Innocent BloodJames Rollins
To Carolyn McCray, for her inspiration, encouragement, and boundless friendship
To my husband, son, and Twinkle the Cat
Behold, God received your sacrifice from the hands of a priest—that is to say from the minister of error.
—GOSPEL OF JUDAS 5:15
And Then . . .
About the Authors
Also by James Rollins and Rebecca Cantrell
About the Publisher
As the screams of the dying rose up toward the desert sun, Bernard’s bone-white fingers clutched the cross hanging from his neck. The touch of its blessed silver seared his sword-calloused palm, branding his damned flesh. He ignored the smell of his charred skin and tightened his grip. He accepted the pain.
For this pain had a purpose—to serve God.
Around him foot soldiers and knights washed into Jerusalem on a wave of blood. For the past months, the Crusaders had fought their way across hostile lands. Nine out of every ten men were lost before ever reaching the Holy City: felled by battle, by the pitiless desert, by heathen diseases. Those who survived wept openly upon seeing Jerusalem for the first time. But all that blood spilt had not been in vain, for now the city would be restored to Christians yet again, a harsh victory marked by the deaths of thousands of infidels.
For those slain, Bernard whispered a quick prayer.
He had time for no more.
As he sheltered beside the horse-drawn wagon, he drew the rough cowl of his hood lower over his eyes, cloaking his white hair and pale face deeper into shadow. He then took hold of the stallion’s bridle and stroked the beast’s warm neck, hearing the thunder of its heart as much with his fingertips as his ears. Terror stoked the steed’s blood and steamed from its sweating flanks.
Still, with a firm tug, the animal stepped forward next to him, drawing the wooden cart over the blood-soaked paving stones. The wagon’s bed held a single iron cage, large enough to imprison a man. Thick leather wrapped the cage tightly, hiding what was inside. But he knew. And so did the horse. Its ears flicked back anxiously. It shook its unkempt black mane.
Ranged in a tight phalanx ahead of him, Bernard’s dark brethren—his fellow knights from the Order of the Sanguines—battled to clear a path forward. All valued this mission more than their own existence. They fought with strength and determination no human could match. One of his brothers vaulted high into the air, a sword in each hand, revealing his inhuman nature as much by the flurry of his steel as by the flash of his sharp teeth. They were all once unholy beasts, like the one caged in the wagon, stripped of their souls and left forsaken—until offered a path back to salvation by Christ. Each made a dark compact to slake his thirst no more upon the blood of man, but only upon the consecrated blood of Christ, a blessing that allowed them to walk half in shadow, half in sunlight, balanced on a sword’s edge between grace and damnation.
Sworn now to the Church, each served God as both warrior and priest.
Those very duties had drawn Bernard and the others to the gates of Jerusalem.
Through the cries and carnage, the wooden cart rolled at a steady pace. Bernard willed the wheels to turn faster as dread clutched him.
Must hurry . . .
Still, another need rang through him just as urgently. As he marched, blood dripped down the walls around him, ran in rivers across the stones underfoot. The iron saltiness filled his head, misting the very air, igniting a bone-deep hunger. He licked his dry lips, as if trying to taste what was forbidden him.
He wasn’t the only one suffering.
From the dark cage, the beast howled, scenting the bloodshed. Its cries sang to the same monster still hidden inside Bernard—only his monster was not caged by iron, but by oath and blessing. Still, in response to that scream of raw hunger, the points of Bernard’s teeth grew longer and sharper, his craving keener still.
Hearing these screams, his brothers surged forward with renewed strength, as if fleeing their former selves.
The same could not be said for the horse.
As the beast howled, the stallion froze in its harness.
As well it should.
Bernard had captured the caged fiend ten months ago at an abandoned wooden stable outside Avignon in France. Such cursed creatures went by many names over the centuries. Though once men themselves, they were now a scourge that haunted dark places, surviving on the blood of man and beasts.
Once Bernard had the fiend trapped inside the cage, he had swaddled its new prison with layers of thick leather so that not a mote of light could penetrate. The shielding protected the beast from the burning light of day, but such protection came with a price. Bernard kept it ravenous, feeding it only enough blood to survive, but never enough to sate it.
Such hunger would serve God this day.
With their goal agonizingly close, Bernard attempted to get the horse moving again. He stroked a soothing hand down its sweat-stained nose, but the animal would not be calmed. It heaved against one side of the traces, then the other, struggling to break free.
Around him, Sanguinists swirled in the familiar dance of battle. The shrieks of dying men echoed off the uncaring stone. The beast inside the cage beat the leather sides like a drum and screamed to join the slaughter, to taste the blood.
The horse whinnied and threw its head in fright.
By now, smoke rolled out from neighboring streets and alleys. The smell of burnt wool and flesh stung his nostrils. The Crusaders had begun to torch sections of the city. Bernard feared they might raze the only part of Jerusalem he needed to reach—the part where the holy weapon might be found.
Recognizing the horse was of no more use, Bernard drew his sword. With a few deft strokes, he severed its leather harness. Freed, the stallion needed no urging. With a leap out of its traces, it knocked aside a Sanguinist and bolte
d through the carnage.
Godspeed, he willed it.
He moved to the rear of the wagon, knowing none of his brothers could be spared from the battle. These last steps he must take alone.
As Christ had with his heavy cross.
He sheathed his sword and put his shoulder to the back of the cart.
He would push it the remaining distance. In a different life, when his heart still beat, he was a strong, vigorous man. Now he had strength beyond that of any mortal.
With the tang of blood becoming a humid stew in the air, he drew a shaky breath. Red desire ringed the edges of his vision. He wanted to drink from every man, woman, and child in the city. The lust filled him near to bursting.
Instead, he gripped his searing cross, allowing the holy pain to steady him.
He took a slow step, forcing the cart’s wheels forward one revolution, then another. Each turn brought him closer to his goal.
But a gnawing fear grew with every step gained.
Am I already too late?
As the sun sank toward the horizon, Bernard finally spotted his goal. He trembled with exertion, nearly spent of even his fierce strength.
At the end of the street, past where the last of the city’s defenders fought intensely, the leaden dome of a mosque rose to an indifferent blue sky. Dark blotches of blood marred its white facade. Even from this distance, he heard the frightened heartbeats of men, women, and children sheltering within the mosque’s thick walls.
As he strained against the wagon, he listened to their prayers for mercy from their foreign god. They would find none from the beast in the cart.
Nor from him.
Their small lives counted little against the prize he sought—a weapon that promised to purge all evil from the world.
Distracted by this hope, he failed to stop the front wheel of the cart from falling into a deep crack in the street, lodging stubbornly between the stones. The wagon jolted to a stop.
As if sensing their advantage, the infidels broke through the protective phalanx around the cart. A thin man with wild black hair rushed toward Bernard, a curved blade flashing in the sun, intending to protect his mosque, his family, with his own life.
Bernard took that payment, cutting him down with a lightning stroke of steel.
Hot blood splashed Bernard’s priestly robes. Though it was forbidden except for extreme circumstance and need, he touched the stain and brought his fingers to his lips. He licked crimson from his fingertips. Blood alone would lend him the strength to push forward. He would do penance later, for a hundred years if necessary.
From his tongue, fire ignited through him, stoking renewed strength into his limbs, narrowing his vision to a pinpoint. He leaned his shoulder to the cart and, with a massive heave, got the wagon rolling again.
A prayer crossed his lips—pleading for his strength to hold, for forgiveness for his sin.
He rushed the cart forward as his brothers cleared a path for him.
The doors to the mosque appeared directly ahead, its last defenders dying at the threshold. Bernard abandoned the wagon, crossed the last strides to the mosque, and kicked open the barred door with a strength no mere man could muster.
From within, terrified screams echoed off ornate walls. Heartbeats ran together in fear—too many, too fast to pick out a single one. They melted into one sound, like the roar of the sea. Frightened eyes glowed back at him from the darkness under the dome.
He stood in the doorway that they might see him backlit by the flames of their city. They needed to recognize his priest’s robes and silver cross, to understand that Christians had conquered them.
But more important, they must know that they could not flee.
His fellow Sanguinists reached him, standing shoulder to shoulder behind him in the entrance to the mosque. No one would escape. The smell of terror filled the vast room, from the tiled floor to the vast dome overhead.
In one bound, Bernard returned to the cart. He lifted the cage free and dragged it up the stairs to the door, its iron bottom screeching, scoring long black lines in the stone steps. The wall of Sanguinists opened to receive him, then closed behind him.
He rocked the cage upright atop the polished marble tiles. His sword smote through the lock’s hasp in a single blow. Standing back, he swung open the rusty cage door. The creak drowned out the heartbeats, the breathing.
The creature stepped forth, free for the first time in many months. Long arms felt the air, as if seeking long familiar bars.
Bernard could scarcely tell that this thing had once been human—its skin paled to the hue of the dead, golden hair grown long and tangled down its back, and limbs as thin as a spider’s.
Terrified, the crowd retreated from the sight of the beast, pressing against the far walls, crushing others in their fear and panic. The delicate scent of blood and fear billowed from them.
Bernard raised his sword and waited for the creature to face him. The creature must not escape into the streets. Its work was here. It must bring evil and blasphemy to this sacred site. It must destroy any holiness that might remain. Only then could the space be consecrated again for Bernard’s God.
As if the beast heard his thoughts, it raised its wrinkled face toward Bernard. Twin eyes shone milky white. Long it had been kept from the sun, and old it had been when it was turned.
A baby whimpered from the room ahead.
Such a beast could not resist that temptation.
With a flash of skeletal limbs, it twisted away and lunged for its prey.
Bernard lowered his sword, no longer needing it to hold the monster at bay. The promise of blood and pain would imprison it within these walls for the time being.
He forced his feet forward, following behind the murderous beast. As he crossed under the dome, he blocked his ears from the screams and prayers. He turned his sight from the torn flesh, from the bodies he stepped over. He refused to respond to the blight of blood hanging in the air.
Still, the monster inside him, freshly stoked with a few drops of crimson, could not be entirely ignored. It longed to join this other, to feed, to lose itself in simple need.
To be sated, truly sated, for the first time in years.
Bernard stepped faster across the room, fearful of losing control, of succumbing to that desire—until he reached the stairs on the far side.
There the silence stopped him.
Behind him, all heartbeats had ceased. The stillness imprisoned him and he stood, unable to move, guilt ringing through him.
Then an unnatural scream echoed off the dome, as the Sanguinists killed the beast at last, its purpose fulfilled.
God, forgive me . . .
Freed from that silence, he ran down the steps and through winding passageways far underneath the mosque. His path drew him deeper into the bowels of the city. The thick stink of the slaughter chased him, a wraith in the shadows.
Then finally a new scent.
Dropping to his hands and knees, he crawled into a tight tunnel and discovered firelight flickering ahead. It drew him forward like a moth. At the tunnel’s end, a cavern opened, tall enough to stand up in.
He clambered out and to his feet. A torch made of rushes hung on one wall, casting a flickering glow across a pool of black water. Generations of soot tarnished the high ceiling.
He began to step forward, when a woman rose from behind a boulder. Shiny ebony tresses spilled to the shoulders of her simple white shift, and her dark umber skin gleamed smooth and perfect. A shard of metal, the length of her palm, dangled from a thin gold chain hung around her slender neck. It fell to rest between well-formed breasts that pushed against a sheer linen bodice.
He had long been a priest, but his body reacted to her beauty. With great effort, he forced his gaze to meet hers. Her bright eyes appraised his.
“Who are you?” he asked. He heard no heartbeat from her, but he also knew innately she wasn’t like the caged beast, nor even like himself. Even from this dist
ance, he felt the heat coming from her body. “Are you the Mistress of the Well?”
It was a name he had found written upon an ancient piece of papyrus, along with a map to what lay below.
She ignored his questions. “You are not ready for what you seek,” she simply said. Her words were Latin, but her accent sounded ancient, older even than his.
“I seek only knowledge,” he countered.
“Knowledge?” That single word sounded as mournful as a dirge. “Here you will find only disappointment.”
Still, she must have recognized his determination. She stepped aside and beckoned him to the pool with one dusky hand, her fingers long and graceful. A thin band of gold encircled her upper arm.
He stepped past her, his shoulder nearly brushing hers. The fragrance of lotus blossoms danced on the warm air that surrounded her.
“Leave behind your clothing,” she ordered. “You must go into the water as naked as you once came from it.”
At the water’s edge, he fumbled with his robe, struggling against the shameful thoughts that crowded his mind.
She refused to look away. “You have brought much death to this holy place, priest of the cross.”
“It will be purified,” he said, seeking to appease her. “Consecrated to the one God.”
“Only one?” Sorrow wakened in those deep eyes. “You are so certain?”
She shrugged. The small gesture shed her thin shift from her shoulders. It whispered to the rough stone floor. Torchlight revealed a body of such perfection that he forgot his vows and stared baldly, his eyes lingering on the curve of her full breasts, on her belly, on the long muscular line of her thighs.
She turned and dove into the dark water, barely causing a ripple.
Alone now, he hurriedly unbuckled his belt, yanked off his bloody boots, and tore off his robe. Once naked, he sprang to follow, diving deep. Icy water washed away the blood on his skin, and baptized him into innocence.
He blew the air from his lungs, for he had no need for it as a Sanguinist. He sank quickly, swimming after her. Far below him, bare limbs shone white for a flash—then she flitted to the side, quick as a fish, and vanished.