Roz has been indebted to the demon Asmodai for five hundred years, and her freedom is just around the corner. All she has to do is complete one last task for him
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A Novel of the Order
By Nina Croft, Liz Pelletier
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Nina Croft
All rights reserved.
Roz had been right; she made a crap nun. But a deal was a deal.
Or way more appropriate in her present circumstances — she'd made her bed, and now she had to lie on the bloody uncomfortable thing.
She shifted on the thin mattress. What the fuck was in it? Straw, she was guessing. What was it about these people that had made them decide suffering was good for you?
She'd researched the place before she'd set up the job: the sisters lived by a creed she would never understand, devoting themselves to a life that was poor, chaste, obedient, and wholly dedicated to prayer.
Well, good for them. But not good for her.
This place was seriously doing her head in. She hadn't had a cell phone signal since she arrived, she'd drunk the last of her stash of scotch last night, and now she'd even run out of batteries for her vibrator. And to top it all, the effort of pretending to be nice was rapidly eroding her will to live.
She'd better find this Key thing tonight, or she'd go completely insane. There was only one more area left to search — deep under the church in the catacombs.
Excitement rose inside her. The ten o'clock bell had chimed a while back. The sisters would all be in their cells, settling for the night. No doubt they'd be down on their knees, praying to a god who couldn't be bothered to answer.
Roz glanced around her own cell. Ten feet by ten feet, bare stone walls, a flagged floor, and a small window, too high up to look through, with no glass, just bars. Now, in the height of the summer, it let in warm, lavender scented air. She couldn't begin to imagine what it would be like in the winter. A shiver ran through her just thinking about it.
Staring up at the ceiling, she forced herself to wait another hour, going over in her mind what she would do when she was free. In more than five hundred years, she'd seen Asmodai maybe a hundred times, but still he controlled her life totally. Told her what to do, where to go, when to disappear and give up her old life. In his own way, he'd kept her safe, taught her how to hide in plain sight, and warned her of the potential dangers.
Apparently, it wasn't only humans who would hunt her down, but also other things. He hadn't gone into details, just told her that under the Shadow Accords, the laws that bound the supernatural races, she was considered an abomination that could — and would — be killed.
Yeah, that was her.
Fuck them all.
She'd do this last task and she'd vanish, make a life for herself somewhere warm and sunny, away from the darkness.
When she was sure everyone was sleeping, she rose to her feet, brushing down the heavy habit and adjusting the headdress. She would be so happy when she could toss it in the bin. The sun had gone down, and she lit a candle — she'd pinched the batteries from the flashlight the first time her vibrator had run out — and quietly opened the door. The light flickered off the walls of the corridor, throwing strange shadows, never quite lighting the dark corners.
She understood better than anyone what lived in the dark places, but surely, this hallowed ground would keep the night creatures at bay.
After making her way through the convent, she headed toward the church, hesitating before the huge double doors. Placing her palm on the wood, she pushed. The door eased open a mere sliver, and she slipped through. For a minute, she stood just inside, breathing in the scent of beeswax and gazing around her. Candles were always kept alight in the church, and she could see clearly. The steps to the catacombs were at the far side of the nave, past the altar, but again she hesitated.
Something wasn't right. There was a chill to the summer air. This was her tenth night here, and the atmosphere felt different. She told herself she hated this place, but in fact, the calm ambiance soothed her. Usually. But not tonight.
Swallowing down her unease, she hurried along the aisle between the wooden pews. At the far end, a locked oak door led down into the catacombs — she'd stolen the key from the Mother Superior's office earlier that evening. The wood creaked as she pushed it open. Raising the candle, she breathed in deeply, filling her nostrils with stale, musty air. At the same time, a sense of excitement gripped her, because far below her, she could sense the presence of the Key. The stairs seemed to go on forever; she'd counted to fifty when a shrill scream cut the silence. Roz tripped and dropped the candle. It rolled down a few steps and sputtered out, leaving her in complete darkness.
Then the night filled with screams, transporting Roz back to that long ago time. Once again, she was in that stinking cell, the stench of smoke and charred flesh heavy in the air. Grief, fear, and rage all mingling in her mind.
She whirled around and ran up the stone steps, hands held out in front of her. Almost falling through the door, she stood for a moment. The screams were louder here, and coming from the living quarters of the convent. What the hell was going on?
She was halfway down the aisle, headed for the double doors, when the sound was cut off. Skidding to a halt, she raised her head, listening. She was about to move when the door swung open from outside. Some instinct made her dive for cover behind one of the broad stone pillars.
The faint stench of rotten eggs wafted in through the open doors. Roz peered around the edge of the pillar as a mass of hunched shapes surged into the church. They lumbered down the aisle, some upright, some shuffling on all fours. Half-hound, half-human, with crimson eyes glowing in the dim light. There must have been ten or fifteen of the beasts, and at their center strode a tall man. The creatures flowed around him like water.
Roz drew back. Hugging the cool stone, she breathed in the hot sulfur smell. A smell she recognized so well.
She held herself very still as she waited for them to pass her hiding place, then edged around the pillar so she could watch. As the seething mass parted for a second, Roz caught a glimpse of one of the sisters clasped in a crooked, claw-like grip — Sister Maria, the youngest of the nuns. She was dressed in her habit, but the headdress was missing so her short hair stuck up in angry spikes. Her pretty face was blank, unseeing, as though she had zoned out of the horror going on all around her.
The group came to a halt at the front of the church by the altar, but then split up, most of them heading toward the catacombs.
Shit. Shit. Double shit.
It looked like they were after the same thing she was. And unfortunately, it also appeared like they had a hell of a better idea of where it was than she did.
Just three figures remained in view, plus Sister Maria, who was hanging almost unconscious from the arms of two demons. The man — at least he looked like a man — had dark hair, pale skin, and full lips. His eyes, green as emeralds, glittered as he paced the aisle.
Should she try to rescue the sister? But if she did, they would both die — Roz had no doubts about that. They had kept Maria alive for a reason. Roz could only hope it wasn't to provide entertainment later.
At that moment, a loud yip of triumph filled the air. The man turned as the demons swarmed around him. One of them handed him a small package. Roz tried to make out what he held, but they were too far away. Anyway, she could guess — her key.
A slow smile curled the man's lips. He shoved whatever it was in the pocket of his pants and strode toward where Sister Maria still hung between the demons. He tore her habit down the front, baring her to the waist. "Pretty," he murmured, stroking his finger down over one small breast. "Unfortunately, I have no time tonight. Maybe if we meet again." He spun her around, and at the same time drew a knife. Did he mean to kill the sister after all? Instead, he used the blade to cut a pattern in the skin of her back. Luckily, Sister Maria fainted at the first touch of the knife and hung lifeless.
When he'd finished, the demons released their grip, and she dropped to the floor. The man crouched beside her and slapped her face until she groaned and her lashes flickered open. "That's a message. For Piers Lamont. And here's the address. Make sure he gets it or I'll be back to finish our business." He dropped a piece of paper in front of her, and it fluttered to the stone floor.
"Is the place clean?" he asked his minions. The response must have been positive because he nodded. "Good."
He waved a hand in the air and a portal opened in front of him. The demons swarmed through, vanishing from sight. He paused. "Oh, and tell Piers that Jack said hello. Tell him I'll be in touch."
Then he was gone.
Roz waited long minutes after the portal had vanished, before edging toward the fallen nun. Small whimpering sounds were coming from the woman — so she was alive, at least.
"They killed them all." Sister Maria's low voice was laced with despair. "They didn't ask for anything, just killed them." Pushing herself up, Maria winced in pain.
A flicker of regret washed through Roz at the thought of the nuns. But they were dead and beyond help. It was the living who mattered. "Lay still for a minute," she said. "I'll go check and see if everything's quiet."
"Sister Rosa? Please don't leave me."
Roz hesitated. It was dawning on her that she had failed. That someone else had snatched her prize from right beneath her nose. How many more years of servitude would she have to endure?
No. Goddamn it. She wouldn't give up when she was so close.
Asmodai didn't need to know she had failed — yet. Maybe this man, Piers Lamont, could lead her to the Key. Who could he be? What was his involvement in this world? At the least, she could snoop around. See if there was any way she could redeem this mess. She would go and deliver the message to Piers Lamont, and afterwards, decide where to go from there.
"Please, Sister Rosa." Maria broke into her thoughts, her soft voice laced with pain.
Roz crouched down and examined the sister. The pattern cut into the skin of her back was a circle with a diagonal cross through it. Blood welled up in the cuts, blurring the lines, and she reached out a finger and touched the clammy flesh. Sister Maria flinched.
Roz contemplated the wounds for a few seconds. They were angry, puffy at the edges, and seeping blood. This was going to make traveling difficult.
Could she risk it? Asmodai's warnings echoed in her mind. Don't bring attention to yourself. But this was a necessity and nothing to do with the little mewling sounds of pain oozing from Maria's clenched lips. It was just so that Maria wouldn't be a total liability and could get around unaided.
Roz placed her palm against the bare skin of her back. Maria flinched again but then sagged under the touch as Roz sent the tiniest pulse of magic down through her hand.
"That feels so good," Maria murmured. "What did you do?"
"Nothing. We have to get out of here."
"Where will we go?" Maria asked.
"Can you remember what that man said to you?"
"That I'm to go to a Piers Lamont and give him a message. But shouldn't we contact the Mother Superior, make for the convent in Ambersley?"
"Well, I for one am staying as far away from convents as possible for the foreseeable future. Besides, he said they'd come back for you if you don't deliver the message."
Maria shuddered. "Who were they? What did they want?"
"Maybe this Piers Lamont can tell us."
The piece of paper lay on the floor, and Roz picked it up. It was an address in London, in the business district. "We need to go to London."
"London?" Maria said as though the city was on another planet. Her shoulders slumped, but she gave a small nod. "Maybe this Piers Lamont is a man of God," she murmured. "Maybe he can keep us safe."
"Yeah, maybe he can."
Or maybe he can tell me how to find my goddamn Key.CHAPTER 2
"I am so fucking bored."
Piers threw the sawed-off shotgun onto the desk and shrugged out of his long leather coat — a little incongruous in July, but necessary to hide the gun and a few other demon-blasting weapons he had concealed about his person.
"I take it you didn't find anything."
Piers glanced over to where Christian sprawled on the crimson sofa. He looked smug, but at least since coming back to the Order he'd lost the business suits and was dressed pretty much the same as Piers — black leather pants and a black T-shirt — just minus the weapons.
"Nothing. No sign. No smell. No dead bodies. The streets of London are clean."
Christian grinned. "Don't sound so disappointed. Anyway, Jonas was convinced something was going down."
"Well, pity he couldn't produce a few more details. What the hell do we pay him for anyway?"
Christian shrugged "I'm heading home. I just wanted to check in."
"Yeah, go home. Piss-off back to your little love nest, and say hi to Tara for me."
"She'll like that."
Piers was quite aware that Tara was not his greatest fan. But hey, he wasn't out to make friends.
The shrill ring of a buzzer dragged him from his thoughts. He flung himself into the chair behind the desk. The light for reception was flashing and he pressed the button on his phone.
"There are two women wanting to see you," Graham, his assistant, said.
"Good," he replied. "I'm hungry."
"Well, I'm thinking you might be staying that way." Graham's voice was tinged with amusement. Piers raised an eyebrow but reached over and switched on his monitor. He tapped a few keys and studied the reception area.
"What is it?" Christian asked, coming to stand behind him.
"There are two nuns in reception."
"They're probably strip-o-grams or something. One of your friends has a sense of humor." Christian leaned closer to study the screen. "Or maybe not."
"Definitely not," Piers added.
Actually, he had never seen anything less like a couple of strippers. The two women were bedraggled. One was positively drooping. They both wore black habits with headdresses framing their faces. The droopy one appeared to be around thirty with a pale, thin face and scared eyes. The other looked younger, though she also seemed to be the one in charge, squaring up to Graham and speaking rapidly.
Slightly below medium height, she looked well filled out, though it was hard to tell whether she was straight up and down or there were curves beneath the shapeless robe. Piers focused in on her face — broad at the cheekbones, pointed at the chin — which had a dimple in the center. She had flawless creamy skin, big brown eyes, and a rosebud mouth held in a tight line.
She pulled a piece of paper out of her pocket and waved it at Graham. Then she bit her lip and stepped back as Graham replied. Piers got the distinct impression of impatience — a mother superior in the making, no doubt. He'd gone through a nun phase once, but that was back in the Middle Ages. He'd found seducing them a challenge — it had been fun for a while.
Graham still held the phone to his ear. "What do you want me to do with them?" he asked. "They say they have a message for you."
"Well, you'd better bring them down here then."
He closed off the call and turned to Christian, who was now leaning against the wall, arms folded, a small frown playing across his face.
"I thought you were leaving," Piers said.
"I'll stick around."
Piers raised an eyebrow. "You don't think I can handle two nuns?"
"Hell, I know you can handle them."
"Maybe you shouldn't be handling nuns."
Piers frowned. "Don't worry. I'll wipe their memories afterwards. They won't remember a thing."
"There are enough willing volunteers about. You don't need unwilling ones. They're nuns, for Christ's sake."
Piers narrowed his eyes on the other man. "Has anyone told you that you're absolutely no fun anymore? Not that you ever were much fun."
Finally, Piers shrugged. "Okay, I'll be good. But I have to admit that I'm a little intrigued as to what brings a couple of nuns here."
"Let's find out then."
There was a light tap on the door and Graham poked his head around. "Your visitors." Stepping to the side, he gestured for the two women to enter. "This is Sister Maria and Sister Rosa from the Little Sisters of Mercy."
As the younger nun came through the door, a faint waft of sweet air followed her into the room.
Excerpted from Bittersweet Magic by Nina Croft, Liz Pelletier. Copyright © 2013 Nina Croft. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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