The High Priestess
A Sanctify Novella - Book One - Katee Robert
Marianna Zain is in trouble. The handsome stranger she just kissed? He’s a member of the most terrifying hate-group in the universe. Even after he takes her captive, Marianna can’t shake her initial instincts that he’s a man of worth…and her only chance at escaping death.
One of Sanctify’s most decorated lieutenants, Gerard Leoni thought he had everything figured out. But then he crosses paths with a Diviner, the most despised of the alien races, and is honor-bound to bring her in. One night with Marianna makes him question everything he knows.
As the day of her scheduled execution draws near, Marianna forms a plan. She’s going to seduce Gerard—a task that would be simpler if she weren’t being seduced as well. But Sanctify doesn’t take kindly to their people cavorting with aliens, and instead of finding a savior, Marianna may be dragging Gerard to his death alongside her…
© 2012 Katee Robert
An unnatural calm blanketed the streets of Keiluna, as if its residents sensed a predator in their midst, searching for the perfect kill.
They were right.
Gerard checked his laser, white robe swishing against his legs with every step. He lived for this moment of the hunt, when the world narrowed to him and the comforting wall of his men at his back. Here and now, he could forget how close he’d come to losing his position, his boy, everything—all because he couldn’t keep his damn mouth shut. Keiluna was a filthy cesspool, infested with aliens from every corner of the universe. Taking out a single cell of them wouldn’t do shit for the greater good.
Too bad when he voiced his opinion to the High Priest, he’d been punished.
Gerard rolled his shoulders, his skin still feeling the sting of a phantom lash. It wasn’t that he hated pain—it was one of the few constants of his life—but he wasn’t a fan of being humiliated in front of the entire regiment. Those men looked up to him as a leader. Or they used to. Since the demonstration when he’d been whipped for publically questioning the wisdom of Sanctify’s rapid expansion, many of the men he considered friends had fallen away, their greetings replaced by sideways looks and downcast eyes. Not Fisk, though. That idiot would stand by Gerard no matter what they were up against. Even the High Priest himself.
But this wasn’t the place for distractions. His rage at the High Priest was far more useful at the moment. Despite his anger—or maybe because of it—Gerard found himself muttering Ba’al’s Benediction under his breath.
“Purity will protect you.
Through the darkness of space
Only Ba’al’s light will shine;
Cleansing the filth,
Purifying the unclean,
Spreading peace through his vengeance.
In his light, forgiveness
In his hands, life
In the High Priest, truth
In servitude, eternity.”
As the words from his childhood rolled off his lips, calm settled over Gerard. Just like it always did. Even when things were at their darkest, his faith never failed to bring comfort. He might not have had a mother or a father while growing up, but he’d had Sanctify.
It was time. He nodded to Adam when they reached the coordinates he’d received, getting a toothy grin in response. The man loved killing more than anyone Gerard knew—except the High Priest—and there was bound to be blood spilled tonight.
Behind that sea-green door was a group of Bolkerian mercenaries driven enough to sign on with anyone working against Sanctify. If one of them hadn’t had the support of a very generous backer, they never would have risen far enough to gain notice. A fatal mistake.
“Finish it quickly.” At his signal, Adam and Fisk kicked in the door, pouring through to the room beyond. Gerard took in the room in a single blink—two Bolkerians against the far wall, two at a table near the other exit. All male. Thank Ba’al. The females were notoriously harder to kill.
Adam and Fisk moved to the right, taking out the first before it could respond. Attacking quickly was their only hope. Once these things got moving, there was no stopping them. Gerard sidestepped through the door, careful to keep his back to the wall, and followed Davis and Blaine left. Since both were only three months out of training, they needed more help than the other two. While the newbies shot wildly at the sitting Bolkerian, Gerard took aim at the standing one. The male spun toward him, meter-long back-spikes scraping along the wall in its attempt to move quickly. Its squinty black eyes peered over a furred muzzle a moment before Gerard pulled the trigger.
The body hit the ground, a crater where its head had been. He wiped his forehead with the back of his hand and sighed. After all this time, his emotions were bracketed by a wall of calm even killing couldn’t touch. Just another pest put down to ensure the safety of Sanctify.
The newbies managed to finish off their Bolkerian, though the body was marked up with far too many laser burns. The only place laser fire could successfully penetrate a Bolkerian’s thick, leathery shell was around its neck and head. To hit anywhere else was wasteful. He’d have to talk to them later about accuracy and weak points.
On the other side of the room, Adam and Fisk stood over the struggling body of the final creature. Adam pushed the shorter man. “Get out of my way.”
Fisk shoved him back. “No. This isn’t right.”
Adam jumped forward, arm raised to deliver a blow, but he was forced to dance back at the last minute to avoid the back-spikes of the dying Bolkerian. With a growl, he turned to Gerard, blue eyes demanding. “Tell him.”
Tension had been rising between Fisk and their blond squad mate for some time now. Gerard had hoped it would keep until they reached Sanctus again, but apparently that was too much to ask for. He pointed at the newbies. “Secure the perimeter and make sure there’s no one else around.” As they scrambled over each other to obey, he wondered if he’d ever been so young.
Turning back, he crossed his arms over his chest. “Explain. Now.”
“What’s there to explain?” Adam shrugged, his broad shoulders nearly taking up the entire width of the doorway. “Fisk’s in my way. Hells, he’s practically a sympathizer.”
“Take that back.” Fisk took a step in his direction, but stopped when Gerard held up a hand. “You can’t honestly expect me to stand by and let him throw around those kinds of insults. I should cut out his Ba’al-damned tongue.”
Obviously things were worse than he thought if Fisk was threatening personal injury on anyone—even Adam. Gerard wanted to tell them to stop acting like kids and stow their issues until they reached home, but a good leader didn’t let something like this slide. “Enough. Both of you. Fisk, spit it out before I lose my patience.”
The Bolkerian gave a low moan, its thrashing slowing. Fisk looked down, his too-long dark hair falling into his face. Damnit, Gerard had told him to cut it before it got him killed by obscuring his vision. “He was going to torture it.”
Gerard blinked. “Elaborate.”
“You’re not stupid.” Fisk motioned at the dying creature. “He wanted to play with it.”
Adam gave a heavy sigh. “He’s being dramatic. I merely wanted a chance to try out my new laser on its shell.”
It seemed plausible enough—if they were talking about anyone else—but Adam had developed a taste for pain. Anyone’s but his own. These days, even being in the same room as him made the small hairs on the back of Gerard’s neck rise.
“We’re on a mission, which means you don’t have time for such luxuries. Fisk, put that thing out of its misery.” Fisk obeyed instantly, shooting the Bolkerian point-blank in the face. It went limp, dark brown spikes hitting the floor with a heavy thump.
Another thump echoed through the ceiling above them.
Gerard had half a second to shout a warning before a ball of spikes came rolling down the stairs. Adam dove farther into the room, barely getting out of the way in time. The thing unfurled to a height of well over Gerard’s two meters, its muzzle bared in a snarl, dull red eyes focused on him and him alone.
“A fucking female.” Of course. How could his day get any worse?
Gerard regretted the thought as soon as the damn thing charged him. Claws, each nearly the size of his hand, swiped past his head. He ducked, trying to get an angle for a shot, but it closed the distance too fast. All he could see was chest fur and spikes and claws. Scrambling back, he hit the wall just as the thing kicked him, tearing into his side.
With a war cry, Davis came flying into the room, skidding to a halt in front of the creature. Then Adam and Fisk were there as well, taking turns firing, luring it away from where Gerard slid to the ground, his vision graying. He raised his laser, aiming carefully. When the Bolkerian turned toward Fisk, arm upraised in a move that would gut the man, Gerard pulled the trigger, taking it in the neck. The thing mewled and listed to the side.
“Out of the way.” Fisk pulled Adam back just as the creature toppled.
Davis wasn’t so lucky. One of the spikes pinned his leg. The female rolled, cutting off his screams as it covered him. Gerard stared at the thin river of blood curving its way from beneath the Bolkerian’s body. It merged with the other pool next to the nearest male, the two reds exactly the same color.
What in Ba’al’s name was wrong with him? It shouldn’t matter if some aliens bled red. Why was he even thinking about this?
Shaking his head did nothing but make his dizziness worse. Each breath tore through him as if someone were sticking a poker into his wound. Bolkerians weren’t poisonous, but the female had gotten him good. The bleeding wouldn’t stop without formal treatment. He looked up at Fisk and Adam, their concerned expressions doing nothing to reassure him. Gerard opened his mouth to give the command to retreat to the ship when raised voices reached his ears. At first, he thought they were a hallucination, but both Adam and Fisk went still in front of him. Even straining, he couldn’t make out the words, but the tone said enough.
They were in trouble.
Pushing to his feet nearly made him pass out, but his men wouldn’t follow orders if they thought he was about to keel over. It was an effort to keep the pain from his voice, but he’d had years of practice. “Get to the ship and send a report to the High Priest.”
Adam nodded and disappeared out the back door. Fisk was another story. He eyed Gerard, focusing on the hand he held against his side. The fabric was already soaked through, blood darkening the perfect white of the robe. “You’re injured.”
“Which is why you need to leave me behind. I can’t keep up right now.” As shit as that was.
For a moment, it looked as if Fisk would argue, but he finally nodded. “Let me at least help you out of the robe.”
Smart. Gerard should have thought of it himself. That he didn’t spoke volumes of his injury, but he just nodded and let Fisk help him out of the white cloth that marked him as a member of Sanctify. The shouts loomed closer, nearly to the front door. Gerard jerked his chin at the stairway. “Take the rooftops. I’ll go out the back.”
“There’s a brother in arms who runs a bar about half a kilometer away. Follow the street and take your second left. It’s called The Hammer. He’ll patch you up while we wait for things to calm down.”
The front door groaned as someone on the other side threw himself against it. “Go. Now.”
Fisk nodded, but he waited until Gerard pushed off the wall and stumbled through the back door. The night, so calm before, was now filled with angry shouts. How disgustingly typical that these people would come out in arms to defend the monsters in their midst. Didn’t they realize how dangerous aliens were? Any species other than humans wasn’t to be trusted.
The back door led into a narrow alley used as a trash lane. Gerard held his side as he moved carefully around the disposal pipelines spiraling from the buildings into the ground. The giant tubes were easily large enough to fit a grown man. There were tales of children falling into the shoots and disappearing into the darkness, killed by either the fall or the incinerators beneath the surface, but Gerard didn’t put much stock in stories.
It took longer than he wanted to reach the street and, as a result, his head was spinning as he rounded the corner leading to the bar. There were still sounds of a fight somewhere behind him, but Gerard didn’t worry about his squad. They could take care of themselves—if they couldn’t, they weren’t fit to serve Ba’al in the spreading of purity and peace through the universe.
Too bad Gerard couldn’t take care of himself in his current condition. The irony of that wasn’t lost on him. Step by staggering step, he made his way to the flashing neon sign depicting a hammer and shouldered through the door.
Gerard blinked. The smoke saturating the place made it difficult to pick out the figures hunched over every table, huddling together in low conversation. He stumbled through the maze of chairs and half fell against the bar. The bartender put down the rag he’d been wiping the pitted counter with and leaned over. “Something I can help you with?”
Gerard put his hand over the other man’s, praying to Ba’al that Fisk was right about a brother in arms. “I need assistance.”
The man’s eyes widened when he caught sight of the blood. “Of course.” He jumped over the bar in a smooth movement and slipped an arm around his waist. The second the man put pressure on the wound, Gerard’s entire world shifted sideways and went black.
When the stranger stumbled through the room, the impulse to do a reading rolled over Marianna. He was obviously injured, his hand never wavering from its place against his side, and every instinct screamed he was trouble of the worst kind—exactly the type of thing she avoided. She bit her lip, fighting the need to pull out her cards. This wasn’t the time or the place for such things.
He swayed as Sven grabbed him, entire body going slack. Marianna was halfway out of her seat before she realized she’d moved. With a mental curse, she slid back into the chair and watched Sven haul the unconscious man into the back. It wasn’t her responsibility to make sure he was okay.
The push got stronger, pulsing beneath her skin until it was everything she could do not to scratch at it.
She took a shaky sip of her drink. Why this man? Why now? With all the med gel and supplies they had on hand, he’d be fixed up in no time. She couldn’t risk him emerging from the back room and seeing her cards.
But there was no change in the ants-under-her-skin feeling.
Marianna gritted her teeth. Fine. Unwilling—and unable—to deny the impulse any longer, her hand strayed to the worn cloth bag. The cards were her conduit to the Lady—to ignore their warning was to court death.
After a quick glance around to ensure no one watched, she slipped the cards free and shuffled them under the table. The deck had been her mother’s before she died. Marianna still had her grandfather’s spare deck stored away in a locked chest filled with some of her parents’ things, but it had never felt as natural in her hands as this one did.
All the locals knew she was a Diviner, one of the Lady’s people, but there were strangers mixed in with the crowd tonight. While Keiluna was a planet known for its tolerance of any and all alien life, Marianna wasn’t willing to risk her health and well-being on that fact. There had been rumors of Sanctify ships spotted in the quadrant, and wherever those sadistic monsters went, alien blood flowed. And that was only for your typical, run-of-the-mill alien.
A Diviner’s fate was so much worse.
Marianna sent up a quick prayer to the Lady for guidance, flipped over three cards, and sat back, tapping two fingers against her bottom lip. Usually a basic past, present, and future reading more than sufficed, but this reading wasn’t particularly clear. The Star was simple enough—hope, helping an individual to prevail through hard times. Definitely her past. She’d gotten through her ill-spent adolescence on a steady diet of hope and, unlike so many of her childhood friends, went on to make a living in a way that didn’t involve petty theft—even if she did retain quite a few of the skills she’d learned from Darla.
With a sigh, she moved on to the next card. The High Priestess indicated that she should trust her intuition. Fair enough. As a Diviner, she knew the truth in that better than most people.
The final card was The World. Sometime in the future, she would reach a new stage, and something would change fundamentally in her life.
Marianna sighed again. The reading was about as clear as mud. Definitely not worth the risk she’d taken by doing it in public.
With a final glare at the offending cards, she gathered them up and slipped the bag back into the pocket she’d sewn into the inside of her coat. Its two layers deterred all but the most determined pickpockets. Theft wasn’t much of a concern with the way she was dressed—drab, too-loose clothing, her hair pinned up under a hat—but Marianna was always careful. There had been violence on the wind lately. It was best not to draw attention to herself with so many tempers riding hot.
Time passed and the bar’s patrons came and went, several nodding to her though no one approached her booth. Finally, what felt like an eternity later, the back door swished open, and the stranger staggered back into the room. He must have been hurt worse than she thought for the healing to take so long. Even now, he was pale beneath his tanned skin, black hair sticking out haphazardly in a way that suggested he’d run his fingers through it recently. Lines bracketed his mouth, the only indication of the pain he must be experiencing. Those dark eyes certainly gave nothing away.
Drawn by an impulse she couldn’t explain any more than the one that had pushed her to do a reading, Marianna slid out of her booth and skirted the wall, coming up between him and the back door. The desire to meet this man, to talk to him, pulsed beneath her skin in time with her heartbeat. The cards had told her to trust her intuition, and her intuition insisted he was important, vitally so.
She tapped his arm. “I’ve never seen you in here before.”
The look he turned on her would have sent a different woman running.
Marianna just smiled. She’d seen far more terrifying things while growing up on the streets. “Allow me to buy you a drink.” Before he could say no, she signaled Sven to bring two glasses of the special liquor they brewed on-planet. Most tourists couldn’t handle drinking it straight, but she had a feeling this man wouldn’t have a problem with it.
“I don’t want a drink.”
She cocked her hip against the bar, picking up the closest glass. “While I’m inclined to respect your wishes, this isn’t the type of bar you show up to and not drink.” Marianna leaned closer, well aware that her billed cap shadowed her eyes, leaving him nowhere to focus but her lips. It was a trick she’d learned out of necessity. The deep violet color of her eyes marked her as a Diviner. It wasn’t something she normally worried about, but a stranger—even an injured stranger—couldn’t be trusted as a friend. Hells, for all she knew, he was a member of Sanctify.
Marianna shook off the thought as soon as it occurred to her. The Lady wouldn’t push her into meeting this man if he meant to kill her. At least…she was reasonably sure She wouldn’t.
He turned to face the rest of the room. It was difficult to tell, but she counted at least six people watching, all with varying degrees of hostility. The Hammer wasn’t very welcoming of strangers, especially ones who mistreated Marianna. Even in this part of town, where aliens weren’t completely accepted, people sought her out for readings. Getting a glimpse of the future was worth its weight in credits, even if most of them wouldn’t admit to visiting her in the first place. Personally, that was fine with Marianna. Attention was all well and good—until things turned ugly and people wanted a scapegoat. Better to cruise below the radar and survive.
The man sighed. “Fine.” He nodded at the booth she’d just vacated. “Shall we?”
Marianna allowed him to lead the way, giving her the opportunity to frown at a few of the old-timers huddled around the nearest table, playing with a deck of cards nearly as ancient as they were. Their expressions relaxed into grins that were all a few teeth short of a set, and they went back to their game.
After sliding in across from the man, she sat back and looked her fill. He had a harsh face that was strangely attractive, but there was nothing to indicate why she’d felt the impulse to approach him. The silence stretched between them as they sipped their drinks. When it was clear he wouldn’t be the first one to speak, she asked, “So do you have a name?”
“I don’t see why it matters.”
What a prickly fellow. Marianna allowed herself a small laugh. “Well, generally when two people meet, they exchange names.”
He made a face like he wanted to argue but, once more, she beat him to the punch. “The alternative is my calling you Stranger while we sit here and drink.”
“You aren’t going to quit, are you?” An unexpected grin deepened the brackets lining his mouth and sent an equally unexpected surge of warmth through her body. She hadn’t felt something like this since…Lady, it’d been nearly a year. How extraordinarily depressing.
“Of course not. I bought you a drink—you’re mine for the duration of it.”
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