Misguided Angel Page 8

"Where is Father B. now?" Schuyler asked.

At this, Ghedi's face changed again. Now it looked weary. "I am sorry to tell you, Father has passed away."

"When?" Schuyler looked stricken. So close, but always a dead end--literally--when they got there. Jack continued to look at Ghedi keenly, never taking his eyes away from their new friend's face.

"Two weeks ago, on one of the missions to Africa, they were all taken--slaughtered by raiders. I escaped by joining the Somali Marines for a short while. Don't worry--I'm a priest, not a pirate. The minute I was able to get back to Europe I resumed my search for you."

"You've found her," Jack said sharply. "So what now?"

"You're going to take us to the Gate of Promise, aren't you, Ghedi?" Schuyler asked, throwing her cup in the trash, marveling that Lawrence's instincts had been right as usual. "With Father Baldessarre gone . . ."

"I am the gatekeeper." Ghedi nodded. "And I will take you to Florence. That is where you are headed, yes?"

SEVEN

The Trail

Schuyler estimated that at Velox speed, it would take them a little over a week to get to Florence, a hundred miles away. Since Ghedi could not keep up, he would accompany them only until Sarzana, then take the train to Florence to prepare for their arrival and meet them in town.

Meanwhile, Jack decided they would stay off the main road, and use the mountain footpaths instead. It was safer that way; the hills were rocky and remote at this time of year. Less chance of bumping into one of the Countess's spies or henchmen. Since it was illegal to camp in the mountains, they would have to be extra careful to avoid other hikers or park rangers.

Nothing more had been said about Ghedi's surprising announcement, as the logistics of their trip took all of their attention. But even as she went through the motions of packing, Schuyler continued to mull about the turn of events, how quickly it had all come together. As much as they had been searching for him, the gatekeeper had been searching for them. It seemed almost too easy.

Most unsettling of all, however, was something neither she nor Jack had yet to address.

Ghedi professed to be the gatekeeper. There was just one hitch. Ghedi was human. There was no way he could be who he said he was. It was impossible, as only a Blue Blood vampire, a fallen angel, could guard one of the Gates of Hell.

Yet I do not think he is lying, Schuyler sent.

I agree. He believes he is the gatekeeper, which is more troubling, Jack replied. Let's deal with this later. For now, we must leave this place as quickly as we can.

The three of them went into town to load up on supplies, purchasing only things they could carry on their backs and nothing they didn't need. Before leaving New York, Jack had transferred monies to several secret offshore accounts that remained unknown to the Committee.

He left to find suitable outdoor equipment while Schuyler and Ghedi went to the market to buy food--more flour, rice, coffee, eggs, canned soups. The Italian proprietress regarded Ghedi's dark skin and Schuyler's odd clothes with a suspicious eye, but she was mollified when Schuyler pulled out a huge bankroll of euros.

Schuyler wondered about her newfound appetite. She was voracious, and it was a hunger that could be satisfied with a good meal. She had not taken the blood since leaving New York.

Jack had urged her to perform the Caerimonia Osculor, but she found there was no need. If anything, she felt stronger and more clearheaded without the blood. She strove to avoid it for as long as she was able. It felt wrong, somehow, to share something so intimate with someone who wasn't her love. With Oliver, of course, it had been different. It was still difficult to think about her best friend and former familiar. Her heart had healed, but she missed their friendship.

"I am sorry about your mother, Ghedi," Schuyler said as they walked back to meet Jack at the boat. "We both are."

"It is all right. She is dead now. It is better."

"Don't say that."

"It is the truth. Now she is at peace."

"And Father B., too," Schuyler added. "You must have been very close to him."

"He was the only family I ever really knew. He taught me everything. But it is all right, signorina. In my country I have seen worse. I was very lucky to have been chosen by the missionaries." Ghedi smiled.

It was amazing how someone who had survived the double-fisted tragedy of war and grief could call himself lucky, Schuyler thought. Whether he was telling them the truth or was simply confused or misinformed about what or who he was, he was a good man, she could feel it. She found much to admire in Ghedi's humor and optimism, and chastised herself for her constant anxiety and stress. Ghedi had lost everything, not once but several times in his life. His home was a pile of rubble, his entire family was dead, and his mentor murdered. Yet he treaded lightly, with a spring in his step and a smile on his face.

Whereas she who had everything--for Jack was everything--was constantly bemoaning the fact that she had no idea how long it would last, the two of them together. Instead of fearing the future, I should live and enjoy the present, she told herself.

When they arrived back at the harbor, Jack was locking up the cabin. He had folded the blankets, refilled the kerosene lamp, and had made sure the fishing boat was no worse for wear after their visit.

Thank you for sheltering us, Schuyler thought, putting a hand on a cabin wall. May your harvests be plentiful. She picked up one of the hiker's racks that Jack had left on the deck and began to fill it with provisions: the food supplies, a thin waterproof blanket, the battered Repository files that she kept in a watertight envelope.

Schuyler lifted her pack onto her shoulders and struggled a bit under the weight until she found her bearings.

"Too heavy?" Jack asked. "I can take more." He was already carrying the tents and the bulk of their supplies.

"No, it's all right."

Ghedi straightened up as well. "Ready?"

They kept to the paved road that led from the town up to the mountain path, which was mostly deserted except for an occasional car or two. Once they were a few miles out of town, Jack led them off the road, deeper into the forest. Schuyler was glad for the new warm jacket she had bought in town, along with the thick socks and the hiking boots. For a while she marveled at how much her life had changed.

How odd to think that not too long ago she was sitting in a classroom dreaming her life away, lost in a world of her own making, living as if she were almost half asleep, a wallflower on the fringes, the girl without a voice. Then last year, she and Oliver had embarked on that harried, whirlwind tour around the world--their only instinct to run away as far and fast as they could.

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