become accustomed to the putrid smell.
He scanned the creature’s underbelly and tightened his hands around the hilt of his sword. In one swift upward thrust, he drove the blade deep into the nytym’s gut. The cretin let out a horrific scream and toppled forward, its face inches from Merrick’s. Foul breath washed across his cheek before its teeth slowly closed. Unholy life drained from its body, and the nytym’s eyes went dark.
Merrick drew in a breath, steeling himself against the death. Darkness oozed from the gaping wound. It rolled down his broadsword, disappearing into his sword’s unadorned, leather-wrapped pommel. The vileness seeped into his hand, crawled up his arm, and wormed into his blood.
A slow burn spread through his body as the evil spirit wrapped itself around what remained of Merrick’s soul. No longer able to support his own weight, he sank to his heels and bowed his head, struggling to catch his breath. God’s teeth, nearly a thousand years of fighting Azazel’s minions, and he had yet to become accustomed to the pain.
“Are you all right, brother?” Declan’s hand came down upon Merrick’s shoulder. The Scot’s firm squeeze pulled Merrick from the agony that blurred his vision.
“Aye,” Merrick managed through clenched teeth. “’Tis no worse than any other.”
Declan gave him a short nod and released his hold. He stepped out of Merrick’s line of sight, giving Merrick a clear view of their third companion, Farran, as he sliced off a grotesque head. Farran sheathed his broadsword and joined the pair. The darkness hit him as well, and the younger man dropped to his knees with a groan.
Merrick shuddered as the last of the effects rolled through his body. He sucked in a deep breath and rose on shaky legs. “’Tis the last of them. Declan, move the stone.” He inclined his head toward a massive slab of rock against the far side of the cavern. There, in the cold dark depths beyond, the stench intensified. Noxious fumes rolled through a jagged crack and filled the cave with death, warning them if they waited to seal the gate, more creatures would soon arrive.
As Declan gave the stone a mighty heave, Merrick sheathed his sword. He tugged off his gauntlets and tucked them into the thick belt at his waist. The weight of his chain mail felt three times heavier than when he had dressed, and his body ached from head to toe. He would not survive much more of this. The weakness worsened with each vile life he claimed.
Farran struggled to his feet, equally affected by the evil’s power. His features pulled tight, grim lines that spoke to the pain none of them could escape. Behind the blond man’s eyes, anger burned. Fury that had no outlet. Once they had held laughter. Merrick could recall a time when Farran entertained them all with wit and humor. Now those emotions were as tainted as their souls.
“I am for the truck.” Without so much as a faint smile, Farran shouldered past Merrick and strode back the way they had come.
“’Tis sealed, Merrick.” Declan’s thick brogue echoed in the dimly lit cavern. He picked up their lantern and brought the warm light to Merrick’s feet. “What say you to visiting the temple? Many months have passed since we have seen our brethren.”
Three, to be exact. Merrick suspected Declan’s count was slightly off. Declan had never particularly cared for Fulk to count the days since Azazel claimed him. Yet Merrick knew the precise hour evil overtook his cousin’s soul. “I cannot, Declan. I must find Fulk. I gave him my oath.”
“Och, one day, Merrick. ’Tis a pity Fulk now fights for Azazel, and well you ken I would expect the same from you, were it me. But one day willna make a difference.”
Merrick shook his head. One more day was one more night of killing innocents—a fate Fulk would despise. They had formed a pact hundreds of years ago. The first to convert from a Templar into a knight of Azazel, the other would free with death. Merrick would not rest until he had reclaimed Fulk’s soul and sent it home to the Almighty. “You go on. Take Farran with you. I am too full of aches to sit in the truck another two hours. I shall stay at the adytum tonight and meet you here in the morn.”
A frown turned the Scot’s mouth into a tight line. “Mikhail ordered our return. He bears news he willna relay over the telephone.”
Merrick ground his teeth together to temper a rush of annoyance. “You may bring this news to me. I have no need to hear words of hope. I have three, mayhap four, fights left in me. Less, should you consider the toll darkness will take, once I put an end to Fulk. Tell Mikhail to send for me when he has more than words to share.”
Merrick unfastened his sword belt and set it on the ground. He jerked off his dingy white surcoat, then bent at the waist to shrug his hauberk over his head. Merrick stuffed the articles into his duffel bag, skipping his cursory damage assessment. If the mail was damaged, he could do naught until he found rest. His eyes would never survive the strain of mending links of steel.
As he fastened his belt around his waist, he felt Declan’s heavy gaze settle on his shoulder blades, heard the reproach in his silence. Bollocks! ’Twas not as if he wanted to shirk his duties all together. He simply could not tolerate the camaraderie of temple life until he had fulfilled his oath.
Ignoring Declan, he zipped his duffel bag and slung it over his shoulder. “I shall be glad to see Abigail and remind myself what pleasant company is like. God be with you, brother.”
He left the brooding Scot in the middle of the cavern and struck off down a darker, narrower corridor. Whatever Mikhail had to share made no difference. Merrick did not have time to believe in fanciful promises of a day they would turn the tide and forever hold advantage over Azazel. A thousand years had not granted such. A thousand more, Merrick would not live to see.
He trudged down the damp corridor, the fatigue in his limbs weighing him down. Abigail would have food in the cupboards. A bit of bread, mayhap some cheese, and his energy would return enough to take himself up the stairs to bed. In blessed sleep, he would find relief. Let Declan and Farran dine with the men, let them hear the empty words Mikhail offered to rally their dying spirits. He would rest and regain what fragile energy his soul had left.
At the end of the short tunnel, he braced his shoulder against an iron door. It swung open with a creak. Darkness greeted him, the familiar light at the top of the stairs shielded by the upper door. The hour must be well toward dawn, for Abigail never barred their way.
He shifted his duffel bag to a more comfortable position and took a step forward.
His foot connected with something large and unmovable. Losing his balance, he stumbled. The armor in his bag gained momentum. It swung forward, taking him with it. He toppled to the ground, barely catching himself on his hands before his nose met the stone floor.
“Saints’ blood!”
With another embittered mutter, he heaved himself off the ground. Had it been so long since knights sought the adytum that Abigail became lazy? He would have to speak to her about this. Remind her Gabriel’s orders dictated the passage should remain clear.
His arm twitched as he picked up his bag and mounted the stairs. He was spent and exhausted, and each step required sheer determination. Were it not for his abject pride that refused to sleep on stone, he would as soon bed down in the basement than face another flight of stairs. Mayhap he would choose the sofa. Unlike other adytum caretakers, Abigail never minded waking to unexpected guests in her parlor.
He opened the door to the first-floor landing and found a lamp burning at the end of the hall. But ’twas not the distant light that made him frown. The scent of rot hung in the air, making him stiffen. Reflexively, he dropped his hand to the sword at his belt and took a deep breath. Though it was faint, the pungent odor engulfed his senses. A stench he would recognize anywhere.
Demons.
His fingers tightened on the hilt, and he eased his duffel bag to the floor. With a cautious step forward, he braced for confrontation. The house was quiet save for the refrigerator’s low hum. Not unearthly still, but full of the comfortable silence that came with a house at rest.
He followed the light, his pulse tapping a rapid cadence as he anticipated a surprise attack. Whatever lurked here waited for something. And for whatever reason, Abigail had not banished it.
Approaching the doorway to the parlor, he watched the light flicker as a shadow moved through the adjoining room. Merrick drew his sword with a wince. Pain rippled through his shoulder. Sword poised at the ready, he stepped into the light. Best to finish this before he collapsed.
His gaze swept the room and came to an abrupt halt on a woman. She stared back with eyes as wide as saucers and as blue as a cloudless English sky. God’s teeth! Demons could assume a hundred forms and shapes, but this surpassed all trickery he knew, for he would swear upon his immortal soul, he had never seen a more beautiful creature.
Long auburn hair framed features more delicate than porcelain. Flushed with spots of color, her high cheekbones held a noble air and offset a gently sloped nose. Her parted lips were full and soft, the kind of mouth that begged a man to sample its sweet flavor. His heart kicked against his ribs. With the heavy beat, a sensation he had not experienced in centuries surged through his blood. Desire, as he had never known, rose fast and hard.
By God, Azazel grew bold.
Merrick shoved his shock to the wayside and raised his sword. “Tell me your name, demon. I wish to curse you as you die.”

 
Copyright © 2011 by Valerie M. Hatfield
Claire Ashgrove is an author and a mother to two wonderful boys. In her copious spare time, she raises and trains Oldenburg, Thoroughbred, and Arabian horses.