Heretic

Joseph Nassise is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of more than a twenty-five novels, including the Templar Chronicles series, the Jeremiah Hunt trilogy, and the Great Undead War series. He has also written several books in the Rogue Angel action/adventure series from Gold Eagle. He is a former president of the Horror Writers Association, the world's largest organization of professional horror writers, and a multiple Bram Stoker Award and International Horror Guild Award nominee.

The Heretic by Joseph Nassise

At the end of the First Crusade, the church created a monastic military order known as the Knights Templar. Now, rising up from the ashes of history, they are the Vatican's last defense in the war between good and evil...

Knight Commander Cade Williams and the men of the Echo Team are the best the Vatican has to offer when it comes to protecting mankind from supernatural threats and enemies. But when the Templar Order itself comes under attack from a cabal of necromancers intent on seizing an ancient artifact for their own nefarious purposes, will the skills of Echo Team's fearless leader, the man some call the Heretic, be enough to stop the slaughter?

Book One of the internationally bestselling urban fantasy series, the Templar Chronicles.

 

REVIEWS

  • "First-rate, stylish work from Mr. Nassise, with a steady escalation of the story’s speed that makes it almost literally breath-taking." Clive Barker, NY Times bestselling author and Horror Grand Master
  • With THE HERETIC, Joseph Nassise kicks off his TEMPLAR CHRONICLES in fine, swaggering style. This book bobs and weaves like the young Muhammed Ali, keeping us off-guard and entertained with its every surprising move." Peter Straub, NY Times bestselling author and Horror Grand Master
  • "A breakneck-paced thriller that delivers on the thrills and tosses in more than a few more chills." Kelley Armstrong, NY Times Bestselling author of the Women of the Otherworld series
  • "THE HERETIC is a genre bending thrill ride that heralds the debut of a series to watch…and enjoy." Cemetery Dance Magazine
  • "Nassise offers readers a tightly plotted terse military horror thriller in ‘Heretic’. There’s not a whiff of pretension and not an ounce of fat here. Just the good old muscles, gore and the terror of a soul in danger." The Agony Column
  • "HERETIC has it all — action, suspense, terror, sharp dialogue, a dynamite central concept, and richly drawn-drawn characterization. Don’t try pigeon-holing this book, because Nassise — like his Templar Knights — doesn’t stand still long enough for you to take aim. This is cross-genre fiction at its absolute best. I, for one, cannot wait for the next book in what promises to be a long and rewarding series." Bram Stoker Award winning author Gary Braunbeck
  • "One part military thriller, one part religious horror, and 100% fast-paced action." The Horror Channel
  • "Hellraiser meets Delta Force by way of George Romero." The Trades Entertainment Magazine
  • "Horror fans will be delighted to discover the works of Joseph Nassise, a relatively new writer who can hold his own with such masters as Douglas Clegg, Bentley Little, and Stephen King." Midwest Book Review
 

BOOK PREVIEW

Chapter 1

As the SUV turned in through the torn and twisted wrought-iron gates that had once guarded the entrance to the estate, Knight Sergeant Sean Duncan looked out the window at the destruction around him and knew the rumors were true.

The devil had indeed come to Connecticut.

The damaged gates were only the first indication.

The marble statue of the angel that had stood watch over the entrance to the commandery now rested on its back in the middle of the drive, one wing still stretched wide, the other crumbled into fragments a short distance away. Its stone eyes gazed unflinchingly at the sky above as if searching for repentance. In the grass just beyond, a group of knights were laying out the bodies of those who had fallen in defense of the gate, the long rows designed to make it easier for the mortuary team as they sought to identify each corpse. Duncan crossed himself and said a quick prayer for the dead men’s souls. Farther on, past the lawn, the still-smoking remains of a Mercedes sat in the cul-de-sac before the manor house, the once-fine leather seats cooked to a crisp and melted across the steel springs beneath.

He’d seen his share of combat; it came with the job, but he’d never heard of a Templar commandery being attacked directly. The Holy Order of the Poor Knights of Christ of the Temple of Solomon, or the Knights Templar as they were once commonly known, existed in secret, away from men’s prying eyes. The days when the Order guarded the route to the Holy City had long since passed, the general public was no longer even aware of their existence. Finding the base should have been difficult, assaulting and overwhelming its defenses nearly impossible.

But someone had done both.

According to popular belief, the Templars had been destroyed in the 14th century when the Order was accused of witchcraft and the Pope had burned their Grand Master at the stake for the heresy. In truth, the Order had gone underground, hiding its wealth, disguising its power and managing to remain a viable independent entity right up through the end of the First World War. A treaty with Pius XI was followed by a reversal of their excommunication, and the Templars were reborn as a secret military arm of the Vatican. Their mission: to defend mankind from supernatural threats and enemies.

There were thousands of members worldwide, organized into local commanderies. These in turn were gathered into continental territories, each led by a Preceptor. The Preceptors reported to the Seneschal, who in turn answered to the Order’s Grand Master, the individual who governed the entire order from its Scottish base at Rosslynn Castle. While the Order was primarily allowed to run itself, it was still an arm of the Vatican. Over the years the Holy See had appointed three cardinals to interact with the Order’s senior leaders to help guide the group along a path that did not conflict with the Pope’s wishes.

The commandery in Westport, Connecticut, known as Ravensgate, was one of the largest on the East Coast. Only the Preceptor’s headquarters in Newport, Rhode Island, dwarfed it. The grounds consisted of thirty-eight acres of rolling green hills bounded on all sides by woodland, putting their nearest neighbors more than two miles away. The manor house was enormous; forty seven rooms, from the firing range in the basement to a chapel in the north wing.

And now it was in ruins.

The driver pulled to a halt next to the smoldering car, and Duncan stepped cautiously out, his hand on the butt of his weapon. The smell of scorched leather and gasoline washed over him, though the stench of burning flesh he’d expected was mercifully absent. As the rest of his protective detail took up position around the vehicle, Duncan continued to assess the scene. He glanced once more out over the lawn at the work crews and then he turned his attention to the manor house itself.

The damage here was no less extensive. The windows had all been blown out; the odd pieces of glass that remained in their frames reflected the rising sun with little flashes of brilliance here and there, but not a single pane remained intact. The front door was smashed, its splintered pieces still hanging haphazardly in the frame. Bullet holes pockmarked the entryway and surrounding facade. There was a three-foot-long crack in the marble steps leading up to the door. The sight of it made Duncan’s blood run cold. The amount of force it must have taken...

Despite the destruction, there didn’t appear to be any immediate threat, so Duncan passed the signal to the driver in the car behind him. A moment later the rear door opened, and Joshua Michaels, Preceptor for the North Atlantic Region, stepped out.

Duncan was the head of the Preceptor’s security detail and ultimately responsible for the man’s safety in much the same fashion that the Secret Service watched over and protected the president of the United States. He’d held the post for the last three years; the first for Michaels’ predecessor and the last two for Michaels himself. It was a highly respected position and one that gave Duncan significant insight into whatever current matters the Order was involved in.

Right now that meant finding out who, or what, had attacked them so viciously.

The Preceptor had chosen to be on-site for the investigation, and they’d quickly made the trip from Rhode Island. A temporary command center had been set up inside the manor house, and it was from there that Michaels intended to oversee the activity.

Duncan took his position at the Preceptor’s side, the rest of the team forming up around them. As one they mounted the steps and entered the manor house. Inside they were immediately met by a group of officers, who led them to a room down the hall. As they walked, one of the local commanders brought the Preceptor up to speed, his low voice the only sound other than the clump of the men’s booted feet.

A video-conferencing unit had been assembled in the corner of the command center and, upon arrival, Michaels headed directly to it. A technician activated the link, and a moment later, Cardinal Giovanni’s face filled the screen.

“What can you tell me, Joshua?” the older man asked.

“Not much yet, I’m afraid, Your Eminence. As you know, the commandery was attacked at some point during the night. Our best guess puts the event in the neighborhood of 3:00 A.M., though we’ll be able to narrow that down some once the mortuary team has had the chance to do its work.

“The intruders breached the gates, then struck directly at the manor house. We’ve been unable to determine if they were after anything else aside from the destruction of the commandery, but it’s still early yet. We should know more as the investigation continues. The site’s been secured, and the bodies are being tended to. At this point we’ve yet to find a single survivor. It’s starting to look like we’re not going to either. Whoever they were, they were thorough.”

The cardinal’s response was drowned out as the connection momentarily faltered. The Preceptor simply went on, wanting to get the worst of it out of the way and on the table quickly. “Based on what I’ve seen and learned so far, I’m going to hand the investigation over to Knight Commander Williams and his team.”

The cardinal visibly recoiled from the camera in surprise. “The Heretic? Are you certain that’s wise?”

“I am,” the Preceptor replied. “He’s absolutely ruthless. He can’t be bribed, he can’t be tempted, and he won’t stop until he’s discovered who or what is behind this attack. His men are all combat veterans, with the experience and firepower necessary to deal with anything they might uncover, human or otherwise. If the situation is as bad as I’m beginning to believe, I can’t think of anyone else I’d rather have leading the investigation.”

Listening in, Duncan wasn’t so sure he agreed. While Williams was technically a member of the Order, having gone through the investment ceremony just like every other initiate who petitioned for membership, he and his Echo Team unit operated more like freelance operatives than true Knights of the Order. Where members of other units were selected and rotated regularly by the regional leaders, Cade handpicked all of his men, and they stayed with the unit until death or injury forced them out. Where other units answered up the chain of command to the Preceptors, Echo Team reported directly to the Knight Marshal, only two steps removed from the Grand Master himself. They had a reputation for bending the Rule, the laws by which the Order operated, and of occasionally following their own agenda. Rumors swirled around Commander Williams like the tide. He’d been accused of everything from practicing witchcraft to speaking with the dead. He was both feared and revered, depending upon to whom you were talking. His nickname, the Heretic, was a result of that fear and the belief among some that he was nothing but a wolf in sheep’s clothing, destined to corrupt the Order from within. Duncan tended to agree with them.

But this wasn’t his call to make.

The cardinal’s expression clearly showed the dissatisfaction he had with the idea, but like a good general he let his people on the ground make the decisions. Reluctantly, he nodded in agreement. “Very well. Keep me informed of your progress.”

“I will. Good night and God bless, Your Eminence.”

With a hand raised in blessing, the other man said good-bye and the television screen went dark.

Once the connection had been cut, Duncan didn’t hesitate. “With all due respect, sir, I think you are better off putting one of the other teams on this. Williams might be more trouble than he’s worth.”

The Preceptor turned to face him, shaking his head in disagreement. “I know he can be difficult to work with, Duncan, but it’s his very independence that can benefit us here. Whoever did this knew not only the location of the commandery, but also how to take it by surprise. Without, I remind you, a single word of warning escaping to the rest of us. That takes more than overwhelming force, it takes detailed knowledge of who and what they would be facing.”

“You believe they had inside knowledge,” Duncan said, giving voice to the suspicion that he’d been harboring ever since he’d heard of the attack. “You’re bringing in the Heretic because of his lack of political connections then.”

“Correct, though that’s not my primary reason for using him. I’m convinced that Echo Team is the right choice for the job. They’re veterans; they know what they’re doing. We’re going to need the many years of knowledge and skill that they’ll be bringing to the table.”

Based on what he’d seen outside, Duncan couldn’t argue with that.

“Last I’d heard the team was on a two-week leave. Track down Commander Williams and get him here ASAP.”

“Yes, sir.”

As Duncan moved to carry out his orders, he wondered just how bad things were going to get.

Chapter 2

Williams was at that moment in an alley in one of Connecticut’s rougher neighborhoods, watching the front of a two-story dwelling just up the street from his position. The smell of garbage from the Dumpster he was using for cover was heavy in the early-evening air, though Cade had gotten used to the stench.

“TOC to all units. You have compromise authority and permission to move to Green. I say again, Green.” The bone-mike was pressed securely against his lower jaw, the high-tech device carrying his words clearly to the rest of his team though they were spoken in no more than a whisper.

“Five...”

He pictured the assault group sitting in their specially modified Expeditions half a block away, the breaching rams in their laps. He knew they were concentrating on the sequence to come; who gets out first, who hits the door first, how to say “drop your gun” in Spanish.

“Four...”

His thoughts jumped to the sniper teams on the adjacent rooftops, his eyes and ears since this assault began. He knew their preparations intimately, from the way they slid that first bullet into the breach with their fingertips, needing the reassurance of feeling it seat properly, to the thousands and thousands of rounds they’d fired, learning the way the weapons reacted to heat and wind and weather.

“Three...”

He knew that his sharpshooters were aligning their bodies with the recoil path of their weapons, pressing their hips against the ground, and spreading their knees shoulder width apart for stability. He knew what it was like to stare through a Unertl ten-power scope at the target, watching, waiting for the moment. He’d been there himself, too many times to count.

“Two...”

Discipline was the name of the game, and in Cade’s unit, it was the only game being played. The stakes were too high, the consequences too horrible for it to be anything but deadly serious.

“One...”

His men took out the two guards standing near the front door from 250 yards away, the impact of their .308 caliber rounds knocking the targets backward into the tall grass on either side of the front stoop with barely a sound. As the bodies hit the ground the Expeditions slammed to a halt out front, the rest of Echo Team swarming the house. The front and back doors fell victim to the breaching rams, flash-bangs quickly following, then Cade’s men were inside. Brief, sporadic gunfire reached his ears, then silence.

Cade held his breath.

“Echo-1 to TOC. Structure is clear. Objective is secured.”

“Coming in,” Cade replied. He would have preferred his usual position on one of the entry teams. He was the type of commander who led by example, not from the sidelines, and staying behind as tactical operations command had been a test of his patience; but his concern over their target’s ability to detect his presence had won out over his need to be involved in the action. The need for stealth was over. Signaling Riley, his second-in-command, Cade emerged from cover and strode briskly forward.

He swept up the steps and entered the house, ignoring the snipers’ victims lying in the uncut grass on either side of the porch. As he moved swiftly through the lower floor he passed four other bodies, all young Hispanic males, each lying in a rapidly expanding pool of blood. He had no sympathy for their wasted lives; they were on the wrong side of this conflict, and the unflinching hand of righteousness had finally caught up with them. If anything, he was simply pleased that there were four fewer gangbangers on the city streets. It was the man that his team held captive in the kitchen that truly mattered to Cade. Everything and everyone else beyond that was just a means to an end.

Juan Alvarez was seated in the middle of the room in an old chair, his arms pulled back between the steel posts supporting the seat back and his hands secured together with a set of nylon flex cuffs. Wilson and Ortega stood a few feet to either side of the prisoner, their HK MP5s at the ready and aimed in his direction.

His pistol still in hand but pointed at the floor, Cade crossed the room to stand in front of the prisoner. Alvarez looked as if he had just been roused from sleep; his normally slicked-back hair was in disarray, and all he was wearing was a pair of hastily donned jeans. His usual air of smug superiority was still in place, however.

Cade fully intended to change that.

Alvarez had been under surveillance by Echo Team for the last three weeks. During that time it quickly became clear that the Bridgeport police were correct in their suspicions; Alvarez was indeed the primary conduit for the movement of heroin through Connecticut and into the rest of New England.

Cade didn’t care about the drugs.

He wanted Alvarez for a far more personal reason, and he wasted no time getting to the point.

“Where is he?” Cade asked.

The prisoner gave him a look of disdain, and a stream of rapid-fire Spanish poured forth from his mouth. Cade understood enough to know that it was more a commentary on his mother’s background than an answer to his question.

Shaking his head in resignation, Cade nodded to Riley.

The larger man stepped forward and gripped the back of the prisoner’s chair, holding it tightly.

Cade moved closer, placed the barrel of his pistol against the prisoner’s left kneecap, and, without another word, pulled the trigger.

Blood flew.

Alvarez screamed.

Riley held the chair firmly in place against the man’s struggles.

Cade waited patiently until the screaming stopped. Then, softly, he said, “I don’t have time for this. I asked you a question. I want an answer. Where is the Adversary?”

This time, the answer was in English.

“Drop dead, asshole. I don’t know who you’re talkin’ about.”

Expressionless, Cade shot him in the other leg, shattering the man’s right kneecap.

Alvarez writhed in agony, his muscles straining against the pain. Riley’s arms tensed, but that was the only outward sign of the increased effort he exerted to hold the prisoner securely in place.

Over the wounded man’s cries, Cade shouted, “Tell me where he is!”

The prisoner lapsed back into Spanish, cursing his interrogator vehemently; but he did not acknowledge Cade’s demand. His blood flowed down his legs and began to pool on the cracked linoleum beneath his feet.

Cade snorted in disgust and motioned Riley out of the way. The sergeant lost no time in following orders.

Cade raised the gun and pointed it at the prisoner’s face. “Last chance.”

With that, Alvarez went abruptly still. His eyes lost focus, as if listening to a voice no one else could hear, and his face went slack. Out of the corner of his eye Cade caught Riley looking at him quizzically, but he kept his eyes on the prisoner, watching him closely and didn’t respond.

Without a change in expression, Alvarez began to shake. His head twisted from side to side erratically as it shuddered atop his neck, darting this way and that like a hyperactive hummingbird. His mouth opened wide, stretching impossibly far. It seemed as if he was screaming, but no sound issued forth. Finally, with a loud pop, his lower jaw dislocated itself.

Cade calmly watched, his gun unwavering from the target.

The shaking intensified, the legs of the chair skipping and bumping against the tiles, leaving little skid marks in the blood pooling beneath Alvarez’s feet. A strange squealing sound came from his throat. Alvarez’s eyes bulged from their sockets, and blood ran freely from his ears.

Still, Cade stood and waited.

It was only when a widening crack appeared in the center of the prisoner’s forehead, a crack that dripped a substance far darker than blood, that Cade reacted.

With a twitch of his trigger finger, he put a bullet through Alvarez’s skull.

The prisoner and his chair went over backward to lie still on the blood-stained tiles.

In the silence that followed, no one moved for several long moments as they waited to be certain the thing that had once been Juan Alvarez was good and truly dead, then Cade gave the signal, and the team went instantly into motion. One of the men policed the brass from the floor while another checked to be certain no one had left anything behind that might betray their presence in the house. Thirty seconds later the team was filing out the front door and climbing back into the Expeditions, with Cade and Riley taking open seats in the lead vehicle.

Less than five minutes after entry the team was on its way, leaving behind seven bodies to lie cooling in the darkness.

* * *

Later that night.

He stands alone in the center of the street, in a town that has no name. He has been here before, more than once, but each time the resolution is different, as if the events about to transpire are ordained by the random chance found in the motion of a giant spinning wheel, a cosmic wheel of fortune, and not by the actions he is about to take or has taken before.

He knows from previous experience that, just a few blocks beyond this one the town suddenly ends, becoming a great plain of nothingness, the landscape an artist’s canvas that stands untouched, unwanted.

This town has become the center of his universe.

Around him, the blackened buildings sag in crumbling heaps, testimony to his previous visits. He wonders what the town will look like a few weeks from now, when the confrontation about to take place has been enacted and re-enacted and reenacted again, until even these ragged shells stand no more. Will the road, like the buildings, be twisted and torn?

He does not know.

He turns his attention back to the present, for even after all this time, he might learn something new that could lead him to his opponent’s true identity.

The sky is growing dark, though night is still hours away. Dark grey storm clouds laced with green-and-silver lightning are rolling in from the horizon, like horses running hard to reach the town’s limits before the fated confrontation begins. The air is heavy with impending rain and the electrical tension of the coming storm. In the slowly fading afternoon light the shadows around him stretch and move. He learned early on that they can have a life of their own.

He avoids them now.

The sound of booted feet striking the pavement catches his attention, and he knows he has exhausted his time here. He turns to face the length of the street before him, just in time to see his foe emerge from the crumbled ruins at its end, just as he has emerged each and every time they have encountered one another in this place. It is as if his enemy is always there, silently waiting with infinite patience for him to make his appearance.

Pain shoots across his face and through his hands, phantoms of the true sensation that had once coursed through his flesh, from their first meeting in another time and place. Knowing it will not last, he waits the few seconds for the pain to fade. Idly, he wonders, not for the first time, if the pain is caused by his foe or by his own recollection of the suffering he once endured at the enemy’s hands.

He smiles grimly as the pain fades.

A chill wind suddenly rises, stirring the hairs on the back of his neck, and in that wind, he is certain he can hear the soft, sibilant whispers of a thousand lost souls, each and every one crying out to him to provide solace and sanctuary.

The voices act as a physical force, pushing him forward from behind, and before he knows it he is striding urgently down the street. His hands clench into fists as he is enveloped with the desire to tear his foe limb from limb with his bare hands. So great is his anger that it makes him forget the other weapons at his disposal in this strange half state of reality.

The Adversary, as he has come to call him in the years since their first, life-altering encounter, simply stands in the middle of the street, waiting. The Adversary’s features are hidden in the darkness of the hooded cloak that he wears over his form in this place, his mocking laughter echoes clearly off the deserted buildings and carries easily in the silence.

The insult only adds fuel to Cade’s rage.

Just as he draws closer, the scene shifts, wavers, the way a mirage will shimmy in the heat rising from the pavement. For a second it regains its form and in that moment Cade has the opportunity to glimpse the surprise in the other’s face, then everything dissolves around him in a dizzying spiral of shifting patterns and unidentified shapes.

When the scene solidifies once more, he finds himself standing in a cemetery. Large, carefully sculpted angels adorn the nearest of the gravestones, with only the word Godspeed carved beneath them. Older, more decayed stones decorate the other burial plots nearby, but he is not close enough to see the details etched there.

A sense of urgency grips him in its bony fist.

It forces him into motion, and he sets off across the lawn, winding in and out between the stones, letting that feeling guide his passage until he sees a small plot set off from the rest by a white picket fence. In the strange twilight, the rails of the fence gleam with the wetness of freshly revealed bone. The coppery tang of blood floats on the night air.

As he moves closer he can see that the earth on the other side of the fence has been freshly disturbed. A grave lies open, a gaping hole in the peaceful sea of green grass that surrounds it, filled with a darkness deeper than that of the night sky above. This intrusion of the landscape and of the sanctity of the place draws him closer still, pulling him in toward it the way a fly is coaxed into a spider’s web.

He stops just short of the small fence and gazes down into the darkness of the grave.

Unable to see clearly, he places one hand on the fence and leans forward, straining to get a better look.

Something moves down there, a furtive motion.

Beneath his hand the fence begins to twist and turn, tumbling him forward toward the darkness of that open grave, just as two eyes gleam hungrily from that inky murk . . .