Misguided Angel Page 45

When Simonetta answered, Tomi was not surprised.

The girl named Andreas as the father of her baby.

PART THE FOURTH

FORKS IN

THE ROAD

FORTY-ONE

The Petruvian Order (Schuyler)

Schuyler found a small room for MariElena in the northwest corner of Santa Maria del Fiore, in a small hidden ancillary building that housed the Petruvian Order in the Basilica complex. They had arrived in Florence a few hours ago. When Schuyler released him from her compulsion, Ghedi had insisted they take the girl to the priests.

It was a relief to be back in the world again, and the sight of the busy Italian streets, with tourists crammed into the plaza, had invigorated her.

As far as she and Jack could tell, there were very few Petruvians left. They had counted only a handful of priests upon their arrival. The clerics had housed them in a room next to MariElena's, where they waited until the holy men were ready to meet them.

There was a knock on their door, and another young African priest entered the room. "We are ready for you. Please come with me."

He led them through dark passageways into a simple room. In contrast to the magnitude of the complex, it was a plain room with a table and chairs. Ghedi and two older priests were waiting.

Schuyler and Jack took seats across from them.

"I am Father Arnoldi. I understand that you stopped Father Awale from performing the cleansing rite."

"Cleansing! He was going to kill her," Schuyler protested. "Explain to me how murder is possibly any part of your work."

"When the order was founded by Father Linardi, we were given two directives by the Blessed Ones, and one was the continued purge of the Mistress's children."

"The Mistress?" Jack asked.

The priest nodded. "Lucifer's first human bride. It is said he gave her the gift of eternal life but she was destroyed by the first Petruvians."

"Who are the Blessed Ones?" Schuyler asked.

"The vampires, like yourselves. Our founders."

"You're telling me that Blue Bloods sanctioned the killing of humans? Of innocent women?" Schuyler demanded.

"They have been marked with the triglyph," the priest said, bowing his head. "They carry the Nephilim. For hundreds of years we have held fast to our mission. We guard the gate. We hunt down the contaminated."

"The gate is a lie. Hellsmouth is nothing but a smoke screen. There is no gate there,"

Schuyler declared.

The priests balked. "It is a sacred space. . . . That cannot be."

"It is," Schuyler said. "We were there."

"You entered the gate." Father Arnoldi looked sharply at Ghedi. "That is not allowed." As Jack had guessed, the human gatekeepers had been ordered to stay away from the site.

Ghedi bowed his head. "It was necessary. The girl was there."

"We were led there. Whoever took MariElena, they wanted us to know it was false," Jack explained. "They are taunting us."

"Ghedi said Father Baldessarre was worried about certain things?" Schuyler asked.

The priests shifted in their seats and looked uncomfortable. "Lately, there have been too many taken. Each year only one, or two at the most. But now we hear too many reports, and each is the same. The girls are taken, and when we find them, they carry the mark."

"You will not kill MariElena," Schuyler warned.

The old priest looked at her balefully. "She carries a dangerous enemy. It is better for her to die."

Schuyler realized something. When they had first asked Ghedi to explain his connection to his grandfather, Ghedi had told them a story of his mother's death. "Ghedi, your mother, she had been taken. . . ."

"Yes." Ghedi nodded. "She carried the mark. It burned in her skin. And her belly grew.

She began to have visions and shakes. She spoke of Hell."

"You told us she died in childbirth, and that the priests took you as an orphan. But the Petruvians killed her, didn't they? And took you in afterward."

He did not deny it.

"And yet you do not hate them," she marveled.

"My mother was damned, Schuyler. And the child could not live. Not in this world."

"We will not allow you to harm MariElena," Schuyler said. "There has to be a way to heal her."

The conversation came to a stalemate, and the meeting adjourned. Back in their room, Schuyler rummaged through Lawrence's notes. "I think I found something that links Father Linardi, the first Petruvian, to Catherine of Siena." She held up a sheaf of letters. "I didn't think they were important, but now I do. Jack, these are love letters. Benedictus was Catherine's human familiar. She ordered him to guard this false gate. Which means that the real gate is still somewhere here."

Schuyler tied the sheets excitedly. "Catherine was guarding the real gate, and used the Petruvians as a decoy."

"But the Croatan know the gate is false, and if they are taking women, it means that the real gate, wherever it is, has been compromised somehow," Jack said.

"But if that's the case, wouldn't this whole countryside be overrun with demons already?"

"Not exactly. What did Ghedi say? The raiders who took his mother--the flesh traders who took MariElena--they were human. Michael's strength still keeps the demons in the underworld."

"But it doesn't keep humans out." Schuyler nodded. "They're taking the girls to Hell. That was why I couldn't locate MariElena in the glom.

"We have to find Catherine. We have to tell her what's been happening here. This whole thing must be a mistake. The Blue Bloods can't have allowed this. . . . Michael and Gabrielle would never . . . Something has gone very wrong here.

"We'll find Catherine," Schuyler said resolutely. "I have a feeling she can't be far.

Lawrence thought she might be in Alexandria. He had meant to go there, but he'd wanted to check out Father Baldessarre first." She put away her grandfather's papers, and when she looked up, Jack's eyes were bright.

What is wrong, my darling? she sent, and walked over to take his hand. We are safe. We will fight this horror.

"I cannot go with you to Egypt," Jack said, gripping her hand tightly.

"What do you mean?"

"There will be more bounty hunters. We got lucky this time. But I cannot put you in any more danger. I must go back and face Mimi."

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