New York Times Bestselling Author

Blood Infernal

BloodInfernal_300_dsIn a masterpiece of supernatural mystery and apocalyptic prophecy, New York Times bestselling authors James Rollins and Rebecca Cantrell bring to a thunderous conclusion their epic trilogy of novels set between the worlds of shadow and light, between salvation and damnation, where the very gates of Hell must be shattered to discover the true fate of humankind in…

Blood Infernal

As an escalating scourge of grisly murders sweeps the globe, archaeologist Erin Granger must decipher the truth behind an immortal prophecy foretold in the Blood Gospel, a tome written by Christ and lost for centuries: The shackles of Lucifer have been loosened, and his Chalice remains lost. It will take the light of all three to forge the Chalice anew and banish him again to his eternal darkness. With the Apocalypse looming, Erin must again join forces with Army Sergeant Jordan Stone and Father Rhun Korza to search for a treasure lost for millennia. But the prize has already fallen into the hands of their enemy, a demon named Legion, before whom even the walls of the Vatican will fall.

The search for the key to salvation will take Erin and the others across centuries and around the world, from the dusty shelves of the Vatican’s secret archives to lost medieval laboratories, where ancient alchemies were employed to horrific ends. All the while, they are hunted, besieged by creatures of uncanny skill and talent. As clues are dug free from ancient underground chapels and found frozen in icy mountain caverns, Erin will discover that the only hope for victory lies in an impossible act–one that will destroy not only her, but all she loves. To protect the world, Erin must walk through the very gates of Hell and face the darkest of enemies: Lucifer himself.

With The Blood Gospel, the first novel in the Order of the Sanguines series, James Rollins and Rebecca Cantrell combined science, myth, and religion to introduce a breathtaking world where miracles hold new meaning and the fight for good over evil is far more complicated than we ever dreamed. And now, in this epic conclusion to the Sanguines trilogy, Blood Infernal, they take us to the very pit of Hell itself, making us peer into the abyss and face our greatest fears, to answer the ultimate question: What price will we pay for true salvation?

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“Imaginative…an almost endless series of riddles and clues, battles and betrayals…before a climactic battle and a surprise ending.” —Publisher’s Weekly

“A perfect choice for anyone who loved The Da Vinci Code, the Order of the Sanguines series combines Catholic mystery, secret history, and heart-pounding adventure…With a story that spans the globe, expertly combining history, horror, and action, Blood Infernal is both a satisfying conclusion to an epic story and a thrilling read unto itself.” — Barnes & Noble, Top Thriller Pick

Blood Infernal is equal parts horror and action with a heavy dose of superstition and science thrown in for good measure, all adding up to a breathless and bracing book, as scary as it is scintillating.” — Jon Land at Providence Journal

“Blood Infernal, the third installment, by James Rollins and Rebecca Cantrell is an amazing finale to the Sanguines series…The authors skillfully combine historical elements of Christianity, science, and love into a wonderful story that is action packed and will tug at the reader’s emotions. It is a must read for anyone who wants to be glued to a book.” — CrimeSpree Magazine

“James Rollins and Rebecca Cantrell have created a series that brings in religious history and fantasy to a new level with the Order of the Sanguines.” — Fresh Fiction

“BLOOD INFERNAL is written at such a breakneck pace that you literally will be short of breath turning the pages. The action, intrigue and suspense are relentless and speed toward the epic conclusion featuring Lucifer.” — Book Reporter

“Blood Infernal, the third installment, by James Rollins and Rebecca Cantrell is an amazing finale to the Sanguines series…The authors skillfully combine historical elements of Christianity, science, and love into a wonderful story that is action packed and will tug at the reader’s emotions. It is a must read for anyone who wants to be glued to a book.” — Black Five

“Each and every book in this series has been an original action packed supernatural thriller and Blood Infernal is no different. But more important its a fitting and sublime end to a wonderful series. ” — Parmenion Books

“Supernatural mystery, religious conspiracy, ancient history all clash together in “Blood Infernal” the conclusion to James Rollins and Rebecca Cantrell’s highly addictive “The Order Of The Sanguines” saga.” — Blurppy

“This was a very satisfying end to the trilogy, and it will have you rapidly turning the pages as you wait to see who will survive from the earth saving trio, and will good triumph over evil… If you want a new Gothic series for February, check out this one, you will not be disappointed!” — Bless Their Hearts Mom

“A rip-roaring historical prologue sets the scenery for this riveting thriller whose suspense never falters. Readers who loved the first two books will find this conclusion immensely appealing; those who haven’t yet read the first two novels can still enjoy this one.” — Mallory Heart Reviews

“I just finished Blood Infernal and all I can say is that I am being assaulted by all the “feelings” at once. It was positively spectacular! I’m not sure what else to say except WOW! Thank you for this series!” — Brandy Wilkes

Interview at International Thriller Writers.

Great write-up of the sites in the book by the travel site, Complete Pilgrim.

“How are thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how are thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations!”

Isaiah 14:12

 

Summer, 1606

Prague, Bohemia

At last, it is almost done…

Inside his hidden lab, the English alchemist known as John Dee stood before a giant bell made of flawless glass. It rose tall enough for a man to stand upright within its inner chamber. The wondrous work had been fashioned by an esteemed glassmaker on the faraway island of Murano, near Venice. It had taken a team of artisans over a year, using massive bellows, and a technique known only to a handful of masters, to spin and blow a colossal pearl of molten glass into this sculpture of perfection. Afterward, it had taken five additional months to transport the precious bell from its island birthplace to the cold court of Holy Emperor Rudolf II in the far north. Upon its arrival, the emperor had ordered a secret alchemist’s laboratory to be built around it, surrounded by additional workshops that extended far beneath the streets of Prague.

That had been ten long years ago…

The bell now stood atop a round iron pedestal in the corner of the main laboratory. The pedestal’s edges had long since gone red with rust. Near the bottom half of the bell stood a round door, also of glass, fastened on the outside with strong bars and sealed so that air could neither enter nor escape.

John Dee shuddered where he stood. Although he was relieved by the coming completion of his task, he dreaded it, too. He had grown to hate the infernal device, knowing the horrific purpose behind its forging. Of late, he avoided the bell as much as he could. For days he would putter around in his lab, his long tunic stained with chemicals, his white beard nearly dipping into his flasks, his rheumy eyes averted from the bell’s dusty glass surface.

But now my mission is nearly complete.

Turning, he stepped to the fireplace and reached to its mantel. With gnarled fingers, he worked the elaborate catches to open a small chamber carved into the marble. Only he and the emperor knew of the tiny chamber’s existence.

As he reached inside, a frantic knocking arose behind him. He turned back to the bell, to the creature that had been imprisoned inside it. The beast had been captured by men loyal to the emperor, dragged here only hours ago.

I must work quickly.

The ungodly beast beat against the inside of the bell, as if it sensed what was to come. Even with its preternatural strength, it could not break free. Older and far stronger creatures had tried and failed.

Over the past years, John had caged many such beasts inside that glass cell.

So many…

Though he knew he was safe, his feeble heart still raced, the animal part of him sensing the danger in a way that his logical mind could not gainsay.

He let out a shaky breath, reached into the secret chamber of the mantel, and drew out an object wrapped in oilcloth. The prize was tied with a scarlet cord and encased inside a wax shell. Careful not to crack the waxy covering, John carried the bundle to the draped window, clutching it close against his chest. Even through the cloth and wax, a dreadful coldness emanated from the object and numbed his fingers and ribs.

He opened the thick curtains a crack, allowing in a shaft of morning sunlight. With trembling hands, he placed the package in the pool of light that fell atop his stone desk and positioned himself on the other side of the bundle so that not the smallest shadow fell upon the object’s surface. He drew a sharp flensing knife from his belt and cut through the wax and the scarlet cord. With great care, he parted the oilcloth as flakes of white tallow broke off and fell to his desk.

Early morning Czech sunlight shone on what lay revealed inside the cocoon of wax and cloth: a beautiful gemstone, as large as his palm, glowing an emerald green.

But this was no emerald.

“A diamond,” he whispered to the silent room.

The chamber had gone quiet again as the creature inside the bell quailed away from what shone upon his desk. The beast’s eyes darted around as light reflected from the gem and formed shimmering emerald veins across the plaster walls.

John ignored the prisoner’s fear and instead stared into the heart of the diamond at an inky darkness roiling inside. It flowed like a mix of smoke and oil, a living thing, as trapped inside the diamond as surely as the creature was inside the bell.

Thank God for that.

He touched the icy gem with one finger. According to legend, the stone had been quarried from a mine deep in the Far East. Like all great stones, this one was said to carry a curse. Men had killed to possess it, dying soon after it came into their hands. Smaller diamonds mined from that same vein graced the crowns of faraway rulers, but this one had not been put to such vain use.

Carefully, he lifted the green diamond. Decades had passed since he’d had it hollowed out. Two jewelers had lost their eyesight using tiny diamond-tipped drills to create the empty space inside the stone’s luxuriant green heart. A sliver of bone so thin it was almost translucent stoppered the small opening—a bone fetched from a Jerusalem tomb over a thousand years before—the last intact piece of Jesus Christ.

Or so it was claimed.

John coughed. The metallic taste of blood filled his mouth, and he spat into a wooden bucket he kept near his desk. The disease that ate him from within left him little peace these days. He struggled for breath, wondering if this time the breath would fail to come. His lungs wheezed in his chest like a broken bellows.

A muffled knock against the door startled him, and the stone slipped between his fingers and fell to the wooden floor. He lunged toward the precious green object with a cry.

The stone landed on the floor, but it did not break.

Pain lanced from John’s heart into his left arm. He fell against the desk’s stout leg. A beaker of yellow liquid crashed to the floor and spread across the boards. Smoke rose from the edge of a bearskin rug laid out on the floor.

“Master Dee!” A young voice sounded from the other side of the door. “Are you hurt?”

The lock clicked, and the door swung open.

“Stay—” John gasped with effort. “—away, Vaclav.”

But the young man had already rushed inside, coming to his master’s aid. He lifted John from the floor. “Are you ill?”

John’s disease was beyond the skill of even the most powerful alchemists in Emperor Rudolf’s court to heal. He struggled for breath, letting the boy hold him upright until at last his coughing quieted. But the sharp pain in his chest did not lessen as it usually did.

The young apprentice touched John’s sweaty brow with gentle fingers. “You have not slept this last night. Your bed was untouched when I arrived this morning. I came up to check—”

Vaclav’s voice broke off as he glanced toward the glass bell—and discovered the creature imprisoned inside. It was a sight never intended for his young, innocent eyes.

A gasp escaped Vaclav’s lips, a mix of surprise and horror.

She stared in turn back toward the boy, a hunger in her gaze as she placed a palm against the glass. A single fingernail scratched at the surface. She had not fed for days.

Vaclav’s gaze took in the woman’s naked body. Wavy blond hair fell past her round shoulders, tumbled across bare breasts. She could almost be considered beautiful. But in the faint light from the curtains, the thick glass gave her snow-white skin a green cast, as if she had already begun to decay.

Vaclav turned to John for some explanation. “Master?”

His young apprentice had come into his service as a clever little boy of eight. John had watched him grow into a young man with a bright future ahead of him, skilled at mixing potions and distilling oils.

John loved him like one of his own sons.

Still, he did not hesitate as he lifted the sharp flensing knife and slashed the boy across his throat.

Vaclav grabbed at his wound, his eyes pinned to John’s by disbelief and betrayal. Blood flowed between his fingers and spattered onto the floor. He sank to his knees, both hands seeking to catch his life’s blood.

The creature in the bell hurled her body against the sides with such force that the heavy iron pedestal rocked.

Do you smell the blood? Is that what excites you so?

John bent to gather up the fallen green stone. He held it up to the sunlight to check the seal. Darkness rolled inside, as if seeking a crack, but there was no exit. He made the sign of the cross and whispered a prayer of thanks. The diamond remained intact.

John placed the stone back in the sunlight and knelt next to Vaclav. He stroked curly hair back from the young man’s face.

Vaclav’s pale lips moved, and his throat gurgled.

“Forgive me,” John whispered.

The young man’s lips formed a single word.

Why?

John could never explain it to the boy, never atone for his murder. He cupped his apprentice’s cheek. “I would that you had not seen this. That you had lived a long life of study. But that was not God’s will.”

Vaclav’s blood-stained fingers fell from his throat. His brown eyes turned glassy with death. With two fingers, John closed the boy’s warm eyelids.

John bowed his head and muttered a quick prayer for Vaclav’s soul. He had been an innocent, and he rested in a better place now. Still, it was a tragic waste.

The thing in the glass bell, the monster that had once been human, met his eyes. Her gaze flickered to Vaclav’s body, then back to John’s face. She must have read the anguish there because, for the first time since she had been delivered to him, she smiled, baring long white fangs in clear delight at his misfortune.

John struggled to his feet. The pain in his heart had not lessened. He must finish his task quickly.

He stumbled across the room, closed the door that Vaclav had left open, and locked it. The only other key to this room rested on the floor in a pool of Vaclav’s cooling blood. John would not be disturbed again.

He returned to his duty, running a finger along the glass pipe that ran from the bell toward his desk. He examined its length for any new flaws or chinks, taking his time.

I am too close for any mistakes.

At its end, the pipe narrowed to a tiny opening, barely larger than a sewing needle, the work of a craftsman at the height of his powers. John drew the thick curtains apart until a ray of morning sunlight fell on the small end of the glass pipe.

The pain grew in his chest, locking his left arm to his side. He needed his strength now, but it was rapidly fading.

With his shaking right hand, he picked up the stone. It glittered in the sunlight, beautiful and deadly. He clamped his lips against the dizziness and used a tiny set of silver tongs to pull the bone sliver from one end of the stone.

His knees shook, but he gritted his teeth. Now that the sliver had been removed, he must keep the stone bathed in sunlight. Even a momentary shadow would allow the smoky darkness inside to escape into the larger world.

That must not happen…at least, not yet.

The blackness flattened and ran up the sides of its small prison, reaching for the tiny opening, but it stopped, plainly fearful of venturing into the light. The evil inside must somehow sense that unfiltered sunlight held the power to destroy it. Its only refuge remained inside the diamond’s verdant heart.

Slowly, and with great care, John settled the small hole carved out of the diamond over the open end of the glass pipe. Sunlight covered them both.

He retrieved a flickering candle that rested on the stained desk and raised it above the diamond, letting wax drip over the gem and glass pipe, ensuring an airtight seal between them. Only then did he close the curtain and allow darkness to fall over the green gem.

Candlelight illuminated the dark mass still moving inside the heart of diamond. It swirled around, creeping up the sides to the opening. He held his breath, watching it flow along the edge. It seemed to probe his seal, and only after discovering no opening into the laboratory did the darkness flow up along the glass pipe. It followed the pipe’s length and continued its inexorable course to where the pipe ended—at the glass bell and the woman inside.

John shook his grizzled head. Though she had once been human, she was no longer a woman. He must not allow himself to view her as such. She had quieted and stood still in the center of the bell. Her luminous blue eyes studied him.

Her skin glowed white as alabaster, her hair like spun gold; both had a watery green cast through the thick glass. Even so, she was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen. She placed one palm against the glass. Candlelight flickered across lovely long fingers.

He crossed the room and placed his palm over hers. The glass was cold against his skin. Even without the pain and encroaching weakness, he had always known that she would be his last. She was the six hundred sixty-sixth creature to stand in that coffin. Her death would complete his task.

Her lips formed a single word, the same as Vaclav.

Why?

He could no more explain it to her than he could to his dead apprentice.

Her eyes went to the blackness that slid ever closer to her prison.

Like the others, she lifted her hand up toward the foul mist as it swept into her glass cell. Her lips moved silently, her face rapturous.

In the early years he had always felt shame at watching this private dark communion, but those feelings had long since left him. He leaned against the glass, trying to get as close as he could. Even the pain in his chest vanished as he watched.

Inside the bell, the black smoke coalesced along the top of the inner cell, forming a mist of tiny droplets that rained down upon the cell’s lone occupant. The moisture flowed along her white fingers and her upstretched arms. She threw her head back and screamed. He did not need to hear her cry to recognize her posture of ecstasy. She rose up on her toes, breasts thrust out, quivering as the droplets caressed her body, touching every part of her.

She shuddered one final time, and then collapsed against the side of the bell, her body slumping to the bottom, now lifeless.

The mist hovered over her form, waiting.

It is done.

John pushed away from the bell. He stepped around Vaclav’s corpse and hurried to the window. He yanked the curtains fully open, wide enough to allow the morning sunlight to kiss the side of the bell. The girl’s cursed corpse burst into flame inside, adding her foul smoke to the waiting haze.

The black mist—now stoked incrementally stronger by the girl’s essence—fled from the sunlight, retreating toward the only dark path left open to it: the glass pipe leading back to the diamond. Using a handheld silver mirror, he reflected sunlight along the pipe, chasing and herding the foul blackness back into the emerald heart of the gemstone, to its only place of refuge in this sunlit world.

Once it was again fully entrapped, John carefully broke the wax seal, freeing the diamond from the pipe. He kept the tiny opening always in the light as he carried it to a pentagram he had drawn on the floor long ago. He set the stone in the middle, still in the sunlight.

So close now

Carefully, John drew a circle of salt around the pentagram. As he did so, he chanted prayers. His life was nearly spent, but at last, he would achieve his life’s dream.

To open a portal to the angelic world.

More than six hundred times, he had drawn this same circle, more than six hundred times he had chanted the same prayers. But in his heart, he knew this time it would be different. He recalled the verse from Revelation: Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is six hundred three score and six.

“Six hundred and sixty-six,” he repeated.

That was the number of creatures he had imprisoned in the bell, the number of smoky essences he had collected upon their flaming deaths into this one diamond. It had taken a decade to find so many, to imprison them, and to gather together the evil essence that animated these damned creatures. Now those same energies would open the portal to the angelic world.

He covered his face with his hands, trembling bodily. He had so many questions for the angels. Not since the times chronicled by the Book of Enoch had angels come to man without the command of God. Not since then had men benefited from their wisdom.

But I will bring their light to earth and share it with all of mankind.

He moved to the fireplace and lit a long taper. He carried it around the circle, igniting five candles placed at the corners of the pentagram. The yellow flames looked weak and insubstantial in the sunlight, guttering in the draft from the window.

At last, he closed the curtains, and darkness cloaked the room.

He hurried back and knelt at the edge of the circle.

From the gemstone, inky smoke flowed from the tiny opening, moving tentatively, perhaps sensing the larger world still glowed with the new day. Then it seemed to grow bolder, rushing toward John, as if to claim him, to make him pay for its long imprisonment. But the circle of salt held it at bay.

Ignoring the threat, John’s voice hissed against the crackling fire as he recited words in the Enochian language, a language long thought lost to mankind. “I command thee, Master of Darkness, to show me the light that is the opposite of your shadows.”

Within the circle, the black cloud quivered once, twice, expanding and contracting like a living heart. With each beat, it grew larger than before.

John clasped his hands in front of him. “Protect me, oh Lord, as I look upon the glory thou hast wrought.”

The darkness coalesced into an oval large enough for a man to step through.

Whispered words brushed John’s ear.

“Come to me…”

The voice rose from out of the portal.

“Serve me…”

John picked up an unlit candle from beside his knee and lit it from one on the corner of the pentagram. He held the flame aloft, calling again upon the protection of God.

A new noise reached him as if something shifted on the far side of the portal, accompanied by a heavy chinking sound, the clang of metal on metal.

Words returned, worming into his mind. “Of all mortals, I have found thou alone worthy.”

John rose and took a step toward the circle, but his foot brushed Vaclav’s outstretched hand. He stopped, suddenly sensing how unworthy he was to look upon such glory.

I have killed an innocent.

His silent confession was heard.

“Greatness has its price,” he was assured. “Few are prepared to pay it. Thou art unlike the others, John Dee.”

He trembled at these new words, especially the last two.

My name is known, spoken by an angel.

He teetered between pride and fear, the room spinning drunkenly. The candle fell from his fingers. Still lit, it rolled into the circle, then through the portal to cast its light on what lay hidden on the other side.

He gaped at a figure of incredible majesty seated atop a shining ebony throne. Candlelight glinted off eyes of black oil in a face of stern beauty, each plane seemingly sculpted from onyx. Atop that beautiful countenance rested a broken crown of silver, its surface tarnished black, jagged edges looking like horns. From beyond wide shoulders rose mighty wings, whose feathers were as dark and glossy as a raven’s. They curved high, sheltering the naked form within their embrace.

The figure shifted forward, disturbing the tarnished silver chains that encased his flawless form, securing him to his throne.

John knew upon whom he stared.

“Thou art no angel,” he whispered.

“I am…and have always been.” Though that smooth voice filled his head, the figure’s lips did not move. “Thy words have summoned me. What else could I be?”

Doubt fluttered in John’s chest, accompanied by a growing pain. He had been wrong. Darkness had not summoned light—it had called to darkness instead.

As he stared in horror, a link of the chain shattered from the figure’s form. Fresh silver shone brightly from the fractured edge. The creature was breaking free.

The sight cut through John’s trance. He fell away from the circle and stumbled toward the window. He must not let this creature of darkness enter this world.

“Halt…”

That single syllable of command stabbed a fiery lance of pain through his head. He could not think, he could barely move, but he forced himself onward. With hands like claws, he grabbed the thick curtain and pulled with all his feeble strength.

The velvet tore.

Sunlight flooded the room, shining onto the bell, the desk, the circle, and, finally, the portal of darkness. A piercing scream rose behind him, filling his skull to bursting.

It was too much.

But it was enough.

As John Dee slumped to the ground, his last sight was darkness again fleeing the sunlight, retreating to its place of refuge in the gem. He offered one final prayer to the world as he left it.

May no one ever find that cursed stone…

 

 

* * *

 

At noon, soldiers shattered the laboratory door with a battering ram. The men fell to their knees in the hall as the emperor himself swept past them.

“Lift not your faces from the ground,” he ordered.

The soldiers obeyed without question.

Emperor Rudolph II walked past their prostrate forms and into the room, taking in the pentagram, the puddles of wax, and the two dead bodies upon the floor—the alchemist and his young apprentice.

Rudolf knew what their deaths meant.

John Dee had failed him.

Not sparing the corpses a second glance, Rudolf stepped into the mystical circle and retrieved his precious diamond from the center. A black mass quivered hatefully inside its leaf-green heart. Cold fury emanated from the stone and clawed at Rudolf’s mind, but it could do no worse. Whatever else he had done, Dee had contained the evil.

Keeping the bright stone in the sunlight, Rudolf stoppered the opening with the sliver of bone that lay abandoned on the corner of the desk, translucent as a snowflake but still so very powerful. He lit a candle and sealed the bone to the diamond using drips of tallow that burned his fingers.

Once done, he sat in the battered chair. With careful movements, he covered the luminous green stone and the darkness that it held with fresh oilcloth. Afterward, he tied the wrapping and lowered the bundle into a cauldron of warm tallow that Dee kept always near the fireplace. Rudolf submerged the bundle to make certain that wax sealed each bit.

He glanced at the men in the hall. They lay as ordered, their faces pressed into the floor. Satisfied that he was unwatched, he opened the secret compartment in the fireplace mantel and tucked the foul object inside. Using the Enochian language, he whispered a quick prayer of protection before closing the secret door.

For now, the evil was hidden.

Weariness dragged at his limbs. It had been long since he had enjoyed a real rest, and he would find none this day either. With a sigh, he fell again into the wooden chair beside Dee’s desk and picked up a scrap of parchment from an untidy pile. He dipped a quill into a silver inkwell and began to write in the Enochian alphabet. Few had been taught the language’s secrets.

When finished, the emperor folded the paper twice, sealed it with black wax, and pressed the seal on his ring into the hot liquid. A trusted man would ride out within the hour to deliver it.

The emperor sought help.

He needed the counsel of the only one who had delved as deeply as Dee into the world of light and dark angels. He stared at the bodies on the floor, praying she could undo the damage wrought here.

He lifted his hastily written note. Sunlight shone against the black letters of her famous name: Countess Elisabeta Bathory de Ecsed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

FIRST

*

For Jesus said unto him, “Come out of the man, thou unclean spirit!”

And he asked him, “What is thy name”? And he answered, saying, “My name is Legion: for we are many.”

—Mark 5:8-9

 

1

March 17, 4:07 p.m. CET

Vatican City

Don’t get caught.

That warning kept every muscle tense as Dr. Erin Granger crouched behind a card catalog in the center of the Vatican Apostolic Library’s reading room. Elaborate frescos decorated the white surface of the arched ceiling that hung far above her head. Shelves of the rarest books in the world stretched on either side of her. The library contained over seventy-five thousand manuscripts and over a million books. Ordinarily, as an archaeologist, this was exactly the kind of place she would have loved to while away hours and days, but it had recently become more of a prison than a place of discovery.

Today I must escape it.

She was not alone in this plot. Her accomplice was Father Christian. He stood on one side of her, in plain sight, silently urging her to hurry with furtive waves of his hand. He appeared to be a young priest, tall with dark brown hair and the sharpest of green eyes, his cheekbones defined, his skin flawless. He could be easily mistaken for a youth in his late twenties, but he was decades older than that. He was once a monster, a former strigoi, a creature who had survived on human blood. But long ago he had joined the Catholic Order of the Sanguines and taken a vow to live eternally on the blood of Christ. He was a Sanguinist now, and one of the few that Erin trusted implicitly.

So she took him at his word concerning this stranger beside her.

The young nun, Sister Margaret, hid next to Erin behind the counter. She breathed heavily, struggling to wiggle out of her dark habit, her wimple already on the floor between them. From the perspiration on the woman’s brow, she was human. Erin swore she could hear the nun’s frantic heartbeat. It was likely a match to her own.

“Here,” Margaret said, shaking loose her long blond hair, catching Erin’s gaze with dark amber eyes. Sister Margaret was about Erin’s size and coloring, and that made her essential to their plan.

Erin pulled Margaret’s habit over her head. Black serge scraped against her cheeks. The cloth smelled freshly laundered. She shrugged the garment across her body and smoothed it over her hips as best she could while still crouched. Margaret helped position her abandoned white wimple over Erin’s head, adjusting it around her cheeks to cover her blond hair, tucking away a few errant strands.

Once finished, the nun sat back on her heels, appraising Erin’s disguise with critical eyes.

“What do you think?” Christian asked from a corner of his mouth, leaning an arm on the card catalog to further hide their actions.

Margaret nodded, satisfied. Erin now looked like an ordinary nun, practically anonymous in Vatican City, where only tourists and priests outnumbered the sisters in their habits.

To finish the subterfuge, Margaret slipped a black cord that held a large silver cross over Erin’s head and handed her a silver ring. Erin slipped the warm circle onto her ring finger, realizing that she’d never worn a band there before.

Thirty-two years old and never married.

She knew how her father, long dead, would have been horrified at such a prospect for his daughter. He had preached ardently that it was a woman’s highest duty to create babies that served God. Of course, he would have been equally mortified to know that she’d attended a secular school, gotten a PhD in Archaeology, and had spent the past ten years proving that much of the history recorded in the Bible was entirely without miraculous origins. If he hadn’t already shunned her for fleeing the religious compound as a teenager, he would have damned her now. But she had made peace with that.

A few months ago, she had been offered a glimpse into the secret history of the world, a world not explained by the books she had studied in school or the science that was the bedrock of her own personal faith. She had met her first Sanguinist—living proof that monsters existed and that devotion in the church could tame them.

Still, a large part of her remained the same skeptic, still questioning everything. While she might have accepted the existence of strigoi, it was only after she had met one, saw its ferocity, and examined its sharp teeth. She trusted only what she could verify herself, which was why she had insisted on this plan to begin with.

Margaret pulled her own blond hair back into a ponytail like Erin usually wore. Beneath her habit, the nun had already been wearing an old pair of Erin’s jeans and one of her white cotton shirts. From a distance, she could pass for Erin.

Or at least I hope so.

They both turned to Christian for his final approval. He gave a thumbs up, then leaned down to whisper in Erin’s ear.

“Erin, the danger ahead is real. Where you are about to trespass is forbidden. If you are caught…”

“I know,” she said.

He handed her a folded map and a key. She attempted to take them, but Christian held firm.

“I’m willing to go with you,” he said, his eyes bright with concern. “Just say the word.”

“But you can’t,” she countered. “You know that.”

Erin glanced over to Margaret. For this subterfuge to work, Christian had to stay in the library. He had been assigned as Erin’s bodyguard. And rightfully so. Of late, the number of strigoi attacks across the breadth of Rome was escalating. Something had stirred the monsters up. And not just here. Reports from around the globe indicated a shift in that balance between the light and the dark.

But what was causing it?

She had her suspicions but she wanted confirmation before sharing them, and this trespass today might gain her the answers she needed.

“Be careful,” Christian finally said, releasing the map and key. He then took Margaret’s hand and helped her stand. It was hoped that everyone would assume that the blonde beside Christian was Erin, keeping her absence undetected.

“Your blood,” Erin whispered. She would need that final item as much as she would the key.

Christian gave a small nod and slipped her a stoppered glass vial containing a few milliliters of his own black blood. She added the cold vial to her other pocket next to a small flashlight.

Christian touched his pectoral cross and whispered, “Go get ’em, tiger.”

Then he ushered Sister Margaret out from behind the card catalog toward the table where Erin had left her backpack and notebook. She stared at the backpack, hating to leave it behind. Inside, sealed in a special case, was a tome more precious than all the multitudes of ancient volumes secured in the Vatican’s secret archives.

It held the Blood Gospel.

The book of prophecies had been written by Christ, inscribed in His holy blood. Only a few pages of that book had revealed themselves. She pictured those fiery lines scribing to life across those ancient blank pages. They were stanzas of cryptic prophecies. Some had already been deciphered; others still remained a mystery yet to be solved. But even more intriguing were the hundreds of blank pages that had still not revealed their hidden contents. It was rumored that those lost secrets might contain all the knowledge of the universe, of God, of the meaning of existence, and what lay beyond.

Erin found her mouth going dry even now at the thought of leaving such a font of knowledge. Pride also prickled through her, knowing such knowledge was meant for her. Back in the deserts of Egypt, the book had been bound to her. Its words could only be read if she held the book in her hands. So, up until this moment, she had carried it everywhere, never letting it out of her sight.

But now she must.

Nuns didn’t carry backpacks, so for her disguise to work, she would have to leave the precious tome in Christian’s capable care.

And the sooner I get this done, the sooner I can be back.

That knowledge drove her to her feet. She had a lot of ground to cover, and if she didn’t return by evening when the library closed, they would all be caught. Pushing that thought out of her head, she kept her back bowed so that no one could see her face. She took a deep breath and stepped out from behind the catalogue into the quiet murmur of the library.

No one seemed to pay her any special notice as she walked slowly toward the front door. She willed herself to remain calm. Sanguinists had senses so acute that they could hear a human heartbeat. They might wonder why a nun walking through the tranquil library had a galloping heartbeat.

She passed rows of shelves and scholars seated at polished wooden tables next to stacks of books. Many of these scholars had waited years to come to this place. They were bent reverently over their tasks, as devout as any priest. She had once been no different from them—until she’d discovered an alternate, deeper vein of history. Well-known texts and familiar paths no longer contented her.

That was just as well. Such ordinary scholarly ways were no longer open to her. She had recently been dismissed from her post at Stanford University following the death of a student on a dig in Israel. She knew that she should be preparing for her future, worrying about her long-term career, but none of that mattered. If she and the others didn’t succeed, no one would have a future to worry about.

She pushed open the heavy library door and stepped out into a bright Italian afternoon. The spring sunshine felt good against her face, but she didn’t have time to linger and enjoy it. She quickened her pace, hurrying through the Holy City toward St. Peter’s Basilica. Tourists were all around, consulting maps and pointing.

They slowed her down, but eventually she reached the grand and imposing basilica. The building symbolized papal power, and no one looking upon it could fail to recognize its strength and grandeur. Even knowing its stern purpose, the beauty of its façade and its massive domes always filled her with awe.

She made straight for the giant doors and passed unchallenged between marble columns so tall that they spanned two floors. As she strode through the atrium and into the nave of the massive basilica itself, she cast a glance at Michelangelo’s Pieta on her right, a sorrowful sculpture of Mary cradling her son’s dead body. It served as a reminder and quickened Erin’s steps.

Many more mothers will be mourning their lost children if I fail.

Still, she had no idea what she was doing. For the past two months she had scoured the Vatican Library, searching for the truth behind the Blood Gospel’s last prophecy: Together, the trio must face their final quest. The shackles of Lucifer have been loosened, and his Chalice remains lost. It will take the light of all three to forge the Chalice anew and banish him again to his eternal darkness.

The skeptical part of her—that part that still struggled with the truth about strigoi and angels and miracles unfolding before her eyes—wondered if the task was even possible.

To re-forge some ancient chalice before Lucifer broke free of Hell?

It sounded more like an ancient myth than an act to be performed in modern times.

But she was a member of the prophetic trio referenced in the Blood Gospel. The three individuals consisted of the Knight of Christ, the Warrior of Man, and the Woman of Learning. And as that learned woman, it was Erin’s supposed duty to discover the truth behind those cryptic words.

The other two members of the trio awaited her solution, keeping busy with their own tasks while she worked at the Vatican libraries, trying to find answers. Neither of them was in Rome at the moment, and she missed them both, wanting them by her side, if only as a sounding board for her multitude of theories.

Of course, it was more than that with Sergeant Jordan Stone—the Warrior of Man. In the few short months since they had first met, she had fallen for the tough and handsome soldier, with his piercing blue eyes, his easy-going humor, and his steadfast sense of duty. He could make her laugh in the most stressful moments, had saved her life countless other times.

So what was there not to love?

I don’t love that you’re not here.

It was a selfish thought, but it was also true.

During the last few weeks, he had begun to drift away from her and everything else. At first she thought that he might be upset because he had been taken away from his regular job with the Army and assigned to the Sanguinists against his will. But lately she’d begun to suspect that his remoteness came from something deeper, and that she was losing him.

Doubts plagued her.

Maybe he doesn’t want the same kind of relationship that I do

Maybe I’m not the right woman for him

She hated even to think about that.

The third member of the trio, Father Rhun Korza, was even more problematic. The Knight of Christ was a Sanguinist. She had come to respect his strong moral code, his incredible fighting skills, and his dedication to the Church, but she also feared him. Shortly after they had met, he had drunk her blood in a moment of dire need, almost killing her in the dark tunnels under Rome. Even now, walking through St. Peters, she could easily recall his sharp teeth piercing her throat, the strange ecstasy of that moment, sealing forever the act as both erotic and disturbing. The memory frightened and fascinated her in equal measure.

So for now, the two remained close colleagues, though a wariness stood between them, as if both knew that the line that had been crossed in those tunnels could never be fully erased.

Maybe that’s why Rhun vanished out of Rome these past months.

She sighed, again wishing the two men were here, but knowing the task before her was hers alone. And it was a tall order. If the trio must re-forge something called Lucifer’s Chalice, she must discover some clue as to the nature of that prophetic cup. She had searched the Vatican’s archives: from its subterranean crypts moldering with age to shelves high up in the Torre dei Venti, the Tower of Winds, whose very steps Galileo himself had once tread. But for all of her study, so far she had come up empty-handed. There was only one last library left for her to explore, a collection forbidden to anyone with a beating heart.

The Bibliotheca dei Sanguines.

The Sanguinist Order’s private library.

But first I must get there.

The library was buried far below St. Peter’s, in tunnels restricted to the Sanguinist Order, to those strigoi who had vowed to serve the Church, who had forsaken the consumption of human blood to survive only on the blood of Christ—or more precisely, on wine transubstantiated by blessing and prayer into that holy essence.

She stepped more briskly across the vast basilica, noting that extra Swiss guards had been stationed here. The entire city-state was on heightened alert because of the surge of strigoi attacks. Even with her nose buried deep in books, she had heard stories that the monsters involved in these murders were somehow stronger, quicker, and harder to kill.

But why?

It was another mystery, one whose solution might be found in that secret library.

Over the past few months, she had read thousands of dusty papyrus scrolls, ancient parchments, and carved clay tablets. The texts were recorded in many languages, written by many hands, but none of them had the information she needed.

That is, until two days ago

In the Tower of Winds, she had discovered an old map concealed between the pages of a copy of the Book of Enoch. She had sought out that ancient Jewish text—a book purported to have been written by the great grandfather of Noah—because the work dealt with fallen angels and their hybrid offspring, known as the Nephilim. It was Lucifer who had led those fallen angels during the war of Heaven. In the end, he was cast down for challenging God’s divine plan for mankind.

But upon opening that ancient volume in the Tower of Winds, a map had fallen free. It had been drawn in strong black ink on a piece of yellowed paper and annotated by a flowery medieval hand and showed another library in Vatican City, one older than any of the others.

It was the first she had heard of this secret library.

From the map, it appeared this collection was hidden within the Sanctuary, the warren of tunnels and rooms below St. Peter’s where some Sanguinists made their home. In those ancient tunnels Sanguinists flocked to spend untold years of their immortal lives in quiet contemplation and prayer, removed from the cares of the bright world hundreds of feet above. Some had lived in those halls for centuries, sustained by mere sips of sacramental wine. Every day priests delivered wine to their still forms, holding silver cups to their pale lips. They sought only peace, and access to their tunnels was carefully controlled.

According to the map in her pocket, the Sanctuary held the oldest archives in the Vatican. She had privately consulted Christian about this place, learning that most of documents hidden there had been written by Sanguinist immortals who had lived through the events of the ancient world. Some had known Christ himself. Others had been old even before those times, converted to the order after hundreds of years of savagery as feral strigoi.

Though the Sanctuary was forbidden to humans, Erin had been down there once before, accompanied by Rhun and Jordan. The trio had brought the Blood Gospel into the Sanguinists’ innermost sanctum, to receive the blessing of the founder of the Order of the Sanguines, a figure known as the Risen One. But she had learned then that he had a name more significant to Biblical history.

Lazarus.

He had been the first strigoi who Christ had commanded into service.

Upon learning of this library, Erin confronted the current head of the order in Rome, Cardinal Bernard. She had sought permission to enter that library to continue her line of research, but she had been soundly rebuffed. The cardinal had been firm that no human had ever been allowed to cross its threshold. He also assured her that the library only contained information about the order itself, nothing that would help with the quest.

Erin hadn’t been surprised by the cardinal’s reaction. Bernard treated knowledge as a powerful treasure to be locked away.

She had tried playing her trump card. “The Blood Gospel itself anointed me as the Woman of Learning,” she had reminded Bernard, quoting the recent prophecy revealed in the desert. “The Woman of Learning is now bound to the book and none may part it from her.”

Still, he refused to bend. “I have read deeply and widely from this library. No one in the Sanctuary ever walked with Lucifer and his fallen angels. The stories of his fall were written long after it happened. So there remains no firsthand account of how or where Lucifer fell, where he is imprisoned, or how the shackles that bound him in eternal darkness were forged or could be re-made. It would be a waste of time to search that library, even if it weren’t forbidden.”

As she had glared into his hard brown eyes, she realized he would not break those age-old rules. It meant she had to find her own path down there.

She stared across the last few yards of the basilica, toward a statue of St. Thomas—the apostle who doubted everything until presented with proof. She smiled softly through her nervousness.

There’s an apostle after my own heart.

She continued toward the statue. Below its toes lay a small door. It was normally unguarded, but as she rounded toward it, she discovered a Swiss Guardsman standing before the threshold, half hidden within the door’s alcove. She clenched her teeth and moved to the side, out of direct sight. She knew who was to blame for this new addition.

Damn you, Bernard.

The cardinal must have posted a guard after their earlier heated conversation, suspecting she might attempt to sneak below on her own.

She searched for a solution—and discovered it within the grasp of a girl a few steps away. The child appeared to be eight or nine, bored, dragging her feet across the ornate marble tiles. She rolled a bright green tennis ball between her palms. Her parents ambled several yards ahead of her, talking animatedly.

Moving quickly, Erin fell into step with the girl. “Hello.”

The girl glanced up, her blue eyes narrowing in suspicion. Freckles ran across her nose, and her red hair was braided in two pigtails.

“Hello,” the girl said reluctantly in English, as if she knew that she had to answer nuns.

“Could I borrow your ball?”

The girl pulled the tennis ball protectively behind her back.

Okay, new tactic.

Erin lifted a hand, revealing a five-euro note in her fingers. “Then maybe I could buy it?”

The child’s eyes widened, staring hard at the temptation—then thrust the fuzzy ball toward her, making the trade, while surreptitiously staring at her parents’ backs.

With the deal done, Erin waited until the child had moved off, joining her mother and father. She then tossed the ball underhand in a long arc across the nave toward a tight knot of people several yards past from the posted guardsman. The ball pegged a short man in a gray overcoat on the back of the head.

He yelled sharply, cursing in Italian, causing a commotion that echoed through the vast space. As she had hoped, the Swiss Guardsman moved off to investigate.

Erin used the distraction to hurry forward and fit the key Christian had given her into the door lock. At least the hinges proved to be well oiled as she pulled the way open. Once through, she closed the door behind her and locked it by feel, her heart hammering.

She placed her palm against the door, worry rising inside her. How am I going to get back out without being caught?

But she knew it was too late for second-guessing.

Only one path lay open to her.

She clicked on her flashlight and took stock of her surroundings. A long tunnel stretched in front of her. The rounded ceiling looked about nine feet tall, and the walls curved in. Next to the door a dusty oak table held beeswax candles and matches. She took a few of each but didn’t light them. They’d be good backups to have in case the battery failed in her flashlight.

She pulled the map out of her pocket. On the back, Christian had drawn a schematic of the tunnels that led down to the Sanctuary itself. Knowing there was no turning back, she gathered her heavy skirt in one hand and set off. She had at least a mile to cover before she reached the Sanctuary gate.

Her light bounced up and down as she hurried, its narrow beam moving ahead of her, revealing mouths of secondary tunnels. She counted them under her breath.

One wrong turn, and I could be lost down in this maze for days.

The fear made her move faster as she descended narrow staircases and traversed the maze of tunnels. The tiny vial of Christian’s blood bumped against her thigh, reminding her that the price for knowledge was sometimes blood. It was a message that had been drilled into her as a child, made acutely real when her father discovered a book hidden under her mattress. Her father’s rough voice echoed in her ears, drawing her into the past.

 

“What happened to Eve when she ate from the tree of knowledge?” her father asked, towering over the nine-year-old version of herself, his powerful farmer’s hands clenched into threatening fists at his sides.

She wasn’t sure if she was supposed to answer his question and decided to stay silent. He was always angrier over things she said than when she kept her mouth shut.

The book—The Farmer’s Almanac—lay open on the well-swept floorboards, lamplight shining on its creamy pages. Until today, she’d only ever read the Bible, because her father said that it contained all the knowledge that she would ever need.

But within the pages of the almanac, she had discovered new knowledge: when to plant seeds, when to harvest crops, the dates of the phases of the moon. It had even contained a few jokes, which proved her downfall. She had laughed too loudly and had been caught, sitting cross-legged under her desk reading.

“What happened to Eve?” he had pressed her, his voice low and dangerous.

She decided to try to protect herself with Biblical quotes, keeping her manner timid. “ ‘And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked.’ ”

“What was their punishment?” her father continued.

“ ‘Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception.’”

“And that is the lesson you will learn by my hand.”

Her father forced her to choose a willow switch and ordered her to kneel in front of him. Obedient, she dropped to her mother’s clean floor and lifted her dress over her head. Her mother had sewn it for her, and she didn’t want it to get dirty. She folded it carefully and placed it on the floor next to her. Then she gripped her cold knees and waited for the blows to come.

He always let her wait a long time for the first one, as if he knew that the anticipation of the pain was almost as bad as the blow itself. Goosebumps rose up on her back. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the almanac, and she wasn’t sorry.

The first blow cracked across her skin, and she bit her lips to keep from crying out. If she did, he would add more blows. He switched her bare back until blood ran down and soaked into her underwear. Later she would have to clean the bright red spatters off the walls and floor. But first she had to endure the lashes, waiting until her father decided that she’d shed enough blood.

 

Erin shuddered at the memory, the dark tunnels somehow making it more real. Her back twinged even now, as if remembering the old pain and the lesson learned.

The price of knowledge was blood and pain.

Even before her back had healed, she had returned to her father’s office and read the rest of the almanac in secret. One section contained a weather forecast. For a year she’d tracked it to see if the authors knew what the weather would do, and they were often wrong. And she realized that things in books could be wrong.

Even the Bible.

Back then, the fear of punishment hadn’t stopped her.

And it won’t stop me now.

Her feet pounded the stone, carrying her along until at last she reached the door to the Sanctuary. It was not the main entrance into their territory, but a rarely used back door, one that opened not far from their library. This gateway looked like a blank wall with a small alcove that held a stone basin, not unlike a small bowl or cup.

She knew what she must do.

The secret gate could only be opened by the blood of a Sanguinist.

She reached to her pocket and retrieved Christian’s glass vial. She studied the black blood roiling inside. Sanguinist blood was thicker and darker than any human’s. It could move with a will of its own, flowing through veins without the need of a beating heart. That was about all she knew about the essence that sustained both the Sanguinists and the strigoi, but she suddenly wanted to know more, to tease out the secrets of that blood.

But not now.

She emptied the vial’s dark contents into the stone basin, while speaking words in Latin. “For this is the Chalice of My Blood, of the new and everlasting Testament.”

The blood swirled within the cup, stirring on its own, proving its unnatural state.

She held her breath. Would the gate reject Christian’s blood?

The answer came as the dark pool seeped into the stone, vanishing away, leaving no trace.

She let out a sigh, whispering the final words, “Mysterium fidei.”

She took a step back from the sealed wall, her heart pounding in her throat. Surely any Sanguinists nearby would hear that telltale beat and know she was standing at their threshold.

Stone ground heavily on stone, slowly opening a passage before her.

She took a step toward that waiting darkness, remembering her father’s painful lesson. The price of knowledge was blood and pain.

So be it.

 

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