Lies, sacrifices, and alibis. They all come together to threaten the already fragile alliance between Dusty and Jonas. After a short, but much-needed side trip to Spain, they set about solving the riddle of the next stone's location. Unfortunately for them, the five-star accommodations which they have become accustomed to, get downgraded, and Dusty's tortured past begins to haunt her dreams.
As they travel the American desert in an RV, the unbalanced chessboard tilts once more, but in whose favor will the pieces fall this time? Possessing the first two stones, Seth is becoming more powerful and devious in his wicked schemes to acquire the third. With a game-changing confession from Bacchus, will they be able to thwart an apocalypse each of them is beginning to feel may well be inevitable?
Egypt in a desolate church
It is painful burying a friend. More so when he saved your life countless times. That agony tore at Sir Francis de Molay’s heart the day they laid Sir Miles Garioch to rest. Only the tried-and-true knights he served with attended the humble service – the Noble Templars only accepted rootless men into their ranks who had no ties to use against them in times of strife.
Per his request, the knights set fire to the headless body in a blaze of glory. Those who attended, did so in silent prayer, hoping that his spirit would find eternal life in the kingdom of Heaven. Only Francis knew that his friend’s soul – damned for all time – would be on its way to a far different place. That knowledge – added to the weighty chain already crushing his usually optimistic essence – gnawed at him like a rabid wolf.
When the service concluded, they gathered the ashes and placed them in a simple bronze urn, handing it over to Francis. “I’ve tried reaching out to Duncan,” one of the knights said, “but there’s no answer, and his voicemail is full. Should I keep trying?”
“No,” a backlog of warehoused tears clogged his throat. “I’m quite sure Duncan already knows, and he’s probably well on his way over here as we speak.” Holding the urn as if it were a newborn fawn, misty eyes looked up at the man. “See you back at the church. Miles would wish us to continue this fight with all haste.”
Giving the three-finger salute – the peace sign with a thumb added – the man walked off, leaving Francis to his remorseful thoughts. Did I do the right thing? Should I have killed the beast while we had the chance? Would Miles still be alive if I had?
The hour-long ride back to their church riddled Francis’s mind with such doubts; grief-stricken guilt ate away at his insides – so much so, that when he arrived, he could hardly make his way into the well-appointed office. Still clutching the urn, he fell into a large chair, spinning it to face the morning sun pouring through the window. A parade of tears streamed down his gloomy face, pinging onto the container’s surface; granting himself permission to finally mourn.
“Save your grief for the afterlife, Francis,” came a low, guttural voice from behind him.
His heart lurched into his throat, beating out of control, causing him to take a second to compose himself before turning. Setting the urn carefully on the desk, his lower lip quivered. “Duncan. I knew you’d come. I am so sorry.”
Red eyes bore down on him as enraged laughter shook the small room. “Sorry?! You have no idea of sorry!”
“I feel the same as you, and I–” suddenly suspended in the air, the vice grip wrapped around his throat, choking off his supplicating words. Shaky fingers pulled at the clamp around his neck – hyoid threatening to break in two. His face turned beet red as aching lungs strained to find breath.
“You know nothing of what I’m feeling! Tell me why I shouldn’t snap your mortal neck like a twig.” Ivory fangs slowly descended as the fury within threatened to take over. Duncan managed to just scrape by with his struggles against the beast, but with the traumatic emotions in a whirlwind of jumbled chaos, he found it almost impossible to curb the calling of his bloodlust.
Trying to capture enough air to speak, Francis sputtered. “He… was my… friend too.”
Duncan Garioch snarled, his fingers gripping tighter, before slamming him back into his chair. “He was my brother!”
“Of course.” He coughed between precious gulps of air. “We were brothers ‘til the end, but he and I–”
“No, you fool. He was my twin brother!” Turning, he eyed the window – curling his hands into fists that cut into his flesh before releasing them as they instantly healed – trying to bridle his resentment.
Through coughs and shallow breaths, Francis eyed the man in silence, until he felt Duncan’s rage subside. As the severe ringing in his ears fell silent, his forehead creased. Not wishing to reignite the man’s anger, he spoke in low tones, massaging his tender neck. “Twin? That’s not possible. We have never allowed–”
“Allowed?” His hypnotic gaze snapped back, as irritated laughter once more filled the room, like a mad scientist in his lab. “That tidy little rule book, tucked away in that mass of dogma you call a brain, is not a neatly paved road to salvation.” Taking the seat opposite him, Duncan ran a set of long fingers through his tousled light hair. “Miles and I were born to the same parents on the same day.”
“Orphaned at the age of six, we learned how to survive on our wits, but we had no sense of purpose. Street urchins, they called us, and we were damn good ones. Being so young, people took pity on us, willing to spare a coin or a bite to eat. Hell, some gave us shelter for a brief time. We learned how to steal, survive, and live on barely enough to feed a bird. Some days were better than others. We did,” he heaved a heavy sigh, “whatever it took to get by. One day, out of nowhere, knights rode into our village, spouting off about how God sent them to recruit able-bodied men for their fight against evil in the Holy Land. By then we were eighteen, and those words… those promises of food, shelter, never having to live on the streets, turned our heads, but the glory on Earth and in Heaven…” shaking his head, a blood tear coursed down his cheek as his eyes glanced at the copper-colored urn, before shooting back to Francis. “We were hooked. Having already served our time in Hell, we joined up, trained, bought into the whole “we’re right, they’re wrong” deal.”
“We were right then and still are to this day.” Francis pointed at the Bible. “Ephesians six-eleven; Put on the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.”
“Amen. Five hundred strong we went into battle without so much as making a sound. With the blare of the trumpet, we sang loud and clear, not to us oh Lord, not to us but to thy name give glory and with our lances, we charged the enemy. We never yielded. We either destroyed them… or we died. We never backed down. Though injured, countless fought until they no longer could. Upon our return, the weak and injured set the pace for the rest of us in front… as we would leave no one behind… and the stronger of us took up the rear, still protecting them from anyone who might attack God’s warriors… protectors of the faith.”
“Yes. King Louis the seventh, Richard the third, and Louis the ninth all trusted us. We brought order to the royal army.” Francis spoke with pride.
Memories of the past filled his head. Sneering, Duncan jumped up, leaning over the desk, setting his balled fists flat against the top. “We spilled the blood of thousands of Muslims. Men, women, children. Didn’t matter to us one bit. We even slaughtered their livestock. Why? Because God ordained it to be. We became wealthy. Plundered gold, silver, jewels. You name it. If it had value, we took it because the Vatican told us that God approved. They were enemies of the Lord and therefore ours as well… their blood spilled for a worthy cause. It was righteous. That is… until King Philip the fourth… the Fair,” he snorted, “engineered the election of Bertrand de Goth, making him Pope Clement the fifth.”
“I’ve heard the stories.”
“I lived them!” The glaring daggers hit their mark. “He bought cardinals, pulled strings from behind the curtain for them to do his bidding until the number of French cardinals in the Vatican’s College of Cardinals equaled the Italian ones. They elected the person of his choosing. Bertrand. Philip wanted full control of everything… including the church that had cast a bad light on him after killing Boniface. In time, he moved the papal court to Avignon. Philip knew of the vast wealth we accumulated… and wanted it. That’s when we found out about our beloved, spineless Vatican, and God didn’t have anything to do with it. Pope Clement the fifth abolished the order.”
“Yes, but the confessions–”
“They spun us as heretics, tried us, made several write false confessions. Then again, a man will say anything to stop someone from torturing him. Day in. Day out. Nothing but pain until your soul screams for a death that never comes. Did you know that you can break almost every bone in your body and continue to live?”
“No. That sounds painful.”
“Painful is an understatement. It’s like red-hot lava coursing through your body, igniting every nerve, every muscle, every blood cell. Then… then, just to make a point… they burned us at the stake. No more were Templars respected and held in high esteem. Catholics and Muslims alike hunted us, so those of us left went into hiding. Self-preservation, you might say. Miles and I… must have been about… thirty, I believe. We found out the horrible truth about the real enemy. It wasn’t a fanatical religion that didn’t agree with ours, or a king who had more power than brains. Hell, it wasn’t even our religion. We found out about the undead. Immortals, who lived off the blood of human beings, even making more of their kind. Vampires. We saw a way to return our order to power. We’d rid the world of these vile creatures, save mankind, and become heroes.”
“A true knight doesn’t worry about being a hero,” pride tinted his tone. “Our mission is and will always be the same. Destroying the evil that infects our world. That’s why we captured the beast who will–”
“Shut up. You don’t know the whole story, only what those who indoctrinated you into the order wanted you to know. You’re as bad as we are with your lies, secrets, and betrayals.” Sitting back down, Duncan took a deep breath, smoothing his trousers before continuing, resting his elbows flat on his legs. “We tried fighting them, thinking our faith would protect us. It didn’t. Our numbers dwindled. When there were only a few hundred left, we gathered in secret at Stonehenge. We needed a plan.” Turning a saddened gaze to the urn, his jaw jumped as he clenched his teeth. He tightened his hands into fists, knuckles turning white, once more cutting deep into his flesh, before slowly exhaling. “Miles brought up the idea to infiltrate their ranks. It would be easier to find out their weaknesses. If they even had any. Then we could exploit them. Destroy them. We had one way to do that… to become them. Few volunteered. That’s giving your soul over to Satan.”
“Not necessarily. God will forgive his warriors if their heart stays true.” Francis crossed himself before kissing the silver crucifix around his neck.
Seeing the action, Duncan let out a small laugh. “I don’t remember seeing that in the commandments. Perhaps you can show it to me.” Waving a hand, he cut him off. “Whatever. It didn’t matter to us. Our souls were a small price to pay to save humankind from the evil trying to destroy it. Eighty of us agreed to the plan. We would become one of them. Live their lives. Learn their powers. Find their weaknesses and exterminate them. That made us double agents.”
“A dangerous plan, but it should’ve worked. What happened?”
“It didn’t go as smoothly as we planned. Several of us were able to fight the temptation of the power compelling us to do evil. We did whatever was necessary to survive, but we were always able to keep one foot, sometimes just a toe, in the door to our humanity. Most of the others gave in and became what they hated.”
“If they truly went to the dark side, why didn’t they turn you in?”
“Maybe brotherly loyalty, or a little goodness still found within the evil… who knows.” Looking off to the side, Duncan rolled his shoulders. “We made a pact at the beginning, that no matter what happened, we would never turn on each other. We were brothers to the grave and beyond.” Looking up at Francis, Duncan’s eyes turned from deep brown to a hypnotic gold.
His mind filled with sadness, alternating from the funeral service to trying to visualize what Duncan told him. Without warning, a bloody massacre began all around him. Adrenaline flooded his already frazzled nerves, confusion caused his heart to beat faster, and his breath came in short gasps.
What’s going on? Where am I? How did I get here?
Spinning around, every muscle tightened as he found himself without a weapon, unable to help anyone. One man stood on a hill, laughing as the terrified people ran from him, screaming in fear. In the blink of an eye, the man appeared in front of a woman. His face twisted as sharp fangs descended. Grabbing her by the hair, he shoved a hand into her heaving chest. Shock settled in as her shrieks stopped, staring at him with wide eyes. When the man ripped out her heart, she sank to the ground with a silent thud. Turning, he began eating the still-beating muscle, her blood dripping down his arm, pooling at his feet.
Francis’s stomach lurched, threatening to spill his breakfast. Beads of perspiration broke out on his forehead, running down his face as if in a marathon. His whole body shivered from head to toe as the gruesome images continued, blanketing his thoughts with never-ending horror.
As if taking a step off of a steep cliff, he fell until he landed back in his office. Grasping the chair’s arms, his shattered mind tried leaving behind the remnants of the nightmare. Wiping away the sweat, Francis shot frightful eyes at Duncan. His words barely above a whisper. “What was that?”
“Evil. It isn’t easy resisting that call. Feeling your victim’s terror wash over you like a gentle breeze. Hearing the frightened heartbeat of someone in front of you,” sharp incisors extended, a low menacing growl murmuring from deep within, “wanting to rip it out of their chest. Drain them of every drop of blood. It’s an addicting drug that fills you with a sense of control. You long for it. It takes more than just willpower to resist. It takes gut-wrenching restraint. You feel as if your head is about to explode. Many of us couldn’t deal with that kind of pressure. Then again… satisfying the need is so easy. Just reach out and take what we want. Like taking candy from a baby.” Point made; his fangs retracted as he let out a deep sigh.
Francis felt the exact moment when Duncan released the mental grip on him. Shocked by how easily he crept into his mind, he rubbed his jugular protectively, clearing the terror-ridden phlegm from his throat. “I’m sorry for what you suffered for the sake of mankind. You are a hero. I only wish people knew what you sacrificed.”
“As you said… a knight doesn’t do things to become a hero. There are those in everyday life who do things to better mankind. Firefighters, police, doctors, EMT’s, the military, and anyone else who rushes into danger to help others… instead of away from like cowardly mice… are the modern-day knights and heroes… and get little reward and recognition. It’s who we are deep down. The true evil are those individuals fighting and doing anything to hurt another being. Because like any other villain, they target the weak and defenseless. That’s why we have heroes. To protect those who don’t stand a chance.”
“True. I don’t know of any who could deal with that. I know I couldn’t.” Sad eyes glanced at the urn before falling back on Duncan. “Moving on to the present. About the beast. Perhaps we skipped ahead a bit. Our emotions were on overload as we wanted to jump at the chance to capture, interrogate, and–”
“It didn’t occur to you, that maybe you should take Miles along.” His gaze fell on the urn, once more releasing a pain-shattering sigh. “In case the big bad vampire got the drop on you?”
Straightening in his chair, Francis cleared his throat again. “We discussed bringing Miles along. Just in case. However, I felt it strategically to our benefit to leave him behind. I didn’t want the creature knowing vampires were working with us, nor did I feel that information needed to be divulged to his mortal victims, who I now realize are his accomplices, in case a clash happened.”
“I don’t normally call people idiots,” his eyes snapped back at him, “but you’re an idiot. In that puny brain of yours, you never once thought about how Miles could have affirmed, or refuted, your conclusion that Jonas Sparx was the one?”
“I saw no need to chance that because Brother Dominic’s drawing was–”
“Wrong,” he growled. “Who beheaded Miles and took it as a souvenir?”
“Sparx, I assume. Since the death of Miles, we could use your help finding him. Next time, we–”
“There won’t be a next time, Francis.” Eyeing him, Duncan tapped his fingertip against the edge of his chin. “You assume it was Sparx? You haven’t looked at the security footage to make sure?”
“Well… not yet. I–” Realizing his error, Francis slid his laptop over. Turning it so they both could see, the men watched as a woman appeared in the frame. “His female victim. Or rather accomplice.”
Duncan’s eyes never left the screen, taking in all key points. When Dusty came into the picture, he allowed a slight lift at the corner of his lip, pride filling his eyes. As his brother entered the scene, he held up his hand. “Stop it there! Why doesn’t she shoot him? Her weapon’s drawn. Miles doesn’t use guns. She has him dead to rights and has the ammunition to end his life.”
That question, among others, egged Francis’s mind as the screen fell back into motion. Miles drew his sword. A brief exchange of words between them ended when the knight turned into a statue, poised to slice the woman in half.
Continuing to watch the scene play out, Duncan’s face paled – if it could get any whiter – as another man appeared. “You impotent son of a–”
“What is it? Is this man one of their followers too?” Having never seen Duncan afraid of anything made the tiny hairs on the back of his neck stand straight on end.
His lips pursed not wanting to witness the death of his brother. “Speed this up.”
Francis’s jaw almost hit the floor when the man took Miles’s head. “H-how did he–”
“That,” Duncan said, rising from his seat, pausing the video, “is your beast. Not Jonas Sparx.”
Unease – like seeing a toxic asp – wrapped around his spine as Francis looked hard at the solemn image on the monitor, committing the man’s features to memory. “Then we will concentrate on finding him.”
Once again, the mad scientist took over as Duncan burst out in ironic laughter. “How many men are under your command, Sir Francis?”
Arching a brow at the eruption, his tone turned indignant. “Seventy-five loyal men, willing to die to prevent this apocalypse.”
“Really? That many. If you go after this vampire, you’ll need to dig seventy-five holes.” Pointing at the figure on the screen, Duncan glared. “That, my dear Francis, is Seth. And before he kills your men, he’ll make sure you watch them die. Slowly. In agony. Then, he might let you go so you live the rest of your life hearing their screams, or he’ll turn you into a youngling and make you live with the regret for centuries.”
Crinkling his brows together, he scrutinized the image. Everyone in the order heard the frightening stories about Seth. “That’s Seth?”
Glaring at Francis, Duncan stepped back. “If you would’ve used your head, my brother would still be here. I’m holding you responsible.” Turning to leave, he stopped at the door. “If you’re serious about going after Seth, you might want to find Jonas Sparx. Maybe beg his forgiveness and ask to help him. If anyone is going to stop that bastard, it will be Jonas… and Dustina.”
Before Francis could answer, the man vanished. Staring into the empty room, Duncan’s strange words echoed through his mind. Seth’s involvement turned this into a far more dangerous mission than before; he didn’t think that could be possible. Curiosity got the better of him and he hit play, watching the glimmer of silver as the woman withdrew a shiny necklace from her shirt. She kissed it, lovingly, before tucking it back into place, hidden from the world once more. Blinking in surprise, blue eyes grew wider as his rapidly beating heart leapt into his throat.
No! It can’t be!
Taking a screenshot, he enhanced the image, narrowing in on the gold and silver crucifix. His face blanched as recognition lined his features. His knees shook before losing all strength, falling back into the chair. “God help us all!”