Misguided Angel Page 12

"This kidnapping--I need to talk to you about it. MariElena is only the latest to be taken,"

he said as he contrived to hide their bags in the bushes.

"Yes, they told us that. That girls from this region have gone missing," she said as she helped pile rocks on their folded tents. They would return for them later.

"No, it is more than that." Ghedi looked frustrated. "It is not safe for me to speak of it here. I wanted to wait until we were well protected. But I need to tell you."

"Yes?"

Ghedi looked at his watch. "She was taken last night. That is too long. It is too late already. They should have come to the monastery the minute she was missing. The others might have been able to find her before . . ." He shook his head. "Instead they set off themselves. In doing so they sealed her fate."

"I don't understand," Schuyler said. "Whatever happens to her, we have to try and find her. We have to try and save her."

The young priest shook his head and would not say any more, promising to explain when they reached the monastery and leaving Schuyler to puzzle over his words.

Jack had split the company into two groups. One half would head farther up the mountains while the other half made for the port. Ghedi accompanied the second group; he was familiar with the workings of shipyards and would be able to sniff out those who traded in illegal human cargo. Schuyler and Jack would take their own path and keep in contact with the rest with a walkie-talkie loaned from Luca.

When the team disbanded, Schuyler told Jack what Ghedi had said. Jack agreed there was no way they were going to abandon the girl, no matter what Ghedi was worried about. As a sworn Venator, Jack was charged with not only serving the Coven but protecting the innocent--whether vampire or human. He suggested they waste no time on a footrace. The fastest way to find the girl was to locate her spirit in the glom.

"It is better if you do it--she might not hide from you," he said, explaining that a gentle female presence would be more successful at coaxing a young girl from her hiding place.

Schuyler closed her eyes and reached out into the darkness. She concentrated on the image from the photograph.

MariElena, where are you?

When Schuyler opened her eyes, she was standing in the twilight world of the glom. She could sense Jack's presence as well as the spirits of the company searching for the girl. The glom world was silvery and dim, veiled as if by a dense gray fog.

MariElena, I am a friend. Show yourself. You are safe with me. Tell me where you are.

Your family is looking for you.

There was no answer.

Schuyler waited, but it was as if she were calling down into a bottomless well. She could sense her consciousness expanding beyond the universe, but there was nothing to push back against it--the sign that she had located the right spirit. She opened her eyes.

"Nothing?" Jack asked.

"Not a thing." Schuyler frowned. "It's like she's not here . . . not even in the glom. Not like she's hiding. More like . . . she never existed." She swallowed her frustration. Ghedi's warning had unsettled her. What was the gatekeeper so afraid of?

More than anything, Schuyler wanted to bring MariElena safely home. She felt a kinship with the young girl. Wasn't she herself just fifteen when her life changed? She understood how MariElena might fall in love with a stranger, how one might be tempted by curiosity and adventure, how terrible to have that curiosity of the world shattered so horribly.

I am here! Help me! Help me!

"Oh God," Schuyler said. "I just heard her."

Help me. Help. Kill. Help. Die. Help. Fire. Help. Hell. Help. The girl's thoughts were an incoherent, frightened plea, a monologue of confused desperation.

Schuyler reached out to Jack, who steadied her. You are safe, you are safe, you are safe now. Show me where you are. We will find you and bring you to safety, she sent, projecting a soothing calmness to the shattered soul.

Help me. Help me. Help me. Kill. Die. Help. Fire. Help. Hell. Help.

Schuyler jerked awake. She opened her eyes.

"You found her?" Jack asked. He was still holding her tightly.

"Yes. I know where she is." Schuyler picked up the walkie-talkie and described what she saw to the rest of the searchers. A dark cavern by a dry riverbed, a gaping hole in the ground, overhung with moss.

There was a startled cry from Ghedi on the receiving end.

"What's wrong?" she asked. "Where is she?"

"The cavern by the dry river. It's called Hellsmouth," he said, his voice rising in panic. "A few miles outside of Florence. I'll meet you there."

Schuyler understood Ghedi's reaction immediately. Maybe this was why the priest had been so pessimistic about MariElena's chances.

"They've taken her to the gate," she told Jack. "Come on, we don't have much time."

ELEVEN

Hellsmouth

Ghedi gave them precise directions, and Jack and Schuyler set off immediately, their Velox speed taking them to their destination in a flash of butterfly wings.

If they were taking her to the gate, then they weren't smugglers, Schuyler thought. And if they weren't smugglers, then what were they? What did they want with the girl? Was this what the priest was worried about? What Ghedi had not wanted to tell them until they were "safe"?

They found the dried riverbed, a scarlet, sandy ribbon of patched, scorched earth that led to a dark underground cavern. Just as Schuyler had described, the cavern was covered in moss and half sunken into the earth.

Jack kicked away at the shrubbery blocking the entrance and led the way down. He picked up a stick and lit it with the blue flame.

"Show yourselves!" he called, his voice echoing against the stone walls.

The cave was dark and smelled of mold. Was this the entrance to the Gate of Promise?

Schuyler could feel a foul, putrid menace in the air as they inched their way down, taking careful steps into the murky blackness.

"Hellsmouth. Interesting name, isn't it? The Red Bloods seem to have a knack for naming things without knowing their true significance. But obviously they sensed something here," she said.

"No one is immune to the feeling of power," he replied, his torch sending long rays of light down a seemingly endless tunnel.

Schuyler slipped a little on the wet moss, grabbing on to Jack's arm for balance. She looked around the dark enclosure. Down there, she was surprised to find that the heavy feeling of doom had abated somewhat, replaced by a lonesome melancholy. She walked forward in the darkness, and the feeling grew stronger.

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