Excerpt for Better the Devil You Know Book One by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

All characters in this publication are fictitious, any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.


Better the Devil You Know

Book One

Copyright © 2016 Odette C Bell

Cover art stock photos: licensed from Depositphotos.

www.odettecbell.com






Better the Devil You Know


Book One


From now until the day she dies, she will be hunted.

When Maggie Brown comes to the attention of Luc, the Seventh Son of Satan, she makes a pact to save her life. He must do everything he can to keep her safe.

It will come at a cost. For both of them. Luc is used to getting what he wants, when he wants it. But with Maggie, all that will change. They’ll be thrust into a world of dark revenge, of broken souls, of twisted desire.

Better the Devil You Know is an action-packed urban fantasy sure to please fans of Odette C. Bell’s The Frozen Witch.


Chapter 1

Maggie Brown

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?

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….

Jesus Christ.

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.

Luc

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.

The guard?

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.

Then?

Ah, Luc felt it. He could’ve basked in it.

Anger, desperation, cruelty, the desire for death. You name it.

A sinner.

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.

Personally?

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.

The prisoner?

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?

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.



Chapter 2

Maggie Brown

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?

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.

No power.

Great.

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.

Then?

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.

And now?

Right now?

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.

Maggie?

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.

Nothing.

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.

Nothing.

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.

Nothing.

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.

Then?

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.

Nothing.

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?

No.

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.

But then?

She felt two hands wrap around her throat.

Two hands that started to choke her.


Chapter 3

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.

Chapter 4

Luc

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.

Luc?

He could.

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.

First?

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.

Interesting.

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?

No.

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.

Emptiness.

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.

Nothingness.

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.

A mistake.

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.

Nothing.

Empty.

But no destiny could be empty.

Not truly.

Interesting,” he said once more.


Maggie Brown

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.

And now?

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.


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