"The story is well researched, with interesting characters, and you'll be sucked into the novel within the first chapter." ~ Romantic Times Reviews
"Romance has never been a favorite of mine but Claire Ashgrove has definitely changed my thoughts on the genre as a whole after devouring her latest tale. From the very first page, I was immersed in a world that took my breath away and never let me go." ~ Ficticious Musings
"I would recommend this book to fans of series like Highlanders, Dark Hunters etc. Tortured heroes with the chance of redemption from their true love, who doesn’t love a story like that?" ~ Book Passion for Life
"Only, as the story started to unfold and the character’s complexity is revealed, did I realize just how captivating IMMORTAL HOPE is. I am enamored with the Templar Knights of IMMORTAL HOPE and with their bravery to endure the impending evil that steals their souls bit by bit." ~ Bitten by Paranormal Romance
"From the very first pages of the story, the action is nonstop–and not only that, but the action scenes are so well written and vivid that it’s like each battle is being unfolded before your eyes!" ~ Book Lovers Inc.
"Immortal Hope looks to be a tantalizing new series that promises epic battles, strong women, amazing men and a commitment to a better world. Read it today!" ~ Sizzling Hot Books
Immortal Hope by Claire Ashgrove was such a good read she literally made me read the whole book in one day instead of a week. I could not put it down. Overall this book was great read and would recommend it to anybody." ~ Night Owl Romance Reviews, TOP PICK
“This series (The Curse of the Templars) is explosive, sexy, riveting,
and Claire Ashgrove is a master of her craft.”
MAGGIE SHAYNE, New York Times Bestselling Author
“Ashgrove's Templars will steal your heart and her world building
will leave you wanting more.”
KARIN TABKE, National Bestselling Author
“Claire Ashgrove weaves complex layers of history, paranormal worlds
and romantic fiction seamlessly.”
CATHERINE BYBEE, New York Times Bestselling Author
FIRST PLACE - Readers Crown Awards - Best Paranormal
When darkness rapes the land, the seraphs shall
purify the Templars and lead the sacred swords
—ancient prophecy of the Knights Templar
Abigail Montfort blew out the solitary candle in her windowsill and closed her eyes, inhaling the smokelaced vanilla. Another Allhallows Eve had passed. Exactly 318 had come and gone since she’d given any real concern to the night the spirits roamed in droves. As a girl, she’d hidden in the woods, not knowing which threat posed the greatest danger— the Salem mob or the real ghouls who waited in the craggy trees.
The same vengeful spirits who would challenge her— as they did each Halloween— before she could sleep to night.
Straightening, she pushed open the window to air out the musty old Victorian. The breeze rushed in. She rubbed her arms, shivering. Yet she was not cold. Danger lingered in the atmosphere. A presence watched and waited. One far different from the malicious shades or shape- shifting demons she understood. Something stronger. Deadlier.
Tonight, Azazel’s dark knights roamed.
They searched for what they were not meant to find, as they had for centuries. For what she and two others were destined to protect—the relics that would give Azazel the power to overthrow the Almighty. She guarded the crucifixion nail, and the dark lord would stop at nothing to secure this one bit of iron stained with Christ’s blood. For with it, the unholy ascension began.
She turned from the window and crossed to the front stairs. One hand on the railing, she paused, remembering the cellar door. She dare not bar the Templars’ way. Under these old rafters, the holy knights could rest and heal from the evil they combated. She never knew when they might arrive, but no doubt, to night they’d seek the adytum’s refuge. Gabriel’s orders demanded she be prepared.
She hurried down the basement stairs and across the stone floor to a recessed iron door. Producing a set of keys from her jeans, she quickly unfastened the padlock and threw open the hasp, propping the door open. She traced her fingers over the bottom half of a wine-colored cross embedded in the wood. Darkness tainted its once pristine brilliance, as it tainted the Templars. They were threatened, but still protected. As she looked after the adytum and the relic, Gabriel looked after God’s warriors. They would persevere. If Azazel turned the tide, the archangels would unveil a vessel far more powerful than even the ruler of darkness could imagine.
“Godspeed, noble ones,” she whispered as she turned away.
Front door locked. Holy crucifixion nail safe in its reliquary in the wall. House open to the Templars. All was as it should be. At last, she could rest before the demons came.
She climbed the stairs to her private quarters. In her sitting room, she turned on a lamp and went to the window, opening it to peer at the dormant trees. A shudder rolled down her spine. It was too still, too quiet, even for the midnight hour.
As she crossed to her chair, the hoot of an owl froze her in place. The hair lifted on the back of her neck, stood upright on her arms. Demons she could fight. But that was no demon, no simple shade or nytym with a child’s wisdom. He who cried an owl’s song was a thing of nightmares.
And if he was here, there could only be one reason—the sacred nail Christ bore upon his feet. Two thousand years, and he had finally discovered it. God in heaven, it was happening.
Silence hung thick, the thump of her heart a trumpet to her fear.
She dove for the window and slammed it shut. The urge to run bore down hard. Sweat peppered her brow. She still had time to get away. She could run out the front and be gone from here.
Yet fleeing wasn’t an option. Her duty was to protect the relic. It was why Gabriel saved her from Salem’s mob, why God gave her longevity.
She hurried to the bookcase to retrieve her book of psalms, prayer already tumbling off her lips. The energy around her altered, became more dense as holy might flooded into the room. Her fingers grazed the ancient tome’s scarred surface, and a sense of calm flooded her.
It didn’t last long.
Darkness and hatred pressed down on her like a mighty hand, suffocating the candles. For one heartbeat, nothing happened. In the next, the window exploded in a deafening shower of glass that blanketed the wood floor. Abigail cried out as fragments pierced the back of her neck and stung the crown of her head.
Noxious fumes assaulted her nose, heavy with the odor of death. She swallowed down the bitter taste of bile and clutched the book in shaking hands. “Begone. You cannot hurt me.” She longed to believe the words, yearned for the confidence that came with each recitation. Yet she didn’t need to turn around and face the creature to know the futility.
A wash of hot, fetid air engulfed her. She closed her eyes and trembled, a slave to the fear that emanated off the beast. She felt him push at her mind, great jabs that made her head ache from the effort of keeping him out of her thoughts. She could not reveal the hiding place. He knew the nail was here, but he would not learn where. Not as long as she breathed.
Steeling herself against the certain horror, she turned around to confront Azazel’s knight.
But it wasn’t the horrendous laughter that drained the color from her face and froze her heart. It was the creature himself. The way his dark form held a touch of beauty. His long limbs bore grace; his face carried the glory of God’s creation despite his wicked sneer. Ethereal wings, the fathomless shade of endless night, extended from his back to brush against the tall ceiling.
“Azazel,” she breathed.
His laughter echoed hollowly. “And so the witch recognizes her master.”
A clawed hand snatched at her. Nails raked across her face, shredded the fabric on her arm. The sharp sting jolted Abigail out of her stupor, and she backed up a step, holding the tome in front of her to ward him away.
He laughed harder, his angelic features twisting viciously. “That will not help you now. Where is the nail, witch?”
Seductively, he reached into her thoughts. His quiet murmur lulled her to confide the holy secrets she possessed.
Blocking her mind to the invasion, she raised her voice and recited the words she’d used a thousand times. “By all that is sacred, I command you to leave my presence.”
Azazel lunged with a bellow of rage. One viselike hand caught her arm. Giving her a fierce jerk, he dragged her closer. She fought off a panicked scream and chanted louder, pushed her thoughts into a far corner of her mind where all she knew was the protection of the words, the power of the Almighty’s divine light.
Fury burned behind his soulless stare. “You will tell me.”
He thrust her away like a rag doll. The power of his mighty arm flung her into the opposite wall. Searing pain split her head. An unmistakable crack knifed agony through her body as her ribs shattered. She crumpled to the ground with the broken whisper, “God, help me.”
“If he cared, he would not abandon you here. Tell me where I will find the nail, and I shall take away your pain. I care for you, witch. He does not.”
She knew better than to believe Azazel’s lies. He would remove the pain as he snuffed her life. Defiant, she gritted her teeth and struggled to her knees.
Azazel snatched her into his icy embrace. His face inches from hers, his malevolent gaze scored in to touch her soul. He set his hand over her heart. Gentle strokes aroused her flesh, his touch strangely warm and comforting.
Azazel whispered near her ear, “I’ll take care of you witch. What ever he has promised, I shall grant in double.”
His thoughts caressed hers. Tempting. Taunting. Enticing her to yield to his wickedness. To surrender her faith and with it, grant him power. She was captivated by the hypnotic effect, and her fortitude faltered. It would be so easy to succumb. Perhaps he spoke the truth. If she revealed the relic, would he grant an eternity of peace?
“Tell me, and I shall make you young again.”
Sudden sense jarred her from Azazel’s trance. He spoke lies. Trickery was all Azazel knew. Stiffening against his tender touch, she glared through her fear. “I’d rather die.”
Thin lips pulled back in a sneer. Laughter erupted from his throat. The pitiful wails of thousands of trapped souls filled the room. “As you wish.”
Abigail screamed as his fingers dug through flesh, snapped through bone. Blood blanketed her body with warmth and poured down the length of his unholy arm. Helpless, she watched his stare spark with delight.
Unconsciousness fingered at her mind. She pushed past it and summoned the last of her strength. On a ragged breath, she cried, “Gabriel, unveil the seraphs!”
Kansas City, Missouri,
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 selfreading, 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, fi ddling 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 fi t 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.”
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 fi rst 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 bud get.
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 fi nd 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 fi xed 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.
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 darkhaired 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 fl oor, 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 horrifi c 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.
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. Refl exively, 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.
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. What ever lurked here waited for something. And for what ever 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.”
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